October 25, 2020

A Companion in Shipwreck


The following is from a remarkable piece by Rod Dreher called, “Ecumenism And Life’s Shipwreck” at The American Conservative. In it he writes about how the Roman Catholic sex scandal “broke [his] spiritual and intellectual pride as a Christian.”

The passage reproduced here today quotes Tolkien on the subject of having a “chivalrous” view of true love and then applies that thought to his former infatuation with the Church.

* * *

…I find myself thinking of one of the books that has meant the most to me in my life, a birthday gift in 1995 from my friend Tom Sullivan: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. One letter in particular changed the way I thought of women, and courtship — and, I think, helped me see through a kind of self-deception that prolonged my own immaturity and unhappiness. It was a missive Tolkien sent to his son Michael, in 1941, warning him that as he pursues women, not to be deceived by the false ideals of medieval chivalry. Excerpt:

It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

This is true about the Church, as I now see (and by “the Church,” I don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church only, but the church universal). I had what you might call a chivalrous view (in the sense Tolkien means) of the Church, and built an entire faith around this ideal. Had I been wiser, I would have seen the Church as a companion in shipwreck. As it was, I reacted as if I had learned that my Fair Lady was a whore. It was an honest reaction, but not a mature one.

I hope I am a more mature Christian now. I am no longer a Catholic, of course, but I can never see the Orthodox Church, or any church, with the same eyes that I once viewed the Roman Catholic Church. This is good, because it is truthful, and more realistic. I passed through — at least I hope I passed through — a period of cynicism that Tolkien mentions above, with reference to the disillusioned romantic. I no longer look for the ecclesiastical ‘love that will always keep me warm in a cold world.’ I used to, but I think to do so is to set oneself up for disillusionment that will end in bitterness.

…Life is a shipwreck, and we’re all staggering around on the beach, trying to help each other make sense of it all, and get through this catastrophe and find our way back home.


  1. Good find. Dreher used to be pretty flaky, but his recent stuff has shown a lot more depth.

  2. I like this. One thing that has slowly dawned on me over time:

    So long as we think of church as a Pure, Perfect thing (whether we think of this as The Church, or the NT Church, or My Special Denomination, or Pastor Joe’s Good Sermons, or whatever), then I imagine myself and that one thing in a favorable light, am inclined to be a bit perturbed when everyone else mucks it up.

    Once I realize the church is all muddy, and myself as well, my community instantly expands to include all the other muddied people. So my picture becomes more accurate–and my friends more numerous.

  3. that last sentence is worth 10X the price of admission….. great find, Chap Mike, great find

  4. Ironically, as I’ve begun to recognize that the church itself is as “muddy” as I am, it has shown me how much we desperately need God’s grace in Christ, and this in itself keeps me “warm in a cold world.”

  5. With the World, all her glory, pomp, and majesty is paraded before your face, and the World is very jealous to disguise her defects and blemishes. Bedazzled by the shining exterior, you press beneath the surface to find only tedium, poltroonery, and emptiness.

    The Church seems to pursue her pilgrimage with the mud of scandal and the cystic acne of hypocrisy permanently attached to her, trailing the bouquet of the corruption of the flesh. Only those diligent to press beneath the surface find the Glory and Majesty at her core.

    • You DO have a great way with words, Mule Chewing Briars! I checked out your blog and I love your subtitle, “Donkeys See The Angels Before The Prophets Do.” There is so much I love about the Orthodox Christian church, though I am a Roman Catholic.

  6. I no longer suffer many illusions about myself, but long harbored them about both women and the church, much to my detriment.

  7. Wonderful statement that reflects my experience. While in the post-evangelical wilderness, I had to emotionally disconnect myself from the need for ‘love that will always keep me warm in a cold world.’ I had to learn to be content with the sacraments and simple teaching.

  8. One thing: there are some on the beach who are not trying to help make sense of it all.

  9. The French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos once wrote (to paraphrase broadly) that to suffer for the church is nothing; to suffer because of the church is what counts.

  10. I am convinced in this sin cursed world there is nothing more destructive then the search for the perfect woman or the perfect church. Destructive for us and destructive for them. Our expectations will never be met and we will do a lot of damage along the way to those we try to fix so they can meet our expectations.

  11. “…Life is a shipwreck, and we’re all staggering around on the beach, trying to help each other make sense of it all, and get through this catastrophe and find our way back home.” – Rod Dreher,

    ” I passed through — at least I hope I passed through — a period of cynicism that Tolkien mentions above, with reference to the disillusioned romantic. I no longer look for the ecclesiastical ‘love that will always keep me warm in a cold world.’ ” – Rod Dreher,

    Indeed. Enough with swimming across rivers. The post-evangelical wilderness may be more than a religious purgatory along the journey to paradise; as Jack Nicholson so eloquently put it, what if this is as good as it gets?

