posted August 31, 2009
I was out in the back yard today, meditating on the
tall grass and how I was going to have to curb its enthusiasm with a
lawnmower. But since Monday morning is sort of my day off, I was just
sitting in the swing the previous owners didn’t remove, feeling the cool
breeze and enjoying the blue sky and the unusually mild August weather.
The whispering leaves were only interrupted by occasional blasts from my
neighbor’s nail gun across the street. He’s building a new garage.
My roving eye eventually wandered over to the
flowerbed on the side of the house. It is mainly a halfway home for
small stones but it also hosts a number of tiny and not-so-tiny trees.
Seeds that have fallen from our three large trees and embedded
themselves in the cracks next to the fence or the house or in the
flowerbed. Some intrepid seeds are trying to grow out in the middle of
the yard. A few of them didn’t fall very far from the tree. That’s not
very smart, I thought. In the wild, the taller trees would choke out all
the sunlight, and the seeds wouldn’t get a chance to grow. They’d be
better of achieving some distance before they tried to grow. And indeed,
some have. I surveyed the ground and wondered how many of them would
actually survive and thrive. None, I decided. Not in my yard! But if
this were the wilderness, who knows?
Nature doesn’t seem very discriminating when it comes
to plant reproduction. A tree will shower its environment with thousands
and thousands of seeds in its lifetime. It will produce and produce and
produce and scatter its seeds wastefully, and unconcernedly, everywhere.
With a little calculation, perhaps, a little strategy, maybe the ability
to take care of its little progeny, they would have a better chance of
survival. Instead, the tree relies on massive volume. One seed, more or
less, doesn't seem to make much difference.
Scientific explanations for the world around us
describe an environment that is frequently chaotic and bizarre. Things
operate at cross-purposes to one another, rarely achieving harmony, and
instead competing with one another for survival. Creatures look out only
for themselves and in some cases for their progeny. And they are not
always very efficient, or very smart, about doing it. Individual
organisms don’t count for much.
Contrast this with the way some religious writers
have been seeing the world for centuries. Not only in terms of the
coming kingdom, but as a very pleasant way of seeing the world right
now. Here is how a fellow named Clement, a disciple of Peter, disciple
of Christ, saw things. The passage below is from his Epistle to the
Corinthians, the same church Paul had so much trouble with, and may or
may not be genuine regarding its authorship. In any case, it is one of
those books that did not make the cut, i.e., become part of our Bible.
This is from the ninth chapter:
"The heavens moving by his appointment, are subject
to Him in peace. Day and night accomplish the courses that He has
allotted unto them, not disturbing one another. The sun and moon, and
all the companies and constellations of the starts, run the courses that
He has appointed them in concord, without departing in the least from
them. The fruitful earth yields its fruit plentifully in due season both
to man and beast, and to all animals that are upon it, according to His
will; not disputing or altering anything that was ordered by Him. And
the conflux of the vast sea, being brought together by his order into
its several collections, passes not the bounds that He has set to
it…Spring and summer, autumn and winter, give place peaceably to each
other. …Even the smallest creatures live in peace and concord with each
There is so much tranquility in this passage that it
is hard to imagine Clement has lived among us. When I first read the
passage, I couldn’t help muttering, obviously this guy never watched the
Discovery Channel. One night I saw an alligator take down a
hippopotamus, and there did not seem to be much peace and concord
between them. How about floodwaters bursting their dams? What about
famine and drought and starvation? What about the transitions between
the seasons and the sometimes devastating storms that result? Is Clement
simply unaware of the messy reality of life on planet earth? Is he
talking about some parallel universe where everything would be in easy
harmony if it weren’t for the sin of Adam? What is it with so many
ancient writers and their conviction that everything in the universe
stays in the lines and hums along beautifully with everything else?
Clement does not seem to be prophesying some rosy future here, either.
From what I can tell, he’s talking about the present. This is the way he
thinks it is. (I'll grant that he did not include humanity in his
Not that we need limit this philosophy to classical
thinkers. There are plenty of folks around who are convinced that God is
manipulating the universe to their satisfaction. Couples getting married
will tell you that God led them to the one person He meant for them to
marry, or that He has called them to a particular profession because He
has a very specific plan for their lives (and only one plan—God must be
like the parent who is trying to live His own dreams through His
children). Some of these people might go so far as to pray to God when
one of their socks disappeared, and upon finding it, thank Him and
testify about it afterward. (How do they know God wasn’t the one who hid
their sock so they would be five minutes late to work and avoid a
horrible traffic accident? They don’t. Part of this equation is to think
that everything you interpret as personal good fortune must be part of
God’s plan, and everything you don’t like, must not be.)
The point here is that people have always assumed
that God has ordered the universe—that God is order, and that evidence
of order in the universe is a sign that there is a God. But people
seldom stop there. Next we assume that we can interpret that order.
Anything that we can’t explain is assumed to be chaos, rather than a
pattern that we simply lack the means to see. Therefore, we skip to part
two, which is to believe we can see things as God sees them. Funny, I
thought that was what got Adam and Eve in trouble in the first place.
Of course, if you’re looking for a pattern you can
probably find one. If I looked hard enough, I could probably discover
that some of the little treelets in my yard made the shape of a cross or
something. Personally I’d rather see answers to poverty, starvation, and
human rights abuses, but if God really wants to entertain me with a
horticultural magic trick, I guess it’s his plan, after all…
But to me the seeds present a picture of chaos. Which
reminded me of the Parable of the Sower. Jesus didn’t make the universe
into a neat little equation. A farmer scatters seeds. Some fall on good
ground and grow large and healthy, but most don’t. They fall on the
path, or among rocks and thorns, or get eaten by birds. Even with the
addition of human consciousness and the ability to plan, the purpose of
every seed is not fulfilled. It seems the world is not a very efficient,
cozy little place. Instead it is a wild place, filled with potential but
no guarantee it will be fulfilled. Disasters around every corner. A
great deal of failure and brokenness. But sometimes, an amazing yield.
The seeds that do grow produce a yield of many times the original. A
vast, prodigious fecundity (no set amount on that, either). Not just,
"isn’t that nice" but "that’s awe-inspiring!" It’s not just a pleasant
little world, it is enormously breath-taking.
People have tried to make a cozy, efficient little
parable out of Jesus’ illustration. God is the farmer, and you are the
seeds. It is your choice to be a good seed or a bad seed. But notice the
seeds don’t get to decide what kind of ground they fall into. They just
try to grow. And some of them never get a decent chance. It’s not like
they are going to develop concrete-boring roots.
Jesus also never finishes the parable-turned-allegory
(courtesy of Matthew's--or Jesus's, explanation) by telling us who the
sower is. Many have assumed it is God. But I heard a sermon years ago
from a Methodist preacher in which he suggested that
we are the sowers. It is our job to spread the good news
wherever we can. It is not our responsibility to worry about whether it
will take root. We simply spread joyfully, and some of it will come to
fruition and some will not. Much like the trees in my yard. It is not
their job to raise little treelets to maturity in safety and security.
That is beyond their ability.
That kind of uncertainty and inefficiency has
bothered people as long as there have been people. And they have tried
to construct elaborate systems to show how peacefully predictable
everything is. Some of them were classical thinkers. Some taught Sunday
Jesus wasn’t in that category. His images of the
kingdom of heaven are shocking and surprising. Or they would be if we
didn’t work so hard to make them seem so tame. We’ve had 2000 years to
try and we’ve done a pretty good job. The garden of heaven is pretty
well cultivated. Though recently I heard another pastor of mine refer to
the world at large, the world in which we live and do ministry, as an
When I was in college we had a place called the
‘garden center.’ It was a bit of natural beauty in the midst of an urban
behemoth. There were a few trails, some exhibits, and two large gardens.
The ‘French garden’ was well manicured, everything was in rows and
labeled, and the paths were paved and geometrical. The ‘English garden’
was more like being out in the woods. I preferred the English garden
most days. Something about it seemed more real. The plants weren’t stuck
in invisible cages. They had room to be themselves. They had room to
grow, which didn’t mean they always flourished. By contrast the French
garden looked like peace and harmony had been imposed on it, by fiat. It
was just a bit too uniform, too drab.
