24 January, 2010

A Perfect Circle

When I was a kid, I tried really hard to draw circles. I imagined a circle was a line that bent around smoothly until it met back up with itself. I could draw a perfect circle if I could just bend the line around at exactly the same rate until the end met back up with the beginning. I got pretty good at it even.

And then I took geometry. Did you know a circle is the collection of all points the same distance from a center? That's a completely different way of looking at this shape. A circle is no longer a bendy line over which I have to sweat to make sure it bends just right. Give me a compass setting and as long as I know where the center is, I can fill in little bits of the circle anywhere I want to. They'll always meet up. Understanding "center" makes circles very easy.

It can be hard to tell the difference between freehand and compass-drawn circles, though. They're both just round lines.

Seeing the bible as a novel rather than a theology feels the same. My new conclusions look the same as the old ones. I'm relieved to feel a little surer my theology is round, but I doubt I'm really going to believe much differently. The joy comes when I feel a passage's impact before I categorize it, when I can tell where it fits in the narrative before I think about which theological team might claim it as a proof-text.

Take this earth-shattering promise from Isaiah:
Isa 54:8-10
With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you," Says the LORD, your Redeemer. For this [is] like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed," Says the LORD, who has mercy on you.

This is staggering.

Matthew Henry responds to it like this:
He will not be so angry with them as to cast them off and break his covenant with them (Ps. 89:34), nor rebuke them as he has rebuked the heathen, to destroy them, and put out their name for ever and ever, Ps. 9:5.

Jamison, Fausset, and Brown have this to say:
I am about to do the same in this instance as in Noah's flood. As I swore then that it should not return ( Gen 8:21 9:11 ), and I kept that promise, so I swear now to My people, and will perform My promise, that there shall be no return of the deluge of My wrath upon them. LOWTH, on insufficient authority, reads (the same will I do now as), "in the days of Noah."

Those statements don't sound staggering to me, and that's a problem. They sound correct, but this is a staggering moment in scripture. If you look at this as just another promise about God restraining His wrath or as a prophecy of the end times or as a commentary on God's free will trumping man's free will, it ends up sounding like the 4th line of a 12 line geometry proof. It might be critical, but it sure ain't compelling.

If I were to provide Cliff Notes for this passage, to comment on it as a part of the ongoing story of God's self-unveiling, it'd sound more like this:

What just happened!?

We've known this God for a couple thousand years now, and suddenly He changes all the rules? Yahweh made Eden perfect, then cast out the man who ruined it. He destroyed every living thing when the men He'd cast out of Eden corrupted the rest of His Earth. He flooded it all out. Gone. He only narrowly decided to gamble on His creation one more time and spared Noah. He did vow He'd see this second chance through to the end, but not before He'd shown us His driving obsession with perfection.

We saw it again when He brought His people out of Egypt, then killed all but Joshua, Caleb and their families in the desert. And again when He established a nation, then brought the Assyrians to sweep most of them away. And according to Isaiah, the Babylonians were coming to sweep the rest away soon. Yahweh is not afraid to be angry. He's not afraid to sweep everything away and start over fresh. He's unafraid to fail, but utterly incapable of settling for second best.

And with this one promise He closed the door on Himself.

In this promise He did nothing less than monkey-trap Himself. He promised to hold on to Israel, without ever letting go and without any conditions. All His previous promises had conditions. We spent hundreds of pages learning this about Him. He's a cagey God Who promises the moon to those who meet His conditions, but Who curses the man who tramples on His promises just as enthusiastically.

What's He got up His sleeve?

Who is this Yahweh that He can dare us to disbelieve Him this way?

I want to ask the perfect question of this verse, but I can't, and I hope you won't expect it of me. But there's something at the edge of my mind. What is He planning? Is He excited? Does He feel anything like that rush of adrenaline I feel when I double-down on a bet and put my house up as collateral? Is He showing something like the smug glee of a magician flamboyantly reaching down into his hat when he knows the rabbit's up his sleeve the whole time? Or do we see the confidence of a skilled craftsman turning a lump of gold into a pomegranate?

But who cares if I don't know the perfect question. I'm in awe. God reveals Himself in a new light here.

There are so many layers of mystery in this passage. So far I've only looked at the surface! Remember that it was Jesus Who led Israel out of Egypt, and Yahweh Who walked on Earth. God never changes, only our understanding of Him. There's only one God yesterday, today and forever. The great and mysterious revelation of Isaiah 54 is consistent with Yahweh's wrath at Israel all those generations before and consistent with the mercy of God in Christ. Paul's God of propitiation, sanctification, and manifestation is unchanged from Job's God of fearful trials and burning correction.

