On The Incarnation (1:4) The Never-Ending Night Terror

•December 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.

One thing I find myself doing quite a bit as a minister is returning to Genesis 1-3. Why? Because the beginning of the story is crucial to understanding the rest of it. Also, because in our day and age, much is glossed over that appears in the first three chapters of the Bible. God’s boundless creativity as the Great Artist is virtually ignored and the artists that are called into our churches are overlooked and undervalued. The place of eye-pleasing delight God placed the first humans is hardly remarked upon, yet it is an important point in Genesis 2 and reflects His generous nature. The crucial concept of being created in God’s Image is downplayed and sometimes outright ignored so that our original dignity as God’s Image-Bearers is abandoned in favor of merely being created “without sin.” That phrase, “without sin” is found nowhere in Genesis 1-3, and yet being created in God’s very Image is an idea that is made very clear. The serpent tempts Eve by calling into question the heart of God. Is God merely a strict authoritarian who arbitrarily makes rules to assert dominance? The serpents says so. The fact that God gave His command for their good is what the passage implies but the serpent obscures.

Athanasius has a wonderful way of putting this: it is “our transgression that called out His love for us.” Not just His wrath or punishment or condemnation; His love. “For the Son of Man did not come to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:17) So He said Himself. It is also interesting to me how Athanasius words this Fall from paradise: turning from the “contemplation of God” to “evil of their own devising.” They were not simply given a few propositions about God and asked to memorize them. They were “contemplating God” in their un-fallen state. They were actively beholding and reflecting this God; not merely learning how to repeat densely-worded sentences about Him.

The way this story had been presented to me early in my journey with Christ, I imagined Adam and Eve “without sin” standing around looking bored. Probably because I was bored as a Christian who was looking forward to going to Heaven someday and trying not to mess things up in the meantime. All I had heard about Christianity up until then seemed to be communicated with negative descriptors. I knew the people I wasn’t supposed to like, the things I wasn’t supposed to do and the things I wasn’t supposed to think. But I had a longing and thirst to “contemplate God.” Thankfully this led me straight to the Bible where I found a God worth contemplating. We need to carefully preserve what Genesis 1-3 tells us about this Great Generous Artist and Lover of Humanity. We need to spend more time in the presence of this Dangerous, Fierce and Fatherly God in contemplation and wonder, and less time thinking up things we’re not allowed to do. Our Shepherd is more than capable of leading us past dead-ends and pitfalls if we focus on Him.

For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom vi. 18) And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, “I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you: but ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.” (Psalm lxxxii. 6 f.)

Here is the heart of the matter: it’s not just that Adam and Eve “broke a rule” and needed to be punished, as if the mere keeping of rules was what they were created for. They willingly turned back according to their nature. Athanasius gives the potent image of Adam and Eve returning to non-existence; the same non-existence they had originally appeared from. They were fading and becoming wraiths. When they lost their knowledge (and the word “knowledge” in this context is relational knowing) of God, they lost the very source of their being. They became less real. They became trapped in a never-ending night terror.

My youngest daughter Kyrie used to have “night terrors.” These were like nightmares, only it was impossible to wake her and my comforting voice seemed to cause her more distress. The best we could do was put her somewhere she wouldn’t get hurt and wait for it to pass. This analogy fits perfectly with Athanasius’ description. Adam and Eve became trapped in a frightening non-reality in which they hid from God and each other. The very God who loved them into existence was now the one they couldn’t bear to face. The garden of abundance and delight became a fearful place. The God they had once walked with in the cool of the day now seemed like a distant monster to them, because of the serpent’s lie. And the thing about night terrors is, you can’t be woken up from them. Kyrie’s eventually passed, but humanity’s night terror is still ongoing. God, however, possesses the ability to ENTER our ongoing night-terror and give us the truth about Himself and us.

Even though the night-terror isn’t real and we are deceived, we can do real damage to ourselves and others when we believe it. It may be a delusion, but the effects are real. Two people who have bought the serpent’s lie of self-centered survival at all costs have good reason to hide from each other. So we continue to hide from each other, behind locked doors, gated communities, national borders and nuclear bombs. And we continue to hide from God by either open rebellion or self-righteous religion. God will mercifully destroy all of our barriers between us and Him. He did this by becoming one of us; entering into the darkness so that our darkness would be overcome. If we recognize Him as Jesus and follow Him, He will lead us back into reality (i.e. “the light”). It will be a painful process at times but our lives will be real and meaningful. If we hide in the darkness and cling to the nightmare, reorienting ourselves to pretend the delusion is reality, there will eventually be a point of no return. We will literally be incapable of ever being able to handle the slightest bit of reality. This is what Christ called “the outer darkness.” These are the highest stakes there are, which is why God went to the lengths He did to rescue us.


On The Incarnation (1:3b) Animated Dirt-Clumps, Shards of Eternity

•December 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition.

Athanasius is painting a picture here: humans are not animals, nor are we angels. In some sense, humanity is an animal; if you look at things in a strictly biological way. We are mammals or “featherless bipeds” as Plato put it. There is an impermanence to animals – they do not think, or conceptualize. They do not reason. They have no understanding of eternity or their own mortality. They are born, they eat, sleep, mate, survive and die. Athanasius locates humanity in the progression of Genesis 1 – after the animals. Humanity is the apex of creation. There is something different about how God created humans when compared to the rest of creation.

