Wandering

This morning I was fiddling with short nonfiction piece and discovered a forgotten folder marked “Essays” in my documents. This is something I wrote shortly after returning home from college. It resonated with me, especially now that I’ve made a habit of wandering East Texas backroads, and I thought it might be worth sharing.

 

            Wandering is the ordinary condition of mankind in the postmodern West. We are individuals, persons with separate rights, separate wills, and separate destinies. Unconnected to tribes, to families, to congregations, to small towns or the rootedness of distinctive cities, and only loosely attached to the states that rule over us, we wander. We are adrift, just so many particles of sand swirling around in the wind.

            I wandered from my conservative pocket of the universe in 2010. Although the story of my wanderings might be said to have begun earlier, with moves from house to house, from school to school, and from church to church, with my circle of friends changing, or at least shuffling, each time, I was nevertheless still anchored by my family, my county, and a few radio stations that kept us company on the long rides in and out of town. So the real story begins in 2010.

            The journey itself was not accompanied by feelings of rootlessness. My brothers and my parents drove me and a large number of my things across the increasingly brown and treeless expanse of North and West Texas, up the Rockies through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and over the Bitterroot Range into Northern Idaho. Two thousand miles of road, punctuated by the carefully tended wildernesses of Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. Two thousand miles from home, but I carried my family with me.

            They stayed with me a day or two, while I got settled, but it was not long before they were driving off, and I was left sitting in a rented trailer, in a strange town, tasked with forging friendships, crafting new habits and new routines, and generally making myself at home in the little hill-crowded hamlet of Moscow. I was already homesick, but a defiant optimism stood in the back of my soul, ready to meet the challenge. I had no idea how hard it would be.

            My raising left me poorly equipped to make friends with any degree of speed. That, coupled with the social awkwardness of youth and a temperament of combined overeager enthusiasm and reflective moodiness made the first terms interesting. Layered onto that was the culture shock of moving from the Baptist and evangelical-dominated Deep South to a large congregation in the Unchurched Belt that sought to imitate the New England Puritans in all things, or so it seemed to me. I did not integrate into the community as quickly as I had hoped, and I made things harder on myself by adopting a defiant attitude towards certain of the more abrasive personalities in that milieu.

            And that is how I found myself two thousand miles from home, without my family, without a culture I could identify with, in a church and school that, despite being vast and vibrant, left me uneasy. And that is when I discovered the one alien feature of that town which came as a welcome surprise. It was a walking town.

            The town I spent most of my life living near was very spread out, with roads crisscrossing through heavy woods, bounded by an enormous loop of roaring trucks and SUVs, and blessed with hardly any sidewalks. This new place was compact, built for pedestrians, and cars were practically required by law to stop for jaywalkers. So I began to wander.

            It was always late at night, and it started with walks to and from friends’ houses. (I did make a few, forming a temporary little circle of companions who kept the weekends lively for a year or so.) The street lamps shining down from their places among the shade trees were enchanting. Neat little square houses sat in tight little rows, like cottages out of fairy tales. They were not identical, like the soulless nightmares of a subdivision, but spunky little things, with unique looks, colorful walls, and patches of yard designed to express personality. All those streets so tightly laid together, row on row, up and down the hills of the little town, revealed fresh surprises every time I turned a new corner.

            Wandering is a solitary pastime, the work of an individual, unaccompanied by companions who might distract you with conversation, or disagree with your sudden urge to go down a new road or alley. I was not fitting in as well as I liked, but as long as I wandered, I didn’t have to. I was a soul unto myself, a lonely ship sailing on concrete currents through a sea of houses. I did not have a home here, but I had freedom. And I used it.

            I don’t think I understood what I was doing in those early days. I just wandered because it felt good. But occasionally someone would mention seeing me pass by their house late at night, or in the hours just before sunset. Startled at the idea that some other human being might not only recognize me in my time of freedom, but take particular notice and mention it to me, I would then alter my path so as to avoid that street or house in the future. I suppose my secretiveness must have only added to the dull sense of alienation from my peers. But the silence, the darkness, the feeling of independence, was soothing.

            There were ups and downs over my years in that town. I moved from that trailer to a rent house, and then to an apartment. After a long period of time, I began visiting other churches, and eventually switched. My circle of friends, never exactly stable, withered away to a bare few. They were reliable, though, and towards the end of my time would help me find a broader community in which I was comfortable. In all that shifting and changing, I never quite settled down. Yet somehow, Moscow stopped being a stranger.

            I walked those streets at night, and as I moved to different parts of town, I walked some of them in the day as well. Eventually I would end up shopping near the western city limits, going to church near the eastern city limits, and paying rent down south. I walked everywhere, and wherever I went, the town was familiar. I doubt if, by my fifth year, there was a single street I had not looked down half a dozen times, that I had not walked at least once on some cold and lonely winter night. The surprises dwindled away, to be replaced by a comfortable familiarity.

            People are not, by nature, strangers. We are not built to be foreigners in this world, or at least I am not. In the waxing and waning of the moon, the tilting cycle of stars, the slow turn of seasons, wandering ceased to mean walking about in a foreign land. It came to mean surveying my land, walking the boundaries of my property. On the rare occasions I walked with friends, or had to give directions to someone visiting from out of town, I began to take pride in my knowledge of the town’s nooks and crannies. I knew it better than I knew the roads back home.

