“I Will Be What I Will Be”

 

 

“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD.1  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘the LORD’ I did not make myself known to them” (Ex. 6:2, 3).  The LORD as revealed to Moses is unknown to the patriarchs.  But are we altogether sure we know what we mean when we say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know God as the LORD?  Or, what is infinitely more important, are we sure we know what God means when he says that the patriarchs did know him by that name?  Here I discuss God’s name, how we know it, and why it matters.

 

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Some may take the above passage to mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob simply had never heard the name the LORD, and instead only used the name God Almighty.  This, however, would be a mistake.  The Bible records all three of the patriarchs using God’s personal name.  Abraham addresses God as the LORD and even names a place after him (cf. Gen. 15:2, 17; 22:14).  Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps by using the name of the LORD as a place name (26:22), and Jacob also shows that he knows the name of the LORD (27:20).  If they were aware of his name, how can God say to Moses that the patriarchs did not know him as the LORD?  Critics of the Bible say plainly that this is a contradiction.  But could there be another explanation?

I Will Be What I Will Be
If both the patriarchs and Moses knew the Name, in the sense of knowing its syllables, then how did they differ?  In what way does Moses’ knowledge of God differ from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

When God calls Moses from the burning bush to send him to Egypt, Moses asks for the Name of the LORD.  We may assume that Moses as well as the Israelites knew the Name, just as their fathers did.  What, then, do we make of the question?  Names are more than identifying labels.  They reveal the character of a person.  To know the name of God is to know who he is (cf. Ex. 33:19 where God’s “goodness” is made parallel to “the name ‘The LORD’).  For Moses to ask the Name of the LORD is to ask to be shown what sort of God he is.  In response God says “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14), or so it is translated in most English versions.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks takes issue with this interpretation calling it an “obvious mistranslation.”2 It ought to be translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”3 This future tense gives us a hint as to the difference in Abraham’s knowledge of God and Moses’ of the same. Whatever God’s Name would prove to mean is in the future tense, that is, it is still to be revealed. The Catholic Catechism says this about God’s Name, “It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is-infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the ‘hidden God’ …”4 God’s Name as revealed here “is a grammatical remark that suggests that God is known by what God does”5 and it was yet unknown what God would do.  He will be what he will be.  So it is that Moses and the Israelites would witness works of God which were unknown to the patriarchs and would thereby know him in a way unknown to their fathers.  They would have to wait to see what God would do in order to “know the Name”, that is, to know the full import of what it means for the LORD to be their God.

The Redeeming God
When God declares that the Israelites will know the Name, unlike their ancestors, the declaration of his Name is immediately followed with “seven dynamic verbs” describing the acts they would soon witness as a revelation of his character.6. “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.  I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession.  I am the LORD” (Ex. 6:6-8).  Notice: these acts are how “You shall know that I am the LORD.” The acts of God listed here describe the redemption of the Israelites from slavery.  And that is the difference between their knowledge of the LORD and the patriarchs’.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew him as El Shaddai, God Almighty,  the God who can provide (cf. Gen. 22:14).  But they did not know him as the God who redeems.  This knowledge, the experience of redemption by the arm of the LORD, would set the Israelites apart from their fathers.  Knowing the LORD is regularly associated with witnessing his acts. Most often the specific acts are those of the Exodus, or they are described using its language, as when the return from Babylon is pictured as a second Exodus (Ex. 7:5; 10:1-2; 29:45-46; Isa. 52:1-7; Eze. 35:4, 9, 12, 15; 36:10, 23, 36; 37:6, 13, 14, 28; cf. Jer. 23:7-8).

Proclaiming the Name
The most explicit revelation of God’s Name is found in Exodus 34.  God had called Moses to Mount Sinai where he promised to reveal the LORD to him (cf. Ex. 33:19).  As Moses hid in the cleft of the rock “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:6-7).  This is one of the most oft repeated scriptures in the Old Testament.7 Most translations, like my own, begin the quotation with a dual repetition of “the LORD.” While this maintains what I believe to be the sense of the passage, it is made clearer by placing the quotation marks later. “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed the LORD, ‘The LORD, a God merciful and gracious.'” God here “proclaimed the LORD”, he defines his Name, he explains its meaning, its essence, and he does so by rehearsing his acts. He abounds, he keeps, he forgives, he visits. This is what he does, and that is the meaning of his Name.

Psalm 136 is a perfect example of how important God’s acts are to knowing him.  When God declares that he is abounding in steadfast love, we are not left in the dark as to what “steadfast love” means.  The psalmist takes up the task of defining it for us, but he does not do so in abstractions.  For him, to tell what steadfast love means he must tell the story of the Exodus.  For the Hebrew, that is the revelation of God’s goodness, the very revelation of his Name, and their children cannot know the LORD apart from this redemptive act (Ex. 10:1-2; Deu. 6:4-9, 20-25).  Indeed, every subsequent generation is to commemorate the Exodus in Passover and to consider himself as personally present during the actual event (cf. Ex. 13:8).8  To experience this act of redemption is what it means to know the LORD.

The Hidden God
While the Exodus is the paradigm of revelation in the Old Testament, it is not the last word.  It does not entirely encapsulate the LORD.  Their life together was a continuing education in what the Name means.  God further reveals himself in history and he is a constant surprise.  One such surprise is described in Isaiah 45.  “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him–and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name” (45:1-3).

The surprise at God’s actions is addressed by the LORD himself.  To the Israelites who cannot imagine God working through Cyrus as “his anointed” he says, “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!  Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’  or ‘Your work has no handles’?  Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’  Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?  I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.  I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward says the LORD of hosts” (45:9-13).

It was just when the Israelites presumed to know what sort of God he is that they got it wrong.  When they thought to have a handle on him they attempted to correct him.  “You’re not the sort of God who works through pagans like Cyrus.  What are you doing?”  They become like clay that says to the potter, “You’re doing it wrong.  You didn’t make any handles.”  God turns out to be a surprise.  They did not know the Name as well as they thought they did.  Their conclusion could be none other than it was.  “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (45:15).  God remains hidden, and whatever he reveals he reveals through his acts.

What is the Name of the LORD?
Isaiah 45 continues.  The LORD shows his superiority over idols.  He calls a council of court and asks those who serve idols to witness to their gods’ power.  When they fall short, when they fail to be adequate witnesses to the power of their idols God declares that it is he, not idol gods, who is the savior.  It is he who orders the world, and there is no other.  “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the LORD, and there is no other … Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations!  They have no knowledge–those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.  Declare and present your case: let them take counsel together!  Who told this long ago?  Who declared it of old?  Was it not I, the LORD?  There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me.  Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (45:18-23, emp. mine).

This should sound familiar to every Christian.  It should be familiar because it is a description of Christ himself.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:5-11).  God’s Name is known only through his deeds.  His greatest deed, and therefore the most perfect revelation of his Name, is the salvation of Man through Jesus Christ.  If we would know God, we can do not better than to look at Jesus.  “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mat. 11:27).  His is the Name.  It is the Name that is above every name.  It is the Name at which all shall bow.  Jesus: this is the Name of the LORD.

The Revealed God Remains Obscure
Jesus himself declares, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:6).  Indeed, it is in knowing God through Jesus that eternal life is to be found.  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3).  If we would know God we are not permitted to look beyond Jesus.

