Monthly Letter – January 2020

Dear Friends,

White Island. All of a sudden this tiny island was headline news.

A little under 2 miles long, and just over 1 mile wide, about half the size of the island of Iona, it’s no more than the tiniest dot on the map of the world. But in the early afternoon (local time) of 9th December the island erupted (quite literally) into the media’s ever-expanding panoply of human tragedy.

And, of course, it was a tragedy; a wretched, terrible tragedy, a dreadful and heart-breaking disaster, which took the lives of a good few individuals – and turned the lives of countless families upside down for ever. You’d have to be wholly heartless not to have felt both something of the horror of the volcanic explosion, and something of the terrible pain of the anguish which those so cruelly bereaved have been left to bear.

It was a fearful, discordant finale to the end of another year.

And perhaps as well it was a sombre, visual milestone to mark the end of another whole decade; as if the great Creator God was Himself somehow opening the mouth of the earth which He’d made to make a stark and solemn statement to His world as the first 20 years of this bold, post-modern millennium drew to a close.

That it was tragic, there’s no doubt. But maybe, just maybe it was symbolic too.

Maybe what happened that day, maybe it serves as a mirror, portraying for us all, on our round-the-clock multiple screens, a graphic, uncomfortable picture of our secular, contemporary world. Maybe we weren’t simply viewing a distant disaster; maybe we were seeing ourselves. The people which as a society we have now become.

White Island is set in what’s called the ‘Bay of Plenty’. At least, it’s been called the ‘Bay of Plenty’ for exactly 250 years, ever since Captain James Cook discovered that things were a whole load more abundant and plentiful along this massive stretch of beach and beaches than they’d been around the corner at what he’d called ‘Poverty Bay’.

Maybe it’s been the very ‘plenty’ we’ve enjoyed in the western world which is proving now to be our complete undoing. Maybe the very abundance has made us entirely oblivious to the dangers and hazards there are. Maybe it’s bred a creeping, pernicious self-confidence into our soul. Maybe it’s made us conceited, presumptuous, proud. Maybe the material affluence to which we’ve become accustomed has slowly and subtly desensitized us as a society to some great, enduring, spiritual truths which we ignore and disdain at our peril.

Maybe our own ‘Bay of Plenty’ has made our contemporary culture profoundly complacent and lax.

Were we beguiled and deluded by the spin of our leaders who kept on insisting that we’d never really had it so good? Did we start to believe the devil’s own lie that the ‘good’ consisted in things? Has the ‘plenty’ actually left us quite empty, devoid of meaning and purpose, bereft of the riches of deep-rooted love which money and wealth cannot buy? Has our lust for abundance created a culture which makes us all lazy and fat – morally and spiritually at least? Is the widespread western epidemic of obesity symptomatic of a far more serious and chronic spiritual malaise? Has our western society become a sort of corporate ‘Jabba the Hutt’, an overgrown and overbearing ‘overlord’, becoming in the end a victim of our own grand, self-indulgent hubris?

In our long, expansive ‘Bay of Plenty’ have we simply become either blasé or blind in respect to the ‘fault-lines’ on our doorstep, casually disregarding all those smoke-filled clouds of warning which loom large on the horizon – a constant, stern reminder of the ‘boiling pot’ of magma that is waiting to erupt?

“What do you see?” asked the Lord of Jeremiah. And the young prophet replied, “I see a pot that is boiling .. It is tilting towards us ..”(Jer.1.13). A boiling pot. Tilting towards us.

But maybe our problem is this today, that we simply do not see. Not in the way our forbears were able to see. With the eye of faith.

Because our society has slowly become so desperately superficial. That, too, is an integral part of the same ‘Bay of Plenty’ condition. We only see the surface.

Where material wealth and abundance has become the goal of our society’s aspirations, and the measure of our well-being, then what’s physical and visible become as well the only things we see.

Which is why ‘White Island’ far out in the Bay of Plenty provides such a graphic picture of society today.  It’s an attractive island to look at. It appeals to the eye and, certainly so far as islands go, it’s thoroughly photogenic. Easy to access, with clear, pronounced features; and, of course, it’s highly ‘atmospheric’, in a way that plays right into the insatiable lust our society’s acquired for what we call ‘experience’.

But it is a volcano. It’s just that only the tiniest part of that huge, expansive volcanic cavern reaches the surface, so that the crater itself is only just above sea level. No hard hike up the steep and jagged surface of a mountainside to reach it: it’s almost a case of getting out of the boat and .. well, there you are, you’re walking right into the crater. It’s all so very accessible (which always scores well in a culture that takes pride in being politically so correct); and it looks so very attractive!

On the surface it is.

And that, at heart, is the problem. If appearance is all that matters, if you’re only concerned with what you can see, then you cease to discern and take cognizance of what lies beneath the surface, far out of the line of your sight. There’s a massive great cauldron of magma, an underground furnace of huge and gigantic proportions, with a heat too terrible to countenance, a whole massive mountain beneath the seas which simply dwarfs, in every regard, the tiny bit you can see.

What meets the eye is lovely perhaps. But what simply isn’t visible is lethal.