I supposed there is a better guarantee we’d all get
long in a French garden, but this isn’t one. I grew up in a suburb,
which is a pretty close human approximation, but then I moved to a city,
which is definitely an English garden. And the more I’ve seen about the
world around me, the more "English" it seems to be. French gardens are
nice places to retreat to, but they don’t much resemble the world around
them. They satisfy minds that like nice geometric shapes and plants and
trees that keep their branches to themselves. A French garden is a
peaceful place, a restful place. And yet it is a stagnant place.
Because in a French garden, all the spaces are taken,
and there is nowhere to scatter seed.
Maybe the farmer in that parable should have known
better than to scatter seeds along the path, or on the rocky soil. I’ll
bet they knew that in the 1st century, never mind what
agricultural science could tell our contemporary farmer. But he kept on
sowing. As if out of a sense of joy in creation that knew know bounds.
It didn't seem to bother him that many of his seeds wouldn't grow, much
of his effort would be wasted. He just kept on spreading seeds
everywhere. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to sow like that?
posted December 2, 2009
It is a very popular passage this time of
year. "Comfort ye, my people, saith the Lord." Right there, in
chapter of Isaiah. It is what you say to a people who have just
been devastated by war and exile. Who are trying to hang on to
their future for all they’re worth. Just trying to get by. It is
also, perhaps, uncharacteristically mild for a prophet.
"Comfort ye." This after 39 chapters of just
the opposite. Plenty of warning, plenty of sarcasm, plenty of
finger-pointing. Stuff that the prophets, as a whole, are pretty
good at. And then this passage.
"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to
her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has
been paid for."
Sin that, for the first part of the book,
Isaiah has been entirely too eager to point out. It has
consequences, you know. Woe to you, and to everyone around you.
And you again. And them. And us. Well, mostly you guys.
"Comfort ye." It is almost musical.
Actually, it is
musical. Read the 40th chapter of Isaiah, and, if you
know the choral literature, see how many pieces you know that
were inspired by these words. You’ll note that those first 39
chapters don’t get this sort of treatment (chapters 2 and 9 are
exceptions). We like these kinds of passages better. Comfort. We
can get down with that. Those opening chapters, forget they
exist. Especially at a time like this.
A time like this. Like now. We’ve had a hard
year, and we need a prophet to tell us things are going to be
alright. But is anybody up for the job?
I see a hand. In the back. Isaiah? Good.
Speaking words of solace to a troubled population is not part of
the standard MO of most prophets. I’m glad to see you have this
additional skill. But let’s review your resume. In chapter 24
"See, the Lord is going to lay waste the
earth and devastate it. He will ruin its face, and scatter its
inhabitants…the earth will be completely laid waste, and totally
plundered. The Lord has spoken this word."
Wow, that’s a bit harsh! Let’s go back a few
"Damascus will no longer be a city, but will
be a heap of ruins….In that day their strong cities…will be
abandoned to thickets and undergrowth. And all will be
desolation." (ch. 17)
Yikes! But at least that one’s about somebody
"I will summon my warriors to carry out my
wrath…terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them;
they will writhe like a woman in labor…" They use that phrase a lot,
actually. What do all those male prophets find so frightening
about childbirth, anyhow? (ch. 13)
Well, that one’s against Babylon. And they
had it coming. Still, it doesn’t make the situation any better
just because you’re smiting them, even if it does
satisfy the meaner part of our natures. And then, chapter 40.
"Comfort ye, my people."
Are we talking about the same guy, here?
Actually, most biblical scholars think that
at least three people wrote the book of Isaiah, so, no, we are
not talking about the same guy. The vocabulary and syntax
changes at this point, as does the tone, which is a bit more
conciliatory. Still, there are passages of hope and comfort
throughout the earlier chapters of the book as well.
"But your dead will live; their bodies will
rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy."
There is always something rather double-sided
about prophets. I should warn you, they’re a little unstable.
For some reason they are always prophesying doom and hope in the
same chapter. They don’t seem to be able to help themselves. The
ones who don’t write as well, or aren’t as long-winded, can make
the transitions seem really abrupt, and bizarre. Unless
cinematic is a better word.
If I were to give a personality test, with an
eye toward mental health, the bottom category would be
‘Prophet.’ This is not to say they are all bad citizens. Some of
them are more than a bit maladjusted and anti-social, but not
all of them. Our buddy Isaiah, for example. It’s not as if
Isaiah enjoys being the messenger of these bad tidings:
"At this, my body is racked with pain, pangs
seize me, like those of a woman in labor, I am staggered by what
I hear, I am bewildered by what I see. My heart falters, fear
makes me tremble, the twilight I long for has become a horror to
me." (Is he talking about his frustrated hopes for retirement?)
Yet for all that, he reminds us, time and
again, that God’s ‘Hand is still upraised.’ It is an ugly image,
which makes one think of domestic violence (Israel is the
battered wife). In chapter after chapter, capping off scenes of
devastation and destruction, no matter how terrible, one last
God isn’t done yet. There is more to come.
Cheer up. Things will get much worse. Even when that doesn’t
And then, 40 chapters later, it’s over.
What’s changed? Besides the author, I mean. Perhaps Israel has
truly had enough. Not just from a literary standpoint. The worst
has actually happened by this time—Jerusalem captured, thousands
dead from starvation or war, or forced relocation. The rest
trying to survive in a foreign land, as a people and as
individuals, or back home in a city with no walls or internal
security, or much of anything that would resemble civilization.
Nobody wants to hear about death and desolation anymore. Nobody
should have to. Any prophet with any compassion knows to ease up
under those circumstances. It’s time for the shadenfreude to
When confronted with a scale of human
suffering like that, it seems hard to compare what has happened
to our own people in our own time and in our own country. But
we’ve had a rough year. Lots of people lost their jobs, some
their homes, their cars—not knowing if and when they would get
back on their economic feet again. There has been a lot of pain
Like Isaiah, I find myself of two minds about
this. Last year, I wrote an
article laced with sarcasm about our
obsession with shopping and material goods, which was not heavy
on sympathy for people in this hurting economy. You could see
why I’d be frustrated. We do, after all, do this to ourselves.
We live and die by a market which does not take care of us. It
is about money and who has it. Sure, there are greedy people out
there screwing each other and the rest of us: cheating to win,
and we let them, frequently (deregulation). But we also don’t
seem to notice that a market that can go up can also go down,
and we don’t plan for that, taking unnecessary risks with our
own money as well, spending irresponsibly, putting all our money
in the market when we shouldn’t, thinking every time (and this
can be documented in the attitudes of people right before the
last several economic downturns), that the market is just going
to go up forever, that the old boom and bust cycles are over for
good, that there are new rules on Wall Street.
There never are. And we get hurt again. We
worship a god that tells us we need to get ahead just to stay
even. Even if it means trampling our fellow man. We think we
need five times as much to live on as we actually do. That
luxury items are a requirement and that savings can wait. Nobody
needs to plan ahead during the good times. Eat drink and be
How does that sentence end? Because it always
does. And it is frustrating to watch it happen again and again
and see it cause hurt and suffering to so many people and to
know that, in various ways and levels of responsibility we are
the ones causing our own hurt. You can’t blame this one on the
Somebody has to say that, even though it
obviously won’t make them popular. Unless it can be safely
assumed that they are blaming someone else. If it looks like you
are on the list, then they can forget it.
Yeah, I’m talking about you.
Sure, those guys on Wall Street who played
games to make even more profit while they pointed their new
weapon at the rest of us with the safety off, the ones whose
recklessness and greed helped burst the bubble we all helped
create—they bear a disproportionate share of the guilt. They
ought to be in jail. What about the little guy? We were just
going along, doing our best, trying to keep up. Sure, we may
have knocked over a couple people at Macy’s trying to get a
bargain. Maybe we maxxed out a credit card or two so our kids
could have the latest greatest toys or we could get 800 channels
and the good life on our 6 foot televisions in the back of our
SUVs, but 'they' told us we could, no money down and try to pay
later. Those guys who hoodwinked us should pay the price, not
us. Why should all Israel suffer just because the king put up a
few Ashera poles?