Despite this final revelation of God, he remained and remains obscure to many.  Over and over the New Testament records people’s shock and amazement at Jesus.  Even his own disciples found it difficult to comprehend who he was and what he was doing.  He remained “the hidden God.”  Many times certain Jews objected to Jesus saying, in essence, “You can’t do that” or “If you really were Messiah, you would not do that.”  They made the mistake of thinking they knew the Name of the LORD apart from Jesus.  They stood in judgment against him.  Just then he reminded his enemies, “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Mat. 12:8).  When we find that our idea of God does not fit Jesus, it is our conception of God which is mistaken.  “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

The God of the Psalms
What does any of this matter? It matters because knowing God is eternal life.  Further, even rejecting God requires a kind of knowledge of him.  When atheists decide what sort of God they disbelieve, then Christians can decide whether or not they agree with the atheists.  The problem is that they don’t know any god well enough to say whether or not they can believe in him.  For example, the only argument which pretends to disprove God is the Problem of Evil.  But that problem requires a particular sort of “God.”  The psalmists did not seem to think that God was the sort of God who could not exist alongside suffering.  They would cry out to God in the midst of their suffering, even blame God for their suffering, but they would not give up faith in him.  After their complaint the psalmists would undoubtedly say, “Regardless, you are God.”  Instead of assuming they know what sort of God he is, and then deciding that he cannot exist alongside pain, they confess that–apparently–they did not know him after all, or at least not as well as they had thought.  The pain is a surprise because they did not know God was the sort of God that worked like this.  Still, it made better sense to them to say that they do not know God well than to say that God does not exist at all.  Even amidst the suffering of crucifixion, Jesus would rather think himself God-forsaken than think that God does not exist.  That at least is the language of the psalms.  Only the saint, it turns out, knows God well enough to decide whether or not he can believe in him, but the saint always decides that God alone is good (cf. Mat. 19:17).  So we are left with this interesting truth: those who disbelieve in him cannot, and those who can do not.

Repeating the Sin of Adam
The only reason why suffering should cause us to disbelieve in “God” is if we repeat the sin of Adam.  We take it upon ourselves to grasp the knowledge of good and evil, apart from God.  We then take our new invention we call “goodness” and submit God to that standard.  When God does not match our definition of goodness we decide that we no longer believe in God.  We now believe in Goodness, the god of our own making, and so we become idolators.  We stand in judgment against God and find him guilty.  But this is like submitting a game of chess to the rules of checkers.  If we should find that the Knight had made an illegal move we will discover that is only because we thought we were playing a different game.  You may rebel against God.  You may even hate him for not playing by your rules.  But you cannot disbelieve in him.  If you do, you only find that the God in which you disbelieve is not the God of the Bible.  When it comes to that God, disbelief is not an option.  The only live option is idolatry.  It’s strange; An atheist is a someone who does not believe in God.  He will be surprised to learn that God is someone who does not believe in atheists.

Christians: The Original Atheists
Under the Roman Empire Christians were considered atheists because they did not believe in the gods of Rome.  I imagine Christians were proud to be so called because the gods in which they disbelieved were not the God of the Bible.  Atheists today, who say that the Holocaust means that they cannot believe in a particular sort of god, will be surprised to find that Christians agree with them.  The sort of god disproved thereby is not the Christian God.  As such, I am indeed a devout atheist.  I also happen to be a devoted Christian.  How odd.  But then again, there always is something odd about the truth.9  God will be what he will be.  And as it turns out, he will be the crucified Christ.

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:20-23).

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. When “LORD” or “GOD” appears in all capital letters that indicates that YHWH, the personal name of God, is used. In general, I follow this practice in imitation of the modern Jewish reticence to use the name of God.
2. This remark comes from his explanation of the title of his book Future Tense, which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCHu85d5iJ8&t=100s ; accessed 6 June, 2017.
3. The Hebrew is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh and is the imperfect form of the verb “to be” which is roughly, though not precisely, equivalent to the English future tense. The NRSV and the JPS both make note of this possible translation, and Adam Clarke mentions it in his comments on Exodus 3:14. The number of times this particular form of the verb appears varies according to one’s source (38-43 times). By my personal count, it is translated as future tense 33 out of a total 38 times.
4. Catholic Catechism, article 206. Available at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P16.HTM ; accessed 26 June, 2017.
5. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Naming God”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 81.
6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Ed., n. on Exodus 6:6-8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90.
7. Bobby Valentine names it “The Pulse of the Bible” in his article by that title, available here: http://wineskins.org/2014/11/30/exodus-34-pulse-bible/ ; accessed 26 June, 2017.
8. “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying, It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I cam forth out of Egypt.” Mishnah, Pesahim 10.5, Trans. Herbert Danby, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 151.
9. This is, of course, in reference to Flannery O’Connor’s now famous statement, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Learning to Speak Christian: Apologetics Without Apology

 

In my previous article I talked about my ongoing education in learning to tell the truth, specifically when it comes to talking about God.  It would seem as if the approach I offered would rule out any sort of apologetics, or preclude the possibility of speaking to anyone who does not already have faith in God.  If we are to believe in order to understand, how are we to speak to those who neither believe nor understand?  When I wrote that article I was aware of these possible objections but I did not think it appropriate to address them at that time.  Since that publication a dear friend shrewdly raised these very questions, so I have thought it necessary to say something about a thoroughly Christian apologetics, an apologetics without apology.

The Position and the Problem
The God who is Trinity, the God we meet in Jesus Christ, is not the God we could have guessed.  There is no way, apart from revelation, to determine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we were to meet an unbeliever and articulate an argument for God beginning with such facts as the existence of the world, Man’s rationality, or Man’s conscience, we may be able to convince them of a sort of Higher Power, but that ambiguous Higher Power would not be the God of the Bible.

Further, when one sets out on the task of argumentation he must make every step sure.  If his foundation is shaky then whatever he erects upon that foundation will easily crumble.  Now, if God exists that would make him the determinative reality, not Man.  This means that we could not know what creation is, who we are, or even what it means to be human without him.  As a result, if God exists, then to begin with creation or Man, apart from God, would be to begin with creation/Man misunderstood.  As such, the foundation upon which we built our further argumentation would be shaky.  Whatever our conclusions from these misunderstood premises, they cannot help but be skewed.  In order even to understand the premises that would prove God–like Man and creation–one must begin with God or else his “facts” are misunderstood. “The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.”1  So, it would seem that in order to have firm premises we must assume that very thing which we are trying to prove, and that is circular reasoning.  What, then, is a Christian to do?  Does he forfeit apologetics all together?  Does he abandon the unbeliever?  If not, what apologetics could there be without apology?

The Logician and the Mystic
The problem with unbelief, it turns out, is not that it is unreasonable.  A false thing may still be a reasonable thing.  Imagine coming upon a man with an odd sort of iron box.  Upon inquiry you find out that the box is sound proof and, to your horror, you also learn that there is a cat inside.  Because you cannot hear the cat inside you ask the man whether the cat is alive, to which he responds, “I don’t know.”  The important thing to note here is that the ideas of a living cat inside the box and a dead cat inside the box are both reasonable.  There is nothing inherently contradictory in either idea.  But only one can be true.  The cat is either alive or dead.  But the false idea, whichever it happens to be, is still reasonable.

When you discuss things with an unbeliever you will find a reasonableness about him.  I have never been able to offer an objection to an intelligent unbeliever that he could not answer.  You will find that the instructed unbeliever is imminently reasonable.  But if he is so reasonable, what went wrong?  Why does he not believe?  It is time to consider that the problem is not with the reason.  Perhaps it is something else.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “[R]eason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.  Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”2  If this is true, and I believe it is, then a healthy imagination is the necessary pre-condition for knowing truth.  Reason, too, is necessary, but without proper imagination it will run round in a very reasonable but very narrow circle and thereby exclude the truth which stands outside of it.

G.K. Chesterton pictures it this way:

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.  Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.  If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do.  His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.  Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do.  Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong.  But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.  Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large … Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.”3

So it is that the problem is not with the reason. Therefore, to try to overcome the unbeliever by reason is to aim at the wrong target. That is not where the problem lies. Chesterton continues, “In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health … A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.”4 Of course Chesterton believes that the Christian is reasonable and not irrational, but its grounds are more than that. “[I]t can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.”5 And with the appeal to aesthetics we have an appeal to the imagination.  Chesterton, like Lewis, also considers a healthy imagination a necessary pre-condition for the apprehension of truth.

