Ball Lightning is a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu set in the contemporary world. It is loosely connected to the author’s “Three Body” trilogy of Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, and like those books is enriched by a Chinese author’s story being told largely in China. But the story does not depend on those connections, and the events in Ball Lightning do not provide much depth to the events in that trilogy. Ball Lightning succeeds in three areas: discussion of the real phenomenon of ball lightning, a fun description of the highs and lows of scientific discovery, and a meditation on the interdependence of defense research and new technologies.
But before that, some brief criticisms. I enjoyed Ball Lightning and recommend it, but as with “Three Body” the focus is definitely on science and its implications, not characters. All characters tend to be two-dimensional, with simple motivations. No character changes much or discovers more about themselves. They are tropes, but tropes well used to tell an interesting “hard science” fiction story.
I am interested in ball lightning. That comes back to two family members, who did not like each other and often undercut each other, who both reported seeing a silent, very bright, ball of light at the same place in time. (The same episode lead to my interest in UFOs, as described in my UFO theory). I did not know before reading Ball Lightning that the phenomenon was no longer considered to be paranormal: it was recorded by scientific equipment in China! Ball lightning discoveries have been scientifically published (Cen et al, 2014). This is mentioned in-book, and I was as pleasantly surprised it really happened. Nevertheless, the actual composition, nature, and source of ball lightning are unknown, and Liu develops (and has characters either support or contest) a number of interesting hypotheses.
Liu goes one step farther, describing not just specific theories but different methods of implementing research. Characters defend, attack or practice theoretical and empirical research, civilian and military research, and even “mechanistic” and non-mechanistic research. The last category appears to relate to Marxist theory as applied by the Soviet Union, and is a reminder that the Cultural Revolution and our own politically correct eras are not the only where science is infected by political fashion. A large variety of defense research methods are described, ranging from the lone “mad” inventor to computer systems espionage to corporate work.
A fascinating, if short, involves the main character’s trip to the United States. Without giving way plot points, the themes of low-trust bargaining, surprise attacks, coded messages, and mutually assured destruction, all familiar from The Dark Forest, make a reappearance. They feel like good friends.
In the afteward Liu states that Ball Lightning is a traditional Chinese-style science fition story, focused on the invention of a technology itself, as opposed to a western science fiction story, focused on the societal consequences of the invention (The “Three Body” series is, by this definition, western). As I look over the western science fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog — A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Accidental Time Machine, The Difference Engine, and “The Frozen Sky” — I do see this pattern.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. Burnt Norton I
Four Quartets is composed of four poems — “Burnt Norton” (1936), “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942). Each of the poems is broken into five parts.
I did not know much about T.S. Elliot before reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings last year. After that I was aware that T.S. Elliot vaguely traveled in similar circles to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and in some way considered himself a Christian. Like most I could recognize at best two famous lines, both without context, both from Little Gidding V.
So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
and, even more cliche
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The best comparisons for Four Quartets are the literary prophets in the Bible. Like Ezekiel, Elliot alienates the reader to achieve an effect and like Isaiah, Elliot looks toward the Incarnation. Elliot is in dialogue with Jeremiah and John the Revelator over the beginning of the Incarnation, and like the author of Lamentations examines its end.
The prophet Ezekiel and certain post-modern writers use alienation effect to jolt the reader into realizing he is reading. Elliot combines the prophetic and post-modern styles, drawing attention to the composition of the text to draw attention to its authorship.
Ezekiel alienates his reader in many ways, but the passing mention to his wife is a great example. No one who is paying attention can read the passage and not immediately realize the book he is reading has an author, and the author has chosen to share exactly this level of detail:
So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died; and the next morning I did as I was commanded. Ezekiel 24:18
Until I read Four Quartets I did not comprehend the alienation effect apparent even earlier in the Bible. The great Biblical translator Robert Alter noted the parts of the Hebrew Bible, especially Genesis and Exodus, are “fraught with background.” They read as if other writing is being incorporated by reference, and the comprehensibility of text can suddenly decline. This is often used as evidence of the Documentary hypothesis, that the Hebrew Bible had multiple authors and with “redactors” whose actions betray a lack of artistic unity. Surely passages like this are evidence of an ancient and half-remembered source-text?
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘
And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and made it touch his feet, and said, “Surely you are a bridgeroom of blood to me!” So he let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!” — because of the circumcision.
And the LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him on the mountain of God, and kissed him. So Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which He had commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel. Exodus 4:22-29
But Elliot’s text has the same fraughtness, but is unquestionably the artistic work of one man:
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see the dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie —
A dignified and commodius sacrement.
Two and two, neccesarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche botokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn, or in rustic laughter East Coker I
Naive “higher critics” of the Bible may argue that Ezekiel is simply poorly written, and that Exodus combines multiple strands that were poorly literary together. But no one can accuse Elliot of sloppiness or of being the pen name for a school of intellectuals that span centuries.
The prophet Isaiah begins with what appears to be a historic narrative and transitions into poetry that transcends time and even reason. Isaiah promises a male-child — a created being — who is treated as an Egyptian God-King, enthroned with five superlatives, with the claim he is the Creator.
For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called
Prince of Peace Isaiah 9:6
The reign of this Creator-creature will transcend time:
Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. Isaiah 9:7
Elliot combines these themes, just as explicitly and just as cryptically:
The hint half guessed, the gift half
understood, is Incarnation.
Here is the impossible union.
Of spheres of existence is actual
here the past and future
Are conquered, reconciled The Dry Salvages V
The still point of history, around which everything revolves
At the still point of the turning world. Neither
flesh nor fleshless:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point,
there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither
movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to
place it in time. Burnt Norton II
(Un)Like Jeremiah, like John
Elliot takes this one further. The logical consequence of a Creator-creature is that, just as every creature has a mother, so must the Creator. To the prophet Jeremiah, it seemed that this proved the Creator-creature was the point at which logical analysis must end:
Do you not see what they do in
the cities of Judah and
in the streets of Jerusalem?
The children gather wood,
the fathers kindle the fire, and
the women knead dough, to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven; and
they pour out drink offerings
to other gods, that they may
provoke Me to anger. Jeremiah 7:17-18
Elliot reads Jeremiah as if there must be sarcastic quotes around the Queen of Heaven noted in Jeremiah. Elliot’s Queen is a woman adored by God, as recorded by John:
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days. Revelation 12:1-6
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish,
and those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning: Figlia del tuo figlio [daughter of your son],
Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus. The Dry Salvages IV
Like the Lamentations
Elliot’s focus is the Incarnation — the life, death, and resurrection of Christ — as the focus of history. Within this triptych it is blood, death, and Good Friday which is the center of the center
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. East Coker IV
And the total abandonment of the Passion:
but conscious of nothing — I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness of the dancing East Corker III
As the Lord sacrificed Zion
How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!
She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies. Lamentations 1:1-2
He also sacrificed her daughter, her King:
It would be they same at the end of the journey.
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. Little Gidding I
The eldritch horrors of Elliot:
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
It hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone; The Dry Salvages I
match the blasted, earlier creations, of history:
The Lord has purposed to destroy
The wall of the daughter of Zion.
He has stretched out a line;
He has not withdrawn His hand from destroying;
Therefore He has caused the rampart and wall to lament;
They languished together.
Her gates have sunk into the ground;
He has destroyed and broken her bars.
Her king and her princes are among the nations;
The Law is no more,
And her prophets find no vision from the Lord. Lamentations 2:8-9
Out of the whale came the prophet Jonah, who shared the good news with gentiles.
Out of Jerusalem, the corrupted city of the Temple, came the flowing blood of Christ.
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. Little Gidding V
The Shepherd of Hermas is early Christian apocrypha.
Shepherd was probably written about the same time as 1 Enoch,2 Esdras, and The Protoevangelium of James but the style is modern. Shepherd is also archetypical, and reads like a compansion to Jordan Peterson. Its Christology is mainstream — with the exception of a novel Procession of the Trinity. Like other apocryphal literature its purpose was to provide a bridge to Christianity — in the case of Shepherd, that community is well-off Romans.
