The Sign of True Religion

The acid test for whether we practice an authentic religious faith.

How do we discern authentic religious faith from the many phony imposters? That’s a question that has haunted me from my childhood. And I think Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount offers the most reliable tool for discernment: You will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16).

 Michael Jinkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has recently posted several reflections on his blog Thinking Out Loud on the issue of how churches can be relevant to their culture…or not. In his first two postings on the subject he reflects on the trap posed by the obsession to be relevant, which often issues in being irrelevant.

In his third reflection posted today, he reflects on how the best way to be relevant is to be authentic, which leads him into the sure test for authentic faith. I think his thoughts are well worth thinking about. I urge you to read them.

 

Wisdom from the Whirlwind

When life seems to frustrate our longing for answers to the question why.

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One of the hardest tasks a pastor can face is providing care to a person or family that endures unexpected tragedy. The tragedies can be many: a diagnosis of a terminal disease, an accidental death of a child killed by a drunk driver, an sudden, impoverishing financial loss, or the death of a soldier son.

When such tragedies happen, one of the first questions people will ask the pastor will be: Why? Why did this happen? We all ask it because we want life to have meaning. It’s just too threatening to our sanity to think that life is ultimately chaotic, with no underlying purpose.

But a pastor, I’ve learned, is seldom wise to attempt an answer. In a very few cases that may be because the family is not emotionally ready to hear the answer. But in most cases it’s because there is no discernible answer. Meaning eludes us.

So a wise pastor does something more important: provide a compassionate presence as everyone moves through the tragedy. The pastor joins the grieving in their weeping, listens to their lament, and maybe offers an embracing hug.

Job’s Desperate Search for an Answer to Why

I find warrant for this approach from a thoughtful reflection on the Book of Job. Job experiences catastrophic losses: his property, all his children, and finally debilitating illness. Three friends visit him to provide comfort in his pain and sorrow.

A major question that occupies their conversation is the question why Job is suffering all these losses. There has got to be a reason. The three friends are convinced that Job has sinned. God is punishing him. That is a standard answer pious people like to offer.

Job denies that explanation. He is innocent of any unconfessed sin. The argument goes back and forth with no resolution. Job simply appeals to God to provide him the answer to why. No one else can.

The magnificent poem ends with God speaking to Job out of a whirlwind. But God’s speech (Job 38-41) offers no answer to the why question either. Instead God asks Job if his mind truly comprehends all the wonders of God’s creation, especially the diverse array of creatures great and small that God has created.

A surface reading might suggest that God is not playing fair. God shuts off Job’s search for an answer by playing up God’s power and inscrutability. But I think something else is going in.

The poet is suggesting there is a mystery to God’s creation that will always exceed human understanding. Scientists today wait eagerly for that day when they can come up with the theory that explains everything. The poet suggests they will be forever frustrated. We humans will never fully comprehend all of the universe and its ways or the essence of God’s own self. There will always remain a cause for wonder and marvel.

The Inaccessibility of the Answer Job Seeks

This is not to suggest that there is no answer to Job’s why. There is. That is the purpose of chapters 1 and 2. They take us into the divine realm where we overhear a dialogue (described in mythological language) between God and Satan. The sufferings of Job have their cause in that dialogue. God and Satan engage in a test of Job.

The problem is that Job is never told that reason, neither during his troubles or afterwards. Even in his restored status and its blessings as detailed in chapter 42, Job is never given any inkling as to why he endured the sufferings he did. His response in the face of the mystery is silence and acceptance of his status as a creature with limited understanding. He is forced to adopt the mindset of a contemplative.

What the poet does in this poem is deny that the universe is meaningless, as many scientists today as confidently assert. But the meaning of the universe and of life lies in a divine realm which lies behind, below, and above the material world. And there too lies the answers to the many why’s human ask in the face of tragedy.

Those answers remain hidden unless God discloses them to us. In the meantime we are called upon to trust in this God. But why should we? Because of God’s character.

What is God’s Character?

But that raises another question. What is God’s character? For the Biblical writers we know something of the character of God from what has been disclosed of that character in historical events that are revelatory, meaning they pull back the veil so we can see something (not all) of who God is.

For the Old Testament that great revelatory event is God leading Israel out of Egyptian bondage in the Exodus. For the New Testament the great revelatory event is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Both events reveal God as a God of rescuing compassion and love.

