Christian Koans

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A master observed that a novice was involved in many kinds of service and all kinds of good works. The master asked the novice, “Why do you do so many good works?”

“Because I am trying to make myself acceptable to God,” the novice said.

The master set a tile before the novice, and began to polish it.

“What are you doing?”, the novice asked.

“I am polishing this tile, to make it into a mirror.”

“You can’t make a tile into a mirror by polishing it!”, the novice protested.

“And neither can you make yourself acceptable to God by good works,” the master answered.


A scholar wrote an article saying, “The Bible shows evidence of post editing and was heavily influenced by the political climate of the day. Its interpretation depends highly on one’s perspective.”

A believer read the article, and said, “This article shows evidence of post editing and was heavily influenced by the political climate of the day. Its interpretation depends highly on one’s perspective.”


A man came to a believer and said, “You say that you know God exists. Prove it to me.”

The believer said, “Do you have any matches?”

“Yes.”

The believer took a napkin, and soaked it in water. “You say that you have matches. Set this napkin on fire.”


Someone said to a believer, “If God performed a miracle in front of me, I would believe.”

The believer held up a blade of grass.


A novice closed his eyes, folded his hands, and began to say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

A master said, “What are you doing?”

“I am assuming the right posture and saying the right words to pray.”

“You can’t pray by assuming a posture and saying a specific set of words.”

“Then how do you pray?”

The master closed his eyes, folded his hands, and began, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”


A master saw a novice gulping from a bottle of wine. “What are you doing?”, the master said.

“I had a really rough day. I need a drink.”

The master threw the wine against a wall. “Never drink wine because you need to.”

“Do you drink wine?”, the novice asked.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I do not need to.”


A Catholic and a Protestant were having a debate about faith and works, versus faith which works. Someone looked on, and said, “Everything is subject to debate. There is no core of universal Christian faith.”

A believer punched him between the eyes.

“What did you do that for?”, he asked.

“My fist looked different to your two eyes. Therefore, I did not hit you.”


A novice said to a master, “I want to be a great man. What is the first thing I should do?”

The master answered, “Forget about being a great man.”


A novice asked a master, “How am I to resist temptation? My strongest efforts of willpower are not enough.”

The master asked the novice, “How am I to put out that fire? All the gasoline I own is not enough.”


A novice said to a master, “Which do you value more: the truth, or the ancient Christian way?”

The master grabbed the novice’s nose.

“Your response makes no sense,” said the novice.

“And neither does your question,” answered the master.


A novice said to a master, “I want to be totally devoted to God. Tell me how I should talk, how I should dress, how I should act.”

The master said to the novice, “I want to be spontaneous. Tell me how I should plan my day.”


A novice said to a master, “I am humble.”

The master said, “No, you are not humble.”

Another novice said, “I am not humble.”

The master said, “That’s right; you are not humble.”


A novice handed a master a check, saying, “Here is some money, so that you will be happy.”

The master put the check into the fire: “I wish the fire to be happy as well.”


A computer professional said to a master, “I’m tired of wasting my time doing little things for God. I want to do something big and important.”

The master said, “Tell me how to use a computer.”

The professional said, “Well, first you turn it on, then y-”

The master interrupted him. “Don’t waste my time talking about turning it on. I only want to know the important stuff.”


A novice said to a master, “Where should I go to meet with God?”

The master said, “The radiator vent you are standing on.”


A novice said to a master, “Tell me how to find deep, hidden secrets. I want to know beyond what is given to ordinary people to know.”

The master said, “There are piles of diamonds out in the open. Why do you go lurking in caves, chasing after fool’s gold?”


A novice said to a master, “I am sick and tired of the immorality that is all around us. There is fornication everywhere, drunkenness and drugs in the inner city, relativism in people’s minds, and do you know where the worst of it is?”

The master said, “Inside your heart.”


A man went to a cathedral where he had heard many miracles had occurred, visions of Heaven. “I have come all the way from America, to find God,” he told one of the believers.

“Aah. God has gone all the way to America, to find you.”


A novice once said to a master who was maimed, “Do you ever ask, ‘Why me?'”

The master said, “Yes, frequently. I ask God every day why he has given me so many blessings.”


A master was working at a soup kitchen, serving food, talking with the guests, listening to their stories.

“What are you doing?”, a novice asked.

“I am praying and telling God how much I love him.”

Later, after everyone had left, the master folded his hands, and said, “God, you are so awesome. Thank you for making me your child. I love you. Thank you for…”

The novice asked, “What are you doing?”

The master said, “I am loving God’s precious children.”


Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”

The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”


A feminist theologian said to a master, “I think it is important that we keep an open mind and avoid confining God to traditional categories of gender.”

The master said, “Of course. Why let God reveal himself as masculine when you can confine him to your canons of political correctness?”


A novice said to a master, “My master, teach me!”

The master said, “How can I teach you? I am a novice, and you are a master.”


A novice and a master were walking together. The master said, “Oh, how it distresses God to see all the heresies and schisms in the Church.”

The novice said, “How do you know what God feels? You’re not God.”

The master said, “How do you know whether or not I know what God feels? You’re not me.”


A novice said to a master, “I wish that Christ were still around, that we could love him.”

The master picked up a little girl, and gave her a kiss.


One person said, “The Christian message is narrow-minded of different belief systems.”

Another said, “No, it is Christian missionaries and evangelists who are narrow-minded and intolerant of any different belief system.”

A master said, “Neither of you are right. It is you who are narrow-minded and intolerant of any really different belief system.”


A novice said to a master, “I want to serve God. What denomination should I join?”

The master said, “I want to be healthy. What part of my body should I cut off?”


Someone said to a master, “God is love, so he can’t condemn homosexual practice.”

The master said, “Doctors want people to be healthy, so they can’t call cancer ‘sickness’.”


A novice said to a master, “Take me to your highest priest.”

The master introduced him to each believer present, saying, “This is the highest priest. You will not find a more sacred priest.”


A novice asked a master, “Do you believe that some days are especially holy, or that all days are equally holy?”

The master said, “Yes.”


A novice asked a master, “How should I empty my mind of lust?”

The master said, “Fill it with Christ.”


A physicist said to a master, “I believe my own private religion, which I design to suit me, provide me with meaning, and make me happy. What better suited religion can you possibly claim to have?”

The master began to write on a sheet of paper, “Gravity shall pull things together except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when gravity shall have no effects whatsoever. Objects at rest tend to begin to move; objects in motion tend to …”

“What on earth are you writing?”, the novice said,

“I believe my own private physics, which I design to suit me, provide me with meaning, and make me happy. What better suited physics can you possibly claim to have?”


A wealthy novice came to a master, and said, “Teach me!”

The master said, “Scrub out all the wastebaskets.”

The novice scrubbed out the wastebaskets and returned. The master did not give a word of thanks, so much as a smile. “Now weed the garden.”

The novice weeded the garden and returned. The master did not give a word of thanks, so much as a smile. “Now give us your car.”

The novice gave him his car, and then said in frustration, “Why haven’t you shown so much as a hint of gratitude? I have done menial service and given you my own car. Isn’t that a lot?”

The master said, “Yes, it is a lot, but we need neither your service nor your car. You came to us proud and accustomed to luxury. We gave you an opportunity to taste humble service. We gave you an opportunity to let go of a cherished possession. It is you who should be grateful.”


Someone said to a master, “Come to our forum. We talk and debate, and express our values and opinions. There is complete freedom, and anybody can believe anything he likes.”

The master said, “Do you masturbate?”

A shocked voice said, “What?”

The master calmly clarified, “Do you do with your genitals what you boast of doing with your mind?”


Someone said to a master, “I want to believe in God. Persuade me, so that I can believe.”

The master said, “I want you to be filled, but I can never eat enough to satisfy your hunger.”


A philosopher said to a master, “Our judgements can err. I try to doubt things and disbelieve what cannot be proven, so that I will not hold false beliefs.”

The master closed his eyes.

“What are you doing?”, the philosopher asked.

“When I walk, I sometimes bump into things,” the master explained. “I am closing my eyes so that the room will be empty.”


A novice came to a master, talking about the many evil things that stained Church history. After he had finished, the master said, “May I pour you a Coke?”

“Sure.”

The master returned with a glass full of icewater, and a two liter bottle of soda. He opened the bottle, poured until the glass was full to the brim – and then kept on pouring. The liquid flowed over the edges of the glass, pouring all over the gable, and spilled onto the floor.

“Stop!”, the novice protested. “What are you doing?”

“This glass cannot have any more soda poured into it until it is first emptied. And neither can you grasp the truth until you let go of thinking of the Church as you do now.”


A CEO sent a business card to a master, listing his name and title. The master sent a novice, saying, “Send him away. I have no time to waste with such a person!”

The visitor then scratched out his title and degrees, sending the card back with only his name.

“Aah, send him in!”, the master said. “I have been longing to meet that fellow.”


A visiting liberal theologian was talking with a master and said, “We have found a way of interpreting the whole Bible that is in accordance with our progressive and liberated beliefs.”

At that moment, the power went out, and the room was plunged into darkness.

“Just a minute,” the master said, and returned with a candle and some matches. He lit the candle, and they talked for a while longer.

After a time, the theologian wanted to get off to bed, and the master said, “Here, take this candle; it will light your way so that you will not stumble.”

As the visitor received the candle, the master blew it out.


A visiting novice said to a master, “I have been taught to carefully live by rules and not do anything that might cause me trouble, in order that I not do wrong.”

The master took a heavy stone, and dropped it on a small crystalline statuette, crushing it to dust. “I have protected that statue with a great stone, so that nothing can harm it.”


A novice asked a master, “Have you made much progress over what the Church used to believe in ancient times?”

The master said, “None of us considers himself wise enough to do better than what God has declared to be true. Do you?”


A novice asked a master, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

The master said, “Yes. No. Both.”

The novice said, “Please. It will help me better understand where you are coming from.”

The master said, “Is the elephant in your closet eating peanut butter? Answer me now, yes or no.”

“If I say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” the novice protested, “I will deceive you and set back your understanding greatly.”

“And if I say either ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’,” the master answered, “I also will deceive you and set your understanding back greatly. I am a Christian. If you think anything more, you will know less.”


A novice told a master, “I am going to seminary.”

“Why?”, the master asked.

“To become well-versed in Scripture and Christian doctrine.”

The master began to walk out of the room.

“Where are you going?”, the novice asked.

“I am going to the garage,” the master answered.

“Why?”, the novice asked.

“To become a car.”


Someone challenged a master, saying, “The Bible and Christian tradition say, first, that God the Creator is all powerful, second, that God the Creator is all good, third, that God the Creator is all wise, and fourth, that there is evil in God’s creation now.

“These contradict each other, so one of them must be false. Which one do you deny?”

The master said, “I deny the one that says that your mind has the power, the wisdom, and the authority to put God in a box and say, ‘These contradict each other, so one of them must be false. You’re wrong, God.'”


“And in conclusion,” the speaker said, “truly understanding the overall teaching of Scripture requires that one disregard problematic passages such as the ‘Do not resist evil.’ in the Sermon on the Mount that was brought up earlier.”

“I agree completely,” the master said, “To get a good view of the forest, it is essential to chop down all the trees that keep obstructing your view.”


Someone told a master, “I memorize the Scriptures so that I will be able to answer anyone who comes to me, with the very words of God.”

The master said, “Let me tell you about that painting on the wall,” and described in perfect detail every hue, every brush stroke.

“Very well,” the visitor said, “but what is the painting a picture of?”

“Very well,” the master said, “but what is the Bible about?”


A novice asked a master, “Can’t God let even one of the damned enter into Heaven?”

The master said, “By the time the damned will enter Hell, they will be so steeped in evil that even Heaven would be Hell to them.”


A novice said to a master, “How can I reach up to God?”

The master said, “Let God reach down to you.”


A Star Trek fan told a master, “Christianity is like the Borg, sucking in every nation and race it can, making them like itself. I, for one, refuse to be assimilated.”

The master hung his head. “It is so sad.”

“What is so sad? That Christianity wants to assimilate me? That I refuse to be assimilated?”

“That the Borg has already assimilated you, and you believe it to be perfection.”

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Romantic Impressions

Robert A. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance drew a distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ modes of perception. Classical is concerned with inner workings, with gears and levers that lurk behind the surface; romantic is concerned with impressions and associations. (It does not, in this context, refer in particular to romantic love.) There appears to me to be some similarity to Jung’s ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ preferences, and probably to Snow’s two cultures of the sciences and humanities.

As I start fleshing out ideas, I am at my grandparents’ house, probably for the last time before they move out; I have looked around at the impressions and memories. What I realized a little while ago, with some degree of surprise, that my conceptual paraphrase, equating classical with what is deep and concerned with what lies beyond the surface, and romantic with what is shallow and only concerned with the surface, was mistaken. Perhaps it is a fair representation of Pirsig’s book, which defines ‘classical’ and explores its inner depths, but does not explore ‘romantic’ much at all — but it is not a fair understanding of ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’. The romantic mode of perception is also deep and is also concerned with what lies beyond the surface; this is true in a way that a classical perspective would not recognize. With this realization came an awareness of romantic impressions I’ve had — impressions which mean something.

The meanings that the impressions hold to me would not necessarily be evident to other readers; for this reason, and because I do not know of an existing genre that serves my purposes, I am writing about the romantic impressions in a non-romantic (some would say ‘classical’) manner. I will describe the romantic impression first — or, more precisely, the image evoked in my mind — and then talk about what it means to me.

Or that is one way to put it. A slightly more informative statement would be that there are meanings in my mind, and they are represented by visual symbols and romantic images. What I am doing is recording the image, and then recording the meaning behind it and which is manipulated through that symbol. It may be a form of writing that captures nonlinguistic thought better than a direct enfleshing in words — and perhaps something will shine through the poetic images directly that is not captured in the analysis.

Missionary’s Kid Room

Impression

A missionary’s kid jumps up on a top bunk, sitting Indian-style, and is eating noodles with chopsticks.

Meaning

One of the entries in You Know You’re an MK When… says, “You worry about fitting in, and wear a native wrap around the dorm.”

One division experienced by most people is a division between public and private. It is mauled in various vulgarizations — C.S. Lewis begins an essay by talking about a bad sermon from a parson eulogizing the family as the perfect place where you can put off all of society’s artificial restrictions — and showed how in the parson’s case this translated to setting aside every human decency and treating his children in ways he would not consider treating a stranger. It is mauled in various distortions, but it is a legitimate distinction, and some people experience it more intensely than others. There is a public world where one conforms to the agreed-upon compromises necessary for a world of different people to live with each other, and then there is (inside a boundary) a private sphere where agape is still needed, but where there is unique room to be yourself (a cliché — and a cliché is a cliché because it’s true). The basic distinction is human, but metaculturals experience it more intensely; it is to us not simply a fact of life, but a basic tension of existence.

Finding another person who can pass through the glass wall is difficult; I’ve been burned many times. But I have found some people who can pass through, and it is a rich reward. Dealing with someone through the glass wall requires both agape and acting according to standards designed by and for people who do not function as I do — while dealing with someone inside the glass wall “only” requires agape. It is still a high standard, but there is not an expectation which distorts a person who is different and has not yet acquired a great deal of maturity.

What does “through the glass wall” mean? In the movie Time Bandits, the bandits are walking though a vast desert wasteland — and bump into a glass wall. It’s invisible, but they can’t pass through it. They have been walking for hours in pursuit of a castle, which is nowhere in sight — and they start bickering. Tempers flare, and one of them picks up a skull and throws it at another. The other time bandit ducks.

The skull shatters the glass — and through the hole, the bandits suddenly see the castle they were looking for.

What I mean by “through the glass wall” is that, after being burned numerous times in approaching people — in ways that I didn’t understand were unusual — I have erected a sort of glass wall that (badly) hides those aspects of me that are alien to most people, and then pull people through the glass wall to something inside that is very different. By ‘pull’ I don’t mean either force or deceit; I rather mean that I draw the other person into my world.

Friend Cheering

Impression

One of my friends is jumping along, her arms raised, cheering.

Meaning

There is a certain quality, loosely that of being ‘unashamed‘. If the above impression is of having a private world, this is the quality of being unashamed of it, of being comfortable. It is self-awareness without self-consciousness. There is room — not absolute freedom, but definite space none the less — to publicly differ from what is usual. This impression of one of my friends captures this quality.

VMWare

Impression

“VMWare: Providing Linux with backwards compatibility with legacy computational infrastructure.”

Meaning

If you’re a hacker, any explanation would is superfluous. If you’re not a hacker, this one would take a while to explain. If you really want to know, ask a hacker (if you know any), or appropriate newsgroup or mailing list.

Tae Kwon Do Demonstration

Impression

At an Asian culture festival, a group of non-Asians (mostly white) in martial arts uniforms gives a Tae Kwon Do demonstration. The head instructor steps up to the microphone, and says both “If you’re surprised at seeing us at an Asian culture festival, don’t be,” and that they have taken the Tae Kwon Do tradition and removed its competitiveness and militarism.

Meaning

The analysis on this one is a bit more complicated than most. I am not bothered perforce by the presence of non-Asians at an exhibition of Asian culture. What did stick in my mind, quite a bit, was the presence of non-Asians at an Asian culture festival who exhibited attitudes contradictory to those of Eastern culture, or for that matter of Western culture for most of recorded history. I mean specifically the regard for a tradition as something arbitrary, to be changed according to whatever the Zeitgeist is blowing. Environmentalists are fond of the proverb, variously attributed to different aboriginal peoples of Africa and the Americas, that says, “Be kind to the earth. It was not inherited from our ancestors; it is borrowed from our children.” Members of a great many societies across much of history embody an attitude that could be stated as “Be careful with this tradition. It was not inherited from our ancestors; it is borrowed from our children.” Jewish children grow up acutely aware that it would take only one generation of Jews to finish Hitler’s work, to sever all future generations from the heritage and identity that has survived for so long under the most difficult of circumstances. This attitude, quite conspicuous by its absence at an Asian culture festival, is present in the medieval mindset — the environment that made cathedrals possible, masterpieces that (in the words of Jeffrey Burke Satinover) “are as impossible for us on spiritual grounds as our photocopiers would have been to medievals on technological grounds.” The romantic impression is distinctive as the inverse image of something very, very important.

Traveller Addressing Servant in Servant’s Native Tongue

Impression

A traveler who is visiting a house turns to a servant, and addresses the servant in his native tongue.

Meaning

The traveler is someone of grandeur, and he shows this grandeur in the un-thought-of courtesy of speaking to a servant in his native tongue. Speaking in another person’s preferred tongue — even if it is only with the twenty words of politeness — is a kindness, if one not often thought of in 21st century America. Showing this courtesy to a servant — someone who is looked down on and ignored when not needed — is a mark of moral grandeur.

This has application, not just in literal languages, but in entering another person’s world — “speaking the other person’s language” in a figurative sense.

Merlin Unlocking Gate

Impression

In Lawhead’s Merlin, Merlin stands stumped by a locked gate, then as it were shakes off a dust of sleep, remembers his powers, and magically removes the lock. He speaks of “that which men call magic”, learned from the fhain.

