Give Me That Old Growth Religion: Finding Common Ground in the War in the Woods

Framing a Conflict  

I have a very cool job. I get to teach a mix of environmental studies and humanities courses at Simon Fraser University, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. This includes courses from ‘World Religions’, to ‘Environmental Ethics’, and ‘Religion and Ecology’ to ‘Forest Ecosystem Management’. When I tell students that I studied forestry and theology in graduate school, I get looks that range from skepticism to amazement. This spring I taught, what to me, was a dream course. It was entitled ‘Sacred Groves: Trees, Forests and the Human Imagination’. The curriculum explored the entanglement between human cultures and forest ecosystems through readings in anthropology, ecology, ethics and sacred texts. The students were from many different faculties and backgrounds, and by the end of the course it was clear to me that we had just scratched the surface of the intersections and material in this interdisciplinary field.

During this time, the so-called War in the Woods had heated up in a remote old growth forest on Vancouver Island. Activists were defending road blocks from a court injunction that gave Teal Jones the right to log several areas of forest identified by activists as old growth in the Fairy Creek Watershed within unceded Pacheedaht First Nation territory. News outlets recycled familiar tropes about jobs versus ecological integrity, and we have witnessed numerous videos of RCMP officers aggressively extracting activists from precarious tripods or underground arm holds and enforcing illegal exclusion zones near cut blocks.

This skirmish was happening in the wake of the Province of British Columbia having revealed an official timeline for enacting a so-called “paradigm shift” in the way forestry is done. The Province has even endorsed all fourteen recommendations from the most recent Old Growth review panel. The report is entitled “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” written by long time foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorely.[1] The report includes yet another call for the province to shift toward “ecosystem-based management” that includes protecting some of the Province’s remaining old growth forests, especially in the most productive site classes within the Coastal Western Hemlock (CWH) biogeoclimatic zone which covers some 10.8 million hectares of BC (11.4%).[2] The recommendations even includes recognizing forests “intrinsic value for living things.” The term intrinsic value being a term that is typically only heard in environmental ethics courses, or invoked to critique the mechanistic, utilitarian approach to forestry embodied by industrial logging.

On June 17, 2021, during the peak of media coverage of the Fairy Creek blockades, Narwhal journalist Sarah Cox interviewed co-author of the Old Growth Strategic Review, Garry Merkel. The conversation was entitled “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” Throughout his comments Merkel continually returned to the fact that a successful paradigm shift in forestry would not be achieved only through advocating for top down policy changes. His thesis was essentially that only when we can start to think differently will we be able to act differently. And then the clincher:

A paradigm shift is a fundamental shift in thinking. It’s essentially a revolution in thinking…Think about it in your own life. For those of you who might have a certain religious orientation. Change your religion tomorrow and think like that. That’s what a paradigm shift is. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work to help people work through that (43:10).[3]  

It is not often that forestry and religion are discussed together, so Merkel’s comments lit up both parts of my brain. Merkel’s comments also resonated with historian Lynn White Jr.’s criticism of the anthropocentric wing of the Abrahamic faiths, in which the emphasis on a transcendent God at a distance from creation enabled Western civilization to think of the world as so much material given to humanity for our flourishing which has correlated with (if not precipitated) our current ecological crises.[4]

Political theorists may find fault with Merkel’s paradigm shift approach because of its emphasis on the importance of ideas and thinking over structures of power and economic pressures. This is a valid critique, but I fundamentally agree with Merkel’s view that our approach to old growth is as much about worldview as it is about money or jobs. The War in the Woods is not just about territory and power any more, it is also about ideas. It is largely a continuation of a culture war that has been waged for many decades.

In this essay, I will outline the context and complexities of the most recent skirmish in the battle to protect old growth forests in British Columbia at Fairy Creek. I will make the case for the quasi-religious nature of this conflict and assess Garry Merkel’s suggestions around orchestrating a Province wide paradigm shift. I argue that the essentially religious dimensions to the current old growth conflict mean that any kind of paradigm shift toward more ecosystem-based management will need to incorporate elements of the various conflicting worldviews to succeed.

Holy Wars

The most famous battle of the War of the Woods was fought in the late 1990s when activists blockaded access to a timber license on Meres Island near the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. This protest resulted in over 900 arrests, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (until Fairy Creek Protestors surpassed this record in 2021). Counter protests, called Ucluelet Rendezvous, attracted thousands of people as well, and vocalized frustration with the protests and support for the industry that continues to provide for over 60,000 livelihoods in BC.

Eventually the timber company MacMillan Bloedel agreed not to log the forests and First Nations’ forestry companies took over the major timber licenses in the area. In 2000 the area was designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, but much of the bioregion remains without Provincial protected status despite the good faith agreements between First Nations logging companies and environmentalists. Emerging First Nations land management programs are re-embedding traditional and spiritual values into their land use plans.

In August of 2020 activists began to quietly blockade several access points to the Fairy Creek Watershed, just north of Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island. Then, in May of 2021, the BC courts issued an injunction against the blockade giving logging company Teal Jones the right to access and harvest trees in the timber license area. Teal Jones was founded in 1946 by Jack Jones as a cedar shingle mill in New Westminster, BC and the company owns mills in the United States and Canada. Some activists have targeted the company and organized protests outside their current headquarters in Surrey, BC. Teal Jones responded by giving away tree saplings to the protestors as a token of their view that the industry is a leader in environmental sustainability.

The group primarily responsible for leading the protests and blockades is called the Rainforest Flying Squad. A Go Fund Me campaign associated with the group has raised over $700,000.[5] Theirs is a deep devotion to protecting one of the few remaining unlogged watersheds in southern Vancouver Island. A quick Google Maps search reveals just how unique the site is to the surrounding patch work of clear cut harvests in various stages of recovery, which appears as an ovate shaped valley of continuous green. 

In the meantime, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations have issued statements requesting that activists respect their territories and essentially pack up and leave. Each of the tribes has been devastated by colonialism, and standard procedure has been for logging companies to enter their territories, which are officially designated as “Crown Land”, and extract timber for the open market. However, in the new era of truth and reconciliation, rights and title, and treaty commissions, First Nations are winning more and more battles for greater control over how land is managed within their territories. The Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations are negotiating a treaty with the Province together, as on-reserve populations are comparatively small. They are also slowly gaining more economic ground by purchasing local businesses such as a resort and a gas station. Forest tenure agreements, which enable third parties to harvest timber from Crown Land are also being rearranged to ensure tribes get a fair share of timber revenues. The Pacheedaht have even opened up a local saw mill that processes old growth cedar trees for specialty products.[6] The Huu-ay-aht leadership has also been vocal about the importance of forestry to their local economy, and do not see ecotourism as a viable alternative (though perhaps a supplement) to forest harvesting.

However, not all the members of these nations agree with their leadership. For example, Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones has been a vocal defender of the Fairy Creek old growth forests, saying that activists are his guests. He has even stated publically that Frank Jones who claims to be the Pacheedaht hereditary chief was not officially passed that title by his father, making hereditary leadership contested among the Pacheedaht. Jones emphasizes that disease and colonial violence disrupted their traditional governance which included decisions over natural resource management. The Canadian Indian Act, which mandated democratically elected councils to be the nations’ official representation to the state were designed to disrupt systems of kinship and usufruct rights. This means that communities are often divided with respect to the legitimate leadership of their interests, and as in any community hold diverse views on controversial environmental issues.

Media portrayals of the War in the Woods in the 90s as now, often frame the debate about old growth as one between jobs and preservation, economic growth and ecological integrity. Even academic treatments trace these familiar songlines through the landscape. Geographer Bruce Braun wrote an analysis of the conflict in his book The Intemperate Rainforest (2002). In it Braun argues along social constructionist lines that the forest is a contested space. Nature’s impenetrable otherness absorbs our socio-political projections. In this case loggers and environmentalists clash over the contested meaning of forests as zones of ecological integrity versus resource extraction. Caught in the middle were the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples who had dwelt in the Clayoquot Sound by their own reckoning since time immemorial.[7] Braun assesses the forests through a political ecology lens that might be accused of erasing the agency, materiality and objectivity of the forest. Nevertheless, his argument shows how deeply contested a forest can be within a contemporary pluralist society.

In their own public relations materials, timber and forestry organizations boast BC’s high environmental standards and regulations, tree planting practices and the carbon sequestration potential of wood products used in buildings and furniture. Environmentalists argue that old growth have intrinsic value and harbor unique biodiversity. Old forests are also massive sinks of carbon and therefore provide a rich array of ecosystem services which makes them “worth more standing”, a common slogan among activists. Indigenous peoples and their relationships to forests are often marginalized from these dominant storylines, and have expressed resistance to both. At Fairy Creek, we are once again trapped between divergent views of what forests are for, and who gets to decide how we manage them. Yet social science and media portrayals miss altogether the deeply seated quasi-religious commitments of the various interested parties. In the next sections I will explore at least three of these commitments.

The Gospel of Efficiency

In forestry school, we learned that the succession of a forest begins with a phase called “Stand Initiation.” This could of course get going through natural disturbances such as fire or windstorms, but in a commercial forestry setting, this means planting trees in a harvested area.[8] In BC we plant somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 million seedlings each year on around 190,000 hectares of harvested area. Learning forestry, it always felt as though this first phase had a somewhat biblically Ex Nihilio—out of nothing—ring to it. Just as the Abrahamic god had created the world through words, benevolent foresters re-create the forest through an act of Stand Initiation—harvesting and re-planting. ‘In the beginning there was a perfectly spaced stand of commercially valuable trees…’

As historian James C. Scott has written in his book Seeing Like a State, the history of industrial forestry in Europe and North America is rooted in the rise of capitalist efficiency and the royal pronouncements of the 16th and 17th centuries.[9] As European wood supply began to dwindle with the rise of the industrial revolution, kingdoms and then secular governments sought ways to more efficiently manage trees and forests for a steady stream of an increasingly narrower range of commodities, primarily timber.

German forestry especially turned vast networks of medieval forest commons into agricultural cropland. Through the application of the sciences, they sought to simplify the forest community to maximize the growth of desirable species and to eradicate the presence of so-called pests and non-economic trees and shrubs. Mathematical equations were developed to calculate the volume of standing trees in a given stand, and estimate the trees’ growth rate. This of course enabled a predicable model of the steady flow of timber resources, and therefore cash. This worked out well enough for 1-2 rotations, but then the soil began to exhaust. Fertilization was often needed, and the forest had to be protected from fire. Bark beetles and other boring and defoliating insects were also more likely to swell in population due to the even-aged character of the forests, which essentially provided a vast arboreal buffet. Some areas after harvest didn’t recover well on their own so nurseries and replanting were needed to supplement natural regeneration. Forest commons were gradually converted into plantations, managed as intensively as any agricultural crop.

In North America, forests were ravaged by waves of agrarian settler colonists (many who were refugees from Europe) and timber operations. With an impending timber famine, forestry in the United States became institutionalized through the political muscle of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1898, Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot, a Europe-educated forester, to lead the Division of Forestry. In 1900 Pinchot was instrumental in establishing the first forestry school in North America at Yale. Pinchot was later appointed the first head of the US Forest Service. Pinchot’s approach to forestry and conservation in general had a major impact on the development of the forestry profession in North America.

