Iconological Reading


The good S.D. Smith quoted C.S. Lewis at his blog a while back:

…only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.

Here we have the key to what Lewis (and the other Inklings, and all the Romantics, dating back to S.T. Coleridge) believed about literature. All created things are icons, in some form or another, of spiritual reality. This is what I mean when I talk about “logos epistemology.” It’s the belief that the creative logos, the Word, is within and behind all creation, and all creation points to that Christ/logos. What we can know is all built on the foundation of the logos, to which physical reality points.

cs-lewisAt Hutchmoot, Walt Wangerin used the term “nominalistic” in his talk to refer to the mindset of our culture. I almost jumped out of my seat*. The reason ancient interpreters of Scripture sought allegorical and spiritual readings was not that they wanted to make Scripture mean lots of different things, but that they believed (rightly) that human beings know on four levels: surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical (or mythical/spiritual). Our culture believes that the only level of these four levels we can know for sure is surface: that which the five senses perceives and which can be proved to be true in a laboratory. You know exactly how this looks in our culture: science is “fact,” but you better hold your religious beliefs privately and not expect anyone else to believe them with you.

But this nominalistic thinking – that the physical reality only has surface meaning and nothing beyond it – is severely limiting and dehumanizing, because we are so much more than bare physical fact. This is why embedded in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia septology is planetary symbolism; we experience the deeper levels of reality while interacting with these symbols, even if we don’t understand them. This is why his Ransom trilogy is built on the scaffolding of literary alchemy. We pass through the stages of black (grief/loss), white (purification) and red (eternal life) with Ransom, whether we understand alchemy or not.

This is the exact opposite of gnosticism. It’s not “secret knowledge,” which is more important than the physical symbols, but the belief that the physical symbols do indeed picture reality. In gnosticism, the physical imprisons reality. In logos epistemology, the physical is part of reality and points to the Creator.


  1. Becca


    Great piece. If you get the chance, I would love to hear your thoughts on if this connects or contradicts with Jung’s thoughts on archetypes within the collective unconscious.


  2. MichelleG

    Hi Travis,

    Thanks for this! I love Lewis’ image of the “turn around and look back”- a perfect picture of how those of us in science see the wonder of God’s creation- the order and intricacy and creativity and beauty He has formed is simply breathtaking- and the deeper your study of nature the more of His magnificence you behold (one almost feels He’s calling “further up and further in!”). And what wonder and worship is there in the knowledge that all creation came to be and is sustained through the breathing out of the Word, who is both logos and Incarnate Messiah (John1)! Wow!

    I am also compelled, as a scientist and a teacher, to respond to your description of surface knowledge as that “which can be proved to be true in a laboratory.” Though pervasive, this impression that there is “true” surface knowledge that can be discovered and/or proved by science does not accurately portray the nature of science or how scientific surface knowledge is formed. Further, this misconception leads to distrust of scientists and their knowledge base when long-held ideas change in response to new evidence. (It also promotes zealous over-confidence and/or dismissal of ideas such as the therory of evolution, etc- but I won’t open that can of worms now).

    As you accurately say, science is rooted in empiricism, “that which the five senses perceive,” and inferences drawn from these sense-based observations. But science is tentative in that one’s observations are limited by one’s ability to observe. For this reason, science is not an uncovering or a proving of the truth, but more like an amassing of evidence (observations and inferences in the context of prior knowledge) that build a general understanding. So surface knowledge is robust, meaning well-supported by much observing, but constantly changing in response to new observations.

    Along this line, scientists do not and can not prove a hypothesis “to be true in a laboratory” (oh that statement sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me!). Rather, scientists conduct fair tests, make observations, and evaluate whether their observations support or contradict an assumption or claim. It may sound like semantics, but building a framework of knowledge is fundamentally different from discovering or proving truth. (There is only one source of Truth and and that source is not nature but the person and ways of God as described in His inspired Word.)

    When it comes to following Christ, I am a minority in science, but my views on the nature of science are widely held and supported in the field.

    I hope I have not come across as pretentious or snarky! My hope is to further a right understanding of science in the general public so that more will seek the Truth where it can be found!