Both reveal God not as one residing in a realm of static perfection who remains disengaged from the constantly changing world God has created. Rather we come to know God as one is so intimately engaged with his creation that we can trust him to be with us in all circumstances.

Now that is a message a pastor can share with people in the depths of grief and distress. It does not answer our many why’s, but it does assure us we do not walk through the whirlwinds of our lives alone. We are ultimately in loving and trustworthy hands.

“Thus Saith the Lord”

A stray story in 1 Kings reveals the hidden source of prophecy’s power.

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Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel

It’s a common idea that prophecy means foretelling the future. We encounter that understanding every time a financial expert disavows his ability to predict how the stock market will rise or fall.

This understanding misses a key element of prophecy in the Old Testament. This overlooked element, however, accounts for the link the Protestant reformers made between prophecy and the normal preaching that goes on in churches Sunday after Sunday.

Calling in the Prophets

The Old Testament pulls back the veil on this overlooked element in a stray story that does not even appear in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This is the story of the prophet Micaiah that we find in 1 Kings 22:1-40.

In this story Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, covets the region of Ramoth-gilead. He decides to go to war against his neighbor, the king of Aram. In his war of conquest, he enlists the help of Jehoshaphat, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.

Before they launch their campaign, Jehoshaphat suggests that they consult God about its outcome. Ahab therefore summons his 400 court prophets and asks them. In one voice they say the Lord will give him victory.

Their unanimous response makes Jehoshaphat uneasy. He asks if there are any other prophets that have not been consulted. Ahab says there is one more, Micaiah. However, he does not like Micaiah because he never prophesies anything favorable, only disaster.

Jehoshaphat insists they summon Micaiah. When he enters the kings’ presence, he, too, predicts that Ahab will have a victory. But the king insists he speak the truth. As a result, Micaiah announces that if Ahab goes into battle, he will die. Which turns out to be true.

What’s interesting about Micaiah’s prophecy is the warrant he gives for his words. He says that he has been given a vision. In it he finds himself in God’s heavenly throne room. A discussion is going on. How, God asks his court, can they entice Ahab to go into battle for Ramoth-gilead so Ahab can meet his death?

The courtiers make different suggestions. Then one, presumably an angel, offers to put a lying spirit into Ahab’s 400 court prophets. Their word of hope will entice Ahab to make the foolish venture. God commissions him to do just that.

The Biblical text does not tell us how Micaiah has this vision (which is obviously described in mythical language). By dream, by trance, or by induced imagination? But however the vision came, it gave Micaiah insight into the hidden spiritual world where he is given the privilege of understanding God’s hidden will and action.

The Prophet as Intimate Companion with God

Now this is the element of Hebrew prophecy that gives it its power. The prophet becomes the intimate companion of God. As a result, he is given insight into how God is at work in human affairs and what God’s intentions are. He is given insight into the spiritual world that lies behind the phenomena of human history.

Therefore he can speak an authoritative word from God to the people. “Thus saith the Lord” is how oracle after oracle begins in the prophetic literature.

Of course, the prophet’s audience does not know at once whether a particular prophet has been given genuine insight or not. He may be deceived in what he believes is God’s word to the people. Only the unfolding of history will confirm that or not.

This is true even in Micaiah’s story. The king imprisons Micaiah until the campaign is over. When the king returns in victory, he says, that fact will prove Micaiah was a lying prophet. History always plays a critical role in confirming a prophet’s message.

The crucial element of Hebrew prophecy is the prophet’s claim that he has been given insight into the divine dimension that lies behind ordinary life. That insight may come in different ways, but it is always a gift. It gives him real insight (though never complete insight) into how God is at work, what are God’s intentions, and what God expects of human beings.

That is the secret to the power of the prophet’s message.

The Link Between Prophesying and Preaching

Although most believers, both Jewish and Christian, thought that Old Testament prophecy had come to an end in the three centuries preceding Jesus, the Protestant reformers saw that it had not. Instead they believed the church’s preachers had inherited the prophets’ mantle.

One of the most influential statements of that viewpoint was the treatise titled The Art of Prophesying, by the Puritan divine William Perkins (1558-1602). The book, published in Latin in 1592 and in English in 1607, discusses the matter and method of preaching. It had a profound influence on Puritan preaching. But note how its title links preaching with prophesying.

