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.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved writing. But I have always resisted the idea that writing might be a part of my identity and calling in life. I’m not sure why. Recently that has been changing.
I realize now that my childhood home was filled with books in a way that was unusual. My parents were often to be seen reading. My older brother Alex quickly became a devoted reader, blasting through stacks of novels. All of this rubbed off on me, and things which I took to be unremarkable I now see as a foreshadowing of things to come.
I remember having two truly excellent English teachers who both left a mark on me. The first was Mr. Wiggins, who taught me in both grade 5 and grade 6. He was an extremely tall man with large glasses. For some reason I don’t remember what his voice sounded like. He was funny. He would write long sentences across the blackboard and then when he got to the end of the space he would continue writing on the walls of the classroom. To a schoolchild, even a hint of playful rebellion in an authority figure like a teacher is delightful. He got ten and eleven-year-olds to learn words like extemporaneous and calamity and vociferous. I ate it all up, the lessons and the assignments.
Once, when we were told to bring something to read quietly in class, I brought one of our treasured Calvin & Hobbes books along with a dictionary for looking up words I didn’t know. Mr. Wiggins was impressed. I still think Calvin & Hobbes is pretty brilliant and a great way to expand one’s vocabulary:
The other excellent English teacher that left a mark on me was a Mr. Bellamy in high school. He also was a popular teacher. He taught us to write. I don’t remember how he did it, but the end result of it was that I very badly wanted to write the most excellent pieces of creative writing in order to impress him. I worked at it diligently over that year and submitted papers I was proud of. As someone who mostly breezed through school, that level of effort was a new experience. He read those papers carefully and handed them back with copious comments and sometimes a personal conversation too. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how, but I know for a fact that I’m a better writer today for having had Mr. Bellamy as a teacher.
Some years later, and after my spiritual rebirth at the age of 19, I wrote a short reflection on writing. I recently found it tucked away in an old file in my computer backups. I had forgotten I had ever written it, so it felt like I was reading someone else’s words:
What is writing? It is notation. But there is writing and then there is writing. And the latter sparks revolutions, both quiet and cataclysmic. Writing is communication bordering on impartation. It is a medium so broad that the loftiest ideas imaginable have room aplenty to cross the great divide between these independent entities we call minds.
I wonder, I wonder; am I a writer? Oh I can notate just fine, but can I impart? Can I, with the finesse and restraint of an artist, craft and swirl, lift and push, yes and with finality make a collection of words that imparts the ineffable? Can I sow seeds of the good without the soil’s knowledge, at least until after the fact? Can I teach the eye to see, and yes even to love, the beautiful even as it lusts for the profane? Can I in some small way affect that impenetrable centre of being, the heart, with what I can only pray will be a taste, an appetite, yes a hunger, for that essence which is sourced entirely in the threefold Spirit of the I AM?
Can I be a writer? Probably not. But can I write? Well I hope so.
I think I wrote that in my early 20’s, about 15 years ago. What I like about that reflection above is that it expresses something I still feel deeply, namely that words have this mysterious but undeniable power to nudge us towards virtue or vice, towards God or away from Him.
Despite writing occasionally on this blog and receiving some affirmation here and there, it has only been in this last year that these lingering questions have been answered for me as doors have opened up for writing and editing in a more public way. One of those open doors has been over at TGC Canada, where I’ve been able to write a serious book review, a piece of cultural criticism, and a piece of spiritual reflection. In each case I’ve been blown away by the positive responses.
In addition, I’ve been given opportunities to do some editing by an extremely accomplished author and editor, Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. Here is the first look at the fruit of that partnership:
Dr. Haykin is very generous with his time and advice, giving me a chance to work in the world of publishing like this. In addition to this volume on John Gill which will be published this year, we are working on two other projects.
This all has seemed too good to be true. It’s almost like I’m a writer!
Well, I guess I am. I’m just going to have to get used to the idea.
As I was waiting for the Rogan piece to be published, I was rather nervous. I had worked on it for months. I had really pushed myself to weave together a narrative that was compelling, intellectually stimulating, and edifying. And as such it felt like more of a risk, and like more of my self was wrapped up in it. When it finally came out, the response was a bit overwhelming for an almost-complete novice to the online writing world. Tim Challies linked to it, and then the main TGC USA site featured it in their Around the Web links for a day. Collin Hansen tweeted it out. I got asked to do a radio interview for a Christian station in Pittsburgh.
And all this happened on the week of the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death, in early March. I tried to write about that at the time, but nothing seemed to come together. It was a strange mix, the marking of a sad milestone along with success in the sphere where my mother had the most influence on me. She was a writer and an editor too. And although I don’t remember sitting down with her to get tips on writing and editing, I know I picked up a lot of things along the way.
I noticed how hard she would work at finding just the right word, as evidenced by the scribbled and scratched-out notes covering her text. I saw how she stressed out over the regular column she had to write for the magazine she edited, yet somehow always found something to submit by the deadline.
Looking back now I guess it makes sense I would end up so involved with words. But all along the way I see how people in my life—my parents, teachers, and others—earned themselves an unpayable debt of gratitude by investing in me and giving me opportunities. Ultimately my writing and editing, like every other aspect of a Christian’s life and calling, is a stewardship of what has been given by God, and faithfulness is the call.
I have tried to write well even when only one person would ever read my words. I have tried to think and write well even when the number of readers of this blog was less than ten. In a sense, the numbers truly don’t matter, and until they don’t matter, the writing itself is tainted. That is something else I learned from Bill Watterson: to do a thing for the love of it and no other reason. (I got this from his only public speech). It is analogous to Eric Liddell’s feeling that God was pleased when he ran, for He had made him to run. My own motives are always mixed, but this is the north star I try to orient them by.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.
Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.
These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.
First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:
‘The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.
She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:
But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.
Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.
Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.
In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.
Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ceteraad 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!
Some works translate well across time, while others don’t. It’s interesting to me that intellectual and polemical works tend to be more temporally bound than spiritual literature. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, the portions that deal with the workings of the human heart can be read profitably by any Christian, while the portions dealing with the Manichean heresies are less accessible.
Some works are simply ageless; perennially helpful. I consider this book, Backslider, by Andrew Fuller, to be such a work. This short book is wholesome spiritual food for any Christian in any age.
I believe that the editing and reprinting of classic spiritual works from centuries past is one of the most beneficial things modern publishers can do. Ressourcement is one of the great needs of the church; to feed upon nutritious truth that has stood the test of time. This short handsome volume put out by H&E Publishing (Hesed & Emet) is a great example of that. The formatting and editing helps the book to look and feel comfortably accessible for modern readers.
Oh that it and works like it would be plastered on the front page of the ChristianBook.com catalogs that I receive rather than the thin modern drivel that is usually there.
But enough slightly self-righteous moaning about the shortcomings of modern evangelical publishing and on to the content of the book. Backslider is a short book, or lengthy tract, written to counsel believers who have backslidden to some degree in their walk with God. And this means it is applicable to every believer at least once in a while. Fuller’s pastoral sensitivity is on display as he nimbly diagnoses the various causes and sources of backsliding, warns the wanderer not to presume upon any later opportunity for repentance, and sets forth the ever-merciful heart of God which welcomes any and all who repent and turn to Him by faith in Christ.
Fuller identifies five categories of backsliding: 1. Relinquishing Evangelical Doctrine (abandoning orthodox beliefs); 2. Falling into Gross Immorality (moral failure); 3. The Love of the World; 4. Conformity to the World; and 5. Political Disputes.
I’ll admit I didn’t expect #5 (Political Disputes), but it contained many a timely word for us today. Listen to this insightful comment on how revolutionary movements lead Christians astray:
The flattering objects held out by revolutionists were so congenial with the wishes of humanity, and their pretenses to disinterested philanthropy so fair, that many religious people for a time, forgot their own principles. While gazing on the splendid spectacle, it did not occur to them that the wicked, whatever name they assumed, would do wickedly.
