“Unseen:” Q & A and Wrapup

The bulk of this blog post is dedicated to the questions that were submitted via text message at Tri-State Fellowship on Sunday, May 20.

This series has focused on the “Unseen” forces around us.  In the 1960’s, sociologist Peter Berger wrote a short book called A Rumor of AngelsIn it he suggested that we would be approaching an era in which people renew their interest in spirituality and the supernatural.

His words proved to be prophetic, especially in the areas of meaning and suffering.  In his massive work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that historically, the rise of the scientific and social revolutions in Europe were equally marked by a rise in superstition and fear: “The hunt for witches steadily escalated.  Heretics were more vigorously hunted down.  Fear of vagabonds increased.”  This is in part, he suggests, because of the plagues and the suffering that Europe had lived through in previous years.   Turning to the supernatural is thus a pattern of human behavior in terms of suffering.  In Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought, she observes that in the wake of World War II, there was a renewed interest in the writings of Marquis de Sade, a writer known for the bizarre ways he blended together erotic romance and supernatural horror.  And this is also why in the years since 9/11 there has been an explosion of horror movies and supernatural thrillers.

I was reminded of this when I saw the music video for “The Day,” the first single off of the latest album by pop star Moby.  Though the song is about the death of his mother, the video depicts her battle in terms of the metaphysical, spiritual plane.  Thus the video blurs the boundaries between the sacred and secular: the clinical walls of the hospital spring to life with images and colors borrowed from art of the neo-classical period.  A nurse is an avenging angel, slaying demons to a synth-pop soundtrack.

Now, the goal here isn’t to sort through the theological accuracy of what’s being depicted here.  But isn’t fascinating that when something so deeply personal happens such as the death of a loved one, the only language our culture can find is a deeply spiritual one?  Perhaps this world is not as “safely” secular as we may think…

Now, on to our questions.  These are attempts at answers, found only in submission to the revealed Word of God.

QUESTIONS

(1)    Can we contact the dead? Is there such a thing as ghosts? 

Our culture seems fascinated by this type of activity – from the (now-canceled) “Crossing Over” with Jonathan Edwards to the reality show “Ghosthunters,” people are seeking to find meaning in exploring these spiritual boundaries.

If we examine scripture, we find no evidence of actual ghosts.  The closest we have is in 1 Samuel 28, when King Saul contacts a witch who conjures up the image of Samuel.  Nothing in the text leads us to believe this is anything other than Samuel – he seems to know what’s going on, and his advice harmonizes with God’s plan, something we wouldn’t expect from demonic activity.  But let’s be clear – we’re not meant to see this as a positive experience in the life of Saul.  God specifically warns His people not to contact spiritists and witches (Deuteronomy 18:11; Leviticus 19:31).  Which means this: God may have allowed this to happen in this instance, but His normative activity is to not allow the living to contact the dead, or vice versa.  If Satan can masquerade as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), who’s to say who you’re really contacting?

Scripture teaches “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).  With the exception of this incident in 1 Samuel, there are no other examples of the dead visiting the living.  God’s plan is not to find loopholes to cheat death, but to reverse it through literal, physical resurrection, of which His Son is the first true example (1 Corinthians 15:20,23).

But people really do believe in ghosts.  In his book One Minute After You Die, Erwin Lutzer speculates that – if there are ghosts at all – what we call a “ghost” is actually the lingering presence of demonic activity.  A person is possessed , the person dies, and the demons remain.

But couldn’t this also be culturally conditioned?  Here’s what I mean by that: in the book of Acts, Peter is captured.  His close friends apparently presume him dead.  So when Peter shows up and knocks on their door, they speculate that “maybe it’s his angel” (Acts 12:15).  Apparently, in the first century culture they believed you could either return as an angel, or that your “guardian angel” looks like you.  Here’s what that tells us: every culture has their own set of “folk” stories about the afterlife.  In Acts, it was angels.  In our day, we appeal to ghosts.  But the Bible speaks to all cultures even as it transcends them.  Which would you rather trust in: the words of God that have stood the test of time, or the various folk legends that come and go?

(2)    What do we do if we think someone might be possessed?

I believe Paul addressed this very well from the stage: How much would it matter?  Evil runs rampant in the world and in the human heart.  Surely we are to pray diligently for the people in our lives, community, and world.

Part of this discussion centers around the fact that we can’t, at least on our own, do much of anything but pray.  All the movies show the daring priest trying to speak to the demon, trying to cast it out (“the power of Christ compels you” kind of a thing).  But we’re definitely not strong enough to defeat evil of this magnitude.  We rely instead on Christ’s power.

But maybe that means if a person is dangerous or violent we literally don’t stick around long enough to get caught in evil’s wake, or, in other cases, to get caught in their cycles of addictive, self-destructive behavior.

In all things, we can rely on a God who promises to subdue evil once and for all time.  The same gospel that provides us hope also has the power to conquer evil.

