Disenchantment and the Enchanters: Witch Hunts, the Enlightenment, and How Paradigms Fail

One thing the history of magic demonstrates is that we clearly do not live in the same intellectual universe that existed during the Renaissance. Where it was perfectly acceptable for natural philosophers to engage in occult pursuits during that time, the idea that a modern scientist would spend his time conversing with spirits or refuse to prepare certain chemicals unless Venus was in the right place in the sky is laughable. The idea of Peter Venkman is as laughable as Venkman himself.

This shift is one of the more momentous in intellectual history. The old scholars were almost by definition Christian, as the church was the primary center of learning. The new scholars take a skeptical attitude not just towards magic, but to anything that might be termed supernatural. Between them lies the period known as the Enlightenment, a time when the imaginative world of the elite underwent a process of disenchantment. Some science-minded people are apt to say the happened because we suddenly got smart, or were rationally convinced of a more naturalistic cosmos. Michael Bailey suggests that this development did not occur in so straight a line.

“Yet as I have argued throughout this chapter, while magical beliefs and practices altered and adapted to Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific thought, many magical traditions remained vibrant and provided serious competition to mechanical philosophy until the very end of the seventeenth century. The intellectual respectability of magic did not fade because new “scientific” systems provided categorically superior explanatory models that precluded the need for or proscribed the possibility of magical operations. Instead, European intellectuals seem largely to have abandoned their belief in magic first and then set about developing other models of understanding the universe that fully excluded magical forces.”[1]

This is striking. Something gave intellectuals a reason to abandon a view of the cosmos that included magic before they even had a system to replace it. Though this may not be how we are used to thinking of shifts from one view of the world to another, perhaps conceiving of something more like conversion from once complete system to another, it’s not entirely unthinkable. Just because your current beliefs have proved wrong in some way does not mean you have something waiting in the wings to replace them. Demolition often comes long before rebuilding.

With regards to scientific revolutions, the shift from one paradigm to another, there is one scholar well known for studying this phenomenon, and Bailey is quick to cite him:

“Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, rejected the notion that scientific progress invariably proceeds through steady, incremental advances. Small advances can be made as new knowledge and information about a given subject gradually accumulates, he argues, but this information is always interpreted within some overarching paradigm that governs basic understandings about the field in which the advancement is being made. These paradigms do not alter gradually under the weight of accumulated eveidence; indeed, they cannot, since all evidence is interpreted within their structure. Paradigms themselves change only through relatively sudden, dramatic ruptures.”[2]

So when it comes to the shift from a scientific paradigm that accommodates the supernatural to one that manifestly does not, we should look for two things. First, we should be able to identify a time where a “sudden, dramatic rupture” separates the old view from the new. This would be the eighteenth century Enlightenment. But we should also look for something else. Every “sudden, dramatic rupture” is built on gaps in the previous system, things that cannot be accounted for under the current paradigm:

“Every dominant paradigm has certain problems, certain information that it cannot easily accommodate. Normally these are either explained in some not wholly satisfying fashion or else they are simply ignored. The Ptolemaic, earth-centered conception of the universe, for example, could only accommodate planetary retrograde motion by the introduction of complex epicycles. Occasionally, however, radical suggestions of alternate paradigms emerge, and sometimes, as with Copernican heliocentrism, the come to supplant the earlier paradigm, producing a major revolution. Kuhn maintains, however, that new paradigms do not triumph because they objectively provide a better interpretive system than the old paradigm, at least not immediately. For example, while Copernicus’s heliocentric theory did explain some of the observed properties of astral bodies in simpler and more elegant ways than did the old Ptolemaic system, the better part of a century was to pass before the details of a heliocentric model that was objectively superior to the Ptolemaic system were worked out. During this transition, experts did throw their support behind heliocentrism because of the weight of accumulated evidence, but, Kuhn suggests, more out of aesthetic impulse and intuition than anything else.”[3]

We should therefore expect to see some problems that the old paradigm had difficulty dealing with. This would give intellectuals a reason from abandoning a worldview that allows for magic, and throwing their weight behind one that rejects the supernatural. This is where things get interesting:

“Here too we have encountered the issue of confidence in a system, namely in the area of witchcraft and particularly with witch hunting. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many authorities lost confidence, not initially in the basic system of thought that supported the idea of witchcraft, but in the ability of legal institutions to identify and prosecute witches fairly and effectively. The previous chapter suggested that this judicial dilemma eventually led to a broader skepticism about the reality of witchcraft in general.”[4]

The previous chapter is indeed a fascinating one. It uproots many of the preconceived notions held by both proponents of modern science and modern claimants to the magical tradition. Rather than being driven by the Church or by the major authorities of Early Modern Europe, the witch trials were miscarriages of justice within local communities, whether intentional manipulations of the law for personal gain, or something like mass hysteria. It was in regions where the Church and centralized government held the least authority that the witch trials flourished. Where higher authority held tighter control over witch trials, the accused was acquitted far more often, and when convicted, was rarely executed. This is a fascinating chapter, and I hope to visit it in detail when this study returns to that period.

