Taste and See

I’ve started the long trek through David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, a polemic/dogmatics against the Post-Modern mood of our era. One appreciative element in his introduction is how he scripts the narrative (though he dislikes the connotations of the word) as one of two cities. Depending on our vantage, when we look on Creation, we will see a theater of God’s Glory or a barren waste. Now, I am not talking at the level of the now or the visible, but of purpose and eschaton. A huge question of the book deals with the created world and what it is. Is it nothing but a violently conceived illusion, a means only to be transcended in a paradox of finitude? Or is this the good creation which the Lord brought into being through the Word, Jesus Christ?

I will report intermittently as I continue, but I wanted to stop at one point that struck me. One distinction in attitudes and suppositions is that of beauty and desire. Post-Modernity has struck at beauty as a synthetic violence forced upon others, an order that is inherently oppressive. Beauty is the realm of the elite, those who are capable of building empires and cultures. This is just a rouse for others to continue the dialectic of their own attempts of bringing order to chaos. According to the Bible, this is in line with how God created, but Post-Modernity sees this as a violent seizure of what, inherently, cannot be seized. I am speaking in a lot of broad-strokes.

The vicious deconstruction and demolition by Post-Modernity is not something to be utterly rejected. Christ is the unassailable Word, but all other idolatrous words spoken against will collapse. The project of Apollo, which is the project of speculative philosophy and culture fabrication, won’t stand up against his brother god. Dionysus’ madness is an onslaught upon the shaky pillars of the Apollonian Temple. But thanks be to God that Christ is both True Wisdom and True Joy, overcoming all pagan conceptions with a deeper music and a richer wine.

And it’s for this reason that I ask, in defense of Beauty, if desire and appetite is mere fancy, subjective appreciation, and constituted only by belly and hunger? By this I’m asking: is Beauty an objective Outsider who seizes us, or is it internally generated lust for the passive object before it?

The reality, as I’d see it, is a qualified yes. Beauty is a Person, an objective movement that seizes us, whose imprint can knock us over. Yet, this is not inherent in fallen and sinful man. We have a belly-god who directs us to slobber and lurch. Both points are true, but not because of a Post-Modern deconstruction. Instead, Post-Modernism has shown how the Apollonian temple of refined taste is nothing more than dressed up and masqueraded hunger. Feurbach’s critique, that all talk of god is Human desire projected up, levels the land of all our attempts to reach up. We stumble in the dark looking for answers.

Our society’s embrace of Consumerism, becoming more and more comprehensive and internal, is an opportunistic embrace of the Fall. We are bombarded with images, advertisements, scenery, pornography, bloodshed, saccharine emotion etc. It is so overwhelming that our ability to taste changes as a result. It’s always been like this, but never at this level. Goebbels would die from glee in seeing the American Media-Complex.

We are recondition to think only in terms of buying, using, consuming. Man is only a complex beast of many hungers. Some are base (sex, food, drink), some are higher (family, fashion, sport) and some appeal to a synthetic climax of Humanity (spirit, god, ultimate concern). Tillich may have thought man is driven by an ultimate concern, an anxiety over death and destiny. Ad Men have flipped this in the guise of Oprah books.

While this is all true, it is only conditioned by the Fall. While Man’s attempt to universalize are, by nature, oppressive, this does not eradicate the reality of a true aesthetic. If God is the one whom we taste and see that He is good, the one who promises flowing rivers of milk and honey, then we are wrong to think man’s god is only the stomach.

In Biblical Typology, while the Land was fruitful and good to the Israelites, it pointed out to a fulfillment, which is revealed to be found in Christ. He is our bounty and our good, our portion and our plenty. And lest we be duped by our conditioning, He is God and is not able to be boxed. In finding Him and grabbing His robe, we are mastered. Desire is fulfilled in the Beauty He reveals.

Yet He comes as ugly and bloody. This is not contradictory, but rather, a paradoxical revelation. It is in sacrifice that we see the fullness of God. It is not emptiness as such, but seeing Christ, the Prince of Glory, take the shape of a servant, that sets our souls ablaze. Christ awakens us, allured by the honey-power of the Spirit, to reshape our twisted hearts around Him.

It’s not that Beauty is not real, He is. And we need Beauty Himself to teach us anew, reshaping our desires around what is true and what is good. This is true in the aesthetic, where we give glory to God in seeing the Creation worship Him. Whether it’s in the trees or the rocks, in a painting or music, we praise God for the shallow joy. This is not an endorsement for a particular culture, which is the Constantinian synthesis, Christ’s Church turned into an Apollonian Temple to demons. It is a wide and rejoicing evaluation. Whatever lifts our hearts and imaginations to the Lord Jesus, revealed in Scripture, ought to be received with praise.

But this sense of beauty also reaches over into the ethical and the true. The Fruits(!) of the Spirit are pleasing to God and to the heart renewed. We probably will never see this fully in this life, but when we rejoice to witness love, compassion, peace etc., we are appreciating the beauty of the good.

There are many other places this could be thought out and unrolled. But it is our work as God’s People to be mastered by Christ, to seek Him and rejoice in what He rejoices in. For God is the God of wine, salt, honey, breasts, hair, eyes, kittens, and so much more. To call this list vulgar is to deny a good creation. We live in a fall and our corrupted hearts twist these. Under the domain of Adam, even the fruits become rotten. Wisdom becomes deceit, peace becomes sloth, patience becomes indifference, faith becomes grasping, love becomes lust.

Let us taste Jesus, see that He is good, and live conformed to His life. He is the Lord of the Resurrection. He is the Light that opens eyes. He is Word that unstops ears. He is Bread and Wine that give us fullness. He is the Beautiful Lord. Amen.

Disagreeing with God…

We encounter problems when our moral sensibilities conflict with scripture.
Here are a couple of brief personal examples to illustrate:

I have always found the homosexuality passages difficult… left to my own instincts I would not understand homosexuality to be in any way wrong provided the relationship is honest, egalitarian, committed, exclusive and not manipulative or abusive.  I also find the genocide passages in the OT difficult… left to my own instincts I see the extent and quality of such violence as repulsive especially given the absence (even exclusion) of mercy, redemptive purpose and on occasion the targeting of persons based on the actions of their ancestors 400 years prior.

But rather than getting bogged down in specific examples, my aim here is to discuss the relationship between our moral sensibilities and our interpretation of scripture more generally.  I suggest that we can adopt either one of two interpretive approaches:

  1. I interpret scripture under the guidance of my own moral sensibilities re right and wrong. Here I can interpret difficult passages as unclear, contextually isolated, poetic, hyperbolic, metaphorical or even as errant (note that it is possible to maintain a belief in the “God breathed” nature of scripture without committing to its total inerrancy – after all I would hope my own life is “God breathed”, yet at no point would I equate this to inerrancy or infallibility).  However this approach is problematic for several reasons.  It allows our subjectivity to run riot over moral absolutes (which most of us wish to believe in), it ignores the problem of humanity’s very obvious moral confusion and it defeats the corrective function of revelation if we can mold scripture to suit our own sensibilities.
  2. I subjugate my own moral sensibilities to scripture. In this case my own feelings on what is good become redundant. I must take x as good/bad, irrespective of my feelings to the contrary.  This latter view gels with the idea that God is supreme and provides a counter-point to by which to address our moral confusion/relativism.

