I Hope I Never Forget:
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
When I think of Eastern Orthodoxy, I think of Icons. The two have become so identified with each other that the commemoration of Iconography's vindication has been named the day of Orthodoxy. So this is obviously huge for our Orthodox siblings. But for Protestants (and even a few protesting Catholics, like myself) there has always been a great deal of ambivalence towards this- the last pronouncement of the unified church. My own Puritan background (and no, I don’t mean puritanical background) throws up all sorts of red flags. I’m just not sure.
The Patristic Anglican offers a helpful summary of the council’s decision:
Three main issues as follows:
I. There are two kinds of Worship or Veneration:
(a) The Reverence due to holy persons and things because they stand in somerelation to God. E.g. the Holy Scriptures, the Church, the Holy Table, the Cross, the Saints. We call this "Reverence"; the Greeks, timhtikh proskunhsiV.
(b) The Worship due to God alone. We call this, colloquially, "Adoration"; the Greeks, latreia. It is of the highest importance to emphasize the difference as strongly as possible, because there is always a danger of slipping from one kind of veneration into the other, and "the Lord our God is a jealous God." The definition is primarily a bulwark against idolatry, which it condemns in set terms.
2. All Veneration of Material Things is Relative:
The reverence for a picture passes to the person it represents. E.g. we place the photograph of our departed mother in a place of honour. But our honour or respect does not rest in the paper and the pigment, it passes through the portrait to the original. We reverence the Bible, but our worship is really addressed to the Holy Spirit Who inspired its pages; the Cross, but our worship is referred to Him Who died thereon. So with all material things. We are required by a canon of the Church of England to bow at the Holy Name of Jesus. But in so doing our worship passes through the icon of purely material sounds to the Saviour of mankind.
3. The Sanctification of Matter through the Incarnation:
Of old, God the uncircumscribed could not be portrayed. The Incarnation was a condescension to our nature. We are as God made us, with bodies and senses. Christ came that we might apprehend God through the material Image of His human nature: He Whom, as St. John says, we have seen and heard and handled. Thus it has come to pass that we can approach Him through the noblest of our senses; we can portray the God Whom we have seen.
The Greek theologians present at the Conference were understood to accept this as covering the ground; there was nothing left to be said.
Working backwards, it seems to me that the third point is the most important in the debate. If we believe that God perfectly became man, then how can we have an issue with portraying him as such? In other words, the iconoclast controversy was (and is) about the Incarnation. God chose to be seen. Was it then improper to see him?
I can hear your mind working: “Ah, but an Icon isn’t a true image of him- not really.” Given the nature of an “image”, I’m not sure what that means. Does it mean that an icon is inaccurate in some ways, but aren’t all images inaccurate in some way? Is that not what Points One and Two are there to guard against: don’t confuse the image with the Archimage?
I think I’m settled on Point One. Even Free Church Evangelical’s show respect and honor to all sorts of people and symbols. Think of standing for the National Anthem or when a bride comes down the aisle, or better yet- think of not standing for the National Anthem or when a bride comes down the aisle.
I remember reading of a gentleman who explained the difference between Reverence and Adoration by saying, “If William Shakespeare came through that door, then I would stand out of respect for him. If Jesus Christ entered, however, I would fall to my knees.” Makes perfectly good sense to me.
Point Two might seem too vaguely metaphysical when it speaks of “honor passing onto something else”, but the examples given resonate with me. I can remember when my Granddaddy was hospitalized from a heart attack. I didn’t know it at the time, but he wouldn’t be coming home. I was in the fifth grade. I’d never been catechized in the mechanics of veneration passing on to the original, but I understood it in my eleven-year old Fundamental Baptist heart. I can remember wrapping a photograph of Granddaddy in a blanket and trying to sneak it into the bathroom with me. I was embarrassed with my weeping and felt a little too soft at wanting to hold the picture close. I sat on the bathroom floor, arms wrapped around the photo, and cried. It was my Granddaddy that I was reaching for. I believe my young heart found him through the image.
Again, even Evangelicals understand this. Consider an obvious political one- burning cloth isn’t significant, but burn a U.S flag and there will be hell to pay from the Religious Right. And rightly so, if you love America. Is this not true precisely for the reasons given in Point Two above?
Why is proper to honor our nation in this way, but not our God?
Perhaps it is the actual practice that turns me off. I’m not into a lot of kissing and bowing, but I guess that is the point- culturally I don’t express respect in this way. Might compliance to the teaching of the Council be satisfied- maybe even required- through more familiar Western practices?
Still chewing on it, but I suspect that The Pontificator’s First Law applies here: When Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree, Protestantism loses.
The first is an understanding of Christ's kingdom as "the end" come back into the present. We are colonists from another age. This is hugely important. The second is an appreciation that the story begun in Genesis is our story. It didn't come to an end with the last chapter of Acts; our God kept right on writing. He's writing still.
Dr. Leithart has a thought provoking comment regarding how the rejection of the Christian Calendar undermines this understanding of continuity.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Yes, I said The Curse of the Werewolf was a great movie for Lent.
No, I’ve not been gnawing at that poisonous Federal Vision root. Well, ...yeah I have, but that has nothing to do with this. Give me a second. Hear me out.
Mr. Fisher went out of his way to make the Christian message of his films hard to miss. Hammer Studios made a large number of horror films without Fischer, and these as a rule ought to be avoided. The exploitive nature of these films is further confirmation that the Christian slant of his films was intentional. But Fisher had an axe to grind, and he did it on the head of Hell.
