Marriage and the dark side of “Jesus is enough” theology

close up of wedding rings on floor

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It was a refrain I heard from just about everyone as I came of age as a Christian.

I first remember listening to sermons by John Piper proclaiming that God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him. Later, Timothy Keller would speak of how putting our ultimate hope and identity in a romantic relationship will ultimate fail us and lead us to despair, showing that it’s only through finding complete love and acceptance in God through Jesus that we gain the spiritual buoyancy to weather the inevitable disappointments of our spouse.

Indeed, just about every article about singleness and marriage that I read on Christian blogs, websites, and magazines, it seemed, warned against putting too much stock in the hope of fulfillment from a potential spouse that gets stirred up with the exhilarating experience of falling in love. Whether married or single, these voices said, you already have all of that in Jesus. Just delight in him and stay rooted in the perfect love and complete acceptance that he has given you through the cross.

At the same time, I also read both secular and Christian books that critiqued our modern image- and material-obsessed culture. They exposed how, absent a robust faith in God and given the prevalence of pop culture’s Hollywood endings, the modern person is taught to long for ideals of physical beauty and happily-ever-after in a romantic partner that will never satisfy us. Literature is replete with examples of men and women torn apart and ultimately crushed by the failure of their lover. Even my favorite music artist, Jon Foreman, sang of trying to drown his existential pain with a friend who’s “got a pretty face with her wedding lace.”

But in the end, he laments, “I’m still waking up with myself.”

The great danger, it seemed clear to me, was idolizing a romantic partner. Don’t make your spouse (or a prospective spouse) your savior: first, because they can’t be, and second, because you already have one.

To be clear, I take no issue with the greater truth of these exhortations, only with how I followed them. With my guard firmly up against romantic idolatry, I embarked on a relationship with the woman who is now my wife. I fell for her hard. She was beautiful, exuberant, friendly, free-spirited, and full of God’s life and love in a way that I’d seen in few other people. She was the kind of woman that a lot of guys would find instantly attractive, and I didn’t want to be the latest addition to a list of desperate suitors. I quickly grew to love her and desired to be with her, but I didn’t want to become so attached that I wouldn’t have the emotional and spiritual capacity to walk away from the relationship if that’s what was best for both of us.

The result of my wariness was a painful cycle driven by my projected sense of cool detachment covered with a spiritual veneer. She would become fearful and threaten to break off the relationship, and I would calmly reply that while I really liked her and wanted to stay together, she was free to end things if she really wanted to.

And if she did, I added, I would be okay. Privately I rationalized that I had my relationship with God to fall back on, and while it would obviously hurt to break off our relationship, she wasn’t the ultimate thing in my life and eventually I would recover and move on. I could marry her and it would be great, I told her, but if that wasn’t what she wanted, then ultimately I didn’t want it either.

To her, this came across as a take-it-or-leave it attitude, and it stoked a deep-seated feeling in her that I didn’t really care about her or our relationship all that much. “I could leave,” she would tell me at various times, “and you’d be totally fine.” Worse, my fear of falling into idolatry led me unknowingly to maintain a certain emotional distance from her. I don’t want to idolize her, I thought, so I’d best work out my deepest hurts and fears between myself and God. Better that than letting her into the pain I would feel if our relationship ended.

The problem was that I didn’t let my care for her show in a way that was vulnerable—that was woundable—because I had subtly conflated the sin of idolatry with the experience of being deeply hurt by losing someone I desired. I failed to grasp that a relationship with God, truly experienced and understood, leads not to detachment from the world but into a deeper love for the world and for the people made in God’s image. More than that, I failed to understand that satisfying one’s deepest needs for love, purpose, and belonging in Jesus does not inoculate us against the wounds and sorrows of world—least of all those caused by one’s significant other. In fact it does just the opposite.

It took several more cycles of my projected detachment during the early months of our marriage for me to start opening my heart and showing my wife through confession and tears that the prospect of losing her would cause me more pain and grief than anything I’d ever experienced. I had to learn to show her that she affected me not only in positive ways like being fun and encouraging me to follow Jesus, but that she also had the capacity to deeply hurt me. She needed to see me make myself vulnerable to know that I cared for her.

