We should never defend Christianity by saying it is traditional. From the beginning, it has stood against the traditions of its day.
Beginning in the fifth century, Christian leaders finally began to wield enough political influence to pass laws against sexual slavery. The church fathers called it “coerced sin.” One historian notes that the most reliable index of the Christianization of an ancient society was the recognition of the injustice of sexual slavery.
Let that historical fact sink in: The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether [the society] outlawed sexual slavery.Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body, pp. 69 – 70, 71 – 72
A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!
So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.Jesus, in Matthew 10:24 – 27
Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.
Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.
Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)
But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.
The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.
For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with His feathers,
and under His wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you make the Most High your dwelling
— even the LORD, who is my refuge —
then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For He will command His angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
“Because he loves me,” says the LORD,
“I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call upon me and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life will I satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”Ps. 91:1 – 16
So many things to notice about this psalm. For one thing, it’s one of the better-known psalms. The hymn “Under His Wings” is taken from it. And it’s worth noting that this poem portrays God as … a chicken. This is not the only place in the Bible where God is portrayed as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wings. (Or, given the mention of the “fowler’s snare,” maybe in this poem a wild game bird is in view.) This is one example of how, though He is called He, the Old Testament God is also shown to be maternal.
Another thing that stands out to me is how the ancient Israelites felt just as helpless as we do in the face of violence, “disaster,” and the “deadly pestilence.”
One of my most vivid memories about this psalm came during an orientation activity when I had just arrived in Asia. A seasoned missionary read the entire thing to us, and then went on to tell a bunch of stories about times when he and people he knew had not been protected from various kinds of disaster.
Jesus knew this as well. Satan actually quotes this psalm to Him, “He will command His angels concerning you …” in Luke 4, to get Him to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Jesus does not jump.
This is a poem. It is strangely heartening to read.
Yet it doesn’t always happen this way.
Yet it is the word of God.
I don’t understand it either.
Agnes is a bad mother. She seems emotionally distant. She often goes into fugue states where she will stand, staring at nothing. It is hard for her to be fully present with her two children.
What they don’t know is that they aren’t actually her children. They were entrusted to her by their dying mother in a concentration camp.
They also don’t know that Agnes had a child of her own, a baby boy, who was lost in the Holocaust.
Freddie, Agnes’ son, has given up on his mother, her issues and her drama, her apparent inability to be there for him emotionally. It’s not until his own daughter, Lucy, is grown, and Agnes develops a degenerative disease that Freddie will belatedly get to know the history of a warm-hearted woman who was permanently broken by the Nazi occupation of France.
Meanwhile, as Agnes loses her ability to walk, and then to speak, a recently outed Nazi war criminal takes refuge in an English monastary. He is the man who sent Agnes and her baby to the camps.
This beautifully written book was really traumatic to read, and not because there is any graphic violence.
Brodrick does an amazing job of showing how the Nazi occupation of France put everyone in a position where, almost no matter what they did, they ended up failing or betraying someone. He shows how even a moment of weakness or cowardice could have fatal consequences for a person’s friends. That was the thing that really got me. Reading this, you can’t help asking yourself how you would do in the same situation, and coming up with an unsatisfactory answer. I say it prepared me well for Good Friday because it made me feel guilty as hell.
And these little failures of character, which might not have a huge impact in ordinary times, during the Holocaust would change and cripple people forever. Brodrick shows how a mythology grew up around the young people in the French resistance, such that three generations later, having had a hero in your family could bestow benefits, and being associated with a Nazi or a collaborator became a deep dark family secret. He shows how even the children who were smuggled out of France grew up with “shame,” because, as avenging angel Salomon Lachaise puts it, “you cannot escape the sensation that you have taken someone else’s place.”
One of the most affecting lines in the book, for me, was after the Frenchman has just been blackmailed by the Nazi guard. He hears the guard throwing up in the adjacent room.
Nevertheless, there is a redemptive thread to this book. It really makes you feel genuinely sorry for every single character (both the war generation and the later generations), and makes you realize how badly these poor people, in the midst of this great evil, needed a supernatural savior.
As do we all.
Then Mary took a pint of nard
in an Egyptian alabaster jar;
she snapped its slender neck, and poured
its oily sweetness on Thy head
and on Thy feet, and wiped them with her hair;
the scent o’erpowered all the feasters there.
Mary was rich; a rich gift she could bring
as if Thou wert a dead man or a king.
And rich, too, was Thy friendship to her kin:
the hours she spent drinking Thy kind voice in,
Thy visits to their house in Bethany,
sweetness of knowing Thee.
Most recently, Thou raised her brother too –
and so she searched for something she could do.
She smears Thy head with pure and fragrant nard;
it is no purer than Thy head.
She hears, not heeding, tongues wag in the gloom;
Thou’st told her priests are plotting for Thy doom,
and she believes.
But at this feast
the oil of gladness she’s released
caring only to see Thou smilest at it
and hearing Thy pronouncement that ‘tis fit
for this dark week, when off to death Thou ride …
And when they pierce Thy hands, and feet, and side,
to high priest, Herod, Pilate, Calvary
her fragrant gratitude shall go with Thee
and powerful though silent witness bring
that Thou art a dead man and a king.
OK, not everything that Nicholas Cage’s character says in this little seduction speech do I endorse. For example,
“I don’t care if I burn in hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell.”
This recklessness is indeed what we sound like when we’re in the grip of headlong love (or lust), but I still don’t recommend saying it to your significant other.
The way he winds up the speech is just … brilliant.
“Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks our hearts. We are here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people and break our hearts … and die!”
Right on, Nick! The only thing that loving another guarantees us is heartbreak. No one knows this better than our Lord. He definitely “loved the wrong people” … and it got Him killed. Sure, love wins in the end, but let’s not skip over this part. The stories we tell will ring hollow if we skip the part where love ruins everything.
Philanthropic: Not in the sense of charity, but in the literal sense of loving + people. The opposite, in other words, of mis-anthropic.
Of the decade: The decade is drawing to a close, so everything we post in the next few days can legitimately be called of the decade! What a fun opportunity.
At Christmastime, Christians like to quote Isaiah. That’s because this Old Testament prophet has several passages that are clearly Messianic and, in retrospect, clearly prophesy Christ. Like many prophetic passages, they have at least a triple meaning. They are prophesies about God restoring Israel from the Babylonian exile … they are prophesies about the coming of Christ, which happened several hundred years later … and they are prophecies about the ultimate golden age of the world which Christ will eventually bring about (although not, as it turns out, immediately upon His first coming, though his life on earth did get the process started). All these things are telescoped together in a breathtaking poetic sweep.
This is the most often quoted passage from Isaiah at Christmastime:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. …
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time and on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.Isaiah 9:2, 5 – 7, New International Version
This is the go-to Christmas passage.
Another one that you sometimes hear quoted is this:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him —
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord —
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
and the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.Isaiah 11:1 – 9, NIV
There. That ought to keep you going for days.
But Isaiah is a big book (66 chapters), and these two passages are only from the beginning of it. Tomorrow I will post some lesser-known quotes from Isaiah that are among my favorites.
In the meantime, Merry Christmas! “God bless us, every one!”