This is a brief departure from my current series. I’ve been chipping away at the fundamentalist/modernist debates, but this came up and it was too fun not to write about.
I don’t know that Christianity is usually associated with whimsy. Sure, you have your happy-clappy Christians that play guitar while they sing who are a good deal more relaxed than their high church counterparts, but even they’re pretty serious in the grand scheme of things. They seriously implore people to love their neighbor. They seriously talk about the need to emulate Jesus. Though they may be chipper and informal, they’re still not exactly playful on average. Whimsy seems not to come naturally when your centerpiece is a crucified God. That’s the thing I love about the Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton. He taps into a level of whimsy that is so rare within Christian communities.
For example, in his book Orthodoxy, he recalls an incident in which he was working in a publishing house and his boss had just turned someone’s manuscript down. This boss muttered, “He’ll be ok. He believes in himself.” Chesterton promptly argued that point with him:
Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.
(Ch. 2, Orthodoxy, Chesterton)
Sure enough, when we’re logical about it, when recognize that believing in ourselves doesn’t actually make us any more likely to succeed than anyone else. Every would-be pro-athlete and aspiring instagram influencer believes in themselves. Some delusionally so! We’ve all known someone who has no ability to sing and yet insists that they will be the next great pop-star. We’ve all known someone who wrote “the next great American novel” without being able to handle simple sentence structure. But telling them that they won’t hit it big won’t change their plans one iota. Why? Precisely because they believe so strongly in themselves.
Our individualist society says that if you believe in yourself, you’ll get somewhere, but Chesterton takes that secular dogma and flips it on its head. Logically, we are the least trustworthy people when it comes to evaluating our own ability. We’re incredibly biased, either for or against ourselves. We need to believe in something more secure than our own ego.
He does the same flip with our faculty of reason. We assume that if you use your reason, you’ll figure things out sooner or later. But how flawed is that assumption? Some of the most rational people in the world are the least reasonable:
If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.
Ch. 2, Orthodoxy, Chesterton
Again, the tables are turned! We assume that a keen sense of rationality can make sense of the world, but none of the people in this scenario are illogical! They all make perfect sense! And yet, we know they’ve reached the wrong conclusions.
The world we’ve constructed in our minds is far too narrow. We assume that we need to set out with our brain and our ego to conquer a largely stagnant world. But in the process, we miss all of the delightful joy that surrounds us. For example, we fail to celebrate the greenness of a leaf. We all assume that leaves ought to be green because they’re always green. But what if that leaf were polka-dotted? Or puce? Or teal? Why not? Things could have been any way imaginable! And yet, the leaf is green. What a delight! What a pure, unpredictable delight to see the greenness of a leaf and know that it could have been any other way, but it is green. It’s only our own self-centeredness that stops us from seeing the joy in that leaf! We assume that things are the way they are because “logically” that’s what they have to be. Or we assume that the green leaves are just backdrops for our grand story that we’re responsible for making. But these leaves are more than that! Once we start to delight in the crazy random joy of green leaves, we can start to wonder, why are they like that? Is it all just mechanistic detail to be relegated to the background? Or is there a joyful logic to it? Is there a god that happens to delight in green leaves?
The world we live in is so dreary. There’s so rarely anything greater than ourselves. We are expected to go out in all of our power and make something out of both ourselves and this mixed-up world. But Chesterton tells us to stop. There’s so much more at work in this world than what our little minds can perceive. Rather than drawing the limits at our own horizons, he invites us to rediscover a world infinitely larger than our own perception. A world in which a green leaf is a miracle and in which we are a tiny speck in the plans of an infinite God.
Chesterton’s works are all in the public domain, so if you’re intrigued, check out a free copy of his work on Amazon or google. And if you don’t have the time for a new read right now, reawaken your sense of whimsy. Don’t believe the narrow constraints that modern philosophy places on the world. The good news of Christianity isn’t all somber. A creative, world-creating God is real, and he’s in charge of every little thing you see. That truth makes mundane existence more of a fairy tale than you might expect.
I knew a pastor that used to preach that every parable had precisely one meaning. They never explained why that was the case. Of course, making declarations like that from the pulpit isn’t uncommon. Pastors have a terrible habit of just kind of declaring that their school of thought is self-evident and there’s no other possibilities out there. Or worse yet, they use the dreaded, credibility-grabbing phraise “scholars say…” Which scholars? Why do they say that? What are my other options? Don’t get me wrong, I get the instinct. Sermons aren’t intended to be a comprehensive history of religious thought. At the same time, I do wonder how often we cause problems by not fully explaining why we’re preaching what we are. In any case, I just assumed the “one point per parable” idea was a weird quirk of that pastor and ignored it. Until now. Lo and behold, I found the history of the idea. And it turns out the guy behind the theory was pretty influential! But not quite as influential as many claim.
Adolf Julicher was the guy who started telling people that there was “one point per parable.” He’s a 19th century German professor. I stumbled across the name while I was reading Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (which is a phenomenal resource for anyone looking to learn about Middle Eastern culture and Christ, by the way). He cited Julicher’s work as the fundamental turn away from the allegorical approach which dominated thought in the medieval era. This would be a pretty major accomplishment. Allegorical interpretations are often pretty weird to modern eyes. For example, Bailey points to Augustine interpreting the parable of the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-13). In that particular parable, Jesus tells everyone to imagine trying to knock on their neighbor’s door to borrow three loaves of bread at midnight. What would your neighbor say? Probably nothing nice. But if you keep pestering them, eventually they’ll get out of bed and give you some bread. He follows up with some of his classic thoughts on prayer: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find,” (Lk 11:9). Augustine reads this story and says that the person waking up in the story is actually intended to represent anyone who is seeking meaning in life. They’re up at midnight because they’re so world-weary and desperately seeking something more. The friend is Scripture, which we should always go to in times of need. And the bread? That’s the life-giving knowledge of the trinity. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a stretch. (If you want to know more about the best and the worst of the allegorical approach, see my posts on the best of it and the worst of it)
Adolf Julicher is presented as the anti-allegorist. He says Jesus told parables not to obscure the meaning of things, but to make them clear. Jesus wasn’t some kind of weirdo mystic; he was just a relatable storyteller trying to get simple points across. Consequently, there are no hidden meanings in parables. They have one meaning, and it should be obvious.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Hold up! But Jesus was specifically asked why he kept speaking in parables and he said:”
Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
Fair point. That passage definitely favors the allegorists more than Julicher. But that’s where Julicher’s modernist background comes across the strongest. The modernists were a group that thought the core of religion had been corrupted by centuries of mythology and tradition, and it had to be recovered by stripping away the weird parts of religious doctrine to get back to the pure ideas of Jesus. Julicher is right in those footsteps. He says that the apostles were all wrong about the parables. They quoted them out of context. They mythologized them way more than Jesus intended. They didn’t understandJesus at all. Rather than take him at face value and accept him as a sweet, simple rabbi that could help them grow, they mythologized him and made it incredibly complicated for the modern person to see the true simplicity that Jesus was getting at. What Julicher sees in Scripture is a sort of fanciful take on the true idea that was planted by the original Jesus:
The authenticity of the Gospel parables is not absolute. They did not emerge from the mouth of Jesus as we now read them. They are translated, displaced, and internally transformed. . . . Without careful examination, one can nowhere identify the voice of Jesus with voices of the Gospel authors.
