Editors preface: For quite some time, I have wanted to showcase the work of erudite friends of mine for a wider audience than those who are typically exposed to their scholarship. Anticipating that I would have little time to devote to writing during the months of March and April due to a trip I had planned to Israel, I asked my friend, James Beal, whether he would be interested in sharing any of his work here. James graciously obliged, and I am happy to say that there is no one else’s thought for which I would rather use this website as a platform for broader discovery.
James is an attorney in Chicago with an expansive interest in a variety of subjects, including philosophical theology. He adapted the following essay from a dialog he conducted on the topic of aesthetics which I further edited for a more general audience. While James’s subject matter might seem a bit abstract on first blush, let’s be honest: A lot of ostensibly Christian art is really, really terrible. In fact, it is so egregiously poor that multiple different theologians have taken to analyzing why this could possibly be the case, from Scott Nehring’s medium-specific prognosis in “Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?” to Tony Woodlief’s more general yet scholarly “Bad Christian Art.” Nathan Kennedy’s blog went so far as to devote a two part series exploring the “suckage of Christian art,” and even the Gospel Coalition has taken to mounting discussions between various church leaders on the topic.
James’s essay intentionally leaves some questions unanswered, e.g. How are Christians supposed to promote good art, let alone nurture budding artists? Is there an assertive, one might even say missiological purpose behind Christian art as such? Are some contexts more and less appropriate venues for the production, distribution, or consumption of Christian art? Nevertheless, I believe his perspective advances the discussion instructively, and it is my privilege to recommend it for your reflection and edification.
I have listened to Bach’s cello suites. And I have listened to some of his overtly religious works, such as St. Matthew’s Passion. They are both beautiful. Are they both “Christian?”
It is difficult to describe religious experience compared to, say, religious exercise. An experience is inherently subjective while an exercise is objective. An exercise can be observed. It can be prescribed and followed. What happens in the mind or heart of the adherent during the course of the exercise is different from the exercise itself, and that happening is experience.
Art may not only be produced, it may be experienced. In fact, most art is meant to be experienced; it is meant to evoke thoughts and feelings of one sort or another. Can art be distinctly Christian in this evocative capacity? I believe it can.
Christian art is defined by a representation of at least two key elements: sacrifice and fealty. Thus, experiencing fealty and sacrifice in the context of something like an artistic element of Christian worship is different than experiencing the beauty of nature. Bach’s cello suites are like experiencing nature.
Don’t misunderstand me; I am not degrading natural beauty. I have been to the beach at night in coastal South Carolina and Florida. The combination of sensations—smelling the ocean breeze, seeing the stars glimmer, hearing the waves crash—is a powerful experience. One wonders if this is the sort of beauty that Adam and Eve encountered each moment before they were banished from the Garden of Eden.
But whatever our most distant ancestors experienced in antediluvian paradise, on the plains of Africa, or wherever, many of us know the Christian story, and we know it well. And that story is set apart from our daily life as animals on a physical planet. Human introspection, human ideas about how to organize and effect both our own lives and society, human thoughts about the physical nature of the universe and all that is in it—these concepts help define us as specifically human creatures. So, too, do vice and sensual experience, which are not always the same.
But, think about all of these things and then compare them to Christ’s words in Luke 9.23:
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Where does that come from? That is totally different from a person’s typical experience with nature, with ideas, with another human, or with another human’s creation, such as art. What Christ articulated in this short passage is a glimpse of another layer of existence, an existence not dedicated solely to our physical and societal needs.
This is not to say that humans do not create things that remind us of, even engulf us in the fundamental basis of the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ: sacrifice and fealty. We do create things that specifically attempt to evoke this response, that attempt to raise our awareness of fealty and sacrifice. And those are the sorts of created things that are “Christian.” Everything else is something different. That is not to say that everything else is bad—hardly. But it is different from a distinctly Christian creation.
There is another key element of the representation of the Christian ethos in art, and that is love, or charity when understood in the old way as an altruistic, concrete, sincere expression of compassion. Sacrifice, fealty, love–these three things define Christ’s existence. He sacrificed his life in fealty to God the Father and for the love of us. This is the Christian story. And art, which is accurately called “Christian” is defined by these three elements.
From this perspective, I would call Bleak House by Charles Dickens a Christian novel. Dickens’ representation of uncompromising love in the character of John Jarndyce vis-à-vis the love he shows his wards and even to rotten Mr. Skimpole is a fundamentally Christian portrayal of a character. In fact, Dickens is perhaps most “Christian” in his representation of prideful, dishonest, cruel, and folly-ridden villains. Dickens’ concept of evil embodied by these characters is fundamentally Christian because it purposefully represents the opposite of sacrifice, fealty and love. By doing so, Dickens’ villains reinforce the importance of those elements through impactful, negative counterexample.
In contrast, purely or simply beautiful art like Bach’s cello suites may be understood as “primitive” in the philosophical sense of the term. When Rousseau idolized infancy and simple-ness in works like Emile, or On Education, he expressly longed for the primitive. But if one accepts that humanity has left the Garden and tried to erect for ourselves some firm and steadfast structure reaching beyond the primitive with profoundly deleterious results—a process the Bible discusses in the story of the Tower of Babel—then the strictly simple, primitive nature of humanity is presently lost to us.
This fundamental fact of the loss of wholesale, social innocence or primitiveness is why we talk about “duty” and “sacrifice” and “striving for the greater good” even in secular contexts. What separates the secular version of these things from the Christian version is that they are tied to a man’s or a group’s imagined sense of right, virtue, or glory instead of being tied to those first relationships we found ourselves a part of from the beginning of time, like family or community. When we promote some sort of altruism or durable significance beyond whatever we would normally do by a sort of God-given default, we are acknowledging that we have moved beyond the primitive.
Eden and Babel are not the same. They are opposites. Eden is permanent even if its full recovery is lost to us right now; Babel is “happening” right now but frustratingly never finished. Put more philosophically, Babel is the idea of one person’s or one group’s action against another person or even against nature itself as a whole. Eden is the idea of “permanence” as true home, as perpetuity and peace and situated place.
So what does this have to do with art? Purely aesthetic experience—say, of a cello suite by Bach or a beautiful lyric poem—is not Babel. But neither is it the whole of Eden. It is more like a constituent element of Eden. Because of the distorting effect of sin, we do not experience the whole of Eden absent sacrifice, fealty and love. These are the keys that unlock for us a glimpse of the serenity from which we came and towards which God desires to ultimately locate us in eternity.
Returning to the illustration of English literature, these three elements converge powerfully and beautifully in Dickens’ Bleak House when Nemo, the law writer, interacts with the poor sweeper boy, Joe. Even though both characters have their problems, Nemo eventually dying of an opium overdose and Joe dying consumption, there are brief moments of distinctly Christian representation, e.g. when Nemo gives Joe a portion of his meager earnings with no strings attached or when Joe sincerely thanks Nemo for his kindness without any pretense or expectation but also without false humility.
