God Is Not An Abusive Parent

In the years since I transitioned from white evangelicalism to progressive Christianity, I have found repeatedly that the proposition which most often gives white evangelicals conniptions is not any sort of challenge to biblical inerrancy or the affirmation of gender and sexuality diversity.  They don’t like this stuff, to be sure, and if it comes up there will likely be some hemming and hawing about how I’m a misguided or wayward Christian.  If you bring up the fact that American white evangelicalism is predicated on a system designed two hundred years ago to alleviate Christian slave owners’ sense of guilt at being both Christian and slave owners simultaneously, they get uncomfortable or retreat back into the epistemic bubble that declares their theology untainted by history.  Still, they won’t say you’ve gone off the deep end into heresy.

No, that sort of apoplectic fit comes along most frequently in connection with making the proposition that God is not an abusive parent.  What I mean by that is that white evangelicals are practiced in a mode of thought that ascribes to God the characteristics of supreme power, supreme self involvement, and supreme vindictiveness.  These characteristics combine to create a picture of God that relies on a particularly cruel theodicy in order to remain coherent.

I’ll try to break this down.

God’s nature as the source of the whole of Creation implies to many people that God must also be the most powerful being in existence.  They created the rest of this somehow, and we rightly recognize in the act of creation a remarkable power.  Of course, in Christian theology we also attribute to God the characteristic of supreme love, and love is such a complex, non-coercive phenomenon that we almost immediately encounter an irreconcilable paradox: the purest exercise of power is in making something behave counter to its nature, and the purest exercise of love is in fostering and encouraging something towards the best parts of its nature.  We want God to have both traits, but we don’t know how to make these traits mesh.  The result is a vision of God that is at odds with itself.  Nonetheless, instead of acknowledging we’ve conceived a paradox, we write it off as a mystery of God’s nature and move on to the next part of the construct.

Of course, what follows is theodicy; we recognize evil’s existence, but we’re puzzled by it.  God’s supposed to be all powerful and all loving, so why this problem that very clearly they should be able to solve?  Humans have come up with a bunch of ways to try to rationalize the issue, and none of them are totally satisfactory.  The process of explaining why God has not made use of their supreme power or their supreme love to rid Creation of evil is fraught, and often implies further complications in defining God’s character.  In white evangelicalism, the justification for evil often stems from a proposition somewhere that Creation deserves its corruption as just punishment for some deviation from God in the past.  God’s working out how to fix this problem, but in the meantime we just have to accept it as a natural consequence.  That’s almost tenable until you go back to the power/love dichotomy and get all turned around trying to understand how God can be capable of fixing things completely, but has chosen a method that works out on a scale beyond our comprehension so that evil still runs rampant in our localized perspective.

This is where the second characteristic of God comes in.  In white evangelicalism, the common explanation for evil in the world revolves around humanity’s failure to place God in their rightful position.  Too many people don’t worship God the way God wants, and so we’re all suffering for it.  Therefore, supreme self involvement.  Whether you justify this need for worship as an appropriate characteristic of God or not, it’s still there.

The third characteristic I listed is built into the fallout that comes from combining the first two.  A God who is supremely powerful and supremely self involved (or invested in their own glorification, which is how it’s usually spun) is going to get upset when people don’t shape up, and so they will demonstrate their power.  This is vindictiveness, pure and simple.

How we arrive at abuse from here is the confluence of a person punishing others for failing to meet expectations that are unreasonable, particularly when there’s a clear power differential between the punisher and the punished.  A system where God is all powerful leaves them eminently vulnerable to committing abuse against Creation.  Hence the abusive parent metaphor.

I see this metaphor playing out most strongly in the doctrine of hell.  Many Christians believe that failure to worship God in the proper way (that is, typically, worshiping Jesus Christ as God incarnate) is grounds enough for relegation to eternal conscious torment.  I don’t believe that; I’m what you would call a Christian Universalist.  I believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, but I don’t think that God requires anyone to worship Jesus as a prerequisite for attaining access to them.  This position is usually met with severe displeasure from white evangelicals; the idea that I would be a Christian who doesn’t think other people need to be Christians to find divine fulfillment is apparently an incredibly threatening proposition.  It’d be better if I were an atheist, even though that implies they would rather I be surely condemned to hell in their belief than existing in a place of uncertainty.

I suspect that this discomfort with forms of Christianity that are liminal in the evangelical imagination–those versions of the faith that share certain aspects of evangelical doctrine but reject others seen as central to members of the branch’s identity–are actually a threat to the epistemic closure that white American evangelicals have constructed for themselves.  Included in that paradigm is a moral system that abhors ambiguity, and there’s nothing more ambiguous than a person who claims Christianity as their faith while practicing it in a way that’s nowhere near as restrictive as what white evangelicals practice.  It’s like it sets off alarm bells; I’m professing things that they believe God should punish me for professing, and I’m telling them that God isn’t mad about that stuff.

One of us is afraid of our parent; the other isn’t.

