Images of Faith

Growing up in a properly iconoclastic Baptist-type Protestant church, I was raised to be more than a little sceptical about religious imagery. Statuary and stained glass and painted angels on the ceiling and the like were not something we did; it was associated with Catholicism and the (apparently) dead-from-the-neck-up Church of England, and perceived as borderline idolatrous.

The typical Protestant Jesus was almost as bad. A long-haired neo-hippie with the features of a bearded girl and a Buddha-like detached serenity clinging to Him like a second skin, that image of Christ just seemed sappy and weak, not to mention as out of touch with contemporary culture as dressing like a 1950s Teddy Boy in the mid-’80s.

Our churches were by comparison stark, austere and plain, and we made a virtue of it. Not for us any Papist trappings; we preserved the simplicity of the Apostles’ faith.

However, one perhaps unintended consequence of this visual austerity was an unbiblical mental disconnect between art and worship. This was particularly odd for me as an artist, and I think this might be the reason that I struggled for so long with what my artistic talents were for. Drawing was a skill that came naturally to me, and typically produced reactions from my peers amounting to “Geoff, you’re really good at art”. But what use was it? What was the point of it from a Kingdom perspective? With no place in my personal theological framework for spiritual art, it was apparently only good for making people say “Geoff, you’re really good at art”.

Showing off, in other words.

It’s all very far removed from historic Christianity, which for centuries was the place for the arts, which were perceived as an act of worship on the part of the artist and an aid to worship on the part of the congregation.

With most of your congregation illiterate, the stained glass windows and painted ceilings functioned as a visual Bible and sermon both. A window of St. Anselm (picking a name at random) was Christian biography made visible; a frieze of angels was a visual representation of the heavenly worship around the Throne.

And in today’s visually-oriented culture, is a plain church really as God-honouring as we were brought up to believe?

It may well be that visual art is far more legitimate an expression of worship than I had been led to believe as a child. By my late teens and twenties, wall-hanging banners and waved flags had begun to make an appearance, and the strict iconoclasm of my youth began slowly to fray at the edges.

Perhaps the death-knell of my personal iconoclasm was sounded by my ministering in a Muslim part of the former Soviet Union.

Communist art was carefully proscribed in both content and style. The New Soviet Realism produced a recogniseably Communist iconography, with its muscular, grim-faced workers and women. It was the gulag for any artist who dared to stray outside of the approved bounds, and religious themes were of course particularly frowned upon.

Then there’s Islam, which is even more iconoclastic than Protestant Christianity. Making a visual representation of the sacred or the Divine is the ultimate sin of shirk, or idolatry. You can’t even draw a picture of a mere human without it becoming potentially idolatrous; Islamic art draws heavily on beautiful calligraphy and geometric patterns.

So what’s an artist to do in such a visually-constrained milieu?

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I myself have a certain bloody-minded streak. The surest way to get me to swing in a particular direction is to expose me to an extreme version of the opposite viewpoint. That’s right: the more conservative Texas gets, the more I want to swing to the Left in self-defence.

Exposed to all the soul-destroyingly drab Soviet architecture and the anti-visual Islamic mindset, I began to swing the other way.

Visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with my wife after we married was a breath of fresh air.

Just walking around without hearing anything at all is a sermon in itself. Before your eyes the Christ is Incarnated, Crucified, Buried, Raised and Ascended. There are the four Gospel-writers, St. Paul and the other Apostles who transmitted the faith we walk in. St. Paul’s is to this day my go-to source of inspiration for painting angels; the angels on the ceilings are not just white-winged or golden-winged, but blue and purple and red and green and orange: flames of fire, winds and mighty waters.

This of course brings up the question of whether angels have wings at all. Scripture never describes them as winged, though the Seraphim mentioned in Isaiah 6 have six wings, and the strange heavenly beings known as Cherubim and described in the book of Ezekiel have four wings. The Renaissance convention of depicting “cherubs” as baby angels is one of the most unfortunate artistic conventions of that period. Cute and pudgy the Cherubim are not.

By analogy, though, it’s sort of reasonable to suppose that angels, being the other type of heavenly being, might have wings, and it’s been an artistic convention to depict them that way since Christian art was a thing in existence.

