For nearly a year now, I’ve had the privilege of living and working in Grand Canyon National Park. In late June, I was among some 1,100 attendees participating in one of the four nights of the 24th annual Grand Canyon Star Party. Astronomers from across the country, operating nearly 50 telescopes that were set up behind the Visitors’ Center, invited folks to get a glimpse of the planets in our own solar system as well as nebulae and star clusters sitting millions upon millions of light years distant from us.
The evening took me back to my childhood in Massachusetts where I spent many, many nights out under the stars looking up at a resplendent Milky Way. I am heartbroken to note that, if I were to return to the town of my birth today, it’s more than unlikely that I would catch even a fleeting glimpse of that Milky Way. Eight out of ten Americans today won’t ever live where they can see their own galaxy, their own solar system. More than two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night—that is, real darkness—and nearly all of us in the world live in areas considered polluted by light.
In Episode 31 of On the Road with Mac and Molly, I chat with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night, about the disintegration of what is natural into what is artificial. In this critically important book, Paul opens our eyes to how much we lose cooped up, as we are, under a perpetual glare.
At one point in the book, Bogard tells of a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where, he suggests, one can see “real darkness.” There, he notes, fifty million people each year pass by a painting of “a small, dark town, a few yellow-orange gaslights in house windows, under a giant swirling and waving blue-green sky.” In The Starry Night, painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889, we see our world “before night had been pushed back to the forest and the seas, from back when sleepy towns slept without streetlights.” The Starry Night is “an imagined sky inspired by a real sky much darker than the towns we live in today.”
In a letter from the summer of 1888, Van Gogh described the night sky he saw overhead during a visit to a French beach: “The deep blue sky was flecked with clouds of a deeper blue than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way. In the blue depth the very stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more sparkling gemlike than at home—even in Paris: opals you might call them, emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires.”
For most of us today, when we can see stars, most of these appear to be white so the idea that stars come in different colors seems wildly impossible. But, Bogard insists that if one were to “gaze long enough in a place dark enough that stars stand in clear three-dimensional beauty,” one would “spot flashes of red, green, yellow, orange and blue.” When Bogard made the visit to MoMA, he was in search of not only The Starry Night but also Giacomo Balla’s Street Light, a painting, dated 1909, that is so little known that the museum doesn’t even keep it on display. While Van Gogh’s painting depicts, what Bogard calls, “old night,” Balla’s is a painting of “night from now on.” Bogard notes: “In both paintings, the moon lives in the upper right corner, and for Van Gogh, the moon is a throbbing yellow presence pulsing with natural light. But for Balla, the moon has become a little biscuit wafer hanging on for dear life, overwhelmed by the electric streetlight. And that, in fact, was Balla’s purpose. “Let’s kill the Moonlight!” was the rallying cry from Balla’s fellow Italian futurist, Filippo Marinetti. These futurists believed in noise and speed and light—human light, modern light, electric light. What use could we now have of something so yesterday as the moon?”
In his book and in Episode 31 of On the Road, we travel with Bogard around the globe to find night where it still lives…showing exactly what we’ve lost, what we have left and what we might hope to regain. We hear how the loss of night is not only a loss of beauty above us. More light at night does not, as some insist, ensure greater safety and security; properly designed light at night does. Exposure to artificial light at night has been cited as a factor in health concerns ranging from poor sleep to cancer. Light pollution is also threatening the health of the world’s ecosystems as everything from reproduction cycles to migration patterns are adversely affected by artificial light at night. But there is hope. Light pollution is one kind of pollution we can readily fix. And, as the jacket cover of the book proclaims: Bogard’s “panoramic tour of the night, from its brightest spots to the darkest skies we have left gives us every reason to flip the switch—tonight.”
I’m looking forward, with great excitement, to next Monday’s interview with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night. The cover of his book notes that: “A brilliantly starry night is one of nature’s most thrilling wonders. Yet in our world of nights as bright as day, most of us no longer experience true darkness. Exposure to artificial night at light has been cited as a factor in health concerns ranging from poor sleep to cancer. And eight out of ten Americans born today won’t ever live where they can see the Milky Way.”
