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"1631": A Variation on a Theme by Orwell

It was a bright, cold day in April, the clocks were striking thirteen, and the second worship service had just begun.

  • Alex Hammer,
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It was a bright, cold day in April, the clocks were striking thirteen, and the second worship service had just begun. Winston Smythe, whose chief responsibility at Goodchurch 1631 was to smile and hand out bulletins, had finished his Sabbath chores for the morning, and taken his customary seat in the back of the sanctuary. He removed his ballpoint pen from his left breast pocket and began dutifully taking notes on the behavior of the several people in front of him, all of whom had their back to Winston while they stared straight ahead.

"Bible is double-plus-good," said Pastor Whittle from behind his pine pulpit at the front of the sanctuary.

"Amen," said nearly everyone in perfect unity, including Winston, though his mind was occupied elsewhere. He was staring at someone in the seventh pew from the front.

"It won't be long now," Winston inwardly lamented with a silent sneer, "before that poor devil is gone and forgotten."

Winston wrote on his pad, "Pew #7, Hamilton Burgeron: ungood worshiper, double-plus-unhumble."

"Double-plus-unhumble" was the current official term for such behavior as might draw attention to one's self in church, and so divert attention away from God. The older description for this sort of behavior, however subtle or extreme, had been "Proud," but this term had been discarded from the most recent edition of the Plaintalk Manual, which was appendixed to Winston's Gov-Book. Winston had recently been enlisted as an agent for the Conscience Committee, and was now permitted to read the Gov-Book under the supervision of the Sitters, who, together with the Pastor, made up the entire executive, legislative, and judicial government of Goodchurch 1631. Winston greatly admired the efficiency of his church's denomination in the destruction of needless words, and was especially delighted at having been selected to serve a term on the Conscience Committee. He was determined not to use a single obsolete term in his testipad, but to make his written testimony as breviclear as possible.

"Jesus double-plus-good!" Pastor Whittle shouted at everyone, and then cast his gaze around the sanctuary, his confident jaw now basking in the contrast of absolute silence, as if daring any Christian in the sanctuary to disagree with him or punch him in the mouth. No one dared.

"Man need Bible, Man need Jesus," he continued in a more casual and intimate tone, relaxing his chin.

But Winston could see that Hamilton Burgeron was not paying attention to the sermon; that he was ignoring the means of grace and scorning from his heart the authority of God's ambassador. On this point there could be no doubt, the objective evidence was incontrovertible. Certainly the Sitters would agree with Winston's judgment and congratulate him for a good Sabbath-day's work.

Winston had been trained to judge the probability of inward sins even from such slight observable factors as the angle of a man's chin during the sermon, or the way he folded his hands during prayer. Up to this point in the morning's exercises Hamilton had been nodding his head whenever the people said "Amen," but when a trained eye perceived these mannerisms in context, such activity was only a dead giveaway that a man was faking his worship. Winston's personal instructor had taught him that the surest sign of hidden sin—surer even than a downcast slouch during handshaketime—was a flawless outward appearance.

"Anyone whose life is lived in such a manner as to defy even the slightest censure according to Biblical Law," Winston's Shepherding Sitter had told him, "is obviously attempting to escape the embarrassing duty of public repentance by hiding his true nature from those God has appointed to discipline him. He is definitely guilty of a far deeper wickedness than can be seen with the naked eye, and most likely that sin is pride, or 'unhumbleness,' as you will soon learn to call it."

Winston was shaken out of his reverie by some more thunder from up front. "Jesus double-plus-good! Believe-obey and heaven next!"

Pastor Whittle was one of the most eloquent Pastors in the entire Goodenomination. He was famed among the Tithing class for his courage in denouncing sin, and was famed among the Sitters for his tact in denouncing it in such a manner that it was left up to every Christian's conscience to decide for himself exactly what sin was, and if he had any of it in his life. This was called "doublepreach" in the Gov-Book, and it had brought more souls to Jesus than any other method of ministry in recent memory. And not only were the enhanced attendance and membership figures attributed to the innovations of double preach, but also the increase of peace and unity among those who attended and joined.

Religious arguments had stopped a long time ago at all Good churches; and in most places, even disagreeable thoughts were a thing of the past. The miracle of the Goodenomination System and its doublepreach was that it had cut out the possibility of heresy and schism at the very root of the problem which was theology itself. The progress of the kingdom of God, it was discovered, depended not on the increase of knowledge but on the increase of agreement, and this could be achieved only by the reduction of the Christian Faith to the lowest common denominator of agreeable doctrine and practice; first in the ministry of the Word, by the use of plaintalk and doublepreach, and secondly in the administration of church discipline.

