Survival of the Fittest

In the days when Huxley and Herbert Spencer and the Victorian agnostics were trumpeting as a final truth the famous hypothesis of Darwin, it seemed to thousands of simple people almost impossible that religion should survive. It is all the more ironic that it has not only survived them all, but it is a perfect example (perhaps the only real example) of what they called the Survival of the Fittest.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

Darwin’s idea of the survival of the fittest, Chesterton says, has been abused. It leads to Capitalistic carnivores who devour the weak, Nietzchian Supermen who fly the swastika, and Eugenicists who decide who is worthy, or isn’t worthy, of life. The original idea, he says, is simply that of surviving. That is, does a species have the necessary equipment to survive the elements? If it does, it survives; if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

The great irony of all this understanding and misunderstanding of Darwinianism is that the Christian church is the great survivor. It has what it takes. Even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It is, he says, perhaps the only real example of Survival of the Fittest. Let the Beagle take a voyage to the last day and discover what the passenger will observe:

Who are these arrayed in white,
Brighter than the noon-day sun?
Foremost of the sons of light;
Nearest the eternal throne?
These are they that bore the cross,
Nobly for their Master stood;
Sufferers in His righteous cause,
Followers of the dying God.

-Charles Wesley, Who Are These Arrayed in White?

Rise Up and Walk

…St. Dominic, even more than St. Francis, was marked by that intellectual independence, and strict standard of virtue and veracity, which Protestant cultures are wont to regard as specially Protestant. It was of him that the tale was told, and would certainly have been told more widely among us if it had been told of a Puritan, that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, “Peter can no longer say `Silver and gold have I none'”; and the Spanish friar answered, “No, and neither can he now say, `Rise and walk.'”

-G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, p. 23

My studies this week about the smallness of Bethlehem brought this quote to my mind. Bethlehem went from being the least among the clans of Judah (Micah 5:2), to ‘by no means the least’ (Matt. 2:6) simply on account of the presence of the newborn Christ.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that Christianity, or even the local church, is a movement. It survives movements because it is not a movement. It survives fads and fashions because it is not a fad or fashion. Spurgeon says, ‘he who marries today’s fashion is tomorrow’s widow.’ He is right.

The church is a rock that grows. A vine that sprawls. It is a family that reproduces. Not a bus, but a bush. Not a fad, but a family. Not a movement, but a miracle. Don’t be deceived into thinking that it will be the size, strength, health, wealth, high culture, politics, or general influence of the church that will save the world. The church’s message is ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ It is the healing, blessing, saving presence of Christ that makes us; nothing more, nothing less.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him, “are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” (11:3). Why are you out in Galilee? Why aren’t you in Jerusalem, Jesus? Why aren’t you standing before the politicians? Why aren’t you seeking the overthrow of Rome? Perhaps you’re not the Messiah after all.

Jesus’ response is simple and plain:

‘And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me”‘ (11:4-6).

He may not have stood before Caesar, but he was the Christ. His glory may have been a cross, but that was true glory. Therefore,

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Creation as Story: A Narrative Wrench in Mechanistic Gears

The Whimsical Christian, by Dorothy Sayers, is an intriguing book to say the least. I have written about a couple of her books, The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos?, in the past. My posts on The Mind of the Maker (HERE, HERE, and HERE) still rank among the most read on this blog.

Creed or Chaos? was a bit of a let down, but for good reason. The Mind of the Maker is hands-down one of the best books I have ever read. I read the book almost by sheer accident, having found it in a thrift store and knowing nothing about it other than the fact that I had come across the name of Dorothy Sayers in relation to C.S. Lewis.

The book was tough sledding. I felt as though I slogged through it. There were times when I just wanted to stop reading it, but I just never stopped. And the end result was life-changing. Sayers’ analogy of God and the creative mind of man is a game changer. I will not get into specifics at the moment, but I use things I learned from that book almost every week in one way or another.

There have been two game changers in The Whimsical Christian: the essays Toward a Christian Esthetic and Creative Mind. I will deal with both in due time, but for now I want to record one particular line of thought from Creative Mind.

