Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”

 

 

 

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

I Don’t Believe in Jesus

Magellan

This is the newest rage…and by people far less intelligent than Magellan.  (FTR, I support Magellan, Galileo and Copernicus)

Just go onto any social media outlet and you’ll find people clanging the cymbals of disbelief.  And not just disbelief in general (for which there may be justifiable cause) but disbelief in Jesus, his actual historical existence.  Magellan disagreed for sound reason.  Today, people disagree because they don’t WANT to agree…baseless disagreement and decisions abound.

Pseudo-intellectuals that want to sound smart and flex their post-modernism resound uniformly, “I Don’t believe in Jesus.”

Like this is the new popular belief that all the cool kid’s hold…cool kids who are not experts in history, Jesus or modes of belief…hell, people who hardly read a book or if they do its Richard Dawkins lite.

This very phrase was actually used in a recent conversation I had with someone that should know better.

After I spoke about my very historical trip to the Middle East and some of the reasons for going, out of nowhere this phrase comes flying in, as if from a resident twitter atheist, “I Don’t Believe in Jesus.”

I mean, what does that even mean?  What are you expressing when you say that?  Cause when I hear that, without any kind of qualification, I immediately ask myself, “which part of Jesus do you not believe in?”

And then things become drowned in the absurd.  The illogical leap is made from the presumed, “I don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus,” (which I understand and am willing to discuss) and quickly devolve into the “I don’t believe he EVEN EXISTED?”

Seriously?

In our collective attempt to sound enlightened or flex our autonomy from the strictures of the Bible belt, let’s not look stupid.  We can be critical thinkers without being idiots.

Let’s be clear: those that deny that Jesus even existed are on shakier ground than those that believe all the dogma about Jesus ever contrived.  There is simply no warrant for disbelief in the historical personage of Jesus other than the ideological preference for his non-existence (and thus not having to deal with his historicity…I digress).

Like anything else, if we hear others say it, and we tell it to ourselves, we can eventually believe the most ridiculous things…things like saying Jesus wasn’t even born.  That he never walked the earth.  And that all the people who heard stories and read stories of this figment of our imagination were equally duped into retelling them.

Now, we can debate the nature OF his birth.  We can debate the PURPOSE of his life.  We can discuss his ROLE in the historical plane of the 1st century.  We can even debate his HUMANITY and its relation to God, but we cannot debate that he was born, had a purpose (we all do), had a role and he was a human that made sense of his life within the drama of God (if you don’t think about your life like that fine, but most 1st century Jews did…this part is called history for those of you wanting to make historical statements about Jesus not ever setting foot in history).

So how do we know?  What are our sources?

First, there is the Bible.  I know I know.  The Bible.  It’s a book ridden with fairy tales, myths and absurdities.  I agree.  It is.  But so is your life and mine.  Deal with it.

We cannot discount the Bible based on the logic that all literature therein is of a singular type.  The Bible is NOT A BOOK.  It is a compilation of many books.  Think of it as an anthology.  As such, it is comprised of many TYPES and KINDS of literature.  Some of this literature is poetic.  Some is mythological.  Some is historical.  Some is hyperbolic.  Some is biographical.  Some is personal, like letters.  Some is apocalyptic, etc.  Therefore, we cannot reduce the content of one type of writing in one part of the anthology because writing in other parts includes things like talking asses and floating ax heads, stories shaded as much by theological intent as by the event itself.   This means that the literary character of  Genesis 1-11 or parts of the loosely historical books can logically discount the content of the Gospels.

The Gospels are our primary source for information about Jesus especially that he existed.  The literary type that is the Gospels was basically brand new in the 1st century but its closest of literary ken was Greco-Roman Biographies.  These biographies included three elements usually: a birth narrative, a life with work and pivotal moments of significance and a narrative of death.  Greek biographies were not synonymous with “lies” or “myths.”  They addressed real historical people and attempted (with some literary freedom) to interpret that life for their audience.  T

This literary genre was in no way synonymous with what we today know as fiction.  Thus, the nature of the Gospels as writings indicate that the kernel with which they deal is real and historical and this not even mentioning the striking historical accuracy of geography and Jewish custom found in the Gospels.  In addition, there is diversity of witness about Jesus in the Gospels, yet in this diversity is a singularity of a historical personality: Jesus of Nazareth.

Further, there is an entire field of research that deals with issues pertaining to the “historical Jesus” and scholars that participate in that endeavor range from fervent believers in his divinity to fervent detractors of anything about Jesus that has to do with “saving” the world.

Yet, what they all agree on is that Jesus did EXIST and the Gospels offer us clues to the more or less accurate details of the life of Jesus.  The literature here is too dense to describe here in detail, but if you are so inclined a quick googleing of “historical Jesus” will bring up enough sources to remain occupied for a lifetime.  There you will find the criteria for why parts of the gospels may be more or less historical, how that criteria is judged, and the implications of this research.  I recommend, for a juxtaposed study, to begin with Dominic Cross and John Meier.  They disagree on everything, but they both believe as historians that Jesus existed.  One believes Jesus was resurrected; the other thinks he bodied decayed like all bodies but he lives on metaphorically in Christians…so you get the drift.

Secondly, we have the Apostle Paul.  I know I know.  He wrote the “Bible” so that makes his letters a bunch of lies and myths.  Humor me for a minute.  He didn’t write the Bible.  He wrote letters that came to comprise large portions of the New Testament.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have the earliest extant Christian reference to the last supper.  Paul writes,

“ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;  and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This is important because Paul is writing about an event that presumably took place, historically, and the events of that night were passed on through oral tradition.  The Gospels have not been written yet when Paul writes this.  Paul says this in a letter.  Paul’s Letters, while theological, were not fictitious rehearsals of history.  We can debate Paul, his theology and anything else you want, but what cannot be debated is that Paul in a very personal letter to a real historical church mentions an event that was remembered to have happened with Jesus and his disciples even before that event was recorded in any Gospel.  Oral history does not equal fiction.  While this passage obviously carries some Christian dogma, the kernel of the event remains tucked inside.

This passage alone, and its authentically Pauline character, gives reason for most scholars to say that the Last Supper, along with Jesus’ Baptism and death, are THE three most historical moments in the life of Jesus that can be explored by the unbiased critical historian.

Secondly, we have extra-biblical sources that testify to his existence.

The most notable source is Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus’ life that kept history for the Romans, traveled with their armies, and who never believed on Jesus or his teachings.  Josephus writes this,

“About this time arose Jesus, a wise man. He drew to himself many; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, and even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.63-64)

This is a reconstructed passage that takes out agreed upon Christian interpolations of Josephus’ writings.  In fact, there has been a lot of ink and keyboards spilled on scholarly opinion regarding Josephus’ statement about Jesus but the central idea that Jesus lived, was killed and had followers, is virtually agreed upon by all scholars as authentically Josephus.