(3)    If God is good, why does evil seem to continue winning?

This is not a terribly new question, nor is it anything less than a deeply human one.  The prophet Habakkuk looked at the evil around him and offered this prayer:   “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

Evil affects us socially as well as personally.  The sad truth is that even in Christianity we truly do want the very best life here and now, and often God’s goodness becomes measured in terms of our immediate happiness.

For literally centuries people have pondered this question.  Evil obviously exists, and God seems to let it happen.  Which means one of two things: either God doesn’t care about evil, or God is powerless to stop it.  Right?

The Bible is filled with people who asked these types of questions.  Even if the Bible doesn’t give us a complete or at least a satisfying answer to this question, the Bible at least tells us what the answer is not.  The cross teaches us that the answer can’t be that God doesn’t love us, because He sent His only Son to endure suffering and brokenness the likes of which we can’t imagine.  The resurrection teaches us that the answer can’t be that God isn’t all powerful, because Jesus reversed the effects of evil in conquering death.

Scripture tells us that eventually, God truly does win.  Yes, darkness exists.  But God will one day let His light shine through.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings series, we see a group of characters who undergo incredible hardship over the fate of the ring of power.  Two of the lead characters, Frodo and Sam, watch in horror as Gandalf, their leader and mentor, sacrifices himself to ensure their safety.

Just after the climax of the third book, Frodo and Sam are reunited with Gandalf – much to their surprise.  “Gandalf!”  Sam cries. “I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself!  Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

The answer that Jesus offers in the book of Revelation is essentially “yes.”  God is weaving together a story where all of creation’s brokenness comes undone in the fullness of God’s created world.  The effects of sin – namely sorrow and death – are reversed.  We are all resurrected to enjoy the world like never before.

Which means that at present, we experience a peculiar mixture of suffering and joy.  We greet hardship not with clenched fists but with shed tears.  In his book In his book How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? Christian psychologist Lewis Smedes wrote:

‘Joy also has to be compatible with the pain within me.  To promise joy without pain is Pollyannaism, make-believe, deceit.  Legitimate joy must be the experience of joy along with pain.  And it seems to be possible.  Maybe there is more joy in Watts than in Palm Springs.  Maybe joy is more real and lodged in the interstices of pain than as the climax of a pleasure trip.  Maybe joy in this life always has to be ‘in spite’ of something.  The joy of a person with an inoperable brain tumor can be infinitely deeper than the thrill of a birdie on the eighteenth hole.’

(4)    How far does Satan’s power extend?  To the extent of creating the Bible?

The French philosopher Baudelaire once said that “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.”  If we look at Satan’s activity through the lens of scripture, we see that one of his greatest tactics is to come disguised as something good (“You will not surely die!  You will become like God”).

So let’s stop and think for a second: if Satan wanted to create a Bible, why would he include such harsh treatment of himself?  Why include himself at all?  Wouldn’t it be far more advantageous to try and suggest that evil is less pervasive than it actually is, or that God is far less Holy?  Nothing in the Bible benefits the devil.  Everything in the Bible glorifies God.

We’ll look at Satan’s actual power in the next question:

(5)    Can Satan read our thoughts?

Remember that Satan is essentially an angel – albeit a fallen one.  Angels are never revealed as having the same powers as God, which means that he does not seem to have the power to read a person’s thoughts – only God can do this:

1 Corinthians 2:11  For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.

Likewise, Satan’s knowledge is limited.  Only God is in possession of limitless knowledge.  Satan cannot know the future.

But think about it: Satan has been at this a lot longer than any of us.  No one knows human behavior better having witnessed it for no fewer than 6,000 years.  Have you ever worked a job so long you can almost tell what’s going to happen on any given day?  Teachers always know when their classrooms will be harder to control – around major holidays, threats of snow, etc.  In other words, maybe Satan also knows the circumstances in our lives and can predict our reactions remarkably well.  Why else would he have been so confident about tempting Job?

A related question is whether Satan can be everywhere at once.  If he does not know everything, and has to rely on gathered information, then how can he keep track of the over 6 billion human beings on earth right now?

Angels cannot be everywhere, because they are limited, finite beings.  This means that Satan cannot be everywhere.

But he has an untold number of demons in his loyal service.  Whether there are enough demons to cover the entire human race, we don’t know.  But he seems to have enough to have his “eyes and ears.”

(6)    I’ve been told we should not say Satan’s name aloud as this pleases him.  How can we verbally rebuke Satan without being fearful of specifically rebuking him?

I’m not sure that there’s anywhere in scripture that suggests we avoid using Satan’s name.  Various cultures have historically suggested that there is power in speaking the name of an evil entity – this is actually the basis for calling Voldemort “He who shall not be named” in the Harry Potter series.

