The Call of the Wilderness


The Behemoth, a sister magazine of Christianity Today, has just published an article of mine on the subject of the call of the wilderness.

Although the wilderness may appear to be an area—in the words of the 1964 US Wilderness Act—‘untrammeled by man,’ its vast expanses have long been heavily worked and populated by our cultural imaginations. The wilderness has been a site of meaning against which many human societies have articulated their identity and within which they have sought to prove themselves. Through their relationship with the wilderness, societies have preserved, revived, and articulated foundational values of peoplehood, masculinity, or national vocation.

Within my article I argue—reflecting upon the writings and actions of such figures as the Desert Fathers, the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, American imperialists—that rather than considering the wilderness merely as an uninhabited or unformed location, we should see it as a site of human and societal struggle and spiritual re-creation, a realm rich with cultural symbolism and significance. The Desert Fathers went into the wilderness to struggle and sacrifice for Christ and to do battle with demons, renewing the Church’s sense of its spiritual mission. The Romantics went to the wilderness to elevate the human spirit through communing with the sublime of nature and save man’s soul from materialism. The American imperialists went to the wilderness to masculinize its elite and to reinvigorate the national myths of rugged individualism and manifest destiny.

My piece concludes with some brief reflections upon ways in which Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness draws upon meanings that the wilderness bore within Jewish and biblical understanding and how Jesus’ perfect humanity was proved in its realm.

Read the whole thing here.

[The picture above was taken during my visit to the US in 2012. You find links to more pictures of that and other trips in my Photos and Travel page.]

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Guest Post, Luke, Mark, Matthew, NT, NT Theology, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Call of the Wilderness

  1. Craig Beard says:

    Sigh . . . Please note when links such as the one above (“Read the whole thing here”) are taking your readers to a paywall rather than to the “whole” article.

    • Cal says:

      Sadly seconded 😥

    • quinnjones2 says:

      You can take out a free subscription for 30 days. You need to give your bank details and remember to cancel the subscription before the 30 days are up if for any reason to don’t want to pay for a I year or 2 year subscription. I subscribed for I year and I am glad I did. The subscription includes free access to online issues so, in addition to being able to read Alastair’s superb article, I have been having the time of my life reading other articles on a range of subjects, including language and neurology 🙂

  2. Alex Sims says:

    Any way to read this baby without a subscription to CT?

  3. quinnjones2 says:

    I have taken out a 1 year subscription . The confirmation of the subscription can take up to 24 hours, but my confirmation came immediately! It will take me a while to read the article, so I will do that this evening, when I will have more time to spare. I want to read it for myself but I also want to give a copy to a friend. A few weeks ago she gave me a lift to a quiet morning on the theme of desert time. It was in a beautiful little church off the beaten track. My car was below par and travel by public transport or paying the exorbitant cost of taxi fares were not viable options for me, so, had it not been for my friend, I would have been unable to attend the meeting, which was informative and enriching.

    • I hope you enjoy the article! Christian Today is worth subscribing to more generally too. They have a lot of great pieces there.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        That was a really good read – thank you! I discovered that the subscription also gives free access to the archives, so that was an unexpected extra. I think I will be able to ‘lose myself’ for several hours in those archives 🙂

  4. Paul Baxter says:

    I doubt it has much to do with your article, but Douglas Brinkley’s book, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, is a wonderful, fascinating and deep work of history. Nineteenth century America was just filled with larger than life figures.

    • That sounds interesting! Roosevelt got a few mentions in my original draft, but a number of them were removed (mostly about the wilderness and American notions of masculinity and manifest destiny, about his relationship with Muir, and about the difference between conservationist and preservationist approaches to the wilderness).

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