A Sane Man In A World Gone Mad
Last night I agreed to meet a reader of this blog who was traveling through my city with his family, headed home after the holiday weekend. We had an intense and (for me) rewarding two-hour talk. Afterward, he gave me permission to use anything he said to me in a blog post, provided I keep his identity confidential.
The man — I’ll call him Aaron — is in his thirties, and is a pastor at a small nondenominational church in a big city. Aaron said that the things I write about on this blog is the reality that he and his congregation are living. He loves The Benedict Option. He recently read Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (here’s a link to my interview with Trueman about it), and said he was blown away by the accuracy of Trueman’s diagnosis of our cultural crisis.
Aaron agreed with me that so many Christians simply do not want to face the severity and profundity of the crisis, because it’s too unnerving. They prefer to fight the battle that they feel prepared for, instead of the battle that we actually have in front of us. He said he cannot understand why so many parents allow their young kids to have smartphones. That’s a common theme here on my blog, but in his pastoral work, Aaron is dealing with the consequences of ubiquitous smartphone use by kids. “Pornography,” he said, and looked down, shaking his head.
He said that he and his wife don’t allow their children to have smartphone access, and are criticized for it by others in their community. It’s as if the adults have decided among themselves that protecting their children from the basilisk is too hard, so they’ve agreed, however subconsciously, to shame any parents who don’t surrender.
Recently, an older teenager started coming to their church — a male who calls himself transgender, and who has been on cross-sex hormones for a while. The kid is not gay — he’s attracted to females — but he is really confused. Comes from a relatively well-to-do family. Aaron says the boy’s parents have turned him over to trans culture, because they think they are doing the progressive thing. But the kid is hurting bad. Aaron and the men at church are trying to figure out how to minister to him, to lead him back to reality without crushing him. The anger Aaron feels at our corrupt culture is palpable — and justified. He thinks of this boy who is at war with his own body and his own nature, such that he injects himself with estrogen and dresses like a woman — and how the dominant culture in this country holds him up as a hero. The boy’s parents abandoned him to this.
I was thinking about this this morning when I read this recent sermon by the Russian Orthodox metropolitan (archbishop) Tikhon Shevkunov.In it, Met. Tikhon talks about how entire nations can become demonized. He argues that that is what happened to Russia, leading to the 1917 Revolution. Excerpt:
And what demonic madness remained! The entire Church structure was practically destroyed; millions of people repressed; an astronomical number of deaths; the culture demolished, and a great heritage destroyed or taken out of the country. In our province [Pskov] there are a multitude of ruined churches and old estates. In their demonic madness the people destroyed all the best the country possessed. It came to the point where our religious and non-religious heritage was denied and rejected. Only in 1934 were schoolchildren allowed to study history and literature.
Suicidal demonic possession often happens to large communities of people. The doctors talk about this in another way, but what they say is also interesting. I am now preparing articles on the events of 1917 and I think, Lord, how could people burn down their own house with the conviction of suicidal fanatics?! Many doctors of that time—Bekhterev, Rossolimo, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and others were no strangers to the revolutionary mood. Even so, they all say that it was mass psychosis. But Orthodox Christians say that it was demonic possession. Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians are far from completely understanding this. The events of 1917 speak to this.
To be honest, not all religious people saw the revolutionary events as evil, demonic, and suicidal. Moreover, theological seminaries were often hotbeds of revolutionary movements. During the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, revolutionary cells formed in a number of seminaries. That means that there was a real enfeebling of the Church, a demonic delirium. It is no coincidence that one of the secretaries of our country’s communist party was a former seminarian.2 Most horrible is that a person who has faith can lose it. Who loses faith? Someone who once had it. Who becomes demonically possessed? Mostly believers—the devil attacks them. The devil is not so interested in unbelievers—they’re outside God as it is. We have to remember this. And how many priests and bishops also greeted the events of February 1917 with elation! Many of them became new martyrs after they had come to their senses. To be sure, it’s easy for us to talk about this in hindsight. And of course, we are not judging anyone. But this demonic possession had stolen into the very heart of our religious nation!
Demonic possession is a reality. No matter how the diabolic powers laugh at it! They are precisely the ones who are laughing at us when we talk about the spiritual illness of demonic possession, possession by the devil. For the devil there is nothing more useful than convincing people that he doesn’t exist, that there is no such thing as demonic possession, that it simply doesn’t occur that he can completely take a person over and lead him around where he wishes, and do it in such a way that the person doesn’t even guess what’s happening. That person will elatedly think that those thoughts are his own, that it’s his own decision.
