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:
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].
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
So who am I to say what they should like?
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.
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.
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.
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.
What books can we give our teenagers that will help them grow in virtue? So much of the Teen Fiction genre today seems to find its raison d’être in being transgressive and celebrating vice. The result is often a reading experience that drives a wedge between the young person and their moral and spiritual heritage. But there are always a few bright spots, a few gems among the wreckage.
Enter Black Bottle Man, a novel that recently came to my attention. It is a fine example of an exciting story that, while not a explicitly Christian, is nicely compatible with a Christian view of the world. It is the debut novel of Craig Russell, a Canadian from Manitoba.
The story begins in the 1920’s, with an extended family living on three connected farms. Three couples, but only one child: young Rembrandt. The two childless women reach a point of dark desperation and resort to black magic to bring about the children they so desire.
The magic works, but there’s a very nasty catch, and only a hastily struck deal with the nefarious Black Bottle Man gives the troubled family a glimmer of hope. There are souls at stake and the men of the family, including Rembrandt, must find a champion who will be able to defeat the Black Bottle Man. From this strange beginning we follow the trio as they learn to survive out on the road and as Rembrandt matures into a young man.
The narrative spans the entire life of the protagonist, with chapters jumping back and forth across time so that we see snapshots of the characters’ lives at various stages as the story unfolds. These separate pieces gradually come together for the climatic end, which is framed as a battle between good and evil, the champion against the Black Bottle Man.
The world in which the story takes place is anchored by Christian reference points. The book contains its fair share of the supernatural, but rather than relegate it to the world of fantasy, it is presented in a straightforward manner. The moral compass is calibrated correctly – virtue is good, vice is bad – which is all too rare in teen fiction. And so Black Bottle Man is the kind of book that has something of value to offer the human spirit as it deals with the themes of family, tragedy, loneliness, romance, and grace.
The writing is consistently good. In one memorable scene, Rembrandt finds himself in a small town church where the preacher uses Scripture to cajole and manipulate rather than edify. “Right then and there Rembrandt knew that he’d study that Book like Pa had, until he knew all the funny little corners where the mean, small-minded people like to hide” (p36). That’s insightful.
Scattered throughout the book are clever and thoughtful descriptions. At one point, Rembrandt is eased into the back of a police car: “The back seat is vinyl, patched and repaired from a life spent accepting displaced anger. The car smells of human beings in all their wondrous variety, locked in a perpetual battle with cheap disinfectant” (p91). One chapter opens up like so: “All music contains within itself a kind of divine madness. Few will read a book or watch the same film more than once, but everyone returns to their favourite songs. Of all the arts, music is the king of repeated experience” (p120). These fine touches help lift the book from a prosaic adventure book to something in touch with the imaginative.
Not everything about the book is a complete success. At times the back-and-forth motion from past to present is jarring and hinders the momentum of the story. Also, some aspects of the book are a bit harder for me to believe or understand. But these hiccups do not detract significantly from the overall appeal of the book. Craig Russell has managed to craft a compelling story with a clear moral vision, bring it to life with vivid and memorable descriptions, and fire up the reader’s imagination; all within a world that is infused with spiritual realities. That’s quite an accomplishment.
If every Young Adult book had these ingredients in the mix, we would have much less reason to be concerned about what our teens are reading.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author for the purposes of writing a review.
Ever since I saw the montage of Fox News clips decrying a million wars on every conceivable facet of life, I’ve been a bit weary of the “this is a war on x!” framing. My favourite was the supposed war on cows, those docile beasts of burden which enrich our lives in countless ways. How tragic to hear there is a war on bovinity. This kind of framing smacks of catastrophizing; amplifying an issue beyond the merits of the case. So I was a bit wary of Douglas Murray’s new book when I saw it was titled The War on the West. Murray is a journalist and an interesting conservative thinker who, if nothing else, asks good questions. I appreciated his previous books, The Strange Death of Europe and The Madness of Crowds.
Having read the book – or listened to it, rather – I think the title is fitting, and unfortunate only because overuse of the “war on x” trope has devalued it. It is a worthwhile book that offers some clarifying moments for those making sense of the world in the 2020’s. Above all it reveals the stunning intellectual dishonesty and double standards of those radicals and revolutionaries who do desire above all to bring down the West.
The book shows how institution after institution, in almost every sphere of society imaginable, found itself utterly incapable of standing up to the self-inflicted neo-Marxist criticism of its members, or leaders, or both.
