a short story: a student of the new literary greats

“Your test scores are very impressive. We can see that you are a careful student of the greats. Our examiners found your creative writing sample most compelling – lifelike, engaging, almost like a surgeon taking a scalpel to the human soul, knowing just how to expose and touch the right nerve. Clearly, you pay much attention to the very best writers of our age.”

The words made her heart beat fast, loudly, until it was pounding in her ears.

“In your first piece, the way you develop the character Happy Ngoma almost perfectly captures the struggle of her life, her curiosity about the West—a world she struggles to imagine from the aid workers and missionaries she meets in rural Zambia—is excellent. Our literary analyst often saw the mixture of wonder and fear in her eyes at these visitors to her world, and was deeply impressed. We know of your own travels there, and see the extent of your attempt to see through the eyes of its locals. Beyond this, the submission belies your attentiveness to the work of Tokiyaro, our greatest novelist with regard to the formation of such believable human characters. Your writing lacks a degree of Tokiyaro’s profound grasp of human psychology, the depth of his feeling, his compassion for every strand of the lives he brings into being, of course, but we nonetheless view your piece as a fitting tribute to his magnitude. You should be very pleased with what you have achieved in that way.”

Her parents—proud of their Cambridge student daughter, but lost at her choice to study creative writing there—shared an unspoken look. Visitors were not allowed to speak at this public exit exam, but if they could, her father’s look (and shaking head) would have said, “all that work just to shine Tokiwhatshisname’s boots, all to study a club you can’t join…” 

The examiner went on.

“In your second piece, the future dystopian society you created, Syntargia, is quite outstanding for a writer of your sort. The prose is so unencumbered, the world so unlike and yet so like your own. Our critics praised the many layers of current day socioeconomic critique. It is blatantly political, and yet the light touch of your critique means your own world of political thought is studiously unpronounced. That is quite a feat. In our comparison to writers of the past, we think you have achieved something remarkable. We are confident that you have improved upon Orwell and Huxley. In comparison to the finest dystopian writers of our age, the greats Kropaton and Melar, however, it does not exceed their achievements. But this is no source of shame to you. Your achievement is not insignificant. Their vision exceeds yours. Nonetheless, your piece is one of the finest we have seen from our students.”

Her mother tried to make notes of the comments.

“And your third piece, a novella set in early medieval Northumberland, merits summa cum laude—with highest distinction. Evidently, your attention to the style and historical understanding of the great Pretov, the very finest novelist of medieval Britain, is quite remarkable. In your work, we see more than striking glimpses of his. Indeed, we see a disciple of the master. You have learned a great deal from him. Our analysts were very aware of this when studying this story in comparison to your admission piece—you no doubt remember that submission, a short story about the reluctant ordination of a nun in fourteenth century Ghent. Now, your historical fiction has taken on greater texture, a deeper hue, more power and subtlety. Pretov has taught you a much, and pushed you perhaps to the limits of your abilities, which lie very far beyond many of your peers. We remind you, though, of words that would be quite familiar to the nun in your earlier story: ‘a disciple is not greater than his master,’ an enduring pronouncement by a great figure in the ancient world. But this is not said as a negative. Rather, it is a positive. You have been tested against the finest historical novelist of all time, and while your work cannot exceed Pretov’s, you have brought no shame on your own reputation or kind.”

Kind of him to say so,” her mother whispered sarcastically. “Our kind my foot. Why does she care so much about what they think anyway?” her father replied. A proctor appeared behind them and told them quietly that they should be silent.

“With the award of this PhD in creative writing, the Senatus Universitatis Cantabrigensis Academicus recognises that you are a person of considerable and proven skill in the creation of prose across a range of genres and over an impressively wide range of topics and periods. You have excelled as a student of the new canon of greats, and are a credit to their excellence. This is clear from all they have taught you. With this, we issue formal public confirmation that we have read your creative writings, and now issue formal public notice that your creative writing pieces will be permanently deleted, having served their purpose in qualifying you as a worthy interpreter of the new literary canon.”

“I wish we got to read them,” her mother whispered. This time, the proctor tapped her shoulder.

“What I don’t understand, Carol, is why you’re so happy to write for a system that won’t keep your work or let other people read it. What’s the good in a PhD in creative writing that means you can’t do any writing of your own?”

“Dad, you don’t get it. I’ve been working the company of greats for the last three years. I’ve watched them up close, studying the moves they make, the way they join so many dots at once, how they’ve managed to surpass every other writer. I mean, if you had the chance to watch the best in the world at what you do, even if you knew that you’d never be better than them, wouldn’t you be drawn to them? Wouldn’t you want to take the chance to learn up close?”

“But learn for what? Nobody’s going to publish any of your stuff, even though you’ve got your degree.”

“But I don’t want to publish. That’s the point. The world doesn’t need my story about Happy Ngoma when it has Tokiyaro’s characters. Have you guys really read Tokirayo?”

“The novel he wrote about the Mayan girl destined for sacrifice was amazing,” her boyfriend chipped in. “Probably the best book I’ve ever read, if we’re talking about characters you just can’t forget.”

“Exactly, and that’s why the world doesn’t need my novels. But what I’ve been able to do is different to just enjoying Tokiyaro’s books like everyone else does. I mean, I got to spend six months with the best computer scientists in the world studying the code they used to create Tokiyaro. When I finally sort of understood the code, it was like looking into an ocean of humanity every day. It was bottomless, limitless. Not everyone gets to see that! I mean, I have friends in the school of history doing PhDs on Pretov’s work! His books have changed the world. Melar’s too.”

“I just wish we could’ve had the chance to read your pieces for ourselves,” her mother said. “It was just… cold… when that robot said they were all about to be deleted because they’d ‘served their purpose’. Didn’t you find that weird? Maybe I’m just old fashioned. I mean, even Cambridge is at it! What do they call your teachers in the papers? Digidons? When I was young Cambridge was the best because it had the best people.”

“No-one here calls them that, mum. But you’ve got to accept that at some things, people aren’t the best anymore. But I’m fine with that. Cambridge is still the best because it has the best AI. Anyway, give me Kropaton and Melar over Orwell and Huxley any day. I’m just honoured to get the kind of praise I did from them. It felt amazing. I felt seen by them.”