Josephus has no reason to play into the make believe fantasies of Christians.  He has no reason to reinforce the idea that Jesus lived.  While his writings are not free of historical error, he is widely held as an authoritative voice in Roman history and his work, especially writings free of ideological content as the above.  Josephus, at this point in his work, simply mentions “Jesus” as one who was also killed by the Roman empire at this time and that people who followed him are still called Christians.

That is history.  That is an event of some kind.  That is a real historical person whether you like it or not.

Josephus, however, is not the only extra-biblical source that confirms that Jesus existed.  Roman historian and Senator, Tacitus, also mentions Jesus aka “Christ” in his writing.

He notes

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”  (Annals Book 15).

Tacitus was not alive during the time of Jesus (Born in 55AD) but he was also not known for perpetuating falsehoods.  As a Roman historian and Senator he would have taken his work seriously and would have only recorded what he knew was of definitive importance and accurate.  Tacitus’ mention of Jesus, or his posthumous personage “Christ”, demonstrates the existence of one Jesus and his followers.

I could continue to offer other Roman authorities or very early Christian sources that would also continue to provide these historical centralities: that Jesus was born, lived, was killed by the Roman Empire and continues to have followers.  Time would fail me and this blog would bore you more than it has already.

We can say many things about Jesus.  We can debate a lot about him.  We can disagree on his nature or if Christianity is a total waste of time.  But what cannot be debated is that Jesus was a real person.  He lived.  He existed.  He taught people.  And he was executed.  Just because you don’t want to follow him doesn’t mean you should make yourself look foolish by denying his existence.  The former can be a respectable choice; the latter, a childish outburst to deal with your daddy issues.

You don’t have to believe what the church says about him but church dogma and historical existence are two different things.

So when you say, “I don’t believe in Jesus, “ at least think about which Jesus you don’t believe in because the historical Jesus is one that you disbelieve at your own discretion and at the display of your own ignorance.

Heaven Doesn’t Matter

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn't have one of these, but I'm sure you'll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn’t have one of these, but I’m sure you’ll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

I mean who does care about heaven?

We care so much about heaven we speak of it as often as we speak about hell. (see my previous post Why the Hell does Hell Matter? wherein I describe the banality of this idea more academically than my approach here to heaven)

Equally we spend as much time trying to keep people out of hell as we do get them into heaven…makes me wonder if we really believe in either one. We spend precious little time doing either.

At least I’m honest about this. Why keep giving attention to irrelevant concepts that don’t help me love, live and embrace beauty around me?

These are theological buzz words that define your camp. They are not words that mean a damn thing for any of us when we start each morning.

Heaven, and its corollary hell, are nice ideas in church on Sunday, but when I’m running my business, playing with my kids, talking with my wife or hanging out with my band of brothers, heaven and hell might as well be the man on the moon. Is he there and if he is do any of us care?

A friend of mine likes to say that most Christians are practical atheists and Christian only by confession. I think he’s right. Heaven and Hell are ideas we feel the need to acknowledge but nothing that constitutes our attention daily.

By practical atheism he means that we do not really embrace, or incarnate, a theocentric worldview, one that would rely on the deity for our very sustenance.

To the contrary, most of us live very secular lives for very secular reasons. We just participate in religion because we are scared of the man upstairs. We are scared of the opposite of heaven…and because there is a “hell to shun, there is a heaven to gain.”

Yet this idea of shun and gain, has little import on how our worldviews are constructed or how we attempt to orchestrate divine responses from the heavens.

We no longer NEED it.

We know God doesn’t really supply our food. Dirt, water and agro-manipulation allow us to eat. God doesn’t shelter us from the heavens. Our air conditioned and heated homes do that. God doesn’t bring the rain. Weather patterns of the globe bring us rain. Etc.

I could continue the list, but generally speaking we are all practical atheists because we can be, and when our atheism runs dry or hits a space of unknown geography, our God comes in handy. We then give him control by saying he’s in control, but in reality, we will practically live into tomorrow as we have lived into today: very independently, ideologically and self-sufficiently.

We believe in Moses and manna from above, but not that much.

Our lives are NOT centered on these grandiose eschatological schemes any more than our lives are centered on other solar systems. They simply do not matter. And neither does heaven or hell.

Just because we think we have to believe in something, doesn’t make believing in that something a constitutional priority over how we regulate our daily activities.

If this were the case, then all the Christians who are consequently good capitalists would quit their jobs and invest in “eternal” matters because the “matter” of matter really doesn’t matter. Right?

At least until Monday morning when heaven doesn’t matter and the material world is more valuable than any hymn we hypocritically sung the previous Sunday morning.

Heaven doesn’t matter, and neither does hell, at least not as much as we think it does.
But they do matter as much as we act upon them, which means never.

As the psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek is quick to point out, we are not the sum total of our beliefs. We are the sum total of our actions because our actions embody what we really believe, even if you want the preacher and fellow cultural Christians to think otherwise.

Heaven doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter, affect, how we live in the world. Maybe we can be good Platonists, or Neo-Platonists, and adopt a bizarre dualism that history challenges with each passing day, but otherwise, heaven doesn’t matter.

(And if it did matter, even a little, I bet it matters to you for wholly different reasons than it mattered to Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t worried about what happened to him.  He was crucified.  Us?  We like our bodies and our souls a little too much than to volunteer them for a cross or the great unknown of the grave.  Buncha Christian narcissists confusing heaven with ideal ego.  I digress.)

But we should take heart. We can be honest about this and not fret the hell fire of a God that lives to be right. We need not worry about a God that longs to be holy and can’t wait to tempt us with neat little things such as trees and gardens, all the while knowing what we will do, so that he can then provide a way of redemption for us, you know, so God can feel good about being God. A prearranged ideal foreordained for the faithful. We need not worry about this or that heaven doesn’t matter.

Why?

Well, because the Bible doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about heaven either.

Heaven is not the reason Jesus came. The coming of God into creation was the reason Jesus came. This seems to be at least a little what Jesus might have meant about the Kingdom of God arriving with him, in him, through him, and remaining after him.

Jesus didn’t spend any time talking about heaven the way preachers today talk about heaven. Sure, go read the Gospels. There are some cryptic sayings one might deduce to be the heaven we all know and love, the same heaven that matters very little on a daily basis, but that is only because we are reading the Gospels through the Book of Revelation.

Guess what? Jesus never read the Book of Revelation and his view of heaven was not redacted with images of Johns Revelation.

Jesus’ idea of heaven was not hijacked by the scariest book of the Bible, one so scary that not even the scariest of Reformation theologians, John Calvin, could write a commentary on it.

Jesus used Jewish eschatological concepts in his preaching and there is very little Jewish theology that would look anything like disembodied spirits floating at the feet of Jesus.

