He Descended to the Dead

As we approach Easter week, the Christian’s thoughts turn to those epic events of Christ’s passion week: his triumphal entry, his betrayal, his unjust trial, his crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection. Now what is missing from that list? Did I forget any major events? At least one evangelical theologian says yes, and he argues that most of us skip over the events of what has historically been referred to as Holy Saturday: that full day where Jesus laid in the tomb between his death and resurrection.

And what were those events? Just what exactly happened on Saturday? The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the Easter weekend with these unforgettable words:

     He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.

All Christians have heard or repeated those words: “He descended to the dead” or, “He descended into hell.” But what the Sheol does that really mean? Sounds like some spooky hocus pocus stuff, right? Well, not quite. Enter Matthew Y. Emerson’s helpful book:

Dr. Emerson has written this book in order to metaphorically hold the hands of confused evangelicals and introduce them to this classic doctrine of the ‘descent.’ No, not the classic PC video game by the same name – though many a happy hour did I there spend.

Not this. But if you were into video games in the 90’s, you probably remember this.

Back to our topic. So what is the argument of the book, in a nutshell? From page 103:
“… the confession that Christ ‘descended to the dead’ can be summarized like this:

Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the righteous dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed the victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation.”

Elsewhere, he expands on this a bit and claims that:
“Christ ‘releases’ the OT saints, by which we mean simply that, rather than dwelling in Abraham’s bosom (or paradise) awaiting the Messiah, they now dwell in the presence of the risen Christ.”

One of the interesting aspects of this doctrine is the metaphysical discomfort it brings. It’s one thing to believe in a far-away heavenly realm. But it smacks of an embarrassing medieval credulity to say that Jesus descended through the earth to the realm of the dead, wherever that is. This embarrassment is in part due to the stranglehold that modernity has had on even faithful evangelical theology for the last hundred years or more. Such is the incredible power of the dominant materialistic assumptions that underpin our age. This is what I meant by metaphysical discomfort. This doctrine means agreeing more with the ancient Greeks and Israelites about the existence of Hades or Sheol than with the respectable materialist metaphysics of modernity.

But this so-called respectability is really a house of cards, a mirage, like the ethos of ‘cool’ that hung around certain people in high school. It’s not worth fighting for because it is built on a foundation of weaponized doubt and unbelief.

By and large I found this book compelling, fascinating, and edifying. This was especially true for the first three or four chapters, which form the heart of his biblical and historical work. I wish I could delve into these details more substantially, but I’ll leave you with this link where you can hear a 25-minute interview where the heart of the book’s teaching is really laid out.

In later chapters I sometimes found it a bit tedious, and I confess I even skipped a few footnotes. The author takes to time to interact with many academic journal articles and historical arguments related to this and it had a tendency to get a bit overly technical for a non-scholar such as myself. The book is clearly aimed at pastors and Bible college or seminary students. But the author won me back by always keeping an eye on the practical implications both personal and corporate of the truths he was dealing with.

The author states his hope at the very start of the book: “My goal… is simple: to recover the doctrine of the descent for evangelicals today.” I think he is successful in that regard. In most cases, evangelicals have no real argument against the doctrine except for the intuitive metaphysical discomfort that it brings. It’s not like there is some other firmly held belief that Jesus spent Holy Saturday playing Uno with Abraham. There is simply nothing there at all. We don’t have a theology of the descent; and we don’t know what to do with it. We usually just avoid it.

The book therefore serves to cure our ignorance historically, Biblically, and theologically. There are riches and truths to gain and grow from here that we ought not miss out on any longer. And as for that temptation to feel even a little bit embarrassed about believing such a thing? Let it go. I was embarrassed of my parents in High School, but it was I who was wrong. I had breathed that nauseous atmosphere too deeply and it had distorted my view of reality. Likewise, we’ve been living with a truncated and distorted materialistic worldview for far too long already.

The Reasons for Unbelief

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie (audiobook)

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” (You’ll see variations on this memorable quote by Blaise Pascal because it was originally written in French: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”)

This book is in some ways an in-depth historical exploration of that statement and the truth it contains. The author, historian Alec Ryrie, states explicitly that he seeks to counter the prevalent narrative that atheism and secular humanism arose from changes in philosophical reasoning and intellectual beliefs. Rather, he argues that two powerful emotional currents – anger and fear – animated unbelief for centuries before it ever emerged as a coherent set of beliefs. In order to make his point, Ryrie garners evidence from across multiple centuries and the whole of Europe (with a special emphasis on England).

The historical work seems sound to this layman. Ryrie has unearthed dozens of fascinating first-hand accounts. Whatever issues one might take with how Ryrie summarizes the meaning of all the material, I think it’s undeniable that he’s onto something really worthwhile here. There really does seem to be a powerful emotional current at work in so much unbelief both in the past and today.

I found myself wishing he would apply these insights more thoroughly to our own day. But this was not his stated goal so I cannot fault him for anything except failing to write precisely the book I would have preferred. He does however make some interesting comments in the concluding chapter which are worth repeating and reflecting on.

