Why Hollywood Can’t Pull Off Goodness (According to C.S. Lewis)

I’m no movie critic – not even close. I don’t seem to have whatever artistic antennae are required to appreciate the subtleties of the cinematic medium. Nevertheless, like most people, I do have eyes in my head and do enjoy a good movie. And it happens to be a fact that every movie works from a script – a story with characters and dialogue. So the basis for every movie is the written word, while it cannot be said that every book is based on a movie. (Woe to the book that is based on a movie: Thou art a fraud.) My point is that the same dynamics of moral imagination are at play in a movie as in a novel or any other creative work of fiction. And this is where the following quote by C.S. Lewis collided in my mind with a simple observation I’ve made about many of the movies and TV shows made in recent decades, which I’ll get to in a moment.

It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago [the scheming antagonist from Shakespeare’s play Othello], the Becky Sharp [the morally vile protagonist from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair], within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. … To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.

C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Chapter 13. Emphasis mine.

Now since I’ve already dipped into the mode of the woe-throwing Old Testament prophet, I’ll allow myself one more: Woe to the one who looks to Hollywood for moral clarity. And all the people said Amen. But even without looking to movies for moral clarity, it remains a fact that so much of what is compelling about a movie is the moral fabric of the main characters, both good and evil. I am limiting myself here to those movies which are a essentially a contest between moral opposites: crime dramas, thrillers, action movies, or the never-ending series of original or rebooted or off-shoot superhero movies. The simple observation I am making about such movies and shows is that the good characters are becoming more troubled and morally compromised. It is so very rare to see a compelling protagonist that is good. The anti-hero is the hero for our age; the anti-hero is the only kind of hero we can believe in.

The above quote by Lewis is commenting on the scholarly consensus that Milton’s Satan (in Paradise Lost) is more compelling as a character than any other in the story. Lewis then lays out a morally insightful explanation for why that is necessarily the case in fallen humanity’s literature. Another example of this principle is found in the fact that Dante’s Inferno is by far and away more popular and compelling to the typical reader than either Purgatorio or Paradisio.

I used to think that an author’s characters had no vital connection to them – that an imagination could dream up moral monsters and virtuous heroes without it being a reflection of itself. But this is not true. As Lewis says, “It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists [and screenwriters] make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.” Indeed, we are infected with moral cynicism. We look back on the virtuous heroes of past literature and we groan at the naivety of such caricatures. But this reaction reveals far more about our modern moral weakness than it does about anything else. And our modern writers cannot conceive of a truly virtuous person because our culture has jettisoned objective morality and the priority of character formation.

Adam and Eve and the obedient angels may not have been Milton’s best characters, but I dare say he was able to make them far more compelling than our typical cadre of authors and screenwriters could today. Even when they attempt to treat subjects of similar greatness, it seems they cannot avoid falling into caricatures either of rigid moralists and unhappily repressed religious people on the one hand, or vile hypocrites who are only pretending to be good on the other.

Small wonder then that the heroes we see onscreen, whatever technical mastery and skill they may have, are hardly ever compelling examples of deep moral goodness: Iron Man and the whole Marvel cast, John Wick, Deadpool, and so on. There are of course blessed exceptions to this rule, such as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LotR Trilogy and Franz & Fani from Terrence Malick’s recent movie A Hidden Life. It takes real effort to pull off these characters well and avoid portraying a plastic pseudo-goodness that comes across more as naivety than virtue. One common element between them is suffering. Perhaps goodness untested by suffering and evil is never very compelling. But I am straying from my main point, which is that we do learn all too much about the storytellers of our time by the manifestations of goodness that they are able to imagine and conjure for us.

Simply put, we do not have deep and compelling moral goodness manifested in our entertainment because a writer’s imagination is constrained by his or her own moral character and by and large we have forgotten (or rejected) the possibility and priority of conforming ourselves to an objective standard of virtue.

I mean, have you ever seen Caillou? That kid’s a brat.

“Weak point, sir. I’m from Canada, not Hollywood.”

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 Brilliant (Largely Unknown) Passage by C.S. Lewis

When someone asks me, as a friend did not long ago, who my favorite authors are, C.S. Lewis ranks near the very top. I know that really makes me stand out from the crowd. (I didn’t plan to be so boringly typical, okay?). Aside from his best-known works, I have really enjoyed reading the collections of essays, articles, and public addresses that one can find in various formats here and there.

Two of the most profound and prescient of Lewis’ books are The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. It has often been pointed out that what Lewis argues in the former he demonstrates with fiction in the latter. But I am a little thick, and I have often wished that Lewis had fleshed out his argument a little more in The Abolition of Man.

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

How happy I was then when I stumbled across the chapter from which the following selection is taken, for in it Lewis explores those very themes in very clear terms, and in a way that seems to me very applicable for our own day. The selection is part of an unpublished reply to a certain Professor J. B. S. Haldane who had written a criticism of That Hideous Strength. Haldane is described by Walter Hooper in the preface as “a theoretical biologist,” a “disillusioned Marxist,” and “violently anti-Christian.” Sounds like a great guy! I tracked down his criticism of Lewis on the interwebs, and for those interested, the ‘online Yoda of Lewis’ Brenton Dickieson (A Pilgrim in Narnia) has a helpful post on it as well.

Here is the nub of Haldane’s critique:

As a scientist I am particularly interested in his attitude to my profession. There is one decent scientist in the three books, a physicist who is murdered by the devil-worshippers before we have got to know him. The others have an ideology which ranges from a Kiplingesque contempt for “natives” to pure “national socialism,” with the devil substituted for the God whose purposes Hitler claimed to carry out. As a matter of fact, very few scientists of any note outside Germany and Italy have become Fascists. In France only one, the engineer Claude, did so, though the Catholic biologist Carrel came back from the U.S.A. to support the Vichy government. A very much larger fraction of the clerical, legal, and literary professions bowed the knee to Baal.

Weston is recognisable as a scientist; Frost and Wither, the devil-worshippers, are not. They talk like some of the less efficient of the Public Relations Officers who defend Big Business, and even Mr. Lewis did not dare to assign them to any particular branch of science. At a guess I should put them as psychologists who had early deserted the scientific aspect of psychology for its mythological developments.

Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell. This world is largely run by the Devil. “The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus,” and the best we can do is to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Revealed religion tells us how to do this. Any human attempts at a planned world are merely playing into the hands of the Devil.

So with that in mind, here is the passage by Lewis.

But if you must reduce the romance to a proposition, the proposition would be almost the converse of that which the Professor supposes: not ‘scientific planning will certainly lead to Hell’, but ‘Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning’ – as Hitler’s regime in fact did. Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy’. It may be true that any real salvation must equally, though by hypothesis truthfully, describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy’. All the more reason to look very carefully at anything which bears that label.

My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I ‘stand to lose by social change’. And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would be likewise easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion. I do not hope to make Professor Haldane agree with me. But I should like him at least understand why I think devil worship a real possibility.

[…]

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to any party program – whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence – the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.

[…]

Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organization will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the change is made, it is for me down by its modus operandi. The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety. The character in That Hideous Strength whom the Professor never mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won’t get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.

I must, of course, admit that the actual state of affairs may sometimes be so bad that a man is tempted to risk change even by revolutionary methods; to say that desperate diseases require desperate remedies and that necessity knows no law. But to yield to this temptation is, I think, fatal. It is under that pretext that every abomination enters. Hitler, the Machiavellian Prince, the Inquisition, the Witch Doctor, all claimed to be necessary. 

From this point of view is it possible that the professor could come to understand what I mean by devil worship, as a symbol? For me it is not merely a symbol. Its relation to the reality is more complicated, and it would not interest Professor Haldane. But it is at least partly symbolical and I will try to give the Professor such an account of my meaning as can be grasped without introducing the supernatural. I have to begin by correcting a rather curious misunderstanding. When we accuse people of devil worship we do not usually mean that they knowingly worship the devil. That, I agree, is a rare perversion. When a rationalist accuses certain Christians, say, the seventeenth-century Calvinists, of devil worship, he does not mean that they worshipped a being whom they regarded as the devil; he means that they worshipped as God a being whose character the rationalist thinks diabolical. It is clearly in that sense, and that sense only, that my Frost worship devils. He adores the ‘macrobes’ because they are beings stronger, and therefore to him ‘higher’, than men: worships them, in fact, on the same grounds on which my communist friend would have me favour the revolution. No man at present is (probably) doing what I represent Frost as doing: but he is the ideal point at which certain lines of tendency already observable will meet if produced.

The first of these tendencies is the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. The philosophical sources are probably in Rousseau and Hegel, but the general character of modern life with its huge impersonal organisations may be more potent than any philosophy. 

[…]

Secondly, we have the emergence of ‘the Party’ in the modern sense – the Fascists, Nazis, or Communists. What distinguishes this from the political parties of the nineteenth century is the belief of its members that they are not merely trying to carry out a programme, but are obeying an impersonal force: that Nature, or Evolution, or the Dialectic, or the Race, is carrying them on. This tends to be accompanied by two beliefs which cannot, so far as I can see, be reconciled in logic but which blend very easily on the emotional level: the belief that the process which the Party embodies is inevitable, and the belief that the forwarding of this process is the supreme duty and abrogates all ordinary moral laws. In this state of mind men can become devil-worshippers in the sense that they can now honour, as well as obey, their own vices. All men at times obey their vices: but it is when cruelty, envy, and lust of power appear as commands of a great super-personal force that they can be exercised with self-approval. The first symptom is in language. When to ‘kill’ becomes to ‘liquidate’ the process has begun. The pseudo-scientific word disinfects the thing of blood and tears, or pity and shame, and mercy itself can be regarded as a sort of untidiness.

[Here the essay goes on for a sentence or two and then is missing at least a page.]

C.S. Lewis, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” Of This and Other Worlds (London: William Collins & Sons, 1982), 104-109.

There’s a lot in those few paragraphs, but I will let you, the reader, take from it what you will.

The most striking quotes to me, here at the end (it’s the end, right?) of our Covid moment, are these:

The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned.

The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety.

I would not have agreed with that first quote until this my experience of this pandemic. Regarding the second quote, notice that he does not say such a committee is illegitimate or has no reason to exist. Rather he is pointing out the possibility that public safety can be used as a vehicle for illegitimate goals. To deny that is to be stupendously naïve.

Whether and to what degree that has been the case with all this, I think time will tell.

An Unexpected Reply

If you’re like me, you make negative evaluations and judgments about countless things throughout the regular flow of life without a second thought. This bread is too dry. This show is boring. That car is ugly. This song is stupid.

But how different would those comments be if the baker of that bread was listening? The director of the show? The designer of that car? The artist performing the song? Interesting that, for most of us, something about the presence of the person responsible for the thing causes us to be more guarded with our words. I exclude those rare people who have zero filter and will say the most offensive and blunt things to people without batting an eye. Kind of refreshing really, but I’m glad I’m not married to one. But come to think of it, a few of those scattered about is probably quite healthy for any community; politeness often comes at the expense of truth.

I had an experience recently that prompted this little observation. For many years now I have had the practice of writing something about every book I read or re-read. At times it is just a word or two, and other times it grows into a large review or reflection. So after receiving ‘The Everlasting People’ by Dr. Matthew Milliner for Christmas, I proceeded to read it a bit quickly and then jot down a few quick thoughts on goodreads.com. They were not particularly well-organized thoughts – I wanted to get them down while the content was still somewhat fresh in my mind.

Up it went and on with my life. Here is what I wrote:

What an interesting book. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I love Chesterton, and have read Everlasting Man at least two times. I was not familiar with Matthew Milliner, and I’m not sure how I came across this title, but I put it on my Christmas list and here we are.

I really appreciated the history, the art, the responses from other contributors, and the spirit of the book. I get what Milliner was trying to do, and I am very sympathetic to it. I was moved by many of the stories of what the First Nations people went through and the inexcusable betrayals they repeatedly suffered at the hands of so-called Christians. I was amazed to find that so many of them had embraced Jesus through the missionary activities of various groups. I would really love to learn more about how that happened and what exactly that looked like, and how those groups fared over time. The book touched on such things but not in depth.