The framing of Shepherd reminds me of C.S. Lewis, in particular his use of a fictionalized version of himself as the narrator in The Great Divorce.
Just as the framing device in Divorce is a Lewis on bus ride, the frame for Shepherd is a long walk interrupted by visions:
Twenty days after the former vision, brothers, I saw another — a representation of the tribulation that is to come. I was going to a country house along the Campanian road, which is about one and-a-quarter miles from the public road (the district is one that is rarely traveled).
“The Fourth Vision”
The author at turns ironically chides himself:
They were stubborn and eager to place themselves, wishing to know everything and yet knowing nothing at all. Because they were unbending, understanding left them, and foolish senselessness entered into them. They praise themselves as having wisdom, and though they are destitute of sense they desire to become teachers.
“The Ninth Parable”
And at other times, is heavier in his self-criticism:
“Because, sir, I don’t know if I can be saved!” I replied.
“Why is that?”
“Because I never spoke a true word in my life, but have always spoken deceitfully to everyone, and made lies out to be truth. No one ever contradicted me, but rather believed my words. How can I live since I have acted like this?”
“The Third Commandment”
In The Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton ensnares the reader by first writing ina secular or licentious way, and then (all while retaining a present-perfect point-of-view) transitioning to a more discerning perspective. Shepherd does the same — the gazing upon a naked woman is at first denied to be lustful:
The master who raised me sold me to a woman named Rhoda in Rome. Mayn years after this I met her again, and began to love her as a sister. Some time after I saw her bathing in the Tiber river, and I gave her my hand and drew her out of the river. The sight of her beauty made me think to myself,” I’d be a happy man if I could get a wife as good and beautiful as she is.” This was the only thought that passed through my mind — this and nothing more.
“The First Vision”
until the truth is revealed, and the narrator of the Shepherd’s self-criticisms become not-so-gentle after all:
With a smile she [a woman in a vision] replied, “The desire of wickness arose in your heart. Isn’t it your opinion that a righteous man commits sin when an evil desire arises in his hearth? In such a case there is sin — and the sin is great, for the thoughts of a righteous man should be righteous. By thinking righteously his character is established in the heavens, and he will find the Lord merciful to him in everything. But those who entertain wicket thoughts in their minds bring death and captivity on themselves, especially those who set their affections on this world and the glory in their riches, and don’t look forward to the blessings of the world to come.
“The First Vision”
I am not aware of any of the books of scripture which use such an unreliable narrator — though of course some (as Robert Alter has explained at depth) were at least using the tools of fiction.
I am grateful that I finished Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief immediately before beginning Shepherd. Just as the narative similarity to C.S. Lewis stories makes me suspect Lewis took notes from Shepherd, the self-conscious use of archetypes in Shepherd imply a similar understanding of the collective unconscious. (Either the author of Shepherd and Carl Jung came to very similar conclusions about archetypes, or Shepherd is one source document for Jung’s theory.)
This is true both in its prescriptions,
Instead ask the Lord, so that you may receive understanding to know them. You cannot see what is behind you, but rather what is before you .So whatever you cannot see, let it alone, and do not torment yourself about it. Make yourself the master of what you do see, and don’t waste your energy on other things.
“The Ninth Parable”
Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.
Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
… and in more complex allegories:
I also saw other stones which had been thrown far away from the Tower and landed in the public road; and they did not stay on the road, but were rolled into a pathless place. I saw other stones falling into the fire and burning, and others falling close to the water yet not capable of being rolled into it, even though they wanted to enter.
“The Third Vision”
Peterson’s interpretation of the “path”:
The unknown is yang, cold, dark and feminine; the known yin, warm, bright and masculine; the knower is the man living in Tao, on the razor’s edge, on the straight and narrow path, on the proper road, in meaning, in the kingdom of heaven, on the mountaintop, crucified on the branches of the world-tree — is the individual who voluntarily carves out the space between nature and culture. The interpretation of words in relationship to these prototypes (unknown, knower, known) is complicated by the fact of shifting meaning: earth, for example, is unknown (feminine) in relationship to sky, but known (masculine) in relationship to water; dragon is feminine, masculine and subject simultaneously.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg 90
The same is true of the archetype of the water-beast…
I had gone on a little farther when, suddenly, I saw dust rising up as high as the heavens about two-hundred yards away. “Are cattle approaching and raising the dust?” I thought out loud. Then I saw more and more dust rising, and I started to think it was something sent from God. The sun shone out a little and suddenly I saw a mighty beast like a whale, a hundred feet long and with a head shaped like an urn, and fiery locusts were coming out of its mouth. I began to weep, and to call on the Lord to rescue me from it, but then I remembered the words I had heard: “Doubt not, O Hermas.”
Therefore, my brothers, clothed with faith in the Lord, and remembering the great things He had taught me, I boldly faced the beast. Now it came on with such noise and force that it could have easily destroyed a whole city, yet when I came near it the monstrous beast stretched itself out on the ground, showing nothing but its tongue, and did not move at all until I had passed it be. “The Fourth Vision”
… which likewise is addressed by Peterson:
The battle of a god against an ophidian or marine monster is well known to constitute a widespread mythological theme. We need only remember the struggle between Re and Apophis, between the Sumerian god Ninurta and Asag, Marduk and Tiamat, the Hittite storm god and the serpent Illuyankas, Zeus and Typhon, the Iranian hero Thraetona and the three-headed dragon Azhi-dahaka. In certain cases (Marduk-Tiamat, for example) the god’s victory constitutes the preliminary condition for the cosmogony. In other cases the stake is the inauguration of a new era or the establishment of a new sovereignty (cf. Zeus-Typhon, Baal-Yam). In short, it is by the slaying of an ophidian monster — symbol of the virtual, of “chaos,” but also of the “autochthonous” — that a new cosmic or institutional “situation” comes into existence. A characteristic feature, and one common to all these myths, is the fright, or a first defeat, of the champion (Marduk and Re hesitate before fighting; at the onset, the serpent Illyunakas succeeds in mutilating the god; Typhon succeeds in cutting and carrying off Zeus’s tendons). According to the Satapatha Brahmana (1.6.3-17), Indra, on first seeing Vrtra, runs away as far as possible, and the Markandeya Purana describes him as “sick with fear” and hoping for peace.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg 117
The similarity with Peterson is all the more notable, as while Peterson’s theory of the Son redeemer the Father seems to be original to him, Shepherd‘s concept of the Son proceeding from the Holy Spirit is likewise unique.
The “procession of the Trinity” refers to the way the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to each other, considering that each Person is eternal and co-equal with the others. For the past thousand years the main question in the Procession has been whether the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father alone, or from the Father and the son. Western and Eastern Christians to this day pray the Nicene Creed differently, with Western Christians adding the words in bold to strew the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the son:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
While this difference in formula may or may not be theological, there is a unity in this difference: almost all contemporary Christians profession either a Father-Son-Spirit procession, or a Father-Son and Father-Spirit co-procession.
The view of the Shepherd of Hermas seems to be different, and describes the Father, then the Spirit, and then the Son.
God caused that holy, pre-existent Spirit which created all things to dwell in a body which he chose. The body into which that holy Spirit was placed served the Spirit, walking rightly and purely in humbleness, never defiling that Spirit. The body obeyed that holy Spirit at all times, laboring rightly and virtuously with Him and not faltering in any way. That wearied body served in humility, but was mightily approved to god with the Holy Spirit, and was accepted by Him. This courageous course pleased God because e was not defiled in the earth but kept the Spirit holy. Therefore He called His Son and the glorious angels as fellow councilors, so that this body might be given a place of honor — since it had served the Holy Spirit blamelessly — and that it would not seem to have lost the reward of its service. For the body in which the Holy Spirit dwelt that has been found without spot of defilement will receive a reward. The Shepherd of Hermas, “The Fifth Parable”
This is confusingly even laid out in a parable, when it’s revealed that the “son” of the story is in fact the Spirit!
“The field is this world, and the lord of the field is He who created, perfected, and strengthened all things; the son is the Holy Spirit, and the slave is the Son of God.