Ryrie argues that, since WW2, Adolf Hitler now functions as the universally agreed fixed moral point. It is now unthinkable to praise Hitler just like it used to be unthinkable to criticize Jesus in centuries past. This manifests itself in another interesting way also. In the 17th Century, the argument-ending slander was to call someone an “atheist,” and Ryrie made clear in previous chapters just how endlessly that insult was hurled from one group to another. Today the argument-ending tactic is to call someone a “Nazi.” Lastly, in terms of imagery, the most potent moral symbol in past centuries was the cross. Today it is the swastika.

I might wish it was different, but this argument strikes me as correct. Modernity and subjective moral reasoning have chipped away at all the shared moral points of reference and really there are not very many left, of which Hitler and Nazism seems to be the one that has the most purchase across the breadth of our society.

These reflections are especially timely for us Canadians as the Freedom Trucker Convoy in the first couple months of 2022 led to some significant political and cultural turmoil, including endless talk about swastikas and accusations of Nazi-sympathy. It is interesting to step back and see that, in a time of massive moral transformation (one might even say revolution), this is indeed the one fixed moral point. Whatever else we believe is right or wrong, everyone agrees that THAT is wrong. And all ends of the political spectrum seem unable to resist the temptation to weaponize that moral certainty to score political points in our troubled age.

Turning Up the Heat

The spirit of censorship is ascendant.

So it seems like a good time to revisit Fahrenheit 451.

I didn’t realize the first time I read it (in 2014) how much of a role the Bible plays in the story. In a book about burning books, the Book plays a prominent role. Of course, this being a 20th-century novel, the Bible is not treated as inerrant or infallible, but as something like a deep well of nourishment for our civilization and the human spirit, as a cornerstone, as something precious. This is true.

There is a loss of memory and the erasing of history. (This is one of the most recurring themes in all dystopian literature – shall we listen?). How interesting that the vast majority of the people in that society seem to be distracted by the constant presence and noise of technology and entertainment in the form of AI-powered screens that know their names and, I kid you not, wireless earbuds that have never-ending audio content. Here is an illustration of the fact that some time has to pass before one can truly say if a work is prescient. And in this regard at least, F-451 is spot on.

The effect of this technology is that people do not notice or appreciate the natural world. This is a curious fact and I’m not sure I understand the connection. Why would that kind of ubiquitous technology necessarily result in the inability or lack of interest in the material world? It is the protagonist’s new neighbour who awakens him to the beauty of nature, such as tasting the rain.

In one of the book’s most striking scenes, a house full of books is discovered and the firemen (including Montag, the protagonist) arrive and spray kerosene all over it as they prepare to burn it down. The woman in the house refuses to leave, and even strikes the match which sets the whole thing ablaze. And then in the silence of the ride back to the firehouse, this conversation takes place:

“Master Ridley,” said Montag, at last.

“What?” said Beatty.

“She said, ‘Master Ridley.’ She said some crazy thing when we came in the door. ‘Play the man,’ she said, ‘Master Ridley.’ Something, something, something.”

“‘We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out,'” said Beatty. Stoneman glanced over at the Captain [Beatty], as did Montag, startled. Beatty rubbed his chin.

“A man named Latimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy, on October 16, 1555.”

Fahrenheit 451, page 40.

Why would the author include this historical anecdote from the English reformation? Perhaps he saw something analogous to the spirit that animated those who murdered Latimer and Ridley starting to percolate in our own society. And perhaps he saw that the courage of Latimer would be needed before the end. Fear is contagious, but so is courage.

I happen to be writing this as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has just started one day ago. Soldiers and civilians are dying. Fathers are putting their families on buses or taking them to the border and then returning to fight. We have already heard the story of a young soldier sacrificing himself to detonate a bridge and hinder the advance of invading troops. Courage is on display in a way that it has not been for a long time. Moral clarity seems to be returning.

All this is whirling about in my mind along with words I heard from Archbishop Charles Chaput during an interview: If there is nothing in your life that you are willing to die for, then are you really living a good life?

At the same time, tectonic shifts are taking place in our societies that many of us are struggling to grapple with. Will things continue on as they have? Or are we at the turning of an age? It feels like history has started up again, and we are waking from a dream.

So we better know our principles and our convictions. And we better be willing to stand up for them come what may. Yes, we better be willing to die for them.

A Book Fit for Any Time

Some works translate well across time, while others don’t. It’s interesting to me that intellectual and polemical works tend to be more temporally bound than spiritual literature. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, the portions that deal with the workings of the human heart can be read profitably by any Christian, while the portions dealing with the Manichean heresies are less accessible.

Some works are simply ageless; perennially helpful. I consider this book, Backslider, by Andrew Fuller, to be such a work. This short book is wholesome spiritual food for any Christian in any age.

I believe that the editing and reprinting of classic spiritual works from centuries past is one of the most beneficial things modern publishers can do. Ressourcement is one of the great needs of the church; to feed upon nutritious truth that has stood the test of time. This short handsome volume put out by H&E Publishing (Hesed & Emet) is a great example of that. The formatting and editing helps the book to look and feel comfortably accessible for modern readers.

