John 1

Genesis is the book of primeval origins, the book that establishes the foundation of the story the Bible is telling. It not only explains the origins of the world, but also sets the stage for the drama that occurs throughout the rest of Scripture. It’s no surprise, then, that echoes of it are found later on. The Gospels, in particular, have quite a few. Among my favorites is the first chapter of John.

John 1 points back to the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This verse is used to establish Christ’s deity. He is in the beginning with God, but he also is God. Throughout his writings, John comes across as something of a poet and a mystic, and it’s no surprise that he begins his Gospel with such a strange, seemingly paradoxical statement.

This verse not only lays the groundwork for distinguishing the Father and the Son while continuing to call them God, it also points towards their relationship. One is simply “God” and the other is the Word. A word is a thing spoken, something that proceeds from the mouth of another. Despite being coeternal with God, Christ is also, in some sense, derived from him. He is a Son to the Father.

In Hebrew, the book of Genesis is referred to as “Bereshith,” which is the first word of the text. It means “in the beginning.” By starting with that phrase, John points us back to the book of Genesis, and to the time of Genesis, but the passage also gives us something more. In the beginning was the Word. The Greek for “Word” here is logos.

To understand the significance of the word logos, you have to know that there are two Greek words that we might translate “word.” One is lexis, which means “word” in the way we usually mean. That is, a lexis is something you say, a sound that means something. Logos, on the other hand, isn’t simply “a word.” It’s where we get our word “logic,” and the “ology” that means “study of” in so many words like “Biology,” “Geology,” “Theology,” and the rest.

In Greek, the kind of Word that Christ is means something more like “reason” or “guiding principle.” Greek philosophers, and Greek-speaking Jewish ones, used the word to refer to the foundational structure of the universe, the basic laws by which it operates. For the Stoic philosophers, it was the animating principle of the universe, the thing that gave it all meaning and coherence.

So when John speaks of the logos in this verse, he’s giving the creation account a philosophical spin. In the beginning was the very principle that gives the universe order, and that principle was with God, and also was God. He goes on to say that all things were made by the Word, who is referred to as a “him,” and that nothing was made without him. Absolutely everything in existence is the creation of this divine, rational, ordering principle to the universe. Nothing falls outside of his design.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This makes sense. The source of life, the source of meaning, is the very thing that would give us life. To be connected to that principle is what would allow us to live and flourish, and cut off from it, we would wither and die. To the created order, the Word is life. And not only is he life, he is also light. That is, he is what allows us to see, to understand.  Looking at him, referring to him, the world makes sense. If he is the one who created it, who gives it order and coherence, then of course the best way to understand the world is by looking to him.

All this add depth to the Genesis story. Genesis 1 unfolds as the raw actions of a person we do not yet know. By the time John is written, the God of Genesis has rescued his people again and again, has made promises, has kept them, has cast down kings and raised up kings. We know so much more about him. Then John comes along to complicate that story. There is God as we have come to know him, but God is both God and the Word, and it was through the Word that God made the world. The character of God, the expression of God, is underlying principle of the world’s design.

But this is where the story takes a turn. “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” There is a lack of light, a lack of the Word. The Word shines into it, to illuminate it, but it still doesn’t understand. Something is wrong.

But, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” This is John the Baptist, not the writer of the Gospel. “The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.”

We have a prophet, sent by the Creator of the universe, the God of the Old Testament, to bear witness to God’s own Word. He is going to point men back towards the Light, so that we can “believe.” What that means is not quite clear yet. Believe what?

Of this Light, we learn that, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” The problem of darkness is a major one. That principle that underlies the universe, that source of our life and understanding, we are so cut off from him that when he walks among us, we don’t even recognize it. We don’t know God himself when stands in our midst.

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Here we find hope. Some do receive the Word, and these are “sons of God,” adopted by him, heirs of him, imitators of him. Their birth into sonship is not the ordinary kind of birth, which comes about from merely human desires and drives, but is the result of God’s own will, God’s own plan.

But this “not of blood,” and “not of flesh,” is not the whole story. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the father,) full of grace and truth.” The very principle that gives the universe order, that gives it life, that makes it coherent and rational, took on flesh. He became man, became part of his creation. It is now possible to see the eternal, to look God himself in the face. God himself has hands, hands which can reach out, can touch, can heal, can embrace, and can chastise. God dwells among us, looking like us.

In this passage John reaches back to Genesis, adds depth to the story, and then pulls it forward to the Incarnation, the coming of Christ to dwell with his people. That is what we are celebrating at Christmas, an entering of the Creator into his creation. For those who receive him, that is a source of joy, of life, and of understanding. But what about those of “his own” who “receive him not?” We have not gotten to the Fall in this study of Genesis, and that is key for understanding the Incarnation. Darkness fell on a creation that was created by Light himself. How the Word deals with that is all-important.

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The Structure of Creation

            I love the big picture. I love to see the way things fit together, the way they are linked together in cause and effect, in hierarchy, in reflection of one another. There’s something about understand all of a thing’s context and relationships that is beautiful, and reveals a little bit of its purpose.

            That’s what Genesis 1 is. It’s a portrait of the universe as God created it. The land sits on top of the sea, and the heavens are like a vault, a great dome over the earth. Sun and moon rule the day and night, spinning through the heavens alongside the stars, giving signs to those below of the passage of time, of the turning of seasons. Life fills every corner of the universe, inhabiting sea and land and sky. Last of all, the speaking beast, the creature who bears the image of God, who has dominion.

            It’s been remarked before, and I think it’s a point worth noting, that this is not a scientific explanation of how the universe came to be or how it functions. If you come at the world from an excessively materialist or rationalist point of view, you expect any explanation of something to be an account of the physical processes which bring a thing into being or keep it running. But that’s not the only way of explaining what a thing is.

            A thing is also how you encounter it. It is what you see, what you hear, what you smell. It’s how it changes over time, and the patterns you notice. These things aren’t “objective” in some ultimate sense. They’re anthropocentric—man-centered. How do people actually experience the world? Genesis operates on this level.

            We may know that the heavens are more or less endless, that some of the stars are far closer to us than they are to the rest of their starry brethren. But from the earth, it all looks like a single vault, a high ceiling on the world, with most of the stars at the same distance. We may know that the moon is actually one of the smaller objects in the sky, and so saying it “rules the night” is laughable, but so what? Viewed from the earth, it is the largest light in the darkness, the one that dominates that space.

