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themes from “The Golden Ass”

March 13, 2012

Two weeks ago, I read Lucius Apuleius’s novel, The Golden Ass, for the first time.  It had been selected as our February book for the Classic Literature Book Club I facilitate.  Half our group didn’t finish it, half of them didn’t read it, and of those that read it, half of them liked it half as much as they enjoyed fantasy, but the others held half-formed opinions because they’d just finished reading a half-hour before our meeting.

However, in spite of my getting excited about the relevance of these themes and monopolizing almost half the discussion, Apuleius’s story did raise a lot of themes and questions for our discussion.  Some of those themes were:

  • the crazy fantasy of the plot: a guy narrowly escapes being framed for Socrates death at the hand of a witch, only to find himself accidentally turned into a donkey by the servant girl
  • the bawdiness of the story
  • the overt pagan sexuality and its dehumanizing effects on people
  • the awful way women and animals were treated
  • the similarities between the goddess worship procession and processions worshiping the virgin Mary in Roman Catholic countries
  • the stark difference between the mystery religion the protagonist joins and the public nature of biblical Christianity (gnostic cults have secret ceremonies only for the eyes of the initiated, but biblically defined Christianity is public for anyone who cares to see)
  • whether worshiping the goddess Isis (which the main character ends up becoming one of her followers) would result in treating women better or not
  • whether Apuleius wrote the story as commentary on disintegrating society around him

On a gut-level, I found much of Apuleius’s depiction of ancient Roman culture repulsive.  I believe that’s because our modern western ideals of universal human rights, the equal personhood, digity, and worth of women and men, humane treatment of animals, and the freedom of individuals (i.e. we’re not bound by Fate as the story assumed) flow from a culture that’s been deeply shaped by biblical Christianity and the public death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living one.

Our culture is far from perfect, full of injustices, bigotry, and even slavery today, but the difference is that its also been shaped by generation after generation of people who believe all things will one day be made new, who believe that in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the downpayment has been made.  That means when we see evil in our own culture, we don’t despair or passively accept it as from the Fates: we stand against it and fight for good, knowing that individuals matter and can bring about real change.  Even secular, atheistic westerners still hold to the dignity of individuals, to universal human rights, and to our culture’s self-reflection and democratic processes for societal change and reform.

Other cultures have plenty of good, brilliant people, but their religious worldviews work against them, keeping them from standing for dignity, worth, and compassion for others. In Hindu belief, if all suffering is illusion, why work to alleviate someone’s suffering?–its just their karma.  If all reality is one as many Asia religions claim, why work to bring change to something that isn’t really differentiated at all?  In African and other tribal religions where spirits inhabit and rule everything, what right would people have to work for justice or equal human rights, when even the gods are capricious and might makes right?  In Islam’s Koran, how can there possibly be a basis for universal human rights when a woman’s testimony in court only counts for half of a man’s testimony (Qur’an 2:282), and non Muslims are viewed as infidels to be subjugated by the sword if they don’t convert to Islam (Qur’an 9:5)?

More than anything else, The Golden Ass left me considering the roots of our culture, which has beauty and is humane in ways that Roman culture was not.  Why do we have a culture that values individuals, yet cares for the poor? that generates wealth on a massive scale, yet gives it away to the rest of the world ever time natural disaster strikes or mankind’s wars create refugees?  Why are the rescue dogs Swiss? the international nonprofits such as World Vision, OxFam, the Red Cross, or International Justice Mission so deeply rooted in the UK and US?  What is it about cultures shaped by the West that create surplus wealth and the compassion to give it in disaster relief, development aid, or humanitarian assistance?

One-ism or Two-ism: how do you view the world?

February 15, 2012

Do you think that fundamentally all is one?  That matter and energy are all that exists? or that everything is connected and distinctions are illusions? Do you believe that we are one with the earth, all living things, and the cosmos?  Is everything god?  Was Yoda right–there’s a force in everything, uniting all into one?  Those are One-ist views.

Or do you think there’s the a personal Creator who made a creation distinct from himself?  Do you believe that God is independent of all creation, yet intimately involved in actively sustaining all things, by the word of his power?  Do you confess that God is three persons, yet one God, what Christian theology calls the Trinity?  Do you believe that God the Creator stepped into creation, incarnate in the man Jesus, yet still fully God, to restore us and all things to perfect relationship with God through the cross?  That is the Two-ist view.

There is no third way.  Either the claims of biblical Christianity are right, and there is a fundamental distinction between Creator and created, or the One-ists are right, and all is one.  The two views have vastly different practical consequences for how we view ourselves and the world at large.

Human beings are worshipers at heart: we each have something that drives our life, that we worship, whether we’re conscious of it or not.  Do you worship God or something else in the cosmos, or to frame the question in biblical terms, do you worship the living God or idols?

