I call this boring because I am one of those boring people who has to analyze every dam’ movie she watches. I mean it: I have to. My mind has not processed a movie until I’ve articulated to someone exactly what I think was going on in it. I don’t know why I am this way. I think it’s biological. I’m sorry if it drives you crazy. If it drives you crazy, don’t read this post.
But first, my new favorite YouTuber
Not too long ago, I discovered podcaster A.D. Robles. His videos are really enjoyable because they’re short and he has a masculine, streetwise, no-nonsense way of calling out what he calls “Big Eva” (short for evangelicalism) for compromise, heresy, firing on their own troops, etc.
A.D. is no-nonsense, that is, except when he puts on shades and tries to be “Smooth A.D.” He can never sustain it, though.
I happened to listen to A.D.’s reaction to Encanto before I saw the movie myself. It was fun to hear him notice how the movie handled Latin culture, as he is Puerto-Rican-American. Anyway, his video was primarily about how some Big Eva pastors or writers had, predictably, said that Bruno is a type of Christ. Consider: Bruno tells truths that people don’t want to hear, and he is ostracized for it. A.D.’s assessment of this theological point was summed up by the video’s title: “This Is So Stupid.” You cannot just call someone a Christ figure, he points out, just because they have one or two things in common with Christ. He’s not wrong. I’ve heard that people tried to draw parallels to Christ from Edward in Twilight, and if that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.
Anyway, go find A.D. on YouTube if you want to be entertained for a few minutes by his take on Encanto. But I finally watched it, and here is mine.
Family Relationships: A-
With A.D., I think Encanto was a pretty good movie. Where it really shone, of course, was the portrayal of the relationships in a family that is loving but also kind of dysfunctional (and aren’t they all?). It showed, for example, how people can get locked in to perceived roles in the family that aren’t 100% accurate. (Abuela blaming Mirabel for everything that goes wrong, and Mirabel even accepting this perception of herself for a while.) It showed how one sibling or cousin can think that the other has it all, but have no idea what they are secretly dealing with (as Mirabel finds out for both Isabel and Luisa). The symbolism of the house itself literally shaking and falling apart captured the emotional feel really well. I especially appreciated the scene at what was supposed to be Isabel’s engagement dinner. The tension, the anticipation that some family members were feeling, the desire of everyone to keep Abuela happy, and meanwhile a terrible secret was spreading like wildfire from one family member to another, and literally causing the floor to crack … if you have lived in a family, I guarantee you have sat through at least one dinner like that. I think this is what makes “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” such a perfect song. Just the phrase “we don’t talk about,” captures exactly what it’s like to be in a family.
Gospel Parallels: C
I am not quite as contemptuous as A.D. over the attempt to make a Christ figure out of Bruno. But actually, I think Bruno has more in common with John the Baptist. He speaks truths that people don’t like, yes, but he doesn’t see everything or have all the answers. He is in exile, just as John the Baptist lived out in the wilderness, and he even looks a little bit like him. But, most importantly, his role in the story is to point to the Chosen One, the one who is going to change everything.
And that one … is Mirabel. C’mon, guys, this is a Disney movie! If it has a Christ figure, odds are that person is going to be the teenaged female main character.
So, in this movie, Mirabel is Jesus. She is “despised and rejected.” Just as Jesus did, she seems ordinary … in fact, she is more ordinary than her family members. She takes the blame for the fact that the house is falling apart, when in fact it is falling apart because of the family’s collective sins and refusal to face the truth. She pursues the truth at all costs. She “ruins everything,” but ends up fixing it. In fact, you could even draw a parallel between the way Mirabel becomes the catalyst for the magical house being destroyed, only to be restored in a better form, and the way Jesus came to destroy the old Temple system and build a new and better “temple,” which was first His body, and then His church. “Destroy this temple, and I will build it again in three days. But the temple he had spoken of was His body.”
