My Facebook post after the tragic fiasco in Charlottesville garnered more than a little pushback. Most of it dealt with my contention that Trump’s comment about the hatred, bigotry and violence coming from “all sides” (his words) was “ill-timed” (my words) and further that his overall handling of the growing controversy surrounding racialism has fallen short of what our country needs from him.
I thought I would clarify and defend my position by responding to a comment from one of my oldest and best FB friends, Dave. After briefly chronicling his own journey through the feedback loop of southern racism as well as his conversion to Christ, Dave condemned the sinful and grotesque racism of white supremacists while also noting—rightfully—the reverse racism fomented by identity politics and the wicked use of violence by more than a few of its advocates. He then closed by saying:
“Defending him (Trump) is not my great joy but regarding your and many others reaction to his renunciation of racism and bigotry from “all sides”, I am completely baffled. I sincerely recognize the putrid evidence of these vile qualities in the extreme elements attempting to lay claims in both political parties. The insistence that Trump call out one above the other seems to give some sense of credence to the same evil in the other camp. Where am I misunderstanding?”
First, my comment was NOT that the problem wasn’t coming from both sides. There is no doubt that the identity politics that drove some of the protestors at the rally is a counter-productive worldview at its core. Furthermore, there are more than a few provocateurs in the movement who are using it to push any number of evil agendas: communism, anarchism, reverse racialism, extreme globalism, Islamism, etc.…in general, Alinsky-style tactics designed to foment hatred and violence with the goal of creating division and destabilizing America as well as derailing Trump’s administration. Lastly, that the regressive-left media cabal is more than happy to help mainline this narrative.
My objection was solely the timing of Trump’s comment (and as we all know, timing is—if not everything—a very significant thing.)
Here we had a gaggle of anti-Christian goose-steppers bearing Nazi regalia and spouting racialist and anti-Semitic screeds, intentionally evoking one of the two most perfectly satanic worldviews and world-destroying movements of the 20th century (with communism being the other).
And then we had one of their deranged acolytes driving a Dodge Charger into a crowd of what seemed to be peaceful protestors, killing one person and injuring 19.
Lock in on that.
Now, consider the counter-protestors. A significant percentage of them—likely even a large majority (only God knows)—were there to peacefully push back against the darkness. As I have said, I think it would have been better if everyone had just ignored the fascists rather than giving them the attention they so desperately crave. But if the Eric Holmberg of 1977 had been translated from William & Mary to the campus of UVA 40 years later (I feel old suddenly), I’m sure I would have been out there pushing back as well.
It is pretty clear at this point that there was also a contingency of Alinskyites there, fanning the fires of hate, violence and chaos. Fine, I get that. And I absolutely agree that this needs to be investigated and addressed, not just in Charlottesville but in similar uprisings that are sadly becoming too common in our country.
But against the backdrop and timing of neo-Nazis marching and the dead and wounded victims of their hate, drawing any kind of moral equivalence between what most Americans see as the “two-sides” of this tragic fiasco amid the heat of the moment just wasn’t wise.
And we desperately need our leaders to be men and women of wisdom.
But here we come to the larger problem: Trump’s general lack of wisdom and honesty on this as well as any number of other important issues.
Now contrary to the regressive left’s incessant propaganda, I don’t believe Trump is a racist. And he has condemned David Duke, the KKK, white supremacism, anti-Semitism and other evil aspects of the so-called “alt-right.” I believe he is sincere about this.
The problem is that he has lacked wisdom in the way he has often gone after them: poor timing; unfortunate or incomplete phrasing; being silent when he should have spoken up; speaking up when he should be silent; substituting the 140 characters in a tweet for a focused and nuanced speech are some of his many stumbles in this regard.
Now couple that with his position on immigration (which I, for the most part, support).
And finally, add four key ingredients:
1. His family business’s unfortunate—though not unusual given the time—treatment of minorities in times past.
2. His tacit approval—and at times even encouragement—of roughing-up protestors at his rallies.
3. Relatedly, his appealing at times to some of the baser instincts of his core supporters, people who feel disenfranchised from the American dream and are casting about for scapegoats, real or imagined.
