Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rock Hill City limits

I finished riding every road in the Rock Hill City limits two weeks ago. Dave Metzl from CN2 did a piece on it that made the news:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Perfect Assassin

Last night I had a dream that I was back at my alma mater, Columbia Bible College, or euphemistically, Columbia International University. I was walking across the back side of the campus toward the dorm I lived in when I was a student; I passed Ernie Taylor and gave him a high five, then some others wearing bright blue shirts with numbers on them, like they were dressed up for the north-south football game held every year (which, as I reflect, I realize I never attended in seven years at the school, usually because I was in the library). When I approached the road that heads toward the old faculty houses, I heard a siren go off and some gunshots on the opposite side of my old dorm. Somehow it was made known to me that there was a shooter on campus, and people were fleeing in every direction. I kept walking away from the campus toward the pointe, a promontory that overlooks the Broad River and the prisons on the other side. I think there was someone with me, and the road was a strange mix of how it was when I was in college, and how it is now, which is non-existent, because the ridge it was built on was bulldozed into the valley so apartments and athletic fields could be built.

Aerial view of the Pointe
Anyways, I was afraid to go back to the campus, though it seemed no one was fleeing in my direction. When I reached the overlook, I decided it would be safest to hide in the woods down the steep ravine towards the river. I noticed that the erosion on the rocky slope was worse than it was twelve years ago, so I descended carefully. When I got to the valley, my two roommates, Nathan and Thomas were there, along with one or two others that I couldn't identify. Strangely, the attacker showed up too, and we were for a time at a loss with what to do with him. Somehow we overpowered him, and the dream ended with my four friends each holding a limb as if we were about to quarter him, and I had him in a headlock.

I woke up and realized this was a vivid picture of my psyche on Monday and Tuesday. I'd spent most of both days doing biblical research for the ministers of the church plant I'm joining. I've been looking forward to the opportunity for a month or two since Andy mentioned the possibility to me. I jumped at the chance since I've been sensing a call back in the direction of my education for the past year. But by the end of the day Tuesday, I was quite discouraged, because I realized that the same weakness that so hindered me for years, and finally burned me out of pursuing biblical studies, was still very present and more powerful than my ability to resist. Like the shooter who violently invaded my college campus, it reared its head when I was a student, drove me away into solitude (only it was more often to the library than to the pointe), kept me working on a 100 page master's thesis for two and a half years (while others finished in six months), and crippled my efforts to teach high schoolers. What was it? Hyper-perfectionism and thoroughness bordering on obsessive compulsive disorder. I don't know how all the psychological tests I've taken for it have never given a positive result for OCD; anyone who reads even part of my thesis won't need a test to diagnose me. Not to mention the time records I kept of the entire 1000 day process, including tasks I did every time I worked. It came out to 1009 hours in 1010 days, if I remember correctly.

It's so frustrating, because it only comes out when I'm dealing with tasks or people I really care about, and it drives away the people and paralyzes me from efficient productivity in work, yet it compels me to be drawn to them too. Right now I'm discouraged by it, because I've so been looking forward to this work, and the report I finished tonight took me 25 hours when it should've taken me 5. If there's any encouragement at all, it's that for the past three days I did work with unusual resistance to external distraction. Now I just need to work on internal distraction and the controlling thought that it's never good enough. It's also good that right now I'm surrounded by people I can confide in and who want to help me overcome this tendency. Almost like our effort to quarter and strangle the assassin in my dream.

I heard this song as I finished writing; I thought it was fitting.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Answer to the Double Rainbow Man's Question

Fascinated as I've been by astronomical and atmospheric phenomena this year, I've found a few wonderful sites online explaining some things I've seen, and some I never knew existed. Atmospheric optics is a treasure chest of knowledge. It was there that I first learned of the famous "double rainbow" youtube clip, and my life has never been the same since.

I love and laugh at his question, "what does this mean?" Our post-enlightenment reaction to this may tend toward scorn at his seemingly naive mystical view of nature, and though we do know much of how light reflects and refracts to produce the rainbow, the folks at atmospheric optics note, "Ray paths are something of a fiction and geometric optics is incapable of explaining many aspects of rainbows." 