This particular movie deals with a curse. Specifically, it’s a curse that turns a man into a horrible beast. Brian Abshire has explained: “The real horror of the were-wolf is that something once human has now become a ravenous beast. It is the loss of humanity and the adoption of bestial characteristics that makes the were-wolf such a figure of horror.”
St. Paul tells us in his letter to the church in Rome that mankind has refused to worship the Creator and instead gives homage to fellow creatures- creatures he was meant to rule over. A couple of inalterable laws come into play here: first, we must worship, and second, we become like that to which we render our worship. Made as the supreme image of the supreme God, men and women have come to resemble beasts. Living off the blood, whether metaphorical or not, of fellow human beings, mankind sinks to an embracement of values indistinguishable from those of a worm, a rat, or…a wolf.
Lycanthropy is particularly horrific, not because it involves a creature that might devour you (a night’s watching of such critters on the Discovery Channel may be pleasant, educational and even inspiring), rather it is the fact that these savage creatures look just like the men and women that we love. In fact, they are those individuals we love and trust- the ones we call Father, Nurse, Teacher and Pastor. One can shut a door against a wild beast, but how do you defend yourself against the monster who shares your bed, or meets you in the confessional, or who mows your lawn every Saturday.
This tale of fantasy (and Fisher hated the description of “Horror Film”- preferring “Adult Fairy Tale”), like all good fantasy, makes clear and visible the nature of the world we inhabit. Tales of Lycanthropy are simply a clarifying of the nature of fallen men and women. They are an exposition on sin. They tell the truths that the season of Lent is meant to uncover.
The spiritual symbolism is obvious- almost too obvious, really. Werewolf movies must seem too preachy. Surely, everyone gets it, but few do.
The reason is probably to be found in the telling. The differences between Hammer Studio’s version and those of Universal and others are very revealing. At least Universal’s original Wolfman retained the supernatural element (an element central to all of Fisher’s productions). Lon Chaney’s character had been cursed- by a real, honest to god evil curse. Columbia Tri-Star’s Underworld felt the need to locate the origin of the bestial transformation in a viral infection. To be expected, I guess, in a culture that “medicalizes” all evil behavior. But the movie and the culture that spawned it are simply wrong.
In Fisher’s version a priest explains that young Leon (the werewolf in the story) had been possessed by an evil elemental spirit. It would war with Leon’s soul. Importantly, Leon’s soul had been claimed by God in baptism.
Interestingly, it is in the baptismal scene of the movie that the movie’s theme is spelled out. As the child is taken into the priest’s arms, the sky darkens and a storm boils. The Lord’s Prayer is recited and the minister’s hand reaches for the laver. The water begins to move and a demonic face- a reflection of a carving on the church ceiling- reflects upward. But the priest persists. The water calms and God speaks peace to this child through the healing waters. Evil made its initial claim, but God’s silenced it.
Significantly, the priest explains that the battle waging in Leon’s heart would be won by love- both Leon's love of others, but more importantly that which is offered by others to the child. Surely nothing like this is to be found in other Werewolf tales. Luna’s full orbed appearance is sufficient to bring about the transformation in other films. A full moon meant unbridled violence, but not in Fisher’s tale. In Hammer’s version the transformation was the result of Leon’s loosing the battle within. In fact after the initial attacks on the animals of his village, Leon grows into manhood without any further reoccurrences. It is only after being taken to a brothel/bar that the bestial behavior returns (!) In a memorable scene, Leon passes a full-mooned night without any transformation taking place, because he slept in the lap of one who truly loved him.
In addition, the explicit Christian symbols are almost constantly present. There are churches and church bells, priests, crucifixes, Icons of Madonna and child, etc, etc. Part of the fun is in trying to catch them all.
Of course there were things that I didn’t care for. By today’s production standards the movie doesn’t measure up, but this is part of its charm. The violence is overdone in places and Fisher seems to equate voluptuous female characters with sinful weakness. I think St. Augustine would give him high marks here, but not me.
All in all, it’s a movie well worth watching and talking about- precisely because its fiction speaks truth.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Hmmm. Answering that question might take me through every one of my pet peeves. This could be a really long post, but I need to resist, to refrain, to exercise some self-control. It is Lent, after all.
So I thought I would outline a very brief apology by introducing the season to those friends and family who might be wondering about us…more than usual, I mean…because of the black smudges of ash on our head.
Please keep in mind that the following points are not meant to be exhaustive, nor even adequate, really. For the most part they are simply statements without argumentation. Perhaps the statement will be sufficient.
We’ll start as broadly as possible:
1. Every society forms its members by having them share in the common ritual of its tradition.
Far from being mere “icing on the cake,” ritual is unavoidable and necessary to the existence of a people. Think of those things that surround/define being an American. The attempt to be “ritual free” is itself an expressive and symbolic ritual.
2. Societies memorialize those events and people that are the most important to the societies' identity by dedicating a calendar day to them.
Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, President’s day, Martin Luther King Day, etc. A people’s calendar reveals their values.
3. The Christian Church is the City of King Jesus.
Though living in the midst of other nations, the church exists as a colony of its own motherland. (WARNING-UNAVOIDABLE DIGRESSION ON FAVORITE PET PEEVE: This does not mean that we will one day escape our current home. For example: The citizens of ancient Philippi were Roman citizens. Many of them were transplants from Rome, itself. Being Roman in the midst of a Grecian countryside did not mean that everyone would one day move back to Rome. Rather, it meant that they would maintain their identity with and allegiance to the home land. They were Romans who just happened to be living in Greece. In times of trouble, they would look to the sea, not as a means of escape “homeward”, but to await the arrival of their Emperor who would come to defend them.)
