I happened to catch a four-minute clip on today’s (4/17/14) episode of All Things Considered. It was one of those off-the-beaten-path stories that helps me appreciate NPR, regardless of its progressive leanings. (Actually – all things considered – I think the government-subsidized radio network has been doing a fairly good job of moving towards the middle over the last couple of years.) The spot was about a 1,348-foot-long, three-foot-high prehistoric, animal effigy mound built by the “Fort Ancient” people in Southern Ohio. Apparently, it’s the largest memorial of its kind in the world.
More evidence that being the biggest – if not always the best – is in the soil and air of our crazy, wonderful country.
But then the story took a metaphysical turn as the religious implications of the Serpent Mound and its creators was discussed. I quote from the story:
“They used sharpened sticks and clam-shell hoes and carried the dirt in baskets. Snakes were a symbol in Fort Ancient art: a great serpent ruled the underworld.”
H-m-m-m-m. A great serpent who ruled the underworld. I wonder who that might be in real life? Or in Carl Jung’s dreams?
We then meet Bradley T. Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society. We’re told this archeologist has been “visiting the serpent mound since he was a kid.”
Mr. Lepper: “My experiences here go well beyond my science. It always felt and it still feels like I’m coming to a church.”
A naturalist, Nancy Stranahan, agrees: “You’re quiet when you walk here…sensing the energy of a resting spirit.”
Waxing nostalgic for a pagan church that was imbued with the energy of a great serpent?
Cue the four-note opening from the Twilight Zone theme. I found myself flashing back to a doctor’s office from several years ago. Waiting for my name to be called, I had picked up a travel magazine lying around and read an article about the Aztec pyramids in Central Mexico. The travel writer (now there’s a job!) had interviewed a local tour guide who was formerly a Catholic priest. The guide lamented the influence of Western civilization and most specifically the Christian faith – the primary civilizing influence of that civilization. He also grew nostalgic, wishing that neither had visited these lands; that instead the indigenous Aztec culture had been allowed to continue and flourish.
And now I had arrived, fighting the impulse to imagine the guide’s wishes could be granted him: atop a pyramid, waiting for the knife to fall and his still beating heart to be ripped from his chest. For the airy intellectuals from Ohio to meet the resting serpent. And then watch him unhinge his jaws and eat.
“Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not. Do you not fear me? declares the Lord. Do you not tremble before me?” Jeremiah 5:21
“The river of truth is always splitting up into arms that reunite. Islanded between them, the inhabitants argue for a lifetime as to which is the mainstream.” Cyril Vernon Connolly (1903-1974) English intellectual, literary critic and writer, editor of the influential literary magazine Horizon.
Connolly’s quote is a profound one – and never more true than among Christians. We are netted out of the guppy bowl of self by the true Fisherman and then placed in an ocean of truth. And before we know it, many (most) find themselves joining a school of other fish in some estuary of denominationalism and tradition and telling themselves – and arguing with others – that they have found the Mariana Trench.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in Truth, the absolute kind that shines like a diamond and is even more hard. I have no problem with denominations – tribes in His Kingdom, I prefer calling them. And I deeply appreciate tradition. Few of us would be Trinitarians without it. What I don’t like are people and groups who claim to have chased the mystery (Pro. 25:2) and caught it. Who chastise other God-fearers who don’t hold to the “truth” they’ve bagged with a cry of “they just need to read and believe the Bible.” (Probably the best example that comes immediately to mind are those who write Dr. Hugh Ross off as a heretic because he believes in an old-earth and animal death before the Fall.)
My calling in God is to try and faithfully present and defend the Truth. And thankfully much of its greater outlines are so straight-up and well-defined that a child can see and understand them. And as a result the overwhelming majority report for 2,000 years (or more) is locked and loaded in agreement: Jesus is God, He died on a cross and rose again bodily from the dead, that salvation from sin is made possible in and through Him alone, etc. There are even some moral/social Truths we can hold on to like the horns of His altar: that murder is wrong (including the murder of little children who happen to be temporary aquanauts in their mother’s womb), that sex is a wonderful and powerful gift from God that is to be unwrapped only in the marriage bed by a covenant-bound man and woman, etc.
But when it comes to getting all the colors right within the broader outline, truly only God is up to the task. Perhaps we will be as well when we cross over the the thinning membrane that separates this world from the New One that is rushing towards us like a comet. (My personal theory is that one of the joys of Eternity will be plumbing the infinite depths of Truth – of the mind of God – without ever arriving at the bottom.)
