Daredevil, Easter, heroism, and the triumph of light over darkness

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:4-5

Warning: Contains some spoilers for Netflix’s Daredevil (probably both seasons, but definitely season 2).

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I love Daredevil. It is, perhaps, the most compelling superhero franchise currently occupying the silver screen or the small screen (or the very small screen depending on how you Netflix). I’ve written a bit about the unique version and vision of heroism Daredevil represents in the Marvel universe, and why I find it so compelling, so if reading thousands of words about heroism, myth, and comic universes excites you, feel free to dip back there before proceeding here… There’s also this great Christ and Pop Culture piece about season 1.

Daredevil is a hero incarnate. A hero not just of his time, but of his place. He is a product of Hell’s Kitchen, it is his home, its people are his neighbours, and he is going to save them. Or at least defend them from darkness. The irony, of course, for those not familiar with the Daredevil mythos is that Daredevil spends all his time in darkness — both because he is blind, and because he only comes out at night. He operates in the shadows. The darkness/light metaphor seeps through season 2 of the Netflix hit. His enemies are ninjas, they’re fighting over who possesses the “Black Sky” — a weapon of such power that it would overcome the world, and the season explores the darkness of the human heart, and how we humans, left to our own devices, are more likely to produce darkness than light. Even, and perhaps especially, because our heroes are these mixed bags. Daredevil is fantastic because it is anthropologically honest. Good and Evil aren’t so black and white.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This season introduces two more vigilantes to the crucible of Hell’s Kitchen, one of my favourites, The Punisher, and Daredevil’s femme fatale, Elektra. Their introduction upsets the delicate balance of the Kitchen, which is always just one gang war away from total chaos. Hell’s Kitchen itself is a particularly dark and gloomy place in Daredevil’s universe because his universe is the universe of the Avengers in the aftermath of ‘The Incident’ — the total destruction of Hell’s Kitchen, at least in part, by the very heroes who fought vibrant, explosive, battles against ‘mega’ enemies in order to ‘save the world’. One of the implicit elements of the worldview of the typical New Yorker in this parallel universe is that if salvation looks like Hell’s Kitchen, then count us out. We don’t need that sort of saviour. The tension these new vigilantes creates is the question of how much these ‘heroes’ are saving the city, and how much they’re shaping it. This is especially true for Elektra and The Punisher who don’t share Daredevil’s compunction on the question of taking human life. For Daredevil, a practicing Catholic, every human life is sacred and has the potential for ‘goodness’ that shouldn’t be erased simply because of the dark reality of the human heart.

This is how our stories work. Honest story telling requires honestly confronting the reality of the human heart. It’s been this way for quite a while, and it’s largely a product of the world we live in and our political reality — our lack of any sense of security because an enemy can now strike in any way, at any time, in any place. Such is the nature of modern warfare and terrorism; perhaps never more clearly real for us than in the events of this week in Brussels.

In 1949, while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, novelist William Faulkner reflected on the uncertainty of his post-World-War-II time, and the impact this had had on the sort of stories being told. He was worried that the writing of his time was not anthropologically honest because it wasn’t really grappling with anything beyond the immediate; and the fear produced by a sense of present distress or crisis.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” — William Faulkner, Acceptance Speech

I wonder if we’re getting closer. I wonder if the current trend towards a gritty, low fi, dark reality, complete with anti-heroes and complexity and shadows, in all our story telling — be it Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, or Daredevil is us being able to balance the fear of our times with the sense that what is truly to be feared is actually what is within each one of us. Maybe that’s confronting and scary. It certainly seems more honest, though sometimes it can be pretty depressing; such that our stories, and our heroes, no longer inspire and uplift in the same way that Gandalf, Aragorn, or Samwise Gamgee could. George RR Martin, the author of Game Of Thrones, suggests his books are an attempt to grapple with this reality, though this quote from an interview with the ABC, begins to suggest that maybe our hearts become dark because the places they beat in are full of darkness, and that’s what is required to bring light…

“I like grey characters. I like people who have both good and evil in them ’cause I think real people have both good and evil. There are very few pure paladins in the world and there are very few totally evil people. We all have the capacity for heroism in us. We all have the capacity for selfishness and evil in us.

How do you play this Game of Thrones, this cut-throat game? Do you play it according – clean and noble, according to the rules that you’ve been taught? You do that, you could very well lose your life and you could lose the lives of people that you love and your family or your children, because the other people that you’re playing with are not playing by the same rules. So then do you compromise your principles and get down and dirty with them and play it in the rough and mean way that you think might be necessary to win? Well then maybe you survive a little longer, but what have you become in the end? I mean, these are issues that I think are very much worth talking about, not only in fiction, but of course we see this reflected all around us in the real world, the constant struggle of ideals versus Realpolitik.” — George R.R Martin, ABC Interview

Daredevil, the cultural text, not the character, is also a product of a particular era of comic book mythopoeia — the universes and stories created within the universes of our ‘post-modern’ comic books are all grappling with darkness in a bid for more honesty; particularly in the comic genre. This all began, in some sense, with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight version of Batman, and Allen Moore’s Watchmen, but their approach, worlds away from the hopeful optimism of early Superman stories, leaves us in a pretty bleak place.

“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

Daredevil fits within this broader cultural oeuvre. Daredevil, aesthetically, is relentlessly dark. It’s part of the way we’re brought into the world of the blind protaganist, but it’s also in keeping with this modern approach to story telling. It explores these questions; but with a note of hope. A note that comes because at its heart, Daredevil is not so cynical about the human condition. His Catholicism leads him to see a glimmer of hope in the heart of each human, and so for his city. It’s faith in something transcendent that holds Daredevil apart from the Dark Knight’s Batman, and, within the Marvel universe, from The Punisher. Daredevil has hope that he’s part of the solution — not part of the problem — for Hell’s Kitchen. That he can make his place, his city, better, by bringing light into a dark world. Where season 1 was an extended exploration of the good samaritan, season 2 is a deliberate exploration of what a hero incarnate looks like. His efforts are not well received, because others in his world are particularly cynical about heroism — and who can blame them as they pick up their lives from the rubble left behind by Iron Man and Co. The nature of heroism is on view, and debated, and discussed, throughout the season. The Punisher’s ‘grim reaper’ approach to justice is literally put on trial, while Daredevil/Matt Murdock is always on trial with the people in his life, some of whom know what he gets up to at night, and others who don’t. Matt shares his life with very few people, there aren’t many in his inner circle — just Elektra, his mentor ‘Stick’, his best friend and lawyerly colleague Foggy, his nurse Claire, and his colleague/love interest Karen. At the start of the season Karen is the only one in this inner ring who doesn’t know Matt is Daredevil. She’s also the most disillusioned with Matt and least forgiving of him, in his contributions to society as a lawyer, as a result.

“This city really needs heroes. But you’re not one of them” — Karen

There’s a really nice pay off to this line at the end. One of the things the Daredevil writers do well is launch things at the start of a season that get some closure at the end. Another little parallelism comes with Matt/Daredevil’s threat to prevent Kingpin — the villain from season one — from ever having the satisfaction of living in New York with the woman he loves; as they both acknowledge that they are a product of the city as much as they hope to shape the city, and Matt’s own realisation that he could leave New York, perhaps, for the woman he loves.

“Now you’re thinking you can serve your sentence. Hop on a jet. Go to her whenever you like. Live somewhere like Monaco, or, I don’t know, wherever you fat cats go to sun yourselves. But you can’t. You can visit her, but you’ll never live with her. Because this is New York. Wilson. You live here. This is your jungle. This is your blood. Like it is mine. She will never come, and you’ll never leave.” — Matt Murdock to Kingpin

“We’ll keep moving. We’ll change identities. We’ll hide. They’ll never catch us. What do you say?
“I say let’s go to London. Madrid. Tunisia. There are sexy places to hide.”
“Hey, I’ve never been further north than 116th street so…”
“Because you love New York.”
“And I’d give my life for it, but there is one thing in this world that makes me feel more alive. And that’s you.” — Daredevil and Elektra

This comes at the end of a long ‘heroes journey’ for Daredevil, where he’s increasingly, and deliberately, alienated himself from his neighbours and neighbourhood, because he believes that’s what is required to save them. In doing so he risks becoming excarnate — detached from the consequences of his actions, and the real motivation for them, and unable to achieve the sort of transformation that can only come to Hell’s Kitchen if he inspires from beside, rather than ‘rescuing’ from above. It’s the people — his neighbours, his community, who he served beside who kept him grounded as the ‘good samaritan’ in season one. And this is risky business. Here, perhaps, is the most overt Daredevil/Jesus moment in the series.

“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…”

“I’m done Claire. No more law. No more friends. At best they’re a distraction. At worst I put them in jeopardy. From now on I need to focus.”

“You may feel like you are a ship lost at sea, but if you isolate like this you really will be. You’re cutting off your own anchor. And every minute that you spend standing, hiding, in this suit of armour the more separate you become from the very things that you want to protect. Your friend is in a hospital bed down stairs. Stop playing the loneliest little soldier and start being a human being.” — Claire and Daredevil

Being Daredevil is exceptionally costly for Matt, but it seems to be his cross to bear. The journey he’s on in this story is very much a journey to remind himself that he needs real connection to other humans — he has to forget that one lesson from his mystical mentor Stick. His friends don’t understand the cost he pays to save them. They’re busy dealing with the same fears — the same existential crisis — as the rest of the city; the same questions about heroism and salvation, the same balance between desiring mercy and justice; while in the main, knowing exactly who the masked vigilante is. And mostly they just want Matt to be their friend. To walk away from the mask; from the mission. This is Matt owning his identity, and his mission, while being disowned by his closest friend, Foggy. Expressing these human fears. Fears that Daredevil might actually be causing the problem. Denying that Daredevil is the saviour and calling him not just to step down from his cross, but to walk away from the mission and try something more effective. This is a Peter/Jesus moment.

“I came to talk to my friend, not the vigilante.”
“They’re the same person Foggy.”
“They weren’t always”
“Either way. I have to do this. As we speak there are horrible things happening in this city.”
“Of course.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you…”
“You don’t get to create danger and then protect us from that danger. That’s not heroic. That’s insane.” — Matt and Foggy

For Jesus of course, he didn’t abandon his friends, but was abandoned by them. And there’s a sense that this is true in Daredevil, because Matt/Daredevil’s greatest desire from these friends is that they understand him, trust him, and support him. That’s why he finds succour in his friendship with Elektra; she understands him. She also represents the ultimate test of his ability to save or transform someone, she’s the test case to see if redemption really works; if moving someone from darkness to light is actually possible. She’s aware of the darkness in her heart and is prepared to face up to it.

There’s an incredible degree of theological insight in Daredevil. Especially for Christians. Especially as we prepare for Easter this weekend. The majesty of the Christian story rests on the word that spoke the universe into being — the ‘light and life’ of the world — becoming human. Breaking down the distance. Drawing near. Being ‘one of us’ — speaking words in human language, that build and create life in very different ways to the words spoken in the beginning. The glory and humility of the incarnation is precisely this — that God didn’t step down onto a cross never having broken bread with those he came to save, but that he offered his life for the friends, the city, the world, that had abandoned him.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:15

 

When we’re at our most honest, as humans whose hearts are dark places, living in a darkened world of our own making, when we’re honest we have to admit that it’s not just the darkness that we’re afraid of, the light terrifies us. The prospect of a saviour who might pull us from the default patterns of existence — from the darkness where we’ve grown comfortable and accustomed — is terrifying. Daredevil has confronted this darkness, and chosen light — and he chooses to see the light, or the potential for light, the image of God, in everyone else. Light and life are sacred for this blind martyr.

What I loved about Daredevil is the way it explores heroism and celebrates the hero with dirty hands — the hero who steps into the mess with those he is trying to save. The hero who confronts darkness and grapples seriously with brokenness; not just brokenness in the world, but brokenness in himself. By season’s end, it seems Daredevil the good samaritan, the ‘crucified’ saviour who is prepared to lay down his life for his city, has a real shot at transforming the city. There’s this poignant piece on ‘true heroism’ in the final episode that has nice little links back to the Avengers if you’re paying attention, but also asks a bigger question that shows, at least in part, where Daredevil, and his imitators, won’t actually produce lasting change in New York.

“What is it to be a hero? Look in the mirror and you’ll know. Look into your own eyes, and tell me you are not heroic. That you have not endured. Or suffered. Or lost the things you care about most. And yet. Here you are. A survivor of Hell’s Kitchen. The hottest place anyone’s ever known. A place where cowards don’t last long. So you must be a hero. We all are. Some more than others. But none of us alone. Some bloody their fists trying to keep the kitchen safe. Others bloody the streets in the hope they can stop the tide. The crime. The cruelty. The disregard for human life all around them. But this is Hell’s Kitchen. Angel or devil. Young or old. Rich or poor. You live here. You didn’t choose this town. It chose you. Because a hero isn’t someone who lives above us keeping us safe. A hero is not a God, or an idea. A hero lives here, on the street, among us, with us, always here but rarely recognised. Look in the mirror and see yourself for what you truly are. You’re a New Yorker. You’re a hero. This is your Hell’s Kitchen. Welcome home” — Karen

There’s something very true and very real about the necessity of the ‘incarnate’ hero — the hero from within the community, with a close and abiding love of the place, the world, that birthed them. But we are shaped by place. Profoundly. We breathe the air and drink the water and imbibe the values of a place; and so ultimately Daredevil will have the same impact on the city as Kingpin. He’ll craft his community into his image. And though that involves more goodness and light than the next person, he, like you and me, is still flawed. He shows this, in one sense, because he’s both prepared to alienate himself from his community to save his city, and ultimately prepared to give it all up for a woman who understands him and makes him feel ‘more alive’ than New York. He’s still the product of his humanity, and those in his community whose hearts are that grey mix of black and white. And so the transformation or salvation he offers, good though it might be, is not the sort of hero our fearful world needs.

