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Welcome to the Objective Room

Our culture’s elites try to normalize the grotesque


Biden administration appointee Sam Brinton at The Trevor Project’s TrevorLIVE LA 2019 event in Beverly Hills, Calif., in November 2019 Photo by Tasia Wells/Getty Images for The Trevor Project

Welcome to the Objective Room

Tucked away in C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength is an image that I can never quite get out of my mind. It’s a description of a strange painting in a strange room. The painting is of a young woman holding her mouth wide open to reveal that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. “It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel that hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.” 

This portrait is clustered among other odd pictures—a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis; a man with corkscrews for arms bathing in a dingy sea. Other pictures in the room seem ordinary, but would inevitably have some odd detail that threw the whole thing off—feet pointed the wrong direction, or an odd arrangement of fingers. In the novel, the combination of apparent innocence on the surface of something more ominous made the pictures supremely menacing. 

I thought about these pictures the other day while watching the president of the United States being interviewed by Dylan Mulvaney, a self-declared male-to-female transgender TikTok “comedian and content-creator.” Indeed, I think about it every time transgender Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Rachel Levine is in the news. Or anytime an advertisement on television shows a same-sex couple romantically kissing. Or, most acutely, I think about it any time that another “family-friendly drag show” makes the news. 

The reason I connect the paintings to the sexual insanity in our culture is because of their function in Lewis’ novel. The paintings reside in The Objective Room, inside the headquarters of the N.I.C.E., a sinister organization ostensibly dedicated to the reform of British society, but that is, in fact, a tool in the hands of mysterious dark powers. 

The novel’s protagonist, Mark Studdock, is drawn by his own ambition into the machinations of the N.I.C.E. Eventually he is offered initiation into the fullness of the organization by means of “systematic training in objectivity.” And the first tool of this training is the Objective Room. 

The room itself is a little bit off—too high and narrow, with an arch over the door that is slightly off-center, just enough to bother and unsettle the mind. The ceiling and table are both covered with spots, arranged to suggest regularity and pattern, but always frustrating the expectation once aroused. 

It is possible to sear the conscience and the imagination. Wicked custom can smother the light of natural understanding.

As Mark surveys the room, he realizes its purpose is to eliminate all specifically human reactions in him so that he might become fit society for the dark forces. In other words, exposure to the seemingly innocent, yet profoundly disturbing paintings, the lopsided architecture, and the other irregularities is designed to detach him from his natural human responses to the world, to kill the nerve of his normal and instinctive preferences, and thereby separate him from his humanity.

This diabolical goal—to sear the imagination by exposure to the Unnatural and the Abnormal—is the same as that of President Biden’s interview, the advertisements, and Drag Queen Story Hour. The aim of our cultural elites is to turn the entire public square into one giant Objective Room, where the human and the humane, the Normal and the Natural, are suppressed and smothered. 

Biden himself noted that a key way for politicians to advocate for trans people is simply by being seen with them, thereby normalizing such identities. As Christians, we must not be naive about the strategy, nor about its potential success. It is possible to sear the conscience and the imagination. Wicked custom can smother the light of natural understanding. We can choose madness. And tragically, we can foist such madness upon children, the most vulnerable and impressionable among us.

But Lewis doesn’t merely show us the smothering, searing, and severing effect of the Objective Room on our humanity. He also shows how the Objective Room can awaken us to Reality, as it did for Mark.

As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else—something he vaguely called the “Normal”—apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was—solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with.

By the mercy of God, may we do the same.


Joe Rigney

Joe Rigney serves as President and Associate Professor of Theology and Literature at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minn. He is the author of five books including: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013) and Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Crossway, 2018). He also serves as a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, Minn.


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