“The Fifth Parable”
In a footnote the translator insists on using “holy Spirit” for “Holy Spirit,” and debates what seems to be a straw-man argument that Shepherd is adoptionist — that it argues Jesus was a holy man who was simply adopted as Son of God, perhaps in the manner of his ancestor David. But I don’t think that this is a point. Rather, Shepherd was written for a Roman audience used to philosophical monotheism, who could more easily view the Spirit as proceeding from the Father, and the Son in some way as coming from the Spirit. I would argue, though, that by using this Procession of the Trinity both the writer and the readers missed one of the central but most confusing claims of Christianity: that the Creator became a creature.
Thus, while Shepherd misses out on an important Christian message, its lack of easy compatibility with the Nicene Creed is not as terrible as it may seem. The Creeds are not the central statements of Christianity. As N.T. Wright notes, they are statements against specific heresies. To the best of my knowledge, the Father-Spirit-Son procession was simply unknown or irrelevant to the Fathers who promulgated the Nicean creeds, and thus was not intentionally condemned.
The Romans and the New Testament
The non-canonical Messianic works I have read — 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, Protoevangelium, and now Shepherd all translated Christianity to populations with their own traditions. 1 Enoch tells an exciting story of the war of angels, 2 Esdras emphasizes the Jewish nature of Chrstianity, and Protoevangelium turns the Holy family into the stars of a melodrama with a recurring cast.
Shepherd of Hermas, the most philosophical and self-aware of the works, is a bridge for wealth Romans to the religion preached by the carpenter from Nazareth:
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Mark10:17-31
The Shepherd is patient with the rich, and provides a path for salvation even for those poor sinners who in material things are not as poor:
“Listen, he said. “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in things that relate to the Lord becaues he is distracted by his riches. He offers very few confessions and prayers to the Lord, and those he does offer are small and weak, and hav eno power above. But when the rich man refreshes the poor and assists them in their needs, believing that what he does to the poor will be able to find its reward with God, he helps them in everything without hestitation. And the poor man, being helped by the rih man, prays for him, giving thanks to God for the one who gave him the gifts. The rich man continues in a zealous conern for hte poor man to make sure his needs are constantly supplied, for he knows that the prayer of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God. So both accomplish their work in their own way: teh poor man continues in prayer — which is the very riches he has received from the Lord — nand in this way pays back the one who helped him. The rich man, in the same way, unhesitatingly gives the poor man the riches he has received from the Lord. This is a great and acceptable work before God, because the rich man understands the purpose of his wealth, and has rightly carried out his duty to God by giving to the poor what the Lord has given to him.
“The Second Parable”
The Shepherd (as did later writers who referred to “Green Martyrdom“) also recognized as martyrs those who accepted partial mortification, whether by Roman persecution, loss of business, or friends:
The ones who returned their branches green with offshoots but no fruit are those who were not put to death, but have been afflicted because of the law and did not deny it.
“The Eighth Parable”
Finally, the Shepherd has an original teaching about the Harrowing of Hell and baptism. Heiser, in The Unseen Realm, notes the connection between these two passage as emphasizing that the fallen angels, who provoked the flood, were visited by Christ after the crucifixion…
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long-suffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.
There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. 1 Peter3:18-22
… but Shepherd allegorically reads that passage as indicating the spirits who are preached to in prison by Christ as us, in this world, before our baptism.
“Even those who fell asleep had to receive the seal of the Son of God, for before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. Once he receives the seal, he lays aside his deadness and obtains life. The seal is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they rise up alive. So this seal was preached to those who had fallen asleep, and they took advantage of it so that they might enter into the kingdom of God.”
“The Ninth Parable”
This is an interesting interpretation. The Harrowing of Hell is normally considered a supernatural-historical event while baptisms are performed constantly — but perhaps they are not so different after all!
While Shepherd is a striking book — both very modern and very old in its style, both inclusive of a gentile readership and exclusive of our Procession of the Trinity, it was not read as any of these things when it was written.
It was read as proclaiming Christ, as calling people to holiness, as pleading with them to repent. Crying for us sinners to live the gospel in their lives:
“Therefore do good works, you who have received good from the Lord! While you delay in doing them the building of the Tower may be completed and you will be rejected from it — and there is no other tower to be built! The work on that Tower was suspended for your sake, and unless you hurry to act rightly, it will be finished and you will be excluded.”
“The Ninth Parable”
I was impressed by Jordan Peter’s 12 Rules for Life and before that, his series Introduction to the Idea of God. I knew that Peterson considered his earlier work, Maps of Meaning, the best summary of his beliefs, and that both 12 Rules and Introduction were specific applications of it. I waited until it was available on unabridged audio, narrated by the author, and read the book in that manner.
This post covers the material in Maps of Meaning in roughly the same order as the book does. First, I describe the psychological foundations Peterson presents for his theory, and how it ties into mythic stories.
Maps of Meaning is composed roughly in fourths, starting with a foundation in cognitive psychology, then mythic stories, then Christianity in general, and finally alchemy. Next, I give a history of the allegorical approach of Biblical exegesis, comparing Peterson with St Augustine. Following this, I highlight the two most important aspects of Jesus Christ for Jordan Peterson, as Redeemer and Logos. I then describe two paths taken by Peterson for applying Christianity in everyday life: the path mentioned in this book (alchemy) and one he seems to have adopted later on (a focus on the Holy Spirit).
Peterson begins with a discussion of neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, emphasizing the biological foundations of thought. This is important because of Peterson basis his entire theory on the existence of a mental modular shared by not just humans but most animals: unknown-detection. Peterson argues that the the psychological process of habituation is not a simply a consequence of learning that a stimulus is neither harmful nor beneficial in the moment — rather, it is the primary result of a stimulus ceasing to be unknown and becoming known. Peterson inverts B.F. Skinner’s defense of behaviorism, noting that while establishing the full history of reinforcement schedules can be incredibly difficult, it is now easier to measure brain activity and detect the existence of mental maps of the known and unknown.
Carl Jung is heavily featured in Maps of Meaning. I had always considered the most controversial part of Jung’s psychology to be his theory of the "collective unconsciousness." Peterson cleverly (and I think fairly) rehabilitates Jung by arguing he worked before the modern understanding of cognitive psychology. Peterson explicitly states that the "collective unconscious" is a term for "episodic memory," a well-accepted theory of how narrative memory is formed. Specifically, because the human mind encodes events into its salient pieces, and the salience of those pieces has a biological foundation, the collective unconscious is simply those pieces which have been universally encoded by appropriately developed humans. Thus, the collective unconscious is part of our species cognitive extended phenotype.
If known and unknown are basic categories, in the way that pleasurable/hurtful and hot/cold are, then it makes sense that known and unknown act as characters in mythic literature. Peterson argues ‘known’ as a category is conceptually gendered as male or an old king, and ‘unknown’ as female or a monster, given the capacity of the known to inflict vertical rules and the capacity of the unknown to generate new things into being. Hence Peterson argues that stories involving a Great Father or Great Mother are in fact stories of the known and unknown.
Peterson then moves from experimental psychology to mythic literature. The central stories in religion and myth in human societies are part of the collective unconscious through their mapping to salient episodic memory:
the temporary capture of the Father by the Mother
a younger male, the hero, called to rescue the Father
the murder of a younger male by a brother or co-equal
the resurrection of the hero
the hero’s possession of a virgin
the hero’s kingship.
I don’t believe this specific series of events happens in any myth. But parts of it happen in stories. For instance, in the Ba’al Cycle the events occur out of order
Ba’al (hero) wishes to build a house for himself
God allows for a war between Ba’al on the monsters Yam (Sea) and Mot (Death)
Ba’al splits Yam in half with a club
Ba’al is killed by Death
Ba’al defeats Death
Ba’al builds his house
The same pattern can be seen in the Christian religion
The Son of God becomes a Creature
The Son of God is born of a virgin
The Son of God proclaims himself King
The Son of God is murdered
The Son of God returns from Hell
The Son of God reigns at the right hand of God
Stories from Egypt, pre-modern Europe, and elsewhere are shown to be general instances of this pattern.
