The Long View

Congratulations! You made it. Finally it is 2021. You persevered through the last 365 eons . . . er, I mean . . . 365 days.

Who knows what’s coming over the following days? Prediction, as the old joke goes, is especially difficult with regard to the future. True story.

I prefer history over prophecy. I find studying history fortifies me better for the future than pundits’ prognostications. My tendency to study history is one of myriad reasons I love the book of Ecclesiastes. Here’s an example of Solomonic wisdom in Ecclesiastes:

What has been is what will be,

and what has been done is what will be done,

and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,

“See, this is new”?

It has been already

in the ages before us.

There is no remembrance of former things,

nor will there be any remembrance

of later things yet to be

among those who come after (Eccl 1:9-11 ESV).

Solomon is reputed to have been among the wisest men to have ever lived. And Ecclesiastes is one of the wisest books you and I have the privilege to read and learn from.

Illustration: Over the Christmas holidays in 2020, my plans did not go as I had hoped. I began feeling pretty crummy a few days before Christmas–severe headache, loss of taste, loss of my sense of smell, fatigue, etc. Finally I went to the pharmacy up the road for a swab test. The results revealed I was positive for COVID-19. So I spent almost all of ten days either in my bed, in my recliner, or shuffling between the two.

But my wife nursed me back to health by having me rest and follow the recommended regimen: hydrate, take lots of vitamins C, D, zinc, magnesium, etc. I did all of the above. And now I am good to go. But it was not a Christmas holiday season I ever care to repeat.

It was bittersweet to see others’ pictures and videos of Christmas together where their kids were opening gifts around Christmas trees and the stockings hung from the fireplace mantels resembled scenes from some of my favorite Dickens novels.

I had a lot of time to read and reflect. I think that is one more reason I relish the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. As Solomon wrote in the passage cited above, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9b).

Viruses have been around a long time. But wisdom has been around, too. And the world keeps going. It does not stop because a few battle a virus for a week or two.

Encouragement: When I was scrolling my Facebook page one day over the break, one of our neighbors had taken a picture of the lake where we live and shared it for others to enjoy. She had snapped it from her dock. The picture reminded me of the wisdom found in Ecclesiastes.

When life goes topsy-turvy, and we are tempted to scratch our heads and ask, “Why this? Why now? Why me?” or “What’s next?” we can learn from history that “What has been is what will be” (Eccl 1:9a), and that “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen 8:22).

Let us press on in wisdom, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 1:9).

Eternity in Man’s Heart

Eternity in Man’s Heart

Illustration: Over the holidays I got in some more time on the trails. My old dog, Brewster, knows my favorite trails, so he maintains an aggressive pace at times. I have to call to him occasionally to slow down so I can take in the scenery. I love the seasons in north GA. Regardless of season, there is beauty to behold if you pay attention. But Brewster just likes to splash in the creeks and chase the deer. The creeks were running well due to recent rainfall. Brewster got in, drank, and smelled the wildlife trails that led to the water. I snapped some photos, opened my ruck for my water bottle, and sat on the bank and sipped, watched, and listened. I heard the red woodpecker working away at a rotten white oak over my shoulder from the direction we’d come. I watched small fish dart away from Brewster as he chased them in the creek. The fish left momentary V’s in the water’s surface as they fled from Brewster. I untied and retied the laces on my boots for the next leg of the hike, and called to Brewster. “Come on, buddy; let’s go up.” And we headed up towards the ridge. We knew from experience it would take us almost two hours to make it to the top, but it has always been worth it. The views; the smells of the cool December air; the wildlife. No computer screens, no traffic, no news of politics.

Scripture: Perhaps my favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. It comes from what is termed the wisdom literature in Scripture (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). Most folks know a little something from Ecclesiastes 3 due to the hit rock-n-roll song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds. But I love reading Ecclesiastes because of its literary brilliance. God showcases beauty amidst brokenness. Solomon teaches throughout that, yes, this is a broken and fallen world, but there is still beauty in it. And if you pay attention, you will behold it. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart . . . .” (Eccl 3:11, ESV).

Encouragement: Perhaps holidays afforded you the opportunity to unplug a bit from screen time. Perhaps you were not glued to social media. Perhaps you made good memories with your loved ones. Perhaps you took in some of the beauties that God graciously provides in his creation. He made it, the Bible teaches, beautiful. And he made it to attest to its Maker’s glory. Do we pay attention? It’s no accident that everything–from our strands of DNA, to the trout in these creeks, from Saturn’s rings, to Brewster’s sense of smell alerting him that we’re being watched by whitetails on the western ridge—everything bears witness to its Maker. God does not hide. On the contrary, he celebrates himself through what he has made–as evidences of himself, so that we would seek and find him. He put eternity in our hearts.

