The Philistines Have Stolen the Ark! A Few Fourth of July Thoughts About the Election

Altenburg_Abbey_Paul Troger Frescoe_Modified

The Ark of the Covenant Returns to Israel. David dances. Uzzah dies. Based on Paul Troger’s Altenburg Abbey Frescoe.

It was a transitional era. After Moses and Joshua, the judges God raised up had done their jobs, more or less, but toward the end things got way out of hand. You and anyone who ever went to VBS knows the story of Samson, at least the PG-rated version. Given his history you might be surprised to learn that he was one of the Judges of the tribe of Israel. He was a wild one, but at least he was a “strongman” and he did deliver Israel from the Philistines—at considerable cost to himself.

Samson was followed by Eli, the high priest of Shiloh. Eli seemed to be a pretty good Judge, but not such a good father. He had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. (For the sake of the story I was hoping that their names were Joel and Ethan, since Eli, being a priest was known as a “cohen” and so his sons, also priests, would be the cohen brothers. No offense to Joel and Ethan, I love their movies.)

Anyway, Hophni and Phinehas regularly demonstrated their unworthiness to inherit dad’s role as the high priest and Judge. Appropriating to themselves the best cuts of meat from the sacrifices and similarly “appropriating” the women who served at the temple gate are not recommended ways to curry favor with Yahweh. Long story short, the cohen brothers accompanied the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines and lost it, along with their own lives and the lives of 30,000 others. When Eli heard the news he fell over backwards in his chair and died from a broken neck. Shortly afterward Phinehas’ widow gave birth to a son and named him Ichabod in honor of the lost Ark. Ichabod means “the glory of the Lord has departed,” which is why it rarely makes lists of popular baby names.

Obviously things were not going well in Israel. The priesthood was corrupt. People were chasing after false gods and the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of their enemy. Israel thought the Ark itself was the source of their strength—as opposed to, say, the One who parted the waters, delivered them from Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and brought them to the Promised Land. But as humans tend to do, they conflated the sign of the Covenant with the One who made the covenant in the first place. The Ark was not God. Even as the place where Yahweh chose to meet with Israel it was mostly a tangible, powerful reminder of His presence among them.

By this time Eli’s protege, Samuel, had developed quite a reputation as a prophet, which isn’t that hard to do when you’re getting your information straight from Yahweh himself. So the job of high priest and Judge fell to him. Now Israel had God and they had Samuel, a prophet who had the ear of God, which is what the name Samuel literally means. Under his leadership and God’s well-targeted thunder, they even managed to defeat the Philistines. For the time being. As the story goes, “The hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” But they still didn’t get the Ark back. That comes later.

Samuel did a decent job and he seems to have been a better judge than Eli. But perhaps he, too, was a little lacking in the fatherhood department. He also had a couple of sons—one of whom was actually named Joel—but these cohen brothers were pretty much as despicable as Eli’s sons. In his old age Samuel, in a serious “senior moment” appointed his sons as judges over Israel.

The elders, remembering the previous sons of a Judge, had a different idea. Hoping to make Israel great again, they went to Samuel and reminded him how old he was and how bad his sons were. They told Samuel their big idea: they wanted a king—a strongman—so they could be like all the other nations around them. The word “elder” seems to overestimate their maturity. Their sentiment was more like that of an adolescent who asks mom and dad for a particular brand of jeans so they can be like all the cool kids.

In defense of the elders, pretty much all of the Judges clearly had “issues,” and in human terms, a king would have seemed a better solution. Feeling the pain of rejection like Hillary in 2008, Samuel pushed back. After all, God was King, Samuel was Judge and all should have been right with the universe. But God told him to get over it—It wasn’t him; it was Him—so give the people what they want. Not because what they wanted was right, but because God often gives us our way to set up a teachable moment so we can learn that his way was the right one all along. If only we weren’t such slow learners.

So Samuel said, “It’s all good, man,” and told them all to go home. There is no mention of a nominating convention nor a search committee to vet candidates for vice-king.

Better Call Saul.

The KJV describes Saul as “a choice young man, and goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.” Goodly? I think that means good-looking. The second part is awkward, because if I break it down it suggests to me that the tallest person in Israel could stand shoulder to shoulder with Saul. But from his shoulders he was higher—so he must have had a big head. I’m no Hebrew scholar but the text also does not appear to describe the size of his hands.

Tall, big-headed, and handsome, Saul was the scion of a rich guy named Kish who is described as “a mighty man of power.” I don’t know if he made his money in real estate but he was at least rich enough to have servants and donkeys, which is how Saul came to meet Samuel in the first place. Apparently a few of Kish’s donkeys had wandered off and he sent Saul and a few servants to track them down. Some helpful folks along the way advised them to go see Samuel, the prophet, or as prophets were called at the time, the seer.

God told Samuel in advance that the king of Israel would be dropping by the next day and guess who shows up. You can imagine the scene. Saul walks up to the seer and asks if he has seen his donkeys. Samuel responds by telling him not to worry about the donkeys, they’ve been found, but… “Oh, by the way, you are about to become the king of Israel.” It probably sounded to Saul a lot like Karl Rove telling George W. Bush he was going to be president while the rest of the kingdom was still off in Florida looking for missing ballots and dangling chads. Both Saul and “W” were probably “astonied”—one of my favorite King James words—but at least their dads were proud.

And so Saul became the first king of Israel. He was chosen by lot the next day. How’s that for coincidence? Saul was something of a strongman, having “slain his thousands” as a hit song of the day proclaimed. He was also not the worst king of Israel in spite of going off his rocker out of jealousy over David who had “slain his tens of thousands.” Same song. And people think rap encourages violence.

Still, Saul was no Indiana Jones since he didn’t bring the Ark back even after the Philistines tried to send it back like a hot potato. It seems the enemy had grown tired of it causing problems for their people, like boils and sores and they were particularly irritated by the way “the Ark” kept knocking over the statue of one of their gods, Dagon, night after night. Even if, as some suggest, that story is a “my God can kick your god’s butt” scribal addition, it always makes me laugh. Suffice to say the Ark did not fully make it back to Israel until David’s reign and the process was not pretty, especially for a guy named Uzzah (Pictured above—on the ground.)

Generally speaking Saul did what kings do, just as Samuel had unconvincingly tried to explain to the elders.

“Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you:
He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot.
He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment.
He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers.
He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants.
He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants.
He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use.
He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.
In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”
1Sam 8:11-18

Looks to me like there was a whole lotta takin’ going on. Taking sons. Taking daughters. Taking servants. Taking fields and vineyards and cattle. That’s what kings do. They eat. They drink. They take things. And they break things—starting with campaign promises, of course.

As we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks, the ritual baby-kissing and handshaking of politicians between bites of roasted ears of corn and barbecued ribs, and the annual festive conflation of the Constitution with the New Covenant in too many churches, we should reverently remember those who sacrificed their lives for our American freedom.

But please keep this in mind as well:

Whether your preferred strongman comes as a hyperbolic rich guy with a self-caricaturing coif, or as a strident woman in a pantsuit who probably overuses ALL CAPS in her email, you might want to pray God isn’t just using your choice as a teachable moment for the nation. Or maybe you do want to pray that way. Like Israel, we still have a lot to learn.

Lois Farrer Reeve McKinstry, 1930-2016

It has been over a year since I added anything to the blog. This seems like a good time to break the drought. It was written for her memorial service.

loisforweb

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says:
“[There is] a time to weep
and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn
and a time to dance.”

This might be a time to do all of those things at once.

If I was any good at dancing, I might even do that. Despite (or perhaps because of) the potential injury to the decorum of this occasion, I think Lois would approve. I suppose I could break out into a weak version of the moonwalk, but as Lois’ told me once of Michael Jackson, “I cannot believe people think he’s a good dancer. That’s not dancing. Give me Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.” Then she got a dreamy look on her face and slipped into a brief moment of reverie.

I am Lois’ stepson, although I am convinced we are more closely related than that. In many ways she has been more like a true, second mother for which I am very thankful. I have only known her for 15 years since she and my Dad married. Even then I knew her only through email and a few visits to Georgia each year. Most of you know her far better than I do, but in August of 2010 I received a package from her with (in typical Lois fashion) a carefully planned agenda for this memorial service. Knowing full well the risk she was taking, she asked me to speak “a few words of reflection.”