C. Stephen Evans is an expert on the thought of Soren Kierkegaard. On one occasion he summarizes Kierkegaard, again pointing to the imagination, “Religious faith has declined among intellectuals, not because they’re so smart, but because their imaginations are so weak and their emotional lives are so impoverished. If it’s true that many intellectuals don’t believe in God it’s either because they don’t want to believe or else it is because the natural human capacities that ought to allow them to recognize God at work in their lives have atrophied, they’re no longer working properly.”6

If we play the logic game we are bound to go round and round in circles. While Christianity is reasonable we will find atheists to be just as reasonable, though with a peculiar dryness. Perhaps it’s time to learn to play a different game. Given the choice between being a logician or a mystic, always be a mystic. “Mysticism keeps men sane.”7

A Story That Will Make You Believe in God
The book Life of Pi by Yann Martel offers itself as “a story that will make you believe in God.”8 That is a significant claim in itself. It is not an argument to make you believe in God, or a proof, but a story, and stories breed imagination.  Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Patel, or Pi.  He is a young boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, a French colonial settlement, where his family owned and operated a zoo.  He is raised a Hindu but quickly embraces Christianity as well as Islam.  As he recounts his interest in each of these religions you find that he was not “convinced” of any of them by argument.  It was the story, the practice, and the imagination of these religions which drew him in.  He liked them all so much that he refused to pick just one.

Despite his intensely religious character, Pi is able to sympathize with the atheist.  It is the agnostic which he despises most.  He says of them, “I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love!  My God!’–and the deathbed leap of faith.  Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”9

Pi’s father eventually decides to sell the animals and move to Canada. En route to Canada they find themselves and the animals aboard the Tsimtsum which sinks soon after departure.  The majority of the book recounts Pi’s survival at sea in a small life raft in the company of a rat, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a full grown Bengal tiger. And that’s not even the most fantastic part of the story. During his sea voyage he lives for a time upon a floating island full of meerkats, an island which turns acidic and carnivorous at night. In the end Pi reaches land. As he recovers in the hospital from emaciation he is interrogated by two men from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport about the sinking of the Tsimtsum.

Pi tells his story in great detail, complete with zoo animals and mysterious carnivorous floating islands.  The men find his story quite laughable.  They refuse to believe that he existed so long at sea with a Bengal tiger.  Pi then says, “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover.  Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist.  God is hard to believe, ask any believer.  What is your problem with hard to believe.”  “We’re just being reasonable”, they say, to which Pi responds, “So am I!  I applied my reason at every moment.  Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter.  Reason is the very best tool kit.  Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away.  But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”10

The inspectors continue to plead with him to be “reasonable.” To give them “just the facts.” After which follows this beautiful exchange:

Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”
“What really happened?”
“Yes.”
“So you want another story?”
“Uhh … no. We would like to know what really happened.”
“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”
“Uhh … perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don’t want invention. We want the ‘straight facts’, as you say in English.”
“Isn’t telling about something–using words, English or Japanese–already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”
“Uhh …”
“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! You are very intelligent, Mr. Patel.”
Mr. Chiba: [In Japanese] “What is he talking about?”
[In Japanese] “I have no idea.”
Pi Patel: “You want words that reflect reality?”
“Yes.”
“Words that do not contradict reality?”
“Exactly.”
“But tigers don’t contradict reality.”
“Oh please, no more tigers.”
“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”
“Uhh …”
“You want a story without animals.”
“Yes!”11

Pi proceeds to re-narrate the story. Most of the elements are the same. The chief difference is that all references to animals are replaced with people. Those things which happened to the animals now happen to people. The animals that die are now people that die. What the animals did, now the people do. After this retelling of the story the inspectors are no nearer to understanding what contributed to the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Convinced that the interview is fruitless they prepare to leave. Just then Pi takes the opportunity to ask them a question.

“But before you go, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Yes?”
The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977.”
“Yes.”
“And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human survivor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978.”
“That’s right.”
“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“That’s right.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“That’s true.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question …”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: [In Japanese] “Yes.” [Now in English] “The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”12

No matter which way Pi narrates the story they are both impeccably reasonable. There is no internal contradiction in either story. One, however, consists of “dry, yeastless factuality” while the other is undoubtedly the “better story.” The appeal, then, comes not from its reasonableness but from its beauty. This, I believe, is what C.S. Lewis experienced as he began to read George MacDonald and other imaginative Christians, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. By which he concluded, in a reinvention of a line from The Song of Roland, “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.”13 Pi’s inspectors and Lewis were both gripped by the aesthetic of the stories before ever they wanted to consider their “reasonableness.” The stories, of course, are logically coherent, and that is important, but that moved them neither here nor there. What they really wanted–dare I say what they needed–was first a feast for the imagination.

Apologetics Without Apology
Stanley Hauerwas said, “The best apologetics is a good dogmatics.”14 This invites the question, “What would it look like if Christians did not think their duty to the world was to defend God but rather to be witnesses to the truth about God?” Instead of embroiling ourselves in “apologetic” conversations which are framed by talk of “nature” or “values”, which cannot be right because they are supposed to exist without reference to God, what if we simply told the truth about God? God is the creator become Man in Christ Jesus who empowers us by his Holy Spirit, not to be people of godless values, but to be people of holiness. That’s far more interesting. And that’s the rub.

When we forfeit the unique contours of the Christian Story we forfeit all of its beauty. Who wants to talk about nature and its endless recurrence of cause and effect? There’s nothing interesting about that. But what about a world that does not exist necessarily? What about a world that is dependent upon the God who made it? Life is no longer a necessity. Life is, in fact, not a “right” but a gift, and that’s exciting! Every day I am the recipient of a gift from a gracious God who would rather I exist than not to exist. The God who gives me life draws me into his own life by becoming one like me in Jesus Christ. Now that’s interesting indeed.

What makes statues interesting is that they have a definite shape. The curves go thusly and it is proportioned just so. If it were to relinquish its particular shape it would lose its beauty.  It would be a shapeless boulder, a mere blob of rock.  Definite shape and beauty are bound up together. When we forfeit the particular language of Christianity and adopt the language of the world by using their terms, terms like “religion”, “values”, “social contract”, “inalienable rights” and so on, we forfeit the particular shape of Christianity and with it all of its beauty. And it is that beauty which makes it attractive! Without distinctly Christian language we are left with “dry, yeastless factuality.” But Christianity is undoubtedly the “better story.” And so, what is necessary is an apologetics which is quintessentially Christian. What is needed is an apologetics without apology. It needs no defense. Its particular shape is its beauty and its beauty is its own argument. When we pronounce the True Story of the world, a story like no other, it exercises the imagination of those that would grasp it. And if that is where the weakness lies, in the imagination, then such an exercise of imagination is what strengthens the necessary organ of meaning, the pre-condition of truth. By meeting God in the truth he exercises the imagination and rehabilitates the atrophied muscle of imagination.  As unbelievers wrestle with the particular contours which constitute the inherent beauty of Christianity it sparks their imaginations and, by the grace of God, that spark can be fanned into the flame of full belief. If indeed we trust that God is the primary actor, and not us, then witnessing to the truth is what is necessary.  God is mediated through his word, not our apologetic inventions, and so acts upon the heart of the hearer.  The task before Christians is not to learn to speak the language of the world. To speak their language is to hoist the white flag of surrender. The beauty of Christianity cannot be separated from its distinct shape. Our best apologetics is a good dogmatics. If the church is to tell the truth, we must learn to speak Christian.15 Why would the world want to listen unless we are a people with something interesting to say? This means that apologetics cannot be separated from ethics. And when it comes to ethics, telling the truth is a good place to start.