God imbued upon humanity the strange gift of His own Image. I say “strange gift” because it proved to be more than we could handle, and yet it was better than being created a mere brute. God made Adam from the dirt and breathed into him the “breath of life” which made him a “living soul.” As Athanasius puts it, God bestowed a grace upon humanity which other creatures lacked, “the impress of His own Image.” The phrase Athanasius uses afterward to further explain what this grace was is fascinating: “A share in the reasonable being of the very Word himself.” It seems that A. is painting a picture of “temporal” mud being dug out of the ground, formed, animated and given a “shard of eternity.” This gift is meant to bring us meaning, love, truth, beauty and exhilarating freedom. What we see in Genesis is that this can also be an infuriatingly difficult gift to come to terms with. It can be exploited and misused so that we hide behind it and fall backwards when God intends us to go forward in it and thrive.

It’s difficult to describe this gift, because it covers so much; basically it is what separates us from animals. Try putting THAT into a succinct definition. We can come up with words like rationality and creativity. We can point to the fact that all human cultures came up with elaborate mythologies to explain the world around them, independent of each other. We need stories to make sense of things. We are not simply content with mere survival; we need something more. So the ability to reason – that’s a huge piece of this, but what God seems to be after is a creation that He can RELATE to. The Image of God in us makes us relational beings. It is when God brings up the subject of the Image in Gen. 1 that we glimpse a plurality in God (“Let US make man in OUR Image”) so this is a big part of what the Image is all about – it encodes within each of us a relational nature. We are not created to be Lone Wolves; remember the first thing God notices in His creation that ISN’T good – that the man was alone. Humans are also creative because of the Image of God in us. We can observe the world around us and take notes. We feel the desire to express ourselves; to tell our stories. We laugh and we sigh. The Image of God is a bewildering gift. It can be used rightly and it can be misused.

Notice that God does not simply give this puzzling gift and leave humans to figure it out by themselves. God desired that we would use this gift to its fullest and go bravely into all the world, “subduing it.” But He gave us very definite boundaries and instruction for “going forward” into the fullness of this gift. God doesn’t seem to like stagnation. He wasn’t content to give us this gift and watch us bury it for safe-keeping. He placed humans in a garden (Eden) and gave them a very simple test. Do not eat from this tree. Eat from ANY other tree but this one.

If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.” (Gen. ii. 16 f.) “Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.

What is paradise? We in our fallen state try to recreate our own paradise here and now, but what was it then? Was it a couple of hammocks on the beach and bottomless margaritas? According to our paradise-themed resorts, yes. Paradise is being pampered, because after all, we deserve it. Our idea of paradise comes from a self-centered fantasy and a general misplaced desire to be lazy. But God didn’t create us to lay around and be pampered. God created us to explore His vast creation, to make discoveries, to interact with Him and live in this world in relationship with Him and each other. Paradise is a vibrant, dynamic place. It is a place where we named the animals; co-creating with God. It is a place of deep interaction with God and each other. The fact that it was “pleasing to the eye” is a testimony to the generosity and overflowing creativity of God.

So A. shows us that this choice or “test” given was between guarding this grace (God’s Image in us) and “retaining the loveliness of their original innocence” and “going astray and becoming vile” and continuing in death and corruption. Going forward in His grace (“growing in grace”) or falling backwards, misusing the gift and becoming agents of death and corruption in God’s good creation. We’ll see in the next installment how the choice went and the ramifications of it for us.

On The Incarnation (1:3a) The Eternal Fountainhead

•December 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; (Gen. i. 1) and again through that most helpful book The Shepherd, “Believe thou first and foremost that there is One God Who created and arranged all things and brought them out of non-existence into being.” (The Shepherd of Hermas, Book II. I) Paul also indicates the same thing when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which we see now did not come into being out of things which had previously appeared.”(Heb. xi. 3) For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men.

What we see around us every day has meaning. Today I am looking out of my window to a glorious day of snow reflecting sun. There is a crisp vitality outside and a coziness inside. When the snow melts, the ground sops up the excess. If you can wait three months until things start greening up, you will see that the excess was not wasted at all. If you think about it, that’s the way of things. Excess (or abundance) delights us yet it is never wasted. It brings forth something else: new life. We can’t create new life; we don’t know enough. That knowledge is hidden from us. But we can replicate this natural process and help the elements bring about new life. We cannot make a tree, but we can arrange natural things so that a tree can be made.

Athanasius marvels at the hilarity of a human, who is unable to make anything from scratch yet imagines he or she can figure out how all things came into existence. He calls this “the impiety of their foolish talk.”

What we have revealed to us through the teaching of the Christian faith is something we could never think up on our own: a completely transcendent God who created “ex nihilo” (out of nothing). We don’t have a natural conception of this as Athanasius’ pointed out in the last chapter. We tend to some up with simplistic explanations like sloppy gloppy splotchy randomness or pre-existent matter. The idea of “ex nihilo” is difficult for us to wrap our minds around even after it’s revealed. But Athanasius quotes some biblical passages which clearly state this. The Bible clearly reveals that God created matter and didn’t simply re-arrange it. This is important to the concept of God becoming incarnate in Jesus. Matter is not some foreign entity to God; He created it, He has control over it and He knows how it works.