I struggled at times to understand if the author saw any danger in syncretism. As a student of missiology, I was surprised to find zero discussion of this, nor of the concept of the different levels of contextualization. For readers like me, who are presumably culturally and theologically more conservative than the author, it would help the persuasiveness and plausibility of the book’s argument to make clear that at least some pagan practices were outside the bounds of what could reasonably be redeemed and repurposed to Christian ends.

Along similar lines, the adoption of phrases made popular by Marxist critical theories, such as “whiteness,” signals a certain political and cultural vision that instantly alienates a good portion of the population. Perhaps this is typical of Wheaton these days, I don’t know. I think the appeal of the book would be stronger without such loaded language.

And then something happened which I never expected: the author himself replied directly to my review! It had never entered my mind that the author might lay eyes upon my hastily written words, let alone take the time to respond. The feeling was something like “Oh! You’re here?!” Imagine standing in front of a painting in a museum for a minute and then shrugging and saying something like, “I don’t get really get it – seems too dark, and the colors aren’t right on that face.” And then getting a tap on the shoulder and receiving a personal reply from the artist herself.

Here is what Dr. Milliner wrote:

I wanted to take a brief moment to thank you Phil (if I may) for this thoughtful review. Allow me to say that I myself have concerns about syncretism as well, as do so many of the Indigenous Christians (past and present). But I have also found fear of syncretism sometimes to be a screen that keeps us from fully engaging. Hence my beginning with the ostensibly “syncretist” Byzantine church of Thessaloniki, but which is really Christian to the core. Is a typical New England church with classical white columns “syncretist” even if it used the vocabulary of pagan architecture? I hope not, so long as Jesus is proclaimed. So it is, I think, with Indigenous culture. As to the pagan practices outside the bounds, I hope you noticed not only my mention of full scale human sacrifice at Cahokia, but also the illustration of said hideous practice to drive home the point. Finally, regarding critical theory, I share some of your concerns. Hence my attempt to avoid it, and to use Indigenous myth instead (appealing not to Marx, but to the Mishepeshu!). So in short, I think we may be closer than you think. Sure, I use Whiteness as a concept, but I hope you sensed I used it differently than is commonly employed by also redeeming Whiteness at the end, by looking at my own (White!) ancestry and seeing the grace of God there to. I’m grateful for this medium so that I can offer this reply to your valid concerns. I hope this clarifies. Thank you for reading!

First of all, how cool is Goodreads that this kind of thing can even happen? Second of all, what a kind and gracious reply. I immediately felt embarrassed that I had not taken the time and effort to really understand the book. Here is what I replied:

Dr. Milliner, thank you for taking the time to read my review and engage with it so thoughtfully.

You make excellent points by pointing out parts of your book that do speak rather directly to my concerns, and although you were too gracious to say it, if I had read the book a bit more carefully I might have noticed that for myself. So to be honest I am a bit embarrassed that the author of a carefully written book read my not-very-carefully-written review. I know that if I had written a book such as this, I would hope for a little more from my readers (even if I dare not expect it!).

But you picked up on a certain posture of hesitancy which you dealt with gently and I think that warrants another more sympathetic reading of your book and a more thorough review that engages more substantially with it. So thanks again and stay tuned for my second swing. 

I have heard Albert Mohler refer to the reading of books as a kind of slow-motion conversation. I like that analogy. An author takes an immense amount of trouble to gather material, research, sketch out, and then make his or her argument on paper. Unlike a blog or any other digitized medium, the printed page has a tangible permanence and presence. The editors and typesetters have done their work. All has been proofread and the cover design is complete. The presses are heated, the ink flows, and the paper is marked. (Try to forget for a moment that the vast majority of our books are now printed in China.)

The process itself is quite romantic, even somewhat magical. For words themselves, if we can but see them again for the first time, are a kind of metaphysical mystery. Thoughts – themselves a mystery to those who study them and try to determine just what they are – incarnated into sounds and then into symbols and then frozen onto a page. I open a book and another person’s thoughts lay before me. When it is a page of verse, it is something more than thoughts.

So I take the reading of books seriously, because the writing of them is serious. And the strange experience of posting a hasty review and receiving a most unexpected reply has only deepened this conviction of mine. But it also sheds light on a phenomenon we have all observed: online discourse is generally much worse than discussion in real life. As the saying goes: don’t read the comments. And this is all the more lamentable when professing Christians give vent to speech that would rightly deserve a frosty silence and a rebuke at the dinner table.

We have far too easily divorced our online words from the stringent commands about our speech that we find all over the Scriptures. Something about the disembodied nature of the digital medium offers a kind of veil that blinds us to the spiritual significance of our words. And so the digital world is not only a far less human place because it is necessarily disembodied, but also because that disembodiment encourages us to dehumanize others as well.

A lil’ Ellul on Technology

We carry in our pockets little devices with incredible power. We do not really understand how they are made, how they connect to other devices, or how they affect us. And yet increasingly our lives are enmeshed with them. Like so many others, I struggle in my relationship with technology. I find impulses and compulsions at work in me in relation to social media, emails, and other aspects of connectedness that indicate, if nothing else, that this symbiotic relationship is tapping into aspects of my mind and heart that I do not fully control or understand.

While it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, we must nevertheless make the observation that our society is integrated with technology like none before. The fundamental nature of technology has not changed so much – a tool, device, or technique that allows you to exert influence and control over some aspect of the natural world – but the interconnectedness of those technologies and devices certainly has. And the reach they have into our lives has also deepened significantly. All of this begs for wisdom. We need wisdom and understanding if we are to think and act rightly. Thankfully we have a promise that such a request made of God is gladly met: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

We also have wise teachers to guide us in the particulars of this challenge, gifted men and women who have pondered these questions and written prophetically and insightfully. Among those often cited as authorities on the subject of technology is Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). In the rest of this post, I will share some thoughts on his book Perspectives on our Age, the only English book of his I could track down at the main Montreal public library. It is not one of his major works, but rather an adaptation of interviews he did on his life and work for a radio broadcast of the CBC program Ideas. Which is probably why so much of the book was biographical.

