“Born This Way”

“You sir, are a wiggly worm sir, and the wiggly worm sir is the lowest of all the life forms . . .” Such was one of my favourite expression’s of my brother growing up which seems to have come from the Flintstones as far as I can tell. It also expresses a kind of Christian understanding that can often be found, what is sometimes referred to as “worm theology,” which basically holds that we are all worthless. With the advent of Advent we often look at John the Baptist and his call to repentance, which in many minds seems to support this idea of “woe is us, we are pathetic”:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.  The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9 NIV)

Not just wiggly worms, but snakes. This “worm” understanding of humanity stands in contrast to the kinds of understanding we find in culture around us. Consider the following lines from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”:

It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
‘Cause you were born this way, baby

My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on
In the glass of her boudoir

There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are
She said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe
So hold your head up, girl and you you’ll go far
Listen to me when I say

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way, born this way

“You sir, are either not a wiggly worm sir, but are a superstar or if you are a wiggly worm sir, the wiggly worm is on par with any other life form . . .” Such calls in today’s society for acceptance feel world’s apart from the repentance we hear from John the Baptist. So what should the Christian do? Listen to such calls from culture for acceptance or to the call of John the Baptist (and Jesus!) for repentance? Should we see ourselves, and others, as all superstars? Or worms?

The first thing is to not jump to conclusions about God’s revelation (or Lady Gaga!). To say that the Bible promotes “worm theology” is to miss some crucial statements about our worth. First, consider that we are created in the image of God. Even after the fall God affirms the worth of humanity based on creation in His image as we see in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (NRSV) Also, consider Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39 NRSV). This cannot be translated as “like your neighbour as yourself,” but is much deeper with the idea of caring for your neighbour, that is, they are worth being cared for even if you don’t particularly like them. The same goes for yourself. The Bible is quite emphatic with a universal  “You sir, are not a wiggly worm, sir.”

However, the Bible holds this affirmation of self-worth in tension with a call to repentance: “You, sir, are not a wiggly worm sir, but you are acting like a snake, so stop it.” Interestingly, the vast majority of human beings believe that repentance, a change of mind and heart, is an important part of life. Even Lady Gaga’s song is a call to repentance: “Stop judging yourself.” Virtually no one who comes off with a statement like “we should love and accept everyone just as they are” will refrain from issuing a call to repentance to the accepted at some point. “I’m on the right track” from the aforementioned song would hardly apply in any thinking person’s mind to the racist, to the cold blooded murderer, to the abuser, to the school yard bully. No matter how far people delve into the spirit of self love, they do tend to believe in morality and hence in repentance. The question becomes from whence we get our moral standards, who sets the bar for repentance. This is a much easier question for the Christian to answer than a secularist for whom there really isn’t an answer. Jesus is the answer.

The Christian life is one of the tension between being “born this way,” that is, in the image of God and a person of worth; and being born into sin, that is, in need of repentance and the grace of God. The cross is a place of level ground, the worst of sinners also being a person of worth, the most righteous of saints also being a person who needs repentance. May that tension keep us from being judgemental  towards ourselves and others, but may it also help keep us “on the right track, baby.”

Genesis 11 and a Tower

 

“Excuse me sir, I don’t mean to offend you in any way, but have you ever been told that you look like Stephen Harper?” Such was the question from a store clerk on a recent milk run to our local Mac’s store. And I had to answer that yes, in fact earlier this year someone had commented on how I remind them of our Prime Minister. I don’t mind, but I don’t really see it apart from glasses, greying hair, and the occasional attempt at musicianship. But suppose I were a look alike, might I go to the Prime Minister’s office and start making decisions that affect our nation? Of course not, such would make a mockery of our democratic system not to mention mess with my morning commute. We would not let it happen because the truth is that I am not the Prime Minister and because truth matters.

Truth matters when it comes to the identity of our Prime Minister, yet when it comes to the identity of God, it seems many would say truth does not matter. You will hear things like “all religions lead to God” or “all religions will take you to heaven,” or even “all religions are essentially the same”. But is this true? Logic will tell you that only the real Stephen Harper should be filling Stephen Harper’s shoes in the government, the differences between myself and Stephen Harper being great and going beyond merely shoe sizes. Study the religions in any depth and despite the appearance of commonality, the differences are great. Truth matters, God is who He is, we cannot simply make Him up, or recast him to suit ourselves. That would be idolatry.

 

But are not all religions ultimately worshipping the same God? That statement would only apply to monotheistic religions in the first place, but even among the monotheistic religions it would be an overly simplistic way of looking at it. Why? Suppose you were to describe my children to me and you remark upon how cute they are, and how full of life and energy. I would beam and say “yes,” but then you go on to say that you love their long black hair and brown eyes and how they each play the piano so well. By then I would figure out that you are not describing my children at all but must be mistaken on which children are mine. And so it is with religious ideas about God. Religions may start out with the intention of describing the one God that is, but they do not end up describing the same God. Someone is mistaken, and truth matters enough that we should figure out who.

So what has this to do with the Tower of Babel? In building the tower, which most scholars agree is a ziggurat, a common feature of Mesopotamian religion, the people are showing a great misunderstanding of who God is.* In Mesopotamian religions one would take care of the gods, and then the gods would be indebted to you, and so have to do something for you. The human mind backed by a religious zeal can be a dangerous thing and so God frustrates their plans:

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:6-7 NIV)

God crashes their party and in effect says “you really don’t get me do you?” And so God lets confusion reign among the confused, their new misunderstanding of each other being symbolic of their misunderstanding of God. But then comes the good news in the very next chapter; God reveals Himself to Abram, and so begins God’s deliberate and gradual revelation of Himself to the Patriarchs, then to the nation Israel, then to the world through Jesus. In effect God is saying to us in Genesis 11 and 12 “You really don’t know me, but you will.” So let us pay attention to what He has revealed about Himself. After all, truth matters.

(*my thanks to John Walton in the NIV Application Commentary for steering me this direction in the understanding of this passage)

Genesis 9 and The Sons of Noah

Growing up I remember my Dad always wearing dark coloured suits until one day in the late eighties when he went to a lighter shade of grey. Responding to comments from people in the church he mentioned that he went with a lighter shade to match his greying hair to which one of the deacons spoke up and said “Pastor, we hope you don’t go bald!”

I was reminded of that story from the passage in Genesis 9 in which the sons of Noah respond to their father’s nakedness in different ways. Noah had become drunk and passed out naked, so much for righteousness. But whereas Ham responds by spreading the news, Shem and Japheth walk into their father’s presence backwards and cover him up. One remembers God’s covering of Adam and Eve’s shame with clothing and we must presume that Shem and Japheth are acting with much greater honour towards their dad than Ham. On waking up Noah had this to say:

“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Praise be to the Lord , the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.” (Genesis 9:25-27 NIV)

So what are we to learn from this somewhat strange passage? Righteousness still matters. We have just learned in the first part of the chapter of God’s grace and promise to never destroy the world again with a flood. Grace brings with it a temptation, and the greater the grace the greater the temptation. If we think that our sins will be forgiven we face the temptation to think that they do not matter. But righteousness still matters. Though God has made the gracious promise in the first half of chapter 9 to not treat humanity as it deserves, the second half highlights the difference righteousness makes. The fact that Ham’s curse is laid on his son Canaan would not be lost on the Israelite community as they prepare to enter and posses the land named after him, occupied by a people still persisting in unrighteousness.

The wonderful grace of Jesus brings to the Christian a great temptation; to forget that righteousness matters. Let us aspire to the righteousness of Christ even as we enjoy His grace and favour.