Some works translate well across time, while others don’t. It’s interesting to me that intellectual and polemical works tend to be more temporally bound than spiritual literature. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, the portions that deal with the workings of the human heart can be read profitably by any Christian, while the portions dealing with the Manichean heresies are less accessible.
Some works are simply ageless; perennially helpful. I consider this book, Backslider, by Andrew Fuller, to be such a work. This short book is wholesome spiritual food for any Christian in any age.
I believe that the editing and reprinting of classic spiritual works from centuries past is one of the most beneficial things modern publishers can do. Ressourcement is one of the great needs of the church; to feed upon nutritious truth that has stood the test of time. This short handsome volume put out by H&E Publishing (Hesed & Emet) is a great example of that. The formatting and editing helps the book to look and feel comfortably accessible for modern readers.
Oh that it and works like it would be plastered on the front page of the ChristianBook.com catalogs that I receive rather than the thin modern drivel that is usually there.
But enough slightly self-righteous moaning about the shortcomings of modern evangelical publishing and on to the content of the book. Backslider is a short book, or lengthy tract, written to counsel believers who have backslidden to some degree in their walk with God. And this means it is applicable to every believer at least once in a while. Fuller’s pastoral sensitivity is on display as he nimbly diagnoses the various causes and sources of backsliding, warns the wanderer not to presume upon any later opportunity for repentance, and sets forth the ever-merciful heart of God which welcomes any and all who repent and turn to Him by faith in Christ.
Fuller identifies five categories of backsliding: 1. Relinquishing Evangelical Doctrine (abandoning orthodox beliefs); 2. Falling into Gross Immorality (moral failure); 3. The Love of the World; 4. Conformity to the World; and 5. Political Disputes.
I’ll admit I didn’t expect #5 (Political Disputes), but it contained many a timely word for us today. Listen to this insightful comment on how revolutionary movements lead Christians astray:
The flattering objects held out by revolutionists were so congenial with the wishes of humanity, and their pretenses to disinterested philanthropy so fair, that many religious people for a time, forgot their own principles. While gazing on the splendid spectacle, it did not occur to them that the wicked, whatever name they assumed, would do wickedly.
Backslider, page 19.
He concludes in this way concerning inordinate interest in politics: “It is not only contrary to the whole tenor of the New Testament, but tends in its own nature to eat up true religion.” That is a very good and timely word for us today.
To highlight just one example of Fuller’s characteristic careful thinking and balance, consider this comment, still on the topic of politics: “Nor does the danger belong exclusively to one side. We may sin by an adherence to the measures of a government, as well as by an opposition to them.”
I promise I am trying to get to the rest of the book, but, perhaps because of the particularly tumultuous politics of the last few years, or because I stand in need of it, this last paragraph on the danger of politics seems too good to pass by:
By standing aloof from all parties and approving themselves the friends of government and good order, by whom so ever administered, Christians would acquire a dignity of character worthy of their profession. They would be respected by all, and possess greater opportunities for doing good. By a contrary conduct, they render one part of the community their enemies and the other, I fear, would derive but little spiritual advantage from being their friends.
Backslider, page 25.
Fuller goes on to examine the various symptoms that accompany backsliding, such as a departure from our first love, and a self-justifying spirit. The next chapter explores the effects of such a state. How the ‘symptoms’ differ precisely from the ‘effects’, I am not entirely sure, but folks in those days sure did love to draw tiny distinctions and make lists, so we must not be too bothered by it. On page 48 I came across a gem of a quote which captures pithily what has been a pillar in my understanding of human sin since early in my Christian life: “There is no sin committed by the most ungodly man of which the godliest is not in danger.”
That is worth reading again.
The last chapter discusses the ‘Means of Recovery’. I conclude this review with a quote from that chapter which jumped out at me for its resonance with the singular theme of John Piper’s ministry, and more importantly, with the teaching of Scripture.
Sin is not to be opposed so much directly as indirectly; not by mere resistance, but by opposing other principles to it which shall overcome it. It is not by contending with the fire, especially with combustible materials about us, that we should be able to quench it, but by dealing plentifully with the opposite element. The pleasures of sense will not be effectually subdued by foregoing all enjoyment but by drinking deeply of other pleasures, the relish of which will deaden the heart to what is opposite.
Backslider, page 80.
In other words, fight the pleasures of sin with the pleasures of God. By delighting in God, our hearts lose their taste for the small paltry pleasures that sin promises but never delivers.
I trust that by now you can see this book is worthy of reading and re-reading. I hope it finds its way into many more hands and blesses, challenges, and encourages many more hearts like it did mine.
