Cultural Amputation

John Stott, commenting on Matthew 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”

“Jesus was quite clear about this. It is better to lose one member and enter life maimed, he said, than to retain our whole body and go to hell. That is to say, it is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next. Of course, this teaching runs clean counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worth while in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ.”

Assorted Thoughts on Matthew 5

I’m teaching a bible study on the Sermon on the Mount this fall, so I may use this blog to organize some of my thoughts. Like right now. Fair warning: I make no guarantees that the following thoughts are coherent, right, or even intelligible.

What might be called Beatitude #9 (“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” [Matt. 5:11-12]) is likely an elaboration on Beatitude #8 (“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”) since the reward promised for Beatitude #8 matches the reward for Beatitude #1, setting off that section.

5:11-12, then, seems to elaborate on Beatitude #8, indicating that “righteousness” is just another name for Jesus, to put it starkly, or that the righteousness in view is the righteousness of Jesus. Interestingly enough, this seems to start the comparisons that permeate the sermon.

For example, Jesus starts his famous expansion of the law section with a comparison: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20). He then ends that section with another comparison: “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” (5:48)

But there’s another comparison before that when Jesus says he has come “to fulfill” the law and Prophets. The verb there, plēroō is used a few times before this in Matthew, in the so-called “fulfillment quotations” where Matthew will quote an OT verse (for example, Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son”) and say that whatever just happened in the narrative happened “in order to fulfill (same verb” this OT prophecy.

Basically, “That verse I just quoted? This is what it was talking about.”

Which means when Jesus says he “fulfilled” the law, he’s basically saying: “Do you see the law and the prophets? They were talking about me.” Jesus is the law. The law described Jesus. So when Jesus expands the law he is further describing himself. It seems we could then outline the section as follows:

1.  Be More Righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees (v.20)

2. Be Righteous Like the Fulfiller of the Law (vs.21-47)

3. Be Righteous Like God (v.48)

Basically meaning that the whole section is about being like Jesus, which might recast Jesus’ expansion. He isn’t giving us a bigger, more thorough set of rules that now govern the heart. If we treat what he says as just more rules, we’ll likely fall afoul of his warnings in Matthew 6 and start doing our righteousness so other people can see it. The point isn’t to follow more rules, the point is to be more like Jesus. The rules help us, but imitation is the point.

Anyway. I was planning on trying to think through the Beatitudes more, but I think I’ll have to put that off for another time.

Pascal on Looking to God by Looking Within

“The stoics say: ‘Go back into yourselves. There you will find peace.’ And it is not true. Others say: “Go out, look for happiness in some distraction.’ And that is not true. Illness is the result. Happiness is neither outside us nor within us. It is in God, and both outside and within us.” Pascal, Pensées.

Peter Brown on Early Christian Community

From The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown, which covers roughly AD 150-750.

Background:

“The average Roman felt more strongly than previously that he stood alone and united against a threatening outside world.”

The significance of Christian community:

“The Christian Church differed from the other oriental cults, which it resembled in so many other ways, through its intolerance of the outside world. The cults were exclusive and, often, the jealously [sic] guarded preserve of foreigners [sic]; but they never set themselves up against the traditional religious observances of the society round them. They never enjoyed the publicity of intermittent persecution. While the oriental cults provided special means to salvation in the next world, the took the position of their devotees in this world for granted. The Christian church offered a way of living in this world. The skillful elaboration of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the sense of belonging to a distinctive group with carefully prescribed habits and increasing resources heightened the impression that the Christian Church made on the uncertain generations of the third century. Seldom has a small minority played so successfully on the anxieties of society as did the Christians.”

And later:

“As a member of a church, the Christian could cut some of the more painful Gordian knots of social living. He could, for instance, become a radical cosmopolitan. His literature, his beliefs, his art and his jargon were extraordinarily uniform, whether he lived in Rome, Lyons, Carthage or Smyrna. The Christians were immigrants at heart…separated from their environment by a belief which they knew they shared with little groups all over the empire. At a time when so many local barriers were being painfully and obscurely eroded, the Christians had already taken the step of calling themselves a ‘non-nation.'”

