In my early years as an undergrad, my friends and I were very into personality tests. We spent way too many Saturday mornings taking Buzzfeed quizzes when we should have been studying, discussed our Myers-Briggs results in depth, and cringed together over our StrengthsQuest results. Inevitably, we bickered over who was actually which Pixar character or what office supply. In the case of the MBTI, this lead to making fun of each other’s “NF moments” (like crying in Western Civ class, as I’m apparently very fond of blogging about), or mutual eye-rolling at the differences between my decidedly P-lifestyle in the midst of my more J-leaning friend group. And I can hardly go an entire weekend without remembering my friend’s smirk as she pointed out that I was an introvert with Includer as one of my top Strengths.
The first time I read a description of the INFP in high school, my only reaction was tears. Finally, here in this Wikipedia article, of all places, I found the assurance of understanding that I’d longed for from every relationship I’d pursued, every journal entry I’d written, and every fandom I’d pledged myself to. Not only did I feel understood in all the things I had never even considered about myself, but also this article’s very existence validated mine. Because my experience had even been thought of by someone else, someone else must have shared that experience. My existence must somehow be okay.
Personality types also helped me better understand others: that guy probably annoys me because he’s so aggressively E, or I don’t see the world quite the same as that person with a strong S. Of course the scientific validity of such indicators will be debated for aeons to come, not least impacted by how trends change. But at least in the case of my friends and I, MBTI gave us a common language to convey our needs and desires when we lived together.
Oddly, the more I retreated into my identity as expressed by any number of personality descriptors, the more trapped I felt. And maybe my understanding of how personality typing works is just subconsciously flawed: of course I understand that the populace of the world isn’t just 16 persons reincarnated into billions of bodies strewn across the planet. Of course people are more complex than four letters or five strengths, and there are exceptions, backstories, and spectrums to every type. I understand that, at least in theory. In practice, however, I began to make decisions based on who I thought I should be: “I might like studying literature because I have traits that some people express as NF” quickly became “I don’t have to always be around that person because I’m an I,” which escalated into “I shouldn’t make plans because I’m a P.” Explanations became excuses became exemplaries.
I have been known to take things to extremes.
Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations around the Enneagram. To those unfamiliar, the Enneagram is based off of nine personalities (with variations), and expresses each type’s basic fear, basic desire, key motivations, and the way each type operates in stress and in health. It may or may not come as a surprise that the free online (and totally legitimate, I’m sure) test I took identified me as a Type Nine, the Peacemaker, who fears disconnection while craving harmony. And while I didn’t burst into tears upon reading this description, it did sound spookily familiar.
On one hand, this personality type explains my struggle with all the rest. Nines have difficulty pinning down their own thoughts and emotions. They sometimes long instead to meld with other people and other identities, according to this enlightening podcast from the Liturgists. For me, that manifested in several ways. But most relevant to this post, I took a should/should not mentality toward the way I understood the INFP. If there were an ideal INFP, floating high and Platonic above the shadowy cave of this world, I wanted to become it. That was so much easier than just being me.
Even though the Enneagram helped me understand my understanding of personality indicators (even the Enneagram itself, in some odd, meta way), the moral of the story is not that a set of questions, a few paragraphs, and a list of people who might be like you will solve the longing to be yourself that you feel when a new acquaintance asks you what you do for fun, or when you visit your family to find you’ve changed, or when you make life-altering decisions, wondering what that younger version of you would think of you now. And when I took quizzes, even ones like “Build your dream potato dish and we’ll tell you the name of your future pet iguana,” I searched for these answers in who I thought I was. I wanted to be myself, and for that self to hold some kind of satisfaction that I knew I couldn’t find alone, like cracking open a geode with a hammer because your fist isn’t hard enough. But no personality test can reveal the secret to holism. No construct holds the reconciliation or justification of who I am to strangers, my family, my past. And not just because the MBTI is too simplistic or because the Enneagram is too complicated, or even because Buzzfeed is too ridiculous.
I was looking for answers, satisfaction, in myself. And most of the time, I don’t really know who this “myself” person is.
The sin of Israel, who complained for a king and crowned the tallest person they could find, is mine. The sin of the Pharisees, who made their own laws to feel holy, is mine. The sin of Adam and Eve, who ate fruit to become like God, is mine. And I make up new ways to hide and to atomize and to dethrone. My identity is here, too, in the sins I share.
But in ways beyond my understanding, beyond myself, my identity is in Christ. More than in INFP, in Strengths, in Nine. More than the personalities I try to mold myself into. And certainly more than in my sins. I can identify with Christ not because his personality happens to match mine, like another type, as if the Godhead were a pair of earrings that complemented my eyes. I can identify with him because he identified with me, releasing his own identity and emptying himself to humanity, to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). I identify with him because he chose me, and so I choose him instead of the sins of Adam and of Israel and of the Pharisees. I identify with him because I came to the end of myself and there was still no satisfaction, reconciliation, justification (or any other fancy-sounding word, except for maybe humiliation).
And so I empty myself, too.
At the beginning of my first semester at seminary, I was assigned to write a ‘theological integration’ paper for my Systematic Theology class. I chose ‘demonology’ as a topic to write about, primarily because I don’t care about demonology.
Because I’m a fairly by-the-numbers Protestant, and Protestants don’t care about demonology, because Protestants don’t care about the supernatural. Which is an overgeneralization, but all statements are, all the time.
And we really, really don’t. There are some outliers, mostly Pentecostal in orientation, who devote extended attention to the question of the supernatural, of spectral assailants and unholy ghosts – entities that St. Paul generally refers to as ‘principalities and powers’. Generally, though, even when their work is stellar (and it often is), it goes largely unnoticed by the broader Protestant community.
There are good reasons for this. We (allegedly) dislike speculation. We are (allegedly) devoted to speaking boldly where the Bible is clear and keeping quiet where it isn’t. We (allegedly) prefer to keep the gospel front and center in our preaching and discipleship and peripheral curiosities in the background.
Indeed, prospects of retrieving ancient emphases on the ‘principalities and powers’ has been marred by associations with the less-than-careful approaches of thinkers like C. Peter Wagner. His work is undeniably illuminating, but has often been guilty swallowing the bones along with the meat. Premodern notions of ‘territorial spirits’ and so forth have been devoured uncritically, luring intelligent and devout believers into varying degrees of baseless superstition.
“The devil made me do it” is a familiar mantra for those living in the post-Christian West. For those whose religious devotion outruns their familiarity with theology, such claims were, perhaps, the most natural way to understand their continued struggle with sin after experiencing salvation. It’s plenty natural to be ambivalent about integrating ancient demonologies into a contemporary theological framework.
Our grandparents insist that there is already a “responsibility crisis” of sorts in modern-day America, and not only in the youth culture. The notion that each individual is responsible for her own actions is eroding, we are told, and one may suspect that adding in the notion that demonic entities exist who are capable of significantly influencing our thoughts and actions can only compound this.
Of course, the notion that human wrongdoing can be chalked up to demonic co-opting is only rarely entertained in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and never in the scriptures themselves. With the noteworthy exception of the demons that are subdued by Jesus during the itinerant portions of His ministry, we are never given the impression that demons can be responsible for human behavior.
