Because we could not come to him or even be brought to him without horror, he came to us, in the form of Jesus Christ. There was never a time when God had not yet intervened in the human condition, so it is misleading to conceptualize the sending of his son as the beginning of God’s response. But Jesus Christ, from before the foundations of the earth, is the ultimate expression and the primary vehicle of God’s intervention. He is “the anointed one”–the “Christ” (in Greek) or “Messiah” (in Hebrew)–the one chosen to serve as this vehicle. As in all of the great hero stories, the hero comes prepared with the necessary assets for the monumental task that is set before him. Often the hero is told of some weakness of the enemy and given a predestined weapon, tempered for the conflict. The hero of God and man came armed, not with any sword of destiny, but with an intimate and unbreakable relationship with his Father. He spoke unceasingly of his Father–from his first recorded utterance (“Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”) to his dying breath (“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”). Why did he have power to perform miracles? Because his Father showed him how and gave him power. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19). “All things are delivered unto me of my Father” (Matt 11:27). “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand” (John 3:35).
The Human Condition In One Sad Story
If the Atonement was the completion of a task necessary for man’s reconciliation with God and with his fellow man, then we need to first understand the nature of the breach that the Atonement was meant to heal. If the “good news” of the Gospel is salvation through Christ, we need to comprehend what he saves us from before we can speculate about what metaphor best expresses how he accomplished it.
My cousin saw a young man from his high school walking on the side of the road, and he felt he should pull over. My cousin was a successful scholar, athlete, and member of the student government, well-liked and looked up to by many of his peers. This young man was at the opposite end of the popularity spectrum. He was occasionally bullied and constantly given reason to understand, through subtle exclusions and other signs familiar to most of the high school population, that he was not “cool” or “successful.” My cousin, for his part, had tried to be nice to this young man, as to everyone else, by such simple kindnesses as saying hi with a smile before class started. My cousin thought he seemed dejected and wanted to offer a ride, but then thought, “I hardly know this guy. It would be weird for me to offer him a ride. Besides, I will already be up late doing my homework.” So he ignored the generous impulse and kept on driving. He got to school the next day and found out that the young man had died the evening before by suicide. Continue reading
The apparent illogic of the notion of God suffering for man’s sin is captured nicely in “Life of Pi”:
Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine my Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”
“Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”
“Hallelujah, my son.”
While the character who finds the story of Christ’s Atonement so illogical does eventually find it meaningful and valuable, he does not resolve the illogic. And that is fine for a character who appreciates Christianity, in common with every other religion, as a set of beautiful stories that contain truth. But for a person like me, who considers Christ himself to be the Truth and Christianity to not only contain truth but to be true, the apparent illogic grates on the mind. Continue reading
There are several reasons that I am an attorney instead of an English professor (my original plan). A relatively minor reason that I don’t usually mention is the dominance of multiculturalism in the academy as a lens for talking about and judging literature and culture generally.
What I mean by “multiculturalism” is a particular kind of intense focus on race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality, and other categories that might make a person a minority, and the ways in which cultures construct and deploy these categories (generally in ways that disadvantage the minority). Anyone who has studied English literature at today’s universities should understand what I mean. But so should anybody familiar with the rhetoric of certain liberal politicians, some of whom (for instance) have recently assumed it unnecessary to make any substantial explanation of why they deem it deeply wrong for Joe Biden to have had collegial relationships with segregationist senators. Continue reading
To many modern minds, including the minds of most people my age (thirties) in the Western world, it is practically inconceivable that there might be any legitimate rationale for inculcating a preference for heterosexual marriage over any other expression of sexuality, including homosexual marriage. This preference is the historical status quo, but it has been so dramatically rejected in the last 75 years (and especially the last 15) that, for many today, the whole business of disapproving sex for any reason other than nonconsent is wholly alien, bizarre, and even evil–a thing to be dismissed with a word: “Victorian,” “repressive,” “culturally insensitive,” etc. But can it be so easily dismissed? Where did the tradition of disapproving expressions of homosexuality come from?
Is it, as many moderns imagine, entirely irrational, evil, and indefensible? Continue reading
Acts 17:27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us[.]
The “god of the gaps” is much maligned. He could also be called the “god of the not-yet-explained,” and his domain has been steadily shrinking as science explains more and more. People whose sympathies are both with science and against religion may use the label to express the view that religion is founded wholly on ignorance. We did not know why the sun rises in the east so we attributed it to Apollo. We did not know how the animals came to be so we attributed their creation to God. The god of the gaps is the god of uncharted territory—instead of “here there be dragons,” it is “here there be god.” Then astronomy and biology supply alternate explanations that are supported by empirical inquiry, and the god of the gaps has (supposedly) been ousted from the scene. But is religion now—or was it ever—fully explained as a “gap filler”? And when science explains something, is God thereby ousted? Continue reading
Scripture as Subversion: A God To Wrestle With
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is perhaps the greatest of all subversive stories. It profoundly subverts the authority of the Jewish rulers and of the Roman yoke. It brings into question the justice of criminal law. It subverts reliance on the righteousness of Peter or the other apostles who abandoned their Lord to the mob. It even subverts reliance on any perceived right to feel close to God if one is doing his will, for Christ felt himself abandoned. It casts down the idols of man’s authority, justice, righteousness, and peace (among others), and sets in their place the image of the tortured God-man whose broken heart is still set on his Father’s will.
God is a creator. He laid the foundations of the earth. His work is constructive, not deconstructive. But he is so relentless in purpose and so faithful in his vision of what he wills that he will fiercely cast down all idols, even by torture (e.g., that of his Son). He is the God who took away the gift of language from the builders in Babel, who prophesied that because his people rejected the true foundation, the foundations of the temple and the walls of his city would be torn down until not one stone was left sitting on another.
Lamentations 2:4 He hath bent his bow like an enemy: he stood with his right hand as an adversary, and slew all that were pleasant to the eye in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion: he poured out his fury like fire.
God is not an antifoundationalist, but is the inveterate enemy of all false foundations that obstruct his building plans. There is therefore a strong streak of iconoclasm (“idol-breaking”) through the scriptures.
Every age has its idols. One of the purposes of scripture is to break them down. One of the chief idols that devours men’s souls in every age is gold, and to every age the scriptures teach that “ye cannot serve God and mammon.” To an age that glorified the warrior above all heroes, the scriptures taught that a king of conquest was not permitted to build the Lord’s house. To an age that idolized rationalism, the scriptures breathed a “peace that passeth understanding,” and taught that “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifyeth.” To a culture obsessed with the oral traditions that had accreted onto the law of Moses, the scriptures taught a higher law, summarized as radical love and forgiveness.
Our age has its idols too, as do each one of us who persist in sinning. (To sin is by definition to place something above God and his laws.)
Among the idols of our age are equality, tolerance, autonomy, and free expression. These ideals, properly understood and deployed, can accomplish good. But to the degree that any of them become an excuse for sinning or even for failing to reject sin, they are by definition idolatrous. And to our shame they are used in this manner constantly.
Insofar as each person and each age have their idols, the scriptures set themselves against us as an enemy. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it is not without a long and painful struggle that we obtain the Lord’s blessing, and some part of us will be pulled out of joint. But the result will be that we become worthy inheritors of Israel’s name (“to struggle and prevail with God”).
The struggle is not one of servile submission—a wrestle would be a supremely inapt metaphor for such a struggle. There is give and take, as in a lengthy wrestling match. God has not given us reason and judgment just so that we can sacrifice them on the pagan alter of fundamentalism. This too is an idolatry that will lead a man to damnation if he will not repent of it. The wrestle with God afforded us in the scriptures is in large measure an effort of clear thinking and careful, whole-souled discernment. The wrestle enables us to interpret our lives, our age, and the sacred texts in a correct manner; and while we would do well to hold the text in higher regard than our own instincts or received wisdom, nothing is properly sacrosanct except Elohim (“the Gods”).
The following post is adapted from my post in December.
By now we ought to know that below cliché is often the deepest sincerity. This was made evident to me once again after the Parkland, Florida shooting. History has repeated itself on my social media feeds. I see the same people writing the same messages I saw after the Las Vegas shooting last October. After that tragic event, my social media channels filled with people “sending thoughts and prayers.” The next day I encountered several reactions to these “cliché” responses which criticized people for their seemingly trivial and laissez-faire approach to a tragedy which took over 50 lives in Vegas. It is happening again, this time 17 lives in Florida were lost. People are sending thoughts and prayers. And other people are denouncing them for doing it. The sincerity of these complaints I believe deserves an honest evaluation of “sending thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy.
The most creative complaint against “thoughts and prayers” I have seen so far took the form of a game. By clicking on a link you became a player and were instructed to click two buttons over and over again. The buttons were labeled “Thoughts,” and “Prayers.” When the game starts, a number in the middle of the screen begins to increase exponentially indicating the number of deaths in the USA by gun violence. Ostensibly, by clicking the buttons the player is working to stop that number from rising. But, predictably, no matter how many times a player clicks one button or the other, the deaths continue to rise.
The obvious criticism is that sending thoughts and prayers is ineffective and the deeper and more subversive critique is that sending thoughts and prayers is cliché and easy—like clicking a button. Though witty, the critique falls flat in both instances. Continue reading
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By now we ought to know that below cliche is often the deepest sincerity. And that below what can only be called “non-cliche,” by which I mean words and deeds of originality, is often the fumbling of the insincere.
This was made evident to me once again after the Las Vegas shooting. Throughout my social media channels I came across a common and cliche response which read, “sending thoughts and prayers.” The next day I encountered several reactions to these responses which criticized them for their seemingly trivial and laissez-faire approach to a tragedy which took over 50 lives. Continue reading