According to Scripture, God has assigned a meaning to rainbows, and they prompt his memory every time he sees them; that means every time they occur, which is more often than they are seen by humans. In fact, it is every time sunlight hits water droplets. This is because "all raindrops refract and reflect the sunlight in the same way, but only the light from some raindrops reaches the observer's eye" and "the rainbow is a collection of rays with particular directions, it does not otherwise exist and it is not located at any particular point in space." But God sees unseen rainbows, since his eyes are in every place (Pr 15:3; 2 Chron 16:9; Zech 4:10). What do these always visible rainbows prompt God to remember? He tells us: 

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:14-15)
What's more, as Tim Keller proposes, the rainbow is a physical image of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No wonder then, that in apocalyptic visions of God and His anointed one, He is surrounded by a rainbow (Ezek 1:26-28; Rev 4:3; 10:1).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Φως `ιλαρον

On Christmas Day, I wrote about the beginnings of my pilgrimage toward a greater appreciation for the celebration of Christmas. I mentioned that the line of thought that gave me insight into the deeper significance of George Bailey's character, which I explained in my last post, eventually led me to realize how appropriate it is that we celebrate the birth of Jesus at the time of winter solstice. 

Here's the roundabout version of how it happened: before I came to see the image of Christ in the story of It's a Wonderful Life, I discovered him while teaching through the stories of Elisha in 2 Kings, which are some of the most bizarre narratives in the whole Bible: floating axe heads, bears mauling boys, "death in the pot", and the like. The full explanation of that will have to wait until later, but suffice it to say that it opened up an entirely new perspective on the Old Testament and what is meant by "all the things concerning Jesus" (Lk 24:27) in the Scriptures. At about the same time, I began to expose myself to the teaching of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. At first I found his approach to the Scriptures, in which he draws out of every text its supposed fulfillment in Jesus, artificial and forced, schooled as I was in conservative evangelical literalism that is highly suspicious of allegorical or spiritual approaches to Scripture. But the more I listened, the more I came to see the approach to be not only biblical, in that it put every text not just in its immediate literary context, but in its broader theological and redemptive context, but also extremely refreshing spiritually, in that it gave me a view of the colors and contours of the person and work of Christ, which view is the central spiritual act of the Christian life (2 Cor 3:18; Gal 3:1). Before long, I began to absorb from Keller the instinct I believe he caught from Jonathan Edwards of seeing all things in relation to divine truth and images or echoes of divine truth in all things. Keller does this well with psychological habits common in our culture and typical social interactions from the world of film and literature, which I suppose was the catalyst for my interpretation of It's a Wonderful Life. Gradually, other insights that came through this paradigm seemed to confirm it, often with poignant relevance to my immediate experience.

This year, after experiencing a personal spiritual awakening in January, I found myself increasingly transfixed with this vision of the Scriptures that sees foreshadowing, allusion, and images of Christ in the Old Testament. My father and I attended the national conference of the Gospel Coalition in April, which had as its theme "Preaching Christ in the Old Testament." I was hoping to learn more about the Christological approach to Scripture, but the conference was aimed at practitioners, and the closest it came to answering my questions was a panel discussion that shied away from an impasse, and a conversation with a rep from Westminster Seminary, who recommended the works of Geerhardus Vos. The panel reached an impasse over the question of whether we should preach the atonement from "Thou shalt not steal." I was hoping for some resolution, and though the discussion didn't offer it, God dumped an answer in my lap in my personal study later that day. 