Neither does the notion gain serious traction among orthodox believers in the Patristic period, insofar as can be verified, or even among the medieval Scholastics, whose tendency toward eisegetical flamboyances was one catalyst for the eventual break from the established Church in the Reformation. “The devil made me do it” is a backwater theological error with no substantive connection to the historic Christian emphasis on dethroning the principalities and powers. But the threat of lapsing into such obscurantism is there, and so Protestants remain (allegedly) cautious about giving sustained attention to the supernatural elements of scripture.
There is, of course, another reason. Martin Luther had no qualms about acknowledging the role of the devil in kneecapping the world, but Harry Emerson Fosdick certainly did. What changed?
As the “New Atheists” like to remind us, we are not many centuries removed from the days when cases of what are now known to have been treatable mental illnesses were treated as devilry. Schizophrenics were tortured inadvertently and locked away, often after being put through arduous ceremonies to exorcise the demons believed to control of them. It would not be unreasonable to want to do away with the notion of malicious spiritual entities all together, gravitating instead toward more quantifiable disciplines like the social sciences as the chief lenses through which we examine societal issues.
The West did not abandon belief in devilry because the supernatural was proven to be superstitious, nor even because satisfying explanations were provided for the phenomena that used to be attributed to Beliar. Instead, it has long been assumed that human religion was subject to an evolutionary process by which it gradually became more sophisticated. Animistic religion was, perhaps, its irreducible form, and there wasn’t much to it. Slowly, these religions would mutate and take new shapes, each more vibrant than the last. Eventually, the pantheon of human religious experience grew so variegated that it could hardly be cataloged. The underlying assumption, of course, being that we have now seen the birth pangs of a new religious epoch – namely, secularism. The functions that religion once served are now usurped by more capable tools, most notably the sciences.
In his unfortunately-titled volume, Man’s Rise to Civilization, Peter Farb examines the variegated native tribes that spread out across the Americas as a launching pad to test hypotheses about evolutionary trajectory of early human societies. He notes what ought to be surprising: native tribes whose religion was basically animistic harbor a rich complexity that the wealthy, educated, and white conquerors who gave us the earliest accounts of their lifestyle were incapable of detecting.
Western academia has conditioned itself to look for certain elements, to attribute ‘high culture’ to certain factors, most of which are notably missing in what were ultimately deemed the “least developed” tribes. As such, they were mistakenly deemed “primitive.” They were not. What we presumed to be barbarism was simply unfamiliar, including their religious expression. Animistic, polytheistic, pantheistic religion, etc. were hardly undeveloped, or simple, or primitive.
They were, instead, ceremonially and intellectually rigorous, even inductive in character. The specters presumed to haunt their prairies were not simply products of an overactive and under-stimulated shared imagination, Farb suggests. Even if they were not real, such beliefs were the product of careful investigations by critically adept investigators. He goes as far as to suggest that animism and its distant cousins are approximately as complex as monotheism – and approximately as complex as secularism.
At risk of sounding relativistic to a fault, he points out that much of what one presumes to be “common sense” in a secular society deconstructs to little more than “inherited ritual.” The sciences have illuminated our understanding of the natural world in certain respects. But alongside such ‘objective’ illuminations, we are prone to invent mythologies, incorporating demonstrated facts with baseless but deeply held cultural sentiments. These mythologies become ingrained over generations, sometimes long after being debunked. In this respect, the “secular city” is not unlike every other culture that has ever existed. Human culture has always been incalculably complex, gloriously nuanced, remarkably civilized. Our confidence regarding the non-existence of angels and demons rests not on scientific advancements, but uncritical presumptions of superiority to cultures that we have deemed primitive. It may be too inflammatory to say that antisupernaturalism is simply embodied colonialism, but it’s only half wrong.
In the absence of any falsifiable method to prove or disprove the existence of such supernatural forces as are chronicled in the Christian scriptures, or the Upanishads, or Qu’ran, or native American lore, religious people are left to do the inductive work of searching their respective traditions to understand how such entities have been characterized by their communities through the ages. For those connected at the bone to the Christian community, the scriptures are the primary source by which one comes to terms with the nature of the “principalities and powers.”
Harvey Cox: The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.
Peter Farb: Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. 1st ed. Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1968.
John Shelby Spong: Why Christianity must change or die: a bishop speaks to believers in exile. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999.
[Each of these books are problematic, but helpful. Farb is an interesting source – he swallows up much of what is wrong with contemporary Western antisupernaturalism, generally falling back on the wrongheaded consensus of the post-Kantian elite, but manages to step out, ever so slightly, as the result of his extensive studies in Native cultures. Looking closely at the seemingly otherworldly lifestyle of the many-splendored and endlessly diverse Native cultures that spread across the Americas aeons before Columbus, he unmasks the irredeemably reductive and untenable caricatures of “premodern” cosmogonies – and the “mythologized” understanding of the natural world that comes with them.
Spong, on the other hand, represents the worst of contemporary antisupernatural hermeneutics, regularly returning to this as a rationalization for discarding what is less-than-palatable in the scriptures. Whether the Canaanite conquest, Covenant exclusivism, or his pet issue, sexual ethics, such infractions are chalked up to ancient Israel having been in one or the other transitionary stages in the process of religious evolution.]
Friedrich Nietzsche’s been on the receiving end of some rather unfair accusations: That he was a Proto-Nazi; That he was a crude nationalist; Or a militarist: Or a nihilist.
And some very fair ones: That he was misogynistic; That his disorganized, aphoristic writing style was infantile and self-indulgent; That his mustache looked stupid.
But he’s an important figure. Not only for modern Christians, but for everyone. Much of what dominates contemporary discourse has its roots in Nietzschean thought. Derrida, especially, clung to threads previously oft-ignored by Nietzsche’s readers, which made up, perhaps, the better part of his philosophy: That there are no individuals, not really, but only subjects; We are all, always, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of arbitrary cultural constructs that we had no part in forming, which to a large extent determine our attitudes and prejudices; That our thoughts are not our own, not really. They are the thoughts of those men (always men) from ages past who managed to impose their perspectives on the populace, both in their own day and ours; That we do not “acknowledge” reality, we “constitute” it. We “construct” reality; That there is no “shared reality” that we can all acknowledge together. Or, if there is, we’ll never see it clearly. Especially not together, because there is no “we.” There is only a multitude of you’s and I’s, never us’es. There is simply a plurality of individuals who interpret the world according to somebody else’s constructs, which has co-opted our bodies and minds, somehow, and now compels us to see things through eyes that are not our own; That we do not see the world as it is, but as we were “conditioned” to see it.
One may be surprised to find that such ideas are older than they had thought. And these did not originate with Nietzsche either, but he has certainly been a contact point through which we have retrieved them. None of this, of course makes him a particularly good Christian apologist. But it is important groundwork to understand why he is, in fact, a one of the best.
As Nietzsche recounts (primarily throughout Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, human creatures are, irreducibly, a “pack of savages,” a “race of conquerors.” There is no such thing as “cooperation,” not really. There is only “conquest.”
There are only “interest groups,” some “powerful,” and others “powerless.” (In summarizing, I am sometimes using language that he did not employ). No one becomes “powerful” without taking power from others. It’s a zero-sum game. There are no truly “mutually beneficial” agreements or “cooperations” to be made. There is only the combined power of certain “interest groups” submerging the interests of other disparate and powerless “interest groups.”