Brewster played in the creeks; he chased squirrels up into the massive trees that created the majestic canopy; I climbed the granite rocks topped by green moss that reminded me of the green felt on the billiard table I had as a boy. And in my mind kept running the refrain: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart . . . .” (Eccl 3:11).

Off the Grid

How is 2020’s Christmas holiday season going for you? Mine has been different from previous years’ celebrations. Normally my family and I would be with our extended family. But this year I have spent it isolated inside my home, “socially distancing” from my wife and children. Around 23 December, I seemed to have developed what appeared to be a sinus infection. I began sneezing a lot; my eyes grew puffy; I got a piercing headache just above my eyes; my energy level took a nosedive; I lost my sense of taste; I lost my sense of smell. Something was going on, right? I was about to learn what it is like to experience the holiday season off the grid.

I tried to get an appointment at a pharmacy near the house for a COVID-19 test. However, the websites and links to all of them (yes, all of them) near us said, “Due to high demand, we are unavailable to meet your request at this time,” or something to that effect. Not exactly the message I wanted to read when I felt so miserable. On Christmas Eve my pain got so bad I had to drive to a CVS 40 miles north where my wife finally found an opening for me. I was to remain in my vehicle but go through the pharmacy’s drive-thru and take a COVID-19 swab test. So for my 1:30 appointment, I was in one of the scores of vehicles to stage in the CVS parking lot and wait my turn. Finally my time came. I arrived almost an hour early, thinking I could perhaps get my appointment done sooner. But like so much of 2020, it was not to be. Scores of others were in line, too. Even though I was almost an hour prior to my appointment, as I inched my way closer and closer to the CVS drive-thru, I memorized the back of the silver Dodge pickup truck in front of me, and read a book of Shirley Jackson short stories, while we all waited our turn. Finally at just after 2:15 p.m. I was the next vehicle in line.

I pulled up to the nurse practitioner-teller at the CVS. Wearing her gloves and mask and speaking through a speaker and window, she instructed me on what to do. I swabbed my nostrils, snapped off the swab inside the vial, wiped down the bag, verified my name and date of birth, etc. and deposited my info into the receptacle near the window. My clear plastic bag was just one more among many. The parking lot and drive-thru were, as I said, jammed with us. I could tell from her body language that the nurse-practitioner-teller had been doing this all day. Her words had the lifelessness of someone who has said the same thing so often, the words have become programmatic and empty of human connection.

“Three to four days,” were the words that pushed me even lower. That’s what she told me as I was about to pull away. Three to four days is how long it would take to get my official results of the COVID-19 test.

It was a long drive back home. Rain set in. Temperatures dropped to well below freezing. Then the rain turned to sleet. Then it turned to snow. I got home, updated my wife and family on what I had been told, and now, I am still waiting.

So for Christmas, I sat in my library and tried to read. I love to read, but the level of this headache is a match even for my passionate commitment to reading. I even found myself doing what I usually criticize. I watched TV. My wife has an account to one of the movie channels, so I have watched documentaries and adaptations on Edward Snowden and other folks that intrigue me.

I watched a Netflix series on David Koresh entitled Waco. Events the FBI and other U.S. government agencies (in my opinion) exacerbated in 1993 kept me watching. Then I watched episode after episode of Criminal Minds. The characters played by Mandy Patinkin and Matthew Gray Gubler fascinate me. Gideon, the Patinkin character, is intense and laser-focused. His character speaks to me on several levels. The same goes for Reid, the Gubler character. Spencer Reid reads the classics, and it is not uncommon for him to reference Shakespeare or Sophocles, Plato or C.S. Lewis, Arthur Conan Doyle and the Bible in almost every episode. And I track with the way his mind works. It’s comforting for me to see a character in contemporary entertainment who actually has an intellectual life. Most shows are mere vapid plots with laugh tracks and/or canned characters utterly devoid of depth, but not so with Criminal Minds, in my view, and especially not with those characters. Thomas Gibson’s character, too, fascinates me. I mean, you have to respect a man who can see what he and the others saw, and yet still maintain a commitment to trying to rid the world of such criminality, one bad guy at a time.

