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?

Learning What We Can from The Alchemist

With something like 65 million copies sold worldwide, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, is a phenomenon. Whenever one finds a bestseller on this scale, there is something important to learn. The book may or may not be of much value – just think of 50 Shades or Twilight – but it always tells us something about our own culture and the spirit of the age. It’s my contention that the success of The Alchemist is a powerful indicator of the spiritual poverty of modern secularism and the pull towards re-enchantment that is at work. Ironically, this book was first recommended to me by a coworker who was a very staunch Dawkins-style atheist.

The 25th anniversary edition is very nice, with rough-cut pages, a nice font, and an embossed cover.

The book wraps its narrative around the big ideas it is trying to convey. In this sense it is overly didactic and not like the great novels which embed such lessons deep into the structure of the work. Here it is on the surface, the narrative serving as a platform on which to serve up the lessons the author wishes the reader to learn. But the story makes use of a number of archetypes that lend it narrative power.

The story follows the life of a young boy, a teenager named Santiago, who leaves his seminary studies to become a shepherd because he wants to explore the world. “But ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man’s sins.” (10-11). “I couldn’t have found God in the seminary, he thought, as he looked at the sunrise.”

The book freely borrows from the Bible. Melchizedek plays a prominent role, as do the Urim and Thummim stones from Israelite law. Characters refer to the story of Joseph and Jesus. Yet the Bible is seen as one religious tradition among others, all of them a kind of fractal of the Universal Language and the Soul of the World. These include Islam, alchemy, Gypsies reading omens, and fortune tellers interpreting twigs. Key phrases, like Personal Legends, are capitalized throughout to make sure we don’t miss their importance. The influence of Eastern philosophy bleeds through heavily in numerous ways, such as when we are told (more than once) that “All things are one.”

These concepts sacralize one’s life. There is undeniable power in their ability to transform one’s experience of everyday life. They are an antidote to the meaninglessness of modern secular thought: rather than the victims of random impersonal forces, we are each of us given a Personal Legend to fulfill, a purpose which was birthed deep in the Soul of the Universe, and the fulfillment of which “is a person’s only real obligation” in life (24). They are amorphous and ambiguous, which locates the authority firmly in each individual’s interpretation of their own Personal Legend – or life mission. Now here is a message custom-made for our age. Sensing the cold emptiness of rigid rationalism, we want the thrill of the supernatural. Allergic to the endless arguments over doctrine and dogma, we want a Oneness which can reconcile all differences. Terrified of any authority outside the autonomous self, we want a spiritual paradigm that evokes wonder without demanding surrender; an impersonal God-force that infuses our lives with transcendent meaning while leaving us firmly in charge.

One can see how comfortably this focus on an individualized life mission fits with the modern elevation of personal autonomy. Somehow I don’t see this teaching leading many to persevere through a difficult marriage or make sacrifices to care for an aging parent. After all, one’s only real obligation is to realize their Personal Legend. This is thin gruel indeed. Small wonder then that this book proved to be so popular with that segment of American life most famous for being ego-driven and selfish: celebrities.

Despite the Biblical language and references, at its heart the message of the book is deeply unbiblical. It borrows from the spiritual capital of the Bible’s more symbolic and flowery phrasing to construct a tower of Babel which leaves Christ very much behind. This is not uncommon in the New Age movement, where every religious tradition is mined for some compatible nuggets of spiritual wisdom. Such an approach pretends to embrace a generous openness by saying all religions see only a part of the whole picture, but really that means it alone has the objective view that incorporates all the rest. This is a claim of epistemological superiority based on sophistry. It claims to see what others are blind to, and it accomplishes it through nice-sounding but vague spiritual language about universal Oneness. This is all done with the stated intention of being very agreeable and inclusive, harmonizing all the different paths into some kind of universal spirituality, but it always does violence to the integrity of those religions to tear bits and pieces out of context and reinterpret them as needed.

We see this repeatedly in the Alchemist’s use of Biblical phrases and ideas. Three examples will suffice. At one point the protagonist is told, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” In context, it is clear that his heart is to be followed, and that it will lead to a real or metaphorical treasure. But this advice is an inversion of the Biblical principle that it resembles: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Jesus’ point is that the heart of each person is revealed by what they treasure — by what they love — and that his followers ought to live in such a way that they store up treasures in heaven, not on earth. Not quite the same thing.

In another place, the shepherd boy is told, “Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.” This is more self-trust than the Christian can ever allow, for we remember that bracing passage in Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

One last example, which comes at the culminating moment of the narrative: “The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.” Well here we have the whole beating heart of this project laid bare, and it makes a very simple argument: that we can be as God. Or even better: in some way we are already God, if only we would realize it. What is essentially the same promise was made to Eve in the garden; “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” (Genesis 3:5). So here is a good reason to know one’s Bible. False teachers love to use the very words of Scripture, and even those of Jesus, to teach what is, at bottom, a satanic doctrine.

It’s not too difficult to render a critique of this spiritual-but-not-religious approach to life. But the question I asked myself as I read this book was whether this might be an improvement over strict materialism or not. I make no bones about the fact that I am Christian, and of the sort who believes what the Bible says: that salvation is found in Christ alone. But I also recognize that to view the world as The Alchemist does is closer to reality than the frigid cement bunker of atheism. It has echoes of that older and more human paganism which Lewis and Chesterton saw as pre-Christian. I wonder if a post-Christian paganism, this New Age view of universal Oneness, can lead back to Christ as readily as the old paganism eventually did. I have my hopes, but also my doubts.

The hope comes in because a non-materialist worldview makes room for a supernatural being and often seeks after some kind of spiritual connection. These are the spiritual-but-not-religious types, and I get the appeal of that approach. It leaves the door open, as it were. And yes, sometimes Christ comes through that door. But I also have my doubts because spiritual experiences can have the effect of thoroughly blinding one’s heart and pulling people deep into half-truths and deceptions. In its worst forms, it leads to the occult.

Whatever else we might say, the massive popularity of this book belies the fact that our secular age has a strong undertow of spiritual hunger. And yet the dish of choice, this amorphous New Age spirituality of universal Oneness, is one which leaves our preferred idol of the autonomous self-defined individual unchallenged.

A Gem Among the Wreckage (of YA Fiction)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Stepping Off the Tilt-A-Whirl of Social Media

I got it into my head that it would be good to take a month off social media. This decision, of which more later, came about after a few months of reading a lot about technology, media, the internet, and the massive changes causing so much upheaval in the West. There are tectonic shifts occurring under our feet in real time. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1989 that we had reached The End of History, that liberalism had prevailed, and that we had entered a golden age wherein democracy would continue to spread across the world. Such a feeling was perhaps understandable, but it is no longer credible. With war in Europe once more, and liberal democracies everywhere struggling with debt, decadence, and internal decay, such illusions are dissipating. Even Fukuyama himself agrees. History has started up again.

With all this instability in the world, I felt compelled to try and understand the nature and implications of these changes. I plunged into Paul Kingsnorth’s essays about The Machine, which is shorthand for the cumulative effect of technology’s endless march onwards. I, like millions of others, watched The Social Dilemma which exposed how Social Media giants exercise massive control over their users. I learned about the movements towards decentralization, such as cryptocurrencies and homesteading, and the powerful movements from above towards ever-greater centralization, such as the dangers of Central Bank Digital Currencies. I read about how AI increasingly functions like mysterious capricious spirits; how people have been broken and undone by an addiction to technology. I read thoughtful Christians reflecting on the spiritual impact of technology in our lives.

I’ve been getting clarity on the fact that my relationship to technology is not that healthy, even in the process of learning so much about how technology so often shapes us more than we think. The words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to me. The medium is the message. Each technology has an inherent logic that works itself out despite the intention of the user. As one writer pointed out in an essay titled Technology and the Soul:

Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.

The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”

That’s helpful and sobering. So all this nudged me towards trying to do something concrete to reset and reboot the role of technology and social media in my life. But a big part of me, the addiction-prone part, didn’t want to change anything. So I posted my intention to take a month off of social media on… social media. This meant I was on the record – no backing out now.

But why exactly am I doing this? It’s important to be specific about the goals for such an undertaking. In order to answer this question, it’s worth reflecting on what negative effects technology and social media are currently having in my life. First, Facebook and Twitter can easily act as huge time-wasters. Too often I have found myself passively scrolling the endless string of content from the algorithm that was designed by expert psychologists and neuroscientists. They have chosen to use their hard-earned PhD’s to hijack the dopamine loops of countless millions, including me. Second, if I post anything to these platforms, I tend to compulsively check for engagement with that content every few hours for the next couple days. Third, daily news content & opinion comes my way via email, news websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My intake of these varies from day to day, but at times is excessive and unhealthy.

In addition to these effects upon me, there is also a definite negative impact on my family relationships. I am not nearly as mentally present with my wife and children if I have my phone in my hand. But even with the phone elsewhere, if I’ve filled my mind with these things to the point of saturation, I’m still not as engaged relationally as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been a complete zombie, but the difference is measurable and therefore lamentable. My wife and my family deserve the very best I have to offer, and I have too often given them far less – and for what?

So these are some of the things I am hoping to change during this coming month. I have removed Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, and will block access to them on my browsers. I will not watch news or current events opinions on YouTube, but take that kind of content in only through published articles. I will aim to not have any passive time on my phone, and to have nothing available on it to which I instinctively turn in those many small moments of tedium or delay throughout the day.

But what will replace all of this? You cannot create a vacuum without something filling its place. Well, more silence would be good. Silence encourages a prayerful heart, reflection, thoughtfulness. Good spiritual food is another thing I want to emphasize. Bible reading or audio is good, as is the daily prayer service of the Church of England. I would like to find a sermon series or seminary lecture series that I can dig into as well. I’m open to suggestions. It’s also a great chance to be outside more, with the weather warming up here in rural Quebec.