However (2), despite being more theologically appealing also comes with an assortment of problems.  Abandoning our own moral sensibilities means that absent specific examples and precise definitions of terms, general commands such as “do justice” or “act kindly” are emptied of meaningful content as they rely on my own subjective instincts as to what “kindness” is.  It might be argued that “love your neighbour as yourself” overcomes this problem by allowing us to define love in subjective terms.  However when Jesus comes he says “love one another as I have loved you” – insisting that love is defined by his example over and above our introspective assessment.  Jesus’ example however may not be clearly or straightforwardly applicable to all contexts – meaning that there is still a need for interpreting what Jesus-shaped love looks like in any given situation.  While we have guiding principles, the extension of these principles to our everyday lives require input from our own sensibilities as to what is ‘wise’ etc.

Subjugating our own moral sensibilities to scripture also seems to conflict with the scriptural notion of conscience – that morality can be inferred from ‘the very nature of things’ (1 Cor 11:14).  I’ve always struggled with Paul’s statement here… it seems so profoundly naïve, as if Paul has zero recognition that the ‘very nature of things’ can appear radically different from one person to another.  Corinthians isn’t the only passage which speaks of conscience – Romans 2:15 says of the Gentiles that “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness… their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them”.  Putting aside the seeming contradiction with Jeremiah 17:9 (“the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”) Paul still seems confident that even apart from God’s scriptural revelation our thoughts/hearts still function as a guide to God’s morality – in which case our sensibilities might well be able to guide our interpretation of scripture per (1).  However, the necessary corollary of Paul’s comments is that all our moral disagreements are cosmetic and disingenuous; that beneath the surface we do in fact all agree on all moral issues. How on earth do we reconcile this with the fact that our moral sensibilities not only seem to differ inter alia, but also differ from scripture?

Finally, subjugating our own moral sensibilities to scripture also renders giving thanks and praise somewhat meaningless.  Thanks and praise rest on our ability to recognise God’s goodness – but on this model we are incapable of volunteering such an assessment. Praise and thanks become robotic rather than heartfelt – we thank God for things because he tells us they are good, not out of some heartfelt appreciation.


 

So what is the solution here? We either guide our interpretation of difficult passages by invoking our preconceived notions of right and wrong, or we dispense our preconceived morality and prioritise the prima facie meaning of scripture, accepting it as a corrective to our moral confusion.  Both approaches have deep problems.  If we use our own sensibilities to govern our interpretation of scripture we have in principle placed ourselves above God’s revelation, defeating its function as a corrective and abandoning moral absolutes in favour of subjectivity.  If however we abandon our existing sensibilities to scripture we are left unable to interpret general commands to “love” or to be “kind”, we are left unable to make sense of Paul’s comments re conscience, and we are left unable to credibly give heartfelt thanks or praise as we are incapable of volunteering our own appreciation of goodness.

Now one might try to resolve all of this by an appeal to the Holy Spirit.
It is argued that while Scripture remains authoritative, our own sensibilities need not be demolished but rather remade by the Spirit of Christ living in us so that, over time, our own moral assessments converge in alignment with scripture and with Christ – (a) dissolving our subjective disagreements (b) maintaining moral absolutes, (c) guiding our interpretation of general commands to “love” etc and (d) allowing us to give genuine praise and thanks.  However (will my inner cynic never die) this still runs up against the problem that in over 2000 years, Christians still wrestle inter-alia with moral disagreements (both old and new) and, despite subordinating ourselves to scripture in principle, we still find particular areas of scripture offensive and are forced to try and interpret them fairly without letting our repulsion override the process.

My only comfort is this…
That God’s seeks servants who are faithful not morally/doctrinally perfect.
Faithfulness looks to attitudes over outcomes… it’s about our attempt to deal with the mish-mash of scripture with our own hearts and minds in the best way we know how.  Thoughts?

The Sixth Sense

Don’t Worship Me

John Calvin would write about something common to all man, despite the Fall. He would call this the sensus divinitatis which has been translated in a plurality of ways. Literally, it means a ‘sense of the divine’, but this is taken in many directions. I hope today to elucidate bad pathways that have been taken, and a better reading.

At first glance, this might have been taken to mean that all Humans, despite our fallen minds and souls, retain still some sense of God that keeps us going. Let me say that this articulation still confesses that mankind’s fallenness effects our reasoning faculties, our perceptions, our abilities to sense and feel.

Pelagianism has reigned by maintaining a pure will, a pure mind, a pure intellect or some other soulish feature for man. Thus, while our bodies are fallen, we still retain a pure and good inner-man that knows right from wrong, no matter how much our flesh graves otherwise. This is quite popular for the optimists among us. Erasmus, the medieval polymath and reformer, taught it vigorously and it led him to his eventual split with Luther and the rest of the Reformation.

Erasmus believed that Rome was corrupt and sunk into superstition and vanity, but did not belief that the Roman Medieval complex had seriously erred. This Luther, among others, spotted and reacted angrily. Man, like a horse, is either ridden by God or the Devil, there is no neutrality. Perhaps this is too strong and denies God’s restraining providential graces, but nonetheless, he had no truck with Erasmus.

Yet Erasmus is still quite influential and his high-pitched moralisms come through Evangelicalism’s folk pelagianism of “making a decision for Jesus” and “taking America back for God”. It exalts man’s weakened capacity and makes us deceived.

But that’s not what this articulation would allow, despite it ending up creating similar effects. Instead we’re led to believe that we all have a notion of God that is wedged in us. This might lead to a Natural Law theology that grants all men are capable of understanding the basic foundations of the Moral Order. Romans 1 is appealed to in this regard. It’s this sustained ‘sense’ that allows a general understanding to remain.

This might also lead to a general lowest-common-denominator appreciation for ‘God’. Most people in the States, Christian or non, grant that there is some god above gods, some driving force in history and destiny. All peoples over the globe have appropriated the idea of god and woven it into their social fabric. There has never been a purely atheistic society, except in terms of reaction (e.g. USSR, PRC).

There’s something to this approach. Most people in all places have condemned murder and thievery, and condoned marriage and rule by law (even if law means the traditions of the tribe, or the word of a single man). Most people in all places have worshiped the gods. Does this prove the point? Does the sensus divinitatis an innate Human ‘feeling’ of the true God?

I don’t believe that’s what Romans 1 teaches us. In fact, the Creation (I abhor the baggage the word ‘Nature’ has) preaches the True God, but who is that God, other than the Christ, the Son of God? According to Jesus, none have seen the Father but He, the One who reveals the Father. My reading is that from Adam till now, we’ve only known God through His Word. We can, in the tradition of the Apostles, anachronistically say that Abraham, Moses, David et al. knew Jesus.

So if Paul remains in light of this tradition, then he is not saying that the Creation preaches the idea of God, but preaches Jesus. The Creation reveals the eternal nature and power of said Jesus, but does Paul say all people know this God? Not really! We’ve all suppressed such voices, we’ve stopped up our ears with all our evil desires. We can’t see or hear properly until The Spirit of Truth has enlightened us.

When Jesus looked at a seed, He saw His coming death and the harvest He would bring about. But what do we “naturally” (!) see?  We have Pagan notions of the eternality of the world, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. We see this in the captivity of Persephone, the horror of Death’s(Hades’) claim over our lives. We see this in the notion of Karma and the crushing wheel of reincarnation. Our Human senses are muddled at best.

So what of this Natural sense of a moral order and the god? Paul’s speech at Mars Hill was not applauding the Athenians for being so close. He was tormented by seeing all the idols in the city. It was a lament for the foolishness of what was considered the world’s wisest city.

We may have similar shells and forms for moral ordering and god, but these are shades and lies. All peoples condemn murder, but that word is flexible and illusive. What one people calls murder (i.e. sacrificing captives to Quetzalcoatl, putting your family to death, shooting a stranger on a neighbor’s property) another would call legal execution of death. It’s a synthetic grouping. There may be a Moral Order (and there is), but we are blind to it.

