London’s Theology of the Wild

I was reading out loud to my son on Thanksgiving holiday. We were snuggled into sleeping bags and blankets by the fire. Two sentences into his 1915 legend White Fang, Jack London writes:

A vast silence reigned over the land.  The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness.  There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.  It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life.  It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild…

On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over,—a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again.  It is not the way of the Wild to like movement.  Life is an offence to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.  It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man—man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement…

On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with a tangible presence.  It affected their minds as the many atmospheres of deep water affect the body of the diver.  It crushed them with the weight of unending vastness and unalterable decree.  It crushed them into the remotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juices from the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undue self-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite and small, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.

Striking in its language, London employs the words of a systematic theology to describe the Incomprehensible Other of the frozen Wild: “silence,” “incommunicable wisdom of eternity,” “crushed weight,” and vast stillness. London writes of the Yukon and the Klondike as the scholastics wrote of the mysterium tremendum. The majestic immanence of the Wild reveals a horrifying transcendence.

At the end of chapter three, at a key narrative turn that could spell disaster for the protagonist before even coming into existence, London introduces a holy tautology: “But the Wild is the Wild…” Evoking the tetragrammaton of the Hebrew scriptures (“I Am is that I Am”), White Fang introduces readers to that which was, which is, and which is to come. The Wild is. The Wild is the Wild.

London is laying out his theology. The functional atheism of the Gold Rush cannot restrain the divine attributes of the frozen Wild. London’s characters are sinners in the hands of an angry Wilderness, at the mercy of its harshest elements. Where Captain Ahab faced an omnisciently cunning white whale, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley faced the Wholly Other of alien space, in London’s cosmos John Thornton (Call of the Wild), Weedon Scott (White Fang), and the chechaquo (“To Build A Fire”) face the most dangerous and omnipotent antagonist in the Wild. The divine presence is everywhere communicated in nature, and London writes of the eternal stillness of the frozen Wild for this purpose.

Salvation Among the Wolves
Riding the line of this boundary between divine nature and mortal tragedy are the protagonists, Buck (in Call of the Wild) and the eponymous White Fang. Early on, we discover that White Fang is actually a wolfdog, sired by a wolf father and wolfdog mother. This hypostatic union of feral wolf and domesticated dog is the main plot arc for White Fang, as the union of these two natures war for supremacy in the protagonist. Buck, who does not incarnate the two natures, tells the story of when a dog is predestined to remember its instinctual life in a wolf’s world.

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2020 In Review

You’ve probably never heard this, but this past year was unprecedented
Anyway, instead of the pleasantries and pontificating, let’s get on to what was interesting this past year.

Music
My two favorite albums this year were Wild, Free by Acceptance and What’s New, Tomboy? by Damien Jurado. Both albums show significant departure of style from previous works. I miss the power pop of Acceptance, and some of Jurado’s other albums had more singles that I loved. Nevertheless, I found myself listening to these over and over. There are a number of stand out tracks on each album. For Acceptance, “Cold Air” is an obvious single, but “Wildfires” is where its at for my money.

On the Jurado album, “Arthur Aware” is my favorite offering:

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Merry Christmas in 2020!

From the Bidding prayer, the opening prayer in the liturgy of the Lessons & Carols:

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Day our care and delight, to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels, to find our life in the Lord of the Manger, let us go with one heart, with one mind, to the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, truly Man and truly God, and His holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life – one God in three persons, in a holy Christmas prayer, as the Lord bids you to come when He promised, “everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord shall never be put to shame, and shall be saved.”

And I still love the words of Augustine at this time:

Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.

– Augustine of Hippo (Sermons 191.1)

Finally, I hope the words of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” encourage you during your holy reflections:

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men 

Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

Violence, Social Tribalism, and Redemption in O’Connor’s “Revelation”

Aside

You should take a few minutes this weekend and read one of the last stories Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Revelation.” You can download the PDF here, or read it in Everything That Rises Must Converge or her Collected Works. It isn’t a long read, but it is provocative.

