Robin Hood and Christianity: Corrupting Christ’s Return

An episode of Robin of Sherwood, a delightfully dated 1980s Robin Hood television adaption, begins with a broad-bodied fellow laid in the dust, fending off the blows of a vicious little knot of robbers. Before we have time to worry about his fate, the Merry Men enter with swinging fists and shooting arrows, and the ugly little band darts off to the shadows. As Robin oversees it all like a hardened watchdog, the hearty heroes take the fellow back to their Merry Mancave to eat and drink and, of course, wrestle.  Before we know what’s going on, the chap lifts Little John above his head (?!?) and throwing him to the ground.

That’s when he reveals that he, himself, is King Richard the Lion-Hearted, come back from the East to restore England to right crown and rule and order. He shakes Robin’s hand, inviting him and the Merry Men to Nottingham, where there is feasting and song. That day, he issues the Sherwood gang a pardon and many praises.

Yet, something is rotten in the state of Nottingham. The universe of this particular Robin Hood is not the universe of the Robin Hood of the old myths. In all those tales, Robin Hood is just a man who does what he ought to do. His King being absent, the throne being usurped, Robin acts with a loyalty to the crown which makes him an outcast and a hero. However, in the universe of this show, it is Robin who has the Destiny.

From the first episode, it is clear: Robin is the hero. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when Little John begins to doubt the King’s sincerity. The other Merry Men follow, and even Maid Marian shakes her head. Their doubts are well-founded. When Robin is off screen, the King goes about angling for power, selling off titles and rights, and showing himself to be the equal to his evil brother. Loyal Robin realizes the truth last. He wants to remain faithful to his king, but his king fails him.

By the episode’s end, the King is just another bad man in authority.

The strangest part, perhaps, is how casually the screenwriters undo King Richard. This episode is not a series finale or a season finale or even a Christmas special. It is just another episode. It has no great consequence to the series.

How can Robin go on as though nothing has changed? What happens when you take a deeply Christian tale and pull Christ out of it? Absurdity. After all, King Richard presents a type of Christ, the king of a usurped throne, to which he is returning.

The tale of Robin Hood and Christianity have a common heart, and the long wait for Richard is not unlike half a dozen of Christ’s parables about stewardship and expectation for a returning master. And Robin, well, Robin is the faithful Christian who bears exile for the sake of remaining true to Christ. He continues to act virtuously and stand up against injustice, despite how closely it threatens his life. We, along with Robin, expect the return of Richard to be the coming of heaven to Earth. That moment will set everything right, because that is the effect of the return of Christ.

But long before the series exposed Richard, the writers created a different Sherwood than the one of the parables. By turning Robin into the man with the Destiny, rather than leaving Richard as the Destiny of all, they elevated the Christian above the Christ. When Robin got a destiny, he stopped being part of the greater story of King Richard. Without King Richard, who is Robin Hood? Without Christ, who is the Christian? At best, a nice guy trying to do nice things for the people around him. At worst, a law unto himself.

Moreover, the 1980s show unwittingly paints a dark picture of what Robin Hood becomes when he is the center of his own story. Rather than the joyful, often silly, Robin of the Howard Pyle stories or even the Disney movie, this show offers a broody, dark Robin pursued by a tiny rain-cloud visible only to his soul. This Robin is rightly depressed: the show has created a world where he can believe only in himself, which means that his greatest hero is not a King fighting for God and country, but a robber living in the woods. So it is that, despite the catastrophic implications of an evil King Richard, the show allows Robin to go on with his life in the next episode without reference to the royal disappointment.

The writers’ gesture suggests that the Christian can go on despite displacing the Christ, who does not have to be returning, does not have to possess the throne, does not have to be real; it poses no problem to Robin. Indeed, the underdeveloped spiritual philosophy of the show places deer-headed shaman beside God-fearing nuns with no sense of one being right and the other wrong. In this world, everyone can just believe what they like without it working itself into any of their actions or dispositions. So it is that the writers reveal that they lack an understanding of what it means to believe in anything. This is why they can’t imagine a Robin who needs to believe in a Richard.

