I’ve been working through a course on ethics with theology students in AQP, including a section on ecological ethics. Simultaneously working on the next issue of Missio Dei on “watershed discipleship”—a bioregional Christian response to our current ecological situation. I’m a newcomer to the ecological conversation, but my initial response, in the context of a broader view of Christian ethics, is that it looks like it will be analogous in my generation to the American civil rights movement. Except that it’s a global conversation. As I write these words, I know that to some they will seem like the most obvious statement possible and to others they will reek of dramatic overstatement. But that is part of the analogy. The profound change of lifestyle and reordering of relationships that ecological ethics entail will be led (only in part but critically) by some Christians who have the moral imagination necessary to follow Jesus into a reconciled relationship with creation. A great deal of Christianity, however, will spend the next generation little by little making public apologies for moral failure and delayed response. The former is what interests me—not the unlikely attempt to avoid the latter. How do we recognize those with eyes to see a different future? Because what matters ultimately is that the prophetic word be spoken into the present, even by a fragile few. I say this as the farthest thing from an activist. As far as I can tell, repentance is going to be inconvenient, painful, costly, uncertain, dangerous, and discouraging all at the same time. On a personal level, I’m rather repelled by it. But I’m trying to listen to those who are already further along the way. Trying to hear. I confess, it’s disconcerting.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen. (Rev 1:5b–6)
To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Phil 4:20)
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:36)
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:20–21)
The Wheel of Time has been 11,916 pages over the course of half of my life. There aren’t many things that can make me feel like this story has. I don’t often feel as sad as I do now that I’ve read the last words of the last chapter. Not brutally sad as merit death or disease. Sad like the memories of a childhood friend—a true friend who is now a different person in a different life. Sad like the ache for a beautiful place that you know you’ll never see again.
I’m not trying to be melodramatic, and I’m not trying to talk about an epic fantasy series like it’s a great work of literature. I can be a snob about quality when the moment is right. The present moment, though, is about the conclusion of a journey that has been a beloved part of many, many moments of my life. For sci-fi/fantasy readers, there isn’t much to explain, even if you’re not a Wheel of Time fan. So I suppose I’m writing with others in mind, who might not get what it’s about. C. S. Lewis wrote about it in his little introduction to George McDonald’s Phantastes:
Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius—a Kafka or a Novalis—who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can co-exist with great inferiority in the art of words—nay, since its connection with words at all turns out to be merely external and, in a sense, accidental. Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts. It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored. It may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. (MacDonald, George (1981-05-18). Phantastes (Kindle Locations 108-118))
This is the genius of fantasy—to break out of that normal mode of consciousness into a world of delight and unexpected joys, to somehow get in touch with another part of life that is inexplicably out of reach otherwise. With his typically uncanny grasp of truth, Lewis goes on to make an extraordinary claim about “mythopoetic” (fantasy) literature such as McDonald’s:
There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my ‘teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round—in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from ‘the land of righteousness,’ never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire—the thing (in Sappho’s phrase) ‘more gold than gold.’ (MacDonald, George (1981-05-18). Phantastes (Kindle Locations 133-139))
It is the thing itself, the unfolding, the journey through that strange land—not some particular abstract principle or truth behind the prose—that makes it so enchanting, even revelatory. But it is especially the kind of world that, for whatever reason—no doubt due in great measure to McDonald and Lewis and Tolkien—became the enduring aesthetic of modern fantasy. As Lewis notes, that aesthetic is basically Romanticism, but it has a different quality than that in which he “had already been waist deep . . . ; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity” (MacDonald, George (1981-05-18). Phantastes (Kindle Locations 123-125)).
This reminds me very much of the loss I feel with the end of the Wheel of Time. Currently, I very much enjoy the darker, grittier sub-genre of fantasy that is becoming, more and more, the industry norm. But it is a drastic contrast with the innocence of Robert Jordan’s world, and fantasy after Lewis and Tolkien, in the peculiar mold they cast, was about the reduction of life to the clarity for which we so often long: light and dark, love and hate, valor and cowardice, right and wrong. Not that they wrote out moral complexity, but they did put swords in the hands of heroes of pure heart so they could cut down evil where it stood. The romantic in the core of my being will never be finished listening for that story.
The Wheel of Time holds a special place in my heart, though, because it is a coming of age story that unfolded as I was coming of age. It’s a story about young friends—confronted with a world that is suddenly far darker and more threatening than they imagined, called reluctantly to hold fast to their goodness while doing what they must to survive and to fight, always bewildered by the opposite sex in the process, faithful in friendship unto death—who eventually become the men and women they needed to be. There will be other stories, but I have the sinking feeling that few will ever match the breadth and depth of simple pleasure I found over these last fifteen years as Jordan’s characters grew into humble, fretful, loving heroes.
