Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Love (Isaiah's Doxology, Part IV)

"He has clothed me...He has covered me...like a bridegroom...like a bride...." Is. 61:10-11

Love is the key. (Get it?)
Isaiah's metaphor for our new identity and function point us to something in addition to that purpose and function: our purpose and function are not simply a matter of duty. Remember, he could have used any metaphor he wanted. His word choices prove that: "decks" means "to meditate" and carries the image of church service as well as a wedding, and "jewels" means any prearranged thing, even the garb and tools of a worker going to work. Yet he did not use those images, images of duty and work. He chose instead the images of a bride and groom, images of love.

You missed a spot.
Now, it is true that a bride and groom have a duty to give, both in the wedding and in the marriage. But that exception only proves the rule: we expect them to fulfill their duty because we assume that they love each other and will gladly give their best to each other. If they failed or deliberately faltered in their duty towards each other, we would feel a sense of disappointment. However, if they did their duty only out of duty and nothing more, then we would feel the same thing. We would feel as if something had been missed, left out. The situation suggested and called for more than mere dutifulness or efficiency. It called for love, a much deeper and solid thing. Love is the only sure foundation for dutiful action, because it alone can keep the fires burning for years to come.

As we adore...
Just as a bride and groom have an identity and function out of love, so too do those whom God has redeemed. Their purpose and function is done out of love, because it came from love. It was Love that redeemed totally and absolutely (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-11; I John 4:7-10). He wrapped His people in salvation and righteousness just like a groom is decked out for his bride (and vice versa). The groom decks himself (or is decked) out of love for the bride, and because of that love he is decked in his finest, in all that makes the bride happy. Likewise the bride adorns (or is adorned) out of love for the groom, and because of that love she adorns herself with beauty, with all that makes the groom happy. Every action belongs to love. It is a mutual reception of joy, each giving to and receiving from each other out of love for each other. That is the image Isaiah is going for, that God is going for through him. God has decked His people out in the best that He has: a salvation and righteousness all-encompassing and overwhelming. And as He has given His best out of love, so too His people give back their best out of love. To do it for any lesser or other reason would be a corruption of the whole relationship.

...so too we adore.
This is where all the "relational" language comes from in Christianity. Having a "relationship" with God may be an overused and abused idea, but it is still the closest to the truth. We were made to love God, saved to love God, and we can only love Him the same way we come to love anyone else: we must begin to know Him. Such knowledge is only possible through His self-disclosed revelations: Nature (Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:19-20) and Natural Law (Rom. 2:12-15), as well as His word (II Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12) and Word (Heb. 1:1-4). We must learn who He is and what He loves. We must learn to listen to Him, talk to Him, and spend time with Him. If we are to love God, then we must know God, and if we are to know God, then we must immerse ourselves in His revelations. Spend your time amongst Nature and its beauty. Spend your time studying virtue and truth. Above all, spend your time in His word, learning from His Spirit (I Cor. 2:6-12) and His Son. From that soil your knowledge will grow, and from that your love will grow, and from that and that alone will your activity grow, for truth is the foundation of love, and love is the foundation of life.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Monday, July 22, 2013

Deliberate (Isaiah's Doxology, Part III)

"He has clothed me...He has covered me...as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels." Is. 61:10-11

The source of Isaiah's joy is not just that God's deliverance is absolute and total but also that it is neither arbitrary nor random. This is the meaning behind the next set of metaphors. Isaiah says that God has completely covered His people in deliverance and justification just like "a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments" and "a bride adorns herself with her jewels." The Hebrew words here are very interesting. "Decks" does mean "to dress," but it has specific religious connotations. The word literally means "to meditate," and thus is often used to mean "to dress as a priest for a religious service." The image is of purpose and function: you do not dress this way for just any reason or any day. There is a specific reason: it's your wedding day, or it's your turn to fulfill the priestly office. This is why the word means "to meditate": you do not meditate on the air or nothingness or anything that you want. Rather, you become focused, amassing all of your concentration on one thing. There is a purpose and function to what you're doing. Likewise, there is a purpose and function to God's deliverance and justification.

It's a Jared.
A bride adorns herself with "jewels," which in Hebrew means "something prepared or prearranged." The idea is not just of jewels but jewelry, i.e., not separate gemstones placed anywhere in any which way, but rather arranged in a pattern that matches and sequences color and size and shape into a single item whose parts enhance the whole. It is rich with purpose. Finding a lone jewel on the ground somewhere suggest no purpose, but finding them prearranged into jewelry does. There is a purpose and function; the thing is meant for a specific reason. In fact, the Hebrew word for "jewels" literally means any prepared or prearranged thing---the armor and weapons of a soldier or the luggage and bags of a traveler. The idea is the same: the prearrangement is all part of a larger plan and purpose (whether to make the bride more beautiful, the soldier more dangerous, or the traveler more prepared). So too is the deliverance and justification of God's people.