As you can tell, Julicher’s comes with a lot of baggage. If we’re seriously claiming to rely on his work as a cornerstone of our own thought, we’ve got this whole, “Don’t trust the Bible, it’s full of misunderstandings,” overtone above everything else. We are forced to fumble through the mistakes of the authors when we pick up our Bibles, rather than to be informed about anything we didn’t come in with. We end up on this quest for a historical Jesus, which is ironically different from the story of Jesus that came down to us through history. Because that guy does miracles and was the son of God, and that’s just silly.
Is this really the cornerstone of modern parable interpretation? It seems like a lot of people out there think so. Not only did Bailey directly contrast him with the allegorical approach, citing him as the cure for the past’s goofiness, but a lot of professors in seminaries out there seem to hold up Julicher as the start of contemporary parable scholarship. And I think they’re wrong. If you’re a theological modernist, Julicher is absolutely core to that tradition, but there are a lot of Protestants out there who certainly aren’t intellectual descendants of Julicher and somehow avoid the highly allegorized approach. To know why, we need to look between these two eras to find a school of thought that was infinitely more influential and far less controversial.
What happened between the Middle Ages and the modern era? The Reformation! You know, that big period where people specifically started avoiding allegorical readings and focusing on what Jesus meant in his context when he said things. It was that era in which John Calvin and Martin Luther dominated. To be fair to Julicher, he seems to have suggested that these men were on the right track before their followers delved back into allegory, but I don’t think he’s right. To the contrary, I think that the fundamentals of the Protestant Reformation set out a path that’s normative for most Protestant preachers to this day. Let’s use Calvin as an example. Just glance through Calvin’s commentaries on any parable. He’s consistently logical (by modern Protestant standards). He pays attention to the cultural context and the implications of the words in Greek. He often gains several meanings from a parable, but they’re ideas that all seem theologically connected to the circumstances at hand and the major themes Jesus is speaking to. Calvin does all this without devolving into the fullness of allegorical wackiness. When he looks at the warning from Jesus that parables are deliberately unintelligible to some people, he doesn’t read that at a license to go wild speculating about the hidden meaning, nor does he dismiss it as a piece of obscurantism from some befuddled disciples. He goes in a different direction:
These words were intended partly to show that all were not endued with true understanding to comprehend what he said, and partly to arouse his disciples to consider attentively that doctrine which is not readily and easily understood by all. Indeed, he makes a distinction among the hearers, by pronouncing some to have ears, and others to be deaf. If it is next inquired, how it comes to pass that the former have ears, Scripture testifies in other passages, that it is the Lord who pierces the ears, and that no man obtains or accomplishes this by his own industry.
Calvin’s Commentary on Matthew, ch. 13 v. 9
The challenge in understanding the parable is that no person is capable of understanding any part of God’s truth on their own. Only through God’s grace are we capable of understanding any of it. Anyone listening to the parables without the grace of God hears little more than nonsense. And just to make sure Arminians out there aren’t outraged by the choice of Calvin as normative, I gave Wesley a quick check and he says almost the same thing with the caveat that all people could listen to that grace, but some won’t because they’re so stuck in their worldly ways. Either way, the assumption that the parables are generally capable of being explored through logic and knowledge of Jesus’ cultural context and are ultimately legitimized through faith made possible by grace is pretty normative for most of the sermons on parables I’ve ever heard. And that methodology was around way before Julicher.
I hate to contribute to creating these big categorizations in history. It’s always unpleasant dividing thinkers between different eras. Whenever we categorize things, we inevitably simplify them to a degree that rarely does justice to the subject matter. Nevertheless, I was delighted to find Julicher and solve the mystery of where that pastor got the “one point per parable” theory, but I do think it’s necessary to keep a wider scope when considering his legacy. He’s not the first one to advocate intensely for less allegorized approaches to the parables, nor is he the most popular. He’s got his place in his tradition, for sure. But it’s not quite as massive as the average article seems to claim.
Apologies for the indirect citations for Julicher. Most of his key stuff remains in German, so it’s tough to get at. If you want to know more, check out this site, which has links to some great secondary sources in English and even one in German: https://virtualreligion.net/primer/julicher.html.
Back when I was first trying to find good books about Christianity, I went to my local library and grabbed whatever was on the shelves. One of those books happened to be Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, a series of interviews with people who endured persecution in communist China around the time of the Cultural Revolution. It made quite the impression on me. Specifically, the story of Zhang Yinxian was one that I never forgot.
Zhang was an orphan that became a nun at the cathedral of Dali in the Yunnan province. That church was MASSIVE. There were over 400 that lived in the church complex and thousands who came from throughout the province to worship. All of that changed when the communists took over. Church property was confiscated. Worshipers renounced their faith to avoid punishment from the government. Out of thousands who worshiped, only three remained faithful: Zhang, her Aunt Li, and Bishop Liu.
They were beaten. They were imprisoned. They were released as pariahs at the bottom of the social ladder with few opportunities to avoid poverty. On top of all that, they had to endure mass denunciations. They would be trotted out in front of crowds that would spit at them and scream about how narrow-minded and backwards they were and how they were leeches on society. They endured all of that for thirty-one years.
In 1983, the Communist Party changed policies. Certain religions were now acceptable. People could worship freely. Church property would gradually be returned. Zhang, Li, and Liu were given modest apartments… but that wasn’t enough for them. They went to the local statehouse and started a hunger strike until they got their church back. The people that passed by them weren’t sympathetic: “You oughta be grateful for what you got! Be more patriotic!” But they stayed and they prayed and waited. A government official spoke with them and told them that they’d get their church back but these sorts of things took time. They said, “Thank goodness, because we’re hungry and we can’t eat until we have our church back. Here’s to hoping its soon!” The official got furious and called them greedy for demanding a massive building for just three people. They just said that it wasn’t for them; it was for God. They wanted to go to his house and worship him.
After 31 years of persecution, they got their church back. Thousands once worshiped there, but after thirty-one years of persecution, only three remained. There may have been a big crowd at that sanctuary, but there were only three real disciples.
