Sunday Meditations: Reality, Relativity, and Relationships

Back in the day when I was a licensed Baptist minister at the wizened age of seventeen, I was told that you should try to make all your sermon points start with the same letter, although I think the title of this blog post just did that because the words share common roots.

I was also told that it’s good to open with a story or an illustration, so….

Imagine, if you will, an empty glass.  I almost always have one at my desk; I drink the water while I do other things, go back upstairs to refill it, bring it back down – it’s the circle of life.

If you were to say, “This glass is empty,” it would be weird and pedantic to point out that the glass is not truly empty.  It would be accurate to do so, however.  Not only does the glass have little bits of dust and moisture in it, it’s full of air.  We do not perceive the air, and therefore we usually don’t take it into account in our language.  If two people are standing in an empty room, we say there is “nothing” separating them.  While this is true in a common usage sense, it’s not true in an ontological sense.

But there’s more that could be said about our glass full of air, because both the glass and the air consist of molecules.  The glass’ molecules are tightly packed together; the air molecules are more dispersed.  These molecules are made of atoms.  These atoms are made of subatomic particles.  We can keep drilling down until we get to Planck.  At some level, both the glass and the air are simply small particles, heat, motion and configuration.  The glass and the air are a specific event, in that sense.

None of this suggests that the glass and the air are not real or things we can’t distinguish.  If I throw the glass at your face, the effect will be markedly different than if I throw a handful of air at your face.  At our experienced level of reality – the reality-for-us level – there is a glass and there is air.

At the same time, though, we acknowledge that these distinctions largely come from what we do and don’t perceive.  If we were capable of seeing all matter at the subatomic level, we would not see a difference between the glass and the air.  Or, maybe a better way of putting it, we would see that the glass and the air were not different kinds of things but were rather differing configurations, movements, collections of the same thing.  At that level, there is no glass and there is no air; it’s only our coarse-grained perceptions that present them to us in this way.

Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

– Boy to Neo in The Matrix

In the movie The Matrix, the characters live in a world that is completely generated by their brains processing electrical signals.  I would like to point out that, for all practical purposes, I have described our world as well.

Inside the Matrix, we (the audience) know the world is a fictional construction because they tell us in the story.  This is the main conceit of the film.  People living in the Matrix would normally have no clue that they are hooked up to machines because their brains are being fed “perception signals” that makes them see what the robots want them to see.

At one point, Cypher is looking at a monitor streaming code, and he tells Neo that, when he looks at the code, he sees various people and objects.  At their most fundamental level, all of these objects are composed of the same stuff.  Cypher has the ability to see the “stuff” and also recognize the configurations.  At a later point in the movie, Neo develops this ability as well – to see the world around him as particular manifestations of the same raw materials (computer code, in this case).

On one level, there is a lady in a red dress in the Matrix.  There are dogs.  There are cats.  You can be cruel to people in the Matrix.  You can kill them.  You can jump from rooftop to rooftop.  There are cars.

On another level, there are none of these things.  All of them are simply configurations of code, and that same code could easily describe a completely different kind of object if arranged in a different way.

What makes this concept so compelling is how very much like the actual world this is.

Our perceptions enable us to deal with objects, animals, and other people in the world, which is a good thing because survival kind of depends on it.  Also, you might discover you have fewer friends if you decided to treat everyone and everything in your life as an arbitrary configuration of molecules that could just as easily have been something else.

So, these objects are real.  There is nothing wrong with talking about glasses, air, basketballs, spouses, kittens, etc.  But we also know and relate to these things due to the limits of our perception.  Again, if we could see all these things at the subatomic level, it would all seem like a frenzied dance of particles to us.  We would realize, then, that our empty glass is simply how I as a perceiver observe and relate to that particular configuration of all molecules.  Molecules which, I might add, will one day belong to other objects and not this glass.

Because this idea of an empty glass is so tied to my perception of it, there’s a degree of relativity involved.  If I called my neighbor on the phone and said, “Hey, make sure you don’t knock over my glass,” they’d have no idea what I was talking about.  They do not perceive my glass.  My glass is over here.  This does not put the reality of the glass into question, but it does mean that I can’t talk to my neighbor as though they are experiencing my glass.

To make the relativity clearer, imagine a race of giants so enormous that our entire solar system would fit on the tip of one of their nose hairs.  Is my glass anything to them?  Or is it a particle so small that it would never enter into their perception?  When one of them says, “I trimmed my nose hair,” that’s an act of hygiene to them.  To me, it’s destroying galaxies.

When you brush your skin with your fingertips, you are raining food from heaven down upon an innumerable host of microorganisms.

Speaking of, imagine a being so tiny that they moved between the empty spaces between molecules.  Would they know about my glass?  Would it seem glass-ish to them?  Well, no, they live among the molecules and would be blissfully unaware that their entire universe ultimately coalesced into my empty glass.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably quite rightly wondering where I’m going with all of this.  Bear with me for a bit more road.

I have talked about how the nature of space is made up of tiny particles in varying configurations agitated by heat and transferring heat.  This is a fundamental idea underlying physics.

What you may not be aware of is that this isn’t just a property of space, but also of time.

Although it may see counter to our intuition of time, time (or more accurately, spacetime) is composed of particles that, agitated by the transfer of heat, are arranged in certain configurations.  We do not perceive these particles; we only perceive the configurations at a very coarse-grained level.  This is where our perception of events comes from.

I admit this can sound a little weird at first.  It’s one thing to say that this inch of road is a certain configuration of particles, while that inch of road is another, and so on and so on for miles and miles and miles.  It’s another thing to say that this present instance is composed of a certain configuration of particles and so is the next on and on for billions of years.  As you can see, it would also be virtually impossible to talk about this “instant” without being able to talk about the materials that exist in this “instant,” and that’s another way of seeing that talking about space and talking about time are getting close to pretty much talking about the same thing, just experienced differently.

As heat transfers occur between these particles, new “events” are generated.  The fundamental fabric of the universe, as far as we can tell today, appears to be an endless succession of heat-catalyzed changes, moving from lower entropy to higher entropy.

The raw, subatomic materials of the time of my birth and my death and me typing this blog all exist in the universe right now, and there’s no inherent, objective reason why I shouldn’t have died before I was born or why I don’t age backwards Benjamin Button style.  All we know is that the particles do not tend to configure themselves in that way.

There are theoretically possible universes where that sort of thing is exactly what happens.  There are theoretically possible universes that are devoid of heat and time stands still.  There is no equation of physics (with the possible exception of heat transfer itself) that doesn’t work just as well if time “flows” in the opposite direction.

The kicker is that our experience of time, just like our experience of space, is completely controlled by what we can and cannot perceive.  If we could see space at its most granular level, we would see that there is no difference between objects.  If we could see time at its most granular level, we see that there is no difference between events; there is no past, no present, no future – not at the fundamental, building-block level.

This does not mean that time is an illusion.  My glass is not an illusion; it’s real.  It’s real, however, only within the context of my perception of it.  I operate at a level of perception where glasses are things, but our little molecule man living in the empty spaces between a couple of silicon dioxide molecules doesn’t.

What experiments we can do with time bear this out.  Time moves faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.  Time moves slower on trains that it does on bicycles.  Time is slower around more massive objects than less massive objects.  I could fly through space for a few years and come back to Earth many years into its future.

Time is relative to your point of reference.  Time is relative to your experience of it.

“But that’s ridiculous,” you might counter.  “Cause and effect happen.  Things happen after other things.  I can remember the past, but I cannot perceive the future.”

Yes, all those things are true and real (maybe even the part about me being ridiculous), but they are true and real according to the way human beings perceive time.  You and every other human is a human perceiving time the way humans perceive time, and we deal with it at that level.  But that’s not the only level.  It seems silly to think of my glass as a seething mass of particles, too, when it’s so clearly a solid, continuous object.  But at another level, it’s not at all.

So, again, where am I going with all this?

I want to say at the first that the relativity of time and space is A) not new, and B) not an excuse to throw the doors open wide to making all claims credible.

At the same time, it does make one wonder if some of the powerful themes and intuitions captured by religion aren’t turning out to say more than perhaps anyone thought at the time.

Some of these are more direct.  For example, St. Augustine in Confessions boldly declares that the only view of time that makes sense is a human being’s mental activity of holding together instances of the past and imagining the future.

But consider this: the Judeo-Christian tradition has, theologically, grown into two ideas of a judgement.  One judgement, you experience immediately after death.  Another judgement is at the end of all history.  So, which is it?  Is a person judged when they die or at the end of history?  Or do you get sent somewhere when you die only to be yanked out and sent back there after being judged, again?

Or, is it possible that we can talk about what happens to us after we die according to the way we would reckon it with the way we might currently perceive it, but there’s a level of perception at which those are no longer two, separate events?

Come to the topic of death, should I fear death?  Because, apparently, I’m already dead.  My death is already etched into the raw materials of the universe right now, and we’re just waiting for my (and all the rest of humanity’s) perception to discern it.  Waiting for that configuration to emerge before us.

When viewed that way, I understand that I can’t really be afraid of death.  What I fear is loss, and although that hurts, it also shows me that I love and am connected to those relationships whose loss I prospectively mourn.

But at the same time, those relationships are etched into the raw materials of the universe, too.  My sons being infants is not a brief flash in the pan of history that has gone forever; that stuff of that time is actually still out there, reconfiguring into new designs and, theoretically, still reproducible – just like the atomic configuration that makes up my glass and the one that made up St. Augustine.  I have not and cannot lose anything forever.  Perhaps the notion some religions have of reincarnation, past lives, etc. are theological ways of portraying the raw notion that no instance of time ever dies; it simply gets reconfigured.

And, if there is a Being out there who could either by direct control, indirect influence, or by simply allowing the seemingly-random patterns inherent in the fundamental design to play out and configure and reconfigure the raw materials of time and matter… well….

Who knows what worlds are possible?


Sunday Meditations: What’s the Bible Got to Do with Me?

Depending on your background, the question, “What’s the Bible got to do with me?” may seem silly.

If you’ve had any encounters with church at all, this isn’t a question that gets asked a whole lot.  There’s a fundamental assumption that the Bible speaks directly to you and to your situation as if it were a letter God wrote to you.  Metaphors for the Bible abound that capture this idea: the Bible is God’s love letter to you, the Bible is God’s instruction manual for life, etc.  The idea is that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, read it, and get information that is directly relevant to their lives right off the page.

If that’s where you’re coming from, then the rest of this post is probably not going to be very interesting.

I have taken a view of the Bible that the writings in it were produced at specific times for specific purposes primarily for the audience who received those writings at that time.  As such, the writings rely on the events, worldviews, theologies, and concerns of the people at the time, and that becomes our primary reference point when determining what the Scriptures meant.

When this approach is taken, the content of the Scriptures can seem somewhat limited compared to our evangelical theology, especially when we look at the gospels.  Instead of a Jesus engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of darkness or a Jesus focused on the spiritual condition of every individual, we have a Jesus who is concerned about the state of Israel in his day, has prophetic warnings for them, works to restore them to wholeness, dies so that they might be saved, and is exalted to God’s right hand so that their fortunes in the world might be reversed.