The Comedy of Christ

Comedy is usually thought of as beneficial but not necessarily significant or essential. However, there is actually a structure and significance to humor as seen in comedic pieces. For instance, during comedic movies, many times the events are going decently well but in time they begin to devolve and become somewhat tragic, that is until the arrival of the comedic turn. The comedic turn is what serves as the axis which turns tragedy on its head and the once sorrowful story suddenly becomes joyful and hopeful. In light of the structure behind comedy, it may play a larger role than initially believed.

The important role that comedy plays is to inject hope through a greater understanding of truth. In Harry Potter, students encounter a Boggart, a creature that attacks them in the form of their worst fear. One would think students would be taught a deadly, powerful spell to defeat the Boggart but instead they are taught to use the spell, “Riddikulus” which turns the Boggart into something humorous. Through their laughter, the students learn that the opponent they face is not indestructible but ultimately conquerable. The transformation of approach from terror to humor stems from understanding this truth and allows them to then laugh from an assurance of victory.

For Christians, we are able to similarly fight our enemy with laughter from the same hope of victory. Our hope stems from the unique comedic turn of Christ, the axis that turns tragedy into joy. Raskin, a distinguished professor of linguistics at Purdue, explains the link between the comedic turn and humor stating it comes from, “the idea is that every joke is based on a juxtaposition of two scripts. The punch line triggers the switch from one script to the other. It is a universal theory.” In the biblical story, there exists the two scripts: the present fallen world and the future perfect world. When Christ came, died, and rose again, he was the punch line that triggered the switch from the fallen world and bridged the gap to the perfect world.

Christ’s life and death was a miraculous act that suddenly and irreversibly altered the fight against sin. The fight against a once seemingly formidable enemy becomes a fight filled with the joy and laughter that accompanies ultimate victory. The consolation of a happy ending is labeled by Tolkien as the Eucatastrophe,  “the consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn.”  As a result of Christ’s life and death, we are able to fight against our enemy without total anxiety or fear. If Satan is our Boggart, Jesus is the “Riddikulus” which allows us to claim our assurance of victory. Because of Christ, we are able to recognize the ridiculousness attempt of Satan to rule and can wage war against us. This joy found in the fight against Satan does not trivialize or underestimate the battle but rather esteems the miraculous turn created by Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.

We will face obstacles and struggles in the present world since Christ’s Eucatastrophe has not come to its full effect, but this does not mean His actions lack present effect. The underlying quality of the Eucatastrophe is,“It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’” While the Gospel’s Eucatastrophe creates a perfect hope for the future, it has the ability to deeply affect our present spiritual struggles by removing fear or anxiety in the midst of battle.


In Defense of Denomination

There is one Body, and there is one Church.

There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.

But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.

This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”

Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”[1]

It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.

The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”

While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.

Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”[2] The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.

And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.

And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.

For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.

[1] Luke 49-50

[2] John 4:23

I’m Dreaming of a White Jesus

Are you ready for a heartwarming Christmas story of racial sensitivity, common sense, and humility?

Well, that’s not happening. Because last week, Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly announced to children everywhere that Santa Claus was a white man. “He just is.” And then things got weird(er), when she claimed that “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact.”  And then, when people flipped out about it, she backed down–kind of–by acknowledging that Jesus’ race “is far from settled.”

I’m struggling to figure out which is more ridiculous: Her claiming that Jesus was white, or this short clip from “Talladega Nights.” Oh, wait, no, it’s definitely the first one, because the second is from a comedy and isn’t supposed to be serious.

I’m not here to talk about whether it was racist (a little, right? At least a little?). But I am here to say that this kind of attitude is absolutely poisonous to the Christian faith. This willingness to disregard literally everything we know about the birth and origins of Jesus destroys pretty much everything Christianity has going for it.

This kind of attitude, this insistence that we can know so little about Jesus’ origins as to declare him a white man, boils the message of the Bible down to an Everyman Birth. “And at some place (but we don’t know where), and at some time (but we don’t know when), and to some parents (but we don’t know who), God was born into the world as a man.” Such a Jesus would be the epitome of myth, and myth alone. In that situation, we might indeed be justified in siding with those who would recreate him in their own images. If his earthly origins were so unimportant, we might even tempted to make him a mere metaphor, the “Son of God” in all of us.

From the very beginning, the Church has insisted that the birth of Jesus is an historical event, firmly located in time and space, with numerous reference points. Luke in particular goes to great lengths to place the birth of Christ in a specific time (“when Quirinius was governor of Syria“) and at a specific place (“the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,” to a specific woman (Mary, wife of Joseph), from a specific lineage  (that of David).

