Stumbling into Symphonies

Symphony-piano-4639669-2560-1896In a conversation there are rules, and we all know them. Sometimes these rules are accidentally bent, supposing two people begin talking at the same time or no one knows just how to end it and walk away. Sometimes air lingers between the two people, causing an uncomfortable pause. Or maybe all the words blend into a unified sound of excitement as the two reunite in a frenzy of gushing phrases, tripping and spilling over each other’s hearts as they speak.

Often in these moments, something spiritual happens, like music. One gives and the other takes. One begins where the other ends. The excitement of one melts into the disappointment of another. When we speak, we work together, borrowing pieces of each other and weaving them into ourselves like toddlers rolling Play-Doh into multi-colored globes. In music, artists begin with a riff, a hook that seems compelling, and they play it over and over. Perhaps another will bring in a complementing piano line, and the drummer joins the jazz. Over time a conversation begins, a game of give-and-take that grows into a single song, each piece adding his share. As they work together, they sustain one another, each one holding the other to form a unified voice of music. As they play, they roll their unique colors and hues into a single shape, pulling together to the very center.

In this shared moment lies a spiritual truth, a beautiful truth of Christ that works like music. Like a conversation, our relationship with Jesus hinges on this back-and-forth, this dance. Yet, by no means is this relationship equal. As Jesus reaches out to us, we are drawn to His righteousness and perfect holiness. And as we understand our sinfulness, we call out to Him who saves. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Silver Chair through the mouth of the lion Aslan, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.” Jesus calls, and we are drawn; his calling gives us the power to call back. We, the prodigal sons and daughters, limp home, burdened, lonely, and beyond hope, simply to be met by our Father racing to meet us and hold us close, tears upon tears of highest joy. Our homecoming becomes a conversation, a living conversation in which the broken is repaired, the sad are filled with joy, and the end of our selfishness is the beginning of His grace. The Father calls to us, and we are welcomed home. We enter into a most gloriously unequal dialogue with the LORD, a vibrant relationship in which “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). A relationship with the Father “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). A Father “who gives us all things richly to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17).

Like music, our salvation becomes our symphony. We offer our instruments, broken and tattered though they may be, and the LORD makes music. We give Him our fears and worries in prayer, and He provides peace and joy in return. In this conversation we learn to give ourselves wholly to Him, forever grateful that He gave Himself wholly to us.

The Brave Little Toaster (Discussion #1)

Since it is my birthday today, I thought I would commit a series of blog posts reacting to one of my favorite childhood movies, The Brave Little Toaster (1987). This movie is a Disney classic and filled to the brim with meaning and thematic resonance. It is at once both bleak and hopeful, hilarious and frightening. It is sad and redemptive. It is light and complex. It is wonderful.

The movie follows five appliances (a toaster, a vacuum, a lamp, a radio, and an electric blanket) that have been left behind at an empty cottage by their “master.” Seeking to reaffirm their value and meaningfulness (their “function”, as they say), they set out on an epic quest to be reunited with their master and “plugged back in” to their essential purpose. In this post, I will consider the opening scene which constitutes roughly the first ten minutes of the film. If you have not seen TBLT, you may want to stop reading and check it out.

1. The Credit SequenceScreen Shot 2015-06-23 at 9.14.12 PM

The movie begins with looming strings and sparse piano trills in a minor key to create a sense of abandonment, bleakness, and despair. In this way, the music underscores the opening picture of bare tree limbs and grey, ubiquitous fog. This is a barren wasteland, devoid of life, light, and, as we will see, meaning. Notice the cold, mechanical font given for the title and the Gothic shadowing in the background.

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Yet, as the credits roll, the fog slowly lifts to reveal a lonely cottage on a hill, perhaps our single bastion of hope in this gloomy atmosphere. In the midst of the clouded valley, we see a home, even though it is shadowed as well. This is our first taste of a theme throughout the movie – the glimmers of hope within the surrounding darkness prod us to persevere in a world of betrayal, confusion, and emptiness.

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We then follow the camera as it zooms in to the cottage through a window (complete with broken, dilapidated shutters) and into the setting wherein we’ll meet our principal characters. It is key that the sequence moves from darkness to light as the sun rises during the course of this scene. It tells us that, though our characters are lost and sad, hope remains in the frame.

