Narnia, Lilith, and Banjos

By

I saw Lester Flatt, of Flatt & Scruggs/Foggy Mountain Breakdown/Beverly Hillbillies fame, in 1976 when I was 12 years old, on television in southern California. The banjo in his band thrilled me, and Dad bought me a banjo when I was 13. I didn’t come out of my room until I was 21.

When I picked up that Harmony banjo for the first time, when I attempted to play it and failed, I could have said, “I can’t do this.” My Dad could have said, “Don’t bother, kid. You don’t have any musical talent.”

They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.

C. S. Lewis

The truth is I was already a musician; my “work” was to go on believing it and doing it. Throughout my life I’ve had plenty of doubts, fears, temptations, and sins, the kind that come from flesh, world, and devil. As a human being, I am expertly acquainted with all three.

But follow my reasoning here.

Everyone in the world operates by faith. It’s the means by which we do anything. I step out my door to greet the open sky, trusting a meteorite won’t hit me; I drive to the airport, “knowing” I won’t break down or get in an accident; I get in a seat-filled flying metal tube with 200 people and thousands of pounds of luggage (this thing goes up to 40,000 feet, racing at 600mph) and I trust it won’t break into pieces. Reason says, “The odds are against the meteorite, the accident, the crash.” So we bet on the odds, trusting we’ll be safe. Reason brings us to the outskirts of certainty and then we hop over the rest. Faith.

When someone lacks this ordinary faith, we call it a disorder. We name it. Agoraphobia. Claustrophobia. Acrophobia. Banjophobia (a few of my relatives had this).

One of my favorite dialogues in George MacDonald’s Lilith is this one, between Mr. Vane and Mr. Raven. Mr. Vane begins:

“You have been making a fool of me!” I said, turning from him.

“Excuse me: no one can do that but yourself!”

“And I decline to do it.”

“You mistake.”

“How?”

“In declining to acknowledge yourself one already. You make yourself such by refusing what is true, and for that you will sorely punish yourself.”

“How, again?”

“By believing what is not true.”

C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle echoes. The dwarfs are sitting inside the stable door, with sun, trees, grass—all of new Narnia around them. But they refuse to believe it. To their minds they are inside a stable, and nothing can divest them of their false perceptions.

“The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. We won’t be taken in.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

If I had believed I’m just not a banjo player 30 years ago I have no idea where my life would be right now. My circumstances, no doubt, would be vastly different.

The Apostle Peter writes:

“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”

When I look at that it, and compare it to my life, it doesn’t seem real. Shouldn’t that read, “…His divine power will give to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” By his divine power God has already given me everything I need for life and godliness? Through the promises I am a partaker of the divine nature?

I don’t feel that way. There are many times I’ve read the Bible and passed over these ideas or rationalized them because they didn’t fit my concept of reality, my theological upbringing and presuppositions. Again and again I’ve found that growth comes by coming up against truth that rattles my theological, rational, and emotional cages, not by having a smooth Bible-reading experience.

Jesus rattled the prison bars of many of his disciples by saying, “He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.” “Many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” His description of actual reality went against their long-held beliefs, their experiences, and they chose their perceptions over the living Word.

I have been given, past tense, everything I need, in Christ, for my life—the ability to take care of my family, to be a good friend, to love enemies, to sing and make music. I’ve been given everything I need, by divine mandate, for godliness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. It may sound far-fetched to some ears. But the idea that I could learn to play bluegrass music in southern California, so far from the birthplace of the bluegrass sound, and make a living at it—well, that was not only far-fetched, but ludicrous. There I was at 13, 14, 15, 16 and beyond. Here I sit 38 years later.

The belief “I am a banjo player” was foundational to the doing of it. Truth in the inward parts leads to truth in the fingers. Few or none keep that truth in the inward parts perfectly, continually. But we all have to do it, and persevere, or we become spiritual neurotics. We shrink back.