Even as anti-idolatry as the Old Testament is, there’s a surprising amount of intersection between art and spiritual life. The priestly robes have certain prescribed colours. Everyone has to wear a robe with ornamental tassels containing a blue thread. The tabernacle is decorated with pomegranates, the ceremonial washing basin known as the Sea is carried on the backs of sixteen bronze bulls, and the Ark of the Covenant has carved and gilded cherubim on its lid. More, the artist commissioned to create these furnishings was filled with the Holy Spirit specifically for the task. And this in an age where the Spirit was more or less restricted to kings, priests and prophets.

Bezalel was no king, and barred from the priesthood by being from the wrong tribe. I guess this is where prophetic art comes in.

As a side note, I’d love to know the Hebrew symbolism of the pomegranate; it’s always seemed an odd decoration for God’s tent.

More than that, the bronze snake on a pole, created in [ref], was, from a certain point of view, an art object dedicated to God and used as a means of grace for healing. Admittedly, by the time of King Hezekiah it had become a focus of worship in and of itself and had to be destroyed as an idol, but in its original purpose it was religious art par excellence.

You do of course need to take care with visual art that this sort of fall towards apotheosis does not take place. Visual media have a powerful drawing capacity, and if our hearts are not careful to keep our focus on the Lord who is so far beyond any human art, then we run headlong into idolatry. But it’s not like we don’t run the same risk with our music. We can, if we’re not careful, start to idolise our musicians and focus on the emotional high of a particular song or musical style or of listening to skilled players. Idolatry resides in the heart, not outside of it.

By my reading of the Bible, God seems more comfortable with a certain amount of decoration and representative visual art than we sometimes are.

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The Rhythms of our Souls

It took living in Texas for me to understand Country music.

It’s still not my preferred ear candy, but at least now I can tolerate it and even sort of enjoy it, which might as well be a vital survival skill here in cowboy country.

Driving through the leafy, green countryside of my native Britain, it’s about as alien as HG Wells’ Martians. You’ll probably be able to find someone that likes it – there are people that like all manner of exotica – but it doesn’t fit the natural rhythm and melody of the place.

Having grown up there, I find the rhythm of my soul much more attuned to U2, Queen, Madness, or even Coldplay than to any random Country music artist. Or in terms of Classical music, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches make me come alive in a way that Copeland’s Fanfare For The Common Man just doesn’t quite match.

Interestingly, I was apparently in the former Soviet Union long enough that Slavic composers also tend to make my soul come alive. About my favourite piece of Classical music of all is Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave. Apparently part of my soul grooves to a Russian rhythm.

What brings this up is that one of the foremen on my jobsite is Cuban, and constantly has his radio set to one of the Hispanic stations, and that stuff is even more alien than Country music in Britain. For a start, I don’t understand more than about three words of Spanish, particularly sung, but I could get over that. It’s the rhythm and style which is so totally alien that I cannot imagine it being what my soul grooves to.

The chief instrument appears to be the accordion, which is probably my least favourite instrument in the world and usually scrapes across my soul like fingernails across a blackboard. However, since I actually like the bagpipes, you can feel free to dismiss this with words involving “pot”, “kettle” and “black”. Nothing is invested in my musical preferences except my musical preferences. The whole rhythm and lilt of the music (I guess it’s what is called “Mariachi”) is obviously underpinned by another culture and place – witness the fact that almost all Hispanics seem to love it. It’s apparently the rhythm of their souls, even if it’s not of mine. If it took moving to Texas for me to get Country music, it would probably take moving to Mexico to get Mariachi.

Given the dangerous situation for foreigners in Mexico at the moment, I’m really sure I do not want to do this.

In a related vein, my church is quite into the style of hymn that my wife calls “camp meeting songs”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it sort of comprises the hundred or so years of Christian songwriting between about 1850 and 1950, taking in the era of the American Great Awakening and the travelling revivalist and tent meetings.

I guess we might have had the same sort of idea in Britain, and for all I know a lot of these songs were written by Brits, but it’s alien music to me. I mean stuff like “Victory in Jesus”, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory” and the dreadful “Sunshine in my Soul”. And I’ve now probably named the favourite hymns of several people in my church. Oh well.

It comes from a different era, and while I can remember some of these from the earliest days of my childhood, we stopped singing most, if not all, of them before I was ten. I have no nostalgia about any of it. I don’t call most of the stuff “camp meeting songs”, I call it “barrel-organ-and-monkey music”, because that’s what it all sounds like to me. The sort of noise generated by an organ grinder at a Victorian fairground for a trained monkey in a red coat and hat to caper to. I’m not a monkey; this isn’t the rhythm of my soul either.

Part of it is the words. The story of how I came to faith is rather different from the sort of “come to Jesus” moment depicted by most of these songs, and I find it difficult to relate. Then, too, I think the imagery used in a lot of them has become so hackneyed and stale that it’s effectively lost all meaning for me. If this is what your soul grooves to, I have no problem with that, but I personally don’t find it all easy to like. All I can say is that sometimes “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is a good thing.

The thing is, if you want a church in America that sings the great classic hymns of the English-speaking Christian world, and I do, it seems you’re going to get a church that sings barrel-organ-and-monkey music as well. In America, the two go together. Which means that I have to learn to at least tolerate it, even if I never actually like it.

An interesting question is how this music could completely disappear from Britain but still be around in America as the beloved traditional hymns of much of the church.

From discussions with my wife, and comparing the hymn books we grew up with, I’ve noticed that while American hymns have all of these songs right alongside the old classic hymns that Britain and America’s churches both sing (but often to different tunes), old British church hymn books don’t.

From my early childhood I can remember other song books in the backs of the pews alongside The Baptist Hymn Book. Books with titles like Golden Bells. If my memory serves me correctly, all the barrel-organ-and-monkey songs were in those; they never made it into the hymn book proper, because you couldn’t sing them to the tune of a completely different number hymn.

I remember doing this. “We will now sing hymn no. 127, but we will sing it to the tune of no. 54”. That was part of what made a hymn a hymn; tunes and lyrics were separable, and even though you always sang “Blessed Assurance” to its normal tune, you were dimly aware that you could sing it to a different one. This, incidentally, is why hymn books have indices arranged by poetical metre: anything with a 10.9.10.9 syllabic metre can be sung to the tune of anything else with that metre.

The barrel-organ-and-monkey songs didn’t do that. They were one song, one tune, just like we are used to today. Undoubtedly the music was cutting-edge contemporary when it was written, but the past, too, is another culture, and they don’t do things quite the same there.

But somehow, in order to sing the old hymns that I do like, I have to learn to like these as well.

Maybe learning about the circumstances in which they were written might help, but I actually sort of doubt it. The problem is musical more than it’s lyrical, and my soul simply doesn’t groove to that rhythm at the moment.

Work Out Your Salvation

One of my friends mentioned this verse again last Sunday. It’s Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, just as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure”.

I remember being a little confused the first time I came across this verse: “what’s that doing in the Bible? I didn’t think we believed in salvation by works!”. Of course, that’s not what it’s saying. The command is to work out your salvation, not to work for it. Salvation is already achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and gained by faith, not works. But the fact that we are being saved should have consequences. If we are followers of Jesus, that ought to find expression in a life lived in accordance with His character, and that’s where “work out your salvation” comes in.

The context of the verse is immediately following the famous passage in Philippians 2 about Christ’s humility and exaltation, and the point of that passage is that we ought to have the same mindset, not exalting ourselves over one another in selfishness or conceit, but considering one another as better than ourselves. Being united in the Spirit, with one goal and purpose, looking to each other’s interests. Being humble.

And out of this beautiful expression of Christ’s example of humility and reminder of His current exaltation above every name that can be given, we are instructed to work out our salvation.

There are several related aspects to this instruction. The whole verse makes it clear that working out your salvation is connected with obedience. But obedience to what? A surface reading of the verse might imply that Paul is instructing them to keep on obeying what he, Paul, had told them when he was present even now he was absent. However, this doesn’t really fit the wider context of Christ’s humility and obedience. His was obedience to His Father, an obedience of love, not of fear, that resulted in salvation for us all. Paul deliberately and unequivocally sets up Jesus as our Example in this; our obedience, like His, is not to a human teacher, not even the Apostle Paul, but to God the Father.