Something unusual is happening. A little over a week ago I penned an article that seemed to boil up from my heart when I first heard the Quebec government’s announcement that churches would have to implement vaccine passports, excluding the unvaccinated from their worship services. I received a large amount of feedback from all kinds of people in all kinds of places. And although my piece had to do specifically with the situation in Quebec, readers connected from all over the globe, including sizable numbers from New Zealand. I don’t know anyone in New Zealand. Clearly the topic struck a nerve.
In this follow-up, drawing on the many conversations I have had with church leaders here and there, I would like to ‘think out loud’ as a way of advocating for wisdom, courage, and balance. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all option that captures biblical faithfulness for each and every church. That being said, I believe some things are out of bounds, which was the point of that first article.
What I Said, What Happened
On the question of vaccine passports in churches, I landed decidedly on “No!”. This resonated with quite a number of people, though certainly not all. One’s response to my argument against vaccine passports, it seems to me, has a lot to do with how one understands the seriousness of the health crisis and the wisdom of public health directives thus far in the pandemic. Those who reached out to me to share their disagreement generally had more to say about those matters than Biblical principles.
This gets at one of the most pernicious aspects of this whole Covid moment. For those who see it as akin to a meteor hurling towards earth, no cost is too high and no freedoms are too precious to escape this threat and live to see another day. And this makes a lot of sense if that is more or less the nature of the threat. Others see a public health and media establishment always catastrophizing and assuming the worst, and regulations being enforced which seem more like theatre than anything based in data. And the difference between these two paradigms has a lot to do with where you get your news. In my first post I purposely avoided getting into such epidemiological details, knowing that it would only distract from the main point I was seeking to make.
What was that main point, you ask? It was simply to argue that this latest regulation was categorically different than all the previous regulations imposed on houses of worship. My point was this mandate crossed a line that had not yet been crossed in this province. I sought to ground that argument in the Scriptures, as I was writing primarily to fellow Christians. If I were to write an open letter to the government I would base my argument on other grounds, of which there are plenty to choose from.
It was my hope that houses of worship across the province would unite in defying this decree, applying enough immediate pressure to cause the government to rescind it. That has not happened. It was also my hope that Christian pastors and elders would be agreed upon the conviction that to install such a system in their church would be a stain upon that church’s witness, such that whatever other options were considered, this one would be set to the side as a non-option. This has not happened either.
And so we find ourselves in a situation where we are faced with dire choices, none of which are ideal. What are we to do? How do we go about weighing these options? Many pastors and church leaders are facing decisions which may prove decisive for their future ministries and for the continued existence of their churches. The stakes have never been higher in our lifetimes.
Many have noted that social media tends to amplify those voices which are on the extreme ends of any given question. This has something to do with human psychology but also with the kinds of algorithms that control the dials for what gets shown to who. One of the things I have noticed in the course of this pandemic is how this dynamic has played itself out. Needless to say, rare is the social media post dealing with any of these covid-related issues that actually builds bridges between opposing sides. One of the results of this is we become reinforced in our way of thinking.
The temptation is to view anyone more critical of the government as extreme and divisive, and anyone more compliant to the government as cowardly and terminally compromised. When these temptations are indulged, the resulting rhetoric rolls off the tongue – or off the keyboard – with uncanny ease. It is very easy to do, and it feels good too. But I do not think that it is ultimately all that helpful for anyone.
The reality in Quebec is that there are a lot fewer evangelical churches per capita than anywhere else in North America. This means that, by and large, there is more diversity inside those churches than might be the case elsewhere. Why? Because instead of having six churches to choose from in a given town, there is one, maybe two options within reasonable driving distance. The kind of sorting according to personality types and political leanings that can happen in places with a higher density of believers has not happened here to nearly the same degree.
This diversity means that unity in the church requires constant effort. For many pastors faced with this government mandate – which, due to emergency powers, legally has the force of law – the question of unity is a critical one. In many churches where there is a wide diversity of opinion, there are two options which are guaranteed to cause a catastrophic split in their church: 1. Imposing a vaccine passport system in compliance with the mandate, or 2. Holding services without a vaccine passport system, in open defiance to the mandate. Either of those options will instantly alienate a large percentage of their members, making it impossible for them to continue worshipping there. Some zealous folks might say “Good riddance! Let us be rid of them, and separate the sheep from the goats.”
But the pastors I know facing this exact situation are good shepherds. They know that despite whatever deep differences of opinion, these are genuine believers that need to be vitally connected to a local church. They also know that some of them need much pastoral care, prayer, and counseling. And so the question inevitably becomes: Is this decision worth splitting the church? Is it really the only faithful option?
Many are choosing to avoid either of those options, which we might call the two far ends of the spectrum. Among the middle options I have heard floated are the following:
Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services.
Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services to small groups of congregants gathered in homes.
Practice “righteous deception” in the way of the Israelite midwives, purporting to live-stream services while actually meeting in person in a discreet location.
