Saturday, December 13, 2014

The "Why" Matters Most

I had a pre-baby date night with JR last night, and being the nerds that we are, most of our conversation (that wasn’t kid related) was related to the movie he had watched “on assignment” for Dead Reckoning earlier that day: Exodus

He told me about the biblical inaccuracies in the movie (hint: pretty much everything), as well as the blasphemous way in which God is portrayed (hint: he is the most unlikable character in the movie, amidst a cast of generally unlikable characters). I had a question about Ridley Scott or something and so I did a quick google search and the first search result that came up was a link to a Time magazine article about the biblical inaccuracies of Ridley Scott’s Exodus movie (I didn't follow the link or save it, so I can't link it now). 

I expect that a kabillion Christian bloggers are going to be all over all the inconsistencies, but it gave me pause to consider why that would matter to Time. Maybe they are just jumping on the bandwagon that they know many Christians will champion: we didn’t like the movie , and here are all the reasons that it was bad. But for a secular magazine in an increasingly secular culture, seriously: why does it matter? If we don’t believe in the God of the Bible in the first place, if we mock and intentionally try to subvert the rules that are laid out in the second part of the book of Exodus, or if we simply believe that the Bible is irrelevant and the story told in the book of Exodus is purely unhistorical myth, why does it matter if a movie that shares its name shares no other similarities with its story?

For that matter, as Christians, why does it matter if we get the facts straight? I think the “what” of the inconsistencies will be irrelevant to many so-called Christians who already find much of the church irrelevant, because we will fail to address the “why.” And I think the “why” matters most: the facts matter because a) they tell us what type of God God is, and b) they tell us how he works.

More on these two reasons.

First of all, JR told me that following the Passover, as Pharoah holds a dead son (or something like that), he asks Moses bitterly, “What kind of god does this?” Atheist Ridley Scott’s answer is clear: not a god that I  want anything to do with; and, indeed, a god that I’m trying to drive people away from. The question, though, might be the best theological point of the whole movie (speculation since I haven’t seen it), and it’s one that every Christian needs to wrestle with. Indeed, Moses asks virtually the same question of God himself later in Exodus 34, “God, if you expect me to lead this group of 2 million people through a desert and into a new land, I need to know what kind of God you are.” “In your own words, what kind of God are you; I need to know because my very life depends on it.”
Is this a question you’ve asked? Because your life depends on it, too.

Don’t brush it off too quickly. It’s a question with perpetual relevance in any community that reads its Bible closely. The scholarly community is fond of asking right now, “What kind of God wipes out entire people groups (implied: at his whim)?” You should read your Bible and ask that question, too; but keep in mind, you can have Ridley Scott or some scholar from Harvard answer that question for you, or you can let God have the first word: “I am the Lord, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness … but I will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34, loosely, from memory).

It’s not just a question for out there; it’s a question for in here (points at chest). The mom whose 4 year old has cancer: “What kind of God does this?” I am continually humbled and amazed at this mom whose answer to that question involves an echo of Moses, “God, hide me in the cleft of your rock, and show me your glory.”
If you’re not honestly wrestling with this question for yourself, or helping those you disciple to ask the question before the tsunami hits, you are probably going to have more of a Pharaoh answer to the question than a Job answer. Here’s how God answers the question in the book of Exodus: a) his “glory” (you might say, what God views as his most important, most prominent characteristic) is his compassion, grace and mercy, and b) God is predominantly a God who saves. Getting the “what” right in this story is important because it helps us understand the “who” and the “why,” not just in Exodus, but in all of Scripture and indeed in all of history.

My second reason that I believe the “why” matters more than the “what” is that this story, this book, dramatically define for God’s people how God works. As I said in my last paragraph, God is a God who saves, and the exodus from Egypt is THE defining salvific event for God’s people for over a thousand years, right up to the time of Christ. His mighty power and love in saving his people was not only celebrated immediately afterwards (e.g. Miriam’s song after the Red Sea), but for generations afterwards. If there was ever doubt if God could or would intervene to help his people, they would hearken back to the major, concrete, historical event of the Exodus and then answer with a resounding “yes.” “God saves” defines how God works, and the Exodus is only surpassed as the premier example of this when Jesus (whose name, incidentally, means “Yahweh saves”) dies on the cross and is raised again. That, now, is our definitive proof that God saves. So the entire Old Testament, and in a lot of ways, the events of the New Testament, have to be read in light of this saving event of God. The Exodus isn’t just a random episode in a big book of random episodes; it’s an integral part of a cohesive story of a God who sees and knows (words from the book of Exodus) the suffering of his people and enters into history to do something about it.

Which leads to my final point: we have to know how God acts in order to understand what sort of people we are, we who have been saved according to the events described in this Bible. You’ve gotta get the facts straight, because even the chronology (the “when”) helps to define the “why.” If we don’t understand the “why,” we may as well have the sort of random, arbitrary, selfish, feckless, misanthropic God of Ridley Scott’s movie. Sure, a lot of Americans  wouldn’t go that far, but I bet your average churchgoing American deep down inside sort of agrees that a lot of God’s commands for us feel pretty random and arbitrary. Why else would so many young, professing Christians (and old professing Christians) blatantly disregard, for example, the sexual ethics set forth in the Bible? Because they feel random to us, not an integral part of who God is and the story that he has invited us into as part of his saving us.

Theologians have two words they use: the “Indicative” and the “imperative.” An indicative is a statement of fact, in this case, a historical fact of something that has been done. The exodus. The Red Sea. The cross. The imperative is a command. “You shall have no other gods before me.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” In the biblical story, the indicative always precedes the imperative; in other words, God always acts before he calls us to act. He saves, we respond. Even the giving of the Ten Commandments (a weird, disconnected part of the plot for Ridley Scott, and how could it be anything else), starts with this: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery … thereforeGod saves, we respond. This is consistently true throughout Scripture: the God who has revealed himself to us as compassionate, merciful and gracious, even to ungrateful and rebellious people, rescues us and then inducts us into a lifestyle that is consistent with our new identity as saved people. "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved..." Any other understanding of God’s commands throughout Scripture is selling God short and, really, provides no motivation to obey.

I think the exodus of young people from our churches today (pun intended) reflects an increasing comfortableness that this generation has with acknowledging the disconnect: God’s commands are irrelevant because we’ve done a lot of teaching about the “what” but not a lot about the “why.” So as you process the movie (if you want to waste your money on it) or even as you process life, Christmas, and everything else, don’t just get your facts straight. Ask yourself, and ask God, “What kind of God is this?” and pray for eyes to see his salvation in the answer.

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