The Natural Law theologians end up baptizing our own instantiations of what is “right”. It is a conservative reflex to recover a better era. One man’s Natural Law says it’s just to overthrow a “tyrant” by will of the people (whose people? what will?), another by the will of a “lesser-magistrate”, and another that to attack the majesty of a sovereign is to invite anarchy and godlessness. And this is only the heritage of the Anglo-American political tradition!

What if the sensus divinitatis was rather an innate bend in us towards love? What is the highest form of love other than worship, and thus what we love is what we worship is what we become. That, I submit, is the logic of Romans 1. It’s not that we can detect, in a weakened state, but that in our suppression of what the Creation testifies (eternal power and being), we still go on worshiping. But we turn onto ourselves. We worship ideas, things, ourselves. We create for ourselves new moral reckonings and new gods to follow through. For the Human impulse, we want to worship, so we go about making things to worship. Does not the Golden Calf incident tell us a similar reading?

If the Church is a social-alternative, a recovery program, an outpost of the City of God, then what does this doctrine tell us? It should, primarily, tell us that those who are pledged to King Jesus have no basic common-ground with people who pledge to other kings. What that means is that if, despite our wretchedness, our hearts are sealed on account of the Holy Spirit, we have a different love than those who slave for the Cities of Men. But, at the same time, we have a common-ground in that we are all still Human. We can perceive that they too want to worship, but they are without the Light of Truth.

In other terms, since we are all men, who have all bowed (or still) to the lusts of this World, our flesh, and the Devil, we have similar inclinations. This ‘original good’ is that, in a cliche I can’t avoid, we’re all looking for somebody or something to love. The position of the people of God is on our knees and in humility. We are beggars too, we’ve only been fed the Bread of Life.

In our interactions, this means that we can reject the Empire project of so many. Mankind who know not the light of Jesus cannot conceive of the Kingdom or the commands of Christ. They’re not working as partners with God in a Natural Kingdom (vis. two-swords doctrine). They’re blinded, but still used by God to order and maintain this deficient age. It’s a part of the strange Providence of our Lord. It’s not an article of empirical deduction, but of faith. We trust that Christ, in His ascension, is managing all things.

This also means that we can meet people wherever they are. They’re on the brink of suicide on a broken relationship, a lost career, a destroyed fortune? We get that. We all know what it means to love. I’m hesitant to pull out the language of idolatry, but that’s certainly the end-place of all such misplaced affections. In fact, we should say more than “I get it”. We’re not immune to such twisted loves. We too, on account of our Adamic virus, produce all sorts of evils. Being in Christ is an objective perfection outside of ourselves, and it is also a subjective orientation toward the Kingdom of Light.

Mankind was meant to be priestly kings and queens. We were to lead the worship of all of God’s Creation. And even fallen, this hunger to conduct, direct, and receive love remains. It is this that bind us together. It is this sense that haunts all of Humanity, even in the vilest of religions or reigns. It is this mechanism that is unbent in the pouring on of the Holy Spirit. May we who live according to such a Master continue in that most excellent way. Amen

Desires of the flesh…

I recently had an off-blog conversation with one of the fellow authors here – Chris.

The topic concerned how human desire plays out in God’s eyes.
How do our desires for pleasure, food, sex, friendship, attention, affirmation, status, wealth and power figure in Christian discipleship? Are these desires morally neutral until they are energised in a particular way for good or ill? Or are some desires inherently wrong?

The debate attached to Genesis 3 where God issues a penalty in response to humanity’s disobedience: child-bearing became painful, the ground became unproductive absent toil, and immortality was lost.  Curiously nestled in the middle of this Eve is told: “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”.  Given the surrounding context I moved to suggest (a) that marital desire and (b) female submission to male authority are, part of the curse of a fallen world and by reasonable inference not reflective of God’s original intent.  Chris countered by suggesting that neither the marital desire nor the female subjugation of Gen 3:16 need be seen as inherently bad things, but as corruptions of an originally pure marital desire and male headship. Whilst conceding this possibility I thought it unlikely given the absence of any such juxtaposition in the text (Hebrew literature is notorious for using juxtaposition as a device in order to emphasise a point).

Chris’ second counterargument was that marital desire is affirmed positively, not negatively, in scripture (in particular Song of Solomon) and that marital desire could not therefore be construed as inherently bad. After all… if God created marriage then how could it be sinful or wrong to desire it?

I made things worse for myself…
Not only did I argue that marital desire was part of the curse but I went on to adopt the wild position that all human desire (save desire for God Himself) is wrong because it fosters a tendency to prioritise the gift over the giver.  I did however distinguish this from the Gnostic position of disparaging all earthly pleasures.  To clarify – it is not that I think marriage itself is wrong or that food, sex, money etc are sinful – rather all these things are gifts to be received with thanks in their appropriate contexts. My position is that the desire or craving for these things is the malign element.  I wrote:

“to make other human beings the focus of desire is to risk emotional and psychological dependence which compromises our God given sense of agency. Desire opens the door for manipulation and abuse (whether accidental or intentional) […] my desire lands me in all kinds of entanglements and clouds my judgment EVEN when that desire is for otherwise good things […] I am aware that my position re desire is fringe and won’t be shared by many at all – but I do think our modern context has skewed our judgment on this and led us to be less discerning when it comes to distinguishing desire from thankfulness”

 

After this I left the discussion as I felt I had made the best argument I could and though unpersuaded by Chris’s affirmation of the potential good inherent in human desire I wanted to give the topic more thought.  Then I read Cal’s latest post on the Machiavellian tactics of Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards.  Cal writes: “We, as Fallen, are so easily tempted to keep building our towers, but we, as Christians, no longer belong to this world. We are people of the Risen Christ, living according to the Spirit. We have no part in investing in the Cities of Man, though we work among its forms and ruins.” The notion Cal presents vaguely parallels my own in that he highlights the opposition between (i) our material desires to build and control and (ii) the path of discipleship which shuns investment in human designs.  The parallel is only slight however… Cal was not arguing that all human desire is malign, only that the Machiavellian desire to control outcomes runs counter to the Biblical notion of a “city not made by human hands” (Heb 9:11). I have kept thinking…

Let’s examine the case for (A) a distinction between good and bad human desire and (B) the idea that desires need not be inherently bad  but merely corruptions of an originally pure desire which God affirms.

Good desires

  • The logic of: God created good things, therefore it cannot be inherently bad to desire them.
  • Song of Solomon seems on most readings to affirm human-on-human sexual desire
  • Philippians 2:13 – God works in us “to will [read desire] and act according to His purpose”
  • Deut 14 – the Israelites are commanded to buy “whatever they desire” and “whatever your appetite craves”.
  • Psalm 37:4 “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”
  • 2 Chronicles 1:11 – Solomon is praised for desiring wisdom over wealth and honor etc
  • Psalm 10:17 “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them…”

Bad desires

  • Deut 5:21 “You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
  • 2 Chronicles 1:11 – possibly implies that the human desires for wealth, honor and military conquest are malign
  • Galatians 5 – lists “desires of the flesh” (v16) as things to be checked… sexual immorality, selfish ambition, envy, drunkenness (excessive intoxication). Paul also lists “self-control” as fruit of the Spirit… implying by necessity that there are corresponding desires to be countered.
  • Romans 7 deals expressly with the internal conflict between the Spirit’s desires and those of “the flesh” – implying that all desire outside of the Spirit is necessarily fallen and sinful.