In Canada, the first forestry school was established in Toronto in 1907, but the University of British Columbia did not open its forestry school until 1921. What began in BC as a corrupt and unregulated industry, was eventually tamed into the provincial timber tenure system still in place today. A major milestone in this process came in 1909 when Fred Fulton published his “Royal Commission Report on Timber and Forestry” known as the Fulton Commission. The recommendations for this report were institutionalized in the 1912 Forest Act.[10]

Rather than a focus on what we would now call conservation, early forestry legislation in BC was primarily aimed at ensuring the efficient harvesting of timber, the prevention of fire, and the ability to generate public revenues. Instead of allowing for the extraction of only the largest trees, tenure holders were required to harvest all available timber over a certain diameter.

Even the creation of forest reserves which eventually became the Provinces system of protected areas, was not initially about preserving forest ecosystems, rather, it was about ensuring economic sustainability and a supply of timber to future generations. From a functional linguistic standpoint, ‘ecosystems’ did not really exist yet and forests were seen as an inexhaustibly renewable resource that should be managed according to rational scientific principles. Forests did not exist for their own sake, but for ours. Yes, the National Park systems were getting going, but these were primarily about the beauty of Nature, and allowing those who could afford it access to experiences of the Sublime and Transcendent a la John Muir. Which, as we will see in the next section, are the roots of the quasi-religious views of contemporary ecological activists. 

However, it is not the case that this scientific approach to forest management was the opposite of a more spiritual, preservationist perspective that was emerging. Economist Robert H. Nelson convincingly argues that in fact the industrial approach too can be characterized as quasi-religious. While there are many narrower definitions of religion in the field of Religious Studies which restrict religion to its institutional or identitarian expressions, Nelson defines religion broadly as a “comprehensive worldview” or moral vision that is basically understood as true, or how the world works.[11]

Nelson argues that 19th century conservationists sought the fair distribution and utilization of resources for their “highest good” as a way to provide the most amount of benefit to society. This utilitarian view holds that using resources efficiently will maximize the benefits to the greatest amount of people through jobs and economic growth and using forestry techniques to meticulously measure and grade the forests ensures that a certain amount of timber volume will be available indefinitely.[12] The highest good therefore is the benefit of society. The vision of utilitarian conservation became the dominant framework for interpreting the forests of North America and guided legislation and management strategies that focused on the efficient use of timber.[13] Nelson dubs this utilitarian view the ‘Gospel of Efficiency’ as being a quasi-religious devotion to enlightenment rationality and a firm faith in the infinite abilities of humanist Science.

Nineteenth century progressives such as Gifford Pinchot and Fred Fulton saw forestry as a correction to the wasteful and plundering style of colonialism, and efficient use of the earth’s bounty as a sacred duty. They wanted to use science to effectively measure and manage the forests and pass laws that protected them in perpetuity for the use of future generations. Therefore it is essential to make a good account of the quantity of our forest resources and manage them efficiently for the good of the whole society.

For a forester or logger trained in traditional silviculture, an ancient forest may be beautiful, but from a management perspective, it is ‘decadent’, past its prime. It has entered into what is perceived to be a stagnant phase of growth where the trees are no longer growing vertically, secondary growth has slowed to nearly zero, and root and heart rots threaten the quality of the tree’s wood and structural stability. Certainly temperate old forests are places with high biodiversity, but they are not necessarily the places with the world’s or even the region’s highest biodiversity. Nor do old forests represent the full range of habitats of an intact forest ecosystem which would typically include stands at all stages of growth depending on the ecosystem’s disturbance regime, fire return interval, or Indigenous land management practices.[14] An old forest is not in itself an isolated ecosystem, but part of the wider ecological landscape.

In other words, according to the Gospel of Efficiency, cutting down old forests outside of protected areas in not a sacrilege, it is a duty. It is part of full cycle good stewardship of the land. It is the final phase that allows the whole forest’s growth to start over again (Ex nihilo). If efficient use of resources is your modus operandi, leaving those trees to rot and fall over (as they see it) is the real sacrilege. As loggers and foresters are often heard to say: trees grow back! Thus, for many rooted in this paradigm, rather than shifting the forestry sector toward wholesale ecosystem management, the system should continue to fine tune the constraints on forestry practices in order to account for previously unaccounted values, leaving old growth management to flourish in designated protected areas. Riparian buffers, proper drainage and culvert placement and replanting trees ensure harvesting does not impact salmon or biodiversity. With these forestry practices in place, and in some cases third party certification to ensure these practices are followed, it is believed that the forest industry can continue to provide wide ranging benefits to society as a whole.

Gaian Devotees

As a young forest grows, trees compete for light. After “Stand Initiation”, the forest passes through a phase of growth called “Stem Exclusion” in which the trees race to capture available growing space. The canopy becomes dense and the understory becomes dark with hardly any other plants able to grow. Eventually, some of the trees are out-competed and the forest begins to self-thin, which passes the forest into the “Understory Reinitiation” phase. Dead trees lose their needles or fall over during high winds and light begins to filter through the canopy. Eventually, there is enough light to support a vibrant understory of small trees, shrubs and ground cover. In the Pacific West, even long lived trees like Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga Menziesii) begin to lose space within the canopy because they cannot regenerate in the lush shady understory they have helped create. More shade tolerant trees such as Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Western Hemlock (Tsuga Heterophylla), which have been hanging around in the understory begin to fill in the gaps. But their seeds are able germinate amidst the mossy duff and fallen logs. After the last Ice Age as plants recolonized the Pacific West, what is now classified as the Coastal Western Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone reached its current ecological complexity about 15,000-12,000 years ago. The slow maturing of a coastal forest can last hundreds or even thousands of years before a fire comes along and opens up enough new growing space for less shade tolerant species such as Douglas fir, Shore Pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta) or Red Alder (Alnus rubra) to recapture a site.

This story of how trees grow understands trees as primarily individual organisms in competition with each other. It was the dominant view during my time in forestry school, inherited from Gifford Pinchot and the Gospel of Efficiency. This approach was a conscious and empirically founded alignment with a view of trees that favored silvicultural treatments. In fact, during my forest succession courses, views that hinted at the special status of old growth trees, or forests as interconnected biomes were not so subtly mocked as so much sentimental nonsense.

Starting as early as the 19th century, the scientific silvicultural views advocated by conservationists such as Pinchot, came into conflict with what were we might now call preservationist views which valued aesthetics and wild nature. These understandings were classically embodied by John Muir’s movement to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed to supply San Francisco with water. In fact, initially allies, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had a very public falling out over the fate of Hetch Hetchy. Muir wrote of the plan:

That anyone would try to destroy [Hetch Hetchy Valley] seems; incredible; but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything. The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments to prove that the only righteous thing to do with the people’s parks is to destroy them bit by bit as they are able. Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden. . . .

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.[15]

Muir’s religious allusions are clear and were meant to stir up the imaginations of American Transcendentalists and Christians alike. By setting his own affinity for Nature against the idolatry of Capitalism he delineated not progress as sacred by the world as a place of encounter with the Divine. He also makes reference to what I am calling the Gospel of Efficiency who propose that the utility of the parks is their highest good. While Muir’s recent reputation has been stained by his overt racism against Indigenous peoples, his ecological spirituality inspired generations of environmental activists who have come to see forests as sacred space, whose primary value is intrinsic rather than instrumental.

The preservationist view was influenced by the transcendental writings of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In that view, Nature was maintained as a domain distinct from Culture, but was invested with sacredness as a foil to the anxiety-inducing drudgery of the industrial city. In contrast to the utilitarian view which saw a sacred role for humans in managing the forest, the Transcendentalist vision, elevated the experience of an imagined untouched Nature as a potential encounter with the Sublime qualities of the Divine. Said another way, in the utilitarian view wilderness needs redeeming, and in the Transcendentalist view wilderness does the redeeming.

Among Muir’s disciples in the west, old growth forests were valued primarily for their sacred quality, and the majestic size of their trees. John Muir’s advocacy for the Mariposa Grove and the Save the Redwoods League, worked to preserve these groves from the ax and saw. Many more activists across the world have done similar work as a labor of love in service of something greater than themselves, a common religious virtue.

Paradigms of Ecological Succession as Myth

Before we can discuss Muir’s contemporary successors in old growth preservation activism, I need to make a short detour through one of the most contentious debates in the biological sciences: Ecological Succession. The sides of this debate make up the cultural DNA so to speak of the current conflict. The debate revolved around the question of how ecosystems evolve over time. The term ecosystem, an abstract word describing the relationships between “organisms and their abiotic environments” was coined by Sir Arthur G. Tansley in 1935.[16] The main contenders in the debate regarding how ecosystems develop were ecologist Henry A. Gleason (1882-1975) and Frederick Clements (1874-1945). Gleason saw plants as essentially individual organisms thrown together at random by evolution and making their way through their unique adaptations. The Clementsian view was that forests were in fact climate-determined super-organisms, who moved through phases of growth much like our bodies. This meant that disturbances like fire or logging were outside forces to the delicately balanced climax ecosystem. A climax ecosystem was the state that could hypothetically be sustained indefinitely without a disturbance. After World War II, as the Western world debated the merits of capitalism and socialism, Clement’s views fell out of favor in North America, both due to sufficient empirical evidence to support it within the existing academy, but perhaps also because it did not align with the individualistic, market-based civil religion of the era which was bogged down in Cold War with China and the Soviet Union.[17]

Among silvicultural and commercial forestry circles, Gleason’s view has essentially won out. However, environmentalists, and even many conservation biologists embrace the Clementsian view, which takes for granted the intimate, individual-blurring interconnectedness of forest ecosystems. During the first battles of the War in the Woods, ecologists enlisted this interconnected, super-organismic language to advocate for setting more old growth forests aside, arguing that species like the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) and the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) depended on these “climax” (late successional) forests to survive. In the late 1990s, some ten million hectares in California, Oregon and Washington were set aside from commercial harvest as part of the Northwest Forest Plan, which drastically reduced logging in publicly owned forests and shifted official policy toward ecosystem health.[18]

Despite the dominance of the utilitarian vision of forestry that overwhelmingly shapes forestry on crown lands in BC, the so-called Biogeoclimatic Ecological Classification System (BEC) which is used to categorize these lands is rooted in a Clementsian view of ecosystems. This means that the names given to forest types with this classification system enlist climax species as the climatic token of the forest type. My own forest ecosystem is the Coastal Western Hemlock because Western Hemlock is the shade tolerant species that persists through the late successional phase of forest growth, and barring disturbance would maintain dominance in the canopy in perpetuity. Yet, despite this classification, the region is dominated by mostly planted Douglas fir forests that will never reach their late successional old growth phase.

The more organismic understanding of forests embodied in the Clementsian view has been bolstered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelocks Gaian Theory (sometimes referred to as merely a hypothesis), which, starting in the 1970s affirmed that the earth’s complex interlocking lifeforms act as a sort of single self-regulating organism through a complex web of positive and negative feedback loops which maintain the conditions which are optimal for life.[19] The Greek myth of Gaia is used to bolster the contemporary science-based myth (story) of the earth as organism, or the forest as commune.

