Imagine There’s a Heaven

Heaven has fallen on hard times. In Christian thinking, looking forward to heaven is no longer fashionable. Jeffrey Burton Russell observes in his book Paradise Mislaid, “Heaven has been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends of the past few centuries.”[1] There are a number of reasons for this. To some, the idea of looking forward to going to heaven seems frivolous. They feel that it is an exercise in self-absorbed indulgence. A quest for “pie in the sky by and by.” For others, notions of heaven are too abstract. It seems too wispy. Not the kind of place that those who have only ever known flesh and blood would feel comfortable, let alone happy. Mark Twain speculated in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.” Twain’s skepticism has uncovered the root of the problem. Either our imagination is too small to truly grasp the things that occupy our time and attention in heaven, or our nature must be radically changed before we can even endure the experience, let alone enjoy it. It seems likely that both are probably the case.

Admittedly, the few passages of Scripture that do speak of heaven are spare in detail, but those that exist suggest that their intent is not to provide us with a detailed travel brochure. They give the impression that a different order of things operates in heaven than the one that exists on earth. “Heaven is a wonderful place filled with glory and grace,” the children used to sing in Sunday school. Yet some of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven seem more unnerving than they do appealing with their winged many-eyed creatures (Rev. 4:8). Yet we should not be surprised that the biblical snapshots of heaven seem so alien to us. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:12). If even the most basic aspects of heavenly reality are beyond us, how can we expect to grasp its full nature, except by faith?

Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs. The images seem fantastic. Yet they refer to things we know. They describe animals, rivers, seas, and cities. There is an obvious reason for this, according to C. S. Lewis. “Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience” he writes.[2] This is the way of all analogies. They use the known to explain the unknown.

Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs.

But this does not mean that Scripture merely employs spiritual baby talk about these things. It is no accident that nature often evokes a sense of God in us. God has not made heaven like the earth so that we will be comfortable there. Rather, in making earth, God has vested it with a kind of beauty and glory that is an echo of his own. Just as God made Adam and Eve in his image, He has also put a reflection of himself in creation. Heaven is not the earth. Based on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, we can be sure that it is much more. Yet whatever beauty heaven may hold, it is certainly not less than the beauty of earth.

Heaven is a Place

Heaven is a location, not a mystical abstraction. The children’s Sunday school song was right. Although “heaven” sometimes serves as a synonym for God in Scripture, it is also spoken of as a place. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to ask that God’s will would be done “on earth” as it was “in heaven.” In his speech in Acts 3:21, Peter describes heaven as a location when he says that heaven “must receive” Jesus “until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Likewise, in Galatians 1:8, Paul gives this warning: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” In Paul’s statement, heaven and God are clearly not synonymous. The angel comes “from heaven” but not from God. Likewise, in John 3:13, Jesus asserts that He “came from heaven.”

An old cliché complains that some people are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good. But perhaps our problem is actually the opposite. We are not heavenly-minded enough. In the opening of his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis observed that our problem is that “We are far too easily pleased.”

A second reason heaven is no longer of interest to us is that we have grown impatient. A focus on kingdom theology has replaced an earlier generation’s emphasis on the hope of heaven because it seems to have more practical value for the present. To dwell on heaven seems selfish, while “working for the kingdom” feels more missional. When Christians talk about heaven, they speak of “going.” When they talk about the kingdom they speak of “building.” “You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site,” N. T. Wright explains in his book Surprised by Hope. “You are–strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself– accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”[3] He is not wrong in saying this. The earthly analogies Scripture uses to describe the life to come indicate that it involves both continuity and reconstitution. Life on earth continues but on a new earth and in a greater city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Yet, despite what Wright says, the garden is about to be dug up so that something else can be put in its place (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Not Heavenly Minded Enough

The problem we have with being heavenly-minded is not that it is too removed from the concerns of earth. In a way, it is the opposite. Our idea of heaven is too vague to be of much use at all. Yet the Scriptures, as sparing as they are on the subject, do speak of heaven and in concrete terms. For example, Scripture indicates that heaven can be seen. John’s description of heaven in the book of Revelation begins with an open door, a throne, and someone seated upon it (Rev. 4:2). This language may be figurative, but it is concrete. Even if one is reluctant to take such things in their literal sense, the material quality of these images leaves us with a concrete impression. John goes on to speak of heaven in earthly terms when he writes of crowns, gates, walls, and in the final battle, even animals. At the center of it all, of course, is God. He is unseen, except in the person of Jesus Christ, who appears in John’s vision, not as the familiar but undescribed Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels but instead as a lamb. Or, earlier in the book, Jesus appears in human but terrifying form (Rev. 1:14–16).