Naturally, certain interest groups hold certain “values” and others hold other “values.” The “contest” between interest groups is a “contest” between irreconcilable “value sets.” Ultimately, the combined power of the victorious interest groups crystallizes into the “dominant culture.” Meanwhile, the “value sets” that dominant interest groups hold become “normative” over all others. Those who belonged to the disparate, powerless, “conquered” interest groups are “subjected” to the values held by the powerful, “conquering,” dominant interest groups.
When such a thing happens, however, the conquered and powerless groups grow to resent their “disenfranchisement,” holding their “conquerors” in contempt – simply by virtue of their having been conquered. They come to envision themselves as “victims” rather than simply as “vanquished contestants.” As such, they come to envision their conquerors as “villains,” simply for having “won” the “contest.” The conquered learn to see themselves as “morally upright underdogs” who deserve “liberation” from their conquerors and the values that their conquerors have imposed onto them.
The “dominant group” is reframed by the “dominated groups” as being the source of the their suffering, at which point what Nietzsche dubs the “slave morality” is born. As Nietzsche frames it, Christianity is the epitome of “slave morality.”
Plenty of groups are conquered, He says. Plenty of groups are victimized, sure. Plenty of groups are “submerged.” But this is simply the result of the inevitable “contest” between the irreconcilable “value sets” of competing “interest groups.” One of the groups will dominate, and the other will be dominated. That’s simply how it goes, always.
But Christianity, which during Nietzsche’s lifetime was generally believed to have began as a movement among the poor that only later spread out to the bourgeois, had, from its inception a distinct “egalitarian spirit.” It was riddled with “contemptible ideas,” as Nietzsche saw it, including the notion that the all-powerful Creator of the universe had, for some unconscionable reason, taken on human flesh and become a peasant – a “slave,” to use more Nietzschean language – in solidarity with what Christians called the “least of these.”
When Christianity became the unlikely religion of the Empire, it overthrew the Greco-Roman “will to power” – the “master morality” – and translated these unprecedented “egalitarian values” into the structure of the Western mind. Heretofore nonexistent concepts, like the “absolute value of the human person,” wholly regardless of their usefulness, strength, honor, or “virility” were thus “inscribed” into the “moral framework” of the West; Slowly, of course, in fits and starts, but inevitably.
Thus, Christianity had embedded, seemingly irrevocably, a “slave morality” into the Western consciousness (in fairly radical contradistinction to the cosmic frat party that was the pre-Christian Roman Empire).
This won’t be particularly impressive to those with revolutionary proclivities. For those post-modern and post-post-modern folks who haven’t collapsed into a kind of formless and void nihilism (the sort that Nietzsche predicted would be our undoing), the fact that the “Christian revolution” didn’t eliminate all sexism, racism, xenophobia and otherwise during the lifetime of the Apostles (or at least their Patristic proteges) renders the whole thing null and void, more or less.
Which is fine. Christianity has always been anti-revolutionary, and therefore never palatable to that particular demographic. Even Barabbas, the revolutionary who was set free by Pilate instead of Jesus (who is traditionally believed to have become a Christian after being released) supposedly put away his revolutionary mindset once he “took up his cross.”
But for those willing to accept it, it’s entirely worth noting: Western progressivism, all of its forms, both good and bad, are ultimately tributaries that run off from a great river that flows back to the incarnate Christ and the Apostles whom he trained. This ought to embarrass, for example, the “religious right,” whose mission, it seems, has long dwindled into painting up progressives as enemies of the Almighty. But it also ought to remind us that whatever “egalitarian impulses” we might have we owe chiefly to the “Christian revolution.”
It did not purge the world of injustice overnight. Some people will never forgive it for not having done so. Fair enough, I suppose. But if Nietzsche is correct, we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that what massive strides we have made, even over the last century, are due to our having liberated ourselves from Christianity. And more: If Nietzsche is correct, even those philosophies that often challenge and sometimes reject Christaity out of hand – whether it’s the Women’s Liberation movement, or LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups – ultimately “live and move and have their being” within the “moral vocabulary” – the “slave morality,” as Nietzsche would have it – bestowed upon us by the “Christian revolution.”
Yes, the West was (and is) an imperialist monolith who has subjected hordes of colonized provinces to a multitude of horrific wrongs. Yes, the West carried out these atrocities both before and after the so-called “Christian revolution.” And yes, the West has yet to fully own the blame and make due reparations to many of the wronged parties. All of these things are positively true. But only within the strange, egalitarian moral imagination that Christianity literally pioneered.
That is, if you believe that imperialism is wrong, or sexism, xenophobia, or racism, you’re already at least half-Christian. These very sentiments are what Cornelius Van Til calls “borrowed capital,” inherited from the Christian imagination. What wrongs the Christian world has inflicted – and they are many – are only actually wrong within a Christian moral framework.
Which is to say that if Nietzsche is correct, then Christianity’s most elucidating critics – feminist critics, for example – amount largely to groups who have applied their Christianized moral imagination more acutely to particular social ills (such as misogyny and “the patriarchy”) than the rest of the Christian or post-Christian world has bothered to as of yet.
I have, I assume, thoroughly upset both Christians who object on principle to feminism, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, critical race Theory, et cetera and non-christians who identify strongly with these particular advocacy groups, who feel that I am appropriating their interests to make a cheap case for Christianity. That much can’t be avoided, I guess. As I mentioned before, it’s only natural to be unsatisfied with whatever pretenses of moral authority the Christian religion still has after not having prevented the following two thousand years of rampant misogyny, brutality, and more.
But your liberative aspirations – what Nietzsche calls your “slave morality” – came from somewhere, and Christianity is that somewhere. And as “deconstructive” models of interpreting culture become increasingly mainstream – as normal folks, rather than simply professional academians, adopt previously avant-garde notions about the “arbitrariness of meaning,” and the “inherent violence of ideas” themselves, warming, as it were, to the notion that all of culture really boils down to the imposed power of certain interest groups over the conquered powerlessness of other interest groups – it’s entirely possible that it’s not wise to cut at the roots of the “slave morality” that has (at an admittedly glacial pace) brought us this far.
A disenchanted West, drunk on extreme relativism, probably will not blossom into a bastion of progressive values. However regressive one believes the Christian religion itself to be, it remains the “bank” from which our favorite liberation ideologies continue to make withdrawals – at least, if Nietzsche is correct. I’d rather we didn’t close the account.
The author of the Pentateuch was virtually unanimously believed to be Moses until the 17th century. And even then, it was not until the 19th century that skepticism regarding Mosaic authorship caught on like wildfire so that the traditional view quickly became the minority view. Throughout the 18th century, serious debate regarding its authorship was waged by heavy hitters like Witte, Astruc, Eichorn, and Ilgen, who ultimately paved the way for the more substantive departures to come in the 19th century by positing the existence of a ‘Jawist’ and an Elohist, on the (rather anemic) basis of the variation throughout the Pentateuch of ‘divine names’.