Reading “Season of Mists: Chapter 3”

Finally, finally, four issues into this story arc (which is only eight issues long, by the way) we get to the real plot, which is that Dream, having earned the wrath of Lucifer, is gifted with the key to Hell, and now he has to decide what to do with the damned thing.  Envoys from a variety of realms arrive in the Dreaming to make their case for why they should get ownership over Hell, and Gaiman essentially spends an issue playing with every kind of mythology that he has a fondness for.  Though we see seven distinct factions here, the major players are really the Norse contingent (which consists of Odin, Thor, and Loki, who like Puck is kind of a bit player right now, but will become much more significant in the future) and the demon refugees from Hell who have taken up residence in Limbo (the demons send their new leader Azazel, who was one third of the triumvirate Lucifer was toying with way back in issue #4, the Merkin, a demon who spawns spiders, and Choronzon, the guy that Dream beat in that poetry slam for his helmet the last time he was in Hell).  There are also visitors from the realms of Order, Chaos, the Nile Delta gods (among whom is Bast, the cat goddess that Dream happens to be very good friends with), a single Japanese god, and also somewhat significantly the angels Remiel and Duma from the Silver City, which is where angels reside in Gaiman’s cosmology (they don’t want the key, but God said they have to go observe the proceedings).

It’s all very charming in a mish-mash-of-world-mythologies sort of way.

Of course, though we’re finally getting into what this whole arc is really about, all we get here is introductions and establishment of motives.  The various factions that want Hell more or less simply want extra real estate (since in Gaiman’s world the power of immortals is tied largely to the degree to which humans believe in them, all the various gods are in pretty dire straits now, and they could really use a fallback realm when their various eschatons come about).  In a couple issues we’ll actually get to see some interesting stuff as each of the contenders for Hell present Dream with something they think he wants, and thus create tension as Dream has to consider all the juicy offers.

I wanted to a find a picture of Dream in his casual brooding clothes (he’s so preoccupied with appearance that he actually manifests an old t-shirt with holes in it while he’s brooding), but that wasn’t feasible, so here’s the cover instead, which features Loki being tortured by a snake. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

For now though, we just see everyone show up on Dream’s doorstep after Gaiman spends about half the issue explaining that life pretty much sucks for all immortals except God and the angels (this arc is extremely hard on God in general, but considering that the macguffin is Hell itself, and we’re dealing with a Miltonian version of events that involved God setting all this stuff up to begin with, it makes pretty good sense).  The funny thing about this scenario is that the first time I read this arc of The Sandman, I was still neck deep in evangelicalism, so the fact that Gaiman established the Christian God as the dominant deity in his cosmology was really gratifying at the time.  Never mind the fact that we’ve seen previously in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” that the state of the world is only maintained through the power of belief, so the order in which God sits at the top, while appearing to be eternal from the way Gaiman describes the Silver City’s history, is actually quite fragile in comparison to the expanse of time and the sheer variety of beliefs that wax and wane over the course of sentient history (though this series is very human-centric, I can never shake the fact that there are entire other aspects of the Endless which exist in relation to the other intelligent species of this fictional universe).  Miltonian God has always been in control simply because enough people believe this is the case.

Coincidentally, I was vaguely aware of all these caveats the first time I read Season of Mists, but I wasn’t really willing to consider the larger implications for the nature of God in Gaiman’s world.  Being evangelical really primes you to look for parallels with your own theology everywhere, even at the expense of noticing how much of a stretch some of those parallels really are.

Amidst all the god talk of the issue, we also get a whimsical scene where Dream calls Death to ask for her advice, and she brushes him off because all the mortal inhabitants of Hell are returning to life since Lucifer kicked them out, and she’s extremely busy trying to correct this problem.  Considering the characters we’re dealing with, it’s a pretty lighthearted moment where we get to see Dream trying to course correct for his habit of isolating himself when he has problems to deal with.  That he fails miserably is only slightly important.

The art team for this issue is slightly changed from the previous two.  Kelley Jones continues to do pencils, which means that everyone’s faces are creepy with teeth that always look just a little grotesque, but on inks we have P. Craig Russell, who’s notable for being a guest artist on a much later Sandman issue.  Here the biggest change is that Russell’s inks aren’t nearly so heavy on faces so that it feels like you can actually see more of the grotesquery that Jones is putting into his characters.  The next issue will be an interlude to shed light on that little problem that Death mentioned, which means a completely different art team, but here we get a glimpse of what Jones will be doing with the remainder of the arc, which involves many teeth, odd eyes, and a fun trick of customizing his style to fit the aesthetic of each pantheon.

Next time, we get a side story that basically has nothing to do with Dream at all, where Gaiman spends a great deal of time expounding on the horrors contained in English boarding school culture.

Reading A Demon’s Nightmare

It should come as no surprise by this point that a major theme in Chick’s tracts is that the devil is out to derail as many people as possible from looking into the whole Jesus thing.  More specifically, in Chick world it’s not just the devil who’s out to keep everyone away from Christ, but his entire army of demon servants who have nothing better to do than spend their time following an individual around invisibly all the time, speaking things into people’s ears to try to keep them from thinking about God.  The motivation for this seems to run along the lines of “Misery loves company.”

