The Most Anti-Religious of Scriptures

The Christian Bible is surely the most anti-religious of all the world’s scriptures. This often goes unnoticed because, unlike the critiques made by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the biblical hermeneutics of suspicion is religiously motivated. It is not for that reason any less devastating. In the Old Testament the prophets tell the people that God cannot stand their worship. In the New Testament, Paul wages war against the religion of being good, to which James responds with a sharp critique of those who would abuse the gospel of grace. But the most thoroughly anti-religious texts in the Bible are the Gospel narratives in which the piety of the Pharisees, of the Jerusalem power elite, which was dominated by the Sadducees, and of Jesus’ own disciples is relentlessly exposed as self-righteous and self-centered.

Our concern in this context is not the biblical polemic against the idolatry and immorality of pagan religions. Each of the instances mentioned above involves, rather, a biblical critique of what takes itself to be the biblical religion. The prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself direct their own critique of religion primarily to the covenant people of God. It is for this reason that I accuse the modern atheists of plagiarism, since they tend to repeat in their battle with biblical religion the criticisms already directed to pious Jews and Christians by the Bible. I do not make this accusation in order to silence the atheists but in order to persuade the church to read them with an eye toward repentance and renewal rather than refutation.

– Merold Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, 265 (bold emphasis mine)

Lover and Beloved

“Unfortunately, we have usually looked on the love of God for us as the love of a father for a small child. But that is not thoroughly scriptural. The grandest—and the final—imagery the Bible uses for his love is precisely that of lover and beloved, bridegroom and bride. It is the marriage of Christ and the church which is the last act of the long love affair between God and creation.”

– Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox, 39

This observation is thought provoking for numerous reasons. First, the parent/child metaphor for the God/human relationship is employed with greater frequency, as Capon observes, for a reason. Why? We long for love, acceptance, protection, and security in a world that is often cold, calloused, hostile, and unpredictable. We not only longing for home and family, we yearn for a pervasive peace in all of creation we believe only God can establish and preserve. The parent/child image, however, is not the only one found in the Bible.

Capon is right to remind us of the bride/bridegroom as the grandest and final imagery of Scripture. The church as bride conveys not only radiance and joy, but preparation, maturity, and agency. In the backdrop, however, of this consummating image of Scripture is the return of Christ not only as creation’s ultimate home restoration expert, but judge.

There is much to be added here regarding the already/not yet eschatological dimension of the Christian claim to the present and coming kingdom of God. But for now, we stand in the tension. We are both children and the bride that is the people of God. We are both small and in need of warmth, love, provision, and protection, and radiant, the beloved, beckoned forth for union.

“I actually think the Christian faith has got all the resources you need.”

My final question to Keller during our phone interview was his take on the spiritual temperature of the nation. What sorts of yearnings does he see and sense, and how can Christianity, properly understood, speak to those yearnings?

“I think the perplexity I see is that people want to have a foundation for making moral statements, but at the same time, they want to be free, and so they want to talk about the fact that all moral statements are culturally constructed,” he told me. “And so when somebody pushes a little bit on their life, they’d say, ‘All truth and all fact, all facts and all moral statements, are culturally constructed.’”

As Keller pointed out, they’re creating, at least philosophically, a kind of relativism, though of course no one actually lives like a relativist. All except sociopaths believe in certain deep truths about right and wrong, human nature, justice and a good life. “What we need is a non-oppressive moral absolute,” in Keller’s words. “We need moral absolutes that don’t turn the bearers of those moral absolutes into oppressors themselves.”

Keller concluded our conversation with a sentence that summarizes his consequential life: “I actually think the Christian faith has got all the resources you need.”

– Peter Wehner, “The Moral Universe of Timothy Keller

The Patient Friendship of God

Master of the Universe, through your son you would have us be your friend. But what could it possibly mean for us to be friends of God? Friendship with other people is hard enough. To be your friend is quite simply unimaginable. Friendship with you is right up there with asking us to be friends with our worst enemy, but then, maybe you are our worst enemy. Maybe I am my worst enemy. So, if you are nearer to us than we are to ourselves, unless we become friends with you we cannot become friends with ourselves or anyone else. This business of friendship must take time, but thank God your patience with us gives us all the time we need. Make us your friends so that when the puzzled world cannot figure out what makes us Christians the same, they will say, “But see how they love one another.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries

In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” What a profound statement.

Jesus is speaking with his disciples. In John, Jesus is offering his “last words” to his friends before being betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed. One of the last things that he imparts: “I have called you friends.” Why? “Because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father.” Jesus, the Son, withheld nothing. Not even his life.

Hauerwas’ thoughts on friendship mirror my own. “What could it possible mean for us to be friends of God?” He is right to observe our relationships with other people, even our friends, are “hard enough.” Friendship with God is all the more challenging because God, being God, knows us inside and out. God can bring us face to face with that which is most unlovable about us. How? By facing us with the reality of the cross.

In his prayer, Hauerwas leaves enough openings to allow us to make our own connections. In becoming friends with God we discover the love that enables us to truly befriend not only ourselves, but our neighbor. We find both strength and wisdom to love our enemies. We discover the hope that our enemies may even one day be counted as friends, a hope made possible solely by the power of God. God has also tasks us with work: Jesus, by counting us among his friends, commands us to befriend one another, and in being friends, so display love that leads to witness.