The video below from truthXchange presents the choice between One-ism and Two-ism.

the book that made my birthday

November 23, 2011

Saturday evening friends three doors down threw a dinner party.  For something like 30 people.  We’d been asked to come prepared with something for which we were thankful.  Shortly after I arrived a guy I didn’t know asked me what I was most thankful for. I replied, “I’m most thankful I’m in God’s story.” Then I explained:

I’m thankful that God is the Maker of all things, and that he’s still working in the world and in me. In other words, I’m thankful I’m part of the bigger, deeper, true story.

Well, my grandmother sent me a check in my birthday card, enough money for a book or two, or clothes, which I suppose I need more, but I’m a bit like Erasmus, who is rumored to have said, “When I get a little money, I buy books.  And if there’s any left I buy food and clothes.”  So, I ordered a hardcover copy of Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: how the Bible created the soul of western civilization.  Dr. Mangalwadi is India’s foremost Christian intellectual today, according to Christianity Today.

Mangalwadi explains his purpose in writing The Book That Made Your World in the final paragraph of his preface:

A cursory glance may give an impression that this is a book about the Bible.  Those who actually read it will know that this is about great literature and great art; great science and liberating technology; genuine heroism and nation building; great virtues and social institutions.  If you have a zillion pieces of a puzzle, would you begin assembling them into one picture, without knowing what that picture is supposed to look like?  The Bible created the modern world of science and learning because it gave us the Creator’s vision of what reality is all about.  This is what made the modern West a reading and thinking civilization.  Postmodern people see little point in reading books that do not contribute directly to their career or pleasure.  This is a logical outcome of atheism, which has now realized that the human mind cannot possibly know what is true and right.  This book is being published with a prayer that it will help revive a global interest in the Bible and in all the great books.

So the history of the west, the rise of the modern world, is tied up with the Bible and its deep influence forming our culture.  No wonder I get excited when I hear that story, because its been profoundly shaped by the same story that’s shaping me: an old, old story woven through creation, fall, promise, redemption at Jesus’ cross, mission to push back the effects of our collective brokenness, and one day all tears will be wiped away when Christ returns.  Or as my favorite children’s storybook Bible says ,“God would love his children — with a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”  The love that will not let us go has given many sons and daughters of the west the courage to stand in the face of tyranny, to work unceasingly in the face of evil, and to love in the face of death.

But what about the injustices, the imperfections, the brokenness of individuals and institutions?  That’s why I answered the question with thankfulness for being in God’s story – I’m in the middle, I’m a work in progress, but I’m banking on the love of God for me, and the love of God for this earth and all he made. At the end of the day, the shape of my hope can be found all over western culture, and increasingly in the majority world as well: the cross of Christ.  My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.  And that’s cause for thanksgiving!

book list envy, theological flaws, & the grace of God

October 29, 2011

This is a quick post, partly for my own reference.  I stumbled across a friend of a friend’s blog post of her summer reading, and quite a few of the titles are very intriguing to me:

  • Hipster Christianity
  • Reboot: Refreshing your faith in a high-tech world
  • The Devil in the White City
  • Anti-Blackness in the English Religion
  • Open Friendship in a Closed Society
  • Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians 1946-83,
  • Blood Done Sign My Name
  • Welcoming Justice
  • Through His Eyes: God’s perspective on women in the Bible
  • Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity

I’d only read the last two in her list, so I’ve added the others to my list of prospective reads.  I guess you could say I have book list envy.  I’d love to have a job that enabled me to dig into topics like that to better understand how we’re shaped by our theological beliefs.

I’ve just recently ordered a couple used books, including Allan A. Boesak’s Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition. Ever since taking a modern theology class a few years ago in which we ran across a letter in which Karl Barth warned Abraham Kuyper that his theological system could lend itself toward racism, I’ve been curious of the possible connections and/or weaknesses in Reformed theology toward justifying institutional racism in Dutch reformed South Africa under Apartheid.  To what extent does American reformed presbyterian theology share the same weaknesses?

On that question, and specific to southern American presbyterian theology and practice, I found a review and long comment stream about the history of the sin of racism in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).  I read the comments, was saddened to see unrepentant, unchanged racists leaving these churches rather than change their view by becoming more like Jesus (Joel Belz provides the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article and sidebar on this), but was encouraged in the same report that church discipline was exercised by the highest courts of my denomination against racism.  There’s also a lot of good work against racism coming through First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  God’s grace is powerful, able to change us and overcome our deeply rooted individual and social sins.

There are a few comments that stood out to me: Professor Stephen Taylor’s comment concluding that there’s a well developed version of Reformed theology which results in “a self-congratulatory segregated community impervious to critique, internal or external,” and blog author Anthony Bradley’s response,

“The PCA’s theology on issues of race and culture is deficient because it’s derived primarily from a context of privilege and elitism. What concerns many of us is the unwillingness for many in the PCA to admit that there is a major biblical and theological flaw in how the denomination thinks about these issues.”

Wow.  A context of privilege and elitism.  Other words for that would be forgetting the gospel, or not understanding grace.  I’ve seen this and been there myself far too often.  How quickly we forget the heart of the gospel: God didn’t pick us because we’re better than anybody, but simply because he loved us.

