Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Link: Inhabitateo Dei: Your Hopes Must Be Dashed--reprise of the temptation of Christ in Luke

Earlier I wrote about the temptation of Christ in the gospel of Luke. The proximate cause for that post was learning that Mark Driscoll had taught from that passage and the broader cause was that I have read a lot and thought a lot about the passage over the years. Ergo Garrett, Jeffrey Burton Russell, et al in the earlier post.

Being a Dostoevsky fan I can't help but consider things like The Grand Inquisitor and perhaps Halden considered Dostoevsky's masterpiece of confrontational philosophy while drafting his reflection on Palm Sunday. He describes (I think rightly) Palm Sunday as the end of Lent and the culmination of a new form of temptation of the sort that Satan visited upon Jesus in the wilderness. In Luke's gospel the ultimate temptation is to invoke the scriptures themselves, even a passage in the Psalms that was used as a go-to prayer against demonic attack, and to use that scripture to tempt Jesus to put God to the test. It is precisely this that Jesus now confronts in the face of a throng of people who welcome Him with shouts of "Hosanna". I don't need to rehearse that this word means "save us!" The temptation Christ faced was a temptation He overcame. He did not choose to be the kind of King His people wanted Him to be and for that they crucified Him.

It is not coincidental to say that at this time many American Christians whip out the passage that says "If my people who are called by my name will heed my voice and turn to me then I will hear them and heal their land." No one bothers to look at what actually happened in that narrative--Israel did NOT listen and they did NOT turn and they went into destruction and exile as the Lord predicted centuries before in the book of Deutoronomy. God knows the hearts of people and anticipated the failure of those in that time. Quote the passage in the context of Chronicles as a literary whole and it becomes impossible to cite the passage as an optimistic admonition that if you just vote in the right political party God will favor your country again.

Since other Christians have forced the matter I'll just force it in another way, both Judah and Samaria ultimately fell. If we want to insist on allegorizing this in absurdly American terms Samaria represents the Democratic party and they apostasized early and greatly. Judea represents the Republicans and while at the end Reagan mightily went forth on behalf of the cause and salvaged America from the liberals the party ultimately also betrayed true principles and term limits meant the Josiah figure (Reagan) did not rule or reform for long before the Republican party ultimately failed just like the Democrat party to secure and preserve the richness of the republic (e.g. the Torah). I can reverse the allegory to have it apply to Democrats, too, but that would involve digressing into the misdirection of JFK's administration and the analogy would fall apart even more quickly than it would for the elephant. I hope by now you figured out that I'm employing more than a little sarcasm here.

So, why, then, should American Christians who are conservative imagine that things in our age would be any different? Why should the trajectory of "God's country" be different in the United States than it was for Israel? This is granting the generous concession that the comparison is apt and that the United States was actually founded on "Christian principles". I always thought Francis Schaeffer's argument that principles influenced by Christian thought is not the same as "Christian nation".

Now conflating God and country is one of the perennial problems of every pagan empire and it was even a problem in Israel. It is, in essence, a problem with the human condition. Even without gods this human capacity remains and would not be remedied even if religion itself were somehow magically obliterated from the human race. Taking a passage severely out of context and acting as though the United States of America is the temple built by Solomon and Israel is the chosen people is not surprising to me ... but it is still profoundly disappointing. American Christians have had a knack of deluding themselves into thinking the Bible has to be about them for centuries. Now I don't tend to get questions about how America plays into Bible prophecy but I still settle for Psalm 2.

I am not really particularly liberal in my politics or my religion ... but I find the ignorant abuse of scripture to rally about political causes offensive coming from both conservatives and liberals alike. "If my people ... " who will sacrifice their children, kill the innocent, levy heavy burdens on the people, and justify it through exceptionalism continue to do so then they will fail. If people value profit and industry over people for generations then when they have given away their industrial base and jobs to foreigners why, precisely, should they complain that foreigners have the jobs that their masters of inidustry gave away decades ago? How far can you complain "They are taking are jobs?" when you and your allies have given them away for years to improve the profit margin? There are progressives and leftists who are opposed to internationalism because they want Americans to have jobs instead of having them shipped overseas.

There are otherwise stalwart conservatives who believe it is wrong to take a punitive approach to immigration. As Pat Robertson once said, conservatives have erred about immigration because they do not realize that Christians are to be kind toward them ... of course Robertson has mistakenly imagined that the United States in some sense at all a "Christian" nation or was one. A friend of mine put it this way, no one seems to be complaining about all the WHITE illegal immigrants living in the United States, working jobs, starting businesses, and the like. If the immigrant is willing to work as hard for a third less money and the home-grown American doesn't want to work for the pay grade the American employer is offering then who is going to get the job?

