Why Do We Resist Jesus’ Teaching?(Crucifixion of the Warrior God ch.3)

As I read Boyd’s long book Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I am reminded of a common debate and inconsistency in Christian circles.  Some Christians will argue for a literal interpretation of every passage of scripture.  They argue for this when it comes to social issues like gay marriage and anyone who questions them is told to be on a slippery slope and compromising with culture.  What strikes me is when Jesus’ clear teachings on nonviolence are brought up, from his words in the sermon on the mount to not striking back, on through his dying on the cross and calling his followers to take up theirs, these same Christians explain it away.  Jesus, they insist, did not actually mean what he said.

In one area, to question a straightforward reading of scripture is a slippery slope.

In another, we need to question a straightforward reading of scripture.

Perhaps we are all guilty of this.  We all bring presuppositions and assumptions to our reading and tend to read in a way that confirms this.  So conservatives see the Bible supporting conservative political and social views while liberals see the Bible supporting their views.

How do we determine what the Bible is about?

Boyd argues that for Christians in the first centuries, the key to interpreting scripture is not the author’s original meaning but how this scripture points to Christ.  He writes: “It becomes clear that finding Christ in Scripture was a far more pressing concern for them than discerning an OT author’s originally intended meaning” (97).

So when we come to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament, the question becomes how do these relate to Jesus Christ?

One view would argue that Jesus just give us one understanding of God, alongside of these other portrayals.  Jesus says to love your enemies while God in the Old Testament commands Israel to destroy their enemies and we are left with two equal, and differing, understandings of what God desires us to do towards our enemies.  Thus, sometimes God calls for the destruction of enemies while other times God says to love them.  This is how we end up with the argument that God is love and wrath that need to be balanced.

Boyd argues though, if this is the case, then to interpret the Old Testament violent portrayals of God at face value leads to an interpretation that would not be any different if Jesus had never come:

“What does it mean to declare that ‘in the whole Scripture there is nothing but Christ,’ as Luther did, when one nevertheless interprets portraits of God commanding genocide or slaughtering families by smashing parents and children together (Jer 13:14) exactly the same was as they would if they did not believe ‘there is nothing but Christ…in the whole of Scripture?’ If ever a distinctly Christocentric hermeneutic should make a difference in how Scripture is interpreted, I would think it would be in how we interpret sub-Christ-like portraits of God such as these” (138)

If our Christian interpretations of these violent scriptures would be no different if Jesus had never existed.

That should give us pause.  

Another view would argue that Jesus gives us the clearest understanding of who God is.  Jesus is fully human and fully God, thus we can say Jesus is the human face of God.  Whatever anything else says about God, even scripture, is secondary to Jesus.  Jesus is not one image of God alongside of others.  This means we interpret the rest of scripture through the lens of Jesus.

Why have Christians hesitated to allow our experience of Jesus to change how we view these scriptures.  Boyd has one reason that, disturbingly, may have much truth to it:

“Reading Scripture shapes out spiritual condition while our spiritual condition influences our interpretation of Scripture. What was distinctive about the Anabaptists’ use of this insight, however – and what set them at odds with their Protestant and Catholic contemporaries – was that they attached it to their distinctive emphasis on the importance of obeying the teachings and example of Jesus. Some Anabaptists thus insinuated that the reason the magisterial church leaders like Luther and Calvin failed to see the centrality of nonviolence in Jesus’ teaching and example was not because the teaching was ambiguous but because their allegiance to, and privileged position within, the state made obeying this teaching too costly. It was an allegation that did not endear them to their opponents” (128-129).

 

The idea that we bring our assumption to scripture is not new.  It has been an obstacle to understanding and living out scripture for centuries.

 

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What God is Like (Crucifixion of the Warrior God chs. 1-2)

We all have notions of what God is like.  These ideas and images are built from all sorts of sources – stories, pop culture, holy scriptures, teachers, friends.  I imagine even atheists have some picture in their minds of what the God they do not believe in is like.  In many cases, it is just this picture that they find so revolting or irrational that leads them to reject belief.