2. Light as Central Motif

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For a collection of household appliances, the concepts of power, energy, and light represent the essential life force. Being “on” is everything. As we have five appliances anthropomorphized for our main characters, we should assume references to “being plugged in” or “turned on” to be a central metaphor for both life (electrical energy) and purpose (function). As mentioned earlier, the idea of one’s function plays heavily in this movie as a symbol for one’s innate purpose. These appliances, like human beings, were designed to fulfill a specific function. Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 9.51.32 PMThey were made for something. Yet, in this opening scene, we see each of them longing to be used, to be needed, to be fulfilled, with no “master” there to answer their quiet pleas for meaning and purpose.

So in this scene, we must notice how the image of light interacts with each character. Currently, they are all darkened, so to speak, dormant and devoid of purpose. Even Lamp, ironically, mentions the fear of this situation throughout the scene (“Who turned out the lights?” // “I hate being left in the dark” // etc.) Yet, light shines on each character momentarily. This brief glimpse of light affords the viewer a sense of hope that perhaps each of these characters may yet be reunited with their master and returned to lives of design and function fulfilled.

3. “A Tale Full of Sound and Fury”

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 9.54.55 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-23 at 9.55.55 PMOne of the most striking elements of the opening scene is the strict routine our characters keep in maintaining the cottage for their master. Even though it has been, as Kirby the Vacuum puts it “2,000 days” since the master has been there, they work diligently to serve their purpose to a deserted audience. Kirby relentlessly cleans every speck of dirt on the floor, Radio entertains an empty room, and Toaster toasts…nothing. This is the despair of absurdity, the grief of discovering that in the great play of life, there may be no one watching. As Macbeth famously declares:

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 10.33.02 PMInterestingly, we get a quick image of such a “walking shadow” as Radio plays “Tutti Frutti” to begin the cleaning chores, which, ironically, are meaningless without the master at home.

Just before the cleaning montage begins, however, the appliances descend into full blown chaos. Without a master around and without any inherent purpose, havoc inevitably ensues (for appliance and human being alike). Radio and Lamp are fighting, Blanket accidentally smothers their duel (after having literally descended down the handrail, itself an appropriate symbol for the Fall), and Kirby unexpectedly vacuums up all three. It remains for Toaster, the leader of the pack, to fix everything. But to what end? Why should they get to work? No one’s home.

Once the disorder has subsided, Radio asks Toaster, “So, what’s in our lineup for today?” to which Lamp echoes, “Yeah, what are our instructions?” Again, we see a desire for purpose, for instructions given by a master to follow. This should not be seen as advocating any sense of mindless obedience without will. This is not a case of simple puppetry. Their longing for instructions to follow coincides with their longing to fulfill their function. They all self-evidently have a purpose and design, and following the right instructions leads to the fulfillment of that purpose and design. Notice how this speaks to us. We also have a specific purpose and design to carry out, and we long for our Master to give us our instructions. We all ought to wake up and ask the same question: What should I do to fulfill my purpose?

As Blanket moans, “I don’t like to work without the master.”


4. Longing for Master

All the cleaning suddenly halts as Blanket thinks he can hear a car coming down the road. Instantly, all of our characters rush furiously to see if the rumor is true. Is the master coming home? Could it be?

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 10.45.35 PM“A CAR!” they yell, filled with the hope of purpose. At last, our master is home! They scramble around the cottage for anything they can find to reach the attic window, their best chance to catch a glimpse of the master’s homecoming. They work together, reaching up to heaven to see the master.

Once Blanket reaches the window, he imagines the splendor and joy of what it would be like to see his master again, to be held and loved by him. Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 10.52.54 PMThe master bursts through the door in full and shining glory, arms out to welcome his weary and wistful friends, “Home, Sweet Home” lovingly pinned to the wall. What a picture of God and the beauty of the great Homecoming. The glorious moment of being reunited with our Master, our longing for purpose fulfilled, our existences meaningful once more.

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Yet, at the height of this fantasy, the master becomes a mirage, and our characters bitterly return to their meaningless labor. Like Waiting for Godot, it seems the master will never come down the road, watch and ache though his appliances might.

We close this scene with Radio’s sorrowful broadcast:

“Sorry for that little interruption, folks. We return to our regularly scheduled program at this time.”Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 10.57.22 PM

The hope of the master’s return has been dramatically reduced to merely a “little interruption” as our characters return to their insignificant, “regularly scheduled” work.