Ergo, immigrants are taking away American jobs at least in part because Americans don't want to work for what they believe to be too little pay while employers are not willing to pay more to Americans because of the impact it will have on their bottom line. Employers who do not want to bother jumping through the legal hoops required to employ someone can be described as sticking it to the man but the interpretation of these actions may simply be to complain that Mexicans or other illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs and living off of American social welfare programs. I in my broadly pessimistic disposition do not see a reason to be optimistic that this or that will get better. I suppose I share Miyazaki's generally gloomy outlook on the race as a whole while being willing to have some optimism at a local level.

Since my hope (though I often struggle here) is in Christ it is foolish to put hope in politicians winning this or that election. Just as God ordained slavery for Israel some Christians might just as well be told that God ordained Obama for such a time as this. Christians of a particularly conservative bent may see it as punishment on America for choosing evil. America chose evil a long, long time ago. The truth is that every nation is part of the swarming sea that opposes the reign of the Lord in the Apocalypse. Some thirty years ago American Christians were anticipating that Russia was the place of the antichrist, or perhaps the European Union. Others anticipated that Syria would be where the antichrist comes from. Now, of course, some American Christians are imagining that Obama could be the one or is at least as bad. The number of the beast in any number of ways spells out Nero. There have been countless antichrists, just as there will be countless more.

These concerns are not new. The old days were not without these concerns. As far back as Cicero guys were complaining about how the old days were better and the youth today are dissolute and without direction. Yet Koholeth wrote millenia ago that it is not your place to ask, "Where are the good old days that were better than these?" because it is stupid to ask that question. Yet that is precisely what I see a lot of Christians doing, asking where the good old days were. I in my mixture of skepticism about the future and glum assessment of the past is that the past was not really all that good and the future isn't really all that good either unless we're talking about the return of Christ. It is easy at a generational level to excuse in ourselves what we now condemn in others. Perhaps it is God's providential sense of humor not only to turn us into our parents but to ensure that our children at some broad level mirror our own folly back to us.

When Christ came and said "My kingdom is not of this world" He demonstrated that throughout His life and ministry. Welcomed as a savior on Palm Sunday within a week the mob sought His death. Christ did not come to be the kind of military, political, or economic savior we wanted Him to be. He did not come to bring peace but to bring a sword and, paradoxically, entered Jerusalem on a donkey, a king coming in peace. It is the nature of the peace He purchased on our behalf that we continue to find offensive and continue to find grounds enough to forsake Him. Our capacity to forsake Christ and the temptation to forsake Him is a subject so large it will merit another post and seeing as Halden wrote a sermon that has gotten me thinking about that, another post there is.

Link: Inhabitatio Dei--Judas, Jeremiah--a Holy Saturday homily

For some reason I never bothered to note that Halden Doerge of Inhabitatio Dei blogging is in Portland, Oregon. I, er, happen to be Oregonian by birth and upbringing and came to the Emerald City to study. This homily I read recently is something I find encouraging and so I am linking to it, in classic WenatcheeTheHatchet fashion, literally years after it was posted.

What sticks with me is the observation that Judas, upon realizing his guilt in betraying Christ to death, goes to the very religious authorities to whom he betrayed Jesus. Their response is to refuse him any possibility of absolution. We may surmise that Jesus' enemies who arranged for the crucifixion did not, in fact, even remotely care that Jesus was innocent. They were taking matters into their own hands because they had cause to believe Jesus was a blasphemer and very probably a bastard who claimed to be able to do what God alone could do. And, on top of all these things, Jesus was being welcomed as a king; had spoken against the Temple predicting its total destruction; and was becoming popular enough that Rome was in danger of beginning to take some action. All these, for the Temple authorities, would have made Jesus anything but an innocent man.

Yet Judas, we are told, knew the magnitude of his sin. He may have known it incompletely in as much as he merely knew he was guilty of shedding innocent blood. He may have known that he consigned to death a man whom he may even at one point have considered the Christ, God's appointed man to defeat the power of evil in that age. When he realized his guilt he went to the very authorities to whom he had betrayed the Lord. Their answer was "See to it yourself." Judas was trapped in a double bind of his own making.

We generally see Judas as the betrayer, as the bad seed from the start. Yet Jesus was abandoned by all of His disciples at the hour of death. Judas betrayed his master and quickly came to regret it. We are told that he repented. He felt remorse. He turned, however, to religious authorities who neither absolved him of the death he was complicit in nor approved of his being party to the death. The religious leaders and his pangs of conscience put him in an inescapable double bind. He was needed so that the enemies of Christ could obtain what they wanted by finding a pretext to have Jesus put to death, and yet he would not be considered any kind of hero or ally, merely a tool. He became a tool to his own sin and to those who found his sins useful for obtaining their ends.