To many people, the God shown throughout the Old Testament deserves to be rejected.  We see God commanding the Israelites to mercilessly slaughter thousands of people.  They are not told to give up slavery, but instead are instructed on how to treat slaves.  God seems to be okay with women as second class citizens.  Of course, Christians make arguments that try to get God off the hook.  Compared to surrounding cultures of the day, what appears to us as unjust and evil treatment of women and slaves was actually a step up the ladder towards justice.  God, Christians say, was working with humans and thus allowing some evils to work towards a greater good.  If there are 100 steps to perfection, God is moving the people one step at a time because to go all 100 steps at once is impossible.

Sometimes these arguments make sense.  Other times they seem like an attempt to put a positive spin on things.

Christians also believe that God is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus.  Traditional Trinitarian theology teaches that Jesus is literally God in the flesh.  For Christians, the Word of God is not a book, it is the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

Growing up, I was taught that Christianity is unique because Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  Because of this, we did not have to work to earn God’s love.  We did not have to do all the works taught in the Old Testament, whether sacrifices or Sabbaths.  Jesus showed us a God who comes to us and loves and forgives us prior to us doing anything.

So when it came to things like salvation, the Old Testament laws on sacrifice that pertain to forgiveness of sin were not seen as on equal footing with Jesus’ work. Through Jesus, that way, even if it was commanded by God, was no more.  At least for salvation, Jesus defines what it means.

Yet when it comes to talking about what God is like, all of a sudden it was as if Jesus and the rest of the Bible are on equal footing.  This is especially pertinent when it comes to violence.  Jesus shows us nonviolence, that God is self-sacrificial love.  But…in the Old Testament God commands death and destruction.  Thus, God is not really like Jesus since our picture of God is taken equally from Jesus and the Old Testament.

To be clear, here’s the dichotomy:

*Salvation – Jesus clearly is the final word on salvation, the Old Testament still has value in understanding how we got to Jesus, but the system in place there, though revealed by God, is over.

*What God is like – Jesus is not the final word on what God is like, he is merely one image alongside many, including many violent portrayals in the Old Testament.

What Greg Boyd is arguing in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is that if we apply the same principles consistently, then we must allow Jesus to be the final word on everything, including violence.  This is a key point.  He is not presenting totally new and unheard of arguments.  Instead he is taking arguments of others, including key figures throughout the Christian tradition, and applying them consistently.  Boyd writes in chapter one:

“The question for Christians is this: Will our view of God be completely determined by the self-sacrificial love revealed on the cross or will it also be influenced by portraits of God doing things like commanding capital punishment for homosexuals (Lev 20:13) and rebellious children (Deut 21:18-21; Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9), commanding genocide (e.g., Deut 7:2, 16), incinerating cities (Genesis 19) and striking a servant down for trying to prevent a sacred object from falling (2 Sam 6:6-7)?” (19).

In chapter two he echoes this:

“In light of the material covered in this chapter, I trust it is clear that the NT does not present Jesus as merely revealing an aspect of what God is like, as though we need to supplement this revelation with everything else we find in the Bible. Jesus is rather presented as the one and only Son who is, in contrast to all revelations that preceded him, the very ‘radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1:3). He is the very ’embodiment of the truth of God…I also trust it is also clear from the material we have covered that ‘the Old Testament…is all about Jesus’ which means that ‘there is no dimension of the Old Testament message that does not in some way foreshadow Christ,’ as Goldsworthy notes” (91).

This is not to say the Old Testament has no value, just as we say it has no value when we discuss salvation.  It is to say that our clearest picture of who God is, what God is like and how God relates to humans, is seen in the person and work of Jesus.

 

Why I Chose to Give Up Twitter and Save My Soul

Most days my mornings beginning roughly the same: I get up, make the kids their breakfast and then sit down to drink my coffee while reading the news.  My interaction with the news is not through a physical paper but is filtered through the News and Twitter apps on my phone.  Because of this, my reading of the news was not limited to news but included commentary (tweets and retweets) from the hundreds of people I had chosen to follow on Twitter.

I recently realized that engaging with the news in this way was becoming a huge distraction in my life.  This is because reading the news in the morning was never enough.  I would be drawn back throughout the day to see the latest comments on that news – whether funny, snarky, angry or thoughtful.  It got to the point where every hour or so I felt a need to check twitter to see the latest.  Further, with my phone charging next to my bed I found myself reaching for it first thing in the morning.  Again, I justified this by saying I wanted to check the weather.  Or maybe someone texted me something important while asleep.  But my groggy half awake self was already diving into the news of the day as presented on Twitter.

