About Yesterday’s Class

Making an oral argument before an appellate court is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the practice of law.  You’ve got fifteen minutes, give or take, to convince a panel of judges that your side is in the right.  The judges will know the record of the case.  They, with the help of a staff of bright, young law clerks, will have studied the transcript of the proceeding below and the briefs filed by the parties – you and your opponent.  They will know the law, as well, since they will have in large part made it.   That is, the court to which you are addressing your argument is often the same court that wrote the decisions on which your argument is based.

Everything is at stake here.  If you won below, then you are at risk of having the decision in your favor set aside and being told to go back to square one and do it over, this time according to proper procedure.  If you lost below, this appeal is probably your last bite at the apple.  If you lose here, your loss is generally final.

And so the preparation for such an argument is exhaustive and intense.  It involves committing a good deal of the transcript of the proceeding below to memory so that you can, on a dime, direct the court, chapter and verse, to those parts of the record that support your argument.  And you must have read the applicable precedents so thoroughly that you understand their rules and every implication that might flow from each ruling.

And so, the saying is that every lawyer who argues an appeal has three arguments:  the one he plans to make; the one he actually makes; and the perfect, insurmountable argument he thinks of while he is driving home from the courthouse.

That sort of thing can happen to Sunday School teachers, as well.  I think it may have happened to me this past Sunday.  The advantage I have over the appellate advocate, though, is this blog.  I can, at my leisure, attempt to correct or bolster here what I said or at least meant to say in class yesterday.

You may have guessed where I think my effort failed.  Our New Testament lesson yesterday was Revelation 6: 1-8, the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

In the last two lessons that I have taught, we’ve been studying the life of Whittaker Chambers through a reading of his autobiographical book, Witness.  Chambers was a Communist in the 1930s and worked with an underground “apparatus” consisting of himself, numerous highly-placed government employees in Washington, D. C., and a Russian Colonel in New York City.  This cell operated to spirit documents and other information out of government agencies – one member of the apparatus was an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State and another was an Assistant to the Attorney General – to be photographed and then sent to party headquarters in Moscow, all in preparation for the revolution that Chambers and his comrades thought was inevitable.

In time, Chambers figured out that what he was doing in collaborating with the Soviet Union was a colossal evil and he thus left the apparatus, deserted the party, converted to Christianity and became a witness against those other traitors with whom he had worked.

All of that is very interesting and gripping drama.  There is more than enough here for a whole semester’s worth of classes, but this past week we focused particular on two statements of Chambers; one concerning how it is that rational men – like himself – could become Communists, knowing full well the violence of the party’s operations.  Chambers had this to say about that:

 

“Sooner or later, one of my good friends is sure to ask me:  How did it happen that a man like you became a Communist? Each time I wince, not at the personal question, but at the failure to grasp the fact that a man does not, as a rule, become a Communist because he is attracted to Communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing.
I force myself to answer: In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crises”

 

Dr. S. Robert Weaver was the man to whom I owe my understanding of the Scriptures.  He was a graduate of Princeton University, having received a Th.D. there in the 1940s.  He served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of St. Albans, West Virginia for some 22 years.  I became a member of that church upon my baptism there (I was then 12 years old) in about 1964.  I listened to hundreds of his sermons over the years and was privileged to be a part of a bible study class he conducted for young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He spent a good deal of time on the Book of Revelation.  He told us that this book was “the least read and most widely misunderstood book in the Bible.”

I don’t know about the “least read” part, but it is very easy to see that the book has been grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted in our day.  You can start with Hal Lindsay.  His book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, ostensibly based on New Testament prophesy, first predicted that the world was going to end sometime before December 31, 1988:

He cited a host of world events — nuclear war, the communist threat and the restoration of Israel — as reasons the end times were upon mankind. His later books, though less specific, suggested that believers not plan on being on Earth past the 1980s — then the 1990s and, of course, the 2000s. But Lindsey did more than just wrongly predict the end of days; he popularized a genre of prophecy books.

Top 10 End-of-the-World Prophecies, Time Magazine

Dr. Weaver saw the Book of Revelation not as a “blueprint of the future,” but as a message of hope to beleaguered Christians in the first century who were about to suffer persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  He taught that the “four horsemen” were not to be singularly identified with any particular historical events but, rather, were symbols of the recurring evils that would have sway during the era of the Church, that is, during the time between the Ascension of Jesus Christ and his return.  Those evils included war and economic woes.

Thus, when I read Chambers’ explanation of why men become Communists, my mind went directly to this passage from Revelation.  But here is the problem: no one else’s mind did!  When I asked at the end of the hour what connection there might be between Chamber’s explanation of why men choose Communism and this passage of scripture I could hear crickets.

But there are connections.  Big time, important connections.

In fact, I would argue that if Chambers had had a true understanding of this passage, he would never have joined the Communist party.

In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers was confronted again with this question:

 

“THE CHAIRMAN: What influenced you to join the Communist Party originally?

  1. CHAMBERS: It is a very difficult question. As a student, I went to Europe. It was then shortly after the First World War. I found Germany in chaos, and partly occupied; northern France and parts of Belgium were smashed to pieces. It seemed to me that a crisis had been reached in western civilization which society was not able to solve by the usual means. I then began to look around for the unusual means. I first studied for a considerable time British Fabian socialism, and rejected it as unworkable in practice. I was then very much influenced by a book called Reflections on Violence, by Georges Sorel, a syndicalist, and shortly thereafter I came to the writings of Marx and Lenin. They seemed to me to explain the nature of the crisis, and what to do about it.

We might say that Chambers’ motivation was a moral one.  We might have some sympathy for a young man who looks on destruction and then looks for a way to do something about it.  But what Chambers was missing and what we in our day very much need to have as we look at the convulsions of current events is a biblical perspective.

The Book of Revelation tells the reader that the history of this world will be marked by evil.  By just the kind of destruction and turmoil that Chambers witnessed on his trip to Europe.  Thus, the situation Chambers saw there in the 1920s was not unique, but only one more chapter, one more manifestation of the strife that the Apostle John wrote about in his message to the churches in Asia Minor.

Another thing that Chambers was missing and that an understanding of the Book of Revelation would have given him is this:  the evils in this world are spiritual.  They manifest themselves in material ways – war, famine, civil strife – but their origin is spiritual.  These evils are the deliberate workings of an evil, spiritual power and, thus, they cannot be solved by man’s devising, by a merely material response.   Man’s “five year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains” will not, cannot, meet the needs of the day.

Chambers finally figured this out.  Tomorrow I’ll write about the second point from yesterday’s lesson: what we might learn from Chambers’ failure to make his first break from the Communist party a permanent break.

The World’s Second-Oldest Faith

 

 

I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.

 

I’m a layman.  An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page.  There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.

Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.

It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history.  We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned.  But I always wondered this:  what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?”   I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway?  Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective?  That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil.  And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil?  Isn’t that kind of the point?

If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.”  It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.

It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point.  I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil.  That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.

I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking,  but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.

That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.

Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained.  The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States.  Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.”  This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.

In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party.   At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism.   Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.

What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:

It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first.  That is, to faith in God.

 

The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider  and comment on, but rather that there is too much.  His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.

What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.

And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way  – is very much alive and kicking.

It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block  the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong.  No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity.  They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress.  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

Authorship is attributed to David, and David was a warrior and we can imagine the struggles that this psalm speaks of as being quite literal.  That is, when David speaks of his enemies, he means literal, flesh-and-blood enemies – guys who are wearing the other uniform and who are really out to kill him.

 

For most of you reading this blog –and certainly for the writer of this blog –  the enemy is not so solid and well defined.  In this leveled and paved and air- conditioned world that you and I inhabit, we may even think that the idea that we have enemies who are out to get us and who have “made us to dwell in darkness” to be a bit over dramatic, a bit exaggerated, maybe even ridiculous.

But if we give any attention to the New Testament, we must admit that we do have enemies and that they very much do want to “smite” our lives “down to the ground,” and to “make us dwell in darkness.”  Again, listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Ephesians 6: 12

Likewise, the expression of desire in this psalm should not be strange to us.  David is sure of  the object of his desire.  That object is God: “my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.”   We may not be so sure of the object of our desire, but if we are honest with ourselves and if we have not hidden it beneath some wall of self-deception, we must admit that we want and want very badly something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

That is why this psalm continues to resonate with men and women even in this modern age.  Even among those of us who are privileged to live in secure democracies and in peaceful neighborhoods where we are not threatened physically; even those of us who have every convenience and entertainment.   Even we desire; even we hunger and thirst, like a thirsty land.  Here is C. S. Lewis:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

 

When David writes that “my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate” we should have little trouble relating to him.  We should know.  If we have attempted anything at all – a career, a marriage, the raising of children – we know that we are opposed and powerfully so.  We know that we can be defeated; we can be crushed; we can be depressed.  We know that our desires always outstrip the satisfactions that this earthly life affords.

And so, this psalm is our psalm, and we pray with David, the warrior:

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.

Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter

Meditation on Psalm 140

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from the violent,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
    and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
    the poison of vipers is on their lips.[b]
Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
    protect me from the violent,
    who devise ways to trip my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a snare for me;
    they have spread out the cords of their net
    and have set traps for me along my path.

 

 

This psalm, like many others, is the prayer of a warrior.

There is not a general agreement that David actually wrote this one, but it is attributed to him in the heading and its theme and expression are quite consistent with what we know of David from our study of the Old Testament.  Here the writer finds himself compassed about by enemies – violent and evil men who are determined to undo him.  The psalmist spends some ink describing what low-down creatures his enemies are and then cries to God for deliverance, asking that his enemies be drastically and violently punished.

How is it that people – people like me – have continued to find value and inspiration in this poem when most of us are not warriors?  Most of us are not military men – soldiers on an active battlefield.  Most of us don’t have evil men plotting to take our lives.  How is this poem anything to us?

Because, soldier or not, military career or not, active battlefield or not, all of us are at war.  Well, maybe not all of us are at war.  Some of us may be so oblivious to it that we can’t really be seen as participants.  But there is a war raging that affects us all.  If we give any credence to the New Testament, then we know that there is a spiritual battle being fought right here and in our time between good and evil.  The Bible tells us that the players in this conflict are not mere mortals:

Ephesians 6:12  English Standard Version

12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I’ve spent some time lately here on this blog taking about these “rulers, authorities and cosmic powers” that Paul refers to more than once. (see Colossians 2:8 and Galatians 4:9)  These passages have always intrigued me because they seemed to point to beings or forces that are not directly identified elsewhere in the scriptures.  Kind of spooky in a Stephen King sort of way.  I have never seen any Christian writer say much about them until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Playing God.  He suggests that they are

“shadowy [and supernatural] powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world”   They “are at the root of . . . cultural patterns . . . that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.”

All of that is pretty dramatic.  I don’t doubt it for a minute, but I wrote this post for the purpose of suggesting that most of us normal, non-super-hero type people do have some experience with this kind of thing.  How many times have we, perhaps after years of frustrated effort, said something like “There is just something in that [here insert personal preference: school, town, country, company] that will not let me loose, or that will not let me succeed.”

I wonder if this complaint is truer that we even suspect!   And if it is, how necessary for you and I to recognize what we are up against and to align ourselves with Christ, before whom such powers tremble and flee.

Wrestling With Beasts

 

 

 

“Revelation is a picture book, not a puzzle book.”  Vern S. Poythress, The Returning King

 

Yesterday in class, as we considered the idea that the images of the beasts described in chapter 13 of Revelation might be better understood if we thought of them as more akin to political cartoons than realistic images of horror, Karen remarked that she had just had an “aha” experience.  That is, a light was turned on somewhere and she understood something that had confused her before.  That’s worth noting, because that is precisely what is supposed to be happening as we study the scriptures together. While it is true, as CS Lewis says, that most of what we hear in church is what we’ve heard many times before and we go there not to see something new, but to be reminded of what we already knew, it is also true that discipleship is an education.  Think of the first disciples and how their fellowship with Christ changed them.  Jesus was not merely a teacher, but he was constantly trying to explain to His disciples who He was and the reality of the spiritual world and the battles going on there.  He sometimes used parables and it is impossible to think that there were not many “aha” moments as the disciples were gathered around Him, hearing His stories.

Here is the question we need to think about:  Is it really possible that we may learn things that will change our lives?  That’s a cliché these days.  Every pitch you read – whether it is for a new diet or exercise program or some self-help program – tells us that this “new, groundbreaking work” will “change your life.

We might laugh at that in reflection, but it wouldn’t be a cliché if it wasn’t working.  Why does it work?

One reason might be this one:  Our lives are in need of changing and we – somewhere deep down – know that.  We feel like we’ve missed the boat, somehow.  We keep waiting for our ship to come in and yet it stays out on the horizon.  We are faced with problems and situations that we have no insight into and that we desperately want to fix.

 

Is the Christian life any different from the lives of non-believers?  We well know that we will suffer all that is common to humanity – we are all subject to physical infirmity and decline and “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but does our faith – and our full embrace of and deep immersion in it – give us anything that others do not have.

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes.  We start with the overwhelming truth that for the Christian, physical death is not the end.  We know that Christ has gone before us to “prepare a place for us” in eternity.

But for now, I’d like to refine the question a little bit.  What advantage does the disciple of Christ have in the facing of the daily battles of everyday life?  Does our study of the book of Revelation help us at all with the practicalities of life, or is our study mere abstraction – something to take our minds off of the messes in our lives?

We’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: John’s purpose – or at least one of his purposes – in writing this letter to the infant churches in Asia Minor is to give them an understanding  – of the world around them – that will help them practically and philosophically in their day to day lives.  For my money, those same lessons John imparted to the first-century Christians are immediately and profoundly relevant to us today.

Some have said that everything is in full supply in the modern west except clarity.  We are rich in terms of material goods, but we are completely confused about life – about the spiritual and moral realities around us and about how we should order and prioritize our lives.  We feel, as did Quick Draw McGraw, that we are “getting nowhere fast.”

John’s message speaks to the very heart of that confusion.  It is just the tonic that you and I need to steel our spines and to maintain hope, joy and sanity in the midst of it all.

In the next post, I’ll start considering the elements of John’s message, but let me close for now with this single thought, central to the message of the New Testament and completely ignored in modern thought:

 

There is a spiritual battle going on right now.  It’s being fought in time – that is, in the course of history and in the courses of our individual lives.  There are powerful forces of evil at work and for life to be what it ought to be, we must be aware of this battle and equip ourselves accordingly.