Tag Archives: new creation

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Baby Driver and the Culture Wars

Baby Driver is a pretty interesting heist movie you can now find on Netflix. What sets it apart from other heist movies involving driving stunts (so pretty much all of them) is its soundtrack. Baby Driver uses music differently to any other movie I have ever seen. Baby Driver’s creator, Edgar Wright, had the soundtrack designed before the movie was shot. The entire movie feels choreographed (in a good way). The music is deeply integrated not just into our experience of the movie as an audience, but into the life and experience of the protaganist. Baby.

Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, loves music. Baby was raised on music. His mother was a singer. He was orphaned, so music is his memory. The accident that took the lives of his parents also gave him tinnitus, and music helps him function because it drowns out the ringing in his ears.

Music adds colour and intelligibility to Baby’s world. It helps him get by. It helps him operate at peak efficiency. Without it the deafening tinnitus interferes with his decision making; his perception of reality; his ability to function as part of a team (in this case teams of heisters, where he’s the designated driver).

Without spoiling things too much — the major adversity Baby faces is not prison for his crime; a potential sentence of life behind bars, it’s the potential sentence of life without music — life without hearing, and without being able to make sense of the world, that threatens Baby’s long term ability to flourish. There aren’t really any ‘good guys’ in the movie; but when Baby’s antagonist, Jon Hamm’s character Buddy takes away the thing Baby loves most, he targets his ability to hear; not just to hear, but to hear music.

He does this by firing a gun next to Baby’s ears. It’s deafening. The music switches off.

Baby is a broken man.

There’s lots of talk happening right now about life beyond Covid-19 conditions; and the hope for a newer, better, restructured society emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of this disaster. Suddenly we’re believing for a secular healing; a resurrection, a new creation.

Christians, of course, are familiar with this sort of hope for something better than the present; a time where disease and death are gone; where the lame run, the blind see, and the deaf hear. While my physical ailments pale in significance to others, as someone who is colour blind, I’m looking forward to a time when I might see the full spectrum of colour, just as Baby longs for a time when he might hear music again.

Indian Novelist Arundhati Roy wrote an essay imagining a better, brighter, future after describing, in bracing terms, the scale and size of the problems confronting India as it prepares for the onslaught of Covid-19 in a vast, and broken, system that takes its place globally in a vast and broken system. Roy optimistically called for imagination and revolution, with a nod towards our dependence on the transcendent (that the mighty are being humbled in the sort of revolutionary way John the Baptist predicted before Jesus proclaimed he had come to bring good news of liberation to the poor — and that the posture this humiliation brings to the mighty is a posture of falling to one’s knees in dependence on some other). Roy says:

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Our issue is that like Baby, we, particularly in the west, are trying to imagine a new world without our senses; without being able to perceive the world as it is, let alone imagine it as it could be. We are deaf. There are plenty of gunshots being fired around our ears; because to raise one’s head in the western world is to be caught in the cross fires of a culture war.

My friend Stephen McAlpine presciently raised this as an objection to Roy’s optimism in a Facebook discussion, noting that any talk of a new society — of being able to walk lightly through this time ‘imagining another world’ — can’t survive the reality that every element of public life now, and of civic imagination — our ability to envision and act towards a new future — every act is clouded by the culture war. And that this culture war is often fought out as a civil war within the church.

I fear that our eschatological optimism about a time beyond this age of Covid-19 will only lead to disappointment so long as we are placing our hope in the wrong source of transformation. It may well be that we emerge with a kinder, gentler, way of life together; it may even be that this pandemic heralds the disruption and end of capitalism and Babylon; it may at least serve as a wake up call to Christians that we have been far too wedded to the Babylonian structures of this world, and the conditions that give rise not just to pandemics like this, but to the awful mixed bag of responses and conditions for people in the slums of India, and outside the upper class of the United States (and in various nations around the world). There will almost certainly be a re-imagining of our politics through this crisis. The Guardian ran a piece which, depending on your political persuasion, featured the lion lying down with the lamb in Australia’s national cabinet — as conservatives and progressives have come together to seek the good of the nation, rather than ideological self interest.

But lasting change — a new creation — needs an animating vision. A story. A shared vision of human flourishing — and one of the reasons we have culture wars at all is that this vision is contested. Roy’s piece notes the implications that different religious, economic, and political ideologies have on the way nations and communities respond to this virus.

One of the roles of the church, in society, is that we have an animating story — a vision, that we believe to be true. We believe that we hear clearly, free from tinnitus, and able to enjoy the music hard-woven in to the fabric of creation. We have a role to play in articulating a vision, and to some extent, the problems inherent in alternative visions. Again, I’d direct you to my friend Arthur’s twitter thread articulating precisely why we might need to offer an alternative vision; the idea that ‘Babylon’ — the status quo — will have its own inertia, and its own response, to post-pandemic life makes some optimism tricky to maintain; the idea that Babylon is actually a religious, or spiritual, impulse built from the worship of false gods and created things (those things close to, or at the heart of capitalism itself) should make us even less optimistic about new ways forward. It is likely that if capitalism is toppled, or the systems that we hope to see changed — systems that are ultimately religious — they will simply be replaced with alternative gods. Arthur also put me on to this piece from Aaron Lewis Metaphors We Believe By, that articulated the religious impulses at the heart of modern gods (in way that both he, and I, observed is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). His point is that the metaphors we moderns use for aspects of life that are beyond our control (like we might use Babylon, from a Christian framework), can help us understand that people behave, and pursue visions of the good, in essentially religious ways.