Peterson argues that one can deconstruct widely and deeply shared stories to understand the psychological constructs that generated them. That the stories, the structures, the archetypes, and their lessons are not merely a tax on human cognition but the method that it has operated in the social-political-moral for an extremely long period of time.
My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck Proverbs1:8-9
It is after all of this — the psychological foundations of memory, the comparative religion or mythology — that Peterson begins his most controversial and most ambiguous point. Peterson then provides an extended allegorical apologia for Christianity.
The allegorical approach — defending Christianity by asserting fundamental truths of the Bible without defending the Bible’s literal text — goes back at least to Augustine. As he wrote in Confessions:
Behold, Thou hast given unto us for food every herb bearing seed which is upon all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. And not to us alone, but also to all the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and to all creeping things; but unto the fishes and to the great whales, hast Thou not given them. Now we said that by these fruits of the earth were signified, and figured in an allegory, the works of mercy which are provided for the necessities of this life out of the fruitful earth.
St. Augustine, Confessions
Augustine is a forerunner to Peterson’s approach. The ending of Confessions is almost incomprehensible, as it is an extended description of the Christian religion and then a treatise on the Roman science of psychology. This did not make sense to me until I read Peterson and watched his series Introduction to the Idea of God, which combines contemporary psychological and the Christian religion.
What Peterson seems to do far better than Augustine, though, is to integrate the Semitic worldview into both Christianity and philosophy. Consider for instance their takes on the very beginning of the Bible:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [a]was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:1-2
Augustine presents a wordy (not surprising) exegesis on the view that the waters were uncreated matter:
For should any attempt to dispute against these two last opinions, thus,
"If you will not allow, that this formlessness of matter seems to be called by the name of heaven and earth;
Ergo, there was something which God had not made, out of which to make heaven and earth;
for neither hath Scripture told us, that God made this matter, unless we understand it to be signified by the name of heaven and earth, or of earth alone, when it is said,
‘In the Beginning God made the heaven and earth; that so in what follows, and the earth was invisible and without form (although it pleased Him so to call the formless matter)’,
we are to understand no other matter, but that which God made, whereof is written above, God made heaven and earth."
St. Augustine, Confessions
Augustine emphasizes the unconditional nature of God, but ignores the near-eastern view of ordering as Creation that inspires the passage. (To their credit, Mormon theologians pick up this theme). Peterson tackles the same passage as Augustine, but I think derives a deeper meaning:
It is primordial separation of light from darkness — engendered by Logos, the Word, equivalent to the process of consciousness — that initiates human experience and historical activity, which is reality itself, for all intents and purposes. This initial division provides the prototypic structure, and the fundamental precondition, for the elaboration and description of more differentiated attracting and repulsing pairs of opposites:
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 228-229
It is his words immediately following the passage, however, that present a sotorology (theory of salvation) different than any I had heard before:
Light and darkness constitute mythic totality; order and chaos, in paradoxical union, provide primordial elements of the entire experiential universe. Light is illumination, inspiration; darkness, ignorance and degeneration. Light is the newly risen sun, the eternal victor of the endless cyclical battle with the serpent of the night; is the savior, the mythic hero, the deliverer of humanity. Light is gold, the king of metals, pure, and incorruptible, a symbol for civilized value itself. Light is Apollo, the sun-king, god of enlightenment, clarity and focus; spirit, opposed to black matter; bright masculinity, opposed to the dark and unconscious feminine. Light is Marduk, the Babylonian hero, god of the morning and spring day, who struggles against Tiamat, monstrous goddess of death and the night; is Horus, who fights against evil, and redeems the father; is Christ, who transcends the past, and extends to all individuals identity with the divine Logos. To exist in the light means to be born, to live, to be redeemed, while to depart from the light means to choose the path of evil — to choose spiritual death — or to perish bodily altogether.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 229
In what manner was Christ redeemed by the Father?
God the Son
Christ’s genealogy explicit includes our Father-in-Faith, Abraham, as well as the biological father of the human race, Adam, and the father of all surviving humans, Noah.
Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, … the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. Luke3:23,36-38
Jesus, the perfect man, literally redeemed his fathers. He redeemed his-step father, Joseph. His redeemed his fathers, and in His image we will live:
The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. 1 Corinthians15:47-49
It was men…
who nailed perfection to the cross:
And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.,.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. John19:17-18,23
And God the Father…
who nailed sin to the Cross…
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. Colossians2:13-15
… and now is our Father.
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Not that God the Father is missing anything, or lacks anything. But Christ restores our relationship with God the Father, getting us back to a place where God the Father can be called our Father.
In the Roman liturgy, the Eucharistic assembly is invited to pray to our heavenly Father with filial boldness; the Eastern liturgies develop and use similar expressions: "dare in all confidence," "make us worthy of. . . . " From the burning bush Moses heard a voice saying to him, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." Only Jesus could cross that threshold of the divine holiness, for "when he had made purification for sins," he brought us into the Father’s presence: "Here am I, and the children God has given me."
Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?"
Man and God, the Suffering of Sin and Glory of Perfection, meet in our Lord Jesus Christ. But Peterson presents Christ as the mediator between order and chaos, as the line between Yin and Yang, the One in whom all things may hope, and the One without which there is no hope
Peterson’s preferred term for Christ is logos, the Word:
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos — and it is in the image of the Logos that man ["Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26)] is created. This idea has clear additional precedents in early and late Egyptian cosmology (as we shall see). In the Far East — similarly — the cosmos is imagined as composed of the interplay between yang and yin, chaos and order — that is to say, unknown or unexplored territory, and known or explored territory. Tao, from the Eastern perspective, is the pattern of behavior that mediates between them (analogous to En-lil, Marduk, and the Logos) — that constantly generates, and regenerates, the "universe." For the Eastern man, life in Tao is the highest good, the "way" and "meaning"; the goal towards which all other goals must remain subordinate.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 87
Peterson emphasizes this point, emphasizing the use of The Way to identify both the Logos and the Tao. All things outside the Logos are harmful. Order inside the Logos is the protective ruler, while Order outside the Logos is the tyrannical father. Likewise, Chaos outside the Logos is the Dragon, while Chaos inside the Logos is the virgin.
The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; he emerges, necessarily, wherever human beings are successful. Adherence to this central pattern insures that respect for the process of exploration (and the necessary reconfiguration of belief, attendant upon that process) always remains superordinate to all other considerations — including that of the maintenance of stable belief. This is why Christ, the defining hero of the Western ethical tradition, is able to say "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6); why adherence to the Eastern way (Tao) — extant on the border between chaos (yin) and order (yang) — ensures that the "cosmos" will continue to endure.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 152
Paul the Apostle argues that all things, both life and death, are beneficial in Christ:
"But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. Galatians2:17-21
This centralization of Christ, relative to Order and Chaos, may be visualized as showing the divine or redeemed nature of Order and Chaos within Christ, and that without Christ, which will be destroyed
The Spirit of Truth
The False Dawn of Alchemy
Peterson spends an extended part of the conclusion of the book on alchemy, which initially appears inexplicable (or a misguided defense of Jung), but the analogies become clear. Gold is to rocks what Christ is to man, the ideal toward which we strive
Gold was, furthermore, the ideal end towards which all ores progressed — was "the target of progression." As it "ripened" in the womb of the earth, lead — for example, base and promiscuous [willing to "mate" (combine) with many other substances] — aimed at the state characterized by gold, perfect and inviolable. This made the "gold state" the goal of the Mercurial "spirit of the unknown," embedded in matter
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322
The alchemist was a sort of priest, working on beings without souls:
The alchemist viewed himself as midwife to Nature — as bringing to fruition what Nature endeavored slowly to produce — and therefore as aid to a transformation aimed at producing something ideal. "Gold" is that ideal.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322
Peterson had a shaky grasp of the Catholicism that imbued the medieval work while writing Maps of Meaning. His assertion that alchemy was a belief that sacrifice if not priesthood was still needed after the Crucifixion might be shocking to the college protestants he may encounter teaching…
The alchemical procedure was based on the attempt to redeem "matter," to transform it into an ideal. This procedure operated on the assumption that matter was originally corrupted — like man, in the story of Genesis. The study of the transformations of corruption and limitation activated a mythological sequence in the mind of the alchemist. This sequence followed the pattern of the way, upon which all religions have developed. Formal Christianity adopted the position that the sacrifice of Christ brought history to a close, and that "belief" in that sacrifice guaranteed redemption. Alchemy rejected that position, in its pursuit of what remained unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 344
This is unintelligible from a Catholic perspective
Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit." Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2033
While certainly there were alchemists who wrote in a metaphysical way, it was at the time considered to be a physical science. St. Thomas Aquinas defended alchemical processes that actually work:
Many clerics were alchemists. To Albertus Magnus, a prominent Dominican and Bishop of Ratisbon, is attributed the work "De Alchimia", though this is of doubtful authenticity. Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. He investigated theologically the question of whether gold produced by alchemy could be sold as real gold, and decided that it could, if it really possess the properties of gold (Summa Theologiae II-II.77.2). A treatise on the subject is attributed to Pope John XXII, who is also the author of a Bull "Spondent quas non exhibent" (1317) against dishonest alchemists. It cannot be too strongly insisted on that there were many honest alchemists.