Would I have been one of those three? I hope so, but I also know that I can’t fathom how hard it would have been to endure. Only an unshakable faith can endure trials like that, and an unshakable faith doesn’t just spring up by accident. It takes deliberate training and constant nurture. How can we help make disciples like Zhong, Li, and Liu? And how can we become disciples like that? I don’t know. But that mental image of little old Aunt Li getting spat on and screamed at while she loved Jesus has certainly stuck with me. Here’s to hoping I can be as faithful as she was.
I preached my first Easter sermon this past Sunday, which was delightful. I hadn’t had the privilege of preaching on a holiday before (at least, not one of the big ones). Now that it’s over, I’m reflecting on the occasion. There are so many guests at churches on Easter. A lot of them have pretty minimal relationships with the Church. What do we show them to impress the importance of God on their hearts? How do we evangelize on big occasions like Easter?
Luckily for me, I stumbled across this reading from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England while auditing one of Matthew Hoskin’s classes at Davenant Institute (his blog is here and is brilliant, by the way).
Augustine of Canterbury (who is not the same person as Augustine of Hippo) was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to share the Gospel with the people in Kent (modern England). They set up a meeting with the king in the hopes of getting permission to evangelize throughout his territory. I can only imagine a meeting like that would be infinitely more stressful than giving an Easter sermon to a visitor-heavy crowd today. He needed translators! He needed to adhere to local sensibilities and codes of respect! If things went wrong, the King might not only decide to kick them out; he might decide to kill these obnoxious missionaries that were meddling where they ought not meddle. So what did he bring? What did he show the king of Kent to impress upon him the seriousness of this Christian faith?
They came… bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Savior painted on a board; and chanting litanies, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom and for whom they had come. When they had sat down, in obedience to the king’s commands, [they] preached to him, and his attendants there present the Word of life.
The Venerable Bede, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, Ch. XXV
Can you imagine the spectacle of that procession? An envoy from Rome arrives complete with silver cross and marching chanters and all the (figurative) bells and whistles. It’d have been a breathtaking sight! More than that, Augustine is unapologetically offering up things that are otherworldly. He isn’t offering trade deals. There’s no promise of improved relationships with other kingdoms. He isn’t even explaining how fun the children’s ministry will be for the kingdom’s kids! All of the pageantry and splendor serve to create this little window into a world beyond our own. And it works! The king gives his approval for their activity in his realm.
I’m well aware that some of that procession is normative for the time and culture. I’m also sure that the average Easter visitor won’t have the same response to a crowd of monks chanting for their salvation that King Ethelbert did. As I continue to unpack my first Easter at the helm, I have to keep asking, how do we create a window into Heaven? How can we evangelize like Augustine of Canterbury and present the truth in a way that makes people stop and marvel?
Most of my experience with C.S. Lewis comes from those approachable classics that sit on many a Christian’s bookshelf: The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce and a few others. Only recently have I started to see the more academic, professorial side of him. Books like The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval Literature are way more intense than Narnia, and frankly, they’re a bit of a slog. And now, I found out the man wrote poetry! Not just any poetry either. He wrote the nerdiest poetry you’ll ever find. These poems were not intended for general audiences. They’re just a smart guy playing with ideas in verse. If you enjoy them, great! If you don’t get ’em or don’t like ’em, I don’t think he would particularly care. My current success rate of “getting” his poetry is about 70%. Some of them are loaded with mythology and theory that I’m not familiar with (especially the Greek mythology, which he clearly loves), but the ones that I do get are brilliant. I thought I’d share a couple of them on here along with my thoughts as I work through them.
The Country of the Blind Hard light bathed them-a whole nation of eyeless men, Dark bipeds not aware how they were maimed. A long Process, clearly, a slow curse, Drained through centuries, left them thus.
At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few, No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date, Normal type had achieved snug Darkness, safe from the guns of heavn;
Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some Eunuch’d, etiolated, Fungoid sense, as a symbol of
Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor Misfit, spoke of the grey dawn or the stars or green- Sloped sea waves, or admired how Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,
None complained he had used words from an alien tongue, None question’d. It was worse. All would agree ‘Of course,’ Came their answer. “We’ve all felt Just like that.” They were wrong. And he
Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words — Sold, raped flung to the dogs — now could avail no more; Hence silence. But the mouldwarps, With glib confidence, easily
Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things. Do you think this a far-fetched Picture? Go then about among
Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once, Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable, Dear but dear as a mountain- Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.
This one especially has consumed me as of late. I can’t help but read it and think about Jesus’s response to the disciple’s question: why do you speak in parables?
13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matt 13:13-15)
I generally assume that Jesus wants everyone to understand what he’s saying. Sure, I might rail against visions of him that are altogether too polite and soft, but by no means do I assume he would intentionally make his points opaque to keep people from understanding them. And we could go back and forth trying to soften the impact of the verse by applying different theological methodology to it (after all, it does say that they closed their eyes first), but it seems like it would be almost impossible to erase the sense that not everyone will understand what Jesus is saying and that that is intentional (John Calvin is smiling down on this paragraph, I’m sure).
Lewis’s poem is right in this same vein. We still have people that do not see, but it’s not their own willfulness or crafty parables that are keeping them from seeing. They’ve shut their eyes for so long that their biology has shifted to accommodate their decision. Even if they wanted to see, they lack the capacity. Worse than that, they refuse to confront the reality of their own blindness. They’re happy to discuss the world with the small amount of people that can still see, but only insofar as they’re treated as complete equals. Whatever is being discussed is primarily understood as a matter of internal experience, rather than external truth. “Of course, we’ve all felt like that,” they croon, completely missing the simple fact that they haven’t. Every piece of information being shared is radically different from anything they’ve ever conceptualized, but rather than admit it, they just insist that they already know and continue on.
What a tremendous way to look at the modern shift in metaphysics. I can’t help but think of it in terms of pastoral expectations as they were laid out in Andrew Root’s, The Pastor in a Secular Age. In each era, Christians have expected different things from pastors. In the medieval era, the priest had power. Even if the whole service was in Latin and you didn’t quite understand how communion worked, the popular imagination had such a strong sense of God’s action and a dynamic range of entities beyond human senses that you knew he carried power. He was the bridge between this world and the next. In a magical world, the priest stood as an obvious and clear figure worthy of your attention. With the shift to Protestantism, there was a fundamentally new way of imagining metaphysics. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the priest that was responsible for navigating the path between this world and the next; it was the individual believer. You were responsible for what you believed! You had to devote yourself to the highest ideals of Christian life and take responsibility for your own faith if you wanted to please God. Here, we see this tremendous shift towards the pastoral ideal as a professor. People like Luther and Calvin are the obvious legendary figures in this tradition, but the example Root provides is Johnathan Edwards. According to legend, Johnathan Edwards studied and prayed for thirteen hours every day. And his congregation was happy! They wanted to understand the intricacies of the world around them and the claims that were being made in the Bible, so if the pastor preached an hour long sermon that relied on multiple commentaries and theological bigwigs? Awesome! Bring it on. These were people that strove to see. They wanted to know the nature of the universe, and no watery spirituality would be an acceptable substitute.
