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“Stories that tell of men’s aspirations for more than material life can give them — their struggles for the future welfare of their race, their unselfish love, their unrequited service:  things like this are the subjects for the best art; in such subjects there is hope surely, yet the aspect of them is likely to be sorrowful enough:  defeat the seed of victory, and death the seed of life, will be shown on the face of most of them.”

— William Morris, “Some Hints on Pattern-Designing”

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The Dancer VI



She woke to find herself lying cold and stiff in the ashen snow. It was dusk. Footsteps were receding down the darkened street. She staggered to her feet.

Alone she wandered the bleak and snowy streets of the city, stumbling and stopping often to rest, for she was tired, hungry, and weak. Dirty and ragged now, she no longer presented a very pretty sight. Only the dancing shoes remained as bright and beautiful as at the first.

She stopped to rest on a cold stone step and to comfort herself with the thought of her lovely shoes. But their comfort too had now grown cold.

“These dancing shoes are lovely beyond words,” she thought. “And yet of what use are the shoes without the dance? And now that the Voice has left me, I feel that I shall never dance again.”

Suddenly she looked up at the sound of a muffled sob close by. There, not an arm’s length away, huddled in the angle where the stair met the wall of the building, was another little girl. She too was ragged and dirty and thin, and her bare feet were soiled and red with the cold. Her weeping was very bitter.

“What’s the matter?” asked the dancer. “Why do you weep so?”

“Because I am lost and all alone,” the girl answered, “and have no place to stay.”

“Ah!” sighed the little dancer. “I too am lost and alone, nor have I any place in this city to call my own. Otherwise I would take you home with me.”

And so the two of them sat and wept together in silence.

Presently the dancer raised her head and said, “But is this the only reason you are crying? Is there nothing else I can do to help you?”

“I am so hungry!” answered the child. “I haven’t had anything to eat for days!”

“Ah!” sighed the little dancer. “I too am nearly starved and very weak with hunger. I have nothing to share with you. Otherwise you can be sure that I would.”

Again the two of them sat silently weeping together.

At last the dancer spoke for the third time. “Surely,” she said, “there must be something else. Your crying is so very bitter.”

“Yes,” said the girl. “My feet are so cold that I can no longer walk; and so I am afraid.”

The little dancer looked down at her own feet. For a long time she stared at her beautiful dancing shoes.

“Of what use are these shoes – or my feet, for that matter – without the dance?” she thought.

Then, stooping down, she carefully undid the graceful silken laces and slipped the shoes from her feet. Kneeling in the snow, she bound them on the feet of the little girl.

* * * * * *  *


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     I am a Christian … so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.

 — J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter to Amy Ronald, December 15, 1956  

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

A long defeat. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation, one of the most celebrated of all true Pilgrims, would have understood this way of looking at human history. He was intimately acquainted with disappointment and failure. He never knew his father. His mother died when he was seven. While still an adolescent he was forced to flee the land of his birth. He lost his young wife to the waves of the North Atlantic. Half of his companions on the Mayflower perished during their first few months in the New World. After enduring all these toils and sorrows, he watched his most deeply cherished dream – the dream of Christian brothers and sisters living together “in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord” – wither and fade before his very eyes. But he bore it all with “answerable courage” and unyielding confidence in the faithfulness of God; so that in the end his “defeats” were transformed into something more than mere “glimpses of final victory.” In a very real sense they became “stepping stones unto others” for the performing of a great and enduring work.

Born in the spring of 1590 and baptized on the 19th of March, Will Bradford was raised by two uncles, Robert and Thomas, in the agricultural community of Austerfield, Yorkshire. A long childhood illness proved to be the first of many instances of Divine Providence in his life: unable to work in the fields or play in the town square, Will became an avid reader. Of all the books he read, it was the Bible that most profoundly impacted his thinking.

By the age of twelve the scripturally savvy young Bradford was actively questioning the policies and practices of the state-sanctioned Anglican Church. In pursuit of the ancient purity of the New Testament ekklesia, he joined a small Separatist gathering that met in the home of Elder William Brewster, the Puritan postmaster of Scrooby. When the Scrooby congregation, under the persecution of King James I, made the difficult decision to flee to Holland, eighteen-year-old Will Bradford was among them.