Backslider, page 19.
He concludes in this way concerning inordinate interest in politics: “It is not only contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, but tends in its own nature to eat up true religion.” That is a very good and timely word for us today.
To highlight just one example of Fuller’s characteristic careful thinking and balance, consider this comment, still on the topic of politics: “Nor does the danger belong exclusively to one side. We may sin by an adherence to the measures of a government, as well as by an opposition to them.”
I promise I am trying to get to the rest of the book, but, perhaps because of the particularly tumultuous politics of the last few years, or because I stand in need of it, this last paragraph on the danger of politics seems too good to pass by:
By standing aloof from all parties and approving themselves the friends of government and good order, by whom so ever administered, Christians would acquire a dignity of character worthy of their profession. They would be respected by all, and possess greater opportunities for doing good. By a contrary conduct, they render one part of the community their enemies and the other, I fear, would derive but little spiritual advantage from being their friends.
Backslider, page 25.
Fuller goes on to examine the various symptoms that accompany backsliding, such as a departure from our first love, and a self-justifying spirit. The next chapter explores the effects of such a state. How the ‘symptoms’ differ precisely from the ‘effects’, I am not entirely sure, but folks in those days sure did love to draw tiny distinctions and make lists, so we must not be too bothered by it. On page 48 I came across a gem of a quote which captures pithily what has been a pillar in my understanding of human sin since early in my Christian life: “There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.”
That is worth reading again.
The last chapter discusses the ‘Means of Recovery’. I conclude this review with a quote from that chapter which jumped out at me for its resonance with the singular theme of John Piper’s ministry, and more importantly, with the teaching of Scripture.
Sin is not to be opposed so much directly as indirectly; not by mere resistance, but by opposing other principles to it which shall overcome it. It is not by contending with the fire, especially with combustible materials about us, that we should be able to quench it, but by dealing plentifully with the opposite element. The pleasures of sense will not be effectually subdued by foregoing all enjoyment but by drinking deeply of other pleasures, the relish of which will deaden the heart to what is opposite.
Backslider, page 80.
In other words, fight the pleasures of sin with the pleasures of God. By delighting in God, our hearts lose their taste for the small paltry pleasures that sin promises but never delivers.
I trust that by now you can see this book is worthy of reading and re-reading. I hope it finds its way into many more hands and blesses, challenges, and encourages many more hearts like it did mine.
The opening biographical essay sketches the history of the Particular Baptists clearly and helpfully. It also gives the reader a foretaste of Collins’ warm and experiential style. Hercules Collins, though largely unknown today, was an important figure in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist community in the 17th century. These Baptists were part of the Dissenters, a larger group of Christians that, for one reason or another, were not in the Church of England.
I found it interesting that in the body of Collins’ work was an early defense of religious liberty, where he argued that compulsion cannot bring about true spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, force cannot change the heart, and heart change is at the very core of Christianity.
His is a legacy where his teaching is highlighted, underlined, and put in bold by the powerful testimony of his life. Imprisoned for his opposition to the prevailing religious and political authority of his day, in abysmal conditions (two fellow pastors in prison with him died while in captivity), he remained faithful and wrote stirring letters to his congregation while in chains. This harrowing context gave his writing a kind of Pauline grittiness and verve.
The selections, well picked and edited, give the reader a real sense for his style and substance. The length of the book makes this long-departed brother’s words accessible, portable, and edifying. What a gift! How else is a 21st-century Christian going to encounter such material?
For those in ministry and leadership, there were a number of selections specifically dealing with the realities of ministry and the task of preaching. While all the selections were good in content, some of them were simply stellar. My favorites were #s 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 20, 21, 24, 28, 30, 35.
The last selection was actually a poem that Collins wrote. This third stanza I thought was really quite good:
Come haste that blessed break of Light,
Let shadows flee away;
When ordinances all shall cease,
Come on Eternal Day.
Then through a glass shall look no more,
Unless the glass divine;
We shall through human nature see,
The blessed Godhead shine.
I highly recommend getting a few volumes in this series. There is nothing like reaching across the centuries and reading the words of a fellow Christian from another age. There is blessed similarity and blessed dissimilarity. Similar because the experience and convictions of true Christians have a common thread wherever they are found; dissimilar because we have lost much in our day and are blind in ways they are not.
If I was to try and find one thing to quibble with, it might be the title. Having finished the book, I now get it. At first glance, however, it was not a title that drew me in towards the book or piqued my interest.
One of the purposes of this blog is to help people access the world of literature. (You can pronounce it the boring way, or you can do it properly, the way Michael Caine would – “litshratshurr“). I do this through book reviews and short reflections on things that I’m reading. Not only does this help me process what I’m reading, it also hopefully gives others a taste of the benefit from engaging with this material, which often feels too distant and intimidating. One of the things that compelled me to make the effort to read “the classics” was hearing how they had such an impact on others, and observing others appreciate them.
Recently I was listening to Karen Swallor Prior in discussion with Matthew Barrett on the Credo Podcast. One of the things that came up was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and that discussion prompted me to re-read it. One of the nice things about this story is that it is so short. Everyone has heard of Tolstoy, but most people do not have the courage to take on some of his better-known novels such as War and Peace (1400 pages) or Anna Karenina (950 pages).
If you would like to read it, you can download it here (I’m not sure about the quality of the translation – but hey! it’s free). Note that the following reflection contains spoilers if you haven’t read the story yet.
I am struck by the power of words, ideas, and story. In only 50 pages or so, Tolstoy harnesses that power and delivers to the reader a profound encounter with truth. One of the first things that strikes me in the story is the brutal honesty of the internal dialogue. Tolstoy gets inside the mind and around the various self-deceptions we employ and reveals what is truly there in all of its ugliness. It is done in a matter-of-fact way:
Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.
The story reveals how hard it is to come to believe something that you really don’t want to believe, something that has profound and far-reaching implications for the verdict of how you lived your life. We oppose these kinds of paradigm-shifts in many areas of our lives because re-evaluation is costly. We are invested in our way of seeing things. Within the story this is seen in everybody’s stubborn denial of their own mortality (save for the peasant Gerasim), and especially in Ivan’s wrestling with whether he has lived a good life. There were many layers to peel away before he could get to the honest core of this question. It is only at the end of a long struggle that he breaks through his own defenses to the truth:
… the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.
… he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.
There is another dimension to this. Just like Ivan has been living in a cocoon of self-deception, the same is true for his colleagues and his family in their own ways. As mentioned above, they are all in denial about their own inevitable death. But without the harsh and inescapable pain to shock them into a sober honesty, we do not see these characters make any progress towards escaping that deception.
At the very end, in the last two or three hours of Ivan’s life, he experiences a conversion and rebirth. He breaks through into light. Tolstoy does not name Christ, but rather describes the change of heart and makes an oblique reference to God:
At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.
…He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.
… He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
Modern secular readers are probably tempted to view this as a moral reformation or a kind of epiphany, but Tolstoy clearly has something deeper in mind. It is quite common in literature for the conversion of characters to be described in ways that hint at Christ but do not explicitly name him. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. C.S. Lewis discusses it somewhere, commenting on the habit of medieval Christians to ‘hide’ Christ in pagan themes and deities in their fiction, something he does in his writing as well.
Nevertheless, the Christian reader can recognize many (though not all) of the elements of true conversion: conviction of sin, repentance for sin, and a changed heart with new desires. Is this fictional portrayal sufficient to point others towards faith in Christ for their salvation? No. But what good fiction (and good art generally) does is faithfully represent some part of reality, it serves as a signpost on the good road. In doing so it adds one more voice to that choir made up of countless voices, singing not the same note but a great and variegated harmony.