4. The Christian Calendar celebrates the life of our King and contributes to the formation of his people into a people.
5. The Christian church is the body of Christ.
This is the meaning of our Baptisms. We are united to him. His life is our life. His death, our death.
6. The Christian should follow the life of Christ in a concrete, regular and meditative way.
For those who make use of this cycle, Christ’s life becomes our life, yearly. Most Christians still celebrate Christmas and Easter, while arbitrarily ignoring His Baptism, Ascension or Transfiguration. Oddly, they will manage to work in American holidays like Mother’s Day or Veteran’s day, but have no regard for Pentecost. What does this say about their most basic identity?
7. God sanctions seasons of thankful Feasting.
Creation was meant to be flooded with the glory of God. Just like the pointing finger, it was meant to direct us to the Creator. Embracing it in celebration was meant to be an embrace of him whose glory it revealed. But...
8. God calls humanity to seasons of meditative abstaining and fasting.
Creation must never be confused with God. The refracted glory of God, coming to us through his creatures, can easily lead people to confuse the image for the real thing. It is good for us to renounce the good on occasion, so that we can recall this important truth.
9. The Christian life is one of Community.
We are the people of the Triune God. God’s life is communal. Salvation into that life is communal, too. (See 3, 4, & 5 above) We are meant to help each other in living out who we are declared to be at and through our baptisms. Therefore it is beneficial to feast, fast and meditate together as a people.
10. The uniqueness of special times is augmented by a period of preparation.
Liturgically and experientially, we begin to long for Easter Sunday through the austere liturgical practices of Lent.
11. If we are to follow the example of Christ and his servants, it is necessary to… follow their examples.
The heroes of Scripture fasted and abstained during intense periods of seeking after God. We ought to do the same. Christ himself fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Lent is the church’s commemoration of this time in Christ’s life and an appropriate time to consider the spiritual disciplines of abstinence and negation.
12. A regular check-up, or to switch the metaphor- a regular tune up is necessary for healthy Christian growth.
To switch the metaphor yet again, just as an annual spring cleaning allows a household to start fresh and new, Lent encourages a person to search through the corners of their lives for those cobwebs and dust bunnies that may have been overlooked. Individuals who are likely to go to the trouble of spring cleaning aren’t likely to forgo regular and thorough cleanings throughout the year. A weekly mopping doesn’t cancel out the need for Spring Cleaning and vice versa.
13. Fasting or abstaining from normal pleasures reveals the depths of our depravity and the weakness of our flesh.
It’s amazing how irritable we can become when we grow slightly hungry. Skip a meal or two and you’ll see. We are spoiled and soft, and we don’t know it. Feel in control? Try giving up T.V. for 40 days.
14. Christ’s resurrection required his death on the cross; his crucifixion was a result of our sin and estrangement.
Lent is about Easter. We cannot understand God’s work of mercy and redemption without understanding our own sin, misery and corruption. Spiritually, Lent prepares us for a true celebration of resurrection by enabling us to understand our great need. This awareness of our sins is going somewhere…we’re heading towards the cross of Good Friday and from there to Resurrection Sunday.
15. Those who oppose the observance of Lent likely disagree with one of the points above.
We observe Lent because the lessons of our Lord’s temptations are important to us, but so easy to forget. We observe the season of Lent because that is simply what his people do and we are zealous to belong; we observe the season of Lent because those who have gone before us give testimony to its importance, because we know that we do not know how much we need a savior- how far short we fall, even today. We observe the season of Lent because we love Easter and are committed to marking the renewal of creation in as grand a way as possible. We observe the season of Lent because the glorious blessings and God-given tastes of this life can confuse and disorient us to their true meaning- God’s love made tangible. We observe the season of Lent because there are needful things that require our attention- things important, but lacking urgency. If not at Lent, when will we attend to them?
Monday, February 19, 2007
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Our story will take many bizarre and unexpected turns before we are through, but each one of them will be a simple unpacking of the profound statement above.
How are we to understand God and his creation?
Human history is the record of how that question has been answered and of the consequences of each proposal. Understanding both God and his creation truthfully is the point of our story; it will take the entire story to do so. But here, at the beginning, we can see the whole picture being “roughed in” on the artist’s canvas.
Listen to the nomad’s story:
“Our God called all that is into existence- things in heaven and earth and under the earth. He fashioned each over the space of six days; calling things as they were to be, and behold- they were as he spoke them. At the end of each day, he took his handiwork into his hands and turned it and examined it and declared that he was pleased with what he had fashioned. Then he rested from his work and enjoyed the things that he had made.”
That’s not the official version, of course. You can find that in the book of Genesis- chapters one and two. But it is a fair summary: something you might have heard coming from inside the tent as a conscientious father, though in a hurry to get back to the campfire, granted his daughter’s request for a bedtime story.
If you happened to be outside of the Babylonian tent, you would have heard another summary- one distilled from the opposing tale we heard earlier. The differences are significant.
The story as told by God’s people begins in Peace. It will take the full revelation of God in Christ to fully appreciate the ecstatic, festive and communal nature of that eternal Shalom of God, but even here in the earliest of verbal revelation we see the fact that before history’s beginning, there was peace.