What is significant at the moment, however, is the way this fits with Kuhn’s paradigm:

“To rephrase this process in Kuhnian terms: the inability of courts to prosecute witches effectively was, if not an inherently incompatible anomaly, certainly a problem in an intellectual and moral paradigm that held witchcraft to be a real and terribly threatening crime. The solution of simply curtailing witch trials resolved the immediate problem but would have been intellectually unappealing and inelegant because it meant that there were horribly dangerous and destructive malefactors in the world against whom legal authorities could provide no protection. The rise of skepticism about the very existence of witches provided a more comprehensive solution. Yet because the idea of witchcraft was only one facet of European conceptions about magic, and more basically about demonic and divine power operating in the world, denial of the reality of witchcraft entailed a major shift in prevailing systems of thought and required that something like a new paradigm be accepted.”[5]

This suggestion is stunning. We often treat the period of Early Modern witch hunts as something totally unrelated to the “enlightened,” “disenchanted” era that followed, but according to Bailey, they “may have been a key factor contributing to the ultimate eighteenth century disenchantment of Europe.”[6]

An important aspect of this revelation is the fact that the problem witchcraft presented was not essentially a scientific or philosophical one, but a moral one. It made the old paradigm seem implausible not because it didn’t fit with known facts about the natural world, but because it upset the moral and political world in which Early Modern Europeans lived. Intellectual shifts, even in the natural sciences, are sometimes driven by moral and political concerns.

This is an important idea for Christians today to grasp. Many of us would like to reverse the trend of secularization in our society. We may even feel that it is necessary for our own safety and the safety of the broader Church. But if we are going to convince people that a Christ-centered way of looking at the world is worthy of consideration, and more worthy than the alternatives, we need answers to all sorts of problems—certainly to scientific ones, but also to moral and political ones.

Christian morality and politics is often not much more than red-state conservatism, or red-state libertarianism, with a few out-of-context proof verses slapped on for good measure. Our beliefs, and many of the arguments we use to defend them, are not very different from those of our secular neighbors. And not to leave anybody out, the same is true for blue-state and centrist Christianity. All of us draw on political traditions that are skin deep, no more recent than the 1960’s. Is it any wonder our secular neighbors look at our lifestyles and opinions and wonder why faith in Christ is necessary?

But Christianity has a long history of moral, political, and philosophical discussion. We have a wide range of views represented in the Church Fathers, in medieval scholastics, in Reformation and Counter-Reformation intellectuals, and in more recent Christian tradition. Behind that stands the very Word of God, not in some hodgepodge collection of discrete verses, but as a library of wisdom poetry, royal chronicles, legal documents and case studies, philosophical meditations, and examinations of the connections between the kingship of Christ and our daily lives in a world that does not recognize Him. We have resources.

Looking at the impact the Early Modern witch hunts had on European intellectual thought should shame us and spur us to action. Christianity had been firmly established in Europe for long centuries before the witch craze set in. During that time, the conception of witches as the sort of threat they appeared to be in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was nearly nonexistent. Church and secular authorities certainly saw no reason to prosecute or punish them in the way it was done in that era. Could we not have found a better solution?

Likewise, we are today confronted with a wide range of political and moral conundrums that beg for an answer. How does Christian just war theory apply to ISIS and to Syria, to the use of drones or of “enhanced interrogation” techniques? Does a historically Christian perspective on the common good call for open borders and an untrammeled free market, or are our rulers called to nurture specific communities? Does the Bible and the conversation of Christians across time call for a more nuanced alternative to that question? How are Christians to behave in nation that is hostile to their beliefs? How are we to behave if we gain power over a nation consisting of many unbelievers? Both of these questions were asked and answered over the course of centuries in the Roman Empire. We are not without resources.

The study of magic is a fascinating one. It opens up new imaginative vistas, and it sheds light on the past from new and interesting angles. While wisdom for its own sake is clearly an end worth pursuing, we should also be open to the lessons history teaches us. I took, and I hope you take, this particular lesson as a wake-up call.

