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Thinking Out Loud

Grace is Not PC (Part Four)

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2017

In one of Robert Frost's most beloved poems, there is a line especially resonant for Christians: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down."*

Resonant because it brings to mind a passage from Ephesians:

"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new human out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came to preach peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Ephesians 2: 14-18)

Broken WallMarkus Barth, in his commentary, The Broken Wall, called Ephesians "Paul's Puzzling Epistle." The epistle is puzzling, Barth says, because of the bewildering approach the author takes to his subject and to his readers. If it was written by Paul, Barth says, then he "humbles himself in this letter more than elsewhere," referring to himself in the most bizarrely tortured Greek phrase which, if translated literally into English, would describe the author as "less than the leastest" of all the saints.**

It occurs to me that the modest posture of the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians is picture perfect.Marcus Barth's father, Karl, (in Church Dogmatics, 1.1.3) referred to theology as "handling an intractable object with inadequate means." This impossible situation is explained by Elizabeth Johnson in her magisterial book, She Who Is: "The unfathomable mystery of God is always mediated through shifting historical discourse."***

Even the most casual reader of the Bible will see that the Bible is a complex world of literary and spiritual peaks and valleys, vast and beautiful oceans, dangerous swamps, tiny rivulets and rushing rivers, that its dark impenetrable forests have little in common with its majestic plains, and that only a very confused reading of it can claim to hold all of it equally authoritative. In fact, the more carefully one reads the Bible, the more sure one is that if consistency is (as Ralph Waldo Emerson said) "the hobgoblin of little minds," this book is the least infested of hobgoblins, having an incomprehensibly large mind, marked by genius closely trailed by contradiction.

There are passages in the Bible that reveal a goodness beyond anything we can possibly imagine, such grace, mercy, loving-kindness and love that inspire us; and there are texts of terrifying, breathtaking cruelty and violence such as a monster or a sadist might conjure up. In our Reformed tradition, we say that God is free and sovereign, that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, that God speaks the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the hearing of the Bible. We make no exceptions to the texts God might choose. God might speak through any part of the Bible, or between its lines, or in those moments of silence when the reader is just taking a breath. But saying this does not mean, it cannot mean, that we endorse the cruelty that rears its grotesque head in certain passages. Indeed, we believe that God is not the author of the cruelty of which we read, but that such belongs entirely to a humanity struggling feebly to understand what it means to be a people of God in a particular historical moment. And we believe this because we do believe that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis credited his friend Owen Barfield as helping him understand the foolishness of "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age, and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited."**** A slightly different angle on this "chronological snobbery" bears particularly on modern Christians. We cannot take for granted that all or even most Christians will continue to value hard-won insights and values just because they share the same chronological era.

Change is the constant. But change is not a stream that flows in one direction. It eddies and ebbs and flows and rages and retreats. Belief in witchcraft is not limited to seventeenth-century Salem. Nor the execution of witches. Justifying violence against persons who do not share our faith did not go out of style when the last Crusaders returned to their European homes. Using the Bible to defend and promote ignorance and cruelty, instead of to inspire goodness, mercy and peace, has not stopped just because we live in the twenty-first century. We would do well to remember that the people who titled the twentieth century as "the Christian century" were shocked and humbled as their age became the bloodiest in all of human history.

"Chronological snobbery" kept C.S. Lewis from believing in God for a long time; but it can also trap us in a dangerous complacency, thinking that the advances in grace and peace and justice and in the translation of grace and peace and justice into popular culture are permanent. The historical discourses that try to convey the mystery of God are not the only things subject to historical shifts and changes; attitudes, perspectives, understandings, values, ethics all shift and change, and never in a predicable manner. We cannot afford to take goodness for granted.

Christ himself is our peace, writes the humbled author of Ephesians, for "he has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." And Christ himself is that lens through which alone we Christians can read and hear the whole of the biblical witness. A good friend once said to me, there are Psalms only Christ can pray for us. To place them on our lips is truly dangerous. The same could be said of so much of the Bible: passages that in human hands could be used to craft instruments of evil or to justify our selfishness, must be placed in the hands of Christ.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall...." Or an instrument of torture, or a bomb, or an AK47, or a demeaning comment, or a justification to subjugate a person because of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Something there is that doesn't love hatred and cruelty and violence.

Christ is the Lord of all broken walls. Christ is our peace.

*Robert Frost, "Mending Wall," The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 34.
**Markus Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (Judson Press, 1959), p. 13.
***Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad, 1992), p. 6.
****George M. Marsden, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 10.

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