Aronofsky’s Demiurge (A Spoiler-y Reflection on ‘Mother!’)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Unworthy Ministers of a Liberating Gospel

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Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Days come when I wake up in the morning and cannot talk myself into feeling worthy to lead any ministry in any capacity. Weeks of fighting hard against your own sinful habits and tendencies mean next to nothing to you in the hours and the days following a massive, messy collapse. Those are the moments in which you will want to give up – to throw your hands in the air and say, “I’ve always known I wasn’t cut out for this, and here is the proof.”

So you’ll probably do something incredibly unhealthy. If you’re like me, you’ll employ the fake-it-till-you-make-it method of dealing with your own unworthiness. Rather than allowing yourself to feel the weight of your sin and then allowing yourself to be healed by the grace of God, you will suppress both the pangs of crushing guilt and the peace of experiencing God’s ongoing forgiveness. Rather than offering yourself freshly to Jesus, you’ll ‘give God a few days to cool down’. And if you’re in any sort of leadership position in the Church, you’ll put on your best “I’m doing fine” face and carry on doing the work of God without the Spirit’s guidance.

I remember just how messed up I am every time I speak condescendingly to my girlfriend and watch the sense of security with me disappear from her eyes. It is crushing to realize that you are the kind of person that makes others feel unsafe. I remember just how not-holier-than-anybody I am every time I make the conscious decision to take the easy rather than the ethical course of action when nobody is watching. And if the conversations I’ve had with other believers are an accurate representation of the norm, everyone is like me.

Not everybody’s sins are the same, but everybody’s sins are equally crippling. Whether you’re a porn addict or an emotional terrorist or just kind of a jerk, your sins are crippling. And if, like me, you’re tasked with leading others in ministry on a regular basis, the crippling effects of your constant moral failure can eat you alive.

The lie that we believe, that dominates our lives, is that we are uniquely jacked up. Because we can only know other people to a certain degree, it’s an easy lie for the enemy to sell. While I can’t plumb the depths of anyone else’s depravity, I know my own far too well to trust myself with anything. And so it goes with everyone.

But the gospel poses an uncompromising challenge to the pervasive lie. Namely, that everyone, everywhere, is supremely, nauseatingly jacked up. If the Biblical narrative is true, then I can assume with confidence upon meeting anyone that somewhere beneath the human face they put on, a terrifying darkness is present. We just domesticate our actual-jacked-up-ness well. At our best, we are all one push away from collapsing back into utter debauchery.

Let me put it another way. Nobody is that well adjusted. Time and intimacy reveal the cracks in the asphalt of everyone, and all it takes is to look closely at someone for a moment to see how remarkably fragile they are. We have a threadbare righteousness.

That means you don’t have to feel like damaged goods when your actual-jacked-up-ness shows its ugly face. And if you’re someone tasked with leading others as a minister of the gospel, it should remind you that you’re leading a flock of jacked-up redeemed people as one after their own heart. You’re going to sin, and then you’re going to be numb for a while, and then you’re going to be hit like a train with the fact that you’re completely unqualified for the job of “spiritual guru”. In that moment, cling to that conviction. Because it’s true. Your real-life depravity completely disqualifies you from wearing the “spiritual guru” hat. But understand that it’s a joyous disqualification, because ‘spiritual gurus’ have nothing to offer people who are ‘crooked deep down’.

Instead, be a ‘wounded shepherd’, selling a story of good news for criminals like yourself.

Paul of Tarsus vs. Jesus of Nazareth?

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Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1481

It’s been in vogue for the last 300 years to say that Paul crafted his own Jesus and used Him as a springboard for His own essentially Platonic philosophy. The argument goes that Paul, good Hellenistic Jew that he was, was influenced by Gnostic Redeemer myths. Rudolf Bultmann, who is a contender for the most-influential-theologian-of-the-20th-century title, was 50 shades of convinced. Today, however, this idea is losing ground as we struggle to actually locate specific examples of the elusive gnostic redeemer myths. But even as the academic community leaves behind the Gnostic-influence theory, the assumption that Paul distorted the original message of Jesus in order to turn Him into a cult god refuses to die. Scholars who hold this position draw a divide between “the Jesus of History” and the “Christ of faith.” The former was the poor and itinerant preacher/carpenter who left everything to preach an apocalyptic message to the poor in Palestine. The latter is essentially a Pauline invention that grafts outside ideas onto the Jesus character and adds depth and clarity to what Paul claimed was the meaning of His life, death, and purported resurrection.