[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 210-211.

[2] Bailey, 211.

[3] Bailey, 211.

[4] Bailey, 212.

[5] Bailey, 212.

[6] Bailey, 213.

Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Protestantism: A Personal Church History

Kicking Up Dust

A few months back, Dr. Peter Leithart kicked up some dust with his article titled “The End of Protestantism,” suggesting that although the Reformers were right to protest, the ground had shifted since the sixteenth century, and now was the time for their heirs to abandon tribal rhetoric and be at one with the church at large.

Though his call for church unity was admirable, the tack he took sparked a stir in the Protestant blogosphere, culminating in a talk at Biola. This mini-conference, “The Future of Protestantism,” featured Dr. Leithart, Dr. Carl Trueman, and Dr. Fred Sanders, with Peter Escalante moderating. Sectarianism was discussed as it effected intra-Protestant relations, confessional standards were referred to, and everyone gave their opinion on how to approach Catholics. Speculation ensued as to just what the future held for Protestantism, and how we ought to act in light of our place in that story.

During the Q&A period, one questioner asked whether perhaps the crisis was being exaggerated. Was institutional disunity really a problem? Doesn’t most of the country lump all Bible-believing Christians into one group? If that is how unbelievers see us, are denominational divisions really some sort of visible rift in the body of Christ?

This question resonated with me. I don’t believe the church has to be very monolithic in terms of doctrine, liturgy, or governance in order to live together in brotherly love, worship the same Savior, and preach the same Gospel. If the past saw Protestant sectarianism and division, everyone queuing up into their own little tribes, the future need not see us all join the same tribe in order to be part of the same body. Because I believe in justification by faith, I believe Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and any other brand of Christian are all part of the same body, regardless of whether they all send delegates to the same general assembly or subscribe to the same confession or statement of faith, or are ministered to by the same priesthood.

I say this as an individual with a history, a testimony of how my life in the Church has demonstrated the unity of Christ’s Body. My experience is not universal, but it does point to a way some people in some places have lived together in Christian brotherhood. I hope it can add something to the discussion.

Life of a Wandering Evangelical

My parents came to Christ and began attending church when I was very young, early enough that I’m not sure I remember a time when we didn’t follow the Lord. At first we attended a small Bible church on the campus of our local university. It was nondenominational, encompassing people of various broadly Evangelical, low-church bents.

Sunday nights all of us kids would participate in AWANAs, a non-denominational program used in churches across America. We memorized Bible verses, played games, learned lessons, and raced these awesome little wooden cars we made during the AWANA grand prix. There was also a Super Bowl Sunday thing, but that might have been just our church. But most of all, we learned the basics of the Gospel, and that Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.

During this time, my family began to listen to the local Christian radio station. There were actually two—one for teaching and talk, and one for contemporary Christian music. We did not spend a lot of time on the latter. This radio station connected us to the broader church in East Texas, the Bible Belt, and all over the USA. It was nondenominational, representing Evangelicals from widely scattered backgrounds. I heard more sermons during the years I listened to that station than the rest of my Sundays put together.

Eventually, I got into a groove. At six thirty in the morning—or was it seven?—I would listen to Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson. If I missed any of it, I could catch the rest in the evening at six. At six thirty was Adventures in Odyssey, also brought to you by Focus on the Family. By this time my family had usually gone their various ways, but I loved the seven o’clock show, Unshackled, which dramatized the conversion stories of countless people who had been wandering through life without Christ. And if I was having trouble sleeping, and midnight arrived, I could listen to Into the Night Live, with Dave Kirby and Dawson Macalister.

Sprinkled throughout the week, during the summers, and whenever my schedule was off, I could catch other preachers and speakers. I could hear Charles Stanley, Dr. Tony Evans, Chuck Colson, Adrian Rogers, or Alistair Begg. One of my favorite jokes—which I have so much trouble remembering—comes from a talk given by Ravi Zacharias. Nancy Leigh Demoss, Joni Eareckson Tada, David Jeremiah, and Ed Young all made significant dents in my soul. I’m sure my politics still carries the baggage of Kerby Anderson’s Point of View and Janet Parshall’s America.

Talk about a wave of nostalgia right there.

At the time I had no idea what denomination most of these guys were, nor did I care. The point was, they loved Jesus, and so did I. They wanted to see the world turned towards him, and so did I. The Bible was their book, and it was mine, and we were all in this together. Looking back, I realize that these folks included a slew of Baptists, what some have called a “Neo-Puritan,” a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several people associated with nondenominational, broadly evangelical ministries. But as they came over the airwaves, those affiliations didn’t matter.

