In the world

Is the world a generally wonderful place that is constantly improving and generally better today than it ever has been? Or, to restate the obvious, do we live at peril every hour in a world we must avoid becoming part of, and is this alienation from the world a fundamental part of the message of Jesus? As is usually the case with such things, the answer to both questions is: yes. And this is perhaps nowhere more clear than in Yellowstone National Park.

* * *

If you’ve never been there, Yellowstone is one of the most fascinating and beautiful places on Earth. I had the good fortune to live within a 90-minute drive of the park entrance for a few years. If you’re living in Rexburg and haven’t been to Yellowstone yet, you are wasting your life.

The other thing to know is that Yellowstone will kill you dead in a dozen different ways if you don’t follow the park rules. If you step off the boardwalk, you can break through the thin rock crust or otherwise fall into the scalding, acidic, arsenic-laden water that circulates through the geysers and other thermal features. If you get too close, the wildlife will maul, gore, trample, or just plain eat you. They don’t acknowledge your place at the top of the food chain, and in the park, the law is on their side. If you take a misstep over a scenic overlook, the law of gravity will not make an exception for you.

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Not long ago, I had the chance to visit Yellowstone again for the first time in 5 years. July is not a great time to visit Yellowstone, as the park is crowded, and the more people in the park, the higher the chance that at least one of them will do something idiotic.

The Artist Point overlook provides a fantastic view of the lower falls and the grand canyon of the Yellowstone River. There is a stone wall surrounding the observation point that rises from knee height to chest height, indicating where it’s safe to walk and where it isn’t (if the contrast between the level paved surface on one side, and the slope descending at a steep-to-vertical angle a thousand feet to the rocks and rapids below isn’t enough).

And there was a not-quite teenager meandering outside the knee-high wall toward the waist-high section. I looked around and asked one possible-looking adult, “Is that your kid?” No, not his kid. So because nothing will ruin a visit to Yellowstone like watching an almost-teenager tumble to his death, I turned to the almost-teenager and said, “Please come back to this side of the wall,” and he stepped back over to the human-safe side. Because telling almost-teenagers not to do stupid things is adults’ job, and sometimes there needs to be an adult in the room—or an adult at the overlook, in this case—even if it means not minding your own business.

Then I turned around and spotted a 6-year old girl sitting on top of the chest-high section of wall. I walked close enough to grab her if necessary and looked around for a parent, again. I thought I spotted the father and prepared some choice remarks—Is this your daughter? Could you boost her down from there? And, by the way, you’re a terrible father and you should read up on the park rules before you get somebody killed—when the girl stood up, shakily, on top of the wall. Someone grabbed her, maybe the mother, and the day went on without anyone tumbling to their deaths a thousand feet below, but it could have ended badly.

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The world is a lot like Yellowstone. It’s wonderful and fascinating and dangerous. The more wonderful it gets, and the closer we get to it to better experience its wonders, the more dangerous it is. How close can we get? To never visit the park would be squandering the gift, a sin of omission. But once there, it’s important to follow the park rules. Stay on the safe side of the wall. Don’t leave the boardwalk. Keep at least 25 meters away from bison and other large mammals, and 100 meters away from bears and wolves. Don’t assume that the foolish risk that resulted in a great photo for one person, or even for the last nine people, won’t end in tragedy the next time.

16 comments for “In the world

  1. I’m always glad when you post again, Jonathan — you’re one of the Bloggernacle’s best. This is a wise and well-framed reminder.

  2. We went to Yellowstone last year. I was shocked how many people were off the trail with a camera inches away from boiling mud apparently clueless that the dirt they were walking on was much thinner than they realized. And the number of people going close to bison and not recognizing the signs of an upset bison willing to attack was shocking too.

  3. I think the world is an incredible place. I have problems with conference speakers talking about the wicked world. In many ways the world is more Christlike in its treatment of minorities than the church is. So people in glass houses, but the leadership will get there eventually perhaps?
    I can understant how the world might look less secure with Trump as your leader.
    Was in Yellostone last year when the lakes still had ice floating, one of the most beautiful parts of the US. Have you been to antilope canyon, also incredible in a different way.
    Something that continues to amaze me is the number of members who go to conference from Australia, but don’t go to yellowstone, or the Canadian rockies, banf etc.

  4. Geoff, do you have a problem with Jesus talking about the wicked world?

    You moved from the actual topic of the post to criticizing church leaders in four sentences. That’s not a conversation I’m interested in hosting here, so please don’t pursue it.

    As for the post-conference road trip: Grand Teton and Yellowstone could easily fill several days. Maybe Glacier if people want to drive farther. After that, is the trip to Banf still worth it?

    Clark, if you ever get the chance, the best time to visit the park is spring or fall, just after most of the park opens or just before most of it closes. There are few visitors and you can watch Old Faithful erupt practically by yourself. Before the snow has melted in spring, the wildlife is at lower elevations – or, basically, all over the road. Instead of one bison in the distance, there will be dozens right in front of you.

  5. Yes, Yellowstone is fascinating. But be careful with the definition of “spring” as a time to go. I’ve been snowed on there in July, though it didn’t last long. The park service announced the roads were closed, when in fact they were only wet. On questioning, the explanation was: “we don’t want California drivers [lots of other states could as well have been mentioned] on wet mountain roads.” Having been a Utah driver, I managed the wet mountain roads just fine. Go. But be careful, Jonathan’s advice is good — and good for more than Yellowstone.

  6. Interesting metaphor. Although when Jesus is reported to have spoken of the world, I don’t think that he was talking about the physical world (per se) and its dangers (i.e., don’t get too close to the edge of cliffs and geysers), but different cultural forces around him. When he spoke of the world, he seemed to be criticizing the cultural trends predominant in the Jewish and Greco-Roman communities of his time, as well as any and all human quests for riches and power. It is noteworthy, that instances where the term world (“kosmos”) is used to mean prevailing negative cultural trends appears in Jesus’ reported speech appear only in the book of John and not in the other gospels (with the exception of perhaps Matthew 18:7 – “woe unto the world because of offences!”).

  7. We went in June so there was still snow and it wasn’t *that* crowded. Perfect time in my book. I’m used to wild animals, having grown up part of the time in Waterton-Glacier park. We had a cougar living in our back yard for a while and bison beside a bike trail. It’s more the way tourists act. Which I was already somewhat familiar with after years of stupidity in Waterton.

  8. That’s a good point, Xander. I think the comparison still works after adding human culture to the picture, because it makes the world both more appealing and more treacherous.

  9. I have spent part of the day walking on a Queensland beach which also makes you appreciate how wonderfull the world is.

  10. I regard world/church as a false dichotomy. Generally the two are indistinguishable, existing in symbiosis so tight as to make each part of the other. The church has its dangers, too, as parents of homosexual children who have taken their own lives will readily attest. Improvements in the faith are generally a result of humanistic pressures pressures from the world.

  11. A recurring message in our scriptures is that we must choose — we must make a choice. Friendship with the world is enmity with God — and, as we can sometimes clearly see, friendship with God is enmity with the world. We can be “in” the world without being “of” the world.

    We have to earn our livings in the world, and our neighbors are in the world, and we want to help save the world, so we cannot be hermits.

    But YES, in my opinion, absolutely, we must choose between the world and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  12. That note on “kosmos” only appearing in John is interesting, and it is certainly the Gospel of John that I think of when some strangely wonder how warnings about “the world” are tied to Jesus teachings. It does come up elsewhere in other words, such as the strait way that is entered through a narrow gate and leads to life compared with the broad way that leads to destruction that most are walking on.

  13. Geoff, Xander pointed to one instance in his comment, and there are many more, both in the New Testament and modern revelation. For example, John 14:17: “Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” There are more in the post linked above, or check your Topical Guide. It’s not the only discourse about the world in the scriptures, but it’s far too common to dismiss.

    So unless one is willing to say, “Sorry, Jesus, I reject what you say as a false dichotomy,” the problem is figuring out what to do with a way of looking at the world that is in tension with our typically modern and optimistic perspectives.

  14. John Mansfield, the idea of the world as these culturally negative/destructive trends appears elsewhere in the NT, but is emphasized very strongly in the Gospel of John, but not in the other gospels.

    p, I don’t think that the world and Jesus’ teachings are a false dichotomy. Jesus recognized the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and power as ultimately fruitless compared to the transcendence above common base human pursuits. It is an important and profound message that I don’t think you even have to be a believer in God to appreciate. I think that the Yellowstone metaphor is apt in the sense that there are real dangers out there that we as individuals just don’t see immediately, but other experts and spiritual guides who have our best interests in mind do and caution us to avoid. It is much more than just LDS leaders saying, “don’t drink coffee” or what have you. We should experience different things in life, even sometimes taking risks here and there, but recognize that we just don’t have boundless freedom. Leading a good life has boundaries and requires following right ways and patterns. It isn’t just I can do whatever I want and I shouldn’t have to suffer pain. Pain is inevitable. But this doesn’t mean that we should avoid pain at all costs. Jesus’ message of transcendence involves finding ways to rise above the pain and avoiding unnecessary pain.

  15. I’m iffy on this as a metaphor. I have a wonderful friend in the middle of a really awful cancer treatment. What wall did she climb up on to make her fall to such a low? Conversely, I have a neighbor who couldn’t live further from the gospel, and weirdly enough his and his family’s life is genuinely going well.

    Life just isn’t that black and white. It’s messy and random and sometimes risk pays off and sometimes it hurts you. The goal is to learn as you go and love your neighbor.

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