I recently read Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Warren and I believe every single Christian, or perhaps any person, could benefit by reading it.  It is one of my favorite books, and probably one of the most practical, I have read in a long time.  She writes about the spiritual practices that shape us, such as how we spend the early moments of our day:

          “By reaching for my smartphone every morning, I had developed a ritual that trained me toward a certain end: entertainment and stimulation via technology. Regardless of my professed worldview or particular Christian subculture, my unexamined daily habit was shaping me into a worshiper of glowing screens. Examining my daily liturgy as a liturgy—as something that both revealed and shaped what I love and worship—allowed me to realize that my daily practices were malforming me, making me less alive, less human, less able to give and receive love throughout my day. Changing this ritual allowed me to form a new repetitive and contemplative habit that pointed me toward a different way of being-in-the-world.

Twitter can be a helpful and useful tool.  There are plenty of smart people on there sharing helpful and challenging ideas.  But I realized that reading, and trying to keep up with, the tweets from a bunch of strangers was beginning to hurt my real life.  Again, I could justify it because if I retweeted something good I was speaking truth or fighting the good fight.  If I am honest though, nobody cares what I have to say.  My tweets are not making any sort of difference beyond virtue signaling.  And, once again, there is a whole world around me that I want to make a different in.

In other words, social media in general and twitter specifically was not helping me become the father, husband, neighbor, campus pastor or church member I want to be.

I’ve been challenged by scripture like this one:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things – Philippians 4:6-8

What am I doing that promotes meditating on good things rather than being filled with anger, stress and frustration (which is where I usually ended up after being on Twitter)?

Rather than picking up my phone first thing in the morning, I sit in bed and think or I pick up my Bible and read.  Perhaps I write in my journal.

Rather than checking Twitter every hour, I am trying to sit in the silence of the day, to pray for those around me, and think of ways I can act in positive ways in the world.

I pray this makes me more content throughout my days, and also more active in actually helping those around me.

If interested, I preached a sermon on this at my church last week: Content. Check it out here (October 1, titled Content).

 

The Walkin’ Dude Is Still Walkin’ – Thoughts on Evil

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So begins The Gunslinger, the first book of Stephen King’s fantasy epic series, The Dark Tower.  Over the course of the series we learn that the man in black is in fact a character familiar to King’s universe, Randall Flagg.  Flagg is an evil entity.  Perhaps we could call him a wizard, though wizard is not really the right word for him.  Better to say he is the personification of evil.

Flagg first appeared in King’s post-apocalyptic book, The Stand, which I am reading right now (I’m on page 810 as of this morning).  We meet him walking through a desert in the western United States, and he is immediately shown to be a dark man who loves chaos.  After a plague kills 99% of humanity, the survivors dream of Flagg as well as a kind old woman named Mother Abagail.  Some survivors join Flagg while others join Mother Abagail.  Some of Abagail’s first followers are not sure if Flagg is real and ask her about him:

“How much do you know about the dark man? Do you know who he is?

“I know what he’s about but not who he is. He’s the purest evil left in the world. The rest of the bad is little evil. Shoplifters and sexfiends and people who like to use their fists.  But he’ll call them.  He’s started already. He’s getting them together a lot faster than we are.  Before he’s ready to make his move, I guess he’ll have a lot more.  Not just the evil ones that are like him, but the weak ones…the lonely ones…and the ones that have left God out of their hearts.”

“Maybe he’s not real,” Nick wrote. “Maybe he’s just…” He had to niblle at the top of his pen and think. At last he added: “…the scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

Ralph frowned over this as he read it aloud, but Abby grasped what Nick meant right off.  It wasn’t much different from the talk of the new preachers who had got on the land in the last twenty years of so.  There was evil, and it probably came from original sin, but it was in all of us and getting it out was as impossible as getting an egg out of its shell without cracking it.  According to the way these new preachers had it, Satan was like a jugsaw puzzle – and every man, woman and child on earth added his or her little piece to make up the whole. Yes, all that had a good modern sound to it; the trouble with it was that it wasn’t true. And if Nick was allowed to go on thinking that, the dark man would eat him for dinner.”