Eventually we switched to a Reformed Church, where both the family as a whole and myself in particular developed a more robust theology. We became acquainted with the history of the Protestant Reformation, familiar with several creeds and systematic theologians, and became conversant on issues which divided church from church, denomination from denomination. Confronted with this challenge, I began to identify myself as Reformed.

But during this time, not only did I continue to listen to the Christian radio station, I began attending a nondenominational Christian school. Though much of the board and many of the teachers were either from my church, or would later join it, I began rubbing shoulders with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Baptist, and Bible Church people. On a daily basis I was confronted with serious Christians not from my denomination—people I loved, whose opinions I respected. Over the next seven or eight years of my life, I was thoroughly inundated in a broad, evangelical Christianity.

This is not to say that there were never any rough times as bumped into one another. There were, though I doubt many of them really had much to do with liturgy or doctrine so much as personality. But for eighteen years I lived in a world where Christians of differing backgrounds working together was simply the norm. Perhaps we did not worship at the same church, and our congregations were not linked by the same conference, classis, or episcopacy, but so what? One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Way Forward

I am not am academic theologian, a church historian, or a pastor. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but my experience does suggest that certain things are true.

First, Christians can work together despite denominational differences. It is achievable. In addition, it’s not a wild dream, a far off and unfulfilled item on a wish list. It has been done, is being done, and can continue to be done.

Second, we are already one Body. For those who recite the Apostle’s Creed, this is a part of our statement of faith we proclaim every Sunday. Not a goal, a statement of faith. We were all baptized into the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Not a Baptist Jesus, a Presbyterian Jesus, or a Pentecostal Jesus. One Lord. If we all worship him, we all confess him, all our hearts are changed by him, then it follows that in some respects we will never really be divided. That is the foundation of our unity.

But what about the things these three intelligent men suggested?

Does the Protestant church need to return to its confessional roots? Will this give us a robust theology, freeing us from having to define ourselves as not-the-other-guy? Or will it deepen divides by driving us back into various denominational ideals?

Will we find common ground in liturgical reform? Will common priorities in worship enable us to recognize our brothers washed with the same baptism and partaking in the same Supper? Or will our insistence that our brothers adopt a better sacramentology and theology of worship simply become another tribal marker?

Is dialogue the way forward? Should we meet our differences head-on, joining in discussion to find the truth together? Or does that open the way for concession and compromise and the slippery slope to a contentless faith?

I don’t know. These are all potentially fruitful areas of discussion. But as we pursue these lines of questioning, we ought to keep in mind that sometimes church unity is really not that far away. We find it in common schools or radio stations, shared ministries, and faith in the same Savior. Out of many members, there is one body. Denominational divisions need not be perceived as some crisis of disunity. Division may be a cause of discord, but it is also a prerequisite for harmony.

Just something to keep in mind.

Have a blessed evening.

The Subtle Knife

From now on my reviews will be divided into two sections. The first will be short and spoiler-free for those deciding whether to read the book, and the second will be a longer exploration of the book geared towards those who don’t mind spoilers.

Should You Read It?

This series is thoroughly atheistic, designed to be an answer to Lewis’s Narnia. It attempts to be a compelling apologetic, and it certainly is an incredibly entertaining work. If you have a sharp mind and a firm faith, this is an excellent place to learn about telling good stories with a worldview. However, this is not something to raise your kids on. By itself it’s not persuasive, but this is the sort of stuff that can be poisonous over the long haul. Tread carefully.

If You Have Read It

This book is fascinating. Pullman crams it with meaning and commentary on life. But before we get to that, can I just point out that he has some serious problems with point of view? In the first book that was fine, because Lyra was really the only one who did things. Here, however, we’ve got a ton more heads running around and Pullman is intent on jumping through them all. There are ways of pulling it off, but he barely takes a breath while switching POV’s. It’s downright disorienting. I mean, you can easily read past it, but it is annoying. Anyhow, on to the fun stuff.

Lyra and Will

Right off the bat we have a new protagonist. Will Parry is far more competent than Lyra, and Lyra figures this out quick. She falls for him, and she falls hard. It’s actually rather frightening.

Don’t get me wrong, Lyra needed to be humble and look up to somebody. When she realized that Will’s Oxford was so unlike her own, that was something I’d waited a long time for. She had to rely on someone else to be smarter than her, to take care of her, and she had to admit that she simply couldn’t handle things. Sure, she’d had doubts before, but she was nauseatingly arrogant with all the other characters.