In my defense of God as creator, I have often pointed out that the biblical record is that God created man and woman, along with the earliest plants and animals, along with every rock and grain of sand, in mature form. We do not know precisely what that ‘mature form’ looked like, but we know that the earliest apple tree did not spring from a seed; rather, it sprung, in maturity, wholly from the creative decree of God. If you looked at Adam, you might have said, ‘He’s probably 20 or 30 or 180 years old, who knows?’I do not have a strict opinion on the age of the universe, but I have sometimes joked that God may have just created the world the way he did to mess with our scientists. Again, that’s a joke. But Sayers actually gives winsome teeth to a similar idea – if the world is younger than it appears, it is simply a part of his craft as an artist:

It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species – to quote the test of Paradise Lost – ‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a  purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea  that created was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist – then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.

I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.

Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination…

-Dorothy Sayers, Creative Mind, from The Whimsical Christian, pp. 106-107

The argument is simple: Every novel contains a story. Every story exists as a complete ‘creation’ within itself. Nothing outside of that creation can be said to truly exist within the story. Yet for every story there is a back story: it could be the exposition, or it could simply be things the author is presupposing in order to create the story. The bottom line is that the novel often begins with a fully mature character who appears in complete maturity. This maturity may include many warts and flaws, but those warts and flaws are purely a result of the imagination of the author and their cause may or may not be part of the narrative. They may exist purely in the mind of the author and therefore never enter into the actual ‘revelation’ or into the ‘creation’ itself.

Notice also that Sayers uses a ‘poetical’ reading of Genesis to actually argue against the scientists. When folks today attempt to postulate Genesis 1-3 as poetic, it is usually for the opposite reason. Interesting.

Sayers says that applying this type of thinking to our ideas about creation could be entertaining. Indeed.

She pins down most of our problems as ‘creationists’ to our assimilation of modern scientific categories. We, like so much secular Scientism, tend to view the creation as mechanistic. We have taken the watchmaker argument and reasoned that God actually made a watch. Instead, we should be more concerned with the fact that God has made an artistic story. We should consider the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whom she quotes: “God created the world by imagination.” He imagines and speaks; and things imagined become reality. “…Even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17).

In this framework, of God as Creator in the sense of God as Artist, doctrines like predestination and divine providence are no longer abstract philosophical notions, but essential elements of his art. Of course an author predestines his characters; of course he causes circumstances to develop in a certain way in order to accomplish certain preordained ends. Of course he allows the drama of evil to enter the story, how else could there be a story? And of course he creates mature worlds with the appearance of age. That’s what artists do. He just gets to do it with real dirt, whereas we can only put ink on paper that comes from the real trees he has created.

Throw a narrative wrench into the mechanistic gears. The results could be entertaining.

On Video Games: Incarnation or Disincarnation?

Brian shares a quote and comments:

“Yet computer games remove us from reality and morality. They teach us the attractions of causing pain without recognizing responsibility or consequences.” [Living Into Focus, pp.] 102-103

I would love to discuss the validity and ramifications of this idea more.

Why not? This is my first ever post about video games. Let me know if this line of thought makes sense to anyone other than myself…

The quote above made me think about something I haven’t thought about for a while. For the life of me I cannot remember where I got the idea or why I have even thought of it before. I thought I must have written about it in the past, but my internet searches have come up empty. But I digress. The subject is ‘dis-incarnation.‘ I am sure that the idea (for me) was lifted from some source, but I can’t remember who or what, so I can’t give proper credit.

[Update: Three brief points I would like to clarify: 1) I could have, and perhaps should have, used the word ‘excarnation’ instead of ‘disincarnation.’ If the post gets a significant number of views I will probably change it. 2) Note that nowhere do I make any explicit conclusions about any sort of inherent evil or sinfulness in video games. 3) I am not even remotely thinking about anything other than video games (someone asked me if I intended board games as well: no, I don’t. I wasn’t thinking of anything other than video games in this post).]

I do, however, have this quote:

Human nature, or the condition of having a material body and participating in the change and suffering of the creation, was that from which man had to be delivered, but not that by which he would be delivered (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, p. 76).

The quote, of course, relates to some form of gnosticism. In context it is actually about Marcionism, but that’s not important for our subject. I am totally removing it from its context to relate it to another subject.

Pelikan’s point was that Marcionism got it wrong. A suffering existence in this world is not simply what we look to be delivered from, it is actually what we are delivered by. This is true on the macro scale as it is through Christ’s suffering that we are redeemed. It is also true, according to the apostle Paul, on the micro scale:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:16-17).

