Mondays with Mister God
Who Is My Neighbor?
Readers Respond: Issue 8
Family and Friends Issue 8
Love in Syria
Invisible People: Why I Make Portraits of San Diego’s Homeless
Neighbors in Rwanda
From Mourning to Praise
Did the Early Christians Understand Jesus?
Hope in the Void
Insight: Loving Your Neighbor
Insight: Caring for a Neighbor’s Soul
Insight: Evangelism vs. Neighbor-Love
Needing My Neighbor
The Coming of the King
Poem: No One Wrings the Air Dry
Does Faith Breed Violence?
Editors’ Picks Issue 8
The Danger of Prayer
Eberhard Arnold: an Appreciation
Gripped by the Infinite
Painted slipperycaps, dotted-stalk suillia, lobsters, and black trumpets – the cool hemlock forests of New Hampshire are a profusion of blooming fungi. My guide is Mark Robie, a self-taught mycologist and hunter as well as professional dairy farmer and cheese-maker.footnote He steers me quietly to a patch of apricot-scented chanterelles, which he assiduously guards from the general public. It is a sure sign of his trust. Later that evening we combine our harvest with onions, garlic, and an aged Toma straight from the cave. Alongside grilled venison steaks and a wild green salad, the risotto is culinary bliss.
The farm, Mark tells me over dinner, is rotting away before his eyes. For years, his parents sold their milk wholesale through Agramark, New England’s dairy cooperative. Competition from industrial mega-dairies, whose cartel determines the federally-mandated price of milk, meant that at times they were forced to sell their product for as little as half of what it cost them to produce it. They took on debt to stay in business and even more debt to expand, hoping to make up the loss in volume. But they never could seem to push their relative overhead low enough to become competitive. Similar dairies all around them got out while still they could.
The Robies need a miracle: they need resurrection from the dead.
As a last-ditch effort to save their livelihood, Mark and his parents converted the operation to specialty products for the regional restaurant market. They have had some success. Their brand has grown with the food movement, and now 100 percent of their milk is sold raw in their farm store, made into award-winning cheese, or fed to the calves and pigs. Still, the past weighs heavily on the homestead’s sagging porch and crumbling roof. Their dinosaur-like debt means that the farm must rely on volunteers to meet the labor shortfall as Mark’s parents grow older. Meanwhile, Mark can only watch as the winters eat away at the barn and the equipment without any real hope of making replacements or repairs. The latest solution to these troubles includes a plan to put the farm into easement. The debt would be alleviated, but Mark’s great-great-great grandparents’ land would no longer really be theirs. In hindsight, our afternoon quest for the forest’s fungi perfectly suited the agricultural decay from which it offered brief escape.
The Robies need a second chance, a restart, a “do-over.” They would rewind the clock if they could. They would go back and make different choices along the way, if only the system were designed to support small farmers rather than rob them of their livelihood. Now, however, they need a miracle: they need resurrection from the dead.
Like his parents, Mark is a believer in such things – in one resurrection in particular. He is banking his land and his livelihood on it in a literal, material sense. I ask Mark how he envisions the next ten years, as his parents grow more dependent on their children. How will the farm survive? How will it pay its bills? Who will clean the stalls? Who will make the cheese? “I don’t know,” he answers. “I can’t see the future. But we’ve given the farm to Jesus.”
Secular American society would likely understand Mark’s response in quite a different way than he intends. For those who see religion as a crutch in a universe known only through experimental observation, Mark is using faith in order to avoid psychological distress. By telling himself that the farm’s future belongs to the whim of his imaginary god, Mark can better function in a system of arbitrary particles, thus fulfilling his natural instincts to feed and procreate. After all, God – if he/she/it exists at all – is not accessible through direct observation. And Jesus of Nazareth is certainly not alive, but dead.
The resurrection, more than any other of the church’s claims, has had a way of distinguishing Christians from their cultural surroundings.
For Mark, however, God is indeed accessible through direct, tangible experience: every walk among the trees out back, every climb to the old pasture at the top of the rise, every effort to harvest the forest’s natural bounty, traces out the craftsmanship of the One who made all these. By releasing the farm’s future to his actual God – actual, regardless of Mark’s belief or psychological state – Mark entrusts his need to find shelter, put food on the table, and raise his children, to the care of a real Being who is personally invested in Mark as an individual soul. Mark knows this real Being to be alive and not “dead” (that is, absent or inert) precisely because he knows Jesus of Nazareth to be alive and not dead.
The resurrection, more than any other of the church’s claims, has had a way of distinguishing Christians from their cultural surroundings. And so it is not surprising that the church has wrestled with the problem and meaning of the resurrection so profoundly in the modern scientific age, when common sense seems to rule out the idea that dead men live.
In response to the maturation of modern science, the American church has moved in two main directions, neither of which has yielded the anticipated benefits. On the one hand, the so-called “liberal” wings of the church sought to accommodate Christianity to the scientific method, realizing (correctly) that if it were set in diametric opposition to their faith, Christianity would swiftly devolve into an irrelevant mystery religion. Assuming a modern standard of truth – that of empirically verifiable phenomena – the liberal church integrated not only scientific discovery, but also the agnostic principle that underlies scientific inquiry, within its theological core. In other words, it replaced an ancient tradition of trust with a newer hermeneutic of suspicion. This had the effect of hollowing out the Bible’s historical narratives, leaving only a shell of moral tales. Resurrection for liberals came to express a concept rather than a historical event. It should surprise no one that many mainline seminaries now rely on non-denominational evangelicals to fill their ranks. The liberal church thought it could retain the resurrection’s meaning while sacrificing its historicity on the altar of scientific progress. But country club religion is simply not worth the debt that seminary requires.
Country club religion is simply not worth the debt that seminary requires.
On the other hand, the so-called “conservative” wings of the church sought to accommodate the scientific method to Christianity – again, realizing (correctly) that if science were set in opposition to Christianity, the credibility of Christian faith would suffer irretrievably. Like liberals, conservatives assumed a modern standard of truth (empirically verifiable phenomena), but unlike the liberals, they attempted to squeeze that standard within the Bible’s narrative frame. Doggedly determined to maintain their footing in a riptide of hermeneutic suspicion, conservatives were then forced to throw skepticism back upon science wherever its results contradicted their sacred text. The scientific community was labeled an atheistic conspiracy, even while conservatives developed an unseemly habit of cherry-picking whatever scientific data seemed helpful. For example, when geneticists describe “mitochondrial Eve,” some Christians latch onto this idea as “proof” that Genesis 1–3 is historically accurate (in the modern, scientific sense), regardless of the larger evolutionary picture involved. Seashells embedded in Himalayan mountainsides “prove” the story of Noah’s Ark (in the modern, scientific sense), regardless of other principles known to sedimentologists and geologists. According to this worldview, everything in the Bible and in the observable universe must cohere according to a modern, scientific standard, regardless of the preposterous conclusions at which this supposition ultimately forces the believer to arrive.
Both the liberal and the conservative responses to modern science err in two similar respects. These are important to understand because ultimately, the resurrection of Christ itself is caught in the balance. How can the church maintain a meaningful understanding of Jesus’ life-from-the-dead while simultaneously appreciating the obvious usefulness of the scientific method?
First, both liberals and conservatives have misunderstood the nature of the biblical text. The Bible contains a dizzying range of literary forms, from genealogies to liturgies to poetry to personal correspondence. Within this literary cornucopia, the narratives alone are enormously varied. For example, some self-present as eyewitness accounts in which the author participated (such as the Gospels). Others seem to be theoretical stories representing “big ideas,” such as the book of Job and Jesus’ parables. Still others seem to be revised versions of official court records (Kings and Chronicles), while others appear to blend Near Eastern myths with the nation’s collective memory to form an extended etiology (Genesis). Most generally, however, biblical narratives may be described as theologically-motivated, artistic representations of events rather than as historical reports in the modern, scientific sense (that is, whatever a movie camera would have picked up if a movie camera had been there). This is not to say that the Bible is ahistorical as liberals have tried to claim. The Bible does make important claims about history, chief among them being the historical resurrection, but it is not primarily a historical report in the modern sense that conservatives tend to imagine. In order to understand this difference, consider that carvings of lions in the ancient Near East often depicted the animal as having five legs. The artist carved the image as a scientific contradiction in order to present the animal as one sees it in profile (with four legs) and as one sees it face-on (with two legs). One leg doubles, yielding an image of a five-legged lion. In any event, the artist knows that real lions do not have five legs.Correspondingly, no ancient person would have seen this image and imagined that lions actually have five legs; instead, he or she would have considered the animal from two different angles at once, just as the artist intended.footnote In the same way, biblical writers frequently depict events in ways that defy scientific ironing out. On analogy, liberals look at the Bible’s five-legged lions, determine that the text’s authors invented an imaginary beast, and dismiss their representations out of hand. Meanwhile, conservatives look at the same content and determine that – since the Bible must be true – ancient lions must have had five legs! In both cases, readers are failing to see reality as the Bible sees it. Instead, they define truth according to modern principles – that of empirically verifiable phenomena – and then measure the validity of the Bible’s pre-modern words against that standard.
Both liberal and conservative Christians misidentify science as faith’s rival.
Second, both liberals and conservatives have misunderstood the nature of scientific inquiry. The scientific method is a heuristic device invented by humans to solve problems related to our natural ignorance regarding various phenomena occurring in the material universe. In other words, it is not a coherent epistemological framework. It is a tool. If we do not understand why light sent through a prism creates a rainbow, we develop a hypothesis and test that hypothesis to produce a more finely honed definition of what light is and how it works (in the material sense). This is all science can do. It can say precisely nothing about the phenomena it observes beyond what is encoded in the material itself, because by definition science restricts itself to that specific data set. Science can answer no questions regarding the moral value of the light, the aesthetic quality of the light, the symbolism of the light, or – importantly – the degree to which the light is bound up with or reflects divine action, because by definition it does not ask these questions. In failing to grasp what science is – a device, not an epistemology – both liberal and conservative Christians misidentify science as faith’s rival. The problem is a classic example of a category mistake, where a false comparison is made between two entities or objects of completely different types. Liberals assume the validity of this categorical comparison and, in an effort to accommodate their religion to science, divest the Bible of its historical claims. On the other hand, conservatives also assume the validity of the categorical comparison, and, in an effort to accommodate science to the Bible, render science a farce. In both cases, liberals and conservatives mistake an innocuous heuristic tool for a viable arbiter of truth.
In the interest of self-preservation, Christians of all stripes have exchanged the church’s unique perception of reality – its witness, or epistemological lens – for modernity’s preferred standard based on the observation of material phenomena. But once the church consigns its “sight” to anything other than Christ’s risenness, its missional engine stalls. To compensate for the problem, liberal churches have doubled down on their characteristic message of radical inclusion. While shuttering buildings and closing down seminaries, such churches simultaneously throw open their doors as wide as possible with the hope of repopulating their empty pews. At the same time, conservatives redefine evangelism according to an equally imbalanced obsession with apologetics, turning it into a project in proving the skeptics wrong. While a certain number of young people can always be retained within such a system, those who do leave the church are frequently embittered for having been deprived of a working brain.
Scripture can help us to recover what we have lost. In particular, liberals and conservatives alike would benefit enormously from sustained re-engagement with the resurrection as it is related in the New Testament, as well as the concept of life-from-the-dead as it appears in the Old Testament, whose literary thought world underpins all New Testament writing.
Perhaps the most tactile story about the resurrection is found in the book of John. Thomas, one of the disciples, is absent when Jesus appears to the others and is thus famously skeptical of their report that Jesus has risen from the dead. When Jesus appears a second time, he invites Thomas to touch his physical wounds, at which point Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
On the one hand, this is a passage that liberal Christians would prefer to avoid. It reads too much like a real historical account, and yet remains utterly unscientific from start to finish. John tells us that the disciples had locked the doors, and yet Jesus eerily “came and stood among them” (John 20:26). Such readers will take comfort in the idea that the book of John is a relatively late and highly stylized Gospel account. For liberals, John is full of cloudy memories based in the hopes and dreams that the good teacher left behind, now encapsulated in a series of embellished tales, some of which are weirdly paranormal in nature. Resurrection is a good idea, not a real event.
The Bible creates a lens: a way of looking at Jesus’ character so that the reader might enter into a similar state of committed belief.
On the other hand, many conservative Christians wrongly suppose that Thomas’s story supplies the forensic evidence of the resurrection that their modern epistemology craves. In fact, forensic evidence is precisely what Jesus points out will be lacking for twenty-first-century Christians like us! “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). In other words, if the story has a point, it is that the reader does not have the privilege of touching Jesus’ risen body firsthand, but is nonetheless invited to join a body of witnesses who declare that a first-century itinerant rabbi, executed in broad daylight, is actually alive and not dead. He was dead, but is no longer, because in fact he is the living God incarnate, and thus not even death can hold him down. Please notice: the Bible does not supply indisputable scientific proof of this premise to its reader (being a text, how could it?). Instead, it creates a lens: a way of looking at Jesus’ character so that the reader might enter into a similar state of committed belief. The story of Thomas is not about getting one’s hands on tangible proof of the resurrection; it is about trusting God in the absence of that proof.
Liberals have failed to retain a meaningful resurrection because they have abandoned its historicity in the name of scientific reason, an intellectual move that the four Gospels and Pauline epistles simply cannot tolerate. But conservatives have also failed to retain a meaningful resurrection because they have treated its historicity as little more than material proof of substitutionary atonement, which enjoys the overwhelming majority of their theological concern. This intellectual move remains equally at odds with the New Testament’s ubiquitous focus on, and proclamation of, a living Christ. Ironically, better attention to the Old Testament would help the church to remember that Jesus’ life-from-the-dead is something that happens not only in remembered history – rather than in theory alone – but also lies at the heart of Scripture’s overall message – rather than at the margins of an elaborate system of moral debt forgiveness.
The four Gospels assume a worldview interpenetrated and informed by Old Testament literature, particularly the Psalms and Prophets, which in turn assume the reader’s utmost reverence for the Torah. Their various citations, such as “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14), are often misrepresented as an abuse of biblical content to promote ideas that would otherwise lack a solid footing in Old Testament scripture at large. But this characterization underestimates the New Testament writers’ respect for their sacred text. When these writers cite Isaiah, they are not attempting to decontextualize the prophet’s words so as to proof-text their own. Rather, they are attempting to locate their subject matter (Jesus) within the broader canvas of Old Testament history through a variety of literary analogies. In other words, when Matthew makes a connection between Jesus’ birth and Isaiah 7, he is using a kind of citation-driven shorthand to forge a comparison between Jesus and the “sign-child” given to king Ahaz. According to Isaiah, Ahaz has just committed the book’s archetypal act of false piety (Isa. 7:12) and has simultaneously failed to entrust his political future to God (Isa. 7:9). In light of the clear contrast that the book sets up between Ahaz and Hezekiah (cf. Isa. 7:3; 36:2), scholars have speculated that the sign-child refers to Hezekiah himself, Ahaz’s heir. If this is true, Matthew seems to recognize a productive similarity between king Hezekiah, who “trusted in the Lord” to an unrivaled degree (2 Kings 18:5)footnote, and Jesus, the Davidic Savior born in a Bethlehem barn.
Later in the book of Isaiah we encounter a series of narratives (chapters 36–39) all dealing with aspects of Hezekiah’s reign. Hezekiah rules Judah during the greatest military threat the small country would face prior to the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE. Sennacherib of Assyria invades the country, razes forty-six Judean towns, and then threatens Jerusalem. He sends his chief henchman, the Rab Shakeh, to Hezekiah with terms for surrender. It is difficult to overstate the anxiety that the Assyrian army would have induced among a population shut up in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage,” to quote Sennacherib’s own (non-biblical) account of the campaign. The country lay in ruins. Lachish, the second largest city in Judah at the time, had seen its men strung up like criminals and flayed alive while its women and children were carted off in chains. The people of Jerusalem sit upon the city wall, listening in silence as the Rab Shakeh expresses his utter disdain for their impotent god. Their lives hang by a thread.
So Hezekiah goes to the temple, spreads out a written copy of Sennacherib’s blasphemous threat, and intercedes for his people. God responds with a miracle. An angel destroys the Assyrian army, forcing Sennacherib to retreat. Against all odds, Judah survives.
The second story in the series does not follow from the first in any sort of obvious chronological sense. “In those days,” Isaiah simply tells us, Hezekiah got sick, even to the point of death (Isa. 38:1). The prophet delivers the bad news in person – “Put your house in order, because you’re a dead man; you will not live” (Isa. 38:1). Now Hezekiah’s life hangs by a thread.
Again the king intercedes, this time on his own behalf (Isa. 38:3). Again, God responds: “I have seen your tears; look, I am adding fifteen years to your life” (Isa. 38:5). Another miracle. Moreover, God adds a bit of additional encouragement: “And from the hand of the king of Assyria I will rescue you and this city” (Isa. 38:6). This information is curious because, when the text is read in canonical order, the Assyrian threat has already been neutralized. God protected the city in the previous chapter, destroyed the Assyrian army, and sent its leader home with his tail between his legs. Why make such a statement now?
Resurrection is what everything in the Old Testament has anticipated and what everything in the New now assumes.
God’s two-part promise forges a clear link between the city’s fate in chapters 36–37 and Hezekiah’s personal near-death experience in chapter 38. The latter is a type through which to understand the former. We learn how and why the nation survives the Assyrian onslaught through the example of the Davidic king who, while knocking on death’s door, entrusts his fate to God (Isa. 38:10-20). The sign of Hezekiah’s salvation is especially instructive. A shadow falling on the steps of Ahaz his father moves ten steps in reverse (Isa. 38:8). Time flows backward. The king recovers. Dead men live.
It is this historical and literary context in which the New Testament writers situate their message of a living Christ. In each of the four Gospels, when Jesus rises from the dead it is not a poetic flourish capping an otherwise inspirational story of a spiritual guru, nor does it simply apply an empirical stamp to an otherwise complete system of substitutionary atonement. On the contrary, Jesus’ resurrection – like Hezekiah’s – turns out to be the dramatic center around which the whole narrative turns. It is the story’s climax, not its denouement. The blinders come off, the murky waters settle, and all is revealed. Resurrection, the reader realizes, is what everything in the Old has anticipated and what everything in the New now assumes. Resurrection, after all!
Jesus’ life-from-the-dead creates an epistemological standard through which the believing community discovers the world for what it really is. The Assyrians assumed that they lived in a world of countless national deities, where the strong devoured the weak. The resurrection of our Davidic king, by contrast, posits a totally different definition of reality. It means that trust is not merely a psychological placebo that helps individuals to cope with life in an arbitrary spray of tiny particles. The resurrection means that our God lives – actually lives – irrespective of our doubts and fears while we wait in silence on the city wall. The resurrection means that God is who God claims to be – the creator of the universe and the savior of his people – despite every Rab Shakeh who would argue otherwise.
As a child of the resurrection, I experience reality through the lens of a living God. This lens animates every object I touch, every bite of food I ingest, every passing cloud and every star shining through the incomprehensible vastness of outer space. The whole world is humming with God.
I wish more than just about anything that I could spin time in reverse for my friends. I would turn the rust back into metal, the rotten fiber back into wooden beams, and put their money back in the bank. I would dig wells in the desert and plant trees on the barren heights. I would lift off the shroud and wipe away their every tear. In the dying light of a citronella candle, Mark and I briefly discuss the future – the farm as business, as ministry, as inheritance. We listen to a hermit thrush’s ethereal voice floating through the trees. I consider that countless generations of thrushes sang this song before humans first set foot on the North American continent, before humanity first heard it and thought it beautiful. I remember that reality is knit together with a promise, and that a flood will never again destroy the earth. For now, Mark has entrusted his farm to Jesus: Jesus who is alive, and whose life means that Mark’s trust is not in vain.
Life at the old Robie place hangs by a thread. When the sun rises, we head out again to gather our sustenance from nature’s free buffet. In the forest above the farm, dead men live.
- Personal names are used with permission.
- See Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 9-10.
- Old Testament translations are based on the Masoretic Text and are the author’s own.