Scholar Bron Taylor has classified those who have translated Gaia Theory into spiritual terms, as a subset of adherents to what he classifies as “Dark Green Religion”, the way of life that affirms that nature, life itself, has intrinsic value and is therefore sacred.[20] For Taylor, this is a legitimate religious position outside of organized or institutionalized religion, but religion nonetheless.[21] Religion that enlists ‘bricolage’, the melding of spiritual and scientific understandings of the world into a meaningful worldview and praxis. Environmentalists in this camp have been consistently accused by conservation-oriented foresters of being neo-pagan nature worshippers. If the world is alive, if forests are complex ancient living creatures, then to destroy them is sacrilege. Gaian ethics would assert that we do not just live on planet earth, we are within and among the earth and their myriad creatures.[22]

In recent years, a slew of new studies in plant behavior and ecological science has affirmed the mythos that ecosystems are deeply interconnected.[23] The work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simmard for example, has become enormously popular. Through her rigorous and novel experimental methods, Simmard has documented loquacious tree communication networks that are facilitated through aerosols and most often through mycorrhizae, or fungi who form mutualistic relationships with plant roots of all sorts.[24] A real life ‘Avatar’, forests have been shown to be intimately connected with each other through these webs of fungi that Simard calls the Wood Wide Web. Popular writers and TED Talk manifestoes by Peter Wohlleben and Monica Gagliano have also echoed these messages, which mix science and storytelling.[25]

Activists who have adopted the Gaian stance are putting their bodies at risk to save large, old trees in the Fairy Creek watershed, understand their mission with the zealous urgency of crusaders defending a holy land from infidels. Just as sacred sites are more than just a collection of buildings, or strategic locales but rather places imbued with holiness, an old growth forest is not simply a unit of marketable timber, or even primarily a provider of human valued ecosystem services. Forests are unique and sacred places to those who have come to cherish them, even without having visited. With climate change advancing faster than many worst case scenario models, 1,900 species at risk in BC alone, and shrinking stands of easily accessible ancient coastal rainforest, activists can’t be blamed for their desire to take direct action while provincial leadership engages in what feels like so much “talk and log” tactics—commissioning another study, or employing an independent oversight body, while timber licensing continues unaffected.

Despite the economic value of large trees, and the sacred quality of old groves, there is controversy surrounding just how much old growth forests are left in BC. The Province’s data shows that nearly 23 per cent of BC’s 60 million hectares of forestlands belong to their definition of old growth which is defined by a standard age class cut off: 250 years old on the coast and 150 years old in the interior. However, conservation organizations such as the Ancient Forest Alliance and Sierra Club suggest that only 3 per cent of the remaining primary forests fit the age and structural qualities associated with this old growth phase. This is because forests in BC are stratified by site quality or productivity, which is ranked by measuring the average tree height at 50 years old on a given site. Thus forests that are both old and that contain large trees make up a very low percentage of the remaining primary highest productivity sites in our resource management area.[26]

Interestingly however, it would seem that activists are not merely interested in identifying and preserving old trees or intact ecosystems per se. There are many old trees in the interior or in more inaccessible areas like ridge tops or vast tracks of stunted boreal forests. But these trees do not grow to the same impressive size and girth as the coastal productive forests and are thus less valuable to both loggers and environmentalists. However we define old growth, there is enough volume left in these uncut stands that Garry Merkel admits that with current legal contracts and economic forecasts in place, the timber industry cannot survive without cutting at least some of the remaining coastal and interior old growth trees. To give you an idea of why, one well-formed, relatively rot-free ancient Western Red Cedar can bring in over $30,000. This economic irresistibility, and the kind of devotion these trees kindle from Gaian activists means there will almost certainly be more battles in the War of the Woods on the horizon.

Whereas the efficient management of forests is primary within the Gospel of Efficiency, and cutting old trees is a public good, in the Gaian mythos of many activists, cutting an old forest would be akin to tearing down a cathedral for its stones. The value of old trees and forests is inherent, and the ability to experience what is understood as an intact, integral ecosystem that is free of human tinkering is sacrosanct and our birthright as citizens. They are sanctuaries, and are upheld as a foil to the urban, industrialized places many of these non-indigenous activists hail from. 

Sacred Relations

The Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) is revered as the Tree of Life by many Coast Salish peoples. According to some publically available tellings, Cedar used to be a generous man, who was always giving people gifts. The Transformer Being turned the man into Cedar so he could continue to give gifts. Cedar is at the heart of many Coast Salish cultures and provides both material and imaginal resources.

If loggers and environmentalists represent two extremes in the poles of old growth religion, the religiosity of First Peoples stands out as a unique third way that neither commoditizes old trees nor fetishizes them into sacrosanct precincts/objects. Rather, First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, as I understand their publically available teachings and statements, view old trees as non-metaphorical kin whose relationship is held in a tight reciprocity among peoples, non-human and human.

In Western environmental ethics we often speak in terms of forests being valued either for their intrinsic value, in and of themselves, or for their instrumental value, the value they have for human’s which for the last 200 years has typically been measured in board feet of timber, but can include aesthetical or ecological values important to humans as well. First Peoples, who are often caught between this binary, hold to their own sacred principles which could be said to include aspects of both intrinsic valuation and instrumental use. This has been referred to as a kind of Relational Value.[27] This means that trees and forests can simultaneously be intrinsically and instrumentally valued. A Western Red Cedar can be a person and a resource when embedded in a social relationship of gift giving, exchange and reciprocity. This mixing of subject/object categories has been inherently difficult for Western resource managers and activists to wrap their arms around. In English speaking venues, one can often hear advocates of First Nations’ management techniques fluidly moving between the language of kinship and natural resources as they attempt to break down their relational worldview for outsiders.

First Peoples have not embraced the narrow view of forests as merely timber resources, but they do not view old growth forests as pristine wilderness. The forest is a place of abundant gifts, taken with gratitude and reciprocated with good feelings, prayer and offerings. First Nations revere the Cedar as a relative, and yet they also depend on Cedar as a source of fiber, timber and totem poles. The prayerful, elder-directed selective logging of some Nations looks very little like industrial forestry, though there are many Nations who are developing more revenue-oriented forest operations constrained by their own sacred teachings. And while preservation activists tend to use terms such as ‘virgin’ or ‘pristine’ rainforest to bolster their claims that the groves are untouched, intact, untrammeled and sacred, the groves they are advocating for often have a long history of anthropogenic influence and care. Reflecting this ontological disconnect, long time Tla-o-qui-aht activist Gisele Maria Martin said speaking of old growth forests, “We don’t have a word for ‘wilderness’ in Nuu-chah-nulth languages…The closest translation is ‘home.’”[28] This means that many places which have been advocated for using words like pristine, untouched and wild, are in fact often former resource gathering sites.

This is because as archeologists are now recognizing, thousands of so-called Culturally Modified Trees (CMT) up and down the coast have been intensively managed for their gifts. Many are Western Red Cedar that have been managed for cedar bark or cedar plank harvesting. Many of the old growth forests that remain such as those in Pacific Rim National Park, were once intensively managed ‘orchards’ of Cedar whose bark, wood, roots and leaves were harvested for a variety of uses. Some trees were left to grow to very large sizes so they could later be harvested as totem poles, canoes or long house beams.[29] This does not mean these trees were valued merely as commodities, nor does it allow for the view that Indigenous land management systems were a kind of proto-wilderness protection system. And as Nations reclaim sovereignty over their territories through the treaty process, activists seeking to lock up remaining old growth trees in expanded traditional wilderness areas will have few enthusiastic supporters among a major contingent of Coast Salish Indigenous peoples.

Ritual Protest and Reconciliation 

In an era of reconciliation, the widely successful strategy of building public pressure on a primary resource management agency through both lobbying and direct action is getting complicated. There is a ritual dimension to these strategies which focuses on the symbolic re-creation of the forces of darkness versus the forces of light, in which the supporter and activists are stand in for cultural hero. I do not say this cynically, but descriptively. The bravery of activists is admirable and the optics are undeniably favorable to their cause.

For many years activists have used these urgent public awareness campaigns to pressure and shame leaders into actions with success. The most recent campaign at Fairy Creek is often called “The Last Stand” and evokes the urgency of protecting old growth forests as non-renewable sacred sites with ecotourism, climate change and biodiversity enhancing perks. As in past campaigns they have enlisted petitions, call in scripts, and celebrity endorsements. In recent years, social media has allowed vivid daily reports that include photographs, videos and tallies of arrests with far reaching calls for action across a wide network of supporters and sympathizers. As I mentioned above a Go Fund Me Campaign associated with the blockades at Fairy Creek has raised over half a million dollars.

Activists are calling on Premier John Horgan to immediately defer old growth logging, and to permanently fund the protection of all remaining coastal stands. However, Horgan has said that in a time of reconciliation, the Ministry of Forests cannot simply make this decision without consulting with First Nations, a politically correct, but convenient dodge indeed. And yet, the Pacheedaht leadership have asked activists to leave their territory. They have also asked that the province defer cutting in yet unprotected cut blocks in and around Fairy Creek so that they can write their own resource management plan. Activists have not headed the call to leave their encampments, and the Province has agreed to defer some areas while others have still gotten the go ahead. Even after the deferral of some 2,000 hectares of cut blocks that include old trees, activists remain stationed at several blockades around the Fairy Creek watershed as of this writing. In fact, it appears that arrests are set to exceed the history making civil disobedience of the Clayoquot Sound protests of the 1990s.

After the deferral of the 2,000 hectares, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations released the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration which can be read online. The document celebrates the Nations’ sovereign right to manage their lands according to their own three sacred principles: ʔiisaak (utmost respect), ʔuuʔałuk (taking care of), and Hišuk ma c̕awak (everything is one). While the media has often portrayed the conflict as primarily between the timber industry and environmentalists, First Peoples at the heart of the conflict are often enlisted by the different sides to support their positions as is the case with activists siding with Pacheedaht Bill Jones or Teal Jones pointing to the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration as a justification for their own extractive form of logging.

First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island are not monolithic, yet the leadership has tired of settler colonialists from both sides assuming they know what is in First Peoples’ interest. In a long piece for the Narwhal, Sara Cox asked Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis what he thought about the blockade’s messaging. He said,

For years we’ve been subject to colonial policy…Some outside force — mainly the federal government — comes onto our land and says ‘we’re going to take care of you and we’re going to do things better than you’ve been doing.

Now I’m seeing some outside force saying, ‘oh you know what, we want to halt old-growth logging. And when we do that we want to halt the First Nations’ rights to harvest cedar for cultural purposes … we want to infringe on their Treaty Rights … I’m seeing systemic racism continuing. ‘You Indians don’t have the ability to carry yourselves, so we’re going to fight for you and we’re going to protect the old-growth whether you like it or not.’ That’s what they’re doing, that’s what they’re saying. [30]

This is not to negate the tremendous harm that colonial resource management, which views forests through the lens of the Gospel of Efficiency, has effected on First Peoples. But mostly white, Western, and predominantly urban activists can sometimes simply invert the binary by asserting their own Gaian view of forests that don’t actually harmonize with the more relational land ethic of First Peoples.

            In this way, the performative, purposeful campaigns of Fairy Creek, while they present inspiring optics are oriented around a political tactic that was born within the colonial system. More Fairy Creeks are likely to occur in coming years, and activists, who claim to be on the side of decolonizing everything, will have to be more diplomatic with their messaging and tactics, and where possible play a supporting role to Indigenous led protest, blockade and campaign.