O.K., so Mirabel is a Christ figure. Why, then, the C minus? Because Mirabel is the Christ figure. In a Disney movie, the princess (or young female lead) is supposed to be the one the viewer identifies with. Therefore, in this movie, the message is “You are your own savior.” This is really brought out in the “moment of epiphany” scene, where Mirabel looks into the medallion inherited from her grandfather.
“What do you see?” they ask her.
And she answers, in a tone of wonder, “I see … me.”
Voila! The answer is … herself! This is supposed to be a profound moment. Instead, it’s profoundly disappointing.
Mirabel, you see, is not divine. She does not see all, know all, or have the power to fix all. She spends the movie, in fact, looking for answers, for a solution. In so doing, she becomes the catalyst for the solution, and I would have been fine with that, but not with her being the solution herself.
If I had spent weeks looking for wisdom, for answers, for help, and all that my mystical search led me to was a mirror, I would be … well. Not filled with wonder. I’d be dismayed. Frightened, because I know that I’m not up to the task. I would realize that the mystical person who had “revealed” to me that I was the answer had led me astray. “Is that it?” I’d be angry.
Now, when you are young and don’t know yourself quite as well, you might not have this clear a reaction. You might feel flattered, but also have quiet, nagging doubts. Don’t listen to the flattery, please, and do listen to the quiet nagging doubts. Let them grow into a healthy realistic fear so that you can go on seeking Someone who is actually up to handling the situation, because believe me, you can’t. There really is a Savior, but don’t let Disney tell you that you’re it.
Pardon me, I didn’t mean to get so carried away. I guess it’s like I told you … it’s biological.
Here is my compilation of “all the verses about death,” which I posted last year at this time.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a commandment, as did Adam. The mind of sinful man is death. The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions … the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. For this very reason Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like those who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
This review will bring a number of threads together, but it won’t give you a comprehensive sense of everything discussed in this book, because it is a long, complex book with lots of things to chew on.
The Unseen Realm is a theological book written at a popular level, but with lots of footnotes. I would say it is for serious lay students of the Bible. It frequently refers to the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Old Testament that was in popular use in New Testament Times), and to other different ancient manuscripts of various Bible passages, some of which have slightly different wording that can be key for Heiser’s arguments. The scholarship on the many topics that this book encompasses is voluminous, so much so that there is a companion web site with additional articles for all the things that this book can’t get into in detail.
All of that said, it is not boring, at least not if you are interested in its main idea, which is that of a divine council of “gods” being present not only in other ancient mythologies but throughout the pages of the Bible. I came to this book for my research into future fiction projects that I may or may not be working on (ooo so mysterious!). I found out less detail than I had hoped to about the divine council, but even when we don’t learn something, we learn something. In this case, I learned that the Bible does not give us a lot of detail about this divine council, its members, or how it supposedly operates. We can assume this is on purpose.
The Main Idea: the Divine Council
It was very common in the Ancient Near East to believe that there was a council of gods or divine beings which would meet, typically on a mountain far away, and decide the affairs of men. That’s why you will often hear the title “Most High God.” Heiser’s contention is that the ancient Israelites shared this view, and that in fact the Bible endorses it. It starts very early, with God saying, “Let us make man in our image.” Though some people see this as evidence for the Trinity, Heiser contends that what is being evoked here is that God is addressing a group of beings which have already been made in His image, but are not humans. God then, all by Himself, makes man in His image, with the other beings presumably just watching.
The flagship Bible passages for Heiser’s thesis are Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8 – 9. In the latter, it asserts that God “divided up mankind [and] fixed the borders of the peoples according the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is His people, Jacob his inheritance.” The idea is that God assigned each “son of God” (divine being) a nation to rule over, but He took the Israelites as His own nation. Psalm 82 shows God reaming out the gods for not having done a good job ruling over the nations, promising them that “they will die like mere men” and that “all the nations” will become God’s inheritance.
