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Drowning depravity in God’s love with furry bats

Drowning depravity in God’s love with furry bats

I have just finished Ted Dekker’s Circle series for the second time in my life (the first was many years ago). If you’re not familiar with it, it is a pretty worthy entry in the realm of Christian fantasy. Like a surprising percentage of Christian fantasy, it involves two parallel realities with the main character, Thomas Hunter, visits back and forth (although one is not so much another reality as a radically changed version of earth 2000 years in the future). Most interestingly, Thomas switches realities by dreaming. Every time he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes up in the other.

The basic idea of this second world (which receives no unique name) is that what was spiritual in our reality take physical form there. Angels and demons are large, bat-like creatures called Roush and Shataiki, respectively. Satan is a massive Shataiki named Teeleh capable of both beautiful and awful appearance. Sin manifests itself as a disease which affects the skin, joints, heart, and mind. God, who goes by Elyon in this realm, puts His own power and presence in lakes which can usually be breathed. There are several other thought-provoking connections of this kind, but unfortunately I’d probably give too much away to mention them.

It is in this context that the Circle books, Black, Red, White, and Green, trace a story in each reality. In our world, Thomas Hunter fights to stop the impending apocalypse (of which he learns from the other, future reality) caused by a biological weapon. In the other world, he finds himself mixed up with the whole sweep of redemptive history as it is played out in this new mix of the physical and spiritual.

At this point, I’d simply say “Read it” before explaining anything more about what happens. But there are a few things I’ve been thinking about in its wake that I’d like to mention. Some of these are hinted in the title, but some are not.

First, Dekker’s main emphasis would have to be God’s love. Much of the series is devoted to the experience of Elyon’s love for the people of the other reality, often through their swimming in Elyon’s waters or, also importantly, through human romance. Elyon also appears on several occasions, always expressing his love for his creation and inspiring in Thomas or whoever a powerful sense of reciprocal love. Granted, some of this comes through in ways which I don’t find theologically agreeable (there is, for example, no sense of even a qualified divine impassibility), but as a sign and pointer to the love of the true God it is worth the read. No matter how you feel about the details, it will push you to consider just how much God loves us all. Much of this comes through the other reality’s explanation of their religion as the Great Romance, which patterns all of life after Elyon’s love for his creation and focuses especially on how this can be expressed through marriage. Elyon’s pattern, which the people are encouraged to follow, is to choose, to pursue, to rescue, to woo, to protect, and to lavish. I think this is nutritious food for the Christian imagination.

Second, one of the most powerful images you will find in the series is baptism as a literal drowning into blood-water. I won’t give too much away about the plot connected to this, but I do want to highlight some good stuff here. To follow Elyon, his followers drown in red water and then return alive. This alone is powerful, showcasing the radical commitment baptism is meant to express, its efficacy, and how it binds us to Christ’s death and resurrection in our own lives.

The baptismal imagery is even better, though, because of water happens as they drown. They experience great pain as they see in shock and horror the blackness of their own hearts, and they are forced hear Elyon scream in anguish at their evil. This all happens before they can return, before they come out of the water alive. This combines with a wider theme of the series in exposing evil with all its awfulness. The descriptions of the Shataiki and their doings can be incredibly disturbing at times, along with the violence they inflict on Elyon’s people. If these books were made into movies, they would probably need to be rated R (maybe PG-13 if they had a squeamish director) for terror and frightening images, even if these in fact don’t make up a ton of the story. The lengths to which certain characters are simply consumed and seduced (sometimes more literally) by evil and darkness can also be disturbing in another way. All of this makes for a rather accurate depiction of what sin actually is and how God actually sees it, unlike the more tame and less offensive mental images we tend to harbor to excuse our depravity.