We must observe the fall from harmony and purpose that has taken place here. These characters have become disconnected from their Master and their individual functions. They are lost, reaching and hoping for a master to come home and revive them. What a picture of the Fall from our Created Design! We, too, were made for a purpose with a Master who loves us. And we are desperate for Him, frantic for meaning in our empty cottages. We must notice the dreariness and futility of a life spent fervently at fruitless work for a master who may never show up. Their faith, however, is ardent; they dare not give up hope that their Master is out there and their existences are meaningful.

Stay tuned for Discussion #2!

Pollute the Shadows

While attending the ACCS conference in Dallas, I was quite struck Thursday morning by a powerful quote from N.D. Wilson that was referenced during an early plenary session. As it regards the nature of the world around us and our task to engage with that world armed to the teeth, I thought it appropriate to include here:

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”

-N.D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World

Five Influential Writers in My Life

As I am working to lift Eden.Babel onto its feet, one of my primary concerns and interests is in the field of wordsmithing. Excellent craftsmanship is a noble goal, no matter what the smithy of your particular ilk is filled with; the mason may use bricks, the painter his brushes, the musician his notes. The writer uses words. Since the usage of words is a staple of most people’s daily living, the writer has a peculiarly interesting challenge before him. Not everyone uses paint or notes or bricks in the course of their 24 hours, but we almost all use words. Some may wish others used fewer, but that’s another post. Writers are tasked to take a seemingly mundane feature of our existence (words and their arrangement) and spin them in such a way that they can knock a hearer off his or her feet. As Mary, Queen of Scots once said of John Knox, “I fear his tongue and pen more than the armies of England.”

As I have immersed myself over the years in the world of literature, poetry, and many other forms of the written word as well as committed myself to the weaving of my own words, I have decided to consider five of the most influential writers in my own life. This list, as with most lists of its kind, is written in the current moment, meaning I am quite available to be moved and impacted by other writers than these five in the future just as I certainly have been in the past. Also, this list does not factor in God and His Word, the most influential book ever written. As a Christian, I heartily affirm the influence of the Word of God to be a given.

5. C.S. Lewis

cs lewis

This choice really stems from how much of Lewis I have read over the past ten or so years. As a child, I was raised on the Narnia stories and have just recently started to go back through them. I was likewise raised on the BBC films of the Narnia books (you know, the Lucy with her wonderful teeth, the giant beavers, the animatronic Aslan. Classics…). As I moved into college, I began to wade through more of Lewis’ work, including The Great Divorce, Till We Have FacesThe Screwtape Letters, and others. During a bleaker period, I picked up A Grief Observed, which was very helpful. Finally, while studying literature in grad school, I took a course on Lewis and Tolkien in London. There, I dove headlong into his space trilogy, The Four LovesThe Weight of Glory, and a great deal of his biography. Since then, I’ve read Surprised by Joy, a number of his poems, and continue to read him more and more. His commitment to both logic and fancy is contagious, and I look to him for an abundance of insight and imagination.

Recommended readingOut of the Silent PlanetThe Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe Screwtape Letters, “The Future of Forestry”, “Meditation in a Toolshed”

4. Billy Collins


In compiling this list, I made an effort to select writers that represent different genres and approaches. With this in mind, Collins is certainly my poetic choice. He served as poet laureate for the U.S. in the early 2000s, and I even had the privilege of meeting him at a poetry reading in Nashville. Collins’ poetry is known for its accessibility, humor, and seeming simplicity. For this, he may certainly be termed a poet of the people. Yet, his writing is elusive, deep, biting, startling, and some of the most moving verse I’ve encountered. Collins has the unique ability to take a simple reality (weighing a dog, weaving a lanyard at camp, studying geography) and transform it into a transcendent experience as he observes the fullness of feeling, sensitivity, and power that can exist in any given human moment. He treats love, loss, friendship, fear, and longing as though they are old pals, conversing freely with them over coffee at midnight. He laughs through awkwardness and shudders at morning light. He can turn any event on its head at the start of a single stanza and leave you breathless upon completing it. I cannot speak highly enough of his work, and I have thoroughly enjoyed making my way through his collections.