Another statement of the same viewpoint is a hymn often sung at the ordination of Christian ministers. It starts out: God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons. The prophets’ sons are, of course, the individual ministers being ordained. The second stanza then goes on:

Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent,

To thy divinest speech; their hearts awake

To human need; their lips make eloquent

To gird the right, and every evil break.

At the core of the preacher’s call, as these reformers saw it, was this call for the preacher to receive insight into the divine world of God’s will and actions and then share that insight as authoritative guidance with their congregation.

It was assumed that this insight would come through study and meditation on Scripture rather than through trance and mystical vision. That assumption may have discounted the revelatory power of inspired imagination. But the important point was that it was the insight, however it came, that gave authority to the preacher’s words.

It is this linkage between preaching and Old Testament prophecy that lies behind the conviction of many today that Martin Luther King, Jr., is a prophet in the line of succession from his Biblical counterparts. They see his insight into God’s will and actions in history as the source of the power of his preaching.

If we should seek to look for the heirs of Old Testament prophecy today-–whether in terms of its lying or its truth-speaking versions–let us look to the pulpits of our churches.

After the Election

How ancient words speak to me today.

Last night as I was trying to absorb the unfolding results of the election, I found myself drawn to these words from the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,

    and no fruit is on the vines;

though the produce of the olive fails,

    and the fields yield no food;

though the flock is cut off from the fold,

    and there is no herd in the stalls, 

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

    I will exult in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength;

    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

    and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

It always amazes me how the ancient words of the Bible have a power to speak to the existential realities of our todays.

Wholesome Sex, Hebrew Style

A compelling vision lies behind the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs.

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I’m amazed that the Song of Songs is included in the canon of the Old Testament. Although Jewish and Christian tradition has tended to regard it as allegory, its literal language is undisguisedly erotic.

That makes the book’s presence in the canon so surprising. How is it that those who decided to include it came to regard such erotic language as sacred scripture? Talk about a mystery.

One possible answer is that the Hebrew tradition did not have the same suspicion of sex that the Hellenic tradition had. The Old Testament sees sex as a creation of God, a part of God’s good creation (see the creation stories in Genesis 1-2). Those who decided to include it in the canon may therefore have seen in the Song of Songs a picture of what a healthy sexuality looks like. This then gives the book enduring value.

Yet the picture of sexuality that we find in the Song may not fit our preconceptions. Here are some of its notable features.

Are the Lovers Married or Not?

First, the book is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the two lovers are married or not. Though the male lover addresses his beloved as “bride,” he also addresses her as “sister” (see 5:1). A description of a wedding procession appears in 3:6-11, but allusions to sexual consummation precede that passage. We are never sure whether the lovers are already married or not. Ambiguity prevails.

This ambiguity does not legitimate the lovers’ sexual relationship on the legalistic basis of the marriage contract. Instead the depth of the mutual love between the two lovers gives legitimacy to their sexual relationship. You cannot use the Song of Songs, in my opinion, as a proof text that sex belongs exclusively within the bounds of marriage.

This viewpoint is one of the disconcerting features of the Song of Songs. It may be one reason why so many have felt compelled to allegorize its meaning.

The Prominence of Erotic Longing

Another odd feature in the Song: it emphasizes more the longing in the erotic relationship over the consummation. Only in one or two places does the poem hint at the consummation of the lovers’ love. It never describes that experience explicitly. The consummation remains veiled. It is acknowledged only by allusion.

This contrasts sharply to much erotic literature today, where we find detailed descriptions of what’s involved in the act of sexual consummation. This explicitness is a staple in many romance novels as well as in general fiction. The Song of Songs keeps the lovers’ consummation shrouded in allusive mystery. There is a respect for the privacy of the lovers and their intimate giving of themselves to each other.

What we find instead in the Song is passionate expression of the longing of the two lovers for each other. The female lover gives a particularly poignant expression of that longing in verses 5:2-16. There she speaks to her companions saying:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

if you find my beloved,

that you tell him

I am sick with love. 

 The reality of the relationship described in the Song is more one of a kind of hunger than of satisfaction. The wellbeing of the two lovers seems to be tied up in their mutual desire for each other.

This feature may be why so many mystics have turned to the poem to find words to express their spiritual relationship with God. The mystical experience is far more characterized by longing than by ecstasy. It is striking how parallel is the longing for God expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 42 to the longing of the lovers for each other in the Song. So close that the mystic feels right at home in the Song of Songs.

Lovers Tease Each Other

Another feature of the erotic relationship described in the Song is the way the lovers tease each other. A beautiful passage on this theme is 5:2-8. The woman hears her lover calling to her at night from outside the walls of her house. She arises and goes out to him, but she has vanished.

Likewise the woman calls out to her beloved in one passage saying:

Awake, O north wind,

            and come, O south wind?

Blow upon my garden,

            let its fragrance be wafted abroad.

Let my beloved come to his garden, 

            and eat its choicest fruits. 

This teasing seduction goes back and forth between these two lovers. It is part of the adult play of their relationship.

It is quite striking in the Song that there is no hint of inhibiting guilt or shame in this frank delight that the two lovers have in each other’s body. Instead we find the two lovers reveling in the beauty of each other’s body. Erotic desire has nothing impure about it.

The Earthy Character of Erotic Love

Throughout the poem we find frequent references to gardens, orchards, and the fields where the sheep graze. This suggests that for the author of the Song, sexuality exists in a continuum with the rest of the material creation. In the Song it is earthy in the sense that its proper setting is within the whole complex of sensual stimulation and delight that we experience as we live out our lives in the material world.

The author constantly draws upon sensual descriptions to describe the desire and delight the lovers take in each other. Fragrant perfumes waft around their bodies. Their voices are sweet. Their limbs recall sturdy trees in Lebanon. Their legs are smooth as alabaster. Their kisses drip with honey. Their intimate times together are compared to a lavish banquet.

The places where the lovers seek their moments of consummation are out in the fields, in the orchards and sheepfolds rather than in the city. The author seems to suggest that the proper setting for the expression of sexual love is out in the earthy countryside rather than in artificial environment of the city, even though the woman clearly lives in the city of Jerusalem.

All this shows a very different sensibility to that tradition in Christianity that maintains the superiority of the ascetic way. Rather than denial becoming the highway to spiritual fulfillment, the way of taking delight in all that the material creation has to offer becomes a royal road to God. How strikingly parallel is this sensibility to that of St. Francis in his magnificent canticle of creation. Francis seems to share the romantic cast of mind that we find in the Song.

Maybe this is one reason why our culture today is so soaked in eroticism. In our technological, industrial society with its heavy emphasis on intellectual achievement and sterile efficiency, we have lost touch with the earthy, sensual aspects of human life.

As a result we have become obsessed with those very aspects of life that we have denied. We long to regain wholeness, but we try to attain it by an over-compensation on that which we have lost. We need to regain a balance between city and countryside, between reason and emotion, between mind and body where all enrich the others.

An Ideal Vision

In the Song we also find an equality between the two lovers. Each takes the initiative not only in celebrating the other, but also in seeking out the other. Both are wooers. There is no hint of a patriarchal sensibility in the Song. Its sensibility is far from the viewpoint of Genesis 3 or of the Pauline passages that see the proper status of the woman in her subordination to a man.

Finally we note that there is no fear or anxiety in the Song about getting pregnant or disease. In fact, there is no reference at all to sex leading to child bearing. Sex in the Song exists for something different from procreation. It exists for the pleasure of the two lovers.

This omission tells us that what we encounter in the Song is an idealistic picture. In fact the author seems to be describing sex in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Here is what sexuality would look like as God intended it in the act of creation. It is only after Adam and Eve have eaten their forbidden fruit, that they become conscious of their nakedness and feel the need to cover themselves because they feel ashamed (Genesis 3:7).

Since that Fall­–however it occurs for each of us personally–sex becomes fraught with anxiety, fear, and defensiveness. It takes real psychological growth for us to re-enter the paradise described in the Song.

But that is part of the sublime beauty of the Song. It ushers us into the vision of wholesome sexuality, what our sexuality can become when we have outgrown all those fears and anxiety that mar our normal experience. The Song becomes the gold standard by which we can measure how our own sexuality falls short of what God longs for us.

For this reason, we can be thankful for the unconscious intuition (if it was really unconscious) that this book of magnificent poetry belongs in the Bible. It contains a message our sex-obsessed culture needs to hear. Could this in fact be an example of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we Christians confess lies behind the Bible as Scripture?

Note: The image is a reproduction of “The Kiss,” by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, 1907.