The Biblical account is exceedingly precise: At this time and at this place and from these people was born this man. And that means that we have no room at all for claiming that Jesus “could” have been white. We don’t even have room for “thinking” of Jesus as white, because then we would be actively building our faith on a falsehood, on a blue-eyed Goldilocks who never existed.

In fact, we have no room at all for claiming that Jesus “could” have been anything other than what we know he was: A Jewish man from the line of David and the city of Bethlehem. And there is a very good reason for thinking of him like that. Karl Barth, a German theologian, brilliantly describes what happens when we try to “generalize” Jesus:

“The Word did not simply become any “flesh,” any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that this comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of New Testament Christology…relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfills the covenant made by God with this people.” – Karl Barth, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country”

To generalize Jesus, to claim that he could have been any race, is to utterly sever the New Testament from the Old Testament. It is to make the Christmas story merely a strange accident and an aberration. It is to tear Christmas from it’s context, history, and meaning, all for the sake of making it about me and me alone. It is an inherently selfish and senseless act.

And the truth is so much more wonderful! Because when we acknowledge Christ not as Surfer Jesus, or White Jesus, or Tuxedo T-Shirt-Wearing Jesus, but as Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth, then we can see his birth for what it really is: The birth of the Chosen Person, born of the Chosen People. He is the answer to the covenant God  made with Abraham those hundreds of years prior, the answer to the prophecy God made to Adam and Eve, the culmination and fulfillment of everything the Old Testament tells us about God and Israel.

Some want to think of Jesus as white, because they think it increases his relevance to them. Such could not be further from the truth. In fact, it is because Jesus was Jewish, and because he was a direct descendant of the founder of the Jewish people and of their greatest king, that he could be the Christ for the whole world.

Is it really worth losing all of that, just to make him white?

I’ll Save My Gucci For Sundays

A smashing outfit is worth a thousand words. I buy what “fits my image” and dress to “make a statement.” Apparel advertising buttons our identity to our body. It encourages self-expression through something visual that we create or select with the cooperation of our minds and our hands. For that reason, fashion savants likely claim ranking with other types of visual artists. For an animal, its outerwear is defense against weather. But ‘wardrobe curators’ and the like explore more complex uses for clothing by engineering it for communication between people. It communicates status and role, dispositions toward authority and levels of self-esteem. Even more abstractly, it communicates a person’s unique ability to relate linear patterns, colors or shapes.

So, clothing—it’s an image of who you are. Granted, it’s a brief image—we can’t statically frame our outfits for study. Our own moving bodies are the frame. Outfits are assembled for certain moments or a stretch of hours, and then get dismantled, sort of like the short-form of installation art. But when taken as a whole, the right wardrobe is evidence of someone’s good taste correctly conveying their peculiar identity.

We’re attracted to those people, wondering how it is they deftly create consistent, genuine images of their identity. Come Sunday morning, Christian adults who dress well have this effect on me. Their identity in Christ—an identity centering on Christ while radiating his image to the world—is now made visible in a small way. It absorbs me in the thought of Christian adulthood. The image of their identity is profound motivation to mature my own identity and invites me to become the disciple of my elders.

Yet we don’t often think immediately of clothing when our church communities encourage us to develop our faith through carefully considering culture and art. Quite possibly, clothing has been waylaid while we catch up on learning how to healthily consume higher art. It’s likely, though, that we should encourage more attention to it in our after-church fellowshipping and small-group conversations. Kent Reister recently described a healthy consumer as someone who loves something “for its aesthetic power” by encountering it with “focus and deliberation,” turning an “overload of film and music access” into “searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track.” Pausing in the ‘image bombardment’ of our culture to give diligent awareness to the intelligent design and significance of a few images transforms consuming into partaking of God’s nature. Taking pause with clothing as an image is doubly worthwhile; clothing facilitates encounters with beauty as seen distinctly by another human. Particularly in a church setting, a conversation about clothing is a trustworthy convergence of becoming a better consumer and seeing the image of God in the soul of our neighbor.