The reason for her planning was that she had been diagnosed with a very serious cancer and having defeated that profane disease three times before, she fully expected this time to be different. In February of 2011 she declared that she was fed up with treatments that kept her feeling worse than the disease and asked Dr. Lahasky to stop the treatment. He did, with the proviso that she might only have a few weeks or maybe a few months left.

She was right, this time was different, you might say the disease finally got her—five years later. But for those of you who know her well it is better to say that she has now defeated cancer four times. After her final diagnosis no one would have blamed her if she had, as it might have been described in the 18th or 19th century, “taken to her bed.”

But not Lois. Not by a long shot.

I remember the first time I met her. She was delightful, intelligent, as charming as any Southern Belle (if she needed to be), romantic but with an edgy sense of humor. Over a couple of glasses of Zinfandel she and I and Barbara–one of her art teachers from Kennesaw State–and my Dad, talked into the late hours about literature, and poetry and art, a little philosophy and even a dash of theology. My Dad, a consummate engineer, with an engineer’s sensibility, said toward the end of the evening that he had no idea what we had been talking about. But he enjoyed it nonetheless.

I learned that evening that her father, a successful surgeon, had dissuaded her from pursuing a career in art. That was also something she and I had in common. I remember after my first couple of inglorious semesters in college explaining to my dad that I wanted to look into going to art school. That turned into our biggest argument ever.

So I was even more delighted that he was marrying a wonderful woman who was also an artist. I thought of it as poetic justice.

Ephesians 2:10 says,
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Most versions use the word “handiwork;” some use the word “masterpiece.” The Greek word is “poiema.” [poē-āma] That should sound familiar to you. It is the root of the English words “poem” and “poetry.” So you could translate that verse as, “For we are God’s poetry, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Lois is the embodiment of that verse—one of God’s better poems—and that is why she could not simply “take to her bed.” Creatively, the last five years of her life were among her most productive. She continued to do her artwork, focusing on drawing and especially on the beautiful hand-made books and constructions she loved to create, each of which tells a meaningful story. As if those stories were not enough she produced an inspiring book of devotional writings in the Fall of 2010, at the peak of her struggle with the treatment for her cancer. She even published a book of poetry in 2013 and continued to write what might be enough material for another couple of volumes.

Like most artists, despite having won many awards, she was a little frustrated that she did not sell more of her work (but only a little). She looked at much of the art in galleries that does sell today and much of the poetry that does get published and shook her head. I even remember from time to time sending her images of my own work and her response was often, “Very nice, it looks like the kind of stuff that people would want to buy.”

I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or a critique.

If her work was out of step with the contemporary art world it was always in step with God’s true purpose for beauty in the world. One of my favorite contemporary artists, and one that Lois liked in spite of the abstract nature of his work, Mako Fujimura, in his recent book, Silence and Beauty, quotes the Japanese novelist, Yasunari Kawabata:

“When we see the beauty of the snow, when we see the beauty of the full moon, when we see the beauty of the cherries in bloom, when in short we brush against and are awakened by the beauty of the four seasons, it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure.”

That is the point of all her work. Lois wanted people to share the pleasure. The pleasure of knowing a loving Creator, in whose image she and every one of you are created. The pleasure of knowing a Creator who spoke so vividly to her in the beauty of his creation. She could, as the poet William Blake described, “see Eternity in a grain of sand; and Heaven in a wildflower.” And having seen that beauty she wanted others to see it too.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s poetic paraphrase, Psalm 96: 11-13 says:

Let’s hear it from Sky,
With Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.

Let Wilderness turn cartwheels,
Animals, come dance,
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—

An extravaganza before God as he comes,
As he comes to set everything right on earth,
Set everything right, treat everyone fair.

What she was able to see during her life, even if it was, “as through a glass darkly,” she is able to see clearly now. And that is what she wants you to see.

I could stop here. But if you would indulge me a little more time, I’d like to revisit that verse from Ephesians, especially the part that tells about the good works God has created in advance for each of us to do.

Lois did not fully begin her career as an artist until she was in her fifties. As I understand it, she began a little before she retired from nursing. She had been a good daughter and acceded to her father’s wishes that she not go to art school. Perhaps if she had gone to art school her name might be one of those names we read about in Art History books. Perhaps not. And she would be the first to explain to you why that is not so important.

Medicine is not so far from art as some might suppose. The works that doctors and nurses do are rightfully called the “healing arts.” To nurse someone back to health after injury or sickness is a restorative act, an kind of art that brings one of God’s creations back to the beauty He intended. But to do that requires that you are able to see that beauty even when it is hidden in the moment of illness. Just as she could see the beauty in nature even though we live in a fallen world, marred by sin, she was able to see that beauty in her patients. Perhaps without even realizing it she was always doing those good works God had prepared in advance for her to do.

The following is from her devotional writings; a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:10.

“The hospital is a place where death is a common visitor. He pays no attention to visitor hours or “No Admittance” signs. Sometimes people are expecting him and he passes them by. Here is a story illustrating that:

Many times on the Orthopaedic floor, there would be a few empty beds available to patients with other health problems. Admissions would then send a patient to that room until a bed opened up on the proper service.

On one occasion the night nurse gave the morning report saying a particular patient had been admitted to the floor with pulmonary problems. They had worked all night trying to help him breathe, but he was in poor condition. After the morning assignments were made, the nurse who received this man as part of her days work, went to check on his condition. She found his family standing by the bed, helpless to do anything and worried about his condition. His physician had seen him earlier and gave the family little hope. He told them he had surgery all morning and would return to see him after he was finished.

His assigned nurse assessed what she might be able to do to alleviate his distress and found that if she used a suction tube every few minutes it would stimulate his breathing until his doctor could return. She sent word to the charge nurse that she would not be able to leave his bedside and to divide the remainder of her assignment to give to others on duty that day.

She stood by his bed holding his lower jaw forward with both hands which opened his airway and then suctioned his throat at intervals. She could not change her position, nor leave him even for a moment. She clearly saw her responsibility and, in spite of her discomfort doing this, she did not waver. After several hours the surgeon returned and newly appraised the patient’s situation. He placed an endotracheal tube in the man’s throat, called for respiratory therapy and had him moved to another service.

Several weeks later, that same nurse was working and heard her name called, summoning her to the nurses’ station. To her surprise, there was the man she had spent so much time with some weeks ago.

He smiled and said, “Do you remember me? I am the man you helped to save and I wanted to say thank you.”

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.”
Ecclesiastes 9:10

The nurse in the story is not identified. I never asked Lois about it but I doubt she chose to keep the nurse’s name private in order to avoid a HIPAA violation. I think it was out of modesty.

Lois was proud of her work as a nurse. She was proud of her artwork and her poetry and her friends. She was even more proud of her family, her children, her grandchildren, and even those of us who were blessed enough to have been “grafted in” to her family. But this pride was not hubris. It was more like the innocent pride of a little child who has received a special gift from her father, and in her delight, she wants to share it with everyone.

In being a wife and mother, a friend, a nurse, a poet and an artist, she completely understood the significance of the work prepared in advance for her to do. And she did it all with all of her might.

No doubt she still is.

Sympathy for Zebras, Skeptics and Reprobates as a Clue to Understanding Scripture

Zebras in their natural habitat.

Zebras in their natural habitat.

Almost every year, just as our culture turns its thoughts, however fleeting, to an event that occurred some 2000 years ago that many (myself included) believe to be one of the more important moments in all of human history, the formerly dominant weekly news magazines publish cover stories that attempt to undermine the faith of those who believe the birth, life, death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus are True facts. That’s True with a capital “T.”

This year, right on schedule, comes an article in Newsweek by Kurt Eichenwald, entitled “The Bible, So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Please feel free to read it. Without it, much of what follows will make no sense. Though I make no guarantees that what follows makes that much sense even if you do read the Newsweek article.

