Boys without compasses
Disaster lurks just one degree off true north
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A young man asked me to read his book draft, 200 pages of neo-medieval fantasy with lots of intrigue, battles, sand, and camels. I couldn’t put my finger on why the reading of it so disoriented me, until I realized—it had no moral compass.
You try to write a novel with no moral compass. You will find it isn’t easy. You are entirely reliant on your own ever-shifting, seat-of-your-pants emotions and preferences. Your morality, no less than your perceptions, is the product, for all you know, of “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato” (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens).
On another occasion I sought 10 minutes of said adolescent’s time on matters not related to the manuscript. By his gracious agreement we took a short walk to a nearby empty church and sat on its stone steps, and I urged him not to sleep with a woman until he got married. I pressed my plea, invoking the Bible, invoking my decades of life experience, invoking the boomerang effect of bending the laws embedded in the universe.
To no avail. He was swimming in subjectivity. And worst of all, he knew it not.
The late theologian Cornelius Van Til wrote in response to a query by Edgar Powell about why people cannot make sense of their lives without reference to the God of the Bible:
“Unless one starts by accepting on authority the words of Christ himself, one has to start with man as self-sufficient and self-explanatory. … In that case, man has to identify himself in chaos. He has to identify facts in chaos. He has to relate these facts by logic which itself sprung from chaos. … He is a bit of ooze that has sprung out of ooze, flitting about in ooze.”
Heck, I feel lost enough just driving a car in a fog in a strange town with no clue as to north or south or east or west. The moment I learn that bit of fundamental knowledge, I feel better and assured that I can find my way back home. Imagine not even knowing who you are, or why you are, or whence you are, or where you’re going.
This is the world of the young man I was speaking to. This is his generation.
On the 1914-1917 Ernest Shackleton expedition to Antarctica, the breakup of the ship Endurance in thick pack ice in the Weddell Sea stranded 28 men on inhospitable Elephant Island. This forced Shackleton to take five of his crewmen and embark on a risky 800-mile journey aboard a 22½-foot wooden lifeboat. Their hope of reaching South Georgia Island on the James Caird depended particularly on the navigation skills of Frank Worsley, armed only with map and sextant. If Worsley’s sextant had been off by only 1 degree, they would have missed the island entirely and steered off into the open sea and to their deaths.
I am thinking these days about Israel and Hamas. I am thinking about the life-and-death role of sextants and knowledge of true north, and how if we miss it by even 1 degree, all is lost.
I remember how God described the ancient Ninevites as “120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11). This is the Middle East today, where generations are raised from infancy to hate, kill, and destroy.
If anybody can speak wisdom to the Middle Eastern problem, it is only those who have the Word of the true God as the foundation of their culture. These are they who hold the Moral Compass in the chaos where the rest are ooze sinking in ooze. Whether it be 17-year-olds trying to navigate their lives, or nations flailing in the darkness of their subjectivity, a true Sextant is their only hope.
Failing that, all we are left with is a tale told by a lost boy and full of intrigue, battles, sand, and camels.
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