Monthly Archives: March 2010

The End of the World: Part Three

In thinking about the end of the world—the final act of history, the denouement of all creation—we cannot avoid the question of telos: What has this all been for? Toward what end was creation created? And so, as with so many epic stories and grand narratives, we have to go back to the beginning.

In Genesis, God created the first human: Adam. But why? What was humanity’s original purpose? In Genesis 1:28, mankind was given the injunction to “subdue the earth.” But what does this mean? Since everything that God made in the creation of Genesis 1-2 is pronounced “very good” (Gen. 1:31), what is there to “subdue?”

Likewise in Genesis 2:15, mankind is charged with the task of “cultivating and keeping” the Garden of Eden, which many scholars have translated as “guarding.” But what is Adam guarding Eden against, if everything God just created was “very good?”

These verses imply the presence of something evil or hostile in the world from the very beginning. Even as early as Genesis 1:2 we can see evidence of the presence of evil: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

“Darkness” and “deep” have been interpreted by some scholars as indicating the presence of evil even in the formless, voidless world. Throughout scripture, the “deep” or “sea” is almost always associated with evil—it’s the thing God must restrain and Jesus must calm; it’s what flooded the whole earth in Noah’s time; it’s the home of biblical monsters like Leviathan and the origin of “the beast.” And at the end of time, according to Revelation 21:1, the new earth and new heaven will replace the old ones, and “the sea will be no more.”

All of this to say that when God was “hovering over the face of the waters” in that original moment, it was not some inert state of pre-creation reverie. It was active: God moving against some resistant force—the first mention of God’s battle with evil that will characterize the story of earth from the very beginning to the very end.

Man’s Task: Extending Eden, Subduing Evil

If we assume that the ultimate reason God does anything is to demonstrate his glory—that he alone deserves glory—then it is safe to assume that creating man to be his image-bearer in creation was also meant to bring him glory. Adam was created to establish the kingdom of God by subduing evil and extending the morally ordered, useful Eden outward to the unordered, wild, presumably evil world outside the garden… all in demonstration of God’s glory.

N.T. Wright, in his spectacular new book, After You Believe, says this about man’s created purpose:

“Creation, it seems, was not a tableau, a static scene. It was designed as a project, created in order to go somewhere. The creator has a future in mind for it; and Human—this strange creature, full of mystery and glory—is the means by which the creator is going to take his project forward. The garden, and all the living creatures, plants and animals, within it, are designed to become what they were meant to be through the work of God’s image-bearing creatures in their midst. The point of the project is that the garden be extended, colonizing the rest of creation; and Human is the creature put in charge of that plan.”

But early in his task, Human tried to take God’s glory and appropriate it for himself… and that’s when things got off track. That’s what needed to be fixed.

Eden=Temple=Jesus

After the colonizing extension of Eden (i.e. the extension of God’s perfection and glory) was brought to a screeching halt with the fall of man, God made a covenant with one nation—Israel—that was to pick up the project of demonstrating/extending God’s glory in the world. These people established a temple wherein God dwelled, and from which his glory was meant to flow out—through his people—for the world’s benefit.

This temple was a sort of new Eden. Both were places from which life flowed out to bless creation; places where heaven met earth and man was allowed to fellowship with the divine. In the temple, the priest was the one who interfaced with God. In Eden, Adam was also a sort of “priest/king,” keeping the “temple” of God and extending it outward to others.

Both Adam and the Temple priests of Israel enacted the “royal and priestly vocation of all human beings,” writes N.T. Wright, “to stand at the interface between God and his creation, bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker.”

Eventually, though, this Eden/Temple idea was further expanded, and it happened in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, the “second Adam” and ultimate priest/king, came to establish the kingdom definitively and get the whole original project of creation back on track with his redemptive death and resurrection. He assumed the role of Temple and extended it to all who would believe. This new covenant people—his church—were now the Eden-extenders and conduits of his glory: advancing the kingdom of God throughout the world by proclaiming and living Christ’s triumph over evil.

