Bookshelf Christians: A Theology of the Book of Eli

I sat in my room the other night and viewed the Book of Eli, a film featuring Danzel Washington and Gary Oldman.  In this post-apocalyptic drama Eli (Washington) has been commissioned to preserve the Bible after an apparent world-wide attempt to destroy every copy of it.   In contrast, Carnegie (Oldman) wants to wrestle it away from Eli in order to put it to good use, like being able to control the weak and ignorant masses.   Albeit a mean and violent blind Samurai-like figure, Eli is the good guy presumably.  He is the opposite of  Carnegie and his henchmen who rule the wastelands on a policy of murder, rape, pillage, and plunder.  Eli saves the day and himself by taking the Bible west, which he has memorized, where it gets printed and put on a shelf.

Practical Christians want to change the world, even sometimes through the misguided means of coercion and violence.  We have been through this drama before: The Inquisition, the Salem Witch Hunts, the Crusades, and the wars and squabbles of religion of the past centuries.

Did these holy convulsions make the world a better place?  Nope.  A radical outcome once the sacred dust of contempt, violence, and discord settled was that the world as a whole and the powers that be no longer look up on the church for wisdom as to how to change the current mess we are in.  Correspondingly, many Christians have retreated to a form of quietism, a privatized secluded religion on the underground.  Bookshelf Christians I call them.  They happily contemplate their Bibles resting on a shelf and only casually if ever, entertain  the foggiest idea as to how, if ever, it is supposed to make the world a viable haven for humanity.  Bookshelf Christians domesticate Jesus and the Gospel by cutting off any input to the outside world.  They talk only to themselves in categories that only they can understand.  Like Eli, they are blind to the implications of the Bible towards the wider culture.   In the meanwhile, the God’s Holy Book continues to gather dust unabated.

The alternative is to have the righteous revolutionaries of Biblical morality launch a campaign of indignation with the aim of shoving Biblical principles down people’s throat. The Bible then becomes a tool for compelling  conformity.  It’s our way or the highway to hell. It doesn’t work.  It can’t work.  Jesus was a stranger to power politics. He didn’t attempt to Christianise the power structures of his day. He didn’t boycott sinners.  He didn’t practice censorship of the lost, the least, or the left-out.  His religion wasn’t about controlling the meek and the weak.  Religionistas Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and John Hagee want to fight their enemies and if necessary, kill or hurl them in prison, all in the name of defending the Bible, praise God.  Contrast that with God’s humble servant, the man Christ who sacrificed his life for his enemies instead of casually blasting them to pieces.

We need a hybrid Christian.  People with the passion of both Carnegie and Eli, but whose means and ends to achieve justice in the world are at the polar opposite of oppression and violence.  Passivity won’t cut it.  The Bible isn’t going to grow legs any time soon by sitting on a bookshelf.  Employing coercion to get people saved or at least have them conform outwardly to Biblical morality will usually backfire.  Without aiming for  a transformation of the heart, the best we can do is fashion prolific, self-righteous pharisees whose use (and abuse ) of religion will make people want to rebel and look down on their inferiors. The victims of holy-than-thou characters normally end up crucified.  Jesus would have none of this.  We need balance.  We need passion and purpose without wielding the piercing sword of judgmentalism and self-righteousness.  Religion as dogma can be a weapon  for manipulation.   We must have God’s religion of love and the Spirit in order to experience true liberation, beauty, and due justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Guy Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead

HE IS RISEN.  Matthew 28:6

A man who dies and comes back alive is up to something.   

The riddle of all ages has been cracked.  The resurrection of the Son of God opens up brand new possibilities for life’s meaning now and the future.  His advent from deathland points to a loving God who made a universe of intricate beauty and boundless goodness and vows to heal and restore it (Romans 8).  Our existence is no mere laboratory for philosophical materialists.  Death is not final and total. Matter alone can’t be the supreme value where everything else hinges.  The Christ Way isn’t exclusively about pie in the sky for when we die: It’s about EVERYTHING.

Had Christ stayed dead we could have surmised he stood for religious ideas rather than immortality and bliss.  We have numerous religions, spiritualities , and figureheads.  Some of them defunct, some barely clinging to life, and others, like the Big Five ( Islam, Christianity, Hinduism , Buddism, and Judaism) claiming devotees by the millions.   Yet only one  arose from the conviction that its founder slew death itself and passed on the other side , alive.   Therefore all religions can not be equal.  Anybody can be born, but not everybody can rise from the death.  If Christ truly is alive , it follows that he unlike the others, negotiates a broader spectrum of reality and  resists the strait jacket of adhering to impersonal religious maxims that have no correspondence to real life. 