Meaning

The meaning of “that which men call magic” — which for me signifies an incredibly diverse (non-magical) collection of skills, such as writing HTML, jury-rigging things, and reading languages (some computer and some human) — is a birthright of gradually collected abilities that is described for my temperament in Please Understand Me II. The meaning of what the fhain taught Merlin in Lawhead’s book, “that which men call magic”, is an intriguing idea which I will not attempt to reproduce here.

Exception granted

Impression

An authority figure starts to tell someone that a given rule applies, then remembers who he’s talking to, and readily grants an exception.

Meaning

There are a couple of specific examples — grandfather clauses, pacifists under draft. A draft board might not simply say, “Oh, you’re a pacifist. Never mind,” but they are illustrations of a basic pattern.

When I read Please Understand Me (reviewed in my canon), I came across an explanation that both accounted for my actions (in a non-insulting way) and made sense of my feelings. The SJ (sensate judging) temperament, which comprises 38% of the population, including most of the people who create and enforce rules, tends to believe that “Having rules and seeing that they are followed is very beneficial to a community,” while my temperament, NT (intuitive thinking), which comprises only 6% of the population, could state its perspective as “Rules exist for the betterment of community and may therefore be set aside when they do not contribute to that end.” The difference in perspective could be stated as “Rules are almost always good” versus “Rules are good if they are helpful, and not good if they are not helpful.” There are a number of times I have been in situations not anticipated by rules, in which the rules did not serve their intended purpose, and I was reasoning from an NT background that “If I show these people that applying the rules is not beneficial in this context, they will naturally make an exception.” The assumption betrays a lack of understanding of SJ perspective on rules, of course, but it was appropriate given my temperament and what I did and didn’t know at the time.

This impression is of someone in authority who looks at a situation, sees that applying the rules is not beneficial in that context, and readily grants an exception. It may be born more out of hope than experience, but it is a little picture of paradise — a paradise that sometimes says to people who are different, “The rule in this case was not created in anticipation of your situation, and will not be applied.” And who knows? Perhaps some people in authority might read this and exercise judgment so that rules do not harm those people for whom they were not created.

It Doesn’t Work That Way

Impression

A child expectantly asks an adult, “You’ll make everything better, right?”

The adult sadly answers, “It doesn’t work that way.”

Meaning

There are a number of things that are, in the minds of people who do not understand them, magical. Among these may be mentioned adulthood, exceptional intelligence, computers, counseling, and medicine. People on the outside have certain expectations. Children expect adults to know what to do in every situation; people of normal intelligence expect a genius to have perfect grades and never make mistakes; people want computers to have humanlike intelligence; codependent people want to enlist the counselor’s help in controlling everybody around them; patients want doctors to always have a pill that will make everything better. Those people who are inside the magic circle can only shake their heads and say, “It just doesn’t work that way.” Genius, for instance, is not an immunity to failure; a genius will actually experience more failure.

It doesn’t mean that these domains don’t have power — all of them do. Rather, it means that this power isn’t what people expect it to be. Christ came as the long-awaited Messiah — and when he came to preach spiritual deliverance from sin instead of military deliverance from Rome, disappointed many of the people who were waiting for him.

With giftedness, for example, there is a common assumption that it is an automatic badge to success: perfect grades in school, and being better at everything. Not so; many bright individuals have terrible school grades (Einstein was failed at math), and their intelligence functions differently, so that they experience difficulties like those of a foreigner in a very different land.

It may be that, in dealing with a great good, we need to be open to its being good in a way we cannot anticipate — even if our anticipation of its goodness is what draws us to it.

The Nest

Impression

In Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is raised in Martian culture and then brought to earth as a young man. He experiences terrific difficulty in adjustment, but adjusts to human culture first in author Jubal Harshaw’s den, and then explores the world on his own before creating his own nest — a unique place that combines Martian and human culture. Inside it, there is little clothing, and no need for money — but this is superficial; more deeply, there is a shared consciousness, a world that is entered when a person steps over the threshold.

Meaning

Michael’s nest resonates with me in a very strong sense of home. I do not have any physical place with the external distinctiveness of Michael’s nest — a thief who broke in would probably think I am a boring person — but that is not the essence of Mike’s nest even in Heinlein’s book. It was almost a literary symbol — and people who saw through the external strangeness found an internal wonder, itself even stranger, that was preserved when the people in the nest moved to a hotel hideout. My nest, which I have just begun to build, is found in part in scattered places (here, there, everywhere: in the schoolyard during first-grade recess; with the cherubim and seraphim; among the farandolae) — most recently in the dance class I have started. I wrote above about there being a glass wall, and my having been burned again and again after inviting people to pass through it (perhaps I did not understand how difficult it is for other people) — and I have found a few friends who have passed through it without me being burned. With two of them in particular (Robin and Heather Munn, a delightful brother and sister), I am now not intentionally building so much as living inside a nest.

This nest is a symbol of Heaven, and I will never before death be able to have it in full — there are times when I long strongly for it, and am a bit closer, but this nest has the same fundamental beauty as the Romance described in Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire — or a related one.

Holy, Holy, Holy

Impression

In a room full of men, one man challenges another. The challenged man rises and begins to sing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Immediately other men rise, singing, until the room is filled with song.

Meaning

The song is a symbol of the Christian faith. It is something shared, something great that is common to many people. It is worship — that is to say, it is a touch of Heaven here on earth. The harmony among people — a harmony that is assumed not to be there in the challenge — exists in contrast to the classification of private, arbitrary beliefs, a sort of thing you can do as long as you hide it and don’t make it anything public to be taken seriously. The singing is public and intended to be taken seriously.

There are other dimensions to be carried as well, although I do not recall them now. It is not an allegory, with exactly one specific meaning; the symbol itself is more ambiguous — it carries multiple meanings, the primary one being the one referred to above.

Annular Chessboard

Impression

A tall person in a black cloak sits in a large hole at the center of an immense circular chessboard, slowly, unhurriedly moving pieces in and out in an intricate and complex pattern.

Meaning

This image is a symbol of genius, but not of my own gifts. My gifts mean experience of both spectacular success and spectacular failure; this image of genius is of a mastermind who has several projects in motion, giving attention to each in due turn. It is something I do in part — but this image is an image of perfection.

The Mask

Impression

A man puts on a mask and through it shows himself in a way that would not have come without the mask.

Meaning

Some of this is hinted at in what I wrote about my Halloween costume. The terms I have used in my own thought (though I don’t remember using them with anyone else) concern a “standard translation”. In the ordinary course of events, a person reveals himself in certain standard ways — which is not a straight copy, but a translation in which something gets lost. Sometimes nonstandard translations can allow things to be seen — good things — that are not shown in the standard translation. There are ways in which actions which are on the surface complete fantasy, allow the presentation of things that do not have occasion to be shown normally.

I think something of this is common — acting is concerned not only with using the actor to reveal an arbitrarily chosen different person, but with the development and revelation of the actor (to those who know him) — but my experience of it seems more intense than usual. I was surprised when some friends and I were playing a game I made, and one friend pulled a card from the deck that said to tell what about her she most wished other people knew, and she said that most people understood the things about her that she wanted to be understood. I had assumed that my intuitions applied to everyone.

Argentina

Impression

This impression came to me as I was listening to some Argentinian tango music, and gave new reality to something a church friend, whose family is from Argentina, talked about how it was the most European of South American countries, but the Argentina she knew of is a lost world — the country and the people are still there, but inflation and other factors have made a drastic change.

(This is what I remember from a couple of sources; it is not the result of research, and is not intended to be taken as such. It is listed here as a romantic impression from a historical situation whose full details I do not understand.)

Meaning

Europe has more the symbolic meaning of home to me than does America, and a piece of Europe in the beautiful land of South America bears some of the romance l’Engle conveys in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Its loss — the lost world symbol, or lost home — be it Atlantis, Ynes Avalach, Arthurian England for me, Gone With the Wind for many Southerners, and still other symbols for people of other backgrounds — is tremendously powerful, and those places live on as a memory inside people’s hearts even when they are only a memory.

Another facet is that my sense of self (my personal feeling? my experience of a universal human emotion?) is in someone from a lost realm. There is not too much external evidence that would suggest this — my high school has its own culture, and I can’t go back there, and my excursions into Malaysia and France cannot easily be repeated — but the country in which I have spent the bulk of my life is still the same country and has not changed with any particularly great violence — a society that embraces change will be more altered than one that tries to preserve traditions, but there is a strong continuity. Perhaps it is a part of adult nostalgia for a romanticized childhood — as Calvin put it, “People who are nostalgic about childhood were never children — but the symbol holds resonances for me, and is reflected in other works as well.

Sidhe Nobles in Cafe

Impression

Two people are sitting in a cafe full of people, talking. That is what can be easily seen. What is less easily seen is that they are færie nobles, an invisible minority and representatives of a lost world.

Meaning

This is a part of the powerful romance captured in the online book excerpts for Changeling: the Dreaming. It bears a romance of a lost world, but it also captures something of those who, because of their intelligence, have minds more different than most people would dream to imagine before having encountered them. It also represents, as well as genius, Christians in naturalistic academia — and probably other things as well.

Double Weapons

Impression

In a Hollywood action-adventure style, there is a hero wielding two shortswords, or two small automatic weapons (the visual symbol varies). It is in the midst of an intense battle, but under the surface of all the chaos there is stillness, control, and peace.

Meaning

This one may surprise those who know me, and know that I am a pacifist and consider glorified violence in movies to be a significant problem. Why do I include it?

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a second rate treatment of first rate issues, Pirsig talks about being in Quality (the idea of Quality being similar to the Chinese concept of the Tao, as the book notes). He explains that this relaxed, peaceful state is not only found in meditation; it can be found in racing or heavy combat. I have not experienced this in sparring, but I believe it exists, and there is a powerful impression of a person who is in a situation of sheer chaos and hostility, but the chaos outside the person does not bring chaos within.

Boy chasing girl

Impression

In a room, a college girl dashes through, being eagerly chased by a college boy, who is asking a barrage of teasing questions. There are some adults who are in the room, and they continue on — one of them calmly sipping his tea — without anyone raising an eyebrow.

Meaning

One of my friends, Ashley, has voiced emphatically that she doesn’t want to get married and is not domestic. It’s not that she doesn’t like men — she enjoys men a great deal, and can sit down at a table full of men and not feel self conscious at all. She just wants to be single.

At one point, she was spending a lot of time with one guy in particular, and the two of them started to sit together at Pooh’s Corner (a group of people who meet to read children’s books aloud).

I waited for a good moment, and then put an arm around her shoulder and said, “So, Ashley, when are you sending me a wedding invitation?”

The look on her face was classic.

(I’m glad Ashley’s such a good sport.)

I enjoy picking on those people who are close to me, especially girls and women. It’s a form of affection. Picking on can be mean-spirited — but need not be. I’ve heard people telling children “Don’t pick on people who don’t fit in,” but not (except by silence and possibly example) acknowledging that picking on someone in the right way, under the proper circumstances, can be part of a close bond.

Inside the glass wall, touch is important, as are teasing, tickling, horseplay, and the like. I don’t think that these are the most unusual things inside the glass wall — only that they play a part of the picture; they are part of the Nest.

The Bozone Layer

Impression

In a classic Far Side cartoon, there is a layer of stacked clowns hovering above the earth’s surface. The caption reads:

The Bozone Layer: Shielding the rest of the universe from the earth’s harmful effects.

This cartoon is funny, but in the way hackers call ‘ha ha only serious’ — it describes a truth. Our world is fallen — which means not only ‘sinful’ as positively understood, but at times positively goofy. I am a part of this, too — I do not see my own absurdities, as I don’t see my own blind spots, but from all the ridiculous things I have seen in others, I would be quite surprised if I was somehow exempt from this pervasive human law.

There is a peace that comes from the recognition of this absurdity, especially after trying and failing to make it go away. It is easy to hold an unstated belief that “If I only try hard enough, I can fix this — and if I can’t make it all better, I’m failing as a person.” The freedom and peace come from realizing that the absurdity is innate and out of our control, that it can perhaps be made better through our influence, but that if we try our best and it’s still positively looney, we can live with ourselves.

The Son of God incarnate did not cause the outrageous things of his countrymen to snap to where they should be; he attacked the absurdity tooth and nail, and his countrymen killed him. That at least should help us to accept that God doesn’t expect us to make the world anything near a perfect place: we should try to better it, and be at peace when our imperfect efforts achieve more imperfect results.

In the Wasteland

Impression

There is a hero who is powerful and respected, and has a fall — he is disgraced, his name made a laughingstock, and he is exiled in a wasteland — and forgotten.

In the wasteland — slowly, imperceptibly, not noticed by anyone — he slowly regains his strength. Nobody expects when he returns.

Meaning

Perhaps the oldest recorded example of this impression is Samson’s story, but I was not originally thinking of that. I was thinking of what I hope part of my own experience to be.

I am in a wasteland now; I am not where I thought I would be five years ago. And I cannot tell the future, to confidently predict any glorious return. But I am in a sort of Sabbath, regaining my strength, refocusing, having lost certain things, and learning how to use other strengths to best advantage. The romance appeals to me; while ‘education’ commonly describes a first ascent to effectiveness, and ‘experience’ the slow refinement of skills as one works in the field, I do not know any single word to tell of regained competency after a fall. This image describes it, and it describes what I am trying to do now.

C.S. Lewis, ?ℎ?? ??????? ???????ℎ: Science and Magic, Spirit and Matter, and the Figure of Merlin

Revisited Some Time Later

I’m not quite taking this down, but this is a mediocrity.

Better reading would be A Pilgrimage from Narnia, A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, or The Angelic Letters.

I write as someone who grew up first having my father read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at bedtime (my Mom recounted how Matthew and I were wide awake even when my father was nodding off), then reading The Chronicles of Narnia again and again, and eventually reading practically every essay, book, and story of Lewis’s that I could get my hands on. I’ve read “Dymer” and The Discarded Image and am aware of one and only one major work of Lewis’s that I have not read, a textbook that to my knowledge has not been superseded. I have been told that I write like an Englishman; if that is true, it is much more probably Lewis’s influence than anyone else.

And, as Orthodox, I have written A Pilgrimage from Narnia and backed away from Lewis’s objective of “mere Christianity”. I still respect Lewis, but the Orthodox Church has a great many treasures and some of them are not even hinted at when he presents standard Christianity.

The Abolition of Man is a short book and is my favorite among Lewis’s nonfiction writing. I could wish it were much longer. That Hideous Strength corresponds to The Abolition of Man, at much greater length, and is expressed through masterful fiction instead of the prose argument of The Abolition of Man. For a long time I have considered it the deepest of his fiction.

But I here write another Pilgrimage from Narnia.

Having finally gotten around to finding what to do with free time after some generous time off from holidays and recuperating from sickness (my job and my boss are really good), I reread C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, in the hope that it would inspire something for me to write. Partway through I imagined a work consisting entirely of questions about how Druidry is envisioned in That Hideous Strength. And in the end I arrived at inspiration for something to write, albeit not something I either welcomed or envisioned.

A physics teacher or show, I don’t remember which, said that the Holy Grail of physics would be a so-called “Grand Unified Theory”, which would essentially mean that everything we know about physics could be boiled down to a set of equations that could be written on one half of a side of a sheet of paper. And something, in a perverse way, is true for ancient Druids. Almost everything we reliably know about them could be written on one half of a sheet of paper. They are almost unknown from historical sources, and almost equally inaccessible to archaeological knowing: one source, cited in the Wikipedia article, says, “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.”

Now there were ancient writers about Druids; Roman Caesars had something to say about the Druids of Gaul. But if their accounts were written today, they would be called Orientalist and dismissed even for grounds other than political correctness.

For those not familiar with the label of ‘Orientalism’, I would recall a conversation I sat in on at Cambridge, with German student who was researching for a thesis on 18th century English Orientalist views on China, and a Chinese student. The Chinese student, understandably enough, thought the German student would know a fair amount about China. But she did not, or at least she said she did not. And perhaps the German student was understating her knowledge: perhaps her flawless command of the English language was accompanied by a flawless command of English manners. But she very well may not have known anything real about China: not because she was an academic professional slouch, but simply because Western Orientalist views of China are so far disconnected from life in China that even extensive understanding of China would not shed much light on Orientalism as studied.

Orientalist views are a projection: Charles Baudelaire’s “tout n’est que l’ordre, luxe, calme et volupté” (“there is nothing but order, luxury, calm, and voluptuousness”) really tells us nothing about any of the Asian constellation of cultures, and much about… Charles Baudelaire. Trying to read Orientalist sources to understand the people described is like trying to read a book of dirty jokes to understand the psyche of beautiful women. A “beautiful woman” in dirty jokes is only a projection of male desire, and unrefined male desire at that; beautiful women may exist well enough but their psyches are not to be found from dirty jokes, and Orientalism is far enough from reality that it actually makes sense for a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, studying English Orientalism about China, to simply not attempt to understand much of Chinese culture: she might have been saving her elbow grease for topics that would actually illuminate her understanding of English views of China, and China and Chinese culture themselves were not among them.

The Roman reports we have of ancient Druids may illuminate something about Rome, although we have much knowledge of Rome already; they are Orientalist and do not tell us much about Druids. And again, what we reliably know about ancient Druids can fit on one half of one side of a sheet of paper.

Now what, in specific, did I find haunting about That Hideous Strength? Not all of it, and for that matter there is much in the book that is not objectionable; Lewis describes it as a counterpart to The Abolition of Man, which is deep and truthful through and through. But there is an occult bent, not entirely hidden, and there was something that made my skin creep this time through when Venus’s influence on Ransom’s house is elaborated by saying that there is a lot of copper to be found around it. A quick Google search later for “Venus copper alchemy” turns up what I already really knew: that there is some identification between Venus and copper in alchemy. (I didn’t go beyond the first search engine results page. Nor am I convinced it would have been particularly wise.) The Melchizedek mentioned is the immortal Melchizedek of alchemy, not the prefiguring type of Christ in the Bible.

As a rule, Lewis sticks to what he, and a great many in his wake, calls “mere Christianity.” That is, he tried as a rule to stick to those things that Christians had held in common for twenty centuries, and while a couple of clarifications to this might be given, in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan appears somewhat as a traveler from afar; the question of who Aslan’s mother might be and what significance she might hold is never even whispered and the reader is drawn into the narrative in such a way that the question probably never arises in the reader’s mind. And with a nod of recognition to the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia are not a deliberately concocted allegory (and that it betrays a profound misunderstanding to read the book as a coded catechism), there is a reason the reader is never invited to even think about Aslan’s mother: the question of who Christ’s mother is, how great or small, and what it means for her to be great, has been an area of disagreement among Christians. Orthodox venerate her primarily as Mother, Catholics as Virgin, Puritans saw an ordinary mortal woman who is not to be venerated on pain of idolatry, and perhaps many Protestants today see as an “agree to disagree” matter, that is, not an essential question to Christianity. With obscure exceptions, Lewis rarely if ever discusses the place of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, because “mere Christianity” such as he tried to limit himself to meets a bit of obstacle in the question of who is Mary and how we should relate to her, because there has been no “mere Christian” agreement such as Lewis argues, and the question is significant enough that any stance in it is profound, specifically including “It’s been centuries now. Can’t we just agree to disagree?”