"Alchemy," Catholic Encyclopedia
If Peterson was more aware of the Christian tradition when he wrote this work, his concern might have been that the externalizing features of Protestantism (which deny man agency in the ongoing work of salvation) and Catholicism (which seemingly deny man the teaching authority, as that is possessed by the Church) both deny him agency.
Alchemy was a living myth: the myth of the individual man, as redeemer. Organized Christianity had "sterilized itself," so to speak, by insisting on the worship of something external as the means to salvation. The alchemists (re)discovered the error of this presumption, and came to realize that identification with the redeemer was in fact necessary, not his "worship" — came to realize that that myths of redemption had true power when they were "incorporated," and acted out, rather than "believed," in some abstract sense. This meant: to say that Christ was "the greatest man in history" — a combination of the divine and mortal — was not sufficient "expression of faith." Sufficient expression meant, alternatively, the attempt to live out the myth of the hero within the confines of individual personality — to voluntarily shoulder the cross of existence, to "unite the opposites" within a single breast, and to serve as active conscious mediator between the eternal generative forces of known and unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 346
Which is to say, for Peterson, alchemy and not "Organized" (read: evangelical) Christianity took seriously the commandment
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. Matthew16:24-28
There is no good King without a cross.
The Age of The Holy Spirit
Paul, immediately before describing living and crucifixion in Christ, talks about the importance of justification by faith in Christ. "Faith" is not an abstract mental idea or an emotional state. It refers to allegiance in Christ, of imitating Christ.
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. Galatians 2:15-16
Peterson comes to the same conclusion: the Spirit of the Law is not a watered down or easier Law, but a harder one: one that involves creatively combining the order of the Law with new events coming out of Chaos:
Denial of unique individuality turns the wise traditions of the past into the blind ruts of the present. Application of the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is necessary makes a mockery of culture. Following in the footsteps of others seems safe, and requires no thought — but it is useless to follow a well-trodden trail when the terrain itself has changed. The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself — is denying the world — is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future — transforms the past from shelter to prison.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 258
In the years since Maps of Meaning came out, Peterson seems to have talked about alchemy less and the Holy Spirit more.
Peterson’s later adaptation of the Blessed Joachim of Fiore’s understanding of Catholicism crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide in a very clever way. Emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you." John 16:12-15
and the "everlasting gospel"
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Revelations14:6
Joachim theorized that:
There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
"Joachim of Fiore," Catholic Encyclopedia
It is easy to see how such a view, of progressive revelation and a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, complements Peterson’s view of the centrality of the imitation of Christ in the life of every believer.
The truth seems painfully simple — so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can every be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself — not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates yourself above him — but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353
The Kingdom of Heaven includes the parts of material Christian within Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just within heaven
Christ said, the kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it. What if it was nothing but our self-deceit, our cowardice, hatred and fear, that pollutes our experience and turns the world into Hell? This is a hypothesis, at least — as good as any other, admirable and capable of generating hope — why can’t we make the experiment, and find out if it is true?
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353
The Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both well-intentioned, separated much of the Christian world from their heritage. The great Christian debates of the late middle ages were collapsed into a ridiculous dispute over faith and works. Christian festivals and popular culture were lost all over western Europe, as described by Phillip Jenkins in The Many Faces of Christ by Phillip Jenkinks. One such popular work, ironically most Central preserved in Islam, but still remembered in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, is The Protoevangelium [First-Gospel] of James. I once called it “Joseph/Mary fan fiction.” That’s correct. But the Protoevangelium takes place before the Gospels. Really, it’s a prequel.
Most Christian perspectives separate the Scriptures (that which was written down) and the Tradition (the guide to that which was written down, which itself was not written down). But it’s not always clear where one begins or one ends. Are the Catholic Deuterocanon, “Secondary” Scriptures like Tobit or Maccabees), part of the Scriptures or Tradition? What of prayers (like the Prayer of Mannasseh) and prayer-like works, such as 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras. Books in the above list are considered part of the Scriptures by at least some Christian traditions.
The Protoevangelium is not considered Scripture by anyone. But it captures much of the Tradition of many Christians. The Protoevangelium is something like the script of a nativity play, or a pre-cinematic of Christian films like The Passion of the Christ. Indeed, like Passion,Protoevangelium was written in an explicitly Catholic tradition, takes the Faith seriously, but also incorporates other devout but non-canonical and even imaginary material.
The Protoevangelium is to the Gospels what the Star Wars prequels were to the original trilogy. Like the Star Wars prequels, the Protoevangelium clearly takes place in the same “universe” as the Gospels and includes many of the same characters — to the point of implausibility.
A problem with prequels in general is that if the characters really did have these adventures, why were they forgotten? This happened to the Jedi in Star Wars. In the original film, Luke can hardly believe that Jedi were real. But only two decades before the Jedi were a highly visible arm of the central government with a large office building in the capital and a prominent role in economic rule-making. Is it really credible that everyone forgot this — that the mere existence of a government agency — be forgotten in twenty years?
There are many many articles, videos, and podcasts about this mystery, but the same could be asked of most popular prequels:
How did Joseph’s staff become not even a myth in the Gospels?
Why did everyone forget about Mary and Joseph?
Why did Jerusalem apparently become a much larger city in 30 years?
Of course, people can forget. Especially sick people. This is what distinguishes prequel-style blindness from the mental blindness of a legitimately dramatic figure, like King Saul in the Book of Samuel, where once-renounced individuals appear to be unknown, is the dual introduction of David son of Jesse. He is King Saul’s musician:
But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “Surely, a distressing spirit from God is troubling you. Let our master now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp. And it shall be that he will play it with his hand when the distressing spirit from God is upon you, and you shall be well.”
So Saul said to his servants, “Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.”
Then one of the servants answered and said, “Look, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the Lord is with him.”
Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” And Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a young goat, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 1 Samuel 16:14-20
yet when David offers to fight Goliath, Saul does not recognize him, and Saul’s assistant Abner does not point this out:
When Saul saw David going out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?”
And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.”
So the king said, “Inquire whose son this young man is.”
Then, as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?”
So David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.” 1 Samuel 17:55-58
But in Samuel this is an example of psychological realism: Saul’s mental decay has already gone, and is now accelerating as even loyal men, like Abner, no longer treat him like a competent actor. The priest’s forgetting of Mary and Joseph does not teach us a lesson though. It simply indicates Star Wars-quality writing.
The Protoevangelium gives back-stories for numerous characters in the Gospels, including Mary, Joseph, and even minor characters.
Mary, Mother of God
The story of uses Mary to parallel the life of Christ. Christ’s humanity is a vital part of the scriptures, and Christ’s shedding of blood is a lesson: God bleeds and suffers with men.
Mary likewise is a woman and not some abstract platonic spirit, and herself the daughter of a real woman.
The midwife said, “A girl.”
Anna said, “My soul exalts this day.” And she put her baby to bed.
After her days were completed, Anna cleansed her menstrual flow and gave her breast to the child and gave her the name Mary.