Oh that it and works like it would be plastered on the front page of the ChristianBook.com catalogs that I receive rather than the thin modern drivel that is usually there.

But enough slightly self-righteous moaning about the shortcomings of modern evangelical publishing and on to the content of the book. Backslider is a short book, or lengthy tract, written to counsel believers who have backslidden to some degree in their walk with God. And this means it is applicable to every believer at least once in a while. Fuller’s pastoral sensitivity is on display as he nimbly diagnoses the various causes and sources of backsliding, warns the wanderer not to presume upon any later opportunity for repentance, and sets forth the ever-merciful heart of God which welcomes any and all who repent and turn to Him by faith in Christ.

Fuller identifies five categories of backsliding: 1. Relinquishing Evangelical Doctrine (abandoning orthodox beliefs); 2. Falling into Gross Immorality (moral failure); 3. The Love of the World; 4. Conformity to the World; and 5. Political Disputes.

I’ll admit I didn’t expect #5 (Political Disputes), but it contained many a timely word for us today. Listen to this insightful comment on how revolutionary movements lead Christians astray:

The flattering objects held out by revolutionists were so congenial with the wishes of humanity, and their pretenses to disinterested philanthropy so fair, that many religious people for a time, forgot their own principles. While gazing on the splendid spectacle, it did not occur to them that the wicked, whatever name they assumed, would do wickedly.

Backslider, page 19.

He concludes in this way concerning inordinate interest in politics: “It is not only contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, but tends in its own nature to eat up true religion.” That is a very good and timely word for us today.

To highlight just one example of Fuller’s characteristic careful thinking and balance, consider this comment, still on the topic of politics: “Nor does the danger belong exclusively to one side. We may sin by an adherence to the measures of a government, as well as by an opposition to them.”

I promise I am trying to get to the rest of the book, but, perhaps because of the particularly tumultuous politics of the last few years, or because I stand in need of it, this last paragraph on the danger of politics seems too good to pass by:

By standing aloof from all parties and approving themselves the friends of government and good order, by whom so ever administered, Christians would acquire a dignity of character worthy of their profession. They would be respected by all, and possess greater opportunities for doing good. By a contrary conduct, they render one part of the community their enemies and the other, I fear, would derive but little spiritual advantage from being their friends.

Backslider, page 25.

Fuller goes on to examine the various symptoms that accompany backsliding, such as a departure from our first love, and a self-justifying spirit. The next chapter explores the effects of such a state. How the ‘symptoms’ differ precisely from the ‘effects’, I am not entirely sure, but folks in those days sure did love to draw tiny distinctions and make lists, so we must not be too bothered by it. On page 48 I came across a gem of a quote which captures pithily what has been a pillar in my understanding of human sin since early in my Christian life: “There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.”

That is worth reading again.

There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.

The last chapter discusses the ‘Means of Recovery’. I conclude this review with a quote from that chapter which jumped out at me for its resonance with the singular theme of John Piper’s ministry, and more importantly, with the teaching of Scripture.

Sin is not to be opposed so much directly as indirectly; not by mere resistance, but by opposing other principles to it which shall overcome it. It is not by contending with the fire, especially with combustible materials about us, that we should be able to quench it, but by dealing plentifully with the opposite element. The pleasures of sense will not be effectually subdued by foregoing all enjoyment but by drinking deeply of other pleasures, the relish of which will deaden the heart to what is opposite.

Backslider, page 80.

In other words, fight the pleasures of sin with the pleasures of God. By delighting in God, our hearts lose their taste for the small paltry pleasures that sin promises but never delivers.

I trust that by now you can see this book is worthy of reading and re-reading. I hope it finds its way into many more hands and blesses, challenges, and encourages many more hearts like it did mine.

Ivan Ilych is Alive

One of the purposes of this blog is to help people access the world of literature. (You can pronounce it the boring way, or you can do it properly, the way Michael Caine would – “litshratshurr“). I do this through book reviews and short reflections on things that I’m reading. Not only does this help me process what I’m reading, it also hopefully gives others a taste of the benefit from engaging with this material, which often feels too distant and intimidating. One of the things that compelled me to make the effort to read “the classics” was hearing how they had such an impact on others, and observing others appreciate them.

Recently I was listening to Karen Swallor Prior in discussion with Matthew Barrett on the Credo Podcast. One of the things that came up was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and that discussion prompted me to re-read it. One of the nice things about this story is that it is so short. Everyone has heard of Tolstoy, but most people do not have the courage to take on some of his better-known novels such as War and Peace (1400 pages) or Anna Karenina (950 pages).

If you would like to read it, you can download it here (I’m not sure about the quality of the translation – but hey! it’s free). Note that the following reflection contains spoilers if you haven’t read the story yet.

I am struck by the power of words, ideas, and story. In only 50 pages or so, Tolstoy harnesses that power and delivers to the reader a profound encounter with truth. One of the first things that strikes me in the story is the brutal honesty of the internal dialogue. Tolstoy gets inside the mind and around the various self-deceptions we employ and reveals what is truly there in all of its ugliness. It is done in a matter-of-fact way:

Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.