As we read further in the New Testament, we see that what happened with Israel begins to roll out to the nations.  A great overturning of fortunes is seen for the whole Empire, and the Gentiles who believe in what God has done in and for Jesus, and specifically believe that Jesus has been exalted to lordship by God, receive the same Spirit of God that faithful Israel has.  Their sins, too, are forgiven, and they, too, have hope of being saved from a coming judgement that, on the other side, will result in the reign of the saints both dead and alive.  Again, this is viewed as an imminent event.

Historically, however, we are long past this time frame.

Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman Empire and the Temple destroyed, bringing an end to the Israel-specific religious and political power structures of the day.  Through the ridiculously rapid spread of Christianity in the Empire, Roman paganism was overthrown, bringing an end to persecution of Christians, and Jesus was declared Lord over the same Empire that executed him.

And then time went on.  The Temple was never rebuilt.  The Roman Empire declined and faded.  These were the key scenarios anticipated by the Scriptures, and they happened.

So, that raises the legitimate question: what does the Bible have to do with us, today?  Or, maybe more to the point, what relationship do these truths, teachings, narratives, and observations have to us, today, who are living so long after the main concerns have come and gone?

One answer is that everything I wrote above is pretty much wrong.  The biblical writings are not primarily concerned with their proximate historical situation and, instead, are focused on timeless, trans-historical truths that speak equally to everyone everywhere.  This is a well-established position and, if it is yours, you are in good company.  It’s not the purpose of this post to argue against it, and as I said, you’ll probably find the rest of this a little boring because you’ve already rejected a key assumption of it.

But if you’re me or someone who thinks somewhat about the Bible like I do, then this is an important issue, and I’d like to address it in a few ways.

This Has Always Been an Issue

Because we have had a closed canon for so long, we can sometimes forget that the writings in the Bible were produced over a very long period of time – even longer if we consider the stories and traditions that came before writing them down.

Our Jewish forefathers in the faith produced Scripture at a given point in time, and generations much later had to discern the significance for them at a later time.  Yet, at no point did anyone think these Scriptures were no longer relevant.

For instance, we read in 1 Maccabees of the persecution and paganism forced upon the Jewish people by Antiochus Epiphanes.  In the early chapters of 1 Maccabees, we read of faithful Israel being urged to keep the covenant of her ancestors, and in 2:49-70, Matthias on his deathbed recites the faithfulness of various figures from the Old Testament and uses them as examples to his audience.  They are examples because they are Israel’s forefathers.  If Israel remains faithful in her hour of trial, then God will preserve them even as the pagan empires around them pass away.

Not a single one of those Old Testament episodes were written to address Matthias’ current situation, nor were they written to establish a timeless principle of how God deals with people being persecuted – like that’s the “moral of the story” or what have you.

Yet, Matthias turns to these narratives to offer guidance in Israel’s present (to Matthias) situation.  This happens in two ways:

  1. What has happened in the past has ramifications for the present.
  2. What we see happening in the past can be transposed into our present situation for understanding and guidance.

Note, I am not condoning how Matthias specifically chose to apply the Old Testament to his present situation (which was, basically, let’s take revenge on the Gentiles), but rather to demonstrate that this is something the believing community has always had to do – take Scriptures that focused on past history and concerns and use them in a later context.

What Has Happened in the Past Has Ramifications for the Present

It seems like this is so obvious that it goes without saying: narrative about the past is vital for understanding your present situation.

How did we get here?  Where did we go wrong?  What did we do right?  How did people deal with this in the past?  How did it go?  Are there keys in here for undoing the present ills the past has produced?  Are we headed in a direction where we are doomed to repeat this fate?  Have past events imposed obligations on us in the present?  Are we, who are far removed from the original participants in historical events, still experiencing the effects and ramifications of them?

For example, I live in the United States.  If someone said that the Revolutionary War or the Constitution or slavery were all irrelevant to the present experience of the United States simply because they occurred in a historical scope that is long past, everyone would consider that person profoundly ignorant.

These events, stories, and documents are formative for the United States and continue to “live on” in values, practices, and institutions both for good and ill.  An ignorance of them only leaves us at the mercy of the trajectory they have set us on.

We learn them so that we can understand who we are and how we got here, hold to the things that serve us well, undo the things that have plagued us, avoid the errors (ideally) of our past and pursue the virtues and victories.

This is not really different from the role the narratives of Israel’s past played in their present experience over time, and you can see it in the biblical writings themselves, as later stories draw from figures, images, and outcomes of older ones.

Even in stories we have of these events, a concern that later generations will remember the story and draw meaning from it is present.  For example, in Exodus 12, the story of the Passover establishes it as a perpetual practice – one where children might well ask, “Why do we celebrate this?”  Their parents are to respond that this celebrates when the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, striking the Egyptians but sparing Israel.

This event, long in Israel’s primordial past, is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder of who their God is, what He has done for them, and the special relationship they have with Him that the other nations do not.  This complex of truths undergirds the entirety of Israel’s experience as narrated through the Scriptures.  Even the Ten Commandments begin with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.  You shall have no other gods before Me.”

By the time we get to Jesus, we find a Jesus who is not at odds with the narrative tradition behind him but continuous with it.  He sees himself as the last of a line of messengers sent by God to turn Israel from her path and holds out the prophetic possibility of restoration that repentance can bring – restoration from a specific situation that has been brought about by Israel’s past history, not some generic spiritual condition that has plagued mankind since Eden.

See, there is a reason Jesus has to arrive in the first century.

Even when we see shocking events in the New Testament like Pentecost, Peter sees this as a progression of the Old Testament narrative.  Stephen explains his martyrdom and the exaltation of Jesus in terms of Israel’s past story.  Paul sees the inclusion of Gentiles as an outcome of the covenant made with Abraham, who is the spiritual forefather of both Jews and Gentiles and whose promise will bring them together.

They have to understand past events because they have ramifications for the present.

So, when we talk about the Bible’s relevance for our present experience, this is one way: we understand what happened in the past to understand our present.

God has made a way of justification apart from the Israel-specific Torah: it is faith in Jesus Christ.  This is what God has done in the past.  Today, we join His people by believing in what He has done in Jesus in the past, and when we do this, we receive His Spirit.  We know this by what we know of the past.  Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand in the past and this explains his current lordship over the church.  The observation of God’s faithfulness to His promises and the survival and fortunes of His people give us comfort and hope in our own circumstances as the church.  God’s past operations beyond the grave have ramifications for our own future.

The destruction of the Temple has ramifications for our present.  The rise and fall of Rome has ramifications for our present.

In the name of Jesus, I can offer all people forgiveness of their sins, the promise of the Spirit, new life in a new community with a new mission that will restore everything that is broken, and I can offer them this on the strength of what God has done in the past.

Just like the study of America’s formative documents, stories, and events – these things tell us how we got here, help us understand our present, and give us tools for navigating it.

I have told people before that, if I were financially independent, I would like to spend my time going to churches and telling them, from history, what God has done in Jesus, who they are, and what that means for their hope and mission.  This identity-forming practice of sharing stories is something that has strong roots in our tribal past but isn’t terribly common these days.  In fact, a “timeless truths” approach to Scripture can sometimes undermine this.  The story of David and Goliath is no longer part of who we are or how we got here and is, instead, basically a fable like the Fox and the Grapes – a story whose particulars are unimportant that serves to teach a general, moral lesson.

Transposing the Past

He might not have been the first person to put it this way, but Andrew Perriman was the person who introduced me to the image of transposing the biblical narrative.

“Transposing” is a musical term.  See, a given piece of music is written in a certain “key.”  A key is basically the boundaries of the notes used in a piece of music.

Well, once you bring singers into the mix, you sometimes have a problem.  What if the notes are too high or too low for your singers?

Then you can move the notes into a higher or lower key.  You still get the same song because the relationship between all the notes is exactly the same, but they now run in a higher or lower range.  Moving the same notes into a different key is called “transposition.”

In other words, you have taken the exact same musical structure, but you have moved it into a range that fits your current singers.

The gospel writers are experts at this.  Maybe even a little overzealous at times.

For example, Matthew’s gospel portrays Herod as ordering the execution of infants in Bethlehem because he is afraid a child has been born that will overthrow him.  In reference to this event, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 about Ramah weeping over her lost children.

Jeremiah 31 is not at all a prophecy about Herod.  It’s about Israelite sons being taken captive into Babylon.  It even specifically says Ramah, not Bethlehem.

So, was Matthew written by a total idiot or what?

No, Matthew is transposing Jeremiah 31.  Jeremiah posits that Israel is weeping because her children are being taken from her by an oppressor, but God will hear the grief of His people and will restore their fortunes, returning their children from exile and delivering them from oppressors.

Matthew is saying, in essence, “Israel under Herod is like Israel under Babylon.  And just as God removed Babylon and brought Israel back to her land, so God is about to accomplish another deliverance of Israel in Jesus Christ.  God is about to overturn this oppressor, who is so much worse, with a salvation that is so much greater in scope.”

Matthew is using a text bounded by specific historical circumstances and significant in the past to explain present circumstances and offer both explanation and hope to his readers.

This is, I believe, the kind of thing that needs to happen, today, and is in large part what my blog is about – trying to do this (and screwing it up a lot) better and better.

In this way, we use past history to serve the present, but not by stripping it of its historical significance.  Rather, its historical significance is exactly what allows it to have value in the present.

It has been my experience that the most powerful forms of preaching and proclamation are the ones where the present voice of God is brought forward from the original voice and the two are strongly connected.

Joe Frazier was a professional boxer who had a particular habit.  When he punched people at head level, he turned his fist vertically instead of horizontally.  He called this the “power line,” because it brought his fist, wrist, and arm into better alignment when punching at that height.  You can actually test this for yourself without punching anyone.  Stand next to a wall and press your fist against it at the height of your face and look at your alignment, then turn your fist vertical and do the same thing.

The point is that the greater alignment of all the parts involved delivered a much more powerful punch, and I have discovered this to be the case when preaching or even talking about the Bible.  It’s not as though you can’t have a powerful punch without connecting the meaning of the past with your present proclamation; you can.  But I have seen powerful things happen when all the pieces are in alignment.

In this way, transposing the past into our present circumstances gives the Bible a new and powerful voice.

When I talk about the story of Jesus casting out Legion, it is no longer simply a tale of spiritual power or a model for dealing with demons; it is the story of Jesus taking on a complete world system – all the powers working together that have oppressed this man.  There is no bifurcation in this story between the spiritual forces of darkness and the political oppression of the Roman Empire.  One is a physical embodiment of the other, and Jesus, with the power of God, confronts them simultaneously.

What a holistic call to mission this is, and what assurance we have of the victory of God when we act in His name.  I do not have to choose between “saving souls,” addressing people’s psychological needs, addressing their material needs, or working for the betterment of the structures that people have to live under.  All of it is a war against darkness, all of it is subject to Jesus’ power and authority, and there is nothing the Church needs to fear from any principality or power whatever form it takes, and there is no limit to the deliverance we have to offer suffering people.

The historical confrontation of Jesus and Rome is in our past – and Jesus won it.  Go to Rome, today, and tell me who won that confrontation.  We have our own oppressors, our own manifestations of darkness, our own people afflicted with all kinds of holistic suffering, and we have the commission and power to bring deliverance to them and every hope from the historical success of Jesus that we, too, ultimately, will be successful in ridding this world of everything that oppresses and afflicts, culminating ultimately in a new heavens and earth that are the product of God Himself.

If that doesn’t motivate you to fight, if that doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what would.  Compare that to a story about demonic possession where the point is, essentially, that Jesus really cares about even crazy people, and since he’s God, he can send demons away.  I mean, not that those things aren’t necessarily true, but you see how anemic it can become when we strip away the historical significance of the story where Jesus faces the Legio Romana.

Imagine, if you will, going to an underground Chinese congregation in China and telling them that at least their hearts are right so they’ll go to heaven when the government persecutes them.  Now, imagine showing that same congregation the historical commitment God has demonstrated to the survival of His people, the steadfastness of His promise, the goal He has for His people to be a witness and agents to the world which no power of Hell or man can snuff out, and for those that do fall in the cause of love, death is answered in resurrection.  Do you see the difference in those two messages?  Do you see the difference in power and hope and mission?

What invitation do I have to offer the world based on what God has done in history?  I invite you to leave lives behind that are full of dysfunction, guilt, and dissipation to return to a God who keeps His promises.  A God who has for you the promise of the Spirit, filling you with His presence and bringing you into fellowship with a community of people who are also full of the Spirit and bearing healing fruits of all kinds as a result.  And you will become part of the mission to push back the darkness that plagues the world in all its forms with this Spirit under the guidance and protective care of Jesus, your living king.  And when this world has been made new and the last enemy of it has been subdued, the One who created all things will see you safely into it.

The Present Experience of the Church

It should be noted that, given that God has poured out the Spirit onto those who believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord, the present experience of the Church in the Spirit is something that absolutely must be taken into account alongside of our Bible reading.

The earliest church didn’t even have Bibles, at least not as we know them.  They had the proclamation of the Apostles and the demonstrative life of the Spirit among them.  Eventually, this produced letters and gospels and at least one apocalypse that was canonized, but the believing community did not live their lives buried in the pages of a book but in the lived out experience of the Spirit.

Sometimes, this experience manifested itself in drastic, crazy, remarkable ways.  Sometimes, it manifested simply in the extremes to which people would love and sacrifice for one another in the midst of a world that did not understand why you would want to do that.  And everything in between.

This is why I don’t go around telling people to stop getting meanings out of their Bibles that I think are ill-founded (as long as they stop short of telling me that’s what the Bible “means” or use their insight to bludgeon others).  The Spirit speaks and works, and the Bible is one of the vehicles through which this happens.  If someone reads a passage about Zacchaeus and it makes them think about whether or not their pricing is just at their workplace, I’m all for it.  Who knows but that it isn’t the Spirit speaking to that person, working with them to create a more just and compassionate world?

People draw comfort and insight for their lives from the Bible who don’t know anything about the Bible.  Who am I to say that is not the Spirit working with them through those pages?  Heck, some people even have a theology that makes it impossible for the Spirit to speak to them, so how else is it going to get done?

Regardless of what we think about the Bible or history or interpretation, good, amazing stuff is happening in the Church.  When we go out in faith and do Jesus things, Jesus things happen – often small, mundane stories, sometimes spectacular, but always about healing and reconciliation.  Always bringing the new creation into the here and now by the power of the Spirit.

Does this mean that Bible knowledge isn’t important?  No, although it might be less important than the position we’ve elevated it to in the West.  Still, as I’ve noted, the importance of understanding who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and what guidance all that can give us in our present circumstances is not incidental to the Church, but vital.

But we were never meant for our lives to be stuck in the pages of a book.  The story of God and His acts and His people does not stop with the maps in the back of your Bible.  It keeps going.  We aren’t supposed to be the first century church; we’re the twenty-first century church.  We have oppressors of our own.  We have struggles of our own.  We have issues of our own.  We have crises of our own.  And God is with us, now, speaking and acting and moving.

We need our prophets to call us to renewal and chart the way forward.  We need apostles to take the proclamation of what God has done to new places and start new faith communities.  We need pastors to care for communities that exist.  We need teachers to tell us who we are and who God is and disciple us in His ways.  We need healers to heal the sick.  We need givers to heal the poor.  We need helpers to care for widows and orphans – those who society has bypassed.  We need counselors with knowledge and wisdom to help people with their deep struggles and addictions and dysfunctions and broken relationships.  We need leaders who can challenge the anti-gospel of the powers that be with new ways of leading in the world, being a servant of love to all.  We need prayers who will draw forth the attention and power of God to all these needs and join His heart for the world.

There is no aspect of life into which God has not equipped and gifted people to bring the presence of Jesus and bring holiness to His name in the world.  Wouldn’t it be great if instead of being famous as the people who don’t want gay people to get married or who want schools to teach Genesis in science classes that we were known as the people who were steadfast warriors for the welfare of the world and everyone in it – compassionate servants to all who brought love and healing and forgiveness to everyone in the name of the God who loved them so much?

I did not invent these things, and neither did my contemporaries.  These are the things that are present in the Word.

Sunday Meditations: The State of the Kingdom

Something I’ve observed over the past decade or two is a growing awareness in American evangelicalism and Christianity as a whole about the kingdom-centric, lordship-centric nature of Jesus’ message and the early church’s proclamation.

Twenty or perhaps even ten years ago, many congregation members would look at you funny if you said that the core conviction of the early church was that, “Jesus is lord,” or that the good news of the gospel was that the kingdom had arrived.  Those concepts seem only loosely connected to a narrative about accepting Jesus into your heart so that you would go to heaven when you died and cleaning up your personal morality.

I’m speaking purely from my own opinion, but looking at this movement in Christianity as a whole, I’m going to lay almost entirely at the feet of N.T. Wright.  Not that he’s the first or most prolific person to talk about these things, but his popular reach is unmatched by any other scholar dealing with these topics.  Your average Christian in the American pew is probably not reading Schweitzer or Sanders or Dunn, but they might very well have a copy of John for Everyone.

Just this morning, I was reading a book written by a Charismatic (referring to the theology, not necessarily personality) pastor in a relatively small hyper-Charismatic denomination who cited N.T. Wright.  The idea that an Anglican theologian’s scholarship is making its way into small, Pentecostal churches is somewhat astounding to me.

Specifically in the realm of conservative Protestant evangelicalism, Scot McKnight has been running with this ball.  Books like The King Jesus Gospel and Kingdom Conspiracy bring these ideas powerfully home at a popular level and, I might add, he’s maybe even a bit more radical in communicating the ramifications of all this than N.T. Wright, which I greatly appreciate.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for an excellent personal or small-group devotional resource on bringing awareness of the message of the kingdom into your understanding of the gospel and mission, I recommend Following King Jesus, which Scot McKnight wrote with Becky Castle Miller.  I’m working my way through it, and even though there are things I might understand a bit differently, it’s solid and devotional and delivers the goods in a way that is almost guaranteed to generate some lively discussion in your standard evangelical small group or Sunday School class.

So, yes, the move is on in America to be reevaluating our understanding of the biblical story in light of the prominence of the theme of “kingdom” and the obsession of those earliest churches with the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to authority at God’s right hand, and this is healthy and good and I’m happy about it and will be happy to gush about it with little provocation if you see me at church or at the bus stop or in the waiting room for the dentist.

As the (old) new wine comes into contact with old (new) wineskins, some growing pains and transitional stages are to be expected.

One of these stages has been at the center of several of my conversations, recently, and that is a concept of the kingdom (and subsequently, the lordship of Jesus) that is primarily individual and spiritual in nature.

In some ways, this is a perfectly natural attempt at trying to synthesize these insights into an existing set of perceptions.  We have this narrative that we are to accept Jesus as lord in our hearts, and this means a transformation of our personal morality, and our mission is to get other people to do this as well.  When we hear about things like the theme of “kingdom,” then there can be a tendency to use it as a backdrop and a context for what we already think, and ironically, provide a securer anchor for finding this in the Bible since now we’re actually incorporating strong, biblical ideas.

“We’ve always been right, but we didn’t know how right we were!  Turns out our rightness is in even more of the Bible than we thought!”

(NOTE: This is the implicit subtitle of nearly every book on Reformed theology.  Go on, read one.  You’ll see what I mean.)

When we have created this synthesis, it’s then easy for us to project our situation back into those first century writings.  Because we understand the kingdom in terms of a purely spiritual entity that exists in the personal allegiances of Christians, it’s easy to see this as the emphasis and experience and eschatological hope of the early church.  They’re basically saying the same things we are, and now we’ve provided the narrative bridge to produce an unbroken doctrinal line between us and the Apostles.

(NOTE: This is an implicit teaching of nearly every book on Ref… you know what?  Maybe I should just write my own book on how to write a bestselling Reformed theology book.)

As you can see, when we do this, we’ve sort of flipped the direction in which the thought is supposed to move.  Rather than suspend our own theologies and controversies and concerns and read those writings against the first century world, then bring those ideas forward into our context, we are instead taking our framework and putting it in the minds and pens of the first century.

Now, in our minds, we have a first century church that had been reoriented from their earthly, political concerns (those are Old Testament sentiments) to the realm of spiritual realities (New Testament).  Their understanding was now that they would continue to live under an oppressive Roman regime, but they could endure this because they were now citizens of a spiritual kingdom that existed in heaven, to which they would enter upon death, and this kingdom would one day be realized as an earthly reality at the end of all time.

And, if you’ve got a bit of a progressive edge to you and/or are a millennial, the present experience of this kingdom is also an impetus for social action.  If you’re not progressive and/or old, it’s an impetus for avoiding social action.  It works out for everyone.

I want to say that this concept is not a bad summary of the experience of the church in the present day and age.  There is no single city or country that proclaims that Jesus is their king.  You can’t cross the borders of the kingdom of God.  And if we understand Jesus to be “lord of the nations” or God to rule the world, we have to understand it in some sense that doesn’t clash with the empirical reality that most of the world isn’t even Christian, much less actual political entities confessing this reality and living under this reality.

It makes sense for us to understand our corporate identity as being scattered throughout all nations but ruling none of them, and our unity is produced by the Spirit given to us by the Son who is lord over his people and whose will and goals are being accomplished through his people.  Furthermore, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is a decent summary of the spiritual component of the early church’s experiences.

What I would take issue with, however, is this being the sum of the expectations of those first century followers, the Apostles, or Jesus himself.

The picture I outlined above is only a kingdom in an abstract sense – a virtually metaphorical sense.  We could just as easily describe the situation as being an exodus through the wilderness, or being in exile/diaspora.  The idea of a kingdom describes some elements of our present situation but kind of fizzles in others.

And if we take this concept of the kingdom to consist of high-level concepts like “wherever the reign of God is present,” then it’s a little hard to understand why the Gospels would be so preoccupied with the announcement that the kingdom of God was impending or had arrived.

There were still faithful Israelites (and God-fearing Gentiles, for that matter) serving God before Jesus arrived, both in the kingdom of Israel, in Babylon, under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes, and in the Roman Empire.  How is it that they were not the kingdom of God?  How could Jesus announce the good news of the arrival of the longed-for kingdom when the longed-for kingdom was simply faithful people acting in obedience to God in their land?

Furthermore, how would this be a challenge to the Empire?  People “getting saved” and doing good for one another is just fine with Caesar.  He remains firmly ensconced in his rule and his flunkies remain firmly ensconced in their positions.  The rich remain rich and the poor remain poor and everything is as it was.  Oh, he might not care for seditious-sounding talk about another king, but by and large, a purely spiritual concept of the kingdom is no threat to him.  In fact, Eusebius records that, when Domitian rounded up Jesus’ great-nephews, they avoided persecution by insisting that the kingdom was purely spiritual in nature (Church History, 3:20).  Eusebius tells us that, from that day forward, Domitian did not persecute Christians and treated them contemptuously as if they were too insignificant to do anything about.

Did you catch that?  When Christians insist that the kingdom is purely a spiritual matter, the powers of the present age assume they are too insignificant to persecute.

Old Testament Israel was once a kingdom.  They weren’t always a kingdom, but they became one.  In time, they also had an individual as their king.  They didn’t always have good kings, and even their good kings illustrated fatal flaws, but when the system worked, it worked very well for them.  They were at peace, prosperous, and other nations came to learn from them.

The picture we have of the new Jerusalem at the end of Revelation is an idealized portrayal of what the earthly Jerusalem was supposed to be – the center of wisdom, peace, forgiveness, healing, and restoration, and the other rulers of the other nations would come in and out, looking to her as a model and a mediator as they, too, worshiped the true God and lived out His will in their nations.

Obviously, this did not work out.

The politico-religious leadership of Israel, instead of being a model for other nations, learned from them and became like them.  Their rulers became despots and their priests became wealthy off the backs of the people.  They worshiped God in form, but not in truth, and instead placed their faith in a gamut of ever-shifting political alliances.

This path took them into exile.  Babylon.  Persia.  Greece.  Rome.  Other kingdoms ruled them.  They no longer ruled anything, not even in their own land.  What sovereignty they enjoyed, they did at the suffrage of the true rulers of the land who could snuff them out at any time.

When people hear an apocalyptic prophet telling them to prepare themselves because the kingdom of God is on their doorstep, not a single person is thinking of the continuance of their present experience with a healthy dollop of spiritual improvement.  They are thinking of the radical restructuring of the powers of the present age.

And did this happen?  Oh, yes, it did.

First in Israel, then out to the nations.  The power structures of Jesus’ day were removed, sometimes with the sword, always with the sword of the Spirit.  The path through all this was the path of faithful suffering, but it was suffering that could be endured in light of the knowledge that the kingdom of God was right around the corner and salvation was nearer each day.  Swiftly, the Temple fell, and then many years after, the Empire bowed the knee.

Was this spiritual?  Definitely.  Was this earthly, physical, political, and concrete?  Absolutely.

Is this, then, where we find ourselves today?  Hoping for an imminent disruption of the world’s political powers?

Maybe such things will happen; maybe not.  That’s the province of prophets.

We find ourselves in a sort of post-kingdom scenario.  The Roman Empire is gone, and Christendom as a cultural principle and authority is also exiting the stage.  We still have the Spirit.  We still have our Lord Jesus who isn’t any less alive than he was in 70 A.D.

But our context is very different, isn’t it?  Perhaps a context that the authors of the New Testament themselves didn’t even foresee except in powerful images toward the end of the Apocalypse.  Our story of the kingdom can continue to inform our lives in the here and now and give us hope, but we also have to reckon with what the kingdom-in-principle looks like on the world stage of today.

We aren’t looking at the same immediate horizon Jesus and the Apostles were looking at.  We are not hoping in the imminent overthrow of our existing political powers (well, I kind of am, but not because the Spirit has revealed the times to me) as they did, as they predicted, and as they received.

Our mission, I would contend, is now to be the people of God throughout a bigger world than the Apostles’ imagined – a world in which we do not have a specific land or a specific city.  But we still have a calling to be a blessing to the nations and prophets and priests of a new creation – a story that preceded kingdom and will go on long after it.

And in the interim, there will still be threats.  We still need saving.  We still need guidance.  We still need our shepherd, and this is why it is still good news that Jesus, and not anybody else, is our Lord.

Sunday Meditations: The Final Judgement

Near death experiences (NDEs) are interesting collections of data.  We might debate over whether there is actually something transcendent about them or whether they only occur entirely within the realm of human subjectivity, but regardless of which side you take, we have to agree that widespread commonalities reflect something that is intrinsic to human experience on the threshold of death.

One of these commonalities is the experience of someone’s life flashing before their eyes.

Transcending history, culture, geographic location, and religion (or lack thereof) is the phenomenon of someone experiencing their entire life paraded before them in a brief instant.  This is such a common experience that there are even collections of data of mountain climbers experiencing this while falling (and ultimately surviving, obviously).

In most cases, the experiencers report that they watch this show not only from their standpoint, but also feeling the impact from the other people involved.  In addition, they also experience a “detached” view as if they are a third party watching this play out (in some cases, people only report the “detached” view).  In other words, they simultaneously experience:

  • What it was like when they lived that moment
  • What it was like for the other people who shared that moment
  • What it was like to see that moment through the eyes of an objective party

Often in these experiences are memories that the observer has long since forgotten (in one case, someone found a contract they had hidden and forgotten where it was until they had this experience).  In all, the viewer reports that it is as if every moment of their lives – big and small – played out before them, yet this obviously happens in seconds or less of real time.  In many of these experiences, the experiencer cites that their expressions of love or lack thereof in those situations was the primary criterion running through their heads as they watched.

Virtually all religions have captured this idea in some form or another.  At the end of life, all your deeds are replayed and the impact assessed.  Both the Old and New Testaments also present this idea – that everyone, when they die, will have their deeds trotted out before them to be weighed.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:14 (NRSV)

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (NRSV)

Nobody likes the sound of those verses or the verses like them.

When we think of judgement, we automatically think of something negative.  We tell each other not to judge or refer to people as “judgey” if they are very critical of us.  For all kinds of reasons, when we think of the idea of judgement, and especially judgement that comes from God, we think of floods, locusts, hellfire, brimstone, and condemnation.

Therefore, “judgement” passages invoke a sort of terror.  We read them and picture a God sitting on a throne who cannot abide even the slightest of errors, frowning down on mankind in general and ourselves in specific for our many failures, both typical and especially grievous.

This impulse is not new; it’s largely been used as a lever for control of the general populace, especially as we see in the political machinations of the medieval European church.  In a much more decentralized way, it’s used to maintain control of congregations and individuals.  Don’t screw up, folks, not even a little, or God will f* you up.  So, live right, come to my church, give in the offering, get more people to come to my church, vote for the right people, and try not to touch yourselves, lest the foundations of Heaven quake with the wrath of the Almighty.

I grew up in a fundamentalist upbringing, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say this was the theme of about 95% of the sermons.  And it does something to you as a child (heck, it does something to you as an adult) and what you think about God, parents, and authority in general.

Retribution, fear, and constant displeasure.  These are the gears in the machine of how religion works, yes?

Even as I got older and began to understand concepts like “grace,” this stayed with me.  Now, God was constantly and vaguely displeased with me all the time, but grudgingly put up with me because of Jesus.  But God really wanted me to be good, not the person I was.  He really wanted someone else, truth be told.  But He had me, instead, and lived a life in Heaven of constant aggravation.

“Why can’t you be more like your older brother, Jesus?”

I know I’m not alone in this.  If you read any books by the Puritans (who were not nearly as dour and joyless as our popular mythology makes them out to be), the basic thesis of many of them is, “You think you love God? HA!”  Very introspective group, the Puritans, and very aware of their shortcomings, the shortcomings of humanity, and what it meant to be sinners in the hands of an angry god.

But the interesting thing about judgement is that judgement on its own is neither bad nor terrifying.  Judgement is also how mercy is bestowed, wisdom and discernment find the right answer, justice is accomplished, wrongs are righted, and benefits awarded.  Christ’s resurrection was the result of judgment, after all.

So, if the final judgement is meant to punish us for our many shortcomings, it is something to be feared.  But what if the purpose of the final judgement is to right all the wrongs?

What if the judge knows you intimately?  They know your genetic constraints and dispositions.  They know what your parents were like and what your upbringing contained.  They know what strategies you chose as a child to defend yourself and navigate through life and how those shaped your personality.  They know what traumas you experienced.  They know about your desires for good things that went unfulfilled.  Your needs that went unmet.  Your longing for someone to be looking for you.

They know the pull of temptations and the powers that surround you like winds buffeting a ship.  They know the chaotic and deterministic factors that go into your every action.  They know not only everything you’ve done, but why you did it from your own point of view as well as theirs, and they know everything that was done to you.

What if this judge, looking through every event of our lives, sees them not only as a detached third party, but from our perspective and the perspective of everyone who experienced the same things?

What if this judge knew what it was like to be me with even more depth, thoroughness, and clarity than I knew what it was like to be me?

Is that a judge to be feared?  Is this a judge who will hold me up to the stone cold tablets of Law and find me wanting like some kind of cosmic ethical calculator?  Is this a judge who, at the end, will abandon all pretense of compassion and mercy and forgiveness of enemies only to embrace the cold calculus of violations and penalties?

Or is this a judge who is radically biased in my favor?

Is this judge a father who, because He is my father, cannot leave me to act in selfishness and self-destruction or harm other children, but is nevertheless delighted with my presence?  I am a father; I know what it is like to see your children in that way.  Would God be less so than I?

Perhaps that final experience of seeing my life before my eyes is finally to see my life from God’s perspective – the good, the bad, the noble, the ignoble – so that I may know myself the way He knows me, and I will at last be transfigured with that knowledge.

Did you know that some people who have NDEs are so changed by the experience that they long for death?  I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, but they do not fear the final judgement.  They were confronted with their virtues and vices and were not condemned but transformed.

Perhaps we, then, can endeavor all the more earnestly to always act out love in all of our actions, big and small.  Not because we fear punishment or exposure, but because the knowledge that we will give an accounting transforms us.  It calls us to a day when we will review our lives and want to find there an abundance of love for ourselves, for God, and for every person we come into contact with – friend or foe.

Because that is the state of God, Himself.

Sunday Meditations: Thomas

When I was growing up, I sometimes saw things that I knew would someday produce a very long-lasting nickname for the person involved.

Sometimes, they were funny.  Sometimes, they were cruel.  Sometimes, they were the result of character traits.  Sometimes, they were the result of a fluke occurrence or even simply a rumor of a fluke occurrence (especially for girls in the latter case).  In all cases, they were very reductionist and hard to shake.  It captured the one thing everyone knew about you whether they knew you or not.