The belief “I have every last cotton-pickin’ thing I need for both life, and godliness, in Christ” is foundational to growth in all areas. I imagine someone who lived completely according to God’s reality would experience growth as when Aslan called Narnia into being, and everything began sprouting out of the soil. It would look like the early Church—an explosion of Life.

Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake.  Love.  Think.  Speak.  Be walking trees.  Be talking beasts.  Be divine waters. 

If Narnia itself were sentient, and given a will, it could have resisted. It could have said, Oh, not me. I’m just a bunch of dirt and darkness. I’m worthless. He must be saying that to someone else.

“…the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations but now has been revealed to His saints…the glory of this mystery…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Don’t bother, kid. You don’t have any spiritual talent. It couldn’t mean you.

Believing what is not true makes a fool of us. It robs us of living from what we’ve been given.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


25 Comments

  1. David Michael Bruno

    @guynameddave

    “Truth in the inward parts leads to truth in the fingers.” I want a motivational poster made with those words! Thanks, Ron. This is such a great reminder.

  2. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I can think of only one way this piece could have been better: I wish one of the centaurs in the picture had been holding a banjo instead of a sword.

     

  3. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    This piece (and its title) is why I love the Rabbit Room. You’ve been preaching this since the day I met you, Ron, and I still need to hear it.

  4. Lisa Smith

    Wonderful food for thought. A worthwhile meditation might be to think of how many stables I’m imprisioned in…hmm that might be pretty discouraging, actually, but you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, right?

  5. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Thanks for all the good comments.

    AP, most days I’m preaching this to myself. I am often amazed at how it never really takes hold on a long-term basis (where I don’t have to hear it daily), but then again the Hebrews had to gather their manna every day; who am I to think I can reach a point where I don’t need to hear the Gospel?

    I tried to work lasers in but they kept slicing off the banjo sections.

     

  6. Dennis Ritchie

    Dear Ron, I deeply appreciate your courage to speak faith in a world so contentiously against it. I love the C. S. Lewis quotes. I commend your knowledge of the apostle Paul. I greatly admire you musicianship. I respect your musical accomplishments. I even like your hat. I only wish you’d mentioned Earl’s name. A quibble, I know, but to call him the banjo player in Lester’s band is . . . understated. Did I mention that I like your hat?

  7. Helena

    Ron, this is wonderful! We talk often about the “already, not yet” but I believe most of us have lumped nearly everything worth having in the Christian life into the “not yet.” There is SO MUCH in the “already”!  Thank you for encouraging us to live out of that truth.

  8. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Dennis – it wasn’t Earl. I saw Lester Flatt on television for the first time in about 1976 or 1977. Haskell McCormick was his banjo player.

  9. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Helena – in Christian circles we often do neat little end-runs around the truth in order to go on believing our experience rather than the Word. In other words, our past and present experience doesn’t match up with what the word says Christians are, so we bend Scripture to fit and justify our experience. We call things “positional,” – a justifiable theological term, but we turn it to mean “not actual.” Thus we are righteous in Christ, “positionally” – and we mean “I’m not really righteous at all but somehow for whatever reason God ‘sees me’ as righteous,” meaning God somehow lies to himself even though he cannot lie. We do this with lots of things.

    This bending of God’s word to fit our experience has been going on for centuries, and as years go by we gain even more ammunition to continue through theologians of the past who were doing the same thing. None of us would likely take Luther’s anti-Semitism seriously. But we take seriously other things he said that are equally untrue (and I love Luther, and he was God’s man. But he is not Scripture). The same is true of CS Lewis and many others we venerate.

    This is why it is crucial to know the word for ourselves,  and to have an actual relationship with God, and filter everything we read through what God says, and to know that “knowing the word” is a growing, living, mysterious thing – never a static, stagnant pool of mere knowledge. Which reminds me of Lewis saying, “If you are going to become a Christian, it is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.” And a favorite old preacher of mine used to say, “You don’t have to park your brain at the door of the church when you become a Christian.”