A similar thing obtains in Charlotte Brontë’s magnum opus, Jane Eyre, through the juxtaposition of its eponymous protagonist with the character of her cousin, St. John Rivers. Both are ostensibly “Christian” figures, but it is Jane who achieves something closer to the unlocking of Eden while John remains counter-intuitively trapped in Babel. St. John expresses a single-minded obsession with working as a missionary; he implores Jane to marry him so as to be his helper, so as to partake in this all-important mission. But Jane refuses, desiring instead to experience her life in the company of those she loves and who love her. Late in the novel, she realizes a large inheritance and decides to divide it evenly between herself, St. John, and St. John’s two sisters—much to St. John’s chagrin. He would prefer that the whole of the inheritance be devoted to his missionary work. Jane persists in her course of action and eventually departs the company of her family for that of Mr. Rochester, a former suitor who has been struck blind since his last encounter with Jane. Despite his state of relative debilitation given the early 19th century setting of the narrative, Rochester is still deeply in love with Jane, who concludes that her true aspiration is to be nothing more than his wife in the countryside at Thornfield Manor.
Bronte’s representation of Jane is the that of a character whose central desire is for the “permanent” rather than something that is “happening” yet never finished, and her irrevocable divestment of financial resource to the benefit of her extended family coupled with her devotion to Mr. Rochester despite his functional decline in station fortifies this. Similarly, Nemo’s gift to Joe was a pure gift, given only for love and met by Joe’s sincere but not unduly humble thanks in Dicken’s Bleak House. These represent the story of Christ more compellingly than a thousand missions of Bronte’s St. John to the farthest flung corners of the world, let alone the construction of an indestructibly prosperous, healthy, secured state that Jane could have pursued had she kept the whole of her fortune and “married up” as far as possible instead of choosing Mr. Rochester.
These are “Christian” moments in Bleak House and Jane Eyre because they fundamentally represent sacrifice, fealty and love with a trajectory towards the permanent, with an eschewal of building some grandiose, unfinishable, always happening Babel. They represent the example of Christ, emphasizing Eden’s quiet to Babel’s clamor. As Jesus said to his disciples:
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33 NRSV)
Christian art is that which distinctly represents sacrifice, fealty, and love unlocking the permanence of our true home. Put another way, Christian art provides a representation in music, a literary character, and so forth of Christ.
Somewhere between now and January 31st, roughly 35% of us who have established a list of New Year’s resolutions will break at least one of them. By the end of the year, over 75% of us will have probably abandoned these goals altogether. Trends like this exacerbated by the constitution-decimating grind of a Chicago winter make most people in my home town already a bit less hopeful about 2012. What a difference a couple weeks can make! Remember the way things seemed back on January 1?
Twee hearts were still aflutter from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” More macabre Batman fan-girls and boys alike were just getting excited about the promoted conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night series this July. Alarmist cabals remained consternated by the conclusion of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar heralding the supposedly immanent end of the world–perhaps through the Nibiru collision. On the soberly optimistic side, the payoff of 2011′s Arab Spring and Occupy Pretty-Much-Everywhere suggested that my generation was finally getting a bit more politically proactive, albeit haltingly and not always productively. On the deeply foreboding side, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 evidently suspended the Bill of Right’s protection of due process in its now infamous provision for the “indefinite detention” without trial of any American citizen suspected of terrorism.
And while grassroots politically fascinated Americans like yours truly found a legislative silver lining in the shelving of SOPA and PIPA week, most people I know didn’t have a clue what was even at stake (to hilarious albeit profane effect in the case of these Twitter users baffled by the blacking out of Wikipedia). Most of us have simply moved on from the alternatively cute, exciting, menacing, promising, and disconcerting tropes attending the birth of 2012 to the more stressful but not quite as game-changingly eventful toldderdom of 2012. Already, this New Year doesn’t feel quite so “brand” and “spanking” as was so recently the case. The best winter holidays are over. Our old habits and fears and comforts and conditions haven’t changed all that much after we’ve rubbed the party glitter from our eyes.
Where can we find a more substantial, focused source of motivation and follow-through? What can serve as our anchor? How can we pick out that north star amidst the clouds obscuring our vision to chart a course forward? I don’t know what the rest of this year will bring, but I’m convinced that one of the best shots we have at accomplishing the work legitimately requested by all those interrogatives above is the following truth:
God is making all things new.
Nothing else laying either predicative of descriptive claim upon this year means m0re than this single, deceptively simple sentence. You and I already know that 2012 will be filled with its share turmoil and fortune, but nothing amounts to a hill of beans compared to the overarching truth that the Supreme Lord of all Creation is guiding every single thing towards a purposed conclusion marked by cataclysmic, divine renewal: God is making all things–all things–new. The second to last chapter of the Bible puts it this way when we follow the New Living Translation of Revelation 21:1-8:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.
8 “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
It’s been a while since I’ve attempted some roughly hewn theology on this blog, and the book of Revelation is one of the most psychedelic ones out there, stiffly challenging sound interpretation. Nevertheless, here are five things I drew from this portion of scripture with key concepts bold-faced for emphasis. (And if none of the following makes a lick of sense or you’re just a more auditory processor, check out this message I delivered a couple weeks ago based on this text instead.)
From vs.1 – God’s very self will create “a new heaven and a new earth.” You and I can probably think of a lot of great reasons to fix up this planet given all of its problems, but why a new heaven? Because there will no longer be the same sort of qualitative separation between heaven and earth as is presently the case. A clue towards this reading is the absence of the sea. From the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Old Testament was written through the Hellenic context of the New Testament, the sea is most typically representative of chaos (cf. Daniel 7:2-8 and also this). For any biblically scholarly fact-checkers out there, this is probably one reason why Revelation 13 describes a “beast rising up out of the sea” that wars against the forces of good. But this beast is conquered along with everything else that opposes God in Revelation 19. That there is no sea in this vision indicates that our story ends with absolute harmony between earth and heaven, the dwelling place of humanity and the dwelling place of God.
From vs.2 - God will achieve this harmony between heaven and earth by overtly bridging the gap that presently exists between them. And we’re not talking about a miracle here or a vision there, nor are we discussing a sort of rollback to some idyllic, Eden-like state of nature alone. Rather, there will be a ”holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Among other things, this means there is a God-given dignity to life in the city now. Medieval Christian hermits and romantic transcendentalists made the same mistake; when we attempt to flee the corruption of society, we abandon the opportunity to function as its salt and light as God has called us to live and do (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). By departing from this mission of redemption between God and the world, we step out of the very stream of divine life that renews and sanctifies us, too. Ironically, it is a type of corruption to merely flee corruption without doing anything about it; it is stereotypically “worldly” in the pejorative sense of that term to merely abandon the world–we are called to engage it with God’s love. And while there is certainly a God-given dignity that obtains to other physical stations, there are fewer places on earth where one can as readily commit oneself to such loving engagement of others as robustly as in the city. As the seat of humanity’s political, commercial, and cultural vitality, its idolatry is particularly deprave, and its violence particularly dark (cf. Ez. 7:23 & 22:3). The city is but a shadow of what will ultimately come, but there is meaning and hope in that shadow, too. Indeed, while Genesis locates the Tree of Life in a garden predating any city, Revelation locates this Tree whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations” right in the center of the city God’s very self will establish in the end of days (cf. Gen. 2:9 & Rev. 22:1-2).