The New Jerusalem and Our Destiny as Priests and Kings

If the purpose of the world is the living out—via humanity—of God’s perfection and glory and the putting down of evil, then clearly the world cannot end until this happens in full. It’s certainly not happening in full now.

History can’t end until creation can fulfill what it was always intended to be. Thus we have the doctrine of the millennium—the time of restoration when the world returns to that original Eden plan, when Christ and his bride (the church) reign, subduing evil and ultimately defeating it, as Adam was originally meant to do.  We were created to dominate Satan. And in the millennial reign, we will. This is what Revelation is all about.

N.T. Wright describes Revelation as a vision “not only of all creation renewed and rejoicing, but of human beings within it able at last to sum up the praise which all creation offers to its maker, and to exercise that sovereignty, that dominion, that wise stewardship over the world which God always intended for his image-bearing creatures. They will be priests and rulers, summing up the praises of all creation and exercising authority on behalf of God and the Lamb.”

In Revelation 21-22, John describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, and establishing the true “heaven on earth” kingdom that creation had only experienced in part ever since the earliest days of Eden.

Again, N.T. Wright puts it brilliantly:

“This, John is saying, will at last be the reality of which the Garden of Eden itself, and then the ancient Jerusalem Temple, were foretastes. This is the place where the living God dwells, the place from which his healing river will flow out to refresh and cleanse the whole world (22:1-2). Kings and priests, set now in a throne room, now in a Temple. That is the goal, the telos, of Human.”

“Do you want a job?”

On last week’s episode of Lost—one of the show’s best episodes ever—the good/evil (God/Satan?) battle was made explicit, and a jug of wine with a cork was used as a metaphor for keeping evil from spilling out into the world.

A surface reading of the episode might give one the following interpretation of the island: It is the dominion of Satan, kept there against his will but desperately wanting to get off the island to presumably corrupt a much larger swath of humanity. Jacob is the God-like (or maybe Adam-like?) protector of the island, in the sense that he is protecting the rest of the world from Satan being unleashed—“keeping the darkness where it belongs.”

In this way the island is a sort of reversal of Eden. Rather than a perfect Temple of divine dwelling that God extends out to the disordered chaos outside its borders, the island is itself the un-Eden—the hellish place that God and his people (whom he strategically brings to the island) have to come in to and subdue from the inside.

Jacob, like God, wants to use humans to subdue evil. He brings people to the island with hopes that they will embody the virtuous character that reflects his own glory, rather than being the corruptible sinners the devil so wants them to be. Jacob even uses the priestly/intermediary language of man as a conduit of his purposes, in this exchange with Richard:

“Do you want a job?” he asks Richard. “You can be my representative, an intermediary between me and the people I bring to the island.”

But whereas this Lost vision situates man as more of a pawn in the ongoing war between God and Satan, the Bible has much grander aims in mind for us: Believers in Christ will reign as priests and kings over all the earth—having defeated Satan and evil once and for all.

The Eden/Temple in the Lost picture has more of a defensive feel to it. It’s not about extending goodness outward as much as restraining evil and keeping it bottled up.  But the view of God’s purposes in history as I’ve detailed in this now much-too-long blog post has another view: It’s more about filling the world with God’s glory and goodness (defeating evil in the process) than it is about keeping evil’s corrupting spread to a minimum. Whether through Eden, the Temple, Jesus, or the church—this whole project has always about extending God’s glory outward.

N.T. Wright says this:

“The Temple was never supposed to be a retreat away from the world, a safe holy place where one might stay secure in God’s presence, Shut off from the wickedness outside. The Temple was an advance sign of what God intended to do with and for the whole creation. When God filled the house with his presence, that was a sign and a foretaste of his ultimate intention, which was to flood the whole world with his glory, presence, and love.”

Our role now, as the church, should thus be one of action-oriented offense. We should be playing to win rather than playing not to lose (which seems to the Jacob/Lost perspective). Rather than being a cork and keeping evil from getting out, we should be a faucet—pouring forth the living water to any and everyone in the wide, thirsty world.