Yet in the end it seems to be Judas' despair of any hope in the face of his own regret and rejection by those whose money he sought that impels him to end his life. The other disciples were, theologically speaking, no less guilty of nailing Christ to the cross through their own sins. What was it, then, that made Judas so particularly doomed? Was it because Judas did not recognize that Jesus was the Christ? No, this does not seem to be the case or he would have abandoned Jesus with the others and would not have remained when Peter said "To whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life?" We are told that Satan entered Judas. We are not told that Satan entered Judas at the START of Jesus' ministry but near its end.

Was Judas' particular flaw unbelief? Even the other disciples did not believe until after the resurrection and even Thomas doubted. Did Judas lack hope? So did the other disciples. What did Judas do or think in the wake of the death of Christ that made him different? In his lack of hope he forcefully accomplished for himself what he realized he was guilty of according to the law--he took his own life. I don't have more to blog about at the time so I'm just going to unceremoniously end.

Jonah and the Assyrians

The church I attend recently wrapped up a series on Jonah that is quite good. A few years ago I heard a friend of mine preach through Jonah and he also did quite a good job. A cursory review of the circumstances the book describes are in order and hearing Jonah preached at one church and then another has reminded me that God's kindness is offensive because He so often shows it to those whom many of God's most ardent supporters (in their own minds, at least) can be livid when God chooses to show mercy on the utterly merciless.

That the Assyrians were a very martial and combative culture is not particularly lost on those who investigate them. That God chose to relent of destroying the city after Jonah preached "Yet forty days and the city will be overthrown" is beyond dispute. That Jonah was exceedingly angry and furious that God chose to show mercy on the Assyrians is something Jonah makes plain. He was angry enough to wish for death after the death of a plant ... while waiting to see more than a hundreed thousand die under the wrath of God.

What God reveals in Jonah is that He may choose to send us to pronounce judgment on those who are accurately considered terrible sinners. We may object to even warning them of the Lord's wrath to come, flee from His presence, and then eventually realize that we must go back. Jonah asked to be thrown into the sea to calm the storm rather than ask the sailors to return him to his land to make the trip to Ninevah. Jonah chose death rather than obedience to the Lord ... and yet the Lord showed mercy to him.

Out of that mercy Jonah goes and speaks to the city of Ninevah and pronounces judgment on them. Then the city repents and Jonah is furious that God relents of the destruction promised. Jonah waits. A plant grows up and withers overnight and Jonah is more upset about and more grateful for the plant that he did not work for then for the city that God has spared. Jonah is who we are. We are the sort of people not merely tempted but who actually do consider ourselves the measure of justice and mercy. We say to ourselves "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy." We can fool ourselves into thinking that those we "pity" are those whom we pity when we detest them, perhaps even for good reasons. Yet God calls Jonah to speak to a city full of people whose soldiers have destroyed his homeland. God sent them in judgment on Israel's wickedness and yet, paradoxically, they warrant warning. And when warned by Jonah they repent, and this is what infuriates Jonah--that he knew beforehand in his own country that Yahweh would have pity on them.

Who do we not pity that deserves our real compassion, not merely the "pity" we use as a mask to hide ourselves from the depth of our hatred? The first form of pity pours out life to those who need it and may not seem to have earned it. The second is the mask we wear to hide ourselves from the loathing we have at having our hopes or desires thwarted. Jonah hoped for the ultimate destruction of the Assyrian empire.

There may be several levels at which Jonah was furious. First, he could easily look like a false prophet in as much as he had pronounced a judgment that was averted. Judgment EVENTUALLY came as predicted by another prophet, but Jonah's warning was not to be the one that brought about destruction. Second, Jonah saw that God chose to mercifully spare the least deserving nation he could think of, a nation that had ravaged Israel. Third, Jonah saw himself and his people as the good guys and the Assyrians as the bad guys.

It is this third reason that I wish to consider at some small length, because while Jonah would be right to be angry at the cruelty of the Assyrians he was more angry at God for His mercy toward them, it seems, than toward the Assyrians themselves. Here is the part where, true to small group discussion form, I can ask "Who are the Assyrians that you don't want God to show mercy to?" I know that for a LOT of people I have known in the last five years those "Assyrians" would constitute Mars Hill. See, long-time readers of the blog won't have to search too long to see that I have had a profoundly ambivalent perspective on the church and people who have via anonymous comments wanted me to be more on "their" side have not gotten this.