Ah, but I can hear the king now, justifying
himself. I only put those up because of the public demand
for it. If I didn’t put them up so the little guys could worship
their Canaanite gods, they would have sacked me and gotten
another king who would. I’m only satisfying demand.
Sound like a familiar argument? The kind the
cigarette companies and the makers of violent and explicit
movies float whenever they get criticism? It’s full of beans,
isn’t it? And yet so true. We all blame each other for the
faults of society, and yet society wouldn’t be where it is
without group participation, from both the leaders and the
followers. And when some prophet comes along and tells us it
isn't just the other guy's fault, that we, too, should examine
ourselves and see if we aren't found wanting, we don't take it
that well. No wonder Isaiah got ulcers and night sweats.
The price for worshipping Mammon is this.
Mammon lets us down every so often. And doesn’t do a thing to
help. Let the ones who can’t keep up, fall away. They aren’t
worthy. They are too week. They weren’t zealous enough.
But we are intensely loyal to Mammon. We’ll
pick ourselves up and do it all again. It must be frustrating to
be Yahweh and to watch this continuing to happen. And yet, when
your child falls down the stairs, no matter if he was doing
something intensely stupid to cause it, you don’t want to see
him suffer. Maybe just enough to learn his lesson, if he’s going
to, but in the end you love him and you want to comfort him and
make it all better. Even the prophets—some of them—have this
equation figured out.
So after 18 months of suffering, it is hardly
the time to keep beating the drum. Yes, we cause our own pain,
locked into a system that foster exploitation and is mainly
based on money making money, little electron clouds of activity
with little substance and a lot of hype. But we’ve done our
time, haven’t we?
"Tell Jerusalem that she has paid double for
all of her sins."
It’s time to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
And yes, it’s going to happen again, but today’s not that day
for that prophecy, either.
"Comfort ye, my people."
We’ll go on into the future. We’ll pick
ourselves up and dust ourselves off and get our economy back on
its feet, and prosperity will come again. People will get their
jobs back and buy houses and cars, and life will begin to feel
normal again. Safety and security will reign in its usual
places, and America will again be blessed.
Comfort ye, my people.
I’m not very good with sentiments like that.
A little "there, there" and a pat on the back. "Everything’s
going to be alright." That’s not really in my DNA. Partly
because I often don’t really know if everything is going to be
alright (I’m brutally honest) and partly because it sounds like
an insubstantial cliché, a thing you say to just, well, make
people feel better, based solely on the fact that human beings
are an odd lot, and when they hear somebody else tell them to
feel better, it makes them feel better. Maybe a powerful poetic
metaphor would help. But I’m no poet, so I just have to say
‘it’s going to get better.’
Funny, if it’s that easy, why am I not more
skilled in this?
But I’m not. The phrase just dangles there,
as if it lacks authority. And yet it is the thing to say, and
the time to say it…
"Comfort ye, my people."
Still lacks something definitive.
I’ve got it!
"…Saith the Lord!"
Truth or Dare
posted January 5, 2010
About a year ago I had an interesting
conversation with some friends regarding the book of Jonah. They
had attended a sermon called ‘Jonah: God’s Truth or Fish Story?”
I’ll leave you to guess which side the pastor took.
I happen to think that it is more likely that the book of Jonah
is a work of imaginative fiction: my friends do not. In fairness
to the other ‘side’ of the argument, I cannot say with absolute
certainty that any or all of the events described in the book never happened,
just that it seems highly unlikely. And probably not only for the
reasons you are thinking.
If you aren’t familiar with the book of Jonah, I highly
recommend it. It is very short, and easily one of the most
intriguing books of the Bible. A prophet is told by God to go
preach disaster to the citizens of a great city unless they
repent; they do, and the prophet sulks about it because he
really wanted God to wipe them out, since he didn’t like them
very much--the reason being that they are Israel's arch-enemies
(and real-life conquerors). In fact, Jonah was so reluctant to
take the assignment in the first place because he was afraid
they'd repent, and God, being merciful, would let them off, a
motivating factor of Jonah's that is buried in the last chapter
of the book. Instead, without fully explaining itself, the
narrative races ahead from the opening sentence with one strange
development after another. The book opens with God's command to
go preach to the city. Jonah refuses God's assignment and runs
away aboard a ship bound for the opposite end of the known world
(the only prophet in the Bible to outright refuse God's call)
whereupon God sends a storm at sea to the stubborn prophet, the
sailors throw Jonah overboard at his own request, he is
swallowed by a large fish, prays to God from within the fish, is
vomited up on dry land, God repeats his orders, and Jonah
decides to take him up on it this time. All this may be crazy
enough, but I want to get to what really makes the book
interesting as we go along.
First, though, I want to discuss something about bias. I have
found more and more as I age that so much depends on our
assumptions, and that these depend on the way our minds work.
Some of us have very little sense of wonder, or appreciation for
the strangeness of things, which greatly colors our approach to religious
matters. Is it not just a little bizarre that a small tribe of
people halfway around the world whose outlook and survivalist
attitude were so very parochial became the religious ancestors
of so many North Americans twenty centuries later? Or that the
book that came about because some 60 authors wrote letters,
histories, poetry, lists of accomplishments, genealogies, and so
on, became such an important heritage to a people they never
knew existed in a very different culture, and became used for very
different ends? The historical twists and turns involved
in the history of our religious heritage are staggering--and
extremely interesting--and yet these things are usually
presented in Sunday school as if they are no big deal at all.
The certified ‘miracles’ are considered extraordinary (but only
as demonstrations of God's power, not because some of them are
pretty odd to begin with), but the way our religion developed is
not of interest at all. It just happened because God wanted it
that way, and if God wanted it that way it must be pretty bland.
It occurs to me that perhaps God has a pretty big imagination.
And perhaps, quite a sense of humor. Taking the obvious and
making it obscure, playing up something so incredibly dull and
making it into something amazing takes a sense of humor. But
many of us don’t have one, and we find, particularly in matters
of the sacred that the world is composed of dry facts, and that
the sheer weirdness of them ought to be concealed, if it occurs
to us that they are weird to begin with. After all, they are in
the Bible. Which, by definition, is not weird. And so on.
Read this way, the book of Jonah is probably going to lose most
of its zing as well. Instead of a gripping tale, full of twists
and turns and the funniest human comedy, we are treated to the
front page of the Times (a comparison which is not really fair
to the Times). Who, what, where, when. He gets swallowed by a
whale. Fine, draw a whale, kids. Three days go by. He’s still
alive. Yay. A miracle. Remember to trust God, kids, if you are
ever swallowed by a fish. But the imagination and the humor
of the book and the swaggering humanity that makes Jonah so
stubborn and ridiculous is missing--it's like the book of Jonah
When my friends asked me why I thought the events described in
the book might not have actually happened, I tried to explain
why a fictional narrative could actually be a valid container
for some important truth. But in order to see it that way, many
of us have to overcome a pretty big prejudice. A prejudice
I was in an acting class once, and the teacher asked us to go
around the circle and give our definition of acting. To a
person, everyone responded with some variation of ‘pretending’
or ‘faking it’ or ‘lying.’
I was the only one with a different answer. I said something
along the lines of ‘truth inside of fiction.’ A few ooohs and
other indications that I had said something ‘profound.’ I was
sad that nobody else seemed to think that the core of drama, of
fiction, or artistic enterprise, was that there is something
true about human beings that the creator is trying to get
across. Sure, the person pretending to be character X does not
really believe he is character X, and neither does the audience,
which is why he is not lying to us, since no one is being
deceived. We accept this ‘pretending.’ But if it is not simply a
way for us to occupy our minds for a while with trivia, it
should have, beneath its surface, something of truth in it. A
rather important truth, hopefully. It should have something that
benefits us for having witnessed it, which perhaps makes us
better human beings for having experienced what we have seen and
thought what we have thought and shared it with others.
