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Sinning Gods and the Temptations of Christ

This is the text of the message I present for the chapel service at Huntington University on Friday, March 7, 2014. Comments about a professor at Moody Bible Institute are not intended as criticism of the institution itself. The Biblical text for the sermon is Matthew 4:1-11.  

Over thirty years ago, when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute, I had an assignment to write about the temptation of Jesus. In my undergraduate way, I argued that the text of his temptation showed that Jesus could have sinned. I based that interpretation on another New Testament passage, Hebrews 4:15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

I must confess that I have long been baffled by that verse in Hebrews. My temptations have tended towards acts of envy, anger, hatred, lust, pride, and gluttony. Jesus’s temptation was to turn rocks into bread. What is that? I have never seen the temptation of turning rocks into bread as being tempted as we are, so I’ve often wondered about the unrecorded instances of temptation in Jesus’s life, those times when he had been tempted as we are. When he cleared out the temple of the money changers, did he want to use anything more than his handmade whip? Would he have liked to hit someone with a shovel? Could Jesus have been tempted by physical desire for Mary Magdalene … or for his teenaged disciple John? When Jesus did his miracles, did he ever once think that taking seven loaves of bread and feeding 4000 people would make him look really cool?

We are never told. But if Jesus could never have sinned, I wondered why we would be told about the temptations at all. I suppose that if I could turn rocks into bread, I would get a big head about it. But let’s face it: to be tempted to turn rocks into bread is not to be tempted as I am. At the very least, to my thinking, the temptation had to be at least possible and real for the temptation of Christ to mean anything.

My professor at Moody did not see the temptations this way. In fact, in his comments on my essay, he labeled the view I argued for as heretical. It was the first time in my life that any argument I had ever made was called heretical. This professor’s argument was that God cannot sin, that sin is the opposite of all that God is, that Jesus is God, and that if Jesus could have actually sinned, then he could not be divine. To this professor, the purpose of the temptation narrative was only and entirely to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity, not to show that he could have any real potential interest in turning stones into bread. If there is a lesson for us in the temptation narrative, according to my professor, it is that we should resist temptation following Jesus’s example; the point of the narrative is that Jesus quoted Bible verses to face down temptation.

Memorizing scripture is not, by the way, a bad idea for resisting temptation. Following up on my recent writing about anger, I have been working on James 1:19-20: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” It is good advice when you want to rage against something posted on Facebook.

However, years after getting that essay back, I realized that the professor himself overlooked something: A sinning god was normal during the time of Christ. As I have reviewed several ancient mythologies, it seems that all of the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and Canaanites were sinners. Think about these examples:

In Babylonian mythology, Apsu had been the ruler of all the gods and of the underworld oceans until he was killed by the god Ea. The god Anshar is both brother and husband to the goddess Kishar. Marduk the creator god, torments the goddess Tiamat, and fights a war to gain supremacy before forming and populating the earth.

In Greek mythology, Zeus had lovers both female and male, both divine and human. Dionysus, the god of wine, had the human Pentheus dismembered when he tried to prevent people from worshipping him. The god Apollo was vengeful and had multiple lovers. Most of the sinning Greek gods were taken up by the Romans.

The gods and goddess of ancient Canaan included Molech, who required human sacrifice by burning, Asherah, the queen of heaven, who seems to have been prideful, and Chemosh, the destroyer, who permits his worshippers to become slaves when they anger him.

Christians sometimes think that ancient peoples created sinning gods to excuse their own sinful behaviors. However, as we learn about the sins of the gods, we find that their wrongs were often committed against their own worshippers. How many of you have read the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex? In the story of Oedipus, we find that his fate is set by Apollo’s hatred even as he is an infant. Nothing Oedipus can do will free him from the doom Apollo has determined for him. Sinning gods are terrifying; their worshippers may never rest in certainty about their relationships to their deities.

The third temptation of Jesus is for power. To review, “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Here we may wonder if the devil actually has possession of all the kingdoms of the world in order to give them to Jesus. What other Bible passages show is that the devil has authority, but not ownership, over this world. We see this every time Satan is called the prince of this world or the prince of the power of the air. Jesus rejects the devil’s offer, not by asserting his own ownership, but by asserting that he worships another, his Father. The answer to a temptation for power is not an assertion of a counter-power, but a surrender of power, an act of Jesus’s submission to his Father’s authority.