            Expect Genesis 1 to be what we call a scientific account of how the universe is structured, and you will be disappointed. Its taxonomy, and Biblical taxonomy in general, would drive a biologist mad. But that’s not the point. The point is explaining the world as we experience it, the structure of life as we actually encounter it. Now, there is a way of over-relying on this fact in such a way that it distorts the text. Just because something is poetic doesn’t mean the thing it describes is unreal. The fact that something is phenomenological implies that it’s describing real phenomena. But I’ll save that qualification for a later post.

            One interesting aspect of Genesis 1 is the way it’s built on forming and filling. When the world is first described as “formless and void,” unless I badly misunderstand my Hebrew, the words there seem to refer to having no structure and being empty of all contents. But the first three days of creation are all the establishment of structure. God divides light from darkness, creating two spaces called “day” and “night.” Then God establishes a “firmament” or “vault” in the midst of the water, and this becomes the space we call “heaven” or “sky.” Finally, he gathers the waters below together into a single place, and up comes dry ground. He has created the spaces we call “earth” and “seas.”

            These spaces are like different houses, or different rooms in a house. Alternatively, they are separate stages. And stages are nothing without sets, props, and players. And fittingly enough, God obliges. The next three days fill these very spaces. Day four fills the spaces created in day one—day and night—with lights of various kinds. For day, there is the mighty sun. For night, the gentler moon and all the stars are hung up in the top of the vault. Day five fills the two spaces of day four—sky and sea—with flying creatures and swimming creatures respectively. Day six looks to the final space created, the green earth, and fills it with various kinds terrestrial beasts and creeping things.

            These are the two fundamental acts of creation: forming and filling. A number of my favorite Genesis commentators make a connection here that some find a bit wild and esoteric, but I find immensely interesting and fruitful. Be warned, I’m imaginative sort of person, who likes fantasy and poetry and miracles and ancient epics and rituals and mystic sayings and all the rest, certainly more than plain facts and dry numbers. If something packs a whole lot of meaning into a small space, that holds a lot of weight with me in whether I think it could be true.

            The commentators connect forming and filling to male and female. It’s kind of a weird thought, but it kind of makes sense, both in terms of how the world works, and in terms of the text. The days of forming and the days of filling are one of the few big binaries we get this early in the Bible. In the midst of it, we get male and female, and the fact that man is made male and female is very central to who we are. It’s not accident, but something that is there from day one. In fact, the only thing that is not good in all of creation prior to the fall is the idea of a man without a woman.

            So on that alone, connecting one big pair of complementaries to another just makes literary sense. But it also fits with the world. Men are built stronger, on average, physically tougher. They are more capable of projecting their will directly outwards into the world, of taking up and creating spaces. The idea that men tend to be better at abstract thinking also fits with this picture—that’s what creating spaces is all about. It’s drawing limits, defining structures, creating processes and areas in which things can take place. It’s setting the stage.

            On the other hand, women are built to bring new life into the world. It takes two to tango, but only one of them can nurture a small seed of humanity, barely in existence, to the point where it can survive in the world. I say it can survive in the world, but this isn’t quite right. Infants need protection, need nurturing, need to be feed. And again, the same half of humanity that brings them into the world can also feed them, once again, from their very body, their very self. Women are the part of humanity that is capable of filling humanity with other humans.

            Now, I am not an expert in human psychology, much less in women’s psychology. Knowing the current internet environment, I already feel like I’m treading in dangerous waters. Because I’m a guy, I feel comfortable throwing out the connection between abstract thinking and forming. I’m not going to do the same with women, although I do think similar things can be done. There are certain ways women behave that just strike me as creating and sustaining community, of filling a community with life, that I just don’t see men doing as often or with the same skill.

            I should also point out that although this gendered reading of forming and filling obviously fits well with a complementarian reading of Scripture, and so maps onto conservative vs. liberal cultural battles, with all the attendant drama, this type of thing is not unique to American evangelicalism. Besides those in western civilization who might see human gender reflected in the cosmos, the Taoist yin and yang obviously takes the same idea of a universal binary principles and uses it to structure both the universe and mankind. Alternatively, a thoroughly modern, western, fairly progressive, and utterly pagan worldview does the same thing—Wicca. British Traditional Wicca specifically sees the world as defined by male and female principles. All this to say, I don’t think I’m being a fundamentalist Neanderthal when I point this out, any more than I’m being a Taoist mystic or a witch. I think these are just legitimate insights.

            Now someone who has being paying attention will notice that so far I’ve only referred to six days. Indeed, people often refer to “six-day creationism.” We all know, of course, that the creation week actually lasted seven days. The last day, though, was a day of rest. Having established order, and then filled it with life, God set aside an entire day simply to enjoy what he had done. That, I think, is how that sabbath day ought to be read. It’s not just resting from labor, but enjoying the fruits of that labor. And this is fundamental to the way the universe is built—space is created, space is filled, and then the whole thing is enjoyed.

            While Hebrew storytelling, and really a lot of western storytelling, doesn’t necessarily place the most important part of the story at the end, I do think that’s a legitimate way to understand this passage. The sabbath is the crown, the pinnacle of the creative act. This was built not simply because the action of building is good, but because it is good that the thing be a complete work, and that it be enjoyed as a complete work. That day, the day of enjoying the completed creation, that is the one that was made holy—not the one on which man was created, and not any of the other days. The day of rest.

            It is noteworthy that the creation of humanity isn’t the part that’s most holy. The creation of mankind is neither the center, nor quite the climax of the story. This is striking, since it is clearly written with a human perspective in mind. When we first hear God deliberating over the creation of mankind, we are defined in terms of two things: God himself, and the rest of creation. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and we are made to have dominion over the other living things.

            Some might read this in a kind of predatory way, as if creation existed for us. I read it in something like the opposite way. I think, giving the weight which is placed on every aspect of creation, and the way in which so little of it is explicitly noted as being designed for us, that we should be understood as built for it. This is not to say we should be earth-worshipers, but that we should be gardeners. We plough, we plant, we weed, we water. There’s a reason Eden is a garden, and not just a vegetable garden. It is filled with plants which are beautiful to look at.

            My feeling that this is true only increases when it becomes apparent that we are not supposed to be eating flesh, or making clothes from animal skin. Much of what we think of as the resources nature provides for us, simply weren’t resources at the time. Add this to Genesis 2’s revelation that certain natural processes like rain and the growing of certain grasses hadn’t occurred because we weren’t there to tend things, and it just reinforces the idea.