For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men.

This idea that God is not only good, but the Fountainhead of all goodness is probably the most important thing to know about God. Yes, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. are important things to know about God, but if a God who is omniscient and omnipotent isn’t omnibenevolent, we would probably be better off not knowing this God. Such a God would be able to create a universe but not sustain it. Such a God could create a lower existence but be unable to infuse it with His glory and beauty. To know that the God who created this world is GOOD will teach us that exploring His creation which is sustained and infused by Him is a noble and worthwhile pursuit. There is meaning and joy to be found in His creation. Where it isn’t found, we can safely assume that the Fall of humanity has rendered that part of God’s good creation corrupt, for there are other free wills at work in this world. Yet as Paul tells us in Romans 1, God has made Himself known in His creation so that no one is without excuse. So God is to be known via creation. The Incarnation is the apex of natural revelation.

Then Athanasius goes one step further. If God is good, He is not mean or grudging. God is not stingy. He does not have a mean spirit. God is generous and merciful. As believers, we should do our best to emulate God and not be mean-spirited or stingy. If we are mean-spirited and we claim to know God, we are liars and self-deluded. We may delude ourselves into thinking that we are a cut above regular or nominal Christians. Instead of serving and making ourselves available to those we deem beneath us, we judge and condemn, against the very teachings of Christ Himself. Surely we would do well to not take ourselves so seriously. We are recipients of God’s love, mercy and grace and we should not hoard these things. The more we hoard God’s grace, the less of it there is in our lives. But the more we give away of God’s love, mercy, joy and grace; the more of it we find. That’s how God’s economy works: the more we give away, the more there is. The more we keep for ourselves, the less there is. This is how things work when a generous, good Creator makes the cosmos.

On The Incarnation (1:2) Creation Variations

•November 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and the moon and the earth are all different things, and even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.

Believe it or not, even before Darwin, many people believed that the entire universe came into being randomly and had no larger purpose for existing. That worldview existed long before the theory of evolution. What may, at first glance, look like a very crude appeal on Athanasius’ part is actually a strong argument for a Creator from common experience.

Athanasius is doing something here that Christians have always had to do; engage the culture around them. It is never enough to dogmatically quote Bible verses when conversing with someone who doesn’t already accept the Bible as God’s written revelation. It isn’t enough to get into a shouting match with unbelievers and yell past each other. Just because someone is emotional and loud doesn’t mean that their argument holds any water. Most of time it indicates the argument is lost from their end.

From the beginning of the Church there have been those who have given their intellects in service of God. Many of the early Christians found themselves in situations where they had to answer the questions of philosophers and spiritual seekers. What Athanasius is doing here is presenting alternate viewpoints to his own and deftly deconstructing them to see what is at their core. In this case, he is considering the viewpoint that nothing is created, everything we see around us is a product of random particles configured haphazardly. None of this was “intended,” it is simply an accumulation of the dust of dead stars and the time it took to morph into this present arrangement.

Athanasius’ rebuttal comes from observing diversity in unity. He claims that if everything we see around us was just thrown together “in this automatic fashion,” everything would be uniform and without distinction. How precise can an unguided process be? How could such intricacies as we see around us every day just have oozed into actuality?

In the end, the arguments go back and forth, and they are both very simple. The Epicurean focuses on the chaotic parts of creation and sets forth his argument. Athanasius sees the complexity and harmony of creation and points it out. He insisted that this world was not simply glopped together; there is a beauty and grandeur to it that comes from deliberation. There is a wonderful symmetry to it that can only be explained by a Creator. In the end, you either see it or you don’t, but it’s glaringly obvious.

In Romans 1:18-20 , Paul writes, “18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

We don’t need to write 20 page explanations for why the universe must have a Creator. All we have to do is point out the obvious: there is remarkable intricacy, there is beauty, grandeur and symmetry; not only physically, but intellectually. This is not the kind of world that would come from random materials glopping together. That kind of world would be a total nightmare. There would be no complimentary elements or complexity, all would be rudimentary and uniform. It all come down to whether or not this life has intrinsic meaning or not. No 20-page explanations can convince us one way or the other; no matter how much scientific jargon they contain. The common things: love, joy, peace, relationships, art, recreation, etc. will show us that life has meaning and that we have a higher purpose than mere survival. If we do not find a hint to life’s greater meaning in everyday life, we definitely will not find it in scientific jargon. That is because this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. So Athanasius sticks with a simple argument based on common experience.

That is Athanasius’ argument. Whether you think it is a strong argument or a weak one, he is at least trying to thoughtfully address an opposing worldview using the mind God gave him. We could all do better to emulate that.

Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability to make depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked up existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.

Apparently, this was another argument wafting around among the intelligentsia that originated with Plato. Matter itself is eternal and the Creative Mind simple rearranged matter to bring forth creation. This is most likely because of the very rigid split between matter and the Ideal, in Plato. Platonic thought led one to Gnosticism. It is the idea that matter is somehow tainted and less “good” than spirit or intellect or perfect forms, which exist in a non-material sense.

