A few weeks back, I wrapped up a class about hymns at the church. We looked back at how music was used in worship throughout the ages and looked at some particularly famous hymns along the way. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, we used the book Then Sings My Soul: Book 3 by Thomas Nelson, which is not only approachable and concise, but does a nice job of blending history and music.
There’s one hymn that really stuck with me from that class: “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” by Martin Luther (sheet music and full copy of the lyrics here). I have no idea how common this hymn is among Lutherans. For all I know, they sing it every week. Goodness knows Methodists know more than their fair share of Charles Wesley hymns. However common it might be in other traditions, it was totally foreign to me, which means I could appreciate just how weird (and wonderful) it was. Here’s a great rendition by Concordia Publishing House:
First off, it’s an Easter song in A minor. Who writes an Easter song in a minor key? Easter is a celebration! It’s glorious! I don’t expect sad music! But here’s Death’s Strong Bands, full of melancholy, proudly announcing Easter. It’s a mix of joy and sorrow that I didn’t expect on Easter.
The lyrics have that same tension. Just look at verse 1:
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands for our offenses given; but now at God’s right hand he stands and brings us life from heaven. Therefore let us joyful be and sing to God right thankfully loud songs of alleluia! Alleluia!
The first two lines are intensely melancholy, so much so that I’m surprised by the heavenly triumph that follows! And before you say, “Hold on, Vincent! What if Martin Luther was only saying something like ‘Christ died for us,’ in the first verse? That could certainly be considered joyful,” hear me out. The whole hymn vacillates between triumph and sorrow:
Verse two is about how all of humanity was enslaved to sin and death (mournful)
Verse three is about Jesus destroying death and taking its crown (triumphal)
Verse four is about the “strange and dreadful strife” when good and evil fought and good won (triumphal, but with mournful undertones)
Verse five compares Jesus to the paschal lamb that died so his blood could save others (could be played either way; suffering love is a complex theme)
Verse six and seven switch into high celebration, explicitly saying that it’s Easter and we should remember it with food, drink, and celebrations (highly triumphal)
When I talked to the class about this particular hymn, it turned out to be a lot less popular than I expected. The most popular complaint was that it was just too gloomy to sing on Easter and too perky to sing on Good Friday. Maybe it could fit in on a Palm/Passion service? But even then you’d have to cut out the verse that explicitly says it’s Easter. It came off like a hymn with some problems that would need solved before it saw it’s day in Sunday worship.
Apparently the people who compiled the United Methodist Hymnal felt the same way. They cut verses two, three, and five, removing the themes of death, sin, and atonement (the stuff we usually associate with Good Friday). What’s left is significantly more triumphal. Given that verse six and seven are the only two “very triumphal” verses, the percent of the hymn dedicated purely to celebration rockets up from 28% pre-edit to 50% post-edit. This is a common edit of the hymn shared by most mainline denominations and a few evangelical ones.
I can’t help but feel we’re losing something with edits like this. The tension between joy and sorrow and the battle between good and evil are what made the song interesting to begin with! If we ditch that, what are we left with? A weird, subpar Easter hymn that’s arbitrarily in a minor key. Gross. But I get what they were trying to do! They wanted to tip the balance between joy and sorrow in favor of joy! They wanted to resolve the tension and make it a little more Eastery! But resolving that tension made it boring and odd.
If were going to give it some tweaks to help it find a place in worship, a better solution (in my mind) is showcased by efforts like the band Koine. Rather than remove the tension between the celebratory stuff and the mournful stuff, they leaned into that tension. They removed verses 6 and 7 (the explicit references to Easter) and basically turned it into a Good Friday hymn:
Now that’s worth singing! The minor key makes sense. I get it. The sweetness of salvation and the bitterness of Christ’s death are properly intermingled. It feels a lot more loyal to Luther’s original intent as well. I can’t fathom someone asking him if they could ditch the stuff about Christ’s death and sin and him saying, “Oh, for sure! Now that I think about it, it was a little gloomy.” Not a chance.
I do have to admit that the original draft is definitely an odd hymn and a tough sell for Easter. I almost wonder if you could split the verses and make two versions: the Good Friday edit would have verses 1 through 5, and the Easter Sunday edit would have verses 1, 6 and 7. If you sang those different versions on their appropriate days during Holy Week, it might give a sense of continuing work that works really well. But maybe I’m working too hard to make an odd hymn work. Or maybe I’m not properly appreciating what Martin did in the first place! Either way, this hymn’s mix of joy and sorrow hit me just right. I’ll keep pondering this hymn for weeks to come.