The question still remains what Jesus’s temptation has to do with us. Let us consider: our Old Testament reading for today, Psalm 32, is a confession of David, a king, of his sin. Many commentators read Psalm 32 as a confession for David’s sin with Bathsheba. That is not certain; however, we may assume that David’s sins generally could result from an abuse of his authority as king, whether it was his having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed or his having a forbidden census taken.

The temptations of Jesus are the temptations suitable for an ancient god. We might easily expect a Zeus, a Baal, a Venus, a Marduk, or an Asherah to accept any of the temptations and bargains that the devil offers to Jesus. Jesus’s temptation is scaled to his divinity. He is being tempted as a god. He resists it as a person, in his humanity, not by asserting his divine authority, but by submitting his humanity to the authority of his Father.

I, in my humanity, cannot resist a temptation scaled for a deity. Thank God, I’ll add, that none of us will ever face a temptation to rule the entire world. Even smaller, human-scaled versions of the temptation to rule just a portion of the world always lead to genocides and wars, such as we are seeing today in Syria, the Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and Venezuela.

But what about my own temptations, for any and all of the power I can reach? I do not think that the third temptation, for power, is the last temptation of Jesus in the Bible. Let’s look at one other encounter between Jesus and the devil, in Matthew 16. Right after he has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Peter seems to become a temporary spokesman for Satan himself. Let us read from verses 21-27:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

I would propose that we consider this a fourth temptation, this time not of Jesus in his divinity, but of Jesus in his humanity, a temptation to choose not to die, a temptation we may all understand humanly. And here is where we connect with our God who was tempted, but without sinning. We learn from him that our souls are worth more than all that we may have in this world. And we learn, also, that to follow Jesus means to lose our desires to win in this world by our own power. I conclude, then, that this is how Christ, resisting real temptations we will never face, shows us the way to resist the temptations we always face. 

Wreckage and Depression

I have wondered whether or not I should admit this, but here goes.

I get depressed from visiting the prisons.

Years ago, I struggled with intense depression, and people who remember me from Moody Bible Institute would recall that I was suicidal then. This depression is not that kind of depression, thank God, but there is a degree to which visiting the prisons is a frequent encounter with tragedy.

Last Tuesday was a great day for Shakespeare at Pendleton. The men were enthusiastic and willing to take chances. They were on their feet, performing a part of Coriolanus, 2.1. We followed that with a conversation between a group of Huntington University students I had with me and the men. One of the men just took my breath away with his exposition of the character of Coriolanus.

It was all beautiful … but what makes it tough for me is the abiding realization that that beauty, that those insights, that the efforts the men are putting into learning the play–all of this stays within Pendleton. That man who gave the exposition on Coriolanus will never have the opportunity to take what he can do to the outside. And I think about the tragic wreckage of our lives, which Shakespeare has transformed into the beauty of Macbeth, Shylock, Othello, and Coriolanus. Why do lives take the tragic directions? Why are we wrecked?

This depression is not constant–though it is impossible to write about it without feeling it. It is certainly not going to convince me to quit going. In fact, I am not depressed while I am at the prison; I get depressed when I think about the prison and about the circumstances of the men’s lives there. The depression is the price I pay for the privilege to be involved there. I don’t mind the price. The depression is frequent, but not deep. However, I did not expect it to be part of this effort.

For now, I think I am coping well with the depression, even as I admit that I have it. However, I know how to recognize when it does get deep, and if it does, I will probably see a counselor. I’ve seen one twice before in my life, and if I should need to do it, I can see one again.

Anger Porn

Image

 

A few weeks ago, a Facebook meme was going around of a sign for the Orange Church of God condemning skateboarders, artists, addicts, occupiers, and vegetarians to hell. Every time the meme got shared, the comments were angry, cynical, and outraged. There go those hateful evangelicals again.

The problem with this meme is that it generated real anger against a fake church. The Orange Church of God does not exist. So the meme serves only the purpose of creating anger. It is anger porn. 