Unfortunately, so many of us never see around that mental
corner, and are always suspicious that the arts are just phony
and useless. Obviously such a person would never allow that God
might have used an author’s imagination to convey something of
his truth, since it is believed that truth cannot possibly
travel in such a container. Instead we are given two
options—either the book is a historical record of things that
‘actually happened’ or they are lies. A person who has never
seriously considered a third option will understandably have
trouble swallowing the proposition that the book is anything
other than a news account--if he is a believer. Some Christian
authors have recently been at the receiving end of this mental
quirk of humanity. The first question the author of the popular
book “The Shack” gets is “was there a real Mackenzie Phillips?"
People want to know whether Brian McLaren knows a real live Dan
Poole. I get the sense that there is disappointment on the part
of the questioner when it is revealed that these are fictional
characters. Somehow, the expectation is that a real live person
is just that—real. But a fictional one is not--which somehow
makes them less important. The same speech given by a person who
never existed suddenly isn't worth listening to, once we
discover somebody else wrote the words (if you prick an author,
does he/she not bleed?). Strange then, that, when it comes to
the best sellers, histories are not on them. Fiction gets our
attention. Fact doesn’t. But when it comes to religious matters
we are too embarrassed by this to admit it. And so we account for
the psychological dilemma this creates by pretending one is the
other—or at least hoping.
I, on the other hand, want to know why God couldn’t use an
author just as easily as he could use a fish. It seems to me
very limited to think that that is impossible. And yet, from a
very young age, we learn to distinguish ‘fact’ from ‘fiction.’
For a while we like to spin yarns, then to hear them from adults
and gleefully expose their stories by telling them ‘that’s not
real!” This is an important part of growing up, but
unfortunately, it seems that ever after we have little
appreciation for things that didn’t actually happen, but which
might, if we have the strength of vision. That is why there are
so few innovators per 1000 human beings. Seeing things as they
are will leave them that way.
There is at least one fellow in the Bible who we know without
doubt used fiction to get at the Truth—one Jesus Christ, who was
constantly teaching in Parables. The gospel writer Mark doesn’t
seem to understand why any better than many of us—he thinks they
are simply a secret code for things Jesus couldn’t discuss
openly (an end-run around the obvious). The kingdom of heaven
isn’t really a mustard seed, nor are there two brothers asked to
work the Father’s vineyard. Jesus used these stories to make a
point. He couldn’t really describe the kingdom of heaven to us
because it was bigger than description would allow, and his
point wasn’t to tell us what was or what had already happened to
somebody else, but what could happen to us if we have the desire
to see it. That requires a bit of imagination.
Fine, said my friend. But we know Jesus’ stories are stories.
Jonah doesn’t say it is a work of fiction.
Well, excuse Mr. Jonah for not having a Dewey decimal number on
his book’s spine—say, in the 800s, for literature. We should
probably further excuse the rest of the biblical writers for
mixing history with a bit of imagination, and not having the
research ethics to make sure that when they told their tales
that they were consistent with how some of the other writers
were telling the same tale. If it happened, it had to happen
only one way, right?
Allowing for some imaginative license on Jonah’s part clears up
this difficulty. I suspect he would be very bemused at the way
so many literal minded people are mis-categorizing his drama.
Kind of the way that people misinterpret the movie Amadeus.
Now, Amadeus happens to be a great drama, a great movie. The
best movie not really about a composer that was ever made, in my
opinion. True, Mozart and Salieri are both historical
characters. So are the other characters in the movie. And many
of the events in the movie may have happened in roughly the same
way as they are recounted on the screen. But that is actually
beside the point. I've heard people talk about what this movie
is about and what it is about is exactly what didn't happen in
real life--the part the author made up, or at least exaggerated
The movie is really a made-up drama about a jealous composer (Salieri)
and the lengths to which his anger and jealousy take
him--including murdering Mozart (for which we not only have no
historical evidence, we have plenty to suggest far more
plausible alternatives). It is a psychological thrill to watch.
And, since the playwright did his homework, most of the details
in each scene are accurate as far as what we think we know about
Mozart. The crazy laugh, for example, which was observed by
several witnesses. But the arc of the plot itself is fabricated.
Salieri’s jealousy is exaggerated by several factors,
historically accurate facts are distorted in their
interpretation in order to serve the plot, and the black masked
man who scares Mozart into writing his own Mass for the Dead,
though he has some basis in historical reality, is definitely
somebody else if he is at all--not Salieri in disguise. And yet
nearly everybody 'knows' what they know about Mozart because of
this movie. And what they know is from somebody’s great
imagination. And they think it is history instead.
This is so typically human; to be captured by a great story,
when dry facts would not go down in the first place, and then to
deny that it was anything other than fact that got your
attention. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
When it comes to human psychology there is no end of opportunity
for amusement. Something my friends said next illustrated this
very well. Naturally, my conversationalists wanted to know why I
thought Jonah was not ‘real’—they expected an attack rather than
a defense or an attempt to expand the possibilities rather than
assume, as the preacher had, that Jonah must be all one or the
other--all fact or all hogwash. Did you know, said one of them,
that scientists have found that people can actually stay alive
in whales for several days? Apparently the whales don’t start to
digest something until it is dead, they said. (Note: the book
doesn't tell us what kind of large fish it was, and the story
they are referring to is probably bogus)
It is curious that many of the same people who stand up for the
‘literal, historical truth’ of the bible, which of course
includes the miracles as is, nonetheless find a need to gather
scientific evidence to support them.
Do we want things both ways? Of course. It’s just that, as I
pointed out to my fellows on the phone, a finding like that does
one small thing to the story.
It’s not a miracle anymore.
If surviving in a whale for three days would happen to anybody,
under any circumstances, there is nothing positively divine—in
the assumed sense that God interrupted the normal flow of things
in order to make a unique demonstration of his power—about the
whale part. Except maybe that it was a miracle that the fish
happened to be swimming by when the sailors threw Jonah in, or
that he got spit up on the beach three days later. Choose your
My friend probably pointed this out because it was assumed that
the first thing I would dismiss as fiction was the fish part.
This is how a non-creative mind sees the issue. If something
happened, it happened. If it didn’t, there is some reason to
disbelieve it, such as the fact that it is too unbelievable to
have happened and therefore did not. The miracle is a good
candidate for doubt under this rubric.
But the fish episode isn’t the craziest thing that happens in
the book of Jonah, at least for me. It is what happens after the
prophet reaches his destination. God tells Jonah to go preach to
a place called Nineveh. Nineveh isn’t just some town. It is the
capital of the Assyrian empire. These are Israel’s arch-enemies.
Not in the sense that they are rivals. Israel is a backwater
confederation of tribes by contrast with Assyria, just
struggling to exist. They are in danger of being swallowed by
the Assyrian fish, forced to become part of a larger empire.
Because that much is history, it might not get your attention.
The principal actors are no longer relevant to us today. But
let’s suppose one of us were told to go preach to our enemies.
Several years ago, in discussing this to someone else, I
imagined the closest equivalent to Jonah's situation would be if
we are told to go preach to Al Qaeda.
Yes, that crazy. Although, on further reflection, it would seem
like a closer match if one of them were to preach to us. The
reason is that we are a rich nation, and New York is the
economic seat of a world power. Afghanistan, for all the trouble
they are able to make, is not nearly in such a position of
power. And so, to make things unflinchingly honest, we would
have to play the part of the Assyrians.
So Jonah goes to New York, or Nineveh, and tells those guys they
better repent or get nailed by God. Just the kind of thing that
ought to give Jonah smug satisfaction. Odd, then, that he spent
the first part of the book avoiding the assignment, and the
later part complaining about it. But then the really nutty thing
Honestly, if you were the seat of a great empire, and some dude
from a little jerkwater country down south shows up in the
middle of town shouting about how everybody in the city had
better repent to some god probably nobody’s even heard of, would
you take him seriously?
This probably requires an even bigger leap than if somebody who
has been trained to take literally every word of the Bible, and
who would have, heretofore regarding me as a heretic for even
suggesting that something in the Bible might be fiction (having
a heaping helping of the whole ‘fiction is just the opposite of
truth’ idea running around in their system) suddenly says to me
“you know, I think I see what you’re saying. It’s changed my way
of thinking. I am going to consider what you’ve said rather than
using it to attack you and therefore build even more siege works
around my own already calcified ideas.”