The poor man’s version goes like this: You see a tree that is mangled and twisted. You have an idea of the perfect tree in your head. That physical tree doesn’t match up with the ideal tree. Therefore the physical is lesser. In the same way, if God didn’t create matter, God can be seen as not only transcendent but completely separate from our creation. It would then lead us to look down on physical things like our bodies, the world around us, etc. while elevating our thoughts, dreams or emotions to a higher status of importance. Here’s the problem: matter is completely objective by nature and our thoughts are not. The more we are in “the real world” the healthier we are. That’s why a good walk in the countryside and fresh air can do us good when we have been shut in all day staring at man-made screens or studying. We need to stay grounded and being out in God’s creation has a great way of doing that.

The truth about creation is that God created matter and called it good. It reveals Him with its beauty and grandeur. Just read the Psalms and notice how much David calls our attention to material things as they reveal God’s glory to us.

Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics, who have invented for themselves an Artificer of all things other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture. For instance, the Lord, having reminded the Jews of the statement in Genesis, “He Who created them in the beginning made them male and female . . . ,” and having shown that for that reason a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, goes on to say with reference to the Creator, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”22Matt. xix. 4–6 How can they get a creation independent of the Father out of that? And, again, St. John, speaking all inclusively, says, “All things became by Him and without Him came nothing into being.”33John i. 3 How then could the Artificer be someone different, other than the Father of Christ?

In “Christian Gnosticism” (and I use that term knowing it to be an oxymoron) the material world is created by a Demiurge, who is an evil and stupid god. This god not only creates matter (which the Gnostics believed to be evil) but he also enslaved our pure spirits (divine sparks) in these ghastly bodies. If you have ever heard of the expression that our spirits are trapped in our bodies, this is a Gnostic belief.

The apostle John had to stave off the Gnostic heresy in his writings, and we can see that it is still around in Athanasius’ time, hundreds of years later.

The idea that the god who created this world is evil and dim-witted is not a Christian idea, although it pops up here and there. Usually when we let ourselves think that the Old Testament God is only angry and vicious while the New Testament God is nice and gracious. A careful reading of both testaments reveals the continuity of God’s character from Genesis to Revelation. That is what is at stake here and Athanasius opposes the Gnostic influence fiercely.

On The Incarnation: (1:1) Re-booting Creation

•November 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

AthanasiusDuring the season of Advent, I am going to be live-blogging (sort of) through Athanasius’ “On The Incarnation,” probably the first serious work on the doctrine of the Incarnation. I try to read this book once a year. He talks about a lot of things we don’t really talk about anymore. For more info on Athanasius, click here. He had a large part in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity and the acknowledgment that Jesus was fully God. Today I cover Chapter 1, section 1.

In our former book, (i.e. the Contra Gentes.) we dealt fully enough with a few of the chief points about the heathen worship of idols, and how those false fears originally arose. We also, by God’s grace, briefly indicated that the Word of the Father is Himself divine, that all things that are owe their being to His will and power, and that it is through Him that the Father gives order to creation, by Him that all things are moved, and through Him that they receive their being.

John 1:3
All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

Acts 17:28
for “In him we live and move and have our being”

Colossians 1:17
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Creation itself is an overflowing act of love from the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit created the universe, not out of loneliness or out of desire to control and manipulate, but to SHARE.

In Genesis 1, God creates by speaking. This is the divine Word, through Whom all things were created and continue to hold together. In Genesis 1, there is also mention of the Spirit “hovering over the surface of the deep.” In the very first paragraph of the Bible, we have the Father, the Word and the Spirit, each caught up in creativity.

It’s important to remember that before we are told anything about God, we are told He is wildly creative. God is an artist. For all the list-makers who would map out His attributes, this primal attribute always seems to escape them. It’s all well to speak of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. but looking at the world around us tells us volumes about this crucial first attribute of God: creativity.

God loves His creation. He calls it “good” over and over as He creates, so we get the sense of His delight with the work of His hands. He has created us out of love and has given us a unique capability for love. Yet, as the psalmist says, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139) Fearfully because of the “spine-tingling freedom” that has been entrusted to us. We cannot be capable of love unless we are free not to love, since love can’t be coerced. This is the fearful part of our creation; we are free to self-destruct and choose against that which gives us life. We are wonderfully made because we are made in His image. We need to start with our creation in the image of God because it gives us a glimpse of humanity’s original glory: we are the Image-Bearers. We are created to reflect the divine image to the rest of creation. We were created for relationship with the relational (triune) God.

In Ecclesiates 3, Solomon writes that God has put eternity in the heart of man. There is something deep within us which yearns for our original relationship with God to be restored. We may not know that this is what it is and we try to fill it with anything else we can; sex, drink, food, consumerism, even religion. Yet it remains empty until we are put back in right-relatedness with the God who created us.

What we have lost in our time is an appreciation for Beautiful Theology. We map, we graph, we make lists, we draw doodles on napkins, we make pamphlets but we miss the depth that Christians gave to their study of God in the formative years of the Church. John of Damascus gives us a wonderful and beautiful picture of the Triune God:

“The subsistences [i.e., the three Persons] dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature” (The Orthodox Faith, 1.14).

