Dante, Courtly Love, and the Contemplative Life

This quarter in the eighth grade great books course I teach, we are spending several weeks on Dante’s Inferno. The class covers the medieval period in general, a period I find fascinating. And in some ways, Dante is the distillation of the best of medieval literature, cosmology, and theology. It’s fun.

Dante himself is quite the character. In the Divine Comedy, the work of which the Inferno is only the first third, he portrays himself wandering through a dark wood, plagued by vicious beasts, trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is met in those woods by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who is going to take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to reach God. But it turns out that Virgil has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life.

Fun fact: Dante met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, she married another man, and died three years later at the age of twenty-four. Dante had been married to someone else for five years at that point, and would end up having several kids with this other woman. Yet throughout his life, Dante maintained that he was madly in love with Beatrice, and had been since the day they met. He wrote a collection of love poetry in her honor that he published five years after she died, and finished the Divine Comedy, in which she had a starring role, only a year before his own death.

So, that’s interesting. Actually, it’s less weird than it sounds, if only slightly. This was the era of courtly love poetry, when falling in love with married women was the thing to do. In a lot of the stories of knights in shining armor fighting for the honor of fair ladies, said fair ladies were often married to another man. Now, a good Christian knight would never try to act on his love in an unbecoming manner–say, by sleeping with the lady whom he loved so madly. No, he would just admire her from afar, and fight in her honor. In theory. There was that whole Lancelot thing. Also Tristram and Isolde. And maybe one or two others. But most of the time it was platonic.

To modern sensibilities, this concept is wildly foreign. In what possible context could this be interpreted as a good thing, especially in the eyes of such a heavily churched culture, especially coming from such a self-consciously Christian guy as Dante? Well, there actually might be an explanation.

In the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Dante ascends through the heavens one heavenly sphere at a time. Just as in Hell below, people are here placed into separate spheres based on their character. In the sphere of Mars, for instance, are those who fought for the faith. Above them, on Jupiter, are righteous rulers. But at the top, on Saturn, the last real planet in medieval cosmology, we find… monks?

Actually, this sphere is usually labeled “The Heaven of the Contemplatives.” Contemplatives are pretty much what they sound like–people who spend their lives in contemplation, either of God himself or of various divine mysteries. This would certainly include monks as we normally think of them, but it would also cover other people who led a similar lifestyle of meditation on holy things.

This is actually a huge part of the medieval view of the world. The best thing you could be was not one of those adventurous knights, not some righteous king like Arthur or Charlemagne, nor even necessarily a regular priest or bishop, caught up in the affairs of your parish or bishopric. No, medievals considered a life of contemplation to be the pinnacle of human existence.

There are several reasons for this, but one major reason is grounded in their philosophy of the soul. Medieval philosophy said that there were three kinds of souls–vegetable, animal, and rational. The vegetable soul was the kind of life that grew, but didn’t do much else. You know, like veggies. The animal soul belonged to life forms that could move around and act on their environment. But the last kind of soul, belonging to men and angels, and perhaps just a few others, was the rational soul. This kind of soul was capable of reason.

This view had certain implications. Lifestyles that primarily involved action, that involved working or fighting or other such things, were things we held in common with the beasts. Ruling, which engaged more of one’s reasoning abilities, would be higher up the chain. After all, you were using the faculties that distinguished you from lower creation. But higher up, higher even than wise and just rulers, would be people who did nothing but use their reasoning faculties. These were the people who contemplated the deep and holy things of life, using that faculty which God gave to his children and his servants above all others.

So what does this have to do with courtly love? Well, imagine a kind of love which was not focused on your merely animal drives, one which demanded instead that you meditate upon your beloved, use reason to contemplate her. Imagine, if you will, a contemplative rather than an active love. In fact, imagine a love where the actual activities of romance are ruled out, but not a higher and more platonic admiration. So, yeah, imagine you are in love with a married woman.

It’s kind of twisted, but it makes a weird sort of sense. If reason is the best part of our nature, and animal instincts to some extent reduce us to the level of beasts, then a love which is elevated to a solely rational level is a higher love. Of course, in practice it becomes something that is either creepy, if unrequited, or adulterous, if the lady returns your affections. It’s dangerous, and there’s no doubt it led to all sorts of excesses as well as some very sketchy fiction at the time. Dante even placed a couple adulterers in Hell who were inspired to sin thanks to reading courtly love poetry. But it does make that twisted sort of sense.

Now, no society is really simple, especially one as diverse and cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial, as medieval Europe could sometimes be. This little chain of reasoning no doubt leaves out quite a lot, and paints a very uneven portrait of a culture shaped by people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of weird quirks and personal histories. Still, it’s a striking and surprisingly coherent story. It’s just the sort of thing to make you wonder what weirdly alien practices we take for granted as a society, and how strange some of our values might be in the light of history. What might our descendants think of us seven hundred years from now?

Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?

A Monstrous Vision

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.

Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.

But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.

Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.

While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.

First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.

As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.

At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

Plasticity

H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.

Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.

This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.

If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.

This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.

Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.

Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.

Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.

It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.

The Future of Humanity

While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?

In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.

While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.

Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.

For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.

 

 

 

 Post Script

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

In Praise of the Weird

In my testimony, I made an offhand reference to my onetime belief in extraterrestrial life. In a previous version of that post, I was actually going to devote a sizable space to my interactions with UFO, Bigfoot, Nessie, and other paranormal studies over the course of my life. It plays a bigger part in the story than you might think. While ultimately I chose to sideline that theme, I do believe those issues are worthy of attention for thinking Christian in a secular culture. Here I want to present an explanation as to why I think this is the case.

          First Things First

Definitions. To someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land, these fields are filled with a bewildering array of terms that either entirely unknown, or used in a more specific way than people with less exotic interests are accustomed to. Here’s quick intro to those.

Forteana and Fortean. Charles Fort was a nineteenth century student of everything weird. Forteana is the discipline—or vague collection of pseudo-disciplines—named for him. It encompasses everything from aliens to lost civilizations to ghosts to psychic powers to conspiracy theories to alternate dimensions to cryptozoology. That would be the subject of this post. Fortean is just the adjective version of the word.

Cryptozoology is the study of animals not yet acknowledged to exist by mainstream science. This is actually the most legitimate of Fortean studies, as it frequently deals with animals that actually do exist, or did at one time. Before the great apes were discovered, they held a place similar to bigfoot in the popular imagination. The komodo dragon was thought to be a mythical creature, and the okapi was likewise thought to be an animal from folklore. All of these were discovered to exist. Other cryptids, or animals studied by cryptozoologists, include large black cats in East Texas, the Tasmanian Tiger (presumed extinct by mainstream science), and anacondas of unusual size. Bigfoot and his many relatives, as well as a plethora of lake monsters, are of course included.

A UFO is just an unidentified flying object. If you have seen something in the sky and didn’t know what it was—in other words, if you ever look up at the night sky—you have seen a UFO. That may sound simplistic, but the distinction between, “Was that a satellite or spacejunk?” and, “Little green men landed in my back yard!” is actually surprisingly murky. A large number of UFO sightings just involve unidentified lights that are too large or move too erratically to be ordinary planes. Some of these are explainable by ball lightning or other phenomena, others not so much.

Another common sighting is the black triangle. These have super common for a while, but are generally laughed off as just another case of crackpot UFO nuts hallucination. The government in particular denies all knowledge of such an aircraft, and they have totally never tested any kind aircraft that fit that description.

Huh.

Which serves to illustrate the difference between UFOs and aliens. The theory that UFOs are flown by creatures from another planet is referred to as the extraterrestrial hypothesis, and it’s not the only hypothesis in town. Many UFO cases can be easily explained by the government not telling us every time it tests a new spy plane, and many others can be explained by poorly understood atmospheric phenomena, like ball lightning. Others most assuredly are the product of drugs or fevered imaginations, but that doesn’t have to mean all of them are.

But even among those who believe there are genuine, non-government intelligences behind UFO sightings, there are plenty of other explanations. Abduction stories bear an uncanny resemblance to older stories of the fay folk, and some Christians have claimed that they are demons. It’s not unusual for UFO believers to claim the beings they contact are from another dimension instead of another planet. And, my favorite theory, Nazis. Seriously. They’re still out there, they have crazy technology, and they spend the weekends doing flyovers of Kansas farmhouses.

But I digress.

Paranormal is vague term, encompassing everything from extrasensory perception/ESP—which runs the gamut from reading minds to seeing the future—to ghosts of all kinds, to astral projection (sending your soul out on a journey), to strange powers, to some UFO sightings, and back around to cryptozoology. In some cases, paranormal is just a synonym for Forteana, but it usually has more of a spiritual or psychic bent. Literally, it just means “beside the normal.”