Is this not, after all, how God shares his heart for us? Is this not the song of the prophets, whose words ache with the grief God feels when his people leave him to chase after other gods? Is this not the experience of Jesus, who not only wept over the death of Lazarus but ultimately suffered the death of a perfect relationship with his Father for our sake?

God does not have a desperate or needy love for us, I understood that well enough, but his love for us is reckless and deep and woundable. Our romantic relationships, while no substitute for God himself, should look the same.

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Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

Memento Mori: My Signposts of Mortality

In normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death…. A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.

– Gregory Zilboorg, “Fear of Death”

I think most people understand there’s a difference between intellectual assent and genuinely believing something. It’s the difference between mentally affirming that something is true, and experiencing it existentially so that it is felt and understood from the heart – as Mark Twain might say, the difference between a lightning bug and actually lightning. We all know, as a factual matter, as head knowledge, that we are mortal. Everyone dies. One day we will too, and yet, as Zilboorg says, we suppress that knowledge, we fill our lives and our thoughts with other things to escape contemplating the fate that awaits us – that one day we will cease to exist in this world.

As a 25-year-old, in the peak of vitality and strength, this is especially true for me and my age demographic. I know I’ll die, but I can type that sentence without a shudder. Death is likely still decades off, after all, why should I be so preoccupied with it? Statistically I still have a good 50 years or so, and sure, maybe I’ll suffer a premature death, but the odds are slim, and I don’t want to be controlled by the minuscule odds and irrational fears of plane crashes and shark attacks.

But the years are starting to go by faster, and still I suppress the thought of death. Well, perhaps not so much the thought as the belief in my own mortality. I can be a pretty cynical person. The news reports make me aware of death – again, as a matter of head knowledge. As a Christian, almost every Sunday when I step into church I’m driven to consider the ancient wisdom of the Psalmist: “Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” But still, odds are I am relatively distant from the Reaper, and so I remain emotionally estranged from that most obvious, grim, and terrify fact.

Sometimes, however, reality breaks through, terrifying and exhilarating, and we confront our mortality head on. In these experiences, the tenuous nature of existence comes into sharp focus: I could die tomorrow, tonight, so soon; my God, it’ll happen so soon.

As best I can remember, I have had three of these moments over the past three years. Each only lasted a few minutes, perhaps just seconds. They were outside of my control, impossible to generate, unpredictable, but awfully real.

The first occurred in my apartment in Santa Clarita, CA about three years ago. I was home alone at night reading the Bible. I don’t remember which passage exactly, but it was somewhere in Job or Ecclesiastes, when suddenly I felt the sharp, stabbing sense of my own morality. The temporal concerns of my first job, unrequited romance, food, chores, what-have-you – those all vanished. I felt the nearness of judgment day and the immanent prospect of heaven. The spiritual waverings that kept me in a state of lukewarmness steadied and became grave. The stakes beamed bright and clear and eternally high. I shuddered, resolved to continue seeking God, sat in place, fearful.

The second happened in Washington, DC, in 2013. I was going for a walk at dusk on a warm summer day around the parking lot at RFK stadium. I had earbuds in and was listening to a song called “The Setting Sun” by Switchfoot. The vibrant hope of the music and the poetry triggered an eternal rush: “It won’t be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun. Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong.”

shutterstock_329406311It’s a great song; I’ve listened to it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. Many of them were during sunset, in more idyllic settings, but only once has it struck me quite this deeply. Something lifted the fog of digital distractions and musical escape and city noise. I’ve never had an actual vision, but the sky looked ripe for one, like a conduit of final redemption and restoration. The Savior and Judge is coming back in the skies. Good Lord they could rip open any moment. And soon I’ll be past them, past this world with its burning-out sun and universe of entropy and chaos. I’m so close, I thought, so close. If my hope is true, paradise is but a sky away. The sun of my years will set, and I’ll awaken to a dawn that makes the first 25 years of sunrises look like a tiny lantern in the dark. I’ll run with no pain in my side, glorified, invigorated, and whole.

