Trees & Flames: Reweaving the Threads

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.

A live oak with Spanish moss. Courtesy of David Price, Bok Tower Gardens

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.

Photo by Ashley Knedler on Unsplash

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?

Two Pairs of Articles

Today I’d like to draw your attention, dear reader, to two pairs of articles that I’ve come across in recent days. The first pair are non-identical twins – strangely similar articles that make essentially the same point. They both look at the gender insanity gripping our culture and reach back to a strange scene from C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength to make an important point about the effect of this insanity on everyone, but children most of all. Most of you know I rarely write more than a few paragraphs without coming around to an insight by Lewis, so there’s no big surprise here as to why I was drawn to his particular argument. Take a look at these articles:

Drag Queen Story Hour as the Objective Room – Craig Carter

Welcome to the Objective Room – Joe Rigney

Published two days apart, these two articles really are eerily similar. But rather than plagiarism, I suspect some common flash of insight or perhaps a conversation gave rise to these. If nothing else, these articles join that chorus of appreciative writings which continue to find much value in the thought of Lewis. He was able to see far better than most what was coming, and now that it has arrived, many of us are encountering in Lewis an antidote to what ails our age. The attentive reader will also see an important link between Lewis’ Objective Room and my recent reflections on modern architecture [link].

An early edition of THS, the third and final book in Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

The second pair of articles concerns the debate currently a-raging about Christian political involvement, and specifically the idea of Christian Nationalism. I don’t find myself landing firmly in either side of the debate, but I can see that all sides have valid concerns worth considering. Here are two articles, both by men I respect and admire, making their case.

“Christian Nationalism” Misrepresents Jesus, So We Should Reject It – Jonathan Leeman

Identity or Influence? A Protestant Response to Jonathan Leeman – Joe Rigney

Kudos to 9Marks for publishing the critical response to Leeman’s article. I think it’s vital for the brightest and most reasoned voices in the Christian community to make their arguments in public and in good faith. Sadly I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion about Christian Nationalism from both sides of the argument that is dismissive and unhelpful, bringing far more heat than light.

10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christian View on Psychedelics

Just a quick little post to say that my article got published on Rav Arora’s Substack, Noble Truths: Click here to read it. And I hope you will. I consider it a notable act of hospitality on his part to invite me to publicly disagree with him on this important topic and to offer my perspective.

In the process of writing and editing the piece, Rav and I have had two phone conversations as well. He asks a lot of really good and challenging questions, and forces me to think more carefully about my own positions. I appreciate that. The plan is to record a podcast where we revisit these themes and questions together.

I really didn’t plan to think and write so much about psychedelics, and I’m an unlikely candidate for the job, but here we are.

As I mentioned in a recent update post, I’m at T4G this week. We just finished the first day. It’s quite a production, let me tell you. But it’s been tremendous: encouraging, edifying, enjoyable. And the highlights are the random breakfast conversations in the hotel and reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in 10 years as much as the main sessions – which have been excellent. And I haven’t mentioned the singing or the books. Well, I can see why it’s been popular.

There’s been lots of discussion in the panels about the meaning of the current ‘moment’ in reformed evangelicalism, the conference’s role in that, and what comes next. I’ll surely have more thoughts, but for now I’m enjoying taking it all in.

Of Thirst and Living Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

The Reasons for Unbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

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

Here is the nub of Haldane’s critique:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lil’ Ellul on Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Book Fit for Any Time

Some works translate well across time, while others don’t. It’s interesting to me that intellectual and polemical works tend to be more temporally bound than spiritual literature. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, the portions that deal with the workings of the human heart can be read profitably by any Christian, while the portions dealing with the Manichean heresies are less accessible.

Some works are simply ageless; perennially helpful. I consider this book, Backslider, by Andrew Fuller, to be such a work. This short book is wholesome spiritual food for any Christian in any age.

I believe that the editing and reprinting of classic spiritual works from centuries past is one of the most beneficial things modern publishers can do. Ressourcement is one of the great needs of the church; to feed upon nutritious truth that has stood the test of time. This short handsome volume put out by H&E Publishing (Hesed & Emet) is a great example of that. The formatting and editing helps the book to look and feel comfortably accessible for modern readers.

Oh that it and works like it would be plastered on the front page of the ChristianBook.com catalogs that I receive rather than the thin modern drivel that is usually there.

But enough slightly self-righteous moaning about the shortcomings of modern evangelical publishing and on to the content of the book. Backslider is a short book, or lengthy tract, written to counsel believers who have backslidden to some degree in their walk with God. And this means it is applicable to every believer at least once in a while. Fuller’s pastoral sensitivity is on display as he nimbly diagnoses the various causes and sources of backsliding, warns the wanderer not to presume upon any later opportunity for repentance, and sets forth the ever-merciful heart of God which welcomes any and all who repent and turn to Him by faith in Christ.

Fuller identifies five categories of backsliding: 1. Relinquishing Evangelical Doctrine (abandoning orthodox beliefs); 2. Falling into Gross Immorality (moral failure); 3. The Love of the World; 4. Conformity to the World; and 5. Political Disputes.

I’ll admit I didn’t expect #5 (Political Disputes), but it contained many a timely word for us today. Listen to this insightful comment on how revolutionary movements lead Christians astray:

The flattering objects held out by revolutionists were so congenial with the wishes of humanity, and their pretenses to disinterested philanthropy so fair, that many religious people for a time, forgot their own principles. While gazing on the splendid spectacle, it did not occur to them that the wicked, whatever name they assumed, would do wickedly.