 

Romans 7 seems… perhaps…. to offer the best support my own view as stated earlier: “all human desire (save desire for God Himself) is wrong” There are indeed good and bad desires… but the distinction rests on whether desires originate in the Spirit or in our natural human tendencies, our “flesh”.  As such it is less about ‘corrupted desire vs non-corrupted desires’ (as Chris might argue)… and more about desire for God (Spirit inspired desire) vs all other forms of human desire whatsoever.

Now… to address specific examples.
Some cases are obvious.  We can see how the desire to care for the sick (for example) can be Spirit inspired. The distinguishing mark of the Spirit is that it testifies of Jesus’ Lordship (1 Cor 12:3).  Caring for the sick can testify of the fact of Jesus’s Lordship over creation (through the act of healing) but also of the affective nature of His Lordship (kindness, gentleness and mercy) towards those who acknowledge their need.

But what about career ambition – the desire to work hard towards a promotion?
Although less obvious one might still attempt an argument that this can be Spirit inspired – career progression yields greater ability to look after one’s family (provided a work-life balance), something which testifies of Jesus in so far as the act of looking after one’s family mirrors God’s Fatherhood as we come to know it in Jesus.  Okay… but then deal with this passage:

“each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them […] Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so […] Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them […] Do not look for a wife” (1 Cor 7:17-24)

Paul applies this to a broad swathe of circumstances… while slaves should avail themselves of any opportunity to be freed, Paul seems to favour passivity over activism when he says “don’t let it trouble you” – the implication is to be content in one’s current position.  Equally while Paul says that marrying in not a sin, he does say that unmarried persons should not seek a wife.  He permits marriage as a “concession” (v6) in order to contain those pesky sexual desires which would otherwise run riot.  It is clear that whilst Paul doesn’t view marriage as a sin, he does view singleness as the ideal, characterising marriage as lesser option – a tool by which to contain sexual desires which he wishes people could simply suppress or escape entirely (v7: I wish that all of you were as I am).  When Paul then says “each of you has your own gift from God” the proper reading is not that sex is a gift to married people… it is that God’s gifts are provided to help counter sexual desire.  Paul’s gift is self-control (or perhaps asexuality) by which he suppresses/escapes sexual desire.  For others marriage is a gift which helps people contain sexual desire in the absence of sufficient self-control (v5 “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control”).  It is remarkable that nowhere does Paul – the champion of grace – praises sexual desire itself as a positive in its own right… neither does he speak of sexual desire as something which is good in the proper context… he sees it a problem to which God’s gifts of self-control, asexuality and marriage are applied as a remedy.

Elsewhere, following a passage in which he praises self-control – denouncing passion and lust – Paul says: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).  The thematic connection, consistent with his remarks re slavery and marriage  in 1 Corinthians, is that people should not agitate for or seek a change in circumstances or a progression.  It is not only sexual desire which needs to be countered, but wider desires/ambitions which seek to advance one’s present circumstances or which extend beyond “a quite life”.  So given the thematic at work… wouldn’t Paul say that working towards a promotion at work is a malign desire that needs to be checked? It certainly qualifies as a desire to advance one’s circumstances, it’s not essential for survival, it likely breaches “quiet life” requirement as in seeking a promotion you are seeking to set yourself apart.  Just as Paul nowhere praises sexual desire as something potentially positive, Paul would unlikely praise the desire to win a promotion as something potentially positive either.

But perhaps I’m labouring one example too much.
Rather than a promotion, let’s say that someone desires to achieve a 1:1 in their university degree.  This again is seeking a highly consequential advance in circumstances relative to their peers – so wouldn’t it fall short of Paul’s logic? What about desiring to go on holiday? Couldn’t it be argued that while holiday’s in themselves have biblical precedent in the form of God-prescribed festivals and Sabbaths for Israel, this contrasts with the self-initiated activism of booking a holiday – an act which demonstrates either a lack of thankful contentment with one’s present circumstances or a lack of reliance on God’s grace to sustain one through their labour?

To return to first principles…
Paul’s guiding thought is that our following Jesus is necessarily and exclusively energized and enabled by the Spirit which testifies of His Lordship.  The only desires which are good are those desires fuelled by the Spirit – all expressions of a core desire for God.  Save this one exception all other desires are necessarily fallen, are opposed to and in conflict with the Spirit.  This theme is well applied by Paul to the topics of marriage, slavery and any kind of ambition which seeks to advance personal circumstances.  So what about sexual desire, the desire for wealth and honour (which Solomon eschewed), what about the desire for leisure and pleasure, for honest career progression? Further what about emotional desires for affirmation, status, attention etc? “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16) …can you ask for a more global statement than that?

Eager to hear your thoughts?  Don’t go easy… I’d much prefer to not hold this position as it would make my internal life much easier were I not constantly aware of the necessity to question and contend with every desire I might have.  Attack my use of scripture, attack my thematic inferences, attack it from a macro-theological perspective.  Take apart my argument from its foundations.

House of Cards: An Expose on the City of Man

I recently finished watching the current season of House of Cards, and thought it was due to give my reflection on the series. The show is dark and sordid. It rocks your soul in seeing the capacity of deception and ambition combined in one man. It holds you in awe in the same way watching a rattle-snake lure its prey to its doom. You want to recoil, but there’s a chill in the blood that keeps your eyes glued. The scheme is horrifyingly brilliant.

Lest you think I am being lurid, Jesus Himself tells us that the People of God ought to pay respect to the Gentile rulers. The People of Light need to call a spade a spade and appreciate shrewdness in the children of this world (c.f. Luke 16). We can look at a Caesar and discerned his wicked heart, and if he is our contemporary, even pray for his redemption. But we can also appreciate a good story and a masterful scheme. It doesn’t change that Jesus is still the King, and will judge the living and the dead.

Anyway, the show portrays something that very few modern shows do: an ancient story. Despite what some have argued, House of Cards has nothing to do with post-modern scruples, distrust of authority, the partisan politics of today etc. It is a recast of Machiavelli’s Prince. Here is the story of man who seeks to become immortal. This is the Babel Project on full display.

And the People of God ought to learn from this. Frank Underwood (the show’s protagonist/antagonist) is an artistic representation of characters both ancient and modern. His story is the story of Julius Caesar or Napoleon, Pope Alexander VI or Josef Stalin. It’s how a man beat the system of his peers and tried to grab godhood.  It’s a straight shot of the libido dominandi, the lust of dominating, that Augustine articulated as the root of sin. It is raging, red-faced, pride.

How, you might ask, could this possibly be edifying?

The reason: we’re all Frank Underwood. We’re just not nearly well equipped, unscrupulous, and vicious in taking what we want. The care and provision of God keeps us from becoming such a monster. But when we such a beast appear, we ought to tremble. If such a man, who rose so far, was dashed to pieces, what hope do we have in all our plans and schemes? We might not aspire to an Empire, but we build our own little kingdoms. Frank Underwood’s personage condemns us as cowards, and God’s Spirit convicts us of our surging flesh, our Adamic sin-nature.

We, as Fallen, are so easily tempted to keep building our towers, but we, as Christians, no longer belong to this world. We are people of the Risen Christ, living according to the Spirit. We have no part in investing in the Cities of Man, though we work among its forms and ruins.

It’s instructive in the scenes that Frank interacts with God. The most profound is when he stares a giant crucifix in the eye and growls: “Love…that’s what your selling? Well, I’m not buying”. He spits on the face of Christ. This is unacceptable for the social mores, so he tries to clean off the statue. And, in a picturesque judgment, the crucifix falls off the wall and shatters. The implication: God will not be so tamed by the will of man.

As Christians, we live in a strange dualism within a singularity. We live in the Cities of Men as an alternative society, pledging our hearts to Christ as our Emperor, President, and King. Yet it is not an equal battle. Christ stands over the entire Cosmos as its rightful Judge. It is not our duty to topple these cities. It is our job to be faithful, combat the demons through prayer and preaching, and bring forth the Kingdom of God. We are in the world, but not of it.

The Frank Underwoods of literature and reality are a reminder of the complex web that Cain’s descendants have left us. But even though we travel and inhabit many cities and places, we await a city whose founding has no earthly maker. The eventual fall of Frank Underwood, and all would be caesars, should turn us to the cross of Christ, who plunged the whole enterprise into Hades. The things of this age will be burned up and turn to dust.

Let us set our hearts in Heaven, at the feet of Christ the King. Let us praise God for bringing us into the Kingdom of His Matchless Son, forever blessed, amen.

The Magic Arts…

“How does my faith play out in the seemingly mundane aspects of life?”

This question is to be (I hope) a guiding theme of my posts.  Sometimes scripture seems directly and obviously relevant to our lives – if someone hurts or insults me, for example, I might remember “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28).  Other times however Scripture addresses issues which seem highly unfamiliar.  Revelation 21:8, for example, tells us that “those who practise magic arts” will not enter God’s Kingdom.

As a 21st century westerner living in a predominantly secular society it is far from obvious if this has any relation to my life at all.  I don’t practise magic arts – do I?  My society at large regards magic as, at most, a form of self-acknowledged stagecraft, but fundamentally as a fiction which doesn’t really exist.  It is therefore interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “magic arts” is ‘pharmakeia’ (φαρμακεία) – from which we derive our modern term ‘pharmaceuticals’.  Suddenly it becomes clear that the “practice of magic arts” may not be as distant as I thought.  But what does pharmakeia really mean in its original context, is it really referring to pharmaceuticals in our modern sense, or is this anachronistic use of language?  In what ways does this text speak to my modern world?
To answer this I will adhere to the following structure:

  • Locate instances in which the word pharmakeia was used in the ancient world to try and understand what the word could refer to and in order to better understand what scriptures such as Rev 21:8 are trying to say.  (I intend to use a  wide range of texts from antiquity in order to give a rich perspective on this)
  • Try to understand on this basis and from scripture itself why it is considered sinful (what are the underlying features of magic which mark it out as sinful?)
  • Using this understanding ask if and how the practice of “magic arts” features in our modern world.

 

Very generally, the word pharmakeia refers to a range of activities which, although including drug use, also extend to the casting of spells and sorcery  -whatever exactly that means(?).  (Louw and Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1, p. 545).  The philosopher Philo also mentions the mixing of medicine alongside poisons and potions.  (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 854.)

Beyond this however we find that the ancient world was actually very conflicted about what exactly magic was, what it entailed and how it was used.  The Egyptians for example did not draw any clear distinction between physical and spiritual causality.  For them therefore, every action was magic in the sense that no aspect of life was purely physical.  There was little distinction between sorcery and medicine; illness and health always had a spiritual component and therefore any attempt to manipulate health or to recover from illness was an attempt to manipulate the spiritual realm as much as the physical.

In contrast to the Egyptians, the Babylonians had different words by which to distinguish medicine from sorcery.  The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (a legal text) actually made sorcery a capital offence while allowing medicine.  (Robert Francis Harper, The Code of Hammurabi King of Babylon (Honolulu:  University Press of the Pacific, 2002; reprint, 1904), pp. 10-11.)

Hippocrates, the Greek physician, referred to a mysterious spiritual power used to cure illness – although he adds his suspicion that the power at work may be an illusion or fraud through which certain people attempt to make a living.  Here we see an attempt to distinguish magic not by its content, but by the presence of deceptive intent and the making of false claims.  This theme of deception as being key to magic is found elsewhere.  The Roman conquest of Egypt was associated with a growing perception of magic as trickery or fraud (Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient  Egyptian Magical Practice, p. 217.)  The Behistun inscription in Iran, authored by Darius the great, associates magic with those who attempt to usurp legitimate power via trickery and deception.  In this case an individual called Gaumata the Magian usurped the throne of King Cambyses by impersonating a deceased member of the ruling dynasty (Bardiya).  (Behistün Inscription Col. I, 36).

Jewish references to magic also placed an emphasis on its use to obtain knowledge or revelation.  Hekhalot literature for example is based on a fascination with making journeys into heaven in order to get sight of the throne of God.  (Gershom Scholem, “Merkabah  Mysticism”, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1972), pp. 1386-1389.) It should also be noted that Talmudic literature was very suspicious of this type of ‘forbidden’ activity (Sanhedrin 65b; 100b; 67a; 67b; 68a; Shab. 33b; 61b; 66b; 75a; Hul. 105b; 139b; BB. 58a; Kid. 39b; AZ. 38b).

In terms of drug use, The Book of Jubilees (10:7-14) refers to the knowledge of herbs as a tool for healing which was commanded by God for the benefit of man. Similarly the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ lists knowledge of plant roots alongside other gifts from God concerning “skill in crafts”, “the structure of the world” and “the activity of the elements” (7:15).  Note however that opposite views can also be found in the Jewish literature; the use of herbs and root cuttings is described as demonic in origin in 1 Enoch 7.  The distinction between demonic magic and medicine seems to relate to whether God is recognised the source of the healing (herbs are a gift from God) or whether they areused as an alternative power to God.

In terms of magical spells/incantations we might reference the Qumran community who believed that threatening spiritual forces could be counteracted by the singing of praises and poetry to God.  The words of praise themselves were thought to have their own magical power, the reliance on words themselves mirroring a kind of incantation. (Nitzan, Qumran Prayer and Religious Poetry, p. 237)

Finally we might mention Apuleius, a second century writer, who sought to defend sorcery as an art concerned with how to worship and pay homage to the gods (Apuleius, Apology, 25-26. Translation is from Luck, Arcana Mundi, pp. 110-111.) Key to his description is an emphasis on the esoteric nature of the worship (it was only taught to select individuals) which therefore implies a hierarchy in terms of human access to the gods.

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So to summarise at this point, the ancient literature refers to numerous practices associated with pharmakeia ranging from drugs and medicine (often in the form of herbs/root cuttings), to deception, usurping of political power, access to otherwise hidden revelation/visions, the use of incantations as a means of spiritual defence, and esoteric worship.

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In turning to Scripture, can we identify some underlying feature of magic/pharmakeia by which it can be distinguished and because of which it is viewed as sinful? Revelation itself uses the word pharmakeia with a similar meaning to that highlighted by Hippocrates – that of deception or manipulation.  Through a “magic spell all the nations were led astray.” (Rev 18:23).

Playing on the theme of deception, Malachi strongly associates magic with injustice, unfairness and fraud: “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” (Malachi 5:3).  Further in Acts 13:6 magic/sorcery is associated with false prophecy – the speaking of untruth.

Scripture also seems to emphasise, as per the Jewish literature, that a key determinant in any case was whether or not God was recognised as the source of power and in turn, whether or not the power was understood as a gift or form of grace.  In Acts 8:9 the magician Simon Magus wished to purchase the ability to give the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.  The error was (at least partly) in viewing the power as something that could be earned rather than as a gift from God.