The Stand, p. 503-504.

I couldn’t help but think of this passage, and of Flagg, in the last twenty-four hours.  Once again evil has been given a face as one man murdered dozens of people at a concert.  As usual, many people have shared much on social media – thoughts, tears, prayers, ideas for why this keeps happening and ideas how to stop it.  A lot of this is helpful, some of it is probably not.

I personally don’t have much to say on any of that right now.  All I know is evil is alive and well in 2017.  Most days, if you ask me, I am honestly not sure if there is such a being as “Satan.”  God as the ultimate reality, the infinite ground of being and creator of all things, makes sense to me.  A spiritual realm with spiritual beings, some good and some evil, is a little tougher to swallow but I can buy it.  But a grand demon in charge of all the rest, good ole’ Lucifer?  For some reason, that seems difficult to believe.  But then I look at the evil and suffering in the world and I think maybe there is something to that old time religion with its talk of battles with an incredibly powerful being, Satan, the personification of all evil.

Satan is still active, enticing people to evils both big and small.

Flagg may have a different name and face,  but he’s out there causing chaos.

The walkin’ dude is still walkin’ through the desert…

PS: Richard Beck has a pretty fantastic book on Satan that I read a few months back that speaks to contemporary Christian skepticism to Satan as well as the reality of such evil. Check it out: Reviving Old Scratch.

Praying and Working (Thoughts on Prayer Inspired by CS Lewis)

Nearly everyone prays at some point.  Christians, Muslims, Jews and probably even skeptics may ask the heavens or inquire of the great beyond.  Those of us who are Christians address God, our loving Father and Divine Parent, in the name of Jesus Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit (we pray in Trinity…but that’s another story).

Yet, what is prayer?  Does it affect God?  If God is infinite and all powerful, isn’t God just going to do whatever He, or She, wants?  This is a big question.  Its one of those questions that everyone has an answer for which in reality means no one has an answer for.

CS Lewis addresses this question in an essay found in his book God in the Dock:

“We know that we can act and that our actions produce results.  Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand.  Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.  It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.  It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method” (106)

In other words, just as our actions make a difference so to do our prayers impact real events.  It may be a mystery how it works, but for Lewis, the relationship of God and humanity means prayer, or lackthereof, does make a difference:

“He (God) made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures.  Similarly, He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers” (106)

Lewis goes on to address the difference between prayer and work.  He basically says that we humans possess a good deal of power in our work, God has given us freedom.  When it comes to prayer, God has “discretionary power”.  To use an example, you can choose to harm another person and act to make it happen and God, as far as we know, will not intervene to stop you.  But if you pray to kill another person, God will not make it happen.

“You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one week that one weed will no longer be there.  You can be sure that if you drink more than a certain amount of alcohol you will ruin your health or that f you go on for a few centuries more wasting the resources of the planet on wars and luxuries you will shorten the life of the whole human race.  The kind of causality we exercise by work is, so to speak, divinely guaranteed, and therefore ruthless.  By it we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please.  But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like that; God has left himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: ‘Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants'” (107)

My take away from Lewis is simple: Pray.  Do not choose between Prayer and Work because both make a difference.  Work hard to do good and pray hard for good to be done.

There’s lots more that could be said  If you’re interested, my friend Tim just preached a sermon on prayer this past week: Negotiating With God.  Give it a listen.  I’ve posted on prayer in the past, here are two that might be helpful.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer and Fasting

Thoughts on Prayer – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Finally, if you’re into books you could always try Lewis’ Letters To Malcolm on Prayer or Philip Yancey’s Prayer or Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer.  Of course, there’s the book of Psalms in the Bible which is filled with prayer.

And there’s the act of praying.  Since prayer is not about reading and learning but mostly about doing.

 

 

Politics, Parties, Means and Ends: A Political Post Inspired by CS Lewis (yes, politics, but its okay)

I am slowly working through God in the Dock, a collection of some of CS Lewis’ essays, and a few days ago read the essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”  In this essay, Lewis discusses the desirability of a Christian political party.  I’m not sure if this was something people wanted in mid-century Britain, but the idea would be that all Christians come together in one, explicitly Christian, political party.  Lewis begins by discussing ends, or goals, and means:

“The Christian Party must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.  If it chooses the first alternative, it will not be a political party.  Nearly all parties agree in professing ends which we admit to be desirable – security, a living wage, and the best adjustment between the claims of order and freedom.  What distinguishes one party from another is the championship of means.”

