“The Bible refers to six evil powers: Mammon, the prince of the world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death. Concerning these six, one might remark that if we compare them we find that they are all characterized by their functions: money, power, deception, accusation, division, and destruction.”
We have now made our way to the 3rd evil – “the prince of lies” or “deception”.
Have you ever noticed how much emphasis Christians put on cursing? Its as if cussing is about the worst thing some Christians can conjure up doing. (When I hear some of them complaining about language or using foul language as their soapbox on unfaithfulness, I say to myself “I sure am glad they can’t hear what I am saying in my head!” ). The truth of the matter about foul language is that there is only one brief verse in the New Testament that deals with it. The rest of the appeals for us to be cautious of our speech have to do with how we speak about other people (I find it awfully convenient that we harp on cussing, perhaps even abstain from it totally, while we violate the New Testament teaching to refrain from speaking ill about others.)
Well, Jacques Ellul says a similar thing is happening with regards to lying in the New Testament. Most of the language in the New Testament, according to Ellul, about lying and deception, have very little to do with our petty daily interactions and ‘white lies.’ Again there is a short verse that deals with that too. But to make all passages on deception about that, misses something much bigger.
“In the New Testament lying has a very precise sense. It bears no connection with our petty everyday untruths, with the denials of the guilty who do not want to own their deeds, with mistakes, with the camouflaging of data, with all that we call falsehood in general. Jesus puts an end to all such things when he tells us to swear by nothing but simply to let our yes be yes and our no be no. In other words, we ourselves are to be whole in our words. But this is not the problem of lying. It refers to Jesus’ own person. Lying in the New Testament is the ascribing of a false identity with Jesus.” (Ellul, pg. 180-181)
Ellul says that deception, in the New Testament, takes three basic forms:
1. Transforming Jesus into an idea.
2. Transforming Jesus into a god who underwrites our lives.
3. Equating Jesus to the Church.
Here I will depart from Ellul’s work and deal with each of these in my own way. (I will assume, for time’s sake, that Ellul is basically right about the existence of these three forms of deception).
First, we fall prey to the Prince of Lies when we transform Jesus into an idea. I once heard Frederick Aquino say in a lecture, “Probably 90% of all the people in your church are gnostics.” I don’t know where he gets that figure, but I am willing to bet that he is at least in the ball park. Gnosticism is as difficult to define as a word like “spirituality.” It has many strands of thought and important components. Not least of which is the centrality of “knowledge.” There is a core theological conviction among Gnostics that the flesh (Creaton, Earth, Body) is rotten. But not all is lost for the Gnostic. The flip-side of that coin is that the ‘spirit’ is good (Mind, Soul, Spirit, Knowledge). In Gnosticism, the flesh, the world, matter, body, and created things are rotten, thus knowledge is all that matters. It is not a surprise that with this view of the world that Jesus becomes merely an idea. Following Jesus becomes replaced with believing right doctrine. Transformation of character does not happen through ‘love in action’ – rather, in Gnosticism, it happens through ‘love in thought’. Works of mercy are sidelined. Serving your neighbor with concrete acts of physical love are neglected. And worst of all, it is forgotten that the core theological conviction of Christian discipleship is that “God became flesh.” The only way to rescue the church from transforming Jesus into an idea, is to recapture the Incarnation of God.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came in the person of Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But God’s only Son, Jesus the Messiah, who is close to the Father’s heart, has fully revealed God to us in himself.” (John 1:14-18)
The truth is that the world is not inherently evil. The body is not inherently corrupt. The created order, material things, are not the stuff of Satan’s making. They are God’s. And when he made them – indeed, when he made you – he called it “GOOD!.”
Perhaps the most striking and theologically significant part of the Creation narrative of Genesis 1 is the usage of the word “good.” Too often we get caught up in this debate over Evolution vs. Creationism. Frankly, Genesis 1 does not care about such debates – at all. Honestly, it would be impossible for Genesis 1 to sufficiently address those debates and questions because those debates and questions did not exist at the time of its writing. The Creation story was written around 586 BCE while the Israelite people were being held captive by the Babylonians. The Babylonians had a “Creation Myth” called the Enuma Elish. The myth went something like this:
The oldest Babylonian deities gave birth to many gods and goddesses of the cosmos. Two of which were Tiamat (female) and Marduk (male). To settle a generational dispute among the gods, Tiamat and Marduk showdown in an epic battle of the gods. Apparently, Tiamat has mounted forces ‘of chaos’ to which Marduk must gain victory over to restore order to the god-world. In Babylonian literature, the battle between Marduk and Tiamat is described vividly. At the climax of the conflict, Marduk let loose a wild wind that distended the body of Tiamat, shooting an arrow into her mouth. With the death of Tiamat, the army of chaos dispersed in dissaray. Marduk then turned his attention to his sister, Tiamat’s body, which he split into two parts. With one half, he fashioned the heavens, and with the other the earth. Using the heavenly bodies, Marduk also ordered time. After this, Marduk decided to make human beings:
‘I shall compact blood, I shall cause bones to be,
I shall make stand a human being, let ‘Man’ be his name.
