Albert Einstein has been credited with decreeing that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so. Sadly, we live in a time when the “more so” is too prevalent. Everything, it seems, has to be oversimplified beyond all sense and purpose.
Conservative political leaders and social commentators mock the idea of climate change on snowy days, because climate science has been abridged to some nonspecific belief about things getting warmer.
Black Lives Matter, whose guiding principles include advocating on behalf of black victims who died at the hands of white police officers, as well as being concerned with black-on-black crime, is met with the dismissive and oversimplified “All lives matter!”
Ethical questions regarding reproductive health, indigenous people’s rights, racial reconciliation or social welfare, are reduced to slogans and catch-cries. People demand that we answer complex questions with a simple yes or no. Radio announcers and news commentators mock those who want to describe the complexity of an issue and offer multifaceted solutions to tough issues. They decry such answers as convoluted and disingenuous.
As Rev Byron Williams says, “Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, trade agreements, illegal immigration, the economy or something else, we crave oversimplification for a recipe that requires nuance. We seek the simplistic answer when only the difficult response will suffice.”
That’s because life is complex. It is richly, beautifully, magnificently baffling at times. All the most splendid things in this world – coral reefs, child-raising, social justice, the raging sea, reconciliation, staying married, Antarctica, South Australian cabernet, extended family meals, a sensational cup of coffee – these things are not simple to describe, nor to sustain. The best things in life are, well, complicated.
The dumbing down of our society is crushing the life out of us, flattening everything into two dimensions, dicing it all into bite-sized pieces.
And the church is just as guilty of this reductionism. We want to shrink-wrap our truth claims too.
So, the big, wide, expansive understanding of the reign of God that Christ taught us has been reduced to merely information about how to go to heaven when you die. The mission of God’s people is downgraded to an ecclesial recruitment strategy. All the recent talk about a missional church is condensed into discussions about style and venue, as if all there is to being missional is to meet in a bar and have a pastor with a hipster beard and tattoos.
As Walter Brueggemann says, “The gospel is a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.”
We try to take a truth that’s as big as an ox and turn it into a bouillon cube. We want to talk before we listen; argue before we converse; assume before we know; reject before we honor.
It’s true that the gospel can be made simple enough for a child to understand, but it is also complex enough for us to spend the whole of our lives plumbing its depths, exploring every room and hallway, every nook and cranny. After all, it took Jesus about 40 parables to explain it. And that’s not to mention his other teaching.
It was the pharisees who demanded a simple yes or no from their followers. In their attempt to control people and shepherd them toward the kind of holiness they thought God demanded, the pharisees simplified everything into a brutalizing form of legalism. You see it in their various nitpicking attempts to trap Jesus in some minor infraction of the law. And you see it most starkly in John 9, where they haul a man who had been born blind but healed by Jesus into a religious tribunal and demand that he explain where Jesus’ power came from. The man, who had spent his life relying on his parents and the kindness of others, who could neither read nor write, is humiliated by his own religious leaders, who mock him for his childlike answers. A simple yes or no answer was all they wanted.
But Jesus steps back into this story in John 10 and berates the pharisees for their spiritual abuse of the man. Jesus accuses them of corraling the people like sheep trapped in a sheep pen. He refers to them as thieves and wolves and bad shepherds. And then famously Jesus declares himself the good shepherd, the one whose voice is recognized by the sheep, the one who will lead them out to green pastures. It is a complex diatribe, full of shifting metaphors, cryptic allusions, and surprising prophecies. And by the end, the pharisees are utterly dumbfounded, concluding, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”
Jesus promises to lead us out of the stultifying effects of locked down religion. He throws open all the doors and flings open every window on the gospel, to broaden our vision and deepen our responsibility as God’s people. It is invigorating to have truth reframed this way. The true gospel confounds simple categories and speaks to our yearning for something richer than mere Sunday attendance and plastic nativity scenes and the latest outreach program.
I believe we need to have our eyes opened to the stunning, complicated, beautiful truth of Christ.
Incidentally, G. K. Chesterton once contrasted how Christian saints are depicted in art as opposed to Buddhist saints: “…perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with frantic intentness outwards.”
Not so these days. As I’ve mentioned, we seem to prefer our eyes closed to complexity. We want our politics on the right or the left. We want our economy based in capitalism or socialism. We want to see each other as right or wrong. Conservative or progressive. Evangelical or mainline. You hear it everytime someone demands you give a simple yes or no answer to whether you agree with abortion or same-sex marriage or gun control or military campaigns against tyrants or border control.
In their book Reframation, Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson write of the “great need for a reframation that allows us to see God, people, and mission through reenchanted frames.”
This week I was reading a theological reflection on the Marvel series Loki and the evolution of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. The author, David Armstrong attempts to unravel a complex kind of Neoplatonism within the divine hierarchy of Marvel’s multiverse. Not being a fan myself, I had to read it slowly. But it got me thinking about other modern grand myths like J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth saga and C. S. Lewis’ Narnia tales and George Lucas’ Star Wars epic. They’re complicated stories about huge realities like divinity, justice, love, forgiveness, and evil. A child can enjoy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Thor Ragnarok, but that child can also grow into an adult who still delights in the richness and complexity of the sagas from which they come.
The “need for reenchantment” that Hirsch and Nelson write about is being satisfied by these stories, while the church’s presentation of Jesus’ story seems tired and threadbare.
In David Armstrong’s aforementioned article about the MCU, he describes how Loki, the god of mischief, uses trickery to challenge the rule of Odin and Thor, pointing out that it is always through deception that gods, demigods, or heroes achieve their ascent to supremacy. But he goes on to compare this with the biblical story of Christ, where “the divine trickery is reversed: rather than a rebellion from a lesser god against an older, higher tyrant, God deceives the ‘god of this aeon’ (2 Cor 4:4) by sending Christ into the world and permitting him to die on the cross.”
Armstrong continues, “The deception… is effectively that Satan and the demons, not realizing who Christ really is, mistake his death for their victory, when in fact what death does is enable Christ, as God, to descend into Hades, conquer the underworld, rise from the dead, and thereafter ascend into heaven with a glorified humanity, breaking through the demiurgic control of the aeonic god and his minions and reestablishing divine order in the universe.”
Wow. That sounds like Paul’s astonishing vision of the cosmic Christ:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:15-17)
This isn’t like some celestial squabble between gods and demigods in which humankind are merely collateral damage like all those dead extras on the streets of New York in The Avengers. Christ’s victory is a cosmic battle that has real effects for human beings. As Armstrong writes, “…humans, previously enslaved to the ignorance, incompetence, and/or malice of an evil god, now have a path of ascent to transcend his rule through the deification Christ offers.”
Or as Paul writes to the Colossians, “ And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col 1:18-20)
Reducing this rich, audacious, multilayered story to an invitation to invite Jesus to fill the God-shaped hole in your heart does no justice to the gospel, nor to the nagging yearnings of your heart.
And reducing the “path of ascent” to the simplistic observation of rules and church regulations impedes our capacity to truly follow Jesus, the Beginning and the Firstborn, the Head of the Church, into the freedom and peace he won for us. As Jesus snarls at the pharisees in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
And when you encounter the story of Jesus in all its breathtaking complexity, you feel humbled and unworthy, and such humility frees you from simplistic binaries like left/right, conservative/liberal, blessed/cursed, right/wrong, and sets you on the path to life to the full.