Quick Hit: Son of God

sonofgodSorry to rain on your little parade, my fellow evangelicals.  But I am unabashedly ambivalent in my enthusiasm for the latest big-screen Jesus-movie thing.

On the one hand, it is great that the Christian message is getting out there into the larger world via a major motion picture.  But we have to realize that the reason this movie and others like it are now being made is not that Hollywood’s got religion.  Rather, it is that Hollywood’s got us pegged as a niche market that can be sold to, that will enthusiastically consume whatever they put out.  This can’t possibly be a good thing.

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The Gospel is for Christians

How many of you have had the experience of sitting through an evangelistic service at your church?  You heard the Gospel preached clearly, but it wasn’t being preached to you; it was being preached to non-Christian visitors at your church.  You sat through this and thought to yourself, “If only I were an unbeliever right now, so that this could apply to me.”

Or maybe some of you have left the Christian faith altogether.  You grew up in church hearing all sorts of moral exhortations and came to believe that Christianity was a religion for good people.  Then you hit adolescence and your hormones went crazy.  Or you went off to college and made way too many Walks of Shame.  Or you got into a career in an industry where you have to do all sorts of questionable things to get ahead and/or to survive.  Or you made bad choices in life and wound up divorced, bankrupt, or worse.  Or life just happened and you got beaten down by all the frustrations and struggles of living with broken people in a broken world.  You came to a place where you said to yourself something along these lines:  “I know what’s going on inside of me.  If Christianity is for good people, then I certainly don’t make the cut.  Better to have some happiness in this life and then be damned, than to keep trying, to keep banging my head against that wall, in a project where I know I am going to fail no matter what I do, and then be damned anyway.  I can’t do this anymore.  I quit.”

Good news.  The Gospel is for you.

Whether Christian or not, we all have the same basic problems.  We are all beaten up and beaten down by the challenges, struggles, pains, exhaustions, and frustrations that go along with living in a broken world.  And we are exhausted.  Not because we are too busy from living in our modern world, though that is part of it.  Our exhaustion goes much deeper than that.  It is because we are addicted to self-salvation.  Meaning that we need to make a good name for ourselves, move ahead in our careers, marry the right person, get into the right schools, have the right friends, raise kids who turn out the right way, etc.  Why?  Because we approach life needing to succeed.  To fail is to die.  Success equals life.  In a performance-driven world, we are performance-driven people.

God’s grace alone is the cure for our exhaustion.  Because Jesus has won, we can lose and it won’t hurt anything.  Because Jesus succeeded, we are free to fail.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is OK for us to be ordinary.  We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter.  We don’t even need anything from God.  Why?  Because we already have everything we need in Christ Jesus.

To use a label that is more familiar to those of you inside the Christian faith:  We are all sinners.  This label applies whether you are Christian or not.  People who completely sucked at living the Christian life will get to heaven and think, “Really?  You mean it really was that simple?”  C. S. Lewis said that there will be lots of surprises at the Eschaton.  Cult members, prostitutes, pimps, johns, drug dealers, deadbeat dads, sex traffickers, and murderers will all be there because they died believing that Jesus Christ was their only possible hope.

But this is lost on many of us.  In much of evangelicalism, the paradigm is that the Gospel gets you into the kingdom, so that when you die you will go to heaven.  But what now?  There is an awful lot of life to be lived between the time you accept Jesus Christ and the time you die.  (Unless, as Lewis Grizzard would have said, you go out on 285 and get run over by a semi hauling hogs.)

Enter the Law.

In some churches it is excruciatingly overt.  Don’t drink.  Don’t smoke.  Don’t cuss.  Don’t wear tattoos.  Don’t listen to rock music.  You get the idea.  But in the vast majority of evangelical churches it is nothing like this.  Instead it is more along the lines of “Seven principles to resisting temptation” or “Eight principles to making wise choices” or “Ten steps to a happy marriage” or “Biblical financial management” or “How to raise drug-free kids”.  The overarching emphasis is:  Are you reading the Bible every day?  Are you having your quiet time every day?  Are you running away from certain things and running toward certain other things?

The demand of the Law to “Be perfect” gets dumbed down to “Try hard”.  God’s grace is there to make up the difference.  You won’t get it right all the time, but as long as you’re making progress and showing improvement, that is good enough.  Thus the Christian life is not about substitution but about transformation.  Not about what God has done for you but about what you are doing for God.

This may sound vaguely familiar to those of you who grew up in the Catholic faith.  In Aquinas’s view, which has come to influence much popular Catholic belief and official Catholic teaching, justification is a gradual transformation from unjust to just.  The grace of God is an infused power which enables you to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and thereby move yourself from ungodly to righteous.  This will manifest itself through progressively fewer and fewer sins.