    I think in the end it’s like the eight year old kid whose dad catches him smoking a cigar out behind the barn, and then makes him smoke the whole thing. God lets us crash and burn on our unbelieving ideas, and only then will we begin to listen to his word rather than our experience.

  10. Helena Sorensen

    @helena

    Well said, sir.

    Isn’t it funny, too, that if we never take hold of those Scriptural truths by faith, we end up creating a sort of alternate reality? We don’t believe we are the righteousness of God, for example, so we don’t act in a way that’s consistent with a righteous person. We don’t benefit from the peace that a righteous man has. We bend the Word to suit our experience, and by doing so, we create and settle down into an experience that is nothing like the life intended for a believer.
    I don’t wish the crashing and burning on anyone. It’s not something to take lightly. But I wouldn’t trade it. It’s the best worst thing that ever happened to me. 🙂

  11. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Helena, yes – it is a false reality we create. There is a limited sense in which we “create our own reality” (heresy is always a lie with truth mixed in). If I believe, for example, that no one likes me, there is going to be a certain amount of thoughts, attitudes, actions, words, facial expressions, and body language that convey my belief to other people – usually subconsciously. So if I am insecure like that, and in a gathering, and quiet around others, they might view me as “arrogant” or some other idea, based on my behavior – and thus I create a category of “people who don’t like me” which goes on “proving” my original thesis, and I use that as more fuel for my unbelieving attitude.

    I’m glad I crashed and burned, too. I still have mini-crashes sometimes, but nothing like the internal spontaneous combustion I went through in the past.

  12. Jeff Conrad

    Ron, thank you for the profound words. I was a kid who wouldn’t try things for fear of failure. Your posting is very confirming and resonates with me,  in that I recently wrote a song called Prisons, which is about this same subject. I very glad I discovered that failure is not nearly as bad as not trying, and hard work generally overcomes perceived lack of “natural” talent. The link to the song is below, if anyone is interested. By the way, I’m a banjo player. (I could be a much better one if I practiced more.)

     https://soundcloud.com/jeffanddebwithbill/prisons

  13. Jeff Conrad

    @jeffconrad

    My wife pointed this post out, and told me to read it because it was like a song I recently wrote. Being a banjo player, too (though not one who put sufficient time to compete at Winfield or anything) I found the essay even more meaningful and enjoyable. As one who often travels a rocky road with my faith, the one thing really helps me silence the voice of doubters (especially my own negativity) has been the Holy Spirit encouraging me to keep trying and not to listen to the lies. Failure is often a learning experience, and if we don’t try, we don’t learn. My song Prisons is about the boxes we put ourselves in, or that others tell us we should stay. If anyone is interested, the link to it is below (a soundcloud site, download it if you want. I would be complemented!)

    https://soundcloud.com/jeffanddebwithbill/prisons

  14. Peter Brunone

    @peterbrunone

    Here I am, late to the party as usual. Dang, Ron, this is the kind of thing I need to read every day for the rest of my life. Thank you for your faithful conveyance of hard-won spiritual truths. I just wish I knew what to say “I am” right now (aside from a few of the basics). There’s plenty to ponder.

  15. Nathan Smith

    @nathansmith

    Hey, thanks for the article. I seem to recall you saying similar things, though with different words, a number of years ago – around the time the Rabbit Room launched. It was all about our identity being in Christ. You were saying something along the lines of it being easy to see your identity else-where in your particular line of work. I think this is something just about everyone struggles with. Maybe more-so in our modern over-connected internet world (not that connections are bad, its just that when sinners use those connections, bad things can happen). You had mentioned something about having notecards you would glance at before shows, notecards that spoke to your identity being in Christ and not popularity, success, banjo-picking, etc. I was hoping you could speak to that specifically again sometime, or something. I have googled Ron Block Notecards umpteen times but without success.

     

    Maybe I’m way off, but I just have a glimmer of memory of a recollection that I am trying to draw out. Just a thought. Thanks.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *