I’m in love with a fantasy.

“You’re in love with a fantasy.”

“I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.”

“The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.”

(dialogue from the film Midnight in Paris)

Midnight in Paris may be Woody Allen’s last great movie, and it’s one of my favourite films of all time. I relate a lot to the main character, Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson (who, as far as I’m concerned, is the perfect actor to play the Woody Allen part for younger characters). Gil is an aspiring novelist who thinks the best time and place is Paris in the 20s.

Here’s a clip of some dialogue between his fiancée (Inez) and two friends (Paul and Carol), after his fiancée starts to tell them about the novel Gil is writing. The lead character works in a nostalgia shop.

Here’s a thirty second clip:

Here’s the dialogue:

CAROL: What’s a nostalgia shop?

PAUL: Not one of those stores that sells Shirley Temple dolls and old radios? I never know who buys that stuff – who’d want it.

FIANCÉE (pointedly): People who live in the past. Who think their lives would have been happier if they lived in an earlier time.

PAUL: And just what era would you have preferred to live in. . . ?

FIANCÉE (teasing Gil): Paris in the twenties—in the rain, when the rain wasn’t acid rain.

PAUL: I see. And no global warming, no TV or suicide bombing, nuclear weapons, drug cartels.

CAROL: The usual menu of clichéd horror stories.

PAUL: Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.

FIANCÉE: He’s a romantic. Gil would be just fine living in a perpetual state of denial.

PAUL: The name for this fallacy is called, “Golden Age Thinking.” The erroneous notion that a different time period was better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those who find coping with the present too difficult.

I’m not sure if I’m entirely a Golden Age Thinker, but I’ve certainly used Gil’s exact words in my own life: “I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.” I long for an elusive simpler time. Earlier in the film Gil’s fiancée tells him that he’s “in love with a fantasy.” And the film is about Gil figuring this out.

It’s a really fun film: it’s set in modern-day Paris, but, through mysterious circumstances, every night at midnight in a certain spot in the city, Gil gets picked up by a chauffeured vintage car, which takes him to hobnob with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and a host of other famous artists (most of whose names I don’t recognize) in 1920s Paris. [SPOILER ALERT!] There he falls in love with a beautiful young Parisienne of the time, whom he later discovers wishes she lived during La Belle Epoque—Paris in the 1890s—because her decade—Gil’s favourite—is boring.

Eventually Gil realizes that “The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying,” which is a lesson I’m still learning. I think I can’t quite accept the fact that the present—beautiful, difficult, depressing, hopeful as it is—is all I have, as odd as that may sound.

Which is why Gordon T. Smith stung with some of his words in his book Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. In a chapter about vocational holiness (“Called to Do Good Work”), he writes,

We are called to be present to our circumstances, our world—to be agents of peace and justice in the world as it actually is rather than as we wish it were. This means we turn not only from pretense (wishing we were someone else or acting as though we are someone else) but also from wishful thinking and illusion regarding our circumstances.

This means that we do not live emotionally in a previous time. We have no patience with “the good old days.” They are long gone. We discern in light of what is actually the case today. This also means we do not engage in wishful thinking. In other words, we do not dwell on what we wish were true but on what is actually true.

We live in the world as it presents itself—no nostalgia, no pining for an earlier golden age. We are not waiting around for good fortune to suddenly and finally hit us. We stop investing emotional energy in the “what-if’s,” and we get on with it.

All of us are called to such a time as this. None of us are ahead of our times, and no one is born too late and able to complain that the opportunity passed us by. Rather, we are each invited to respond to the call of God for this day.

(Gordon T. Smith, Called to Be Saints, 104-105)

Eugene Peterson, addressing pastors in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, has much the same thing to say as Smith, but he says it much more succinctly: my work is “these people, at this time, under these conditions” (p. 131).

I have some maturing to do I guess. As we all do. But it’s not maturing I particularly want to do, even though it would make the difficulties of today that much more bearable. I think Gil’s realization that “the present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying” is in many respects a very Christian perspective. We recognize that we live in a broken world, and all is not well, even as we hope that eventually it will be.

I’m reminded of something I quoted in a post almost twelve years ago:

Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.

Biblical hope is found when Christians hear the gospel and take their place in the great processions of the body of Christ. The proclamation of that hope is that in communing with Christ we discover all the grace we need to live joyful but limited lives. For in communing with God we encounter the mystery of his presence with us.