In fact, the most striking example in this long cavalcade was the church: denominations falling all over themselves in self-recriminations that are both unprovable and unfalsifiable. They are statements of faith. “We are systemically racist,” they cry. “We must do better.” But no evidence is offered, and no criteria established for measuring progress, except for the bankrupt idea of the equality of outcomes. In a real sense, it is a con, and one has to say that few have seen it for what it is.
And I can understand why – Christians are taught to consider the truth of a criticism even when it is offered in bad faith. Is there any truth to this? We are introspective, and rightly so. We say with the Psalmist, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24). But this humble posture can be weaponized and used not to cleanse our hearts further but to muddle our minds with nonsense. This is especially true of denominations that have loosened their grip on the changeless and authoritative truth of Scripture. Having made themselves soft and malleable at precisely the points where they should be firm in their convictions, they make themselves easy targets for woke nonsense, which is really a kind of cancerous mutation of the Biblical ethos of compassion divorced from the other virtues which balance and complete it.
What Murray really succeeds in showing is how dishonest the “war on the West” is. It is not a good faith argument, but a hypocritical double standard that is only applied to the West, and never to any other culture. No one spends time waxing eloquent about the systemic racism in Saudi Arabia, in China, or in Sub-Saharan Africa. The withering criticism is always leveled only against the West.
It is a merciless criticism, a relentless tearing down, a kind of blind rage. It is immune to facts, to wisdom, to context, and above all to the kind of humility that would temper criticism of the past with gratitude. The kind of humility that would say “but for the grace of God go I.” The kind of humility that acknowledges that if I had been alive then I would almost certainly have been on the wrong side of key questions.
The West of course does need criticism. It needs clear-eyed, objective criticism. And those who love the West must above all hear and heed that criticism. But criticism devoid of gratitude is a universal solvent, a super-acid. It leaves nothing to build with. One of the best parts of the book is Murray’s reflection on the goodness of gratitude.
I’m left also with questions about what the Christian’s role is to be in the preservation and building of civilization. A part of me says that the Kingdom is not of this earth, so leave all that aside and focus strictly on the church. And indeed the salvation of individuals is more fundamental than civilization. Lewis has a great quote about this in The Weight of Glory:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
And yet Lewis labored mightily in his life to foster not only the salvation of individuals but the restoration and rebuilding of culture. Alan Jacobs lays this out in his The Year of Our Lord 1943. There is a tension here that I don’t think needs to be completely resolved. And we do not all have the same vocations. I am deeply grateful both for those who labor exclusively in the church and also for those who labor for the flourishing of a healthy, humane, grace-besotted culture.
So as a critique of this amorphous meta-critiquing movement – wokeness, critical theories, neo-Marxism, whatever you want to call it – it is a valuable contribution which I’m thankful for. But as a Christian I am left feeling like it suffers from a lack of positive vision for culture-building. It laments the tearing down of something that was good, but it does not risk offering an ideal that could inspire a new generation to build again. For this we shall have to look elsewhere.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved writing. But I have always resisted the idea that writing might be a part of my identity and calling in life. I’m not sure why. Recently that has been changing.
I realize now that my childhood home was filled with books in a way that was unusual. My parents were often to be seen reading. My older brother Alex quickly became a devoted reader, blasting through stacks of novels. All of this rubbed off on me, and things which I took to be unremarkable I now see as a foreshadowing of things to come.
I remember having two truly excellent English teachers who both left a mark on me. The first was Mr. Wiggins, who taught me in both grade 5 and grade 6. He was an extremely tall man with large glasses. For some reason I don’t remember what his voice sounded like. He was funny. He would write long sentences across the blackboard and then when he got to the end of the space he would continue writing on the walls of the classroom. To a schoolchild, even a hint of playful rebellion in an authority figure like a teacher is delightful. He got ten and eleven-year-olds to learn words like extemporaneous and calamity and vociferous. I ate it all up, the lessons and the assignments.
Once, when we were told to bring something to read quietly in class, I brought one of our treasured Calvin & Hobbes books along with a dictionary for looking up words I didn’t know. Mr. Wiggins was impressed. I still think Calvin & Hobbes is pretty brilliant and a great way to expand one’s vocabulary:
The other excellent English teacher that left a mark on me was a Mr. Bellamy in high school. He also was a popular teacher. He taught us to write. I don’t remember how he did it, but the end result of it was that I very badly wanted to write the most excellent pieces of creative writing in order to impress him. I worked at it diligently over that year and submitted papers I was proud of. As someone who mostly breezed through school, that level of effort was a new experience. He read those papers carefully and handed them back with copious comments and sometimes a personal conversation too. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how, but I know for a fact that I’m a better writer today for having had Mr. Bellamy as a teacher.
