Today is Good Friday, the day God died for sinful humanity. It should be a day for prayer and meditation solely; but you know as well as I many people will barely notice. So it was also in John Donne’s day: people found themselves, as they have throughout history, driven along by pleasure or business rather than the needs of the soul. Indeed, John Donne himself spent part of Good Friday , 1613, travelling. And while so doing, he wrote this poem.

Listen to me give a reading of the poem, and follow along with the text below.

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey:
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends toward the east.
There I should see a sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget;
But that Christ on this Cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.

Yet dare I’ almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made his own lieutenant Nature shrink,
It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink.

Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height which is
Zenith to us and to’our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our souls, if not of his,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragged, and torn?

If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnished thus
Half of that sacrifice, which ransomed us?

Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid Thee leave.

O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.


That’s the title of a new post of mine over at A Christian Thing. I use Agatha Christie’s short story “The Flock of Geryon” (a tale about a cult) as a jumping off point to discuss how we broken people always seek out leaders to speak what our itching ears want to hear. A snippet appears below:

The story illustrates a problem all too common in our time. Instead of seeking the God in whom our restless hearts find rest (à la Augustine), we accept the restless desires of our hearts and fashion gods as restless as we. We want peace, but we do not want peace as Christ gives it—a peace that passes our understanding and which divides father from son, mother from daughter. And so we elect leaders to preach an easy peace—peace where there is no true peace. We want reward, the promise of family, land, and possessions, but we do not want it “with persecutions,” as Christ offers it. We want rather the assurance that moth and flame will not destroy earthly treasure; and the prosperity preachers answer our call. We want joy and spiritual fervor, ecstasy and radical emotion; we do not want pain and suffering and dying to the self. We want miracles of power; we do not want water or bread and wine. We want glory; we do not want the cross.

Read the rest over at A Christian Thing.

A friend recently lent me the book Mister God, This is Anna. The book centres around Fynn (the author) and his adventures with a little girl named Anna. And, as the title of the book might suggest, their greatest adventure focuses on discovering the nature of God. “Anna searched for Mr. God and her desire was for a better understanding of him,” Fynn writes, adding, “It was just my luck that I happened to be with her when she was doing her ‘working out’.”

Let me first of all say that this is an enjoyable book. The writing is engaging, the characters endearing, and the illustrations truly lovely in their inky simplicity. Most enjoyable is that the book simultaneously and beautifully blends philosophically complex ideas with childlike wonder. A particularly striking scene occurs when Lynn and Anna use mirrors to uncover “hidden worlds” dwelling within our own – a sort of glimpse into fairy land, if you like, revealing the existence of “meaning” beyond the realm of mere facts.

But, like any book, Mister God, This is Anna has its faults – namely, in this case, that the theology Anna articulates is – whatever else it may be – certainly not Christian in the orthodox sense of the term. Anna seems convinced that in order for faith in “Mr. God” to be real, it ought not to be constrained by outward rules: church, theology, even Scripture – all inhibit her from meeting God, she thinks, in his abundant openness. “People,” she asserts, “when they go to church measure God from the outside…. They don’t get inside and measure Mister God.” In order to truly know God one must fully experience (indeed, indwell) him. Everything else just gets in the way of knowing God personally.

It’s curious therefore that Anna’s own approach to God has the unintended effect of robbing God of his personhood, rather than enhancing it. For, in essence, she basically decides she will know God only on her own terms, rather than meeting him on the terms he himself provides. One needs to figure out who God is based on the world, she says, but she seems to leave no room for the idea that God himself might wish to explicitly tell us who he is. Fynn sums up Anna’s thoughts in the following way:

So far as Anna was concerned one thing was absolutely certain. Mister God had made everything, there was nothing that God hadn’t made. When you began to see what it was all about, how things worked, how things were put together, then you were beginning to understand what Mr. God was.

When you think about it, that’s the eventual conclusion of any religion which insists on knowing God solely through experience: you end up so focused on your own ideas that the personhood of God seems to slip into shadow. Everything ends up dependent on your interpretation of the world around you. To be sure, Anna propounds some fascinating thoughts (philosophical, even mystical) in the book which we can learn from. But they’re ideas about an abstract God – not the personal God she seems so eager to know.

One need only think of earthly, human relationships to understand why this approach to God doesn’t work out. Friendships aren’t built on our perceptions of other people; they’re based on actual communication. If I claim to be friends with someone – let’s say Bob, for example – then it’s important I actually listen to what Bob has to say. I can’t simply look at the type of clothes Bob wears and say, “Well, that’s Bob.” I can’t look at his house, see the environment in which he lives and then conclude I know the man. While all this can provide insight into who Bob is, it is a far cry from a real relationship. No, I must actually speak with Bob in order to know him.

