When I was a young boy, growing up in the church, I was introduced to the Filthy Five:
Thou shalt not drink
Thou shalt not smoke
Thou shalt not play cards
Thou shalt not dance
Thou shalt not go to movies
There was a sixth, making a Dirty Half-Dozen: Thou shalt not engage in mixed bathing. At first I was unsure with what I was not to be mixed. Then I learned it was girls: At a summer camp I attended, girls and boys swam at different times. (Of course, we boys stood around the perimeter of the pool outside the fence and ogled the girls.)
There was security in these easy certainties; you knew exactly where you stood. Yet, even as a young boy, I saw the irony in these prohibitions. I could refrain from all of them and miss the point of authentic goodness. Goodness, like God, is very subtle.
George MacDonald, in his novel Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood makes the case far better than I. He writes of a young cleric who went out to acquaint himself with a parishioner, an elderly Scot named Rogers. He had seen the old man walking through the village, clouds of smoke billowing from his briar pipe, and so purchased a tin of tobacco for him and offered it to him as a gambit:
“You smoke, don’t you, Rogers?” I said
“Well, sir, I can’t deny it. It’s not much I spend on baccay, anyhow. Is it, dame?”
“No, that it bean’t,” answered his wife.
“You don’t think there’s any harm in smoking a pipe, sir?”
“Not the least,” I answered, with emphasis.
“You see, sir,” he went on, not giving me time to prove how far I was from thinking there was any harm in it, “you see, sir, sailors learns many ways they might be better without. I used to take my pan o’grog with the rest of them; but I give that up quite, ‘cause as how I don’t want it now.”
“Cause as how,” interrupted his wife, “you spend the money on tea for me, instead. You wicked old man to tell stories!”
“Well, I takes my share of the tea, old woman, and I’m sure it’s a deal better for me. But, to tell the truth, sir, I was a little troubled in my mind about the baccay, not knowing whether I ought to have it or not. For you see, the parson that’s gone didn’t like it, as I could tell when he came in at the door and me a-smokin.’ Not as he said anything; for, ye see, I was an old man, and I daresay that kep him quiet. But I did hear him blow up a young chap i’ the village he came upon with a pipe in his mouth. He did give him a thunderin’ broadside, to be sure! So I was in two minds whether I ought to be on with my pipe or not.”
“And how did you settle the question, Rogers?”
“Why, I followed my own old chart, sir.”
“Quite right. One mustn’t mind too much what other people think.”
“That’s not exactly what I mean, sir.”
“What do you mean then? I should like to know.”
“Well, sir, I mean that I said to myself, ‘Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would say about this here baccay business?’“
“And what did you think He would say?”
“Why, sir, I thought He would say, ‘Old Rogers, have yer baccay; only mind ye don’t grumble when you ‘ain’t got none.’”
“And this is the man I thought I would be able to teach!” The young minister mused.