This was my first attempt to read this author that I have heard so much about. It was not quite what I expected. Nevertheless, it was thought-provoking and displayed that originality of thought for which he is famous. The first section was largely autobiographical.

I was surprised to find that Marx was a major influence on Ellul throughout his life. He eventually rejected the Communist cause due to his interactions with their groups, and what he saw as their departure from Marx’s thought. He speaks of “a revolutionary tendency in me.” He said it was Marx who “convinced me that people in the various historical situations they find themselves, have a revolutionary function in regard to their society.”

My jaw dropped however when I read his claim that “Marx was not opposed to the family. He himself started a family and was a good father who married off his daughters and so on.” This is patently false, and certainly hinders my ability to take at face value his evaluation of Marx. See Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals (which is valuable despite some lamentable shortcomings) for a rather more sombre view of Marx’s family life. It was not pretty. Ellul’s takeaway from all this however is a decision to side with those who are poor (in the sense of alienation), the ‘excluded’ such as the aged, the unfit, those at the fringes.

Ellul eventually rejected Marx’s atheism. He was disappointed however by the religious authorities that he turned to for answers to his questions, such as the local pastor. He embraced an intellectual attitude where he did not look to anyone to explain things to him but sought out solutions to problems and questions that he had. This would certainly encourage originality of thought.

Turning to his conversion to Christianity, Ellul says that the Bible offered answers to his existential questions, such as the meaning of life, death, and love. The Bible gave answers on a different level than Marx had:

“I was converted – not by someone, nor can I say I converted myself. It is a very personal story, but I will say that it was a very brutal and very sudden conversion. I became a Christian and I was obliged to profess myself a Christian in 1932. From that moment on, I lived through the conflict and the contradiction between what became the center of my life – this faith, this reference to the Bible, which I henceforth read from a different perspective – and what I knew of Marx and did not wish to abandon. For I did not see why I should have to give up the things that Marx said about society and explained about economy and injustice in the world. I saw no reason to reject them just because I was now a Christian.”

It seems that he lived the rest of his intellectual life with these two sources of authority, Marx and the Bible, refusing to let go of either one, nor to create two domains, one material and one spiritual, but forged on in some kind of dialectic holding the two together in a kind of “permanent contradiction.” Fascinating.

He joined the reformed Church in France, which was only faintly Calvinist at that time. But it led him to read Calvin, who he found very interesting for his “rigour, intransigence, and total use of the Scriptures.” He went through a Calvin phase but then moved on to Barth. Indeed, Calvin was completely eclipsed by Karl Barth.

When World War 2 arrived, he was dismissed from his teaching role, his father was arrested, and his wife was in danger of being arrested. So he joined the Resistance. After the war, he tried to influence change in the French reformed Church for 15 years, but failed due to the “traditionalism of Christians,” and the “indifference toward change.” His verdict: “Once a movement becomes an institution, it is lost.” I can only say that, given the nature of the far-reaching changes he had in mind, it seems to me that the mechanism of that institution protected it from being radically redefined. But I don’t know enough about the details of it all to say whether that was for the good or not.

Ellul then tried to change the study of theology: “I kept trying to find what would be possible for a Christian who analyzes society with the apparatus of Marx’s thinking.” What strange echoes this has today as evangelicalism, these forty years later, wrestles with the role of Marxist modes of criticism like Critical Race Theory and intersectionality.

As I said, I was surprised to find so much Marx in Ellul’s intellectual biography. Given the way Marxist categories have so profoundly infected and poisoned so much of Western (especially North-American) intellectual life, and the allergic reaction that the name Marx now triggers in many, it certainly seems to me that Ellul will not gain many friends or eager ears in my circles.

But now we move on to his seminal insights into technology and ‘technique’. In studying the modern world he came to see that technique, as defined by him, had a similar or greater explanatory power than did capital in the works of Marx for the 19th century.

Distinguishing technique from technology, or from machinery, Ellul points out the common theme of efficiency, what we now sometimes refer to as ‘hacks,’ or the relentless pursuit of ever greater efficiency in every sphere and domain of our lives, including our minds, our sleep, our bodies, our meetings, our organizations, our transportation, our schedules, our athletics, our psychology, et cetera ad infinitum (and other Latin phrases). “This expansion of technique to human groups, to human life, is one of the essential characteristics of our world.”

This seems to me to be precisely right. Ellul is helpful in exposing how technology and ‘technique’ have a kind of internal logic and telos which override whatever human aims we claim for the technology we invent. It remains the case that someone comes along, builds on what has been done before, and finds ever better ways of applying technology to more of life, revolutionizing sphere after sphere of human life to conform to this overriding principle of efficiency and inter-connectivity.

The history of technological development since the Industrial Revolution seems to bear this out. It is easy to think that the individual or small group developing some technology is acting in isolation and that the effects of their work is limited to the applications they themselves have in mind. But a broader view suggests that all such efforts are part of an unstoppable wave of technological advancement and expansion.

It is important to be clear-eyed about this reality and to take stock of our relationship with technology. We must never believe the lie that we merely use technology like a tool. Instead, technology shapes us more deeply than we usually like to recognize. And this process shows no sign of slowing down – indeed the rate of acceleration is increasing. Instead of being carried along in the powerful current, we must ask hard questions about how much technology we should really embrace in our lives, and ask how much of that technology is actually leading to human flourishing.

But to answer that question, one needs to have a definition of humanity, of the good, and therefore of what the ‘good life’ is. That is perhaps one of the most important things we need to recover – a vision of human nature. Are we merely biological machines, like the materialists insist? Are we free to define and redefine ourselves by our own authority, as the gender revolutionaries assume? Are we subject so some universal moral law that we ignore and defy to our own detriment, as the classical and Christian traditions teach?

I’ll admit I did not find as much applicable insight in this book as I was hoping. Perhaps other thinkers have gone further and have spoken more directly to the modern challenges facing us today and into the future. If you have one to recommend, please let me know in the comments!

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.

