Sunday, October 25, 2015

Is All Well?

"And a bell, sir?"
"A bell?"
"For ringing and shouting 'All's well!' with, Sarge."
"No bell for me, Snouty," said Vimes. "Do you think things are well?"
Snouty swallowed. "Could go either way, Sarge," he managed.
     -"Night Watch", by Terry Pratchett

I was thinking about Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" universe today, and the cavalier approach to policing that his early watchmen take: After all, ringing a bell and shouting "All's well!", even when things aren't well, is a heck of a let easier (and safer) than fixing them!

And it reminded me of something that's always upset me about Calvinism: That when you get right down to it, there is only one acceptable answer to the question Vimes asks: Yes, things are well.

By that, I mean all things, everywhere, at all times, are well according to the Calvinist system. I don't mean the "big picture"...I don't mean how things will "turn out in the end"...I mean that every single event in the history of the world is going fact, it's going exactly according to plan, ordained by God himself.

Of course, many Calvinists would be reluctant to admit this. After all, getting a Calvinist to admit that God ordains evil and renders it certain from before all creation is sometimes difficult. Nevertheless, even Calvin himself, though waffling at times, states that "as all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will" (Institutes, 1.17.1). Note that God does not merely "permit" these evils to requires an active interposition (or interference) on God's part to cause those things to happen.

This is because, to Calvin and Calvinists, God rules the world through "meticulous Providence": God governing every aspect of the universe, down to the movement of individual atoms and molecules. In fact, RC Sproul has stated that "There is no maverick molecule if God is sovereign.” No molecule in the universe moves except in the course that God himself ordained for it.

This is a pretty enough picture of providence and sovereignty on its face, I'll grant you. And after all, surely there could be no greater compliment to God's great power and might than to say that he directs every single atom in its planned trajectory! Of course, there is one small issue: When you actually apply this to life, it becomes absolutely horrifying.

It means that everything that has ever happened, (including, say, the Holocaust) was divinely ordained, planned and executed by God from the foundation of the universe. It means that when a small child is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, that God himself was there, actively planning it and making it happen (admittedly through secondary, tertiary, and however many other causes that he himself ultimately caused). It means that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were planned by God from the beginning of creation, and that his divine hand ensured the death of every person who died.

But it's easy enough to find the horror in our own history. It is, perhaps, more satisfying and more meaningful to go to the Bible. Let's look at a few key passages...I'll highlight the necessary Calvinist commentary in red:

Genesis 3:17
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife (Which I planned and caused to happen) and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,’ (Which, again, I caused by creating you flawed and then withholding the grace you needed to persevere)cursed is the ground because of you; (Well, technically because of me...) in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life"

Surely you can see the mockery this makes of the text, and how the doctrine of meticulous providence renders God's actions and words nonsensical?

Let's skip ahead a bit, to the days of Noah:

Genesis 6:5-7

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Of course, this was because God had eternally determined that this would be so and caused it to happen).   And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth (Not really, though, because he was the one who had caused it), and it grieved him to his heart. (Which was weird, because it was something he himself had eternally planned and deliberately caused to happen).  So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (But he wasn't really sorry, because he had intended all along for this to happen, and had in fact created the universe in such a way as to make it impossible for it to have happened any other way). 
Do you see it? Do you see how meticulous providence actually makes this verse literally meaningless? Calvinists can talk of "anthropomorphisms" and metaphors all they like: The fact remains that if meticulous providence is true, then this verse doesn't just mean something different then what it appears to mean...this verse means the literal opposite of what it says. It means, in fact, that this verse tells us something false about God, and that this verse gives us a picture of God that couldn't be further from the truth. This verse tells us that God was saddened by man's actions, whereas Calvinism tells us that God actively caused those things to happen.