So while I am off the grid, as it were, while I am hunkered down in my library at the house, I am reading as much as possible when the headaches subside. So far, I have completed John MacArthur’s Nothing but the Truth; a book of Shirley Jackson’s short stories; Jackson’s short novel We Have Always Lived Here, and have begun Foer’s book Everything Is Illuminated, and I am still in Barry’s long book The Great Influenza.

My wife continues to lay up treasures in heaven by putting up with me, the terrible patient. She has rubbed my chest down with things to help me breathe. She has made capsules of zinc and vitamin C and vitamin D and magnesium, etc. She has made sure to keep me hydrated. She has been better than I ever deserved.

I suppose some folks are good at being sickly, but I assuredly am not. I want nothing so much as to be able to go outside, to hike with my dog, to enjoy the outdoors, to go to work, etc. But none of that is to be for a bit longer it seems. I am checking the little CVS app on my phone now for the email that will tell me if I am positive for this virus. Then, if so, I will likely have to do the quarantine thing and miss work and miss some of my duties as a soldier. It will mean more time off the grid. It will mean more time watching documentaries, and trying to read between headaches, and watching others’ sentimental pictures and videos online of the holidays.

And I will continue to learn how being off the grid from my normal may be used to teach me how much I love those in my life who give of themselves when I have nothing to give in return except gratitude. I am thankful I could at least drive to a CVS 40 minutes north and take a test. I am thankful there are ways to kill this virus, if that is what I have. It is not just for me I say these things. When I looked around at all the vehicles that were inching their way through the drive-thru at the pharmacy Christmas Eve, I became well aware that this is not just about me. This thing levels the playing field quickly. I have seen some in my own extended family who have had this and have–thankfully–come through it. I know of many of my fellow soldiers who have gotten it and seem to be pushing through just fine. I am thankful for the calls, texts, and emails from those I shared with that I may have come down with this.

If you are with your loved ones, by all means, enjoy them. Take the selfies. Eat, laugh, nap, and repeat. Don’t take them–or the normal–for granted. I know that you may be tempted to think that “off the grid” sounds brave or authentic or some such thing, but as for me, I would much prefer to return to the grid, and be with my loved ones, leave off the documentaries, and just go back.

God’s Handiwork

Illustration: Yesterday afternoon was beautiful and, as is my custom, I strapped on my backpack, laced up my hiking boots, and headed into the woods and up the hills to hike in order take in as much of nature’s beauty as I could before darkness fell. But it was tonight’s sky that was to be special for a lot of folks. Many took up their cameras, telescopes, and other optical equipment to capture a spectacle in the heavens. Why? Jupiter and Saturn appeared to do a heavenly hug in the firmament. Social media feeds were flooded with pictures people put up of the sight. I saw some people’s pictures that made me fall silent, they were so moving and beautiful. The orbits of Jupiter and Saturn coincided with the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The sky was as clear last night as I have seen in a long time, too; that added to the power of the whole spectacle.

Scripture: This morning when I was reading, I was reminded of how often the Bible speaks of the heavens:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:14-18).

That was from Moses’ pen in Genesis. But King David wrote, too, of God’s creating the heavens and superintending them in the Bible’s poetry. Why? So that we would see how the heavens trumpet their Author:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

The temptation is to worship the creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). I saw this last night. People who claim to be atheists found themselves marveling at the precision of the heavenly spectacle. They used scientifically crafted optical equipment to gaze upon a heavenly display of awe-inducing power, and yet they were oblivious to the fact that all of this design heralds the glory of the Designer (God). This is why the Bible reminds us:

“And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven(Deuteronomy 4:19).

Encouragement: As most of us will try to be with our loved ones over the next few days to enjoy Christmas and some holidays, I wonder if we will give thought to this:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

The planetary display this week was certainly moving, but it was not as important as the incarnation of God. You see, it was not random that the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn coincided, and that we know with precision when this is slated to happen again.

It was not random that God warned us that we sinners too often want to worship the creation rather than the Creator. It was not random or accidental that Jesus, the second Person of the triune God of the Bible, took on flesh in the incarnation “in the fullness of time,” as Paul wrote in Galatians 4.

No, dear readers, none of it was random or accidental, any more than your cameras, and iPhones, and telescopes were random or accidental. They bespeak of the One about whom the whole creation bears witness: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13).

Merry Christmas.

