struggle, spirituality, absurdity

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Genesis 1 and Creation as Function

In Genesis 1:5, part of the creation narrative in 7 days, God calls the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night.’ Why wouldn’t God just call them ‘light’ and ‘dark?’ This signals to us that something strange (to us) is going on in the text, and it turns out that it has to do with how we understand existence in the modern world. That might seem like a huge leap, but allow me to explain.

We in the modern world posses a material ontology, meaning that we tend to think about something’s existence based on its material properties. Salt exists because Sodium and Chlorine bonded ionically, and thus it possesses the material properties required to give salt its existence. The chair I am currently using is made from the finest cheap plastic goop you usually find in only the lowest grade outdoor patio furniture. It possesses legs, a back, armrests, a seat, and it starts to bend in funny ways during the winter when I let the space-heater get too close. All material properties, giving rise to what I call ‘chair.’

It’s completely natural that we would take this same material-oriented ontology to the text of Genesis 1, because when we talk about the origins of the universe, we do so in a materially oriented fashion. We want to know about the age of the Earth/universe, the composition of planets and stars, distances, etc. These are all material concerns.

Material ontology is part of our worldview, and worldviews always insert themselves into interpretations. So, we have to ask ourselves: Did the Israelites (and the rest of the Ancient Near East) view the world in a materially oriented way? In other words, when they wrote about origins and creation, were they referring to the materials of the universe, or did they have something else in mind?

Obviously, I wouldn’t have bothered asking the question if I didn’t think there was something else going on. We can see a different understanding of the world in verse 5, where God calls light and dark by different names. ‘Day’ is a period of light, and ‘night’ is a period of dark, and when that section concludes with “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” we see exactly what God just created: Time.

A period of light followed by a period of darkness gives us the basis for time, unless you live in Scandinavia during either the winter or summer. It’s important to note that for us materialists, God hasn’t created anything material on this day. The sun, moon, and stars don’t come until day 4, and no one in the ancient world had any concept of the particle-wave theory of light. Rather than creating materials, God is establishing functions.

That word, functions, is enormously important because while we often judge the existence of something on its material properties, the people of the Ancient Near East had a functional ontology. For them, something existed if it had a function in an ordered system. My cheap, plastic chair, in this sense, isn’t a chair until someone actually uses it, giving it a function. The ancient Israelites didn’t understand how the earth revolved around the sun, or that the moon reflected the sun’s light, but the interchange between night and day created the function of time.

Before we jump into the rest of the days in Genesis, we ourselves, in our materially-ontological glory, use functional thinking as well. If I told you that I got a new computer,  you probably aren’t going to be interested in when and where it was manufactured, the chemical composition of the components, etc. You’d be asking me about its speed, storage capacity, features, battery life, etc. In other words, you’d ask me about its functions, not its material composition. The Ancient Near East, and Genesis 1 in particular, is quite like that.

See how this plays out over the next few days in the creation narrative:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

During day 2, God separates out “waters from the waters” (whatever that means) and eventually ends up with “waters above” and “waters below.” According to ancient reasoning (see the image), water fell from the sky so there must already be water up there (they didn’t know about the water-cycle), hence the “waters above.” The important word here usually gets translated “expanse” or “firmament”, and it is what’s formed after God does all this separating. This firmament was like a giant dome, and God calls it “heaven,” though in Hebrew the word is “sky.”

So… the big question here is: What did God actually do? He didn’t create anything material, but what function do we see? Go back to what I said about waters being “above.” The heavens/firmament hold back those waters and control their flow – meaning they allow for the function of precipitation and weather.

Day 3:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

A lot happens on day 3. Dry land appears, the seas are gathered together, and then the Earth does something amazing: it sprouts vegetation. It never says anything about the material composition of seeds and plants, and we are only told that the Earth itself sprouts. If we hold to a materialistic view of this creation account, then it would seem as though plants are just appearing like mold on a piece of bread. This won’t make much sense, and we would have to contort the text in order to make it fit into our worldview. However, from an ancient, functional perspective, here emerges the function of vegetation.