Which creates problems; because with that comes a tendency towards ‘holy war’ — god v god showdowns played out amongst religious adherents. This is what’s really going on in our tendency towards culture wars (and why optimism about the post-covid age might be naive). If we don’t have a shared eschatological vision — an animating story about the future, the ‘ends of the world’ (as in its purpose and destiny), then we won’t get on the same page in recalibrating the present. This is true for different ‘religious groups’ (including actual religious groups), or ideologies, as we compete for territory in the new world we’re imagining, but it’s also true for us within Christianity, where we’re just as prone to internal culture wars.

The problem with culture wars is that they are deafening. Like the gun fired next to Baby’s ears, they kill the music. They kill our imagination. They stop our ability to discern truth; to speak well to others; to envisage better futures by catching hold of the song that animates creation; or the story that we were created to live and to pursue into the future — the story of the fall of Babylon and the emergence of a new eden.

Our culture’s tendency to religious wars — to play the culture war game — has truncated our contribution to culture as Christians. Seeing everything through the lens of war and competition stops us being a faithful presence at the public table, in the conversation about the possible renewal of our cultural architecture or what Charles Taylor called our ‘social imaginary’ — the practices, culture, and physical architecture that shape how we live and what we believe and so inform how we understand reality. Our lack of ability to hear because of the gunfire happening next to our ears means we don’t just not sing the song we were made to sing; we become tone deaf. And so, the very public acquittal of a clergyman on sexual abuse charges automatically gets interpreted through a culture war grid by Christian contributors to the public square; to those simultaneously imagining a post-Covid political and economic future (through that same culture war grid); because we have no other song. We are deaf. And that’s a problem.

James Davison Hunter is the Christian sociologist who coined the term ‘culture war’; in ‘To Change The World,’ he described the deafening effect of our tendency towards conflict. He describes the contest for ideas (that will still be the backdrop of any post-Covid future because they are essentially religious) as the grounds that produce this culture war. Pluralism might, itself, make an uncontested future impossible.

But pluralism today—at least in America—exists without a dominant culture, at least not one of overwhelming credibility or one that is beyond challenge. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t the effort to establish a dominant culture. This, after all, is what the “culture war” in America has been about—a contest for cultural ascendancy and the capacity to enforce conformity.

The question then is how we act as Christians, and citizens, in pursuit of a newly ordered world; how we stand against, rather than participate in, Babylon. How we hear the song of heaven; and live our lives oriented towards the story the Bible paints of the future of the world, rather than conforming to the patterns of the world; to Babylon. Hunter’s conclusion is worth hearing as we prepare ourselves, as the church, to potentially participate in the re-shaping of the public post-Covid, without reverting to culture wars. Hunter envisages a “new city commons” (I’ll touch on the prospects of such a commons below), but this is perhaps a vision that might shape a future no longer dominated by culture wars.

America was never, in any theologically serious way, a Christian nation, nor the West a Christian civilization. Neither will they ever become so in the future. The goal for Christians, then, is not and never has been to “take back the culture” or to “take over the culture” or to “win the culture wars” or to “save Western civilization.” Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever—spiritually speaking—exiles in a land of exile. Christians, as with the Israelites in Jeremiah’s account, must come to terms with this exile…

He says this position means we cannot possibly play the culture war game (partly because we cannot possibly win), and that we might have to model a new way forward beginning with listening, and seeking to be a “faithful presence” in the world; a presence faithfully anticipating the renewal of all things. He notes that the first step towards a transformed commons; or a Christian contribution to such a space, is getting our own house in order; ceasing the culture wars that divide Christians who split into conservative and progressive camps, and refocusing on the centre — that which unites and animates us, the future — the story — that we share. Again, there’s an optimism here that fails to recognise that some of the fundamental split between conservatives and progressives is actually a fundamentally different conception of God, and the Christian story, and yet there is much more that Christians hold in common than a ‘culture war’ posture allows; such a posture deafens us to the truth. But he is conscious that the “animating forces” at work in the world today — the modern gods, or metaphors — are inherently religious, spiritual, forces that serve to dehumanise and destroy (they are Babylonian in the Biblical sense). There is more than a hint of this in Roy’s account of life in India. Hunter sees these spiritual forces at work in humanity’s more destructive tendencies, the tendencies that might have skin in the game in re-shaping a post-Covid world for the worse, rather than for the better:

I would certainly include here such forces that create conflict and violence over scarce resources in the far reaches of the world, often in the name of peace; the underside of technological innovation that instrumentalizes human beings, even while the technologies themselves claim to improve conditions for human life; and the processes in the economy and in society that undermine the bonds of family, friendship, and community, often in the name of personal freedom. I would include dispositions that continue to denigrate persons simply by virtue of their social class, skin color, ethnic background, nationality, mental or physical capability, age, beliefs, gender, and so on. I would also include realities closer to home: the ideologies that predispose people to measure human worth and to find personal significance in material possessions, in appearance, in minor celebrity, or career success, or the cultural forces that orient people to find emotional stability and even serenity through various medications—prescribed, licit, or illicit. Perhaps even more profound, though far less obvious, are the destructive tendencies that emanate from the forces of dissolution. The weightlessness that attends experience and all manner of speech in the late modern world weighs heavily on Christians and non-Christians alike, but for the Christian, it undermines the very reality of belief and witness. One could go on, for the sources of bondage in the world are myriad. The good news is that the shalom of God not only exposes them for what they are but also offers a radical alternative grounded in the hope of the new creation.