            Some people talk as if wandering meant aimlessness, a sort of drift into a vast ocean with no hope of ever sighting land. That is not what it meant to me. In more ways than one, as I wandered the streets of Moscow, I was sighting land. I was scouting it out, putting down roots simply by being there. All my disorderly casting about had created a map in my head, a series of images, of places, of stories. Thoughts and emotions, phases of life, were caught up in the contours of a hill-shrouded town in Northern Idaho. I came a foreigner, but I left knowing the place intimately.

            And I did leave. In all the years that passed, my footsteps had brought me to a place I knew, but no closer to a place where I could rest. Far from the green woods and fields of home, far from the winding creeks and stifling humidity, and far from the culture of backwoods Southern Christianity, I could never really breathe. So I passed college by the skin of my teeth, and bore a diploma back across countless miles of crowded city and empty Western frontier to the place I had wandered from.

            But something strange had happened. Just as I had not noticed when my restless late-night rambles had turned into purposeful walks, so friendships had crept up quietly upon me. The town that caused me to wrestle with an unsettling sense of alienation had given me relationships I cherished, memories I could not willingly forsake. As I wandered back to the land of my childhood, a piece of my heart wandered away and settled in a strange place, far from home. And though I wander the world over, a little piece of me will still be wandering there.

 

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Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.

The Cave, The Matrix, Buddha, and the Great Commission

Imagine you are trapped in a cave. You have been here all your life. Your head is locked in place with straps, facing a screen. On that screen is projected a series of images, provided with sound effects. You have never left your chair. This is the only life you have ever known. For you, what appears on that screen is reality.

These images and the voices that speak for them are put there by group of puppeteers hidden behind a screen, tending the fire that backlights their puppets, projecting shadows on the wall. One day you are set free, and you turn to see the trick that has been played on you. At first you are in denial, and do not understand what you are seeing. The light hurts your eyes. Then you find the way out. You leave the cave into open sunlight. If the firelight hurt, this is blinding. It takes a long time for your eyes to adjust, but eventually you come to see the real world.

Would you go back to free the others? What if you had to be strapped back in the chair while you convinced them? What if they had been told this before, if it was a standard rumor passed around the cave, always rejected out of hand? You left behind that life watching shadows dance, and have forgotten how to interpret them. What if they call you a fool, because you know longer understand the only world they have ever known?

Would you go back?

This story is drawn from Plato’s Republic. He believes that life is like this, that the majority of people are concerned with a world that is fading, finite, only half-real. It is the path of the philosopher to escape that world and learn about the eternal things, the higher, better reality beyond this world of shadows. Humanity, he says, has a problem. We need to brought out into the light, but we violently resist those who would bring us. How then can we hope to be delivered?

If you’ve ever watched The Matrix, something similar is going on. All of humanity is trapped in a giant computer simulation. We think we live in the late nineties, but in reality it’s two centuries later, and the robots have us all plugged into this illusion to keep us quiet while use our bodies as batteries. The science is a bit off, but just roll with it.

In this story, there are people who have escaped the Matrix and live in a hidden society—Zion. Zion sends certain people back, people who willingly plug themselves back into the Matrix so they can help others escape. But in doing this, they must be willing to sacrifice their own lives. The machines that created this illusion and keep it running are quite capable of killing anyone plugged in, and so a trip back could turn deadly.

This idea in classical Western philosophy and modern pop culture is mirrored in Eastern philosophy as well. Mahayana Buddhism—the more dominant of the three main schools of Buddhism—is centered around a character called the bodhisattva.

            This world is a world of unsatisfied desires and therefore suffering, and by pursuing a certain path we can achieve a state of enlightenment wherein we no longer crave what cannot obtain. This is nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism, one of the other two schools, you reach nirvana and that’s it. You’ve escaped the cycle of death and rebirth and no longer suffer. But in Mahayana, the goal is to become a person who has achieved nirvana, or come incredibly close, but stays in this world to help others become enlightened as well. Such a person is called a bodhisattva.

C.S. Lewis wrote about a dying-and-rising god present in mythologies throughout the world. He suggested that this character was universal because there was an element of truth to it, some hidden knowledge in the human soul that such a person must exist. That person, it turned out, was Jesus. This mythical archetype was, in a way, a foretaste of the Gospel.

In Plato’s philosopher who returns to the cave, there likely to die, and in the heroes of The Matrix and the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, we see this repeated pattern of the freed or enlightened one who returns to suffer with his people. This person offers salvation to those who would otherwise be too blind to recognize the predicament they were in, much less be capable of escape.

Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He was perfect in every way, and perfectly happy. He had no need to suffer the way we do. Despite this, he took on flesh and walked among us. He knew starvation, ridicule, heartbreak, weariness, loneliness, rootlessness—every form of suffering or temptation common to man. To save mankind, the people made in his image, he went into the prison we had created for ourselves and lived among the prisoners, telling us of the kingdom of God, offering freedom. For this, we killed him. But then he overcame death.