Anna’s approach to God is similarly concerned with the trappings rather than the actual person, and this is why her meditations on the character of God (while interesting) nevertheless lack depth. She ends up doing what she accuses the church of: merely describing God, not actually knowing him. She views the world that God has made, contemplates the mysteries of language, biology, and much more – in essence, she views the house that God built and the clothes he wears. And based on these observations, she develops a philosophy of God. But for all that, she does not truly know him. Her “Mister God”, we must confess, remains for her a Mystery. He is too broad. He is spread too thin. He is an idea, alas, and not a person.

The personal knowledge she lacks (and which we in our sin also lack) can only be attained through real conversation with God. We cannot simply talk to and about God; we have to let him speak as well. And that’s why Scripture is so important (and why Anna’s low opinion thereof is the more unfortunate). For in these texts, God himself speaks to us. His love for us might be, as Anna reasons at one point in the book, infinitely higher than our own human capacity to love. But we only find an overt expression of that love in the Scriptures. Here we hear the God of power and creativity speak us into creation. Here we hear the God of justice speak words of judgement over our sin. Here we hear the God of love speak himself into human form, bear our sin, die in our place, and live again that we also might live.

In short, Anna’s concept of God misses the relational, incarnational mercy of God – the God who speaks human words to us, who becomes human for us, and who continues to care for us in our human endeavours. To be sure, philosophy can be good; the “heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Scripture say. But we need revelation to truly know our Creator. We need the Word of God. We need Christ – the image of an otherwise incomprehensible, invisible God.

Perhaps some people haven’t yet heard that the final film adaptation from the Harry Potter series has just come out in theatres. To such gentlefolk I am not writing, as I can only assume they must be living under rocks in some God-forsaken land without access to the internet. You, however, dear readers, are not under-rock dwellers (not most of you, anyway) and are no doubt aware, therefore, of the film’s release. And if you’ve already seen Deathly Hallows Part 2, perhaps you’ve been turning over in your mind the events of the story, wondering what to make of it.

Enter my new review of the film over at The Canadian Lutheran Online: “Love amidst the ruins”. Be forewarned – it has spoilers in it. And it’s a bit rushed in its analysis; the ideas desperately wanted to come out as a 20 page essay, but I think I sufficiently pruned (bludgeoned?) them down into a 1,000-ish word piece. Not that my ideas are necessarily the gospel truth (I don’t have the benefit of legilimency to take a peak into J.K. Rowling’s mind), but I hope they provide some small insight into how the Potter stories themselves interact with the literal Gospel Truth.

If you’re still reading this, it means you missed the link to the article above. Never fear. The above image also serves as a link (read “portkey”) to the article in question. Now, away with ye!

"Holy Rapture, Batman!"It’s very easy to laugh at Harold Camping’s recent rapture prediction and his subsequent explanations for why said rapture failed to materialize. But while we can fault his theology, Christians should be at least a bit more hesitant in their wholesale criticisms of his ideas.

Let me be clear: I think Camping is dead wrong in trying to predict when end-times events will occur. Scripture is clear on the matter: “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36; cf. 24:42,50; 25:13; and Mark 13:32, 35). Nor am I a fan of his eschatology (the rapture, as popularly understood, is too new an interpretation for me, being popularized only in the 19th century ). But what Camping is right about, and what most Christians have failed to affirm during the recent media brouhaha is this: Christ is coming back again.

In his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne articulates a scientific (if fictional) theory of how space exploration might be accomplished. Some of his predictions proved accurate: for example, the location of American launch sites for lunar missions (as near the equator as possible, Verne suggested, to minimize distance between the earth and moon; the Apollo missions followed suit). But others are laughably wrong. The idea of using a gigantic canon to launch space exploration vehicles never materialized… and a good thing too, as the Gs generated by such a cannon would entirely squash the astronauts.

Still, for all his errors, Verne was right about the idea of space exploration – the idea that engineering could conquer the seemingly insurmountable challenge of escaping earth’s gravity.

During the intense media scrutiny of Camping, it was easy to get caught up (no pun intended) in the humour of it all. I myself laughed heartily over an “End of the World Garage Sale” sign I saw the day of the supposed rapture. But we as Christians should step back for a moment to consider the following: we laughed with the world around us over the silliness of Camping’s prediction; but was the world similarly laughing with us or was it – without our realizing it – laughing at us?

As out-there as Camping’s ideas are, Christians of all stripes and sizes agree with him that there will be a Second Coming. To the world around us, that’s just more nonsense of the Camping variety, more 2012-style lunacy. Sure, we might not set a date, but our end-of-the-world ideas are just as much “foolishness” to the world at large as any other crackpot’s.