Hunter’s model for the church engaging with society, rejecting the culture wars, as those who can truly hear the music, is for the church to first engage itself in formative practices that see us animated not by ‘culture wars’ or these forces, the patterns of Babylon, but by our own song and story, living lives grounded by this “radical alternative grounded in the hope of the new creation.”

We have to step out of the culture wars — within the church, and in the way we participate in the conflict around us — because these wars are deafening, and the model itself — the pursuit of power — undermines the very nature of our story and our hope. Our public square is Babylonian, like in Revelation, where faithful witnesses are executed in the public square of ‘that great city’ — Babylon. Rome. Jerusalem — and our capacity to change that square is limited, especially if we take up Babylonian practices; though such hope is not historically (or theologically) unrealistic. It’s in times such as these — moments of crises where Christians operated as those animated by something other than animus, but rather by loving service of others shaped by the radical hope of a new creation — that there have been profound and lasting changes to the world.

Like Baby, we have a happy ending, a long drive into a future beyond pain and suffering with the one we love.

We have an opportunity to rethink the doomsday device we’ve strapped ourselves in to; to move away from Babylon and offer an alternative; but we won’t do this without a common grounding in our story and its future.

Like Baby there is a life beyond the deafening noise of gunshots and conflict and culture wars. The culture wars — and our being caught up in them as the people of God — will kill any hope there is of a better future.

We have a radical hope that shapes our picture of a post-Covid world; a new creation. It’s this hope that first has to unite and animate us as God’s people, before we might have any hope of contributing to a changed world. We have to stop being deaf to the siren song of heaven.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 

Revelation 21:1-7

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The Good(er) Place

Warning: Contains Spoilerish discussion of the finale of the Good Place, and the whole series.

After we finished watching The Good Place, closing the green door on the final chapter of the story of four misfits from earth saving each other, and the entire universe in the process, I turned to my wife and asked ‘if heaven was just me for eternity, how long would it take for you to choose non-existence?’

She didn’t answer.

But that’s one of the profound questions asked in the Good Place’s exploration of the afterlife. What is worth living forever for? Is mastery of every craft imaginable enough to keep you occupied? Once you’ve read all the books, or played the perfect game of Madden — once you’ve achieved your ‘end’ — reached your telos — what can sustain you for an eternity? Is love, even love for a soul mate, enough?

The Good Place has punched above its weight when it comes to tackling philosophical questions — the Trolley Problem episode (which gets a callback in the finale) will no doubt make it into university lecture theatres for a Jeremy Bearimy or two. When we tackled the question of hell as a church about 18 months ago we showed a clip from the Good Place where arch-demon turned arch-itect, Michael, explained the scoring system that secured your place in the afterlife. We thought we were clever when we argued modern life is more complicated than the system allows, and our participation in systems built on sinfulness means we can never hope to escape the consequences of our sin on our own steam — and the Good Place writers obliged by making that season 3’s narrative arc.

Without spoiling season 4, having discovered that the system is fundamentally flawed, so that nobody can earn their way into the Good Place anymore, the team of humans; Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, with the supernatural assistance of Michael, and super-computer Janet, have to come up with a better system.

They basically design purgatory, a process of testing and refining that will ultimately let any and every human earn their own salvation; so that people can find their way into the Good Place again. The problem here is that the system is geared against the human, so fixing the system allows humans to extract themselves from its corruption, over time. The darker part of human nature — that we might ourselves be the problem — is not part of the philosophical anthropology — an optimistic humanism — served up by the show.

This is the best and most just system humans can devise, it’s also the most hopeful. Even the demons get on board — they too have been victims of ‘the system’ — and at this point the writers might have been able to pack up having delivered a literal ‘happily ever after’ to every human.

But they don’t. There’s a moment a few episodes from the end where most shows, with happy endings, would finish. Eleanor and Chidi sitting on the couch, looking out over a glorious vista, reflecting on how paradise is having time — an eternity even — with the person you love. But the writers want to press in to just how satisfying (or not) that sort of eternity might be…

And this is where season 4 gets interesting. We get a pretty serious and imaginative attempt to depict the after life; a take on heaven that never tries to take itself too seriously, and ultimately serves as a vehicle for the show’s final philosophical message — life here on earth can be a bit heavenly if we muddle our way through towards self-improvement and more compassionate relationships. It’s life now that has meaning, especially because life and love might (will) one day end. You can have infinite Jeremy Bearimys to work this out, or four seasons of the Good Place.

The Good Place (the place, not the show, or rather, the place as depicted in the show) offers an individual the chance to continue their personal development — the process they’ve used to secure salvation — or simply to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a place of rest, work, and play. There’s continuity with life on earth in a way that is profound and comforting. The old order of things has passed away. Death is dead.

Something about the picture of heaven the show offers up reminds me of C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien without enchantment. It’s not that the hypercoloured reality the Good Place serves up is not imaginative, it’s that in a cosmos where everybody saves themselves and heaven revolves around one’s particular individual desires — even if only the good ones — there’s a hollowness. And it’s this hollowness the show presses into powerfully, without really resolving in a way I found satisfying.

Chidi and Eleanor meet one of Chidi’s philosophical idols, who reveals that an eternity in the Good Place with all good things on tap, a gushing, never-ending stream of goodness has left people incapable of much thought or imagination at all. Heaven has become monotonous. Even the Good Place is broken, and our band of heroes has to fix it.

Their diagnosis is that the joy offered by the Good Place will only truly be joy if it can end. Death is what gives life its purpose and pleasure its meaning. If when you’ve lived a full life you can walk through the door and push out into nothingness. The Good Place ultimately serves up the best end as euthanasia — ‘the good death’ — only not to end one’s suffering, but to finish one’s pursuit of pleasure and desire; to find satisfaction and so stop searching.

If it’s fleeting and to be enjoyed in the face of death. There’s something very much like Ecclesiastes in the mix here; Ecclesiastes without any sense that ‘life under the sun’ might point to some greater reality. A telos beyond the self. And here’s where The Good Place offers a less compelling version of heaven than Lewis, Tolkien, or the Bible.

Lewis wrote stacks on joy, on its fleeting, ephemoral, nature here in this world — though he saw our pleasures now anticipating the pleasures of the new creation, throwing us towards a more substantial reality than the one we enjoy now. He says moments of pleasure we experience now are pointers to something other-worldy, magical, heavenly even… in The Weight of Glory he describes these moments as echoes of a future time and place: “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.” But for Lewis even the fulfilment of these things — the hyper-coloured reality — is not actually what these pleasures point to.

What they point to is God.

God and his glory.

God is missing from the Good Place. And it’s that God is missing, and that the desires of the characters can be fulfilled in the goodness of pleasure as an end, or telos, that makes walking through that final door — euthanasia — seem ‘good’.

Death is not good.

God is.

And God is missing from The Good Place.

And I’d say that’s why nobody wants to stick around for eternity (and why I’d be ok with Robyn not wanting to put up with just me forever).

The Good Place is a fairy story without God. And I mean this in a pure sense; it’s a very enjoyable tale, it is mythic and beautiful, and fundamentally human in all the good ways it should be (and what a killer twist at the end of season 1). But it seeks to do what Tolkien says fairy stories should do — offer consolation — by offering a picture of a “good death” when perhaps true consolation can only be found in a truly good life.

Part of the problem is that the Good Place, with its unabashed humanism, has every character acting as the hero in their own story. Everyone who gets to the good place has pulled themselves in by the bootstraps. They’ve worked to save themselves. They’ve achieved. All they have now is the fruit of their hard work; or more work; which is satisfying for a time, but not forever. Even true love for another person can’t, in the honest appraisal of perhaps the smartest TV writers ever, sustain life for eternity.

This left me feeling sad. Not because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason (oh Jason)… but because I don’t want to say goodbye to those I love at all. What euthanasia attempts to hide now doesn’t look any more compelling to me in hypercolour; death actually is a terrible thing. Existence trumps non-existence. Light offers consolation; darkness doesn’t.

Both Tolkien and Lewis depict heaven — in new, restored, creation terms — as a case of “further up, and further in” — growing deeper in a sense of glory in another, rather than in ourselves. Delighting and knowing more of God and his goodness, not simply the goodness of created stuff.

In Narnia, at the end of The Last Battle, one of the characters (the Unicorn) when discovering the ‘new creation’ — the new Narnia — sees that it is a fuller version of reality anticipated by the goodness, pleasures, and beauty, of the previous one. It’s his Weight of Glory in story form, in this new creation “every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” and the unicorn, upon arriving, shouts:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this… Come further up, come further in!”

Tolkien’s Leaf By Niggle is a beautiful picture of the afterlife that was, in some ways, echoed in some of the more satisfying depictions of heaven offered in The Good Place. It has Niggle, an artist, enjoying the coming to life of the beautiful works of art he created — true art, that reflected the creativity of the creator of beauty — and pressing ‘further up, and further in’ to that beauty, taking all the time in the world to come to terms with the goodness of a new, restored, reality.

“He was going to learn about sheep, and the high pasturages, and look at a wider sky, and walk ever further and further towards the Mountains, always uphill. Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.”

This little short story from Tolkien, and Lewis’ ending of Narnia, throw us towards the source of actual satisfaction — or at least show us that consolation is found not by completion, but by pushing deeper into love and goodness. They suggest such a ‘push’ works better, eternally, when you are pushing towards something, or someone, infinite.

The Good(er) Place — one that offers actual consolation — is the place where God is.

This might seem like pious waffle and a way to overthink a TV comedy — but the hollowness of the vision of the afterlife offered by The Good Place is not just because euthanasia seems like a terrible consolation; an eternity of pleasure in beautiful ‘things on tap’ rather than joy in the one who made beauty is also not consoling. Where The Good Place doesn’t achieve the emotional highs of the ending of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, or other fairy stories is in offering the best imaginable ‘euthanasia’ — a good death — while offering none of what Tolkien calls a ‘eucatastrophe’ — a ‘good catastrophe’ — an interruption of the natural ordering of things that thrusts us towards our telos, particularly the goodness and fullness of God.

The Good Place is ultimately a tragedy, not a comedy (or fairy tale) because death is not defeated but embraced. Comedies and fairy tales have, by not simply ‘satisfying’ endings where our desires are met, but happy endings where they are exceeded. They have a eucatastrophe that brings a sudden joy, a taste of consoling truth, to the audience.

The Good Place doesn’t console, or bring joy, in Tolkien’s terms, because its good place is not true. Tolkien says:

“The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?”

For Tolkien the goodness of the Bible’s story — the story it tells about the afterlife — is that we are not the hero, and that the change brought by the hero is not simply time enjoying the fruits of our own victory, but that we are raised from the dead. ‘True’ consolation looks forward to the renewal of all things, secured by God’s ‘eucatastrophic’ interruption of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Who’d want heaven without the God who renews all things? Without Jesus?

Because The Good Place has each person in heaven there as a result of their own efforts, there is no ‘telos’ beyond the self, and one’s improvement, but also nobody to glory in or love; no experience of grace; no desire to ‘push further up, and further in’ into the knowledge of the author of beauty; the true consoler. Where the throne in heaven in the Bible’s story is occupied, and the centre of the action, in The Good Place, everyone gets a throne, everyone rules their own little kingdom, and nobody wants to stay. The Good(er) place offers something more satisfying than the green door on the good place, it offers us a throne, and one on it, and invites us to push ‘further up and further in’ to knowing and glorying in the infinitely good and loving one on the throne whose glory will take an eternity to wrap ourselves up in.

Here’s how the Bible describes the Good(er) Place… with God at the centre.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

— Revelation 21:3-5, 22:1-5

In the real good place, nobody will want to leave.

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 2 — ‘he lays me down’

Back in 2015 I posted one part of a planned two part epic ‘By the rivers of Babylon’, I didn’t ever post the second part, and nobody seemed to mind. Until today.

To recap, I posted some quotes from ancient near eastern rituals to do with the creation of ‘images of God’ — particularly idol statues — and looked at comparisons with Genesis 2, to suggest that there’s a conceptual link; that in the Genesis creation story we see God creating living, breathing, representatives of the divine, in deliberate contrast to rituals, creation stories, and an understanding of humanity in the ancient near east where man created dead, breathless, statues of gods and then had to develop a cognitive dissonance to be able to encounter that statue as though it was a representative of divine life. We have existing accounts, from the ancient world, of the creation of a divine image and its revivification or rededication after an idol had been captured by an enemy or removed from its sanctuary. I have written bits and pieces expanding on this theme, but thought it’d be nice to come back and finish the ‘epic’ as promised.

I suggested the parallel between the Genesis type scene of creation and re-creation of a divine image (which repeats itself through the Old Testament), mirrors these ancient rituals in the following ways, where an image (tselem) is:

  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)

I pointed out that this pattern repeated itself with Noah, in the creation of Israel as a people, and was anticipated by the prophets about Israel’s return from exile — where God’s people would be recommissioned as his image bearers. And then promised a follow up post to connect this to the rest of the story of the Bible.

Recap over.

One of my favourite bits of Biblical Theology — perhaps because it was one of the first pieces to grip my imagination about how the Bible might work — comes from connecting Psalm 23 to Jesus, the good shepherd.

 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
     he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. — Psalm 23

It’s a beautiful Psalm as a standalone. But now read it against that number list. The narrator (first David) is:

  1. Placed by waters in the sanctuary of green pastures;
  2. His Soul restored — literally this is ‘nepesh’ in Hebrew and ‘psuche’ in the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the words used for the ‘breath of life’ breathed in to Adam in Genesis 2. It’s a recreation. The ‘restored’ word is the same word used to describe return from exile in places like Deuteronomy 30:3, 1 Kings 8:34, and Jeremiah 30:3
  3. He is guided along the right paths by God for his name’s sake (a purpose within a system, where the ‘for his name’s sake’ is the purpose, connected to image bearing representation and the failure to live for his name is what lead Israel to exile, to no longer being ‘image bearers’, which is a breaking of the 3rd commandment).
  4. He is taken to a place where there is a table, but at the end ‘dwells in the house of the Lord forever’ (placed in the temple)
  5. He is fed, and his cup overflows (the images are provided with food and drink).
  6. He is anointed with oil — which presumably has some connection to fulfilling a function to represent the God behind the image, alongside the ‘his name’s sake.’

Now. In terms of the Biblical theology thing, i’d often simply connected The Lord as shepherd to Jesus as shepherd — Jesus as the provider who specifically does all these things for people, or promises to, as the good shepherd. Look at what Jesus says around the feeding of the 5,000 as recorded by Mark (Mark 6, where the people are ‘like sheep without a shepherd) and John, where the feeding of the 5,000 comes before passages about the gift of the Spirit as living water that brings eternal life — in fact, the whole of John’s Gospel essentially unpacks that re-creation schema. But the Biblical theology connection that makes Jesus ‘the Lord who is the shepherd,’ with the feeding of the 5,000 in the mix, goes something like:

  1. He places people by water, on green pastures (Mark 6:39, John 6:10)
  2. He feeds them with ‘overflowing’ provision (Mark 6:42-43, John 6:12-14)
  3. The people are ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6), and Jesus calls himself ‘the good shepherd’ (John 10).

