Anthropology – A Vital Question for the Church

Photo by J W on Unsplash

Consider these words from Carl Trueman’s recent essay at Public Discourse:

The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?

Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.

This line of thinking has been explored also by online writer N.S. Lyons in his viral piece on the Canadian Trucker protests.

For the Virtual elite, the most unforgiveable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment – it’s one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.

So expect the Virtuals of the ruling class to double down on trying to exert control, moving with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the machine. Self-driving truck startups are about to have an excellent next funding round.

Finally, I wrote along similar lines a little while back, arguing that Farmers Make the Best Intellectuals.

So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.

Trueman’s piece is important and helpful because he focuses in on anthropology. Anthropology is the study of man – what is man? What is human nature? He traces the loss of broad agreement on the answer to those questions from the Reformation to today. He makes an important point that I am not at all convinced most Christians are clear on:

Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.

When I was growing up, I saw the conflict between orthodox belief and the unbelieving culture in the issues of exclusivity (Jesus as the only way to salvation) and sexual morality. But then over the course of my 20’s and early 30’s it dawned on me that a more fundamental divide was emerging, that of anthropology. Trueman does a good job making that divide clear in his piece.

What first alerted me to the deep significance of one’s anthropology was the difference I observed between the ‘Christian counseling’ content I read in popular books and through some teachers at my Bible College and the ‘Biblical counseling’ content I was starting to come across from David Powlison, Paul Tripp and others at CCEF. Much of that difference boiled down to two very different ways of seeing the human person. The former approach adopted rather uncritically the concepts of secular psychology and tweaked the therapeutic advice to accord with Biblical statements. But the latter approach questioned the premises of secular psychology and sought to arrive at an understanding of human nature that was deeply informed by the Scriptures. This approach led to a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted effects of indwelling sin and of life lived in a broken world.

The writing and teaching of the folks at CCEF struck me as qualitatively different from what I had encountered in the popular Christian psychologists like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. Larry Crabb, though their work was still very helpful in some ways. Nevertheless, this experience settled a conviction for me that a thoroughly Biblical anthropology was crucial for building on. Simply put, it serves as the substructure for your view of sanctification and human flourishing. This experience also convinced me that this was one of the areas where regular church folks and ministry leaders had imbibed an awful lot of unbiblical assumptions from the world around them.

Fast forward to today and we find that many of the most pressing moral issues of our time are directly related to the question of human nature: transgender ideology, the dystopian dreams of the transhumanists, and the advances of AI.

Now, more than ever, the church needs to search the Scriptures diligently and gain a new level of clarity and conviction on what human nature is, what God’s intent for humanity is, and how this informs our response to the challenges that are coming at us with increasing complexity and velocity day by day.

While Trueman closes his piece with a glimmer of hope, his overall analysis is very sobering. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is how he wraps it up:

Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.

The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.

Christmas with Chesterton

Since reading it over ten years ago, I’ve had lodged in my mind an affectionate fascination with Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. It is a kind of intellectual tour de force of the history of religious thought as only possible from Chesterton’s singular mind and from the vantage point of the early 20th century. If you have some interest in understanding how paganism relates to Christianity, or how Christianity fulfills the philosophy of the classical era, you will enjoy it.

An early edition.

But this is a Christmas post, and so I want to walk you through a few selections from the first chapter of the second half of the book. The chapter is called The God in the Cave, referring to the tradition that the stable was actually a rocky cave. In this chapter Chesterton reflects on the symbolism and meaning of Christmas, teasing out implications from it that do not naturally spring to my mind. And yet, once I read them, they have a certain logic and an undeniable power. My goal here is to deepen your appreciation for Christmas and your wonder at the incarnation.

We start with a some paragraphs about the paradox of Christmas that of the very high and very big (God) united with the very small and very weak (a baby).

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.

… Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. …

In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.

It is true, isn’t it, that even after a hundred thousand hymns, that joining of divinity and infancy retains an inexhaustible power? We return to it again and again. Now we turn to a passage where Chesterton argues that Christmas turned the universe inside out, placed heaven under the earth, and in so doing set off a kind of revolution.

It might be suggested, in a somewhat violent image, that nothing had happened in that fold or crack in the great grey hills except that the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest. […] But it is true in a sense that God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre; and a centre is infinitely small. It is true that the spiritual spiral henceforward works inwards instead of outwards, and in that sense is centripetal and not centrifugal. The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.