Root details a long history of philosophical shifts that slowly lead to modernity, but as we approach our own era, the assumptions about what a pastor does have totally shifted. A pastor does not tell objective truths. That’s what math and science are for! No, a pastor works in the realm of values. They tell you how to live a good life. They help you understand who you are. They belong in the humanities section of a university, not the sciences side. Their value comes from their ability to befriend people, reflect an identity for others to consider, and build a massive church with multiple satellites to reflect the vitality of the community. The ideal pastor is a mix between an entrepreneur and an instagram influencer, encouraging us to try on a way of living that will make us happy. We moved from a world in which the Church was expected to teach objective truths about the world around us to a world in which the church was expected to help us feel subjective somethings within ourselves.
Unfortunately for moderns, Scripture is devilishly difficult to cast as something that’s primarily concerned with subjective feelings. The whole of the book bursts with objective claims about creation! And yet, religious dialogue is often dominated by what feels right and how we can live moral, decent lives. Not that either of these are inherently bad things, of course, but when they’re uprooted from the metaphysical grounding of the objective claims that surround them, they wither and shift whatever way the wind blows. Our cultural hesitance to let the audacious claims of Scripture be what they are muddies them considerably and betrays a certain unwillingness to claim them as true knowledge. Christians and non-Christians alike are put into a position where truth is what we make of it. We fail to see the reality around us because we’re so busy constructing our own narrative that suits us.
We do not see.
Even the claims in Scripture start to look less and less like truth claims and more and more like “sheer metaphors” and “myths.” What if Jesus was not actually Jesus? What if he’s only intended to be a metaphor for humanity’s capacity for good? What if Jesus’s resurrection is no longer an actual resurrection, but a symbol intended to reflect the eternal resurrection of hope and goodness in the world? That slow erosion of the claim slowly eats away at it, giving more and more authority to us and less and less to the claim itself. Symbolic meaning can always be uncovered in an objective event, but once the event or story is stripped of objectivity, not only does it lose the core of its meaning, but the possibility for symbolism becomes infinite. Without any semblance of authority, the claim exists only to allow others an opportunity to create their own meaning. The “divine forms, irremovable” that were once so obvious and clear to every eye have become “symbols of abstract thought;” ideas to toy with and little more.
The ultimate consequence is a sort of de-evolution. Lewis never was shy about suggesting that things in the premodern world were better, and here he’s said it in an incredibly direct way. The people he’s considering aren’t portrayed as the same bipartite beings that were created in Genesis: “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (Gen 2:7). Their descriptors lack that sense of divine spark. The language surrounding the blind creatures is primitive and earthy. They are “mouldwarps” with “fungoid” ways of describing things. They lack that spirit that separates them from the plants that preceded them.
And yet, the poem isn’t just a gripe about the good ‘ol days. At least, I don’t think it is. It’s profoundly melancholy. Some of these creatures still see. They see the grandeur of the stars, the waves, the human form, and the misty dawn. But even as they see the wonders around them, they have so few to to share it with. By the eyes they were given, they are able to see tremendous beauty, but they also become the bearers of an incredible sense of loneliness. What Christian in the postmodern era has not felt like that? Who has not lamented the inability of others to see the throngs of angels singing, the cloud of witnesses watching, the divine spark that lingers in every eye, and the glory of God in every rock? But attempts to uncover the transcendent turn shallow all too quickly. Even semi-regular churchgoers are all too often concerned with mere morality and tradition than the vibrant eternity around them, frustrating the Christian all the more. To see is to be lonely and burdened. How do you awaken others to the world?
Part of me wants to cut the intensity of the poem by suggesting that the claim isn’t quite what it is. It sounds hopelessly arrogant to claim to see when everyone else is blind. To say that you understand a reality that the rest of the world can only hopelessly grasp at until they are somehow granted sight is brash! But didn’t Jesus make those claims? Isn’t that the whole of the history of Christianity? Lewis has claimed to see, and while it would be more comfortable to mask the arrogance of claiming to know truth, it’s critically important for us to let his statement stand and consider it not as arrogance, but as humility in the face of a truth beyond himself.
2 Timothy 3:16 famously says that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Unfortunately, not all of it is easy to understand. So let’s pick out a really weird verse and see what God has to say in it! We’ll take a good look at the verse itself, explore the history of its interpretation, and see what we can make of it.
6 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
What on earth is happening in this passage? For me, the pinnacle of weirdness is in verse 4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” What the heck?
To make heads or tails of this passage, we have to be able to identify 3 different groups: the sons of God, the daughters of man, and the Nephilim. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard to translate the Hebrew here with any level of certainty. Not only are the words and phrases vague enough that they leave several interpretive possibilities on the table, but exact phrases like these are used so rarely in the Bible that we don’t have a lot of clues to help us out.
First, we have the sons of God or “bene haelohim”. The phrase appears two other times in the Bible (Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) and in each instance it clearly means “angels.” That being said, Genesis and Job weren’t written at the same time, and there are several other translations that would be well within the bounds of reason. It could mean something like “men who follow God” or “men who are like God,” (aka godly men). To add even more confusion to the matter, the word “elohim” can mean “God” or it can be used to refer to any being that’s particularly impressive. It could mean “king.” It could mean “angel.” You get the picture. Bene haelohim could easily mean “sons of kings” or “sons of warlords.”
Clearly the “daughters of humans” (a phrase uncommon in Scripture and more clearly rendered “daughters of man” in Hebrew) are intended to be the opposite of whatever the sons of God are. If we say that the sons of God are angels, then thinking of them as human women makes the most sense. If the sons of God are godly men, the daughters of man are intended to be worldly women. If we say that the sons of God are the sons of kings or warlords, then they are intended to be peasant women.
Finally, we have the Nephilim. You know a word is bad when Bible translators don’t even touch the thing. There’s a few options here as well. The literal translation from the Hebrew is “the fallen ones,” It appears in two other places in the Bible: once in Numbers when the Hebrew spies look over at Canaan to see if it is safe to inhabit and they see nephilim (usually rendered “giants” in English) and again in Ezekiel 32 to describe warriors that have fallen on the battlefield. In a battlefield context, the word could also be used to talk about strong attackers, or those who “fall upon” their opponents with attack after attack. The giants idea might seem out of left field, given the English translation, but an ancient Greek manuscript grants us a little insight. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) has Nephilim translated as “gigantes” or giants, so there’s some kind of cultural or linguistic link there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.
Where does that leave us? Well, we have three story options starting to emerge. This could be a story about angels coming to earth, having children with humans, and giants being born as a result of that union. It could be a story about righteous men of God having children with worldly women, leading to a slow compromise of faith over the generations. Then there’s the option that it could be about the sons of rich merchants mistreating peasant women and raising a generation of fierce warriors. Each of these seems viable.
