One day in 1941 the poet Earle Birney was mountain climbing outside Vancouver. Arriving at the summit just after nightfall, Birney surveyed the city below and fearfully watched the lights go off until it was completely dark. What he saw was the first of many wartime blackouts, but Birney described the experience as being like “witnessing the end of the world from the point of view of God in Heaven.”
Birney captured this sensation in a poem called “Vancouver Lights,” which uses the familiar imagery of light versus darkness to signify the best human efforts and accomplishments as “a spark beleaguered / by darkness this twinkle we make in a corner of emptiness” against the backdrop of an expansive, indifferent universe. Very much a war poem and an implicit response to Sir Winston Churchill’s 1938 “lights going out” speech, “Vancouver Lights” celebrates human agency as the source of goodness and light. But also, somewhat surprisingly, Birney celebrates the power of human agency to extinguish: “These rays were ours / we made and unmade them . . . we contrived the power the blast that snuffed us.” In the framework of the poem we are little more than “glowworms” against a backdrop of utter and uncaring darkness, but even if “none shall weave again in gossamer” we are invited to take solace in the fact that because of our agency to create and destroy at one point “there was light.”
I don’t want to be overly dramatic about this, but it sometimes feels like we are living in a “Vancouver Lights” moment when, once again, darkness seems to be threatening the beleaguered light. Faced with big intractable problems such as climate change, food and water sustainability, clean energy production, radical inequality, growing intolerance and social instability, and epidemic levels of depression, anxiety and hopelessness, we are increasingly dividing into intractable social and political factions rather than uniting to find solutions. As in Birney’s poem, we are contriving “the blast that snuffed us” through the entwined idolatries of acquisitiveness, selfishness, tribalism and technological progress.
One of the most upsetting aspects of the gathering socio-cultural-environmental darkness is that the North American church, broadly and collectively, seems either unwilling or incapable to help shore up the light. In some cases, we are actively helping to extinguish it. I know this statement will do more to divide than unite, but it needs to be noted that the widespread support of American Evangelicals for Donald Trump – a man who has bragged publicly about sexually assaulting women and whose administration has separated migrant children from their parents and actually imprisoned them in cages – is a meaningful part of the gathering darkness. At least in my experience, this is the single greatest barrier to evangelism in our time. I work with a lot of smart, caring, empathetic, compassionate and generous non-believers, and they want nothing to do with a faith that claims to be about love, mercy and grace but whose adherents support and prop up politicians and policies that blatantly contradicts these values. This is an oversimplification, of course, but this is how most of my colleagues see it – in their eyes the church is at best irrelevant and at worst downright evil. There is enough evidence to support this position that Stephen Mattson, a Christian writing in Sojourners, made a substantial argument that “mainstream Christianity in America has failed. It looks nothing like Jesus.”
HOPE AND LIGHT
While the current realities seem grim and intractable, none of this should be cause for despair. We are not the first generation to face instability or require renewal, and barring the second coming of our Lord we will probably not be the last. (Before Churchill, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked on the eve of World War I that “the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”). Indeed, Birney’s reminder that “there was light” served as an inspiration for at least some of his contemporaries. Birney read “Vancouver Lights” at a Christmas party in 1941 with people like Northrop Frye, E.J. Pratt and A.J.M. Smith in attendance (a veritable who’s who of CanLit at the time), and Frye – a non-evangelical Christian – later recounted that the closing lines gave him hope in the darkest hours of World War II when he was tempted to despair.
While I also find the closing assertion of “Vancouver Lights” to be hopeful and even a bit inspiring, I don’t take comfort in its celebration of human agency to create and destroy light. If indeed we are to be glow-worms weaving in transitory gossamer, we can only be so by the grace of our Lord. And if our dim lights are to have any meaning, they must reflect and radiate his glory so that others can clearly see “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). This must be the future of the church: to repent of our failures, hypocrisies, inadequacies and idleness, and to prayerfully go about the work of remaking and recommitting ourselves to reflect the light of Christ. If we do this, larger social, cultural and political changes will ensue and the church will become relevant again, not because we have compromised our principles but because we have rediscovered them. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Ephesians 5:9 in The Message sums this up beautifully: “You groped your way through that murk once, but no longer. You’re out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it! The good, the right, the true – these are the actions appropriate for daylight hours. Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.”
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