I should like to clear away a distraction now and say that I am not bothered by Lewis’s portrayal of devils, nor am I bothered by the presence of devils in the fictional work corresponding to The Abolition of Man, in which devils are not explicitly mentioned. In thatsense the fictional portrayal is, if anything, more true than The Abolition of Man, as the project and doctrines critiqued in The Abolition of Man are, to put it bluntly, inspired by diabolical plans. To anyone who objects to the discussion of devils in Lewis’s work, I would say that Lewis understands spiritual struggle and his discussion of devils is true to the mark, or more pointedly that the one work which is the Orthodox Church’s canonical anthology of post-Biblical spiritual classics is the Philokalia, and the Philokalia spends more time discussing devils and their operations than any other work I’ve read. The fact that Lewis portrays diabolical plans as impinging on human history is no irresponsibility as a novelist, nor need it be chalked up to poetic conceit. If Lewis were to deny that his story of a diabolical assault on the earth were an unreal kind of story to tell, plenty of Orthodox at least might say that even if Lewis were to present it as a poetic conceit, it is no more a fantastic kind of thing to introduce to a story than Mary and Jane Studdock’s getting hungry and tired.

Now the book, being labeled “a fairy-tale for grown-ups” by its author, should be given room for poetic license. However, amidst explanation of things that are mere Christianity and which were already under attack when Lewis wrote the book, is separated by no clear divider by Lewis from the less popular elements of mere Christianity that he defends. And these speculations are not Orthodox, nor Catholic, nor Methodist, nor Calvinist, nor Anabaptist, nor any major thread of what he considered mere Christianity, but occult in character, and these may be the most seductive passages in a book that seduces well enough with Truth. A discussion surrounds Merlin and related topics:

What exactly he [Merlin] had done there [in Bragdon wood, where he was believed to be in suspended animation under a university campus] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far to either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their forbidden books, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this was doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.

But if the only possible attraction of Bragdon lay in its association with the last vestiges of Atlantean magic, this told the company something else…

The paragraph may make some readers want to read the book. Now I can accept something like Lewis’s poetic conceit, if it is poetic conceit. I do not see the division between Merlin’s age and our own, or whatever older thing there may have been that had a last survival in Merlin’s age. Animism or old-fashioned paganism are different from the Renaissance magus or today’s neo-Pagan as a virgin is different from a woman divorced. The man who practices the animism he learned at his mother’s knee as a member of his tribe or clan is a very different picture from the Renaissance magus, who bears a sword with which to cut through their society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy with it. The traditional animist is embedded in the fabric of his society’s existence; the Renaissance magus stood over and against society, viewing it as a rather despicable raw material to be used in Utopian plans; it is the Renaissance magus whose mantle left behind has created what we now know as political ideologies. “(though this was doubtful) been less guilty”: animism and Renaissance magic alike put men in thrall to devils, and one hears of a missionary starting to converse with a local who knew the Bible, and nervously being pulled aside, and rightly told that he was a witch doctor. But I had rather find myself in the company of the traditional animist, who had no messianic fantasy about how to transform the world, than a magus. And in that qualified sense I agree to a point that is connected to Lewis’s, even though it differs and may differ significantly.

There are phrases and sections that give a thrill. At one point it is mentioned that Ransom’s company has a knowledge of XYZ point of Arthuriana that orthodox Arthurian scholarship would not reach for several centuries. But when I look at things in the book that thrilled me most, they seemed if anything to be poisoned. A lost world is a haunting reality; this is true of any finished epoch in history but the Atlantean society and magic Merlin represents are doubly exotic.

The blaring obvious

Perhaps most obvious of the ways that the story is occult is its Arthurian themes. I have read quite a lot of medieval Arthurian legends by today’s standards, quite a lot: the Brut, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Mallory, but that only scratches the surface of even just the medieval tellings. The best way I can think of concisely describing Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is as a terse thousand page synopsis of the library’s worth of sources Mallory himself read. Now any serious student of the Arthurian legends will acknowledge that Mallory didn’t just abridge; he made transformations of his work and rendered cycles of romances to be a little more like a novel. And I wrote my own riff on the Arthurian legends in The Sign of the Grail, and the best way I can describe that is that I tried to write a Christian treatment of the Arthurian legends, and even in my successes I found the thing I was attempting was impossible. (I have not read Robert de Borron, arguably the medieval author I should most have read as he made the most effort to draw the legends into the Christian fold.) And there are things absent from the narrative that are abundantly present in the legends: the Puritan critique I am aware of is not that magical phenomena lurk around every corner and supply practically every plot device, nor the married flirting of courtly love (my brother years ago asked me, “If [Sir Lancelot]’s such a great knight, how come he has a crush on the queen?”), or for that matter of open adultery such as the story of Tristram and Yseult that was drawn into Arthurian orbit, but rather the Puritans raised objections to unending pages of open manslaughter. I would, off the cuff, place the combats between knights as at least half of Mallory and easily half of the Brut, as combat with it being a frequent occurrence for two mighty knights to hack each other to death’s door and be well a fortnight later. In that regard the legends are comparable to a U.S. R-rated action-adventure movie: there may be sex, but the bulk of the R comes from violence.

But the Arthurian legends are deeply occult, and it takes no heresiologist who has studied occult symbols to find treacherous occult symbolism behind seeming innocence. It is plain on a naive reading that magic and magical phenomena is a pillar of Arthurian foundations. And at the risk of a daft comparison between Lewis and myself, I will mention that Lewis also neglects completely the interminable fighting of medieval Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and the central Arthurian figure Lewis brings is not Ransom (who has enough transcendence and wonder of his own), but Merlin, who is the riveting center of attention in the company of Ransom before he is awakened and even more rivets attention on himself once he has entered the picture in the most direct sense. One definition of a rounded character in literature is not about having such-and-such many attributes defined, but of believably surprising the reader. Lewis’s Merlin is perhaps the most concentrated character in believable surprises in all of the literature I have read; he far eclipses the other characters, even Ransom, in a book whose characters are rounded enough. That Hideous Strength represents the culmination of a trilogy of which the first two books are not in particular Arthurian; Lewis does a deft job of shifting courses between Out of the Silent Planet to Perelandra, where the Unman appears and tells his tales to an Unfallen Eve, although here, even as he uses the symbolism of Mars and Venus much as John Gray does, he has two genders. In That Hideous Strength he discusses “the Seven Genders” in a way unconsciously unsettling to someone who had embraced his use of astrological symbolism in Perelandra the two genders covered are in fact two basic realities we would do well to acknowledge; in That Hideous Strength this is diluted and the genders represent more seven generic qualities than gender or sex as we know them; this is no gender rainbow, or at very least no conscious gender rainbow, but it muddies the foundation laid in Perelandra. And when Lewis joins That Hideous Strength to the other two, deftly, he incorporates an element that is arguably more occult than the stories or supernatural plot element to be found in the other two books. He welds in the Arthurian legends, and the central Arthurian character in the book is the most magical, the Devil’s son (though this attribution is denied in the text). And the result is more occult than the astrology, which a perceptive reader of Lewis and the Middle Ages—and not the average Joe C.S. Lewis fan—is not about what is called (in a muddy term) “judicial astrology,” the casting of horoscopes to inform a day’s decisions, but something more like a worldview where the influences of the planets did the job of science as an overall enterprise, and “judicial astrology” was more like the specific application of science in engineering: perhaps a valid distinction if Lewis was writing for other medievalists only, but a subtle and not-at-all-obvious distinction given the fact that C.S. Lewis was probably the twentieth century’s best loved Christian author and Perelandra and That Hideous Strength were written for a reading public who had no clue of the distinction between today’s (judicial) astrology and the outlook represented by medieval astrology as a whole. C.S. Lewis did write, I believe in the well-named The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, that people in the Middle Ages or more probably the Renaissance would be astonished that astrology was lumped in with magic by readers today: magic asserted human power, while astrology asserted human impotence. Any number of such subtle distinctions can be made, but they are overly fine to the majority audience of the twentieth century’s most popular Christian writer, the overwhelming majority of whom do not have enough history to understand how you can use and apparently endorse major astrological themes without being in the same league of the “Star Scrolls” sold in vending machines that I as a little boy wanted so much and my mother firmly forbade.

Now it may be asked, “Did you not read the label? Lewis offered a fairy tale for grown-ups.” And this categorization both is and is not true; it seems to represent a fair description where categories break down. The characterization and plot are those of a modern novel; the only novel-length book I have read that I would characterize as a fairy tale is Phantastes, by Lewis’s role model, George MacDonald. Psychological as opposed to a more mythic motivation moves all of the characters; Lewis does deal in archetypal characters and fills The Chronicles of Narnia with the repentant traitor, the apostate: but he does not deal in the minutia of their psychology. He does deal with the minutia of how Mark Studdock comes to reject the N.I.C.E. and of how Jane Studdock refuses to be open to the embrace of a child. Of my own writing, The Fairy Prince hovers on the allegorical, and does not hover over the minutia of its characters’ psychology even when a profound change is implied. Firestorm 2034 is speculative fiction, looks at its characters’ psychology, and I would only with reservation call it a fairy tale. (If I were to choose a term for it, it would be “culture fiction”, a term applicable to some degree to most of my fiction.) If I were to bring a paragraph’s description of That Hideous Strength into a fragment of a sentence, I’m not sure I could do better. But That Hideous Strength is a novel, some of the best speculative fiction around, but not a fairy tale.

And all of this is beside the point. The basic moral question that I raise here is, “Does That Hideous Strength arouse a haunting lust for things occult?” And if it does, this represents a flaw, whether or not it may also be called a fairy-tale for adults. Arousing impure desire is a flaw to Christian writing, and this is not just true of sexual lust. There are other lusts around, and merely sexual lust is somewhat dwarfed by lusting for magic (or, really, magick), which is properly called an unnatural vice. And this latter thirst is a propeller inThat Hideous Strength.

A complication: Turning back the clock?

The rough draft as I created it had a section that I later took out; partly because it was loosely connected with the main point as originally envisioned, and partly because a friend’s disagreement suggested that it might be a liability to include. After thinking further, I wish to re-include it:

There is some speculation in the book that, if not specifically occult, is at least speculation and not mere Christianity:

“But about Merlin?” asked Mrs. Dimble presently.

“Have you ever noticed,” said Dimble, “that the universe and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?”

His wife waited as those wait who know by long experience the mental processes of the person who is talking to them.

“I mean this,” said Dimble in answer to the question she had not asked. “If you dip into any college, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point where there is even less room for indecision and the choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder…”

The Orthodox Church may know of a decisive turning point in the Incarnation of Christ, and perhaps others, but not of less elbow room by the year. If anything, in Orthodoxy in my time and locale, things are a free for all compared to the sharp Church discipline of the ancient church. Sins are lightly forgiven that would have a period of penitence of years’ exclusion for communion. There are multiple bishops in any number of cities, and while things might not usually match the former Anglican free for all in the Western Rite, today’s Orthodoxy looks like a madhouse compared to better times—until you recognize why nineteenth century Russia has been called a Gnostic wonderland with everything to satisfy damnable curiosities, and the great Christological Ecumenical Councils of the fourth century were called, not because there was a golden age, but precisely because of how serious the problems were. The state of Orthodoxy today may look like a madhouse by historic standards, but still a Heaven that has beckoned in Orthodoxy in every age beckons now. Despair is no more an option than the legalism of “True Orthodoxy” or “Genuine Orthodoxy.” There is if anything more elbow room today than historically, certainly more this year than last year.

Some qualifications may be needed: once one knows that Bultmann did not invent de-mythologing and over a millenium earlier St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a much better job of it, it is recognized as inappropriate to read Genesis 1 as meaning that God spoke with physical lips and a tongue. Certainly God commanded: but anthropomorphism of the Father is forbidden as icons of the Father are forbidden. (The interesting truth is not that the Father may not be directly portrayed, but that the Incarnate son may, and in fact should, be portrayed.) And likewise for actions. The entire process of maturity includes a Vinedresser who prunes branches, and part of this pruning is that some things may not be done. As St. Paul famously said, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put childish things behind me.

And there are other things that could complicate things. Christ counterculturally held a child as the model for entering into the Kingdom; when he chose his disciples, the last, “as one untimely born” (i.e. as a miscarriage) had top-notch scholarly learning; apart from St. Paul, Christ selected a diverse group of apostles who were children as far as book-learning was concerned. But more to the point, if we accept the process of maturity as described in the paragraph above, it must be remarked that this is a truth of personal development: I as a child appropriately spoke, understood, and reason as a child, but my coming to an age to put childish things behind me do not mean that it is wrong for the youngest members of my parish to speak, understand as a child. And my childhood was not license for my grandparents to behave as befits a child. Things may grow sharper with people’s processes of maturity; or may not: but this is a personal process, not a universal law. And on the key point under discussion in this passage, concerning magic and the relationship between spirit and matter. I have suggested earlier, in contradistinction to Lewis’s timeline portrayal, that the opposite of the Renaissance magus is not a member of some almost-forgotten College of magic that has left traces on our literature, but was becoming extinct in the sixth century, but animism, as learned at a mother’s knee and as practiced by cultures since before recorded history and continues to be practiced today.

Let me quote more of the same passage:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time… Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart.”…

“But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were more like physical actions.”…

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”

My Orthodox response, is “That’s not what Rome would call a doctrinal development. It’s a Western perversion.” Regarding the first point on literature, we are indeed more specialized but as regards Bible translation we are worse. The King James Version is my preferred translation when I am reading in English, even though I have read any translation I wanted to. Someone has said, “The problem with the King James Version is the translators’ shaky grasp of Hebrew; the problem with all modern translations is the translators’ increasingly shaky grasp of English.” The issue Lewis was concerned about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed has changed only by further specialization. And the difference between the King James Version and modern translations is that the King James Version is the work of Renaissance men, polymaths who were both scholars of original languages and wordsmiths in their own right, and often quite devout. By contrast, the average modern Bible translator is a specialist of the sort Lewis raised concerns about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed, a specialist in ancient language and culture who is no published wordsmith at least. This is not a good thing, and that is part of why even though the King James Version used language that was old-fashioned when the translation was new, it has not been superseded in quality, even though the NIV (Now Indispensable Version) has exceeded it in current sales. Poetry and prose indeed grow further apart, to their detriment. Part of why G.K. Chesterton has his own following is that his prose never really leaves poetry behind; I’ve seen a Calvinist quote a passage from Chesterton that explicitly condemns Calvinism, partly because even though it condemned his beliefs it brought together the best of poetry and prose and bore a truth he could (in general) recognize. Now it may be commented that half-poetic prose is rare and Chesterton is significant partly as an exception. I would not contest the point. But however much the separation of poetry and prose may be a fact in Western historical development, it is not history sharpening all things, nor is it permanent. Fashions in education today may well create super-specialists far more than generalists, but my point is that this is a shift in fashion, and a point of how Western history has played out, but not the next step in the world’s process of improvement.

And a similar, but deeper, disturbance is in the difference between Merlin’s coaxing and stroking compared to the modern man’s view of a machine that is to be pulled to bits if it does not satisfy. And on that score Merlin is not a member of a College that was vanishing even in late antiquity, but a figure who agrees with Orthodoxy about the nature of Creation. Not, of course, in any sort of magic being lawful. But given the basic options of coaxing and pulling to bits, the Orthodox relationship is that of coaxing, and I tried to commit to writing how Orthodox view Creation in “Physics.

To give a hint and just illuminate things a little, I would comment that the more devout or higher up in the heirarchy a person is, the better with animals. It is a commonplace that animals, including wild animals, do not disturb monastics. I do not ask you to believe it, but even one journalist talked about eating lunch at Mount Athos, having a monk tell visitors not to worry about more than one boar in the bushes, and then telling his visitors, “Let me know when you’re done with your melons and other food, and I’ll give the signal.” So the people finished their lunches, threw down their melon rinds as expected, and then the monk spoke and the boars devoured the rinds and other food remnants (all of the while not harming any of the people). Less spectacularly, there was one monastery which I used to visit, and I am told, though I did not see this myself, that the deer would approach and eat from the monastics’ hands. I do know that I was visiting the monastery, in major deer hunting country where one wore a fluorescent orange hat and I lost count how many gunshots I heard, that two deer let another person and me approach within thirty feet of them. They slowly got out of our way after that, but they could have been keeping a whole lot more of a respectful distance than they did. The senior monk told me that the deer knew they were safe at the monastery. And even with domestic animals, I remember visiting someone and being told that the cat was bite-happy and would only settle down into the arms of clergy and monastics—I was advised to set the cat down. But I have in general been able fairly easily to make friends with animals—a dog that had been used as bait for pit bulls started by nervous barking, and ended by laying on his back in a condition of complete vulnerability, hoping for a good scratch. And I remember one time when a friend was moving in; all the rest of the friends were asked to carry things but I was handed the end of a leash and told the dog was uncomfortable and afraid of men. But even though at the beginning the dog was very clearly unhappy to be at the opposite end of his leash from me, I kept coaxing him by my actions and twenty minutes later he snuggled up with me, and to my astonishment approached the other men in our group, sniffing hands and otherwise making doggy efforts to make friends. I don’t believe this is some special or unique personal ability; clergy, monastics, and devout Orthodox faithful may or may not consider themselves good with animals, or even particularly interested in them, but when animals enter the picture, they are usually able to connect. In Lewis’s story it may be poetic conceit that Ransom can have a chat with Mr. Bultitude or a tiger and they would thereafter be safe enough company, but that bit of imagination is in continuity with something real, if perhaps less spectacular.

This account is inadequate, but part of the picture has to do with headship. “Headship,” as used in Evangelical circles, refers to a debate of whether a husband and wife are equal as regards authority or whether there is a relationship between husband and wife that is somewhat like that of the head and the body. To affirm it, in egalitarian circles, is taken to afford husbands a domination that greatly injures what is good for women. And the overall reply to that is perhaps not, as John Piper said, that the ways husband and wife serve each other mirror the ways Christ and the Church serve each other, and if this distinguished service is removed from marriage, marriage ceases to illuminate Christ and the Church. A better reply is to say, the full picture of headship is so far out of your orbit that it is probably pointless to press this point on its own.