Lewis said it best:
“I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.” (On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature)
Ken Neller was the only teacher who ever told me to stop whining. He was the only teacher who ever had to—the one who pushed me out of the shallow end of biblical studies and waited for me to meet his expectation that I would swim. That is a debt I cannot repay and a memory that I cherish. I found myself as an academic while I struggled to write his term papers, and I discovered a love of biblical Greek under his strict tutelage. My memories of Dr. Neller have indelibly marked my image of what a teacher should be. He never lowered his standard of scholarship as a teacher of Bible and Ministry to students who were more eager to play than study, but he always went the extra mile to relate to his students. I remember sitting in a restaurant as a freshman discussing the Jesus Seminar, because he wanted to encourage my extra-curricular questions over a sandwich instead of in an office. I remember the cookouts at his house with the Bible majors and the many extra hours spent with the “Bible Majors’ Club.” I remember his guest presentations at the Society for Near Eastern Archaeology. I remember the end-of-semester invitation to do our final Greek reading in 1 Corinthians over coffee in the student center—his treat. And I remember his faithfulness to pray before each class; candid, earnest prayers that made me feel glad for the people he shepherded at Downtown.
You were steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, and your labor was not in vain. I look forward to seeing you again, Dr. Neller.
Livermore’s third strategy for making a global difference right now is, work it into work.
This can be very challenging, especially for those jobs that seem to have little to do with the wide world. Livermore writes, for example, “Some people working in manufacturing jobs might find little satisfaction in their work because they have a hard time seeing how the widget they produce fulfills their priestly calling.” Global difference aside, many of us find it difficult to make even an immediate difference in our jobs. A friend of mine in property management once wrote:
My job is basically to serve the wealthier (or as we have found out in the last couple of years, those with access to a bank or lender’s wealth) and help them make more money off of those who are less wealthy. It’s a passive system of oppression and I’m not unaware that most of our owners are white and most of our tenants are black. Nothing that I do in my job gives me the opportunity to relate to people. They want me to fix their problems or affirm their feelings. Nothing more. Also everyone in my office is a believer.
This might represent opportunity to work for reform, or it might be an intractable situation. But assuming the best case scenario, even Livermore’s advice has a very local orientation.
There are countless other ways Christians can live out Christ’s presence in the world through the work they do. There are lawyers doing pro bono defense work for those unable to afford it, politicians working for legislation that brings about redemptive change in cities and nations, and pilots safely transporting people from one side of the world to the other. There are third-shift factory workers who make parts of gadgets that make our lives safer, and while they work, they relate graciously with their immigrant coworkers. There are retail associates dealing with cantankerous customers in ways that embody the grace of Jesus, and baristas who serve people with a smile and use their coffee shop as a platform for advocacy. Construction workers are taking into account how they care for the environment and fixing the homes of people in need. Military personnel, police officers, and firefighters are protecting us, farmers are feeding us, and truck drivers are getting goods to people near and far. Meanwhile many stay-at-home parents are working for love, sometimes only for love. Look around you for creative ways to connect your global concerns with your work!
That last sentence seems disconnected from much of what the rest of the paragraph mentions. How does pro bono legal defense, kindness to customers, or stay-at-home parenting relate to global issues? All of those things are good and necessary, but how does Livermore make the leap from local to global in such scenarios? If I’m doing something thoroughly local, the advice to look for creative ways to connect my global concern to that work can be a little frustrating.
To be fair to Livermore, a number of the subsequent chapters aim to make suggestions for specific fields of work. Yet, the real issue is about perspective. We need a global perspective on our local work in order to see the importance of doing that local work rightly. The connection between the global and the local generated one of those bizarre new words that is utilitarian rather than elegant: glocal (from global-local). This word is the symbol of the realization that the world is more powerfully integrated than ever before. I’ve written about this here if you are interested in further explanation.
The point being, the first step of working it into work is to change your outlook on your local impact. There may be overt ways to make a global difference from your job, but even if not, the opposite of overt is not imaginary but covert—hidden. We need to begin discerning the truth about our glocal lives. When we do, we see how our connection to the rest of the world means that doing our work excellently and righteously reverberates globally. As an individual, that may realistically be the tiniest of tremors, but as an intentional Christian community, those collective tremors build momentum. In addition to discerning the glocal aspect of your life, therefore, I also think refusing to see your work individualistically is indispensable. Every one of us needs a community with a missional outlook.
Some might have the impression that my job as a cross-cultural missionary is easier when it comes to working it into work. Foreign mission work appears to be “making a global difference” by definition. Yet, the reality is that we are as focused locally as the next church. Sure, as an American I’m attempting to make an impact in Peru. But as a minister, I’m trying to disciple and serve those around me. It’s very easy to keep my head down and fail to look up at the global horizon. For me, working it into work means fostering a glocal perspective and making sure that the Christian community understands how “spurring each other on” is about the world rather than just the individual. Hopefully that will result in the Peruvian church sending missionaries out as well, but just as importantly, is should result in every Christian looking for those creative ways to make a tremor.
I’m a big fan of the Angola Mission Team. Those guys rock.
When I look at the hunger map, there is one section that screams at me. It is actually a stunning pattern, when you step back from it, that strip of maroon running right down the middle of Africa.
Right there in the mix is Angola. Read the short history to understand why. Forty years of war is hard to fathom.
Pray for them.
by Frederic Edwin Church (1859)
I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!
–Monty Python, “Michelangelo and the Pope”