The Futility of Fighting Sin with Sin

Ring PendantI think I may have started to find narrative more persuasive and more compelling than propositions (that’s quite a step for me). Again I have been thinking about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this time I have been thinking about sin through Tolkien’s spectacular metaphor of the ring. After Shelob’s lair – potentially the most exhilarating episode in the book – Sam believes Frodo to be dead and, after some deliberation, comes to the realisation that the responsibility of bearing the ring has fallen to him. This means that Sam carried it briefly and, for a short time, even wore it. My interest is the battle of wills that ensues as Sam puts on the ring.

The objective of the fellowship has always been the defeat of Sauron. The objective is a good one. It is the means of that objective being fulfilled that shifts and it is in the shift that Sauron would triumph. Sam barely wears the ring but simply having it hanging around his neck gives him courage and makes him fearsome in the eyes of orc enemies.

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

Were he to wear it and try to wield it, it would certainly destroy him. His will would be engulfed in the will of Sauron and his good desire to defeat Sauron would turn into the evil desire for the power; the power for which Sauron himself longed (this is the vice of the ring; into it was poured all of Sauron’s evil will such that it will corrupt the will of whoever wears it).

While Sam’s desire to defeat Sauron remains and is still good, conflicting desires flare up that are evil and as Tolkien allows us briefly to peak into Sam’s ring-induced imaginings, we are exposed to the subtle yet perilous shift in means. Sauron’s defeat need not come at the expense of the ring; Sam is tempted by the idea that in his own power (with the help of the ring), he could overthrow Sauron. The seductive but errant notion that the defeat of evil need not come at the expense of evil.

Figurine: Gollum with The RingThe concept is illuminating. How often I now find myself using a sinful means to try to defeat sin. Allow me to illustrate, a man beats his wife. He knows it’s wrong but he constantly finds he succumbs to the temptation. He realises, however, that should this be discovered he would lose his reputation – a reputation that has become an idol to him. He therefore puts a stop to beating his wife in order to maintain his reputation. Of course, he would still beat his wife if no one could discover him. What’s more, the sinful passion that was fed as he found satisfaction in his sin will only find another outlet. Worst of all, in my opinion, he willfully feeds a sinful desire.

On the contrary, Sauron will not be defeated by the use of the ring, only by its destruction. Sin will not be defeated by the use of sin. This is why we are urged time and again to “put to death” “the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and “what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). Sin cannot be wielded for good, it can only corrupt. It began in Eden with a desire to be like God – a good desire (which will be accomplished by Christ in us) – but a sinful means in the serpent’s whisperings to Eve, “You need only eat the fruit and claim it for your own, and all this could be.” How often I take the bait.

Evil can only be overthrown by direct assault, only the pursuit of righteousness will defeat evil. So my exhortation is, “put to death whatever is earthly in you” and “clothe yourselves with compassionate hearts.”

Yeshua and the Crowd

Unapolgetic, by Francis SpuffordReposted from the blog of Francis Spufford’s book “Unapologetic”

Daylight finds him in a procession again, but this time no one could mistake him for a king. He’s stumbling along under the weight of his own instrument of execution, a great big wooden thing he can hardly lift, with an escort of the empire’s soldiers, and the bystanders who’ve come blinking out of the lodgings where they spent the festival night don’t see their hopes, or even the possibility of their hopes, parading by. They see their disappointment, they see their frustration. They see everything in themselves that is too weak or too afraid to confront the strapping paratroopers; and much though they hate the soldiers, they hate him more, for his pathetic slide into victimhood. Word of his loose living, his impiety, his pleasure in bad company goes round in whispers. And just look at him. There’s something disgusting about him, don’t you think? Something that makes you squirm inside. Something … furtive. He’s so pale and sickly-looking, with that dried blood round his mouth. He looks like a paedophile being led away by the police. He looks like something from under a rock; as if he doesn’t deserve the daylight. He’s a blot on the new day. Someone kicks his arse as he goes by, and whoops, down he goes, flat on his nose with the cross pinning him like a struggling insect, and let’s face it, it’s funny. Yeshua is a joke. He’s less a messiah, more a patch of something nasty on the pavement. And as he struggles on he recognises every roaring, jeering face. He knows our names. He knows our histories

And since, as well as being a weak and frightened man, he’s also the love that makes the world, to whom all times and places are equally present, he isn’t just feeling the anger and spite and unbearable self-disgust of this one crowd on this one Friday morning in Palestine; he’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human crowd, past and present and to come, and accepting everything we have to throw at him, everything we fear we deserve ourselves. The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets. Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead. Let me carry it. Let me be to blame instead. I am big enough. I am wide enough. I am not what you were told. I am not your king or your judge. I am the father who longs for every last one of his children. I am the friend who will never leave you. I am the light behind the darkness. I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish. I am the ghost of love in the torture chamber. I am change and hope. I am the refining fire. I am the door where you thought there was only wall. I am what comes after deserving. I am the earth that drinks up the bloodstain. I am gift without cost. I am. I am. I am. Before the foundations of the world, I am.