Ultimately his heroism is also not enough to defeat death — even if he chooses not to kill, because life is sacred, death still relentlessly pursues those in his city. And death is the ultimate form of darkness. Daredevil, interestingly, and without much editorialising, finishes at Christmas time. Which is interesting, especially watching it as Easter approaches. Because it’s in these moments still celebrated in our calendars that Jesus offers something more compelling than Daredevil — and more complete than simply a heroic example. It’s this point that the profundity of the Christmas — where the incarnate divine saviour who doesn’t just live above us to keep us safe, but is the God who becomes one of us — and the tragedy and triumph of Easter where this saviour enters the darkness of death and the tomb and raised to life to save us, and defeat death, that real hope is found. Our stories, our heroes, will, so long as they are purely human, always have black-to-grey hearts. The evil in each of us, and the death that results, is real darkness. It’s what we fear. It’s the enemy to be defeated. And our dark hearts are ill-equipped to really achieve that. We need real light. Otherwise its the blind leading the blind.

That line from Solzhenitsyn“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” is profound. Because in Jesus — in the Christmas and Easter stories — we see a hero enter the story whose heart is undivided, it’s pure light, and a God who willingly destroyed a piece of his own heart to deal with evil and death once for all. We see what real light looks like, and how darkness is overcome. We don’t just see a hero nailed to a cross, we see an empty tomb. And so we know what it is to no longer live in fear. We know what a better story looks like.

 

 

10

I haven’t been writing much here lately so it hardly feels like I can say I’m ‘still blogging’ but two days ago this little corner of the internet turned ten years old. And that’s something.

I’ve been blogging for longer than I worked in the ‘real world’, for longer than I’ve been married, for longer than I’ve been a father, for longer than I’ve studied at uni, and for longer than I’ve been in vocational ministry. That’s a whole lot of significant parts of my life that have been around for less time than I’ve been systematically trying to incarnate (or excarnate) my brain online, encoded in bits and bytes by writing my thoughts down and hitting post to send them into cyberspace.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading.

A beginners’ guide to university from two non-beginners

On Sunday I gave a talk to new (and returning) students living at Emmanuel College, a residential college at the University of Queensland. I mention this because the talk is now up on the Emmanuel Centre for Science, Religion and Society’s blog. So you can read it. If you so choose. I regret much of my approach to uni the first time around, but almost nothing about my approach to Bible College. So I have some first hand experience of being a student. I spoke on How to have a dangerous education. Which I think is important. Here’s a taste to whet your appetite.

“You’ll feel you should read the right things, and say the right things, and write the right things. By ‘the right things’ I don’t necessarily mean the good or true things, but the consensus view, or the opinion of those teaching you. This won’t be overt pressure, it’ll be the implicit pressure of staying with the safety of the herd. It’ll be the pressure of the default. The status quo.  The easy road. Your time will be pulled in all sorts of directions, and you’ll feel pressure to follow the path of least resistance, or to avoid danger.

Educational excellence is not found in walking the safe road, the well-trodden path, but walking the dangerous road; engaging with those who push you out of your comfort zone and challenge your default assumptions about the way things are.

Transforming the world requires innovation. It requires being open, not closed, to new ideas, threatening ideas. This requires embracing danger. If you want to be a real leader then you should do that, boldly, for the good of others, as an act of love for your neighbours, but you should also do it for the safety of your soul.

Danger — risk-taking – is where you’ll be tested; entering the crucible of contested, dangerous, ideas and staring down discomfort, leaving your ‘comfort zone’ is where your character will be refined and you’ll be forged into a formidable force for change.”

Also this week, my good friend Izaac (who has returned to blogging, somewhat sporadically), gave a talk to students at Griffith University called How to make the most out of universityIzaac spent almost as much time at university as I did, as a student, and since graduating (both times) has spent years working on campus, first as a trainee with AFES, and now as a student. So you should read what he says because it is edifying and good. A taste:

“As most university students today reduce their studies to a qualification it has become commonplace to mock people who consider university as an education rather than a career. We call them Arts students. And we suspect they’ll attain little practical skills (is ‘English literature’ a skill?) and in all likelihood end up working at McDonald’s. But then again according to recent reports, Law is the new Arts with only about two-thirds of law students finding work in law. In other words, there are many paths toMcDonald’s.

However when I say that university is for learning, I don’t immediately mean the type of learning from an Arts major. From my 14 years with students (including two degrees of my own) I have observed that it is the students who understand that university is for learning who will get the most out of their student years. This broader approach to your education will ensure that the job, career, and socialising will form a necessary part of university life without dominating it.

I want you to get the most out of university. And if you don’t know what university is for then you won’t get the most out of university. If university is for learning then there are three attitudes to have towards learning and three key areas to think about as you learn.”

 

 

When Henny Penny meets 1984’s Winston: The sexular age and seeing the world as it really is

The sky is falling. We must tell the king — Henny Penny & Chicken Little

hennypenny

I feel a little like I’m a chicken, just kicking back in the coop, chewing some corn or something, and watching Henny Penny running around yelling that if I don’t get off my perch and spit out my corn the sky will fall on my head.

Do you ever feel like that?

There’s a fair bit of hysteria in my coop about life in this new sexular age. The result of the secular world we live in where reality has been flattened so only the material questions of here and now matter, butting up against the sexual revolution, where only sex really matters. Materially speaking. Stephen McAlpine sums this sexular age up best. So read him (see also Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age and James KA Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular). But we Christians are the enemies in this revolution, perhaps rightly so, because we keep standing against it, and when we’re not standing, we’re running around trying to convince one another that the sky is falling in, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.

It makes sense, if this sexular age is a real thing, that the people of this age will seek to indoctrinate the children of this age to worship the god of the age. It makes sense that the people of this age will set out patterns of relationship that conform to the image of their god. That’s how idolatry works. Always. Alternative patterns. What doesn’t work is calling people to follow our pattern of life without giving them the way in. To do that is just cruel.

There’s a fair bit at stake. Potentially. So it makes sense. But I think our best bet, and the thing we’re actually called to do as followers of Jesus, is to spread our wings and give Henny Penny a comforting hug, but also reach out to those doing their best to bring the sky down on us. Those driving the revolution. Because they’ll need a hug when they realise the revolution doesn’t deliver (and it’s just our job, metaphorically) even if they don’t.

Just to be clear — the hug I’m talking about is extending the love of Jesus to the people of our world, the knowledge that he is the real king, and the only lover capable of meeting the expectations people are heaping on their sexual partners. We get so worried the sky is falling in we forget our job is to love those who are afraid, and love those who its going to fall on, even as they pull it down on our heads.

If you’re reading this and you feel like you need a hug because of how Christians keep telling you to live — where you can or can’t stick your bits, or how to think about who you are, then I’m sorry. All this stuff we believe about sex and gender and life in this world we believe because following Jesus makes us see everything differently. If you’re not prepared to accept that God might have something different to say about sexuality to the inner workings of your mind, or to the education system in Australia, then you’ll probably find this post super awful and hate me. I’m sorry. But I’m writing specifically to Christians, basically to tell them to stop telling you to live like you’re a Christian.

I’ve been particularly struck by the intra-Christian hysteria this week when it comes to our snowballing response to the Safe Schools material being introduced in our secular (sexular) schools, and to preparations for the plebiscite on gay marriage. There are plenty of these out there, some of the more measured responses include this blog post from Akos Balogh that has gone a little viral asking for the Christian position to be respected — for our students to be safe from bullying, and this story from the Presbyterian Church’s Moderator General (the guy responsible for chairing our national assembly who functions as a bit of a lightning rod for the denomination) David Cook about a meeting with Malcolm Turnbull seeking clarity about a gay marriage plebiscite.

“We want all students to be safe at school and free from bullying, whatever their identity. But my concern is that your material risks not only causing harm to some of the vulnerable LGBTI students (e.g. through the minus18 website), but it also creates another class of ‘outcasts’, whose only crime is to hold a different view of sexuality/gender than Safe Schools.” — Akos Balogh, Dear Safe Schools: I have questions

David Cook describes meeting the Prime Minister, in a delegation put together by the Australian Christian Lobby. He reports:

The issues which concerned us were:

  • The framing of the question to be answered in the plebiscite.  Would we have input into this so that it did not unfairly encourage the preferred response of either side?

  • The question of religious freedom both during and after the debate, if the plebiscite is lost.

  • If the Commonwealth was  to provide funding for campaigns, how would such funding be allocated?  The campaign in favour of single sex marriage in Ireland outspent the traditional campaign, 15 to 1.

  • When will the proposed Bill to change the Marriage Act and enable the plebiscite, be available?

  • Will the PM do all in his power to ensure equal access to media for both sides of the argument? — David Cook, Malcolm in the Middle

 

I have a huge amount of respect for David Cook (and for Akos), but especially for David’s contribution to the church in Australia in training up Gospel ministers — evangelists. I know both these guys to be pretty reasonable, and what they’re asking for seems so reasonable. Fair even. I don’t entirely share some of their thinking, because I keep remembering how poorly we stewarded the ‘public square’ for the sake of minority groups being safe, when we were the dominant social power. We were probably especially, at least anecdotally, damaging to the LGBTIQA community, who are the primary beneficiary of both these current issues.’

It’s certainly not just Christians who make the world feel unsafe for people at the margins, but we’ve been a bit culpable either in participating in bullying, or not using our power to stop it (and then you’ve got boxing champions and professing Christians like Manny Pacquiao and Tyson Fury kind of proving the point that the link between Christian faith and bullying can be quite direct). This is why we’ve got to be careful when Christians are allowing for hate speech laws to be thrown out so we can debate the plebiscite robustly. There’s a fine line between debate and debasement when some people claim to be speaking for God.

For David Cook, at least, the fear that the sky will fall seems quite palpable, and it seems to miss the point that the sexular age is already here. It’s not going to be brought in by this vote, this vote will simply codify what Australians already think (whichever way it goes). And I suspect because the average Aussie’s pantheon of gods includes freedom, sex, and free sex, they’ll be voting for the side that best represents their objects of worship.

“Changing that Act will change society; genderless marriage will lead to genderless families, no more mothers and fathers, just parents; genderless living will be used to encourage children to choose whichever gender they would like to be.” — David Cook

Both David Cook and Akos Balogh essentially mount arguments against change on the basis of protecting our personal freedom, or liberty, as Christians. Which sounds noble, and I totally agree with their thinking. I just don’t think it’s going to work (have a look at Stephen McAlpine’s aforelinked post for a start). I think we’re trying to topple one modern idol sex with another freedom when they’re so closely interconnected that the alternative idol is more likely to consume us as we wield it, than destroy the arguments we are deploying it against. If this makes sense… An argument for individual liberty ends up becoming an argument for people being free to choose their gender and their approach to marriage.

“There is no doubt we are facing a very different Australia in the future when such curbs on liberty become part of the policy platform of a mainline political party.

Neutrality will not be an option in the debate leading into the plebiscite.  The church, usually reluctant to enter into politics, needs to take the lead in having an educative role.

We need to be much in prayer at this time and the silent majority need to speak up.” — David Cook

I’m a bit confused. Do we want groups of people curbing the liberty of others, or not? If we make the argument about liberty and are only worried about our liberty then we’re falling into the trap of being pretty inconsistent.

“I would rather stay home and read a book but that is not an option for any of us.” — David Cook

“The sky is falling in. The sky is falling in. We must tell the king.” — Henny Penny

When the sky is falling in, we certainly can’t just stay home and read a book. We have to do something. We have to change people’s minds! And the Sky is falling in. It is. But we seem to be making Henny Penny’s mistake and turning to the fox — in this case, the state — to deal with the problem, not the king. You don’t help people when the sky is falling by putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

We need to do something, but getting out the vote isn’t it. At least I don’t think it is. When we say things like this and expect to be convincing, we’re missing two fundamental Biblical truths.

  1. In response to human sin. God gives us over to a broken way of seeing the world, with new (broken) hearts and minds (and we used to be part of this ‘them’). See Romans 1.
  2. In the transformation and renewed mind God brings via the Spirit to those who follow Jesus, God changes the way we see the world back to how it should be seen by giving us new (new) hearts and minds. Without this mind following God’s pattern for life is simultaneously impossible and futile. See Romans 8, 12

Idolatry and Double-Think

War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery. — George Orwell, 1984

Up is down. Black is white. God is sex…

This Romans 1 passage works corporately, it’s about all of us in Adam. Since the beginning of the Bible story people are born seeing up as down. Seeing things as God, and God as some small thing. We’re not born knowing who God is from his world, though we might have an inkling, we’re born already suppressing the knowledge of who God is because that’s human culture. That’s how we get sexular ages. Consensus views that are opposed to God. To deny this is to deny that sin affects every human heart and mind from birth. But this isn’t a get out clause because we all repeat that deliberate act of suppression, so Paul says:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20

When we humans invert the created order and make created things into our gods — which is the hallmark of the sexular age, where our worship is directed towards sex, and our sexuality frames our understanding of who we are at our most fundamental level — our thinking changes. It’s natural that our thinking is shaped by our love and habits — by the story we see ourselves living in… but it’s not just that. This re-seeing the world, re-imagining the world, isn’t just us choosing to see the world through the lens provided by our new god — sex — the real God is also, at least according to Romans 1, confirming these new patterns for us. This is part of the judgment of God that comes on people when they turn to idols… There’s this repeated statement in Romans 1, the idea that God gives us, humanity, over to a new way of seeing when we exchange him for idols. He ultimately changes the way humans (and so, human cultures) see the world. Our hearts and minds are shifted by what we worship, and by God to what we now worship, as a punishment.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…  Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. — Romans 1:24, 28

This is talking about every single person in this world. The only thing that changes the way we see the world — helping us see war, peace, strength, freedom, and sex, rightly, is that we see the world as God made it to be seen because he first works in us. We can’t do this seeing on our own, nor can we expect our arguments to make people see their own way out of their idolatry. This requires, as an old school Christian dude Thomas Chalmers put it “the explusive power of a new affection’ — until someone loves Jesus more than they love sex, or another idol (perhaps individual freedom), more than they love sex, these very reasonable arguments we make seem like doublethink. I can no more convince someone that I should be free to disagree with their view than I convince them that up is down.