Nobody landing on one of these options would consider it ideal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t much to be preferred over a permanently damaging church split. In a situation as fraught and complex as this one, it may be that the best outcome we can hope for is a course of action that nobody really loves, but that everyone can at least understand and support without violating their convictions. Such a decision will require that everyone lay aside their personal preferences. It will show that what unites us in Christ is stronger than what divides us in the flesh. And this, I believe, can be a wholesome, faithful, God-honoring path to chart for many churches.
But not all churches. There are some that have a unity of conviction among the leadership, with a congregation eager to follow their lead. Some of these are opting to openly defy the passport mandate while continuing to take all other precautions to reduce risk. Indeed, the risk they are taking is in the form of hefty fines and legal troubles. There is courage here that does not seek to offend, a gracious refusal to comply. I applaud and support these brothers and sisters in Christ. They are able to stand up to government overreach without causing violence to the unity of the body of Christ under their care.
One of the things I learned from reading the Puritans it that there is spiritual danger everywhere. Sin is ever-present in this broken world, and no course of action is without its own particular temptations. For those churches and leaders who have decided to openly defy the government mandate, it is important to be aware and wary of the ditch along the path. Those who have been loudest in their defiance of what they perceive as government tyranny have at times engaged in rhetoric intimating that anything short of equal defiance was compromise motivated by cowardice. In other words, this is the only faithful option.
What often went unstated however was that such judgments presupposed an interpretation of the epidemiological situation that differed greatly from the mainstream narrative. In some circles, these alternative interpretations of the pandemic were dominant. Fed largely by conservative media from the USA, as well as some other online sources, these views ranged from conspiracy theories (it’s a Plandemic!) to far more plausible ideas like ‘the public health establishment has mishandled this pandemic in a historic way.’
Whatever else we might say about such questions, they are not addressed directly in Scripture. We cannot find chapter and verse to explain to us the best practices for a modern 21st-century nation-wide response to a novel virus causing widespread sickness and death. But some of the voices decrying government actions were loudest precisely on those points where Scripture was silent, taking on at times the ethos and energy of a culture warrior or political activist rather than a pastor or Christian leader.
But still I have been quite sympathetic to such leaders. I respect their courage and the clarity of their convictions. The dangers they decry (the infringement of religious liberty and authoritarianism) are not imaginary, even if we perceive them differently. At the same time, I know my heart is not immune to cowardice. But the spiritual danger I see in such a posture is to run roughshod over those Christians who are fearful and do not know what to believe. Competing narratives seem to offer wildly different accounts of the government’s actions. For some, they are heroes making the tough calls to keep everyone safe; for others, tyrants and authoritarians gleefully stripping away civil liberties from the unwitting public. Who is right? And must it be one or the other? Is cowardice really the only possible explanation for the various paths churches have taken throughout this pandemic?
I find that kind of rhetoric to be reminiscent of the ‘fighting fundamentalists’ of the 20th-century. Certain on every minute point of doctrine, nearly every church but theirs was hopelessly compromised and deceived by Satan. Discontent with co-belligerence, they chose belligerency towards all who differed. But this bred a toxic kind of self-righteousness that was not attractive to unbelievers or spiritually healthy for believers. It led to divisions and schism where they were not at all necessary.
As church leaders face some of the toughest decisions of their ministries, many are crying out for wisdom and guidance through prayer and fasting. May God grant them such graces in abundance, both to lead well and to avoid the dangers which lie inevitably along any of the possible paths. And as friends, family members, and fellow believers choose differently, may the unity we have in Christ enable us to disagree charitably, even warmly.
Loving Our Neighbours (Jabbed or Not)
The Biblical principle most often cited to me to support the idea of vaccination passports in churches is love for one’s neighbour. The questions are perennial: What does it mean to love our neighbour in this situation? And in the words that called forth that great parable of the Good Samaritan, just who is my neighbour? Many reasonably see vaccination as an act of neighbourly love. So far, so good. From this premise many conclude that a refusal to get vaccinated is motivated by a selfishness and lack of love for others. I don’t think that’s true, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it is.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that, in Canada as well as many other places in the world, there is a growing hostility towards the unvaccinated that has dark foreboding element to it. In its worst manifestations, the unvaxxed are treated as if they were disease-ridden, unclean, and guilty for the sufferings of others, deserving whatever comes to them. Such scapegoating and marginalization essentially make the unvaccinated a group of societal outcasts. The speed and viciousness with which large portions of our society seem to have “othered” and dehumanized the unvaccinated is one of the most troubling things I have seen in a long time.
But are they not our neighbours too? Do people cease to be our neighbours when they make choices we disagree with? Shall the church of Christ join in the mob calling for them to be shoved to the margins of society? Isn’t the church called especially to those on the margins? What does loving these neighbours look like?