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Satan’s minions convince the kid’s parents that they’re socially ruined because of their son’s personal decision. (Image credit: Chick.com)

In A Demon’s Nightmare we get to see a pair of rather incompetent demons working frantically to try to keep the kid they’re assigned to from first becoming a Christian, and then becoming an effective evangelist (because in Chick world, it is a Christian’s ability to rake in souls that makes them valuable).  They don’t succeed, despite numerous attempts to distract the kid from first hearing the gospel and then to keep him from getting connected with people in a “Bible-believing church” (Chick’s code for a church belonging to the white evangelical subculture).  The demon’s fail at every turn, but their ultimate failure comes about because they decide to take a night off (if only they had known better than to take a Wednesday night off, which evangelicals know is actually Second Sunday).  The kid goes on to become a missionary in south Asia, and thousands of people convert because of him, which means our two protagonists, as their punishment for being lazy and, y’know, evil, have to dig new deeper levels of hell to accommodate where Satan has sent them.

As a tract, it’s not terribly exciting.  You get the usual jabs at modern American culture apparently being so hostile to Christianity that the kid’s parents are horrified that he’s developed a form of faith, and his friends think he’s a total square because he’s a Christian now (and getting initiated into the club completely changes your personality in a single afternoon), and then he finds a community of like-minded individuals and lives happily ever after.  From the very start, there’s no real tension that the demons will succeed here, which is unusual because Chick typically likes to mix it up to show that even you could go to hell because of something really stupid.  Honestly, this tract’s worst offense is just being kind of boring.

Now, the idea that underlies this story is one that I’ve criticized before in other tracts, and that’s the idea that Satan is a real supernatural entity who is out to destroy our chances at going to heaven.  I don’t believe that the devil is real (instead, he’s the creation of a couple thousand years of mixing and matching some figures who are discussed in the Bible with some medieval cosmological ideas and John Milton’s Paradise Lost), and I think he’s a very insidious idea that evangelical subculture has used to create a certain ideological paranoia in members of the club.

Satan as a concept is a difficult one to grasp, because the central point of his mythology is that he rebelled against God, failed, and is now being punished eternally for his rebellion.  Despite that punishment, he still has power and agency within the world to turn people away from God (or tempt them away, depending on how Calvinist your particular theological framework is).  Satan has a multitude of tools at his disposal, including all the aspects of the fallen world.  Despite being in hell, he’s also the prince of our world.  Satan’s favorite tactic is deception (Prince of Lies and all that), which he employs subtly and imperceptibly to ensnare anyone who isn’t constantly vigilant of the corrupting influence of the world.

It’s kind of head spinny with the contradictions you have to hold in your mind about the character of Satan in order for him to make sense.  At one point back when I was still steeped in evangelicalism, I explained to a friend that I thought of Satan as a force that was so powerful that he nearly succeeded in overthrowing God, even though God has infinite power.  We’ll ignore the fact that if you construct God as being infinitely powerful, then any opposition, no matter how powerful, if it’s still finite, has no chance of succeeding.  The finite and the infinite just can’t be compared except to say that one ends and the other doesn’t.

I was spouting nonsense.

Of course, I’ve reconstructed my theology since then to incorporate the idea that God probably isn’t omnipotent, simply because the exercise of force contradicts God’s central characteristic of love.  With that idea in mind, it becomes less problematic to suggest that Satan is powerful and works within the world, but I still don’t buy that he’s real.

Think for a second what it means to believe in something that can never be proven, to think there is an invisible aggressor always looking over you, trying to push you away from goodness, and you are completely and utterly helpless to detect his influence on you.  You have to be afraid of this bogeyman all the time.  Everyone you meet might be working for him and not even realize they’ve been compromised.  You might be helping him and not even know it.

There is no way to know for sure.

So what does a person do when they live under that assumption?  As ludicrous as it sounds to an outsider, it’s not a hypothetical for many people within evangelical subculture.  Within the subculture, the only answer that’s offered for avoiding Satan’s deceptions is an adamant adherence to what the Bible teaches.  The Word of God can show us the straight and narrow path to freedom from this hidden oppressor, and all we have to do is cling to it with everything we have.

The only problem, and this is one that’s hard to see when you’re on the inside of this system, is that we don’t know for certain what the Bible teaches.  Parts of it contradict other parts.  God comes off as a bully sometimes, even though we’re supposed to believe his central aspect is love.  Paul’s writings about issues within the early church is inconsistent sometimes, with him giving contradictory advice to two different groups.  What do we do with that stuff?

My answer is you find a hermeneutic that doesn’t result in total theological breakdown when you inevitably see the contradictions.

“But then you’ll be deceived!” evangelicals say when this solution is proposed.  It was said to me when I broke from the anti-gay position of evangelicalism (the first issue that I really couldn’t stomach in good conscience).  I was told that my decision to affirm marriage equality and argue that homosexuality isn’t categorically condemned in the Bible had come about because I’d been deceived by Satan.  I had let the world influence me in ways that were not holy, and I was putting myself in a spiritually perilous position.

That hurt.

The idea of the devil hurts.

If there’s an invisible enemy always out to get us, and our only option is to accept a set of beliefs that don’t fully make sense and engender animosity between us and others who don’t hold those same beliefs, then the God who lies at the center of that system is a cruel monster with a cruel pet who can pick us off anytime he likes, because we can’t know what he’s doing.  It’s a universe more in line with Lovecraft than Christ.

I prefer Christ, thank you very much.  And that’s why I don’t believe in the devil.

