Acquainted with the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past
reviewed by Russell D. Moore
I could never “say my prayers” kneeling by a bedside. I always found it easier to pray while walking along, looking upward at the starry expanse, hearing nothing but a whippoorwill in the pine tree above me and the distant sound of an interstate highway miles and miles away.
I miss the night, now that I live in a nicely manicured subdivision with easy access to the grocery store, lots of neighbors, and so many artificial lights that one can barely, barely see the sky—never well enough to evoke anything close to awe. These two volumes remind us that our artificially lit atmosphere is not the way it’s always been.
Good Night & Good Luck
Christopher Dewdney, a Canadian poet, explores the mystery of the night. For children, nighttime is unmistakably adult, a time forbidden to them by their sleep schedules. He identifies the mystery of night in the psychologically sophisticated children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, in which a timeless dimension, “a great green room” shows the gradual passing of time as each page grows dimmer and dimmer.
For Dewdney, the mysteriousness of night for children gives way to the anguish of the night for many adults. He points to contemporary plagues of insomnia, sleep paralysis, sleep apnea, and night terrors. He sets the often scientific fears of post-Enlightenment humans (Do I need to see a sleep therapist?) alongside the more supernatural fears of our forebears (Do I hear a werewolf?).
He notes that night is not accidentally associated with mischief and outright evil. Yes, “nightclubs” offer all kinds of “adult” naughtiness, but the night also provides cover for gang murders in the inner city and the nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan.
But the night is about more than fear. “The night sky has told us more about our place within the cosmos than has the day,” he concludes. He suggests that while the daytime sky can give us the illusion that we are sheltered beneath a cloud of blue, the night sky “opens up into space, it stretches out forever.” It speaks to us something of eternity, of infinity. Perhaps this is why night evokes so much artistic expression in painting, poetry, and song.
Points of Light
“Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror,” asserts A. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He speculates on what humans must have experienced before the mastery of fire, and he sketches from ancient and medieval sources the ways in which night was perceived as an arena for witches and goblins: a fortress for the kingdom of Satan.
For most of human history, he points out, fear of the night was about more than superstition. Without the sun or a clear full moon, early humans couldn’t know if the twigs they heard snapping around them were the sounds of animal predators within striking distance.
Even in civilized Europe, before the advent of electricity, night was when one was vulnerable to savage thieves and murderers. He recounts the ways in which occult and criminal activity merged in the “thief’s candle” of Europe, in which a candle was made from the amputated finger of a human corpse as a magical charm to help rogues see through the darkness.
The fear of the night led to the sense of security of the home. Latches, locks, and watchdogs were drafted to help hold back the chaos of the night. As he points out, even the now banal phrase “good night” once carried the gravity of a prayer that God would grant a “good night” of protection from the darkness outside and all the terrors it obscured.
In earlier generations, night proved to be a time both for sexual dalliances unnoticed by the rest of society and a time for spiritual meditation apart from the day’s labor. It also proved, in virtually all pre-modern societies, to be a time of community solidarity, with extended families often gathered around a hearth, protected together from the night.
The World Alight
The relation of night and sleep Ekirch thinks less a part of a biologically determined rhythm than a defense mechanism of early humans, for whom the night was too dangerous to do anything else. The advent of electrical lighting has altered the cycles of sleep and wake set earlier in the human psyche—a broken rhythm with which we have yet to reconcile.
The technological advance of the modern age, with its accompanying “light pollution,” brings with it problems that are more than merely aesthetic. The contemporary world has lost both the awe and wonder of the heavens above and the tranquility of segmented sleep patterns. If this continues to get worse, Ekirch concludes:
These books provide historical insight and more than a little trivia (about bedbugs, nightstands, insomnia remedies, and so forth), but for Christians, contemplating the ancients’ views of nighttime should shed light on some of the most treasured promises of the Holy Scriptures.
As we are reminded of the terror and helplessness of the ancients at nighttime, we should be quick to remember the biblical song of ascents, “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). As we consider the millennia-old -association between the cover of darkness and human debauchery, let us consider the force with which Paul’s letter would have been read to the Thessalonians, reminding them that they are children of the day, and not children of the night (1 Thess. 5:5).
As we ponder the near utter blackness that once covered a non--electrified earth, let us remember that the Scriptures speak of the rhythms of light and darkness as part of the purpose in creation, a purpose that declares God’s goodness to us in marking the rhythms of our lives (Ps. 104:19–23) and that reminds us that his covenant faithfulness is as certain as the daily movement of daylight to dark (Jer. 31:35–36).
The authors of these books are getting at something they’re also concealing. For them, night evokes awe and humility, but they never seem to grapple with awe of what and humility before what, or, perhaps, Whom. As much as they try to glorify the night, it still ends up as one more incidental backdrop to human history and to individual human stories. Unfortunately, there is not much more they can say, given the spirit of the age, when it comes to seeing our place in the natural world.
For Christians, the history of night ought to remind us that the night sky is intended to declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1–2), a glory concealed in Dewdney’s and Ekirch’s attempts to get at the awe and mystery behind an expanse above us that seems to go on forever. They note that the night sky makes us feel small and vulnerable, but they are not the first to suggest this. As the psalmist puts it, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:3–4).
Contemporary Westerners tend to think of the night sky in starkly scientific and utilitarian terms. We understand the pull of the moon and the way it sets ocean tides in motion. We have seen star systems close-up through Hubble telescopes. We see the night sky as a Cold War challenge conquered by President Kennedy, a frontier pioneered by John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. We have so overcome the creational patterns of daylight and dark that we need more technology to make us sleep and wake up.
Perhaps in such illuminated days the most pious thing Christians can do is to get away from the convenience of modern lights, to places where one can ponder the canopy of the Milky Way above. Perhaps there we can be reminded that all of our progress will one day be called to a halt, and the morning stars will once again sing for joy as the sons of God are revealed.
On that day, we will wake from our sleeping, one last time, and we will see the glories of the galaxies in a way at which the night sky can only hint. And, in one final reminder that we are but creatures, there won’t be an electric light in sight.
The biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version. •
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“Good Night” first appeared in the June 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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