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

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

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

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

Would you go back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take up your cross and follow him.

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

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

 

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

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Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope, Grit, and Faith

I have a melancholy temperament. I am keenly aware of everything wrong with life. I can be overcome by fear, despair, suspicion, and bitterness. Life is not easy, and people are not essentially good. What good guys there are don’t always win, and the bad guys frequently don’t lose. Not in this life. There are horrible things that happen to people, some of them acts of nature, some of them the malicious actions of fellow human beings. We don’t live in a happy-go-lucky world. It’s dark out here. I’ve plumbed some deep depths of depression, what is terrifying is the knowledge that plenty of people go through far worse.

But when I’m at my lowest, when I think I’ve failed at everything I care about, when everyone seems to be against me, when it seems that the only people who care are thousands of miles away, when I’m at most cynical and I’ve given up on my dreams–at those darkest moments, something happens. I take a look at life and say, “Screw it. I’m going to keep going. I’m going to be happy.”

I am of the conviction that this world is ruled by a sovereign God who loves me, and who works all things together for the good of those who love him. I believe the world is bigger and more complicated than I can began to comprehend, and I believe God is a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

When life is hard, he’s shaping me. He’s building me up in his image–to be a man worth being, and to live a life worth living. No matter how bad things get, they’re getting that bad in order to make me someone capable of handling something better. And it’s not just me. God is in the process of redeeming this world. Every tragedy, every unjust act, every hardship, it all means something. It’s leading to something better. The world ends in a heavenly city, in feasting and bright sunshine, in tears being wiped from every eye and every nation’s wounds being healed.

So hardship is a nuisance, a trial, an enemy to be defeated. It’s something getting between me and where God wants me to be. God has better plans for me than this. So I refuse to be defeated. I will not be. I cannot be. I already know how the story ends. What right does life have to think it can keep me down?

Depression, for me, ends in pissedness, in stubborn refusal to let doubt, loss, sadness, and worry win. It’s not long after I reach that point that I begin to feel 1) thankful, and 2) bulletproof. I thank God for loving me and promising me eventual victory. And I feel bulletproof because I know that no matter how bad it gets, it will never get so bad that things won’t change direction and get better.

Hope is not fluffy and warm, made of sweet dreams and naivete. It is built out of stubbornness and grit. It is built out of refusal to believe in ultimate failure, despite all evidence to the contrary. But it is not built on *my* grit, on *my* strength. It comes from resting on another’s strength. It comes from a complete and utter trust, a reckless commitment, an almost blind faith in a holy, all-loving Almighty.

People ask me what my testimony is. I was in church for most of my conscious life. I was raised in Christian schools reading Christian literature and soaked deep in Scripture. I do not remember a time when I could have been called pagan. But if you ask what the foundation of my life is, and how I keep on going, this is it. Stubborn hope, built on faith in an invisible, all-loving, Almighty God. That is my testimony.

Scarecrows and Saviors

In the Book of Jubilees, a prominent demon sometimes identified with Satan sends ravens to gobble up seed in Abraham’s homeland of Ur. Abraham, however, seems to have a talent for scaring away ravens. He is so good at it that the farmers throughout the land hire him to come and scare the birds out of their fields. Soon after, Abraham invents a machine that buries the seed underground as you plow, thus avoiding the whole raven problem.

Now lots of the Apocrypha and related Bible fanfic has a habit of being just plain weird, so there’s no telling why this randomness is in there. But a scholar named Jacques van Ruiten says that this story might have been worth recording because it shows Abraham fighting with the forces of evil over the land. This should sound familiar

The parable of the sower is a story from the Gospels which Jesus tells to the general public, but explains only to the disciples. A sower comes along and scatters seed. Immediately ravens comes along and gobble it up. The seed is the Word, we are told, and the ravens are Satan. But the story continues. More seed lands on rocky ground, springs up, and then withers because the soil is so shallow. Yet more lands among thorns and is choked out. Finally, some of the seed lands on good soil and yields a good crop.

In telling this story, is Jesus playing off of the older story of Abraham and the ravens? If so, are the differences important? For example, might Jesus be intentionally pointing out that ravens/Satanic forces are not the only reasons men stray from the Word? Is there no Abraham-figure to drive off the ravens in Jesus’ version because that is not what the story is about, or is it implied that Jesus is the Abraham-figure and a time is coming soon when he will drive the ravens out of Israel? And in the original story, the land Abraham was driving the ravens from was not Israel, but the pagan land of Ur of the Chaldees. Is that significant?