The story of Christ parallels the others, but the depths of the descent are more profound. It would be as if a man who had never been in Plato’s cave, only heard of it, chose to go down to rescue the people. Not only did he go down, but when he knew it meant his death, he did not run away. It’s as if someone who had never been in the Matrix had themselves outfitted with plugs and inserted in, risking a death they would never otherwise have to face. It’s not as if a man became enlightened and returned as a bodhisattva to help us all, but as if nirvana itself, enlightenment as a person rather than a state, descended into the world of illusion and suffering to lead us all back out.

It is this image of Christ we see a distant echo of in these three stories. But both the echo and the reality have a lesson for those of us who were born in the cave. Christ has come to set us free, but that is not a license to escape. We are not here on earth biding our time until the chariot sweeps us away.

Take up your cross and follow him.

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.

Return to your brothers in chains, those trapped in the wickedness of their own hearts, in the blindness of a dark world, go back and show them the light. Though they reject you, though they cast you out, though they mock and crucify you, do not leave them alone. Do not let them perish in darkness. Share the Gospel. Show them the Way. Set them free as you have been set free, risking all as Christ risked all.

 

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

An Imaginary Country

Occasionally I ponder how one might describe Texas to someone from far flung parts of the US. Today I was thinking about central Europe, and a new angle struck me. This is the result.

Imagine central Europe. The Czech Republic and Germany especially. Beer, strudel, lederhosen, sausage, quaint little Alpine cottages. Lots of polka. Lots. And plenty of unpronounceable names. Take all those people and set them down on some dusty hills right next door to the Great Plains. Still imagining the polka? Good. That’s Central Texas.

Now take all the Cajuns and creoles out of Louisiana. Empty it out until there’s nothing but woody hills up north and swampy bayous down south. Then fill it with people from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. That’s East Texas.

Now take the nice parts of Chicagoland, both the city and the suburbs, and put them on the flatter side of Wyoming, complete with all the cattle and Sheriff Longmire and the antisocial types. The central Europeans and the rednecks will fly out of this airport. This is DFW.

Now combine the Wenatchee area of Washington with the drier and emptier parts of Arizona. This will be owned in large part by the people from Chicagoland and central Europe. This is West Texas.

South Texas bleeds into central Europe and Arizona-Wenatchee. Except it’s got a lot of Spanish influence, and a lot of Mexican music. They also grow oranges here. So it’s like SoCal, but older and minus the glitzy parts of LA.

All of these are united by the shared memory of a revolution. This revolution was fought by a combination of Willie Nelson, Ron Paul, homeschoolers who raise goats, and a lot of roughnecks.

Between SoCal and central Europe is the capital, Portland. Everyone in Portland likes to think about the revolution. They also vote for Bernie Sanders. When they’re not writing surprisingly conservative laws, going to offbeat indie concerts, or inventing new kinds of organic pizza, they go to college. This particular college acts like Berkley some days, like an Ivy league school on others, and gets wilder about their football program than Alabama fans.

Now take the way Europeans see Americans (“American cowboy! John Wayne! Bang bang!”) and crank it up to ten. That’s how everyone not from these areas sees everyone from these areas—when they find out that’s where they’re from. Little German guy who listens to polka while making schnitzel? John Wayne. Goldman Sachs banker from Chicago? Also John Wayne. Redneck swimming in a creek in the woods behind the mobile home park? Also John Wayne. Maoist vegan didgeridoo player? Clint Eastwood.

Some people are okay with that image. Some are not. Either way, it’s too late to find a new one, and it makes good branding for the ad guys. Also Hollywood.

That’s Texas.

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.

Lessons from the World of Espionage

1

            Sun Tzu’s Art of War advises the wise general to lay his plans in accordance with the character and disposition of his enemy.

If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.

If his forces are united, separate them.

Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

Sun Tzu, Art of War 1:21-25

This principle is central to warfare, and to all types of conflict. In order to defeat your enemy, you must know him.

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, Art of War 3:18

While most of the Art of War is devoted to tactics, terrain, and maneuvers, in the thirteenth chapter he turns his focus to this central problem, confronting the general with a simple reality concerning the nature of his profession.

Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.

Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.

Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

Hence the use of spies[.]

Sun Tzu, Art of War 13:4-7a

2

            The art of war is first and foremost the art of intelligence—know your enemy—and only after that the application of that intelligence to your situation. This is not a piece of merely pagan wisdom, some Machiavellian realpolitik foreign to a Biblical view of warfare. It is a simple fact of the universe as God created it.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace.

Luke 14:28-32, NKJV

Nor is this a merely abstract piece of wisdom, The Bible also gives us examples of Israelite leaders who initiated intelligence gathering missions in preparation for warfare. These operations were not incidental to Israel’s success, either. The conduct and report of the spies impacted the decision making process of the children of Israel, and their relationship with God. Some within the CIA have drawn lessons from the operations of Moses and Joshua, which I heartily recommend reading.

3

            Of all the things film and television have romanticized, the portrayal of espionage has perhaps been the most distorted and misleading. James Bond’s lack of oversight and operational security, Jason Bourne’s memory wipe drama, and Ethan Hunt’s mask-machine and exploding sunglasses have about as much to do with the real world of spies as the Millennium Falcon does with being an astronaut.

Espionage is not about secret assassinations—which are often far more trouble than they are worth—or about keeping superweapons out of enemy hands. Spying is about information. The job of a spy is to collect intelligence on the enemy, or potential enemy, which will enable people in positions of authority to make informed decisions and either prevent conflict, or ensure victory in the event that conflict does happen.

In some ways, spies are like journalists with a very select audience. They have a particular story they want to pursue, or an area in which they are generally on the lookout for a story, and they hunt for good sources. And, like journalists, they have to protect these sources. When they have done the research, spoken to the right people, collected the information they need, they put it together and send it back home. Eventually—in one form or another—it winds up on the desks of people who need to be informed.

The chief difference is the level of secrecy involved. While most countries are not entirely opposed to the presence of the press, journalists are not often out to reveal the most dangerous of secrets. Spies are. The entire point of espionage is to uncover the most sensitive information, information which can be used against the country in question, or her allies, by a foreign power. Journalists might be bad for PR, but spies are bad for business on a whole other level. As a result, the consequences of being caught are for more severe than for your average journalist, and so secrecy is far more important.

4

            Not all intelligence, however, comes from covert sources. Intelligence is simply the business of knowing your enemy, and a certain degree of knowledge is lying right there on the surface. People talk. They write books, they make speeches, they appear in the media, and sometimes they appear on the record before their own congress or parliament. Understanding foreign officials can come simply from studying open-source information, information which any citizen may get his hands on and requires little or no risk.

This is particularly true in the age of the internet. Scads of information about every conceivable topic is available with a simple google search. Virtually anyone of importance has some online presence, and anyone who draws any sort of public attention has something written about them. While spies on the ground are assuredly important, the internet is today often the intelligence community’s best friend.

This goes even for online services with a certain degree of security. However your passwords and security settings may make you feel, social media is not impenetrable. Nor are most email servers not run by the government. Even assuming an intelligence service limits itself to collecting metadata, that information is not insignificant.

In that respect, the intelligence business could be seen as something like academic research, with a slightly shady side. Go collect the information, figure out how it fits together, and write your papers. Of course, the effects this research has can go far beyond that of most scholarly articles.

5

            So far this portrayal of the world of intelligence gathering has ignored a crucial distinction. Intelligence gathering is itself often somewhat separate from analysis. The CIA is actually divided into four directorates.  The Directorate of Support is basically the financial and HR side of the business, while the Directory of Science and Technology is what it sounds like—the guys who build the gadgets and help the spies use them. The two that concern us are what used to be called the Directorate of Operation and the Directorate of Intelligence.

The Directorate of Operations is what inspires spy movies. These are the guys who go out and gather intelligence in foreign countries. Most of the time they have a diplomatic cover that allows them to be there, and works as insurance in case they get caught. Some of them work with a much shadier sort of cover, and put themselves at much greater risk. Regardless, their job is to find and take care of sources, and to bring in the information.

The Directorate of Intelligence is a whole other ballgame. These are not the men on the ground collecting the information. These are the analysts, like Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy novels, who have more of an academic background, and combine everything from open source info, to satellite and spy plane photos, to intercepted communications and things the DO guys bring in. They have a more removed, global perspective than the men on the ground, and they are supposed to be putting it all together into a finished product the guys in government can actually use.

These are obviously two very different kinds of people, with different focuses and different jobs. While there are certainly other ways of achieving both on-the-ground intelligence from sources who know the context and expert analysis from a more widely informed and global perspective, that essential distinction between the two must be kept in mind. Intelligence is certainly about gathering good information, but at some point all the information has to be put together and a judgment has to be made about the object of study. Gathering and analysis are two halves of the same coin, neither of which should be neglected.

6

            Now what makes a layman with no firsthand knowledge of the intelligence community want to address this topic? I have to admit that part of it is simply that I find it intriguing. The world of intel combines the thrill and hard work of investigative journalism with what is intended to be a very practical, very real world purpose. That purpose, at its best, is the service of one’s country, and the defense of her citizens.

The topic was first brought to my attention by a link to the blog of John Schindler, a man who has worked in the real world of intelligence with the NSA, and alongside the CIA, as well as in the world of academics. He is sharp and insightful, and knows far more than I could ever hope to on this subject, and others. It will be noticed that most of my links are to his work, and several of these sections are essentially summaries of his articles.

After that, I finally started reading Tom Clancy. He’s made his way around the bookshelves, nightstands, and TV screens of my family for years, but as my taste in fiction is in the direction of the decidedly more fantastic, I’ve only just now got around to reading him. In the early books, Jack Ryan is a CIA analyst, who occasionally steps out of his role in the DI to do DO work. However dramatized those stories may be, they certainly crystallize that central idea of the right information, the right analysis, coming from the right man, at the right time, making all the difference.

One of the things that struck me in all this dabbling around the shallow end of the world of espionage is simply its purpose. It is good to know both what your enemy—or potential enemy—can do, and what they are likely to do. The purpose of intelligence to assess the target’s capabilities and his character, so that those who make decisions can make good ones.

The book of Proverbs is devoted to this idea of assessing character. Look at the wise, and look at the fool. See how they act. Observe the flaws in this kind of behavior, and the strength in another kind. Beyond the marking of these two paths, Proverbs is also a book designed for kings. There are men in this world who are called to render judgment, to give mercy and to enforce justice. In doing so, wisdom is not simply a good thing to have on your resume, it is a practical necessity. Real world decisions have real world consequences, and the men who make those decisions ought to understand the situation they are in, and know all the players.

Intelligence has application in war, as Sun Tzu so clearly saw. It has an effect on international relations in times of relative peace, as most modern nations understand. But it also has a much broader application. Insofar as a man is called to make decisions in the real world, he is also called to study his situation, and to ably evaluate the character of the people involved and effected by those decisions. Judgment calls for wisdom, and wisdom calls for careful study.

7

            Living in a democracy is a unique privilege. Common people, without any qualification, without any training or investment in the art of government, are allowed to select their leaders on a regular basis. Scriptures call for kings and governors to seek wisdom, and speak of the blessings such men can bring to the nations they lead. We have the ability to choose whether such wise men sit in office and make those judgment calls, or whether the seats of power will be inhabited by fools.

My interest in the world of intelligence is not entirely political, but it does have political implications. Earlier I made a comparison between spies and reporters, how both make contact with sources, and both must guard them closely. The principle certainly applies to the press, but it is far more important in the world espionage, as lives are often on the line.

There is a curious situation that comes about in the world of intelligence. On occasion you are given information that is vitally important, but to use that information would be to reveal the source. Some information, after all, can only come from a very limited pool of individuals. This is why espionage is a dangerous trade. When this situation occurs, those in positions of power have to ask whether to use that crucial information and so expose their source, or to ignore it and suffer the consequences of apparent ignorance, but protect the source. Sometimes this leads to amusing situations, but sometimes the consequences can be deadly serious.

In light of this fact, the cavalier way certain government officials treat classified information is shocking in the extreme. We often get so caught up in our culture wars and playing petty political games that we forget that elections are not a game show. There are real consequences for the foolishness of our leaders, real consequences for the decisions we make at the ballot box. Real lives are at stake, and the future of our country as a whole.

As the election season progresses, and we are called to make our decision, there is something to be learned from Sun Tzu and the world of intelligence. We cannot choose leaders solely based on their agreement with our points of view. The economy matters, healthcare matters, civil rights and criminal law all matter. But so does the character of our leaders, sometimes in a far more immediate way.

Looking at the field of candidates, there are people I favor for ideological reasons, and people I strongly disagree with. On the other hand, there are people who evoke far less of a reaction. They just don’t shout their views as boldly and unreservedly. They aren’t shocking enough. They aren’t playing the game as well.

But that’s not all that matters. It also matters if a leader has integrity—and some do, left, right, and center. It also matters if they can keep a level head—and some can, left, right, and center. It matters if our leaders can humble themselves, and let the safety and security of our nation and its citizens come before their position in the culture wars and power politics of the day. Some do so. Some do not.

In making this evaluation, we are ourselves called to gather intelligence, to analyze it, and to render judgment. All forms of government rely on the ability of someone to do this. It is only democracy the relies on the ability of the general populace to seek out information and make informed decisions in this manner.

So let me encourage you, one citizen to another. The internet exists. Use it. For all its faults, our press is still free. Make us of it. You yourself know people, and perhaps you know people who know people. Use that. We live in a country where education is widely available and encouraged. Take advantage of that. Be the sort of citizen that makes decisions based not on emotion or borrowed opinions informed by propaganda, but on genuine intelligence.

 

Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.

The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

Sun Tzu, Art of War 1:26

Worlds Away

It’s amazing what distance can do. We’ve pushed past railroads and telegraphs to highways, airports, and smartphones, thinking we can shrink the world into a computer the size of our hand, or reduce the map to just a few hours in a noisy flying bus. But the distance remains as great as ever.

My brother picked me up from a little Idaho town just days before Christmas. It’s stunning how small that place feels. It has a state university, a good hospital, multiple shopping centers, and over twenty thousand residents. My own town has just ten thousand people more, but it seems a dozen times larger.

I’ve spent the past four and half years living in that small Idaho town, and my time there is growing short. I look back now on years of regrets, and lessons learned, and friendships formed, and lots of learning, most of it off-campus. In some ways I’m already starting to say my goodbyes. But just as I’m ready to leave this temporary home, I find I’ve been there long enough that I finally seem to be acclimatizing; that I have gained enough distance from my own home that the differences between the two worlds are finally becoming clear and recognizable.

We drove two thousand miles through Idaho mountains, Wyoming blizzards, Denver traffic, and the pancake-flat lands around Amarillo, finally to leave the DFW metroplex, find some real trees, and cross back into East Texas. It was a long ride, fueled by Mitchell’s music, supplemented by a blues playlist I whipped together, and lots of caffeine. Perhaps those three long days, miles of conversation, and hours of listening helped increase the distance. When at last we parked on the street in front of the house, and Mom and Caleb were standing in the driveway, Moscow, Idaho seemed like a half-forgotten dream.

But as the days began to unfold, I felt like half a stranger. Everything about being back felt so natural, but the very naturalness of it was striking. I spent eighteen years being shaped by this town, by this county, by these people, before I ever set foot in Idaho, and half a decade at a faraway college can give you perspective, but it can’t change who you are. I belong here in ways I never could have articulated until I had gone to a place where I did not belong.

I said that Moscow felt small, despite being roughly the same size. But that’s only if you count population. Nacogdoches is seven times the land area of Moscow. Where Muscovites scrunch together in tall houses in neat rows along tight streets which edge up to the city limits and suddenly end, Nacogdochians spread out along wider roads, accumulate land around even trailers and rent houses, and leave unused acres between neighborhoods shrouded in forest or marshy creek bottoms. Around the Christmas table there was some discussion of a man one of my relatives saw hunting in the city limits. That’s illegal in both cities, but it’s possible in Nacogdoches.

But the difference between the two places doesn’t lie just in the setup of the two towns. These things are just pointers for an entirely different mentality, an entirely separate imagination when it comes to man’s relationship to nature. Towns in Moscow’s Palouse region are all tight, densely-populated little areas, and the rare exceptions are usually farm houses that are often miles apart. But in Deep East Texas, the lines between country and city are blurred, with most farm-to-market and county roads sporting several houses in every mile-long stretch, but often with woods on either side, or across the road, and acres of forest or pasture behind, and a thicket in between. Nacogdoches County never seems to depopulate entirely, but you don’t really have to interact with people if you don’t want to. In the Palouse, unless you live on those rare, secluded farmhouses, you are interacting with neighbors, drunk college kids, and traffic all the time. In the Palouse, man is an intrusion into the wilderness, and the wilderness an intrusion into the civilized world. The two are largely separated by the city limits. In Deep East Texas, the relationship is tighter, blurrier, more symbiotic.

This carries over into a dozen different fields. Because Nacogdoches and the surrounding environment is so spread out, cars are not merely optional, they are necessary. It would take me half an hour to walk from the center of town to the city limits in Moscow. I know because I do it on a weekly basis. It takes almost as long for me to walk from our house in Nac to the closest grocery store. I know because I tried it. Once. In such a world, even the most resource-conscious, ecologically-minded individual can’t honestly suggest we abandon cars. The idea is ludicrous. Our world depends on them. But in Moscow, some of the local hippies think it’s a brilliant idea. After all, the co-op is only a block and a half away.

Speaking of resources, this is also a different world when it comes to that. The agriculture of the Palouse is all crop farming, but Deep East Texas is almost entirely invested in livestock. Well, if you chickens as livestock. But this means that there are thousands, even millions of acres of heavily forested land that do little besides stand as privacy fences between our houses, and shelter wild animals. So what do we do with them? Well, we farm the trees. On a lot of the bigger properties in the area, some of the forest is clear-cut and replanted on a regular basis. But elsewhere, the woods are kept wild for hunters. And in a place where the population is so spread out, and the wilderness is always so close to civilization, there are a lot of hunters.

This does interesting things to conservation in our part of the world. All those hunters want to make sure there will be plenty of game next year, so a solid chunk of the movement to protect Texas wildlife, regulate hunting, and stop poaching, is actually driven by hunters. In addition, all those wealthy businessman who own all the land, including the ones whose lands contain oil and natural gas, are also the ones constantly replanting trees. The hippies might keep the wilderness wild on the Palouse, but in Deep East Texas, where wilderness runs right up to the roadside, and people actually live in the sticks, a lot of the movement to protect mother earth is actually driven by folks on the right.

I could go on about the difference between the lands we live in and how we inhabit them, and how that effects our culture. For example, there are no mountains in East Texas, but there are also very few flat places. Where Idaho seems to have tall mountains, flat plains, or else the regular little bumps, like the Palouse hills, we have a constant ripple of big, irregular hills, ridges, creek bottoms, and gentle slopes. And all the high spots are covered in trees. So the Palouse has plenty of high vantage points from which you can look out on wide-open spaces, consider the wilderness before you, or the little urban grid of civilization. But East Texas is just a maze of trees, earth, water, and the occasional house or strip of businesses.

But the differences go beyond the land. Demographics are also telling. As of 2010, Moscow was 90% white. Nacogdoches is barely 50%. Spanish is a curiosity on the Palouse, but in Nacogdoches there are signs in Spanish, businesses dominated by Spanish-speakers, and every ad has to end in “se habla español,” or you simply wont get enough customers. But this is also the Deep South, and the black population is sizable. And this year, that meant quite a lot.

On the Palouse, race issues are something for socially-conscious, cosmopolitan individuals who have traveled the seven-hours-minimum it takes to get to the nearest large city. In Nacogdoches, our grandparents remember Jim Crow, and some of the millennials have biracial kids. If you plan on going to the grocery store, the mall, or a restaurant, or if your kids are going to the public library, playing soccer, or attend any school, how you treat people of different races matters. A lot. “Multiculturalism” is not a pretty word for “look at all these varieties of Northern European and that one Asian guy, aren’t we diverse?” It means you better be fairly progressive, or you may end up offending just about every other person you run into around town.

This year was interesting in that department. Through Facebook, I heard that the Texas KKK was going to hold its rally in Nacogdoches. This provoked a lot of uproar. Some were angry that such “ignorance” (a really interesting term, by the way) still existed. Some were angry that these racists had chosen our town to defile with their hate speech. Some people thought it was just whites showing their true colors. Others were afraid it would ruin Nac’s reputation. And there were a sizable number of people who were not worried about either reputations or scoring political points, but quite simply loved our town and did not want to see parts of it abused, or any of it divided against itself. Within a couple of days, a counter-rally was organized. The day came, the rallies were held, nothing really happened, and life moved on.

Then Ferguson happened. It was astounding watching my white liberal Northwestern friends flip out over this. It was like watching someone get worked up over a disaster in a faraway country. It was all about awareness and how the comfortable rich white people in America really should do something, because don’t we know we’re letting very bad men oppress victims in a place we’re clearly too privileged and secure to care about?

But what if black people are people? And so are cops? Not just skin tones or occupations? Not just victims or oppressors? And what if this isn’t a story you heard on the news, but an issue you actually have to deal with in your town, with your family, with your neighbors? I don’t know that I really believed anything different about the issues involved, but everyone in that discussion got painted with a broad brush by many of my Northwestern friends, and tones got shrill, and somewhere amid the tweeting and instagramming and the Facebook posting, I stopped recognizing any world I knew, where actual racial diversity is an issue, and just saw another stick for the right and the left to beat one another up with.

And if I was disconcerted by that discussion while living in the Palouse, going home was truly strange. Here were people who remembered Jim Crow because they lived it. Here were people who remembered MLK because he was marching in this direction at one time. It wasn’t just mythology learned from TV. They actually had to respond to these guys, to talk to them face to face. Here there are people whose parents grew up in segregation, but who went to school themselves after integration. Affirmative action became cool by the time I was growing up, and we actually have a college in town with multiple races of people applying. The people here saw the evolution from institutional racism into a world where inequalities exist, but no laws can be pointed to, where we are all at least nominally progressive and integrated, but we now have to figure out how to live in a world shaped by two or three centuries of bad blood.

How do you do that? How do you do that when people have names, not just skin colors? How do you do that when confronted with the reality that every “race” has both good, honorable people, and “thugs,” and every type of person in between? Muscovite liberals stand at a distance, and what they see no doubt actually exists. But Nacogdochians live there, and the issues are not so simple, and are far, far more human.

I’m a Christian, and when individual or societal sins become an issue, it’s preachers, rather than pundits, I run to. And that marks another world of difference between Moscow and Nacogdoches. We are two and half hours from Houston, three and half from Dallas, and about two from Shreveport. This area is heavily populated, and it is deep in the Bible Belt. There are radio stations with preaching and teaching from morning until night, and even the famous preachers don’t live that far away. Another station will give you continuous praise and worship music, and those bands tour here. Drive north or south and you will run into a town with a Christian college or university, usually a Baptist one.

The Palouse is different. Idaho is on the fringe of the nation’s “Unchurched Belt.” Moscow has a Catholic church, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, one or two Baptists, a Church of Christ, a Lutheran, a Nazarene, and a handful of campus-oriented non-denominational churches. There is also a small complex of churches in my denomination that is very tight-knit, draws a lot of people from out of state, and totals upwards of a thousand people. They are by far the loudest presence. But add all those up, and it really isn’t much. The college is larger than the sum of all the churches, and many of those churches are fairly middle of the road or left-leaning. They are not exactly the up-in-arms, culture-warring religious right I grew up with. There is no radio station where you can listen to them constantly, and various atheist and humanist alliances are frequently more vocal, and the local Muslim community is just as visible as any of them.

It’s a world apart. Christianity dominates here, despite a major state university being smack dab in the middle of town. Every “ethnic group” seems dominated by church-goers. There are black churches, Spanish-language churches, white-dominated churches, and mixed-race community or campus churches. Big churches are counterbalanced by small churches, and for every mainstream Baptist church there is a tiny cult out in the woods. When we switched denominations, I didn’t even know that “Presbyterianism” existed, but the Nacogdoches area has quite a few Presbyterian and Reformed churches, from PCUSA to Cumberland Presbyterian to my own denomination. There are two Catholic churches in Moscow–one on campus and one off–but there are four in Nacogdoches. And that’s deceptive, because the entirety of Idaho is in the Diocese of Boise, but the diocese that encompasses Nacogoches could fit easily in one of the Diocese of Boise’s six deaneries.

We are quite simply more churched. Which is not to say we are godlier, or more holy. Where there are more people who profess, there is, after all, more opportunity for hypocrisy. But Christianity does pervade the culture in a way it simply does not on the Palouse. So when someone from the Palouse talks about fundamentalists or the religious right, they are talking about something small, and on the fringe, and in dialogue with many other points of view, including an almost-dominant secular world. But when a Nacogdochian talks about it, were are talking about what is almost the majority. The moderates of Moscow would be the left of Nacogdoches, or so it seems. And the humanists that sometimes dominate the U of I campus seem like the crazy fringe here in Nac.

There are other differences, too. Nac has a large population of wealthy people and large population of poor and working class people with almost no true “middle class.” The vast majority of Muscovites fall into that middle class, with their “poor” mostly being lower-middle and their “rich” being mostly upper-middle. So socio-economic distinctions seem to matter less there. Then again, a lot of Moscow’s middle class seems less down-to-earth than some wealthier Nacogdochians I have known.

Recreation is also different. Deep East Texas is filled with lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, and watering holes. Swimming, boating, and fishing is a way of life. We are also just a day’s drive from the Gulf Coast. Moscow is dominated by hills, the creeks are few, far between, and frequently small. The largest lake in the area is not much bigger than some cow ponds I have seen. The ocean is at least seven hours away, across mountains and desert. So hiking seems to replace swimming, and fishing or boating means going quite a ways out of town. Also, they have a winter with actual skiing. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Cuisine is different, too. The Palouse seems to be big on soups, and breads, and pastas. A lot of fairly bland, but servicable stuff. Spicy food is a curiosity. East Texas takes Mexican, homestyle cooking, soul food, Cajun, BBQ, and whatever else we can get our hands on and tosses it all together. I’ve seen a lot more picky eaters on the Palouse, but the pickings here are generally more diverse, frequently far spicier, and meat takes up a far larger portion of the plate. Seafood is also more common. And we have crawfish. Some Muscovites I’ve known had never heard of such a thing.

There are also different attitudes when it comes to occupations. Nac is friendlier to people in the oilfield, hosts a lot more truck drivers, and logging is still a thriving business. There are still a fair amount of farmers, academics, and people in service professions, just like Moscow, but Nac does seem to have a more traditional blue-collar tone. Which may add to the difference in the way Nacogdoches and Moscow seem to experience socio-economic distinctions.

All this came home in a big way during church last Sunday. Back among people who spoke with a drawl, ate Mexican food, and had all survived Houston traffic at some point in their lives, everything took on a different tone. Large chunks of Scripture spilled across a congregation where being Christian was commonplace, but believing and living these words meant everything. We partook in a Lord’s Supper that included wine in a place where many Christians were teetotalers. Afterwards, we had a fellowship meal, heavy on meat, including venison. When we left, we all drove, many of us out of town.

But more than anything, what I carried away that day was the realization that these people believed in a sovereign God who was a God of love. That love included every person, black or white, whether they spoke English, or Spanish–or something else–and regardless of whether they were rich or poor, regardless of whether or not their sins were the respectable kind that can be easily hidden or passed over in polite society. These people believed in a God who was coming to rescue every corner of Creation, from the deepest wilderness to the heart of Houston. They believed in a Christmas that meant salvation.

This is not to say that people on the Palouse did not believe in such things. But it was striking to me how much I could see it in the world and the faces that were familiar to me. It was striking that I found it so much easier to believe myself. In this part of the world, a part I had explored, and defined, and was familiar with, it just made sense, because it all fit together in a certain way.

When I was younger, I learned about “worldviews.” These were systems of belief or thought that separated Christian from secular humanist from Muslim. They were coherent, and shaped largely but what you were taught, and what you worshiped, if you worshiped. But one thing being so far from home taught me is that worldviews are far more complicated than a set of propositions you are taught to believe. They can’t be summed up easily in doctrinal statements or in party platforms. People are not so simple.

A worldview is messy. It can be shaped by how close together your houses are, how many people live out of town, and whether you can stand on top of a hill and see the world laid out before you. It can depend on whether “farmer” means “wheat and legumes” or “chickens and cattle.” “A hearty meal” means different things to different people, and “the fringe” is determined by the “mainstream.” How you spend a fine summer day may depend on how much water is in your region, and how far it is to the nearest city. Wealth and poverty are relative, and just as the rich and poor are defined differently in different towns, so they act differently in each unique circumstance. And national politics means different things to different parts of the nation.

At the end of the day, this doesn’t change what is absolutely true. People are people. They eat, drink, sleep, breathe, play, laugh, cry, marry, kill, forgive, hold grudges, age, and die.Good and evil are universal, right and wrong are universal, truth and falsehood are universal, beauty and ugliness are not simply social constructs, and the LORD alone is God. But it does mean that the world is far bigger than we can understand. We cannot pretend to take God’s perspective and stand outside our own definition of normal and our own understanding of how the world works. You and I can both subscribe to the Westminster Confession, and both vote along the same party lines, but as long as you live in your city, and I in mine, our worldviews may be nothing alike. We live in different contexts, and have a different story.

That is why generalizations can only take us so far. In the world of connectivity, easy travel, and easier communication, we can pretend the world is easily definable, but it’s not. A choice is never as simple as the politicians want to make it, a mystery is never so easy the academics can wrap their heads around it, and people are not so homogeneous that the philosophers and the psychologists can divide them up into categories and explain them away. We are made in God’s image, so we are creative, but we are creatures, so we are limited in strange and interesting ways.

At the end of the day, we can be humble and accept that, or we can try and force the entire world inside our heads, sit in the throne of God, and claim total objectivity–which is to say, total omniscience. We can pretend that the world is simple, that we understand it, and that the guy who disagrees with us is just pigheaded. But if we do, we will soon find ourselves either restricted to a very narrow corner of the world where we can remain sane, or adrift in an ocean that we do not understand, and that seems to have no place for us. The world is big, people are diverse, and universal truth has to touch down in places where limited people live, work, worship, mourn, and celebrate.

The details matter. Praise God for the details.