The Opposite of Art - Excerpt From Chapter 14

As he had beneath the Sistine ceiling, Ridler paced the sidewalk. Back and forth beside the looming ramparts, he paced. All the years swirled through his mind, the cost of jungles, beaches, filthy alleys and bazaars, tortured and exploded, hungry, parched, lonely and alone, and of course Suzanna. Suzanna lost forever. He had surrendered everything to paint the Glory, trying it a thousand times, a thousand ways, miles of paint, gallons of it flowing across canvas by the acre. What were these imposters' feeble efforts compared to sacrifice like his?

"I'll show them," he muttered, dropping to his knees and opening his backpack. "I'll show them."

Removing his kit he spilled his pastels out onto the sidewalk. Still muttering, he selected a piece of chalk and began to sketch. His arm swung broadly over the pavement, a giant motion from the shoulder. Line after sweeping, monumental line arched across the slates around him. He was no mere artist. He was an athlete, a zealot and a warrior. He was no propagandist. He was a partisan, a dogmatist in possession of all truth. He alone could show the Glory to the world, and he alone would do it.

Driven by his rage and his disdain, Ridler lost all consciousness of his surroundings. He did not see the crowd gathering about him as his colors rose from the pavement to the ancient ramparts of the Holy See. He did not hear their whispers, nor their gasps and exclamations as the image swelled and spread. He climbed the wall with only fingertips and the narrow edges of his boots, clinging to the bricks stacked earthy and steadfast for generations. Halfway up he released his hold and drifted. Gripping colored chalk in both of his hands, he drew with unerring beauty and precision on his left and right at once, a whirlwind of pristine intention, filling empty voids as if he was a witch conjuring a portal to a future or a past. He almost had it now. This time he would hold it fast. He would draw back the veil. He would reveal the Glory. He would not let it go. He would master everything.

Ridler drew among a cloud of witnesses. No carabinieri stepped forward from that growing crowd to protest on behalf of public property. On the contrary, the police in their white belts and chest straps stood entranced along with bankers and tourists, priests and beggars. Dozens of them turned to hundreds; hundreds turned to thousands. From the street and sidewalk, from the windows, balconies, and rooftops, all of Rome observed in breathless silence.

It never crossed the artist's mind that he might run out of colors. Again and again he pulled more pastels from his pack, never realizing it had become a cornucopia, endlessly fertile, providing everything required. Nothing was withheld. The sun itself beyond the angry clouds did not betray him. On the contrary, it remained aloft long past the normal hour, granting the suspension of time. Even gravity and space surrendered, all created things in all directions bowing in submission to his genius.

In the end it seemed the only limit was himself, for when he stopped it was his own decision. Hands and arms and clothing choked with color, Ridler sat back on his haunches. At that very moment the sun began to move again above the clouds, but it took a while to regain its usual velocity. And like the fading of the day, Ridler's own return was gradual, a slow recognition of the image spread out all around him. Shadows gathering, he gazed upon the work.

It covered half a block along the sidewalk. It climbed forty feet up the wall. It was of course his grandest effort, superior to anything that Rome had ever seen. Thousands knelt around the fringes, hands clasped at their chins, palms turned up toward heaven. Their whispered prayers combined and interlaced in midair, flowing hot across his face. Their adoration of the image plucked him to his feet as if he were a puppet pulled by strings. He disappeared into them, staggering with painful joints, fleeing yet another failure, for he was well aware that this was merely one more flawed beginning. As he had so many times before, he had reached the end of Ridler without capturing the Glory.

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Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:35 PM 3 comments  

LOVE WINS - A Review

I finally got down to Rob Bell’s book in my reading list, and I finished it this week. The first thing you notice about Love Wins is it’s not written for pastors, elders, or Bible teachers; it’s written for that guy sitting next to you in traffic, the one who hardly ever thinks about religion.

Parts of the book are arranged on the page like poetry, one short incomplete sentence stacked over another, and sometimes each line is

It’s often difficult to draw firm conclusions about specific ideas from poetry, so it’s not easy to do that with Love Wins. Rob often seems to say one thing here, and the opposite thing there. To some extent I think that’s intentional. A major thesis of the book is the fact that we know far less about God and the hereafter than we often pretend to know. In a way then, Rob’s style demonstrates his thesis.

If you’ve read the “Yes and Yes” chapter in The Gospel according to Moses, you know I believe the proper response to the apparent contradictions in the Bible is not to take a stand one way or the other, but rather to say “Yes,” to both halves of the paradox. Rob says exactly the same thing, on page 127.

While some may object to this as an affront to the intellect or a copout on important doctrine, it’s just as reasonable to view it as a proof of faith. After all, who has more faith: the one who insists he must understand everything in the Bible, or the one who believes God is big enough to make sense out of two apparently contradictory propositions?

So far, so good. And I especially endorse Rob’s take on heaven, which he presents not as something to be reached in the afterlife, but rather as a way of being, which starts here in this life for believers. It is, I think, a perfectly orthodox interpretation of the scriptures. Salvation is not a single choice to be made and then relied upon thereafter. On the contrary, Paul presents salvation as something we must "work out . . . with fear and trembling" throughout this part of our immortal lives. And Jesus didn’t teach us to pray “Let us come into thy kingdom when we die.” Rather, it was “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth [right here, right now] . . .”

Rob’s perspective on heaven as a state of existence in the present world has vital ramifications for how one lives today. It’s the difference between a Christian who leaves his religion in the pews when he walks out of church on Sunday, and a Christian who loves his neighbor with actions, all day every day. When you carry heaven in your heart, it’s much easier to be heavenly.

Several other points Rob makes in Love Wins deserve praise. I appreciated Rob's effort to expand his reader's thinking about how faith in Jesus leads to a loving relationship with God, and about who enters heaven. Like Rob, I believe many Christians are going to be very surprised at the company they'll keep in the hereafter. And again, there are strong parallels between much of what he wrote and The Gospel according to Moses. I'd love to go into more detail about this and other helpful points he made, but space is limited here, so I want to pass from praise to the one concern I had when I put down the book.

Like so many others, I'm worried about Rob’s perspective on hell.

In many places, it seems to me Rob says hell is a temporary condition, a teaching tool God uses to convince those who pass out of this life unconvinced.

Note my language, please. When I write, “it seems to me,” that’s because I can’t be sure. Again, this book is written like a poem, and different people may get many different meanings from the same line in a poem. On page 117 for example, Rob seems to say if we choose hell, then God will let us have hell. Rob doesn’t limit that statement in any way. He doesn't say God will only let us stay in hell a little while, for example. But the over-arcing sense I got from this book was of a hell that’s not really “hell” in the traditional sense of the word, because as Rob writes on page 86, “there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever.”

