Sunday, January 25, 2015

Martyrdom--Angel Band

The audio of this recording of the song "Angel Band" is one of my favorite music tracks, probably one of my favorites of all time. (Lyrics here, though they are slightly different on the second verse. It looks to me like everybody does the second verse a little differently.)

If you know that you really, really hate southern gospel music and/or country music, and that your opinion will never change, don't even bother trying to appreciate this song, because it's pretty much "that" style. But if your musical tastes are somewhat more open, I suggest that you don't watch the video I just linked (minimize it or something) but that instead you crank the volume and just listen to the music.

I have had this track on a Gaither hymns CD for four years now and only just now watched the video, so I've always known it through the medium of hearing rather than sight.

To my mind this has the interesting effect of making the cheering and enthusiasm of the audience and of the homecoming group more a part of the song. When I hear all the cheering and clapping break out before the encore, what I don't primarily think is, "Okay, there are all those pretty homecoming folks cheering for Vestal Goodman and hugging on each other. How sweet." I mean, I know that's going on at some level, and that's not a bad thing in itself, but at another level it sounds more to me like rejoicing in heaven, like the saints and angels cheering someone on in the race as he crosses the finish line.

For some reason, every time I listen to this song I think of martyrdom, even though it's really about death more generally. I think of someone actually about to be martyred, even being martyred, and believing that he is beginning his "triumph." All the indecision is behind him. I think of someone like Thomas Cranmer who was so afraid of death and allowed his fear of the flames to warp his integrity, but who then repented of that and thrust his hand into the fire. Was his burning at the stake a horrible death? Certainly it was. But it seems that Cranmer had achieved a kind of mental equilibrium there and knew that what he was doing was right. What lay behind him were his "strongest trials," all the confusion and temptation.

I myself am a great coward about pain and don't even want to think of dying a painful death for the sake of Christ. But together with my vivid imagination for horror I have a vivid imagination for the varieties of human response. And I can, just barely, imagine a kind of saint who, through all the pain, feels that he is triumphing, that he has moved past the danger point and the fear, and that he now knows that the angels are coming for him. His spirit loudly sings. He cries out in his agony and his triumph, "Come, angel band. Come and around me stand. Bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home!" And his soul goes up, rises up to God, borne by the angels who have sustained him in his hour of trial and who now take him to where the cheering of those on the other side joins the singing of his spirit.

We certainly should not glorify horror and pain for their own sake. They are evils. Soberly speaking, many have been corrupted and led away by the mere possibility, the mere fear of suffering. Moreover, much persecution goes on and on rather than ending in death for the martyr. No doubt many who suffer for Christ do not experience any rush of confidence, any sense of joy, but must merely endure through it with no sensible consolation from God and no merciful death that takes them to His presence.

But this other possibility exists as well and is good to think of, and this song allows us to imagine it--the triumph over death by means of death. O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The light that lightens all men

This morning, it being a Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we sang a couple of hymns that should be more widely known by Christians of all denominations. One of these is "Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning," which has a lovely tune. Here is a choir singing it, and here are the words.

The hymn I am going to write about here is "From the Eastern Mountains." I'm sorry to say that I can't seem to find an on-line recording of the music. The tune is called "Valour." A view of the hymn page with the tune used in the 1940 hymnal is here.

Here is the text as it appears in the 1940 Anglican hymnal:

From the eastern mountains
Pressing on they come,
Wise men in their wisdom,
To His humble home;
Stirred in deep devotion,
Hasting from afar,
Ever journeying onward,
Guided by a star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

There their Lord and Saviour
Meek and lowly lay,
Wondrous Light that led them
Onward on their way,
Ever now to lighten
Nations from afar,
As they journey homeward
By that guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Thou Who in a manger
Once hast lowly lain,
Who dost now in glory
O'er all kingdoms reign,
Gather in the heathen,
Who in lands afar
Ne'er have seen the brightness
Of Thy guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Gather in the outcasts,
All who've gone astray,
Throw Thy radiance o'er them,
Guide them on their way,
Those who never knew Thee,
Those who've wandered far,
Lead them by the brightness
Of Thy guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Guide them through the darkness
Of the lonely night,
Shining still before them
With thy kindly light,
Until every nation,
Whether bond or free,
'Neath thy starlit banner,
Jesus, follows thee.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

This hymn jumped out at me because I have recently been reading Marilynne Robinson's new novel Lila. As a novel, it is very fine, though not as great as Gilead. As a work of theology, it is completely wrongheaded.

Robinson's character Lila becomes very concerned after marrying John Ames when she hears about hell. She realizes that pretty much everyone she ever knew before coming to Gilead, particularly old Doll, the woman who acted as a mother to her and is now dead, may very well be in hell according to standard Christian doctrine. Lila agonizes over this, and the theological issue provides a focal point for the overwhelming discomfort she feels in her new, respectable life as the wife of a Congregationalist minister. There are plenty of other reasons for that discomfort. Lila is portrayed as having been almost completely ignorant due to the roughness of her past life, to the point that she has never even learned to use a knife and fork. The culture shock of living in Gilead as a middle-class matron is severe, and she feels that she has lost her privacy and is in danger of losing her identity. Robinson portrays all of this extremely well and believably, and she wraps the theological issue of hell into Lila's struggle with great psychological realism.

In the end, Lila is comforted by inventing her own version of universalism. Robinson, being Robinson, writes about this version of universalism beautifully, but it's seriously wrong. It involves no repentance, no new birth, and no desire for God. It does not involve these things even at the moment of death or even after death. In fact, God is very nearly absent from the heaven Lila envisages. Rather, heaven is treated as just a happy place to which God transports everyone because God is loving and because it "wouldn't be fair" to do otherwise.

