I like the image of the bright green snake picked out by the editor, but the title I proposed fell a bit flat. I’m no expert in marketing or anything, but it seems there should be a little twist of intrigue in the title of a piece that piques the interest of the prospective reader. In my case, I just bluntly stated the thesis of my piece in three words and left it at that. No mystery. Upon further reflection, even adding a single word would have helped: How Pornography Poisons Everything. Ah, that’s better. Well, lesson learned.
Despite the title I’ve been very pleased with the engagement the piece has received, as it was linked to by the main TGC website and Twitter account as well as Tim Challies – major boosters of traffic! Such was their reach that I’ve now got a little radio interview scheduled to discuss the topic further with the fine folks at Moody Radio Florida. I expect this will consist of me trying hard not to say anything spectacularly stupid and my wife trying to keep the kids quiet while I talk into my computer.
I have been reflecting on the themes in the article for a number of years, so I am grateful that people seem to find it helpful, or at least confirming of some intuitions they held. What I tried to make clear is some of the subtle ways pornography influences individuals, families, churches, communities, and societies. I found it helpful to use a combination of Scripture and Natural Law reasoning (also known as common sense) to make this case.
I noted in the piece a shifting tide of opinion in some quarters on the question of pornography. The libertarian laissez-faire approach of “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt me” has proven disastrously inadequate for helping our society, and especially impressionable youth, deal with the wave of pornography that has multiplied proportionally with the spread of Wi-Fi and high-speed data-enabled cellphones with HD screens. And this all the more given the fact that foolish parents anxious to be liked by their teens are pushovers and give them these devices with absolutely no guardrails. Disaster.
So thoughtful people are waking up to the fact that this is noxious and dangerous stuff which is harming a whole generation recently come of age, and that wise leaders will no more allow this to go unrestricted and unregulated as they would let drug dealers open up booths in our community high schools and at local parks. Why? Because young people do not have the moral or even biological resources to muster up a strong defense against the open availability of such powerful stimulants. It’s been interesting to see secular people coming around to this realization and starting to make moral cases against not only open access to pornography for minors but the industry itself.
Another fascinating angle is the growing activism and legal challenge to the frankly criminal behavior of PornHub, the world’s biggest porn site. The lawsuits are huge, and well, money talks. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a large amount of content on that site which not only depicts heinous crimes but is criminal itself; freely available images and videos that may someday soon be entered as incriminating evidence in a trial. Outrage over that fact should be widespread and non-political, and I have hope that awareness is growing. While we’re on the subject, perhaps you want to sign the online petition over at Traffickinghub.com.
I hope to write more about this in the future, but in the meantime I need to write the promised Part 2 where I try to offer some help for those still ensnared and enslaved to porn. Stay tuned for that in coming weeks.
This brings me to a related topic: anthropology. I know, I know – another big word which we’ve all heard before but aren’t really sure what it means.
And for my most faithful readers, this will feel like a re-run of a previous post, but I’m firmly convinced that it is a necessary word to understand the nature of the rapid transformations taking place in our time. One of the most helpful thinkers in this regard is Carl Trueman, who has made the transition from church historian to cultural critic with great success. And boy can he write. Consider for example this article just published today over at First Things, where he responds to the same controversy I alluded to in my piece, namely the statement made by Dennis Prager that pornography use and lust are not necessarily morally wrong.
Prager’s statement reveals that he lacks a real grasp of what is causing the social and political problems that he claims to abhor: We live in a time of anthropological chaos, where the very notion of what it means to be human is no longer a matter of broad social and political consensus.
Pornography is a great example of this. Behind the problems that should have been obvious to Prager—the objectification of other people, the human trafficking, the transformation of sex into something that is self- rather than other-directed, the reduction of the participants to instruments of pleasure for the spectators—lies a basic philosophy of life that sees me, my desires, and my fulfillment at the core of what it means to be human. Pornography is thus part of an anthropological shift that manifests itself most obviously in sexual mores but is far more comprehensive in its significance.
Later, he adds:
Now, sex and pornography are the most dramatic examples of where this plays out, but they do not exist in isolation from broader considerations of what it means to be a human person. Therefore those, like Prager, who see pornography as having a legitimate function are complicit in this shift. And this change underlies no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and (in its subordination of the body and its functions to the individual’s sense of well-being) even transgenderism. It is foundational to the progressive cause. To concede here is to concede everywhere.
I do encourage you to read the whole thing. This analysis goes much deeper than the moral outrage of an offended conscience and gets at the roots of what is driving a multitude of bewildering cultural phenomena. We do not need the momentary heat of Twitter-depth indignation which tempts us to feel morally self-righteous. That is cheap. But we do need the light of historically-informed thinking that sees through the chaos and confusion of the day and makes clear the deep tectonic shifts happening in our culture. That is “men of Issachar” type stuff.
I hope, in some small way, to continue making contributions to that good work. As always, thanks for reading.
This is the reason you shall do it. For it brings you a pleasure which is unalloyed, an unmitigated good. I don’t know what it might be for you, this thing. I can think of a handful of things for me: writing, driving (not commuting), reading a good book, going for a walk with my wife, playing with my kids until the giggles and shrieks mingle, building or fixing something with my son, and so on.