In other words, you almost have to stop being human to have
everybody, from the king on down (the king has to order this,
remember? The most powerful guy in the region has to let this
Jonah guy affect policy, interrupt commerce and God knows what
else) to put on sackcloth and petition the God of Israel for a
reprieve. Here the book of Jonah just assumes that there is
nothing bizarre about this, since God is God, after all,--or
perhaps, it does indeed, and it is only modern believers who
fail to notice the strangeness of the situation, since we are so
used to being the center of the religious universe. Maybe the
writer was silently trying to make the point (was it so
obvious to him?) that even those heathen Ninevites would repent
of their evil sooner than the stubborn Israelites--a pretty good
rebuke to your countrymen, is it not? You turkeys won't listen,
even though your sworn enemies will! And they don't just repent,
even the cattle go around wearing sackcloth--another detail that
you have to have a sense of humor and a wild imagination to
appreciate. How many historians would have included a detail
Unfortunately for Israel, the Assyrians got over their
repentance and conquered the smaller nation. And God let them
off without a scratch (at least for a while). That much is
history. It is rather odd that Yahweh planned to wipe out
Nineveh for their wicked ways and then decided to ignore their
venial transgression of decimating his chosen people. As
it happens, the Assyrians did get theirs in the end—612 B.C.,
Comparisons with the other books in the hall of the Minor
Prophets, as well as historical accounts, can make Jonah seem
like a lot of wishful thinking—but, unlike the others, Jonah has
a much more countercultural message. Even the powerful Assyrians
can be part of God’s purpose, not just for reasons of
geopolitical expediency, but as beneficiaries of God’s love.
Jonah, playing the part of the average good, decent Israelite,
who loves his country, finds this infuriating. He explodes in
anger against God (another theme many people do not realize is
in the Bible—quite a lot) for being so forgiving, especially to
his country’s enemies, and for allowing the Assyrians to repent
and be spared. In the end, God’s ways are inexplicable, and He
chides Jonah for basking in the benefits without thanks and then
complaining when they aren’t there.
Which is one of the themes of the book. Jonah has to expand his
world a little, because there isn’t any room in his cosmology
for what God has planned. Similarly, I told my friends, we are
missing the point of the book of Jonah if we insist that it has
to be a certain kind of literature, and that alone. We, too, are
insisting that God work within the framework that we allow.
We’re a lot like that stubborn Jonah.
Persons who insist that the book of Jonah is only imaginative
literature are capable of
missing that point too. A pastor I knew once insisted that
Jonah was entirely fictional, but unfortunately, was a bit
sloppy in his regard for provable facts. He believed that the
city of Nineveh was itself a fictional creation, though we know
that it did really exist. There is no reason, of course, an
author couldn’t have set a fictional story in a real city;
plenty of novels are set in New York. (the basis for his claim
was that the book says that Nineveh was so large that it would
take three days to get across, which would have made it
impossibly large, and therefore must be entirely made-up. I’ve
never tried to hike a large city, so I don’t know whether that
is really so much of an exaggeration, but the entire book’s
genre should not rest on the truth of that single claim. There
are also plenty of arguments about this detail; perhaps, goes
one, the translation should read that a visit 'required three
days' in order to walk everywhere, not merely to get across the
city. When we are trying to win arguments we sometimes let too
much rest on a small and potentially mistranslated phrase.)
As to the 'whale'—who knows that the author of the book didn’t
hear of an instance where a sailor was known (or 'known') to be
swallowed by a whale and lived several days to tell about it.
Perhaps he wove that incident into his tale. Sometimes the
authors with the greatest imaginations also do the most
research--or just keep their ears open. (They also had rumors
and fish stories in those days, too!)
Jonah (like the movie 'Amadeus') may actually be some
combination of fact and fiction, in an alchemy that we will
never know. Either way, it is a great story, full of drama and
the unexpected. Jonah is a real character in every sense of the
word. His dialogue with God is vastly more honest than most of
us ever dare. And he foreshadows another of God’s mouthpieces
who preached limitless forgiveness, underscoring the conundrum
of how to behave in such an unforgiving world if we want to
Finally, Jonah has a lot to say to us. Whether the events of his
book actually took place is, in the end, beside the point. If
the book is merely a recitation of what happened to somebody a
long time ago, then we can only be jealous about how much more
interesting things were back then. But of all the prophets and
preachers who lay on their sides, or saw visions of figs, or
recorded scrupulously which days they saw their visions, and
what the king thought of their literature, the prophet we
remember best was Jonah. We remember his little book because it
stirs our imagination. Surely God can make something good come
out of that. As to tacking on a moral at the end, whether it be
as thunderously obvious as 'do what God says the first time!' or
as brave as 'God shows mercy even to our enemies'--well, how
daring are you?
Letter from the Recording Angel
posted February 9, 2010
At our Ash Wednesday service this year, the
scripture reading (Matt 6:1-8,16-18), in which Jesus excoriates those
who do good works mainly for show, was be followed by a drama, in which
Kristen and I will be delivered the text of Mark
Twain's "Letter from the Recording Angel":
not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be
seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from
your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not
announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the
synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I
tell you the truth, they have received their reward in
full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your
left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that
your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees
what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the
hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the
synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.
I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in
full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the
door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your
Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward
you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like
pagans, for they think they will be heard because of
their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father
knows what you need before you ask him.
When you fast, do not look somber as the
hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show
men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have
received their reward in full. But when you fast, put
oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not
be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your
Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is
done in secret, will reward you.
New International Version
Last summer I came across a short essay by
Mark Twain tucked away in the back of the book entitled “Letter
from the Recording Angel.” It has all the usual Twain
hallmarks—it is funny, laced with sometimes vicious sarcasm,
filled with colorful expressions, and is, in essence, an outcry
against the uncompassionate powerful, something that Twain returned to again
and again in his writings. It is also a lampoon of religious
phoniness, which is why, when I read it, my mind immediately
went to the scripture reading for Ash Wednesday, in which Jesus
excoriates those who try to impress God and man by impressive
shows of piety, thinking that they can make whatever concern for
the poor they actually have into a way to good public relations.
The reason this essay was in the back of the book is because
Twain never published it, and there is a good reason for that.
The letter is being sent from the office of the recording angel
to a man named Andrew Langdon, a coal dealer from Buffalo, New
York. I Googled him a while back, and it turns out there really
was a person named Andrew Langdon who was a coal dealer from
Buffalo, New York, and was a contemporary of Twain’s. I’m
guessing that Twain didn’t want to get sued if he published the
I don’t know very much about Mr. Langdon as
of this writing, but I suspect he behaved like the typical
Robber-Baron of the 19th century. He would have
comported himself like an upstanding pillar of the community,
and maybe, like several better-known figures of the time, become
quite the philanthropist, but the way he acquired his money
would have been by ruthlessly crushing the competition by
practices that were at least ethically questionable (and would
be illegal today). He would have kept wages very low and met any
attempt at organization with brutal force, doing whatever it
took to make a profit and build an empire, and his path would
have been littered with human beings crushed by the force of his
In Twain’s essay we meet Andrew Langdon
mainly through his prayers, which are of two kinds, and make him
the kind of hypocrite that got Jesus so angry in Matthew’s
gospel. Langdon’s public prayers are the showy, wordy, and
graciously articulate specimens that we associate with 19th
century churchspeak. They make their author out to be a
compassionate, generous citizen who has taken Jesus’ words to
heart about loving your enemies and showing concern for
everyone. But his private thoughts are what counts, these that
Twain calls “Secret Supplications of the Heart” and it is these
that get Heaven’s “first and especial attention.”
These supplications are quite nasty.
Langdon prays for “[foul] weather” to raise the price of his
coal, for an “influx of laborers” so wages will go down, and for
more of the usual self-centered kinds of petitions, including a
rather hefty increase in profits from month to month. But he
also prays (probably impulsively) for a “violent death to
neighbor” when that neighbor throws a brick at the family cat to
get it to stop ‘serenading’ one evening. He wishes for deadly
illnesses to strike “the family of the man who set up a
competing retail coal yard” in nearby Rochester.