Lewis assumes that all Christians agree on the ends.  I am sure Christians do not agree on every end, but I will be optimistic and say that for the most part, agreeing on the goals remains true today.  That said, part of the challenge with having political discussion is that our political climate is so divided that we have trouble assuming the best of the other.  We righteously assume that only our side cares for people having enough to eat or decent housing or freedom or whatever.

Lewis shines the light on something important that can only help our political dialogue.  If we are going to argue politics, we should pause before the yelling starts and figure out if we are discussing means or ends.  For example, and Lewis alludes to this one, but I assume all Christians agree that the goal is for all people who work to make a living wage.  How to get here is the debate: do we increase the minimum wage? Allow competition in the market to drive up wages?  Those are discussions where Christians may agree, and those are discussions on means to the same end.

Lewis is writing this essay to discuss whether there should be a “Christian” political party.  He thinks it is a bad idea, arguing that putting all the Christians join in one party would end up backfiring.  This is because Christians are naturally going to disagree on the means, even while agreeing on the end.  Such disagreement will lead some to leave the party.  Then the so-called Christian party will include only one sort of means to the end, and this party will think they are the only Christians:

“But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty.  It will e not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole.  By the mere act of calling itself the Christian party, it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal”

A Christian party that not only agrees on goals but is not open to more than one idea on how to reach those goals will do more harm than good.  Lewis imagines worse can happen than just some Christians leaving the party:

“The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the ‘Christian Party’ wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will surely be by just such a process as this.”

When one party is baptized as Christian, Lewis fears they won’t have to worry so much about actually seeking a Christian ethic.  They can even go along with the less than Christian elements in the party who are now emboldened by their holiness. Assured they are correct, being in the only “Christian party” after all, they will commit all sorts of crimes in the name of the good.

This essay reminds me that we need Christians in different political parties.  Not all political parties, for some parties represent ideas (ends) far beyond anything relating to a Christian ethic (Nazis, Marxists).  But in America, we need Christians in the Democrat and Republican parties.

We need Christians who remind us that individual freedom is vital to a functioning society and that government will encroach on that freedom, as it has done since forever. 

And we need Christians to remind us that individuals are fallen and will take advantage of their fellow men and women so we need institutions, including government, to work to keep the peace and ensure fairness.

America, like any nation with Christians in it, can only benefit from Christians speaking from Christian principles – primarily humanity as created in God’s image and broken by sin – in both the Democrat and Republican parties.  Hopefully, Christians in those parties can also lead the way in talking to one another – which requires recognizing the other might have something good, humility is also a Christian virtue.

At this point in our country, just talking to people convinced of different political means may be the place to start.

 

The True Myth and Challenge of Belief

871832The Christian faith has a lot in common with other religions.  We find story after story of dying and rising gods in ancient literature.  Isn’t the story of Jesus just another mythical story?

Well, yes.  And no.

CS Lewis writes in his essay “Myth Became Fact” (found in the book God in the Dock):

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth.  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.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from religion they professed.  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary then the other (God in the Dock, 58-59).

Of course Christian faith has much in common with other faiths, myths and stories.  Truth, wherever it is found, whether in religion or philosophy or a good novel, points to the ultimate truth.  The difference, Lewis argues, is that in the story of Jesus Christ the shadowy unhistorical myths become real and true history.  Jesus’ resurrection took place in a real time and place.

Believing that such a thing really happened is not easy.  It is difficult to believe in fantastic things, as I wrote about recently.  Yet “belief” itself needs some sort of definition.  For some Christians, including me at various points in my life, belief merely meant assent.  To believe then was to assent to a series of statements.

Did Jesus rise from the dead?  

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

The problem here is that merely assenting to things does not affect your life much.  I fear that often what goes by the name “Christian apologetics” has its goal to convince people to assent to the truth of Christian faith.  So we defend our view and offer arguments targeted at the rational mind.  Can we get them to flip their vote from “no, of course Jesus did not rise” to “yes, it makes sense to say he did”?

