The Owl in the Daylight (Rom. 13:11; Mark 4:22; Luke 8:17; 11:33)

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 29, 1989, p. 1115. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The mature Christian utilizes the mystical ability to be "awake" to things kept in the dark and thus has a new perspective and an alertness to the passing day.

But in the readings for the First Sunday in Advent, Paul instructs the believers "to wake from sleep" because "the night is far gone, the day is at hand" (Rom. 13:11) For Paul, as for the more mystical religions, the day-night division is a symbol of spiritual transformation. But for Paul the inversion is not so simple. The Christian must maintain the owllike perspective throughout the day. While the average person is numbed by relentless daily pressure, the owl retreats from clamorous pursuit. The owl represents refuge from the day’s flare. The mature Christian utilizes the mystical ability to be "awake" to things kept in the dark and thus has a new perspective and an alertness to the passing day)

This "daytime" orientation stems from Christianity’s fateful encounter with gnosticism. Ever since, Christians have had an ambivalent attitude toward secrecy and mystical religion, although Pauline (and especially Johannine) language is steeped in the idiom. That ambivalence came to a head in the 16th-century Western church and conditioned the atmosphere that produced the Enlightenment. After the secret laws of nature were unmasked, educated opinion swung decisively to the side of "daylight" empiricism.

Christianity survived the corresponding abrogation of all things mystical. The gospel had confirmed for primitive Christians that God’s word was completely compatible with everyday language and that the most profound truths about God could be expressed in common speech. The church itself was characterized by a relentless pursuit of common human vessels as fitting channels for the received word. Consequently, historical records such as the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus speak confidently of Christianity’s public, open and accessible nature. (Hence the tension between the church and the great mystery religions that flourished in the empire and the still unresolved tension with Freemasonry.)

When the question of Christianity’s public nature dominated discussion in the 16th century, Erasmus, among others, spoke eloquently of the Scriptures being as much the property of simple, uneducated people as that of educated elites.

The point is that Christianity brought cumulative pressure to bear on the need for religion to take its place in open society, and for Christians to eschew secrecy without repudiating the rule of confidence. Jesus himself speaks of the gospel as a lamp that does not hide and is not hidden (Mark 4:22; Luke 8:17; 11:33) To his critics Jesus replies: "I have spoken openly to all the world . . . I have said nothing in secret" (John 18:20) When he enjoined secrecy, Jesus often had in mind that his followers practice good works in secret, without show or trumpetry. Those who insist that people have a right to understand, that communication must enlighten and not confound, that esoteric jargon and technical verbiage are the enemies of truth, are inheritors of the Christian religious revolution. We are children of the day, though we may not be home when the church comes knocking.

But although Christianity dispensed with secrecy, the command to conduct "ourselves becomingly as in the day" is qualified by the rule that, like the more mystical religions, we must renounce the works of the day and strengthen the inner person. From that juxtaposition arises the impulse to faith, hope and love, the springs of a decent, responsible society.