(M. Craig Barnes, Yearning: Living Between How It Is & How It Ought To Be, p. 21)

Wishful thinking, the grass is greener, “Golden Age Thinking”. . . none of these things actually make things better. In fact, they probably make them worse.

Here is the moment of realization for Gil, which his Parisienne love (Adriana) does not understand, but is a lesson worth remembering. They’ve jumped from the 1920s to the 1890s, and Adriana wants to stay in the 1890s, Le Belle Epoque:

Because if you stay here and this becomes your present, sooner or later you’ll imagine another time was really the golden time. . . The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.

. . .if I’m ever going to write anything worthwhile I’ve got to get rid of my illusions and that I’d be happier in the past is one of them.

(dialogue from Midnight in Paris)

Or, if I’m ever going to be a better pastor, or if I’m ever going to live a worthwhile life I’ve got to get rid of the illusion that I’d be happier in the past.

When novel readings aren’t.

I had a brief conversation a while ago with someone who thinks it’s more difficult to speak about the Bible in straightforward ways these days. It seems to no longer say what it says; if I say, “This passage means this,” there’s often someone who will say, “It looks like it says this, but what it actually means is this.” And I agree; it does seem to take more work to talk about the Bible these days.

While I imagine sometimes people do say “it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means” simply to try to find ways/excuses around passages they don’t like, and that’s not good, in many cases there are good reasons for the shift towards a different reading of the text. Some of them are pretty commonly known: questions of cultural differences, genre, dealing with an ancient text and related expectations, and so on. But there are other factors to consider as well.

1 – Sometimes seemingly new ways of reading scripture are actually correctives to relatively recent innovations in reading scripture. A “new” interpretation may actually reflect a more ancient understanding of a passage. What we’re used to or were brought up with may, quite naturally, seem like the normal understanding of the Bible, but may in fact be the new reading. Slightly different but related is the idea that previous generations and especially the ancient church—not to mention different branches of the church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—have read the Bible in very different ways than some modern ways of reading.

Example: dispensationalism and rapture theology (think Left Behind series), are relatively modern ideas (late 19th century). I don’t think the majority of prior generations of Christians would have read the Bible in this way, but today it seems to be the majority view of the conservative evangelical church in North America. And so correctives come along (e.g. N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope) which may seem new or novel, but actually reflect scripture and the history of the church’s interpretation more faithfully. How conservative evangelicals tend to read Genesis 1 is another example.

2 – New readings may also reflect the realization (or remembrance) that our experience and reason play a part in interpreting scripture. If the Bible says that rocks are soft, but I experience the hardness of a rock falling on my toe, then I have a conundrum. But the problem isn’t with my experience of the rock, nor is the problem actually with the Bible—the problem is in how I read and interpret the Bible, or perhaps what I understand the Bible to be. I may need to read it differently. Obviously the Bible doesn’t say rocks are soft! My point is simply that sometimes we impose things on the text that the text itself doesn’t allow or ask for, and so there are correctives made.

3 – New readings also reflect the realization that with some things that we call “biblical” we’ve tended to proof text. For example, Paul says in one passage that women should be silent in churches, and historically we’ve stopped there, end of story—the Bible says it, I believe it. But these days we may be more honest about the fact that Paul also talks about women prophesying in church and women apostles, for example. And so we’ve had to adjust our reading and interpretation of scripture to reflect the realities within scripture itself.

These three overlap as well. And I’m sure there are others. This is the reality of being honest about scripture and tradition. “New” readings aren’t always to be dismissed as “liberal” or “revisionist” readings. Sometimes they restore or reset our understanding to more ancient and biblical views (which, I suppose, is to say, the more “conservative” view).

I always find it refreshing when I see the Bible in a new way based on something the Bible itself says—when scripture has something to say about itself.

Favourite books of Some of the books I read in 2019

2019 wasn’t a particularly profound year in terms of the books I completed. Some of my favourites of the year were re-reads. There were some good books, but for many I’ve already forgotten what they were about. I don’t know if that’s a reflection on the stresses of the year or if some of those books were, in the end, forgettable. But here are the highlights, such as they are, from the year, in order of reading. Turns out that often books have meaning to me for their “feel” and context as much as their content.