            Now to be sure, there is a glory to humanity. We are rulers, those who have dominion. But our glory is derived—derived from the God in whose image we are made, and from the garden we are to tend. That is, from our Father and from our work. This picture of the world is not anthropocentric, even if the place we have in the order is prominent. We are not the creators of the order, nor our we the center of it. We are those who maintain it, and who represent the creator. I think that is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a humbling thing.

            To be truly human, to be what we are and to flourish in this space, means to be under authority, and to seek the good of something outside ourselves.

Creation “Ex Nihilo”

There are three basic kinds of creation story—a god makes the world out of nothing, he makes it out of some pre-existing material, and he makes it out of himself. The first is called creation “ex nihilo,” the second is “ex materia,” and the third is “ex deo.” When reading Genesis, it can be very helpful to take a look at the contrast between “ex materia” and “ex nihilo” creation. We’ll look at ex deo in another post.

“Ex materia” is probably the most common variant in world mythologies. Often it starts with some sort of primal chaos, which the creator then brings order to. In one Chinese myth, an egg emerges in that chaos, and from it is hatched Pangu, who divides Yin from Yang and so lays the foundations for the universe. In Norse mythology, there was a great gap between an icy realm and a fiery realm, and in that gap, the fire melted the ice and uncovered the giant Ymir, and his cow, Auðumbla. Auðumbla’s licking of the ice uncovered a god, whose grandchildren murdered Ymir and crafted the world from his body. Egypt has many creation myths, but they often start with a mound emerging from watery chaos, and then a god from that mound, who gives rise to all the other gods, as well as to the order in the universe.

In this sort of myth, the creator is part of the universe. He may be the most powerful conscious being within it, but he emerges from it, and is subject to its laws. In such a world, you could conceive of all creation as a great chain of being, a hierarchy of creatures. At the bottom would be inanimate matter, then plants, the lower animals, like slugs, and then more complex creatures, like dolphins and chimpanzees. These would be followed by mankind, various spirits and demigods, then the actual gods, and finally whatever highest god or Fate stands at the top. There is a real difference between gods and men in this type of story, but it’s the same sort of difference as between men and parakeets. We’re still all part of the same world, the same category of “living thing.”

Ex nihilo creation implies something entirely different. A God who creates out of nothing is not bound by any sort of limitation. He is not made of the matter with which he creates, since it is something he himself made. He is not subject to the laws of the world, since his origin is completely outside it. It, instead, everything is subject to him on a very fundamental level.

This is important to understand when comparing the Christian understanding of God, which is partially shared with Judaism and Islam, to polytheistic gods who find their origin in the universe. The gods of an ex materia creation are far more powerful than humanity, but not necessarily any wiser or more righteous. They don’t necessarily have any more insight into the fundamental nature of the universe, or a better idea of its purpose and destiny, or any idea what the best life is. They’re just doing what they can, the same as the rest of us.

Depending on the exact mythology, the gods may have for more wisdom than men, but their nature does not require that this wisdom be absolute. It always has limits, because the very existence of the gods has limits. This is why someone like Odin has to make great sacrifices to pursue wisdom, or why Thoth or Hephaestus can have skills that aren’t shared with the other gods. Each of the deities is a limited being, with limited wisdom and knowledge.

Because they are limited, their authority over us is also limited. It’s something like the authority a ruler has over a people—on the one hand, it can be very good. The ruler might be especially wise and benevolent, even if he isn’t perfect. In that circumstance, a person who knows what’s good for him and for society will submit. But the ruler could just as easily be foolish or a tyrant, in which case people only submit out of fear. Even if he is a limited being, you run into the limits of your own power long before he does.

But in ex nihilo creation, God is not just “more powerful” or “more wise.” He is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “the fountain of all being.” Anything that exists comes from him. Anything that can be called powerful, derives its power from him. Whatever secrets are hidden, he is the one hid them. Whatever can be called good, its goodness is judged by the standard of his character.

This kind of God doesn’t derive his authority from the fact that he is bigger than you. He derives it from the fact everything that exists is a manifestation of his will and character. He’s something like Plato’s Good, or else the Tao of eastern philosophy. He is the principle by which goodness itself is judged. If you want to live the good life, you submit to him. Not just because he said so, but because the very definition of what goodness is proceeds from him.

This is a different kind of being entirely, one that doesn’t belong on that “chain of being.” Thomas Aquinas contrasts God with all created things in several ways. One way he describes God is as a necessary being—he has the sort of existence such that he could not not exist. Everything else is contingent. That is, under certain circumstances—perhaps at a particular time, or in a particular environment, or after being overcome by something else—it could cease exist. This is something that the gods of an ex materia creation have in common with everything else in their universe, except perhaps for the primal matter itself. In these two fundamental categories, the gods of polytheism are in the same one as you and me, even if they outrank us considerably in that box.

You can see people confusing these categories when they react to things like Captain America’s view on gods. In the original Avengers movie, Cap states “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” People of the internet have trouble with this, asking how a guy who spends his days actually in the company of various gods could seriously believe there is only one. Similar objections have been brought up when other superheroes make such comments, despite their familiarity with Thor or Diana.

But Thor and Diana aren’t the same kind of thing at all. However powerful they are, even if they are immortal from our perspective, they’re still limited creatures. They have an origin in time, a point at which their powers fail, an end to their knowledge. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t make very compelling characters.

Often I think H.P. Lovecraft is better at communicating something like God’s relationship to humanity than the Marvel movies are. The God of Christianity, or of Islam or Judaism, is certainly not Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. He is good in some sense that is intelligible to us, and he is the creator of our universe rather than indifferent to it. But that sheer strangeness, the sheer, utter otherness of Lovecraft’s gods, that’s more or less accurate. The God of the Bible comes from the beyond the walls of the world, from beyond time, from beyond any category we could conceive of. His nature and motives are inscrutable, except insofar as he chooses to reveal himself to us. That’s what makes the claim of the Abrahamic faiths to divine revelation so significant—that which is truly beyond the world came into it, and revealed himself to us. The Incarnation is a wild, earth-shattering event of cosmic significance.

So far I’ve been assuming that the Christian God is, in fact, a God who creates ex nihilo. I do think this is a safe assumption, and it’s one that has been made throughout most of the history of the Church. Genesis starts with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We have God, at the beginning of all things, creating all things.

Now one could easily reply that the gods of the ex materia myths also created the heavens and the earth. They used matter, but they certainly did something we would call “create.” Perhaps, once could say, the Christian God is the same, giving order to a primal chaos.

But this first statement comes before Genesis 1:2, which says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” There was, indeed, a primal chaos, but that chaos is the result of the initial act of creation. It doesn’t pre-exist God. He first creates the “materia,” then he creates the world from it.