Whether as a myth or a mystery, Christ was obviously conceived as born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless. Nevertheless it is true, as I have said, that the cave has not been so commonly or so clearly used as a symbol as the other realities that surrounded the first Christmas. And the reason for this also refers to the very nature of that new world. It was in a sense the difficulty of a new dimension. Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sight-seer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression. It is the idea of simultaneous happenings on different levels of life. Something like it might have been attempted in the more archaic and decorative medieval art. But the more the artists learned of realism and perspective, the less they could depict at once the angels in the heavens and the shepherds on the hills, and the glory in the darkness that was under the hills. …But in the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth.

There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.

That last paragraph is quite something. Was the incarnation the beginning of the end for slavery? Perhaps the end was far too long in coming, but there is no question that it was a set of Christians acting on their Christian convictions who led the push to abolish slavery, not pagans or secularists. It was a Christian impulse to dignify the slave, and then to free him.

Later in the chapter he turns to mythology and philosophy, themes which he has developed in the first half of the book. So keep in mind that we are entering partway through a length discussion. Still, I think it is worth considering:

Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. But something of the ancient voice that was supposed to have rung through the graves, it could cry again, ‘We have seen, he hath seen us, a visible god.’ So the ancient shepherds might have danced, and their feet have been beautiful upon the mountains, rejoicing over the philosophers. But the philosophers had also heard.

It is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things, and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.

Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.

You may, at this point, if you are a good evangelical Protestant like me, start to feel things are getting a bit slippery. Is he granting too much here? After all, aren’t these false religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, etc)? Yes — and whatever light and truth were or are in them cannot reconcile us to God. But I think a careful and generous reading of his argument dodges the heart of these concerns, which I share. In fact, one can see here the genesis of much of C.S. Lewis’ later apologetical approach, that of Christianity as a fulfillment of more than the Old Testament, but of everything that was good about every system of belief anywhere — rather than a repudiation of it all.

Chesterton at 17, before growing into his girth, and judging by his face, perhaps also his mirth.

Skipping down a bit, he returns to the Magi and the long history of mysticism and philosophy which they represented.

Here it is the important point that the Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play; for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the wise Men must be seeking wisdom, and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. …

The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal. It is far from certain, indeed, that they did not know it already. Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search. It is the realisation of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space. The Magicians were gazing at the strange pentacle with the human triangle reversed; and they have never come to the end of their calculations about it. For it is the paradox of that group in the cave, that while our emotions about it are of childish simplicity, our thoughts about it can branch with a never-ending complexity. And we can never reach the end even of our own ideas about the child who was a father and the mother who was a child.

I love the description of that Christmas scene as one which is limitless in its profundity and simplicity — we shall never reach the end of it. That’s something worth pondering this Christmas as we sit by the fire after dinner. Well this has gone long enough, but I leave you with two last paragraphs near the end of this remarkable chapter. Here Chesterton puts his finger on something of the unique ethos and spirit of Christmas, and the way it takes a hold on our minds and memories like nothing else.

Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry-makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandinavian winter feast. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. …

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can some times take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.

Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas.

Trees & Flames: Reweaving the Threads

The following is an excerpt from a longer work I’ve been chipping away at for a few months. It’s a mix of storytelling and reflection. My vision for this work is that it would be an ideal companion for sitting quietly and enjoying a half hour of pleasant reading; in a word: enjoyable, thoughtful, at times edifying. If this is something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below!


I love trees. They fascinate me, they enchant me. I can stare at a massive tree for a long time, just soaking in the size, solidity, solemnity, and sagacity of that being. I don’t believe trees are conscious like we are, but they do have life as well as a kind of wisdom. They know how to grow, how to find the sun, and how to dig roots down when they feel the wind. Did you know that trees that don’t feel any wind do not put down strong roots? Some researchers found this out when they grew trees inside a completely sealed dome. The trees grew tall but then broke and fell over under their own weight much younger than in the wild. It was discovered that the lack of wind and stress on the body of the tree meant it never put down deep roots. If that’s not a kind of wisdom, I don’t know what is.

A live oak with Spanish moss. Courtesy of David Price, Bok Tower Gardens

My family and I have traveled down to South Carolina a few times near the end of winter to get a jump start on summer. One of my very favorite things about being in the lowcountry (as they call it down there) is the massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss. These behemoth trees have sprawling branches that reach out and up in a way that our trees up here just don’t. It makes for a tree of mesmerizing size and branches with lovely whimsical shapes. The Spanish moss adds a delicate beauty as it hangs down silvery gray from those great limbs, similar to the way freshly fallen snow adorns our northern trees and makes them lovely to behold.

