The Happy Damned (or, Scots in Paris)

Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much as consigning them to eternal damnation.

~ James Hogg, Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner

Justified Sinner is a strange book.  Written in 1824 by an autodidact and former illiterate shepherd from the Scottish borders, it is nonetheless as postmodern as you like, with multiple competing narratives, Borgesian puzzles of perspective, and the author himself, James Hogg, appearing as a minor character under his own name in a later chapter.

The story concerns the products of a failed marriage: two sons, one raised by the moderate father, the other by the fanatically devout mother and her spiritual mentor, a Presbyterian clergyman of the austere, controversialist school.  The collision of these two is the fulcrum of the plot, which, despite comic interludes, grinds mercilessly away at the question of how far an unconditional assurance of salvation (without regard for one’s actions) serves as sanction to sin when one sins in God’s own cause.  Justified Sinner is essentially an indictment of zealotry, an examination of what happens when one takes up the thread of strict Calvinism and stretches it to the precipice.

When my forebears left Scotland and made a first appearance on this continent (ca. 1720) they were Presbyterians, according to family lore and church records.  That they were not Presbyterians of a very strict variety I gather from the fact that my 5x-great-grandfather (b.1757) was apparently named after John Wesley.  But one way or another, Calvinism passed out of our lineage long ago.

My only personal encounter with Scottish Presbyterianism happened in, of all places, Paris.  It was 1992 and I was a college student flitting about Europe for ten weeks.  Out of ancestral curiosity I stepped one Sunday into a little church on a back lane near the Champs Elysées, called The Scots Kirk.  An elderly clergyman was haranguing the assembled worshipers (mostly expat Scots) with a gale-force storm of hellfire peppered with sharp accusations against their moral consciences that anyone else might have taken offense at.  Jolted as I was, those in the pews stoically received all this abuse without the least sign of either contrition or irritation.

After the service I joined them for coffee hour and was enthusiastically received on account of my Scottish last name (not the name I use here).  To complete my disorientation, the black-robed minister who was so violently consigning us to eternal damnation just moments before greeted me with the meekest, most unassuming smile, and the warmest handshake of all.


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