Mozart in hell

Mozart in hell

One of the most controversial Christian doctrines concerns the reality of hell.

Yet while almost the whole of the tradition (not least Jesus) maintained belief in a form of post-mortem judgment, there are many different views on what that means.

One of these diverse perspectives comes from North America’s most famous preacher of fire and brimstone: Jonathan Edwards.

jonathanedwards_byjosephbadger_yale_detail-56eabd815f9b581f344de989
Jonathan Edwards, mensch.

In a prior post (here), I was critical of Edwards’ treatment of the subject. But in this piece, I’d like to examine an aspect of his thought that is, at least, intriguing.

For Edwards, hell is the presence of God himself.  And so is heaven.

He builds this view on Scripture.  Revelation 14:10 speaks, for instance, of a torment that takes place “in the presence of the Lamb.”

On the one hand, this portrait could be taken as a macabre depiction of a sadistic Christ who derives pleasure from watching the torture of those who worshipped “the beast.” This makes Jesus look like a rogue CIA agent who begins to enjoy the sight of waterboarded prisoners; or like a mafia goon who gets a thrill from plucking toe-nails from his enemies.  And this Jesus seems hard to square with the merciful Lord who walks the pages of the Gospels.

But there is another way of reading Edwards’ claim that God is the substance of both hell and heaven.

One word: Mozart.

AMADEUS AS THEOLOGY

In the movie Amadeus, we are shown two different reactions to the breathtaking beauty of Mozart’s compositions.

In the audience, there are those who hear this music and experience pleasure, worship, and a moment of transcendent union between the author and the audience. Perhaps you can relate. A concert can be a foretaste of heaven.

Yet in Amadeus, there is another figure in the audience who experiences the music differently.  To Salieri (Mozart’s jealous rival), this same music, in this same theatre, from this same orchestra feels like nothing less than torture. Not because it is terrible, but because it is perfect.

Salieri wants to be Mozart. Or kill him. And in the end, he chooses the latter.

A PARABLE

Amadeus is a parable of hellacious experience.

As sinful humans, we want to be God. Or kill him. And on Golgotha, we chose the latter.

Yet as with Salieri, the music gets louder after its composer dies. It rises from the grave. And the same song strikes us as either ecstasy or torture. Not because it’s terrible, but because it’s perfect.

I have no idea whether this is a good analogy to help one grasp the Christian concept of the afterlife.

I’ve never been dead.

And I don’t listen to Mozart.

It is however, a call to cultivate not only “ears to hear” the music of God’s holy love, but the “taste” to find it beautiful. Heaven is a party thrown for Prodigals, and an invitation to experience the Father’s presence in a way unlike the “tortured” elder brother.


Enjoy this post? Check out my new book on understanding the big story of Scripture: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Till death?

Till death?

On marriage and the resurrection.

As Jonathan Edwards lay dying from a corrupted smallpox serum in 1758, his final words were for his wife.

Near the end, he asked the physician to tell Sarah Pierpont Edwards that their “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that he hoped it would “continue forever.”

Edwards is, undoubtedly, the greatest theologian to ever hail from North America.  His sermons helped to launch The Great Awakening.  And with names like Wesley and Whitefield, he helped create the movement later known as evangelicalism (till its meaning was corrupted by a political “serum”).

To some, however, Edwards’ hope for his “forever” union might seem to clash with something Jesus said.

“WHOSE WIFE WILL SHE BE?”

On one occasion, Christ was asked a loaded question by the Sadducees about a hypothetical widow who had lost not one but seven husbands (speaking of potential poisonings!).

The last six of these marriages were done in fulfillment of an Old Testament law of “Levirate marriage,” a command meant to preserve a husband’s name by having his brother marry the widow (Deut 25:5–10; Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40).

At the end of this imagined narrative, the religious leaders ask the Lord:

“At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Mark 12:23)

To be clear, the Sadducees’ concern was not with marriage at all; their desire was to trap Jesus into admitting one of two unsavory realities. Either:

  1. There is no embodied afterlife at all (the Sadducee position), or
  2. Resurrection entails some Jerry Springer-like disputes.

Not surprisingly, Jesus opts for “Neither, dumb-dumbs.”

“Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24–25). 

