One day, in the early seventies, I walked into the bookstore instead of just past it, as was my habit. As a lover of books I always frequented independent bookstores—and still do—and have found that just browsing can generate a flood of questions and ideas that stimulates learning and deeper insight into life and reality. Walking among shelves and piles of books makes me glad to be alive. The two I visited most often in those days included a store near the university that also sold textbooks and a huge used bookstore that was in such a state of delicious chaos as to be especially inviting to readers like me addicted to browsing. Time stood still for me there. Good independent bookstores, so rare now, are like portals, each book spine an invitation to enter a new world of imagination, story, and ideas. Many turn out to be spurious and disappointing, of course, but hidden in the stacks are always some that open into unexpected discoveries like happening upon a secret cabin in a secluded wood where truth and beauty manifest themselves with surprising clarity. I expected the same here as I climbed the steps to the door.
This was a small, niche bookstore, one of a number that could be found around the University of New Mexico in those days. I don’t remember its name, but it was known to be a source for esoteric, mystical, and occult titles and rumored to be a place where you could score psychedelics. It was on a quiet side street, an old single story adobe house fitted with shelves and tables and filled with clouds of incense. Posters of Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary, a variety of Eastern gurus, and local concerts adorned the walls. None of that was unusual, and could be seen in more mainstream stores and on kiosks on campus. What was unusual, however, could not be seen but was as real to me—perhaps more real—than all I was seeing on the shelves and tables and walls. For as I stepped through the door into the store, a distinct heaviness—it’s the only way I know to describe it—descended on me as if something weighty had been draped across my shoulders. Not my shoulders, really, but on me, within me, on my soul somehow, a heaviness that felt as real as if I was being forced to carry an inner burden. It did not exist in the world of sight but though unseen was very real nevertheless.
“Well,” someone may say at this point, “this was your experience. So, it wasn’t really real, it just felt real to you.” What they mean, of course, is that my experience doesn’t make it real or true. Experience isn’t fully trustworthy, so it’s good to have a healthy dose of skepticism when people report unusual experiences. True enough. But I’m not asking you to believe it. I believe it, though, and believe it was real: I felt a weight that day, an unseen, inner heaviness and it lifted only when I walked back out through that door into the street a little while later.
The weight I felt in that store had a distinctly personal feel, as if it were not just a burden, but that a burdensome personality or power was present. It felt dark and forbidding, yet strangely seductive as if what beckoned was promising that this, whatever it was, was no trivial matter in the ordinary flow of things. Here somehow an outer, hidden cusp of reality could be experienced with all the danger and promise such a moment would embrace. It fit the books that were offered for sale, books purporting to explore a world of dark arts and ancient, secret rituals that tapped into powers that normally lay beyond the edge of science and polite society. Some were drug based, where psychedelics, mushrooms, or the recipes of native priests could be used to open one’s consciousness into realms of reality that only a privileged few would experience. Within that store a spiritual realm, complete with both angelic and demonic beings and powers beyond imagining was not just proposed but was assumed to exist, if only we had eyes that dared to see.
So, what was the weight, the inner heaviness I felt that day in that little bookstore? I do not know. Could it have been a reaction to the billowing incense that filled the store? Unlikely. In those days if you wanted to stay away from incense you had to wear a respirator, or remain outside most of the establishments and houses near the university. Incense was ubiquitous. But still, that could be part of the explanation since there is no way to rule it out. Could it have been the hyperactive imagination of a Christian entering a store that catered to those interested in magic, mind-altering drugs and witchcraft? Perhaps, though I doubt this is, by itself, a sufficient explanation. I had read the books of Carlos Castaneda—all the rage at the time—about his induction into ancient Mexican shamanism, had browsed similar titles in other stores, had long conversations with self-described druids and witches, and tried psychedelics, so this was not a world that was completely foreign to me. Students and street people were interested in such things so avoiding such topics was impossible if you wanted to have serious conversations with people. It was a world in which Margie and I lived day to day for several years. So it was hardly the only time or place where I was in such surroundings and did not sense that day that in entering the store I was entering some especially dangerous or forbidden place. But perhaps my imagination was involved that day, even though I remember being surprised when the heaviness descended.
Even granted these possibilities—and others that could be listed—I do not believe they give an exhaustive explanation for what I sensed that day. I do not discount them but would argue there is no reason to believe that experiences must have only one possible cause.