"That was deliberate!"
God does not cloth His people in salvation and righteousness, does not envelope them and hide them in deliverance and justification, just because. Redemption is not random. The Messiah did not set captives free on a whim, abandoning them right after the rescue. It is all deliberate, with a two-fold reason given at the beginning of the chapter: (1) "that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified," and (2) "they shall build the wastes of old, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities" (vs. 3-4). Herein is the double-barreled purpose for those who belong to God: that God would be glorified in their redemption and that they would continue the work started by the Messiah. The first speaks to their identity and ultimate purpose. The second speaks to their activity and immediate purpose. Both are interconnected, one leading to the other.

The identity of one who belongs to God is one who has been swallowed up in deliverance and justification. Where once they were captives to sin, they now belong to God, and the transaction itself is glorious to God who wrought it. Now, our identity is the foundation of our activity. Who we are determines what we do. This is why identity is so vital to people (especially today when identity is a nebulous beast at best). Until we know who we are, our meaning is lost to us: we don't know why we're here or what we're meant to do. For most people, the best they can do is make a half-educated, half-guessed approximation and hope for the best. The identity of God's people, however, is not a guess on their part but a calling on His (Rom. 8:28-30). They are "called" the "trees" and "planting" of God, called to be absolutely God's---planted, watered, tended.

This identity is not something we make for ourselves. It is something we are made by God, and there is the ground for glorifying God: we are the work of His hands, not our own. Any strength we have, any good we do, any purpose we find all comes from the life we've been given by Him. That is our ultimate purpose, viz., to let all that we do be an act if worship to the one who made us His own. Worship is to be our life, because we are God's and God is ours.

What that life of worship looks like leads us to the activity of those who belong to God: praise is to be the permanent pulse of their existence. But there is more to praise than singing and music. It is not less than that, but it is more. The way they worship is to continue on the work of the Messiah, the work of redemption, the "ministry of reconciliation" begun by Him (II Cor. 5:18-19). It is what Jesus meant when He called His own "salt" and "light" (Matt. 5:13-16): they savor and preserve all things with goodness and beauty and truth, and bear bright witness to God's goodness and beauty and truth. Men will see their works and glorify their Father who is in heaven.

"It's simple, really."
This is the place of "good works" in the Christian Faith, and it is the solution to James' paradox (James 2:14-26). To say that "faith without works is dead" is to assume that activity springs from identity, and if your identity is one who belongs to God then your activity will necessarily be good works that glorify Him before men. If there is no activity, then there is no identity. If there are no works in any shape or form, then your faith is not real, i.e., it is "dead". Paul is saying the exact same thing when talks of the "fruits if the Spirit" (Gal. 5:16-25): if we belong to God, if we are now the people of the living God (II Cor. 6:16) wherein His Spirit dwells (I Cor. 6:19-20), then there will necessarily be certain results, certain quantifiable ways of worship. If there are none, then you do not belong to God. It is that simple, that practical.

Only star-gazers change the world.
Everybody seems to miss the practical side of our doctrines, which is not how it should be. Christianity is practical mysticism, i.e., its divine realities are meant to be practical realities. Its word is to be made flesh. To belong to God, to be wrapped up safe and snug inside of His deliverance and justification, is not to become some airy abstraction. On the contrary, it has purpose and function, identity and activity, just as a bride and groom prepare for their wedding day, or as a priest prepares for his duties. You would not see a groom in his glory, dressed in his finest and surrounded by his "best men," and accuse him of impractical abstractionism. You would not look upon the bride in her beauty, in shining white and sparkling jewels arranged in perfect accentuation, and dismiss her as a hopeless day-dreamer whose actions have no function. You would not (though some might dare) consider a priest, dressed in his robes and rushing towards the church with bible and books in hand and glasses tilted down his nose, and say that his garb and gestures served no purpose. There is a purpose, whether you like it or not.

It is the same with those who belong to God, who have been buried deep into salvation and righteousness. They have been bought with a price and decked out for a purpose so that they might glorify God in their body and in their spirit, which our God's.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Friday, July 19, 2013

Hidden (Isaiah's Doxology, Part II)

"He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness." Is. 61:10-11

Isaiah, continuing his jubilant doxology, now expresses the specifics of his joy in God. He first states that God has "clothed me with the garments of salvation" as well as "covered me with the robe of righteousness." There is some interesting word usage going on here in the Hebrew. The easy ones to get are "salvation" (which carries the idea of "deliverance") and "righteousness" (which carries the idea of "justification"). Isaiah is delivered and justified, i.e., he has been brought out of something and in to something, out of a state of bondage and into a state of innocence before one whom had been offended. This is all courtroom language: you were bound to some great punishment or fate but now have been released, because you were declared just before your accuser as well as the judge.