By dint of our individual natures and life experiences we will each have some set of activities which tap into some simple and primal creaturely mirth. My exhortation is: do that. It’s good. Obviously some caveats are in order, such as, don’t sin, since sin by definition does not satisfy nor is it aligned with who we were made to be. But aside from that, there is broad freedom here.
For some, there are kinds of manual work which fall into this category. Probably not shoveling – though who knows? I’m thinking of something a little bit more skilled which passes the time and brings pleasure. The pleasure should not be dependent on the accomplishment of some task or goal. The thing I have in mind is not done for the sake of productivity or efficiency; it is anti-utilitarian. It’s the kind of thing that fills in the open spaces on the hourly planner, which doesn’t really cross any items off any list, but which never feels like wasted time.
In short, it is good to do some things for the sheer joy of it, and not for any other purpose. There is something here which we share with other creatures. While animals are guided largely by instincts, they each have their own personalities and they also engage in playfulness which has no strict Darwinian logic to it, not that I am a Darwinian. Sometimes a dog just wants to run around the yard in big loops as fast as it can. There’s a pleasure inherent to the sensation of motion, balance, and even the aesthetics of a finely executed jump or swoop. See for example how the birds seem to enjoy playing in the wind, for the same reason children and child-hearted adults enjoy holding their hand out the car window on the highway, playing on the flowing air like the aileron of a jet.
If your life is so full of lists and efficiency and every-moment-scheduled activity such that there is no room for these kinds of things, or if the thought of it induces a mix of anxiety and guilt because you’re captive to an inflexible productivity mindset, I shake my finger at you, though in a friendly way.
My friend, we are human beings, not machines. We are mind, body, soul, and spirit, not algorithm, subroutine, and hydraulics. A human life, at a human pace, is one of those universal aspirations of all people everywhere (with varied manifestations of course). The French term, joie de vivre captures something of this essential joy in being. To lose this thing I’m trying to describe in any measure is to slide towards the mechanistic, robotic, slave-like inhumanity. Chesterton makes a related point in his chapter called The Maniac in the book Orthodoxy. Allow me to quote the relevant section:
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
I rarely read Chesterton without a smile on. His writing is so colourful, even playful. His mind jumps around between ideas and is always running here and there on the page, the reader at times struggling to keep up. And then at the end of a few paragraphs he puts the finishing touches on some zany idea and it comes into focus for the reader with a shock, like having been led into the Sistine chapel in darkness and then having someone suddenly flip on the lights. (Does the Sistine chapel have artificial lights? My metaphor depends on it.) I remember when I first read this paragraph above, how delighted I was. I had never thought of reason and madness that way before, and it gave me a new and permanent enjoyment of little ’causeless’ and ‘useless’ actions. Children are, of course, the ultimate example of this. They are playfulness incarnate, and have much to teach us in this regard.
Another fine example comes from the movie Chariots of Fire, where a conflict arises between the gifted runner Eric Liddell and his ministry-focused sister. She thinks he should quit running since it accomplishes nothing for the kingdom, but he sees something in the running that she cannot – some worth that is in and of itself, not dependent on some other measurable accomplishment. “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” But lest this attitude be taken as a being fundamentally at odds with a life lived fully for God’s glory, I want to point out that after his epic performance in the 1924 Olympics, during which his conviction to keep the Sabbath engendered no small amount of publicity, he became a missionary to China where he eventually died at the age of 43, a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2. His love, concern, and self-sacrificing generosity towards his fellow inmates left an indelible mark on those who survived.
There is an application here for those in demanding and important vocations, perhaps especially ministry, since it concerns eternal things. There is an understandable way of thinking that says something like I can’t possibly read a novel or take up a hobby or learn a new instrument when there are people suffering and I can do something about it. This can work for a while, but I see at least three problems with it.First, this mentality is at odds with the natural rhythms of work and rest that God has designed us for. This attitude leads towards burnout. Second, there is a messiah complex, or the seeds of it, in that approach. Third, a life crammed to the ceiling with work is not a good model for others to emulate. Those in ministry especially are to be ‘an example’ to regular folks. But a life with no margin, no niches carved out for the simple pleasures described above, is not balanced or healthy. This is not to say we should not work hard, put in long hours, or have certain seasons of especially intense exertion. One can do all those things and yet preserve the kind of childlikeness, freedom to rest, and simple pleasures I’ve been trying to describe.
So to return to my opening exhortation: go ahead and do that thing for the sheer joy of it. Who knows? You may even find yourself feeling God’s pleasure in it.
Our family was recently in the US for a week and a half of vacation. I love America: I have equal parts fascination and affection for that inimitable nation, and I follow its happenings more closely than is probably healthy. I feel much like Os Guinness, the English social critic and apologist who describes himself as an interested outsider peering in, inspired and at times horrified by what transpires in the world’s premier superpower. I agree with him that as the leading nation, it has outsized influence upon the West (and indeed the entire globe). Therefore anyone concerned with the present and future state of the world will pay close attention to the trends at work in the US of A.