We moved out to the countryside a year and a half ago. A few things have been more difficult, but by and large I have loved it. The natural beauty is awesome and endless: stunning sunrises and sunsets, flocks of geese noisily settling down for the night in nearby fields, a distant train quietly moving across a winter field with a long trail of snow floating behind it, the power of the wind whipping across the landscape, and on and on. Living out here, you can’t help but recognize that, despite our modern conceits, we still need to bow to the natural forces that can so easily overwhelm and humble us. The city erases the wild; the suburb domesticates it; the countryside just barely keeps it at bay. Unplugging from ubiquitous technology allows for a deeper connection to natural beauty which, for me at least, speaks to my soul of the undomesticated Creator.

I will also aim to write more. Silence really helps me to write more, as the stillness allows my heart and mind to come up with ideas. Although I’ve been writing on and off for about 20 years, creative writing has been very intermittent. For example, after a season of reading a lot of poetry, I found myself writing some. I say it that way because it sort of bubbled up; I didn’t sit down and decide to write poetry. Recently, I noticed that I stopped writing poetry immediately upon returning to work after a season of parental leave.

I’ve long wanted to try my hand at fiction, whether through a short story or a short novel, but nothing has come yet. I recently discovered a chapter’s worth of fiction that I wrote about ten years ago, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really remember writing it, so it felt like reading someone else’s writing – and I enjoyed it. If I could find the right idea, and then have the mental space to develop it, who knows? I might just write something worthwhile.

And of course I want to write about this specific experience of resetting my relationship to technology and social media. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will probably include some shorter pieces on this blog, and then something like a personal reflective essay with some broader application. I am not, after all, the only one who struggles to keep technology in its place. If anything, I belong to the last generation that will have had a memory of life without technology and the internet as an ever-present reality. I suspect that in the coming years our society, and young people especially, will be desperate to reconnect with nature and the transcendent as technology leaves them empty, frazzled, and addicted.

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 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.

Ivan Ilych is Alive

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.

Listen to that Existential Dread

In the Christian worldview, there is always a god.

In every person, there are desires and drives and values. Every person has purpose. Whatever most controls and compels you, that is your god. Whatever has the strongest hold on your emotions and behavior, that is your god.

In those with powerful addictions, this is easily seen. In others, however, and perhaps in yourself, it is not so easy to discern. But it is there, rest assured, as surely as there is a brain in your head if you are reading this. (Apologies to any brainless readers). This needs some nuance, as I recognize in myself the working of many different gods at different times, although I profess and strive to worship one God alone.

Speaking of the human heart, Thomas Chalmers put it this way: “Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.” This is from his excellent work, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” which lays this out about as well as I have ever seen.

How can I know what these gods are? Where can I find them? How will I uncover their hiding places? Often this is a good thing that we’ve turned into a god thing. This is a large part of what counseling tries to do—let’s find out why you do what you do and feel what you feel. Discovering the roots of your behavior and emotions can be profound, enlightening, and transformative. For Christians, this rooting out of false gods and replacing them with the worship of the true God is one way (among many) of conceiving of progressive sanctification—the lifelong stuttering journey towards maturity and Christ-likeness.

One sure way to identify such an idol is to find where in your life you experience what I call existential dread. This is the feeling of the ground opening up to swallow you into darkness. We experience this when someone or something threatens one of our gods.

Falling into Pit

For example, as a young single man I took in a lot of solid teaching on marriage and developed a deep desire to be a good and godly husband. At some point this went from being a good thing to a god thing. It subtly became a part of my identity and hope. This was revealed over time as I experienced recurring existential dread when my wife would point out some obvious, glaring, usually minor shortcoming in me as a husband. These conversations would send me into the depths of despair and elicit unbidden a blizzard of dark emotions. Whoa. Touched a nerve, as they say.

This overly strong reaction was a flashing neon sign for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It took me a few years to develop those eyes and ears. As a child of God I know I am to root my identity and hope in God Himself, but I only do this partially. I couldn’t accept the truth that I was not the kind of husband I wanted to be because I had to be that kind of husband. My worth was tied to it. And when that worth was threatened, a dark pit swallowed my heart.

Armed with this new insight, I can now repent of absolutely needing to be a good husband. In fact, shifting my hope from this god to Christ frees me to listen openly to my wife’s constructive criticism—the very doorway that edges me in the direction of being a good husband. Which, by the way, I still want to be.

Perhaps for you it is being a certain kind of employee, or boss, or leader, or spouse, or parent, or musician, or writer, or pumpkin-spice latte-maker, or anything else under the sun. This is what Calvin meant when he said that our hearts are idol-factories. To quote Chalmers again:

[The heart’s] desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.