Of Thirst and Living Waters

The following is the text of a short reflection I shared at my church’s Good Friday service.

‘After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”’ (John 19:28).

Is there any more universal human experience than to feel thirsty? Jesus, the all-glorious second person of our triune God, humbled himself and took on flesh. God became man. And as a man, he experienced a truly and fully human life.

As a newborn baby he thirsted for his mother’s milk just as every other human baby has since the days of Adam and Eve. And here we see that at the very last moment of his earthly life, this all-too-human experience of thirst drove him to ask for a drink, fulfilling the Scriptures that had foretold and foreshadowed his coming. How striking that thirst was the first and last experience that our Savior had during his human life upon this earth.

But all through Scripture we see that thirst is also spiritual. And each of us knows this, do we not?

David’s soul panted for God as the deer pants for flowing streams. In the prophets we are told: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” And what are those waters? Jesus said that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” and “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Like the Samaritan woman, I find myself saying “Give me this water.” Do you?

Before coming to Christ I found in myself a deep and profound soul-thirst, although I may not have called it that. But I had been trying to quench that thirst with fleeting pleasures and religious good works, with the poison of pornography and the hypocrisies of church attendance and Bible knowledge. The Bible calls these ‘broken cisterns,’ vessels filled with putrid water that can never satisfy our thirst. I sought in them what can only be found in God, who is that fountain of living waters.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” I find myself saying again: “Give me this water.” Do you?

This comes from the Spirit’s work deep in our hearts. So we pray: Lord, do this in me, do this in us.

We cannot quench our own thirst. We must go to Him who hung on that cross, and suffered so horribly for our iniquities and sins, our rebellion and our hypocrisy, and our misguided attempts to quench our soul thirst with anything and everything aside from the living God. And as we come to Him, our crucified Savior, and drink in his grace and mercy for us, we find our souls are truly satisfied.

Jesus endured the cross, and the thirst, so we would not have to. And through His thirst, we are given a fountain of living water.

Thanks be to God.

Some Updates

This blog has been quiet of late, even if my life has not been. I have had some exciting writing opportunities come up and that has kept me quite busy. Being off social media has been very good for me. The initial jitters and shakes of withdrawal have calmed down, and I recently spent my entire lunch break at work sitting quietly, eating my food, and staring out the window—like some kind of psycho.

I recently had a piece of cultural commentary published on The Gospel Coalition Canada, which you can find here. It is called Joe Rogan and the Search for Transcendence.

This led to an invitation to write a piece on psychedelics from a Christian perspective for the Substack of Rav Arora, a young up-and-coming writer from western Canada that I referenced briefly in my piece. That should be published later today, so I will link to it once it does.

I also have the opportunity to go to Together for the Gospel next week thanks to the generosity of some friends and especially my wife. So down into the very beating heart of Big Eva I will go, and certainly I will have thoughts to share about that.

And most of all, Happy Easter to you.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

Stepping Off the Tilt-A-Whirl of Social Media

I got it into my head that it would be good to take a month off social media. This decision, of which more later, came about after a few months of reading a lot about technology, media, the internet, and the massive changes causing so much upheaval in the West. There are tectonic shifts occurring under our feet in real time. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1989 that we had reached The End of History, that liberalism had prevailed, and that we had entered a golden age wherein democracy would continue to spread across the world. Such a feeling was perhaps understandable, but it is no longer credible. With war in Europe once more, and liberal democracies everywhere struggling with debt, decadence, and internal decay, such illusions are dissipating. Even Fukuyama himself agrees. History has started up again.

With all this instability in the world, I felt compelled to try and understand the nature and implications of these changes. I plunged into Paul Kingsnorth’s essays about The Machine, which is shorthand for the cumulative effect of technology’s endless march onwards. I, like millions of others, watched The Social Dilemma which exposed how Social Media giants exercise massive control over their users. I learned about the movements towards decentralization, such as cryptocurrencies and homesteading, and the powerful movements from above towards ever-greater centralization, such as the dangers of Central Bank Digital Currencies. I read about how AI increasingly functions like mysterious capricious spirits; how people have been broken and undone by an addiction to technology. I read thoughtful Christians reflecting on the spiritual impact of technology in our lives.