Vaccine Passports for Churches? Part 2

Introduction

Something unusual is happening. A little over a week ago I penned an article that seemed to boil up from my heart when I first heard the Quebec government’s announcement that churches would have to implement vaccine passports, excluding the unvaccinated from their worship services. I received a large amount of feedback from all kinds of people in all kinds of places. And although my piece had to do specifically with the situation in Quebec, readers connected from all over the globe, including sizable numbers from New Zealand. I don’t know anyone in New Zealand. Clearly the topic struck a nerve.

In this follow-up, drawing on the many conversations I have had with church leaders here and there, I would like to ‘think out loud’ as a way of advocating for wisdom, courage, and balance. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all option that captures biblical faithfulness for each and every church. That being said, I believe some things are out of bounds, which was the point of that first article.

What I Said, What Happened

On the question of vaccine passports in churches, I landed decidedly on “No!”. This resonated with quite a number of people, though certainly not all. One’s response to my argument against vaccine passports, it seems to me, has a lot to do with how one understands the seriousness of the health crisis and the wisdom of public health directives thus far in the pandemic. Those who reached out to me to share their disagreement generally had more to say about those matters than Biblical principles.

This gets at one of the most pernicious aspects of this whole Covid moment. For those who see it as akin to a meteor hurling towards earth, no cost is too high and no freedoms are too precious to escape this threat and live to see another day. And this makes a lot of sense if that is more or less the nature of the threat. Others see a public health and media establishment always catastrophizing and assuming the worst, and regulations being enforced which seem more like theatre than anything based in data. And the difference between these two paradigms has a lot to do with where you get your news. In my first post I purposely avoided getting into such epidemiological details, knowing that it would only distract from the main point I was seeking to make.

What was that main point, you ask? It was simply to argue that this latest regulation was categorically different than all the previous regulations imposed on houses of worship. My point was this mandate crossed a line that had not yet been crossed in this province. I sought to ground that argument in the Scriptures, as I was writing primarily to fellow Christians. If I were to write an open letter to the government I would base my argument on other grounds, of which there are plenty to choose from.

It was my hope that houses of worship across the province would unite in defying this decree, applying enough immediate pressure to cause the government to rescind it. That has not happened. It was also my hope that Christian pastors and elders would be agreed upon the conviction that to install such a system in their church would be a stain upon that church’s witness, such that whatever other options were considered, this one would be set to the side as a non-option. This has not happened either.

And so we find ourselves in a situation where we are faced with dire choices, none of which are ideal. What are we to do? How do we go about weighing these options? Many pastors and church leaders are facing decisions which may prove decisive for their future ministries and for the continued existence of their churches. The stakes have never been higher in our lifetimes.

Decisions, Decisions

Many have noted that social media tends to amplify those voices which are on the extreme ends of any given question. This has something to do with human psychology but also with the kinds of algorithms that control the dials for what gets shown to who. One of the things I have noticed in the course of this pandemic is how this dynamic has played itself out. Needless to say, rare is the social media post dealing with any of these covid-related issues that actually builds bridges between opposing sides. One of the results of this is we become reinforced in our way of thinking.

Decisions, decisions.

The temptation is to view anyone more critical of the government as extreme and divisive, and anyone more compliant to the government as cowardly and terminally compromised. When these temptations are indulged, the resulting rhetoric rolls off the tongue – or off the keyboard – with uncanny ease. It is very easy to do, and it feels good too. But I do not think that it is ultimately all that helpful for anyone.

The reality in Quebec is that there are a lot fewer evangelical churches per capita than anywhere else in North America. This means that, by and large, there is more diversity inside those churches than might be the case elsewhere. Why? Because instead of having six churches to choose from in a given town, there is one, maybe two options within reasonable driving distance. The kind of sorting according to personality types and political leanings that can happen in places with a higher density of believers has not happened here to nearly the same degree.

This diversity means that unity in the church requires constant effort. For many pastors faced with this government mandate – which, due to emergency powers, legally has the force of law – the question of unity is a critical one. In many churches where there is a wide diversity of opinion, there are two options which are guaranteed to cause a catastrophic split in their church: 1. Imposing a vaccine passport system in compliance with the mandate, or 2. Holding services without a vaccine passport system, in open defiance to the mandate. Either of those options will instantly alienate a large percentage of their members, making it impossible for them to continue worshipping there. Some zealous folks might say “Good riddance! Let us be rid of them, and separate the sheep from the goats.”

But the pastors I know facing this exact situation are good shepherds. They know that despite whatever deep differences of opinion, these are genuine believers that need to be vitally connected to a local church. They also know that some of them need much pastoral care, prayer, and counseling. And so the question inevitably becomes: Is this decision worth splitting the church? Is it really the only faithful option?

Many are choosing to avoid either of those options, which we might call the two far ends of the spectrum. Among the middle options I have heard floated are the following:

  • Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services.
  • Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services to small groups of congregants gathered in homes.
  • Practice “righteous deception” in the way of the Israelite midwives, purporting to live-stream services while actually meeting in person in a discreet location.

Nobody landing on one of these options would consider it ideal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t much to be preferred over a permanently damaging church split. In a situation as fraught and complex as this one, it may be that the best outcome we can hope for is a course of action that nobody really loves, but that everyone can at least understand and support without violating their convictions. Such a decision will require that everyone lay aside their personal preferences. It will show that what unites us in Christ is stronger than what divides us in the flesh. And this, I believe, can be a wholesome, faithful, God-honoring path to chart for many churches.

But not all churches. There are some that have a unity of conviction among the leadership, with a congregation eager to follow their lead. Some of these are opting to openly defy the passport mandate while continuing to take all other precautions to reduce risk. Indeed, the risk they are taking is in the form of hefty fines and legal troubles. There is courage here that does not seek to offend, a gracious refusal to comply. I applaud and support these brothers and sisters in Christ. They are able to stand up to government overreach without causing violence to the unity of the body of Christ under their care.