“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”   (Deuteronomy 9:6-7 ESV)

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”   (Deuteronomy 10:12-16 ESV)

If we forget we were slaves in Egypt, if we forget we are poor, destitute, without hope or status apart from Jesus, we are not believing the gospel, and we quickly fall into an ugly assumed privilege and elitism.

Peter Slade, the Methodist author of the book that really got this recent discussion going in the PCA, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, points out in his comment, theology does shape practice, and there are encouraging signs of change within the PCA.  Covenant Seminary professor Nelson Jennings, suggests in his comment a number of helpful points to hold on to during this discussion.

Issues of sin and race are tricky, our hearts deceptive, and we take good things like theology and find subtle ways to twist them to condone or even justify our sins.  We’re not that different from the stubborn people of God in Deuteronomy, but God hasn’t changed, so we can cling to the gracious promise he gave his people that he would one day change our stubborn hearts:

“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV)

God kept that promise when Jesus came, the only man without a stubborn, sinful heart, went to the cross for us to purchase by his blood from every ethnicity and race for God.  Racial reconciliation is central to the cross, and is one of the central reasons we have to worship Jesus:

 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”   (Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)

his wondrous works

September 8, 2011

I’ve been reflecting on the works of God in the natural realm, and in my life.  Back in April a tornado hit my parents’ house, causing significant but repairable damage, but God mercifully kept them safe.  Three times this summer I’ve flown to other parts of the country, riding thousands of feet above the earth in an airplane, and each time I’ve thrilled at that combination of human creativity and engineering, dependent on God’s gracious and faithful sustaining of the regularity of the natural realm.  Psalm 36 speaks of God’s faithfulness extending to the clouds.  God doesn’t just work in the gaps where human knowledge fails, but in every aspect of the cosmos.

In the book Science & Grace, the authors close their chapter on supernatural laws and natural miracles with this reflection by C.S. Lewis on the miraculous sign Jesus performs when he turned water to wine in Cana (John 2):

God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn the water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities.  Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine.  That, men fail to see.  Either like the Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus, or else, like the moderns, they attribute real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it.  But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off.  The miracle has only half its effect if it convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana. (C.S. Lewis, “Miracles”, cited in “Science & Grace” by Tim Morris & Don Petcher, p. 136)

What a great reminder that God works in every part of reality.

Yet, reality is broken and twisted by mankind’s rebellion.  At Cana the wedding feast ran out of wine, presumably due to poor planning or perhaps somebody has been drinking it on the sly without the steward’s notice.  At any rate, if Jesus hadn’t acted, the newlyweds would have had the social stigma of being “the-folks-who-ran-out-of-wine” for the rest of their lives.  We see his mercy toward that couple, and a foreshadowing of the total healing of brokenness that will come when he returns to make all things right.  He told his mom his time hadn’t yet come, but when it did come at the cross, he gave himself to repair the wreckage of our fall, gave us his body and blood, bread and wine, both to enjoy, to remind us of his faithfulness, our redemption, and the coming feast.

If our eyes are open, we see God’s work at every turn, in the tornado, in the wonder of air travel, in bread and wine.  The refrain of Psalm 107 calls us to thank the Giver of all good:

Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!

beautiful songs by two artists from the British Isles

June 10, 2011

For a few years now I’ve been enjoying the music of Scottish singer, accordianist, and pianist Emily Smith, and Welsh Martyn Joseph.  Here are some links to a few videos of their live performances:

Emily Smith: “Always a Smile” (about her Polish born Gran, Genowefa), “Sunset Hymn“, “Bleacher Lassie O’ Kelvinhaugh” (traditional Scottish), and “The Plooman” (traditional by Robert Burns).

Martyn Joseph: “Kiss the World Beautiful,” “Lonely Like America,” and “United Blues” (an improv while stuck in the Memphis airport).

Who are some of your favorite artists?

on beauty and goodness in everyday life

March 6, 2011

In his discussion of biblical language for beauty and goodness, William Dyrness says, “Part of the modern problems is that the Hebrews had no special language for art and beauty, precisely because beauty was not something that occupied a separate part of their lives. In one sense it was “nothing special.” Often objects of beauty simply accompanied or adorned ordinary parts of life and therefore would likely be dismissed today as merely “decorative.” Beauty was nothing special because at its best it was meant to be a reflection of the ordered meaning of God’s good creation.” (Visual Faith, p. 70).

The Hebrew words for beauty all had to do with ‘fittingness’, ‘suitability’, ‘holiness’, ‘goodness’, ‘righteousness’, ‘appropriateness’ and in that sense they’d be applicable to how we live in all areas of life. A few of the Hebrew words for beauty have a sense of desire, of a value worth obtaining. The Hebrews affirmed beauty in everyday life because God’s creation is good, yet recognizing the brokenness due to human sinfulness, there’s an eschatological sense in their understanding of beauty: one day God will act to destroy evil and all things will be made beautiful. This should give us hope to live life beautifully, in the face of brokenness, knowing that the one who had no beauty to attract us was broken on the cross to clothe his people in beauty. Or as U2 said so well:

She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name….

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things