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?
While poking around some different articles on the treatment of women in Leviticus, I stumbled across some wacky interpretations of what Jesus wrote in the sand in John 8:1-11. Let me refresh your memory on that passage (with a verse from chapter 7 to make sure we don’t start in the middle of a sentence):
7 53 Then they all went home,
8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap,in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneat her.”8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
What did Jesus write? It’s important enough that it’s referenced twice at crucial story moments, but apparently not important enough to tell us anything about it. I’ve heard people say he was writing a passage from Leviticus 20 indicating that BOTH people were supposed to be stoned, revealing that they would be breaking the law if they stoned her because they failed to produce both parties. Others have said that he was writing the names of every accuser along with the sins that they had recently committed. I’ve even heard that he drew a line in the sand for people to cross if they felt they were worthy. There are a lot of takes out there, but most of them aren’t really founded on much apart from one person’s random guesswork. What have the major theologians of the Christian tradition said about the writing in the sand?
Naturally, I started with Augustine (because you can never go too far wrong with Augustine). Luckily for me, he preached a series of sermons about the book of John and his take was customarily good. He suggested the trap the Pharisees laid was in making Jesus choose between gentleness and justice. If Jesus approved of the women’s death, he’d be the guy that condemned peasant women and his popularity would suffer. If he didn’t approve of her death, he was speaking against God’s justice and was officially a transgressor of the law! Jesus navigates the dilemma with his typical craftiness by taking neither option. But what about the finger writing?
You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit. You have heard then, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess… Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Hence, either let this woman go, or together with her receive ye the penalty of the law… [H]aving struck them through with that dart of justice, [Jesus] deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.”
Augustine, Sermon on John Chapter VII. 40–53; VIII. 1–11
Brilliant! Rather than focus on non-existent content, he’s looking at the symbolism of the act itself. Why would Jesus write on the ground? Because God wrote the law on stone the first time, and now he’s writing on the ground. This is the same dust that people were created from. Were they fertile enough to bear fruit after all these years? Or were their hearts still hard as the rocks that the commandments were once written on? He even returns to his idea of gentleness by indicating that Jesus didn’t stare them down after the incident, shaming them for their sin. He just keeps writing. Really nice work here.
Other patristic authors are less worthy of sharing. John Chrysostom has a sermon series on John that deliberately skips over this particular story and a lot of ancient theologians (especially in the East) follow suit, leading some to believe that they had copies of John that didn’t contain these verses. In Against the Pelagians, Book 2, Jerome suggests Jesus was writing out the names of the accusers to to fulfill Jeremiah 17:13 “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust,” (a passage which seems to have been intended to be more poetic than literal). By and large, Augustine’s logic seems to have been attractive. Thomas Aquinas carries it forward to the Middle Ages in his mega-commentary Catena Aurea and includes support from Venerable Bede and Alcuin of York to back him up.
In the Reformation, John Calvin comes out swinging against Augustine and approaches the story without interest in allegory:
By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said. Thus in the present day, when Satan attempts, by various methods, to draw us aside from the right way of teaching, we ought disdainfully to pass by many things which he holds out to us.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on John 13:1-11
Gone is the speculative symbolism! Instead, we have a Jesus that’s just not listening. Pharisees are coming around, asking questions that they already know the answer to, and Jesus just starts doodling in the sand. That’s how little he cares what they have to say. When he says “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone,” Calvin reads that as a deliberate reference to their own sinfulness. They know they aren’t being sincere. They’re scheming, conniving, wretched men trying to kill someone to prove their own point. It’s not that the law isn’t legitimate; it’s that they aren’t being legitimate, and they know it. Again, Calvin is sticking to the Scripture pretty thoroughly and avoiding wild speculation about the writing. Well done.