Natural patterns of darkness are as important as the light of day to the functioning of ecosystems. With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular (active at twilight), the implications are enormous. While most of us are inside and asleep, outside the night world is wide awake with matings, pollinations, and feeding–in short, the basic happenings that keep world biodiversity alive. Light pollution threatens this biodiversity.
I’ll be chatting with Paul about the search for natural darkness in an age of artificial light and will be posting an article on this site about this critically important book. I’ll also let you know when this On the Road with Mac and Molly episode is available for listening on Pet Life Radio (www.petliferadio.com).
I am a staunch advocate for free speech and the free exercise of religion and am appalled at the steady erosion of these long-in-place and long-cherished rights in the United States.
Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, recently responded to a question about sin, paraphrasing–what he believes to be–the Word of God. He has been threatened with the loss of his job on the A&E network because he did so.
Companies like Hobby Lobby are being threatened with millions of dollars in crippling fines and, thus, ultimate expulsion from the marketplace because they are refusing to provide government-mandated employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and related counseling. To go against their deeply-held pro-life beliefs would violate their Christian principles. This case is going all the way to the Supreme Court.
The marginalization of Christians in this country is a frightening trend and one that should alarm every American.
In the article below to which I link, is found this:
“Speaking on the issue of tolerance, mega-church pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren observed: ‘Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.’ Tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance, and acceptance is not the same thing as an endorsement. The message A&E’s decision sends is that the network will not tolerate someone who conscientiously objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. The implication of that message is that 45 percent of Americans [who are striving to live by biblical standards] should, in principle, be prepared either to sacrifice their jobs or recant their beliefs and endorse a lifestyle to which they are opposed, conscience be damned. To the extent that we embrace that implication, in television and in other American industries, we’re also embracing an identity as a nation that forces conformity while calling it tolerance.”
As the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, I am reminded of a visit to Zimbabwe some years ago where I had the privilege of hearing him speak.
Robert Mugabe was also on the platform that day and I remember being struck by the great difference in the receptions afforded the two men. While Mugabe was greeted with polite (faint) applause, the room filled with ululations and other expressions of appreciation and admiration as Mandela stepped to the podium. Mandela, on that day, praised the missionaries who had been so influential in his walk with Christ and he insisted he would not have been the man he was if not for his faith.
I pray that followers of Christ who are reading this today might honor Mandela (and, more importantly, the God he served), by celebrating what Christ has done for us and by working each day for justice, peace and righteousness wherever the Lord calls us. And for anyone reading this today who has not met Jesus, I pray you might take note of how a walk with Christ may transform your life as it did Mandela’s. I pray you might invite Jesus into your life, celebrate your first true Christmas with great joy, and know the all-surpassing peace of the Lord all your days.
One Mandela statement that I’ve seen quoted again and again yesterday and this morning is this: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Would that we might all be granted the power by the Lord to overcome the bitterness, hatred and unforgiveness in our lives! Freedom.
Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen and ethnic Iranian who returned to Iran, has been imprisoned and tortured there for six months because of his Christian ministry. The prosecutor, in outlining the charges against him, said Abedini had undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches.
“This is a real travesty, a mockery of justice,” said Jay Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been lobbying for the pastor’s release. “From the very beginning Iranian authorities have lied about all aspects of this case, even releasing rumors of his expected release. Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights.”
Sekulow said it is deeply troubling that “we have a U.S. citizen who has been beaten and tortured since his imprisonment last fall, now facing eight years in Evin Prison, one of the most brutal prisons in Iran.” He added that the pastor, whose wife Naghmeh and their two small children remain in the United States, will most likely continue to face “life-threatening torture and abuse at the hands of the Iranian regime — simply because of his Christian faith.”