There is a head-body relationship portrayed in Scripture and developed in the saints, which sees (this list is open-ended):

Head Body
God Christ
Christ The Church
Christ Mankind
Heaven Earth
Holy of holies Sanctuary
Paradise The rest of the inherited world.
Contemplative Active
That which meets God Ordinary reason
Spiritual wisdom Practical wisdom
Archetype Image
Eternity Time
Sunday, the Eighth Day The whole sacred week
New Testament Old Testament
Christ’s return in glory Christ’s first coming with glory veiled
Christ Mature men
Husband Wife
Man Woman
Adult Child
Spiritual Creation Material Creation
The spiritual sense of Scripture The literal sense of Scripture
Spirit Body
Mankind Nature
Vinedresser Vine
Worker Work
Gardener Garden
Mother Home
Master Pupil
Pastor Flock
But absolutely not
Renaissance magus Nature
Renaissance magus Society
Renaissance magus Magic

The difference between the first long list and the second short list hinges on a single Greek word, katakurieuo used when Christ said that Gentile authorities “lord it over” those beneath them, but such is not permitted among Christians. And the term is not an exact match here; we are told in Genesis to domineer the creation, but there is a difference: domineering leadership can have a place and has to have a place (as, for instance, when a small child tests whether the rules are real), but there is an ocean of difference who domineers as a fierce medicine to free and nurture a disciple, and one who leads to make others an extension of his ego, or domineers to break a soul. And even when domineering is lawfully exercised, it is the exception, not the rule. The spirit of katakurieuo is the normal baseline in the Renaissance magus and mercy the exception; the servant leadership based on Christ is the normal baseline in all of these headships and an iron rod the exception. If there is an iron rod, it is much sooner applied to oneself than others—which is also not shared by the magus.

And there is a further point in St. Maximus the Confessor: all of these differences are to be transcended. In Christ there is no longer male nor female. In Christ even the distinction between created man and nature on the one hand, and uncreated God on the other, is transcended. The transformation reaches that far.

What was lost rejected dismantled in the Scientific Revolution

The birth of science was heralded through the metaphor of sexual violence to a woman, personified Nature. As to why this was, let me draw an analogy with marriage. Marriage is a profound thing and leaves an indelible mark, so that there is no way to hit an Undo and Reset button and simply restore the mere friendship that preceded the romance. And the very depth of its mark is attested to in the absolute misery of either side of a divorce, of feeling squashed like a bug, and pouring anger over everything in the relationship. Coarse jokes attest that you can’t simply wipe away a marriage and be where you started: “A wife is only temporary. An ex-wife is forever.”; “When two divorced people sleep together, there are four people in the bed.” The relationship can be torn apart, but it is deep enough of a thing that you can’t just reset it to how things were before.

Something as deep as a divorce with the older way of relating to Nature is found in early modern science, and that is why there are all the sexually violent lurid imagery about torturing and raping the personification of Nature. Mary Midgley, in Science as Salvation, argues:

It may be easier to see if we notice the way in which the pioneers of [scientific mechanist views] went about reshaping the concept of Nature. Very properly, they wanted to try the experiment of depersonalizing it. With that in view, the first step they surely needed to take was to stop using the feminine pronoun, or indeed any personal pronoun for ‘Nature’ altogether. But this was not done. We come to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’ and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).

Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the constant, common idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion…

This exceedingly foul imagery, persisting over time, attests to the durability and depth of the relationship that was being destroyed. Its vileness is like a divorce, ripping apart what cannot simply be dropped by dropping a personal pronoun. It is grieving, of a perverse sort: those who would object that for someone, “every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” can’t undo that relationship simply by dropping personification in speech in nature. The old relation to nature could only be dropped by ripping apart the persona of nature. Those who take Newton’s mathematical work to be a manual of rape may be wrong, but they are less wrong than you might think. And if Lewis’s fictional Merlin lived from “every operation on nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” know that this is not a last survival in an ancient world of something far more ancient, but a common treasure held by East and West alike until centuries after the Great Schism, and held by the Orthodox Church today.

The lot of de-mythologizers

Is there room for the de-mythologizing discipline of science? Orthodox are on very shaky ground to dismiss de-mythologizing disciplines altogether. As was hinted at earlier, one of the most profound texts in the history of science is a profound and much more interesting de-mythologizing enterprise than the sciences founded with modernity, and with people who demean their discipline with the physics envy that says they are just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics (a claim that is very demeaning if is false, and much more demeaning if it happens to be true). The enterprise of de-mythologizing as we know it followed up a de-anthromorphized physics in Newton with a de-anthropomorphized psychology in behaviorists like Skinner. And no Orthodox can complain about de-mythologization as such; one of the most singular of the Church’s texts finds its climax in the words,

The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…

So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. He is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. He is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. He is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. He suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. He is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. He endures no deprivation of light. He passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. He is not soul or mind, nor does he possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is he speech per se, understanding per se. He cannot be spoken of and he cannot be grasped by understanding. He is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. He is not immovable, moving, or at rest. He has no power, he is not power, nor is he light. He does not live nor is he life. He is not a substance, nor is he eternity or time. He cannot be grasped by the understanding since he is neither knowledge nor truth. He is not kingship. He is not wisdom. He is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is he a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. He is not sonship or fatherhood and he is nothing known to us or to any other being. He falls neither within the predicate of nonebeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know him as he actually is and he does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of him, nor name nor knowledge of him. Darkness and light, error and truth—he is none of these. He is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to him, but never of him, for he is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; he is also beyond every denial.

However, this great classic needs to be placed today alongside a much lesser work such as is found in the following little chapter of the heart-warming Everyday Saints and Other Stories:

In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple present farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, “I too respect God who created the world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He is very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk was left in the bowl.”

Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk. But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly ewatch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree.

No sooner said than done. When night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up and lapped up all the milk until the bowl was empty.

“Indeed!” the peasant sighed disappointedly. “Now I can see that it wasn’t God!”

The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something so completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence each in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.

The monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him:

“That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will doubtless say that you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, O learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.”

I cannot call this story the equal to the climax to St. Pseudo-Dionysius’s greatest work. I cannot. But in our de-mythologized age, we much less need to beat such a drum even more than see what the learned monk could not: that God accepted and drank the milk offered to him, perhaps by means of a fox. And we can show kindnesses to God when he suffers, perhaps in the person of our neighbor. It is a loss to say that God does not suffer when you are standing by a neighbor who is suffering and you can help. God does not suffer in himself, but he does suffer in our neighbor, and when we meet Christ’s Judgment Throne we will find that the way we treated the suffering is how we treated Christ. Really, most of us have more productive things to do than de-mythologize things further.

The temptation here is to campaign for a program of re-mythologizing life, to call out, “Stop burning down the rainforests in South America! Reforest the Sahara!” And, for reasons discussed in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion, this is a solution worthy of a magus and a spiritual dead end. What we may have instead, on a much smaller nuanced level, is a layer of spiritual awareness. One monk, who for exceptional reasons was working not on Mount Athos but at a U.S. print shop, discussed the unstable and unreliable print machines, and he talked about massaging and coaxing, and how you do not curse a machine that will not cooperate: those curses are real and have an effect. And I would specifically point out that a machine is about as far as you can get for a matter-based machine, understood by the laws of physics, and such a kind of thing as an early modern scientist would project onto much larger screen. He was not, for instance, talking about how to coax a tomato vine in your garden. He was talking about how to handle a machine, and while I do not remember him using the word ‘love’, the upshot of his discussion was that even a machine is something you govern through love. And he did not present this in particularly romanticized terms; it was a matter of fact man describing what work was like.

“Mother” and “matter” come from the same archaic root; in earlier ages the distinction was not so sharp. And we would do well to look on this whole creation on us as our mother, much as when we step into a temple we are stepping into an icon. I do not wish to push the point too far, but in the absence of a magus-paradigmed reform programme, we can open the doors of our heart to God, to our neighbor, to Creation, to everything we are able to love, and let God work with us.

What more are we to do to a right relationship? I think it’s more of what sanctified relationships will do to us.

Some Thoughts about Heaven

The book of Hebrews talks about how this world is not really our home, about how we are wanderers who are passing through on our way to a better country, a Heavenly one.

As wealthy and non-persecuted Christians, we form a distinct minority among the historic community of Christians… while there may be some exceptions, suffering is a present and notable reality for most people across most of time. Contemporary American culture is a painkilling culture which tries to use distractions to mask the reality of suffering, but historic Christianity has taken a different approach.

One of the things done in historic Christianity, in part in response to suffering, instead of trying to make everything be perfect on earth (which is what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes put a lot of effort in to, coming to the conclusion that “Everything was meaningless… under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11) — without involving God, everything is meaningless, and the attempt to make a life without suffering is vain), is instead to place a major emphasis on Heaven, and on hoping for what we will have in Heaven.

There was one believer who was being tortured in China, inside a container of water through which electric shocks were run. In between the shocks, he asked his torturers, “How much? How much are you getting paid for this?” He was able to patiently wait through the pain, knowing that he was going to be paid an eternal reward in Heaven; his torturers eventually gave up in frustration.

Heaven is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of Paul’s words about how God can do “immeasurably more than we all ask or imagine.” It will have wonders far beyond our current ability to fathom, and, as Lewis wrote in his introduction to _The_Great_Divorce,_ any detailed description we can write must be highly speculative. Paul and John barely scratched the surface in their writings about Heaven, and they both had detailed visions of Heaven (which I have not). But there are some things which are available for us to look forward to in Heaven, and even they are amazing…

Here are some of the things which I am looking forward to in Heaven:

  • We will see God face to face, and develop with him the most full and intimate relationship which we can have.
  • We will be freed from the now unending struggle with sin and temptation. We will no longer, in a spiritual sense, shoot ourselves in the foot.
  • Evil will no longer impede the action of good. It will be like, after all your life walking with a heavy load on your back, having that load taken off and being able to dance freely.
  • God’s redemption will be complete. This will mean, among many other things, that things will be better than had there never been a Fall.
  • More will be said of this later.
  • As to God’s specific redemption — God who has manifested his power by choosing the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich, the foolish to shame the wise (I Cor. 1:27 and context) — I would like to quote another chapter of “The Way of the Way”.

    XXXIX Heaven

    The blind will see God’s face.

    The dumb will sing praises to him.

    The deaf will listen to the eternal song.

    The lame will dance for joy.

    Those convulsed by spasms will rest in perfect stillness.

    The leprous will feel God’s touch.

    But all this is dwarfed by the shadow of the wonder beyond wonders.

    Sinners will be made holy.

  • We will be in community with all of the saints across all of time… with Mary, with Paul, with Peter, with John, with Abraham, with Moses, with Elijah… We will be able to speak with the many giants whom history has paid scant attention to but who are great heroes in God’s Hall of Fame… with everyone. We will be reunited with loved ones who have passed away. With all of them we will be able to slowly develop close friendships.
  • A child once described Heaven as one big, long hug… We will be able to hug and kiss and tickle and chase and roughhouse with the other saints.
  • Perhaps one of the greatest treasures we will have in Heaven will, apart from God, the angels, and the other saints (for God and all that there is will, in a very real sense, belong to us), not be so much in what we have as who we become. We will become perfect in virtue, fully united with God (and yet even now we are of one spirit with the Father (Rom. 6:17)), and we will have great joy in God and in who we will be even if there were no other blessing to Heaven.I’m not sure how to express this adequately… Much of Western thought has sought to create happiness by the control of external circumstances — what possessions you have, how other people treat you, and so on and so forth. And indeed, those things have a great impact on day-to-day mood swings. But other philosophies (ergo, many Eastern, and for that matter at least some of Western — ergo, the Catholic ascetic tradition)) have sought another route, that of changing internal circumstances. When Paul says that he has discovered the secret of being happy in every circumstance, he doesn’t give something which will radically alter external circumstances to what he would like. Rather, he says that it is what he has in Christ that makes him happy — if that may be called internal (I am using clumsy wording to try to avoid conveying the impression that God is just a part of us), with due respect to the fact that God is more than us and exists independently of us, it is internal circumstance, who we are in relation to God, that can make us happy.

    God is not, ultimately, God because he lives in Heaven, or because he is omnipotent and omniscient, or because he created “Heaven and earth, … all things visible and invisible”… A malevolent deity could theoretically have all those attributes and still most definitely not be God. He is God because he IS. Those other things are consequences of who HE IS (which capital letters are what the sacred Hebrew name ‘Yahweh’ means).

    And we will be children of God, conformed to the likeness of Christ, ever changing from glory to glory.

  • We, as Christ’s bride, will be united to him. Christ, who gave his life for us as his body and bride to make us holy, has been keeping himself pure for us, and will make us pure for him. Then we will be united with him, and it will be like a wedding night.And — this thought struck me over the summer — we aren’t the only ones who are eagerly awaiting that time. Christ is, too.
  • God created us as persons, with both an individual and a community side. In this fallen world, societies have usually quashed at least one of these sides — this is collectivism and individualism respectively — and often at least part of both.In Heaven, we will be made perfect in both our individual and community sides.

    On the individual side… For me to become more like Christ does not mean that I should speak Arimaic and Greek, create yokes and other wooden items, and wear first century clothing. It means that I should speak English and French, study mathematics and pursue my other interests, and wear twentieth century clothing. Imitating him more closely, becoming more and more the person he wants to be, means in some ways becoming more and more clearly distinguished from any other person — just as, the more and more an object comes into view, clear lighting, and good focus, it looks more and more unlike any other object. So, by becoming more and more like Christ, I will become more and more unique and distinctive, more and more the one single person God wants me and no one else to be.

    On the community side… It means that we will all be united with God, perfectly and seamlessly integrated. It means that we will be brought completely into moral and spiritual connection. It means that we will have close and intimate relationships that (even though husband and wife can now become one flesh, which will not be possible then) we know only the slightest hints of here. It means that there will be perfect order. As a body, we are not a conglomeration of cells of different species, but rather cells of one single organism that all bear the one single and universal genetic code — the genetic code of true life.

    To bring them together… We are different parts that will make up one single pattern together with God. We are like the different parts of one single body — for if you take one of those parts and cut it off from the body, it will die and cease to be itself; united as a part of the body, it is both every bit as much integrated as it could possibly be, and every bit as distinguished from the other as it could be. (In this regard we are both unlike a drop of water returning to the ocean, which becomes united only when it ceases to be a drop — which is how the Hindu faith pictures a spirit being united with God — and like a drop drawn from the ocean, which becomes its own entity only by ceasing to be a part of what it was before.)

  • I have a lot of interests, and if I had a thousand lives to live, I would be quite able to find interesting things to do in each one. I have chosen primarily to study mathematics, but I would very much enjoy studying languages… or medicine… or writing… or…In Heaven, there will be time and opportunity to cultivate each of those possibilities in as much detail as I want. And this is equally true of the interests of other people as well.
  • We will be able then to drink freely from the wellspring of Truth. Now, we see darkly and through a glass; then, we shall see fully, face to face.
  • “In my Father’s house there are many rooms…” It is difficult for me to imagine that the dwelling-places prepared for each of us in God’s mansion are not specially and uniquely prepared for each person, and that we will not perhaps at least have some creative power and choice in what is put in the rooms (but even if we don’t, it will be good and perfect).
  • In Eden, man was given the power to create. That ability has been twisted by the Fall, but we can still create incredibly beautiful materials now. I can’t wait to see what creation will be like in Heaven.
  • An acquaintance, who is a musician, talked about what it will be like to spend thousands and thousands of years working at perfecting melodies.
  • Role play is an enjoyable recreation now, with a fallen creativity and imagination and nothing created except in the imagination… in whatever forms it may take in Heaven…
  • The Second Coming will be the last chapter in one story — the story of the Great War, which began when the highest angel set himself against God and a third of the angels joined him to become dragons, worms, serpents, demons, and devils, which has been unfolding throughout all of history, with the Incarnation as its central event, in which every person has a role, and which will close with the total defeat of Satan and all his minions and the perfection of the saints to be united with Christ. But it will also be the firstchapter in another story, a story greater still, a story in which we are “ever changing from glory to glory”, a story with an infinitude of chapters, a story which not only words but knowledge and imagination utterly fail me to describe.
  • In Eden, man saw by lights God created. In the New Jerusalem, there will be no lights, for the Lamb himself will be their light. (Rev. 22)
  • In Eden, man was given a natural, physical body. In the New Jerusalem, men will be resurrected, and their bodies will be resurrected to become even more glorious, even more wonderful — supernatural, spiritual bodies.
  • In Eden, man was created in the image of God, and in the psalms, men are even called gods. In the New Jerusalem, the redeemed will share in the divine nature. (II Peter 1:4)

The Metacultural Gospel

Cover for A Cord of Seven Strands

I want to tell you about my best friend, Nathaniel. When we were getting to know each other, Nathaniel told me that he was God come down in human form. I thought for a moment and said, “If that’s true, you aren’t doing a very good job of it.” He laughed, and said, “You’re probably right.”

Where can I begin to describe him? Perhaps you’ve had this experience. When there’s someone you don’t know very well, it’s easy to say “Yeah, I know him. He’s that hockey player who tells the worst puns.” But when it’s someone you’re close to, best-buddies intimate with, then words fail you. I could begin by saying, “Nathaniel was a construction worker,” which would leave most people with two impressions. The first impression is that he was strong and had calloused hands, which is true. The second impression is that he wasn’t much in the brains department, which is out-and-out false. He didn’t have too much in the way of formal schooling — stopped after getting his high school diploma — but Nathaniel was absolutely brilliant. I still remember the time when I had him over at my place, reached on my shelf, pulled out the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, and read aloud the entry for ‘aestheticism’, and then began a devastating critique. I don’t remember his whole argument, but the first part pointed out that there was an assumed and unjustified opposition between aesthetic and other (i.e. instrumental) attitudes, with an argument that seemed to challenge aestheticism by pointing out that there are other ways of viewing art. He asked if one would challenge the activity of working by pointing out the legitimacy of eating and sleeping. Nathaniel was the first kindred spirit I found in philosophy and other things; he challenged and stretched me, but he was the first person I met who had also thought things I thought no one else would ever understand.

I’d like to explain a little more about the conversation where I told him that if he was God come down in human form, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. How can I put this? It wasn’t that he was inhuman — certainly not the sort of thing usually conjured by the term ‘inhuman’, with some sort of indecency or cruelty or monstrosity. He was human — he just challenged my conceptions of what it meant to be human. (I thought I was unusual!) Being with him was like realizing one had woken up in a different world — in so many little ways. He fit in, but he wasn’t like anybody else.

One of my first shocks came when I saw him chatting, naturally and freely, with some support staff at my office. At first I thought that they were for some reason old friends of his, but he disabused me of that notion. When we talked about it afterwards, I realized the extent to which I had treated support staff like part of the furniture. He seemed to be able to talk with everyone — young (he’s one of few adults I’ve known who could enter a child’s world and really play), old, rich, poor, American, international, it didn’t matter. He could enter the house of a Klu Klux Klansman for dinner and then leave and spend the rest of the evening with a follower of Minister Farrakahn — being on friendly terms with both. He was very good at entering other people’s worlds — but he had very much his own world. And there were a thousand little things about it — like how, in his letters, he always wrote ‘I’ as ‘i’ and ‘you’ as ‘You’.

I was talking with him about Harold Bloom’s treatment of cultures as caves (as per Plato’s “Allegory of the Television, er, Cave”), when I came to the strangest realization. Nathaniel did and did not live in a culture. He did live in American culture in the sense that he spoke the language, literally and figuratively, enjoyed hamburgers, and couldn’t handle chopsticks to save his life. You might say that he spoke the culture as would a foreign anthropologist who had given it a lot of study, but I wouldn’t. He owned American culture. But at the same time, he didn’t pick up any of its blind spots. I had given some thoughts to something I call metaculture — something that happens when a kid grows up exposed to multiple cultures, or when someone is really smart and just doesn’t think like anyone else does, and doesn’t breathe his host culture the way most people do. I had been aware of something metacultural in myself, where I felt like I was a composite of cultures and eras, with something that wasn’t captured in any single one of them. I was groping towards something from below, when he had it, all of it, from above. Where I started to climb up to the mouth of the cave, he descended from the world above and met me. I had thought about the phrase “the wave of the past” as an inversion of “the wave of the future”, challenging the worship and even concept of modern progress, where each age gets better than the one before; I had been aware of something of real merit grasped by ages past that have been lost in our mad pursuits. And then Nathaniel showed me the wave of Heaven.