Gotcha covered.
Here's where it gets interesting. This state of deliverance and justification is described as being "clothed" in "garments" and "covered" with a "robe". In Hebrew, "clothed" literally meant "to wrap up" in, like a cocoon. "Garments" literally meant a "cloak," which carried the idea of "hiding" or "to hide". It sometimes was used to suggest treachery or deceit, an act of hiding your true intentions like a man hides under a blanket.  "Covered" and "robe" also carry these additional meanings. The idea is that this deliverance and justification was a complete covering, so complete that you disappear into it, and only the deliverance and justification are seen. Your life is hidden in it, wrapped up like a mummy, buried like in a grave.

The is the first source of Isaiah's joy: God has given to him a salvation and righteousness that is absolute and total, one which you disappear into and are completely covered, like a raindrop in the sea, like a single star in a supercluster. Your life is hid in God's salvation, wrapped up in His garments and hidden in His robe, and none can pluck you from His hand.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Joy (Isaiah's Doxology, Part I)

"I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall be joyful in my God...." Is. 61:10-11

The book of Isaiah is a fascinating work. It's also a large work, containing 66 chapters and covering a myriad of incidents, prophecies, blessings, and denouncements. Amidst it all, however, you can discover a singular reoccurring theme: the inevitable fall and corruption of God's people, the inevitable and preplanned judgment against them, and their inevitable and preplanned redemption. Their redemption usually centered around a messianic figure, whether it be Cyrus the Great (Is. 45:1-6, et. al.) or some future person unidentified in Isaiah's time (i.e., the main figure of the "Servant Songs").

Chapter 61 begins with a declaration made by the "Servant" (vs.1-3), a declaration Jesus would later claim He fulfilled (Luke 4:16-21). The declaration states what the "Servant" will do and how it will affect God's people. It then ends with a doxology by Isaiah speaking for those people (vs. 10-11), and in the process he provides some peculiar commentary on the exact nature of the work that God has wrought through His "Servant".

It just keeps spinning and spinning...
Isaiah (speaking for God's people) says he will "rejoice" and be "joyful" in God and what He has done. In the original language, the first word literally meant "to be bright" while the second literally meant "to spin," like a top or dancer. Now, we should all understand such notions. We have all experienced or seen someone's face "light up" over someone or something, creating a "glow" that affects everyone around them. We have also all experienced or seen moments when words fail and yet something must be done, so you shout or pump your fist or clap your hands or even spin about. You have been filled from top to bottom with ecstatic energy and you just have to release it. This is the idea Isaiah is trying to express: God has made the faces of His people light up by filling them with such immense joy that they can't sit still.

"Why so serious?"
Before I end this post (but continue the series), let me note something: joy is to be a form of evangelism (one of many). Who God actually is and what He has actually done should create an ecstatic delight in us towards Him, and that delight should be one of the things that leads people to ask for an answer to the hope that is within us. I am not referring to faked happiness. I have seen---we all have seen---and been around too many Christians to whom the "joy of the Lord" is merely trumped-up enthusiasm to be maintained at all costs. Let it be said here (if it is said nowhere else) that true Christian joy is not found in plastic smiles and voices worn like masks over dull and despairing souls. It is not found in common courtesy, naturally cheerfulness, a "sunny disposition," or even Southern hospitality. We like to think that's where joy comes from or what it looks like, but we are mistaken. Real joy, Christian joy, is something far different.

Joy comes from loving God, which comes by knowing God, which comes by trusting God. In other words, the life of faith is our channel of joy in God. We learn of His promises and truths (about Himself, ourselves, and all manner of things), we trust and believe in His promises and truths, and then we act on that trust and belief. Then, upon the moment of action or sometime thereafter, God delivers, and the reality of His presence is revealed (however briefly) to us; perhaps not in the way we expected, but still in a way impossible to misidentify. It is there, at the intersection where faith leads to action and action leads to sight, that is where God becomes real, becomes closer than a brother and more intimate than a lover; and in that knowing of Him we grow to love Him truer and deeper, and trust and believe Him more and more, and act again, and see again, and know and love again, and trust and believe again, and act once more, and see once more, and know and love once more, again and again, throughout all time and into eternity. That's where the joy comes from: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sex and Justification (the outrageous analogies of an orthodox rebel)

Just sayin'...

In ye olden times of the English-speaking world, "rape" was often spoken of as "dishonoring" a woman.

Now, describing "rape" as such doesn't have quite the punch most of us are looking for; calling it an "act of evil" sounds more appropriate (if a bit campy). Still, I think our ancestors were on to something, something very special and specific.

FOR HONOR!!!!!!!!
"Honor" is a word we are familiar with, though less familiar than we think. Klingons have honor, as do all their endless sci-fi imitators. (Warrior culture, yes? Expect "honor" to get a word-workout.) In some rare cases, we may hear someone be called a "man of honor". There we are referring to their character, viz., what kind of person they are, what kind of ethics they have subsumed, "who they are when no one's around," etc. That's about the extent of our understanding of "honor": having a specific character to which you should take pride in, pride enough to act according to that character.