Day by day, the child grew stronger. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground to test whether she could stand. And after walking seven steps, she came to her mother’s breast. Protoevangelium 5:7-6:2
Mary was raised in the Temple itself and her approaching menstrual cycles were a topic of discussion for the High Priests:
When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” Protoevangelium 8:3-4
There are two obvious reasons for this. The first, the shocking claim that God was born of a woman, a claim that in much of the Muslim world can still get one killed, doubtless appealed to women. And the second, that Mary herself was a type of Christ, as is every mother.
Blessed Joseph, Her Spouse
Joseph is specifically invited to be part of a Temple marry-a-virgin contest, and wins it by a miracle. No one in the Gospels ever mentions this, or thinks it relevant to events only a generation later.
Throwing down his ax, Joseph went out to meet them. And after they had gathered together with their rods, they went to the high priest. After receiving everyone’s rod, the high priest went into the temple and prayed. When he was finished with the prayer, he took the rods and went out and gave them to each man, but there was no sign among them. Finally, Joseph took his rod. Suddenly, a dove came out of the rod and stood on Joseph’s head. And the high priest said, “Joseph! Joseph! You have been chosen by lot to take the virgin into your own keeping.” Protoevangelium 9:1-7
Joseph is a widower, and old man, and the perpetual chastity of the Holy Couple is explained and more plausible in that way.
The Protoevangelium also dramatizes the confrontation between Joseph and Mary as the pregnancy becomes obvious. They are the second couple in this work, after Joachim and Anna, to be well textured.
You can hear their shouting:
In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Joseph came from his house-building and went into the house to find her swelling. And he struck his face and threw himself on the ground in sackcloth and wept bitterly,
And Joseph got up from his sackcloth and called her and said to her,
“After having been cared for by God, what have you done?
Did you forget the Lord your God?
You who were raised in the holy of holies, you who received from the hand of an angel, do you know how much you have humiliated yourself?”
Then, she wept bitterly, saying, “I am pure and I did not know a man.”
And Joseph said to her, “Where did this thing in your womb come from then?”
But she said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know where it came from.” Protoevangelium 13:1-2,6-10
Prequels often take place in small worlds, where characters who interacted in the original stories meet each other in different circumstances before.
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law Luke 2:25-27
… turns out to have been the replacement for the father of John the Baptist!
Then, after three days, the priests deliberated about who they should appoint to take the place of Zachariah. And the lot went to Simeon. For he was the one to whom it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he saw the messiah in the flesh. Protoevangelium 24:12-14
Likewise, Salome, who in Mark’s gospel was with Mary Magdalene in caring for the body of the murdered Christ and entered the hole — the bomb — he was buried in:
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.
Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large.
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. Mark 16:1-5
finds herself in the same situation, but for the newborn Christ!
And the midwife went in and said, “Mary, position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place.”
When Mary heard these things, she positioned herself. And Salome inserted her finger into her body. And Salome cried out and said, “Woe for my lawlessness and the unbelief that made me test the living God. Look, my hand is falling away from me and being consumed in fire.” Protoevangelium 20:1-4
There is beautiful writing in the Protoevangelium that echoes the best of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible story of Samuel’s parents, and the emotional pain of childlessness
Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”
So Hannah arose after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the LORD. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish. 1 Samuel 1:5-10
is echoed here, in the pain of Joachim and Anna:
Then, Joachim was extremely frustrated and did not appear to his wife, but gave himself to the desert and pitched his tent there. He fasted forty days and forty nights. All the while, Joachim was saying to himself, “I will not go down for food or drink until the Lord my God visits me; prayer will be my food and drink.”
Then, his wife Anna mourned and lamented,
“I lament that I am a widow and I lament that I am childless.” Protoevangelium 1:1-2:1
But there’s a section which simply seems out of place. It happens once, it is very odd, and I don’t know what to make of it. A passage from the journey to Bethlehem…
When they came to the middle of the journey, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me off the donkey, the child pushing from within me to let him come out.”
So he took her off the donkey and said to her, “Where will I take you and shelter you in your awkwardness? This area is a desert.”
And he found a cave and led her there and stationed his sons to watch her, while he went to a find a Hebrew midwife in the land of Bethlehem. Protoevangelium 17:10-18:1
… is suddenly interrupted with a bizarre passage when the tone — and narrator! — of the work changes:
Then, Joseph wandered, but he did not wander.
And I looked up to the peak of the sky and saw it standing still and I looked up into the air. With utter astonishment I saw it, even the birds of the sky were not moving. And I looked at the ground and saw a bowl lying there and workers reclining. And their hands were in the bowl. And chewing, they were not chewing. And picking food up, they were not picking it up. And putting food in their mouths, they were not putting it in their mouths. Rather, all their faces were looking up.
And I saw sheep being driven, but the sheep were standing still. And the shepherd lifted up his hand to strike them, but his hand remained above them. And I saw the rushing current of the river and I saw goats and their mouths resting in the water, but they were not drinking. And suddenly everything was replaced by the ordinary course of events. Protoevangelium 18:2-11
Eventually, the narrative resumes. The Joseph-narrated portions smoothly flow back into the standard third-person narration while talking about Salome, and by the end James is revealed to be the narrator.
I, James, wrote this history when there was unrest in Jerusalem, at the time Herod died. I took myself into the desert until the unrest in Jerusalem ceased. All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history.
And grace will be with all who fear the Lord.
Amen. Protoevangelium 25:1-4
I do not know what is happening here. The Book of Ezekiel in particular breaks the reader’s expectations for dramatic effect, spiraling out from Jerusalem to Israel, the neighboring countries, and finally the trans-real Gog and Magog. But is this simply a case of pieced-together fragments that were recognized as such at the time? Is this why the Protoevangelium considered “not only to be rejected but also condemned” since A.D. 405? I don’t know.
The Faith Traditions
Three faith traditions contain material that either comes directly from the Protoevangelium, or else from the lost source that inspired by Protoevangelium: Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity, and Islam. The story of Mary under the care of the Priest Zachariah in Islamic scriptures:
Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?” She said: “From Allah. for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.”
There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer! Qu’ran 3:37-38
Is clearly from the same tradition, with the same affection for the protagonists, as the Protoevangelium:
When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?”
And they said to the high priest, “You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it.”
And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, “Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff. And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife.” So the heralds went out to the whole surrounding area of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord rang out and all the men rushed in. Protoevangelium 8:3-9
The Catholic affection of the Protoevangelium is not as explicit but widespread. The names of Jesus’s grandparents, Anna and Joachim, come from this work. Much western art doesn’t make sense without it.
An edited version of the Protoevangelium is included in New Advent’s The Fathers of the Church. And more popularly, a priest on the Catholic media site EWTN explains the work this way:
The Protoevangelium is not to be classed with the Gnostic writings of old, which were products of heretical groups, claiming secret knowledge. On the other hand, as you note, we cannot elevate this work to the level of Sacred Scripture, as it has no guarantee of inerrancy. This early work reflects at least some ancient traditions, held by at least some substantial part of the early Church. As to the general preference for the view that the “brothers” of the Lord are likely kinfolk, and not step-siblings from a previous marriage by Joseph, we have likely been strongly influenced by the Western Fathers, including Saint Jerome, who strongly dismissed the view that they were step-siblings. Saint Jerome had a great command of the ancient languages and customs, and while not an infallible source, is worth attending to. Answer by Fr. John Echert
These thoughts are echoed by a poster at a forum post for Orthodox Christians:
Is it Scripture? No. Is it infallible? No. Is it accurate in all its details? Probably not. Is it worthless? No. Does it preserve the earliest thoughts about the family life of Christ? Yes. Does it seem to be based on the early Church’s traditions? Yes. Is it the earliest coherent source on the Theotokos? Yes.
Impressions of “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” by N.T. Wright
N.T Wright’s How God Became King is the best biblical commentary I have read since Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. This book complements that one. Heiser focuses on the enthronement of God as lord of the world. Wright focuses on the same events, culminating in the enthronement of Christ. Heiser look at God’s defeat of supernatural antagonists; Wright at Christ’s defeat of Casesar and his ilk. And while Heiser discusses God’s organization of his re-made domain, Wright explains Christ’s new-formed Kingdom.