We now have 3 functions: time, weather, and vegetation. In my next post, we will look at the functionaries.

If you would like a more in-depth look, I highly recommend the book by John Walton: 


Superhero Jesus

Everyone knows Spiderman. He flips around with web shooting out of his hands and beats up bad guys. But…if you ask how he gained all those superpowers, you might get different answers depending on the generation of the person you are asking. The older crowd knows that he was bitten by a radioactive spider, which, rather than giving him leukemia, made him a hero. However, the younger generations would answer that he was bitten by a genetically modified spider. Why the difference?

Stan Lee created Spiderman in the early 1960s. In the cold war era, when it seemed like nuclear war was both inevitable and imminent, radiation and nuclear fallout had Americans shaking in terror. Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider spoke to an underlying fear that resonated with many.

Spiderman’s popularity experienced a resurgence in 2002 with a new series of movies. This time it wasn’t radiation. A genetically altered spider bit Peter Parker, which makes perfect sense. In 2002, the Human Genome project was about a year from being completed, with rough drafts of the entire human genome already being disseminated. It was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, our culture was becoming more aware of the possibilities and dangers involved with genetic modification. It wasn’t the radiation of the 1960s, in part because we were doing it to ourselves (and our food).

This is a small example, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. Artistic expression often works with themes that resonate in culture, even when those themes aren’t obvious. In fact, I have a hunch that literature (and I use this word very, very loosely) often speaks to a culture most powerfully when it works with themes that are under the surface. When an unexpected nerve is hit, it hurts worse.

Aside from interesting cultural analysis, the kinds of stories that our culture finds compelling can also tell us a lot about ourselves. Consider the biggest blockbusters over the last few years. What do they have in common? Have you noticed that there have been nauseatingly large quantities of superhero movies? You haven’t? Oh…I see. You live in a cave.

What kind of hero do we want? Let’s leave Spiderman behind and look at two of the biggest superhero franchises over the last few years: Ironman and Batman. Both movie franchises made gobs of money, and most of the movies were fantastic (except for Ironman 2 – that was awful). There are some eerie parallels between these two.

Both are the alter egos of wealthy billionaire playboys who use technology to gain an advantage over their enemies. And both commit acts of subjective violence, underscoring our deeply held belief that violence really can solve the world’s problems. This isn’t a commentary on violence per se, but it does show perhaps who we really trust in our society. We look to the billionaires and entrepreneurs, and especially to science and technology, to solve the problems that we face every day. We hope that through the use of money and technology we can actually even address the great evil that works its way through our world.

This really makes a lot of sense. To whom does our culture look up? We idolize people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, those wealthy, brilliant innovators at the forefront of technological advancement, and we hope that through their innovation our problems will be “solved.”

I’m not intending simply to browbeat our culture and tell them that they’re putting their trust in the wrong thing. In fact, humans of been doing that for as long as there have been humans. But I do see some interesting parallels between our desire for a superhero and Jesus’ experience of the people he encountered in the Gospels. Everybody was looking for a hero to save them from the Romans (they called that hero “Messiah”). And so Jesus had to confront the people’s expectations while at the same time reshaping their desires. God was going to do something very unexpected.

The kingdom of God, after all, was not something that was going to be achieved by military force. Instead, a new reality invaded the world, bringing God’s presence in and through the work of Jesus himself. Or, to put it another way, God’s presence was returning to Earth. While I’m sure nobody would have objected to God’s presence, it’s hard to imagine that this is what the people thought they really wanted.

The same goes for us in the modern 21st-century. Our culture desires billionaire superheroes to bring innovative technology and scientific advancement, and we think this is going to actually save us from both ourselves and the evil that we encounter in our world. However, that hasn’t worked so far, and I really don’t think it’s going to work in the future.