Speaking of the spiritual and the psychic, occult is an often abused term. Occult comes from a Latin word meaning “hidden,” and essentially consists of any brand of hidden knowledge about the cosmos, especially the kind of hidden knowledge that gives you power. Picture people pondering over the secret name of God, as in the Jewish Kabbala, or ascribing a deeper meaning to Masonic rituals. Alchemy was actually more of an occult, spiritual discipline designed to lead to enlightenment (sort of) than it was about turning lead into gold. This broad realm of activities does include ritual magic and the invocation of spiritual entities up to and including demons, but there are a lot of Christians that read deep and dubious meaning into supposedly important, yet forgotten, Biblical symbols who would also fit the bill.

There are more places we could go in the realm of Forteana, but this covers most of the major bases. I didn’t mention conspiracy theories, but that’s only because the term is pretty self-explanatory. It is just as important as the others. Having laid the groundwork, then let’s dive into just why these things are important.

Question Your Assumptions

Most of our knowledge about the world does not come from firsthand experience. Unless you are an astronaut, you have never seen the earth circling the sun. No one has seen an atom, however much evidence has been accumulated for their existence. (Hint: It’s a lot.) We trust that Antarctica and most other continents exist because everyone says they exist. We may even know people who claim to have been to these strange lands, but our belief in them is largely based in the trust we have in the people making the claims, not our own experience of them.

But the general consensus is not always right. Turns out Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the entire scientific, philosophical, and religious establishment was wrong about the whole sun-goes-around-the-earth thing. Also turns out that black triangle UFOs really do—or did—exist, and a lot of sightings of sea monsters are based on a real critter—the oarfish.

More critically, it’s not always scientific facts the majority is wrong about. As Christians in what appears to be an increasingly secularized country, we have to assume that we few are right where the majority are wrong. Atheists did the same thing several centuries ago. In any given setting, the possibility always exists that the cultural consensus is deeply wrong about the most important things in life. Sometimes this can have disastrous consequences, from Jonestown to the Third Reich.

Forteana makes us aware of this fact. It asks us to question how we know what we know. Who says this particular thing does not exist? Who says the world works this way? Are they actually trustworthy? Sometimes they are, and the conventional explanation is the best. But there are other times when the authorities or the general population deny, or affirm, the existence of a phenomenon not because they have gone through a process of rational though or sought out evidence and tested hypotheses, but because it is more convenient for them. As in the case of experimental stealth aircraft, we see that sometimes the government is not telling the truth. Is this necessarily a problem? Maybe not, but it is certainly worth noting.

More importantly to the Christian, when we question why hold the beliefs we do, we often uncover which of those beliefs are the true bedrock. Many Christians deny the existence of ghosts, spiritual phenomena, and monstrous beings out of hand, without stopping to think that the Bible often affirms the existence of such things. Why should we be surprised if people see them today? Why do accept the word of scientists who say such things shouldn’t exist over what are sometimes very convincing firsthand accounts? This reveals an underlying faith in modern skepticism and materialism that may not be consistent with Biblical faith. If that is the case, perhaps it is time to reevaluate our professed views.

Studying Fortean phenomena doesn’t only help us reevaluate the sources of our beliefs, it also helps us understand the complex nature of belief. Why do UFO cults form? What is attractive about that? The answers to such questions are deeply practical, because we too have certain spiritual desires that need to be met, certain questions that need to be answered, and those non-rational longings play into our beliefs. A Christian may sometimes find himself in doctrinal position or a community, not as a result of faithfulness to Christ or his word, but because other very human and very fallible motivations are at play. We need to be familiar with such things, and be able to draw such comparisons for our own good and the good of our communities.

One particular place I think this comes out rather strongly is by looking at the appeal of the occult. People go into the occult looking for a hidden order to the universe, something that gives them a sense that life is not beyond their control. They want to empower themselves with the sort of knowledge only a chosen few have, and by performing certain actions, they believe they can reach a kind of enlightenment or perhaps a power over what goes on in their lives.

Do these impulses ever crop up in Christianity? Have you ever been around a teacher or community that dealt in hidden knowledge, that promised power over your life through deep study of certain secret truths about God or the Scriptures? While by no means pervasive in American Christianity, I sometimes think such things are far more common than we realize.

And of course, Forteana helps us uncover human motivations in another very obvious way. What could bring a person to devote their entire life to the pursuit of something, like Bigfoot, for which they will be ostracized from respectable society? What makes them willing to endure the scorn of academia and the general population? Why do they make martyrs of themselves over something so manifestly insane? And, on a related note, is there something attractive about belonging to that fringe community? Is there something that makes people want to join the club of those “in the know,” or who believe that “The Truth is Out There?” This line of questioning is not exactly irrelevant to Bible believing Christians in an unbelieving world, one which often thinks our ideas are just as kooky. And, with the diversity of the American church, sometimes those beliefs are kooky.