Catholicism by the time of the Reformation had evolved into a massive self-salvation project.  Though the Council of Orange (529 AD) condemned both Pelagianism (“I can save myself”) and semi-Pelagianism (“I can, with God’s help, save myself”), semi-Pelagianism had become the order of the day.  It had gotten to the point where they were inventing good works for people to do to move forward in justification as they saw it:  relics, pilgrimages, and indulgences.  If you grew up Catholic, you know about these things.

And that is precisely where we are in evangelicalism today.  The only difference is that instead of relics, pilgrimages, and indulgences, we have: “Dream big!”  “Have big faith!”  “Change the world!”  And while we’re off dreaming big dreams, having big faith, and devising big schemes to change the world, we neglect and even despise the good works which God has in fact set us to do:  be good parents, faithful spouses, hard-working employees, etc.

How does this work out in the life of the individual believer?

You start out believing that you are freely saved and justified in Jesus Christ.  God, for no reason having anything to do with anything in you but entirely in His own pleasure and for His own purposes, has justified you, forgiven your sin, adopted you as His son/daughter, given you the Holy Spirit, and much much more.  Scripture promises this.

Commands like “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” seem doable now that you are properly equipped.  Paul said “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  So while you may have had at least a modicum of excuse for failure while you were still a pagan, that is no longer true.  Now you are part of God’s family, and recipient of thousands upon thousands of His free gifts.

But then you notice that sin is still a part of your life.  Old sinful habits, thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors refuse to go away no matter what you do or how hard you try.  You begin to suspect that things aren’t working out as they ought, and therefore, that you might not really be saved.  Because if you were, this thing would work.  You would be resisting temptation and living the victorious life.  Maybe you need to be “born again” again.

In many evangelical churches you would be told that this suspicion of yours is true.  It would be recommended that you try going to such-and-such meeting or conference.  Accept Christ again.  Rededicate your life.  Surrender again.  Sign the card.  Walk the aisle again.  And on and on it goes, in a vicious circle, until you finally just give up.

That’s if you’re honest.  If you’re less than fully honest with yourself, you will stay in the game but you will begin to deceive yourself about some things.  You will think that you are doing better than you really are, and you will become blind to your true condition.

So what is the solution?  It is to recognize that the whole idea of moving beyond the Gospel is just a myth.  The Gospel is not simply the ABC of the Christian life, it is the A to Z of the Christian life.  The Gospel is what gets you into the kingdom, and it is what keeps you there.  You will never achieve transformation in your life, certainly not of your own efforts.  You will never win the victory over sin or death in your own life.  But Christ has, and that is all that matters.

Christ is enough for me
Christ is enough for me
Everything I am is in You
Everything I need is in You

We sing this in church frequently these days.  Would that we could believe it.

Les Miserables 83: The Atom Fraternizes With The Hurricane

lesmiserablesIn this section we see young Gavroche off to war.  We first see him snatching a horse pistol out of a secondhand shop, then taking off down the street singing.

Who wrote this refrain that gave him the beat for his marching, and all the other songs he liked to sing from time to time?  We do not know.  Who knows?  They were his own, perhaps.  Actually, Gavroche kept up with all the current popular tunes, and mixed in his own warbling with them.  A sprite and a devil, he made a medley of the voices of nature and the voices of Paris.  He combined the repertory of the birds with the repertory of the workshops.

When last we saw Gavroche he had just finished helping his father Thenardier escape from prison.  He had let two young street urchins who, unbeknownst to him, were his younger brothers, spend the night with him in his elephant.  He returned to let them out, then asked them to return that evening if they had not found their home.  They did not return.  Twelve weeks went by and still they did not return.

As Gavroche continues down the street, we see him poking fun at a rich bourgeois and then a quartet of old ladies.  We then see him hurling a stone at the window of a barbershop–the same barber who had thrown him out on the evening he was with his younger brothers.

Gavroche then falls in with Enjolras and friends, who are on their way to the barricade.  Gavroche notices an old man with the group, who turns out to be M. Mabeuf.  When last we saw Mabeuf, he was wandering off in a daze after realizing that he had no money left and no more books to sell.  As he was wandering he met up with Enjolras and friends.  Courfeyrac recognized him because of Marius’s frequent visits to his home, and tried to persuade him to go home.  But when Mabeuf learned where they were going, he became all the more determined to join them.  His aimless wandering transformed into a firm, resolute march as he tried to keep up with them.

“What a desperate old man!” murmured the students.  The rumor ran through the assemblage that he was–a former Conventionist–an old regicide.

Note the tragic irony here:  Mabeuf, the most apolitical person in all of France, who had repeatedly expressed his revulsion for politics after seeing how it tore Marius’s family apart and robbed him of his father, was now indistinguishable from an old Conventionist taking to the streets to have his revenge against the Restoration monarchy.