So in the meantime I’m trying, as Blind Willie Jefferson sang, to “read my Bible often and try to read it right,” ever keeping it mind the second verse: “As far as I can understand, it ain’t nothing but a burning light.”
Try and get all that light in your head and it will likely explode. (Exo. 33:20)
PS. That is such a good closing line I hate to mess it up by rambling on. But for the sake of driving this point home in a personal way: I am known for staking a position on certain theological perspectives that could fairly be called “colors within the broader outlines.” For example, I have written articles and produced videos defending a Reformed/Calvinistic perspective on salvation and grace. Ditto on partial preterism and a post-millennial eschatology. But I remain good friends and a co-laborer in the Gospel with people who share differing views on these matters. And while I do believe (Rom. 14:5) that my position is correct – meaning Biblically accurate – I try not to be a jerk or dogmatic about it. I know there is deep mystery here. When I do see Him as He is – and in a twinkling of eye am transformed (1 Cor. 15: 52; 1 John 3:2) – if in that rush of perfect light I see that I was wrong about any of these things, I trust my response will be to laugh…and then worship.
We’ve heard it countless times: the laudable advice to put first things first and remember “the reason for the season.” Christmas (from Crīstesmæsse, or “Christ’s mass”), after all, is first and last a celebration and remembrance of one of the two most important moments in history: the arrival of YHWH on our planet as a man (the incarnation) in order to reset the Genesis Project and make all things new. (The second one, of course, was the resurrection when Jesus became the first fruits of the New Creation and launched the final stage of the Project.)
But for many people, remembering to “put Christ back into Christmas” translates into little more than nativity scenes with the baby Jesus and his adoring parents, lowing lambs, humble shepherds, singing angels and the three magi bearing gifts (the latter an anachronism; these Gentile visitors didn’t show up until after, likely well after, Jesus’ presentation at the temple and after he had been moved to a house.) But in reality the atmosphere surrounding the first Advent was heavy with shadows cast by Satan and the Fall as Jesus’ birth signaled the first phase in the ultimate confrontation between good and evil, light and darkness. (Here the reader would benefit by reading my previous post, Creche, Cross and Crown). We can’t fully appreciate the miracle of the Advent without also meditating on the dark clouds roiling about the Christ-child.
Consider: 1. An awkward pre-nuptial pregnancy that surely had rumors flying and Joseph wondering what in the world he had gotten himself into. 2. The ulitimate “on our way to the hospital” delivery, except there was no hospital and no cab-driver or EMT to assist – just a barn with the stench of manure dust in the air and an awkward young man with zero experience in midwivery trying to coax a child that wasn’t his out of his betrothed’s naked body. 3. Angels anouncing His birth with happy cries of “Glory to God in the highest!” and “Peace on earth!”before adding the rather ominous qualification of “with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) Apparently there will be some with whom He will not be pleased and for whom there will be no peace. Sides are already being drawn and the sword of judgment unsheathed. 4. Ditto Simeon’s prophecy eight days later when Jesus is presented per custom at the temple for dedication to God and to be circumcised, a bloody ritual that for Jesus was shot through with all manner of prophetic import. ““Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34,35) Many were going to fall, He was going to be opposed and a sword was “also” going to pierce His heart. No “visions of sugar plums” that. 5. The minor beast 666 Herod would hear of the birth of this King and be inspired by Satan to send his troops to Bethlehem to kill every male baby under the age of two in Bethlehem “and its environs.” (Matt. 2:16-18) Jesus has hardly begun the time of His sojourning as a homo sapien and the body-count was already beginning to pile-up.
I first heard this wonderfully provocative thought when Doug Wilson referenced it during his concluding remarks in his debate with Andrew Sullivan on gay marriage. (I loved Doug’s addendum about “rolling our own” and then smoking it.) Intrigued, I tracked down the original source. It is from a blog entry by Dan Phillips on Pyromaniacs.
I was going to comment on it, but thought “what’s the point?” Phillips just nails it. I would encourage all my fellow Christians to read and absorb this observation and make it a part of your apologetical tool kit. When it comes to a first principle it doesn’t get much better than this.
When Piers or Larry or Tavis or Rosie or Ellen or The View or whoever tried probing me about homosexuality, or wifely submission, or any other area where God has spoken (to the world’s consternation), I think I’d decline the worm altogether. I think instead, I’d say something like,
“You know, when you ask me about X, you’re obviously picking a topic that is deeply offensive to non-Christians — but it’s far from the most offensive thing I believe. You’re just nibbling at the edge of one of the relatively minor leaves on the Tree of Offense. Let me do you a favor, and just take you right down to the root. Let me take you tothe most offensive thing I believe.