From vs. 3-4 – This unified harmony between heaven and earth is not depicted by a bunch of people lazing around the clouds, plucking harps whilst bored to tranquilized oblivion. Rather, the upshot of God making everything new is this: “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” This makes protracted just and compassionate action possible. If we commit ourselves to declaring and living our lives according to this truth, we can do so optimistically but also soberly. We do not retreat to mere mysticism; we are not drunk on delusions but wide awake, gazing upon the shattered, filthy parts of our world as they truly exist right now with an unwavering eye, a kindled heart, and a readied hand. Until God’s very self effects that future state of harmony, suffering persists–and not just among people but throughout all nature. As Paul puts it in the New International Version’s treatment of Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” It is ultimately the activity of God’s very self that will remove all injustice, yet we are called to participate in this process now. We comfort the heartbroken courageously, and we do battle directly with death, neither purgatively aggrandizing pain nor timidly fleeing its grizzled visage. We are protected from disillusionment when we encounter severe difficulty because we have abandoned the merely illusory as a first principle predicated on the substantive reality of God’s ultimate home being with us, of God’s wiping our tears from our eyes to obliterate sorrow and crying and pain in the end.
From vs. 5 – The source of definitive commentary on all of this comes from God; it is God who commands the author of Revelation to “write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” When we embrace or communicate such a message to others, we do so confidently yet humbly; neither this event nor its proper description have come from us. We are scribes, we are messengers of the One who has spoken. We are not the Author of this story; it is news to us just as much as to anyone else.
From vs. 5-8 – God possesses generative and rectifying sovereignty over everything. The divinity of God envelops what is limited by time and space within externally unlimited eternity; as Acts 17:28 puts it, it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” God’s commentary on new creation promises supreme restoration and justice from the basis of all-encompassing sovereignty. (“It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End.”) God freely welcomes and will slake the thirsts of any who so desire. (“To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.”) God will surely reward those who have righteously persevered–chiefly, through blessing wrought by dwelling in unity with God. (“All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”) God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, imploring those bent by their evil ways to turn and live (cf. Ez. 18:23). God wants everyone to be saved from corruption, coming to a knowledge of such truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4); in fact, our present circumstances lacking perfected justice are a part of God’s plan to save as many as possible from perishing due to their wickedness (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, there are those whose unrighteousness will staunchly remain despite God’s appeals, those who will persist in rejecting God’s ways to embrace corruption in its various forms. And by rejecting the source of all life, they will embrace their inevitable fate. (“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”)
To shift from a more devotional reading of this text to an applied reading, one that directs us towards specific action on the individual and collective levels, I learned the following by comparing this passage of scripture with other texts:
1. We should base our individual identity on God’s creative renewal - What is most fundamental about our identity is not our collection of individual achievement, our ethnicity, our preferred forms of media consumption, our political affiliation, our right versus left brained-ness, our socioeconomic status, our relative level of physical beauty, all the stuff we accumulate, or anything else. As the Egyptian church leader, Clement of Alexandria, wrote circa 195 C.E., “We have no country on earth; therefore, we can disdain earthly possessions.” As the Assyrian writer, Tatian, put it around that same time, “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it; live to God.” Nothing else matters compared to the fact that God is still making all things new, including the very being and identity of we who are pursuing a relationship with this God by the salvation extended through Messiah Jesus. As Paul puts it in his letter to the early believers in Jesus living in the central Anatolian highlands of modern-day Turkey, nothing about us counts for anything when compared to the fact of our “new creation” (cf. Gal. 6:11-15). No matter what people think about us or what happens to us externally, “our inner self is being renewed day by day” as we pursue life predicated on God’s transforming, revitalizing activity through Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16).
2. As a corollary to the above principle, detrimental activity clashes with our truest self, and that’s exactly why we should avoid it - We do not eschew unethical patterns of behavior merely because society might otherwise punish us, and we don’t fixate on our failures either. As that quote from Tatian implies above, we literally die to our old self while embracing the newness of our creation wrought by God. Romans 6:6 puts it this way, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Messiah so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Ephesians 4:22 underscores this same point, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” All this means that immoral activity is the same thing as entanglement with an old self that is fading away; the righteous life pursuing Jesus is liberation to the new creation we most truly are. Hebrews 12:1-2 puts it even more forcefully, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
3. Living a life predicated on God making all things new includes sharing this truth with others as a fundamental operating principle – New creation makes an appeal to others on the basis of its own being, a being that is itself directed back towards its source in God. The key scriptural metaphor describing this phenomenon is that of ambassadorship. Ambassadors do all sorts of things that are exactly like the people with whom they dwell; ambassadors pay rent, forge relationships, eat meals, bear children, follow sports teams, weep at opera houses, and spill coffee on the postal mail. But there is one gigantic difference; the entire purpose of ambassadors is to represent the party who has sent them above and beyond all the incidental stuff. 2 Cor. 5:17-20 puts it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” Not only does God literally effect new creation in those who pursue life “in Christ,” God draws those newly created people into the process of extending this grace of worldwide reconciliation. It is impossible to forego sharing this message of God making all things new with others yet still live according to that message. Failing to communicate God’s desired reconciliation is abdication of one’s ambassadorship by definition.
4. Our collective lives should leverage the communication of God making us new- We should celebrate that the dwelling of God already exists in a real but muted way among those of us who have been transformed by Jesus, even as it will one day exist in technicolor, high definition brilliance across the entire earth when God completes this activity of making all things new. Paul emphasizes this point by rebuking wayward followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth with the words, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Now, the Greek for the term here translated as “you” is ἐστε, which is a second person plural form of “to be”–in other words, Paul is saying something specifically about a group of believers and not just about one or two of them individually considered. In fact, Paul argues that this lived experience of the Spirit of God should be so powerfully present in this group of believers that even somebody who does not believe should be able to notice it; according to 1 Cor. 14:24-25, “unbelievers” encountering a gathering of people truly following Jesus should be so thoroughly convinced of their need for salvation from the encounter that they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” Our primary text under consideration from the book of Revelation encourages us that one day, for certain and with totality everyone will witness God’s new creation. Yet, we have the opportunity to experience a dose of that reality together right now, and we should purposefully foster this to the end of amplifying our collective ambassadorship.
5. We accomplish the most powerful form of collective ambassadorship by living according to higher law, a pattern of behavior that is utterly foreign to this world right now - We are not just talking about rounding up a bunch of people who have experienced God’s new creation and then deploying them all over the place to verbally articulate a message. We are talking about the implicit witness of a concretely lived experience, one predicated on social norms that only make sense from the perspective of God making all things new at the end of days. This makes us nothing less than strangers and aliens here and now; as Tertullian of Carthage wrote to his fellow Christians in the volume, De Corona, “As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.” He was unpacking Paul’s point from Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Consequently, we exercise fidelity to one another, pursuing life in Messiah together at all costs in a way that fortifies our message of reconciliation. We exercise faith in God’s supremacy as Alpha and Omega rather than fear whatever lies behind that next bend in the road–we know that our collective origin and our global destination are anchored to the being and activity of the supreme Lord of all Creation. We are strategic, motivated, at peace, and thereby always proclaiming by our life together Whom we serve and why everyone else should, too. We frame everything from that posture of sober hope in God’s supreme, creative work, committing ourselves to living according to and actually speeding the coming of the very kingdom of God on earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). It is this concretely lived experience that constitutes a fundamental part of the most powerful form of our collective ambassadorship.
