In all the early Christian writings I’ve worked through recently, this passage from chapter 7 of the Epistle to Diognetus (~130-200 AD) is certainly the most magnificent. What an astounding description of Jesus Christ.
The Almighty Himself, the Creator of the universe, the God whom no eye can discern, has sent down His very own Truth from heaven, His own holy and incomprehensible Word, to plant it among men and ground it in their hearts. To this end He has not, as one might imagine, sent to mankind some servant of His, some angel or prince; it is none of the great ones of the earth, nor even one of the vice-regents of heaven. It is no other than the universal Artificer and Constructor Himself, by whose agency God made the heavens and set the seas their bounds; whose mystic word the elements of creation submissively obey; by whom the sun is assigned the limits of his course by day, and at whose command by night the obedient moon unveils her beams, and each compliant star follows circling in her train. Ordainer, Disposer, and Ruler of all things is he; of heaven and all that heaven holds, of earth and all that is in earth, of sea and every creature therein; of fires, air and the abyss; of things above, and things below, and things in the midst. Such was the Messenger God sent to men.
And was his coming, as a man might supposed, in power, in terror, and in dread? Not so; it was in gentleness and humility. As a king sending his royal son, so sent He him; as God He sent him; as Man to men He sent him; and that because He was fain to save us by persuasion, and not by compulsion – for there is no compulsion found with God.
From the greatest to the least, we are all hypocrites to some degree. We say one thing and do another, whether it’s obvious to everyone or only known to those very close to us. This also means that the person preaching the gospel to you is sometimes going to turn out to be a dirtbag. What if you had an experience like one of the following:
- You were being abused and went to a church leader that you trusted, only to be dismissed and given (in hindsight) very bad advice.
- A pastor who faithfully taught you the Word for years, later manipulated you or betrayed your trust over some petty political power squabble or financial conflict.
- The friend who told you about Jesus in college later divorced his wife and abandoned his kids and wants you to act like everything is cool.
- Your father, who was respected in the community and always took you to church and even read the bible to you at home, was nevertheless often aloof, distant, unkind, and unloving most of the time during your childhood, and still is today.
- Your mother taught you all about the love of Jesus, but she also fawned on your younger sister, her favorite, and largely ignored you when you needed her most as a young adult.
- When things began to fall apart for you in mid-life, you found out that some of your friends from church weren’t really your friends. It hurt. A lot. It made you question if all that stuff they said about the love of Jesus was really ever true.
There isn’t a bible verse that can be quoted to wave away this kind of damage, but Christians have come up with a pretty good answer to this sort of hypocrisy and human failing, especially among leadership. So I present you with an idea, a doctrine, from the 39 Articles of Anglicanism. This is #25, the title being in the Elizabethan English of 1571, from nearly 450 years ago:
Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament
And a modern rendering of the relevant part:
Although in the visible church the evil are always mingled with the good and sometimes evil people possess the highest rank in the ministry of the Word and sacraments, nevertheless since they do not do these things in their own name but in Christ’s and minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing God’s Word and in receiving the sacraments. The effect of Christ’s institution is not taken away by the wickedness of these people, nor is the grace of God’s gifts diminished, so long as the sacraments are received by faith and rightly. The sacraments are effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, even though they may be administered by evil men.
I know the above passage deals specifically with serving the bread and wine, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to extend it to all preaching and pastoral work. The point is, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit overcome our hypocrisy. Jesus saved us, inaugurated his kingdom, and even if we do a lousy job delivering the message (he knew we would), he will still bless us and watch over us. Others may break their promises, but the Lord does not. His Holy Spirit is working in our hearts and minds, regardless of the stumbling blocks placed before us by the personal failings of others. This is good news for those burned by the church or by Christians whom they trusted.
“General” or “natural” revelation is usually thought of as what we can know about God and His ways by looking at nature and examining how the world seems to work. This is in contrast to “special” revelation, which is knowledge delivered via angels, prophets, or God himself. Holy scripture is then special revelation. One would think the the resurrection of the dead would be some found only in special revelation (though the Sadducees didn’t think it was there either), but in the first epistle of Clement of, written in ~96 AD, we find a surprising appeal to general revelation:
Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this very moment. The day and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away, and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.