Dangers Everywhere

One of the things I learned from reading the Puritans it that there is spiritual danger everywhere. Sin is ever-present in this broken world, and no course of action is without its own particular temptations. For those churches and leaders who have decided to openly defy the government mandate, it is important to be aware and wary of the ditch along the path. Those who have been loudest in their defiance of what they perceive as government tyranny have at times engaged in rhetoric intimating that anything short of equal defiance was compromise motivated by cowardice. In other words, this is the only faithful option.

What often went unstated however was that such judgments presupposed an interpretation of the epidemiological situation that differed greatly from the mainstream narrative. In some circles, these alternative interpretations of the pandemic were dominant. Fed largely by conservative media from the USA, as well as some other online sources, these views ranged from conspiracy theories (it’s a Plandemic!) to far more plausible ideas like ‘the public health establishment has mishandled this pandemic in a historic way.’

Whatever else we might say about such questions, they are not addressed directly in Scripture. We cannot find chapter and verse to explain to us the best practices for a modern 21st-century nation-wide response to a novel virus causing widespread sickness and death. But some of the voices decrying government actions were loudest precisely on those points where Scripture was silent, taking on at times the ethos and energy of a culture warrior or political activist rather than a pastor or Christian leader.

But still I have been quite sympathetic to such leaders. I respect their courage and the clarity of their convictions. The dangers they decry (the infringement of religious liberty and authoritarianism) are not imaginary, even if we perceive them differently. At the same time, I know my heart is not immune to cowardice. But the spiritual danger I see in such a posture is to run roughshod over those Christians who are fearful and do not know what to believe. Competing narratives seem to offer wildly different accounts of the government’s actions. For some, they are heroes making the tough calls to keep everyone safe; for others, tyrants and authoritarians gleefully stripping away civil liberties from the unwitting public. Who is right? And must it be one or the other? Is cowardice really the only possible explanation for the various paths churches have taken throughout this pandemic?

I find that kind of rhetoric to be reminiscent of the ‘fighting fundamentalists’ of the 20th-century. Certain on every minute point of doctrine, nearly every church but theirs was hopelessly compromised and deceived by Satan. Discontent with co-belligerence, they chose belligerency towards all who differed. But this bred a toxic kind of self-righteousness that was not attractive to unbelievers or spiritually healthy for believers. It led to divisions and schism where they were not at all necessary.

As church leaders face some of the toughest decisions of their ministries, many are crying out for wisdom and guidance through prayer and fasting. May God grant them such graces in abundance, both to lead well and to avoid the dangers which lie inevitably along any of the possible paths. And as friends, family members, and fellow believers choose differently, may the unity we have in Christ enable us to disagree charitably, even warmly.

Loving Our Neighbours (Jabbed or Not)

The Biblical principle most often cited to me to support the idea of vaccination passports in churches is love for one’s neighbour. The questions are perennial: What does it mean to love our neighbour in this situation? And in the words that called forth that great parable of the Good Samaritan, just who is my neighbour? Many reasonably see vaccination as an act of neighbourly love. So far, so good. From this premise many conclude that a refusal to get vaccinated is motivated by a selfishness and lack of love for others. I don’t think that’s true, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it is.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that, in Canada as well as many other places in the world, there is a growing hostility towards the unvaccinated that has dark foreboding element to it. In its worst manifestations, the unvaxxed are treated as if they were disease-ridden, unclean, and guilty for the sufferings of others, deserving whatever comes to them. Such scapegoating and marginalization essentially make the unvaccinated a group of societal outcasts. The speed and viciousness with which large portions of our society seem to have “othered” and dehumanized the unvaccinated is one of the most troubling things I have seen in a long time.

But are they not our neighbours too? Do people cease to be our neighbours when they make choices we disagree with? Shall the church of Christ join in the mob calling for them to be shoved to the margins of society? Isn’t the church called especially to those on the margins? What does loving these neighbours look like?

Love, I am told, is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. It assumes the best about others’ motivations. Love does not let the categories and divisions of the world tear apart the unity that Christ purchased with His precious blood.

Vaccine Passports for Churches?

(This is first of two posts on this topic. Part 2 can be found here.)

It is a dark day for churches in Quebec, and my heart is heavy. Word came down on the evening of December 16th that houses of worship have been mandated by the provincial government to turn away from their public services those without vaccine passports.

I do not make it a habit to get on my soapbox and declare my thoughts about public policy, but today I am making an exception. I would like to try and make the argument that this new regulation from the government is categorically different than any other regulation that has heretofore been applied to churches, and that in asking churches to do this, the government is asking churches to disobey the teaching of the Scriptures and to betray the essence of being a church.

Elders and pastors have carried a heavy burden since the very start of this pandemic. I know the weight of it, as I served as an elder for the first chaotic year of the pandemic. All the local church elders and pastors I’ve spoken to, without exception, affirmed that they have had under their shepherding care people at both ends of the spectrum (and everywhere in between) when it comes to responding to this pandemic. This government decree has, with one fell swoop, made each of their lives and leadership exponentially more difficult.

Church leaders have, by and large, done their best to thread the needle during these two tortuous years, and have repeatedly had to adapt at the last minute to ever-changing regulations, coming up with new policies for their gatherings. Each of those decisions has been stressful, demanding, and usually criticized by some for going too far and by others for not going far enough. I have immense respect and admiration for these faithful leaders.

When we were mandated to wear masks indoors, we bought masks and wore them. When we were restricted to 50, and then 25 people in the building, we mobilized volunteers and multiplied services, running three per Sunday at one point. We also bought equipment, trained volunteers, and started live-streaming services. When singing was restricted, we chafed and struggled but we sang with our hearts instead of our lips. We did all these things because, as hard as these restrictions were, they did not seem to directly go against the teaching of the Scriptures which we hold as the only ultimate authority in matters of faith and worship.

I will not pretend to be of two minds about this. The announcement from the government marks the start of something completely new. Everything that has come before has been on the scale from mildly to extremely inconvenient. To my mind, the church in Quebec now faces a test not of creativity and flexibility, or of neighbourly love and graciousness, but of conviction and principle.

To be plain: I think it unconscionable for a local church, which is a visible manifestation of the universal church of Christ on earth, to enforce this kind of discrimination. We simply cannot say in our call to worship, “This church opens wide her doors,” while at the same time having someone with a QR-Code scanner shutting those doors on the unvaccinated.