The Reformation seems to be a bit of a hinge in historical interpretation. After the Reformation, commentaries that I can find seem to take a more practical approach to the matter. The symbolic dimension is swallowed up by the practical. Some lean more heavily on WHY he wrote (to avoid meddling in politics, to calm people down, etc.) while others focus on WHAT he wrote (names, sins, passages of the law, etc.). John Wesley is one of the better big-name interpreters to marry the practical and the symbolic, but his notes are still ruthlessly pragmatic:
God wrote once in the Old Testament; Christ once in the New: perhaps the words which he afterward spoke, when they continued asking him. By this silent action, he,
1. fixed their wandering, hurrying thoughts, in order to awaken their consciences: and, 2. signified that he was not then come to condemn but to save the world.
John Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John 8:1-11
Obviously there are oodles of others well worth reading, but these were the ones that I thought were worthy of lifting up. They’re all respected enough for their words to carry weight, and each seems to represent the general stream of mainstream interpretation within their era.
Ultimately, I’m really pleased with what I found. I expected to find some really wacky stuff, but a shocking majority of commentators avoided wild speculation about the specifics of the writing and interpreted in light of the information that they had, rather than what they didn’t have. Frankly, that was my bias from the outset. If the Bible doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, it couldn’t have been all that important to the story (sorry Jerome). But really, it was phenomenal to see all the directions people went with it. I have a soft spot for that symbolic dimension. It emphasized the weight of each action within the passage in a way that was far beyond the mundane. So what did he write? Beats me. As much as I like Augustine, I’ll side with Calvin for the sheer delightful possibility of Jesus rolling his eyes and playing tic tac toe against himself in the dirt while they were trying to talk to him.
I’ve been reading a fair few cultural critiques lately (C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Andrew Root, and Rod Dreher). Each of these authors is trying to articulate what makes faith in the modern world challenging and the cultural forces that make conversion so unlikely for the average Westerner. And honestly? It’s been kind of a bummer. To be clear, I think there’s immense value for Christians in each of these writers. To share the gospel effectively, we have to understand the people around us. What do they long for? What do they expect? What do they think is reasonable? What parts of the faith will they find to be a challenge? Given the massive cultural shift over the past 50 years, churches need to realize that the mission field has changed and they have to adapt to be effective ministers of the gospel. At the same time, reading these books repeatedly can breed a sense of desperation. It’s clear the Church no longer has the privileged status it once had.
Certain eras just had a tremendous energy around faith. For example, if you’ve ever read the diaries of old Methodist preachers from the earliest days of America, you know that their experiences are totally incomprehensible for a modern Christian. “I preached the gospel in a field today. Five-hundred were converted through the grace of God. Huzzah!” Seriously? How on Earth did you pull that off? To be fair, the diary entries tend to end in mass conversions or the preacher having tomatoes hucked at them, but still! There’s that sense that things are MOVING! Today, there’s not that same movement. Cultural critiques can help us put our finger on some of the factors that have made things harder, but they can’t make them go away. A truth that once seemed so obvious that people might convert on the spot is now so challenging for people to accept that there are active, identifiable cultural barriers preventing people from hearing that good news. It can all start to feel a little hopeless. When you put all those thinkers together, you end up with one massive decline narrative about Christianity in the West.
It’s not just reading philosophy that can lead you to feel hopeless. A lot of churches have pretty strong decline narratives themselves. Mind you, not all. There are some big churches that are doing very well for themselves! But converts to those churches are often drawn from smaller churches, rather than from the ranks of non-Christians. The shrunken churches that are left behind end up with a distinct decline narrative. “There used to be so many more people here.” “Those are the classrooms we don’t use anymore.” “What gets young people to go to church? Why aren’t they coming?” Again, some of this is good. Congregations need to look at the tough realities of their situation! But a lot of it feels hopeless. Looking at the bad is only helpful insofar as it can direct us to the good.
So where’s the hope for Christians in a post-Christian era? How can we stay excited when it feels like things are going downhill?
It can help to remember that the challenges we face aren’t anything near the persecutions that other believers have experienced. There are countries where you can get killed for being Christian. There are places where evangelizing is illegal. What we’re facing? It’s nothing compared to that. And so many of them didn’t face their harsh realities with hopelessness. They were joyful to suffer for the one they loved.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a beautiful second-century story of someone was joyful in the face of wild adversity. The culture that second-century Roman Christians were living in was openly hostile. If you couldn’t tell from the title, they killed Christians. In this particular account, they’re going to kill Polycarp (a Christian bishop) if he doesn’t deny his faith make a sacrifice to the emperor (spoiler: he doesn’t). Here’s a community that has EVERY REASON to be frustrated by the philosophy of their day and is facing challenges to ministry that we can’t even fathom— but they don’t express any hopelessness in the story. Just look at this excerpt:
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?— who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them.