Love, I am told, is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. It assumes the best about others’ motivations. Love does not let the categories and divisions of the world tear apart the unity that Christ purchased with His precious blood.
It is a dark day for churches in Quebec, and my heart is heavy. Word came down on the evening of December 16th that houses of worship have been mandated by the provincial government to turn away from their public services those without vaccine passports.
I do not make it a habit to get on my soapbox and declare my thoughts about public policy, but today I am making an exception. I would like to try and make the argument that this new regulation from the government is categorically different than any other regulation that has heretofore been applied to churches, and that in asking churches to do this, the government is asking churches to disobey the teaching of the Scriptures and to betray the essence of being a church.
Elders and pastors have carried a heavy burden since the very start of this pandemic. I know the weight of it, as I served as an elder for the first chaotic year of the pandemic. All the local church elders and pastors I’ve spoken to, without exception, affirmed that they have had under their shepherding care people at both ends of the spectrum (and everywhere in between) when it comes to responding to this pandemic. This government decree has, with one fell swoop, made each of their lives and leadership exponentially more difficult.
Church leaders have, by and large, done their best to thread the needle during these two tortuous years, and have repeatedly had to adapt at the last minute to ever-changing regulations, coming up with new policies for their gatherings. Each of those decisions has been stressful, demanding, and usually criticized by some for going too far and by others for not going far enough. I have immense respect and admiration for these faithful leaders.
When we were mandated to wear masks indoors, we bought masks and wore them. When we were restricted to 50, and then 25 people in the building, we mobilized volunteers and multiplied services, running three per Sunday at one point. We also bought equipment, trained volunteers, and started live-streaming services. When singing was restricted, we chafed and struggled but we sang with our hearts instead of our lips. We did all these things because, as hard as these restrictions were, they did not seem to directly go against the teaching of the Scriptures which we hold as the only ultimate authority in matters of faith and worship.
I will not pretend to be of two minds about this. The announcement from the government marks the start of something completely new. Everything that has come before has been on the scale from mildly to extremely inconvenient. To my mind, the church in Quebec now faces a test not of creativity and flexibility, or of neighbourly love and graciousness, but of conviction and principle.
To be plain: I think it unconscionable for a local church, which is a visible manifestation of the universal church of Christ on earth, to enforce this kind of discrimination. We simply cannot say in our call to worship, “This church opens wide her doors,” while at the same time having someone with a QR-Code scanner shutting those doors on the unvaccinated.
Yes, this new regulation is different. I believe it asks churches to disobey the clear teaching and principles of Scripture that we find in several passages. I will limit myself to two that come to mind, for the sake of brevity and clarity.
First, James 2. In this passage, the church is commanded to not show favoritism by seating a rich person in a good seat and telling a poor person to “Stand over there” or to sit on the floor. The passage concludes by saying to those who behave this way: “haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). The principle is simple: favoritism that makes such distinctions among the body of believers is wrong. The distinction need not be between rich and poor, but between any two groups of people within the church body who are not treated the same. More could be said, but we move on to a second passage.
In Galatians 2, Peter fell into hypocrisy by separating from one group of believers (the Gentile believers in Antioch) out of a fear of displeasing another group (legalistic Jewish believers from Jerusalem). Paul rebuked him publicly, for he saw that creating such a division in the body of Christ was tantamount to “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). These passages do not mince words – let us heed them and consider their implications carefully.
And although the Scriptural principles are clear, perhaps an even more powerful line of argument is found in the power of symbolism.
So let’s picture the scene: In order to obey this mandate, someone will need to stand at the front door with a device that has some government application on it. And that person will need to take each arriving worshipper in turn and scan their government-provided code, at which point their device will communicate with a government database, exchange some packets of information, and find out if they are allowed to come in and worship the living God in person.
But not so fast – a successful scan will not be enough. A photo ID will also be required to establish that the person is who they claim to be. The ecclesiastical bouncer will need to be ready to turn people away; people who are looking for hope, life-giving truth, and fellowship. Yes, that person will need to be willing to say words to this effect: “You cannot come in to this church, since you do not meet our government’s definition of ‘fully vaccinated.’ You will have to turn around, get back in your car, and go home.” Who is willing to do this work? Are you?
It is a shocking scene even to imagine, but we must imagine it and be clear about what it means. Tragically, I assume it will be a scene playing out at some houses of worship this Sunday and in coming weeks.
While different churches have responded differently thus far in the pandemic, the vast majority have made extraordinary efforts to meet and exceed the safety measures required by the government regulations, even when some of those regulations had awfully thin rationales behind them; the vast majority have sought to honor and obey the magistrates over them. But brothers and sisters, this is not one more rule among many; this is not just a new item on the list. No, this is something we cannot do. Whatever creative solutions and workarounds churches come up with – and there is surely a place for that – this is a line no church should cross.
