There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

The Words of Zumisura, Priest of Ea (a short story)

British soldiers discovered this strange text in 2005, while on routine minesweeping exercises in south-eastern Iraq, west of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta. It was found on a strip of vellum, rolled tightly into an earthenware jar. Though the stratum of sandstone it was discovered in dates roughly to the late Miocene era, the script itself appears to be an extremely primitive from of Akkadian cuneiform, suggesting a date of ca. 2500 BCE, at the latest. It has been tentatively translated by the late Dr. Alan Kircher Ph.D., of Cambridge University.

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And now that the rains have ended the waters churn with the great beasts of the deep, unlike any we have seen before. They leap and they fall with terrible noise and much foam. Ugurik has said they will bring down our wicker boat with the pound of their mighty tails, but I say that we have placed our souls already into the hands of the gods, and if this is how they wish us to end, there is nothing to be done.

Who can resist their will?

I cannot say how long the rain has fallen. Surely it has been more than a moon, but it has been so many days since we have seen a moon that none can tell. Elinumelek, who is high priest of Enlil and knows the meaning of sacred numbers says it has been forty days, because forty is a number of heaven. Ugurik, who is recorder for King Gilgudur and can do sums, says that it must be more, because our stores are nearly gone, and we had food enough to last a hundred days when we began. Elinumelek struck him about the ears when he said this, and when the blood no longer flowed, Ugurik could not hear on the side of his strong right hand.

Ugurik has done the count and says there is food now for three men to eat seven days, and then it will be gone. All the waters of high heaven and all the waters of the great deep have come together as one, I believe, and if we sailed for seven moons together we would not find rest nor land. If we are the last three men, as Elinumelek has said, then when we are gone there may be none to speak the praises of the gods, and so I write these final words now in memory of Ea.

When I was a scribe in the house of Gilgudur I wrote on the eternal tablets of stone used by the priests of Ea, but there is no stone to inscribe here. I use this, my leather cloak, as my stone, and soot from the lamp mixed with wine for my words. Ugurik fought me when I took the last of the wine to write these the final praises to Ea. He is afraid to starve, he says, but I say that we have placed our souls already into the hands of the gods, and if this is how they wish us to end, there is nothing to be done. When the blood no longer flowed, I could not see from my eye on the side of my lesser left hand.

Ea, if you have brought this catastrophe upon us, as Elinumelek says, because the noise of the men you had made had kept you from sleep and ate up your peace, who can question your wisdom? But who will offer you then the sacrifices of smoke and fire that feed the gods and give them joy, when we are gone?

Can this be wise?

Elinumelek struck me when I asked you this, but even now that the blood no longer flows, the question burns within me. Will the gods not die with us, if we are swept away?

Utnapishtim, the builder of the great boat, said not. How many hearings with king Gilgudur he had before the rains came, I cannot say, but as scribe in the house of Gilgudur I heard them all.

He served the great Shaddai, he said, whom he named king over all the gods, but Gilgudur subjected him to many lashings when he said it. Even when the blood no longer flowed still Utnapishtim spoke the same. It is because of the hurt that lurks in the hearts of men, he said, the lust for hurting that springs from being hurt. Shaddai will wash away the hurting with water, he said, until all the earth is clean.

Utnapishtim’s boat was many years in making, and often Gilgudur heard him. Utnapishtim urged the king to stop the hurting that hurts Shaddai himself, and join him in building his boat. Elinumelek mocked. Shaddai’s great builder of sand-sailing boats, he named him. Hurting does not hurt the gods, he said; hurt is of the gods. We hurt because they made us to.

Utnapishtim said not, but Elinumelek struck him and Utnapishtim returned to the building of his boat. Gilgudur said he would not join him.

The last day before the rain, Gilgudur gave a great feast for all his priests and scribes. He gave his daughter Niqutu to the King of Uruluk in marriage that day, and married Uruluk’s daughter Hasis, at the same feast. There was much eating and much drinking, and many gifts of smoke for the gods.

And then the flood came out, roaring like a bull, screaming like a wild ass. Wind howled. Darkness thickened. There was no sun.

In the days when the first rains fell, before the water covered everything, Elinumelek said that if we offered sacrifices of smoke and fire the gods might relent. We slaughtered every beast of all the herds of Gilgudur, and still the gods did not relent. Elinumelek said that if we offered up the blood of men the gods might relent and so we did. When the blood no longer flowed, still the gods did not relent. Elinumelek said that if Gilgudur gave his new wife Hasis and Uruluk gave Niqutu, the gods might relent.

After this, Ugurik, who could do sums, said that the deep would soon cover even the palace of King Gilgudur itself. He had formed a boat of the wicker baskets from the storehouses of the king and provisioned it with earthen jars of bread and wine. The water had covered most of the land by then, but Elinumelek joined him, as did I.

The great waves swept away all the rest.

O Ea, mighty and inscrutable, did Utnapishtim speak true? Is there a god higher than the gods themselves, who sent this rain not to hurt, but to wash the hurt away?

Elinumelek will not allow me to speak such questions, but if he is right, Ea the unquestionable, and you have done this, then why did you form these, the men you made, when first you did? Does Elinumelek speak true when he says that the gods are but as the greatest of all the great men, and no thought of their hearts is better than the darkest thought of ours?

The deep now covers the whole face of the land. It floats with the debris of the house of King Gilgudur, and with the debris of all the great kings of the earth. But O Ea the inexorable, if every house of every king writhed with the same pain that writhed in the house of Gilgudur before the rains came, then I say the flood had wisdom in it. And if you too will pass away, because when the water is gone there will be none to feed you with blood and fire, that is wisdom too.

Ugurik bleeds again from the ear that Elinumelek struck. He sleeps now more than he wakes and when he speaks his words are dark with dreams and fear. I myself grow weak and see only through a great darkness. The end, I say, comes near.

I have told Elinumelek that when I am gone, and the stores are spent, he is to keep himself and Ugurik alive with my body.

Eat it, I say, as bread.

If Utnapishtim spoke true, and the flood has covered all the earth, this gift will not save Elinumelek and Ugurik from following me into the darkness, in the end. But if Utnapishtim spoke true, then in giving myself like this, instead of hurting, I may find the hurt washing from me, at last, even as the flood has washed it all from off the face of the earth.

O Ea, the terrible, I do not hope to speak your praise again, but if the Shaddai whom Utnapishtim serves has eyes to see, perhaps he will see this gift and be honored by it.

The wine is gone.

I will seal these words away in one of the jars that held our bread. We have no other need of it now. I will offer the jar to the waters of the deep. None live now, I think, to find them, but if any do, know that these are the words of Zimisura, who served once as the priest of Ea.

Eating, Praying, Loving (Part III): Thank You Brother Fish

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Many years ago my dad and I took our kids on a fishing trip to a local fish farm near London. They were just old enough at the time to find fishing fascinating, but still young enough that the delicate work of worming the hook and unhooking the catch fell to me.

My son actually landed the big one that day, a nice, plump rainbow trout just waiting to be caught. When he brought it in, it was so feisty that I had some difficulty keeping it still to unhook it, and accidentally left some ugly bruises on its otherwise beautiful rainbow flanks. Later, when we brought in our catch, the staff at the fish farm cleaned it for us, for our cookout that afternoon.

I have clear memories of watching my Dad clean the fish on fishing trips in the Rockies when I was a kid, so I watched nostalgically as the skilled workman turned our beautiful rainbow trout into a feast fit for a fish fry.

If you’ve never seen a fish cleaned before, I should say that it’s not an especially pretty job, but it’s not all that gruesome, either. I’ve certainly never been squeamish about it. But while we watched, I thought about the bruises I’d left on the side of the trout while bringing it in, and I thought about its sleek body flexing and fighting in my hands as I did, just moments earlier. It might have been because I was standing there with my young son, and was feeling especially, paternally, philosophical, but whatever the case, it struck me in that moment unlike it had ever done before, that this thing that we would be eating later in the day was a living creature, just the same as I was. And from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to this reminder—something we all know but forget so easily—that food not only gives life, it also takes it.

I think this truth—that the food we eat comes from living creatures—is one we need especially to remember in this modern era of industrialized food production, where the foods we consume are produced somewhere out of sight and out of mind, and seldom bear any resemblance to the animals they once were. Time was you raised the goose before you cooked it—it actually lived with you—and you personally participated in the act of slaughter that brought it to your table. Chicken nuggets, of course, look like no part of any chicken I’ve ever seen; and it’s easy to eat a dozen of them without ever thinking about the fact that what you're eating once scratched the dirt with a forked foot, fussing and clucking with the very breath of life.

Any biblical spirituality of food, however, can’t go very far without facing this truth squarely, that food is death and life together, and that what we eat, we eat at the cost of another living creature. You see this idea all over the place in Torah. First, we notice that the original Adam and Eve were actually created to be vegetarian, that eating meat, though it is clearly sanctioned by the Creator, was not the Creator’s original idea. Humans only became carnivores, according to the biblical record, as a result of the Fall, and after they had emerged from the ark on the other side of the flood (Gen 9:3). Similarly, we see the repeated prohibition against eating blood, because as far as the Bible is concerned, the life of the creature is in the blood (Lev 17:14). To eat blood would do violence to the sanctity of life itself. The same logic seems to underscore many of the food laws we find in Torah—the prohibition against cooking a goat in its mother’s milk for instance (Ex 23:19), or the restriction against eating a mother bird and its own eggs together (Deut 22:6). There are probably other reasons for these commandments, too, but one of their cumulative effects is that they require us to respect the “aliveness” of the things we eat.