But it is killing him all the same.

Aside from the inevitable criticism, it’s quite moving: “Let me carry it …”

Mark’s Ending: From Apologetics to Application

Turn Your Fear to Faith by BrittlebearAt Friday youth we have been doing a course called Christianity Explored (the youth version though – called Soul). The course runs for seven weeks with each week teaching something different from the book of Mark. In the fourth week the topic was the resurrection and because the course is an introduction to Christianity, we encourage questions. The question that came was not particularly surprising – especially given Mark’s surprising ending:

Mark ends in verse 8 of chapter 16 as follows:
Mark 16:8 “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
and actually, verse 7 says, “But go, tell his disciples, even Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” ”

Imagine the reader’s confusion when s/he reads any of the other Gospel accounts:

Matthew 28:8 “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Luke 24:9 “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.”

John 20:2 “So she [Mary Magdalene] came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said …”

What do we do with Mark’s mistake here? Doesn’t this disprove the Bible?

My response, which I am hoping exemplifies a helpful response, was the following: I began with the assumption that Mark was not a complete idiot – a reasonable assumption I think. Based on that, I asked whether – considering Mark had obviously heard about the resurrection – he actually thought that the women said nothing to anyone. Clearly they said something to someone or Mark himself wouldn’t know about the it. We still don’t know what he means by it but we can be confident that he wouldn’t disagree with the other gospel writers.

The difficulty then moves from the realm of “contradictions in the Bible” to that of interpretation. By simply assuming that the writer is not stupid we don’t have to worry about losing Scripture. The question lingers though – what did Mark mean?

To answer this I would point the reader to the rest of Mark’s gospel where we find fear and faith juxtaposed (for example 4:40, 5:36). Here, I think, Mark is directing his readers to respond not by fleeing in fear but by in following in faith. His readers, in case you hadn’t caught on, are me and you; we’re the ones he’s challenging to “run from the tomb and tell everyone because we are filled with faith.”

Biblical Historicity and African Folklore

One fairly appealing argument for the historicity of Old Testament narratives is that Jesus/Paul/Some-author viewed treated them as historical. By this, we mean that they make arguments from them. One example from the Old Testament is Exodus’ use of the creation account in the Ten Commandments: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (Ex 20:11).

Thandi, a young South African Zulu woman came to her mother with a complaint.
— “I don’t want to go to church today,” Thandi told her mother, “it’s boring …”
You must go Thandi,” her mother tenderly replied.
— “But why?”
Look at the moon, my daughter.
— “What?”
Long ago there was a woman like you who didn’t want to go to church. She thought that her time would be much better spent collecting wood which she did. She took her child on her back and went to the forest and began bundling up logs of wood. Later in the afternoon, when lunch was to be served her family realised that she had not done any preparation. They looked for her far and wide all day long. It was only in the evening that they found her though.
— “Where was she?”
She had been swallowed by the moon. Later in the evening, her family looked up …” At this, Thandi’s mother pointed to the moon and passed her hand over it’s strange shadows, “… and there in the moon, they saw her, a young woman with her child on her back and carrying a bundle of logs.

That’s why you should go to church, my girl.

Admittedly, there is a moon. What’s more, one could probably identify the silhouette of  a woman carrying a bundle of sticks and a child (in a “what do you see in the clouds?” kind of way). However, those hardened in Zulu culture believe the story to be true no more than skeptical Westerners. It’s simply rhetoric of Zulu culture: “look at the moon – that’s why you should go to church.” For some skeptical Westerners, “look at the rainbow, that’s how we know God is merciful,” is not that different.

My concern, and it is simply a concern, is that our claim for historicity on the basis of the way arguments worked in the first century AD (or before that) may miss the rhetorical style of author’s culture.  It’s simply food for thought and an attempt to sharpen our arguments by cutting the dead-wood. If you can think of other/better arguments, please let me know (comments are good) – a while ago I jotted down a few thoughts on the importance of historicity here.

P.S. Tempering these thoughts is the rhetorical value of historicity. Job, for example, seems a far more powerful argument to endure suffering as historical narrative than as parable. Could this just be my Western rhetorical style though?

A Light that Shines in the Darkness

Shelob, Frodo and SamI’ve been reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and have loved his narrative. One of the remarkable capacities of story is its emotive power and I’ve been thinking about how to utilise this in preaching. In the second book of the trilogy (The Two Towers), Sam and Frodo come to Cirith Ungol – home of Shelob, the mother of all spiders (literally and  idiomatically). In trying to make their way through her lair, the hobbits inevitably encounter this terrible creature. There is no escape for them, Shelob is at home in the darkness and her webs line the caverns which are stiflingly dark to the hobbits’ eyes. Frodo then remembers the gift he received which is essentially a bottled star; “a light when all other lights go out”. This he produces from his cloak and they see their dreadful foe and her mountainous eyes. As the light strengthens in Frodo’s hand and flares out to all the crevices of the cave Tolkein writes the following observing Shelob’s eyes:

They wavered. Doubt came into them as the light approached. One by one they dimmed, and slowly they drew back. No brightness so deadly had ever afflicted them before. From sun and moon and star they had been safe underground, but now a star had descended into the very earth. Still it approached, and the eyes began to quail. One by one they all went dark; they turned away, and a great bulk, beyond the light’s reach, heaved its huge shadow in between. They were gone.

It’s been difficult to read Tolkien and not think of the Bible. As I read this all I could hear was:

4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Imagine hearing a sermon on John 1:1-13 that brings its audience into the kind of story that Frodo and Sam find themselves in at Cirith Ungol. In which the audience realises that the spiritual darkness they live in is not unlike Frodo and Sam’s:

the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.

The darkness in which we find ourselves is not passive in it’s lightlessness; it increases the depth of darkness in our minds and our hearts. And living in that darkness which is itself our enemy, is the mother darkness who wishes to devour us. We must flee but we are blind and trapped. We must see but it is impossible. We are in desperate need of light or not only will we never find the way but we will be consumed.

But what light can be hoped for in this deep shadow?
What brightness could ever penetrate the place we find ourselves?

Well there is a light of all mankind that shines in the darkness. A light that even the deep darkness cannot overcome. The true light that gives light to everyone, a light that descended from the heavens into the very earth and at its approach, the darkness quails.

It is not mere narrative: darkness quails!

Admittedly, this is poor exegetical work on John. Nevertheless, given due exegetical time, I would find such delivery compelling. I wish preaching were more like this.

Lying Jews (and the art of biblical narrative)

I like logic because it makes sense. It has to. A is not not A. In other words if you tell me “A is not A”, you’re lying. The problem is, deceit actually can make sense but still be wrong. “A is B” could be true or false depending on what A and B are. But I’ll stop boring you with the alphabet an get into the complicated stuff.

Story #1: And then Dave said something fabulous, “Genesis sounds like a fable to me.”
Story #2: And then Dave said, “Genesis is merely mimetic myth”
Story #3: And Dave was an ocean of ideas saying, “Genesis is a metaphor”.

Now, Dave has never said any of those things to me exactly. However, I do believe that he believes them and I don’t think it would deceitful to put those words into his mouth. My thinking at this point is that we need to keep this in mind as we read Hebrew narrative (because obviously that’s what I’m blogging about, not logical stuff as the introduction may have implied). While in our context it seems dodgy to put words into someone’s mouth in a direct speech kind of way, we would certainly be willing to do it in reported speech: “Dave told me that didn’t believe Genesis was literal” could summarise an enormous conversation (Paul probably didn’t do a 2 minute sermon in Acts 17). Hebrew authors, it seems, have a propensity towards the prodigious use of direct speech but rarely reported speech and it seems clear that they were willing to summarise conversations into little speech bubble type reports which they recorded in direct speech.

In my stories I made Dave say stuff according to the rest of my story “fabulous” and “fable”, “merely mimetic myth” and the metaphor thing. I used what was true and wrote it into my story and I don’t think I was being deceitful.

The example that came to mind (beacuse I’ve been working on Jesus & the Gospels for the last week) was the centurion’s confession on seeing Jesus die. This is my conclusion:

When Luke has the centurion saying, “surely this was a Righteous man” it is for a reason. When Mark has the centurion saying, “surely this was the Son of God” it is for a reason.

Neither are deceitful and neither are wrong. Both authors are using what was said to do something artistic – something evangelicals know nothing about.

Update [Sept 3rd 2012]:  I recently read this article on patheos which talks about Thucydides writing about having to make up speech that fits the flow of history as he perceives it. It’s an interesting read down a similar sort of line.