Findings by E. Earle Ellis have made that a profoundly unlikely scenario. Ellis identified pre-Pauline creedal material embedded within numerous Apostolic writings. Notably, nearly all of Paul’s epistles contain some form of quotation from what is presumably an early hymn, creed, or prophecy. These quotations contain material that paint Jesus in the kind of exalted light that scholars often attribute to the creative additions of Paul, but which inevitably emanate from a tradition that pre-dates Paul. To illustrate, I have stitched together several of these pre-Pauline creedal quotations found in the Pastoral Epistles* to reconstruct what one of the early creeds might have looked like:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
He is the blessed and only sovereign,
The King of kings,
The Lord of lords,
The only one who has immortality,
Dwelling in unapproachable light;
No one has seen or can see Him,
To Him be honor and eternal might.
But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared,
He saved us —
Not by works of righteous that we had done,
But according to His mercy,
Through the washing of regeneration
And renewal by the Holy Spirit.
He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly
Through Jesus Christ our savior,
So that having been justified by His grace,
We may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
For if we have died with Him,
We will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He will also deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful,
For He cannot deny Himself.
For there is one God,
And one mediator between God and humanity,
Christ Jesus, Himself human,
Who gave Himself — a ransom for all,
A testimony at the proper time.
Amen.”

What makes these findings significant is that they render much of the speculation about Paul’s role in the development of early Christian theology obsolete. Far from ‘inventing’ a whole slew of new ideas, he largely worked with the faith that he himself inherited from the earliest believers. It also demonstrates that the first century Christians were not so ‘primitive’ after all.

With this in mind, we’re in a good place to (finally) call the oft-purported chasm between Pauline-soteriological thought and Jesus’s ethical and eschatological teaching into question. Free from the modern orthodoxy’s insistence that Paul and Jesus taught competing worldviews, it quickly becomes apparent that, despite contrary claims by some, Paul and Jesus aren’t so different.

Not least among their similarities is that their teachings are often hyper-existentialized at the expense of preserving their common ethical commission. Bultmann and others helped to set this precedent, which ironically Evangelicalism now keeps alive. Whether it’s reducing repentance to feeling bad about sinning or reinterpreting the Sermon on the Mount as ‘high ideals’ to live up to, it has often been the case that western Evangelicals in the last few centuries have blunted the transformative force of the New Testament proclamation.

Baptist Ethicist Glen Stassen spent decades calling for a “thicker Jesus” amongst his Evangelical colleagues and brethren. It should come as no surprise, because the bulk of his research was oriented around the Sermon on the Mount. His work delves deeply into the radical social significance of Jesus’s life and teaching, and, in doing so, illustrates the heavy continuity between the life of Jesus and the ministry of Paul. Over against the disintegrating tendencies of both conservative and liberal scholars who hold the two at arms length, good hermeneutics (and faithful obedience to Jesus) demands that we recouple the two central voices of the New Testament. And that means that, in addition to Glen Stassen’s thicker Jesus, we need a thicker Paul.

And we’re in luck. Because as we are forced to lean into Paul more deeply and more sustainedly than before, we inevitably find that he only actually makes any sense in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. It is common and correct to read his work from the vantage point of Jesus’s death and resurrection, as Bultmann advocates. But it is incomplete to do only that. Every bit as much as Paul writes out of the overflow of the resurrection of Christ, he writes in the footsteps of His teaching and in imitation of His life. John Dominic Crossan once said, “If you read Jesus after reading Paul, you’ll read Jesus wrong. But if you read Paul after reading Jesus, you’ll read Paul differently.” I’m certain that Crossan would say that I read both Jesus and Paul wrong, but his point stands. The more deeply we entrench ourselves in the Gospel recollections of Jesus’s pre-Passion ministry, the more clearly we are able to hear Paul speaking. It is true that Paul can often be confusing. I say that in the company of his friend and occasional sparring partner, Peter (2 Pet. 3:16). But from the vantage point of the life and teaching and cross/resurrection of Jesus, Paul often speaks quite plainly.

