Old Tom Bombadil and the Monks

An essay taking evangelicals to task for dabbling in Lent, called Much Ado about Something?, was recommended to me this week. Author Kenneth Stewart’s historical facts were accurate enough, but he espouses a form of primitivism that I simply don’t comprehend. Primitivism is the belief that the apostolic church was a pure church and everything has been going downhill since. The goal of the modern church, therefore, should be to return to the primitive practices of the earliest church. (This sort of pure radicalism I get, although I don’t agree with it.) Stewart’s essay espouses a modified form of primitivism, common in conservative Protestantism, that claims the first century of church history and then church history from 16th century (ie, the Reformation) forward are perfectly good history, but the intervening fourteen centuries need to be, not only ignored, but protected against. The utter arbitrariness of modified primitivism is simply weird beyond my comprehension. (I had this problem back when I was in Bible College, by the way, and it’s probably why I had such problems there and never managed to fit into the evangelical environment.) Needless to say (given the fact that I am now part of the historic church that took it’s form in the intervening centuries) I don’t agree with this view of the world. But the church doesn’t need my defense; the Church is what it is, not what Kenneth Stewart or I try to redefine it as.

At the time I read the anti-Lenten essay, I was also listening to an audio version of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece.

It’s the intersection of essay and novel that this essay explores.

Both LOTR and The Hobbit contain peculiar outlying characters that do not fit into the storyline. The Hobbit introduces us to Beorn, a skin changer with deep and wonderful powers that allow him to keep evil at bay. Similarly, early in The Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil provides succor and protection to the band of four Hobbits who ran into trouble in the Old Forest. The power and wisdom of both Beorn and Old Tom seem to be fundamentally magical in the best Middle Earth sense of that word. Bombadil’s singing communicates to nature in a deep way and it has power over all creatures and things that it runs into. This “magic” (because I don’t know what else to call it) is so powerful that his homestead is a sort of Garden of Eden in the midst of the terrifying Old Forest.

The two characters seem like incidental asides. I’ve heard critics say that a good editor would have removed them from the stories completely because they are inconsequential to the plot. (Although Beorn continues to play a role in The Hobbit.) I am not of this opinion. First, it’s quite notable that two “throw away” characters who are so similar show up in both stories. Second, it’s significant where they show up. In both cases the grand scheme of the world with all the great powers at war with each other, has already been laid out in broad strokes. But before the grand tale of dragons and dwarves (The Hobbit) or the great war between good and evil (LOTR) actually begins to play out, we discover these two odd characters.

I suspect Tolkien is tapping into a profound understanding of the world and how it works. There are the great powers, the military, political, and economic movers who have the ability to shake the world to their advantage. But there is always another contrapuntal secret movement which often has effects that are every bit as profound as the great powers. In the church historically (and here I’m referring to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) this mysterious other is embodied in the monastic tradition. The monks reject the world and all it stands for; they cloister themselves and do little or nothing practical. They pray. They are a net drain on society. The whole endeavor seems contrary to Jesus’ teaching to go out into the world … and yet the true power of the church is embodied in the monks.

Although Protestantism rejected monasticism, the same spirit imbues the various communions. For instance, a group of Moravians felt called by God to minister to the slaves on Hispaniola. But the only way to get to the island was to be a slave, so they sold themselves into slavery. Although they have become something different than their original form, the Hutterites rejected the world utterly and live in farming colonies, only having enough interaction with the world that they can survive in their lifestyle. To this day there is a large group of German Mennonite farmers who abandoned the world, moving to Belize (then, about as far from anywhere as one could possibly go). They continue to thrive in central Belize.

Monasticism and the monastic spirit represented by the monks and in these various Protestant groups makes little logical sense. To borrow an idea from Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, in his Narnia Chronicles, these people follow a deeper logic that seems madcap to those of us who have engaged the spiritual battle and seek to be involved with the mighty powers and grand spiritual conflicts. And this deeper logic leads to remarkable but little known or understood power. It may be localized; it may be specialized, but it witnesses to things too deep to see and too mysterious to comprehend.

The above cited article complains that Lent, when it finally got started at all, was originally some small fast during Holy Week. Over the years through accretion the practices of Lent grew both geographically and in length and complexity. This is true. In fact, the recommended Orthodox Lenten disciplines are actually designed for monastics, not for lay people. Some Orthodox argue strenuously that ordinary folk should quit trying to be so spiritually athletic. We should ease the fasting guidelines. But the fast persists, because people have tasted, in some small way, that there is a deep and great power at work here, and they too want to participate in some small way that extends far beyond tasting of the Eucharist, singing in the choir, and getting scolded in the sermon.