    Thanks in love,


  3. Travis Prinzi


    Michelle, yes, you nailed it.The problem isn’t with science at all, but with a sort of pop-culture epistemology that stems from a completely wrong understanding of science.

  4. Crystal Kieloch

    HI Travis –
    I’m with Bec. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the question in her comment. I’d also be very interested in a point of reference for this section of your post.
    “The reason ancient interpreters of Scripture sought allegorical and spiritual readings was not that they wanted to make Scripture mean lots of different things, but that they believed (rightly) that human beings know on four levels: surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical (or mythical/spiritual). Our culture believes that the only level of these four levels we can know for sure is surface: that which the five senses perceives and which can be proved to be true in a laboratory.”

    I am currently doing research for my Master’s thesis on “Spiritual Memoirs” and also considering Jung in my research. I am analyzing memoirs from different spiritual ideologies and while I am a believer in Christ, I feel there is much to research and learn regarding other traditions and paths. Ultimately, I would like to point back to that “God-shaped void” that Pascal mentioins.
    Thanks for your posting. Challenging to say the least.

  5. Travis Prinzi


    Becca and Crystal, yes, it’s a great subject, but I want to do it justice, which means I need a little time to re-read some stuff on the issue. Let me get back to you!

  6. Becca

    No problem, Travis. Thank you so much for being willing to do that. This has confounded me for years.

    Crystal, I’d be super-interested in reading what you write, too. I have only studied Jung a little — particularly in regard to literary interpretation. (Joseph Campbell’s _Hero With a Thousand Faces_ has a strong Jungian influence. It’s an eisegetical mess, as far as I’m concerned. Bad writing. Bad listening. Unscholarly trash. ‘Drove me nuts. Yet, it’s influential. Darn it.)

    I disagree with a lot of what Jung wrote. But I can’t quit thinking about his concept of the communal unconscious. I don’t think he nailed it, exactly. But is there a philosophical cousin to his thoughts that does have validity?

    I feel like he was hovering about something almost true; but then he rushed it, or pushed it to suit his own beliefs, and ended up deforming it. And a hungry world will scrape up whatever scraps are thrown on the floor. After the wreck Freud made, humanity certainly needed some new options.

    We are an individualistic society, so the thought of some sort of “unimind” (and please DO read that with the voice of the little green three-eyed alien on Toy Story) is foreign to us. Yet, the Bible talks about societies as a whole receiving blessing, yearning for things, realizing things, and even receiving punishment. So how do the individual and the community interweave?
    And how do we relate to “symbol” collectively? I would LOVE to know the true gears and levers behind this. Help!

  7. Jenny

    I love that we can talk about icon, and what that really means, instead of devolving into some anti-Catholic rant. I’m not Catholic, but my dear friend is, and I’ve always really resonated with icon–that is, seeing the spiritual through a physical/artistic representation.

    I love the thinking that goes on here 🙂 It’s like coffee for my soul!

  8. Greg Pyne

    Hi Travis,
    I’m new to the Rabbit Room, and happy I subscribed to the feed in time enough to get your reflection on this quote by Lewis. It reminds me of Ramandu’s admonishment to Eustace when Eustace stated that “In our world…a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” to which Ramandu replied “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

    Btw, I linked onto your site and found you are a writer who has done extensive work in the Harry Potter world. You probably know of my wife then (Erin Pyne), who wrote Harry Potter: A Fandom of Magical Proportions and the Ultimate Guide to the Harry Potter Fandom, and sings as The House of Black! Small world!

  9. Travis Prinzi


    Greg, Thanks for your thoughts! Yes, Lewis wove this type of thinking into the Narnia series beautifully. The other quote that comes to mind is when Lucy looks at the stable and then goes into it and proclaims, “Its inside is bigger than its outside!” What a great picture of how creation symbolizes God. It tells us about him, but what we learn about him by looking “inside” is so much bigger; the reality reflected in and around the object is far bigger than the “outside” that we see. (It’s also a great metaphor for a book!)

    Yes, I know of your wife! Definitely a small world. I can’t recall if we were ever officially introduced, but we’ve corresponded, and I think she had a booth set up near mine at Azkatraz 2009.