I earnestly hope and pray that houses of worship of every type and stripe will hold firm to their convictions on these matters and present a unified front of non-compliance. I also hope and expect that those houses of worship will continue to follow all the other recommended safety guidelines even as they disobey this new rule. The posture must be one of gracious but firm refusal: We have bent over backwards, we have stretched, we have multiplied our services, we have taxed our volunteers, we have found ways to make it work, but we cannot and we will not do this thing. To do so would be to cease to be the kind of church we say we are.
The people of God are surely willing to be inconvenienced to a great extent, even to sacrifice much. But we cannot betray those principles and truths which amount to our very obedience to the One who is forever and infinitely above any provincial or national authority. We cannot turn hungry and thirsty souls away from the place where they might hear the words of life spoken to them. The heart of the gospel is the free offer of forgiving and renewing grace to any and all who would come to Jesus Christ by faith. We cannot make such an offer to people who have been turned away because the government told us to.
One feels that this moment is pregnant with meaning, and that much is at stake. The dramatic tension is high. In such a moment, dramatic words are not uncalled for. And I can’t think of any better suited to the moment than those purportedly uttered by the reformer Martin Luther (slightly adapted for our purposes). May this be the essence of the unified voice of the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ in response to this moment:
“Unless we are convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason, we are bound by the Scriptures. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. We cannot and we will not enforce this mandate, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here we stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. Amen.”
(I think maybe even a Roman Catholic could say “Amen” to that).
I conclude with a word to church leaders, among whom are many dear friends and family members. I do not envy your position. Whatever decision you make, there will be emails, messages, and phone calls to face from those who disagree. And indeed, many churches are led by teams of elders, meaning that there is a diversity of viewpoints on all kinds of matters among them. The final decision may not be what every member (or any one member) of that group desired. And yet, for the good of the church, and the glory of God, decisions are made, policies put in place, and the work continues. I have tried to make my case as plain and clear as possible. And while I see a red line here, others may not. Even in disagreement, may we be known for a remarkable gentleness and humility. We never know all that goes into a group decision. Let us believe the best about each other and seek to preserve that precious bond of unity when all around us is division.
The opening biographical essay sketches the history of the Particular Baptists clearly and helpfully. It also gives the reader a foretaste of Collins’ warm and experiential style. Hercules Collins, though largely unknown today, was an important figure in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist community in the 17th century. These Baptists were part of the Dissenters, a larger group of Christians that, for one reason or another, were not in the Church of England.
I found it interesting that in the body of Collins’ work was an early defense of religious liberty, where he argued that compulsion cannot bring about true spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, force cannot change the heart, and heart change is at the very core of Christianity.
His is a legacy where his teaching is highlighted, underlined, and put in bold by the powerful testimony of his life. Imprisoned for his opposition to the prevailing religious and political authority of his day, in abysmal conditions (two fellow pastors in prison with him died while in captivity), he remained faithful and wrote stirring letters to his congregation while in chains. This harrowing context gave his writing a kind of Pauline grittiness and verve.
The selections, well picked and edited, give the reader a real sense for his style and substance. The length of the book makes this long-departed brother’s words accessible, portable, and edifying. What a gift! How else is a 21st-century Christian going to encounter such material?
For those in ministry and leadership, there were a number of selections specifically dealing with the realities of ministry and the task of preaching. While all the selections were good in content, some of them were simply stellar. My favorites were #s 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 20, 21, 24, 28, 30, 35.
The last selection was actually a poem that Collins wrote. This third stanza I thought was really quite good:
Come haste that blessed break of Light,
Let shadows flee away;
When ordinances all shall cease,
Come on Eternal Day.
Then through a glass shall look no more,
Unless the glass divine;
We shall through human nature see,
The blessed Godhead shine.
I highly recommend getting a few volumes in this series. There is nothing like reaching across the centuries and reading the words of a fellow Christian from another age. There is blessed similarity and blessed dissimilarity. Similar because the experience and convictions of true Christians have a common thread wherever they are found; dissimilar because we have lost much in our day and are blind in ways they are not.
If I was to try and find one thing to quibble with, it might be the title. Having finished the book, I now get it. At first glance, however, it was not a title that drew me in towards the book or piqued my interest.
One of the purposes of this blog is to help people access the world of literature. (You can pronounce it the boring way, or you can do it properly, the way Michael Caine would – “litshratshurr“). I do this through book reviews and short reflections on things that I’m reading. Not only does this help me process what I’m reading, it also hopefully gives others a taste of the benefit from engaging with this material, which often feels too distant and intimidating. One of the things that compelled me to make the effort to read “the classics” was hearing how they had such an impact on others, and observing others appreciate them.