The story reveals how hard it is to come to believe something that you really don’t want to believe, something that has profound and far-reaching implications for the verdict of how you lived your life. We oppose these kinds of paradigm-shifts in many areas of our lives because re-evaluation is costly. We are invested in our way of seeing things. Within the story this is seen in everybody’s stubborn denial of their own mortality (save for the peasant Gerasim), and especially in Ivan’s wrestling with whether he has lived a good life. There were many layers to peel away before he could get to the honest core of this question. It is only at the end of a long struggle that he breaks through his own defenses to the truth:

… the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

… he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.

There is another dimension to this. Just like Ivan has been living in a cocoon of self-deception, the same is true for his colleagues and his family in their own ways. As mentioned above, they are all in denial about their own inevitable death. But without the harsh and inescapable pain to shock them into a sober honesty, we do not see these characters make any progress towards escaping that deception.

At the very end, in the last two or three hours of Ivan’s life, he experiences a conversion and rebirth. He breaks through into light. Tolstoy does not name Christ, but rather describes the change of heart and makes an oblique reference to God:

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

…He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

… He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.


In place of death there was light.


“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

Modern secular readers are probably tempted to view this as a moral reformation or a kind of epiphany, but Tolstoy clearly has something deeper in mind. It is quite common in literature for the conversion of characters to be described in ways that hint at Christ but do not explicitly name him. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. C.S. Lewis discusses it somewhere, commenting on the habit of medieval Christians to ‘hide’ Christ in pagan themes and deities in their fiction, something he does in his writing as well.

Nevertheless, the Christian reader can recognize many (though not all) of the elements of true conversion: conviction of sin, repentance for sin, and a changed heart with new desires. Is this fictional portrayal sufficient to point others towards faith in Christ for their salvation? No. But what good fiction (and good art generally) does is faithfully represent some part of reality, it serves as a signpost on the good road. In doing so it adds one more voice to that choir made up of countless voices, singing not the same note but a great and variegated harmony.

A Voice from the Wilderness

I have been enjoying reading some of the writings of Paul Kingsnorth recently. He is a British author of some repute and has a very interesting background. Now a Christian in the Orthodox church, he was not so long ago a radical environmentalist and practicing Wiccan. I first encountered him in an interview he did with Jonathan Pageau, who is another interesting character. Kingsnorth has written for First Things here, where he details his conversion and gives the reader a taste of his style and substance. He is a gifted writer.

Paul Kingsnorth

I have a weakness for good writing, even when I find myself disagreeing with some or much of what is written. Thus I find myself reading and returning to a broad range of writers – but this I think ends up being a good thing. I am not so rootless in my own tradition that I end up being tossed to and fro, but I love to get inside the minds of those who think differently than me, or who see the world from another vantage point. Good writers are those who can express these thoughts, ideas, and insights with the most clarity and beauty. I am the better for this exposure, and the best of those insights can always be incorporated into my own thinking.

On his Substack, The Abbey of Misrule, Kingsnorth has been exploring the role of technology in modern society in a series of reflections titled Divining the Machine. It is worth reading. I’d like to draw a link between something he explores in Part Five of the series and a theme one finds throughout the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: the relationship between magic and science.

First, Lewis, from his (increasingly?) prescient and relevant The Abolition of Man:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking.

First Edition of The Abolition of Man

We see a fictional representation of this dynamic in Tolkiens’ The Two Towers, where the wizard Saruman constructs an industrial hellhole – or should we say a dark Satanic Mill – in and around Isengard. The key line is placed in the mouth of Treebeard, who says of Saruman:

“He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

That a corrupted wizard would be the one to lead in mechanization is telling. By itself it may mean nothing, but in context of Tolkien’s other writings on the subject, and those of his friend Lewis, we see that he is making a profound point. Tolkien explains this in a letter to a friend in 1951, where he describes the almost-finished Lord of the Rings as having to do, amongst other things, with The Machine:

By the [Machine] I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised. . . . The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.

I found this quote in an article by Alan Jacobs in The Atlantic

Fascinating. We do Lewis and Tolkien a great injustice when we make it seem that they were simply good writers of compelling fiction. The more one digs into their thought, the more one finds a depth of learning and reflection that informs a stunningly broad range of topics. I will now quote a somewhat lengthy section of Paul Kingsnorth’s piece (but if Rod Dreher is allowed to do it, then so am I).

The scientific worldview is leading us rapidly towards the total remaking of both humanity and non-human nature in the image of the (post) modern self. Science built the Machine. Now the Machine will rebuild the world, and us with it. As Sherrard has it:

There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanised as our own, and this is that we can exist in it only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment.

Sherrard presents science as a modern enterprise built on a Christian rootstock that grew out of shape. He is not the only one to make this case, but as I was reading his book, another thought occurred to me; a thought that took me back to the time, not so long ago, when I used to practice magic.