Justice League Part 7: Gideon the Faithful Questioner

I realize I’m spending a lot of time dealing with Gideon in comparison to the other judges, but he’s a really interesting figure, and I’m trying to work out what it is that makes him so compelling.

Gideon’s listed in Hebrews 11 as a paragon of faith alongside several other men from the Judges account including Barak, Jephthah (whom we haven’t yet met, although he’s a doozy of a judge), and Samson.  I should probably say now that I’m trying to figure this passage out in relation to Gideon because he’s the least problematic of the paragons from Judges (Barak might be a simpler case, but there’s very little about him besides his military conquest, which Hebrews 11 seems to explain as the evidence for his faith).  Jephthah and Samson are unsympathetic figures in their own accounts, but we’ll deal with them when we get to where we’re going.

So after bashing the Baal altar and burning a bull, Gideon questions God about his plans for Gideon.  This leads to the famous miracles of the fleece, where Gideon asks God to first make only a sheep’s fleece collect dew on the threshing floor overnight, and then asks God to make it so everything except the fleece collects dew on the second night.

Now, this pair of miracles is interesting because Gideon knows that he’s being demanding.  He asks for one sign to prove that God really wants him to liberate Israel from the Midianites, and God gives it to him, but then Gideon goes back and says, “don’t be angry, but I want another sign.”  One interpretation of this story suggests that Gideon really was asking for more than he should have.  I mean, imagine you’ve asked God for a sign that you’re supposed to do something, and the sign you request is very specific and unlikely to happen by coincidence (asking God to do nothing if you’re supposed to go out and buy a fancy new whatever doesn’t count).  God obliges your request and gives you the clear sign.  Now, instead of doing what you’ve been told to do by God, you decide to say, “Y’know, I’m still not quite convinced this is the right course of action.  God, could you give me another sign exactly the opposite of the last one, but still extremely specific and unlikely to happen by coincidence?”

Some people might read that kind of attitude as willfully disobedient (disobedience to God is a big no-no in Christianity, although different branches of the Church interpret what constitutes disobedience very differently).  God made your job clear with the first sign, so why did you need a second one?

This is the attitude I had when I was a less experienced believer.  Obedience is something that was highly valued in the branch of the Church where I first received my spiritual education as an adult, and I had a lot of trouble trying to parse out why Gideon was listed as an example of faithfulness when he stops and questions God’s instructions every step of the way.

As I’ve gotten older (and, I hope, wiser), I’ve started to realize that Gideon really does demonstrate faithfulness in his reluctance to do everything that God tells him.  Gideon’s defining personality trait is caution.  He’s introduced to us while hiding in a winepress so he doesn’t get attacked and robbed, he questions the angel that appears to him (who he thinks is just a man at first) about God’s presence with the Israelites in light of the Midianite oppression, and then he questions whether he’s really hearing God’s voice when the angel tries to explain to him what Gideon’s purpose is going to be.  It’s not fear of disobeying God that seems to motivate Gideon, but fear of attributing to God a course of action that he knows is imminently risky.

In a lot of ways I’d say that Gideon’s an excellent example of conservative faith, because he doesn’t want to proceed in any course of action that he isn’t absolutely certain is honoring to God.  Unlike Christians today, who may rush to attribute a plan they have to God’s guidance in order to put that plan above criticism (Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a good post exploring ways that we put God’s stamp on things we don’t want others to criticize), Gideon prefers to be cautious to the point of possibly offending God by his insolence so as not to bring a greater offense in claiming God’s guidance on something that turns out to be foolhardy.

Of course, after the thing with the fleece, Gideon apparently gets with the program because we aren’t told about any more instances where he questions what God tells him to do for the military campaign (although I think we’re supposed to infer that Gideon’s still very cautious about everything he’s doing, since God gives Gideon one more reassurance in the form of instructions to spy on the Midianite camp before the attack just to see how spooked the enemy troops are by his 300 man army).  Beyond that, I think it’s telling that Gideon’s biggest missteps come when his confidence gets built up to the point that he stops consulting God for advice.  After routing the Midianite army, there are a couple towns where Gideon and his men stop for rest during their pursuit of the fleeing enemy.  In these towns the leaders refuse to offer food to the Israelites for fear of Midianite reprisal (a sensible thing, considering the small size of the Israelite force and the fact that they are essentially rebels against a much more powerful nation), and as a consequence, Gideon swears to ransack the towns once he’s finished with the Midianites.

It’s probably the worst part of Gideon’s story, and I think it points to Gideon losing sight of his earlier wisdom about undertaking tasks in God’s name.

Of course, even after pillaging a couple of towns and killing all their men, Gideon’s not the most troubling judge.  I’ll move on to a strong contender for that title next time.

Reading Flight 144

I’ve talked a little bit about evangelism in a couple of the previous entries in this series.  Regular readers know that I subscribe to the idea of evangelism as hospitality, and I find sales pitches like the ones that are packaged in Chick tracts to be repugnant, if for no reason other than their relentless use of scare tactics.

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No, I didn’t know that missionaries could be such big celebrities either. (Image credit: Chick.com)

Trying to scare your audience into Heaven is not a hospitable act, and therefore it’s not good evangelism.