Lewis goes on to write, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

Yes!  It is not that Lewis thinks believing it to be fact is unimportant (read the first quote up above again).  But he recognizes that simply believing does not count for much.  How does it change your life?  If Jesus is risen then everything is different.

Life has the last word, not death.

Hope has the last word, not despair.

Love has the last word, not hate.

 

Stephen King, CS Lewis and Believing Fantastic Things

51s5tovoubl-_sx302_bo1204203200_Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot is the story of how vampires destroy a small town.  In the midst of this, some characters figure out what is going on and try to rouse the town to fight back.  They run into many obstacles, such as skepticism.  At one point a priest, Father Callahan, is trying to convince a family their son is targeted by the vampires:

“Let’s talk a little more first. I’m sure your witnesses are reliable, as I’ve indicated. Dr. Cody is our family physician, and we all like him very much.  I’ve also been given to understand that Matthew Burke is above reproach…as a teacher at least.”

“But in spite of that?” Callahan asked.

“Father Callahan let me put it to you. If a dozen reliable witnesses told you that a giant ladybug had lumbered through the town park at high noon singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and waving a Confederate flag, would you believe it?”

“If I was sure the witnesses were reliable, and if I was sure they weren’t joking, I would be far down the road to belief, yes.

Still with a faint smile, Petrie said, ‘That is where we differ.”

“Your mind is closed,” Callahan said.

“No – simply made up.”

When I read this I could not help but think of CS Lewis’ children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this story a young girl named Lucy discovers a secret door into the land of Narnia.  Her brothers and sister do not believe her.  Then one of her brothers, Edmund, goes through the door too.  Lucy is ecstatic.  Finally her story will be believed!  Yet Edmund, in a moment of sheer meanness, says he saw nothing and that he and Lucy were just pretending.  She’s just a dumb kid, after all.

The older siblings go to a wise old Professor.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but – ” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful

“That’s just the funny thing about  it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up until now, I’d have said Lucy every time.

The Professor encourages them, in light of her past trustworthiness, to trust Lucy now.

The idea is the same as that in Salem’s Lot: it is possible to believe impossible things if trustworthy people share them.  If we do not rule out certain possibilities at the outset we may come to see that fantastic  things could be true.

Lewis would draw a real world conclusion from this.  Certainly humans do not usually rise from the dead, everyone knows that.  But if people we can trust report to us that once someone did rise from the dead and if we can think of no ulterior motives or other possibilities for what happened, then it makes sense to believe them. This is what happened with Jesus.

Do you buy it?   

I do.  Of course, I can see how others wouldn’t.  Its fantastic.  Heck, believing in vampires and magical worlds through doors may make more sense.  But what if the reports that have been passed down through the ages are true?

It changes everything!  It changes how we look at the world.

Is the world hopeless or hopeful?  Well, what if the story of the world is not one that ends in death but one that ends in the hope of new life?  What if, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the universe truly is curved towards justice?  Not because humans are so great and can work really hard and build something (I think history shows us that’s too optimistic) but because there is a Being we call God working behind the scenes to ensure that in the midst of all the hopelessness and death, there is hope and life.

I’ll take the fantastic and hopeful explanation.  Its all that can get me out of bed in the morning.

 

Problem of Evil and Suffering, Sandor Clegane Style

Why does God allow good people to suffer?

Why is God silent in the face of suffering?

Why does God not step in and stop evil?

Why do the wicked survive and the good perish?

These are as questions as old as time (see the book of Job and Psalms).  The first episode of season seven of Game of Thrones tackled them too.  Sandor Clegane, “the Hound”, has been around since the beginning of the show.  First he is bodyguard to the king, then he is a wandering fighter.  Filled with anger and contempt, Clegane is not afraid to tell it like he sees it.  Recently though his character-arc has started to turn towards redemption and he has fallen in with a group who worship the one true God (Sidenote: the world of Game of Thrones is filled with different religions but the specifics need not concern us here).

In the season premier Sandor is talking with Beric.  Beric has been killed in battle numerous times, but the Lord of Light keeps giving him his life back.

SANDOR: So why does the Lord of Light keep bringing you back? I’ve met better men than you, and they’ve been hanged from crossbeams, or beheaded, or just s*** themselves to death in a field somewhere. None of them came back. So, why you?

