I managed, in spite of the presence of both the internet and all my children, to finish both The Return of the King and the NT Wright Paul book in a single day—truly a feat, though not as epic as one might hope in that I was almost done with both of them. I only had to ignore everything for a little while. So now I can go back to reading the Bible and all that kind of thing.
Which this morning includes the bit about tying a millstone around your neck if you happen to lead any of the Lord’s “little ones” astray, and how you should, if you find yourself caught in some kind of wickedness, be absolutely ruthless about getting rid of whatever it is even to the point of being maimed. Better to be in horrible pain in this life, Godsplains our Lord, than not make it into the next one. A tiny bit of snark can’t help but creep unbidden into my soul—Bishop Wright did just go to great pains to explain that the kind of “Messiah Movement” that Saint Paul was spreading across the world wasn’t primarily absorbed with question of the after-life, about heaven being later and Christians getting to go there, so much as it was announcing the breaking in of heaven into this temporal political moment now, which of course is absolutely true-the Return of the King will mean that the earth is remade and heaven will break forth and all that’s sad will come untrue. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel like both Saint Paul and our Lord are silently rolling their eyes at the great pains the Good Bishop took, based on just this brief paragraph alone.
I mean, I, like the rest of humanity, don’t really have the courage to obey Jesus’s command about getting rid of sin, not even with the fires of hell licking at my heel. Imagine examining the conscience, seeing something like lust or anger, and then radically altering one’s daily routine—which would honestly be like plucking out an eye or something—so that there would be no occasion for either the lust or the anger. No one could, which is why Jesus kept going along to the cross, his sinful, angry, lustful disciples straggling after him.
Of course the Gospel has implications for now. Devoting your way to Jesus does irrevocably alter the manner of and course in which you live your life. If you happen to read anything by Saint Paul and are stricken to the heart, you probably won’t be able to reach out and pluck out your eye, but the effect of the text will be very much like being cut open, like being kicked in the stomach, or rather the heart, so that when you try to stand up you find yourself hobbling, your eyes dimmed by grief. You don’t even have the energy to think about the glories that are to come, because going around with your hand burned because you stupidly put it straight into a hot pan because you were angry and weren’t paying attention, does have in the moment implications. Jesus wants you to commit your way to him, but in advance of that, he so commits himself to you that you don’t have to work up the wherewithal to get rid of your sin, as he keeps doing it for you. I don’t think Wright would disagree with me, it’s just that in the book he did seem to lean rather heavily over to one side.
I do understand the needed correction, of course. Christians for a while have been so worried about “Saving the Lost” that they’ve been stuck in one kind of way of talking about God, one too narrow a view of reading the Bible. The product of that truncated kind of faith we trip over daily in the West, the great hulking ruin of American society.
But I did just finish LOTR, and I think if Tolkien had been writing a book about Paul he would have seen all the problems with the church today, just as Wright does, but he would have had a very different idea about the reasons for the mess, and certainly a different idea about what to do about them. I mean, just as an aside, if you haven’t read the Bible a whole lot, I think tackling Tolkien’s great epic would be fun, but you wouldn’t get it, not the point of it, nor the deep reason for it, nor the kind of language in which it is written, nor the aesthetic…I could go on but I won’t. Whereas Wright, who has also read the Bible so much, but perhaps with, one might wonder, too critical an eye, manages to talk about it by bringing it down very low, by cheapening the language, if one might say that, and ultimately by employing the insta-filters of the moment, missing the very grandeur of God and, as Wright so aptly insists, his own Faithfulness.
Indeed, it feels to me (and I welcome all the disagreement because I’m not nearly as clever as the people whose books I did just read) that the progressive bent is to take up the line, “no slave nor free, no male nor female,” and use it in the manner and spirit in which Sharkey comes along to scour the shire. Rather than seeing the grand and glorious vision of a Christ who gathers even the little ones, even the poor, even the downcast, even the women, even the slave to himself and clothes them in the beauty of himself, setting them in a wide and comfortable land in pretty houses with spreading trees and well-arranged gardens, those words are used constantly to insist that not only is everyone really the same, but everyone will have the same job and be the same person and speak the same words and have the same kind of thoughts. They are used to flatten out the world—indeed, the cosmos—to hammer it down into some sort of boxed “church” with weird lighting and boring music. They are the economy of the age, the “there is no difference between men and women so men might as well become women and vice versa.”
The result is that there are no “little ones” anymore. And nothing beautiful either. No lovely clothes. No beautiful cities. No grand churches. Just lots and lots and lots of very democratic tweets.
Oh well, Saint James says not to grumble, so I will stop and hobble over to church, nursing my burned hand and humbling my ruinous and wicked heart. Hope to see you there!