That’s a point that I’ve probably belabored enough in the past, but I just wanted to bring it up again because the tract I’m looking at today has something to say about the connection between salvation and evangelism, although I don’t think it’s what Chick intended.

In Flight 144 we meet the Davidsons, an elderly couple who have been missionaries in Africa for 50 years who are now returning to the US in order to raise funds for their fifth hospital.  They’ve also kickstarted five schools in addition to that, so in the parlance of the evangelical community, I’d say they’re doing Kingdom work.  Those kinds of projects are phenomenally good for helping to improve the lives of people, and they exemplify how we might feed, clothe, and care for Christ through loving each other.  If the parable of the sheep and the goats is to be believed, God would welcome the Davidsons as faithful servants who acknowledged Christ in all they did.

Unfortunately for the Davidsons, Chick doesn’t agree with my assessment of their character.  The plane that they’re flying home on crashes over the Atlantic, and everyone aboard dies.  The cheerful young believer whom the Davidsons sit next to gets whisked off to Heaven immediately, while they’re taken by their angel to stand in judgment.  God gives them the cold shoulder because they never focused on evangelism in any of their ministry throughout their lives, and so the Davidsons are cast into hell.

I get that the point of this tract is to emphasize the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.  Chick hammers that home very well.


The setup here is one big contradiction, because while the tract is so busy making the point that we can’t be saved by our works, it sets up the work of evangelism as a necessary component of salvation.  Because the Davidsons never explicitly proselytized anyone during their lives, God’s not happy with them.  Conversely, the young believer they sit next to on the plane says the only person he ever evangelized to was his cellmate in prison.  That’s a very modest bit of work, but it’s still something worth celebrating within the Church, and I don’t want to detract from the illustration.

Nonetheless, this is the only distinction we’re offered between the Davidsons and their single serving friend.  They’re all Christians (though the Davidsons do not explicitly name Christ, what we read about their actions suggests that they have a deep love of him), so according to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, there shouldn’t be an issue.  Instead, God lays a smackdown on the Davidsons because they relied on their works.

Now, while there may not have been any explicit proselytizing going on in the Davidsons’ schools and hospitals, there most certainly had to have been a great deal of evangelizing.  You don’t care for people in need without demonstrating the love of Christ (actually, let me amend that to ‘you can’t care for people without demonstrating the love of Christ’).  Chick’s God doesn’t care about that though.

What Chick’s God cares about is whether or not you explicitly say to people, “Hey, listen!  Hey, listen!  You have to follow Jesus or you’re going to hell!  Hey, listen!”  That’s why the young believer gets a pass; even though it was meager, he did the one work that Chick’s God does, in fact, give a damn about.

That’s not salvation by grace through faith, folks.  That’s salvation by grace through faith plus this one other thing.  The fact that one other thing is the same thing that Chick tracts are designed to do (and make you feel guilty for not doing) must be entirely coincidental, I’m sure.  Of course, with this tract’s story, it’s apparently not enough that you’re made to feel guilty about not proselytizing; you’re also supposed to be scared if you aren’t doing it too.

Justice League Part 7: Sons Doing Stupid Things

In my last post, I forgot to mention that there’s something kind of funny that Gideon does between the first test he gives God and the later, more famous tests with the fleece.

After Gideon finally gets that he’s been talking with an angel, God gives him a homework assignment before he can go on to greater things like driving away the Midianites: Gideon has to destroy his father’s altar to Baal and use the accompanying Asherah pole for kindling for a burnt sacrifice made using his father’s second best bull.

Gédéon (vers 1550), huiles sur bois de Martin ...

Gideon praising God over the miraculous fleece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, Gideon’s dad is probably kind of peeved about that.

Of course, the kicker for this story is that Gideon does his desecration in the middle of the night (because he doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s doing) with the help of some of his family’s servants (because it’s too big a job for one person), so the next day when the townsfolk see the altar’s been desecrated, they ask around and someone points to Gideon.

The moral of that story is don’t involve anyone in your midnight pranks, because other people will always crack.

More seriously, the townspeople are upset that Gideon’s destroyed their Baal altar (it’s interesting that they’re taking such an interest in something that God said belonged to Gideon’s father, especially after Gideon said that his clan was the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh) and they go to his father to demand immediate retribution of the lethal kind.

Now let’s imagine for a moment that we’re in Gideon’s dad’s shoes.  You wake up to find that your altar has been destroyed, and the second best bull of your herd has been sacrificed and is smoldering on top of a new altar that’s been built from the remains of the old one.  Your neighbors are really upset about this, because that was the altar that everyone used to appease your local god.  You don’t know what’s going on, but you’re pretty upset too since you’ve just lost both a very valuable asset (bulls are expensive!), and one of your signs of social status in the community (everyone comes to your altar).  Then, after searching around, someone probably threatens and beats one of your servants into naming your son as the culprit.

At this point, we find that Gideon’s father has to make a choice about what’s more important.  He’s lost both social and economic clout because of his son, but the townspeople are asking that Gideon be put to death for defiling an altar.  Though not much time is spent dwelling on this incident, I imagine it was a rather agonizing one for Gideon’s dad.  Of course, the solution that he comes up with shows that Gideon isn’t the only shrewd one in his family.