I Clement 24
Jesus himself appeals to this sort of analogy in John 12:24:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.
The phenomenons Clement is describing here have frequently been interpreted otherwise though. Here is one popular example, from The Lion King:
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
Consider night and day, fruit falling and seeds growing, the seasons, etc. Start with Jesus and work backwards and these things can be seen as prefiguring bodily life after death. Start with ancient Hindu and Buddhist thought though, and you get some kind of reincarnation scheme. Start with Native American tribal beliefs, and you get something like The Circle of Life. Start with modern materialistic science, and you find you are just describing the meaningless recombination of atoms.
Everyone largely agrees on what they see going on, but what does it mean? It’s nice for Clement to see God typifying the resurrection in nature, but everyone else who does not have faith in Christ looks at the same thing and comes to entirely different conclusions – ones that confirm the beliefs they already bring to the table.
This is a good example of how general revelation can only get you so far. All by itself, it has too many loose ends. It demands some guiding principals for us to make any sense of it all. I think however you view the natural world, you will end up seeing it as either some kind of circle, or a straight line. Either everything just keeps happening over and over to no end but to repeat, or happening over and over toward a specific end that has not happened yet. Either birth is the whole kahuna that will eventually express itself again, or birth is a small birth and later there will be a big birth. Either the sun rising is an illumination not any brighter or dimmer than yesterday or tomorrow, or it is a small sun rising and later there will be a much brighter dawn.
Christianity sees time as a straight line with embedded repeating patterns, moving ever toward an end like a train barreling down the tracks toward its destination. Many other schemes of understanding the world begin and end with the patterns – they are all there is. In this sense, modern scientific atheism is actually more akin to Christianity. It also sees history as a straight line, from the explosion of the big bang to the eventual total expansion of the universe until all the suns die and the galaxies grow cold. It is a nihilistic future of icy death. And yet for secularists, that kind of raw materialism is not very palatable for day-to-day life and so they fall back on the cyclical model, describing life and relationships as narrative tropes.
On the next page, in chapter 25 of his epistle, Clement invokes the legend of the phoenix (which he takes to be a description of an actual bird), as also being a natural prefiguring or emblem of the bodily resurrection found in Christ. In the opening lines to Daft Punk’s hit Get Lucky from a couple years ago, Pharrel Williams drags the poor phoenix into the mix too. But what does it mean here? The “force from the beginning that keeps the planet spinning” – namely sex which (occasionally) leads to procreation. That’s why he’s at the funky club all night hoping to “get lucky” with some gal who wants to “get some”.
So ask someone to describe something and you’ll likely find out a lot more about the person than about the thing being described.
Chesterton, in one of the better passages from The Everlasting Man, says that the cross of Christ stands distinct in history as a sharp event. It is a stumbling block that must be dealt with, rudely interrupting what we thought was a pointless circle:
We might say that when St. George thrust his spear into the monster’s jaws, he broke in upon the solitude of the self-devouring serpent and gave it something to bite besides its own tail.
I must admit that I’m suspicious of professional writers. That is, people whose writing is their primary source of income. This could be journalists or occasionally pastors and some academics. Often they are very skilled writers since they have so much focused practice. BUT, their motive, their drive for the work gets in the way of their subject. The HAVE to write just to pay the rent or enable themselves or their wife to go to the grocery store each week and so write they do, about… well you name it. They pontificate about everything, and this isn’t always good, regardless of how clever they are.
A few examples: Conservative blogger Matt Walsh received national attention about a year ago for some well-written commentary on some political issue. (I confess, I don’t even remember now what it was.) But that lasted for one, maybe two days. Then, to keep the revenue flowing (and the bills paid), he had to write something fresh and new over again to draw in just as much traffic. Rinse and repeat 2-3 times a week, 52 weeks a year. Despite some apparent talent, Walsh is relatively young, inexperienced, and not particularly well-read. The result? Tons of stupid and misguided incendiary op-ed pieces. There is evidence that the guy is capable of writing well , but becoming a professional writer has put him into the position where he will only write crap most of the time.
Rod Dreher is another (and far better) example. I have enjoyed a lot of his work in The American Conservative and other publications over the past few years. I certainly disagree with him about a variety of things, but I definitely respect him. Recently though, a commentor on one of his articles mentioned that his new book on “The Benedict Option” and the pieces surrounding it, feel almost identical to his book “Crunchy Cons” and the promo surrounding IT a decade ago. This draws attention to the fact that, at the end of the day, to keep bread on the table, Rod has got to keep on writing a steady stream of seemingly interesting stuff, or be out on the street applying to work at the local Amazon packing warehouse. Does this shape what he says and how he says it? I’m afraid so, and not always for the best. As much as someone like Dreher would eschew tabloid journalism, I suspect his daily deadlines might lead him to have more in common with them than he would wish.
On the other side of the political spectrum, I have similar feelings about Nicholas Kristof. He’ll write something excellent on Tuesday, followed by something ridiculously daft on Thursday. Is the guy stupid? No, but he HAD to bang out 5000 words for the Times on both days and if he failed to do so, he would have had to field nasty phone calls and threats from his boss. The result? Definitely not always good writing or thinking.
The same can be said of the academic who HAS to publish to be eligible for tenure. It’s motivating yes, but like a barbed whip. Inspiring? Not exactly. Sure, Beethoven was paid to write what became some of his best works, but if he had a “project manager” breathing down his neck and waving a contract or paycheck in front of him each month, do you think he could have penned the Missa Solemnis? Doubtful.
I’m not saying that writing by these folks is bad or always tainted. Certainly it can be very good. But on reflection, much of my favorite works are things that did not NEED to be written. Merton was a monk. All he HAD to do was show up for prayer at the designated time with the other brothers and get his allotted chores done. But in the meantime he wrote about 20 books, many of which are fantastic. Nobody forced N.T. Wright to put together the manuscript for Jesus and the Victory of God – it’s like it just exploded out of him, in addition to the journal articles he was writing to keep up his credentials. Leithart writes about all kinds of things, not because he’s making piles of cash for his works (often published by houses like Wipf and Stock that only print runs of 100 at a time), but because it’s a discipline and a joy – so much good thinking, and sourced from a desire to learn and explore the world, not from the threat of poverty or the petty competition of university colleagues.
I guess that’s why some of the very best things I have ever read have been blog posts by amateurs. They most certainly did not “need” to be written, but they were, and to great effect. Let’s all keep it up – even when it seems to get buried in noise on the net.
I’ve been reading an anthology of early Christian writings which includes, among other things, the epistles written by Ignatius of Antioch in ~105 AD, and the Didache, a brief manual for Christian living written about ~70 AD. The letters are to some of the same churches that Paul wrote to only one generation earlier (Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, etc.). It’s easy to see why they weren’t included in the canon of scripture though. There isn’t anything wrong with them, but they just aren’t nearly as interesting as the letters that made it into the NT. They deal with more immediate local topics, include more names and commendations and little meaty theology or commentary. Still, they offer an interesting window into the REAL early church. And what does one find? I think I would have to answer that by saying, “Not what I was told I would find.”.
One narrative I heard often in my childhood was that the early church, planted by the original apostles was pure and vibrant and deeply Christ-centered. The nationalization of the church under Constantine was the thing that screwed everything up and spawned dysfunctional Roman Catholicism. Only in the Protestant Reformation did we “get back basics” about what the gospel was really about.
OK, so surely these early writings (from and to people who actually sat under the original apostles personally, or whose parents did at least) would reveal some of what these unadulterated “basics” looked like, right? One might assume so. So what do all these letters talk about? Justification? Nope. Substitutionary atonement? Not really. Sola fide? Most definitely not – moral imperatives abound (avoid fornication, idol worship, don’t listen to heretics, etc.). Sola scriptura? Don’t be silly – though much of the NT cannon is known (the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters are frequently quoted), other parts are missing completely (almost nobody had heard of John’s gospel yet for example). What about hip authoritarian-free house churches? Nope, none of those either. The most frequent admonishment is for submission to the bishop(!).
Worshiping and studying in the pentecostal tradition during my years in college, a key part of the story was that the early church was full of miracles. Healings and prophecy abounded as a highly regular and normal part of church life. The exercise of spiritual gifts died out in later centuries as we replaced dependence on God with philosophy, overly sophisticated theology, and simple unbelief. OK, so surely these early letters might mention divine healing somewhere – how could they not? Nope. It’s nowhere too be found. Just more admonitions to listen to the clergy, refrain from fighting with other Christians, and to not be too greedy for money. The account of the martyrdom of Polycarp includes some miracles, but it’s certainly the exception, not the rule. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and they pointed out that despite all the miracles in Acts, a period of 30 years is covered, so maybe they weren’t that terribly common to begin with. The time compression one experiences when reading Acts can often go unnoticed I think.
