This World is Not (Yet) My Home

I enjoyed the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, when it came first came out nineteen years ago. I still like it a lot. I’m halfway through the Iliad with the Odyssey next on my list as far as classics go. It was a beautiful blend of old South Americana and mythology. Not to mention, the music was excellent. Alison Krauss is the heartbeat of American music.

But as I’ve read the Bible and read the fathers and Reformed theology, some of the lyrical themes of that wonderful movie’s soundtrack no longer sit right in my craw, beautiful as they are. “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Angel Band.” “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” So much of that beautiful soundtrack is dotted with old poems about “going home” and finding final and eternal rest in a heavenly home. That’s appropriate for the movie because it’s loosely based on the Odyssey, a story about a man trying to get back home.

And yet, if we can’t feel at home in this world anymore because we’re just passing through, what good is this world? What real need do we have to care for it if God is going to burn it up (as a certain type of theology promises). I once heard a popular preacher (speaking about global warming), “If you think it’s hot now, wait until Jesus gets a hold of it!” There are few more wicked sentiments I can think of for a man of the cloth to proclaim from a pulpit. It implies that the Creator is somehow chomping at the bit, eager to obliterate everything good that he made that was stained by sin.

And I’ve heard it geared towards teenagers as well. Take this world and give me Jesus. I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. There could more harmful things to listen to on the radio. But this is just a more modern repacking of “I’ll fly away” and “this world is not my home.”

This is how Greek philosophy got its fingers around the gospel’s throat and never really let go. On the one hand, the Epicureans (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”) saw our bodies as cruise ships to be enjoyed until they shipwreck on the shallow reefs of indulgence. But on the other hand, the one that grabbed onto Christianity, the body was a prison from which the soul needed to escape. That’s what the disciples of Plato believed. Don’t indulge the body. Indulge the mind. Ignore the body. It’s evil and untrustworthy and too much like the animals. What matters is reason (the Logos). Feed the mind with knowledge. If you gain enough knowledge, you feed the soul and the soul is what matters.

Plato said that all the physical things you see are like shadows on a cave wall. There’s a fire behind you, but you can’t see the fire because you’re chained up in the cave and you can only see the shadows on the wall that the fire is casting. According to Plato, all physical reality is made up of shadows. They aren’t important. What really matters is the thing that is casting the shadow- the hidden thing, the thing that you can’t see. That’s what matters. In the words of Master Yoda, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

A good Platonist, Yoda was.

Plato believed that the young should be taught to welcome death, neither to regret nor lament it. Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard and seen too much nonsense about Christian funerals as a flavor of celebration. Grieving with hope gets replaced with the celebration of liberation. Plato believed that death is good, something to be greeted like an old friend. Why? He believed that because he believed death is the moment when the immortal soul is set free from the prison of the physical body.

Plato viewed death as a jailbreak for the soul. Biblical Christianity views death as the last enemy to be destroyed. What happens after death? Well, Plato said that judgment is based upon deeds. The wicked go to hell. But the righteous souls fly away to join the stars. Does that sound familiar? Socrates famously said upon his deathbed that the real “me” was not the corpse he would leave behind, but that which is inside the body before death. He said a human is a “little soul carrying around a corpse.”

Platonists believed that the virtuous joined the stars at death. They became stars. The immortal souls are implanted into human bodies (male, the superior, and female, the inferior) and the main task of the soul is to master the desires and emotions of the body: pleasure, pain, fear, rage, etc. Those who do that well enough go and join the stars.

Some prison breaks involve more pandamonium than others.

And so, if you believe the body is a prison and death is the jailbreak, why would you believe in a reality in which you are reunited with your prison? No prisoner wants to go back to the jail he just escaped. That’s why Plato is not very helpful in understanding the incarnation or the resurrection. Plato would certainly not have wanted to live out eternity in a physical world.

The Stoics, for instance, believed that at the end of the present age, everything would be dissolved by fire, and the whole order of the universe would end. Does that sound familiar? The Greeks didn’t want to live in a physical world. They wanted the physical world to burn so that they could have spiritual bliss.

Looking for truth in Alderaan places.

Epicureans said that death is the end of everything. Yolo. Carpe diem.

Platonists said that death is the beginning of everything. Don’t fear the jailbreak. Be ready to fly away.

If the world is Epicurean, the Church has become Platonic. In the first case, the resurrection is disbelieved as ridiculous. In the second, it is reduced as a irrelevant, a secondary curiosity that simply make our faith distinct. And on both views, this world is not seen as a home. It’s seen as a buffet to be used or an enclosure to be destroyed.