The great war between the great powers proceeds. Some people are extremely militant about it, marching on abortion clinics, chaining themselves to the fences around nuclear sites (although the same Christians probably don’t participate in both these activities), writing to congress, and marching on Washington. But sometimes, as the great spiritual battle of the ages unfolds, people stumble upon, or are touched by, the amazing spiritual power embodied by those who have withdrawn and dive deeply into the quiet spiritual power of ascetic prayer.

For those that love the grand story of history and the possibility of the victory of Christianity, this stuff is an aside, a rabbit track, and should be edited out of the story. Others recognize that even though it’s strange and doesn’t seem to fit into the larger story at all, it’s integral. Ultimately, there could be no victory over Smaug the Dragon, or even Mordor, if it weren’t for a variety of unsung recluses who understand the “ancient deep magic” (again, a C.S. Lewis term) and know how to participate in it to defeat evil.

To this extent Kenneth Stewart is on to something. Evangelicals ought not be dabbling in spiritual disciplines they don’t really understand. Actually I suspect Stewart sells people short. Just because he doesn’t understand the deep logic of the Lenten fast doesn’t mean people who are exploring a more physical faith don’t understand it. But to the extent that his accusation is accurate, he is right. Old Tom Bombadil gave the Hobbits specific directions about how to get out of the Old Forest and back to the road. In spite of the careful directions, the Hobbits managed to get themselves caught and nearly killed by a barrow-wight. After rescuing them, Tom accompanied them all the way out of the forest because they could not fully follow his directions.

Stewart appears to think people shouldn’t the participate in corporate fasts merely because they’re something that was discovered by someone other than the apostles and John Calvin. But while his reasoning is both arrogant and shallow, his instincts are correct. Messing with Tom Bombadil’s power in the Old Forest is a dangerous thing if you don’t know the whole story and can’t follow directions. Similarly, the true fast, incorporating prayer, corporate worship, alms, physical disciplines, and humility, to name a few, is dangerous for those who don’t know the whole story and can’t follow directions. A discipline such as the Lenten Fast strips one of pretense and outer protection. If one fasts (the taking off) without the associated spiritual exercise (the putting on) it leaves one vulnerable to serious satanic attack. It’s not something to merely fiddle with; it’s the preparation for an act of spiritual war.

Stewart is dismissive of “the current chase after Lent.” Ah, if only more Evangelicals would chase after true spiritual power and not be satisfied with their Tradition (sans 14 centuries).

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.

Divine Glory and Suffering

I just ran across another place in Romans where Paul says two opposite things one after another, and in so doing demonstrates that they’re actually the same thing. This one is in 5:2f. The NRSV says, “… we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings …”

The “glory of God” in which we will share is Paul’s way (in this instance) of describing our heavenly goal, or the final consummation of our salvation. What’s remarkable here is that he puts our sharing in the divine glory in parallel with our sufferings here on earth. Let’s unpack what’s happening.

When Paul describes salvation in verses 1-2, he’s not describing a one-off single event that we can point to and say, “that’s the moment I got saved.” It begins with justification, which results with us entering into a state of peace with God. That state of peace gives us access to grace which ultimately leads to our sharing in the divine glory. In other words, Paul views salvation as a long term process. It is not the escape from the wrath to come that is the interesting part of salvation in this particular text, it is rather because of our access to grace we can be transformed and that transformation will allow us to ultimately share in the divine glory, the same glory that would have surely killed us (Judges 13:22, et al.) prior to being transformed.

Beginning in verse 3, Paul describes another series of connected events, starting with the phrase “but we also boast in our sufferings”: suffering – endurance – character – hope … hope that does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Notice that both series start with a boast and end with our hope. Paul is describing parallel actions. The one description views the action from what we might call the divine side (justification – peace – grace – glory) and the other describes the action from the human side (suffering – endurance – character – hope/Holy Spirit).

They’re the same thing! And let me reiterate: To make sure we don’t miss that point, Paul says something a bit odd. He says that we “boast” in both of these actions. The term “boast” (kauchaomai) is a wonderfully evocative word that has no good English equivalent. It is used in either the middle or passive tense, so “boast” (which is inherently an active tense word) is not a particularly good translation. It is not something that we do but neither is it something that is done to us. It is more akin to a state of being in which we live.