The thing that is difficult to swallow is
that the Recording Angel actually grants all of these prayers,
although “three of the 32 cases requiring immediate death [are]
modified to incurable disease.” Probably most of these
death-threats are actually cases of the man getting angry and
simply lashing out under his breath. We’ve all said and wished
things on people in the heat of the moment that we don’t
actually mean. And Twain, the humorist, gets down into the
selfish meanness that is such a part of human nature and makes
it funny, particularly the line about the cat. But does heaven really allow us to visit diseases on
each other? I know of no pastor who would actually agree with
such an idea.
As macabre as it sounds, the essay is
funnier this way—have you ever wanted somebody to ‘die’ because
they cut you off on the freeway? Then you can identify, and
laugh at it. But the humor, as often in Twain, is rather dark.
If heaven were to grant such requests, it would mean our freely
willed choices were that much more important, more binding. That
which we bind on earth would be truly bound in heaven. Besides,
the real-life Andrew Langdons were surely visiting illnesses
upon their fellows, particularly their workers, through their
actions: providing sub-standard housing, poor working
conditions, and so on. Anybody who got in their way
(particularly competitors) was quite unmercifully squeezed out
Twain, however, is just warming up. After
the initial list of nine items (the last being a cyclone he
wishes on a competing mine) the remaining 298 petitions are all
granted en masse. Now it is time to move on to Langdon’s public
prayers, which, as noted above, are the religiously correct
rhetorical flights of a man who knows he is on display and wants
points for piety. Capturing the sycophantic flavor of some of
these prayers is my favorite part of the drama.
Earlier the man had prayed for foul weather
to help his mine; now he wants it ‘mercifully tempered to the
needs of the poor and the naked.’ Earlier, too, he wanted all
those annoying lower-class pests who begged for jobs to be
‘deported to Sheol’; now he wishes that ‘none may fall heir to
the pains of perdition’. Secretly he longed for death to his
neighbor, and now wishes that heaven will be ‘mercifully
inclined toward all who would do us offense…”
While he privately ‘damned’ the missionary cause,
suddenly it is the most ‘noble’ and ‘precious labor entrusted to
the hands of men.'*
The angel denies all of these requests,
which seems a bit backward, since these are all of the right
things to grant, right? But there is a problem. As the angel
explains, private prayers take precedence over public ones,
particularly if your status as a Christian is a bit compromised
(there is a very funny bit about how Christians are graded by
various number systems and categories and so on; it is all very
modern and just the way we would do it down here!)
While this system may seem harsh, I can
imagine Twain looking around at the world and seeing much that
justified it. It does seem that many of the least sympathetic
members of the human family are allowed, for whatever reason, to
rain misfortune on their neighbors without interference. Twain
died one hundred years ago, in 1910, before persons like Adolf
Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot could be added to the list,
but it was already long in his day.
But for those mercifully inclined, the joys
of paradise are not as difficult to achieve in the hereafter. It
appears from the close of the account that Mr. Langdon will get into heaven. Part of this must
surely be for the same reason his vicious prayers are
answered—in order to encourage him and Christians like him, who
are lacking in the eyes of heaven, many prayers of his are
granted, when, were he more spiritually mature, they would not
be. It is an insight that reminds me of something in C. S.
Lewis. Perhaps it goes some of the way toward explaining our
theological difficultly with the angel’s decisions, but not all
the way. It is a value system that is not ours, and not
pleasantly comforting in its effects. This is one of the
characteristics of vibrant art—unlike many standard-issue church
dramas, which would be charming, and funny, and orthodox, and
not present any real challenges, Mr. Twain is willing to go
somewhere disturbing (at least on paper, if not in publication).
Because of his fascinating artistic alchemy, it is also funny.
The essay concludes with a report on
Langdon’s charitable contributions toward his widowed and
impoverished cousin. They are slight, but they win heaven over,
since nobody was expecting anything much of this greedy man. It
sends Twain on a flight of sarcasm: a humorous veneer under
which flows a torrent of righteous anger (aside: those who are
under the impression that sarcasm is not Biblical should note
one of my favorite verses, from the prophet Micah, chapter 2,
“If someone would prophecy plenty of beer and wine, he would be
just the sort of prophet for you people!”)
In the end Heaven will receive him anyway;
even Hell is glad to be rid of him.
* Mark Twain was not a particular fan of
missionaries, as he thought they were really spreading
imperialism and some of the worst characteristics of American
life, rather than the gospel message itself. He has the
recording angel say that 'this office takes no stock in
missionaries...it is requested [that your prayer to support
missionaries] be withdrawn." Of course, what the man prayers for
publicly, in the most piously condescending way, is for the
missionary cause to "spread without let or limit in all heathen
lands that do as yet reproach us with their spiritual darkness"
which sounds an awful lot like empire building and a superiority
complex. The church on the whole takes a rather different view
of mission work today, thankfully.
** John Wanamaker, a rich American
businessman of the same period, also made Twain's list of
hypocritical power-brokers, as when he refers late in the drama
to "professional Christians of the...John Wanamaker grade." I
have not done enough research to know whether Twain was being
fair or not (I think he was involved in crushing a worker's
strike or two). The world's largest pipe organ is housed at
Wanamaker's in Philadelphia.
posted March 3, 2010
My wife Kristen was doing some online
research for a children's sermon the other day. The subject was
to be Jacob's dream, in which he saw a ladder to heaven and
angels ascending and descending on it. "Surely," he thought,
"the Lord is in this place."
Somebody had posted an example of a children's sermon which
basically used Jacob as an excuse to talk about what they
thought really mattered which was that we have to believe in
Jesus. Jesus, they went on, is the only way we can get to
heaven. It reminded me of an incident when Kristen was giving
another children's sermon which involved some characters from
the Hebrew Bible--say, Pharoah and Moses, or something--and
asked a child a question about it. Something like which
character was doing God's will; and the child answered "Jesus!"
To which my wife responded that "Jesus isn't in this one." I
thought, boy have we got our kids drilled good. They know that
in Sunday school you don't have to pay attention to the question
because the answer is always Jesus.
Could you imagine any other subject getting away with that?
What's two plus two? Jesus. What year did the civil war end?
Jesus. Who is buried in Grant's tomb? Jesus.
I mean, I know the The kids were only four, but really. And I'm
pretty sure the persons who posted the children's sermon in
question weren't four. Physically, anyway. Whether they were
still four theologically is a good question. One of the reasons
I think we lose a lot of kids from our midst as a church is that
they eventually grow up and we don't.
Even the less sophisticated believers
among us ought to be
able to memorize more than one answer. Particularly for those
times, like the entire Old Testament, when "Jesus isn't in this
one." Unless you think that God did a lousy job writing his book
because he didn't introduce the main character until
three-quarters of the way through the book. The persons
responsible for making everything about Jesus no matter what the
topic evidently think so, though they wouldn't say that in so
many words. Instead, they just twist the story around so that
whatever it was about originally it is now about Jesus. If it
were a song it wouldn't matter what key it was in because it
would end up in C major. Partially because the player didn't
know how to play in any other keys. Some days I want to
sympathize with this.
Some of the New Testament writers didn't, however. The author of
Hebrews complains about people who are still too busy gorging on
spiritual milk to be ready for solid food. He calls them
'infants.' Paul takes up the same charge. This is the same Paul
who writes those long sentences the rest of us have a hard time
with and tries to explain difficult spiritual concepts by making
them more difficult, sometimes. He wrote a lot about Jesus,
though he also "wasted" a lot of ink on other topics like trying
to get church members to get along with each other. Paul, whose
life and thinking and theology are rather complicated and who
didn't shy away from the complication, even though he recognized
the importance, at times, of simple slogans or of crystallizing
you message into one basic element. He managed, somehow, to do
more to get Christianity going than perhaps anyone else. And he
didn't leave his brain at the door, which is one effect of
thinking that everything in the bible is about Jesus and getting
to heaven. It shuts your brain off. We had a girl in high school
who thought the moral lesson to be drawn from every single thing
we ever read in English lit was to "work hard and you'll
succeed." Sometimes her moral had a very strained relationship
with the text. Yet, for some reason this was so important to her
that she didn't seem to care what the author was actually
saying. Which meant, in the long run, that she wasn't going to
be able to learn anything, since learning implies listening, and
if you twist every encounter into an excuse to bleat about your
favorite topic you aren't going to grow much.