(NB we might also wish to mention the OT account of Saul consulting the witch of Endor as attempt to exclude God as the true source of knowledge.  However I find this account difficult to work with for reasons which I can only briefly go into here.  Essentially we are told in 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 that Saul sinned because he “did not inquire of the Lord”… however in 1 Samuel 28:6 we are told that Saul did inquire of the Lord but received no response.  Without raising a separate debate about the seemingly clear presence of contradictions such as this, suffice to say that these passages do not fluidly lend themselves to the topic at hand.)

The importance of recognising God as the true source of life is highlighted positively in 1 Timothy 4:4 in relation to consumables (“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving”) and negatively in 2 Chronicles 16:12 where King Asa did not rely on God as the source of physical healing but “only from his physicians”.  In both cases the point is that all things are acceptable when received as a gift from God and to attempt to access these things by sidestepping reliance on God is an error.  Perhaps the most exacting passage we can cite, with express relation to drugs is Psalms 104:14-15:

“He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth, wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine.”

Not only is alcohol approved in the context of good things which God gives to man… but express reference is made to its psychoactive properties (gladdening of the heart).  My net inference is that the issue at hand is not the intention to alter one’s conscious state with a substance (in the case of alcohol to gladden the heart), but whether or not it is accepted and enjoyed (a) as a gift and (b) in moderation (as use in excess would distort its nature as gift)

Finally, on the topic of esoteric/pagan access to God we might reference Paul’s discussion of eating meat which has been involved for idol worship.  Paul’s contention (1 Cor 8:4-8) is that meat is essentially de-occultised through the recognition that (a) we only find God in Christ and (b) its necessary corollary that “food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do”.  The point is that the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols, which would otherwise be pagan, idolatrous and occult, is rendered inert (at least for an isolated believer) by the recognition that we only meet God in Christ alone – a disavowal of the supposed power of the idol/sacrifice.
So to summarise – what conclusions can we draw about pharmakeia/magic and what are the essential features which make an activity acceptable or occult?

  • Drug use (eg herbs, root cuttings or alcohol) even with the aim of altering one’s conscious state (mild intoxication/gladdening of the heart) is not sinful in itself provided the substance is used in moderation and received as a gift and not substituted for Christ as a means to access God
  • It follows that medicine/healthcare is not sinful when there is an accompanying recognition that such things are God’s gifts, received with thanksgiving which recognises that God is the ultimate source of healing
  • It follows that ostensibly occult practices (meat sacrificed to idols) are deoccultised for the believer who recognises that only Christ – and not some ritual or consumable – brings us to God and only in Christ do we have true access to God

In contrast, the sin of ‘magic arts’ lies less in the methodology and more in the intention to:

  • Subvert God as the source of good things (including food, medicine and healing)
  • Establish an esoteric hierarchy to replace Christ as the means by which we access God
  • Establish a reliance on something other than God for spiritual protection (including incantations)
  • Deceive (the telling of untruth/falsehood/false prophecy)
  • Defraud (including to fraudulently cure illness)
  • Commit injustice
  • Covertly usurp political power

As we turn now to the modern era we find that even in the secular west we are actually occultists and practitioners of magic more than we might previously have imagined.  I submit that perhaps our sin lies less in our watching of Harry Potter, our practising yoga or our watching some street magic for entertainment.  Rather our ‘magic arts’ and our ‘occultism’ relate to our society’s sinister relationship with deception, with false and distortive propaganda (which both usurps and corrupts political power), with malign advertising, relentless misuse of statistics and with our enchantment through media to false ideas, false priorities and to emotional manipulation.  Our magic and our witchcraft has to do with deliberate financial trickery and fraud veiled in obscurantism… it has to do with economic theory that defrauds the people though covert means such as QE and inflation and with all the injustice that is consequent to such practices.  Moreover, our modern obsession with healthcare borders on the occult when rather than treating pharmaceuticals as gifts from God we treat them as tools of profit to extract excessive money from the most sick and needy. In terms of drug use we also are practitioners of magic arts to the extent that we take intoxication to excess and make an idol of the experience instead of enjoying it in moderation as a gift.

In our religious life we practise magic whenever we treat our prayer and praise as having some kind of innate power contained in the words themselves – mirroring the form of an incantation as per the Qumran community cited earlier.  The ‘word of faith’ movement in much of western Christianity is heavily characterised by the view that our words carry innate power.  Phrases such as “in the name of Jesus” and “halleujah” are repeated over and over to invoke some kind of power or to enhance the effectiveness of prayer.  (We see this error in Acts 19:13-16 where a priest attempts to add the name of Jesus to his exorcism incantation – only to be met with dramatic failure.  The use of the name of Jesus had no magical power aside from true communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It is very telling that immediately after this event, repentance took the form of a public disavowal of sorcery) This association with false or formulaic religious power also forms part of our modern flirtation with the magic arts and with sorcery.

The cure is to treat all resource (including truth) as gifts from God to be cherished.  This will help us resist a culture of incessant deception, manipulative propaganda, economic fraud, healthcare profiteering and injustice.  All of these are the ‘magic arts’ of our day that covertly corrupt political power and cause widespread injustice and attempt to put a price on God’s goodness.  Only in Christ do we truly understand how to accept God’s love as a gift and, in turn, de-occultise our society.

Penal Substitution versus Cosmic Atonement

It has been suggested by many conservative evangelicals that penal substitution is an all-encompassing explanation of the atonement, unlike other approaches such as the ransom view and the moral influence view. This is the position laid out by Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology and, I am told, by the book “Pierced for our Transgressions”, a popular Conservative Evangelical work explaining and defending penal substitution (in reaction to Steve Chalke’s apparent rejection of it). I want to suggest, on the contrary, that whilst penal substitution is both a true and useful perspective on the atonement, it is far from all-encompassing and can end up distorting how we view the atonement when mistakenly viewed as the ‘main’ approach. At the same time, I want to maintain that there really is a ‘main’ approach encompassing all of the others, which I shall outline in due course.

Firstly, which aspects of the atonement are neglected when we focus exclusively on penal substitution as a model? Here are a few examples:

  • The abolition of the Old Covenant Law and the bringing together of Jew and Gentile into one body (Ephesians 2:11-22)
  • The coming of the Spirit in a new way at Pentecost (Acts 2)
  • The propagation of the Gospel throughout the whole earth (Matthew 28:18-20)

All of these are important aspects of what the atonement means and yet none of them can be adequately accounted for by penal substitution on its own. And there are serious consequences in neglecting these aspects of the atonement. If we treat the atonement as being exclusively about saving individuals, rather than about forming a new community (the Church), then we have individualised the gospel. If we treat the atonement as being exclusively about the work of Jesus on behalf of the Father, then we have excluded the crucial role of the Spirit in salvation. Lastly, if we treat the atonement as being something done exclusively by Jesus wholly apart from us, then we will fail to appreciate our own role in seeing men and women come to faith through the preaching of the gospel. So there will be a deficiency in our Ecclesiology, our Pneumatology and our Missiology.

So then, what is the alternative? Is there no organising principle by which we can understand all of the other aspects of the atonement? Well, it turns out that there is. It’s a view which we might like to call “the cosmic view”. It goes something like this:

Jesus has in his death abolished the old creation under the law and subject to decay and has in his resurrection founded a new creation, set free by the Spirit and established in the Church.

There are a number of Biblical passages which we might draw on to establish such a view. There is Romans 5, where Jesus (as head of the new creation) undoes the work of Adam (the head of the old creation). There is Colossians 1, which teaches that Jesus has brought a new unity to creation in himself. There is Ephesians 1, which places the Church at the centre of the renewal of all creation. I could go on.