Such an idea isn't far off the mark, but the real meaning of "honor" is much simpler. "Honor" simply referred to one's value, i.e., what you as an individual were worth. To gain honor, one had to do something(s) of note or merit (slay dragons, win wars, don't cheat on your taxes, etc.). To lose honor, one of two things had to happen: either you did something that was unbecoming of your value (in other words, it is antithetical to who you are) or you didn't do something that was in line with or would have increased your value, increased your worth. In short, you either did something you shouldn't have done, or you didn't do something you should have done. In either case, you "dishonor" yourself (and the family and/or community to which you belong). You have not treated yourself with the value that you have (or need), and thus acted (or did not act) accordingly.

Clear enough? Of course not. But let's move on.

You are without honor, sirrah.
Now, to be "dishonored" is different from dishonoring yourself. In the latter, you did not live up to the value that you have (or are called to). In the former, however, you have not been treated in accordance with the value that you have. To put it another way, anyone can dishonor themselves, but only valuable people can be dishonored. Both the man of honor and the rogue can dishonor themselves: the former by not living up to their value and the latter by not seeking to gain value; but only the already-valuable can be dishonored. Your honor, your value, is the gauge by which you measure dishonor. The less value you have, the less you can be considered dishonored. If you have no value, then you cannot be dishonored at all. A sacred place can be dishonored; a secular one, less so. You can dishonor a man more than a horse, and both more than a rock.

This is where I think them olden-folks were on to something: "rape" is to "dishonor" a woman because you are not treating her with the value that she already has. She does not lose value, mind you; she has been disvalued, not devalued. The assumption is that women have a set, intrinsic value simply by being a woman. That intrinsic value ought to guide how we act around and towards them, and rape is to act untowards a woman. It is to disvalue her, to treat her as less than she's worth, as a thing or an object rather than a unique individual with intrinsic value. It "dishonors" her, for she has honor. She is already-honorable, already-valuable, and should be treated as such. Thus, as Cameron Poe would say, "Don't! Treat! Women! Like! That!"

That. Is. The question.
A logical question to ask at this point would be exactly what is the "value" of a woman. What does it look like, or how "big" is it (so to speak)? I think the Christian answer would be this: every person, man or woman, has limitless value because (1) they are all made in the image of the God whose "value" is limitless (Ps. 8:1) and (2) they are each a unique manifestation of God's image, a one-time-only, non-repeatable subject.
 The first point speaks to God's objective value: whatever value He has as a being is our value as well. That is the special quality and privilege of a human being. The second point speaks to our subjective value: we are not cardboard cut-outs of the same theme, but rather each of us is a unique note in the symphony that is "the image of God". Each of us sees the world from a unique perspective; each of us sees God from a unique perspective, and thus worships and loves God from a unique perspective. There is unity of belief and creed, of course, but not necessarily unity of expression and person. We are each and all a specific "I", and our "I"-ness is a part of our value. That is the special state of a human being. Therefore, the combination of God's objective value and our subjective value means our value is limitless. We have been "crowned with glory and honor" simply be being human (Ps. 8:3-5).

Clear again? No again? Right. Moving on.

If human "value" is limitless (as I think it is), then a woman's "value" is limitless (as I also think it is). Thus, any act of "disvalue" towards a human person (both male and female) is wrong. Rape, murder, theft, kidnapping, lying to or against: every sin against another (including God) is in some way related to our disvaluing that other as a being. We deem them unworthy of respect or life or property or peace or obedience. I think that makes sense (a lot of sense), but it also creates at least one interesting...let's say, "issue".

Rape, in purely biological terms, is about sex. Sex in all the wrong ways, but sex nonetheless. Now, not to sound platitudinous, but sex in all the right ways is consensual, a natural outflow of love, and within the safeguards and security of a marriage covenant (at the very least). The "issue" is this: if a woman's value is indeed limitless, then there is no way you can be worthy of her. Your value may be limitless, too, but to demand any woman (or any one) on those grounds (i.e., your own worth or awesomeness or studliness or whatever) is to treat her as an object, a mere means to your own self-aggrandizing ends. It is dishonoring to her and to you. But then, how is this supposed to work? How can you ever be worthy of her?

The answer is: only if she declares you to be worthy.

"Love bade me welcome..."
Sex, in that it is a physical representation of love, is to be an invitation, i.e., an other invites and welcomes you to come closer than any one else. They must do the inviting; anything else would make us gatecrashers. Thus, we wait on their declaration, wait in hope that they will declare us worthy. Whether we actually are worthy is not the point; the point is that the other has declared us so out of love, and on the basis of that loving declaration we approach with boldness and yet humility. Boldness, because nothing now bars our way; humility, because it is all an act of grace. Like all acts of true love, sex is to be about grace.

