The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.

Baby’s Got the Blues

It’s been a long time since I listened to Larry Norman’s Stranded in Babylon album. It’s a hit you in the face sort of reality check and one of the most fascinating songs is “Baby’s Got the Blues.” If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here on YouTube with lyrics.

Many albums of this era were not simply a collection of songs, the album as a whole was an entity with each song adding a facet to that whole. This was just such an album. As an album it is profoundly Christian although not every song is (outside of the context of the whole album). “Baby’s Got the Blues” certainly fits into this category. It doesn’t even explicitly mention God, but instead uses euphemisms. The bridge is a prayer that begins, “Mercies and angels up above, / Heaven please help the one I love.”

But in the context of the song this sentiment is profoundly Christian if we use the term “Christian” to refer to the actual manner in which we live our lives down in the trenches. In the song Norman is watching “his baby” (wife? girlfriend? sister?) struggle with depression. He has no words to offer her and he has no words to offer God. When life hurts and the heavens are brass, it is often hard to fully believe in a caring God. In those moments it might be the only option to address “mercies and angels up above.”

Paul the apostle also understood this depth of despair. He said that at such times the Spirit “groans” on our behalf. No words here. No words needed. Such a groan no doubt says more than a whole collection of essays. And God hears the groan and understands what it means.

I confess that I despise Christian radio because the station manager – or whoever it is that puts together playlists these days – don’t seem to have the courage to play the music that comes from the trenches. Mostly its worship music. And I would argue that worship music, when that’s all we hear, paints an utterly bleak and depressing view of the world. … Not because the music is depressing but rather because it’s mostly a reminder of how short I fall from that mark set by the perky DJ who is praising God and gloriously happy, no matter what’s happening around them.

To hear a wordsmith like Larry Norman put his finger on the pain that is so deep and so confounding that there are simply no words is liberating in a way an old standard like “I Can Only Imagine” can never be. It’s a reminder that when the Son of God became human he suffered in the manner that humans suffer. His life was not a set of praise choruses! On at least one occasion he told the Father to just remove it all … if it was the Father’s will.

Given the fact that most Christian Contemporary Music is written by praise bands who got their start accompanying contemporary worship services, this sort of “down in the trenches” music is almost non-existent anymore. (No doubt there’s some out there, but it’s quite hard to find.) As a result I find myself increasingly dredging up the old stuff: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill (the old Randy Stonehill, when he was young and outrageous and hadn’t yet grown into “Uncle Randy”), Daniel Amos, Randy Matthews, etc. In my album collection I had two or three Normans, a Matthews, three DAs, and a couple of Stonehills.

Music streaming services have been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I am hearing all the other music these folks did (along with other similar artists) that I never heard before because I couldn’t afford all those albums. A curse because I’m not hearing the songs in the context of their albums. I’m missing the gestalt while getting all the particulars.

So for those of you who are ready to move beyond the froth of CCM, I commend to you the above artists. Daniel Amos’ best albums were New Wave which is probably not everyone’s taste. (For instance, “Hollow Man,” on the Doppelganger album features their previous very strange song “Ghost of the Heart” (from Alarma!) played backwards, but with new lyrics over the top. I think it’s awesome … My wife? Not so much. But with that caveat in mind, dig in.

As a special recommendation I commend Larry Norman’s Something New Under the Sun (or SNUTS, as it was lovingly referred to). I love blues and it is, in my opinion, one of the five or six best blues albums ever put together. I love this album so much that twenty five years later, I named one of my dogs Snuts in honor of the album.

The Story of King Midas and The Gospel of Mark

After studying Tuomo Mannermaa and Galatians and Romans for the last couple of months I needed to get away from that particular narrow slice of Christian theology and focus on something else. I decided to turn my attention to the Gospel according to Mark (the oldest of the four gospels).

I was immediately struck by the fact that Jesus (you know, “fully human and fully God”) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery.

There is a theory promoted by numerous systematic theologies over the centuries (but most closely associated with Anselm, if you want a good historical reference point) that God’s holiness is of such a character that it cannot stand to be around sin and debauchery. If you only read the Old Testament an excellent case can be made for this theory.

Growing out of this theory of holiness is the idea that Jesus had to become human and die a brutal and horrible death in order to assuage the anger (or wrath) of God toward sin and evil. In short, God was really angry, he took it all out on Jesus, the result is that now Holy God can invite us into his presence as long as we accept what Jesus did on our behalf.

Reading through Mark’s Gospel, the idea kept coming to my mind that this picture of God is completely wrong because Jesus (who is fully God) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery. While not said explicitly, the implication is clear: The problem in this relationship is not on the divine side, it’s on the human side.

