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

If

If is one of my favorite poems of all time. It paints a picture of a man of confidence and humility, a practical man and a dreamer, who can talk with crowds and walk with kings, keeping both his virtue and “the common touch.” He is a man who perseveres, who acts out of wisdom, but is willing to take risks. This is a picture I want to learn from, and that I hope you can learn from as well.

The Teaser

Teaser – Crisis

Click that link. You see it? The one up there?

It’s your first glimpse of this summer’s blood, sweat, and tears.

It’s the product of an idea, egged into reality by persistent friends.

It’s a hint of a slice of art I made, and that I now offer to you.

I hope it’s fantastic. Or at least acceptable. I can’t tell.

It just makes me nervous. But now I’ve committed.

Will you?

Go ahead. Take a look. Click it.

Whom He Loves, He Chastens

I am prone to long bouts of melancholy when life gets stressful. Existing problems magnify themselves, I grow to worry about problems that don’t yet exist, and the resulting mass of stresses becomes crippling. Sometimes, swamped with my mess of fears, I cry out to God, commit my worries to him, and plow ahead, unafraid of–or at least unconcerned with–failure.

Recently such a time of stress and darkness came to a head, and it seemed I was delivered miraculously from my troubles. Not by my hard work or some inner strength, this deliverance was entirely undeserved, a free gift. The days that followed were filled with joy, sunshine, and fresh air. My life took an upward turn, and just kept ascending. Each day was better than the last. Soon all my trials lay in the past, forgotten.

 

“So it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full— then beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

Deuteronomy 6:10-12

Men have a habit of forgetting where they came from. When life is good, we shove our troubles into the past, and dwell in the present. We cry out for deliverance from our enemies, and when we are delivered, we forget they ever existed. And when our Egypt is forgotten, why should we remember the one who brought us out?

“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water; who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end—then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’”

Deuteronomy 8:11-17

In the wake of deliverance, as land and wealth and freedoms accumulate, we begin to think that they belong to us. It was our own brilliance, our own unique insight, our skills and strengths and mighty arms that won the day. We built these cities with our own two hands, we raised these crops, this is our land.

But it is not. What was a gift in the day of deliverance, what looked like salvation in the deepest pits, remains so when we have grown used to our new graces. Salvation and later glory have always been out of our hands, and always will be. What the Lord gives, the Lord can take, and still his name is blessed. It is his to do with as he pleases.

“Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.”

Proverbs 30:7-9

There is no worse fate than to grow apart from the God of the Universe. Nothing is worse than to be disconnected from the one who gives life, and gives it meaning.

Not all times of trial are a curse. The ordinary pressures of life and the consequences of our foolish actions fall on our heads, not always as a punishment, but as a blessing. Better to suffer from time to time than to grow rich and forget the one who made us so. Better a life of wear and tear with thanksgiving than a life of ease with pride. The troubles of one are superficial and temporary. The dark heart of the other is eternal and spoils all we might enjoy.

“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
They have bowed down and fallen;
But we have risen and stand upright.”

Psalm 20:7-8

Have a blessed week.

David H.

Duck

Recently, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson got interviewed at GQ. Mr. Robertson is a Bible-thumping evangelical, a former partier, tail-chaser, and law-breaker that came to Christ and experienced a major course-correction back onto the straight and narrow. You can find his testimony, and more, at I Am Second. Lately, he’s been starring in an A&E TV show, along with his family. I’ve heard good things about the show, and about the godly way these north Louisiana rednecks conduct themselves on it. I wish I could give you a firsthand account, but I don’t have cable up here in the great white north.

Now Duck Dynasty has an appeal to a certain kind of person. A hunting and fishing sort of person. A unashamedly born-again Evangelical sort of person. The kind of person who’s fine with being considered a Bible-Belt hick. It’s a very specific sort of person that is not half as common in my circles, or in America at large, as it used to be.

The Christian Church is divided up along a lot of lines. Fundamentalists believe the Bible and couldn’t care less what anybody thinks. Hipsters are embarrassed by the fundamentalists, and try their darnedest to disown them. Theology wonks sit above the simplicity of the modern fray. Those committed to the causes of the Christian right are frustrated with both their more chill evangelical brethren, and the Christian left. And the libertarians are frustrated with everybody.

