Archives For Confession

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909

The quote below, taken from Tolstoy’s ‘A Confession’, reads like a critique of the leviathan that is social media:

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions:
What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum.
Thousands of workmen laboured to the extreme limit of their strength day and night, setting the type and printing millions of words which the post carried all over Russia, and we still went on teaching and could in no way find time to teach enough, and were always angry that sufficient attention was not paid us. It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that’[i].

Of course, it is anachronistic to suggest that Tolstoy was talking about social media as we know it. Tolstoy’s words are, however, a critique of 19th Century, Russian media, its medium and the noise therein. Therefore, they are an early critique of the content and form which makes up a large part of social media. As such, they are a relevant criticism for us to take seriously, particularly when applying them to a 21st Century context.

Henry Ergas from ‘The Australian’, made an interesting observation. In writing about sensitive information, how it is monitored, distributed and delivered. He provided an historical insight, which although topically unrelated, helps us to contextually frame the sharp poignancy of Tolstoy’s reflection:

“19th century’s Pax Brittanica, was built on a solid technological foundation: Britain’s control of global telegraphy. As late as 1890, 80 per cent of the world’s submarine cables were British; Britain ruled the wires even more decisively than she ruled the waves… The sophistication of today’s communications networks is obviously many orders of magnitude that of Britain’s global telegraph system. In 2012, daily internet traffic was in the order of 1.1 exabytes, one billion times more every day than the 19th century system could carry in a year. And the growth rates remain breathtaking: wireless traffic alone is now eight times larger than the entire internet in 2000’[ii]

If Ergas’ facts are correct, that is a lot of information being exchanged. For better or worse we engage, encode, disengage and decipher information at ‘breathtaking’ speeds. Matthew McKay suggests that ‘55% of all communication is mostly facial expressions’[v]. Thus, my conclusion is that because most of the information exchanged via social media is in written form, it seriously limits our ability to receive a message, in the same way it was intended to be received by the author. (there are many examples of how comments have been wrongly interpreted).

I consider Tolstoy’s reflection a full-stop. An important interruption that encourages us to take a breath and ask ourselves:

  • Is the information we are consuming authentic, well-informed, or is it just propaganda; distortion (noise)?

Further questions might be:

  • Are we consuming information without really processing and retaining what it is being said?
  • Who is saying this, and why are they saying it?
  • Is the source trustworthy?
  • Will my time be well spent reading this or not?

There is a further word worthy of consideration here. Augustine, in his day, had this to say about grace and human nature:

…’many sins are committed through pride; but not all happen proudly. They happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness, and many are committed by people, weeping and groaning in their distress[iii]’

Perhaps there is a timeless clarity by which these words help us to reflect on the interpersonal conduct, and content of the information exchanged on most prominent social media sites today?

Diary of Leo Tolstoy

Diary of Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even with all its pitfalls, the strength of social media is in its ability to connect people and strengthen relationships. I remain a cautious participant of social media, aware of its limited ability to ‘properly allow a healthy and fair exchange of ideas’ (Elshtain, 2007). Therefore, I find here in Augustine and Tolstoy’s words, a reminder about the limits and the responsibility which coincides with the right to use such mediums. Augustine’s insight here could be bridged to Tolstoy’s reflection, and therefore buttress our proposition. Their words present us with a useful framework for a theological critique of social media.

If we look at Proverbs 4:20-5:6, we can see a parallel logic that could exonerate this train of thought.

Be attentive to God’s word

Keeping them close.

Guard your heart with vigilance,

Avoiding spin and smear.

(“Refusing to be conned by the rhetoric of either the Right or the Left’’)[iv]

Looking forward, ponder the path of our feet.

Be attentive to wisdom.

Use words that guard knowledge,

And ponder the path of life.

Related articles

Tolstoy’s Faith – GVL

The Who, What And When Of Social Media – RVD, The Christian Pundit


[i] Tolstoy, L. 1879 A Confession (Kindle for PC ed. Loc. 92-100).
[ii] Ergas, H. 2013 Wrong for Abbott to follow Obama and add lying to spying, The Australian, Sourced 25th November 2013
[iii] Augustine, ON NATURE AND GRACE (With Active Table of Contents) Kindle Ed. Loc. 704-706
[iv] Wright, N.T. 2013 Creation, Power and Truth: The gospel in a world of cultural confusion, SPCK & Proverbs 4:27
[v] McKay, M., Martha, D. & Fanning, P. 2009 Messages: The communications skill book p.59, New Harbinger publications


Stumbling through some images yesterday, I came across an ‘old’ e-formatted copy of Leo Tolstoy’s 1879 work – ‘A Confession’. I had originally been looking for humorous pictures about coffee, power etc. Instead, I found myself navigating my way through this book.

As I made my advance into Tolstoy’s world,  I found it difficult to put down.

There are free versions of this available from Christian Classics (Link: A Confession CCEL).

In short, Tolstoy’s documented struggle with theology, science, life, faith, the Greek Orthodox church, severe depression and mental illness, is ripe for contemporary reflection. Which is saying a lot for a 134 year old academically astute work of art.

Karl Barth was aware of Tolstoy’s work. However based on the indexing in his Church Dogmatics I could only find a loose connection to the imagery of being ”held over the abyss by the infinite” (CD, IV:I:411), which Tolstoy uses in the abridged quote below.

Considering that Barth was born in 1886, there is a strong possibility here that Tolstoy had a big influence on Barth’s thought and theology. I am keen to confirm this link, so if anyone can point me in the right direction with this, I would appreciate it.

For me, among the highlights of this journey was this postscript (Some of which I hope to write and post about this week. After I pray and mine it some more):

I had a dream.

Leo Tolstoy

The dream was this:
I saw that I was lying on a bed. I was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable: I was lying on my back.
I looked down and did not believe my eyes. I was not only at a height comparable to the height of the highest towers or mountains, but at a height such as I could never have imagined. I could not even make out whether I saw anything there below, in that bottomless abyss over which I was hanging and which I was being drawn.
My heart contracted, and I experienced horror. To look thither was terrible. If I looked thither I felt that I should at once slip from the last support and perish. And I did not look. But not to look was still worse, for I thought of what would happen to me directly I fell from the last support. And I felt that from fear I was losing my last supports, and that my back was slowly slipping lower and lower.
Another moment and I should drop off. And then it occurred to me that this cannot be real. It is a dream. Wake up!
I try to arouse myself but cannot do so. What am I to do? What am I to do? I ask myself, and look upwards.
Above, there is also an infinite space. I look into the immensity of sky and try to forget about the immensity below, and I really do forget it. The immensity below repels and frightens me; the immensity above attracts and strengthens me.
I am still supported above the abyss by the last supports that have not yet slipped from under me; I know that I am hanging, but I look only upwards and my fear passes. As happens in dreams, a voice says: “Notice this, this is it!” And I look more and more into the infinite above me and feel that I am becoming calm.
I remember all that has happened, and remember how it all happened; how I moved my legs, how I hung down, how frightened I was, and how I was saved from fear by looking upwards.
I ask myself how am I held: I feel about, look round, and see that under me, under the middle of my body, there is one support, and that when I look upwards I lie on it in the position of secured balance, and that it alone gave me support before. And then, as happens in dreams, I imagined the mechanism by means of which I was held; a very natural intelligible, and sure means, though to one awake that mechanism has no sense. I was even surprised in my dream that I had not understood it sooner.
It appeared that at my head there was a pillar, and the security of that slender pillar was undoubted though there was nothing to support it. From the pillar a loop hung very ingeniously and yet simply, and if one lay with the middle of one’s body in that loop and looked up, there could be no question of falling. This was all clear to me, and I was glad and tranquil. And it seemed as if someone said to me:
“See that you remember.”
And I awoke.


Leo Tolstoy 1879 A Confession  Kindle for PC. (Loc. 962).

Image credit: Tolstoy, Wikipedia

(Originally posted 7th July 2013)

Barth quote 3In the footnotes of his segment on Karl Barth, Dean Stroud comments that the first part of the quote pictured to the left, is ‘one of Barth’s great sentences – to be read slowly and enjoyed greatly’[i].

I agree with this, although it is not complete without the second part – which I’ve added from the text.

There Barth is talking about what it means to understand that God’s permission to pray is also an invitation to exercise our new freedom in Christ. That is as responsive sinners called to pray, we are called to take part in what Eberhard Busch rightly calls the ‘first act of Christian ethics’[ii].

The theme of prayer as an expression of freedom in Christ, comes alive in light of the context.

The sermon Stroud is referring to is called ‘A Sermon about Jesus as a Jew’. It was written and delivered by Barth in Bonn on December 10, 1933. According to Stroud, ‘copies were made the following day, and Barth even sent a copy to Hitler.’[iii]

What grabbed me, reading this for the first time today, is the connection Barth identifies between prayer, praise, discernment and confession.