The image of justification is hard to avoid at this point. Union with God is possible because He declares us worthy in Christ. We are not worthy; we could never be worthy of God. But I have good news: Christ died for our unworthiness, proving God's love, and providing us a worthiness not our own (Rom. 5; Phil. 3:8-9). God gives us worth because we have none to merit His favor, and He gives out of love and now invites out of love, invites all to come to the table and feast, to the waters and drink, to taste and see the goodness of God. Christ is the gracious invitation and welcome of God, and to try and enter by any other door is to be a rogue and cheat, a robber and thief, an attempted-rapist of the divine. We will fail, of course, but we will be rightfully punished for our insolence, for our pride, for our disobedience, for our deeming God and His ways unworthy of our respect or adherence, for daring to disvalue the purest and greatest and most extravagant Lover and Love of all:

In short as well as conclusion, the sacred symbols and realities surrounding romantic (and even sexual) love continue to surprise.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Monday, July 8, 2013

On Evil and Gay Marriage (and Gun-Ownership, and the Death Penalty, and Hell, and...)

The reason the average discussion about anything goes nowhere is because everyone always talks about the thing at hand rather than the things assumed. What I mean is that we always discuss the "topics" but never our assumptions that under-gird and give life to those topics. It's like having weeds in your garden and deciding whether to break out the weed-eater or pull them up by the roots. Most of us break out the weed-eater: it's easier, takes less time, makes a glorious racket, and is good for a laugh when the casual passerby is barraged with vegetative shrapnel.

Pulling up by the root takes too much work. It's a hands-on, dirty, intimate process. We have to get on our knees and take each weed one at a time, coming to grips with their unique shapes and challenges, finding the right amount of leverage to unseat them, and finding the right consolation when we fail to yank the suckers fully free from the earth. It's all too messy and involved, but we'll never really take care of the weeds if we don't deal with the roots. That's what's wrong with the majority of our so-called "discussions" or "conversations": we're all whacking each other with weed-eaters, while the roots remain untouched.

Take any "hot-button" issue and you'll see what I mean, like gay marriage for example. Everyone makes everything and anything out of it: it's about the degradation of culture, or equal rights for equal people, or legislating morality, or protecting our children, or protecting our liberty, or freedom of conscience, or love, or hate, or whatever additional buzzwords are floating about, clouding up the debate like a pack of flies. The truth is that gay marriage is about none of those things. Those things are a part of it, they spring naturally from it, but they're not what it's about, what it's fundamentally built on. And what it's fundamentally built on is whether or not there is anything "fundamental" at all.

Is gender a fundamental reality or an arbitrary construction? Is there a fundamental reality out there? How can we know? To what authority do we reference? Is there such an authority? How do we know it/them/him/her? These are the questions that gay marriage is really asking. These are the presuppositions that inform the debate. These are the roots. Gay marriage is not about whether morality is on the decline; it's about whether or not objective meaning is an illusion we've created. It's not about whether we should let inequality exist; it's about whether or not nihilism is true.

Subjectivist? Nay! Subject-abyss.
If you are pro-gay marriage, then at bottom you hold that (at the very least) gender and marriage are empty concepts, and the only authority to say what they are is the subject(s) participating in it. You may not put it in those exact words, but that's exactly what a presupposition is, i.e., pre-supposed, assumed before any words. You assume gender and marriage under an individualistic, subjectivist, nihilist framework and let the rest roll from there. Likewise, if you are anti-gay marriage, then at bottom you hold that (at the very least) gender and marriage are not empty concepts, that they have fundamental, essential realities, and that conformity to those realities is the only way to truly live and enjoy them. Again, you may not have put as much into words, and you may not even be sure what authority gave those concepts their essential reality and meaning, but you hold to the existence of those realities (and authority) nonetheless.

Every topic or "hot-button" issue has their roots somewhere, and the only real way to have a real debate about these things (and not simply a shouting match or a group hug) is to deal with the roots. If you want to discuss gay marriage, then don't start with the shrubbery of equality or morality. Start with the roots of authority and reality: is there an objective reality to things, and is there an authority that tells us what that reality is and is not? Until that debate happens, everything else is so much window-dressing in a never-ending flame war.

By Jove, it's all linked!
I have found this to be true in my own discussion or engagement with certain topics and issues. I find a strange collaboration amongst things that seem at first to be disparate from each other. Somehow, a collection of unrelated items was all along involved in a conspiracy within me. I found to my shock that all my separate shrubs belonged to the same root system. For example: gun-ownership, the death penalty, and Hell are all things I have opinions on, things that everyone has some kind of opinion on. The thing is, I thought that they were each (by themselves) an issue unto itself, when in fact they all belonged to the same source. They all rested on the same fundamental assumptions.