Some years later, and after my spiritual rebirth at the age of 19, I wrote a short reflection on writing. I recently found it tucked away in an old file in my computer backups. I had forgotten I had ever written it, so it felt like I was reading someone else’s words:
What is writing? It is notation. But there is writing and then there is writing. And the latter sparks revolutions, both quiet and cataclysmic. Writing is communication bordering on impartation. It is a medium so broad that the loftiest ideas imaginable have room aplenty to cross the great divide between these independent entities we call minds.
I wonder, I wonder; am I a writer? Oh I can notate just fine, but can I impart? Can I, with the finesse and restraint of an artist, craft and swirl, lift and push, yes and with finality make a collection of words that imparts the ineffable? Can I sow seeds of the good without the soil’s knowledge, at least until after the fact? Can I teach the eye to see, and yes even to love, the beautiful even as it lusts for the profane? Can I in some small way affect that impenetrable centre of being, the heart, with what I can only pray will be a taste, an appetite, yes a hunger, for that essence which is sourced entirely in the threefold Spirit of the I AM?
Can I be a writer? Probably not. But can I write? Well I hope so.
I think I wrote that in my early 20’s, about 15 years ago. What I like about that reflection above is that it expresses something I still feel deeply, namely that words have this mysterious but undeniable power to nudge us towards virtue or vice, towards God or away from Him.
Despite writing occasionally on this blog and receiving some affirmation here and there, it has only been in this last year that these lingering questions have been answered for me as doors have opened up for writing and editing in a more public way. One of those open doors has been over at TGC Canada, where I’ve been able to write a serious book review, a piece of cultural criticism, and a piece of spiritual reflection. In each case I’ve been blown away by the positive responses.
In addition, I’ve been given opportunities to do some editing by an extremely accomplished author and editor, Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. Here is the first look at the fruit of that partnership:
Dr. Haykin is very generous with his time and advice, giving me a chance to work in the world of publishing like this. In addition to this volume on John Gill which will be published this year, we are working on two other projects.
This all has seemed too good to be true. It’s almost like I’m a writer!
Well, I guess I am. I’m just going to have to get used to the idea.
As I was waiting for the Rogan piece to be published, I was rather nervous. I had worked on it for months. I had really pushed myself to weave together a narrative that was compelling, intellectually stimulating, and edifying. And as such it felt like more of a risk, and like more of my self was wrapped up in it. When it finally came out, the response was a bit overwhelming for an almost-complete novice to the online writing world. Tim Challies linked to it, and then the main TGC USA site featured it in their Around the Web links for a day. Collin Hansen tweeted it out. I got asked to do a radio interview for a Christian station in Pittsburgh.
And all this happened on the week of the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death, in early March. I tried to write about that at the time, but nothing seemed to come together. It was a strange mix, the marking of a sad milestone along with success in the sphere where my mother had the most influence on me. She was a writer and an editor too. And although I don’t remember sitting down with her to get tips on writing and editing, I know I picked up a lot of things along the way.
I noticed how hard she would work at finding just the right word, as evidenced by the scribbled and scratched-out notes covering her text. I saw how she stressed out over the regular column she had to write for the magazine she edited, yet somehow always found something to submit by the deadline.
Looking back now I guess it makes sense I would end up so involved with words. But all along the way I see how people in my life—my parents, teachers, and others—earned themselves an unpayable debt of gratitude by investing in me and giving me opportunities. Ultimately my writing and editing, like every other aspect of a Christian’s life and calling, is a stewardship of what has been given by God, and faithfulness is the call.
I have tried to write well even when only one person would ever read my words. I have tried to think and write well even when the number of readers of this blog was less than ten. In a sense, the numbers truly don’t matter, and until they don’t matter, the writing itself is tainted. That is something else I learned from Bill Watterson: to do a thing for the love of it and no other reason. (I got this from his only public speech). It is analogous to Eric Liddell’s feeling that God was pleased when he ran, for He had made him to run. My own motives are always mixed, but this is the north star I try to orient them by.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.
Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.
These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.
First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:
‘The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.
She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:
But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.
Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.
Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.
In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.
Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.