Generous Orthodoxy  




Sunday, February 27, 2011

Of Gods and Men (movie)

A perfect Sunday in New York City: St. Thomas Fifth Avenue at 11, a long walk in sunny Central Park, Bach Vespers at 5, and in between, one of the most compelling movies you are likely to see any time soon: Of Gods and Men. This French film tells the true story of a small group of Cistercian monks who shared their lives with the poor of Algeria from their rural monastery. It has been a huge hit in France but has only now arrived here after some rather intense word of mouth (it recently won the French Cesar award for Best Film of 2010).

The dilemma of the monks during the protracted, brutal civil war which engulfed Algeria in the 1990s is presented in emotionally and ethically wrenching terms. There is every reason for them to return to France, out of danger, yet they feel compelled to stay with their Muslim neighbors. The movie depicts their struggles to decide whether to stay or go. In 1996, seven of them were kidnapped, held for two months, and then killed by Islamist extremists in circumstances which have never been discovered. Their lives and witness are not forgotten, however. They are called "the Atlas monks" or "the monks of Tibhirine" (there is an excellent book about them by the latter name).

The real-life leader of the monks, Christian de Chergé, was from a military family and actually fought in the French Army in Algeria before becoming a monk. In the movie, we learn that Christian speaks and writes Arabic, and knows the Koran well. The actor (Lambert Wilson) who plays Christian in the movie developed an extraordinarily beautiful, spiritual face and bearing for the role. One scene in particular stands out for the way in which the actor portrays Christian's confrontation with a leader of the militant Islamists, displaying an arresting combination of Christian pacifism, cross-cultural insight, and a powerful calm.

We see the monks at prayer many times, and the texts of their chants are subtitled, so that we can participate in their worship with them. The secular reviewers have emphasized the syncretistic aspects of the monk's relationship to their Muslim neighbors, but most Christians will find the prayers and brotherly love of the monks to be very much centered on Jesus Christ. When Christian becomes certain that he may be killed, he writes a letter to leave on his desk, urging that his death not be allowed to distort French views of Muslims, and forgiving his killers as Christ forgave his.

This newly arrived film is one of four about Algeria which I have viewed recently. Taken together they have much to teach us. I will write about the other three shortly.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cormac McCarthy: crypto-Christian?

Cormac McCarthy, one of America’s most celebrated writers, has long been one of my favorites. I have great admiration for a writer who can look unflinchingly at pure evil. His masterpiece Blood Meridian, is the most thoroughgoing fictional account of limitless atrocity that I know of, with not a hint of relief or redemption in sight. But what are we to make of a book which deals with murderous brutality for hundreds of pages yet mesmerizes with the literary beauty of the writing? I am reminded of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose pictures of acute suffering around the world have been subject to criticism as well as praise for their stunning formal beauty.

I haven’t read McCarthy’s well-known Border Trilogy yet. My passion for his writing is based on The Road, Blood Meridian, and to a lesser extent No Country for Old Men (parenthetically, I didn’t like the movie) and Suttree. I’m inspired to comment because of the HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited, which aired last week with those estimable actors Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. I have suspected McCarthy of being a crypto-Christian since I read The Road, and certainly Sunset Limited would suggest that is the case (even though a Web search yields the information that the NYTimes called the play “a poem in praise of death”). Whether McCarthy personally leans toward Christianity or not, he has certainly given us a picture of utter nihilism (the suicidal Mr. White, played by Jones) confronted by faith (Mr. Black, an ex-con, played by Jackson). Black has just saved White from committing suicide by subway and has brought him home. White is almost entirely without affect throughout, which befits his state of mind, but he manages a hint of scorn when he asks, “You think Jesus is in this room?” Black says, with both humor and intensity, “I don’t think he’s in this room. I know he’s in this room.”

The verbal duel between the two does not end happily. Nihilism seems to win (or so the NYTimes critic apparently thought). And yet, not. McCarthy has given us a portrait of faith in action even when it seems to be proven useless and deluded. “Help my unbelief” might be the final summing up. But isn’t it striking that the only way for full-blown, earnest Christian faith to get into the newspapers or onto mainstream television is for a black character to embody it?