(read Part One and Part Two of this series)

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Trending Topic: Health Care Reform

The debate has been raging for more than a year now, but until Sunday night when the Senate’s health care bill finally passed, the discourse had largely been the domain of political junkies, Fox News Tea Partiers, and otherwise outspoken partisans. The rest of us were minding our own business, unsure exactly what was in the legislation and certainly ill-suited to comment on the whole enterprise in any sort of intelligent way.

But not anymore! The minute–literally, the minute–the House of Representatives passed the bill–which will cost an estimated $940 billion over 10 years and expand health care to 32 million more Americans–people who had been largely silent on the matter began to get very loud about it on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other social media (Google Buzz?) they might have had at their disposal.

Everyone all of a sudden became alarmingly, proudly partisan. Liberals rushed to tweet things about this being a “historic moment” and how “now we are more like Canada.” Conservatives swiftly updated their Facebook statuses with emotional outbursts about things like “baby killers” and “socialist utopias” and “the constitution being shredded by Democrats.”

Within a few hours after the bill had passed, it seemed that if you weren’t publicly announcing your allegiance in this hotly contested battle (however ill-informed you were on the details), you were missing out.

Welcome to the age of instant, public, recreational prognosticating. We are all talking heads. We all have something to say. And nothing but our cell phones and a “send” command is keeping our “expert” thoughts from reaching the masses.

But do we really want to be so public about our politics? Think about all the people you are friends with on Facebook—employers, friends, family, coworkers, potential collaborators… all with a diversity of political opinions and varying degrees of patience with people who disagree with them. Is it really crucial that they all know where you fall on the issue of health care?

Of course, this raises a larger question for our culture today: Why are we so obsessed with expressing our opinions to a vast and unseen digital audience via social media “status updates”? Is anyone that eager to know that “I’m glad we have health care reform” or “I think Obamacare will ruin everything”?

I’m not sure anyone is.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the reason people rant and rave so publicly these days is not because they care if anyone is listening; maybe they just want to be part of the conversation. Tweeting about breaking news allows us to feel part of the drama. Chiming in about the health care controversy keeps us from becoming obsolete in the cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps it helps us, in some small way, become more invested in matters of national policy.

But I’m guessing it mostly helps us become more invested in hearing ourselves speak and seeing our opinions proliferated. And I’m not sure the world needs any more of that.

The End of the World: Part Two

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

For many eschatology-minded Christians, one of the “signs” that the end of the world (i.e. the return of Christ) is upon us will be a great “end times harvest” of souls… a great awakening across the globe in which the Gospel spreads at a rate far greater than ever before, and all corners of the globe hear the name of Jesus. Based on verses like Matt. 24:14, many believe that Christ’s return will only come when this “proclaimed throughout the whole world” thing happens.

Clearly, we’re not there yet. But there is a lot of talk–hopeful talk–among some Christians these days that maybe we’re closer than ever before.

The Internet Argument

I attended a technology conference at Biola University last week and one of the speakers was Walt Wilson, who heads up “Global Media Outreach,” an Internet evangelism ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. He spoke about the Internet and how it is being utilized to spread the Gospel in new ways–and to places it’s never reached before. Within a few shorts years, said Wilson, the world will be covered by wifi and everyone will be connected via the Internet. What will this mean for communications? What will this mean for the spreading of Christianity?

Wilson suggested that the Internet–the world-altering innovation still just a few decades old–could very well be God working in history to prepare the global infrastructure for the “great harvest” that will usher in the new kingdom. Wilson made the interesting point that, when you consider the point in history at which Christ came the first time, you see how key the geo-political infrastructure of that time was in helping the Gospel have its initial proliferation. Just as the Roman roads of the first centuries after Christ helped accelerate the spread of Christianity, perhaps the “Information superhighway” will help accelerate the spread of Christianity in our present context, bringing the word of God in digital form, or in a downloadable app, to places physical missionaries might have more difficulty reaching.