Israel was alone in telling the story in this way. The nations around her described Chaos as the fountainhead of reality. Chaos lurked behind, above and below everything- seen and unseen. Reality began in chaos and one day it would end there, as well. In such a world the only path to order and security is a violent one. Gods and goddesses wrestled a short lived peace through force and overwhelming might. Creation itself was carved from the slain body of a conquered opponent. If divinity could not escape from bloodshed, then humanity should despair of such a dream.
The ancient world (and all those who place chaos as nature’s ultimate foundation) existed in a constant state of war. Reality is war and war, reality.
Good and evil, chaos and order, suffering and joy. Each is simply one part of the whole. Each will have its turn, and then the other will take its place. Each must be accepted. Neither has claim to humanity’s ultimate allegiance. For who can worship at the feet of chaos, destruction and death (although there have been the few who have tried)? And the champions of order, security and life are destined to be swallowed up by the hideous void; their temporary victory secured through a compromised use of the adversary’s weapons.
How different the world of our nomads. The image of a creator God, forming his handiwork in leisure, could not have been more opposed to the prevalent view. He speaks and all is as he commands. Like a child on Christmas morning, He is pleased at what he sees. He pushes back from his worktable, wipes his hands and then takes the day off to enjoy life.
Foundational to this vision was the distinction declared between Creator and Creation. This has always been the minority position. The god’s of surrounding nations (and those who were not so close, as well) were seen as a part of Nature. Clearly, according to message of our story the Lord God was Other than creation- not a part of it. He could not be identified with any single part, nor any sum of the parts of that which he had spoken into existence.
The Creator is infinite and eternal. Creation is finite and temporal. The Creator is original and independent. Creation is contingent.
Occasionally groups would arise who would maintain this distinction, but only at the cost of making the Infinite and Sovereign originator of all things absent and uninvolved.
Thousands of years after our story was first written down, a famous Roman outlined the options as he saw them. They hadn’t changed much. In his treatise On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero explained that one could side with the Stoics- declaring the divide to be present in all of creation. If you are looking for god, then you must only look within. Or, he pointed out that you could join the Epicureans- believing that this world is certainly not divine. There is divinity, but he, she, or it had left the scene long ago. The only thing left is to make oneself as comfortable as possible. Finally one could go the route of the Skeptics- acknowledging that the whole gods thing was more than you know, but counseling that we continue to show respect lest we cause to much turmoil. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it- even if the “it” was a scam. These options were viable before Cicero wrote; they are alive with us today.
People have always collided with each other. People have always acted selfishly (our story will tell us why in a bit). But for those who have rejected or have never heard our story, this is so out of principle. Reality is conflict. The “divine” standard, depending on the option you choose, is either man himself or a divinity that is unknown and absent… so that we are left with man himself.
Against those who would agree with the Stoics, the Christian story maintains the fundamental distinction between God and his Creation. This has been illustrated as in Fig. A. The being of God does not overlap with the being of creation. They are distinct. They may not be confused. The opposing view might be represented with a totem pole or a ladder. Divinity is just one end of a long pole of being. Theoretically, something might be able to climb up or down this scale of glory.
Against the Epicurean understanding of creator and creation we would say that though distinct from his Creation, God is not separate from his creation. He is daily and actively involved in preserving and governing his handiwork.
With the Skeptics we would question the reliability of our knowledge of gods who do not act in
history, but we would point to our God’s continual interaction with his people- not least in the gospel. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Take a moment to draw Figure A. It will come in handy later.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Standing with those who know the difference is one of those important things.
It's a funny world, too- when typing Bullshit is the way you stand with the good guys.
Well, that ought to do. If we stick together, they can't take us all out.
I know, I know. It’s a long story. You can find it here if you want to.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
It might help to imagine a fire.
It’s small for the number of people who are sitting on the ground around it. Their bodies seem to hold back the almost perfect darkness of the desert night, but inside the circle the fire’s light dances warmly on each face. They’re eating and talking; they seem happy and relaxed. Above them stars bristle brightly, unchallenged by the manmade light of future centuries.
This is where we will start- with this group of nomads sitting in the sand over 3000 years ago. Not because they’re the beginning of our story, but because they’re the first to write it down; because they were the ones it was given to. It was their ancient lives that the strange opening of our tale was meant to shape and inform.
“Why don’t we just jump back to the beginning…the real beginning?” you ask.
Well, we will. You’ll see, but to understand the story that God actually gave we need to hear it through the ears of those for whom it was originally given. They lived in a different world from ours. Their lives were concerned with things we have never considered. Ours are filled with concerns that would mean nothing to them.
The question of “what’s with this stuff” is a good example. When we ask it, we’re likely asking about atoms and energy waves, big bangs, evolving monkey-men and the exact age of the whole shebang. None of that would have occurred to our nomads. When they looked upward into the night sky they saw a huge bowl, above which sat the throne of God. When we glance heavenward we’re likely to think about vast cold blackness and gaseous stellar wombs.
Different worlds create different questions.
When God gave these people his story, it was to answer their questions- not ours. Do you see?
So, what kind of questions did their world generate? If we leave them behind and travel westward a few hundred miles we’re sure to come upon another circle of friends. The children in this group are listening intently as an old turbaned man begins a story. The rest remain quiet but seem more interested in silently working on the many repairs a caravan camp like their’s requires. They’ve heard the story many times since they were kids- as their parents had heard it and their parent’s before that.
Let’s move in closer…and listen.
“In the beginning there was only the sea- raging, hateful and uncontrolled.” The old man wiggled his fingers as he swept his arms from side to side. “...a hideous hag whose angry arms whipped and swirled into frenzied storms. From her fertile belly Chaos brought forth her glorious children- the gods and goddesses of our great city”
A child sat up proudly, “Marduk!” he said
“That’s right. Marduk was one of her children, but he’s not part of the story yet” the old man affirmed.