Will the ‘New Age’ of Forestry Ever Arrive? 

For now it looks as though the Province’s NDP government and public opinion are moving toward broadening the values that shape forest management in the province. It is not clear however if this will be a continuation of an essentially industrial forestry model with restraints, or a more totalizing transition toward a primarily ecosystem-based management. The Province has committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review panel, but this is easier publicized than done. Despite the momentum, and major public support in urban centers along the southern border, there are still many thousands of people who work for and depend on the forest industry especially in the Province’s east and north. These communities rely on organizing forests around a more rapid harvest rotation which does not typically see forests develop into the old growth phase outside of protected or other specially designated areas.

During the webinar with Sarah Cox, Gary Merkel suggested that the most difficult task ahead lie not just in getting top town legislation passed, but in getting buy-in from people who don’t want to see the Province change the way we do forestry too radically. In essence, Merkel seems to suggest that to accomplish this, what is needed is a kind of ecosystem-based evangelization campaign. Merkel recommends a three-pronged strategy:

1. Build understanding of the new ecosystem management paradigm by ingraining the paradigm shift and management strategies into local knowledge, experience and livelihoods.  

2. Build structures that reflect the new thinking, and document examples of where the emergent management strategies are being implemented successfully.

3. Take time to recognize the progress that has been made. Come together to relish in the art and culture inspired by the new thinking about forests, come together to share experiences, and celebrate (and I would add grieve what we have lost).

In addition to pressure for better legislation and funding for protection, Merkel envisions ending the War in the Woods by engaging in a war of ideas and building a network of institutions and events dedicated to the ecosystem-based vision of forestry. Yet, as Merkel admitted above, converting people to a new religion is hard work. Merkel is essentially arguing for an intergenerational struggle to marginalize the ideas of industrial forestry and the Gospel of Efficiency and embrace the integral ecosystems paradigm, which though not explicitly Gaian, lends scientific credibility to the Dark Green character of Old Growth Religion.

With the three perspectives discussed here all seeking to maintain or implement their visions of forestry, it is interesting to me that “A New Future for Old Forests” recommends shifting toward a three-zone management scheme for forests that roughly accounts for these three approaches. The first is protected areas, where forests are managed primarily as ecosystems and their associated biodiversity. The second is intensively managed timber zones, where productive forests and rural communities can continue to sustain a rapid rotation approach to forestry. The third, is less clearly delimited, and is defined as areas where some resource harvesting could happen, but with a much lighter footprint. This could include watershed lands, special biodiversity protection zones, community forests and Indigenous co-management or newly acquired harvesting licenses or agreements within traditional territories. It may well be that the future simply looks like a demarcated tentative co-existence between the three quasi-religious approaches to forest management, rather an full system conversion to ecosystem-based management, at least in the near and medium term.

For now it seems that top down political proclamations are not going to fully resolve this conflict no matter how well aligned the Provincial government becomes with ecosystem-based management. As Merkel has suggested, we will most likely need broader conversations about the nature of our worlds, “Inter-faith” style dialogues which seek for mutual understanding and common ground.

[1] Garry Merkel and Al Gorely, “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems”


[3] Interview with Garry Merkel by Sara Cox, “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” Facebook Live link. Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[4] White Jr., Lynn. ‘The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.’ Science, Vol 155, Issue 3767, 1967 pp. 1203-1207.

[5] Rainforest Flying Squad Go Fund Me Campaign, Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[6] Government of Canada, 2020. ‘Successful Indigenous-industry partnerships in the forest sector: The People of the Seafoam’ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[7] Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. (University of Minnesota, 2002).

[8] Ashton, Mark S., and Matthew J. Kelty. The Practice of Silviculture: Applied Forest Ecology. (John Wiley & Sons, 2018).

[9] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (Yale University Press, 1999).

[10] The Fulton Commission,  Accessed on Nov. 29, 2021.

[11] Robert H Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management: A religious question?’ Forest Policy and Economics 35 (2013): 9-20.

[12] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[13] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[14] Nancy J. Turner, Dana Lepofsky, and Douglas Deur. “Plant management systems of British Columbia’s first peoples.” BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly 179 (2013): 107-133. Access Nov. 29, 2021.

[15]  John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: Century, 1912), 255–257, 260–262. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, The American Environment: Readings in The History of Conservation (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1968).

[16] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. (Cambridge University Press, 1994). . 

[17] Michael G. Barbour, “American Ecology and American Culture in the 1950s: Who led whom?” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 77, no. 1 (1996): 44-51.

[18] Spies, Thomas A., Jonathan W. Long, Susan Charnley, Paul F. Hessburg, Bruce G. Marcot, Gordon H. Reeves, Damon B. Lesmeister et al. “Twenty‐five years of the Northwest Forest Plan: what have we learned?.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17, no. 9 (2019): 511-520.  Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[19] James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[20] Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future. (University of California Press, 2009).

[21] Taylor, Dark Green Religion.

[22] David Abram, ‘Perceptual Implications of Gaia’ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[23] Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. (Suny Press, 2011).

[24] Suzanne Simmard, The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. (Allen Lane, 2021).

[25] Peter Wohlleben, The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world. (Greystone Books, 2016).See also: Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. (North Atlantic Books, 2018).  

[26] Sierra Club, 2020. BC’s Old Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity. Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[27] Kai Chan, Patricia Balvanera, Karina Benessaiah, Mollie Chapman, Sandra Díaz, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rachelle Gould, ‘Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 6 (2016): 1462-1465.

[28] Serena Renner, 2020. ‘The Deep Roots of BC’s Old Growth Defenders’, The Tyee, Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[29] Nancy Turner et al., ‘Plant Management Systems of British Columbia’s First Peoples’

[30] Sarah Cox, 2021. ‘Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades’, The Narwhal, Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

The Surprising Theology of Netflix’s Hellbound

BEWARE: I spoil the ending.


I will admit, I almost jumped ship after the opening scene of director Yeon Sang-ho’s violent metaphysical sci-fi Netflix series Hellbound. The scene opens on a man in a coffee shop watching his phone as he shakes with fear. The clock on his phone strikes 1:20 PM and he freezes, sweat dripping down his face. Then, three low booms are heard and hulk-like smoky demons burst through the coffee shop window and begin to pummel the man. Dripping with blood, he manages to escape them and goes tearing down the middle of the street between cars screaming. The demons give chase and dispatch him in a series of gruesome blows that spatter blood on the surrounding cars. I was viscerally disturbed by the man’s horrific screams and the blood. Then, the monsters hold out their hands and essentially microwave the guy until his corpse is nothing but a charred skeletal torso.

Ya. Intense.

Hellbound has now surpassed Squid Game as the most watched Netflix series in history, so I knew there must be something to it. I persisted and I am glad that I did. Squid Game was an obvious, if creatively twisted allegory for capitalism. Hellbound, whose production is not connected to Squid Game, is nonetheless an equally pointed critique of corrupt religious institutions. Yet, for all the gore and social commentary, I found a powerful theology at the heart of Hellbound.

Some demographic background. A majority of South Koreans do not identify with any religion (56%). This can mean anything from identifying as an atheist to an agnostic, to being the occasional patron of the increasingly popular shamanic arts. Some 15% of Koreans practice Buddhism. Nearly 30% of South Koreans identify as Christian. A majority of Christians are protestant, mostly Calvinists. Some 20,000 Presbyterian churches in South Korea can trace their lineages back to just two Calvinist denominations.

A decidedly metaphysical drama, Hellbound tracks how people and religious institutions respond to an unexplainable super natural phenomenon which follows a chilling pattern. A dark demonic face appears out of nowhere and prophesies the day and hour of a person’s death, and exclaims that they are bound for Hell. Then, without fail, the smoky hulks show up and dispatch them in ever more brutal fashion, char them, and trot back into the void.  

Enter Jeong Jin-soo played by Yoo Ah-In. He is the chairman of a new religious movement called The New Truth. TNT seeks to publicize via social media these cosmic executions in order to encourage people to repent and live more righteously. They are a karmic kind of religion, meaning that individuals are assumed to be punished for their own deeds not any kind of original sin. There is no savior, no grace; only the urgency of avoiding sin and creating a new era of societal harmony. The New Truth draws a straight line between the declarations of death, their condemnation to Hell, and the individuals’ deeds. The more the word spreads, the more relevant the TNT becomes and the more people begin to listen to the kind, generous and altruistic leader—footage of Chairman Jeong rescuing a child from a fire, or talking a knife wielding man down from slitting someone’s throat often prelude his public pronouncements and interviews.

Another major player that emerges with the prophesies is a radical and decentralized group that calls itself The Arrowhead. They see TNT as being too passive in their approach. For them the executions are a divine invitation to actively weed out sinners and publically shame, beat or even kill them with or without the prophesies. They form a loose knit terrorist/hooligan network that is connected through social media and are admonished by an anonymous live streaming black lit make up wearing Alex Jones type character.

A detective named Jin Kyeong-hoon played by Yang Ik-Joon is investigating the strange executions, which are increasingly called demonstrations by the TNT, because once the word has gotten out that someone has received the prophesy, supporters of the TNT gather to admonish the sinner to repent. Jin’s wife had been murdered several years before by a man under the influence of drugs, and Jin still struggles to contain his grief from boiling over. He suspects Jeong is up to something.

Meanwhile, his daughter Jin Hee-Jeong played by Re Lee is wracked by guilt for her role in the mix up she believes led to her mother’s death. The murderer is later released for good behavior, and for having been under the influence while committing the murder. Both TNT and The Arrowhead decry this miscarriage of justice. Jeong convinces Jin Hee-Jeong to kill him as retribution for his mother’s murder, thus entangling her further in TNT. The murderer is immobilized by a stun gun and then wheeled into an abandoned crematorium furnace. This reveals a much darker side to Chairman Jeong.

There are many twists, turns and nuances, but I want to focus on the two main twists in the series. First, it becomes clear that the executions are not correlated with any particular behaviors. In fact, we learn that several young children have been burnt to a crisp in front of their parents. We also learn that Chairman Jeong, the charismatic leader of the New Truth, received the prophesy some 20 years before he met Jin Kyeong-hoon. Chairman Jeong has been tortured by the knowledge of his impending death, going over and over again in his mind how he might have sinned. He concludes that there simply is not connection between the executions and sin, but laments that if the public new this they would panic and social harmony would disintegrate. Detective Jin agrees to keep Jeong’s immanent death a secret, to hide his corpse, and go about his life with his daughter.  

There is a clear parody here of the assumption that religious institutions are patronizing Big Brothers who do not trust the people and need to balance complex truths of the real world with the effective truths of church dogma. This paints religion as the infamous Marxist opiate of the masses, or a sociologically constructed device for making sense a senseless world.

I couldn’t help but connect South Korea’s overwhelmingly Calvinist Christianity with the distinctly twisted pre-destinational feel to the Hellbound phenomenon. Condemnation to hell happens at what is assumed to be God’s will. In reality it is random and mysterious. It is almost like a (super) natural disaster that cannot be predicted only prayed against. And though TNT responds by admonishing all to righteousness, they seem to know that it is only God who decides the sinner’s ultimate fate. And yet, TNT and The Arrowhead all too often take this judgement into their own hands, using the label of Sinner for others, and never themselves.