Some Meanings of the Incarnation of God

For now at least, Christmas is still a national holiday. Holiday is a term originally rooted in Old English from halig (“holy”) + daeg (“day”). Not much is sacred to most Westerners anymore, but if they are employed, they still tend to take off from work for Christmas, a benefit bestowed because of the work and grace of another.

Christians, too, may take off from work, but they will understand the halig + daeg (“holiday”) differently. Instead of just taking a paid day off from work, they will take heart because they know what the incarnation of God means.

Christians, take heart.

Remember the Lord and what He has done. They are indeed great things. Here are just some meanings of the incarnation:

• God exists

• God has communicated His nature

 God took on human flesh in Israel in the 1st century (hence, A.D., Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”)

• The eternal God entered time and space

• God has revealed Himself, His nature, and His power, in the person and work of Jesus, the Christ

 Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are the most researched and authenticated facts of history

• Jesus fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophecies in precise detail

• No one has produced the body of Jesus

• The church endures and the gates of hell have not and will not prevail against it (Mt 16:18)

• Christ has come; Christ has died; Christ will come again

For non-Christians, I know you are probably busy. But would you take the time to think through the significance of these things–that the one and only holy God exists, that He has revealed Himself in creation, in Scripture, and in the incarnation of the Christ, that He (Jesus) lived a perfect life of obedience to God the Father, that Jesus went to the cross and became sin and bore the curse of sin’s penalty for all who will come in repentance and faith to Christ alone, and that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God of the Bible, says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts . . .” (Ps 95:7-8a)?

Merry Christmas!

Of Courage & Cowardice; Warriors & Wimps

I am reading a book that is accumulating a lot of underlining. One such passage is this one:

Turbulent times call for people of courage and conviction who understand the issues at stake and are willing to engage the fight. Underlying the culture war is a great spiritual struggle. On one side are those who believe in universal moral principles, confirmed in Scripture, which should inform and govern our thinking, our speech and our behavior. On the other side are those who prefer to believe that everything is relative, subjective, and merely a matter of personal choice. Although the culture war is often fought in public, the primary battleground is the human heart, and what we see manifested in our society and culture today is merely the visible expression of a titanic struggle between good and evil being waged in the spiritual realm.[1]

I tend to mark up my books. I read with a pencil in hand. I make notes in the margins. I ask questions of the text. I jot down references that occur to me from prior reading and reflection. When I read the above passage I made this diagram:

Universal vs. Relative

Objective vs. Subjective

Rooted vs. Displaced

Fixed vs. Overthrown

Scripture vs. Human opinion

Biblical Theism vs. Atheism/Secularism

Few things are as important as clarity. Illustrating Breshears’ ideas via a “this vs. that” model clarifies the alternatives.

I don’t know many people who don’t sense that the West is undergoing a sea change, a “fundamental transformation,” if you will.

One side wants to conserve; the other wants to transform.

One side wants to recognize that marriage was created and designed to be between one man and one woman; the other side repudiates that and says it (the secular left) has ‘progressed’ and knows better.

One side recognizes God exists, and that men and women are created in His image; the other side sees men and women as autonomous beings in a godless universe wherein gender is now fluid and constructed.

Per Facebook wisdom, for example, its users can select from 71 gender options. Um, folks, this is a new world. One might go so far as to call it quite plainly what it is: stupid.

Some thinkers have written that we are undergoing a second Civil War. But this civil war is about which values we will hold to and base our identity upon.

Will we recognize God; special revelation (Scripture); objective moral values; marriage as the sacred union between one man and one woman; that boys are boys and that girls are girls; that perhaps “fundamentally transforming” the West is veiled language that means destroying Western Civilization and reshaping it into forms with no objective standards but the preferences of the powerful?

There is a ghastly price to be paid for mocking heaven. I know that we are living in a time when the Bible is mocked. It’s somehow “below” many people today. That’s okay. The Bible has been mocked before. Mocking is the default position of the fool. You know how we know that? Brace yourself: It is in the Bible:

Why do the nations rage

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

Let us burst their bonds apart

And cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;

the Lord holds them in derision.[2]

You see, it is not courageous to spit in the wind; it is folly. It is not brave to shake your fist at God and curse heaven; it is folly. God laughs at folly. It does not wound God to mock Him. He is the uncreated Creator, the Maker of heaven and earth, who needs nothing. He is not lacking anything. He is perfect and He is wholly good and holy, holy, holy. So there is no wisdom in being rebels in a foolish cause.

But you see, God is also loving, and He knows what is best for us. Shall He not do what is right, what is “just” (Genesis 18:25)? Yes, He does and He will. He is the Author of Life (Acts 3:15). He is the potter and we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8).

Again, it is a question of clarity. Breshears has it. His book details it with excellence. It is a clarity that demands we be honest, that we count the costs, that we realize the consequences of our ideas. Read his book. Better still, read the Book. Though neglected and mocked by the fools, it abides still and remains what it has always proven to be: the Word of God.

[1] Breshears, Jefrey D. American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and the Culture War: A Christian Response. [Centre Pointe Publishing, 2020], VIII.

[2] Psalm 2:1-3, ESV.

In the World of the Grocery Store with John Updike

When I was in high school there was an A & P grocery store a few miles from the house. It occupied the last space in a small strip mall that held a dry cleaners, a Walgreens, a shoe repair store, and other businesses I have mostly forgotten. Across the main road from A & P there was a Chevron that had the most overpriced gasoline in Atlanta. And a few yards south on Northside Drive from the Chevron was a Steak ‘n Shake, where I developed an early and enduring appreciation for chocolate shakes. The Chevron is still there, somehow still selling petrol for a quarter more per gallon than other dealers. And the Steak ‘n Shake is still there, selling delicious shakes. But the A & P is long gone, replaced by a Publix. Paper bags are gone, too, replaced by plastic or canvas bags with Kermit-green lettering.

“A & P” is a short story by John Updike. I read a lot of John Updike. He remains for me one of America’s great literary fiction writers. Many readers know of his Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom books like Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, or perhaps The Witches of Eastwick. They are wonderful reads. But Updike’s short stories are gems, too. “A & P” is probably his most well-known short story.

“A & P” is about young lust, about changing cultural mores, and about misconceptions we have of one another. What the boy Sammy (the main character) thinks about is girls, but what the girls think about is, well, not necessarily boys, at least not Sammy. The result is a story about upended expectations. What Sammy wanted was the girls, at least attention from the girls, and to be seen as brave, as a hero. Instead, he ends up merely unemployed, alone, and confused at the end. So much for your bravery, Sammy.

Sammy is a teenaged stock boy at an A & P in the 1950s, and the main character. He is bored with his job. He barely camouflages his disdain for his coworkers. He is restless. He longs for adventure. And in walk three girls “in nothing but bathing suits.”[1] What follows is how Sammy and the other males working at the A & P in the 1950s respond to seeing the girls and their bared skin. Sammy is nineteen. Not surprisingly, girls dominate his thoughts and fantasies. Here are his thoughts of the prettiest one of the three girls as he watches her:

She had on a kind of dirty-pink—beige maybe, I don’t know—bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.[2]

Lengel, Sammy’s boss and the A & P’s manager, representing the old moral norms, redresses the girls for their skimpy attire. “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.” The prettiest girl’s response? “We are decent.”[3] There you have it. Sammy exemplifies the younger generation’s view of women. Is it okay, now, to “objectify” women? If girls dress scantily, are boys and men to blame for looking? Do the girls in the story bear no responsibilities? Those seem to be some of this issues “A & P” raises. Lengel, the older man, the manager of the A & P, wants to remain with the standards and mores he has heretofore known. Girls and women are to dress and comport themselves as ladies; otherwise, the culture is degraded. But Sammy, illustrative of youth’s pushing the boundaries, seems to appreciate the girls’ boldness. Plus, let’s be honest, Sammy simply likes seeing the girls in their bathing suits.

The girls don’t take kindly to Lengel’s efforts at reproof and admonition. And Sammy, angry at Lengel and simultaneously desiring to appear brave and sympathetic to the girls’ worldview, makes an impetuous decision: he quits his job as the girls exit the store. He feels he has been brave. He’ll show that he’s sympathetic to the new ways, the new norms, where girls can dress scantily in the local grocery store and should not be criticized by the stodgy Lengels of the world. So Sammy has been heroic, right? Listen to the end:

I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course. There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the second slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in.[4]

Sammy had great expectations—that he’d be seen as a hero, that he’d be lauded for taking a stand, and that the prettiest girl would be waiting for him in the A & P parking lot. But none of that was to be. He is simply unemployed, humiliated, and standing in the grocery parking lot realizing he knows nothing about girls. “A & P” in my old neighborhood is long gone, replaced by neon lights of another chain store. The trees that lined parts of West Paces Ferry there are gone, too, ground down for more concrete jungle. The shoe repair store is now a Starbucks where boys sport ‘man buns’ and wear skinny jeans. And the girls have their hair dyed purple and aquamarine and wear boys’ plaid shirts. Things have changed. Sammy, like you, I would have looked at the pretty girls but I don’t think I would have quit my job. Sometimes the Lengels of the world may’ve learned a thing or two. Maybe Lengel was not so dumb after all.

[1] Updike, John. The Early Stories: 1953-1975. [New York: Ballantine Books, 2003], 596.

[2] Ibid., 597.

[3] Ibid., 600.

[4] Ibid., 601

Consumed by Conflict: Enduring Gratitude for Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”

The literary bug bit me when I was young. The deepest bite was from William Faulkner. His short stories and some of his novels marked me in a way only a handful of other literary writers’ works have. I am reading through many of Faulkner’s works again but focusing on his short stories. Recently I reread “Barn Burning.” One of Faulkner’s most anthologized stories, it is often assigned reading for college and high school kids. I, too, read it at that age, but I have read it many times since. My appreciation for “Barn Burning,” like for much of Faulkner’s fiction, has only increased as I have aged. Many of his themes are too weighty for most kids to fully appreciate, in my view.

“Barn Burning” illustrates Faulkner’s philosophy of literature and what enables great literature to endure: writing that lasts is writing that explores “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

    Here are Faulkner’s words from his 1950 speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature: 

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. 

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.1

“The human heart in conflict with itself.” Yes, that is the stuff of enduring literature. Will Romeo and Juliet’s love endure despite the feuding of the Capulets and Montagues? Will Hamlet avenge his father’s murder and restore order to Elsinore? Will King Lear learn before it’s too late that he has tragically misjudged his daughters? And in “Barn Burning,” will Sarty, the boy-protagonist, son to Abner, a poor, ignorant, violent, vengeful, injured, ravenous, brutal father in the defeated South of post-Civil War America about which Faulkner wrote for a lifetime, will Sarty be able to escape the conflict pulling him two different directions simultaneously? 

    Sarty loves his rapacious father, even though he (Sarty, the son) knows his father is a doomed man. Abner (the father) is caught. He is a poor ignorant white man who is a sharecropper in the South. He is dependent upon wealthy landowners like Major De Spain for work. But Abner hates his plight. He is proud. He, too, has a family. He, too, is a father, a patriarch, but a very fallen man seeking to provide for his dependents. But he is hateful to his employers and even to his own family. He seems, as is common in Faulkner’s characters, a doomed man. 

    But Sarty, perhaps, may escape from the cycle. Sarty’s father, Abner, when he is slighted, when he feels humiliated, he avenges his wounded pride through violence. He slaps his children until their lips burst and bleed. He whips the emaciated mules that pull their wagons. He smears excrement on the white rug of his employer, Major De Spain. All these lashings-out bespeak his sense of frustration, of woundedness, of Abner’s heart, too, in conflict with itself. And his family sees it, especially his sensitive son, Sarty, through whose eyes we view the story, “Barn Burning.” 

    We see Abner’s anger even in the way he speaks to Sarty, early in the story. Listen to the father’s tone and think how this would affect a sensitive boy who both loves his father but is also terrified by him:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?” Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” But now he said nothing. He was not crying.” He just stood there. “Answer me,” his father said. 

    “Yes,” he whispered. His father turned. 2

Sarty is torn. Should he obey every directive from his father out of love? Or should he disobey and wait for his father’s fist to descend like a malicious claw? This is the human heart in conflict with itself. 

    One of the most revealing illustrations of Sarty’s conflict comes in these lines:

His father had struck him before last night but never before had he paused afterward to explain why; it was is if the blow and the following calm, outrageous voice still rang, repercussed, divulging nothing to him save the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered but not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events.3

Sarty, a boy smarting from the pain of having been hit by his abusive father, feels almost old enough to flee but too young to leave from what he knows. He, too, seems doomed, trapped in a no-win predicament, aware of his terrible plight but unable so far to extricate himself. Again this is the human heart in conflict with itself. Is he to remain with his abusive father or leave and essentially orphan himself and have nothing to show for it? 

    Finally, Sarty resolves he cannot endure his father’s ways, the violence, the repeated pattern of vengeance. Sarty warns of his father’s burning De Spain’s barn and De Spain (it is implied in the story) shoots Abner, and Sarty runs away, a fugitive from the only life and way he has ever known:

At midnight he was sitting on the crest of a hill. He did not know it was midnight and he did not know how far he had come. But there was no glare behind him now and he sat now, his back toward what he had called home for four days anyhow, his face toward the dark woods which he would enter when breath was strong again, small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt, the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair. Father. My father, he thought.4

I know literature appeals only to a small number of people. I’m in that little remnant. I know that because when I reread passages like these from Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” and I see a boy who both loved his father but was terrified of him, and I see a boy who somehow knows his father was destroying the very group of people he should have loved the most, and I see the costs Sarty would endure if he stayed weighed against the costs he would endure by fleeing the dysfunction and lies, I am moved in a way that great literature moves some of us. We see the tragedy and the beauty of it all—of families torn apart by forces both external and internal. You move me still, Faulkner. Thank you for enduring and prevailing through what you left us.

1Faulkner, William. Collected Stories. [New York: Penguin Group, 1967], 649-650.

2Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” in The Portable Faulkner, ed. Malcolm Cowley. [New York: Penguin Group, 1967], 8.

3Ibid., 9.

4 Ibid., 24.

The Power of Story – Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

My son read “The Lottery” recently for school. And he, like most other readers of this brief and terrifying American short story by Shirley Jackson, was shaken. So I took it off my shelf recently and reread it, too. Like my son, I, too, was shaken.

Overview: The story is simple with regard to plot. A few families from an unnamed small American town are gathered at 10 a.m. on a summer morning. It is June 27th. Children, fathers, and mothers assemble but only after they have gathered stones, “the smoothest and roundest stones” they could find … to be used for … murder.

Mr. Summers (what a happy surname!) arrives in the town square. He carries a black wooden box. He sets the box down on a three-legged stool. Inside the black box are papers with families’ names on them: Warner, Summers, Graves (a sinister surname?), Adams, Anderson, Delacroix, Dunbar, Hutchinson (suggestions of the New England Salem Witch Trials?), etc.

The patriarch of each family is to draw a piece of paper from the black box. If the slip of paper has a black spot marked in it, you win the lottery. But the lottery winner does not inherit money. He/she inherits death by stoning. The fellow townspeople take up the stones they gathered earlier and then stone the lottery winner to death.

Symbols: Two symbols/images figure prominently in the story—the black box and stones. The black box is treated almost like an ark of the covenant in that it figures prominently for a particular group of believers in a particular culture. And stones (for building or for warfare?) likewise figure prominently.

Ecclesiastes 3:5 ran through my mind constantly while reading this story … “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”

Ideas: Three main ideas remain with me after reading the story again:

  • Ritualism/traditionalism
  • Hypocrisy
  • Cowardice of the crowd

Throughout the story, the characters act out the ritual and tradition of the lottery, but they don’t appear to ever question why. It just seems a matter of course. They have ostensibly “always done things this way.”

The hypocrisy theme is evidenced when the seemingly innocent Tessie is the ‘winner’ of the lottery. Earlier in the story, she orders her husband, “Get up there, Bill,” when she wanted him to draw names out of the black box. She was on board with the tradition then. A few seconds later, however, she would be the victim of the tradition.

Third, we see the nature of crowds and how easily cowards find a home therein. A sort of madness sets in; individual consciences fall away. In almost an instant, ostensibly sensible ‘good people’ are revealed to be murderers.

 Final thoughts: Jackson’s “The Lottery” is ten pages of suspense with a horrific ending. What was Jackson suggesting about the ideas I raised here? I do think she was addressing, among other things, some dangers of blind ritualism, the wickedness of hypocrisy, and that she was calling us to think about the madness of crowds.

X Marks the Spot

X marks the spot. And, my oh my, are there lots of spots about! There are Xes on the floors at Walmart. There are Xes at Target. There are Xes at Ingles, Kroger, Costco, QT, Dollar General, etc. When you approach a cashier to pay for goods and services, if you look down near your feet, you are probably going to see tape, paint, or another marker indicating the following: X marks the spot. I don’t know about you, but it gives me what my grandfather used to call the heebie-jeebies. In short, the creeps. The times are a-changin’, Dylan wrote. But this time it is a different kind of cultural revolution. It is not the Vietnam War now; it is not LSD and the hippies now; it is not feminism now. It is a cultural revolution in which the foundation is being dismantled and destroyed. Statue by statue, church by church, zip code by zip code, mayor by mayor, governor by governor, carnage fills the headlines. And one of the great questions to be settled is, What will the new foundation be?

