Glory Days

Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1

Photo: Marius Christiansen, Unsplash

Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.

We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.

But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.

When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ”, did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.

Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today. (Brandon Gaille.com) Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2

Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?

Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?

Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?

We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.

The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.

But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.

That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.

There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.

He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.

There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”

Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”

He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”

This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, 220, 221.
  2. Brandongaille.com
  3. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, 618.

All Our Gods

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When I was teaching a world religions class from semester to semester I would sometimes ask my students a question: Are God and Allah the same entity?

It was a complex question, but it would invariably provoke a simple response. At first, there would be a momentary silence, with faces looking back at me in shock or puzzlement, as if they were waiting for me to say, “Just kidding!” But I wasn’t, and then the hands would go up and we were off, with questions and assertions richocheting around the room for the next few minutes.

The lines of consensus would usually form up in some fairly consistent ways. There was one group that was unequivocal: Allah is not God, no way, not ever. How could they be sure? Well, look at the kinds of horrific crimes against humanity that the followers of Allah have perpetrated. How could a real . . . god . . . be in charge of such a cruel and capricious lot?

Others would then point out the crusades of Christians against Jews and Moslems, the genocide by American Christians against native Americans, and the centuries of slavery. The Holocaust would be raised and apartheid in South Africa would be recognized.

Having fought to a draw, both sides would then stand down, panting a little. Then a hand would be raised. “Yes, I think they are both the same entity.”

But why?

“Because God can appear as Allah if He wants. He can do anything He wants. Besides, who are we to say who God is or what He does?”

If we think of this response as illustrating an epistemological pebble causing a ripple, then the degree of certainty expressed diminishes rapidly as the energy dissipates outward.

The question about God and Allah is complex because we cannot prove, by the usual standards of observation or deduction, if there are such entities, much less ones that answer to this name and not that one. What this question does first is to stop us in our tracks as it reveals the limits of language in the service of knowledge. As Job says into the whirlwind, “I have spoken of things I do not understand.”

This is not a concession by Job to withdraw his demand that God answer his charge of injustice, but an admission that putting his charge aside, Job cannot grasp all that God is. But this does not stop him from addressing the God he does know, nor should it stop us.

The mystery is that God is more than we can know but not less than we can desire.

Traversing the terrain of God’s nature in this way is throttled by some people when the conversation about the divine leaps into the higher elevations. Often, in the midst of animated conversations after the church potluck, someone will play the Homo sapiens card: “Now you’re thinking man’s thoughts. If they speak not according to the word it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that it took human cogitation to come up with that sentence is lost on such a person. For him, the Bible is a literal transcript of pronouncements God gave in dictation to selected secretaries over the course of thousands of years. In his view, it is an answer book for vexatious questions and a recipe book for doctrinal casseroles.

The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God. The metaphors of God that ring through the Biblical stories are about a being who is fiercely—and tenderly—involved with His creations. By contrast, the contractual obligation of the fundamentalist God is to deliver on the promise of an eschatological gated community in return for fulfillment of stipulations on conduct and creed. It keeps God at a distance, a being so abstract that the only indications of its existence are the myriad ways it is not like us.

There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.

But there is a second purpose for such a question, and that is for us to discover the values that form our descriptions of God and how those values shape our action in the world. Like Parent, like children, you might say. Who do we think God or Allah is? How do we characterize them? How do the values we attribute to our gods align with those we live by? What do those values have in common with believers in other religions? And most importantly: What practical effect do such “God-shaped” values have as we learn to live with others and their divine values?

There are two ways of thinking about this. Conceptual thinking reasons out the problems and is useful when we try to add to our knowledge of the world. Situational thinking involves an experience. We need them both.

Abraham Heschel, the great twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher, says in God in Search of Man, “Situational thinking is necessary when we are engaged in an effort to understand issues on which we stake our very existence.” The nature of God and our relation to people of faith in all religions would qualify for both kinds of thinking. Conceptual thinking would explore the history of the ideas, the development of nuances in religious philosophies, the sources of wisdom in the traditions. But situational thinking would look to events, the times and places where the gods touch the earth, and the songs and visions and psalms that well up from those springs.

Somewhere, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it produces.” On the face of it, the hearer might nod and agree, thinking, perhaps, that the proof is in the pudding and that our puddings should be of the highest quality, lest they be spewed out of the mouth of the Lord. But then a second thought occurs: Wait! Given our record as human beings and the monumental capacity we display for turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, what hope is there for any religion? Considering the many shortcomings and pure screw-ups of any given denomination, especially one’s own, surely this is a bar no one can reach, a standard that cannot be achieved?

We do, however, have Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit in due season, and stories about cutting down trees that don’t produce. Behavior seems to matter to Jesus.

I would amend it to read: “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it is producing.” We are not end-products; we are in process. The gardener knows the tree will thrive when it has the nutrients it needs.

Christian Wiman, poet and essayist, notes in his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, that “An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.”

In the loving embrace of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, we may sense, rather than see, the One who is closer to us than the vein in our neck.

Photo: Val Vesa, Unsplash.com