“It wasn’t long before she was at war with her children, seeking to devour them and bring all things back into her gnawing belly. She called to her demonic children to aid her in wiping the divine ones from the heavens- their names be praised.”
“Marduk be praised”, the child added, once again sitting upright, gripping his dirty toes in his hands.
“That’s right” the old man nodded “Marduk be praised. For it was difficult to find a champion among the holy ones to stand and fight against the fury of the hag and her lashing waves”
“Marduk did!” the child exclaimed.
“That’s right. Marduk led his brothers and sisters against the ancient one’s fury. He beat her back and slew her demonic champion. He formed the earth, sky, sun and stars from his lifeless body.”
The child grinned. He loved that part.
“In return for his valor, the holy ones made him Lord of their number”
“And of our city” the boy added.
“That’s right, and of Babylon.”
This story and its numerous variations formed the common understanding of those living in the Ancient Near East. Everyone- everyone, that is, but the people to whom our nomads belonged- understood the world around them according to the assumptions of this story:
Reality consisted of two equal powers- good and evil, order and chaos. These two have battled eternally. One would triumph for a time, only to be conquered by the other…only to be overturned by the other….
Order is a result of violence and conflict…
And even the gods are part of this process. There is no ultimate victory or escape from this conflict- even for them.
These were the “rules” that governed the lives of men, women and children of that place and time. No one dreamed of questioning them. No one could imagine why you would want to do so.
This is the story that our nomads are intent on rejecting. They tell of creation’s origin in a radically different way.
But this is the point you need to see- if you want to understand the central truths of our story, you need to note where it collides with the commonly held story being told by everyone else. When you find them disagreeing, you need to pay attention.
“But isn’t it all truth?” I can hear you asking.
Well, yes. Certainly! But only if you understand it properly. If I say I have a frog in my throat, do you believe me? It depends, doesn’t it? If I mean that I have swallowed a warty amphibian, then you probably shouldn’t take me seriously.
Let me try it another way. When Jesus told the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, was it true? It depends on what you are asking. Are you asking about the truthfulness of the image of God that this story presents or are you asking about whether someone could have recorded the whole event on a video camera if they had been present? Are you asking “Is God really like that?” or are you asking “Where did that ungrateful boy live and who was his mother?”
One set of questions understands the point of the story. The other does not.
Many people have understood the opening scenes of our story in just such a “documentary way.” If that is true of you, I don’t want to discourage you from continuing to do so. It may be that a video journalist present at the Beginning would have captured events precisely as they are chronicled by our story teller. Nothing we have discussed would deny that in any way, but…such details are not the point of the story. It was given in order to reveal our God to us. It was not meant to be an insider’s cheat sheet for a game of Cosmic Trivial Pursuit: “How old is the earth?” or “How many seconds did it take to create all things?”
Doesn’t it seem more than a little arrogant to believe that the story could only be truly understood by those who would live 3000 years after it was written - people with the necessary cultural and scientific understanding to ask the appropriate questions that this text was meant to answer… people like, well, you and me.
Our nomads were the intended audience. They understood its message completely. We can be molded by that message, as well; but only if we hear the same message- only if we hear through their ears.
Not that I’m particularly qualified to do it (how’s that for a teaser), but everyone has a way of explaining the meaning of “life, the universe and everything.” In my home we refer to it as The Story.
I’m using “we” rather loosely. Mostly I mean me, and mostly I use it when meeting those young men who have expressed interest in one of my daughters.
When the conversation begins to drag awkwardly- usually a good 15to 30 seconds into it-I ask, “So, how do you tell The Story?”
“What story, sir?” They always say “sir.”- The ones that last, anyway. This is the South.
“The story. The story! There’s only one story.”
It’s a bit unfair, I know. They’ve come prepared to tell me where they want to take my girls to eat and how safely they drive and I ask them to tell me what life’s about. But obviously, it’s a fair question.
We all tell the story in one way or another. Our lives betray how we really believe it goes. In fact our lives are our most obvious way of telling it.
Christians will refer those who inquire to the Bible. Our story (everyone's true story, we believe) is to be found there; but we’re not always good at telling it from beginning to the end as one story.
Moses and Gideon we know, but how they fit together with Noah’s boat or Christ’s transfiguration…that’s often more than we know.
I hope this attempt at just spelling it all out will be helpful for my kids.
So, here we go. I offer you- A Story Told in Six Acts with the Fifth Being Primarily Impromptu
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Copyright © 2006
Everything requires a story. Did you know that? We confuse ourselves by talking about “facts” as if they were independent things floating out there for us to grab and use. It’s just not so. Every fact is an interpreted fact. Everything requires a context. Everything needs a story.
Wouldn’t you agree!!! Hello?.... Anybody there? I guess that was a bit confusing. I’m sorry about that. Let me try again.
If I asked, “do you believe in God," what would you say? Seems straight forward enough. You either believe in God or you don’t, right? But what am I really asking you? Think about it; what do I mean by “God?”