Photo by Ashley Knedler on Unsplash

Despite my romanticism about trees, I accept that they must be cut down for our use; and because of my romanticism, I don’t take that reality lightly. It means something to me when I put those logs of fragrant maple, solid oak, or sinewy ash into the fire. These great trees did something we cannot do: transformed CO2, sunlight, water, and ground nutrients into solid substance (and solid fuel). It’s a kind of alchemy, isn’t it? We let the familiarity of it rob us of the proper wonder. You try to take those ingredients and make something that can hold up a house for 100 years (as the logs in my basement have done) and also keep it warm and cozy.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Modern man is alienated, buffered. In our suits of technology and mass culture we are far removed from the primal realities of the wilderness from which we all came. Our ancestors knew how to make fire, or they died. They knew how to find food, or they died. They also knew the night sky. So much of our modern fiction and storytelling wrestles with this desire to reconnect with that lost world. A part of us admires the man or family who leaves all behind to live in a remote cabin; a part of us envies the blessed simplicity of the castaway’s life. We cope with this in all kinds of ways: We go camping, we put our kids into scouting or other nature programs, we watch Survivor or other similar survival-themed entertainment.

We do need technology to protect us from the elements. Clothing is the first technology; it shows up in chapter 3 of Genesis. It creates a layer of protective distance between our vulnerable bodies and the things which can harm them. Every subsequent technology adds more protection or helps to facilitate survival; but in so doing it further distances us from the raw experience of nature. And so a part of us always longs for those raw unmediated experiences of nature. As a teenager I walked to my local park in the middle of a violent thunderstorm to better see, feel, hear — to experience the raw power of that event. I wanted to feel small. At the ocean I love to feel the big waves crashing onto shore as they push and pull my body. I want to feel a little bit of the incalculable power of the waters.

Let me bring this back to chopping wood. There’s something raw and real about taking a tree, chopping it down, drying it, and then burning it to keep myself and my family from freezing to death during the long harsh winter months. Unlike electric heat, which needs massive infrastructure to produce and then deliver the energy, or heating oil, which is extracted out of some faraway hole in the ground, refined in some dystopian maze of pipes and tanks, and finally delivered to my house by a large truck, the process of producing the wood to run my woodstove doesn’t need to include anyone or anything outside my own property. And my point is that this distinction is significant, and that this is part of the reason why I — and so many others — enjoy chopping wood and heating with it.

Humans have been gathering around fires since beyond the horizon of memory. Warmth and light. Hands outstretched to thaw stiff fingers. How many endless hours did our distant ancestors spend staring silently into the dancing flames? The flickering light and unpredictable leaps and licks of flame casts a spell over us. It is a kind of hypnotism, and we fall into a trance. The conversations that take place at such a time are of a different quality. They are slower, lower in volume, punctuated by longer silences, and more confidential. It is around the fire that the previously untold chapter is revealed, that some hidden pain or secret hope is unveiled. Time passes differently when we gaze into the fire. And unlike time spent gazing at a screen, I have a hard time imagining that time spent staring into the flames was wasted; some good thing is communicated to the soul.


One of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible is John 21, the restoration of Peter. It’s a masterfully human story of failure, dejection, and doubt. Though the prose is sparse, the scene is charged with emotion. Peter, once a self-strong man, is an empty husk, gutted by his own betrayal of Jesus. The way Jesus takes him aside and gently restores him is, for me, one of the most moving episodes of the entire gospels.

But I’m getting distracted. My point is that tucked away in the first half of that chapter is a little detail which takes on a special significance in the context of this discussion. Namely, in this passage we find the only instance in the gospels of Jesus sitting around a fire. Doubtless it was an almost daily reality, given the nomadic nature of his public ministry, but here is the only time we are given a clear glimpse of the scene. We find Christ having kindled a fire on the shore and cooking some fish for breakfast. And it makes me wonder: what did he think when those first few smoky flames were lit?

Did he think back to the first blast of heat and light on that first day of creation? Did he think of the flaming sword in the hand of the cherubim at the entrance of the now-forbidden garden? Or did he think back to an astonished Moses standing before a flaming, burning bush, somehow unconsumed by the One who calls himself a consuming fire? Or how about the pillar of fire that held back the Egyptian army on the shores of the Red Sea? Perhaps for a moment he thought of that memorable day in Babylon when he (surely it was he, the fourth man in the fire?) stood in the midst of the raging fury of the king’s furnace with his three faithful followers, unscathed.