This Easter Sunday people will be in pews tuning in to preachers rant about how we can resuurect our finances, bring to life stray children hooked on drugs, resuurect  a new career and opportunities after a stint in the slammer, about twelve steps to jolt our marriage back from the death (if you can jerk your corpse spouse out of bed , don’t miss that one) , and about how we can revive a snuffed out romantic flame from the throes  of weeping and heart break. 

All good and dandy.  We have mastered the language of resurrection to fancy our individualism and egotism.  We have gained proficiency at exploiting Christ’s resurection to sooth our egos and promote our causes.  Nothing wrong with trying to make relevant the message of Scripture. The New Testament speaks broadly about the implications of  Easter for advancing hope in the world: curing AIDS, feeding starving children with bloated bellies, preventing war.  But we shouldn’t start with the human element. The resurrection of Christ is not primarily about us , mind you .  It is foremost about Christ and his upcoming project for all creation.   The resurection is not advice. It won’t teach you how to weave more colorful patterns on Easter eggs. It is a Royal announcement that someone immortal , yet like us, is in charge and intends to undo deviant hearts and rescue a lost world steadily spiraling into the jaws of sin and death.  

The World’s Most Dangerous Name

lambCredit: Google Images, 2016

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”  Revelation 6:12-17

 

Utter the name of Christ in a crowded room, among polite company, inside a business meeting.  Wait and watch the awkwardness, the tension, the sweaty palms, the raised eyebrows, the sneers.  What is it about that name?  Does it denote shame, anger, disgust, holier-than-thou self-righteous propaganda the speaker is trying to push on everyone else?

In the post Christian West, no less than in America, the name of Jesus Christ has become synonymous with cursing and cussing and blatant contempt either against real and imagined enemies, the system, politicians, the insane driver who cut us off, bad luck, uncongenial circumstances, bad weather, a cheating spouse, etc…. It is the grand intrigue of history that Christ’s influence in human affairs has extended to the domain of profanity.   Jesus has to posses something pretty darn remarkable about him in order for his name to be used as a term of derision millenia later.  Can anyone imagine the name of Buddha or Mohammed employed in  similar fashion?  In the case of Mohammed, expect your name to be added to a death list should you dare to cuss Islam’s prophet.

The name of Christ threatens us.   Christ’s name invokes accountability.  We know of Christ the Savior.  Many people are fed up with that already. We have turned salvation vocabulary into meaningless and sentimental platitudes and slogans on bumper stickers:  “I got saved from working overtime this weekend,” “I got saved from my demon husband by divorcing him,”  “I got saved from the IRS,” “DANGER: SAVED AND RAPTURE READY.”   We pay sufficient lip service to the notion of Christ the Savior and salvation from sin that we don’t believe it anymore because we are uncritical consumers of religion, not disciplined followers. Or we take Christ for granted.  Admitting that we need salvation implies we have a problem, a sin problem, and sin by all practical purposes, is regarded by the current intelligentsia as seriously passe, an old fashioned idea whose time and progress has rendered irrelevant in light of modern science, education, and overall human enlightenment.  So we think.

A nagging feeling persists about Jesus Christ.  The doubts and suspicion about him hasn’t stop public dialogue and debate. It is not going to stop anytime soon.  Jesus is disturbing.  He was dangerous to the social establishment of his time to the degree of being designated a threat to public order.  He wasn’t merely promoting a new form of religious experience (the Romans could careless about Jesus’ new private spirituality), he was creating a brand new platform of human existence affecting every area of life both private and public.  Little wonder he got himself executed. All that talk about him being the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  It sounds arrogantly exclusive and narrow minded and we can’t live with that. The ancients could not handle that claim either. We want our options open, our religions tolerant, our lifestyles free from religious constraints.

Jesus challenges all of that.  Jesus remains a danger, firm and final because he is in charge now and his moral compass guides the universe (Matthew 28:18).  If that were not so, anything goes.  Let’s lie, cheat and steal with no consequence. Let’s murder. Let’s engage in child rape and human sacrifice.  In the great scheme of things of an amoral universe, Hitler and Mother Theresa would be equals. But the boundaries have been drawn.  There are parameters to living in God’s creation.  Everything we say and do is of consequence.  The baby Jesus in the manger, the pet Jesus, the meek and mild One and feeder of thousands doesn’t present an imminent danger to our peace of mind and prospects for the future.  We treat him more as fire insurance than Lord.