Backslider, page 19.

He concludes in this way concerning inordinate interest in politics: “It is not only contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, but tends in its own nature to eat up true religion.” That is a very good and timely word for us today.

To highlight just one example of Fuller’s characteristic careful thinking and balance, consider this comment, still on the topic of politics: “Nor does the danger belong exclusively to one side. We may sin by an adherence to the measures of a government, as well as by an opposition to them.”

I promise I am trying to get to the rest of the book, but, perhaps because of the particularly tumultuous politics of the last few years, or because I stand in need of it, this last paragraph on the danger of politics seems too good to pass by:

By standing aloof from all parties and approving themselves the friends of government and good order, by whom so ever administered, Christians would acquire a dignity of character worthy of their profession. They would be respected by all, and possess greater opportunities for doing good. By a contrary conduct, they render one part of the community their enemies and the other, I fear, would derive but little spiritual advantage from being their friends.

Backslider, page 25.

Fuller goes on to examine the various symptoms that accompany backsliding, such as a departure from our first love, and a self-justifying spirit. The next chapter explores the effects of such a state. How the ‘symptoms’ differ precisely from the ‘effects’, I am not entirely sure, but folks in those days sure did love to draw tiny distinctions and make lists, so we must not be too bothered by it. On page 48 I came across a gem of a quote which captures pithily what has been a pillar in my understanding of human sin since early in my Christian life: “There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.”

That is worth reading again.

There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.

The last chapter discusses the ‘Means of Recovery’. I conclude this review with a quote from that chapter which jumped out at me for its resonance with the singular theme of John Piper’s ministry, and more importantly, with the teaching of Scripture.

Sin is not to be opposed so much directly as indirectly; not by mere resistance, but by opposing other principles to it which shall overcome it. It is not by contending with the fire, especially with combustible materials about us, that we should be able to quench it, but by dealing plentifully with the opposite element. The pleasures of sense will not be effectually subdued by foregoing all enjoyment but by drinking deeply of other pleasures, the relish of which will deaden the heart to what is opposite.

Backslider, page 80.

In other words, fight the pleasures of sin with the pleasures of God. By delighting in God, our hearts lose their taste for the small paltry pleasures that sin promises but never delivers.

I trust that by now you can see this book is worthy of reading and re-reading. I hope it finds its way into many more hands and blesses, challenges, and encourages many more hearts like it did mine.

Reflection on The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

Say what you will about Murray, he is a pretty honest guy. And these days that is a rare quality. He is willing to say what many are not, and willing to ask questions which make people squirm. The on-the-ground feel of the book was one of its strengths. Murray draws on his travels and conversations for first-hand experience of the realities on the ground. Upon this foundation he builds his arguments using carefully researched statistics and citations.

I think there is a counter-argument to be made, and I hope it is made publicly. The problem seems to be that these important conversations and debates are so often being shut down with slurs and slanders before they can even begin. Despite the fact that Murray everywhere rejects far-right nationalism and racism, a quick glance at the reviews in major outlets shows that these accusations are often made.

While the entire book was interesting, the most fascinating part to me, as a Christian, was chapter 16, titled “The feeling that the story has run out.” In this chapter, Murray delves into the big questions: “What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” and reflects on the inability of modern Western Europeans to come up with satisfying answers: “the answers to these questions that we have held onto for centuries seem to have run out.” With striking clarity, Murray argues that modern Europe, with its culture of human rights and freedoms, is built on “beliefs that we have left behind…” And yet, despite acknowledging that this has prompted some “to become better acquainted with our own traditions,” such as Christianity, he says multiple times that modern people “cannot force themselves into sincere belief.” It is clear that he finds this to be true for himself as well as others.

In another striking part of this chapter, Murray reflects on a quote by Richard Dawkins to the effect that the theory of evolution bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin has solved ‘the greatest of all mysteries’: “Right there is the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist world view of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that our mystery has been solved – and although science has indeed solved part of it [notice how Murray is more modest in his claim than the ever-bombastic Dawkins] – most of us still do not feel solved.” Turning to the fact that humans are now shown to be highly evolved apes, he says “we also know that we are more than animals and that to live merely as animals would be to degrade this thing that we are. […] We know we are something else, even if we do now know what that else is.”

Perfectly anticipating my exasperation at his clear-headed insights and half-answers, the next line is: “Of course religious people find talk like this frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, ‘Why do you not just believe?’ Yet this latter question ignores the most likely irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal-truth claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.” He is exactly right that I find it frustrating, but he is exactly wrong about the question I would pose. ‘Why do you not just believe’ is a stupid question to ask someone whose intellect and reason have raised objections to the content of Christianity. Real faith does no violence to the intellect, although it may transcend it.

The most crucial part of the quote above is Murray’s listing of his two main intellectual objections to belief: ‘science’ and ‘historical criticism’. So the questions should be: ‘Why do you believe science and historical criticism make belief impossible? Have you taken the time to read the best responses to those objections? Why is it that there are leading thinkers in nearly every advanced field of scientific knowledge who are devout Christians? Do you understand the science better than them?’ It’s almost like he’s read the pamphlets put out by the atheists and thrown up his hands and said “so it’s hopeless – no intelligent person can believe this God stuff!”

But Murray is certainly correct that one cannot simply choose to believe. There is a mystery to true conversion; as Jesus explained to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Even once the intellectual objections are dealt with, there is a surrender, a yielding, an unveiling, an inner transformation, which only the Spirit’s work can accomplish.