Here's my point: There are many, many points in the Bible where God himself seems to say that all is not well. The Bible is FULL of instances of God lamenting the state of mankind, all the way to Jesus himself lamenting over Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"

God himself says that all is not well. God himself says that things are not as they should be. And we who are not Calvinists do God the honor of taking him at his word. It is, rather, the Calvinists who dishonor God by attributing to him the things that he abhors. God says, "I am grieved by what mankind is doing," and Calvinists wink at him and say "We get that you have to say that, big guy, but you can be honest with us. We know what you mean. *wink*." God says in Jeremiah 7, "And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind", and the Calvinists smile and say, "Look, God, you don't have to play that game with us. We get it. You caused it to happen. You thought it up and planned it all out. Great job!"

All is not well. The Fall was a real evil. Evil really is evil, and not good in disguise (as is necessitated by the Calvinist system). The sin of man "has not escaped the knowledge and control of God. But it is not a work of His creation and not a disposition of His providence." (Karl Barth) God is in control, and he will set all wrongs right...but in the meantime, they are real wrongs, not merely the illusions of wrongs.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Eating with the Sinners

Last Sunday, I had the honor of speaking to the Jr High and High School group at the Bridge. I spoke on Luke 15 and the triple-parable that Jesus busts out in response to the Pharisees' grumbling. There were two big things that stood out to me as I was writing the talk.


“But the climax of the parable is reached in the joy over the finding of the lost. How natural and self-evident that would be! Jesus places this joy ‘in the heaven’ and ‘before the angels of God’ over against the murmuring of the Pharisees and the scribes. They look sour; in heaven the very angels sing with delight! In so masterly a way is this done that the very parable becomes a seeking and reaching out by the Shepherd Jesus after these Pharisaic lost sheep so that their joy at being found may produce still more joy in heaven among the angles. Thus through the entire parable there run in duplicate: 1) being lost, 2) the great search, 3) the happy finding, 4) the abounding joy.”

Lenski is awesome. No surprise there. Jesus gets around the hardened sourness of the Pharisees with an object lesson referencing the normal, human reaction to a normal, every-day event: And at the end, he demonstrates just how crappy their attitude really is, by contrasting their sourness with the joy in heaven. And the whole thing is wrapped up neatly, Inception style: In telling the parable, Jesus is doing what the parable represents.

Second: The Pharisees are totally the older brother guys!!!!

Yeah. OBVIOUSLY. Right? But it never really clicked until I was writing the sermon. This section begins with the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

And it ends with prodigal son drawing near his father, and the older brother grumbling about how the father received the son and ate with him.

Last thing that occurred to me on my way home from church:

Luke is freaking FULL of Jesus eating with people. I mean, Jesus is eating ALL THE TIME. He eats with tax collectors in Luke 5 and 19. He eats with the pharisees in Luke 7, and again in Luke 11, and again in Luke 14. He eats with his disciples and friends in Luke 10, 22, and 24. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking," indeed! He's like Robert Downey Jr!

But that's not the point. Here's the point: When Jesus eats with the tax collectors, the Pharisees absolutely lose it. They see it as not only a waste of time, but actually dangerous: There is the sense that Jesus is tainting himself by interacting with them. But when he eats with the Pharisees themselves, they take it pretty well in stride. Jesus being a prominent rabbi, the Pharisees ask him over for a meal, so that they may sit and talk over food. I'd imagine that from their perspective, it's a chance for Jesus to finally relax, to get away from the rabble, to get away from the greedy tax collectors and common sinners...a chance for Jesus to be with other righteous people like themselves.

When the truth, of course, is that there was no such distinction...or if there is, it's the other way around. Whether Jesus was eating with the self-proclaimed "righteous" or with those who recognized themselves as sinners, the meal served one over-arching purpose: To seek and save the lost. The only difference was that sometimes, he ate with people who actually knew they were lost, and desired to be found. And I'd imagine those were the meals where he actually could relax a least, more so then eating with a brood of vipers!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Initial Thoughts

We recently had our baby shower, where we received many wonderful things in preparation for the birth of our son Wesley Alexander Mulligan (November 3rd is coming so fast!). One of those gifts (well, three, actually) was the Jesus Storybook Bible. I decided it would be good to do an "initial thoughts" post, then come back to it after I've actually read it all the way through (probably with/to Wesley).

