Lurking in the shadows of the headlines we examine in our "Behind the News" newsletter is a common and spiritually deadly virus—something we might call "photonegative syndrome." It is best described in the words of author and professor David Wells:

"Worldliness is what any particular culture does to make sin look normal and righteousness look strange."

Black is white; white is black.

Reading a little book by the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge over the past few days, I have been reminded that at certain points of history, gifted "sinner-saints" have emerged to expose with stunning clarity the details of this syndrome of worldliness. Often adult converts, almost always people who have wrestled mightily in their own lives with their day's socially dominant forms of sin—I call them "wrestling prophets."

In a comfortable Western church that sometimes seems all but obscured by "cultural camouflage," making hardly a ripple in the comfortable world it inhabits, we need to hear these prophetic voices again.

Muggeridge himself was a wrestling prophet, all too familiar with the perversions of the world. Through the first part of his long life, this chain-smoking satirical journalist was famed more for his alcoholic binges and philanderings than for anything approaching sanctity.

But in the sixties, Muggeridge met Mother Teresa of Calcutta and wrote the book that made hers a household name—Something Beautiful for God. The encounter and the writing of the book worked a change in the hardbitten libertine. As the Daily Catholic later reported it, "The more he researched the more he realized she was for real and something greater was motivating her to sacrifice her all for others. The more time he spent with her, the more he realized the truth he had been searching for."

Some time between 1966 and 1969, Muggeridge, disquieted with the emptiness of his lifestyle and answering the yearning of his heart, became a Christian. Even then, his struggle was by no means over, and in 1982 he took the further step of converting to Roman Catholicism. He was 79 years old.

John H. Armstrong has referred to Muggeridge as "a convert from Socialism, Communism, worldliness, cynicism and personal despair." No less acid after his conversion than before, Muggeridge's pen could most often be found mercilessly lampooning the lies and moral cul-de-sacs of modern society. He became a powerful Christian apologist as well as a social critic and continued to serve his Lord with his exceptional writing gifts until his death in 1990.

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It should not surprise us that this modern "wrestling prophet" formed his own personal fan club for a small group of kindred spirits from the annals of Christian history. These are the bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the romantic poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827), the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Most of these struggled mightily with lust, desire for fame, moral failing, and despair. All of them turned devastatingly honest tongues and pens not only on themselves but on the perverted beliefs and social systems of their times.

In a 1974 video series produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and an accompanying book, both titled A Third Testament, Muggeridge presents his tribute to these men. (I have not seen the video series but am trying to track them down—I will report back if I find out that they are still in print and available.) In a 1983 edition of the book, Muggeridge added a seventh wrestling prophet, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). This edition was republished in 2002 by the Plough Publishing House of the Bruderhof Foundation, and now, in 2004, again by the Catholic publisher Orbis Books.

Today I can share only a few words of "St. Mugg's" from this book, on the first of his favorite prophets, Augustine of Hippo. But I hope to return to the rest of his extraordinary gallery soon.

In his introduction, the journalist sets up the great North African bishop like this:

It is possible to see [Augustine's] role as that of a stay-behind agent posted by a celestial spymaster in a collapsing Roman Empire with a brief to promote the Church's survival as custodian of the Christian revelation. … His worldly credentials were impeccable—a highly successful professorship of rhetoric at Milan University, which in his regenerate days he called his Chair of Lies, friends and acquaintances in the highest circles and occasional speech-writing jobs for the Emperor himself.

I can not resist adding Muggeridge's elaboration, later, on Augustine's position as a teacher of rhetoric. This, says Mugg, was "a rather empty and pretentious discipline which in those days was very highly regarded, rather as sociology is today." Ouch! But the journalist hurries to spread the sarcasm to his own discipline: "Looking back on his profession, [Augustine] contemptuously called it being a vendor of words. Alas, my own trade!"

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And alas, my own, too. But more from Mugg on Augustine:

At the age of thirty, he had reached the summit of a career with a dazzling prospect before him. But somehow, he remained totally unsatisfied … knowing in his heart that God had some other purpose for him and that, try as he might, he would never be able to escape his true calling.

(Even in his most profligate years, Muggeridge had experienced a similar, restless sense of a divine vocation frustrated.)

Why is Augustine a prophet not only for his own day, but for today? Mugg offers this acute observation:

It is easier for us to get inside Augustine's unregenerate skin than perhaps it would be for any of the intervening generations. The similarity between his circumstances and ours is striking if not to say alarming. There is the same moral vacuity, leading to the same insensate passion for new sensations and experiences; the same fatuous credulity opening the way to every kind of charlatanry and quackery from fortune telling to psychoanalysis; the same sinister combination of great wealth and pointless ostentation with appalling poverty and unheeded affliction. As Augustine wrote, "O greedy men, what will satisfy you if God Himself will not?"