These are the two most obvious passages that indicate this idea, and even they are often translated to so as to hide the fact that the original authors assumed that divine beings existed and ruled over the nations. My NIV, for example, translates Deut. 32:8 as “… according to the number of the sons of Israel.” It also puts scare quotes around the word “gods” in Ps. 82.
Ugaritic is the ancient Semitic language most closely related to Hebrew. In Ugaritic cosmology, the chief deity was El. He had a divine council that met in a lush garden or on a mountain. He had seventy “sons of El” who made up his council, and he had a coruler, Baal (which means “lord”). Much of the imagery, vocabulary, and cosmology of Ugarit is echoed or riffed off of in the Old Testament, always making the point that Yahweh is the true Most High God, the one who sits on a throne over what looks like a sea of glass, that His garden is the true garden and His mountain is the true mountain. The Israelites, though, did not quarrel with the idea that there were seventy lesser divine beings who served God. This seems to have been accepted cosmology, sort of like we accept heliocentrism. The Bible does not come out and say this directly, because it was common background knowledge in the Ancient Near East.
The Table of Nations, in Genesis 10, shows 70 nations branching off from Noah’s three sons. The idea was that subsequent to Babel, each of these nations was assigned to a son of El – a lesser god. The Most High was done with them. He would no longer be their God directly. Of course, some day the lesser gods, who did not do a good job with their people, would be demoted. Yahweh had plans to bring all the nations of the earth back and make them His own people once again.
The Divine Council in the Redemption Story
Heiser spends the rest of the book tracing this idea of the divine council, of Yahweh as the true God, and of the disinheritance and re-gathering of the nations, throughout the Bible, seeing how it plays in to the big redemption story. He gets into discussions about whether idols are nothing at all or whether they represent something more, and whether the word demon (shadim) means just a supernatural being or something evil. He gets to the giants. He gets to Jesus putting the local gods on notice when He starts crashing around Galilee. He visits the miracle of the tongues of fire at Pentecost. It’s all really interesting, really intricate, with a lot of scholarship.
Some of the ideas in this book were truly mind-blowing. For example, I had never before heard the term Monotheistic Binitarianism. (Wild!!!) “The startling reality is that long before Jesus and the New Testament, careful readers of the Old Testament would not have been troubled by the notion of, essentially, two Yahwehs — one invisible and in heaven, the other manifest on earth in a variety of visible forms, including that of a man. In some instances the two Yahweh figures are found together in the same scene. In this and the chapter that follows, we’ll see that the ‘Word’ was just one expression of a visible Yahweh in human form” (page 134). This is a consequence of mysterious Old Testament passages where Yahweh will appear to, say, Abraham in human form … but sometimes there are two or even three human figures, and the passages seem to be intentionally ambiguous about their identity or how many are there at any given time. There are not just a few of these instances either. Heiser says that this idea of “two powers in heaven” was “endorsed within Judaism until the second century A.D.” (135, footnote). It was the background to the famous passage in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning …”
Other ideas, if I may venture, were less mind-blowing than Heiser seemed to expect them to be. Perhaps this is because I have been studying what you might call the weirder aspects of the Old Testament for some time, but even for someone who had never heard this idea, I sometimes got the feeling that Heiser was writing to a straw man. For example, he has a whole chapter about how God’s plan for a Messiah was hidden in the Old Testament, in hints that couldn’t be pieced together beforehand, but only made sense in retrospect, types and shadows. This is pretty standard Christian teaching, at least in the Reformed circles I move in, but Heiser seems to think that his readers have been given the impression that God’s whole plan of salvation was spelled out super clearly in the Old Testament. “Chances are good that you’ve heard the New Testament mistakenly read back into the Old hundreds of times. Therefore you might be surprised to hear me say that the Old Testament profile of the Messiah was deliberately veiled” (241). In the rest of the chapter, he proceeds to read the New Testament back into the Old. “It couldn’t be emblazoned across the Old Testament in transparent statements.” Yes, we know. After Jesus rose, He said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything that is written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (Luke 24:44 – 45, quoted by Heiser on page 242) Yes, we know. The New Testament Christians could not see the significance of the Old Testament passages until Jesus (and, later the Holy Spirit) opened their eyes to see it. In fact, they spent the rest of their lives making “So that’s what that was about!” discoveries. Perhaps some modern Christians don’t realize this, but I think most people do who have spent years doing Bible study. In fact, many of the doctrines that we take for granted had to be worked out by the church through history.
Similarly, Heiser has a whole chapter about why God’s plan included making beings with free will and how this necessitated evil and how He couldn’t just erase everything and start over as soon as we messed up. Heiser is not a fan of Calvinism. Like most Arminian arguments, he seems to have a shallow understanding of what “free will” means and a shallow understanding of Calvinism as a sort of dystopian vision wherein people (and gods) are mere sock puppets directly controlled by God. I am willing to accept that God is sovereign, and that beings other than Him exist in the universe (human and supernatural), which make real choices that are in some sense free. I get that these two things should not go together, but that we have good evidence for both. So it is a paradox. I don’t need to choose between sovereignty or free will to understand the idea of a divine council.
What We’re Not Told
After reading Heiser, I am convinced that it is a biblical idea that there are spiritual “divine” beings that exist in an unseen realm. (Heiser points out that the word for these beings, elohim, is a place-of-residence word. They live in the unseen realm, therefore they are elohim. The word itself says nothing about their moral status.) Their existence plays a role, though I would still say not the major role, in God’s plan of salvation for humankind. In some ways, they are relevant, especially in their role as rogue gods of the nations. In other ways, a lot of what goes on in the unseen realm is none of humankind’s business.
Perhaps this is why the Bible does not tell us — and thus, Heiser does not tell us — the sort of details about the elohim that a researching novelist would naturally want to know. Here are a few unanswered questions:
Are there really only seventy of them? What happened when the seventy nations multiplied into many more?
There appears to be a hierarchy in the unseen realm, but what is it like? How many levels?
Are the beings on the different levels different species/different in appearance (if that question even means anything)? Does the unseen realm have the equivalent of animals?
We know some elohim rebelled against God, but how many? When? Was there more than one rebellion? Are all the rebel spirits organized under Satan, or are there rogues and factions?
How does or did this divine council even work? In almost all of the glimpses we are given of it, it’s basically just God announcing His intentions and the council members just watching.
There is a well-established association between the gods and the stars or constellations, but how does this work? Are they the same or symbolic? Is it a one-to-one correspondence?
This is the kind of thing that a really good novelist would get all nailed down before writing a book like, say, This Present Darkness … but it’s impossible to nail down because we are not told this stuff. Again, this is probably because it is none of our business. So if you are going to write a novel that includes gods, I would recommend you just delve into the mythology of one particular nation (Ugarit, say, or Greece as many authors have done to great success), accepting that you are riffing off of one particular nation’s interpretation of all of this, an interpretation that is based on something real, but is definitely not going to be accurate in all its details.
The book is Before the Ruins, 2020, by Victoria Gosling.
It’s been a while since I binged a book, but I finished this one in just a few days. It is so well-written that it’s almost like unrhymed poetry. Almost every page has something quotable, even when the quotes are ones I disagree with, like the following …
I remember Peter’s father in the church telling the story of Jesus and Pilate, and jesting Pilate asking Jesus what the truth was but then not staying for an answer, and so we never got to find out, not any of us, not ever. I was so disappointed and on our way back to the vicarage, hell-bent on my share of the roast dinner — chicken, chicken, let it be chicken! — I pestered the vicar, “But why didn’t the disciples ask him instead? There he was on the cross, it’s not like he was going anywhere. Why didn’t they ask him?” With his hand on the gate, he turned. A watery smile. “Sometimes, Andy, I think you are the only one who is listening.” Which, of course, was no answer at all.
Nor was there anything in the Gospels that shed light on what Jesus would have said about [my abuser]. I don’t remember anywhere in the Bible Jesus meeting a truly wicked man.
Before the Ruins, p. 114
No, Jesus never met a truly wicked man … except the ones who hunted, slandered, gaslit, and betrayed Him. And then tortured Him to death. Except the majority of people he met. Except those.
He never said anything about child abusers … though there were certain passages about the sea and millstones and whitewashed graves and the fires of hell.
His disciples never asked Him “What is truth?” … except all those times they did, and He said “I am the truth,” and the time Philip said to Him, “Show us the Father,” and Jesus said, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.”
It’s interesting, because a big theme of Before the Ruins is how difficult it is to really know people, even people you love very much. And how difficult it is to let people know you, even if you really want to.
When not on the subject of the Gospels, the book has a lot of insight and achingly evocative passages about childhood and growing up. Passages like that will break your heart. Passages like this one:
It made me aware of how dormant I was most of the time. How my life — my job, my screens — made it easy to be occupied every waking moment, hurrying, distracted, and equally, on some level almost entirely asleep, comforted by dreams of effortless transformation.
But I was not Cinderella. Instead, there was another story Peter and I had often found in the books of our childhood. It came in different disguises. It was the one about the traveler who arrives at an island, or a castle, or a secret door into the side of a mountain. There, welcomed, the traveler stays, perhaps against their instincts. Often they eat or drink — strange fruit, or wine from a goblet. There is always something they should be doing, an important task for them to fulfill, but they forget it, they are waylaid, and if they ever remember, their companions, if there are any, distract them with promises, or songs, or riddles to ponder.
Often the traveler sleeps, sometimes they dream, always they are nagged by the sense that there is something they are forgetting, something they must do. Their true love is waiting, or their aged parents. There is a sick child they must bring herbs to, a kingdom for them to inherit. But they do nothing; they are paralyzed. And when they wake, if they ever get away, once back in the world they find that centuries have passed, that they are too late, too late for everything, and that all that they loved, everything that truly mattered, is lost forever.
To sleep on? Or to wake? This was the question facing me. To sleep, or to wake and face the reckoning, to find out what had been lost.
I recently got the third book in my trilogy, The Great Snake, back from my editor. The next step for me is to go through it, noting all her comments, making all the changes that are called for.
I am having a grand old time. I was really unsure about this book during, and even after, writing it, perhaps because, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson, “The artist should not know exactly what it is that he is doing.” Now, reading through it with fresh eyes after an absence of several months, things are clicking in to place. I feel that what this book has done is right.
I think you all are going to like it.
Meanwhile, we have a brand-new war raging somewhere in the world. Women my age, with children the age of my children, are being forced to flee their homes or hunker down in their basements. Grandmothers are preparing to do first aid. War-fever is sweeping my own country. People are going bananas with demonizing the bad guys, and talking about WWIII.
That doesn’t count the crises we have long been praying about, which still have not abated, notably the Uyghurs being imprisoned in concentration camps, but there are a lot of others too.
Real life is a horror story.
Which raises the question: Do I have any right to enjoy myself reading over my little story of fictional horrors? Do I have any right to post about it, and about paintings and sunsets, or about anything at all except the current crisis?
It is time for me to pull out again C.S. Lewis’s wonderful speech “Learning In War-Time,” which addresses these very questions. I posted a quote from it, and a link to it, almost exactly two years ago. Here they are again:
[We] must ask [ourselves] how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.
I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-time,” a speech given in Oxford in autumn of 1939
Long story short? You bet I have a right to post about art and literature and knitting and all the rest of it. Because when you get right down to it, all my posts are in some sense posts about Jesus. And He is exactly what we need, in this current crisis and in every crisis. He is wonderful. He really is.