“The most offensive thing I believe is Genesis 1: 1 and everything it implies.
“That is, I believe in a sovereign Creator who is Lord and Definer of all. Everything in the universe — the planet, the laws of physics, the laws of morality, you, me — everything was created by Another, was designed by Another, was given value and definition by Another. God is Creator and Lord, and so He is ultimate. That means we are created and subjects, and therefore derivative and dependent.
“Therefore, we are not free to create meaning or value. We have only two options. We can discover the true value assigned by the Creator and revealed in His Word, the Bible; or we can rebel against that meaning.
“Any time you bring up questions about any of these issues, you do so from one of two stances. You either do it as someone advocating and enabling rebellion against the Creator’s design, or as someone seeking submissive understanding of that design. You do it as servant or rebel. There is no third option.
“So yeah, insofar as I’m consistent with my core beliefs, everything I think about sexuality, relationships, morals, the whole nine yards,all of it is derived from what the Creator says. If I deviate from that, I’m wrong.
“To anyone involved in the doomed, damned you-shall-be-as-God project, that is the most offensive truth in the world, and it is the most offensive belief I hold.
“But if I can say one more thing, the first noun in that verse —beginning — immediately points us forward. It points to the end. And the end is all about Jesus Christ. That takes us to the topic of God’s world-tilting Gospel, and that’s what we really need to talk about.”
I mean, why quibble about minor offenses, when we know how to take them right to the mother lode of all offense — that God is God, and we are not?
Many people are troubled by the amount of controversy and debate that seems to arise from the Bible. Why can’t Christianity’s truths be clearer and less complicated? (That is one of the things that makes Islam such a potent ideology; you can learn everything you need to know − and many of its leaders would say should know − in a few hours or less.) Mystery seems to bleed from all around its edges.
Well first we need to keep in mind that many of the most fundamental truths of our faith are, in fact, simple enough that even a child or the mentally handicapped can embrace them. They are things known more by the heart than by the mind. And they are powerful to save. Thankfully we are redeemed by grace through faith, not because every “i” is dotted and “t” crossed properly in our systematic theology.
Second, when an eternal, infallible, infinitely wise God who can create and sustain an unimaginably vast universe by the word of His power while simultaneously knowing each of us down to the thoughts of our hearts, when that God decides to intersect with our finite, fallen and fallible world and worldviews by revealing Himself through His Word or through the Incarnation, we should expect that sparks should fly! (Personally, I find the mystery of the Trinity very satisfying and consoling for this very reason. Any God that I can get my puny mind around can’t be God!)
And when faced with these sparks, what should be our response?
For those who have a real relationship with God and have grown to the point where they can endure “strong meat” (Heb. 5:12-14), God, in effect, says “Chase the mystery!” (Pro. 25:2) Exercise those powers of understanding and discernment. Grow up. Work those jaw muscles. Don’t you know that one day you will judge angels? There is work to be done in preparation for the challenges of the Great Commission (imagine discipling entire nations), not to mention ruling with Christ in the age to come. Are you going to stop and stare at this obstacle, this mystery, and then shrug and turn around? Or you going to be a man or woman after My own heart and press on?
Too many choose the easy way. And it is not unusual to see them try to justify their reluctance by quoting scripture; for example the first part of the Lord’s well-known admonition in Isaiah 55: 8 & 9:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
“Well, the secret things belong to God (Deut. 29:29),” they often say. “Calvinism vs. Arminianism, predestination, those freaky verses in the Old Testament, the problem of evil, the book of Revelation and end-times matters, Paul’s ‘hard sayings,’ all those things are beyond our grasp even as the heavens are above the earth. Let’s just love the Lord and avoid disputing about these things.”
But in this they ignore the words of God that follow in verses 10 and 11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
In other words, we when see that we are bumping up against the ceiling of our human reasoning and we know that God’s ways are waiting for us somewhere above, we should not look back to the ground in surrender. It is the glory of a king to search out the matter; to seek to know God’s ways. We should turn instead to the Word, humbly and in great faith, knowing that it will not return void. For in the same way that water (O cleansing, life-giving water!) comes down from the natural heavens and causes the land to bring forth fruit, so will the living Word that proceeds from the realms of glory transform us and bring us into greater levels of maturity and understanding.
And don’t be surprised if the understanding you end up gaining tends to offend the natural mind. His ways are higher than ours, after all. In truth, I have found that the closer you get to what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth,” the more the earth-born mind will squirm in discomfort.
Augustine and Anselm were right: Credo ut intelligam. We believe − we have faith in God and His Word − in order to understand.