The third was probably the least intense of the three, and the most perplexing given the context. It took place just a few months ago – again in DC. I was at a friend’s house watching the film District Nine for the first time. It is full of action and swearing, nothing too atypical for Hollywood fare, but it has a realism that few alien films achieve. The story is dark and hectic, but designed to evoke pity and empathy. The main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, contracts alien genetics somehow and begins to turn into an alien. He is taken into a secretive lab, forced to fire guns and blast aliens to jelly, and soon doomed to be harvested so that human researchers can unlock the genetic secrets of the alien race they are oppressing (I promise I’m going somewhere with this, stick with me). The South African setting makes the apartheid undertones of the film clear. Wikus is a rather unassuming chap, just trying to do a little humanitarian field work (except not, technically, humans; “alienatarian”?), and suddenly he finds himself about to be harvested – doomed to a lab death behind closed doors. I don’t know why but that sense of “that could be me” enveloped me – a tiny taste of the fear and shock experienced by those who lose loved ones in freak car crashes, a microcosm of the soldier whose buddy is shot, inches away, while he lives unscathed. It’s that sense that we really do live on a precipice of comfort and normalcy, and the next moment could snatch it all away and drop you in some secret, merciless underground lab. That poor guy with the alien hand, friendly little Wikus, he’s going to die right after celebrating his birthday. That’s horrifying, I thought. Because I will too.

I had a fourth episode just a few months ago that didn’t quite reach the intensity of the prior three, but I want to point it out because while all of aforementioned experiences drove me to hope, this one ended on a much darker note. That’s what’s scary about these moments; they push the soul to the extremes – either a radical, desperate leap of faith, or the deepest despair on the brink of the abyss. I was reading a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the metro on the way home from work. It’s a long, meandering philosophical reflection woven into a motorcycle road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The narrator is a father traveling with his young son. As he tries to piece together his past as a philosopher, looking back at all the havoc and angst it wracked in him as he sparred mentally with human history’s greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all the way down to today’s academics, he looks into the future and sees the same relentless, endless drive for truth in his son:

“(He’s) being driven by forces he doesn’t understand. The questions… the same questions… He’s got to know everything. And if he doesn’t get the answer he just drives and drives until he gets one and that leads to another question and he drives and drives for the answer to that… endlessly pursing questions, never seeing, never understanding that the questions will never end. Something is missing and he knows it and will kill himself trying to find it.”

At that moment on the yellow line train to Fort Totten, I saw my life splay out before me as an endless string of questions, with answers I have no choice to embrace but cannot help but doubt. I saw myself driving on, floundering, in an endless sea of knowledge, data, ideas, and theories for the rest of my earthly days. It was nauseating.

The late anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker uses that opening quote from Zilboorg in the opening for a chapter in his book, The Denial of Death. In that book Becker says: “I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.”

I’m inclined to agree.

It’s a funny exercise, writing about these moments. I can’t re-experience them, and even if I could I couldn’t find the words to do them justice. But they’re worth remembering and treasuring. They remind me of the truth of my condition. They prove that the ruminations of philosophers like Becker, bands like Switchfoot, filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, and Moses aren’t some dry intellectual exercise. Rather, they cut to the core of who I am and the fate I am destined for, which is death: to perish, to cease to exist in the face I look at in the mirror every morning. These moments are markers, mementos mori left by the Teacher to teach me to number my days. They remind me that I’m too weak to handle the ultimate reality of death; that I must suppress it and go about my business of eating, sleeping, talking, walking, and all the passing things that make up my life, or else go insane. By causing my awareness of my suppression, however, they affirm and ultimately validate my hope that in the end I will escape the black of the void. And not only the black of the void, but the much more terrifying and disturbing prospect of the horrors of damnation.

From whence comes that hope? It comes from a Man who came from beyond the setting sun, a place of true freedom and eternal strength, somewhere back where I belong.

In The Holy Land: The Value of Traveling to Israel

Last June I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was one of those “study tours,” a structured, rigorous trip aimed at seeing as many biblically-relevant sites as possible – and learning as much as possible.

Israel. I try not to overuse the term “unique,” but it applies to this nation and its people. It exceeds my faculties and surpasses my knowledge. How does one fully appreciate such a trip? How can you capture the experience? What should I learn from it?

Perhaps it would be best to start with the negative. As a Christian, I came to value my time to Israel not for an experience of place. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about being baptized in the Jordan River, as opposed to a baptismal in Washington, DC or a swimming pool in Bakersfield, CA. My heart didn’t skip a beat when I touched the rock where Jesus was likely born or the rock where he was likely crucified. And the prayers I offered up at these places, though perhaps a bit more informed than they would have been otherwise, were not exceptionally sanctified compared to my prayers in America.

The legions of sketchy souvenir and pilgrimage shops around these places soured the experience. Watching them profit off tourists’ (should I call them pilgrims’?) attempts at piety, I thought of the money changers that Jesus purged from the temple: I don’t want your trinkets. I recall Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:

The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Here, man seems to be looking on the outside, but the God of the Bible strikes me as more concerned with the inside.

shutterstock_135319565There are competing Catholic and Orthodox churches built on most of these traditional locations, lending an aura of spiritual significance to the place. At first blush I find this off-putting. It’s as if two millennia of religiosity, conflict, tradition, and superstition have marred and obscured their original simplicity – the earthiness of the place. I want to be careful here, though. I won’t presume to search out the heart postures of the people in these churches making the sign of the cross in front of a rock. As a born-and-raised Evangelical (who happens to be Baptist at the moment), I cannot empathize well with the high-churched and their icons, incense, and relics. Perhaps these physical elements aid their worship. I admit I feel a heightened sense of solemnity and awe in these Constantine-era churches, but I’m still wary. They’re just rocks, after all.

No, the true value of my time in the Holy Land was more subtle than that, but I think more beneficial in the long term. More than anything, it gave me a new appreciation for the poetry of Scripture – the beauty of its prose and the richness of its historical narrative. For me the parts of the trip that really mattered happened in the brief moments, the quiet moments alone in the places that inspired the biblical authors. At the spring of Engedi, where David fled from Saul and cut off part of his cloak in the cave, I contemplated the Psalms that may have been inspired by this brook in the wilderness:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

At Masada, one of Herod’s fortresses during the first century AD, we considered the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The fortress is basically in a desert, but it utilized a brilliant system of irrigation to catch and store rainwater in massive cisterns carved into the mountain. These cisterns were lined with plaster to keep water from escaping, and in the event of a siege they would have stored enough water to supply the defenders for years. They would have provided a lifeline in desperate times, but they could be damaged, infested with debris, and eventually exhausted, so they were a poor substitute for a natural spring. In Jeremiah 2, the prophet uses them as a metaphor for the vapid pleasures of the world compared to finding satisfaction in God:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

While staying on the Sea of Galilee, one evening I walked to the shore and contemplated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, watching as the sun set over the hills where he preached. Why should I worry? God knows what I need. The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure. Will you sell yourself to buy the one you’ve found?

When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth,” he may have pointed to a port on the Galilee called Magdala, which was a major exporter of salted fish at the time. When he says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he may have pointed to a real city on a hill overlooking the Galilee, the lights of which would have been visible across the entire region.

After all these years, we’re so used to those metaphors. It’s easy for me to lose sight of their tangible, historical roots.

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Outside of the geopolitical conflicts that torment the region, we hear mostly good things about the Holy Land – the glory of Jerusalem, the richness of its history, the fertility of its fields. But I think its religious significance gives us rose-tinted glasses. Israel isn’t a beautiful, remarkable land, at least not relative to many other places in the world. It’s southern California without Hollywood, Santa Monica, or San Diego. The hills and fields around Galilee look almost exactly the same as the Grapevine that connects California’s central valley to Los Angeles. I’ve taken it dozens of times. No one drives that route for its scenery.

But isn’t that just like God? Israel historically has strategic value, with the ancient International Coastal Highway running through it, creating a critical juncture of commerce between Asia, Africa, and Europe. For thousands of years, the world’s eye has been drawn to the land of Israel, and still is. And yet if God wanted his people to have a beautiful country or to be a world superpower, he could have picked a lot of other places. But God doesn’t operate by the same calculus we do. Here’s what he tells Israel about his rationale in Deuteronomy:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.

The divine reasoning is similar in the formation of the church, as the Apostle Paul writes:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

There is much theological debate among Christians over the significance of Israel today and its relationship to the church, but regardless of your position, both give us insight into God’s nature – his care for the poor and downcast, his concern for the integrity of the heart, his tendency to favor the underdog, his desire to make himself known to the world through his people, his longing to satisfy us with himself, and perhaps most incredibly, his willingness to get dirty.