So my initial reaction, judging from just these early 1st century writings, is that much of what I had been taught about the early church were largely projections of what contemporary thinkers assumed, wished, or hoped it had really been like. What was is really like though? Nobody knows of course, but there is scant evidence to support many of the popular narratives, regardless of which tradition you are from.
What IS frequently spoken of though that still matters incredibly much today? The veracity of the resurrection. Jesus Christ really DID come back from the dead. Not pretend, not spiritually, not mythically, but in a new blow-up-the-world way – anastasis. This much is certain and emphasized again and again. Everything else flows from that. Everything known from the law and prophets of Judiasm only INFORMS us of the person of Jesus and the main thing he did (which wasn’t teach!), but die and be raised by the Father. As long as we, the church today, continue to focus on THAT and not brush it aside, then we really WILL be like the early church in a big way.
I finally got around to reading one of James Jordan’s larger works. This is the one friends have been telling me was worth looking at for years. It’s too bad it’s out of print and so expensive on Amazon. Don’t let the title and the now tired mention of “worldview” in the subtitle dissuade you. This is a rich systematic overview of biblical (especially Old Testament) typology. Having listened to a lecture of his in person before as well as read some of his shorter essays and seen a few video interviews, my experience with Jordan previously was one of 90% keen insights mixed with 10% “WTH?”-inducing straight-faced crazy talk. I was delighted to discover that Really Weird Stuff only constituted maybe 5% of this book and that none of it was particularly distracting.
Growing up baptist, I was exposed to pretty much zero biblical typology in my youth. Everything in scripture was always to be taken as literally as possible – eschewing symbolism, the mere existence of literary devices, and often even broader context. In hindsight, it seems a bit odd that I encountered so little as I now know a lot of it isn’t terribly esoteric. Fortunately, several of the leaders at the charismatic church I attended in college had a decent handle on a lot of this stuff already and I absorbed enough of that such that many parts of this book were not novel to me. Still, I found quite a few new good things to share. I think for anyone wanting to dig into the Old Testament some more, this and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative would be top on my recommended reading list.
Here are some assorted passages of interest that I copied down, along with a few notes of my own.
This is a great passage explaining the parallel of what the people were trying to accomplish with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 with God’s call of Abraham in the following chapter.
God’s judgment on the Tower of Babel, however, was accompanied as always with a new announcement of salvation. All the things that man had sinfully tried to seize at Babel – land, name, priestly influence – God announced that he would bestow upon Abraham.
They had wanted land, “lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). God, howeer, scattered them (11:8), and gave land to Abram: “Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the and which I shall show you” (Genesis 12:1).
They had wanted a name: “And let us make for ourselves a name” (genesis 11:4b). God, however, confused their languages, so that they could not understand one another’snames (11:7), and gave a great name to Abram: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Genesis 12:2).
Finally, they had wanted to be religious leaders. Their tower was to reach to heaven. They would be the points of contact between other men and “god” (Genesis 11:4). God, however, prevented their tower-building (11:8) and set up Abram and his seed as the priestly nation: “And so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the ground shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
So much replacement and renaming going on in scripture! It may not seem like such a strong pattern and first glance until you line them all up.
God gave new names to His restructured people. God changed Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel. Jacob means Supplanter, and pointed to his being the younger son who replaces the older. The older son is often a type of Adam, and the younger of the Second Adam. Thus, Seth replaced Cain, Shem replaces Japheth (Genesis 5:32; 9:24; 11:10), Isaac replaced Ishmael, Jacob replaces Esau, Joseph replaced the older brothers, Ephraim replaced Manasseh (Genesis 48:18), Eleazar and Ithamar replaced Nabad and Abihu (Exodus 6:23; 24:1; Leviticus 10:1-6), David replaced his older brothers, and Jesus replaced Adam.
An interesting comment about how the hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt leveled existing class structures among the Hebrews and equalized social relations for some time.
Once the people were reduced to slavery, the distinction between the blood line of Jacob and the multitudes of servants in the nation broke down. All were servants now When Israel came out of Egypt, we do not find an aristocracty of true-blooded Israelits dominating a plebeian class made up of the descendants of the servants, as probably would have been the case had God not put the nation through the crucible of enslavement. The result of this change was that government by patriarchs shifted into government by elders (Exodus 3:16; 4:29). Men of discernment rather than men of Blood came to hold power in Israel.
Some great commentary on the rise (and occasional fall) of Christianity throughout history.
In the way of cultural movement, we find that when Christians first penetrate a pagan culture, they have to meet in homes and even catacombs. When the culture has been permeated by Christian influence, and becomes a Christian homeland, then the great and beautiful Garden-Churches (cathedrals) can be built. So it was with Rome. So it was with Europe. So it must be in our day.
Our cathedrals have been defiled, and our homes are under assault as officials of the secular humanist government seek to close down Christian schools and invade Christian homes. Thus, ours is not a day of cathedral-building, but a day of cultural permeation. Faithfulness must come first, and only then will glory come.
Since we live in an age of setback, it is not always apparent to us that the Kingdom has, in fact, grown. But if we take a look at the Kingdom in the year 300, we find it suffering in pre-Constantinian tribulation. A few centuries later, the Church was wrestling the tribes of Northern Europe into the Kingdom; while in the East, Christianity experienced a real golde age, and what we call “Nestorian” Christians had influence throughout India and China. A few centuries later, after the high “Middle” ages and the Protestant Reformation, Christianity greatly discipled the European countries, spread to the Americas, and gave birth to the printing press, university education, technology, and many other benefits. During the last century, Christianity extended all over the globe as a result of the missionary movement and almost eradicated slavery (though slavery still exists in some Islamic countries, and behind the iron curtain).
On things like the U.S. Constitution or the Westminster Confession gradually morphing into symbols.
In a way what has happened with the U.S. Constitution, and with the Westminster Confession, is that their value as symbols has changed. Originally it was the CONTENT of these documents that was their primary value. The power of their contents has diminished over time, however. At the same time, with age they have become symbols in another sense, functioning like flags or banners, or security blankets. To put it another way, they have moved from being primarily verbal symbols to being to a considerable extent non-verbal symbols. People are loyal to the Constitution, but most have little idea what it says.
I would add that more than a few Reformed chuchmen are loyal to the IDEA of the Westminster Confession, even while formally tossing numerous paragraphs (e.g. the part about the Pope literally being The Anti-Christ) and informally ignoring others.
“arborescent theophanies” – what a wonderful phrase. The book is chock-full of this kind of thing.
Connecting the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s Ladder, and Jesus’s conversation with Nathaniel:
Just as the Tower of Babel was a counterfeit ladder to heaven, so Jacob’s visionary ladder was the true one (Genesis 28:12-17). Babylon means “gate of heaven,” and at the foot of Jacob’s ladder was the true gate of heaven (v.17). Just so, if Nebuchadnezzar’s ladder tree was a counterfeit, there must also be a true ladder true. That true Ladder is the Messiah. Jesus said to Nathaniel, “You shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” referring to Jacob’s vision (John 1:51). But also, in context, Jesus stresses that Nathaniel has been sitting under a fig tree (John 1:48, 50). the fig tree, a symbol of Israel as God’s priestly nation, is correlated with the ladder of heaven, with the True Israel, Jesus Christ.
An excellent explanation of how prophecies like “the moon will turn to blood!” are not about end of the physical world doomsday events:
Let us now briefly survey the passages where sun, moon, and stars are used in a prophetic-symbolic sense. A failure to understand the symbolic nature of these passages has led a few popular writers to assume that such expressions as “the sun turned to sackcloth and the moon to blood” can only be understood as referring to the collapse of the physical cosmos. Nobody takes these verses literally, after all. The question is, to what kind of event does this symbolic language refer? For modern man, it seems that it can only be speaking of the end of the natural world. For ancient man, it was indeed the end of the “world” that such language indicated, but not the “world” in our modern scientific sense. Rather, it was the end of the “world” in a socio-political sense.