Nathaniel spent most of his life as a construction worker. He did a better job at seeming ordinary than I do at least; only his mother Camilla seemed to be able to even guess at who he really was. His family was visiting someone at Wheaton College, and — before I go further, there’s something I need to explain about Wheaton.

Wheaton College is a devout place, a religious Harvard if you will. And their approach to religion has its quirks. The temperance movement, which condemned God’s creation of alcohol as evil, made a practice of having people sign a Pledge to abstain from alcohol. Wheaton College is one of few places where that practice is alive, and required of every member. Of course they say that they are not making a moral condemnation, but only a prudential measure, but their actions, even what they call their prohibition (which forbids most dancing as well), are deafening.

At the reception, they ran out of soda, and ran out of punch. Camilla kept tugging on Nathaniel’s sleeve and asking him to do something. Finally he told them to fill a cooler with tap water — then drew off a cup of the beverage and sent it to the administrator in charge.

It was champagne.

The champagne was dumped, the cooler rinsed out, and filled with water, and it somehow held champagne again. I was embarrassed enough to be drinking champagne (the best I ever tasted) out of a plastic cup. But the administration had a more serious embarrassment to deal with — but I am getting off topic. I was impressed with their response — they are better than their Pledge — and Nathaniel was still welcome on their campus after that happened.

There are other cases where response to his eccentricities did not receive such a positive response. There was one time when we were visiting a really big church, and (after some really impressive instrumental music) the lights were dimmed, and an overhead projector began to display all sorts of computer graphics, and then there was a gunshot, and another, and another; the overhead image disappeared. The gunshots continued; someone turned on the lights, and there was Nathaniel, holding a powerful handgun, shooting the projector. (It was such a strange thing to see a pacifist holding a gun.) I think he emptied a total of about three clips into it, before putting the gun into his pocket. The people around him were cringing in fear, but not terror, or perhaps you could say terror, but not fear; they were afraid, but not of the gun. I think some of them were a little afraid of whatever would make a man angry enough to fire a gun in a church.

About that time, the pastor got over being stunned and glared at him and asked, “How dare you fire a gun in my sanctuary?” He glared back and said, “How dare you take God’s sanctuary and making it into a circus? This is supposed to be a house of prayer and worship for all people, and you are making it into mere amusement, a consumer commodity. Is this church set up because these people do not have televisions, that they can flip on and be titillated? Church is a place to disciple men and conform them to God, not a place to conform religion so that it will appeal to spoiled brats. The reason that you are losing people to MTV is that you are doing a second rate job of being an MTV, not a first rate job of being a church. Cleanse this place of your vaudeville filth and make it a place where men are drawn into God’s presence to glorify him and enjoy him forever. If not, much worse awaits you than bullet holes in your projector.”

There was another time, when we were out of town for Easter and he came to the city’s First Baptist. Everybody was wearing business suits and really nice dresses — everybody but Nathaniel. Nathaniel was comfortably arrayed in bluejeans, a plain white T-shirt, and big, heavy, black steel-toed workboots.

There was an invisible stir, and about five minutes into the sermon the pastor stopped, and said, “Young man, I suppose you’d like to explain why the best you can give God on the holiest day of the year is clothing that teenagers wear to McDonald’s.”

Nathaniel, with perfect composure, said, “Yes, indeed. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in truth, not in this set of clothing or that set of clothing, nor in this or that outer form of worship or ceremonial observance, nor some particular style of music. You don’t know who you are worshipping, if you think (because you can worship God by wearing nice clothes) that nice clothes are necessary for worship. The hour is coming, is indeed already here, when God seeks worshippers who will worship him beyond the external shells that their particular traditions have associated with worship. God is calling. Are you ready to answer?”

It was not long after that that we were out in a van, going to this camp. Duncan was driving; Duncan is a devout man, and a proud graduate of Jehu’s Driving School. He was blasting down the highway, which was virtually empty, and everyone but Nathaniel was involved in a very intense discussion; Nathaniel (don’t ask me how he does this) was in the back seat, with his head up against a pillow, sleeping. By then I noticed that a wind was rocking our car, and I realized why we were all alone on the road. There was a terrific thunderstorm going on all around, and as I looked out the window there was a flash of lightning, and several of us saw this big twister coming right at the van. I was barely collected enough to jump to the back of the van and shake Nathaniel awake, and asked, “Don’t you care if we die?!?” Nathaniel seemed irritated at having been woken up, and asked, “What’s the matter? Don’t you have any faith?” Then he turned to the storm — or the twister, at any rate, and said, “Peace!” And then, all of a sudden, everything stopped. The wind died down, the tornado dissipated, and within minutes we could see the sun shining. It was at that point that I wet my pants.

You have to understand, we were more scared after the storm stopped than before. Before then, we had a purely natural fear, the fear that we could quite possibly die. That was fear enough — I don’t mean to downplay it — but afterwards we had a purely supernatural fear, the fear that stemmed from watching a ?man? issue commands to inanimate nature and be immediately obeyed. Vulgar and base fears are about what harm can be done. There is a deeper fear that is a kind of awe, the kind of fear we sometimes experience in diminished form when we enter the presence of someone we respect. And at that point we were absolutely terrified. I don’t think we would have been any less scared had he already told us that he was God the Son, clothed in flesh just like you or me; at that point, it was as if a veil was lifted, and we got a tiny glimpse into the glory, the splendor, the light that were hidden in this friend who we ate with, who we talked with, and who could pin any two of us in wrestling. Tiny glimpse as it was, it seared our eyes; in retrospect, I’m surprised nobody fainted.

After Nathaniel let us have a couple of minutes to watch the storm dissipate and let us become properly terrified, he did one of the strangest things you could think of. He rebuked us for our lack of faith. At the time, I just sat there, stunned (so did everyone else), but afterwards, I began to have a glimpse into who he was, into his world, into the world that he invited me and invites you.

I am a metacultural, which means in part that I am able to think of my culture, and shift my own position in relation to it and other cultures. One of the things I had been thinking about is the strength of scientism in Western culture as it is now and has been for some time (not all of its history — not by a long shot). Many cultures have been cultures in which people can see ghosts, even if they’re not there — they are open to the supernatural; it is real to them. American culture is a culture in which people can’t see ghosts, even if they’re really there — we are closed to the supernatural; it isn’t real to us. Contemporary American culture is the result of monumental efforts to shut out the tiniest glimmer of anything supernatural; this affects not only how people think, but on a more fundamental level what they are and are not able to do. And metacultural awareness, and conscious rejection, of the effects of scientism does not translate into an immediate freedom in one’s emotions to believe in miracles.

The sobriety of a recovering alcoholic — hard-earned, the result of swimming upstream — is qualitatively different from the sobriety of someone who has never had a problem with alcohol. For the latter person, sobriety is something that flows easily, something that is almost automatic; for the former, it is something that is difficult, possible only as the result of vigilance. Something of the quality of this difference exists between many cultures of days gone by (and other parts of the world) and our own culture, with regards to belief in the supernatural. There have been places that have breathed the supernatural in ways that are not naturally open to us — and Nathaniel was at least a step beyond that. Sometimes I wondered — still do — at the task before us — as if we were recovering alcoholics, and he brought a bottle of 151, gave us each a shot glass, and said, “You are all going to drink some amount of this beverage and then stop, and not slip into drunkenness.” That’s something you do with people who don’t have a problem with alcohol. It’s not something you do with alcoholics. But then, it was just like Nathaniel to believe that we could do things we never would have been able to do by ourselves. And I trust him enough to believe that there was method in what seemed either madness or else the most profound naïveté: “C’mon. I as God incarnate can easily stop a tornado. Why could you possibly be afraid?” Over time, I have even been able to catch glimpses of the method to this divine madness. Beauty is forged in the eye of the beholder; when someone like that trusts you, he makes you worthy of his trust, even if you are not worthy of such trust to begin with.

Anyways, we got to the camp without (further) event, and went into a room; Nathaniel jumped up into the top bunk of the bed in the corner, and curled up so that he was sitting Indian style with his back in the corner, moving his fingers about as if he were playing a keyboard. (This is one of many facets of his private world that people who met him in public might never guess at, but he let his guard down around people who knew him. I’m not even going to try to document all his eccentricities; suffice it to say that this sort of thing was as natural with him as sitting on a chair.)

After changing my pants, I asked him, “What are you working on?”

He thought for a second, and said, “I’m trying to make a free translation of Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor into English. I think there’s more of a connection between the muses than we think, enough so to make translation possible in some cases, if not nearly as easy or universal as translation between natural languages. Have you ever had a basic insight that could have found expression in different forms? I am not exactly trying to translate the finished product of Bach’s fugue, as to express in language what Bach chose to express in music.”

I asked, “What do you have so far?”

He played the theme and said, “Not much. I’m still trying to figure out whether to translate it as poetry or logic.” He paused, and said, “What’s on your mind?”

I said, “I was just thinking about church last Sunday. Most of the time I can ignore bad music, but this time the music was bad enough to be a distraction to worship. Why is it that most of the time-honored tunes we use to worship God were never intended to be sung sober, and most contemporary music does not reach even that standard? I don’t want to impose a burden on people of ‘You must appreciate highbrow music to worship here,’ but it seems that there is already a burden of ‘You must endure terrible music to worship here.’ I know that good music does not make worship, but it seems to me that bad music can break worship. If that music were translated into words, the result would be poorly written and poorly thought out.”

Nathaniel looked at me and said, “Sean, the brokenness of this world makes things goofy. I am setting something in motion that will rock the world. Until my work is consummated, until I have returned in glory, there will always be problems. You can see these things perhaps a little more readily than most people; you suffer from them too. You are right to be grieved; the same things grieve me. But you can still live in a world where worship is diminished, where there are laws punishing beggars for begging. The just have always walked by faith with a pure heart, regardless of how much vice is in the world around them. And they have never left my Father’s care.”

It was after that that we had a really good talk, and I viewed my metaculture differently after that point. I had seen it as a separation between myself and most of mankind; I started to see it as a way of being human, and a part of the catholic plan of salvation, even a part of the tools God was choosing to limit himself to in bringing salvation to the world. And I was able to understand how and why Nathaniel respected the monocultural majority as easily as he did.

In the morning, after a night’s dream-thought about metaculture, monoculture, and catholicity, I punched his bunk and said, “Hey, Nathaniel! How many metaculturals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He said, “I don’t know, Sean. How many?”

I said, “It takes fifteen:

  • One to evaluate the meaning of the custom of replacing burnt out light bulbs and think of possible alternatives,
  • one to drive off to a store to buy a fluorescent replacement to an incandescent heat bulb, judging the higher price worth the lessened environmental degradation and longer time to replace the bulb with one like it,
  • one to read McLuhan and light a small votive candle, preferring the meaning of a candle to that of a light bulb,
  • one to go outside under God’s light and God’s ceiling to see as men have seen for the other two million, four hundred ninety-nine thousand, and nine hundred years of human existence,
  • one child to pull up a ladder, unscrew the bulb, and then dissect it to see how it works and whether he can get it working again,
  • one tinkerer to assemble a portable light center with ten 120-watt bulbs, wired in parallel, powered by an uninterruptable power supply and a backup generator,
  • five Society-for-Creative-Anachronism style re-enactor-ish metaculturals to try to use the occasion to grasp problem solving as understood by the monocultural mindset — one of them holding the bulb, and the other four turning the ladder,
  • one critic to point out that, of the last two segments, one wastes an excessive amount of money that could be put to better use, and the other is elitist and demeaning, monoculturalism being a legitimate and God-given form of human existence that has merits metaculturals cannot share in,
  • one to observe the variety of facets of the process of changing a bulb into a list, to become an immortal e-mail forward among metaculturals,
  • one to say, ‘This joke is taking way too long and is far too complex,’ and change the light bulb, and
  • one to stick her tongue out at him and say, ‘Spoilsport!'”

Without missing a beat, Nathaniel asked, “How many monoculturals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

I thought for several minutes, trying to think of a good answer, and said, “I give up. How many?”

“One. You’re making things far too complex and missing what’s in front of your nose.”

The problem with people like Nathaniel is that they’re just too smart.

We went to breakfast in the dining hall, and after breakfast Nathaniel went up to speak. He cleared his throat and said, “Good morning. Do we have any feminists here? Good. In what I have to say, I’m going to draw heavily on a concept feminism has articulated, namely that rape happens and it should be worked against.

“The human psyche exists in such a way that rape is a devastating psychological wound. It’s not just like the sting of a scorpion, where you have a terrible pain for part of a day and then life goes on as it was before; it is a crushing blow after which things are not the same. Perhaps with counseling there can be healing, but it’s not something that gets all better just because time passes. Rape is worse than any physical pain; it is a different and fundamentally deeper, more traumatic kind of pain, a pain of a different order.

“I don’t know of anyone, feminist or not, who believes in rape because he wants to, because he hopes to live in a world where such things exist. Everyone I’ve talked with would much rather believe that there is nothing so dark. But it does exist, and disbelief won’t make it go away. That is why feminists are going to heroic efforts to promote awareness of rape, to tell people to be careful so that at least some rapes can be prevented.

“I am here tonight to warn you about a place, which I will call Rape because I know of no more potent image to name it. In fact, it is worse than rape, beyond even how rape is worse than a sting. I have given up much, more than you can imagine, to come here, and I will endure much, more than you can imagine, to finish my work, for one reason: to save you all from Rape. If you believed as I believe, you would crawl across America on broken glass to save people.

“You were created spotless, without flaw, and then you wounded yourselves and began to die. It is a fatal wound, one that causes your bodies to lose their animation after seventy years or so, and one that has far worse effects than the destruction of your bodies. Your consciousness will not end when you die; it will rot in a fashion that is beyond death, beyond rape, and it will rot forever. You are all headed for Rape, every one of you, unless you believe in me.

“There is much more I have to tell you, much more that I would like to tell you, grander things about a place of light and love. But that comes only after passing through this doorway. There is a place called Rape, and it is real, and it is more wretched than any vision of torment you can imagine, and I have come to save you from it. Follow me if you want to live.”

There was a fairly long and stunned silence after that point; all of the feminists were enraged that a man would take the concept of rape which belonged to feminism and trivialize it like that. All but one. Cassandra neither regarded the concept of rape as belonging to feminism in the sense of an exclusively owned property that others dare not tread on, nor regarded Nathaniel’s speech as trivializing rape. At all. This earned censure from the other feminists. She began to follow Nathaniel after that point; she didn’t quite believe his conclusions yet, but she had real insight into what would prompt a man to dare to say something like that.

As I reflect back, I can see how someone like Cassandra could live a very lonely life.

That night, Cassandra asked Nathaniel, “What is your favorite movie?”

Nathaniel thought for a second and said, “I don’t really have a favorite movie, but I was just thinking for a second about a movie idea that nobody has produced.”

Cassandra asked, “What’s that?”

Nathaniel said, “Opening scene, there is a prisoner shackled inside a dungeon cell, with armed guards posted around. Then it shows the hero and his assistants, armed with M-16 assault rifles and one silenced sniper rifle. They sneak up to the complex, the sniper neutralizing three watchmen along the way. One of the men knocks over a glass bottle, and chaos breaks loose when someone hears them and sounds the alarm. There is a big firefight, villainous henchmen dropping like flies. The hero releases the prisoner, and radios for a helicopter to come and pick them up.

“As the last of the hero’s friends jump on board the helicopter, one last henchman comes running out, firing a shotgun at the helicopter. The hero takes a .45 caliber handgun, and blasts away his knee.

“The rest of the movie slows down from the action-adventure pace so far, and follows the henchman. For the remaining hour and a half, the movie explores exactly what that one gunshot means to him for the remaining forty years of his life.”

Cassandra stood silent for a moment. I could see in her eyes that she was seeing the movie. Nobody said anything for a while; then Nathaniel said, “I want to talk with you more. I need some time by myself now, and then we can really talk.”

Nathaniel would depart from us, heading off where nobody could find him, to pray and be with God. This time it was over a month before he returned, and when he did, he looked like a skeleton with skin on — but he had this glow. He was very quiet, and it was a few days before he talked with us about what had happened.

He walked into the wilderness, until he came to a place under some evergreens, by a lake, and by a large stone. He slept on the stone at night, sitting and standing and wandering around in the forest during the day, and praying all the while. He had a sense that something was going to happen — something big, something that would take all of his strengths.

At the end of that time, he was starving, and (on a fifty degree day) hypothermic. He sat there, hungry, shivering, when the Slanderer appeared before him and said, “If you are God and not just a man, strengthen your body so that it will never be touched by hunger or cold, and then you will be freed from physical distractions to pursue your ministry.”

Nathaniel said, “I have come as a real man, with real flesh that feels real pain. My ministry is not furthered by selling it out. I would rather die as a real man than have a long ministry by having an inconsistent make-believe body that only affects me so far as is convenient.”

The Slanderer said, “You know, that movie idea of yours was something deep. How would you like to be able to make as many movies as you want, to have whatever influence over television and radio, newspapers, magazines, books and internet you care to have? How would you like — no strings attached — to have as much media influence as you want?”

Nathaniel said, “If my mission could have been accomplished by blasting pictures on the sky, I would have done that. That isn’t the type of influence I want. I want a real, personal influence where I teach people face to face and touch them. I want to give my friends hugs and kisses. I want something your media can never give.”

The Slanderer said, “My, you are picky about my gifts. Here’s a suggestion that should interest you. You are coming to offer a salvation, but a salvation that people can only have if they choose it — else they will suffer a torment beyond rape. Why not make everybody accept your gift?”

Nathaniel glared at the Slanderer and said, “Never! I have come to call brothers and sisters, not make computers. My world can be broken as it is only because my Father and I would rather see it broken than break our creatures’ free will. The metaphor of Rape is inaccurate in this, that it describes coercion from outside. The Place of Torment is self-chosen, and its doors are bolted and barred from the inside. Rape stands as the final testament to human free will, that my Father would rather see his creatures in everlasting torment than force them into Paradise. Get away from me!”

When Nathaniel said this, the Slanderer left him and angels attended him.

The next few days on the road were interesting. Several of the students at the camp went and followed us. We were on the road to a campustown, and I was beginning to perceive something different about him, something different in his awareness. He was putting weight back on, and there was something new in his eyes.

We arrived at a college campus; we were walking across the quad, and a young woman came up to us and said, “Help me! I am terribly sick, and neither the doctors nor Wicca have been able to make me better. I don’t know how much longer —”

There are times when you want to be someplace else, anywhere but where you are now. This was one of those times. The woman became very pale, and lost consciousness; Nathaniel caught her and lay her down on the ground. Then her body became stiff, and from her still, unmoving lips came an ugly, raspy, man’s voice, cursing and blaspheming God. Nathaniel alone was not afraid, but his face bore infinite gravity. He looked, and said, “What is your name?”