Who knows what he thought. But here was Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, making a fire on the quiet morning shores of Galilee, kindling flames that share their essence with every fire which came before, flames which harken back to all those sacred scenes.

Some important thread holds all those moments together in the mind of God, the architect of history. For in reality there are no unsacred places or moments at all – that is an illusion of the unbelieving mind. Meaninglessness itself is an illusion, it is alien to the world as God made it. All of us are somewhere along in the process of learning to see the world rightly, which is to say, shimmering with meaning. And part of that process, it seems to me, is learning to weave back together the separate and disconnected threads of our experience by following the master key of the Scriptures. This is re-enchantment.

So here are the few threads I’m fumbling with at the moment: God describes himself as a consuming fire. He manifests his presence as fire to Moses and the Israelites. And we all experience fire, its radiant light and warmth along with the dangers of burns and destruction. But do we make the link from the flame to the Father?

Do we, as Lewis said, run back up the sunbeam to the sun?

Do we weave back together what our fallen minds have pulled apart?

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

If you have been paying attention to the world of Christian cultural analysis, you will probably have heard of Carl Trueman’s recent book titled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The foreword is written by well-known author Rod Dreher, and the book was reviewed with acclaim in countless Christian and some non-Christian outlets. It is, as they say, a must-read. I needed no such convincing for I have enjoyed Trueman’s writing for many years now and was looking forward to this book ever since I first heard he was working on it. Despite my anticipation, I took my time reading it, completing the first half in the early months of 2021, and then listening to that first half again in audiobook format before moving on and completing the last half of the book in late summer.

The book aims to shows how we got to the point as a society where it is plausible to large swaths of the Western world for someone to say “I am an man trapped in a woman’s body.” With this in mind, Trueman takes the reader on a journey, explaining the sexual revolution as a history of ideas. Rather than a loud polemical denunciation with ample Scripture verses, which may be considered as the knee-jerk evangelical reaction to every new madhouse chapter in the unfolding sexual and cultural revolution, the author did the hard work of reading and understanding the roots of this phenomenon and applying the insights of some of the best cultural thinkers of the last century: Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

In the introduction, Trueman notes how many Christians were amazed at how quickly society moved from a position where “in the early 2000’s a majority of people were broadly opposed to gay marriage to one where, by 2020, trangenderism is well on its way to becoming more orless normalized. The mistake such Christians made was failing to realize that broader, underlying social and cultural conditions made both gay marriage and then transgender ideology first plausible and then normative and that these conditions have been developing for hundreds of years.” (p.25). It is the historical development of these cultural conditions that the author goes on to trace in the rest of the book.

Before diving into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, Trueman equips the reader with some intellectual tools. From Philip Rieff he borrows the concepts of the triumph of the therapeutic, psychological man, the anticulture, and deathworks. From Charles Taylor, the modern notion of the expressive self and the ‘social imaginary’. Lastly, from MacIntyre, the realization that ethical discourse is broken “because it rests ultimately on incommensurable narratives and that claims to moral truth are really expressions of emotional preference.” (p. 26). These insights, once grasped, are put to work in subsequent chapters. Having had only some passing familiarity with these thinkers, I found this section extremely helpful, if a little dense. The value of these insights for understanding our world as we find it today is hard to exagerrate, as each thinker makes significant contributions to one’s understanding of our culture.

Throughout the main body of the book, Trueman selects a number of historical figures whose thought he considers to be causing transitions or illustrating transitions in Western thought: Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and finally some figures in the New Left such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. To trace the argument in a nutshell, we can hardly do better than this line from chapter 7:

“To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity – and therefore sex – political.” (p. 250)

If that makes complete sense to you, then perhaps you don’t need to read the book! But for the rest of us, tracing these developments across the centuries helps make so much sense of why we find ourselves where we are today in the West. I know of no other book that is so helpful in this regard.