Jesus is not a superhero that is here to solve all our problems. Instead, he is God’s presence that has come to confront evil and actually take the full force of that evil onto himself. This goes far deeper than merely solving problems. It actually cuts right to the core of who we are as individuals and as communities. The problem is that the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of each of us. Neither a superhero nor Google can save us from this reality.

Fighting the Insurance Company

Twice this year I have had to fight my insurance company for medication. I’ll spare you the minute details, because that would be a long, complicated explanation of coverage, plan info, benefits, deductibles, out of pocket maximums, and me wanting to hit my insurance company with a shovel.

The first “oopsie” occurred when I called in to have my oral chemo filled. My and their understanding of my plan benefits were vastly different. True, the meds are about $11,000 per month, but that really shouldn’t matter. They essentially informed me that I would owe, over the course of the year, $35,000 in co-pays for that particular prescription. I wanted to tell them that I would be happy to write a check and that they could deposit it in a very “unambiguous” place, but I kept my cool.

We argued for about 2 weeks, which was how long I was off this life-saving medication, and I had to get my church’s insurance broker involved. When we teemed up, we finally convinced the insurance company that I did not, in fact, have to pay a teacher’s annual salary (in Houston, at least) worth of co-pays in order to live. It took a bit of work, but I am thankfully trained in the fine art of reading, analyzing, and understanding complicated documents – thank-you exegetical course work.

To the surprise of no one, the mutation that causes my particular flavor of leukemia reappeared due to not having access to the medication. But I tend to take things in stride, so I figured that I would bounce back after getting back on the pill.

Things were fine until we were notified that my insurance plan was changing its prescription coverage. “Everything would be the same, if not better!” they assured us in their brightly colored pamphlet. I called it the instant I found out: they were going to make the same mistake they did last time. And I was right.

So I rallied the troops, and drafted a few more into my little army: lawyers. Yes, those lawyers were family members, but it still counts. The insurance company still quoted me ridiculous co-pays while I reminded them that that was not how my plan worked: back and forth like a old married couple. After another two weeks, they finally traced the problem to a “computer glitch” that gave them the wrong information. I’m sure the strongly worded letter claiming negligence had nothing to do with it.

I learned a few things that I thought important enough to break my 6-month streak of not writing. The first is that when you tell insurance customer service reps that they are effectively blocking (via negligence) you from getting a life-saving medication, and that you will eventually die without it, that conversation gets very uncomfortable very quickly.

The second thing I learned has shaken me to the core. Consider my scenario: (1) I am well educated – good schools, with a master’s degree. (2) I am decently literate and am able to read and understand complicated documents reasonably well. (3) I have a ton of connections and a huge community of support: multiple, talented lawyers in the family, access to viciously persistent insurance brokers (I love them), people I can talk to in the business world who have fantastic advice, etc. The list goes on. (4) I have a job that offers a lot of flexibility, so that if I need to spend 3 hours on the phone and explain my prescription benefits to 3 different people (all of whom should know it better than me), that’s not a problem. At all.

Now take those 4 points and change them. What if I were a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet who has Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, who, though fortunate enough to actually have health insurance, is “blessed” with my same plan/company? (1) Little or no education. (2) High-School (or less) reading level. (3) Is very much alone and isolated, considering the toll that surviving takes on her and her family, without much support/family/anything to help her when she needs it. And (4) is easily replaced (jobs are in high demand, workers are expendable) if she needs to take a few hours to attempt sorting the issue out.

That’s a very bleak and vulnerable person. When I listen to political discourse regarding healthcare and other social issues, I can’t help but think about the people that are constantly slipping through the cracks in spite of their giving every ounce of effort they have. It changed the way I think. This isn’t about Republican or Democrat, Obamacare or Romneycare, or any other polarizing dichotomy. This is about real people who are sick and lack the resources to get help. I realize that this instantly gets complicated, but having needed help and receiving it, my mind immediately goes to those that need help but can’t find it.