Note also how the labels applied to Mabeuf here–former Conventionist, old regicide–harken back to another former Conventionist and old regicide whom we met near the beginning of the story.  This was the former Conventionist G—, whom the bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu met on his deathbed.  This man was a pariah who lived alone on the outskirts of his town.  He was greatly feared by his community, and the people whispered many terrible things about him.  The sight of Mabeuf on the march evoked similar fears and whisperings.  This linkage between Mabeuf and the former Conventionist G— only reinforces the tragic irony here.

More recruits joined the cortege.  Among them was a tall man with graying hair whom nobody knew.  Since Hugo feels compelled to single him out for specific mention at this point, we can be sure that he will have some significance later on.  Since the group just happened to be passing by Courfeyrac’s apartment he dropped off and went in to retrieve some forgotten items and met a young man waiting in the apartment.

At the same time a sort of young workingman, thin, pale, small, freckled, dressed in a torn workshirt, and patched corduroy pants, and who looked more like a girl in boy’s clothes than a man, came out of the lodge and said to Courfeyrac in a voice which, to be sure, was not the least like a woman’s voice, “Monsieur Marius, if you please?”

This matches descriptions of Eponine that we have seen earlier in the story.  Eponine was waiting for Marius, intending to bring him to the barricade.  Rather than continue to wait for Marius, she fell in with Courfeyrac and the group.

Les Miserables 82: June 5, 1832

lesmiserablesIn our previous edition we saw Jean Valjean, Marius, and M. Mabeuf embark upon journeys that would take them into the climax of the story.  Now we are about to enter into the climax ourselves.

True to form, Victor Hugo brings the action up to a cliffhanger, then hits pause and goes off on a nonfictional aside.  This time his purpose is to set up the events of June 5, 1832 which will serve as the story’s climax by giving some historical context.

Hugo begins by pondering the word emeute and the question of what makes an emeute different from an insurrection.

What constitutes an emeute, a riot?  Nothing and everything.  An electricity gradually released, a flame suddenly leaping forth, a drifting force, a passing wind.  This wind brushes heads that think, dreaming minds, suffering souls, burning passions, howling miseries, and sweeps them away.

Where?

Almost anywhere.  Across the state, across laws, across the prosperity and the insolence of others.

Hugo critiques certain views of emeute, such as the government view that a certain amount of emeute is desirable because whatever doesn’t kill a society will make it stronger, and the bourgeois view that emeute is undesirable because of the negative economic repercussions.  Both of these miss the real question, which is:  Is emeute justifiable?  If so, when?

To get at this, he defines insurrection as war of the whole of society against a faction (as when a faction attempts to rise up and seize control and the whole puts it down) as insurrection and the war of a faction of society against the whole as emeute.  Insurrection is right, emeute is wrong.  He gives historical examples:  Israel against Moses, the soldiers against Alexander the Great, the sailors against Columbus would be emeute, while Paris against the Bastille in 1789 is an insurrection.  There is also a difference in intensity; insurrection is often a volcano while emeute is merely a straw fire.

At this point, let us make a passing observation on Victor Hugo’s view of God:

Be it said in passing, one should note that Tacitus was not historically superimposed on Caesar.  The Tiberii were reserved for him.  Caesar and Tacitus are two successive phenomena whose meeting seems mysteriously avoided by Him who, in staging the centuries, regulates the entrances and exits.  Caesar is great.  Tacitus is great.  God spares these two grandeurs by not hurling them at each other.  The judge, striking Caesar, might strike too hard, and be unjust.  God did not will it.  The great wars of Africa and Spain, the destruction of the Cilician pirates, civilization introduced into Gaul, into Britain, into Germany, all this glory covers the Rubicon.  There is a delicacy of divine justice here, hesitating to let loose the terrible historian on the illustrious usurper, saving Caesar from Tacitus, and granting the genius some extenuating circumstances.

Hugo sees God as a greatness orchestrating all of history and using it to suit His ends.  This is a view of divine sovereignty which would be perfectly at home in present-day Neo-Calvinism.  But more than that, Hugo sees history as being on an upward trajectory, from chaos to order, from simple to complex, from ignorance to enlightenment, with God or Providence or whatever you care to call it as the driving force behind it all.  We saw examples of this earlier in the story, such as in his analysis of Napoleon’s downfall at Waterloo–because Napoleon no longer fit with God’s plan for human history.  Such a view of history was common to the Romantic age of which Hugo was part.  Was it appropriate?  I don’t think so.  I think Hugo is over-the-top in his descriptions of God as the sovereign Lord of all of history directing it in its upward trajectory.  But bear in mind that this was written before World War I.  Much has happened in the 20th century to disabuse people of any notions of history evolving on an upward trajectory ordained by God.  Also bear in mind that we in the present day have our own views and prejudices with respect to history that future ages will critique us for.