  10. whipple


    I must confess that I started to lazily gloss over this post. You caught my slothful eye, however, with the four levels of human understanding. Thanks for recounting the fact that creation, especially including the gift of language, is iconic in structure. I would say then, that a constant portion of creative ministry is that of redeeming language. I remember being struck by an interview in the extra features in Shyamalan’s “The Village” in which someone (perhaps William Hurt? I don’t recall.) stated that the movie was a period piece from a time when people said what they meant to say. How wonderful to hear from a person what he means to say! Ever since the RR series of posts on succinctness, that sort of subject matter has often resurfaced. I am not adept at implementing the wisdom therein, but I think it’s important.

  11. Becca

    Whipple, I would love a link to the RR posts on succinctness. I searched and couldn’t find them. Would you mind to point me in the right direction? Many thanks.

  12. Danielle

    Wow, this post and discussion is blowing my mind. Thanks RR community for giving words to things that I’ve felt and not been able to name.

  13. Paul B

    MichelleG, that was fantastic! Everything you said resonated with me. Our culture has a great misconception of science. I love your line, “science is not an uncovering or a proving of the truth, but more like an amassing of evidence (observations and inferences in the context of prior knowledge) that build a general understanding.” Many people find assurance in telling themselves that we can know things with absolute certainty, using reason, without faith. But as you say, science is merely an amassing of evidence and we have learned time and time again it is perhaps a bit arrogant or even naive to believe in absolute certainty.

    While at L’Abri last year, I had some wonderful discussions on how our present culture tries to separate faith and reason. I believe many people today think reason involves what we KNOW and faith is about what we BELIEVE and that the two are separate. One example of this thinking in our culture from LOST (I know, I know, just when you thought it was gone…..) is the contrasting characters of Jack and Locke. At least initially, Jack is the man of faith, Locke is the man of reason. And they butt heads continually. But ideally, faith and reason are intricately intertwined. I say ideally because it is certainly possible to have faith in something without reason. I’ve known people who believed they could pray a deceased friend into heaven. This is unreasonable because God speaks nothing of this in scripture. However, there is a reason for believing it–namely that person praying it may find peace for themselves. Similarly, people may think they can have reason apart from faith. This is, as we stated above, a view held by the many who have a skewed idea of what science is and thus hold it up as absolute knowledge. So, perhaps it is more fitting so say that we necessarily have a level of faith involved in our reasoning process and ideally we have reason in our faith process.

    I know I’ve rambled on a bit, but I just love this topic! It’s so relevant and complex.

  14. Greg Pyne

    Interesting points. Richard Feynman, the famous quantum physicist, once said the process of science is like peeling an onion, not really knowing what is under the next layer. When someone asked him what lies at the heart of the onion, he said “I don’t know. If it’s just layer after layer, then that’s what it is, if it is not, it’s not…I just want to find out how nature works.” 20th Century physics also brought about the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, which also negates an absolutest approach to science.

    Now, a small quibble which one of your statements. You said:

    “I’ve known people who believed they could pray a deceased friend into heaven. This is unreasonable because God speaks nothing of this in scripture. However, there is a reason for believing it–namely that person praying it may find peace for themselves.”

    I think your viewpoint here may be coming from a particular theological strand. In the Episcopal tradition, in the Book of Common Prayer, we do pray for the deceased, praying “Give to the departed eternal rest; Let light perpetual shine upon them.” In addition, the Ecclesia of the Greek Orthodox tradition finds numerous examples of the saints (such as Gregory, Paisios, and Ephraim). This is explored in a chapter of The Mountain of Silence, a profile of monks on Mt. Athos, by Kyriacos Markides.

    However, apart from that, you are correct in saying that ideally, faith and reason are intertwined, as they are both part of the experience of God, indeed they are gifts of the spirit. One cannot be separated from the other.

  15. Greg Pyne

    Not that its authority is equal, but I do believe The Book of Common Prayer is BASED in the authority of scripture. I do think there is a theological, and therefore scriptural, basis to praying for a deceased loved one’s soul, or any soul for that matter. Didn’t CS Lewis allude to this in The Great Divorce? If our souls are truly eternal, and it is our souls which shall be judged, why should the ending of our bodily manifestation be the be all end of all of our of ascension to God?

    I realize this might be on theologically controversial ground, but it is nevertheless, ah…reasonable.

  16. Becca

    Thanks for the clarification, Greg. Here’s where I get snagged…

    If the primary source validates the secondary source, then the secondary source cannot supersede the primary source. In other words, if The Book of Common Prayer’s theology is validated by a Biblical foundation, the Bible should ultimately support the final conclusion of The Book of Common Prayer. Otherwise, you end up with eisegesis instead of exegesis.

    Also, if everything I found reasonable were also Scriptural, the Bible would look quite a bit different than it does. (Wink.)

    I think your thoughts about ascension are interesting. I do wonder sometimes if we will grow (learn, gain wisdom, talents, etc.) in our eternal state, mainly because I have a hard time even imagining the sort of existence where we cannot develop at all.

    But if heavenly growth exists, I don’t see how it could an ascension toward a greater redemption. That would imply that Christ’s provision was somehow inadequate. He made us wholly perfect through His death. Complete forever. Perfect holiness cannot be made more holy, can it?

    Nor do I think it could mean a change of eternal course. Have you read Tim Keller’s thoughts on the trajectory of the human soul? Interesting stuff, which I THINK is also sourced in Lewis, if you’re a fan.

    ‘Just my initial thoughts. I could be wrong.

  17. Greg Pyne

    Afternoon Becca! I was going to respond to your post last night, but sleep overtook me.

    I absolutely agree with your first point. As to your second, I’m just curious what the Gospel of Becca would look like 🙂

    Toward the end of your post, you asked:

    “But if heavenly growth exists, I don’t see how it could [be] an ascension toward a greater redemption. That would imply that Christ’s provision was somehow inadequate. He made us wholly perfect through His death. Complete forever. Perfect holiness cannot be made more holy, can it?”

    I have more of an idea than an answer for this. I’m wondering if looking at it from a temporal position might get in the way of the full implications of Christ’s redemption. I haven’t read Keller’s book, but maybe he touches on this. In Hebrews 2:14 there is the idea that Christ, in securing our salvation, destroyed death. Death, in other words, ceased to be the be all end all. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to view death, as Gandalf said, as “the next great adventure.” Therefore, quite to the contrary of making Christ’s provision inadequate, it brings this provision to the eternal, and not merely to the human temporal. Death becomes a door, not “the end.” The journey continues, thanks to Christ. Thus praying for a departed loved one is a form of recognition of this.

    Perhaps this swings back to Travis’ original post. Death, to the nominalistic thinker, is the physical surface reality, and that is it. As Christians sanctified by Christ, we see things differently.

  18. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    Hey, Greg. (Becca here incognito. FB wouldn’t let me change my name to BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck, so I’m taking sickdog advantage of RR grace.)

    Man, I’m so right-brained, I fill out IRS forms with drawings. No kidding on that. So in the Gospel according to Becca, truth gets pretty whacked pretty fast. I’m the sheep from Matthew 18 who gets lost while looking for a Tardis.

    That’s why I’ve learned to interact with Scripture in a practical way as well as a poetic way. (The latter is my default, BTW.) I’m not saying creative, divergent minds are a negative thing. Sometimes my folks uncover brilliant wonders hidden from the flow chart people. But the downside is that peeps on my end of the continuum need to be careful, or we will daydream so far into the bright self-mighty, we’ll end up recreating essentials without ever intending to do it. I have been there.

    On this issue, I think (but don’t know for sure) that Scripture could possibly leave room for some sort of development/growth post physical death? But I cannot find any room in Scripture to allow for an eternal trajectory change. If I boil that down to practical examples, it sounds brutal in print. I’m hesitant to do that.

    Is it OK if I ask… is this issue tied to the loss of someone you love? I think the dynamics of a conversation like this tend to soften if that’s on the table. I’m saying that from personal experience.


  19. miles365

    Wrote a paper on Coleridge, so these quotes were handy and I thought they tied in to Travis’s post.

    “Nature is not the Almighty Spirit; it simply veils Him; He is shining in and through Nature, which thus partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible.”
    (from the article “‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’ and a Recurrent Action in Coleridge’” by Durr.)

    “Intense perception of outward objects thus provides the means by which the mind accomplishes its feat of grasping the presence of a spiritual power in the world of sense. In turn, this visionary expansion nourishes a more refined and a richer sensory awareness. Returning to the bower, the speaker discovers a plenitude of visual and aural delights in the very place he had earlier regarded as a barren desert….”
    (from Coleridge and the Concept of Nature by Modiano.)

    “In short, one can claim, in Coleridgean terms, that it is only imagination that can bring us to the full encounter with religious reality, because it is only symbolic language that resists the human drive for clarity and determinateness. The divine, the numinous, the transcendent, can never be encompassed by the clarity of ‘consequent Reasoning.’ It can only be intimated, guessed at, caught out of the corner of the eye; and for this, only the ambiguity of symbolic utterance will serve.”
    (from Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition by Barth.)

  20. Greg Pyne

    Becca Buck Buck Wonderduck (should an extra “duck” be inserted here for rhythm?)
    How interesting! I actually find myself coming from the opposite direction, at least in the realm of literature. My thinking, as a literature teacher, has gone too much over to the analytic and less to the poetic. I call myself “a recovering English major,” since I dwell more in breaking down a text rather than letting it breathe, and now I’m doing my best to rectify that situation (which is why CS Lewis is such a good mentor, I think- he was hands down a fully honed literary critic, but he understood “the heart” of literature as well).

    Btw- I love the image of a sheep…looking for a Tardis! Dr. Baahhhh indeed…

    You’ll have to define “trajectory change” so I can better understand how you are using the term (I’m thinking total rejection of God to total acceptance?). And please feel free to be brutal. If it is needed for clarification, then so be it.

    As to your last question, I wouldn’t be honest if I said “no.” But please don’t think it the emotive push to respond to Paul’s post. If anything, my situation just lent itself to consider strongly this whole idea of praying for the dead.

    “My situation”- is that vague enough? Lol- but please understand, for the moment…

  21. Dan R.

    Nice post, Travis, and good conversation to all who have contributed thus far. I wish I were well-studied/versed/read enough to help us come to some better answer to the many questions that have been raised, but since I’m not (at least not enough to do so over the web), I’ll limit this comment to a plug (if you will) for another book. I know you already mentioned the “other Inklings,” but I wanted to give what I believe to be a highly-applicable example, namely that of “Place of the Lion” by Charles Williams. The interaction of the “surface” nature with “spiritual reality” is one of the premises that the book is built on, and I just felt I had to mention it.

    Happy further commenting,
    Dan R.

  22. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    Greg. English major here also, currently finishing a Storytelling MA. (The long-term goal is to learn more about how the oral elements of story story transfer to good writing.)

    To what branch of literary interpretation do you adhere? I was mostly trained in a kinder, gentler cousin of New Criticism, which was good for someone with my bent, because I needed the discipline. (I can be a very selfish reader… my bottomless energy for feeling/creating often causes me to respond without taking the time to listen thoroughly. Embarrassing to admit before the RR, but true.)

    Since my favorite prof was willing to look at historical and personal implications of a piece as well as its inter-textual elements (not typical for NC), I never had to read like Spock. It was the best discipleship I’ve ever had. Those classes changed my heart as well as my mind. They are still changing me.

    Trajectory. I can’t do Keller justice, but I’ll give it a shot.

    From what I remember (it’s been over a year), the main idea is that the soul is on a trajectory. Over time, we are either moving toward a greater yieldedness in Christ or hardening in our resistance to Him. You can find the whole of that in his book _A Reason For God_.

    I don’t agree with everything Keller writes. But he is still one of the living thinkers I respect most. He tends to be analytical + deep feeling. Like Lewis. His books _Prodigal God_ and _Counterfeit Gods_ turned my heart inside out like a tube sock.

    Greg, here’s where I’m caught in my response to you, though. When you have an actual loved one who (most likely) dies without Christ, I’m not sure processing through that horror is something that can be survived with facts alone. (Perhaps that statement reveals the particular weaknesses of my own heart. I don’t know.) But this is why I could never be “brutal” on this subject. And shame on anyone who can be. This kind of grief is too much to bear within the confines of a math problem alone.