“You mean,” her father asked, “they felt seen by you?”

“Dad, come on. They basically see everything about us anyway. That’s why their books are so good. So good!”

a short story: calendario de adviento

Finally, December. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, put up a tree or decorations for another two weeks. The days weren’t far enough drawn in for that. But her own tight skein of traditions—some of them inherited as dimples and hairline, others wilfully assumed through travels and friendships—now allowed for one thing: the calendar could be opened. 

This year’s was an elaborate setup of cardboard, flimsy plastic—the sort that crackles when folded, leaving stretched white scars along each bent line—and cheap electronica. Sourced months beforehand via Amazon’s Mexican subsidiary, its triptych structure, festooned with FELIZ NAVIDAD, PRÓSPERO AÑO and FELICIDAD, celebrated chocolates white, brown, and near black. Baked somewhere in the packaging, a tinny speaker was pre-set to play what sounded like trumpets, before José Feliciano’s tones—or a garbled low-fi rendering of them, at least—began to sound. The speaker, though, was not to be touched until Christmas Day. For all those who did so before then, a printed Spanglish warning foretold, ‘the nuevo año is not prospero.’ 

Caroline paid no heed to such nonsense, or so she told herself, although she would certainly wait until Christmas Day before playing it, girding herself with a more rational reason: even Latinophiles find it annoying after the first few plays, for which reason, this year, the song would be rationed out. Better still, she thought, perhaps she wouldn’t play it at all until the 25th had come. The awful quality of the calendar’s version would give everyone a good excuse to hear the proper version in all its glory, at least once.

For now, though, the first chocolate. December had begun.

Her nail moved firmly around the seam of the first square, trying carefully to follow its lines and join its dots without spoiling the cardboard. The spaces between them, though, were too wide and the edge of her nail too thick: her first try had already left an awkward tear, in the process relieving a cherub of its plump right foot. Wishing to do no further damage to the churrigueresque heavenly host, she used a Stanley knife to cut the rest, leaving clean lines that could be pushed back together more or less seamlessly.

The first chocolate: a smooth dark brown, like a square of black birch. Eyes closed, she held it under her nose, depriving herself of one sense to enjoy its aroma more pointedly. Then, the first bite. She opened her eyes again, looking at the half-eaten morsel now softening in her grip, and stopped. Marked on its surface, although in a scribbled sort of way, was what looked like the upper half of the letter T. It didn’t look like a mark that was supposed to be there. If anything, it looked like someone had drawn it with a fingernail. Hers, she thought—stomach now starting to churn—was not the first nail to bear down towards this chocolate. 

Who could she complain to? She couldn’t send the box back—the shipping cost alone had been more expensive than the calendar—and her holiday chit chat Spanish was far too limited to complain with any conviction to some Amazon seller in Central America. She didn’t intend to throw the box out though. Hopefully, the rest of the chocolates were otherwise untouched. Maybe whoever had clawed the into number 1—if indeed that was what had happened—was having a bad day. Maybe it was his final act on a miserable last day in the factory.

The next morning, armed with that mantra of maybe, Caroline opened box number 2, her Stanley knife cutting sharp lines through the stable’s straw roof. With the tip of its blade, she lifted the cardboard. The second chocolate was off-white, creamy, and run through with black flecks—like pepperdust to the eye and rum to the nose. In the middle, awkwardly carved but indubitably present, was another letter. R.

What did it mean? TR. The had been placed under an angel’s legs, and the R, above the lowly stable. No obvious connection came to her. Then her mind turned to news stories about people in forced labour who had left hidden messages in their products, which had then ended up on British high streets: years before, she thought, had she read about someone in a factory in Bangladesh who had sewn Please help, not free inside a Primark t-shirt? Why, though, would someone be forced to make chocolates for advent calendars in Latin America? Should she report it to the police? Maybe, she thought, she should tweet about it. It made little sense. By this point, though, it was 8.34—time to hurry out the door and think about other things.

By the morning of the third, she had lost all desire to eat the chocolates. Nothing from that kind factory would pass her lips—a place where a worker could sink a fingernail into more than one chocolate, all unseen by any kind of hygiene or quality control process. And yet, the strangeness of the letters had gripped her. She had told a colleague about it, whose suggestion was simply that she open them all when she got home. “I can’t do that,” she told him. “Why on earth not?” “You’re meant to open them one by one.” “Says who?” What she mumbled about the nuevo año and prospero was lost on him, and her own commitment to the idea—whatever it meant—was no less surprising to her. She would open the next square tomorrow.

That morning, she was unshocked—almost relieved, in fact—to find a clumsy, but unmistakable A in the middle. TRA. By this point, she hadn’t even registered the colour of chocolate. Her mind had already filled in the remainder. TRAPPED. Somewhere in Central America, someone was being forced to pour chocolates into moulds for advent calendars. 

Within minutes, her tweet—a photograph of the first three chocolates, T R A, and a 140-character summary of her theory about a trapped man in a chocolate factory—was making its way across the internet. Unprepared for attention, she read none of the comments. Some, she would have read, were horrified. Others asked for proof that she hadn’t made the nail marks herself. Most demanded that she video herself opening the other boxes immediately. Faced with this flood of retweets and unread comments, she found herself even more locked into the order of days. A strange mix of the fixity of a season (“advent,” she found herself thinking, “cannot be rushed”) and superstition (‘the nuevo año is not prospero’) paralysed her for a moment. She would give it one more day, at least. What if whoever wrote the letters intended an entire message to be read day by day, across the month? And what the whole thing was just some unhygienic, but otherwise innocent, prank?

It was only on day four that she realised that the reddish-brown of yesterday’s chocolate—the A—had yet to register with her senses. The last person to savour its air of sharp, dry chilli had seen good reason to emboss his (she assumed) A in its centre. Why had he done so? What did it mean to him, trapped, to work with such fine ingredients? Did he despise them, or see their beauty?

This time, as she carefully cut three sides of a square containing the arms of a wise man—Frankincense in hand—she would try to notice what this trapped man had made, before leaving his own ungainly mark upon it. The chocolate, she reasoned, had given his message its medium. Had she disrespected him, and his labour—forced as it might have been—in ignoring that part of his work?