You can read my take on that specific passage HERE.

Dis-incarnation seeks to take the human existence in general, and suffering in particular, out of the equation. It seeks to spiritualize rather than embody, to mystify rather than to flesh out, to be removed rather than engaged. My question is, Do video games do this? I say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

In one sense video games are extremely engaging. They demand the attention of the whole person (mind and body). They can, at times, engage every aspect of the soul: mind, will, and affections. They often involve person-to-person interaction as well. Likewise there is a sense in which they directly involve incarnation, as we, via technology, seek to incarnate ourselves into a game. Here comes the rub.

Are we really incarnating ourselves? Is it possible to be incarnate digitally? Is it possible to have an incarnation into a (bodiless) digital body? Conundrum. I immediately object to my own line of reasoning. What about books? Aren’t books a form of incarnation? Aren’t they a form of incarnation (say embodiment if incarnation is too theologically loaded a word) into a non-physical environment of words and story? Don’t video games draw out similar passions and emotional experiences as books? I don’t know if I can answer my own objection. Let’s try.

Let me tell you a story about why I started playing the guitar: South Park was big when I was a teenager. I haven’t watched it in years. But several years ago I caught some reruns on a normal TV station (edited with bleeps!). I happened to catch the episode about Guitar Hero. (Incidentally I had been playing guitar hero). The South Park kids were obsessed with playing the game. In the midst of one of their gaming marathons, one of the dads begins to rock out on a real guitar to show them that he can actually play songs on a real guitar. They are indifferent. They continue with their game (which ends disappointingly!).

I got the message. Why would you play Guitar Hero when you could spend that time actually learning to play the guitar? I went and bought a guitar the next day and made a rash vow (nod to Chesterton) to learn to play it (and get rid of Guitar Hero). And I did. And I’m thankful. It’s not the same, and we all know it. Both Guitar Hero and an actual guitar involve skills. But one is truly incarnate (in the sense of truly embodied, though not divine); the other is dis-incarnate. One is hardwood reality; the other is pure fantasy. One is to gather around the living room and make melodies; the other is to gather around the TV and push buttons. One is tangible yet soulful; the other is neither (at least in the fullest sense).

If that is the case with guitars, how much more so with violence. Here’s the answer to my own objection above. First, if we are incarnating ourselves into video games, then we are guilty of the sin of the characters we embody. Not so with a book, because we do not ’embody’ the characters (generally speaking). No one is going to own up to this idea that we sin in our characters’ sinning. Which means that we have to deny that we are incarnating ourselves into the games. And if that is the case, then we are in the process of dis-incarnation – abandoning our fleshly existence for a digital quasi-reality. Books not only have spines, they have flesh and bones. What about games? Have they moved you to tears? Compelled you to love your neighbor? Caused you to strive to be a better flesh and bones (and soul) human being?

Those are my (very rough) musings. My thoughts need some major refining. I would also add that violent games (especially relating to war) tend to be used to fill some innate need in aggressive males. And I try to remind young guys that there are real battles to be fought in their own lives, even outside of military contexts. Spiritual warfare is a reality. Video games might even be a part of it. Thoughts?

Education as Economics

In a growing Technopoly, what do we believe education is for? The answers are discouraging, and one of them can be inferred from any television commercial urging the young to stay in school. The commercial will either imply or state explicitly that education will help the persevering student to get a good job. And that’s it. Well, not quite. There is also the idea that we educate ourselves to compete with the Japanese or the Germans in an economic struggle to be number one. Neither of these purposes is, to say the least, grand or inspiring. The story each suggests is that the United States is not a culture but merely an economy, which is the last refuge of an exhausted philosophy of education.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 174

I was not particularly fond of Postman’s solutions to the problem, but his analysis of the modern state of education is profound, especially considering that he wrote the book before the boom of the internet, laptops, tablets, iPads, and even cell phones. The more engrossed our culture becomes in the skills of technology, the more education seeks primarily to ‘equip’ students to perform technical skills. There used to be a particular type of school for that sort of thing – a technical school. We are now on the verge of all schools in some sense becoming technical schools. My own take on the new common core is that it is a leap in that direction, with everything being geared toward testing and ‘practical’ workplace applications.

