Wednesday, June 14, 2006

when the spirit of truth comes: left behind with the davinci code

Imagine that a Shakespearean play exists, and there are six parts, but the fifth part is lost. In the first four acts there is rich imagery, a powerful narrative, and a crescendo of excitement. There is also a vivid and compelling final act. But there is a missing piece—this fifth act. How do you put on the play? The decision is made not to write the fifth act, for this would freeze all of the characters into a form, and in fact would attribute the play to an author who had actually not written it. Instead, what if we decided to give the key parts to highly-trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearean actors, allowed them to immerse them in the first four acts, and then told them to “work out the fifth act for themselves”.

The New Testament scholar NT Wright asks us to imagine further that the first four acts are the creation, the fall, the story of Israel and Jesus. The sixth and final act is the apocalypse, the revelation. You and I live in the fifth act, in the interim. We are given access to the stories, in scripture, and indeed we enact this drama each Sunday through praise, confession, offering, intercession, meditation, the Word, benediction. We do enact this drama, and a part of the cultural conversation of late seems to be an unceasing inquiry into how best to carry out this drama, and so you see that we have to improvise. What kind of music should we sing? Do I wear a robe, or a suit, or an izod shirt? Well, God didn’t actually spell all of this out in the scripture. If he did we lost that part. We have to improvise.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is talking to the disciples, scene four is ending, and he is telling them, “it is good that I leave, for the spirit will come, the paraclete, the encourager”. The spirit will guide you into the truth. But we have to access that spirit, be open to that spirit, test that spirit.

And that leads us to the question: How do we know if it is God’s spirit? How do we know if it is the truth? We live in a postmodern world, and one of the features of a postmodern world is that truth and fiction are blended. Think of the movies of Oliver Stone about Presidents Kennedy and Nixon. Or the novels of Jan Karon. I know people who have gone looking for that church in Blowing Rock. Or The memoir A Million Little Pieces, that was an Oprah book club choice. Was it truth or fiction? And two hugely popular, semi-religious works, different in some ways but strikingly similar in others: Left Behind and The DaVinci Code.

The Left Behind series, and the DaVinci Code together have sold 100 million copies. As an author of 3 books, I can tell you that there is some envy in me about that. I remember that Pam and I took the royalties from one of my books one year, cashed the check and went to Wendy’s!

But people are reading Left Behind and The DaVinci Code, one about the end of the world, one about the origins of our faith. You see folks reclining at beaches, preparing to hop on airplanes, waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Out pops a book---and it’s either Left Behind or The DaVinci Code.

These books are different in that they come from two very distinct political places, and so they fit neatly into the grooves of the culture wars. But they are alike in that each attempts to fill in the fifth act; after creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, what happens next?

Well, Dan Brown and Tim LaHaye want to tell us. Interestingly, remember, these are novels, right? Fiction. But they are not read as fiction. They are read as the gospel truth. Never mind that rapture is not a word that appears in the Bible. Never mind that anti-Christ is not a word that appears in the Book of Revelation, contrary to yesterday’s Charlotte Observer religion section. Never mind that Jesus is divine and human from the earliest first century manuscripts. Never mind that there is no such subject as religious symbology, and no one at Harvard teaches this discipline.

These are improvisations, but something has gone astray! And so you and I have to go back to the story, and see where it really leads us. Jesus has lived and died and he has been raised. Now he has given us his spirit. The spirit, he says, will guide you into the truth. If you continue in my word, Jesus says, you will be my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Truth comes from a disciplined search, but not the quest of a skeptical symbologist or a shrewd crytographer, or a weird old guy who lives in a castle!, or a man who is lucky enough to be on the right list.

Truth is never given to the curious, but to the committed. The disciples will know the truth if they remember the story, immerse themselves in it, and they will remember the story if they meditate on the word.