Main character Ruby Turbin is both someone who is brusque, and is treated brusquely. The oft-quoted line from O’Connor is very true here: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” As you read, consider a theme of pity: Ruby pities Mary Grace, but her final experience is an act of pity/mercy for her.

The castes of Ruby’s world are very offensive to our modern, PC-culture. But I find that reading “Revelation” is revelatory in a very personal way. Tolle lege!

Tempering A Serrated Edge: Piper Responds to Wilson

Back in 2000 (twenty years ago!!), both John Piper and Doug Wilson were panelists at a Ligonier conference. Wilson made some remarks on rhetoric, satire, and taking the fight to the pagans. Strikingly – and from what I can tell, completely out of keeping with the rest of the kid-glove discussion – Piper challenges this at the 24:02 mark, “to balance it.”

Wilson published his book A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking in 2003, just shortly after this. In the subsequent seventeen years, I would argue that this satire has not had the triumphant effect that may have been desired.

A few remarks in light of the video:

Distinctions
Piper notes some important distinctions we must bear in mind. The first difference is between Christ as holy (in his divine nature & unfallen human nature) and my sinful inclinations (post-lapse humanity). Wilson had earlier noted how Jesus could skewer self-righteous Pharisees (many old Credenda readers or current Blog & Mablog subscribers will think of his “righteous horse laugh”). Piper’s point is valid, since Jesus possesses both the foresight and insight to know when such barbed rhetoric will be useful. It is precisely at this point where our sinful nature obscures us, making us liable to hurt more than help.

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“Still will we not fear, The Lord of Hosts is ever near”

Aside

Martin Luther penned the following poem, inspired by Psalm 46. The hymnologist will note that Luther’s celebrated hymn, “Ein’ Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” / “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is also based the sacred text. Originally published in The German Psalmody.

God is our refuge in distress,
Our shield of hope through every care,
Our Shepherd watching us to bless,
And therefore will we not despair;
Although the mountains shake,
And hills their place forsake,
And billows o’er them break
Yet still will we not fear,
For Thou, O God, art ever near.

God is our hope and strength in woe;
Through earth He maketh wars to cease;
His power breaketh spear and bow;
His mercy sendeth endless peace.
Then though the earth remove,
And storms rage high above,
And seas tempestuous prove,
Yet still will we not fear,
The Lord of Hosts is ever near.

Encouragement During Failure

Quote

John Calvin’s magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion has a marvelously helpful section that is often republished as the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. Here’s a section that was incredibly useful to me a few mornings ago when I read it.

3. Finally, if we do not succeed according to our wishes and hopes, we shall, however, be kept from impatience, and from detesting our condition, whatever it may be; because we shall understand that this would be rebellion against God at whose pleasure riches and poverty, honor and contempt are distributed.

In conclusion, he who retains God’s blessing in the way we have described, will not passionately pursue the things which man in general covets, and will not use base methods from which he expects no advantage.

Moreover, a true Christian will not ascribe any prosperity to his own diligence, industry, or good fortune, but he will acknowledge that God is the author of it.

If he makes but small progress, or even suffers setbacks while others are making headway, he will nevertheless bear his poverty with more calmness and moderation than any worldly man would feel when his success is average and contrary to his expectations.

4. A true Christian possesses a consolation which affords him more sweet satisfaction than the greatest wealth, or power, because he believes that his affairs are so regulated by the Lord as to promote his salvation.

This was in the mind of David who followed God and surrendered himself to his rule, and who declared, “I am as a child weaned of his mother; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.” Psalm 131:1 and 2.

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Coronavirus Civil Disobedience

civildisobedienceOver at 9Marks, there is a helpful discussion on whether/if a church could ever civilly disobey the various quarantine/shelter-in-place orders.

There are several helpful insights in the conversation. Jamieson gives a rough ‘n’ ready nugget when he points out that Acts 5:29 (“we must obey God rather than man”) is a helpful prooftext and “warranted when Government commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands.” Listen (even better, subscribe!) to the whole conversation.