When I say ‘magic’ I don’t mean fairground tricks; I mean the workings of what is sometimes called the Western Mystery Tradition, or, if we want to be spookier about it, the occult. The meaning of the word ‘occult’ is actually less sinister than it has been made to sound: occulted simply means hidden. A few years back, before I became, to my own surprise, an Orthodox Christian, I was a practicioner of Wicca, a nature religion founded by the eccentric Englishman Gerald Gardner back in the 1950s. Wicca is a form of modern ‘witchcraft’, though everyone involved will have a different explanation of what that word means. Being a modern path, Wicca is mostly undefined and eclectic. At its (usually American) extreme, you can basically make it up as you go along, which is why it has proved so appealing to millennial teenagers.

The Wicca I practiced was the more traditional variety: I was a member of a coven, whose workings and details were secret and into which you had to be initiated. The people in the coven were not dastardly devil-worshippers; they were basically good-hearted, interesting people looking for meaning in a society which offered none outside the marketplace. Wiccan covens do all sorts of things, but at the heart of the enterprise is the practice of magic: which, if you’re feeling mysterious or pretentious, you can spell magick.

There are all kinds of magick available to the practicing mage. There’s sympathetic magic, Hermetic magic, herbal magic, elemental magic, High (or ceremonial) magic, folk magic (or ‘cunning craft’), natural magic, Enochian magic (fun with secret Angelic languages) and – for the ultimate rush – Goetic magic, which involves the summoning of spirits to do your will. Faust, who did his famous deal with the devil, was practicing Goetia. At the heart of the practice is the notion that the spirits of the otherworld are ours to command. If we are knowledgeable, smart and well-trained enough, we can summon up the very forces of nature itself, and ‘bind’ them to our will.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going here. The history of magic in the West is a long one, but one thing it teaches is that what we call ‘magic’ and what we call ‘science’ are intertwined. Many of the pioneers of science we know today were also magicians of one sort or another. Bacon was said to be a Freemason and an alchemist. Isaac Newton wrote far more about alchemy than he did about physics, and many of the august founders of England’s Royal Society, still one of its foremost scientific institutions, were alchemists or mages. In the early modern period, today’s distinction between ‘science’ (real, good, objective) and ‘magic’ (fantastical, bad, superstitious) did not really exist. Both were branches of the same effort: to understand the mysterious forces of the universe, and ultimately to control them.

Here is Francis Bacon’s definition of science:

“The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

And here is the occultist Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic:

The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.”

These could be swapped around without anybody really noticing. The thread that links them together is control. Both the scientific enterprise, and the magical quest which it was part of, spring from the same desire: to know the world, and to bend it to our will. Will, in both cases, is the key word. When Aleister Crowley, pioneering occultist, rampant self-publicist and self-described ‘Great Beast’, created his own occult religion, Thelema, in the early 20th century, he gave it its own famous commandment: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Thelema wilted on the vine, but we could say that Crowley’s dictum lived on as the foundational basis of what our culture has become.

At this point, any scientists reading will be protesting. No, no! they might cry; that’s not what we do at all! We’re driven only by curiosity, by wonder, by a desire to understand the world! Maybe. But science, always and everywhere, is handmaiden to technology, and technology is, in this time, never innocent. Einstein bombed Hiroshima just as surely as the pilots of the Enola Gay, and he knew it.

My point is not that all magical workings, or all scientific experiments, are bad, let alone the people who carry them out. A magician might want to perform a working aimed at bringing good luck to a friend. A scientist may be searching for a cure for cancer. But the wider project of both carries hidden within it a telos: a direction of travel. It is the direction of the Machine that now envelops us, and the new world it is building.

Read the whole thing.

Clearly there is a lot of overlap here and, I think, something profound we need to grasp. And given our – all of us – embeddedness in the Machine, something to grapple with personally. Are we giving ourselves over to the human desire for control? Is such control always bad? I wish that Kingsnorth dealt with the tension and distinction between the desire for control and the calling we have to exercise dominion over the natural world. I haven’t finished his series yet, so maybe I will find it addressed elsewhere.

One thing is for sure, the signals are coming increasingly loudly and clearly from every conceivable source that our relationship to technology is deeply unhealthy. We need thinkers and resources to help us navigate this with wisdom we do not yet possess. I commend to you the artful writing of Paul Kingsnorth, a voice in the wilderness, to stimulate your thinking in this important endeavor.

Chronological Snobbery – Part 2

In the first post on the topic of chronological snobbery we looked at what C.S. Lewis meant by the phrase and we considered two reasons for its particular prevalence in our own day. In this post I would like to explore related ideas from a thinker that has been helpful to me: René Girard.

Girard was a profound and original thinker whose work ranges over many disciplines. I am familiar with only a few small slices of that work, but some of those slices have been eye-opening. Consider his reflections on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:29-30.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 

Girard focuses in on the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees as they built tombs and monuments for prophets who were harassed, persecuted, and killed by their forefathers: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” He considers this as a kind of spirit, an attitude of the heart that any of us can adopt.

In the context of his broader theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism, he describes this impulse as a mob of the living scapegoating the dead. For our purposes, we can simply say it is the attitude whereby one generation or group condemns those who came before them, exonerating themselves.