©M. Benfield 2017


1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 46.
2. C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes, available at: http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf ; accessed 5 June 2017.
3. Chesterton, 34-35.
4. Ibid, 37.
5. Ibid, 38.
6. C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can Know There is a God Without Proofs”, a lecture delivered on behalf of The Institute for Faith & Learning at Baylor University. Available at: https://vimeo.com/129558415 ; accessed 30 May 2017.
7. Chesterton, 46.
8. Yann Martel, Life of Pi, (Orlando, Fl: Harcourt Publishing Co., 2001), p.x.
9. Ibid, 64.
10. Ibid, 297-298.
11. Ibid, 302-303.
12. Ibid, 316-317.
13. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy/The Four Loves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 186.
14. Jonathan Lett gives this form of the quotation as he heard it in a class he took with Hauerwas himself. The paper is available here: https://www.academia.edu/8862455/Dogmatics_as_Apologetics_Theology_with_Barth_and_Hauerwas ;accessed 5 June 2017. This seems to be a form of Karl Barth’s quotation, “Respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics” as quoted in Hauerwas’ Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church, (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), p.xiv.
15. I have taken the phrase “learn to speak Christian” from the title of Stanley Hauerwas’ book, Working With Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 5)

 

To quickly recap before we round up this series of articles: we are primarily loving/desiring things, not thinking things.  Our desires are created and shaped by our practices and rituals.  Those rituals which touch us nearest to our core move our ultimate love and is therefore just another way of saying that it teaches us what to worship.  Worship means ultimate love.  So, those practices which touch us most deeply can rightly be termed liturgies.  While involving ourselves in certain secular liturgies (e.g. going to the mall, the stadium, the university, etc.) our loves are being (de)formed.  They are being created in the world’s image, not the image of God.  As a result we need a practice which will act as counterformation to these secular liturgies.  A Christian naturally looks to Christian worship to be this practice.  Sadly, however, even much “Christian” worship turns out to be “Jesusfied” versions of secular liturgies.  The practices themselves have stories built-in to them.  So whenever our worship looks like the coffee shop or the mall we still learn that Story even if the Story of Jesus is preached.  We learn to be consumers or customers instead of servants and worshippers of the true God.  In light of all of this we ask, “What would worship look like if it accurately embodied the True Story of the World?”1

Time2
Before entering the church building we are already being prepared for a practice which is counterformative. The banners and signs and colors announce the Christian season within the liturgical calendar (Violet for Advent and Lent, White for Christmas and Easter, Red for Good Friday etc.). The Christian’s year is, quite literally, determined by the life of Christ (each season corresponds to the events of the life of Jesus) instead of the secular calendar. Experiencing time within the worship of the church is different than it is experienced outside of it. The church creates a different world in which we live, move, and have our being. This sense of time is intentionally counter cultural.  The practice of keeping time differently embeds in the Christian a sense of living differently than the world while remaining in it.

Call
Apart from the Christian seasons there is the simple fact that we gather on Sunday. For the rest of the world Sunday is a day to sleep in and recover from the shenanigans of the past two days and to prepare for returning to work on Monday. For Christians, however, Sunday is at once the climax of the week and the beginning of another. We wake while much of the world sleeps and we gather together. Why? Because God has called us into his presence. Not only does our simple gathering reflect this calling there ought to be an active recognition of this fact. Beginning worship with “Good morning” or “We’re glad you’re here”, as often happens, subtly suggests that we are the ones who have called this assembly. Likewise, beginning with the announcements suggests that we are here to “do business” rather than to enter the presence of the living God. A way of recognizing God’s call is to offer it. The worship leader, as God’s servant, welcomes others with “The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Or perhaps he opens the service by saying “The Lord be with you all” with the congregational response, “And with you.”  This response teaches us that all of life is in response to our God.  The creation began as a response to God’s divine fiat and it continues that way today (Gen. 1; Heb. 1:3).  Life itself is a response to God’s will (Acts 17:24, 25).  And even though we have largely lost our sense of “calling” we still regularly describe our jobs as our “vocation” (from the Latin vocare, “to call”).3 Issuing the Call of God to enter into his presence offers the Christian the opportunity to reorient himself. In a world whose mantra is “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”4, this response to God’s call trains us to constantly recognize God’s authority as our Lord and our response-ability to him. This practice is, therefore, intentionally counter cultural.

Law
Thomas Cranmer in his monumental and seminal liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, begins with the reading of certain passages which call attention to our sinfulness in order to lead one to the confession which follows. E.g. “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive” (Eze. 18:27); “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).5 A reading of the Law (and certain sections of the epistles) would also be suitable here. In a world which aggressively fights against the idea of an absolute Truth, a transcendent rule of ethics, the reading of God’s Law reminds us that there are universal norms. There is a way that the world ought to be, and by this reading we are invited to join in embodying that vision of shalom (i.e. peace and wholeness). This also reminds us of our creatureliness. We are not our own masters. Rather, we come as a community gathered together in service of the same Master. The Creator of the universe revealed his will on Sinai. At once the reading of the Law calls us to obey it and it condemns us for having broken it, which leads to the next movement.

Confession and Absolution
Cranmer rightly sees the reading of scripture as call which evokes a response.

“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of the Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.”6

The response is bilateral: We confess our failures while recommitting ourselves to obedience. The prayer which embodies this two-fold response is reproduced here:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord: And grant, O merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”7

This communal confession carries the most weight when we remember it within its context. First, God’s mission is not to save us from the world but rather to redeem the world. In this light the Law is not simply a test which God gives in order to determine whether he lets us into heaven when we die. The Law embodies a vision for the world. It is a societal vision and we have a part to play. This vision is a vision of True Humanity, humanity the way it was meant to be. Therefore, breaking the Law is not just failing a test. It is a failure to be fully human. Second, this confession takes place within worship. This is the place where we rehearse the True Story of the World, the way things are supposed to be. This means that we are not only concerned with confession of wrongs but we are also concerned with righting of wrongs. This means that we recommit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s vision for the kingdom. It also means that we seek absolution; we seek forgiveness. We confess our wrong and want to be put right. Again, Cranmer sees this clearly. A pronouncement of forgiveness follows the confession of sin and commitment to righteousness.

“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather than he may turn from his wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore, let us beseech him to grant us to repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers, Amen.”8

This movement is about things being put right. This is about that which has been divided being reconciled again, and reconciliation is always two sided. That is why the pronouncement of forgiveness is necessary. When we confess our sins to God he is not silent. He responds with mercy and compassion. This movement in the liturgy embodies that. It also teaches us what God’s kingdom is supposed to look like. This is the place where hurts are healed, brokenness is mended, the estranged are reconciled, and division is conquered by love. By this practice we are learning to long for justice; we learn to long for the world to be put right.  And by confessing our own sins we learn that injustice is not just “out there.”  Sin runs right through all of us.  If the world is to be put right it must begin with us.  Longing for the reconciliation of the world means longing for my own reconciliation with God.

Passing the Peace
This movement quite naturally follows our reconciliation to God.  This is so because reconciliation is always vertical and horizontal.  One cannot exist without the other.  I cannot be right with God if I am not right with my brother.  I also cannot be right with my brother if I am not right with God because it is God which puts me right and enables me to love my brother as he deserves.  Having now been put right with God, the community which was likely fractured throughout the week (perhaps in slight ways beyond our recognition) is now made whole again.  This is embodied by the passing of the peace.  Neighbors turn to one another and share an appropriate sign of good-will.  They kiss, they hug, they shake hands, and even offer the manual “Peace” sign from a distance.  Accompanying this is the blessing “Peace be with you” which is answered with “And with you.”  Having confessed to God the sins which fractured shalom we now embody its restoration and reality.  And it is a peace shared across every boundary.  We greet young and old, man and woman, the CEO and the garbage man, the red, and yellow, black, and white.  This is God’s multi-ethnic multi-cultural kingdom just as he would have it.  Here we learn to live out shalom, God’s very own vision for the world.