The study of Forteana can, in a very practical way, serve as a sort of intellectual immune system, helping us question why we believe what we believe, and holding us up to higher standards in our reasoning. It’s a field that is based on questioning assumptions, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Without a certain amount of practice doing so, we may find ourselves prey to the hoaxers of the world—including our own deceptive hearts.

Moving Forward

Forteana serves another purpose, not just for Christians, but for society in general. Science is built on fresh thinking, on looking at old subjects in new lights. Discoveries are made because people study something no one has ever studied before, or studies an old subject from a new angle.

Cryptozoology in particular is a prime example of this. Cryptozoologists take rumors of creatures which others might dismiss out of hand, and refuse to do so. Many times their search proves fruitless, but as in the case of the okapi and komodo dragon, sometimes it pays off. Science needs people willing to chase down the rumors, to follow up on the forgotten cases, to take a chance on something that might seem hopeless. That’s what drives us forward. Take two examples in particular.

First, the deep seas. The oceans are the most unexplored part of this planet, and every time we dive deeper into those unknown regions, we come back astounded by new discoveries. Part of our interest, though, is driven by stories of giant sharks, and squids the size of islands, of aquatic sentient life, or sunken cities. Old rumors of sea monsters keep us going back, wondering what strange new thing could be down there. Those stories, and others like them, imbue that study with a sense of adventure, of wonder, drawing attention, drawing resources, and drawing bright-eyed young kids into the strange and fascinating world of marine biology. It is that openness to possibility that keeps us going.

Second, consider animals once thought extinct. Mainstream science has given up hope on the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger. This unique marsupial has been thought extinct for generations. But imagine if it wasn’t, if somewhere out there this creature still existed. Could we bring it back from the edge? Could we preserve this piece of God’s creation for future generations? Isn’t that worth trying? But currently, it’s only people on the fringes that are giving us that chance. And, oddly enough, though one has yet to be captured, there is more evidence out there for the thylacine’s continued existence than might once have been expected.

This same theme takes another form in East Texas. It is a known fact among people who live in the Piney Woods that there are large black cats, usually referred to as panthers, lurking in the forests. Mainstream science, however, denies that they exist. If they are assumed to be melanistic jaguars, this skepticism seems well-founded, as jaguars are not known to live anywhere near this far north. If, however, they are jaguarundis—a slightly smaller feline species with a more slender build—then the long history of sightings seems more reasonable. Jaguarundi territory does, in fact, reach into South Texas. If this is the case, then what does this tell us about the ability of large mammals to survive in semi-populated areas? How does this effect how we view human interaction with the environment? And what does this tell us about how thoroughly we really know our own backyards?

In the questioning of old assumptions and the openness to new possibilities, Fortean studies in general and cryptozoology in particular keep science on its toes. We need a source of fresh ideas just as much as we need someone to question unexamined orthodoxies. It keeps us moving forward, and prevents us from accepting misunderstandings as the truth, simply because they have been around a while, or we’re too lazy to take a look at them.

Conclusion

Forteana has served as an important part of my intellectual immune system for a lot of years, and has kept me looking forward to the future as a realm with exciting possibilities. But it has also done two more things for me that I think are deeply valuable.

As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, there was a time in my life when the community I was in felt tightly insulated from the rest of the world, isolated from any sort of dissent or simple conversation about any number of issues. That same community seemed to undermine my faith through some of its teachings and practices. But when you are deep in a cultural bubble, things often seem far more desperate than they really are. What can seem like an oppressive system with absolute power over your life is often not, if you can just take a single step outside.

Forteana did that for me. I had left behind such things for many years, for a variety of reasons. But at some point, when things were at their darkest, and I couldn’t really find a way forward, I stumbled across a podcast called Expanded Perspectives. In that very rough time, I dove into stories of yowies and the almasty, of Slenderman and Missing 411 cases. I reintroduced myself to old UFO cases, and new ones that had happened since I turned my mind to other things.

It was like a breath of fresh air to a suffocating man. I was surrounded by a thousand unquestioned assumptions and no one to talk to about them, and in one enormous flood, a whole world of outrageous ideas, of theories upending everything the world took for granted, came sweeping in and gave me a new lease on life. It was a window into an outside world—so refreshing, so new, and so inspiring.

