It is one of the saddest, most frightening scenes I’ve ever seen on film. The little boy, Arliss, slips away from his bedtime routine to visit the yellow lab penned in the corn crib. But when Arliss looks through the slats in the door, the normally docile and loving pet snarls, snaps, and lunges at him. The dog has a wild look in her eyes, and she foams at the mouth. Arliss’ mother pulls the little boy away, and his older brother Travis says, “I know what we have to do. She was my dog; I’ll do it.” You know how this scene from “Old Yeller” ends. I suspect you can picture it vividly in your mind’s eye just as I can.
This summer I read a most interesting book co-written by a husband and wife team, he a journalist and she a veterinarian. The book is entitled Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. It is equal parts fascinating and lurid, and as much as anything else it evokes in the reader exactly what the rabies virus seeks to engender in its victims: Fear.
Rabies is unlike almost any other known infectious agent. Here is what the authors say: “[Rabies] is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent of its hosts in most species…On entering a living thing, [rabies] eschews the bloodstream…Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day…Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal…Aggression rises to fever pitch…The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness—because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.”[i]
It’s no wonder the authors call rabies a “demon.” The virus is so tiny that it rarely shows up on pathology reports, even in creatures with the full-blown disease. It is usually detected by the presence of rabies antibodies, produced by the host’s own body in the futile attempt to mount a defense through his own internal strength. Rabies is like a demon, a wraith, and the diabolical virus imbeds itself in and enflames the fear center of the brain. In panic, the infected dog, or person, lashes out irrationally, biting, scratching and infecting others with that same fear. One can see why some believe the origin of all our most famous and persistent bogeymen—werewolves, vampires, and zombies—all stem from a mythologized version of the rabies virus. Rabies causes all virtue to be entirely cast aside in favor of the dark, mindless, and animalistic. That’s why Old Yeller lunges as Arliss. That’s why Travis knows what he has to do in response.
Rabies is a virus, a biological source of unmitigated fear, but as I read its history this summer I also had one eye on the news: community, world, financial, political and religious. We don’t, it turns out, need a virus to incite fear in us, to cause us to lash out irrationally, to lead us to set aside the better angels of our nature and act as though possessed by demons. The objects that cause fear are legion: A double-dip recession is possible. One politician, it is claimed, wants the government to take over our lives. The other, it is counter-claimed, wants to strip the poor and elderly of their safety nets. The church is on the decline and has lost its mooring. Our schools are failing. People who don’t look or speak like us are moving into our nation and even our state.
Fear. It begins as the smallest anxiety, causing us to toss and turn at night. Then it creeps centimeter by centimeter under it lodges in the mind, heart, and soul. Once there, temperance, reason, charity and grace are suppressed. They give way first to hand-wringing, then to panic, and finally to that confusion through which we see the person across from us—across the street, across the churchyard, across the cultural and political divide—not as neighbor but as threat. (Fear certainly sells political advertisements with ominous music in the background.) My friend Joy Sylvester-Johnson says, “We can understand a lot about someone if we know what he’s scared of.” Well, these days we’re scared of everything, it seems. And fear is spiritually fatal.
C.S. Lewis’ fictional demon, Screwtape, relishes this about us. In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape counsels his apprentice demon that so long as we human beings stay focused on the objects of our fear—so long as we obsess over the things that frighten us—our defenses remain low.[ii] We may attempt to fight back, but under our own strength our spiritual antibodies are not up to the task. Our minds are darkened. So we react like animals. We lash out in thought and action. We spread our fear to others like a contagion. We forget God, and then the demons truly can move in undetected.
Screwtape also knows the antidote to our panic. Fear, he says, will cease to overtake us when we quit focusing on its objects and instead reflect upon the fear itself within us, name it for the pathetic thing it is. As FDR said as prelude to our entrance into the 2nd World War, the only thing we truly have to fear is fear itself. Were we to recognize that, we might marshal the necessary virtues to combat any demon. Screwtape is right, but he laughs at us, because he knows how unlikely it is that we will step back from our panic and turn our eyes inward.
How can we do it? How can we inoculate ourselves from fear? St. Paul knows. Biological rabies may have no cure, but existential and spiritual fear does. Today Paul says to us, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh [not the things out there], but against…the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Paul is confirming, in the language of the New Testament, that the outward things that scare us are not the real threat. The real danger is fear itself, instilled in us by darkness and demon, that distorts our thinking, stunts our souls, and causes us to forget to hope like those who have the image of God within us. Ultimately, the only sure inoculation from such fear is the armor of God: the shield of faith, the belt of God’s truth, and the sword of his Spirit.
Why, in days in which people actually donned armor, did they do so? Unless one was the sovereign king, he never donned armor in service to himself, never in his own defense. The call would come: “Your Lord needs you. He calls you to his service,” and you would fasten your breastplate, wield your shield, and take up your sword to serve the king for whose mission, for whose world you found your very life. Courage was discovered when one put on the armor and stood for the king.
In our culture, we too often seek God for what we believe God can do for us. We want God to topple the objects of our fear in order to keep us safe. We pursue God with our fearful petitions, rarely reflecting upon whether what we ask for is truly what is best for God’s world or even for us. The antidote to fear is the armor of God. But we don’t don this armor to wall us from the world and protect us from the objects of our fear. We do so to gird us with hope against the irrational fear itself that wells inside us. We do so to stand with the King. Paul says, “Put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
We don God’s armor to be in God’s service and proclaim gospel in a world wracked by fear. Take courage! We have breastplate, shield, and sword, and the Lord by whose side we serve is the Prince of Peace. The world out there snaps, snarls and lunges because it is terrified of shadows. We need not be. Wherever fear is peddled, we can combat it with hope, with love, with life, until fear and darkness are dispelled and we see by light of day. Amen.
[i] Wasik, Bill and Monica Murphy. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, pp. 3-4.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, chapter 7.