 

As is often the case, the article lumps together all believers as homophobic, illiterate, bible-thumping, totalitarian, hate-filled hypocrites. It makes very little distinction between the members of Westboro Baptist Church with their pre-literate scrawls of “God Hates Fags” on protest signs and those educated and committed physicians who willingly risk their own lives to go to western Africa to treat people suffering from Ebola—simply because they believe they were called to do so. Despite his disclaimer, “This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity,” the article could just as well have been entitled, Conspiracy of Fools, to borrow the name from one of Mr. Eichenwald’s more successful books.

 

After reading his advice and becoming thoroughly enlightened, hypocritical fool that I am, I have decided to repent. Here are nine things, yea ten, I will have to add to my New Year’s Resolutions.

 

1. I will no longer retain my long-held belief in dragons and unicorns and will immediately excise the entire Book of Revelation, Isaiah 27, Nehemiah 2, Psalm 92, Job 39, Numbers 23 and Numbers 24 from my Bible because of their mention of clearly fantastical creatures. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of Numbers altogether. It was clearly written by a census-taker, some short-term bureaucrat with a clipboard and a clip-on tie who, after waking you up with his earnest knocking, feels duty bound to inquire as to the number of people, rooms, bathrooms, unicorns and dragons in your residence. (The kids are asking if that includes the unicorns and dragons in their video games that are, naturally, quite real to them.)

 

2. I will no longer read the book of 2 Peter, even though I find it odd that Mr. Eichenwald would simultaneously laud the supposed “almost universally shared” condemnation of the book as a forgery while he would clearly agree with its description of the importance of ferreting out false teachers—something he is trying to do here. I also have an uneasy feeling he would not be disappointed if God chose to mete out the same punishment mentioned in 2 Peter—floods, earthquakes, fire and brimstone— for modern false teachers, i.e. believing Evangelicals. In fact, 2 Peter 3:17, “Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people…” sounds like it could have been written by Mr. Eichenwald himself.

 

3. I am going to stop using the Internet because all of the URLs are written in the modern equivalent of the scriptio continua of common Greek. For example, http://www.blindsonsale.com could be a site that is promoting window blinds at cheap rates. Or it could be the Web home of a micro-brewery founded by a group of blind guys who have suffered tragic accidents or, worse, self-inflicted blindness as a pagan initiation rite. Or it could be a site related to child trafficking, in this case specializing in blind sons. Obviously URLs are notoriously unclear and therefore should never be used as a guide to anything.

 

4. I am henceforth going to cease the recitation of either the Nicene, Apostle’s or the interminable Athanasian Creed since, according to “reliable” history they were all written by … politicians. (Visible shudder.)

 

5. I will no longer trust anything that is handwritten even though that could cause me some serious confusion at the grocery store.

 

6. I will no longer believe that Joseph and Mary invested the non-existent Magi’s gold in a nice little split-level on the outskirts of Bethlehem with a detached carpenter’s studio while putting the rest of the money in a 529 and an IRA that Jesus could have used, respectively, to finance his rabbinical studies and as a source of retirement income for himself, Mary Magdalen and their descendants all the way to Dan Brown. Instead I will have to conclude that Joe and the purportedly perpetually pristine Missus probably lost it all at the floating casinos in Memphis—Memphis, Egypt, that it is. Given their irresponsibility it is obvious why Jesus had to have been brought up in abject poverty subsequently leading to his well-documented homelessness later in life during which time the only work he could find was as an itinerant preacher and we all know how governments look at those guys. So they crucified him. End of story.

 

7. I will burn my autographed copies of books by Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. I will also burn my copy of “Going Rogue” by Sarah Palin, though not without some regret. It turns out she writes pretty well, with little trace of the syntactical travesties that sometimes occur when she speaks. I say that with no animus toward the former governor as I am equally prone to syntactical misadventure in both speech and prose. I imagine there is no need to burn my copy Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.

 

8. Since “there is only one verse in Romans about homosexuality and eight verses condemning those who criticize the government” (apparently a statistically significant threshold) I will immediately start a petition calling for a constitutional convention to repeal the Bill of Rights for everyone except homosexuals.

 

9. I will only read the Bible in Aramaic because that is the language Jesus spoke. The fact that I don’t know Aramaic shouldn’t matter; an awful lot of Catholics didn’t really understand the language of the Mass until after Vatican II.

 

10. Instead of simply picking and choosing those parts I am comfortable with, I’m going to throw out all of my Bibles since I don’t have the time or the training to sort out the truth from the pseudepigrapha—that’s the word Bart Ehrman suggests is the believing community’s euphemism for lies, redactions, forgeries and mistakes. Now that may put me at some disadvantage in understanding God’s will for my life, but perhaps I shouldn’t be concerned with that anyway. It is extraordinarily difficult to believe in a deity who would entrust his instructions and messages to so many arrogant, scheming, adulterous, murderous, thieving and lying reprobates. Then again, that might not be all that different from my current Bible study group, the members of which I regularly depend on to help me hear, interpret and understand the words of God.

 

I don’t really believe in unicorns, or that Joseph and Mary squandered the Magis’ gift in the casinos—although I am withholding judgement on the possible existence of dragons. And the guys in my Bible study group have mostly repented of their reprobate ways. (Did I say mostly?) But it frustrates me that Mr. Eichenwald seems to think believers are all just that foolish.

 

He doesn’t get everything wrong. It is a good thing, as he puts it, find[ing] out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another.” And as he says, loving one’s neighbor is a good place to start, although he did kind of jump right over the first part of that verse. You know, the part about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

 

Mr. Eichenwald might have a more balanced view of these issues if he did not rely almost exclusively on the work—useful as it is— of Bart Ehrman, himself the author of one of Newsweek’s Christmas-time “hit pieces” on Christianity (Dec. 17, 2012).  Perhaps he could have consulted with scholars who are not, like Ehrman, self-professed agnostics. I have little doubt that William Lane Craig would have given him a few minutes of his time. (If you have a few minutes you might want to look at Craig’s rebuttal of Ehrman’s approach in general. Or maybe Mr. Eichenwald could have contacted N.T. Wright, who while refusing to call himself an inerrantist (for plenty of good reasons) still manages to take the Bible “utterly seriously” while avoiding the problem of “throwing out the baby Jesus with the bath water.” (Apologies to Ricky Bobby, the Official Theologian of NASCAR.) Try Wright’s book, Scripture and the Authority of God.  Seriously, with a name like N.T. Wright, how could he ever be wrong about anything, at least in the New Testament?

 

God did, in fact, entrust his words to sinful, fallen and prone-to-error human beings. He still does, because he doesn’t have much choice. If it were necessary that only totally trustworthy, error-free humans should write Scripture, Jesus, as the only person in history qualified for the job, would have spent his entire life writing stuff down in order to correct the record of the Old Testament authors and to give us a trustworthy and authoritative version the rest of us could use after his ascension. Yet we have no record (trustworthy or otherwise) that Jesus ever wrote anything. Drawing a line in the sand as he confronted the Pharisees over the woman caught in adultery doesn’t count as writing, drawing perhaps, but not writing. And besides, if we are to believe Eichenwald and Ehrman, that episode never happened.

 

So why didn’t Jesus write down what he wanted us to retain as Holy Writ? Surely he could have saved a lot of bickering, heated arguments with your favorite college sophomore around the holiday dinner table, and even—as the article properly notes—bloodshed over “correct” doctrine. Instead, just as with the words of God in the Old Testament, he left it to humans to record—imperfect humans who, at best, may be deeply committed to veracity and truth-telling but can still make or perpetuate inadvertent mistakes. At worst, they may intentionally change the record to accommodate ideological, political or doctrinal agendas. I suspect all of that is possible. In fact, I expect all of that is probable.

 

I am not a scholar, certainly not a Biblical scholar. My perspective is merely that of someone who would like to understand Scripture and the one who is revealed in it. As a lay person, I, rudely perhaps, can still claim to be as entitled as Bart Ehrman or N.T. Wright to study and have an opinion on Scripture. I will never be as informed as either of them, but if that level of education and knowledge is necessary for understanding and, thereby, admittance into the sweet bye-and-bye, the population of Heaven will be disappointingly small.