    That doesn’t make the facts “untrue.” But I think this emotional devastation requires the poetic comfort of God’s living presence in a unique, tactile way. Personally, I can’t even breathe with the facts alone.

  23. Greg Pyne

    “Facts, facts, facts!” Well, happily I think our faith does away with leaning on a purely Thomas Gradgrind view of the world. My literary background was more gender/Marxist/structuralist oriented, in deference to my professors’ views and also my own, and my own (prior) love of modernists and post-modernist works But I began to see how constricting these views ultimately were, and tired of the po-mo stuff. I’m much more likely to pick up WInd in the Willows than David Foster Wallace nowadays.

    I’ll have to read Keller, he sounds intriguing. Thanks for the clarification on trajectory.

    As for your last point, in order to get to the heart of the matter, let’s forego the personal for a moment. Instead, lets take a general case mixed in with a couple specific examples. I mentioned David Foster Wallace. As genius as an author that he was, he unfortunately made the decision to take his own life, as have many other writers, such as Virginia Woolf. This, in many faith circles, is the be all end all of sins. I mean, how can you repent from such an act? How can such an act be forgiven, since it crosses the border between life and death?

    There was an interesting line in the movie Luther where a young boy kills himself out of depression or despair. Since he was suicide, the townspeople did not want his body buried in the graveyard, as it was “cursed.” The lines they give Luther are interesting…I doubt it ever happened, but he says something to effect of “can not despair creep up upon a man, like a thief in the woods?” In other words, given the context of a suicide, such as extreme mental illness leading a person to commit irrational acts, what grace, mercy, and forgiveness would God offer to a soul in this situation? Or are they simply cast off?

    These are the kind of questions stirred up by the idea of someone dying without Christ, or least in this context dying in the grip of a sin, which leads, once again, back to the original thought of a believer praying for the soul of someone who has already passed on.

  24. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck


    Thanks for the clarification. The literary/theological extremes from which we are emerging are so important in discussions like this.

    Yes, I’ve heard the debate about suicide being unpardonable. Obviously, I don’t know for sure; so what I am about to write might be wrong. I am a woman, and it seems that God often equips men better for these sorts of questions. I can only offer you the limited conclusions I have reached in my own heart for now.

    My understanding of the gospel is that salvation is a work of God. When we receive Christ into our hearts, we are participating in a process that was initiated by our Father. And we will end up in heaven only because of the sufficiency of the cross.

    A lot of modern churches leave it there. They believe eternal salvation is purchased by Christ, but then they expect believers to spend whatever years they have on earth working their way into fleshly sanctification. If you were to stop and ask church leaders if that’s how the process works, they would say no. But a quick walk through a Christian bookstore will demonstrate the overwhelming prevalence of this teaching.

    The book of Galatians addresses this problem. Paul says something like, “Hey you guys! Why did you start this process dependent upon grace, but now you’re trying to finish it in the flesh? Don’t you realize you need the same fuel for living on earth in Christ that you need to get you to heaven?”

    Chasing that teaching down into its million practical implications changes much. I’ve been a Christian for two decades, but only in the past few years have I realized I was missing half of the gospel.

    Particularly, this changes how I see repentance. I used to think that by confessing a particular sin, I was doing my part in a two-step math problem. My specific admission “allowed” God to check that one misdeed off the damnation list. I see now how proud that was, because truth-be-told I can’t even repent adequately. There are nuances of my depravity that I never realize. My heart is distorted and blinded even as I confess. So, if the math of my redemption is dependant upon my spiritual agility and eloquence, my hope is shot. Even this one little piece of the math equation, I cannot do perfectly.

    However, as I walk with Jesus, I do think the trajectory of my heart is softening into a more consistently repentant state. The course of my soul is being led by God into a deeper recognition of my inadequacy and my desperate need for His grace. This is a repentance I can offer. Not with the demanding pride of a math problem but with the humble music of a child’s lament.

    I do still repent for specifics as God shows them to me. I think this is vital to growth. But I am no longer depending upon the quality of my performed repentance to secure salvation. I am depending upon a relationship that is rooted in my yielded weakness being overcome by God’s pursuit. This has changed the tenor of my repentance into something tender and relationship-based. Like a child running to her Father.

    In light of all that… when we say that someone didn’t repent after a sin before dying, what are we really saying? We are saying that a human must behave constantly in a spiritually-adequate manner to stay qualified for a purchase made by God.

    Here’s the strange thing, though. I rarely hear people mumbling at funerals of old men who died in their sleep, “Man, I hope Old Joe repented from eating too many Chili Cheese Fritos before he passed out of the world. Because if he died with the unrepentant sin of gluttony on his heart, he is not with Jesus.” This conversation just doesn’t happen… even though eating disobediently is what caused all sin to enter the world in the first place. ‘Even if the Fritos are what caused the heart attack that killed Old Joe. Almost always, the question of unrepentant sin is associated solely with blatant suicide.

    With gluttonous old men, we look at the trajectory of their lives instead of splicing out one sin. We assume that if someone was moving toward greater faith in Christ, the Fritos were covered by Christ’s greater redemption. We assume their faith was authentic, even though their last sin wasn’t characteristic of their whole walk with Christ. But if a person who has walked with Christ becomes mentally/chemically ill and makes a rash decision as a result, we pull different rules out of the bag.

    It seems to me that the determining question should be consistent for every life. Was that salvation ultimately secured by faith in Christ?

    Angrily defying Christ by committing suicide certainly reveals something about a person’s trajectory. But the suicides I have known closely have been acts of mental/chemical illness. I don’t believe these particular people were consciously rejecting Christ.

    Again, I could be wrong. I’m nervous to even post what I think, because it scares me to think of influencing someone in the wrong way. I pray that God will protect whoever reads this post from any errors I have made, and that He would also provide someone who has greater insight to correct my blind spots publicly. This is only where I have landed for now.

  25. Greg Pyne

    First of all, many thanks for this conversation, and I hope you have a happy celebration of the New Year tonight!

    Your prior post has so many gems I don’t know where to begin stuffing them in my pocket. A hearty “Amen” to many of your thoughts, except one:

    “I am a woman, and it seems that God often equips men better for these sorts of questions.”

    Totally disagree with that, but onto your points…

    This idea of the two-step math problem really underscores, as you say, a misunderstanding of repentance, grace, and salvation. I myself don’t have the theological vocab for this, but as a believer in the salvation Christ brings, I fully understand recognition of our need for Christ’s grace and peace, and not simply making sure the checklist is balanced before we enter into the great hereafter. We are sullied by sin…all sins…but cleansed by the sacrifice of our Lord.

    And that cleansing incorporates for us a walk with Christ in our life here on earth. I think you’ve made the notion of “trajectory” even more clear in this post, as a “softening into a more consistently repentant state.” That makes sense to me. I especially like:

    “I do still repent for specifics as God shows them to me. I think this is vital to growth. But I am no longer depending upon the quality of my performed repentance to secure salvation. I am depending upon a relationship that is rooted in my yielded weakness being overcome by God’s pursuit. This has changed the tenor of my repentance into something tender and relationship-based. Like a child running to her Father.”

    …which reminds me of the particular letter in The Screwtape Letters where Screwtape laments that Wormwood’s patient “is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of grace for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation!”

    The contradiction of the Old Man and his Fritos is noted as well.

    I think you are right in that a suicide by mental illness is not a rejection of Christ. They say that attempted suicide is a psychological cry for help. Which to me means that suicide is the loudest cry of all. And I have to believe that there is One Person who can answer that cry.

    But perhaps you are right, may be we are stepping beyond the bounds of helpful discussion at this point. But I am so thankful to have this conversation with you and hope you see it as a blessing as well.

  26. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    Greg, thank you. I’m grateful for the conversation also.

    It’s been good to find your blog, too. Thanks for linking that here. I’m looking forward to exploring your world a little more in depth when I can find a few quiet moments to concentrate. (Also, the virtual snow is very cool. Nice touch.)

  27. Ron Block


    Travis, I didn’t dig into the discussion on this post but loved it. I posted it on my Facebook page the day it came up. Good work.

  28. Sondorik

    I’m totally digging what you all have dug. Thanks for the tremendous stretch, Travis, and food for thought, everyone.

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