4. His incessant love of and genius for courting controversy and thereby generating front-page news and millions of dollars in free advertising. This, in turn, has often kept him from immediately and clearly addressing and defusing controversies when they arise.
Racialists on both the right and left who hear “Make America White Again” every time Trump’s pet slogan is declared.
And a whole bunch of people in the middle who are left either confused, unsure, fearful, or suspicious of where Trump is really coming from.
For the most part, Trump has done a poor job in silencing this dog whistle. That in turn has helped foment doubt, fear, and division. And it has given his many opponents a big stick to club both his administration and agenda…while introducing and empowering their own.
One of the most important roles of a President is to be a truth-teller; to inspire trust in our government; through example as well as by using the bully-pulpit of his or her office to help bring clarity, healing, and unity to the challenges and controversies of our nation as they arise.
My prayer is that our president comes to really understand this. And that he graduates from being an apprentice…to a man who can truly help make our multi-ethnic nation great again.
So too with the greatest story ever told.
A little less than 2,000 years ago, Jesus was wrapping up his three-year ministry intensive with his small band of eleven disciples. Forty days before, He had graduated from death to life, becoming the first fruit of the New Creation, the model Man who then breathed on his astonished followers and transformed them into chips off this new Cornerstone. Now He was about to step back into His Father’s dimension and sit down on the throne as the dread Sovereign over heaven and earth.
He leaned into His eleven disciples and a great hush fell.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He said. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
And so He summed up the raison d’être of His life…and ours.
Now depending on one’s eschatological view—whether a-, post- or historical pre-millennial— we can disagree as to the extent we will be successful in this grand enterprise of discipling nations before the Lord returns. We can even disagree as to how true success is defined.
But there should be absolutely no question as to what that commission is and means: to love others as He has loved us; to strive to bring every thought in obedience to Christ; to seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness; to pray and then work for that Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
And die trying (in more ways than one).
Anything less is to cease being a disciple; to quit the game, leave the field and shuffle off into the inglorious stands.
As followers of Christ, the NO’s we present to the world must always be in the context and service of the far greater, transcendent YES’s.
For example, pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexuality and divorce—for sure big no’s—are only condemned because they are cancers on the YES!: the boundless joy, mystery and blessing that is One-Man, One-Woman, One-Flesh marriage.
The Word—inscripturated, enfleshed and echoed in creation and the whispers of the human heart—“outlines the design”. They give us the bullseye, the center of the target at which we are supposed to aim.
Whatever the target subject may be—relationships, money, sexuality, child-rearing, education, law and government, race, philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, on and on—rarely, if ever, will we hit the target dead-center.
That’s because we are fallible creatures living in a fallen world.
And without this—and sadly many in our country seem literally hell-bent on denying and erasing many of these bullseyes—there is only chaos.
And an eventual decent into the Abyss.
As the poet warned:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
(An excerpt from The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats, 1919)
In a world torn with strife, displaced peoples and a growing underclass mired in poverty and despair, Madagascar—the eighth poorest nation in the world—is experiencing a modern-day miracle as tens of thousands of people are encountering the transformative power of the Gospel. All due in large part to the efforts of one man.
The oldest of eight children, Pedro Opeka was born in a suburb of Buenos Aires in 1948. His parents had immigrated to Argentina from Slovenia just a few months before in order to escape Tito’s brutal purge of those who resisted the communist take-over. Luis, Pedro’s father, instilled in the young boy a love of God, people, freedom and hard work, introducing him into the masonry trade at nine-years-of-age. By fourteen Pedro was a certified brick-layer—and by 17 had built his first home for the poor—in this case for the Mapuche Indians in the Andean mountains. Little did he know this was a foreshadowing of what would become, in large part, his life’s work.
Pious, academically-gifted, and also an excellent soccer player, as a young teen Pedro wondered whether to pursue professional sports or the priesthood. The latter won out and he entered seminary when he was fifteen. In 1968 he traveled to Europe, where he studied philosophy and theology in Slovenia and in France, and then spent two years as a missionary in Madagascar. He was ordained a priest in the Basilica of Luján in Argentina on September 25, 1975 and the next year was sent back to serve the people of Madagascar.