The demon said, “Our name in English is Existential Angst. Our name in our own language is —”

“Stop!” Nathaniel said. “I know that name, and I know that language, and you are not to utter either of them here.”

“Our name is Existential Angst,” the demon continued, “and she is ours, all ours, and so is this age.”

“She is not yours any more, nor is this age. I have come to set the captives free. Come out of her!”

The voice said nothing more, but there was an unholy presence so powerful it could be felt, and a stench like the stench of rotten eggs, and then they left.

The woman opened her eyes, slowly, as if awakening for the first time, and then looked at Nathaniel. She didn’t say anything, just looked, her eyes searching, filled with wonder. Finally, when she had seen what she was looking for, she said, “Thank you.” Nathaniel didn’t reply. He didn’t need to.

By this time, a crowd had gathered, and Nathaniel told Duncan to get a blanket from the van and buy her some bread and some Sprite. Then he looked around — the crowd was very quiet, with everybody looking at him — and Nathaniel stood up, and said, “You can plainly see that I have given something to this woman. What is no less true is that I have something to give each one of you, and you need it.

“Techies sometimes talk about a group of people they call 12:00 flashers. They call them 12:00 flashers, because their houses are filled with appliances with a flashing 12:00. What they mean by the term ’12:00 flasher’ is something deeper than just ‘someone whose appliance clocks happen not to be set’.

“What they mean by ’12:00 flasher’ is someone who wants the benefits of technology, but is not willing to try to understand how technology works or how to use it. Their appliances flash 12:00 because they will not in a million years spend five minutes experimenting with the buttons or read the manual to see how to set a clock. This mindset affects every bit of technology they own, and invariably something will break — quite possibly because it was misused — and then they will invariably wait until the last minute, when there is an emergency, and ask a techie to “just tell me how to fix it.” The 12:00 flasher is involved in a desparate attempt to cut a steak with a screwdriver, and when a techie begins to try to explain why he needs to set down the screwdriver and get a knife, the 12:00 flasher tensely replies, ‘I don’t have time to put down this screwdriver and go get a knife! I just need you to tell me how to cut this steak!’

“Friends, I am here to tell you that the 12:00 flasher phenomenon doesn’t just exist in technology. It exists in human relationships. And it exists in spirituality.

“It’s possible to get by as a 12:00 flasher. Nobody died because his living room was perpetually dark because he wouldn’t sit down and figure out how to unscrew the top of his lamp and replace the bulb. And, when technological disasters become unlivable, it’s usually possible to grab a techie, to the rescue. Never mind what it does to their blood pressure, techies usually can reduce an unlivable disaster to a tolerable disaster. But that isn’t how we were meant to live, especially not in relationship with God.

“What is a spiritual 12:00 flasher like? Well, they take many forms, but one thing they all have in common is that, consciously or unconsciously, the question they ask of religion is ‘What is the least I can do and still get by?’ That question is the wrong question. It’s like asking what the least a person can eat and still not starve. Never mind the fact that the experiment is quite dangerous; God did not make or want us to live just barely eating enough not to starve. He made us for rich, abundant live, far from starvation.

“Don’t be a 12:00 flasher. Don’t ask, ‘What is the least I can do and still get by?’ Don’t run to God in times of crisis, and then when the crisis is over, forget him and go back to life without him. If you have a crisis, by all means, run to God for help. He welcomes that, and sometimes he uses crises to draw people to him as never before. But don’t wait for a crisis to seek him out. Seek him out, prepare your spirit, work at a state of right relations with other people, while the going is easy. Don’t wait until you’re on a sinking boat to learn how to swim. Learn how to swim when you have free time and a swimming instructor.

“I was at the deathbed of an old man, a quiet member of the community who knew everybody by name, who always had time to listen to little children’s tales and who would tell his own stories to anybody who wanted to hear. When he was on his deathbed, someone asked him if he would like to hear some Bible verses. He smiled, and to everyone’s surprise, said, ‘No.’ Someone asked him, ‘Why not?’ He smiled again and said, ‘I thatched my hut when the weather was warm.’

“Dear friends, thatch your hut when the weather is warm. You might not be able when there is storm or cold. What is there to do? I wish to mention two things; they are a lifetime’s learning, and have been for me. Those two things are love and prayer.

“God loves you, and you are to love him with your whole being. You are to love everybody. Even your enemies? Especially your enemies.

“Physicists are in search of a grand unified theory, where all of the laws covering all physical phenomena boil down to a few equations that can be written on one side of a sheet of paper. In spirituality, religion, and morality, love is that grand unified theory. There are great teachings — of Creation, of repentance, of worship, of Heaven, of grace, of moral law — and for each of them, if you cut into them, cut below the surface, the lifeblood that they bleed, the hidden lifeblood that keeps them alive, is love.

“One of the most important expressions of love, one of the most important incubators for love to grow in, is prayer. The Slanderer laughs at our plans, and scoffs at our power, but trembles at our prayers. Wrap yourselves in a cloak of prayer; pray for other people even as you look at them in passing; pray continually. Prayer is a place where God transforms us, and where God and we working together transform the world. It is a time to step out of time and into eternity, and it refreshes and renews us. Pray incessantly, until you have callouses on your knees from unanswered prayers. You cannot change the world, at least not for the better, on your own power. Prayer is how God makes you into his children and prepares you for results, and then (on his own time — not yours) makes a lasting mark.

“Follow me, each of you, and I will draw you into love and prayer, into wisdom and truth, into live everlasting.”

The people were impressed with his teaching. He spoke as if he knew the truth, not as if he were just sharing his own perspective, his own personal opinion.

It was perhaps because of this that, when we sat down at dinner, a young man approached him and said, “You spoke unlike anyone else I’ve heard. Do you claim to know absolute truth?”

Nathaniel said, “Yes.”

The man said, “But we cannot know absolute truth, only relative perspectives. The quest for absolute truth has failed; all of the major thinkers of our era have renounced it. Who do you think you are to know absolute truth, God? Don’t try the old ‘You cannot make absolute statements against absolute truth’ card; we have perspectives we expect to be binding without being absolute.”

Nathaniel said, “As it turns out, I am God, but that is rather beside the point at the moment. You say that we cannot know absolute truth. I respond with a dilemma: are you making that claim as absolutely true, or as your own personal opinion? If you are making that claim as absolute truth, then it is self-contradictory, and therefore false, and therefore something I do not need to subscribe to; if you are making that claim as a mere statement of personal opinion, like your preference in ice cream flavors, it is therefore something I do not need to subscribe to. Before you respond, let me add nuance to this dilemma. I know that you would not say that your claim is absolutely true or a personal attribute, but somewhere in between. This dilemma gives you the freedom to choose a position somewhere between the two poles of absolute truth and personal opinion. Most dilemmas have a forced choice, one or the other. Not this one. On this dilemma, you may fall at a mixture of the two horns, that is, you are making a statement that is held to be 80% absolutely true, and 20% your own personal perspective. In which case, it is 80% incoherent, and 20% a personal attribute I can safely ignore. Or is it 30% absolutely true, and 70% your own personal perspective? Then it is only 30% incoherent, but it is 70% a personal attribute I can safely ignore. This dilemma offers you infinite flexibility in choosing how it affects you; the end result, however, is that your perspective is 100% a perspective I am free to ignore.”

The young man had nothing to say to this.

There were a number of people who were beginning to follow him at that point, and I began to see a strand running through his teaching. Perhaps the best way to begin with it is by voicing the intuitions it runs counter to.

An obvious reading of what he says is that mankind has earned everlasting torment in Rape, and he comes through and offers a way of escape — believing in him, and accepting a sacrifice that I didn’t understand at the time — and it is worth any amount of earthly effort and sacrifice to save one soul from Rape. So there are these people who have the good fortune to know about the escape, and they should devote their lives to making a difference, to saving as many people as they can.

That is true, and it is deeply true, and there is an opposite insight that is a deeper truth, one that is everlasting.

That insight says that the Father is omnipotent and is drawing people to himself, drawing people to share in the glory that God had before the worlds began, not only in a Paradise after death but here and now, in this world. In following Nathaniel, the escape from Rape is almost incidental in importance to communion with God, and our time on earth is as (Nathaniel was very emphatic about this) apprentice gods, whose time on earth is a time of preparation for the time when we will reign in Paradise.

The primacy of the second, mystical interpretation over the first, pragmatic interpretation is something Nathaniel was very emphatic about, and that has changed my whole way of viewing things. I didn’t understand it fully until a moment came when I slapped my head: “How could I not have seen this before?” I had been listening to the stories of a number of incredibly devout and incredibly dedicated people who were operating in the first mode, who were trying to make the biggest difference, and fell flat on their faces hitting futile barrier after futile barrier. It made no sense. Then I heard stories of people — Wesley, for one — who were like this, and fell on their knees and cried, feeling like utter failures, and in a beggarly, ragged, ragamuffin way, became mystics, sought communion with God. And God gave them that mysticism. Then, sometimes, if he chose, on his time, in his ways, he took some of them and gave them power within the context of that mysticism, and those people shook the world with a force unlike anything they could have ever imagined.

What I came to realize through this is that God wants communion with us, and he wants it so badly that he would rather see a devout, dedicated son working in utter futility, with no results for his toils and watching souls perish, than let some of his children act as mere tools without being drawn first and foremost into communion with him. Drawing people into his presence, not just in the future but here and now, is that important to him. God does not want tools. All the angels in a thousand galaxies are his, and if he needed help, he would not tell us. He wants sons and daughters, and he will have us be that and nothing less. My head still spins a little when I think of this.

This account is written so that you may know Nathaniel and the abundant life that he brings, that you may be drawn into communion with God, not just in the world to come but in this world. Therefore I ask you, when you reach the end of this paragraph, to close your eyes, thank God for ten things you’re thankful for, and spend five minutes contemplating God’s glory. Do it now.

Did you do it? If you did, wasn’t that wonderful? Wasn’t that the best part of the text? Didn’t you want to linger? If you didn’t — you’re not going to get to Paradise if you won’t let Paradise interrupt your reading of a text. This text exists to draw you into communion with God, and if you put the flow of reading ahead of that communion, you still have something to learn.

I’ve been thinking about how to explain what I want to say next, particularly to most Americans… perhaps the best way is to say that, to the American mind, ‘nice’ and ‘good’ mean almost exactly the same thing, and this is a perspective which Nathaniel did not share. Nor do I. ‘Nice’ is what is left of ‘good’ after ‘good’ has been flattened by a steamroller.

Nathaniel was, at times, very nice. He was someone who would look you in the eye and ask, “How are you?” — slowly, because he wanted to hear the answer. He wouldn’t just do this with close friends — he was just as ready with strangers whom he could see needed it. But there was something about him that most definitely would not be cut down to fit into being nice. He met with members of the religious community, but his interactions could rarely be described as diplomatic. He lambasted Evangelicals and Catholics on equal terms. He didn’t attack mainline Protestants, though. Never. Most of the time, when I mentioned them, he just shook his head and wept.

I’m not going to give a full list of the groups that Saint Nasty offended, primarily because my hard drive only has about nine gigabytes of free space. I do wish, however, to give an illustrative list. There are many more.

  • The gay community. After a thousand voices had droned on about how AIDS patients are the outcast lepers of our society, Nathaniel said, “The status of AIDS patients in our society is not that of pariahs, but that of sacred cows.” He challenged head-on the status of people who die from sexually transmitted diseases as martyrs, and furthermore laid bare how the movement lumps together acceptance and care of homosexuals, acceptance of them as humans, with a political agenda and lifestyle which kept them dead and miserable in their sins. “Come to me,” he said, “and I will give you freedom and vitality such as your movement would never dream and offer.” He loved gays too much not to strike down a whitewashed wall.
  • Business. Nathaniel asked, “Was economic wealth created for man, or man for economic wealth?” He called advertising a modern fusion of manipulation, propaganda, and porn, and took it to be the emblem of a mindset in which a business exists, not to serve customers, but to manipulate them into whatever will bring the most money into corporate coffers.
  • Consumers. He accused them of entering into a sorceror’s bargain to have wealth in our technology, being concerned with little as long as they had personal peace and affluence, and misusing wealth. He developed an argument, which I am not going to reproduce here, that both individual citizens and communities should take a good look at the Amish, not because they have a perfect solution, but because they are the one major group in America that does not automatically use every technology and service that comes out and that they can afford.
  • The tobacco industry. To quote him: “You do something that kills people, for the mere purpose of obtaining profit. You are the largest assassins’ guild in history.”
  • Feminists. His interactions with feminists were a little more complex than with some other groups, perhaps because of how deeply feminism has impacted not just a self-identified minority but the whole fabric of American culture, and because of how deeply he shared the concern of womens’ status. Some of his remarks were flat-out incendiary. He said that, if feminism has to identify an enemy, a feminism that identified men as the enemy could be tolerable, but a feminism that identified non-feminist women as the enemy was inexcusable. “Any feminism worthy of the name,” Nathaniel said, “must make the sisterhood of all women a central thesis.” I think I saw him weeping over feminism more than any other group: when we talked, I began to see them through his eyes: not Rush Limbaugh-style feminazis, but lost sheep without a shepherd, women struggling to work against a curse and doomed to futility and backfire from the start, because they did not understand the nature of the curse, and so were like a doctor, giving higher and higher doses of medicine for the wrong condition, and wondering why the patient looked worse and worse. He tried to explain the remedy to that curse, and tried to explain it to a great many feminists — a few of them believed him, but the vast majority were offended.
  • Academia. The most striking comment I remember him making was, “Hitler now stands as our culture’s single most essential symbol of evil, not because he slaughtered six million Jews, but because he does not have any advocates left in academia. There is another ideology more vile than National Socialism, an ideology that exceeds the Nazi body count by a factor of ten and has made blood flow like a river in every single country where it has come into power. Its name is Marxism, and it is considered perfectly acceptable to be a Marxist in academia, a breeding ground of every heresy and intellectual filth our society has to offer.”
  • Environmentalists. To them, he said, “You have defiled a concern for God’s earth not only with nature worship but also with racist, eugenic Malthusianism.”
  • Media, especially television. Most of what he said there were footnotes to Postman, Mander, and Muggeridge, and the rest wasn’t that important.
  • Sensitivity police. Nathaniel criticized them for “using gasoline to extinguish a fire.”
  • The pro-choice forces. Nathaniel criticized them for making a convenient redefinition of the boundaries of humanity and taking an attitude of “it’s not really there if you can close your eyes to it.” He said that on any biological perspective even, what grows inside a woman’s womb is an organism of the species homo sapiens, and that the question of whether a fetus is human or unwanted tissue is a philosophical question only in the sense that whether a woman is human or just a convenient rape object is a philosophical question — that is, if you deliberately set out to make yourself stupider than you are and tarnish the name of philosophy by making it a smokescreen to hide what is obvious to common sense, then and only then can you satisfy yourself by saying “that is a philosophical question to which my answer is unwanted tissue.” Nathaniel had other criticisms — one of them beginning by saying, “A real pro-choice scenario would be an undoubted improvement on the status quo,” — but I do not wish to repeat them here.
  • The pro-life movement. Nathaniel criticized them “for defending the sanctity of life from conception to natural birth.”

Anyone who has not been offended by Nathaniel has failed to understand him.

There are many events which happened which I will not attempt to narrate. Nathaniel was healing people of all kinds of brokenness — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. He had begun to teach us that he was giving us his authority — even over demons. He was explaining that he would need to die and rise from the dead, although none of us understood — or wanted to understand — what he was saying. And, through all of that, there were moments, precious, timeless moments, when we could have glimpses of who he was.

To begin explaining one of those moments, let me say that I am not affected by stage magic. It isn’t just that I can (sometimes) see how a trick works; the actual illusion is only a tiny part of illusionism. It’s indispensable, but it is unbelievably tiny — I know, because I was once an amateur magician, and I disappointed my audiences by performing an uninterrupted display of clever tricks that were nothing more. The real life’s blood of a magic show is showmanship, something that is normally invisible: one of the marks of good showmanship is that the audience is oblivious to showmanship and instead wonders how on earth the magician did it. (It is incidentally true that, however much a good magic show makes audiences wonder “How did he do that?”, a good magician never tells his audience how it happened. It’s not protection of an initiate brotherhood’s closely kept secrets — all such “secrets” are perfectly accessible to someone with a library card and a little spare time, just as the substitution-cipher-weak verification algorithm used for credit card numbers is available to anyone who can go to a search engine and type “mod10” in the query box — but basic entertainment principle: people who find out how magic tricks work are invariably disappointed. That is why I never tell other people how tricks at a magic show work, even when I do know; figuring out one or two minor tricks makes someone feel smug and clever, but knowing how the big trick worked simply ruins it.)

I have spoken as if showmanship’s illusion is one-sided, as if it’s all up to the magician. And it is, in a sense. But in another sense, it isn’t. If I had been better as a stage magician and gotten farther, I would have experienced firsthand the difference between an audience that is excited, eager to see what is going on, or in high spirits, and one that is hostile, cranky with low blood sugar, or doesn’t really want to be there. The illusion is not one-sided; it is the creation of both parties, performer and audience, the result of their cooperation — only the performer’s cooperation is conscious and intentional, and the audience’s cooperation is unconscious and unwitting.

There is something that happened with me, something that has broken the illusion by breaking my end of the creation — conscious uncooperation instead of unconscious cooperation — something that was closely related to my learning what is actually going on in television, and why I don’t watch it. Now magic shows don’t work on me. It’s not that the illusion is broken because I can see how tricks work; rather, I see how tricks work because the illusion is broken. In Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, on the nightmarish planet Camazotz, the man with red eyes gives Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace food. To Meg and Calvin it tastes like a wonderful turkey dinner. To Charles Wallace it tastes like wet sand. The man with red eyes can get into the chinks of Meg’s mind, and Calvin’s, enough to make an illusion mask how ghastly the food is. With Charles Wallace it doesn’t work; the illusion doesn’t work for him. I have been told I am very like Charles Wallace. I count it worthwhile that I am no longer automatically pulled by showmanship, particularly in an age where showmanship has taken a bloated role far beyond what any sane society would allow it. I count it my loss that I cannot now cooperate with the illusion even if I want to. (Nathaniel understands me on this score, and indeed has experienced the same awakening, but he can cooperate with the illusion. He also watches television for a couple of hours a month, only some of the time as a sociologist would.)

For these reasons, I was less than enthusiastic when Nathaniel showed me a flyer announcing a magic show for “children of all ages” in the bandstand at the park. I told him, “You go; I’ll stay home and pray.” He said, “Trust me.”

We went about half an hour early. Parents were sitting in the bleachers, and kids were running about on the stage. We sat and talked for a few minutes, and then Nathaniel poked a little girl who was running by. She giggled, and he chased her on to the stage, and then started playing with another child, and another. He began to tell stories, ask questions, talk with them, hold them.