In hindsight, that was just the beginning; the type of insight God gave me that day seemed to run over into every area of life for the rest of the year. "Images of divine things" jumped out to me in the nature of light, odd providences such as sleep deprivation, a bear lurking around our vacation house, bike ride routes, Tour de France results, even signs passed on ride routes. I could go on, but if you want to see more, just go back through my blog for the past six months. There's been some form of this in just about all of the posts. It's led me to a firm persuasion that God speaks in types and images in Scripture and creation. I'm not the first one to think this; Jonathan Edwards writes 
For indeed the whole outward creation, which is but the shadows of beings, is so made as to represent spiritual things. It might be demonstrated by the wonderful agreement in thousands of things, much of the same kind as is between the types of the Old Testament and their antitypes, and by spiritual things being so often and continually compared with them in the Word of God. And it's agreeable to God's wisdom that it should be so, that the inferior and shadowy parts of his works should be made to represent those things that are more real and excellent, spiritual and divine, to represent the things that immediately concern himself and the highest parts of his work. Spiritual things are the crown and glory, the head and soul, the very end and alpha and omega of all other works: what therefore can be more agreeable to wisdom, than that they should be so made as to shadow them forth?
And we know that this is according to God's method which his wisdom has chosen in other matters. Thus, the inferior dispensation of the gospel was all to shadow forth the highest and most excellent, which was its end; thus almost everything that was said or done that we have recorded in Scripture from Adam to Christ, was typical of gospel things: persons were typical persons, their actions were typical actions, the cities were typical cities, the nation of the Jews and other nations were typical nations, the land was a typical land, God's providences towards them were typical providences, their worship was typical worship, their houses were typical houses, their magistrates typical magistrates, their clothes typical clothes, and indeed the world was a typical world. And this is God's manner, to make inferior things shadows of the superior and most excellent, outward things shadows of spiritual, and all other things shadows of those things that are the end of all things and the crown of all things. Thus God glorifies himself and instructs the minds that he has made. ("Miscellanies" no. 362
I have a theory that by His providence, God often makes people, objects, and events meaningful in this sense at a personal level. In this I go beyond Edwards, at least what I've read of him so far, which isn't much. But Edwards does see these things as a means of God's communicating with us:
If we look on these shadows of divine things as the voice of God, purposely, by them, teaching us these and those spiritual and divine things, to show of what excellent advantage it will be, how agreeably and clearly it will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind, and to affect the mind. By that we may as it were hear God speaking to us. Wherever we are and whatever we are about, we may see divine things excellently represented and held forth, and it will abundantly tend to confirm the Scriptures, for there is an excellent agreement between these things and the Holy Scriptures. (Images of Divine Things, no. 70)
No way!
I'm inclined to make such a bold claim because I've seen it so many times this year. From a spectrum appearing on my ceiling while I read about electromagnetic waves to God getting my attention through conspicuous events revolving around bicycling, Scripture, numbers, and pancakes (those who know me well will appreciate the significance of those means to me), to a splinter hitting me in the eye while chopping logs to remind me of hypocrisy in my heart (see Matt. 7), to a real life parable of Jesus' return on May 21, to seeing crepuscular rays the night I met Dr. Ray :-), to this past weekend's trio of findings surrounding Epiphany: I found two fascinating books along this trajectory of an ontology of divine relationality; as I meditated with great profit on the rainbow signed covenant of Genesis 9, I saw a brilliant double halo around the moon all the way across the sky, and the next afternoon a rainbow; Sunday, two friends returned goodies I thought were permanently was truly a weekend of hidden things coming to light, and I went between laughing and crying for joy I was so stoked.  Perhaps I could put my theory in Edwardsean terms: a divine and supernatural impression (or type/image?) immediately imparted to the soul by the providence and Spirit of God...whether it will be shown to be a Scriptural and rational doctrine remains to be seen. At this point, I have at least recorded it as a theorem in divinity, as Edwards would say.

So what does all of this have to do with the observation of Christmas? Just this: that though the early Christians adopted the date of winter solstice for Christmas for symbolic reasons and to counter pagan feasts of Sol Invictus and Saturnalia, as the book pictured at right explains, they inadvertently timed Christmas perfectly, in my opinion. I mentioned in my last post that all the best Christmas movies feature a depressed person (e.g., Charlie Brown, Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, etc.) transformed into joyful gratitude. Why do these resonate with us so deeply, and why is the alignment of Christmas with pagan rituals to the sun so fitting? Because just as daylight reverses its trend from shortening to lengthening on the solstice (or as ancient polytheistic pagans thought, the sun is "reborn"), bringing increased light and renewal of life to plants and animals and man alike, so at the birth of Jesus "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Is 9:2), "the sun of righteousness (rose) with healing in its wings" (Mal 4:2), and the life of Jesus is the "light of men" that "shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn 1:4-5). As I see it, the celebration of Christ's birth belongs at the winter solstice not because that's when Jesus was born in the year, but because the year and its seasons are a microcosm of the history of the human race, and in view of the cosmic significance of the advent of Christ (e.g, Lk 2:13-14; Eph 3:9-10; Col 1:15-20), the birth of Jesus is the "winter solstice" of the entire cosmos.

Now that we're past the solstice and the days are growing, here are a few thoughts to close on what we're headed for both in the year and in the history of redemption:
The changes that pass on the face of the earth by the gradual approach of the sun is a remarkable type of what will come to pass in the visible church of God and world of mankind, in the approach of the church's latter-day glory. The latter will be gradual, as the former is. The light and warmth of the sun in the former is often interrupted by returns of clouds and cold, and the fruits of the earth kept back from a too-sudden growth, and a too-quick transition from their dead state in winter to their summer's glory, which in the end would be hurtful to them and would kill them. So it is in the spiritual world. If there should be such warm weather constantly without interruption, as we have sometimes in February, March and April, the fruits of the earth would flourish mightily for a little while, but would not be prepared for the summer's heat, but that would kill 'em. This is typical of what is true concerning the church of God, and particular souls. The earth being stripped of its white winter garments, in which all looked clean but all was dead, and the making of it so dirty, as it is early in the spring, in order to fit it for more beautiful clothing in a living state in summer, is also typical of what passes in the spiritual change of the world, and also, a particular soul. The surface of the earth is as it were dissolved in the spring. The ground is loosened and broke up, and softened with moisture, and its filthiness never so much appears as then; and then is the most windy turbulent season of all. (Edwards, Images of Divine Things, no. 152)
Though we're in January, on a bigger scale we're already into the spring, and looking forward to the summer day that will never end:

The sands of time are sinking,
The dawn of heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for -
The fair, sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark had been the midnight 
But dayspring is at hand, 
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land. 
-Anne Cousin

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Gospel According to George Bailey

George learns he won't be leaving Bedford Falls after all
In my recent post about the beginning of my journey away from religiously inspired moderate scroogehood, I told of my frustration with the conclusion of It's A Wonderful Life and its moral lesson "no man is a failure who has friends." For such a feel good movie, where does that leave those who have no friends, or those who think or feel that they have no friends? The question I was led to ask is "How does George come to have so many friends?" As I considered the plot of the movie, I realized that more significant than the fact that George has friends is that he makes friends: he continually sacrifices his own desires and dreams for the sake of his community, and those sacrifices win the friendship and respect of everyone in town. I began to see the movie as a vivid illustration of the words of Jesus, that "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13 KJV). When I watched the film through that lens, I saw more clearly George's inner conflict at each point he is called on to sacrifice for those around him, and was most moved by those moments of self-denial. I'd also always appreciated George's relationship with his father; the first moment in the movie that always grabs me emotionally is when George doesn't know what to do when Mr. Gower the druggist unwittingly puts poison in pills for a patient. He glances at a cigarette ad on the wall of the store which reads "Ask Dad, he knows." It's such a trite maxim, but moving for me, as one who identifies so much with George, and has often turned to my dad in moments of confusion.

Apparently he doesn't know about lung health
But George Bailey's relationship with his father Peter isn't just a sentimental embellishment to the story, it's actually just as central to the plot as George's self-sacrifice: his two-fold concern in all his painful decisions is the good of the community and his determination to honor his father by preserving the family business. That sounds like the one who spoke the words quoted above about the greatest love. Could it be that George Bailey's wonderful life is a contemporary portrait of the most wonderful life of all? Consider a few other details of the film: the antagonist of the story, Mr. Potter, takes over the entire town during the depression, except one institution, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, and on one occasion, tempts George himself with the offer of a job. But his masterstroke against George and the building and loan is his theft of $8000 intended for deposit in the bank Mr. Potter owns. Potter thinks he has George beat, and even in George's desperation, Potter feigns lawful indignation while George responds with grace to his question about what happened to the $8000: "I lost the money." But George hadn't lost the money; his Uncle Billy had absentmindedly given it to Potter in a brief encounter in the bank. George takes the blame, while inwardly he is driven to the brink of despair.