 

Since this is the New Year’s season, a time when we celebrate another of America’s favorite religions—football—consider the following illustration, which I intend to be helpful but maybe I’ve just been watching too much ESPN. A wide receiver catches a well-thrown pass from his quarterback at the one-yard line and is immediately hit by the cornerback and falls. On his way down, the receiver extends his arm in an attempt to have the ball “break the plane” of the goal line before he lands completely out of bounds. Every player, coach, cheerleader, equipment manager, visiting country music star, undeclared presidential candidate, hot dog vendor and ESPN commentator on the sidelines has an opinion about whether it’s a touchdown. Each of the 100,000 rabidly partisan fans in the stadium has an opinion and are likely unaware to what extent partisanship can affect perception. Social psychologists call this the illusion of asymmetric insight and it can be quite an ugly phenomenon.

 

Add in another 50 million television viewers of various partisan stripes at home, in sports bars and on American military bases around the world and you will find more opinions than you can count, all with a slightly different perspective on “the truth.” In the days before instant replay we had to depend on the presumably “expert” opinion of one or two officials on the field to either lift or choose not to lift their arms toward heaven signifying that the ball, at least, had reached the promised land.
Regardless of whether the official makes the right call, there will always be a significant number of spectators who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the zebras blew it and thereby deserve punishment of Biblical proportions—stoning, smiting, crucifixion, banishment to the desert outside Scottsdale, or something similar up to and including being cast into the outer darkness where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Given the intensity of emotion associated with football (American or otherwise) it is a real miracle that wars are so seldom started in the modern world based on the officiating—good or bad.

 

In other words, everyone has an opinion. It is a function of the unique perspective from which each individual views the world. That perspective is based on many things including team affiliation (read: denomination?)  but mostly on the accumulation of experience and knowledge—right or wrong—throughout life right up to the moment the opinion is conceived. That is how we roll—all of us. Roger Scruton, in his book The Face of God, argues, “The self is not a thing, it is a perspective.” Our interactions with the world are always from a given perspective. Our interactions with other people are interactions between and among perspectives. It is said (in polite company) that opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one. But when it comes to perspectives, everybody is one.

 

And that is where the problems begin. Whose perspective is correct; whose is the right one; whose is the truth? Let’s go back to the football illustration. It would be absurd to argue (though many have tried) that the truth lies entirely in the mind of the observer. My observation of something does not make it reality. Yes, Virginia, a goal post can fall in the stadium and make a noise even when it isn’t on gameday and no one is around to witness it. It seems reasonable to assume that there is an objective reality at play. Either the football does or does not break the imaginary plane and it happens (or not) regardless of whether my or your individual perspective confirmed it.

 

Fortunately for the much-maligned officials on the field, we now have instant replay that slows things down to the about the speed of Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in The MatrixUsually that settles the question, but often it just reinforces the problem of perspectives. Typically, technology seems to help, but it is no guarantee. The replay cameras have to be placed at exactly the right spot at the right time. Sometimes they’re in the right place, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the cameraman is preoccupied with a cheerleader instead of the play on the field. Sometimes there is something in the way of the camera that obscures even its non-blinking perspective.

 

As a result football officials must resort to the near-parliamentary niceties of legal language saying, “The ruling on the field stands” when there is insufficient video evidence to overturn the call, or, “The ruling on the field is confirmed (or overturned)” when there is (or is not) enough video evidence to make a definitive call. In every case, someone comes away unsatisfied, convinced that they saw something different and equally convinced that their personal perspective is the one that should obtain.

 

But when it comes to the Word of God we don’t have instant replay. While theologians and historians can make a persuasive case that their perspectives should carry equal, or even greater, weight than that of football officials, the rest of us are not so sure. Especially when the historians and theologians—throw in a few pastors, teachers, evangelists, street preachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses on your front porch and freshly-scrubbed Mormon boys on their bicycles—are so often in conflict with one another. Even when those guys speak the same language, they don’t speak the same language—a result, I believe, of God’s judgement on humanity for the Tower of Babel.

 

It appears that skeptic Bart Ehrman’s perspective on Scripture might be as valid as committed believer N.T. Wright’s. Perhaps the notorious, late Fred W. Phelps, Sr., might have as valid an opinion as the Pope. You know what? I’m not afraid of that. Because that means that my perspective is also valid. My unique, individual view on Scripture is as valid as that of some of the world’s most famous (and infamous) theologians. Then again, I have to remember that valid does not necessarily mean true. Not for me, Bart, Tom Wright, Fred and—unless he plays that infallibility card he carries in the brim of his brim-less mitre—not for the Pope. Ouch. A little humility can be a humbling thing, as Yogi Berra might have put it. (Although if memory serves, his actual quote was more along the lines of, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”)

 

How do we sort this out? Are we just stuck with the heat of billions of opinions about the meaning of Scripture? Isn’t that one of the causes of wars, Crusades, Inquisitions, divorces and church-splits? Isn’t that the definition of relativism? Isn’t that what we see throughout the Old Testament, when, just to set the stage, the writer will throw in a verse like, “… every man did what was right in his own eyes.”? (Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 21:25; Judges 17:7; Proverbs 21:2; Proverbs 12:15. We could go on.) But that is what the verse means, right? “Eyes” is a metaphor for individual perspective. Each person lives by their own perspective and the Bible is not suggesting that it’s a good thing for everyone to do what is right in their own eyes.

 

In fact, the Bible tells us something far different. “Come, let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18) “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19:15 and 2:Corinthians 13:1) “Victory lies in an abundance of advisors.” (Proverbs 24:6) In an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14) Even Paul and Peter had to have a confab in Jerusalem to make sure they were on the same page about the true nature of the Gospel.

 

The responsibility for the clarity of God’s revelation is his, not mine. I believe I have a duty to diligent and serious-minded examination of Scripture—at least to the extent that I am capable of being dutiful, diligent or serious, for that matter. It was his choice to deliver his word through sinful human beings and I think there is a reason for that.

 

I’ve always been intrigued by a verse in 2 Peter. Apologies to Mr. Eichenwald for bringing up that purported forgery. 2 Peter 1:18 says,”Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of one’s own interpretation.” No less a qualified Biblical commentator than Albert Barnes wrote in 1834, The expression here used [The Greek for private interpretation is ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως idias epiluseōs, in case you’re interested. I just like seeing the Greek letterforms.] has given rise to as great a diversity of interpretation, and to as much discussion, as perhaps any phrase in the New Testament; and at the present time there is no general agreement among expositors as to its meaning.” To be fair, this is about a particular class of prophecy and not necessarily about how we ought to read Scripture as a whole, but I still find it wonderfully ironic that a verse that argues against private interpretation is among the most privately interpreted verses in the entire Canon.

 

So what’s so bad about private interpretation? Not that much maybe, except—in my humble, individual, and certainly not binding on anyone else, opinion—I don’t think that is where God intends for us to learn the full meaning of his words.

 

Instead, God wants us in community. Scruton suggests that “we regard the experience of community as a preparation for the experience of God, and the experience of God as revelation granted in response to it.” (Face of God. p.157) Certainly there are those of us, perhaps all of us, who have had an experience of God while alone. Sometimes he breaks through and touches our heart and mind with his presence when there is no one else around. Just you and Jesus. But the Apostle Paul, no stranger to the supernatural himself, cautions us not to be fooled by those who go on an on about their visions as they may not be “connected to Christ, the head of the body.” (Colossians 2:19) Connection to the body, and thereby Christ really matters.

 

Our real knowledge of the word of God is only partially built on what we discern alone. What we learn on our own must be confirmed by others, which is why I go to church, read a lot and have met once a week for almost twenty years with the merry little band of sinners I may have insulted in resolution #10 above. They, as part of the Body of Christ, have the words of life. Those words must be verified as we “compare notes”. We read. We study. We share and take the Scriptures apart together and pray for the grace to receive from it the true Word of God. We pray for wisdom and discernment and we do so with humility. Yogi was right. It ain’t the heat. We recognize the limitations of our individual perspectives. We welcome each other’s insights. We welcome the commentators, Twitter theologians, popular writers and the scholarly researchers, including those who call themselves agnostic or even atheist. We are not afraid of those with whom we disagree. We disagree with each other. Often. We know that in that process which takes place in community, our little group’s study of the Bible is breaking bread together. And we recall who is called both the Living Word and the Bread of Life; the one who calls us to do everything in “remembrance of Him”. And we remember 1 Corinthians 13:2 “…if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.”