Our soteriology needs to be deeper than that, and one might think that Robinson means for Lila's soteriology to be regarded as shallow because of her lack of theological knowledge. John Ames himself is something of a crypto-universalist, both in this novel and in Gilead, but he is never quite willing to become a universalist unequivocally, presumably because he really does know his Bible and has some actual understanding of sin, repentance, and grace. On the other hand, the very end of Lila seems to suggest that Lila will be able to comfort Ames by telling him what she now knows on this subject.

What the novel does do well, as does Gilead, is to portray the genuine anguish one feels at the thought that a loved one might be eternally lost. Some of us even feel that anguish regarding people we have never met. Missionaries feel that anguish for whole people groups.

The Bible and Christian tradition tell us that we should pray for the lost. The Apostle Paul says,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
I take Paul here to be implying that one of the things we are to pray for is that men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Since we are told that Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost, we know we are praying in conformity with the will of God if we pray for someone's salvation.

But as C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, universalism simply erases the human will. God just sweeps people up into heaven (or "heaven") whether they want to be there or not and presumably changes them magically into eternally good people even if they wanted to go on being evil. I question whether this is even a coherent picture.

So when we pray for a man's salvation, we are not, I believe, praying for something that God can bring about by a mere act of power, for to do so would be to erase the person and to substitute a robot. We are praying, then, that God would reach out and woo the person, that God would bring before that person clearly the evidence of His existence, attributes, and requirements, would give that person every opportunity to accept Him. We are praying that God would shine His light upon them so that they can be guided to the knowledge of the truth.

All of which brings us back to "From the Eastern Mountains." I like the fact that the song connects the Wise Men with God's desire that all men should be saved and God's willingness to use even extraordinary means to that end. The God who could send a star to the Wise Men can send dreams to a Muslim, for example. He can bring a David Wood or a John C. Wright to recognize that He is God, at which point they have to decide what they are going to do about that. This song is a prayer for the salvation of those who know not God. Never give up praying that.

C. H. Spurgeon, on praying for the lost:
Until the gate of hell is shut upon a man we must not cease to pray for him. And if we see him hugging the very doorposts of damnation, we must go to the mercy seat and beseech the arm of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life there is hope, and although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the Almighty arm.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Marriage and Heaven

Now for something completely different. Several days ago I received some correspondence from a young pastor who has been sending his questions on this topic to a variety of Christian writers and speakers. He had seen my husband speak recently but was more readily able to find my e-mail address and wanted to know if either of us had some insights on his questions. I won't quote his questions here, but their general import was to wonder what Jesus meant when he said that we will neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection. As a happily married man, he was distressed at the thought of being separated from his wife in heaven or "not married" to her anymore and wondered how Jesus' words should be taken.
He also wondered whether Jesus' death and resurrection would not be able to restore us to Adam's prelapsarian state, which clearly was meant to include marriage.
One commentary he had read had even conjectured that we might be completely a-gendered beings in heaven, while another person he had consulted was not entirely closed to the idea that there actually will be sexual intercourse in heaven, though that person nevertheless discouraged speculation along those lines.
What follows is my response, which I admitted up front would be rather a long treatise:
First of all, I want to set what I am going to say later into an overall context so that it won't be misunderstood. I think that the commentaries are wrong when they imply that, in the resurrection, we will not be male and female. Jesus says that we will be "like the angels" in that we will not be married but does not say that we will be like the angels in being neither male nor female. (In fact, we don't even know very much from Scripture about the gender of the angels beyond the fact that they are always portrayed as male when they appear on earth!) So the idea of our being recreated as, in essence, aliens rather than human beings, aliens who have no gender, is not in my opinion supported by that passage nor by any other. The prima facie case is that, if a human being dies and is resurrected, the resurrected being is also human, which means (according to God's plan) either male or female.
Moreover, I don't think that Jesus' words imply that we will not know one another or have close human relationships in heaven. Nor does he say or imply that all of our human relationships in heaven will be identical to one another and that we won't be any closer to any one person than to anyone else. Why should Jesus be taken to mean that? That the relationship we call "married" will not be represented in heaven, at least not as we presently know it, doesn't mean that no important and close human relationships, including presumably relationships with those to whom we were closest on earth, will be represented in heaven. I think C.S. Lewis says somewhere that, since heaven is portrayed as a feast, it would be very strange if the guests didn't know one another! St. Paul says to the Thessalonians that they should be "comforted" by the thought of their loved ones as going to heaven and that they should not sorrow as those who have no hope, and this would seem extremely strange if the true doctrine were that we will never see each other again after death or that we will be separated from those we love forever.
What we don't know is the positive nature of those relationships.
You can read the rest of this entry at What's Wrong With the World. Feel free to comment in either location.

No wonder Jews are leaving Paris

The situation for Jews in France and especially in Paris is dire. The recent terrorist murders at a kosher store come in a long line of daily abuse and beatings from Muslims. This interview has more. I was especially chilled by the picture of this man's mother getting beaten up, going to the police, and being told, "You're lucky to be alive." It's possible that the police were indicating that they take Muslim violence against Jews very seriously, but my impression from the way the story is told is that it indicates just the opposite. Plus, as he says, the atmosphere is so mafia-like that Jews abused by Muslims often don't go to the police because they will be found at their homes and punished if they do so.

This is what comes of Islamicization.