But we do have to obey. It isn’t an optional extra. The Gospel is “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” at least as much as it’s “Come to Jesus and be set free from all the crap and junk in your life”. His commands, that we are required to obey, are not onerous or harsh or death-bringing, but simply to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself. Who wouldn’t want to obey that?

The second aspect is that working out our salvation is a process. We don’t usually get there all in one jump, though if the Lord chooses to do a great work all at one time it is to be gratefully received, not rejected because it doesn’t fit our happy pattern. It’s an ongoing process: “continue to work out your salvation”. What “loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength” looks like today may involve different challenges than I was facing yesterday. What “loving my neighbour as myself” will look like tomorrow may involve anything from having the courage to call a friend out on their double-mindedness to giving financially to someone in need to forgiving someone who hurt me. It’s all the same obedience, but the outworking is different in different situations of life.

Related to this (and this is what struck me on Sunday) the command is to “work out your salvation”. Not someone else’s. There are things which, because of my particular personal character weaknesses, I cannot do without them becoming sin. I’m not meaning the things which are universally condemned in Scripture like making created things into gods or practicing witchcraft or committing adultery, but the greyer areas. Matters of individual conscience, like the drinking of alcohol, participation in things like gambling and lotteries, whether or not you tithe strictly, most of the rules we place around the whole procedure of dating, how we discipline our children, and so on and so forth.

If your conscience bugs you about something, then for you it is sin. I personally could not carry a gun without it violating my conscience, because by carrying it I am saying that I am prepared to use it, even to kill with it if necessary, and I don’t believe I have the right to take the members of Christ (ie my own body) in my own authority and use them to take the life of another person for whom He gave His. For me, it is sin.

But I have several friends who not only actively hunt, but have concealed carry licences. Evidently, for them, it isn’t.

The danger is for me to try to absolutise my own conscience’s foibles. Because carrying a gun is sin for me, because it violates my conscience, it must be sin all the time for everybody, and it ought to violate your conscience as well.

We’ve all seen the lists of sins that have been preached against in times past. It’s sinful for a woman to wear trousers. It’s sinful for a man to have long hair. It’s sinful to drink a glass of wine with your meal. It’s sinful to dance, play bingo, smoke or chew tobacco, fail to give at least an exact 10% of your income to the church, etc. And it’s probably sinful to expose your kids to the “evil secular humanistic public school system”, to vote for a Democrat or to fail to place your hand on your heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. And this is just a random sampling of the list. We can all add to it from our own experiences.

But the point is that I’m supposed to be working out my salvation, not yours. If your conscience allows you to carry a firearm, that’s between you and the Lord and nothing I need to get miffed about. I can challenge you, if that’s appropriate, because you might not have considered all the implications of what you’re doing, but if at the end of the day your conscience is unfazed by what sets mine to jangling, it’s none of my business. As Paul said in Romans 14: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own Master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for God is able to make him stand”.

I don’t get to hold you hostage to the dictates of my conscience. But at the same time, it’s not loving you as myself to parade my participation in things that violate your conscience right in front of you, lest you are encouraged to join in in defiance of what you believe to be right.

It’s not that right and wrong are situational or relative. There’s one moral law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. But how the one moral law plays out in the individual complexities of our lives’ is not always going to look quite the same. The one thing that unifies its diversity of expression is that it’s all supposed to look like Jesus.

On Christian Denominations

I’ve never really had much attachment to the idea of Christian denominations. If you think it matters, I attended a Baptist church growing up, but I wouldn’t consider myself to have any strong sense of identity as a Baptist. For that matter, I don’t remember our church having much of a sense of being Baptist – there was never a very strong sense of distinction between us and most other churches that taught the Bible and trusted Jesus.

The matter of denominational label just wasn’t important. The important thing was whether you believed and taught the Bible as authoritative, in which case you were an evangelical and One Of Us, or you didn’t, in which case you were a dodgy liberal and One Of Them.

In my late teens and early twenties at university, the only time I would use a denominational label for myself was when pushed, in order to show that I was part of a respectable mainstream church and not a sect.

I was at least 12 before I first encountered the (Calvinist) idea that Christ died solely for the Elect, and to this day I could not tell you a single thing that John Calvin said about anything. We didn’t place much stock in human founding figures; the origins of the Baptist denomination are a little more obscure.

