Another Visitation

Jesus imageA walmart shopping receipt is the latest location for appearances of ‘Jesus’ likenesses, following on the heels of Jesus-shaped pancakes, clouds, vaseline smears in windows and who-knows-what-else.

Leaving aside that it’s an excellent likeness of an unfortunate and misshapen circus person from the 19th century, rather than a typical representation of Jesus, it makes me wonder why devout people see any importance in such discoveries.

Of course, it’s possible that no one does. Maybe it’s all for the cameras and no one really puts any religious stock in it. It would make me happy if that were so. Nevertheless, the church has a long enough history of relic-gathering and spiritualising to make it worth considering what lies behind such an attitude.

As far as I understand it, Christianity is based on the historical activity of Jesus in which we are called to believe though we were not there to see it (John 20:29), and our belief is a matter of long perseverence and trust that what has been promised will be fulfilled because the one who promised it is faithful. We know that God is with us and at work, but there is very little suggestion in scripture that we are to expect supernatural phenomena or a face-to-face conversation with God.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1Corinthians 13:12)

So I reckon that faith is difficult because — to state the obvious — it is not sight, and so it means that we are not regularly reassured by indubitable means that what we believe is true. My suspicion is that people clamour for the supernatural, whether at the Walmart register or at miracles rallies, because they are eager for better evidence that God is really there (even if God can’t draw very well).

There is a similar problem evident in the book of Colossians. The best sense that scholarship can make of the background to Paul’s words is that the Christians there were being tempted by a Jewish mysticism that promised the worshipper trance-based transport (tranceport?) into heaven where one could stand with the angels worshipping God. Although there is an appearance of ultimate, unmediated spirituality about this approach, Paul calls it the opposite:

Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. (Col. 2:18b)

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom… but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Col. 2:23-3:2)

According to Paul, and with a great sense of irony, setting your mind on things above and not on earthly things means getting your head out of heavenly experiences and back into focus upon life in service of Christ. The ordinary, boring matters of faith and loving others is true worship and true spirituality. ‘Spiritual experience’ has no value in keeping you in touch with that.

So, on the basis of his words in Colossians and elsewhere, if we presented Paul with Shrouds of Turin and Vaseline Jesus faces and many other more respectable spiritual phenomena that Christians parade in an attempt to prove to themselves that their faith is warranted, I suspect that he might tell us that this is the age for faith, not sight, and to stop being so unspiritual.

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Exaggeration as a Prophetic Device

You’d have to be very brave or very cruel to go to a poor community and tell them to stop being so materialistic, but that’s just what I reckon Haggai was doing.

I had the pleasure of teaching Old Testament Introduction to our first-year students last semester. For their major written assignment I had them research the background to the book of Haggai, after which they were to examine the major themes in the book against their findings. I set the assignment largely because I wanted them to do the research for which I foresaw I would not have adequate time, but it turned out to be an interesting subject in its own right.

One of the most disagreed-upon passages in the book is in 1:4-6

“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house (i.e. the Temple) remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

The Persians had allowed the Jews to return from their exile in Babylon with the order to rebuild their temple and make their gods happy, but they had found things difficult. Their ancestral lands were occupied by others, most of the infrastructure remained in the state of devastation in which the Babylonians had left it 70 years before, taxes were high, farm land was not in good condition and they faced political opposition to the restoration of Jewish fortunes. Besides this, the weather was not helping and there had been droughts and crop failures. As the latter part of the above passage points out, whatever wealth they had brought back was dwindling, and no satisfaction resulted from their investment of time and money. Everything indicates that survival was hard and the people were becoming impoverished. Financial difficulties are probably behind their consensus that ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built’ (Haggai 1:2).

Into this context, the prophet accuses them of ‘living in your panelled houses’, which sends commentators into a spin. Panelling one’s house with timber was a show of wealth, a sign of luxury, and not something that you would do if you had mouths to feed and taxes to pay.

Many of my students dealt with this difficulty by treating it as though it wasn’t there. The Jews were poor people living in luxury. Uh…

To be fair, some commentators seem to do much the same thing. Others point out that ‘panelling’ can refer to ‘roofing’, and so the suggestion is that the people had finished their houses while neglecting the Temple. This is more consistent, but the people had been living there for 15 years already, and presumably would have attended to roofing considerably earlier (unless they had been tenting until then, I suppose).

Few commentators seem to pay much attention to the possibility that Haggai’s charge is an allusion to an earlier story. When Solomon built the first Temple, he had it panelled:

So Solomon built the temple and completed it. He lined its interior walls with cedar boards, panelling them from the floor of the temple to the ceiling, and covered the floor of the temple with planks of pine. (1Kg. 6:14-15)

And when he built his own house, he did the same:

He built the throne hall, the Hall of Justice, where he was to judge, and he covered it with cedar from floor to ceiling. And the palace in which he was to live, set farther back, was similar in design. (1Kg. 7:7-8)

So, it seems to me that Haggai is attempting to get these ‘House-builders’ to think of the original, Solomon, who had first panelled the Lord’s House and then panelled his own. The Jews of Haggai’s day were meant to understand that they had their priorities completely wrong, and that having returned to the land to rebuild the Temple, they should not have been attending to their own kingdoms first.