Recommended reading: “The Lanyard”, “Weighing the Dog”, “Introduction to Poetry”, “Plight of the Troubadour”

3. Ben Gibbard


Though he is primarily regarded as a musician, Gibbard’s lyric writing ranks right up there with the best of them. He is the frontman for the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie and has become a respected voice for poetic melancholy in our generation. I caught on to Ben Gibbard’s beautiful writing when I was first introduced to DCFC’s album Transatlanticism by my little brother, Chris. I remember being immediately struck by the quality of their music and Gibbard’s soaring melodies, so I decided to go through the whole album several times over on my own. What I discovered as I walked alongside his verses and choruses, acutely attuned to the narratives he was singing, was simply breathtaking. I was speechless. Gibbard could weave a lyrical phrase unlike anyone I had ever heard, and what had ignited a glimmering flame of attraction and sympathy for him in Transatlanticism was fueled to a wildfire in Plans, their 2005 album. By this time, I had begun playing music myself with a friend of mine and had become interested in lyric writing as a form of expression not dissimilar from poetry. As I delved further into writing music and writing lyrics, Gibbard always served as the standard, the pitch in which all of my own writing was set. To this day, I look to Ben Gibbard’s poetic sensibility, astounding mastery of metaphorical language, and sobering emotional melancholy for a bracing dose of creative power to shock me back into my own love and passion for writing.

Recommended reading/listening: “What Sarah Said”, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed”, “Little Wanderer”, “Transatlanticism”, “We Looked Like Giants”, “Title and Registration”, “Summer Skin”, “No Room in Frame”

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald


If you are reading this and you are a former/current student of mine, you saw this coming; I tend to reference Fitzgerald all the time in class. Simply put, there will never be another F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dedicated my master’s thesis to the life and work of this marvelous author, so I am quite biased. I do believe, however, that his prophetic understanding of American narcissism, the nature of sin, the transience of happiness, and the ache of unrequited love have cemented him in literary history as a true icon of the highest caliber. He was painfully romantic, given over at once to both the beauty and the hopelessness of his dreams. He desired a greatness that would always be two steps ahead of him, doubting his ability to reach it yet straining forward all his life. He was exuberantly happy and painfully miserable. He rose meteorically and fell disastrously. He fought with God and embraced God. He could dash off a crowd-pleaser in a matter of hours (often hungover) and labor meticulously over a failing novel for years. And his writing is simply magnificent. Every page of his work is filled with both diamonds and dust, champagne and charlatans. He wrote like Mozart, lyrically effusing phrases and sentences that seemed like they had been written ages ago as he simply pulled them out of the air and blotted them on paper. He wrote like most men breathe, pouring forth what was already in there, effortlessly. Much of my love for the imaginative wonder and hope in life is credited to his work. I will read him until I can no longer read.

Recommended readingThe Great GatsbyThis Side of Paradise, “‘The Sensible Thing'”, “Thank You for the Light”, “The Cut-Glass Bowl”, “The Jelly-Bean”

1. Doug Wilson


Doug Wilson is a theologian, pastor, and highly prolific writer with dozens of books to his name. If there is any writer who has helped shape my thinking, provoke my curiosity, satisfy my imaginative scope, push my pursuit of excellence, hone my understanding of joy, and confirm my desire for the full, abundant, passionate life in Christ, Doug Wilson is that writer. His work ranges greatly, covering such topics as culture, theology, rhetoric, argument, marriage, childrearing, father hunger, eschatology, apologetics, creative writing, Beowulf, wisdom, the Middle Ages, hearty laughter, Calvinism, gratitude, poetry, robust singing, and much more. His writing has led me deeper into the conviction that God is God and God is good. I am so deeply indebted to his writing and his teachings on the Christian life that to remove his influence from my life would be to remove a great deal of who I have become in my faith in Jesus. While the content of his work is overwhelmingly edifying and helpful, his style is simply inimitable. He wields the English language like a battle axe, sharp at the edge and effective in every blow. He is clever, witty, incisive, kind, colorful, lyrical, and quotable. He is memorable, humorous, startling, paradoxical, and charming. He is jolly and forthright. He is happy and rigid. In a word, he is full. My admiration and respect for Wilson’s writing cannot be expressed enough, and I could speak at greater and greater lengths in praise of his command over the written word.

Recommended readingHeaven MisplacedAngels in the ArchitectureRules for ReformersJoy at the End of the TetherWordsmithy, God Is

Intentional Fixedness in the Prayer of Jehoshaphat

No, not the prayer of Jabez. The prayer of Jehoshaphat.

