The Ugly Romance of Trains

By Paul Koch

When I was eleven or twelve years old, my dad took me on a road trip from our home in Southern California to the State’s capital, Sacramento. Along the way, we camped, fished, and spent some necessary time as father and son, without my mom and or bothers. The highlight of the trip was the great train museum in Sacramento. I still remember the sense of awe and beauty that settled upon me as I gazed upon those monolithic creations of human ingenuity and spirit. In the museum, I could walk under and over some of the great engines that helped shape and drive the westward expansion of our country. I could even climb inside a few of them. 

Trains hold a certain mysticism for young boys. Their strength and beauty are something that we can cherish long into adulthood. Like so many boys before him, my older brother had a model-train set in our garage. We could recreate the image of the gleaming tracks stretching around a bend as the undeterred locomotive pulled its freight over hills, through tunnels, and across suspension bridges.

Unknown to us at the time, I think we could got a sense of what Ayn Rand loved about trains. They were a testimony to the creative and wild spirit of mankind, who could carve up the face of the earth to lay a road of iron and wood. The spirit of man to subdue the earth and exercise authority over it was alive and well in the work of railroad men.

Yet, the romance of trains has an ugly side to it as well. And I’m not talking about the historical brutalities of Chinese immigration, slavery, or eminent domain claims. No, I mean the ongoing romance of trains beyond our boyhood fascinations has a propensity to corrupt that wild spirit of mankind, turning us slowly toward a life of both security and fear. This ugly side is rooted in the reality that there are no great rail lines currently being forged connecting our world. In other words, we are now simply spectators along for the ride. Though we may romance the great men who built them originally, we will never be those great men ourselves.

Being along for the ride is not bad in and of itself. It is safe, sure, and comfortable. The many traditions we find when we gather together to receive the gifts of our Lord on a Sunday morning can often function in this way. The traditions of the Church are those carefully laid tracks that have forged a path through the cultural landscape, blasting away at stone mountain faces and building bridges over bottomless caverns. They are the time-tested means of leading us to our destination safely. But in the romance of our traditions, we become as those who are only along for the ride. The spirit of those who first blazed the path slowly dies out, and we run the danger of just becoming boys playing with our trainsets, romancing the great men but never being them.

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In this romance of our traditions, we forget the hard realities of the real world (or consider them already conquered). We then spend our time arguing over what locomotive goes with which passenger cars to make sure that everything is in line with the repristination of our specific tradition. We easily settle into a position in which we see all matters as settled. All the tracks have been laid. Now it is our job to make sure the trains run on time—nothing more, nothing less. The pastor and the laity are to go along for the ride, ignoring the uncharted parts of the terrain and the tracks avoid. And those who might wonder about those areas are ridiculed as dangerously heterodox.

A few years back, I watched the movie Snowpiercer, which was a fascinating story of a train that never stopped. In fact, life itself was maintained by the train. The train worked as a microcosm of society, as everyone had their place in the train. The lowest class was at the rear, and the leader was in the engine. Everyone was along for the ride. Everyone had their place. Everyone knew the rules. Everything could go on like this forever—until it didn’t. Until they rebelled, until the real life of suffering, greed, sacrifice, and anger all rose up in a mighty reformation. Sometimes, just being along for the ride isn’t enough. Sometimes, the train needs to be derailed for life to go on.

You see, the romance of the train can easily become a law that, when faced with our creativity, our exploration and our engagement with this world has no choice but to judge and condemn. However, the great men we rely upon who blazed the paths didn’t give us a spirit of fear and trepidation. Rather, they showed us how to keep driving forward, to lay into the landscape of our culture, and with the dynamite of the Gospel, to blast away and continue to lay tracks as they have always been laid, through the clear and unwavering proclamation of the Law and the Gospel.

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