Meat Lego Gnosticism and the Myth of Progress

I just finished reading Mary Harrington’s new book, ‘Feminism Against Progress’. I forget exactly when I first came across her writing but it was immediately clear to me that she was not just another cultural commentator. She was willing to say things that were at odds with prevailing orthodoxies and she was clearly well-read. Plus she had a snappy style about her prose that I really liked. Having learned a little bit more about her in subsequent years, I see now why she had these qualities. She was educated at Oxford, went deep into queer theory in abstract and personal ways throughout her 20’s, and was then radically re-oriented by her experience of motherhood in her 30’s. She is one of those modern writers who has been through the swamp of post-modern ideology and emerged the other side sounding a little bit like a conservative. Well, that’s the slur typically deployed against such people; the once-faithful adherents who have abandoned the progressive enclave.

One of the most memorable phrases Harrington uses in her writing is that of meat lego gnosticism. Now that’s a phrase that needs a bit of unpacking the first time you hear it, sort of like moralistictherapeutic deism. “Say what now?” Harrington argues that the logic of the current iteration of feminism is leading our society into a tech-enabled dystopia of meat lego Gnosticism: ‘meat lego’ because we are talking about human bodies that are “liberated” from the biological constraints of gender and sexed differences, and fundamentally reduced to collections of exchangeable parts. And ‘Gnosticism’ because that ancient (and ever-present) heresy rejected the created goodness of embodied existence and made the internal (or spiritual) self the ultimate authority. So whatever I feel myself to be internally is the north star by which all other considerations are guided.

The myth of progress sold to us centers around the idea that ever greater freedom equals ever greater progress. We have equated those two concepts: freedom & progress. Therefore autonomy is prized over responsibility, and constraints are by definition to be resisted. But having achieved historically unprecedented levels of freedom and opportunity already, the modern woman is faced with the uncomfortable reality that women are not really any happier for all their gains. This is one of the book’s strengths: cataloguing all the ways in which a deep malaise haunts men and women who are beholden to this view of freedom-as-progress. So that leaves many in our culture facing the following choice. Either the fundamental promise of liberation was wrong or we just haven’t broken through enough constraints and inequalities to usher in the golden age. Folks on “the right side of history” (as they see it) are convinced it’s the latter, while Mary Harrington makes the case – rather persuasively to my mind – that it’s the former.

There are many other things to commend about this book and Harrington’s other writing in general (typically at the website UnHerd, where she is a regular contributor). She is not a conservative Christian like me, but it is precisely due to this difference of theological and cultural location that her particular insights shine brightly. She sees things differently, comes at them from different angles, and has read entirely different kinds of books. Yet I recognize in her that glimmer of common sense, of seeing the world rightly, of following the evidence when it collides with cherished beliefs, and pursuing truth at the expense of cultural capital among the bien pensants.

This book is precisely the thing to give that person in your life who has bought into all the mottos and slogans of modern feminism. This is not a conservative diatribe against feminism. Those books have their place, though usually not in convincing feminists to rethink their ideas. But this book, written from inside the feminist framework, can accomplish exactly that. And as our world hurtles ever on towards the dystopia of tech-enabled bio-libertarian meat lego gnosticism, Mary Harrington will be a thinker who will help us all to think carefully about the choices we face.

As she points out in this book, the greatest thing we may have to fight for in the coming decades is the right to remain fully and truly human.

Review of Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation

I have been an avid reader and consumer of Tim Keller’s teaching since not long after my conversion to Christ in 2004. I found in him something of a kindred spirit, a person whose temperament and disposition was in many ways similar to my own, and therefore someone whom I could look at and say, “I’d like to learn how to be more like that.” I can say that Keller’s influence on me has been profound and positive. And in the interest of honesty and disclosure, I must admit that Keller and I are very close, by which I mean that I once said a brief hello to him during a large lunch gathering at a conference while he ate macaroni salad. I’m sure he has never forgotten it.

Tim Keller, probably thinking about that macaroni salad.

I therefore approached this book with a warm disposition. Despite the presentation of the book as not quite a biography, it is. Only it’s one that rightly makes no attempt to analyze Keller’s legacy. The book deepened my appreciation for his influences, many of which I was already familiar with: R.C. Sproul, Richard Lovelace, Jack Miller, Harvey Conn, Edmund Clowney, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards.