I don’t know for sure if I touched the exact spots where Jesus was born and died. Just as you never step in the same river twice, I didn’t swim in the same Galilee water that Jesus walked on. But that doesn’t negate the reality that he did, in fact, enter history as a flesh-and-blood man – the same history on the same planet that I am living on right now 2,000 years later. Indeed, the land of Israel reinforces that reality, standing as a testament to it. God left the abstract realm of spirituality and ideals and theory, and he came down and got in the dust and grime and corruption of the human experience. He wept and hungered and wearied and bled, so that someday we wouldn’t have to.

In Israel. That’s a remarkable thing to consider.

C.S. Lewis on the agony of coming to God

dragon dawn treader

Lately I’ve been stewing on what it means, as a Christian, to repent from sin and actually be transformed by God into His image. I have a heck of a time casting off certain vices, but I’ve found condolence in reading The Visionary Christian, a collection of excerpts from the more fantastical writings of C.S. Lewis. Three parallel scenes struck me for how they showcase what it is like to approach God as a flawed, finite creature. I’ve added italics for emphasis.

From The Silver Chair:

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answer this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion…
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion…and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted.”

From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

Context: The boy Eustace has been turned into a dragon. The lion Aslan leads him to a pool that can help his injured leg, but first, the lion says, he must undress – take off his dragon skin. Eustace scratches off one layer of skin, but underneath it he is still a dragon. So he does it again, only to find another layer. After a third time, he is still a dragon.

“Then the Lion said—I don’t know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…”
“Well, he peeled the beastly tuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeling switch and smaller than I had been.”

great divorce lizardFrom The Great Divorce:

Context: The ghost is a deceased soul somewhere in between heaven and hell in the afterlife. He has a lizard attached to him that acts much like a devil on his shoulder. An Angel approaches him and asks if he can kill it.

“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then I may?”
“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

The common thread in all of these stories is that any authentic approach to God is an utterly agonizing process. Casting off the sin that encumbers us (or rather, allowing God to cast it off) is the hardest, most painful thing that we can ever do. It will feel like a part of our essential self is being destroyed because our depravity is so ingrained in us that we cannot distinguish our actual self from it, much less separate ourselves from it.

But in the fact the opposite of death will happen – that is, death in any ultimately meaningful sense. The deep transformation that Lewis has in mind here purges the heart of evil and frees us to be our true selves as God intended us to be. And in the process – as the dragon scales are coming off or as the lizard is writhing in the throes of death or as we take those first tentative steps toward the Living Water that quenches all thirst – we experience even deeper within us a release, new breath, cleansing. And of course on the other side, once our thirst is quenched and the ugly skin is cast off and the reptile ripped off our backs, oh what joy await on the other side.

We see this idea echoed in the Bible. Jesus calls those who would follow him to deny themselves and take up their crosses – implements of torture and execution – and the writer of Hebrews notes that He suffered while being tempted. Paul describes a similar death-to-self experience in his letter to the Galatians, writing that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And Peter connects suffering to the purging of evil when he writes that “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

If you would know your Maker in spirit and truth, you must be willing to suffer whatever it takes – any agony and any price. That means allowing God to carve out parts of you that seem integral to your identity, parts that may feel second-nature to you – those parts that you feel you can’t live without even though they keep you bogged down in a wretched mediocrity. There’s no other way to find true, unspoiled, unblemished life.

The heresy of Noah, and why it’s still a good movie

What happens when you take the Messiah out of the creation story.

Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam by critics and bloggers in Christian circles. I suppose given its biblical source material, everyone felt a need to weigh in. Normally I wouldn’t presume to try to add another voice to a subject so thoroughly flogged (and now approaching ancient history, in internet terms). But there’s a simple way of framing Noah that I have yet to see presented.

It is this:

The film tells the story of Noah without Jesus.

Of course Noah takes minor liberties and debatable interpretations from a handful of verses to fill in a two-hour story, but it gets the major thrust of the biblical narrative correct. It places all the blame for death, evil, and abuse squarely on the shoulders of mankind. We are all depraved, Noah recognizes. He sees that the seeds of evil in the sons of Cain outside the ark dwell within him and his family too.