Gregory of Nazianzus (as well as Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great) used the term “perichoresis” in regards to the Trinity; a term that means “dance.” We can see in it the root for the word “choreography.” The Doctrine of the Trinity began to be called “The Great Dance.” This inseparable God of Three Persons is a God who does not mingle or coalesce but cleave to each other while keeping to their separate courses within one another. That paradoxical description is like an M.C. Escher drawing in words. The best way many of the early Christians had to describe it was “The Great Dance of the Triune God.” A joyful, exuberant dance; and creation came out of that dance.

C.S. Lewis, who articulated this ancient Christian concept of the Great Dance, wrote: “God is not a static thing—not even a person— but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance … The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?” (“Mere Christianity”, pp. 175-176)

Tim Keller, following Lewis’ lead, went into the subject of Perichoresis in “The Reason for God.”

The God of the Great Dance is quite an antithesis to the irate, moody God who sits motionless and unmoved on an untouchable throne, making up arbitrary rules and then balking at our breaking them. The more Christian concept of the God of the Great Dance creates out of an overabundance of love, gives us “spine-tingling” freedom so that love will be possible, when we choose self-destruction, He gives us a law to reveal His goodness and holiness and our lack of it, while giving us the gift of order to stave off the chaotic abyss. Yet this God knew a bunch of words and rules would not be enough to communicate His love and intention to redeem us. He would have to become one of us to do that.

Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth. For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.

In Jesus, God has made Himself vulnerable. For the almighty One to become an embryo and then a newborn baby speaks volumes on the nature of God. For one, God is not distant or standoffish. The lengths He will go to in order to rescue us is what the manger and the cross are both about. In the manger, God makes Himself nothing for our sakes. He is vulnerable. On the cross, He shows that it wasn’t an illusion; He was utterly human and able to be killed by our treacheries.

Because of this, He is mocked. The sign on the cross calling Him the king of the Jews was sarcastic. The soldiers mocked and beat Him mercilessly. And today He is parodied on television shows, in comedy routines and in a myriad of other media. All because He put Himself out there. He was mocked on the cross because He wasn’t fighting back. Jews mocked Him because he didn’t meet their expectations of a messiah. Greeks mocked Him because He did not seem to care about persuading people with logic and common sense.

Athanasius is saying here that Jesus did not go out of His way to meet human expectations, and so His enemies laugh at the humble way He was born and the meekness He showed when they put Him before the authorities. And yet, those things they laugh at we adore. That He would show such love for His people to endure the humility, the mockery, the taunts, the laughter and the blank stares. He came with His own agenda: to defeat sin and death. To fight and win FOR US the ultimate battle in which we were helpless.

These humble beginnings; Bethlehem, a manger, scraggly shepherds – these things show us that He wasn’t concerned with appearances. We are obsessed with how we appear and what kind of image we project to others, but He wasn’t. He was concerned with saving us, and that’s what He went about doing.
And on the cross, He makes a mockery of the impotent “power” that put Him there. The Religious authorities, scared of the crowds. Pilate, unable to find fault with Him but pressured into putting Him on the cross by the crowd. They were afraid of Him, so they killed Him. He died and rose again. Today He has millions of loving subjects, but their “power” died with them.

For the very things they mocked Him for, we adore Him. He beat the earthly powers at their own game and revealed His divinity through those events. We can say with the centurion at the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.

He has been manifested in a human body for THIS reason: out of the LOVE and GOODNESS of the Father, for our salvation. He came to rescue, to redeem, to enliven and to reveal the heart of the Father. He did not come “tsk, tsk”-ing, He did not come to proclaim doom and hopelessness to our world as so many self-styled “prophets” do in His name. He came out of the love of the Father, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.

What He came to do was to “re-boot” creation. In the same way that a computer virus can wreak havoc on a computer, the virus of sin has infected every square inch of creation. So just as we re-boot a frozen computer, the One who made the world in the beginning came to RE-create it. Just as the original creation is subject to death and decay, the new creation is not. The new is here, even in the midst of the old. As the old creation dies around us, we can live out abundant lives and overflow that life into the lives of others. Those of us who are in Christ are agents of the New Creation, re-booting the old order in our relationships and spheres of influence.

When exactly did the new creation begin? In Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago. Something happened which set off a chain of events that cannot be undone. A baby was born who grew up to be a man who revealed the heart of God and gave Himself for us, bringing God’s anti-virus into His creation to make all things new. This is why Christmas is so important, and why we need to dust off the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation and see them for the spectacular revelations they are.

Glimpses of the Great Story

•October 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I was 7 years old when I first tasted transcendence in any way I can remember. I’m not sure of much that happened that year, but the most significant event was going to see a certain movie with my parents. Yes, one of the first markers in my spiritual journey was Return Of The Jedi.