I'm not suggesting that Jesus and getting to heaven aren't
important, just that, as it happens, Jesus didn't talk much at
all about the getting to heaven part, and, outside the gospel of
John, not very much about himself, either. He just wasn't a
one-note type of guy. Too bad sometimes he gets turned into one.
I wonder if his Father feels the same way.
There are, I fear, some theological (and, hiding behind that,
social) repercussions about this. We
have, in Christianity, a concept known as the Trinity. A 3-part
God. Not that figuring out how this works hasn't given us some trouble
by way of, at best, vigorous debate.... (and at worst, the usual
bloodletting.) Besides Jesus
there are two other aspects of the Godhead. But sometimes Jesus
gets all the press and I think I know why. If we talked about
God more, we'd have to share him. Jews believe in that same God,
and so do Muslims, despite what our extreme fringe says about
that not being the case. (Allah translates into 'the God' as in
the only one around which sounds like the same one, doesn't it?)
God is the creator--of everything. Not that that gave the
ancient Hebrews any trouble making him into a tribal God, but then, at
that time, he pretty much was one. The nations around
them weren't trying to horn in on their God and they had him
pretty much all to themselves. It wasn't an easy
relationship--this God tended to change costumes (pillar of
fire, still small voice, professional wrestler) and was
frequently not visible at all, which, again, caused problems for
the less sophisticated believers, who preferred the kind of god
that you can see.
If that causes us problems, the Holy Spirit compounds them.
There isn't much in the Bible about this spirit, comparatively,
and when discussed this Spirit seems even more nebulous. Worse
still, the Spirit is supposed to be at work among us today,
which pretty much makes him or her an unregulated free agent.
Jesus, having completed his mission, looked like us, walked like
us, and has told us lots of neat stories we can ignore. And there are
pleasant bible verses about him for those who like things
spelled out, recipe style. Because religions tend to look
backwards, Jesus is a more comfortable choice for veneration
than a God which is still being defined in and among us today.
He is a closed system; the rest is commentary, and the orthodox
commentary will be sure not to challenge the shape of the
narrative in any way.
I understand how recipes work. I am not a very sophisticated
cook so I like to know exactly how much of everything to put
into the pot; I'm not comfortable enough to free-lance unless I
really know a spice. Someday maybe I'll grow up a little,
I hope the
people do, too. I don't really know much about their theology
but I'm guessing that if they can take Jacob's encounter with
God and turn it into a Jesus/heaven thing they can do that to
anything. And, as unimaginative as that is, we could leave
people and their narrow thoughtlessness alone except that it
probably translates into people problems as well. I've a hunch
that behind that narrative deafness is a lack of respect for any
human beings who don't fit in their box either, and that is
worth the trouble to rebuke. Ask any Jews you know if they don't
get a little uncomfortable around Christians who try to write
over the Hebrew scriptures so that what's left doesn't really
have anything to do with the Hebrew scriptures anymore.
I hope I'm not being presumptuous here but there is plenty to go
around. I probably learned mine from just such a religious
environment. The kind that says we've got it all figured out and
those other people are our enemies. And God isn't judging them
fast enough so let's help him a little.
All of that might just be lurking beneath the surface of a
lesson that assumes that everything is about believing in Jesus,
a lesson, it seems, that you can't repeat too many times. (Ok,
says the bored kid in the third row. I believe in Jesus. I'm going to
heaven. Now what?) Now
I'm not suggesting we don't teach out kids about Jesus--that's
kind of why we're here. And young children won't have developed
any kind of theological sophistication, but you know what you
can do in such a case? Talk about Jacob's Ladder. Tell them
about Jacob and his relationship with God and his brother Esau
and things that are actually in the story. It's not rocket
science. Just engage the text. Don't make everything into the
same story week after week.
(Say, while we're being presumptuous, I note that the hymn we
are singing to go with this lesson is called 'We are Climbing
Jacob's Ladder.' Not to be picky, but even Jacob didn't get to
climb the ladder, that role being reserved for the angels. Some
position we've carved out for ourselves, isn't it?)
The musical equivalent of this is what we call establishing the
key--the central pitch at the heart of every tonal composition,
and the relationships that define it. Notice I included
relationships between the various notes. They are, in fact,
strong pointers to that central pitch, and using them as part of
the system they were designed for is a good way to point to that
tonal center without having to harp on the same pitch all the
time. Gifted composers know this. They know that you can
actually go away from the central pitch in a way that defines
its role all the more strongly and makes the eventual return to
that pitch more rewarding. Less gifted composers don't
understand this. I remember listening in a music class once to a
symphony by a guy named Sammartini (don't recognize him? no
wonder). The way Sammartini showed us where the musical center
of gravity was for his symphony was to bang on the central chord
three times right at the beginning. It didn't get him admission
to the composer's hall of fame, that's for sure. It also bores
your ears pretty fast. What Sammartini shows us is that there
are other ways to show what is important than by reducing everything to
one simple keynote and ignoring the rest. Because, in the end,
everything points to that keynote, if you have ears to hear it. And that
everything isn't nothing. It is a rich and vibrant tradition. It is
admonitions to love our neighbor and live in expectation of the kingdom.
It is thought provoking and perplexing stories that Jesus told (not the
'stories about Jesus I love to hear' as the old hymn goes, but the
stories he told which are about more than the cult of celebrity). It is
also the traditions of people whose ways are different than ours, but
through whom God worked just as mightily. God--the creator of all. Don't
tell me he created the entire scale just so he could bang on one note
all the time.
I would suggest the same track for Christian educators. If you
really think you need to hit the same lesson every week and make
every story in the bible that is not about Jesus about Jesus,
you must think your kids have a really short memory. If they
have to be reminded about Jesus that often, well, I imagine
God'll let them in anyway. But for the rest of us, it really
wouldn't hurt to expand the arsenal a little. Show the thinking
ones in the bunch that there really is room for them at God's
table, too--the ones who will be leading the church--or
something else, depending on whether they feel relevant--in the
coming years. And early elementary school really isn't too early
The Art of Persuasion
posted July 19, 2010
Some people I know have been debating recently
whether the pulpit is a good place for education or whether it needs to
be a place of ‘persuasion.’ In context, this is probably not an issue
that needs to be worried over too much, since the participants are
fairly educated, and presumably value learning to the extent that they
are not willing to check their brains at the door just because we are
talking about church. I have heard from people before who have taken a
much more exclusive approach, however, setting education over and
against whatever is legitimate in their theological view. In other
words, education is to be driven away at all costs because it only gets
in the way of any real understanding of God, which is often considered a
feeling you get in your heart rather than something that involves your
head. (Apparently God subcontracted the thinking parts of ourselves to
some of his lesser angels…)
One of the discussion participants used the phrase
“turn[ing] the pulpit into a classroom,” which has the kind of
boundary-setting ring to it that was probably used by many of our
Methodist forebears to justify the complete lack of any educational
content whatever. They read the Bible and that was just good enough for
them, thank you very much. No other learning necessary, or wanted. Not
that 19th century itinerant preachers had a monopoly on this
trait. Warding off anything tainted by education is a talent shared by
many a denomination, and goes back to several of the early church
fathers as well.
like to imagine that we are all sophisticated enough in this university
town that we don’t mind when our pastor gives us some context for the
scripture he is explaining, before exhorting us to do whatever it is we
are being exhorted to do. And I’m not unaware of the ineffectiveness,
not to say boredom, of giving out all exposition and no development. But
this subtle distinction has not always been made by writers of the
church, who forget Paul’s admonition that we ‘also worship with [our]
mind[s]' (1 Cor 14:15) and have instead made it a great enemy.
As it happens, I have been working my way through a
volume on the Middle Ages, and the day before the discussion reached me
had just read a chapter on the Crusades. Giving that I had that very
disastrous historical event in my
mind at the time, I couldn’t help making the connection with what
happens when a sermon is all persuasion and no education, because it was
that very thing that helped to launch the Crusades. What follows is an
extreme example of this tendency to tell your people what to do without
letting them—indeed, encouraging them to know why. Or at least to ask.
For that is one of the tendencies of education—not the mere learning of
facts, but the understanding of contexts, the asking of questions, the
comprehension of alternatives, the seeking of solutions for problems
which have them, and the wisdom not to make things worse. To allow
A speaker whose motives are pure persuasion—a
demagogue—appeals to us directly, as we are, flattering us that we can
be our own judge on the merits, and then stacks his case so that there
is only one answer toward which our conceit will lead us. This is what
Pope Urban did. All of the demonstrably provable statements below are greatly
exaggerated and there is a nice piece of flattery at the end:
“From the confines of Jerusalem…a grievous report
has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has
violently invaded the lands of these Christians, and has depopulated
them by pillage and fire.
They have led away a part of the captives into their own country, and a
part they have killed by cruel tortures. They destroy the altars, after
having defiled them with their uncleanliness….On whom, then, rests the
labor of avenging these wrongs, and of recovering this territory, if not
upon you—you upon whom, above all others, God has conferred remarkable
glory in arms, great bravery, and strength to humble the heads of those
who resist you?” Urban continued by telling his countrymen that France
was too small to hold them, that Jerusalem was a paradise, and that they
would surely go to eternal glory for their participation.
What happened next was idiocy on a grand scale.
Apparently Urban had gotten the crowd so riled up he couldn’t control
them anymore. Running entirely on good vibes, the multitude wanted to go
right out and kill people for God. So even though he had told them to
leave in August of that year, they couldn’t wait. Passion overcame
planning. Some groups left as early as March, not bothering to consider
that when large groups of persons have to cross all of Europe, some
questions might need to be considered, such as:
How do you feed all of those people? Would it help to send
warning to the cities along the way so they could provide food and
lodging, and perhaps join you? Are all of those women and children going
with you really fit to cross the entire continent, and what are they
going to do when you get there?
That last question mostly did not have to be faced
because thousands died along the way precisely because of the lack of
provisions. Desperation drove the inexperienced volunteer army to begin
sacking German towns (hey, wait, guys! They’re on the same team!) More
Christians wound up getting killed by other Christians during that first
Crusade than the ‘evil infidel.’
Eventually (though one wonders how) the horde made
it to the gates of Jerusalem after the nervous ruler of Constantinople
helped out with money and supplies (he had reason to be nervous; a later
Crusade decided not to bother with Jerusalem and just wiped out this
rich capital of Eastern Christianity). By that time, the city had
been recaptured from the persecuting Turks by the Fatamids, who had
previously shown respect to the Christians in their midst. Although the Crusader's
beef was with the Turks, they went ahead and wiped out the Fatamids
anyway. The once largely tolerant Muslim world had to rethink their
positions about living peaceably with Christians after that.
This was the high point of the Crusades. Later
charges never made it to Jerusalem at all, some getting destroyed on the
way, which caused lots of despair from the faithful, who were convinced
God wanted them to do this thing.
Like I said, this is an extreme example. In the
long history of people doing stupid and cruel things, the Crusades have
got to be pretty high on the list. I couldn’t help making the
connection, however, given that I read about them right around the time
I was thinking about the issue of persuasion and education. I am aware
of the long tradition of ‘being persuaded’ and the value it holds in our
hymns and our evangelism, but like all the works of man it clearly has a
dark side. And there is this uncomfortable
thought: persuasion rests so fully on the virtuosity of the
speaker that we should wonder at its integrity. History is full of
moments where a persuasive speaker caused a pivotal moment: a key
conversion, a moment of dedication to a noble purpose. But these are
usually of individuals, and smart ones at that. And the results
have not been so destructive. Were these speakers appealing to the
head as well as the heart? Allowing a decision based on the knowledge
possessed by the individual, and freely shared by the one trying to
persuade? Unfortunately, the goal of persuasion is to meet the
recipient where they are, and the tools used will be determined by those
targeted. A shared cultural understanding, a shared intelligence will
mean that the one being prevailed upon will have outside sources to
I think that a more educated mob would have behaved
differently toward Urban, and would have ultimately been far less
destructive, particularly to themselves. They would have also been far
more difficult to persuade.
On the other hand, people who don’t know how to think for themselves
will believe anything its leaders tell them, particularly if it colludes
with their natural instincts for dominance and acquisition. The
uneducated mob knew very little about Muslims. They could easily believe
that somehow these foul people polluted the holy city with their mere
presence. They could be told that their barbarous code honored nothing
but bloodlust or that they sanctioned all manner of hideous deeds and
they had no way to verify, and no desire to find out first. It didn’t
seem to occur to them that those ‘other’ people might be running
Jerusalem with skill and competence, and treating its inhabitants,
including Christians, with respect, and allowing them freedom to
practice their religion as their consciences dictated. Or that there
were some Muslims who treated them like enemies and others who treated
them like friends.
They didn’t know that, and didn’t need too. They
had been persuaded. Victims of very little knowledge about their enemy,
they naturally believed the worst. But a little knowledge of their own
theological background might have also helped things. Most people were
illiterate in the 10th century, but at least would have heard
the scriptures in church. What if somebody had the guts to cry out, “I
thought Jesus said we were supposed to love our enemies”?
No—that idea was never very popular.
Still, education, besides giving
us the ability to understand our ‘others’ and causing us to consider
whether we are in all ways unquestionably superior to them, also might
cause us to reflect on things from our own writers and thinkers whom a
persuasive speaker has chosen to leave out of his own, necessarily
one-sided speech. It provides a necessary check against hasty action by
making us ask questions about what we intend to accomplish and whether
it is really a good thing to accomplish it. It also underscores the
importance of good execution, of planning ahead, of thinking things
through. Allied with wisdom it makes us consider how long a
journey may be needed to get to our goal, rather than letting our
enthusiasm ‘shorten’ it for us.
Lastly, education is articulate. Not in the sense
that a polished speaker is eloquent, but in that it tends to concern
itself with all of those details that people who are led by passion
leave out. It wants to know what and it wants to know why. People who
are only trying to persuade find this a bother because it makes their
job more difficult. Our religious history is filled with persons who
have entered on any number of disastrous and ultimately spiritually
crushing undertakings because someone persuaded them to do it; it seemed
good at the time; no one thought any differently. The product of an
educated society is that someone almost necessarily thinks differently,
not to be a pain in the backside, but because each question is worth
exploring before you come to a conclusion, and someone with a case to
present is automatically going to leave out half the evidence. At least
then when you are persuaded you will consider the cost (as when Jesus
complained of the same tendency to base your discipleship on enthusiasm
rather than real commitment (Luke 14:28-33)).
So, have I persuaded you that we need both
persuasion and education from our pulpits? That’s the irony lurking
behind this whole essay. As we can see from the example above,
persuasion can be dangerous, particularly when it is that effective.
But it is hardly unnecessary. It
is, I submit, part of a well balanced rhetorical diet. In some respects,
the act of trying to persuade is in itself a bow to the mental capacity
of your audience. It assumes that some action is necessary to win them
over to your side, and that that action will include appealing to their
minds, rather than simply telling them to believe what you tell them.
But as we’ve seen, persuasion can also be a counterfeit. When it goes
its own way, outside the fellowship of other wholesome helps to grow
whole persons, in body, mind, and spirit, rather than simply to exploit
their current state for your own end, it can lead to fantastic cruelty.
Pope Urban did spend much of 1095 trying to muster
support from other leaders—perhaps his mode of rhetoric when he spoke to
these muckety-mucks was a little heavier on the facts of the matter and
less cleverly devised to push a mob’s buttons. For he knew who he was
speaking to that day in France. His job was to muster an army. He wanted
it done, and he knew how to do it. And his flock responded the way he
knew they would.
That is, while he could still control them.