Those assumptions had to do with evil. Your opinion on whether or not men and women should own a weapon, whether or not certain crimes are punishable by death, and whether or not a just and loving God would send/condemn/confine certain people to eternal punishment all stem from this one source, this one question: what is evil? What does it look like? How do we recognize it? And how ought we to respond to it? Believe it or not, your stance on self-defense, capital punishment, and eternal damnation all rest on this hinge: what is your "stance" on evil? What assumptions about it do you have?

"I find your lack of evil disturbing."
Allow me to speak for myself in order to produce an example. Here is at least one thing I believe about evil: that it comes in many different shades and intensities, including the darkest shades and worst intensities. I believe, in other words, that there is such a thing as irredeemable, irrevocable evil, of a place where a moral frontier has been crossed that cannot be uncrossed, where the downward spiral has reached terminal velocity and cannot be recalled. Not to be cliche or hang my laurels on a worn-out nail, but when Alfred described the Joker as a man "who doesn't want anything logical," who "can't be bought, bullied, reasoned to, or negotiated with," and "just wants to watch the world burn," I believe him. I believe he is absolutely right. There are such men (and women) out there, and they are not as rare as we suppose.

This is one of my assumptions about evil, and it is why I am in favor of gun-ownership and the death penalty, and why I believe in a place called Hell. Not because I necessarily "like" those things or are glad they exist, but because I know there are certain persons to whom there is no other solution or answer but an extreme one. There is no forgiveness or mercy or grace that will turn them, no therapy or accommodation or understanding that will change them, no compromise or appeasement that will stop them. A line has been crossed, and they will not turn back. What else is there that we can do to or for them? What else is there for even God to do? If they will not be forgiven, if they will not receive help, if they will not stop, then they must be stopped. I believe in such an evil as that, an evil in which our only legitimate response is to stop it by whatever means necessary.

This is one of the reasons I lose all patience with the anti-death penalty argument that says, "If we kill them then we are no different than them." The idea is completely absurd; the very reason we seek to put them to death is precisely because we are "different" than them. We seek their death because we belong to a moral sphere; they sought death and destruction because they stepped out of and beyond all moral spheres. We want them dead because we care too much about the lives of others in our communities (and even our prisons); they wanted others dead and destroyed because they cared nothing about them at all. There is a universe of difference between us and them, between the whole of common sense humanity and the occasional degenerates who seek our slaughter. If there truly was "no difference" between the two of us, then we wouldn't even be having this debate, for we wouldn't even call their actions wrong or punishable in the first place. The very idea of punishment can only come from a moral order and those who adhere to it. Thus, our similarity is merely superficial: the shrubs seemed identical, but their roots are miles away, in different depths and other soils. 

Because I assume these things about evil, it not only shapes my own stance but also my thoughts on the stances of others. If someone is anti-gun ownership, anti-death penalty, anti-Hell, or (what is more often the case) all of the above, I find myself assuming (because of my presupposition) that they have an incorrect view of evil, that their view of evil is skewed, that it is somehow lesser or weaker than mine. Now, I may be right or wrong in having that assumption, and I may be being unfair to those who disagree with me, but for now it is what it is: the roots have affected the shrub and its relationship to other shrubs.

...seems legit.
The point of all this blather is this: any debate that does not deal with the fundamental assumptions that under-gird our ideas will dissolve into shadow-boxing at best. I'm even willing to bet that most of the stupidity and incivility that reeks across our social and political realms like rot on a tree trunk could be avoided (for the most part) if we would actually get to the real point(s) behind our myriad "topics" and "issues" and "platforms," if we would get to the real heart of the matter. There we find what is really at stake, what we really believe, and (perhaps more importantly) who we really are, for our beliefs spring from who we are. Like Jesus said, "Out of the heart" comes all that makes us who we are, for good or ill (Matt. 15:18-20), and we would do well to cease from squawking at each other and take some time to first look at our self square in the eye. Then, perhaps, we can look at others in the eye as well.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Sunday, July 7, 2013

We Can Be Heroes (for more than one day)

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound...and they shall build the wastes of old, and they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations." Is. 61:1-4

"Oh? Were you looking for me?"
The best kind of hero is the one you don't expect. From the mysterious stranger coming out of nowhere to the unassuming bumpkin rising to the occasion (kicking and screaming all the way), the best heroes are always a surprise. They come into the midst of the darkness and turn the whole thing on its head, like some kind of anarchist of virtue or orthodox rebel. They do not fit into any of the categories laid out for them, neither from the people they came to save (whose presuppositions about heroism had long since stagnated and atrophied) nor the evil they came to overthrow (for darkness cannot comprehend the light).