Recently I was listening to Karen Swallor Prior in discussion with Matthew Barrett on the Credo Podcast. One of the things that came up was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and that discussion prompted me to re-read it. One of the nice things about this story is that it is so short. Everyone has heard of Tolstoy, but most people do not have the courage to take on some of his better-known novels such as War and Peace (1400 pages) or Anna Karenina (950 pages).
If you would like to read it, you can download it here (I’m not sure about the quality of the translation – but hey! it’s free). Note that the following reflection contains spoilers if you haven’t read the story yet.
I am struck by the power of words, ideas, and story. In only 50 pages or so, Tolstoy harnesses that power and delivers to the reader a profound encounter with truth. One of the first things that strikes me in the story is the brutal honesty of the internal dialogue. Tolstoy gets inside the mind and around the various self-deceptions we employ and reveals what is truly there in all of its ugliness. It is done in a matter-of-fact way:
Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.
The story reveals how hard it is to come to believe something that you really don’t want to believe, something that has profound and far-reaching implications for the verdict of how you lived your life. We oppose these kinds of paradigm-shifts in many areas of our lives because re-evaluation is costly. We are invested in our way of seeing things. Within the story this is seen in everybody’s stubborn denial of their own mortality (save for the peasant Gerasim), and especially in Ivan’s wrestling with whether he has lived a good life. There were many layers to peel away before he could get to the honest core of this question. It is only at the end of a long struggle that he breaks through his own defenses to the truth:
… the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.
… he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.
There is another dimension to this. Just like Ivan has been living in a cocoon of self-deception, the same is true for his colleagues and his family in their own ways. As mentioned above, they are all in denial about their own inevitable death. But without the harsh and inescapable pain to shock them into a sober honesty, we do not see these characters make any progress towards escaping that deception.
At the very end, in the last two or three hours of Ivan’s life, he experiences a conversion and rebirth. He breaks through into light. Tolstoy does not name Christ, but rather describes the change of heart and makes an oblique reference to God:
At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.
…He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.
… He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
Modern secular readers are probably tempted to view this as a moral reformation or a kind of epiphany, but Tolstoy clearly has something deeper in mind. It is quite common in literature for the conversion of characters to be described in ways that hint at Christ but do not explicitly name him. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. C.S. Lewis discusses it somewhere, commenting on the habit of medieval Christians to ‘hide’ Christ in pagan themes and deities in their fiction, something he does in his writing as well.
Nevertheless, the Christian reader can recognize many (though not all) of the elements of true conversion: conviction of sin, repentance for sin, and a changed heart with new desires. Is this fictional portrayal sufficient to point others towards faith in Christ for their salvation? No. But what good fiction (and good art generally) does is faithfully represent some part of reality, it serves as a signpost on the good road. In doing so it adds one more voice to that choir made up of countless voices, singing not the same note but a great and variegated harmony.
I’m going back through my old blog posts and tagging them appropriately, categorizing them for the sake of organization. This is forcing me to read over some old posts I had forgotten about. And some of them are better left forgotten, or they feel dated, or fall short for any number of reasons.
But some are not that bad! So I thought I’d recycle some of these a bit and throw them back on top of the pile once in a while.
In the first post on the topic of chronological snobbery we looked at what C.S. Lewis meant by the phrase and we considered two reasons for its particular prevalence in our own day. In this post and the next I would like to explore related ideas from two thinkers that have been helpful to me, René Girard and Craig Carter.
Girard was a profound and original thinker whose work ranges over many disciplines. I am familiar with only a few small slices of that work, but some of those slices have been eye-opening. Consider his reflections on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:29-30.
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
Girard focuses in on the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees as they built tombs and monuments for prophets who were harassed, persecuted, and killed by their forefathers: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” He considers this as a kind of spirit, an attitude of the heart that any of us can adopt.
In the context of his broader theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism, he describes this impulse as a mob of the living scapegoating the dead. For our purposes, we can simply say it is the attitude whereby one generation or group condemns those who came before them, exonerating themselves.
Girard points out one historical example of this in the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism, the kind that blames the Jews for killing Jesus. It says “if we, who are the spiritual children of Abraham, had been there when Jesus was crucified, we would not have joined the actual children of Abraham in condemning and killing Jesus. We are better than them. We alone would have resisted the mob. We would have stood by him when all had deserted him. We would have been willing to be killed with him rather than deny him.”
When one lays out what such an attitude really claims, as I did above, it starts to be seen for what it is. But usually the claim to superiority is not parsed and exposed for what it is. A claim like that is really more about the person making it than about the people he or she is supposedly superior to. At bottom, such statements are saying something like: “If everyone was as innocent as I am the world would be better. Therefore they must not be innocent like me, because someone has to be responsible for all this mess.”
