Wednesday, August 28, 2019


I think it's very hard for moderns to appreciate the fear of being lost. In the age of maps and street signs and GPS and smartphones, it's well-nigh impossible to be really and truly lost. You have to go hiking in a remote wilderness or travel to a Third World backwater. Nowadays it takes a real effort to be utterly lost. You can almost always get directions or call for help. 

But in the ancient world, it was terrifyingly easy to be utterly lost. Have no clue how to get back to where you were before you lost your way or or how to find your destination from where you now are. 

And that's a problem because lostness is a major theological metaphor (e.g. Ps 119:176; Jer 50:6; Ezk 34:4; Zech 11:16; Mt 10:6; Lk 15:4; 19:10). Modernday Christian readers need to exercise their imagination to feel those passages.

i) A person can be physically lost or psychologically lost. In his autobiography, Mark Twain recounts a personal anecdote of the former: 

A bat is beautifully soft and silky; I do not know any creature that is pleasanter to the touch or is more grateful for caressings, if offered in the right spirit. I know all about these coleoptera, because our great cave, three miles below Hannibal, was multitudinously stocked with them…I think she [his mother] was never in the cave in her life; but everybody else went there. Many excursion parties came from considerable distances up and down the river to visit the cave. It was miles in extent and was a tangled wilderness of narrow and lofty clefts and passages. It was an easy place to get lost in; anybody could do it--including the bats. I got lost in it myself, along with a lady, and our last candle burned down to almost nothing before we glimpsed the search party's lights winding about in the distance.

ii) Perhaps more terrifying than physical lostness is psychological lostness. In some cases that has both a physical and psychological dimension. Take someone scooped off the street and carted off to a KGB prison. The prisoner knows where he is. So he's not lost in that sense.

But he's out of contact with his friends and family. No one knows where to find him. No one knows if he's dead or alive. He may spend the rest of his life in the claustrophobic recesses of a KGB prison. No one on the outside will ever hear from him again. 

He may never go home. Or he may be released so many years later that there's no home to go back to. 

iii) Or take a war orphan. He knows where he is. But he's lost in the sense that he's cut off from his relatives. He's no longer a part of anyone. He no longer has a sense of belonging. He's socially and emotionally adrift. Without relatives to love and protect him, the world suddenly becomes a very indifferent, uncaring place. 

iv) From there we shift to examples of sheer psychological lostness. Take someone who's mind is slipping away due to dementia or mental illness. A temporary example is drug-induced psychosis. Losing your mind is more terrifying than physical lostness. That's not about your surroundings; not about being in the wrong place. Rather, that's you. That's the essence of who you are. You are disappearing. You are ceasing to be, bit by bit. Or so it seems. 

Virginia Woolf was prone to bouts of insanity. During a lucid period she committed suicide because she couldn't face the prospect of being sucked into yet another bout of insanity. 

v) Or take a bad dream in which you're trying to get home. But you take the wrong bus. You keep going in the wrong direction. The distance between you and home increases. You keep moving ever further from your desired destination. You become more and more lost as the dream takes you down strange streets and alleyways into a heart of darkness. Inescapably lost–until you awaken. But the damned never wake up. Circling forever deeper into the infinite labyrinth of hell. 

When we read about the lost condition of unbelievers, we should visualize examples like these, to help regain the elemental fear that gripped our forebears. 

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