It seems clear that there is more to what John depicts than a photographic image. But once again, while the image as a whole may seem strange, its individual parts are not. We have seen and heard all these things. We know the color of bronze and the heat of a furnace. We have heard the sound of waves as they crash upon the shore. We have seen the stars high overhead and know a sharp sword’s intended use. The language does not need to be literal to leave us with an impression of the heavenly reality.

This is the key to laying hold of the Bible’s idea of heaven. We do not need a travel brochure with pictures and maps. A more literal description might capture the sights and sounds and still fall far short of the true nature of the experience. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to thoughts of heaven, we are more easily captivated by the words of poets and storytellers than the theologians. A sermon may make us ponder, but a golden sunset will make us weep with longing. We think we would prefer prose so that we might understand what heaven will be like. But what we really need is something more akin to fantasy. I am not saying that heaven is a fantasy. It is as real and literal as a chair. But its reality is so fantastic that the literal does not seem to be able to do it justice, at least not on this side of eternity.

Heaven and Earth

But now comes the really strange thing. If the biblical writers are an example of how we must talk about heaven, it seems that the figures and terms of the literal world are essential to conveying its fantastic nature. It is no accident that those who speak of heaven, even in the Scriptures, more often than not describe it in earthly terms. They speak of the people and things we know.

It would seem, then, that we are not earthly-minded enough. Or rather, it might be better to say, our problem is that we are not thinking about earthly things in the right way. Like the door which stood open in Heaven for John in the Apocalypse, the natural world is often a gateway to anticipating the world to come. Not because the two are identical but because the latter’s imprint is upon the former. John Lennon famously sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” But Scripture admonishes us to do the opposite and employs earthly images to help us understand its nature and long for it.

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of a girl who had been blind since birth until an operation restored her sight. After her doctor removed the bandages, he led her into a garden where the girl stood in speechless wonder before a tree which she could only describe as “the tree with the lights in it.” Dillard writes that she sought to capture this same vision for herself as she walked along Tinker Creek. Then one day, when she wasn’t even trying, she suddenly came upon it. Or rather, I should say, it suddenly came upon her since she was not really thinking about it at the time. Dillard gazed at a cedar tree in the backyard, and suddenly everything was transfigured. “I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed,” Dillard writes. “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”[4]

This is what it is like to imagine heaven. It is not so much a matter of seeing as it is one of being seen. We become aware of something far greater through sensible signs and veiled images. It is not the shape of heaven or the specifics of what awaits us there that we apprehend. But the real presence of the One who fills both heaven and earth. When Jesus asked the blind man he healed what he could see, the answer was that he saw men as trees, walking (Mark 8:24). But when we capture a glimpse of heaven in the earthly images presented to us in Scripture and through the reflected glory of what has been created, we see God walking. Not like the trees of the garden, but among them (Gen. 3:8).


[1] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, (New York: Oxford, 2006), 1.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (Grand Rapids: HarperCollins, 1980), 33.

[3] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 208.

[4] Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 33.

REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander

It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.

Continue reading “REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander”

Myth, Memory, & Reality

Atheists have long accused Christians of casting God in their own image. Their complaint has some warrant. In human relationships, the people we like the most often seem to be those whose thinking is like ours. It is the person who reflects our own thinking that we deem to be the most astute, just as it is the person who asks questions about us that we consider a great conversationalist. Something similar happens when it comes to God.

Sin has left us with a penchant for seeing ourselves in God. We want to believe that God is like us. We can easily persuade ourselves that He thinks like us and mirrors our values. Scripture says otherwise:  “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the apostle Paul’s description of the downward spiral of sin In Romans 1:23, he notes that it caused humanity to exchange the glory of the immortal God “for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). The biblical word for this is idolatry. There is more to idolatry than the worship of images. It is ultimately a deconstruction of the image of God. The Bible does not treat idolatry as an art form or even a curious artifact of culture but as a symptom of moral degeneration.