The Asia Argument

On the same day that I heard the “Internet is God’s plan for the end times harvest” argument, I also went to a screening of a new documentary film called 1040, about the explosive rise of Christianity throughout the 10/40 window–in countries like South Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore & India. The film, made by Christians, takes the position that the rapid rise of Christianity in the non-western world is a crucial sign that the fulfillment of the great commission is near at hand.

One of the people featured in the film is MC Hammer, rapper-turned-pastor who mentored the filmmakers of 1040. At the film’s premiere, I got a chance to talk with Hammer about what he thought about non-western Christianity and its role in the fore-running of Christ’s return.

“Asia is going to play a central role in the return of Christ,” said Hammer. “As Asia rises, you’ll see things that you’ve never seen before… God is going to orchestrate his move in the 10/40 window.”

Hammer also spoke about the sorry state of the American church: “Look at the American church. Look how stagnant we’ve become. Our approach has turned from love to ritual. To be Christ-like it to share God’s love. There’s no room for the selfish Gospel. He belongs not only to us, but to the global community.”

MC Hammer and the filmmakers of 1040 seemed convinced that the “movement of God” in previously un-Christian parts of the world represents a climax of history–an exciting shift of the worldwide momentum of Christianity (from west to east) that will unleash a mission movement the likes of which the world has never seen.

What do I think about all this? I don’t know. I’m not sure either argument convinces me that the “end is near” or that the Great Commission is anywhere near its fulfillment. But it does seem like the world is at a point where a massive, global spreading of Christianity could occur. But only God knows if that hour is nigh.

(read Part One)

Hipsters on Food Stamps

I recently read this article in Salon about the strange recessionary phenomenon of hipsters who are on food stamps and eating well, never missing a beat with their Whole Foods-quality standards of foodie existence. They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies.

Here’s an excerpt from the article (which you should take the time to read):

Magida, a 30-year-old art school graduate, had been installing museum exhibits for a living until the recession caused arts funding — and her usual gigs — to dry up. She applied for food stamps last summer, and since then she’s used her $150 in monthly benefits for things like fresh produce, raw honey and fresh-squeezed juices from markets near her house in the neighborhood of Hampden, and soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream from a Whole Foods a few miles away.

“I’m eating better than I ever have before,” she told me. “Even with food stamps, it’s not like I’m living large, but it helps.” …

Think of it as the effect of a grinding recession crossed with the epicurean tastes of young people as obsessed with food as previous generations were with music and sex. Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.

This curious phenomenon–paradoxical though it may seem–is thoroughly unsurprising and immediately familiar to anyone who has monitored the long hipster narrative of fascination with urban struggle and the fetishizing of working class subsistence. Always on the lookout for new ways to coopt the tropes of the proletariat–whether it be in dress (vagrant chic), residence (gentrification), or behavior (riding buses)–hipsters are now gladly jumping into a another everyday activity that has long been the terrain (and still is) of the working poor, the elderly and single parents on welfare: Food stamps.

Of course, these hipsters ARE poor. In this economy, a graduate degree in rhetoric from Columbia doesn’t promise a job. These food stamps hipsters are financially struggling, and so I don’t doubt that they qualify for food stamps. And if the government is going to be subsidizing food, I’d rather it be Michael Pollan-sanctioned free range chicken and kale rather than Hot Pockets and Mr. Pibb. At least the former will make our impoverished youngsters healthier.

But I can’t help but wonder: If hipsters are using food stamps to purchase organic quinoa, lobster ravioli and sparkling hibiscus lime juice, they had to have learned their expensive tastes somewhere, and most likely in the upper middle class comforts of their well-heeled upbringing. Don’t they have wealthy parents, a trust fund, or some sort of other bailout… must they really resort to food stamps? Must they really turn so quickly to the desperately overspent government for support? Or is food stamps just another way to “be in solidarity” with the downtrodden, while conveniently tricking Uncle Sam into supporting one’s addiction to Piedmont truffles?