See, Gideon’s dad decides that killing his son for doing something stupid is probably too harsh a punishment, so he pretty much just laughs in the faces of the townspeople.  “He destroyed our altar to Baal?  Then let Baal punish him, if it’s that serious.  We’re just puny mortals, so why should we try to defend the honor of a god?”

I’m sure that Gideon’s father also had a sizable number of loyal servants who were willing to stand behind him, since he also promises that anyone who tries to defend Baal’s honor by killing Gideon will be dead before the next morning.

And that ploy works.  The locals all back off, and Gideon gets a new nickname, Jerub-Baal.

This is an interesting anecdote in Gideon’s life because it has elements that tie him with earlier tricksters like Ehud (his destruction of the altar at night and attempts to hide what he’s done from more powerful people), and also because it demonstrates a very human capacity for love between Gideon and his father.  Gideon does something that’s reckless and could have very serious social consequences for his family, and his father chooses to stand by him, even though he’s probably furious at the same time.

I suppose I would be too if my son were such a troublemaker.

Reading Somebody Angry?

Oh. My. Gosh.

I don’t know where to begin with this week’s Chick tract.  I thought that last week’s tract intended for distribution at a funeral was bad, but I’ve apparently only touched the tip of the iceberg.

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Just a reminder to everyone reading: If you’re afraid you’ll be caught in the next Act of God and meet an untimely death, just remember to believe in Jesus so you can gloat in Heaven over everyone who opposed the expansion of Israel’s borders and brought death and destruction down on your heads as a result. (Image credit: Chick.com)

This week’s tract is called Somebody Angry? and it argues that the United States is subject to natural disasters that have claimed thousands of lives and done billions of dollars of property damage all because we as a country are not staunch enough supporters of Israel holding on to its land.

Let’s let that sink in a little bit more.

Chick is actually saying that because America is not a strong enough supporter of Israel that we are suffering natural disasters like Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, along with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

My mind is boggled.

I mean, really, I’m not sure how to respond to something like that.  I could make an argument about how that kind of thinking betrays an absolute ignorance in relation to America’s foreign policy (this coming from someone who considers himself woefully ignorant on that subject), climate science, and, perhaps most shocking, God’s character.

Really, I’m sitting here trying to think of what I could say in response to this, but it’s just so absurd.  While modern-day Israel is predominantly Jewish, it’s not a country that’s ruled exclusively by adherents of Judaism.  To equate the State of Israel with the Old Testament’s nation of Israel is just wrongheaded and assumes too much about the demographic make up of Israeli citizens.  To suggest that meteorological phenomena are a kind of punishment for failure to adhere to a certain political agenda is nonsensical.  To claim that God would punish people with storms, floods, and terrorist attacks because of efforts to end violence that’s been endemic to a region of the globe for the better part of a century is to ignore the character of God as revealed on the cross.

Chick’s talking about trading human lives for the maintenance of land, and not just the lives of the people he’s claiming are being punished for their lack of support in Israel holding its lands, but also the people in Israel and Palestine who are directly affected by the fights over those lands.

That is not a just, or even sane, statement to make.

Of course, Chick bases these assumptions on a skewed reading of Zechariah:

 On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. (Zechariah 12:3)

Zechariah, for anyone who’s curious, is one of the twelve minor prophets included at the end of the Old Testament.  He wrote his book after the start of the Babylonian Exile and likely had in mind a purpose of helping to comfort those citizens of Israel and Judah who were longing for relief from foreign oppressors (kind of like the purpose that the writer of Judges had in mind).  Talking about Jerusalem as a rock that will injure everyone who tries to mess with it is a call forward to the time when the Israelites would be free again.  It’s not a call to reclaim all of the lands that were promised to Abraham in Genesis or a warning to other nations that they shouldn’t mess with Jerusalem (I doubt that Zechariah would have had citizens of other nations in mind when he was writing).

As for the climate science, all I can think of is a recent video that made the rounds about a plan to help remind people what kind of political agendas actually do encourage the kinds of natural disasters that this tract talks about.  Here’s the video, for your pleasure:

Climate change is a serious problem, and it’s irresponsible to suggest that these disasters are directly caused by not having a political ideology that favors a specific foreign relations agenda.

I know, I shouldn’t be surprised by these things in Chick tracts anymore, but really, this is just over the top.  Maybe next week I’ll find a nice, sensible tract with moderate political views coupled with an open, loving presentation of the gospel that doesn’t rely on fear tactics.

I shouldn’t be so optimistic.

Justice League Part 6: Mighty Warriors Hide From Their Enemies… Or Something

So following the fantastic story of Deborah and Jael (and Barak), we come to the narrative centerpiece of Judges’ arc involving the judges: Gideon.

Gideon’s narrative is the second longest in the Book of Judges, and it tells pretty much his entire life story from his calling to save Israel through his exploits to the end of his life when he lives peacefully in the liberated Israel where he doesn’t want to be king because he thinks God should rule over them (then he takes his spoils of war to make a priestly garment that people begin to worship, so whatever).

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Bo...

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We first meet Gideon when he’s hiding inside a wine press while threshing his wheat.  The reason he’s doing this is that the Israelites are currently being oppressed by the Midianites, who like to come along and take all their stuff.  It’s quite a sensible thing to do if you’re constantly being harassed by raiders who steal your crops and livestock.  It’s also a wonderful setup for when an angel appears to Gideon in the wine press and calls him a “mighty warrior.”

Because, you know, I imagine Beowulf hiding in a wine press when Grendel comes knocking at Heorot’s doors.

Like a lot of stuff that happens in Judges, I think we’re supposed to find this incident funny since “mighty warrior” is a translation of Gideon’s name, and he’s literally hiding from his enemy.  It’s also a fine piece of foreshadowing, since Gideon later proves to be a very successful military leader despite his inauspicious beginning.

Besides the humorous tone, this introduction also serves to tell us a little about Gideon’s character.  He’s a shrewd man, seeing as he knows it’s better to hide his wheat rather than threshing out in the open, and when he talks with the angel (whom he doesn’t yet realize is an angel) he asks the pointed question of how God can be with the Israelites (which the angel exclaims right off the bat) if they’re currently suffering under the Midianites and all the wonders that they’ve heard about from the period of Exodus are no longer present.

As an aside, I think this passage raises an important question that the writer of Judges and their contemporaries would have been asking in the days of the Babylonian Exile.  The whole book’s looking for an explanation of foreign suffering when God says that he’s with his people, but Gideon gets right in there and says what everyone’s actually thinking about these cycles of oppression.  Of course, the answer that God gives him (and the answer that the entire book seems to be pushing towards) is that he should just trust God to do what he does.  Also, apparently, that if you find yourself in a bad situation and God tells you to do something about it, then you better get to it (I like that last bit, though I’m sure there’s endless discussion to be had about what constitutes God telling you to get to work).

Gideon, being the shrewd hider of wheat that he is, decides it’s probably best to make sure he’s actually getting a command from God, so he proceeds with a series of tests.  First there’s the test where Gideon asks the angel to wait for him to get together materials for an offering, so he can receive a sign that he’s definitely getting instructions from God.  The angel does this whole rigamarole where it sets the food for the offering on fire with its staff before disappearing into the flames, and Gideon freaks out because he realizes he’s just been face to face with an angel of God.  God, being the chill Deity that he is, reassures Gideon that he’s not going to die.

The second and third tests are slightly more famous.  Gideon puts a fleece out and asks God to perform two miracles two nights in a row that are exactly the opposite of each other.  God does both miracles, and then Gideon’s convinced that he’s received a divine visitation.

And for all this testing of God, Gideon is named a paragon of faith in the Letter to the Hebrews from the New Testament.  I’m formulating some ideas on why that is, which I’ll get into next time.

Because He First Loved Us

Rachael and I have been married for over five and a half years now.  We had a post-Christmas wedding because everything was available the week after the holiday, and there was the bonus that the church where we got married still had its Christmas decorations up.

Our colors were red and white.

The six months prior to that was a highly stressful time in our lives, because we were both graduating from college, trying to find our first grown up jobs, and trying to plan a big party for our friends and family.

Somehow it all worked out.

In the midst of that planning, Rachael and I had to come up with our agenda for the ceremony (there’s actually quite a lot of variation in how you can organize a wedding ceremony, but we did not know this until it was time for us to do the organizing).  Being clueless twenty-two-year-olds, we did a lot of research on the internet to figure out what we could do, and in the process came to the conclusion that whatever else, we wanted to write our own vows.  These were not going to be your typical silly vows with promises to do things like make banana smoothies together every weekend; we wanted to do something that was biblically based.

We did a pretty good job of hitting all the high points (so good, in fact, that our pastor appropriated our vows as an option for his subsequent clients when planning their ceremonies; this is very flattering, but always just a little weird when we go to a wedding and suddenly hear our own vows being spoken by our friends) with faithfulness to each other, commitment to better understanding God and the world together, and promises to encourage one another continually.

It’s some good stuff.

There’s one line in our vows where we decided to diverge and make them gender specific.  They go like this:

Me: I will lead you and make you holy, out of love, as Christ leads and makes the Church holy out of love.

Rachael: I will submit to your leadership voluntarily, out of respect and love, as the Church submits to Christ out of love.

We based that line on the passage in Ephesians 5 where Paul instructs husbands to love their wives like Christ loves the church and wives to submit to their husbands in the same way they submit to God.

It’s kind of funny looking at it now, because the language doesn’t really match up so well.  I’m not sure where the leadership bit came in, because that’s not in Ephesians 5.  I also don’t recognize the bit about Rachael respecting me, though I suppose that’s a pretty practical thing to throw into your wedding vows.  I feel kind of bad in retrospect that I didn’t vow to respect her.  Also, now that I think about it, it seems kind of presumptuous that I’d take on the task of making her holy; that’s not something that Paul says the husband should do.

What were we thinking when we wrote these vows?

The short answer is that we were thinking along complementarian lines at that point in our lives.  It left us with some odd ideas about how to interpret the submission passages, one in particular being that Rachael was supposed to be the one doing most of the submitting.

After over five years, we’re pretty sure that’s not how this marriage thing works.

At the time when we were doing our pre-marriage counseling (definitely a good idea, that one) we worked with our pastor for a couple months talking about important issues that we needed to have an understanding about, and one thing that came up was the point that even though Paul wrote instructions to both the husband and the wife, what people commonly do when they’re talking about these passages is to emphasize what the other person is supposed to do for them.  We had it drilled in that that’s a mistake.  Our pastor told me that I was to focus on what my responsibilities to Rachael were, and somehow in there leadership got thrown in.  I suppose it had something to do with the linguistic assumption that submission is part of a dichotomy with dominance.

Of course, the problem there is that somehow I ended up throwing in a component of my vow that wasn’t based on my responsibilities as laid out in the Ephesians passage.  I extrapolated leadership by assuming it was the complementary part to submission, which was listed in the wife’s duties.  Before Rachael even walked down the aisle, I’d already begun focusing on what she owed me as a wife instead of focusing on what I was promising to give her.

That’s not any kind of submission.

I’ve written a little bit before about how we came to discard the complementarian marriage model in favor of a more egalitarian one.  Part of it happened because our personalities just don’t mesh well with the leader-follower model.  Neither Rachael nor I prefer to be in charge most of the time, so we opted for a partnership model where when it comes to making major decisions, we each have an equal voice.  It helps us share the responsibility, which makes both of us happier.

Part of the change also happened because of uncontrollable circumstances.  I was unemployed for a couple years while I was getting my second degree and looking for a job in education (I just knew that 2009 was a good year to jump back into the job market), so Rachael had the sole income for our family while I spent a lot of time at home.  I think this forced reversal of complementarian gender roles went a long way in helping us see that the whole construct was rather arbitrary and a source of discomfort in our marriage.

We joke that we’d love to get our hands on those wedding vows that we wrote up and just polish them a little bit now that we’re both more experienced as writers and spouses.  For my part, I’d probably take all the leadership stuff straight out, and instead emphasize the partnership.

I’d also probably make more explicit our core verse, which we had inscribed on the inside of our wedding bands: “We love because he first loved us.”

Within a theological framework that defines love in part as willingness to make yourself vulnerable before another person, saying that our love stems from the love that God first showed us seems like a far better starting point than suggesting that one of us has to be the leader and the other the follower.

Really, I think that partnership looks a lot more like submission.

Reading The Contract

The great thing about naming this series “Reading…” means that every entry I get to enjoy a little pun of some sort (though obviously some titles produce better puns than others).

That’s a tangent though.

The tract of the week is called The Contract! (coincidentally, the root for both words is tract, which means ‘to draw towards’; I’ll give Chick this: I’m definitely drawn to these little pamphlets), and it’s about two men who are in danger of hell (I know, what a shocker).  The first is John Freeman, a down-on-his-luck farmer who makes a deal with the devil in order to turn his fortunes around after an Act of God (hailstones) destroys his crops and leaves him ruinously in debt.  The second man is his cousin Bob Goode, who doesn’t truck with all that satanic nonsense.

Page 13

And so the wretched banker Elmer Boggs walks out of the story, his life shattered forevermore as far as we know. (Image credit: Chick.com)

To make a long story short, John repents on his deathbed and is saved from his Faustian contract, while Bob ends up in hell for eternity because he relied on his works instead of relying on Jesus.  There’s a pretty pat lesson about the distinction between works-righteousness and faith-righteousness with John and Bob showing that it’s only too late to repent when you’re dead.

What’s confounding about this story is that it seems to go out of its way to show that works are so unimportant to the kingdom of heaven that John’s life significantly improves after he makes his deal with Mr. B. Fox.  He gets his fortune without working for it, the horrible banker who kicked him out when he went looking for a second loan to stay afloat gets fired because of his new money, and he gets a luxurious ten years of life after this moment which by all appearances seems to give him no sense of suffering.

Now, I should say that I have no complaints about the demonstration of grace that’s on display here for John.  He makes a bad mistake, and even though he doesn’t suffer for it, God forgives him without any qualms.

I wish I could be that loving.

Nonetheless, the amount of callous disregard for the injustices that are visited upon the surrounding people in this story kind of gets to me.  I think it’s telling that the banker gets his comeuppance as part of John’s contract, but it’s not a just situation.  Where’s the forgiveness for that jerk whose life is ruined when he loses his job?  From his perspective, that’s just as much an Act of God as the hail that ruins John’s crops.  Confusing the issue further is the fact that Chick makes it clear the banker’s punishment is a direct consequence of John’s deal with the devil while at the same time indulging in it.  Are we supposed to take it that retribution is preferable and just in the absence of grace (since it’s the devil’s justice being done)?

Besides the plight of the wretched banker, we have the case of Bob, who seems to have no major shortcomings other than the fact that his theology centers on works-righteousness, as encapsulated by his adherence to the Ten Commandments.  I’m not opposed to the Ten Commandments generally; I think they’re a pretty good set of basic rules.  However, I have to question what kind of spiritual education Bob’s received that he’s only gotten as far as the premise of the Law.  Does his church only talk about Exodus and Deuteronomy?  Moreover, doesn’t this seem to undermine the point that many conservative Christians like to make about the foundational legal nature of the Ten Commandments?  Harping on the legalism of your faith strikes me as the wrong way to go about telling people about its grace.

Anyhow, that about wraps up this week’s installment of Chick tracts.  I think that the essential point this story makes about grace through faith is a good one, but it feels confounded with so many other messages about the different kinds of suffering that are acceptable depending on the context.