Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Amazing Grace

They sang mostly in their native Zulu language, and they danced the dances of their people. Their harmonies were so tight, you could not differentiate individual voices - it was as if only one person was singing, in a tone so rich and so pure that the concert hall was filled with perfect melody. They sang about hope amidst suffering, the beauty of their homeland, their people's struggle for freedom, the need for all of us to come together to work for peace.

But when the lights dimmed and the audience clapped them back on stage for their last song, this is what they sang.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Drag Me to Hell?

Though not a fan of horror movies (I avoid them almost entirely - the last horror movie I saw was the The Sixth Sense and I must confess that it scared me quite a bit), I was persuaded to go to a screening of Drag Me to Hell with the assurance that the movie had received rave reviews.

The movie was full of well-executed thrills and scares, topped off with wacky humour and numerous "gross-out" moments, though it was surprisingly free of gore. The story revolves around a young woman who humiliates and angers an old gypsy lady, who then puts a curse on her. Predictably, said young woman is in imminent danger of being dragged to hell by an evil spirit, and most of the movie revolves around her valiant efforts to avoid this nasty fate. The zany humour and the over-the-top action tempered the scariness of the film, and I was relieved to leave the cinema mostly untraumatised.

I was struck by the film's implicit acceptance of good and evil, the need for atonement and forgiveness of one's transgressions (at one point a poor goat is led out to be slaughtered), and the existence of a supernatural realm - hell included, of course.

The hell depicted in the movie seemed to be typical of most horror movies, full of raging fires and ghoulish souls reluctantly condemned to eternal punishment for the wrong that they did while they were alive on earth. People are dragged there kicking and screaming.

Most biblical commentators agree that the language that is used to describe hell in the Scriptures is metaphorical - hell is portrayed as eternal fire as well as the outer darkness (which are of course literal contradictions). Tim Keller points out that "[t]hey are vivid ways to describe what happens when we lose the presence of God. Darkness refers to the isolation, and fire to the disintegration of being separated from God. Away from the favor and face of God, we literally, horrifically, and endlessly fall apart."

The scariest part of all of this, is that no one is reluctantly "dragged" to hell as the movie suggests with equal amounts of hilarity and horror. We chose it.

In short, hell is simply one's freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. We see this process "writ small" in addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First, there is disintegration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction. Second, there is the isolation, as increasingly you blame others and circumstances in order to justify your behaviour. "No one understands! Everyone is against me!" is muttered in greater and greater self-pity and self-absorption. When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing - though a good thing - becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy. Personal disintegration happens on a broader scale. In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion and self-absorption. When you lose all humility you are out of touch with reality. No one ever asks to leave hell [note: as is the case in Jesus' parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus]. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.
Tim Keller in The Reason for God
In the words of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, "Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticise it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud."

The Christian doctrine of hell has never been a popular one. It's one that has often been caricatured and trivialised. However, as Tim Keller points out:
Unless we come to grips with this "terrible" doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself. But consider - if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was "finished" (John 19:30) after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together.

And this makes emotional sense when we consider the relationship he lost. If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you - that hurts. If a good friend does the same - that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you saying, "I never want to see you again," that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginningless and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. He experienced the full wrath of the Father. And he did it voluntarily, for us.

Fairly often I meet people who say, "I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don't believe in Jesus Christ at all." Why, I ask? "My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin." But this shows a deep misunderstanding of both God and the cross. On the cross, God HIMSELF, incarnated as Jesus, took the punishment. He didn't visit it on a third party, however willing.

So the question becomes: what did it cost your kind of god to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this god agonize, cry out, and where were his nails and thorns? The only answer is: "I don't think that was necessary." But then ironically, in our effort to make God more loving, we have made him less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a god like this will be at most impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We could not sing to him "love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." Only through the cross could our separation from God be removed, and we will spend all eternity loving and praising God for what he has done (Revelation 5:9-14).

And if Jesus did not experience hell itself for us, then we ourselves are devalued. In Isaiah, we are told, "The results of his suffering he shall see, and shall be satisfied" (Isaiah 53:11). This is a stupendous thought. Jesus suffered infinitely more than any human soul in eternal hell, yet he looks at us and says, "It was worth it." What could make us feel more loved and valued than that? The Savior presented in the gospel waded through hell itself rather than lose us, and no other savior ever depicted has loved us at such a cost.
See also Hell: Isn't the God of Christianity an angry Judge?

Friday, June 05, 2009

How Tim Keller Found Manhattan

Great article about the wonderful story of Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church and New York City. It's not hard to see why Dr Keller and Redeemer's ministry has grown so quickly and touched so many, myself included.

The Kellers stick to a few rules. They never talk about politics. Tim always preaches with a non-Christian audience in mind, not merely avoiding offense, but exploring the text to find its good news for unbelievers as well as believers. The church emphasizes excellence in music and art, to the point of paying their musicians well (though not union scale). And it calls people to love and bless the city. It isn't an appeal based on guilt toward a poor, lost community.

... Keller's reading of Scripture fueled his enthusiasm. Conn had taught him a positive biblical view of cities. As he studied New York, he began to draw out that understanding. Surely God's command to exiled Israelites applied to Christians in New York: "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you" (Jer. 29:7). Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change. Paul did most of his missionary work in cities, and early Christianity flourished within them. Revelation portrays the final descent of the kingdom of God to earth as a city, although a garden city, with fruit trees and a life-giving river at its center. Keller suggests that, had Adam and Eve lived sinlessly and obeyed God's directions, they would have made Eden into just such a city.
The New Jerusalem
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
and there was no longer any sea.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"Now the dwelling of God is with men,
and he will live with them.
They will be his people,
and God himself will be with them and be their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away."

He who was seated on the throne said,
"I am making everything new!"
Then he said, "Write this down,
for these words are trustworthy and true."

Revelation 21:1-5

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Ultimate Boyband Song

Undoubtedly the gold standard by which all boyband songs are measured, and the template according to which all such songs are written. Performed by Oxford's very own "boyband", the all-male a cappella group, Out of the Blue.

Declaration of my feelings for you
Elaboration of those feelings
Description of how long those feelings have existed
Belief that no one else could feel the same as I

Reminiscence of those pleasant times we shared
And our relationship's perfection
Recounting of the steps that led to our love's dissolution
Mostly involving my unfaithfulness and lies

Penitent admission of wrongdoing
Discovery of the depth of my affection
Regret over the lateness of my epiphany

Title of the song
Naïve expression of love
Reluctance to accept that you are gone
Request to turn back time
And rectify my wrong
Repetition of the title of the song

Enumeration of my various transgressive actions
And insufficient motivation
Realisation that these actions led to your departure
And my resultant lack of sleep and appetite

Renunciation of my past insensitive behavior
Promise of my reformation
Reassurance that you still are foremost in my thoughts now
Plead for instruction how to gain your trust again

Request for reconciliation
Listing of the numerous tasks that I'd perform
Of physical and emotional compensation

Acknowledgment that I acted foolishly
Increasingly desperate pleas for your return
Sorrow for my infidelity
Vain hope that my sins are forgivable

Appeal for one last opportunity
Drop to my knees to elicit crowd response
Prayers to my chosen deity
Modulation and I hold a high note...