Two Pairs of Articles

Today I’d like to draw your attention, dear reader, to two pairs of articles that I’ve come across in recent days. The first pair are non-identical twins – strangely similar articles that make essentially the same point. They both look at the gender insanity gripping our culture and reach back to a strange scene from C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength to make an important point about the effect of this insanity on everyone, but children most of all. Most of you know I rarely write more than a few paragraphs without coming around to an insight by Lewis, so there’s no big surprise here as to why I was drawn to his particular argument. Take a look at these articles:

Drag Queen Story Hour as the Objective Room – Craig Carter

Welcome to the Objective Room – Joe Rigney

Published two days apart, these two articles really are eerily similar. But rather than plagiarism, I suspect some common flash of insight or perhaps a conversation gave rise to these. If nothing else, these articles join that chorus of appreciative writings which continue to find much value in the thought of Lewis. He was able to see far better than most what was coming, and now that it has arrived, many of us are encountering in Lewis an antidote to what ails our age. The attentive reader will also see an important link between Lewis’ Objective Room and my recent reflections on modern architecture [link].

An early edition of THS, the third and final book in Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

The second pair of articles concerns the debate currently a-raging about Christian political involvement, and specifically the idea of Christian Nationalism. I don’t find myself landing firmly in either side of the debate, but I can see that all sides have valid concerns worth considering. Here are two articles, both by men I respect and admire, making their case.

“Christian Nationalism” Misrepresents Jesus, So We Should Reject It – Jonathan Leeman

Identity or Influence? A Protestant Response to Jonathan Leeman – Joe Rigney

Kudos to 9Marks for publishing the critical response to Leeman’s article. I think it’s vital for the brightest and most reasoned voices in the Christian community to make their arguments in public and in good faith. Sadly I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion about Christian Nationalism from both sides of the argument that is dismissive and unhelpful, bringing far more heat than light.

10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

This book lays out ten great ways to destroy your child’s imagination. It’s like long-form satire, the opposite of the argument being the actual position of the author. Kind of like The Screwtape Letters, but less smooth in execution. Here are some of the main themes Esolen deals with: the power of truth (even just facts) for nurturing the imagination, the wonder of the outdoors, the importance of heroes and patriotism and virtue and fairy tales, the magic of romance and love, and the need for the transcendent.

Esolen is a gifted and provocative writer. He makes his points sharply and unapologetically. At times he overstates his case, but he is largely right and has much to offer anyone engaging in the bewildering activity known as parenting. And parents today are indeed bewildered. Let me give you 2 quick reasons off the top of my head.

First, we have the alienation between the generations driven by rapid cultural change. Now more than ever, every new set of adolescents feels further from their parents culturally. The common cultural touchpoints are fewer and fewer, and they increasingly live in separate worlds. This is slightly less the case in religious families but they are by no means exempt from this dynamic.

Second, the epidemic of broken families leaves new parents with no positive model to build upon. Children of divorce hesitate to get married for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that they have no success narrative to emulate. And even more difficult to overcome are the patterns of learned attitudes and behaviors that they absorbed in dysfunctional and toxic relational environments. It’s hard to overstate how massive a challenge this is, and by contrast what an advantage a healthy two-parent still-married family history for those forming their own families. All this to say then that books on parenting are needed now more than ever.

Esolen has a firm grasp of the classics and is constantly making reference (or re-telling portions of) these foundational stories, as well as Biblical narratives and countless anecdotes from history. He throws in a bunch of C.S. Lewis for good measure. So as he’s making his points, the reader’s familiarity with these works stretches and grows. This is characteristic of all of Esolen’s writing and teaching – it is guaranteed to be a mini-seminar in the classics and liberal arts.

The highlights of the book for me were the dozens of passages where Esolen calmly dismantles the modern secular soulless approach to childhood by laying it side by side with a fully human joy-filled alternative. Reading these passages is at once inspiring and sobering, for it is impossible to miss how far we have fallen.

For anyone fully immersed in our modern world, putting these truths into practice is an exercise in swimming upstream. But it is an also an exercise in truly living. What a refreshing vision of life fully lived, with our faculties engaged and aware and amazed at the incredible world around us. As Chesterton said, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

Esolen helps every parent who wants to be fully awake to the paltry state of childhood and fully alive in pursuing something much better for oneself and for one’s children. Although the book was first published in 2010, the last few years of cultural upheaval in the West have perhaps primed a greater readership than ever for its bracing message. Parents seem to be waking up to the inadequacies of the education systems, as well as their increasing ideological bent. And with skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among school-aged children, it’s hard to ignore that the kids are not alright.

It’s almost as if their imagination – and perhaps more – has been largely destroyed.