I’ve recently received some criticism about the length of the articles I post on this blog, and I plan on including a greater quantity of briefer posts in the future for those short on time or attention span. But the topic of this article is worth burning ten times as many words as the 4400+ that I will have spent by the time I wrap this thing up. And that is because there is literally nothing more important than meditating upon and responding to and celebrating this simple, profound truth developed within these various portions of scripture upon which I’ve reflected to unpack just what it means that God is making all things new.
My life swiftly drifts off-course when I lose sight of this, and I’m alternatively too hard on myself or too flippant. On the one hand, I can become discouraged when I fail to achieve the things that I want, and I repeat the same, stupid mistakes that I already know won’t deliver specifically because of my fatigue and irritation. On the other hand, I can fling my weight around boorishly, inadvertently hurting other people as I traipse along my merry way without reference to who God is and what God is doing in me and throughout the world. Maybe I struggle with this sort of thing more than most; I lack a trustworthy means of discerning that. But even if you are reading this post right now without any of the tension I’ve shared such that there is subjectively less at stake for you in considering the points I’ve mentioned, I hope that you will still take a chance on experiencing and celebrating and committing yourself to the reality I’ll never have enough words to fully describe.
God wants to reconcile you and me to God’s self, every day more deeply and yet always afresh. God doesn’t want to merely forgive you for that one time you stole the candy from the drugstore or that other time you cheated on your taxes or screwed your buddy’s crush or talked crap behind that one girl’s back. God wants to redeem you from a death of which you aren’t even fully cognizant towards a life categorically different and more substantial than anything you or I have ever encountered–repetitively, day after day, moment by moment. And God doesn’t want to just stop there; God wants to draw us into this very process of expanding wholeness and well being throughout the world, of sharing this message even as we live it with other people moving from shadow to substance, from decrepit adolescence to youthful maturity. God wants to knit you together in relationship with others resisting a world marked by decay and rebellion that will one day be overturned and yet somehow redeemed by an apocalyptic, divine fiat of compassion and justice perfectly balanced. Nothing you or I have done or seen or known up until now is like this or more important than it.
So, what does this mean for you today? How does this affect your work, your family, the friendships you’re forging, and the goals you’re setting? What does this mean for the way you manage your finances, for the use of your time, or for the sorts of things you talk about and meditate on? What parts of your life already reflect these truths pretty clearly, and what parts sharply clash with them? Moreover, what would it look like for you and me to take these truth more seriously but also more joyfully, as leap-off points for action rather than mere nodes of reflection? What aspirations may emerge and what habits or attitudes will need to be put to rest? What might it mean for you, just this day or even just for the next couple hours to explore this way of life more fundamentally? In what intentionally embraced manner can this be, right now for you, more “trustworthy and true”?
God is making all things new.
- I utilized David Bercot’s summary of multiple points from The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down for quick reference to the thought of various Ante-Nicene fathers in this article on scrollpublishing.com while writing this post.
- Many thanks also to the hosts of the five best parties I ever attended on a New Year’s Eve in a row: Micah and Lauren McLellan, Michael and Christine Evans, Dana Chen, Lauren Parton, Jake VanKersen, Lizzy Hill, Katie Nelson, Sarah Joy Mikolajczyk, Kevin Harris, and Jenifer Dodsworth–you people are amazing.
- I would not have written this article if I had I not been blessed with the opportunity to preach about its subject matter on New Year’s Day at the congregation where I was raised and came to faith in Messiah, namely, Jesus People Covenant Church of Uptown, Chicago, and this would not have been possible apart from the invitation of Rev. Neil Taylor and Rev. Thomas Cameron, to whom I am more deeply indebted than just about anyone else on earth for literally years of wise counsel. My bosom buddy, Nathan Cameron, ran the PowerPoint making the message optimally comprehensible given how pooped most people are the morning of New Year’s Day.
- These songs by Skrillex, Broken Social Scene, The Who, and Monchy Y Alexandra helped motivate me to finish this post. Check ‘em out if you have flash.
This past Wednesday, an acquaintance of mine pursuing a Manhattan-based career in choreography posted a facebook status update link to Rick Perry’s now infamous clunker of a YouTube campaign clip, “Strong.” The link was preceded by my friend’s expression of total exasperation, a couple disjointed words trailing off in an ellipses indicating that unique variety of dumbstruck, cognitive dissonance that the Jackie Chan meme adjacent to this paragraph can alone properly express. And while I had not been very interested in Perry’s candidacy up to that point, I valued the opinion of my pal in New York enough to view that clip.
I should mention that I had just concluded a modestly pointed yet vastly rewarding discussion with about a half a dozen folks from the church I am privileged to serve on the topic of Jesus’s prophetic role as depicted in biblical texts like Hebrews 1:1-4. Perhaps I felt inspired by that investigation to speak some truth to power myself, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as that saying by Finley Peter Dunne goes. Perhaps I was motivated to provide a counterexample to what looked like a bizarre amalgamation of something quietly hateful and deceitfully Christian in Perry’s message for the benefit of my friend and whoever else might click through that link he posted. Perhaps I was just really ticked off from the whiplash I suffered by plummeting from the heights of mutually edifying, respectful conversation with friends to the depths of Perry’s tortured campaign dreck. In any case, I just had to respond.
Now, if you’re one of the few people who has not yet viewed this clip in question, please do so now and then read onward; it pains me to even summarize its content any more than I do in passing below. And in case some of the things Perry said in that clip positively resonate with you, in case you sometimes feel that society is waging war against your faith or your ideals for our culture as a whole, please bear with me until the end. (The same thing goes for those of you who are sick of Perry and his video clip.) Aside from a few clarifications accommodating for the shift in context from a more personal facebook comment thread to a more general blog post, here is what I wrote three days ago and stand by this morning:
As a pastor actively serving the men and women of Chicago in some way, shape, or form for years on end, I most assuredly do not approve of Rick Perry’s message. Pitting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (henceforth, DADT) against the prohibition of kids openly celebrating Christmas or praying in public schools merely plays to the base Perry hopes to strengthen at the cost of polarizing that base with respect to everyone else. The tired trope of a “liberal attack on our religious heritage” engenders not just an “us vs. them” mentality, it also seeks to increase the incidence of reactionary behavior among whoever qualifies as an “us.” And it seeks to do both of these things for the sake of gaining political power.
This strikes a deep chord within my soul, because I am not that far from the group of people to whom Perry’s message was most directly focused given my faith in Jesus as Messiah. And on the basis of that message Perry promoted, I am supposed to believe with all the other huddled masses of “us” that there is some group of nameless antagonists, a “them” epitomized in Obama against whom Perry will heroically provide defense. But I see absolutely nothing of Jesus in what Perry has said in this clip, and I wonder how long he will continue to obfuscate the fact that it was the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinners with whom Christ chose to dwell yet the religiously established colluding with the politically powerful who sought most fervently to put him to death.
Moreover, why should anybody care about some archaic religious heritage constructed out of the pastiche of America’s history in the first place? Why is that revision of our past that Perry selects–a revision that all-too-conveniently neglects the litany of genocide and injustice interwoven with the more commendable aspects of our story–the one we should arbitrarily claim to “matter” today? Isn’t all of it important since, well, all of it actually happened? Moreover, the end result of that pseudo-homogeneous religious heritage would be our present context, right? So, if we don’t like the fruit of our past decisions, what sense is there in an attempted return to its more nascent form? To repeat the whole process all over again because we cannot think of any better way to move towards a categorically new and more promising future?