A phrase I have adopted recently that I have become quite fond of using and reflecting on is: “intentional fixedness.” Part of the allure of that phrase stems from a number of verses that touch on such iron-sharp excellence in the Christian saint and his or her steadfast pursuit of the glory and pleasure of God:

Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” -Col. 3:2

“[…] But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” -Phil. 3:13-14

Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.” -Dan. 6:3

Fix my eye, eye-eyes, on You, oh, ooh, oh ooh, oh ooh, on Yoooou.” -For King and Country

That last one was just to see if you were still reading.

So the wholehearted desire for excellence in the call of the Christian is a non-option. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that whatever we do, we ought to do with all of our heart unto the Lord (3:23). This is, of course, a derivative of Jesus’ statement that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). It would seem that keeping an intentionally fixed gaze upon the Lord is tethered to an abundant passion for His glory and our joy. More on intentional fixedness in future posts.

This sort of intentional fixedness, however, is evident in the prayer of Jehoshaphat recorded in II Chronicles 20. For a bit of context, Jehoshaphat was a godly king of Judah, the son of Asa, and he ruled the southern kingdom after Israel was split in two. In chapter 20, Jehoshaphat is being approached by a “great multitude” of enemies for battle (vv.1-2). His immediate reaction to this news is our first insight into the sort of righteousness we ought to glean from Jehoshaphat:

“Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD” (v. 3)

The order of this sentence is important. Jehoshaphat moves instantly from fear (“was afraid”) to an intentional fixedness in prayer (“set his face to seek the LORD”). This should be impressed in the muscle memory of the godly man. What boldness and confidence would we have in the Lord if we could knee-jerk into seeking the Lord in prayer as a response to any fearful experience!

Upon hearing the news, Jehoshaphat summons all of Judah into a communal spirit of fasting and prayer, and I argue that the prayer that follows from this godly king over his people serves as a model for the prayers we ought to pray with our hope intentionally fixed on the Lord. The king’s prayer follows four basic stages:

1. The Identity of God

Jehoshaphat begins his prayer simply affirming the very name and being of God:

“O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven?” (v.6)

This is a helpful reminder that beginning our prayer to God with petition (“Dear Lord, help me pass this test,” “Dear Lord, provide a hedge of protection and traveling mercies” [whatever those are], etc.) may not always be the most God-honoring way to communicate with Him. Jehoshaphat begins his prayer not by stockpiling groceries into the cart of God but by tuning his heart to sing God’s praise, to quote the hymn. He begins his prayer reaching for the pitch pipe, for calling on God by affirming who He is sets the key in which the rest of his prayer will be aligned. Notice he names God in three distinct ways: “O Lord (YHWH, the name of God), God of our fathers (the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), are you not God in heaven?” (the sovereign, celestial God above all men). Jehoshaphat acknowledges what the author of Hebrews would later declare: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that He is” (11:6). We must first identify the awesome, glorious, all-powerful God to move us to a right position of humility and praise.

2. The Power of God

After he begins his prayer asserting the sovereignty and very identity of God, Jehoshaphat shifts to a description of God’s power:

“You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.” (v.6)

This is a right progression. Notice Jehoshaphat has yet to plea or request anything of God; he is simply occupying his heart and his lips with an intentional fixedness on the character and majesty of almighty God. How can we proclaim the name and identity of God and not be rocked into a whirlwind of praise and admiration? When Jehoshaphat prays to the God of heaven, he realizes he prays to an infinite, wonderful, mighty, passionate, jaw-dropping God; thus, he moves quickly from identifying God to trembling before His power. God is sovereign over everything, and Jehoshaphat is quick to remind himself of this in his prayer. There is no right petition of God without a right view of His absolute rule. God can give us nothing He does not own (Eph. 3:14-21). So when Jehoshaphat surveys the storm of Moabites and Ammonites descending upon his people, he cries out not to any old savior but to the Ruler of all kingdoms, Moab and Ammon included. The king prays to God, affirming His power to deliver his enemies into his hand, for they are subject to Him. For they belong to Him.