Did every patron sense the inner heaviness? Don’t know, don’t care, and have no reason to wonder. Would every Christian sense the weight? Same answer. All I know is that I did, and my experience was undeniable. Would I tell all Christians to stay away out of that bookstore? No, because there is not one square inch of created reality over which Christ proclaims, “This is mine”—and that bookstore is included under his sovereignty. I do not place any significance on my experience except for what it taught me, and that was as undeniable as the experience itself.
My embrace of Christian faith was primarily in (and continues to be) the realm of ideas, culture and worldview, and my visit to that bookstore impressed on me forcibly that what is at stake is not merely abstract and rational but personal and relational. St. Paul is not merely waxing poetic when he tells Christ’s disciples we must be prepared for real spiritual struggle. “For,” says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
This is an accurate depiction of reality. But don’t believe it because I had an experience of heaviness in that bookstore. Believe it because it is the apostolic teaching, and would be true if my experience hadn’t occurred at all. Is it possible that as I entered that bookstore I was allowed for a few minutes to sense in a special way the reality of things unseen? Since I cannot demonstrate that from scripture, I remain agnostic about the answer to this question. It is true that as I walked into the store I was aware that I was entering territory claimed by an “adversary” who, as St. Peter puts it, “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The experience reminded me that what scripture teaches us is true about things unseen, and that seems to me to be a sufficient explanation for what happened.
What we choose to center our life, affections, and hope on really matters in this broken world. What we yield allegiance to, even if we are barely aware of the transaction, is always a choice between kingdoms, between life and death. And our brokenness is so deep that we can twist meaning into its opposite, as the ancient Hebrew seer knew:
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
Job spoke of people who have turned away from the light. “For deep darkness is morning to all of them,” he says, “for they are friends with the terrors of deep darkness” (Job 24:17). If that seems strange consider the Twilight phenomenon where the danger of damnation holds a strange attraction. Is it possible that spiritual realities can occasionally weigh upon our souls? Perhaps.
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” C. S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” Lewis is correct, though I would add that the two errors are found in evangelical Christian circles in less extreme versions. It is possible for believers to be de facto materialists or magicians. The one lives as though spiritual warfare never actually impinges upon them while the other frolics in a world in which dark forces are behind every instance of sinfulness. Both deny aspects of the gospel and are content to live in a world of their own imagining.
What singer/songwriter Fernando Ortega expresses in “Our Great God” (2002) is an accurate reflection of the historic orthodox Christian position:
Lord we are weak and frail
Helpless in the storm
Surround us with your angels
Hold us in your arms
Our cold and ruthless enemy
His pleasure is our harm
Rise up O Lord and he will flee
Before our sov’reign God
This I believe. It is as real as the laptop on which I am writing. Beings exist and are active in the same reality in which we inhabit but in a mode or realm that is ordinarily—for us, at least right now—unseen.
What got me started thinking about things unseen was reading Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, Rumors of Glory. Margie and I have long loved the Canadian singer/song writer’s music, and have seen him in concert several times, sometimes solo and sometimes with a band. Sensitive to human suffering, the horror of oppression and conflict, and the grace of beauty in the brokenness, his lyrics evoke some of the deepest yearnings of the human heart.
In Rumors of Glory Cockburn mentions that early in his spiritual pilgrimage he read the novels of Charles Williams, a series of superb stories (that I highly recommend) referred to as “supernatural thrillers” by T. S. Eliot. “When a fan gave me a copy of War in Heaven,” Cockburn says, “I discovered a Christian author whose background in the occult paralleled my own.” I have never read a biography of Charles Williams and do not know if that is an accurate description. I have read his novels, however, and know he need not have a “background in the occult” to write his novels, merely a keen belief in the nature of evil and an understanding that the spiritual warfare described in scripture intersects ordinary people in ordinary settings in ways that few modern people, Christian or non-Christian imagine. Williams has an uncanny ability as a storyteller to peel back the outer layers of reality in order to provide a glimpse of a deeper reality that lies just below the surface of things. He makes unseen things visible so that we never can see reality the same way again. In his novels, the occult ceases to be the arcane rituals and dark beliefs of a few people on the edge of society to be revealed as the principalities and powers at work behind the scene in daily life. Small choices are shown to be decisive steps towards damnation, insignificant individuals are revealed in their quiet submission to be decisive in an ongoing war of darkness against the light, and ordinary things become hints of greater things yet unseen.