One critical omission, however, stands out most – the promise of a Deliverer. Notice that when Noah tells his family the creation story, he ends it before God expounds on the specific ramifications of the curse – man must work by the sweat of his brow, enmity is placed between man and woman, and God promises that Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Noah leaves out God’s Messianic promise to undo and conquer the wrong that the serpent and mankind have done. He leaves out Jesus Christ.

This has profound ramifications for the philosophical trajectory of the film. Aronofsky’s Noah shows us that when you strip the Messiah out of the biblical narrative, only two options remain: despair (read: suicide) and humanism. If humanity is hopelessly depraved and fundamentally bent toward evil, as Crowe’s Noah understands, there’s nothing for it but to let the human race die out. Life has no point – better to cut it off now and avoid the future suffering that we will inevitably cause. So that is what he intends to do. As horrific as this plan is, part of me empathizes with him. Even in the ark we see how Ham nearly murders his father out of resentment, and it seems that Noah might actually be right in his bleak projection of the future should humanity continue.

In true Hollywood blockbuster fashion, the film is not cynical enough to leave us with the demise of the human race according to Noah’s plan. Sans the idea of a Savior capable of both forgiving and removing a person’s sin, it turns to humanism. Noah cannot strike down his daughters in the end because all he feels in his heart is love. He cannot help giving in to this righteous impulse. He concludes that God is giving humanity a new chance to rebuild and do better. And so we end in the hope that through love and cooperation and a renewed dedication to the Creator and creation, humanity will do better this time – we will do better this time.

It’s a rather ironic conclusion, because if you keep reading Noah’s source material, the tower of Babel is just a chapter away.  Even in the film itself, the way Cain and Able are portrayed in Noah’s story – flashing to silhouettes of soldiers with increasingly sophisticated weapons – suggests that the same impulse that drove Cain to murder his brother continues in the hearts of humanity until this day.

All of this makes for a heretical retelling of Noah, but the heresy occurs in an emotionally powerful and theologically instructive fashion. We should expect nothing less from Aronofsky, who knows how to craft a good story and understands a thing or two about human nature. Stripped of the promise of a Deliverer who will save mankind from its sins, he strings us out to the existential extremes. He shows us how without Christ, not much remains of the hopeful, positive themes of any Bible story.

Consider the biblical stories within the context of human literature. Out of all the stories ever told, the Bible’s depiction of humanity, from Genesis to Revelation, stands as one of the bleakest. It paints a sick, brutally realistic picture of mankind – even of many “heroes of the faith” – which Aronofsky’s Noah captures well. The problem in this world is us, and Noah presents us with the only human solutions.

If we’re honest with ourselves, neither of them is satisfactory.

Dealing With God Relationally

Jesus wants to have a relationship with you.

What sort of response does that elicit in you? Is it a deep well of encouragement? Does the language rub your theological sensibilities the wrong way or make you uncomfortable? Does it seem incomplete, shallow, or trite?

Without further context, it’s obviously hard to render any clear judgment on such a statement. In principle, however, it boils down to the question of relating to God. What does it mean for a Christian to have a relationship with God? What does it look like, or what should it look like? I hear this discussion crop up particularly often in the context of Christian music. The proliferation of “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend”-esque songs in the Contemporary Christian Music scene and the creation of a allegedly “relevant” Christian subculture have drawn attention and criticism to this idea of dealing with God relationally. In fact, a song on a Christian radio station recently raised the question in my mind and prompted this post.

We need to deal with this issue carefully and thoughtfully. One way to understand the nature of sin, after all, is that it destroys relationships. Central to the nature of God is that He is triune, three persons in one, and the members of the trinity exist in perfect, beautiful relationship with each other. In the Bible we are called to  relate to God as a Father.

It’s hard to keep a proper focus on this. I grew up in a church that heavily emphasized sound doctrine. Identifying false teachers and critiquing shallow theology was the norm. The Bible certainly requires this, to a degree, but sometimes Christians reach a point at which our study of theology retards the dynamic, relational experience of following Christ. For example, I distinctly remember a moment in Sunday School class, probably about ten years ago, where the teacher was talking about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. He quoted a point where Warren basically says that more than anything, “God wants to have a relationship with you.”

“God doesn’t want a ‘relationship,'” the teacher responded with disdain, “He wants you to repent.”

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