Through the 19th century, a number of hypotheses were offered to replace the traditional view. Geddes suggested that the Pentateuch was the synthesized product of a multitude of fragments. Franz Delitsch posited a process whereby an initially straightforward sacred tradition was gradually supplemented until finally arriving at its canonical form, somewhere in the Exile period. Hupfield and Graf were pioneers of what has come to be called the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’, which taught that a definite and identifiable group of sources from varying Hebraic cultic traditions, were ultimately brought together into what we now know as the Pentateuch.
Wellhausen ingeniously took this notion and ran with it, presenting a ‘coherent’ reconstruction of ancient Hebrew history. He suggested that Israel’s religious history developed like all religious histories supposedly develop: They began, he said, very simple, with little cultic flair, disorganized and decentralized. By the time of the Deuteronomist, however, there was a push for a unified Temple worship, or, at least, the birth pangs thereof, and so the Pentateuchal sources were further redacted to reflect this (although, apparently not particularly well, since the ‘evidence’ for the previous, ‘decentralized’ religion of ancient Israel is supposedly still plainly visible in the text).
Finally, by the time the Priestly redactor came around, there was little left of the old Prophetic faith, with its emphasis on ethics and such. In its stead, we are told, there is an almost obsessive attention devoted to cultic practice – an elaborate sacrificial system, a colorfully defined Temple, and, most importantly, a ‘central sanctuary’.
Wellhausen’s reconstruction, or at least some variation thereof, has become more or less axiomatic in mainstream academia. Although he largely popularized the Documentary hypothesis, there are a few glaring methodological limitations, not least that its conclusions are largely unverifiable and, worse, unreplicatable (irreplicatable? Unreproducible? Irreproducible? Words are difficult.)
That is, of the manifold scholars who have followed in the footsteps of these skeptical trailblazers, few of them have arrived at terribly similar conclusions about the particulars of the formation and authorship of the Pentateuch. Generally, if a theory is good, it should easily replicated by those who go through the same process whereby it was reach.
But because the Documentary Hypothesis and its various cousins are almost entirely conjectural, they are impossible to work with. As a purely conjectural foundation, they back scholars who operate from them into a corner in which they are forced to content themselves with building entire careers on little more than glorified guesswork.
Nevertheless, the Pentateuch is complex. At some points, Moses is said to be meek, whereas he is elsewhere said to be mighty and bold. Contextually, these hardly need to be contradictory, but they do present a challenge. And, too, the Law codes, especially of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) have their share of seemingly irreconcilable commands, but often this appears upon closer examination to be a case of non-overlapping casuistic scenarios. Even in cases in which apodictic commands appear to grate against one another, they do not, upon closer examination, need to be read as contestants in a zero-sum duel.
Moreover, reading through the Pentateuch, one is struck more by the remarkably theological consistency between even apparently disparate passages. The uniform witness of the Pentateuch is to God’s unique identity. He is the only Creator – the only one who can bara. He shares no common ground with the pagan deities, and has no difficulty dispatching them – and their subjects – when necessary. Whatever apparent diversity there is to be found in the beautifully complex books of Moses only underscores the broad theological unity thereof.
Thus, given the well-nigh unanimous testimony of the Church through the ages regarding Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, we ought to defer to those who have gone before us in regards to its Mosaic authorship and accept that the man himself was behind it – especially given the flimsiness of the skeptical objections by 17th-19th century elites.
“To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened.” Writes David Powlison, author of How Does Sanctification Work. “You know God. You love God. How other people are doing matters increasingly to you. Becoming more holy means, [among other things], that you are becoming a wiser human being.”
He goes on: “You are learning how to deal with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality.”
“You are learning to pray honestly, bring who God really is into the reality of human need. It means you live in more clear-minded hope.” And finally, “You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.”
According to Powlison, Sanctification does not simply boil down to vaguely thinking about one’s Justification. Although the scriptures say “remember your Justification,” it does not mean that each time I sin, my responsibility is simply to remind myself that I am fully, freely, and forever forgiven because of the work of Christ on the cross.
And it does not simply mean that we try super-hard to be super-good outside of the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Powlison, our whole salvation was purchased by Christ, for Christ, and is accomplished through Christ, including our Sanctification. As we “remember [our] Justification,” we submit to the Spirit whom Christ sent, and the Spirit conforms us, over the course of a lifetime, to the likeness of the Christ whose righteousness is already imputed onto us.
There is absolutely no version of Sanctification that happens outside of relationship with other people. Powlison lists ‘accountability relationships’ as an indispensable resource that the Spirit uses to hammer us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification involves using all of the ‘tools’ that He has given us. Powlison writes that we are given a ‘truckload’ of tools, and none of them are end-all-be-all; neither accountability nor ‘spiritual warfare’ nor ‘rooting our identity in Christ’ are individually efficacious to root out our sin nature. God has bestowed us with a ‘truckload’, and we submit to His work by using all of them.
There’s no ‘formula’ for Sanctification whereby we follow seven simple steps and come out the other side as a new creation. The process is always scattered, unfolding at a rickety pace, in fits and starts, as we stumble and grasp at straws before submitting again to the Spirit whose work isn’t scattershot and rickety. The essence of Sanctification, he says, is submission to the Spirit – we “remember our Justification” when we allow our Justification to bear its fruit; because we are Justified in Christ, the Spirit comes to us to Sanctify us, completing the work of the cross.
The call to Sanctification and the call to live on mission are essentially the same thing, Powlison writes. God does not simply Sanctify us because it pleases Him for us to reflect the perfect righteousness of His Son (although this is one reason), but because it pleases Him for His elect to draw others into the fold by embodying a righteousness that proves contagious, that gets others God-sick. Our Sanctification, which others see as they know us through the years, is one means by which God seeks out the lost. Sanctified people are de facto missionaries because they are being sanctified, publicly, and it causes people to want to know the God who does the Sanctifying.
Sanctification takes place chiefly in the context of discipleship: you are sanctified as you are discipled, and you are sanctified as you disciple. If we are not being discipled by other believers who are being Sanctified, then we are likely not growing in grace, and we are likely not being “transformed, from one degree of glory to another, into the image of Christ”. And, if we are not discipling others, Christian and non-Christian, then we are probably not being changed by grace. Sanctification is for sinful people, and our ongoing struggles with sin do not derail our Sanctification. But sluggardliness can.
If we are hiding from community and accountability, we are probably hiding from God, even if we think we aren’t. We are conformed together, the passage from Ephesians says, into His image, and we need each other.
Knowing that there is no formula by which Sanctification plays out challenges us to seek out every opportunity to submit to the Spirit’s work in us. This means that every opportunity to share the gospel with someone – say, a homeless person that you have an opportunity to buy lunch for – is to be used for the kingdom. It is not simply a good thing to do, it’s part of the Spirit-wrought process whereby we grow into our identity in Christ.
To paraphrase Powlison, Sanctification is what happens as the Spirit works out the life of Jesus in our own lives. Even if we have jobs and homes and pets, we are, in essence, itinerant evangelists who insert ourselves into the life of our communities as witnesses to the gospel of grace.
“Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness,” Writes Powlison. “Put another way, because you can only say one thing at a time, a timely word must be a selective word focusing on the need of the moment. And this selective focus produces a kind of imbalance.”
He concludes: “But stepping back from the need of the moment, many things can be said, and this larger theological picture helps us maintain balance.” So it goes with Sanctification.
