During this cold January week, I immersed myself in literature reflective of the season: a season of short days and long winter nights. I read Jack London’s book, The Call of The Wild. I was stunned by how deeply this book spoke to me on a theological level. Here’s a synopsis.
Buck, the main character, is half sheepdog and half St. Bernard. He lives on a vast estate in the Santa Clara valley of California. His master is a prosperous judge and landowner. Buck is treated like royalty. It’s an easy life for Buck: he hunts, runs, and spends his afternoons on the front porch regally looking down at the valley. He eats well and enjoys leisure. One day Buck’s life changes. An unscrupulous gardener kidnaps Buck and sells him off to a man headed for the Yukon territory. Buck, the pampered dog of a noble family, is shoved into a crate where he endures striking blows from a club and starvation. Hauled away from the sunny weather of California, Buck is plunged into the great white north, a land of snow and ice.
From that point on Buck’s life changes forever. Banished from home, he must survive. He must work. He must fight. Most of all he must adapt. Buck becomes a team member of a sled dog team. Eventually, he becomes the lead dog. He learns about working in a team and how to interact with his fellow dogs. Buck experiences starvation and abandonment. He endures attacks from hostile native tribes and mistreatment from terrible owners.
The novel is about Buck’s change and transformation. Buck learns to read the signs and sounds of nature. He physically changes. He becomes stronger and leaner; his senses become heightened. With these heightened senses he hears a new call, a call transcending sound. It’s a call that pierces the depths of his being. It’s the call of the wild. A call beckoning him home.
Toward the end of the novel Buck is paired with an experienced outdoorsman named John Thorton. The bond between Buck and Thorton is strong. Buck, the tough lead dog who fights and hunts to survive, learns how to love deeply. The bond between man and dog becomes solid.
Buck’s life, told in The Call of the Wild, is a metaphor for our own lives. I found many parallels with the book of Isaiah. In both narratives there is a forced exile, survival skills learned, and instincts sharpened. And in both narratives, there is a hunger and a yearning to return home.
So too is it with us. Somewhere deep within us we yearn for a place where we belong. It is a feeling of displacement. Displaced people are often referred to in the bible as resident aliens. Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon refer to the concept of resident alien as that unsettled condition humans often feel. That displacement is our own call of the wild, it is our yearning to return back to our homeland, and our desire, whether we consciously realize it or not, to be back home with God.
We may feel that call everyday as we get up each morning asking ourselves: was I really meant to do the kind of work I’m doing? Was I really meant to live in this town to be married to this person, or live the kind of life I’m living? What is my purpose? From the dawn of time humans ask questions such as what is my purpose in life? What is this all about?
Maybe it’s not so complex. Maybe we do as the Israelites and as Buck did; we mush ahead. We carry whatever load life forces us to carry. We pay our bills, care for our families, show up for work, while sorting through the drudgery and toils of everyday life. As we do so, we move forward, and while we move forward, we must open ourselves up to change.
The Israelites learned how to survive in a foreign hostile land. They learned the patterns, read the signs. They did so for the purpose surviving as they made their journey homeward. Buck also changed. He observed the rules and patterns of the natural world. He also learned how to survive and thrive. Most of all, and this is a point London emphasizes, Buck learned how to love deeply and fully.
Maybe our purpose is about carrying whatever load we have at the moment. Maybe our purpose is about learning how this world operates by growing tougher, while at the same time developing more compassion. Maybe our purpose is about moving forward in a way that helps us grow, change, so that we may also learn how to love God and one another more deeply and fully. That call, embedded within each soul, is God’s call to us. It is God calling us home.
Recently I saw a clip from an Amazon Prime documentary about near-death experiences. This person wanted to know what happened in the afterlife. He prayed about it. He received a response. The response was, “You will know soon enough. In the meantime, live your life now.”
May we also live our lives now. May we carry our loads and mush forward in this harsh land. But may we also see the beauty in this world by learning to read the signs. Most importantly may we learn to love God and one another more deeply as we heed our own call into the wild. A call back home. A call back to God.