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 2
They saw their bishop get stabbed to death by the authorities, and they’re praising God! Because God is in control. Even if circumstances are horrendous, they trust him. If he wants them to endure, they’ll do it with a smile. There’s not even a hint of fear. All of this is coming to pass because of God, and it will all turn out right because of God.
I’ll skip the bulk of the middle, but feel free to read it over at New Advent here if you’re curious.
After the story of Polycarp’s death, the final chapter ends with this:
We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy elect, after whose example the blessed Polycarp suffered, following in whose steps may we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 22
They wish their readers happiness. Not worldly happiness, but the kind of happiness that Polycarp had. The kind of happiness is the kind Paul felt when he wrote, “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” (Phil 1:20-21). Real happiness isn’t rooted in culture or circumstance; it’s rooted in God.
The world is different. Converting to Christianity isn’t the obvious choice. Going to church isn’t as common. We won’t likely won’t enjoy the cultural clout and full buildings that we used to, but the happiness that we’re aiming for was never in full buildings or philosophical ease. It’s in loving Jesus and trusting him no matter what.
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.
In the long and decorated history of Christianity, there are a few figures that are especially well remembered: Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Luther, Cranmer, Chrysostom, etc. These are the names on the “A-tier” of history. After all, they’re founding figures of whole denominations. Calvin’s systematic theology holds up Reformed thinking. Luther’s boldness brought about the advent of Protestantism. Chrysostom’s liturgy is performed every Sunday in Eastern Orthodox churches. If you’re from the tradition that these men helped create, there’s no doubt that you’re familiar with their works.
If you dip into the B-tier, the names still hold power, but they certainly haven’t achieved that pop recognition that the A-tier people have. You have people like Cyril of Alexandria, Antony of Egypt, Origen of Alexandria, Julian of Norwich, and others like them. Were they major figures in founding a denomination? No, but they’re influential enough that someone in your congregation has heard of at least one of them. They may even get their name dropped in a sermon or two. One more tier down, we have names like Melancthon, Zwingli, and Bucer. They tend to be viewed as supporting characters in other people’s stories, but specialists and scholars will be generally familiar with their work. After all, how could they properly tell the full story of Luther without Melancthon or Calvin without Zwingli?
We could keep going for ages, dipping into increasingly obscure people in the grand tier-system of historical clout, but I have to wonder: how many tiers down is someone like Engelhard of Langheim?
There are no English copies of his works. He has no Wikipedia page. He’s from that period of history after Augustine and before Luther that most Protestants treat as a no man’s land (1200 AD). There’s a single book about him in English, and it’s pretty academic (Cistercian Stories for Nuns and Monks: The Sacramental Imagination of Engelhard of Langheim by Martha Newman). Nevertheless, I rejoice in this little taste of Engelhard and I hope others will too, because he cared as little about the tier system of history as it seems to have cared about him, and he reminds us Christians to leave no story untold.
Engelhard was a Cistercian monk in what we now know as Germany. His resume isn’t all that impressive. He didn’t travel to Rome or do a lecture circuit. His education was mediocre and based on a model that was quickly losing its legitimacy (his education was in terms of morality and grammar, rather the dialectical and philosophical focus that defined the emerging scholastic movement). He did what most monks do and lived almost his entire life on the patch of land that was his monastery. He was almost an abbot (head monk) of a monastery at one point, but the process that saw him get elected seems to have been deemed illegitimate by the Cistercian authorities, so he was deposed after a relatively short time at the helm. Engelhard wasn’t the sort of person that makes the A-tier of Christian history books, but he was a storyteller. In an era where churches were plunging into theory and beefing up their theological articulations, Engelhard kept telling stories about people that reflected God’s grace in the world. People today tend to call his stories and those like them exempla (examples), but Engelhard called them historia (histories) or miracula (miracles). Personally, I like miracula. Why shouldn’t a story about God at work be something more than just an example? Why can’t it be a miracle?