We’re told in Ephesians 6:10ff that we should be “strong in the Lord” and to “stand” or “withstand.”  We’re never told to go on the offensive against Satan – Jesus has already done this through the cross (Col 2:15).  The armor reflects God’s character, and is given to us so that we can be assured of our connection to God when we endure spiritual attack.  So if we feel Satan’s power through temptation or condemnation, we let our minds be consumed with what Christ has done for us.

(7)    Do you think as a church body we pray against the work of the devil enough?

I’m actually unclear as to what we mean by “enough.”  Enough for what?  To avoid temptation?  To fulfill God’s mission?  Both?

I’ll answer the question I suspect is behind this one: Can we as a church become more aware of the reality of unseen spiritual forces?  Yes; that was largely the impetus behind this teaching series.

But in what capacity do we “pray against the work of the devil?”  When modeling prayer for His disciples, Jesus used the line, “deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).  But even if your translation specifies “the evil one,” it’s still not an actual prayer against the devil as much as it remains a prayer designed to align our hearts with God’s.

(8)    If there is no sin in heaven then how did Satan defy God? 

This is a hard question.  We’ve been assuming that Isaiah 14 describes not only the pride of ancient kings, but also the origin of Satan as well.  How could God’s Kingdom not be enough?

It seems that the angels had the ability to choose something besides God.  God’s goodness was violated – you might rightly call it sin.  But sin can’t exist in God’s presence, so Satan and His angels were forcibly ejected.

Usually this question is also asking this: Could it happen again?  How can we be sure that we won’t one day rebel against God?

Well, God promises that it won’t happen.  God’s laws one day will be written on each and every human heart (Jeremiah 32:29).  Does that mean our ability to choose will be eradicated?  I have to confess I’m not sure.  The reformers affirmed that in heaven, we will no longer have the ability to sin.  But maybe this means that we will no longer have the desire.

Think of it this way: If I put Coke and Pepsi in front of you, the only thing dictating which you choose is your own desire.  But what if I put a computer chip in your head that, if you try and choose Pepsi, you are forced to choose Coke instead.  Are you free to choose Pepsi?  No.  But are you free to choose Coke?  Yes.  Why?  Because this is a choice you make regardless of the computer chip, meaning the computer chip was never even necessary.  In other words, maybe God doesn’t need to control you and prevent you from doing “bad;” maybe you always want the good.  And maybe it’s an easier choice to make now that we know the horrific alternative.

And we haven’t even touched on the fact that angels are not human.  We

(9)    Can demonic activity be localized to particular geographic areas?

This isn’t just a question of “haunted” houses – many cultures believe in what are known as “territorial spirits,” dating back to the era of the ancient Sumerian cults.  Most generally agree that in the religious world of both Jews and surrounding nations, there seems to be evidence in the belief that demonic spirits can inhabit specific places.  Those who argue this position do so by appealing to such texts as Deuteronomy 32:8 (which talks about Israel’s borders), Ephesians 6:12 (which talks about powers and principalities), Acts 13:6-12 (which describes the encounter with a magician), and Daniel 10:10-21 (which describes the conflict between Michael and “the prince of Persia”).  None of these texts are particularly convincing however; I suspect that if you look them up you’d be confused why anyone would draw these kinds of conclusions.

Scripture alone simply does not support this idea.  In his 1995 article “Territorial Spirits Reconsidered” in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, David Greenlee writes:

“…despite the presence of territorial spirits in the belief system of both Jews and Gentiles, a phenomenological reality, they are not recognized ontologically nor do we find clear examples of Jesus or any Christian [both in scripture or the early church] engaging in prayer or otherwise acting to depose a spirit on a territorial basis…We are in spiritual warfare; the devil and his demons are real.  But Christians must respond by keeping their focus on God and on the supremacy of Christ.”

The last line is helpful: this doesn’t minimize our role in spiritual warfare or the reality of spiritual attack, it only means that we can’t draw conclusions about these types of activities from scripture alone.

(10)What about things like Harry Potter?  Can such stories desensitize us (especially children) to demonic activity?  Can they offer Satan a foothold?

I’ll answer this question with the obvious caveats that (1) I’m not a parent and (2) nor have I read the entire series (I quit around book 4 or so).

I’m concerned I might meander a bit, so let me use some bullet points to guide the discussion.

1.1   Paul demonstrated an intimate knowledge of pagan culture and art.  In Athens, on Mars Hill, he shares the gospel with the philosophers not by quoting scripture, but by quoting two of their own poets (one is unknown, actually, coming from a Syriac manuscript, though the other is Epimenides).  Both poets were writing about pagan gods, yet Paul seems to know their works by heart.  In Acts 13, he makes no direct quotation, but seems aware that an appeal to natural theology would go over well in a Zeus-worshipping world.