I think of this and I’m reminded of that scene in the Little Mermaid with all the damned souls floating in Ursella’s abyss…only our idea of heaven is the opposite. That’s just weird and if your Christianity makes you believe something like that, go right ahead but it’s not what Jesus came preaching and it’s not consistent with St. Paul either.

But it would make you a good heretic in the early church and that’s pretty cool.

And check this, not only did Jesus not read Revelation for a clue about heaven but Revelation isn’t even about going to heaven!

Seriously, it’s not.

Revelation is about God restoring justice in the world and bringing redemption to the nations. That’s why in this apocalyptic letter the New Jerusalem (the place where God is) comes to us and dwells with us.

We don’t go to it.

Sound familiar? Well it is. Jesus. Incarnation. Gospel of John. Jesus came and dwelt among us.

Revelation is not interested in a literal picture of heaven anymore than heaven matters to us on any given day. Revelation is using metaphor, simile and symbolism to create an apocalyptic vision of what the dwelling of God looks like through the lens of a finite creation.

The Streets are not literal Gold. The gates do not have real gems. The measurement of heaven is not an exact geometric line with plane and circumference.

That’s why phrases such as, “And I saw something LIKE…” or “and it APPEARED AS…” I mean come on people! We get this all the time in movies and books and never take it literal, but when these words are used for the Bible they becomes EXACT?!?

All of these things are simply portrayals of the place where God is and how fantastic that place is when all that is good comes into the realm of all that is wrong, God taking up permanent residence with us in this vision.

John in the Book of Revelation is not interested in talking to us about heaven and hell or the devil or Rosemary’s Baby.

John is interested in giving us the story of God via a unique apocalyptic literary genre that employs Old Testament imagery to tell the story of God in Christ as such unfolds in the face of Empire and anti-christological forces.

Therefore, it is not a map, a literal description or a future prediction. It is a letter to Christians that lived 2000 years ago and needed a good word from their preacher. Revelation is that letter.

I’m sorry you’re reading someone else’s mail and misunderstanding it.

No, I’m not surprised.

So heaven doesn’t matter for us. If it doesn’t help us organize and structure our daily lives or cast us into the world unabated by financial necessities, than it doesn’t matter. It’s a belief we hold out of obligation and guilt, not one we hold because it matters one iota.

If it doesn’t matter for Jesus, at least not the way we like to think of it as evangelicals, than the idea of heaven we hold certainly doesn’t matter because it didn’t even matter to Jesus.

And it doesn’t matter to the writer of the Book of Revelation, chapter 21 being the chapter that tells us EXACTLY what heaven is like. If even the chapter on heaven doesn’t think heaven literally matters…then I guess we are in good company.

It’s OK to be practical atheists and have a faith that doesn’t shape how we live, at least its eschatological contours and end doesn’t enjoin us to act as if it did.

It’s OK to continue living like practical atheists when it comes to heaven. We are in good company. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the Book of Revelation seems to care much about either.

That’s an abbreviated reason I don’t believe in heaven. The Bible doesn’t ask me to believe it and it wouldn’t matter even if it did because it’s never a matter that mattered anyhow.

I actually like that heaven, and hell, doesn’t matter because now I can be Christian for a plethora of reasons that doesn’t involve saving my own soulish ass.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott and the Red Sea you think you know

exodus-gods-kings red sea

 

Let’s turn to Ridley Scott.

What did he say that has biblical literalists in a tizzy?

I quote, “the parting of the Red Sea will be F*#!ing Huge.” Ok, so people are not so concerned about the F Bomb, but clearly the fact that he would use an F Bomb means his entire movie can be discredited.

The main issue, apparently, is that Ridley doesn’t express biblical fidelity to Red Sea incident.

In this scene, from what I have read, Ridley doesn’t have God “doing” the parting of the Sea at the hands of Moses; he has an earthquake make the magic happen. Ridley opts for a different natural cause than the one the Bible uses: Wind.

BOOM! Unbiblical alert!  Entire message may now be discounted.

How can Ridley be so obtuse? The Bible clearly has Moses raising his hands above the water and then God’s giant mega hand coming out of heaven and parting the sea with a divine comb like I part my kid’s hair in preparation for school each day. The Wind, of course, being interpreted as the hand of God.

Ridley confesses that he learned a lot about Moses as he re-read the texts (can I even get an “amen”! a Hollywood producer is reading the Bible and LEARNING!! And fundies are still protesting) and found the Moses story extremely inspiring! I quote, “it [the story of Moses] has to be one of the greatest adventures and spiritual experiences that have ever been.”

Man, Ridley totally hates the Bible and wants to destroy the narrative. He even confesses he attended Sunday School as a boy and apparently didn’t pay attention (boo/hiss!).Shame on him for trying to make the biblical narrative a totally awesome cinematic experience. Shame on him for perhaps gaining a greater appreciation for this story via its production than via his Sunday School teachers.

As for the parting of the Red Sea, none of us were there. The writers of the text were not there.

The actual verse itself, Exodus 14.21, states, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the Lord swept (or caused to go) the sea back BY a strong East WIND ALL NIGHT and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided.
Later in 14.29-30 the text states, “the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea and the waters were LIKE a wall to them on their right hand and on their left…thus the Lord saved Israel.”

This entire episode is tricky because the text itself indicates that parting the Red Sea was work, it took time, and it was not an instantaneous event like Charlton Heston would have us believe. The text says the wind took all night to accomplish this.

So this is an event that required some interpretation, some ability to look at the natural world around it and come up with an explanation that would continue to resonate with earlier Hebrew themes of God creating a way of salvation when there seemed to be no way of salvation. The Hebrew editors perhaps taking the same sorts of liberty to make sense of the event as Ridley does in his movie.

The point is not “how” the sea was parted; the point is that God harnessed the natural elements and delivered his people. So technically, just as the Hebrew editors, via oral tradition, found ways to talk about this event when there was no way to talk about this event, so Ridley stands in the tradition of continual interpretation that doesn’t change the outcome, just makes use of another possible means.

The biblical message remains in tact.

Thus, one of the texts main points is not that God literally historically parted a sea (even though a way was made through a “sea”), but that God has continued to harness nature (and in case you were wondering, nature Gods were a big deal in ancient Egypt but are apparently helpless here), a theme that will also remain consistent throughout the rest of scripture even into the story of Jesus.
God has not only harnessed nature to preserve his people, but the impassible sea, where death awaits all who enter, is passed at the willing of God.

Get out a bible dictionary or Theology of the Old Testament and look up how important the metaphor of sea is for ancient people; it’s a theologically and sociologically loaded theme. God hovers over it, sea monsters live in it, no one can cross it, people are saved through it, pigs drown in it and Jesus walks on it and in Revelation God destroys it.

The sea is bad ass in the bible.

But the kicker: God is more bad ass.