However important it is for us to feed ourselves, the Bible seems to be saying, don’t do it without acknowledging how sacred the life is that you are taking to do so; after all, that life too is a gift of the Creator, and he has compassion on all things he has made.

Christian theology usually emphasizes the human being’s distinctness among all the creatures in the creation, and for good reason. We alone are made in the Image of God, and in this, God set us apart from all the other works of his hands. It is possible, however, to emphasize this truth in a way that overshadows a second, equally important truth: that we share a sacred kinship with the rest of his creatures.

This is not a philosophical statement; it’s an exegetical one. Genesis 2:7 describes the creation of the Adam in this way: that God “breathed the breath of life into his nostrils,” and so the man became a “living creature.” That’s my translation. Older Bibles translate that last part as “living soul,” but that’s misleading. The term in Hebrew is nep̄eš ḥay-yāh—“living being”—and it is the exact same term that Genesis 1:24 uses to describe all the “living creatures” that God created on sixth day of creation. In the same way, the term for God’s “breath of life” that brings the human being to life in Gen 2:7 (niš-maṯ ḥay-yîm) is the same term that Genesis 7:22 uses to describe all the living creatures that are destroyed in the flood. Inasmuch as the breath that animates us is the same breath of the same Creator that animates them, we have a kinship – what theologian Charles Sherlock calls a “sixth day solidarity”—with all God’s creatures great and small.

If our eating is to be fully biblical, then, it must acknowledge this kinship in some way. This does not necessarily mean we should start eating vegetarian—though I have eaten vegetarian at various seasons in my life, and found it to be an extremely satisfying diet. It does not mean, either, that we should all go back to organic farming—though recently I went to visit a friend who raises chickens and came home with a dozen farm-fresh eggs that were not only more tasty, but also more meaningful to me, since I had actually met the chicken they came from. These things actually may be part of someone’s response to the Biblical witness.

But even without an over-haul of our entire diets and the food system that supports them, there are ways we can be more biblical when it comes to this aspect of life. Here’s a simple idea for starters. The 12th Century mendicant monk, Francis of Assissi, is famous for his deeply spiritual love for literally “all creatures of our God and King.” That hymn, in fact, is based on his second most famous prayer, The Canticle of the Creatures, in which he praises the Lord by singing the praises of the sun—“Sir Brother Sun,” he calls it—his sister the water—his brother the fire. In short, he praises the Lord, by celebrating his kinship with the rest of the Lord's creation.

What if, in our eating, we took a page from St. Francis’s prayer-book? What if the next time we sat down at table and said grace, we actually thanked the Lord for our brother the cow, our sister the chicken, our cousin the rainbow trout, and indeed, thanked them, our creaturely kin, for giving their lives to feed ours? If we did, we might take one step closer to understanding the true meaning of Psalm 104:28-30, when it reminds us that the same ruach of God that throbs in our lungs throbs in theirs also, and like us, when God takes it from them, they too die and return to dust, just as surely as we will do.

Salome Danced, a song

Every once in a while a songwriter hears a song in his head and is able to bring it to life exactly as he heard it. Other times he has no idea what he was trying to say, even after the song is fully realized. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, necessarily, and this song, "Salome Danced" was a bit of both. It's sort of a musical midrash on the story of Salome in the gospels. I'd had the piano riff floating around for a while, and thought it sounded vaguely Persian. When I started the lyrics, I wanted to write something that captured both the sensuality of the story but also the terrible pathos. What I got is certainly what I heard, but even so, I'm not entirely sure what it means. 




Salome’s eyes danced glittering like the stars at midnight
Salome’s eyes danced ebony behind the veil
Brimming like a chalice of gold full wine dark red
Salome danced (she danced) and St. John lost his head

Salome’s hands danced fragrant and dripping with myrrh
Salome’s hands danced fluttering behind the veil
Soaring like a bird of paradise with wings outspread
Salome danced (she danced) and St John lost his head

For a fleeting glimpse behind the seven veils
St John lost his head
For a lingering touch of those gilded nails
St John lost his head
Just to lift her to his lips like the holy grail
Yeah St John lost his head

Salome’s feet danced jangling with bells of silver
Salome’s feet danced luminous on barefoot souls
Gliding like a vapor of incense with a graceful tread
Salome danced (she danced) and St John lost his head

For a fleeting glimpse behind the seven veils
St John lost his head
For a lingering touch of those gilded nails
St John lost his head
Just to lift her to his lips like the holy grail
Yeah St John lost his head

And O I see her hiding in the shadows
Somewhere in the darkness a little girl cries
While mamma was waiting
And the party guests were watching
And Herod was laughing
Ah something inside her died

For a fleeting glimpse behind the seven veils
St John lost his head
For a lingering touch of those gilded nails
St John lost his head
Just to lift her to his lips like the holy grail
Yeah St John lost his head
Like the tragic ending of a sordid tale
Yeah St. John lost his head

Conspiracies Exposed (Part III): The Secret about Conspiracy Theories

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I know a man who is an avid consumer of conspiracy theories. He keeps abreast of them all, from the most rabid rants of Alex Jones to the most erudite speculations about the proliferation of G5 technology. He is especially consumed with conspiracy theories of the biblical variety, and emails me periodically wondering where we are on the “timeline of biblical prophecy,” if I think some recent event or other in global politics might actually be the work of the Anti-Christ, or if this or that political leader may in fact be the Beast of Revelation. Often his emails are accompanied by videos from websites with titles like “bannedvideo.com,” which connect the dots between the Bible and world events more freely than a toddler with a crayon in an activity book.

If it sounds like I’m making fun, I am really not. I’ve shared in previous posts how harmful I think conspiracy theorizing (as distinguished from “conspiracy hypothesizing”) can be, how complex the issues are, and how high the stakes. As a pastor, I care about this man a great deal and have often wished we could have real dialogue about some of these ideas. The challenge, of course, is that conspiracy theories tend to be all-or-nothing ways of thinking, making real dialogue about them fraught with tension. If the evil-doers really have infiltrated the highest levels of the government and the furthest reaches of the news media, then anyone who offers any evidence to the contrary is either their dupe, their flunkey, or their instrument. The framework has animosity built into it.

Early on in my relationship with this man, I was really struggling to figure out how to respond to all this pastorally, so I reached out to one of my theological mentors for advice. We talked it all over, and before I knew it, we were theologically theorizing about conspiracy theories themselves. At one point, my mentor said something that completely recast what a conspiracy theory is, for me, and why we find them so compelling.

“A conspiracy theory,” he said, “has the same spiritual allure as the occult, and may actually be the opposite side of that coin.”

I asked him to explain. The person with a conspiracy theory believes they have acquired “hidden knowledge” about spiritual realities that are invisible to the average person, he said, that they have seen through reality, so to speak, and have accessed a deeper, darker reality on the other side. This is the same kind of thing that “occult knowledge” offers, the ability to “see through” the everyday and access an invisible reality lurking on the other side. And for both, the allure is the same: we want to access “hidden knowledge” because we believe it will give us power. In the case of occult knowledge, the offer of power is clear. Dr. Faustus summoned Mephistopheles because the devil offered to give him what he wanted. In the case of a conspiracy theory the offer of power is less obvious, but just as alluring. It promises us that if we just “trust the theory” we’ll have power over our enemies (because they won’t be able to take us in), the power to escape their manipulations.

I’m still trying to decide if this theory about conspiracy theories has something to it or not. The unconvinced would point out that, even if they share “hidden knowledge” in common, conspiracy theories and occult practices have opposite impulses. The one wants to align with evil, while the other wants to resist it.

Fair enough; but if there’s any connection at all, it would explain why so many conspiracy theories seem to offer such detailed, elaborate, even intimate knowledge about “what the devil’s up to.” It would also explain, possibly, why so many of the conversations I’ve had with bona fide conspiracy theorists, have had such an undercurrent of fear, anger, xenophobia, and often even glimmers of hatred to them. If you can know a tree by its fruit, the fruit of a full-on conspiracy theory does not seem to be peace, hope, joy or love; at least not in my experience it doesn’t.

Maybe “occult” is going too far though. There was a heresy that the early church rejected, way back in the early days of the faith, called Gnosticism. The term comes from the Greek word for knowledge, because the Gnostics believed that what would save you, in the end, was knowledge, especially hidden knowledge about spiritual things, knowledge the initiate had and the uninitiated didn’t. Gnosticism probably had a finger or two in the “occult pie” itself, but it was not an occult system per se; at least, it didn’t have to be. The Gnostics weren’t looking for magical power necessarily, they were after hidden knowledge, because they believed that salvation lay in knowing "the secret."

In their case, the "secret" involved ascending through an elaborate system of spiritual planes inhabited by all sorts of spiritual beings, but the key is that the world as it was—the world you could see and touch and love with the creator’s love—was to be rejected in favor of a “higher,” “better,” “more-real” world that was invisible, and immaterial, and attained only through secret knowledge.

I wonder if the worst of modern day conspiracy theories are really a form of Gnosticism, an offer of salvation—literal salvation from the machinations of the mysterious Beast of Revelation—not by trusting solely in the saving work of Jesus Christ, but by trusting in our own ability to figure out what lies “behind the veil.” Even if they’re not exactly a gnostic in nature, I’m wary of conspiracy theories for the same reason the early church was wary of Gnosticism: because they don’t teach us how to love the creation with the Creator’s love. Instead they teach us to suspect it, to distrust it, to reject it, in favor of something “more real” we think we can see going on behind the scenes.

The unconvinced would push back here, probably.

What could be more loving than to help people see “the truth?”