The startling thing, of course, is that the Jews were not lazy or greedy — they were battling to survive. Their ‘kingdoms’ were small, war-ravaged, unfertile homesteads. I’d be very surprised indeed if there was any actual panelling going on at all. When Haggai accused them of living like kings, he was actually addressing people living in severe hardship. In my opinion, he was employing exaggeration as a rhetorical device in order to expose their attitude, not their standard of living.

In other words, although poor, the people were nevertheless living in disregard for the things that ought to have been most important to them, namely their relationship with God. They had built enough of the Temple to be able to carry out their religious duties, but nothing extended beyond duty. They were living as though making a living were all that mattered (and neglecting the One upon whom survival ultimately depends anyway).

So regardless of how much of a battler you think you are, Haggai would still stand in front of you and tell you to get your head straight. Relationship with God is not just for those who have nothing else to do. It’s the only thing to do. Or in Jesus’ words, ‘But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’.

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Evangelicals often have a problem with the idea that exaggeration is compatible with a high view of scripture. If someone is exaggerating, it is too close to them being mistaken or dishonest as far as some are concerned. I don’t see why this should be the case. It’s not much different to a parable in terms of accuracy and honesty. I rather think that Jesus is exaggerating in just this sort of way when he describes lust as adultery and anger as murder. In neither case do we think that the consequences of each crime should be the same. They are not the same sins. What Jesus reveals, however, is that the attitudes underlying each are remarkably similar, and what happens in your heart matters. God isn’t interested in outward adherence to the Law only. He is interested in worship and obedience that takes place inwardly.

Jack Bauer: Holier than the plot of 24

24 season 8The TV series ’24’ depicts a ‘real-time’ nightmare of a day in the life of Jack Bauer and the Counter Terrorist Unit who labour to save America from enemies who hate their freedom. The show features spies, double agents, last-second saves, and choke-holds and knock-out punches that incapacitate friends and enemies for exactly the right amount of time without ever causing brain damage. It’s all great fun. There have been 8 such days now, and the DVD box of Season 8 has ‘The Final Season’ written on it (which is more or less a guarantee that there is a Season 9).

The reason why Jack Bauer appears on LongWind is that it struck me how much Jack Bauer is the archetypal religious man of his age. The first characteristics of such a person are the obvious ones:

1. He’s not religious.
Being religious is not much in fashion at the moment, and so the posterboy for modern religiosity should not indulge in the formal stuff.

2. But he is good.
Jack is the ultimate righteous sufferer, sacrificing every personal comfort to the greater good.

3. More or less.
OK, so he is also a complex character whose sacrifices have taken their toll. So he killed one or two baddies when it wasn’t necessary… Disobeyed some orders… No one’s perfect.

4. Which makes him open to spirituality-lite.
Getting all religious is either for wusses or fanatics. The modern religious person likes to dip his toes into spiritual things, but not to get too wet. Jack’s response to his guilt and anguish at his violent misdeeds in the second-last season is resolved when he and a Muslim cleric forgive themselves together.

I suppose that means that the biggest problem created by our evil behaviour is that it makes us feel bad. For a long time, people have misunderstood Christianity as a means to help people cope with feeling bad about themselves and the world. Modern religion seems to have simply ‘cut out the middle man’. You can get some DIY forgiveness — settle the score with yourself. If the only relationship under threat is with yourself, it probably means that you should be able to decide what damages that relationship with yourself. Which is why…

5. Jack is the measure of all things.
The final season (maybe some minor plot spoiling to follow) sees him chastise a special-forces soldier for disobeying a president’s order simply to save civilian lives. Jack, who made a career of defying presidents for exactly the same reasons given by the baddies in this season, claims that it wasn’t the soldier’s call to make (because this is a good president). Later in the same season, Jack defies the president’s order too — not even to save civilian lives, but mostly because he felt she was covering up an unacceptable injustice — because her actions had become unpresidential and were therefore to be disregarded. In other words, obedience to the president is right, so long as the president is being presidential enough for Jack. Jack’s standard of right behaviour in the situation is the one that matters.

So Jack is the ultimate standard-bearer for modern religion. It’s nice and secular, but with a vulnerable spirituality about it. Yet it’s all self-directed, to that point that one sets one’s own rules and issues one’s own forgiveness. That’ll work out well for Jack as long as he really is top of the spiritual food-chain.

While I can see why people misunderstand Christianity and why it is not fashionable right now to take it seriously, I’m not sure why the Jackbauerism that many follow is a more credible alternative. Am I to be happy that you’ve dealt with your misdeeds by forgiving yourself? Am I to be happy that you’re a good person by your own definition? It’s kind of funny to me that many people today will wager that if there is a God, He’ll be welcoming of them because they’re ‘a good person’. Unsurprisingly, the Christian God isn’t much interested in how well you stack up to your own unit of measure. He’s more concerned that you thought it was up to you.