 

Just like the question of whether the football breaks the invisible plane of the goal line, there is an objective reality to the Word of God. But it’s not the book, it’s the person we encounter through it. I am not denying plenary inspiration; inerrancy; form, textual, source or redaction criticism; Marxist or feminist hermeneutics; God’s breath or any of those other valuable schema we use and abuse to convince ourselves we’re right and someone else is wrong and ought, at the very least, to be denied admittance to our church—if not heaven itself. And I am not denying the value of the writings of Mr. Eichenwald and the research of Dr. Ehrman. Both would be wholeheartedly welcome in our Wednesday morning Bible study group. But the bottom line for me is that without the person of Christ, the Bible is little more than an artifact of history, interesting in the way that Homer, or Plato, or Shakespeare might be, but little more.

 

Then again, if someone can convincingly argue that Jesus did, in fact, speak King James English instead of Aramaic, when he walked the earth, perhaps I’ll have to rethink a few things. I could be wrong.

 

Footsteps in the Garden

footsteps-photo-skip_mckinstry-rg

Footsteps in the Garden —Mixed media, digital image on animal skin, acrylic ink, gold leaf foil, gold leaf wax, black palm wood 25 in x 24 in x 2in

 

 

Recently, the church I attend did something that churches don’t do often enough. They issued a call for artists to submit works of art for an upcoming sermon series.There was a time when the words “church” and ”artists” were found in the same sentence with much greater frequency than today.  Of course, few of us are familiar with that time since it was back around the 16th century. To be fair, that is not the only time the church has patronized the arts, but it was definitely a high water mark. Still, in the modern church, art is often considered either a worldly or worthless pursuit—descriptive words that some would consider redundant.

The requested art was to be created out of reflection on what it means to live a life “centered” in Christ. For me, the challenge has enabled me to reconnect with a part of my own calling. I am a graphic designer by trade and I have been reasonably successful bringing my own gifts to the world of selling widgets. Nothing wrong with widgets, they keep the wheels of the economy turning, provide jobs for the employees of the Acme Corporation and food for their children. I even teach students at a local university how to use their creative gifts to sell widgets. But like many people who are more-or-less content, but not quite satisfied in their profession, I have always asked if there was anything more.

This summer, my oldest son was married. He lives out of state and has been a member of an American Orthodox community for some time. I had never been to an Orthodox church service and I had no idea what to expect. What I did know was that their liturgy is purported to be the original way Christians “did church,” and they were the folks with the icons. The unassuming little church building looked pretty much like any other clapboard church building—typical of a small Baptist or Methodist congregation in rural Arkansas. You know the kids hand game where interlocked fingers are turned open while saying, “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” In this case it was, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the ART!”

I was completely unprepared for the overwhelmingly visual nature of Orthodox worship. It was not so much the pageantry of the service, which is not that far afield from Catholic or Anglican traditions. Instead, I was struck first by the illuminated brightness of the sanctuary. In an ordinary church that brightness would have merely been a reflection of the white paint on the walls. (If you can’t afford nice wood paneling, then white, or more likely off-white, is the color you choose so as not to offend anyone.) In this case the brightness came from the almost prodigal use of gold leaf, bright gold paint and golden thread in the art that covered almost every square inch of the interior of the building—murals, paintings, tapestries, carvings, fixtures and sculpture.The entire church, especially the interior, is an elaborate, three-dimensional (at least three, probably more) icon.

All I really knew about iconography (apart from that which populates the desktop of my computer) was that icons were images (That is the literal meaning of the Greek word eikon, by the way.) that some Christians in the third or fourth century somehow used in their worship of God. I also knew that some other Christians, who misread the second commandment, zealously attempted to seek out and destroy icons in the late 8th century and again during the early days of the Reformation around 1600. Those folks were known as iconoclasts and should not be confused with the people destroying Christian places of worship in Iraq, or filing lawsuits to have crosses removed from public spaces in America.

So I did a little reading about icons. I must confess that I am not totally comfortable with certain practices related to icons in the Orthodox Church. Forgive me, but kissing an icon just seems, shall we say, yucky. However, veneration, does not disturb me at all, especially since it has been clearly explained that the icon itself is not the object of worship. Contrast that with the prices paid for art today and you could be forgiven for thinking that worship (idolatry?) is an apt description of the art world’s reverence for the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, or even Jackson Pollock. Even as I admire those works of art, I am pointed beyond the art to the marvelous talent of the artists and then beyond that to the glory of the Creator in whose image all those artists were created. From that perspective, admiration and veneration can find the only appropriate object of worship.

There is one thing I have noted regarding icons, and it is true of so much of what we call art. Some art, though not all, can require a specialized vocabulary to understand. Certainly you can look at a painting or a photograph or a piece of sculpture and marvel at its beauty. But at times, it is helpful to understand something about color and composition, rhythm and line, and the vocabulary of a given school of art to grasp all that the artist intends to express. Here is a description by art historian HRR Rookmaker of Rembrandt’s “Christ and the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus” that illustrates the point:

When we look at the drawing, at first glance there is nothing special about it. Three men are standing together near a house. Yet we gather that the middle one is most important. Rembrandt has made this apparent by pictorial means, by making the side of the house dark, thus creating a rhythm, man-Christ-man-house, with the downbeat on Christ and the house. He also makes Christ stand out as important by the way he has placed him between the two disciples. Then Rembrandt draws some trees in the distance in such a way that, although there is no halo, yet there is a suggestion of one. In this way the drawing is natural, and yet it is much more than just three men on a road. It brings out the fact which he wanted to get across. (HRR Rookmaker, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, p. 10, Piquant Press PDF Edition, Chapter 5, p. 10)

Rookmaker goes on to explain that it is important to remember that art makes “visible a particular view on life and the world, it expresses deeply-felt values and truths through the way the theme and subject matter are handled.” This is especially true of religious iconography. You can find excellent and brief discussions of the “grammar” of iconography here and here.

Between a newfound curiosity with religious iconography and an assignment to create an explicitly faith-centered piece of art, I wound up creating something like an icon myself. Since I am neither Rembrandt, nor an actual icon painter, I ‘m sure my work will not be confused with either. But I do recognize that a bit of explanation might be helpful. I am not one who believe that the artist’s intent is irrelevant and that the only meaning in art is that which the observer brings to it. So I have written a brief description and posed a few questions for the observer to consider in looking at the piece.

Referencing the iconography of the Orthodox Church, the piece contains a number of symbolic elements intended to evoke reflection on the story told in Genesis, chapter three. Adam and Eve turned away from God, fell, and became mere shadows of their former selves. Adam and Eve are startled. They hear God’s “footsteps” and his question, “Where are you?” Panicked, they scramble to cover their nakedness as their sin has been discovered. The image of God is still evident in them but they find only darkness and chaos as they are estranged from him, from each other, and even from nature, which they had attempted to use—without success—to cover themselves. The rift is severe, but as they turn back, we see clues to the restoration and redemption that had already been graciously prepared through the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.

What are the symbolic elements?

Color
In iconography gold usually represents the radiance of God. Here the upper right, out of the frame, is the origin of the light and the presence of God. The eyes of both characters contain a glint of that reflected radiance. The stark golden line across the image is a suggestion of how sharp a distinction there is between holiness —found only in God and God’s purposes for us—and the world apart from God. The line is what Francis Schaeffer called “the line of despair.”
The color green is a dominant color here, symbolic of nature. Traditional understanding of the story of the Fall suggests that the couple’s attempt to cover themselves with fig leaves is symbolic of human works as they sew the fig leaves together. Taking that a step further, it is possible to see them conflating their own works with nature, thinking that they are sufficient to cover their own sin. In that way, as described in Romans, Chapter 1, they have mistaken nature for God, who alone has provided a covering for sin.

To their right, there is chaos, darkness and fire as represented by red colors. Turned away from God, chaos, darkness and fire are all that they find. Repentance—turning back to God—represented by looking back over their shoulder. As their gaze is drawn back toward the right, that fire turns from something that consumes to the beckoning radiance of God’s light.

Materials
The background image of the couple was created in the computer and printed on rawhide. Rawhide is animal skin. Genesis 3:21 says that God made “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve. He replaced their inadequate fig-leaf costumes with the skin of a sacrificed animal, a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ to come. Note that the edge of the skin is tinged with the color of blood.