Ask any high school class if they think they would have stood up against the Nazis if they had lived in Germany leading up to and during WW2. Most will say they would have resisted, which is to claim that if Germany had been populated with 21st-century North American teenagers instead of Weimar-era Germans, Hitler would not have done what he did. More pointedly, it is to claim that each of those students raising their hands, students who allow their wardrobes, attitudes, mannerisms, and vocabulary to be dictated by the passing fads and peer pressures of their social peers, yes these paragons of strict moral virtue, would have had the backbone to stand against what was an immense amount of social pressure and very real threats to their reputations, social standing, finances, and very lives.
In Romans 2:1, the apostle Paul writes “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We live in a time when forces all around us seem to be working hard to whip up offense, outrage, and judgment towards the other. But not all judgment is the same. Some judgment is warranted and needed, but a lot of it is spiritually dangerous.
What do I mean by spiritually dangerous? Well, I mean that it is dependent on sin and it fosters sin. To judge others for what I am guilty of is to reinforce my own blindness to that sin, thereby distancing myself further from the truth about myself that might lead me to repentance and freedom. It is much harder to admit to a sin that I have clearly – and perhaps publicly – judged another for. I am less able to see it in myself when I get a kick out of pointing it out in others.
So this leaves the one judging further from the grace of humility, further from the grace of gospel sanity, further from the grace of honesty about my sin. These are graces that flow from Christ and to Christ.
When one takes this principle and applies it, what happens? It becomes very difficult to stand in judgment over our historical predecessors, because we now see that to do so is to fall into a very dangerous spiritual trap. It is the trap of saying that we are better and we would not have done what they did.
But does this rule out any and all criticism of the past? Quite the opposite: It allows for the kind of criticism that is good for us, rather than a danger. When I recognize that in the garden of my own soul grows the same root that in others bore such heinous fruit, it motivates me to weed it out. When I recognize that there is more than a little family resemblance between their sin and my own – if not in the fruit, then in the root – this encourages humility.
Indeed the effect is precisely the opposite of what self-righteous criticism produces, namely a deepening blindness with regard to my own expressions of whatever fault I am pointing out in others married to a swelling pride at being found so much superior.
The best writers of history intuitively (or perhaps intentionally) treat their subjects with this kind of moral sensitivity. They do not fall into moral relativism, which may be an enjoyable intellectual hobby for rich and comfortable Westerners, but is insufferable in the face of actual evil. Neither do they unleash a full one-dimensional moral tirade against historical villains, painting them as uniformly evil characters. Rather they preserve the humanity of both heroes and villains, allowing for nuance and being honest about the shortcomings of the heroes as well as the positive qualities of the villains, all while writing with a sense of moral clarity. This kind of history proves informative and beneficial to the reader. It is humbling, sobering, inspiring.
Moving from history to the contemporary, we can apply this idea to so many current cultural issues. For example, I see a lot of folks these days eager to tear down statues of people who, terribly flawed and implicated in evil as they may have been, are nevertheless in many ways their betters. Leaving aside the specific arguments for or against any particular monument, or even for the taking down of statues in general, I just want to point out that this kind of fury, this kind of one-dimensional judgment of those in the past, is spiritually dangerous for all the reasons described above.
To take an example from the opposite side of the culture wars, we have the phenomenon of so many conservative religious leaders who were so thundering in their denouncing of sexual immorality being revealed to be sexually immoral themselves. Zacharias, Falwell, Hybels, and the list goes on and on. We all know such failures do not happen overnight. So we have someone publicly denouncing a sin in others that they are not just struggling against but positively nurturing in their own hearts.
This can happen on the political left as much as on the right, both inside and outside the church. But from my perspective, which is admittedly conservative, it does seem to be a particularly fashionable attitude among progressives on the left these days. If you think I’m wrong about that, let me know why in the comments.
In the next and last post on chronological snobbery I’ll discuss some ideas I’ve appreciated from the writing of Craig Carter.
There is lots to love about this book. A great title, a great first line, and moments of brilliance throughout. The story moves at a fine clip and carries the reader along to an exciting finish. My kids read this book as part of their schooling and they adored it, so I wanted to read it also. I can see why they were taken with it! It certainly leaves the reader wondering what will happen next at each chapters’ end. And while I enjoyed reading this book, I wanted to enjoy it more. There were a few hindrances and shortcomings that impeded that enjoyment. As a debut novel, I say bravo and well done! If I were to write a first novel this good, I’d be a happy man indeed. And so I offer some thoughts – in a spirit of constructive criticism – on what kept this book from being, to my mind, on par with the classics.
First, while the breadth and playfulness of a fertile imagination is on display throughout the book, there is a certain lack of cohesion and gravitational center to that imagination. The worlds, characters, landscapes, buildings, and monsters are all fantastical and creative, but it felt like there was something lacking that would draw them all into a narrative that fit together well. This unpredictability can give the reader a kind of whiplash as she tries to keep pace with the story. A few unexpected twists and turns makes a story interesting; but constant unexpected turns undermines the stability of the narrative and gives it a chaotic feel.