Song
The book of Isaiah offers many pictures of New Creation, some of which are followed by a hymn of praise to the God who has finally put the world right.  E.g. “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (Isa. 12:5).  “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (49:13).  It is, therefore, appropriate for us to praise him for his act of New Creation in our midst.9
Our songs are perhaps one of the most important parts of our worship, partly because they are the most easily distorted. Songs “get in our bones.” We may hear a song we haven’t heard in 10 years and still sing the words with immense accuracy. This makes them especially powerful and especially dangerous. There are a great many errors that we sing on a regular basis.10 And by repetition the bad theology may work its way into our hearts. Most of us will not remember the sermons that we have heard but we will forever remember the hymns. Songs, therefore, are some of the most important vehicles for theology. The Catholic Church is supposed to have said of Martin Luther, “He has done us more harm by his songs than his sermons.” This is because they are powerful and memorable. Singing is the language of the kingdom. We must be careful we are learning the right language and speaking with the appropriate accent.
Singing songs is also one of the most holistic/embodied worship acts we perform. We often stand, we hear the melody, we match our own voices to the harmony, the music moves our “gut” and grabs our emotions; we smile, we shout, we laugh, we cry, we mourn. It is, therefore, also one of the most transcendent acts that we perform. We “get lost” in the music. This world is a world within a world. We have stepped into a place where things are different than they are “out there.” The goal, however, is always to take some of this music with us when we leave. The dissonant sounds of heartbreak may be cheered by our echoes of heaven. And worship is where we learn the Song.

Prayer
Prayer is a time where much discipleship takes place. Even in “non-liturgical” traditions, like my own, our liturgy appears most in our prayers. Certain stock/ritual phrases appear again and again, passed down from generation to generation, whose origin is now forgotten. “Guide, guard, and direct us.” “Bring us back at the next appointed time.” “Help us to partake of this in a manner well pleasing in thy sight.” Although prayers, like our songs, may take many forms (praise, lament, petition, intercession) we’ll examine just briefly The Lord’s Prayer which will be heard in most Christian churches throughout the world.
The very first word of the prayer, “Our”, reminds us that we live within community. My life is not just about God and me, my personal salvation, and whether or not I go to heaven when I die. My life is lived within community and therefore I pray within community. I recognize my shared relationship with others by recognizing our mutual relationship with God. “Our Father”, not “My Father.”
Next we recognize God’s uniqueness.  “Hallowed be thy name.”  Being holy/hallowed indicates being set apart, “in a class of his own.”  This emodies the wish that all of our idols would be overthrown.  This God is nothing like the pantheon of gods we serve day to day.  This prayer, like the entire liturgy, is a rebellion against the idolatry which lobbies for our love throughout the week.
At the center of the prayer lies the point of the entire Story, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is no escapist prayer which wishes to pass a test in order to leave earth behind. Each time we pray the prayer we are situated within the larger Story of New Creation where God’s glory floods the earth “as the water covers the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). We are reminded of our part in bringing that into reality.
Following that we are immediately reminded that this kingdom is not divided ontologically. It is not a kingdom which separates the physical and the spiritual. The requests for bread and forgiveness come back to back. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins.” Both are necessary in this kingdom.
This kingdom is not divided socially. It is no Us-Against-Them sort of kingdom. We are not The Righteous Few going to conquer The Wicked Other. The very thing that God intends to overthrow in the world must also be overthrown in us. We pray, “Forgive us our sins.” Yes, we have our sins too. We must be willing to be reconciled to God as well as to other people. And so we pray, “As we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s Story is about reconciliation: the reconciliation of Heaven and Earth, Spiritual and Physical, Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, Citizen and Non-Citizen, Greeks and Barbarians, Us and Them. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven that means the reconciliation of everything. All that divides the world must be overcome and the peace of God must reign.
This prayer also teaches us that there is a real messy world all around us. While we come together on Sundays to tell The True Story of the World, to remind ourselves of how the world should be, and to practice being citizens of that kingdom, this is not naive make-believe. We never let ourselves forget that the vision of God’s future is, in some sense, still future. When we leave the confines of the sanctuary there will be more battles to fight, and we dare not trust our own strength. So we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but delver us for evil.” But the good news of it all is that although there are still battles to be fought the outcome of the war has already been decided. And so we pray, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” Yes, there are still battles to fight. But the kingdom belongs to God and one day we will see that kingdom come fully. So this prayer situates us within the Story, and while it is realistic about the present it remains confident about the future.

Gospel
Worship ought to be a Story filled experience. Too often our scripture reading is short and singular. It would be beneficial, I believe, to have a number of scripture readings and longer readings. This way we are able to feel the grand sweep of the Story instead of just being fed little bits. Within those readings there ought to be something in regard to the life of Jesus (whether from the Old Testament, the Gospels, or the Epistles). Jesus is the center of our worship, the climax of history, the Lord of the world, and Good News for all creation. He is the one that has made worship, as it is, possible. His life, death, and resurrection are what brought New Creation to birth. He changed the Time which governs the church. He issues the call which gathers us together. He fulfilled the Law that we have broken and he extends forgiveness to its transgressors. He created the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community of shalom that we have prayed about, sang about, longed for, and enjoyed. There is a very real way in which Jesus re-narrates the entire world. He is the Logos (Jn. 1:1), the True Story of the World. Christian worship without Jesus is a Story without a meaning.

Creed
Having just heard the Story of our Lord we know affirm our commitment to him. Although the recitation of The Apostle’s Creed is not common in all traditions I feel safe in saying it is more common than not.11 This is yet another moment which recognizes our unity in Christ. We are a people bound together by belief/trust in Christ and that is never more explicit than it is here (except possibly in the Supper). This is like our Constitution or Pledge of Allegiance, and we pledge allegiance to Jesus, not to the State, the Union, the Emperor, President, or Prime Minister.12 This, again, is a counter-cultural practice.  While others consider their highest allegiance to “King and Country”, ours is higher still.  This practice instills in us the importance of “obeying God rather than Man” (Acts 5:29).
Recitation of the Creed is also counter-cultural because it connects us to an ancient tradition.  It rebels against the chronological snobbery which says, “New is always better.”  “Advances” in science do not mean that we have advanced beyond the need for religion.  That will never happen.  We unabashedly commit ourselves to a tradition which is 2,000 years old.  We are unashamed of that which others label as superstition.  We confess with one voice our belief in God as Creator, Jesus as virgin born and resurrected.  We confess our belief in the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the life ever lasting.  This is not superstition to us.  This is a commitment to living a different sort of life, a life enchanted with the life of God himself.

Sermon
Once we have committed ourselves to our Lord we receive our marching orders.  While we have already had a number of readings from scripture there is a place also for commentary.  This is where the Story of the World is extended and expounded.  If we have made the mistake of hearing the Law and the Gospel as dry and dusty documents the sermon will not allow us to do so any longer.  The sermon renarrates the world and reminds us that the Story is still being written.  The sermon tells each one “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”13 The play has gone through its previous acts, climaxing in the Fourth Act with the Christ Event. We now live in the Fifth Act improvising our way to the end which has already been settled and revealed. We know where we are going, but there is still work to do.14 The sermon becomes for us something like stage directions. We are bound by certain facts. We cannot act in discontinuity with the previous acts and we cannot change the ending. But exactly what it looks like between here and there is always changing because history is always changing. Early Christians did not have to face questions of internet pornography, nuclear war, stem-cell research, or the separation of church and state. So we are guided along within the confines of the authoritative text. We are a troupe of actors gathered together on the stage of history to try and tease out what the next scene should look like. This too is counter-cultural because the Play we’re rehearsing is different altogether from the rest of the world. They are working towards an ending which will never arrive. Out there we will look as if we are the ones who are on the wrong stage, but that cannot be helped. We know the Writer and Director. He has assured us that we are where we are supposed to be. And he looks forward to seeing his troupe bring his Masterpiece to life! And so we shall.