The Christian communities I am familiar with have no strong resistance to dressing fashionably. They also don’t encourage or articulate stronger aesthetics beyond  principled modesty. If that’s the only governing principle for the art of grooming, then the only criteria for being ‘well-dressed’ is probably ‘finding clothes which minimizes thoughts about sex.’ There is easily more to motivate our clothing choices than sex. Human beauty is not inherently sexually attractive. Otherwise, how would you justify telling your daughter she is beautiful? We are daily discerning human beauty without experiencing it sexually.

To caveat, I am deeply grateful to my parents and church for teaching me the protection and freedom of modesty. But limiting discussions of clothing to modesty is doubly restricting. It veers toward more application for women than men. Men don’t get (need? deserve? what are we telling them?) much training in clothing aesthetics.  Also, it only teaches women to dress their body by thinking of its sexual purpose. The gender compartmentalization ends with recognizing the sexuality of the body and falls short of recognizing its humanity.

Limiting theology of clothing aesthetics to modesty boxes it into the one season of life where modesty is relevant. Dressing well is merely fad for the young and sexually aware. It plays no role in drawing us further up and further in to Christian maturity. But if you are like me, you are convinced that dressing well may become a means to glimpsing part of God’s nature. Naturally, you hope that your peers are not the best available experts on clothing aesthetics. Instead, you look to your elders and hope to find their conversation both seasoned and eager.




How Living Safely is Dangerous

I tend to think passivity and the middle-way are pretty safe ways of life.  But choosing neither virtue nor vice is more dangerous than choosing vice.  If I am an outwardly vicious person, I cannot deny my viciousness.   On the other hand, by internalizing, that thereby ignoring, my own vice, I risk denying its very existence.

Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees (Mark 3.4):

Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
Pharisees: *crickets*

Their problem here is not the typical Pharisaical hypocrisy.  It is a subtler, more paralytic hypocrisy.  They are silent because they hate public correction.  They would much rather be correct than corrected.  If they open to the possibility of their own error, then they also open to the pain of correction.

In life, the ways we tell ourselves we are don’t need correction are just as subtle and crafty.

For example, let’s say that I get really angry when my roommate retires early to bed because it prevents me from staying up late studying in our room (a totally theoretical situation).  In response, I can either lash out in anger, communicating how much I dislike the inconvenience of his early bedtime, or I can pretend it doesn’t bother me in the least bit.  Ignoring my anger seems the holier option, but it turns out to be the more dangerous one.

It seems that resisting anger could be the better option in the following ways:

  • It exemplifies a holiness that should be emulated.
  • It resists the natural tendency to sin in this way.
  • It displays self-control, which is Spiritual Fruit.
  • It avoids painful confrontation.
  • It practices self-denial.

Nevertheless, what if this passive response is more deceptive than constructive?

Notice that my pretending not to be angry is just that: a pretense.  It is just like that Pharisaical lie that tells me I don’t need correction:  it communicates something false about myself.  Thus, being bold in the wrong ways will tell me more true things about myself than my silence.

Whenever we convince ourselves to live safely, we actually hinder the process of sanctification.  By “safe living” I mean choosing the least confrontational, most holy-seeming option available.  These can vary from offering a service you really don’t want to do to seeming really solemn during a worship service to Pharisee-like silence.  We sometimes think seeming like the caring person is more important than actually caring for others.  This sort of self-deception does two things:

First, in these pretenses we hide from men.  Instead of confronting us about our flaws and failures, they praise our purity. By producing this positive image of ourselves, we deceive others.

Second, this success in hiding from men actually conceals us from ourselves. If we hear their praises enough, we will actually start to believe them. Then, when the pretended safe living becomes our truest form of living, we have trouble recognizing our own flaws.  By extension, we will also have trouble with sanctification. The temptation to sanctify a projection of ourselves paralyzes the process of the true purification that works at the core of who we are, where Christ is.  We feel safe because we try to hide from the exposing power of sanctification.

By safe living, we distance ourselves form our fundamental identity in Christ.  As we continually try to reinforce the self-perfection we have constructed, we rely on the people around us to tell us how sound this self-perfection structure is.  Affirmation can feed the monster within that desperately wants others to confirm the false perfection we outwardly project.  We forget to cling desperately to the perfection of Christ, subtly defending, instead, our own self-righteousness.  We choose to identify with a false righteousness instead of the perfect righteousness Christ offers us.