If you can remember back to your childhood (or if you’re the current President of the United States), you can probably remember what it was like to tag someone with a name like this.

This happened to one of the apostles as well: Doubting Thomas.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

John 20:24-29 (NRSV)

We all know what it means to call someone a Doubting Thomas – it means they lack faith.  This is because, after Jesus’ crucifixion, some of the disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus alive, again, and Thomas didn’t believe them unless he could see some incontrovertible empirical evidence.

For all its eccentricities, the Gospel of John is actually pretty good about recording people being skeptical about these apparently supernatural claims and events.  It’s a good place to look when someone tells you that ancient people were intrinsically gullible and, before the Scientific Method, just believed whatever crazy story anybody fed them.

From what Thomas says, it appears as though he believes the other disciples have been duped by someone claiming to be Jesus or looking like Jesus or maybe having some kind of grief-induced hallucination.  It’s not enough for Thomas to see someone who seems like Jesus; Thomas wants to see the Jesus that died.  He has to see all the wounds to be convinced it’s the same guy.

For some reason, church history has looked down on Thomas for this, although I’m not sure why.  There’s even a children’s song containing the line, “Don’t be a Doubting Thomas.”  Here are some very disappointed, very afraid, grief-stricken disciples, and Thomas is supposed to take their story that they saw the executed Jesus up and around at face value.

These disciples, you see, are not credible sources at the time.  They want Jesus to be alive again, and Thomas realizes this.  In our heads, we might hear Thomas as scornful when he’s talking to the other disciples, but I think it’s just as likely that Thomas is full of pity and compassion when he says what he says, maybe putting his hand on their shoulder.

“Brother, we all want Jesus to be with us, again, but we saw him die.  The only way this could possibly be the same Jesus is if we saw all the fatal wounds he had.”

I don’t think it’s right to call Thomas, “Doubting Thomas.”  I think we could call him, “Not Willing to Be Placated with False Hope” Thomas.  Or perhaps “Asking for Perfectly Reasonable Evidence in Light of Extraordinary Claims” Thomas.

I actually suspect Thomas has all the best motives, here, and we see this in a story about Thomas that doesn’t get told as often.  It’s a story that takes place after Jesus learns that his good friend Lazarus is seriously ill back in Judea:

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 11:7-16 (NRSV), emphasis mine

Jesus wants to take a shot at healing Lazarus, but this means going back into territory where certain Jewish leaders are trying to kill him.  The disciples try to talk him out of it.  They are afraid for both Jesus and themselves.

Thomas, on the other hand, is ready to follow Jesus into martyrdom.

What a striking contrast this is with, say, Peter.  Peter denied he knew Jesus at all when he thought he might be found out as a disciple.  Thomas, instead, is ready to follow Jesus into death, and tries to encourage the other disciples to be equally willing.  And this is what happens; they go with him.

Even if we read a bitterness in Thomas’ words in this passage (which I don’t), he’s still willing.

It is this Thomas who knows what’s about to happen.  It’s this Thomas who knows Jesus will be killed by his political enemies.  It’s this Thomas who is willing to die by his side.  It’s this Thomas who doesn’t die at his side.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

John 14:5 (NRSV)

When John records Jesus’ arrest, all the disciples vamoose except for two: Peter and an unnamed disciple; this we know because this sets up Peter’s series of denials to save his own skin.  We never hear what happened with the other disciple.  Most scholars believe this other disciple was John because John has a tendency not to name himself, and this is probably entirely correct, but we actually don’t know who it was.

I wonder if it was Thomas.

Whether it is or not, it is this Thomas – Faithful Unto Death Thomas – who sees Jesus killed, but he himself survives.  Grief-Stricken Thomas.  Guilt-Ridden Thomas.  Hopeless Thomas.

It is this Thomas who hears the story of a couple of disciples that Jesus is still alive, and it is this Thomas – Loyal Thomas, Lay Down His Life For His Friends Thomas – who cannot bring himself to accept these slender reeds of hope.  He has to live for the disciples, now.  He has to help them with life after Jesus.

Perhaps it is because of Thomas’ good and faithful heart that Jesus does not in the least reprimand him.  He does not accuse Thomas of faithlessness.  He does not criticize Thomas’ over-commitment to modernistic definitions of truth or over-reliance on empiricism for his epistemology.

He has no words at all of rebuke for Thomas; simply an invitation.  “Thomas, come feel my hands and my side, and you will see it’s really me.  You can believe.”

And does Thomas check out Jesus’ claims?  Does he feel Jesus’ hands and side?  No, he does not.  He doesn’t need to.  Because, you see, Thomas is not some doubter or skeptic by philosophy or bent of personality.  He does not pinch Jesus’ nose to make sure he isn’t a hallucination or take Jesus’ pulse to make sure he isn’t dead.  This story is not about adherence to the scientific method.  This is a story about a man who was willing to die out of loyal love of his lord, and his lord was taken from him.  The center of his life, his love, and his hopes were all gone.

And now, that lord stands before him, and Thomas is overcome with rapture.  He falls to his knees uttering his confessions and oaths of loyalty, utterly convinced by the presence of the man he loved so.

The church would set the world ablaze with love and goodness if we had half the dedication of Doubting Thomas.

Sunday Meditations: O Death

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

– “A Conversation with Death,” Lloyd Chandler

For as long as I can remember, I knew what would happen to me when I died.

When I was very young, I knew that, when I died, my spirit would go to Heaven where I would live forever in a paradise that was as varied as there were inhabitants.  One of my pastors talked about rooms full of banana pudding.

When I became older, Calvinistic, and more dour, I traded the rooms of banana pudding for the new heavens and earth.  With some help from N.T. Wright, I adjusted my focus to a bodily resurrection into a new earth, although my concept of what that would look like didn’t differ too much from Heaven.  What happens immediately after death became more of a mystery to me and, ultimately, not very relevant.

My senior year of college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy class on God and time where I argued that time was not an objective feature in the universe but a faculty of perception that helps us distinguish between events.  What set me on this path was the tension between the idea of an intermediate state and a final judgement.  Did God yank everyone out of Heaven and Hell only to send them back there?  I came to the conclusion that our death and the final judgement seem like two distinct events to us, but they do not to God.  I concluded that, after death, our next conscious experience would be the final judgement.

I’m still warm to that “time is a faculty of perception” idea, incidentally.

As you can see, these ideas changed over time, but at any given time, I felt very sure.  Death just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant thing that brought grief to those who remained, but was essentially a gateway into joy for believers.  Although I hated the grief that death brought to everyone around it, I did not fear death.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Although he may flourish among rushes,
the east wind shall come, a blast from the Lord,
rising from the wilderness;
and his fountain shall dry up,
his spring shall be parched.
It shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing.
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.

Hosea 13:14-16 (NRSV)

The beginning of that passage will be quoted in the New Testament and put to very different use.

Here, we see God through the prophet bringing  a message of destruction to Israel who has become corrupt, unjust, and very much like all the other nations – allying with them, worshiping their gods, and mimicking their power structures.

Hosea still holds out hope if Israel will repent, but here, we see that the outcome of Israel’s behavior is destruction by another nation.  There is no Hell in this passage.  Simply widespread death at the hands of another national power is plenty bad enough.  This is very common in the Old Testament.

A few different Psalms have the writer pleading with God to spare the psalmist’s life, because who can declare God’s praises after they are dead?

We see this in Hezekiah’s prayer for healing:

O Lord, by these things people live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh, restore me to health and make me live!
Surely it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, they thank you,
as I do this day;
fathers make known to children
your faithfulness.

Isaiah 38:16-19 (NRSV)

Yes, death is plenty bad all on its own, and this sentiment extends into the New Testament as well.  Due to translations and popular connotations, a rather lot of the passages where we assume Jesus is talking about Hell, he’s talking about dying.

A few years ago, I turned 40, but it took a year to two to hit me.  I was now in striking range of dying of natural causes.

One of my managers at a previous job died when he was 47, and while that’s not typical, it’s not unheard of, either.  Unlike the days of my youth when I had the luxury of contemplating death from the standpoint of belief in my own immortality, I was now beginning to discern its form as it began to rise on the horizon.

This also happened at a time when my own convictions about faith were undergoing a fairly intensive degree of criticism and restructuring.  I felt very uncertain about what, if anything, would happen to me after I died, and the contemplation of the loss of myself and my relationships began to hit me in powerful ways they had not, before.

It extended as well to things like my children growing up – the inevitability of time and the permanent loss of those little people I knew.

It was a time of a lot of grief and anxiety for me, and I would reach out to the Lord and not find Him.  I didn’t know what would happen to me when I died, and now I was facing its possibility with my theological and psychological shields down, and I was not ready for it.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (NRSV)

You see what Paul did there?  He took that thing from Hosea and turned it around.  In light of the resurrection of Jesus, that thing that was a manifestation of God’s wrath now has no force.  When Hosea asks those questions, he’s preparing for the onslaught of death.  When Paul asks those questions, he’s mocking the effectiveness of death.

At the risk of frustrating some of my friends who are more conservative theologically, I still don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die.  Nor do I know what’s going to happen when all this cosmic drama comes to an end.  I have doubts and fears about these things, sometimes, and I long sometimes for simpler days when I had an unshakable certainty in a very literal understanding of the Scriptures and knew exactly how all of this would pan out.

I don’t have those concrete understandings, anymore, and what I do think I understand, I’m never certain about it.  Always rethinking.  Always self-critiquing.  Always leaving behind things that no longer seem to serve and taking on new things that serve better or, in some cases, just coming to terms with not knowing.

But I do know that, if I allow the fear of death to be any kind of force in my life at all, it will cause me to sin.  I will seek self-preservation and immortality in all kinds of ways that will be empty and futile at best and harmful to others at worst.

So, what do we do then?  Denial?  Just pretend it isn’t out there?

Well, as Richard Beck helped me understand in his very, very good book The Slavery of Death, my identity – the inner being of Who-I-Am – my life, my psyche, my soul – it’s not mine.  I didn’t create it.  It was given to me.  It was thrust upon me, really.  It’s a gift.  I’m supposed to steward it, not grasp it for my own possession.

Because this me-ness was not really mine in the first place, I can give it away.  I can spend it for the benefit of others, and when my time is up, I can give it back to my Lord and say, “Here’s what I have done with your investment.”  I hope I do ok with it.

But the point is that I have given it back over to a trustworthy God – a master that Jesus says rewards good stewardship.  A master who does not leave His people to desolation but will carry them safely through all administrations of their enemies, and the last enemy is death.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:14 (NRSV)

You see, during that long, dark night of my soul, God was taking something away from me and replacing it with Himself.

I can’t place my trust in my theological understanding of death.  I can’t place my trust in my reading of Scripture.  I can’t place my trust in my ability to figure death out in palatable ways.  I used to trust in all those things, but those are not reliable and proper objects of trust.