    To me, this is the message found in U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. There’s a restlessness inherent in the human heart which craves that sentimental, chivalrous pursuit within religion. As with many human passions, that one may best go unsatisfied. But we need to be aware of that hunger for a “love that will always keep me warm in a cold world”. I heard it this week in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California”, where the pilgrimage for the girl with “love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” becomes “trying to find a woman who has never, never been born”. I might call it the echoes of the big-bang of the fall, where a cosmic estrangement occurred which leaves us to this day feeling hauntingly alone even in a crowded room, a vibrant church, or a loving marriage. It’s something other but very real. It makes that story in Genesis where Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden profound beyond words. And it is not cured with even the most esoteric religious conversion.

    I think the answer is in the wise counsel of the Apostle Paul, where he says that godliness with contentment is great gain. I think of C.S. Lewis’ “A Pilgrim’s Regress”, where in the end the main character discovers that the mystical, romantic island he sought throughout the story but was always beyond his reach turned out to be the back side of the mountains where his journey began. It’s not just “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”. It’s finding in Christ meaning, strength, and contentment in the most meager of tasks, as Brother Lawrence did.

    It does also recalls the lyrics of “The Wreckers” from the latest album by RUSH, based on the story of thieves setting up false lighthouses to lure ships onto the rocks in order to be looted. Exploitation of that haunting longing for “love that will always keep me warm in a cold world” is the oldest trick in the book, most recently perfected by televangelists, but perhaps hidden in the testimonies of those joining the young, restless, and reformed bandwagon or swimming the Tiber. Getting others to join ones own bandwagon justifies ones own personal decisions.

    Discernment is not cynicism.

    “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary
    Of a miracle too good to be true
    All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary
    Everything in life you thought you knew
    All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary
    Cause sometimes the target is you”
    – Neil Peart

    • +1

    • Amen!

      In a recent post here at iMonk, I heard several folks complain about the use of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in worship service, but to me you captured how secular songs can be used to illuminate the human condition and Biblical truths. LOVE IT!!! Good use of Peart’s “The Wreckers” lyrics. Love Rush’s new album!

      Let me know when and where you’re preaching next! 😉

  12. I do hope for balance. Although it is wrong to seek a fulfulment of chivilrous longings within religion, encouraging greater depth, character, and historical roots within a church is not a bad thing. It currently seems like it’s a choice between the lady of the lake of liturgical, sacramental worship or the corner harlot of the worship circus. Purhaps a third choice of the grumpy school marm of legalistic fundamentalism.

    • I think there may be a difference between seeking “twue love” in the church, and seeking it in Jesus himself. The church is not, in spite of being mystically linked, Jesus.

      There is a reason we are not encouraged to “keep our eyes upon the Church, the author and finisher of our faith.” Wisely, the writer encourages us to fix our eyes upon Jesus. He actually is the true and better knight in shining armor and he is the one who will keep us warm in a cold world.

      Still and all, it is good to have companions when shipwrecked, no? Even as we wait for rescue together.

      • Dave,

        You say that the church is not Jesus. I know what you mean by this, but there have been those to make this claim to me when I talk about lack of fellowship, etc, in the church. Sometimes I get the idea (and I’m not saying you’re doing this here) that people see Jesus as a disembodied head. The church is his body for a reason. Doing things to the least of these is doing things to Jesus himself.

  13. I found this quite sad and depressing.

    Is it really ‘humble’ to shrug our shoulders and say it doesn’t matter when churches abuse and cause pain – because we are all ‘shipwrecked together’ and we can’t expect anything else?

    I left an evangelical institution that had protected, advocated for and lied about a person in high authority who was guilty of the same things that the Catholic sex scandal involved; his history of that crime took place in another setting, but his abuse continued in a different form where I worked throughout the time I worked there. He was involved in a long and very public trial – and he remained our boss throughout.

    I watched the HR department and the directors of our own dept. manipulate the media while his trial went on – even after he was found guilty on all counts. As for my colleagues – I watched person after person broken, slandered, humiliated, shamed and eventually forced out – those people who spoke up or even questioned. I am ashamed to say that I took took too long to speak up. When I finally did, I saw the same thing happen to me.

    They demanded submission and obedience at all costs, literally. A ‘negative attitude’ was not acceptable. We were told to me be cheerful, smiling and to believe in our institution always, in all circumstances. Or else. After all that is what God wants….

    My trust in the essential benevolence of the evangelical subculture was destroyed. I had read about this sort of thing, but had never imagined I would see it or experience it directly. It took almost four years. No person can touch my love for God and His love for me. But my faith in the evangelical world was destroyed.

    Was I too ‘romantic’? Should I see the institution as just part of the chaos we are all in? Is it because of my ‘pride’?

    I will be honest – I am sorry I read this article and the link to it. For those who have actually been through it, this sort of passive niceness and sentimental self-absorption are an insult. This is what we were all told – “These things happen everywhere! What can you expect!”

    I continue to expect decency and ordinary kindness and respect for truth. If this makes me a ‘proud’ man who needs to be ‘humbled’ – then God will address that in my life. After what I have seen I will not submit and smile and say it all doesn’t matter. Not anymore.