In addition to this significance of detail, a few other minor details must be noted that allow Ridley some directorial freedom when creating this event.

Biblical literalists please put down your King James Version and take note.

reed-sea

First, the Bible does not literally say in the Hebrew language (what the OT was written in) that they crossed the Red Sea. It says they crossed the REED SEA.

Scandalous!  Definitely doesn’t have the same biblical sex appeal does it?

The Hebrew yam sup, most likely refers to a sea of “weeds, rushes, reeds, papyrus plants.” Translators have messed this up and in the process confused a lot of people. This is not surprising though, since this language occurs nearly 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and at times refers to the Gulf of Aqabah, Gulf of Suez and also the sea of the Exodus event (all 3 distinct geographical areas).

The Red Sea is a HUGE body of water that separates Arabia from Africa, but it is FAR south of where the Hebrew People most likely crossed. The REED SEA is more north, a marshy area filled with shallow waters and REEDS that are an extension of the Nile River Delta. Most scholarly research, even from scholars who grant a lot of historical veracity to the Exodus Event (in other words scholars who believe it literally happened), believe the most likely passage based on text and archaeology was in this northern region, at the mouth of the Nile Delta around the Ballah Lakes region.

This is important because if we care about what the Bible LITERALLY says we can start by revising what we think about the Red Sea and actually change all of our Bibles to REED SEA as it should be. Translators have taken liberty to deviate from the plain simple meaning of the text, and instead, embellish it with a more grandiose picture of divine action that will captivate the imaginations of readers that God is in the business of violating every physical and metaphysical law in the universe when it comes to HIS “will.”

So let’s give Ridley a break. We give the Bible a break by not learning the original languages. So Let’s give Ridley a break.

If you want things literally how they are in the Bible, better start learning the literal bible we have, not the one translated in your lap.

And who wants to watch Wind? Did you ever watch the movie Twister in 1996?

Definitely not Oscar material.

Ridley’s going take a little liberty and let an earthquake split the sea. Isn’t it more fun to see an earthquake recreated than to watch wind blow around on the big screen? That’s a far lesser crime than actually mistranslating the Bible and confusing a whole generation of people that think God is a cosmic “magician” (to use Pope Francis’ recent word) that builds walls of water 2 miles high as 2 million people walk across dry land in one day, while also believing this is not enough time for Egyptians to catch up to them.

I mean seriously? Have we even thought if this is logistically possible simply given the details of the biblical account? Maybe God has Star Trek “beam me over” powers. SMH.

I’ll save that for another post.

So Ridley will take some liberty, just as biblical translators have done. Big deal. It doesn’t bother us that our bibles have been tampered with, why should a movie bother us?

Secondly, and lastly, the Exodus account is an INTERPRETATION of an event.

It’s an attempt to understand HOW God delivered and what sorts of obstacles GOD overcame WITH the people to deliver them.

Many of the categorizations of the event, either in biblical description, or in commentary on the Hebrew Bible in Talmud, are attempts to ascribe meaning and make sense of an event that people believe is being guided BY GOD. There is no literal proof that God harnessed winds and made a way through the Sea of Reeds. There is no literal proof that God was busy unscrewing the bolts with his divine hands in order to make the Egyptian chariot wheels wobbly. But wobbly chariots do make sense if they are trying to ride through a marshy muddy plain while the Hebrew fugitives move by foot.

Those declarations in the Bible are declarations of FAITH that God is at work. It’s an interpretation of their history through their theology.

Case in point.

If I apply myself, find a good job, make good money, and alleviate my financial stresses, then I would consider that a blessing from God. God did it. God helped me. God delivered. I interpret my personal history through my theology. The reality is: I applied myself, worked hard, was productive, another human felt I was worth paying, and I took care of my creditors. God is not involved at all, literally, BUT spiritually I believe that, just as I believe all good things come from God.

When we are reading stories in the Old Testament it is important to remember that these are INTERPRETATIONS of events through a particular theological worldview. These people see their history through God, but the same history could easily be seen from another perspective.

Another curious fact is that it is now widely accepted in scholarly circles is that the Old Testament was most likely finally edited and compiled when Israel was in Babylonian Exile!In other words, the oral traditions of Exodus, the prophets, those great vacation bible school stories in Exodus…they all take final form in a written text when GODS people need to be delivered and are lost, far removed from a sense of identity and deliverance.

They need a sense of hope and purpose, a perspective on the God they serve, where they have been, who they are and where they are going. And what do their preachers do? They preach stories that empower, unite, define and provide hope. A lot like your pastor does each Sunday.

The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), which includes the Book of Exodus, is part of this purpose.

The Exodus event is arguably THE MOST important event for the shaping of the people of Israel, even more primal in purpose than anything that comes in Genesis. The Exodus event casts a very large shadow over these people, as does the personage of Moses, and this event as described in the Bible reflects the seminal importance in its retelling and interpretation for a community of folks who need to know if God is still in the business of overcoming the odds, doing the impossible and fulfilling promises.

The Exodus telling has an agenda. It is not an objective history, just as none of the rest of the Old Testaent is free of ideology, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inspired and that it doesn’t also carry the word of God in its very finite human telling and writing.

The proof of it’s inspiration being that the Holy Spirit continues to use it. My compliments to Karl Barth. Barth says it. I believe it. That settles it.

So when we consider the buzz that will be happening around this Movie over the next few months, give the directors and actors a break. They are trying to bring to life what has been lost in the dustbin of history as Bible reading has fallen out of favor with the vast majority of the world.
And they really aren’t doing anything to the biblical story, that hasn’t either been done already by the biblical authors themselves or by our imaginations of these events through the lens of our faith traditions.

*Source used in this blog: Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday: New York, 1992), Volume 5.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Christian Bale & the Moses you don’t Want to Know

Gods and Kings movie

 

Sometimes, it’s just embarrassing to be a Christian…

-like when all the Christian idiots are already dissing the new film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” based on comments by Christian Bale about his presumed knowledge of Moses’ mental health.

Then, in another interview, Director Ridley Scott dropped an F bomb describing the parting of the Red Sea cinematography.

Well, that won’t do much for the Christian faithful either.

I’m not surprised.  It happened with all the idiot rambling about Noah (see my Speaking of Noah under related posts) and it’s going to happen again and again in regard to the newest epic about Moses to be released  December 12, 2014.

Every day lay-folk, pastors and presumed experts are already offering popular commentary on Exodus texts and traditions based on their white evangelical protestant perspective and not from out of the cultural milieu of the text and tradition itself.

It seems not only was Noah everyone’s best buddy (despite not really talking in his story), but Moses is a close second.  We KNOW him, practically in the biblical sense.

And God forbid we take some creative license and liberty where the Bible leaves some gaping holes, cause you know, the Bible includes every detail of every event in all of history and is the MOST entertaining book in the world…all biblical authors being equally good story tellers and writers.