What I remember about that night was having no idea it was a Star Wars movie. We got there a few minutes late, so all I saw was a huge slug-like creature who spoke in a strange language, surrounded by some of the most menacing freaks of nature my young eyes had ever gazed upon. To my 7 year old mind, Jabba’s Palace was a never-ending terror. All I remember about that first viewing was that I hid my face for most of the sequence that took place in Jabba’s Palace because for me at age 7, it was the heart of darkness. Yet I do remember one by one, the characters of Star Wars being revealed; Chewbacca brought in my a bounty hunter that turned out to be Leia, Lando revealed as one of the palace guards, Han Solo released from carbonite and finally Luke Skywalker entered the heart of darkness and set the captives free. Something in me thrilled at this turn of events. What seemed like an unfamiliar tale of terror turned suddenly into exactly what I had been wanting to see but didn’t know to ask for: a Star Wars movie!

I had my parents take me back to see it probably around 7 times. Movies stayed in the theater for almost a year back then, there was no video release in the early 80’s. Why did I beg to go see it that many times? (My poor parents; I seriously doubt they were as excited about seeing it that many times, but they took me.) It spoke to me. It said something to me and my 7 year old heart received it. It tols me that life is a great story and there are great adventures to be had. It showed me that there is a battle between good and evil and none of us are allowed the luxury of being neutral. It tapped into the deep longing embedded in my heart to be one of those swashbuckling rebels, sticking it to the heart of darkness. And there was something unexplainable about seeing Darth Vader’s mask come off, revealing a pathetic, enslaved man driven to self-destruction. There was a profound truth revealed to me in that unmasking scene, even though I may have been unaware of it then. In the flurry of images and the regality of the robust musical score, I caught a vision of a life beyond merely existing and that vision has stayed with me ever since. I was “taken up,” you might say. That is the earliest experience I can remember of the power of the arts influencing my spiritual journey.

Yes, I know that Star Wars has more in common with Buddhism than with Christianity, and that’s why I think the preachy prequels fell so flat. The Jedi in those films were Buddhist monks, emotionless and humorless; detached. But young George Lucas got something right, in spite of himself. The idea of open rebellion on a dark empire in the universe and including just the right kind of humor, not to mention a likeable scalawag as one of the heroes (something missing entirely in the prequels; there are no scalawags or likeable characters). I would say the original Trilogy worked for one reason: it drew from the Great Story and delved deeply into it. When I say “the Great Story,” I am referring to what is actually happening in the cosmos, and has been happening since the dawn of time. It is revealed most fully and accurately in the Bible and most definitively in the life of Christ, the Author who became a character. There may be scraps of it flung around in other cultures and mythologies (as Paul attested to on Mars Hill in Acts 17), but our hearts instinctively know when it is being invoked. That’s why certain films are runaway hits though the critics can’t say why and others flop even though they were expected to be blockbusters. Some tap into the Great Story and others don’t. Return of the Jedi exposed me to the Great Story. War in the universe, good rebelling against evil, unlikely heroes rising up along the way and the redemption of the man encaged in the black suit.

My second glimpse of the Great Story was intentional by the author. I had a “book and tape” of Rankin-Bass’ production of The Hobbit and I don’t know how it came about, but I went through it so much I eventually memorized not only the words but the music and sound effects. On long trips my parents would have me perform it, no doubt for their amusement. But even that shoddy retelling of The Hobbit awakened a longing in me that only stumbling across the Great Story would later satisfy. I was delighted to find out in my early-twenties that J.R.R. Tolkien was a Christian and was purposefully tapping into the Story, which again, is why the Lord Of The Rings continues to win Greatest Book in contests year after year, much to the critics’ repeated chagrin. Of course, I also remember a viewing of an animated television special of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe that similarly affected me. When Aslan was killed, I ran from the room in tears, much like the disciples on Good Friday. Thankfully, I had only to wait about 10 minutes for my Easter morning, unlike the disciples, who had 2 nights and a day. I heard my parents saying, “Come back! Aslan’s alive!” A strange thrill ran through me and I believe even at that young age, I felt a numinous joy of the prospect of resurrection. I’m sure Lewis meant that deliberately. When I go back and re-watch these horrible depictions of the Hobbit and Narnia, it’s amazing to me that the power of the story was not dismantled entirely by the adaption of lesser storytellers. There was something about the way they tapped into the Great Story that could not be deconstructed. It came with those stories, even in spite of their handlers.

When I became a Christian in my early twenties and began reading great Christian authors veraciously, I was stunned to realize my childhood experiences were not unique in the slightest. G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian wit of the early 20th century, spoke of a similar experience while watching a puppet show as a child. When he recounted the episode in his autobiography, he couldn’t remember the story or the context, but he remembered seeing the image of a princess locked in a palace and a prince approaching the palace with a golden key to free her. That image made a profound impression on Chesterton, and gave him a glimpse of what he called “the white light of wonder.” In some way, he knew at a very deep level that this image was a picture of reality but it took him until adulthood to find the Prince of the Universe who entered our world with His golden key to set us free. C.S. Lewis also had what he called “stabs of joy” as a child. Once, while reading a book of Norse mythology, he came across the couplet:

Baldar the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead

The Norse myth of Baldar had the same effect on him that his story of the Dying and Rising Lion had on me. It pierced him with a sort of bittersweet ache that he later came to call “the inconsolable longing.” It is interesting that C.S. Lewis came to faith in Christ by reading mythology. At first, he believed that since so many elements of the Christ story were also scattered throughout the world’s mythology, it must have simply been invented as a new myth, no more substantial than any other mythology. It was Tolkien, that fateful night on Addison’s walk, who helped Lewis to see that Christ’s life was the “true myth” (another way of saying the “Great Story”) that all other myths tapped into. But the one unique factor about the life of Christ was that it actually happened in history. All other mythologies (even the mythology of Star Wars) are potent because they tap into the “true myth” that has been revealed in Jesus. C.S. Lewis wrapped his mind around that, and never looked back. He crossed over from atheism to Christianity in the next year or so and was able to communicate the Great Story so vividly, thanks to his having been brought to the understanding of it so early on in his Christian life.