Engelhard’s miracula are incredibly rustic. He uses the first person to frame them, and when he’s picked up a story from someone else, he’s sure to say so. It’s almost as though you’re in the room with him, listening as he tells you the latest tales that have trickled down to him through letters and monastic conferences. He clearly grew up in an oral culture and is dragging it with him into the written world. He also doesn’t waste time telling stories that have already been told by others. When someone asked him about his take on a particularly well-covered story, he replied:
I do not write it lest I put my hand into another’s field. I recount stories that are untouched by others, for there are many; may they be useful!
EB c. 8, fol. 53r. as cited in Newman, Cistercian Stories, 56.
When asked to write the story of a particularly famous Cistercian (Bernard of Clairvaux), he showed no interest and protested that Bernard’s story was “already known in writing throughout the world.” (EB c. 28, fol. 70v. as cited in Newman, Cistercian Stories, 56). Old tales would not do for Engelhard. He wanted to tell stories that had yet to be told, rather than dip into the A-tier of history to rehash what had already been done. God doesn’t just work through big shots; he’s working today in people that many of us have yet to hear of.
Here’s one of Engelhard’s miracula:
A necromancer from Spain tried to speak to a fellow necromancer that had died. He used an elaborate ritual that he read directly from a book, careful not to speak a word that wasn’t printed on the page. Sure enough, his friend rose, wearing a cloak that was covered in inky words. Each of those words were the sins that he committed in life, and underneath the cloak was a fire, continually burning his flesh, and there’s nothing anyone can do to save him from his fate. A little bit of the fire leaps out of the cloak and hits the hand of the living necromancer. Terrified, the man asks his friend how he can avoid this fate. The dead man responds that people from every walk of life were down in Hell, but there seemed to be less Cistercian monks than any other group. The specter disappeared and the lone necromancer ran to a monastery to became a Cistercian.
paraphrased from Newman, Cistercian Stories for Nuns and Monks, 57.
Engelhard says he heard this story from an abbot who heard it from the necromancer himself. You might wonder why on Earth I chose to share a story that’s so dark in tone. Why not share something chipper? Who wants to hear weird stuff about necromancers and Hell? Fair point, but I love how he weaves a critique of written culture into the story. Note how the the written word is inherently tied to death. To summon a dead friend, you look in a book. When the dead man arises, he’s bound by the words that defined him in life. It’s explicitly noted that nothing can change his fate. This is a man whose story has been told. The living man is forced to flee the death of necromancy to find the living spirituality of the Cistercians, and in doing so, he abandons the static world of his books and becomes a storyteller himself. If taken too simplistically, this merely suggests that writing is bad, which would make for a bizarre theme since Engelhard wrote the thing down himself. No, I think Engelhard is critiquing the way we write more than the writing itself. All too often, the written word is impersonal, cold, and concerned with endless retreads of what is considered acceptable. It is the stuff of necromancers, dredging up old specters and refusing to reflect life as we know it. It doesn’t have to be like this. When we write, we can lower our guards. We can drop our facade of impartiality to reveal that we’re just people reaching out to other people. Similarly, we aren’t obligated to dredge up the A-listers if we want credibility. God works everywhere. We can tell the stories that we’ve heard in our own lives. They’re just as good as those that have already been written down for ages.
I still remember coming across a history book written by one of the congregations I served that was very much in the spirit of Engelhard. It had been written out on a typewriter and stapled together in days long passed, but it was just a treat to read. The writers didn’t fall into that trap that so many do when they write out congregational history, focusing on names, dates, and numbers. No, it was more of a series of miracula than anything else. There was a tale about someone in the congregation whose prayers were so powerful, they ended a drought by praying for rain and thus saved the crops of the local farmers. There was a tale about a preacher that gave sermons that were so short that he got a visit from a bishop. “I tell them everything that I know!” the poor preacher protested. The bishop responded, “Then we will have to give you more to say,” and gave him a ton of books and a plan to read them all. By the time he was done with his readings, he became one of the best preachers they’d ever had. Every story just oozed character. Nobody could read that booklet without being reminded that God’s work is not far away, locked up in history’s A-tier. It’s right here. People in the same communities that we occupy have done marvelous things, and we can too. So why not take a moment today and jot down a miracula that deserves to be remembered? Remind yourself and someone else of the God that is in our midst today. As Engelhard would say, “there are many such stories; may they be useful.”