Unless I completely misunderstood Rob, he thinks hell is temporary. That idea is repeated in many places, across several chapters. Eventually, everybody suffering in hell will see the light, and enter God’s presence.

Rob quotes many scriptures to support this idea. Unfortunately his scholarship is often deeply flawed. He sometimes quotes a verse to make a point, when the prior verse in the scriptures makes exactly the opposite point. He even goes so far as to quote the first half of a verse without mentioning the second half, when the second half refutes his interpretation of the first.

Here’s just one example, although I could offer many others:

On page 91 Rob discusses Jesus’ famous teaching about two kinds of people: 1) those who try to take care of the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick and imprisoned, and; 2) those who don’t. At the conclusion of that passage, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus compares the fate of those two kinds of people. He says:

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Rob writes about two Greek words in the verse, but rather than examining the words Jesus actually used, Rob focuses on the roots of those words. It’s as if a Chinese student learning English applied the meaning of the word “finite” to the sentence “The universe is infinite.”

Based on that approach, Rob concludes that the word usually translated as "punishment" should actually be rendered "trimming" or "pruning," and the word usually translated as "eternal" should instead be understood to mean "a period of time." So he suggests the first half of Matthew 25:46 should be translated this way: “Then they will go away to a period of pruning . . .” He then moves on without mentioning the second half of the verse.

That omission is understandable, when one considers that the word “eternal” in both halves of the verse is the same word in the Greek. Had Rob translated that word in the second half the same way he translated it in the first, he would have had this to explain away:

“Then they will go away to a period of pruning, but the righteous to a period of life.”

"A period of" life is not what a believer hopes to experience in the hereafter, of course, nor is it what the Bible teaches, either about heaven, or about hell. The actual Greek word Jesus used is unmistakable: it means everlasting, eternal, or forever.

Some compare Rob’s apparent theology on hell to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but it is a flawed comparison. Purgatory, in the Catholic sense, is a place where believers who die in a state of grace suffer appropriate punishment for their venal sins, a process which completes their sanctification and allows them to enter God’s holy presence.

Whatever one may think of that theology, purgatory is not a place where people who reject God in this life have a second chance at faith along the lines Rob seems to suggest. Roman Catholicism, like traditional Protestant theology, is quite clear: those who die without accepting God’s grace in this life pass directly to eternal suffering in hell.

Now, having written those terrible words, I also want to be clear on one thing: I wish Rob was right.

I wish the Bible taught that there will be an infinite number of chances to confess, repent, and step into our loving God’s embrace. I wish the Lord would give us an eternity to make that choice, if necessary. I wish the Bible didn’t say, “. . . man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” I wish it didn’t say, “. . . whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” I wish Jesus hadn’t warned us the day will come when he will say once and for all, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and “Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”

But the Bible is consistent about this: after this life come a eternity in hell or heaven for us all. The choice of where we’ll be is ours, and the time to make that choice is now, because when we leave this part of life, our fate in the next is sealed.

While I wish it wasn’t that way, who am I to protest that this isn’t fair or just? After all, God is God, and I am not. A slug might as well complain to me about pesticide. As God himself explains, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Who am I to explain ideas like love, mercy and justice to God, the one who merely spoke, and galaxies sprang into existence?

Still, I wish it wasn’t that way.

I read an old story somewhere recently (it may have been Adam Clarke's excellent Bible commentary, or perhaps Barnes), about two preachers discussing their sermons the previous Sunday. One says he preached on the topic of hell. The other asks, “And did you cry?”

That is how any true follower of Jesus feels about hell. To live in heaven on earth is to live with a broken heart for the lost on earth. Along with Rob, I would never presume to say Gandhi is in hell. “Judge not, or you will be judged” means such awful words are for God alone to speak. And I certainly don’t revel in the thought of people in eternal torment. On the contrary, I weep.

But because my heart does break at the thought of hell, the last thing in the world I want to do is write a book that lets an unbelieving reader think she can ignore Jesus in this life, because there will be (or even might be) a chance to set things right in the next.

Is that what Rob Bell believes? Or might believe? Even after reading and re-reading Love Wins, I still don’t know for sure. And that is precisely the problem.

There is a difference between speaking judgmentally about specific people, and speaking truth about God’s coming judgment. The judgmental aspect of Jesus' relationship to creation is very clearly written in God's word, because it would not be just, or loving, to be vague about a thing like that.

Sometimes the most difficult and uncomfortable things must be spoken very carefully and clearly, if love is really going to win.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:33 AM 11 comments  

River Rising - Deleted Scene

While looking for something else this morning, I came across this scene, which got cut from River Rising early in the editing process. In honor of the poor folks in the parishes around Baton Rouge and New Orleans today who are once again suffering from a flood, I thought I'd publish it here, as a reminder that miracles do happen, and "love . . . always hopes, always perseveres."

Visualize relentless rain falling on a slave plantation beside the Mississippi, and a great flood about to crest the levees . . .


Lying on the moist soil of her shack, Marah smelled something in the air. Smoke? She took a tiny bite of hard tack and chewed it slowly, drawing it out, making it last. Yes, wood smoke. Someone had built a fire inside their doorway, she supposed; maybe had a little dry kindling stored away, and decided a hot meal would be worth putting up with tearful eyes and ticklish lungs. She too would rather suffer a smoke-filled room than endure the cold comfort of another meal like this. But she had not had the foresight to gather wood from along the overgrown sides of the levees and store it indoors. She envied them. She took another bite. All too soon her little piece of bread was gone. Time to milk the goat. One of the other women had fed the last of yesterday’s milk to the baby a little while ago. The child would be crying for more in the middle of the night. Marah rose to her feet and paused before the door, staring out into the rain. Strange, this rain. It had gone on like this for a day and a half now, never faster, never slower, no lightning or thunder, just strong, steady rain coming down so straight it hung outside the doorway like a curtain. Wrapping her arms across her chest to clutch her elbows for warmth, Marah ducked her head and stepped outside.

The rain hit her neck and rolled down her back. She made no effort to avoid the puddles as she walked, for the puddles were everywhere, and getting deeper. Wading right through, she followed the beaten path along the front of the shacks, heading for the small pen back behind. She did not look up. She knew the way so well there was no need. Besides, what would she see but pitch black? Holding her head down, facing the ground, was the best way to avoid the pounding rain. So when the light appeared at the edge of her vision and she raised up, Marah was already very near the fire that Newboy had somehow built. It roared and danced with life as if celebrating something joyful. Newboy stood on the other side gazing into a pot that hung above the flames. The warm light bathed his features with a yellow glow. His skin glistened. He stood perfectly still. The rain, falling into the flames, crackled and rose again as waves of steam that almost obscured him.