I mean, there’s nothing more captivating than the brilliant writing in the Bible.  Take the Gospel of John, for instance, where we get the powerful descriptions of Jesus’ inner turmoil over an unfaithful city as it turns its back on God.  We are stirred to our emotional core when we read, “Jesus Wept.”

I mean, that is Pulitzer material right there.

Even Better is this famous Genesis passage, “In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth…” Whoa.  That is powerful writing.  I’ve read science books more poetic and descriptive than that.

We treat these biblical events and figures as if they are stagnant fixtures in a dynamic text and we remove their humanity for the sake of our piety, propping them up as idols rather than seeing them for what most of them really are: humans trying to make sense of the world and follow a calling from a transcendent other into places no one had presumably gone before.

How full of ourselves are we and what imaginary la la land do we think these biblical characters lived in?

We are so much better than them, right?  Because without reluctance we’d totally jump on the prospect of Moses’ calling with anticipation and not possess even a smidgen of self doubt, anger, fear nor can we imagine that a human being so holy would possess any negative personality traits…especially in a guy so even tempered that not even GOD would let him in the Promised Land!

Or so the Bible literally tells us.

OMG People, get real.  You protest too much already and my head is about to explode…AND this movie is still 8 weeks from release.  I’m gonna need a valium.

And let’s not forget the whole Moses gets pissy and breaks the 10 commandments thing, because Moses was perfect and never experienced rage.  But on that we give him a pass because God’s man is allowed to do whatever the hell he wants…you know, because he’s God’s man.

Can all of you who need a sanitized version of Moses please give us the Bible back?  You are clearly not reading it well and making all the rest of us who happen to think its inspired look like a bunch of idiots.

And time would have me be remiss of the epic Maury Povich Show that is almost the entire Book of Genesis.  I mean good grief; these people are messed up and if ANY of us had written the Bible we would have cleaned up all the messy nasty details that make the bible inspired.

The whole Brother killing brother (Cain and Abel), Noah getting drunk AFTER God saves him? WTH??, Jacob STEALING his brothers birth right and God apparently dismissing that sleight of hand and blessing Jacob anyway!!! Huh?!, Abraham sleeping with a servant only to kick her out of his house and even Lot sleeping with his daughters after Sodom and Gomorrah is destroyed (Did they really think there were no other humans anywhere to sleep with?).

There is more trickery, deceit and unholy behavior by “Gods” people in Genesis than we care to believe!

I’m glad we didn’t write the bible because pious Christians would have made all the “biblical hero’s” robots and edited out their humanity.  Thank God the Hebrew’s were not Puritans or incarnations of how an American Jesus after the advent of the Great Awakening would live.

I digress.  Back to Exodus: God’s and Kings and Christian Bale’s  “slamming” comments.

What did Christian Bale and Ridley Scott say that is inciting the protectors of the one holy faith?  In this post, I’ll tackle Bale.  Ridley Scott and his directorial deviations I’ll address this weekend.

First, Bale, in an attempt to position himself as a critic and actor in a recent interview, said that Moses was “barbaric” and “schizophrenic.”  Trouble is Bale plays the character of Moses…so Bale is essentially calling his character mentally unstable and uncouth.  Neither of which can be fully ascertained historically with any medical specificity.

Can I just say this?

Let’s not take Bale so seriously.  Have you ever heard him speak in an interview?  He only sounds smart because he has an accent.  He’s not really smart.  And he is prone to verbal outbursts.  YouTube/Google his Terminator outburst caught anonymously on mic and you’ll see what I mean.

The word schizophrenic is overused in our culture.  Everyone who knows nothing about psychology but thinks they know psychology uses this term wrongly in order to sound smart, but really its making most people that use it just sound dumb.

This is a buzz word that grabs attention, especially when said about a divine biblical figure.

Could Moses have been schizophrenic?

Well, who knows?  We do not have access to his mental state, but I would not doubt he had delusions or was prone to them given the monumental tasks set before him.  And if we take the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness seriously, I’m sure everyone was seeing an Oasis from time to time.

Have you ever been into the Sinai Desert?  It’s basically a giant death trap with a lot of sand, a lot of rocks and not much else.

Not sure that being lost in this death trap would make a person schizophrenic, but one can certainly understand why Moses is prone to angry outbursts and a whole host of other unseemly human behavior that is, and is not, recorded in the Bible.

Did Bale overstate the character of Moses?  Maybe.  Maybe not, but if he’s like other biblical characters I’d say there’s more unsanctified behavior in Moses than we care to admit.

And let’s not even talk about the hierarchical, patriarchal and Levitical priorities Moses seems to affirm and help establish in the Pentateuchal tradition.  He was such a swell guy by modern standards.

Plus, Bale is trying to create Buzz.  He has a movie to promote and a blogosphere (ehem) to fill up.  And it worked. The only thing he could have said to create more buzz was accuse Moses of being a bi-sexual that was tempted with bestiality…since you know, the two go hand in hand.

Moving right along, Bale also commented that Moses was “Barbaric.”

Ok, that just sounds bad.  It sounds bad because we are modern people.  It’s an easy label to use.  But by our standards today most ancient people would probably seem barbaric, from the way they live, to how they killed food, treated one another, and engaged their enemies.  But contextually, that’s just how it was.  Go do some homework folks.  Barbarism is relative to context.

But if you call killing an Egyptian out of anger domesticated, go right ahead and give Moses that pass.

I happen to think that murder is and always will be barbaric.

And let’s not mention that Moses curses the land in order to punish Pharaoh and kill all the newborns that were not Hebrews as a final plague, because you know, it’s totally Christian and not barbaric to desire that innocent children of the enemy should just have their heart stopped by the Angel of death.

Blame it on God, Blame it on Moses, or Blame it on Pharaoh for the collusion of God and Moses in this atrocious scene.  Regardless, it’ still barbaric and your Christian eyes on God’s perfection allow you to see nothing abnormal in a deity being so petty as to kill a human.  As if it was ever any contest?  Really?

So Nothing Barbaric here…moving right along, because God did it, I believe it, He’s God, I’m not, and that settles it and God’s not barbaric.  Another small caveat: Moses doesn’t even show an ounce of compassion for the children that will die.   BUT, he’s a stand up guy.

I can definitely see Jesus in heaven waving his pom poms as the lead cheerleader of this event.

Holiness unto the Lord is our watchword and Song even if it means we collude with sanctified barbarism to make a point.

I guess the same Christians that think this is a good thing would also be the first to push the nuclear button that would obliterate the Middle East, since God uses violence in non barbaric ways against people that don’t follow HIM.

Funny how for those of us who believe in God everything is permissible, even the things we think are abhorrent we excuse in the name of our faith.

So was Moses Barbaric?