The New Truth seeks to encourage people to live more righteously, but that righteousness is inevitably mediated through their interpretation. The Arrowhead on the other hand feels emboldened to mete out God’s punishment themselves, enforcing righteousness through violence. Both organizations take different forms, but ultimately they are inseparable. For example, the apparatus of The New Truth uses the Arrowhead to carry out their dirty work, interrogate persons of interest.


Episode 4 opens five years later in a world where The New Truth has flourished. They have turned many so-called demonstration sites into monuments and their global ministry is headquartered in a massive fortress-like building in the heart of Seoul. They are led by a quorum of uniformed Deacons who council the slick and savvy successor of Chairman Jeong whose disappearance is assumed to by a mystery.

The latter three episodes reveal the second and most interesting twist. The prophesy comes to the newborn child of Bae Young-jae played by Park Jung-Min while his wife, Song So-hyun played by Won Jin-ah, is still in the hospital with the child. She is horrified and scours the New Truth’s app for precedents. She finds none and decides to ask TNT what do to. Meanwhile Bae, who is entangled in some intrigue of his own, stumbles on an organization called Sodo that helps receivers of the prophesy cover up their deaths so that the event is not appropriated and made public by TNT, saving their families harassment from The Arrowhead and the shame of being associated with a Sinner.

Learning of Bae’s situation, Sodo tries to convince him that broadcasting the baby’s death would topple public confidence in The New Truth’s tightly controlled public messaging that executions are a clear sign of God’s punishment of sinners. Meanwhile, Song arrives at TNT headquarters without Bae’s knowledge and shows her video of the prophesy to a Deacon. After counseling with his fellow deacons and the Chairman, it is not immediately clear what to do. Either, they can adopt the doctrine of Original Sin, which up until now had differentiated them from Christians, or they can seek to hide the execution from being witnessed so that the public does not waver in their belief that there is some pattern behind the brutal suffering, a pattern which legitimates TNT’s global ministry. They abduct the baby to the violent protests of Song who gives chase. When Bae realizes what Song is doing, accompanied by several Sodo activists, he rushes to rescue the baby and Song from TNT headquarters. They miraculously succeed and head to a safe house where they plan to broadcast the baby’s execution to the world.  

After some cat and mouse with TNT and The Arrowhead, in the last scene, the mother lays the child out on a small elevated planter that resembled an altar. It has begun to snow. She gets people’s attention in the small plaza so that they can witness what is about to happen. The sooty monsters emerge from the ground and are about to pounce on the child when the mother snatches the baby from the planter-altar at the last second. A chase ensues, the mother is joined by Bae and they evade the lumbering demons for a few moments. Ultimately however, the trembling parents simply crouch over the baby and guard it from the impending blows. The demons huddle and nuke the trio and we assume all is lost. However, when the demons disappear back into the ground, we hear the soft crying of the baby who has somehow survived the intense heat, and the wrath of the demons.

The mood immediately lifts, as we the audience worried that we were about to see a baby barbequed before our eyes. I was immediately struck by the surprising beauty and richness of this theological twist. It is snowing heavily throughout the scene, implying that it is near Christmas. A surviving activist from Sodo limps toward the crying baby and the charred remains of the parents embracing their child resembles a dark and twisted Christmas nativity crèche. As the Deacons arrive, they are blocked by the crowds, implying that public opinion has now shifted and the scene will now work its way through the channels of social media. Season 2 will perhaps pick up the thread of the fate of The New Truth and The Arrowhead, or take a different tact completely.

While the circumstances are indeed strange, Hellbound manages to end on a major chord. It teaches that while there may not be any rhyme or reason to the brutal executions, our response is what matters. The baby was saved from a certain death and apparently an eternity in Hell by self-sacrificing love, pointing to a theology of atonement. But most of all it seems, profligate love is the most powerful response to a world that seems to be overflowing with suffering.

Tinder and the Theology of Desire

As an introvert at first I found online dating to be a relief. We go to an agreed upon forum to seek out romance. No unwanted public advances, no embarrassing moments of chatting up a lovely person at the grocery store when the partner walks up. We upload our most attractive photos and write a pithy caption of ourselves, and what we are looking for. We then scroll and swipe through people who seem more or less compatible with those desires. It’s quick, it’s efficient. Despite the many pay walls and cheap tricks the apps use to upsell users, one can scroll through age and distance screened members. Some accounts may be stale or even fake, but for the most part you get a tour of your local dating scene at the touch of a screen. Matching and then chatting is a low stakes way to get to know someone a little bit before investing the time and energy in an in-person meet up. So far so good.

Some profiles emphasize the user’s adventurousness, others their sex appeal. Some write precious few or even no words, others write a treatise on the qualities they expect in a partner, and their low tolerance for hook ups, games or pen pals. There are dog people, a few religious folks, lots of love for good food, travel, and plenty of spiritually minded folks who want to know your sign.

Once you hit your daily quota of free swipes, the waiting begins. Out of swipes all one can do is hope that one of the people you liked, likes you back. But even then, once I have matched with someone, there is no guarantee that they will respond. Women tend to get surges of interest, their inboxes quickly fill with messages from fishing-rod-toting, or shirtless dudes who initiate conversations with ‘Sup?’, or simply ‘Hi’. I typically go with a sincere compliment or question. But this is no guarantee that I will get a response. Once a message has been reciprocated, there are those who simply let them sit, or ghost. I have been ghosted so many times, I should start an exorcism practice. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have had some lovely encounters through dating apps. Some that ended up being short term flings, others that blossomed into meaningful relationships, and still others that have become intimate friendships. Overall I am grateful for them, despite the strange, insecurity and exhaustion inducing nature of online dating. After a recent breakup, I couldn’t resist. I rebooted my profile and began swiping. But a sinking feeling quickly set in and I hastily deleted my profile. There is a darker side to dating apps that I am just now beginning to understand. It doesn’t mean I won’t be back! But I have some thinking to do first.

On display in every profile are windows and mirrors. Windows into the lives of people of all shapes, sizes and motivations. There are also mirrors reflecting our desires: beauty, success, sex, intelligent conversation, fun, adventure, security, progeny. Scrolling and swiping have become a kind of anti-sacrament. They represent the promise of something we long for at the tips of our fingers. Each profile, match and chat is an allurement into the hope of communion with another person. But these desires are not an end in themselves, each points to some biological or psychological need (or trauma), they are not fulfilling in themselves.

Like all social media which tries to keep our eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible, online dating keeps us hooked on the possibility of that perfect someone who fulfills our deepest longing. And yet the glut of choices available means that even if we do match with someone wonderful, we perhaps wonder if we could do better if we just kept swiping.

At a summer course on the poetry of desire I took several years ago, poet, musician and Anglican Priest Malcolm Guite suggested that our current social media and marketing landscape is as if we were on our way to a sumptuous feast, but we are constantly waylaid by junk food stops along the road, so we never actually get to the feast. We are stuck in a kind of spiritual hamster wheel. We scratch out a bleary-eyed sign of the cross with our thumbs to a false God that will never fully satisfy. In his lectures, Guite masterfully quoted scripture, medieval poetry, and contemporary literature; but he also peppered his talks with amusing pop culture references: The Spice Girls: “I’ll tell you what I want what I really really want.”  Mick Jagger: “I can’t get no satisfaction” and U2: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” What is apparent in the theology of desire is that at their best, our desires and longings point not just to biological urges, but to the deep desire behind all our desires, the yearning beyond yearning, the desire for union with the Ground of Being.

Guite lamented that Christianity, the religion of the Incarnation, has been so skeptical of our desires for so long. As a result, marketing and social media were more easily able to convince us that what they offer could fulfil our surficial desires, and that wasn’t so bad after all. The excellent documentary ‘The Century of the Self’ (2002), shows how marketing in North America went from being about communicating information about a product’s usefulness (This is a very effective shovel, you are going to love how this shovel digs), to suggesting that a product would fulfill our desires, or even help us to become a better version of ourselves (This shovel will make you cool, it will make you sexy, it will complete you).

What has evolved is a kind binary between pushing down our desires and superficially fulfilling them, the way of God and the way of the world. The Church has ceded all of desire to the world, and taken on the position that the way to God is to rid ourselves of our desires. This does not create saints, it creates guilt, and a kind of binge/purge pattern of neurosis that traps us in narrative cycle of awful sinner in need of redemption. The church has been seen as being all about saying NO to our desires. But as Guite suggests, Jesus always framed his message in the positive: Love. All of the church’s no’s should clear the way for a greater ‘yes!’ Saying yes to the reality of our fundamental unity with a loving God.

Even within the faithful practice of religion, our desire to walk the way of God can often devolve into the worship of a vending machine God. The so-called Prosperity Gospel is a merger of Protestant Work Ethic, Capitalist consumerism and obedience=blessings theology. I was taught to pray by thanking God first and then moving into a litany of ‘please blesses’ which was inevitably a much longer list.

As Guite suggested, rather than extinguish or suppress our desires, we must learn to redeem them. As Guite said, “Pushing them down darkens them.” Rather we need to desire through our desires, past them, beyond them. We should engage them as signs of a greater desire beyond desire. In sacramental theology, we should recognize that there is a divine purpose in all our desires. Plato explored that purpose beyond the world, and Aristotle saw it within the world. Christianity should have no problem seeing that our desires are a kind of beyond within; a transcendent immanent.

If I scroll through dating apps in the hopes of filling a void in my life, I will probably never stop scrolling and I might be more likely to treat people as means to filling the end of my superficial desires. If I realize (still working on it) that I and the people on the other side of the screen are all Words of God expressing the beauty and diversity of creation, I might just be able to see beyond my desires and put my phone away long enough to experience the One truly worth swiping right for.

Unbraiding Sweetgrass

A Rocky Start

I’ll be honest. When I read Braiding Sweetgrass by bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer for the first time, I wasn’t impressed. The introduction had said the book was going to braid Indigenous and Western wisdom together in the service of a more ecologically oriented culture and relationship to earth. Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who is trying to re-learn her language and cultural knowledge. Rather, what I read in the first chapter felt like a polemic against the entire Western tradition embodied in the creation myth of the Abrahamic religions.  

For Kimmerer, both her own and the Abrahamic creation stories involve the planting of a garden. In one, the earthlings are exiled from the garden and in the other, Skywoman descends from on high to plant it. Despite the complexity and multiple versions of the creation story, Kimmerer clearly elevates her own as a parable of ecological care and gift giving. She then simplistically contrasts this with the biblical myth. She writes:

On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for taking its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast (6-7).

So much for braiding. Instead, this felt more like the drawing of a line in the sand.

In Kimmerer’s telling, we meet Skywoman as she is already falling to earth with a small bundle of seeds. The animals below rescue her. Her fall is broken by the Geese. Muskrat sacrifices himself to bring earth to the surface so that she might have a place to stand on the self-giving back of Turtle. The earth-dappled shell expands, and Skywoman goes to work seeding the new world with plants.

Kimmerer does not mention however, how Skywoman fell from the sky. There are of course many widely available versions of the Skywoman creation story. She is a member of the Sky people, who inhabit a land in the sky. In most, she is pregnant. In one Iroquois telling, Skywoman is sent by the Sky Father through a hole at the base of the Tree of Life; in another she is pushed through the hole, which was made when her enraged husband knocked down the Tree of Life. In Haudenosaunee and Mohawk tellings of the story, either Skywoman or her husband are greedily digging at the root of a sacred tree in order to make tea from it, a hole opens in the sky and Skywoman is alternately pushed, falls or jumps through.