In order to answer that, I have to start telling very short stories. Do I mean a distant “power” that exists far away from creation- never being involved, never intervening or helping his creatures? Do I mean a Superman-type character that mirrors man in every way, including his vanity, selfishness and pride? Do I mean a great formless blob of Being that has existed alone throughout eternity- just doing, I don’t know, whatever it is that blobs do? Do I mean an all powerful sadist who gets his thrills by fattening sinners up for the kill, like the kid who enjoys burning ants with his magnifying glass? Or do I mean one who compared himself to the Father who took leave of all dignity before his neighbors as he raced – tears flowing, beard flapping and drawers showing- down the dirt robe so that he could embrace the son who had returned home? Which god do I believe or not believe in? The story makes a difference doesn’t it?
Like the rest of what I’ve shared about you, you don’t have to take my word for it. See if it isn’t what you’ve experienced. When you get into an argument with someone, what inevitably happens? You begin telling different stories: “that’s not how it happened at all. You were the one…” A story.
It’s the middle of the night and a thump downstairs wakes you up. Fear suggests you get out of bed while the weight of sleep pulls you deeper into the blankets. Stories form in your mind to explain the noise and you weigh the likelihood of each until your feet hit the floor or you turnover and fall back asleep. Stories.
Your throat gets sore or your car makes a funny noise. More stories.
We understand facts, things, values and…our own identities through the stories our communities tell us. Being human means being a spinner of tales.
This explains why God gave us a book of stories. If modern men or women had written Scripture, it would have been a book of clear cut rules and precisely arranged doctrine. But God didn’t give us that. He knew what we have only recently forgotten: it is the story we embrace- or that embraces us- that actually form us into who we are.
Try it again. What is an American? What story did you tell? I bet it involved liberty and maybe private enterprise, freedom of religion or a calling to spread democracy throughout the world. Different American communities may tell the story with a slightly different twist, but that’s the point.
I’ve written this book to try to make clear the Christian stories entitled “What is a man?” and “What is a woman?” The church’s tale isn’t the only one out there. In fact, as we’ve seen, it bumps heads with many other tales. Before we’re done I wanted to tell you one more story. It answers the question, “What is marriage?”
There are two very powerful stories that give shape to most men and women’s expectations regarding marriage. We’ll call the first one the You’re the “One” Myth and the second the “One’s as Good as Another” Myth. (I’m using myth to indicate a story that forms the lives of people. It isn’t meant to indicate that a story is or isn’t true.)
The first one goes something like this: “Once upon a time God decided to glorify himself by creating a world in which every person had a completing other- a particular soul mate created for them alone. True happiness depended on being with this other. And a life with this person was sufficient to guarantee this happiness. If “true happiness” is alluding you, then you needed to keep your eyes open. If you could only find them, then happiness and contentment would follow.
Happiness was just one of the benefits, true love tended to keep you young, too. It was all so beautiful, simple and straightforward. It also felt very…well, loving; because life was to be found in another. But as in all good stories, there was a catch. The creator had designed things so that this special “one” must be searched for. And there was the adventure and the peril. They might be on the other side of the world. They might be next door. They had to be found. Life was about- or ought to be about- that quest.
Many people never found their one true love. Those people remained alone and incomplete or they settled for a second rate and often tragic life with someone else. Sometimes, and this happened a lot, true love was found after a commitment had been made to another…to the wrong one. Fortunately, everyone (except maybe the “wrong one” and his or her friends and family) understood that true love was more important than anything else. Anything at all. The sacrifice of family, reputation, livelihood…of even life itself somehow made being with the “one” even more rich and significant.”
Have you ever heard that one? It’s wildly popular- almost sacred. It’s also grossly wrong and terribly cruel.
Here’s the second: A long time ago, in a galaxy…right here, the creator wished to glorify himself by making a world in which each individual was created to show forth the glory and power of personal exaltation. Each individual was to consider himself the ultimate priority- the ultimate reality. This means that while relationships might have been helpful, they were mere constructions- artificial means to the end of “me”.
The earth itself was given to individuals to mold and shape to their own ends. Since there were many, many, many individuals, competition underlay all of life, and each had to be constantly on guard against those who would intrude upon their resources. Ownership meant the right to use the resource in any way the owner saw fit. It’s was there for him or her, because he or she was all there was to be there for.
This often led to glorious conflict were the one who was the most tenacious went out in a blaze of glory, clutching their possessions and achievements and secure in the knowledge that they had done it their own way.
Both of these stories can’t be true, nor will they mesh with the story I’ve been telling you in this book. While the first comes closest to the Christian story, it falls short and inevitably leads to the second. Here’s why:
We do find ourselves in one another. The first story gets that right. And that’s no small thing, either. But it is wrong in just about every other way, especially in making another creature the foundation of our existence. They aren’t; and they can’t be. If we place that kind of weight on another person, they will begin to crumble. The problem with the first view isn’t that it makes to little of the beloved and of marriage. The problem is that it makes way too much of them.
Eros’s visit is not enough to make us happy. Nor is it enough to make a marriage work. Romantic love can never give meaning to our lives and it doesn’t make being faithful automatic or easy[i].
People always find this out because that is just the way things are. There is no escaping reality. Expectations are crushed and disappointment- maybe even despair- set in. Like the little boy trying to bounce his toy truck, they have “misnamed” Romance and are confused when it isn’t able to do what it was never designed for. Because they have believed the story, they think something is wrong with their relationship- that it’s not real or true or not…something else it ought to be. And so they are always on the lookout for the “real thing”.
The truth is that strong sexual attraction and Eros’s pull aren’t magical, fate-driven, and once-in-a-lifetime events. They are rooted in the inner life of God, our most deep-down humanity and creation’s call to glorify God. They, or their potential manifestations, are pulsing throughout every inch of our being.