So what now? Well, time to look at tradition.
The oldest interpretation I could find was from the Book of Enoch. This little apocryphal book (book that didn’t make it into the Bible) was probably written between 200 and 300 BC. And obviously Enoch didn’t write it. Enoch is the guy who was famously “taken away” by God in Genesis 5:24 (and there’s much speculation about what THAT means, but that’s a story for another time), so someone else must have written it and popped his name on it. The book is basically an attempt to retell the story of Genesis more thoroughly, filling in all the plot holes that the original has. In the retelling of this story, the sons of God are DEFINITELY angels that come to Earth to have children with human women:
And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied, in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’
1 Enoch 6:1-2
Not only do they have children with human women; they give humans science and technology! Unfortunately for them, God is not best pleased with this development:
Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the great day of judgment he shall be cast into the fire.
1 Enoch 10:4-6
Bad times for Azazel.
Does the story sound familiar to you? It sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Prometheus to me! A lesser divine being comes to Earth, hands out some tech, and gets banished to torment in a barren wasteland for their sin against the divine being/beings in charge. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this book starts showing up around 200-300 BC considering that Alexander the Great did his grand crusade of the world between 356 BC and 323 BC. Would it be so crazy if an Israelite that heard the Greek myth was looking for greater clarity in their Scriptures and took a little inspiration from the Greeks? I don’t think so. Mind you, that’s a disputed point, but the dates and the narratives are too similar for me to dismiss.
In any case, we’ve got the angels and giants theory on the table. How does mainstream Judaism react in the coming years? They don’t seem to care for it much. Not only is the Book of Enoch never canonized, but a majority of rabbinic writings that emerge tend to favor readings that cast the sons of God as tyrants and the Nephilim as powerful warriors. These readings gain more and more momentum over time. Nonetheless, the apocryphal books have their supporters. There are certainly people, especially at the fringes, that strongly support a supernatural reading.
When Christians start popping up, they’re a little more interested in the whole angels and giants thing. After all, a lot of early Christians were on the fringes of Judaism. Apocalyptic Judaism was a fringe movement that focused heavily on the coming of the messiah, and the Book of Enoch was very popular with them. If mainstream groups didn’t like the Book of Enoch, it was because they were scared of its prophecies concerning the messiah! And so early Christians inherited the angels/giants theory from some of their earliest supporters.
Mind you, its momentum didn’t last long. After about the year 300, the angel/giant theory seems to take a nosedive in popularity within the Christian community. Not only did they slowly accept 1 Enoch as “not legit,” but they started asking questions. What is an angel? What can an angel do? Are angels all male? When did angels fall? Why does the term say “angels” when clearly disobedient angels are devils? Jesus said specifically in Mark 12 that Angels have no interest in procreation. Why did the angels do that? What happened to them? And what happened to the giants, because if you render that word “giants” to resolve their appearance in Numbers, you need them to survive a world-ending flood that the Bible deliberately says they would not have survived. The whole interpretation is just incredibly bizarre and doesn’t make logical or narrative sense. So theologians started speaking out against it. You have heavy hitters like Clement and Augustine weighing in against it. Chrysostom goes so far as to call the theory “blasphemous.”
To read the passage well, Christians looked back at what happened previously in Genesis and tried to think about how this puzzle piece fit. Genesis 5 is highly interested in genealogies. Seth is born to Adam “in his image and likeness.” Genesis 1:26 previously established that Adam was made in God’s image and likeness. To some interpreters, this was a symbolic passing of the torch. Seth inherited his godliness from his father, and his people would continue to strive for godliness in the coming generations. There became two types of people on the Earth: the children of Seth, and the children of Cain. These two branches seem to be symbolic, more than biological. The devout and the worldly both lived on the earth, though living in very different ways. This, then, is a story in which people of faith decide to compromise their beliefs to intermingle with the attractive people of the Earth. As Eve tempted Adam, so now the daughters of man tempt the children of God. The resulting offspring are fallen; they do not know God, even though they know the ways of the world quite well. The only truly devout man left is Noah. You know how the story goes from there.
By the time the reformation rolls around, there seems to be broad consensus that this view is correct. Martin Luther presents it as the obvious meaning. John Calvin only brings up the angels and giants thing only to ponder why ancient thinkers would possibly have thought something so odd:
That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.
Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 6:2
The matter seems settled. But lo and behold, the angels and giants make their way back into popular Christian thought around the 18th century. At this point, modernists (a group that considered their Bibles to likely contain large amounts of mythology) started re-investigating the issue. If the Bible is full of myths that aren’t literally true, why can’t this be a story about angels and giants? Ironically, some fundamentalists reached the same conclusion, but through very different methodology. If the Bible is always true and you don’t need tradition to understand it, then why shouldn’t you be willing to believe a fantastical story about angels and giants? It’s one of those weird points in history where really conservative people go one way and really liberal people go another, and somehow they end up making a giant loop and meeting up at the same point.
But now we’ve looked at all the interpretive options and poked around all the major strands of tradition. What do I believe? Well, you ought to know that I’d rather be wrong with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin than right with anybody else. Not only is their interpretation the most well-represented in Christian tradition, but it just makes sense. It’s logical. It fits the Biblical narrative leading from genealogy to flood, and it addresses a constant theme in the Bible: don’t compromise your faith to fit into this world more comfortably (Deut 7:3, 2 Corinth. 6:14, Deut 16:21, etc). To be a true disciple of Christ, you can’t afford to compromise any part of the truth. You have to live your whole life in constant worship and obedience. Not only do I think this is a good interpretation, but I think it’s something that’s an important reminder as we try to live out our faith today. We live in a world that’s increasingly secular. Our culture is more than happy to accommodate Christians that are willing to compromise on the things that they believe. If you’re willing to make a few concessions, you’ll fit in easier. You’ll be the “right kind” of Christian. Your life will be significantly attractive on the outside. If you don’t? Well, things might get difficult.
As people made in the image and likeness of God, we can’t afford to compromise truth for temporary gain. After all, we know truth itself in the person of Jesus Christ. The only way for us to live well is to hold fast to truth and to continually honor God, rather than ourselves.
That’s my take! But rather than end on a dramatic note, I’ll end with some humility. It’s a tough passage! If you think I missed something or want to dig around on your own, check out some of the resources below! See what you think! Either way, wrestle with those tough verses when you find them. If all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, sometimes we have to do a little bit of wrestling to see what God is saying.
The other day, I got an e-mail from a higher up in the Methodist church that ended with this quote:
Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.
I closed out of that message in a tizzy because John Wesley never said that! Honestly, John Wesley never said most of his famous quotes. Kevin Watson did a phenomenal series about quotes that Wesley never said here. Just about every Wesley quote that makes its way onto a key chain, wall hanging, or church bulletin isn’t actually his. The fact that a reputable higher up in the church was misquoting him was a bummer. Did he not care about the integrity of the quote?
But as comfortable as it is to slip into self-justifying outrage, there are a TON of quotes that famous saints “said” that they didn’t actually say, and… they’re not bad! They’re pithy. They’re clever. People love them! They get referenced in reasonably educated circles and they’re popular in churches. So what do we do with all these fake quotes?
Francis of Assisi supposedly said “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” Not only is it not in his writings, but it’s not even a quote that suits him. He’s known for his preaching, and preaching was one of the core tenants of the Franciscan monks that followed in his footsteps. Why would someone that values preaching so much speak so flippantly about it?
Theresa of Avila supposedly wrote this famous poem:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
But she didn’t. Not only is it found nowhere in her works, but this blogger did a great deep dive on the origin of this poem and theorized that it was originally created by Methodist Minister Mark Guy Pearse, who said the second half in a sermon that he gave in 1888, and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree, who added the first half of the poem after acknowledging she took the second half from him. From there, other people started adapting the poem, and it gained a life of its own. I can’t personally guarantee that they’re right, but it seems like a really decent stab at locating the history of one of those mythical quotes. It still does leave a big question: how on Earth did it get attributed to Theresa?
None of these quotes have an oral history that dates back to the time of the figure in question. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’re fake. Are they malicious forgeries? Who can say. I’m going to guess no. It’s hard to prove that sort of thing, so it mostly boils down to a guess. I’m willing to give the parties involved the benefit of the doubt and say it was a mistake or some sort of misunderstanding.
That being said, it’d be silly to pretend that the quotes don’t benefit from their connection to famous historical figures. It makes you sound way smarter if you say “As St. Francis of Assisi once said…” rather than, “I saw this on a keychain once…” The quotes gain a certain amount of gravitas from their attachment to big-name historical figures. Some very significant religious organizations have these quotes plastered on their websites, and they almost certainly wouldn’t if they were anonymous. There’s no shortage of blog entries and news articles pointing out that these quotes are not legitimate, but there’s not enough church history nerds out there to keep them from getting through the cracks!
So… what do we do?
I’ve seen some books take the position of claiming the quote is “attributed to” the saint in question, but probably wasn’t actually written by them. I don’t know how much good that does, if only because it still creates a really fun backstory for the quote and then picks at it without adding a positive alternative. We could always take the position of saying that they’re anonymous. That would certainly detach the quote from it’s fake history, but nobody wants to engage with a quote by “anonymous,” so at that point, you may as well not use it anymore.
How much does the integrity of the quote matter?
It reminds me of a little story from The Decameron (basically the 14th c. Italian version of the Canterbury Tales). There’s this guy namedCiappelletto, and he’s garbage. He launders money, writes fake documents, lies, gambles, etc. You get the picture. One day, he gets really sick. His friends are afraid he’s going to die, but the Church won’t bury him unless he confesses his sins to a clergyman, and his sins are so horrible that no clergyman would absolve him. His friends will end up stuck with his corpse, and it’ll be a whole awkward thing. But Ciappelletto has an idea. They get this friar to come in and take his confession, and Ciappelletto just gets crazy with it. He makes up lie after lie after lie about what a saintly life he’s led. Sure enough, the friar absolves him and even buries Ciappelletto in his own convent later that day… but things don’t stop there. The friar is so moved by what he heard that he preaches about the virtuous life of Ciappelletto to everyone who will listen. Before you know it, people are using items that Ciappelletto owned as relics and going on pilgrimages to his grave. They claim that miracles are worked in his name! Lots of people live holier, more Christlike lives because of the (fake) legend of Ciappelletto. In the end, our narrator points to the whole affair as, “a manifest token of the superabundance of the goodness of God to us, inasmuch as He regards not our error but the sincerity of our faith,” (First Day, 090).
Does it matter that Ciappelletto was a rogue if his legend helped others grow in Christ?
Does it matter that Wesley, Francis, and Theresa never said those things if it helps people know God better?
…YES! Faith is about truth! The elements of our faith should be able to get by a simple Google search without being clearly and inarguably fake. Better to build a house on the rock of truth than the sand of convenience. Fight the misquotes, dear friends. Say they’re anonymous! Say they’re misattributed! Ignore them if you want! Just don’t say they’re true.
A few weeks back, I was chatting with my spiritual director and somehow I got on the topic of religious language. A friend of mine uses religious language that’s really foreign to me. For example, she might say: “I woke up this morning and was so grateful that the Lord gave me one more day, and so I thanked him with all my heart. Later on, as I ate my cereal, I pondered, ‘Lord, what are you asking of me today? What do you want? Should I go to the store?’” For some reason, her language just makes me a little uneasy. Obviously it bothered me enough that I wanted to process it with someone else! Why does she have to talk like that?
My director’s response was simple enough, “It’s very brave of her to talk like that. She knows that most people in our world don’t sound like her, but she chooses to use that language anyway. What makes you uncomfortable with her language?”
I threw out some bad guesses about religious background and education, but they were all nonsense. I didn’t have a good answer. I’ve just been sitting with that question for a few weeks, trying to ask myself why her language bothers me so much.
God must have heard me crying out, because I certainly ended up reading in the right direction; I stumbled back onto the work of Charles Taylor. His work in A Secular Age may only be from 2007, but it’s a masterwork for religious people of all traditions. He investigates the philosophy of secularism, how it developed, what ideas hold it in place, and what it means for religious thought today. Admittedly, I’m not reading Taylor directly; I’m reading Andrew Root’s The Pastor in a Secular Age, which builds on Taylor’s work to see how pastors understood themselves and their society historically to determine what a pastor’s challenges are today. That being said, it’s a book in Charles Taylor’s tradition. Root is very much building on what Taylor’s work (in a delightfully readable way).
In any case, it had an answer to my burning question: I’m a pretty secular person. It’s no wonder that language about a God that acts feels wrong. Does God exist? Sure! But it’s uncomfortable to address him as a being that acts and moves and has a being. God is, after all, in us! He is sustaining all things! He is creating! At least, that’s the way we talk about him in mainline churches. But if we’re being honest, that’s all pretty passive, impersonal stuff. God looks suspiciously like a weird spark somewhere between personal inspiration and natural law. It’s not the kind of God you really need to worry much about, and it’s certainly not one that you wake up every morning talking to.
Here’s two big reasons that really hit me as why mainstream Western society has a hard time talking about God in an active voice:
1. We’ve dis-embedded God from public life.
Historically, God’s will was understood to be the foundation of public life. Just think about Joan of Arc! Why did she fight the English? Because God wanted France to win. She was God’s instrument, and God’s will was made manifest through her. Again, think about the “divine right of kings.” Why was someone the king? Because God wanted it like that! There was no way to divide what was happening in the world from the active work of God. God acted, and the world was shaped according to his authority.
The rise of democracy made God’s action in the world a little harder to understand. Power wasn’t vested in a king; it was in the will of the people! But if you consider the way that God’s authority was popularly interpreted in the public square, that brings a bit of a problem to seeing God’s work in the world:
[In democracy,] sovereignty comes from the people, not from the king; but the king’s sovereignty comes from above, from God; so democracy is already an implicit rejection of God.
Ever wonder why so many American founding fathers were deists? This is why! When public life is a primarily a product of human will, rather than divine action, it’s harder to believe in a God that actively takes an interest in public affairs. We moved from a system in which God was acting and the world was shifting according to his will to a system in which people were responsible for organizing themselves to manifest God’s ideal world. God ceased to be the primary actor in public affairs and the role of the individual became far more prominent than ever before.
If you’re a citizen in a Western democracy, you’ve probably internalized this logic. For example, what’s your first thought when a political candidate you despise wins the election? Probably something like, “Dang, we needed to mobilize our voting base more effectively and appeal to a broader audience.” You probably don’t worry that this is a judgement from God for failing to live faithfully. When we have such power at our disposal, it’s hard to envision the results of an election, the outcome of a war, or the laws that we live by as a product of God’s action, rather than our own successes or failures in the public arena.
2. We’ve divided the natural world from divine purpose and action.
In previous eras, everything that happened was full of deep meaning. Lightning struck near you? Sign from God. Good crops? God is happy. The sun rose? God wanted the sun to rise. The whole world was a theater for the divine, and God’s intimate work was everywhere. Was it superstitious by our standards? Oh, absolutely. But every detail mattered intimately. Today? Well, today it’s hard to believe that anything is particularly meaningful. The discovery and codification of natural laws have brought huge breakthroughs to the understanding of science and medicine, but (when they’re coupled with the elements of our secular philosophy) they’ve also closed off our understanding of the universe. Whereas before the universe was open to God’s action, constantly being affected by the divine will (or the will of other, less pleasant entities), now the system is largely seen as self-governing and closed off to any outside parties. For example:
When the fifty-five-year-old woman asks her pastor about her cancer, we’re quick to claim that its cause is impersonal. It’s just the odds, bad luck, the randomness of an impersonal order, or childhood exposure to some toxin or chemical. Yet if this is so—and it might be—then it becomes much harder for her to trust that a personal God can act to heal her. It is less frightening to assume that it is just the odds or bad luck that makes her sick—it’s nothing personal. She did nothing wrong, nor is some malevolent personal force after her. Yet, while this is less frightening, without a personal cause it is much harder to imagine (and explain) the intervention of a personal God in a presumed impersonal universe. And maybe more importantly, it becomes a challenge to provide meaning to her illness and death. She is stuck with a meaninglessness to her disease because, though deeply personal to her, her disease is only a fading echo in a dark, cold, impersonal universe where everything dies, swallowed in the tsunami of massive, impersonal time and space. If the cancer is caused by no personal force, how can a personal God affect her, other than by providing some banal comfort or cold indifference?
Root, Andrew. The Pastor in a Secular Age (Ministry in a Secular Age Book #2) (p. 56). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Where we previously saw God reaching into our world and acting, now we only see the cold logic of natural law. It’s harder to blame God, but it’s also harder to expect anything from him.
Hopefully none of this feels like a glorification of the past and an utter rejection of our present world. Not at all! After all, I live here and there’s some pretty cool stuff to enjoy! It’s just a way of trying to explore why previous generations could easily see God acting in the world around them, and why we find it so hard. Their philosophy naturally emphasized the role of the divine, whereas ours emphasizes human action and natural law to a far greater degree. No wonder my friend’s language made me so nervous! God is doing things? Talking to people? Planning stuff? Eew. Gross. Please use more passive language for your God. It sounds ridiculous when you act like he exists.
What would it mean to imagine that God can talk over a bowl of cereal? That he wants something and that we’re capable of hearing it? More than that, that other people are capable of hearing God too, and he is acting in the world to make his will manifest?
That’s a truth that exists in my brain that occasionally gets dredged up when I’m talking about theology, but I don’t think I really know it in my heart. Not when it matters, anyway. When life gets frustrating, I lose myself to anxiety, stress, and disappointment. God’s plan may be a theory I’m aware of, but it’s not a reality I’m living into. To put it in meme terms:
It’s not all that Christian of me.
I’ve been wondering, “How can I trust more when things are going wrong?” This poem by 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Rilke told me exactly really helped me reframe things:
The Man Watching Rainer Maria Rilke
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I can’t bear without a friend, I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age: the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm, we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us. I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: when the wrestlers’ sinews grew long like metal strings, he felt them under his fingers like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight) went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
Gorgeous. One line that especially stands out to me: “When we win, it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” My worries are so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Christians throughout time have been subject to starvation, torture, and the threat of death, and they trusted God. Here I am, terrified about tiny things. I’m fighting over details, and that fighting makes me small. What would it take to give up my fighting and surrender to something far greater? To willingly be defeated by God and trust that it’s for my benefit?
I also love Rilke’s tone. It is, to quote the poem itself “seriousness and weight and eternity.” In contrast to so many modern preachers that portray the life of faith this carefree and delightful romp, Rainer doesn’t shy away from the challenge of faith. God will demand everything. He is the storm on the horizon. His angels will handle your sinews like strings. God is terrifying. The solution isn’t resisting the storm; it’s giving in.
We won’t be the same after the encounter. Jacob, the patriarch that he’s referencing, walked with a limp after his wrestling match. I doubt he wanted a limp, but he got one. He wrestled with the divine, and he was transformed. Not in the way he expected, mind you, but he trusted that this new self was a better self. So many of the heroes of faith were transformed through events that I can’t imagine them asking for. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. Noah was asked to watch a civilization-ending flood. Elijah hid while he was hunted by the authorities. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into a cistern. Even Jesus, the grand revelation of God himself, was crucified. God’s action isn’t all sunshine and roses. It’s scary, but we have to trust that it’s good.
Rainer challenges us to trust with the full knowledge that it won’t end up the way we sinful beings would like. The only victory worth having is our own defeat. I only hope I can stop trying to squeeze out victories over tiny things and start losing the battle that matters.
Back in seminary, I remember one of my friends getting frustrated about the syllabus of our theology class. It focused on 3 theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and Kathryn Tanner. She pulled me aside and vented, “How dare they present this as theology? It’s an ethnocentric, biased, racist presentation of what ‘theology’ is.” Being a little more moderate (and excited to delve into Augustine), I responded, “Well, you’ve got more diversity there than you think. You’ve got an Italian guy from the middle ages, an American woman from today, and Augustine is ancient and from… what… like modern Algeria or something? That’s 2 genders, 3 continents, and 3 eras.” Her response was simple: “Augustine has been co-opted by white people for generations. He’s effectively white at this point. You can’t count him as a diverse voice.”
I don’t want to argue about whether the class was biased. Of course it was! There is no unbiased presentation of information. In choosing which voices to include, you always create a bias. If anything, I think the voices from that class have a more Catholic bias than anything else! But that’s neither here nor there. I’m more interested in her response: Augustine is effectively white. For those unfamiliar with him, Augustine is the father of Western Christian orthodoxy (Protestant and Catholic) and was born in Algeria when it was under Roman rule. Admittedly, I don’t know that I’ve heard a lot of people discuss him as a non-white, non-Western source. He usually makes his way into discussions as a primarily Latin-speaking, Roman source (a factor that I assume made her consider him “effectively white”).
There are reasons for that! The Roman Empire stretched across continents and encompassed multiple nationalities. Ideas about who is “white” wouldn’t have been relevant in that era. Racial stereotypes still existed, but not in the form that they take today. When we say things like, “Augustine was not white,” it’s an anachronistic statement. But still, we view the past with the lenses that we wear today. Why is it that the ancient fathers of the Church born in Africa are often seen as basically European?
Thomas Oden took a solid stab at this question in his book, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.” It’s relatively readable, but he is pretty bad about name-dropping. Any given chapter includes the name of 10 or more ancient theologians, most of which the average person will not recognize. I’m just going to pick three theologians that he named that are worth talking about: Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony of Egypt. Auggie is the father of traditional Western Christianity, Athanasius is a bishop from Egypt that helped officially establish that Jesus was equally God with the Father (some people at the time were saying he was a lower-tier assistant to God, rather than the real deal), and Anthony is the father of monasticism who I’ve written about previously here. Each one of these men is African, but rarely has that aspect of their identity acknowledged.
Oden takes a solid stab at uncovering Augustine’s legitimate, non-white ethnicity:
It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber background from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a military officer with a Roman-sounding name. Augustine was born and raised in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in Numidia show occupation dating back ten thousand years. Among Augustine’s known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman and even Libyan names.
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Kindle Locations 528-532
Someone with a family rooted in Northern Africa is logically probably not “white” as we would think about it. Even with a strong roman name like “Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis” (his full non-Anglicized name), he wasn’t ethnically Italian. Latinized names were gradually adopted by native populations during their time in the Roman Empire, so they certainly aren’t proof of ethnicity. A man that was born in Africa, worshiped in Africa, spoke to Africans, and died in Africa ought to be considered genuinely African. When Christians built their logic on Augustine’s theology, they were following the foremost thinker of Africa, not Europe.
Then we have Athanasius of Alexandria. Again, we have a similar situation regarding name. Athanasius’s Greek-sounding name that would have been popular in the region after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, but Greeks would have been a minority population in Egypt. The average person, even in metropolitan areas like Alexandria, was Egyptian. Greece left the imprint of their language and their philosophers, but those ideas were taken up and developed by the people who did the majority of the eating, breathing, living, and thinking across that landmass. As a bishop, Athanasius worked regularly with churches that stretched deep into modern Egypt, almost bordering modern day Sudan. This population wouldn’t have known Greek! They’d have spoken a language like the native Egyptian Nilotic. He was someone who spoke to, cared for, and related to the people of Egypt. Even some of the metaphors that he uses reflect a mind that is distinctively Egyptian! When people like Athanasius talked about eternal life or spiritual ascent, those terms were packed with meaning that were inherited from ancient Pharaonic religion. They spoke to him and the people he knew because of their cultural heritage.
And then there’s Anthony. Favorite saint of mine, Anthony. Anthony helped popularize Christian monasticism and is often considered the first Christian monk. Not only was he Egyptian, but the ultramajority of people that followed him out to the desert would have been Egyptian peasants. The academics among them may have written in Greek to make their ideas accessible, but they would have regularly spoken Egyptian Nilotic. As people throughout Europe started monasteries, they were taking on a pattern of life that was developed by Africans.
With these three examples alone, I think it’s clear that the achievements of Africans in Christian theology have been unjustly ignored. Orthodoxy flowed from the South to the North for centuries! Europeans don’t get to lay claim to these men simply because they enjoyed their work. And it’s equally unjust to say that their theological work didn’t find lasting roots in African communities. There are churches in these regions that have been active for about 2000 years. If anything, those regions have a better claim to the title “traditionally Christian” than most places in Italy, England, or France. So why is there a bias in favor of Europe when it comes to claiming ownership over Christian thought?
That bias didn’t always exist. A popular story in medieval Europe was the legend of Prester John. He was this grand king from beyond the Islamic lands that controlled an ancient and powerful Christian kingdom. There were a lot of journeys to try to find him and ask for help! Mind you, he didn’t actually exist. Maybe they meant the King of Ethiopia, who fits the bill reasonably well? Apparently when Europeans made contact with Ethiopia, they insisted on calling the King “Prester John” (much to his confusion). Whether or not the myth had any grounding in reality, Europeans were aware that there were Christians elsewhere in the world. They were wise, they were important, and they were very much alive. Christianity wasn’t understood to be a European phenomenon.
Today, the cultural legacy of colonialism lives on in how we view theology:
We can hardly find these prejudices against Africa voiced anywhere in Christian history until we get to the nineteenth century, especially to the writings of the French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism. It was not until [then] that these prejudices became so standardized that they were accepted without question by educated Westerners-and by Western educated Africans.
Ibid., Loc. 555-557
In an era where Europe was casting off the vestiges of tradition and claiming an unbiased, “scientific” worldview, real Christianity became an intellectual property of Europe. Good ideas were emphasized as primarily European. Augustine became a Latin theologian. Athanasius and Anthony were assumed to be working from their Greek intellectual inheritance. Anything good that they wrote was supposed to have come from their Western sensibilities; anything that was obscure or odd was a product of unenlightened, superstitious nonsense that Europeans were fighting against.
Orthodoxy was redefined and reframed to fit the presiding worldview, and some of the diverse voices of the early Christians were whitewashed.
There’s something to be gained by seeing the famous theologians of the past for the diverse people that they were. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely redefine the way we read them! If we try to wrap their faith around their ethnicity, we could end up creating the same kind of ethnocentric faith that the enlightenment brought us. We might be tempted to think about Augustine in terms of how African he was, or to have conversations about Anthony as primarily an Egyptian thinker. That’s all well and good, but both men would much rather be weighed by a more important measure: in terms of the truth that they were a witness to. Oden put it well:
Orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will. African Christianity is not primarily a racial story but a confessional story of martyrs and lives lived by faith active in love.
Ibid., Loc. 545-548
The benefit to recovering the full story of these saints is seeing just how vast the workings of God have been. Europe isn’t the alpha and the omega of historic Christian faith. Christianity belongs to the whole world, and it always has.