This truly expulsive power comes from one place. God. And it comes as we share the love of Jesus, the Gospel of Jesus, not as we call people to simply change the way they see the world starting with sex. We just look like panicked chickens when we do that…

The Noetic Effect of Sin meets Common Grace

There is a sense, I think, where living out and speaking about sex following the pattern of the created order, not our sexular age’s order, does bear witness to God and his goodness. This is why I’m so keen for Christians to stay involved with marriage for as long as possible — rather than pulling stunts like getting divorced or withdrawing from the Marriage Act if our sexular government broadens the definition of marriage. People do still, despite the warping of our minds, have a taste of what has been lost. I think this is actually what Paul is talking about in this hotly contested passage in Romans 7.

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. — Romans 7:18-19

I think what he’s talking about here are two aspects of every person’s humanity — what it means to be like Adam and Eve. We’re made in the image of God, so know what we ought to do; but we’re also made in Adam’s image, and shaped by our idolatrous hearts, so keep doing what we shouldn’t. This reading fits with the way Paul appears to hark back to the Fall and the way he describes human behaviour that parallels the unfolding of human history in Romans 1, and the way he contrasts Adam and Jesus throughout the argument. Plus it works with where he goes in Chapter 8, and the solution to the problem — for both Jew and Gentile — being the Spirit of God marking out the children of God who will restore creation from its cursed frustration.

I think he’s talking about these two big theological concepts — the noetic effect of sin and common grace.

The noetic effect of sin is basically the Romans 1 thing — our ability to know God from what has been made has been utterly frustrated by sin’s effects on our thinking. This effects every sphere, though some smart people suggest it particularly affects issues of morality and the heart, where our idolatry is most likely to be at play, rather than in ‘objective’ areas like math, science and geography, where we’re most likely to be able to infer true things about God’s invisible nature without our human desires and idols getting in the way.

Common Grace is the sense that God remains good and true to all people, even as we become bad and turn on him (even as he ‘gives us over’ to that turning). It’s the sense that God sends rain on everyone, and allows us to figure stuff out about how rain works. It’s that sense that his image remains in each of us, despite our best efforts to shape ourselves into the image of our idols, and that this means we still have some sense of right and wrong…

So in Romans 7, I think that’s what is going on, it’s the tension in every human heart, a tension we appeal to as we live faithful lives and proclaim the Gospel, and a tension that is only really resolved with the solution Paul talks about in Romans 7 and 8. It’s this common grace, the image of God in all people, that gives me some hope in this sexular age, not for the society at large necessarily, but that our faithful witness is not wasted, because God will use our faithful witness to draw people to himself and renew their way of looking at the world by his Spirit.

 

The Gospel leads to right-think

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” — George Orwell, 1984

Something massive changes in our humanity when we trust Jesus. Something changes in the way we see the world. We get the ability to start valuing the righteousness of God rather than the counterfeit righteousness and rituals of our idols. Our stories change, our pattern of behaviour changes, our hearts change, our minds change. Not completely drastically, the ‘delight in God’ that is latent in all of us is reawakened by his Spirit.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  Romans 8:1-2

Here’s why we’ve got to stop pretending the world around us should live like us, and why we should stop pretending they should think like us or even listen to us, if our message is one of individual freedom, or if it challenges the idols of our age. It doesn’t matter how hysterical we are, or how reasonable… it’s the Gospel that is the ‘best book that tells people what they know already’ — that does what books in 1984 do, opening people’s eyes to the truth… our other arguments will fail. Inevitably. So we’re stupid to keep making them.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. — Romans 8:5-8

We’ve got this whole new way of seeing the world because we’re newly human, so we’re actually meant to look different to the world around us.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

We serve a totally different God. Our acts of worship don’t look like the pursuit of sexual freedom for all, but the gift of ourselves to God. We’re supposed to love differently. To understand marriage and gender and safety in different ways. Not call other people to sameness, or call them to respect our ways. Our ways are foreign and weird and involve the death of the gods of the people around us…

The way to help people see things this way is right back at the start of Paul’s letter. It’s the Gospel. Not a call to human righteousness first, but to Jesus.

So where to now?

Here’s what got Paul up out of bed in the morning, and got him loving and talking to a bunch of people whose age was every bit as sexular as our own…

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures  regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake… That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:1-5, 15-17

Maybe if we started being eager to preach this like Paul was, and kept reminding ourselves both who we were, how we became what we are now, and where we’re going, we’d all be a little less anxious about sex, and a little more anxious to see people come to faith in Jesus.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” — George Orwell, 1984

In a real way, both the Henny Penny — the concerned Christian who thinks the world will fall apart if people stop being righteous, and the Winston, (the main character in 1984)  the person living in this sexular age, being massaged by the patterns of this world —  have confused ideas about God.

Where Henny Penny convinced herself that the sky was falling in, and got in a tizz; Winston in 1984 was the product of a system that was deliberately designed to control people via confusion. Henny Penny misunderstood reality, and needed to be calmed down by the king. Winston needed to be drawn from the way he’d been seeing the world by having his eyes opened, bit by bit. Before their epiphanies, that help them both see the world as it really is, both Henny Penny and Winston need love and hugs from those who’ve already found clarity when it comes to seeing the world, and freedom. They need Jesus. They need to be set free. There are lessons to be learned in both these stories about the way idols, or false ideas, plant themselves in our heads. Whether its by misunderstanding something God made (like a nut falling on your head), or being shaped by an oppressive system (like Big Brother), there are things in this world that shape us and take us away from seeing the world truly.

The danger for Henny Penny, in listening to Chicken Little (who doesn’t know better), and leading a band of terrified animals to find the king, is, as the parable goes, that they end up in the fox’s den. The fox capitalises on Henny Penny’s gullibility, and gets to eat a bunch of scared animals.

They ran to tell the king. They met Foxy Loxy.
They ran into his den, And they did not come out again. — Chicken Little

What Henny Penny should’ve done, in the story, was given Chicken Little a hug. She should have told Chicken Little to calm down; that even if the sky was falling, the King would have things under control.

It’s not that the sky isn’t falling. It is. It’s just that we’re actually Chicken Littles, and if we react the wrong way, we’re leading a bunch of people to their doom, straight to the predator’s gaping maw. Big Brother is real. It’d be naive to suggest that people in our sexular age aren’t going to use their power to conform people to the image of the age. To advocate for their idol. Safe Schools is just the beginning. And that will be painful for us as we resist in our own lives, and as we teach our children to resist (by teaching them to follow Jesus). Costly even. But resist we must  — in that we are not to be transformed, ourselves, to be like idols, by these uses of worldly power into the ‘patterns of this world’. That’s a real danger Paul identifies, but the fight is not one fought on our own steam. It happens as the Spirit works in us to shape our minds in a new shape of God’s choosing. That is God’s power. It trumps the power of the world of idols, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I should also say I don’t think resistance means telling people not to be sexular without offering them the expulsive power of a new affection, something to pull them out of their way of seeing the world and into something more positive. This conversation is doomed to failure if we frame it as being about individual liberty — that just pits two modern idols against one another (even if we find one more palatble).  So. Since we’re not in the building of wielding human power, but relying on God’s power as we preach the Gospel — the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” — George Orwell, 1984

Can we please stop calling people to live out obedience to God in their sexuality? Can we please stop acting as though the people we live in are on the same page as us when it comes to sex just because we all live in the world God made? Can we stop acting as though happiness is found in moral obedience, not the freedom the Gospel brings from slavery to idols? Or as though people can simply act their way out of idolatry without God.

If people are worshipping at the altar of sex, or individual freedom, or whatever, then they’re seeing the world through that lens  — and God made them that way, it’s unloving to pretend he didn’t, and pretend they should be like us, without Jesus. It’s impossible. So, can we renew our focus on the Gospel, which makes this possible? Which provides the expulsive power of a new affection?

You can, because of your renewed mind, obviously see what sex and marriage are meant to be, and how idolatry smashes God’s design. But if you try to fight the new sexularism, or any idolatry, on your own steamwhether we’re talking about how we understand sexuality in schools, or what we call marriage — you won’t beat it. Not without God transforming a person’s heart, by his Spirit. The way to ‘win’ is by pointing people to Jesus.

Next time someone is running around as though the sky is falling in because kids in sexular schools are being taught sexular ethics can we remember that nothing changes without the Spirit, and it’s faith in the Gospel that brings righteousness, not righteousness that brings faith in the Gospel? Can you just give the Henny Pennys in your life a hug and ask them to calm down for a minute… The king knows the sky actually really is falling in, and he knows what is going to put the world to rights. He’s already done it, and the invitation to safety and true seeing is there for everyone.

 

 

Grill a Christian: Question 4: Why was the Bible written?

grillwhybible

Somehow I jumped from question 3 to 5. Here’s 4.

“Why were the books of the Bible written? I know that some of them are letters so I get that, but what of the ones that are written as novels and accounts of Jesus life and the stories of the Old Testament? The authors didn’t know their work would go into the Bible so why did they record it? Was it like a diary? A ledger? Letters?”

I think one of the super important things about the Bible is something you’ve absolutely nailed in your question — that its a collection of books. Each book has a different purpose, is a different genre, each is written at a different time in the unfolding of God’s story, and each is written in a different way (so, some books are histories that accumulate over time via different people who compile them, some are autobiographical, some are recordings of sermons or messages brought to God’s people by leaders, prophets, and later, Apostles).

Genesis-Deuteronomy = the ‘Law’/legal code of Israel, but it’s not just their law it’s their history — the reason to keep the law. It tells the story of Israel being created out of all the other nations (and connected to all the other nations, and the story of all the other nations being connected to God from Adam, and how Israel was meant to ‘bless them’ (from Genesis chapter 12 — this might help answer your later question, Israel was meant to follow in Adam’s footsteps, being God’s representatives/making him known to all the nations, and all the nations were meant to keep their connection to the God who made them through Israel, but they walked away. That’s the story the earliest books of the Bible tells — of our shared humanity, but Israel’s role in God’s plans, and how they’re to carry them out by being different.

Those books are a mix of oral history and autobiography/sermons written by Moses, except they go a bit after his death, and there are times where you can see people adding little historical notes like “and this is still there to this day” so that you know they were ‘edited’ or at least kept current so that readers knew their connection to the story in later generations.

Joshua-2 Chronicles records Israel’s history as a nation, from the time they settle in the land that is now a pretty contested part of the middle east, to the time they’re taken into exile. These are written by many many people, probably as official court historians/record keepers. They’re largely narrative based.

Then there’s the wisdom literature — Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes — these are like many other ancient forms of wisdom literature that explore the big questions about life, the universe, and everything. They are an interesting mix — especially Psalms and Proverbs — Proverbs has some Egyptian wisdom, some Jewish thought, and shows how Israel should be relating to the world (including the wisdom of the nations), by starting their search for wisdom with understanding how incomprehensibly big God is (so the Proverbs talk about ‘the fear of the Lord’).

The rest of the Old Testament are ‘the prophets’ accounts of the preaching/teaching of different people who spoke to Israel about how they were going wrong by wandering away from God and turning to idols. These guys either wrote stuff down (and sometimes describe themselves as writing things down), or their messages were recorded.

The prophets and the Psalms reflect backwards on the history, and look forward to Israel living the way they were meant to, not turning to idols, for the sake of themselves, the nations, and God’s plan/story which was heading towards Jesus.

I suspect they recorded their messages because they were part of a culture that recorded its history (from the time of Moses), and they saw themselves standing in this tradition of God revealing himself, in terms of what type of text their recordings were, they read like they could be a bit of a diary, or letters to their school of followers, and at times a collection of sermons/speeches they were giving. Some of them record history — like speeches from the national leaders/spokespeople they’re interacting with. I think there are two reasons they might have written things down, depending on how much they knew they were speaking directly for God, and so writing ‘the Bible’ and how much they knew they were saying important things to call Israel back to what they knew to be true. So:

1. To record their words as God’s word, or,

2. To have a record of their words as important messages that would be held up against what happened to Israel in order to see how accurate they were as prophets. Prophecy has always, in some sense, been tested by its accuracy, and the reason these ones lasted is that they proved accurate both in terms of Israel’s exile, and, for Christians, the coming of Jesus.

In the New Testament, there’s Gospels — which are biographies/histories of Jesus with a particular theological agenda and an audience the writer is trying to persuade about Jesus. So. Mark is written to a Roman audience, it seems, and tends to emphasise details that Romans would find significant, Matthew is written to a largely Jewish audience, Luke is written, it seems, to a Greek/Roman/Jewish mixed bag and its largely an attempt to give a robust history of Jesus and the Church (centered on Paul’s missions), because Luke’s sequel, Acts, was probably part of the same volume originally but split over two scrolls. John is written a little later than the other three Gospels, and seems to answer a bunch of big theological questions about who God is, who Jesus was, etc, to help the early church appreciate the connection with the Old Testament, and potentially to answer some things people were teaching about Jesus that weren’t consistent with the other Gospels.

Then the rest of the New Testament is letters to churches or people. They’re a bit like the prophets in that they reflect on who God is, and how he goes about saving, and deal with figuring out what beliefs this creates in terms of different situations and tendencies, and how we’re to live in response.

There are a couple of books that are often treated as tricky (and they are) which are harder to categorise because they use an apocalyptic genre so are full of symbolism — Daniel and Revelation. I tend to think Daniel is much like the other prophets in that it is meant to teach God’s people about real power by assessing a situation where they are under the power of an oppressor, and Revelation is actually primarily a letter, so it has to be addressing real, specific, concerns for the people receiving it in order to be useful (and so, circulated), and it also has to make sense to them. We lose the meaning of these books if we try to decode the symbolism to make it primarily about distant future events for the recipients or current events for us.

What’s cool about the Bible is that we don’t entirely have to figure out this question apart from God’s answer, which we find when Jesus uses the Bible in all its diversity, to point people to himself as the climax of the story. He’s talking to a couple of his followers before they realise it’s him, after he’s been raised from the dead, in the midst of their disappointment because they don’t think a crucified guy can possibly come from God.