For instance, Isaiah 13:9-10 says that “the day of the Lord is coming,” and when it comes, “the starts of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.” It goes on to say in verse 13, “I shall make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the Lord of hosts in the day of His burning anger.” Well, this certainly does sound like the end of the world! BUT, if we read these verses in context, we have to change our initial impression. Verse 1 says, “The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw,” and if we read on, we find nothing to indicate any change in subject. It is the end of Babylon, not the end of the world, that is spoken of. In fact, in verse 17, God says the he will “stir up the Medes against them,” so that the entire chapter is clearly concerned only with Babylon’s destruction.
If we read Biblically, this won’t seem so strange. What verse 10 is saying is that Babylon’s lights are going to go out. Their clocks are going to stop. Their day is over, and it is the Day of Doom for them. And, since these astral bodies symbolize governors and rulers, their rulers are going to have their lights put out as well.
The “heavens and earth” in verse 13 refer to the socio-political organization of Babylon. The “heavens” are the aristocracy, roughly speaking, and the “earth” are the commoners.
We find the same kind of thing in Ezekiel 32. In verses 7-8 of the chapter God declares, “And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens, and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you and will se darkness on your land.”
The end of the world? Yes, indeed, but not for everybody.
And finally, a great analogy about how the Levitical law was not nearly as complicated as we sometimes think.
Why do people think the Mosaic law was hard to keep? In general, it is because they do not know what the law really commanded, and because they have the Mosaic law confused with the rabbinical traditions of Judaism. The rabbinical traditions were a “heavy yoke” (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23; Acts 15:10; Matthew 23:4). Jesus called the people back to the Mosaic law, making it His own, and in doing so said that He was offering an “easy joke” (Matthew 5:20-48; 11:29-30).
What about all those sacrifices, you may ask? There were the Burnt, Meal, Peace, Than, Votive, Sin, Reparation, “Heave,” and “Wave” Offerings, for starters. Some sued salt, some did not. Some used oil, some did not. Some required a lamb; others, oxen; others, birds. Leavened bread was used with some, unleavened with others. Some parts of the animal were burned up, others given to the priests, and others were eaten by laymen. These things differed for each sacrifice. it was an awful lot of detail to master. The Israelite citizen, however, never offered any sacrifices himself. Only the priests were allowed to do the sacrifices, and they did them every day. They soon become familiar with all these details.
Compare the details of the complicated sacrificial system with the details of auto repair, and it suddenly becomes clear just how simple the priest’s job was. How many different kinds of cars are there? Add on the fact that they change from year to year. Now consider all the different parts and aspects that can go wrong. next time you take your car in, look at all the volumes of Chilton auto repair manuals that your mechanic keeps on hand, and compare their size and detail with the book of Leviticus. If you mechanic can learn to fix cars, and enjoy it, obviously the priests of Israel had no trouble managing the sacrificial system.
What about the sabbath? Wasn’t that a burden? No, it was a time of rest. But weren’t they forbidden to cook on the sabbath? No, they kept the sabbath as a feast. But weren’t they forbidden recreation on the sabbath? No, the Bible nowhere says this. Well the, what did they do? They wen to church to worship God at the synagogue (Leviticus 23:3), and relaxed the rest of the day. The sabbath was not an “impossible burden.”
Here, in a passage from his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen talks about how preaching doesn’t work when your audience is essentially post-Christian and doesn’t see itself as part of a larger forward-moving narrative.
Only when man feels himself responsible for the future can he have hope or despair, but when he thinks of himself as the passive victim of an extremely complex technological bureaucracy, his motivation falters and he starts drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents.
When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for [modern/contemporary] man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.
What’s especially interesting is when this was penned – the very early 1970s. Preachers at that time might have had some excuse for being slow to pick up on all the social and philosophical changes that occurred the previous decade. Fast-forward 45 years, we should know better but it seems as if we sometimes still take this for granted. When man’s historical consciousness is broken, the gospel doesn’t seem freeing anymore. Let’s try to patch things up integrating history (both ancient and modern) into our preaching, (something our grandfather’s didn’t have to do). Let’s also figure out how to present Jesus as the savior of those drifting on the sea of nihilism. The days of making the gospel sound compatible with the American Dream are long gone now. Ours is like strange new missionary frontier.
Later, Nouwen continues along a similar line:
Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in the encounter with a decaying human being and become personally concerned. This hope stretches far beyond the limitations of one’s own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God’s self-disclosure in history. Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life but, because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.
Every attempt to attach this hope to visible symptoms in our surroundings becomes a temptations when it prevents us from the realization that promises, not concrete successes, are the basis of Christian leadership.
Modern psychology, in particular, favors independence over dependence, confidence over feelings of inferiority, avoidance of pain, and strong will. The Rule says just the opposite: submit to authority, feel you inferiority, embrace suffering, and have no will of your own. How can anyone live this rule and enjoy emotional health?
The Rule makes it clear that familiar modern values come from a purely secular frame of Mind. As [Lutheran theologian] Rudolf Otto says in his classic definition, religion is fundamentally a sense of awe. It is based on an awareness that we are indeed quite small in the scope of things. If we want to live a less secular life, one that includes religious virtues, as well as secular prudence, then we may have to discover the implications of this existential humility.
-p.xxi, from Thomas Moore’s introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict
That phrase – FEEL your inferiority. Good grief, have your ever heard anyone give you that advice? In our world of self-esteem anthems and trigger warnings you’ll only hear the opposite at all costs. Even from the pulpit you are more likely to hear that “God has a wonderful plan for your life” than anything that might acknowledge your low-ness. But we only need Jesus when we are broken. The gospel is only good news to those who have been brought low. Pretending you are high or respectable before is a false place to begin.
I delivered this as part of the sermon at church today. It borrows heavily from a passage in Paul Zahl’s ‘Who Will Deliver Us?’. Here in the increasingly post-Christian west, in the popular consciousness today, the idea of sin carries very little weight. I think sometimes, perhaps even often, it is going to be more effective and arresting to speak of the crushing weight of stress, expectations, and performance-ism than the crushing weight of the righteous law. In the end, they are two sides of the same coin and our rebellion against either can rightly be called “justification by works”. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of sin, but when speaking about it directly is going to largely result in miscommunication, than we need to be able to also proclaim news to people that is more immediately recognizable as good. This is one possible angle to take.
Let’s start by considering some of the everyday problems of living. Let’s consider the problem of stress. Talk to any parent of small children, any college student, any one working two jobs or even one job or caring for an elderly parent, any person trying to make it in any business, heck, any person living in the USA today and you will hear about stress. But what is stress anyway? Stress is pressure caused by the convergence of strong and conflicting claims upon the self. If for example, we feel pressure to perform at peak efficiency at work, and to be an attentive partner to our spouses and an engaged parent to our children, we will most certainly experience stress. How can we balance the strong conflicting claims upon our time and energy? Add to this the desire to have time for our own interests or hobbies, or just things that we think are interesting or cool, and we will have a very hard time reconciling the demands. This type of stress is familiar to many of us.
And it’s much worse in a time like our own when what we’ll call the “law of capability” is in force. This is the law that judges us wanting if we are not capable, if we can’t handle it ALL, if we are not competent to balance our diverse commitments without a slip. We have to be good at ALL THE THINGS or we are judged to be losers. We are filled with dread that we won’t be able to keep all the plates spinning.
Back in the 80s, Pulitzer winner Ellen Goodman gave a commencement speech where she described the ideal model woman of today something like this. She gets up at six-thirty in the morning and jogs five miles. At seven-thirty she cooks a totally nourishing breakfast for her husband and two beautiful children. By eight-thirty the children have left for school, her husband to his office, and she is on the way to her incredibly demanding job: she is an advertising director for a major company. All day long she attends meetings and makes important decisions. When she finally arrives home, it is quite late because she had to attend a board meeting for a community-service organization of which she is the chairman. But she does not get home too late to fix her children an excellent supper. She helps both of them with their homework and has meaningful good-nights with each. Yet she still has energy left to prepare a gourmet, candlelit supper for herself and her husband. As the day comes to an end, the model woman has a totally fulfilling yet deeply honest sexual relationship with her admirably sensitive husband.
Whew. Now we may be able to rationally look at that and say it sounds silly, but I think that most of us, most of the time, are under an unwritten pressure to perform like that.
Under the law of capability, the model woman, like any of us, is bound to sicken. We are all simply human. Stress, comes from all these different claims upon the self. Ultimately, stress involves a religious problem. The problem underlying our need to reconcile conflicting demands is this: What establishes my identity? What IS my identity? Who the heck am I? That’s very much a religious question.