And that was the second thing Forteana did for me, and has done for pop culture generally. These fringe topics are fodder for story ideas, whether you’re looking for a political thriller, a monster movie, a ghost story, a fantasy adventure, or just a solid mystery. All these beasts, beings, and phenomena set the imagination on fire and turn it loose. For someone who thrives on the new and the strange, that’s bread and butter. I began reading so much more after I got back into Forteana, and my habit of writing had a revival soon after. There are so many more interesting things than UFOs, crypto, and the paranormal, but that was the spark that brought me back.

Forteana not only helps us keep our worldview tidy, it serves as a release valve for the imagination. Human beings occasionally need that escape into the extraordinary, that vacation in the land of the weird so that they can come back into the real world and cope with day to day life. While hanging out with bigfoot and the greys didn’t bring me back around to spiritual health, it certainly helped put a stop to the downward spiral. When you have trouble finding the truth, sometimes it helps to just know the truth is out there.

Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

My parents started attending church when I was very young. I don’t really remember the transition, but I really took to it. I had a very high view of the world, both the natural side of it and the artificial. It made sense to say there was a hand that knit the stars into the black heavens, that raised up the pines like swaying giants over the forest, that mixed the white sand and red clay, and scattered old river rocks among them. I was also invested in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, love and hate, life and death. A Creator and a heroic Redeemer made sense.

I readily enough bought into the idea of my own sin, though in my immaturity I often only acknowledged the less significant ones. But as a general concept, I knew that good and evil was in all of us, that good was natural and evil unnatural, and that unless we were rescued, evil would win.

That idea certainly applied to individuals, but it also made sense writ large. The world was a story, starting at a perfect creation, then falling at a moment when man chose sin. In the centuries that followed after, those who remained faithful to God and those who turned from him would struggle over the earth. And, as in any good story, the good guys were fighting a losing battle for most of history. Until, of course, the Hero arrived. He swept in and made the ultimate sacrifice, accepting the consequences for our own ingratitude towards our Creator, our betrayal of the one who loved us. Now, in following him, we partook in his death and his resurrection, and in the long run were promised a redeemed world in which to live. All would be right again.

It’s hard to point to any one place where I learned this narrative. We attended a Bible church at the time, which had an AWANA program. As a family, we often listened to the Christian teaching and talk radio station in our area, and continued to do so long after we switched churches. Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson, Adventures in Odyssey, Unshackled, and a wide array of preachers from the Bible Belt and the evangelical community more generally all had an indelible influence on my heart, mind, and imagination. I also got ahold of Christian fiction books as a kid, including a lot of Frank Peretti and the Left Behind series. I enjoyed them both, but especially the latter. I was a big end times nut in my preteen years, falling in love with the drama of the apocalyptic narrative.

At some point, my family switched churches. I was not aware of much of the drama surrounding that decision, and was surprised to find myself quite suddenly in a little wooden church in the boonies where people said scripted phrases back and forth to each other, there was a confession of sin, and we drank alcohol at every communion. It was very disconcerting, and I found myself having to account for the change. This was the first time I moved beyond the bare Bible story into the world of theological controversy.

The whole thing was disconcerting to me, in particular the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. I could hardly side with the Arminians, as their position seemed to deny God’s power and treat man as if he could save himself, as if original sin had not caused a fundamental character flaw. Calvinism, on the other hand, seemed to deny the agency of people. We were not characters in God’s story, not in any real sense. God also seemed to be a much more dour sort of person, a frowning lawgiver who smashed people for offending him in ways they could not have imagined were offensive, and arbitrarily sparing a trembling few who could not know if they were really safe from God’s wrath, or just self-deceived like the rest.

That was a long, hard struggle that very nearly tore me apart. Eventually I conceded the truth of the essentials of the Calvinist position. God did guide the destiny of men and nations, and we could not choose to follow him unless he had first freed us from the power of sin. Granting that, I still felt uneasy about the way some Calvinists I had read talked about God and man and the whole Gospel story. But I put that unease aside. There was far more going on in the world.

I also did an about-face on the end times business. I read a very lucid little tract explaining how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 fulfilled the prophecies of John in Revelation in the most minute details. Recognizing my own tendency towards flights of fancy—I was a big believer in UFOs at the time—I conceded that the language of Revelation was, for the most part, far from literal, and that my vision of vanishing churches, planet-wide dictatorships, centaur-locusts, and apocalyptic battles was more indulgent than accurate.

I also adopted covenant theology, which I saw as more connected with Presbyterian government than it necessarily had to be. The concept of the covenant, or solemn agreement of some kind, appealed to me, and it also explained far more of the Bible to a far greater degree than anything I had seen before. Of course, I had never given much concrete thought to the nature of God’s promises or the relationship between the testaments, so that was hardly surprising. Unlike Calvinism and the end times, this transition felt largely superficial and easy, though, as with corporate confession and high liturgy, the paedobaptism that went with it struck me as a bit Roman Catholic.