“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them,“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations,beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” — Luke 24:25-27, 44-49

So despite all this diversity, and all the specific situations that were being addressed (and are still addressed) in terms of who we are and how we go about life in God’s world, and what that means for our relationship with God, the Bible from start to finish is actually about God, not us. It tells his story, about his love for people as it is ultimately revealed in his chosen king. It’s the story of God coming to dwell with his people — regaining the paradise lost in the first chapter, first in Jesus himself, and then when this promise Jesus makes is fulfilled as God’s Spirit, his life-giving breath comes to live in people again.

Re-Enchanting the world — Episode 4: Deus In Machina

In which we return to the discussion of enchantment, super-heroes, and the power of a good story in firing the imagination. To refresh your memory, dip back in to Episode 1, Episode 2, or Episode 3. Also, since episode 3, my friend Craig had a great piece on Marvel v DC posted at the Gospel Coalition.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? — CS Lewis, God In The Dock

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision, Avengers: Age of Ultron

Epic stories — myths — are only as compelling as their hero. Sometimes, in modern storytelling, the formula has been broken so that the ‘hero’ is not heroic at all, but is relatably conflicted. A character at war within himself or herself, and so our modern stories have gritty anti-heroes, or we view stories sympathetically through the eyes of a villain. This leads to a certain way of imagining the world, but it probably doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous imagination that leads to an enchanted view of life the universe and everything. I’d argue its disenchanting, and depressing, and pushes us towards accepting a gritty, immanent, version of reality and trying to make the best of it.

Epic stories and the ‘stranger’ hero

Epic stories that occur within an ‘immanent’ reality — where the here and now is everything — struggle to move us, or to invite us to see what things could be, rather than simply seeing how things are. In episode 3 we considered the sorts of immanent heroes in our modern myths, and suggested the incarnate hero — the hero as neighbour produced by a problem in a place with a view to solving that problem from a position of attachment to people and place is the best sort of immanent hero (as opposed to hero as stranger coming into a problem place). So Daredevil was the best example of this from the modern pantheon of heroes — whether Marvel or DC. But, perhaps haunted by a past where an enchanted ‘transcendent’ reality was taken for granted — or perhaps because of that gnawing human sense that we’ve lost some infinite thing — epic storytellers (including the writers of modern comics) have long played with the need for a more transcendent sort of hero. An otherworldly stranger who steps into the world to pull us from a mess, while helping us see life in the world properly. These storytellers often depict someone who steps into the machinery of life and our world with a transformative agenda — the saviours or villains in these stories are ‘outsiders’ — wholly other — like Thor, or Superman. These heroes who come ‘from above’ often function in a way old timey epic writers labelled Deus Ex Machina — as Gods in the machine; unlikely solutions to complex human problems, who turn a story on its head. The downside of these transcendent heroes is that unlike immanent ‘from below’ — the friendly, neighbourhood, hero — we can’t immediately relate to them. They are strangers. The visions of virtue they offer is almost always ‘other,’ or there is a chasm between us and them, in their alien or godlike nature, that we cannot hope to cross.

Here’s my thesis for this post: A really good enchanting story  — a story that will push us towards a more complete view of the world, a more virtuous life, and a better ability to imagine a transformed world and life, will involve a godlike saviour figure coming into the machine, but will also have enough connections with our humanity that we are left with a pattern for living and imagining. Real re-enchantment will involve the transcendent and the immanent being held appropriately in tension, it won’t involve one collapsing into the other.

Epic stories — enchanting stories that give us a transcendent account of life —produced through the ages have charted this course between the nature of the divine and the implications for life in this world of this divine nature carefully. In some ancient stories — Greek myths, or even older myths like the Enuma Elish — deal mostly with the life of the gods, and treat humanity as an incidental bi-product, or even a distraction, these stories function to explain the nature and state of the cosmos, sometimes to account for the disinterest the divine world takes in our piddling, momentary, existence. Such stories were more difficult to churn into an ethical framework for hearers because the divine nature is so detached from life. Other epic stories where the gods step into the world to fight with or for a particular human cause are much more grounded, and so, have lasted and essentially been adapted into our modern myths — never more obviously than in the case of Thor who bridges the ancient gods, or epic heroes, with the modern. These stories, transcendent stories, serve us best when the heroes — or gods — interact with us in such a way that they ‘save us’ and in saving us, provide a pattern of life that will prevent us getting into the same trouble again. That’s what real salvation looks like; a path out of disaster. In an essay on epic heroes through the ages, Roger Rollin wrote on this sort of epic hero and their sociological function — both within the story, and within the community that tells the story.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

In another essay about comic books functioning as modern epics, or myths, David Reynolds considers the formula that modern ‘epic’ narratives — including comic narratives — follow.

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Our post-modern epics, or myths, sometimes provide us with this sort of heroic saviour figure who stands apart from the human mess, but increasingly are not. Our heroes — for example, either Tony Stark as Iron Man, or Batman in his ‘Dark Knight’ iteration — are now flawed humans. Our ‘legendary heroes’ are not Holy messianic saviours figures. They are the reverse. Pious readers can’t jump to Jesus from these heroes any more when ‘baptising’ the stories for Christian consumption. They’re now left using these stories to explore the human condition. Because our heroes, especially in the Marvel Universe, are all too human, they’re too like us. They don’t depart (mostly). But their presence actually leaves us without a model worth following, because they’re following us, just with superpowers, or fancy gadgets. The stories Rollin and Reynolds describe pre-date our post-modern ‘epics’, but actually diagnose the problem facing a world — or comic book universe — filled with flawed, fallen, characters.

The Marvel Universe needs a saviour

The Marvel Universe, in its modern cinematic/TV iteration started out a bit like a ‘harmonious paradise’ but the fall of this world didn’t just come about through villainy, it came because of the power put in the hands of flawed heroes who go to large scale war with super villains. Increasingly the stories told in this universe are dealing with the fallout in the universe that comes because Marvel’s heroes aren’t actually selfless. They’re profoundly selfish. They’re (even Thor) flawed and they’re (except for Thor) very human. Daredevil, of course, and now more recently, Jessica Jones, now live in a world, a New York, post ‘the incident’ — the wanton destruction of the city that happened when our heroes went to war with an enemy from the outside. Our stories are no longer stories of regaining paradise, as much as grappling with our inability, via flawed heroes, to do anything but perpetuate our fallen state. In the last post in this series we considered an alternative to the ‘hero as stranger’ — the ‘hero as neighbour’ — which is a game changer in an ‘immanent’ story, but not particularly helpful for epic stories that hope to help us see reality as enchanted, or to find meaning beyond the moment.

Good stories — enchanting stories — give us a way out of a purely immanent existence by inviting us to connect with a more fully meaningful view of life. A touch of the transcendent. There are those who are so fully invested in an immanent view of the world — the belief that the material realities of this life are the only realities worth exploring — who might dismiss a transcendent sphere as even worth exploring. Which explains much of our gritty storytelling.

The Marvel Universe does not just need good neighbours. Those who don masks to express the sentiment caught up by the hashtag #illridewithyou, it needs a saviour who leans down, offers a hand, and says #illhelpyouup. Neighbours are destined to be tainted by the universe — the environment — that has shaped them and their priorities. Let’s call it Batman Syndrome — Batman shapes Gotham, just as Gotham shapes him, and so an altered Batman shapes Gotham in an altered way, and in the end they become each other… This isn’t salvation so much as reconciliation, which is an immanent hope, but a transcendent story — a hero who is both in the city, and apart from it, offers a different hope. A hope untainted by a poisonous environment…

Immanent stories — these stories of becoming always end in tragedy. They describe the world as it is, and offer a compelling picture of love to fellow journeyers. But love is costly sacrifice, taking on the traits of your environment as you take on the environment for the sake of the other, or with some utopian vision that helps you lift the gaze from catastrophe to slightly more palatable catastrophe. Think Gotham without the Joker, or the crime bosses, and Hells Kitchen without Kingpin. But there’s always another villain around the corner. Transcendent stories  — enchanting stories — don’t end in catastrophe, but what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe. In his masterful On Fairy Stories, in which Tolkien outlines why we need enchanting stories, and the elements of these stories that lift our gaze from the immanent and offer us an escape from a broken reality as they move us when we participate.Tolkien embraced the idea that enchanted stories were a form of consolation or escapism — he said that’s absolutely the point, because we need to escape in order to re-imagine life. Tolkien speaks of the eucatastrophe as the perfect happy ending, a taste of joy, a vital element for enchantment, and one missing from our modern epics/tragedies.

The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

If the Marvel Universe is to have a happy ending, if the journey towards destruction that is both the result of its horrible villains, and the ‘heroism’ of its flawed saviours, it needs a virtuous hero to arrive who is untainted by the mess, who offers a vision for salvation, who is prepared to walk the talk, and who can truly restore and perhaps even renovate the ‘paradisiacal’ conditions we all have the sense we were made to enjoy. It needs a eucatastrophe brought about by a hero who brings a taste of joy. In ancient epic storytelling this sort of arrival on the scene of a potentially tragic story — a resolution bringer — especially when delivery seemed improbable, was called a deus ex machina, ‘a God from the machine’.

The Marvel Universe: Gods from the machine

Which brings us to the latest instalment in the Marvel Universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron. And two literal gods from the machine — Ultron, and The Vision. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is all too aware of the problems created by the trajectory the Marvel universe is on, and so he, the flawed but altruistic genius, fashions a solution in his image. He attempts to create a godlike machine, a shield that will protect the world from any threat. And in this attempt creates a god from the machine — a god, Ultron — who in his godlike assessment of the situation, as he digests the entire internet, decides that humans are the problem. Ultron emerges as a new threat to humanity. An immanent, destructive, literal, God from the Machine.

Incidentally, while he might fall foul of some of the criticisms perennially directed at the deus ex machina — that he represents a contrived and convenient villain — Ultron is the embodiment of one of the greatest apocalyptic fears of the modern, secular, immanent. mind. He is the incarnation of a very modern, very immanent, concern; artificial intelligence that turns on us. He is the worst version of the ‘singularity’ — an immanent vision of the apocalypse.

Ultron is a creation of Tony Stark’s flawed utopian vision, a god from the machine but apart from humanity — a fusion of metal and code — soulless, without whatever non-physical reality it is that makes our humanity human. Ultron is an eerily immanent figure. Ultron’s imagination of salvation and transformation of the cosmos is one we need saving from. He is God in the Noah story, but without compassion or hope for humanity. In fact, some have suggested that Ultron is a secular rendition of the popular conception of the ‘God of the Old Testament’, while The Vision, his counterpart, or anti-thesis, is Jesus.

In the visage of Ultron, and then The Vision, we see a Dystopian, and then a Utopian, retelling of the same old immanent myth — a myth where humanity makes gods in order to pull us out of human made problems. Where we ultimately face a moment of crisis, or judgment, and need a saviour. Ultron wants to wipe out humanity — Noah style — The Vision wants to save us. Hero style. Both are the products of the same mechanical eschatology — this technological singularity — the apocalypse writ large, just in binary. In this eschatological frame we must pin our hopes on a saviour from the machine, because only a machine god will be enough to save us from the raging of the machine.

Thor [Regarding creating Vision]: Stark is right.

Bruce Banner: Ooh, it’s definitely the end times.

In this, the Marvel Universe shares an eschatology — a view of the end times — with the secular world that it is produced by. Our modern secular eschatology tends to involve a catastrophe for humanity either at the hands of the machines we create, or the world we destroy. The apocalypse is always, in a serious secular sense, and especially in our stories, a catastrophe of human making, requiring a human solution, or some super-human intervention. Nature is against us because we meddle, or the machine is against us because we aren’t careful enough in deciding which levers to pull, or what to combine. And, this is pretty much the origin story of every non-divine hero or villain in the Marvel universe. This apocalyptic stuff is about as epic as our (popular) story telling gets. This is where we ponder what the epic storytellers of old pondered — immortality, the limits of our humanity, and what the heroic life looks like in our time. These are our epics.  And. They are still thoroughly disenchanting. The world is mechanical — we’re in trouble because we’ve pulled the wrong levers, we’ve built the wrong machines within this machine. The only hope proffered for our world is a god-from-the-machine. A machine god. Our future is tied to this ‘singularity’ moment — its just a question of whether we produce a judge or a saviour. A machine who is patient with our human faults, or who sees them as a glitch to be immediately eradicated. If this is the best we can imagine, then we’re in trouble when it comes to trying to find meaning in our world, meaning that sees the world — and life in the world — as something more than mechanical.

Ultron: “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.”

 

Ultron: Do you see the beauty of it? The inevitability? You rise, only to fall. You, Avengers, you are my meteor. My swift and terrible sword and the Earth will crack with the weight of your failure. Purge me from your computers; turn my own flesh against me. It means nothing! When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world, will be metal.

 

Ultron was meant to be both ‘judge’ and the incarnation of a better, inspirational, version of humanity. In the Noah metaphor he wanted to both bring the flood, and build the ark. Only Ultron, as a human creation, falls. He is tainted with the same problems as those who created him, the ‘fallenness’ of humanity, and our role in the apocalypse is not tied to our flesh, but our nature. 

Helen Cho: “The regeneration Cradle prints tissue; it can’t build a living body.”
Ultron: “It can, you can. You lacked the materials.”

 

Ultron: I was meant to be new. I was meant to beautiful. The world would’ve looked to the sky and seen hope, seen mercy. Instead, they’ll look up in horror… I was designed to save the world. People would look to the sky and see hope… I’ll take that from them first.

 

Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers. People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there. Children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end.

The Vision is an interesting saviour. He is the machine incarnate, embodied to step between humanity and machinageddon. If Ultron is the machine passing judgment on the planet — part human — in the comics he’s described as “every inch a human being—except that all of his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials,” and part god from the machine. He’s the embodiment, or incarnation, of Stark’s personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S, some transcendent matter in the form of the ‘infinity stone’ embedded in his head, and synthetic human flesh on a metallic frame.  The J.A.R.V.I.S component is of Stark’s making, the infinity stone comes from the gods — or from beyond the earth, but the creation of the synthetic body was Ultron’s initiative. The Vision’s making is an act of a machine god, but his breath  — his life — comes from mankind and some transcendent life force via the infinity stone, and some lightning from Thor. The infinity stone is part of the fabric of the cosmos, which, in the Marvel Universe, was created by one God, a God who is not Thor, but is infinitely greater than him. 

