Fall Issue 9
Winter with God
Conversation with Recent Regent Alum on his New Book
Thomas Hunt graduated from Regent with an M.A. in History of Christianity in 2014, and currently lives near Calgary, Alberta. His new book, Winter with God, was written during his time at Regent College. JI Packer writes that “His book will give real help to believers working their way through the winter he describes.” Etc. greatly enjoyed catching up with him over the phone.
ETC: Can you trace the book back to when it began?
TH: Around the beginning of Regent, within that time frame, which I think would have been 2012, I read in the summer before going to Regent, two things that really convicted me [not] to be lazy when it came to writing. One was a quote from Christopher Hitchens, the public intellectual who basically just said if you’re going to be a writer, you have to write, because I think we all know people who might paint once a month and they delight in calling themselves painters, or you know someone who once a year goes down to an open mic night at the café and plays their guitar and sings a song and they are able to tell people, I’m a singer/songwriter, and Christopher Hitchens is basically being like no that’s not good enough. If you’re going to write you have to write every day. … So there’s that commission of like oh maybe if I do want to be a writer in the future at some point in the present I actually have to get writing on a more regular basis.
And then the other thing which I think I read the same day was the parable of the talents, where the master distributes five talents two talents one talent and there’s an obligation to do something with that. And I realized, you know, whether I have five talents two talents, one half a talent, I should actually gear up for something definite, definitive, and over a longer duration. So I sort of set my eyes on a book. … I was like okay what about a devotional book where you’re doing all the right things and God isn’t showing up. In what ways can that mean that things aren’t necessarily going wrong. How can you have a meaningful relationship. How can faith be present, even when God seems absent? That was the genesis of the book. So I wrote the first chapter; it was on a Christmas nativity theme.
ETC: Can you describe what we’re going to encounter if we open this book?
TH: Well, you’re going to find 40 brief contemplative pieces. They’re all only about a page long. So nothing more than 500 words. And it is a varied book. It covers all kinds of subject matter, telling all kinds of stories, which range from… there’s one chapter on Isaac Newton and discovering calculus while running from the plague. And there’s another chapter about the two last climbers who almost made it to the top of Mt. Everest, and failed just a day before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did. There [are] chapters on the importance of sacred beauty and how it’s God who asks for gold, not man, if you look at the book of Exodus. … [There’s] a chapter on defining the relationship with God in which you realize that when it comes to personal relationship, the most important thing in this life is not the extent to which we know God, it’s the extent to which God knows us.
ETC: And is there a progression that happens over the course of these 40 entries?
TH: I think you could definitely say it’s an upward trajectory from just trying to urge people in the continuation of belief and of faith practicing itself through love to a real call to discipleship, which has to be able to exist in and out of every season and life.
ETC: How did this work with all your classes at Regent. Did you find a lot of these emerging from a specific class or from a specific professor.
TH: Sort of yes and no. … I think Regent created an atmosphere in which it was encouraged to think deep thoughts and to pursue big things and so it was helpful in that degree. And there were certainly some courses like Church History, Classics of Christian Spirituality that provided a great canvas, sort of a landscape in which to meet certain thinkers and hear certain stories. But at the same time I’ve always been to a certain degree quite autodidactic. … So I wrote a lot of these pieces to myself to sort of get me through a winter in my own life where my relationship with God, far from experiencing warm fuzzy feelings, it was quite traumatic.
ETC: Do you have any other writing projects underway. Would it be more devotional literature?
TH: Back in about June my publishers, they were very excited about Winter with God and they requested another devotional book to be written. so every day this summer I just sat at the desk. I gained like fifteen pounds, and never left my room. And I wrote another one! So I just actually submitted the final manuscript for that today. It’s called the Way of Faith and that one’s probably coming out in May. … After that I’ll probably take a bit of a break from the devotional scene because it is a challenging format. To write in the span of 450 words is not easy. … And also just content-wise. As I look back I’ve been re-reading a lot of my journals which I started in my undergrad. It’s really interesting to see how many of the ideas in Winter with God and the Way of Faith emerged from a time of study and prayer and contemplation from those years, and how they’ve gone into the books. Which means I need a couple of years to fill up the tank again.
TALKING WITH OUR MOUTHS FULL: With Amanda Russell-Jones
BY TROY TERPSTRA AND ED SMITH
accomplished knitter. She joked that if she were to ever represent Wales at the Olympics, it would be in the sport of knitting. She first learned to knit from her mum when she was about five years old, later achieving a Brownie badge for her abilities. When she and Iwan were young newlyweds attending university, they proudly wore sweaters she made from wool that they had purchased on their honeymoon. Another time, while walking across a bridge in Inverness, Amanda spotted a ball of yarn in the river below. Iwan gallantly waded in and retrieved it for her and she used it for her next project. I suggested that she could start a Regent knitting club which lead to a fruitful (if not quite publishable) discussion of possible names for said club.
Food: Amanda had a salmon dish which she enjoyed, giving it an A-. I had ramen which was good but not quite an A- so I decided on a B+. Kathleen’s meal was tasty but greasy and she thought a B was appropriate.