Cut to the present day in which I live and go to church in America, last bastion of denominational thinking.

I simply do not get the stock placed in one’s denominational allegiance. And I’m using the word “allegiance” deliberately; it always seems like you’re expected to maintain an allegiance to whatever denomination you’re in. I have learnt, for example, that when one of my work colleagues asks “What religion are you?”, they are looking for an answer along the lines of Baptist/Methodist/Lutheran, not, as I instinctively interpret the question, along the lines of Christian/Muslim/Buddhist. It’s all very strange.

Most of the differences between the denominations seem like either peripheral issues of practice (like form of church government or mode of worship), minor issues of theology (like the issue of whether one can genuinely believe and then fall away), or purely semantic, with different denominations misinterpreting one another’s standard terminology. Unless you’re a member of a non-mainstream group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we all believe the same essential body of truth about God, humankind, sin, salvation, Jesus and the Bible. These are the core matters of faith. Everything else is like the question of whether it’s ok to eat food sacrificed to idols (in Romans 14 and elsewhere). They are things that can be left to individual conscience and preferences.

But the American church, at least in the denominational forms I’ve seen here, seems all too often to extend the circle of “core doctrines” further and further out, with many denominations, if not every denomination, seemingly focused on the things that set them apart from every other denomination.

I get it that denominational labels can often be a fairly good shorthand for certain positions on church government and theology. But the result of numerous theological discussions between me and my wife has been a realisation that the only thing separating her distinctly Methodist-flavoured doctrine from the Baptist-flavoured generic evangelicalism I grew up with were the question of whether one can genuinely fall away, and the terminology we used for everything else. I learned that when a Wesleyan talks about having “received sanctification”, they don’t mean what I would naturally expect, ie that they think they’ve been placed forever beyond sin, beyond error and beyond temptation, but that they have come to a place of maturity in their walk with God in which they are not bound to sin as if they have no choice, but instead they love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. I learned that when I said that full sanctification is impossible this side of Glory, they understood it to mean that one was condemned to keep on repeating the same old sins and that there was never any hope for freedom from them or for walking in victory, when what I meant was simply that we weren’t going to be placed beyond error and beyond temptation in this life. We both use the same word, “sanctification”, but we mean slightly different things by it.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I’m fairly certain that an awful lot of other denominational differences are probably similarly semantic in nature. The experience of learning to speak one another’s theological language has left me wondering what all the fuss is about over what label we put on our church and our theology.

As for me, “Christian” or “follower of Jesus” is all the denominational label I feel I need. I always feel it ought to be good enough for any of us, but then, I really don’t get denominational thinking at all, so maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.

Why do we insist on dividing and separating the one Body of Christ into ever smaller and finer segments, based on how we answer abstruse theological questions? I couldn’t care less what label is on the tin; if we have the same functioning set of basic beliefs, we ought to be able to work together.

A Questioning Faith

This morning I read another account of someone whose questions about particular difficult passages of Scripture had been squelched by their pastor as “lacking faith” or “prideful” or “showing a rejection of Scripture”.

This sort of thing I always find disturbing, and I’m very thankful I’ve never had to personally deal with a pastor like that.

I may be reading into it, but as almost all of these stories are American, it leaves me with the idea that this sort of pastoral attitude is a lot more common in the States than in Britain.

I guess that this should have been evident from the fact that certain quarters of our established church have long had a reputation for the preachers shocking the people with their unbelief, rather than the other way round, but this, too, is not completely fair.

Be it as it may, I’ve always had pastors who were happy to open difficult Scriptural questions and wrestle with the inadequacies of our pat answers. I’ve always been encouraged to approach my faith with the same questioning attitude as my science: the Truth is big enough to handle my questions and doesn’t need you, me or anyone else to protect it. When I had questions about the acts of genocide in the Old Testament, my pastor say down with me, gently gave me a few new ideas to consider, and encouraged me to keep wrestling with the issue.

So when I hear or read stories of pastors – truth workers – who treat any questioning at all as tantamount to unbelief and rejection of the faith, I am disturbed. This is Not Normal.