Idolatry deconstructs God by reversing the order described in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:27, God created humanity “in his image.” The impulse of the idolater is to move in the opposite direction. Instead of seeing ourselves as those made in God’s image, we look to find our image in God. We ascribe to God the features we most admire about ourselves, or we attribute to Him the deficiencies that we suffer. We especially see the latter tendency in the ancient myths of the Greeks and Romans, whose gods are narcissistic and selfish. Irritable and unpredictable, their exploits seem to exhibit all the worst traits of human nature. Indeed, in those stories, it is often not the gods who are the heroes but the mortals who outwit them. Although more powerful than mortals, in the end, the gods of myth frequently prove to be petty and stupid.

The original myth, and the prototype of all subsequent myths, is recorded in the book of Genesis. The world’s first myth was spun by Satan when he told Eve that the command not to partake of the forbidden tree sprang from the creator’s selfishness and jealousy. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent assured the woman when she explained that disobeying God would lead to death. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).

Satan framed his false account in the classic triangle that one so often finds in mythology. In the ancient myths, the gods enjoy some blessing that in their vanity and might they withhold from the mortal hero. What is prohibited is usually forbidden because it is a prerogative of the gods or perhaps out of spite. A third party enters the story and shows the hero a way to obtain the boon. The hero usually accomplishes this by outsmarting the deity or performing some great task. But in Satan’s myth, the task is simple. Disobey. Do what God has told you not to do, and you will become like God. The terrible irony in Satan’s lie was that the gift he urged them to steal was already theirs. Adam and Eve had been created in God’s image. They were already like God in some measure (Gen. 1:26–27).

In the tempter’s story, Satan plays the role of savior. He claims to offer secret knowledge that will enable them to seize what God withholds. But the testimony of Scripture, as well as the record of human history, shatter the tempter’s myth and show Satan for what he is. He is not their savior, only the trickster of old. Satan is not a helper but a thief who “comes to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10).

The purpose of Scripture in recounting this first and oldest story is not to entertain us with tales but to set the record straight. The Genesis account, and all that the Bible says subsequently, shows that God’s intent from the very beginning was not to withhold but to grant. He created us in His image so that He could share Himself with us and so that we might ultimately be like Him. Even though sin has profoundly marred that image, it has not erased it (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). We were made to resonate with God. Just as the strings of one musical instrument will cause another to vibrate when their frequencies match, we are designed to seek God. As David puts it, Psalm 27:8, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps. 27:8).

To change the metaphor, we might think of the divine image as a vestigial memory of the God who created us embedded in our nature. When the gospel comes in power, It sparks recognition. Not only do we begin to see our sin for what it is, but we remember God and His goodness. Jesus portrays this moment in the parable of the prodigal son. According to Jesus, when the prodigal came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father” (Luke 15:17-20).

 “The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative,” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “In the last analysis, it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from something, but turning back home.” We usually understand repentance to be a feeling of disgust over our sins. But Thielicke notes that this by itself would not have helped the prodigal. It might have made him a nihilist or driven him to despair. But it would not have motivated him to return to his father. The dismay the prodigal felt was a byproduct of something else. “It was the father’s influence from afar, a byproduct of sudden realization of where he really belonged,” Thielicke explains. It wasn’t the far country that made him sick but the consciousness of home. In other words, according to Jesus’ story, repentance begins with remembering. Not the memory of our sin but a grace provoked memory of God and His goodness.

It should not be lost on us that these lessons about our nature, humanity’s fall into sin, and the way to recovery have all come down to us in story form. One reason atheists accuse Christians of mythologizing God is because the Christian message is often couched in forms that sound to them like myth. There is a garden, a serpent, a virgin who bears a child conceived by God. This God who comes in human form dies and rises again to save the day. As C. S. Lewis observed, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” In saying this, Lewis was not minimizing the historicity of the biblical accounts, only noting that God revealed these things to us in forms that echo the myths of old. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history,” Lewis explains. “It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable consequences.” In this way, God not only captures our attention, but He also shatters the original myth, spun by Satan to our first parents in the Garden of Eden.

By acting in history, God turns the old myths on their head, retelling the ancient story in its true form. God is not the enemy. He is the hero. He alone can restore our memory, and along with it, our lives. By acting upon us through the gospel story, God brings us to our senses and restores our memory of home. That recollection causes us to see ourselves for what we are. It also reminds us of what we were meant to be. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we return to our Father to be restored to our true image, the image of the God who made us (Col. 3:10).