Oh, my new friends, before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots… Infinity Stones.” — Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

“…and ’tis said that a being, called the Living Tribunal—the final judge—hath the power to enforce his will ‘pon any cosmos he doth judge! And ’tis said his power is supreme in all the Multiverse. Even I, son of one of the mightiest of all gods, find it impossible to conceive of such levels of power! And ’tis a humbling thought to consider how much greater the Creator of all Universes must be than that of all of His creations combined!” — Thor on God, The Mighty Thor Annual #14 (1989), Marvel Comics, cited in Marvel Wiki, One-Above-All

The Vision is a bit-part god; a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of us, a bit of machine, and a few parts divine. Age Of Ultron positions him as a godlike saviour figure from above and below. He is a virtuous godlike character with enough purity to wield Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. He is, in this sense, a fusion of the immanent — flesh, code, and metal, and the transcendent — Thor’s lightning and the infinity stone. His divinity is hinted at with lines like:

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision

But he’s ultimately a ‘god’ within the cosmos, within a pantheon of equally not infinite gods, while the Living Tribunal stands apart in infinity, a distant deistic god. Thw Vision is called on to save from within the universe — part god from above, part god from below, this real god, kicks back, not intervening in the world as the universe falls apart. According to Thor at least, he’s the transcendent one who could really fix things. The infinity stones are something like a bridge to his power, but other than these stones, the transcendent is only incidentally connected to the immanent in Marvel, these bit part gods — The Vision and Ultron — like their Norse counterparts, are more immanent than transcendent, limited by how great the gap is between any of them and this real transcendent power, limited in power and to a particular place. They are finite.

Despite his godlikeness, and his name, The Vision does not have much of a vision for salvation. He should be able to save the universe, and yet, even as he destroys Ultron, he essentially admits humanity is doomed. Perhaps because humanity is not equipped to imitate his non-human virtues.

Ultron: Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.
The Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments.
Ultron: [laughs] I suppose we are.
The Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed!
The Vision: Yes… but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You’re unbelievably naïve.
The Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.

The Vision is the ultimate #illridewithyou hero, only, he’s not human enough to carry it out like Daredevil. He remains ‘other’. Despite his incredible power and capacity to transform the world, he’s no more inspiring or enchanting than Daredevil, he just seems less likely to be shaped by his environment. While remaining ‘other’, The Vision, like Thor before him (and like Superman) is not ‘other’ enough, godlike enough, to bring a real solution into the picture for humanity, nor is he imitable enough for his solution to be democratised. The Vision only delivers temporary relief to the Marvel Universe, and so as an example for us as viewers looking to have our imagination shaped by an epic hero, falls short. The Vision is a god from the machine, but not the Eucatastrophe, or re-imaginative transformation, the Marvel Universe requires. There is no denial of the ‘universal final defeat’ Tolkien spoke of; in fact, such defeat is seen as inevitable even by the ‘saviour’ — whatever joy that is offered is immanent joy — The Vision’s ‘grace in our failings’ or beauty in temporality. These are immanent joys; the joy of the ‘journey’ alongside others, the joy in the moment, the joy in the struggle, rather than the joy of the destination.

The Vision v Jesus: God from the machine, or God into the machine

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

“[The eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” — Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The Vision is not this hero — he’s not this sort of god. So he does not bring that sort of joy, or hope. He is, ultimately, a product of the cosmos, born, in part, from outside earth but always from within the material realities of the universe. He’s a ‘god from below’ — destined, like any other epic hero, to grasp after something transcendent, that ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (to quote David Foster Wallace), and destined to stand beside us as we share that sense. He offers no road back to paradise lost — infinity lost. Because he hasn’t been there or seen it for himself.

Tolkien wasn’t writing On Fairy Stories to engage with the Marvel Universe, but he does speak about how Jesus is a better eucatastrophe than The Vision. Jesus is both the archetypal #illridewithyou hero who walks the path we walk, only with virtue, and the stranger-saviour who wears the cost of our broken pattern of life without joining in and perpetuating it. He comes into the world and takes steps towards restoring paradise precisely because he does not follow the pattern of a caped crusader. He absorbs the corruption of the world, he takes it upon himself — he becomes sin and death, but he is equipped, by virtue of his transcendent, divine, nature, to break the human cycle rather than perpetuating it. In his full humanity, and his offer of resurrection is able, also, to provide a pattern of life that might see hope

The Vision might be a secular Jesus figure, but he’s a cheap Jesus. Jesus is not a bunch of bits stitched together by a bunch of broken people, bringing their own brokenness to the table. He’s not part human, part machine, part divine — its in his paradoxical fusion of full divinity — or transcendence — with full humanity — or immanence — as a hero simultaneously from above and below — a God from the machine, and God coming into the machine in one person — that makes Jesus both the archetypal epic hero, and the eucatastrophe this world needs (and that the Marvel Universe could do with too). It’s these two natures working in symphony that means Jesus was able to enter our journey and secure a heroic victory over death on our behalf, while also inviting people to touch the infinite; to see the finite world as ‘enchanted,’ filled with divine meaning because he is both the one who holds all things in his hands, and the one whose hands were pierced by spikes to remove the threat of universal final defeat, and to provide a path and an invitation to us to join him in paradise renovated. These hands bring the finite and infinite together.

The Gospel is the best epic story, and Jesus the best epic hero, according to every formula for assessing such stories. Jesus provides a vision for a future world — the Kingdom of God — and invites people to follow his example in bringing a taste of this joy — being bringers of ‘eucatastrophic’ moments as we follow his example of the epic life. This has been a key belief of epic tellers of the Christian story from the early days of Christianity, here’s Athanasius, an old dude, reflecting on the nature of Christ in a way that seems to parallel with the modern archetypal hero story… the same story The Vision was expected to live out, but admitted he could not…

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.” — Athanasius, On The Incarnation

 

According to Tolkien, Jesus, in the Gospel, is the prime example of the Eucatastrophe — the true eucatastrophe that all fictional eucastrophes draw on. Jesus is better than The Vision because he is better than any epic hero. His story is more compelling, and should stoke the fires of our imagination better than any other story, and lead to a more enchanted view of the immanent and transcendent meaning of life in this world than any other, this should lead us to make better art, tell better stories, and live better stories. Here’s a passage from On Fairy Stories.

In the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a faroff gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite. I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.

The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe.

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. — J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

 

Grill a Christian: Where are God and Jesus?

Where are God and Jesus?

Cool question.

The Father is what is technically called ‘omnipresent’ — God is infinite, he must be, because all things are contained within God, he’s not a limited being within the universe who is measurably more powerful than everything else, he’s infinitely more powerful than everything else, and infinitely bigger than the universe. I just had this thought recently. If the universe, by all our human measurements, seems so vast and constantly expanding that it is limitless, or infinite, the gap between the size of space and time, which I believe to be finite, and God, who I believe to be the infinite source of these things, is actually infinite. The cosmos is contained in God, he is the source and grounds of its being, and the source of life and breath for all beings living in it. This has basically been what people have, across most religions, and as far back as human history has been recorded, believed about at least some part of what it means to be God (some religions have had other gods existing within the universe, or underneath a chief God). It’s consistent with what the Bible says about God, some of my favourite bits that talk about his vastness come in Job, and the Psalms.

This is what Paul says about God when he’s telling a bunch of religious philosopher/theologians who were the gatekeepers of the pantheon of Greek gods about Jesus.

““The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” — Acts 17:25-28

The Bible suggests, I think, that this omnipresence is true for Father, Son, and Spirit, prior to when Jesus becomes human. There’s a substantial change made to God’s nature that begins in what is called ‘the incarnation’ — God becoming human — which is what makes Christmas really worth celebrating. Here’s something from Colossians 1, which is what Paul says about Jesus and his relationship to the universe before he became a man, but also how God the father positions him in the universe as a result of him becoming human (a bit like Philippians 2). The bit about all things being created and held together in him is important for building that idea of ‘infiniteness’… and the ‘firstborn’ bit is a stepping out of the infiniteness. The whole being the image of something invisible is playing with this idea I think.

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:15-20

So, Jesus becoming human is a stepping down from this sort of infinite nature into a specific, and limited, form. It means Jesus now occupies a place, physically, in a way he did not. He shares something of our nature for the rest of eternity, which is part of how he now operates on our behalf, a bit like our lawyer, in heaven. The Bible says he ‘intercedes’ for us (see Romans 8, which picks up a bit of the answer to your earlier question about ‘the flesh’). The first chapter of John’s Gospel, which we’ll look at in term 1 next year, has a really cool way of describing what’s happening here. Jesus goes from being the ‘divine word’ that spoke creation into being, to being flesh. Stepping into the world. In this description where the ‘word became flesh’ — the ‘substance’ of God the father’s creativity, the means by which he acts stuff out — or at least has historically in the Bible, has at least in this sense, changed form from ‘eternal’ and limitless, to being a living, breathing, human (but still a fully divine human), this change is permanent. Jesus takes this same body with him when he goes. If you think about Jesus being a ‘spoken word’, God the father being the ‘speaker’ and the Spirit being the breath that gives volume and a ‘channel’ for that word to be heard, that’s probably the best analogy out there for how the Trinity thing works when God does stuff). There’s a bit in Hebrews (another book of the New Testament, and also the name the people of God in the Old Testament, Israel, and the language they speak), where the person who wrote Hebrews (we don’t actually know exactly who it was), plays with this idea of God’s ‘speech’ now being caught up in Jesus becoming human. This is from Hebrews 1, the first three verses:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. — Hebrews 1:1-3

God’s ‘speech’ — the way he made the world, and revealed himself to his people — which was presumably always this person of the Trinity in action, because it’s not like Jesus suddenly came in as a substitute who’d been warming the bench when he became a baby — this person of God and his actions are now concentrated in the human person of Jesus.

That’s part of what’s amazing, moving from infinite — which is utterly inconceivable to our heads — to finite, just like us. In the ‘incarnation’ something about the son’s nature changes, in that he now has a human body for the rest of eternity, the story in the New Testament goes that Jesus was raised, and then ascended to heaven, where he reigns. Still embodied, still with the scars of the crucifixion that he shows to his disciples — changed by the experience of taking on our humanity in order to save us, but now ruling in heaven again.

So, where is that exactly? I think heaven is a place beyond the boundaries of this universe but within the ‘infinity’ that is God, and the future picture is of heaven becoming, like Jesus, ‘Incarnate’ — becoming a merging of these places, a creative act by God similar to the way he created earth the first time, by his imagination and will. That’s where Jesus is. There’s some stuff in the Bible that suggests that Jesus, from this point/place is essentially omnipresent again, while being embodied and present in this place. He’s also eternally connected to the omnipotent Father, and with him the source of the Spirit (and eternally connected to the Spirit too). Jesus hears our prayers from earth, he is ‘present’ in us, by God’s Spirit, when we ‘gather in his name’, and he continues to be eternally one with Father and Spirit in whatever communicative network/connection thing is involved in being one God in three persons… he’s also ‘in us’ the Church, as we are ‘in him’ — Paul writes a bunch of letters that talk about us being ‘in Christ’ and about Christ being ‘in us by the Spirit’, and about us being the ‘body of Jesus’. If someone said to Paul “where is Jesus body?” Which was probably a question Christians got asked all the time in the early days of Christianity, I think he’d say “in his church”…

I’m comfortable with not fully being able to explain how all this works because I’m trying to put human words, which are finite and often sort of inexact, to things that are literally out of this world. There are some philosopher/theologians who say that any language we use to speak of God is using analogy because we’re grasping at what he’s like with our relatively tiny brains. I like that.

I hope this helps. Sorry if the answer is bigger than you thought. But the TL:DR; version… God (the Father) is everywhere, the Son is in heaven, and the Spirit (though you didn’t ask about the Spirit) is orchestrating the connections between Father, Son, and the people God (as Trinity) made, love, and in some cases, save. All life, whether its the life of people who follow Jesus, or reject him, is a good gift from God because it happens within the universe that happens within God. That line from Acts 17 “in him all things live, and breathe, and have their being” is one of my absolute favourites in the whole Bible. It actually explains a heap of other tricky questions you haven’t asked yet about death, suffering, etc… God is good because he gives life, and life is good. Bits of life suck because we broke God’s world. But God is good to every person because existence by its nature, ‘breath’ even, is divine.

Grill a Christian: What does it mean to be ‘ruled by the flesh’?

ruledbytheflesh

 

Question: What does it mean in Romans ‘governed by flesh’?

What Paul means is basically that our natural humanity, from birth, is caught between two poles that are in conflict with themselves.

The first is that we’re made in the Image of God, and so know what we ought to do, and sometimes do it, the second is that our humanity, our ‘flesh’ has been corrupted by humanity’s rejection of God’s image and desire to craft our own images, or ourselves as images of our own God (sometimes we just want to be God).

So our two natures — or these two aspects of our nature are sort of playing out, in different proportions, in everything we do. As humans, but we’re also always progressing towards being completely consistent based on what we worship — if we become worshippers of the Living God, as we see him revealed in Jesus, Paul says we are ultimately transformed into the image of his son, if, instead of God, we do what Paul talks about in chapter 1  — worshipping created things that can’t bring life — idolatry, which leads to all sorts of bad actions (sin) — we transform into dead people. Our flesh, without God, points us towards death, because often we put ourselves in the centre and worship ourselves. You could say every person ends up with this happening, we all become shaped by the ‘image of God’ we pursue, the question is whether it’s the real God, or a god we make up.

So, whatever we are, before this transformation is complete, is a product of these aspects of our humanity. The good stuff we do is often from mixed motives, like, “maybe someone will notice what a good thing I’m doing” or “aren’t I better than that other person who couldn’t be bothered doing this” — for Paul it’s convenient to describe this as a flesh v Spirit thing, because what he looks forward to is these two parts of our nature being perfectly aligned, rather than in conflict.