There is, I suppose, a certain attraction in a simplistic, pat answer. It’s easily memorised: when you are facing question x, you go to Scripture y and that is supposed to take care of the problem. You don’t have to do a lot of time-consuming and energy-sapping personal wrestling with issues; we already have the answers.

So actually taking the lid off and examining some of the real difficulties of interpretation of Scripture and possible conflict between the nature and character of God as we think we understand Him and the Bible as we think we understand it is dangerous. We might even be forced to say we don’t know.

There may be a generational gap here. Many of the disturbing stories I’ve heard about pastors shutting down the possibility of questions concern pastors raised in a generation that wanted and needed to have answers. As I understand it, the secularists of the day would attack Christians as operating in blind faith, “switch off your mind and just believe”, and not having any answers. It was important to show that faith was not irrational, that there were answers for these “insoluble problems”.

Cue a generation very attached to its answers. Questioning these answers was a rejection of the authority of Scripture and showed a prideful or unbelieving heart determined to raise problems.

Maybe things have improved among the more recent generation of pastors, and the situation has never been monolithic anyway, but maybe, too, there are still quite a number of people around who think like this.

It is, after all, quite an American trait to love black-and-white distinctions and instant solutions. American advertising is a case-in-point: whereas British advertisers go for the under-sell, unless you claim that your brand of toilet paper will radically change everyone’s life for the better, no-one takes you seriously.

The full truth is frequently more complicated and will not easily be reduced to a T-shirt slogan or Facebook image caption.

But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question without answering it, or to admit that our pat answers aren’t really addressing the heart of the issue and may actually be unhelpful. Look at the way Jesus taught: frequently he seems to employ the Socratic method of asking his hearers a question, and almost as frequently he lets them come to their own conclusions about what it all means. He spoke in parables; he didn’t spoon-feed the crowds the answers, but trusted them to work through it. Or not. If the questions are honest questions, the people asking them will be interested in finding answers. That’s the difference between hostile and honest questions. Some people are just throwing up objections so that they don’t have to face the claims of Christ personally, but a lot of people are just honest seekers who see a discrepancy and want understanding. Shutting down this type of question because we perceive it as a threat is the worst thing we can do; it drives people away from faith because they perceive faith and reason as opposed.

Sometimes the questions don’t have good answers. For generations before about the 1950s, the Biblical accounts of the Hittites were dismissed as pure fantasy. We didn’t have any archaeological evidence for them, we didn’t know where they were or what their kingdoms were like. And with the two ancient civilisations that we did know about (Egypt and Mesopotamia) both centred on large rivers, the fact that there was no third large river complex on which to base a civilisation led many scholars to dismiss the Hittites as an invention.

Today, we’ve excavated several Hittite cities in their Imperial centre in Anatolia, including their capital Hattushah, we’ve deciphered their writing system and know the names of some of their kings. No-one today would dismiss the Hittite Empire of the Bible as a pure invention and expect to be taken seriously.

The point is that just because we don’t know the answer, that should not prevent us from asking the question. Sometimes the first step in arriving at a solution is to recognise that there is indeed a problem. Look at Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem.

Somehow, many of us as believers seem to want to pretend that there is no problem. We have all the answers, see? If these answers don’t satisfy you, you must have a hard heart or be looking for reasons to reject faith.

Actually, there may be a real difficulty in our interpretation and understanding of events and situations from 2, 3 or 4 thousand years ago, recorded in another language that very few of us read or speak and dealing with a culture with very different starting assumptions.

Humility does not consist in suppressing our real questions in order to claim belief, but in admitting our doubts and fears and questions. God is a big God; He can handle my struggles to believe and accept.

There was an old British series of TV commercials for some kind of repair business (I forget exactly; it was a long time ago), that had as their tag line the answer to the question of “Can you fix it?” of “No, but I know a man who can!”

This is proper Christianity in a nutshell. We can’t fix your problem, whatever it is, but we know a Man who can. We don’t know all the answers, but we trust the One who the Bible names as “the Truth”.

Faith goes hand in hand with honest questioning. If the truth is really true, it doesn’t need me to prop it up, and if I’m believing something that’s not quite true, then I’m believing something that’s partly a lie, and that does not glorify God.

Maybe this is why I like the Apostle Thomas so much. Honest doubts honestly met by the Master. Thomas is not left questioning, but neither is Jesus threatened by his doubt crisis.