1.2   Countless writers encourage us to, like Paul, use the arts as a bridge for the gospel.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested we learn to “speak in a secular way about God.”  Pope Benedict describes “the via pulchritudinis [‘path of beauty’]” as the surest path to the “via veritatis [‘path of truth’].”  That is, the arts can lead us to understand God’s story.  In Reel Spirituality, Robert Johnston of Fuller Seminary argues that all stories reflect “the great story” told in God’s word.

1.3   The arts are the primary means by which a secular culture explores its reality.  In her book The Sacred and Profane, Mircea Eliade observes that even in a highly secularized culture, fiction and film take the place of religion in helping us make sense of the world.  We’ve already explored the way that people have historically turned to artistic expression as a means of ordering their understanding of evil.

1.4   The rise of technology has atomized the cultural landscape to such an extent that is has minimized parental influence like never before.  That’s not a value judgment – that’s simply a statement of the way social media, Youtube, and a thousand “memes” are now being used to spread information at blinding speeds.  Though he was writing about The Hunger Games, youth culture expert Walt Mueller comments: “They will watch it, chew on it, process it, and digest it with or without us. The latter option offers us a great opportunity to talk about the bigger story—God’s story—and the things that really matter.”

1.5   Many articles and books have been written on the Christian themes of the Harry Potter series, not least of which is the book The Gospel According to Harry Potter, which clues in on the parallels between Potter and Jesus:

“‘People believe you are ‘the Chosen one,’ you see,” said Scrimgeour. ‘They think you quite the hero—which, of course, you are, Harry, chosen or not! How many times have you faced He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named now? Well, anyway,’ he pressed on, without waiting for a reply, ‘the point is, you are a symbol of hope for many, Harry. The idea that there is somebody out there who might be able, who might even be destined, to destroy He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named—well, naturally, it gives people a lift.’” (Book Six, p. 344-345)

1.6   Not all critics are unanimous in their support of Potter.  Lev Grossman of Time magazine suggests that Potter reflects the contemporary spirit of individualism, which clearly sets it apart from other stories such as those of Tolkien and Lewis:

“Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.” (Lev Grossman, “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God” in Time Magazine, July 12, 2007)

I’ll stop there.  I think the point is that these issues are harder to navigate than a “yes/no” answer might warrant, especially given the relative impressionability of young people. Yet impressionability is hardly limited to young people: James Smith of Reformed Seminary in Orlando wrote a book called Desiring the KingdomHis second chapter is devoted to the idea of “secular liturgies,” practices that we do regularly that shape our character.  By performing these liturgies, our character is formed without even realizing it.

N.T. Wright is helpful here as well.  In After You Believe, he argues for practices that encourage the development of “virtue.”  With regard to specific practices, he asks a provocative question: “Which way is your heart slanted?”  Meaning, we may assume that a certain behavior is neutral, but it pushes us to either vice or virtue.  For example, does technology lead us to loving others deeply, or treating them as objects at our convenience?

So perhaps with films like Potter, we ask ourselves and our children which way it slants our hearts.  Do we find ourselves more willing to love God and community through these films?  Where do we see God’s answer to the brokenness of the world?

Finally, Franky Schaeffer writes in his book Addicted to Mediocrity:

 “When we watch something or read something, we should discuss it. If you do not have time to discuss and analyze what you are reading, watching looking at, observing, then  you do not have time to watch it. For me that is a rule. No time to discuss, then no time to watch.”

I realize I still haven’t quite answered the question, which was actually my intent.  What I do hope for is continual, thoughtful engagement of such issues, because as we’ve observed, our world will only continue to look for spiritual answers to its problems.

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Unseen: Sneak Preview

The above video is the trailer for the message series “Unseen: Exposing the Paranormal” beginning this Sunday at Tri-State Fellowship.

Below is a description as well as a schedule for the series.  If you’re in the area and are looking for a local church, we’d love for you to see us.

“Look, I know the supernatural is something that isn’t supposed to happen, but it does happen.” (The Haunting, 1963)

Do you believe in the paranormal? Do you believe there’s more to our world than what you can see on the surface?

If you’re like most Americans, the word “paranormal” makes you either laugh or shudder – sometimes both.

Which one are you? Do you see such beliefs as the leftovers from a superstitious past? Surely we don’t need to be talking about ghosts and demons in an age of science and reason. Or do you see a spiritual side to everything? Do you believe your life to be governed by powerful spiritual forces – one of which may be very dark? Perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle – perhaps open to the idea, just not sure where you land.

What you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?

Join us Sunday mornings as we seek to pull back the curtain of the unseen world and expose the reality of the paranormal.

Brace yourself – “Unseen” just might be unforgettable.

Schedule:

Date Title
April 15 “Surface Tension:” Is reality more than meets the eye?
April 22 “Sympathy for the Devil:” The identity of Satan
April 29 “Master of Puppets:” What does Satan want?
May 6 “Final Word:” Who really wins
May 13 “Power Play:” The gospel and spiritual warfare
May 20 “Postcards from the Paranormal:” Q&A

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Jesus as True and Better Religion – Purity and Sacrifice

If you’ve been following along, you know that this week we’ve been discussing the way that religious duty is an insufficient way to cover over shame.  This post is lengthy, but hopefully reveals the awesome way that Jesus transforms religion in both His day and ours.