Girard points out one historical example of this in the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism, the kind that blames the Jews for killing Jesus. It says “if we, who are the spiritual children of Abraham, had been there when Jesus was crucified, we would not have joined the actual children of Abraham in condemning and killing Jesus. We are better than them. We alone would have resisted the mob. We would have stood by him when all had deserted him. We would have been willing to be killed with him rather than deny him.”

When one lays out what such an attitude really claims, as I did above, it starts to be seen for what it is. But usually the claim to superiority is not parsed and exposed for what it is. A claim like that is really more about the person making it than about the people he or she is supposedly superior to. At bottom, such statements are saying something like: “If everyone was as innocent as I am the world would be better. Therefore they must not be innocent like me, because someone has to be responsible for all this mess.”

Ask any high school class if they think they would have stood up against the Nazis if they had lived in Germany leading up to and during WW2. Most will say they would have resisted, which is to claim that if Germany had been populated with 21st-century North American teenagers instead of Weimar-era Germans, Hitler would not have done what he did. More pointedly, it is to claim that each of those students raising their hands, students who allow their wardrobes, attitudes, mannerisms, and vocabulary to be dictated by the passing fads and peer pressures of their social peers, yes these paragons of strict moral virtue, would have had the backbone to stand against what was an immense amount of social pressure and very real threats to their reputations, social standing, finances, and very lives.

In Romans 2:1, the apostle Paul writes “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We live in a time when forces all around us seem to be working hard to whip up offense, outrage, and judgment towards the other. But not all judgment is the same. Some judgment is warranted and needed, but a lot of it is spiritually dangerous.

What do I mean by spiritually dangerous? Well, I mean that it is dependent on sin and it fosters sin. To judge others for what I am guilty of is to reinforce my own blindness to that sin, thereby distancing myself further from the truth about myself that might lead me to repentance and freedom. It is much harder to admit to a sin that I have clearly – and perhaps publicly – judged another for. I am less able to see it in myself when I get a kick out of pointing it out in others.

So this leaves the one judging further from the grace of humility, further from the grace of gospel sanity, further from the grace of honesty about my sin. These are graces that flow from Christ and to Christ.

When one takes this principle and applies it, what happens? It becomes very difficult to stand in judgment over our historical predecessors, because we now see that to do so is to fall into a very dangerous spiritual trap. It is the trap of saying that we are better and we would not have done what they did.

But does this rule out any and all criticism of the past? Quite the opposite: It allows for the kind of criticism that is good for us, rather than a danger. When I recognize that in the garden of my own soul grows the same root that in others bore such heinous fruit, it motivates me to weed it out. When I recognize that there is more than a little family resemblance between their sin and my own – if not in the fruit, then in the root – this encourages humility.

Indeed the effect is precisely the opposite of what self-righteous criticism produces, namely a deepening blindness with regard to my own expressions of whatever fault I am pointing out in others married to a swelling pride at being found so much superior.

The best writers of history intuitively (or perhaps intentionally) treat their subjects with this kind of moral sensitivity. They do not fall into moral relativism, which may be an enjoyable intellectual hobby for rich and comfortable Westerners, but is insufferable in the face of actual evil. Neither do they unleash a full one-dimensional moral tirade against historical villains, painting them as uniformly evil characters. Rather they preserve the humanity of both heroes and villains, allowing for nuance and being honest about the shortcomings of the heroes as well as the positive qualities of the villains, all while writing with a sense of moral clarity. This kind of history proves informative and beneficial to the reader. It is humbling, sobering, inspiring.

Moving from history to the contemporary, we can apply this idea to so many current cultural issues. For example, I see a lot of folks these days eager to tear down statues of people who, terribly flawed and implicated in evil as they may have been, are nevertheless in many ways their betters. Leaving aside the specific arguments for or against any particular monument, or even for the taking down of statues in general, I just want to point out that this kind of fury, this kind of one-dimensional judgment of those in the past, is spiritually dangerous for all the reasons described above.

To take an example from the opposite side of the culture wars, we have the phenomenon of so many conservative religious leaders who were so thundering in their denouncing of sexual immorality being revealed to be sexually immoral themselves. Zacharias, Falwell, Hybels, and the list goes on and on. We all know such failures do not happen overnight. So we have someone publicly denouncing a sin in others that they are not just struggling against but positively nurturing in their own hearts.

This can happen on the political left as much as on the right, both inside and outside the church. But from my perspective, which is admittedly conservative, it does seem to be a particularly fashionable attitude among progressives on the left these days. If you think I’m wrong about that, let me know why in the comments.

Peter Nimble

There is lots to love about this book. A great title, a great first line, and moments of brilliance throughout. The story moves at a fine clip and carries the reader along to an exciting finish. My kids read this book as part of their schooling and they adored it, so I wanted to read it also. I can see why they were taken with it! It certainly leaves the reader wondering what will happen next at each chapters’ end. And while I enjoyed reading this book, I wanted to enjoy it more. There were a few hindrances and shortcomings that impeded that enjoyment. As a debut novel, I say bravo and well done! If I were to write a first novel this good, I’d be a happy man indeed. And so I offer some thoughts – in a spirit of constructive criticism – on what kept this book from being, to my mind, on par with the classics.