Eucharist
There is much to say about the Eucharist in an already long article so brevity will have to suffice.  First, the Supper is itself an abolition of the social stratification that takes place “outside.”  In a world where most in the West enjoy feasts and those in the rest of the world suffer famine we gather around a table where everyone takes an equal share.  There are not Haves and Have-Nots here.  We enter into a vision of the world where everyone has enough.
Second, it sanctifies the common.  The Meal is common bread and wine, and yet it is where we meet the God of bread and wine.  There is no secular/sacred divide here.  The Meal that Jesus gave us is a rebellion against the disenchantment of our secular world.
Third, the Meal collapses Time into itself.  It connects us to the past.  We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Jesus broken body and shed blood (cf. Mat. 26; 1 Cor. 11).  It also reminds us that the Story is still being written.  This is not a ritual relegated to by gone ages.  We still gather around the table today.  We still need forgiveness.  We still need bread and wine, body and blood.  And we also look forward to the future.  It anticipates Jesus final coming (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) as well as the Messianic Banquet at which death itself will be swallowed up (cf. Isa. 25:1-10).  In this way it is a kind of celebration.  We enjoy the future victory now.  In a world so full of death and tears we may sometimes forget how to laugh.  But we have rehearsed the Story and we know the end.  We have stepped into a different world where forgiveness is the rule, where God’s peace reigns, because Jesus has fulfilled the Law, conquered sin and the grave, and we have heard the announcement of the Gospel.  We have committed ourselves to following the victorious King and now we celebrate our independence!  We feast and enjoy the spoils of our King’s war with Death.  This is the Meal that makes every funeral bearable.  We are emboldened against Death itself because we have learned to anticipate its full and final defeat.  The Supper is not just a memorial, it’s a party.  And all weary travelers are welcome.

Offering
We cannot celebrate the defeat of Death while simultaneously colluding with its power.  This next act, the offering, is a further rebellion against a culture which stinks of Death because it is so often in his company.  In a world where the top 1% now owns half of the world’s wealth, sharing is defiance.15  The only way the rich stay rich is by keeping the poor poor. This culture contributes to the deaths of many. And so week after week we learn that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We have seen a vision of God’s kingdom where Death is overthrown, none go hungry, all are clothed, and all have places to sleep. We’ve captured a glimpse of that vision and that vision has captured us, so we live into it right now. We give to support those whose struggle with Death is more fierce than our own. This is insurrection. We will not allow Death to overcome. So we give. And by giving we give life.

Sending
Rehearsal is, by definition, not the show. All practice is preparation. We have rehearsed the True Story of the World and practiced its virtues. But the show is intended to be seen. Virtue is for the sake of The Other. We leave the confines of our gathering to step out onto the stage of history. But we do not merely leave. We are sent. This is not just worship, it is a Mass.16 We are sent with the power and blessing of God himself.  The minister, as God’s representative, commends us to God’s care.  “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Num. 6:24-26).

 

Conclusion
We have come a long way in this series.  We discovered that we are primarily embodied creatures, not brains-on-a-stick.  This means that we are not lead primarily by our thoughts/beliefs but by our loves/desires.  We also learned that we are teleological creatures.  Our loves are “aimed” at a particular vision of The Good Life, and because those visions are always social they can rightly be termed “kingdoms”.  We then investigated two texts which offer us visions of God’s Kingdom.  We looked at the commission given to Man in Genesis 1-2 and what that commission would look like fulfilled as pictured in Revelation 21, 22.  The conclusion was that we are not made to evacuate earth and live in a disembodied heaven.  Rather, we are intended to rule over God’s creation by being instruments of his goodness, compassion, love, mercy, justice, and creativity.  We are to create cultures–to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The question we were left with was, “How does God work in us to develop those virtues which are necessary to fulfilling our vocation?”  The answer, we have seen, is worship.  Our habits are built by our rituals and when those rituals touch us nearest to our center they teach us what is most important.  They teach us what to love ultimately, and because what we love above all else is the thing that we worship then our rituals teach us what to worship.  While the rituals of the world are deforming us, the worship of the God of heaven is supposed to work as counterformation against the secular habituation.  The difficulty is that many Christian worship services have adopted the same rituals which deform our loves.  We were lead to question what a Christian worship service would look like if it rightly embodied the True Story of the World.  We asked what rituals would “aim” our hearts towards God’s kingdom.  And here we are.  The liturgy above (imperfect I’m sure) is one which removes the secular/sacred divide.  By being an active and embodied liturgy our bodies are embraced, not shunned.  We are not taught to overcome or suppress our bodies’ loves; Rather, we are taught to aim our bodies’ loves in the right direction.  We have learned about forgiveness and reconciliation, not by word only but by action.  We have practiced forgiveness.  We have learned that there are standards of right and wrong through the reading of the Law.  We have learned about Christ’s redemption of creation through the reading of the Gospel.  We have placed our stamp of approval upon cultural work by singing the songs that are themselves products or poets.  We have learned to see the holy in the mundane by meeting Jesus in common bread and wine.  We have learned that sharing, not upward mobility, is the virtue of the kingdom.  We have been sent into the world to carry this vision to others.  We are practicing for the kingdom.  This alone is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in being human.   Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. A caveat is necessary at this point. I do not pretend to know what a “perfect” liturgy would look like. This should not deter us, however, from attempting to embody the True Story of the World as best we can. So two things ought to be kept in mind. First, this is only a broad outline. There is still room for variation of order and “style” within the framework pictured here. Second, I recognize that not all worship services look like the one I will describe. (My own tradition is is “non-liturgical” [admittedly a misnomer; all churches have “liturgy”], which is, in my opinion, lamentable. Indeed, my analysis here could very well serve as a critique of my own tradition). To differ from the liturgy suggested here is not “wrong.” However, if I’m right about the things discussed in past articles then we have to say that form matters. Practices are not neutral. This requires that we think long and hard about the liturgies in which we submerge ourselves from week to week.
2. Though my liturgy is not a whole-sole transmission of Smith’s, I am largely dependent on James K.A. Smith’s analysis in Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2009), 155-207.  I am also indebted to Constance M. Cherry and her work The Worship Architect, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Specifically, her description of each event in worship as having a “movement” (either in, down, up, or out) was influential to my understanding of worship and to the order of the liturgy I suggest here. 
3. New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
4. William Ernest Henley, Invictus.
5. A word in defense of the archaic language used here. There has been a regular movement, even–perhaps especially–in our churches, to remove the transcendent and replace it with the mundane. The motivations behind this are legion, some being laudable and others less so. I think, however, that this loss of transcendence (what Charles Taylor calls “disenchantment”) is a vice, not a virtue. Because one goal of worship is to counter the deformation of secular society it is beneficial, I believe, for worship to have its own “ritual language.” For this reason Joseph Campbell, in his book The Power of Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 1988), lamented the ruling of Vatican II which resulted in translating the Mass from Latin to English. “There’s been a reduction in ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, my God–they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language that has a lot of domestic associations … They’ve forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time” (84). Though I do not know whether his reasons are the same as Campbell’s, J.R.R. Tolkien is also well known as having opposed this rule of Vatican II. After the decision Tolkien continued to make the responses in Latin as loudly as possible as a form of protest. The point is the one that we have repeatedly made: form matters. This includes the form of our language. Perhaps a poetic “ritual language” is not a bad thing, despite its reputation in recent years. It may be time to ask ourselves whether conducting worship in the vulgar (literally “common; ordinary”) language is really beneficial to the formation of true human beings in an increasingly secular world.
6. Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 70.
7. Ibid, 70, 71.
8. Ibid, 71. A few things need to be pointed out: The minister is not the one granting forgiveness. The “He” that pardons is the same one who has delivered “his holy Gospel”, i.e. God. The minister only serves as a representative of God. There is no power in the minister himself. He is only an instrument. Also, this pronouncement of forgiveness is not some sort of magic which effects forgiveness apart from faith.  There is a recognition within the prayer that forgiveness is received where true repentance and contrition reside. The point of the action is to comfort the afflicted, not the impenitent.
9. The forgiveness previously pronounced is not merely the transfer of information. It actually accomplishes what it describes. In this way it is an act of creation, or New Creation to be exact. God created the world much as an artist might make a painting. Our sins, which fracture the original shalom of God’s kingdom, are acts of uncreation in the same way that chemicals in the air have eroded the colors of the Sistine Chapel. The restoration of that chapel in the 1980s, sometimes called “the restoration of the century”, was so stunning as to be nearly an act of New Creation, even causing one writer to say that “every book on Michelangelo would now have to be rewritten.” In the same way, the restoration of the shalom which we have destroyed can rightly be termed an act of New Creation. And so in our worship we enact–not just re-enact as if it were merely a rehearsal–the True Story of the World. In our worship we confess our Fall and we actually experience New Creation, the creation of God’s shalom here on earth.
10. E.g. Songs like I’ll Fly Away and When We All Get to Heaven suggest that the goal of history is to evacuate earth and reside in a disembodied heaven.
11. My own tradition has historical rejected all creeds. “No Creed but the Bible,” they say. Despite our official rejection of Creeds they still exist ipso facto and can usually be found on our church websites under the link labeled “What We Believe.” I think this rejection of Creeds is unfortunate. First, because every one has a Creed (the word Creed comes from the Latin credo which simply means “I believe,” and everyone believes something) we do not have a choice between creed and no creed, only between a good creed and a bad one. When we rejected Creeds it was not long before we replaced them. Only now the things which my tradition disliked about Creeds became all the worse because we do not label them as such. Second, this rejection of Creeds was, in effect, a rejection of tradition. By cutting ourselves off from the ancient Christian tradition we left ourselves with an impoverished knowledge of who we are and where we come from. We are left now with no central statement of belief around which to unify (which is ironic because my tradition began as a unity movement). Granted, there are some within the Churches of Christ who recite the Creed, recognize the value of tradition, and openly practice liturgy as such, but those exceptions are so rare as to be negligible.
12. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom,  190-191.
13. Walt Whitman, O Me! O Life!.
14. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 121-127.14
15. Daniel Bentley, “The Top 1% Now Owns Half the World’s Wealth”, Fortune (October 14, 2015), available from http://fortune.com/2015/10/14/1-percent-global-wealth-credit-suisse/ ; Internet; accessed December 5, 2016.
16. “Mass: … –ORIGIN Old English maesse, from ecclesiastical Latin missa, from Latin miss- ‘dismissed,’ from mittere, perhaps from the last words of the service, Ite, missa est ‘Go, it is the dismissal.'” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). We come to be sent.16