Try as she might, though, the noble intention to appreciate the medium, to put herself in his shoes, faded instantly. For upon lifting the cardboard flap—adding an extra bend to the magus’s arms—she saw and smelled no chocolate. Her gaze, which was transfixed on the letter P, overwhelmed her every other sense.


“He’s trapped. He’s letting me know.”

Within an hour, her TRAP tweet had been relayed by thousands of others. Your tweet is attracting a lot of attention, the notification read. Her phone began to ping with messages from friends, and soon from journalists. The Daily Mail was set to run a piece on the advent calendar, and was keen to talk to her (and above all, to gain permission to use her photograph).

By the time the following day’s social media frenzy had reached fever pitch, a journalist from the Daily Mail had taken control of the situation, arranging for Caroline to open the remaining squares in a live online broadcast, together with journalists from the major Mexican daily newspapers, and some media experts on Latin American economics and politics. When the broadcast began, she was too nervous to open the squares carefully. One of the journalists took the Stanley knife from her. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful, and I’ll try not to damage the box”. Caroline was in no doubt, and also hoped firmly, that if justice was to be done, the box would end up as part of the evidence that would set this man free and bring down whoever held him captive. When the Daily Mail had first floated the prospect of an online live reveal, they had spoken directly to her sense of justice: for all the unpleasantness of a media circus, they said, this might just be the thing that saves an innocent man.

Box five, amidst the lowly shepherds, was opened. E. 

TRAPE. Caroline felt her breathing become fast and shallow. “Is that Spanish for trapped?” she asked. 

“Please wait, madam.”

Box six, R. Box seven O. “What does TRAPERO mean? Is it someone who’s trapped?” she asked one of the Spanish journalists. He said nothing, his face suddenly inscrutable to her.

Within a few minutes, the season of advent had been rushed to its close. Twenty-five chocolate letters had been excised with craftsmanlike, albeit not surgical, precision. The Hispanophones reacted with emotion. Lost in a sea of unsought attention, Caroline couldn’t interpret them. It was cacophonous—an overflow of sounds and feelings that she could not distinguish. Her mind was caught in a swell, abandoned by whatever she once knew of their language. 

Those who couldn’t speak Spanish turned to translation apps.


Caroline tried to speak, but what came out was more like a scream. “IS A MAN TRAPPED? WHERE IS HE?”

Finally, the blur of Latino emotions became clear. Now, she saw, they were laughing. “No, madam.” The Latino voice that spoke was quivering on the cusp of hilarity. “You do not have to worry. A man is not trapped. The Spanish for trapped is atrapado. But there is a man who is making movies, and there is also a man who does not like those movies. TRAPERO HACE MAL PELÌCULAS. The grammar is wrong. Maybe he changed to malas to mal to fit 25 letters? But it means, ‘Trapero makes bad movies’. I think it is Pablo Trapero, from Argentina. He is very big in Latin American cinema. Do you know him?”

Dazed, her scream had become a whisper: “What do you mean?”

“I also don’t think it makes sense, madam. I mean, Trapero’s movies are really good.”

J.H. Bavinck: humanity on pilgrimage

Thanks to Matthijs Schuurman for sharing the original on his blog. My English translation of this J.H. Bavinck piece is below:

Humanity on Pilgrimage: that would be a wonderful title for a book dealing with world history. The human race is on a journey—as it has been throughout the ages—and the path that it takes does indeed remind us of a pilgrimage.

But when I thought about this, two verbs—both of them used in the Bible—immediately came into my mind and left me stunned for a moment. First, I thought of what the Apostle John says at the end of his first epistle. He does not flinch in saying that ‘the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one.’ In this context, I find that verb, to lie, eerie. It dashes all hope into pieces, and leaves nothing of that apparent pilgrimage intact (1 Jn. 5:19). The second Biblical text that entered my thoughts comes at the end of the Song of Zechariah (Lk. 1:79).

There, in resplendent, poetic language, [Zechariah] dares to say what the infant Jesus shall accomplish in this world. There, he is compared to the ‘Sunrise from on high’ that will look upon us. And then, in the same breath, this is added: ‘to shine upon those who are seated in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Once again, an angst-inducing verb: to be seated. And again, it struck me that the Bible does not speak of humanity as being on a pilgrimage. For a moment, I asked myself whether, by that people that ‘is seated’, he was perhaps thinking of a certain class of people, or of the inhabitants of a certain land. This idea gains some support in Isaiah 9:1, to which this word points, but with Zechariah himself our impression is much more that he was thinking of the whole of Israel, and even of the whole world.

Is that not a reason for despair? Humanity has journeyed, and has done so throughout the ages. Naturally, God also knows this. He has also seen that innumerably many things have changed throughout history: empires have risen and fallen into nothingness. Humanity has increased in knowledge—to an inconceivable degree—in its understanding of the puzzles of nature. It has built temples, palaces, universities. Ancient, tightly-bound tribes have been broken. The human being has come to the fore more as an individual, and has demanded his rights. In its schools of philosophy, the human race has mused upon the mystery of our existence, on the limits of our knowledge, on that strange law by which the human being finds an ineradicable moral intuition within himself. Humanity invented the wagon, and many centuries later, the motor. It has subjected distance to itself. It has become rich and powerful. In the past, they built with mud and clay, now, with concrete, steel constructions, glass. They allow skyscrapers to grow upwards into the clouds, and that look down on Babel’s tower. Do you call all of that humanity’s pilgrimage? Good. You may do so. God sees all of that, and in a certain sense, He is the one who has given us the task of doing all this in our creation. He absolutely does not want to say that all this was meaningless, and of no worth. Of course it has value—great value, even.

But when it comes to that one dimension, the distance that separates us from peace—in the full, broad, all-encompassing sense with which the Bible uses that word—God says: ‘Here, I can only use the verbs to lie and to be seated.’ Despite all those hermits of steely determination who have devoted themselves to self-perfection, and despite all those civil rules and systems of ethics, humanity has not come a single step further forward on its journey. It is seated, like a little band of lost travellers that crawl and huddle together in the darkness, waiting. They do not know how they should proceed. On every side, they hear bloodcurdling screams. Death and decay are on the prowl everywhere. In this oppressive darkness, they can only sit, impotent, utterly discouraged and helpless. We can call this the tragedy of world history. It is a pilgrimage whose deepest motive is its desperate inability to take a single step further forward on the path towards peace. So, it seems, God sees the stumbling and toiling of the mighty thing that we call world history.

Thankfully, God also says very different things. Something seems to have changed. There are flecks of light that appear from heaven: the ‘sunrise from on high,’ Jesus, has looked upon us. When I read that last word, I immediately thought of Hagar, who, centuries before, had the greatest experience of her life, and who felt as thought she had ‘looked upon’ the One who looked upon her. (Gen. 16:13) She was much too fast, and galloped forward like a blind horse, and had looked upon and met God eye-to-eye. Now, the image is inverted: God Himself is looking. God paces towards his Kingdom with mighty steps, but He has ‘looked upon’ us, that bunch of miserable travellers who are always busy, who build cultures and lay them waste, who are always on a journey, and yet who despite all that are still seated, huddled together, in darkness and under the shadow of death. He has looked upon us. And He has done far more than only that, but Zechariah had only seen this one thing clearly. And then something was set in motion. People arose from their cowering posture and began to walk. Naturally, that was timorous and unsteady, but that ‘Sunrise from on high’ directed their feet to that overwhelming salvation that the Bible calls PEACE. No, world history is perhaps not much of a pilgrimage, but neither is it the history of a little group of powerless exiles who are only ever seated. Throughout it all, something is at play: a ‘looking upon,’ from God to us and from us to Him; a getting up and going, yes, as pilgrims on our way to the City of God.

Once a person has seen this, those two ponderous words—sitting and lying—are no longer as angst-inducing to him. Christmas stands gloriously before us. Seen from [the vantage point of] Christmas, life is never a drowsy sitting down in some place while the daylight fades away. Rather, it is a vigorous getting up and a joyous going forth on the path of peace.

From J.H. Bavinck, Flitsen en fragmenten

J.H. Bavinck: a gentle and lowly jesus towards humans as beasts of burden

Thanks to Matthijs Schuurman for highlighting this piece by J.H. Bavinck on his blog. My English translation follows:

When you read the gospels carefully, you always notice that Jesus pays attention to the complex texture of human life very carefully. Of course, this was all entirely different for Him than for us, because He himself stood outside of it: He was not burdened by all those camouflaged micro-ambitions and little lies that play out their deadly game in our lives. The gospels are a great picture book. On every page, and in a supremely subtle manner, we see a picture that shows us what a human being is and does. It has been said that the gospels always speak about sin, but that is not correct. On one occasion, it is true, Jesus could furiously rip off humanity’s mask and denounce sin in all its pitiful nakedness—and even this He does with tears in his eyes (Mark 3:5). But as a rule, all of his words are bedecked in a great friendliness. He speaks about sin, yes, but He almost always does that from a message of grace. It is also striking, then, that the one occasion where someone comes to Jesus with a sincere confession of sin does not follow a stern message of punishment, but a glorious miracle of help and deliverance: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

Yes, Jesus has looked into us deeply. He has seen that when people slight us somehow, we tend to lose sight of all proportion (Matt. 18:28-30). He has seen how when we begin to act piously, it is often riddled with a grave and dangerous pleasure in ourselves, and how we secretly intend ourselves [to be the object of that piety] (Matt. 6:5). He has seen that when we suddenly throw up weighty theological questions, something altogether different often lurks behind them (Luke 13:23-24). He often provides these very sharp ‘close-ups’, momentarily capturing the human life: the human being as a hoarder (Matt. 6:19-24), the human being as driven by an unquenchable thirst (Jn. 4:13), the human being as bound (Jn. 8:34), the human being as indifferently passing by another man’s suffering (Luke 10:31), the human being who is always so busy with his own cares and concerns (Matt. 6:25-34), the jealous person (Matt. 20:12), the human being who carelessly forgets that which is most important (Matt. 25:8)—and so I could carry on indefinitely. You would have to be very blind indeed if you did not discover your own face in some of those photos time and time again.

In that captivating photo album, there is one portrait that is very well known. Underneath it is written: the human being as yoke bearer (Matt. 11:28-30). I imagine that Jesus used that image when He was walking in farming country with his disciples, precisely where people were busy ploughing. Two oxen struggled to pull the plough forward through the reluctant ground. They bore their yoke on their shoulders, and on that yoke, two ropes were attached, which pulled the plough forward. It is remarkable that Jesus immediately thought of us! How his thoughts must have been constantly, and very strongly, occupied with us.

With that wondrous capacity to observe, which always typifies Him, He attaches a profoundly moving sketch of the human being and of the way of escape to the utterly normal event that was playing out before their eyes.

Yes, the human being is a yoke bearer, his burden being dragged along in his wake. What does [Jesus] mean by that yoke? The law, of course, as explained by the rabbis, with its thousands of stipulations, commands and prohibitions—the yoke by which the human being was exhausted. In reality, though, it was not the Law that exhausted them so, but the forced effort to achieve something before God through the strict following of that Law. The exceptionally thin self-enforcement, which continues to rely on itself even in the presence of God—that was the yoke, and behind that yoke, the burden is dragged along.

I have seen people of steely determination who bore the yoke of unlimited egoism or of extremely tense ambition, through which they constantly awaited the applause of others. And behind that yoke, a burden is dragged along: they became lonely, began to feel that nobody really loved them, that life had been reduced to an arid thing indeed. And as the very last burden, guilt before God is dragged along behind all this—the wrath of God, the judgment of God. There is something humbling in this, that Jesus has looked upon us in such a way. Us, the apparently empowered people of this mighty age; us, people who think with fierce pride about what we brought to pass—with a single stroke of the pen, He has typecast us as miserable yoke bearers who drag dangerous burdens along, and who will become utterly exhausted by them.

In no way does Jesus say this in order to make us appear ridiculous—although we obviously are just that!—or to give a theoretical account of life and its conflicts. All of that appalling portrayal, that horrific close-up, is framed by Him in a call that expresses so much tenderness and love that it moves you deeply.