You never thought of “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a call to divine revenge before, did you?
The King of Israel, the King of the Jews
Wright argues the Old and New Testaments a parts of one story: the triumph of the Jewish Messiah against the so-called rulers in the world. Wright argues that the combination of the personal name “Jesus” (a variation of Joshua) with title “Christ” (the Annointed One) is not an accident of history: following the life of Christ, the most relevant fact about God is that He is the King of the world.
Wright says this may be surprising to Credal Christians whose churches focus their education on the three great creeds, The Creeds, Greco-Roman works written in response to heresies, addressed controversial or not immediately clear aspects of Christianity. Indeed, there is nothing of the ministry of Christ in the Creeds at all! The the Athanasian Creed focuses on the nature or essence, and not the actions, of Christ. And what Christ did in his earthly life in skipped over, in both the Nicene Creed:
who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified,
died, and was buried. suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
Wright (and Heiser) argue the scriptures place as much emphasis on Christ’s teachings his ministry, as the Creeds do His nature. The Scriptures refers to a political story, of the Ancient of Days and the One Like the Son of Man:
“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14
N.T. Wright also shows this vision is echoed (prophesied?) by Mary, as recorded by the Evangelist who most attended to the voices of women, Luke:
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.” Luke 1:46-55
Catholic marionology builds a lot of meaning on the word “magnifies.” But relevant for N.T. Wright is that the Messiah is given dominion, re-organizes the political world, and is Himself enthroned.
A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened. Daniel 7:10
Mary’s words describing revolutionary strength and “thrones” echo the the verses before the Son of Man passage in Daniel. Wright, like Heiser, sees in this the re-organization (that is, creation) of a Kingdom into one that places the Lord in direct control of the Earth. The Court of the Ancient of Days ruled against the former rulers, and granted dominion to the One like a Son of Man.
Paying Back to Caesar
But if Christ is a worldy ruler, what of “Render under Caesar”? What of “My Kingdom is not of this world”? What of the claims that Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, recognizes a separation of church and state as a founding claim?
Wright argues there is no contradiction, because the first quote is a threat, and the second indicates origin, and not maximum extent, of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Take first the “render under Caesar” line, which is more literally translated as “give back to Caesar.” The point is that the word used for “render,” apodote, is cognate with antapodote, pay back, which is also used for revenge.
But having perceived their craftiness, He said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?”
And they said, “Caesar’s.”
And He said to them, “Therefore give back to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God.” Luke 20:23-25
Pay-back will come to our world too. Judas Maccabeus lead the Jewish revolt against another foreign invader, and promised pay them back for their atrocities:
“Now behold, I know that Simeon your brother is wise in counsel; always listen to him; he shall be your father. Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally about you all who observe the law, and
avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full,
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt..So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” Matthew 18:23-35
The mercy we show to sinners is pay back God’s enemies. It is through love given to sinners we grind the head of the Serpent into the dirt, as Paul said in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians:
since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8
Similarly, Wright argues that Christ’s statement that his kingdom is not of (or, in Greek, ek) this world refers to the His kingdom being from (ek) a victorious realm Heaven, and not the soon-to-be-conquered Earth. In this reading, Christ’s speech recorded by the philosophical John is more an indictment of the weakness of earthly forces than submission to them:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world; if My kingdom were of this world, My attendants would fight that I might not be betrayed to the Jews. But now My kingdom is not from here.” John 18:36
Likewise, the Greek-English Interlinear Bible provides uses of ek which clearly mean “out of” or “from”. N.T. Wright rejects the idea the Christian scriptures encourage the separation of church and state. Atheists from Razib Khan to Sam Harris laud “render under Caesar” as implying a necessary distinction between government and religion in Christianity. Wright argues there reading is wrong, and is a reflection not of Biblical teaching but of Enlightenment error.
Creating His Kingdom
Wright’s logic is in keeping with the Canaanite view of creation as proper Ordering or Organizing. Ba’al crafted, or literally contracted out, the crafting of his home when he “made” his Temple — and he made mistakes while doing so. The shocking part of the Genesis narrative is not the mere existence of a creator god — most near eastern cultures had that — but that He is also a competent craftsman. The Jewish Bible subsequently records God organizing Earth as His holy temple and Canaan as His holy land in the same way: by taking existing parts and putting them in a new order, he created them.
As creation is ordering, un-creation is disordering: being placed under the ban or made herem. Pre-Israel Canaan was uncreated to be later remade for Israel. The corrupt Kingdom of Israel itself would be uncreated — the prophet Elijah actually tried to hurry this process along. Ordering-as-Creation occurs in each human life. God’s servants who let themselves be un-created by God’s enemies will find themselves re-created by God Himself:
The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.” 2 Maccabees 7:20-23
In keeping with his position as a former Bishop in the Anglican Church, Wright also finds a middle ground between the Reformed and Catholic traditions in how Christ’s Kingship should be manifest in the world. Specifically, Wright adopts Reformed terminology and Catholic practice. His use of “theocracy” to refer to the state of existing under Christ’s kingship and explicit recognition of God as King (without explicitly stating the existence of any intermediaries) recalls the Reformed tradition. But Wright’s attacks on the Enlightenment concept of a separation of the political and theological spheres, not to mention the recall the universal nature of the Catholic faith.
But this creates a difference with Heiser’s Unseen World that is not addressed in the text. Who are the thrones seized from that are given to God, who controlled the separate sphere that was abolished by Christ? Heiser argues that these are supernatural entities, “gods,” who may literally include Ba’al, Ashtarte, and the Canaanite pantheon. That is, the supernatural hierarchy envisioned for man in Genesis, Hebrews, and The Psalms…
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet, Psalms 8:4-6
… is not merely poetic, but refers to Christ’s literal overthrow of supernatural overlords. But here Wright seems to hew to a Reformed — or at least post-Enlightenment — line. While a few brief words about possible supernatural entities are shared, the focus seems to be on men like Caesar who are cast down. (Allegorical or “hyper-real” readings, such as Jordan Peterson’s view that the defeated gods are disorganized aspects of personal psychology, are not addressed at all.)
How God Became King by N.T. Wright is an excellent work, focused on the New Testament, arguing that Christ is the real and true King of our world, and that this story is told through the Gospels. Wright looks beyond the Creeds to the enthronement of God on Earth, His command to pay back His enemies, and instructions as to how we should proceed. Became King relies less on the literary and theological background of Second Temple Judaism than Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, but perhaps because of that, is more accessible.
For those interested, a conversation between Heiser and Wright is available online as audio and in transcript.
I read How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels in the Audible edition.
I normally don’t listen to abridged books. While I have good memories of Great Illustrated Classics and Readers Digest editions as a kid, I cannot remember the last abridged edition I actually read. And in fairness, this one was an accident. During a conversation where I mentioned Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites a friend recommended I listen to Manual for Spiritual Warfare during my bicycle rides. The only version on Audible was abridged, so here I am.
Manual contains neither a narrative nor a clear theology. The thrust of the work is folk Catholicism, a collection of prayers, saints, sacraments, and devotions to help one during spiritual crises. I am Catholic so this is fine, but it does not present a clear picture (to either Catholics or non-Catholics) of what or how any of this may work, beyond the obvious. But then, for many going through spiritual difficulties, a speculative survey of the supernatural realm may well not be useful.
During the most dire period of my life I took refuge in such thinking about what the universe actually might be. My posts The Fire of the Angels and The Good Bull date from this time, as does my reading of speculative and systematizing books such as The Assembly of the Gods and The Unseen Realm. Other people may just need tips on who to pray for. It is that audience Manual for Spiritual Warfare is aimed at.
Worth noting is a point where Thigpin’s practical discussions of demonology overlaps with paranormal experiences in our modern days: the “increasingly bizarre” supernatural attacks on St. John Vianney. Anyone who reads much of UFOs, Bigfoot, or the like will eventually come across the phrase “high strangeness” and the implication that whatever is behind paranormal events appears to intentionally make its interactions with the world so improbable as to be unspeakable.