Honestly, I have no clue what the answers to any of these questions might be, but I find the potential link between the stories intriguing.

“Ecclesiastes” and “John”

This past weekend I participated in an awesome talent show featuring an all-star cast of students from New Saint Andrews. Flight of the Conchords met Nun Fight and Les Miserables played by kazzoo-ists. There were also original piano compositions and some crazy dancing. It was fantastic.

My entry was a pair of poems. Since a few folks have requested written versions, I am putting them up here, together with the introduction I gave that night. Since that part was a little more ad-libbed, it’s not verbatim.

PS. The line breaks are transferring weird. When I get some more time, maybe this weekend, I’ll come by and line them up a little better. (For instance, “field” and “yield” should be pretty much directly over one another, and stuff like that.)

Preface:

Contrary to the way it may seem, if you know me, despite some of the incredibly stupid things I’ve done, my besetting sin in life is often over-thinking things. I like to come up with plans and schemes, ways of getting around whatever it is in life that terrifies me. And all too often I fail miserably.

Realizing this, I spent a little bit of time in the Gospel of John, and a whole lot more in the book of Ecclesiastes, searching for wisdom. In these two poems tonight, I hope to share with you what I think I’ve found there.

Solomon

Listen up!

Once there was a preacher,

                                A true soul-teacher,

A man with a plan and the world in his hand,

A king of divine anointing,

A lord of Wisdom’s appointing.

Solomon the wise

                                Began an enterprise

To carefully devise a surefire way

To make this confusing world clear as day.

So listen up all you

Who Lady Wisdom pursue,

For these are the words of the king, and his words are true.

 

All that exist are as mist in the morning and fog on the creek,

They are smoke on the mountain, feeble and weak.

All plans are uncertain, all choices are bets,

                                The sun rises and sets

And every flower will fade,

And light passes to shade.

Every man will die, both you and I,

Who can say who will reach the sky?

 

I saw a man like a king,

                                                Who could nobly sing.

But his generation came and went,

And when his life was spent,

Another took up his song,

But the very chorus was remembered wrong.

 

Dress yourself in silk or cotton,

But one day your frame will rot in

                                                                The field.

Your very kingdom will yield

                                                To the force of time.

No chiseled verse or rhyme

                                                Will commemorate your deeds.

For every king that rises, another king succeeds,

No matter how the old one pleads.

For all mean are men, and every man bleeds.

 

What? Will one of you weep?

Still hear, for wisdom is deep.

No man knows his way through the fog,

We are all trapped in this miry bog,

But there is one who sees it all,

And through the fog you can hear his call.

“Trust me, child of mine,

Like one drunk with wine

                                                You stumble,

But if you will hear me, be humble.

Here in the passing shadows I have given joys,

Faithful friends and wondrous toys,

And if the sorrow is too great to bear,

Remember who has put you there.

You cannot see your way through the fog,

But I have not asked you to.”

 

Hear this wisdom, the words are true:

We are as mist in the morning or fog in the creek,

Like smoke on the mountain, both feeble and weak.

Like grass in the sun, we have our time and fade,

And, like a Father, God cares for every blade.

And so Solomon saw that there was nothing better under the sun

                                                Than for man to eat, drink, seek fun

In the labor God has given him now.

Do justly, love mercy, humbly bow

                                                                     Before God above.

No man can find out the ways of the world,

                                                                                For the only way is love,

And that way cannot be tamed.

 

John

John one, verse fourteen, the Word became flesh.

                                Say it again and make it fresh,

Because until you understand

The firmness of the land

                                                Beneath God’s feet,

How as a child his mom would give him treats,

You have failed to grasp the implication.

 

If you, O thinker, need a point in what I say, it’s this:

Live like God on a summer day—with bliss.

Carve on a chair, rule out a straight line,

Kick back with James, enjoy some wine,

And when you laugh, laugh divine.

Listen, O Scholar, real life is fine,

And it takes more than a mind.

 

Because, you see, a Platonic abstraction

                Don’t understand attraction,

                Can’t be driven to distraction

By a bride to be.

What good is eternity

                                                To a floating mind?

Take away the flesh, and fruit is rind,

The only part of the watermelon I leave behind,

And that’s a shame.

And you should feel no shame.

 

I hope you dance like no one sees,

Take a chance and climb the trees,

Live with your wings out in the breeze,

Run in the wheat,

                                                Smile in the freeze

Name every beast beneath the moon,

Don’t be afraid to rhyme with june,

Or set a poem to a well-known tune,

This is life.

Live it.

 

The sound of a song, a resounding gong,

A well-thrown pass and going long,

Word without flesh is life gone wrong.

Grass between your toes,

When that girl crinkles her nose,

And don’t you suppose

                                                That beneath the sun

God himself ran for fun?

Lose yourself in the music, the moment,

                                                                Get on it,

                                                                                It’s passing

                                                                Like lightning flashing

                                                                                                                In the sky,

                                                                In a flash we live and die.

That’s all we’ve been given, so start livin’

Like God himself on a summer day.

The Word, the truth, and the life,

                                                That’s the way.

Forsake the night; embrace the day.

And now let my chatter cease,

Let all wisdom increase,

And may merry hearts fill this hall.

So much have I said, and that’s all.

The Crafty Whites of West Virginia

I recently watched a documentary titled “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” The family in question, descendants of the Appalachian entertainer D. Ray White, are all notorious criminals. The camera follows them for several months, recording outrageous interviews and wild parties, births and deaths, prison visits and one sad farewell at the entrance to a rehab center. We meet murderers, thieves, and plenty of drug traffickers and addicts. When all was said and done, however, it was not the horrid lifestyle or its grim consequences that held my attention. What that left me thinking were the insights these white trash criminals had into human nature and the way the world works.

Towards the beginning and end of the documentary, there are several interviews with local lawyers and justices of the peace. One of these men was very insistent that while the Whites were not educated, they were far from stupid. Every one of them, drug addled as they were, was intelligent. And despite this native intelligence, they were all trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and violence.

Behind this lifestyle is a belief that the world is inherently a hard place. We have no control over the course of our lives, because those around us with more wealth and power are determined to use us for their own ends. And if we are not stabbed in the back by someone in authority, or struck down by some crippling accident, in the end death will come for us all. Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. All we have is our family, our wits, and a brief opportunity to work the system and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

It is not as if they are unaware that the fast and loose lives they live have consequences. Throughout, the Whites are quick to admit what they did to get themselves into any given mess. They do not even necessarily think those consequences are undeserved. This is simply how life is–you try to get away with as much as you can, and if you are caught, tough luck.

More striking is the fact that this family is quite firmly grounded in a Biblical view of the world. They are aware of heaven and hell, aware of Christ’s free offer of salvation. There is also no mistaking the fact that they are hell-bound, and know it. That is simply where they stand.

I find it funny that Christians will sometimes compare outlaws like these to more reserved upper-middle class pagans, and come out on the side of the more respectable sinners. The Whites have a real insight here. If life is hard and the world ahead is hell or annihilation, then living a quiet life is ridiculous. Eat, drink, and be merry. Get high on whatever you can find, get money however you can, fight whenever you feel like it, and sleep with whoever you can get. Tomorrow we may be dead, so live now. When Mamie White was asked what she wanted people to do at her funeral, she said, “Party their balls off. Blow pot in my face and snort pills on my head, and…f***in’ rock and roll, baby!” Death comes to us all, so live like you’re dying.

There is no doubt that the Whites pay for their wild ways in the here and now. Hangovers, heartbreaks, addiction, jail time, and lost family members haunt every one until they meet an early death. They may die thinking the party was worth the price, but that is hardly a world worth living in. I do not want to settle for that world, and I do not believe we have to.

As Mamie White and Jesco affirm, there is a God in heaven. He offers us salvation freely. And here is the thing: death–which haunts our heels every day we live–death claimed the very Son of God. But Jesus came back from the grave. He came back whole and healed, and he will never die again. The world was given into his hands, and nothing can any longer stand in his way. The Bible says that if we believe this, and if we confess that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved. Death no longer has any claim over us. Any suffering in this life is only temporary. There will come a time, at the end of all things, when those who follow Christ will be raised from the dead and given an eternal reward. That is a hope worth living for.

But someone who lives like the Whites, if they fall on their knees and repent and follow Christ, is still left with addiction and bad habits and a world of consequences. Because they are now the temple of God, they cannot keep living as they once did, and that is a big change to make. But Paul assures us in Romans that if we will to do what is right, it is no longer we who sin, but the sin that dwells in us. And we have been freed from that law of sin and death, so it can be conquered. Furthermore, Christ has promised to help us walk in righteousness if we simply ask him.

The Whites of West Virginia have a far greater insight into the human condition than many who live cleaner lives. But the consequences of that clear vision is a life that matches the despair they see. But the Gospel is an answer to that despair, a way out of Boone County and the world of drugs and violence they have created. Their lives pose a great question for all of us, and Christ is the answer. I pray that the Whites, and people like them, would come to see it.

God bless.