It seemed only a moment that the sky turned lavender and fireflies danced, and I looked down at my watch and realized that over an hour had passed. The magician never showed up, but not one of the children went home disappointed.

Whatever Nathaniel had, it was better than showmanship, better than illusion. He had a pull, a charisma, that drew people to him — something that arose out of the love that flowed in his heart. I am no longer drawn by television because television is fake, because television does a spectacular job of covering how empty its center was. Nathaniel wasn’t like that. His charisma was an overflow of how full his center was. The meaning of this moment grew on me when I understood what moment it was, what time it was, that he had chosen to spend simply playing with children.

As the sky began to grow dark and mothers called their children home, I could begin to see — why hadn’t I noticed it before? Nathaniel was afraid, and emotions of — what? expectation? imminence? trepidation? — were emotions that I could begin to feel as well. There was a sense that something important would happen. He purchased a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and called all of us to come into a deserted loft. We talked — really talked, about love, about too many things to mention, and then as there was a height of tension, he took the bread, and said, “Take this, and eat it. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” Then he took the cup of wine, and said, “Take this, all of you, and drink. This is the new accord in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Then he passed them around.

I talked with the others, years later; I was the only one who realized the significance of what was going on. There are still many people who have difficulty believing it, which is fine; there are a lot of things about Nathaniel that take a lot of believing. When I ate his body, I was taking, was drawn into, his community; when I drank his blood, I drank the divine life. The latter especially was precious to me in a way I cannot describe; I am a mystic, and there is something about the blood, hidden in the flesh, that… it is best not to talk too much about these things. I think some of them are things that it takes a child’s heart to understand.

He asked us to be with him, not exactly to pray with him (although I am sure he also wanted that), but just to have the human presence of someone who loved him, perhaps just to have any human presence — and all I know I could think about was how long a day it had been, and how much I needed to get to sleep. We were awoken by a knock on the door, and Nathaniel looked at me — ooh! That look broke my heart. He did not say anything. He did not need to.

Nathaniel was shaking when he walked out in front of a veritable mob, and asked, “Who do you want?” Someone in the crowd said, “Nathaniel.” He said, “I am the person you want. Get away from the building; you want me, not the others.”

I was watching from the window, and I watched in stunned disbelief what the mob began doing to him. Then I climbed down, and ran as if there was no tomorrow. I had no shoes on, only socks, and when I collapsed, in exhaustion, my feet were bleeding.

Somehow (providence?) the others managed to find me, and we were huddling in a room, the doors locked, bolted, and barred with furniture, all shades drawn, glued to the TV, demoralized, defeated, in abject bewilderment. I had thrown up all I could, and felt sometimes dizzy, sometimes hot, sometimes nauseated, sometimes all three. I was leaning against the window, desperately praying that my head would stop spinning, and that if there were any way possible for Nathaniel to have survived that assault —

Someone knocked twice on the window, right next to my head, and my head cleared.

I was struck with terror, pulled back from the window, and prayed aloud that whoever it is would go away.

I heard Cassandra’s voice loudly outside, saying, “It’s me, Cassandra! I’ve seen Nathaniel! He’s alive!”

I knew her voice, and my terror turned to rage, turned to what the damned call ‘righteous indignation’. I said, “Of all the sick jokes, of all the unholy blows that the lowest schoolyard bully would not dream of stooping to,” and poured out a stream of invective unlike any I have uttered before or since. I did not stop, did not even falter, when I heard her crying, nor when her tears turned to wailing. At the climax I said, “Unless Nathaniel stands before me, unless I feel the bones that have been crushed, I will never believe your sick joke.”

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and when I turned around, Nathaniel looked into my eyes, gazing with both love and sorrow, and said, “Sean. I am here before you. Touch every one of my wounds.” Then he touched me, and healed me of the sickness I had been feeling.

What could I do? I fell to the ground, and wept, and when I could stand I immediately left to go out and beg Cassandra’s forgiveness. She forgave me — instantly. She gave me a hug, and said, “I had difficulty believing it, too. You are forgiven.” I can not tell the depths of love that are in that woman’s heart. Then I returned, with Cassandra, and Nathaniel looked at me and said, “Sean, you are a metacultural, but you are also an American. What is real to you is largely what you have seen and what The Skeptical Enquirer says is real. You believe after having seen. God’s blessing is on those who can rise above your culture’s sin and believe these miracles without seeing.”

Nathaniel said and did many other things, far too numerous for me to write down. I have not attempted a complete account, nor a representative account, nor even to cover all the bases. (Other writers have already done the last of those three.) Rather, I have written to show you the fresh power of Nathaniel’s story, a story that is and will always be here and now. Do you understand him better?

Read more of A Cord of Seven Strands on Amazon!

Generica: A Free “Do-It-Yourself” Board Game

Generica
the ultimate in generic board games!

For ages Qf to R3!

Generica is not just a board game like any other. Generica is the board game like any other.

Not only is it a generic board game, but it is also a generic ice breaker; when you are playing it, you will laugh and perhaps get to know the other players better. It will blur the line between silly and serious!

The Board

A picture of the mazelike board for the board game Generica.

This is the board I use now; I encourage you to design your own. Basically, you get a sheet of posterboard, a marker, brainstorm a little, and draw something that will let people move around and give them lots of opportunities to draw cards. Print out the printer-friendly version, so you’ll have the rules and can cut apart the cards. That’s all there is to it!

Rules

  1. Each player is to bring his own game piece — a small object of a size of approximately one inch or less — to use during play. The personal significance, if any, of the piece, may be explained.
  2. Sit down around the board. The person with the loudest socks moves first.
  3. When it’s your turn, roll the die and move as many spaces as are indicated. You start at the antechamber and want to get to the inner room.
  4. On a space with a diagonal picture of a card (“card space”), draw a card and do what it says or answer what it asks.
  5. Colored spaces are secret passage spaces. If you are on a secret passage space, you may move to the other secret passage space of the same color and pattern as the space you are on. This counts as moving one space.
  6. Play Generica as a generic board game. I’m not going to bore you by describing further.
  7. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah foo blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blorg blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blorf blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. You didn’t have to read all this.

Cards

Go back two squares.
Move one square.
Switch places with someone you’re fond of.
Bonus — get three candies.
Poke someone ticklish.
Tell who you are trying to become.
Tell of one literary character whom you identify with, and why.
Tell of one TV show which you find to be boring and predictable, and why.
Give a friend a hug.
Tell of a book you enjoyed reading.
What was the house of your childhood fantasies?
This card intentionally left blank.
If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you like to be?
Move your game piece to the square most directly to its left.
Get a pencil and an index card, and add another card to the stack.
Mention one childhood memory of a kludge involving bailing wire or duct tape.
Give a left-handed handshake to the person to your left.
Grab the nose of the person opposite you.
Tell of one ice breaker you like. If there is general agreement that the described ice breaker is better than Generica, put this aside and start that game.
State one nickname you would like to be called, and why.
If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you like to be? Why?
What do you think of these cards? Why?
Move someone else’s game piece one space.
Tell about one culture, past or present, which you would like to visit, and what about it interests you.
Tell about one fantastic place which you would like to visit, and how you’d fit in.
Name one thing that you are really looking forward to, and what the hope is like.
Tell of one cherished memory.
Share one musing you have had lately.
Tell of one way in which a close friend challenges your tacit assumptions.
Is this a stupid question?
State one quality you admire in the person opposite you.
What do you most wish that others understood about you?
What does your name mean?
What kind of animal would you like to have as a pet?
Are you bored?
Tell of one way in which Mammon has poisoned you.
Is your belly button an innie or an outie?
What is your favorite kind of weather?
What is your favorite food?
What is your favorite drink?
And now, for something completely different. Each player should move to the space previously occupied by the player to the left.
Draw two cards.
Take two ashtrays, and call me in the morning.
Jump in the air.
Give one cent to the player to your left.
Reverse. Players take turns in the opposite direction.
Thumbwrestle the player to your right. Winner moves forward two spaces.
Give one adjective which you would like to you.
Give one adjective which describes the player opposite you.
Give one adjective which describes your left thumbnail.
Take off your shoes and socks.
Tell what color is your favorite, and what about it you like.
Tell the story behind one of the objects in your bedroom.
Tell your favorite Bible story.
Describe a virtue you would like to embody.
Describe your favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.
Of these three art movements — neoclassicism, impressionism, and cubism — which do you find to be the most representative? Why?
Share something from your daydreams.
Share an epistemological musing.
Share an ontological musing.
Share an aesthetic musing.
Share an ethical musing.
Tell of one thing which happened today that you are grateful for.
Tell of something you learned from another culture.
Tell a joke.
Improvise on the nearest available musical instrument.
What is your favorite book in the Bible? Why?
Evaluate the causes and effects of a major historical event.
Scripture excluded, name one theological classic which has influenced you.
Tell one lesson which you learned from a little child.
Describe one way in which you have changed over the past five years.
Do a push up.
Describe one way in which you would like to change over the next five years.
Using three or four works, analyze the essential characteristics of an artist you appreciate.
Give your reactions to the previous given response.
Say one sentence in a foreign language.
Give your opinion of the OJ media circus. For additional challenge, try to do so without using any four letter words.
Tell where your mind has most recently wandered.
Name one TV commercial even more generic than this game.
You’re off the hook. You don’t have to do anything now.
Use words to paint a picture.
Share one religious experience in the past year.
Describe a small personal possession which holds no emotional significance to you.
Tell of one time when you found a big treasure hidden in a small package.
Describe one attribute of a character whom you admire.
What is your favorite food?
Share one thing about yourself which you wish others understood.
Insert this card in the middle of the stack.
Shuffle the stack of cards.
Sing a song you like.
Tell of one thing in your life which is important and which you take too seriously not to take lightly.
Describe one moment when you knew that somebody loved you.
Lose a turn.
Describe one facet of virtue which you have thought about and try to live.
Share one thought about time as viewed by different individuals and cultures.
Write your own card, using one of the blank cards provided.
Share one of the things you are living for.
What do you fear?
Flip a friend over your shoulder.
Tell your favorite joke.
Tell about your favorite website.
Imagine that you grew up speaking, not the language of the people around you, but one that you yourself formed. What would that language be like?
What do you value of the worlds you have visited?
If a fantasy author were to base his hero on you, what would that hero be like?
What failures haunt you?
What card do you wish was in this stack? Answer it.
What’s your favorite Dilbert strip?
Think about how you have changed over the past five years. What have you lost?
Think about how you have changed over the past five years. What have you gained?
What do you have to be thankful for?
What struggle do you wish people to understand?
Tell about a person who has influenced you.
What is your dream pet?
What is your favorite musical instrument?
If you could shave one friend’s head, who would it be? Why?
Would you rather play with a cat, dog, monkey, or dolphin?
Would you rather have no options in a choice, or have no options in a choice?
What is your favorite hymn?
Try not to think of a glowing pink bear jumping up and down on a pogo stick, making more craters on the moon.
What is your favorite artistic medium?
What sense would you most like to lose for a day?
If you could change places with any one person in history, for one day, who would it be?
Speak in the voice of a character from your favorite story.
What treasure in you are you afraid to share with others?
What was an embarrassing moment from your childhood?
What element of beauty would you like to share with others, of all that you have seen?
Move across the nearest secret passage.
What would you like to lecture on?
Put your socks on your ears.
What was your worst cooking experiment?
What is one way in which you are trying to mature?
What books are you reading?
What book would you most like to read, of those you don’t?
What would you like to be better at?
Describe how you’re feeling today… from the persepective of your favorite comic strip character.
If you could be one egg in a carton of twelve, which one would you be?
Which is different: a book of Derridadaist essays, or a slow-moving barge?
What is your favorite computer horror story?
See how long you can balance on your toes.
How can the rest of us better love you?

General Comments and Theological Groundings

Cover for The Minstrel's Song

I’m going to attempt to explain a reworked concept of role playing games.

Let me preface this by saying that:

  • I’m toying around with ideas; the best that I can offer now is unpolished and half-baked.
  • Explaining this in terms of extant role playing systems will be something like explaining non-verbal communication in terms of the logical reasoning of geometry.
  • If, by God’s grace, I manage an explanation that is not too clumsy to understand, and lay out a system which is not too incomplete to use, it will still be very challenging and require much thought to play.

I have played AD&D extensively, and Star Wars a fair amount. In addition, I am marginally familiar with GURPS, Shadow Run , Amber, and a couple of home brewed systems. I am most familiar with AD&D as the grandfather (technically, basic D&D, but it doesn’t matter for what I will be speaking of), and will speak of it as the basis.

I have enjoyed many hours of rich role play; I believe it to be immensely valuable. Not only is it enjoyable, but it develops and strengthens imagination, emotion, and reason. That alone is a needed flash of light at a time when imagination and reason are dying, and emotion is reduced to a tool to influence your choice of shampoo.

When I find problems in existing role playing games, therefore, I am not saying, “Role play is evil. Destroy it.” Instead, I am saying, “Fix it. Heal it. Complete what is lacking, restore what is askew, remove what is baneful.” The basic principle — a game master creates a world, players create characters, and they play out — is very good.

That being stated, there are two basic things that need a major overhaul.

  • Philosophical groundings.Gnosticism, which is perhaps the heresy plaguing Christendom, holds many things, including the following:

    The final measure and achievement is power. You, a member of the elite, will achieve the final end by making yourself more and more powerful, penetrating successive ranks until you become like a god.

    Good and evil are equal and opposite, balancing forces which together make a higher order unity.

    If this is beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar, it should. The philosophical groundings of AD&D are Gnostic. Another point of Gnosticism is a morality that is, to put it politely, revised. In AD&D, what are the four classes? Fighter. One whose training is in combat, and kills all the time. Thief. One whose training is in thievery. Mage. One whose training is in sorcery. Aah, but we have a relief in the cleric, right? No. Clerics are religious knights who take a vow never to shed blood — and then learn to use blunt weapons with a proficiency far beyond that of most professional soldiers. It is entirely possible for a character to lie, worship false gods, use magical talismans and cast magic spells, wade through blood — and be a hero.

    Now to contrast with Christian orthodoxy:

    Identity consists not in power or the deified Self, but in Christ. In Christ, after you humble yourself, God will lift you up, by his grace. He will forgive your sins, give you a place in the community of his saints, and call you his son. The Christian’s identity is first of all in Christ (hence the term ‘Christian’), and second of all in the Church; in that context he is the wonderful new creation.

    What then of power? It has no place in identity. Paul, at the end of his life, could have written, “I have written letters outlining the faith, planted churches, served as the Apostle to the Gentiles, cured the lame, raised the dead, and converted more people than Jesus Christ;” in short, “I achieved in power.” Instead he wrote, “I have run the race; I have fought the good fight; I have kept the faith,” in short, “I obeyed.”

    Not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit. God has chosen the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich, the foolish to shame the wise. Look at the disciples Jesus chose — fishermen, a tax collector, one terrorist even! It was a very foolish choice, but it was divine foolishness. God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom, and that is why the Church that Christ started with these men is rocking the world.

    There is a place for the use of talent, but the talent is empowered by being given over to God and consecrated by him; anything else is but dust and ashes. And it is clear that God has no need of human power to accomplish anything.

    Good and evil are not equal forces; evil is an absence or a twisting of good. Satan cannot create; he can only mock. God creates worship; Satan mocks with idolatry. God creates sex; Satan mocks with adultery. God creates truth; Satan mocks with lies. Evil has no substance or creation of its own; it exists in terms of good, twisted, distorted, absent. Good exists on its own terms; it existed long before evil, and it will exist long after evil has no existence save torment in the lake of fire. But then why do good and evil fight? Evil fights good because it stands in rebellion against good. Good has its own purposes, and, because evil stands in the way, fights evil as an obstruction. It is not defined by this fight, and will not lose anything of itself when the last battle is over; in the New Jerusalem, we will see good in its truest and purest form.

    And what of the teaching that great men are not bound by the “mere” constraints of traditional morality? I can only say that fulfilling the “mere” requirements of morality was a major part of the accomplishment of Jesus Christ, the greatest man who ever lived.

    A little leaven leavens the whole lump, which is why every thought must be taken captive to the Lordship of Christ. The system must be built from the beginning, not on heresy, but on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

  • Mathematical modeling.Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the grandfather of all role playing games, established a detailed mathematical model; the process of generating a character is set according to a system of rules, in a manner that can be accomplished by an algorithm; indeed, it has been accomplished in algorithms, and I have seen several computer programs capable of generating and describing everything but the personality. I might add that the First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide had an appendix which contained an algorithm to randomly determine non-player character personalities as well.

    Play follows in which players make choices according to an algorithmic set of rules, and dice rolls are used according to charts and rules to decide what happens of attempts to do this, that, and the other thing. This is the way that events’ outcomes are usually determined, and, again, computer programs can do this quite effectively. This basic premise has been imitated in every RPG I know of; in this sense, AD&D still IS the de facto standard. Amber diceless role play made a big splash — by introducing an algorithmic set of rules which used player bids instead of dice to operate. The question asked of a new game system is not “How does it handle things? Does it use a mathematical model?”, but “How exactly does its mathematical model operate?”

    I would like to draw this mode of thought into the light for a minute. First of all, I would like to draw attention to DikuMUDs and the various computer games such as The Eye of the Beholder, The Curse of the Azure Bonds, etc. They have all of the stats and THAC0s and ACs and damage ratings that anybody could possibly want. Yet they pale in comparison with true role play.

    The reason is that the heart of role play consists in what can not remotely be reduced to rules. It has something to do with an imaginative world, characters who are realistic, and a plot. To technically administer rules is easy; to have good role play requires experience and calls for thought. What author ever began to weave a tale by using charts, rules, and dice to determine that the main character would have a strength of 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, a 43% chance of successfully picking a lock, and could quickly tie any one of 21 different knots?

    “Christianity is not a statistical view of life.”

    -G.K. Chesterton

    If we look to Scripture, we see that there is more rejoicing in Heaven over one filthy sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous men who do not need to repent. We see that a day and a thousand years are the same in the sight of the Lord. We see that many wealthy men made ostentatious and showy gifts out of their excess, and a poor widow dropped two pennies, all that she had to live on, and surpassed them all. I could go on for pages, but eloquence does not consist in a multitude of examples.One is required to conclude from these things that either God is an incompetent mathematician, or that the measure by which he sees the world is something greater than mathematics.

    Therefore, in establishing a system to play with, we should seek not so much to imitate mathematical models and computer programs, as something else: I would (loosely) propose children’s games of make-believe and books.

Having stated what I believe is necessary, let me attempt to lay it out.

It begins with prayer. This is not a question of a waste of power, or annoying God by interrupting him with something trivial. He wants to be involved with the most intimate details of our lives. If we, who are evil, know how to give good things to those whom we care about, how much more will God, who is good, know how to give good things to his own children, for whom he did not spare his only Son? So let us begin by asking his blessing.

Father, bless us in this endeavor, bless it, and bless its fruit.

The divine name is Yahweh; “HE IS.” God is spirit, profound, deep, eternal; a substance more real than even the physical; the Rock upon which rock stands. Beyond actions, beyond time, beyond even attributes such as power and wisdom, HE IS.