John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. This was the first book I completed (started it Christmas 2018) this year and it may well have been the best. The book was a profound reminder that there is more to the text of Genesis 1–3 than our reading habits, preconceptions, traditions, cultural expectations, etc. lead us to think. Which may explain why I never get tired of exploring that particular part of the Bible. (I also read John Walton and Tremper Longman’s, The Lost World of the Flood, and was comparatively disappointed.)

Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me. I loved the pace and feel of Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, which I read a number of years ago, and very much looked forward to this novel for this reason, in addition to the fact that the protagonist is a pastor. Some of that pace and feel (or mood) of Olive Kitteridge was present in Abide with Me. I think I liked it. I think.

Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Re-read. I think she says some thoughtful things in this book. I don’t remember. I like this book for its feel and pace. It exudes prairie, which is a good thing.

Billy Collins, The Rain in Portugal: Poems. It’s Billy Collins! Also, purchased at a discount at Tattered Covered Books in downtown Denver, Colorado, so it has some warm sentimental value.

John Le Carré, Call for the Dead. A fun read and, I believe, the novel that introduces the character George Smiley. It probably worked in this book’s favour that I read Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy not long before this one. That was also good, but significantly longer and more difficult to complete. But Call for the Dead had all the good things of Le Carré and George Smiley—cold, rainy London; lots of walking and talking; mystery and intrigue—but in at a fraction of the length of some of his other books.

Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Re-read. Wonderful story. Additionally wonderful because I look for a non-movie-tie-in edition in every bookstore I’m in (even though I think of the movie when I read it). It’s never in stock anywhere I go, so I took it as a sign that I should buy it when I found it on the shelf in a little bookshop in Estes Park, Colorado. Read it in a day or two in a cabin in the mountains high above Estes Park this summer.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda. My brother urged me to read this. It is the tragic story of the relationship between eastern Canadian First Nations tribes, as well as between those tribes and a group of Jesuit missionaries. It was an absorbing read.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Fascinating and helpful argument for the existence of God. Not specifically the Judeo-Christian God, mind you, even though Hart is himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but helpful nonetheless. I would proffer this book over a more standard evangelical apologetics/arguments-for-the-existence-of-God book. That’s just a hunch, though, as I can’t say I’ve read a great deal of that flavour of Christian apologetics. This was a thought-provoking and challenging read.

David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Reading two Hart books back-to-back within a month would have seemed impossible to me the month before I did that very thing. Hart is known as an exceedingly dense writer, whose books need to be read with a thesaurus in one’s other hand, but both of these books were engaging and readable. I read a very short book by Hart in seminary, and it was very difficult to understand. This CPAP machine I’ve been using must be helping my reading as well.

Opinions about this book tend not to be modest. Many people have expressed disappointed in it, though it’s not clear if that’s because his arguments are deficient or because here Hart turns his vitriol away from his usual target—New Atheists like Richard Dawkins—and points it at “infernalists” (Christians who hold to an eternal conscious torment view of hell). I do think that Hart tends to be a grumpy and cynical writer and wish he wouldn’t be (although sometimes it’s funny), but I didn’t take his vitriol personally. On the other hand are those who love the book and think it will be the one for “infernalists” to contend with for the coming years.

As for Hart, he says, both in the book and in interviews about it, that his argument is irrefutable. I’m not sure about that. But it is compelling, even convincing. But irrefutable? I doubt it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin. A posthumous novel edited by his son Christopher from Tolkien’s vast collection of papers. It expands on a chapter in The Silmarillion, posthumously published in the 1970s. A beautiful story.

Michael Palin, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. Another book about the Franklin expedition—actually, it’s about several voyages of the ships Erebus and Terror, but it’s a publishable story mostly because of the Franklin tragedy. I don’t know why this story has fascinated me enough to read two books on it (Michael Palin as author helped), but something about 18th century explorers, ships, the craziness of being away from home and at sea for four years, and the mystery of the disappearance of these two ships and their crew is enough to keep me coming back.

Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. I always enjoy a simultaneously humorous and helpful look at writing. (See also Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves; don’t see Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which could’ve been such, but isn’t.) But I am left wondering who’s rules—England’s or the US’s—I should be following when I write?

Are we losing our ability to see?

(For my one remaining reader: I wrote a post in July on the WordPress iPhone app. It was written when we were staying in a cabin north of Estes Park, Colorado. The cabin is 8200ft+ [~2500m] above sea level. The post was a riveting reflection on making a proper cup of tea in relation to boiling point at various altitudes. Alas, there was a problem with the app and the post is lost forever.)