And yet, I understand the impulse to those songs. I understand the homesickness. But that other world for which we are made is a world that will one day come to this world so that “heaven and earth be one.” This world is not yet my home. But it will be. That’s my hope.

A Meditation on Cosmic Alchemy

Have you ever heard of the Maillard reaction?

It’s named after the man helplessly attached to this mustache, Louis Camille Maillard. Both he and the mustache were French.

I never cooked that much before I was married. My wife is an excellent cook and, after a few years of looking over her shoulder in awe, I began to do the occasional odd dish. And some of those occasional dishes were very odd, indeed. But cooking fascinates me in that it seems to be one of humanity’s earliest exercises in chemistry.

When you grill a steak or put some bread in the toaster, do you know that beautiful golden browning that appears on the outside? That’s called the Maillard reaction.

It’s a chemical reaction. The protein and sugars in your flank steak react with the heat to create a plethora of beautiful and delicious compounds. You can even see the Maillard reaction when your marshmallow turns all brown and crusty over the bonfire.

And yes, when you add heat, pathogens and parasites are burned alive and purges from your plate. The act of cooking breaks down complex molecules into simpler compounds that are easier to digest. But that’s the utility of it.

The beauty of the Maillard reaction is the color. Amino acids and sugars hugging it out under the stress of high temperatures. Yes, it’s chemistry, but I like to think of it as a kind of alchemy.

How does she achieve the Maillard reaction? Magic.

Pink to brown. White to gold. Brown to near black. Chemistry is a deep magic baked into the cosmos before we discovered it. Taste, sight, safety- these are all enriched and elevated when carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen can no longer stand the heat. A simple act of energy transfer coaxes a little bit of cosmic alchemy into our daily lives.

Hallelujah for the Maillard reaction. And happy Labor Day to those who will see it today.

Beautiful Stories to Tell in the Dark

So, this one time, C.S. Lewis stayed at a haunted house.

But that’s not the part he chooses to emphasize. I would love to read a short mystery novel about Lewis at this haunted inn on a windswept hill in Ireland. But it doesn’t exist yet.

Anyway, the spooks and ghouls didn’t have nearly the effect on the locals as “the good people.” In addition to being allegedly haunted, this building was said to have faeries. And that was why the townsfolk steered clear of it. Now, having said that, I know that someone just rolled their eyes and maybe even just clicked away to a Neil DeGrasse Tyson video to remind themselves that we’ve conquered all mysteries.

But Jack had a medieval mind. Don’t forget, his day job was to teach medieval and Renaissance literature. And he took seriously what they took seriously. But to overcome the modern stereotype of Tinkerbell, he preferred to call them the Longaevi (“the long lived”). And in The Discarded Image, he takes great pleasure in subdividing them into different types with references from Milton and Spenser as his footnotes.

But my point is not to argue whether or not C.S. Lewis believed that faeries were real. His mind was thoroughly pre-modern and so was his imagination. And when he sought to explain the Longaevi (nymphs, fauns, satyrs, dryads, etc.), he sensed the tension they introduce in the medieval system. You had the seven heavens and the earth and the fullness thereof. But then we see this third category that defies tidy organization.

“They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous” (Discarded Image, p.122).

A welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty. The philosopher Charles Taylor gets credit for introducing the term “disenchantment” to describe the secularization of the West. Jamie Smith, in his very helpful guide to reading Taylor’s The Secular Age, explains that the location of meaning has been moved from the world to the mind. Things aren’t soaked through with significance. Our minds, and their ability to perceive meaning internally, are drenched with importance.

The cosmos becomes the universe. Creation becomes nature. The curse of the lightbulb means that all the shadows and uncertainties have been banished from the haunted house. Things are, in Lewis’ words, “a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.” Charles Taylor calls it “the rage of order.” And faeries, sea monsters, ghosts, and goblins are that splinter of wildness wedged in the gears of a well-oiled and easily observed machine.

That’s my point in bringing all of this up. A hint of wildness and uncertainty can be a corrective to the secular mindset, the one that sees the world for what it appears to be. There’s that great scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the children and Caspian are talking with a fallen star named Ramandu and the ever practical Eustace doesn’t quite have a category for what he’s seeing (despite meeting one already). He tried to correct the retired star on his own existence.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace. ‘A star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’”

I remember reading that as a kid and shivering with delight. A welcome hint of wildness. Do you see? That’s why I like watching scary movies. That’s why I enjoy fantasy novels and science fiction. That’s why I’ll binge certain shows that offer up an intrusion of uncertainty into a world with too many lightbulbs and not enough shadowy corners.