Third, Dekker’s theology is, like a lot of Christian fiction writers, strong in some areas but weird in others. He focuses more than I can understand on free will, and I say that as someone who’s not a Calvinist (in the classical sense). His commitment to a free will theology/theodicy/philosophy leads to a few oddities here and there (such as Elyon telling Thomas, “I have a lot riding on you”), but most weirdly to the suggestion that we need full free will so much that there will remain through all eternity the possibility of yet another Fall, yet another need for redemption. This has various problems, I think, but I’ll grant that it has more logical consistency than what many free will-focused theologians suggest about life after death. That said, he still makes it clear that Elyon is all-knowing and has a comprehensive plan for and through all of the free decisions of his creatures. And of course, like most evangelicals these days, he’s definitely into the bloody, Left Behind-ish, premillenial, apocalyptic literalism that taints so much eschatology, even if this comes out much differently in his other reality’s apocalypse.

That said, for a fantasy writer skeptical of formalizing or institutionalizing Christianity, he’s still remarkably conservative. Readers of the Circle series will not find hope for the salvation of unbelievers, certainly not universalism, nor any shyness about the Old Testament portrayal of God the Warrior, nor any indications of sympathy to the LGBT cause (indeed, his setup for the Great Romance seems to militate against this). This is refreshing in a day of more and more progressivism infiltrating evangelical circles and imaginations.

So, all that said, I don’t see much need for more of a conclusion. Just read the books. You’re up for a pretty fun story (though I liked it better before he added Green), and you will have loads to think about. If you’re anything like me, you will definitely find yourself provoked to thoughts of reverence, awe, and love toward God. That’s worth the 1600 pages, in my opinion.

Find the Circle Series on Amazon here

When the world is absolutely broken

When the world is absolutely broken

[Trigger Warning: I am not the world’ biggest fan of trigger warnings, but I’m also not their worst enemy or opposed to them all in principle. In this particular instance, I feel the need one for, because this post will include discussion of child sex trafficking and related abuses.]

I just finished another one of Steven James’ Patrick Bowers books (see here for my last post on them).

It was hard.

This most recent offering, Every Crooked Path, tackles the topic of child sex trafficking. It is dark and frightening, and as a father myself I often needed to intentionally keep my imagination at bay lest I fall into despair at the idea of my children going through the events it describes. A lot of people should probably not even attempt to read it.

This isn’t to say that James is gory, graphic, or gratuitous. He’s pretty reserved in how and what he describes, but even so the things which are going on, and the gaps he leaves to the imagination, are harsh. The plot is about a group of child porn producers called the Final Territory. They kidnapped children, often brazenly, and kept them for molestation/torture/porn production for 6 months to a couple of years. Sometimes they would even go live and take requests.

To get away with all of this, they made use of the Dark Web, a massive underground part of the Internet which connects through Tor, a highly encrypted and anonymous network which must be accessed by a special Tor Browser.*

What is awful in this book is not so much the story itself, which if nothing else we can always remind ourselves is fiction, but the real-life data and information it contains. The story never happened, but the background which makes it plausible is basically factual. Children as young as the ones in this book are being taken. They are being abused. They are being molested, exploited, and put on the Internet (particularly the Dark Web) for the entertainment and profit of more people than you would be willing to imagine. And it’s not just a few children. There are thousands and thousands throughout the world.

This just brings me, then, to thinking about how absolutely broken this world is. It—including all of us who make it up—is depraved, wicked, broken, and self-destructive. We are evil, our communities are evil, this world is evil, and evil is ubiquitous. We live so much of our lives in largely willful obliviousness, pretending that our personal bubbles are the norm, with our highs as the normal highs and our lows as the normal lows.

As if this were not bad enough, we are often personally complicit in the worst ways of the world. The topic of Every Crooked Path is a prime example. It is our second glances that lead to lust, our lust that leads to watching porn, our watching porn that makes us want more in quanity and intensity, and our increasing demand that leads to a thriving and corrupt market which reaches out to include abduction, murder, torture, and molestation.