I just ran across this quote from the famous 4th century Christian preacher, John Chrysostom:
We spare neither labors nor means in order to teach our children secular sciences, so that they can serve well the earthly authorities. Only the knowledge of the holy Faith, the service of the Heavenly King are a matter of indifference to us. We allow them to attend spectacles but we care little whether they go to Church and stand within it reverently. We demand an account from them of what they learned in their secular institutes—why do we not demand an account from them of what they heard in the Lord’s house?
as cited by Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose, 331
It was kind of a shock to read! Here’s a man in our heralded Christian past, preaching in an era which I all too readily assume was full of devotion and piety, and he’s addressing the same thing that we face today: parents often care more about secular education than they do the Christian faith. After all, life is long! A child has a whole lifetime to think about God. The window for getting into a good school? That’s approaching fast. So should their child attend church or piano lessons? Wake up early on Sunday for an entry-level job, or head over to worship? The piano lessons and job look better on a college application than anything the Church has to offer. A good application means a good school. A good school means a good job. A good job means a stable income and a higher chance of job satisfaction. Job satisfaction means a higher chance of being happy! And what more could a person ask for than a happy child? Conversion can happen anytime; the road to happiness is happening now. Children need to get on or get left behind.
It’s easy to suggest that this is a phenomenon that only really effects nominal Christians that attend church on Christmas and Easter, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Even the great Augustine of Hippo, bishop and theologian extraordinaire, had parents that prioritized his academic education before his faith journey. When he took a concubine (or started living with his girlfriend, to try to translate a weird ancient idea into a modern one), his Christian mom was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. If anything, she was glad they weren’t getting married:
The reason why she showed no such concern was that she was afraid that the hope she placed in me could be impeded by a wife. This was not the hope which my mother placed in you for the life to come, but the hope which my parents entertained for my career that I might do well out of the study of literature. Both of them, as I realized, were very ambitious for me: my father because he hardly gave a thought to you at all, and his ambitions for me were concerned with mere vanities; my mother because she thought it would do no harm and would be a help to set me on the way towards you, if I studied the traditional pattern of a literary education. That at least is my conjecture as I try to recall the characters of my parents.
Augustine, Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 27
In Confessions, Augustine almost NEVER says anything bad about his momma. She is the shining pinnacle of saintliness that follows him around, praying for his conversion and hoping that her son might know God! But even SHE buys in to the theory that he needs to put his studies first while he’s young and then maybe someday he can convert when he’s nice and settled. This isn’t just a thought pattern for nominal Christians; this is a pervasive way of thinking for a lot of Christian parents.
Andrew Root talks extensively about this in his book, The End of Youth Ministry. He suggests that each society has a different vision of what a parent is supposed to be. Obviously, a good parent produces happy children. That tends to be universal. But what does it mean to be happy? Is happiness luxury? Elevated social standing? Religious identity? What does the culture say that happiness is? Because regardless of whether or not you personally affirm it, you’re going to find yourself influenced by it:
It would be super weird for even me (the theologian and husband of a pastor) to say [to my next-door neighbor], “Yes, [my children are] doing very good. Owen fasted all week and saw two visions. And Maisy felt the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit and has entered a time of confession and penance. She wore our family hair shirt to school today. It made gym class difficult, but that’s the point: doing penance for sin isn’t easy!” There was a time in history when this might have been exactly how a person would respond. But not today. The moral imagination has changed, and if I did respond like this, even a churchgoing neighbor would make all sorts of moral interpretations about me… My neighbor might even call social services, assuming that I’m some crazy religious freak, because my sense of the good feels wrong to her. And what would give her the moral high ground is her assumption that my poor kids are being kept from living a full life.
Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry, p. 25
So what is good parenting today? What is that thing that our society strives to achieve? For people in the eras of Augustine and Chrysostom, it was clearly tied to an increase in wealth and standing. Are things so different today? Not to suggest that the core of all goodness is located in a person’s pocketbook, but we clearly assume that more money will lead to better opportunities for happiness. Augustine’s parents got all kinds of admiration for saving up and sending him off to a top-notch school! That made them good parents in the eyes of the world. Good parents just like that were being lectured by Chrysostom: don’t let material success take priority over faith, regardless of how good it makes you look in the eyes of the world. If we want to avoid being good parents and be godly parents, it’s going to be a challenge that we can’t embark on alone.