For example, upon a close reading of his epistle to the Romans, it becomes clear that Paul had more in mind when writing the iconic epistle than simply imparting doctrinal knowledge. Evidently, his motivation was largely to repair the fragile and strained relations between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome and, by extension, throughout the Empire. He therefore crafts his entire theological argument around the movements of Israel’s history in such a way that God’s redemptive intentions toward the Gentiles is front and center – and in doing so, he illustrates that the unity between the two bodies is the inevitable outworking of God’s cosmic redemption. In the most immediate sense, he hoped to include the predominately Gentile Churches of Rome in the collection that he was taking up for the impoverished and persecuted churches in Jerusalem—most of whom were predominately Jewish. Paul was here putting a transforming initiative of Jesus into practice as a means of reconciliation in the Church. He seems to have been working off of Luke 14:12-14:

“He said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.'”

By indebting the Jewish churches—who largely looked down on their Gentile brothers and sisters—Paul would kick open the door for the Holy Spirit who indwelt both parties to smash the pretensions of the Jewish believers toward their Gentile brothers benefactors. Through including the Gentile believers in an act of holy love toward their Jewish brothers and sisters, Paul would make space for the Holy Spirit to fill them with the sort of love it requires for two groups who have long been in contention to be brought together under a common Messiah and in a common Spirit. This is only one example, but once you catch one, you begin to see them everywhere.

Given both a thicker Jesus and a Thicker Paul, the exegetical obstacles that have frozen New Testament scholarship in awkward limbo for centuries begin to melt away. In retrospect, there isn’t much of a dichotomy to be found between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” But there are certainly irreconcilable differences between the Jesus-soaked Paul of history and the neo-Platonist Paul that emerged in the writings of the post-Schleiermacher scholars. What we’re facing is not struggle between theological conservatism and theological liberalism, but a failure on the part of both conservative and liberal New Testament scholars to adequately synthesize the non-competing teachings found within the epistles of Paul and the canonical  Jesus tradition of the four gospels. When approached honestly, it is apparent that Paul of Tarsus only really makes sense in light of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul did not hijack Jesus in order to build a theology; Paul was hijacked by Jesus in order to build a Church.

 

 

 

*Note: The Pastoral Epistles consist of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. I am aware that they are often assumed to be inauthentic by scholars both conservative and liberal for a number of reasons. However, the arguments for their inauthenticity are bad. Like, really bad. I’m willing to bet that within a decade or so, we’ll have outgrown the notion that somebody else forged the documents in Paul’s name. I’ll probably write about this in the near future.

God Gets His Hands Dirty

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The Seventh Plague: John Martin’s painting of the plague of hail and fire (1823)

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.'”  So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men, and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7: 8-13)

A consistent, though rarely dealt with, theme throughout the Pentateuch  is that, for the sake of redemption, God gets His hands dirty.

The Hebrew scholars tell me that the word used for ‘serpent’ in this passage is tannin, which is interesting because it differs from the word nachash used in Exodus 4:2-5 when God initially explains the signs to Moses. The significance lies in the connotations that each of the terms carry. Nachash is the term used in Genesis 3:1 in reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Tannin, on the other hand, was more commonly used in reference to the sea monsters that pervaded ancient Canaanite, Phoenician, and Hebrew mythology. More specifically, the sea dwelling tannin were (generally) understood as the creaturely personification of chaos and evil.

Aaron’s staff is turned into a serpent (tannin), a feat that is then copied by Pharaoh’s magicians, and the serpent (tannin) that God produced out of Aaron’s staff devours the serpent (tannin) produced by the magicians. If the tannin described in this passage elsewhere refers almost universally to the anti-creational forces of chaos that oppose the rule of God, then it’s unlikely that the passage at hand is an exception. The initial showdown described in Exodus 7:8-13 is not, theologian Peter Enns has pointed out, merely a showdown between Pharaoh and Moses/Aaron. Nor is it a showdown between Pharaoh and Israel. At one level, it is a showdown between Pharaoh and Yahweh. But even that is too myopic a reading. What we witness in this passage is foreshadowing of the drama that will ensue throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, and the rest of the Biblical narrative as a whole: the Creator of the universe overcomes the chaotic forces of darkness (tannin) that have usurped the world on their own terms. He will overcome tannin, sometimes, inevitably, by employing tannin.