How Does Sanctification Work can be purchased on Amazon and probably other places, too.
When you’re a religion major, it’s not uncommon to meet some disgruntled freshman, fresh out of his second-semester Old Testament class, railing against whatever it was that his parents raised him to believe, citing disparate factoids that his professor briefly covered, ripped from their context and wielded as shoddy weaponry in their crusade to have cool, edgy new opinions. One such factoid is the Ancient Near Eastern belief in what has come to be called the ‘heavenly court’ or the ‘heavenly council’.
There’s an entire chapter devoted to the subject in Peter Enns’ enjoyable if gratingly polemical The Bible Tells Me So, in which he goes to great lengths to make the ‘court’ seem as outlandish as possible, and suggests that its existence in the ancient Jewish imagination means that that most of we think that we know about the Old Testament is basically wrong. He published the aforementioned book pretty fresh off of being terminated from Westminster Theological Seminary because the angry, rich parents of some uppity seminarians complained that his Old Testament classes weren’t enough like Sunday School, so his hyperbolic approach may have reactionary.
In any case, the ‘heavenly court’ is alluded to primarily in ‘poetic’ sections of scripture, which muddies the water. It is not immediately obvious, for example, whether the imagery used in Psalm 82 should be taken as an affirmation that the ‘heavenly council’ is a concrete body that actually exists rather than a simply a literary device. Likewise, in 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah alludes viscerally to the heavenly council as he describes a vision given to him by the Lord: The wicked king Ahab has requested his counsel on whether he should go to war with Ramoth-gilead – but not before having his messenger pressure Micaiah for a favorable prophecy. He replies:
“Hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and the whole heavenly host was standing by Him at His right hand and at His left hand. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to march up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ So one was saying this and another was saying that.
“Then a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“The Lord asked him, ‘How?’
“He said, ‘I will go and become a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
“Then He said, ‘You will certainly entice him and prevail. Go and do that.’
“You see, the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has pronounced disaster against you.”
It is unclear, too, from this passage whether the council is a real entity or simply a common Near Eastern trope that YHWH, through the mouth of the prophet, is satirizing. The verbal prophecy is notably acerbic in tone, and was delivered as a response to Ahab’s complaints regarding his history of unfavorable prophesies. Adding to the formal ambiguity of the passage is the fact that it is puzzling to contemporary readers. Taken at face value, it not only suggests that there is a council of divines with whom the one God YHWH consults, but that He sometimes permits (even solicits!) them to sabotage individual humans (see also: 1 Sam 19:9-14). There is an inordinate demand, even within more conservative religious communities, for demythologized readings of passages of this sort.
What is not ambiguous is the of the book of Job, wherein the council (“the sons of God”) present themselves to YHWH and become spectators of the peculiar exchange between YHWH and Satan. He asks YHWH for permission to torment Job in an effort to incite him to curse YHWH, and permission is granted. He is not, however, given permission to harm Job himself. Later, a similar scene plays out, this time with Satan requesting permission to harm Job himself, again in an effort to incite him to renounce his faith. Again, permission is granted.
It is oft-suggested that the book of Job is ahistorical – that it is chiefly a poem, or a satirical play – and this may be the majority view among modern scholars, but this is an unsatisfactory theory. Although it is true that there is no substantive internal indication that Job is meant to be understood as a tale from history, there is intra-biblical evidence that the man, Job, was a historical figure. Ezekiel 14:15-20, for example, names Noah, Daniel, and Job together in a group.
Now, the reference to Job alone in this prophesy would not by necessity mean that he was a historical figure – the prophets were good rhetoricians (and so is the Holy Spirit) who put the imagery of the Near East to great use in their sermons and prophecies. But it is noteworthy that Ezekiel mentions three men: Noah, Daniel, and Job. Between these three, Daniel is certainly as historical figure, and one can probably expect consistency from Ezekiel here. Which means that, beyond reasonable doubt, it can be assumed that Ezekiel – and thus, probably, all of the ancient Hebrews – believed Job to be a historical figure. And in that case, it is unlikely that an ahistorical tale about a historical figure would be included in the canon (or inspired by the Spirit).
Thus, it can be inferred that the ‘heavenly court’, a common trope in ancient Near Eastern mythology, is, in fact, a historical body – not simply a bit of familiar mythological imagery that the Old Testament writers put to use for rhetorical purposes. As such, the other mentions of the heavenly council throughout the scriptures, although they occur in a variety of genres and therefore must be examined critically, should be understood to refer accurately to a real entity.
Pagan sources are somewhat varied on precisely how the court worked, but a few things were generally agreed upon: The universe was created by the council of gods, either by cooperation or by competition with one another. The world was divvied up and each god took a territory. Together, they bestow kingship on humans (or take it away), and oversee questions of justice and the miscarriage thereof. They hear oaths, treaties, blessings, and curses. They make divine decrees, declare war, and commission the building of holy temples. In some iterations, the gods in the assembly would make obeisance to a higher god.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the assembly was not a gathering of equals, as YHWH appears to have been the final, and perhaps singular, authority over the other supernatural beings with whom He would gather. The other members of the court, the ‘lesser gods’ (Ps. 96:4-5; 97:7-9), would carry out the will of YHWH, sometimes, apparently, by influencing humans (1 Kings 22:20-22) Strangely enough, Satan was apparently granted some degree of access to the court (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech. 3:1-2), which has led scholars to suggest that the Jews originally envisaged him as a member of the court whose duty was to keep watch over humanity’s conduct on earth. However, a lack of slam-dunk intra- or extra-biblical evidence supporting this view makes difficult to demonstrate, so there is little reason to depart from the traditional understanding, best articulated by John, that Satan was an antagonistic figure from ‘the beginning’ (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:2).
What is not clear is the extent to which their subservience to YHWH was willing or coerced. The Qumran sect identified the beings who abided on YHWH’s council as ‘the holy ones’ – a term that shows up often, especially throughout the Psalms and elsewhere. If this is the case, then the heavenly court is presented, it would seem, in a positive light. The ‘holy ones’ are portrayed worshipping YHWH joyfully and carrying out His will with apparently unadulterated enthusiasm. A cursory reading of the Old Testament suggests that this is unlikely. Of the passages often believed to associate the ‘holy ones’ with the heavenly court (Dt. 33:2-3; Ps. 68:17; 89:5-8; Zec. 14:5), only Ps. 89:5-8 is demonstrably a reference to the court:
Lord, the heavens praise Your wonders—
Your faithfulness also—
in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?
God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones,
more awe-inspiring than all who surround Him.
Lord God of Hosts,
who is strong like You, Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds You.
The rest, with the possible exception of Zechariah 14:5, read rather like references to the people of Israel. Thus, although the ‘holy ones’ of the council ‘greatly feared’ the Lord, it cannot be assumed that they treasured His authority or carried out His will with a glad heart, as did the ‘holy ones’ of Israel (in theory, of course). Given the incongruity between the inherent ‘territorialism’ of the pagan conceptions of the heavenly court and the unambiguous ‘unilateralism’ of the Biblical accounts of the court, an interested observer may venture to guess that the arrangement was never to the liking of the ‘lesser gods’ over whom YHWH presided. So much so, it would seem, that the Babylonian Enuma Elish declares that ‘Marduk is supreme in the court of the gods,’ not YHWH, and that ‘No one among the gods is his equal,’ – if he couldn’t be ‘supreme’ at the office, at least he’d brag as though he were at home.