For a moment Marah thought he might be a vision. The fire might be a vision, too. How could anyone build a fire in this rain? How would you get the first tiny flame to catch and hold? And where would you get the dry wood? It was impossible. Yet there it was—there he was—somehow.


Forgetting the goat, Marah walked closer. The warmth of the flames caressed her, made her feel almost comfortable again. Stepping into the circle of firelight cast around about, she got Newboy’s attention. He looked up at her across the fire and smiled. Suddenly she felt comfortable on the inside, too.

“Want some stew?” he asked.

Unconsciously she touched her stomach. “Sure.”

“I think it’s ready. Help yourself.”

“What’s in it?”

His smile widened. “Does it matter?”

She laughed and knelt and dipped one of the wooden bowls lying there into the pot and up it came, rich with vegetables and meat and smelling of heaven. She watched Newboy over the edge of the bowl as she drank from it.

“Good?” he asked.

She nodded and kept on drinking and chewing, following his every move as he turned from the fire and went to the nearest shack. Sticking his head inside he called, “Hey! Got some stew out here for them that wants it.”

The stew was better than good. It had a peculiar, delicate flavor. Tilting the bowl toward the fire she saw small floating green and rust colored flecks. Had Newboy somehow found spices? She sighed with pleasure. They had not even had salt in…how long? Since before the last planting season for sure. Maybe even the one before that. Yet here he was coming up with these delicious spices.


Newboy moved on to the next shack, where he poked his head in and offered another invitation to come out and eat some stew. Moving on again, he was soon too far away for Marah to see him in the darkness and the rain, but she heard his muffled voice and knew he had continued, all the way down the line. What was he thinking? The pot was far too small for everyone. It held enough for maybe six or eight at most. And already the three women living in the first shack had emerged. Marah giggled as their eyes went wide at the sight of her kneeing in the rain beside a roaring fire, eating stew. Had she looked that way at Newboy when she walked up? The women approached slowly, each of them clutching a bowl made from a gourd. Marah rose to give them room as they clustered around the pot. Her own bowl was almost empty. Strangely, that one serving had been enough to fill her belly. But even though the stew was mighty filling, there would never be enough for everyone.

Now others gathered around the fire. To Marah’s surprise, nobody pushed or shoved. Everyone made room for those who came behind. Even Qana waited his turn. Marah supposed it was the shock of seeing the fire that kept them civil. What else could it be? She saw Newboy take his place on the far side of the fire, just where he had stood before when she walked up. Steam rose and fell in waves as he watched the others dip their gourds and hand carved bowls into the pot. Sometimes the steam almost obscured him. Sometimes it parted and she could see him clearly. The others did not seem to notice that he did not eat. Maybe he had eaten earlier, before Marah came along. One or two people thanked him as they passed along beside the pot. Most did not. No matter what, he smiled at one and all in a way that made her certain that he did not care about their thanks so much as he did about their bellies.

Qana had gone through the line twice before it finally occurred to Marah that the pot was not yet empty. How could that be? There were so many of them, and some had already taken two helpings, yet each hand that dipped a bowl into that small pot raised it up again filled to the brim. Could Newboy have refilled it in an instant of concealment by the rising steam? Could anyone move that quickly? And if so, where did he hide the raw materials? And the fire…she had not seen him add a log, yet it still burned. No longer did she marvel that the fire had been started in this rain. Now she marveled that it kept on burning. There was no pile of logs waiting to be burned. And the air was filled with falling water. No fire could burn in such a rain. Looking around, Marah wondered: did no one else see these things? How could they not? How could they simply eat and see nothing but the bowls they cradled in their hands as if to protect them from each other?

Was she the only one with eyes?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:16 AM 2 comments  

Love Wins . . . Unless You Are Rob Bell

Rob Bell is at it again. He has never shied away from controversy, and apparently his new book, Love Wins, is no exception. With the book not yet even released, already such stalwart evangelicals as Albert Mohler and John Piper are calling it heretical. An executive with a Christian publishing company, Justin Taylor, was apparently an early voice in the outrage against what Rob Bell might have written. (Taylor says on his blog, “I have not read all of Bell’s book, though I have read some chapters that were sent to me. . . . I think that the publisher’s description combined with Bell’s video is sufficient evidence to suggest that he thinks hell is empty and that God’s love (which desires all to be saved) is always successful.”) Speaking as a novelist and non-fiction author, I'm surprised a man with Mr. Taylor's background in publishing would assume Rob Bell had total control over his publisher's advertising copy. It's possible, of course, but I could tell several disaster stories to demonstrate it ain't necessarily so, and I'll bet Mr. Taylor could, too. Take the trailer for Love Wins as an example. Are we expected to believe that Rob deliberately set out to do an Uncle Fester imitation? Surely that sweater was some publicist's decision. (Sorry Rob.)

Rather than basing a response on what the man's publisher wrote, unlike Justin and Al and John I think I’ll wait until I read what Rob wrote before I pronounce judgment from on high.

That said, the trailer does make it seem like Rob’s upcoming book will take on some tough questions about salvation. What is it, exactly? How is it made possible? Bell’s video asks if Gandhi is in hell, and he asks if we have the right to say so. Again, since the book is not yet out, everything is speculation, but it seems like Rob intends to explore the ideas of heaven and hell, and how we get to one or the other, and he intends to look at it a bit more broadly than Drs. Mohler and Piper might prefer. So what’s the problem exactly?

The Bible does clearly state that many of us are bound for hell. I hope Rob agrees with that, because if he doesn’t, then he has indeed stepped far outside of Biblical truth. Where there is much room for debate, however, is exactly what the Bible says about how to get to heaven. Fortunately, there is a core set of beliefs that virtually no evangelical Christian will dispute. They have been famously explained this way:

  1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life;

  2. All of us sin, and our sin has separated us from God;

  3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through him we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our life;

  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s plan for our lives.

These are Bill Bright’s famous “Four Spiritual Laws,” and as I mentioned, they are universally believed in the evangelical community, as far as they go. But some evangelicals go further. Whereas Bill Bright said, “We must . . . receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord” some insist we must also add, “. . . and receive him by that name precisely, and consciously and deliberately believe in the historical details of his crucifixion and resurrection as a person who was both fully man and fully God.”

I suspect we would find Al Mohler, John Piper and Justin Taylor firmly in this camp. Theologians call it “Exclusivism.” At the opposite end of the theological spectrum is “Universalism,” which holds that God’s love and His desire that none should perish means everyone will go to heaven, and hell is empty (except perhaps for the odd demon). This is what Rob Bell has been accused of, but those doing the accusing seem to think there’s nothing in-between these two positions. If so, they could not be more wrong.