Possibly so; as a preacher, I’ve certainly committed my life to that end. But in the case of a conspiracy theory, I would suggest that because it’s always after some “hidden cause” for evil that must be lurking somewhere where no one can see it, it can distract us from addressing the very real, very obvious evil that we face in the “real world” every day: the pain of the exploited, the suffering of the oppressed, the need of the poor, the turmoil of the lost. These are things the Gospel wants to address literally, and it’s possible to become so consumed trying to work out the Number of the Beast, that we miss the million opportunities we face every day to come alongside the victims of the Beast with the grace, the love, and the healing power of the God.

After all, as Christians we possess the greatest secret of all—the Mystery of Divine Love as revealed in the Gospel—and this is, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Colossains 1:26, an open secret, one that God has made fully public in the death and resurrection of his Son. According to Revelation 12:11, only this public declaration of the love of God in Christ has the power to overcome the Beast, and however much he may conspire, it alone will triumph, in the end.

Of Games and God (Part III): The Quest for Transcendent Immersion

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One of my favorite video games as a kid was that 1980s cult classic, Dragon’s Lair. If you somehow missed the 80s, all you need to know is that Dragon’s Lair was a fantasy adventure game, where the player guided a valiant knight named Dirk the Daring on a quest to rescue the fair Princess Daphne from the clutches of an evil dragon named Singe. This was in the days when home consoles were still in their infancy, so Dragon’s Lair was one of those quarter-munching arcade attractions of a by-gone era. It played largely like an elaborate choose-your-own-adventure game, where every level presented you with a series of puzzles or booby-traps, and you had to decide if you would, for instance, turn left or drink the potion, draw your sword or dodge right. There was some careful timing and some sharp reflexes required, for sure, but most of it was trial and error.

What set Dragon’s Lair apart from its contemporaries, however, were the graphics. In the days when most other games were still mucking about with pixelated space invaders or monochrome pac-men, Dragon’s Lair had found a way to harness cutting-edge laserdisc technology to present action scenes on-par with those of an animated Disney feature, the likes of which had never been seen in a video-game format before. As a result, Dragon’s Lair allowed the player to immerse himself in the adventure more fully and more magically than any other game in the arcade. While you didn’t exactly become Dirk the Daring (the advent of the true action adventure RPG was still a few years away), still, Dragon’s Lair invited you into a compellingly-realized, intricately-textured world, where your actions progressed a living, breathing story, and your imagination—because it had to work less-hard to fill in the visual gaps—was free to soar.

Held up against the standard of today’s most popular video game adventures, of course, Dragon’s Lair looks somewhat naif. It’s almost a bit too-cute-for-words, next to the sprawling kingdom of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild, say, or the cinematic (and rather grown-up) cut-scenes of The Witcher 3. A purist would probably argue that it doesn’t even qualify as a true RPG. At the time, however, Dragon’s Lair sparkled as an alluring hint of what a video game could be: not just a fun digital pass-time, but an immersive journey into an alternate world.


“Immersion” is, in fact, the technical the term gamers use to describe all this. The degree to which a video game recreates an experience so vividly that you can allow yourself to believe it’s really happening to you, is its level of “immersion.” Gamers sometimes evaluate games based on how “immersive” it is, and often the more elaborate role playing games will allow independent programmers to develop modifications to the original code (called “Mods”) that increase a game’s “immersion” even more. The immersive nature of video-gaming, I think, is one of the aspects that sets it apart from other human activities. In reading, for instance, you are invited to immerse yourself in a story, but the world of the story—its sights, sounds, movements and sensations—must be supplied entirely by the imagination. Cinema is much more sensory, of course, but the worlds created through film are no-where near so interactive. Only video games bring the human imagination to life so fully, in a genuine, interactive, multi-sensory experience.

“Immersion” is an important concept, not just in gaming, but in thinking about gaming theologically, too. If it’s true that one of the appeals of gaming is the way it allows you to escape the world-as-it-is and immerse yourself in an alternate world, so completely and so compellingly that it imaginatively transfigures the real world as you do, then in this gaming intersects with one of the main themes (and appeals) of theology, too. Like video games, theology also acknowledges and affirms the human desire to experience a world unlike the world as it is, to be taken out, above, or beyond every-day human experience, and immerse ourselves in something transcendent. C. S. Lewis famously put it like this: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Interestingly, as a way of illustrating that truth, Lewis invented the magical world of Narnia, a place that imaginatively satisfied a child’s desire for transcendent immersion, by poetically offering them an alternate world to explore. In doing so, of course, he also provided us with one of the 20th Centuries great symbols for the Christian life: becoming a King or Queen of Narnia in the everyday world of modern England.

Great care is needed here. The transcendence that theology offers is not some computer-engineered projection of human desires, sustained by our own ingenuity, any more than it is an imaginary kingdom for children, dreamed up by a creative storyteller. The transcendence that theology offers is, in fact, the world-as-it-is, transfigured by the holy and heavenly presence of the very Spirit of God Himself; and remarkably, as we immerse ourselves in that presence, we find ourselves not taken out of the world but sent into it, to love it and embrace it and supernaturally redeem it with his grace and truth. The immersion that theology offers, you might say, immerses us more fully than we could ever imagine in the ordinary stuff of earth, by immersing us completely in the extra-ordinary stuff of heaven.

So in this theology and video-games are plying different trades. But as an analogy for how theology does its work—and, perhaps, as evidence that this work speaks more intimately to the human heart than we might otherwise have expected—we can look to the immersive worlds of today’s best video games. In them we discover that the human spirit is in fact longing for an experience of the transcendent, that we are wired for something that nothing in this world can satisfy. And by them we are reminded that to satisfy this longing is not just our deepest need, but also a source of sheer delight.

The Patchwork Quilt, a short story


There came a night when Ashlyn’s insomnia had finally become unbearable. Mark was sleeping luxuriously on the pillow next to her, his rhythmic breathing almost infuriatingly slow and sublime. She had always known him to be a sound sleeper, but that night he seemed especially oblivious to her tosses and turns—or, indeed, to what had caused them—and when she could take it no longer she flung herself from the covers and found her way through the dark, into the cold living-room.

Her mother’s antique hope chest sat next to the couch, a simple cedar box that had been crafted, she was told, by her great-great-grandfather for her great-grandmother’s wedding day, and handed down from one generation of matrons to the next on the Kirk family side. She seldom looked in it anymore, but she knew there was an old patchwork quilt among the keepsakes it contained. It was folded neatly near the top, so she found it easily enough in the dark, saving herself the trouble of having to turn on a light and rummage for a blanket in the linen closet in the hall.

It was difficult to settle into the faux-leather cushions of the couch. She had never found this couch to be terribly comfortable, but Mark had insisted on it because it matched the modern décor he wanted for the living-room. Cold moonlight washed over her through the half-closed blinds, and it might have been this that made her shiver the way she did. She burrowed—almost cowered—under the quilt, pulling it to her chin and folding her body into a tight ball beneath it.

It took a long time for the spinning coin of her harried thoughts to rattle finally still, but in the end they did.

She woke poorly rested the next morning, however. Pale sunlight had replaced cold moonlight at the window, and outside in the yard, loud enough that it reached her even through the glass, a handful of starlings were bickering furiously with each other. She had in fact fallen into a very deep sleep, but even so she’d had a dream so unsettling that she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all.

In her dream, she was sitting in a crowded church, somehow aware that she was not properly dressed for the occasion, and greatly distressed that this might be noticed. There was a groom with his party at the front of the church, and though she never saw his face still he looked vaguely familiar to her. A priest rose, or perhaps it was a minister—she could never really tell the difference—and then an organ started up.

It was not the typical bridal march that played. It was both more compelling and more terrifying, some celestial orison, it seemed to her, coming from somewhere far away. Ashlyn did not see the bride process down the aisle, but when she looked, there she was, standing at the front with the groom. She wore a simple linen dress, the style very old-fashioned, and the fabric—this stood out to her especially—seemed particularly rough for a wedding dress, but brilliantly white. Her head was bowed with a reverence so intense as to be almost agonizing.

The priest lifted his arms and began to pray, and the words sounded as though they were coming from the organ itself; certainly they were not coming from him. “O Eternal God,” the voice said, “Creator and preserver of all mankind, send Your blessing upon this man and this woman whom we bless in Your name, that they, living faithfully together, may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant between them made this day…”

And in one gathered voice the whole church said, “amen” then fell still; though in her dream Ashlyn could not find the word in time. When her “amen” finally came, it was so late that it sounded out singly through a silent church, echoing so conspicuously that the bride at the front looked up at her suddenly, and Ashlyn was startled to see that her eyes were streaming with tears.

And then she woke.

It was not the content of the dream that troubled her, she thought, as she pulled herself to a sitting position on the couch and began folding the quilt to put it away. The weeping bride notwithstanding, it was not especially disturbing, and even somewhat commonplace in its details. It was simply far more vivid, more solid and more textured, than any normal dream should have been—so real as to be somehow oppressive. That, and the piercing sound of the music in the church, is what left her so unsettled.

She smoothed the folded quilt in her lap, ready to return it to the hope chest. It might have been the touch of the fabric, or perhaps the brilliant white, but something suddenly caught her breath. The patch of the quilt that happened to be facing up at her, now that it was folded, was a square of unusually rough linen. She was quite weary from her restless night, and perhaps not thinking clearly, but even so it seemed to her that the patch was made of the same cloth—the very same texture and color—as the fabric of the wedding dress in her dream.

A moment passed and she became aware she had been holding her breath, staring at the quilt.

“But really,” she said dismissively at last. “It could have been from anything; and what would you expect a wedding dress to look like?” She heard Mark stirring in the bedroom down the hall, and rose quickly, putting the quilt away with a furtive gesture.