I mention these childhood experiences of mine because I believe they are not unique or original. I believe as children we are less guarded and more able to see truth. As we grow up and find out “how the world really works,” we snuff out “the white light of wonder” in our hearts. But the good news is, the gospel of Jesus Christ; the Great Story, re-ignites that beautiful flame. This is also why I believe my vocation involves a Christian engagement with the arts and culture. Because the Great Story is no less loose in the world now as it ever was. You can see a strand of it here and a sliver of it there. It is only completely revealed in Christ, who is the exact image of the invisible God (Col. 1). But our hearts can catch glimpses of it in the strangest places, and only God knows where it will turn up next to be spotted by the trained adult eye or the unsuspecting child.

For me, there’s something special about the smell of popcorn, the synthy sounds and the dated effects of early 80’s movies, especially sci-fi and fantasy. Those dimly-lit theaters were the first place I experienced pieces of the Great Story and though I’ve gone on to find more of it in other places and the whole of it in the life of that Galilean carpenter, the memory of first finding it where I did will always occupy a certain prominent place in my memory.

Winter Light

•October 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This is a feature I’m going to be starting up: film reviews on movies with spiritual significance. That doesn’t mean these movies give easy answers to hard questions. Some of them are spiritual in the sense that the book of Job and Ecclesiastes are spiritual. They can expose the meaninglessness of an unexamined life. They can puncture our cultural bubble of instant fixes and shoddy knee-jerk solutions. They can provoke thought and the pondering of deeper issues. I’ve come to appreciate a film that helps me meditate on the human condition and our need for redemption. They may not be well-known films (especially to Christians) but they are well worth paying attention to. Most of them are foreign. Most of them are in black and white, and it is fitting that they should be. I’ve heard it said that color film captures the surface of things while black and white film captures the essence of things. In films of this caliber, the black and white presentation is not a limitation; in fact, it opens a whole new visual frontier to explore spiritual questions.

These films are easily viewable – they (The Criterion Collection) are available on Hulu Plus for a monthly fee. That is how I am watching them. The Criterion Collection is a treasure trove for anyone interested in experiencing the best films ever made. The film I saw this morning was “Winter Light” by Ingmar Bergman. I get a lot out of Bergman’s films. I’m not sure what his personal beliefs were; I’ve heard he was an agnostic yet his films do not shy away from the big questions. They draw on Christian imagery for their power. If he was an agnostic, there must have been something deep in him that was drawn to Christian symbols as a way of expressing that agnosticism. It’s strange though; “Winter Light” could have been made by a Christian. Its subject matter is a crisis of faith in the life of a widower pastor in rural Sweden. The film begins with a worship service in an old, empty church. What is wonderful about this film is its slow but deliberate way of introducing the characters. There are roughly 10 participants in the church service and we are introduced to the characters by watching how they react to the Eucharist. One couple is tense and exchange worried looks. One young woman stares into space wistfully as if she is trying to believe what she cannot. There is an old pious lady who closes her eyes and repeats the prayers and harmonizes with the music. There is a misshapen man who shyly joins in. And the pastor himself is simple moving his lips, saying the words and playing the part. This opening lasts roughly 15 minutes. The beauty of this kind of film is that it doesn’t rush. It is quiet. You can hear every creak in that echo-heavy church. You can feel the biting cold. You feel like you are there – without 3D! It is simply great film-making by a director less interested in pushing along some artificial plot and more interested in giving an experience.

After the sparsely-attended worship service, the pastor is coughing sharply in his chamber while counting the meager offering of the morning. The misshapen man (actually upon closer inspection, it’s only his neck that is misshapen) asks to speak with him. The pastor callously dismisses him and tells him he will be at another church later in the day, they can talk them. The man bows out and then a man and his wife enter. The wife discloses that her husband, Jonas, has been reading about China getting an atomic bomb (this was made in 1963) and that suddenly he can think of nothing else. She tells the pastor (Tomas) that she needs Jonas to drive her home and he can be back in 20 minutes to speak privately with him. They leave and in true Bergman form, it is 20 minutes until we see him again. In the meantime, we find that the pastor has an admirer and that they have shared some kind of relationship. Her name is Marta and she’s an atheist. She walks in on him in prayer and asks him what is wrong. He answers, “The Silence of God.”

This is the subject of the film. Is God silent? Silence is also to the soundtrack to this film (as with most of Bergman’s films) so that watching it slowly develop feels like a meditative experience. I love films like this – you feel rested and (gasp!) smarter after you watch it. Or at least you feel like you’ve been through a meaningful experience. It’s not like most American films these days; mostly aimed at 15 year olds and homogenized by focus-groups for the lowest common denominator. When was the last time an American film (or a Christian film) ever dealt with a character who is struggling with not hearing from God?