(Here is a link to an interview about how McCarthy and the two actors had a wonderful time together: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/arts/television/11sunset.html?_r=1&ref=cormacmccarthy )

When I speak of McCarthy as a crypto-Christian, I certainly don’t mean that he is some sort of orthodox apologist. In The Road, for instance, there are references to the little boy as a sort of messianic figure which don’t fit the gospel. It’s the hints and suggestions that add up, though. There’s a view of the powers of evil and the helplessness of the unaided human being that resonates with the Scriptural picture of the human predicament. In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell (also played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) muses about the evil he has seen in the drug trade on the Mexican border, and the men who run it: “I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they’d have to build a annex on to hell.” And then later, he says something that did not make it into the movie: “I wake up sometimes way in the night and I know as certain as death that there aint nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.”

There's an Advent sermon in there somewhere...


Prayer for journalists

Karl Barth, who wrote some of the best prayers of anyone, frequently prayed for newspapers and reporters. He clearly believed that they were serving the cause of truth. For several years I have belonged to The Committee to Protect Journalists. It is a very impressive organization. Here, for instance, is what they have just posted about the attack on Lara Logan of CBS:
http://cpj.org/2011/02/cpj-alarmed-by-attack-on-lara-logan-of-cbs-news.php

Thomas Jefferson famously said "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." (Letter to Col. Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787). When Congressman John Lewis recalled the days when civil rights demonstrators were being beaten and jailed, he said that there was all the difference between being attacked when journalists were watching and when they were not. Their presence, he said, gave the protesters courage and hope.

We aren't talking about smut-chasing, muck-raking tabloid reporting on celebrities here. The journalists who are risking their lives are committed to a different kind of news. CPJ reports that last year, 44 journalists were killed and 145 were imprisoned. This is serious business. We own these courageous people our respect and our attention to the analytical pieces that many of them write. Not to mention our prayers!


Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Cairo to Bahrain

The time of euphoria is over. The young people of Egypt must now deal with their elders (and vice versa).

The Fifth Fleet is on the fault line in Bahrain.

Nicholas Kristof, Nick Robertson, and other amazing journalists are right there in Bahrain where the US has few options. Read Kristof in The New York Times.

What can Christians do in this time of danger as the whole Middle East seems to be a tinderbox? I don't take back anything I wrote in my blog about Egypt at http://ruminations.generousorthodoxy.org/2011/02/february-11-2011an-angel-in-whirlwind_13.html but the situation now is several danger-levels ahead of Egypt. We should be imploring the Lord of the universe to watch over this crisis and, in particular, to give wisdom to our presidential administration.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

February 11, 2011—“an angel in the whirlwind”

As almost every commentator and analyst said today via television, radio, and satellite, the flight of Hosni Mubarak before the irresistible temblor of a popular uprising is a “seismic,” “tectonic” event, a day for the history books, the most stunning overthrow of tyranny by nonviolent means since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The cliché “triumph of the human spirit” should be retired, but if it is to be used at all, this would be the day.

But is this principally a triumph of the human spirit, or does that triumph derive from another source altogether? During the American Revolution, John Page, a Virginia statesman, quoted from the book of Ecclesiastes in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, writing: “We know that the Race is not to the swift nor the Battle to the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this storm?”

The book of the prophet Isaiah is preeminent in its emphasis on God as the One who commands men and armies, nations and peoples, the currents and forces of history. He does this whether his agents know it or not. His call to the pagan king Cyrus (Isaiah 41:2) to do his bidding is the best known of these passages, but the theme pervades the book.

Here are some verses from Isaiah 19:

An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. 2 And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, every man against his brother and every man against his neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom; 3 and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out...and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a hard master; and a fierce king will rule over them, says the Lord, the Lord of hosts…

…How can you say to Pharaoh, “I am a son of the wise, a son of ancient kings”? 12 Where then are your wise men? Let them tell you and make known what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt….. 13 The princes of Memphis are deluded; those who are the cornerstones of her tribes have led Egypt astray. 14 The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion; and they have made Egypt stagger in all her doings…

19 In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. 20 It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them...

24 In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Now I do not mean to suggest that this is meant to be taken literally as a prophetic reference to the exact circumstances of today. Not everything in the chapter “fits.”. And yet, in the circumstances of this unforgettable day, it seems right to recall the prophetic proclamation of the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah’s characteristic title for God) as Lord of history, the mover and shaker of nations:

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust…
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; 23 who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (Isaiah 40:15, 22-3)

Israel is God’s inseparable possession (Romans 9:4-5. 11:29), but all the nations belong to him, and the movements of history are in his hands:

Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings… (Daniel 2:20-21)

In a dream, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar received this message:

The Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men. (Daniel 4:17-18)

It would be a mean spirit indeed who would begrudge the Muslim people of Egypt their historical place in the annals of nonviolent revolution. Many of them are indeed “the lowliest of men.” One of the people in Tahrir Square today, his first day out among the protesters, was asked by a reporter to tell what had impressed him particularly. Without hesitating he said he had met a man, a protester for many days, who had been reduced to selling one of his kidneys to feed his family. I have just looked up a passage in my forthcoming book which I derived from The New York Times a few years ago:

The Old Testament prophets are well-known for their indictments of whole groups of people. The indolent rich, judges who take bribes, tradesmen who cheat the poor are harshly judged by the Lord God. The poor have an unobstructed view of this. A news article told of an apartment building being constructed in Cairo. The building, nicknamed Tower of Power, contains apartments for sale at prices beginning at two million and rising to 15 million and more. A mechanic who lives in a slum nearby said to a reporter, “The only people making this kind of money in Egypt are merchants of powder [cocaine].” The average per capita income in overcrowded Cairo is $600, and housing is scarce. “This [apartment building] is not for our kind of people,” said a 38-year-old taxi driver who lives with his wife and six children in the slum. “I think you have to steal to live in there. I am not envious, but I believe these people will be accountable on Judgment Day.”

Nothing that happens in this world is complete or finished. The Egyptian Revolution may end in disappointment—or worse. But whenever the aspirations and longings of downtrodden human beings come to the surface and make themselves known en masse, the God of Israel (yes) is on the move. I think it was Thomas Friedman who wrote yesterday that humiliation was the strongest human emotion and overcoming it was the second strongest. There’s some truth in that, although I might reverse the two. Today, the humiliation of Egypt’s poor, neglected, and oppressed citizens found its vindication. An Egyptian-American of my acquaintance has been working for years to help the hovel-dwellers and garbage-pickers (literally) of Cairo. Her small efforts are honored today; they have been magnified a thousand-fold by the angel in the whirlwind.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Terrors of Grace

My home town of Franklin, Virginia (population about 4,000 when I was growing up, no more than 10,000 now) is about to become well known to readers. Mark Richard, whose first book won the PEN/Hemingway Award, has just published a memoir called House of Prayer No. 2. It includes a lot of material about his growing up in Franklin. He was interviewed at length by Diane Rehm on Feb. 9, and the book is favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review this Sunday:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/books/review/Bynum-t.html?_r=1&ref=books

Some years ago when I was still at Grace Church in New York, I wrote a sermon using a New Yorker short story by Mark Richard. It will appear in my forthcoming book God Spoke to Abraham. Here it is:

The Terrors of Grace

Epiphany 1992

Psalm 111:10, Judges 6:21-23

A remarkable short story appeared in The New Yorker last year called “The Birds for Christmas.” (Not the least remarkable thing about it was that the author is Mark Richard, who is from my very small home town of Franklin, Virginia.) The story tells of two adolescent boys, both seriously injured, who are in a hospital ward on Christmas Eve. One is white—he is the narrator—and one is black. They have no visitors and no presents. The nurses try to be kind, but they are overworked and preoccupied. The boys, in their boredom and loneliness, swear at the nurses and are constantly having their beds rolled out into the hall away from the television as a punishment. The black boy, whose name is Michael Christian, has one Christmas wish. He knows that Hitchcock’s film, The Birds, is going to be on TV that night and he wants to see it. He says, “I want to see The Birds, man. I want to see them birds get all up in them people’s hair.” It is clear, however, that he is not going to get to see it, and a sense of abandonment and hopelessness settles over the scene as the early darkness falls.

But then suddenly, near midnight, a drunken Santa Claus with a speech defect appears in the ward. He is only a troubled and lonely soul himself, and his Santa suit is askew and none too clean, but he is carrying a portable television. The night nurse relents and lets them set it up in a place where they will not disturb the other patients. The four of them—the night nurse, the boozy Santa, and the two abandoned boys—settle down to watch the movie. A Hitchcock movie would seem to be very unsuitable fare for Christmas Eve, but a serene calm descends upon the little group. Michael Christian’s only comment as he watches is, “Those birds really messing them people up,” but it is clear that a small, fleeting moment of grace and mercy has occurred.

The last sentence in Mark Richard’s story is taken from the King James Version of the Nativity scene in the New Testament. When the movie is over and the boys are told to go to sleep, the story ends with the words of the white boy, the narrator:

It was Christmas Eve, and we were sore afraid.

This combination of heavenly grace and earthly fear is one of the most powerful recurrent themes in Scripture, but in our time it has been obscured by current trends toward bland, inoffensive theologies. In the nineteenth century, the “fear of the Lord” was a common phrase among Americans, and it was understood in its biblical sense; today it tends to put people off, so we don’t say it. The motif of “the fear of the Lord” appears so many times in the Bible, however, that it requires very fancy footwork to keep out of its way.

To begin with, the saying that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” appears once in the Psalms (111:10), twice in Proverbs (1:7, 9:10), and once in Job (28:28). Twice in Genesis God is actually called “The Fear of Isaac,” as though it was one of God’s names (31:42, 53). Sometimes the word “fear” in English means something more like “reverence,” or “awe,” but very often it means just plain “terror” or “dread.” The very worst thing that can happen to God’s people is that they should forget the “dread” of the Lord. To give just one example, we read in Jeremiah,

Know and see that it is evil and bitter
for you to forsake the Lord your God;
the fear of me is not in you, says the Lord God of hosts.
(Jeremiah 2:19)

When we are told, repeatedly, in various parts of the Old Testament that “the fear of the Lord came upon the people, we are to understand that something beneficial is happening, even though it is terrifying.

This connection between grace and mercy, on the one hand, and fear and terror on the other, must be very important or it would not be repeated so often in the Bible. If I were to read aloud all the verses in the Bible that begin with the words, “Fear not,” we’d be here an extra half hour. Frankly, I was amazed when I looked it up; I hadn’t realized that the command not to be afraid, in one form or another, ran through the Bible from one end to the other. Perhaps the most familiar example is from the Christmas story:

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. (Luke 2:10)

We are in the season of Epiphany, which means that we are reading various stories about the way God shows forth his glory. Whenever God shows forth his glory, you are going to find the words “Fear not,” or something like them. The glory of the Lord and the fear of the Lord go together. As Annie Dillard has written, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? We should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers.”[1]

Today we have two readings about the fear of the Lord, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The first one is part of the story of Gideon, one of those rousing narratives for which the Hebrew Bible has always been famous. The reading for today tells the beginning of the story; you can read the rest of it in Judges 6-8.

The story begins with the Midianites. Being an Israelite during the invasions of the Midianites must have been a little like being a Kurd in Iraq—constantly in danger of losing everything, always afraid of being uprooted, never secure.[2] We first see Gideon, an untried young man of no distinction from a small Hebrew tribe, threshing wheat in a hidden spot hoping to hide his meager yield from the Midianites. As he engages in this pedestrian activity, suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” I think this is supposed to be funny. Gideon is not in the least a mighty man of valor. He is just a kid, a nonentity. He has the good sense to recognize this himself, for he says to the angel, “My clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” But the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall smite the Midianites as if they were one man.” Notice that, in the Old Testament, “the angel of he Lord” is equivalent to the Lord himself. If the angel is present and speaking, the Lord is present and speaking.

Now Gideon does not quite believe that this is the Lord speaking to him. He asks the angel to wait while he goes inside and prepares an offering so that the angel can give him a sign that it really is the Lord. This is an exceedingly presumptuous request; we know from other parts of the Scripture that God frequently comes down hard on people who ask for signs. In this case, God demonstrates his freedom, condescending to Gideon’s youth and ignorance of his own people’s history with God. The angel displays amazing patience; he sits down under a tree and waits for Gideon to go inside and prepare a young goat for cooking, with wheat cakes and broth. This must have taken some time. When he gets back to the tree, the angel is still there; this is meant to amaze us, that the Lord of Hosts would indulge Gideon like this. Gideon puts his present of a meal on top of a rock which serves as a table. The angel tells him to pour the broth over the food—to drench it, in other words. Now come the special effects:

Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and there sprang up fire from the rock and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” (Judges 6:21-23)

The reaction of Gideon to the presence of God is duplicated over and over in the Old Testament. When God appeared to Isaiah, Isaiah cried,

Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)

It is commonplace to hear people declare that “the fear of God” is an Old Testament notion which is out of place in the New. But in our lesson from the Gospel of Luke today, we see a memorable corrective of that mistaken view. Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen have just spent a very disappointing night out on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus comes along on the shore and, with that air of mysterious authority that characterized him, tells the fishermen to put out into the deep water again, and let down their nets again. Peter is irritated by this. “Lord!” he says. “We’ve already been out! We caught nothing all night!” Such is the power of Jesus’ command, however, that the tired little group of men, no doubt swearing under their breath, haul the heavy nets into the boats again and row out. You know what happens; the catch of fish is so huge that the nets start breaking and the boat begins to take on water.

When the men get back to shore, what happens? Do they whoop it up as if they had just won the lottery? On the contrary. Peter falls on his knees before Jesus standing on the beach and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:8-11).

Two stories: one about Gideon, one about Peter. God draws near to them both, and both are overcome with terror. At the instant of their fear, however, the word of the Lord comes: Do not be afraid. And the reassurance is immediately followed by the promise of divine help for the mighty tasks that lie ahead. Luke has modeled his story to be parallel to the epiphanies of YHWH in he Old Testament.

What is it about the appearance of God that causes dread? An influential German pastor of the 19th century, Christoph Blumhardt, wrote:

There is a question that strikes fear into our hearts, and every honest person will feel it with me. It is this: Will I be able to stand before God? Will I be able to stand before the Saviour? Many people who feel quite reassured because they attend church every Sunday and participate in religious activities…would nevertheless be terrified if suddenly they should hear the thunder of the Last Judgment and witness the arrival of our God. They would then come to see their Christian cloak as a filthy garment.[3]

This last sentence is a reference to Isaiah 64:6: “All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” There is a fundamental sense in which we need to understand that the God who is really God is opposed to us. Over against our littleness is his greatness, over against our impurity is his perfection, over against our sin is his righteousness. This is the reason that God must say to us, “Do not be afraid.” If we have never known this, then we must submit to J. B. Phillips who taught us, “Your God is too small.”[4]

The attitudes of God toward us are too much for “unaccommodated man” to bear.[5] The attributes of God toward us are these:

· Perfect justice
· Unconditional love

We cannot tolerate either one. The perfect justice of God would require that each of us be condemned, not only for our own sinfulness, but also for our participation in the human condition in general, as Isaiah recognized when he cried out, “Woe is me…for I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

Unconditional love terrifies us also. I think of a man I once knew who had a serious automobile accident which left him helpless for several years. His wife nursed him devotedly and performed all sorts of intimate services for him. When he finally recovered, he left her and married another woman who would not be a constant reminder to him of his weakness and dependency. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” We don’t want to be loved unconditionally; we want to feel that we are deserving of love.

Perfect justice and unconditional love are combined in the person of Jesus Christ, who was hastened to his horrific public death by all the best people. The world has never seen his like. In him, God the Father is definitively revealed, in his love and in his justice.

Grace is terrifying. God is opposed to us; he is opposed to our selfishness, greed, idolatry, cruelty, pettiness, pomposity, vanity, and self-deceit. Yet God is for us. He is for us in ways that we can scarcely imagine, indeed could not imagine if he had not revealed his conquering love in Jesus Christ. It is the love that not only opposes all that is harmful in the beloved but also has power to make our resistance go up in flames like Gideon’s meat and cakes. When God appears, we are filled with fear; but the fear is instantly removed by the enabling word, “Fear not.” The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because the awareness of sin comes only to those who are already standing on the brink of their salvation. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because it cannot come about unless God is present with us and for us.

Like the people Michael Christian was watching in the movie, you and I are indeed “messed up” and our city and our world is “messed up.” We are all seriously sick patients in the hospital, swearing at those who would help us, venting our anger on our fellow patients, clutching our privileges to ourselves, increasingly indifferent to the suffering of others, puffed up with an exaggerated idea of our own importance, deficient in giving and—most damaging of all—deficient in receiving love. Yet at any moment, while we are about our mundane daily lives, cleaning our nets, threshing our wheat, doing our income tax, riding the subway, there may suddenly come an irruption of grace—an angel sitting under a tree, a catch of fish, a disheveled Santa Claus, a strain of music, a Valentine, a spurt of energy, unexpected forgiveness, fire leaping from the rock. Count yourself blessed if, when such moments come, you have a sensation of holy dread, a suspicion that what has happened might have come in spite of your deserving, an intimation that all good things come, not from within ourselves, but as mercy from above.

If your rebelliousness and mine were allowed to play itself out to the end, we would have our beds rolled out into the dark forever and ever with no visitors and no presents; but the God who terrifies is also the one who loves us for all eternity. If you come to know the fear of the Lord, count yourself blessed, for the next words that you hear will be

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.

Amen.

[1] This famous quotation from Annie Dillard is in her Teaching a Stone to Talk.
[2] A few years before, the Kurds had been under murderous attack (Saddam Hussein’s Anfal Campaign) and were fleeing by the tens of thousands during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.
[3] Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader, Vernard Eller, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 123.
[4] J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Touchstone, 2004. Copyright 1952).
[5] Shakespeare, King Lear, III/4.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Egyptian revolution

I have posted some further thoughts today in Tips for the Times on this site.


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Power to the people of Egypt

Little did I know when I wrote my post about the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia that it would be only a matter of days before the Egyptian revolution would burst into the world's headlines as one of the world-historical events of our time. How many congregations are praying for this amazing uprising to succeed? The Glenn Becks of the world, who do not read anything in depth about the situation, are resorting to the usual scare tactics. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood is being targeted as an entity reminiscent of the Ayatollah.

I myself was misinformed about today's Muslim Brotherhood, having read about its beginnings in radical Islam. I did not realize how much it has changed. Numerous articles about the Brotherhood in recent blogs and news outlets have been enlightening. One of their leaders, Mohammed el-Betalgui, said that the group wanted a "civil state," not a religious one, and "We are standing for a real democracy, with general freedom and a real sense of social justice."

The Lede, a valuable blog conducted on the New York Times website, collects articles and blogs from all over the world on various topics. A particularly arresting one appeared in England's The Guardian a few days ago (I won't take the time to look it up right now, being on someone else's WiFi), delineating the difference between Egypt's revolution and the one in Iran. It's so important for leaders in the church to read carefully. We in the churches tend to divide between "liberal" sentimentality based on an ill-defined religious pluralism on the one hand, and fear of a monochromatically strange and alien Islam on the other.

For the purposes of theological reflection following up on my previous post on Tunisia, I propose a more courageous posture on the part of Christians about the fact that democracy and secularism themselves arose out of a Christian matrix, and from nowhere else. Wherever we have seen popular uprisings, they have been influenced in some way, however indirectly, by Christianity (and that includes Gandhi's movement). This influence has been almost entirely suppressed and denied by the bien-pensant. We should rejoice in the Egyptian people's revolt as thought it were our own. It was especially thrilling to read about the way that the protesters in their tens of thousands forged new communities. A New York Times reporter on the scene (Anthony Shadid) wrote on Saturday, "In a country made miserable by the petty humiliations of authority, Egyptians were welcomed to Tahrir Square with boisterous greetings. 'Thank God for your safety!' 'Welcome heroes!' 'Come on and join the square!' Most poignantly, they simply chanted, 'These are the Egyptian people!' In the ardor that the protesters have brought to the idea of community, the reporter continued, "in some ways, Egypt's revolution has already happened."

Coincidentally, I have been studying John Ford's movies, which have human community as their main subject--community and the price that has to be paid for it to come into being. This is a universal human theme. Let us rejoice that God is on the move. Nothing ever turns out entirely as we would wish in this world, but wherever ordinary people rise up against tyranny and corruption, it is a sign of the power of the coming Kingdom of our Lord.