The Trouble With Normal

Since the tragic death of George Floyd, I have been trying to decide what to say, or whether I should say anything about it. In part, this is because I don’t know what to say. Little of what I’ve read on social media regarding the subject seems helpful to me. It is mostly a mixture of anger and guilt, with a few conspiracy theories mixed in. I have been reluctant to speak because so many others have said that silence is complicity. This rubric seems overly simplistic. It does little to help people process what has happened. Such a sentiment is merely an attempt to predispose people to a particular response. If the precipitating event weren’t so grievous and the subject less incendiary, we might even call it a thinly disguised attempt to bully others into a preferred opinion. Silence in times such as these can mean many things. Silence can be an expression of grief or dismay. It can signify disapproval. Silence may simply be the response of those who don’t know what to say. And, sometimes, silence is the disposition of the wise (Prov. 17:28).

Cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
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For people of my age, the distress of recent days must seem strangely familiar—smoke billows behind a rocket that hurtles American astronauts into space. Cities burn as people march in the streets and loot stores. It feels like the 1960s again, except without any of the hope. The timing of this latest crisis was also striking, coming as it did just as some states appeared to be on the verge of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people, whether joking or serious, posted memes that implied that the death of George Floyd was part of a larger conspiracy.

I am more inclined to think that there are more ordinary forces at work. Call it sin or fallen nature; it is the principle Bruce Cockburn describes when he sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” But to attribute the state of things to sin seems too simplistic. Just as Jesus is the answer of the Christian to every problem, sin is the stock explanation of their cause. The problem with this explanation is not that sin is trite. It is our view of sin that is the trouble. It is too anemic. We are inconsistent and double minded, congenital hypocrites where sin is concerned.

In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes how newspapers and television often use the adjective senseless to describe acts of murder. Plantinga finds this description puzzling, noting that unless he is grossly impaired, every murder must have made sense to the killer at the time. “He was trying to silence a witness or gain revenge or express his power or act out his racist hatred or stimulate and satisfy his lust,” Plantinga writes. “In a culture in which up-to-date intellectuals often drift toward moral subjectivism, how can an act that makes perfectly good sense to its perpetrator be judged senseless by outsiders?” The answer, according to Plantinga, is that “when pressed, even the most avant-garde observer drops his moral subjectivism, forgets all Nietzschean attempts to get ‘beyond good and evil,’ and joins the rest of us in expressing shock, indignation, and the metaphysical judgment that a murder does not belong in the world,  no matter what its author thinks of it.”

“A murder does not belong in the world, no matter what its author thinks of it.”

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

C. S. Lewis writes about the same moral sense that Plantinga describes in Mere Christianity, calling it the “law of human nature” or the “rule about right and wrong.” According to Lewis, it is most observable when people are quarreling. When this happens, two things are apparent. First, the aggrieved party appeals to a standard that he or she expects the other person to know and assumes it will be evident to them. Second, the offender almost always affirms such a rule exists by giving a rationale for their action. As Lewis bluntly puts it, “. . . the other man very seldom replies: ‘to hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”

In other words, our moral radar seems to operate on only one band. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult (often impossible) to see our own. At the same time, we are also strangely comforted by the universal presence of sin. The comfort we take in knowing that we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is common, then we are normal. If there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.

This downgrading of sin inevitably leads to sentimentality. Sentimentality, in turn, produces superficiality when it comes to our assessment of the problems sin creates and their solutions. In an essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality, and the Arts,” Jeremy Begbie identifies three traits of the sentimentalist. First, the sentimentalist misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil. Evasion makes us selective in our attention. We refuse to focus on those things that are too disturbing to us. Trivialization compels us to put a spin on sin and its consequences. We are willing to acknowledge the presence of evil in our lives but blunt its sharp edge so that it does not make us bleed.

Second, the sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent. For the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. “In other words, the sentimentalist appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion,” Begbie explains. It is enough to feel. There is no need to do. The sentimentalist is outraged by particular acts of sin, but that is all. They may even be outraged at themselves but it is all a display. “We like others to realize that we are compassionate, tender, and so forth,” Begbie explains. “And even if others are not around, there can be something deeply gratifying about exercising feelings that most would admire.”

Our moral radar seems to operate on only one band.

Third, according to Begbie, the sentimentalist fails to take appropriate costly action. Begbie describes several symptoms of this pathology. Sentimentalists resist any challenge to their way of life. They are more moved by the plight of strangers than those close to them. They deal in ethical generalities like love, peace, and justice, but struggle with awkward individuals. They are impatient and lose interest when the cost of dealing with those in pain is long-term or too great. They rely on banalities and clichés. For the sentimentalist to feel is to act. It is not necessary to go any further.

All of these traits seem to me to characterize the conversation sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Actually, to call it a conversation is too generous. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not really suited for conversation. They do not lend themselves to reflection or careful deliberation. Social media is a forum for outbursts. They provide a catharsis for the one who posts but I question their power to change anyone’s mind or to move people closer to reconciliation or solution. Those are long term, costly projects, and few on either side of the divide appear to have the patience for them.

It is not silence on social media that makes us complicit in the death of George Floyd but our complacency with sin. The trouble with sin is that it seems so normal. It respects no boundaries either of race or economics. It ravages our lives but remains an abstraction to us until its evil is made concrete to us. We only seem to recognize its true nature when we are on the receiving end of sinful behavior. If George Floyd’s death does anything, perhaps it will at least enable us to imagine what it might have been like to have that knee upon our own neck. What it will not do is let us know when the knee is ours. It will not tell us what to do about it. For that we will need a more potent medicine than the accusation or guilt of social media. For that we will need grace and mercy, combined with a conviction that only comes from God Himself.

Should We Observe Advent?

Woman and child with candles.

This is the first week of Advent, according to some Christian traditions. It is the season of beginnings as far as the church calendar goes. The church year starts here with its rolling cycle of readings, days, fasts and feasts. Most of us approach the church calendar the same way we do our cable service. We sample a little here and there but rarely utilize the whole package. We dabble a little in fasting during lent, mixing it with an occasional foot washing service. Then we break our fast on Easter with ham and candy. Perhaps a handful of us will tip our hat to the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday and pretty much everyone makes a big fuss at Christmas. But beyond this, we don’t pay much attention to the church calendar during the rest of the year.

I am not criticizing. How could I, without condemning myself? And does not the apostle say that we mustn’t let anyone judge us because of our non-observance of religious festivals (Col.2:16)? The New Testament church does not seem to have observed advent or even Christmas. As far as Scripture is concerned, observance is not required.

I do wonder, though, what we are missing with this kind of selective attention. I suspect that by approaching these days and times the way we might a buffet, picking out one or two which appeal to us and ignoring the rest, we lose the theological framework which surround the few that we do observe. There is an intentional rhythm in the church’s calendar that is both narrative and theological. Selective observance interrupts the storyline and wrests these practices from their theological intent. The result is either a one-sided emphasis or a calendar which only dresses up pagan values in Sunday clothes and takes them to church.

Of course, some would argue that the traditional church calendar already does this. They claim that Christmas is just the Roman feast of Saturnalia repurposed for the church’s use.  They might also argue that even those who do come from traditions which mark the church calendar don’t understand the theological context of its observances any better than those who pick and choose their practices or those who ignore them altogether.

There may be some validity to both criticisms. As a holiday (not a holy day), Christmas has always had a tremendous power to assimilate other non-Christian traditions. Our popular observance is more of an amalgamation of customs with roots that stretch far beyond the Christian story, and some which do indeed find their origin in paganism. According to C. S. Lewis, three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious holiday. Another is a popular holiday which has complex historical connections to the religious holiday but is primarily an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. The third is only an occasion for making money or as Lewis puts it a “commercial racket.”

As far as the second criticism goes, that those who observe the church calendar do so without consciously considering its theological meaning, I think Lewis might say that the calendar works best when we do not think about it. He makes this very point when writing about liturgy in general. “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore” Lewis explains. “And it enables us to do these things best–if you like, ‘works’ best–when, through long familiarity, we do not have to think about it.”  

However, somewhere along the way, somebody has to explain the significance of what we are doing. Otherwise, our practice not only becomes rote but ends up being detached from the very meaning that set it in motion in the first place. It is like the church I once visited that always kept a red light burning above the altar during the service but could not remember why they felt it was important to do so. The meaning isn’t just off the radar for the participant, it no longer exists. Not only is the church’s observance both mechanical and empty, other less worthy meanings can be attached to the practice.

Should the church observe Advent? I think Paul’s directive in Colossians 2:16 demands that we leave it to the individual’s conscience. Yet whatever we do, we must do with understanding, if the aim is to honor Christ and benefit the church. The fact that some practice is ancient or lovely and will add spice to the holiday season or the worship service is not good enough. Our observance must connect us to the story of our redemption. It must point us to the foundational truths that we believe. It must, as Lewis observes, provide us with an opportunity to receive, repent, supplicate, or adore.

Once Upon a Time

Picture of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Last Christmas Eve I attended church. It was the sort of church one often sees these days: chairs where there used to be pews, a worship band instead of a choir, skinny jeans rather than vestments, and exposed ductwork in the place of vaulted ceilings and stained glass. In other words, it was your garden-variety contemporary congregation.

Just before the message, the pastor invited all the children to come on stage and listen to someone read from a picture book about a mouse who discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I’m afraid that I can’t recall the details about the storyline. Only that it was unmemorable. Indeed, if there was anything at all remarkable about the tale, it was the church’s assumption that the Bible’s own account of Christ’s nativity did not possess enough wonder to capture a child’s imagination. I find this hard to understand.

C. S. Lewis described the incarnation as “a myth which is also a fact.” By this he did not mean that the events were non-historical but that the historical facts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection reflect the great themes of myth and poetry. Lewis calls this a marriage of heaven and earth: “. . . claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

It is a tragic twist of irony, not to mention a monumental folly, that the church has lost confidence in the power of its own story. Perhaps the reason is that we have convinced ourselves that the old story is too familiar. Like those who turn on the television only to find a rerun, we fear that it will not hold our attention. We think we need a new story. What we fail to recognize is that it is precisely the familiarity of this ancient storyline that makes it so captivating. The tale of a god who comes to earth disguised in human form is one of the oldest storylines in history. It speaks to the ancient heart of the human race. The particular wonder of the Christian story is that it is no disguise. This God actually becomes flesh and dwells among us. It is also no myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”

What we need is not a new story but renewed confidence in the old story that has been entrusted to us. To use the Bible’s language, what we need is faith. We live in a world that is starved for wonder. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the other stories which occupy our imagination. They are tales of super-beings and superpowers, angels and demons. They depict a world where the dead come back to life and evil is vanquished. Yet it is a world where God, if he exists at all, is conspicuously absent. That is to say, we are immersed in stories which not only reflect our dreams but also our disease.

It is time we put the picture books away and returned instead to the story that begins: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph….”

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.

Between Heaven and Hell

Hell is not the only doctrine that has fallen out of favor in our day. Heaven has fallen on hard times as well. We used to sing, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.” But these days Evangelicals are more likely to speak of the kingdom than of heaven. Justice is more important to them than the hope of heaven.

To many the notion that heaven might be an actual place seems about as awkward as the thought of a literal Hell. N. T. Wright seems typical of this thinking when he asks what the ultimate Christian hope is and what hope there is for change, rescue, transformation and new possibilities within the world in the present. “As long as we see Christian hope in terms of going to heaven,” Wright claims, “of a salvation that is essentially away from this world the two questions are bound to appear unrelated.” No, Christians today don’t want to go to heaven. We want our heaven on earth and we want it now.

It seems to me that these two things are linked. The church’s neglect of the doctrine of hell springs from the same root that has prompted us to marginalize the hope of heaven. It is a result of being worldly-minded. This is a major cause of all our disappointment with God. We are disappointed because we are primarily interested in the comforts of earthly life and troubled by earthly sorrows. We have forgotten Jesus’ warning that there are other worse sorrows yet to come as well as better joys that cannot be described in earthly terms.

The often quoted observation of C. S. Lewis was right. We are too easily satisfied: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Our distaste for the old doctrine of hell reflects a similar lack of vision. We clamor for justice but what we really want is a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. We want a heavenly bureaucracy which makes sure that everyone is serviced. We do not really want justice. How could we? If a blameless and upright man like Job, someone who feared God and shunned evil, withered under the faintest breath of God’s justice, what makes us think that we could survive its full blast?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.