101 Posts to Read (During a Dull Sermon)

(With apologies to Adrian Plass for the title)

So for my 100th post, I ended up with something a bit rambling and non-directed about Abraham and Bronze Age combat. Not exactly what I consider my finest work for such a milestone, but that’s sometimes the way of it.

I was actually hoping that my 6-month anniversary of blogging and my 100th post would coincide, but alas, that would have required about 30 more blog posts than I had written at that point.

This post makes 101; a simple marking of a milestone and an expression of thanks to you, dear reader, for following my strange witterings and for putting up with my occasional descents into rambling.

The fact that people continue to want to read what I write is as gratifying as it is astonishing. Thank you, and may your tribe increase!

Abraham’s Trained Men

We never really think of Abraham as a warlord. He was the father of the nation of faith, so he must have been a man of peace, right?

Of course, reading his story this far removed temporally from the events in question, we often get the subconscious impression that it was more or less just Abraham and Sarah in most of their wanderings. We’re completely unused to the very extended families and massive households with large numbers of servants, hired hands, armed retainers and so on that a careful reading of Scripture makes clear Abraham’s was, so we tend to read our own very nuclear families onto the story without even thinking about it.

But it’s obvious from the details we read (and take in without playing out the implications) that Abraham’s household was pretty large, and that he was a powerful chieftain in his own right.

When Abraham and Lot separate, it’s because their households together are too many for the land to support. When he’s in Egypt, he gains large numbers of people as well as sheep and cattle. In his dealings with Abimelech, Abimelech is a lot more circumspect and careful around Abraham than Pharaoh, suggesting Abraham is either of equal or greater wealth and power than the kings of Gerar.

And when he rescues Lot from Kedorlaomer and Amraphel and the kings allied with them, he’s able to call out over three hundred trained warriors from his household troops.

As in the account of King David much later, the idea of a man of faith also being a warrior isn’t coming totally out of nowhere, but we never seem to think about it with Abraham.

I’m fascinated by this incident, and Abraham’s trained men, so I began to do some background reading. It gets more interesting the more you know.

Who were these “trained men”? How could three hundred men make the armies of six kings flee from them, so that they pursued them for several days’ journey?

We can’t precisely date the life of Abraham because there are very few external time references. “Pharaoh king of Egypt” isn’t much good for establishing a chronology, because “Pharaoh” is a title rather than a personal name. The same may be true for Abimelech, seeing as how not only Abraham but also Isaac and King David encounter a king of the Philistines “named” Abimelech. But this battle of six kings against five provides one of the few possible clues to date the whole Abrahamic period, and scholars argue back and forth as only scholars can over the identities of these rulers that the Bible names.

But we can say some things about the time period and the sort of warfare we’d expect to find.

Given that we know that the events of I Samuel take place against a backdrop of the very beginnings of the Iron Age (as evidenced by clues like the Philistines’ monopoly on ironworking shown in I Samuel 13:19, the events of Abraham’s life can be placed squarely in the height of the Bronze Age. Depending on your preferred date of the Exodus and how tight a Biblical chronology you accept (in other words, how much play is there in the Bible’s own reporting of numbers? When it says that the sojourn in Egypt was “four hundred years”, does it mean four hundred exactly, or “about four hundred”, just like we might say the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was “four hundred years ago” even though the exact number is 426 years, or even that it’s a purely symbolic 40 years (Scripturally meaning a period of trouble and testing) x 10 (symbolic of completion, being 1+2+3+4)?), the Abrahamic period could reasonably be anywhere from around 2500BC to around 1800BC.

This puts Abraham squarely in the great age of the chariot empires, and gives us an idea of the sort of battlefield technology we ought to be picturing.

If we think about it at all, we probably picture Abraham riding a camel, or at least, a horse. But archaeologists tell us that camels weren’t even domesticated until about 2500BC and saddled for riding only much later (which suggests that the reason the Midianites were so formidable in the time of Gideon might have been that they had camelry and the Israelites didn’t), and while horses were domesticated in about 3500BC, actual ridden cavalry didn’t happen until some time later. Archaeology points to chariots preceding ridden horses, at least in warfare. The horses of the time were too small to be ridden easily, and it took time to develop innovations like the bit and bridle, that let horses be controlled by a rider, and the framed saddle, which let a rider keep his seat more easily. Even after that, stirrups weren’t invented for several hundred years (about 500BC, if memory serves).

So then, Abraham in a chariot.

We tend to associate chariots with the great settled empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia rather than with nomads like Abraham, but archaeology points to the nomadic peoples, too, having chariots.

The nomads, in fact, often made better warriors than the settled peoples. Whereas settled farming used a lot of time and tended to produce a more timid, peasantlike people, the nomads’ daily life of watching the herds, fighting off wild animals and raiders, and perhaps engaging in a little raiding themselves, was already halfway toward warfare and cultivated the same skills and same watchful mindset. Nomads were generally feared by the settled peoples because they were dangerous, not merely because they were different.

Of course, settled communities of any size had bands of trained warriors supported by taxes on the peasant producers, but the difference was that among the nomads, every man was a warrior.

Abraham was living as a nomad, and had great numbers of sheep and cattle and donkeys. You don’t preserve wealth like this by leaving it unguarded, and Abraham was no fool. His people, and he himself, must have had to fight on occasion.

More than this, though, Abraham had 318 trained men. Over and above the levy of his herdsmen who would fight when necessary, he had 318 men whom the Scripture describes as “trained”. Trained implies they were more than herdsmen. Trained suggests they were purely warriors. Probably these would have been his charioteers, if I’m right in my assumption that he had them. At two men per chariot, that’s three hundred chariots, or two hundred, if these were the heavier, Hittite-style chariots with three-man crews.

This puts a different complexion on the forces Abraham had at his disposal. However, the opposition were no walkovers. Kedorlaomer, king of Elam (in the hills of south-western Persia) is their leader, and they include Amraphel king of Shinar (southern Mesopotamia) and others.

Linguists tell us that this is an Elamite compound word properly Kudur-Lagamar, but records from Elam are sketchy, and in all the records we have from Babylonia, there is no Amraphel. The Babylonians, along with other ancient people, did often deify their great kings. The pharaohs of Egypt famously ruled as god-kings, and much later several Roman emperors elevated themselves to godhood. If a certain well-known ancient Semitic-speaking Babylonian ruler had been deified in his lifetime, their name might have received the -El suffix as denoting a living god. And shorn of the -el ending, there’s really not that much to choose between Amrap(h) and (H)am(mu)rab(i). Not all scholars agree, of course, but linguitically speaking, it’s very possible.

Of course, Hammurabi’s annals don’t mention the events, but the proud and touchy rulers of the Bronze Age are unlikely to record their own defeats. But it provides a tantalising possibility for tying down the events of some of the earlier parts of Genesis.

We can’t say for sure. But it puts flesh on the incident. The kings of the valley of Sodom rebel against the Elamite and Mesopotamian rulers whom they had formerly been paying tribute to. In revenge, Kudur-Lagamar and Hammurabi gather together some of their subject kings and come down to the Jordan valley, plundering and despoiling. After a successful raid on Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot is among the plundered captives, and so Abraham decides to go and rescue him. He gathers together his three hundred elite fighting men and goes in pursuit.

We’re apt to read this through the lens of the Israelites’ later technological and military inferiority in the period of the Judges (Sisera’s 900 iron chariots, for example) or the relative strengths of King Hezekiah of Judah and Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria, but that actually doesn’t seem to be entirely what’s happening. The Bible’s never hesitant to make it known that the people of God were facing overwhelming force, but it does not do so here, which suggests, though far from conclusively, that the balance of power was more even. The armies of six kings including the notable Hammurabi do not run from rabbles of scruffy nomads that they themselves outnumber significantly. And if you look at the geography, Abraham’s forces had to chase them for several days before catching up to them and plundering the plunderers. The armies of the day were small enough that Abraham’s three hundred and eighteen trained men, together with however many other support troops he had, were a sizeable army.

So I suppose the lesson we should draw from all this is that using wisdom and reason to achieve what God is calling you to through the resources He has given is not incompatible with having a huge faith. It does not necessarily mean that you have little faith if you deploy your own God-given resources with your own God-given wisdom to achieve a righteous end. It just means that your faith is not being particularly tested right now.

But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.