They spoke very little over breakfast. Mark indicated that he would be home late from work that night and Ashlyn said something allusively about not much being new. He attempted a tentative peck on the cheek on his way out, but she shied away, and in the end he left without so much as a warm goodbye.

The difficulty with insomnia, of course, is that after four or five nights of it in a row, you begin to worry throughout the day that the coming night is going to be no better than the ones before; and this worry puts your nerves in such a knot that you couldn’t get to sleep even if you weren’t suffering from insomnia.

At least, that’s how it seemed to Ashlyn, as she lay there late that evening, staring up into the dark with wide, unseeing eyes. Mark had indeed been home late, so late that he simply assumed she was asleep when he came in the room and settled in beside her without a word. She wondered if he would have said anything even if he had known she was awake, and this train of thought made her all the more restless.

At last she rose again and made her way to the couch. She found the quilt and curled up beneath it, hoping against hope that it might work the same magic that it had the night before, and coax her into sleep.

When she finally did drift off, she began dreaming immediately. What surprised her was that she knew very clearly it was a dream this time, but that knowledge was not at all reassuring. Instead, it only intensified her feelings of helplessness as she watched the events unfold.

A slim man was standing alone in a barren field, beneath a scowling slate-grey sky. He was wearing a plaid shirt, criss-crossed with bright red and stark black. He wore old-fashioned suspenders and held a brown felt hat in his hands, which he wrung nervously between his fingers. Looking closely, she saw that the field was not just barren but that it had been ruined. The crop that was once growing there had been pummelled flat, and the hailstones that had done it—some of them as large as a man’s fist—had not yet melted all away.

The man said nothing, but his shoulders were stooped, and they stooped even lower as he surveyed the damage. Ashlyn felt compelled to say something, but, as sometimes happens in dreams, she could find no voice. The stooped shoulders began to tremble slightly, and then the man collapsed to his knees.

What happened next is what caused Ashlyn to wake, though, because instead of burying his face in his hands as she expected him to do, the man lifted them, raising his palms in a gesture that she could only describe as abject submission. It broke Ashlyn’s heart to see it; his posture was so beautiful but also so awful that she looked away, almost willing herself awake as she did.

It was not quite morning when she opened her eyes, and the light was dim and grey in the living-room. She sat up and pulled the quilt into a heap on her lap. She was certain she had seen the fabric of the man’s shirt before—the colours were so vivid—and she rooted among the patches of the quilt, terrified to discover that she had.

She found it in one of the four corners. It was only a single square of plaid, and because it was criss-crossed with such dark black, she could tell even in that grey light that the red was an intensely bright hue. She stared at it for a long moment, and then, because the weight of her dream was still upon her, she buried her face in the quilt and began to weep.

She was still thinking about it at dinner. She and Mark were eating together these days only by force of habit, though they prepared their own meals now. Weeks ago they had given up on even the most superficial efforts at conversation. Looking back she wondered if she said what she did only because she was trying to avoid the terrible thoughts that her dream had raised in her. At any rate, she looked at him across the table and finally asked, “Do I know her?”

It was all she needed to have said. Mark had just taken a bite, and he lowered his fork slowly. His eyes were fixed on hers, but she could not read them well; and anyways, in that moment she felt for the first time in a long time that she did not much care what his looks meant anymore.

He didn’t reply, so eventually she said, “Well?”

The pause that followed was excruciating, but at last he spoke. “Stephanie,” he said, and then, after another agonizing pause. “It was Stephanie from work.” He looked down into his plate.

Ashlyn stared at him for a piercing moment, and then quietly pushed her chair from the table and left the room.

That night she abandoned even the pretense of sleeping in their bed, but took the quilt and spread it on the couch. Mark passed on his way into the bedroom. She was sunk deeply into the cushions, the quilt pulled tightly to her chin, refusing to look at him.

“I—” He faltered. “I am so sorry, Ash—”When no reply came, he shuffled grimly off to bed.

Sleep still took a long time to come, though less than it had on previous nights. Her dream this time was just as vivid as the others, but somehow she had been expecting it, and even in the midst of the dream she knew she had been expecting it, so it was less unsettling to her.

She saw two small boys standing near a table in a kitchen, while a woman worked away on what seemed to her an antique-looking sewing machine. The boys were close enough in size and appearance that she took them to be twins. They were making a herculean effort to stand still, while the woman fitted them for the clothes she was sewing. Because they were twins, the outfits matched, two identical sets of over-alls. They were made of a bright-blue material speckled with white dots, though when she looked closer Ashlyn saw that these dots were really tiny anchors printed into the fabric.

What surprised her this time was that she recognized the sewing-machine so easily. It was the very sewing-machine her grandmother used to use with her, when Ashlyn would visit as a little girl and they would work on projects together.

Time is often hard to piece together in dreams, but it seemed that even as this dawned on her, one of the two boys looked directly at her. And she gasped, because she suddenly realized that it was her uncle standing there, her mother’s younger brother. She knew it was him only in the way one knows things in dreams; she could not have recognized him otherwise because she had only met him a few times as a grown up, and in most of these memories he was drunk. There was some dark story or other attached to him that her mother would never share.

It occurred to her—and this was the thought that lingered with her inescapably the next morning—that she had never known he had a twin. But she didn’t have time to absorb that strange detail in the dream, because the two had given up holding still, and had begun to tussle. She couldn’t tell if it was playful or in earnest, but it struck her as very violent regardless, and the two tumbled out of the kitchen, locked in each other’s arms.

The woman said something to call them back, but the struggle carried on, and then Ashlyn watched as she sighed and buried her face in her hands. Ashlyn supposed it was in exasperation, but at just that moment the sound of the boy’s quarrel died away and the room became perfectly still. She could hear the woman whispering into the silence. Ashlyn thought at first that she was speaking to herself, but as the voice whispered on she realized she must be speaking to someone, though they were definitely alone in the room.

She was not surprised when she woke that morning to find a patch in the quilt, towards the centre, made of bright blue fabric printed with white anchors.

Ashlyn started to look forward to nights on the couch with the quilt, after that. She still often struggled with insomnia, sometimes terribly, but she always eventually drifted off; and when she did, she always had the most vivid dreams.

In one, she stood in a shadowy bedroom in a house she thought she had been in before. An old man in stripped blue pajamas lay on the bed with the bedclothes pulled back because he was warm with fever. A girl knelt at the bedside, squeezing his hand and praying earnestly. When she looked up, Ashlyn recognized the face of her great-grandmother, looking much the same as she looked in the only photo Ashlyn had ever seen of her as a little girl.

In another dream she saw a girl that she knew almost instantly to be her grandmother, standing in a throng of people on a street in Toronto, one hand holding tightly to her father, the other waving a triangular-shaped pennant. The crowd cheered uproariously while a parade of men in sailor’s uniforms marched past, and Ashlyn knew that this was the day of Toronto’s V.E. celebrations after the war. She watched as one of the men in the parade came close. He stooped and picked up the little girl in an embrace so tight that Ashlynn knew they must be related, and when she looked at the girl’s father, there were the kind of tears on his cheeks that a man can only weep when his prayers have been answered.

Each morning Ashlyn would wake from dreams like these and scour the quilt. It was not always easy, but invariably she would find the patch she was looking for. Here was a bit of blue-stripped cloth that she knew must have been a man’s pajama-top at one time. There was a bright patch the same color as the pennant she had seen in the parade. Every dream, it seemed, had a patch in the quilt to correspond with it; or perhaps it was that the dreams were coming from the patches themselves. The thought almost embarrassed her to put it that way around.

During this time, something of a thaw—perhaps even a spring—in her interactions with Mark had begun as well. She still refused to sleep in their bedroom, and would not look him in the eye, but one night after another tense and perfunctory dinner she asked him if it really was over between him and this Stephanie. Mark assured her earnestly that it was, and for the first time since everything had come to light, she found she believed him.

Another time, late in the afternoon, he came home early from work and asked if he might take her out. She agreed only very reluctantly, but they went to a spot they used to frequent when they were dating, long before the betrayal. There, over two untouched cups of coffee he offered her a sincere, if faltering apology, more heart-felt than anything she had ever heard him say before; and when she came home she felt, if not exactly close to him, at least not so far as she once had been.

And then one night, deep in sleep on the couch and buried almost completely under the quilt, she dreamed the hardest dream of all.

She was standing in the dimly-lit parlour of someone’s house. A sombre-sounding clock was ticking insistently in the corner, and solemn men and women were drifting infrequently in and out of the room. In the centre stood a coffin, far too small to have been there for anything but the saddest of tragedies. It was open, and the flowers arranged around it seemed to beckon Ashlyn forward, but she could not have moved, even if she had wanted to.

A man and a woman dressed in black came in, stepping up to the tiny casket. They looked pathetically into it, the woman pressing a black handkerchief against her mouth to stifle her sobs, and the man looking almost defiantly resolute.

“So lovely,” the woman whispered. “Doesn’t she look just too lovely?” There was a long silence filled only with the sonorous tick of the clock. “And they say,” the woman began again, “that she sewed the dress for her herself … so lovely …” She trailed off into tears and the two wandered away.

Ashlyn pushed through the fear that paralysed her, and forced herself to the centre of the room to see. The sight of the little one lying there brought her heart up into her throat and held it there. The child was clothed in a beautiful dress made of some satiny pink material. Ashlyn had no time to weep though, because at just that moment another woman came into the parlour, and she recognized her, through the black lace veil that shrouded her face, as her own great-grandmother.

She was young, of course, as she had been in previous dreams, but old enough now to be a brand-new mother; and from the way she trembled to look into the casket, Ashlyn knew at a glance whose child it must have been in that tragic pink dress. The mourning woman sobbed openly, and then to Ashlyn’s surprise—though it was less surprising now, since she had seen it happen so often in her dreams—the woman knelt, still weeping freely.

