Satan at the Grammys

A lot of people were upset by the inclusion of Satanic imagery at this year’s Grammy Awards presentation but I was kind of relieved. For over two hundred years the Satanic brand has been hiding in the shadows in this country, mumbling their curses and befouling their bodies and souls in strict privacy. Before they step into the light to evangelize, they put on clean clothes and act as if other people matter. It does not do, you see, to behave like a Satanist at the local grocery store or elementary school.

Like most political animals, their primary marketing technique has been to spread rumors about their leader’s adversary and, well, who can blame them? It’s not like Satan has an engaging campaign platform. Vote for me!: A disgruntled employee who was fired for insubordination then physically (well, spiritually) picked up and booted out by – you know, that other guy who actually made everything. Vote for me!: Who corrupted other employees (thus inventing politics), resulting in harsher workplace conditions and the loss of incredible employee benefits that – you know, that other guy – had already given us. Vote for me!: Who has stewed in resentment for thousands of years and consumes everything in my bitter rage, including – you know, everyone who votes for me.

Yes, the Prince of Darkness slipped out of the shadows on national TV, toasted one female and showed some pretty cool dance moves. Perhaps his time has come. We seem to have grown tired of his adversary – you know, the guy who actually cares about our happiness. He’s a lot like those tiresome elementary school teachers, who actually love kids and encourage them to do the work required to grow up wise and strong and kind. Well, if that’s not your cup of tea, then consider Satan, who regards children as lunch meat and has been proving it all over the world for thousands of years, though never as successfully as he has done right here and right now.
It’s true, of course, that if you really prefer darkness – the total freedom to do anything your little heart desires to anyone you like, without even having to feel shabby about doing it – then Satan is your man. But don’t forget that he intends to take the same liberties with you.

It that gives you pause, then consider Jesus. (There are but two candidates in this election.) I have never seen him dance, but under his loving authority, every human has freedom and reason to dance. In fact, all of our freedoms – including the freedom to reject him – arise from the fact that he created us in his own image and wants us to be free. Some, including many of our own nation’s leaders, want us to forget that, want us to forget that all true leaders lead as Jesus did, by laying down his own life for those he serves.

Personally, I hope that Satan is encouraged by good press from the TV appearance and shows himself more often. That old serpent fools far more people by pretending to be an angel of light.

The Guilt of Belief

The anger always surprised me.  There he stood, helpless and in misery, unresisting, bloody.  Like a trampled rose, he had no beauty left but still, that strange and penetrating odor that you loved or hated.  There was no middle ground because he was not a symbol of something else, subject to interpretation.  He was the thing itself, and so, I suppose, not so helpless after all.  He was the thing itself, a simple solid presence which, even while silent and bleeding, commanded the scene and defined the terms.  It was not enough to kill him; we had to hate him, to gather up our powers to curse like you gather up a mouthful of saliva, and spit with the full art of our malice, to baptize him in our hatred.

I know, this sounds so harsh, so out-of-touch with the veneer of niceness that overlays much of our public discourse.  Jesus’ horrifying torment has, over the years, accumulated a layer of dust which preserves the general shape but insulates us from the barbarity.  It would be comforting to regard this whole episode as an isolated governmental excess or a religious drama, rather than a predictable and repeatable expression of resentment toward God.   But I have a reason for thinking that we should dust off that horrible memory…

Remember how God intrudes:  He knows the secrets we try to keep secret even from ourselves.  He is responsible for this shame which we dare not confront yet cannot escape.  We want dignity but he does not allow it; he exposes us in the most devastating way and in our least protected place: through our own knowledge, that is, in the quiet sanctuary of our own hearts.

Yes, he was kind, though in a huge and lonely sort of way that is hard to understand.  True, he did fix all sorts of broken people;  humble people who knew they were broken.  But there was always the ultimatum, implicit in everything he did; “Come to me as one broken or remain outside.”  Inflexible, authoritative, self-assured; he did, in fact, act like god and treated us as possessions; we who – above all else – insist that we own, at very least, our own self.

And for this, we killed and hated him.  It did not matter, really, that he was good or even that he was correct.  Pity even the god who thinks he is god; hell hath no fury as self-determination denied…or maybe that is the object of all hell’s fury.

I mention this because the tide has turned.  The American culture of my youth, in which Christ was publicly respected if not personally revered, is passing rapidly away.  His enemies in this nation have never been so numerous or bold and, perhaps better than his followers, they understand the scandal of Jesus.

The scandal always begins with an intrusion, with God butting into some carefully constructed system from which he had been, we thought, successfully evicted.  But we cannot evict him from our hearts, even those who love him least, and his presence is that bit of sand, rubbing in a tender place, that produces rage.

It grates most upon the hearts of those who intrude furthest.  The thief does not hate God; he thinks creation is good and takes what he can of it.  It is the social engineer who hates God, who resents God’s authority to name and define, who longs to be preeminent.  The social engineer is a fundamentally religious figure for whom God is not so much a threat as a hated rival.  He is, in fact, a child of the first creature who thought it better “to reign in hell than serve in heaven”.  He proves his lineage by what he loves.

Note that those most anxious to evict God from public discourse in America are not thieves.  They are high-minded; they do not want more of creation, they want a new creation.  They are never more fierce than on questions of intimacy and innocence:  they run straight to the heart of things, dagger in hand.  If God’s heart is tender toward children, they will target children.  If God designed us to be male and female, they must warp the design.  If God wants man to be free, they must stop man’s tongue, dictate his thoughts and confiscate the assets that allow him to remain independent.  It does not matter that their reign should make a hell of earth, for their father loves these things, loves all that is unnatural and painful to our father’s heart.

And so, the rage that crucified Jesus lives on, steps further from the shadows.  The battle to throw off God’s authority and designs grows more fierce.  The number of people caught in the middle, with God’s clues in their heart and his enemy’s arguments in their heads, reaches critical mass and Christians become a suspicious, if not hated, minority.

As members of the early church were prosecuted, not for the religious ideas that they affirmed, but for those they rejected, so the pressure will build on Christian churches to affirm the new religious rites of our day.  Do not speak or act against those who target children.  Do not speak or act against those who target marriage.  Do not speak or act against those who reign.  Keep and enjoy your religious forms and worship what you will, but it is our father whom you will serve.

If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.

John 15:18

A Dream

Man, did I have a strange dream last night.  I seemed to be on the sofa, watching TV as the evening news began and the announcer said something like this…

“…Many in the nation were surprised today by a Supreme Court ruling that the celebration of ‘Christmas’ is a ritual of the largely discredited Christian religion and thus disqualified from public display.  In his response to the ruling, the President stated ‘As this nation emerged – slowly and painfully – from the deeply rooted practice of slavery, so we will survive the turmoil that arises from this painful but necessary decision.  Christian intransigence has forced this nation into a clear and unmistakable response.  Those who continue to embrace a dangerous and hurtful tradition that excludes and offends many of our citizens must be confronted.  Those who would raise their children in an atmosphere of mystical thinking and intolerance must be restrained.  For too long, Christians in America have claimed the right to think and say whatever they want by hiding behind a very un-American tradition.  It is time for a change.’”

“The ruling specifically forbids any observation of the ‘Christmas’ ritual in public and lists both visual and audio indicators which will constitute violation, including manger scenes and several familiar songs.  The American winter holiday, Festivus, is not affected by this ruling.  No word yet on implications of the Christmas prohibition upon observations within private homes.”

“In a companion case, the Supreme Court denied an appeal by Phil Robertson, the extremist jailed three years ago for quoting an unpopular Christian scripture during a media session.  The Court found that the FCC regulation violated by Robertson – which has since become the law of the land – did carry the authority to arrest and incarcerate offenders, even though that clause was appended by federal administrators, rather than by Congress.  Responding to this ruling, the President hearkened back to a major theme of his third election campaign: ‘We remain a nation in transition.  For a brief moment in our history, it has been necessary to increase the protective powers of the federal government in order to guarantee the freedoms of our people.’”

“In other news, the Court upheld the conviction of a Michigan man who, according to NSA records, attempted to transmit an email note stating that ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people is – right now – perishing from the earth.’”…

Suddenly, the dream was shattered by the sound of my alarm.  Imagine my relief to wake up in the real world.

Living in Babel

I’ve lived in Babel for some time now.  At first, I would just come to visit.  I was excited by the riot of faces and voices and ideas.  When I left, the clamor of the place jangled in my ears for a while and it was good to get away but, over time, I developed a taste for it.  I began to stay longer and when I left it was the quiet that seemed strange to me as if something was missing.  Eventually, I moved in.
And so it was quite a shock last week when a tree limb, bowing under a heavy layer of ice, snapped and fell, dragging a power line to the ground and severing my connection to Babel.  The restless city, to which I was linked through television and radio and computer, fell silent and I was alone with my thoughts, which is to say, quite alone indeed.  This was late afternoon and the brooding sky was already growing dark and, with it, our soundless, waterless and rapidly cooling home.  The darkness and silence felt like an invasion, a blitzkrieg of some foreign power, suddenly cutting us off from the world.
It took a few minutes to recognize how wrong I was, which tells you something about the severity of my condition.  So addicted have I become to consuming the clamor of Babel that I felt lost without it.  Our little house had not moved, nor the sky above.  The quiet and the dark had always been there, though for so long suppressed that they seemed new to me.  The rhythms of the planet, which felt strange and arbitrary, were those into which I had been born.  When Babel fell, the invasion ended and I reentered the real world.  I did not like it.
My television remote and my browser have given me a God’s-eye view of the earth.  I can see almost anything happening almost anywhere.  The world is small, I think.  But I sometimes forget the distinction between observing and experiencing.  Good-looking and intelligent people provide expert commentary on everything under the sun.  I know what’s important, I think.  But I forget the difference between hearing and thinking.  My devices allow me to effortlessly calculate, navigate and communicate.  I am capable, I think.  But I have forgotten the distinction between using and understanding.
When we came to our senses we lit a few candles, huddled on the sofa and read some stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, soon wondering why we do not do this more often.  C. S. Lewis warned (even before the television and computer era) against “chronological snobbery”: the mistaken sense that we see the world (and ourselves) clearly.  He suggested a regular diet of voices from previous generations to help us see into the blind spots common to our age.  What seems odd about the ideas of Laura, or Mr. Lewis or (far better) the Bible may, in fact, be the shape of a forgotten truth, seen through the distorted lens of our forgetful culture.
I’ve lived in Babel for some time now and I have been changed by it.  When it is taken from me I feel awkward, empty and lonesome –  a consumer made superfluous by the absence of something to consume.  People talk about the tower of Babel but, reading the story again this morning, I notice that the problem was really the city of Babel, that riot of faces and voices and ideas that murdered solitude, excelled at self-congratulation and, yes, sprouted into a tower.  But I don’t think that God was afraid of towers.  He stopped the riot of Babel, as he perhaps stopped my electricity, so we would be quiet for a little while, reenter the world and, possibly, hear his voice.