And that, in many ways, so typifies the society we’ve become. We only see the surface. We’re desperately superficial. Such is part of the price we pay for dismissing the perspective of faith. Because “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see(Heb.11.1): or, put more starkly, as the writer to the Hebrews later does, it is by faith that we see Him who is invisible (Heb.11.27). It is by the eye of faith that we see both beneath and beyond the surface, and discern those great and ultimate realities which (almost by definition) are in the end invisible.

That’s the perspective our society today has so readily and arrogantly jettisoned. And so we only see the surface. We’re frighteningly superficial. We don’t do ‘depth’ at all. Our attention span is limited. We communicate in ‘sound bites’ and tweets: 140 characters (not words) was all that, to start with, you were ever allowed (although it has been doubled now over the last two years or so).

Don’t think for a moment I’m denigrating all the ways that ‘tweeting’ can have value. It’s more to the spiritual malaise of which Twitter and tweets are simply symptomatic that I’m wanting to point. You can say a fair bit in 280 characters, I suppose: but you won’t do depth. You can’t begin to dig beneath the surface of a thing and analyse the underlying issues there may be. Our society today has largely lost the appetite for depth – and increasingly, too, the ability: our eyesight’s grown dim, our minds have grown lazy, and superficiality has now become a hallmark of our western way of life.

It’s this same ‘White Island’ phenomenon. Indeed, the name itself betrays another striking, subtle feature of the deep malaise which has today infected our society: the ease with which we find ourselves deluded by the language which is used.

You can see, I suppose – at least in certain conditions – why this place got called ‘White Island’. Or at least why the settlers chose to give the island that name. The layer upon layer of the ash that’s been spewed from the depths have given the island a coating which looks sometimes white. I suppose.

But the name makes the place seem innocuous, harmless and good. It’s precisely the kidology that’s become so characteristic of our culture. Maybe if we give a thing a pleasing name and call it that persistently, then … that’s what it will be!

How deluded we can prove ourselves to be! For it’s certainly not what the locals have called the place: the Maori name for the island is ‘Te Puia o Whakaari’, which means (in case you’re not that fluent in their language!) ‘the dramatic volcano’. They at least still call a spade a spade. They at least still see beyond what’s there to be seen on the surface. They at least won’t have the wool pulled over their eyes. ‘White Island’? My foot. It’s a dreadful volcano.

This subtle use of language to distort and deceive is one of the frightening features of our culture. “Woe to those who call evil good,” warned the Lord through His prophet Isaiah (Is.5.20), “who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Or as Paul would put it later, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very thing but also approve of those who practise them” Rom.1.32).

It’s the same ‘White Island’ delusion which the Scriptures roundly denounce. Persisting in calling what God has deemed evil – persisting in calling it good. On the basis that if you say it often enough (and get enough ‘big-hitters’ to say it too), if you keep repeating the mantra, then people start believing you. The delusion is complete. Our culture has mastered the art.

It’s a subtle, but insidious thing. ‘Tolerance’, for instance, has moved from being a virtue to being instead a world-view. And, of course, because the same word’s used, no one really notices the seismic change involved. But the shift is, indeed, seismic. For ‘tolerance’ as a world-view actually ends up breeding as a virtue an intolerance, and an intolerance not least of the basic Christian message. How subtly society has been so wholly deceived by the clever and persistent way some words are used.

This is ‘White Island’ culture, is it not, where words can be used to disguise heinous lies as the truth, and distort unpalatable truth.

But there’s something scarier still about this same ‘White Island’ phenomenon. And it’s this: we’ve become mere self-indulgent ‘tourists’.

White Island is a major tourist attraction. A boat will take you out there: a helicopter, too. (Although, for the moment, of course, all such trips have been postponed). As if the place was no more than just some 3-dimensional, multi-sensual art gallery, for you to casually walk around at your leisure. Get your photos, take your ‘selfies’, enjoy a day out as you wander through the crater.

What sort of voyeuristic madness is that? The place is a live volcano! The fire can erupt – and you don’t dare be anywhere near it when it does.

Our culture today has precisely that arrogant, brash perspective of the tourist who will simply never countenance, despite the smoke, despite the constant warnings of the experts who should know – who simply will not countenance that this volcano might erupt.

That’s our contemporary culture. We’ve become little more than a nation of spiritual ‘tourists’, exploring with our metaphorical cameras all the sites of spirituality round the world, writing up our well-informed, illuminating ‘Trip Adviser’ comments on the fascinating points of view we found. Giving points, as it were, to the gospel, rating it with however many stars, as if it was no more than just an interesting artifact from a foolish, bygone age. Critiquing the ‘crater’ which Christ’s coming has left, and failing to see (or more to the point refusing to see) what lies behind and beneath it all.

A live and dreadful volcano.

God help us. We tramp like so many tourists over sacred ground, and ever so casually trample on the gospel truths of God, scorning the fundamental fact about our world on which the Scriptures insist: “Our God is a consuming fire.” A live and dreadful volcano. We ignore that truth at our peril: and we disdain that truth to our eternal loss.

So here’s a simple prayer for the start of a new decade. God help us. May God have mercy upon us and the arrogant ‘tourist’ lifestyle which we live: and in His mercy may He yet open our society’s eyes once more to the great explosive truths of the gospel of Christ. Before it’s too late.

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton