Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Effective Prayer for Healing of the Emotionally Sick

Anointing the Sick

James 5:14 commands us to anoint the sick with oil and pray for their healing. Shown here is Rogier van der Weyden’s “Extreme Unction”

One of the key principles of effective prayer is that specific prayers get specific answers, while vague prayers get vague answers. If I ask for the Lord to provide a specific thing—a change in employment, a restored relationship, or financial help—then I can attend to the Lord’s specific answer. He might say Yes, or He might say No, but either way, the answer will be as clear to discern as was the request. However, if I pray for something vague, like asking God to “make me a better person,” then the results will be far harder to discern. In fact, the very process by which He answers that prayer—most often through pain—might cause me to pray, much more specifically, “God, take away this pain!” The more specific I am in a request, the more clearly will I be able to hear God’s voice when He answers; the more vague I am, the more difficult will it be to discern His voice. And this principle is no less true when we pray for the healing of the sick.

But this brings us to a challenge, because not all prayers for healing are of the same kind. While it is a relatively straightforward and specific thing to pray for healing when someone has cancer, or was in a car accident, or has contracted the flu, it is a far more uncertain thing to pray for someone who is experiencing historic or inherited pain. And yet I believe the obligation to pray for the sick extends to the emotionally sick—the wounded—as much as it does to the physically sick. And so we pray in faith for healing from depression, healing from memories, healing from anorexia, healing from abuse, and so forth. The answers to these prayers, however, are rarely as clear as those when someone physically sick has been made well. The simple reason for this—and this is something that was crystallized for me just a short time ago while praying with a young woman for her personal healing—is that prayer for the physically sick is typically prayer for release from pain, while prayer for the emotionally sick is typically prayer for the embrace of pain. The effective prayer for healing for the emotionally sick individual—the specific prayer which can return a specific answer—is the prayer for that person to embrace and acknowledge their own pain.

Elderly Woman Looking Off_Vedanism.com_This is a highly counter-intuitive move to make. For the depressed person, for the person with a history of experienced abuse, the very last thing he or she wishes to do is to walk steadily into the source and origin of their pain. And yet it is the avoidance of pain which so often results in all the unhappy symptoms and experiences which affect such individuals. Avoidance of pain always produces impoverished love, resulting in crippled relationships, inhibited intimacy, and harmful proxy behaviours (those poor attempts to anesthetize the pain-filled heart through drugs, sex, spending, and so forth). Until an individual is willing to step face first into his or her historic and ongoing pain, that individual can rarely find the healing which he or she so desperately seeks. Therefore, effective prayer for the healing of the emotionally sick is not necessarily prayer for the removal of pain—for depression to go away, for bad behaviours to stop, for new intimacy in relationships—but rather a specific prayer for the increase of self-knowledge, acceptance, and acknowledgment of the ongoing history of pain.

I find, when I discuss this with individuals, that it helps them to draw a distinction between healing and wholeness. Healing is the process we might reserve for those issues of physical pain—the car accident, the broken limb, kidney disease, cancer, and so forth. In those circumstances, God’s power when it operates for the healing of the sick involves the complete removal of pain and full restoration of the person to health. But this is never the case with deeper wounds. When God heals those wounds He does not take them away, but fills them, transcends them, operates within them to make His power perfect in our weaknesses. God’s healing power for our deep emotional wounds is not a power that removes the wounds, but one that fills them with God’s transforming presence. This process is what I call wholeness. Again, I find that many people who are under the burden of personal pain from historic wounds pray in despair that such things would never have happened to them, pray for the pain to simply go away, pray, in a very real way, for a kind of oblivion. But God does not answer those prayers in that way. Instead, the individual who truly wishes to be made well must strive less for the healing and more for the presence of the Healer. It is only in dependence on Him, and in step with His unwavering walk towards the center of our pain, that we will discover the ironic healing where God fills our wounds with His glory. This, most certainly, is part of the process of taking up our cross and following Christ.

Kintsugi_Japanese Pottery

I find these images of Japanese pottery fixed with gold to be striking.

There is a further irony. This is rarely a prayer that one person can pray for another by proxy. I can pray for the beginning of the process—for your growth in knowledge of the truth, for the increase in your knowledge of the self, for your willingness to embrace the un-making pain of being made whole—and yet true healing only comes when you pray this for yourself. It is only when the hurt individual personally surrenders his or her broken and wound-corrupted will to the pain-inducing hand of God that he or she will truly begin to experience healing of the inner man. Such a prayer, I believe, is rare, and comes at great personal cost. I would hesitate to encourage any to pray it who did not also have a strong community to pray it in and with. We never require the support of the Church more than when we seek the activity of God in our innermost person. Such vulnerability necessitates friends in faith.

In all this I am reminded of the time that Jesus healed the paralyzed man who was lowered by ropes from a hole in the roof. Before he healed him, he forgave his sins, much to the great consternation of many present. Who has authority to forgive sins but God alone? But Jesus, both to prove his authority and glorify the Father, healed the man’s paralysis as a way to witness to the deeper healing of his soul. It is a startling picture of the two kinds of healing in action, and it is made more explicit when Jesus teaches about the wine and wineskin shortly thereafter. No one puts new wine in an old wineskin because the action of the wine—releasing gas—will burst the old skin. And no one puts a new patch on an old garment because the washing process, which makes patches shrink, will tear and destroy the old garment. In the same way, what is the benefit of giving the man a new, healed body, if the old sinful nature will once again become active and tear the body to shreds? No, we humans require healing of the inner and outer man alike, and this to me says that the ministry of healing which does not account for the inner man will do a regular disservice to the wholeness to which the human person is designed to live. Therefore when we pray for healing we ought to pray specifically, knowledgeably, and with a constant eye for the wholeness of the human person.

Dear James (5), Communities of the Aggrieved, Race

Dear James,

I see that I will need to explain more clearly this business of being “selective” without excluding. You are pleased to tell me that you already have a fellowship of church members who are “concerned about what’s happening” with your pastor. I am grateful that you are not alone, but that is precisely the wrong kind of community to be building together! The point of intersection for this fellowship is not Christ, but your common grievance. That fact alone sets you up for a whole host of difficulties—what happens when one member doesn’t feel the grievance to the same degree as the others? What happens when the issue causing the grievance goes away? What happens—God forbid!—if you should set your minds to do something about your grievance and get your way? Will you split your church, harm the faith of the greater community, and then pat yourselves on the back because you did it together? You must—you absolutely must—ensure that you have set your own heart on seeking Christ above all. Every sub-committee, fellowship, clique, or “group of concerned members”—however they might style themselves—if it is not meeting in the interests of forwarding Christ’s agenda is forwarding its own. And as far as I’m concerned, angling for my own personal agenda is tantamount to performing the will of Satan himself. Be on your guard! You are swimming in dangerous waters.

I wish these “companies of the aggrieved” were less common, but they are everywhere. It seems as if whole sections of the Church have given themselves over to kinds of unity that are simply the accumulations of the perceived pain of the individuals. We’re the church for the poor, the church for the downtrodden, the church for the city, the church for the sexually broken, the church for those who don’t like church, and so forth. Don’t misunderstand me—the Church ought to be a place for all those kinds of people, but when the factor that unifies a community is a sense of grievance then that community is no longer centred on Christ alone. The grievance may pass—what then happens to the faith of the community? When the very reason for faith and community is gone, what then? You see the danger, I hope, of building the Church on anything but Jesus.

It is ironic that many such communities are formed in response to perceived pretense in the church. And it is undoubtedly true that many churches in the past century had become inhospitable to struggling people. Impervious, cold, locked into man-made traditions, they were exclusive in quite a different way—exclusive because inaccessible, perhaps. There needed to be a change, a drawing-back to the centre. I only wish we were better at correction and less hasty for reaction. After all, grievances are an emotionally powerful way to attract people to fellowship. The rampant denominationalism among Protestants can be attributed, in part, to our passion for grievances. It’s worth remembering, however, that while the early reformers were certainly aggrieved, they took their stand, and stood their ground, on the centrality of Christ. We do their memory a disservice when we employ their methods (schism) without reference to their principles (Christ).

This, possibly, is a place where we can begin to touch on one of your original questions—the matters of race in the Church. It is appropriate to segue here because racial and ethnic churches can really highlight for us what it means to be exclusive and excluding. The factor that brings people together is both an ethnic profile and the gospel. Where do you fit in if you don’t match the profile? And when those two get married together, there is always some confusion about which takes priority. Are we a Church, or are we an ethnic Church? If you review the New Testament—especially the book of Acts and the letter to the Galatians—you’ll see that this business of Church and (fill-in-the-blank) was one of the biggest struggles. Are we Jewish, or are we not? If we are Jewish, how much Jewishness ought we to demand of the non-Jews in our midst? The early fight for the soul of the Church was a matter of whether or not it would be a Church or a Jewish Church. The showdown between Peter and Paul boiled down to a matter of whether or not Peter would force his Jewishness on the Gentile believers. By God’s grace, Paul prevailed—because God was the one Who had called and formed this new community out of the old divisions in race, the “new man.” The new race of the people of God is at the very heart of the gospel.

There are always going to be natural divisions in the Church according to language, region, and comfort. But whenever those factors are taken, reinforced, and redeployed as defining factors for fellowship, the people have strayed from what it means to be the New People of God. Furthermore, when ministers gather their people around ethnic and racial grievances, cultivating community around the shared experience of minority life, or oppression, or by whatever other means, they are no longer acting to gather people around Christ. Instead, they are using Christ’s name to advance their own purposes. And where the grievance is first, Christ is not.

You might ask, “What should the Church do about race issues, then?” The simple, difficult answer is this: we must be the Church, in all the fullness of what it means to be the Church. The New People of God, living so radically for Christ that Christ’s love is visible in our midst toward one another. This means that we must live out this “new people” mentality toward the people in our midst first of all. It’s no good attempting to love our “minority” neighbor when we’re doing a poor job of loving our neighbor in the pew next to us. It’s no good extending Christ’s forgiveness to strangers the world over when we aren’t working to forgive the people in our own fellowship who have hurt us in the past. And it’s no good seeking racial diversity as an end in itself within the community of the church. That may sound strange, given what I’ve been talking about, but hear me out. I’ve met my share of pastors who were eager to add the word “multicultural” to the description of their church fellowship. Toward that end they counted their members, targeted ethnic gaps, then worked to bring in others for the sake of their concept of “multicultural.” As far as I know, most of these efforts fail completely. Why? Because deep inside that “minority” person knows that he or she is loved, not because he is a child of God, but because by loving him we are trying to change our ethnic profile. Thus, the love of Christ is made to serve an ulterior agenda.

Should we ignore issues of race, then? By no means! But as followers of Christ we can never reduce any person to his or her race alone, or reduce a class of people to a cause. Our unqualified and non-discriminating love—the love of Christ in action—means that we love each individual as a person created in God’s image. Practically speaking, this means that our job is to love unreservedly, and God’s job is to shape our congregations accordingly. I shall love, and teach my people to love, and let God worry about how “multicultural” we appear.

Tell me what you think, James—because it seems to me you are confronted with an opportunity. You can gather around a grievance in your church, or you can gather with the intention to love one another, to love those who are lukewarm and complicit, and to love especially your pastor. To which option are you called as a follower of Christ?

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Rethinking Accountability

I take it as axiomatic that Accountability—the business of caring for and guarding my fellow Christian—is a non-negotiable duty of the Christian life. I do not get to choose whether or not I will be accountable to others. Nor do I get to choose whether or not I am accountable for what happens to others. I am accountable in both directions, and every failure on this front is a serious affront to my faith.

cain-and-abel-1544_TitianThe story of Cain and Abel, of course, is my source material for this. The two brothers are out in the field one day and Cain, out of envy and lack of self-control, murders Abel in cold blood. The Lord then approaches Cain and asks a piercing question: “Where is Abel your brother?” The Lord doesn’t ask, of course, because He needs information—He’s not investigating Cain any more than he investigated Cain’s parents a short chapter earlier. No, God doesn’t ask questions because He needs information; He asks questions in order to give us opportunities to change our hearts. Cain’s response is unfortunate, and seems to echo throughout the rest of the Scriptures: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is yes, and as someone else has observed, it seems as if the rest of the Bible from this verse onward is a kind of answer to that question. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper, and you have made a terrible muck of it.

If I am going to steer a path away from the folly of Cain then I must take seriously that I am my brother’s keeper, that we are each other’s keepers, that this business of keeping one another is neither optional nor selective. And we must remember that the neglect of brother keeping—as the first story of this neglect teaches us—is not far from a kind of murder. To refuse to keep my brother or sister in the faith is to either directly or indirectly contribute to his or her destruction. And for that destruction I am accountable.

Pemberton

A lovely retreat spot.

I had occasion to reflect on the significance of this passage recently when I attended, for the second consecutive year, the Men’s Retreat with my church. We had three sessions of teaching together over our weekend. The first was on our identity as sons of the Father, the second on our responsibility as brothers to one another, the third and final on our mission to bless one another after the pattern of the Father. During that second session we held a sustained gaze at this idea of accountability for one another, taking seriously the question of what it means to “keep” our brothers in the faith. Upon reflection, there seemed to be two clear areas where this business of “keeping” takes place. (And please note that while I may speak specifically of brothers here, this responsibility applies to all who are joined together in Christ.)

The first area of brother-keeping is the keeping of my brother’s physical life. This is, perhaps, an area where we are most comfortable keeping one another. Physical problems are relatively easy to fix. Is a brother without food? Feed him. Is a sister without rent money? Take up a collection and solve the problem. Is a brother sick? Gather and pray. Is a sister being harmed? Step in to protect her. When we care for one another in the church—practically speaking—we are keeping our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But the second area of brother-keeping is far more difficult, because not only am I responsible for the physical life of my brothers in Christ, I am also responsible for their spiritual lives. Pause and reflect on that for a moment: as a keeper of my brother I am responsible for the spiritual life of my brothers in Christ. If my brother walks away from his faith, that is my problem. If my brother falls into sin, that is my problem. If my brother neglects his gifts and call in Christ, that is my problem. I am accountable. And so are you.

Jesus_BaptismAs part of our weekend together we attempted to narrow down what this business of spiritual brother-keeping really looks like in practical terms, and it seems clear that the main thing we are keeping—that is, protecting and guarding—is our identity as sons of the Father. This is the gift that God gives us when we accept the sacrifice of His son—to become sons and daughters of God. And to be a son of God is not mere sentimentality—it is a role that comes with responsibility and power. When the Father blesses Jesus the son at his baptism He speaks from heaven, saying, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” From these short words Jesus gets four profound things. He gets identity. He is the son of the Father, and after the pattern of Psalm 2 this means that he is the designated king of Israel, the one who will bring God’s justice to bear on the world. Second, Jesus gets acceptance. Jesus is loved without condition by the Father, and this means that Jesus will never need to perform to earn the Father’s love—he has it already. Third, Jesus gets a mission. To be the “son of God” means to be commissioned for a task—the task of justice, of kingship, and of representing God in the world. Fourth and finally, Jesus gets an inheritance. The son, we learn in Psalm 2, asks of God and inherits the nations. Jesus will also ask of the Father and inherit the nations, receiving all authority in heaven and earth as the reward for his faithfulness.

When we become sons and daughters of the Father these four factors become ours as well. We get new identities in Christ—identities that give us power and responsibility. We get unconditional acceptance in Christ—we cannot perform to earn God’s love, but He gives it to us freely. We get a mission, participating in the Father’s mission in the world in the image of the son of God, continuing the work of Psalm 2. And we get an inheritance as well, particularly an inheritance of the Spirit, poured out on us who believe, filling us with power and gifts to perform the work, calling us to our future inheritance in Christ.

Above all else, these four factors are those I am called to “keep” in my brothers and sisters in Christ. Over our weekend together we framed a series of questions that we might ask one another as brother-keepers in Christ. They are as follows:

Identity: I am a son of God; Am I living like a son of God?
Am I drawing my identity from the world?
Am I drawing my identity from my own history of sin?

Acceptance: I am beloved by God; Am I living like one who is beloved of God?
Am I performing activities for God that are merit based?
Am I trying to win points with God?
Am I extending God’s acceptance to others?
Am I projecting the need for performance upon others?

Mission: I am called by God; Am I serving the mission of God in my work and service?
Am I seeking to serve Jesus at my workplace/school?
Am I serving the mission of God in Church?

Inheritance: I am an inheritor of God’s gifts; Am I accessing my inheritance?
Am I living in the Spirit’s power?
Am I living by my own power?
Am I using the gifts God has given me?
Am I aware of the gifts God has given me?

Rugby ScrumThese questions, of course, are imperfect, but I think they target an aspect of accountability that has been overlooked. For most men, the word accountability has become strongly associated with sexual purity. And while it is true and imperative that men must pursue and commit in relationship with one another to maintaining their sexual purity, I can’t help but think we’re a little out of order here. Accountability is not primarily about pornography; accountability is about preserving the life of God in my brother in Christ, of which porn may be a part. But to make accountability almost entirely about porn has robbed us of something important—even, perhaps, an important antidote to sexual temptation. If I am being asked tough questions on a regular basis by my brothers in Christ—questions about my identity, my acceptance, my mission, and my inheritance—then if my private sexual life is inhibiting my call to be the son of the Father that I am, then perhaps that sense of greater duty will lend strength to my battle for purity. Remember, purity is not and has never been an end in itself. It is a component of and stepping stone towards a deeper life in Christ. Men-who-don’t-look-at-porn is not the point of the Christian life—men in the image of the Son and in faithful service to the Father is.

Cain turned his back on Abel and left a horrific legacy behind. May we spurn the negligence of Cain. “I am my brother’s keeper.” I am called to keep my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am accountable for their faith. They, also, are accountable for each other’s faith, and also for mine. I have invited the men of my church to ask me any of these questions at any time, in boldness and confidence, so as to mutually secure our identities, our acceptance, our mission, and our inheritance. I am a son of the Father. And you, O reader, my brother or sister in Christ, as your brother I pledge to keep you accountable. Will you do the same for me?

To Be A Godly Man

PembertonThis past weekend I attended a Men’s Retreat with the members of my new church. We played fun games, ate quality food, fellowshipped, and, of course, made abundant jokes about manliness and manhood. On our respective car rides to the retreat we were asked by the facilitators to discuss a common question: “What is the most manly thing you have done?” I suppose the kinds of stories the facilitators were looking for were things like, “I once wrestled a bear,” or, “I once caught a shark.” When we were all assembled we shared the best stories of manliness from each vehicle. It was a great icebreaker.

I confess, for my part, that I found the question deeply troubling. What qualifies as a ‘manly’ act? As a consequence, in our car we tried to reframe the question in light of a few standards of manliness which we could identify. For example, we reasoned that courage was a manly virtue and asked ourselves, “What is the most courageous thing you have done?” The question is more manageable, but not less troubling. Why? Because courage is not the absence of fear but the persistence to keep going despite the presence of fear. In other words, my most courageous moment is not the moment when I felt the most courageous, but the moment when I felt the most fear but chose to keep going forward. It’s difficult to brag about the times when you felt fearful.

James BondBut I think my concerns tap a deeper issue—what, after all, is the idea of ‘manhood’ to which we are appealing? Who determines what is and is not ‘manly’? Is manhood comprised of blustering displays of strength, of silly pride and competitions? Is Hollywood the standard bearer of manliness and manhood? Is James Bond the prime specimen? Invulnerable, successful, independent, and always getting the girl(s)? Is it the character who beats all the odds? The one who gets the bad guys? At the retreat we discussed this very question—that of society’s expectations for manhood—and came to a list of numerous characteristics that we felt identified men and manhood, among them provision, leadership, success, confidence, dominance, and expertise. All of these characteristics can be good; they can also be individualistic, utilitarian, and are profoundly external. What about a man’s inner life? Notably, character is conspicuously absent from the list.

It would be simple to say we should look to the bible for a solution, but the questions we ask today about manhood are largely unanswered by the scriptures. What is more, it’s no good appealing to Christ as an example of manhood because, quite frankly, none of the categories of ‘manhood,’ other than Christ’s humanity in se, are in view in the New Testament. Nowhere is Christ presented as a masculine or ‘manly’ man. He is presented as the perfect human being—as such he is the example for both men and women. His particular ‘masculinity’ in the scriptures is eclipsed by the revelation of his full and startling humanity. Asking Jesus to be an example of manliness is like looking to Socrates for fashion advice—the question is next to useless in view of the evidence.

mother-child-botswana_3661_990x742But I think that the image of Christ in his full humanity brings us closer to a solution. Men and women, if you remember your Genesis account, are both made in the image of God. We both reflect God’s likeness, His character, His relationality. But within our respective reflections of the Divine Image, we each manifest a uniquely feminine and a uniquely masculine vision of God’s image. Perhaps this will provide us with another clue—perhaps considering how women exhibit God’s image in their uniquely feminine way will reveal something of how men exhibit His image in a masculine way. And it seems clear to me that women most uniquely image God in childbirth. It is a creative act (like our Creator God), where the woman suffers personally (as Christ suffered) in order to bring new life into the world. A mother spends her life for the sake of her child. It is a uniquely feminine manifestation of God’s image in humankind.

How, then, do men uniquely image God after the pattern of their masculinity? The principle ought to be the same as that of our female counterparts, but the application will differ. We must ask ourselves, “Where am I suffering in order to give life to others?” Or, put differently, the question of when I am most manly is really the question of “Where am I most self-sacrificial?” And that turns all our standards of masculinity on their heads. We were looking for something that would make us feel masculine, but the Christian standard of masculinity is not revealed in how we feel, but in how others are affected by our actions. Ironically, the only feeling we should experience if we are being manly after the image of our God is pain.

Munkácsy_Ecce_Homo_partThis, naturally, brings us back to Christ, but not to Christ as a standard of masculinity, but to the example of sacrifice par excellence. In an ironic moment in John’s Gospel, right before Jesus is going to be crucified, Pilate presents him to the crowd who are crying for his death. Pilate says, “Behold, the Man!” (in Latin, Ecce homo); the crowd cries, “Crucify him.” Here we should pause and gaze. Here in tableau is presented to us is the image of Man as he was meant to be—a man prepared to offer his whole lifeblood for the sake of people who only wish his death. The lesson is unmistakable and painful: to what degree are we really men if we are not radically sacrificing ourselves for others?

Maybe now we can revisit the criteria of manliness discussed above—of providence, dominance, leadership, success, and the like. Framed in light of the question that identifies Godly men, it should be clear that while Godly men do these things, they do not do these things to become Godly men. It is a matter of priority. Godly men sacrifice themselves after the pattern of Christ, and in the process of this radical self-sacrifice they become leaders, successful, provide for their families, and gain a kind of sacred dominion over their lives. The men who pursue dominion and success apart from such self-sacrifice are not real men—they use the world to gain their advance. Godly men suffer personally to bless the world.

While I rode in the car this past weekend I hadn’t figured all this out yet. Instead, I sat puzzling over the question of what determines manliness. Now, I think I have some perspective—but I’m not sure I have an answer to the question. Where am I sacrificing myself for the sake of others? Where am I spending my life for the sake of my family, for my wife, for my children? Where am I spending my own life so that others in my church can grow to know Christ more? And can I ever dare to brag about those sacrifices? By my own criteria, I have silenced myself. It is not my place to determine my manliness—it is my wife’s, my children’s, those under my care in the Church, and to all who watch my life.

Good Living is Good Dying: A Reflection on Beowulf

This is the edition I read in University.

“Now the repute of thy might endures for a space; straightaway again shall age, or edge of the sword, part thee from thy strength, or the embrace of fire, or the surge of the flood, or the grip of the blade, or the flight of the spear, or hateful old age, or the gleam of eyes shall pass away and be darkened; on a sudden it shall come to pass that death shall vanquish thee, noble warrior.” (Beowulf, xxvi)

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

Why tell a life story? Why recount a person’s deeds? There are times, of course, when we tell the stories of infamous deeds, and these we recount to inspire a warning. But most often we tell stories to inspire greatness. Epic deeds paint grand pictures for our emulation, and the goal of these mighty deeds, planted in our hearts and minds through the stories we absorb, is to bear fruit in our lives. Soak in anemic, empty stories and the fruit in your life will be anemic and empty; saturate yourself in stories with rich and nutritious stuff—even stories which you don’t fully understand—and the fruit in your life will be rich and nutritious. Such a story is Beowulf—no mere epic of swords, golden rings, and monsters, but a powerful, richly nutritious tale for the mythic soul of man, written to inspire us to be better men ourselves.

But there is a twist. Where we might expect a story about how to be better men to focus on life, Beowulf is a story about death; it is a tale not of living well, but of dying well. And this makes good sense, because in the ethical economy of Beowulf’s world how you live is closely—nay, intimately—intertwined with how you die. The measure of the man is determined by how well he faces death. Here the ethics of the ancient world are at odds with our modern one, because death is a subject we are particularly at pains to ignore. Thus, when we turn and apply the examining light of ancient literature to our own lives, the results are both stark and uncomfortable.

Sadly, no archaeological evidence for Grendel has ever been recovered.

Beowulf’s tale is both short and simple. An evil creature, Grendel, is terrorizing the subjects of King Hrothgar. Beowulf arrives to challenge the beast in a mighty contest. He waits at night for the fell creature to arrive, then slaughters it and wins fame for himself and his king. But the deed is not yet done—soon thereafter the mother of Grendel comes to wreak more evil, but Beowulf chases her down, takes her life and sets the people free from terror, earning gold and fame in the process. This, however, is not where Beowulf’s story ends. Years later Beowulf has become a mighty king in his own right, when a dragon, awoken by the greed of men, begins to terrorize his people. Alone, and knowing he will die, Beowulf pursues and eventually kills the dragon, losing his life in the process.

How does the ethic of dying well run throughout this story? There are three currencies in the world of Beowulf: gold, fame, and your life. Mighty (that is, noble and good) men perform mighty deeds (they wager their lives) in order to earn gold and fame. We are tempted to think that accumulation is the goal of these wagers—long life, much gold, and great fame. But Beowulf’s poet wants us to know the grave danger embedded in each of these: namely, to think that these currencies are ends in themselves, to forget that death comes to all. For what does a man take with him when he dies? Does his fame go with him to the grave? Does he carry his gold with him? No. And so the man who fails to use these currencies rightly is an unjust man. The man who forgets the approach of death, and lives in cowardice merely to preserve his property, is in the ethic of Beowulf doomed.

“Now the repute of thy might endures for a space,” admonishes King Hrothgar, because “on a sudden it shall come to pass that death shall vanquish thee, noble warrior.” Death sits at the door—do not trust in your wealth or fame! He may as well have quoted Moses: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Under this ethic, when death is foremost in our minds, our relationship to the material subjects of our lives is revealed: what you do with your gold, and what you do with your reputation, and what you do with your life, become paramount concerns. These things cannot be kept: they must therefore be used. Noble men spend their gold, their fame, and their lives wisely. Cowardly men do not.

Epic.

From within this, the story of the Beowulf’s contest with the dragon becomes the high point of this struggle. The dragon is an image of greed—it hoards its gold and does not share it. And in this terrible image we ought to see ourselves; we are tempted, even now, to keep and hoard our gold; to be deceived by the allure of wealth into thinking that the more we have, the better off we will be; that the measure of a man is in the accumulation of his possessions. Beowulf preaches the opposite ethic. It is not in possessing, but in giving, that a man is revealed. And hence the dragon must be destroyed.

Beowulf knows that taking this task will not earn him earthly fame—a contrast to his struggle with Grendel. There he stood to win gold and fame through that mighty deed. With the dragon, however, there will be neither wealth nor fame. There is only the deed. And here the character of Beowulf is proved once for all: is he a mercenary, we ask, out only for gain? By no means! “Then for the first time,” the poet observes, “he had to show his strength without Fate allotting him fame in battle” (Beowulf, xxxv). An action undertaken without the promise of earthly reward—an action, that is, of self-sacrifice—is thus the most noble of all.

Beowulf takes eleven companions with him to fight the dragon, and here the parallels to the Passion of Christ should not be overlooked: Jesus, of course, had twelve disciples, but one (Judas) abandoned the ranks before his passion. Ten of Beowulf’s companions abandon him in cowardice; one, Wiglaf, remains to fight at his master’s side. Ten of Jesus’ remaining disciples also abandoned him—but John alone remained. Thus, as Jesus goes on to fight the dragon of human sin alone, so Christlike Beowulf advances on the dragon of greed alone—a final, brave act to display the grand selflessness of true manhood.

Consequently, faithful Wiglaf becomes our stand-in. He is our way to enter into the story of Beowulf. He models for us how we are to respond to the tales of mighty, selfless deeds—that is, with mighty, selfless deeds of our own. Will we be the loyal servants, or the cowardly earls? The poet has no qualms identifying which he thinks is the right path, and Wiglaf declares that:

God knows that, as for me, I had much rather the flame should embrace my body with my gold-giver. It does not seem fitting to me, that we should bear shields back to our dwelling, if we cannot first fell the foe, guard the life of the prince of the Weders. I know well that, from his former deeds, he deserves not to suffer affliction alone among the warriors of the Geats, to fall in fight; sword and helmet, corslet and shirt of mail shall be shared by us both. (Beowulf, xxxvi)

But of those who ran, he only says this: “Death is better for all earls than a shameful life” (Beowulf, xxxix).

How you spend your wealth, how you spend your fame, and how you spend your very life are, according to the ethics of Beowulf, the factors that determine the ultimate value of your life. It is the knowledge of death that determines your choices and actions in the present. Keep your death in mind, and you will make right choices about the currencies you possess. This is a critical voice we continually need to hear—especially in an era which praises what Beowulf’s poet would surely see as the cowardly determination to preserve life, rather than the righteous goal to spend your life-currency justly. To Beowulf, a good death is better than a long life in cowardice. This is a reminder we desperately need, for in this nothing has changed: as with Beowulf, death comes to us all. It is an engagement none of us can avoid. And when death arrives your wealth, your reputation, and (of course) your life cannot go with you. What you have not spent will be accounted to you as waste. Therefore learn to spend your life, your wealth, and your reputation rightly, in the now. Make a study of selflessness and right living. Learn from the ancients how to be a man. Read Beowulf.