EDEN AS THE FIRST AND BEST TEMPLE

Shame began in a garden.  The garden, as a matter of fact – when Adam and Eve were created, they were said to be “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25).  Their world knew no shame.

And what was their world like?  We’ve all heard the story: God creates the earth in six days, resting on the seventh.  The language of Genesis repeats the phrase “there was morning…there was night.”  But on the seventh day, the author, Moses, makes no mention of there being morning or night.  The seventh day was to represent – at least partially – that great expanse of time when God’s presence could be known throughout all creation:

“This doesn’t just mean that God took a day off.  It means that in the previous six days God was making a world – heaven and earth together – for his own use.  Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built.  Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in.”  (N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 136)

“SUIT OF FIG LEAVES AND LIES”

But after man rebelled, they were kicked out: excluded from the worship in God’s perfect Temple in Eden.  A cherub, a type of angel, guarded the way behind them.  In the words of songwriter Derek Webb, they “traded naked and unashamed for a better place to hide, for a righteous mask, a suit of fig leaves and lies.  Throughout the Old Testament, “nakedness” is frequently used throughout scripture as a metaphor for the nation’s sin against God (Isaiah 47:3; Lamentations 1:8; Ezekiel 16:36).  Isaiah would go naked for three years to symbolize the nation’s sin (Isaiah 20:1-4).

Let’s not forget who was originally reading this: Moses was writing to the Israelites, telling these stories as they made their way through the desert, guided by God.  It was as if God were saying, “You’ve lost My land.  You’ve lost the perfect Temple of my garden.  You worship now by carrying my Tabernacle on poles – a portable dwelling as a constant reminder of impermanence.  But I have led you from slavery.  I will show you a new land – a land promised to Abraham so long ago.”  And in this way a wayward group of wanderers came to trust God to uniquely manifest Himself among them in a portable sanctuary called the “Tabernacle.”

THE NEW TEMPLE

Later in Israel’s history, the people find themselves once more in possession of the land.  God commissions the building of a new temple under Solomon.  Even after this Temple was destroyed, years later, it would be rebuilt.  The Temple was where God’s glory would uniquely rest.  Nearly all cultures, all religions have some version of a temple.  It’s where heaven and earth are thought to intersect.

And because Eden was Israel’s original, perfect temple, the actual decorations of the Temple – from the carved gourds, palm trees, and flowers – were designed to replicate the contours of Eden (cf. 1 Kings 6:18; 7:14-35).  But within the Temple was the place where God most specifically made His presence known.  It was there that God’s glory took the form of a cloud (just as He had done as a guide to the Israelites) called the shekina glory (1 Kings 8:10-111).  Only priests were allowed to enter this unique place within the Temple, and only to perform sacrifices.  What barrier was chosen to separate this special area from the rest of the Temple?  What final symbol could be chosen to symbolize the separation between man and God?  A cherub – or rather the image of one, emblazoned on the heavy curtain that barred the way into God’s presence.  Just as Eden had been sealed with the flaming sword of an angel, so too would this curtain remind Israel of their separation.

WHAT GOOD IS A TEMPLE?

Now I know what you’re thinking.  All this sounds terribly archaic.  Temple worship is the stuff of a primitive, pre-modern people.  What good is a Temple?  The rational worldview birthed from the enlightenment showed us that man’s problems could be solved not through divine intervention but through human empiricism.  The individual flourished.  In that kind of society, we don’t need a Temple.  We don’t need sacrifice.  What we need instead is a laboratory.  What we need is a social welfare program.

But in the last century we have not seen the triumph of modernism – we have only watched its demise.  Science, political theory and reason could not provide answers to the incredible suffering of the world around us – if anything there was an increase in human suffering in the last century.  Human enterprise could not deliver the utopia it promised:

“According to architectural critic Carl Jencks, modernism was blown to bits in St. Louis on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m., when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was destroyed by dynamite.  This was no terrorist ploy but a deliberate deed, symbolizing the failure of a grand vision.  The huge housing project had been an attempt to create a functionally perfect living situation through rational planning.  However, it became the target of incessant vandalism, and was eventually declared unlivable.  For Jencks and others, the razing of this housing project, along with the blasting of numerous other modernist buildings in the 1970’s, served as a parable of the demise of modernism and an invitation to postmodernism, in both philosophy and architecture.”  (Douglas Groothius, Truth Decay, p. 7)

In a postmodern world, there are no real fixed points of reference – all truth claims are potentially attempts at seizing power. But in such a world, people are more open than ever before to spirituality, regardless of what form it might take.  The collapse of modernism shattered “the hard surface of secularity” (to use Barth’s phrase), and gave us a glimpse – or at least a yearning – to seek out God.  “How far is Heaven?” we find ourselves asking – a question that means more in today’s world than ever before.

So let’s return to the story of Israel and her Temple.

PURITY AND THE TEMPLE

By the first century, the Temple system had become largely corrupted.  Law-abiding Jews were ambivalent about a Temple that served its purpose even while being remodeled under the Roman authorities.  By the time of the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, Jewish leaders assumed that God had in some way forsaken His people.  God’s Temple had become broken and defiled long before it would ever be destroyed.

The problem, as we have already seen, was that the Pharisees were seeking to protect the established order – whether for good or for ill.  They had come to use religious duty as a new form of fig leaves to mask their shame.

In the Old Testament, one of the Psalms reads: “May your priests be clothed with righteousness; may your saints sing for joy” (Psalm 132:9).  The priests were the ones who were expected to be the most righteous.  They were the ones who would perform the sacrifices.

But, as we saw earlier, Jesus calls men to a whole new standard of righteousness, a standard that they could not possibly attain.

BROKEN HEARTS, STAINED GARMENTS

We see this theme reflected in the image of Zechariah 3 – a passage I discovered through new eyes thanks to Tim Keller’s excellent book King’s Cross. 

In the vision of Zecheriah 3, the day appears to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It was the day when the High Priest, in this case Joshua, would enter into the Holy of Holies.  Through a series of sacrifices, he would “atone” (a word meaning to “cover up”) for his own sins, followed by the sins of the nation.

To maintain his purity, priests like Joshua were sequestered for a week to prevent them from coming into contact with anything unclean so that they could perform the ceremony undefiled.  There was even a set of ritual bathings, after which Joshua would emerge wearing pure white robes.

But in Zechariah 3:3, Joshua is wearing “filthy robes.”  The original Hebrew seems to suggest that he is actually covered in excrement.  He is expected to be clean, to bring purity to the nation.  But in God’s eyes, all the rituals and duties do not truly cleanse the stain.

We need a true and better Joshua.  A true and better high priest.  Centuries later, we find our new Joshua – Jesus of Nazareth.

Zechariah 3: 4 says this:

“the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

This is what Jesus came to do.  He came to take on our filthy robes and give us His garments of purity and righteousness.  He is the true and better high priest who can cover over the sins of His people with His own blood.  He is the true and better sacrifice, whose once-for-all shedding of blood is sufficient to cover over the sins of many.

Which means that just as much as nakedness is a scriptural theme of sin, so too is being “clothed” a theme of Christ’s righteousness:

“I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness,” (Isaiah 61:10)

“…clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:14)

“…for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27)

TRUE AND BETTER TEMPLE

But we’re not quite done yet.  Jesus’ death also accomplished something significant.  When Jesus died, the Temple curtain was torn in two, top to bottom.  There was no longer a barrier between God and man.

In John 2, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple.  The proper lens to look through is found in Zechariah 14:21, which reads that when the Messiah comes, “there shall no longer be a Cannanite in the house of the Lord.”  The Hebrew word “Canaanite” also means “trader” or “salesman.”

So let’s do the math: The Messiah comes.  There are no salesmen.  Jesus clears the temple.  Now, there are no salesmen.  Jesus’ clearing of the temple is a powerful declaration that the Messiah has arrived.

When asked, Jesus tells them, cryptically, that even if this Temple is destroyed, He can build it in three days.  But, as is common in John’s writing, Jesus is referring not to brick and mortar but His own flesh and blood.  Jesus’ body becomes the true and better Temple.  This is why Jesus tells His disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you (John 14:2).”  In John 2, Jesus’ “Father’s house” was His body – what Jesus is saying is that His death means that there is a new Temple.  Jesus’ body continues on in the form of His followers, the Church (1 Corinthians 12; cf. Ephesians 2:21).  Just as God’s shekina glory once filled the Temple, so God’s Spirit indwell the individual human heart (1 Corinthians 6:19).  Jesus’ death does not eliminate the priesthood – it eliminates the laity.  We are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), meaning we can each freely enter into God’s presence knowing the Sacrifice has been made.

Jesus as the true and better Temple redraws the boundary lines between man and God.  This means that Jesus does not come to abolish religion, He comes to redeem it.

He is the true and better high priest who declares us clean.  He is the true and better sacrifice that allows this declaration to take place.  He is the true and better temple that invites even the outcasts to draw near.  Because He is all these things, He alone possesses the authority to declare the impure things pure again.

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Jesus the True and Better Priest

All along we’ve been observing the way that religion alone cannot cover over the stain that sin produces.

Which has led many to draw the conclusion that Jesus came, in some way, to eradicate religion.  “I have a relationship,” we insist.  “Not a religion.”

The problem with this statement should be obvious: the people who make such statements are often looked at by others as the most religious.  Further, Jesus never came to eradicate religion, only its hypocritical, self-centered expressions.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds that gathered to hear Him preach:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

All of which means that Jesus came not to eliminate religion, but to redeem it.  The Law remains permanent – its demands indelible.  Only total perfection can earn God’s favor.  Yes, in Ephesians 2 Paul says that Jesus “nullified” these commandments, but by that he only meant that Jesus’ death satisfied their demands and requirements – not that they were discarded altogether.

What the first century world needed was a Savior who would do more for them than merely highlight their sin and increase their burdens – activities the Pharisees and religious leaders had elevated to the form of both science and art.  What they needed – what all people need – was forgiveness.

Which actually brings us back full circle to the healing stories throughout Luke’s gospel.  The Pharisees were astonished – even angered – that Jesus would claim to forgive sin, because not only was this a claim to be God, but this also robbed them of their rights and powers:

“How does God normally forgive sins within Israel?  Why, through the Temple and the sacrifices that take place there.  Jesus seems to be claiming that God is doing, up close and personal through him, something that you’d normally expect to happen at the Temple.  And the Temple – the successor to the tabernacle in the desert – was…the place where heaven and earth met.  It was the place were God lived.  Or, more precisely, the place on earth where God’s presence intersected with human, this-worldly reality.

The Temple was also the place where the high priest had supreme authority.  Already we can see what we should have experienced if it was indeed true that Jesus was going around telling people that a new government was taking over, that God was in charge from now on.  His healings, his celebrations, his forgiving of those in dire need of it – all these were up-close-and-personal versions of the larger picture he knew his hearers would pick up on whenever he spoke of God becoming king.  These actions and sayings were ramming home the point, dangerous though it was, that the present rulers were being called to account and were indeed being replaced.  This was the time for God to take charge, to fix and mend things, to make everything right.  Starting with you here, and this person there.  Whether or not the authorities liked it.  Whether or not the self-appointed pressure groups approved.”  (N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 79-80)

Religion concerns itself with rituals, with temples.  But Christ is the true and better religion.  He is the true and better temple.  He is the true and better high priest who exercises these activities.

We’ll return to this exact theme in tomorrow’s post.

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“God is in the House:” Religion and Morality Control

For more than 20 years, Nick Cave has been cranking out some fairly bleak punk-influenced music with his band “The Bad Seeds.”  The song you’re seeing performed live is on a more stripped-down, piano-based album called “No More Shall We Part.”

The lyrics are pretty straightforward – the community has created their own version of utopia.  “God is in the house” they affirm.  In the song Cave describes the way that in this suburban landscape, there’s no room for those who need the mercy of God.

Stereotypical?  Sure.  Harsh?  Definitely.  But behind it there’s some truth to the reality that religion can do more than merely cover over our personal stains – a subject we’ve discussed in previous posts – but actually neglect the care of others.  One of the criticisms Jesus levels at the religious community of His day was that they were doing more harm than good:

“For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers…you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:46, 52)

The issue is often this: we assume that morality is the real problem.  If morality is the problem, than society can be shaped and changed through behavioral modification.  This is, at least partially, the message of Cave’s song.

Michael Horton picks up on this general theme, in asking the question: “What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city?:”

Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio.

Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.” (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church)

Imagine a utopia where God’s mercy is simply not needed, where the greatest of joys is not Christ Himself, but being “good for goodness’ sake.”  God is in the house.  We’ve painted the fences white.  But this kind of stale, robotic way of living is wholly alien to the life that Jesus continues to offer.

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“Surface Shines, Inside Rots:” Pharisees on the Right, Pharisees on the Left

“We’re all ok, until the day we’re not.  The surface shines, while the inside rots.”  (Rise Against, “Audience of One”)

In the passage we read in Luke on Sunday (Luke 11:29-54), we saw Jesus encountering the Pharisees.  It’s true that the gospels do not portray the Pharisees all that favorably, but let’s not forget that of all the faith persuasions of Jesus’ day, these guys were the most conservative and most faithful to the Biblical text.  The problem, of course, was that they couldn’t stop adding their own traditions to those of the Bible, a practice that Jesus sharply condemns.

But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that we’re any different, lest we wrongly – and proudly – stand before God and say, “At least I’m not like one of those Pharisees.”  In the last post, we hinted that religious behavior might be one way of managing sin and covering shame.  The real question is what kind of religious person you are.

See, the myth of the suit-and-tie-wearing, uptight moralist is rapidly disappearing from the evangelical marketplace.  Yet the image remains as a convenient scapegoat.  After all, it’s become fun to pick on the ‘religious’ people of our day.  Jared Wilson writes:

“…it becomes clear what they mean is ‘traditional people’ or the uncool. My feeling is that the Bible-thumping, starched suit-wearing, hellfire and brimstone religious people taking the fun out of fundamentalism are becoming fewer and farther between, while the church is brimming with self-righteous hipsters and cooler-than-thous. The Pharisees look like Vampire Weekend now.”

Which means you can be a Pharisee in one of two ways:

(1)    A Pharisee on the “right,” embracing so-called “traditional” values (stereotypes?) associated with the religious person.

-OR-

(2)    A Pharisee on the “left,” embracing more “progressive values” that align with the culture of our own day.

Looking at their values, it’s easy to see the points of comparison:

Pharisees on the Right: Pharisees on the Left:
Respectability: Traditional religion emphasizes being “respectable.”  Good, upright behavior is what earns God’s approval –as well as the admiration of others. Authenticity: Today’s crowds are more likely to talk about an “authentic” life.  “It’s not a religion,” we insist.  “It’s a relationship.”  We want to be liked by others – so we distance ourselves from “those” types of Christians.
Necktie: Being respectable means looking the part: dress up to go to church. Skinny Jeans: Christians can be hip – it’s what separates us from those rigid fundamentalists, right?
Organ only: Hymns are the only way to worship God.  Other forms of music are sneered at for being both musically and morally wrong. Guitar only: We’ve evolved.  We threw away the stale traditions.  But now we insist on whole new ones: the guitar is the only acceptable way to worship.  Who needs John Newton when you have Chris Tomlin?
King James Bible: The only “real” way to understand God is in the good King’s English of seventeenth century Europe.  Because that makes a lot of sense. Blue Like Jazz: We want “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality.”  We want to know God personally and experientially.  So we elevate the experience of our own culture over the experience of 2,000 years of Christian thought.

And I’m not picking on Donald Miller or his fans with the Blue Like Jazz reference; the book truly is worth a read.  But the issue is that when we elevate experience over tradition we’re only narrowing our minds rather than broadening them.

The problem with the Pharisees on the left is that in the desire to kill the sacred cows of the past, whole new herds have been raised.  Today’s Pharisees are prone to using abstract concepts such as “social justice,” “mission,” “kingdom,” etc.  While these are all concepts the Bible teaches, they often fail to move beyond abstract theory to concrete practice.

So the Pharisees on the left and right really do have a lot in common:

Self-focused: Approval – man’s or God’s – is earned through one’s individual performance.

Need to be liked: We want others to think well of us.  We want God to think well of us.  Therefore we use our religious systems – whether on the left or right – to make ourselves acceptable.

Tradition-centric: Both sides say “My tradition is the only acceptable way to experience God.”  The Pharisees on the left sneer at the stale traditions of the past, and the Pharisees on the right shake their head at the laissez faire attitudes of rising generations.

Surface shines, inside rots: In both cases, these attitudes can become masks to conceal the real issue of sin and shame.

Most will fall somewhere in between these extremes or, more likely, be some curious blend of the two.  But Jesus came neither to affirm religion nor reject it entirely: He came to redeem it, which is something different altogether.

One of the surest ways of knowing where you fall is simply this: when you encounter others, how do you measure them?  Do you measure them against Christ and His righteousness?  Or do you measure them against the standards of your own culture?  In other words, do you desire that others come to resemble Christ or come to resemble you?

If it is the latter, than God help us all.  But if it is the former, than we all fall short.

Which tells us that we don’t need the shallow, empty, hypocritical religiosity of the right or left.  What we need, then, is not less religion, but deeper, more vibrant, true religion.  And that – in at least one sense – is what Jesus came to offer.

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“Can’t No Preacher-Man Save My Soul:” Sin, Shame and Barton Hollow

The video is of the band The Civil Wars with their song “Barton Hollow.”  You have to love the chorus:

“Ain’t going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e’er I go
Won’t do me no good washing in the river
Can’t no preacher-man save my soul.”

Of course you notice the recurring motif of dirty hands and washing in the river in the video.  The allusion, obviously, is of baptism, the outward symbol of inner cleanliness.

But it “won’t do me no good,” the song repeats.  Many people avoid Jesus and the Church because of this very reason: “There’s no forgiving what I’ve done.”  And so many live with a persistent sense of shame.

In Luke 11:29-32, Jesus tells the crowds that this is an “evil generation” that “looks for a sign.”  The reference He then makes to the “sign of Jonah” is all about judgment over sin.  This is such a fire-and-brimstone kinda passage – it’s all about the need to acknowledge just how dirty we are, and our need to get clean.

Which means that, in a way, the lyrics to Barton Hollow are right: no “preacher-man” can save the soul.  But it also testifies to those who walk “miles and miles in…bare feet,” and never find true rest.

Many can’t seem to find a way to get rid of the stain that covers them – nothing can wash it clean.  Which is why so many turn to various ways of covering it up.

And one of the best ways of covering it up, best ways of hiding it, is through religious activity.  To “sugar over” the stain with outward displays of religious piety.  And it’s precisely that behavior that Jesus targets, a subject we’ll be exploring in some of this week’s posts.

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