The narrative spanned Keller’s entire life and ministry and it filled in many details that I was not familiar with, including some that weren’t so flattering, such as the persistent struggles he had leading the staff of Redeemer church before the arrival of a good executive pastor. The only part I cringed at a little bit was the mention of Francis Collins as the supposed paragon of the ‘faithful presence’ approach to cultural influence. Whatever respect I had for Collins died from the multiple gunshot wounds of this, that, and the other bullets of journalism and public facts. His role in the early days of the pandemic slandering the framers of the Great Barrington Declaration hasn’t helped either. But let’s move on from that unpleasant subject.

Like all of us, Keller’s weaknesses are the inversions of his gifts. His ability to see things from all sides, analyze them, and arrive at a mediatory solution can sometimes slip into the pitfall of false equivalency. His self-confessed disposition towards peacemaking has at times been at the cost of moral clarity. In short, he is not all that the church needs. He is not Luther, and at times we need Luthers. Much of the criticism of Keller in recent years has amounted to just that: the sense among some that the church now needs more of a blunt, Luther-like voice, and that Keller is not the man for that job. I sympathize with that sentiment, but it does not lessen for one moment my gratitude for Keller’s influence on me personally and on the church as a whole.

The church needs men and women with Keller’s uncanny ability to synthesize insights from wide-ranging sources. Rarely have I heard or read Tim Keller and not been stimulated to think more deeply and wisely, as well as to feel (or wish to feel) more affection for Christ. His greatest gift to the church has been the combination of his fertile mind and warm heart. Yet the church needs more than Tim Keller and those like him. This shouldn’t be controversial or surprising, should it? ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”’ (1 Cor 12:21). Likewise, the church which tries to grow into a balanced and healthy body using only one or two body parts will become anything but.

If nothing else, I hope this book encourages many readers to mine the spiritual and intellectual resources that so shaped and animated Keller’s thought. In years past I did it by scouring articles, podcasts, and footnotes, scribbling authors’ names and book titles down and looking them up later in libraries and on iTunes and Amazon. I still remember the thrill of stumbling upon all the audio lectures for Keller and Clowney’s D.Min preaching course from Reformed Theological Seminary, Preaching Christ in a Post-Modern World, on the now-defunct iTunes University platform. I then found the accompanying syllabus as a badly-scanned 188-page PDF somewhere online. For the next few weeks I soaked up the stimulating lectures while doing repetitive manual labour at my cabinet-making job. That experience alone led to permanent shifts in my understanding of sanctification, preaching, and the dynamics of sin in both the preacher’s and listener’s hearts. It was through Keller that I was introduced to Luther’s Shorter Catechism, Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue, Chalmers’ The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, and other gold mines.

It brings me joy to think of many others now being ushered into those rich deposits, for in them the believer discovers more of Christ and more of the Scriptures which testify to Him.

Christmas with Chesterton

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

An early edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gem Among the Wreckage (of YA Fiction)

What books can we give our teenagers that will help them grow in virtue? So much of the Teen Fiction genre today seems to find its raison d’être in being transgressive and celebrating vice. The result is often a reading experience that drives a wedge between the young person and their moral and spiritual heritage. But there are always a few bright spots, a few gems among the wreckage.

Enter Black Bottle Man, a novel that recently came to my attention. It is a fine example of an exciting story that, while not a explicitly Christian, is nicely compatible with a Christian view of the world. It is the debut novel of Craig Russell, a Canadian from Manitoba.

The story begins in the 1920’s, with an extended family living on three connected farms. Three couples, but only one child: young Rembrandt. The two childless women reach a point of dark desperation and resort to black magic to bring about the children they so desire.  

The magic works, but there’s a very nasty catch, and only a hastily struck deal with the nefarious Black Bottle Man gives the troubled family a glimmer of hope. There are souls at stake and the men of the family, including Rembrandt, must find a champion who will be able to defeat the Black Bottle Man. From this strange beginning we follow the trio as they learn to survive out on the road and as Rembrandt matures into a young man.

The narrative spans the entire life of the protagonist, with chapters jumping back and forth across time so that we see snapshots of the characters’ lives at various stages as the story unfolds. These separate pieces gradually come together for the climatic end, which is framed as a battle between good and evil, the champion against the Black Bottle Man.

The world in which the story takes place is anchored by Christian reference points. The book contains its fair share of the supernatural, but rather than relegate it to the world of fantasy, it is presented in a straightforward manner. The moral compass is calibrated correctly – virtue is good, vice is bad – which is all too rare in teen fiction. And so Black Bottle Man is the kind of book that has something of value to offer the human spirit as it deals with the themes of family, tragedy, loneliness, romance, and grace.

The writing is consistently good. In one memorable scene, Rembrandt finds himself in a small town church where the preacher uses Scripture to cajole and manipulate rather than edify. “Right then and there Rembrandt knew that he’d study that Book like Pa had, until he knew all the funny little corners where the mean, small-minded people like to hide” (p36). That’s insightful.

Scattered throughout the book are clever and thoughtful descriptions. At one point, Rembrandt is eased into the back of a police car: “The back seat is vinyl, patched and repaired from a life spent accepting displaced anger. The car smells of human beings in all their wondrous variety, locked in a perpetual battle with cheap disinfectant” (p91). One chapter opens up like so: “All music contains within itself a kind of divine madness. Few will read a book or watch the same film more than once, but everyone returns to their favourite songs. Of all the arts, music is the king of repeated experience” (p120). These fine touches help lift the book from a prosaic adventure book to something in touch with the imaginative.

Not everything about the book is a complete success. At times the back-and-forth motion from past to present is jarring and hinders the momentum of the story. Also, some aspects of the book are a bit harder for me to believe or understand. But these hiccups do not detract significantly from the overall appeal of the book. Craig Russell has managed to craft a compelling story with a clear moral vision, bring it to life with vivid and memorable descriptions, and fire up the reader’s imagination; all within a world that is infused with spiritual realities. That’s quite an accomplishment.

If every Young Adult book had these ingredients in the mix, we would have much less reason to be concerned about what our teens are reading. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author for the purposes of writing a review.

On Writing

For as long as I can remember, I have loved writing. But I have always resisted the idea that writing might be a part of my identity and calling in life. I’m not sure why. Recently that has been changing.

I realize now that my childhood home was filled with books in a way that was unusual. My parents were often to be seen reading. My older brother Alex quickly became a devoted reader, blasting through stacks of novels. All of this rubbed off on me, and things which I took to be unremarkable I now see as a foreshadowing of things to come.

I remember having two truly excellent English teachers who both left a mark on me. The first was Mr. Wiggins, who taught me in both grade 5 and grade 6. He was an extremely tall man with large glasses. For some reason I don’t remember what his voice sounded like. He was funny. He would write long sentences across the blackboard and then when he got to the end of the space he would continue writing on the walls of the classroom. To a schoolchild, even a hint of playful rebellion in an authority figure like a teacher is delightful. He got ten and eleven-year-olds to learn words like extemporaneous and calamity and vociferous. I ate it all up, the lessons and the assignments.

Once, when we were told to bring something to read quietly in class, I brought one of our treasured Calvin & Hobbes books along with a dictionary for looking up words I didn’t know. Mr. Wiggins was impressed. I still think Calvin & Hobbes is pretty brilliant and a great way to expand one’s vocabulary:

“Pathetic Peripatetics!”
I probably had to look up “transcendental.”

The other excellent English teacher that left a mark on me was a Mr. Bellamy in high school. He also was a popular teacher. He taught us to write. I don’t remember how he did it, but the end result of it was that I very badly wanted to write the most excellent pieces of creative writing in order to impress him. I worked at it diligently over that year and submitted papers I was proud of. As someone who mostly breezed through school, that level of effort was a new experience. He read those papers carefully and handed them back with copious comments and sometimes a personal conversation too. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how, but I know for a fact that I’m a better writer today for having had Mr. Bellamy as a teacher.

Some years later, and after my spiritual rebirth at the age of 19, I wrote a short reflection on writing. I recently found it tucked away in an old file in my computer backups. I had forgotten I had ever written it, so it felt like I was reading someone else’s words:

What is writing? It is notation. But there is writing and then there is writing. And the latter sparks revolutions, both quiet and cataclysmic. Writing is communication bordering on impartation. It is a medium so broad that the loftiest ideas imaginable have room aplenty to cross the great divide between these independent entities we call minds.

I wonder, I wonder; am I a writer? Oh I can notate just fine, but can I impart? Can I, with the finesse and restraint of an artist, craft and swirl, lift and push, yes and with finality make a collection of words that imparts the ineffable? Can I sow seeds of the good without the soil’s knowledge, at least until after the fact? Can I teach the eye to see, and yes even to love, the beautiful even as it lusts for the profane? Can I in some small way affect that impenetrable centre of being, the heart, with what I can only pray will be a taste, an appetite, yes a hunger, for that essence which is sourced entirely in the threefold Spirit of the I AM?

Can I be a writer? Probably not. But can I write? Well I hope so. 

I think I wrote that in my early 20’s, about 15 years ago. What I like about that reflection above is that it expresses something I still feel deeply, namely that words have this mysterious but undeniable power to nudge us towards virtue or vice, towards God or away from Him.

Despite writing occasionally on this blog and receiving some affirmation here and there, it has only been in this last year that these lingering questions have been answered for me as doors have opened up for writing and editing in a more public way. One of those open doors has been over at TGC Canada, where I’ve been able to write a serious book review, a piece of cultural criticism, and a piece of spiritual reflection. In each case I’ve been blown away by the positive responses.

In addition, I’ve been given opportunities to do some editing by an extremely accomplished author and editor, Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. Here is the first look at the fruit of that partnership:

Dr. Haykin is very generous with his time and advice, giving me a chance to work in the world of publishing like this. In addition to this volume on John Gill which will be published this year, we are working on two other projects.

This all has seemed too good to be true. It’s almost like I’m a writer!

Well, I guess I am. I’m just going to have to get used to the idea.

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As I was waiting for the Rogan piece to be published, I was rather nervous. I had worked on it for months. I had really pushed myself to weave together a narrative that was compelling, intellectually stimulating, and edifying. And as such it felt like more of a risk, and like more of my self was wrapped up in it. When it finally came out, the response was a bit overwhelming for an almost-complete novice to the online writing world. Tim Challies linked to it, and then the main TGC USA site featured it in their Around the Web links for a day. Collin Hansen tweeted it out. I got asked to do a radio interview for a Christian station in Pittsburgh.

And all this happened on the week of the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death, in early March. I tried to write about that at the time, but nothing seemed to come together. It was a strange mix, the marking of a sad milestone along with success in the sphere where my mother had the most influence on me. She was a writer and an editor too. And although I don’t remember sitting down with her to get tips on writing and editing, I know I picked up a lot of things along the way.

I noticed how hard she would work at finding just the right word, as evidenced by the scribbled and scratched-out notes covering her text. I saw how she stressed out over the regular column she had to write for the magazine she edited, yet somehow always found something to submit by the deadline.

Looking back now I guess it makes sense I would end up so involved with words. But all along the way I see how people in my life—my parents, teachers, and others—earned themselves an unpayable debt of gratitude by investing in me and giving me opportunities. Ultimately my writing and editing, like every other aspect of a Christian’s life and calling, is a stewardship of what has been given by God, and faithfulness is the call.

I have tried to write well even when only one person would ever read my words. I have tried to think and write well even when the number of readers of this blog was less than ten. In a sense, the numbers truly don’t matter, and until they don’t matter, the writing itself is tainted. That is something else I learned from Bill Watterson: to do a thing for the love of it and no other reason. (I got this from his only public speech). It is analogous to Eric Liddell’s feeling that God was pleased when he ran, for He had made him to run. My own motives are always mixed, but this is the north star I try to orient them by.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Psalm 16:6

Where Men Fear to Tread

Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.

Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.

These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.

First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:

The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.

She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:

But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.

Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-­somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.

1. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/05/gender-after-eden

Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.

In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.

2. https://www.lifesitenews.com/episodes/conservative-author-explains-how-englands-greatest-poets-shed-light-on-the-meaning-of-jesus-words/

Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.

3. https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/07/76816/

The Reasons for Unbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Up the Heat

The spirit of censorship is ascendant.

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Ridley,” said Montag, at last.

“What?” said Beatty.

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451, page 40.

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

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

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

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

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