We are all guilty. We are all damnable. The world we create and live in, the world which creates us and lives in us, is rotten to the bone and devoid of all hope in itself. Nothing from among us is sufficient to solve this. None of us have the power to end these atrocities. We can fight, and we must in order to stem the tide of evil, but the corruption in the world is too extensive to be truly and fully healed by human efforts, even divinely blessed and Spirit-empowered ones. The problems run too deep for anything but total gut job, for humanity to be broken down all the way to the roots and built a new. We are stuck on a plane far too finite and compromised to solve the absolute brokenness of the world.

There are only two options once we realize and accept this. We can cling to eschatology or fall into nihilistic despair. Or, to put it in simpler words, we can hope for Jesus to return or give up all hope for all things. The world is either worthless and meaningless, with this present evil age being a fluke of cruel apathy, or it has a destiny in resurrection. If the former, we have nothing. There is only extensive and pointless suffering and brief, superficial joy, both of which are ended when we collide with death. If the latter, there’s a reason to breath and fight. We can’t prove which of these is true. But only one choice of these allows us to survive in the absolute brokenness. We need faith for absolute restoration. We need to cry out for an absolute Savior.

*It’s not actually difficult to access the Dark Web. It’s as simple as downloading and installing the Tor Browser, which is just a modified version of Firefox. But the Dark Web is a labyrinth, hard to search, and many websites can only be accessed if someone on the inside gives you the URL. Also, as a side note, the Dark Web is not all bad. It’s also used by political refugees/dissenters, whistleblowers, persecuted religious groups, ordinary people in heavily censored countries, and even law enforcement or intelligence agents.

No, you are not a soul

No, you are not a soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Amen, right?

By no means!

The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theological writers of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in heaven. When people sin, they excuse their sin by saying they didn’t mean to do it, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter; only what’s inside counts. The underlying dogma is clear: your body is not really you. It’s just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is antichrist.

I could go on for a long time on why this is so wrong, but I’ll focus on the problems with Gnosticism and resurrection. So, Gnosticism:

A strict separation of body/soul doesn’t resemble the Bible at all, but is closer to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a heretical cult in the early church. They believed many problematic and even ridiculous doctrines, but a core distinctive was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true and good God. So they saw the body as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. But the spirit was the true and good self which could reach salvation through enlightenment. Unfortunately, while not guilty of all of the heretical ideas in Gnostic thought, the whole “you are a soul, not a body” thing really does get its shape from this kind of thinking.

The problems with this approach go on and on. For one, this reasoning is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body (called Docetism). Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. This flesh is essential to the Incarnation which saves us.

This view also leads to some of the moral problems of Gnosticism, which continue even today. If your body isn’t really you, only the soul, then perhaps you should practice extreme asceticism, denying yourself every bodily pleasure to instead live hungry, cold, and alone. Then your soul can focus on God. On the other hand, if the body isn’t really you, it might make sense to brush off moral responsibility in your body. What does it matter what you do if it’s just your body? Many Gnostics used this to justify sexual immorality, but even today in evangelical Christianity it can lead us to blame our bodies for our sins and insist that our souls are actually pure. (And in a less direct way, this leads to the unrealistic and extremely dangerous thought, “He seems harsh and jerkish on the outside, but he’s actually a good person once you get to know him.”)

Besides the Gnostic connections, another problem with this soul-centered view is resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel, and ours follows from it. The Apostles’ Creed literally says it as, “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Paul made this point powerfully in 1 Corinthians 15. Some people in Corinth, probably influenced by Greek philosophy, were saying that there wouldn’t be a physical resurrection. Paul rebuked them and pointed to Jesus, saying the Gospel was at stake.

In fact, I think the popularity of this deviant view is why so many Christians underemphasize, or even don’t realize at all, the saving importance of Jesus’ resurrection. According to the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our regeneration (1 Jn. 1:3), justification (Rom. 4:25), sanctification (Rom. 8:11-13), and glorification (Rom. 8:23). In a certain sense, resurrection is salvation, and we will not be “fully” saved until our bodies are raised for eternal life with Christ in renewed creation. If we miss this, we miss a major element to the Gospel. For the Bible, the body is not an addon, a shell, or an obstacle. It is saved, redeemed, and glorified in Christ.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable (I favor the view that it refers to natural humanity living without relation to God but only to humanity), but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the dualist silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is naked. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a most likely a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully. (Though to be honest, I’m unsure whether he might have agreed.)

Why I favor dressing up for church

Why I favor dressing up for church

Feel free to dress casually.

From what I’ve seen, most church websites and bulletins these days are very sure to include something like this somewhere noticeable. They want it to be clear: we’re not a stuffy old church that insists you dress like businessmen and Victorian ladies if you want to experience the presence of God. We know God as living in a personal relationship. So come as you are and enjoy fellowship among equals all in this together!

For what it’s worth, I appreciate that. The legalism which had built up in vast swaths of the Western church over the centuries about what to wear was stifling and unbiblical. Even now, you occasionally hear horror stories from old Baptist congregations: an usher scolds some single mother for her choice of attire, and she misses what might have been a redemptive moment. Such nonsense is a shame in the strongest and most condemning sense of the word.

Nonetheless, in our efforts to remove legalism and open welcoming doors to outsiders, I fear it’s easy to miss some of the good from the old tradition. The impulse that led people to dress up for church was deep. It definitely goes beyond the generic answered reason of “giving God your [culturally relative] best.” I think there are actually two areas of theological significance which can give the practice real meaning.

First, there is the idea of the sacred. In church, we are not members of a club. We don’t gather for some mere earthly thing we have in common, whether politics, hobbies, careers, or family relationships. We gather to worship God the Father Almighty, the transcendent One who is infinitely different from and superior to us. We come in the name of Jesus, His beloved Son who mysteriously unites human and divine natures in Himself in order to bring us to God. We unite in the power of the Holy Spirit, the very personal presence and power of the God who made everything and everyone. This puts us on holy ground. When we gather as a church (not, I should specify, just “in” a church), we are entering the presence of a Holiness which is set apart from anything else we know.

So when we dress differently than we do elsewhere, it can serve as a sign, especially when done freely and not legalistically. It can symbolize and point to the fact that Body of Christ is not just another function of human life, but is the point where the radically different life of God meets us. This, of course, doesn’t bind us to any particular kind of clothing. But when we, by our clothes and other, more important things (you know, like love for each other and praise of God), mark out church as sacred time and space before God, we testify to the world that we’re dealing with something, or better Someone, different than everything else. (As a side note, this idea is not compatible with our “Sunday best” simply being the same as our business clothes, or formal wear, or any other category. It sets itself apart, even perhaps undermining the traditional ideas of what special clothes make sense to wear for church.)

The other possible Christian significance to dressing up at church has to do with our identity. As a people born again, we live in hope of a resurrection to glory. We are now, and one day will be more fully, members of a new creation. Everything will be made better. Redemption will extend to every nook and cranny of creation, including our bodies. All will be beautified and perfected. When Jesus comes back for us, we will all be our best selves both inside and out.

To dress up, then, also serves as a sign of the new creation. No one can deny that, culturally relative as it may be, dressing up makes people look nice. In all but the rarest instances, we look our best when we dress our best. And while our looks aren’t the point, they can be a sign for ourselves in the world: we look like our best selves now in anticipation of how we will become our best selves when Christ returns, and in fact we are already our best selves hidden in Him. The visible points us to what is now invisible so that we can remember and witness to what Jesus has done and will do.

Of course, none of this is meant to construct a new legalism where we must dress up at church to make theological points. The beauty of the sign is at least in part in its freedom, showing that we have been freed by Christ into new creation, not forced. We must not submit to any yoke of slavery. But my point is rather not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The legalism and formalism of yesterday’s “dress your best” church is and deserves to be dead, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up on the dress up altogether. We still have power to be signs if we want, or even to be signs by some other method. In any case, let each render to God according to his own conscience for God’s glory.