Like lust, wrath is categorized as one of the seven deadly sins. The seven deadly sins are primarily sins of thought, foundational motivators to the sins done in action. The seven deadly sins are also pernicious, related to proper needs and desires taken to extremes. Greed is a disordered desire for wealth. Gluttony is a disordered desire for consumption. Lust is a disordered sexual desire. Wrath is a disordered desire for protection or for justice. The desires are natural and proper. The sin occurs when the desires take a disordered control of our actions. Just as pornography stimulates lust, so also anger porn stimulates anger because, well, we just like to be angry. 

Just as porn caters to every fetish, anger porn caters to every political and religious demographic–conservative, liberal, libertarian, evangelical, atheist, pro-gun, anti-gun, Occupiers, Tea Partiers, and so forth. The recent Coke commercial, the reaction to the commercial, and the reaction to the reaction have all been anger porn. Much of the discussion of gay marriage, pro and con, has been anger porn. We have entire cable stations providing anger porn 24/7. 

We justify our uses of anger porn because we believe we are right. After the recent creationism debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, a few social scientists observed that its likely outcome is only to solidify the previously-held biases of the viewers, rather than to persuade anyone to change his or her mind. That debate was classic anger porn, resulting in entirely predictable scorn and derision from every side

Anger porn works, I think, just like regular porn–the more we use it, the more justified we feel in the rightness of our anger, and so we use it even more. Thus, whether we hate the homosexual or whether we hate the homophobe, we justify our anger to ourselves and hate our enemy. Quite contrary to Christ’s exhortation to love our enemies. Consider that when people kill others in the heat of anger, they always feel an initial justification in the act. 

Because anger can come from a legitimate desire for justice, we would do well to remember the exhortation in the epistle of James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19, 20). No matter how righteous one’s anger, the anger itself cannot be the end. 

“Anger’s my meat,” Shakespeare wrote. “I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.” Try not looking at the things which make you angry all the time. 

 

The Temptations of Publicity

Fame makes a man take things over.
Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow.
Fame puts you there where things are hollow. Fame.

Credit: David Bowie

I have said that Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is his play on anger. But taken together, all of the Roman plays–Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus–can be said to consider the subject of fame and power. Let’s observe that the power of fame ends badly for all of the protagonists. 

I doubt that I approach anything like fame, but as of this writing, that interview I’ve done for the Red Letter Christians blog has been shared over 1200 times. Though there will be a new person featured next week, I doubt the interview has run its course yet. I have two upcoming speaking engagements, a possibility of at least three others yet to be scheduled, and the prison where I volunteer has sent out its own press release to several large media outlets in Indiana. 

When I was asked to be an interview subject for Red Letter Christians, I had two reservations. First, we may observe the well-known people who have already been interviewed for that page: John Perkins, Brenda Salter McNeil, Jim Wallis, Rachel Held Evans. Shane Claiborne is a regular contributor. I don’t think of myself as commanding the public attention that they have. However, I got over this reluctance when I realized that I did not know anything about a number of the people who have been interviewed for the same weekly feature. I do hope that no one would suppose that I think I’ve done anything to compare to the work of John Perkins. 

Second, there is the title of the page itself, the “Red Carpet.” As I’ve looked through the blog, I find it generally careful about language. But a red carpet is culturally associated with the establishment of fame (or, the fame establishment), the self-acclamation of awards shows. Here’s the purpose the site gives for the Red Carpet page: 

[W]e want to introduce you to 21st century Red Letter practitioners who are living out the words and witness of Jesus. Our hope is that this series of interviews will encourage, inspire and equip you to live as faithful citizens of the kingdom he ushered in.

A description like that seems to invite a person into intense scrutiny–“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). It is more than I can claim for myself that I am “living out the words and witness of Jesus.” 

However, it is true that I am motivated by Matthew 25:39-40:

‘When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

I think always of the unusual opportunities I have had to visit and work with prison inmates, and I hope to do so for years to come. Therefore, if what I am doing does indeed help to inspire and equip others to get involved in the lives of inmates, then I want to share my work. 

Publicity is not a bad thing of itself, but I am susceptible to the temptations of publicity. A writer wants to be read. An activist wants her activism to succeed. I like being “liked.” And the minute that that becomes the point, I have become like the Pharisee, who prays in public about how happy he is that he is not like the publican–I will have already had more reward than I deserve. 