According to The New American, the Muslim-born, naturalized American citizen Abedini became a Christian after training to be a suicide bomber in his native Iran. “His wife, the American-born Naghmeh, whom he married in 2005, related that Abedini had become very depressed as a result of the training, and that “Christianity saved his life.” Following his Christian conversion, Abedini ultimately became a leader in Iran’s underground church, and before leaving the country, oversaw about 100 churches and 2,000 members in 30 Iranian cities. He had returned to Iran to help establish a non-sectarian orphanage.”
Fox News notes that: “On the day he was confirmed as Secretary of State, John Kerry went farther than his predecessor had in condemning Iran for imprisoning an American citizen . . . Kerry, the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, made the statement in response to a written query from fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who asked if Kerry, as Secretary of State, would join the National Security Council’s call for Saeed Abedini’s release.
“’We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial,’ Kerry told Rubio. ‘I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him.’”
U.S. citizens who are persecuted for their faith overseas are not a typical priority for the U.S. Government or the media, human rights lawyer Nina Shea has observed. And it was not until March 22, in a statement issued very late on a Friday, that Secretary of State John Kerry made a proactive call for Abedini’s release. “I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for almost six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Kerry wrote. “I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.”
Pastor Saeed is far from alone in suffering persecution for his Christian faith. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that an average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith each year. Deseret News boils the numbers down to a Christian martyred every five minutes – killed because they name Jesus as their Savior.
Open Doors, a non-profit organization working in the world’s most oppressive countries, providing Bibles and literature, media, leadership training, socio-economic development and ensuring prayer, presence and advocacy for persecuted Christians, recently released its 2013 ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Topping the list are: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria.
North Korea is described on the Open Doors website as “the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian. One of the remaining Communist states, it is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind. Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. There is a system of labour camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 Christians alone. But despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians.”
In Saudi Arabia, according to Open Doors, there is no provision for religious freedom in the Islamic kingdom’s constitution. “All citizens must adhere to Islam and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. Public Christian worship is forbidden; worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelising Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honour killings, and foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers. Despite this, converts are responding to Christian TV programmes and to dreams and visions from God.” Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly, perhaps undergoing its largest expansion in history.
Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians who are Dying for Their Faith, by religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall with journalist Lela Gilbert, is one of the most moving books I’ve read on the persecution of Christians. In this, the authors reveal the reality of this present-day horror and offer suggestions on what individuals and churches can do to help those who are suffering.
Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea have also now released a new book on the international torment of Christians called Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson). Their launch was March 27 at the Hudson Institute, where all three are affiliated, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas moderating.
Mark Tooley, on the blog site Juicy Ecumenism, shared the following comments from the authors today:
“Churches themselves don’t take notice sometimes,” Nina Shea sadly observed about persecution of Christians. “Not too many people are paying attention.” And “political correctness has grown even in churches.” She contrasted today’s indifference to the wide coalition of the 1990s that rallied for global religious liberty, which led to the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that U.S. foreign policy prioritize the issue. That coalition had been led and cheered on by, among others, evangelical leader Chuck Colson and New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, both now deceased.
The indifference and ignorance even within American churches is compounded by little knowledge that significant Christian communities even exist in majority Muslim countries, Paul Marshall noted, much less that they are increasingly under siege.
While the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa – in settings that are often, as noted, extraordinarily oppressive – it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, fewer than four percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. The situation is even worse in countries like Germany and Sweden where the numbers of professing Christians are now so low as to be almost uncountable.
While people in the United States are hungry for information about God and, while the country still permits open expressions of the Christian faith, Christian pollster George Barna estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question – “What are we trying to do?” – was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list.
Here, where we have the freedom to live out the faith, many Christians are biblically illiterate and rarely share their belief in Christ with those who have never been introduced to Him. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Christianity has been syncretized with everything from (what we used to call) the New Age to Buddhism to secularism.
Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries [in the United States] very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”
We sit on the mission field. What will you do about all that you’ve just read? Brothers and sisters around the world are dying for the faith. The Lord may never place you in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel but we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. What risk will you take for the Lord this Holy Week? Will you take the risk to invite someone to consider Christ? Who will you bring to worship this Sunday? Who will you lift to the Lord in prayer?