But my purpose in writing today is not to tease out any of those world-shaping trends or big ideas. Rather, I just want to make some whimsical observations about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of America, something only an outsider can do. What follows is a series of scattered observations by a Canadian travelling through America.
Our trip to and from South Carolina included stops in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) and Washington DC, including many hours on the I-81 and I-95. After so many hours on the interstate system, the whole thing blurs together into a kind of American highway casserole. The McDonalds, Cracker Barrels, and Sheetz gas stations; the rest stops and truck stops; the vehicles abandoned on the side of the road with a shirt fluttering out of the window; and most of all: the billboards. Compared to Canada, America has really turned billboards into its own art form. One might say that first America managed to transform every message it values into billboards, and then the billboard reshaped American culture into its own image.
Where else can you see billboards fighting for the very souls of motorists? Where else are ultimate matters routinely addressed on giant wooden placards as one races down the road towards the dentist, groceries, or vacation? In Canada, motorists are mostly left to decide ultimate matters for themselves, and are instead presented with products to buy or, at times, public announcements. Here are a few examples of the messages presented to motorists in America. “Jesus is the Answer. John 3:16.” “After you die, You will meet God.” And then there are some that are even a little more blunt, if that is possible. One of them features bold red block letters on a plain yellowy-beige background and says, “FORGIVE MY SINS, JESUS, SAVE MY SOUL.”
And then come the counter-billboards, here to set people free from the benighted ignorance of these silly fundamentalists. “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” “Just skip church. It’s all FAKE NEWS!” Along similar lines are the billboards appealing to our vices. “Adult Fantasy Store, Exit 100!” And when we finally arrived to Exit 100, where the billboards had promised fulfilled fantasies and illicit pleasures, someone had put up a big billboard: “Life is short. Eternity isn’t. – God.”
Only in America.
The billboards waging spiritual war capture something about America: the reign of marketing. Of course we have marketing in Canada too, but in America it feels like everything is marketed. The essence of marketing is the marriage of image and slogan, logo and tagline, meme and hashtag. To market something means to commodify it, to sell it. And some things, sacred things, ought not be treated this way. Am I saying I wish there weren’t billboards calling on people to consider the truths of the Scriptures and trust in Christ? Not quite. I’m not sure how I feel about it. But something about it does make me uneasy. To boil down the message of Christianity to 6 or 8 words on a billboard is to do something to that message, even if I’m not sure how to express the nature of that something. McLuhan’s insight was that the medium is the message. So part of my uneasiness about the Christian billboards is the implication that Christ for your soul is the same kind of thing as Chick-Fil-A for your stomach or the University of Pennsylvania for your education. But one of these things is not like the others, and to treat them more or less the same seems to me a uniquely American phenomenon.
Speaking of billboards, what is the deal with lawyers and billboards? Do the billboard salespeople give lawyers a 50% discount? Are all these lawyers really getting lucrative lawsuits from these kinds of billboards? “Motorcycle Accident? Call FRED!” “Injured in a CAR WRECK? 1-800-GET-PAID.” I even saw one that said “BIRTH DEFECT? AGE 0-21. CALL ME!” This whole idea is foreign to me. I’ve been in a couple of car accidents, one of which was my fault; the other which was not. But never once did it cross my mind that there was anyone to sue. I’m left with myriad questions: Just who is being sued here? The other driver? The car-marker? The transport authority? I haven’t the foggiest. And what kind of accident would warrant a lawsuit? Do people rub their hands together with glee when they get rear-ended in traffic? Maybe if you were driving down the road and the steering wheel suddenly popped off in your hands you could sue your carmaker. Or what if I was driving down the road and was distracted by all the lawyer billboards and went into the ditch, could I sue the lawyers? Is there a lawyer somewhere specializing in suing other lawyers who put up distracting billboards?
On a slightly more serious note, this idea that I might be able to blame someone for an event and then receive significant financial recompense seems subtly insidious. It encourages the weaponization of victimhood. When bad things happen, as a general principle it is not good to fixate on the past and embrace the role of the innocent injured party who is crusading for justice. Of course in egregious cases this is precisely the thing to do, but I’m speaking of your typical accident. It seems to me that the promise of financial reward for being a victim creates incentives to twist the truth, leave out inconvenient facts, and generally misrepresent the case – probably in ways that may not even be obvious to the person doing it. That’s how incentives often work, on a subconscious level.
Speaking of the subconscious, it seems to me that Americans really do love everything to be bigger, especially vehicles. I have been a careful observer of what vehicles are on the road since I was a young teenager obsessed with cars. I worked to memorize every make and model, and thus I have a good sense of what is driving around. My son seems to have caught this bug, and he happily spent much of the drive looking to spot one of the hundred vehicles I put on a list for him (we found all but seven). Car companies typically offer a range of vehicles from most affordable and smallest to most expensive and large. So we have the Toyota Yaris or Corolla at one end and the Avalon or fully loaded Camry at the other; the Hyundai Accent and the Genesis G90; the GMC Terrain and the Yukon. In Canada the ratio is typically something like 15 or 20 most affordable vehicles for every most expensive one. In America, the ratio is more like 5 to 1 – a massive difference. Everyone seems to want the biggest thing available, whatever is on the last page of the brochure. “Fully loaded, top of the line.” “Super size it.” And inevitably the vast majority of the largest SUVs – the Escalades, Range Rovers, Suburbans – are driven by petite women with large sunglasses.