There’s a degree to which I think this is still a legitimate line to draw from Old to New Testament. But there’s a better story, a better line through the Old Testament story of God creating and revivifying broken images that involves Jesus being the ‘new Adam’ — the new ‘image’ — through whom we are restored as we are united to him; an a reading of Psalm 23 that places Jesus in the narrative schema as the first ‘restored Israelite’, the one whom David points to, who can say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ — I owe much of this reading to Doug Green, whose paper ‘The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd. Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy’ is brilliant.

He says, amongst other things:

“… it is appropriate to read the whole of the Psalter in a prophetic and eschatological direction. More specifically, all of the “Psalms of David” should be read as messianic psalms that describe different dimensions of the life — and especially the suffering — of Israel’s eschatological King.”

“In other words, the apostolic authors adopted not simply a general Christological approach to reading the Psalter, wherein Christ could be “seen” in the psalms, but more specifically a decidedly Christotelic approach, reading it in connection with Israel’s great narrative of redemption, which from their perspective had reached its surprising climax (Greek telos, “end” or “goal” in the story of Jesus, the Messiah.”

Green describes the structure of the psalm as a move from “pasturage to wilderness to temple” that can be described as paralleling “promised land -> exile -> restoration” or “Eden -> Exile from the Garden -> New Jerusalem”. He says:

“Even in their grammatical-historical context, verses 4 and 5, with their images of escape from the threat of death and (possibly) return from exile, tell an incipient resurrection story. Read prophetically, these verses echo the story of the Isaianic Servant as they depict the Messiah’s journey through some kind of suffering, which will subsequently change into his enjoyment of the blessed life, and more specifically to an eschatological banquet…

“If Jesus Christ is indeed the telos, or goal, of Israel’s story, and more specifically the fulfilment of the OT’s messianic prophecies — including the Psalter understood as a prophetic book — then Christian interpretation of the OT must be an exercise in reading backwards, of rereading earlier texts so that their meanings cohere with what God has actually done in history in Jesus Christ.”

He concludes “the eschatological David has been brought from the valley of death into the heavenly house of the Lord, to reside there.” Green, I think rightly, describes this as “the story of those who have been united to Christ by faith” — we’re brought into the story through our union with Christ.

If this Psalm is messianic in this sense, then in some way the Lord’s anointed — who is shepherded by God — somehow leads God’s people through exile from God — or death — into restoration and the temple. If Jesus comes as the restoration moment promised in the prophets, and this Psalm, and he does this by being the true image bearer but his restoration into being an image bearer through exile and death is also grounds for our restoration.

So, that’s a fun reading of Psalm 23 that connects it to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies — where Jesus is the king who ends our exile from God, but there’s more to this story that is explicitly connected to the proposed metanarrative of the Bible; that it’s about God re-creating and revivifying divine image bearers (where idolatry transforms us into the image of dead idols rather than the living God).

My suggestion is that the Gospels, in depicting Jesus as a new Adam, and new Israel, also follow the pattern of establishing Jesus as an image bearer — according to those Old Testament (and Ancient Near Eastern) types — and that this is applied to the church both through union with Christ, baptism, and the indwelling of the Spirit — the things that mark out our transformation into the image of Jesus, from being broken idol-worshipping images. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3), but there are also ways the Gospels follow the script.

  1. Jesus is, in a particular sense, ‘formed’ or fashioned near water  at his baptism — if crossing the Jordan was Israel’s path to nationhood and part of how Exodus paints them being presented as God’s image bearers — his children, then Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan mark his calling in the same way. All four Gospels include the baptism of Jesus.
  2. Especially if the Spirit descending on Jesus is the ‘breath’ of God marking him  . — if this is Jesus symbolically being given a certain sort of ‘breath’ as Adam was (though Adam receives the ‘psuche’ and Jesus the ‘pneuma’ in Greek — and that distinction is interesting particularly because Paul makes it a distinction between Adam the ‘psucheikon’ (or natural/breathed/souled image) and Jesus the ‘pneumatikon’ (or breathed/spirited image) in 1 Corinthians 15:44 as he reflects on and quotes from Genesis 2 and the resurrection, see below). Pneuma and psuche are used in a way that, at a glance, looks interchangeable for breath and Spirit throughout the Old Testament.
  3. Jesus is declared ‘fit for purpose’ in connection with God in the words that speak from heaven — “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11), “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17), “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22), while John’s Gospel has John the Baptist say, of Jesus, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33 — which is significant if the bringing of the Holy Spirit is connected to the end of exile and the restoration of God’s image bearing people).
  4. Jesus is the Temple — or the dwelling place of God — but he also goes in order to prepare an eschatological temple, and in order to transform God’s new image bearers into human temples. This one takes some unpacking. He is also the living representative of God (Hebrews 1), and if we see him we’ve seen the father (John 14:9). He is the “word of God” in flesh, and he “is God” ‘tabernacling’, or ‘dwelling’ in the world in the flesh (John 1:1-14). In John 2, as he cleanses the Temple (which has not ever had God’s spirit come to dwell in it after exile in the way that it did before exile) he speaks of his body as the temple (John 2:22). But he also speaks of his “father’s house” (John 2:16). In John 14:1-3 Jesus says: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am…” this has often been understood as being about the heavenly city-temple — a new Eden — that John sees coming down to earth in Revelation 21, but in an immediate sense of fulfilment of the ‘place for you’ and the going and coming, Jesus says the Spirit is him ‘coming back’ —  “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:17-18) and then “you heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:28-29). The ‘coming back’ might purely be eschatological, but it seems to both immediately describe the resurrection, the ascension (as part of the “going”), and the coming of the Spirit as part of the “return” to them (and the end of the exile that ‘restores their souls’ — and ours).In John 16, in the same extended episode of teaching, Jesus explains more of the going and coming — “Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:19-20)… then, following Jesus death, and their grief, and his resurrection, John records the following: “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:20-22). When Jesus breathes into his disciples and commissions them in John 20:22 it uses the same Greek word for what God does to breathe life into Adam in the LXX.

    The point at which the disciples understand Jesus’ reference to his body as the temple, we’re told, back in 2:22, is the resurrection: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” When this happen — the disciples become the ‘many rooms’ of the house of God, his Temple — as Jesus has been already, as marked by the Spirit descending on him at his baptism (a sort of symbolic end of the exile — God dwelling with his people again).

    Luke does a fun thing with this in Acts 2, where he has the Spirit being poured out on God’s new temple (and I think given Luke’s Gospel ends with the followers of Jesus meeting daily in the temple, and given Acts 2 ends with a reference to the followers of Jesus meeting daily in the temple, and given the festival of Pentecost is a public gathering and there are many witnesses from the Jewish diaspora there, that the events of Pentecost probably happened in the Temple courts, not the upper room mentioned as the setting of the events in Acts 1). God’s new temple — his re-created image bearers — receive the Spirit, in an echo of the glory of his presence coming in to the first temple — with clouds and noise and flaming glory — in the courts of the temple building Jesus had condemned — the temple whose curtain tore when Jesus died as an expression of a sort of judgment on that building and a new way of access to God’s presence…

    Jesus is also positioned as a new Adam in his temptation, especially as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, where the temptation follows the baptism, and genealogy (which goes back to “Adam, the son of God”. There’s some fun stuff going on with gardens, both Gethsemane, and at the resurrection where he is mistaken for ‘the gardener’ — where Adam’s original task in the garden was to ‘work and keep’ the garden.

    The rest of the New Testament makes explicit what this point makes implicit, and draws us into the story through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit  — so that we too become temples of the Spirit, and we are transformed into the ‘image of Jesus’ rather than Adam.

  5. If Doug Green’s schema for Psalm 23 is correct, and it depicts Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the movement from Eden, to exile, to restoration in a new Eden, then there’s something nice about the resurrection appearance being in a garden, and being followed by Jesus eating with his disciples — but also, this becomes something fulfilled in Jesus’ ascension to heaven where he dwells with the father forever, and where there is a new Edenic orchard of food available (near running waters). The new creation is the ultimate re-creation, and Jesus, the Lamb, occupies a particularly central place in this new garden sanctuary — the ‘forever’ house of God.

    Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

  6. The imperative that follows the baptism, and later the transfiguration, where Jesus is revealed as God’s son, with whom he is well pleased is “listen to him” — Jesus is God’s representative. The word made flesh (John 1), the way God speaks (Hebrews 1). The ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1). this point seems the least controversial.

There’s a difference between us, and Jesus, in this metanarrative — where the story of the Bible is the story of broken images being restored — we are broken by our sin and idolatry so that we bear the image of our counterfeit gods, as the Psalms put it the result of idolatry is that “those who worship them will become like them.” Sin — idolatry — leads to exile from God, curse, and death. De-creation even. The coming undone of the image we were created to bear. Romans 1 fleshes out how this works with regards to our exchanging the creator for created things. Our restoration comes through Jesus restoring us as worshippers (ala Romans 12) — through his sacrifice, his resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit which is our ‘baptism’, the moment (depicted as receiving ‘living water’) that recasts us into his image as it re-creates us (see Paul on our being baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus in Romans 6, such that we, as we receive the Spirit, become children of God again, conformed to the image of his son (Romans 8)). Jesus is a broken image restored because he takes our sin on his body at the cross — he is scourged and scarred and moves through death (God’s image lives and breathes but he breathes his last for us). The resurrection is his re-vivification, and the source of ours – where we move from death in Adam to life in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15) as our ‘psuche’ — the ‘breath of life’ in Genesis meets its ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — the life of God by his Spirit making us immortal images.

Where Paul says: “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” the word natural is psuchikon (ψυχικόν), while the word ‘spiritual’ is pneumatikon (πνευματικόν). Paul then quotes Genesis 2:7 to contrast Adam, the living being (ψυχὴν ζῶσαν) — something like ‘a living soul’, but I think it’s better rendered ‘a breathed being’ — in part because in Genesis 1:30 the animals also have ‘the breath of life’ in them’ which, in the LXX, also uses “ψυχὴν ζωῆς”) — with Jesus who is a ‘life-giving Spirit’ (πνεῦμα ζωοποιοῦν). God re-creates us, by the Spirit, through replacing Adam with Jesus in our genetic makeup… so that we share in the resurrection of Jesus rather than the death of Adam.