Second, and related to the first point, is the issue of world-building. This is the bread and butter of all fantasy-fiction. The author must build a world that is believable. But believable does not mean it must conform to our world. As Tolkien said, the key is that world must be internally consistent – what happens there must make sense within the framework of that world. This is the secret ingredient that explains why some fantasy worlds feel real, like Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Aerwiar, and others don’t. The author here shows real promise in the world that he creates, and yet fails to fully convince the reader that this place is so real in his own mind that all this could really take place.
Third and last, stories are irreducibly moral. The best stories are deeply moral, for it is the moral instinct in myself as a reader that makes me care deeply about the characters. On this point, once again, the author does a good job with some characters but does not quite pull off a complete victory. We see some development in Peter Nimble, but not a whole lot. His moral character remains quite static, while his self-understanding grows as he discovers his true identity and steps into the role he has been destined for. Sir Tode seems to me to be more promising, for we find out he is largely a fraud and has not truly earned his knighthood. Yet this assumed persona of a brave knight seems to draw out his courage and moral fibre and self-sacrifice. By the end of the book, despite the dubious origins of his knighthood, he has grown into the true picture of knighthood. This seems to exemplify something that C.S. Lewis pointed out: when growing in virtue, we often start by behaving as if we were more virtuous than we really are, which can feel like a kind of pretending or false persona. But if persevered in, this is often the route by which we do really become virtuous.
The best stories have a moral depth that speaks deeply to the reader about right, wrong, goodness and evil. While the book had a pretty clear moral compass (unlike the nihilistic morally-relativistic nonsense that sometimes gets passed off as modern fiction these days), it would have been improved, and would leave a deeper impression on the reader, if the characters’ moral trajectory had been explored more deeply.
All in all, a very fine book. I look forward to reading some more of Auxier’s fiction and seeing how he has grown as an author over the years.
Have you ever thought about the uniqueness of a baby’s stare? Since having our 4th child in November 2020, I have been thinking about this. Of all our children, this one is the stare-iest. She just loves to look; she’s glad to gaze and gape and gawk! Yes our little Lucy is simply obsessed with observing everyone and everything around her.
I have spent many luxurious minutes returning her stare and wondering what might be going on in that adorable little head of hers. I realized that I could not exchange a stare like this with just anyone in the street. Could you imagine silently staring into the eyes of a stranger on the street for even 15 seconds? 30 seconds? An entire minute? Try it. Folks nowadays hardly make eye contact at all, never mind a sustained stare. “Do I know you? Is there a problem?” … “I’m calling the police.” Heck, even my other kids wouldn’t stand for that: “Dad, stop being weird.” Or my wife: “What are you doing? Do I have something on my face?!”
But with baby Lucy, there is no such reaction. Why is that? For one, she can’t talk. So while she’s staring at me, I can’t engage her with a question. If I try to stare at anyone verbal, they will inevitably engage me with words quite quickly along the lines described above. But if they know I can’t speak, they will intuitively put up with a much longer gaze. In the absence of words, we find other ways to communicate.
Still, it’s more than that. A non-verbal person of normal intelligence will use hand signals and facial expressions to communicate. But a baby can’t do even that. And this gets to the heart of the vulnerability and magic of babies. They come into the world with no ideas about how the world should be. A baby simply takes in the world as it is. And to do that, a baby stares. (Babies also put every single possible thing within their reach into their mouths like some kind of overzealous Roomba, but that’s not the topic of this particular reflection.)
So we have the situation that we embrace from infants what we would never accept from anyone of an older age – long silent stares. As you may know, babies don’t really make facial expressions in reaction to visual stimulus for the first few months. It’s hard work to get that baby to smile back at you. So the stare I’m talking about is wide-eyed, mouth slightly open, and expressionless. Which goes back to my previous point: a child simply takes in the world around it without making any value judgement on what it finds. It has nothing to compare to, no way to evaluate. The mother it has becomes the idea of Mother; the father it has becomes the idea of Father; the family and home it has likewise. I often imagined Lucy saying to herself, when she was in one of her gazing moods, “so this is what life is like.” This open-hearted receptiveness contributes to the weightiness of parenting; who is equal to this task?
So the next time a baby stares at you, don’t look away, don’t feel awkward, don’t laugh it off. Something momentous is happening. This child is taking in everything it can through the windows of the mind we call eyes. The open-hearted receptiveness you see on display will not survive the next two decades of various pains, disappointments, losses; no – it will give way to some level of guardedness and maybe even cynicism. While that may be inevitable, maybe this beautiful stare can remind you of a time when you were less guarded and cynical. And if you can, use that moment to let down your guard and stow your cynicism: that would make the world just a little better for this baby and for you.
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.