So, the first question – is God silent? As a Christian I would have to say, absolutely not. But do we ever experience seasons in our lives as Christians in which God doesn’t seem to be as vocal as He once was? Absolutely. These are usually described as “wilderness experiences” and they are commonplace in the life of faith. They are part of the trials and tribulations that every Christian learns to bear with patient endurance. God is not a genie in a bottle and He does not answer to our shallow expectations of Him. We all must come to terms with a God who relates to us on His own terms. It’s all too easy to throw out pious platitudes when someone we know is struggling with not feeling God’s presence in their lives. It’s a real problem that person is facing and they need fellow sufferers, not bumper-sticker slogans. Tomas, the pastor, is an earnest believer who is all too aware of his own failings. His church is almost empty; no one comes. His juiced-up organ player mocks him at every opportunity. The prayers he prays from the lectern are empty. He prays and hears nothing. He is aware only of a presence of an absence. The silence of God that chills his bones.

Marta tries to comfort him but he pushes her away. Jonas finally returns, hoping for the pastor to solve all of his problems. The scene that follows is brutal; in which Tomas confesses his own crisis of faith to a despondent Jonas, who becomes uncomfortable and leaves. What happens to Jonas because of the pastor’s self-indulgent tirade is truly tragic. In that scene we find how the sharing of one’s personal doubts is not always helpful, especially to someone who needs hope. Doubt is part of faith; an important part. Without the ability to doubt, we will believe anything. We could end up in some U.F.O. cult and may find ourselves drinking cyanide Kool-Aid to show how much we believe. The ability to doubt and ask questions will keep us from swallowing any religious drivel that is spoken to manipulate us. We are told to test all things and hold fast to that which is good. We will not find that which is good unless we test all things. Unfortunately, I have yet to see an evangelical American film made by Christians that takes this very sober command seriously. The doubter is usually the villain until he finally turns off his brain. We are never asked to turn our God-given brains off, but to love the Lord with all of our minds. Part of loving God with our mind is using it to think critically about who He is truly revealed to be and who He is not.

Even Biblical passages can be “twisted” in ways that destroy us. When we hear a scriptural interpretation, how do we know that it is not twisted? Of what Spirit is it? If I am told something about Jesus that is inconsistent with the Gospels, it’s my responsibility to doubt. Even if the preacher is emotional about it. Job is a book about healthy doubt. Job, if you remember has a very real problem and all the “answers” that his friends have to offer ring hollow. Job refuses a second-hand explanation of things; he holds out to hear from God himself, and he is eventually vindicated. It is also important to remember that throughout the book of Job, Job’s friends talk ABOUT God – Job alone talks TO God. Even when God seems to be silent. Tomas eventually breaks down and calls the Christian faith nothing but illusions and lies. And yet he weeps deeply while he says this. Somewhere deep in him, he longs for the gospel to be true.

One of the most profound lines of the movie; Marta asks Tomas why in all of his religiosity, he dwells so little on the person of Jesus Christ? That is probably the most important line of the film to me. Tomas is a pastor and he knows all the prayers. He knows God as a distant, abstract concept. But even the atheist Marta sees enough of his faith to realize there is very little of Jesus anywhere to be found in it. Her question hangs in the air and charges the rest of the film with an odd, expectant poignancy.

So the film follows this unbelieving pastor through the dramatic events of the day and finally near the end, this misshapen man who asked to speak with him begins to talk. He talks about being in constant physical pain and about reading the Gospels. He says he envies Jesus because His physical torments lasted only hours before He died. Yet he found that Jesus’ real suffering was spiritual. From the agony in Gethsemane to His cry of “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” on the cross. Did Jesus doubt? Did He feel the full weight of the silence of God on our behalf?

This scene is one of the most powerful I’ve seen. The look on Tomas’ face when it dawns on him that Jesus experienced this crisis of faith on his behalf, and more. We see in his eyes what a difference a faith infused with the person of Jesus makes; rather than belief in a dubious concept of “God” somewhere far away. Tomas walks out into the empty church and begins a worship service – not caring that no one is there. He is going to worship whether anyone joins him or not. The closing words are, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, Heaven and Earth are full of His glory.” They hang heavy in the air, full of meaning.

Do we know the full extent of what Jesus experienced on our behalf? Even the crushing hopelessness so many of us silently endure, too afraid to talk about with Christian friends? To say that Jesus despaired does not mean He was any less divine, only that He drank the cup He asked to be taken from Him. He drank it to the dregs, and now none of us can descend deeper than He did. There is no darkness dark enough that His light is absent, in this life. If any are reading this and feel the weight of God’s silence, meditate on Christ’s cross. He, who was the Word of God, also experienced the feeling that God was absent. Was He? Some Christians say, yes, The Father turned His back on the Son. But He did not forsake the Son. He raised Him three days later. And those of us who reach out to Him who took our suffering upon Himself; we will be raised also.

I recommend “Winter Light” as a meditation on the meaning of suffering and the importance of taking to heart Christ’s work on the cross and His sufferings on our behalf.