What, indeed.

But after his conversion, Muggeridge makes clear, Augustine was no killjoy who abandoned the good pleasures of the earth just because these pleasures are so easily perverted by sin:

No one must suppose that this great conversion which had befallen Augustine, this light which had shone into his life and would never again leave it, had turned him away from this world. On the contrary, it made him more conscious than ever before of its joys and beauties, more aware than ever before of the terrific privilege it was to be allowed to exist in time.

Or again,

No one has ever been less of a Puritan in the pejorative sense. Everything in creation delighted Augustine. He spoke to his congregation of the gloriously changing colors of the Mediterranean, which he had so often observed. All created things should be loved, he insisted, because God made them. The sea, the creatures, everything that is, speaks of God.

At the same time, Augustine recognized that in a post-Constantinian world where Christianity had become socially fashionable, not everything that went on inside of churches "spoke of God." Muggeridge cites Augustine's own words on this score, with an obvious jab at the comfortable churches of our own time. Whoever entered a Roman church of that day, reported Augustine,

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is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers. He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also filled the theatres on pagan holidays. … It is only charity that distinguishes the children of God from the children of the Devil. They all make the sign of the Cross, and answer "Amen" and sing Alleluia, they all go to church and build up the walls of the basilicas.

So it goes on this earth, Augustine concluded: the City of God and the City of Man intermingle in one mass of confusion. "Through the Incarnation," Muggeridge paraphrases the great bishop, "we have a window in the walls of time which looks out on the Heavenly City." But as long as we are bound to this earth, we are weighed down by, to return to Wells's image, the things our cultures do to make sin look normal and righteousness ridiculous.

Never, concludes Muggeridge, has the earthly city looked larger and more overwhelming than today:

Turning away from God, blown up with the arrogance generated by their fabulous success in exploring and harnessing the mechanism of life, men believe themselves to be at last in charge of their own destiny.

A mere few decades after these words were written, I see their fulfillment looming beyond even Muggeridge's sometimes over-dark imagination. Though when he used the phrase "mechanism of life," the journalist probably had in mind such life-meddling scientific advances as artificial contraception and abortion, we are now nearing what promises to be an absolute and horrifying sort of meddling, through advances in the fields of genetic engineering and cloning.

Muggeridge's fascinating gallery of wrestling prophets is full of such moments, in which yesterday's prophets pierce today's darkness.

What pulls us back, as readers, from the despair that Muggeridge did not always successfully fight are the other words he reports to us from these same historical prophets. These words are the tidings of that greater City, whose King walks with us in the midst of a photonegative world, upholding and strengthening us in the face of its self-righteous moral blackness.

Again, I hope soon to share more of both the darker and the brighter words of these prophets and the modern prophet who has written so sympathetically about them. Meanwhile, the best web site from which to explore Muggeridge is hosted by Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong. And a little Google searching will uncover many other interesting sites and articles.

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Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History & Biography, a Christianity Todaysister publication. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Related Elsewhere:

Christian History Corner, a weekly column from Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

Patrick's Italian Brother | Lost amid the celebration of Patrick is the important story of Benedict, the father of western monasticism (Mar. 19, 2004)
Rediscovering the Language Jesus Spoke | Millions of Americans have spent two hours listening to the characters in Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ speaking in an exotic, unfamiliar tongue. Yet not all find Aramaic so alien (Mar. 12, 2004)
Is Christianity Oppressive to Women? | Sometimes our Christian heritage must be overcome, not celebrated. (March 05, 2004)
Just a Closer Walk … with the Historical Jesus | Mel Gibson's movie raises again the question: How much can we know historically about Jesus' life and times? (Feb. 27,2004)
Why some Jews fear The Passion | Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism. (Feb. 20, 2004)
One Nation Under Secularism | France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence. (Feb. 13,2004)
The Blood-and-Fire Mission of the Salvation Army | Where did this tuba-playing, kettle-wielding social force come from, and what's it all about? (Feb. 06, 2004)
Would You Like to Super-Size Your Ministry? | Joan Kroc's $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army promises to boost its admirable outreach, but history suggests new challenges and temptations lie ahead. (Jan. 30, 2004)
When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic "sharia" law and the colonial Massachusetts' Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)
"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin! | When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. (Jan. 16, 2004)
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
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Resolutions Worth Keeping | The origins of new years' resolutions, and one famous list. (Jan. 02, 2004)
The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 7, 2003)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 30, 2003)