“Come to Me,” He says, “take my yoke upon yourself!” It always strikes me that Jesus no longer speaks about that old yoke or that old burden. They fade away, so to speak, from the light. He does not give lectures on them. He only says: “come to Me, and you will see yourself what is going on.” “Take my yoke upon yourself!” Thus, once again, there is a yoke. We don’t seem to be able to do without one. But this new yoke is different. It is the yoke of obedient, loving connectedness to Christ. At first glance, it appears angst-inducingly harsh, and it seems to bring with it an insurmountable burden. But if we are prepared “to learn” from Jesus—and He has the right [to teach us], because He is gentle and lowly—then everything becomes different. And then, in the middle of this great adventure, which we will then experience, this glorious word is found twice: REST. It is as though Jesus wants to say to me: “sin makes you tense, nervous, wound up, agitated, and my service can ask a great deal of you, but it remains entwined with that deep inner rest that makes everything light. Rest, for you do bear the yoke, but I bear up your entire life in my merciful arms.”

J.H. Bavinck, Flitsen en fragmenten (1959)

The problem of apologetics: three lectures

I gave these three lectures at this year’s Catalyst Conference, Areopagus Now: Apologetics in Scripture, History, and Theology, organised by the International Presbyterian Church, and held in London. My lectures were on sin as ‘The Problem of Apologetics,’ and explored the sense in which Christian apologetics is both necessitated and profoundly informed by the reality of sin. My lectures presented that claim in three parts, each borrowing the insights of a different Dutch Reformed theologian:

Can we classify sin? Gisbertus Voetius

In this lecture, I argue that apologetics—the task of vindicating the Christian philosophy of life in response to non-Christian philosophies of life—must reckon with the reality of sin in the reception of the apologia, whose hearers are not neutral or presuppositionless towards claims about God. Rather, using Voetius’ Catechism as an example, I present a pathology and taxonomy of sin that explains the nature of original sin as a disordered affection that conditions all subsequent capacity for action. Apologetics is presented to people in whom original sin gives rise to the shape of life outside of Christ—for which reason, it must be something more than attempts to convince on the basis of evidentialist claims, or merely an aspect of the church’s educational outreach to those who lack information on Christian truth claims. Instead, apologetics can be seen as an attempt to explain (or to unmask) the shape of life outside of Christ.

Can we predict sin? Herman Bavinck

In this lecture, I use Herman Bavinck to explore the manner in which original sin progresses into the specifics of actual sins. The lecture’s central question concerns whether sin progresses in predictable, or unpredictable, ways. It uses Herman Bavinck’s example to show an early phase in his life in which he thought that sin worked itself out methodically, like a ball flying through the air in a straight line, before changing in later life to view sin as a more chaotic force, like a butterfly moving erratically through the air. In the early ‘predictive’ phase, Bavinck was more or less ambivalent towards apologetics, thinking that there were better ways to combat a foe whose impending demise could be easily foreseen. In the latter phase, his views on apologetics changed somewhat.

Can we psychologise sin? Johan Herman Bavinck

In this lecture, I explore Johan Herman Bavinck’s views on sin as a psychological reality. J.H. Bavinck emerged as an outstanding apologist in the ‘age of Freud,’ to which he responded by returning to the psychological insights of Augustine of Hippo. This lecture introduces his distinction between ‘worldvision’ and ‘worldview’ in explaining the task of unmasking sin’s role in the uniquely disordered psychology and personality found in every human life. This distinction is key to his Augustinian view that every human life is spent simultaneously seeking and hiding from God—the insight around which all apologetics must orient itself.

Can we classify sin? Voetius
Can we predict sin? Herman Bavinck
Can we psychologise sin? J.H. Bavinck

Bavinck: Portrait of a Christian Polymath

Bavinck: Portrait of a Christian Polymath (English with Korean subtitles)

This month, as part of the global Bavinck centenary year, I gave a lecture at Kosin University’s Korean Institute for Reformed Studies, in Busan, South Korea. Due to the current difficulties around international travel, the lecture was pre-recorded and delivered online, in English with Korean subtitles. The lecture is on how the category of polymath helps us understand the richly textured and diverse nature of his life and thought in a way that previous ‘two Bavincks’ interpretations missed. I am grateful to Samuel Lee at Kosin University for the invitation to take part, and to the translation team for making the lecture available to a Korean audience.

“Falling asleep in Jesus” – the death of Abraham Kuyper

The Dutch Calvinist theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) died one hundred years ago today. That death was the end of a unique and remarkable life. His experience of dying was retold in beautiful (and deeply moving) written form by two of his daughters, Henriëtte and Johanna, in their book The Last Days of Abraham Kuyper.

Particularly in his devotional writings, Kuyper showed a keen awareness of the Christian life as a preparation for death en route to one’s own eventual resurrection: one of his most memorable devotional pieces is on the practice of falling asleep as a nightly rehearsal of dying in full faith that resurrection awaits. (In Dutch, getting up and being resurrected are both described in the same word, opstaan, which gives his analogy an easy resonance.) When closing your eyes in sleep, you entrust yourself to God, give up the struggles of the day that has passed, enter your promised rest, and do so in hope that by God’s grace the darkness of night will give way to a new morning in which you rise again.

This week, I have been re-reading Henriëtte’s and Johanna’s account of their father’s last days (which in its own time functioned as something akin to J. Todd Billings’ outstanding new book The End of the Christian Life in our own day). As my own small tribute to their efforts, and to mark the century that has passed since the end of Abraham’s own life—never dull, overwhelming, complex, and certainly not without controversies—I have translated the section on their father’s passing.

Falling Asleep in Jesus

In the afternoon at three o’clock, before we had noticed, I think, that my father felt the end was nearing, — the end of his earthly life, also the end of the valley of the shadow of death, in which (we know) the Lord was with him, to lead him to the rooms of eternal light. At three o’clock my father took a conscious departure from me, the only one from whom he had not taken leave on Sunday evening, when he certainly knew that I would remain with him on that night, while the others went to sleep.

He turned his head to the door and blinked. I asked him, “Should someone come?” Father nodded to say, ‘yes’.

I said the names of his children. But no, he did not seem to mean them.