The modern myth of Romance denies this because it sees the visits of Aphrodite and Eros as indicating “The One”- the only one. Of course if it’s potentially omnipresent, the god and goddess’s visits fail as a marker for “true relationships.” If you are trying to find a yellow house in a community of yellow houses, you’re liable to never arrive.
Christians become disillusioned in a very similar way by misunderstanding the meaning and source of arousal’s visits. Christians who see their sexuality as a dirty secret or holy duty may view their marriage bed as the necessary- and effective- cure for this awkward need. Like a toilet, God gives us the marriage bed so that we can get that business out of the way and get on to more important things. When you’ve got to “go”, it’s hard to think of anything else. Once you’ve “gone” you walk past restrooms without any interest at all. If there is still interest, then you need to get in there and go!
That’s not right. It is perfectly possible to have a wonderfully good sexual relationship with your spouse and still notice others. That interest shouldn’t call into question the reality of your relationship with your husband or wife. But if you misunderstand arousals meaning and source, it might.
You also need to know that while neglecting your spouse can cause greater temptation, a fiery marriage bed isn’t an effective charm for warding off Aphrodite’s approaches. This should never be the primary motivation. Remember, we are really for- not against. The yearning and almost otherworldly interest in the body of another should find godly expression because they are fundamental to being as a human- not because it keeps you from....whatever. This means that temptation isn’t quenched by attempting to satiate the appetite- even in the marriage bed. Again, it is a matter of misnaming and becoming discouraged when the truck fails to bounce.[ii]
Sexuality has been spoken of in terms of a garden. By definition a garden is distinct from the wilderness around it. But both are places of life. To leave it unattended is to loose it back to the wild. This is acted out in the sexual lives of most people today. To the sexually "liberated" a garden is simply unimaginable.
But there are others- especially in the church- who are so afraid of that fate that they spray Weed-Be-Gone on every dandelion sprout that appears within and without of the garden. Weeding isn't poisoning and there is a world of difference between the way an organic gardener and a weed-phobic admirer of real gardens view the appearance of the weed. The phobic forgets that the garden depends on the very processes that are the wilderness. You can guarantee a weed free garden, but only by turning the whole area into a wasteland.
I'm convinced that we are surrounded by many Christians who equate wasteland with godly. They get away with this silliness because their sand pit is a "private garden". No one else gets to walk through it. I hope you see that we are called to tell a different story.
In my experience, a godly and fiery sexuality is by definition always in danger. There is always the threat of the wilderness encroaching; but only because the garden soil is so healthy. In this sense those who have truly tasted are in more danger than those who have had their taste buds removed- though perhaps in less danger than those who have never tasted; but have been promised salvation if they ever do; but God has called us to be gardeners not polluters. There can be no question about whose handiwork is the more beautiful.
It’s true that if we step out of the boat, we are liable to sink; but if we don’t, we will never walk on water.[iii]
When the heartache and disappointment that a misread reality inevitably creates sets in, the cynical ex-Romantic turns to the other great Myth of our time: the “One’s as Good as Another” myth.
In the old days society was viewed as something connected and alive. Think of St. Paul’s picture of God’s people existing as a single living body or Christ’s image of the vine and branches. Today we think of ourselves much like separate marbles. You can place marbles in the same box (maybe church, nation, job or school), but they still remain entirely distinct and disconnected. Shake the shoebox around and they will bump against each other, but you’ll never get them to truly unite. Take chips out of each other, yes. Meld into one, no.
And every interaction is a seemingly violent one- Marble running into marble. It’s every marble for himself.
Contrast that with the relationship between a leaf and the tree’s root or a bird’s wing and its heart. Totally different interaction, wouldn’t you agree. Which type of relationship more accurately images the life of the Trinity?
The modern view sees my possessions as being there for my exploitation. What else is there to do with my belongings than use them for my pleasure? The more ancient view sees my possessions as an inheritance that I am to protect and improve.
The newer version sees only Consumers. The older view sees Shepherds. Do you understand the difference?
See if this helps. Pioneer families worked unimaginably hard to clear land that they would never be able to use. Why? For the benefit of those who would come after them. In contrast we dump poisons onto our land, because it’s ours to do with as we see fit and it makes things easier in the short term.
The first owner appreciates every example he sees of his sort of land. But he loves this particular piece. He knows it as well as his own body. He knows that that part floods each spring while that patch over there is too sandy for corn but perfect for melons. It’s the land his father and grandfather plowed, sowed and harvested, the land they were buried in, the land he played over in his youth. Though farmland in general can thrill him, this place is his home.
The other more modern owner, however, doesn’t understand the concept of place. He knows only of space and location. He sees his property as just one example among many other pieces of Real Estate. It has no memory. It is simply a location. Land is land is land is land.
“Ownership” in the old view affirmed private property along with the responsibility to hold it in trust for others. The value of the possession laid in what it was and in its history- its memory.
To modern men and women “ownership” means the right to exploit without any consideration of others. The value of the possession lies entirely in its ability to be used by me.
Others might want to use it, as well. So we must protect it. But do you see that when we say “protect it,” we aren’t referring to the property? Rather, it is our right to be the only one to use it that we are determined to ensure. You can’t be fundamentally committed to exploit and protect at the same time.
In a very real sense husband and wife belong to each other in a very exclusive way. What does this mean? We have two options don’t we? If we choose the community understanding, then this means that a man who knows the attraction of women in general nevertheless takes one particular woman (whom he cherishes for her almost endless number of particularities) to give himself to.
