In the few guilty moments I did waste time online this week, I spent them reading about the possible implications of one or two companies owning the majority of the way most of us interact online—the, well, I won’t use “strangle-hold” but the tight fist control of what people are allowed to say. It was curious to be flying along through That Hideous Strength and then go and read this long thing that I saw linked several places, about how everything is broken. The author describes the frictionless experience that tech companies are trying to provide, delivering up a perfectly smooth experience for the scrolling thumb. The word she uses is flatness. Everything is easy and two dimensional. You don’t have to think about it and that’s the point.
In That Hideous Strength, Mark is so needy for approval, so insecure, that he gets sucked into the very highest echelons of the N.I.C.E. Turns out, though he never really understands this, they, whoever “they” are, are not interested in his brilliant sociologist abilities (Lewis is so sarcastic), but want his wife, who is…well, you should just reread the book and remind yourself. It does seem to be Spin-the-Wheel-Lewis at its best—especially with how the bear ends up actually fitting into the plot. And there’s a wardrobe. I kid you not.
All this, as usual, jangled around in my mind as I wandered around the lessons for this morning. It’s so easy to be swept up by the lovely Calling of Samuel, the Lord standing there and saying Samuel’s name over and over, and Samuel not really getting it. But if you go to the chapters on either side, you find a bleak picture for the people of Israel. Eli and his corrupt and wicked sons are abusing the worshipers as they come in obedience—defrauding them, stealing from their sacrifices, sleeping with women at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They have a tight grip on the people as they come, often at their most vulnerable, as we know from Samuel’s own mother. She, overwrought and weeping, is mistaken by Eli for someone inebriated. That he would assume that is telling. One wonders if it had happened before.
Anyway, imagine showing up to church with your offering in your hand, your discouragement in your mouth, and the pastor and his sons steal from you, violate you, and then yell at you when you try to complain. Well, we don’t really have to imagine. This very thing has happened in some churches, and we know about it because of the internet. Honestly, the internet is so useful.
But the people of Israel didn’t have it. They only had God who could see what was going on, and, though they didn’t know it, had plans to redress the cruelty and wickedness of Eli’s offspring. God wakes Samuel up—young person that he is—and tells him what he is going to do, and then tells him to tell Eli. And poor Samuel, stuck there, wishes it could be another way. He is going to have to speak truth to power, in that old fashioned sense where the person in charge really does have power, but appears nevertheless to be weak and pathetic. Eli tried to do something, but the something he did was nothing, and now the whole mess appears to be crashing down. Still, from Samuel’s perspective, the call of God is a dangerous one. What will Eli say? Surely he will be angry. And what of his sons? Those wicked, wicked sons? But Samuel is obedient, and, because Eli insists, and promises to hear whatever it is that God has said, he gives the dreaded prophecy.
I suppose most of all of us skimming over the text easily put ourselves into the place of Samuel. That’s what all the songs would have us do, the “here I am Lord, I have heard you calling in the night” schmaltz of so many Sunday mornings and funerals. But I think that’s not really the place to find yourself. If you are Jack from Twitter, or someone like that, you had better not think you are Samuel, but rather one of Eli’s sons. The rest of us are probably the people wandering around the Tabernacle, trying to figure out what to do with our burnt offerings. What are you supposed to do when you see the gathering storm of, well, not of wickedness, that’s been there all the time.
I mean, I said the people were coming obediently with their sacrifices, and some certainly were—like Hannah—but for ages, the people had run after other gods. They might have come to worship the LORD, but on their way home, they stopped at the various high places and shrines that had always been part of the landscape. When David finally comes to the throne, we discover that the people hadn’t celebrated the Passover in generations. Hophni and Phineas are really bad, but so are all the people. That’s why they need to sacrifice.
One reason why everything is broken and why Silicon Valley is bent on offering up a frictionless, flattening cyber experience is because that’s what we want. We want things to be quick and easy. We don’t want to be hassled. We don’t want to deal with the question of where our devices are made or what parts of ourselves and our culture we are selling off for another new kind of technology. We want our fat skimmed off the top of the boiled meat and eat it too.
Tragically, I find if I’m honest with myself, I fall into this morass of social wickedness. I don’t want to have to go back to the days of dial-up and AOL, of having to remember the names of the websites I’m interested in reading. I want my social media to work for me. If I have to be careful what I say so that Mark Zuckerberg and Jack from Twitter don’t notice me at all, I will be delighted to be careful. Speaking truth to anyone is too dangerous a game.
Which is why God doesn’t leave it up to us. Eventually, he breaks into the world and wrecks our cozy time. Eventually, he answers the prayer of the bitter in spirit, the person who is standing in his sanctuary weeping her heart out about her disappointments and troubles. Eventually the wicked overplay themselves and God stands there and says that he has determined to save, though it will be difficult and painful in the near term when he does. Israel is swept up in a war with the Philistines; Hophni, Phineas, and Eli all die; the Ark is stolen; and much, much later the Lord comes suddenly into his Temple and flips over the tables, and whips the corruption out, and then goes himself to be the sacrifice that finally atones for the sins of his people—Eli, Samuel, you, me, Hannah, everyone.
Then, finally, after the cloud of sin and confusion has dissipated, in the clear, cool, brightness of Sunday morning, the worshiper can call on the name of the Lord, saying:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
6 when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
Turns out the Lord did call not just Samuel, but also you, and all the people. You can say, “Here I am,” and discover that all the words that belong to the LORD never do fall the ground, but accomplish a great and merciful salvation.