The skin is nailed with three spiked nails as a reminder of the nails that held Jesus to the Cross. The horizontal block of wood, representing the Cross is made of black palm wood.

For additional thought.
 
  1. Why is God not pictured?
  2. Which character is Adam and which is Eve? What would the difference in placement (Adam in front or Eve in front) make in the meaning of the piece.
  3. Why do the characters look so similar?
  4. If the serpent plays such an important role in Genesis 3, where is it?
  5. What is the image in the lower left? Durer’s Cat, or something more sinister?

One more thought that needs to be conveyed. Traditionally, icons must utilize the human form. For me, that is a powerful reminder of Ephesians 2:10 “ For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There is no more profound work of art than a human being each one uniquely created to reveal something equally unique about God. 1 John 1:12 says, “No one has seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.” Through his grace we are becoming the full expression of God’s love—even, as Jesus put it, “the least of these.” We are all living icons, visible references to the love of God. Nature gives us His invisible qualities. Other people can reveal Christ’s incarnation.

Light and Shadow, Part Two: How I Learned to Love Harry Truman and Hate the Bomb.

Mushroom Clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Mushroom Clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

PART TWO: SHADOW

Yesterday, I posted the first installment of an essay reflecting on a work of art I saw in 1973, and subsequently purchased in 1984—a Japanese woodblock print by Jun’ichiro Sekino, entitled Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji. It will be helpful, though not absolutely necessary, to read part one first. The theme of part one is that God can and will speak to us authoritatively, in the time and place of his choosing, using anything he desires, including a work of art done by an artist who was most likely a Buddhist and whose work may reflect more than anything else the mindset of a culture seemingly more likely to bow the knee to the creation rather than to the Creator.

In that encounter with the art, the artist, and the One who created the artist, I received a palpable sense of how art can be one of the highest expressions of what it means to be created in the image of God. It can be argued that we bear the image of God in our being and in our works even when we are unaware of it or when that is not our intent.

Sadly, we bear something else in addition to the imago Dei, something dark and evil that rises all too often in an effort to turn the image of God in each of us upside down. For all the positive messages conveyed by Hara, there lurks a dark undertone that is an irreplaceable part of observable reality. Recognizing it is necessary to reveal what Alister McGrath calls the “deeper value and true significance” of the world.

The print does not seem to directly speak of that darkness, but the overall dark grey tones of the piece remind me that for most of us the light is seen only in contrast to the dark. I am also reminded of that darkness each year in August on the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred on August 6 and 9, 1945.

It is not at all far-fetched that an image of Mt. Fuji, subtly portrayed, but leaving no doubt as to its physical majesty, could reveal and reflect the immanence of God, not just for those who live in its shadow, but also for me, someone whose only direct connections to Japanese culture are a Sony® television and the fact that my father was stationed on Okinawa in August of 1945 waiting to invade the Japanese main island. But like the upside down image of the mountain in Hara, my personal connection to Japan is defined by a disorienting reality. Had Harry Truman not dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I might never have been born.

The assault on Japan was expected to be far worse than the D-Day carnage at Normandy Beach. War planners’ conservative estimates projected that over a million American troops were likely to die in the battle for Japan, perhaps multiple millions among the Japanese. Those numbers are not unrealistic. Over 100,000 people died in the 82-day-long battle for Okinawa, the first island to fall. Given the front-line role my father would have played in the invasion as a sailor on a small craft that carried troops onto the beach, his life-expectancy in the battle probably would have been measured in seconds, not minutes, hours or days. Had the invasion occurred, at the very least I would have a different last name.

The Germans attempted to build an atomic bomb and failed. The United States, in an enormously expensive effort code named The Manhattan Project, successfully developed the capacity to “harness the basic power of the universe…” in order to loose it “…against those who brought war to the Far East.” Once testing confirmed that the bomb would perform as advertised, the Americans sought the unconditional surrender of Japan, which they rejected. There is much historical speculation about the ultimate motivations for using the atomic bomb, but politics notwithstanding, it was used—first on August 6, 1945 on the city of Hiroshima, and second on August 9, 1945 on the city of Nagasaki. It was seen as the most efficient means to accomplish the objective of ending the war, and likely was used for additional purposes, such as serving as a stern warning to a nascent Soviet expansionism.

Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. My father was still safely docked on Okinawa, 350 miles from the main island. It is one thing to thank God for the end of that war and for the grace that brought my father home before I was conceived. But the sobering reality is knowing that so many people died in those two Japanese cities. Estimates vary but the numbers are between 150,000 and 250,000.

For those looking for even more religious irony, while both cities were active in producing materiel for the war effort, Nagasaki was probably the Japanese city with the largest Christian population, having been evangelized first in the 16th century by the Jesuits. Despite struggles over the centuries, a large underground church had flourished, and by the time of the bombing, the community was growing and healthy above ground. Unfortunately that meant above ground-zero.

We try, vainly in my view, to justify the bomb using a familiar calculus in which “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” From that perspective you would try to say it is better that only a quarter million people died instead of the two million who would have perished in an invasion.

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill elevated that principle into the philosophy known as Utilitarianism. They argued that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number… is the measure of right and wrong.” Happiness is defined as pleasure, or the absence of pain. Unhappiness is pain. Increasing human happiness, or decreasing human unhappiness are both good. Increasing happiness for the most people in a given situation while attempting to minimize the unhappiness of others guides the proper decision-making process for the Utilitarian. We all want more people to be happy and fewer people to suffer, therefore: Invasion bad; bomb good. Sounds reasonable, right? Even logical.

Utilitarianism is only one of the attempts that humans have created in order to decide the difference between good and evil ever since Adam and Eve attempted to steal that job from God back in Genesis 3. You can find an excellent, non-technical introduction to human ethical systems in Steve Wilkens’ Beyond Bumper-Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong. The systems we have constructed tend to be based either in reason, like Utilitarianism, or in faith, like Buddhism. (I believe all the systems we have developed are based in faith in something but that is a discussion for another time.)

Utilitarianism may be about as close to Buddhism as a couple of Victorian Era, philosophically-inclined, British gentlemen could possibly get. Both practices seek to diminish suffering. Both place high value on ethical behavior. Significantly, both outlooks wind up diminishing, even negating, the importance of the self or the individual—for the Buddhist as a means to enlightenment, and for the Utilitarian as a logical consequence of a philosophy that ultimately advocates the principle that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

I’m no expert in either Utilitarianism or in Buddhism, and bearing in mind how the main character in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was driven crazy through wrestling with some of these issues, I’ll leave more comparisons between the two philosophies to others. I will say, however, that there is some irony in the fact that Truman’s approach is similar to a principle that underlies the belief system of those who were killed and wounded in the bombings. There must be in that a hint of the universality of the fallen state of human nature.

I am not especially critical of Truman’s decision, and not merely because I am alive, though I admit that is part of it. The truth is I shudder and imagine I would have made the same choice. There are unresolvable issues in this life, situations where every choice is a wrong choice. To rescue most of a group of hostages, some may die. It is a risk we train rescuers to take when negotiations fail. To save the most people injured in an accident, a battle, or a disaster, we perform triage, separating those who cannot be saved from those who can, in order to utilize limited resources more efficiently. We often describe those who must make those decisions as having moral courage and perhaps that is true of some. But the more likely case is that they are only playing what they believe to be the least destructive hand in a game where they are dealt no other cards. The choice to sacrifice the few for the good of the many is always an accommodation to the bitter reality that this is a fallen world and every last one of us is a part of that fallen order.

In John 11:50, the High Priest, Caiaphas, attempts to justify the execution of Jesus by saying, “…it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” The utilitarian logic here is inescapable. But we ought not believe that God’s reason for allowing Jesus to die for our sins was based in utility. As hard as it is for us to fathom, he sacrificed Jesus in the exact same way that God does everything he ever has done or ever will do, out of love, not in some desperate hope of making the best out of a bad situation.