For nearly fifteen years the young priest ministered in a remote, southeast region of the island nation, teaching and pastoring, living among the people, cultivating rice to survive and playing soccer, eventually becoming a star on his home team. In all this, he very much became a man of the people.
In 1989, Father Opeka was sent to direct the Vincentian seminary located in the capital city of Antananarivo. Now in his 40s, it was there that God refocused his life and he found his ultimate mission. “When I arrived,” he later wrote, “I could not shut my eyes to utter destitution. I saw a 1,000 children struggling for survival among the animals in the garbage dump…I was dumbstruck. I said to myself, ‘Here I could not just talk. I had to act!'” He went to meet them and promised, “Together we are going to get out of this mess!”
With the help of some young people he had trained in his former parish, Father Opeka built a small home for children on the edge of a landfill. It was followed by second, and then another. Soon, a small village rose out of the debris. They named it Manantenasoa, Malagasy for “the hill of courage.”
Interested in improving the quality and permanence of the homes as well as creating jobs, Father Opeka next took advantage of the abundant stone and granite deposits around the villages. His team engineered several quarries as he began teaching the formerly unemployed how to lay brick, working alongside them as they built. Masonry took the place of wood and bright, beautiful homes began to dot the hillside. Next they fabricated a compost center near the dump, providing a source of fertilizer to grow crops as well as new jobs in the farming sector. Streets followed as paving became another trade developed by the community. Embroidery workshops for women were developed and light manufacturing began. Carpenters, cabinet makers and other vocations followed. Primary and secondary schools and medical clinics were built and staffed. And the Gospel was preached in both word and deed. Father Opeka would eventually preside over masses with as many as 10,000 people participating.
Through all this, beauty was birthed from ashes. What was once a landscape of garbage, crude huts and despair has been transformed into a sprawling cluster of 18 villages with homes, schools, gardens, flowers and paved, clean streets. Thirty thousand people live and work in these new villages of hope. Approximately 10,000 children attend the 37 schools that have been established. And the “hill of courage” has grown into a small city christened Akamasoa, meaning “Good Friends” in the Malagasy language.
And there is one man—an ambassador of the One who is closer to all of us than even the dearest brother (Proverbs 18:2)—who is the very best, earthly friend of them all.
Even to sympathetic friends, Dietrich von Hildebrand was considered extreme in his early opposition to Hitler. Looking in our rear-view mirrors, no one would say that today. Might the same be happening again as Christians who stand up for biblical values on marriage, family and gender are being labeled extreme, homophobic dinosaurs; even becoming something of an embarrassment to their silent friends?
What follows below is an interview conducted by Franciscan Way magazine with John Henry Crosby, the translator and editor of My Battle With Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich. The book is based upon the 1920s–1930s memoirs of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the renowned German Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian, and also includes important essays from the period.
I found the interview fascinating on a number of levels.
First, here was a man who very early on saw the catastrophic end-game of Hitler and National Socialism when the vast majority of Germans missed it. Why? Because he reasoned biblically, his keen intellect informed by the “new world of grace.” Though he was an intellectual living in a materialistic, anti-supernatural zeitgeist, he wasn’t afraid to give preeminence to the spiritual world. Coupled with his apparent knowledge of scripture, redemptive history and biblical typology, he quickly recognized Hitler as “an anti-Christ.” (Note he used “an” and not “the”–avoiding the common error many make today as they await the coming of the anti-Christ.) As a result, he became one of the preeminent prophets of the 20th century. Also, unfortunately, one of the least well-known. I pray this book helps change that.
Second was Hildebrand’s courage. Let’s be honest. Most professing Christians today are remarkably silent concerning a very similar dark cloud creeping its way into America’s governmental, judicial, educational, economic, and infotainment institutions. They are too busy accommodating themselves to the cloud and having their ears tickled with messages of cheap grace and how to have their best lives now. Among those who do see the darkness rising and are willing to think, pray and even address it from time to time, vanishingly few are willing to do much to practically, boldly and, yes, sacrificially stand against it. Here, again, Hildebrand stands as a light on a hill.
Next was his balanced approach to cultural transformation. Yes, we are called to be “hot”– to confront evil when and where it manifests. But we should also strive to be “cold”–to bring living water to a culture dying of thirst. (Many today are simply lukewarm; not a promising temperature to be. (Rev. 3:16)) And so his passion to foster a counter-culture of life, beauty, grace and truth is exemplary.
Lastly, as I have already alluded to, I was struck by the remarkable similarities to his time and ours. I need to be cautious here. I don’t see anything like a new Hitler on America’s horizon. (So please, no invoking Godwin’s Law on me.) Nor do I foresee a day when any adult people group will be marched into concentration camps and gas chambers. But we have killed–and are killing–the unborn at a rate that makes the Holocaust look like a pre-game show as far as the number of people murdered. (I understand there are other factors associated with the Holocaust that make it unsurpassed in regard to human suffering and the callousness of heart necessary to perpetrate it.) We are in danger of ceding all authority to a centralized government run by elites chorusing “Let us break the (LORD’s and His anointed’s) chains and throw off their shackles. (Psalm 2). Let us do what is right in our own eyes. (Judges 21:25).” Having attacked the fruit of marriage (abortion; untethering sex from marriage and then sex from procreation; turning what children are born over to humanistic schools and pop-culture brainwashing; etc.), we have been continuing to chip away at the root: God’s image in the binary, male/female distinctive and their reunion through marriage and sex. And what happens once the foundation of the biblical family is destroyed; once its position as the center of the target towards which every sojourning soul is called to aim is erased and replaced with a 360º “Do what thou wilt” panorama?
Both the Bible and history–including mid-20th Century history–says it will not be pretty.
(Special note: I’m aware I have readers who are anti-Catholic. Many assume that because I produced Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism, I’m also anti-Catholic. I am not. Today’s RC church is a far cry from the medieval brand that Luther and other reformers rightly, though imperfectly, challenged. And perhaps more to the point, Protestantism–with its multiple tens of thousands of schisms and compromises–is likely as goofy and apostate as the Roman church was six-hundred years ago. I believe Christians are called to recognize and honor the works of the Holy Spirit when and wherever they manifest. Dietrich von Hildebrand was just such a work. And I’m proud to pay tribute to him and bring him to more people’s attention.)
Just after midnight, on March 12, 1938, three Gestapo agents pounded on the door to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s home. When no answer came, they broke down the door, only to find the Viennese apartment empty. The German philosopher had fled the apartment (and Vienna) just five hours earlier.
Austrians awoke on March 12 to find their country occupied by the German army. Their political leaders had been arrested while they slept. After the heads of government, von Hildebrand had been next on the Gestapo’s list.
What had the philosopher done to incur the wrath of Hitler’s regime? And what more would von Hildebrand do in the weeks and years ahead?
Recently, Franciscan Way sat down with John Henry Crosby to discuss von Hildebrand’s campaign against the Nazis. Here’s what we learned.
Franciscan Way: Perhaps you could set the stage for us and explain a little about what von Hildebrand was doing when the Nazis came to power?
John Henry Crosby: By the fall of 1919, von Hildebrand was living and teaching in Munich, which would soon become home base for the fledgling Nazi movement. This proximity gave him the opportunity to see firsthand the movement’s early growth. Already by 1921, more than 10 years before Hitler came to power, von Hildebrand had made his first public statements against National Socialism. I know of no other German figure of prominence who recognized and denounced the Nazi movement earlier than von Hildebrand. From his memoirs, it is not quite clear when he became fully conscious of a mission to fight Nazism, but certainly by 1933, when Hitler seized power, von Hildebrand knew that he had to raise his voice. It is moving to see that von Hildebrand left Germany in March 1933, not because he knew what form his opposition would take, but because he was sure that God would show him the way.
FW: How did von Hildebrand’s Catholic faith influence that decision?