Further, host Jonathan Leeman asks in 9Marks Journal, “When Should Churches Reject Governmental Guidelines on Gathering and Engage in Civil Disobedience?” Helpfully, Leeman gives an answer to the “when” aspect. Two criteria are proposed: the “reasonableness” of the government’s rationale, and the target of the government’s actions (“the government cannot single out religious groups”). How well do those criteria hold up? Continue reading

Is Your Good News Good? An Approach to a Reformed response

Gilbert_GospelGreg Gilbert has responded in an article entitled “‘Jesus Is King’ Is Not Good News: A Response to Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates” at 9Marks. This is his rejoinder following the response to his T4G sermon. All the relevant links can be found above.

Rather than trying to suss out whether Gilbert or Bates/McKnight is more correct, I’d like to suggest a alternative, Reformed approach. Back when the Lordship controversy was raging between Zane Hodges and John MacArthur, Michael Horton et al didn’t endorse MacArthur, but instead pointed out inadequacies with both sides, and produced Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Savlation (book). I’ve observed the usefulness of that title elsewhere. I don’t think Hodges=Bates/McKnight, or Gilbert=MacArthur. But it might be useful to consider some Reformed categories, rather than just lumping in with Gilbert, in this debate also.

Distinctio sed non Separatio

Reformed theologians constantly demanded we distinguish concepts without separating them. The persons of the Trinity, Jesus’ divine and human natures, justification and sanctification in union with Christ, and the Church as institution and organism were all concepts that needed to be distinguished as different, but could not ultimately be separated. Like the heads and tails of a coin, they were distinct but indivisible.

The Bates/McKnight camp is fond of emphasizing the Kingship of Jesus, even going so far as to equivocate “Messiah” for “anointed King.” While this is certainly true, and gloriously true!, it leaves out at least two other aspects of Jesus’ anointed work: prophetic and priestly. As Heidelberg Catechism #31 puts it, being the “Christ” or “Messiah” means that Jesus is our Chief Prophet, our High Priest, and our Eternal King. Continue reading

Pastoring In Plagues

Luther_Plague2Or, how historical theology brings hope.

Pestilence and Pastoral Ministry (at Gentle Reformation)

Plague and Providence: What Huldrych Zwingli Taught Me About Trusting God (TGC) Zwingli’s “Plague Song” helps deal with fear, especially amidst physical uncertainty five hundred years later.

Responding to Pandemics: 4 Lessons from Church History (TGC) This has Dionysius and Cyprian, but the other two are Luther and Spurgeon, who are filled out more completely below. Update: For an even deeper look at Dionysius and Cyprian, see this article “Glorifying God In the Midst of A Pandemic” from CTS.

Spurgeon’s Dangerous Mission (Challies) Not specific to plagues, but nevertheless characterizes several instances of ministry in extreme dangers.

Pandemics And Public Worship Throughout History (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship) Twelve instances of plague from the patristic period to the Ebola outbreak to 2015

 Luther: Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague (The Davenant Institute) A fourteen page pamphlet Luther composed when the Black Plague hit Wittenburg. A magisterial treatment from the magisterial Reformation.

5 Lessons from Spurgeon’s Ministry in a Cholera Outbreak (TGC) Spurgeon’s life is simply amazing.

Francis Grimke sermon: “Some Reflections Growing Out Of The Recent Epidemic Of Influenza That Afflicted Our City” (IX Marks) When the Spanish Flu hit America in the early twentieth century, African American pastor Grimke penned this sermon.

Spurgeon: “What Is God Doing?” (Bethlehem College & Seminary) A sermon from the Prince of preachers on God’s aims in a plague. (Bonus: “Lessons from Spurgeon on the Coronavirus” from Christian Concern

“Glorifying God In the Midst of A Pandemic” (CTS)

Do you know of other excellent historical theological perspectives on plague and disease? Share them in the comments below.