Well, one of the last sermons I heard at Mars Hill was during the Jonah series back in 2008 and it has been illuminating to realize that the church I'm now attending has just gone through Jonah. I'm not interested in ignoring the providential potential in this for myself. It was actually a sermon a friend of mine preached from Jonah that helped me realize that instead of staying where I was at the time that I actually really did need to start moving forward into the next phase of life. I very much appreciate my friend for preaching that sermon and appreciate that there is a new place for me to be for the time being. The future is as always uncertain and often looks gloomy but the Lord leads us through gloomy and uncertain times as well as positive ones. The Lord ordered Jonah to go speak to Ninevah and sometimes the great unexpected turn of events is that God grants blessing and even victory to those you consider your enemy, those you consider unfit for the mercy of God. And in case I miss an opportunity to make this observation again, I did write the sonnet "On Election" in response to how many American Christians view this with respect to politics.

Jonah's anger was that God averted wrath and extended mercy precisely because of Jonah's obedience in proclaiming the warning of God. Jonah's sermon was one of doom, certain doom, and yet God used it to catalyze an act of repentence that averted the very doom Jonah so confidently declared. Jonah said, "Did I not say this when I was still in my own country!? You are a God who is slow to anger and merciful." Our greatest resentments are often at those who continue in sin for years or decades and whom, it seems, God providentially lets off the hook. Not only does God "let" them carry on in sin but they then turn away from those things they did to the Lord and we feel like fools. Jonah hoped for a destruction that did not come. First he fled God's presence, then he insisted on being cast into the sea but even there he did not die. Finally when Jonah realized that God would not even allow him death and that he had to go pursue obedience Jonah relented ... a little ... before reverting to his old anger.

What this means is that Jesus was not kidding when he said to bless those who curse you and to pray for those who persecute you. Jonah shows us how that DOESN'T look so that we can better see how it WOULD look when Christ comes to a world that ultimately rejects Him. Jonah arguably had a more compelling case to want the Assyrians dead than many of us will have about the people we want dead. Jonah's reasons were not even, by our measure of ethics, even remotely bad reasons. Yet the mercy and love that Yahweh extends can be scandalous, even obscene.

In fact that mercy is so obscene Jonah asked God to kill him. There are acts of mercy the Lord offers to people we hate or have been hurt by that are so offensive we would rather not be alive. It is to this fury of Jonah that the Lord asks, "Do you do well to be angry?" Do you do well to go outside of the city all by yourself and hide in a shelter you didn't even make that God providentially gave you for a time and from there wait for the Lord to destroy people because you have felt wronged? Jonah was a prophet who wanted collective guilt to be true for the enemy and not for his own people. Even though we say that collective guilt at all is barbaric this is something we cling to whether we hate Democrats or Republicans or Christians or atheists or Jews or blacks or whites or whomever we choose to resent collectively.

Jonah is a reminder that this kind of resentment is not new and it will never go away. What God does in the midst of this is show a degree of kindness that we find obscene. Jonah is at slightly greater length an examination of what Jesus spoke of through the parable of the Samaritan. Only Jesus went further by demonstrating that the apostate, the heretic, the traitor, the destroyer of all things good and holy was the one who showed greater kindness than those who would have been considered the heroes of righteous.

We constantly want God to give us and our people victories in obvious ways and through obvious means and then become offended when God continues to use those things that are nothing to put to shame those things that are. We, like Jonah, benefit from recognizing that the Lord who can show boundless mercy to us can also show that boundless mercy to people we don't think deserve that mercy. If we question the legitimacy of that mercy for others how can we say that we merit it? We don't and if it is a gift given to us do we question God's wisdom and kindness in giving it to others? We often do. I know I must remind myself regularly that this is a struggle for me and I recognize it is a struggle everyone will have in life.

Whatever your Jonah moment may be, do not wait outside the city of Ninevah for a destruction you want the Lord to enact on your behalf because you feel morally outraged. Proverbs warns that you shouldn't even be happy when your enemy falls or the Lord will take note of your resentment and turn around and bless your enemy. You shouldn't be too eager for your enemy to fail to begin with. Jonah had not learned that and apparently did not learn that for some time. God used him anyway and if God can use such a bitter, combative, and disobedient prophet whose message of brute destruction became a catalyst for the Lord's mercy then this is instructive.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

John Piper is taking a sabbatical

I confess to not being the hugest fan of John Piper. I don't dislike him and I even own a few of his books but his popularity at Mars Hill baffled me. I took it as a sign of what I had surmised as far back as 2002, that Mars Hill is basically Reformed Baptist but is loathe to identify as such. Well, if there are pastors on staff who are actually Arminian then I could say that they are a nascent addition to the broad denominational umbrella of "Baptist".