Yes, this new regulation is different. I believe it asks churches to disobey the clear teaching and principles of Scripture that we find in several passages. I will limit myself to two that come to mind, for the sake of brevity and clarity.

First, James 2. In this passage, the church is commanded to not show favoritism by seating a rich person in a good seat and telling a poor person to “Stand over there” or to sit on the floor. The passage concludes by saying to those who behave this way: “haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). The principle is simple: favoritism that makes such distinctions among the body of believers is wrong. The distinction need not be between rich and poor, but between any two groups of people within the church body who are not treated the same. More could be said, but we move on to a second passage.

In Galatians 2, Peter fell into hypocrisy by separating from one group of believers (the Gentile believers in Antioch) out of a fear of displeasing another group (legalistic Jewish believers from Jerusalem). Paul rebuked him publicly, for he saw that creating such a division in the body of Christ was tantamount to “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). These passages do not mince words – let us heed them and consider their implications carefully.

And although the Scriptural principles are clear, perhaps an even more powerful line of argument is found in the power of symbolism.

So let’s picture the scene: In order to obey this mandate, someone will need to stand at the front door with a device that has some government application on it. And that person will need to take each arriving worshipper in turn and scan their government-provided code, at which point their device will communicate with a government database, exchange some packets of information, and find out if they are allowed to come in and worship the living God in person.  

But not so fast – a successful scan will not be enough. A photo ID will also be required to establish that the person is who they claim to be. The ecclesiastical bouncer will need to be ready to turn people away; people who are looking for hope, life-giving truth, and fellowship. Yes, that person will need to be willing to say words to this effect: “You cannot come in to this church, since you do not meet our government’s definition of ‘fully vaccinated.’ You will have to turn around, get back in your car, and go home.” Who is willing to do this work? Are you?

It is a shocking scene even to imagine, but we must imagine it and be clear about what it means. Tragically, I assume it will be a scene playing out at some houses of worship this Sunday and in coming weeks.

While different churches have responded differently thus far in the pandemic, the vast majority have made extraordinary efforts to meet and exceed the safety measures required by the government regulations, even when some of those regulations had awfully thin rationales behind them; the vast majority have sought to honor and obey the magistrates over them. But brothers and sisters, this is not one more rule among many; this is not just a new item on the list. No, this is something we cannot do. Whatever creative solutions and workarounds churches come up with – and there is surely a place for that – this is a line no church should cross.

I earnestly hope and pray that houses of worship of every type and stripe will hold firm to their convictions on these matters and present a unified front of non-compliance. I also hope and expect that those houses of worship will continue to follow all the other recommended safety guidelines even as they disobey this new rule. The posture must be one of gracious but firm refusal: We have bent over backwards, we have stretched, we have multiplied our services, we have taxed our volunteers, we have found ways to make it work, but we cannot and we will not do this thing. To do so would be to cease to be the kind of church we say we are.

The people of God are surely willing to be inconvenienced to a great extent, even to sacrifice much. But we cannot betray those principles and truths which amount to our very obedience to the One who is forever and infinitely above any provincial or national authority. We cannot turn hungry and thirsty souls away from the place where they might hear the words of life spoken to them. The heart of the gospel is the free offer of forgiving and renewing grace to any and all who would come to Jesus Christ by faith. We cannot make such an offer to people who have been turned away because the government told us to.

One feels that this moment is pregnant with meaning, and that much is at stake. The dramatic tension is high. In such a moment, dramatic words are not uncalled for. And I can’t think of any better suited to the moment than those purportedly uttered by the reformer Martin Luther (slightly adapted for our purposes). May this be the essence of the unified voice of the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ in response to this moment:

“Unless we are convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason, we are bound by the Scriptures. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. We cannot and we will not enforce this mandate, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here we stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. Amen.”

(I think maybe even a Roman Catholic could say “Amen” to that).

I conclude with a word to church leaders, among whom are many dear friends and family members. I do not envy your position. Whatever decision you make, there will be emails, messages, and phone calls to face from those who disagree. And indeed, many churches are led by teams of elders, meaning that there is a diversity of viewpoints on all kinds of matters among them. The final decision may not be what every member (or any one member) of that group desired. And yet, for the good of the church, and the glory of God, decisions are made, policies put in place, and the work continues. I have tried to make my case as plain and clear as possible. And while I see a red line here, others may not. Even in disagreement, may we be known for a remarkable gentleness and humility. We never know all that goes into a group decision. Let us believe the best about each other and seek to preserve that precious bond of unity when all around us is division.

Impressive Blue-Collar Brilliance

It is good for the mind to work with the hands.

I like to pick up a piece of wood and run my hand along its edge. There is an art to this. A heavy hand will reward you with a deep splinter that you will rue for the rest of the day until you can dig it out with a sharp knife after a hot soak. It takes a light touch, just enough to feel the texture of those miraculous parallel fibres of organic growth with which we build almost everything. And what is this wood made of? In short: sunlight, water, dirt, and time. I think that’s pretty miraculous.

I like to lay a corner of the piece on the ground and hold the near end close to my one open eye, seeing if the board is warped one way or the other. I also like to see my ten year-old son doing the same. “Dad, this one is good.” “Oh this one is curved to the side.” I like to picture how we’ll use the piece for our project. I know we’ll need some two-by-fours cut to about 80 inches for the porch swing we are building, so the ugly knot at the end of this 8-foot piece will not matter because we have 16 inches to spare and I’ll make sure we cut off that end instead of the other. And even though this side is rough, we’ll put that face against another board so that only the nice side shows.

This is the kind of conversation you have with yourself, or with your ten year-old son if you are abundantly blessed like me, in the lumber aisle of the hardware store. This capacity to visualize, to turn the piece over in your mind and know the exact place and precise orientation it will eventually occupy, is astounding to me. I often bump up against the limits of my ability to do this, when the design is still unclear to me, or the multiprocessor of my biological graphics card is maxed out and overheating. (When that happens I buy a couple extra pieces and hope I can figure it out later.) And then I think about master craftsmen (and women) whose gifting far exceeds my own; builders of cathedrals and ornate spiral staircases and clock mechanisms and violins, and I am filled with awe. Sub-creators, imaging and faintly reflecting the inimitable genius of the Creator.