This is significant in that it makes the Christian God an ex nihilo creator, but it’s also notable because it makes his actions meaningful. Presumably an ex nihilo creator could just snap his fingers, and everything would fall into place. Instead, he first creates the material, and then he arranges it in a very deliberate process.

Reformed theology likes to use a word whose meaning has grown more negative over time, but was originally considered a kind and merciful sort of thing—divine condescension. In order for an utterly other God, a God entirely without limit, to reveal himself to a limited creature, and to engage in a relationship, he has to speak in a way that creatures can understand. In the Bible, we often see God behaving in ways that are quite intelligible, when we know from other passages that he doesn’t have to do that at all. It’s like an adult kneeling down to look a child in the eye, patiently teaching him something simple, or playing a game with him. This doesn’t reveal the adult’s own childishness, but instead his love for the child in question.

The God of Genesis appears to be an ex nihilo creator, but one who has more on his mind than just getting the job done. He is acting out a drama in Genesis one, a drama full of meaning and significance. He is revealing himself to us, and revealing things about the nature of the universe he has created. And when a necessary being, an unlimited being, a being from beyond the walls of the world, who is the very fountain of all existence—when that being tries to tell us something, it behooves us to listen.

Why Did God Create?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

–Genesis 1:1

            One of the first things that confronts us in reading the book of Genesis is that God created the universe. It’s easy to take for granted, since this has been the default position of our culture for so long. But that’s not at all how the story had to go. Many cultures have taught that the world itself is eternal and uncreated. That was even considered a live possibility by modern science until the Big Bang became the established theory. Others have taught that time is cyclical, always returning in the end to the same place where it began, and passing once more down the same path, again and again, through all eternity.

But Genesis says God created. Creation is something that once did not exist, but now it does. And this act of bringing into being was the active decision of a personal Being, a God described as having purpose and intent, as interacting with his creatures. Which leads us to an important question—why did God create?

The classical understanding of God is that he is all-sufficient. Indeed, a creator God almost by definition does not need anything in his creation. One verse that makes this point is Acts 17:25, where Paul argues that God does not dwell in temples, nor can mankind offer him anything he needs, since he is the source of all creation. Psalm 50 applies a similar line of reasoning to sacrifices, pointing out that the Lord owns all creation, so why would he need our bulls and goats? The very idea that he can create whatever he wants implies that nothing in creation is truly necessary for him.

But the classical understanding of God goes even beyond this. It’s not just that individual parts of creation are unnecessary to him, but so is the entirety of creation itself. God existed in eternity past without creation, so how could we say that creation is necessary to him? So much of the Bible pushes the idea that God is not simply “very powerful,” like a glacier that carves through stone, or exploding stars, or the volcanism that gives birth to mountains and tears them apart. God is all-powerful, the source of everything that has power or authority or significance in creation. Saying that he is somehow missing something if he does not create undermines that idea.

But if God does not need to create, then why do it at all? The Psalms are certainly full of the idea that the earth sings his praises. God derives glory from the mountains, the seas, the sun and stars in their courses, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. All creation, from mighty Leviathan to the flower that is here today and gone tomorrow, testifies to the wisdom and power of its Creator. I think this is as good a suggestion as any—God made the world to express his character, and so to glorify himself.

At one point I think people might have taken this as a bit egocentric. I would have responded with some sort of appeal to the fact that God is something like Plato’s One—the ultimate good, the very definition of goodness, and the source of all that can be called good. Good glorifying itself is hardly egocentric, and honestly does a favor to everything else in creation, which is striving to reach The Good.

But I’m not sure that’s as much of an issue as it used to be. This generation seems to have an intuitive sense that creativity and self-expression is an inherently a good thing, and so I don’t think as many folks would begrudge God that activity. My tendency would still be to emphasize the differences between God Almighty creating to bring glory to the very standard of all that is worthy of glorifying, and a guy who writes slam poetry to work out the tangled emotions that have been trapped inside since the last time he set pen to paper.

One interesting angle on this problem looks at creation from a trinitarian perspective. Sometimes I think people can try to draw too many lessons from the doctrine of the Trinity, especially considering how much of the doctrine is only left implied in God’s Word. If you really want to understand the strangeness and wonder of God, you might start by talking about him the way he talks about himself, rather than emphasizing a construction, however true and good and necessary, we use to explain the way he talks about himself. Anyways, grain of salt.

The thinking goes like this: God, being trinitarian, is indeed self-sufficient, but he also exists as something like a community. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dwell in eternal fellowship and perichoresis, each living in and for the other through all eternity. Our God is a God who loves the other. Creation is therefore an expression of something already present in God from all eternity—that love of the other. He creates the other, that he might love it.

This view is then contrasted with that of a unitarian deity, usually the Allah of Islam. Allah truly does not need creation, but neither can he love it. Love of the other is inherent in the Trinity, but in Allah there is no such thing. Creation, and love of creation, is consistent with the character of the former, but not the latter.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. There’s a certain appeal to the idea, as it does offer a good explanation for why God would want to create. It also takes the Trinity and uses that teaching to probe deeper into things that our fathers before Christ could not have. I admire that spirit. But at the same time, I worry that it’s playing with something a little too deep for such speculation. The Word doesn’t make that point, and the Trinity is a doctrine notoriously easy to abuse. Does this bend the doctrine of the Trinity into something not quite orthodox? Not to mention that it creates a flattering contrast with someone we disagree with, which always a little too convenient to be true. But perhaps I’m too cautious.

So what can we take away from this? We started with classical theism, appealed to the Psalms, alluded to Plato, made speculations based on the doctrine of the Trinity, and none seemed to give a fully satisfying answer. At least, I am not fully satisfied.

I think the biggest takeaway is just to acknowledge that the text does not directly answer this question. We are not given an easy answer to it. This reminds me of Job, where we get a peek into the workings of the heavenly court, but by the end of that story the heavenly courts are forgotten. What is important is not precisely why God does what he does. In a serious way, we can never really know that. But we do know what God has done, and what he has said to us. Whatever his purposes in creating the world, the fact remains that he created. As a starting point, at the beginning of the story, that’s good enough.

Genesis Project

            There are many ways people can express devotion to God. Some take great joy in singing, and so singing his praises seems like the best way to glorify him, the ultimate match of a glorious art to a glorious subject. Others study what they love, and this tendency applied to love of God tends to create theologians. Still others associate love with obedience, and they go searching for things God asks of them, eager to please him through their behavior.