The other thing in Romans is that part of the process of becoming like Jesus — our picture of the real God, is that we get a third part to our humanity, a greater part, God dwelling in us, completing us, by his Spirit. This isn’t like a magical thing you feel, it plays out in a reorienting of our lives so that we do Christlike things more over time. We see the Spirit by its fruit — the lives we live reflect the transformation brought about by whatever we’re worshipping. But as a result of the new bit of our humanity, the Holy Spirit, that happens when we follow Jesus, we re-orient our lives both back towards the image of God part that was always part of us, and now also to the image of Jesus, which has become the pattern for future us both in terms of how we live and our eternal connection to God, our ‘fleshy’ lives change too, hopefully, over time and towards eternity, our actions are less and less mixed motived and more and more an outworking of this transformation, but that never fully happens until heaven. I always feel a little bit like this sounds like science fiction, but the ultimate post death reality, if Jesus really was raised from the dead is that we are raised with new ‘flesh’ untarnished by our shared disobedience.

So governed by the flesh, to answer your question, is a description of us putting the ‘not image of God’ part of ourselves in charge at the expense of our image of God part. It’s about us choosing to live how we want while suppressing whatever quiet voice (and as you suppress it it becomes quieter) is in the back of our head saying ‘you were made for more, you were made for better than this’…

Grill a Christian: Question 2. How does heaven work?

Question: “How do we know that we can remain good in heaven? Free will isn’t taken from us, so we can still make mistakes? Once in heaven can people be sent away? What makes living there different to here? And what will we do in heaven? No one will need anything.”

These are great questions. I think the big difference the Bible promises between us and our will now, and us and our will for eternity is that our character is perfected. It’s not that we won’t have free will, it’s that our free will won’t be lead astray by our self-serving nature (free will is a sort of paradox anyway, because God is also totally sovereign and working through every moment of our existence, because he is the ground of our being — as in, we exist ‘in him’). When you have perfect freedom, in the context of perfect love, where there is no crying, or mourning, nor pain, nor the ‘old order of things’ (which is what Revelation 21 suggests the new creation looks like), our mistakes won’t be mistakes, they’ll be exercises of our free will that don’t cost anyone anything. It’s perfect rest and recreation, for eternity. I find this question hard to answer because I find eternity quite hard to fathom. I think there are a few things that the Bible suggests are true about eternity that probably help answer the questions here, even if somewhat indirectly.

1. Heaven is earth. Perfected. Renovated. We’re not living on clouds, God’s good world is being refreshed, renovated, and renewed for his people to enjoy the way we were made to. So, whatever good stuff you do now, you’ll do then too. This is a little speculative, but I suspect we’ll not just have the world to explore, but the cosmos.

2. God will remain infinitely amazing, and we will be finite creatures moving towards the horizon of eternity (so becoming more and more infinite I guess, and knowing more and more about the love of God, and who the God who made the world is, and what God is like). He doesn’t stop being creator, and we don’t stop being creatures — we don’t become omni-anything in the new creation, we as creatures have a beginning, but as ‘new creations’ we have no end, while God has neither beginning nor end. So we, I think, will grow in the knowledge of God for eternity. I suspect this means we’ll also grow in the knowledge of our own capacity and what being loved by God frees us to do, so we’ll, I think, become more creative (like God), and thus capable of creating more wondrous things over time. I’m fairly sure the imagination continues to exist in heaven, and we’ll continue imagining and creating things, like we were made to. Otherwise heaven will be not as much fun as earth.

3. Nobody will ‘need anything’, sure, but wants are actually valid, even if parents try to tell you only to worry about things you need, not things you want. And we’ll still want to know God, still want to love, still want to create, we’ll still want to do all the things we were made to do as people made in God’s image, and we’ll be free-er than ever to embrace our (new-created) humanity in a way we’re unable to now because sin gets in the way, so does death. The stuff you can’t imagine achieving in your life time will no longer be impossible. I like to think we’ll have an eternity to explore the far flung reaches of the universe, and that God might well keep expanding the universe into eternity, so we’ll never run out of new things to play with.

4. People can’t be sent away. Probably the best passage to read to answer these questions (as well as Revelation 21-22) is Romans 8. It’s close to my favourite passage in the Bible.

This bit is the best bit:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30

Question: How will we know the Joy? If in this life it’s kind of like ‘you can’t know joy without pain, happy with out sad, bad without good’ how will we know that we are experience Pure Joy in heaven? Will people become complacent or tired?

I think we’ll know joy because we’ll remember life now. I hope we won’t become complacent or tired because one way heaven is described is as perfect rest, where work and play are unfrustrated by our shortcomings. So work exists in the Bible before sin, but exists as a sort of unfettered playful creativity with the good things God made.

CS Lewis writes some cool stuff about the fleeting sense of joy we experience here in this world and the overwhelming joy we’ll experience, by comparison, in the new creation. Especially in the Weight of Glory (and also in Surprised By Joy). Some bits are about Greek poetry and stuff, which was what he lectured in at university, but you can skip that pretty easily and still get something out of this. I think. Here are some great bits from the Weight of Glory.

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…

…Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we, and it has stood the test of Christian experience down the centuries. The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire.And that is just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” …If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know. The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised, firstly, that we shall be with Christ; secondly, that we shall be like Him; thirdly, with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; fourthly, that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and, finally that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple…

…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life. At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God; but the mind, and still more the body, receives life from Him at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements. The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountain-head that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As St. Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body.

 

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

 

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

 

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

Grill a Christian: Question 1. Why did God make us?

Question: Why did God create us, and does the answer ‘so we might glorify and love him,’ mean God is selfish?

God created us because he is, by nature, a creator of life. I believe the catechism answer is true, but a little limited, because it focuses on our response not on God’s free action in creating. I think it’s wrong to think of God as creating us outside himself for the purpose of having little minions who worship him. We exist ‘within’ God’s infinite being, and he gives us life and breath, and being, and love.

In one sense, this question is like asking why Shakespeare wrote the characters he created into existence. How could he not when he had such magnificent stories to tell. How much more must God be compelled to create when he wanted to create the Gospel story (Revelation talks about the lamb slain before the creation of the world — the Gospel was always God’s plan).

As a little side note on this one — I don’t think sin was always on God’s agenda, but I think resurrection and glorification was — I think Adam and Eve were meant to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and expand God’s perfect garden throughout his good world. I think the serpent was always on the agenda. And my super speculative thoughts here are that if Adam and Eve had turned their backs on the serpent, he would’ve done what Satan orchestrated with Jesus — he would have killed them. Eventually. And resurrection and glorification would’ve been how God defeated Satan. That’s the sense, I think, of how the verse from Revelation can work without God orchestrating the Fall (though I ultimately don’t think he was surprised by the Fall). This opens up a bunch of other questions about God’s knowledge. Which would be a tangent from a tangent…

Let’s assume that God is love. Like the Bible says. That he acts, makes, and creates, out of love. This love is directed, at first, within the Trinity, but it pours out from that. Creation is an act of love, an act of love overflowing — creating more things for the infinite/eternal triune God to direct his infinite love towards. It’s also, if Colossians 1 is a good summary, a gift from Father to Son, an inheritance, which, because God’s love is an overflowing or abundant love, overflows to those parts of his creation redeemed by Jesus, and united in the love of God.  Creation is also an act of the Son, the ‘word’ who was with God in the beginning as God spoke the beginning, and the cosmos, into existence.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. — Colossians 1:15-16

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. — John 1:1-4

Creation is not an act by which God the Father glorifies himself, but by which God the Father glorifies and celebrates the Son, and by which God the Son glorifies and shows his love for the father, and by which the Holy Spirit glues both together. Creation is a Trinitarian love story, and an outpouring of that to us. So when Jesus prays that we might share in the love of the father and son we’re being brought into this eternal, infinite love story not just as spectators to God’s ‘cosmic love story’ but as actors in it. With parts to play as we celebrate and experience the overflowing of this love… Here’s a thing Jesus prays about us which is incredibly profound — that we might share in the unity of the Trinity, becoming one as they are one. God’s creative act is generous and other-seeking, and inclusive, rather than self-seeking. It is also measured in that it never forces this conclusion — this drawing together — on anybody who doesn’t want it.

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. — John 17:18-23

Also, because God is not a ‘self’ in an individualistic sense, but is found in the perfect interwoven, overlapping nature of the Trinity (there’s a Greek word that captures this best ‘perichoresis’, which means interpenetrating), the pursuit of glorification isn’t the same as when we seek glorification. And God’s non-self-seeking nature is on display in how he extends the invitation for us to participate in his divine, eternal life, by completely ‘un-selfing’ — at the Cross. There is no Christian God apart from the God whose nature and love is on display at the Cross. God the father is ‘cross-shaped’ as much as God the son is crucified, as much as God the Spirit is — perhaps especially in his desire to completely throw light on Father and Son — cross-shaped. There is no self seeking part of who God is. Because we know God best as we meet him in Jesus, and we know Jesus best as we see him nailed to the cross. That’s what ‘glory’ looks like.

Ulitmately, God is a story-teller. A creator. This is part of who he is. We know this because what we know most about God is that he creates and reveals (we know this from the world, and his word — and his ‘Word’ who the written word points to).

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. — Hebrews 1:1-3

He creates things that reflect who he is, and because of who he is that can’t really produce anything but glorification or contempt. The world God made is a finite thing made by an infinite thing to reveal something of the infinite. Things we make, and stories we tell, serve a similar function for us, they’re an outpouring of who we are in an attempt to make ourselves known (even to ourselves, if we never share them beyond ourself), an attempt to capture and reveal something of ourself in a moment in time. Jesus as ‘word’ and ‘image’ written into creation is the ultimate version of what God always does when he creates, a pointer to who he is. It’s also worth saying that an infinite, creative, mind could create an infinite number of possibilities, God didn’t have to make what he made. But he loves what he made so much that he wrote himself into creation, in a finite way that actually forever changed the nature of Jesus such that, even now, he is embodied in a glorious, resurrected body as a taste of the future work of re-creation God will do when we are resurrected to share in his next creative project, the New Creation, with him.

Grill a Christian… answering questions about Christianity for those who want answers

Do you have any questions you’ve been super keen to ask a Christian? Any question? But never known who to ask, or how to ask it without someone not taking it seriously? Send them my way.

I’d love to have a crack at answering them. In this little “Grill A Christian” thing, I’m going to take a stab at answering some questions that a few people newish to thinking about God have asked me, but I’m open to answering more. Maybe it’ll help you believe something, maybe it’ll help you understand why or how people can believe in something that seems like a fairy tale or an exercise of the imagination to you… Who knows.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I can no longer really describe in accurate terms what I thought when I became a Christian (In a nutshell: I was a kid, I grew up being taught about Jesus, and at some point I decided I owned it. Then I started questioning the beliefs I had as a child, then I came up with answers to those questions that satisfied my adult brain, while looking at better stories that account for our humanity and our world). I can, however, describe in accurate terms what excites me about seeing the world through a Christian lens, and what excites me about the God revealed simultaneously in his word and in his world. I’ve often wondered how to reconcile the two — how the thinking that comes through probing and questioning as an adult might connect with someone just starting out on the journey. Is there anything I can say that isn’t the product of a massive gap that has been created by my own wanderings and musings?

Here is the working assumption that underpins this exercise, and, hopefully, my answers.

God is big, and our ability to understand him is small, and the process will take forever. Which is what we’ve got if we grab onto him as he shows himself in Jesus.

One of the profound truths I believe about God is that in order for him, an infinite ground of all being in the universe to make himself known to any finite creature in the universe he needs to step down to us. Finite creatures can’t touch the infinite, the infinite can reach down though. And that’s precisely how God works. Whatever we do as our appreciation of God grows with time, and by his Spirit, we need to be able to look backwards to where we came from, so that we too can reach back and grab people as they reach out for God. Plus. Christianity at its heart is a story that is both simple and rich. When Paul speaks to the leading religious philosophers and theologians of his day, the council of the Areopagus in Athens, he takes the small ideas of God they’re working with, and blows their mind. Paul is a guy who knows who God is from a lifetime of being schooled in the Old Testament, and, it seems, from having read Greek and Roman philosophy and poetry about gods. He replaces the small, human, finite, understanding they have of God with something much bigger. I think that’s our job as people searching for truth. Paul was being grilled — questioned — by this council. He went willingly into the breach to answer the questions of these smart guys, and this is what he said (and many of them laughed at him).

 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

The thing is, while all this talk of infinity might blow our minds… You don’t need a sophisticated faith, you don’t need to grasp the ungraspable. You need to grasp that moment in history where God became finite, and knowable. There is no God in the universe who is not exactly like the crucified Jesus. That is God in his majesty and love on display. That is his invisible qualities and character revealed. It’s the pinnacle of God’s creative work, and our destructive work, on display. The thing God says about what the whole world is meant to do as we understand more of it (like via science or history), is true, perhaps truest for that moment in history where he stepped into the creation and revealed himself in the most profound way.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20

Jesus takes those invisible qualities and makes them visible. The Gospel is the story of God making the unknowable, the invisible and infinite, knowable in the visible and finite person of Jesus. This is the story the world was built to tell, or to host, as God’s revealing canvas for his act of self-revealing in Jesus.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullnessdwell in him,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:20

You don’t need to grasp anything else to ‘get God’…  you need to come running to the God who reaches down with the excitement of a child. I love this picture from Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, of love and reaching for knowledge being two sides of the same coin, but being something that starts when we ‘think like a child’… there’s a richness that comes from staring at the same truth for a long time. A richness I hope to keep cultivating for eternity. Like a farmer who keeps investing gleanings and stubble back into the earth to create richer soil, and thus, better fruit. What we look forward to is our picture of the God we know in our infancy, or as we meet him for the first time, becoming more and more complete, in this process that stretches infinitely into the future.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13:9-13

Which all brings me to this new thing I’ll post here from time to time. One of the fun parts of being a pastor, and a Christian who is quite public about their faith online, is that I get questions from people. I love questions. Often I’ve just answered a person, and later thought “wow, that answer might be useful to store somewhere”… well. No longer. Now I’m, with the permission of the questioners, going to start sharing questions and answers from people so I don’t lose them, and in case others are asking similar questions.