I wrote a chapter on the territory in-between in my memoir, The Gospel according to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me about Jesus
As part of the companion study guide, I collected a few quotes by other famous fundamentalist evangelical theologians on this subject. You can read those quotes here, and I strongly suggest that you pause a moment now, and go do it. You may not know me, or have any reason to believe what I write here, but I promise you will be familiar with many of the sources of those quotes.

All of the great Christians quoted in the study guide would disagree with the idea that a person cannot enter into a healthy relationship with God without—regardless of circumstances—first expressing faith or belief in the historical details of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God/man. Given that, some might wonder if these men are saying it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to suffer and die on the cross. Do they believe Jesus could have simply examined our hearts’ intentions and decided if we were worthy for salvation based on that, without all the torture and the blood?

It’s a natural question to ask, and based on everything we know about these men, I think we have to answer, no, they all believed exactly the same things every evangelical Christian believes about the reason, purpose, effectiveness and exclusivity of the cross and empty tomb. We get a hint of this when we zero in on a few of those quotes:

"...elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated, and saved by Christ..." (Westminster Confession of Faith)

"...all salvation is through Jesus..." (C.S. Lewis)

”...anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ." (J.I. Packer)

They're saying salvation--all salvation--is by grace through faith in Jesus alone. We know these men aren’t Universalists. None of them think Buddha or Vishnu or Allah saves. All of them believe every soul in heaven got there in "one way" only: through the mercy and justice of the cross. They would point to Hebrews 11 as one proof of this (the part that teaches that all the OT believers were saved through faith in a future event--the cross--even though “they did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance”). These men would say the crucifixion was essential, because it was not a mere symbol but was instead an objective fact, an effective and direct Divine intervention in history, by which the potential for justice was actually reestablished in our relationship with God, and a genuine process set in motion which will one day also reestablish all the laws of nature in the universe as they were originally created to be.

So that's not the question they’re dealing with. Instead, they want to know this: if we say we must have faith in the historical details of the crucifixion and resurrection in order to be saved--if we must consciously assent not only to the "Four Spiritual Laws" but also to the full scriptural detail behind them--then what do we believe about the countless people who have lived and died without hearing and/or understanding those specifics of the Good News?

Do we believe every infant who ever died is in hell? Every adult with a baby's mind? Every American Indian before Columbus? Every person who lived before 33 AD?

Of course most Christians have had this conversation many times, and most of us would say, no, the God we love would find a way to save such people. But then we must ask, on what basis does He save them? That is where most of us throw up our hands and answer simply, "God will find a way," but the men I quoted are a bit braver than most, and tried to take it deeper.

Think of stories we've heard about missionaries who encounter people in the deepest jungles and tell them the Gospel, only to learn those people already somehow believe in a God who died for them. In these missionaries' stories, the jungle people are delighted to learn the real name of their God, "Jesus", but what if one of these people who previously believed in a strange “God-who-died-for-us” had passed away the day before the missionaries arrived? She knew some of the facts—the substitutionary sacrifice part—but would she have gone to hell because she died without hearing that God’s name, Jesus, or the fact that he was both fully God and fully man? In other words, must she know all of the historical details, or are only some of them enough? And if only some, which ones, exactly?

We believe those missionaries' stories, and stories about Muslims meeting Jesus in their dreams and so forth, because we believe in miracles. But are those stories really about paranormal miracles, or do we think such revelations are completely normal? Do we think God somehow tells everyone on earth the historical details of the gospel before they die? No child dies in Pakistan until they know it? Every mother in the Amazon? Every man in the mountains of Tibet already knows all the historical details of the Gospel? The Bible does say everyone is "without excuse" because of God's self-revelation through the glory of creation, but does that passage also mean God has revealed the full story of the crucifixion to everyone? If so, if God would never let anyone die without first revealing the historical facts behind the Gospel, miraculously if necessary, why would Jesus command us to go throughout the world and spread the Gospel? And if we don’t believe God reveals the full Gospel to everyone, if there are unreached people on the earth who die in ignorance of it, does that mean those people will suffer in eternal fire forever?

Or could it be that some of those people--probably only a few because the gate is narrow for us all—could some of them in total ignorance of the facts of the Passion nonetheless see the Lord around them in creation's glory and recognize the truth of what they see, and reject the worship of “images” even as they sense the utter impossibility of climbing up to such a holy God as that, and fall on their face in utter desperation, filled with love and desiring nothing for themselves except a relationship with the One they love, offering themselves completely to a Mystery they long to know, and begging Him to have mercy on them, to find a way to climb down to them instead, to let them simply love Him and be loved by Him?

If someone prayed that way, yet died in ignorance of the cross, how would Jesus Christ respond? That is the real question.

Quoting one of many similar verses ("No one comes to the Father except by me") some devoted Christians believe Jesus would still condemn such a person to hell, because after all, if God had wanted such a person to be saved, surely He could have found a way to speak the historical details of the Gospel into that person's mind. Plus of course, He is God, and quoting this perhaps, some say who are we to question His decisions? And I think every true Christian would agree God could indeed reveal every detail to everyone before they die, if that were God's intention, and God does indeed have every right to do with everyone exactly as He wills.

But other Christians—equally devoted—pointing elsewhere in the same scriptures think God has already made His preference known, and He desires us all to live with him if we only will. They believe God might choose to save the person I described above, and do it on the basis of the cross, even though the person does not know the cross exists. Fine Christian men like Justin Martyr, C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and Billy Graham might suggest it is not the historical fact of the cross which saves us; it is the One who used the cross to change history. They might point to James's famous statement that even demons believe, and shudder. They might mention that throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus was much more concerned with the content of the human heart than he was with religious belief systems. And they might ask, what does "except by me" mean, primarily? Does it mainly mean "except by knowledge of a Jewish carpenter?" Or from looking at the very next verse, might it much more likely mean, "except by the intercession of the second Person of the Trinity?" (I say “mainly” because of course, Jesus was both, but can it really follow that one must understand that fact in order to be saved? And if so, are we all lost, for which of us really understands it?)

In short, some Christians think we’re saved by what we know; others think we’re saved by who we know, but one thing is for sure: if any Christian wants to accuse another of heresy over this, then they’re going to have to include men like John Wesley, John Stott, Justin Martyr, Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis among the heretics. Given such a cloud of witnesses, personally I think it’s much wiser to leave the accusations to Satan, who loves to do such things, and admit that I don't know the mind of God on such a matter.

Finally, given all of this the usual next question is, "In that case, why bother to evangelize?" and the answer is: 1) because it helps our neighbors to draw closer to the Lord through deeper knowledge about the sacrificial nature of His love for them, and; 2) because Jesus Christ commanded it. Either should be more than enough motivation for any Christian.

I have no idea what Rob Bell has written about all of this. If he did believe in a God who doesn’t care about justice, who allows unrepentant Hitlers to live forever in heaven alongside repentant saints, then I do think he would be horribly wrong, and worse than wrong, I think he would be in grave spiritual danger himself for leading many people astray. I also think he will be in grave spiritual danger if his new book does teach Universalism, because that doctrine is not Biblical, and leads to damning complacency among its adherents. But I don’t know that Rob believes any of that. Neither do Albert Mohler, or John Piper, or Justin Taylor. And oh, how I wish we Christians would learn not to attack a brother (in The New York Times, no less!) before we know it’s absolutely necessary.

So far in this matter, the only things we know for sure are these: 1) there have indeed been famous pastors behaving poorly, and; 2) they have not been Rob Bell.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 1:03 PM 8 comments  

Shall We Dance?

Every now and then I have a chance to preach at my church. Last Sunday, I spoke about Proverbs 8, and the Trinity. If you're a Christian, can you explain why the idea that our Lord exists as three Persons is the most important thing we Christians know, except for the cross and empty tomb? It's strange, but many of us can't. I wonder why we spend so little time thinking and talking about it . . .

I’m in awe of Proverbs 8. All of the scriptures are sacred, of course, but today we’re moving onto truly holy ground. Today we’re going to glimpse what it’s like to be the Creator of the universe. And along with awe, I feel an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude, because today’s passage proves my Heavenly Father wants me to know as much about Him as my little mind can understand. I think there’s only one reason why the Creator would bother to reveal Himself this way: He loves me—and all of you—very much, and like all lovers, He wants to be known. So let’s begin in Proverbs 8:

1 Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice? 2 On the heights beside the way, in the paths she takes her stand; 3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: 4 "To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the sons of men.”

Proverbs 7 shows us secrecy is the enemy of relationships. There, the wicked woman goes out into the street to find the wayward young man, but she wants him to come alone back to her house. She says, “It’s okay, my husband isn’t home. This will be our little secret.” But here in 8:4 we see wisdom is different. Wisdom calls to all humanity, all the sons of men. You can also see this in verses 15 & 16.

15 By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; 16 by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth. 17 I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.

So wisdom works at the most highly visible human level, among kings and rulers. Wickedness operates in secret, destroying relationships and community, but wisdom stands out in the open, calling to everyone, guiding entire nations. And if you look at the very end of chapter 7, you see wickedness comes at a high cost. In the end, it costs everything.

But now look at verse 17 in chapter 8. Wisdom says “Those who seek me find me.” And why is that? The answer is also right there in 17. God loves those who love him. Folly says come home with me, and I’ll show you a secret. You’ll find peace and joy through what you know. Wisdom also offers peace and joy, but out in the open. Wisdom says it’s not what you know, but who you know. God wants to be known. “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.” Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7:7. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

So this is one way we can know we’re approaching the true Master of the Universe, and not a cheap little imitation: The one true God keeps no secrets.

On the contrary, again and again Jesus implores us to listen and believe. “Verily, verily I say unto you,” he says, over and over, begging us to hear the plain truth of his teaching. And why does he bother? Again, because God loves us very much, and like all lovers, God wants to be known.

Back in Matthew 7, right after promising that those who seek will find, Jesus also says, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Notice how Jesus says ask and it will be given. Your Father in heaven will give good gifts. Wicked secrets have a cost, but God’s wisdom is free, at least for you and me.

Of course as Christians we know wisdom is free, but justice is not. Justice requires an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The vast wisdom of God’s love, and the forgiveness which proves God’s love, is openly available to everyone, a standing offer at no cost to us, because Jesus already paid the price for it on the cross.

On the night before his crucifixion, they took Jesus prisoner and asked him questions, hoping he would say something they could use against him. In John 18:21-22 He answered: "I have spoken openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

Jesus said nothing in secret. Wisdom calls out in the streets. True love keeps no secrets. God wants to be known. Over and over again, Jesus freely and openly explains the way to peace and joy in life. Over and over again he says simply, “believe.”

Jesus says, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

He says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

And one of the most famous things Jesus ever said is in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.”

To some of us, this just seems too easy. Here we are, wondering how to connect with the Creator of light and time and molecules and black holes, and Jesus says, “Just believe”? Some of us feel there must be more mystery than that. More to know.

Just believe? It can’t be that simple. And I agree. I do agree. On one level, I think that’s far too simple.

If we understood the slightest bit about what we’re really doing here today, talking and thinking about this vast Presence who not only fills the entire universe, but also exists somehow outside of time and space in a way we can’t begin to imagine, if we could fully know the smallest fact about God’s actual state of existence, then I think we’d have to agree that entering a loving relationship with Him is, at the very least, mysterious. And to solve a mystery, you must understand it. So why does Jesus say, “Just believe?”

To begin to understand this, I think we have to press closer to the sacred territory I mentioned at first, the holy ground that begins in Proverbs 8, verse 22.

22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; 26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. 27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.

If you know the Bible, you’ll feel you’ve heard something very much like these words before, and of course you have. Here are the first few words of the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

The apostle Paul also enters this mystery in Colossians 1:15-17, where he says:

15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Solomon writes of “creation” and “the beginning” and “kings and rulers” and “wisdom.” John and Paul write of exactly the same things, except instead of “wisdom” John speaks of “the Word,” and Paul comes right out and speaks of “Jesus.” The apostles’ words are so similar to Solomon’s, I really think they must have had this particular Proverb in mind.

But what about that language in verse 8:22, where depending on the translation we read phrases like: “The Lord created me,” or “the Lord brought me forth as the firstborn,” or “as the first of His works.” If Solomon is really talking about the second person of the Trinity, as John and Paul seem to think, then this language is a problem, isn’t it? Because as Christians we know Jesus is not the first thing made by the Lord, not a creature created by the Lord; Jesus is the Lord, as Paul wrote in a couple of places.

Some think this means Proverbs 8 is only poetic symbolism. They think it’s strictly about wisdom. But the problem isn’t only here in Proverbs. Remember the Colossians quote I mentioned? Paul calls Jesus “firstborn over all creation.” So we can’t avoid this simply by calling Proverbs 8 a symbolic poem.

This mystery is too deep for that, and like all mysteries in the Bible, I believe the thing to do is not to turn away from it, or deny it, but rather to press into it, and by doing that, learn more about the Lord. Let’s press in.

In Libya today there are mass demonstrations and a cruel government crackdown which some people think may lead to more terrorism. Early in the fourth century another big problem came out of Libya, when a popular teacher named Arius decided this Proverb and Paul’s “firstborn” language means there must have been a time when Christ didn’t exist. Arius also thought it meant Christ and the Father were fundamentally different. This is called the Arian heresy. Even today, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons still teach these mistakes, but they directly contradict what Jesus said about himself. For example, in Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” And he said, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” Notice that especially: Jesus didn’t say “I was,” but he very specifically said, “I AM,” exactly as God said to Moses from the burning bush.

The church fathers three hundred years later responded to the Arian heresy with the Nicene Creed, which says:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father . . .”

You could almost call this section of the Nicene Creed a commentary on Proverbs 8. The connection comes in the words, “begotten, not made.” Notice the church fathers are drawing a distinction there. “Begotten, not made.” It’s vital to remember the difference. Birds make nests. Humans make houses. God made the universe. But birds beget birds. Humans beget humans. And God begot God.

God made the universe, but God begot God. You see?

To be made, or created, is very different from being firstborn, or begotten. Something made is fundamentally different from the maker, but something begotten is the same substance as the begetter.

So if that word “created” in some translations of Proverbs 8:22 causes all this confusion, why use it? Well, the original Hebrew word is found 85 times in the Old Testament, and in all but three of those places it’s translated as “buy,” or “get,” or “possess.” In fact, this same word is used eleven times where Proverbs says, “Get wisdom.” But in those three remaining places, there is indeed a sense of being born. So a perfect translation would have to use an English word that means get, buy, possess, and born. But there isn’t such a word, is there? So the translators had to make the best of it. Sometimes we say things like, “Alexander Graham Bell is the father of the telephone,” as if an inventor could give birth to an invention. So the translators used “created” because at least that English word more or less sits between the ideas of “being possessed” and “being born.”

Personally, I think the New American Bible gives the best translation of verse 22. It reads, “The Lord begot me, the firstborn of His ways.” I think they rendered it that way because it’s closer to the “firstborn” language Paul used, and because it’s closer to Jesus’ own attempt to explain what he is, as God’s “only begotten son.”

Now we’ve seen how God begot God, and we’ve seen how important it is to remember that meanings don’t always translate directly from Hebrew into English, but there’s still a mystery, because the Hebrew word in verse 22 does carry both the idea of being born, or “firstborn” as Paul puts it. And of course if something is born, then that is the beginning of it, right? But the Lord has no beginning, and “Jesus is Lord,” as Paul said. So it seems there’s still more to learn by pressing even more deeply into this mystery.

Let’s begin with Leo Tolstoy. That famous novelist once said, "One may say with one's lips: 'I believe that God is one, and also three' - but no one can believe it, because the words have no sense." And I think we have to admit it’s true: those words have no sense.

Speaking of nonsense, I always think it’s adorable when a child is just learning to speak and he’s still lapsing into gaa-gaa-goo-goo sometimes, and his mom or dad says, “Use your words, dear.” We get more words as we grow up, but when it comes to some things, aren’t we all still at that gaa-gaa-goo-goo stage?

We don’t really have the words to fully explain the taste of water or the smell of air, do we? And when your heart swells with love or soars with a sunset, aren’t you sometimes almost painfully aware of how impossible it is to describe the most important things? Of course you are. We all know this is true. We’ve all lived it. So, getting back to trying to explain how the second person of the Trinity could be firstborn or begotten, let’s not make the foolish mistake of thinking words can be applied to Jesus in the same way they apply to us.

God begot God, and God has no beginning or end, therefore God’s only Son is begotten, and he has no beginning and no end.

This can no more be explained in words than that feeling you get at sunsets, or the way you feel when you watch a loved one sleep, but it’s every bit as true as every sunset, and every bit as true as everyone you love.

Still, something God put inside us wants to try to understand the Trinity. So, being very careful to remember analogies for God are only made of words, let’s think a moment about fire.

When fire appears, it produces flames and light and heat, correct? We have flames, and light, and heat, all three, all in the one thing, fire. But it’s not correct to say the flame was first and the light or heat came second. If there is one fire, there are also always flame and light and heat. Three are produced (or born or created, if you like) out of one, yet all exist at all times. And so it is with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sort of.

We can learn more from the “the Son of God” analogy Jesus himself chose to describe his life with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Think about the fact that it’s impossible to be a child without having had a parent. It’s also impossible to be a parent without a having had a child. This is so important: unless a parent and a child both exist, it isn’t possible for either to exist. I myself have no children, therefore I am not a father. A Son implies a Father. But a Father also implies a Son. You could say they define each other. In a way, you could even say they create each other. So there’s that word “create” again, except it applies in a totally different way to the Godhead.

This means if there ever were a time before the Son of God, then there would also have to be a time before the Heavenly Father. Yet God by definition is eternal and never changes. So if God was ever a Father, God was always a Father, and if Jesus was ever God’s only begotten Son, Jesus was always God’s Son, from before his creative works began, exactly as it says in Proverbs 8:22.

I think Jesus had a second reason for choosing the Father/Son analogy, and I think from our point of view, it’s much more important. I think he used the Father/Son analogy for the same reason he inspired Solomon to use the lyrical language of Proverbs 8. I think Jesus wants us to think of the Godhead in terms of love.

Look at 30 and 31 again: “I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.”

What a beautiful image! The Father and Son at work together in the fields of the Lord, the Father showing the Son new and wondrous things, and the Son building on His ideas and laughing aloud with delight, and the Son’s delight an absolute delight to the Father, and the two of them, delighting in their mutual delight, and all the universe a profound labor of love because the Son and Father are so joyously in love with each other. It’s, “Look, Father! Look what I just made!” And “Oh, excellent, Son! Do it again!” . . . and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made . . . and the Word became flesh, and dwelled among us. (John 1:1-3 & 14)

And just here is where I’m sorely tempted to fall to the ground with awe, because I read Solomon’s words with an overwhelming sense that the curtain outside the Most Holy Place has been lifted just a little, and what I’m peeking through to see is what the physicists like to call the Big Bang, but what really seems to be much more than only that, more like the very source, the center, the cosmic beginning or entry point of all the love that ever was or ever will exist throughout the universe.

The history of humanity is one long theology lesson, God revealing facts about Himself as fast as we can absorb them. He used Jews to explain his oneness to the world. He used Christians to reveal his three-in-oneness. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures we see it. Not just here in chapter 8, but also in Proverbs 30:4, where a thousand years before the time of Jesus it asks, “Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands? Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and the name of his son? Tell me if you know!”

So why don’t Christians spend more time thinking and talking about the Trinity? We really should. It’s the most important thing we know, except for the cross and empty tomb.

The Trinity explains why God isn’t an impersonal force that made everything and then withdrew.

The Trinity explains why God is personally involved, all the time, in everything.

The Trinity explains love.

The philosopher Martin Buber wrote a little book called I and Thou. It says we can only exist in one of two ways. Those two ways are “I-It”, or “I-You”. Buber said there is no third way of existing. We are sensory creatures. We are emotional creatures. We are relational creatures. We can’t survive without something or someone to relate to, any more than we could survive without air or water.

Most of us don’t understand this. Most of us think we can be just “I”, independent of “You”, or even of “It”. But when we try to do that, what we really enter is the “I-It” way of being. We become our own “it”.

This is what happens when we think of ourselves as something to be dulled with alcohol or drugs, or as something to be distracted with sex or work, or something to be gratified with possessions. To try to live only as an “I” is to think of ourselves as something about which something must be done. When we do that, we become subhuman. We become “I-It”.

But there is also “I-You”. When we are “I-You”, we are outward focused, on the Other. We are truly engaged in the world, unwilling to dull or distract or gratify ourselves because the Other, the You, is too wonderful to miss. It’s frightening sometimes, but “I-You” lives life as life truly is, far out there beyond just I, independent of just I. “I-You” gives itself away, and wonder of wonders, in giving, we receive.

But we don’t care about receiving. We are in “I-You”. The focus is not “It” and certainly not “I”. The focus is the Other, the You. In other words, (if you haven’t already figured this out), we are in love.

True love requires a “You”. True love must have an Other, in order to exist. You cannot even imagine true love in a vacuum. Remember! True love requires a “You".

So again, these are our only choices: “I-It”, or “I-You”, because relationship is as essential for survival as air or water. A single “I” is impossible. When we try to live that way, we turn ourselves into “I-It”, or else we go mad, which may be the same thing.

God, of course, is different. Unlike any created thing, God requires nothing for his existence. God and God alone exists simply as “I”. This is what God means when Moses asks him, “What should we call you?” and God replies, “I AM.” God is only “I”, or “I AM”. But the Apostle John also said, “God is love,” and remember, true love requires a “You”. It’s impossible to love in a vacuum. But before “the beginning” what Other existed? Before creation, there was only the Creator.

So because love requires a “You”, and because God is love, and because there was a time when only God existed, God must, somehow, be both an “I” and a “You”.

Of course, Christians know this is true. There is one God, but somehow God exists as three persons. We don’t pretend to know how this is possible. How could we, when we have only “goo-goo-gaa-gaa” to describe the eternal, the all-powerful, the ever present, the never changing? But we know this is true, because wisdom calls out in the streets. There are no secrets. God wants to be known. We see it in our Bibles.

We see the Three together in chapter one of Mark, at the Jordon River when the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus like a dove, and the Father speaks from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love.” We see them in this morning’s passage: Wisdom with the Father, two Persons delighting in each other, delighting in the thing they’re creating together, and the delight created with their love becoming so complete within itself it must also be thought of as a Person, the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Because there are really three parts to Martin Buber’s word of love. There is the “I”. There is the “You”. And there is the dash between, the hyphen that holds I and You together, and is held in place by them.

I was reading C.S. Lewis on the Trinity, and I found this:

“In Christianity God is not a static thing...but a dynamic pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person.” (“Good Infection”. Mere Christianity, Book IV, “Beyond Personality”)

God is a dance. What an amazing idea. But I think of how I feel when I’m closest to the Lord, and I know exactly what it means. And look at verses 23 and 24 again. See where it says, “I was established,” or “I was brought forth”? That same Hebrew word can mean “I danced.” And in verses 31 and 32, where some translations see wisdom “rejoicing” in God’s presence, the Hebrew can also be understood to mean wisdom was “at play.”

The idea that the Holy Spirit emanates from that dance, that play between the Father and the Son, made me remember a strange thing Jesus says in John 16:7: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Why did Jesus have to go away before the Holy Spirit would come down? If Lewis is correct, I think we have part of the answer.

After accepting the humiliation of life on a fallen earth and betrayal and torture on the cross for you and me, the only begotten Son returned to the heavenly Father in triumph, and only then did the infinite delight of their reunion inspire the Holy Spirit to call out to all creatures great and small, “Come and join the dance!”

All of this returns me to that question I asked earlier: Why is it almost every time Jesus talks about the way to enter a relationship with God, he says simply, “Believe?” How could such a simple thing make such a massive difference? The answer, of course, is that it is far from simple.

C.S. Lewis went on to put this better than I could. He said:

“The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made . . . If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separate from God, what can he do but wither and die?” (Lewis, ibid)

Even Christians sometimes forget that the beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. She calls in the streets. She has no secrets. God wants to be known. But Jesus doesn’t want us to miss the obvious: We must believe her, not just one time long ago, but all day every day. James put this in a different way: “Faith without works is dead.”

Look at how you live your life. Do you really believe wisdom? Then do what she says.

If you’re not a Christian, you might think believing means turning your back on questions and answers. But Jesus has no secrets. Believe wisdom, and you step closer to the truth, not further from it. You step into the fountain from whom all the answers flow. You join the Divine dance Solomon describes. You are united with the Heavenly Father, Begotten Son, and Holy Spirit, and you will have eternity for answers.

We are all made in the image and the likeness of a God who exists in true love, in “I the Father”, in “You the Son”, in the Spirit who holds I and You together and is held in place by them. Whether we never knew it before, or whether we knew it and forgot it, we are made in that rejoicing image of community. We are made in that dancing likeness of relationship.

We can try to deny the obvious, and end up sulking all alone on the little island of “I-It”. Or we can believe the wisdom calling in the streets, and live like we believe it, and be at play in the fields of the Lord forever, in the joyous universe of “I-You”. Those are our only choices. Folly hides the ugly truth about herself, and in the end she will cost everything we have, but wisdom keeps no secrets, and the heavy price of what she offers is already paid. Wisdom calls to all of us, and the most important question is . . . shall we dance?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:18 AM 3 comments  

On Getting Lungs

To teach is to learn. I led a discussion on the Lord’s Prayer and the Proverbs last night, and gleaned many inspiring insights from the friends I was supposed to be teaching, but for me the most intriguing moment came when we discussed these two strange facts:

1. The Lord’s Prayer is meant to be prayed by a community of believers.
2. There is no such community mentioned in the Proverbs.

Point number one seems clear when we notice the plural pronouns Jesus used: “Our Father”, “give us this day our daily bread”, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. Surely the One who was the “craftsman at God’s side” during creation (Prov 8: 22-31) did not craft these phrases lightly. We are meant to speak this prayer together, as a body which is one as Christ and the Father are one (John 17:11 & 22). Why then don’t we see some hint of this communal aspect of belief in Proverbs? Solomon leads a people who are called to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Surely he well understood the role of community in a believer’s life. So why did Solomon use the words “our”, “us”, and “we” only in the context of a group of sinners who lie in wait to steal and murder, or an adulteress and adulterer together in their bed of sin? (See Prov 1:11-15, 7:18, & 24:12 the only three places in Proverbs where these plural pronouns appear in the Hebrew.)

The answer, as we discussed it, lies in the fact that every child is born completely self-aware. Total immersion in ourselves makes it impossible imagine life in true community. So the Lord must meet us in that solitary place, and He does.

No one enters the city of God (or the people of Israel) among a crowd. The gate is narrow, not only because it is difficult, but also because we must pass through one by one. Solomon, in all his wisdom, can only point the way. He does this not with constant references to heaven (there is just the one, mentioned above) nor with prophecies of messianic kingdoms (that will come five centuries later, with Daniel) but by showing one young man what life can be when lived as God intended all along. In so doing, Solomon helps that solitary young man understand he cannot measure up to such a life alone. No one can.

Throughout the Proverbs Solomon says his words lead to life, but who can live the life of wisdom he describes? “The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom,” says Solomon. It is as if he had said to a fish out of water, “Get lungs.”

In the Gospels Jesus says “the Spirit gives life,” and “my words are Spirit.” (John 6:63) Solomon’s words point to life; Jesus’ words are life. Wisdom is something one must try to get. Life is something given.

So Solomon’s son strives for wisdom, rejecting the false community of unbelievers, but he remains alone. Only in Christ can we experience true communal life, true connection with our fellow human beings. All people outside Christ are spiritually dead, and nothing is more solitary than death. But inspired by Solomon’s glorious vision of how true life could be, those who enter one by one through that narrow gate—those who come alive—are joined in a single living Body, somehow “one” with millions and millions of other individuals across the globe and centuries, just as Jesus and the Spirit and the Father are One everywhere for all time.

Through our collective Christian veins flows the blood of the one true life, Christ’s. This is not a matter of being in community one day, if all goes well. It is an accomplished fact. “It is finished,” because Christ has done it. We are one vine, one body, one church. This is true even when we forget, even when we pretend otherwise, because even then we are alive in Christ, we all have lungs at last, and all of us together inhale one Spirit, counselor and protector. But we do forget, and therein lies a challenge we have faced for centuries.

To an early church mired in doctrinal disputes, the church father Tertullian once said the devil has tried to destroy the truth in many ways, often by defending it.

Even last night we forgot it. As we read Peter Kreeft on this subject, it was difficult to think of Peter as us, and to think of us as Peter, because we are Protestants and Peter is a Catholic. Our brother writes of the “mystical” and of “purgatory” and we look for distance from him, as if such a thing were possible, as if our brother were himself the embodiment of doctrine we deem false, as if the eye could say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” or to the feet, “I don’t need you!” simply because the eye sees something disagreeable about the hands and feet. (1 Cor 12:14-21)

We are people of the Book. We spend countless hours reading, talking and thinking about God’s Word, which is good because that is why the Book was given, but sometimes in the midst of it we would do well to pause and reflect on the poem of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Sometimes in the midst of it we would do well to remember that the very first doctrine we all learned--the Gospel itself--is at once the simplest and most wonderful, and it alone was all that mattered when we entered through that narrow gate. When doctrinal disputes arise in this community of ours, if in true humility we will follow every question to the Source, there we’ll find “nothing except Jesus, and him crucified.” Our faith does “not rest on the wisdom of men [not even Solomon’s!], but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Anything which contradicts that power is outside of us, but anything which does not contradict it should be embraced, if not with intellectual assent, then with loving forbearance.

After all, it is truly finished. We are one vine, one body, one church. No lesser doctrine than the Gospel could unite us, and no lesser doctrine can divide us if only together we will pray, “Our Father...give us...lead us...deliver us.”

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:50 AM 1 comments  

The Worst List of All Time

I found something disturbing recently while looking for ways to promote The Opposite of Art. It’s a list over at GoodReads, called “The Worst Books of All Time.” In the top (bottom?) 50 titles or so, I found books like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Billy Budd, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Red Badge of Courage, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Forest Gump, Fahrenheit 451, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Pearl. As a novelist and as a Christian, that list saddens me.

While discussing it with some fellow novelists, one said many books by Christians are poorly written. She then felt the need to qualify her statement by affirming that she thinks there are lots of well-written novels by Christians. Probably she didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings, and that's laudable, but it seems to me she had it right the first time.

It’s true many novels by Christians are poorly written. That's also true of many other kinds of novels. In fact it’s true of most novels of every kind, but its not a particular indictment of mediocre writers or the readers who enable them. Most people don't really care about excellence in architecture, sculpture, painting, or dance . . . or government, commerce, marriage, or anything else in life that ought to matter.

What interests me, is why. In our discussion about the “Worst Books” list, some of my author friends speculated that so many people dislike those novels because they were forced to read them in school and disliked them then. But these books truly are works of genius—most of them are, anyway—so why didn't we love them in the first place?

The answer has to do with what it means to live in a fallen world. As creatures made in the Creator's image, we were designed to use our gifts to their utmost, and to savor excellence in our neighbor's use of their gifts. It's impossible to imagine the words "good enough" being spoken in the Garden before the Fall. But we did fall, and one of the things we lost was our ability to throw ourselves into living with complete abandon. "Good is the enemy of great," as Jim Collins wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire). Thus, in settling for good enough, we have rampant mediocrity in the world.

Another thing we abandoned in the Fall was our ability to perceive the true extent of what we've lost. So when expediency and ego dilute the full potential of even our best writers and artists, the audience, being also lost, doesn't know enough to care. Therefore they applaud what little they can get, and their applause rewards mediocrity. This in turn inspires the production of more mediocrity, and the cycle builds more and more support for itself until mediocrity seems normal, or even (God forbid) good, and because that lie has become pervasive, the truth is difficult for even Christians to remember. Thus we have rampant mediocrity even in the church.

The faithful Christian's life will always include a sense of resisting mediocrity at every turn. It's a command and a duty. "Whatever you do, do it will all your heart, as if for the Lord and not for men." (Col 3:23) It's no coincidence that this command includes the same requirement for wholeheartedness as the Greatest Command of all, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart...."

How can we love the Lord with all our heart? By living every part of life with all our heart. By not settling. By always striving to improve. In other words, as with all of His commands, the Creator simply wants us to live (write, marry, work, etc.) as we were originally created to live...with complete abandonment to what we truly are, which will reveal itself in the constant exercise of excellence in all our gifts.

Don't believe the lie of "good enough." You're so much better than that. Strive for excellence in everything you do, including what you write and what you read.

Live with all your heart.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:51 AM 5 comments