But from that point on, the contrast becomes enormous. At every available opportunity Lyra becomes more childish and Will is shown to be more competent. A crisis comes and she rages, distraught, while he calmly considers the situation. Another crisis occurs, and a moment later Lyra chatters happily while Will’s wound continues bleeding and he struggles to keep moving.  She stops using the alethiometer on her own, letting Will call the shots. She apologizes repeatedly for the slightest thing, and repeatedly he accepts. She is mystified by the world, and he explains it to her. I am hard-pressed to think of a single incident in the book where this trend is not followed.

It’s not the degree of devotion and submission from Lyra towards Will which is jarring. Plenty more patriarchal fundamentalists would paint a relationship this way. But an atheist preaching equality and the evils of submission? That’s startling, especially after Lyra is made so much of in the first book. By the end of The Subtle Knife, it’s hard to take her seriously as a sidekick, much less as an independent protagonist.

Kids Are Evil

One of the things Will explains to Lyra is the nature of human cruelty. There is a thread spanning most of the middle of the book involving unwatched children who run about tormenting cats, each other, and eventually Will and Lyra. Lyra is shocked by this, unable to understand how children could be so mean. Like many people today, she had imagined children as a sort of noble savage, incapable of real evil.

Surprisingly, Pullman through Will insists that this is not the case. Children are violently hateful towards anything they find strange or frightening, or anything that harms them. The only thing that keeps them from murder is sheer inability. While I agree with the idea, lover of Augustine that I am, it is surprising coming from the guy who associates enlightenment and original sin, via Dust, with puberty. But Pullman is complex, and sometimes contradictory.

Magical Science

The way Pullman fuses magic and science is fantastic. Somehow he removes the spiritual realm and invests infinitesimally small particles with intelligence. Because these particles are everywhere, permeating the universe like the Force, they can be provoked into acting by apparently magical rites or by complex scientific procedures.

It’s not just the explanation, either. This whole series, but especially this book, evokes the same sense of wonder and mystery with particle physics that we ordinarily associate with enchantment. Then he turns around and treats spells with the same empirical and matter-of-fact manner with which he might treat a scientific experiment. People should do this more often.

The Conceit

As Film Crit Hulk is fond of pointing out, the ending is the conceit. With this book, no kidding. Pullman lays out his whole agenda in no uncertain terms. In fact, it was so starkly revealed the first time I read it that I was sure there was still a twist to come, that he couldn’t be serious. I was wrong, so very wrong. But that is a story for later. For now, we plow onward through the last bits of The Subtle Knife.

Doctor Malone and the Rebel Angels

When Lyra finds someone in Will’s Oxford to help her, it is an apostate nun-turned-physicist named Dr. Mary Malone. She is a rather flustered individual, in a bit of an airheaded and devoutly scientific sort of way. Honestly, I thought her portrayal was goofy, but she goes interesting places.

One of the places she goes is into a direct conversation with Dust. It turns out these intelligent particles have organized themselves into vast structures we know as angels. These angels, who guide Lyra via the golden compass and now Dr. Malone through this machine (and later through I Ching), are rebel angels. They interfered in evolution, turning humanity into a conduit for Dust as an act of revenge against God. And Doctor Malone is going to “play the serpent” for them.

The Setup

In the last part of the book we are tugged along in the asking of two questions: who is Lyra, and what is Aesahaettr?

Aesaheattr, it turns out, is the titular knife. Not only can it cut open portals between worlds, it can kill angelic beings. Which, apparently, includes God. In fact, it seems the only reason the Rebels lost the last war was that they did not possess such a weapon. Now they have that chance.

As time goes on, we also discover that Lyra is the next Eve. There are now two stories running on parallel tracks: the assassination of God and the reenactment of the Fall.

It’s at this point that continuing the series seems ghoulish and downright diabolical. Quite frankly, this book is satanic. It makes God into the enemy and devils into heroes. At least, that is Pullman’s intention.

But this is not something that ought to be too shocking or inherently unfamiliar. In reality there are only two ways of telling a story– on God’s side or Satan’s. In most books, this is veiled and obscured. Paganism hides at the heart of the parable and goes unnoticed. Here it is shockingly and openly blasphemous, but its very explicitness robs it of its teeth. Pullman is honest about the story he is telling, so we can honestly evaluate it. Therefore, onward.