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First, while the breadth and playfulness of a fertile imagination is on display throughout the book, there is a certain lack of cohesion and gravitational center to that imagination. The worlds, characters, landscapes, buildings, and monsters are all fantastical and creative, but it felt like there was something lacking that would draw them all into a narrative that fit together well. This unpredictability can give the reader a kind of whiplash as she tries to keep pace with the story. A few unexpected twists and turns makes a story interesting; but constant unexpected turns undermines the stability of the narrative and gives it a chaotic feel.

Second, and related to the first point, is the issue of world-building. This is the bread and butter of all fantasy-fiction. The author must build a world that is believable. But believable does not mean it must conform to our world. As Tolkien said, the key is that world must be internally consistent – what happens there must make sense within the framework of that world. This is the secret ingredient that explains why some fantasy worlds feel real, like Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Aerwiar, and others don’t. The author here shows real promise in the world that he creates, and yet fails to fully convince the reader that this place is so real in his own mind that all this could really take place.

Third and last, stories are irreducibly moral. The best stories are deeply moral, for it is the moral instinct in myself as a reader that makes me care deeply about the characters. On this point, once again, the author does a good job with some characters but does not quite pull off a complete victory. We see some development in Peter Nimble, but not a whole lot. His moral character remains quite static, while his self-understanding grows as he discovers his true identity and steps into the role he has been destined for. Sir Tode seems to me to be more promising, for we find out he is largely a fraud and has not truly earned his knighthood. Yet this assumed persona of a brave knight seems to draw out his courage and moral fibre and self-sacrifice. By the end of the book, despite the dubious origins of his knighthood, he has grown into the true picture of knighthood. This seems to exemplify something that C.S. Lewis pointed out: when growing in virtue, we often start by behaving as if we were more virtuous than we really are, which can feel like a kind of pretending or false persona. But if persevered in, this is often the route by which we do really become virtuous.

The best stories have a moral depth that speaks deeply to the reader about right, wrong, goodness and evil. While the book had a pretty clear moral compass (unlike the nihilistic morally-relativistic nonsense that sometimes gets passed off as modern fiction these days), it would have been improved, and would leave a deeper impression on the reader, if the characters’ moral trajectory had been explored more deeply.

All in all, a very fine book. I look forward to reading some more of Auxier’s fiction and seeing how he has grown as an author over the years.

Reflections on William Lobdell’s ‘Losing My Religion’

Introduction

This interesting and well-written book gives believers and unbelievers alike an opportunity to reflect. It chronicles the spiritual journey of William Lobdell. He went from unbeliever, to evangelical, to Catholic, then worked as a religion reporter for a major US newspaper covering the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal among other things, and subsequently lost his belief in God. As a Christian of the reformed and evangelical stripe, I found Lobdell’s journey fascinating, sad, and instructive. Let me take each of those in turn.

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Fascinating

Lobdell is an experienced writer and that comes through on every page. As one who has struggled through many a book full of good ideas and poor writing, this was a nice surprise.

I did not expect Lobdell’s move from the shallow evangelicalism of his conversion and early Christian experience to the Catholic Church, but it does make sense in hindsight. Nothing seems to drive Protestants to Rome like the rootlessness of contemporary evangelicalism, which so often puts emotion and experience in the driver’s seat, despite the fact that emotion is a terrible driver and experience an even worse navigator. With them in control, there’s no telling where you might end up: Rome or somewhere worse. I will return to the roles of emotion and experience in the last section.

The quality of Lobdell’s storytelling comes through in the middle section of the book when he really starts to dig into the underbelly of the corruption of institutional religion. This made for riveting and stomach-turning reading. The two main targets of his investigative reporting are the Catholic Church and the Prosperity Gospel industrial complex. Now while I have a measure of appreciation for the Catholic Church, despite fundamental and important differences, I have no appreciation at all for the prosperity gospel and its preachers, those misery-sowing peddlers of a false and damning gospel. Ahem. Where was I? Oh right.

Sad

This brings us to the book’s sadness. Lobdell has his heart and soul crushed by the steady willful evil of a cold church bureaucracy and the unfathomable suffering of many innocent, vulnerable people. I felt the anger welling up as I read the stories of these atrocities; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to sit with these victims and hear their stories. I don’t know how anyone can handle that emotionally. So I have a lot of compassion for how hard this would have been.

What is also sad is how theologically unprepared he was to grapple with these realities. It seems, from a distance, that the kind of Christianity Lobdell was discipled into was very acclimated to the comfortable affluent Southern California world in which he moved. This may the norm, but it does leave one totally unprepared to relate to the majority of Christians in the world today, not to mention the majority of Christians throughout the ages, who have and who are suffering in all kinds of ways. Oh, and the Bible, which in many ways is a pretty brutal book.

