The story is told of a family in the outback who saw a bushfire swept along by the wind at a terrific speed. It was coming towards them faster than they could escape. If they were to flee, they would be overtaken and consumed. And so they lit another fire. Soon the wind caught their fire and drove it along in front of them. They were able to walk along in the scorched earth it had left behind. When the main fire caught up with them, it raged all around them, but they were safe in the wake of the fire they had lit. In the same way on the cross God lit the fires of his judgment and Jesus took them on himself. And now we can walk behind him. The fires of God’s judgment are coming. One day they will overtake humanity and consume us. But those who are in Christ will be safe. The fire of God’s judgment will burn around us, but we will be secure in the refuge that Jesus provides. Jim Packer says: “Penal substitution is the notion that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory.” (J. I. Packer, ‘What did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution’, in Tyndale Bulletin 25, 1974, 25.)
I was interested, therefore, to hear a real-life version of this tale. BBC Radio 4 recently are serialized Fire Station by Philip Connors, the story of a fire spotter in a remote area of the United States. (Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Ecco, 2011, 115-118.) Here’s an extended quote from the book. Apart from a few explanatory additions (in square brackets), I’ve left the narrative alone. The religious allusions are from the original. Connnors paints Wag Dodge, the foreman who escaped the flames, as a messianic-figure. But, I think, he is more a picture of the Christian. His regret makes this story also function as a powerful illustration of the urgency of evangelism.
In addition to possessing a colourful history, the smokejumpers [fire fighters dropped from the air to fight isolated forest fires] were blessed to have a poet write a beautiful book about them. Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is the one and only masterpiece ever written on the subject of American wildfire. [Maclean worked in his youth for the Forest Service before studying English and going on to become Professor of English at the University of Chicago.]
[In 1949] Maclean was home again for the summer when he heard about a fatal wildfire in Mann Gulch, a steep side canyon near the breaks of the Missouri River. Thirteen smokejumpers had died when a fire they were fighting blew up below them. A few days later Maclean arrived at the scene of the conflagration with the fire still hunting in stump holes and scattered trees. The smell and the look of the gulch [V-shaped valley] haunted him the rest of his life. After his retirement in 1974, he would spend years attempting to reconstruct what had happened to the men who died there …
To tell the story, Maclean taught himself the latest wildfire science with dogged precision, coaxed a friend to help him mark time on the hill, and read and reread the official report on the fire. He plumbed the recollections of the fire’s three survivors, two of whom he led back to the scene to revisit their close encounter with death.
The smokejumpers’ foreman, Wag Dodge, had lit an escape fire and lain down in its ashes as the big fire whirl passed over his men; he tried in vain to persuade them to join him, the only hope for survival most of them had, though none of them listened. “With the flames of the fire front solid and a hundred yards deep he had to invent the notion that he could burn a hole in the fire,” Maclean wrote. “Perhaps all he could patent about his invention was the courage to lie down in his fire. Like a lot of inventions, it could be crazy and consume the inventor. His invention, taking as much guts as logic, suffered the immediate fare of many other inventions – it was thought to be crazy by those who first saw it.”
Dodge would die five years later; still haunted by his inability to show his men the way to their afterlife through and beyond the fire. Maclean returns repeatedly to a version of the event as a kind of Passion play, with Stations of the Cross scattered up the hill, marked now by literal crosses where each of the dead men fell, monuments to their unimaginable end. Although Maclean never says so explicitly, Dodge resembles a kind of Jesus figure, misunderstood in his message at the moment it counted most for the world, that world for Dodge consisting entirely of young men running uphill in a gulch and a wildfire running faster forever and ever – the nightmare scenario of all who have ever fought fire.
Though he worked on the story for most of the last the fourteen yeas he lived, the manuscript remained unfinished upon Maclean’s death. When it was published in 1992, Young Men and Fire was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award – a sadly posthumous tribute to a genius of American letters.
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