“And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”  — 1 Corinthians 15:49

It’s probably become clear now from much of the scaffolding above that the six elements of that ‘re-creation’ story also apply to us, in Christ, in ways that make the grand story our story. But here are some fun connections…

  1. We are formed via ‘water’ — Baptism is our visible picture of salvation — a picture of what the Spirit does for us as our ‘hearts are circumcised’ — as we are brought from exile away from God, from death and the dead future of our idols to life with God forever.
  2. We receive life by God’s breath — When we receive the Spirit it is ‘breathed into us’ by God as a gift of immortal life that changes who we are — moving us from Adam’s image of God to Jesus’ image of God.
  3. We are declared fit for a purpose within a system — When this happens and we are adopted as children of God, being transformed into his image we have a new purpose — the ‘great commission’ is a new ‘creation mandate’ — a call to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth. We are also “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10) — Ephesians 2:10 uses the same pair of words for created and ‘handiwork’ that Romans 1:20 uses for ‘what has been made’ (and these are the only times that ‘handiwork’ word is used in the New Testament) — that which is meant to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God’ — the things declared ‘good’ for that purpose in Genesis 1.
  4. We become priests/images/temples — The job Adam was given in the garden was priestly, Israel’s job was to be a ‘nation of priests’, and that is now the job of the church — the priesthood of believers in/as his temple. Our bodies are the ‘temple of the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19).
  5. We are fed/provided for — We receive ‘the bread of life’ and ‘living water’ and are invited to eat at God’s table — a reality we celebrate as we break bread together and remember Jesus’ sacrifice in anticipation of the heavenly banquet. There’s a fun thing with the Lord’s Prayer as it relates to all this (and the Psalm 23 stuff about God’s name) as it is a prayer for ‘the bread of tomorrow today’ — the Spirit — which arrives at the feast of bread, Pentecost — but you’ll have to wait for my boss to write his book on that for more…
  6. We are united by the Spirit to be God’s representatives in the world — his image bearers — transformed into the image of Christ as the ‘body of Christ’… Together. Think 1 Corinthians 12, 2 Corinthians 3-5, Romans 8, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3… and heaps of other places…

It’s fun seeing how this plays out in something like the account of the church in Acts 2, where this recreation process seems to be happening en masse as a fulfilment of the prophets, through Jesus’ ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, and it’s fun drawing a line from there through to Revelation 21 and 22, then asking where in this narrative any particular passage sits, and considering the mechanics by which we become part of the narrative (via union with Christ).

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.

 

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Paul House on preaching Isaiah: Part two

Some random points here from the second lecture. I’m fading fast.

There’s nothing worse than a combination of pride and ignorance. “I’m stupid, and proud of it” is dangerous. Isaiah addresses that.

Isaiah is great at digging the needle in. He uses satire and irony and has an unfailing ability to hit the target.

Materialism leads us to think we don’t need God, which leads to bad stuff.

Some of the greatest issues we have with God are to do with timing – we either want him to move slower or faster than he currently is.

It’s easy to see the problems in society. To isolate and identify them. But it’s very hard to remember to pray for those problems.

Many missionary messages stop at about verse eight of chapter six. Here am I. Send me… but when you keep reading – “you will preach, and their hearts will be hardened. Jeremiah seems to have preached for forty years. And only produced two converts. We can’t buy into the theory that numerical success is linked to ministry. Growth is not a sign of your faithfulness or God blessing you. But nor is the antithesis true – it’s not a case of the smaller you are the more holy you are. We need to be Great Commission churches. Church growth fans sound a lot like prosperity preachers – suggesting that the size of your church is somehow linked to your approach. How do we explain Jonah? He didn’t want any converts and converted a city.

Know your congregation. Know their concerns. That will drive how you apply their lives to the text (not the text to their lives).

How do we do ministry without quitting. We’re required to love people even if we don’t see fruit tangibly. We’re to love our enemies, that’s the mark of a Christian, and it’s hard.

Israel are being called (by Isaiah, in chapter 7) to have faith (in God – where all faith in the OT is directed) in the face of tough times. When the superpower nations around them are agitating for conflict. Israel are scared. For good reason. Evil is real, and it may be out to get you. It was for Israel. Paul used chapters 5-12 to address his small group in the midst of the GFC and a bunch of individual examples of turmoil. Isaiah is a reminder that God is faithfully redeeming his people and bringing them into the new creation.

“If you are not firm in faith you will not stand at all…” (Isaiah 7:9a) is like a theme statement of this section of the book.

Isaiah doesn’t let disappointment with earlier results keep him from ministry. Firm faith requires steadfastness and Isaiah has that quality.

On the renewal of Creation (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Sin mars creation – but nothing will mar the new creation. The future is secure, the future is bright. We should always be a forward looking people. Believers appropriate this theology in the New Testament and we must reclaim it today. We have a home, a king, and a society that is flawless. All the temporal things are going to change so our focus needs to be on serving the servant and going to Zion (this future creation). We’ll have a resurrected body. We need to be focused on that future – not our present brokenness.

If we ask “what is your hope as a Christian” and it’s not marching into Zion and bringing people to the service of the faithful servant then you’ve missed the thrust of Isaiah.

Where is your confidence? it needs to be in the suffering servant whom God has sent. In this season we have every reason to say things and sing songs that we will say and sing forever in the new creation.