In Holland, the Separatists discovered that religious liberty had a down side: doctrinal disputes, fostered by Amsterdam’s open-minded atmosphere, were destroying Christian unity among the various groups of English Protestants residing there. The Scrooby refugees escaped to Leyden, where they lived in comparative peace for the next eleven years. But rumors of war and concerns about the “liberalizing” effects of Dutch culture eventually compelled them to embark for America, where they hoped to live out their vision of Christian community undisturbed.

The decision to leave Leyden was fraught with pain and stress. Among other things, Bradford and his wife, Dorothy, were forced to concede that their little son John was too young to make the trip. The process of arranging the logistical details was far from simple. But after three years of delays, disappointments, and strained negotiations with potential financiers, the first group of Leyden emigrants finally sailed on the Mayflower on September 6, 1620, under the sponsorship of Thomas Weston, a profit-minded London entrepreneur. Thanks to Weston, the Separatists’ Christian ideals were compromised from the very beginning: at his direction, they were joined by a contingent of fifty “Strangers,” selected by the company for the commercial advantages they could bring to the new colony.

It could have been a recipe for disaster. But during course of the Mayflower’s tempest-tossed 66-day crossing, William Bradford emerged as a leader capable of addressing both groups’ needs and concerns. When the ship landed at Cape Cod, he played a key role in quelling the spirit of division that already threatened the colony’s survival. Together, he and Brewster drew up a “contract” by which Saints and Strangers agreed to “combine themselves together into a civil body politic” with the goal of promoting the glory of God and advancing the Christian faith. The Mayflower Compact, as “the first foundation of their government” in the New World, made every member of the community equally responsible for the welfare of the entire group. As a result, dangerous dissension was averted and Plymouth colony was granted a hopeful beginning.

Their agreement held good throughout the hardships of the first bleak winter. The few settlers who remained healthy during the days of starvation and disease that followed attended tirelessly to the needs of their sick companions. Bradford, whose wife had drowned within six weeks of the Mayflower’s landing, was himself among the ailing. By the end of March, half the company had perished. When John Carver, Plymouth’s first governor, succumbed to the lingering effects of his illness the following spring, the colonists elected Bradford to be his successor. It was a post he would hold for the greater part of the next three decades.

Through the years that followed, Governor Bradford bore the heavy responsibility of managing a relentless barrage of discouraging setbacks and disheartening circumstances, including Weston’s broken promises; fire, famine, and drought; disciplinary problems with “untoward persons;” threats from the hostile Pequots and Narragansetts; trade disputes with the Dutch and French; and, later, border conflicts with the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts Bay. In addition, he and his fellow Pilgrims had to contend with a long list of unsuitable “pastors” – men like the Reverend John Lyford, an English preacher who upon his first arrival in Plymouth appeared to be “made all of love,” but who was eventually implicated in a plot to undermine the Separatists’ plans for a unified and holy Christian commonwealth.

But none of these adversities and obstacles left Bradford as thoroughly cast down in spirit as the unexpected enemy he had to face during the final phase of his career: success. Within two decades of the sufferings of that first harsh winter, Plymouth Plantation was thriving and its inhabitants were growing rich. And the richer they grew, the less they valued the “sacred bond” that had brought them to the New World and preserved them through so many trials. “As their stocks increased,” wrote Bradford, “there was no longer any holding them together … Those that had lived so long together in Christian and comfortable fellowship must now part and suffer many divisions … This I fear will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there … ”[i] In many respects, his words proved tragically prophetic. In a short time, as he tells us, “wickedness” of the most unspeakable sort was breaking forth among the people: theft, murder, adultery, sodomy, and even bestiality.

From a certain perspective, the story of Plymouth Plantation is the story of America in a nutshell. It brings to mind the stern words of Puritan divine John Owen, penned in England some thirty years after these ironic events: “Prosperity hath slain the foolish and wounded the wise.”[ii]

But in another sense, it’s vital to remember that the tale doesn’t end here. For these disheartening developments, both past and present, are part of a bigger picture – episodes in an ongoing narrative that is still being written. Bradford, says biographer Gary Schmidt, did not realize that he had left the world “a great account not only of the planting of a colony, but of God’s loving and providential care of a people who had tried to carry out a vision that they had found in the Scriptures. Bradford thought he had failed in this vision; he did not understand how much he had succeeded.”[iii] His vision is still worth pursuing today.