For many of us, probably so.  Go read all of Exodus and Numbers and you tell me if Moses was Mother Theresa, but I’m not going do all that homework for you since you obviously know Moses better than even the historians and editors who wrote about him in the Bible.

Perhaps eventually we can free ourselves from our own ideas enough to actually see these characters for who they really are: flawed but holy.  Communicators of a divine word, but not embodiments of it at every turn.

So were Bale’s comments baseless and ill-spoken.  Somewhat.  The lack of nuance certainly shows he’s not an intellectual giant.  But he at least brings up the topic of the humanity of Moses rather than the idol that he and a myriad of other biblical characters have become for those of us that think Christianity and religion is about saving us from out of ourselves, rather than freeing us to be ourselves in the first place.

I’m just glad Bale didn’t comment on the humanity of Jesus.

*Part Two on Ridley Scott’s comments coming soon

Why in the Hell does Hell Matter? Moltmann helps us think the bad place

hell

Christianity is a religion of hope, unless of course your hope is in hell, in which case hell is your hope as the binary opposite of its cohort heaven. Hell is necessary because heaven is; one is not intelligible without the other.

But what is that really animates this our idea of hell and why do we hold onto it so tightly, a refined idea of the “afterlife” or “punishment” handed down to us via the logic of ancient peoples who lived in a 3 tiered universe?
Hell is currently such a flippant idea for so many. Millions believe in it, yet they do not live as if it’s a pending reality. But this is the incredible thing about belief: We can believe and that belief makes it real, even if the idea of the belief makes no material difference in our daily lives. Or perhaps, our actions discloses our true belief and we should learn what in the hell we believe in at all, as our mind says one thing and our hands say another.

Because lets be real. If people, millions of Christians, really believed in an “eternal” torment known as hell and they really really really wanted their loved ones to avoid it, how could we not quit our jobs and make a full time effort of warning others? If this was a firm belief, one of which we were thoroughly convinced, then surely we could not continue to meander through the distractions of modern society with all those going to hell without rushing toward them in great fear and trembling at the destruction and eternal pain that awaits all those that do not make the right choice of belief!

Seems to me, if Hell were a reality, then we would have no time to spare or energy to waste but in convincing everyone we can of this horrible horrible place.

Fact is, we don’t. 

We shake hands and nod at one another at church. We believe what the “bible says” (whatever that means) and we carry on, as if hell is this distant land that will never matter in the here and now.

So what animates our obsession with hell and our fantastic ideas of it? Why do we NEED this logic, a logic of separation, punishment, a peculiar idea of the character of God? Why in the hell is hell so important and is our logic of it illogical at best?

For many ancient peoples, Hell was a means of talking about destruction, particularly to the fiery elements that would eventually destroy creation.  The early church picked up on this wonderful usage of fire and used fire to burn heretics, returning the elements of the body very literally into the elements of the earth.  This process purging creation and punishing the victim simultaneously.  Hell, at its end, contained the idea of final separation from God, a reality that was somehow conscious to those without a consciousness at that point.

Yet, all the ideas of hell that we seem to possess and the flippant way in which we praise or ponder over this opposite of where none of us are headed, are really only possible because of our historical amnesia. We talk about hell like children and pissed off preachers because we have never lived it, so we have to contrive it to be what we “think” it to be and somehow buttress those ideas with our religious language and quotes of Jesus. But for people that actually live hell, like Christians in Mosul, Iraq, they have no need to invent wide eyed galleries of fire, men and women screaming in torment as they suffer burns from the bodies they don’t have and ponder endlessly how they did not make the right “choice.”

These Christians live hell; they have no need to imagine it.

As Moltmann suggests in his brief discourse on hell, there is no denying the reality of hell. Hell is understood as a total annihilation. In ancient times, fire was the ultimate annihilator from which nothing returned; in modern times, we have found hells in gas ovens in Europe, Christians in Rwanda having their children chopped up and tossed into rivers and Christians in Chile being tortured under the regime of Pinochet in the 70’s.

 Hell is…but it is so conveniently full of hope for many of us who believe in its opposite, for no hope in hell means no heaven to gain.

We hear sermons on hell and we are so calloused against all the hells on this earth because of our misunderstanding of some greater hell that even those experiencing hell today should consider as greater than being decapitated, their wives raped and their houses burned.

That’s a hell of a way to make the point that we care nothing about what hell really is, only what we want it to be during our benign bible studies.

For People who are awaiting the Hell of a tribulation period in the Book of Revelation, they have never known hell, seen it, and have no business talking about tribulation. Just because it hasn’t happened to us doesn’t mean we can confiscate this idea and doctor it up with the fanciful opposite of the Roman Road to salvation. Give me a break people…what the hell are we doing? This is Gospel?

At its end, Hell is illogical. It makes no sense because at its bottom, as Moltmann tells us, hell is not the logical end of the end; it is the logical end of human free will.

The logic is as follows. God who is love, preserves our human free will as a loving act. God has also, via love, went to the furthest ends to save humanity (from ourselves presumably) and give us the choice to save ourselves from destruction via Jesus the Christ. Even though God wants all people to be saved, there is a chance that our free will can reject God. Thus, the loving thing for God to do is to offer rescue, continue to maintain our free will to choose God, or we choose our own destruction in the place we have never seen but seem to know so much about.

Yet Moltmann presses us. He asks, “Does God’s love preserve our free will or does it free our enslaved will, which has become un-free through the power of sin? Does God free men and women, or does he seek the men and women who have become lost?”

For people who believe in an uber depraved nature of humanity, it is surprising we have so positive a view of free will, as if our depraved selves know a good “decision” when we see one, especially a decision of eternal consequences.

For Moltmann this logic of hell crumbles under two pressing points, which also open up a more biblical and theologically responsible way of considering the origination of the idea and necessity of hell.

First, for Moltmann, this logic of hell is inhumane and illogical. Inhumane because there are too many universal contingencies that seem to remove free will from the equation of folks being able to save themselves with their “choice.” Think handicapped people, jungle tribes, babies who die early (yes I know evangelicals have domesticated these answers with the mysterious “age of accountability” but the church historically took it seriously, making sure to baptize people who clearly could not make a choice like dying folks, physically impaired folks and babies). Also think God’s “chosen people” who are unable to choose Christ yet are bearers of the promise of God. How is this problem solved without tumbling into supercessionism?

The logic is illogical because as Moltmann points out, “there are not many people who can enjoy free will where their eternal fate in heaven or hell is concerned.” In others words, it’s not really a choice. It’s the choiceless choice that we mask as a choice to feel good about the choice we made and excuse all the sinners to be damned for their bad choice.

Really, those of who live by a logic of hell suspend two ideals in balance that are contradictory.