It is rather the Christ of judgment, the wrathful Lamb, the Christ with the whips at the Temple in Jerusalem who is unsettling.  Christ as judge we find both uncomfortable and disturbing,  inglorious to a degree that make us squirmy, furious and indignant.   This is the Christ we find unbecoming, unpalatable, unwelcoming.  This is the Jesus Christ who pierces our ego and look upon as the great cosmic kill-joy, the disrupter of our show and status quo, the arbiter who won’t let us get away with our dreams of selfish ambitions and self- determination.  We don’t want to embrace him in the mode of judge and critic.  Until then, Christ will continue to resemble us modern self-designated civilized decent folk: Tame and tolerant and tenacious when it comes to getting our way in the world.   Human nature resists transformation and eschews insecurity and threats.  So long as Christ stays dangerous, we will hide from him at our own peril.  How then can we be saved?

Idolaters R US

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
    though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
    to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

Isaiah 45:5-6

How odd is God.  Evidently incomparable given he is the invisible Entity who has left us  no unambiguous trace of his existence, except for a handful of written witnesses illustrating what he is up to.  Ask anyone who has struggled with the idea of God.  It would seem he casts himself as arbitrary and unapproachable.  We can warrant some level of critique regarding those notions. God hasn’t made his reality as slam dunk as mathematical proof.  Clues exist out there of some ultimate purpose, of mystery, of ultimate intelligence and goodness, all variably open to interpretation.  Are we missing out on something?  Shouldn’t God be visible and tangible?  Maybe that kind of God would be susceptible to manipulation and abuse, not unlike this past week’s baby dolphin craze.

http://mainenewsonline.com/content/16027043-video-shows-how-ignorance-led-killing-endangered-baby-dolphin

Image result for baby dolphin news

God let me take a selfie with you in it!   Wouldn’t we suffocate him in the attempt to rub shoulders, literally?    Where could we possible contain him should there be no boundaries between him and us ?    How we approach God demonstrate the extent of our deviance.  Should he be like us, compliant to our whims and lack of restraint, God would be subject to our domestication: have him wear a male bikini while shirtless and flexing muscles at the beach, have him sit  for an interview and queue him with a barrage of silly questions, Instagram him on 360 degree views, paparazzi him, invite him over for pizza and beer and request that he pull a few tricks off his sleeve, have him endorse and glamorize our favorite Sunday morning religion, endorse our fashion and fads, have him bless the wonderful purpose of our lives…..

Trouble is we humans tend to swing to the polar of depraved thinking and disposition.   For many the opposite of the Midas touch is norm, rather than the exception. We tend to destroy and harass what we touch.  Why, we want to franchise and take advantage of every golden opportunity, even when our understanding and intentions are misguided.  We want God to be our idol, not our Lord.  The tendency of mortals is to craft God in our image and likeness:  The God of my religion. The God of my ring-wing/left-wing politics. The God of my capitalist economy. The God of my flag. The God of my tribe.  The God of my romance. The God of ME.

The quest to subject  and acquire things represent relentless and coveted pursuits that keep achievers (and alas thieves!) awake at night.  The temptation to reach transcendence, Godhood, divinity, whatever, has not reasonable let up for those with ulterior ambitions. Granted the opportunity, some would seek to dethrone God (Isaiah 14:14; Genesis 3:6,22).  God resists that.  A line has to be traced, not just in religion, but in every aspect of living.  God won’t be confined. He can’t.  We expect kids to grow up and become adults, not the reverse.  God abhors walls of limitation and  vetoes down boxes of neat categorization that dictate what he ought and not to do (i.e. God should answer every prayer, stop every hurricane, grant me this job right now). We think we have God all figured out and safely tucked in our Bible on that sanctimonious two hour block weekend charade. Not so.  God is loose and dangerous. He doesn’t think he is us. The world constitutes God’s arena for the display of his power, not the circus ring where he juggles to our endless entertainment and pleasure, on demand. He is the Lion of the jungle, not the bird in the cage. The wholly Other God refuses to be our pet, the baby dolphin on the sun-drenched beach.  My proposal therefore is that to get our religion right, we ought to let God be God.