Today, education is even more wrapped up with, and in, economics than it was when Postman wrote these words in the 90s. I hate the fact that I have to encourage teenagers to go to college simply for economic purposes, but that’s the sad reality. I would much rather tell them that a good liberal arts education will equip them to see the wonder of life and reality than tell them that it is simply a hoop that one must jump through to live a comfortable life.

I do not see any way of stopping this train in modern American culture. We have been headed in this direction for a long time, and the momentum is likely past the point of no return. But perhaps there is hope in the church. We can encourage our children to read simply for the sake of reading, and for the sake of good stories. We can encourage them to study creation (science), mathematics, history and the like simply for the fact that they are interesting and worthwhile, and a part of the story that God is telling, regardless of their so-called ‘practical value.’ We can continue to find roots in our tradition that will temper our need of flashy technological tools for learning. We can temper the bright light show of our culture with the deep roots and simple beauty of Christ.

Instead of flashier, we must go deeper. Instead of focusing purely on pragmatism and economics, we can encourage the goodness of education simply for the sake of knowing God and what he has created. And as we do so, perhaps, at least in the United States, we have a real opportunity to be different from the culture in a way that has not been evident for the past 100 years.

Let me put it this way: rather than seeking education as primarily a means of competing and gaining currency, we must seek it (1) as a means of reminding ourselves that we are small and (2) gaining currency for our souls.

Subverting Technological Imperatives (Technopoly)

…Technology creates its own imperatives and, at the same time, creates a wide-ranging social system to reinforce its imperatives.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 105

Michael Polanyi makes a similar point in Personal Knowlege:

All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue…A technology must…declare itself in favour of a definite set of advantages, and tell people what to do in order to secure them (p. 176).

When Postman and Polanyi come together, I listen intently.

We need to be asking ourselves what our technologies are asking of us. By ‘asking of us,’ I mean what are they compelling us to do and what are they asking us to give up? The next logical question is, What are the benefits of obedience? In summary, then, every device is telling me to do something, asking me to give up something, and offering me something in return for obedience.

If we want to subvert the imperatives of technology, if we want to throw off its sovereignty, a good starting point may be to ask what we will gain if we disobey, and if that disobedience may lead to better results than simply yielding to what is offered to us. Another starting point, and a distinctly Christian one, is to ask how we can submit technological imperatives, or technological sovereignty, to the imperatives and sovereignty of God. That is, rather than being a tool of our tools, can we use those tools to follow a different sovereign. Can we see them as His tools?

One sure way of knowing who’s sovereignty we are under, and whose commands we are obeying, is whether our use of those tools look just the same as someone who has no love for Jesus Christ. Do you surf the internet the same as the godless? Do you text the same? Do you take the same kinds of pictures? Do you post the same status updates and photos?

This is all stream-of-consciousness. I have not worked out a definite position here. I only want to provoke thought. But the main point I think I want to make as I post about technology (and Technopoly) is that my idea is that we must be aiming at a loving subversion against the spirit of the age. Subversion is not necessarily rebellion. But it always asks questions and it always proposes possible alternatives.

On Reading Tragedies with Children

I just finished reading a book with my young daughter. I will refrain from sharing the title of the book at the moment because the author is still alive. I have learned from experience that when you reference a living author your post might end up on that person’s Twitter. Believe it or not I don’t really want that type of publicity! And also, for full disclosure, I am in a somber mood at the moment. That will likely come across in the post.

Anyway, the book turned out to be a bit of a Tragedy, ending in somber despair. I am not big on Tragedies, at least deep, dark Tragedies – Tragedies that are tragic all the way up and all the way down with no hope in sight. Those types of tragedies quite frankly aren’t true to reality…or are they? That’s the big question.

Nihilism is Tragedy (with a capital T). All is meaningless. Life sucks and then you die. And while, for some, life may appear meaningless, and while life may suck, and while they, and I, will surely die, the vast majority of humanity, not just Christians, have always realized that the premise simply isn’t true. We demand hope.