Summary of The City of God, Books I–III

So I’m going to blog through, perhaps intermittently, my reading of Augustine’s The City of God. I’m merely summarizing, hopefully to help myself with retention. A few disclaimers.

  1. I have no pretensions that my summaries are authoritative. I could be totally wrong.
  2. I’m merely summarizing, not evaluating. Just because I write something in this little series doesn’t mean I endorse it. It’s just what (I think) Augustine said.

With that said, here we go.

Book I

Augustine wrote City of God in response to mounting claims that the newly ascendant Christian religion was the cause of the Roman Empire’s decline and eventual fall. He wrote this after Rome fell, in part to debunk these claims. But as he acknowledges, the work has grown into something a bit bigger. Also, he sums up the feelings of every student assigned this book.

The work is great and arduous; but God is our helper.”

And yes, he really did write that in reference to his own book.

Augustine begins his apologetic by noting how merciful the Christian Visigoths who sacked Rome were to the Roman citizens. He summons historians of the ancient world to prove that this mercy is thoroughly unusual, and that, indeed, the custom of invading armies is to brutally kill all those–even those seeking refuge in temples. Augustine’s point is that the Christian Visigoths spared those who took refuge in Christian sanctuaries, even the pagan Romans who merely confessed to be Christians to save their lives. How ironic, Augustine notes, that these pagans who were saved by confessing Christ now blame their ills on Christianity.

But Augustine anticipates a further objection: some Christians did die in the sack, and some non-Christians were spared who shouldn’t have been. Why would God allow this? Augustine’s answer is “great and arduous,” but in essence boils down to this. God allows evil things to happen to Christians to strip them of their earthly loves and the security they may have drawn from financial stability, social status, or good fortune. He redirects their loves towards Himself by destroying the temporal things Christians love. Or in his words:

“The whole family of the highest and true God, then, has a consolation of its own: a consolation which depends neither upon falsehood nor upon hope in those things which falter and fail. Also, its members have a life in this age which is not in the least to be regretted: a life which is the school of eternity, in which they make use of earthly goods like pilgrims, without grasping after them, and are proved and corrected by evils.

Why do good things happen to bad people, then? I’m not really sure of Augustine’s answer.

Book II and III

Books II and III are basically centered on showing that the Roman Empire was in horrible disarray and suffered all sorts of evils even when being incredibly pious and religious in their paganism. Thus, Augustine says, Christianity cannot be the cause of Rome’s misfortune.

Precisely, actually, Augustine is responding to the claim that the pagan Gods are punishing Rome for turning largely away from them and to Christianity. Augustine’s tour of Roman history in these next two books is basically showing that even when the gods were being worshipped perfectly calamities still fell on Rome. Also, as an aside, Augustine points out that the type of worship demanded by these gods is grotesque and horrible and involves the kinds of actions the Romans condemn–except in worship. Why, then, worship the gods anyway? What god who commands such obscene rituals is worth worshipping?

Augustine also attacks paganism on the grounds that, even when Rome’s civic virtue was faltering, the gods didn’t speak from the heavens and teach Rome how to live. But the Christian God has taught us how to live and how to please Him.

Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

Colleen Gillard wrote an article in The Atlantic discussing the difference between British and American children’s stories. The article (which might be mis-titled, since it’s not really about why British books are better, per say, but more about why British and American stories are what they are) addresses a few interesting topics.

Her basic thesis is that British children’s books tend more towards fantasy. Think Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, etc. American children’s stories tend more towards moralism. American stories try to teach children what they ought and ought not do.

I have no standing to judge whether that interpretation is correct or not, but I do want to comment on her reasoning behind that interpretation. Gillard claims that American children’s books are moralistic because they came out of a culture founded by the Puritans and seeped in Christianity. The assumption being, of course, that Christianity de-emphasizes imagination and fantasy tales while elevating hard work. Or, as she says, speaking of why the British tell fantasies, “maybe a world not fixated on atonement and moral imperatives is more conducive to a rousing tale.” In an earlier part of the article, she points out several examples of the American tendency:

“Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.”

Supposedly, this vision of the American promise is in some way due to the Christian influence on America.

Again, there may be a lot of truth there. I’m not a child psychologist nor am I a mythologist. Yet I do think there is a misrepresentation–however unintentional–of Christianity at play here. See, the Gospel is the exact opposite of what she calls the American promise. The American promise says that “they earned their fame.” The Gospel says that you can’t ever earn your own fame, and if you do it won’t last.

Gillard seems to counter this: “Further, each side has opposing views of naughtiness and children: Pagan babies are born innocent; Christian children are born in sin and need correcting.”

But the Gospel story is the story of a child whose humanity was no different than mine. Yes, the child was God Incarnate, but he was a human child nonetheless. A child saved the world. That sounds far more British than American. Gillard says something similar about British fairy tales:

“Pagan folktales are less about morality and more about characters like the trickster who triumphs through wit and skill: Bilbo Baggins outwits Gollum with a guessing game; the mouse in the The Gruffalo avoids being eaten by tricking a hungry owl and fox. Griswold calls tricksters the “Lords of Misrule” who appeal to a child’s natural desire to subvert authority and celebrate naughtiness: “Children embrace a logic more pagan than adult.” And yet Bateman says in pagan myth it’s the young who possess the qualities needed to confront evil.”

But I would question that conclusion. In British fairy tales, is it really the children who save the world? It certainly isn’t in The Chronicles of Narnia. The children help, but Aslan saves the world. Harry doesn’t defeat Voldemort, in the end. It’s love that defeats Voldemort, a power Harry can’t control, something beyond himself. It isn’t dwarf children who rally and save themselves from Smaug, the evil dragon in The Hobbit. It’s Bilbo, a small, overlooked member of the party who is certainly no child.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Peter Pan seems to follow Gillard’s observations, as do Alice in Wonderland and others.

But the point is this: Christianity, properly understood, might not be so opposed to fairly tales as Gillard seems to imply. In fact, it might be more a fairy tale than much of the American literature Gillard argues it inspired. For isn’t the Gospel the quintessential fairy tale? A child from a far away land comes to fight the dragon and save those trying to fight the dragon on their own. A prince from Somewhere Else arrives to win back his true love from the evil witch who has imprisoned her. A lion becomes a lamb and allows himself to be killed before roaring back to life, defeating evil in the process.

The Gospel is hardly anti-fairy tale because it can’t be. After all, isn’t the Gospel itself, from one perspective, all the greatest fairy tales come true?

Above the Gates of Hell

This is Anthony Esolen, an English professor and Dante scholar/translator, on the inscription above the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno:

“I have long thought that the most chilling words upon the portal of Hell are not those that shut the door on the fulfillment of human longings: ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE. These crush with their finality, but they do not possess the shocking irony of the simple signature of the architect: DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME, THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE. Of course, it is a Trinitarian signature. Still, the sonorous ending on amore, Love, should give us pause. How can Love fashion a realm of groaning and wailing, of utter agony and alienation? Theology can take us far: the just punishment of the wicked, says Thomas, is an act of charity toward them (justice and charity cannot finally be at odds), even when that punishment does not or cannot result in their correction. At the least it restrain them from deeper depravity. One may suppose, too, that punishment respects the dignity of the sinner, to grant him what his own disordered love has merited and has longed for. For such a lover, the only place more agonizing than Hell would be Heaven. Indeed, the one place hotter than Hell is Heaven, as Dante imagines it: without grace, the fires of Love in Paradise would be unendurable. Perhaps, then, the inscription over the gates of Hell is meant to teach as much about Love as about Hell. For Love, as Dante saw, is no mere sentiment, no habit of ease. It is a consuming fire.”