Stirred, not Shaken (part 2 of 2)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, continental theologians were developing a theological framework that focused on “the mighty acts of God.” Scripture, and the Old Testament especially, was interpreted through the lens of a series of mighty acts of salvation that God accomplished in consummating the divine plan.

Building upon this conceptual framework, extending it into the future rather than focusing on the Old Testament past, the apocalypticism of the late 19th century and early 20th century built an end-time theology based on God acting as publicly and mightily at the end of time as he did at the beginning of salvation history. Dispensationalism (the best known and most mainstream apocalyptic theology) involves lots of smiting, destruction, and judgment. In the original version of Jehovah’s Witness teaching (a theological cousin to Dispensationalism) only 144,000 specially chosen and worthy Christians would escape the serious divine end-time smiting. These two theological frameworks (“the mighty acts of God” framework and the apocalyptic theologies that followed in the next generation) are certainly both “shaken, not stirred.” (See the previous essay to understand the James Bond reference.)

But I would argue that salvation is far more banal than all that. Even if you exclude from consideration the girls, gambling, and gin, it is George Smiley, not James Bond, who is closer in character to Jesus Christ.

Now that I’ve read le Carré’s Karla trilogy, I can tell you – in retrospect – that the discovery and defeat of double agent was spectacular, and George Smiley’s dogged persistence which ultimately led to the demise of Karla, the Russian master spy, was really quite dazzling. But I can only say such things in retrospect. The trilogy itself remains stubbornly stilted, pedantic, and yes, even banal.

So it was with Jesus.

John the Baptist, while in prison, was having serious second thoughts about Jesus. Messiahs are supposed to function with the Mighty Arm of God, after all. Jesus was but a Lamb being led to slaughter. In fact, the crowd, who sensed a “shaken, not stirred” moment on Palm Sunday – Jesus riding into Jerusalem sort of like a king – ultimately failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah because they were expecting the heavens to be torn open and the Kingdom to come down like a shining light that everyone would see … or at the very least, for the Messiah to smite the Romans, as well as the religious leaders who cooperated with them. Everyone knows real salvation involves smiting! Instead Jesus told them his Kingdom was not of this world, and went off to a hilltop to pray … and then off to the other hill to die an ignominious death.

Banal.

I suspect this is why we fail to see the growth of the Kingdom of God today. We’re looking for mighty arms and mightier acts. We’re flitting from church to church looking for one that’s shaken, not just stirred. Instead what we get is a bunch of George Smiley Christians doddering about, polishing their spectacles on the big end of their neck tie.

Only in the end … only after the end … do we realize that this is a magnificent story that it is breathtaking in its magnitude.

But for those who have ears to hear, they realize that Hannah Arendt and John le Carré said far more than they even knew. Salvation, like evil and greatness, is banal, except in retrospect. It’s why it’s so hard to recognize in the mighty midst of the here and now.

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Stirred, not Shaken (part 1 of 2)

I just finished listening (audio books) to John le Carré’s Karla trilogy. The three books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People are widely regarded as the best spy novel (or in this case, trilogy) ever written. Le Carré (the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell, to quote his own website) was a real spy for Her Majesty’s Secret Service (thus the pen name – he was not allowed to reveal his identity as long as he was in Her Majesty’s employ).

Cornwell was quite annoyed by the romantic and unrealistic depiction of the spy business by Ian Fleming (who invented James Bond). Fleming served with Cornwell in “the Circus” and in Cornwall’s view, Fleming should have known better. Rather than romantic, the spy business is nondescript; rarely exciting, it is usually tedious. Furthermore, spies are far from debonair. Typically they are odd and generally deficient folk … again, in Cornwell’s view. Thus Cornwell, under the name “John le Carré,” created George Smiley a real spy in contrast to all that James Bond fluff.

The first book is about a double agent, loosely based on the true story of Kim Philby. The rest of the trilogy (often called “The Karla Series”) is about George Smiley’s attempts to thwart, and finally defeat, the Russian spymaster (code named “Karla”) who ran the double agent, and other things that were so detrimental to the British espionage service.

I remember, years ago, starting to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and giving up after a few chapters. The book is tedious. The plot is slow, George Smiley (as well as most of the other characters) is a rather uninteresting person, and it is written in a somewhat stilted and pedantic style. In short, it’s not an easy read.

The story is told through a series of mundane and seemingly insignificant events. Less a story, it is more a recital of events and a catalog of George Smiley’s thoughts. George Smiley is portrayed as an old man (his age is never given) and the book is like sitting in on the directionless and meandering reminiscence of an old man. But as the story unfolds its magnitude and intricacy are breathtaking. These mundane and disconnected events slowly knit together, patterns emerge, meaning begins to reveal itself. And this is precisely why the trilogy is considered by so many as the best spy novels written: it is written in the same manner as real spy craft occurs.

Hannah Arendt famously said that most of the great evils of history were not committed by sociopaths but rather by otherwise ordinary people who were usually just following orders. She called it the “banality of evil.”

John le Carré essentially demonstrates the flip side of Arendt’s insight. George Smiley embodies the banality of greatness. In general Smiley is at best unremarkable, and in many areas, a dismal failure at life. But he was something more than just that, so that in the end he demonstrated true greatness, albeit in the most unremarkable manner. Smiley doesn’t shake, but stirs, oh so gently, to get things accomplished.

[Continued in the next essay.]