William Bradford spent his final years in quiet retirement, writing poetry, reading Greek and Latin, and learning Hebrew. He died May 8, 1657, “lamented by all the colonies of New England as a common Blessing and Father to them all.”[iv]


[i] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (New York: Modern Library College Editions, 1981), 281-283.

[ii] John Owen, “Of Temptation,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. VI, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 112.

[iii] Gary D. Schmidt, William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1999), 182.

[iv] Rev. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702.

Art and Fashion

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“People say to me often enough:  if you want to make your art succeed and flourish, you must make it the fashion:  a phrase which I confess annoys me; for they mean by it that I should spend one day over my work to two days in trying to convince rich, and supposed influential people, that they care very much for what they really do not care in the least, so that it may happen according to the proverb:  Bell-wether took the leap, and we all went over …”  

“You whose hands make those things that should be works of art, you must be all artists, and good artists too, before the public at large can take real interest in such things; and when you have become so, I promise you that you shall lead the fashion; fashion shall follow your hands obediently enough.”

— William Morris, “The Lesser Arts.”


The Age of Conformity



(To be sung to the tune of “The Age of Aquarius”)


When everyone starts “working out”

And SUVs replace all cars,

Then Facebook will rule the planet

And Starbucks will steer the stars.


This is the dawning of the Age of Conformity,

Age of Conformity,




Marathons and low-carb diets,

Texts and tweets and blogs abounding,

Super Bowl and “Game Day” parties,

Patriotic orthodoxy,

Working space that’s kinda boxy,

From Tacoma to Biloxi,




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(Painting by George Tooker)


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    “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”

                                    Jesus; John 12:24

* * * * * * * * * * * *

What do we do when barbarians come knocking at the gate?  Pilgrims of the past have responded by way of costly personal example.  And the answers they’ve left behind can be as tough to chew as they are to swallow.

Similar to the tale of Boris and Gleb is that of Edmund, king of East Anglia (mid-ninth century).  His history comes down to us from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints.

The Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of eastern Britain were no strangers to the terror of foreign invasion.  Again and again during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries the people of Northumbria, Anglia, and Kent suffered cruelly at the hands of ruthless Viking raiders.  Edmund knew exactly what to expect, then, when word came that a Danish sciphere or naval force under the command of two bloodthirsty leaders, Hinguar and Hubba, had landed in the north, and was at that moment cutting a swath through the country of Northumbria, wasting fields, looting villages, and killing men, women, and children indiscriminately.

It wasn’t long before Hinguar’s envoy arrived in King Edmund’s hall.  “Hinguar is going to winter in your land,” he arrogantly announced.  “He demands your gold and your allegiance.  You will bow the knee to him at once if you value your life, for it is clear that you do not possess the might to withstand him.”

Despite his bishop’s warnings and pleadings, Edmund gave the Northman an uncompromising reply:  “Worthy of death as you are, I will not defile my clean hands with your foul blood.  I follow Christ, who has left us a very different example, and I will gladly be slain by your people if that is God’s will.  Now go quickly and tell your cruel lord that Edmund will never bow to Hinguar while he lives, for his allegiance is due to Christ alone!”

Aelfric describes the sequel as follows:

     So then:  when Hinguar came, King Edmund stood within his hall, mindful of the Savior, and threw his arms aside.  He wanted to imitate the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to use weapons against the Jews. 

The Vikings’ response?  They bound Edmund, mocked him, beat him, dragged him out of doors, and tied him to a tree.  There they shot him with arrows until the shafts piercing his body resembled “a hedgehog’s bristles, just as it was with Sebastian” (swa swa Sebastianus waes).*  Aelfric testifies that the king did not cease calling upon Christ until the end.  After he was dead, the “impious heathens” (Aelfric’s term) cut off his head and hid it in the woods.

Though many of us today will find this hard to accept, that wasn’t the end of Edmund’s story.  For when the raiders departed, the people of East Anglia found the king’s head and buried it with the body.  In time, a church was raised above Edmund’s grave in recognition of the fact that “many wonders and miracles of healing took place at his tomb, that is, at the chapel where he was buried.”