JHC: So much could be said here. I think von Hildebrand’s faith gave his reason a powerful supernatural dimension. He was a convert, received into the Church at Easter 1914. He was gifted with a penetrating mind and the ability to articulate his perceptions. When he converted, his intellectual gifts expanded as he discovered the “new world” of grace, as he often put it. Would he still have grasped the danger Hitler posed had he not converted? I think so. But I don’t know if he would have perceived the demonic evil present in Nazism so clearly. His faith allowed him to see Hitler through a supernatural lens. This explains why he often described Hitler as an “Anti-Christ.” Many friends, even those who shared his anti-Nazism, thought he expressed himself in excessive terms, but looking back on the destruction and genocide propagated by the Nazi regime, it’s hard to deny how accurate von Hildebrand’s perception turned out to be.
FW: What concrete steps did von Hildebrand take to oppose Hitler?
JHC: The single most concrete thing he did was to found and edit the premier German-language intellectual and cultural anti-Nazi publication. From 1933, when Hitler’s takeover of the German government forced von Hildebrand to flee Germany for Austria, until 1938, when the Nazis took over Austria as well, he published his journal on a weekly basis and managed to pen an essay for almost every issue. By bringing together many different voices, from right and left, his paper presented a formidable united front against National Socialism. But just as important was his direct impact on individual people. And that influence was deep and lasting. I can think of no better confirmation of this than the words of one student who credited von Hildebrand for “immunizing” him “against the siren song of National Socialism.”
FW: When the Nazis entered Austria, von Hildebrand was one of the first people they went to arrest? Why? After all, he was a philosopher, not a politician?
JHC: A very good question. It is a little ironic, but it’s also a tribute to the central role of ideas in political and cultural struggles. There are several reasons the SS came straight after von Hildebrand. Certainly von Hildebrand had crossed the line from philosophy into politics and public debate. He was so fearless and uncompromising in his articles that the Nazi regime (before invading Austria in 1938) regularly complained about him to the Austrian government. I like quoting the assessment of FBI founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, who said von Hildebrand was “editor of the most violently anti-Nazi newspaper in Austria.” While Hoover would have welcomed von Hildebrand’s efforts, his words pair well with those of Hitler’s ambassador in Vienna, who thundered: “That Hildebrand is the worst obstacle to Nazism in Austria. No one does more harm!”
FW: At a time when so many other Christians, Catholics included, chose to remain silent, what gave von Hildebrand the courage to speak up?
JHC: The memoirs offer a sort of “anatomy of witness” as exemplified by von Hildebrand. We see, for example, how remark- ably little influence prevailing ideas had on him; we see his sense of responsibility to speak out, both as a philosopher and Christian; and we see how deeply he loved his country. But all of this is just prologue when it comes to the real source of his courage, which was his absolute faith that God had called him and would sustain and protect him no matter what happened, provided that he remained faithful to his calling.
FW: How is von Hildebrand’s witness still relevant to Catholics today?
JHC: I view his memoirs and essays as a handbook for wit- ness. They are packed with illuminating examples and practical wisdom. But this should not overshadow a further deeply personal relevance for Catholics and, indeed, for any readers of the book. Think of a great work of fiction or drama. Just as literature allows us to inhabit the characters and storyline, and thereby to grow in self-knowledge, I think von Hildebrand’s story, which is so intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally rich, can illuminate and nourish each of us as we need it most.
FW: The struggle to end the evil of abortion is probably the clearest parallel to the struggle against National Socialism? Given that, what advice do you think von Hildebrand would have for the pro-life movement?
JHC: Von Hildebrand’s career was just ending as the pro-life movement was beginning. His last public lecture, however, was about abortion, and he spoke in almost prophetic words about what legalized abortion meant for our society. He was always un-compromising when it came to moral evil, and abortion horrified him profoundly.
But if he were alive today, I suspect he would challenge us to not view our pro-life position too exclusively in political terms. He would have resonated with Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a “culture of life,” recognizing that pro-life laws and court rulings are necessary but far from sufficient for creating a public order that truly respects all human life. I think he would have called atten- tion to the many subtle ways in which committed pro-life people undermine their efforts through the indiscriminate consumption of mainstream culture.