"The Last Judgement" by Jean CousinWhile we laughed with the world, they laughed at the Church, at simple-minded Christians who against all logic continue to believe in old fairy tales about a God who made the world, died for the world, and is coming again to create a new world. They weren’t just laughing at Camping alone; they were laughing at the very idea of the Second Coming.

The Second Coming has been the belief of the Church since the very beginning. It’s all through the Scriptures. It’s affirmed in the early creeds. And we still confess that faith every Sunday (at least in my church): “He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.” We need to reject nonsense (like Camping’s) that distorts that truth, just as we would reject Verne’s nonsense about canon-launched space vehicles. But the general idea? It’s sound Christian doctrine. Let’s not downplay that fact in our efforts to distance ourselves from errant interpretations of it.

Much of my previous literary theory discussion has operated in the realm of the ideal. For example, my discussions of the Experience (judging the “message(s)” or Logos of a literary work) have assumed two things: first, that authors are capable of encoding the (unconscious or intended) message; and second, that readers are capable of decoding it. Likewise, my post on Beauty implies that authors are able, in essence, to first, encapsulate in text the (unconscious or intended) encounter of the mysterious; and second, that the reader is equally capable of entering into that same encounter, feeling the same awe, or pleasure, or disgust that went into its construction. Both of these assertions have one fundamental underlying assumption: namely, that language is capable of accurately transmitting information between speaker and hearer without any loss of that information.

Having taken degrees in both English and Linguistics, I have been exposed to rather contrary views of the nature of language. As a linguist, I want to say that language functions as a science: it follows very specific (if unconscious) rules. From the most basic levels (eg, phonetics and phonemics) to the more complex (eg, morphology and syntax) to the most complex (eg, semantics, pragmatics and speech acts), language can be broken down into its constituent parts; it can be analysed, and the laws governing its construction can be identified. And these laws help us to explain how utterances carry meaning.

But on the other hand, I also hold a degree in English. In that capacity, I saw (and, indeed, contributed to ) the broader activity of interpretation – of drawing meaning from a text, often arguing that the meaning you are identifying has gone unobserved by prior readers. And as any student of literature (or Scripture for that matter) knows, different people often come to different interpretations of the same text. The question one must ask is obvious: if language operates on a system of basic laws (as linguists assert), why do such differences in interpretation occur?

Much of late twentieth century critical theory capitalized on this seeming inability to arrive at definitive interpretations. Indeed, Derrida argued that language is always self-deconstructing; one cannot say anything without using words which simultaneously say the opposite of what one means. In purely biblical terms, one might summarize Derrida by quoting Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more words, the less the meaning.” For Derrida, the issue of language is a simple dichotomy: either language can convey meaning or it cannot. And if it can be shown to fail in one instance, despite the intention of the author, than the entire structure collapses; we can never again trust with any certainty that our language will accurately convey the meaning we intend. It’s Babel all over again.

David Lyle Jeffrey does a good job of breaking down this dichotomy in his 1996 work People of the Book: Christian Identify and Literary Culture.1 Jeffrey asserts that Christians need not make a choice between the two poles; sometimes language carries meaning effectively and sometimes it does not. “Christian literary theories are generally affirmative of an ultimate Truth or Logos,” he writes, “but also firm in their insistence on the limitations of human language more than dimly to refract that Logos.” In other words, language is related to meaning but it seldom has a one-to-one correlation. Because language is imperfect, it often fails to convey intended meaning in its totality. As such, Jeffrey says, it leads sometimes to “endless frustration” and sometimes to “momentary joy.”

It is this simultaneously-good-and-bad nature of language Christians ought to recall when they approach literature. Like all of creation, human language was “subjected to frustration” in the Fall. But it was originally created good. And just as humanity retains some semblance of “the image of God” after the fall, so too human language retains some of its original goodness. We may find that the meaning in literature is often obscured, but there is still some meaning to be found. It’s beauty may be marred, but there is still fragments of beauty. And this is all, as I reflected in my first post on Christianity and literature, because God is still at work in creation – the hidden God working through the vocations of man for the good of the world. When the meaning of a story is successfully experienced via language, it is because God is good. When beauty is successfully crafted by an author and appreciated by the reader, it is because God is good. In the end, that is the most important argument why Christians ought to read literary works: because God is amazingly and undeservedly good. Despite the brokenness of language and literature, he works though them to reveal beauty and truth and goodness. It’s the promise of Pentecost. In good literature, we are the recipients of God’s grace. And so we read, trusting that the “Giver of all good things” will, indeed, give us something good.

[This is the fifth and final article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the essays in the series here.]


1I will say, however, that his tendency to prolixity in the text manifests, if unintentionally so, an occasional impenetrability which has the effect of obfuscating his general purposes. In other words, he uses too many big words. I’m not against flexing your lexical abilities in general, but his sentences are often far heavier than they need to be – perhaps reflecting, in some small way, the very limitations of language he is discussing.

