Monday, January 02, 2006

Paring the claws of the Lion of Judah

The taming effect of natural religion

Ever notice how Jesus – the real Jesus I mean – never fits into our easy categories? And yet we try so hard to manage Him, to create a box that will contain Him! We try to define Him in ways that will not challenge our core life. Philip Yancey comments:

The more I studied Jesus, the more difficult it became to pigeonhole Him. He said little about the Roman occupation, the main topic of conversation among His countrymen, and yet He took up a whip to drive petty profiteers from the Jewish temple. He urged obedience to the Mosaic Law while acquiring the reputation as a lawbreaker. He could be stabbed by sympathy for a stranger, yet turn on His best friend with the flinty rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ He had uncompromising views on rich men and loose women, yet both types enjoyed His company.

One day miracles seemed to flow out of Jesus; the next day His power was blocked by people’s lack of faith. One day He talked in detail of the Second Coming; another, He knew neither the day nor hour. He fled from arrest at one point and marched inexorably toward it at another. He spoke eloquently about peacemaking, then told His disciples to procure swords. His extravagant claims about himself kept Him at the center of controversy, but when He did something truly miraculous He tended to hush it up. ‘If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent Him.’

Two words one could never think of applying to the Jesus of the Gospels: boring and predictable. How is it, then, that the church has tamed such a character -- has, in Dorothy Sayers’ words, “very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah…” [1]

C.S. Lewis has a similar thought, expressed in a powerful passage in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this scene, the children are talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about the nature of Aslan, and are surprised to find that he isn’t ‘tame.’

“Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion -- the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he -- quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” [2]

Lewis and Sayers both tap into a truth about the nature of God: He is good, unalterably good – but He is so good that He isn’t safe. He is not safe to our false desires, our false comforts and natural selves…those lesser things which keep us from true intended life. God is not safe concerning evil. Even our managed, comfortable relations and dependencies which seem ‘so good’ to us, in the eyes of the Holy, are shoots for pruning…lesser sprouts which feed away from divine will. And so He approaches these things as ‘a consuming fire.’

And this bothers us!

The human way of natural religion

If we had our way, we’d create a religion where we say the magic words and get our physical bread – just like the followers in John 6. They wanted to make Jesus’ words about bread into physical reality, spiritual words easily managed into physical bread. And when they found He meant something far different [what, you mean ‘I am the bread from heaven’ isn’t physical and manageable bread?], they walked away. One of the saddest verses in Scripture is John 6:66 -- it is the verse of anti-Christ, which shows just how Jesus is denied: to make Him into a manageable producer of physical reality. And this is precisely what Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus:

“Sir, we have improved on You since You left. Now we give the people what they want: physical bread couched in mystery and authority. We no longer need You. In fact, You are no longer welcome in Your church!”

We humans are so open to a manageable God! But the God who offers us a cross, and says, “Follow Me!” -- that is another story.

When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the Sixteenth century, he brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it. The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God.

As I thumb once more through my stack of Christmas cards, I realize that we in Christian countries do much the same thing. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began at Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.

In the birth stories of Luke and Matthew, only one person seems to grasp the mysterious nature of what God has set in motion: the old man Simeon, who recognized the baby as the Messiah, instinctively understood that conflict would surely follow. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…” he said, and then made the prediction that a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. [3]

“A sword will pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

A sword into our natural self/religion

"For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit...and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."

"And He had in His right hand seven stars: and out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and His countenance was as the sun -- shining in his strength."

Kierkegaard, in one of his brilliant and piercing insights, says something to the effect that until our wills are broken and then turned toward God, we are not Christians, whatever we may call ourselves.

Only a person of will can become a Christian; for only a person of will has a will that can be broken. But a person of will whose will is broken is a Christian. The stronger the natural will, the deeper the break can be and the better the Christian. This is what has been described by the expressive phrase: the new obedience. A Christian is a person of will who no longer wills her own will but with the passion of her crushed will -- radically changed -- wills another's will.

This is a provocative and troubling word, but let me ask: How prophetic is it? Look around you – not even that, look into the mirror – and ask, “What have we done with God? How have we crafted God in accordance with our natural will?”

We’ve turned the Bible into a book of self-actualization, and so we feel free to edit or blatantly disregard it when it doesn’t fit our idea of actualization.

But it is a Word to pierce the heart. It crushes the human will, yet in the process, if permitted, turns it toward the divine heart. The Scriptures are intended as a tool to take us from our natural self, into the true self: re-created in the image of God.

But this is first painful. It is a divine surgery on the human will. It is a cross. And this is scandalous to the natural mind.

And this is the great travesty of modern Christianity. We’ve taken the scandal out of the heart of Christianity, the sword from the hand of Christ…but in the process we’ve turned away from our true intent. We’ve created a comfort-Christianity that promotes the natural self, never realizing that we’ve denied the true self in the process.

We’ve taken the claws from the Lion of Judah.

We want our Christianity like that; we want our pastors like that: de-clawed, polished, slightly obsequious, and spiritually harmless. We want someone to hold our hands and ‘be there,’ but not someone that will change us. We want someone to give us media-driven feel good sermons, but not someone to destroy the natural self. We want someone to tell us that the ‘open door’ is the right door, that the easy road is the ordained road. We want someone to tell us that our natural desires are God’s intended desires…and never demand from us the holy power, the mysterious call.

“Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.”

This is our cultural Christianity.

The only cure is in opening the door to the Lion of Judah, claws and all.

Those claws will sink deep into our natural self…and hurt! But then suddenly revealed in us will be the true self, and then all will be clear. In the words of Thomas Merton, ‘The natural self is the enemy of the true self.’ This is why our God is the enemy of the natural self, and will never be tamed by it…

Thus the Lion of Judah shows that He is our best friend: He destroys what keeps us from our true self, and Him.

Thank God!


Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 23.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, p. 73ff.
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 33.


Allen Patterson said...

Loy, I found this poem by C.S.Lewis over at Randy Huff's blog, and immediately saw a connection to your post. Here it is...

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense.
Lord, in thy great Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

Loy Mershimer said...

Thanks, AP.

Great addition here. Although Lewis by his own admission was not a great poet, this poem is great, imo.

It is metaphysically powerful. Thanks for adding it!


winston7000 said...

Well, Loy, you outdid yourself! What a fine piece of writing and reflection.

Jesus, himself, knew that his words, his way, his actions would only attract the few: "How narrow the gate and close the way that leads to life! And few there are who find it." (Matthew 7:14).

It's much easier to turn Jesus into a pastel copy of a Goya masterpiece than to face his truth. And to paraphrase a statement by, I believe, Merton, "It isn't easy to follow Christ, but it's simple."

Loy, you have expressed the manifold paradoxes of the truth about Jesus so well that I can only express gratitude not further commentary.

God bless you.

John Hetman

Loy Mershimer said...

Thank you, John! Greatly appreciated, as usual...

And your paraphrase of Merton is apt: It isn't easy to follow Christ, but it's simple.

God help me to take that simple/hard path!