The question, then, becomes, Do we demand hope and therefore invent forms of hope to satisfy us, or Is this something engrained into us from the outside in? Is this an inside out thing – we feel the need for it, and so we invent mechanisms to provide what we need (hope in this case)? Or is the sense that tragedy is meant to be overruled and overturned engrained into us because of the Truth of reality? Are Freud and Nietzche right or are Tolkien and Lewis right? Freud says we invent big daddy in the sky in order to make up for the failures of little daddy down below. Nietzche says we need Supermen who, in the end, can’t save us anyway. Tolkien and Lewis say that tragedy and disaster are little stabbings of pain, shared by all of humanity, that never end a story ultimately. They never end the story because God himself took on flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, to share in our suffering, that when we suffer we might be sharing in his – and that his resurrection might become ours.

So I do not believe that a good story ever ends without hope. It may not end the way we want it to. But the question is, Does the story leave you despairing, or does it leave you longing? Even if you are not rejoicing, are you at least crying out for the happy ending? Is there enough there to whet your appetite, as you close the book, for the possibility that something good good happen on the next page, if there were another page? That’s the tell-tale difference. And it makes all the difference in the world, and in your soul. If it doesn’t do that, then chuck it right across the room. I’ve done it before, you should try it. It’s no tragedy to quit a bad book.

The title of this post mentions children, and here is where they come in. Children should not be sheltered from sad books. I do not mean that children should be forced to read sad books. But when you read with your children, or when they share what they are reading with you, and they don’t want to read what comes next (this is what happened to us tonight), I do not think you should encourage them to stop. They need to see that not all stories, in the here and now, end happily. They need to see the main characters suffer, and even die. It is better for them to experience it there before they have to deal with it in their own literal experience. Having read of such givens them imaginative furniture to may lead to greater poise when real tragedy strikes.

There goes that word again – tragedy. I am not a fan of the word in general, because most things that we call tragedies are not truly tragic. And most books aren’t either. We have made cliches out of clouds and silver linings and songs about rainbows for a reason. So let the sadness of the book waft over the imagination of your children. But remember that your job is to teach them that Nihilism is a farce. Jesus Christ says that he is making all things new. If he rose from the dead, then indeed it is true. There is hope, no matter how bleak the present, or the present story, is. He calls light out of darkness. He really does. That is why Tolkien could never have truly finished The Lord of the Rings, or at least it could never have been the masterpiece that it is, if Sam Gangee had never said, ‘Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ Catastrophe is meant to lead to eucatastrophe, death to resurrection. That’s Reality, with a capital R.

So read on. Be sad. Cry if you need to. And then teach your children that we do not grieve as those in the world because our hope is sure. And if you’re in the Nihilist camp, then why do you care anyway? Just move on. This post doesn’t really mean anything anyway. And neither does the book you read. It’s all dust in the wind.

God’s Law is True: The Beauty and Superiority of the Law as a Way of Life in Modern Culture

C.S. Lewis on Psalm 119:

On three occasions the poet asserts that the Law is ‘true’ or ‘the truth’ (vv. 86, 138, 142). We find the same in Psalm 111:7, ‘all his commandments are true.’ (The word, I understand, could also be translated ‘faithful’, or ‘sound’; what is, in the Hebrew sense, ‘true’ is what ‘holds water’, what doesn’t ‘give way’ or collapse.) A modern logician would say that the Law is a command and that to call a command ‘true’ makes no sense; “The door is shut” may be true or false but “Shut the door” can’t. But I think we all see pretty well what the Psalmists mean. They mean that in the Law you find the ‘real’ or ‘correct’ or stable, well-grounded, directions for living. The Law answers the question “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” (119:9). It is like a lamp, a guide (v. 105). There are many rival directions for living, as the Pagan cultures all round us show.

-C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, Sweeter than Honey

Lewis is getting at the idea that the ‘truth’ of the Law of God is not only in its concreteness and congruence to reality, but also in its superiority as a way of life. Loving God and loving neighbor is just plain better than any other system of morality.

As I was digging for a specific quote last night from this section of Reflections on the Psalms, I found myself stopping at the above quote. One thought gripped me, and I share it with you. If we are going to show the beauty and supremacy of Christianity, specifically of what the Book of Acts calls ‘the Way,’ the issue will not simply be that we obey the 10 Commandments. The difference is going to be not only our keeping of the Law, but how our keeping of the Law forms a way of life that is contrary to the way of the world around us.