Herein lies another facet of that mysterious American temperament.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of our vacation was visiting the epic architecture of both the Pennsylvania State Capitol as well as DC landmarks, specifically the Capitol building, Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. My appreciation for architecture has been growing exponentially over the last few years as I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of how our architecture is vitally connected to our ultimate beliefs. So it was with a kind of awestruck stupor that I gazed up at the majestic scope and ornate designs of these buildings. They are beautiful. And more striking still, they explicitly connect their own grandeur and beauty to the loftiness of the ideals which inspired them. Inscribed in marble and written in tiled mosaics were Bible verses and quotes from past luminaries who spoke of the essential natures of justice, liberty, goodness, and truth. Enduring truths etched into stone.
I know that America has never lived up to its ideals, but it must be said that America, more than any other nation I know of, has most clearly and elegantly elucidated its ideals in its founding documents and core institutions. As my gaze moved from the permanent truths which were encoded into the very beams of those buildings to the politicized bumper stickers adorning some of the congressional offices, and as I thought of the raw partisanship and frothing polemics used by both American political parties, the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy on display among the ranks of each, and the general small-mindedness and incoherence of their political visions, I was left feeling that we are not worthy of this inheritance.
At the back of the Supreme Court building is written, “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.” The front of the building proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.”
These buildings, these institutions and ideals, they aspired to something truly noble. Like I said, they never achieved it in full measure, but just like hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, so our failure to live up to the ideals we embrace as a culture are a tribute to the fact that we have set our sights on something lofty. Increasingly it seems like we aren’t sure we have ideals, or if we should even have any. Instead of choosing something to define us, we avoid choosing by choosing to be defined by a hollow diversity. The West has by and large decided that the way to deal with its failure to live up to its ideals is to reject those ideals as well as the Christianity from which those ideals grew.
I love America, that land of searing contrasts, that paragon of both freedom and folly, liberty and license, virtue and vice.
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.
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.
Okay, yes, I did read this glossy author-on-the-cover reality TV star’s co-written faith ‘memoir.’ Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I avoid any book with the author on the cover like a slug avoids the salt shaker. I know what I’m likely to find behind the cover: smarmy tone, bland prose, predictable writing – But! There were extenuating circumstances, your Honor. You see, my wife, whom I love, watched the Duggar show for a while (and possibly I sat beside her at various points while it was on – who can say?), and so she was interested in the book, and we were on a long road trip, and we had free access to it via Scribd, and it purported to be a kind of reverse-deconstruction of the author’s faith, a topic which has interested me for some time. So you see? Anyone would have read this book in such circumstances. Good, I’m glad we got that out of the way.
Frankly, I had quite low expectations, so I can say it was better than I expected. The story, in case you’re not up to speed, is that Jinger Duggar grew up in a uber-conservative subset of American evangelicalism that had many elements of your typical cult. Centered around the person and teaching of Bill Gothard, a one-time Wheaton grad and inner city youth minister, it focused heavily on external issues of morality such modest dress, courting instead of dating, having lots of children, shunning debt and mortgages, not drinking alcohol, not listening to secular music, etc. Her family had a long-running reality TV show because they had 19 kids and seemed like a strange artifact of American culture. The whole thing took a dark turn when the eldest Duggar son, Josh, was accused of molesting some sisters and eventually got caught with child pornography and was hauled off to jail where he remains. Gothard was also accused by scores of the young attractive women he staffed his headquarters with of sexual misconduct of various kinds.
Gothard’s ministry was called the Institute for Biblical Life Principles (IBLP) and the whole thing sounds to me like a giant collection of red flags literally on fire. But clearly quite a few thousand people were taken in hook, line, and sinker. As with other legalistic and unbiblical religious groups, you can’t help but have a lot of compassion for the people raised in it. And it’s not surprising that a huge chunk of them leave Christianity behind completely, imagining it to be equated with what they knew growing up.
This book does a decent job of drawing important distinctions between the legalism of IBLP (and ultra-conservative fundamentalism in general) and the gospel of Christ. The story, such as it is, is pretty interesting and is written in a simple, straightforward style. The narrative is interspersed with lengthy treatments of Gothard’s teaching and explanations of Jinger’s new understanding. There is a certain irony in the fact that Jinger recovers from the fundamentalism of IBLP by landing at Grace Church in California, a place which many within evangelicalism would equate with a kind of quasi-fundamentalism. I wouldn’t totally agree with that characterization but there’s no denying that Grace is very conservative.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the author’s description of how her view of God changed as she ‘disentangled’ the beliefs she absorbed from Gothard from the truth of Scripture. I recently re-read Sinclair Ferguson’s superb ‘The Whole Christ,’ wherein he shows how legalism and antinomianism share a common rotten root, one which reaches all the way back to the garden, and that this root is a suspicion that the heart of God the Father is not one of love, mercy, and grace. So this God must be appeased with performance and religious duties lest he be angry and withhold the good things we want.