Many of us act as if the answer to this question were performance – what we DO. If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my worth. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy my boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still do justice to my inner aspirations and dreams, then I will have proven my worth. There are infinite ways to prove our worth along these lines. The basic equation is: I am what I do. It is a religious position in life because it tries to answer in practice terms, the question, “Who am I and what is my niche in the universe?” This popular position says, my place in the universe is in proportion to my deeds.
You ready for this? In Christian theology, such a position is called “justification by works”. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance – what I do. Conversely, it conceals a terrible and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. I will be worthless. To myself I will cease to exist.
What is the antidote to this deeply entrenched crushing expectation that the world squashes us with? This is the spirit of our age. It is not something we can work our way out of. It is not something we can think our way out of. It is only something that we can be rescued from by a powerful outside force that is completely independent of ourselves.
The Good News, is that God, the creator of all living things, has done this very thing, this rescuing, in the person of Jesus Christ. He died for us while we were clearly unworthy. And he has promised to deliver us from death for no good reason at all, except that he loves us dearly. That is the good news.
What I think I need is more money, more time, more energy, less sinning, but no, what I really need is Jesus – God himself.
The great Christian philosopher Soren Kirkegaard said: “And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” That is, the opposite of doing it wrong isn’t doing it right, it’s faith – faith in someone else to do it right. Faith in the only one who can do it right.
You may not understand what all that it entails, but today, whether you are old in the faith, or young in the faith, or on the fringe of faith, or outside of the faith. Put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, your savior, the eternal King.
I’m tired of being shamed from the pulpit for not befriending/investing in/ministering to my physical block-level neighbors. I literally NEVER see these people – ever. It’s just the reality of the modern city, at least as I have experienced it in the USA. I have circles of acquaintances at church, at work, with regulars at the coffee shop and the park, and with my family scattered around the world. I have precisely zero interaction with the people that live more than one house down the street from me in any direction. I’ve lived in the same house now for seven years and in the same city for 16 years and there has been no variation in this. To engage these physical neighbors would required a forceful awkward action on my part, and to continue to engage them would require heaps of creepiness. I suspect that many with an ounce of tact know this, but yet we often nod our heads whenever the preacher or the latest book on evangelism or non-traditional church community exhorts us to witness to our physical neighbors or conjure up a block party. It’s not gonna happen, at least not with the way our cities, jobs, and families are currently set up.
Some of churches I know of, including several in my town, decided to chop up their small groups by “parish”, that is, by their physical location within town, with lines that are very similar to those used for school district zoning or voting districts. The idea is to harken back to the way parishes effectively existed for centuries in the Christian west. But of course the whole thing is contrived and the people in the small groups will unconsciously resist this sort of (previously natural but now unnatural) grouping. At the end of the day, who are you going to hang out with? The family that shares your interests and who has kids the same age as yours, that likes to watch the Seattle Seahawks and that lives a 5-minute drive from your house, or the single German grad student in Biology who just happens to live in an apartment 3 blocks away and who sometimes attends your church?
For starters, denominationalism has made the idea of a local physical parish a complete lost cause. Forget cars and compartmentalized specialist jobs and everything else Wendel Berry laments. The fact that the people on my block attend at least 5 different churches (some in the next city over) and many take part in no church at all makes any thought of making the parish (Latin ‘parochia’, dwelling beside) meaningful hopelessly broken. I can’t fix this and I can’t push back on it in a substantial way either. I get a hundred times more mileage investing time and energy into the people I do meet naturally day-to-day. For better or worse, in the modern west, the parish is now a web, not a circle. Maybe you live somewhere (an isolated midwest small town or a tiny village in Honduras) where the parish model still makes sense. Great! Maybe you are that one guy ministering to a collective of artists living in an experimental rent-controlled apartment. Cool – whatever. Maybe some day the parish model will work again here, but not today. So how about let’s spend our energy on something other than pining away for this nostalgic model of pre-automotive Christendom. No I don’t really like it either and it’s really too bad that it’s gone, but we have a lot of foundational things to change if we want to recover the parish and it’s benefits. We can’t just dictate them out of thin air.