So next week, I will return to Pendleton, ready to work with about twelve men on the second half of act one of Coriolanus. We will probably talk some more about masculinity, a subject we began with last week. I will watch several men perform a part of scene ten and we will discuss it. And all of this will be the point. If ever my time with the inmates becomes secondary to the publicity, then you should help me to keep my focus on what is important. 

O’Connor Knows the Robertsons (Sort Of)

Because I refuse to pay $600+ a year in order to watch television, I live largely unaware of the programs which are only available by cable television subscriptions. Thus, though I’ve heard of Duck Dynasty, I have never seen an episode. This past week, of course, my awareness has grown exponentially. It is truly impossible, right now, to be unaware of Duck Dynasty. Because the Robertsons are identified culturally as the “anti-Kardashians,” I’ll note that even though I’ve heard of them too, I would not recognize a Kardashian if I had seen her. But no one can miss a Robertson. They have those ZZ Top beards.

Change the Robertsons to the Greenleafs and you would have exactly the kinds of people who populate Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “Greenleaf”: zealous, prosperous, prolific, and thought to be ignorant (though not as dumb as they look). In O’Connor’s short story, the secular Mrs. May thinks of herself as superior to the Greenleafs, ultimately to her own destruction.

On the other hand, in another O’Connor short story, “Revelation,” Mrs. Ruby Turpin thinks of herself as pious, zealous, and superior to black people and “white trash.” In that story, a secular college student named Mary Grace (as obviously a symbolic name as O’Connor has ever created) knocks Mrs. Turpin in the head with the textbook Human Development. Mrs. Turpin later has a vision, the revelation of the story’s title, of black people, white trash, and everyone else entering heaven ahead of her, all of them with “even their virtues … burned away.” In her vision, Mrs. Turpin does get into heaven, as I think O’Connor herself would have it so, but with far, far less vanity about her own righteousness.

In this cultural moment, the two O’Connor stories may represent two sides (of the several sides there are) of the reaction to Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ magazine. To the supporters of the Robertsons, we are in the world of “Greenleaf,” in which the cultural elites, represented by Mrs. May, are confronted and (they hope) defeated by the proliferation of Robertsons and their supporters. But Phil Robertson himself seems to me to be in the position of Mrs. Turpin, too sure of his own righteousness, and too ignorant of other people’s experiences.

Think again about these excerpts from the GQ article:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

In the first passage, Phil Robertson’s racism is upheld by a well-guarded ignorance. The fact that he has never seen the mistreatment of black people can be explained by a refusal to look and to listen. If Robertson (or anyone else) wants to know about the lives of African Americans in Louisiana during the time of his own upbringing, I can recommend the novels of Ernest Gaines as a strong witness. Or I can recommend just paying attention.

The ignorance which guards the racism frequently masquerades as innocence, a subject Flannery O’Connor has also written about. In context, she is discussing the Christian reader who wants his literature too pure, so much so that the reader himself slips into heretical Manichaeism:

If the average [Christian] reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be more of a Manichean than the Church permits.… [H]e has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. (Mystery and Manners 147-148)

Here’s the problem: the guarded ignorance which protects Robertson’s “innocent” racism is also on display in his comments about same-sex desire: “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me.” Conservative Christian commentary about Robertson’s comments seems to overlook the fact that Robertson is treating one physically-oriented lust as morally superior to another lust, and it has mostly ignored his racial ignorance (as if it were irrelevant). Robertson does not acknowledge here that lust itself is a manifestation of human fallenness. Does he acknowledge the similarity of heterosexual lust to homosexual lust elsewhere? To his credit, I think he does, though in an exceedingly clumsy fashion.

Flannery O’Connor may lead us to consider a better way to address the differences. O’Connor developed a friendship with a woman who began to correspond with various writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Betty Hester is identified as “A” in the letters collected in The Habit of Being. Some of Hester’s and O’Connor’s letters had been withheld from publication for decades, but since Hester’s death, a few letters have been made public. Hester had been a closeted lesbian. The following passages come from a letter O’Connor wrote to Hester on October 31, 1956, after Hester came out to O’Connor and explained that she had been dishonorably discharged from service in the Air Force:

“Compared to what you have experienced in the way of radical misery, I have never had anything to bear in my life but minor irritations. But there are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worse affliction not to be afflicted. And Job’s comforters were worse off than he was, but they didn’t know it. If in any sense my knowing your burden can make your burden lighter then I’m doubly glad I know it, you were right to tell me. But I’m glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. Well you were wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.”