There is quite a bit being written these days (if you’re looking in the right places) about how conversation is becoming a lost art in our society, particularly for younger generations. Conversation’s demise usually linked to increased use of smart technology and social media. I think there’s good reason to believe that we are losing our ability to speak with others. But today I wondered if we are—I should probably say, if I am—losing our ability to see as well.

I don’t mean this simply in the sense of not noticing our surroundings because we’re always on a device, though that’s part of it. I mean it in the sense of wondering if we’re training ourselves to glance, to glimpse, and then move on, without ever fully appreciating what we see.

In order to visit my family in British Columbia, we have to drive through the Rocky Mountains. I’m often frustrated when in our hurry to arrive at our destination we don’t (or aren’t able to) take the time to stop in the mountains to breathe deeply and really take in the amazing beauty of the mountains. We try to do this when we have time (though we could make time even if we feel that we don’t) with a walk along a river or a hike into the mountains, but even then we’re always moving and our final destination is always in mind. I can’t remember the last time I simply stood and observed and took in the beauty around me for more than a few seconds. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that.

What does traveling through the mountains have to do with this? Only this: I’m talking about taking time to see and take in. I was on Instagram at lunch today, where I follow a couple of accounts that post pictures of small-town and rural England. They post beautiful pictures of rolling countryside and quaint villages. I love these images, especially the ones of the countryside. But here’s what I do: I scroll, I glance at the photo, I double-tap to like, and I move on. I rarely really look or perhaps gaze at the image. I realize it’s only a picture, but there’s something significant about just scrolling past with only a brief sense of “that’s nice” and a feeling of appreciation, but rarely, if ever, actively appreciating the image with a longer look.

I see it in myself and others in the endless photo-taking and selfies when we’re at some beautiful spot—the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Great Plains, wherever it may be. We seem to spend more time looking at the world through our cameras than at the world itself. Years ago I gave up filming and photographing my children’s choirs and bands at school, because I didn’t want to keep watching these personal events through my camera (I leave the film work to Dixie now, who doesn’t mind.) I love photography and would like to pursue it more, but often it turns the world into something to be consumed by my camera and a rapid succession of stills, without actually making an attempt to simply appreciate the living, breathing, moving wonders of the world. I imagine photography should start with the appreciative gaze and only after that should I frame up the picture.

What am I losing in training my mind to glance and move on? What will this do to my understanding of the world around me, or even my sense of what’s real in an increasingly digitized world? What will this do to my sense of what it means to truly appreciate or even love something or someone?

I’m not sure I’ll ever think I’ve taken it in enough, whether it’s nature or a photograph, so maybe I’ll always be frustrated. But it can’t hurt to pursue the gaze, the meditation, and appreciating creation a bit more.

Jesus with a wink and a glint in his eye

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:21-28, NIV

Not long ago I had a conversation with my oldest daughter about the above passage. In the course of our conversation I realized once again that interpretation of scripture does not begin after we’ve read a passage, but the reading of the passage is itself part of the act of interpretation. I touched on this a little bit in a previous post, but with this passage it became that much more clear to me.

My daughter’s concern with this passage was that Jesus seems to be indifferent to the plight of this woman’s daughter and then appears to speak downright insultingly to her. This is a common common response to this passage, I think. I have had those concerns myself.

My daughter and I talked about how Jesus’ mission really was first and foremost to the Jews, that ministry to the Gentiles (i.e., everyone else) was left to the apostles after Pentecost, though Jesus also alludes to this expansion of the kingdom. Still, Jesus nevertheless seems unreasonably rude to this woman.

So then we talked about why this passage troubles people: it’s mainly because it seems so inconsistent with how Jesus tends to speak to and deal with people. I can think of at least a couple of places in the Gospels where Jesus happily grants Gentile requests for healing without bringing up his mission to the Jews or making seemingly insulting comments. I suggested that because of this inconsistency in Jesus’ behaviour, perhaps we should consider that maybe we’re missing something in this passage or misreading it.

It’s interesting, for instance, that this Canaanite woman goes along with Jesus’ “insult” and has a comeback. That’s when it started dawning on me: what if this story is not about this woman or Jesus’ mission at all? What if this story is about the disciples and how they perceive things that are “unclean” or defile (which is what the passage before this is about)? What if it’s simply about faith?