Fortunately, this form of self-deception is relatively easy to identify.  We must, however, be open to the fact that we practice deceptive safe living in the least suspecting areas of life.  There are two main ways to recognize this self-deception.  First, you have an unexplained need for affirmation.  If you need others to approve of you in certain areas of your life, dangerous safe living has probably crept into those specific spaces. Second, you are hurt deeply by personal flaws that people bring to your attention.  If you feel a powerful aversion to a confrontational remark or probing question, search for self-deception lurking nearby.

The Holy Spirit will bring people into your life to provide this service.  He will also remind you of the painful remarks people make about your flaws.  These all serve to keep us truly safe, in Christ, not deceptively safe, in ourselves.

One who finds freedom in Christ is free to live dangerously.  You are no longer bound to sin, so why be burdened by the thought that others might consider you sinful?  Instead consider those occasions when the deep darkness inside you swells to the surface as opportunities to boldly confront that deep darkness and give it, with all its twisted ways, to Christ.

It is unhealthy to have sin, but it is fatal to silently pretend it isn’t there.

The truly safe man rests in this prayer:

Lord I need you, oh, I need you

Every hour I need you

My One Defense, my Righteousness

Oh God, how I need you.

Pull Question: Esther

How do the book, characters and circumstances of Esther point us to Christ?

It seems that a major qualification for a book in the Bible should be some mention of God, Christ, the Scriptures, or even prayer. The book of Esther has none of these. Yet the story clearly records God’s extraordinary deliverance of his chosen people from annihilation, and foreshadows our ultimate delivery from death through Christ’s victory on the cross.

The character of Esther mirrors the character of Christ. Esther is willing to sacrifice herself—risking a potential death sentence by going before the king’s throne unsummoned—in order to save her people. She is more concerned with the overall good than with her own life: “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16) Likewise, Christ is willing to perform a miserable task—die a gruesome death on a cross—in order to save his people.

Granted, Esther is not without faults. She goes to the king only after Mordecai rather brutally points out that, even as the queen, she would not escape the upcoming slaughter of the Jews. He tells her, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish.” (3:13-14) While she is frightened, Esther does obey Mordecai, relying on his wisdom to set her path in the right direction. By looking to his guidance, Esther shows wisdom herself.

Similarly, Christ is also obedient to his Father. He does not anticipate the cross with joy, but is more concerned with obeying God than with maintaining his own comfort. Though he asks the Lord to come up with another way to deliver humanity, he willingly goes: “Not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39) Esther mirrors Christ’s obedience and consequent wisdom.

Not only does Esther act as a Christ figure, but the entire book mirrors—or perhaps more adequately, foreshadows—the salvation story. Paul writes in Romans that “we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good for those who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) The truth of this statement is demonstrated throughout the Bible, and Esther’s story is no exception. Hamon means to slaughter all the Jews in Persia; instead, the Jews are able to take “an eye for an eye” from their enemies, and Hamon is hanged on his own gallows.

In Sunday school, I used to sing a kids’ song with these lyrics: “From bad to good, in all things. God works for good, in all things. What’s meant for evil God turns it around from bad to good, yeah.” (Dean-O and the Dynamos) Christ’s death is the ultimate example of God working from bad to good. For the disciples, Jesus’ death must have been the worst event of their lives. They had given up everything—family, livelihood, the respect of the righteous religious leaders—to follow the man they thought was the Messiah. His death represented utter failure—the new world they had hoped for would not come into fruition.

Yet in reality, it was the best event that has ever taken place in the history of the world. It saved mankind from itself. Even though the book of Esther makes no mention of God, his presence and the faith of his people are visibly present, from the moment of Vashti’s demotion to Hamon’s execution.

Pull Question: Paradise Regained

How does Milton redefine the concept of a Homeric hero?

A Homeric hero: courageous, daring, angry, charming, strong, manly, passionate, commanding, skilled in oration, alluring.

This is Satan in Milton’s masterful prequel, Paradise Lost. Although we watch the Devil’s extraordinary fall from heaven into the pit of hell, Milton’s brilliant writing draws readers in, tempting them to cheer for Satan. The poet gives the villain all the charming characteristics of a typical Homeric hero. Satan is a passionate and fiery leader, quick to speak, he takes action and grows angry, and is audacious in courage—a powerful lord in his own right. Yet he is also determined to “have equalled the most high,” and it is this hallmark of pride which leads to his downfall (line 40). Milton paints a powerfully favorable picture of the Devil: “In shape and gesture proudly eminent stood like a tower; his form had yet not lost all her original brightness” (590-592). As the poem progresses, Milton calls into question our preconceived notion of a “hero” by drawing his readers in with Satan’s winning courage, audacity, and leadership skills. As the reader, I had to continually remind myself that this was the bad guy, not the character I was supposed to root for.

Now skip forward to Paradise Regained, which takes place during Jesus’ temptation. At first glance, this seems like an odd choice—wasn’t paradise regained on the cross? At this point, Christ has not even started his ministry; in fact, Milton gives Christ some “musings” before he goes into the desert, in which he contemplates “how best the mighty work he might begin of savior to mankind, and which way first publish his godlike office now mature” (186-88). Christ has not yet started the business of saving souls. But Milton is suggesting here that the real battle is fought—and won—when Satan comes to tempt Christ during his forty days of fasting in the desert.

Think of it in terms of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker must defeat Darth Vader in battle before he can address his true enemy, Emperor Palpatine. Yet while he is dueling physically with Vader, he is also fighting mentally with Palpatine. As a result, when Luke defeats Vader—physically, mentally, and emotionally—the emperor is no longer a threat. Excuse my poor metaphor—I realize that there are many problems with this analogy. Yet I find it a striking image. Satan is the one who tempted mankind in the first place, and it was he who caused their downfall. If the same tactics were to cause Christ’s downfall, God’s plan of salvation would be futile. Instead, when Satan makes his attempt against Jesus, the Christ conquers, reciting Scripture as argument, and standing firm in God.

This makes Christ’s forty days in the desert significant because they become the reversal of Paradise Lost. In the garden of Eden, Satan battles man and triumphs. In the desert, Satan battles Christ (both God and man), and loses. Thus, when Christ begins his ministry, he has already conquered the Devil himself.

In Paradise Regained, Christ’s character stands in stark contrast to all of Satan’s “Homeric hero” traits, and in one fell swoop, trumps them all. Christ’s quiet character stamps upon the proud tilt of Satan’s head. His rash passion is beaten down by Christ’s steady faith, slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love. Proud ignorance is overcome by wisdom, more ancient than the stars, which beholds all things and makes plans before the foundations of the earth were laid. Satan’s disobedience, hot and fierce, proud in nature and refusing to bow to the Creator, looks weak and powerless in the shadow of Christ’s obedience, that clear spring of joy which Christ yields like a sword upon his foe. This unbreakable wall sends Satan reeling back to hell: “So struck with dread and anguish fell the fiend, and to his crew, that sat consulting, brought joyless triumphals of his hoped success, ruin, and desperation, and dismay, who durst so proudly tempt the Son of God” (576-580). In this “epic battle,” Milton shows the uselessness of the qualities which Homer and Virgil valued so highly. True victory is not won with fire, anger, and disobedience, but with faith, Scripture, and obedience.

To answer the question, Milton re-defines the concept of a Homeric hero by setting up Christ’s character as the ultimate hero, which opposes Satan, Achilleus, Odysseus, Aeneas, etc.

A new definition of a hero: brave, meek, obedient, loyal, patient, wise, slow to speak, slow to anger, abiding in steadfast love.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 3)

This is a third part in a series. Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 (This post will stand alone, but does draw heavily on the previous two).

As I’ve been thinking through Communion and Baptism, I considered the possibility that any action done by a believer in service of someone else is a sacrament. My reasoning was that they are gracious acts, and loving one’s neighbor was commanded by Jesus, so these acts seemed to fit the criteria of a sacrament upon an initial glance. However, I’m not convinced that each of these actions incites a necessary conferral of grace. In sacramental behavior one must be receiving, not acting, and there must be an element of faith in the receiving. Now, while the sacraments are conferred by someone, it is only the person receiving the sacramental symbol in faith that is considered a participant in the sacrament. No one can administer the sacrament to themselves; they must be served by someone else. Thus, not every action by a believer can be considered sacramental.

Upon further research, I discovered that there is a healthy discussion among Protestants concerning whether church can be considered a sacrament. Since this discussion sounded similar to my thoughts concerning Christian service as a sacrament, the fact that the church is legitimately considered as a possible a sacrament in some circles caused me to pause. Let’s consider this concept in more detail.

To begin, a definition is necessary: I say the “church is a sacrament,” the ‘church’ denotes the body of Christ in a corporate context, with emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word and ministry among the members.

The thinking of the church as a sacrament on first blush seems to fit the definition pretty squarely: the church is the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of Christ to the world today. In the words of theologian Eberhard Jungel, “The church is a sacramental sign corresponding to the sacramental being of Jesus Christ.”3 This statement is intriguing because it draws a parallel with the language that is also used for communion, and thereby pushes us towards the idea of the church being a sacrament. Moreover, the ministry of the body one to another moves us further towards such a conclusion. If your ministry to me is caring for me and loving me the way Christ would, then in a sense, you are conferring to me the grace that is given at the cross, thereby fulfilling one of the key elements of a sacrament.

The notion of the church as the body of Christ comes straight from the New Testament, albeit from Paul. If a sacrament must be originally instituted by Christ himself, then we may have already stepped too far. Of course, Christ both preached and ministered to others—so in that sense, he participated in these activities and gave significance to them the same way that he did to Communion and Baptism. He even commanded us to love our brothers, which is similar enough to his command to baptize that it bears closer examination.

One objection ought to be raised here: the contention that the meeting together of the body of Christ and it’s ministry among its members was not instituted by Christ as a means by which grace is conferred sacramentally. While acts of ministry among the members of the body of Christ may be gracious, they were not specific acts instituted as a means to recall our minds to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, nor are they outward acts that confirm our covenant with God in Christ. Thus, we must be leery of the claim of the church being a sacrament.

There is more about the idea of the church as sacrament that gives it credence: the concept of reception, particularly in the receiving of the Word of God through preaching. The idea of conferral of grace is neatly demonstrated in the idea of the receiving the Word of God in faith. For example, in Communion, we remember the work of the Word of God (Jesus) on the Cross and believe that the salvation given there is presently being applied to our lives; in essence, we receive the Word of God in faith. It is reasonable to assert that the literal receiving of the Word of God in faith from other believers ought to have credence as a sacrament itself. Such an idea has a lot of merit if you have an ecclesiology that advocates for the necessity of the ministry of all believers and regular preaching from more than one individual. These elements are necessary because sacraments cannot be self-administered—and I have doubts about whether a Pastor who is the exclusive preacher and is rarely himself taught can be considered to be receiving teaching and exhortation. If he is not receiving from someone else, then he is not participating in an element of a sacrament, and it seems odd to count something as a sacrament that is not regularly participated in by all believers. Thus, outside of an ecclesiology that embraces the regular preaching of a number of elders on a regular basis, the element of pastoral ministry cannot be considered a sacrament.

The final objection–which I take to be enough to eliminate the suggestion-is that the margin for error in the sacrament is significantly widened in this practice. While you certainly can mishandle Communion and Baptism, there is a pretty large target to hit and it’s almost impossible to stray into error with nearly 2,000 years of tradition and fairly clear lines mapped out for the ceremonies. Preaching and ministry, on the other hand, allows much potential for error and it is easier to harm someone through their malpractice. This is a major problem for the ‘church is a sacrament’ concept because then the definition of when it is efficacious gets squishy fast, and it seems that sacramental definitions is hardly the place where you want a lack of rigidity.

In sum, the idea of the church as a sacrament is one that gives us many reasons to pause. While initially the idea seems to have some merit, upon closer examination, this notion does not stand the test of objections that are tossed at it.

Regardless, I think there are a lot of fruitful attitudes that come from thinking of the church as having sacramental properties, if not a sacrament proper. First, it gives gravitas to a practice that many Christians feel is supplementary and not vital (in a very real sense—see Hebrews 10:19-25). Second, it gives importance to our interactions with other believers. If your reception of my ministry to you is considered similar to, though not actual participation in a sacrament, then a number of interactions now have weight that perhaps we didn’t give them before. Finally, it would cause us to consider carefully how we minister to our brothers, because our ministries are a reflection of Christ. Ultimately, the church may not be a sacrament, but I do think it would do the body of Christ good to reflect on the ways that the church has sacramental elements.

1 Jungel, Eberhard. Theological Essays: The Church as Sacrament? (Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1989), 191.

2 Del Colle, Ralph. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: The Church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007), 262.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

I was baptized twice. I cringe when I think about it. In brief, I was baptized when I was 8, because it was a public declaration of my decision to follow Jesus 3-4 years before. I was re-baptized at 18 because I had “made my faith my own” and I thought it necessary, since the point of baptism was to publicly declare faith.

I have found that this is a fairly common narrative for Protestants, though the majority decide against a second baptism. The problem is that we don’t understand what the sacraments do for us. Here are a few points we often assume:

1. Baptism is merely a declaration of my decision to follow Christ to the world.

Accompanying this line of thought are a couple of embedded thoughts that enable Christians to think in this direction. First, we believe that baptism is a declaration of a fact, our salvation. Thus it made sense to be re-baptized after one has been “actually” been saved. If baptism is merely a statement of fact with little import in the world, then one can be re-baptized without it having any real effect.

The inherent danger behind this line of thought is the loss of the spiritual aspect of baptism. By not acknowledging the full, rich symbolism of baptism we reduce it to a mere formal external action. While there is great theological richness to be mined from baptism, I will focus on only one aspect for the sake of space. We celebrate baptism largely because Christ was baptized, so this is a fitting place to discover its significance.

Jesus’ baptism is significant for two primary reasons: the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ sonship. Jesus’ baptism marks two physical actions that Christians participate in when we are baptized. Since Jesus has already died on the cross, our baptism with the Holy Spirit comes when we accept the Lordship of Christ over our lives. Thus when we are physically baptized we point to spiritual reality—the work of Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and the subsequent anointing of believers with the Holy Spirit. The aspect of a declaration of sonship carries with it the language of adoption into the family of God, of being heirs of the kingdom of God, of a change of identity and a number of other resonant theological truths which are harkened back to with submission to baptism.

Reducing the baptismal ceremony to a statement of fact removes the conferral of grace from it entirely. While you are affirming your covenant with God publicly and in community (both important aspects of the sacraments) there is an aspect of intentional remembering that is lost in a mere declaration. Intentional remembering is part of conferral of grace because it presents Christ to our minds, and assists the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (see discussion in first post). Baptism reminds us that behind the external actions there lies a true baptism, the shed blood of Christ for the remission of sins. Further, we must remember that behind the external action there is an inward operation of the Holy Spirit that moves the recipient to faith in Christ’s work and accomplishing regeneration in the life of Faith.1 Without these, baptism–and any sacrament–tends towards meaningless ceremony.

2. Communion is merely a point of remembrance.

Underlying this is the assumption that the sacraments are merely mental exercises, not spiritual conditioning. If this were the case, then re-reading the story of crucifixion or watching the Passion of the Christ might be a better way to remember Christ than eating bread and drinking wine. As we saw yesterday, mere remembrance is not the whole of the Lord’s Supper—conferral of grace is also integral to the process. The point of communion is that it is an external signifier of an internal reality, a sign of what has transpired in a person’s heart. So while its purpose is to remind us of Christ’s work on the cross, it also reminds us that something transpired in our hearts when we committed to Jesus. We accepted the work of the Cross as the covering and forgiveness for our own sins, and we were transferred into sonship with Christ. It is an external reminder that God is keeping his end of the bargain and we are freely accepting the grace that is given at the cross by participating in communion.

In conclusion, the sacraments bring together two spheres of participation, mental and physical and the two united together gives a deeper understanding of the grace that God has bestowed on us. Our tendency is to emphasize one sphere to the exclusion of the other, but both are necessary for full participation in the sacraments. While the sacraments are a mental exercise and a statement of fact, the presentation of them as physical signs and our participation in them as physical elements is also a necessary component. Physical actions reinforce ideas and present ideas to our minds in different ways than words, and thus, we are spiritually conditioned in different ways. Our participation in the sacraments confers grace because it affirms both our spiritual and physical decision to follow Christ, and opens us up to receive mercy for our souls.

In my next post, I want to consider in what sense the church is sacramental, to think through the work of some more recent theologians on the topic, and to reflect on how it is useful in the life of believers.

1The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has a lot of thoughtful discussion of this and is well worth reading.