We may perhaps doubt these miraculous tales.  But whether they be mere embellishments or not, they nevertheless highlight and illustrate a truth that is of critical importance to every Pilgrim:  the truth that death is the prelude to life, and that grace and supernatural power are released whenever we choose to lay down our lives in emulation of the Master.


*St. Sebastian, a captain in the Roman army, was martyred during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian after it was discovered that he had been leading other soldiers to Christ.  He was shot by a firing squad of archers and left for dead in the year 288.  His martyrdom is clearly reflected in Tolkien’s description of the death of Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring.          



The Dancer V



For a moment she stood listening, listening for the Voice, but there was only a wintry silence.

“My feet are so cold!” she thought.

“And beautiful dresses,” she heard the stranger saying, “and jeweled gowns. You will be the loveliest dancer of them all!”

She made a slight movement forward. From deep inside her a still, small voice seemed to say, “Stop!”

“My mind again,” she told herself.

The stranger’s smile continued unfading. She hesitated. Then she took a step toward him. Then another and another. With each step the still, small voice inside grew fainter and her movements became easier. At last she reached out and took the shoes from his hand.

“Beautiful!” he whispered as he bound the laces up over her calves and tied them just below her knees.

“Now dance!” he shouted with a laugh – a triumphant laugh that sounded in her ears with the ring of cold steel.

She tried to ignore the feelings his laugh brought up from within her. She looked again at her feet.

“They are lovely shoes,” she thought. “The loveliest I’ve ever seen.”

Then, poising herself once more, she began to dance.

The stranger danced too, but not as her partner. Instead, he came behind her, pushing her, driving her down the glen, up through the trees, over the tops of the green hills, and down the other side toward the city. On and on they danced until she felt she would drop.

They danced until dancing became for her a terrible, almost unbearable burden. Yet still she fought to keep her spirits up.

“Though dancing has become such a burden,” she told herself, “to dance in shoes such as these is a great delight, and it has also become my life.”

They danced into the city as the first snowflakes of winter began to fall. They danced down dark streets crowded with nameless faces, step after weary step, her feet jarring against the pavement, her limbs trembling with fatigue. He drove her through a litter-strewn alley where lean cats howled and the snow was gray with ash, then down a narrow corridor that stank of dark and damp.

They danced until her legs were numb as two sticks; until her lungs felt as if they would burst; until her fevered head throbbed with the pounding of the blood behind her ears. They danced until the grim, gray buildings rocked and reeled before her eyes; until blackness overwhelmed her and she fell in a heap upon the cold, cold pavement.

* * * * * * *

On “Escapism”

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“To dream of the impossible and disregard reality is to question the inevitability of existing circumstances.”

 — from Clive Wilmer’s Introduction to News from Nowhere and Other Writings, by William Morris


“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?  Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?  The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

The Dancer IV



One morning in late autumn when the trees were nearly bare, she danced in a meadow as the sun rose. Over all was a hush which seemed to whisper that winter was near. And as she danced, she became aware of a presence at the edge of the meadow: a stranger who sat watching her in silence at the foot of a spindly tree.

Frightened, she stopped dancing and stood staring at him. A thought crossed her mind: could this be the One whose voice she had come to know so well?

She let her gaze drop to her feet – her poor, cold, bare feet.

“Go on,” said the stranger. “Continue. Your dancing pleases me well.”

She raised herself on tiptoe. Then, lifting her right foot, she held it poised in mid-air for one breathless, graceful moment.

Suddenly she heard the Voice.

“Do not dance for this man,” it said.

Immediately she let her foot fall to the ground.

“I too am a dancer,” the stranger said smoothly and easily. “In fact, I am Master of a Dance Troupe in the city. You shall have the leading part if you come away and dance for me.” He smiled and nodded. “Proceed,” he said.

She stood staring at her feet. Again the Voice whispered to her:

“Do not dance for this man.”

“Of course,” the stranger continued, “you will need a fine pair of shoes.” And with that he put his hand into his coat and drew out the most beautiful dancing shoes the little dancer had ever seen.

She caught her breath at the sight. “Oh!” she softly exclaimed.

“Would you like to try them on?” coaxed the stranger. “Come. They are yours to keep if you come and dance for me.”

She stood as if under an enchantment. For what seemed a very long time she was unable to move or speak.

“Do not take the shoes!” The Voice was urgent now. “Do not dance for this man!”

She stared down at her feet, cold and bare in the frosted grass.

“My mind is playing tricks on me,” she told herself.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *


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“At this hour, to send [the Ring] in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done … that is madness.”

                                    J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

* * * * * * * * * * * *

If the wisdom of God is foolishness to men, it follows that a certain type of holy insanity must and will turn out to be the health and salvation of the world.  This is implied in everything we have said thus far about Pilgrim values and the Pilgrim path.

There is indeed a fundamental sense in which the kingdom through which the Pilgrim makes his progress strongly resembles the wild and topsy-turvy land of fairy-tales.  Like Dorothy in Oz or Alice through the Looking-glass, those who travel in this strange and perilous realm encounter inversion, conversion, paradox, oxymoron, and surprise at almost every turn in the road.  This is a place where the first are last, the poor are rich, and the weak are strong.  Where children and beggars are kings and lords, where nobodies are somebody, and where death and failure become the pathways to victory and life.  Where to lose one’s life is to save it, and all the power, prestige, and prominence the kosmos has to offer are worth no more than a pile of dung.  Where fear is wisdom, contentment is wealth, and that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.  How can the wise, the accomplished, the sophisticated, the rich, and the powerful ever hope to make anything of this maze of crazy contradictions?

Let’s face it.  In a world gone as desperately awry as ours, madness is the only way out of the labyrinth.  It’s the only possible solution to the dilemma.  What is madness after all except a complete overturning of the world’s expectations?  What better way to describe it than as a grand Rejection, a great Refusal?  It was this realization that led poet and painter Gabriel Gale, hero of G. K. Chesterton’s quirky novel The Poet and the Lunatics, to observe – while standing on his head – that “It’s a very good thing for a landscape-painter to see the landscape upside down.  He sees things then as they really are; yes, and that’s true in philosophy as well as art.”*

This is one of the fundamental messages of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a story about how the destiny of the world is placed not in the hands of the great, the wise, and the mighty, but rather the small, the insignificant, and the defenseless.  That plan, as Boromir son of Denethor reasonably observes, is pure madness.  But what Boromir fails to understand is that, precisely for that reason, it is the only plan that has the slightest chance of succeeding.  It is the only strategy attended by even the faintest glimmer of hope.  In the end, it’s the weakness, incompetence, and vulnerability of the halflings that saves the day when all else fails.  What could be crazier than that?

Frank Schaeffer, son of apologist and evangelist Francis Schaeffer, has famously accused his famous parents of having been Crazy for God.  Perhaps Frank doesn’t realize how right he is.  Francis and Edith Schaeffer were not perfect people by any stretch of the imagination.  None of us is.  But they did follow a path that in many ways ran directly counter to the expectations of the system.

In this they were not alone.  On the contrary, they were part of a great daft madcap band that includes the likes of Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Boris and Gleb, Savonarola, George Eagles, John Bunyan, John the Baptist, and a host of other bona fide “Fools for Christ.”  These people were not afraid to turn the kosmos upside down by living according to a set of values that was the inverse of the world’s.  “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – men of whom the world was not worthy – wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”

Strange, isn’t it, that it was these rather than those others – the rulers of the earth who hounded them to death – who “gained approval through their faith.”

But then that’s the madness of the Pilgrim way.

* G. K. Chesterton, The Poet and the Lunatics; Ch. 1, “The Fantastic Friends.”


Modern Magic

Books 001

“Politics and its offspring (nationalism, for example) have become the cornerstone of what is good or represents progress.  Political concerns are thought to be inherently excellent.  Man’s progress in today’s society consists in his participation in political affairs.  How many articles and declarations have we not read on that subject!  For example, women finally become human beings because they receive ‘political rights.’  To say that woman, mother of the family, exerting a profound effect on the development of her children, was the true creatress in the long run, the true force from which all politics originated, is now just reactionary talk.  A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person.”

          — Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion