Escaping the Cave

Two weeks from today (November 9) When Everything’s on Fire will be released. To possibly pique your interest, I’m sharing Bradley Jersak’s foreword to the book. (It contains an excellent analysis of Plato’s famous cave allegory that is definitely worth reading.)




Frankenstein and Faust are yet the rage
Unspeakable, the severing damage done
Yet on the wind, the distant sound of drum
And the sweetness of the sage
Still might come a kinder age . . .

–Steve Bell, Wouldn’t You Love to Know

Friends of the truth, the book you are about to read brought me tears of both grief and joy. I moaned over the darkness revealed as darkness and laughed with hope as Easter dawn was unveiled afresh. This book is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God). I know this because “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,” and that Spirit reverberates throughout these pages.

Brian Zahnd is a unique blend of pastor, prophet, and poet — he’s a preacher, a philosopher, and a mystic. He’s a man of prayer who teaches us to pray. No, he’s not Jesus — but he does know him. They sit together daily. From his friendship with Jesus Christ, BZ’s words and works emerge as a blazing minority report, a synthesis of beauty, truth, and justice mediated by cruciform love. How grateful I am for his witness! How happy I am that our lives have become a collaboration.

I was so gratified to see Brian’s deep engagement with Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, et al. given our mutual regard for their important contributions and critiques of this present darkness. But most of all I am thrilled (but unsurprised) to see how he walks the confused, the disillusioned, and the deluded into the light. In that sense Brian strikes me as a sort of Socrates fulfilled in Christ. Let me explain. . . No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

In Plato’s Republic the sage Socrates offers his famous but oft-misunderstood cave analogy. In the bowels of a dark cave we find a company of dreary figures, bound in chains, so immobile that they can only stare straight ahead. They peer at the cave wall, fixated on shadows projected by objects passing in front of a fire behind them. They can imagine no other reality than those dancing shadows. Their myopia anticipates the twenty-first-century masses, mesmerized by our smartphones, deluded by the strange notion that whatever their blue light glow says is real. Our culture’s addiction to entertainment “news,” conspiracy theories, and the matrix of spectrum ideology is a photoshopped pseudo-reality with bad lip-syncing.

Inexplicably, which is to say by grace, one day, one of the prisoner’s chains are broken. Socrates doesn’t say how. But the psalmist does:

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder. (Ps 107:10-14)

Now back to The Republic. Initially, the prisoner who turns around sees a campfire. Some honest-to-goodness light at last! Manmade light, to be sure, but it’s a start. Campfires are nice. They’re warm in a comforting way. I can watch the flames for hours. Hypnotized. And never leave the cave.

All of you are kindlers of fire,
lighters of firebrands.
Walk in the flame of your fire,
and among the brands that you have kindled!
This is what you shall have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment. (Is 50:11)

Isaiah saw the peril three centuries before Plato. What peril? The second delusion: that all those aha! moments of wokeness we experience in personal therapy or social movements (however good) add up to enlightenment. As if my deconstruction and newfound self-awareness are ultimate reality. Not so much. Campfires are a good waypoint on our journey up and out, but attachment to them means we’re still stuck in the cave.

This is where Plato’s Socrates gets misunderstood. The cave, for him, is not our earthly existence. He’s not a Gnostic trying to escape the material world any more than Paul was. The cave for him is “the world” of 1 John 2:15-17 — the worldly systems defined by “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” That world and its desires, says John, are passing away. A darkness that in light of the Christ is already fading.

At this point someone needs to drag the prisoner from the cave. Who does this? Maybe Socrates thought it was a mentor like himself or his dialogical teaching. Maybe that’s BZ’s role. What does resonate with me is the dragging. What drags me out of my slumber is often the cold slap of tragedy or the pain of my own self-harm or the rude shock of discovering I’ve believed lies for my whole life.

In any case, that gets us to the threshold of the cave — our first glimpse of the true light of the sun. For Plato, the sun represents God or the Good. Beholding the sun is quite a shock at first. Your eyes have to adjust. Maybe you have to start by squinting at reflections of the sun in a lake. Might I suggest the Sea of Galilee? But the point is that the same sun that created your eyes now also illuminates them and everything around you. You’re not leaving this existence, but you’re seeing that it’s bigger and brighter and more ablaze with glory than you’d ever imagined. The whole world becomes Moses’ transfigured shrub.

The Christian mystical tradition calls this stage of growth and revelation “illumination” because at last you’re beholding the source of the light and truth itself. And who is this light but the sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2) who came into the world, the true light from light who shines on all humanity (Jn 1:9)?

Socrates, however, does not stop at illumination. The prisoner who has been released from his chains, dragged from the cave, and has seen the light doesn’t rest self-satisfied in an arrivals lounge. The light also fills those who’ve seen it with compassion for those still bound in darkness. They feel the call to reenter the cave with the good news. For Socrates this represents the philosopher who has found enlightenment and is now compelled to reenter the mess of city politics to advocate for a just society. He warns that returning to the darkness from the safety of one’s contemplative island can be disorienting and dangerous. Having seen the light, those who revisit the cave are again disoriented. It’s hard to see in the dark. To the prisoners there, you just look like a staggering drunk, tripping your way to the restroom. In fact, he says, if they could, they’d attack you. Brian Zahnd knows this.

Elsewhere in The Republic we see a demythologized version of the story. We read a prophecy, many centuries before Christ, where Glaucon (Plato’s older brother) warns that if the Good were to manifest in this world, it would come as the perfectly righteous man. And how would he be received? We would inevitably arrest him, beat him, and crucify him. Yes, he uses that word.

And in this sense, Socrates is fulfilled in Christ, for Christ did enter this world that was shrouded by darkness, and he was murdered on a cross. But what Socrates did not foresee was that the darkness could not overcome the just Man and by his resurrection, Christ “destroy[ed] the death shroud that enfolds all peoples” (Is 25:7). As we Orthodox sing repeatedly during the Pascha celebration,

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death
and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.

I say all that to introduce you again to a Jesus-loving Socratic sage and light-bearer. May God use his beautiful gospel to break chains, to bring clarity, and to lead us up and out into the light, where we behold with unveiled faces the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Fiat Lux

Bradley Jersak, St. Stephen’s University, New Brunswick, Canada