God is not Deistically removed from the plight of creation, looking down in stoic disapproval at the mess we’ve made; He is Theistically active in the redemption of creation, to the point that He will work within the bounds of the fallenness of the world to rescue it. Hence, God will spill blood in the process of bringing about the end of blood-spilling. God will bring about an end to human violence, sometimes, inevitably, through Divine violence. Throughout the scriptures, and especially the Old Testament, God wears the warrior hat, not because He is fond of violence, but because He is bringing about its end. In the pages of the Torah we watch Yahweh crush a thousand Pharaohs in order that one day the may never be another Lamech. (Gen. 4:23-24)

That is why the satisfied God, who created all things to share in His own satisfaction, will enact plagues on Egypt (Ex. 7:14-11:10, 12:29-32): in order to further His redemptive operation. It is true that Egypt was met with the consequences of their communal oppression of the Israelites. But at a more foundational level, God’s act of vengeance on Egypt was driven by His love for the world – a love that moved Him to get His hands dirty. I’m about to cross the line with some people’s patience here: this is why the same God revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15; John 1:18; Heb. 1:3), the God who is Love (1 John 4:8,16), ordered the slaughtering of the Canaanites and others (Deut. 20:17; Josh. 6:21). This is why the God who “desires that all would repent and be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) would harden the heart of Pharaoh and bring him to his knees (Ex. 11:8-10).

The horrific violence performed and sanctioned by God throughout the biblical narrative, far from being a break from character, emanates from His own faithfulness to His promise to bring about redemption to a sin-shattered world. It is, in fact, a deeper, warmer love than is intelligible to us that prevents Yahweh from being deterred from His project of reconciling the world to Himself by His own innate desire to preserve the lives of those who would prevent Him. In the endeavor to bring about a kingdom that operates on love, He cannot tolerate those who persist in hate. What the story of the Torah teaches us, amongst other things, is that God so loved the world that He was willing to work within the bounds of its fallenness to rescue it.

There Are No Magic Jesus Powers

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“And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.’ … And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'” (Mark 9:14-29)

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” means that there are no magic Jesus powers. His healing ministry was not from His own power. He was not a magician. Contrary to popular misconceptions that assume that Jesus came to earth as some sort of Superhuman, Mark finds it very important to show us that Jesus’s miraculous exploits were the product of His being in step with the Holy Spirit through prayer. It is essential to historic Christian theology that when God the Son came to earth, He did so without any special advantages. He was a regular Jew with a 9 to 5 and a mom. All of the miraculous feats He performed, all of the counter-cultural teaching that He espoused, His supernatural compassion and concern for the outcast, His boldness, were all the product of His submission to and communion with God the Spirit, who indwelt Him.

This is important to grasp, in no small part because it clears the confusion that Jesus stirs up when He says to the original gathered Church, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) He really meant that we would do more than He did, not because we would be more powerful, but because as the Church multiplies and lost sinners are transformed into Spirit-filled believers, the ministry of Jesus itself multiplies and expands. Before His crucifixion, there was one Jesus who made disciples and incarnated the kingdom of God in the midst of a  broken world. Today, 2000 years after His resurrection, it is as though there are approximately 2.2 billion Jesuses walking the earth.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” also means that our ability to do anything spiritual, be it cast out demons (yeah, that actually happens), win souls for Christ, or overcome the darkness in us, comes from helpless dependence on God. We are not prayer warriors; the Holy Spirit is a prayer warrior. When we pray for ourselves, whether it’s for a greater love for the Father, a greater freedom from sin, a more obedient heart, etc., we are echoing the Holy Spirit’s earnest prayers on our behalf (Rom. 8:23, 26-27). Jesus walked in utter dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance as an incarnated human. We are no less dependent now that He indwells us. Every Christian believes in the Holy Spirit, but ‘believing’ in Him in any meaningful sense means living in a ‘dethroning’ submission to His lead. The person who believes in the Holy Spirit is always in prayer to seek His guidance. She is always communing with Him in prayer to know the Father more intimately. She is always laying down what remains of her stubborn will in prayer to let Him mold her into the image of Christ.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” because we can only “do greater things than these” as people who are pathetic, weak, and like Jesus, are desperately dependent on the Spirit of God to enable us to find and carry out the will of God.

Sunday Sermon: Feeding The Multitudes

Ryan Ellington

FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo Feeding the multitudes by Bernardo Strozzi

“Now [the disciples]  had forgotten to bring  bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And [Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread and Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see or having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to Him, “twelve.” [And He continued,] “and when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken…

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