This view can encompass all of the other views. It undergirds the ransom theory, since the devil is an agent of the old creation, with no place or inheritance in the new. It undergirds the moral influence view by teaching us to put to death deeds pertaining to the old creation and to embrace the Spiritual freedom of the new. It even undergirds penal substitution by treating us (and our sin) as belonging to the old creation and becoming subject to the penalty of death in Jesus’s crucifixion, such that we are now raised with him in his resurrection and are full participants in the new creation.

It can also encompass the other aspects mentioned above. If we understand the old covenant law as a central aspect of the old creation (law written on stone) and the Church as a central aspect of the new creation (law written on flesh) established in Christ, then it encompasses the establishment of the Church. If we see the Spirit as associated with the new creation (Romans 8), then we can begin to understand why the Spirit plays a central role in the atonement. Finally, if we see the Gospel as the announcement of such a new creation (one in which Jesus is established as Lord of all), then we can begin to understand how evangelism relates to the atonement. In fact, we can see the Church as the supreme embodiment of this new creation, with a task to bring healing and renewal to all nations by the power of the gospel and the boldness of her witness.

“Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Fighting the Dragon: Language & Dying

In the Martyrdom of Felicia and Perpetua, there is a section where Perpetua has a vision where she enters the arena to fight an Egyptian, armed with servants and weapony. Perpetua finds herself surrounded by vigorous young aids, and she is stripped to reveal a man. She then says how she is washed and girded, as appropriate for a combatant, and smashes the Egyptian in the head with her heel. She slays him and exits the Coliseum with cheers and a branch, received by a voice bringing peace upon her.

Perpetua understood what the dream meant: when she entered the arena, she was not doing battle with beast or gladiator, she was armed against the Devil and would emerge victorious.

Of course, she entered the arena and was eventually killed, becoming a martyr for Christ in refusing to reject His Name. By dying with Christ on her lips, she defeated death by death. The Satan’s pressures were for not. Perpetua awaited the resurrection as a soldier of Jesus Christ.

Now this sort of martyrdom account is very odd, rather morbid, and considered fanciful for most civilized people today. Even amongst Christians, Perpetua’s vision would be considered unsettling and fanatical. Instead, we hear Christians mostly bewildered and enraged at the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians*. Where are the victorious accounts? The World, including one of its religions (ISIS), say that the Jihadists were victorious. But in Christ, we can see that His faithfulness witnesses are the one’s who conquer death.

But that’s the problem: we don’t think that way. Instead, death is considered in two ways, missing the point entirely.

The first way is the Platonic method, which tends to be the philosophy of death-bed comforters. We have language of ‘moving on’, ‘passing away’, or  ‘going home’. It’s comforting to think that the body is some used up rag, and our eternal souls will float on to find a better world to dwell. It is the most beautiful poetry that Pagans have written, Plato being their chief minstrel. It brings one to near tears to read Socrates’ description of a better world in Phaedo. Death is not an enemy, or a fiend, or a terror, but a pleasure cruise to the great beyond.

It’s a nice fiction, but that’s all it is. Despite NDE literature, we have no positive idea of what the realm of death really contains. But if it is so good, why don’t we just kill ourselves? Socrates puts up a pathetic justification. In fact, a gnostic tract like Heaven is For Real can’t do much better. Being older, the kid is still reeling from his experience, and while he is tasked to tell people about it, he can’t wait to return.

I won’t spend much on this approach, but it does not belong in the Church. Yes, the dead in Christ await the resurrection, but this is a waiting stage, not a hope or a glory. In fact, the constant refrains that the Israelites would ‘sleep with their fathers’ is a prophetic. It would take the Messiah to point out that, contrary to the Sadducees, God is the Lord of the Living because He has not forgotten those who’ve gone before. The sleep is awaiting the reawakening. Death is not a friend, but, if anything, a temporary lock-up.

The second approach, more common to our day to day experiences for those outside of the hospice, is that death is a monster, yes, but, in reality, the ruling god. Some pair this with the hope of the platonic-dream world, others are not sure, and even little will openly admit that we are consumed by worms and maggots.

The connecting point is this: death makes you irrelevant. You have become a ghost, a shade, a shadow on the institutions, families, and people who bear your name. You fade out, and are perhaps happier, but no longer returning. There is a real existential fear here. Death is the end of you in this world. Your memory may instill fear still, but the most savvy will realize that narratives are inert. They will rewrite the story. We see this in conservative rhetoric that tries to construe MLK Jr. as some kind of latent patriotic conservative. Despite the names, the statues, the holiday etc. Dr. King is now shadow and dust.

But this is according to the reign of King Death. According to the reign of the Abyss, when a cancer patient dies, he has ‘lost the battle’. When children are gunned down in gang violence, it is a pure tragedy. I don’t want to trivialize murder, but as Christians, we need to see the world differently. The terror of King Death is real, but we see that there is One who has conquered even this monarch of the Pit.

Like Perpetua, are not the faithful victorious soldiers? Is Death truly a tragedy? What if our deaths become not the end of us, but the defining moment. Are we as the Church living so that we might die well? Are we training in life so that we might “conquer the dragon”?

This is my preferred articulation. For the Devil’s last and final weapon is his hound Death. The Devil thinks he is triumphant in weaponizing God’s curse in such a way. The demons think they can circumvent the prophesy that while they may bruise the heel, the Son of Man will smash the Serpent’s head. Through death, Christ conquered death. He burst through the gates of the Hades, and freed those captive to the fear of death. No longer must Christians fear death, for death is not the end. We triumph just as Christ did. We too must face the monster, but the Word of God has pierced its head.

It’s a heady amount to contemplate, I will admit. But if we are being faithful to the Biblical witness, we must adjust our language to fit the reality. If Death is both an enemy and a hollowed conquest, then we must neither speak in praise or of dread. Death is the doorway we must punch through. We must hate death and rattle its walls with the battle cry: Christ is risen!

Paul speaks of dying as going to be with Christ. Well, where is Christ? He is the triumphant conqueror who has sat down at Majesty. We may sleep in peace, for we have smashed the tyrant. We are in Christ, and in our bodies and minds, we fill up on the life of Christ. He triumphed over death, so will we. This is the abounding joy of eternal life: not that we do not die, but we have the Faithful One who will raise us up as victors, united to Christus Victor.

Let us not live according to beggarly ways and means. Let us speak with confidence. Let us weep with the dead and dying. But when we must face that final battle, may we do so in the full armor of God. May we slay the dragons with that Sword of the Spirit, that Word of God, which echoes truly and eternally:

Lazarus, Come Forth!

*This is presuming that the 21 Copts were indeed Christians. This is not some moralistic or fundamentalist reckoning. Cultural christianity does not mean Church, nor does it mean Christians. Despite a healthy pessimism, I’m going to assume, for sake of argument, that these are believers.

New Contributors

Well, I have had a good solo run, but have invited some new authors to join the conversation hear at LeadMe.

Welcome Chris and Will joining the LeadMe team. We all have diverse opinions, and we might seriously disagree down some important lines. But we are all brethren in Christ, committed to searching out the riches of His Truth.

Look forward to their incoming postings!

 

I am Waldo: An Old Way Forward

Over a year ago there was a small conference held on the ‘Future of Protestantism’. In it, several voices tried to find where Protestants stand in relation to Rome and Constantinople, and what the way forward is. There were a diversity of answers, of varying ecumenical stripes, of course the obvious main assumption was that in this was the schism. That when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Cathedral, he put a crack through Christendom. Rightly or necessarily, the Church was split.