C. S. Lewis takes a different view of things on the idea that human history is moving in an upward trajectory ordained by God.  His view is that the idea of Progress is arrived at by selective imagination; for every actual instance of progress in the material world there are at least ten instances of its opposite which must be slurred over.

The oak comes indeed from the acorn, but then the acorn was dropped by an earlier oak.  Every man began with the union of an ovum and a spermatozoon, but the ovum and the spermatozoon came from two fully developed human beings.  The modern express engine came from the Rocket:  but the Rocketcame, not from something under and more elementary than itself but from something much more developed and highly organized–the mind of a man, and a man of genius.  Modern art may have developed from ‘savage’ art.  But then the very first picture of all did not ‘evolve’ itself; it came from something overwhelmingly greater than itself, from the mind of that man who by seeing for the first time that marks on a flat surface could be made to look like animals and men, proved himself to excel in sheer blinding genius any of the artists who have succeeded him.  It may be true that if we trace back any existing civilization to its beginnings we shall find those beginnings crude and savage:  but then when you look closer you usually find that those beginnings themselves come from a wreck of some earlier civilization.  In other words, the apparent instances of, or analogies to, Evolution which impress the folk imagination, operate by fixing our attention on one half of the process.  What we actually see all around us is a double process–the perfect ‘dropping’ an imperfect seed which in its turn develops to perfection.  By concentrating exclusively on the record or upward movement in this cycle we seem to see ‘evolution’.  I am not in the least denying that organisms on this planet may have ‘evolved’.  But if we are to be guided by the analogy of Nature as we now know her, it would be reasonable to suppose that this extraordinary process was the second half of a long pattern–that the crude beginnings of life on this planet have themselves been ‘dropped’ there by a full and perfect life.

C. S. Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth”, Christian Reflections

So now we get to what actually happened on June 5, 1832.  General Lamarque was a general who served valiantly under Napoleon, then went on to a long and distinguished career in the Senate after the Restoration, where he was a vigorous advocate for the people and well loved by the people.  But he was old and his health was failing, and it was no secret that he was about to go any day.  The city of Paris was in a state of unrest, because the July Revolution of 1830 had brought adverse changes to the economy while the hoped-for reforms were very slow to materialize.  The student and worker revolutionary groups were looking for any excuse to go off, while the government was on edge fearing the event that might set them off.  Finally General Lamarque died, and his funeral was set for June 5.  The funeral procession wound all through the city, and when it got to the Pont d’Austerlitz, that was when it happened.  Shots were fired, the call to arms went out, and mayhem ensued throughout the city.  Barricades went up all over town, and key buildings and factories were taken by the insurgents.

Paris is a strange city, almost surreal, in that you can have violent insurrection in one part of the city while, less than two blocks away, people are going on about their usual lives as if nothing is happening.

Paris grows accustomed to everything very quickly–it’s only an emeute–and Paris is so busy that it does not get worked up over such a trifle.  These colossal cities alone can contain such spectacles.  These immense precincts alone can contain at the same time a civil war and an indescribably eerie tranquility.  Usually, when the insurrection begins, when the drum, the long roll, the call to arms are heard, the shopkeeper merely says, “It seems there’s some squabble at the Rue Saint-Martin.”

Or:  “Faubourg Saint-Antoine.”

Often he adds coolly, “Somewhere down that way.”

…They fire at each other on the street corners, in an arcade, in a cul-de-sac; barricades are taken, lost, retaken; blood flows, the fronts of the houses are riddled with grapeshot, bullets kill people in their beds, corpses litter the pavement.  A few streets away, you hear the clicking of billiard balls in the cafes.

The theaters open their doors and play comedies; the curious chat and laugh two steps from these streets full of war.  The fiacres jog along; passersby are going to dine in the city, sometimes in the very area where there is fighting.  In 1831 a fusillade was suspended to let a wedding party pass by.

But on this night everything was different.  The city was afraid.  No one dared to go out.  Rumors flew about horrible things happening in the city; no one knew what was going on.  The theaters did not open that night.  Housewives went crazy when their husbands did not come home.  The jails were overcrowded with people who were detained upon suspicion of causing trouble.

This time, however, in the armed contest of the 5th of June 1832, the great city felt something that was, perhaps, stronger than herself.  She was afraid.  Everywhere, in the most distant and the most “disinterested” quarters, you saw doors, windows, and shutters closed in broad daylight.  The courageous were armed, the cowards hid.  The careless and busy wayfarer disappeared.  Many streets were as empty as at four in the morning.  Alarming stories went the rounds, ominous rumors were spread….Paris seemed more and more ominously lit by the stupendous flame of the uprising.