            Not all ways of expressing devotion are equal. Devotion is always good, but there are certain kinds of devotion God asks us for on a regular basis in Scripture, and certain kinds that go almost unmentioned. Some are even pointed to as potential distractions, ways of behaving towards God that obscure his character. That said, I think part of Christian discipleship is learning how you most readily express your faith, and then nurturing it and pushing it in the right direction.

            I’m a literary guy. I like stories, on the page or on the screen or piped through the radio. I collect those stories, and I study the worlds they are set in, digging deep into the lore. This has always effected the way I live out my faith, although perhaps the influence actually runs the other way. If I am living in obedience to God, if I am coming to him in thanksgiving, if I am turning from wickedness towards ways that are pleasing to him—if everything is right—then I am studying the Bible. I’m digging deep into the story, to its implications and allusions, the world its set in. I’m treating the Bible the way I treat epic fantasy or good TV. I’m devouring it.

            This fact has been brought home to me over the last several years. I need a lot of Bible in my diet, and I suffer spiritually if I don’t. Reading it and discussing it teaches me to love God and love others, and encourages me in the old, literal sense of the word—it fills me with courage. Life is a thing I can handle when I can see what it is and where its going, as written in the Word of God.

            As I was mulling this over the other day, I realized that one particular book I have spent a ton of time digesting, probably more than any other, is Genesis. I don’t know the minor prophets very well, or Isaiah, or the letters and life of Paul, but poke me and I bleed Genesis. I have read and listened to so much about it, chewed on it, speculated, watched movie adaptations of the stories, written my own midrash, on and on. But however much I’ve chewed on it, I’ve never really had the chance to share that with other people, to get a real conversation going. At least, not to the degree that would satisfy me.

            The likelihood of being able to join a big Genesis Bible study right now is pretty low for me. Besides, in that format, you have to keep a pretty steady clip going if you’re going to make any progress. I wouldn’t get to dive as deep as I’d like. But here, on a blog, I can take it apart bit by bit, throw it out there, and see what others have to say.

            Now I’ve been all kinds of inconsistent with this blog. I’ll write consistently for months, then disappear for months again. I’ve never quite figured out what I want to use it for. This, though, seems like a constructive use of my time, and something that might edify others. As certain other things develop in my life, my use of this blog might be changing. This is one thing, though, that I think I want to do here.

            So for the foreseeable future, when the urge strikes me, I will be posting on Genesis. I’ll try to keep the posts in order, and maintain some sort of continuity, but my plan is to get as much from the text as possible. This doesn’t quite mean doing a study on every word of the Hebrew text, but I think I’ve got an easy dozen post topics lined up on Genesis 1. These range from broad thematic overview, to really interesting individual verses, to major structural stuff, to random theological questions the text brings up, but doesn’t really address in detail.

            But while I’ll be diving in somewhat thoroughly, I’m not going to pretend like I’m a systematic theologian while writing this. I’m a layman. I’ve got some good resources, and I’ve taken classes, so I hope none of the reasoning is too shoddy, but I also am not aiming to create a new systematic theology. These will be the thoughts and questions of a guy who likes stories, and likes to dive deep into them, not of a serious academic.

            One thing I also hope to change with this is the way I interact with my readers. I’ve had a consistent core of a dozen or so readers throughout the years, and occasionally bring in a lot more on a movie review. Most of these are people I’ve known in real life and still interact with on social media or face to face on a semi-regular basis. You read because we know each other, and this is one way of keeping up. And you’re also probably the same kind of weird as me.

            But while you guys have remained faithful readers, this has not exactly been a discussion-in-the-comments kind of blog. I know people that are good at that, but I’m not one of them. I’d like that to change. If you find something interesting, or outrageous, or just have a link to share, please do. I’d love this project to be more than just my semi-public devotional. I’d love for it to be a conversation.

            So there’s my invitation to you. Come be a nerd with me. Love God by treating his canon the same way we treat our favorite nerd canons—dive in, take it apart, and see how it ticks. Ask the big questions, ask the small questions. Let’s read Genesis, and see what we find.

Dante, Courtly Love, and the Contemplative Life

This quarter in the eighth grade great books course I teach, we are spending several weeks on Dante’s Inferno. The class covers the medieval period in general, a period I find fascinating. And in some ways, Dante is the distillation of the best of medieval literature, cosmology, and theology. It’s fun.

Dante himself is quite the character. In the Divine Comedy, the work of which the Inferno is only the first third, he portrays himself wandering through a dark wood, plagued by vicious beasts, trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is met in those woods by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who is going to take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to reach God. But it turns out that Virgil has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life.

Fun fact: Dante met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, she married another man, and died three years later at the age of twenty-four. Dante had been married to someone else for five years at that point, and would end up having several kids with this other woman. Yet throughout his life, Dante maintained that he was madly in love with Beatrice, and had been since the day they met. He wrote a collection of love poetry in her honor that he published five years after she died, and finished the Divine Comedy, in which she had a starring role, only a year before his own death.

So, that’s interesting. Actually, it’s less weird than it sounds, if only slightly. This was the era of courtly love poetry, when falling in love with married women was the thing to do. In a lot of the stories of knights in shining armor fighting for the honor of fair ladies, said fair ladies were often married to another man. Now, a good Christian knight would never try to act on his love in an unbecoming manner–say, by sleeping with the lady whom he loved so madly. No, he would just admire her from afar, and fight in her honor. In theory. There was that whole Lancelot thing. Also Tristram and Isolde. And maybe one or two others. But most of the time it was platonic.

To modern sensibilities, this concept is wildly foreign. In what possible context could this be interpreted as a good thing, especially in the eyes of such a heavily churched culture, especially coming from such a self-consciously Christian guy as Dante? Well, there actually might be an explanation.

In the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Dante ascends through the heavens one heavenly sphere at a time. Just as in Hell below, people are here placed into separate spheres based on their character. In the sphere of Mars, for instance, are those who fought for the faith. Above them, on Jupiter, are righteous rulers. But at the top, on Saturn, the last real planet in medieval cosmology, we find… monks?

Actually, this sphere is usually labeled “The Heaven of the Contemplatives.” Contemplatives are pretty much what they sound like–people who spend their lives in contemplation, either of God himself or of various divine mysteries. This would certainly include monks as we normally think of them, but it would also cover other people who led a similar lifestyle of meditation on holy things.

This is actually a huge part of the medieval view of the world. The best thing you could be was not one of those adventurous knights, not some righteous king like Arthur or Charlemagne, nor even necessarily a regular priest or bishop, caught up in the affairs of your parish or bishopric. No, medievals considered a life of contemplation to be the pinnacle of human existence.