If we take the second, and this is what the "One’s as Good as Another" myth requires of us, then we make use and competition the bedrock of the marriage relationship. Community at its source is denied. The great image is soiled and the unbelievable self-gift of husband or wife is reduced to a commodity. Every instance of our spouse being noticed by or admiring another becomes proof of unfaithfulness, which must be answered with fear, jealousy and retaliation. Marriage becomes a prison to be endured or escaped from and the lion and flood are released on the world.[iv]
Both of these corrupted stories share a common foundation. Both assume that our own individual self fulfillment is the goal of life. Everyone else becomes a means to that end. Lives, relationships and desires are products that we scheme, measure, barter and purchase for our own consumption. The common element is that with every other aspect of life, we have turned marriage and love into a marketplace.[v]
The result is that we have succeeded in taking the worst from the contradictory positions of Nothingbutteryism and Angelism. These form the two opposing extremes from which we can view ourselves and the world around us. While the first teaches us to live for the body and its physical pleasure alone, the second encourages us to disregard our bodies as insignificant.
Behold our modern accomplishment: We have combined them into a particularly distasteful and unhealthy recipe. This unlikely concoction has been called “marketplace sexuality”[vi]. It clearly emphasizes one’s own physical pleasure as the greatest good, while at the same time treating our “most vulnerable depths as the object of barter”.[vii]
Thankfully there is a third story to embrace. I’ve done my best to trace out its key twists and turns: Sexuality and marriage are the glorious creatures of a holy God. Their final end is to glorify him by reflecting the beauty of a life lived as gift given, received and returned. A woman is attracted to her husband because she first was an admirer of many men. Covenantal commitment is what guarantees the purity of the image and makes possible the rare but transcendent moments of blissful and total self-donation that the other stories promise, but make suicidal by their plotlines.
[i] True love is being for the other. It mirrors the life and work of God. This means it always- in a fallen world, at least, includes a cross. True love requires that we die to ourselves. This is never easy.
[ii] Though I can see where this might play a part in a relationship that’s characterized by famine. To a thirsting man on a raft at sea, a glass of water might get more than the usual attention. I believe this is the point of St. Paul’s advice in
I Corinthians 7:8-9. See Lewis. The Four Loves, p
[iii] Both the metaphor of sexuality as garden and it’s further development were taken from Wendell Berry’s The Body and the Earth found in Recollected Essays (New York: North Point Press, 1998)
[iv] Wendell Berry’s influence on this chapter up to this point will be evident to all who are familiar with his writing. In addition to The Body and the Earth, which I’ve already cited, I would also recommend the essay Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community found in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992) In fact, I’d recommend just about anything Mr. Berry has written.
[v] I don’t mean to give the impression that there is anything wrong with markets. The evil comes in viewing everything as a market. Jesus, not Mammon, is Lord.
[vi] “Implicitly or explicitly, we imagine something like a social market within which each person seeks to satisfy sexual drives and to remedy the loneliness attendant upon modern American individualism. Appropriate sexual relationships, according to popular American culture imply the presence of a good clean contract. That is, both partners agree openly and fully to the terms and duration of their relationship….It’s management hedonism: I exploit you, but not to much; you exploit me, but not to much. The bottom line, the spreadsheet, has to stay balanced, and it’s that vision of quid-pro-quo balance that makes market sexuality inherently exploitative. Catherine Wallace, For Fidelity (New York: Knopf, 1998) pg. 52
[vii] Catherine Wallace, For Fidelity (New York: Knopf, 1998) pp 52-5
PART 1/ PART 2/ PART 3/ PART 4/ PART 5/ PART 6/ PART 7/ PART 8/ PART 9/ PART 10
Working with those who aren't as perfect as I. That was sarcasm, by the way
Cooks who feed only themselves
Trinity: Catapoem- wonderful!
I Belong to God: a Covenantal Catechism
On Vulgar Language
Saturday, February 3, 2007
1. Christ is The High Priest.
2. Salvation comes through Union with Christ, so that what is his becomes ours.
3. This includes his priestly authority and responsibilities. Everyone who is united to Christ shares in his priesthood- we affirm the Priesthood of all Believers.
4. Christ was anointed for his priestly duties at his baptism.
5. We are objectively united to Christ and anointed as priests at our baptism.
6. To be a priest is to serve before God in his house.
7. Service implies the “Other”- one is not a priest for himself, but always for another.
8. If all Christians are priests, then it is certainly permissible to refer to a minister as a “priest.”
9. The church is the body of Christ on earth- mystically united to her head. Both head and body make up the Christus totus.
10. Therefore, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church has been charged with speaking and acting in Christ’s name for she is, in reality, Christ acting and speaking. We are “to be Christ to each other”- for that’s what we are through our baptisms.
11. Apostolic continuity is preserved through the priesthood of the church- her member’s baptisms.
12. The historic Episcopacy is a powerful and helpful memorial of that unity and continuity. It is apostolic in origin and originally catholic in practice. It's loss should be lamented and remedied.
13. Ordination is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church’s- that is, Christ’s- declaration that an individual has been examined and charged to speak, whether through word or action, for King Jesus. It is no longer Rev. Smith speaking, absolving, baptizing, etc, rather it is Christ. Liturgy must reflect this precious truth.
14. The pastor's authority is not due to some ontological change conferred through ordination. All baptized Christians, in fact, speak and act for Christ. Rather it is a pastoral matter of authority and role. An individual should have complete assurance in the church of God that she is being fed, forgiven, received and washed by Christ himself- not some yahoo with a penchant for the spotlight.