The congregation I serve in Chicago was challenged several years ago to develop a statement of its view of sexuality, its understanding of God’s desires and designs for our lives in their sexual dimensions. Although this occurred before my time ministering with the women and men of First Free Church, I love the way that the document resulting from this endeavor emphasizes a few key facts that are central to an orthodox, Christian worldview elevating the conversation of sexuality above a mere list of do’s and dont’s. And while there is much to discuss about sexuality, suffice it to say here that I share the conviction expressed by the statement my fellow church leaders drafted regarding the fact that human sexuality is a good and purposeful thing, that God’s very self came up with the idea of sexual intimacy in the first place. As Creator and Lord of all, God possesses the right to make claims on our sexuality, and following God’s ways is what is best for us even when it is difficult or unpopular. With the majority of the Church through time, the rest of my current congregation’s leadership and I believe that God’s intent for the active expression of sexual intimacy is within the context of heterosexual marriage or else singleness in chastity. As an unmarried man with a relentless hunger to experience the joy and, yes, also the challenges that come with married life, those claims I just mentioned are hard. For me personally. (Jesus, help me!) But they are sound; they are good.
Hence, one might not expect to find that I am supportive of the repeal of DADT. Why would I come to that conclusion despite all of the above? Because losing DADT means that both the heteronormative and the LGBT military community can be honest and open about the facts rather than advised to live a lie by omission of detail. Similarly, I appreciate the removal of prayers from public schools in the sense where this actually has occurred, viz. where students are no longer forced to actively pray or sit through prayers conducted by their teachers and school administration, because it enables our society to be more open and honest about our actual, pluralistic composition. We are people with enough similarity to have a shot at coping with our differences rather than pretending they don’t exist or leveraging those of us in one group to toe the line of another group without sufficient warrant. In other words, there is a profound benefit to this sort of pluralism, one that does not seek to blur all our distinctions or overcome them by fiat but to realistically deal with them in their pointedness and messiness, eschewing scripted, sitcom-like plot lines where voiced disagreement with another’s way of life is tantamount to bigotry on the one hand and the ideological equivalent of tyranny on the other hand.
I like being able to speak openly about my faith in Jesus in this context, about the merits of the claims that my Messiah makes upon my life and the lives of others without getting pat, hollow, responses of pseudo-agreement from people following some utterly sickening twist of civic virtue neutered of all reference to truth. I would much rather share a difficult relationship with someone who completely disagreed with me–in truth–rather than a vacuous relationship with somebody who had jettisoned any robust sense of their own convictions for whatever it is they are “supposed” to think or do. If Perry means to protect America’s religious heritage by shutting up the sorts of people who sharply disagree with me, then he is not just attempting to abuse them, he is also attempted to rob me of one of the most precious opportunities I have to share my faith. And if the substance upon which my faith is itself founded is not sufficiently strong to survive those turbulent waters of dialog and disagreement (especially without Perry’s protection), then there is no possible way that the foundation of my faith came from the Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence and in whom all things live and move and have their being.
Sure, I know just as well as anybody with a modest command of history that many of the founders of American society were religious, but several of them were not all that exemplary by that day’s standards. And even those who were religious certainly were not all cut from the same cloth: Penn was Quaker, Washington was Anglican, Jefferson was a humanist deist, and Franklin was a Christian one of Puritan heritage. But Perry’s political gerrymandering not only obscures this fact and the others I mentioned above, it neglects the far more impactful point on which I’ll conclude this diatribe.
There is nothing–absolutely nothing–meritorious about leveraging a spirit of division, exclusion, reactionism, and false antagonism on Perry’s premises (even if they weren’t so thoroughgoingly specious) when the precious opportunity to dignify, embrace, and redemptively engage one another while we labor to create a categorically better future lies in wait. That latter project will be difficult and undoubtedly marked by turns of dispute and misunderstanding as much as agreement and co-laboring. But at least it is truthful. At least it is possible. At least it is more like the Christ that Perry purports to worship than the politically charged religiosity that crucified Jesus over the very sorts of ideas Perry so mistakenly aggrandizes to everyone’s hurt. Not just the hurt of “them” gays and lesbians and Obama-lovers so callously treated as foils in this God forsaken clip but the hurt of whoever the “us” was supposed to be. And my own hurt, too.
Well, I wasn’t too sure how anybody would respond to my unsolicited, theo-political tirade, but the first comment it received was “BRAVO SIR!” Then somebody posted a different clip of Hilary Clinton speaking at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to the end that “gay rights are human rights” on the very same day that the Perry clip was uploaded to YouTube. Then somebody else asked me if I was planning to run for office since, evidently, they were inclined to vote for me. And then another person posted a link to an image that had swiftly flown up the ranks of websites like reddit.com showing that Perry wore a jacket in his campaign clip that looked a whole lot like that of the late Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain–working title “can’t make this $#!% up.”
Then somebody else argued that Rick Perry “is bigot”–not a bigot but is bigot. Amber Macarthur argued a similar point the following day in her article with The Globe and Mail, saying that Perry’s clip could be considered “hate speech” leading to a take down from YouTube given a sufficient number of users flagging it as such. Since I personally believe that just about everybody probably holds some bigoted views about something, this aspect of the clip was not the most frustrating part of the matter. Rather, it was Perry’s decision to leverage the polarizing nature of his views to gain support, i.e. at the expeense of driving more deeply the fractures that already exist in our society. I will admit that I found Perry’s views offensive and not just illogical. On a personal level, I bristled at the sheer velocity with which he swept a declaration about not being ashamed to admit that he is a Christian right into trying to fortify a claim that “there is something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” It would be too much of a sidetrack to articulate how frustrating it is to watch people like Perry reinforce again and again that stereotype that Christians are a bunch of moronic, homophobic haters–and especially to know that Perry is probably acting this way because he really believes it is for the best. But on the level of evaluating his aspirations for statesmanship, it is his calculated use of everything comprising that wild package of campaign ad to gain political strength specifically through polarizing activity that I found most disturbing of all.
And that is why I was pleasantly surprised at what happened next, for, lo and behold, Rick Perry has miraculously unified America. Namely, through prompting a virtually unanimous, negative response to Rick Perry’s “Strong.” Within roughly one full day after the clip was posted by Perry’s camp, Chicagoan film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert, tweeted, “Answer to Rick Perry’s confusion: We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Epic YouTube fail,” including a link to Garance Franke-Ruta’s article in The Atlantic analyzing the overwhelmingly negative, high-volume response the campaign commercial was receiving from virtually every front. All sorts of people began uploading parody videos satirizing the matter, including nationally established groups like Chicago’s Second City Network, rising “YouTube famous” acts like The Comedy Couple, maybe-not-so-famous-but-quite-prolific atheists like James Kotecki, and the one I personally found most hilarious, Conservative Jewish rabbi, Jason Miller.