Learning What We Can from The Alchemist

With something like 65 million copies sold worldwide, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, is a phenomenon. Whenever one finds a bestseller on this scale, there is something important to learn. The book may or may not be of much value – just think of 50 Shades or Twilight – but it always tells us something about our own culture and the spirit of the age. It’s my contention that the success of The Alchemist is a powerful indicator of the spiritual poverty of modern secularism and the pull towards re-enchantment that is at work. Ironically, this book was first recommended to me by a coworker who was a very staunch Dawkins-style atheist.

The 25th anniversary edition is very nice, with rough-cut pages, a nice font, and an embossed cover.

The book wraps its narrative around the big ideas it is trying to convey. In this sense it is overly didactic and not like the great novels which embed such lessons deep into the structure of the work. Here it is on the surface, the narrative serving as a platform on which to serve up the lessons the author wishes the reader to learn. But the story makes use of a number of archetypes that lend it narrative power.

The story follows the life of a young boy, a teenager named Santiago, who leaves his seminary studies to become a shepherd because he wants to explore the world. “But ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man’s sins.” (10-11). “I couldn’t have found God in the seminary, he thought, as he looked at the sunrise.”

The book freely borrows from the Bible. Melchizedek plays a prominent role, as do the Urim and Thummim stones from Israelite law. Characters refer to the story of Joseph and Jesus. Yet the Bible is seen as one religious tradition among others, all of them a kind of fractal of the Universal Language and the Soul of the World. These include Islam, alchemy, Gypsies reading omens, and fortune tellers interpreting twigs. Key phrases, like Personal Legends, are capitalized throughout to make sure we don’t miss their importance. The influence of Eastern philosophy bleeds through heavily in numerous ways, such as when we are told (more than once) that “All things are one.”

These concepts sacralize one’s life. There is undeniable power in their ability to transform one’s experience of everyday life. They are an antidote to the meaninglessness of modern secular thought: rather than the victims of random impersonal forces, we are each of us given a Personal Legend to fulfill, a purpose which was birthed deep in the Soul of the Universe, and the fulfillment of which “is a person’s only real obligation” in life (24). They are amorphous and ambiguous, which locates the authority firmly in each individual’s interpretation of their own Personal Legend – or life mission. Now here is a message custom-made for our age. Sensing the cold emptiness of rigid rationalism, we want the thrill of the supernatural. Allergic to the endless arguments over doctrine and dogma, we want a Oneness which can reconcile all differences. Terrified of any authority outside the autonomous self, we want a spiritual paradigm that evokes wonder without demanding surrender; an impersonal God-force that infuses our lives with transcendent meaning while leaving us firmly in charge.

One can see how comfortably this focus on an individualized life mission fits with the modern elevation of personal autonomy. Somehow I don’t see this teaching leading many to persevere through a difficult marriage or make sacrifices to care for an aging parent. After all, one’s only real obligation is to realize their Personal Legend. This is thin gruel indeed. Small wonder then that this book proved to be so popular with that segment of American life most famous for being ego-driven and selfish: celebrities.

Despite the Biblical language and references, at its heart the message of the book is deeply unbiblical. It borrows from the spiritual capital of the Bible’s more symbolic and flowery phrasing to construct a tower of Babel which leaves Christ very much behind. This is not uncommon in the New Age movement, where every religious tradition is mined for some compatible nuggets of spiritual wisdom. Such an approach pretends to embrace a generous openness by saying all religions see only a part of the whole picture, but really that means it alone has the objective view that incorporates all the rest. This is a claim of epistemological superiority based on sophistry. It claims to see what others are blind to, and it accomplishes it through nice-sounding but vague spiritual language about universal Oneness. This is all done with the stated intention of being very agreeable and inclusive, harmonizing all the different paths into some kind of universal spirituality, but it always does violence to the integrity of those religions to tear bits and pieces out of context and reinterpret them as needed.

We see this repeatedly in the Alchemist’s use of Biblical phrases and ideas. Three examples will suffice. At one point the protagonist is told, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” In context, it is clear that his heart is to be followed, and that it will lead to a real or metaphorical treasure. But this advice is an inversion of the Biblical principle that it resembles: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Jesus’ point is that the heart of each person is revealed by what they treasure — by what they love — and that his followers ought to live in such a way that they store up treasures in heaven, not on earth. Not quite the same thing.

In another place, the shepherd boy is told, “Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.” This is more self-trust than the Christian can ever allow, for we remember that bracing passage in Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

One last example, which comes at the culminating moment of the narrative: “The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.” Well here we have the whole beating heart of this project laid bare, and it makes a very simple argument: that we can be as God. Or even better: in some way we are already God, if only we would realize it. What is essentially the same promise was made to Eve in the garden; “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” (Genesis 3:5). So here is a good reason to know one’s Bible. False teachers love to use the very words of Scripture, and even those of Jesus, to teach what is, at bottom, a satanic doctrine.