I guess you could call me skeptical about the whole thing. I’m skeptical about hipsters romanticizing poverty; I’m skeptical about whether the recent explosion in food stamps among unemployed, educated 20-somethings is a systemic outgrowth of economic conditions as much as it is an outgrowth of a spoiled generation that wants to have it’s vegan cake and eat it too; I’m even dubious about the whole enterprise of food stamps and wonder if some sort of reform is in order.

Mostly I just find it all a bit distasteful. Like it or not: food means. It symbolizes, connotes, describes… frequently along the lines of class and culture. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with foie gras or duck confit; just that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that these foods have blatant associations with privilege. Imagine if you were standing in line to sleep at a homeless shelter and, once you were granted a bed, you reached into your bag and pulled out 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and a goose-down pillow, proceeding to make your bed in front of all the other homeless people sleeping with a burlap blanket and clumpy feather pillows. Even if you legitimately had not a penny to your name, your extravagant bedding in a homeless shelter–like your sage-encrusted Kobe filet in a world where Ramen can barely cover it for a family’s sustenance–would understandably raise eyebrows and questions about, if nothing else, your tact.

The End of the World: Part One

(This is the first in a multi-part series on our fascination with the culmination and ultimate conclusion of history)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. No, it’s not because there seem to be massive earthquakes happening everywhere in the world this year (though there have been a lot); and it’s not because I saw 2012 a few weeks ago (a wonderfully absurd film). Neither is it because of some convoluted reading of Luke 10:18 that claims the Bible names “Baraq O Bam-Maw” as the antichrist.

Mainly, it’s because I’m currently taking an eschatology class at Talbot School of Theology.

The class is called Theology IV: Church and Last Things, and it’s been quite the headtrip so far.

But the end of the world has also come up in a surprising amount of other places in my life recently. This weekend alone, I heard an extended academic conversation about how God might have orchestrated the invention of the Internet so that his Gospel could be spread rapidly to every corner of the globe immediately prior to his return, completing the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) and preparing the world for Christ’s second coming, ala Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10.

I also had a conversation on Friday with MC Hammer–yes, THE MC HAMMER–about how the explosive growth of Christianity in Asia might be a sign of the end times. (But more about this in Part Two… including quotes from my interview with Hammer).

Eschatology–the study of the end of the world–sometimes seems silly to me. So many weird people are obsessed with it, creating elaborate theories, timelines, and bestselling book series (I’m talking to you Tim Lahaye!) based on end times melodrama. Between the pre-mill dispensationalists, preterists, a-mill or post-mill non-dispensationalists, there are so many divergent theories on how the whole thing will play out that it makes your head spin. Why should Christians even bother trying to make guesses about things that no consensus has been formed about in 2,000 years?

I grew up hearing sermons about how Christ’s return was probably imminent. My parents and grandparents probably did too. In fact, every generation since Christ has thought their generation would be the last. But history presses on.

Why are we all so eager for the end? Why are we so obsessed by eschatology? Why did Left Behind sell so many copies?

I think there are many reasons, but here are two big ones: 1) We love a good story, and 2) We are hungry for justice and renewal.

When I say “we love a good story” I don’t mean to suggest that Revelation is a book of fiction or that the end times prophecies are just good adventure stories. I mean that God’s work in the world really IS a fantastic (and true!) story, which began in Genesis 1:1 and is yet to be completed. The narrative includes the fall of man, God’s answer for sin (Jesus), and will conclude with the as-yet-documented return of Christ and his triumphant rule and reign, with his church, over a new heaven and new earth. The story will have a pretty spectacular ending, and so naturally people get excited just thinking about it. Could we be the generation that sees all this stuff go down? What will our part in God’s historical purposes be?

I also think Christians have a deep hunger for justice–to see their beliefs validated and the sin in the world judged. They know their ultimate destiny as the church is to run the universe, so of course they’d like to get on that as soon as possible! But they also groan, along with everyone else, for the renewal of creation–to see Christ finally put to death “the former things” like evil, death, decay, sadness, etc. They are keenly aware of the duality of holiness and evil, and long for the winning side to prevail. They want to see the world finally become exactly what God created it to be. They want to see the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).

More end-times thoughts coming in Part Two: MC Hammer Weighs In

Post-Oscar Thoughts

I’ll make this brief, and entirely stream-of-consciousness. I watched the Oscars last night as I do every year, and in general I was pleased with how they turned out. Here are some random thoughts, a day after the official end to the movie awards season:

  • Glad Avatar was vanquished by The Hurt Locker. The biggest money-maker of all time beaten by the smallest box office earner to ever get best picture. Loved the David-Goliath element, and loved James Cameron getting beat by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. I was hoping Bigelow would shout “I’m the queen of the world!” during her acceptance speech, just to rub it in.
  • Sandra Bullock winning was great. And her acceptance speech was one of the best I can remember. Funny, sincere, humble. Say what you will about her, but she was wonderful in The Blind Side and single-handedly made that movie the hit that it was. And props to her for showing up to claim her Razzie the night before.
  • No one ever deserved “best supporting actor” more than Christoph Waltz. Too bad Inglourious Basterds didn’t win anything else though. It was the best of the the 10 nominated best pictures. A Serious Man is a close second.
  • Jeff Bridges won. No big surprise. But I wish it had gone to Morgan Freeman.
  • The expanded field of 10 best picture nominees was a shrewd marketing move. More audience buy in for their favorite movies of the year. Result? Ratings up 14% for the ABC telecast.
  • Biggest snub? The White Ribbon not winning best foreign film and losing to AVATAR (really??) for best cinematography. People, you NEED to see The White Ribbon. As soon as possible.
  • General thoughts about the Oscars’ relevancy: They barely scratch the surface of the best films of any year. IMHO, these ten films should have been nominated for best picture (I have 3 in common with the Academy’s nominees). In fact, I would have done all of the nominations a lot differently.
  • For an overall better, more life-enriching celebration of cinema, I suggest you check out the 2010 Arts & Faith Top 100 list. Now that is a group of films deserving of accolades.

Why Do We Watch Movies?

It’s Oscar weekend, and movies are on the mind. Why are they such a big deal in our culture? Why has this medium become such a fixture of pop culture, academic study, and creative pursuit? I recently wrote some thoughts for Relevant magazine on these questions–trying to articulate my theories for why cinema has a peculiarly spiritual hold our culture. You can read the full article here, but the following is a brief excerpt:

We all agree movies allow us to escape—and there’s value in that—but it’s more than simple escapism. Movies take us to places we’ve never been and inside the skin of people quite different from ourselves. They offer us a window onto the wider world, broadening our perspective and opening our eyes to new wonders.

This “window” idea figures into the very form of cinema itself. One of my favorite film theorists, André Bazin, often compared the cinematic “shot” to a framed window that hints at a vast reality just outside of view. While other theorists saw the framed shot as something that restricts or limits what can be seen (i.e., what is inside the shot), Bazin theorized that the film image—through its suggestion of off-screen space—was about being “part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe.” Siegfried Kracauer, another of my favorite film theorists, agreed that the film image was by nature indeterminant, ambiguous and open-ended—a fragment of reality suggesting endlessness.

The idea brings to mind what C.S. Lewis said about art functioning as a “window” onto worlds unseen. As humans, he writes in An Experiment in Criticism, we “seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … We demand windows.”

But cinema is more than just a window. It’s also a magnifying glass. It focuses our attention on everyday reality in a way that makes us see everyday reality for what it really is: magnificence and curiosity. Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once said that “in the proximate, the daily, the apparently small, there is hidden in truth the metaphysical; the here-and-now is the place where meaning is disclosed, where our existence must find interpretation, if it can find an interpretation at all.” (read the rest here…)