The idea of making the best out of a bad situation is our natural predicament. It is why we come up with things like Utilitarianism, or Buddhism, or “Galatianism,” or every other form of ethical and religious expression. Our ethics and our religions are, in the end, complete failures. As Isaiah put it, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) But underlying that effort is something worth thinking about. That we attempt to define good and evil at all is a tacit recognition that something called good and evil exists. Apart from the Fall, I suspect that even the idea of good and evil might have been entirely God’s domain. We would never have even had to think about it.

But we do think about it. Our desire for the good informs everything we do, though we are mostly unaware of it and our evil desires interfere with it all. Still, desire for the good motivates us to build legal, ethical and religious systems because our hearts long for the good. We seek friendship and community and love out of the same desire. We build homes and buildings and create music and art because we long for the good.

And when, in art, we recognize that universal longing, imperfectly presented though it may be, it moves us, occasionally with the intensity that Sekino’s woodblock print moved me. Art is truly an expression of our role in the universe as image-bearers of our Creator. In the darkness and the shadows of our art, as well as in the sin and darkness of our acts, the image of God is still visible, although in what artists call chiaroscuro, what St. Thomas Aquinas called the via negativa.

When scripture tells us “we see as through a glass darkly” it is not unreasonable to ask what is it that darkened the glass? To me the answer is obvious. Our sin. We continue to contribute to the darkness on a daily basis. But in his mercy, God has given us longing. We long for the time, as in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, when all was truly right with the universe. And we long for a new Genesis, the time when our encounter with good will once again be face-to-face, all-encompassing, and when all evil—including wars and the hideous weapons of war—will be nothing more than a passing and utterly alien memory, immediately dismissed.

Light and Shadow, Part One: How A Japanese Wood Block Print Turned My Worldview Upside Down.

Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji

Hara: Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji

PART ONE: LIGHT

It has been my experience that those moments in which I find myself in an encounter with the eternal are seldom (probably never) the result of my own effort. Instead, the One who is eternal chooses how, where and when to manifest himself on exactly the right frequency to break through the noise in my life to deliver his message to me. God’s effort. God’s presence. God’s message. And most often, that message is at once both bare simplicity and infinite complexity, such as when he said to Moses, “I am that I am.” The simple stuff, I can usually grasp. The complex stuff will take forever.

One encounter happened to me in the Fall of 1973. I was in the student union at the University of Arkansas walking through an exhibition of Japanese wood block prints when I was literally brought to tears by a work of art. I have seen a pretty fair share of “religious art” done over 20 centuries, often in class or study, but many times even in person. Rodin’s Gates of Hell, full-scale replicas of Michelangelo’s David, (decidedly the King of Israel, but perhaps done in secret homage to Paul’s message to the “troublemakers” in Galatia), numerous depictions of the martyrs, endless Madonna and Child paintings, images of the resurrection, etchings of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Rembrandt’s sketch Walking to Emmaus, icons, Gothic architecture, Dali’s “floating crucifixion” and Last Supper (a pale satire on Leonardo’s Ultima Cena) and even the purportedly inspirational paintings of Thomas Kinkade. All works of art, some exquisite and evocative—some not so much—all capable of inspiring a degree of connectedness to the Almighty.

Many of those works of art were and are quite moving. But in my case, a simple wood block print, created as part of a “traditional documentary and disciplinary exercise” managed to speak more immediately to my spirit about the reality of God’s existence, his presence and his love than any work of art I have ever seen.

The extraordinary contemporary artist, Mako Fujimura, in his commencement address to Biola University graduate students, spoke of Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, as a genesis painting. Vincent was a man of faith, despite the mental illness that plagued him throughout his life. The expressions of that faith in his art were as intentional as they were sublime. Here is part of Fujimura’s description:

“The Spirit welcomes you into the margins, into the liminal spaces far away from the doors of the church.  And yet there you will be met by a Shepherd/Artist who will guide you into a wider pasture of culture. He will guide you into the night skies in which the sun and the moon are held together by his hand. Create in Love, as Vincent so loved the world that rejected him, as he so longed to be home in the church, the only building without light.

In such darkness, we may be overwhelmed: but precisely because it is dark, and precisely because we must look up, we experience a genesis moment.”

The work of art that God used to grab my attention that day, could also be considered a genesis print, though not necessarily one with explicit and intentional Christian content. At that time, almost no one would have described me as a Christian and quite possibly the artist was not Christian either. Yet, I am certain that, within my encounter with that artist, through his beautifully created image, I also had a genesis encounter with God.

The print shown above is called Hara. Rooftop Reflections of Mt. Fuji, by a well-known Japanese master named Jun’ichiro Sekino. He worked in the Japanese tradition of sōsaku-hanga (lit. creative prints), a 20th-century offshoot of the ukiyo-e (lit. pictures of a floating world) wood block printing movement. Hara is part of a series entitled 53 Stations of the Tokaido. The Tokaido is a road that runs the length of Japan’s main island. The names of the stations are taken from the 53 Buddhist wise ones visited by an acolyte named Sudhana. Numerous Japanese artists, including Sekino and Hiroshige (the most famous Japanese wood-block artist), have followed the same path, executing some sort of image at each station. The entire process is seen as a metaphor for Sudhana’s—and presumably the artists’—quest for enlightenment.

Given that religious context, it may be safe to assume that Sekino, who died in 1988, was Buddhist. If there is intentional religious expression in the print, it most likely would have arisen out of that world-view. Regardless, I wanted to buy one, but as a “starving” college student I could not afford to buy the print. Eleven years later I ordered one from the artist’s US representative in Seattle. It remains my favorite work of art of any period. Period.

Done mostly in shadowy grays and blacks it depicts the rhythmic lines of a ceramic tile roof on a structure at the base of Mt. Fuji. The print was made in 1964, and has strong, simple and graceful, graphic lines. Subtly reflected on the roof is the faint but easily recognizable image of the mountain—Japan’s most famous geographic landmark—upside down. Perhaps the reflection is due to a light coating of rainwater on the roof, or perhaps it is an artifice of the light itself, manifest on clay tiles.

On first viewing, the image is pleasant, but vaguely disorienting. Mt. Fuji is not immediately apparent, yet one has a mild urge to turn the picture over—it must be hung wrong. Once the viewer recognizes the outline of the mountain, the questions begin. Surely there is no angle from which to view a roof on which Mt. Fuji could be seen upside down in reflection. After some experimenting with mirrors I determined that it is not an optical illusion, but that given the right perspective the image can be seen exactly the way it is presented in the print. The optics are possible solely because the roof is right at the base of the mountain, and because the mountain is gargantuan, dwarfing everything around it.

It is a graphically appealing, nearly abstracted image, but what exactly is it that evoked such an overwhelming emotional and spiritual response in me?

Japan is a nation of perhaps 50-70% atheists. The predominant belief systems are either Buddhist or practices (even among the atheists) that are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Less than 1% are Christian.

Among the religiously inclined, Mt. Fuji is considered sacred. Similar to the way the Greeks regarded Mt. Olympus, Fuji is revered by many as the source of all good that is Japanese. Mt. Fuji is alone not simply in scale but in location. At over 12,000 feet, it is not only the highest mountain in Japan, but no other mountains are even near it. It reigns supreme above the landscape and plays a dominating role in the Japan’s cultural and religious mindset. In the shadow of the mountain are in excess of 1500 religious cults, some offshoots of Buddhism, some Shinto, some peaceful and some exceedingly evil such as Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that concocted sarin gas in warehouses at the base of Mt. Fuji and released it in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. They killed thirteen people and injured close to a thousand more.

When I first looked at the piece thirty years ago this verse immediately popped into my mind: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ) I was in some philosophical turmoil at the time, trying to decide if I was going to be able to become a Christian. By God’s grace I was cautiously beginning to recognize the truth, but like so many people, I was struggling with the issue of how all the rest of the world’s religious experience fit in to the big picture. You know the questions. How can a loving God send someone to burn in the flames of Hell for eternity when they never even had a chance to hear about Jesus in this life? Whose fault was it that they were born in a place where everyone was Islamic, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or atheist and were taught from childhood that those perspectives are the whole truth?

Somehow, in this obscure work of art I heard—apprehended, understood, received knowledge, however you wish to describe it—God speak to me. I received an impression on my heart that the apparently unresolvable conflict of a multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices had been resolved.