3. The History of God

After pronouncing both the identity and power of God, Jehoshaphat moves into a remembrance of what God has done in history:

“Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?” (v.7)

Remembering in prayer the works and miracles of grace the Lord has already done for us provides an assurance and a confidence as we approach the God of might and power. Too many of us pray on tiptoes, weak in our footing and not quite sure if what we are peering at in our prayers is really there or really able to help. This is not the posture of those intentionally fixed on God! Jehoshaphat calls out to God and checks off a number of God’s mighty works in history as a way of both praising Him and bringing to his own memory the ways God has saved his people before. The psalmist elaborates on this point: “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done […] so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God” (Ps. 78:4,7).

4. The Present Help of God

At last, Jehoshaphat makes his request known to God:

“And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab […] they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment on them?” (vv.10-12)

By this point in his prayer and in our observance of it, we all can see his petition saturated in the truth and glory of his previous assertions. His identifying God has established His sovereignty over all things, including enemies. His describing the power of God has established God’s ability to provide a victory for Judah. And his remembrance of God’s might and grace in time past has established God’s willingness to provide a victory for Judah. Now, Jehoshaphat’s plea for the Lord to work is filled with these truths (i.e., “your possession”, “you have given”,” O our God”, etc.) The king has prayed in such a way that his request for present help in time of need is delivered to the Father soaked in the knowledge, trust, humility, mercy, and love that ought to exist between a saint and his God.

But, most importantly, notice how Jehoshaphat concludes his prayer:

“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (v.12)

May this be the very breath of the Christian, steeped in an intentional fixedness on Christ and His identity, power, history, and present help in time of need.

The Scarlet Letter and Moral Relativity

Alienated and embittered in the woods of Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne, the adulteress of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, stands alongside her pastor and lover Arthur Dimmesdale, begging him to take her away to the Old World. As readers of the classic know, such a quest would pose a possible relief to the social humiliation and turmoil that has plagued Hester in the city since her opening scene on the scaffold for public shaming.

Yet, as Hester and Dimmesdale find solace in each other’s arms from the raging frenzy of the Puritan mob (a raging frenzy that is actually, according to C.S. Lewis, atypical of the broader Puritan community), Hester lets slip the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer assault on the Christian framework of morality.

And Hawthorne even has her whisper it:

“‘Never! Never!’ whispered she. ‘What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!'”

This murmur from Hester follows their discussion of the encounter that brought them to this point, namely the affair which resulted in her condemnation, his guilt, and the lovely “airy sprite” Pearl.

We must pause, however, at this statement to reflect on the depth and severity of Hester’s excuse. Her attempt to assuage Dimmesdale’s suffering and affirm her own sin-stained impudence relies firmly on her insistence that their sin “had a consecration of its own.” She claims their affair was its own sort of holy. In other words, it was, in its own way, right. For her evidence, she claims its “holiness” or “rightness” rises from both their feelings and their verbal declarations of “love” (“We felt it so” … “We said so”).

This line of thinking has become quite popular as the increase of social tolerance and religious pluralism sweeps our secular culture. Everybody is entitled to their own truth and their own moral code, right? We must be tolerant of everyone’s understanding of truth (except those darn Christians. We don’t have to tolerate their views, so if you happen to spot one of them, fire at will). If I could modernize Hester’s statement, it may sound something like, “It felt right, we love each other, and we aren’t hurting anybody. Those old geezers with the buckle shoes need to relax.”

Ok, maybe not that last bit.

However, a quick look to the Scripture sheds light precisely into the dark thickness of those woods. In Isaiah 5:20, the prophet declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” This encompasses any perversion or corruption of God’s good design and calling it right or pure. In a society becoming increasingly talented at this type of renaming and redefining (“marriage equality,” “pro-choice,” “misgendering”), God’s Word is clear on the distinction between good and evil. Hobbits and orcs will always be separate and distinguishable.

How many legs would a dog have if we called the tail a leg?

Four. A tail is a tail no matter what you call it.

In Romans 1:32, Paul reminds his readers of man’s tendency to call evil good: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things [sin] deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Hester’s attempt to justify her sin by claiming it had its own rightness falls directly in this category. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Even Jesus knew of the insufficiency of the heart to justify behavior: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Jesus hears the whispers of the Hester Prynnes of the world, trying to pardon their own sinful actions not through repentance but through redefinition. In her mind, she doesn’t have to feel bad if she can convince herself she isn’t bad.