All these issues and more were profoundly disorienting, and at about the same time as we switched churches, there were a number of other upsetting events going on in my life. I dove into all this theology to give myself an anchor, and found it didn’t quite do so. Furthermore, my longtime love of fantasy, mythology, and fairytale creatures was starting to sit uncomfortably with my newfound sense of obligation to live a purified life before sovereign God. If things had gone on that way, I am not sure where they would have ended, but it was all very depressing and very confusing.

Then along came C. S. Lewis. I had read some of his stuff in the past, and categorized him with the rest of the Christian fiction authors I was familiar with. One person in my life encouraged me to read more of him, saying that I would surely love his stuff. I was reluctant, especially when she recommended Surprised by Joy, which I assumed to be the story of his falling in love with his wife, Joy. (How I knew he had a wife named Joy, I have no idea.) Eventually, though, I caved. I am more glad of that than of almost any other event in my life.

Surprised by Joy narrates Lewis’s early life, and his spiritual growth up until his belief in God. For me, it was earth-shattering. Here was a man who loved the Norse myths, who loved stories like I do, and the glimpses of beauty in the old paganism. Here also was a man who was intensely rational, as I was learning to be, and had no particular dog in any theological fight. Long years of reasoning and argument eventually led him to belief in God, but it was how he reconciled that belief in God with love of the old myths that captured my attention. He did not find that contradictory. Instead, he believed that the beauty he saw in the myths pointed towards Christ, towards the fulfillment of his spiritual longings.

For some time, theology had begun to choke the life out of my imagination. I was turning into one of those people that believes all truths are hard truths, and that if an idea makes you uncomfortable, it is more likely to be an accurate description of reality. Lewis undid that. I dove into both his fiction and his nonfiction, and they gave me both a clear, rational explanation of a broad faith very like what I had been raised with, and the ability to carry on loving the myths and fantasy that appealed to me, without them conflicting with that faith.

At some point I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and Lewis gave me a stronger drive to move in that direction. Life is more than what we read, however. It is our habits and seasonal rhythms, it is who we spend our time with, and it is the sheer necessity of making it to the next day that make us who we are.

My parents had decided long ago that we would be raised with a Christian education. By my secondary years, I had fallen in love with the little classical Christian school they had helped found. It was good for me in so many ways, and one of the best experiences of my life. On the other hand, it was very closely tied to the little church we had begun attending, and the pervasive influence of the Reformed subculture to which it belonged gave me reason to dwell more and more on the rational and theological sides of my personality, to the detriment of my ambitions as a mere fiction writer.

By the time I graduated, I had not quite given up that dream, though I had certainly dialed back my ambitions to a very great degree. I decided I would go to a college that would buy me time in deciding what path to take. There was a college I knew of that would allow me to dive deeper into classical learning and reformed theology, and the degree they offered was broad enough that I could take it anywhere. At the time, I was probably leaning towards the ministry, but I certainly had other thoughts in addition to that. But on top of the curriculum I respected and the options it left open, they also had a deep love of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion was one of the most captivating things I had ever read. If they were obsessed with these distinctly Christian authors, surely I could find a home there. And thus it was decided.

Before I talk about my experience there, let me provide some context. Because the church I had spent my early years in was nondenominational, as was the Christian radio I listened to and the school I attended, my picture of the church was very broad. Generally speaking, I thought the Gospel was fairly simple and straightforward, and that Christ embraced all who accepted him, from feverish backwoods revivalists, to the frozen chosen, to big churches in the city with fancy lights and praise bands, to respectable little Episcopalian chapels, and just about everything in between. My slow immersion into the world of Reformed theology had hardened my views on which interpretations of the Bible were right, and therefore who was doctrinally wrong, but I still believed that most everybody could get along.

My experience at college was something like having a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head.

That college was closely related to a pair of churches in the town, and between those three communities a person could disappear for four years and never see anybody else. This in a university town of more than twenty thousand people, with another just like it down the road. And everywhere I turned, these Reformed people were badmouthing the rest of the Church. Dispensationalists got blamed for all manner of outlandish things (and dispensationalism and premillenialism were not at all distinguished). Baptists, I soon found out, were why the American culture was so messed up, and Left Behind was why American Christians were not involved in politics. (?!?!?) Focus on the Family was also apparently too liberal, and definitely compromised, and the Bible Belt consisted exclusively of Pharisaical hypocrites. Now, I was under no illusions as to the shallowness of the faith of many of my fellow Southerners, but to apply that failing to everyone there (and exclusively to them) and then to add that they were legalistic Pharisees when in fact they often lived too loose a life—that just boggled my mind.