We rarely talk about this subject. And thank God! It’s too scary! But from time to time we are obligated to remind our flock and our own selves about it, no matter how people relate to it (even if it’s with displeasure and misunderstanding), in order to protect ourselves and our close ones from the possibility of getting this serious illness—which is only cured by humility, love, peace, hope in God, and prayer to the Lord. May the Lord preserve you!
Last night, the young Protestant pastor Aaron said that he wonders what it’s going to take to wake Christians up to what is happening in this country. “Maybe it will take the judgment of God,” he said. And then: “Or maybe we are living through God’s judgment now.”
Aaron told me that he is grateful to this blog for many things. One thing he said stuck with me: that it reminds him that he is not crazy, that the things he sees really are happening, that he is a sane man in a world gone mad.
I’ll end with a portion of a letter that a reader of my Substack newsletter sent. You can read the whole thing on the newsletter here. This is the excerpt I want to share with you:
On different and weirder note I also wanted to thank you for your post about how God speaks to us. Your description of your experience being like something projected on a screen resonates with my own experience. I have previously written about it in your comments section but thought I would revisit it and attach my fast childlike attempts to draw it in case there’s the slightest bit of resonance you may find something edifying in. I’m no artist, and tried to do these as quickly as possible to get the feel of the moment without judging what I was doing. And selfishly, I don’t really have many others I can even share this with who might not think I’ve gone into complete madness. I was still rather anti-Christian at this point in my life but had recently discovered Orthodoxy through your blog and found myself very unhappily agreeing with what I was finding out about Orthodox thought and practice. I started saying the Jesus Prayer as a kind of experiment and noticed it was bringing up loads of inner turmoil and psychic resistance. Now, and I really hope this doesn’t make me sound crazy, but I have had plenty of experience with mind altering drugs and occult rituals. I know how strongly you can think your experience is unique and meaningful and it’s really just your own delusion. There are all kinds of ways. Anyway, I was rather hungover, looking at my two month old daughter, realizing all my conceptions about life seemed shallow and grotesque in the face of my love for this little person who seemed of so much cosmic significance. I simply mumbled to myself for no particular reason, “I have to stop being at war with reality.”
Much like you described it, it was like another vision of reality opened up within my own sight. An image of Christ, which you will see bears no small resemblance to icons seemed to shoot through me. It was as if there was a Christ the Teacher icon layered a million times on top of one another went through me. One thing that strikes me so hard about it is the red triangles around Christ that I saw. I had never seen an icon at this point but it’s a feature you see in quite a lot.
Then, another vision opened, as if from a single central point, opening up into a large circle, and this black robed demonic figure walked toward me with roaring storm in the sky. If you get this other early 90’s musical reference, it was much like the roaring background noise during the opening of The Afghan Whigs’ album Gentleman. It’s the closest comparison I can make. It hissed, pulled something from me, and then wandered back across this incredibly red desert away from me and the vision closed. I had time to say “What the hell was that?” and then with an utterly physical retching, it felt like all the organs in my body did a 180 degree turn. I let out a pathetic sounding moan and in an instant it was like I understood the why of the Christian moral life. I felt an overwhelming sense of love towards Mary, and a sense that she was 14 years old. I don’t know how I know that, it was just there. And a huge sense that even knowing this, it didn’t make it any easier. I had a point on a map, but didn’t have the slightest clue how to get there. I might as well be a hobbit being told to take a ring to Mordor. The visions had a sort of slightly two dimensional quality I would also come to recognize as being icon like. I still had never seen an icon but in all my years of spiritual events, the ones that seemed “real” as opposed to creative imagination have always had that quality. I really think there’s something “real” about what’s being conveyed in icon art but have no understanding of the why or how it came about.
Anyway, in the intervening years, I can still tell you everything wrong, or cult like about Christianity, or how Jesus at times seems to be a complete charlatan, and would be the devil in any other context, but I can only offer the reality of my life, the softening of my own heart, and acts of charity since that moment as testament that something happened that is utterly, terrifyingly, and completely real. And really at the end of the day that’s what we’re all called to do. I try to keep Matthew 5:13 around as a warning to myself that taking up the cross has consequences if you do it too half-assedly.
So, here are my childlike attempts to quickly scribble that moment, and one of my kids decorating the tree for something a little less weird and more wholesome. I would appreciate you not publishing that if you feel like publishing any of this, but there’s so much happiness there and a return to normalcy from this part of the letter I thought it worth sharing with you because in part your writings helped me find my own way to making it happen. And I thank you for that.
Again, read the whole letter here, and see the man’s hand-drawn renderings of the Christ that appeared to him, and the demon.
By the way, Aaron told me a story about going on a youth group mission trip to Mexico as a high school student, and stumbling into minor but all too real manifestations of the demonic, through syncretism. This stuff is real. You aren’t crazy for thinking so.