It is possible, especially in our culture, to be distracted of this, to let doing displace being and accident displace substance. The question of “Who are you?” has been usurped by “What do you do?” This is wrong. The proper place of doing is to point to being, and of accident to point to substance. When I fill out details, I will ask that you not only look at “What does this detail look like?”, but “To what, beyond itself, does it point?”

We are created in the image of God; that is, in the image of the Creator. Thence comes our imagination and our power to create. And we hold the power to create in the image of his Creation.

History contains four events: the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, and the Second Coming.

In the Creation, God filled his universe with infinite order and beauty and color. In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis said, “God does not create two blades of grass alike, let alone two angels, two saints, or two nations.” Light is the presence of all color; black is the absence of color. If there is light, then there will be red and yellow and magenta and silver and polka-dot green. The body of Christ lives and breathes, not as four thousand, nine hundred and twenty two left thumbnails, but as a unity of variety. If the world is to be ordered and beautiful to point to God, then color is not simply permissible but mandatory.

Unless the characters are to be wayfarers, wandering over the face of the earth (in which case there will be many places and cultures for the game master to exhibit), there should be a culture, a nation, a land set for the characters to live in.

What is the nature of the spiritual life there? Do the people live in community, loving each other? Do they look after each other’s needs, present in time of weakness, and holding each other accountable? Do they spend time in silence, stillness, meditation, looking inside themselves? Do look — at souls, at birds, at shining stars — and both enjoy their beauty and stand in awe of the Creator whom they reflect? Do they worship in spirit and in truth? What points of sound doctrine do they emphasize? What virtues shine forth? How does the Spirit move among them?

What is the culture like? What is their music? Is it solemn and stately, telling of the great and majestic King? Is it vivid and lively, telling of the Lord of the Dance? Is it soft and still, telling of the Eternal? What is the life of the mind like? Is the thought logical or symbolic? What of imagination? What emotions flow forth? Do the people learn to be ancient, gentle, and wise, speaking the words of a sage? Do they learn to be like little children, dancing without end and staring in wonder of the beauty of Creation? What kind of art do they have? What senses do they focus on — sight, to see and behold; hearing, to listen to music, words, and silence, to hear birds chirping and the voice of a friend; smell, of flowers, food, and people; taste, to savor meat and bread and wine; touch, to feel water and stone and cloth and the soft warmth of human skin?

What is the land like? Is it lush forest, filled with warm rains? Is it arid desert? Is it cool and misty? Is it flat, or hilly, or mountainous? Are villages near or far apart? Is there a body of water nearby? What plants and animals are around? How much does the weather change? What special natural features are there?

In thinking about questions such as these, and perhaps others which have not come to mind, it should be possible to get a beginning picture of what the world will be like.

Creation was not the only event; there was the Fall, and its twistedness. The very way in which man was created as the holy image of God is the very means used by evil as instruments of wickedness. Created with the power to love, we hate. Created with the need for worship, we whore after idols. Created as sexual creatures, we commit adultery. Created with a tongue to bless the Lord and Father, we curse men, made in God’s image. Created with a mind to know the truth, we embrace lies. Created with hands to build up, we kill.

The characters, therefore, are fallen and will walk the dust of a fallen world. The next questions will give shape to that as well:

What moral sins, vices, and heresies are there? Are the people split into ten thousand factions, each one bickering and claiming, “We know the truth?” Have the people turned their back on God as irrelevant to their lives? Do they chase after money? Are they shallow? Are their friendships trivial? Do they throw the mind and scorn wisdom? Do they worship the mind as supreme above God, pursuing religion within a context of reason? Are they self-righteous prudes, tithing mint, dill, and cummin, and neglecting justice, mercy, and faith? Do they pray for their neighbor one day in seven and prey upon him the other six? Do they pursue a false wisdom which scorns the body and objects of sense, which “God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth?” Do they know nothing beyond the physical? Are they proud, lecherous, manipulative, hateful, duplicitous? Do they cut others down with the tongue? Do they lie, cheat, steal? Do they dishonor their elders? Do they crush the weak? Do they commit adultery? Do they kill in their worship of power? What good things do they neglect?

When man had turned away from God and forfeited everything, God paid for redemption at the price of his Son. The Word became flesh, and walked among us. Now, we know Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.

Are the people willing to confess their sins — all of their sins — as sin, and repent of them, in order to receive forgiveness? Are they willing to open themselves to the motion of the Holy Spirit, and be filled with his mighty power? Do they take up daily the Cross, to come and die? Do they know his passion, his agony, his suffering? Have they given him everything?

What color does the new light shine in them? What fruit and gifts? How do they live in the freedom that Christ has given them?

Now, I think, would also best be answered the questions of,

What is their history? Have the people been peaceful or violent? Have they changed or stayed the same? Have the changes been for better or for worse, or both? What are their traditions? What do they commemorate? What are their customs? Have they interacted with other nations abroad, or stayed within their own borders? What other cultures have influenced them? What influences have they brought? Where does their language come from?

After all has passed will come the final end: the Second Coming. The old order of things shall pass away. God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more evil, no more crying, no more pain. The saints will enter into joy and life eternal.

This has not yet come to pass, but it still has a mark on the present. One of the great themes of Christian thought is the Kingdom of Heaven — “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven.” Bringing Heaven down to earth is expressed by one relief worker who said, “I’m going back to Hell, to plant some flowers.” Worship is a piece of Heaven, brought to earth. The prime citizenship of the believer is the Kingdom of Heaven rather than any worldly kingdom; “in the world, but not of it.” Believers carry little pieces of Heaven with and about them.

Do the believers carry with them a sense of timelessness? Do they witness to the world with what the world has never seen? Do they escape entrapment by material possessions, enjoying them but sharing generously? Do they sow a spark of joy? Do they meditate on the blessed hope of the resurrection? If this is the light that they shine, with what color do they radiate?

After the game world is designed, the players should spend a time — perhaps an hour or two — with the game master. In this time, the players will learn of the world, and the game master will help with any incomplete areas of character development. This should not become a haggling over power.

In a game which revolves around power and struggles for it, it is important that there be a balance of power. Here, that should not necessarily be the case. In A Wrinkle in Time, of many characters — a boy genius with second sight, scientists of worldwide renown, mighty and majestic angels — it is a stubborn and impatient ten year old girl who rescues Charles from the power of IT; the weak and foolish chosen to do what the strong and wise could not. The game should not be about power, and if either game master or player focuses on it, something is wrong.

Here, then, are some questions to use in the formation of a character:

Who is he? Does Jesus sit enthroned in his heart? How does he try to imitate Christ? How does he see the world? Where do his loyalty and his love lie? How does he use his talents? What virtues does he embody? Is he temperate, controlled, balanced? What vices does he still hold on to? What sins does he struggle with? What does he search for in other people? How deep are his friendships? How deep is he? How strongly does he embody the qualities he holds? What community is he a part of? What is his family, his liege, his birthplace? What inhabits his thoughts? How does he embody what is truly masculine (she embody what is truly feminine)? What fruit does he let the Spirit work in his life? What is his name?

What is his story? What interests, goals, and desires does he have? What does he cherish? What special twist does he put on things? How does he pray? What is his role in the Church? What does he create? Of what would his friends look and say, “That is him?” What is his story? What (if any) visions has he had [this question is more the focus of the DM than the player]? If he were an animal, what animal would he be, and why? What are his hobbies? What is his favorite story? What does he like to present to other people? What is he afraid of other people knowing about him? What memories does he cherish? How old is he? How has he changed over the years? How has he remained the same? What are his loyalties? Who lies closest to his heart? Who does he exist in relationship to? What communities is he a member of? How does he spend his time? What are his hopes and dreams?

Only then,

What is he naturally gifted at? What skills has he developped? What would traditional game systems attribute to him? What gifts has he received in the Spirit [again, this question is more for the DM]? Prophecy? Faith? Wisdom? Knowledge? Healing? Miraculous powers? Leadership? What are his weaknesses? Does he have any handicaps? What can and can’t he do?

What does he look like? What is his manner?

After the world is created and the characters are established — not as isolated islands, but in relation to their culture and each other (Brother and sister? Friends from childhood? Father and son? Mentor and student? Reconciled enemies?) can play begin.

The game master, as an authority, is to exhibit Christ’s model of authority: not an iron fist or a lording of power, but “he who would be great must be a servant, and he who would be first must be a slave,” just as the rabbi who washed his disciples’ feet. The game master holds the most power and has the final say; he is therefore the most bound to humility and service.

The play itself should consist of that which is wholesome: the playing out of personas, the exploration of a world, the spiritual warfare against the invisible forces of darkness, the participation in the great dance. The game master can do special things — shape the plot, send dreams and visions, people and events — but the world is created not only by the game master but also by the players, by the richness of their dialogue and the miniature world they create among themselves. In this manner good books may be taken as a model, and, after all things, prayer. This, I believe, will make it work.

Read more of The Minstrel’s Song on Amazon!

A Personal Flag

A flag, loosely a mirror image of the French flag, with a red cross on the white strip in the middle, and numerous smaller pictures; it is described in detail below.
When I was poking around the web, I found Steve Scheussler’s home page. Among other things, it mentions that Steve has a personal constitution.

There was something that bothered me about the idea of a personal Constitution. I respect Steve and enjoy his acquaintanceship — I didn’t feel a nagging doubt about him, only a disagreement with the idea of a personal constitution. The basic idea of lex, rex — “the law comes before the king” — is foundational to American government, runs so deep that justices who violate it invariably acknowledge its place by paying lip service to it, checks many of the abuses when a ruler is permitted to do anything he wants, and strikes me as fundamentally flawed. What you know is always more than you can write down, and living by a personal constitution makes a creation greater than its creator. The principle that can be written is not the ultimate principle.

I felt an objection, but I also felt something worth imitating. I followed my intuitions for a while, and came to a flag. I hold objection to the way flags are treated in American culture — the only physical object I have ever been asked to pledge allegiance to. I was required by law to pass a school test on the Constitution and on the flag, and the flag is the only item I have been told to never let touch the ground. Nobody objects when I (quite frequently) put a Bible on the floor, nor does anybody object when I am roughhousing with friends (human — created in the image of God!) and push them into the ground — but the American flag is to be held in such high respect that it may not touch the ground, not even when it is being respectfully folded. The proper term, I believe, for an object of this veneration is: ‘Idol’.

That is what American culture makes of a flag, but that is not what it must be. I choose to make it something else — a way to share who I am to other people. Like many symbols, it holds meaning, but does not explain itself. So here is an explanation of its symbolic side:

Legend

Basic design

Most flags are very simple, with perhaps one true picture at the center; my flag is intended to be at once both simple and complex. I will treat the simple aspects before going on to the little details.

The two obvious allusions are to the French and British flags. Why does the French flag appear reversed? I am left-handed. There’s been a lot of silly stuff written about left-handedness, but there are some serious aspects as well. My brain has an unusual wiring pattern that appears in some left-handers — the pattern is only found in 2% of the world’s population. If you meet me in person, you will find that I speak slowly, after a pause — but when I do speak, my words are as carefully chosen as those I write. I think differently, by nature.

I chose the French flag as the main model, because I have spent time in France, and because there are ways in which it is more home than America — French people often think and discuss ideas where Americans often watch television. I enjoy speaking French a great deal. But why is America not represented at all?

It is, only in a way that is not obvious.

The common mental model of American history is that there was England, and then English colonists came and settled in America, and then they broke off and formed their own nation, and now the U.S. is the U.S. and England is England. How else could anyone think of it?

One of my professors argued that Martin Luther King was essentially a conservative: his “I have a dream” speech did not try to attack, change, or replace the fundamental principles of American government, but instead asked for a more consistent application of American principles. When he said that the bank of justice did not have insufficient funds, he was not asking white America to write a new check; he was trying to cash a check that had already been written. In a similar manner, the United States was in large part founded by English colonists who had been promised certain “rights of Englishmen”, rights that were not forfeited by colonizing faraway soil, and rebelled when these English rights were violated. “No taxation without representation!” was an English cry. Another analogous situation would be the Reformation. The Reformation did not start when people decided that they wanted to break off from the Church and do something else; it started with criticisms from people who believed, rightly or wrongly, that the Roman Catholic Church was failing to live up to Catholic standards. Reams of anti-Catholic invective came later, but the initial idea was to help the Church be more properly Catholic. Something of the same is at work with America’s independence. In contradistinction to the idea that the colonies split off from England and became different, I would suggest that a bifurcation occurred — and that the two sides are not very far apart. A friend who grew up in France commented on the similarity of spiritual atmosphere between France and the United States; both France and the United States are part of the West, and England and the United States are closer still. Now the U.S. has economic and military distinction, and (for good or for bad) is drawing much of the world’s technical talent — but there are strong similarities, and some of the intellectual movements that have been pointed to as America distinguishing itself from Europe are things I’d rather forget: pragmatism, behaviorism, etc. The English flag, in a non-obvious way, represents America, along with the basic colors of red, white, and blue.

Red

This third of the flag might be titled, ‘Eclectica’ — not named for this website, but including various eclectic aspects of my interest or my person. Red was my favorite color when I was a boy. Specific things listed, loosely from top to bottom, are:

  • The world. In this case, the world is not a symbol of the environment per se, so much as of cultures the world around. I am interested in cultures, and find them to be objects of fascination and beauty.
  • A climber. I love to climb, and I am very happy that Wheaton College recently opened a climbing wall. I’m hoping to learn how to climb up a thick tree trunk without using branches.
  • A hand, showing the bones inside. A skeleton is not necessarily a gruesome part of a corpse; it is also part of a living, breathing human body. In Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Paul Brand talks about how a lobster has a hard skeleton on the outside — and how a man has a skeleton that’s strong as steel, but covered with soft flesh. I don’t know how well I live up to this standard (I know one person who’s said that I don’t), but I want to live to the standard of rock hard, unyielding principles inside, but a soft touch that meets things on the outside.
  • A paper target, viewed through a competition rifle’s sight. I don’t get to do riflery very often, but I enjoy it a great deal. Marksmanship is not about the machismo that Hollywood shows; it’s about concentration and growing still.
  • A Swiss Army Knife. I carry a thick Swiss Army Knife, and use it for all sorts of things. After watching MacGyver as a child, I came to value resourcefulness, tinkering, and jury-rigging; I still find the knife to be quite useful.
  • A place called “the Web” at Honey Rock Camp. Honey Rock is a place that has been special to me from childhood; it is easier to know other people there, and there are beautifully eclectic physical facilities. One of these has a World War II cargo net strung up to make a place for children to romp around in: the Web. It is now, so far as I know, closed — the fabric is deteriorating, and it is a legal liability. The camp retains its beauty, and provided the home setting for A Cord of Seven Strands.
  • A clock with no hands. After spending a summer in Malaysia, I changed my time sense to move more slowly, to not need to have things happen quickly and try to let go of the number of minutes elapsed when I am with a friend. Something of this basic insight is captured in Madeleine l’Engle’s description of kairos in Walking on Water, Neil Postman’s description of moments (before the clock ruled) in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and by an anthropologist in The Dance of Life. Why? It’s not that I wanted to lose awareness of time, so much as to gain a more effective focus on things that are lost. There are other facets, but I do not wish to expand here — the interested reader is encouraged to look at the mentioned titles.
  • A roll of duct tape. Same basic meaning as the Swiss Army Knife; I used to also carry that, too.
  • Swimming underwater. I haven’t done much swimming in the past few years, but I was quite often in the water as a boy — and, more often than not, swimming under the surface. I cherish those memories.
  • A television with clothing on top and books in front. It’s hard to portray the absence of a television per se, but I can portray one that hasn’t been used in a long time. I generally try to avoid watching television, and I do not have one in my apartment. Not only is an hour of television an hour not spent doing other things, but watching television subtly alters — impairs — our experience of the external world. How does it do that? Read Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.
  • A cave. A cave is a quiet place to rest and think; it is a symbol of withdrawing to meditating. My apartment is such a place.
  • A graveyard. A graveyard is not necessarily a symbol of the macabre; it is a place symbolic of continuity between the living and the dead. This is why many old churches and cathedrals bury people under the sanctuary; it is a symbol of connection with those who walked before. I do not believe in the modern concept of progress, nor the postmodern rejection of progress and everything near it; I believe in a human and a Christian continuity with those who walked before.

White

The center of the flag, and the connection between the other two portions, is faith. The Cross is central and defines what else is there.

There are innumerable symbols that could be used, but I chose to restrict myself to four. Those four are:

  • Grapes. Grapes are a symbol of wine, one of God’s blessings to man. It is a blessing so special that Christ chose it to become his blood, and when we drink Christ’s blood, we are drinking the divine life — something hidden and mystical, and close to my heart.
  • A candle. There is something a candle symbolizes that is not in a light bulb. It is a softer light. There is a reason couples want a candle for a special dinner, and it is a reason not confined to romantic love. I cannot explain what it is, but it is something like faith.
  • Me, sitting in my blue armchair, praying. There is an interplay of light between God and me.
  • Friends hugging. Touch is also important to me, and with it, more broadly, kything — I identify strongly with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, a work whose resonance has pierced my heart like few other.

Blue

The last third of the flag, blue, is devoted to reason. A particular emphasis on the mind is not catholic and universal like the claims of the Christian faith, but it is one part of the broad corpus of human and Christian work, and it is important to me.

I should note that the word ‘reason’ has shifted meaning in the last few centuries, and it is an older meaning that I wish to invoke. Now the term ‘imagination’ is used very broadly for human brilliance; a person might say that a plan shows “real imagination” as a way of saying that it reflected insight and understanding. In the Middle Ages, however, the term did not have its present meaning. It meant the faculty that formed visual images, and little else — the term ‘imagination’ has expanded in meaning. The term ‘reason’, however, has shrunk in meaning. At present, it does not mean much else besides logical thinking — but in the Middle Ages, ‘reason’ referred much more broadly to human faculties, including many things we would now call ‘imagination’. ‘Reason’ is an alternate translation to the Greek logos that John used to describe God the Son. ‘Reason’ does not mean ‘rationalism’ (“Among intellectuals, there are two types of people: those that worship the mind, and those that use it.” — G.K. Chesterton), but a special effort to love God with all of my mind.

From bottom to top, here are the symbols represented:

  • A book, open, with light flaring out, and things coming from that light. The book is a symbol of learning in general, and the Book.
  • A hypercube (tesseract) — mathematics, which provided discipline for my mind, among other things.
  • A storm of blue and orange flame, by a burning tree: Firestorm 2034 as the image of literature, both read and written.
  • A networked computer, coming in part through the hypercube. Math and computer science are tightly linked, and computer work is putting bread on the table.
  • A magnifying glass, and a cadeceus: “You must study the ways of all professions.” (Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings. As well as the basic academic disciplines, I have tried to understand other areas that would stimulate and broaden my thinking: emergency medicine, forensics…
  • Deep waters. The thought that can be stated is not the ultimate thought; the worded thoughts give way to things that cannot be explained, and the symbol into which others recede is formless, deep waters. Most of my thoughts are now in words, but my deepest thoughts are never in words to begin with.