First thing: I LOVE this Bible.

Second thing: It's not perfect. There are things that I think could have done better, and a few things that I think are actually wrong/bad about the way events were portrayed. (David described as "the weakling of the family, he's only teeny-" being one of the most annoying errors, since he killed lions and bears with his bare hands!).

Third thing: But it's still amazing.

I think what I love most about it really is the subtitle: "Every Story Whispers His Name." Jesus is THE image of the invisible God, and in a very real sense every verse in the Bible points to Him. This Bible makes that explicit, over and over again. I'll just include one example: The first of them, and the most amazing. This is how this Bible ends the story of Adam and Eve:

"But before they left the garden, God made clothes for his children, to cover them. He gently clothed them and then he sent them away on a long, long journey--out of the garden, out of their home. 

Well, in another story, it would all be over and that would have been...

The End.

But not in this Story.

God loved his children too much to let the story end there. Even though he knew he would suffer, God had a plan - a magnificent dream. One day, he would get his children back. One day, he would make the world their perfect home again. And one day, he would wipe away every tear from their eyes.

You see, no matter what, in spite of everything, God would love his children - with a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.

And though they would forget him, and run from him, deep in their hearts, God's children would miss him always, and long for him - lost children yearning for their home.

Before they left the garden, God whispered a promise to Adam and Even: "It will not always be so! I will come to rescue you! And when I do, I'm going to do battle against the snake. I'll get rid of the sin and the dark and the sadness you let in here. I'm coming back for you!"

And he would. One day, God himself would come."

That is my absolute favorite part about this Bible: It opens with a STRONG emphasis on Christus Victor. And all throughout the Old Testament portion of this Bible, nearly every story contains a reference to "The Great Rescue," God's secret plan to save the world. And who is the rescue from?

The Genesis section makes it fairly clear: In order to rescue his people, God MUST do battle with the devil. While human beings are definitely active sinners, they are primarily prisoners to be freed, not enemies to be vanquished (which, by the way, has many Calvinists on Amazon absolutely livid). *

Another thing I love? The Artwork. It's amazing. And the most amazing thing it does is to bring out the humor often overlooked in passages: For instance, the section labeled "How to Pray" (covering Jesus critiquing the prayers of the hypocrites in Matthew 6) features three people praying very passionately: Two of them are emoting vividly, heads dramatically tilted upwards, while the third actually has one eye open to see if anybody is watching him pray!

Again: This Bible is not perfect. Since it's designed for children (who, being children, are incapable of many of the finer points of Biblical interpretation and analysis), there's a LOT of built-in interpretation, connecting dots that are sometimes "gimmes", sometimes much more contested. (For instance, during the last supper, Jesus says "My body is like this bread," which Catholics on Amazon are not down with). Unless you happen to be the author of this particular book, there WILL be something in here that you disagree with....but then again, that's literally unavoidable when paraphrasing and commentating. c'est la vie. 

Will I read EVERY line to Wesley, exactly as written here? No. When speaking of David, I'll talk about how he was the youngest, and how that made him seem very unimportant to most people...but I'll also talk about his strength and bravery. But I'll read MOST of it exactly as written, because i think it does an incredible job at communicating the love of God and his desire for humanity to be saved, woven throughout the Bible. (and HOLY CRAP I just realized that I will be mostly responsible for the theological formation of a tiny person who will take my words as absolute truth oh my gosh WHAT AM I GOING TO DO)

Ahem. Anyway...yeah. I'll be writing a lot more about this...about whether the simplification going on here is a valid move, when it's appropriate to simplify and when it's NOT appropriate, and a couple others. But for now, I just wanted to get this out there.