These are all folks I find in my own circles, before we even touch on actual denominational differences, or on racial divides. It’s shameful. Everybody thinks they know what the Church needs, and they’re willing to beat their brethren over the head until they see it too. There’s nothing wrong with being right, of course, but some wise men I know have a habit of saying “there’s a deeper right than being right.” Love the brethren.

So when Phil Robertson got on GQ and listed homosexuality with a half-dozen other perversions, and quoted the Apostle Paul saying such people would not inherit the kingdom of God, the reaction of the Church at large was nothing short of shocking to me.

At first, it was just Duck Dynasty fans posting articles on Facebook about the event. Of course they would, these were their kind of Bible-thumpers. But then the more trendy moderates joined in. Then the political pundits began to sound off, both the libertarians and more traditional conservatives. Even the theology wonks got into it. People I’d watched taking pot-shots at one another for years were lining up together behind Phil Robertson and St. Paul, all of them shouting a hearty “Amen!”

My friends are not exclusively conservative on issues of gay rights. There’s a lot of sympathy and moderate leanings, some libertarian-style neutrality, and people who couldn’t care less what the gays are doing while babies are still legally butchered. But everyone agreed on this: Phil had the right to say what he did, what he said was Scripture, and shame on A&E for suspending him over it.

When I woke up yesterday, the Church was a squabbling mess, a crowded mass of people who all needed Jesus very badly. When I woke up this morning, they were united. They were united behind the Bible, they were united behind an unpopular opinion, and they were united behind a redneck from the backwoods of north Louisiana.

Are all our problems solved? No. Do we still have a long ways to go before the Bride of Christ stands pure and unblemished? Yes. But when the Church stands together, however briefly, the Spirit is doing something. And when the Spirit moves, I have only one piece of advice for the world.

Duck.

How Shall We Then Be Jolly?

Returning Fire

A good friend of mine recently posted an attack on the “commercialization” of Christmas. While I trust that his heart is in the right place, I worry that his head is not. The following post is a response to him, but it is also more. I believe Christmas is one of the best things American Christians do. If anything, I believe we should celebrate it louder, and with more lights.

The Gospel in the Incarnation

We must begin with the most important point, as everything else follows from it. My friend believes that celebrating the birth of Christ is meaningless in a post-Christian world. We would be better served by preaching all of Christ’s life, and not just his birth. An Incarnation out of context means nothing. Christmas alone is useless, only the whole Gospel will do. It is this all-or-nothing desire to preach the Gospel that drives my friend’s critique of the holiday.

I would contest that Christ’s birth means more in a post-Christian context, and that the whole Gospel story is contained in this one event in a way that America desperately needs.

If America has a god, he is distant. He is a creator, though how he got creation to this point is somewhat uncertain. He is a god of love—that is certain. We can be fairly sure he wants us to act righteously. But he does not involve himself in the public square, for church and state must be separate. Indeed, he hardly involves himself in the church, since he equally accepts Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan—even the sort of irreligious man who refuses to accept him.

The result is a god who does not intervene in the affairs of men. Poverty and homelessness cannot rouse him from his slumber; the cries of the oppressed will not bring him near. Let drug addiction and domestic violence do their worst, he does not hear them. Bigotry, hatred, partisan politics, these reign on earth. Let those who care build their charities; they do so unaided. God may commend them, he cannot help them.

Christmas says otherwise. Christmas says God Almighty does exist, that he does care. He hears the people crying out for justice, hears the cries of the oppressed, and he will not sit idly by while they suffer. God came down. And not only did God come down to set the world aright—that alone is fantastic—he came down to suffer with us.

He did not come as a king with an army at his back: he came as the child of an unwed mother. He came with the epithet “bastard” ready on his neighbors’ lips, for Joseph was not the father. Who was? He came when there was no room for him, and rested in the spittle-covered leftovers of a sheep’s lunch in the back of some farmer’s cave. He was sought by those in power, men who wished to kill him, and he was forced to flee into a foreign land. God became a refugee.

In the birth of Christ we see that God hears us and saves us, for he was born among us. In his Incarnation we see his crucifixion already looming backwards in time, because from the moment he was born, he was suffering alongside us. In a world of injustice, a world with an apparently useless god, the birth of the Christ-child is a powerful testimony. We should not be quick to discard it.

Christmas Traditions

But my friend does not take issue with Christmas plain and simple. He objects to the way we celebrate it. He is tired of the same old songs, and suggests Handel’s Messiah as a richer alternative. Furthermore, in the bright and shining traditions into which we throw so much spirit and decoration, he sees the threat of idolatry in already idolatrous culture. Finally, he rejects the concept of a “season of giving,” saying that we ought instead to be in the spirit of giving the whole year round.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

I should confess up front that I have a serious bias towards traditional Christmas music, and a much lamented inability to fully appreciate classical music. Consequently, I probably get far less enjoyment out of the Messiah than my friend does. But I don’t think this disqualifies me from disagreeing with his attitude.

One of the beauties of Christmas is that our culture, which is so suspicious of tradition, so ready overthrow the old in favor of the new, makes an exception once a year. Old and young find common ground in common tunes. We cease to be individuals tied off into the fashions of our brief decade, and become a culture that spans generations.

And those songs evoke emotions of merriment, laughter, and fellowship. It is this liturgical function that makes the “same old songs” so important. Like the back-and-forth of a familiar church service, the steps of a dance learned long ago, it leads our hearts down familiar paths. Every year we approach the season to be jolly, and these songs are played to remind us what that feels like. Do away with these, and Christmas is just winter.

As for replacing traditional Christmas songs with Handel’s Messiah, I admire the call to a richer tradition, but I am skeptical as to whether this is the way. Encourage people to go see the Messiah performed? Certainly. But Christmas songs are meant to be played in the background or sung along with, and the Messiah is unsuited for either of these purposes. To play it in the background would be to do it an injustice. Asking the average man to sing along would be an even greater affront to the majesty of the piece. As one of those average men, I can testify to that fact.

Popular music may not rise to the heights of the best that classical has to offer, but it is accessible, and it is flexible. If you want new songs and better, then compose them. Put them out there. In a few generations, they may become traditional. But one does not improve the tradition by discarding it. Throwing out the whole of popular Christmas music to be replaced by classical choral pieces does nobody any good.

Deck the Halls

My friend not only has problems with Christmas music, but with all the bells and whistles and hype we attach to it. He fears that giving a celebration like this so much attention, when we—as a culture—give God so little, is idolatrous, or at least a temptation to idolatry.

This is simply wrong. Lights and trees, caroling and mistletoe, presents and sleigh rides—these are simply celebration as it was meant to be. Moderns have forgotten how to party, how to feast. We have forgotten how to make much of something which calls for joyful traditions, for merry rituals, and for liturgical exuberance. We have forgotten how to deck the halls and lift up a glass of eggnog when the occasion calls for it. And the commemoration of our Savior’s birth is certainly a time that calls for it.

If anything, we should extend feasting and jollity of this kind to other places. Sundays should include decoration, feasting, and fellowship. The Resurrection should be at least as joyously observed as the Incarnation. What about Pentecost? Ascension Day? Why don’t we throw ourselves into these as much as we do Christmas? Our God is the God who ends the world with a wedding feast, and we are only really making merry on one holiday in the entire liturgical year. We should be ashamed.

Tis the Season

Finally, my friend thinks that the tradition of gift-giving, and the treatment of Advent as a time of selfless service and peace on earth, are wrong because the spirit of giving, of selflessness, and of peace ought to extend across the whole year.

In this, I think he totally misunderstands the point of holidays.

We go to Church on Sunday, not because the other six days do not belong to God, but because they do. We tithe ten percent because the whole hundred belongs to God. Holidays do not exist to restrict spiritual truths to one time of the year. They exist to remind us of something that is true year-round.

And this is why Christmas is necessary. God sends help to the needy year-round. He suffers with us every time that we suffer. He gives himself to us in every moment. But we forget. We lose sight of that. And because we are forgetful, because we lose sight, we gather together every year to remind ourselves that Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.

Likewise, we forget that we are to be giving, to be selfless, to seek peace and bring jollity to those who need it all the time. Christmas reminds us of this. It stands bright and shining and warm in the middle of the cold, dark winter so that we will not forget how God has treated us, and how we ought to treat others.

Conclusion

Christmas is the most powerful holiday in the American calendar, and is easily the most explicitly Christian in ways Easter long ago ceased to be. We pack so much emotion into this season that still features crèches, Christian carols, and even performances of Handel’s Messiah. It is a powerful testament to the love of the Father, and a picture of how God’s people ought to be the whole year round. For a brief moment in the middle of winter, heaven descends to earth, peace and goodwill reigns among men.

If our culture has a problem, it is too little Christmas, not too much.

This Christmas I will not be toning down my celebration, but ramping it up.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king.”

And when she does, let it be with fanfare.