Welding. Not as easy as it looks.

Educated elites are often dismissive of working-class folks, but I have found that they can be just as intelligent, albeit in different ways. The knowledge economy has encouraged society to value (and remunerate) work that is based on abstract knowledge at the expense of work centered around the physical. Market forces are what they are, but we are mistaken if we think that those in the service industry or the trades lack intelligence by virtue of their position. Such an attitude is based on ignorance, misunderstanding, and pride.

I have spent a lot of time in both kinds of worlds: university classrooms, engineering companies, and management meetings on the one hand, and mechanics shops and woodworking shops and the warehouse floor on the other. I feel at home discussing, on the one hand, literature, epic poetry, theology, and philosophy, and on the other hand, turbochargers, classic rock, robotics, and belt conveyors. What can I say? I’m a weird guy with too many interests (just ask my wife). But I think this has given me a certain vantage point from which to observe these worlds which often do not meet. In this piece, I am simply reflecting on the goodness of practical skills.

I was recently pointed to an article from 2009 on the (perhaps) surprising brilliance required to do many blue-collar jobs well. (Hat-tip to Alan Jacobs and his eclectic newsletter for the recommendation). It is a good read and I commend it to you. It put into words something which has floated around in my thinking for a number of years. The author’s descriptions of skilled blue-collar workers excelling in demanding environments, from busy restaurant to factory floor, confirm my own experience as well. Some of the brightest minds I have encountered work in these kinds of places.

There is something fascinating about watching a skilled worker in his or her element. Maybe it is the deceitfully simple-looking movements that, try as we might to imitate, will nevertheless take decades to master. Maybe it is also the sense that the workings of a keen mind are being made visible in a way that doesn’t apply to watching a brilliant economist or lawyer. I am also drawn to the physicality of the labor and the tangible nature of the result. I think this explains the popularity of all those “How It’s Made” shows, or the 56 million (to date) people willing to spend 14 minutes watching “Grandpa Amu” building a bridge with basic hand tools and zero fasteners or glue:

Did you watch the whole thing? It’s kind of mesmerizing. For a time one of my favorite YouTube channels was Essential Craftsman (with over a million subscribers), where Scott Wadsworth holds forth on a variety of tools, trades, and skills that he has mastered over his decades of experience. Watching his videos, it doesn’t take long to recognize not only his physical skill and extensive technical knowledge but also his uncommon ability to communicate clearly. Obviously I’m not the only one who finds these kinds of displays compelling.

As technology encroaches further into every facet of human experience – creating a sense of alienation from the natural and material world of things – many of us find ourselves craving something mechanical, something made of wood, something real and tangible. The kind of intelligence it takes to excel in an environment where your mistakes will find you out – and fast – is something to behold. In fact, there is a beauty to it. Watch an experienced and skilled waitress keep a half dozen or more tables of busy lunchers fed and watered and happy. Or a machine operator who knows just how to time each movement of his body to match the movement of the machine, preserving energy and producing a consistently excellent result. It may look easy, but then watch a rookie and you’ll quickly see it’s anything but.

I don’t know what he’s making, but I like it.

The list of examples goes on and on, including all skilled trades: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, millwrights, welders, bricklayers, masons, painters, roofers, and more. In each of these the masters have learned to adapt their approach to the reality of the created world and the laws of physics. It is a kind of earthy wisdom; to learn the properties of your material, the task, the tools, the dynamics of angles and temperatures and whatever other parameters need to be considered.

So the next time you see someone with some down-to-earth practical skills, don’t forget to be at least a little bit impressed, and maybe let them know. After all, being unimpressed is not a virtue, even if it seems to be awfully popular.

Thoughts on Devoted to the Service of the Temple: Piety, Persecution, and Ministry in the Writings of Hercules Collins

This is a little gem of a book.

The opening biographical essay sketches the history of the Particular Baptists clearly and helpfully. It also gives the reader a foretaste of Collins’ warm and experiential style. Hercules Collins, though largely unknown today, was an important figure in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist community in the 17th century. These Baptists were part of the Dissenters, a larger group of Christians that, for one reason or another, were not in the Church of England.

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I found it interesting that in the body of Collins’ work was an early defense of religious liberty, where he argued that compulsion cannot bring about true spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, force cannot change the heart, and heart change is at the very core of Christianity.

His is a legacy where his teaching is highlighted, underlined, and put in bold by the powerful testimony of his life. Imprisoned for his opposition to the prevailing religious and political authority of his day, in abysmal conditions (two fellow pastors in prison with him died while in captivity), he remained faithful and wrote stirring letters to his congregation while in chains. This harrowing context gave his writing a kind of Pauline grittiness and verve.

The selections, well picked and edited, give the reader a real sense for his style and substance. The length of the book makes this long-departed brother’s words accessible, portable, and edifying. What a gift! How else is a 21st-century Christian going to encounter such material?

For those in ministry and leadership, there were a number of selections specifically dealing with the realities of ministry and the task of preaching. While all the selections were good in content, some of them were simply stellar. My favorites were #s 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 20, 21, 24, 28, 30, 35.

The last selection was actually a poem that Collins wrote. This third stanza I thought was really quite good:

Come haste that blessed break of Light,

Let shadows flee away;

When ordinances all shall cease,

Come on Eternal Day.

Then through a glass shall look no more,

Unless the glass divine;

We shall through human nature see,

The blessed Godhead shine.

I highly recommend getting a few volumes in this series. There is nothing like reaching across the centuries and reading the words of a fellow Christian from another age. There is blessed similarity and blessed dissimilarity. Similar because the experience and convictions of true Christians have a common thread wherever they are found; dissimilar because we have lost much in our day and are blind in ways they are not.

If I was to try and find one thing to quibble with, it might be the title. Having finished the book, I now get it. At first glance, however, it was not a title that drew me in towards the book or piqued my interest.