Cockburn’s experiences with dark spiritual powers, he says, helped prepare him for his encounter with Christ. One fascinating experience he relates occurred while he was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. It involved a young woman who introduced herself as Red Devil and told him she was a witch. She had been involved with another student at the College, a drummer, but was ending that relationship in favor of Cockburn, a situation about which the drummer was quite angry. “If we happened to find ourselves in the same room,” Cockburn says, “he would scowl at me, baring his teeth.”
My pattern at the time was to make a nightly pilgrimage to the gas station around the corner and coax a Coca-Cola from the vending machine. For weeks I hadn’t been able to sleep without downing a bottle of Coke. One week, though, something unexpected came to call. As my eyes closed I felt a tidal wave of fear wash over me, a whirl of nameless dread, like a drunk’s vertigo. I opened my eyes. The feeling vanished.
The moment I closed them again, it was back. I felt myself gripping the edges of my mattress. Eyes open, I lay staring at the springs of the bunk above. The room was darkened to the shade of urban night. Dim light filtered in around the blinds. Calm. The air cool. Eventually fatigue triumphed over both fear and light, and I fell into the black pit of sleep.
This continued for six nights in a row. The seventh morning, as with the others, I felt fine except for the nagging depression that went with being eighteen. Breakfast… I’d begun to like oatmeal, which used to make me vomit, even the smell, when I was little. Now it was the most palatable offering the Berklee cafeteria could come up with. There followed an arranging class, a guitar lesson learning scale fingerings and flat-picking technique, and later in the day some more theory and an English class, one of the two or three “academic” courses that were added to the school’s curriculum to allow it to confer degrees. I was one of a very few students who appreciated those non-musical classes. I didn’t especially appreciate having to play with a plectrum, but it was explained to me at the first lesson that no one on the faculty knew how to play finger style, so I would have to go with the pick.
In the early evening, back in my second-floor dorm room, the pay phone in the hall downstairs began to ring. It was for me. I knew that after one or two rings, as I always did when the caller was Red Devil. Whoever answered the phone called out my name. “It’s for you.” He was surprised to see me already coming down the stairs. “I know. Thanks.” Her voice was cheerful. We hadn’t spoken for a few days. When I told her about my nightly terror episodes, she took it far more seriously than expected. “That son of a bitch!” she said. “Who?” “Bobby. I’m coming right over.”
It was late spring and the evenings were long. Red Devil arrived and led me to the Boston Public Garden.
“What are we doing?” “Gathering some things to make magic with.” Her eyes scanned the grass, coming to rest on a short three-pronged twig. This she picked up. Next it was three white feathers, downy curls from under some bird’s wing. With a Swiss Army knife, she cut small slots in the ends of the twig. Into each slot went a white feather. “C’mon,” she said, heading for the subway. We travelled to a street I didn’t know. She peered around, taking in scene and situation. Apparently all was clear, as we crossed to where a row of well-kept townhouses lined the block. At a grey painted door she handed me the device she had constructed. “Put it in the mailbox.” I did. She grabbed my hand and we jogged back to the train, then back to Back Bay.
Curious. What did we just do? “It’s like voodoo,” she said. “Bobby’s been sending you that fear. Now you’re sending it back. Let’s see how he likes it!”
I’d read about things like this. Fascinating to see it up close. I had no expectations. I liked that she wanted to help. I wasn’t totally sure I believed that Bobby was responsible for what I’d been feeling. But lo! The fear was gone that very night and never came back. A couple of weeks later I was strolling down Newbury Street on a sunny afternoon and here came the drummer, striding straight at me, heading toward Massachusetts Avenue. He gave me a slight jolt of panic, but about thirty yards out he spotted me, stopped, then quickly scuttled across the street, fear pulsing over his face.
Red Devil… she had some stuff going. My sense that there was more to life than the physical was strengthened knowing her. (71-72)
I haven’t bothered to collate the dates, but this would have occurred around the same period of time as my visit to the bookstore. Certainly this section of his memoir brought back vivid memories of the scene on the streets and at the university that I experienced in the sixties and early seventies.
I cannot vouch for Cockburn’s experience with Red Devil, of course, but have no trouble accepting it at face value. It’s clear he believes it, and that it changed him. I do know it is a grace to be made open to spiritual reality, and I have no doubt that somehow, somewhere in this weird experience is an opening to comprehend the reality of the unseen that he needed in his spiritual pilgrimage that eventually brought him to Christ.