All of which is to say, the existence of the ‘heavenly court’ doesn’t seem to be particularly at odds with a fairly traditional understanding of the God of the Old Testament. It does not, as some have suggested, destabilize the notion that Israel was consistently monotheistic in orientation. At most, it implies a kind of soft Henotheism, but hardly the sort that ought to stir up controversy. A council of ‘lesser gods’ who serve the unilateral will of YHWH, whose disobediences and rebellions are only possible by His sovereign permission, is no particular challenge to the vision of continuity between the Old-and-New Testament conceptions of the Godhead that have been passed down. The ‘heavenly court’ poses no challenge to ‘the faith once delivered’.
For reference, see:
Min Suc Kee: “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007)
Clinton E. Arnold. Powers of darkness: principalities & powers in Pauls letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Gatumu, Kabiro Wa. The Pauline concept of supernatural powers: a reading from the African worldview. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes , MK: Paternoster, 2008.
Eph. 2:1-10 reads as such:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
There are some things to be derived from this passage. These are thirty-three of them:
- Paul’s readers were previously “dead” in their “trespasses”.
- Paul’s readers were also previously “dead” in their “sins”.
- They used to “walk” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, but not anymore.
- When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ways of this world”.
- When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens”.
- The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens” is “the spirit now working in the disobedient”.
- Both Paul and his readers previously lived among “the disobedient”.
- When they lived among the disobedient, they “in our fleshly desires”.
- When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they “carried out the inclinations of their flesh.”
- When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they also “carried out the inclinations of our … thoughts”
- During the time when they lived “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient” and carried out the “inclinations” of their “flesh” and “thoughts”, they were “children under wrath”.
- When they were “children under wrath”, they were so in the same way “as the others were also”.
- God is “rich in mercy”.
- God had “great love” for Paul and his readers.
- God “made us alive with the Messiah”.
- God did this even “though we were dead in trespasses”.
- The reason that God “made us alive with the Messiah” is “because of His great love that He had for us”.
- Paul’s readers “are saved by Grace”.
- God raised Jesus “up and seated” Jesus “in the heavens”.
- God raised us up “together with Christ Jesus” and “seated play the immeasurus in the heavens”.
- He did this to “display the immeasurable riches of His grace.”
- The “immeasurable riches of His grace” are displayed “through His kindness to us”.
- The “immeasurable riches of His grace”, which are displayed “through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” will be displayed “in the coming ages”.
- Paul’s readers are saved by grace “through faith”.
- To be “saved by grace through faith” is something that “is not from yourselves”.
- To be “saved by grace through faith” is “God’s gift”.
- Paul’s readers are not saved “by/from works”.
- The “faith” through which Paul’s readers are “saved by grace” is not, itself, a work.
- Because Paul’s readers are “saved by grace through faith”, which is “not from yourselves” and “not from works” but is “God’s Gift”, thus “no one can boast”.
- Paul and his readers are “God’s workmanship”.
- Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
- “Good works” is that for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
- The “good works” for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus” were “prepared beforehand that we should walk in them”.
Most of my posts are extended comedy routines about things I find important, but not this one. I could write for ages about why Eph. 2:1-10 is funny, and important, but today it can speak for itself. Go do some good works that God prepared beforehand.
As the credits began to roll, the audience with whom I saw Darren Aronofsky’s newest film, Mother!, reacted with hushed groans and awkward laughter. This was not the film anyone expected to see. I freaking loved it.
The trailers were vague, but suggested that the film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as an unnamed couple whose home is gradually invaded by an ever-multiplying family of belligerent troglodytes, was going to be a horror film, or at least a thriller or some sort. And it was, although one so oblique that it hardly counts as a film at face value, let alone a genre film.
My roommate turned to me and barked, “What did you bring me to?” before rubbing his beard pensively and continuing, “I’ll be thinking about this movie for a year.”
If you’ve seen, like, anything Darren Aronofsky has released in the last decade or so (and, really, anything he’s ever released) it will not be surprising that his new home-invasion thriller is actually a spiritual meditation.
There are, I imagine, plenty of articles that will lay out precisely how each of Mother!‘s jarring, phantasmagorical images correspond to this or that passage from the Bible, or the Talmud, or the great works of Hebrew Pseudepigrapha, but I want to zero in on a handful of specifics, and the implications thereof.
There will be spoilers ahead. Actually, all of them. If you have not seen the film and aren’t planning on it, I have included a fairly detailed synopsis below. If you have not seen it and plan on seeing it, read no further.
Not unlike his 2014 retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the ark, Mother! is an eco-parable. Rather ingeniously, he dramatizes the biblical story of creation and the Fall – and of multiplying and filling the earth, and, finally, of the flood – from the perspective of Mother(!) Earth.
Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth, envisioned here as the nameless bride of a nameless Javier Bardem – a poet, and an illustrious one. They are in the process of rebuilding their house, a beautiful mansion situated on the quiet countryside. It burned down before they met, and our heroine has taken it upon herself to restore it to its former glory.
Soon, a strange man (played by Ed Harris) arrives at their doorstep. He is new in own, and had been under the impression that their idyllic mansion was a Bed & Breakfast. Javier Bardem forgets that hotels exist and invites him to stay the night, much to his young bride’s annoyance. Their unexpected visitor manages to traverse one boundary line after another – he smokes in the house, even after the woman of the house requests that he stop, he pries into their personal life in ways that anyone marginally versed in etiquette would know to be inappropriate. And he is sick, quite so: before retreating to bed, Lawrence witnesses her husband assisting their guest as he expels the contents of his stomach into their toilet. In a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, we catch a glimpse of the strange gash in Ed Harris’s side.
The next morning, his insufferable wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, also unannounced. Lawrence discovers that while she slept, her husband gave Harris permission to invite his wife to stay with them “for as long as they need”. Naturally, she is not pleased, as their guest’s wife proves to be even more prying and unsavory than he. More than anything, she presses – and presses some more – as to why the couple does not have children. Noticing Lawrence’s reticent body language – as these types always do – she corners her while the men are out exploring and reframes her question: Why doesn’t she want to be a mother?
Noticing the terror in her eyes – as these types always do – Pfeiffer realizes that she does want children.
Almost on cue, Harris and Pfeiffer’s own children show up uninvited, barging into the house to have a shouting match, which ends with the elder son bludgeoning his younger brother to death in the den before fleeing the scene of the crime.
Bardem leaves Lawrence alone to follow the family to the hospital. A few hours later, he returns alone. Finally, she thinks, things may return to normal.
They won’t, of course. Without warning, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer return to the house – with their entire extended family. Our heroine is horrified. Her husband welcomes them with open arms and invites them to make themselves at home. Without mentioning it to her, he had invited the family to hold a funereal gathering in their kitchen.
More friends and family arrive by the minute in full funeral dress, with baked goods wrapped in tin-foil and absolutely no sense of restraint toward their host’s property: While Bardem delivers a speech in honor of the deceased son, rowdy guests co-opt the master bedroom to have sex while others dislodge a washroom sink from the wall, breaking the water main and flooding the house. Bardem doesn’t mind, but Lawrence finally snaps, expelling the guests from her house in a rush of fury so commanding that even her husband counts the cost and opts against gas-lighting her again.
After the dust settles, they are alone again. Still riding the adrenaline rush of the evening, She breaks again from her passive disposition and challenges him to have sex with her. He obliges, and she conceives.
We jump forward approximately nine months. The house is finally complete, and the baby is almost due. Bardem has finally completed his magnum opus, which he gives to Lawrence to read. “It’s perfect,” she says, “It’s beautiful.” His publishers agree. And so do his readers. It sells out nearly immediately.
As she sets the table for dinner one night, there is a knock at the door.
It is a group of devotees. They have come from far and wide to meet the poet. Lawrence asks him to send them away so that they can dine together in peace, to which he agrees. After a few moments, he has not returned. She checks on him to find that the group has multiplied, and he has done nothing to deter them.
Several devotees enter the house through a side door and begin using her appliances. She tries to kick them out, but they inform her that “the poet says that his house is our house.” More devotees force their way inside, and his publicist spots her. Gleefully, she clutches Lawrence’s face, “It’s the inspiration!”
The devotees begin tearing the house apart. One steals the phone while Lawrence tries to call the police. “That’s my phone!” She cries. “I have to have something of the poet’s!” the devotee snarls back, and then hobbles away.
Police arrive and begin shouting at the guests through a megaphone, followed by a swat team in riot gear. They open fire on the devotees, who scream in terror and become even more destructive as they scramble. The pregnant Lawrence runs for safety, looking for her husband. She happens upon his publicist, who warmly greets her as she fires rounds into the covered heads of several hostages. “Close the door,” she says.
The house becomes a war zone – literally. Grenades go off in the corner of the screen, and the house is filled with dust and ashes. A friendly soldier grabs Her and pulls her to safety. As he instructs her the way to the safe zone, his skull breaks apart from the impact of a sniper’s bullet. She screams and flees, now bloodied from the commotion, up the stairs, which are lined with guest reaching out their arms in religious devotion to her pregnant stomach. They’re awaiting the coming of the child inside her. She begins to go into labor.
At the top of the staircase, she finds her husband. He hugs her and brings her into the master bedroom to have the baby. is born, healthy and strong. Bardem hands him to Her. The commotion in the house has died down. “Send them away,” she entreats her much-Beloved husband. “They’ll listen to you.”
He ignores her, and asks to hold his child. She refuses until he sends them away. “I could not get them to leave even if I tried.” He replies, and asks again for his child. “That’s not true,” She snaps, “And you know it.” She holds her ground.
“I do not want them to go.” He finally admits.
She clutches her baby desperately while he menacingly scoots his chair closer. “Give me my son.” He growls. She doesn’t.
Hours pass by, and she has fallen asleep. When she wakes, her baby is gone. Rushing out the bedroom doors, she sees the crowds passing the baby amongst themselves, touching him with their hands, oooh-ing and ahhh-ing. She screams. “They just want to touch him!” Bardem laughs, enraptured at the love that enlivens the crowd.
As they pass the child along to one another, its neck breaks.
Lawrence screams in terror and sprints down the stairs to take back the corpse of her baby. When she arrives, it is on a platter, half-eaten. The devotees have baby in their teeth. She falls over, sobbing uncontrollably. Bardem picks her up. “They killed him!” she cries. “I know,” He whispers gently, “But we must find a way to forgive them.”
This is the last straw for Mother. Calmly, she lifts herself to her feet, makes her way to the basement, and opens the furnace. Pouring oil all over the floor, she lights a match, and sets the mansion and all of its occupants ablaze.
Except for her husband, who comes out unscathed.
He carries her back up the stairs and into the ruins of their home.
“What are you?” She asks, as she begins to draw her final breaths.
“I am I.” He smiles.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To the beginning.” He whispers. “We must start over again.”
“Why? Why am I not enough for you?” She protests.
“Nothing will ever be enough.” He says. “Or else I could not create.”
She gives him permission to use what is left of her love for him to create the mansion afresh. It begins to reanimate around them. We watch as the first frames of the film play out before us again – the burnt house becomes new again, and a new woman appears in His bed. The events of the film will play out again, apparently, as they had before the events of the film, perhaps forever.
The subtext is fairly on the nose: We are guests in Mother(!) Earth’s house, and She can expel us, infinitely, on loop, if she so desires, as we see in the Bible.
Indeed, the first eleven chapters of Genesis narrate a cyclical expulsion and recreation narrative: In Genesis 1-2, God creates, and in Genesis 3, humanity is expelled from the microcosm of Eden. In Genesis 4, Cain is expelled from ‘the land’ for Killing his brother. Finally, in Genesis 6, the Earth expels humanity once and for all: God opens the floodgates of heaven, and the world is flooded, killing everyone, save for the ‘righteous’ family of Noah.
But the ‘righteous’ ones whom God preserved to create the world afresh are a cancer, too, and Noah’s son Ham is expelled from ‘the land’, and Noah becomes a drunkard, and their descendants build the Tower of Babel in a strange campaign to dethrone the gods. They’re expelled, too. Around this point, the reader gets the sense that there’s not going to be a version of this that doesn’t end in expulsion.
Which leads the reader to pose the question: Why did God create, instead of not create?
And here lies the – perhaps unintentional – subtext beneath the subtext.
Aronofsky’s Mother! offers an answer to the reader’s question.
Why did God create – why does He invite guests into His home whom He knows will destroy it? Because His appetite for love is insatiable, and they will love Him. ‘Mother Earth’ is not enough. His capacity is bottomless. He craves the affirmation of His creatures like the Poet craves the admiration of his devotees. He is like an artist who creates from neurosis – to be understood, to be loved, to be wanted by multitudes. Nothing, and no one, is enough.
And so, embedded within Aronofsky’s eco-parable is a kind of theo-critique. That is, intentional or not, the message of the film is that ‘Father God’ puts ‘Mother Earth’ through endless cycles of abuse to oblige His devotees, ultimately, because He treasures the love that they pour out upon Him.
I remember a dreary Sunday morning, sometime during the latter Bush’s Presidency, when I asked my Sunday School teacher if God was lonely, if that was how come He made everything and everybody. She cocked her head and said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I’d be lonely if it was just me up there in heaven all those years with nothing to do.” Another kid chimed in, “That sounds boring.” And another, “I’d make everything football. And then it would all be football. Then I’d never be bored, ’cause it would all be football.”
One little girl was the theologian of the group, though I am not sure for which religion: She raised her hand and said, “Maybe ’cause he wanted somebody to love Him.” The teacher nodded her head and said, “Ahhh,” before writing on the board: “GOD CREATED MAN TO HAVE FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM.” She went on, “Imagine if you didn’t have aaaaaanyone who loved you. You wouldn’t be very happy then, would you?” She underlined the sentence that she had written. “God made everyone so that eeeeeeveryone would love Him.”
We ohhhh‘d in unison. That was the day that I learned that God is a parasite who creates people because He’s lonely and wants to be loved. Now, it sounds pathetic when you say it in a sentence, and Mother! will be lambasted by Christian talk show hosts and culture warriors for implying it, but it’s probably what most people believe, at least implicitly.
And so, Mother! does not amount to an ‘attack on the Christian faith’ (as several more uppity critics have have clamored) so much as an ecological critique on what is probably one of our culture’s standard assumptions about God. The offense of Mother!‘s ending, one hopes, will be jarring enough to shake the public loose of this vision of God as sycophant and God as leech.
Indeed, Bardem’s Poet bears no substantive resemblance to the Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian story. He is more like a demiurge, perhaps, even, Marcion’s demiurge. He’s an antigod, who drinks people dry to satiate what’s lacking in Himself, for the love they can give Him, who enlivens worlds to crucify them for His iniquity.
This is as good a starting point as I can think of to introduce people to the God who really did create the world from Love – not Mother Earth’s Love, which He takes out on loan, but His own Love, which He pours out, to overlay the vast nothing that covers the face of the deep, to create beings who are not Himself, not to plumb their depths for the Love that they can feed Him, but to spill the Love from His own veins into theirs, to multiply His own contentment into them, to build a cosmos out of people He does not need, with Love He does not lack, to propagate His own joy into creatures He will not forsake.
And, as such, this view of God – the Christian view – changes how we answer the questions that the expulsion narratives in the early chapters of Genesis pose to us. Like Bardem’s Poet, He offers His son to be torn apart and devoured by the masses. But the two couldn’t be further from each other: The Poet gave His son as a sacrifice to appease his devotees – to wring more affirmation from their weary bodies, to enjoy their awe. The Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian narrative, however, gave up the Son so that He could create the world. The Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – knew, like the Poet, that His creatures would destroy each other and destroy His ‘house’, and more – they would grow so destructive that they would necessitate their own destruction. And so the Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – determined together before creation, that the Son would present Himself as a sacrifice to redeem God’s creatures. The God whom we meet in Jesus is everything Javier Bardem’s demiurge isn’t.
Mother! is a better film than Noah, although Noah has better theology. Whereas Noah saw God Batting in Mother Earth’s corner against a belligerent Humanity, Mother! breaks ‘Father God’ and ‘Mother Earth’ apart without warrant, as though each have conflicting agendas.
Nevertheless, like Noah before it, Mother! proves itself to be a near perfect jumping-off point to share the gospel with filmgoers jostled enough by Aronofsky’s provocative suggestions that they are moved to search the scriptures.
Rudolf Bultmann is a welcome headache. Drawing a hard distinction between the kerygma – that is, the gospel itself, in its most irreducible form – and the mythic cultural adornments within which it was ‘buried’ in the scriptures, he pioneered a rather scintillating new movement in the twentieth century.
As young Rudolf saw it, the virgin birth, Resurrection, miracles, etc. were not just primitive oddities emanating from the imaginations of the ‘ancient unsophisticates’ who saw and spoke with Jesus (and touched him with their hands), but, in fact, are the gospel, given to us in words inexpressible, to be imbibed and believed, transformed by, and saved by, albeit ensconced in the mythic worldview of the Second Temple Jewry, adorned in the language of ‘proto-Gnostic redeemer myths’ and colored by the flamboyances of the fabled mystery cults. Dizzy yet?
The images by which we receive the gospel are not, themselves, the gospel, he would say. Well, all theology is anthropology, as he’d also say, and Bultmann’s hermeneutic of demythologizing says more about the dangers of modernism’s presumed objectivity than it does about the New Testament. Scientism makes for bad theology.
I should mention here that I like Bultmann. And I look forward to talking these things over with him. One thing I venture to imagine is that the cavernous futures accompanying kingdom come are filled with theologians who never tire of saying “This is greater than I imagined.” So Barth will get his “I told you so,” over Harnack, and J. Gresham Machen, probably, will get his “I told you so,” over the whole lot of them (or maybe Ratzinger). And somebody will get their “I told you so,” over me. I hope it’s Chris Thrutchley.
In any case, Bultmann spent his career expositing what he saw as the gospel in the Gospels. That is, a sort of existentialist soteriology in which ‘believers’ are ‘saved,’ by faith in Jesus, from something like the existential void, here and now. “The only way to find peace with God, yourself, and others,”he might say,”is through Jesus.”
If he sounds like an embodiment of the worst in contemporary ‘evangelicalism,’ it’s because his ideas – at least, their ghosts – have seeped into the thought and writings of their more widely read authors. If your hip, nondenominational pastor has preached a ghastly sermon from Mark 4:35-41 on how Jesus can calm the storms in your heart, blame Bultmann. (And William Barclay).
I should mention again that I like Bultmann. Actually, a lot. As I said earlier, he suffered from captivity to 20th century’s native scientism. But I have often wondered what he might do given access to the merciful obfuscations provided by modern quantum physics. Dawkins can shrug it off if he wants, and so can John Shelby Spong, but the days are over when we could pretend we were hot on our way to grasping the secrets of the cosmos. For the moment, at least, quantum physics, for one, has so muddied everything that the universe-slash-multiverse seems more arbitrary than ever.
If course, there seem to be something like laws, some sort of consistency. Mankind is still subject to the whims of ‘creation,’ but ‘the whims of creation’ isn’t just a figure of speech anymore. Creation really is whimsical. How great and terrible.
I suspect, then, in ages future, that our centuries long sojourn in ‘Rationalism’ will be a curiosity studied in classrooms, mocked by too-confident students, before they are reminded by their teachers that they, too, hold presuppositions, most of them probably errant, that they assume to be bulletproof. Bultmann was an entrenched genius – both ahead of and indebted to his generation’s worst presumptions. Were Bultmann with us now, he might be less inclined to demythologize. After all, gravity ought to crumple us. Time is inexplicably unidirectional. Some of that Interstellar movie was scientifically accurate. Given the whimsy of everything, a virgin birth is pretty pedestrian.
Resurrection, too. It is out of the ordinary, yes. Certainly noteworthy. We should call it a miracle. But it’s quite arbitrary to take vivification as a given but revivification as a puerile fantasy. Bultmann erred in assuming that the ‘Resurrection’ of Jesus meant only an impossible resuscitation. And it did mean that. But the miracle of it was that nobody, not Rome, not hell, not a garden tomb, could keep the incarnate Son from carrying out the redemption He’d colluded with the Father and Spirit to carry out from the foundation of the world.
I’m speaking figuratively here. Of course the dead don’t rise, as far as we know, or can know. Of course it’s a miracle that one did. But its historicity is no more implausible than abiogenesis itself, which Christians also believe was of divine inauguration. Whether or not Bultmann’s kin want to admit it, the floorboards have dropped out from beneath the demand for ‘demythologizing’ the scriptures – at least, in theory.
Bultmann imagined himself to be an apologist, and he was. And, to a certain extent, he was a good one. Having first encountered his work as a sophomore in college, his ‘redeemed existentialism’ struck a familiar chord with me. I still remember the days when I wasn’t sure why I shouldn’t kill myself. I still remember the void. I didn’t climb my way out of it. My emotions never started working right, and things never started being okay. I never pulled myself up by my bootstraps. At risk of sounding nauseatingly saccharine: Jesus did that on my behalf. Bultmann, love-struck Modernist that he was, theologically shoddy but hijacked nonetheless by divine mercy, was always eager to insist that Jesus alone, be grace alone, through faith alone, can make your not-okayness strangely livable.