I shall create humankind from this violence and death,
They shall bear the gods’ burden that we may rest…’
It is important to note here, that in 586 BCE the Pentatuch did not contain a written Creation narrative. It began, probably, somewhere in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abram. But living in slavery to the Babylonian empire, enslaved as they were to toil and work for them, they decided to write down their own ‘Creation Myth’ – the story of Elohim creating the ‘heavens and the earth.’ What is important about the Creation narrative of Genesis 1 is not that it counters modern evolution, but that it counters the Ancient Babylonian myth of Marduk’s created order. Creation does not come from violence and death. It springs from love and communion shared within the Trinitarian fellowship of God. The fundamental difference between Marduk and God, is that for the God of Jesus Christ, creation is GOOD! The problems of humanity cannot be explained away by simply blaming “the world” or “the flesh”. Rather, the problems are a result of The Fall of Adam and Eve – Sin.
And the answer to the problem of sin, is not knowledge or insight or enlightenment to an idea. The answer to sin is following Jesus – the person – the human – the Son of God – the Messiah. God’s salvation does not reside in intellectual ideas about him. God’s salvation is “the reconciling all created things to himself, on the cross.”
Second, we fall prey to the Prince of Lies when we transform Jesus into a god that underwrites our lives. There is a word that the Divine Scriptures use again and again to refer to God – Holy.
“Holy! Holy! Holy is the Lord God Almighty” – In other words, “Other! Set Apart! Peculiar is the Lord God Almighty”
Perhaps we should change the words to the great hymn in yet another way and sing out to God – “We are not You! We are not the Lord God Almighty!”
A few months ago, I saw a poster on someone’s Facebook page. It was an image of Ronald Reagan. The caption was a quote of his – “Without God, democracy will not long endure.” I thought to myself, “Which ‘god’ does democracy need?” It is a peculiar thing, because there is indeed a sense in which no political order can reign without God allowing it to exist. But I take it that this is not what the great Mr. President meant, because in that sense, neither can totalitarianism exist without ‘God.’ When we use the word ‘god’ – we often are creating god in our own image. It would be terribly convenient for Mr. Reagan if the “god” of his claim was American, Democratic, a Capitalist, and more particularly a Republican/Conservative. The problem is that “god” is a rather universal term like “higher power.” It is not altogether apparent to me that “without God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, democracy cannot endure.” Why? Because God, in Jesus Christ ushered in a holy kingdom. That was, as the scriptures say, the “fullness” of his mission in Jesus Christ – to establish his own reign. Oddly enough, it wasn’t American, Democratic, or Capitalist, and it certainly wasn’t politically conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo – but, neither was it politically liberal).
My point is this – see how quickly we talk about God to throw a pious air up about ourselves? Anne Lamott has a great quote: ”You can safely assume you have created God in your own image if it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Powerful quote, right?! We MUST be very very careful when we use the name of God. In fact, when you dig a little deeper on the commandment to “not take the Lord’s name in vain,” you discover it has very little to do with saying “OMG!” and more to do with not ascribing his Holy Name to everything you do or say. It is not surprising, when considering this, that the Jewish authors of Divine writings refrained from using the name of God altogether. Matthew, a good Jew himself, won’t even quote Jesus saying “the kingdom of God.” He changes it to “the kingdom of heaven.”
When we become willing to throw out the name “God” anytime it is politically, socially, religiously, relationally, personally, financially or otherwise convenient to do so, it is not surprising to see that such a “god” happens to be exactly like we want him to be! I suggest we read the gospels, and allow ourselves to be scandalized by the “God” we meet in the person of Jesus Christ. Not who I want him to be, but exactly who I need him to be.
Thirdly, and lastly, we fall prey to the Prince of Lies when we equate Jesus to the Church. The church is not an end, nor is it our God. The church is not a special authority, it is the people through whom others can meet the One who has all authority. The church is not perfect – no church, not one. The church is, rather, the people through whom all are welcome to come meet the Perfect One. The church is not the divine distributor of God’s grace and judgment – giving grace to whomever we so please and judgment to whomever we so please. Rather, the church is the people through whom people meet Grace and Truth face to face in Jesus. Jesus is not the church – he is the HEAD of the church and we are his people. The church is not an end – the church is a means.
Don’t get me wrong. The church is hugely important. And the answer to watered down versions of church and inept ecclesiologies is not “less church” but more (more – more thoughtful and deeply theological communities of faith).
In Jim Belcher’s book “Deep Church” he offers a “vision statement” that was developed by a friend of his who led a small church in his home.
“Our vision: to be a community that models the life and love of Jesus to our world and to one another. Our mission: We are a community in love with Jesus. We are the church. We have a mission to serve our friends, neighbors, enemies and the world as Jesus did. Who we are: We are an outward focused Christian community with an inward commitment to love and disciple others to Jesus’ way of life.” (Belcher, pg. 167)
Do you see, hear and feel the Christology in this “vision statement”? Jesus and the church are not the same here. Rather, if you read the vision statement carefully, this little house church exists to “model” and embody and “serve” and disciple in such a way that it leads others to Jesus – not toward themselves. There is nothing in this statement about “bringing people to church” or getting people in the doors of the house. They are not interested in merely having a successful turn out at their next gathering. They just want to point people toward the Messiah.
When, however, the church supplants Jesus as primary, something terrible happens. Arrogance and Idolatry. Yes. It is true. A church that places itself on equal footing with its Messiah has indeed made an Idol of itself. The consequences are awful. Divine authority is not ascribed to Jesus (who never abuses his power, but always empties himself and serves), and it is re-ascribed to humans – usually men… usually jerks – who always abuse their power and “lord it over others.” People get hurt, walked on, abused, guilted, shamed, and generally crapped on. Somewhere in the subtle transfer of authority, instead of “church” (what is supposed to be an earthly outpost of heaven) you get pretty much the exact opposite (an earthly outpost of hell).