The word is also found in Rom 5:11. One strengths of the NRSV is that it tries hard to consistently use the same English term for a Greek term. Thus it says, “we even boast in God.” Although it is not particularly good English (thus other translations didn’t follow along) the King James Version of Rom 5:11 gets to the sense of this word. “We also joy in God.” That is a state of being! We’re not boasting nor are we rejoicing exactly. Rather, “we joy in our hope” (v 2), “we joy in our sufferings” (v 3) and “we joy in God (v 11).

But back to the point of this essay. How are we transformed? How do we ultimately share in the glory of God? Suffering! Suffering is what allows us to be transformed. Read the following very carefully, because the idea of suffering being in any way salvific went totally off the rails during the Middle Ages, and we still feel the lingering effects of that silliness. Paul says that suffering produces “endurance.” As is so common when translating from one language to another, it is impossible to find equivalent terms. “Endurance” expresses perfectly one half of the Greek word “hypomone.” The way to strengthen a muscle is to work it hard (ie, make it suffer); over time the muscle can endure more.

But there’s another angle to this word that is better illustrated by a dog than a gym rat. An untrained dog on a leash jumps from one side of the sidewalk to the other, straining toward any sort of thing that interests it. A well trained dog doesn’t even need a leash because it has learned to ignore distractions. In the same vein, the Ignatian spiritual exercises make a distinction between a thought passing through the brain (something we cannot stop) and the active part of the brain actually grabbing hold of that thought and running with it. Calmness is not the absence of thoughts, it’s the ability to ignore or let pass any thought so that it is not distracting; thoughts are always flowing, it’s the holding on to the thought that interrupts the peace. This is the second angle of “hypomone” That is not expressed in the English term “endurance.”

In the Orthodox East this idea of letting thoughts go is a particularly beloved monastic practice, but is expressed more commonly in relation to things rather than thoughts among the average Christian. Sin causes to lose sight of the truly spiritual and focus on the physical. Since we are created to enter into union with God, sin causes us to cling to physical things (family, fame, wealth, power, shoes, trucks, you get the idea). At its most pernicious we so completely identify with the things we love, we have a hard time separating our true selves from the things that have come to define us.

Suffering begins to tear away at these things that have come to define us. True suffering no doubt feels like (and I’m speaking metaphorically here) our very skin and flesh are being peeled off our bones. For a self-centered sinner, it is probably the worst thing imaginable. But as that happens we slowly begin to discover that these things that have defined us are not actually us. We begin to discover our true self. And as we begin to discover our true self and put a bit of separation between our “selves” and the “things” that defined us, we discover that we no longer have that compulsion to grasp on to those things. As our hands begin to loosen and unfold from their grasping, the Holy Spirit (v 5) that was given to us can now actually begin to dig through all those things all the way into the true self … and transformation can begin.

This is the potential force of that seemingly simple word “endurance” (hypomone) that Paul uses. It is also worth noting that not all suffering has this effect. Suffering must be faced within in the context of faith, justification, and the peace that grows out of that. Suffering is not salvific in and of itself but in the context of the work of salvation that God is doing, it is the tool that opens us up to God’s work of grace that ultimately leads to sharing in his glory.

And this brings us full circle back to the wonderful mash-up that Paul offers in Rom. 5:2-3. We joy in the hope of sharing God’s glory just as we joy in our sufferings, because when the whole process is understood, we realize that human suffering has the potential to be the back side of divine glory. Thanks be to God.

A Deep Dive on Divine Wrath

​In the previous post I said that the idea of the wrath of God might better be looked at as a metaphor rather than a dark attribute of God’s character. I did get some blow back on that so in this essay I want to take a deep dive into the Old Testament idea of divine wrath, the day of wrath, and other related words and ideas. As in English, in Hebrew there are several synonyms are related words that express the idea of anger, wrath, fury, etc., but it seems that the Hebrew words, while being more emotive, function less on an emotional level than their English counterparts.

Hebrew words for anger are rooted in images such as a bucket being tipped over and water gushing everywhere, the nose on one’s face turning red, fire that is just being kindled, while another word is rooted in fire that is massive and consumes everything in its path. Another word can be used both for anger and the poison in snake venom. While not the most common word for wrath, by far the most significant is ‘ebrâ (5678) [see note below], the root of which refers to something that overflows. This is less an image of anger or emotional outburst and more an image of judgment. Consider, for instance, the rebellious provinces in the Roman Empire (of which Judea during the New Testament period was one). Rome was actually quite permissive, but eventually, when action was taken, it was almost always decisive and overwhelming (think of the modern term “shock and awe”). This action was taken, not because the Emperor was angry and emotional about the situation – quite the opposite was usually the case – after careful and calculated responses, the final response to the rebellion occurred. This is the sense of ‘ebrâ (5678), an overflowing and overwhelming response; that is, an image of judgment.

This is not to say the emotion of anger is not applied to God in the Old Testament. Consider Psa 38:1, “O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger (qeṣep 7110), or discipline me in your wrath (ḥēmâ 2534).” God warns the covenant people of his wrath also. “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath (‘ap 0639) will burn (ḥārāh 2734), and I will kill you with sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Exo 22:22-24).  Or there is this verse that piles synonym upon synonym: “The Lord uprooted them from their land in anger (‘ap 0639), fury (ḥēmâ 2534), and great wrath (qeṣep 7110), and cast them into another land, as is now the case” (Deu 29:18).

When these words are applied to humans they are often clearly overlaid with emotion (Pr 14:29; 15:1;19:19; etc.) But these words that appear to be charged with emotion in English, appear to at least sometimes have a different character in Hebrew. In Isaiah 16:6, in a prophecy about Moab, we read, “We have heard of the pride of Moab—how proud he is! — of his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence (‘ebrâ 5678); his boasts are false.” (Also in Jer 48:30, etc.) In this verse, rather than anger, what we find is an overflowing of pride and arrogance. The key to ebrâ (5678), whether anger or pride, is not the emotion, but it’s characteristic of overflowing excess.

So what are the implications of applying these sorts of words to God? Let’s begin with a basic interpretive principle. God is not a human; ultimately God is unknowable because the divine is so utterly different than the created things that we can know. It is therefore problematic to apply human characteristics, such as emotions, directly to God. Emotive words certainly refer to a particular divine activity, but the meaning of those words is necessarily a shadow of what is actually happening in the Divine Counsel.

With that in mind, consider one of the key phrases that looms large in the New Testament, although the phrase is only used once. In Deuteronomy God’s judgment is called ‘âkal ‘êsh (0398 0784 consuming fire Deu 4:24; 9:3). That phrase is also picked up in Heb 12:29, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” This idea expressed the very heart of what the Bible frequently calls judgment, the Day of Wrath (Job 21:30; Pro 11:4; Zeph 1:15; Rom 2:5). But again, there is no emotional content indicated in these verses. The emotion is drawn from the English term “wrath.” For as terrible as this day will be, it is not a consequence of God lashing out at humanity in anger, only the inevitable consequence of humanity’s rebellion.

So, when I say that “wrath,” when applied to God is metaphorical, I’m not saying that judgment won’t happen, rather I am saying that we are not given specific reasons (with certain exceptions, such as breaking the covenant) for why God does what he does. Wrath is a way of describing, from a human and earthly perspective, what happens, but it tells us very little about God’s character and nothing of his attributes. It is rather a way of trying to put divine activity into human context. When Jesus comes, that process of putting divine activity into human context will become much easier. But in the Old Testament we need to be very humble and circumscribed in any pronouncements as to what God is actually like.

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GENERAL NOTE: In order to make this essay accessible I have chosen to not include any Hebrew; instead I have transliterated the words trying to stay consistent with the ISO 259 transliteration standards. I have also included the associated Strong’s number. This is not a foolproof method of tracing down Hebrew words because the Strong numbering system sometimes gives multiple numbers to single roots (ah, the joys of trying to translate a Semitic language into the Romantic or Anglo-Saxon family of languages!), but that numbering system is so common that I believe it will make the content more accessible.

Hebrew is notoriously difficult to search for any one particular Hebrew term. For those who want to pursue this further, I have provided an extensive (although likely not exhaustive) list of Old Testament references where the main synonyms for anger appear.

ebrâ 5678 – outpouring, overflow, excess, fury, wrath, arrogance
Gen 49:7; Job 21:30; 40:11; Psa 7:6; 78:49; 85:3; 90:9, 11; Pro 11:4, 23; 14:35; 21:24; 22:8; Isa 9:19; 10:6′ 13:9, 13; 14:6; 16:6; Jer 7:29; 48:30; Lam 2:2; 3:1; Eze 7:19; 21:31; 22:21, 31; 38:19; Hos 5:10; 13:11; Amos 1:11; Hab 3:8; Zeph 1:15, 18.

qeṣep 7107 – wrath, anger, a splinter or broken twig (last meaning dubious)
Gen 40:2; 41:10; Exo 16:20; Lev 10:6, 16; Num 16:22; 31:14; Deu 1:34; 9:7, 8, 19, 22;Jos 22:18; 1Sa 29:4; 2Ki 5:11; 13:19; Est 1:12; 2:21; Psa 106:32; Ecc 5:6; Isa 8:21; 47:6; 54:9; 57:16; 64:5, 9; Jer 37:15; Lam 5:22; Zec 1:2, 15; 8:14.

ḥēmâ 2534 – heat, rage, hot displeasure, indignation, anger, wrath, poison, venom
Gen 27:44; Lev 26:28; Num 25:11; Deu 9:119;29:23, 28; 32:24, 33; 2Sa 11:20; 2Ki 5:12;22:13, 17; 2Chr 12:7; 28:9; 34:21, 25; 36:16; Est 1:12; 2:1; 3:5; 5:9; 7:7; 7:10; Job 6:4:19:29; 21:20; 36:18; Psa 6:1; 37:8; 38:1; 58:4; 59:13; 76:10; 78:38;79:6; 88:7; 89:46; 90:7; 106:23; 140:3; Pro 6:34; 15:1, 18:16:14 19:19; 21:14; 27:4; 29:22; Isa 27:4; 34:2; 42:25; 51:13 (2x), 17, 20, 22; 59:18; 63:3, 5, 6; 66:15; Jer 4:4; 6:11; 7:20; 10:25; 18:20; 21:5, 12; 23:19 25:15; 30:23; 32:31, 37; 33:5; 36:7; 42:18 (2x); 44:6; Lam 2:4; 4:11; Eze 3:14; 5:13, 15; 6:12; 7:8; 8:18; 9:8; 13:13, 15; 14:19; 16:38, 42; 19:12; 20:8, 13, 21,  33, 34; 21:17; 22:20, 22; 23:25; 24:8, 13; 25:14, 17; 30:15; 36:6, 18; 38:18; Dan 8:6; 9:16; 11:44; His 7:5; Mic 5:15; Nah 1:2, 6; Zec 8:2.

ḥēmâ 2528 (Aramaic form)
Dan 3:13, 19

ḥārôn 2740 – anger, heat, burning anger (always used of God in O.T.)
Exo 15:7; 32:12; Num 25:4; 32:14; Deu 13:17; Josh 7:26; 1Sa 28:18; 2Ki 23:26; 2Ch 28:11, 13; 29:10; 30:8; Ezr 10:14; Neh 13:18; Job 20:23; Psa 2:5; 58:9; 69:24; 78:49;85:3; 88:16; Isa 13:9, 13; Jer 4:8, 26; 12:13; 25:37, 36 (2x); 30:24; 49:37; 51:45; Lam 1:12; 4:11; Eze 7:12, 14; Hos 11:9; Jon 3:9; Nah 1:6; Zeph 2:2; 3:8.

ḥārôn 2734 – a related to form of the above term
Gen 4:5, 6; 18:30, 32; 30:2; 31:35, 36; 34:7; 39:19; 44:18; 45:5 (kindle); Exo 4:14; 22:243 ;32:10, 11, 22 (wax hot); Num 11:1;, 10, 33, 24:10; 25:3; 32:10, 13; Deu 6:15; 7:4; 11:7; 29:27; 31:17; Jos 7:1; 23:6; Jud 2:14, 20; 3:8; 6:39; 9:30; 10:7; 14:19; 1Sam 11:6; 15:11;17:28; 18:8; 20:7; 20:30; 2Sam 3:8; 6:7, 8; 13:21; 19:42; 22:8; 24:1; 2Ki 13:3; 23:26; 1Chr 13:10, 11; Neh 3:20; 4:1, 7; 5:6; Job 19:11; 32:2, 3, 5, 42:7; Psa 18:7; 37:1, 7, 8; 106:40; 124:3;Pro 24:19; Isa 5:25; 41:11; 45:24;Hos 8:5; Jon 4:1, 4, 9; Hab 3:8; Zec 10:3

‘ānap 0599 – to be angry or displeased, to breathe hard
Deu 1:37; 4:21; 9:8, 20; 1Ki 8:46; 11:9; 2Ki 17:18; 2Ch 6:36; Ezr 9:14; Psa 2:12; 61:1; 79:5; 85:5; Isa 12:1.