My wife and I spent our honeymoon in St. Lucia, an island known for its two iconic mountains that rise from the Caribbean like majestic guardians. At breakfast one morning, with the mountains behind us, I remember asking my wife, “Do you think people who live here ever get tired of looking at them?”
Twenty years later, I’d answer my own question: yes. The grind of life acts like melatonin. We all grow sleepy toward creation and toward our Creator. And sleepy people, at best, miss much of what God has for us in this life. At worst, we can become so oblivious that we perpetuate great evil without realizing what we are doing.
Yet God has a way of using both beauty and tragedy like smelling salts, awakening us to realities we’d otherwise suppress or ignore. The beauty of a newborn or the shock of war can remind us to look around, to remember that there is more to life than the little we usually notice.
One practice that helps to keep my eyes open to the reality of God and his world is to reread my favorite novel nearly every year since it was published. The book is All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s World War II story, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted as a four-part Netflix miniseries that premiered this past Friday.
I’m still working through the series myself. So far, there are some changes from the book—mostly, I assume, for concision. But as I talk with friends who also love the book and are watching the series, they report enjoying the acting and the attempt to bring such a powerful, sprawling story to a big-budget production.
Doerr’s tale centers on Marie-Laure, a blind French girl hiding from German invaders, and Werner, a young man in the Hitler Youth. They’re brought together by the search for a diamond known as the Sea of Flames and by a radio transmission—the titular light is radio waves—each broadcast of which ends with the same line: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
These motifs of light and sightedness (and, conversely, darkness and blindness) ricochet throughout the novel, forcing readers to consider our assumptions about reality. Is all we can see all there is? Though Doerr doesn’t write from an explicitly Christian worldview, his use of light and blindness invokes unseen moral and divine reality.
In a pivotal scene where Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, the father muses about the diamond, which some believe to be magical, even cursed. The rock, he thinks, “is only a piece of carbon compressed in the bowels of the earth for eons and driven to the surface in a volcanic pipe. … It can harbor a curse no more than a leaf can, or a mirror, or a life. There is only chance in this world, chance and physics.”
Marie-Laure has a more enchanted—and therefore more realistic—view of the world. Though she loses her physical sight, her other senses are heightened. As she eats a can of sliced peaches, for instance, the narrator says she’s “eating wedges of wet sunlight.” She is increasingly alive to God’s world, seeing creation in ways more profound than literal sight.
Werner, meanwhile, falls into an ethical blindness. As the German army moves through France, the war brings him geographically closer to Marie-Laure, but they grow further apart in their views of the world.
The war swallows Werner’s inquisitiveness. Conscripted into the German war machine, he adopts its unquestioning, instrumentalist mindset. “You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way,” an instructor tells him, and he does. But, to use biblical language, “thinking that way” leads to death (Prov. 14:12). Werner’s calculations of the sources of radio broadcasts will be used on the frontlines to triangulate the location of enemies. Soon, German soldiers retrieve equipment from broadcasters Werner locates—equipment freshly smeared with blood.
Doerr doesn’t use these terms, but his story is a study in what the philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, called “the porous self” and “the buffered self.” Marie-Laure has a porous self, as Taylor contends premodern people typically did. To be porous here means to believe in realities outside oneself—and to believe that forces outside of us are not only outside. Like light waves, these outside forces can and do move around and even through us.
The porous self lives in what Taylor calls an enchanted world, one in which disease and health, famine and prosperity result from spiritual realities as much as physical causes and effects. The Bible assumes a porous world, one in which unseen spiritual forces affect our lives. Paul speaks this way, for example, when he describes us struggling against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
But that’s not how we live now, Taylor argues. We live in a secular age where our default view of ourselves is buffered from outside forces. Or, in the words of Marie-Laure’s father, “There is only chance in this world, chance and physics.” Science can explain disease and famine, and diamonds are just rare clusters of elements.
If Marie-Laure is the porous self of All the Light, Werner begins as one of many buffered selves. But after a near-death experience, he begins to comprehend the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Tragedy opens his eyes to what he could not see, while the reader comes to understand the utter darkness in the buffered, secular thinking Werner leaves behind.
In interviews about the novel, Doerr often recalls the first moment he wanted to write a story involving radio. He was riding the subway when a man nearby began to lose reception on his phone and become irate. Doerr recalls being struck by the irony of it all: They were hurtling through an underground tunnel in a machine, while unseen light waves carried voices back and forth with a tiny radio transmitter and receiver to tall towers spaced miles apart above the earth. The caller was irritated by a small disruption, but he should have marveled that such communication could exist in the first place.
Doerr set out to write a novel that could re-enchant this dark view of the world. And as much as I love the book he produced, too often I find myself like that incensed subway rider. I can forget the truth of what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And even though I am a committed Christian, I can function as though I am a buffered self, one able to determine my fate apart from outside constraints.
The folly of thinking this way can even creep into something as spiritual—or enchanted, if you will—as preparing to preach God’s Word. Sometimes I think that if I put in the time, if I read the right commentaries, and if I collect the right illustrations, then, like a machine, I’ll pump out a good sermon. My behavior betrays an assumption that leads to death: that the world is just chance and physics, and the Word is just words.
“The Christian life is about opening ourselves up to Christ, to become consciously porous to his cosmic reign,” author Tony Reinke wrote in a 2015 article for The Gospel Coalition. “It turns out enchantment is critical to Christian discipleship,” Reinke argued, because ours is a world enchanted by Jesus, “the image of the invisible God,” by whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:15–16, ESV).
Each year I read All the Light We Cannot See for the same reminders: That I am a porous self in an enchanted world. That it is God in whom I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28). That it is by beholding with unveiled eyes both the beauty and the tragedy of the Cross that I can be transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). That God is the light I too often cannot see.
Benjamin Vrbicek is the lead pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the managing editor for Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and the author of several books.