Ambiance: Amanda revealed a keen eye for architectural criticism describing the restaurant as “Industrial chic meets American diner”, an accurate assessment. The walls and booths were fire-engine red, which I found off-putting, but everyone liked the mural on the entrance wall. The “West Coast Hippy” style stools were attractive, if not overly comfortable. Amanda noted that the exposed pipes overhead were helpfully labelled, and gave an A-. Both Kathleen and Ed agreed.
Service: Kathleen, having dietary restrictions, asked a few basic questions about ingredients, preparation, and spiciness which the girl at the till was unsure about. Kathleen found her helpfulness warranted an A-, since a part-time employee at a takeaway counter isn’t expected to know as much as a full time server. Amanda holds employees to a higher standard and gave a B+.
Price: Amanda was happy with the price and gave an A. She also generously picked up the tab. I was happy to do my part to smash the patriarchy and allow a woman to pay for my meal. Kathleen and I agreed that the only acceptable grade from us would be an A+.
This week is a special feminist lunchtime review. Our guest today is Amanda Russell-Jones, whose research focus is Josephine Butler, the feminist, Christian, activist. Troy was unable to make it to lunch today and so our special guest host is Kathleen Ross. Kathleen is a good person to know at Regent, especially if you’re not getting enough hugs in your life. (1) It also marks the first Regent event that I have been to where the women outnumbered the men. Today we headed over to the AMS Student Nest, UBC’s student union building. We decided on the Grand Noodle Emporium, a “pan asian” restaurant. Although there is a takeaway window, we went in the back where there is a sit down area and a more expansive menu.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take too long for our conversation to turn to the topic of the election. Amanda informed us that Hillary Clinton was not actually the first female, american, presidential candidate. That honour actually belongs to Victoria Woodhull who ran (unsuccessfully) in 1872. Her campaign probably wasn’t helped by the fact that women didn’t have the vote yet. (2) Woodhull published one of Josephine Butler’s articles, provocatively titled “The Sex Bias of the Commentators”, which had the audacious thesis that a female perspective on the Bible might provide an important and novel perspective lacking from male commentators.
Amanda described how the american election paralleled what the United Kingdom recently experienced with Brexit. In a similar way, that vote seemed a reactionary swing with the goal of “making Britain great again.” Amanda described how recent elections have kept her glued to the news, the American election, Brexit, and the vote for Scottish Independence. After the Brexit vote Amanda was wondering about tangible ways to demonstrate to immigrants that they are welcome, despite the outcome of the election, and came to the conclusion that she should find a Spaniard, or a Frenchman, or a Hungarian grandma and give them a hug, a plan that Kathleen can endorse. All agreed on the importance of showing solidarity towards those who might feel unwelcome due to election results.
On being queried about if she had an area of expertise that students might not be aware of, Amanda revealed herself to be an
1. According to Kathleen, you're not.
2. Perhaps she would have been gratified to know that it only took just under 145 years before a woman would win the popular vote in America, although some might argue that winning the Electoral College vote is more important.
THE VOYAGE OF TIME
Meditating on Creation at the IMAX
Terrence Malick’s new documentary, The Voyage of Time (playing at Science World right now), tells the story of the universe in 45 minutes, from its conception till now, through the eyes of a child, asking with wonder, “Why was there something and not nothing?”
It is, if you choose to suspend disbelief, the history of everything played out in front of you in Malick’s unique blend of startlingly beautiful visual poetry. On top of images of swirling cosmic dust, dinosaurs, cell development, asteroids, etc. is the voice of Brad Pitt, narrating the events, asking questions, attempting to provoke the viewer into a feeling of inquisitive awe at what is occurring. This is accompanied by a soundtrack of largely sacred music—Haydn’s “Creation,” Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” Arvo Part’s “In Principio”—which will have you feelig that, as Brett McCracken put it, you're at an evensong service rather than an IMAX theatre.
The film has polarized critics. Some dismiss it as too breathily poetic—indulgent of Malick’s tendency toward the ethereal and abstruse concepts. But others are seeing it as a magnum opus for Malick, a grand finale for the kind of theological, imagist poetics he’s been working for decades. One critic admitted to saying “wow” out loud on repeated occasions during his solo viewing of the film in IMAX.
The divide amongst critics isn’t surprising. Voyage is so contrary to our culture’s current preference for films that are critically self-aware, and tentative toward big questions. The film opens with a shot of a young girl in a field, with Brad Pitt narrating, “Dear child … Today you’re going to watch a movie that shows the story of the universe. From the birth of stars, to modern cities glowing in the night.” It’s no wonder not every critically trained film critic loved being told to turn off their critical faculties, sit like a little child, and watch in wonder as the story of the universe plays out before them.