The system of government, with its simple checks and balances, was what made discipline so easy to maintain in all Goodchurches. The system required a subscription of faith only from the Sitters, while allowing the Tithing- class to maintain any belief they pleased, so long as they vowed to keep their beliefs to themselves and always to submit to those in authority over them who had subscribed to the doctrines of the church.

Doctrine could never divide a Goodchurch, since the interpretation of Scripture was kept private, and never disputed nor made the basis of any disciplinary charge. The Sitters were granted the sole authority—not to interpret Scripture—but rather to interpret all the rest of reality for the church; a member could be disciplined only on the basis of the Sitters' collective interpretation of his soul. As a check and balance against the possible corruption of this enormous power, all members were granted the authority to pray for their leaders not to be corrupted.

Within this covenant, the local Sitters of every Goodchurch could easily and efficiently maintain perfect harmony in their congregations by enforcing standards of conscience rather than conduct. All crimes of doctrine and practice had long ago been wiped out of existence when the Goodenomination had perfected the simplicity of its disciplinary system. Now there was only one kind of sin for which a member might be disciplined; the sin of conscience, or "sincon," as it was called in plaintalk.

Sincon was the reality behind the words and deeds of rebellious or unhumble members; doctrine and practice were moot and arguments unnecessary once sincon was discovered in a church member by those whom God had appointed to interpret reality for him. One could be disciplined by the Sitters for giving to the poor in arrogance, or for telling the truth in hate, or for working hard in greed. The pronouncement of sincon was the perfect instrument of justice, since it accounted for everything in the life of an enemy of the peace, and since it was impossible to disprove. And even if it were possible to disprove a charge of sincon, there would be no jury capable of being persuaded by such a defense.

The Goodenomination had inherited this judiciary strength from the Presbyterians of earlier times, whose structure required that the courts of the church at every level act as both prosecutor and judge, allowing for the possibility of appeal only to a larger court of exactly the same structure and interests. In this manner, the Goodenomination System was secured against any rebellion by having disarmed its subjects of any exact standard of law and of any other judges than those men whose very existence depended on their cooperation in condemning all enemies of the peace.

The System was a perfect delight to almost every professing Christian in the modern world, since it promised absolution for all sins of omission and commission so long as a church member never gave the Sitters any cause to take notice of his life. Those of the Tithingclass, because of their extraordinarily devout nature, were especially delighted and thankful to God for granting them relief from the tiresome and socially dangerous duty of making a stand for any article of faith. In a Goodchurch, a Tithingman's single duty to God was the increase of his wealth for the church's sake. In this manner, he won honor not only in the church but in the world, and so long as he kept himself from poverty, he could rest assured of his safety from the wrath of God in the world to come. For even if the Sitters were to replace the worship of God with the worship of Satan, the Tithingclass would be immune to God's judgment, since it was not their responsibility to govern but only to fund the government with a tenth of their income. No matter what the government did with the tithe itself, the Tithers could remain certain of their reward in heaven, so long as they had fervently prayed against the corruption they had funded.

The System had a favorable effect also on the very lowest class of the church, which was also the largest class by far. Members of this class were called the Pops, which was plaintalk for "populace." Individuals of this class were given the greatest freedom in the church, since they were by nature incapable of subversion. The Pops had neither the motivation nor the intellectual capacity for organizing themselves into a union for the achievement of any goal whatever in the church. They were all content merely to complain quietly amongst themselves about how "the church isn't what it used to be." Most of the Pops were non-tithers out of disinterest rather than principle or actual poverty, and had as little knowledge of God as they had respect for his worship or care for his church; even their complaints were for the most part very misinformed and almost entirely peculiar to the individual.

The Sitters would cultivate this disorder and ignorance of the Pops through complicated church activities designed to quell the cultivation of grassroots ecclesiastical power through the maintenance of mediocrity. Revolutionary ecclesiastical power was proven by historical research always to have begun in Presbyterian bodies with the education of the electorate by overtalented and unhumble agitators. Such agitators never rose up from the Pops themselves, nor from the Sitters, and certainly never from the Byters or anyone who attended the Gener-Ass on a regular basis. Agitators were always of the Tithingclass, and would abandon the social benefits of their ecclesiastical origins in order to move among the Pops, gathering them together in larger and larger groups and always teaching them which of their gripes were in accord with Scripture. "Excellence," the Gov-Book declared, "is the symptom of rebellious discontent; therefore make the first to be last and the last to be first, humble the great and exalt the lowly."

One way the System provided against the possibility of subversion was through the institution of what came to be known as the lottery. The lottery was the annual ceremony of electing from among the Pops a candidate for the office of Sitter. Any Pop who desired to labor for the improvement of the church could enter his name in the lottery. At the next congregational meeting, all the names would be collected and put into a fishbowl. Then the Pastor would pick a name from the bowl and read it aloud. There would be applause, and then prayer for the candidate concerning the training process that was ahead of him. Within a month the Pop would return of his own accord to his original status, most humble, contented, and thankful to God.

The most general rule concerning the control of the Pops was that they were never to be disciplined, nor even to be challenged; rather they were always to be entertained, and all the while led to believe that they were participating in the government and glory of the church, chiefly through the rituals of the lottery and the congregational vote. But it was their financial participation—and only as a mass, since individually every Pop's contribution was paltry—which was essential to the survival and prosperity of the whole Goodenomination System. For this reason, the pleasure of the Pops was always the System's primary concern; the chief and highest end of every Sitter, Byter, and Ass.

"Jesus! Jeesus! Jeeesuhs!" Pastor Whittle shouted, louder and angrier each time; pounding his pulpit and stamping his feet in open and public defiance of the devil and his angels; challenging all the army of darkness at once to do as they would with his body, for his soul was safe from harm.

"Amen!!!" Winston rose to his feet and led the church in spontaneous applause, as was the custom at Goodchurch 1631 whenever the Pastor would say Jesus more than twice in a row.

Of all the faithful, only Hamilton was not applauding. Winston prayed a silent prayer for Hamilton's rebellious soul, and also thanked the Lord for the opportunity to impress the Sitters with a special case in his testipad this week. As he took his seat again, Winston wrote one word next to Hamilton's name, all in capital letters.


This word was an abbreviation of the obvious, and its execution in Goodchurch was rare enough to merit a great deal of recognition for those who were able to accomplish it against an enemy of the peace. Winston was filled with the joy of the Lord. Hamilton had exposed himself as a schismatic in the presence of the entire assembly of God's people, and now was subject to examination and process in room 101.

"Those who are taken to room 101 come out with a new conscience or they don't come out at all," Winston's Shepherding Sitter had told him once at a prayer breakfast. Winston had known better than to ask any questions or to betray any curiosity to his mentor, for curiosity was an early symptom of sincon. Winston only smiled toward his master, as if in awe of his eloquence, which was beyond Winston's poor capacity to interpret without help. This brought about the desired effect, as humility always does with Sitters, and his master patiently explained his meaning in between bites of bacon. "Room 101," he chewed and swallowed, "is where they keep the thing that Christians fear the most. Room 101 is where you experience the judgment of God. There is no grace, nor even any benefit of the doubt in Room 101. The Sitters are God, Winston. What they bind on earth is bound in heaven. They have the sole authority to interpret life itself, if not the Scriptures. Any disagreement of conscience which the Sitters regard as dangerous to the peace of the church—unless the criminal repents of his interpretation and makes amends—is punishable by Excom."

The teacher chewed some more and Winston smiled at him again. The Sitter continued, "Of course, this does not contradict every member's sacred right of private interpretation. Any interpretation of the Bible is allowed at all Goodchurches, so long as it is kept private. Jesus does not even have to be God, exactly, nor raised from the dead, precisely; there does not need to be a hell, as such, nor a judgment, per se."

Winston betrayed himself with a look of slight confusion. But his mentor only took great delight in showing him all the more mercy for his many faults. He continued slowly and patiently, "This is the great mysterious wisdom of doublepreach, Winston. At Goodchurches, all interpretations are equal and united, and none of them punished or corrected as if they were errors. With doublepreach the Pastor and the Sitters are able to avoid such unnecessary controversies over words and to get down to the substantial underlying spiritual problems that cause God to be double-plus-unhappy.

"Doublepreach speaks directly to the heart and to reality itself—without quibbling over the meaning of words. With doublepreach, the rulers and teachers of the church don't need to waste any time with the devil's arguments—arguments go on forever, and they always lead to diversity, and sometimes even to persuasion. And you know what that means."

"Persuasion is Schism," Winston quoted from memory, beaming with humility.