Instructive

From very early in his journey, Lobdell expressed doubts about the character of God as revealed in Scripture. However, he never seems to doubt the certitude of the moral assumptions that give rise to his doubts and questions. There is a lot of sentimentality there. The justice and judgment of God, which the author found so hard to accept, are the very things that would have anchored him in the face of such unimaginable evil as he encountered. Theologian Miroslav Volf, who hails from the Balkans and has seen more than his share of human evil, is right that without a God of judgment, the cycle of violence goes on and on, because only earthly justice is left. Likewise the sentimentalist is utterly unequipped to face the depth of evil humans are capable of. The imprecatory Psalms are an embarrassment to the sentimentalist, but they are a lifeline to the victim or troubled bystander of injustice and evil.

To return to my previous point, the assumption that emotion and experience are fundamental arbiters of truth is never questioned: ‘If I experience something, then my interpretation of that experience is true.’ Near the end of the book, he even says something about “his truth.” Oprah couldn’t have said it better – and it has all the objective solidity of an overcooked spaghetti noodle.

These are deeply modern (even post-modern) assumptions, shaped by the prevailing philosophy of our time and culture. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor famously calls ours a Secular Age, in contrast to previous ages. Where once it was well-nigh impossible not to believe in God, given the available explanatory frameworks, now we are 200 years downstream from the enlightenment and it is, culturally speaking, pretty well impossible to believe in God. Unless one is able to zoom out a bit and see these things as the passing fancies that they are, it can be extremely disorienting and even destructive to one’s faith, as in Lobdell’s case.

In the last portion of the book, the author makes some attempts to voice his doubts and see if anyone can give him satisfactory answers. The questions and problems he raises however contain deeply embedded assumptions that again are never questioned. He decides to weigh the truthfulness of Christianity in part by measuring the moral quality of those who identify as Christians. In America. I almost laughed out loud.

This approach might work in Afghanistan or in China, where there are no massive cultural incentives to identify as Christian. But in America, even twenty years ago, Christianity was such a cultural expectation that these studies are basically useless. The shortcomings of these famous Barna studies were known even at the time, although perhaps not widely enough.

Consider what has happened since: the fastest growing religious identification is the “nones,” as in, religious affiliation: none. The ‘mushy middle’ of cultural Christianity, which was made up of mainline denominations and weak evangelicalism, basically hollow and doctrinally and morally indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, is quickly evaporating. What we are left with increasingly is a hard secularism on one side and a committed convictional Christianity on the other. It is even more like this in countries where secularism is more advanced, such as Canada where I live. Not too many people left here still claiming to be Christians if they aren’t personally committed to Christ. More recent and better-designed studies measuring the moral behaviour of believers has yielded different results, but I would still argue that this is a pretty terrible way to go about deciding if something is true.

Regarding the nature of prayer and of God’s providence, Lobdell again makes an assumption which renders the question essentially impossible. He assumes that the pattern of answered prayer and the observable fortunes and sufferings of people’s lives should immediately reveal to any observer the validity of God’s existence by vindicating his claim to love his people. In fact he seems to demand that this be the case. It’s difficult to know where to begin with an assumption like this, other than to say it is utterly foreign to the whole thrust of the New Testament, but utterly consistent with a very unreflective North American way of thinking.

His friend John, a Presbyterian pastor, hits the nail on the head with this comment on page 239:

“The fact is that [God] has not chosen to reveal everything to us. I can whine and complain that He hasn’t, demanding that God make it possible for me to understand everything. But when I do that, I’m getting pretty close to self-worship, lifting myself to the position of God, or perhaps even to a position superior to God, demanding that God function on my ground rules instead of me, humbly in worship, functioning on His.”

And that more or less describes what is going on in this book. In the end, Lobdell opts for a kind of unbelief that happily keeps all the moral and ethical capital of a Christian worldview while rejecting the Source of that morality and ethic. And since it can take a couple of generations for those fumes to dissipate, it’s quite possible he will live on borrowing happily and thinking all is well. His is a very Christian kind of atheism.

I am sure that many unbelievers and questioning believers will take encouragement from this book. It is a very human thing to find comfort in companionship. As a believer, I think it is a clarifying and revealing tale for anyone concerned with the state of Christian discipleship.

Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 1

I’ll try and post a few paragraphs this week from Lovelace’s chapter “Renewal of the Local Congregation” in Dynamics of Spiritual Life. This is a major book for me, and I’ll be drawing from it a lot. I am planning on writing a thesis paper for my undergraduate theology degree on the fundamental principles that he puts forth in this book.

In this section he is outlining the goal of seeing congregations revitalized by God, but first sets out to paint a picture of the typical congregation. This was written around 1979, but it might as well have been written last year.

In most cases what [pastors] confront is a style of living very unlike the spiritually vibrant mission station described at the end of Acts 2. The “ultimate concern” of most church members is not the worship and service of Christ in evangelistic mission and social compassion, but rather survival and success in their secular vocation. The church is a spoke on the wheel of life connected to the secular hub. It is a departmental subconcern, not the organizing center of all other concerns. Church members who have been conditioned all their lives to devote themselves to building their own kingdom and whose flesh naturally gravitates in that direction anyway find it hard to invest much energy in the kingdom of God. They go to church once or twice a week and punch the clock, so to speak, fulfilling their ‘church obligation’ by sitting passively and listening critically or approvingly to the pastor teaching.

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life