“It would be impossible for me to let you [thus disappear]. You have done me nothing but good and you have given me the present you wanted to, but the fact is, above and beyond this, that I have a spiritual relationship to you; I am your sponsor, self-appointed from the time you first wrote me and appointed by you afterwards, which means that I have a right to stay where I’ve been put.”

“I can see how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter. What is necessary for you to know is my very real love and admiration for you.”

Masculinity in Prison

So this came up today:

MARTIUS [CORIOLANUS]:           Come I too late?

COMINIUS:

            Ay, if you come not in the blood of others,

            But mantled in your own.

MARTIUS:                                         O, let me clip you

            In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart

            As merry as when our nuptial day was done

            And tapers burnt to bedward!                    [They embrace.]

COMINIUS:

            Flower of warriors, how is ‘t with Titus Lartius?              [1.6.36-43]

One of the men identified something which will be a recurring subject in Coriolanus: Whom or what does he love? Or, as Menenius phrases the question later in the play, “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”

I have my own ideas about Coriolanus’s love, but for the moment, right here, right now, he is addressing Cominius with the language of marital romance. What does Shakespeare mean by this? What would this look like onstage?

The conversation opened up at this point. What several of the men said, in their various ways, is that notions of sexuality get in the way of expressions of same-sex affection, and this problem is especially fraught in the context of prison. Straight men have only the limited time of visitation to see their wives or girlfriends (if they visit at all), and with decades of time behind bars, the people the men will get to know best are each other. On the one hand, how does a person maintain his personal sense of masculine identity? On the other hand, how does he show that he likes another person, without endangering that sense of masculinity? Or, in other words, how are men able to be vulnerable with one another?

I’ve learned today more about the men in the Shakespeare group. One is a veteran, and he talked with us about the sense of brotherhood among Marines. (By the way, he had once been an inmate at Luther Luckett in Kentucky. That’s the prison where I first became aware of prison Shakespeare programs, though he hadn’t been aware of Shakespeare Behind Bars at the end of his time there.) Another one of the men talked about how men in gangs verbally deny the attachments they develop. I’ve found out that several of the men in the group have had gang backgrounds.

We talked about a lot of things today, more than I can elaborate here, but I was blessed to have one of the men say to me at the end of the session that this was the best session we have had yet. I have been blessed every time I visit the men in Pendleton. 

Getting It

To a degree, I still think I am bumbling around a bit in figuring out how to facilitate Shakespeare at Pendleton. Yet last week, one of the men, who has been with it from the beginning, passed me a short play/scene he had written, based, he said, on the first scene of Coriolanus.

Now … a moment of honesty: with as much student writing as I read, I am usually very resistant to people who want to call themselves writers and pass me their stuff. On the other hand, though I wasn’t looking forward to it, I knew I would have to read his play. I have put it off because of grading 50 research papers and writing and grading exams.

So tonight came the moment of obligation. And … it’s better than I expected it would be.

His title is Let Us Take Back Our Community, and it involves a group of African American citizens having a community meeting in a public park about confronting local violence and vagrancy. As such, the characters are delineated, but the dialogue is speechifying. They are making points rather than revealing themselves and living life. However, the speechifying itself is better than I would have expected. When I think of the few instances when I’ve seen college students try their hands at playwriting, they tend towards plotless speechifying too, so he’s working at an equal level–without regular educational input from professors–to the budding writers of a university program. Furthermore, the idea of taking back one’s community is, indeed, present in the opening of Coriolanus. This scene, significantly reworked, has elements which very definitely could go into an adaptation of the Shakespeare play. 

Though I’ve critiqued the play here, I want to encourage him to keep working at it. I think I might call on him to talk about how he sees Shakespeare developing his characters. Because I cannot give one inmate something of value which I am not giving the others, I am also going to look into how I can make contributions to the prison library. I want to put in some Shakespeare resources, but I also want to put in a few things by August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. Shakespeare at Pendleton is about 2/3rds African American in its membership, and I think we can benefit from seeing the interconnectedness of their lives, their visions, Shakespeare, and other dramatists of the African American experience. And if Travis keeps learning from Shakespeare, hang on. He’s got something to tell us. 

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