But that impression was not a ratification of, or a divine blessing upon, Buddhism or Hinduism or any other “religion,” including, to my surprise, Christianity, at least what Kierkegaard referred to as Christendom. I did not come away from the experience with an eclectic “there are many paths to the top of the mountain” kind of understanding—there is, was and ever shall be only one. Neither was it a message that said, “Don’t worry, you Westerners have it all right.” It was a message that, like the image of Mt. Fuji itself, turned much of what I understood upside down. It was as simple and straightforward as God reminding Moses,  “I am that I am.” Sometimes I have to admit that a more apt comparison may be when God answered Job and his comforters out of the whirlwind with, “Who do you guys think you are?” (Job 38)

The idea of seeing through a glass darkly came through with ironic clarity. Certainly, as Christians we want to believe we have access to the best understanding of these issues, thanks, not to our own reasoning (well, that too) but primarily to the grace of God’s revelation. Yet, even in the face of the marvelous gift of revelation in Scripture, we still see only “as through a glass darkly.” More importantly, and also owing to the grace of God, neither our correct interpretation of Scripture, nor our well-reasoned understandings of theology and doctrine are what saves us.

Instead, our salvation lies in the reality that the One whose throne is the heavens and whose footstool is the earth became a human being and took on himself the punishment for all of our sin—his intervention, not our striving. We are at the mercy of his initiation, just as I believe He initiated a conversation with me, through the medium of an unassuming Japanese wood block print—a conversation that continues even today.

“Our favourite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of the human condition and, by presenting completed instances of human actions and passions, freed from the contingencies of everyday life, to show the worthwhileness of being human.” (Scruton, Roger 2009 Beauty p. 129)

Over the years, reflection on this print has given me many other insights—ideas that might never have occupied the mind of the artist. Consider that the mountain is reflected on a rooftop. A roof is the work of human hands. Human craft, human design, human engineering, human labor. In and of itself, that labor might be even be said to be simply motivated in ego, humanity constructing its own kingdom. But in a way, the water on the roof, which falls beyond our control as Scripture says “on the just and on the unjust,” (Matthew 5:45) becomes a divine element which makes the reflection possible. The print reveals, again as in a mirror, something of the image of God reflected in the efforts of humanity. We can see an affirmation of the value of human effort, of craft, and of art itself as evidence of our role as “image-bearers.”

Consider also that tiles are made of clay, just as human beings were created out of clay. We are, in part, created out of the mud, the baser “stuff” of the universe, and yet it remains possible to see the imprint, or the reflection, of the Creator on that. Consider further that the image is one of a roof. A roof is a covering, protection from the elements. A roof covers a house, forming a place of refuge, safety, and, one hopes, a place where relationship grows. I could go on, but you get the point. There are layers upon layers of revelation in even the most ordinary things, and when art serves its purpose and we are receptive to it, the layers can multiply exponentially.

Such are the exhilarating and joy-creating thoughts this supposedly non-Christian work of art has offered me. In it, I am able to see how, as Alister McGrath, explains, “The natural world thus becomes God’s creation, bearing the subtle imprint of its Maker. We see not only the observable reality of the world but its deeper value and true significance.” (McGrath, Alister, 2009, The Passionate Intellect, p.82)

Joni Mitchell sang, “Every picture has its shadows; and it has some source of light.” Thus far I have written of the light within the print. In deference to the depth of the artistic expression in Hara, as well as God’s artistic expression in the natural world, I will write of the shadows and their necessity if we are to grasp the “deeper value and true significance” of either a work of art or the natural world. As part of that, I will reflect on the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bad Robot!

What follows is a reflection spurred on by a blog post from Richard Beck, who always challenges me to think more deeply than I am ever comfortable with. His post can be found here, but it is not for the faint of heart—it talks about things like universalism, and (oh my!) Rob Bell.

Sometimes I think we hang on to the concept of free will at our peril. (Maybe I should have warned that my post might also not be for the faint of heart, Don’t shoot. I’m just thinking out loud.) Is it possible that the idea of free will is a defense mechanism that tries to keep our own self at the center of our universe, a way of fending off the true God who rightly owns that cosmic real estate—among his other vast holdings (for example…everything)?

Now any self-respecting discussion of free will inevitably leads to someone saying something like this: “God gave us free will because he wanted us to be free to love him. Without free will we would just be robots and robots only do what they are programmed to do.” That is probably right, and I am not arguing that free will does not exist or that it is not an important component in what we know as love. But there a couple of things that bother me with the concept. First is the idea that love is a choice and only our will is needed to act on it, and second is the idea that we are not robots. I’ll address the question of choice before getting into whether I think we might actually be robots.

I always thought there was something bloodless about the notion “love is a choice,” despite the fact that smug little epigram has the air of a self-evident statement. You hear that admonition when someone says, for example, “I don’t love my wife/husband any more.” The response is often, “Suck it up, bucko. Love is a choice, you simply have to make the choice and eventually it will be true.” I’m sure that sometimes works. It is occasionally possible to overcome a lack of passion through gritting your teeth and accepting your obligation—what philosophers call “deontological ethics.” But think about it, do you want to be loved by someone who does it out of a sense of duty—especially if they refer to it using ridiculous words like deontological, which sounds as painful as a root canal—or do you want to be loved by someone who loves you as you, not out of duty, but passionately and completely, head over heels? You know, the way God loves us. I thought so.

Just so we are clear, I am not dismissing the value of duty or obligation. I am merely pointing out their insufficiency compared to love. See the story of the prodigal son.

Our choices are always going to be motivated by our desires. Why act at all except out of some sort of desire? Even when we make the choice to go against some seemingly urgent but wrong desire (Step away from the dessert buffet.), it is because of a deeper and more significant desire that we hold to be ultimately more important. The problem is that we no longer, as Jacques Ellul described Adam, have a heart which “beat[s] in rhythm with the heart of God…” (To Will and To Do, 1969, p.5) Our affections are not just out of synch, we are obliviously playing John Cage, while God is playing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. We are conditioned and determined by sin and the consequences of our own and other’s actions. Very few, if any, of our desires are in accord with the heart of God. So even if we have free will, we will be exercising that will to execute the programming instructions of disordered desires. What could possibly go wrong?

Here is where we begin to understand our robot-like nature. And no, that was not what God had in mind originally. We did it to ourselves.

St. Paul described the problem about as well as anyone ever has. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” Rom 7:19. There is very little “free” will in our behavior. No, we are not robots, but we do act like robots, conditioned like Pavlov’s beagle to behave in all kinds of ways, no matter how much we try to fast-forward through the commercials. Even when we do something that has the appearance of being good, we are often so conflicted in our motivation that we suspect we did it for selfish reasons. And we probably did. Bad robot!

According to behavioral psychologists and some neuroscientists we may think we are free, but we are mistaken. That’s more biblical than you might expect. Thanks to the Fall, our own sin, advertising and the determinisms (physical and spiritual) of the world, we are held in captivity. Paul again: “I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” Rom 7:23. We cannot clearly conceive right desires, much less act upon them. It is only through the direct intervention of a loving God that we can even desire to be free from those captivities.

God describes that intervention in terms that sound like a heart transplant: “I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” Ez 11:19. (The Lord really loves a good metaphor; at least I hope it’s a metaphor.) Beck argues, “God can’t just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us.” Volitional assault is psychologist-speak for a violation of our free will. I suppose he could, but that would be as messy as a heart transplant. The process Beck describes sounds more like God sort of sneaks the changes in over a long period of time so that we don’t reject the new tissue and flatline just as he is ready to close up the incision.

I could argue that it is still a violation of our will, regardless of how long God takes to do it, but that’s not my main concern here. Theologically correct or not, I can think of a few wills that need to be violated, mine included.

Whatever process the Lord uses, and however long it takes, I welcome it. At least I have reached the point where I want to welcome it. In becoming free, even by small increments, on most days I can increasingly cooperate with God in his project to turn this bad robot into a human being. It is a process, not an event that occurred in the moment of asking Jesus in, nor when I was baptized, nor at any of the other ritualized milestones of spiritual life. It is ongoing and not likely to end soon, but in eternity I suspect the transformation will seem to have occurred “in the twinkling of an eye.”

Robot @triplee