We can’t put everything under the microscope, least of all God Almighty. The medievals understood that at first blush. Jack did as well. So, yes, maybe those stars really are what science tells us they are. That’s fine. But I’m holding out hope that I’ll meet Rigel enjoying his retirement on the new earth someday.

Wouldn’t that be wild?

Body and Soul

I was chatting with some friends earlier this week. I love to have good conversations. If we can imbibe coffee or enjoy birdsong whilst talking, all the better. Alas, it was an indoor conversation, but there was plenteous caffeine. And so it goes.

Anyway, we were discussing the importance of physical location in worship, and at one point, someone said something like, “But of course, your soul is the real you…” and the conversation went on. I circled back during a lull and focused on that phrase.

The soul is the real you? The spiritual is the best indicator of who you are? In February, we buried my Grandmom. I did her eulogy. And I heard a lot of the same talk. People would look at her in the casket and say, “We know that this is not Mary Kay. She’s up in heaven right now.” Then who did we put in the ground?

You are your soul. And you are your body. And you are your emotions and your mind and your will. You do not simply bear the image of God. You are the image of God. Otherwise, the resurrection of the body makes no sense. Christians aren’t Platonists. Christians aren’t Gnostics. We aren’t materialists.

The body and the soul belong together. Death is just a brief separation. We put my Grandmom in the ground. And my Grandmom is also in heaven. One day, her body will sprout like a flower from the grave and her renewed soul will be reunited with a renewed body.

That’s the hope.

Cultivate a Little Wonder

G.K. Chesterton (a wonderful balloon of a man) once said, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” This world is stuffed full of wonders. Right now, I’m re-watching Planet Earth, that excellent BBC documentary about God’s green earth. It’s not just David Attenborough’s beautiful narration that makes this series wonderful. It’s the sense of wonder that it instills in me.

Yes, it is full of wonders. That’s obvious. The largest living organism in the world (a sequoia named General Sherman) stuns me even as I sit on the couch covered in blankets. The fledgling flight of mandarin ducklings makes me giggle. The loss of a snow goose gosling to feed starving arctic fox kits fills me with cringing shock and somber acceptance all at once. One dies so another can live and God feeds them all.

But this world of nature does more than show me splendors. It creates a space of fullness within me. It fuels worship, I think. It makes me realize how small I am in this blue speck of dust that slingshots through a vacuum. And that makes me smile.

Watch nature shows. Look at birds. Listen to Bach. Climb a tree. Do a math problem (if you enjoy math). Have a hug. However you get at it, cultivate wonder. And be thankful.

Horse-Feed Propoganda

I haven’t been into breakfast for a while now. I think I stopped eating it in college. Over the years, I’ve been rebuked and scolded for this in varying degrees of shock and incredulous outrage, but I haven’t felt the need to change. I just don’t wake up hungry. Breakfast, as a meal, hasn’t made sense to me in years. I just ate dinner last night, so why should I need to eat again first thing in the morning? I’m usually still stuffed from last night. And if I’m not, a fried egg on toast can solve that. No more, but often less than that does the trick when necessary.

That might be strange, I know. We’re taught three square meals a day, but that schedule hasn’t worked for my appetites since I left home for college and started timing my own meals. A few years ago, I found a kindred spirit in the writings of Robert Farrar Capon. He and I would’ve probably disagreed on many a theological flavor, but when he writes about food, it’s deliciously accurate. His quasi-spiritual cookbook, The Marriage Supper of the Lamb, articulated my thoughts on eating schedules and habits eerily well. And when he touches on breakfast, I rejoice to find my thoughts in another man’s words.

“If it were not for the propaganda of the horse-feed barons, most of us would probably be more than content with fruit and coffee” (Marriage Supper, p.146). Yes and amen. And it seems that his intuition wasn’t too far off. New research suggests that breakfast isn’t the vital and crucial building block to a life of health and happiness that Kellogg told us it would be. Perhaps breakfast really is just time to be left alone with one’s thoughts (with coffee and crust).

Exercise, of course. Eat breakfast or don’t, if you’re not a growing child or a highly active person. If you do, thank your Creator. But don’t die on that hill. And either way, let’s all keep our voices down before we’ve had our coffee.