I have no kids. It’s easy for me to say that Christians need to find ways to push back against the presiding social imaginary and put faith first when raising children. That being said, I’m still a church member. I’m responsible for helping raise children within my church community, and I’m responsible for supporting their parents. I hope I can can help them on that difficult journey, and I hope I can find a community to help me when that time comes. Raising children faithfully been a challenge for thousands of years, and the lure of defining parenting by the measure of secular success isn’t going away anytime soon.
I won’t pretend that I knew who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was before this past week. Makes sense. Enlightenment-era philosophy and Christian theology tend not to have much in common. He’s probably best known as the guy with that memorable quote, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” I’ve started digging into his stuff after running across him in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (a brilliant attempt to trace the history of thought that led the modern Western mind). Apparently this Rousseau guy went toe-to-toe with Augustine! Not only did he write his own Confessions, but he even included a section about stealing produce and what it meant for his soul!
For those that aren’t aware, Augustine (father of Western Christian orthodoxy) has a really famous moment in his Confessions where he steals some pears. He’s with a bunch of his rowdy teenage friends when they see this big, beautiful tree of pears. They steal as many as they can, and then they throw them to the pigs. The act is pure sin. There’s nothing to be gained. There’s nothing logical about it. Augustine even has better pears at home! The point isn’t to gain something; the point is to destroy something:
It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.
Augustine; Henry Chadwick. The Confessions p. 29
It’s a vivid illustration of man’s innate drive towards sinfulness. Who among us hasn’t done something stupid in their youth? Something that was destructive for the sake of being destructive? For me, I think about the cafeteria at undergrad. When you were done eating, the popular thing to do in my friend group was to grab an extra apple or banana on your way out and just throw it as far across campus as you could. And why? Because destroying was fun! Cleaning staff be darned! Let the fruit smash commence! Augustine is saying, “let’s not let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that we wrought as teens. We did it for a reason: humanity innately longs to sin. Don’t let the fact that you were younger and more overt prevent you from seeing your fundamental nature in those stupid acts of destruction.”
Meanwhile, in HIS confessions, Rousseau ALSO tells the story of stealing produce! This time, it’s asparagus. His boss, Verrat, has a mother that’s been growing a little garden, and he’s decided that young Rousseau is the perfect man to steal asparagus from it and sell them on his behalf. Rousseau steals asparagus for relatively benign reasons at first: “seeking only to please my employer,” he claims. But what began as a little way to help his boss get some extra luxuries starts to warp him. He starts skimming a little off the top. After all, he’s the one that is taking on the risk, and nobody would believe him if he said that his boss put him up to it! So to make things fair, he takes a little. Then he starts stealing other little things that he finds: apples, tools, trinkets he finds laying around the house. More than that, he feels utterly justified in doing all that he does:
A continual repetition of ill treatment rendered me callous; it seemed a kind of composition for my crimes, which authorized me to continue them, and, instead of looking back at the punishment, I looked forward to revenge. Being beat like a slave, I judged I had a right to all the vices of one.
Rousseau, Confessions, Bk 1, Gutenberg Edition
Note the change in culprit! Augustine saw his crimes as proof of a deep-seated inclination to sin within his soul. Rousseau looks outward to find the culprit. Verrat convinced him to start stealing to feed his need for luxury. The sin was reinforced by unjust risk, the beatings that he suffered, and the way he was treated after his crimes. If Augustine’s pear-thieving was proof of an inward problem, Rousseau’s asparagus theft is a testament to the power that society has to warp an individual towards evil.
This brings us to one of Rousseau’s major ideas: society is the primary force responsible for corrupting the average human. If left alone, people are basically good! They don’t know how to lie, deceive, compare themselves to someone else, or take advantage of people. They’re unique, gifted, and ready to live in a way that suits them. But when they’re introduced to society… well… they learn to lie:
As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins… they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.
Rousseau, Second Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
People’s lies help them get along with others. They help them accumulate wealth and power. They help them appear better than they are. All of humanity ends up living a lie and drawing each new person they meet deeper into that lie. The people who are best at lying benefit tremendously, regardless of who is actually moral:
While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them. Civilized people, cultivate them. Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any.