There are several reasons for this, but one major reason is grounded in their philosophy of the soul. Medieval philosophy said that there were three kinds of souls–vegetable, animal, and rational. The vegetable soul was the kind of life that grew, but didn’t do much else. You know, like veggies. The animal soul belonged to life forms that could move around and act on their environment. But the last kind of soul, belonging to men and angels, and perhaps just a few others, was the rational soul. This kind of soul was capable of reason.

This view had certain implications. Lifestyles that primarily involved action, that involved working or fighting or other such things, were things we held in common with the beasts. Ruling, which engaged more of one’s reasoning abilities, would be higher up the chain. After all, you were using the faculties that distinguished you from lower creation. But higher up, higher even than wise and just rulers, would be people who did nothing but use their reasoning faculties. These were the people who contemplated the deep and holy things of life, using that faculty which God gave to his children and his servants above all others.

So what does this have to do with courtly love? Well, imagine a kind of love which was not focused on your merely animal drives, one which demanded instead that you meditate upon your beloved, use reason to contemplate her. Imagine, if you will, a contemplative rather than an active love. In fact, imagine a love where the actual activities of romance are ruled out, but not a higher and more platonic admiration. So, yeah, imagine you are in love with a married woman.

It’s kind of twisted, but it makes a weird sort of sense. If reason is the best part of our nature, and animal instincts to some extent reduce us to the level of beasts, then a love which is elevated to a solely rational level is a higher love. Of course, in practice it becomes something that is either creepy, if unrequited, or adulterous, if the lady returns your affections. It’s dangerous, and there’s no doubt it led to all sorts of excesses as well as some very sketchy fiction at the time. Dante even placed a couple adulterers in Hell who were inspired to sin thanks to reading courtly love poetry. But it does make that twisted sort of sense.

Now, no society is really simple, especially one as diverse and cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial, as medieval Europe could sometimes be. This little chain of reasoning no doubt leaves out quite a lot, and paints a very uneven portrait of a culture shaped by people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of weird quirks and personal histories. Still, it’s a striking and surprisingly coherent story. It’s just the sort of thing to make you wonder what weirdly alien practices we take for granted as a society, and how strange some of our values might be in the light of history. What might our descendants think of us seven hundred years from now?

Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

My parents started attending church when I was very young. I don’t really remember the transition, but I really took to it. I had a very high view of the world, both the natural side of it and the artificial. It made sense to say there was a hand that knit the stars into the black heavens, that raised up the pines like swaying giants over the forest, that mixed the white sand and red clay, and scattered old river rocks among them. I was also invested in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, love and hate, life and death. A Creator and a heroic Redeemer made sense.

I readily enough bought into the idea of my own sin, though in my immaturity I often only acknowledged the less significant ones. But as a general concept, I knew that good and evil was in all of us, that good was natural and evil unnatural, and that unless we were rescued, evil would win.

That idea certainly applied to individuals, but it also made sense writ large. The world was a story, starting at a perfect creation, then falling at a moment when man chose sin. In the centuries that followed after, those who remained faithful to God and those who turned from him would struggle over the earth. And, as in any good story, the good guys were fighting a losing battle for most of history. Until, of course, the Hero arrived. He swept in and made the ultimate sacrifice, accepting the consequences for our own ingratitude towards our Creator, our betrayal of the one who loved us. Now, in following him, we partook in his death and his resurrection, and in the long run were promised a redeemed world in which to live. All would be right again.

It’s hard to point to any one place where I learned this narrative. We attended a Bible church at the time, which had an AWANA program. As a family, we often listened to the Christian teaching and talk radio station in our area, and continued to do so long after we switched churches. Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson, Adventures in Odyssey, Unshackled, and a wide array of preachers from the Bible Belt and the evangelical community more generally all had an indelible influence on my heart, mind, and imagination. I also got ahold of Christian fiction books as a kid, including a lot of Frank Peretti and the Left Behind series. I enjoyed them both, but especially the latter. I was a big end times nut in my preteen years, falling in love with the drama of the apocalyptic narrative.

At some point, my family switched churches. I was not aware of much of the drama surrounding that decision, and was surprised to find myself quite suddenly in a little wooden church in the boonies where people said scripted phrases back and forth to each other, there was a confession of sin, and we drank alcohol at every communion. It was very disconcerting, and I found myself having to account for the change. This was the first time I moved beyond the bare Bible story into the world of theological controversy.

The whole thing was disconcerting to me, in particular the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. I could hardly side with the Arminians, as their position seemed to deny God’s power and treat man as if he could save himself, as if original sin had not caused a fundamental character flaw. Calvinism, on the other hand, seemed to deny the agency of people. We were not characters in God’s story, not in any real sense. God also seemed to be a much more dour sort of person, a frowning lawgiver who smashed people for offending him in ways they could not have imagined were offensive, and arbitrarily sparing a trembling few who could not know if they were really safe from God’s wrath, or just self-deceived like the rest.

That was a long, hard struggle that very nearly tore me apart. Eventually I conceded the truth of the essentials of the Calvinist position. God did guide the destiny of men and nations, and we could not choose to follow him unless he had first freed us from the power of sin. Granting that, I still felt uneasy about the way some Calvinists I had read talked about God and man and the whole Gospel story. But I put that unease aside. There was far more going on in the world.

I also did an about-face on the end times business. I read a very lucid little tract explaining how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 fulfilled the prophecies of John in Revelation in the most minute details. Recognizing my own tendency towards flights of fancy—I was a big believer in UFOs at the time—I conceded that the language of Revelation was, for the most part, far from literal, and that my vision of vanishing churches, planet-wide dictatorships, centaur-locusts, and apocalyptic battles was more indulgent than accurate.

I also adopted covenant theology, which I saw as more connected with Presbyterian government than it necessarily had to be. The concept of the covenant, or solemn agreement of some kind, appealed to me, and it also explained far more of the Bible to a far greater degree than anything I had seen before. Of course, I had never given much concrete thought to the nature of God’s promises or the relationship between the testaments, so that was hardly surprising. Unlike Calvinism and the end times, this transition felt largely superficial and easy, though, as with corporate confession and high liturgy, the paedobaptism that went with it struck me as a bit Roman Catholic.

All these issues and more were profoundly disorienting, and at about the same time as we switched churches, there were a number of other upsetting events going on in my life. I dove into all this theology to give myself an anchor, and found it didn’t quite do so. Furthermore, my longtime love of fantasy, mythology, and fairytale creatures was starting to sit uncomfortably with my newfound sense of obligation to live a purified life before sovereign God. If things had gone on that way, I am not sure where they would have ended, but it was all very depressing and very confusing.

Then along came C. S. Lewis. I had read some of his stuff in the past, and categorized him with the rest of the Christian fiction authors I was familiar with. One person in my life encouraged me to read more of him, saying that I would surely love his stuff. I was reluctant, especially when she recommended Surprised by Joy, which I assumed to be the story of his falling in love with his wife, Joy. (How I knew he had a wife named Joy, I have no idea.) Eventually, though, I caved. I am more glad of that than of almost any other event in my life.

Surprised by Joy narrates Lewis’s early life, and his spiritual growth up until his belief in God. For me, it was earth-shattering. Here was a man who loved the Norse myths, who loved stories like I do, and the glimpses of beauty in the old paganism. Here also was a man who was intensely rational, as I was learning to be, and had no particular dog in any theological fight. Long years of reasoning and argument eventually led him to belief in God, but it was how he reconciled that belief in God with love of the old myths that captured my attention. He did not find that contradictory. Instead, he believed that the beauty he saw in the myths pointed towards Christ, towards the fulfillment of his spiritual longings.

For some time, theology had begun to choke the life out of my imagination. I was turning into one of those people that believes all truths are hard truths, and that if an idea makes you uncomfortable, it is more likely to be an accurate description of reality. Lewis undid that. I dove into both his fiction and his nonfiction, and they gave me both a clear, rational explanation of a broad faith very like what I had been raised with, and the ability to carry on loving the myths and fantasy that appealed to me, without them conflicting with that faith.

At some point I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and Lewis gave me a stronger drive to move in that direction. Life is more than what we read, however. It is our habits and seasonal rhythms, it is who we spend our time with, and it is the sheer necessity of making it to the next day that make us who we are.

My parents had decided long ago that we would be raised with a Christian education. By my secondary years, I had fallen in love with the little classical Christian school they had helped found. It was good for me in so many ways, and one of the best experiences of my life. On the other hand, it was very closely tied to the little church we had begun attending, and the pervasive influence of the Reformed subculture to which it belonged gave me reason to dwell more and more on the rational and theological sides of my personality, to the detriment of my ambitions as a mere fiction writer.

By the time I graduated, I had not quite given up that dream, though I had certainly dialed back my ambitions to a very great degree. I decided I would go to a college that would buy me time in deciding what path to take. There was a college I knew of that would allow me to dive deeper into classical learning and reformed theology, and the degree they offered was broad enough that I could take it anywhere. At the time, I was probably leaning towards the ministry, but I certainly had other thoughts in addition to that. But on top of the curriculum I respected and the options it left open, they also had a deep love of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion was one of the most captivating things I had ever read. If they were obsessed with these distinctly Christian authors, surely I could find a home there. And thus it was decided.

Before I talk about my experience there, let me provide some context. Because the church I had spent my early years in was nondenominational, as was the Christian radio I listened to and the school I attended, my picture of the church was very broad. Generally speaking, I thought the Gospel was fairly simple and straightforward, and that Christ embraced all who accepted him, from feverish backwoods revivalists, to the frozen chosen, to big churches in the city with fancy lights and praise bands, to respectable little Episcopalian chapels, and just about everything in between. My slow immersion into the world of Reformed theology had hardened my views on which interpretations of the Bible were right, and therefore who was doctrinally wrong, but I still believed that most everybody could get along.

My experience at college was something like having a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head.

That college was closely related to a pair of churches in the town, and between those three communities a person could disappear for four years and never see anybody else. This in a university town of more than twenty thousand people, with another just like it down the road. And everywhere I turned, these Reformed people were badmouthing the rest of the Church. Dispensationalists got blamed for all manner of outlandish things (and dispensationalism and premillenialism were not at all distinguished). Baptists, I soon found out, were why the American culture was so messed up, and Left Behind was why American Christians were not involved in politics. (?!?!?) Focus on the Family was also apparently too liberal, and definitely compromised, and the Bible Belt consisted exclusively of Pharisaical hypocrites. Now, I was under no illusions as to the shallowness of the faith of many of my fellow Southerners, but to apply that failing to everyone there (and exclusively to them) and then to add that they were legalistic Pharisees when in fact they often lived too loose a life—that just boggled my mind.

Despite this muddle of often contradictory slanders against the church more broadly, I didn’t think the church there was necessarily in a poor place doctrinally or had any lack of love for Christ. Just a little doom and gloom, I thought. I soon found my niche—a little circle of pseudo-Inklings—tried to focus on my studies, and drove on. For a number of years, that worked.

Before we go any further, it has to be said that the number one character flaw in my book had always been ingratitude. I loved Christ and the Gospel story, and kids who took that lightly got very little respect from me. I had watched my parents work hard and shed sweat and tears trying to get our school off the ground, saw all the drama involved in such a project, especially on such a small and intimate scale, and absolutely despised people who could reap the benefits of that and go on complaining. I loved my small town, partly because of its smallness, and I loved the whole region. People who spoke ill of it, who just wanted to get away—they had an attitude problem. Thanksgiving was the first virtue in my eyes, and thanklessness was the vice most likely to get under my skin. (Not that I was never thankless myself—but that is another story.)

So as the terms wore on and I grew less and less satisfied with the college and the church community, the last thing I wanted to do was complain. I flat out could not leave. I had come to this place, and they had given me their time, they had given me opportunities, they had accepted me, more or less, as one of their own, and I would not turn away from them.

The problem was, I felt I had reason to. That community was constantly harping on the sins of other churches, and would not hear one bad word about their own. They seemed to reject Christ’s church, and in their love of theological controversy, had turned the Gospel into something like a political platform that outlined the minutest details of what was and was not acceptable in their culture. People who struggled in that environment were pushed out, and any troubles in the community were swept under the rug and any memory of them was hushed. “Our party” could not be seen to have any trouble within it. Everything wrong with the world must come from outside.

This cut right against my understanding of sin. Sin was in everyone, including those saved by God’s grace. Their own efforts could never make them perfect, and any community was guaranteed to have problems as a result. Admitting such things was not shameful, but merely part of being human in a fallen world. Furthermore, it was a key part of repentance, which is necessary to the Christian life. How could a community follow Christ and pretend to be faultless at the same time?

On other side of that was the fact that this was God’s world. God had created mankind in his image, and sin could not obliterate that image, nor any other part of creation. No human being could be entirely corrupt, and to pretend that unbelievers embodied every possible evil seemed to cut against God’s sovereignty, and common sense. This was doubly the case when the community attacked the rest of the Church, which had the Gospel and the holy Scriptures, and stood before God as equals with us. These people talked as if they wanted to amputate the better part of the Body of Christ.

I was going through other personal issues at the time, and that made things more complex. But the long and short of it is, I switched churches. There were other places in town, and I went there, despite hardly feeling more comfortable. I had grown used to high church liturgy and certain Reformed habits, so my new church could not feel homely. Furthermore, I was still removed from a lot of cultural things I had been raised with in the Bible Belt and the Deep South. I felt more than a little adrift, knowing what I was looking for, but not knowing where to find it.

Under the circumstances, my ears were open to a lot of complaints about the Church generally. The churches I had just left attacked others for lacking doctrinal rigor and liturgical solemnity while overemphasizing the saving of souls, and the church I found myself in said the Church was both too American and too doctrinally tight. (Oddly enough, I have never felt so surrounded by hip, contemporary, upper-middle-class white Americana as at that church.) Other expats from the community I had spent the past several years in complained that the church was too conservatively evangelical, while I did not recognize that church’s somewhat distorted Gospel and trendy alternative theology as very conservative or as evangelical at all.

At any rate, I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and made it back to more familiar surroundings. Being displaced on so many levels for so long, I had taken on a much more pessimistic view of life, and was beset by more doubts than I ever remember having. There were teachings I found readily accepted by certain groups up there which I would have called heresy in anyone else, and the sparsity of teaching on redemption itself—hot-button culture war issues were preferred—left me with vague memories of what the Gospel was, and a thirst for grace-filled teaching, but with no idea what it looked like. I was at a loss.

Often I have found that time and space create room for peace. Removed from the constant battles of that town, and granted new rhythms, I gained the ability to process things. I have been living with my family again for about a year now, teaching at the school I grew up in, and attending the Reformed church we switched to when I was young. I listen to Christian radio fairly often, though my favorite preachers come on during school hours or after I’ve started winding down at the end of the day. I made my way slowly through the writings of John, which were some of the most frightening books in the hands of certain people at college. I found them very profitable, and recently got involved in a BSF study on the book of Revelation. I had no idea such a wild apocalyptic vision could be so practical.

Through a tangled series of events, I have also gotten more intentional about my writing than I have ever been. I read much more fiction than I could afford to at college, and my imagination is thriving as a result. I enjoy walking beneath the pines when I can, and recognize more stars than I used to.

Many of the doubts I had have been put to rest, and many questions answered. Many, however, remain. I think that’s healthy. I never want to settled into the complacency that simply accepts an explanation without holding it up to the light of Scripture and God-given common sense to see if it will stand.

I have heard the complaints of burnt out millennials and of culture warriors, of trendy evangelicals and the heirs of fundamentalists. There are so many pundits throwing around ideas for how the church can fix itself, for the platform it can adhere to that will drive up its numbers and restore it to the proper degree of influence in the world. Some of that seems like crass salesmanship to me, but there is also a great deal motivated by a sincere love for something, or else sincere pain that cries out for healing.

In the end, though, I don’t think any of those platforms or strategies or trendy new doctrines have the answer. I think somewhere along the way we forgot that Christianity is a religion. It is not based on a series of beliefs, but on the worship of Christ. Love of a particular party—even if that party is the “we aren’t a party” party—does not create a community, and certainly not a redeemed one. We aren’t here for that We cannot save ourselves as a Church any more than we can as sinful individuals. Only Christ can do that, and that is why we gather to worship him.

That’s a nice sentiment and all, and I think it’s said often enough. It does have real meaning, though, if you can find it. The fact is that platforms, even doctrinal or cultural ones, are not eternal. They are specific to a time and place, and they are born and die. Sometimes very quickly. Lasting communities cannot be built on them.

For example, talking about Left Behind and how to interpret Revelation made sense when it was a bestselling series, but now that the apocalyptic crazes that led up to 2000 and 2012 are past, continuing to talk about seems a bit beside the point. The issues have changed, and so the platforms of all the little parties will too. The same goes for the worship wars and any number of other things. You can plant your flag there, but those hills are made of shifting sand. They won’t be there in a while.

What will be there is Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have him, we have stories about him, the Scriptures, the Gospel in a number of different tellings. We have the world he created, and we have the people we know—both those who are redeemed and those still in need of redemption. We have our own souls and our own sin, with our own need for salvation and sanctification. Remember these things, and the Church will do well enough.

When I meet a Christian these days, I am far less concerned about whether they agree with me on a series of doctrinal points. I am concerned with whether they seem to be concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks. I am concerned with whether they display a humility and a willingness to conform their life to his standards, whatever those turn out to be.

I may disagree with a Roman Catholic on transubstantiation or the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but if I see him pursuing chastity when he doesn’t want to because he loves Christ—he is my brother. If I run into a Pentecostal girl with hair down to her knees who tells me she has a word from the Lord, but who pours over her Bible, making it a guide for her life, and puts others before herself—she is my sister. Maybe the kid with the purple hair and the gauges is more liberal than I’d like, and his worship band makes me uncomfortable, but if he places the words of Jesus over the words of his peers, I respect him We have the same Lord. The same goes for wealthy men in business suits who go to respectable churches, but when times are tough they hold fast to Christ. Nothing that is of Christ is alien to me.

But what about all of the problems in the Church? What about all the things that need to be fixed? I still think those can be pretty significant, but finding some conservative scapegoat, or some liberal boogieman, or some high church spook to blame it on, does no one any good. We are here to worship Christ together, to serve him and learn from him. Our sins are our own, whatever circumstances might make them easier. We have enough trouble repenting of them without paying attention to what the guy across the map is doing. More often than not, that self-righteous crusading serves as a nice distraction from our own problems, a good reason to close ranks and cover up our sins.

The Church I’d like to see is one at peace. Sunday should be a day of rest, not a day of war, and fellowship should encourage brothers and sisters in their walk, not fill them with fear of the world. Christ is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death, and there is nothing you or me or those lunatics in the church across the street can do about it. God is sovereign. That’s the end of it, and our job is just to accept that. We worship him. That’s what makes us Christians.

And that, I suppose, is my testimony. I stand on Christ, however imperfectly, and find anything else more than a little disappointing. It’s that love for an actual God, not platforms vaguely related to his commands, that I want to see blossoming out there in the world. But before I see that, I have to see it in myself. Salt does not give its savor unless it is already salty, and light that’s not lit doesn’t shine. So that’s where I am. I stand with Christ, and want to get better at it.