Being a friend of God should unsettle us, even frighten us. “You? Friends with me?” After all, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But this same fear should also fill us with reverence and awe, for, despite our expectations, friendship with God is not only possible, but is sure. God has made such friendship available in and through Jesus Christ. For people of faith, this friendship is not contingent, but is established. And God, being eternally patient, has given us all the time we need to become his friends.

Reading George Herbert

Photo by Jonathan Singer on Unsplash

Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee

– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.

“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.

Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”

God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).

The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.

I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.

But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.

The Restorative Power of Art

I’m reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again) because of my decade long listenership to Wilco. The book was a Christmas gift. My fascination with the band began with a friend named Clint Newlan, who was a shift manager and fellow barista with me at Starbucks in 2005-2006. I saw a Wilco show with Clint at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on March 21, 2006, saw them again at Crossroads KC with my friend Mike Hibit on October 6, 2009, and then went to see them with Molly at Bass Concert Hall in Austin on October 1, 2017. I’m a fan.

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Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

In the book Tweedy comments on the purpose of art, and expands his thought by reflecting on art’s restorative power. He writes:

I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. Creating creates creators. When I was in the hospital going through treatment for addiction and depression, they would have everyone in my group do art therapy. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was watching a catatonic sixty-three-year-old woman who had been hooked on heroin for close to thirty years become human again by holding a pencil and being asked to draw. I’m an agnostic by nature, but seeing that made me believe in staying close to the notion of a creator. The one we identify with most easily by finding it in ourselves.

I think that is about right. Art puts us back together; creating heals, connecting us with something that is elemental to being human. Art is not a self-salvation project, as Tweedy suggests, but it does have restorative potential.

There is a theological dimension to Tweedy’s observation as well, one Christian theology affirms. The Apostle’s Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and when God gets around to creating humankind in Genesis 1:27, we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

While Tweedy is an agnostic, his impressions point him toward a truth that Christians agree with: “Creating creates creators.” Human beings, created in the image of their Maker, make.

The creative impulse is stamped upon us, and creativity takes many forms. When it finds outward expression it is not only revelatory of something within, but also something without–the existence of a Creator who first created, making creatures who then, in turn, create.

The View of the Moment, or the Eternal

It is hard to judge the significance of our actions when so much of our life is mundane, repetitive, routine. We grow up, get educated, get a job, gain friendships, and go on with our days. Then we ask, “Is this it?”

This past week I listened to a friend who was reflecting on whether or not they were doing enough, whether they were settling, or if they should push, take risks, and do something big, whatever that might be. They wondered if they were missing out, whether or not they should be more like other friends in their same stage of life who had broken radically with their past, traveled the world, found employment in far off places, and appeared to be living a more exciting life. They wondered if that could be them, if those possibilities were open, or not.

These ponderings, and the longings associated with them, are both common and natural. It is good to be reflective and to ask if the path chosen is right, proper, and fitting. I thought every question, every thought being voiced by my friend was admirable and good, demonstrating self-awareness, humility, and an openness to change.

But to ask those questions, and to answer them well, another layer is needed. What is that layer?

It is easy to say, but hard to do.

We need evaluative criteria by which to judge the answers, to hold in check longings and desires which may only reflect our tendency to compare or our propensity for disquiet and restlessness, or, more darkly, our enviousness. There is a need for a sense not only of what is good, but what is good for me. Once we have established our criteria, we do the hard work of applying it to the life, circumstance, and the unique contours of the self, the person.

This isn’t easy to do. Why? Because we tend to judge our choices, and the choices of others, on the basis of a value set that has been determined by our time and place, what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called a “contemporary” or “the moment.” Kierkegaard saw that we needed another vantage, “the Eternal,” to determine the significance of an action, a choice, a life, or an accomplishment.

The “view of the moment” is often what we utilize in making judgments. But those same moments, if eternally understood, may be far more significant than we have imagined.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard writes:

By the help of a sense perception, a living generation often believes itself able to pass judgment on a past generation, because it misunderstood the Good. And it is even guilty of committing the same offense against a contemporary. And yet it is just in regard to his contemporary that a man should know whether he has the view of the moment, or the view of the Eternal. At some later date, it is no art to decorate the graves of the noble and to say, “If they had only lived now,” now–just as we are starting to do the same thing against a contemporary. For the difficulty and the test of what dwells in the one who judges is precisely–the contemporary. The view of the moment is the opinion which in an earthly and busy sense decides whether a man accomplishes anything or not. And in this sense, nothing in the world has ever been so completely lost as was Christianity at the time that Christ was crucified. And in the understanding of the moment, never in the world has anyone accomplished so little by the sacrifice of a consecrated life as did Jesus Christ. And yet in the same instant, eternally understood, He had accomplished all. For He did not foolishly judge by the result that was not yet there, or more rightly (for here is the conflict and battleground of the two interpretations of what is meant by “accomplishing”) the result was indeed there.

Kierkegaard understood that the full result of our actions, though “there,” may not be fully seen by us in our time or moment.

In our daily lives, our actions, choices, rhythms and routines may appear to us to be mundane, but eternally understood those same actions may be filled with an incomprehensible significance we can only partially imagine. We need a vision of the Good, and the perspective of the Eternal.

This realization is a step, but only a small one, toward being more present to the people and responsibilities you assume each day, for while it is only natural to wonder whether one is stewarding one’s life well, we should not miss the opportunity to live in view of the Eternal and the Good, that which will last and never pass away, the kingdom of God, which is near and at hand.

The Need for Silence

So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.

– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98

The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.

In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.

In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.

The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.

The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.

And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.

Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.

God call us to both.

Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.