That heroism is to be an exciting, topsy-turvey affair can be clearly seen in the life of Jesus. He walked right into the life of Israel and threw the whole place into an uproar. He confused and upset everyone, from skeptical Sadducees and dogmatic Pharisees to even His own disciples. He told devout Jews that their father was Satan rather than Abraham (John 8:31-47), that He came to save others besides them (Luke 4:16-30; John 10:11-16), and explained that salvation in such a surreal fashion that most of His followers abandoned Him (John 6:53-66). He was unexpected and unnerving, breaking the hearts of enthusiastic young fans (Luke 18:18-23), the backs of entrepreneurial shopkeepers (Mark 11:15-19), and the minds of His disciples (Mark 4:36-41). As Sayers put it, He passed through this world like a flame, and all who met Him were flummoxed to exasperation: "We have seen strange things today!" (Luke 5:26).

Jesus' ability to turn everyone's world upside-down can only mean two things: either He is a villain stepping into a good world, decimating its peace; or He is a hero stepping into an evil world, agitating its corruption. There are some who hold to the former, but Christians hold to the latter. In either case, however, it cannot be said that He was boring or predictable or "run-of-the-mill". His good works suggest His heroism, but His unexpectedness confirms it completely, for true heroism is full of surprises, being a surprise itself.

There is, however, one last surprise that Jesus' heroism delivers, and that is in regard to those He came to save. We who have been saved and are being saved were the helpless ones, the captives and prisoners, slaves to Sin and despair and destruction. Jesus released us from those chains but not into the empty air. He did not pluck us from dungeons deep, dust us off, set us on the road, and bid us farewell as we wander wherever we please. Rather, He brought us out so that He might bring us in. He delivered us from darkness so that we might be translated into light (Col. 1:13-14). He "reconciled" us so that we may be given His "ministry of reconciliation" (II Cor. 5:18-19; Col. 1:19-20). The hero did not save us to live unto ourselves but to live like and for Him (II Cor. 5:14-15). In short, the hero saved us and has called us to be heroes as well.

It is a surprise worthy of any adventure story. The hero, being the person you least expected, comes and calls to heroism others whom you expected even less. Jesus' disciples were like this. He called fishermen, tax collectors, and other dregs and nobodies, pulling together and to His side a bunch of hot-headed, fearful, overly-ambitious, greedy pack of clods. They were the epitome of a rag-tag band, yet they turned the world upside-down (Acts 17:6). And it is to this same band we have been called.

"Samwise the brave...."
It is alright to call it strange. God's logic is strange to us, but it is only the same strange logic of every great adventure: use the weak and foolish and despised to upset and overthrow the great and mighty (I Cor. 1:26-31). Every great hero is a bumpkin, like a nobody carpenter from Nazareth whom everyone thought was crazy. And God calls all bumpkins to His side, the broken and abused and forgotten and weak, so that we can be heroes, so that He can continue to do great and surprising works through us.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"...death is swallowed up...." (Eschatological Vision, Part III)

Beyond the doors of night...
"Instead of bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver. Instead of wood, bronze; instead of stones, iron. I will make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, [nor] devastation or destruction in your borders. You shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun shall no more be your light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. The sun shall no more go down, nor the moon withdraw itself, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended." Is. 60:17-20

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.... Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and He will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." Rev. 21:1-4

"Oh, death is swallowed up. / It owns nothing in me." -My Epic

Oh, the agony and the ecstasy...
The third and final element in the Christian eschatological vision is the unstoppable redemption. This final piece gives to the vision the balance of truth. Here the optimism is fully balanced with the pessimism, which is the way it ought to be, for there is incomplete truth in both positions: things are as dark as you think they are, but there is still hope. And not just any hope, but an unstoppable hope, an inevitable, irrevocable hope. The culmination of the Christian eschatological vision is a glorious future where God and all good things ultimately triumph over all things dark and evil and sad. If it sounds like a Disney movie, then you're not far from the mark; all good (and even campy) stories have an inkling of this truth in them. Good will triumph over evil. It will be a long dark road, a long dark night of every soul, before it happens, but it will happen. There is no stopping it.

Like a light bomb, sucka.
Evil-doers and seducers will wax worse and worse, and worse still, and darkness will spill out and over all without measure, filling the heights and depths with its horror and ennui, until the very sun burns out and the moon burns red. Then the winepress of wrath will bleed much blood. Then the final invasion will commence, the final strike of the rebellion, the final movement of the symphony. The Word who spoke all things will return to un-speak them so that He may re-speak them, the sword of His mouth dividing asunder the very joints and marrow of existence so that they may be reset and refitted. The Light of lights will come crashing through, shattering the very dome of the universe like the shell of a rotten egg. Then all beauty will be awakened and the death curse revoked; then all street-rats and paupers will be made princes, and every mad and greedy oppressor hurled into howling isolation; then all things will become as a star, burning with the brightness of His glory, with those who are one with His glory enduring to the end. And they all will live happily ever-after, to the end of days and beyond.

All our colorful metaphors, from Scripture to Saturday morning cartoons, are trying to point us to one truth: victory is coming. It is inevitable; all things are moving towards this purpose because all things were built for this purpose: redemption, renewal, glory. This is not mere optimism, where everybody will wax better and better (with slight hiccups here and there) until we all flourish in the final enlightenment and eternal hug-fest of tolerance. Nor is it mere pessimism, where evil will wax worse to no end, until every star burns out and all energy is expressed and entropy works out its final corrosion, and the only "peace on earth" will be in the deathly static and silence. This, my friends, is the Christian story, the story of the Great God who made all things, of finite man ruining all things, and of that same God redeeming all things. It is the best of all stories put together into a perfect picture, which is how you know it is true; and not just true but beautiful also. For there is nothing more beautiful then the vision's ultimate refrain: "Death is swallowed up in victory, and shall be no more." Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

P.S. For thoughts on how to practically live within this eschatological vision, start here, here, here, and here.

Monday, July 1, 2013

"...where can you run to escape from yourself?" (Eschatological Vision, Part II)

"Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising." Is. 60:1-3

"...the Day-Spring from on High has visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1:68-79

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...." John 1:1-18

"Maybe redemption has stories to tell. / Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell." -John Foreman

The second element you find in the Christian eschatological vision is the divine intervention. Now, Christianity is not escapism. Many may claim it as such, preaching so-called "evacuation theology," but they are wrong. Escapism is about us going somewhere else; Christianity has always been about something coming to us (or someone, to be more precise). In the Christian equation, God is always the primary active principle. Any "action" that we take is necessarily secondary, a derivative of His. This is not to minimize our activity, but rather to put it in its proper context, viz., the context called God. He is the source and origin of all movement. He is Life-Giver and All-Sustainer, Creator and Ruler. To put it perhaps controversially, He is masculine while we are feminine: He is the actor, we are the receiver (and re-actor). What we do at the moment of reception (either to welcome or reject) is on us; but we did not make the action itself, neither did we make ourselves as receivers or anything else, and every strength we have or good and evil we do in reaction to His action comes from the life given from Him to us. If this minimizes us in any way, then let us be minimized; for God is, and without Him we are not. That is the singular theme pulsating throughout all of Scripture like the tides beneath the ocean.

It's all linked....
In the beginning before beginning, God acted upon the Nothingness and spoke words of Creation, His Word spoken and yet continually speaking and sustaining all things. Later on He spoke into the lives of many people. He spoke into the life of a pagan idol-maker, calling him the "father of many nations," and led him out into the wilderness to a place he'd never seen to found a people holy to God. He blazed into the life of an exiled shepherd, calling him to liberate His people from bondage and lead them to a "land of milk and honey." He summoned a shy tall man to be king, and then cast Him down and put a shepherd-boy in his place. He continually led His wayward people into captivity, and continually redeemed His repentant people out of it. He spoke through every prophet, from the exiled shepherd to a goat-skin-wearing wild-man living in the outskirts of Roman-occupied Israel. He announced His ultimate intentions to a virgin girl and then gave unto her and us all His Son, the Word Himself, speaking and bleeding and breathing new life into all who would receive. And His Spirit lives on in a Church, diffused and multifaceted yet united by that Spirit, speaking still until the ages end and the Word returns speaking judgment like a sword flowing from His mouth. And when all of the old has passed and the new has come and we enter into God's rest, there is no sign that His activity will ever cease, but rather it shall inaugurate a new thing again and again. So from the beginning of beginning to the very end and eternity beyond, God has the first and final word.

That is not escapism but intervention. Better yet, it is invasion. Other religions may have intervention (or interference), but it is at best mere instruction on how we can save ourselves, or at worst it is simply the randomness of capricious deities. Christianity alone has a different view. Our lives are not at the mercy of randomness, nor is our salvation bound up in moral instruction (as if we haven't had plenty of that already). Instruction would never save us, for our corruption is deep and inevitable. We do not need another code of conduct, nor a babysitter to constantly change our diapers. We need a surgeon to cut out and purge the corruption that has a deathly hold on us. We need a Spirit to speak new life into us, a Word to speak us anew, a Maker to remake us. Such a transformation, such renewal and upheaval, such divine invasion and revolution is the Christian story, from before the beginning until beyond the end.

It is not the optimist's story, who sees humanity saving itself with plenty of pluck and can-do spirit. It is not the pessimist's story, who sees humanity on its endless downward spiral, its mind unloosed from all tethers and its world unchained from all suns. It is not the stories told by the religions of the world, with their myriad retellings of self-enlightenment and self-salvation. It is the Christian vision alone who is the voice crying in the wilderness, crying out that God has acted, is acting, and will act again on behalf of our salvation and His glory, all without our help and all outside of our control and command.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013