“Please,” she whispered. “Please. May this not be for nothing. May something good still come of this.”

It was such a strange thing to have said in that moment, but it seemed to Ashlyn that the words were not really coming from her at all; rather that a voice more simple and more beautiful than any she had ever heard was speaking, a celestial orison sounding from somewhere very far away, but closer to her than the beat of her own heart.

“Please may this not be for nothing.”

And then she woke. She could hardly bear looking for it, but it did not take her long to find among the patches of the quilt one made of the softest, pinkest satin she could imagine. When she saw it, she pressed her face against it and repeated to herself the words of the prayer she had dreamed, over and over again in a breaking voice.

She moved beneath the shadow of that dream all morning, but before the day was through the shadow had begun to feel more like a shade than a gloom. That evening at dinner Ashlyn let her eyes meet Mark’s in a way she had not done for many weeks. She held his gaze so long that he even dared a tentative smile, a testing of the waters.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said at last. “I would like it very much if we could—” the words were difficult for her to find—“I mean, if you would be willing to—if we could see someone. To talk, you know? About what has happened between us—and her—and it—and to see if we might move forward?”

He was still very tentative. “Together?” he asked.

She nodded faintly. “Yes,” she said. “Together.”

He was nodding too. “I would like that very much.”

For the first time in over a month, Ashlyn slept in her own bed that night, a deep, dreamless sleep such as she had not in a very long time.

Eating, Praying, Loving (Part II): Saying Grace

<<< previous post

One of the most memorable moments in my early days of being a pastor was the time I was meeting with a young couple, relatively new to the country and completely new to the church, who had recently decided to follow Jesus. Their experience in our church was their first introduction to Christianity, and I was discipling them in their newfound Faith.

This was one of our first meetings, and part way into it, the wife asked me, "How do you say grace before a meal?" It occurred to me that this simple act of thanksgiving was entirely foreign to them, but that they had seen folks in our church doing it, and wanted to know more.

So I explained the basics. Before you eat, someone says a simple prayer, thanking God for the food he has provided and asking his blessing as you eat it. It could be as simple as speaking to a good friend who has invited you over to dinner, thanking the host for his hospitality, so to speak.

And in one of the tenderest moments I’ve ever experienced in my pastoral work, the wife turned to the husband. “Ok, then,” she said. “You’ve been doing it right.” I call it tender because in that moment I was suddenly teleported to their dining room in my mind’s eye, and watched as this husband fumbled his honest way through this most basic of Christian tasks. Something I have been doing since childhood and taken for granted all my life, was to him a profound privilege and a beautiful mystery, something he knew Christians ought to do but was not sure if he was worthy of the task.

I’m sharing this story as the second stop on our journey through this “biblical spirituality of food,” because that moment with that couple gave me a brand new appreciation—even a new thankfulness—for the act of giving thanks before a meal. If you’ve been saying it since childhood, that God is great and God is good and so we thank him for our food, it may begin to feel somewhat rote, but if you can see it with the fresh eyes of a new disciple, you will discover how fundamental this simple prayer really is for Christian spiritual formation.

Because food, of course, is life. Literally. If we couldn’t eat we would die, and if we don’t we will. It is really that simple. And by pausing briefly to thank the Creator before we dig in, we acknowledge that we don’t just depend on him for our food, but for the very life it sustains. In doing this we adopt that singular posture which is the proper, natural, and necessary posture of the Christian: one of utter thankfulness.

Scripture actually enjoins God’s people to be thankful more than it does almost any other command. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever,” says the Psalmist. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” says the Apostle. And in another place, speaking about food specifically he says, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” It’s not for nothing that the central act of Christian worship, the Lord’s sacred meal, is often called the Eucharist—Greek for “thanksgiving.” After all, the only thing we could ever really “give” to the Almighty Creator of everything is simply our “thanks,” and then open our hands to receive as an unmerited gift everything that comes from him.

What better way to practice this most fundamental attitude of Christianity, than to do it literally, three times a day, whenever we sit down to devour the concrete physical gifts he has provided to keep our concrete physical bodies alive? After all, like all the rest of his creatures, we too look to him to give us our food in due season (Ps 104:27).

This is where any spirituality of food must start, I think: with a deeper appreciation for and greater sincerity in the act of saying thanks. This has always been so, but it is more important than ever, in our modern age where human ingenuity has increased our ability to produce food beyond the wildest dreams of generations past, and it’s easy, maybe, to pretend that we’re our own providers, that we could feed ourselves without God’s help, thank you very much. Because of this, it’s perhaps all the more urgent for us to pause continually and renew our thankfulness, not just for the food we receive, but for the very privilege of getting to say thanks for it.

Another term for the prayer before the meal, of course, is “saying grace.” This is because when we thank the Creator for our food, we are saying the truest truth of all: that it’s all grace. The food that keeps us alive, yes, but also the table it’s set on, the good friends we have to share it with, the love of God, the mercy of salvation. It really is all grace. And the discipline of saying it’s so, three times a day before we eat, teaches us not just to be thankful for the food, but for every good and perfect gift that comes down from above—from the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the simplest gifts of air to breathe and food to eat.

The Years the Locusts Have Stolen, a song

For better or worse, I was raised on the glam metal of the 80s. My first ever album was Def Leopard's Hysteria, and I played it till the tape was worn through. Listening back to some of that old music, I'm a bit chagrined that my taste was so clearly that of a 14-year-old boy, but then again, I was just a 14-year-old boy. 

One of my favorite bands of all time, actually, was a somewhat obscure metal band called White Lion. You may know them from one or the other of their two big radio hits, "Wait," and/or "When the Children Cry," but they have a whole treasure trove of musical gems in the vault, just waiting to be discovered. This is owing, primarily, to the fret-board wizardry of their lead guitarist, Vitto Bratta. Bratta was probably the best guitarist to come out of the glam metal era, and had White Lion's star burned a bit brighter for a bit longer, he may have earned a spot in that league of guitar legends that includes the likes of Hendrix, Clapton and Van Halen. As it was, I always felt that he was both more melodically tasteful and more technically accomplished than Eddie Van Halen, the guitarist who was, undoubtedly, his biggest inspiration.

Anyways, I'll never forget the day I first heard the opening riff of the opening song of Pride, their break-through second album. I am a bit of a synesthete, so all I can say is that before the song was done, I was awash in rich waves of majestic purple, darker than the sea is deep, and spangled with bright bursts of Roman candle silver. After that came "Don't Give Up," "Lady of the Valley," "Wait," and each song was like nothing I'd ever heard before but had been listening for all my life. Bear in mind, I was only a 14-year-old boy.

All this is by way of introduction to this week's cut from my "Three Hands Clapping" album. The day I started writing it, I'd recently listened to White Lion's Pride for old time's sake, and had it in mind that I wanted to write a song in homage to this band that had played such a prominent part in my musical formation. I'd also had it in mind for a while that I wanted to write a song based on Joel 2:25, but I didn't know where to begin. I did my best to put these two ideas together, and this is what came out. I ain't no Vitta Bratta, of course (not by a long shot), but the opening riff and the solo is the nearest I can come to approximating his awesomeness.

I hope you enjoy!



Hear a rattle of wings
Like a whisper of death
In a wilderness bleached by the sun
And the stubble is dry
And there’s nothing else left
When the black cloud is lifted and gone

When the bones are picked clean
And the heart has been turned into dust
You can’t unsee what you’ve seen
And there’s nobody left you can trust

I’ll pay you back for the years the locusts have stolen
I’ll pay you back for the tears that fell in the dark
When the sun has turned black
And the stars from the sky are fallen
I’ll pay you back, I’ll pay you back

And you’re not who you were
And you’re not who you are
And you’re not who you’re gonna be
And you can’t get it back
And you can’t let it go
And you can’t find a way to get free

Like a stone in your heart
It’ll weigh you down, regret
And it’ll tear you apart
All the things you can’t forget

I’ll pay you back for the years the locusts have stolen
I’ll pay you back for the tears that fell in the dark
When the sun has turned black
And the stars from the sky are fallen
I’ll pay you back, I’ll pay you back

Conspiracies Exposed (Part II): But then again, Conspirators Do Conspire

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Many years ago I knew a man who had lived all his life in South Africa before immigrating to Canada. He was a highly successful, well-educated professional, a committed Christian and a respected member of our community. He was also adamantly convinced that the Catholic Church was the anti-Christ, the public face of the Freemasons, and part of a sinister plot to dominate the world.

I disagreed with his theory, and he and I had many long, intense conversations about why. He had, after all, oodles of reasons to make his claim. He shared with me a whole library’s worth of video tapes, lectures, and talks that laid it all out.

Why, for instance, was there the image of a winged lion depicted on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, when the winged lion was notoriously the symbol of Babylon?

I tried in vain to explain that the winged lion also happened to be the traditional symbol for St. Mark the Evangelist, based on John’s glimpse of the four living creatures in Heaven (Revelation 4:7) and Ezekiel’s glimpse of the creatures with the head of a lion and the wings of an eagle, surrounding the throne of God (Ezekiel 1:10). I then tried to explain that St. Mark’s Gospel is traditionally associated with Peter, since Irenaeus (ca.180 AD) calls him the “disciple and interpreter of Peter.” It therefore makes sense that in St. Peter’s church in Rome there would be the image of Mark’s winged lion.

Doesn’t it?

My friend was decidedly unconvinced. We batted “evidences” back and forth more furiously than two ping-pong masters in a championship match. At one point I asked him, somewhat exasperatedly, why was he so convinced that his theory had to be true. Where, I asked, did all this suspicion come from?

I’ve never forgotten his answer. It’s because, he explained, he had lived in South Africa during apartheid. And when that oppressive system came to its final, inglorious end, many ordinary South African citizens were shocked, appalled, and flabbergasted to discover all the secret, even diabolical government conspiracies that had been festering for years under the surface of their presumably civilized society. People were disappeared in the dead of night; extrajudicial killings were carried out by government sanctioned death-squads; propaganda was printed in papers; lies were taught as fact in schools.

"I’m suspicious," he said, "because I’ve lived through a conspiracy before. I know that they are possible."

This brings me to the point of this second post in our series on conspiracy theories. Simply put: people sometimes conspire. This is both the draw, and also the great danger of a conspiracy theory.

I’m making this point in particular because of some of the feedback I received from my last post. I was surprised, and even a bit perplexed, by how many readers pushed back on my basic premise, that conspiracy theories are a “hole you don’t want to fall down” (to borrow a phrase from another blogger). I heard comments like (or to the effect of): “Even so, I don’t think you should just blindly accept the mainstream narrative.” Or: “Just because an idea isn’t accepted by the general public doesn’t mean it’s crazy.” Or: “I expect there were a lot of ‘conspiracy theorists’ rounded up under the regime of Hitler because thy spoke up about their ‘theories’ that the Nazis were ‘conspiring’ to take over the world.”

Without unpacking each of these comments, I would suggest that all of them touch in one way or another on the same thing that my South African friend was getting at.

History shows that people do, sometimes, conspire. Sometimes disastrously. Sometimes diabolically.

But if I may, let me suggest that even so, a conspiracy theory is not a helpful way to process, or respond to this truth.

And let me suggest this by clarifying some terminology. I have noticed in the discourse surrounding the recent Covid-19 conspiracy theories, a certain imprecision, even sloppiness in the language that is especially unhelpful when it comes to something as psychologically complex and epistemologically subtle as a bona fide conspiracy theory. People seem to be using the term to refer, on the one hand, to any suspicion that “we’re not getting the whole story here,” any hunch that people in power may have ulterior motives we’re not hearing about. On the other hand, of course, it’s still being used to refer to (and often to ridicule) the most egregious instances of neurotic paranoia, the tin-foil hats and chem-trail fears of the Info-Wars variety.

I call this imprecision unhelpful because it has two equal and opposite effects. First, it allows us to silence dissenters with scorn—next thing you know they’ll have us wearing tin-foil hats, right? But second, it closes us off to the possibility we might be wrong-- after all, no one wants to discover they've all this time been the dupe of a conspirator, right? Both these effects together leave us less likely to ask probing questions, less likely to hear ideas we don’t already agree with, and more likely to be manipulated.

Given that, it may be helpful to distinguish a “conspiracy theory” from a “conspiracy hypothesis,” and to use these terms more precisely in our discussions. The word “theory” itself comes from the Greek word theoria, “to look” or “to see.” As far as I can tell, this is because a “theory” is an abstract, generalized way of thinking about a set of phenomena that allows you to “see it all,” in a sense, as a whole. The value of a theory is its explanatory power. It accounts for “all the data” and it allows you to make comprehensive predictions about the world. The challenge of a theory is its “completeness.” The theory has already, in a sense, settled the question, and so any data that doesn’t fit the theory is either ignored, over-looked, or pounded into the round hole of the theory until it’s no longer square.

A hypothesis, by contrast, is less generalized, less abstract, more of a “working model” for explaining particular phenomena. Consequently, hypotheses are much more responsive to the data as it is. A hypothesis doesn’t have to “see it all as a whole” the way a theory does, and so any data that disproves it doesn’t create cognitive dissonance, rather, it simply suggests adjustments to the hypothesis are necessary.

Any real scientists in the room may argue that I’m butchering the use of these terms as they are used in the laboratory. Fair enough. But in epistemological terms, I think this is an important distinction. A “theory” must explain all the data, whereas individual data suggest “hypotheses.”

This distinction sheds profound light, I think, when we bring it to the issue of conspiracy theories. What makes a “conspiracy theory” more than just a simple “suspicion that something’s afoot,” is not that it expresses skepticism about generally held beliefs. It’s that it requires the adherent to fit all the evidence—even the evidence that disproves the theory—into its framework, however ruthlessly you have to distort reality in order to get it all in. A conspiracy theory, you might say, is not so much about “what you believe” as “how you believe it,” a certain way of holding one’s beliefs, more than it is any specific set of beliefs, per se.

If I’m on to something in this definition, I would argue that many of the ideas that get dismissed in public discourse as “conspiracy theories” would probably turn out to be a “conspiracy hypotheses,” if we could sit down and discuss them at length; and if they weren’t they would certainly be more healthy and helpful if they were expressed as one.

How would you know the difference? I think a simple litmus test would be: A) how open are you to humbly engage with perspectives that disagree with your own? B) how willing are you to hear facts that disprove your hypothesis and modify it accordingly? and C) (this one is the hardest) how much does your skepticism emerge from the darkest flotsam of the human heart—pride, ideological obstinance, rebellion against authority, xenophobia, paranoia?

If I answered “very closed,” “unwilling,” and “mostly” to those three questions, chances are that I’ve bought into a conspiracy theory, the way I’ve been defining it here.

And chances are, too, that instead of becoming less likely to be duped, I’ve actually made myself more likely to be.

I say that because of the premise I started this post with: that history proves that people do conspire.

It’s true; but fascinatingly, history also proves that one of the methods the conspirators have used to get away with their conspiracies, is to convince the public to buy in to a “conspiracy theory” of one sort or another. Speaking precisely, Hitler did not round up and kill “conspiracy theorists” during Nazi Germany. He rounded up and killed political dissenters (among many others). But one of the reasons he was able to do this with impunity was because he had convinced the German public to believe a conspiracy theory, in the fullest sense of the term: that a secret cabal of Jews was conspiring to take over the world, and the only thing that stood between them and Jewish domination were the horrific “solutions” of the Nazi regime. If we did some digging, we could probably think of more examples, both historical and contemporary, of times when the real conspirators used the epistemological shell game of a conspiracy theory to distract the public from what was really going on.

After all, the lesson of history is not just that people conspire. It’s also that people are often far too willing to let a political ideology, a xenophobia, a paranoia, a fear of honest dialogue, or some combination of all these things, do the thinking for us, sometimes with disastrous results. The solution, of course, is not blind naivete, any more than it is blind skepticism. The solution is actually opening our eyes. It's to look at the world with a earnest desire to know the truth, however wrong the truth might prove us to be on this or that assumption, and in so seeking it, to let the truth set us free.


The Kairos of Gaming: Of Games and God, Part II

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Last night I opened the “Minecraft game saves” folder on my laptop, dropped my latest Minecraft world onto a flashdrive, and then proceeded to clean out the whole folder, every save, every backup, every screenshot. All of it went to that great digital recycling bin in the sky.

Then I gave said flash drive to my wife and told her to hide it somewhere in the house, with strict instructions that, however much I might beg her to do otherwise, she should not return it until Christmas.

I feel—and probably sound—somewhat pathetic making this confession, but it’s true. I have been wanting to focus more of my energy on writing, have felt called to do this in fact, and the plain truth of the matter is this: that left to my own devices, I would pour far more time than I have to spare into the enjoyable, but otherwise unproductive business of mining and crafting, leaving far too little left over to do what I really want to do, which is to write.

I am not sharing all this simply for absolution, however. It’s more to point out our first landmark in the “theology of gaming” we started journeying towards in my last post. It is, I think, both the best starting place for discussing video games from a theological perspective, and, interestingly, the strongest theological objection to gaming as a human activity, at the same time.

I’m thinking here of the way video games consume time.

Let me start with the theological objection. I mentioned in a previous post that the two main games I’ve spent my time playing over the last decade have been Minecraft and Skyrim. Skyrim, if you haven’t heard, is a Tolkeinesque fantasy role-playing game, set in a vast and intricately detailed open kingdom known as Skyrim, a province of the imaginary world of Tamriel. It’s basically a living, breathing Dungeons and Dragons fantasy, complete with elves, orcs, giants, and demons. Your main job in Skyrim is to advance through the story-line, completing quests and conquering foes, until you acquire both the skills and the spells necessary to defeat an apocalyptic, world-eating dragon named Alduin, and so become the fabled Dragonborn.



Skyrim is available through a video game distribution service called Steam. This is handy, because whenever you log onto Steam, it tracks the number of hours you’ve spent playing any given game in your account. Consequently, I can tell you with great precision that, since embarking on my very first quest in Skyrim, I have logged no less than 539 hours playing the game.

539 is a lot of hours. If I had played them all in a row I’d have been playing for 22 straight days. If it was a full-time career, I would have already been 3 months on the job. And that’s only counting the hours I played over Steam (you can also play off-line), and it’s only counting the hours I spent playing Skyrim—who knows what my stats would look like if I included all my Minecrafting into the equation.

There is a place in the Psalms where the psalmist cries out to the Lord, “Teach us O Lord to number our days.” The idea, of course, is that the number of our days is, in fact, remarkably small. Three score and ten years—or, 613,200 hours—is all the Psalmist gives us. Subtract 8 hours a day for sleep, and that leaves us with only 408,800 left over. If I kept going at my Skyrim rate, I would burn up almost 10,000 of those playing video games.

This would probably be tragic, because after 539 hours of play, all I have to show for my efforts in the world of Skyrim is a series of pointless achievements in a video game, a fully levelled-up wood elf warrior, and an imaginary chest full of digital treasures that I can literally do nothing with.

Enthusiasts would want to pump the breaks here, and argue that there are all kinds of benefits that come from gaming-- social, emotional, intellectual, and so on-- but even so, from a strict "productivity" point of view, time spent playing video games is, in fact, time mostly wasted.

But that, as I say, is not only the greatest objection to video games, it is also the greatest starting place for thinking about them theologically. Video games, after all, remind us that time need not always be spent productively in order for it to be spent well. There are some activities, actually, that are inherently valuable and intrinsically worth doing.

In order to appreciate this, we need to consider the function of play in human experience. A video game is, first and foremost, just that: a thing to be played; and any theology of gaming, if it is going to explain the phenomenon accurately, will have to first develop a working theology of play. In his study of human play, Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga suggested that there were three specific factors that made an activity playful, anthropologically speaking. First, the activity must be voluntary; second, it must follow a scripted logic; and third, it must stand apart in time and space from all other activities. Video games, of course, meet all three of these requirements, but its this third that I wish to focus on here.

Something happens to time and space when a video game launches—a kind of suspended animation—and the player enters into a time and space entirely set apart. This is why, at the height of my Skyrim days, I could start a quest at 9:00 in the evening, and before I knew it the whole household was sleeping, it was 2:00 in the morning, and as far as I could tell, less than ten minutes had passed. There are other forms of play that have this same effect on me—reading fiction can sometimes do it—but few activities, I think, open us up to a “time set apart” the way video gaming does.

In God in the Machine, Liel Leibovitz argues that this is one of the great sociological gifts that video games give us, the ability, as he calls it, to waste time. “Speaking of video games,” he says, “parents, educators, and other responsible adults frequently and often sneeringly label them a waste of time. They are right, but for all the wrong reasons. Video games do waste time, but not mindlessly, never wantonly. They waste time in a way necessary to curb the otherwise rampant industriousness of developed capitalist societies, necessary to solve the central problem of the medium, namely how not to force humans, thoroughly analog creatures that we are, into digital mind-sets, bound by code and devoid of free will.”

In other words, video games allow us to escape the modern utilitarian view of "spending time"—the “time is money” philosophy of the modern world—that operates continually on the assumption that an activity is only worth doing if there is “something to show for it” at the end. To the extent that “to sanctify” something means “to set it aside for a special purpose,” video games give us a sense of what it means to experience “sanctified time.” Kairos is the word theologians sometimes use to describe “sanctified time,” and often kairos is held in tension with chronos, or chronological time. Kairos is time set-apart, time that has no utilitarian purpose, time that unfolds in some way parallel to chronological time, and is valuable not because of what you can do with it, but because of what it does to you.

In pointing all this out, it needs to be squarely faced that there is, surprisingly very little discussion of play whatsoever in the Scriptures. Unlike the ancient Greeks, the ancient Israelites did not seem to have any sporting events; nor are there any depictions of any Bible characters playing at anything. It is true that Jesus pointed out children as exemplars for life in the Kingdom, but that was clearly because of their humility, not their playfulness.

However important it may be for human development and well-being, the Bible largely ignores play.

But that may be because the Bible has in full what all our playfulness can only hint at: the truest doorway onto kairos time, and the only thing really worth wasting our chronos on: the act of Biblical worship.

I use the word “waste” very carefully here. After all, there is nothing at all “wasteful” about worshiping God. It is the one thing we were made for, the trajectory of the Christian life, and that thing we will be doing when time is finally, fully “set apart” and we are with him for eternity.

There is nothing wasteful about worship.

But, in the strictest sense—the capitalistic, utilitarian, means-to-an-end sense—there is nothing “practical” about it, either. The very first sacrifice described in the Book of Leviticus is the whole burnt offering, which the worshiper offers voluntarily, as an expression of thanks and devotion to the Lord. It doesn’t start with the atoning sacrifices, which are “used” to deal with the problem of our sin. It doesn’t start with the sacrifices “used” to expiate our uncleanness. It starts with the one that you give for no other reason than that you want to worship God, and all you get out of it is the joy of having worshiped. With some sacrifices, of course, you got to keep the meat, or at least a portion of it, and eat it with your friends and family. Not so the whole-burnt offering. The goat, or lamb, or bull, or pigeon, went on the altar, and went entirely up in smoke, so that no portion of it could be “used” for any other purpose.

We see this at work, too, in the Biblical command to practice Sabbath. Sabbath time is the most fully set-apart time of all, and it is—again speaking from a strictly capitalistic perspective—useless time. Sure, you could argue that resting one day in seven makes you more productive for the other six, but that is never the justification the Scriptures give for keeping Sabbath. We are to do it simply to mark how God set us free from slavery (Deuteronomy 5:12), and how God himself created the world (Exodus 20:11). Sabbath-time, in other words, assures us that however productive we may think we are, still all the work in the world won’t sustain the world. That’s God’s job; and because he has pledged himself to do this job, he does not exact from us a factory-efficient accounting of what we produced with every second.

Video games, of course, are not worship. A legalist might go so far as to argue that video games can leads us into false worship; and they may have a point. All I am trying to argue here is that gaming is an expression of a deeply seeded desire in us to escape into kairos time, where chronos is suspended for just a moment, and time itself can be well-wasted. However imperfectly video gaming expresses this desire, I think the Bible would say that the desire itself tells us something about human nature before God.

We were made to worship. And when we are worshiping we are entering into that experience which all the video games in the world hint at, perhaps, but none of them ever fully achieve: a time and space fully set apart, where we are doing the one thing that has no capitalistic utility but makes us most fully human: coming to know God, so that we might enjoy him forever.

The Tattoo, a short story


The waiting room was surprisingly pristine, given the part of town I was in. I don’t know what I was expecting—ashtrays smoldering on stained counter-tops, perhaps, dirty magazines pilled haphazardly on the coffee table, half-drunk bottles of whiskey in the corners, maybe—but it wasn’t this. The place was almost fastidiously tidy. An elaborate Turkish rug covered the floor, the tassels arranged so neatly on either edge that I wondered absently if they had been combed out. The couch I was sitting on was threadbare, it’s true, but only charmingly so. In the corner, a multi-stemmed floor lamp cast a soft orange glow over everything, and on the counter, a single incense burner smoked faintly, making the air sweet, but hardly pungent.

I had arrived early. There was a heavy curtain separating this waiting area from his studio, and through the thick cloth I could hear him working with a client, speaking softly, his voice mingling indistinctly with the faint clicking sound of some machinery or other.

The wood-paneled walls were hung with framed drawings—examples of his work, I assumed—and I passed the time by pouring over them. There were the usual death’s heads and arrow-pierced hearts—some of these so grim as to be almost ugly—but there were also more transcendent images: warrior angels with wings of fire, elaborate floral patterns, mysterious inscriptions in stylized script.

The clicking sound stopped, the voices grew slightly louder, and almost with a flourish the curtain parted. He was done with his client and was bringing her into the waiting room.

“You will see,” he was saying, “that there’s still a faint shadow left, where it was. Another two or three sessions and that will be gone too; but even now, I’m sure, you’ll be pleased with the change.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” she replied. He had produced a hand-held mirror from behind the counter and she was using it to inspect the side of her throat, up and around, as far as she could see, to the back of her neck.

I tried to respect her privacy, but since I myself would be undergoing the same procedure shortly, I couldn’t help but glance out the corner of my eye.

Whatever tattoo had been there—on her throat and around her neck—it was certainly gone. He was right, there was still a faint shadow left behind, but so faint that I could never have told you what the image was that had once been in its place.

“I don’t know how I can possibly repay you,” she was saying. Tears were forming in her eyes, and they gleamed with all the light of the multi-stemmed lamp in the corner. “He forced me to do it, you know. And the tattoos were all so awful. He said it was so that no one would want me if I ever left him.”

I tried hard not to overhear so personal a confession, but I couldn’t help it.

“The others weren’t so bad, but on my neck like that? There was no way I could keep it hidden. It made me feel so cheap and used …”

The tears were glistening brightly on her cheek now.

“It’s my pleasure,” he said quietly. He didn’t look in her face, but seemed rather to be inspecting the spot on her neck where he had been working to remove her tattoo. “Like I say: two or three more sessions and it will be a thing of the past. There are, of course, some scars that even I can’t remove, but those too will heal with time.”

When she was gone, the tattooist—or perhaps more accurately I ought to call him the untattooist—addressed himself to me.

“You must be Mr. Wilson,” he said. He stepped behind the counter and consulted his agenda book. “My three o’clock?”

“Thank you for seeing me. They told me that you remove tattoos—the best in the city, is what they said—and that you are willing to—how would you say it? Take on pro bono work?”

He looked up from his book. “If the story warrants it,” he said, “I do it for free.”

He nodded towards the door. “Take her, for instance. I can’t tell you her whole story, but it’s enough for you to know that when she was young, a man she had given her heart to marked her as his own, with tattoos all over her body. Well: she’s left him behind, now, but of course, something like that doesn’t fade so easily, does it?”

“And so you—”

“When she came to me, his mark was everywhere. Arms, back, upper thigh, throat. A case so tragic as that, of course I did it pro bono. What price could anybody reasonably charge? The throat tattoo was the hardest. It’s a very vulnerable place, you know.”

I wondered vaguely what part of her story he had left out as too personal, if he was willing already to share this much. But there was a profound note of compassion in his voice, and it prompted me to share my story too.

“Years ago,I had a lot of demons I was fighting. I mean that metaphorically, of course.” I added that quickly, because at the first mention of my demons he looked at me hard—harder than I would have expected. ”The drink, you know. And worse. And one night—I don’t remember much of it—but the next day, I had this.”