My object of trust has to be God Himself – the original Conceiver of my identity and the Recipient of it when I pass on.  The Locus and Shepherd of the birth of stars, the heat death of the universe, and me.

The removal of the enslavement of death is not to cling to a specific idea of exactly how things are going to shake out, but to cling to God and say to Him, “I don’t know how You’re going to pull this off, or what You’re going to do, or when.  I don’t know what you’re going to do with me.  But I trust You, so here You go.”

I have never been able to shake my belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  I’m not sure I can confidently say exactly what that looked like or exactly what happened.  We just have stories written well after the fact and the stories do not agree on various details.  But no matter how skeptical I get, I can’t shake the idea that this must have happened, as completely ridiculous as it sounds.  It’s not even a matter of what happened in history afterwards with Paul’s conversion and the spread of the Church, although that’s worthy of consideration.  It’s a simple, embedded in my bones faith commitment.

Friends who make fun of me for it are probably right to do so.  It’s ridiculous.  People do not come back to life, again; I know this, and so did everyone in the ancient world.

I believe this happened at least once.

But Jesus, you know, he was a trailblazer for the rest of us.  He didn’t have Paul’s argumentation.  He prayed in Gethsemane to be spared, and God did not respond.  He anguished over his impending death, and God did not make him feel better.  He did not fall back on prooftexts or arguments about the immortality of the soul.  He was confronted with his extermination and he did not want it to happen.

But at the end, without any kind of sign or assistance, he threw himself into God’s arms.

And just look what happened.

Happy Easter, everyone, from the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, King James-onlyist of you to the most materialistic, naturalistic, atheistic, disenchanted universe of you.

This God I’m talking about loves all of you.

Sunday Meditations: Holiness and Mission

This morning in worship, we sang a Matt Maher song.  I like Matt Maher, overall, and even burned myself a CD of Matt Maher songs for my commute.  But he does sometimes sling lyrics out there where I’m not sure what he means.

I have this experience fairly regularly with worship songs.  There’ll be a line in there (or a verse, or… the whole song) that has various keywords in it that sound good on the surface, but I’m unclear on what’s actually being communicated.  In some cases, I think this may be because the writer doesn’t actually mean anything in particular and is, in fact, stringing keywords together.

I don’t think this is the case, here, but here’s the bit that made me wonder:

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
Where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me

– “Lord, I Need You” lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group (emphasis mine)

Holiness is Christ in me.

I would have understood the line if it had said, “Righteousness is Christ in me.”  Not only would that be a nod to the general evangelical/Protestant doctrine of imputation, but virtually all Christians believe that the presence of Jesus in us by the power of the Spirit is something that guides us into right behaviors.  This verse of the song seems to be pointed in that direction: I have sin, God’s grace is greater, this has set me free from my sins, so I am holy.

But holiness is not about right behaviors, moral purity, etc.  That’s what righteousness is primarily about – how faithful are we to a standard?  When we behave rightly/faithfully, we are righteous; when we don’t, we are unrighteous.

At first, I wondered if maybe this was just a simple equivocation.  A rather lot of Christians use the word “holiness” to mean “morally correct behavior.”  There’s even a Holiness Movement in American church history that is entirely concerned with whether or not a person can stop sinning.

And that may be the case with this song; I don’t know and Matt Maher is unlikely to call me up and explain it to me.

But it might also be capturing something important to our identity and mission.

What is Holiness?

I once wrote about a tangle of terms that often get conflated with one another, and holiness was one of them.

I’m not going to retread all that ground, here, but the upshot is that holiness is the state of being especially set apart from everything else that might otherwise be just like you.

For instance, some consider the Jordan River to be a holy site, because it’s where Jesus was baptized (among other things).  A river does not behave morally or possess any moral attributes, nor is it physically any different than rivers in general.  However, the Jordan River is considered to be a special, sacred river.  And if you consider the Jordan River to be a special, sacred river, then it is a holy site.

You can extend this to just about anything else.  Holy sites.  Holy books.  Holy relics.  Holy artifacts.  Holy days.  There is nothing physically about the things themselves that are any different than other similar things.  We have set them apart as special.  They have a special purpose.

Sundays or Easter is a complete rotation of the Earth just like the day before and the day after.  The bread we use in the Lord’s Supper is not physically any different than the bread in our pantries.  But they are holy because we have set them apart to be special and use them for a purpose distinct from other things like them.  They are sacred.  And because of that, we deal with them differently.  If they were treated just the same as everything else, they wouldn’t be holy at all.

When we talk about God being holy, we are saying that He is not like anything else that could be described as a god.  As Paul says to the Corinthians, the world is full of gods and lords.  But God is of an order very different than the other powers to which one might give allegiance.  In Paul’s day, you had the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities and rulers that claimed to be divine or human-divine hybrids, but God was not like them.  He was special.  He was sacred.  He was holy.

What About Us?

When we talk about Christians being holy or cultivating the quality of holiness, we are talking about what makes us set apart.  What makes us different.  Certainly, behavior is a big part of this and is probably why it’s so easy to swap holiness and righteousness around.

But it’s important to note that holiness precedes the behavior.  Since we are holy, we behave in certain ways.  We are not holy because we behave in certain ways.

Consider our father Abraham.

God called Abraham out of all humanity to grow into a nation that would be special to God (and God would be special to them) and would bless the world.  He was set apart.  He was unlike everyone else at that moment.

But Abraham had done nothing remarkable, at least that we’re told about in the Scriptures.  God did not see that Abraham was special and then deal with him on that basis.  All we know is that God elected Abraham and, in doing so, Abraham was holy.

He was still a man just like any of us, but he had been set apart for special use by God.  He was not like everyone else and was not supposed to be like anyone else.  He was meant to be a holy patriarch of a holy family that would become a holy nation – a people distinct and set apart by God.

Many of the laws in the Torah reflect this holiness principle.  There’s not anything particularly immoral about mixing fabrics for your clothes or not wearing tassels on the hem of your robe.  These things are done to mark off the holiness of God’s people.  They are sacred, they are not like the other nations, and these things are symbols of that holiness.

In terms of being a people and a nation, they are not physically distinguishable from anything else.  In fact, God will point out through the prophets that there was nothing particularly great about Israel when He called her.  Yet, this calling made her holy.

We can see this trajectory progressively drop away as time goes on.

Israel wants a king so that she can be like the other nations, and God doesn’t approve.  It’s not that there’s something inherently immoral about having a king.  David was a king.  Jesus is a king.  It’s that the people began to want to run like everyone around them was running.  They wanted to be a “real” nation like everyone else, and all the other nations – many of whom were more powerful and prosperous – had kings.

As we watch the rise and fall of Israel’s prosperity, we see that this is intimately connected to how much they are like the other nations versus how unique they are.  They begin to worship the gods of the other nations and, as a corollary, take on their values and practices.  They ally with and combine their people with other nations for protection, rather than being devoted to God, maintaining their holiness, and trusting He will protect them.  Ultimately, the leadership ends up becoming despotic just like their neighbors, where the justice system becomes about how wealthy you are, the poor and the widow and the foreigner are oppressed, and the powerful use their positions to gain wealth and comfort for themselves at the expense of their people.

At that point, the nation had become just like everyone else.  Just another loaf of bread in the pantry or another rotation of the Earth on the calendar.  Nothing distinct about them at all, really.

Jesus’ mission could at least partially be described as the recovery of Israel’s holiness.

Jesus, like the prophets before, call Israel back to faith, back to devotion, back to true obedience to the key values the Torah contained, and away from a life of desperate dissolution that characterized everyone else in the Roman Empire.  He called them to trust God for their deliverance from oppressors.  In many ways, Jesus is calling them back to the project of being a special people in the world who would be special to God and through whom God would bless the world.

And as we move through the New Testament, we discover a mystery – God will accomplish this in history by grafting in the Gentiles who share the faith in Jesus that faithful Israel will have.

Now, Gentiles can be made holy.  Now, they can be set apart from the rest of the nations.  Now, they can be part of a community that looks different than all other power structures that surround them, in their ethics, their values, and even their composition that stretches across lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

This is something that happens from the outward command of our Lord and the inward, Spiritual journey of our lives living him out into the world and among one another.  And in that sense, yes, I think we can probably say, “Holiness is Christ in me.”

Practical Application Time

I think it’s entirely valid and necessary for the Church to look at herself and the rest of the world and see how we compare, not in the sense of judging anyone, but in the sense of seeing whether or not we’re actually a unique people.  Do we look any different than the organizations and power structures around us?

There are some complicating factors to this question.

One factor is that I’m not sure how often or how well the Church is reminded of her identity and calling in the world.  This is a large burden I have for the Church, and as I’ve told others, if I all of a sudden became independently wealthy, I’d visit any church that would have me and tell them our story, how they connect with it, and what it means for who they are and what that looks like.

Not that my ideas on that are super amazing or anything, but just the act of talking about it and making it a big part of how we think about how we spend our resources, etc. would be really helpful, I think.

Often, the church is told that she is a collection of “saved” people, and her job is to get other people “saved” as well.  The impulse here isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s anemic and bereft of any kind of context, and you end up with what we’ve got – a large group of people who assent to doctrines who have prayed a special prayer that are otherwise indistinguishable from any other organization.

The other complicating factor is that we’ve been so unfocused on our holy calling and purpose that, at least in some cases, “the world” is doing better at some things that we should actually be leading.

We had the beginnings of an egalitarian community literally millennia ago.  Where did that go?  How did we end up with a world where evangelical Christianity is a large prop to the power and wealth of white men?

We used to heal the sick.  We used to forgive sins.  We used to sell all we had to care for the poor.  Love didn’t look like condemnation; it looked like self-sacrifice for someone’s welfare.  We used to say things like, “Even if I can speak the languages of men and angels, if I don’t have love, I’m just a noisy gong when I speak.”

We used to be scientists.

The complication is, of course, when we fail to be the things we’re supposed to be, and the things we’re supposed to be bless the world, then eventually humanitarian folks will step in to fill the gap with the tools at their disposal, and that’s pretty much what’s happened in many areas.  This has led to the bizarro-world backwards practice of labeling the activities that bless the nations as “conformity to the world” and “holiness” as doing none of that stuff.  In fact, we should be on our guard that we do not find ourselves consumed with issues like love, justice, and the healing of suffering and instead make sure we stay focused on… other stuff, I guess.  Getting people to pray the Get Out of Hell Free prayer and not watching R rated movies.

But regardless of how complicated and tangled up the situation has become, it’s not an excuse for inaction.  We can remind ourselves who we are and we can call ourselves to holiness.

Such did the prophets of old, and I would say we need those prophets back.

Sunday Meditations: What Are We Doing?

Last week was an interesting week in the world of Blogs I Read.

On the exact same day, Kirk Leavens asked the question, “Has Christianity outlived its usefulness?” and Andrew Perriman wrote, “If the Bible is history, what are we supposed to do?”  Andrew’s blog wasn’t written to answer Kirk’s question, but they have interesting and complementary thrusts.

Kirk points out that, as Christianity has lost the traction Christendom provided, he observes a certain increasing commitment to authoritarianism, tribalism, and defensiveness that isn’t doing anybody any good, but those are now our primary characteristics, especially as they latch on to things like nationalism/racism.  If these are our primary “contributions” to the world, why even bother existing when we’re just making everything worse for everyone?

This is an extremely valid question.  I can’t speak for other countries, but in the USA, this is a big issue, and our non-Christian friends have picked up on this with a vengeance.  Rightly so, they point out that you can tie Christian commitments to many negative social forces.  Granted, there may be a tendency to overlook or minimize the positive social forces, but as Christians, this should not be an acceptable state of affairs.  We want to offer more than, “We’re not any worse than anyone else on balance.”

Kirk points out that one of the contributing factors to this is a view of life and Christian mission that is entirely spiritual.  All this other stuff like righting wrongs, healing hurts, etc. are all nice things but not really what the Church should be all about (so the story goes).  In fact, some evangelical leaders worry that such works are a distraction from the actual work of the Church, which is to save souls.

I’ll give the “saving souls” mission credit: it’s easy to understand and applies all the time in all contexts.  It also has the side benefit of isolating us from the powerful forces of evil at work in the world.  If people are starving to death, racked with disease, or treated unfairly because of their skin color, those are all regrettable things, but we should focus on getting souls saved until God supernaturally fixes all of this one day.

However, I’ve come to question the origins of this “mission” and the weight it receives in the biblical story.

It’s a hard thing to analyze very objectively, because once you have this mission in your head, it’s easy to find it in the biblical text.  If you start out with the belief that Jesus’ primary concern is people going to Heaven when they die instead of Hell, you can find plenty of Scriptural infrastructure for that.  And, of course, when you share your faith with someone, this is the framework you pass on, so they come to the Bible with the same framework already in place.

But I’ve come to the conclusion (for now) that, although we do see things in the New Testament’s agenda like spiritual conversion and questions of what happens to the faithful who die, these are notes in a much larger symphony.

For the bulk of the New Testament, the focus is on what will become of God’s people at a time in history when it seems like all the promises have failed.  The children of Abraham worship under a corrupt Temple power structure.  They are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and under pagan dominion.  Most live lives of terrific poverty while land that had once belonged to their families is now the property of some wealthy Senator or Sadducee.  Israel has little time to pay attention to her God because she’s trying to live under this order of things and has turned to the kinds of things we all turn to when life is hard and we feel abandoned.

And this situation doesn’t happen to them overnight – it’s been going on for some time by the time we get to the New Testament.

It’s into this situation that God determines to save His people from their condition and sends Jesus to do it.  The plan is to convince Israel to trust God again and repent of her current ways of life, restore Israel’s faith(fulness), and overthrow the powers that currently dominate her and replace them with the line of David.

This is the critical situation the New Testament addresses.  How is God going about this?  What are the ramifications?  What’s going to happen to us as a result?  How should we live?  What should we hope for?  How do we understand what’s happening to us when it doesn’t look like victory is on the horizon?

All the key elements the New Testament lays out – a coming judgement, repentance, salvation, Jesus’ death and resurrection and exaltation, the coming of the Spirit, the inclusion of Gentiles, the hope of the age to come – all of these are developments in the story I just described.  They are best understood in the context of the concrete situation of the people of God in the first century.

But you may have noticed that my list of questions up there is remarkably similar to questions we might have as Christians in the West – perhaps even more so now that the cultural (and political) dominance of Christianity is fading into the distance.

We find ourselves, once again, as a people who are losing our power and our cultural centrality and respect.  While there are some exceptional bright spots, many of our leaders embody the worst of us and want to take everyone else with them.  We are losing numbers, not growing to fill the world (granted, this trend is reversed in other parts of the world, but it remains to be seen if secularism will simply stop at national borders).  We, who are the children of Abraham’s faith, look around us and see that not only are we not growing to fill the world, but discouragingly, there are many who do not share our faith who are doing a much better job at blessing the nations than we are.

And maybe that’s what this is all about.  Maybe we’ve been poor stewards of the cultural dominance we used to have.  Maybe we could have used that position to perform great acts of love and justice for our fellow man that would have been a shining beacon that manifested the will of our Creator in the world, but instead we became oppressors.  And now that’s being taken away from us.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the situation addressed by the New Testament is extremely relevant to us these days, not all in the same concrete ways, but in principle if nothing else.  We’re on the fringes, now.  We’re the ones making our way through the world either by compromise with the values of power or by keeping our heads down under it.  We’re the ones becoming a minority.  We’re the ones being dominated by another world system.

And we have the same discouragement.  And the same questions.

And this is where Andrew’s list is so helpful.  He may have left out some things you think should be on there, or maybe you would have stated something differently, but he took our present situation and place in the story and asked what it meant to be the people of God at this time in history and came up with, what I think, is a pretty good list worthy of meditation and discussion.

Maybe it’s time for us to repent of what our forefathers did with their power when they had it.  Maybe we’re supposed to lose it, at least for a time, for our own good and the good of the rest of the world.  Maybe the active ethics we see in our counterparts of other religions (and no religion at all) are meant to challenge us – to remind us of what we could have been and what we might yet be.  Maybe all these things around us are a catalyst for a reformation where our hearts turn back to God and we embrace, again, our calling in the world, which is not to be right or be powerful or win but to be a blessing to the nations.

I’m discouraged, too.  But I’m excited.

Sunday Meditations: The Bible and the Myth of Julius Caesar

Every so often, when I talk about the hurdles to understanding the Bible, I refer to the plays of William Shakespeare.

The reason for this is that we all acknowledge that, when it comes to Shakespeare, we usually need a little help.  Yes, someone can read Shakespeare’s plays without knowing anything about Shakespeare or the plays and get benefit from them, maybe even insight.  But we all agree that, if you really want to get the most out of a Shakespearean play, we usually need a little help understanding what’s going on.

Why is this?  Because the language is from the sixteenth century, which makes it a challenge even for English speakers.  Also, we are unfamiliar with many of the idioms, jokes, and references of the time.  We’re unfamiliar with the historical circumstances.  We may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s sources.  There are these large, contextual gaps between us and Shakespeare, and we’re talking about documents written four hundred years ago in English by an English man.

We all realize how much help we need to really get something out of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet we think an English translation of a collection of Hebrew and Greek documents written in the Near East 2000 – 2500 years ago is instantly intelligible to anyone who picks it up.

There are other ways the analogy of Shakespearean plays can help us understand the Bible, and one of these is the play “Julius Caesar.”

First of all, Shakespeare is not making all of this up, but he also was not present for the events he writes about.  He’s working from a source – Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (which is also working from sources).  While some of the biblical writings were written by people who were present for the events they describe, many were not.  The authors worked from stories, traditions, and other writings.

Second, Shakespeare does not stay strictly with the source material.  He dramatizes conversations.  He changes some details for effect.  He combines two Battles of Philippi into one.  He changes locations (once to avoid having to create another set).  He does these things because his goal is not to present a raw sequence of events as we might see them on videotape of what happened to Julius Caesar.  His goal is to produce a play.  It’s a story that is meant to communicate themes that Shakespeare wants the audience to encounter.

So, we do not accuse Shakespeare of fraud, here, or all the material in the play of being something he just made up.  It was never Shakespeare’s intent to produce a bio-pic.  Julius Caesar was a real person and the events in the play are essentially what happened to him, but there’s a degree of license taken with “the facts” for the purposes of communication.

Third, and this is the main point of this post, is that what Shakespeare has done is presented us with a myth.

I don’t mean “myth” in the careless sense we sometimes use it to mean “something wholly untrue.”  Disturbingly, we typically contrast “myth” and “fact,” where myth is a pervasive story or belief that is untrue versus fact which is what’s real.

I mean “myth” much closer to its ancient sense, which is a story that is more concerned with communicating a true meaning than reporting true facts.

In “Julius Caesar,” we are given insight into a much larger struggle in both the characters of Caesar and Brutus.

On the one hand, we have Caesar who has defeated the sons of Pompey.  Flush with victory over his political and military rival, he hungers for the crown of Rome, but even moreso, he hungers for the approval of the people and is enraged to discover they do not want him as their ruler.

On the other hand, we have Brutus, who could arguably be the main character.  Brutus is Caesar’s friend, but he fears Caesar may abuse his power, and the other conspirators (who are killing Caesar for financial and political gain) use this to lure him into the conspiracy.  He struggles powerfully between feelings of duty, love, patriotism, and loyalty.

Looming over all is the spectre of chaos as Rome’s leadership descends into a cauldron of violence and squabbling.

Shakespeare is not interested in creating a chronicle of the details of Caesar’s assassination.  Shakespeare wants the audience to experience what all this means.  By focusing on that level, by crafting a true myth of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare pulls his audience into the event.  We may not have been there for the assassination, but we very well may have observed these same powerful forces at work in our own leaders, or perhaps they have been at work in our own heart, and thus the play becomes both something we can identify with and a warning for us if we do not untangle these knots in our own situation.  The play becomes both powerful and useful for the people who read it, not just a presentation of facts.

And it is not unlikely that Shakespeare was thinking of England at exactly that time as an aging Queen Elizabeth had refused to name someone to take the crown.  Perhaps it is not just an accident of budget that Caesar is wearing an Elizabethan doublet in the play and not a toga.

It is not in spite of, but precisely because, Shakespeare has given us a myth of Julius Caesar that the play can continue to speak to our hearts and be useful to us as we contemplate ourselves and our leaders, today.  Yes, we have to reframe the meanings for our context.  The leaders of America are not Roman Caesars (right?) or English queens.  Their allies are not people who have received forged letters from Senators inspiring them to conspiracy (uh, right again?).  But what happened to Caesar as Shakespeare presents it to us can be used to understand and perhaps be of some help in our present situation, and this is the power of operating at the mythological level.

Perhaps the power of Scripture is lessened if we strip everything out to get at the “real history” behind it, as interesting as that might be to historical studies.  But perhaps the power of Scripture is also lessened if we treat it as though it is a factually perfect history book interested primarily in factual news reporting.

Perhaps the power of Scripture to pull us into its world, speak to our hearts, and provide us usefulness in our present situation and for generations to come, lay in its character as myth.

A true myth.

Sunday Meditations: Unbelievable

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two books that share a title.  Each of these books was written by Christians, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The first book is Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley, bearing the subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.  The second is Unbelievable by Bishop John Shelby Spong, with a slightly different tack for the subtitle: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

You can tell the influence of the Puritans on American theology by the fact that you have to cram your book’s entire thesis into the subtitle.

Justin Brierley is a brother in the UK who, for ten years, has been running a radio show (also called “Unbelievable?”) that pairs Christians and atheists to discuss various topics.  Not every show features a big, famous name, but whatever names you might recognize from Christian theologians and apologists or notable atheist authors and speakers that have produced works about Christianity, they have probably ended up on the show at some point.  (For you young folks out there, a radio is a device that detects audio transmitted via “radio waves” that are broadcast from large antennae.  Your “radio” device picks up these waves and translates them back into sound.)

I have to say, I love this project, and it’s available via podcast for those of you who don’t live in the UK and/or have no concept of what a radio is or how you might get hold of one.

One of my friends who is an atheist of the New variety used to hold a small gathering at his house that was very similar – a small group of Christians and a small group of atheists would assemble on his patio to talk about stuff.  It wasn’t topically structured or anything, but the conversations were still good and generally congenial.  So, I had a lot of warmth in my heart for Justin’s stories about his experiences facilitating these kinds of things in radio.  Honestly, if more thoughtful, kind Christians just spent time chatting with thoughtful, kind atheists, I think both parties would end up with a lot more thoughtful, kind regard for one another and their positions, and the world would be a better place.

The book is organized by topic: God, Jesus, Original Sin, Miracles, Resurrection, etc.  Each topic has some stories about how this topic played out in discussions on the radio show.  They also describe the points that have been most meaningful to Justin on that topic as well as the more common objections raised to those points and how Justin has thought through those.

I’m not sure this book would be an onslaught of unanswerable points for anyone, and the author says as much.  People who are looking for books to buy their atheist friends to convince them (BTW: If this is you, we need to talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you think buying books is the way to do it.) may not find this to be the book.  I think about this book more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It’s more of a thoughtful, armchair articulation of the Christian view of various things in a defensible, thought-provoking way, but not with the rigor of thoroughgoing argumentation.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories about the radio show.  The author has a lot of warmth for both the atheist and Christian guests he’s talked with over the years, and you can tell he’s not gone unchanged from the conversations.  The book was inspirational to me on that point.  It affirmed what my own experience has borne out, that a lot of good conversation can happen within the context of mutual respect and people who believe walking away on friendly terms may be more important than rhetorically destroying the other person.  After all, Christians and atheists have to share a planet, and Christians in particular have a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone and supply their reasons for hope with gentleness and respect.  Wouldn’t it be great if people could disagree and honestly and passionately express themselves without letting their brains treat the discussion as a threat to their survival?

It was also interesting to me some of the theological positions the author put forward, which I believe may have been influenced by his dialogues with atheists.  For example, he does not have a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis and, although he does not explicitly state this, seems to be operating from an evolutionary understanding of the development of life.  He obviously holds to a Big Bang view of beginnings and has some interesting things to say about how it was originally a theistic argument and was labelled the “Big Bang” by atheist detractors.  He does explicitly express that he is an annihilationist, and I appreciated this because – mostly due to getting more in touch with the first century world and early Jewish theology – I’m in that neighborhood, myself.

If you’re a Christian and you enjoy books like Mere Christianity, I think you’d enjoy this book as well.  Frankly, I think it’s worth a read if it helps Christians be more respectful and thoughtful about atheists and atheism.  If you’re an atheist, you might enjoy the book as well on similar grounds, and maybe Justin will point out a thing or two you haven’t run across, before, but again, this is not really a rigorous defense of Christianity.  You might find interesting the stories he tells of people who were atheists who found reasons to convert.

Bishop Spong’s book is organized very similarly to Bierley’s book – the chapters are topical and based on fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  In contrast to Bierley, Spong argues that each of these points simply are no longer viable for contemporary Christians to actually believe and, therefore, must be reformulated into more believable versions.

I was actually excited for this project.  People who know me or who have read this blog for a long time know that I’m not really a fan of most evangelical theological beliefs and formulations, although mostly on exegetical grounds.  I also have an avid interest in how Christians should act and speak in an increasingly secular West that actually does good, helps people, and is intelligible and winsome in that world.  I think that Spong is correct that the Church cannot simply state sixteenth century dogma in a world where empiricism and the scientific method have shown us so much truth about our world and has made at least a very highly-literalized way of understanding the Bible somewhat untenable.

But although I was warm to the project, I was fairly unimpressed with the execution.

Spong generally begins each section with the reasons a given Christian point of doctrine (again, organized into things like God, Jesus, the Virgin Birth, etc.) is “unbelievable” in its traditional form.

There is good information in there, and I don’t want to give the impression that everything about it is poorly thought through.  In fact, much of it is worthy of Christians who are trying to be intellectually honest to grapple with.  However, he also does two things that make me crazy when critiquing traditional Christian thought.

One is knowing enough history to make a criticism but not enough to get it right.  You only need to check out the plethora of New Atheist memes to see this phenomenon in action.  Jesus is a recycling of the Horus (or Baldur or Mithras or Ra) legends.  Jesus is a “dying and rising god” of which there are many.  Romans kept meticulous records and we don’t have a record of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Christians destroyed the library at Alexandria.  The Church killed cats in Europe and that contributed to the spread of the Plague.  And on and on.  All common critiques, all wrong.  That’s not to say Christianity doesn’t have its historically critique-able episodes – it absolutely does – but in the zeal to critique it, it’s easy to get the history wrong and subscribe to either a very shallow account of events or total fabrications.

For Spong’s part, especially given the thesis of the book, he depends some on the Conflict Thesis – the idea that the Church and science have historically been at odds with Christianity using its cultural and political power to actively suppress science until recently.  This is so wrong that atheists are calling out other atheists on it (as well they should, just as Christians interested in speaking the truth should call out other Christians when we misrepresent history and not leave it up to the atheists to do that job for us).  But it’s this sort of surface-y understanding of history that gets used at times to present why Christian doctrines are suspect.

The second thing that makes me crazy is closely related, and that’s being uncritical about critique.  If it calls a traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine into question, Spong will cite it as absolute truth.  Christianity does not get the benefit of a doubt, and the sources of the criticism do not get subjected to the same scrutiny.  This cropped up a number of times where “biblical scholarship” allegedly undid the viability of a doctrine, but that scholarship itself was highly debatable.

Another area where this happened was his marshaling of Judaism.  I am all about bringing the Jewish understanding of things to how we understand the Scriptures.  Spong has long had an active collaboration with the Jewish community, and I have no doubt he knows more about contemporary Jewish theology than I do.  However, he will tend to cite a contemporary (and usually more progressive) Jewish view on something as if that is how an author or original reader of Scripture would have understood that same concept, and then use that to demonstrate that our traditional readings are incorrect – as if the views of the rabbis that he knows were the views of an Old Testament writer or Second Temple Judaism.

For instance, Spong talks about how Jesus’ death shouldn’t be understood as an atonement for sin because Judaism did not understand sacrifice as an atonement for sin, but rather an offering to God of our full potential as human beings.  From my own readings of early rabbinical writings, I feel fairly confident this was not at all an early Jewish understanding of sacrifice.  It may very well be a strain of contemporary Jewish thought on the meaning of Old Testament sacrifices, but it would be inaccurate to take that contemporary Jewish theological outlook, project it back into the first century or beyond, and go, “See?  We’ve never understood this correctly.”

Not everything in the book suffers from those criticisms, but they are thoroughly marbled in with the material that does not.  So, you have to be sort of discerning when going through the critical portions of the book, and my fear is that people who perhaps do not know history, biblical scholarship, or the progression of Jewish theology very deeply will simply take his word for it and consider the state of Christian belief to be very dire, indeed, not realizing that a fair amount of the critique is suspect.

Then, each chapter moves on to Spong’s recommendations for the reformulation of the doctrine under examination.  This was at the same time the most thought-provoking part of the book as well as the least compelling.

For instance, Spong offers that we should stop thinking of God in traditionally theistic terms – an omniscient, omnipotent person – and instead think of God as the ground of existence, itself.  In other words, God is existence.  God is being.  When we look at a lion or a rock or another person, we should see God there because those things exist and that principle of being is God.

To some of you, that may sound silly, but not to me.  The fact is that anything existing at all is highly improbable, and yet, here we are.  There have been many religions and philosophies that have posited that God to some degree or another is embodied in the physical universe that exists.  It builds our respect for all created things and underscores our connection with them.  Further, by relieving God of actual personhood, we’ve just crossed off some of the greatest objections to the existence of God like the problem of evil.  Why does God allow suffering?  God doesn’t allow or disallow anything, because God is the ground of all that exists, not a being interacting with it.

Furthermore, this way of defining God makes sense to a secular West currently in a love affair with positivistic empiricism.  How do I know God exists?  Well, you exist, right?  Things exist, right?  There you go.  God is the fact of that existence.

And, honestly, I’m very sympathetic to thinking of that as an aspect of God.  All our understandings of God are analogies, anyway, and a lot of trouble comes from a concept of a God who is basically just like us except all-powerful, all-knowing, and gooder.

But to exhaustively define God this way seems to carry its own problems, not the least of which being that… there’s no particular reason to define God this way other than personal preference.  And this is my basic problem with most of Spong’s recommendations.  There’s nothing to recommend those recommendations except for the fact that Spong came up with them and they are more amenable to a secular worldview.

Virtually all the world’s religions testify to a concept of the divine that somehow has knowledge of the world and interacts with it in some way, even if it’s just thoughtful regard.  And these testimonies continue.  If Spong is correct, then I have to write off all that testimony as not just flawed or limited but actually completely fictional – every last account.  I’m not even just talking about the Bible, here, although obviously the Bible becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of the God who appears in those stories as the bare fact of existence.  At that point, I’m not exactly sure what value there is in even positing this as God at all.  Why not just say, “Isn’t it amazing that anything exists?  Existence is great, and I feel a strong kinship with everything that shares existence with me?”  That would make you a fine person who probably did many ethical and caring things for your fellow man and also an atheist – atheism, by the way, also circumvents many of the philosophical problems with God’s existence.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to redefine Christianity solely in terms that are amenable to a materialistic way of understanding the universe, and that redefinition is just coming from your own preferences, anyway, what are you getting out of that enterprise?  The dedication to Jesus’ social message?  You can do that, anyway.  The ability to claim that you’re a Christian and Christianity is now demonstrably correct?  I guess I just don’t care enough about claiming victory for that to be worthwhile.

So, anyway, I’m not sure what audience I’d recommend Spong’s book to.  Atheists will read it and go, “Well, yes, this is all stuff I agree with.  Not sure why I need to tie it to Christian categories,” and Christians will read it and either wonder similar things or, if they buy into the project, construct a Christianity that – at least to me – doesn’t seem to have a reason to be.  You can be a principled, caring atheist full of wonder at the universe and even acknowledge that there are mysterious aspects of human experience; there’s no need to dress materialism up as Christianity so you can continue to maintain that you’re a Christian.  I mean, why would you do that?

And that may be my failure as a reader.  Obviously, Spong is a smart man and a spiritual man and has his reasons, and the fact that I cannot divine them (no pun intended) may be an indication of my own prejudices.  I did enjoy the challenging ways of thinking about these topics and even found some thought-provoking points that made me think I ought to incorporate some of those insights into my own thoughts about these topics, but I didn’t find the overall mission of the book to be a compelling solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

Anyway, two books that both confronted the idea that Christian belief has become unbelievable in the contemporary world and took very different paths as a result.  Surprisingly, to myself, I found myself more impressed with the evangelical apologist.