Will Ferrel’s “Funny or Die” website put together a more surprisingly tasteful response than expected, depicting a buddy-buddy version of Jesus Christ correcting Perry’s gaffes. Memes began to fly all over the place, including a Harry Potter homage to the 2012 campaign of “Lord Perrymort,” alleging that you “do not need to be a Pureblood to know there is something wrong with the Wizarding World when Mudbloods can live among the worthy as equals, but our own children cannot openly practise the Dark Arts.” Roughly 72 hours after Perry’s “Strong” was posted to YouTube, it has garnered over 3 million views with a 98% disapproval rating, a feat so momentous that apparently everybody from The Huffington Post to Salon.com to local television affiliates like Wilmington, NC’s channel 6 News all felt compelled to report on the matter.
I don’t want to treat the extremely problematic aspects of what Perry said in those fateful, thirty seconds with too much levity. His perspective is dangerous. It bears a family resemblance to the specific mechanism that crucified Jesus, and it smacks of the very sort of thing that is driving so many people away from Christ’s Church of which I am a part and continue to serve. This lousy ad has upset a lot of people I love, not just ones who feel personally targeted but others who feel misrepresented, not to mention still others who are sincerely concerned about some of the fears upon which Perry played to his own political ends.
But all this has quite thankfully resulted in something I never expected when I first viewed that clip after my buddy posted it. It has brought some of us–in fact, quite a lot of us–closer together now than we were before. And in so doing, it has shown us that this is possible not just in spite of but specifically by the agency of what was selfishly intended to drive us apart. Are you ready to help build that future?
Around two weeks ago, I posted the first part of this series exploring the connections between the last narrative section of the fifth book of the Bible and the Jewish high holiday, Rosh Hashannah. Since the article I posted before this was also on the long side and dealt with some heavy topics, I broke things up a bit in my last post by delving into an exploration of the concept of lived simplicity. Although we have now passed the time in the Jewish calendar devoted to Rosh Hashanah, there is still quite a bit I would like to share by developing the preliminary work I did two weeks ago. So, this post will pick up where we left off back then in order to dig into the meat of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30, showing how this portion of scripture so beautifully lays out key aspects of one of the most important biblical holidays, which is traditionally celebrated by Jews right around the same time each year that many of them are meditating on this portion of scripture.
My goal in the previous part of this series was to prepare the grounds for this process by highlighting various aspects of Jewish life and practice that are intimately tied to both the text and the holiday in question. My hope is to facilitate a robust engagement with the cultural context in which this portion of holy scripture is frequently read by the religious community that received it, which will in turn enable us to engage with God in a unique and vital manner often neglected in the church. Among other things, I mentioned how the Jewish rabbis partitioned the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, into sections called parshas that one can study sequentially each week over the course of a year. In fact, if you ever visit a synagogue to participate in a service of worship on Shabbat (more popularly known in English as “the Sabbath,” the seventh day of the week), you will probably hear a message delivered by the presiding rabbi that analyzes the parsha for the week. The parsha for the week during which Rosh Hashanah occurs is our text, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30.
Last time, I also discussed how the Jewish calendar works quite a bit differently than the Gregorian or Julian calendar. It marks its first year from the date the rabbis calculated back to the creation of humanity such that we are presently living in year 2011 C.E. according to the Julian and Gregorian calendars and year 5772 according to the Jewish calendar. Also, there are not one but four different points marking the beginning of the year for the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah being one such point commemorating the new year from a perspective celebrating the creation of the world and ramping up over ten days to Yom Kippur, the holiday commemorating God’s process of atoning for the sins of the Jewish people and thereby reconciling them back again to a restored, righteous relationship with God.
This time around, I will pivot from describing the praxis of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and the reading of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 in the Jewish community today to laying out the biblical context of the text in question. I want to plow into this parsha to answer four different yet interrelated questions: 1) Just what is going on in this text in general, 2) how does it relate to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah during which it is traditionally read, 3) what on earth does this tell us about who God is, and 4) what might be our response–how does all this not only serve to inform us but to transform us? So, by the end of this post, we should have acquired both the cultural context in which our text is read by the Jewish community as well as the biblical context in which the text can be found. That will enable us to do the in-depth, exeggetical drilling in the final post of this series to take a solid crack at answering those four questions I mentioned above.
Incidentally, I’m writing this post while rocking out to this song, which you should clearly listen to right now while you’re reading this to capture the synergistically epic nature of the compositional moment. Or maybe this one if you want to swing in a more Jewish direction or something…
Okay, Deuteronomy received its English title from the Greek term, “Deuteronomion,” which means “second law.” This refers to the recapitulation of much of the teaching delivered over the previous three books of Torah–Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. These books tell the story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt through Moses, one of the single most important prophets and leaders mentioned in the entire Bible. According to Exodus 33:12 34:35, Moses is the only individual mentioned in the entire first half of the Bible who gets a glimpse of God’s glorified presence; in fact, Moses’ countenance became so radiant from this encounter that he terrified other people who saw him afterwards such that he walked around with a veil over his face to keep them from flipping out. Numbers 12:3 describes Moses as being “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” and yet God worked so powerfully through him that the Lord himself said that he had made Moses “like a god” to others with whom he came into conflict, such as the king of Egypt in Exodus 7. In fact, Exodus 34:10 says that God spoke with Moses “face to face,” and Numbers 12:8 says that Moses spoke with God “mouth to mouth,” which are parallel literary devices indicating a degree of intimacy in communication greater than virtually anyone else in the entire Bible. (Remember, not even Moses could handle actually looking directly at God face to face according to Exodus 33:12 and following.)
Given all of the above, it is little wonder why the final redaction of Deuteronomy 34:10 indicates that no other prophet had arisen in Israel like Moses ever since, a person whom “the LORD knew face to face.” Now, all those capital letters that get brought into most English translations with this verse indicate the most holy iteration of the name of God in the Old Testatment, nicknamed “the Tetragrammaton,” which means “the four letters.” Why such a strange moniker? Because the Hebrew text doesn’t actually spell out the entire name of God in this case; it was thought to be too holy to even write out in this form. Instead, there are just four Hebrew letters present in the text–yodh, he, waw, and he–and the rabbis actually mixed in some different vowel markings over time to prompt any reader following along to use a completely different word at this point when reciting scripture aloud out of reverence, namely the word, “adonai,” which is the Hebrew term for “lord” or “master.” In other words, Deuteronomy 34:10 is juxtaposing the single most holy name of God with the statement that God knew Moses “face to face.” That’s as freaking intimate as it gets all the way until Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, shows up in the New Testament. This is probably why John 1:17-19 purposefully states that “the Son” is “himself God,” that he is in closest relationship with God, that he is the only one to have truly ”seen” God, and that he has on this basis “made God known” to those who follow him.
To continue with Moses, it is little wonder why the rabbis concluded that the person he identifies in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as being one whom God would raise up as a prophet “like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites” must undoubtedly refer to the Messiah, the chosen and anointed one of God. (Of course, most rabbis do not conclude that this Messiah is Jesus, but that’s a topic for another time.) It is also little wonder why Moses shows up not once but twice in the closest thing we have to a comprehensive statement of faith for the Jewish community today, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon’s “13 Principles of Faith.” And that is also why it must have been utterly terrifying for the myriad Jewish people who had followed Moses for decades through the wilderness towards the Promised Land around the present-day State of Israel to even think of moving forward without Moses’ leadership.