To state what many believe, the West is undergoing a transformation. We are now in a place where an organization like Black Lives Matter has the world’s attention. And the buzzwords and catchphrases en vogue in today’s post-Christian, post-everything culture pervade their website. Here is a section direct from BLM’s website:

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be      disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

We practice empathy. We engage comrades with the intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.

We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).[1]

Race, gender, “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity” and Communism comprise the majority of BLM’s worldview. As I have read through their website’s resources, it is filled with language of “oppression.”

Individuality is absent; what fills their writing is emphasis upon the group, upon the collective. You are valuable insofar as you are black. Race is key. And if you add certain sexual proclivities, then you receive bonus points, i.e., more value. To simplify it for those who will not do the reading on their own, the worst thing a person can be is white, male, heterosexual, Christian, married, monogamous, and politically conservative. Those are indicators of your status as “oppressor.”

To say that BLM illustrates “identity politics” is supreme understatement. In the absence of the transcendent worldview that teaches that all lives matter (from conception until natural death) because they are created in the image of the infinite-personal creator God, now we live in a world where pigmentation determines people’s worth.

Remember Rev. MLK’s words about the dream that all people would be valued by the “content of their character” rather than the color of their skin? Well, that is rejected by BLM. For BLM, color is what matters.

I wonder why the statistics of the millions of black babies murdered each year don’t find space on their website. Did those black lives not matter? What about the lives snuffed out by black on black crime in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Oakland, in Detroit, in New York, in Philadelphia, in D.C., and other cities controlled by Leftists? Did those black lives not matter?

My wife and I lost a couple of children several years back. For those of you who have been through the same thing, you know the pain. It is almost indescribable. My wife’s pain through those seasons was horrible to watch. And all I could do was watch, cry, and pray. They remain terrible experiences that scarred us both. Our children’s lives mattered.

But why doesn’t the logic cut both ways for BLM? Where is the outrage at Planned Parenthood facilities being overwhelmingly in neighborhoods where most American blacks live, and aborting generations of black lives? Don’t those lives matter?

Again, look at the numbers: “Since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, abortion has killed an estimated 20 million black babies — more than the entire black population of 1960.”[2]

What will replace the foundation that is being torn down statue by statue? What will replace the foundation that tells people they are valuable because they are created in the image of God who redeems their fallenness through the gospel? What will replace the heretofore self-discipline and Judeo-Christian worldview that informed the Founding Fathers’ worldviews, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence? What will replace the traditional family where moms and dads raised children to honor their parents, to respect all people, to wrestle against their own sin, to think critically, and to honor those to whom honor is due?

Will the moniker be, X marks the spot? Will it be that the West destroys itself from casting off all moral restraint? Will the West degenerate to such a level that the arguments that carry the culture into judgment revolve around “gender identity,” “oppression,” and “identity politics”?

I do not claim to speak for others but I, for one, am long past being weary of wearing facemasks and using hand sanitizer while watching thugs vandalize private and federal property and wreak havoc—and yet, I am somehow the bad guy if I don’t don a mask and stand six feet from my neighbor?

In the biblical worldview, we are to love our neighbors and respect their property, not shame them for something they’re not guilty of. In the biblical worldview, we are to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. But in the godless Communist world of BLM and Leftism, you see paint being splattered across the nation, riots disrupting civilized life, intimidation, violence, defunding of police, “cancel culture,” and unleashed madness.

The foundations are being dismantled block after block across our land by mobs in black shirts, fattened on vitriol and talking points, but malnourished with regard to self-discipline, love for God, or love of neighbor.

X marks the spot used to mean, at least when I was young, the place signifying you’d landed upon the spot for treasure. This was where the goods were to be found. Now the Xes keep us “distanced,” and suspicious of one another, looking askance at each other, sizing one another up. Really? Has it really come to this—skin colors, critical race theories, gender identities, identity politics, and language of oppressors vs. oppressed? I hope not, folks.

There is a better way. It is not utopian. It is not “progressive.” It tells us that we are all (all!) created in the image of God, but that we have fallen through sin. Yet grace has come in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And glory comes on his terms because of him, to all who respond in repentance and faith. Creation, fall, grace, and glory. How is that for X making the spot? You can stand there and if you do, you will find the foundation whose builder is God, and you will finally be home.