BERIC: You think I don’t ask myself that? Every hour of every day? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What does the Lord see in me?

SANDOR: And?

BERIC: I don’t know. I don’t understand our Lord.

SANDOR: Your Lord.

BERIC: I don’t know what He wants from me. I only know that He wants me alive.

SANDOR: If he’s so all-powerful, why doesn’t he just tell you what the f*** he wants?

The question is simple: if Beric’s God is so powerful, why doesn’t he just make himself known and be a bit more explicit in what he wants?

This conversation is happening in a farmhouse.  The previous residents of the house, a father and his daughter, are dead.  A few seasons ago Sandor had visited the same farmhouse and robbed them.  Though he did not kill them with his sword, his actions certainly put them on the fast track to death.  Witnessing their decaying bodies, he seems remorseful, in his own hardened way.  The remorse is more profound as he knows they were better people then he, that he should be dead, as should other killers, and the family should be alive.

SANDOR: There’s no divine justice, you dumb ****. If there was, you’d be dead…and that girl would be alive.

Why do innocent children die and murderous warriors survive

Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? – Psalm 10:1

I’m not interested in discussing answers to this question right now, as pointing out how great it is to see the question raised in such a popular television show.

Not only is Game of Thrones master storytelling, but it brings up these sorts of ethical questions (for some it is whether to watch the whos in the first place!).  That is one of the reasons I taught a workshop at the Student Conference on Game of Thrones and Tolkien, comparing the hopeless world of Thrones where evil seems to triumph with the hopeful world of Tolkien where powerful forces bend the arc of the story towards justice and goodness.  Along with that, I encouraged them to keep their minds and hearts turned on when they watch television and movies so that they can engage with their peers around the questions, messages and worldviews found and expressed within those stories.

In other words, how do we answer Sandor Clegane’s question in the real world?

Journeying to the Dark Tower (Reflections on Stephen King’s magnum opus)

Last year I read The Gunslinger by Stephen King.  Published way back in the 70s, this book tells the story of the last Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, pursuing the demonic man in black across the desert.  Roland’s goal is to find the mythical Dark Tower, the center of all existence.

I love fantasy stories so I was hooked.  Over the next nine months or so, I read the remainder of the series as well as some of King’s other books and short stories that tie in.  I won’t bother summarizing them here; if you want to read that sort of thing you can find such summaries all over the place.

Throughout the series, like in any good series, the world of the story expands.  New characters are introduced, new environments are experienced and the story becomes richer.  King resists introducing too many new characters though and succeeds in keeping the focus on Roland and his companions (his ka-tet).  There’s not really a final grand battle such as you see in many fantasy stories, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.  Such final battles are fine, but I appreciate how King went a different route.

Without giving too much away, what strikes me most as I reflect on the series is how it is much more about the journey then the destination.  The ending is even kind of disappointing.  In a post script, King admits the difficulty with ending such a series.  Nearly any ending, with all the build up of Roland reaching the Dark Tower, would fall short of people’s expectations.

Of course, this is how real life is.

You look forward for months to a new movie and it does not live up to the hype.

You work hard to graduate college in hopes of landing your dream job and struggle to find work.

My daughter has been begging all summer to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and when we finally took her she was ready to go home after about twenty minutes.

Maybe the value in life really is the journey more than the destination.  That sounds clichéd.  Yet if we who call ourselves Christians scoff at this idea, perhaps we should pause.  This idea is not new.  Look at John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress.  The entire story is about the pilgrim’s journey through the world.  It is the journey that draws us in.  Sometimes the ending is satisfying (such as Lord of the Rings) and sometimes it might not be.  But the story, the journey, is what compels us.

It is in the journey that we are shaped.

It is in the journey where we are faced with choices that will define us.

It is in the journey where we meet companions who will help us.

Life after death is a great mystery.  Christians and other religious people can say some things about what this life will be like, though no one really knows for sure beyond a few vague generalities.  But as we look towards that future goal,

as Roland did towards the Dark Tower

as Frodo did towards Mt. Doom

As Christian did towards Heaven

as Jesus did when he set his face towards Jerusalem

We can find strength to journey on in daily life.

All that to say, if you want to read a great story, check out the Dark Tower series…