Despite this muddle of often contradictory slanders against the church more broadly, I didn’t think the church there was necessarily in a poor place doctrinally or had any lack of love for Christ. Just a little doom and gloom, I thought. I soon found my niche—a little circle of pseudo-Inklings—tried to focus on my studies, and drove on. For a number of years, that worked.

Before we go any further, it has to be said that the number one character flaw in my book had always been ingratitude. I loved Christ and the Gospel story, and kids who took that lightly got very little respect from me. I had watched my parents work hard and shed sweat and tears trying to get our school off the ground, saw all the drama involved in such a project, especially on such a small and intimate scale, and absolutely despised people who could reap the benefits of that and go on complaining. I loved my small town, partly because of its smallness, and I loved the whole region. People who spoke ill of it, who just wanted to get away—they had an attitude problem. Thanksgiving was the first virtue in my eyes, and thanklessness was the vice most likely to get under my skin. (Not that I was never thankless myself—but that is another story.)

So as the terms wore on and I grew less and less satisfied with the college and the church community, the last thing I wanted to do was complain. I flat out could not leave. I had come to this place, and they had given me their time, they had given me opportunities, they had accepted me, more or less, as one of their own, and I would not turn away from them.

The problem was, I felt I had reason to. That community was constantly harping on the sins of other churches, and would not hear one bad word about their own. They seemed to reject Christ’s church, and in their love of theological controversy, had turned the Gospel into something like a political platform that outlined the minutest details of what was and was not acceptable in their culture. People who struggled in that environment were pushed out, and any troubles in the community were swept under the rug and any memory of them was hushed. “Our party” could not be seen to have any trouble within it. Everything wrong with the world must come from outside.

This cut right against my understanding of sin. Sin was in everyone, including those saved by God’s grace. Their own efforts could never make them perfect, and any community was guaranteed to have problems as a result. Admitting such things was not shameful, but merely part of being human in a fallen world. Furthermore, it was a key part of repentance, which is necessary to the Christian life. How could a community follow Christ and pretend to be faultless at the same time?

On other side of that was the fact that this was God’s world. God had created mankind in his image, and sin could not obliterate that image, nor any other part of creation. No human being could be entirely corrupt, and to pretend that unbelievers embodied every possible evil seemed to cut against God’s sovereignty, and common sense. This was doubly the case when the community attacked the rest of the Church, which had the Gospel and the holy Scriptures, and stood before God as equals with us. These people talked as if they wanted to amputate the better part of the Body of Christ.

I was going through other personal issues at the time, and that made things more complex. But the long and short of it is, I switched churches. There were other places in town, and I went there, despite hardly feeling more comfortable. I had grown used to high church liturgy and certain Reformed habits, so my new church could not feel homely. Furthermore, I was still removed from a lot of cultural things I had been raised with in the Bible Belt and the Deep South. I felt more than a little adrift, knowing what I was looking for, but not knowing where to find it.

Under the circumstances, my ears were open to a lot of complaints about the Church generally. The churches I had just left attacked others for lacking doctrinal rigor and liturgical solemnity while overemphasizing the saving of souls, and the church I found myself in said the Church was both too American and too doctrinally tight. (Oddly enough, I have never felt so surrounded by hip, contemporary, upper-middle-class white Americana as at that church.) Other expats from the community I had spent the past several years in complained that the church was too conservatively evangelical, while I did not recognize that church’s somewhat distorted Gospel and trendy alternative theology as very conservative or as evangelical at all.

At any rate, I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and made it back to more familiar surroundings. Being displaced on so many levels for so long, I had taken on a much more pessimistic view of life, and was beset by more doubts than I ever remember having. There were teachings I found readily accepted by certain groups up there which I would have called heresy in anyone else, and the sparsity of teaching on redemption itself—hot-button culture war issues were preferred—left me with vague memories of what the Gospel was, and a thirst for grace-filled teaching, but with no idea what it looked like. I was at a loss.

Often I have found that time and space create room for peace. Removed from the constant battles of that town, and granted new rhythms, I gained the ability to process things. I have been living with my family again for about a year now, teaching at the school I grew up in, and attending the Reformed church we switched to when I was young. I listen to Christian radio fairly often, though my favorite preachers come on during school hours or after I’ve started winding down at the end of the day. I made my way slowly through the writings of John, which were some of the most frightening books in the hands of certain people at college. I found them very profitable, and recently got involved in a BSF study on the book of Revelation. I had no idea such a wild apocalyptic vision could be so practical.

Through a tangled series of events, I have also gotten more intentional about my writing than I have ever been. I read much more fiction than I could afford to at college, and my imagination is thriving as a result. I enjoy walking beneath the pines when I can, and recognize more stars than I used to.

Many of the doubts I had have been put to rest, and many questions answered. Many, however, remain. I think that’s healthy. I never want to settled into the complacency that simply accepts an explanation without holding it up to the light of Scripture and God-given common sense to see if it will stand.

I have heard the complaints of burnt out millennials and of culture warriors, of trendy evangelicals and the heirs of fundamentalists. There are so many pundits throwing around ideas for how the church can fix itself, for the platform it can adhere to that will drive up its numbers and restore it to the proper degree of influence in the world. Some of that seems like crass salesmanship to me, but there is also a great deal motivated by a sincere love for something, or else sincere pain that cries out for healing.

In the end, though, I don’t think any of those platforms or strategies or trendy new doctrines have the answer. I think somewhere along the way we forgot that Christianity is a religion. It is not based on a series of beliefs, but on the worship of Christ. Love of a particular party—even if that party is the “we aren’t a party” party—does not create a community, and certainly not a redeemed one. We aren’t here for that We cannot save ourselves as a Church any more than we can as sinful individuals. Only Christ can do that, and that is why we gather to worship him.

That’s a nice sentiment and all, and I think it’s said often enough. It does have real meaning, though, if you can find it. The fact is that platforms, even doctrinal or cultural ones, are not eternal. They are specific to a time and place, and they are born and die. Sometimes very quickly. Lasting communities cannot be built on them.

For example, talking about Left Behind and how to interpret Revelation made sense when it was a bestselling series, but now that the apocalyptic crazes that led up to 2000 and 2012 are past, continuing to talk about seems a bit beside the point. The issues have changed, and so the platforms of all the little parties will too. The same goes for the worship wars and any number of other things. You can plant your flag there, but those hills are made of shifting sand. They won’t be there in a while.

What will be there is Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have him, we have stories about him, the Scriptures, the Gospel in a number of different tellings. We have the world he created, and we have the people we know—both those who are redeemed and those still in need of redemption. We have our own souls and our own sin, with our own need for salvation and sanctification. Remember these things, and the Church will do well enough.

When I meet a Christian these days, I am far less concerned about whether they agree with me on a series of doctrinal points. I am concerned with whether they seem to be concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks. I am concerned with whether they display a humility and a willingness to conform their life to his standards, whatever those turn out to be.

I may disagree with a Roman Catholic on transubstantiation or the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but if I see him pursuing chastity when he doesn’t want to because he loves Christ—he is my brother. If I run into a Pentecostal girl with hair down to her knees who tells me she has a word from the Lord, but who pours over her Bible, making it a guide for her life, and puts others before herself—she is my sister. Maybe the kid with the purple hair and the gauges is more liberal than I’d like, and his worship band makes me uncomfortable, but if he places the words of Jesus over the words of his peers, I respect him We have the same Lord. The same goes for wealthy men in business suits who go to respectable churches, but when times are tough they hold fast to Christ. Nothing that is of Christ is alien to me.

But what about all of the problems in the Church? What about all the things that need to be fixed? I still think those can be pretty significant, but finding some conservative scapegoat, or some liberal boogieman, or some high church spook to blame it on, does no one any good. We are here to worship Christ together, to serve him and learn from him. Our sins are our own, whatever circumstances might make them easier. We have enough trouble repenting of them without paying attention to what the guy across the map is doing. More often than not, that self-righteous crusading serves as a nice distraction from our own problems, a good reason to close ranks and cover up our sins.

The Church I’d like to see is one at peace. Sunday should be a day of rest, not a day of war, and fellowship should encourage brothers and sisters in their walk, not fill them with fear of the world. Christ is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death, and there is nothing you or me or those lunatics in the church across the street can do about it. God is sovereign. That’s the end of it, and our job is just to accept that. We worship him. That’s what makes us Christians.

And that, I suppose, is my testimony. I stand on Christ, however imperfectly, and find anything else more than a little disappointing. It’s that love for an actual God, not platforms vaguely related to his commands, that I want to see blossoming out there in the world. But before I see that, I have to see it in myself. Salt does not give its savor unless it is already salty, and light that’s not lit doesn’t shine. So that’s where I am. I stand with Christ, and want to get better at it.

Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.