I read Manual for Spiritual Warfare in the Audible edition. According to reviews the only abridged material is the full text of some prayrs which are otherwise referenced by name within the text.
Recently I read Dogfight, a history of the shone war between Apple and Google. It is the latest history in the corporate history of the phone market that I have read. Though it benefits from certain perspectives of insiders, its largely duplicative of other books of this era. Yet a short section is vital to understanding the entire era.
Dogfight follows the iOS and Android fight between Apple and Google. The best history of Apple in this period is Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s famed biography, while Inside the Plex is an overview of Google – both written during the hottest part of the Apple-Google phone war. Each of those histories is more complete and provides more context for the actions during the era of the early iPhones and Androids than Dogfight. Unfortunately, much of Dogfight reads like a sportswriter’s play-by-play of a series, rather than the story of either the years dedicated to these projects or the corporate goals they represented.
Yet Dogfight does get one thing right: the importance of corporate politics in both goals. Despite different market positions (Apple was an incumbent) and different organizational structures (Google is organizational while Apple is functional) each company was hampered by internal politics. Apple’s hardware and software divisions fought for resources (such as who should manage the software engineers writing tests for hardware components) which ultimately culminated in the marketing disaster of “antenna-gate.” Google, for its part, was initially focused on porting its apps to a large number of smartphone platforms, and in the early years of Android the Google Apps team treated Google Android as a second-class platform.
The book cover to To Light a Fire claims it is written by Robert Barron “with” John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for CNN. The text itself states it is written by John Allen based on “interviews” with Robert Barron. The truth, I think, is more interesting.
Robert Barron is a Catholic auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. He’s best known for a YouTube Channel, “Word on Fire which include short commentaries on current trends and movies such as Silence and The Shape of Water.* He’s no Jordan Peterson — in light of Peterson’s amazing success the books claims of Barron being a new media magician ring hollow — but he’s probably the highest profile Catholic writer and media celebrity operating in the English language. (Aside from Pope Francis, of course.)
To Light a Fire is written like a campaign book. It positions Barron both as competent and as political acceptable for — something. It tries to do for Barron what The Devil’s Bargain did for Steve Bannon or Hacks did for Donna Brazilla, except in the context of Catholic Church politics. Bishop Barron understands new media, is center-right (“post-liberal”), has objective metrics for success (# of people attending weekly mass), etc. etc.
Once I realized the genre I tried to ask myself, what is Robert Barron campaigning for? His own bishopric (not merely as an auxiliary)? A higher position in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Pope? These may be, but in the last chapters Green (or Green on behalf of Barron, or Barron himself) talks in very concrete terms of Barron’s organization, “Word on Fire“, being elevated to the status of Movement within the Catholic Church. The existing Catholic Movement “Communion and Liberation” is repeatedly used as a model to follow, as well as the personal prelature of Opus Dei. Thus, I assume this book is part of an internal Catholic argument that Word on Fire should, indeed, be a “Movement.”
The subtitle of To Light a Fire is “Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age,” and this is accurate. It is about a proclamation of the gospel, but a description of one man and one method of proclaiming it. This book is not an effective resource for someone curious about Catholicism or even about religion in general. It is Catholic “inside baseball,” and in that genre it is enjoyable and educational. If you want to know how bishops campaign with each other, I recommend this book.
I read To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age in the Audible edition.
I have not read a book this hard to describe since *The Gospel According to John. I think it’s fair to call both of these books “mystical,” but not in the sense that you think when you hear “mystical.” They are both accessible, easy to read stories, one event after another, of a tale you heard before. It’s just there’s these.. oddities… these signs you are missing something
Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” John 1:50
If what most people take for granted were really true — if all you needed to b ehappy was ot grab everything and see everything an dinvestigate every eperience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now. The Seven-Storey Mountain, pg 3
That which is mystical is not mystical.
John is an account of the life of Jesus from his youngest disciple. There is an unstated but real sense of distance between John and the others. Both of these are visualized in John’s smooth facial features. John stands apart, and remember’s Christ’s questions of why others have faith.
Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. John 20:29-31
I turned around. At the end of the long nave, with its empty choir stalls, high up in the empty Tribune, John Paul was kneeling all alone, in uniform. he seemed to be an immense distance away, and between the secular church where he was, and the choir where I was, was a locked door, and I couldn’t call out to him to tell him how to come down the long way ’round through the Guest House. And he didn’t understand my sign.
At that moment there flashed into my mind all the scores of times in our forgotten childhood when I had chased John Paul away with stones from the place where my friends and I were building a hut, And now, all of a sudden, here it was all over again: a situation that was externally the same pattern: John Paul, standing, confused and unhappy, at a distance which he was not able to bridge. The Seven-Storey Mountain, pp. 437-438
That which is shown as proof is not needed as proof.
Which brings us to The Seven-Story Mountain. I’m not sure how to handle this book. On its face its straightforward: a modern-ish version of Confessions, written by someone with the same birth year as my grandfather. A rich kid with a lot of discretionary money burns out on material things, seeks happiness in the trends of the day (Manichaeanism for Augustine, Communism for Merton), and then converts to the Catholic faith. Augustine became a bishop, Merton a monk. Augustine attempted to situation hsi conversion within the broader secular currents of the age. Merton rejoices in seeking another age. If anything, Seven-Storey Mountain is an improvement.
Yet as John subverts the common Christian story to share a deeper Christian message: all of those miracles and signs and symbols everyone is paying attention to is besides the point — Merton subverts what you expect in a Confessions clone. Unlike Augustine, who begins Confessions with a formal prayer and clearly writes from the perspective of a bishop, Merton begins Seven-Story Mountain secularly…
Merton, rather than being a unified voice in Seven-Story Mountain, is the editor of earlier voices. There’s an interesting progress of how venial sin is treated in the work, but this is made explicit in a quote by the author in the forward:
Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a storyteller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only. I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both. The Seven-Storey Mountain, “Introduction”
The narrator is not the narrator.
But this is not enough for Merton. The next target of deconstruction is the sort of book that Seven-Story Mountain supposedly is: an autiography of a man who ascends from sin to live his vocation. The book starts typically enough, and teases an escape from the “image of Hell.”
Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. The Seven-Storey Mountain, p. 3
But an escape into what?
By the time I made my vows, I decided I was no longer sure what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was, or what my vocation was, and what our Cistercian vocation was. In fact I could not b sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.
There’s no doubt that St. Augustine, whose Confessions, knew exactly what a Bishop was and the power one had as he became one. But Merton’s embrace of his own life as a monk is more qualified. Likewise, Merton intentionally creates distance between his own conversion and Augustine.
Like Augustine, Merton begins as a rich playboy. Like Augustine, Merton becomes curious about the faith and converts over an extended period of time. Augustine finished his work.
And I resolved in Thy sight, not tumultuously to tear, but gently to withdraw, the service of my tongue from the marts of lip-labour: that the young, no students in Thy law, nor in Thy peace, but in lying dotages and law-skirmishes, should no longer buy at my mouth arms for their madness. And very seasonably, it now wanted but very few days unto the Vacation of the Vintage, and I resolved to endure them, then in a regular way to take my leave, and having been purchased by Thee, no more to return for sale. Our purpose then was known to Thee; but to men, other than our own friends, was it not known. For we had agreed among ourselves not to let it out abroad to any: although to us, now ascending from the valley of tears, and singing that song of degrees, Thou hadst given sharp arrows, and destroying coals against the subtle tongue, which as though advising for us, would thwart, and would out of love devour us, as it doth its meat. Confessions, Book IX
While Merton broke with his.
After that, things began to move fast.
On the day before Thanksgiving I abandoned my Freshman class in English Composition to their own devices and started to hitch-hike south to New York. The Seven-Storey Mountain, pp. 393-394
What we are to make of this is never said.
The genre is not the genre.
For what it’s worth, the title Seven-Storey Mountain comes from a description of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. An unstated implication of the title is that Purgatory extends into this world — at least into Merton’s own life. This is similar to both the description of the afterlife in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, and my own thoughts in “Fire of the Angels“.
We may, in our own lives, see the Everlasting Fire.
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'” Matthew25:40-41