People who know their Bibles may think at this point of the “witch” from Endor who conjured up the spirit of the prophet Samuel for King Saul (1 Samuel 28). We think of a witch as someone who trades their soul with Satan for dark powers of magic, but that is not what is in view here.
Divination was widespread in the ancient world, involving dream interpretation, and examining signs that if properly interpreted by ancient traditions would provide insight into the future. She is not called a witch in scripture, and is more properly a necromancer, someone who uses rituals and incantations to interact with the spirits of the dead. The story has long been controversial among biblical commentators but I see no reason to simply accept it at face value. We are not given an explanation of the event, and so need none.
Were the powers and rituals claimed by Red Devil real? I don’t know. I do know that the God of scripture claims sovereign authority over his creation even as we find ourselves in the middle of a great struggle between good and evil, light and darkness.
Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:12-16)
That is more than enough for me, and it is here that I stake my claim. He is my Lord, the tomb remains empty, so I need not fear.
On the last day of May 2014 we moved 77.9 miles from Toad Hall in Rochester to The House Between in Savage, Minnesota. Margie realized we needed to move before I did. I loved Toad Hall, and had long assumed I would live out my life there. It was the first place where I felt rooted, and the charm of a Sears & Roebuck house built in 1916 was delightful. We had lived there for 33 years, and it was home. It was also a place that had become for many people a safe place for unhurried conversation, stimulating reflection, quiet reading, and leisurely meals. It was not something to be given up lightly.
Slowly our closest friends had moved away, with job or family changes, and though we had blessed each of them as they made their decision, in the end we felt that something precious had had been lost. Rochester was changing, much of it spurred on by growth in the Mayo Clinic, and the quiet street on which Toad Hall stood became a busy thoroughfare funneling cars in and out of the city center. We had decided that we needed to devote more time to writing rather than speaking, and Toad Hall was not a place conducive to Margie fulfilling that calling. There were other reasons as well, and in the end we came to believe that our time in Rochester had come to an end.
So we put Toad Hall up for sale, using the process as an intentional opportunity for God to change our plans. Instead, the house sold quickly, and we began the tedious process of looking for a place to buy in the Twin Cities. We searched online, attended open houses, and had our agent show us houses for weeks, and found nothing in which we were even slightly interested. Then one day after viewing three houses, we drove up to this one in Savage. Margie took one look at the outside and said she didn’t even want to look at it. But the agent had patiently come to show it to us, so we went inside. We parted ways just inside the front door, and wandered through the rooms alone. We met in what is now our dining room, and just a glance at each other’s face told us this was it.
“We want it,” we both said to our agent. “Make an offer.” So, he did, and our offer was refused. Though the house had been empty and on the market for a year, someone else made an offer the same day and his was accepted. So we went back to searching, and feeling increasingly discouraged at the houses available in our price range. Then I had a dream.
I don’t dream often. I had frequent nightmares as a boy, and those I remember with a sense of dread. I would be at the foot of a hill, usually the one in the park across the street from our house. I would hear something behind me and looking back would see huge logs racing down the hill at me. I would turn to run and be rooted in place, unable to move. I could hear the logs bearing down on me and could see them over my shoulder but was forever frozen in place. Then I would wake, terrified. I think now that the dream is best understood as a reflection of the marginalization and abandonment that was the measure of my childhood. The disdain I was showed at home, where the shame that came from being repeatedly told I was a disappointment made me feel caught, with no way out. My dreams, I suspect, were an expression of my inner emotional and spiritual turmoil. One day my mother told me I wouldn’t dream if I slept on my side rather my back, so I trained myself to sleep that way, and the nightmares stopped. After that it seemed I stopped dreaming altogether.
So, when I awoke after this dream, it was a striking experience for me. I told Margie about it, and in the telling made certain it would not fade from memory. We were, in my dream, in the house in Savage. It was ours and we belonged there. I told Margie, “That’s our house. I don’t know what that means, or if it means anything, but it’s our house.” And we went on looking at more houses, with more discouragement at what we were seeing.
Several weeks passed and it became clear that we would soon need to make a decision since the buyers wanted to take possession of Toad Hall. One day we were in the Twin Cities to look at more places and had stopped at the Minnesota Arboretum because it is a place of restful beauty. My iPhone rang and it was our agent. “The purchase of that house in Savage just fell through, so it’s going back on the market tomorrow. Should I resubmit your offer?” Yes—and now it’s ours, just as in my dream. We named it The House Between.