In both ancient Christian theology and contemporary Eastern Christian theology it is commonplace to say that love and judgment (or righteousness and wrath, to use Paul’s terminology) are essentially the same thing. Divine love is a consuming fire, and if we are not pure and were to attempt to approach God’s essence, that burning divine love would consume all that is not pure, which is pretty much all of our being. Thus, we experience divine love as wrath and judgment in much the same way a straw bale experiences a warm and merry hearth fire as a holocaust.

Imagine the “fully human” part of Jesus Christ functions as a very special permeable material that allows what we might call the “love” portion of holiness through while turning back what we might call the “consuming fire” portion of holiness. Thus in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, the sinners of all sorts (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors) could approach and touch Fully-God-Jesus without getting consumed and destroyed by the fire of holiness.

In the ancient Greek myth, King Midas was given the gift/curse of being able to turn stuff to gold. Everything he touched (loved ones, food, etc.) turned to solid gold. But what if Midas had a special glove that did not turn to gold when he put it on that allowed him to touch that which he truly loved and desired without immediately and destructively purifying those loved ones into gold?

That’s the incarnation! Jesus’ humanity is that glove that allows God to come and rub shoulders and be with those he truly loves (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors). But because the burning brightness of holiness is veiled (i.e., gloved, but not absent), we are not immediately destroyed in the loving divine embrace.

That is the Good News of Mark in a nutshell (or in this case, a glove)! Thanks be to God.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

In my previous essay about our inability to “go up” and grasp hold of grace, I was reminded of the oft misunderstood advice of John Climacus (a monk at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai a very long time ago) in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book is so important in Orthodox spirituality that there is a Sunday during Lent dedicated specifically to it and there is an icon depicting the ideas of the book that hangs somewhere in most every Orthodox Church. At first glance The Ladder of Divine Ascent may appear to be saying exactly the opposite of what I said in that essay. Since the icon, when viewed with a Protestant sensibility, looks suspicious, it’s worth looking closely at the icon so that we can see what is and what is not depicted there.

Divine AscentIn the icon one sees the surface of the earth, a monastery (there is an angel above the monastery, which is a sort of short hand saying, “this is a monastery, and not a government building and certainly not the abode of Satan) and a ladder. Approaching the ladder, climbing the ladder, and falling off the ladder are monks from the monastery. At the base of the ladder is John Climacus holding a scroll on which is written, “Ascend, ascend brethren.” Along the way are demons trying to pull the monks off the ladder (and often being successful) and at the top is Jesus the Pantocrator (i.e., Ruler of all, the Defeater of Sin and Death and the giver of life and grace) greeting the monks who have managed to ascend all thirty rungs.

John says he used the story of Jacob’s vision of a ladder as a metaphor for thirty things that monks ought to do as they seek to enter into closer union with Christ (compare the Rule of St. Benedict). It’s worth noting what’s not in the icon. Hell can be found nowhere on the icon. When the monks fall, they fall to earth, and no doubt they can then begin to climb the ladder again. Jesus is not depicted as being in heaven in this icon. To the left are a group of angels or saints. This is the heavenly host looking on at the scene from heaven and praying for the monks (essentially cheering the monks on). Jesus is separated spatially from that heavenly group. The point is that the monks are not going to heaven, but rather they are growing closer to Christ as the residents of heaven look on. In short, this is a depiction of our Christian life here on earth with it’s temptations, victories and failures.

While The Ladder of Divine Ascent has become foundational in Orthodoxy and very popular among Christians in general, it also needs to be said that it is a handbook for monks, and thus the advice sounds strange and sometimes outrageous to those of us living a secular life in the world. The Ladder, it must be remembered, is not a set of rules, but rather a set of monastic guidelines that should be seen as a sort of ideal.

How ought we to live our Christian life? I was hit up last Sunday by an Episcopalian asking if I wanted to join an organization that is seeking social justice in the world. After visiting with her it was clear that she’s sees this as her highest form of Christian life, that is a life of service that leads to systemic change and justice. When I was involved with a group called the Navigators, it seemed that memorizing the Bible, being in small group studies, encouraging others, and evangelism were the highest calling. In the Orthodox Church the highest calling is seeking our union with God in Christ. The icon (and the Sunday in Lent) are all reminders to us that this is the primary manner in how we Orthodox ought to approach our sanctification.

But whether we seek social justice, success at evangelism, or communion with Christ, all these efforts are not possible and make no sense if you don’t begin with Christ coming down to earth (incarnation, death, and resurrection) so that we can be made alive by the Spirit and begin our Christian journey through Christ and to Christ.