"I lost the money."
He stumbles into Martini's bar, where he softly cries, "Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there, show me the way...I'm at the end of my rope." Ten seconds later, he's answered with a punch in the face, and says, "That's what I get for praying." In despair, he stands on the bridge over the icy river, contemplating suicide, when Clarence, his guardian angel, comes to his rescue. But his method of rescue is telling: he doesn't stop him directly, he dives in himself, knowing that George will act in character, and jump in to save him. Though frustrated and flawed, when tested, George always lays down his life for others. Even afterward, when talking with Clarence, George thinks it'd be best for his family and friends if he'd never been born. In one sense, this is a self-absorbed thought of despair, but at another level, it is George's ultimate act of self-sacrifice. In Clarence's granting George a temporary view of his wish, he descends into the hell of Pottersville, where Bedford Falls is twisted into a cesspool of lust, greed, and violence. This vision awakens George, who responds by crying out "I want to live again!" And so through Potter's darkest scheme that temporarily destroys George, George and the community he loves win their ultimate triumph, as the people pray for him in his distress, and come to give selflessly to save the Building and Loan. 

For some readers, this perspective on the plot probably makes clear what I'm seeing in the film. Some may think I'm just an over-imaginative Christian who listens to too many Tim Keller sermons. That's probably true, but the parallels in this story with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ are quite remarkable. Consider several points of similarity:
  • Jesus referred ultimately to himself in John 15:13, and the rest of Scripture bears abundant witness to the selfless love of Jesus in his offering himself for our sins (Jn 3:16; Rom 5:7-8; Eph 5:2; 1 Jn 4:9-10)
  • As George always sacrifices for his father's business, Jesus sought his Father's honor and will in everything he did in life and death (Mt 26:39; Jn 5:19, 23; 6:38; 17:4)
  • As George continually fights against and resists Mr. Potter's evil schemes, so Jesus did battle with the devil in his temptation and works (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 10:18; Jn 16:11; Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8)
  • George's Gethsemane
  • As George takes the blame for the lost money before Potter, so Jesus "bore the iniquity of many" (Is 53:5-6, 10-12) and prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him (Lk 23:34).
  • As George, hunched over a drink and drenched in sweat, prays to the Father for help and is answered with a punch in the face, so Jesus in his agony cried out to the Father "take this cup from me" as "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground," and immediately afterward he was met by Judas and the soldiers who arrested him (Lk 22:41-54).
  • As George helps others even as he is "dying" (his dive to save Clarence, his thought that everyone would be better off if he'd never been born, his concern for all those he loved when he was in Pottersville), so Jesus looked in pity on others as he died the most pitiable death (Lk 23:28, 34, 43; Jn 19:26-27)
  • As George temporarily enters the degenerate Pottersville, the world in which he was never born, so Jesus, according to the apostles' creed, "descended into hell" after his crucifixion (Eph 4:9-10; 1 Pet 3:18-19; this point is disputed by theologians. See articles by Grudem and Scaer). 
  • As George's despair and "death" are his greatest defeat from Potter but also his greatest triumph, so Jesus' agony and crucifixion are his greatest defeat at the hands of the devil, but also his triumph over the devil (Gen 3:15; Lk 22:3; Jn 12:31; 13:2, 27; 16:11; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14).
  • As George, after his restoration to life, returns home first (except for the authorities and his children--not sure how they fit in yet) and was followed by all the people for whom he sacrificed, who return to him all the gifts he'd first given to them, after which his brother rightly proposes a toast to "my big brother George, the richest man in town," so Jesus is described as the "the beginning, the firstborn from the dead" (Col 1:18; cf. 1 Cor 15:20-24) who ascended, "receiving gifts among men" (Ps. 68:18; and giving them, cf. Eph 4:7-12), so that in his triumph he "divides the spoil with the strong" (Is 53:12) and receives supremacy over all things (Mt 28:18; Eph 1:20-23; Php 2:9; Col 1:18; 2:10; Heb 1:4).
  • Though she's his wife in the film, Mary is the steady heroine of the story, and her odd position in the final scene, standing on a chair, hands folded in a saintly pose, asks for commentary from my Catholic brethren. Probably also the part about George lassoing the moon so she can eat it and moonbeams can come out of her hair and fingers and toes. I'm Protestant and don't know about that stuff because it ain't in the Bible. :-)
While the surface theology of guardian angels in the form of talking galaxies and getting wings when bells ring is almost obnoxiously hokey, the subtle but pervasive portrayal of the humiliation of the Son of God is profoundly Christian. As I see it, It's A Wonderful Life is the gospel of Christ in terms of 20th century American middle class culture, and our identification with and admiration of George Bailey is a small but real indication that Jesus is truly the "dear desire of every nation," as we often sing in this season. 

The question that remains is whether these things written in by the filmmakers, or can someone who knows the Bible well enough read the gospel into anything? The latter might be true, but in this case, I think the former is more accurate. Here are a few subtle but concrete details of the movie that make me think the writers intended the story to be a picture of the gospel:
  • The slum owned by Mr. Potter is called "Potter's Field." This is the name of the plot of ground Judas purchased with the money he received for betraying Jesus, where he also hanged himself (Mt 27:3-10; Acts 1:18-19).
  • Though their roles in the story are not exactly parallel, there are characters named Mary, Joseph, and Peter.
  • As the angels converse in the beginning of the movie, they say about the night of George's wishing he'd never been born, "tonight's his crucial night." Interesting in this perspective.
  • As George talks to his dad at the dinner table the night he has the stroke while George is at the dance, Peter tells him "George, you were born older." He means that George has always fit the role of older brother, but if George is a Christ figure, this might allude to Micah 5:2, the prophecy of Messiah's birth in Bethlehem: "But you, O Bethlehem...from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days."
  • Perhaps the clearest indication of the Christological nature of the story are the presence of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in the opening scene, as George's friends pray for him, and the singing of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in the closing scene. In traditional Christmas Eve services, these are the opening and closing carols. 
  • As they sing the closing carol, something very significant happens as they sing the words "God and sinners reconciled..." If you want to know what it is, you'll have to watch the movie again. You wouldn't want me to give it all away, would you?
Seven Swans a-swimming
I realize that most people don't watch Christmas movies after Christmas day. Oddly, even in my days of stoicism about the celebration of Christmas, I was adamant that if we're going to celebrate it, we should celebrate all twelve days, with Epiphany at the end, as the more ancient branches of the church traditionally observe it. It breaks my heart to see Christmas trees at the curb before New Year's. I've never watched the movie after Christmas Day, but with Auld Langsyne at the end, it would make a fitting close to the seventh day of Christmas, and to the year.

This is not the end of the story of my adoption of the celebration of Christmas, but it gets at the question I'll try to answer next time: why do all the best-loved Christmas movies and television specials feature a grumpy, ungrateful, or angry person who is delivered into gratitude and rejoicing? Since Charlie Brown is the only one of these I'm thinking of that is set after 1960, only Charles Schultz uses the contemporary term "depressed." But the theme is the same from A Christmas Carol to It's a Wonderful Life to Miracle on 34th Street to A Charlie Brown Christmas to A Christmas Story (even the old man finally smiles when the duck smiles at him before being decapitated in the Chinese restaurant). The answer to this question leads to the reason why I think it's so fitting that we remember the birth of Jesus Christ at this time of year. Merry Seventh Day of Christmas!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dead Preachers Society: Session 3 Notes

I'm meeting with some friends to read Jonathan Edwards' typological writings, vol. 11 of the Yale Edition of his works. I decided I'd post my notes on our last meeting and some additional thoughts from the reading here in case anyone finds them interesting. This was originally an email to the group.

Ray, Andy, Daniel, and I discussed pp. 50-93 of Edwards' vol. 11. I asked why Edwards saw shadows of spiritual truth in the created world, and whether he saw this perspective as necessary. We all noted that the inspired biblical authors saw things this way, and that the Scriptures are not exhaustive, but rather a springboard to understand everything as designed by God to communicate truth to our minds. Ray noted that Edwards was mindful of God in the theater of nature, and Andy mentioned how he found Edwards a good balance to his reaction against over-spiritualization (a reaction we've probably all had to the excess of "God moments" zealous naivete often sees). 
I asked which examples of Edwards were particularly compelling. Several favorites were the jealous love of a husband as particularly reflective of the love of Christ for the church (no. 32), the customs of triumphant Roman armies as a picture of Christ's triumphant entry into heaven (no. 81), and the height of the heavens above the earth that shows the surpassing worth of heavenly pleasures compared to earthly ones. Daniel, Andy, and Ray commented that Edwards extended the the Reformed understanding of the sacraments to all of creation...small "s" sacraments, that is. I sat and learned.
Andy admitted he was challenged to greater wakefulness by Edwards' example; as professional religious people, we're often like Eli with Hannah, Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) with the angel in the temple, and the woman in prayer with Peter at the gate in Acts. Did someone mention Mary and Martha with Jesus, too?  I.e., we're so caught up in our habitual service that we become myopic and miss the presence and works of God that are right in front of us. Ray said the three of them should write sermons on those texts and "take this on the road". I'd go to that revival. 
I'll apply that by confessing that as we discussed these things, I was distracted by three things I was trying to do, all Martha-like: finish the reading (it was only 2 pages, but still...), write out some good questions for discussion, and take notes on what was being said. If Edwards had been with us, he'd have said that my distraction was a type of the very thing we were discussing: I was distracted from the grace of exchanging ideas by my anxiety to make sure I had all my ideas organized for the exchange. I'm not sure what he'd say about the fact that I was delayed to the meeting because I lost my wallet at my sister's house in Charleston; I'd actually put it in my travel kit so I wouldn't lose it...we should come up with a name for this phenomenon. How about "perfectionistic irony"? I for one am persuaded that God often speaks in this manner providentially, that he accompanies insight into his written word with corresponding illustrations, often in our immediate circumstances. I mentioned the presence of a deer in the grocery store a few weeks back when I'd been pondering "I adjure you by the gazelles or does of the field..." in Song of Songs. 
Okay, this is no longer brief. Daniel asked if Edwards presupposed or predicted Van Tilian presuppositionalism. Ray mentioned that for communists, looking at the material world often broke them of their atheism. 
Definitely some good trajectories of thought to explore further. Here are some others that I had in mind that the river of our collective thoughts avoided:
1. Is Edwards correct in thinking this way? Why/not? Edwards may be the father of American Evangelicalism, but he's not our pope, so let's think critically about his ideas. Maybe we can do this by picking the example that made us laugh the loudest as we read. 

2. Edwards mentions in no. 95 that the cursing of the serpent in crawling in the dust represents the curse on the devil, and thus "proves that outward things are ordered as they be, to that end that they might be images of spiritual things" (88). This raises some questions of enormous importance in my mind...If the serpent and devil in Gen 3 are an example of type and antitype conjoining, is there a pattern or rule to when type and antitype conjoin in Scripture? (Edwards also mentions the sunrise/set with the death and resurrection of Christ, pp. 64-65, no. 50, nt. 2. maybe others too). Also, is everything in Eden typical and sacramental? It seems at least the trees, the serpent, Adam's sin, and Adam and Eve's nakedness are. That is, they're both literal and representing deeper spiritual things. Or perhaps in Eden there was a kind of hyper-typical nature to all of these things, so that what we perceive as "types" of spiritual things actually were (pre-fall) the very things they would later typify. Curious in this light and in view of Edwards' thoughts on rivers (p. 77, no. 77, which numbers seem to typify the perfection of the analogy of God's providence) is the fact that the river out of Eden splits into four rivers typical of God's presence as the fountain of life before the fall (as opposed to rivers joining and flowing into the sea/streams of providence joining to flow into God after the fall)? Just a thought, but if that is true, are the trees and river and etc. in the new heavens and earth also restored to their (hyper?) typical/sacramental nature? Does this get at the "groaning" of creation subject to futility in Romans 8? I.e., is the futility, in part, that it no longer bears this sacramental nature? 
Also interesting in this connection are the mention of Jesus' side as proof to Thomas and his breathing on them in Jn 20, in light of God's creation of man by breathing into his nostrils, and woman from the side of man. Edwards p. 70-71, nos. 62-63 got me thinking this way.  

3. p. 57, no. 26, Edwards says of Jesus' use of a tree known by its fruit as "not merely mentioned as illustrations of his meaning, but as illustrations and evidences of the truth of what he says" (emphasis mine). Are there other examples of this in Scripture? No. 7 seems to be similar re: 1 Cor 15:36

4. page 74, no. 70, By types in creation "we may as it were hear God speaking to us." Should we then follow Edwards' lead as a kind of spiritual discipline? In light of no. 77, the river as God's providence, what is typified by a tree planted by streams of water (Ps. 1)? Does day and night meditation on the word lead to a greater connection to the streams of providence in our lives, so that we do truly see correlation between peculiar turns of providence and objective truth we see in the word, and thus hear God speaking to us, as Edwards says?   

5. page 80, no. 78: the course of sap/life in trees is reverse of the flow of water in rivers, which represents the providence of God in the church in giving life through the trunk of Christ. Edwards doesn't mention my thought from point 4 above, but could it be that the church is a macro-example of what we are to be individually? I.e., specially favored by providence (cf. Eph 1, called according to his purpose who works all things...) to hear God speaking in Christ and Scripture, and for the word we hear to correspond with the collective force of God's word to us in everything we've experienced. That thought needs better words. 

6. page 85, no. 85: sunrise as both resurrection and the Gospel dispensation. What then of multiple senses applied to one object? So too seas/lakes are God's wrath (nos. 27, 64), and in relation to rivers, God himself (no. 77). What up with that?

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Light Shines in the Darkness...

In my more puritanical days, I was at best ambivalent about the observation of Christmas on December 25, and at worst cynical. This was because, in all likelihood, Jesus was not born on December 25. In addition, many of the traditions now associated with the observation of Christmas have pagan origins, and those whom I looked to as theological forebears were opposed to Catholic holy days. Charles Spurgeon expresses this view well in the first half of this paragraph from a sermon preached December 23, 1855:
This is the season of the year when, whether we wish it or not, we are compelled to think of the birth of Christ. I hold it to be one of the greatest absurdities under heaven to think that there is any religion in keeping Christmas-day. There are no probabilities whatever that our Saviour Jesus Christ was born on that day, and the observance of it is purely of Popish origin; doubtless those who are 
Catholics have a right to hallow it, but I do not see how consistent Protestants can account it in the least sacred. However, I wish there were ten or a dozen Christmas-days in the year; for there is work enough in the world, and a little more rest would not hurt labouring people. Christmas-day is really a boon to us; particularly as it enables us to assemble round the family hearth and meet our friends once more. Still, although we do not fall exactly in the track of other people, I see no harm in thinking of the incarnation and birth of the Lord Jesus. (emphasis mine. HT: Tim Challies)
This view is not without biblical warrant either, depending on how we interpret texts such as these:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 4:9-11)
presenting the treasures of Kidger's book, Christmas 2004
For a few years in the early 2000s, though I didn't spread tidings of "Bah! Humbug!", I was rather stoic about the remembrance of Jesus' birth on December 25. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, I was intrigued to study the origins of Christmas. My interest in astronomy already made me an observer of equinoxes and solstices, first in choosing those dates to cut my hair or shave my beard, and later with solstice parties, especially the winter solstice. For several years at Christmas I had a fascination with astronomical theories about the star of Bethlehem. I was glad to find that several professional astronomers had researched the matter and proposed plausible theories. As I remember now, the best book I read on the matter concluded that it was a conjunction of several planets in a constellation that was somehow associated with the Jewish nation. It was Mark Kidger's The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View; I also read some of Michael Molnar's The Star of Bethlehem. I don't recall if I finished either of the books, as is my custom, but they were both great reads. Recently I came across a more thorough explanation of the "signs in the heavens" surrounding both the birth and death of Jesus. Rick Larson, who is a doctor by profession and an amateur astronomer, makes a compelling case:

My former practice at solstice parties was to show It's A Wonderful Life. When my first attempt to show the film at a solstice party in Rock Hill was overruled in favor of a Jim Carrey slapstick, I decided maybe I'm the only one who cares to celebrate the solstice, or watch sappy Jimmy Stewart movies, or maybe both. So after 2005, I observed the solstice and watched my favorite movie alone, which probably saved me from a good deal of embarrassment since I tend to tear up a few dozen times every time I watch it. In spite of this, it's not a good movie to watch alone, because it concludes with a message that "no man is a failure who has friends." What a letdown. After identifying so much with George Bailey, the frustrated idealist who never gets to pursue his dreams, I looked around at the end of the movie and felt like I had no friends. But in the darkness of self-pity I started to ask questions, and that's when light dawned on a much deeper significance to George Bailey's character. Not only that, but pursuing that line of thought has led me to a new understanding of the significance of this time of year that persuades me that we should celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25. That will have to wait for another post; for now I'll let you laugh at my hokey tastes in film.