I couldn’t look him in the eye, for shame, but I pulled up my sleeve to reveal a poorly-rendered Celtic cross, upside-down and bleeding great gouts of blood, glaring up defiantly from my forearm. The image itself was hideous enough, but it had been a shoddy job all around, and the artistry made it look almost comical in certain lights, a laughable attempt to look fearsome.

I could tell nothing from his face, but he looked at the image for a long, pensive moment.

“Does it qualify?” I asked at last.

He looked at me again with that hard, piercing light in his eye. “You will have to tell me,” he said, strangely. “It is entirely up to you.” He rubbed his chin and looked at the image again. “And are you still fighting your demons?” he asked indistinctly.

I held my breath for what felt a long time, and then exhaled heavily at last. “I do want it gone,” I said. “Everywhere I go it’s always long sleeves and heavy coats. Even in summer. And it’s not just the image, though that’s bad enough, but what it reminds me off—who I was.”

He looked at me a third time, piercingly. “I’ve seen worse,” he said. “But if you want me to, I will do it.”

I nodded, and the next thing I knew he had pulled aside the curtain again and ushered me into his studio. A chair not unlike a dentist’s chair stood in the centre, though it looked far more comfortable than I had anticipated—and again this surprised me so that I wondered once more what I had expected. A  machine festooned with cables and wires stood in one corner, gleaming so spotlessly that I assumed it must be what he used for the procedure.

He gestured me towards the chair and asked me to have a seat. I watched him closely while he busied himself in a cupboard, producing bottles of disinfectant, swabs, gauze and other items I couldn’t identify.

For the first time I noticed how strangely he was dressed. He wore gloves that covered his hands well past the wrist, though I expect this was for the sake of hygiene. But they were, remarkably, dark black. So were his pants and his long-sleeved, high-necked sweater. Everything on him was black, in fact, except for a bright red scarf which he wore, not stylishly, but wrapped tightly to the chin. He wore a beret, too, pulled low over his brow. This, together with the soul-patch on his chin, made him look almost like the caricature of a beatnik, or one trying too hard to affect that appearance.

The whole time he worked, he spoke. “I had one client,” he said, “Who had been a—what do they call it these days? A skin-head? You know the type. He had the worst hate you could image printed on his knuckles. Said that he did it so that when he punched someone, they would see the reason why, even as the fist flew at them.”

He had turned his attention to the machinery now, preparing it carefully and moving it towards my chair.

“If you can believe it, he even had—well, I can’t repeat it, the slur itself—but he had it emblazoned on his forehead, right there, so that anyone looking him in the eye would know exactly how much he hated. And who.”

He had turned on the machine now, and it began to hum faintly, like a fan whirring on a hot summer night, or rain falling steadily on a lazy afternoon. “But would you believe it? He left that life behind. All of it. The gangs, the hatred, the violence. Almost a supernatural change, if you will. But sometimes, you know, changes on the inside don’t show up on the outside so easily, do they?”

I couldn’t tell if he was laughing now, but his voice certainly shifted, if subtly. “And, then, when he came to me, he had fallen in love. Can you believe it? And mark this: to the last woman he ever could have loved in those old skin-head days, and the last woman who ever would have taken him, back then.”

He pulled a wheeled stool over and sat down on it, next to my inclined chair, leaning over me. “But, as they say, love covereth over a multitude of sins.” He picked up the laser-needle, attached to the whirring machine by a thick black cord. “Please,” he said. “Pull back your sleeve and lay out your arm.”

I did.

“So these two wanted to be married. Can you imagine? And he told me that he couldn’t bear the thought of standing up to say I do with that old hatred written all over his face, for all to see."

“Sounds like the perfect candidate for pro bono work."

“Perhaps,” he said absently. “Perhaps they all are. Anyway: he was able to marry his lovely bride, without any of the old ugliness standing between them. He even sent me a wedding photo.”

He gestured to a framed picture on the wall. A beautiful bride, dark-skinned and radiant, stood next to a young man in an inexpensive-looking suit. His face shone brightly with one of the most sincere smiles I had ever seen, no shadow to be seen anywhere.

“They look happy,” I said.

“They are. And so am I to have helped. Now—” There was a lamp on a retractable arm over the chair—again not unlike a dentist’s chair—and he pulled it over me, flooding my whole body with a blinding white light. “Let’s see what we can do about this.”

“Will it hurt?” It only now occurred to me to ask what seemed the obvious question.

“Yes. I’m sorry to say, but it will hurt very much.”

“They say that even the best tattoo removal techniques leave a mark behind—” I was talking now only to steel myself against the first stab of the laser—“that you can never really get it all. But that man in the photo, if he really did have a hateful slur on his forehead, you certainly can’t see any sign of it.”

“Most techniques do leave something behind,” he said. “But I have developed a device that—well—it hurts, like I say, but it gets it all. Now please, Mr. Wilson, if you will hold still.”

It did hurt, though not as much as I expected. There started up a steady clicking sound, and a stabbing fire shot through my skin. I winced, and did my best to breathe through it. I turned my head to see what was happening on my arm, and was startled to see that the un-tattooist, bent double over his work with the laser-needle, was wincing, too. Of course, he may have been simply furrowing his brow in concentration; it was difficult to tell.

“It’s not possible, except there be some pain,” he said, and there was something in his voice I hadn’t heard before.

To distract me, he began talking in an ambling way about some of his other clients. Each story, he explained, was entirely unique. The first—and this was the case that had started him out doing this kind of thing for charity—up until then he had simply been  a tattoo artist—but the first was an old man who had been in Auschwitz, and survived; but not without the dehumanizing number of that awful factory of death, engraved on his arm.

I commented on the irony, that he would have done a tattoo removal for a survivor of Auschwitz, only to remove later the neo-Nazi slurs from the skin-head fiancé in the photograph.

“Every story has a story,” he said, enigmatically. “And anyways, the two cases aren’t so different as it may seem.”

At any rate, word started to spread like only good news can, after that first client. An ex-con who had taken a tattoo during his time in prison—mostly to protect himself by identifying with one of the gangs on the inside—came next. “He was completely reformed, of course, and on parole; but the mark of the past was still haunting him. Couldn’t get work. Couldn’t find love. That one was an easy removal, though; it hurt very little.”

But there were grimmer stories to come. One client had received their tattoo as part of an elaborate initiation ritual into a mysterious cult that they had since escaped. Another had been tattooed as a child by the worst kind of abusive parent. There were some stories that even he would not tell, but only alluded to them vaguely; and all the while he spoke he worked with his furrowing brow and his steadily-clicking needle over the upside-down cross on my forearm.

And I felt a profound wave of appreciation welling up in me, despite the pain, to consider all the lives the un-tattooist had changed. I thought of my own ridiculous tattoo, slowly vanishing beneath the piercing laser-needle of his device, and felt new channels of gratitude opening in me as it did.

I can’t say how long it took, and before he was done my arm was aching fully to the shoulder, though it no longer stabbed with fire, and had become, rather, a slow, dull throb. But then, almost without warning, the drone of the machine stopped. He wiped my arm with an alcohol swab, set down the laser needle, and pushed his wheeled stool back.

“I think, Mr. Wilson, that that will do for today.”

I only noticed the shadow left behind because I knew that there would be one. If you did not know the story, you never would have imagined that my forearm had not always been so soft and clean as it was in that moment.

I was at a loss for words, and trembling now, the gratitude bubbling over in me. “How can I—”

The un-tattooist blinked weakly and his voice sounded strangely far away. “Please, put it out of your mind. There’s no need to repay. You may wish to return, though, to see if more of that shadow can’t be removed.”

He pulled back the curtain and ushered me into waiting room again.

"And of course, if you ever come across a story that might warrant my services, perhaps you’d be so kind as to send them my way?”

I reached for his hand, though, surprisingly, he didn’t take mine. He stood there almost as if he were favoring his arm, and I wondered almost if it were trembling. “Yes,” I said, lowering my hand awkwardly. “Yes, of course I will.”

He showed me to the door, and with a warm farewell, I stepped out into the greasy street. Somewhere far away a siren was screaming.

I was only five minutes down the road when I realized that I had left behind my wallet. I had pulled it out when he refused my payment, and had inadvertently left it on the counter. I turned back.

The parlor had a closed sign hung in the window now—it was well past five o’clock—but I tried the door and gratefully discovered  he hadn’t locked up.

“Hello?” I called out, but the parlour was unnervingly silent. It made me think vaguely of a tomb.

The curtain was drawn, but there was a light on behind it, and I could see moving shadows coming from beneath the cloth that suggested to me he was still there. I stepped up and looked through.

His back was to me, and he was looking into a mirror by the bright overhead lamp he had used during my procedure. I could see that he had removed his gloves and his sweater. The red scarf was draped over the chair and the beret was set aside on the counter.

I spoke again and he turned at the sound. “I forgot my—” I began to explain, and then stopped with a startled inhale. There were tears in his eyes, but that is not what caught my breath. Rather, as he turned towards me, I saw that his forehead—that part of it that had been covered by the beret—was inscribed with a hideous racial slur, an ugly skin-head tattoo.

He nodded at me, and raised his hand. And as he did I could see, in the hard light of that overhead lamp, that the knuckles were tattooed with hateful letters. I followed the hand as it lifted to his throat, and there—where the scarf had been—I saw the most tragic tattoo I could imagine, along the throat and up around the back of the neck.

He nodded again. “As I said,” he said softly. “It’s not possible except there be some pain.”

And he lowered his hand again, but now I wept at what I saw. For there on his exposed forearm, distorted and so shoddily-done as to be cartoonish, I saw a grotesque cross, upside down and bleeding great gouts of hideous blood—my own tattoo—throbbing freshly on his bare skin.