Our culture, here in modern America at least, and I am sure in much of Europe, is steeped in Darwinism. It sounds like a cliche, but ‘survival of the fittest’ is the way. You are taught from the cradle that you are special, that you are fit, and encouraged to increase though it may cause others to decrease. Sure, you will perform charity. But you will do it that you might increase all the more – padding your own self-esteem and notoriety at the expense of a few dollars dropped in someone’s guitar case.

If our Way is to stand out, it will be because of the ‘truth’ of the Law in the sense that the psalmist used it and Lewis understood it. It will not only be that we do not kill, but that we do not kill when we ourselves are threatened (think how this stands against the Hunger Games mentality). It will not only be that we do not commit adultery, but that we genuinely love our spouses and have mortified the desires of hearts to lust for others at all, we desire no spousal upgrades. It will not only be that we do not steal, but that we do not covet what is not ours, have no desire to climb ladders, and instead are willing to humble ourselves and give sacrificially. It will not only be that we do not lie, but that we are known as those who stand on concrete principles and do not sway, we let our yes be yes and our no be no and refuse to play games with words for the sake of political correctness or faux-offense.

We will testify to the truth of the Law by going against the grain of Darwinism, but also by going against the grain of Pop-Culture. Not only will we not kill, but we will not kill even for the sake of attention, mass attention. Not only will we not commit adultery, we could not care less if anyone is lusting after us beside our spouse, we won’t twerk for attention. Not only will we not steal, we will not covet riches, porsches and mansions and spots on MTV’s Cribs. Not only will we not lie, we will not lie to make ourselves look better, or more glamorous, than we actually are, we will detest self-aggrandizement.

Law-keeping, for the modern Christian, must have a conscious counter-cultural beauty about it. And when it does, we will illustrate what the psalmist says about the law – that the Law is truth.

How are we going to get there? Only by seeing how Christ kept the Law (for us) and abiding in him. For he says, ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing.’ This is no cookie cutter do this, don’t do that type of law-keeping. This is living with wisdom as we discern the signs of the times. This is Jesus Christ, the great counter-culture in one person, living out his life in us by the Spirit. Living out the truth – that if one seeks to gain his life he will lose it, that if one desires to be great he must be a servant of all. This is loving God and loving neighbor by living for them, dying for them, and serving them. And this way is greater.

Why Poetry? Why Now?

I have had to come to grips lately with my desire for poetry. I have found myself reading it constantly, and even wanting to write it. It is not as if I have said to myself, ‘Boy, I really need to write some poetry.’ It is more of an impulse. The desire is just there to do it, and it is a relatively new desire for me. And so, I ask myself, and offer an answer to you of, why. Let me build a little scaffolding with ideas from others. First, I offer this fine quote from Chesterton:

One need only be a very minor poet to have wrestled with the tower or the tree until it spoke like a titan or a dryad. It is often said that pagan mythology was a personification of the powers of nature. The phrase is true in a sense, but it is very unsatisfactory; because it implies that the forces are abstractions and the personification is artificial. Myths are not allegories. Natural powers are not in this case abstractions. It is not as if there were a God of Gravitation. There may be a genius of the waterfall; but not of mere falling, even less than of mere water. The impersonation is not of something impersonal. The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance. Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. but imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, pp. 104-105).

C.S. Lewis called imagination ‘the organ of meaning.’ In other words, the imagination comprehends and expresses truth by incarnating it into images (at least that’s my best shot at what he means). Chesterton is on to a similar idea when he writes (above) that poets, myth-makers, and mystics have sought after beauty, and enfleshed beauty, through their imagination.

Just last night, I was reading 2 Samuel 22, David’s great song of praise to the Lord after successive victories over the Philistines. David, of course, as the very next chapter in 2 Samuel points out, was ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel.’ He was a poet, a musician, a songwriter. He was always ready to pray through verse. In this particular text, he is praising God through various mental images. He likens God to a fortress, a tower, and a rock. But more surprisingly, he likens God to (what we would call) a drill-sergeant, a storm, and even a dragon. Why would anyone, at least anyone who loves God, ever compare him to a dragon? It is because he consumed David’s enemies as if by fire. It was as if he had blown smoke from his nostrils and scorched David’s enemies.