Kimmerer suggests that at the heart of our destructive ecocidal culture is a myth about shame, fear and exile. A story about the fall from grace. A story of the denial of earthly gifts. Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden for disobedience and then commanded to subdue the earth. However, as different as the two stories seem from Kimmerer’s telling, her story is the one that actually involves a literal fall. Skywoman begins as an exile and becomes native to earth. Adam and Even begin as native to earth and become exiles. In both cases, humans are not entirely at home in the earth. And yet, Adam and Eve were fashioned from the very flesh of Mother Earth herself. Adama literally means earth in Hebrew, and Chavah, Eve,means to give life. They are earthlings, not celestial sky beings.

While Genesis 1 contains an admonition to exert dominion over the earth as a just ruler might, Genesis 2 commands them to dress and keep the garden in a way that is absolutely harmonious with Kimmerer’s continual theme throughout the book of the fact that the vocation of humans is as gardeners. Yes the Genesis creation story has been used to justify destruction in the name of human supremacy; but it does not compel that destruction, which is rooted in the dark shadowy vices of greed, selfishness and lust, that were ignited by the Enlightenment and industrial revolution from the fuel of Greco-Roman Christian civilization. These same vices we are told, are later embodied in one of the twin sons birthed by Skywoman after her arrival on earth. So the motif of exile and return in Genesis, of dominion and tending, is mirrored by the motif of light and dark, generosity and greed in Kimmerer’s Skywoman.  

I also like to point out that Indigenous myths and stories are not immune from anthropocentrism, sexism and even racist elements. One Potawatomi creation story speaks of Earthmaker making people by baking them out of clay. ‘White’ people turned out to be undercooked, ‘black’ people were overcooked, and ‘red’ people were apparently cooked just right![1] But this of course does not mean that Indigenous peoples are therefore constrained by these singular elements for all time and eternity. They do not diagnose some deep rupture in their very existence as Kimmerer seems to suggest of the Abrahamic myth to Western civilization. By telling the story the way she does, Kimmerer sets up a binary between modern and Indigenous that she has just professed to want to blur.

The Break Through of Grace

In Kimmerer’s chapter ‘Witch Hazel’, I wept. This story from Kimmerer’s own life felt like the most beautiful of braids. While living and teaching in rural Kentucky, Kimmerer befriended her elderly Christian neighbor, Hazel. Told in the voice of Kimmerer’s daughter, despite their differences, Kimmerer and Hazel eventually connect over gardening and become close.

Hazel, a settler with deeper roots than Kimmerer in Kentucky, had cultivated her own sense of place and had accrued her own ecological knowledge—often by gardening in her slippers. Hazel had formed a deep connection to witch hazel, a native tree with myriad health benefits. Her simple theology came from her connection to place,

That witch hazel…it’s not just good for you outside, but inside too. Land sakes, flowers in November. The good Lord gave us witch hazel to remind us that there’s always somethin’ good even when it seems like there ain’t. It just lightens your heavy heart, is what it does ().

I pictured Hazel was an elderly and tired Eve, exiled from her childhood home-garden, longing to return. Her Adam is long gone, and her son Sam is now a retired coal miner, disabled by breathing the toxic dust of the substance that powers Western civilization—coal. He worked by the sweat of his brow to get ahead, to make a life for his family, only to remain in relative poverty, unable to work. His offering was accepted by the god of capitalism. Hazel had come to live with her son after he had a heart attack on Christmas Eve, a holy-day that Hazel loved.

Kimmerer felt to me like a stand in for Skywoman, though I don’t imagine she intended this, who is able to reconcile the feud she started with Eve in Chapter 1. Kimmerer is able to see that even in exile, Eve was a loving and kind human being who had stayed close to her dear Mother Earth, despite the hardships of her life, and the necessities of her friends and family working in an industry that has taken Genesis 1’s dominion to the most radical extreme in human history. At one point, Kimmerer takes Hazel to her former home, a place she deeply missed living with Sam. It was mostly ramshackle, and they spent a little time tidying up before leaving. Hazel had left the place almost as it was the Christmas Eve she went to live with her son.

As time passed, Kimmerer noticed that Hazel was depressed. When she asked, Hazel admitted that she wanted to spend one more Christmas in her “dear old home.” Kimmerer too had come to cherish and celebrate Christmas, but that year she were not going north to spend time with family. So Kimmerer with her daughters devoted hours to secretly cleaning up Hazel’s old home, getting the electricity turned back on and inviting neighbors to a beautiful surprise Christmas dinner. Like the 1987 film ‘Babette’s Feast’, where Babette, a French refugee in a strict Christian Reformed Danish town, wins a large sum of money in the lottery only to spend it on a sumptuous multiple course meal for the small village. Like Babette, Kimmerer prepared a sumptuous Christmas dinner for Hazel who beams with joy on entering her cherished home which has been decorated and filled with friends.

Eve-Hazel, filled with joy, had returned to the garden from her long exile. She is showered with the undeserved, unexpected grace at the heart of her faith, who Kimmerer, an Indigenous woman, quite naturally embodied through her kind, selfless action. It is a perfect parable of both Christian virtue and the abundance of earthly gifts which Kimmerer highlights throughout her book. Grace, like the gifts of the earth, is generous and beautiful. Grace calls us into deeper relationship with its source and entangles us with the world in a never ending cycle of life, death, and resurrection. That is the seasonal cycle at the heart of Kimmerer’s gift economy, and it is also at the core of the Christian Pascal Mystery. So even when our stories open up pathways to greed and exploitation, as many do, there is always the possibility of choosing grace instead. As Kimmerer later says to her daughter, “There is no hurt that can’t be healed by love.” This felt like a good braid.


Memento Mori

I want life to teach me to become better acquainted with death.

During the more strict days of quarantine, I would go for a walk every day in the Mountain View Cemetery. I watched the cherry blossoms bloom and then fade.

I watched the tulips, irises and lilies blossom and then fade. But this undeniable beauty was foregrounded by deep anxiety and fear about the ravages of COVID-19.

There are some headstones in the Mountain View Cemetery with a name and a birth date. The date of death is still not etched into the stone.

This got me thinking.

What if when we were born we received a grave stone and a plot in the cemetery? What if every year on our birthdays we took a pilgrimage to our graves? Would we learn something? Would we be better prepared for death when it came?

A tree in the forest is born and dies in the very same place.

I marvel at that simplicity, that certainty.

Jesus as ‘Way’

[Sermon delivered at St. Mary’s Kerrisdale on May 11, 2020]


Ps 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; Jn 14:1-14


As some of you may know, in the summer of 2018, I was privileged to be able to walk the French Way of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. It is often just called The Camino, or Way. When you pass fellow pilgrims it is customary to greet each other with an enthusiastic ‘Buen Camino!’  The entire trail is over 750 KM, and I walked at least 700 in about 30 days. One thing I noticed as I walked was that there are at least two kinds of pilgrims: Those who were most excited about the destination, and those who were able to really appreciate each step of the journey toward the destination. The former pilgrims would wake up before dawn so they could get a head start. We would be awakened by flashing headlamps and rustling backpacks. They always seemed to be in a rush to get to the next destination. They wanted to make it to Santiago in record time. They ate quickly, they snapped hasty pictures at the sites, and moved on. The other kind of pilgrim was in no particular hurry to arrive anywhere. Often they weren’t even sure where they were going to sleep that night. Some weren’t even all that excited about getting to Santiago! They were just happy to be on the trail. This kind of pilgrim often stood transfixed before the changing scenery, the sunset, and the architecture or vaulted ceilings of the many ancient churches and cathedrals. They sat chatting on the side of the trail. They savored their food. And even though I was very eager to arrive in Santiago, I really tried to be more like the latter kind of pilgrim. I want to draw some parallels between this emphasis on Way and Destination, and our Gospel reading today where Jesus tells his disciples that HE is the Way. And that HE is One with the Father.

Introducing John 14

John 14 is a continuation of John 12 and 13, and it’s helpful to know what comes before what we’ve just read together. At the beginning of Chapter 14, Jesus says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This is because Jesus has just alluded to his impending suffering and death on the Cross. He has broken the terrible Good News. In fulfillment of Jewish scripture, Jesus has come to Jerusalem as both triumphant King, and suffering Servant. Mary of Bethany has anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her own tears. Jesus takes a cue from Mary and models his servant leadership by washing the disciples’ feet.Jesus also predicts that Peter will deny him. Jesus senses that someone will betray him. After verse 14, Jesus goes on to promise the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can feel the disciples’ resistance to the reality of Jesus’s impeding suffering and death. On the other side of the Easter shore, we know the outcome. But for the disciples, what was coming must have been unthinkable.

The Way of Jesus

Early in the Chapter, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them with the Father. John has Thomas naively, but logically, ask Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” ‘OK, so there are enough rooms in the AIRBNB for all of us, but just to be safe, can you give us a Google Map before you go?’  Jesus responds with a bold and puzzling claim: “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We might be tempted to think that Jesus is talking about the church as an exclusive club one must join in order to get to heaven when you die. I have nothing against the Church, and nothing against heaven, but personally, I find this reading to be quite narrow. It is a reading that missing the contemplative riches of Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. So let’s dig a little deeper into this I AM statement.

First, a distinctive feature of the Gospel of John are these I AM statements. I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life. These statements would have immediately triggered his Jewish audience’s understanding of God. I AM in the Torah refers to Yahweh. For Jesus to say I AM is to identify himself with God. The Path is a Person. Jesus’s ‘Way’ is not Google Map to heaven. Whereas the Torah sees the Way as a Law to follow, Jesus claims that the Way is a person we can fall in love with. Jesus is God come among his people; Immanuel—God with us. Of course in the synoptic Gospels Jesus is much more muted in his statements of divinity or Messiahship. In John Jesus’s divine identity is on full display.  Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples. But it is not a physical destination as the author has Thomas insinuate. The time-place that Jesus is preparing is the HERE-NOW of God’s indwelling presence. The Kingdom of God is within as Jesus says elsewhere. Toxic Religion is susceptible to turning the way of Jesus into an instruction manual for evacuating earth, rather than an invitation into an experience of fullness.

The Little Way of St. Therese

Yes the Christian path involves morality, ethics, and sacraments. But at its heart is a Person. Thus our own spiritual lives should always be oriented toward cultivating a deeper and deeper love for God and what God loves, Creation. But the Way is not always the heroic way of moral perfection, suffering, or the asceticism of the great saints. You may know about the Roman Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church Therese of Lisieux. She was a French Carmelite who only lived to be 24 years old. She was admitted to her monastery at a very early age, and she was barely known when she died of Tuberculosis in 1897. But her writing on the contemplative path is the work of a true spiritual master. Saint Therese called her path the Little Way. Some of great Saints, her own namesake, Teresa of Avila for example, accomplished great things. But Therese was sickly and uneducated. She couldn’t possibly achieve all that these great saints had achieved. Thus she compared herself to a little flower among the great and showy flowers of the garden of the Saints. She wrote:

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.”

Every person has value just for being who they are. And every intention and act of love is a step on the Little Way. Each of these steps is progress on the Way to God. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis I have worried that I am not doing enough. I am not volunteering, I am not a care worker or doctor. But Therese assures me:

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

Yes, Jesus healed the sick, was a master teacher and suffered on the cross for humanity; but he also quietly knelt and washed his disciples’ dirty feet. Feet that carried them on the dusty pathways of Palestine.

Father and Son are One

Ok, now back to John. Jesus said he was going to the Father to prepare a place for his disciples and that he was the Way to the Father. Philip, annoyed that Jesus wouldn’t tell Thomas how to get to this mysterious mansion then asks: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” ‘OK, so if you’re not going to tell us how to get there, at least tell us what we are looking for!’  Perhaps a bit bluntly Jesus answers: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The path leads to the Father. I am the Path. Therefore I am One with the Father. In our Trinitarian theology, Jesus is the Second person of the Trinity. God the Father is Lover, Jesus is Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love shared between them. Jesus is the Logos in John, the Word spoken by the Father from the beginning. The Father and the Son are one, they are a dynamic and mutually indwelling Cosmic Dance.

This is why we can speak of Christ as so much more than a single person in first century Palestine. There is a universal dimension to Christ that Jesus is pointing out by claiming to be One with the Father. The Apostle Paul never met Jesus. But he was in love with Christ. He is constantly saying that we are in Christ. How else could this be understood than on a cosmic scale? God spoke the World into Being, and thus all of Creation is a Word of God. Jesus is saying to Philip: Can’t you see the Father in me? Can’t you see the Father all around you?

Julian of Norwich’s Christ as Mother

Jesus used the word Abba, Father often. This is not because God is exclusively male; but because God is as intimate to us as a loving Parent who brings us into being and nurtures us to fullness. But today is of course Mother’s day, so I wanted to briefly honor a spiritual teacher who spoke of the motherhood of God and even Christ. We recently celebrated the feast of the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian, an anchorite, wrote unflinchingly of God’s Father and Motherhood. And extrapolating from Paul’s language of being IN Christ, she wrote of Jesus: “And our Savior is our Very Mother in whom we are endlessly born, and never shall come out of him.” While Jesus uses the language of journey and Fatherhood, masculine language, Julian shifts the analogy to birth and gestation of the soul within the cosmic mystery of Jesus as Christ.

The Journey and the Destination

So, in John 14 we learn that Jesus points the way to God with his very person. That human personhood, creatureliness, is fundamentally united with God the Father. If we were to read on, we would see that the Holy Spirit enables OUR fundamental unity with Father and Son. That the way up is also the way down. Down into the depths of our True Selves. That place where God is mothering us into being at each moment. Journey and destination are inextricably linked. The author of John represents Philip and Thomas as no nonsense kind of pilgrims on the Christian Way. They want to know how to get there, and what to look for when they arrive. But to me, just committing to be on the trail, is to already to be united with the destination.

On the day that I arrived in Santiago, I admit, I was excited for my long walk to be over. But I was also a little melancholy that it was all done. I was excited to stand triumphantly in front of the Cathedral at Santiago. The journey had exposed both my strengths and weaknesses. I had tried to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. But my journey didn’t come to an end when I stood facing the façade of the Cathedral. And in fact it didn’t begin with I set out from Pamplona a month earlier. The Way of Jesus is made up of the millions of tiny steps each of us take every day. The steps we take to be a little bit kinder to ourselves and others. The steps we take live a little more deeply from the place of awe and wonder. The steps we take to realize that we too are one with God.

A Guide Book to America’s Sacred Groves: A Review of America’s Holy Ground

A Guide Book to America's Sacred Groves: A Review of America's Holy Ground  | News Break

REVIEW OF: Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on our National Parks (Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2019).

Written by journalist Brad Lyons and Disciples of Christ Minister Bruce Barkhauer, America’s Holy Ground is something of a Holyscapes guide book. The authors are rooted in the Christian tradition, and present readers with 61 meditations on US National Parks through. Founded in 1916, the National Park Service began as a way of preserving some of the US’s most beautiful places. Recently celebrating its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service has since shifted its focus from making beautiful places accessible, to caring for the ecological health of some of North America’s most complex and biodiverse ecosystems.

America’s Holy Ground makes an excellent companion to any bird, tree, geology or insect guide book. At 256 pages it is a slender volume, with durable (but not weather proof) pages. It is packed with full color images, and easy to use alphabetical entries. There is also a resources section in the back and blank journal pages for writing notes while you are out on the trail or at a sit spot.

The book begins with an Invocation and ends with a Benediction, each of which contain an eclectic mix of scripture passages and quotations. A few of my favorites:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29, NRSV)

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

Let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord. (Psalms 96:11-13, NRSV)

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)

The purpose of the book is to explore the connection between theology, spirituality and the natural world as experienced in the National Parks. It is premised on the Christian notion that to contemplate beauty is to enter into the presence of God. That to be fully present to a Creature is to be present to the Creator. To listen to the symphony of crickets and frogs is to invoke the voices of angels. To enter a grove of towering redwoods is to enter a cathedral. To be in the presence of something wild, is to be in the presence of our wild God. To experience the seasons of life, death and resurrection, is to enter into the paschal mystery. That to be fully alive is to grasp our vocation as Imago Dei. And that to look up into a night sky in its full velvet darkness, away from the blingy obscurity of city lights, is to ask the only question worth asking: Why all this?

The guidebook is best used as a kind of devotional, read before and after one has experienced a given park. It is a kind of supplement to a lectio divina of the land, stimulating questions, themes and resonances with scripture. It can also be a means of guiding a group discussion or Bible study.

The anatomy of each passage is quite simple. The park is named, located and dated to its founding. The park is associated with a spiritual theme such as Beginnings, Endings, Life, Signs, Community, Language, Reflection, Movement, Adaptation, Faithfulness, Grandeur, etc. Then, each theme is elaborated by a short passage from the Bible related to the theme, and the park and theme are woven together in an entry that ranges from 1-4 pages.

I have many fond memories from childhood camping trips in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. I have spent time in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico’s National Parks and public lands. But the National Park closest to my home is North Cascades National Park, located in Northern Washington and founded in 1968. The theme of the chapter is ‘Place.’ The scripture reference is from Psalms 104:18: “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.” The passage and entry reflect on the biblical notion that the world appears to be arranged in an ordered way, poetically attributed to the creating power of God. It asks the reader: What does it mean to be in the right place? Of course, evolutionarily we know that the world did not come into existence all at once, even Genesis 1 poetically expresses creation as process. Yet to our tiny lives embedded in the eternity of geological deep time, the world seems to be stable, eternal, and balanced. The National Parks were founded as monuments to this stability, this grandeur. They are the Sacred Groves of a kind of Nationalist Paganism, where Nature capital ‘N’ is stand in for the Transcendent God of the Bible.

Love in the Time of Corona Virus

[Sermon delivered on March 22, 2020]


1 Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

Dear friends in Christ, welcome to spring! But what an unprecedented and devastating way to start the season of resurrection. I hope you are breathing deeply, and loving even more deeply. Please take care of yourselves and let me know if there is anything I can do. 

Yesterday during the Quiet Day, I talked about the Desert as a symbol of the spiritual journey. Desert spirituality is a call to strip down our lives to the essentials. To sink into the mysterious presence of God. One of the early Church Fathers, Jerome said: “The Desert Loves to Strip Bare.” I love that! And spiritually speaking, that is what Lent is for. The Desert Ammas and Abbas believed they could find paradise through the harsh realities of the desert. It seems we are entering in a civilizational Lent. A dark night of the soul. A desert.

The very nature of our gathering [Zoom broadcast] speaks to the unspeakable strangeness of this global crisis. We are living through a devastating global pandemic that threatens the lives of millions, especially the most vulnerable among us. COVID-19 has “hijacked” our need for social connection. Only a demonic force could cause us cancel the Eucharist! In today’s Gospel reading we hear a chilling echo, of the question we are all asking at some level. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? ”Why is this happening?

In theological terms we are grappling with our own Theodicy. Reconciling the Goodness of God with natural and human suffering, pain, death and injustice. Perhaps some might say that famine, disease and war are signs of divine displeasure. Most human cultures have taken some version of this view. Bad things happen because Celestial agencies are displeased with humans, or simply being capricious. Yahweh sent 10 plagues as punishment of the Egyptians for oppressing the Hebrews. I read about one American Pastor who blamed Marriage Equality for COVID-19. There is an alluring but horrifying simplicity to this reasoning.

Or, perhaps we prefer to see God as a distant watch maker, who gets the universe going, and then steps back to allow natural laws to take their course. A pandemic is just the grit of the grinding gear box of evolution. In this view, COVID-19 is the product of a cold indifferent Nature. Slowly working its endless purposeless course. Our fate is sealed.

A more Gnostic view, might say that illness, sickness and death are the work of evil forces. These exist in themselves, in opposition to GOD and goodness. There is a cosmic battle between good and evil, and we must choose sides.

Perhaps you see this crisis as an invitation to reflect on the incompatibilities of our civilization with the flourishing of life? You may be seeing references to the “Revenge of Gaia.” Or “Ecological Karma?” The earth’s natural immune system is rejecting US. The earth has sent us to our rooms, to think about what we’ve done… (as one meme said).  We certainly cannot deny the ecological benefits of mass physical isolation. I am seeing stories of pollution clearing, CO2 levels plummeting, and birds and dolphins exploring the canals of Venice.

To be clear, I personally would never want to justify human suffering in this way, no matter what the ecological benefits. But some of our greatest nature writers have grappled with the stark fact that great beauty and immense suffering inevitably coexist in the natural world. Death and life are intimately woven together. Death is natural. Not to be feared. How else can change, evolution, growth happen? God works through evolution to bring about greater complexity, beauty. Earthquakes, tsunamis and disease are the inevitable byproduct of a living earth. In Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she unflinchingly examines the horror of death and suffering, a world that is so richly charged with God’s grandeur. Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them…”

Horrifying as it may be there is ultimately an evolutionary meaning behind death and suffering. God wraps their arms around both the beauty and pain of life. Life and death are part of a grand mysterious whole.

For some this is perhaps a favored view of the crisis. That as bad as it is, there is some opportunity hidden behind the chaos. If God doesn’t cause evil directly, God permits evil in order to bring about a greater good. For example, in 1665, Isaac Newton developed his theories of optics, gravity and calculus while in self isolation during an outbreak of Bubonic plague. Of course, this is not to say that God causes evil to bring about good. Many of us are talking about how this crisis has enabled the possibility of stillness. We are being called to a kind of global retreat. I was recently reminded of this quotation from Philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from [our] inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And perhaps this is the scariest part of the crisis for some!

There is much merit in these latter views. I often find myself fascinated with the ecological dimensions of death and dying. It is however, more of a Pagan view than an authentically Christian one. A theology of evil, a theodicy, in the Christian tradition, does embrace the beauty and pain of the world. Evil is not a thing that exists in itself, as in the Gnostic view. Nor is God a distant watch maker. God is goodness itself, not the whole that comprehends good and evil. Evil in this view is a deprivation of the Good. A negative space that does not exist on its own. In David Bentley Hart’s book, The Doors of the Sea, he writes that death and suffering represent a sort of world within a world. He writes:

“The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.” (60-61)

In Jesus, we have hope that God has ultimately defeated suffering and death. How far away that reality seems sometimes!  How dark is the glass through which we see! So, while I laud efforts to find meaning, to make the best of this crisis, might I also suggest that during this time of Civilizational Lent, this Desert time, that we stay a while longer at the foot of the cross. Don’t look away. This crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. Why should we do this? Because as Richard Rohr has recently put it, “for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us….Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered.” The suffering of others is not just an opportunity for retreat. It is an opportunity to allow suffering to wound us so that God can reach us. And then we might be able to muster the courage to live out of a place of love. Jesus came to make the blind see and those that see to become blind. Who have we been blind to? Who are being pushed even further to the margins? We might be devastated to be fasting from the Eucharist. But as a theologian named Brian Flanagan writes, “In this time in which we are not able to encounter Christ in the assembly or the Eucharist, we always have the opportunity to encounter Christ in the vulnerable.”

God does not cause suffering, but draws goodness out it that the “works of God might be revealed.” What deeper reality are we being called to discover in the heart of suffering and pain? Let us not jump too quickly to Resurrection Sunday. To quaint contemplative purposes in the midst of global suffering. Let us seek to be God’s hands and heart in the world by serving, loving and even suffering. Com-Passion, means to suffer with. Let us not look away. Let us stay close to the Cross.


Hart Review:

Jo Jo Rabbit and Self Giving Love


I recently saw filmmaker Taika Watiti’s Jojo Rabbit. The premise is based on Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies. The film has received some negative reviews for its lighthearted nature; but the film was picked by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the ten best films of the year in 2019. It has also received six Oscar nominations.

The controversy surrounding the film arises from its parody of Adolf Hitler as the imaginary friend of Johanes (Jojo) Betzler, a young member of the Hitler Youth. Jojo attends a summer camp where he learns how to be a good Nazi (which includes burning books). At one point, after being humiliated by some older kids for not being willing to kill a rabbit by snapping her neck, Jojo earns the nickname Rabbit. Emboldened by a pep talk with his imaginary friend Hitler, Jojo rushes into a grenade throwing drill, grabs a grenade from Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf and throws it with gusto. The grenade bounces off a tree and blow up in his face.

After a short but painful convalescence, Jojo returns to work as an errand boy for Captain Klenzendorf. One day after returning from work, he hears a noise upstairs and discovers that his mother, who is overtly anti-Nazi throughout, has been hiding a young Jewish woman named Elsa Korr in the crawl space of the room of Jojo’s deceased sister Inge. Jojo, a dedicated Nazi is horrified, but reaches an agreement with Elsa that will keep he and his mother out of trouble. In the meantime he decides to learn all he can about the Jews so he can write a book, in service of the Reich, that will expose the insidious ways of the Jewish race. As you might expect, in the process, in his conversations with Elsa, he falls in love with her. Hitler is of course concerned, but Jo Jo convinces him that he is using reverse psychology on her to get her secrets. When the Gestapo unexpectedly shows up at Jojo’s house, Elsa pretends to be Inge, and Jojo is visually upset and worried that she will be found out. She narrowly escapes detection, and Hitler is furious that Jojo didn’t turn her in.

The surprising twist, comes when Rosie, who has been active in the resistance, is seen hanging from a scaffold in the public square. She has been hung for treason. Jojo is crushed and even tries to stab Elsa, but collapses in grief. After a fierce last stand, the war is lost, and Jojo and Elsa walk outside into the new world.

The film obviously seeks to straddle comedy and tragedy, but does this humorous portrayal minimize the seriousness of the Holocaust? This is a question critics have levelled at the film. In my view, the film is a brilliant achievement. The film wraps its arms around the beauty and pain of life. The horror and mundane of war.

Specifically, the parody of Hitler works for several reasons. First, the film shows how a hateful ideology can be shattered through an encounter with the other. Second, our stereotype of Hitler as an unalloyed evil is challenged by his apparent lightness and his friendliness is underlain by a deeply insidious uncompromising ideology of hatred. The imaginary Hitler is as absurd in his whimsy as the real Hitler was in his brutally hateful ideology. In the final encounter between Jojo and Hitler, and in a nod to Quinton Terentino’s cathartic alternate histories, a post-suicide Hitler is triumphantly kicked out of the window by a Jojo who has finally learned the lesson that Hitler’s ideology is deeply destructive.

However, it is the character of Rosie, Jojo’s mother, who supplies the pathway for Jojo’s transformation. Rosie is fully alive, passionate and resistant to injustice. She dances, lovingly teases Jo Jo, dresses in bright clothes and red lipstick, and drinks wine at news of the imminent end of the war. At one point she even dresses up as her absent husband to comfort Jojo during a tense argument about Nazism. She is, throughout the film giving of herself in the care of Jojo, and putting herself at risk in sheltering Elsa. She is killed by Nazism, but her son is eventually transformed, born again, by her act of love and his encounter with Elsa.

In the final scene, as Jojo and Elsa emerge into the post-battle city, a sunny sky illuminates the quaint town, and people are trashing Nazi paraphernalia. Jo Jo asks Esla what they should do, they lock eyes and begin to dance.

A Spirituality of Light and Darkness

Homily delivered on Jan. 26, 2020 at St. Mary’s Anglican Church


Holy Eucharist: Propers 350; Is 9:1-4; Ps 27:1, 5-13; 1 Cor 1:10-18; Mt 4:12-23; Preface of the Lord’s Day

When I was a child, I would beg God to give me a sign! I remember lying in bed late one night and asking ‘God if you are there, turn on the lights!’ In today’s readings we hear Isaiah predicting that very thing.When God comes to dwell with his people, he will turn on the lights!

Isaiah is looking through the darkness of his present to the bright future of a restored Israel. Zebulon and Naphtali, referred to in the readings, where of course sons of the patriarch Jacob and tribes of Israel. Their territories were on the margins of Israel’s historic kingdom and often took the brunt of invading empires, until their utter collapse under the Assyrian invasion in the 8th century BCE. Their ruin and oppression would someday be undone says Isaiah. The tribes would once again be gathered.

Saint Matthew in this passage and throughout his Gospel, is trying to show his readers that Isaiah’s prophecies had come true in the person of Jesus. Jesus had been baptized by John and called God’s beloved son. In the previous verses of Ch. 4, he has just returned from his 40 days in the desert-wilderness. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near. By teaching the word of God, forgiving sin, and healing people Jesus was acting in the very person of God.

And, by calling his 12 disciples, Jesus is beginning the gathering of the lost tribes, as was promised. The long night of absence was over. The land was filling with the light of the Son!   The play of light and darkness is a powerful image throughout scripture. Today we read:

The people who sat in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

light has dawned.

We hear an echo of Psalm 23 don’t we: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Light is a powerful symbol of God’s presence, power and mercy. One of my favorite Prayers in the Bible, The Canticle of Zachariah, or Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) Zachariah says:

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The ministry of John and Jesus alike were great lights shining in the dark.  Now working with light and dark can be a very helpful analogy. Light is a symbol of wisdom, understanding, science. The Sun was often deified for ancient pagans. The Greek philosopher Plato used the analogy of light and shadow in his allegory of the cave to illustrate his theory of the Forms. Of course Jesus uses it himself when he says ‘I am the Light of the World.’ And as Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr suggests, “At the resurrection, Jesus was revealed as the eternal and deathless Christ…morphed into ubiquitous Light.” It is very common among the first Christians to be called the children of the light. Paul especially loves this analogy. The EnLIGHTenment was a cultural movement that sought to do away with the darkness of ignorance, and elevated human reason as a source of knowledge. We talk about The Light of Reason; or getting a bright idea.

For some of the Gnostic Christians of the second century, light and dark were in cosmic opposition. Good and evil played out in dramatic terms. I worry that we sometimes hold this (heretical) Gnostic view of light and dark, and neglect the spiritual depth of a view of light and darkness as complementary.

Psalm 139:12: Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one. On Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God in a thick cloud. In Deuteronomy, after revealing the Ten Commandments, Moses says to a gathered Israel: “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness.” For the 6th century monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, darkness was just as useful an analogy for God as light. Rather than seeking the light of illumination, he taught to seek the Cloud of Unknowing. Meaning, all our language, ideas and theology about God is ultimately pointing to a dark mystery beyond our understanding.

In Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, the entire day of chanting and prayer is organized around what the monks call the HINGES OF THE DAY. Morning and evening. Just as in the first chapter of Genesis, the narrator says it was Evening and it was morning the 1st day…” Day and night are complementary. They each speak of God in their own ways. The glorious light of a summer day, and the flourishing of the good earth. The muted tones of dormant winter, and the subterranean fecundity of the soil. Each season has its own unique beauty, purpose and spirituality. Jesus was the light of the world. But he also relished in darkness. For example, the parables were a kind of dark teaching. They were spoken so that some would see but not perceive. They were shadow material.

Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite mystic believed that much of the spiritual journey is a noche oscura, or dark night. In the popular idiom, a Dark Night of the Soul is a hard time, a trial period. But it’s also so much more than that! For John, the spiritual life is about light, it’s about loving God, and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. And, along the way we get encouragement through graces, blessings, charity. What John calls Consolations. The spiritual life is also inevitably punctuated by periods of what John called Desolations. Times of trial, suffering, spiritual dryness, or even despair. But for John, these nights were signposts of progress on our path toward union with God. For John, the Dark Night is the quiet inflow of God into the soul. But the tricky thing is that the dark night might not feel like Presence.

We often feel the opposite, the apparent withdrawal of God’s presence. This is where we might be tempted to give up, lose interest or grow bitter. In her book When the Heart Waits (1990) novelist and spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd suggests however, that most living things incubate, or gestate in darkness; whether it’s a seed in the ground or a fetus in the womb, biological organisms tend to mature in the dark.

The 17th century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Caussade has one of the most powerful images of this dark fertility: He writes:

“Do You [God] not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then, little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits…”

If we can learn to wrap our arms around both the light and the dark, we will be so much more equipped to enable the inflow of Grace into our lives.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes of our impulse for impatience: “[we] will run away from the darkness, and do the best [we] can to dope [ourselves] with the first light that comes along.” We are addicted to light: On our phone, in our cities, in our homes, and in our spiritual lives.In Mary Oliver’s poem The Uses of Sorrow she writes: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

Now in case you are wondering, I am NOT saying that darkness is the purpose of spirituality. The play between light and dark is the process by which God enters more fully into our soul. Desolation in itself is not good, but its fruits can be. It is when we chose to love God through our spiritual desolations, through the dark nights that we are able to make progress. This spirituality echoes and reverberates with the Paschal mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Night leads to day, and through Christ, death leads to resurrection. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ points to this play between light and dark beautifully, he writes:

“Let [Christ] easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-crested east.”

I love how Hopkins uses the word Easter as a verb. He points to the slow process of death and rebirth that is somehow the only way to God. We must be born again, Jesus says to Nicodemus. We look to the east for the rising of the Sun. Jesus is the light of the world but to get to the light we must pass through the darkness of the tomb. And we bring our bodies to this mystery every time we take the Eucharist, and celebrate Easter. And even the resurrection of Jesus showed that a body could be both glorified, filled with light, and wounded at the same time. Light and darkness are not in opposition, they are in cahoots!

As a child I hoped that God would turn on the lights as a sign of God’s reality and presence. I didn’t realize that God was already with me, even there in the dark night.