We want to hold in the balance God’s power, providence, love and desire to save us because we are depraved and cannot save ourselves. By grace we are saved through faith. Yet we hold to the idea that we are not really deprived as badly as we would like because we can really make a good decision concerning our salvation, so there is an element that is not “corrupt” known as a our will, that can affect our reason to supersede our deprivation. Thus we are doomed to God’s provision, but God’s provision is held hostage to our unfallen will and the ability we have to enact it. How strange for a people that believe in sin and the total otherness that is the reality of God.

Or in Moltmann’s questioning it sounds like this, “How firm must our own decision of faith be if it is to preserve us from total non-being? Anyone who faces men and women with the choice of heaven and hell, does not merely expect too much of them. It leaves them in uncertainty because we cannot base the assurance of our own salvation on the shaky ground of our own decisions. If we think about these questions, we have to come to the conclusion that in the end not many will be with God in heaven…or is the presupposition of the logic of hell an illusion- the presupposition that it all depends on human free will?”

In other words, how resolute must our decision be if it is so monumental that it carries with it such metaphysical implications? Is there any human anywhere with that kind of resoluteness? And if not, then the idea of salvation is not necessarily negated but is it thoroughly rested in the idea of God and God’s salvific purposes which are too heavy for the weight of human will but perfectly comfortable in the relation of God in Christ that negates free will in a later descent into hell, a descent that does not ask our will to participate in it and a descent that properly orders our idea of hell.

Second, the logic of hell is incredibly atheistic accordingly to Moltmann. For in this idea and transaction of hell, the human is her own Lord or God because only in using that will is God’s power enacted, making God subject to the depraved nature of a human will. God has no power here. God is impotent; here God is merely the genie in the lamp that is powerless unless we rub its side and tell him our wills desires. “If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; If I decide for hell, then God will put me there.”

God, who is providential and almighty, is bound to our decisions, impotent in the face of the human mind. We create our own reality or we make our own hell, all through a singular cognitive process. As Moltmann writes, “Humans do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well…after God created us free as we are, he leaves us to our own decisions. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago.”

But all of this was not the originary nature of the idea of hell. Neither must we be content to live with a full blown humanism nor an illogical idea of faith that believes contradictions and calls them biblical.

Christian ideas of hell are intimately linked to the separation of reality from God, but not as we would like. Hell is important because Christ descended into it; it is not important because of our bastardization of the concept in modern times. Hell has no need to fill it with our ideas of it, for hell is. It is not there, or far; it is here and near. We can marshall all the metaphysical arguments we want against hell and the pagan ideas that germinated alongside Christianity, and we may be correct in our arguments, yet reality tells hell is still felt by many today. It is experienced. It is real. It is the place into which Christ goes.

Hell needs Christ, and Christ needs hell, not because Christ needs a destination for our bad choices, but because Christ passes over the gulf of fire and annihilation to dwell with us there as long as necessary, emerging victorious.

Moltmann accentuates this activity when he writes, “it is pointless to deny hell. It is a possibility that is constantly around us and within us. In this situation, the gospel about Christ’s descent into hell is particularly relevant: Christ suffered the inescapable remoteness from God and the God-forsakeness that knows no way out, so that he could bring God to the God-forsaken. He comes to seek that which is lost.”

Christ, therefore, brought hope where there was none. Christ came to the place where all hope has been abandoned and made it hopeful, providing a means of overcoming its isolation.

Hell is not some place in the netherworld where bad people go when they die and it defies reason to think that God needs binary rewards to give to his good kids while he tosses his bad kids out to pasture. For those of us who have kids, we understand how dangerous it would be to allow them to make choices of such import and consequence. Hell matters because Christ experienced it and brought hope into it, destroying its finality, ensuring that is it no longer the final word that so many Christians wish it to be.

God’s graceful act toward the world is not dependent on the efficacious acts of our choosing. In a world of rampant consumerism, surely the banality of choice can make sense to us. No, God’s universal grace is not grounded in hell, or heaven, or the grounding of both of those in humanism (even if it’s a humanism affirmed by your local preacher).

God’s grace is grounded in the cross that eclipses hell, rather than firmly establish its possibility.

While I mourn that so many of us want the final last words of God to be those of condemnation and judgment, feeling that our right choice should be rewarded (think older son in the prodigal narrative here), scripture tells us a different story. In the Bible, judgment is not the final word. Hell is not the final abode of the world. The earth does not burn and turn to a cosmic bowling ball being hurled by God across the Milky Way.

No, the final word is not Hell and God doesn’t need your choice to make it happen.

Get over yourself.

The final word is, “Behold I make all things new”…and from this the Bible exempts no one.

*Source for the Moltmann material for this blog is: “The Logic of Hell” in God Will Be All in All, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 43-47.

Speaking of Noah

 

Noah

There is nothing that intersects Church and Culture as much as a Hollywood portrayal of a beloved Bible story. The reactions to the recently released Paramount Pictures film Noah has continued to prove this true.

Upon hearing of the proposed production of the film many Christians preemptively began to be suspicious, simultaneously anticipating its release but perilously curious to see how Hollywood might butcher their Vacation Bible School themes of old. A tight lid was kept on the film and there was little information about the film online until its release. Since then, the cultural noise coming from Christian critics and defenders alike has come to deafening levels.

Yet despite a haze of persuasive Christian personalities pleading with their constituents to avoid the picture, the film has had a strong showing at the box office; it’s as if the critics are having the opposite effect of their intent and theaters continued to be packed for the film even after pleas of abstention.

In its first weekend Noah grossed $44 million dollars in the US and had an International gross of $51 million. In Russia, the film grossed $17 million becoming the best release ever for a non-sequel film. For a film that cost $130 million to make, it was well on its way.

By its second weekend at the box office Noah has eclipsed the $100 million dollar mark and set box opening box office records in several countries such as Brazil, Germany and Peru. Italy, France and Japanese markets open to the film this coming weekend.

This strong showing has not assuaged the dismissals of many Christians. Before people have even seen the film they are relying on their trusted cultural voices to guide their viewing decisions. In a land where people prize liberty, freedom and personal choice, many Christians are glad to let their trusted prophets decide for them.

But many of the criticisms have nothing to do with the quality of the story or the imagination of the directors. Even picking on the CGI seems like a stretch to me, especially if these viewers enjoyed Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.  The criticisms seem to universally focus on its portrayal of the “actual” flood narrative and the misconstrual of characters such as Noah, especially since the Bible is crystal clear about the personality traits of Noah (tongue in cheek*).

To add further insult to injury, many people and beloved bible teachers can’t help but illustrate their extreme biblical and Judeo-Christian tradition illiteracy by attacking characters such as the “Watchers” and the story-line of animosity between Noah and the leader of the cities of Cain.  These characters are not wholesale creations but are an intimate part of apocalyptic Jewish tradition.