I have issue with this casual retelling. Firstly because it sets the tale for a unified Christendom that had become corrupt, and a break needed to be made. This is is a simplistic understanding that no scholar would accept. The Reformers were all different in their ideas and directions, most of them had no intention to leave the Church Catholic in the West, but demanded substantial changes and purification. In a sense Roman Catholic only became Roman in light of the changes made at Trent. Despite Papal prerogative, there was still much diversity that was all over Europe..

The above is generally why I find the word “Protestant” unhelpful in the extreme. It was a label applied to all who severed communion with Rome in light of Luther’s “protest”. While a rallying cry of the Reformation was Justification by faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone, this doctrinal formation was not accepted by all. Luther thought the Church stood or fell with this, not everyone agreed.

Other issues, pertaining to sacraments, politics, and ecclesiology, fragmented the many Reformers still. Zwingli denied that Sacraments were anything but memorials. Calvin’s Christological articulation broke communion with Lutherans to his East. The Anabaptists, falling out from Zwingli’s Zurich, were massacred for their refusal to conform. The Peasants who sought freedom were blasted from Luther’s pulpit, and the German reformer advocated that princes put them down like dogs. Simon Menno maintained respect, but refused collusion with princes, and stood outside the generally friendly view other Reformers had with their magistrates. All of this is to say that there was a diversity of fragmentation.

But another problem is that Luther is the first one to mount a major program of Reform.

Let it be said that it is true that Luther was the most ‘successful’ to mount a campaign of Reform. Others, like Wycliffe or Hus, were blackballed or executed before anything substantial could rise. Luther was the first who caused a major shift that affected almost the entirety of Europe with varying successes. He was the first to successfully create a political coalition who backed his changes, as any good theological understanding will effect one’s philosophy and politics.

Also, let it be known that we cannot merely lump in a category called ‘Reform’. Erasmus, who ultimately remained loyal to Rome, was primarily a concerned ‘moralist’. Erasmus and Luther were early allies, but the different essences of their reforms became more substantially clear. Erasmus was railing against the widespread corruption and lechery amongst the clergy, he was calling for every Christian to take up the path of virtue. Luther had a much deeper critique, that it wasn’t mere morals, but the Church had traded the Gospel for something else. It wasn’t merely filthy, it had ceased to proclaim Jesus Christ. We have to be clear here, there are different meanings to Reform.

With that all in mind, let me explain a much forgotten group called the Waldenses. They began in the 12th century where they were called to give away much of their riches and preach against the Cathars (a gnostic sect). Yet they never received formal authority to do so and were sanctioned by Rome. However, despite Rome’s condemnation, the Waldenses grew. They translated the Bible into the vernacular, and their study of Scripture led them to outmatch many a country priest who had no understanding whatsoever. The Dominicans were formed to combat the Waldenses spread, but also do their job in fighting the Cathar heresy.

The Waldenses went underground, and existed in small communities across the south of France, throughout the Alps into Germany, and in Northern Italy. They were diverse in their doctrines. Some rejected the sacraments outright, others accepted them. Others rejected devotion to Mary, purgatory, and the cult of the saints. Some were pacifists, others allowed the possibility of armed defense. This group had roots in many places, impacting the Hussite Revolution in Bohemia, and coming out of the woodwork in light of widespread Reformation. Calvin and his friends made special missions to find them in France and Italy, and many adopted Reformed creeds and confessions.

The Waldense distinction was lost, and they were footnoted as ‘proto-protestants’.

One interesting fact was how some of them would tell their own history. The Waldense are believed to have originated with Peter Waldo, a merchant from the 12th century Lyons. Disgusted with the treatment of the poor, he sold all and gave himself to preaching the gospel.

However some traced themselves back to elders who existed at the time of Constantine and Sylvester. After seeing that Sylvester had accepted the gifts of land and treasure of Constantine, they departed, believing Sylvester had sold himself out. This movement remained hidden and at work, and was revived at the calling of Peter Waldo.

The historicity of this is irrelevant. The interesting thing is that they trace themselves to a time where they believed the Church went horribly wrong. They thought that when Constantine gave gifts to Bishop Sylvester, and he in return baptized the emperor, the Church sold out for power, wealth, prestige, and a number of superstitions that did not belong to the Gospel.

The Waldenses believed the Church fell into sin with Sylvester’s deal with Constantine long before the Anabaptists came along! The point I’m making here is that a tradition of resistance has existed long before Luther. Even a voice like Vigilantius, squelched by the famed heresy-hammer Epiphanius, spoke similar criticisms against the cult of the saints, icons, devotion to the Emperor etc. They complained not merely against morals, though this was a component. They blasted the reign of ecclesiastics and not the Father of Jesus Christ.

Waldenses were found carrying translated copies of Augustine’s work, besides their copies of Scripture. It was for this reason that many joined Calvin’s Reformed. They had a strong doctrine of predestinating grace that would overwhelm any claim by a Papal sacramental system.

Now I sketch the brief history not to argue for any particular Waldense doctrine, but to point out a different articulation of where we, the Church, are going. The Waldense remained an underground resistance, they operated outside the norms of Medieval society, sometimes secretly, other times more openly. Their distinction lay in telling a tale where the Church traded its political station of being an alternative society, for one where they were fused to the ruling caste. Being a good citizen of the Roman Empire meant being a good Christian. For them, this was a dark day, for no man can serve two masters.

Many recognize we’re living in a “post-Christendom”. Some have renewed interest in Anabaptist theology to chart a new way forward. I’m not hostile to the Anabaptists, their heritage is commendable. But many times this distinction implies certain attitudes, and shallows out the historical rootage. The neo-Anabaptists, and ressourcement that is happening among groups like the Mennonites (vis. the work of folks like Bender, Yoder et al.), are not the only way forward.

See, I am not a credo-baptist, and I have a strong predestinarian bent. I am not advocating a counter-culture, but an alternative society. I am pacifistic, but not a doctrinaire. In fact, generally, I have a lot of similarities with, and have been influenced by, the Reformed. I can agree with Kuyper’s cry that every square inch of the cosmos belongs to Christ. Every fiber of life is touched by the reality of the Gospel. Everything we do is touched by the reality of Christ.

However, the Waldense distinctive is that I am pilgrim, not conquest minded. The Waldense distinctive is being an alternative society, underground. There is no need to master the culture, but to know the mastery of God’s hand over all things. It’s living faithfully with a pessimism that Satan still prowls mightily, even though Christ will toss Him into the Abyss.

This may seem like a quibble. Who cares what we’re called? Yet at once, I am not at home with the Magisterial Reformers who believed in sitting in courtly prestige. Yet I can not identify with the Anabaptists theologically or historically. I don’t wish to erect a denomination, or a new sect. The difference is in disposition.

I do not believe in Post-Christendom, because I do not believe there ever was a Christendom, only a Christ-glossed Paganism that worshiped the Messiah Jesus, along with Money, Nation, Power, Pope, Nobility etc. I am glad that God has called up a scourge called Post-Modernity and Deconstruction to level the idolatrous Enlightenment Moderinity. Yet even the Enlightenment was a Scourge called up to destroy the foundations of the idolatrous false Church. Babylon was called up to destroy Assyria who destroyed Israel. God uses many instruments in His theater of glory.

I am associated with the Reformed loosely, but I am not so as a Protestant. I do not look at divides as between Rome and Constantinople, or Rome and Wittenburg/Geneva/Canterbury. The question is framed poorly. As in the old story, the divide is between Waldo and Sylvester. Faithfulness unto death, or synthesis for recognition and prestige. Even though Aaron, Moses’ very brother, built the golden calf, we must not worship it. The difference is a Church who loves Christ the King or the kings of this Earth.

For that reason,  I am in the underground. I am Waldo.