John Parry’s Speech

Will’s missing father–John Parry/Jopari/Dr. Grumman– sums things up as he gives his son his mission in the very last chapter. All of history has been a war between the Authority and the Rebels. Because the Rebels lost the first engagement, there has been “nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.” It is a battle between “human freedom,” knowing more, being wiser, being stronger on the one side, and obedience, humility, and submission on the other. And this time the Rebels must win.

But John Parry’s speech falls flat. It is itself a glorious piece of propaganda, and not one page later he betrays a man who gave his life for Parry, Lyra, and whatever cause they were defending. Every adult on the Rebel side is at least as cruel as the Church they fight. Until now we have not seen the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Church has been little more than shadows. But these men, those who fight them, are despicable. John Parry stands witness against his own cause.

All Parents Fail

In Pullman’s world, it is dangerous to be a parent.The moment Will recognizes this shaman as his estranged father, the man is struck down by a scorned lover. Our beloved Lee Scoresby, in trying to replace the awful Asriel, dies for Lyra. Nor is it only the fathers. Lyra’s mother is a horrible person, and Will’s is crippled and dependent, unable to be there for him even if she would like to do so. This is a world of orphans, a world where reality is harsh and growing up means being alone. And, in the end, like every other father, God must be proved senile, cruel, or dead.

But this is only Pullman’s negative case. The pain and angst is later replaced with an effort to love in a world without God. I pushed on, hoping to learn how he could present a positive worldview, something that goes beyond the hopeless denial of atheism. As an artist, or an apologist, such an effort is valuable. If you’ve come this far, I urge you to soldier on and see where it goes.

The Golden Compass

A long time ago a Christian friend recommended a book to me. That is not unusual, as virtually all my friends are Christians and bookworms. The unusual part is that this book was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, known as Northern Lights to European audiences.

Pullman is an outspoken atheist, and the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which this was the first part, is his anti-Narnia. And I loved it. I absolutely devoured it, right up until the last chapters of the last book, where I did a double-take, and decided to set aside the series once I had finished it. Despite its growing popularity and a feature film, I did not touch it again for years. Until this winter.

Now, I should explain that I have a very strong sense of loyalty and something of a contrarian streak. Though I got a little excited when the trailers came out, I pretty much boycotted the movie, and never recommended the book to anyone. If the author was going to oppose everything I believed in, I was not going to support him in any way.

Meanwhile, I was reading books by ancient Greeks, pagan Romans, and heathen Norsemen. I have always been of the opinion that Christians can learn from even the most virulently anti-Christian writers, if one has thick skin and a keen eye. “Gold from Egyptians,” and all that.

Now, I could pretend it was that philosophy that caught up with me, but it was mostly just an excuse. The truth is I loved those books. The world they painted captured my imagination and the moment I had finished the first part, I started spinning off all sorts of stories inspired by it. And after all these years, I am curious as to what it was that so enthralled me, when the agenda (I have come to realize) was so incredibly blatant.

So, I started reading them again. And here is my take on book one.

Daemons, Denmark, and Deadly Bears

Philip Pullman is absolutely brilliant at crafting worlds. His alternate earth is huge, filled with all sorts of cultures and countries, men and organizations with competing agendas, and some people so strange as to baffle all the rest of the crazy carnival. He can paint pictures of scholarly universities, high society cocktail parties, villages on the edge of the world, the icy wilderness, gypsy boat-houses, and the splendor of a bear’s kingdom. Details are plentiful, but never tedious, and can leave a childish heart captivated.

For one thing, there’s daemons. Daemons are not evil spirits, but a human soul on the outside of the human being. They come in the form of animals, lifelong companions to their human counterparts that visibly embody many of their feelings and charactr traits. Each pair is separate enough from one another to hold a conversation, but so tightly bound that too much distance between them can cause physical pain.

Can you imagine that? I mean, that’s cool. Like the world’s awesomest pet mixed with a furry little sibling. Who wouldn’t want one? And in Pullman’s world, you’re not human unless you have a daemon.

Then there’s all this slightly off terminology. It took me forever to figure out that “anbaric” meant “electrical” and “tokay” was a type of wine. “Aeronauts” could fly balloons or zeppelins. “Philosophical” things have to do with physics and “experimental theologians” are physicists. “Atomcraft” is pretty much what it sounds like. This may sound confusing out of context, but in the book it all makes perfect sense and is accepted as a matter of course.