Of course, he would not have wanted Catholics to move into a sort of ghetto—he was far too much of a Christian humanist to propose that. But he would have reminded us of St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “Test everything, retain what is good.” I can almost hear him pointing out to his fellow Catholics that a culture of life is as much (if not more) fostered through beauty and things that ennoble the spirit as it is through good public policies. (Franciscan Way, a publication of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Spring 2015, pp. 34, 35. Visit the Hildebrand Project for more information on Dietrich Von Hildebrand.)
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In attempting to discern the true root of a nation’s problems, it’s important we begin by differentiating between cultures that have never been transformed by Christianity and those that have. What’s wrong with Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia is one thing; the result of sin and the influence of “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), largely un-ameliorated by the Gospel of the Kingdom. They are in an entirely different situation from those countries that make up what is commonly referred to as the West; what was once called Christendom.
When someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required (Luke 12:48). And while far from perfect, there has never been a country that has been more powerfully impacted by and entrusted with the Gospel of the Kingdom than the United States.
Jesus called His church the “salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matt. 5: 13,14). He further said that collectively we would do the things He did…and MORE because He was going to the Father (John 14:12) — that the gates of Hell itself could not prevail against His Bride. (Matt. 16:18).
And yet the Church throughout much of the West is seeing the forces of darkness prevail all around her.
What is wrong with America is precisely what was often wrong with the nation in Old Testament times that was most closely associated with the Kingdom of God on earth, Israel: “They (God’s covenant people) did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 6:1). See also, among many other verses, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6) and the destructive power of laziness (being “at ease” when the walls are crumbling) and spiritual pride. We can go on. Make no mistake, America is slouching towards Gomorrah and judgment not because Satan and his seed have grown so powerful, but because the church has grown so weak.
It can’t simply be attributed to the serpent. His head was crushed at the cross 2000 years ago and there is no prophecy of Scripture that would indicate that this mortal wound would ever be healed. Quite the contrary, the God of peace promises that we will also crush Satan under OUR feet (Rom. 16:20).
It can’t be “the spirit of anti-Christ” – the adversary that was in the world during the apostolic period and will remain, manifesting itself in and through various people, until the end of the age. How can the spirit of hell and Satan, operating through mortal people, ever be able to conquer the Spirit of God living in and through Christians? It can’t; “greater is He that is in us than he who is in the world.” (I John 4:4)
No, the blight is with the light. The Church has become “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8) We have been at ease in Zion and through sloth and carnality have yielded the ground gained by those who have gone before us.
And we dare to presume that God is going to give us a pass and rapture us out of the mess we have helped create?
On this day 67 years ago, an Air Force pilot making $3,396.00 a year crawled into an experimental jet and risked everything to see if it was possible to fly faster than the speed of sound. More than a few scientists thought it was impossible, that the plane would disintegrate. For little more than the glory of being the first man to chase and capture the “daemon that lived out past Mach 1,” Captain Chuck Yeager pressed through two broken ribs, a buffeting plane, a broken altimeter and the fear of death and the unknown to successfully perform that exorcism.
Each of us reading this is flying through the aether of purpose and destiny at a certain rate of speed. None of us are flying as fast, as high or as well as we could, as we would like. Our jet shakes, something breaks, fear or complacency takes hold – and squeezes the faith, the desire for a better resurrection, out of us. And so we pull back on the throttle… often at the very time when we should be punching the afterburners.
There is a sense in which that is what this life is: a huge proving ground above some cosmic Mojave Desert. And God is watching. Who’s going to keep going after the daemons and defeat them? Who’s going to try – and be willing to pay the price – to fly as fast and as high as they can; to press through envelope of what is possible and then break into the realm of the impossible, into the higher heaven that shimmers just beyond our temporal firmament?
Some thirty, some sixty, some one-hundred fold (Matt. 13:8). And the stars differ from one another in terms of their glory (1 Cor. 15:41).
And here is the real bottom-line, the greatest truth ever told. We have no chance of ever going there – of ever breaking on through to the other side – on our own strength. We have to first be taken up in the air and then dropped from the belly of a B-29 bomber.
And that B-29 is the crucified, resurrected and enthroned Christ.
“God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”
— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
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.