"That's right. Persuasion is of the devil—it is the seed of discord, Winston. And we discovered a long time ago that God doesn't want his appointed leaders to use any of the devil's tactics to achieve the advancement of the kingdom of God. Instead of persuading people about anything, we just declare things to be so in terms so simple as to defy contradiction. When discipline is necessary, the Sitters simply command the enemy of the peace to do whatever we declare to be the right thing to do at the time—or rather we tell him to stop doing whatever it was that caught our attention in the first place. If he refuses to stop, then he has demonstrated through his rebellion that he is guilty of sincon, or through his sincon that he is guilty of rebellion—it doesn't matter which way you say it (as a matter of fact, in the next edition of the Plaintalk manual the word "rebellion" will be deleted entirely as a dangerous word). All that's left to do at this point in the trial is to pass judgment and then be rid of him." The Shepherding Sitter wiped his mouth and that was the end of Winston's lesson for the morning.

Pastor Whittle was now beginning the second and least pleasant of the three stages of his doublepreach sermon, the part that must deal with the sin of man and the curse of God. Doublepreach                                                         researchers had been working night and day for the last ten years to figure some way to eliminate this unpleasant stage entirely from the process of doublepreach, but unpleasant conflict had thus far proven to be an almost unavoidable ingredient for genuine entertainment; just as novels and films could not entertain without some temporary stimulation of the negative emotions, so also with sermons, it seemed.

Thus far the only sermons which lacked any negative content and yet had entertained the test-groups of Pops were the sermons constructed at Research Central two years ago. An anonymous team of seminary professors had achieved remarkable results by replacing the conflict section of the sermons with a professional pornographic performance. But while the results of these experiments were economically promising, the method was later determined by the General Assembly’s lawyers to be hazardous to the non-profit status of the Goodenomination. It was moved, seconded and unanimously passed that they should sell the technology to the highest bidder and use the money to fund other types of research. For now, anyway, the stuff of sin and wrath remained a necessary element for a doublepreach sermon, and Pastor Whittle’s skills were still in the highest demand.

“Sin douhle-plus-ungood,” he began in a whisper, instantly capturing everyone’s undivided attention, including that of Hamilton, who was now in direct and extended eye contact with the Pastor, and leaning over the empty pew in front of him.

“Dammit,” thought Winston, as he erased EXCOM from his testipad, “Posture disqualification.”

The Pastor continued, almost as if preaching to Hamilton alone, “Christless Eternity . . . “ he said with an operatic flourish, “. . . If unbelieve-obey Bible! If unJesus, then unheaven; If unheaven, then unhappy! Double-plus-unhappy!”

Hamilton leaned in even closer, making an obvious show to all the people behind him that he was paying attention. Winston glowered at the back of his head, knowing full well how effective this sort of tactic was with the Sitters. “He is deliberately making my job difficult,” Winston thought.

The volume from the front of the sanctuary began to rise as the second stage of the sermon neared completion. “Sin! Siiin! Siiiin! God douhle-plus-unhappy at sin! Repent-believe-ohey!”

Pastor Whittle began the third stage of his sermon smiling wide at heaven with upraised arms, “Jesus double-plus-good; man double-plus-ungood. But If man believe obey Jesus; then man double-plus-good in God-sight! Then God double-plus-happy and man double-plus-happy!” The Pastor’s hands at last descended from on high in silence, and folded neatly on the pulpit. His eyes fell from heaven too, the lightning gaze of rapture vanished and replaced by a patience without end, without need for hope. His rhythm was unmistakable—this was the end of the sermon and it was time for people to close their Bibles quietly and prepare to shut their eyes. Pastor Whittle said, “All-pray.”

Everyone in the sanctuary bowed his head in silence to receive the benediction. Pastor Whittle pronounced it with expert softness into the pulpit microphone, “Be good. Be happy. Amen.”

Winston was now standing a few feet away from the Pastor in the church lobby as several people came filing out of the sanctuary. Winston was keeping an eye out for Hamilton, but it was hard to see him through the crowd. After an irritable delay, Hamilton came into Winston’s view. Winston pressed halfway through the crowd to greet his friend with a smile.

“Well, Hamilton. How are you this fine day?”

The crowd dispersed a little and Hamilton said, “Winston!” Hamilton moved through the crowd a few steps to his right and exchanged a word with his spiritual brother at the side of the exiting throng, “I can’t thank you enough for recommending this church, Winston. You know how my family and I regard the Reformation as more precious than life itself. I think that we are going to be very happy here. The Pastor’s sermon, as always, was flawless—not one single error of doctrine—all perfectly in accord with the Confession of Faith and with the Scriptures! And everybody seems to get along so well in this place. I can say with unwavering confidence that Goodchurch 1631 is without a doubt the very best church I’ve ever attended. I only hope that I can be of some use in this place while I continue my studies at seminary. Praise God that there is still a remnant in the earth.”

Winston shook his hand vigorously and said, “Amen.”