At one point, Jinger quotes Gothard as telling a woman whose life was a sinful mess that she needed to clean up her life before Christ could come into it. As Ferguson shows, this is more or less the same instinct as some in the Church of Scotland had during the Marrow Controversy and the debates over whether the gospel should be freely offered to all or only towards the truly repentent.
It is nothing less than an anti-gospel, and it enslaves rather than frees. It sees the Father as one who holds back the benefits of redemption through his Son until the person has made themselves worthy to receive them. But as Ferguson points out, this results in a grave error, the separation of Christ from His benefits, and it breeds spiritual sickness rather than health.
Rather, the Father has sent the Son because he loves us, and all who turn to Christ in repentance and faith receive Him and all the manifold gifts of redemption. The believer is united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the greatest gift – for in Him are all the benefits, and through Him we are reconciled to the Father, and it is His Spirit by which we are sealed and with which we are filled.
It’s hard to overstate the distance between this rich and glorious gospel and the paltry saltine cracker ‘gospel’ of IBLP and Bill Gothard. This book made me thankful for the wonderful teaching I found and received early in my Christian life which helped me grasp not only the pulsing heart of the gospel but the grand sweep of Scripture’s united narrative, the history of redemption.
I have to say there’s a certain amount of righteous anger I feel towards the people who run these legalistic religious systems based on the Bible. I was stunned to hear that Jinger, despite having grown up in a supposedly very ‘Christian’ environment for her entire life, had never heard decent expository preaching (only proof-texting), nor an explanation of how the two Testaments fit together, nor how Christ fulfilled the law, nor had she ever heard a real God-centered emphasis on His glory and character, nor been given any sense of the historical placement of her community’s tiny slice of Christian belief within the grand scope of Christendom, nor had Romans 14 or the concept of liberty over disputable matters or the Christian conscience ever been explained to her, nor had she been shown how all of Scripture is ONE story which all culminates in Jesus. What!? Was it really all about how long skirts should be and avoiding rock music? These poor people.
I’m glad Jinger managed to disentangle that mess and find that Christ is far better. Given the size of the audience for their now-ended TV show and the toxic level of interest many Americans have towards the lives of celebrities, I’m sure it will be read by many. I think it could be helpful for some, especially those who grew up in IBLP or similar legalistic groups. If some are thereby guided towards a living faith in the real Christ through a richer understanding of the gospel, then all I have to say is: Thanks be to God.
Earlier this week my interview with Jeremy Pryor was published at TGC. If you haven’t seen that yet, do check it out. As I wrote in my intro to the interview, Jeremy consistently makes me think about things differently and see them from a new angle. Recently he managed to ruin a new kids’ TV show that I thought was pretty good – Bluey. Well, considering many of the alternatives, it still manages to shine, but the issues he raises about its portrayal of fatherhood and motherhood are valid. He offers some further thoughts here. My kids even noticed it: “The dad never goes to work!” While I was charmed at first with the portrayal of a fully engaged father, which is a course-correction of sorts from the absent and disengaged father, and which I try hard to be for my own kids, I also noticed a number of subtle things that didn’t sit quite right. Jeremy merely helped me put words to what those things were.
So back to the interview. At TGC we had a certain word-count that limited us from including the longest interview question and answer from our conversation. I thought I would include it here below. My question was trying to point in one particular direction, but Jeremy took things in a slightly different direction with his answer, and it gave me a lot to think about. Until recently I haven’t ever thought about the categorical difference between working for a wage and owning assets which generate income. But that’s why I read people like Jeremy who force me to examine my own assumptions.
Here is the Q & A, with some further comments afterwards:
Phil: Looking back at the history of evangelical leaders, we see quite a wide range in terms of family life. On one end we might look at John Wesley, who famously did not seem to be a stellar husband; On the other end, we can look at Jonathan Edwards and see not only a vibrant and loving family but a multigenerational family legacy. Pastors and Christian leaders today have a demanding and complex vocation that places unique stresses on their families, and I know most of them want to emulate Edwards here rather than Wesley. What is your advice to them? What do you think ministry minded Christians can miss when it comes to the family?
J.P.: I have a pretty unusual position with regards to this question. One of the things you see with Abraham is that a big part of how a man grows into fatherhood is through facing the multiple challenges of providing for his family. Working to provide for one’s family disciples a man into fatherhood; it’s a really important element. But one of the problems with ministry is that it’s a difficult vocation for that kind of discipleship to take place in appropriate ways. So you have Paul saying in 1 Timothy 3 that the people who should be overseeing the church are essentially the most successful fathers in the city — that’s how I read what he’s saying there.
This is really strange when you think about the challenges of ministry because a lot of times the ministry pathway has not properly discipled men to become the kinds of fathers who know how to manage a complex household. They can tend to live a very atomized life where they have disintegrated their spiritual lives from their ministry lives and their family life. There’s a lot of strangeness that can happen when you’re not working in a more traditional way to provide for your family.