Yet, the gospel is powerful enough to withstand such attempts to dissemble, to misconstrue, to disfigure. Drawing a mustache and spectacles on the Lincoln memorial does not tarnish or redefine the great president; in fact, it only illuminates the folly of the offender. Neither does “calling it in the air” determine which side of the coin will appear on the field. God saves sinners from their hearts, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they may think it is.

So, it would seem the framework of Christian belief is not so easily penetrable by the brazen rephrasing of sinners, particularly when they swing with hammers made of foam.

Honey, That’s What Takers Do

In the tail end of Ephesians 4, Paul shifts his thoughts from what are, as my dad calls them, the redwoods of theology and doctrine that constitute Ephesians 1-3 (you know, the veritable grab bag of predestination, depravity, progressive sanctification, and a side of nachos) toward the stuff of practical living. He begins in 4:25 with the exhortation to “put away falsehood” and to “not let the sun go down on your anger,” clear encouragement that is forthright and incisive.

But what seems to be fairly easy-going in the first few pieces – speak the truth, be angry and do not sin – becomes quite complicated as the list continues. By the end, we are told only to speak what is good for building up and to let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice be put away from us. Sheesh. It’s safe to say this collection of living wisdom requires the work of the Holy Spirit in us to bring it about, a truth which is more than likely Paul’s entire point.

Yet, as we rely on the Spirit of the Living God to be at work in us (Phil. 2:13), we are not given the allowance to drift slowly to sleep as Paul’s list reveals itself. Though it is God at work in us, we are still commanded to put our whole being to the task of sanctification with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

With this sort of focus and examination in mind, I’d like to hone in on one of Paul’s commands in particular:

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”  -Eph. 4:28

Though there is much to be gleaned from this verse on the virtue of work, the value of sharing, and the necessity of compassion in capitalism (for a separate post, I’m sure), I’d like to offer three observations regarding theft in the life of a Christian.

#1 – Taking what isn’t yours and not taking what is yours are both sins.

While the knee-jerk reading of this verse tends to lean toward a “Thou-shalt-not-steal” cautioning, we must not neglect the possibility of a more ubiquitous form of theft: robbing oneself. It is true that we must not steal what is not ours, but it is also true that we must not steal what has been freely given us by not allowing ourselves to enjoy it. This form of theft is quite familiar to many of us. How often have we refused the gift of forgiveness Christ offers? How many of us live under the condemnation and guilt of gracelessness when the grace of Christ has been extended to us? How many of us decline the gift the Giver has lavished on us in the name of self-reliance? For too many of us, we admit Christ broke the chains that bound us but rather than leave them at the foot of the cross, we pick them up and flagellate away. The chasm between penance and penitence is vast.

We must believe God when He says, “I give you grace, forgiveness, justification, joy.” To say no to these is to say no to Christ. We steal from ourselves when we acknowledge Christ with our mouths but decline the gift of salvation, the whole gift with all its bells and whistles.

#2 – Thieves steal more than treasure.

Stealing a car is bad. Stealing money from your neighbor is bad. Stealing time your children deserve is…well…

Though many American Christians balk at the notion they must be told not to steal (“Please, I wear a tie to work. I’m no thief.”), far too many of us steal regularly when it comes to the passing of our time. When Paul tells us we must no longer steal, we ought to look at the time we steal from our spouse by overcommitting to hobbies, time we steal from our children by lying on the couch, time we steal from our pastor by staying home. It would seem we do not need ski masks to be thieves.

#3 – Taking what must not be taken and not giving what must be given are both sins.

Similar to observation #1, this truth tends to glisten when you tilt the verse at an angle. Paul ends his verse with the overall purpose of the command: “…so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Paul gives us the why. We must no longer steal but work heartily so that we may have something to share with anyone in need. This means that it is not enough to simply stop stealing and start earning. Hoarding is theft. When we fill our own barrels for the sake of grinning at their fullness, we rob those in need of what God has called us to share. As the sage once said, humans have two hands and one mouth. We ought to contribute twice as much as we consume.

Most importantly, we must remember that “honest work and just reward” (to quote Javert) existed pre-Fall, thus they are a design feature built in to God’s original plan for mankind. Adam was employed in the garden before he was evicted from the garden (Gen. 2:15). We must enjoy our work as a part of God’s design which means we must both give of our plenty and receive of God’s plenty with the widest of smiles.