But the twentieth chapter of the book of Numbers indicates that Moses would not survive the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to wilderness to homeland. In fact, almost nobody who had initially been delivered from slavery in Egypt survived that journey, and that is why the final book of Torah, the fifth book of the Bible, gets that nickname Deuteronomy, “second law,” because it was Moses’ last chance to reiterate in detail precisely what God had done on behalf of the Jewish people and what the terms of God’s covenant relationship with them was. That way, all the children of those who had directly witnessed God’s miraculous deliverance back in Egypt, those children who had quite literally grown up wandering around in the middle of nowhere between bondage and promise, would never forget who God is and what God had done–even if their parents’ had not related the story so accurately up to that point.
To really bring this point home, Moses not only reiterates the gist of the teaching recorded in the previous three books of the Bible across the text of Deuteronomy, he also boils all of it down into what is the closest thing to a central confession of faith for the Jewish people, the Shema. This is recited at every single Shabbat service of worship, and it’s the very same portion of scripture that Jesus himself quoted when asked what the greatest commandment in all of the first five books of the Bible could be. It’s right there in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” It turns out that this is not just important for Jewish people in general, it’s rather important for the analysis of our parsha; so, let’s take a closer look.
Well, you can see a whole bunch of instances of that exceptionally holy name of God, the Tetragrammaton, in those two verses comprising the Shema. But you can also see several other things when you look into the Hebrew; for the sake of brevity, I’ll mention just a few:
- All of the Jewish people present are implored to “hear.” This isn’t a mere dictation but an attempt to draw into relationship even while informing and exhorting.
- The LORD–the most holy and awesome being in existence–is also the God of the Israelites. God is both transcendent yet also immanent. As Isaiah 57:10 later puts it, “For this is what the high and exalted One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ’I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”
- “The LORD is one,” which means two things at the same time in Hebrew: First, that there’s just one, true God; God doesn’t need to jockey for power among some pantheon like the Egyptian, Sumerian, or Greek concepts of divinity. Second, that this God alone is the God of Israel–a sort of radicalization of the whole transcendence / immanence thing that illustrates the completely different sort of relationship God wanted to share with the Jewish people compared to how others understood their relationship with the divine was supposed to work.
- The bottom line of what God wants, what God commands, is love expressed through every aspect of one’s being. In an ancient, Jewish worldview, the heart (H. lebab) was understood to be the seat of the intellect, emotions, will, and appetites. The soul (H. nephesh) was understood to be the central essence of a person, the very life of a given being. So what base is left to cover in the appeal to love? Nothing! the final phrase that get’s translated into English as “all your strength” is literally something like “exceedingly much” or “abundant muchness” (H. m’od). It’s like God is imploring the Israelites, “I want you to love me with literally everything inside of you–your reason, your feelings, your volition, your passions, your very spiritual essence, your–well, you get the picture–your everything I put inside of you! Because that’s how much I love you.”
That’s why the Shema stands as a summary statement for the entire Torah, because all the rest of the stories and prophecies and commandments hang upon the truth expressed in these two, short verses. And there are repercussions for committing oneself to living accordingly on the one hand or else abandoning such a love-drenched relationship with God on the other hand. Living in the former way guides us towards the sorts of activities that bring wholeness and justice and truth to ourselves and those around us with prosperity being the result; living in the latter way not only severs our covenant relationship with God, it puts us at enmity with one another, too. The consequences of eschewing this love of God, of rejecting the activities predicated on a response to that love, is nothing short of destruction and death; the consequences of turning to God are overflowing life and peace. To make sure the Israelites would never forget this point, Moses separates all of the people into two groups located on two adjacent mountains in Deuteronomy 27 – 28, and they literally shout the blessings that would follow from their obedience to God’s commands from one mountain as well as shout the curses that would follow from their disobedience of God’s commands on the other mountain.
This brings us right up to Deuteronomy 29, the chapter where our parsha starts. If we were to look at what follows immediately after our parsha to round out our understanding of its biblical context, we wind up in a huge chunk of poetry that runs for a solid two chapters–the longest piece of prophecy that Moses delivers in the entire Bible. This is followed by a short, narrative epilogue describing his final resting place somewhere “in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor,” a place that remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Deuteronomy 34:7 tells us that “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” Well, dropping a couple chapters of prophetic poetry right before one hikes across a mountain and a valley before giving up the ghost certainly demonstrates that!
Now, ancient Hebrew lacks punctuation. So if one wanted to break up a section of narrative, one would typcially insert a section of poetry. And that’s exactly what the portion of scripture following our parsha is doing; it’s communicating through a Hebrew literary device that this is the end of this part of the story. But that means that our parsha is the very last chunk of substantial narrative in the entire Torah, the last bit of story before Moses delivers the longest and probably the most important monologue of his entire life. This means that whatever happens in our parsha must be incredibly significant. And every year, Jews read about the content of the end of Moses’ life at the exact same time that they are celebrating one of the most important holidays, Rosh Hashanah, the biblically mandated celebration that wound up getting associated with the beginning of the year from the perspective of the creation of the world. Why?
Now that we have explored both the cultural and biblical context of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 over the first two parts of this series, we can turn towards an in-depth analysis of the text itself to try to answer that question. And also the other three questions I mentioned above. Next time…
For erev Shabbat last week, I got the chance to deliver a parsha teaching at my friend, Heather Blecher’s flat. Heather is an accomplished, young adult leader of Chicago’s Jewish-Christian community, worshiping with an evangelical congregation in Evanston and serving as a senior ministry partner with the Skokie branch of the non-profit, para-church organization, Jews for Jesus. Beyond this, Heather is a gifted photographer who distributes her prints through etsy, posts one shot a day on tumblr, was recently featured on imagekind.com, and occasionally exhibits her work in assorted coffee shops and art galleries across Chicago and New York. It’s always an honor to partner with her, and I’m glad I got the chance to do so once again last week. To spice up this post accordingly, I included a couple of my favorite photos from Heather’s aforementioned tumblr blog, which you should obviously check out, pronto.
My ultimate goal in this post is to set up an analysis of a key portion of scripture that many Jews reflect upon during one of the most important times in the Jewish calendar, the same portion of scripture upon which I taught at Heather’s flat a few days ago. I want to do this from an explicitly Jewish-Christian angle, illustrating just what is at stake for followers of Jesus who want to better understand the Jewish roots of their faith so that they can more faithfully follow after Messiah. In order to pull off this sort of analysis, I have to lay out a prolegomena of sorts describing a bit more about Jewish life and practice so that the biblical analysis I mentioned is achievable at a deep rather than a superficial level. In other words, this post is not merely anthropological but hermeneutical; it is not just about various, whimsical facets of Jewish culture but about the context of holy scripture, our attention to which will enable us to engage with God in a vital way that has been often neglected in the church. My next post in this series will deal with the in-depth, biblical analysis; this post will properly set it up. Let’s get rolling by unpacking a few of those religious terms I casually tossed into the very first sentence of this post. When is “erev Shabbat” and just what on earth is a “parsha”?
Jewish people measure the beginning of a given day from nightfall of the one that precedes it. Hence, a lot of religious observances scheduled to occur on a given day in the Jewish calendar get inaugurated the previous night–you know, because that’s technically already the next day. Hence, there’s a pretty frequent use of the term “erev” referring to the night preceding a given day, which is also the same thing as the very beginning of that day for a Jewish understanding of the ways that days and nights work. If this seems confusing, maybe this analogy will help clarify things a bit. For a Gregorian or Julian calendar, the first day of the week is Sunday and the last day of the week is Saturday, meaning that the weekend starts on Saturday morning and runs through Sunday night. But just about everybody knows that you really celebrate the weekend not on Saturday morning but on Friday night, right? The night before the technical weekend is so wrapped up in the observance of the weekend itself, it winds up getting functionally lumped together in our minds. (And parties, where applicable.) Well, something like this is true for the Jewish observance of every day, except that the evening before a given morning is technically a part of that morning and not just functionally a part of it. The linguistic marker of this fact is the term “erev,” the night before a given day that is also a part of that day.
Incidentally, the effect of this arrangement is such that one often wakes up on the morning of a spiritually significant day that has already begun and has in some part been commemorated before one went to sleep the previous night. To illustrate the significance of this way of doing things, the average, observant Christian does not associate Saturday night with a Sunday worship service, and the average Sunday morning is often frenetically paced. (Some buddies of mine actually leveraged this fact by planting a church in Brooklyn whose Sunday services began at 6pm.) In contrast, the average Jew does associate Friday night with a Saturday worship service, and they will have prepared themselves to participate in the latter with a focused yet relaxed rhythm on Friday night–literally going to sleep and waking up again in a state of rest devoted to worshiping the Living God and celebrating this blessing with their families and community of faith.
The key term in Hebrew for the seventh day of the week is שבת, i.e. “Shabbat,” or what most English speaking people call “The Sabbath.” Not only is this the final day of the week, it is the only day of the week with a proper name in scripture. In Hebrew, the other days of the week are given nicknames for their distance from Shabbat; that’s how ridiculously important Shabbat is for an observant Jew. Moreover, Shabbat it is the only day of religious observance mentioned in what is popularly called The Decalogue, or “The Ten Commandments” recorded in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. These are ten of the most important instructions delivered to the Jewish people out of all 613 commandments articulated in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and Shabbat receives more commentary than any other teaching in in those two, aforementioned portions of scripture.
In order to help Jewish people study scripture faithfully each week, the rabbis apportioned various selections from Torah into units for sequential study, called parshas. Each Shabbat, Jews are encouraged to study the given parsha selection, then meditate and act upon it over the course of the following week. So, last Friday night for erev Shabbat, i.e. the very beginning of Shabbat last week, I delivered a teaching on the parsha selection for the group of people Heather had rounded up at her flat. We also shared an awesome time of prayer, laughter, dialog, and the consumption of some utterly delicious food and drink, but those are topics of discussion for another time.
I’m going to move towards wrapping up this post by mentioning one detail that will provide a nice pivot for part two of this series. According to the Jewish calendar, this present week spans Elul 26, 5771 to Tishrei 3, 5772. Whereas the common era calendar measures everything with reference to the birth of Christ circa 1 B.C.E. and 1 C.E. (even though it’s pretty likely that Jesus was actually born around 4 B.C.E.), the Jewish calendar measures everything from the date it has calculated the creation of the world for religious purposes, which corresponds to 3761 B.C.E. The months are also run on a strictly lunar cycle and given different names than, say, the Gregorian or Julian calendars; hence, today is the 27th day of the month of Elul in year 5771 for the Jewish calendar and also the 26th day of the month of September in year 2011 for the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
Now, you may have noticed in the second sentence of the above paragraph that the parsha actually runs right across the new year according to the Jewish calendar; we’re going from the end of the month of Elul 5771 to the beginning of the month of Tishrei 5772. The festival marking this shift is one of the four most important holidays for Jewish faith and practice, holidays so important that one was supposed to suspend all normal work in order to properly connect with God through them such that one could be excommunicated from the Jewish community for callously disregarded their significance back in the days when scripture was being codified. Those “big four” holidays are Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. And just to make things interesting, while it is Rosh Hashanah that functionally serves as the Jewish new year, the day falling right in the middle of the week for which our parsha section is reserved, it is actually Pesach that technically serves as the marker for the Jewish new year.
Alright, I cannot leave this post dangling on such an apparent contradiction; so, here’s one way to understand the matter. The central, religious event for the Jewish people recorded in first five books of the Bible is God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from hundreds of years of bondage and slavery in Egypt. This single event predicated everything that followed in such a fundamental way that God literally reset the Jewish calendar to commemorate it, and this is precisely what Pesach, also known as “The Passover,” accomplishes. I love how the first couple verses of Exodus 12:1-28 illustrate the matter, where God says to Moses and his brother, Aaron, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” It’s like God is saying, “What I am doing right now on your behalf will blow your minds so much, it is so completely unprecedented, I want you to rearrange your entire year around it.” So the first two weeks of the Jewish year during the month of Nisan are devoted to ramping up to Pesach, and there is an entire week of celebration afterwards named the Feast of Unleavened Bread to protract the lesson. In other words, Jews take three weeks to celebrate the new year, and the most important point of time over that period isn’t the first day of the year but twilight just before the morning of the fifteenth!
A similar thing happens as we go deeper into the year and approach Yom Kippur, also known as “The Day of Atonement,” which commemorates God’s process of making amends or reparations for the sins of the Jewish people and thereby reconciling them back again to God’s self. Remember how we took two whole weeks to ramp up to Pescah? Well, we take ten days to ramp up to Yom Kippur nicknamed “the days of awe,” which begin with Rosh Hashanah. Now, Rosh Hashanah is actually a Hebrew nickname meaning “the head of the year” for the more biblical term in Leviticus 23:24, “The Day of Sounding,” which refers to the trumpets whose blast indicated to everybody within earshot that the gradual ramping up towards Yom Kippur had begun. The Jewish rabbis would later develop the concept of four different new years commemorating the beginning of different parts of our world. Pesach commemorates the beginning of the salvific relationship God established with the Jewish people by liberating them from slavery in Egypt and, consequently, the beginning of all holidays. Perhaps in some part due to the significance of forgiveness and the removal of sins commemorated by Yom Kippur, the rabbis treated Rosh Hashanah as the day when the world was created; that’s why the calendar actually advances a year on Rosh Hashanah and why it gets that nickname, “the head of the year.”
What all this means for our purposes is that the parsha for this week, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30, spans an incredibly significant period of time for the Jewish calendar, the week when observant Jews celebrate the creation of the world and begin to prepare themselves to encounter God on a day devoted to recognizing their need for forgiveness and the removal of sins as a people. I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that the rabbis picked this parsha with care; they meant for us to meditate on the truths of scripture in that aforementioned context of observance and meditation on these key aspects of our relationship with God.
Paradoxically, while Jews are supposed to reflect upon this parsha selection near the end of Deuteronomy over a week that includes a day dedicated to remembering God’s creation of the world, a day marking the turnover of the Jewish calendar and, hence, a celebration of the beginning of the new year in Rosh Hashanah, the actual scriptural content of the parsha marks the end of one of the most important figures in all of the Bible, Moses. What’s the significance of that detail? Well, now now that we’ve done the work of establishing more of a culturally edifying context to explore this passage of scripture, we can turn to an in-depth analysis of it.