I see it as an alternative pathway or narrative: a ministry narrative. In this narrative the driving concerns are things like what it means to grow a church, or to expand in ministry. Part of the goal of that pathway is freeing up one’s time from having to do the kinds of things that men typically do: pleasing a boss, serving clients, building assets, and doing traditional fatherhood things. In Jewish culture this is very different, and I think maybe this is one of the things we can learn as Christians. For example, most Rabbis have businesses. So I’m drawn much more to a bi-vocational approach.
One of the things I’m very concerned about for every family, whether they work in ministry or not, is what happens to the father when he’s in his 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. This is where I think the wage-earning model breaks down the worst. This is a season of life where you should be dedicated to your grandchildren and available to disciple and lead that growing and expanding household. This requires you to have access to your time in a unique way. But in the way most career paths are designed in our culture, that is the time when you reach your peak earning potential, when work responsibilities are heaviest, and so you have less access to your time. So that’s just one example of where living this disintegrated life, where your source of money is distanced from your household and how it functions, causes problems.
There’s a lot more to be said, but I do believe every family should pursue asset building at a young age, even young ministry families. Build assets. Churches should be assisting people who have a ministry calling to acquire assets and not to be endlessly dependent on the church for their income all the way into their old age. To me that’s bad family design.
It’s important to say as well that there is one group that is totally exempt from this kind of thinking and that is single people who have made a lifelong vow of singleness. I think they represent one of the most untapped resources in the church. Many if not most of the stories in the NT are of single people who are on mission who are “undivided,” as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 7. They have particular gifts and they’re an incredible resource to the kingdom. There’s a constant synergy happening between the single missionaries going out in teams and the households supporting them in various cities. You see this throughout the book of Acts and Jesus talks about this specifically as a strategy in Luke 10. This ministry strategy seems to have been almost completely abandoned, and so you have this epidemic of single people living like they’re married and married people that are in ministry living like singles.
This whole issue of the financial viability of entering full-time ministry is increasingly important in our Canadian context. With the price of living increasing year over year, especially near urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and the salaries of pastors being very slow to follow, what was already a very dicey prospect is becoming simply untenable. I personally know of multiple ministry families forced to live in small apartments with two or three children long after their age cohort has by and large found semi-detached or detached housing where one can have just a bit more room and a little yard for the kids to run around in.
One such family had a bit of a sweet deal in terms of the rent they were paying for their apartment. Then all of a sudden the owner announced he was selling the place and they would have to move out. There was literally nothing available in their price range, given his salary as an associate pastor. So now they are leaving that city and looking to take up a pastorate where they can afford even basic housing. In a number of these cases the churches themselves are healthy and, as far as I know, not ungenerous. But the economic realities are simply brutal.
My anecdotal observations of ministry families is that more and more of them are adopting the modern two-salary approach where both parents work. While some of this may be preference, it is also increasingly a necessity. As someone who has been considering pastoral work on and off for the last ten years (that’s a story for another day), and who has even gone through one candidating process, I can tell you that it’s really hard to make the numbers work on one salary. In fact, our conclusion was that the math simply didn’t work no matter how we sliced it. And it wasn’t like we had a penchant for expensive dining out or regular tropical vacations that made the math difficult. We stripped that budget down to the bare necessities (as the song goes) and could not find anywhere to rent or any mortgage where we’d have enough left over to live on, as in have basic food to eat, second-hand clothes to wear, and a beater of a car that I keep running through doing my own mechanical work and ordering parts on rockauto.com, which I like to do anyways.
This experience had us wondering just how the heck ministry families are making this gig work. And the answer, for many, is to have both parents working. Another avenue would be to have a generous patron, such as a grandparent who provides housing or some other significant assistance. For families who feel strongly about the wife staying home with the children, or even homeschooling them, is vocational ministry even possible? As I think of the Millennials I know currently in ministry, only two of them among more than a dozen are able to survive on the one income. And in both of those cases, they either got into the housing market before it went crazy or have free housing as part of the position.
See this Facebook post by Paul Carter, as well as the comments, for a sense of how pressing this issue is for the Canadian church. Over the years I’ve often come across the attitude that says something like “keeping the pastor poor will keep him holy.” There are other variations of it: “When I started in ministry I made $200 a month but God always provided.” For which, let me be clear, I certainly praise God. But the premise leads some to say we needn’t worry about paying pastors a fair wage on which they can support a family. Surely God’s past provision does not mean we ought to presume upon it when He has given the church the financial resources to be the vehicle of that provision.
What Jeremy Pryor describes in the answer to my question above is an interesting alternative track. By and large the modern ministry pathway follows something like the Charles Spurgeon trajectory: early identification of spiritual gifts, encouragement to take on roles of spiritual leadership, perhaps some special training like Bible College or Seminary, and then entry into full-time paid ministry in one’s early 20’s, perhaps as an associate or youth pastor, or perhaps as a lead pastor of a smaller church. The trajectory then is increasing responsibility and ministry success with increasing wages over the years. And obviously in many cases this has worked just fine.
But the alternative is interesting to consider as well. We would be mistaken to assume the sequence above is somehow the only Biblical model. A lot of it is cultural and a reflection of the forces at work in our modern society to professionalize every vocation. The bi-vocational model can be controversial. I admit that when I think of it I often picture a man pulled hard in two opposite directions, working two jobs that demand too much time and deliver not much money, so that it ends up being a kind of trap. He can’t focus enough on the ministry to grow it and make it financially viable, nor can he devote enough time to advance in the other job and earn a significantly better wage. But that is just one poor variation of it. I think it would be good if the church at large elevated multiple models providing alternative approaches to how this can be done well.
As the boomer generation retires from church leadership these matters will take on ever-increasing urgency, and I’m thankful for those who are doing their best to raise this issue. We may have to start thinking outside the box, learning from other models and adapting to the needs, while being careful to remain faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture about the qualifications for ministry.
The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?
Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.
For the Virtual elite, the most unforgiveable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment – it’s one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.
So expect the Virtuals of the ruling class to double down on trying to exert control, moving with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the machine. Self-driving truck startups are about to have an excellent next funding round.
So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.
Trueman’s piece is important and helpful because he focuses in on anthropology. Anthropology is the study of man – what is man? What is human nature? He traces the loss of broad agreement on the answer to those questions from the Reformation to today. He makes an important point that I am not at all convinced most Christians are clear on:
Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.
When I was growing up, I saw the conflict between orthodox belief and the unbelieving culture in the issues of exclusivity (Jesus as the only way to salvation) and sexual morality. But then over the course of my 20’s and early 30’s it dawned on me that a more fundamental divide was emerging, that of anthropology. Trueman does a good job making that divide clear in his piece.
What first alerted me to the deep significance of one’s anthropology was the difference I observed between the ‘Christian counseling’ content I read in popular books and through some teachers at my Bible College and the ‘Biblical counseling’ content I was starting to come across from David Powlison, Paul Tripp and others at CCEF. Much of that difference boiled down to two very different ways of seeing the human person. The former approach adopted rather uncritically the concepts of secular psychology and tweaked the therapeutic advice to accord with Biblical statements. But the latter approach questioned the premises of secular psychology and sought to arrive at an understanding of human nature that was deeply informed by the Scriptures. This approach led to a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted effects of indwelling sin and of life lived in a broken world.
The writing and teaching of the folks at CCEF struck me as qualitatively different from what I had encountered in the popular Christian psychologists like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. Larry Crabb, though their work was still very helpful in some ways. Nevertheless, this experience settled a conviction for me that a thoroughly Biblical anthropology was crucial for building on. Simply put, it serves as the substructure for your view of sanctification and human flourishing. This experience also convinced me that this was one of the areas where regular church folks and ministry leaders had imbibed an awful lot of unbiblical assumptions from the world around them.
Fast forward to today and we find that many of the most pressing moral issues of our time are directly related to the question of human nature: transgender ideology, the dystopian dreams of the transhumanists, and the advances of AI.
Now, more than ever, the church needs to search the Scriptures diligently and gain a new level of clarity and conviction on what human nature is, what God’s intent for humanity is, and how this informs our response to the challenges that are coming at us with increasing complexity and velocity day by day.
While Trueman closes his piece with a glimmer of hope, his overall analysis is very sobering. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is how he wraps it up:
Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.
The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.
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.
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.
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.
The following is an excerpt from a longer work I’ve been chipping away at for a few months. It’s a mix of storytelling and reflection. My vision for this work is that it would be an ideal companion for sitting quietly and enjoying a half hour of pleasant reading; in a word: enjoyable, thoughtful, at times edifying. If this is something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below!
I love trees. They fascinate me, they enchant me. I can stare at a massive tree for a long time, just soaking in the size, solidity, solemnity, and sagacity of that being. I don’t believe trees are conscious like we are, but they do have life as well as a kind of wisdom. They know how to grow, how to find the sun, and how to dig roots down when they feel the wind. Did you know that trees that don’t feel any wind do not put down strong roots? Some researchers found this out when they grew trees inside a completely sealed dome. The trees grew tall but then broke and fell over under their own weight much younger than in the wild. It was discovered that the lack of wind and stress on the body of the tree meant it never put down deep roots. If that’s not a kind of wisdom, I don’t know what is.
My family and I have traveled down to South Carolina a few times near the end of winter to get a jump start on summer. One of my very favorite things about being in the lowcountry (as they call it down there) is the massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss. These behemoth trees have sprawling branches that reach out and up in a way that our trees up here just don’t. It makes for a tree of mesmerizing size and branches with lovely whimsical shapes. The Spanish moss adds a delicate beauty as it hangs down silvery gray from those great limbs, similar to the way freshly fallen snow adorns our northern trees and makes them lovely to behold.
Despite my romanticism about trees, I accept that they must be cut down for our use; and because of my romanticism, I don’t take that reality lightly. It means something to me when I put those logs of fragrant maple, solid oak, or sinewy ash into the fire. These great trees did something we cannot do: transformed CO2, sunlight, water, and ground nutrients into solid substance (and solid fuel). It’s a kind of alchemy, isn’t it? We let the familiarity of it rob us of the proper wonder. You try to take those ingredients and make something that can hold up a house for 100 years (as the logs in my basement have done) and also keep it warm and cozy.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Modern man is alienated, buffered. In our suits of technology and mass culture we are far removed from the primal realities of the wilderness from which we all came. Our ancestors knew how to make fire, or they died. They knew how to find food, or they died. They also knew the night sky. So much of our modern fiction and storytelling wrestles with this desire to reconnect with that lost world. A part of us admires the man or family who leaves all behind to live in a remote cabin; a part of us envies the blessed simplicity of the castaway’s life. We cope with this in all kinds of ways: We go camping, we put our kids into scouting or other nature programs, we watch Survivor or other similar survival-themed entertainment.
We do need technology to protect us from the elements. Clothing is the first technology; it shows up in chapter 3 of Genesis. It creates a layer of protective distance between our vulnerable bodies and the things which can harm them. Every subsequent technology adds more protection or helps to facilitate survival; but in so doing it further distances us from the raw experience of nature. And so a part of us always longs for those raw unmediated experiences of nature. As a teenager I walked to my local park in the middle of a violent thunderstorm to better see, feel, hear — to experience the raw power of that event. I wanted to feel small. At the ocean I love to feel the big waves crashing onto shore as they push and pull my body. I want to feel a little bit of the incalculable power of the waters.
Let me bring this back to chopping wood. There’s something raw and real about taking a tree, chopping it down, drying it, and then burning it to keep myself and my family from freezing to death during the long harsh winter months. Unlike electric heat, which needs massive infrastructure to produce and then deliver the energy, or heating oil, which is extracted out of some faraway hole in the ground, refined in some dystopian maze of pipes and tanks, and finally delivered to my house by a large truck, the process of producing the wood to run my woodstove doesn’t need to include anyone or anything outside my own property. And my point is that this distinction is significant, and that this is part of the reason why I — and so many others — enjoy chopping wood and heating with it.
Humans have been gathering around fires since beyond the horizon of memory. Warmth and light. Hands outstretched to thaw stiff fingers. How many endless hours did our distant ancestors spend staring silently into the dancing flames? The flickering light and unpredictable leaps and licks of flame casts a spell over us. It is a kind of hypnotism, and we fall into a trance. The conversations that take place at such a time are of a different quality. They are slower, lower in volume, punctuated by longer silences, and more confidential. It is around the fire that the previously untold chapter is revealed, that some hidden pain or secret hope is unveiled. Time passes differently when we gaze into the fire. And unlike time spent gazing at a screen, I have a hard time imagining that time spent staring into the flames was wasted; some good thing is communicated to the soul.
One of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible is John 21, the restoration of Peter. It’s a masterfully human story of failure, dejection, and doubt. Though the prose is sparse, the scene is charged with emotion. Peter, once a self-strong man, is an empty husk, gutted by his own betrayal of Jesus. The way Jesus takes him aside and gently restores him is, for me, one of the most moving episodes of the entire gospels.
But I’m getting distracted. My point is that tucked away in the first half of that chapter is a little detail which takes on a special significance in the context of this discussion. Namely, in this passage we find the only instance in the gospels of Jesus sitting around a fire. Doubtless it was an almost daily reality, given the nomadic nature of his public ministry, but here is the only time we are given a clear glimpse of the scene. We find Christ having kindled a fire on the shore and cooking some fish for breakfast. And it makes me wonder: what did he think when those first few smoky flames were lit?
Did he think back to the first blast of heat and light on that first day of creation? Did he think of the flaming sword in the hand of the cherubim at the entrance of the now-forbidden garden? Or did he think back to an astonished Moses standing before a flaming, burning bush, somehow unconsumed by the One who calls himself a consuming fire? Or how about the pillar of fire that held back the Egyptian army on the shores of the Red Sea? Perhaps for a moment he thought of that memorable day in Babylon when he (surely it was he, the fourth man in the fire?) stood in the midst of the raging fury of the king’s furnace with his three faithful followers, unscathed.
Who knows what he thought. But here was Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, making a fire on the quiet morning shores of Galilee, kindling flames that share their essence with every fire which came before, flames which harken back to all those sacred scenes.
Some important thread holds all those moments together in the mind of God, the architect of history. For in reality there are no unsacred places or moments at all – that is an illusion of the unbelieving mind. Meaninglessness itself is an illusion, it is alien to the world as God made it. All of us are somewhere along in the process of learning to see the world rightly, which is to say, shimmering with meaning. And part of that process, it seems to me, is learning to weave back together the separate and disconnected threads of our experience by following the master key of the Scriptures. This is re-enchantment.
So here are the few threads I’m fumbling with at the moment: God describes himself as a consuming fire. He manifests his presence as fire to Moses and the Israelites. And we all experience fire, its radiant light and warmth along with the dangers of burns and destruction. But do we make the link from the flame to the Father?
Do we, as Lewis said, run back up the sunbeam to the sun?
Do we weave back together what our fallen minds have pulled apart?
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.