It’s not too difficult to render a critique of this spiritual-but-not-religious approach to life. But the question I asked myself as I read this book was whether this might be an improvement over strict materialism or not. I make no bones about the fact that I am Christian, and of the sort who believes what the Bible says: that salvation is found in Christ alone. But I also recognize that to view the world as The Alchemist does is closer to reality than the frigid cement bunker of atheism. It has echoes of that older and more human paganism which Lewis and Chesterton saw as pre-Christian. I wonder if a post-Christian paganism, this New Age view of universal Oneness, can lead back to Christ as readily as the old paganism eventually did. I have my hopes, but also my doubts.

The hope comes in because a non-materialist worldview makes room for a supernatural being and often seeks after some kind of spiritual connection. These are the spiritual-but-not-religious types, and I get the appeal of that approach. It leaves the door open, as it were. And yes, sometimes Christ comes through that door. But I also have my doubts because spiritual experiences can have the effect of thoroughly blinding one’s heart and pulling people deep into half-truths and deceptions. In its worst forms, it leads to the occult.

Whatever else we might say, the massive popularity of this book belies the fact that our secular age has a strong undertow of spiritual hunger. And yet the dish of choice, this amorphous New Age spirituality of universal Oneness, is one which leaves our preferred idol of the autonomous self-defined individual unchallenged.

Why Farmers make the Best Intellectuals

There is a good reason why not many truck drivers and farmers are progressive utopians with dreams of revolutionizing society. A farmer who doesn’t learn to work with the grain of reality is going to have silos with no grain. A trucker who doesn’t learn that the wrong air pressure in his tires will lead to blowouts, or in other words, that he must conform to the rules of physics and not the other way around, is not going to be on the road very long before disaster strikes. In these professions, with their close proximity to grounded reality, error leads quickly to correction and discipline in the most obvious and painful of ways.

Discovering the inflexible laws of physics

But in the softer sciences, conceits and abstract theories can float around and spread like a mind-virus long before their incarnated effects reveal how disastrously mistaken their assumptions were. The long delay is a key and critical difference. The correction and discipline do come, but just like sending a child to time-out 3 hours after they hit their sibling is sure to teach them nothing, so the delayed correction to the wrong-headed theories rarely seem to change the minds of those who adopted them. And by then the damage has been done.

So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.

Working with the grain of the created order – and the wood.

Beyond the forces of nature, there are certain universal human elements that must be accounted for as well. For example, being punctual, truthful, and trustworthy will lead to repeat business and recommendations – in short, flourishing. So a brilliant plumber who cheats his customers will not get far, but a personable and honest electrician who burns a house down through shoddy work will do no better. One needs a measure of both practical and interpersonal skills.

If only the work of intellectuals had such tight feedback loops, we could save ourselves so much pain and misery. Unfortunately, the work of the intellectual allows him to entertain ideas which are manifest nonsense, but which sound good and appeal to a great many people for one reason or another. And the more wealthy and decadent a society becomes, where the educated classes are further and further insulated from the harsh realities of the created order — and its humbling lack of flexibility on many points — the more they have the illusion that everything is malleable and plastic. Yes, everything can be re-imagined! And then our perfect utopian vision can be brought to pass!

But God will not be mocked, and the particular shape he gave to the world we inhabit will only be thwarted for so long.

For this reason, I prefer my intellectuals and thought-leaders to also be farmers.

Poems of Decline

Poetry captures the essence of both moments and ages like nothing else can. As Ezra Pound said, poetry is “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

There is power in the just-right words. They can help us see what we only dimly sensed before. And for the poet, or any writer, finding just the right word is deeply satisfying, like the composer finding just the right note and just the right chord, or the painter finding just the right hue.

Like many others I feel the West is in decline, and while I recognize its many flaws and failures, I have yet to see anything better save for dreams and utopias that never come about. So there is a touch of lament in my spirit these days.

Photo by Ryan Lum

As a Christian my hope is not and was never in any civilization or culture – my hope utterly transcends such chaff. But nevertheless I find myself a beneficiary and inheritor of a truly great tradition, the loss of which is no small tragedy, and the death of which will bring about no small amount of suffering and misery for those who come after – most of all my own children.

Unless.

The lament I feel is tempered by a competing spirit of hope. You see, I am Protestant evangelical, which means I swim in the spiritual stream whose headwaters are revival. By revival I mean simply a sovereign (unmanipulated) outpouring of God’s Spirit which fundamentally transforms individuals to the point where they become unrecognizable, and where this is so widespread that communities are changed, cities and counties and even nations are changed.

In the dreary articles I read about the decline and impending fall of our civilization I rarely encounter this touch of hope – a hope which is not without significant historical precedent. I find this curious. Have these people never read Nehemiah 8? Or read about the first Great Awakening or the Welsh revival of 1904? Yes, we are in decline. Yes, the trajectory seems clear. But no, decline does not always lead to disaster.

I recently came across Kipling’s poem Recessional. I resonated with it. Written in 1897, it is situated in a certain time and place, but it speaks beyond those bounds. Here it is:

`God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
`

With Queen Elizabeth’s passing this week, the consensus seems to be that the 20th century is truly over, that we have turned over into a new age that is post-Christian and thus unrestrained by the moral vision and virtues that Christianity made normative.

Photo by Anna Jimenez Calaf

And so, patterned after Kipling’s poem, and prompted by this historical moment, I dipped my pen and tried to capture something of the lament and the touch of hope. I am no Kipling, but here is my poem, titled Unless.

Monarchs pass, the ages turn
What has gone will not return
Unless, unless

Beams have faded into dusk
We are left with only husk
Unless, unless

The cancer is in every joint
The doctor says there is no point
Unless, unless

You visit us again.

Architecture as a Whole

I don’t know much of anything about architecture except what seems beautiful to me and what doesn’t. Until a few years ago I wouldn’t have known how to express the nature of these preferences, and indeed whether they were rightly to be thought of as preferences or as something else.

Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

After all, people buy all kinds of houses, even the ones that seem ugly to me.

Uhh, no thanks.

So who am I to say what they should like?

I’ve always liked the Canadiana style with fieldstones and dormer windows.

But maybe that’s not quite the right way to go about trying to think this through.

In recent months I’ve had some help with this, and I thought I’d try to put my thoughts down on paper as a layman for other people who are unversed in architectural history and theory. The first piece of help I received was from the late Sir Roger Scruton in his little book Beauty. Scruton helped me start to make the link between beauty in general and the kind of beauty we are drawn to in art, and in architecture specifically.

One gets a sense of his view from this quote:

Ordinary architecture, however adventurous in its use of materials, forms and details, cannot rely on the excuse of artistic licence in order to creep through the planning process. In art we attempt to give the most exalted expression to life and its meaning. In everyday arrangements we simply try to do what looks right. Both cases involve the pursuit of beauty.

Roger Scruton

But then there is a whole different approach to architecture that sees it as a platform for philosophical arguments. Thus the postmodernists make buildings that reject symmetry and harmony because they have moved on from a view of the world that sees any cohesive centre and order. That is why some buildings feel out of proportion and shocking to one’s sense of balance; that is precisely their intended effect. 

This one, I’ll admit, gets to me.

There is an intentional attempt to create a sense of fragmentation that reflects postmodern deconstructivist philosophies and the modern sense that enlightened people can no longer believe in ‘grand narratives’ that can make sense of the world.

What helped to crystallize the contrast between these different approaches to architecture was an excellent essay in first things by Michael Lewis on the late architect Christopher Alexander, and especially his debate with postmodern architect Peter Eisenman. I recommend the piece to you, even if you have no real interest in architecture. That’s the point: architecture points beyond itself to a certain vision of the world.

What became so clear was how metaphysically rooted the different approaches are. That is to say, they develop organically from the most fundamentally views on reality, views which are philosophical and even religious. In other words, it’s all connected. The shape of our buildings will flow out of the answers we give to questions such as: What is the nature of the universe? Does it have order? Does it have a purpose? Is there some meaning which unites our existence with everything else? Is there some unifying point, a Source? 

Answer that question one way, and your buildings look like this.

Answer those questions another way, and your buildings look like this.

Or this.

If anything is becoming increasingly clear, it is the growing distance between those who understand the world to have a given shape, and those who do not. And while leaving room for the inconsistencies that we all have, which is to say that you shouldn’t assume you can know about someone’s worldview or metaphysical beliefs based on what kind of architecture they enjoy, still there is a vital connection here between those beliefs and the buildings a society celebrates.

Deep down, it really is all connected. The last word goes to the late Christopher Alexander:

When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole.