Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Grand Myth of Lucifer

This was one of those pieces of writing that was almost begging to be put into words. It is my attempt to map the metanarrative of Satan/the devil as Christians believe.

In the beginning there was God. This grand being decided to create beings who were like himself, only smaller and with limited powers. God and these beings inhabited a place known as heaven. God acts as the king of heaven, sitting on a throne while these beings known as angels serve and worship him. There appeared to be some kind of rank and order to the angels, some having the title of archangel. One of these beings went by the name Lucifer, which means light-bearer.

Lucifer was a powerful and charismatic angel who won the affection of many with his ability to create wonderful music. Uplifted in pride by the adoration received, he decided to usurp the authority of God. Lucifer achieved quite a following in his endeavour, a third of the entire population of angels supported his charge for the throne. God, however, was not impressed. In his fury he banished Lucifer and the rebel angels from his kingdom, casting them into a nether region.

Nothing is known about this region, or what Lucifer and the rebel angels did in this place. The only thing we do know is that he next made an appearance in the region of planet Earth in the guise of a snake. God had created this planet, as well as the entire universe, and had just completed his final masterpiece, human beings. He made these creatures to inhabit and enjoy the planet, but especially to rule over the animal kingdom. God gave the man and the woman free reign over the planet, with one condition: they were not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This was a poisonous tree, he said – it would lead to their deaths. You see, the man Adam and the woman Eve were created immortal.

Lucifer, appearing as the snake, tempted Eve to eat the fruit, suggesting that God was not speaking the entire truth. Eve had always admired the fruit, but knew it was off limits. But, she thought, maybe the snake is right. So she took a bite, and gave the fruit to Adam, who also devoured it. All of a sudden, the two became conscious of being naked, and went in hiding. God comes looking for them, but they were too ashamed to make an appearance. When he finds Adam, he knows what had happened, and angrily remarks, ‘Who told you to eat the forbidden fruit?’ ‘Eve gave it to me’. Eve, in turn, blames the snake. ‘The two of you are now banished from this paradise, and you will now suffer and die. As for you, snake, you will now crawl and eat dirt.’

So Adam and Eve were no longer immortal. They procreated for many generations before eventually passing away, and in the process of time the planet was filled with a mortal humanity. For thousands of years very little was said of Lucifer and the fallen angels. Yet God had a plan to forever do away with Lucifer and his servants. He decided to actually inhabit the planet in the form of a man. Lucifer, cunning as he was, attempted to persuade Jesus to serve him instead of God. Yet Jesus was not gullible like the original man; being God, he could in no way deny himself. So Lucifer and his army of servants decided to inhabit humans themselves. The problem was, Jesus would come along and cast them out!

Infuriated, Lucifer decided to scheme against God and persuade the authorities to kill Jesus. In a grand orchestration, the Jewish priesthood convinced the Roman authorities that Jesus was a threat to security and deserved to be executed. Little did Lucifer know that this was the plan of God all along; Lucifer was merely an actor in God’s play. Jesus was crucified, but after three days he rose from the grave. In a gesture of benevolence to humanity, God decided to take on the punishment that Adam and Eve received for disobedience by allowing Jesus to die. Then he demonstrated his power over Lucifer by bringing him back to life.

Lucifer was dejected and exhausted, yet still determined to do all in his power to fight against God’s authority. Along with his army, he has been the grand influence behind all manner of evil in the midst of humanity, particularly inspiring hatred and indifference towards God. Yet God is biding his time, for he had destined an ultimate end to Lucifer, his army, and all those who have failed to acknowledge his authority, especially his benevolent act of crucifying Jesus. A horrific and torturous existence awaits every rebellious creature, one in which suffering is felt at every moment for eternity.

Lucifer knows his destiny, but will fight on. For ultimately, he really was only created for this purpose, and this is his role. He has no ultimate autonomy; he is like a wound-up toy which wanders in many different directions, and requires continual winding. Ultimately, the toy will be burned.

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A Challenge to Christians Everywhere

Here is an excerpt from The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, from Tom Wright:

The now-tradition scheme (the victory over evil as a whole that was won, according to the New Testament, on the cross) projects the victory on the one hand inward, into the heart and conscience of the believer, and on the other hand forward, into the state of affairs after death or at the end of the world. In neither case is there any outward change in the world, except in that the forgiven sinner will now live in a different manner, out of gratitude for forgiveness and in the power of the Spirit working in his or her life. This, of course, is not to be sneezed at: forgiveness is one of the most powerful things in the world, and when God’s forgiveness is then passed on by the grateful recipient, all sorts of new situations can be created, all sorts of new possibilities of healing can open up.

I will grant to Tom that leading up to this passage is an incredibly articulate argument for the authenticity of the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus. In summary, he lays out convincing proof that Jesus’ death fit within first-century messianic expectations, and as such the stuff of Jesus speaking about his death should not be seen as imagined by the early Christian community. This idea can ultimately lead us to reinterpret the way we read the gospels as fitting within the theology of Israel rather than our later interpretation of the significance of Jesus for the whole world. Remember, the ‘whole world’ was a lot smaller in those days.

The problem I see is one that has been 18 years in the making for me – that is, how this idea of individual salvation through forgiveness of sins actually makes a difference in day-to-day living. If I could concede to the truth of Tom’s words as quoted, I should see ample evidence of Christians ‘living in a different manner’. On the contrary, I see the same kind of evils inside the church as outside. In many cases, the evils can be amplified inside the church. This gets back to the problem of Christian religion in devising easy answers to complex problems.

The challenge is not for Christians to suddenly ‘get their act together’. Instead, it’s to put a question on how the relationship of the Christian with the Church and the Spirit should actually look. If grace and forgiveness are the supreme values, shouldn’t these be visibly present within and outside the Christian community? Unfortunately, that has not been my experience, or the experience of many other Christians I’ve known. This is why I now carry a high suspicion and have avoided church involvement for quite some time.


Which Jesus?

You hear the same news reports every year: ‘Record numbers have attended Easter services this year’, followed by the imagery of packed churches and men in robes. Makes you wonder whether Christianity really is on the decrease….but then again, this and Christmas are mere annual events, and the large attendances speak more of ritual than sincere faith. Me, I only got to a half of a service all Easter! I chose instead to bury myself into the previously mentioned two books, Honest to God and The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. All I can say is, wow these books are magnificent. If you can get a hold of Honest to God (check your second-hand bookstore, that’s where I found mine), make it a priority, I can really see why Spong was endeared to it.

As for the other book, it is a rich distillation of two of the leading thinkers in contemporary theology. Even though N.T. Wright is generally seen as being in the conservative camp, his historical critical analysis on the gospels here would make many from that side blush; he doesn’t instantly adorn Jesus with the majesty that you normally get. His clear and concise reasoning appears to smash the arguments of Marcus Borg. Wright displays in-depth knowledge of the culture of first-century Israel, and places Jesus front-and-centre within that setting. However, I am not so quick to call him the victor of a debate. It does seem that he fills every gap while Borg leaves huge holes; yet I wonder if it is better to have ambiguity than perfect understanding? Borg seems keen to explain away many aspects of Jesus as metaphor and imagination; Wright argues for a hermeneutical trust that he sees to be historically accurate.

Given my conservative background, both in a previous reading and now I want Wright to be right. At the same time, I want more to side with Borg, since I find no joy in the conservative position. Well, I’ll just travel with the text and see how I go.


A vote for hell

Is there a place for the dreaded penal substitution atonement theory, or the idea of Christ as the substitute-sacrifice for our sins, to deliver us from hell? According to this article, there is, and I agree. While I think it is too central in the theology of most Christians, this article rightfully places the theory within its proper context.


The Good Friday Break

Given the fact that the service I attended last night only confirmed my expectation that liturgical celebration would be dull, I have decided not to attend any services this morning. The choices of services are either those that seem to be frequented by seniors or others that are of the baby-boomer generation. On one side is traditional and on the other is contemporary. One does the same thing it has done for centuries; the other takes its queues from secular seminars. What’s missing is a creative service which engages the senses and draws one into a real worship experience.

The problem with my Easter Experiment is that I’ll go in and my mind will run overtime criticizing the whole thing. I can’t engage because I don’t like it. And I can accurately predict this outcome, so I see little point in it. Maybe I will attend a Sunday service, maybe I won’t. Yes, I backflip easily, and I like it that way.

What I’ll do instead is read a couple of books – The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, and the book that was a significant influence on John Shelby Spong, Honest to God. My thoughts as I read will be posted soon.


Pete Rollins on Fundamentalism

This post from Pete Rollins, a leading voice in emerging church thought, deserved to be quoted in full.

I recently went over to visit my friends in The Garden in Brighton and found myself in an interesting conversation with a guy who said, “I can understand why people who read the bible embrace fundamentalism”. When I asked “why” he said. “well, the bible can appear to support that position”.

I understood what he was saying but at the time I was reminded of a story in which the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe said in passing to Wittenstein, “I can understand why people once believed that the sun revolved around the earth”. In response Wittenstein said, “Why is that”? Anscombe looked up and replied, “Well, it looks like it does”. To which Wittenstein said, “yes, yes. But tell me, what would it look like if it was the other way around”?

The moral, of course, is that what we think the text really “says” depends not just on what we read but on the lens we use to interpret what we read. Fundamentalism is only a plausible way of reading religious texts when one accepts a scientific, foundational, common sense realist ontology. Which is, not insignificantly, the same lens employed by those popular writers today who reject the bible as a dangerous, deceptive, anti-Enlightenment, anti-scientific diatribe.

Now, unlike the scientific example of the sun, it is not possible to somehow “step outside” ones grounded interpretations of the text and make a rationally compelling claim concerning how it really should be understood. It would then seem that there is simply a conflict of interpretations that cannot be decided through the exclusive application of detached, disinterested Reason. However this does not mean that we are left without a rudder in an endless sea of interpretive possibilities (rather it is the very place where philosophical debate really gets going). For instance, one may still undermine the appropriateness of an interpretive method to faith, like the one used by Fundamentalists, by drawing out how its own application leads to the destruction, or diminishing, of its own position.


Tenebrae

Spong is spot-on – Christianity must change or die – and this is exemplified by the average age of parishioners inside traditional churches. Unfortunately, that change is towards entertainment rather than loosening of rigid dogma. Tonight I visited a service for Maundy Thursday, going by the liturgical name of Tenebrae. Oops, I arrived half-way through the service. Still, I got to partake in the communion. Damn, it’s not real wine, just grape juice in little cups. A couple songs were sung, and sections of the gospels involving the last supper and betrayal of Christ were read. Following this were more songs, prayer and benediction, then leaving in silence.

I’ve read that often these services include a foot-washing ceremony, but unfortunately that element was missing. The last time I went to a Maundy Thursday service, it was established more as an individual experience. Stations were established around the church, many being interactive. It was very dark and emotionally disturbing, the ideal experience for the occasion. Ah, for more creative imagination that might rescue the church from irrelevance.