The response proved effective (see Luke 20:40)

But to those of us, like Edwards, who deeply love our spouses and our Lord, the statement raises questions.

Why must marriage end completely at the border of this life?

Or, is there another way to understand Christ’s statement?

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS

Alternatives have been suggested.

One option sees Christ not as denying the eternality of all married unions, but only the kind described by the Sadducees: namely, the “Levirate” arrangements that would force an arbitration in the Eschaton about who “gets her” (Oh, the chivalry!).

A second (though related) suggestion sees Jesus as objecting primarily to the “taking” and “being given” part of the scenario, since it might seem to treat women especially like a kind of heavenly property rather than as full-fledged persons (see again the chivalry).

Are these possibilities convincing?

For those of us (myself included) who would love to think of our marriages as lasting forever, both alternatives seem appealing. Which might be the problem. After all, one should usually be wary of adopting an interpretation of an ancient text simply because it “looks nice” and “fits” our modern tastes.

Exegesis isn’t dress shopping.

Or suit shopping.

Or… shopping.

LIKE ANGELS?

A crucial bit of Jesus’ reasoning seems to connect our resurrected life to the current habits of angelic beings, since we “will … be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).

The idea seems to be that since Gabriel’s crew aren’t planning heavenly bridal showers and jockeying for spouses, neither will we.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Yet all this still leaves questions:

Was Edwards wrong (biblically speaking) to expect that his “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that it might “continue forever”?

What about us?

And what about the many wonderful persons who have lost spouses to death and remarried later (a decision Scripture clearly sees as honorable)?

Are such questions merely an engagement in unhelpful speculation (like the Sadducees), or might they be the kind of thoughtful use of biblical imagination that demonstrates a belief that both marriage and the resurrection matter?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

What do you make of Jesus’ words on marriage in the “resurrection”?

(And why does Brianna keep memorizing this one passage from the Gospels?)

Leave a comment below (however tentative or undeveloped).

I may write a second installment to this post in the future, but for now I simply haven’t done the necessary homework.


* Please don’t be a “Sadducee” / Jesus-jerk by critiquing the comments of others.  As you might guess, issues concerning death and marriage are deeply personal.


 

Feel free to check out my latest book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements, is now available at Seedbed.com.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

On spiders

On spiders

“Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider.”

That, at least, was the opinion of America’s greatest ever theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758).

I’ve been reading Edwards over Christmas break (since “Puritans for Christmas” seemed as good an oxymoron as any); and I came across a passage today in which he links God’s goodness to the pleasure He delights to give to even the most “despicable” of creatures.

As a boy in colonial New England, Edwards marveled at how spiders could sail at will upon the wind by releasing filament in just the right amount to catch the breeze.

“And without doubt, they do it with a great deal of … pleasure.”

He wrote a scientific paper on the subject at the youthful age of sixteen, but Edwards’ true focus was always theological.  As he watched the spiders sail magnificently overhead, he mused that

We hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable (WJE 6:154–62).

This is, it seems to me, a beautiful portrait of divine love (however accurate it is of “insects” [sic.]).

SPIDERS IN THE HANDS OFGOD

Yet Edwards is more famous for another spider reference.

In his famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” he piled lurid image upon image to frighten congregants with the idea of God’s hateful wrath.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors [hates/loathes] you, and is dreadfully provoked…

The sermon proved effective. But at key points (and despite good intentions), Edwards’ imagery went a good bit further than the Scriptures.

For this reason, it might be good to balance one “spider passage” with another.

The idea here is that the same Creator who judges evil in accordance with his holy love, is also the God who (according to Edwards) takes delight in granting “unnecessary” pleasures “to even the most despicable” of creatures.

Speaking of which… the view from my laptop:

beach

 


 

My most recent book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements, is now available at Seedbed.com.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Free Videos for “Long Story Short”

Hey friends, the video curriculum for Long Story Short is now available at Seedbed.com (here).

As a sample, they’ve even made the videos for Creation (Ch. 1) and Jesus (Ch. 4) available for free.

I’m hoping that the video curriculum–along with the discussion questions and Bible readings at the end of each chapter–will serve churches and small groups well as they dive into the book (and more importantly, the Bible) in fresh ways.

Enjoy my occasionally creepy eye-movements and the one polo shirt that I apparently wear for all such videos 😉

Chapter Four: Jesus: “Why Directors Should Wear Makeup”

Chapter One: Creation: “Why Sugar-Momma Had to Die”

 


Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements is now available at Seedbed.com.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Separating boldness from shrillness in the age of outrage.

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for asking me to be part of their new “Voices” blog.

Here is the first installment in a multi-part series I’ll be doing on how to differentiate “prophetic boldness” from “dogmatic shrillness” in the age of outrage.

Read here.

Part two to come!


Check out my new book (Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements), now available at Seedbed.com.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Is Wesleyanism a “human-centered” theology?

Is Wesleyanism a “human-centered” theology?

I have almost zero interest in the age-old fights between Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminian theologians.

I was trained by some fantastic Reformed theologians in seminary, and my general view is that the various theological “tribes” need to be continually balanced by a dialogue (and a missional engagement!) with one another.

That said, one of the common critiques against my own tradition (Wesleyan-Armininianism) is that it represents a “human-centered theology.”

The idea here is that God’s grace is invariably minimized by any belief in a measure of human freedom to accept or reject the gospel–however enabled that freedom is by the work of the Spirit.

Is that true?

The fine folks at Seedbed just released this video in which I address the subject.


 

Check out my new book (Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements), now available at Seedbed.com.


 

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Decorum, the unforgivable sin

Decorum, the unforgivable sin

This past Sunday, I preached on the “foot-washing passage” from the end of John’s Gospel (video here).

Just before his betrayal, Jesus takes up the basin and the towel to demonstrate the full extent of servant-hearted love. He washes the filthy feet of those who will soon abandon him.

Yet when Christ comes to Peter, Jesus is rebuked for an outrageous violation of decorum.

After all, foot-washing was reserved for servants, not Messiahs.

            “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet” (Jn. 13.8).

To allow such an embarrassing breach of etiquette would be akin to hosting the Queen of England at your house, and then asking her to do the dishes and the laundry.

But Jesus’ response is clear:

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

While there are many lessons to be gleaned from the passage, I chose to focus on this single moment: the embarrassing breach of “cultural decorum.”

My point was that while “decorum” (i.e., a concern for respectable appearances) is often a good thing, it is not always so. And in some cases, it may actually keep us from experiencing God’s grace.

In this way, decorum is the unrepented sin of the “respectable.” It is the sin of the suburbs—because we value appearance over healing.

Thus the strange, and apparently heretical title: “Decorum: the Unforgivable Sin.”

To be clear, I don’t think any sin is unforgivable from God’s perspective. Still, there are certain attitudes that lead to a lack of repentance and forgiveness from our side—because we refuse to set aside a concern for “respectable appearances” (decorum), and give Jesus access to our “dirt.”

To be served and known (and touched!) like this can be embarrassing and awkward.

Yet while Peter thinks he is honoring Christ by withholding his smelly feet, he is actually cutting himself off from grace.

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

How often do we do that?

“If I admitted that I have a problem, an addiction, or a hidden darkness in my life… then folks would never look at me the same.  After all, I am a respected member of the community. What kind of message would that send? I’ll work on it alone.”

“If I admitted the extent to which I’m struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or crushing loneliness, it would be embarrassing for all of us. And after all, it can be awkward to share such things, even with a pastor or a friend.”

“If I approached someone and asked for prayer—specific prayer—for what’s really going on, they might think less of me.  Or worse yet, they might think that I just want attention. ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”

Respectfully, I call “bull.”

(Even if that violates your sense of pastoral decorum.)

To be sure, there are breaks in etiquette that are problematic–even sinful. “TMI” can be a problem. And there are ways of sharing struggles (publicly, with the wrong person, or in the wrong way) that are inappropriate. Obviously.

But none of that changes the fact that, in some cases, spiritual healing depends upon a willingness to risk embarrassment, to be served, to be known, and to give Christ (and his appropriate representatives) access to our “dirt.”

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

After all, only those who have experienced God’s servant-hearted grace can pass it on to others.

 


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/284719005″>Decorum: The unforgivable sin</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16738618″>Grace Community Church</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Thanks to all those who shared their embarrassing moments to help with my sermon intro! Apologies that I only had time for a few of them.


Signup here to receive info on a soon-to-be announced book release(!); and to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.