Lenten Meditation on Suffering

While praying in the garden, Jesus knew where the next few hours were going to lead him. He had poked at religious and political authority throughout his short career, and as as we all know, authority tends to poke back. The Jewish ruling council did not have the power to execute their criminals, since that right was reserved for the Romans, so Jesus likely knew that any attempt at killing him would involve an appeal to their power. Rome didn’t particularly care about Jewish squabbles, however. Their denominational conflicts not only bored the Romans, they annoyed them, which meant that Jesus’ enemies would have to convince the Romans to do their dirty work.

Cicero, the famous orator, once wrote that no decent Roman citizen should ever say the word ‘crucifixion.’ He considered the topic taboo, too offensive to be on the lips of a proper Roman. I suppose there were many reasons for this prohibition, but it really comes down to two: First, crucifixion was a horrible process, designed to maximise the pain and humiliation of the victim so that any other potential criminals would be deterred from causing trouble. Second, crucifixion was typically reserved for enemies of Rome – rebels, rioters, and political enemies of the empire… which is why Jesus himself suffered this fate.

A single line from Jesus’ prayer right before he was arrested says it all:“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” These words resonate with me. They are filled with agony on the border of despair, as Jesus stares down the barrel of immense suffering. And so we also pray, “God please take this away… I can’t take it anymore. I simply can’t move forward.”

I have been sick since October, first with pneumonia that refused to go away, and then, as a twisted denouement, kidney stones requiring multiple surgeries (and resulting in so many complications that I stopped keeping track). In the midst of the excruciating pain, I asked, begged, and pleaded that God would take this cup of suffering away from me as my ability to cope diminished.

But going back to Jesus, right before he was arrested, did you noticed that God’s answer to Jesus’ request is an obvious “No”? Jesus pleaded with God that his suffering would stop (or never start)… and God told him no. I find that funny, because God frequently gives me that same answer. Jesus and I have something in common.

God’s answer to pain, throughout the Biblical narrative, is never ‘not pain’. He never simply takes it away. In that sense, God is decidedly not like the painkillers that I had clung to over the last couple of months to keep me from going insane with agony. He is not percocet, prescribed to numb us from our brains down to our feet, and it always makes me nervous when God is used simply to cope with pain.

Karl Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses,” though I suppose I could update that translation and say that religion is the oxycodone of the masses. But the hope we read about in the New Testament is decidedly not pain management.

Instead, the hope of the Bible, of Jesus, is the transformation and redemption of pain by the promise of his presence. God is present in our suffering. He does not feel threatened by it, and he is not afraid of it. He is patient as we suffer and understanding while we mourn. He redeems. Think about it: when Jesus was crucified, it was a dark moment in human history. And through it, God explosively brought redemption and reconciliation into the world a few days later.




Why I feel sorry for Tebow

No, it’s not because he lost. Losing is part of playing, he had a great season, blah blah blah. I don’t really follow football – nothing against it, just doesn’t grab my attention.

I am concerned for him. He has, whether he meant to or not, become a very public image for American Christianity. Pop-Christianity has elevated him to “Christian Celebrity” status, which means that Sunday schools across the country now have a new hero to point the children to, pastors have another sermon illustration, and aspiring Christian athletes have another role-model.

And this is a problem.

Americans love celebrity. I imagine an embarrassingly large percentage of our time, attention, and money go to various elements of celebrity culture like a bunch of cats hitting the neighborhood catnip bong – aggressively and ferociously. American Christianity is no different, and it is really one of our more unique features. It is also extremely unhealthy.

Tebow has, unwittingly, been placed in an impossible situation. While Christians love to create faithful celebrities after whom we may follow, it also places an incredible amount of pressure on that poor soul. And we tend not to be very forgiving when that person messes up. Not “if,” but “when.” Remember how Mel Gibson was our hero when he Made Passion? One DUI and a few racial slurs later…

All that to say, it’s great to have people that inspire us. Please remember that Tebow is human, and when he says something stupid, has a moral lapse, or simply has a bad day and tells the cashier at the store what he thinks of her mis-priced beans in a very unambiguous way, lighten up. All our heroes are human.

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