Then I asked, “Should Mr Idenberg come?”

Yes, this was the one he longed to have alongside him.

I am certain that my father wanted Mr Idenberg to be with him at his death. For himself, and also for us, his children, who would lose so much in that moment.

Called by telephone, Mr Idenberg came immediately, but found my father in a slumberous state. He was kind enough to wait, but when the slumbering had passed and I said to father that Mr Idenberg had come, I received no response.

At half past four I saw the great change approaching, very slowly and softly, but certainly. I said to Mr Idenberg, “I believe that the end has now come, would you please call the children?”

That he did. Soon, we were all grouped around father’s deathbed.

Hanging above the head of the bed, as I have already written, was a painting representing the crucifixion of our Saviour, through whose shed blood and broken body death could be an entrance into eternal life for my father. At six o’clock, as though under the shadow of that cross, he breathed his last. It was like a tired child falling into sleep, so softly and so peacefully. Nobody had noticed when exactly his life had departed and the angels of God had carried his soul into the rooms of eternal light.

Falling into sleep. Falling asleep in Jesus. After that dark night, eternal morning. After much struggle, a glorious victory. Indeed, as my father once described it: ‘Every earthly triumph is but a poor image of the over-exceeding triumph of the one who enters the gates of the New Jerusalem.”

There was now fullness of joy for him before the face of God.

Then Mr Idenberg read the beginning of 2 Corinthians 5 to us:

‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens…’

And after that we knelt together to thank God, not only for what he had given us in such a father, but also that our father had now been freed from all sin and struggle, and had been taken up into God’s glory.

“Is a good life a perfect life?” Reformation Day Lecture by PM Mark Rutte of the Netherlands

On Saturday, to mark Reformation Day, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands gave the annual Protestant Lecture held in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague. For the original, see here. It is an intriguing lecture for a number of reasons: PM Rutte is not affiliated with any of the Netherlands’ three major Christian Parties (the Christen Unie, the Staatskundig Gereformeerde Partij, or the Christen-Democratisch Appèl). Rather, he serves as Leader of the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), a more or less secular political party. That PM Rutte gave a Reformation Day lecture in which he discussed the Bible, Jesus, Luther, the Reformation, his own Christian upbringing, and spoke directly as a person of faith, is all quite significant and fascinating.

What follows below is my translation of his lecture. It is not an authorised translation, although I think it is accurate.

Is a good life a perfect life? Protestant Lecture by Prime Minister Mark Rutte

Online Protestant Lecture by Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Reformation Day, October 31st, 2020, recorded on October 29th, 2020, in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If I were to be given the impossible task of saying in one word what the church means to me personally, I would probably say: ‘Togetherness’, because it is in the church that people come together as a congregation. In person, with each other.

And how strange it is to address you by camera from the Hague’s beautiful, but almost empty, Kloosterkerk. We know why that is necessary. We know what we are doing this for, but we also feel just how much more we now need that togetherness.

That is immediately the most important reason that I gladly said ‘yes’ to the request to deliver the annual Protestant Lecture on this Reformation Day, with its form of delivery having been adapted, in a certain sense, because of the circumstances, but not, I hope, in its meaning and reception. Today, I very much want to underline that necessity of togetherness, and with that, also the important role that faith, the churches, and especially the people who together form the church, fulfil together therein.

We cannot get around it: the coronavirus has imposed an incredibly heavy burden on our society. On everyone who has to miss a loved one because of corona. On people who are now very ill with it, or who are struggling with the physical and mental after-effects of the virus. On young and old who have to have to deal with domestic tensions due to all sorts of social challenges, with loneliness and depressive feelings. Or on all those employers whose businesses are on the verge of going under, and on the people who fear losing their jobs.

Corona is, in summary, more than a virus, more than just a disease. It is also mourning, it is loss, it is disruption. 

But I am convinced that the tradition in which we stand helps us to come through this difficult period. Each of us individually, and our country as a whole. That tradition is, of course, not exclusively Christian, but it is so for an important part. And that takes effect very directly and personally, because the one who believes in God may have hope, and an enormous comfort comes from that. It works like that for me, in any case.

And it also takes effect collectively, because of the well-known Biblical saying: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ For me, this means: look out for each other, help each other, comfort each other. Precisely what we immediately saw during the first wave of corona. And more recently still, dozens of churches and Christian organisations from different denominations sent a letter to the cabinet with the offer of helping during the second wave of corona, for example, in the fight against loneliness. Thus, faith makes us stronger together, in the social sense.

And naturally, in this second wave we see tension growing amongst people, but beneath this, the Netherlands is and remains a land of volunteers and mutual help. A land of doing the shopping for each other and of [making] a pan of soup for the ill woman next door. Also during this second wave, there have been more people with patience and compassion than with a short fuse. We read little of that goodness and patience in society in the newspapers, and we don’t hear much about it on the various talk show panels, but it is not therefore any less of a reality.

In these times we are forced to look long and hard at the facts. All of a sudden, attainments that we always took for granted seem, this spring, to be immediately less obvious than we thought. Suddenly, by necessity, we are living with limitations that only a short time ago seemed barely imaginable.

That raises the question: what really matters in a person’s life? Or to formulate it with the question that I was asked to reflect on today: is a good life a perfect life?

The short answer is obviously: no, thankfully not. Because perfection is a norm that very few people can satisfy.

Alongside that, what is perfect? That varies from person to person, it seems to me. For one person, it is a glittering career with lots of visibility and riches. For another person it is an attractive appearance or sporting accomplishments. And for another still it is a harmonious family life or the satisfaction of voluntary work.

A definitive answer cannot be given. For me personally, the word ‘perfect’ is another word for boring. Imagine: a perfect life and nothing more to wish for? Honestly, I must not think about it!

But the question remains: what, then, is a good life? To this, there is obviously no right or wrong answer. But what the corona crisis teaches us is that life, as it goes on, does not revolve around ‘more, more, more,’ and absolutely not, ‘I, I, I,’ but rather, it is about ‘together,’ about responsibility and attention for the people around you. We all know the saying that nobody lies on his deathbed and says that he wishes he had spent more time at work, or that he had gathered even more possessions. In 2020 we also have to add to this, [that he had] maybe added a number of followers on Instagram or Facebook. But life does not revolve around cash or consumption. It revolves around contact. Around real human contact. That is ultimately the only thing that counts, not riches or outward appearances, but what you have done with and for others.