On the Day of Pentecost we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. It was his way of saying, “I am leaving you, you have to work this out on your own, but I am giving you my spirit”. The spirit is not a license to go in any direction we choose. The spirit is not a warm feeling that comes over us. The spirit is not lifting our hands high into the air.

The spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the believer. The spirit is a life shaped by love, the greatest gift, a love that is patient and kind, that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude ((1 Corinthians 13). The spirit bears fruit in signs of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control (Galatians 5). The spirit is truth when it bears witness to Jesus. The spirit will glorify me, Jesus says, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the believer, but the spirit is also the external and public presence of God in the body of Christ, the church. The Holy Spirit is both public and private, institutional and mystical. And so at times the signs of the spirit can be seen with our eyes and heard with our ears: wind, water, word, banner, bread, wine. And so the Holy Spirit is present at circle gatherings and church council meetings, mission trips and capital campaigns, hospital rooms and Bible studies, at gravesides and at fellowship meals. God’s spirit uses these visible signs to empower and unify his people.

An underlying thread in both Left Behind and the DaVinci Code is that both are influenced by the heresy of gnosticism. The Gnostic heresy held that certain people have a superior knowledge, a secret knowledge, that is for the privileged. My issue with Tim Lahaye is his judgment on the visible church, much of which he assumes is out of the loop in terms of God’s ultimate salvation. We are left behind. And my problem with Dan Brown is that there is a new wisdom (the literal name of Sophie Nueveau) that is apart from the scriptures as we have them and the tradition as it has been passed to us.

After I had given my eight dollars and a half and found a sit in the theater to watch The DaVinci Code last week, a question did emerge for me as the movie unfolded: Who are the descendents of Jesus? Not, orthodox Christians would argue, Sophie Nouvea (new wisdom), but those who have received the Holy Spirit, his spirit. The legacy is the promise of Jesus: I will not leave you comfortless, literally, I will not leave you orphaned.

And the idea of legacy leads to the question of how the faith is passed from generation to generation. Not through a biological bloodline, but through the body broken and the blood shed, through lives of obedience and faithfulness.

What does it mean for us to be obedient and faithful? Well, we have to work that out for ourselves. That is the creative process of life. That is where a baptized imagination is required. There are some churches that will give you a script----here is what you do, this is what you give, this is how you vote, these are people you associate with---but that script is always a human invention. It fixes us in a rigid form, and it does not allow God’s spirit to breathe through us.

You have to work it out for yourselves. Is it okay to consult what others are doing and saying? Yes. Is it okay to watch movies like The Passion of The Christ, almost of third of which came from the vision of an 18th century nun, or The DaVinci Code? Is it okay to read Left Behind? It really is your choice. But don’t confuse a religious bestseller with a movement of the spirit. They really are two different things.

The spirit of truth stands in judgment over our popular culture, although at times it sneaks in----I think of Johnny Cash singing “Hurt”, or Bono singing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, or Joan Osbourne singing “What if God Was One of Us?”. There is something inspirational about these, to me. But these songs do not give any answers. They just voice the questions. They are the honest expressions of men and women who want to know how to live, and how to make it through the day, or night. There is a hunger for truth, but the answers are not found in conspiracy theories or end-time scenarios. In fact, these can distract us from the movements of God’s spirit.

No, the hunger is very simply for Jesus, Jesus himself, his body, his blood, given for you and for me. The spirit of truth bears witness to him, glorifies him. And so you and I are called to read and really get to know the first four acts---- we were created by God, we are sinners, our ancestors were slaves who escaped, passed through deep waters, and wandered in the wilderness on the way to the promised land; and A savior lived on this earth, called disciples, performed miracles, ate with sinners, was crucified, died, was buried, and was raised from the dead. For you and me.

Then he gave us his spirit, and said, “work this out for yourself”.

What if you and I are the real descendents of Jesus? Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Sources: Rodney Clapp, “Dan Brown’s Truthiness”, Christian Century, May 16, 2006; N.T. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God.


Post a Comment

<< Home