Image credits: (1) Open book image: vichie81 / (2) Tower of Babel illustration from Gustave Doré.

In my previous two articles in this series on Christianity and Literature, I discussed the benefits of literature with a focus on wisdom: namely, the idea that literature offers readers the opportunity to experience ideas, words, and actions which are different than their own. Wisdom comes in weighing this Experience and judging whether it be true or false, good or bad – separating the fruit from the chaff, in Chaucer’s words. We might call this the didactic aspect of literature – it teaches us, whether intentionally or not, about creation, our place in that creation, and our relationship to its Creator.

But of course, good literature is not just about imparting knowledge – if that’s all literature were, the dictionary would be the most thrilling book around. Instead, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, all works of true literature have two sides: logos (something said) and poiema (something made). Narratological musings, the dialogues and life experiences of fictional characters, and the consequences of these experiences might all be considered part of the logos. But the second aspect of literature, poiema, refers to artistic construction and the reader’s artistic reaction to the text. Put simply, the logos is what the author and his characters say; the poiema is how they say it. And just as the logocentric Experience is one of the good things literature gives us, so too is poematic Beauty.

All literature has poiema – that sense of purposeful construction created as the author decides what to cut from one draft to the next, what word is the “right” word for this particular context, what voice is proper for the character of the story. Even texts that we might generally consider “unliterary,” such as sermons or philosophical works, are shown to be literary in their poiematic construction: their use of rhetorical flourishes, analogies, and the like. Dictionaries, as I have suggested earlier, provide a good example of what a totally logocentric text looks like. While “constructed,” they are done so according to a pattern neither creative nor engaging. The same thing (or nearly the same thing) could be written by a thousand different people. Logos without poiema is not literature. Indeed, in Lewis’ words, “It is only by being also a Poiema that a Logos becomes a work of literary art at all.”

Of course, just as there is good logos and bad logos, there is also good poiema and bad poiema. If a text is full of clichés, for example, if it is constructed solely of ideas and experiences according to a pattern repeated a hundred times before, without any originalities or creative interjections by the author, we may rightly consider the work to have low aesthetic value. Not that newness for the sake of newness necessarily leads to aesthetic goodness either. A good piece of literature must blend originality with tradition.

There are of course additional standards by which we might choose to judge good literary construction from bad (Aristotle’s Poetics has been used in just such a way). But let us bypass for now discussions of aesthetic criticism and come to what is the more important matter in this series of articles: namely, if poematic Beauty is a principle good of literature, as I argue, what exactly is good about it? The Experience, as we have seen in previous articles, offers wisdom. What similar good does Beauty offer that Christians should care about it and earnestly seek to encounter good examples of it in literature?

The reader may have noticed my failure thus far to define what I think “Beauty” is. This is, I assure you, intentional. While I make some very meager attempts here to articulate what “Beauty” is like, I do so knowing full well that a comprehensive definition remains forever elusive. There is a depth of mystery to aesthetics which cannot be fully plumbed. Indeed, one must approach a discussion of Beauty in the same way that George Herbert approached the subject of prayer. In a poem on the subject, Herbert gushes forth a number of descriptions which attempt to define prayer. It is “the Church’s banquet,” he writes. It is “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” In the anger of man, it can become an “engine against the Almighty.” Herbert hazards various other definitions, but finds them equally incapable of defining prayer. By the end of the poem, he realizes that although human words can provide an approximation of what prayer is, they can never truly give a full definition of the thing. In the end, prayer is not something that can be defined; it is instead simply “something understood.”

So too beauty. Aesthetics cannot be broken down into a series of underlying mathematical formulae; it is not a science, Aristotle’s opinions on the subject notwithstanding. But while critical reflection cannot explain fully what beauty is, it can nevertheless help us to begin approaching such a definition. Consider: if two men should be sitting near a fire place, neither experiences the full heat of the flames; they are only near the fire, not in it. But if one should step nearer to the flames than the other, he experiences more directly the heat and light than does his friend. Critical consideration and appreciation of Beauty helps move us closer to the fire.

And as we come nearer that fire, we begin to understand, if only intuitively, what good thing Beauty offers readers. Not that it can be explained in words, but that it can be suggested in image. The heat which rolls over us in waves, the flash as the flame fills our vision depicts, in a way, how Beauty acts on the reader. It is baptism by fire, a death and resurrection as the water of poeimic Beauty mixes with the Experiential word. It is the fire in which rides the still small voice. It is the burning coals which permit sinful lips to speak. It is, in the end, not something explained, but something encountered. Something felt. Something understood.

[This is the fourth article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

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