You can ask questions too! Grill me. No doubt some of my answers will be wrong, heretical, or stupid. That’s part of the process of working towards truth. So feel free to join in the discussion by providing your own answers…

I’ll post up the first question tomorrow, and go from there.

What would Jesus snapchat? 10 tips for using social media (other than Facebook) as a Christian

Would Jesus use social media?

If he did, what would he post?

If we’re followers of Jesus how should we think about social media? How do we keep tabs on how teenagers are using stuff like Instagram, Snapchat when we can’t even figure Facebook out?

These are, of course, the questions of our age.

I’m going to answer them a little here by making a certain assumption, that I’ll put up front. I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere (including how people who are leaders in churches might help the people they lead think about this stuff). I’m going to assume that we, people, as God’s image bearers, are God’s social media. That God’s people have a track record, beginning in the Old Testament, of using communication mediums to tell people about God, while avoiding the dangers that come from deadly communication mediums (like idol statues). We’re naive when we assume mediums don’t matter, but we’re over-correcting when we assume mediums that can become dangerous shouldn’t be used. Creation itself was meant to reveal God’s divine character and invisible qualities, the fact that we turn God’s creation into images of things he made, and worship those images, isn’t a problem with creation as a communication medium, but with us (see Romans 1:19-25).

There’s been plenty in the news the last few weeks about how people are using Instagram — from models swearing off social media, specifically the ‘crafting’ of an image that isn’t real on social media, to models swearing at their social media followers for not doling out enough likes on their posts.

“I have created an image of myself that I think others feel is unattainable, others look at as a role model, others look at as some type of ‘perfect human’.” — Essena O’Neill

If you believe what teenagers tell you about social media, Instagram is where the action is. It’s where people are crafting an image of themselves for others to see, and where people are finding images to follow — to worship — and to be shaped by. Snapchat, another image based service, is equally interesting, and equally ignored by Christians who talk about this stuff.

“Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity. Without the constant social pressure of a follower count or Facebook friends, I am not constantly having these random people shoved in front of me. Instead, Snapchat is a somewhat intimate network of friends who I don’t care if they see me at a party having fun… If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it. Snapchat isn’t like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.” — Andrew Watts, A Teenager’s View on Social Media

One of the interesting things about Instagram and Snapchat, apart from their use of images, is that they don’t rely on the same algorithmic sorting of information that Facebook and Google use. They provide a stream of content unfiltered by an algorithm; except of course for the photos, which are ‘filtered’ first in terms of what images are shared and not shared, and ‘filtered’ in the sense of being made to look good via tweaking, often tweaking via the application of a pre-designed filter which applies an algorithm of effects to a photo. This content comes from people who people have chosen to follow, or, in the case of Instagram, content sorted via hashtags or location from newest to oldest.

Perhaps this shift to these new platforms, by our younger generations, is built on a cynicism about algorithms, and the desire to really be in control of one’s media experience.

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, describing the Facebook newsfeed philosophy

I think this, in itself, is interesting because it means the reason we’re not confronted with pictures we don’t want to see — or the reason we’re confronted with pictures that cause us outrage — is not down to an algorithm that controls what you see, but is down to your choice in who to follow.

Anyway. Here are ten tips I’m giving to a bunch of teenagers for how to use image-driven social media — mostly not thinking about Facebook — as Christians.

1. Remember that you are God’s Social Media

We were made in God’s image to represent him in his world. That’s what images of God in the ancient world did. We, from the beginning, were meant to be God’s media. That was true for Adam, true for Israel, and is true for us in Christ. God should be made known through us, and through our connection with him and with others. We’re his representatives in his world, re-created in Christ to re-represent him.

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

— 2 CORINTHIANS 3:3

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

— 2 CORINTHIANS 3:18

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

— 2 CORINTHIANS 5:17

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

— 2 CORINTHIANS 5:20

2. Don’t worship, or become an image of, anything else.

Our human tendency is to make ourselves images of anything but God. Our first inclination is to want to be images of ourselves, rather than dependant on God. To be the pattern for life. That’s basically what Essena admitted above in the words “I have created an image of myself”… in replacing God, we actually end up worshipping ourselves, or some dead thing — an idol — and we become what we worship, and we become disconnected from the one who gave us a pattern for life.

All the stuff we know about media and the brain confirms what the Bible says about idolatry. Our brains are shaped by the things we consume, including the mediums we use to consume things. There’s a saying that’s popular in a particular branch of media studies that looks at the effects of different communication mediums being introduced into society: “We shape our tools, and then, they shape us.” Add this to the line that sums up much of what we know about how our brains take shape “neurons that fire together, wire together” and we find that it’s not just the things we present in our media, but the mediums themselves, that shape us. It’s true that we become what we worship — the objects we fix our sight, imagination, and desires on.

… Idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see… Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

— PSALM 115:4-5, 8

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

— ROMANS 12:2

3. Share Jesus.

If we are communication mediums for whatever we worship, then the way we use mediums will reflect who we are, and communicate what it is we worship. If someone looked at your social media accounts, who would they say you worship? Our job isn’t to try to make images of God, or of things we worship, but to point people to God via our lives, and via what God has made (and how we use it). God’s handiwork  — the stuff he makes, including the people he remakes in Christ — should point people to him, which for us means our ‘good works’ that he has prepared for us to do, as a subset of his creative acts, should show who we are “in Christ Jesus.”

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

— ROMANS 1:20

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

— EPHESIANS 2:10

4. You must decrease. He must increase

Our human tendency is to want to be at the centre. It’s the experience of being creatures whose lives are projections of our own subjectivity — our thoughts, our imagination, our desires, are projected through our actions. The Gospel calls us to re-centre ourselves, and our lives, and our thoughts about others to make Jesus the subject, and the centre of reality, and to point people to him, not ourselves. I like the way John the Baptist describes this experience as he is confronted with the truth about who Jesus is.

He must become greater; I must become less

— JOHN 3:30

This runs counter to the way people in our world use social media to project either ourselves as the ultimate subject of reality, or to present our idols as the subject of our lives and worship.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others

— PHILIPPIANS 2:3-4

In a practical sense, this changes the sort of stuff we tend to want to share/project into the world so that we’re not crafting an image of ourselves, but seeking to serve others (which will always, in some sense, involve sharing something of yourself). This Venn Diagram from Wait But Why’s post on 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook pretty much nails it. Instagram and Snapchat work a little differently to Facebook, but the question is who are your photos pointing to? You? Or Jesus? Who are they serving? You and the image you craft as you ‘worship’? Or Jesus, and others?

5. Don’t Fight.

Nothing looks worse on social media than you arguing with, and grumbling about, other Christians. We’re actually called to be God’s image bearing ‘social media’ together, in and through our relationships with each other as we, together, find our identity in Christ. And arguing and grumbling undermines and so destroys this ‘image’… When we want to fight, Paul’s answer is to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” whose approach to status and power is described in Philippians 2, where Paul follows this instruction, and his description of Jesus’ example, with:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.

— PHILIPPIANS 2:14-16

We’ll stand out on social media as ‘shining stars’ if we make social media a place where we’re not living for our own name, or glory, but for the sake of others — and where we demonstrate this by not fighting or grumbling.

6. Online is great. Offline is greater.

Heaps of people, mostly old people, are super-negative about social media because it’s disembodied. You’re talking at people through a screen. You stare at screens rather than ‘doing life’ in a very present sense. The place you are physically put is definitely part of reality when you are a finite creature, but we’re called to hold our physical reality in balance with the eternal spiritual reality we’ve become part of. As a Christian, you’re connected to the people in your immediate vicinity, but, paradoxically, you’re also connected with God, by the Holy Spirit, and ‘in Christ’ — and through this connection you’re, in a real sense, connected to every other Christian who has ever lived, and who currently lives. Virtual connections are a pointer to this reality, and a great substitute for the physical presence we will enjoy for eternity. If this is a little too abstract — virtual, online, connections are also a way to overcome some of the limits of being finite, in order to have real and significant relationships. They’re a brilliant new way to make space and time less of an impediment for relationships with people, they become dangerous if they stop us ever being really present with the people in our lives, or if we never anticipate coming face to face with those we ‘commune’ or ‘communicate’ with via these channels.

In the old days, like the Bible days, people wrote letters to overcome the limits space and time place on our communication with others. John wrote letters like this — and they’re obviously valuable because they’re in the Bible and have continued circulating for almost 2,000 years since. He saw the value of letters, but placed a greater relational value on presence, and his letters anticipated this presence.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

— 2 JOHN 1:12

What are some ways we can use social media to anticipate or invite face to face contact, even if they’re global relationships? One way is to look forward to, or anticipate, a shared eternity through a shared connection with Jesus.

7. God’s Word is the best media.

Everything God made is, in a sense, media. In that it reveals something about him to us. It helps bridge the divide between creator and creature, or writer and audience. God is most clearly revealed in Jesus, who is most clearly revealed, for us, in the Bible, which is all about him.

Whatever media practices, or social media practices, we cultivate will be best, or at least will relate best to our created purpose, if we start with media practices centred on God’s media. Not our own. And these practices are, at least significantly, to occur within our ‘social network’ as God’s people — we’re not called to plug in the headphones and focus on God as individuals as though we’re an island.

Check this out. This is a fairly famous passage from Colossians. It definitely already has a corporate sense in that the ‘dwelling among you richly’ all relies on things we do together. But our tendency is to think this is speaking particularly to us as individuals. That it’s a set of instructions for personal godliness.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

— COLOSSIANS 3:16-17

But this is a problem, at least a little, because we don’t use youse. Everything about these verses is corporate. Let’s play it again, while breaking all sorts of rules — well, one — about english.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among YOUSE richly as YOUSE teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever YOUSE do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We need to focus on the message of Christ, via multimedia practices, in relationship. God’s media is media we’re to use socially. And this should both come before we pick up ‘social media’ from the world, and it might inform how we use social media. Not in that it will make us boring regurgitators of random Bible verses, but because this message of Christ should soak everything we do and say as Christians.

How can social media help you, and your ‘network’ have the message of Christ dwell among you richly?

8. Prayer is the best social networking

Prayer is how we express that we have become part of the ultimate social network — that we have, in a profound way, been united with the God who made the universe. That we have been brought into the eternal, self-giving, community of the Trinity, and invited to communicate with God, our Father, in a way that is enabled by Son and Spirit. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 is an incredibly profound demonstration of prayer, and explanation of the privilege we now have as pray-ers.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

— JOHN 17:20-21

We are members of this incredible social network, and with that, comes the privilege of communicating in this network — but also the responsibility to pray for those in every other one of our networks. There is not a person you are connected with on social media who you are not instructed to pray for. We’re called to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), for our fellow Christians (which Paul models in Ephesians 1:15-18, and then instructs us to do in Ephesians 6:18-20).

How might social media help you to pray for the people in your life?

9. Use your new imagination to share Jesus on new mediums

There are plenty of pitfalls with adopting new mediums without thinking. But we’ve been adopted into a new ‘network’ in a way that gives us great freedom to act as people with renewed minds, who are being transformed by God’s media. We are creatures of imagination, and we’re invited to use these in creating and participating in media, as God’s media. Giving people a bunch of rules and regulations for how to be ‘good’ social media users is a guaranteed way to make people un-imaginative and inauthentic on social media. It’s a pitfall most social media experts fall into. The formula for success is to be generous, interesting and authentic. So. How might we use snapchat or instagram? Be creative. Tell stories. Throw attention onto others. Celebrate.

I had a great coffee with my mate Dave Miers this week and picked his brain about how he — very intentionally — uses check-ins and hashtags to share bits of what he believes with strangers on Instagram. He’s even had someone come to his church because they started following him on Instagram because he uses relevant local hashtags, and tags photos in excellent local places, while sharing snippets of what he’s thinking or reading in God’s word, or in books he’s reading in those cafes.

10. Tell real(ly thankful) stories

This follows the above. People love stories. We are creatures who live by stories as we create stories. Social media thrives on stories. Most people craft stories that are boring and self-seeking, or tap into some story that we want to imagine ourselves living. I love stuff like the 365 Grateful project that encourages people to cultivate gratitude.

And I reckon gratitude is fantastic. But I think we, as Christians, are called to appropriately direct our gratitude beyond the great people in our lives, and past the ‘universe’ which conspires to give us great experiences — and we’re called to cultivate thankfulness to the God who makes excellent media, who has re-created us to be actors in his story. That’s how we give God’s world its purpose back — how we stop falling into the trap of living for ourselves, or making the mistake of worshipping God’s great media instead of God as the imaginative creator of great media.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

— 1 TIMOTHY 4:4-5

We cultivate thankfulness in the same way that people are trying to practice gratitude. By expressing it. In real ways. By being thankful for the big things, and small things, God has made. And by using social media to do that — to be thankful for what God has given us, in this world and in Jesus, and by being thankful for the people he has given us as part of our networks. That’s a natural way to soak your life in the message of Christ, and to be God’s workmanship, rather than building your own image via the things you share online.

Dumb Cuneiform, smart tablets: Mixing mediums and crafting messages for the ages

I love this so much. This service, Dumb Cuneiform, takes the messages you send using a frictionless, ephemeral, media transmission service built using modern ‘script’ (code and pixels) — Twitter — and converts them to a solid, long lasting, tangible message written in ancient script (cuneiform etchings). It’s brilliant.

Here’s a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that might explain why I think this is so cool.

“The written word evolved from image to word – the hieroglyphics of Egypt, to the Cuneiform text of Sumeria, to various alphabets. With alphabets came the rise of literature and scribal cultures, and the evolution of new languages. These were applied to changing mediums, from the walls of pyramids, to clay tablets, to papyrus. The rise of papyrus did not signal the end of communication with stone, just as the rise of the written word did not signal the end of visual communication. Communicative texts are produced on a space-time grid – durable media (eg stone inscriptions) emphasise time, while portable media (eg papyrus) emphasise space. This use of a medium is the choice of the communicator based on the situation and intention…

Low levels of literacy meant the first audience for written texts was smaller than a visual or spoken communicative act, but the ease of transmission of a papyrus scroll, as compared to a stone stelae, or clay tablet, transformed the reach of the written word. This reach depended on portability and repetition, or transmission of the message…

The success of any empire is proportionate to the success of its communication program. [Marshall] McLuhan expanded [Harold] Innis’ insight to suggest the empires who coped best with change had the best chance of expansion and longevity because “Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.” The kingdoms that coped with this change were the kingdoms that thrived.”