I bring this up in this context to make my central point. Poetry, at least good poetry, is a seeking after beauty through incarnation in some sense. It is seeking after the truth through images. It desires to see the truth covered in flesh and bones and dirt and flora and fauna. I have yet to find the source, but it is said that Chesterton said something like, ‘truth, not facts.’ If he didn’t say it, it at least sounds like something he would say.God is not a dragon. If you were to say that God is a dragon you would be a liar. ‘God is a dragon’ is simply not a fact. But, as you seek to know God, and express the truth about God, it might lead you to personify him as such.

Now there are many facts about God, and we must express them. The Bible is a book of history – of facts. But among those facts lies several books made up entirely of poetry. We do not have to choose one over the other. Both are ours. So where is your balance? Are you a fact-person or a poetry-person? God is both. We should be both.

The problem lies in the fact that many folks view poetry simply as a means of fancy self-expression. That brings me back to another quote by Lewis. In talking about Chaucer, he once wrote that ‘poets are, for Chaucer, not people who receive fame, but people who give it.’ Poetry is not simply self-expression. In fact, it doesn’t have to be self-expression at all in some sense. It involves the self to be sure, but it involves the self trying to grasp out for truth and beauty with all of the tools it has at its disposal. The poet is not content to simply talk about himself. He is too busy making the sunrise a spectacle, and the warrior a hero, and the pig a person, and the person a pig.

It’s not all about rhymes either. Poems often rhyme because rhymes can be beautiful. Which is more beautiful, and which conveys a stronger sense of the truth: a) ‘We live in the desert, but God is our refuge,’ or b) ‘Wanderers in the wilderness though we be, yet we find a home in thee’? Which is more beautiful and conveys a stronger sense of the truth: a) Nightingales are really neat birds, they sing pretty, they’ve been around a long time in many different places, or b)

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn

Question mark.

We need poetry because existence is too big, beautiful, and messy to express without it. My soul is too dark. Saying it is dark won’t do. I must say, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ The stars are too magnificent. Saying they’re magnificent won’t do. I must say, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.’ A fool making the same mistake over and over again is foolish. But I can’t just call him a fool. I must say, ‘As a dog returneth to his own vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.’ One way of saying something isn’t enough. We need balance if we are to find beauty.

Therefore if you are a rationalist who has no place for poetry in your life, what are you going to do? That’s where I was just a few short years ago. Chesterton wrote,

The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Poetry is a balm. Solomon knew that. That’s why he wrote it. To everything turn, turn, turn.

Poetry is not everything. Not everything must be expressed poetically. But the fact of the matter is that we need not just truth but beauty in our lives. And if your truth is not beautiful, and is not manifesting and producing beauty, and if your response to it is not beautiful, you are a candidate for a cracked head. Get your head into the heavens and breathe the air. Watch a sunset and admit that the water looks like its dancing in pink. Look at a star and admit that it looks ‘like a diamond in the sky.’ You might just find some pleasant sanity running through your veins. You might just find yourself feeling a bit smaller and wanting to spread the fame of another rather than yourself.

Technology and Modern Man: Always on Call

In the past, only a few professions – doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers – required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now almost all of us live this way.

– John Freeman, The Tyranny of Email, p. 7

I have been one of the dinosaurs who have refused to buy a smart phone. I already feel like I’m ‘on call’ enough as it is. I see men and women, boys and girls, living as if their phones are surgically attached to their hands, and it makes me wonder just where we’re headed. I recently met a little girl, probably about 9 or 10 years old, who told me she couldn’t live without her iPhone. I assured her that she could. She doesn’t know what she’s signing up for, or what it might cause her to miss.

I do not think that there is anything intrinsically bad or wrong with texting, or email, or social media of course. Like most things, it comes down to how we use them, and if we can live without them. If you can’t live without it, it has effectively become an idol. And, as I’ve heard Tim Keller say, referring to Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, your God will either bleed for you or demand that you bleed for him. Only one God bleeds for you, but many demand that you give your life to them.

As I post quotes from this book, and as I post reflections on the state of modern communication technology, my only intention is to store up insights from the book and offer reflections on how we might make our own bleeding stop. How can we use such technology as a good gift from God without allowing it to effectively take his place in our priorities and use of time?

You can see my little poetic take on the matter HERE.