In other words, what if Jesus isn’t insulting the woman? What if as he’s saying these things, he winks and smiles at the woman with a glint in his eye, but is really saying it to or for the benefit of his disciples? It might be that “dogs” was a Jewish insult and Jesus was challenging his disciples in their attitudes and the woman’s appearance simply presented an opportunity for Jesus to teach his disciples something. The woman, seeing Jesus’ wink and smile, would have been in on the “joke”—Jesus has invited her into this teaching moment.

This is conjecture, of course. We can’t be sure what Jesus’ tone or facial expression was. But my point is simply this: we tend to read scripture in a certain way; we assume a certain tone in the voices of the speakers. Jesus tends to be heard as a dead serious speaker, rarely, if ever, joking around. So our tendency when we read a passage like this is to imagine Jesus frowning, crossing his arms, and turning away from this woman. But that, too, is conjecture. We simply don’t know. And we simply shouldn’t assume—either way.

Adding tone and using our imagination is virtually unavoidable when reading scripture. But as we do so, we are already interpreting the passage without realizing it. So it is good to at least be aware of this, and beyond that, to try out different tones and inflection as we read and hear scripture. This is a good reason for the public reading of scripture or audio Bibles, to hear different voices speak scripture in different ways.

Does it matter how we live in creation?

One of my cousins sent a video of a sermon by John MacArthur to a group of us on Facebook (here’s the video of his sermon, but I just read the text). It’s a sermon about whether or not we should be concerned about climate change. I had some serious concerns about what MacArthur had to say, and not only theologically/scripturally. My cousin didn’t want to have a group debate about this issue (neither did I), but he welcomed a private message laying out some of my theological/scriptural concerns. I thought I would post it here as well (I don’t include the personal/introductory material and I’ve lightly revised it).

I disagree with MacArthur on several points, though I should probably give it a closer read before I speak definitively (I read through the text of the sermon rather than watch the 1-hour video). So I will just highlight a couple of things. 

But first I will say that I agree that the future is in God’s hands. He is in control. I agree with that. My concern is that we shouldn’t use that truth as an excuse for irresponsible stewardship of what God has given us.

It seems that our starting points—MacArthur’s and mine—lead us in different directions. (To keep things easy to follow, I’ll number the thoughts.)

1. MacArthur says that the earth and everything in it was created for human beings to do with as they please, apparently even if it means abusing and harming creation. Now as long as it is in fact ours, I suppose one could argue that we can do what we want with it (though I would question the wisdom of doing so if it could lead to harm in the future). But I’m not convinced that’s what the Genesis account tells us.

Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over [all the animals].” I’m just learning and thinking about this, so this isn’t completely developed and I can’t explain it fully here, but there is a sense in which we are given rule over creation precisely as God’s image bearers. In other words, there is a sense in which we are representatives of God in his creation; we steward his “property” on his behalf. In Genesis 2:15 it says God puts the man in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”

So I would say the earth isn’t ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). We are only caretakers. It belongs to God.

2. That, in turn, gives us a responsibility. And I do think we can mess it up very badly, even if I’m theologically sure that God won’t allow the human race to extinguish itself.

In fact, if you think about it, MacArthur’s claim that “we don’t have to worry because God will…” really only makes sense in the western context where we are so far (relatively) unaffected by the (potential?) changes in climate. It makes about as much sense as saying in church that “God will protect us from harm…” moments before terrorists barge in and shoot everyone—it certainly seemed true before the bullets started flying.

The world seems a safe place when we live in a country in which things seem fine and we have the wealth in place to offset and protect from any negative consequences. And yet there are wars and mass murders and epidemics and natural disasters. (What I mean is, God doesn’t always protect the human race from our foolish/evil/disobedient choices). I’m sure MacArthur recognizes the existence and problem of evil, but what he says in his sermon seems to ignore it.

3. MacArthur says that the bad things that do happen in creation are because of the curse, and by implication, therefore, they are God’s will. Creation, MacArthur says, would destroy itself if it human beings didn’t work it and rule it and subdue it. He doesn’t back this up with evidence, scriptural or otherwise, as far as I can tell. And it’s not entirely clear how he connects this with whether or not climate change is real (because there are few, if any, that I’m aware of that are actually suggesting we shouldn’t cultivate, explore, understand, or develop the earth—it’s just a question of how we go about it.)