Rousseau, First Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
Trueman suggests that philosophers like Rousseau set the stage for modern thinking about morality. There’s a presiding sense in the West that the greatest thing humanity can do is stop oppressing one another and redesign our systems of governance to minimize societal injustice. Political debates are increasingly built around terminology like social justice, systemic oppression, and intolerance. Rousseau would be proud of our willingness to tackle society head-on! But what have Christians lost by adopting so much of his thinking? We’re taking on the thought processes of someone who directly contradicted one of our greatest thinkers! We have to stop and ask, what will we be left with when we strip away all the chains we’ve heaped on one another? Will the final product be capable of glorifying God? Or was Augustine right? Is there a force beyond societal injustice that causes us to stray? Is sin much more embedded in the human soul than we’d like to imagine?
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.
Apologetics (the art of defending the faith) hasn’t changed nearly as much as you’d expect over the past 2000-ish years. Well… parts of it have certainly changed. After all, if you had a question about Christianity today, I assume you’d look for a pretty official looking book with basic questions and good answers in response. Makes sense. But in the third century, a perfectly legitimate option was picking up a dramatization of a fantasy debate in which the apostle Peter and the sorcerer Simon Magus wage an epic war of words about the big questions in Christianity (as based on the story in Acts 8:9-24). And it’s every bit as awesome as you could imagine.
Ok, a public debate might not sound all that exciting to everyone, but trust me, if those two legendary figures going head-to-head doesn’t get your blood pumping, the details will. Simon Magus rolls into town and becomes the leader of a local cult by explaining to them that he’s God. When the current cult leader (who also claims to be God) objects and tries to beat him with his stick, the stick magically goes through Simon’s body, which leads to the cult leader immediately stepping down from leadership and handing his position over to Simon. Simon also claims to be able to do all kinds of wacky things. He can fly! He can make children grow beards! At one point, he claims to have created a boy out of thin air and then turned him back into air again. Not only did he do this magnificent feat (supposedly), but he claims it as proof that he’s more powerful than the God of the Old Testament. That guy only created humans out of earth and everyone knows that’s way easier than making people out of air.
See? It’s the details that really bring this epic story to life.
The verbal smackdown is just as fun to read. Our debate begins with Peter offering peace to his opponent. Simon’s response?
Do not invoke peace, but rather battle, which is the mother of peace; and if you can, exterminate errors. And do not seek for friendship obtained by unfair admissions; for this I would have you know, above all, that when two fight with each other, then there will be peace when one has been defeated and has fallen. And therefore fight as best you can, and do not expect peace without war, which is impossible; or if it can be attained, show us how.
The Recognitions of Clement, 234
Simon has no chill at all.
All of this is from The Recognitions of Clement, a part of the larger body of work known as the Clementia. Basically, it’s an ancient historical fiction. The author wanted to talk about doctrine, but they spiced things up by using Bible characters. The resulting narrative is surprisingly fun. And effective! I couldn’t help but be a little moved by Peter’s response when one of his assistants asked how God could blame anyone for leaving him if the devil offered them more power:
If your son, whom you have trained and nourished with all care, and brought to man’s estate, should be ungrateful to you, and should leave you and go to another, whom perhaps he may have seen to be richer, and should show to him the honour which he owed to you, and, through hope of greater profit, should deny his birth, and refuse you your paternal rights, would this seem to you right or wicked?”
The Recognitions of Clement, 229
All of the grand spectacle aside, it’s shocking just how relevant most of the the questions that Simon Magus asks Peter are for people today. If Jesus is so great, why does he contradict himself in the Gospels? If God is so good, why did he create evil stuff? Why did God give humans free will? How could the being written about in the Old Testament truly be called a good God? I don’t want to pretend like all of the answers that Peter gives would be totally satisfying to modern ears, but they hold up pretty well on the whole.
In pop culture, there’s this strong sense that we’re so far advanced from the primitive thinkers of the past. The progress that we’ve made over the past 2000 years puts us lightyears ahead of our foolish, backwards ancestors, but when you crack open their books, you can see how ridiculous a statement like that is. We may have some new tools and some new insights into the way the world works, but we’re still fundamentally the same beings working out the same questions. Our ancestors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, mathematics, and any one of a million other disciplines are often far more advanced than we give them credit for.
As Christians, we have so much to gain from looking back at ancient apologetics. Not only are the historic responses insightful, but reading these documents reminds us that we haven’t entered into a new age in which all of our collective wisdom is outdated. We’re more equipped than we know, and the questions that people are asking aren’t as groundbreaking as we think. There’s truly nothing new under the sun.