Another cool thing: his geography, and the politics that spins off it. The Tartars (of Golden Horde fame) are still a very big deal, threatening the peace of all Europe and Asia–particularly Muscovy and Cathay. And Russia, which is not Muscovy. America is New Denmark, and the native Americans are Skraelings, a name taken right out of old Vinland folklore. Gyptians are gypsies that live in boats, and Lapland is still very much a thing. The Vatican has moved to Geneva, and the Svalbard archipelago belongs to a kingdom of sentient polar bears.

Speaking of sentient polar bears, there are sentient polar bears. They are massive beings that can bend metal with their bear paws or engage you in polite, though intimidating, conversation. They have no daemons. Instead, their armor (yeah, armor) is their soul. And this is thick stuff made from “sky iron” and forged in geothermal “fire-mines.” They have a king and an honor code and a giant island where human exiles are sent to have the living daylights scared out of them. Awesome.

The Church

But, there is an agenda. Pullman’s portrait of the Church is very interesting. John Calvin, the last pope, moved the Vatican to Geneva, where a dizzying series of committees and councils known as “the Magisterium” has taken over running pretty much everything. A Presbyterian nightmare. The Magisterium is pretty much all-powerful, running science, the Inquisition, and great deal of politics.

Honestly, though, the Church is not as horribly painted as you might expect. For one thing, it’s just a giant series of commitees. Easily mocked, perhaps, but hard to put a face on as the embodiment of evil. Mostly Pullman just paints the Magisterium as complicated, paranoid, slightly reactionary, and easily confused. And very, very distant. It has its hands in everything, but a clear representative is hard to find. Kind of like the US governmant.

Coming of Age

While this is a major theme, I don’t think much ought to be said until the sequels are taken into account. Suffice it to say that puberty is a big deal to Philip Pullman, and not just because it involves hormones ‘n stuff. It connects to reason, curiosity, original sin, self-reliance, and why the Church is evil. Also, to major plot points. So we’ll come back to that.

Lyra Lier

Ordinarily it’s not worth dwelling on a character’s petty sins, but this really stands out. Lyra lies very often, and often with little provocation. So does everyone else, and it’s just accepted without the least bit of justification. I mean, sure, any individual instance may not be a big deal, but the frequency just seems pathological. Nobody trusts anyone in this world. That, I think, fits very well with some overarching ideas in the trilogy, and we’ll come back to it in later posts.

A Fascination with Power

Pullman seems to have a heightened awareness of power, and a fascination with it. Several characters are admired for their commanding presence, the sense of danger that emanates from them, and their sheer superiority over other human beings. Power is not just ability to get things done, it’s a positive virtue. And an immensely attractive one at that. Again, this connects with an overarching sort of worldview Pullman has–and this is a very worldviewy trilogy. It will, I think, be important when all is said and done.

Conclusion

Book one, fun as heck. Awesome world, interesting plot. Characters are fun, if a bit flat. Good enough I checked out the second book.

PS– In a battle at the end of the book, Pullman decides to use epic similies. Seriously.

Homecoming

A place is more than a dot on a map. Any writer worth his salt, and some worth considerably less, can tell you that. A place is a setting, it can act like a character, and it shapes the story around itself. A place has a soul.

I hit the ground on Saturday night, and knew I was halfway there. Houston is not exactly East Texas, just the messy front lawn that leads up to it. It’s filled with people from a hundred backgrounds, doing a hundred things, packed into a hundred locations that sprawl out in a tangled web of concrete and asphalt. All the cars are big, and in the pick-up line at the airport, the drivers were all a bit jovial, with a comic edge. The workers directing traffic were laughing and calling across the lanes, smiling as they shouted at drivers and blew sharp whistle blasts. Up the sidewalk from me a couple of little girls ran squealing towards their pawpaw, and down from me a couple of fashionably dressed young women were doing the “hey girlfriend!” routine.

The road north of Houston stretches on for quite a ways. I spent those long miles and winding hours making conversation, slipping quickly and easily back into Henry family life. There’s lots of joking there, lots of poking fun, a little intellectual conversation, lots of eating, bluntness, laughing, and when we stop for dinner, distraction by means of football. By the time the night had faded and we entered the old Nacogdoches city limits, I already felt at home.

After three days without a full night’s sleep, exhaustion fell on me like a heavy blanket, and kept me down. The morning came quicker than I would have liked, but there was family there, an excited dog with self-esteem issues, and a whole green wooded hill that hadn’t gotten the memo about Fall. We hopped in the truck, which was parked by our own private jungle complete with vines and monkey grass and a creek, all beneath a canopy of Southern pine. Up we sped through nicer neighborhoods, onto the loop with the trees right up by the shoulder, over the creek and around town past gas stations and watermelon stands and well-kept businesses. Ahead rose a newly built wooden white church, the chapel my people have come to call home. The post-construction ground around it is still dusty and muddy, not yet covered in a carpet of green, but the building itself and its immediate surroundings are beautiful.

How do you capture holiness? Is it a well-told Sunday school lesson by a humble man with a thick accent? Is it the people that greet you with warm smiles and ask about your life whether you’ve been gone three weeks or six months? Maybe it’s a worship service with people who visit from sister churches just for fun. Maybe it’s Scripture spoken on all sides, or God’s sovereignty and mercy towards sinners poured out with eloquence. It could be a fellowship meal where families sit mixed together, blended into one household beneath the Messiah’s roof. Then again, it could be the kids that help clean up, unbidden. Whatever it is, you can find it in my church.

The sun-drenched skies of East Texas are beautiful, and ever acre of earth below is filled with activity. We visited a friend’s property in a nice subdivision. Here, as at the church, the ground around the slowly forming edifice was torn up and devoid of grass. But the house rising above the red dirt and white sand was worth it. The living room is brilliant, high-roofed and with an open kitchen separated only by a bar. Beyond a broad doorway there is a high-roofed porch bigger than some houses, looking down a hill into trees and another house. The homes of East Texas are all like this, sprawling things made at least partly of brick, always ranch style with some personal twist. And always with big trees and gardens so fruitful they require constant taming.

Later, when we managed to pull my brother away from the Cowboy’s game, we took Dad’s truck down to the theater. As we made it out of the neighborhood and a down a hill covered in old pasture land, Queen rocked on the radio. The song ended quickly, and by the time we turned onto University Drive, Stevie Ray Vaughan was cranking out “Pride and Joy.” Texas Blues right there, a soul in music.

It’s hard to capture the soul of a place. It’s got so many facets, so much shifting ground. To me, East Texas just seems alive. There are colleges, big and small. Restaurants spring up, get popular, and become chains. Neighborhoods are crowded with newcomers, and factories, small farms, and small businesses are always hiring. On every corner there’s a church, and though every one is different, despite the rough patches, we all get along surprisingly well. From the woods to the gardens, from the to kids to the towns, everything is growing. It’s a place of life, a place I’m proud to call home.

It’s good to be back.

The War for Zion

Today I said goodbye to a friend. He’s headed back east, to the beginning of a life that will take him crazy places. I’m staying here for now, visiting home briefly, but very much doubt I’ll be in his neck of the woods any time in the next few years. But if we don’t meet again in this world, I’ll see him in Zion.

And that’s important. We’re here on this earth fighting for something. Conscious or not, willfully or not, we’re all caught up in a war. On one side, there is a kingdom filled with beauty, glory, righteousness, justice, and overflowing with grace. On the other, rank upon rank of the dead. Out of that, let me draw two things: how we fight this battle, and what we’re fighting for.

The Lord made a big world, and a lot of people. My buddy was called in one direction, I am called in another. This morning I read an article and sent it along to a friend called to a different country altogether (maybe several). Another friend from my corner of the union is considering re-crafting his own method of deploying the Gospel. We’re all called to different places, but we’re all called by the same Lord.

The lesson here is that we all have different battles, but we fight using the same Gospel. So we should support one another in that, not dividing against each other because we all think our battle is the most important in the war. We’re not the Captain of the Lord’s Army, we don’t make that call. But we are all soldiers, and we can pray for and encourage our brothers in arms. With the state of communications today, we should be doing so often. And we should start getting good at it.

And what unites believers on the East Coast, the Gulf, Canada, the Middle East, and Northern Idaho? Saints from Bloemfontein to Bristol, Canton to the Congo? We are all fighting for the same King, and the same country. At the end of the day, we will meet at the marriage supper of the Lamb, in the day when Zion is free and Christ not only rests in our hearts, but walks before us again.

This is true whether the false gospel we are fighting is Islam or secular progressivism, ancestor worship or scientism. And just as the darkness will have a different feel for different men in different places, so the light will shine differently wherever it goes. The Church is a stained-glass window, but the light behind it is all one.

So when you’re left standing there, bidding farewell to a friend God has called to a different field, rejoice for him, pray with him, encourage him. He’s got a battle to fight, and he needs the support. And when it’s all over, you’ll meet again in the Lord’s presence. Lord willing, you’ll both be receiving your “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”