But I note a couple of things:

First, when God addresses Adam after he has sinned, his words to Adam are, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” Now, I want to be careful to not read our modern issues back onto this ancient text more than the text allows, but I find it interesting that the curse on the ground is the result of human choice—that is, the problem with the ground is man’s fault. There’s some sense in which God doesn’t want it this way, but because of man’s choice, it is this way. God says what he created is good and he never takes that back, even with the curse.

But, second, even if what MacArthur says about the curse on the ground is true, the curse is not the way it is supposed to be. The whole story of redemption in the Bible is about undoing the curse. And, in fact, Paul teaches in Romans and other places that Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection has undone the curse—in Christ there is a new creation (1 Cor. 5:17).

So even if we grant MacArthur’s point, as Christians we should not be using the curse as an excuse for living as if the curse still applies. As Christians, we should live as if the curse has in fact been undone (because it has) in anticipation of the day when Jesus returns and makes all things new.

4. Finally, MacArthur brings up 2 Peter 3:10, which seems to suggest that in the end all of creation will be burned up. A pretty common approach among conservative Christians is to say, “It’ll all be destroyed in the end anyway, so why does it matter what we do to it? (Maybe our destruction of the earth will hasten the return of Jesus!)” I can’t remember if this was the approach MacArthur took in his sermon or not, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. 

There are a couple of things to point out here:

First, this passage isn’t as clear as this argument suggests. Yes, it uses language of heavens disappearing with a roar, etc., but there is a good argument that this is apocalyptic language to describe God’s judgment on the earth: everything will be exposed and laid bare before God (look at that verse in some more modern translations like NIV, NRSV, ESV, NLT). At the very least it seems clear that we should be careful not to be too literalistic about the image it presents. It may be more like metaphor.

Second, to say “It’s all going to be burned up anyway, so why does it matter what we do?” is a pretty consequential approach—that is, significant, with huge consequences—to take from a single verse in scripture (never mind the fact that the meaning isn’t as clear as some would like to think).

Finally, if MacArthur and others are right about what this passage means, it doesn’t follow that it’s our business as humans to make that happen, to destroy the earth on God’s behalf. Just because the owner of the house we’re watching plans to pull it down when he returns doesn’t mean that we can just go ahead and do it for him before he gets back! (Especially if what I said of humans as caretakers is correct.)

There are a number of other things he said that I think could at least use a little pushback, but I won’t do that here!

A Heart was Hardened

Our high school Bible study has been reading through Romans this year. They like choosing difficult books—last year we went through Revelation —and Romans is no exception. Some weeks we struggle to find anything to talk about (we discuss one chapter each time we meet), other weeks we struggle to understand, other weeks I confuse them with my attempts to help them along (I try to avoid teaching and instead guide and facilitate discussion), still other weeks I annoy them when I get really excited about something and pull out the white board (I do like to teach sometimes!). Then there are weeks when they find some answers on their own or have moments of clarity. Those days are wonderful. And on occasion I am able to help them understand or have a moment of clarity, which is particularly gratifying.

Today we discussed Romans chapter 9, which talks about Paul’s grief over the unbelief of Israel and then goes into God having mercy on whom he will have mercy, and hardening some people’s hearts, and the analogy of the potter and his clay. It’s a difficult chapter, one I imagine Calvinists like to go to (wrongly, in my opinion) for their predestination theology.

It troubled some of the youth, as it troubles me, that God might harden some hearts against him. We tried to figure this out, how this could work, why God would do this. I talked a bit about how we live in a very individualistic, personal rights-oriented culture, which is offended by any notion of someone compelling someone else to do something against their will, but that in an ancient group/family-oriented culture what Paul says may not be received negatively in that way.

One youth suggested that maybe if a person rejects God, God responds by hardening that person’s heart. I suggested that God might “give them over” to their hard-hearted desires (as Romans 1 talks about)—if that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get. Commentaries seem to agree (we don’t always go to commentaries, but sometimes it helps).

We looked at the story of Moses and Pharaoh, which this chapter in Romans may reference. Early in Exodus God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people of Israel go. When the confrontation actually happens, there’s a lack of clarity about whom hardens whose heart. Initially God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh’s heart is simply hardened, and later it says Pharaoh hardens his own heart. So which is it? Perhaps it’s both.