The story, as told by Malick, is both deeply scientific and deeply religious. Scientifically speaking, the film hits all the hallmarks of the narrative: big bang, evolutionary processes, an asteroid striking the earth, neanderthals; it makes every attempt at being up to date with modern science (the chief science advisor is Harvard’s Andrew Knoll). Yet Malick combines this with overtly religious language—“gift,” even “miracle”—to describe our universe. Which makes sense considering that Malick himself seems to have moved more and more toward an overtly Christian viewpoint in his latest films (particularly Tree of Life and To the Wonder).
God’s role in the story is portrayed through a strongly natural theology. Nature and grace are deeply intertwined. So when the film portrays the development of love through natural means, as animals learn to band together, cooperate, and reproduce, he’s not saying that because there were natural means the hand of God is absent from creation. Rather, God's hand is infused within nature. The result is “every atom, every particle blazing.” Natural selection’s quest to further life is not a-theological because life itself partakes in, blazes with, God.
A litmus test for whether you will find the film’s approach to be “Christian” or a sellout to the secular scientific narrative would be your reaction to the film’s depiction of the fall: first, there is a shot of one particularly curious early humanoid looking at his reflection in the water. There is some kind of birth of self-consciousness or autonomy here, and I think it’s meant to be analogous to Adam and Eve’s decision in Genesis to pursue the god of willful choice, rather than the imago Dei already gifted to them. From the water-reflection scene, the film cuts directly to an image of a Neanderthal who has been stabbed with multiple stakes—the first murder, or, if we’re sticking with the biblical parallels, the Cain and Abel story. Depending on your view this could be either a surrender of the biblical account, or a legitimate integration of modern science with ancient Christian truths about fallen humanity's formation. It’s clear that for Malick, the truths of early Scriptural narratives are spiritual, not literal, and can be interpreted along the paradigms of modern research.
At times, a Christian viewer will probably find the theology a bit too natural (I was definitely theologically fidgeting at points). But having your theology prodded isn’t always a bad thing. This would actually be a wonderful event to go to as a Bible study. You could read the end of Job together, pre-show, in your theatre seats instead of answering multiple-choice questions about Jennifer Lawrence’s personal life. Voyage makes for a fascinating discussion after the showing. But more than that, it makes for a potentially worshipful experience while sitting in your theatre seat like a child, and watching, as the narrator puts it, “Eons perfecting a leaf, a stone.”
Poet of the Week: Josh Lock
We didn’t ask for a berth
on this pitching deck,
but our new-born gaze betrays
Each uninvited dawn:
a Venus rising to inscribe
our zodiac with its questions.
Who under heaven can bear
the crushing freight of her own significance,
the vertigo of unsolicited liberty?
We pierce our heavens
with the roar of birthing suns.
We disrobe the virgin black
with our relentless cyclopean gaze.
We scour passing rocks
for whispering germs,
for signs of our irrelevance.
Our sleepless questions are bone-deep:
last night’s garlic in our pores,
the gamey taste in our flesh,
the accent ringing in every word.
In our breath our questions.
By our breath our reply.
Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety, writes of the “dizziness of freedom.” Anxiety, he suggest, is the natural result of a free self contemplating her own freedom.
We are walking paradoxes: one hand wields a megaphone, championing political freedom; the other a petri dish, labouring to demonstrate our genetic and environmental bondage. We spend billions inspecting comets for microbial proof our own insignificance. We fight for freedom, yet our own terrifies us.
Are we seeking freedom from freedom? Yet such an oxymoronic quest answers itself by presupposing the very capacity it chooses to deny. Moreover, as Kant argued, if we are truly free, then an aspect of our self lies beyond the reach of science, beyond our own accounting.Indeed, we are those creatures transfixed by our own puzzled reflections. What a curious clue.
Is God’s hazy reflection in us so confronting that we must turn from ourselves in order to dodge the humiliation of submission? And yet, in precisely a posture of kneeling, of bending, has the Author of freedom displayed his own freedom before us. The ball is in our court.
Josh Lock, Nov. 2016
Note: homo quaerens may be translated "questioning man."
Applications Up 306%
As the results of the 2016 US presidential election came in, news outlets reported that Canada’s immigration website crashed as unprecedented numbers of apprehensive Americans visited the website to inquire about moving to Canada. What the media did not report was that the admissions page of Regent College experienced its own crash as it received a torrent of prospective American theological students making last-minute plans to study in Canada.
“Applications are up 306% since Tuesday,” admitted Nadine Palmer, director of admissions.
Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has also had an impact on applications for the faculty vacancies in New Testament Studies and Marketplace Theology. This has helped sooth the anxieties of those tasked with finding new faculty.
“You know how it is. There’s just so many job openings in the academy these days, it’s hard getting applicants,” lamented Howard Hopkins,
“But ever since Tuesday evening we’ve received a lot more applications. Russell Moore’s asking about the Marketplace Theology position. Even Eugene Peterson wants to come back!”
Not everyone is looking forward to the influx of newcomers to Regent. First-year student Milo Sterling complained, “With all these new students coming in, it’s going to get even MORE difficult finding a place to sit in the Atrium at lunchtime.”
Like making up stories that are truer than they are? Send your Bunyans in to firstname.lastname@example.org.