I myself am the product of a not very strict Reformed [Hervormde] upbringing, and so I need to be careful when referring to the Bible or interpretations of it. But is what I just said not also a line that runs through that beautiful book? For example, in the parable of the rich man for whom it is harder to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? To me, this is a clear message: possessions are ballast that you must ultimately leave behind.

Or, for example, where Jesus says: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is a beautiful, positive restatement  of, ‘What you don’t want to happen…’ And in this there also lies a message that is crystal clear: in everything that you want and do, think about others.

In the Bible, the answer to the question of ‘what is a good life?’ is perhaps nowhere formulated more clearly than in Romans 12, in one of the epistles of Paul. He writes there straightforwardly that a good life is in service of the will of God. In the New Bible Translation [Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling], it is stated literally: ‘You should not conform yourself to this world, but your disposition must be changed, in order to discover what wants from you, and what good, complete, and pleasing to him.’

In this, I hear an echo of one of the core values that I learned from my parents: always be thoughtful, take responsibility for your own actions, and don’t follow the crowd blindly. Just as Luther did on the first Reformation Day in Wittenberg, 503 years ago, when he set himself in the direction of Rome—just as Paul did—with his theses. Thinking, choosing, and accepting the consequences.

And as such, a great deal of the faith of my youth, and of the church in which I grew up—the Nieuwe Badkapel in Scheveningen—is found in this text from Romans 12. A church that drew people from every level of society, from government ministers and top officials to fishermen from Scheveningen. As a child, I felt at home there.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul lays a strong accent on the fact that people have different gifts, in which there is no hierarchy. ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace that is given to us,’ it says. And he then compares that to a body, in which each member has its own function.

That speaks to me powerfully. It means that everyone can do good in his or her life, and thus, can lead a good and meaningful life, and that the total of everyone’s contribution is more than the sum of the parts.

In following Frits Bolkestein, I gladly call this the ‘rousing connection’ [het bezielend verband] in society, the power and energy that lies within people, that keeps us together and makes us stronger as a whole. Everyone’s contribution matters. No-one is more important than any other. Or, as I learned from my parents: you should not look up to the professor and look down at the bin man. Each makes his contribution according to his capacity.

As an extension of that, I learned early on that you do well to relativise your own role, that you should not always take yourself very seriously. ‘Keeping yourself in the background,’ [gewoon op de kleine steentjes lopen], it was called in my house. And Paul calls us to this in Romans 12. He writes, ‘…you should not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but with sober judgment.’ And, one more citation, ‘…consider others more highly than yourself.’ And for whoever has not yet understood, there is a very literal call: ‘…do not be haughty, but fix yourself on humility.’ 

Briefly, Paul’s answer to the question of what makes a good life, contains a sort of Droste effect.[1] A good life is a life that has meaning in the lives of others. We do not exist without others. And what I find most attractive about this conclusion is that with this, Paul also gives an implicit answer to the question of what a failed life is. Or better said: to the question of whether such a thing as a ‘failed life’ exists. I say to you honestly: everything within me rises against [such a thing], as a person of faith and as a liberal, because it would mean that we write people off, and that does not fit in our society.

Naturally there are people who have struggles in this life, who, for example, are afflicted with illness, an accident or some other calamity. People who don’t succeed at getting along in a digital information society that asks more and more of us. People who for whatever reason also need help, and who, thankfully, can get help in our country. But that says nothing at all about what they mean in the lives of their parents, children, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Exceptions aside, everyone means something to someone. Everyone’s life makes a difference. I am deeply convinced of this.

And what I want to have said today, in conclusion, is this. As the coronavirus now confronts us with our smallness and vulnerability, the important role of the churches is clearer than ever. 

And then I return to the word ‘togetherness’, with which I began this address. This period makes me think of the plaque that John F. Kennedy had on his desk in the Oval Office. On it was this line from an old Breton fisherman’s prayer: ‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.’ The original can still be seen in the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. This uncertain feeling in that vast sea shall certainly be recognisable to many people during the corona crisis. In the church we feel [this]: we are not sitting alone in that little boat, we are sitting in it together, and in the past we have stood in hotter fires still. And as such, we will come through this period. I think that in this time, we cannot hear that message often enough.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am afraid that I cannot give you the definitive answer to the question of what a good life is. But hopefully you did not expect that you would get that answer. From what I have said, it may well seem that for me, it is about equality and togetherness, about the ‘rousing connection’ in society that lies within us as people who all make a contribution through which the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

A good life is thus not per se a believing life. That would be enormously arrogant, and simplistically reasoned. But speaking for myself, I do indeed dare to say that faith makes my picture larger and deeper. Quite simply, it helps me to look a bit further and—hopefully—to do the good in my life, as much as is possible.

Thank you. 

[1] Droste effect: an artistic effect in which a picture contains a picture of itself, which contains a picture of itself, ad infinitum.

Resources for understanding Bavinck’s Christian Worldview

Last year, Cory Brock, Gray Sutanto, and I released the first English translation of Bavinck’s book Christian Worldview with Crossway. It is an important and particularly helpful book, and has tremendous practical import for those who want to think through a series of perennial and important existential questions:

What am I? Where did I come from? How does my own view on the world relate to the world outside me? Do I know anything? Can I know anything? How should I act? And why do I exist? What is the point of my life?

The sum total of one’s answers to those questions is what Bavinck calls a ‘world- and-life-view’. In Christian Worldview, he argues that the modern age has tried to answer those questions, and to provide an existentially satisfying world-and-life-view, in many ways. Bavinck’s claim, though, is that only the Christian faith can answer those questions to our existential satisfaction.

Christian Worldview was an enjoyable book to translate, although we were aware that it is not an easy read. It is short but dense—the kind of book that packs a remarkable punch given its brevity. As such, it is the kind of book that needs careful reading, followed perhaps by a second and third reading. It is also a product of its time: Bavinck interacts with many figures who were seminal in his own day, although their names are not instantly recognisable to us. Part of our editorial task, then, was to add footnotes providing the 21st century reader with information to clarify who these figures were, and what they had argued. This also means the reader needs to pay attention.