I suddenly thought of a real-world analogy. I asked the group, what is our first response when we are confronted with a negative truth about ourselves? If Dixie criticizes something about me, what is my initial reaction, even if what she says is true? I may get angry or offended, I may deny the charges, I may get bitter, I may argue, I may try to turn her comment back on her and point out her faults. In a sense, Dixie’s words have the power to prompt a “hardening of my heart,” even if ultimately it is the preexistent state of my heart that is ultimately responsible. Nods of recognition from the youth. In a very bad situation, I say, one where a relationship is already strained or perhaps where no real relationship exists, such a critical comment—such a confrontation with the truth—may actually strain the relationship or potential of relationship beyond possibility, at least for a time.

Similarly, when we are confronted with the truth and power of God when our hearts are already in rebellion against him, that very truth has the power to harden our hearts, even though it is ultimately the prior condition of our hearts is responsible for the hardening.

That was helpful insight.

TINAoS*: God’s Covenant with Noah

*Things I’ve Never Asked of Scripture.

One of the readings in my prayer book a couple of days ago was Genesis 9:8-17. When I read it, I asked a question I had never asked before: why does God make the promise never again to destroy all life?

Before the flood we learn that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (6:5) and “how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” (6:12). “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth” (6:6), so God decides to destroy everything as a result.

After the flood, at the end of chapter 8, God decides in his heart that he won’t completely destroy all life like this again and in chapter 9 he makes a covenant with all living things to this effect. God decides this “even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (8:21), which was the reason for the flood in the first place. Even though the reason for God causing the flood in the first place remains, he decides he won’t do this again. No reason is given, other than God smelling the pleasing aroma of Noah’s burnt offering, which on its own seems like little reason for such a huge change of heart—after which one can’t help but wish that Noah had made such an offering before the flood occurred, perhaps preventing it from happening. But then that’s what sacrifices appear to do in the Old Testament.

Which makes me wonder, Why? Why does God take this gentler approach after the flood, even though the human heart remains the same? Does he regret causing the flood, like he earlier regretted creating human beings?

At the moment I don’t have an answer. A quick look at some commentaries shows they aren’t asking the question either.

This question remains for me even if looking at the flood narrative only as a story, leaving aside questions about its function in its ancient cultural setting, its historicity, etc.

God has already given us permission to love.

I’ve been reading J.B. Philips’ short book Your God is Too Small with a couple of colleagues. It’s a quick read and an interesting approach to helping us see who God is and all the ways we get God wrong. The first half of the book, which is as far as I’ve read, is about all the destructive, unreal pictures of God that people often have (the second half is about constructive views). The following paragraph stood out to me. It’s from a section on a god who we see as an entirely negative force in our lives, whose “whole Nature seems to deny, to cramp, and to inhibit” our own nature:

“They are bound by their negative god by their upbringing, by the traditions of a Church or party, by the manipulation of isolated texts of Scripture or by a morbid conscience. At last they actually feel that it is wrong to be themselves, wrong to be free, wrong to enjoy beauty, wrong to expand and develop. Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing. Disaster will infallibly bring them to heal, sooner or later, should they venture beyond the confines of ‘his plan for them.'” (p. 51, Epworth Press edition, 1975, emphasis mine)

“Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing.” Two things strike me about this:

1. I see this crop up among the youth at our church who want to be faithful to God in every decision, but who are stuck because they need God’s permission (or direction) to choose this job or that job, this college or that college. I’ve told the youth on a couple of occasions that they are free to make their own decisions about these things, as long as they are pursuing love of God and love of neighbour in their choices. That’s not to say they shouldn’t listen for God (that’s part of loving God!) nor that God doesn’t have a specific call for them. But the tendency is to think that God has one, single, narrow path laid out for our lives, and we had better find and stay on that path if we want things to go well for us. Instead, I think there is a wide field of potential and opportunity that lies within the scope of loving God and loving neighbour and we are free to wander and discover and live within it.

2. In spite of what I tell our youth, I also find myself wrestling with this negative vision of God, without whose permission I often feel I can do nothing. In a strange and dangerous way, I subconsciously think that because I was called to pastoral ministry, I somehow have to be in line with God (within his field of specific permission) for every step I take along the way. But why should it be any different for me as a pastor than for a plumber, teacher, doctor, mechanic, or student? It shouldn’t. And yet there I often live.

God has already given us blanket permission to love him and others, and within that permission there is room for creativity, growth, change, risk, and so on. But some days it’s hard to believe this.

Thoughts on Revelation 2: What Did John Actually Know or Understand?

Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.

He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.

With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.

This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.

On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.

I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.

I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.