It’s a Wonderful Accident

Mary and George are dancing. Their faces glow and their ears are full of music and shouting. They are inside of something fun and exciting, but they are outside of the joke. The shouting and laughter are not, as they suppose, for them. They cannot see what the people around them see, a gaping hole in the floor that will soon send them tumbling down into a pool of water. Mary and George are dancing at a great height and they do not yet know it.

That’s a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and, if you know the movie, you’ll probably understand what I would like to say. I think our nation, like Mary and George, is dancing at a great height. What we consider the floor — our accustomed freedoms and prosperity and civility — is much higher and much weaker than we think.

For years, some have insisted that the phrase “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” does not imply a creator. It was a hard argument to make, but it was the best they could do at the time. It was the best they could do while people remembered what actually happens in nations that forget the creator.

The idea of a creator made certain things reasonable, including the United States of America. It was reasonable for us to be free because every would-be ruler is only a flawed human being, just like us. It was reasonable to disagree with our neighbors in a civil manner because our neighbors were people of value, just like us. It was reasonable to have mercy on our enemies because they will someday stand before their creator, just like us. It was reasonable to fight for what is right because something was known to be right.

But things have changed. Many Americans have swapped the idea of a thoughtful creator for that of a thoughtless accident, and this has consequences, too. If there is no creator, then men are not created equal. If there is no creator, then men cannot be endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. If there is no Divine Providence, then “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” is just silly. In short, America’s Declaration of Independence — the stated purpose for America’s existence — has been discredited by much of America.

The idea that there is no creator makes a different set of things reasonable. It becomes reasonable to hate our enemies because they are not like us. It becomes reasonable to doubt that we are meaningful or properly made because there is no one to intend our existence. It becomes reasonable to break up a child and sell the pieces — even when the child feels the agony of its own dismemberment — because children have no inherent value. It becomes reasonable to do what we please with any power we can gather because one person’s rules are as good as another’s.

Rome did not fall in a day, nor do we, but you feel the tremors. Violence, in word and deed, replaces debate. Arguments are waged with wrath, and not reason. Our leaders pervert law and pervert truth. The ties that once bound us are daily cut. The floor is cracking, and we have far to fall. We dance, like Mary and George, accompanied by the normal roar of life, stepping ever nearer that final step.

Thoughts about Rob Bell’s comments on the Bible

I have just read a discussion about the Bible that deserves a better response than I can provide.  The author of the discussion, Rob Bell, has achieved some notoriety, largely for his idea of what the Bible is not.  He does not think it helpful to ask if the book is true or divinely inspired.  Rather, as he says,  “When you read the Bible, then, you are reading an unfolding narrative that reflects growing and expanding human consciousness”.

I think this is a common view outside of the church, though Mr. Bell communicates it with uncommon capability, and from inside the church.   His skill and cultural sensitivity has attracted a large audience to his thoughts about Christianity and, while there may be much good in this, his argument that the Bible is an important – if not necessarily truthful – book reminds me of those who say that Jesus was a good – if not necessarily divine – man.

The problem is that, like Jesus, the Bible claims for itself an embarrassing level of authority.  Jesus said that he was God; that he could forgive sins, that no one could reach God without him.  Such claims are either crazy or deceitful or…true.  As C. S. Lewis said of Jesus, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Likewise, the Bible, which speaks with uncompromising moral authority and claims definite knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions.  It is absolutely tone-deaf to our modern sensibilities.  You can revile it as a work of human posturing or revere it as God’s self-revelation.  Make your choice but do not speak of it as merely a good or important book; God has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.

Or so I thought.  But Mr. Bell recommends a middle ground; a view of the Bible that is well suited to a culture steeped in Darwinian mythology.  In his opinion, the primary characteristic of the Bible is humanity; of authors whose inspiration may or may not have been divine, whose words may or may not be true, whose message developed over time.  Indeed, Mr. Bell is not a materialist; God is in there, somewhere, mysteriously superintending the spiritual evolution of the race.  He is somewhere  behind the scenes in the Bible, too, though its human authors sometimes distort his image.  (Most often, it seems, in those parts of the Bible which our culture finds most offensive).

I do not fully understand Mr. Bell’s position and, in any case, I am not qualified to criticize it.  I mention his teaching because it raises what seems to me the critical question: Can it work?  If we could reasonably explain away every incredible story, every offensive word in the Bible, would it help people draw near to God?

Take, for example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, which seems – I grant – a highly unusual turn of events.  If you think that the whale found this whole thing hard to swallow, just imagine the modern reader…  Why does such a story turn people away?  The obvious answer is that, in our experience, people who enter fish don’t come out in one piece.  Our disbelief, we think, is reasonable; a product of our experience.

But another, less obvious answer also deserves consideration.  What if the tables have somehow been turned; that what we record as experience is actually colored or filtered by our disbelief?  We might argue that, because of his presuppositions, the modern reader has given little thought to the world he lives in, to even the body that he lives in.  Perhaps he is less qualified than he thinks to measure the story’s plausibility.

Is it a greater miracle that a whale should swallow a man, or that such an unlikely creature as a whale should exist at all?  Is it a greater wonder that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or that the reader has spent 270 days in the belly of a giantess?  Very likely, the reader has somehow forgotten that fact or – more to the point – he has forgotten the wonder of it.

He lives in a world perishing for lack of wonder.  He moves through it with eyes cast down, focused on what is man-made and man-sized, like a child barely aware of the wider world beyond his sandbox.  He thinks the cell phone in his pocket is a miracle and the intricate dance of the solar system a monotonous routine.

He thinks he knows the difference between the natural and the supernatural, but he is mistaken.  He thinks that if something happens once it is a miracle; if it happens a thousand times it is not.  He thinks that the repetition of something marvelous removes the marvel and cancels the need for explanation or gratitude or reflection.  He is surrounded by wonders that he has lost the ability to see.  He is asleep.

We should not, I think, pare away uncomfortable passages in the Bible to make it somehow fit within our modern enchantment.  It is God’s book.  It says what he wanted it to say.  Far better that we recognize the Bible (whether we regard it with suspicion or with gratitude) as a strange message, alien to this world… a message strange enough to break the spell and strong enough to set us free.