Barth writes that ‘we discern the word we hear, in order to confess it to one another.’ However, we don’t achieve this alone; ‘not through the power of our minds but through the power of the Holy Spirit’[iv] – {in my opinion another one of Barth’s ‘great sentences’}

He strongly asserts that:

 ‘Our text tells us simply to pray for the church that it become a church of discernment and confession. If only we then would once again pray for this unanimously!
What does it mean then to pray? To scream, to call, to reach out so that what is true once and for all time might be true for us: Christ has accepted us.
Ecclesiastical discernment and ecclesiastical confession would indeed follow such a prayer, if earnestly offered, as thunder follows lightning.
In the mutual accepting of each other as Christ has accepted us, it must follow that in the church of Jesus Christ all joylessness is on the way to becoming joy, all discord is at least on its way to becoming peace, all distress of the present moment would somehow finally be engulfed by the hope for the Lord’s presence.
…The thoughts of many people are occupied in this particular time more seriously than before with what it is that the church misses and what we miss in the church.
Let us note that our text does not speak about this, but rather where it could speak of such things, simply prays and tells us to pray to this God of patience, of comfort, and of hope, who is the Lord of the church.
…Perhaps this time has come upon us in the church so that we might learn to pray differently and better than ever before and thereby to keep what we have.’[v]

Its form and content, as far as sermons go are standard Barth. In addition, considering its close proximity to the Barmen Declaration (May, 1934) of which Barth was a primary contributor, it is fair to say that the events are connected to some degree.

Unfortunately, other than some well placed footnotes, Stroud doesn’t provide a lot of commentary on Barth’s thought and context. What Stroud does provide though, is an excellent introduction outlining the historical setting and the role Barth took on as a ‘chief advocate for a non-compromising response to the heresies’ [vi] such as the ”German Christian” movement, Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism and “positive Christianity.”


[i] Stroud, D. (Ed.) Preaching in the Shadows of Hitler: Sermons of Resistance Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing p.73

[ii] Busch, E. 2010 The Barmen theses then and now: the 2004 Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing p.47

[iii] Barth, K. December 10, 1933 A Sermon about Jesus as a Jew, in Stroud, D. (Ed.) Preaching in the Shadows of Hitler: Sermons of Resistance Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing p.64

[iv] Ibid, p.73 & p.74

[v] Ibid, pp.73-74

[vi] Ibid, p.63

See also Church Dogmatics 3:2 ‘On Thanksgiving’ … ”As thunder follows lightning, man knows God. Thanksgiving is a readiness to acknowledge.’ (p.176)

Semper Fi

February 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

of God, Who is Always Faithful.


Continuing to pray and mine my way back through Tolstoy’s 1879-80 work, ‘A Confession’. The background image comes from a summer storm we had in the afternoon yesterday. The clouds just seemed to intensify the concepts of grace, awareness and anticipation that Tolstoy was wrestling with. Don’t give up. Push across the stream!!


I read the post I put up yesterday (link) hand in hand with Paul’s letter to the Colossian Church (Col.2:17). Here are some thoughts which came out of that reflection.

It helps to understand that Christian character and Christian identity – as individuals and as a group within the Commonwealth of Christ (Barth’s term for the Church), is qualified (Col.1:12) by the gracious “Yes” of God in Jesus the Christ. This doesn’t mean the Bible preaches a “forgive and forget” fallacy. Nor does it support abandoning the reality of our pain, or that we can write-off the pain we ourselves might have caused in our neighbour. On the contrary the bible is full of discussions and examples about how God’s mercy and judgement both meet the sinner.

For instance, Paul tells us both that ‘God has delivered us from the domain of darkness’ (Col.1:13-14), and yet ‘the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong done, there is no partiality’ (Col.3:25).

In one sense this means that:

‘what lies before the one whom God pardons is the forgiven sin, the sin recognised in the light of forgiveness, which drives one to repentance. The pardoned sinner’s thinking then is in accord with God’s reconciling yes to the sinner and God’s irreconcilable no to evil’ (Busch, 2008  Loc.1201-1980).

The world, identified as dogma; human opinion; ideology, informs rather than forms Christian identity. This distinction between inform and form is important to recognise. Primarily because the Holy Spirit, present and dynamic, is active in our formation. More precisely, the Spirit empowers us to conform our hearts and minds, to the heart and mind of God (Rm.12:2/1 Peter 1:13 & 14).

Not that we become God, but that through this process we become fully human, participants with God (2 Pet.1:4). Therefore the Church must not surrender its theology to ‘worldviews which take over the freedom of the Gospel and instead hold the gospel in critique of all ideologies’ (Gorringe, 1999:3 & 33).

One significant reason for this is that this Spirit empowered reformation is restorative. Viewed as such because ‘grace is the secret of ethics’ (Gorringe, 1999:63). It is a call, or as Barth puts it, a summons to relationship with the God who does not want be without us.

Barth rightly points out that this relationship is grounded in the reconciler who reveals himself as himself, the Father, Son and Spirit, three, yet one alone (CD 1.1 & Col.1:15 ‘the pre-eminence of Christ’).Our response is insisted upon by the life of, and the blood-spilt by the Christ. He invites us, as-we-are, to become who-we-are now in Him.

The opposite to this is, on its own, is a degenerative dehumanization.  This is because ‘pride distorts our appreciation of freedom, turning on the presumption that humanity is the sole and only ground of its own being’ (Elshtain,  2000:42, see also Proverbs 3:5-8).

One might consider here the arrogant reductionism found layered into the text on many a social media site. Such as the discounting of the Christian faith, thought and practise through the fallacy of ad hominem. The aim which Jean Bethke Elshtain points out, is to get people to engage in a ‘politics of displacement’ – identity politics which promotes and limits rhetorical boundaries in order to enslave us to an idea of who we are, what we can only ever be, and why change is deemed impossible by the majority who hold that opinion over us.

It is worth introducing at this point Paul’s words from prison to the Colossian Church, words which are also relevant to Christians today.

‘Let your living (word & deed) spill over into thanksgiving. Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly’ (Peterson Col. 2, The Message italics mine)

He adds:

‘Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don’t walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted’ (Peterson, The Message)

Christ becomes our identity because in Him, ‘God made us alive together with Him’ (Col.2:13).

This suggests that whatever others might say about who, or what we are has been negated by the Cross of Christ. We can now choose to live differently and are empowered to do so (Col.1:14-15; 3:5-10).

Paul warns: ‘let no one disqualify you’ (Col.2:18, ESV) since ‘a corrupt mind may disqualify us’ (2 Tim.3:8).

Our pasts may haunt us, but if we are in Christ they cannot destroy us. Words may sting like a whiplash. They often do, but the covert put downs, the passive aggressive-snide remarks mean squat in light of the fact that ‘God qualifies you’ ( Col.1:12).

This example from the 3rd Century highlights my point:

Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast.
While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution.
 ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or water pot or whatever?’130328161152-perpetua2-c1-main_Getty Images
‘Yes, I do’, said he.
And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’
And he said: ‘No.’
‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’
At this my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out.  But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.
(For more about Perpetua’s eventual martyrdom click here)

God’s acceptance of us presupposes our acceptance of Him.

We properly hear this and act. Or we don’t. Reacting against it. Wrongly leaning on the lies of self-justification (Torrance 2009:105).

A good example of response comes from something else I read recently:

Leah’s heart went from pain and suffering to praise. Somewhere along the way, she surrendered her will, her wants, her deepest desires and decided to praise the Lord.
May our eyes be turned to this God, praising Him for His amazing goodness.
Fall to your knees and spend the rest of your life rejoicing…
Saying: “This time. I will praise the Lord”…(Genesis 29:35)’ (DS, 2013 italics mine).

We begin to apply all of this when we hear in Paul, Perpetua and Leah’s words the call to acknowledge the God, who has made the painstaking effort to acknowledge us.

In sum, the world does not get to define the Christian. Christ does. Our substance belongs to Him (Col.2:17).


Barth, K. 1936 Church Dogmatics, 1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God Hendrickson Publishers
Busch, E 2008 Barth (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)  Kindle for PC ed. Abingdon Press.
Elshtain, J.B 2000 Who are we? Critical reflections and Hopeful Possibilities Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Grand Rapids
Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy On Trial BasicBooks, Perseus Books Group
Gorringe, T.J 1999 Karl Barth: Against Hegemony Oxford University Press
Peterson, E. 2002 The Message: The bible in contemporary language NavPress Publishing Group
The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas sourced 29th October 2013 from
Torrance, T.F 2009, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, InterVarstiy Press
Unless otherwise stated, all biblical references are from the English Standard Version


…’The Father…has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Col.1:13-17, ESV)