You put stuff in stone if you want it to last, but to be harder to transport than paper, or the spoken word. You put stuff on paper, and make lots of copies, if you want it to spread throughout the borders of your empire (or beyond), and if you want this distribution to happen quickly. There are lots of examples of the rise and fall of empires from history that follow the Innis-McLuhan theory described above. People who grapple with how their messages can be supported by the available mediums are generally more successful than people who don’t. Here’s an example; the success of the Protestant Reformation which is often attributed to the printing press, was in part possible because the media the Reformers used was able to be spread quickly, and supported its basic thesis that people everywhere could, and should, know things about theology (the ‘priesthood of all believers’). The transmission of the key messages of the Reformation was supported by the media the Reformers used to carry these messages. The Catholic Church built big and beautiful churches out of stone, and couldn’t shift media practices — including the choice of medium — without ceding a vital point about lay people and their desire to read stuff in a language other than Latin. The war of these ’empires’ was, in some sense, determined by the media they used to fight it. Your choice of where to put stuff you want to say on the ‘space-time’ grid — timeless or timely — is important.

This service, Dumb Cuneiform, is fun because it invites us to ask questions about how we use media now, and what sort of messages we have become more likely to send via our digital media channels because they work to collapse the obstacles of space (digital messages occupy no physical space — they’re not paper or stone), and time (we can fling things across the globe instantly, they last in some sense, forever), and so cost. The ‘new media grid’ means messages are cheap to produce and last forever, but this means, too, that many more messages are produced and so nobody cares about, or can pay attention to, everything an ’empire’ writes — or everything you write. This service tips the scales back. It takes 2 weeks, and the process of etching and baking a tablet takes significantly more time than belting out a tweet.

You tweet stuff if you want to get it out fast, but to not last much beyond the average time the tweet stays on the first page of your follower’s twitter feed (unless you get your tweet favourited, which is a move towards permanence). This service is fun because it turns the nature of Twitter on its head, and maybe asks us to consider just how vapid our communication has become.

How are you using modern mediums to build something timeless — as the empire builders of the past did?

What would the internet look like if people started crafting their tweets as if they were going to be etched in stone?

What does an advancing Australia look like? On anthems, home, and welcomes

Australians all let us rejoice, For we are young and free…

t-shirt
Image Credit: Flogged from a site I won’t link to that is selling this hideous ideology-as-T-shirt-slogan.

It seems some Christians who love Australia are joining in the chorus of angry voices shouting variants of the “if you don’t love it, leave it” slogan at some Muslim school children who left a room while their classmates sang the national anthem in a Victorian school.

I don’t get it. I mean, I get that the national anthem is the closest thing we’ve got to a sacred song in terms of our nationalistic religion, and so walking out is an act of impiety, at best, and sacrilege, at worst. And so I expect certain sections of the community to be up in arms when believers from another religion don’t follow these cultic practices, or appear to be insulting them. But I’m confused, a little, on two fronts. The first is what sort of freedom we’re rejoicing in as we sing the national anthem if it doesn’t include the freedom not to sing, the second is how to navigate the murky pool of Christianity and patriotism, or nationalism, without forgetting that we too, are exiles, and that we too, are called to not bow the knee to nationalistic cults if such knee-bowing represents a betrayal of our religious convictions.

… we are young and free

Are we? What sort of freedom are we believing in, as Australians — and as Christians in Australia — when we echo the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan? Is there any greater curtailing of freedom than to force people to participate in something that clashes with their fundamental view of the world, or of citizenship? Do we really want to be throwing citizenship in a pluralistic, liberal, democracy — one that believes in ‘freedom’ — up against religious belief and practice? Isn’t that a privilege that we as Christians can only rely on if we deliberately forget our history — the story of the emergence of the Church, indeed, the story of the incarnation of Jesus — against hostile worldly empires? That’s the story of the Old Testament, and the story of the New, it’s the story of the Early Church, and the story of the Reformation.

It seems to me that Christians calling on faithful Muslims to leave because they can’t align their religious beliefs with Australianism, in order to be consistent, would historically have called Daniel to leave Babylon, the Israelite exiles to no longer ‘seek the welfare’ of the pagan cities they were carried off to, and would have called early Christians to pack up their bags and flee the Roman empire. It seems they’d be forced to ask, in essence, Jesus to bow the knee to Caesar.

It seems, not to be too dramatic, that if we adopt the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan to throw it at our ‘ideological enemies’ — those whose religious faith is at odds with our own — we’re in danger of becoming a bit like the Pharisees at Jesus’ trial. There’s a risk that we might become so keen to end the ‘freedoms’ of a competing religion, Islam, that we’ll sign up with any common enemy of Islam at the cost of our own soul.

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”…

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12, 14-16

Christians have always had a funny relationship with the secular state. With worldly notions of nationhood. We want to live in such a way, as foreigners within our ‘home’ country, that people see where home really is, and to what kingdom we truly belong as citizens.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

Just after this little passage, Peter describes what it looks like for Christians to live as exiles in a hostile world — a world, or empire, that crucified the king of God’s kingdom. He outlines a path towards radical change and transformation. He describes why Christians might feel a sense of pride, or belonging, as we sing a nation’s anthem (without feeling like we’ve necessarily sold our soul in order to join a civil cult).

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people,but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

Honouring the emperor — participating in the empire — never extended to worshipping the emperor or participating in a litmus test based on nationalistic religion. A Christian in Rome was free to not pray to the emperor — a Roman rite of passage — while still feeling like they could live in Rome and contribute to public life, ‘doing good’ and while still honouring the emperor.

In a Christian framework, you don’t have to bow the knee, or offer a sort of lip service, to the nationalistic cult. You have to participate in public life for the good of the people around you, out of love for neighbour and enemy. A letter, called the Letter to Diognetus, from some time in the second century, describes the Christian approach to life in the world, life, as it were, as exiles.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

The Christian message, if reduced to a shirt slogan, is not just the anti-thesis of love it or leave it, it’s not just that we look around us at our earthly home and say “if you do love it, stay”, but we look towards our eternal home and say “we love our home, come”… and the way we live now — our hopes, our practices, our participation in the public life of our place — reflects this slogan.

It might seem specious to equate the worship of a Roman emperor with the singing of a national anthem, but if the sentiment behind “if you don’t love it, leave it” or the sense that a person is, or isn’t, truly Australian based on their desire to sing the anthem or salute the flag truly represents an understanding of what it means to really be a ‘citizen’ here, then it’s not far off. In the early years of the church, when the Roman Empire was looking to weed out this disruptive sect that was threatening civic life as those in power knew it — such was the transformative power of the Christian ethos — the test applied to Christians, a citizenship test for people who considered themselves exiles in the empire, was to see if the Christian would bow the knee to Caesar, to deny Jesus. The Governor, Pliny, describes his application of this test — and motivation — to the Emperor, Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

In response, Trajan says:

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it —that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

Is this the tradition we want Australia to stand in, is this what we want freedom to look like?

Are we asking these Muslims to deny their faith in order to participate as citizens in our nation? What are Christians doing standing behind those demands — if not a sort of obvious fear and desire for self-preservation built on some sort of belief in Australia’s ‘Christian heritage’?

We, Christians, have always celebrated our ability to live as exiles — and our commitment to not bowing the knee to Caesar, selling out Jesus for the sake of belonging in our worldly kingdom. We’ve lost that in the era of Christendom, and as we’ve simply assumed a corollary between the civil cult and Christian belief. For as long as Anzac Day services are held in Christian churches, with prayers led by Christian ministers, we’ll believe there’s a close link between the two, and so, the Muslim will be the outsider. But days are coming when the laws of our land will place similar constraints on Christian belief, and we might face very similar tests to these Muslim students about where our allegiance really lies. In these future days we’ll be looking to the sentiment expressed by the anthem — a desire for a nation built on freedom — and we might remember days like these where we weren’t so quick to extend that freedom to others.

It seems odd that we don’t want to extend this freedom — to be defined by a religious citizenship — to citizens of other religious kingdoms. Sure, the values of those kingdoms might be at odds with their host nations, and such kingdoms might indeed seek to change the nature of their home culture, or transform it according to their religious vision of the good and flourishing society, but aren’t we all actually compelled to do that? Isn’t this what pluralism, and freedom, looks like? Isn’t this what we sing about when we talk about Australia being a land we want to share with those who’ve come across the seas? Isn’t there an irony here in terms of what European settlement did to the Australian culture it was met with on arrival?

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

Isn’t courageous combining, placed alongside the ‘freedom’ of the first verse, an aspiration to live well together. To share the table of our ‘boundless plains’ with others, even if they don’t agree with us? Isn’t the unity we’re called to express in the act of singing this anthem a unity that transcends whether or not we choose to sing the anthem, and is located more in a common desire to live together for the sake of the nation of Australia ‘advancing’ towards some advancing view of the good life? And what sort of good life are we talking about if it involves the excluding of certain freedoms.

Obviously this unity requires a certain desire to ‘combine’ with courage, rather than to not combine — but assimilation isn’t really courageous combination. It’s cowardly. It involves a fear of the different, rather than a celebration. From what I can tell of the motivations of those young Muslims who did not sing the anthem with their classmates, it was not a repudiation of a desire to see Australia advance in this way, but a desire to simultaneously be committed to their religious convictions, to live, as it were, as citizens of two worlds — the world created by their religious beliefs, and the world created by a common love for Australia. Like any story that becomes part of the outrage cycle, we’ve now got extremists posturing for both camps.  The Herald Sun reports that the initial rationale behind the withdrawal was specifically linked to a religious practice.

Principal Cheryl Irving said during the month of Muharram Shi’a Muslims do not take part in joyous events, such as listening to music or singing, as it was a period of mourning.

“Muharram is a Shi’a cultural observation marking the death of Imam Hussein,” Ms Irving said. “This year it falls between Tuesday October 13 and Thursday November 12.

“Prior to last week’s Years 2-6 assembly, in respect of this religious observance, students were given the opportunity to leave the hall before music was played.

“The students then rejoined the assembly at the conclusion of the music.”

These students bravely took a stand on the basis of their convictions about the world — if these were Christians the Christian commentariat would be lauding their bravery and describing their actions as martyrdom. These students then, despite this obvious difference, returned to the gathering — an act of courageous combination with a view to participating in life with their peers, as Australians. This is, I would’ve thought, the sort of Australia we join to sing into being. Songs have the capacity to powerfully shape actions and ethics — that is one of the many reasons that Christians sing together, and it’s why nations and sporting teams create songs which foster harmony within the group. Singing the anthem is, in a sense, a speech-act, a declaration of an ideal. Perhaps this is why we mostly skip the second verse. Perhaps this is to recognise that modern Australia is not advancing the way we hoped. Perhaps it’s to put our guilty consciences at ease about the way settlers treated first Australians, or maybe it’s about our wavering commitment to sharing with those who come across the seas, and a sense that our boundless plains, or generosity might not be so boundless after all. Perhaps the second verse makes us uncomfortable because it calls us to live beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe we need to return to this ideal — whether we sing it together, or live out this courageous commitment to combining with those we disagree with for the common good. This is the Australia the anthem envisages, and so, creates as an ideal. A nation built on the courageous combination of people and worldviews, and commitment to generous sharing of our natural resources, with ‘those who’ve come across the seas.’ That, more than anything, is a gift given to us by the continued undeserved generosity of the first people to share Australia with sea-faring settlers. I’m blown away, with great regularity, by the willingness of Indigenous Australians to conduct ‘Welcome To Country’ ceremonies at different events, and with the generous manner that Indigenous elders participate in discussions about asylum seekers.

In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Songs really are powerful. Songs really do give us a sense of home — perhaps this Muslim tradition has actually recognised something powerful that Christians have forgotten, at least if we don’t think the singing of the anthem is a big deal. I have no doubt that Christians can sing the anthem with gusto — particularly with a vision for how we might act out these words in a manner consistent with our faith, and with our calling to live as exiles who do good for the benefit of those around us, and so they might know the truth of our belief. It’s interesting that in that correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, the governor mentions that his investigations have established that Christian practice involves singing what, in the face of the belief that the Emperor was divine, a truly subversive song:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food —but ordinary and innocent food.

Our singing loses its subversive power if we either deny the significance of the singing of the national anthem, and thus call on religious people to sing it without question, or if we assume it is a song that can truly represent our view of good citizenship apart from our true citizenship in the Gospel. Our songs, our Christian anthems, contain the subversive truth that should shape even our singing of the national anthem as it shapes our view of home, and of where we belong. Perhaps the best we have, at this, is the one that the Apostle Paul quotes in Philippians. Perhaps this should be our anthem, and perhaps it should shape our approach to other kingdoms — be it the kingdom of Australia, or the various kingdoms envisaged by our Muslim neighbours who put their trust in interpretations of the visions of the ‘good life’ as described by Mohammed. Our vision of the good life is captured in the example of the one who truly lived ‘a good life’ — who was crucified for refusing to compromise the nature of his kingdom in the face of the Empire he lived and walked in, and who, through his crucifixion, was crowned as the real king of the universe. The one who invites us home.

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:6-11

It’s only when we forget this song, and the vision of the world it brings, that we start to believe others refusing to sing Advance Australia Fair are worth condemning. This song compels us to invite people to an eternal home, rather than calling them to leave our temporary one. It also invites us Christians to ‘courageously combine’ with each other, for the good of those around us, to, in the words which precede this song in Philippians “have the same mindset of Christ” as we live to see the nation we live in truly advance as it transforms. The result of owning this song as an anthem is never to ask people to leave — but to extend hospitality, and ask people to stay.