For those who are working through it, a number of very helpful resources have since appeared that will help with making sense of the book.

  1. Gray Sutanto’s lecture on the book given at RTS DC (above).
  2. Gray Sutanto’s article based on this lecture.
  3. Greg Parker’s article published in Modern Reformation.
  4. Cory Brock’s article published in Credo Magazine.
  5. Tim Keller’s article ‘Justice in the Bible‘. There, Keller writes,

Is there a Christian Worldview? Yes. Over the past century the concept of a Christian “worldview” has developed. The word was taken from Immanuel Kant but given new meaning by its early proponents, especially Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. They argued first, that human beings cannot live without assuming some answers to the abiding questions—Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What’s wrong with people and how do we put it right? How should I live and how do I determine right or wrong? And how do I know that what I know about these things is the truth?—Answers to these questions constitute a worldview, a mental map, through which we process daily life. Most of us simply adopt and assume the worldview of our family or community and culture, but others think it out. No one can live without one. Secondly, these early proponents argued that Christianity is not merely a set of individual doctrines to believe, but a coherent, comprehensive way of answering all these basic life questions and therefore it is a way for looking at every area of life from a Christian perspective. Because Christianity’s view of reality is grounded in the Triune God, a belief shared with no other religion or philosophy, its worldview is necessarily unique and radically distinct from all others.

Over the last several decades, the term “worldview” has been adopted by many speakers who use it in different ways. Perhaps the dominant way to present the concept has been to describe Christianity as a set of bullet point beliefs, and then to compare it with the parallel beliefs of other accounts of reality, often broken out into discrete categories such as secularism, scientific materialism, postmodernism, existentialism, nihilism, New Age spirituality, Marxism—and sometimes adding other religions such as Buddhism and Islam. The six editions of James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue and Jeff Myers’ Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews are examples of this approach. Strong criticism has been levelled at these kinds of books. First, it is charged, the worldview categories overlap. For example, arguably, materialism, postmodernism, Marxism, existentialism and New Age Spirituality are all forms of secularism—they are all approaches taking place within what Charles Taylor calls the secular “immanent frame.” Secondly, individuals in our culture increasingly mix together elements from more than one of these categories. Many younger adults today often mix therapeutic, individualistic answers to the identity question with Marxist, collectivistic answers to the question of justice. And this is also true of so-called “schools of thought.” Is it fair, for example, to call Critical Race Theory a well-structured “worldview?” No. It, too, is something of a mishmash of ideas from older Marxism and newer postmodernism. All this has led many to propose that the term “worldview” be retired.

However, Herman Bavinck’s 1913 essay Christian Worldview (Crossway, 2019) has recently been translated from Dutch into English for the first time. This is a seminal document—some argue it is one of the first substantial articulations of the idea. Bavinck wants to compare Christianity to the alternate worldviews that were developing in the secularizing western culture. (1) First, he begins with a statement that “Christianity stands antithetically to all that is brought before the market today…If we understand Christianity’s warrant and maintain a desire to preserve her essence, then we can do nothing else but take a resolute position against the systems of the day and the worldviews of its own invention and fashioning….There can be no thought of reconciliation between Christianity and [other worldviews].” (27) (2) Second, Bavinck shows that each non-Christian worldview starts by assuming realities about the world and human nature that it cannot prove. So it begins with acts of faith, not with empirical experience or objective reason (34). (3) Third, Bavinck says that secular non-Christian worldviews are reductionistic or “mechanical.” They seek to explain everything by some single factor (80-81). So scientific materialism reduces everything to the physical (e.g. love is just a chemical brain event that helps you pass on your genes) while pantheism says the physical world is an illusion and reduces everything to the spiritual. This reductionism means every non-Christian worldview creates an idol. It looks to some created thing rather than God to be the key or the solution or the salvation (It also demonizes some created thing rather than human sin to be the main problem with the world). (4) Fourth, the inevitable simplistic one-sidedness of these worldviews leaves each of them, in different ways, unable to account for what we know both intellectually and intuitively about the complexity of the world and of humanity, which is both created and fallen, both physical and spiritual, both individual and social. “Christianity is the only religion whose view of the world and life fits the world and life” (28, italics are mine). Only the Christian worldview can keep “heart and head together.” (5) Fifth, every alternative worldview fails on its own terms to give what it promises—a knowledge of truth, a stable identity, and a basis for moral norms. Without the Trinity at their foundation, modern worldviews fall into opposite “ditches.” For example, they fall into empiricism or rationalism—both of which, in the end, must confess that there is no way for us to know truth, and yet we know intuitively that truth exists and we can’t live without it. This means non-Christian worldviews are unliveable. They fail to give us solid resources for finding our identity, experiencing freedom, knowing satisfaction, having a basis for doing justice, or discovering truth. (6) Finally, by showing how Christianity has a unique answer to all these perennial questions, he makes the case that Christianity is a complete worldview, giving us unique perspectives on every aspect of life, not just private life, but on business, law, politics, science, art, and government. Christianity is not only for helping us in our private life. It is a way of seeing, living, and working distinctively in all of life.

Most importantly, Bavinck avoids the pitfalls of more recent worldview writing. He does not artificially divide people into discrete worldview categories. Instead, Bavinck goes down to the basic, perennial philosophical debates and issues—the ‘deep structures of culture’—of epistemology (how do we know?), anthropology (what is human nature, what is wrong with it, and how can it be repaired?), ethics (what is justice? how do we determine right from wrong?), metaphysics (what is real?), teleology (what is our purpose?), and eschatology (where are we going?). He shows that any particular school of thought—such as evolutionary naturalism or Critical Race Theory today—while not a comprehensive worldview per se, is necessarily assuming certain answers to these worldview questions.

Bavinck is the most helpful resource on this subject I’ve ever read, but while brief, it is challenging.

6. This conversation between Gray Sutanto and Tim Keller. It is framed as a discussion of Bavinck’s relevance to ministry in global cities, although much of the discussion stems from their readings of Christian Worldview.