No matter what I see in God at any point in scripture, it's there in Him at every point of scripture. That He would leave so many generations to live and die with so little insight into His sacrificial mercy is yet another powerful insight into His nature. He is comfortable with Who He IS, even when we misunderstand Him. He feels no need to explain Himself to anyone. If Jonah mistakes Him for some local god, only powerful in the region of Canaan, and seeks to flee to Tarshish, Yahweh does not lecture him on the true scope of His power. He simply tells Jonah what he needs to know and do, and places him back on the path to Nineveh.

Does the magnificence of God's self-confidence not strike you? Does it not impact you that He promised Israel never to rebuke them again? And does it not floor you that He never made that promise before?!

Do you want to dilute that feeling, or dry it up like a tangerine baked in the desert? Try to solve the mysteries of the millenial kingdom with this verse. Or look for some root principle of sovereign grace that's been eluding you. Talk about all the things God does and will do, instead of Who He IS. The beauty of even the best well-formed proof cannot compare to majesty of God Himself pulling back the curtain and letting us get to know Him.

As I've read through the Old Testament, my ears have been slowing down. The rhythm of my reading is changing. I was raised on critical half-verse proof-texts, but I'm finding the value of whole chapters and books. God gave us a Bible rich with verses that prove nothing, and I've always wondered why. Why bog us down with so much trivia?

I'm starting to believe He's given us all those long passages for the same reason parents talk in front of their babies so much. A lot of it's over our heads, but we hang on His every word. We get to know our Father in heaven by listening to Levitius and Chronicles and Zechariah. We absorb His words and see generations of His acts, and are made ready to talk to Him. I've done my time indexing the exciting verses and ignoring the "unimportant" ones, and maybe now I'm done with it. We'll see.

And when I'm done drawing Isaiah 54 my way, what I have before me is a circle. It looks round to me, but I just don't really know. Does it look round to anyone else? I don't know. I don't think God cares how round it is any more than I cared if my babies said, "Dada," all wrong, but I'd like to be drawing my circle from a true center.

Right now, I am revelling in looking at the Bible in this new way. I feel like a kid rereading books 1-6 of the Harry Potter series for the 4th time and waiting anxiously for that 7th book. There's so much we know know about Yahweh that Abraham only felt. There was so much revealed in Christ that David only suspect due to his own calling and character. It's amazing to think about David succeeding at things because God knew one day He'd succeed at those things Himself. God gave David's victories to foreshadow His own, to unveil Himself.

And it's amazing to know there's yet more to be revealed. As much as was revealed in Jesus' first coming, there's a tome about to be written. The plot of God's novel only seems simple if you ignore the complications of His long-awaited return, Israel's restoration, the holiness of His Name before His enemies, the full realization of His kingdom, judgement and so many other themes.

I'm still unsure how many ways there are to profit by the Bible, but I'm loving this new way.

22 January, 2010

The Sound of One Bible

What is the sound of reading the bible as a novel instead of as a complex key to the universe?

Is it not the sound of a wall on which a thousand heads have quit banging?

HT: Larry Wall

18 January, 2010

Deity Development

Peter Bodo doing an analysis of Andre Agassi's autobiography said,
This is an extraordinary book on a number of levels, starting with the fact that it reads like fiction. In a good novel, the characters reveal themselves; what you need to know about them is conveyed in their actions and words, without a lot of explanation by the author. Andre's book takes the same tack.

All sorts of things fell into place when I read that quote.

Novels are about getting into the skin of the protagonist, without necessarily even knowing it happened. The protagonist makes a decision, and you know why without being told. You smell the things she smells or do the things he does, and you know exactly what you were feeling while you were there. You don't have to be told about yourself and you don't have to be told what the protagonist is thinking.

I wonder if maybe God hasn't written a textbook, a history, or a theology. Yahweh's given us a novel. And He's the Protagonist!

The many things this means are just beginning to open up to me. Do you want an example? The Bible cannot be Googled. Take Hamlet for example. You can google up great quotes from Hamlet and you can pull up Cliff Notes on it, but you can only experience Hamlet by riding the ride. You've got to strap yourself in and slowly go mad with unrequited jealousy to "get" Hamlet. Google might tell you what you'll feel, but you'll never feel it on Google.

My favorite Bible search engine accidentally insulates me from the Bible!

And theology? It takes on the same role as any other form of critique. It can elevate my opinion of the story, but not my experience of it. I can only know God by experiencing Him.

And that lines up well with my experience of life with this God. There've been no seatbelts on my life, no guardrails at the cliffs, and no way to take His foot off my gas pedal. I don't know which of us has been crazier at some points. I only know He's kept all the promises He made and broken every one my Sunday School teacher made for Him.

This life has been hard.

And so has His book.

I've known the Bible since I was a tiny bugger. There are a lot of men and women who know it a far sight better than me, but I've known it! Those Sunday School teachers told me it was a roadmap that would take me safely to heaven. They told me it'd keep me out of the ditches. Upside down at the bottom of some cliff, though, I couldn't help but wonder from which ditch I'd been saved, and whether I mightn't have been better off with Google Maps.

But what if the Bible really is a novel, and not a roadmap to all places theological and moral? If that were true, then I'd need to ride it more than study it. If it were a novel, then I'd have a chance to enter into what it is for God to be God. I'd know Him, and maybe even His Son Whom He sent.

At the beginning of the novel, I'd form initial impressions of God. Then some twists would come, and I'd learn more from how He reacted. I'd learn from both His tone of voice and His actions. Then there'd be some surprises and outright shocks. Eventually, I'd decide how to relate to this God. I'd enter into His story, or I'd reject it. I'd be feeling what He feels, or I'd be bored.

To call this increasing flavor for God, "character development," seems a little profane, but that's what it is. God is slowly unrolling His character to us in scripture. I'm going to call the process, "Divinity Development." From before the first word of creation until after the last prophecy is fulfilled, Yahweh IS but our sight of Him changes with every word.

I'll try to give a flavor of the way the Bible reads in my next post.

09 January, 2010

What you do with good ol' boys like me?

I've shared this before, but I had new thoughts about it today:
...but I was smart
and I could choose
learn to talk like the man on the 6 o'clock news
When I was 18 I hit the road
but it really dudn't matta how fa' I go'd ...

The singer crawled his way out of his backwoods heritage, and made something of himself - only to find his changes didn't change him a bit. He wanted to be something, something special, something worthy of respect. In the end he says ...

I can still hear the soft Southern wind in the live oak trees
and those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be
But whadya do with good ol' boys like me?

I've resonated with that song all my life. I grew up hick and always will be. I rose to soldiering and then to mechanicing and then to white collar success as a programmer, and I did it in a lot the same way. I listened and watched and Googled my way to grasping things that were above me.

I tried to do the same thing with God.

I figured out how to talk like the man in the pulpit and on the radio and in the books and on the blogs. I can define the Trinity just like Matthew McMahon and actually understand what I'm saying. It feels almost like being someone.

But I still hear the soft wind of real life. I'm not really that man. I'm me. And I wonder what God does with merely human men like me.

I wonder if maybe God didn't wire me never to understand the Trinity. I wonder if maybe perichoresis is *supposed* to be beyond me. But I think being me is maybe within my grasp. I'm supposed to be transformed, but transformed into simple old me with Christ and without sin. I'm not a hero. God is the Hero.

Life may be as simple as loving the people I love, richly.

I vaguely see an outline of a new life in which the old man of my theology is dead. I've been hungry for him to die for a long, long time, but I think maybe I'm beginning to see scriptural evidence God doesn't care much for that man to live either. And I need scriptural reassurance to make such a big change.

It's all well and good for people to applaud populist rants like this one, but I need good theoretical underpinning for releasing my theoretical underpinnings. Go ahead and laugh, but it's the truth. I need to feel assured solid theology says solid theology is unnecessary. And I need to check three time to make sure I haven't checked three times to see whether I turned off the iron, too. The only way I know to get over OCD is exercise constant vigilance. :-)

I may blog about this from time to time. If I do, I think I'll call it Divinity Development.

God IS

Codependency is tremendously misunderstood. It's thought of as enabling addiction, but that's only codependency's shirttail. If you dig a little deeper, you find something much more complex and harder to nail down.

Codependency is understanding yourself through the eyes of another. In the classic case, it's a wife measuring her worth through her husband's eyes. When he sees her rescuing him from his drunken blunders he sees her as an angel, and on the strength of his worship she can continue with him for years. Of course, when he sees her as a conniving shrew, she shrivels and dies.

Codependency festers in hundreds of avant-garde hidey-holes, too. It's the man who whithers when his boss misunderstands one of his decisions. It's the child who crumples when she gets a B in advanced calc. It's the alcoholic who swells with hope when his wife reminds him how she still sees him sometimes.

Codependency is the engine of failure. There's no success in codependency because we can't control how other people see us. When they see us better than we are, we're set up for the failure pride brings. When they see us worse than we are, we're bled dry of the hope we need to take the hard steps each day demands.

It amazed me to realize God IS.

God's knowledge of Himself is accurate and complete. If I despair and vent my exasperation on Him, He realizes He is faithful. If I "feel lucky" and swell with assurance He's going to work some miracle for me, He knows He's the God He is, not the One I wish He were.

There's a quiet manipulation we all work on each other. We praise and correct each other to shape the way we're treated. God is not shaped by our praises and corrections. God IS. Amazingly, neither does God manipulate us. He very directly tells us Who He is, and whom He is willing to make us. He tells us what we can do for ourselves and what we can do for Him.

God IS, and that makes relating to Him the simplest thing we'll ever do ... once we figure out how to relate to such confidence.