I’ve been getting clarity on the fact that my relationship to technology is not that healthy, even in the process of learning so much about how technology so often shapes us more than we think. The words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to me. The medium is the message. Each technology has an inherent logic that works itself out despite the intention of the user. As one writer pointed out in an essay titled Technology and the Soul:

Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.

The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”

That’s helpful and sobering. So all this nudged me towards trying to do something concrete to reset and reboot the role of technology and social media in my life. But a big part of me, the addiction-prone part, didn’t want to change anything. So I posted my intention to take a month off of social media on… social media. This meant I was on the record – no backing out now.

But why exactly am I doing this? It’s important to be specific about the goals for such an undertaking. In order to answer this question, it’s worth reflecting on what negative effects technology and social media are currently having in my life. First, Facebook and Twitter can easily act as huge time-wasters. Too often I have found myself passively scrolling the endless string of content from the algorithm that was designed by expert psychologists and neuroscientists. They have chosen to use their hard-earned PhD’s to hijack the dopamine loops of countless millions, including me. Second, if I post anything to these platforms, I tend to compulsively check for engagement with that content every few hours for the next couple days. Third, daily news content & opinion comes my way via email, news websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My intake of these varies from day to day, but at times is excessive and unhealthy.

In addition to these effects upon me, there is also a definite negative impact on my family relationships. I am not nearly as mentally present with my wife and children if I have my phone in my hand. But even with the phone elsewhere, if I’ve filled my mind with these things to the point of saturation, I’m still not as engaged relationally as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been a complete zombie, but the difference is measurable and therefore lamentable. My wife and my family deserve the very best I have to offer, and I have too often given them far less – and for what?

So these are some of the things I am hoping to change during this coming month. I have removed Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, and will block access to them on my browsers. I will not watch news or current events opinions on YouTube, but take that kind of content in only through published articles. I will aim to not have any passive time on my phone, and to have nothing available on it to which I instinctively turn in those many small moments of tedium or delay throughout the day.

But what will replace all of this? You cannot create a vacuum without something filling its place. Well, more silence would be good. Silence encourages a prayerful heart, reflection, thoughtfulness. Good spiritual food is another thing I want to emphasize. Bible reading or audio is good, as is the daily prayer service of the Church of England. I would like to find a sermon series or seminary lecture series that I can dig into as well. I’m open to suggestions. It’s also a great chance to be outside more, with the weather warming up here in rural Quebec.

We moved out to the countryside a year and a half ago. A few things have been more difficult, but by and large I have loved it. The natural beauty is awesome and endless: stunning sunrises and sunsets, flocks of geese noisily settling down for the night in nearby fields, a distant train quietly moving across a winter field with a long trail of snow floating behind it, the power of the wind whipping across the landscape, and on and on. Living out here, you can’t help but recognize that, despite our modern conceits, we still need to bow to the natural forces that can so easily overwhelm and humble us. The city erases the wild; the suburb domesticates it; the countryside just barely keeps it at bay. Unplugging from ubiquitous technology allows for a deeper connection to natural beauty which, for me at least, speaks to my soul of the undomesticated Creator.

I will also aim to write more. Silence really helps me to write more, as the stillness allows my heart and mind to come up with ideas. Although I’ve been writing on and off for about 20 years, creative writing has been very intermittent. For example, after a season of reading a lot of poetry, I found myself writing some. I say it that way because it sort of bubbled up; I didn’t sit down and decide to write poetry. Recently, I noticed that I stopped writing poetry immediately upon returning to work after a season of parental leave.

I’ve long wanted to try my hand at fiction, whether through a short story or a short novel, but nothing has come yet. I recently discovered a chapter’s worth of fiction that I wrote about ten years ago, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really remember writing it, so it felt like reading someone else’s writing – and I enjoyed it. If I could find the right idea, and then have the mental space to develop it, who knows? I might just write something worthwhile.

And of course I want to write about this specific experience of resetting my relationship to technology and social media. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will probably include some shorter pieces on this blog, and then something like a personal reflective essay with some broader application. I am not, after all, the only one who struggles to keep technology in its place. If anything, I belong to the last generation that will have had a memory of life without technology and the internet as an ever-present reality. I suspect that in the coming years our society, and young people especially, will be desperate to reconnect with nature and the transcendent as technology leaves them empty, frazzled, and addicted.

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.

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!