So, how should I understand that dream? Some Christians would append the words, “The Lord told me…” to my story but I find that presumptuous if not blasphemous. We know that for certain only of the scriptures and should be content with that. The Old Testament prophets were held to a rigorous standard: those who spoke falsely in the Lord’s name were worthy of death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). If we know God at all we will know a proper fear in attributing to God anything except what we know he has in fact revealed.
Could it be that my dream about the house in Savage was a product of my frustration and disappointment over searching so long and so fruitlessly for a house? Absolutely. I would be surprised if that wasn’t involved. The search for a house was, as my grandchildren would say, a serious soul-suck. But my dream felt like more than merely a subconscious expression of my frustration. To remember a dream at all was remarkable for me, and this one seemed like a quiet word of assurance. We didn’t stop looking—the dream was only a whisper, and could have been merely assurance that we were not abandoned as we searched—but it was deeply reassuring.
We know God uses dreams because that fact is found in the scriptures. The patriarch Abraham lived for a while in Gerar, and because he was afraid the king would assassinate him to take his wife into his harem, Abraham said Sarah was his sister. “Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife’” (Genesis 20:2-3). Being of sound mind, he restored Sarah to Abraham.
Joseph was an Old Testament dreamer but that didn’t go well even though his dreams accurately foretold what would transpire. “Joseph had a dream,” the Pentateuch records, “and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more” (Genesis 37:5). Daniel interpreted the dreams of the king of Babylonia, and had some of his own. “In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, and told the sum of the matter.” (Daniel 7:1) And twice Joseph, Mary’s husband, received direction from God in dreams, first when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, and later after the visit of the magi (Matthew 1:20-24; 2:13-15). According to scripture, dreams can have divine significance, and come to both believers and unbelievers.v
And more recently, reports suggest that increasing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East are coming to faith in Christ after receiving dreams, many of the Virgin Mary, who is highly honored in Islam, or of Christ saying, “Follow me.” To the extent this is true, there is reason to be grateful.
Still, there is every reason to approach all this with hesitant humility—even if we think we have a prophetic gift, none of us are a Daniel—or even close to it. As a prophet, a seer of God, Daniel had a ministry in Babylon that showed him to be set apart by God in a special way for a special purpose. “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery which the king has asked,” Daniel said in one instance of dream interpretation, “but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Daniel 2:27-28).
Commenting on the dream of the Babylonian king in Daniel 2, Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) concludes that Christians should be careful not to place much importance in the meaning of dreams.
Seeing, then, that dreams may arise from such a variety of causes, one ought to be very reluctant to put one’s faith in them, since it is hard to tell from what source they come… If the mind is not on its guard against these it will be entangled in countless vanities by the master of deceit, who is clever enough to foretell many things that are true in order finally to capture the soul by but one falsehood. This happened recently to one of our people who believed strongly in dreams. In one of them he was promised a long life. After collecting a large sum of money to last him for many years, he died suddenly, leaving all of his wealth behind untouched, without having so much as a single good work to take with him. A wise warning, I think.
So, what about my dream about the house in Savage—can it be explained by considering it a vivid expression of my frustration meeting my desire? Undoubtedly. But I also believe it was more. Again, I’m not asking you to believe it, but the sense of deep reassurance that we were not alone in our search was exactly what I needed at that moment in time. And if I told you that I believed God had not abandoned us I would not have given my dream as proof—it is not that. I would have turned to the scriptures for proof. My dream was a whisper from a loving Father and proved nothing but assured me of everything I needed. And that is enough.
So why am I writing about this? Because my passion to encourage the people of God to be discerning must include things unseen or we are missing an essential aspect of reality in this broken world. Because our telling of the sweeping narrative of redemption in creation, fall, redemption, and restoration revealed in scripture is incomplete if the story is limited to only what is seen. So, in the end, I’m writing this in order to pose three simple but important questions I hope you will consider carefully:
Do you believe in things unseen? Why? What difference does it make in your life? And how can you talk about it in our pluralistic and religiously confused world in a way that might persuade people to reflect on the truth of reality and scripture?
SourceThe Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, revised edition (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company; 1961, 1982) p 3.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (XIII): Ezekiel, Daniel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2008) p 167.
Rumors of Glory: A Memoir by Bruce D. Cockburn and Greg King (New York, NY; 2014) p 70-72, 162.