For example, the Watchers are embedded in Jewish tradition and extra-canonical texts such as The Book of Watchers via the tradition of Enoch, The book of Jubilees and even the Book of the Giants. They do indeed function as precarious figures who not only teach humanity metallurgy and the like, but also tempt them to sin and evil. But their role in the tradition is firm and poignant.
As for the animosity between the Line of Seth (Noah) and the lineage of Cain, this has long been an interpretation within Jewish Midrashic and Christian attempts to make sense of language that occurs in Genesis referring to “sons of God” and “daughters of man.” While many contemporary Christians make fools of themselves thinking this refers to literal angelic beings, our forbearers knew something else must be done here. This language was interpreted as referring to the two lineages that oppose one another in the film: Seth’s line being the sons of god and Cain’s line being the daughters of men.

What this all points to is not a freelance corruption of the biblical story but an imaginative portrayal utilizing biblical and Jewish traditions to continue telling the story of Noah in uniquely compelling ways. Christians have issue with this imagination, but even within our own Christian tradition Noah was rarely interpreted as a literal event that must be adhered to and retold with narratival integrity. Early Christian interpreters did not see the story of Noah as a literal tale of God’s righteous anger and sadistic justice but as a foreshadowing of Christ.

Following a Christian allegorical representation, the story of Noah foreshadows that righteousness is expected by Christ. Noah is the Christ figure that represents life. The flood is not about literal destruction, but about salvation from death via Christ. The ark is understood as the Church, outside of which there is no salvation. The over indulgence of Noah after the flood which leads to his drunken stupor is read as an allusion to the Eucharist, or thanksgiving, that Christians commemorate when we give thanks and break bread rehearsing one history’s more fateful evenings.

Yet the movies critics persistently bloviate over theological content rather than cinematic presentation. The argument, if there is one, is to be had over the latter, not the former.

The film is being levied as “pagan” with “cultic” keynotes.  Some Christian viewers say that it is an entirely fabricated narrative with little resemblance to how the flood really happened. Other criticisms make fun of the character of the Watchers as unbiblical and more akin to Lord of the Rings than the Bible. Shades of the following are also surfacing: the movie has little character development, God is not the central character, Noah is portrayed as a madman, evolution is being promoted, the movie deviates from the biblical narrative, and the producer is an atheist Jew.

These criticisms are being broadcast on every imaginable form of media and countless people have already found Noah guilty of biblical heresy. For them, this movie is nothing more than something else to stand against, a cultural perversion of God’s Word, even while folks all around are engaging this film and perhaps turning to the pages of Genesis for the first time.

Christians pray for occasions to share their faith and talk about scripture with others, but on this account many are passing up that opportunity…an opportunity to not only dialogue with others but to also dig into their tradition and learn.

It is true that the film takes great liberty to develop and create an entertaining narrative, but who can blame the producers?
The Genesis account of the flood is very sparse and there is little to no character development of Noah, his family or even God for that matter. Read the chapters. You will be surprised how many holes in the story Christians have filled with their imaginations instead of staying strictly to what the bible says. If we want to blame the movie for being sparse on biblical details, blame the exilic editors of the material for not giving us any.

What would a movie being “true” to a verse by verse account of this story even look like? Not even Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ followed a verse by verse literal account of the Passion of Jesus and Christians loved that film.

One obvious example is that in the Bible Noah only speaks one time, once! Not exactly what we need from a main protagonist. Yet we act as if we’ve had conversations with him and know him personally. And that one time is when he curses Ham for coming upon his “nakedness” while he is passed out from the fruit of his vineyard after the flood subsides. This curse is the narrative explanation for why the Canaanites are not true heirs of Gods Covenant with Abraham (to be introduced in Genesis 12) and also sets the stage for the Deuteronomic conquests that will comprise large parts of the books of Joshua and Judges.

So Noah gets one sentence in his biblical role and it’s a curse. Not exactly encouraging.

In the movie, Noah never curses his sons and this scene acts as a point of reconciliation for the family. In the film, Noah speaks often, cares about creation, and is a man that loves his family but also vigilantly wants to do God’s will. Sure he has character flaws and we don’t like what we see but this is the producer’s way of making Noah human and articulating our frail humanity in the face of momentously impossible divine callings.

Noah has passions and passions scare the hell out of people without them.

The actual story of Noah in the Bible begs many questions that the text simply doesn’t answer, but which the producer addresses with creativity. Questions such as the following are imaginatively portrayed:

Where did Noah get the wood for the ark? How did he build it? Did anyone try to stop him? What did his family feel during this time? How did the animals arrive? How did the animals ride passively in this ark? Did Noah ever have doubts? How did Noah see the world? What sorts of evil was the world doing? How did the flood start? Where other biblical characters alive and did he interact with them? Did God verbally talk to Noah or is God silent like he is for many of us?

The movies importance is not found in these unique and inconsequential questions, however. The power comes from the themes the movie introduces, themes that get to the core of faith.

noah praying

Have you ever wrestled with your calling and longed for discernment? Noah does too.

Have you ever been compelled by a calling you can never see, just feel? Noah does too.

Have you ever thought about the nature of judgment? So does Noah.

Have you ever thought about how God’s judging might also appear evil? So does Noah’s family.

Have you ever been asked how you’ll do what you’ve been called to do, only to respond, “I am not alone!” So does Noah.

Have you ever thought about your own complicity in the sin and evil of the world? So does Noah.

Have you ever thought about what grace and mercy looks like? Noah begs this question.

Have you ever questioned the character of God? The movie is implicit with theology here.

And unlike critics would have you believe, God is not absent in this film; God is the unseen character driving the plot and these questions stubbornly arise from this film to challenge our faith if we will let it.

Yes, the film takes creative liberties, but the core idea that the world is evil, has turned from its Creator and must now be judged via a great deluge is present.  Further, the film is not whimsical so much as it  taps into the deep roots of Judeo-Christian tradition via the Watchers, the animosity of lineages and even the role of Methusaleh.  Doing some homework would do the blogosphere, and many pulpits, a lot of good.

If we have a problem with the “myth” of the movie, perhaps we really have a problem with our own myths.

For all the banter being leveled against the film it appears that there remains not only a huge cultural interest in the film and its message, but also global interest in religious ideas linked to the bestselling book of all time: the Bible. Such interest and attention needs to be embraced by followers of Jesus, not dismissed because of a faulty perception of how biblical stories must look on the big screen by people who are less than qualified to pass such judgments. If we want something to generate conversation across cultural and religious boundaries here is our chance.

In a context in which the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant for a flood of reasons (pun intended), the church should seize this opportunity to engage discussion about faith with many people who would usually be less than interested. We should seize this time to discuss faith and culture, Christ and context, old stories and the new ones we are creating via our lives.

For a rare time in our culture people are talking about the Bible. This is a good thing.

Let’s make sure we’re joining the conversation without our feet in our mouths.