That was cool for a time but I have found over time that since my sympathies are more Presbyterian it was helpful to move in that direction (if Piper's popularity eludes me I totally get why people at Mars have enjoyed Tim Keller's teaching).
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have had some pretty serious concerns about Mars Hill over the years but I stay in touch with my friends and family there and have even networked so as to get a capable musician in touch with a campus pastor. Last I heard (with my own ears) said musician is doing fine work at the campus and the pastor's sermon was excellent. I just needed some time to figure out that there is a no direction for me to travel. Moving in that new direction hardly means that I don't keep connections to the past. That may well be my strength and weakness, I am not the sort of person who likes to burn bridges where others burn bridges as soon as they find it useful and appealing.

I hope, since Driscoll has cited Piper as an example, that he will follow Piper's example at some point. Luke is mapped out enough that at some point Mark should consider an actual sabbatical. This seems to be the thing he has not really done. A month, I suppose, but eight months? Never. Mark seems to define himself by his work and it is going to remain a persistent idol he will struggle with. David struggled all his life with not being a particularly good husband or parent. Driscoll may struggle all his life with defining himself by his work and his being a family man. I have struggled my whole life with fear so I can at least credit Mark with not being afraid, though that can often be precisely what leads to problems. He's not afraid to make all sorts of stupid statements from the pulpit ... then again I believe every strength is generally also its own corresponding weakness.

I wish Piper well during his sabbatical.

in which I admit to not liking the Eagles

They aren't the worst band out there but for reasons I don't feel like getting into I have been exposed to a hefty dose of the Eagles in the last week and I have become more aware of a line from the Dude in The Big Lebowski. I don't need to quote the line if you have seen the film and understand the sentiment Jeff Bridges' character expresses about the Eagles. I am, at any rate, not in a situation to be ordered to get out of a cab for expressing the sentiment.

Decades ago (really) Musician published a great skewering of Don Henley's lyrics by pointing out that the man had such a way with poetry, such a way with turning a lyrical phrase that you would have thought that those phrases had ALWAYS EXISTED IN THE LANGUAGE. True that!

I remember hearing the song "Take it Easy" and the whole premise of the song just seemed absurd in a way that could only, perhaps, happen in the 1970s. This song was co-written with Jackson Browne? Seven women on his mind and looking to be saved by the "love" of an eighth one?

The Eagles' songs are not exactly terrible but they represent a banality of musical and artistic direction that is respectably self-contained but just doesn't hold up in many details. "They stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast" stands out as one of the great howlers of Eagles' lyrics. Why, yes, they grabbed the steely knives because plastic cutlery just wouldn't get through the pot roast. The Eagles' creative output in songs like Hotel California or Life in the Fast Lane particularly constitute what in television we would call the "very special" episode of a comedy. That would be the scenario where the comedy proposes grandiose pretentions to being "serious" without a particularly compelling basis for it. Think Alex P Keaton going on in soliloquoys about death for this one.

It's not that comedies cannot touch upon serious issues or that drams can't be broadly comedic. I hardly ever watch TV but to pick two shows that I think broadly balance comedy and drama House and Scrubs come to mind. These are the only two shows about doctors I have seen that I can actually enjoy because the characters are not just plausible in their "good" traits they are even MORE plausible in their pettiness and their varying inexplicable weakness. Dorian's capacity for empathy is equalled by his absurd self-regard and narcissism. House has a similar capacity for craven self-regard without the oft-extended capacity to empathize with people. If the show starts off mixing drama and comedy that mixture is more readily retained.

In music I have mentioned earlier (much earlier) in this blog that a musician like Elton John can plausibly transition from pop songs to Broadway because of common connections. Billy Joel didn't make the transition from rock/pop to classical so effectively because he hadn't really stayed connected to it. I can't speak to Elvis Costello's attempts to get into classical music but in many cases that addition of classical to pop is often as ineffective as the transition from classical to pop.

I consider it unlikely that people who read this blog with any consistency are necessarily Eagles fans but they have stuck around for the long haul. My not liking them doesn't mean I can't respect their longevity. There are people who actually enjoy M.A.S.H. for some reason and people still flock to see Wagner performances even though I have found both his music and his person to be loathsome. But so it goes. For all I know after I'm dead and buried there will still be someone who hears those lines "They stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast" as some sort of profound utterance.