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 3)

In part 1 we discussed what God is doing in the world and in part 2 we discussed how God is doing it.  Here, in part 3, we are going to discuss what we have only hinted at in the previous articles: how is God going to fix the project now that it’s gone wrong.  But first, why did it go wrong?

In part 1 we made a point to illustrate that this is ultimately God’s Story (it all begins with him in Genesis 1).  This means that though Man is ruling (as discussed in part 2), he is supposed to be doing so under God (as we see him doing in Genesis 2).  Man’s vocation is not to do what ever he sees fit but to reflect the image of God into the world, to do God’s works after him.  But another part of the image of God is having free will.  This freedom of choice is symbolized by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Though it appears in Genesis 2 it is central in Genesis 3 where it becomes the site of what is commonly known as The Fall.

Up until this point everything “good” has been pronounced so by God himself.  He is the one with the knowledge of good and evil and he is the one that has been defining what is good.  The question the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil present to Man is, “Will you continue to depend upon God for your knowledge of what is good and what is evil?  Will you continue to trust his definition of goodness?  Will you reflect his image into the world?  Or, will you take it upon yourselves to define good and evil?  Will you make your own boundaries?  Will you reflect something else into the world?”  They were supposed to rule under God, to depend upon him for knowledge of good and evil.  That’s why they were forbidden to eat of the tree.  “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die'” (Gen. 2:16, 27).

And things go well.  For a while.  Then something else enters the scene.  We don’t know where the talking snake came from or why it’s there but we are told immediately that he is very “crafty” (3:1).  He speaks to the woman and begins to throw doubt on the character of God.  Although he has defined good and evil so far the serpent questions whether God is, himself, “good.”  “Maybe he’s holding something back from you,” the serpent suggests.  “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'” (3:4, 5). The ironic thing is that they were already like God.  They bore his image.1  Also, they didn’t need the to eat of the Tree of Knowledge to know about good and evil, they had God for that.  They could depend upon him.  Regardless, the deception works.  The serpent, the archetype of rebellion, convinces the man and woman to join in his rebellion against God. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (3:6, 7).  From that moment on they have the sentence of death in them.  They are separated from the tree of life (3:22) and chapter 5 contains the chorus “and he died.”  Not only do the humans begin to die but something strange also happens to creation itself.  Whereas before it has only been blessed now it is cursed.  “Cursed is the ground because of you .. thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:17, 18).

Even though Man now has the stain of rebellion in him God doesn’t just take back the reigns.  God intended Man to run the world (under him, of course) and he expects them to continue to do so.  When God sent Man out of the garden he had the same responsibility as when he was in it: to till the ground (3:23).  But we’ve seen how this goes.  As Man tries to fulfill his vocation, to reflect the image of God into the world, he does so imperfectly.  Though he makes art and cities and music and technology and culture, very often his efforts become further forms of oppression and rebellion (see part 2).  Reflecting on this very idea, C.S. Lewis’ description of history is accurate:

“What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’–could set up on their own as if they had created themselves–be their own masters–invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God.  And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history–money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery–the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy … That is the key to history.  Terrific energy is expended–civilisations are built up–excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong.  Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.  In fact, the machine conks.  It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down.  They are trying to run it on the wrong juice.  That is what Satan has done to us humans”1

But God is committed to the project.  Creation will be run by Man (cf. Ps. 115:116).  So, even as God moves to rescue creation (Man included), he promises to do so through Man.  Immediately after the deception of the serprent there is a promise that the serpent and all who take part in his rebellion will be defeated by Man, here called “the seed of woman.”  “The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (3:14, 15).  Though the serpent brought about the curse of Man the serpent would eventually be beaten by Man.

As the Story continues we are regularly reminded that God intends to run through world through Man.  Noah receives the same sorts of commands that Adam did.

“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.  The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered … And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it'” (9:1, 2, 7).

When rebellion once again comes to a head in the Tower of Babel, he scatters the people and then calls on one man, Abraham, to fix it all.  Why?  Because God will work for creation by creation, i.e. by man.  Listen again to the echoes of the Adamic commands (only now often the commands are promises): “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nationand I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:1-3).  Notice: 1. Adam was commanded to mulitiply, God promised that he would multiply Abraham.  2. God blessed Adam, God promised Abraham his blessing.  3. Adam was commanded to “bless” the world by helping it flourish, Abraham was promised “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In a way Abraham has become a New Adam.  The project of bringing blessing and flourishing to creation will continue through Abraham and his family.  As Abraham becomes a family and as his family becomes a nation the project of bringing blessing/flourishing to creation is not lost.  The nation of Israel is given laws in which God again defines good and evil.  As Israel obeys the laws they become an example to the nations of what true humanity is supposed to look like.  The nations look on in wonder.

“You must obey them [the laws] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’  For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?  And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as the entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deu. 4:6-8).

The law of Israel included moral commandments which direct their relationship with God and with other people, as we would expect (Ex. 20; Deu. 5).  But it also includes laws which direct their relationship with creation as well.  They were supposed to let the land rest (Lev. 25:1-7).  The Sabbath day was to give rest to animals as well as people (Deu. 5:14).  They were expected to care for their domesticated animals (Pro. 12:10), but were also to be careful not to kill other animals to extinction (Deu. 22:6, 7).  There were even limitations on which trees they could cut down (Deu. 20:19, 20).  In fact, Israel’s eventual disregard for the land is one of the reasons why they were sent into exile (2 Ch. 36:20, 21).  God’s intention for Man was to bring blessing/flourishing to the world, and Israel is supposed to be representative Man to the world.  The same purpose God had for Man in the garden is the same purpose that Israel carries forward.

But what happens when the instrument of blessing also falls prey to the curse?  Although Israel had a mission to be a “light to the nations” (cf. Isa. 42:6; Mat. 5:16), they failed in their sacred charge.  God, however, is committed to the project.  He has a purpose for all the world and he has made a covenant with Israel to fulfill that purpose through them.  God has bound himself.  He cannot fulfill his purpose apart from Israel.

God will have to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, but, paradoxically, he has also bound himself to do it through Man, and not just Man, through the representative nation of Israel.  This is what necessitates the restoration of Israel from under the curse to God’s blessing. This is what necessitates the incarnation.

God raises up one man who calls himself the Son of Man (cf. Mark 9:9, 12, 31), which is a Hebraic idiom meaning The Human Being (Pss. 8:4; 80:17; 144:3; 146:3).  This man, Jesus, is therefore called “the image of God”, the very thing that Man was intended to be (Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3).  This makes him representative of all human kind.

But also, God calls him “Israel”, making him representative of the nation, carrying its destiny on his back, while also being charged with the restoration of Israel herself (cf. Isa. 49:1-6).  The gospels are very clear that we are to understand Jesus as this Servant (Luke 4:16-21; cf. Isa. 61:1, 2; 11:1-9).

So, we return to the question with which we opened: how is God going to get the project back on track now that it’s gone wrong?  And we have found our simple answer: Jesus.  But exactly how Jesus puts things right deserves more attention.  This discussion will occupy the next article in this series.

CONCLUSION
Let’s sum up what we have learned so far:
1. God intends the world to flourish.  When it falls under the curse, he does not give up on creation, but moves to redeem it.
2. God intends the world to flourish under man’s guardianship.  He never gives up on this project.  When creation goes wrong (Man included), he moves to fix creation through creation, i.e. through Abraham and his family.
3.  When Abraham’s family (Israel), the solution to the world’s problem, also becomes part of the problem, God must rescue Israel from within Israel for the sake of the world.  He does this through Jesus Christ.  See part 4 of the article to learn more about how Jesus accomplishes this and what it means for us.

©M. Benfield 2016


1. For further explanation of this event see The Bible Project’s videos which cover the text, Genesis 1-11 and Read Scripture: Genesis 1-11.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 49-50.

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 1)

 

“In the beginning …” Those weighty words begin the Hebrew Bible.  Too often the story of creation has been flattened out to become a simple account of how God created the world, but there is much more to say about the first episodes of the true Story of the world.  This article explores what it meant for God to pronounce his world “good” and what that means for us today.

Focusing on a couple of key words in the first chapter of the Story will help to give this article direction.  First, the word good” (Heb. tov) may indicate moral goodness (in contrast to evil).  Here, however, it indicates flourishing or, as it is sometimes translated, “prosperity” (Deu. 23:6; 1 Ki. 10:7; Job 36:11; Ecc. 7:14; Zec. 1:17).  A helpful way to think about “goodness” is in the way that George MacDonald explains it: ” ‘They are good’; that is, ‘They are what I mean.’ ” 1  Whenever a thing is as God intends it to be then it is “good.”

Second, the word “blessed” (Heb. barak), among other things, means to wish or to cause flourishing/prosperity.  For example, “The LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you.  The LORD will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings” (Deu. 28:11, 12 italics mine).  To bless something is to bring about its good, its life, its flourishing.  Notice the parallels between life, prosperity, and blessing:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity [Heb. tov] … I have set before you life and … blessings [Heb. barakah]” (Deu. 30:15, 19).

Now to get to the Story.  When God creates his world the chorus of the creation song is “It is good” (mentioned 6 times: 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) ending with the grand climax “It is very good” (1:31).  This means that initially all of creation was good, i.e. as God intended it to be.  It was ripe for flourishing.  And God intended it to continue to flourish.  The only two times “blessed” appears in the chapter it is followed by the command to flourish: “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth’ … God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth …'” (1:22, 28, italics mine).  God’s intention for all of creation was life, not death.  Man did not eat the animals and even the animals did not eat one another (1:29, 30; cf. 3:22; 9:2, 3).  Death, corruption, and all things which “taste” of death, oppression, injustice, dishonesty, etc. do not belong in God’s good world.

Sadly, this Story takes a horrible turn.  After the primal pair turn away from God (the very source of life/flourishing) they welcome death, not life, into the world (3:19; cf. chp. 5).  They bring a curse, not blessing, upon creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:17, 18).

But the goodness of God was not undone, only infected.  Much like a person with a terminal disease is not dead but has the “sentence of death” in him, a kind of “creeping death” which will eventually claim his life.  Much good remains, but that good is now stained.

If we were to stop here and predict how the rest of the Story would play out we could probably guess.  Like any good Story what has gone wrong will now be put right.  Like Narnia waited for the eternal winter of the White Witch to be lifted, so creation now awaits its redemption (Rom. 8).  Death will pass away and all that takes part in death (Rev. 21:4).  That is exactly what we find.  God moves from Genesis 3 onward to reverse the curse.

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.  This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6-9).

Death disappears.  The curse of our body is gone.  And when the curse of the body, which is made from the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7; 3:19), is undone so shall the curse of the earth itself be undone.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 55:10-13)

So, God never gives up on his original intention for creation.  He wants it to live and flourish.  Through the agency of his people Israel, culminating in the representative Israelite, and human being, Jesus Christ, God won the victory over all that would corrupt his good world (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 57).  In the end God will purify his world from all that is bad bringing about a New Heaven and a New Earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-13).  God wins and fixes what went wrong.  All that was lost in the beginning is restored in the end:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there any more.  But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:1-5, italics mine).  This is the vision about which Isaac Watts sang in his beautiful hymn:

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found”4

CONCLUSION:
So what does this have to do with being human?  That will be explored in more detail in Part 2 of this article but I want to point forward for just a moment.  There are two important things to draw from this:

1. The Story is not “our” Story.  The Story of the Bible is about the mission of God in the world.2  This means God is the Lord, not us.  He is the focus of the Story, not us.  He is the Savior, not us.  Therefore, to be human is to be an actor in a Story which is not our own but which we are invited into.  We are granted a place in an amazing work, the greatest Story every told.  To have a role in this great drama3 is an honor indeed.

2. Creation matters.  God cares so intensely about all he created that he does not intend to give a single bit of it up to the enemy.  All will be redeemed.  Every thing is precious.  Every “rock and tree and creature.”  We are created beings intended to care for created things (cf. Gen. 1:26-28).  We can have confidence that the things we care about will not be forgotten because God cares about them too.

This is the Story we live in.  This is what it means to be simply human.

©M. Benfield 2016


1. “George MacDonald: An Anthology“, C.S. Lewis. 251.
2. “The Mission of God“, Christopher Wright.
3. “The Drama of Scripture“, Craig G. Bartholomew, Michael W. Goheen.
4. “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts.