Impossible is the insinuation;
Or, so goes the well packaged accusations.
Yet, still booms the revel of Christmas night.
Awakened by whispers.
Corrupted power structures are still rattled by the disturbance.
The coming disruptive Holiness
The embodiment of grace;
The righteous rule of Jesus Christ.
The first human breath;
the first human cry of God’s Revelation.
*An inverted photo of some Christmas craft my son created.
Verne, the author of ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Around The World in 80 Days,’ was French.
He wasn’t a curious atheist or even a fierce agnostic. Not that being an atheist or agnostic disqualifies anyone from having anything of value to say.
It’s just worth noting that there is a distinction between the man and any perpetuated assumptions that deconstructionism, selectively-applied-to-support-an-agenda might create. (Through, say, it’s presumed, superior grasp of authorial intent?)
By which, I mean, the inadvertent creation of a long-winded meaning, in order to explain a meaning, but which ends up having nothing to do with the author’s actual, original and intended meaning.[i]
Verne was, according to common belief, a deist. An unorthodox Christian belief that became popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.
Evidenced by the concept that, ‘God helps those who first help themselves’.[ii]
Or as is understood by our Muslim neighbours in the Quran as,
‘Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.’[iii]
More precisely, deism is
‘a movement of rationalistic thought that acquires knowledge of God solely by the use of reason as opposed to knowledge gained through revelation (God’s making himself known; Jesus Christ) or church teaching.’[iv]
With some amount of caution about oversimplifying deism, it is, in a sentence, Christianity without Christ. It has little to nothing to do with grace, gospel or the relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has chosen to establish, rescue and then secure, with humanity.
The five points of deism are:
It could be argued that deism is syncretism, landing somewhere in the middle of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Their similarities fused together in a way that allows for the possibility of an absolute reason-in-unison between the three. Not quite universalism.
It’s easy to see why deism was attractive. It advocates an easy tolerance. Appearing to be justified by reason it’s seen as a useful tool for mediation, one that ignores differences. Conveniently, God’s relationship with us is reduced to a utilitarian, religious checklist that is then imposed back onto Him.
Effectively, God’s reconciliation in the uniqueness of Christ is displaced. He is reassigned to the role of under-Lord who exists to meet the desires, wants, progressive goals and universal happiness of His human-overlords.
The outcome being totalised subservient coexistence.
Held out at a distance God is detached. His transcendence over-emphasised, He is thought to be unmoved until we choose to move.
Consequently, God’s free act in Christ is stolen. Like the prodigal son’s father, God’s decision to move before we do is overlooked. His reach and run towards us rejected as foolish, embarrassing and undignified.
Driven by hypocritical intolerance, this empowers a push towards the slow annihilation of the Christian. God is enslaved, Christ subsumed. In its place is established the quintessential, dysfunctional kingdom of man or woman. The unexpected result being the embodiment of terror; power held in place by the tyranny of suspicion and the misuse of appearances to manipulate reality in order to maintain such power.
In truth this easy tolerance is a ruse. At best it’s only an uneasy truce between those in the West who seek to displace Christianity and elements of fascist ideology that, in part, still marches on through the desert sands of the Middle East and the halls of Western academia.
As for Verne, perhaps his later works are an enquiry into this. Perhaps they are a judgement on humanity about what can happen when progressive optimism turns into human arrogance.
The caution and detail within Verne’s tales show that he was a keen observer, not a prophet. His words are a reminder to the over-confident, self-assured and tenured wise.
Not a lot of accessible contemporary debate[vi] appears to exist about how much his theism was influenced by deism, and how heavily or not, deism or theism might have influenced his work.
Most commentators seem to settle comfortably on the point that Verne rarely mentions Jesus Christ, so his deism is considered unquestionable.
On the surface they appear right. However, doubt about their conclusions is justified. For example: Verne had apparent fascination with Mormonism.[vii]
In the relatively unknown, 1871, publication ‘A Floating City’, Verne, in response to the sails of the Great Eastern being drawn out of respect for a Sunday Church service at sea, writes:
‘I thought myself very fortunate that the screw-propeller was allowed to continue its work, and when I inquired of a fierce Puritan the reason for this tolerance, “Sir,” said he to me, “that which comes directly from God must be respected; the wind is in His hand, the steam is in the power of man.” I was willing to content myself with this reason, and in the meantime observed what was going on, on board.’[viii]
In addition, certain parts of ‘A Floating City’, ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Around the World in Eighty days’ provide us wit evidence of Verne’s respect for traditional Christian devotion, it’s place in society mixed with a healthy criticism of the church-as-institution.
For now, outside quick token mentions of deism, those details are left to trivia and the footnotes of historians.
Yet, without real enquiry, or interest in it, any debate about Verne’s faith and theology will remain locked in speculation.Relegated to the rubric of opinion. Any conclusions will remain quietly hidden within the realms of mysticism, cool steampunk fashion and science-fiction that Verne is all too easily assigned.
“Static objects mustn’t be confused with dynamic ones, or we’ll be open to serious error.” – Nemo [ix]
[i] Wordy, I know, but…it makes sense when you think about it.
[ii] A quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, this is, however, more than likely a proverb which originated in Classical Greece.
[iv] Mcdonald, M.H in Elwell, W.A (Ed.) 2001 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. Baker House Publishing Company (p.329)
[vi] It’s difficult to find any.
[vii] Verne mentions it with an air of fascination in both A Floating City, and Around the World in Eighty Days.
[viii] Verne, J. 1871 A Floating City (Illustrated) Kindle Ed. (p.45)
[ix] Verne, J. 1869 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, BookRix GmbH, Kindle Ed. (p.29)
1. Jules Verne, Brittanica.com
2. Photo of an old divining suit I took in Ballina, NSW. Filtered using picmonkey.
The events in John 11-12 involve a dynamic interaction between Jesus, his friends, a curious crowd[i] and some very concerned authorities.
We read of spies, intrigue, assassination plots and a mutinous disciple.
The text tells us that Jesus’ friends had serious concerns for his safety in a crowd[ii]. This is emphasised by John when he tells us that Jesus is warned against returning to Bethany (11:8).
In 10:31, John states that the reason for this is due to a previous clash, between offended stone throwers and their intention to arrest Jesus, who only after pushing them back with verbal rebuttals manages to avoid any further unnecessary contact.
We see this danger also exemplified by the assassination plots first laid out against Jesus and then Lazarus. We are later told of Caiaphas, the chief priest[iii], and his appeasement not just of 1st Century Jewish law, but also that of the ‘Pax Romana’; a 1st and 2nd century status quo enforced by Rome’s well disciplined, and heavily equipped legions.
The text then shows the true extent of Iscariot’s character, as Mary, in front of the risen Lazarus and his sister Martha, pours ointment, made of an expensive Indian perfume, onto the ‘feet of Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair.’
In John’s reflection we are unable to escape the tension as he writes:
‘Judas did not care for the poor. He was a thief. Having charge of the moneybag, which he used to help himself to’ (12:6)
The situation appears to have been a mix of grief, anger, joy, faith, reason and fear.
But, who, when tempted would struggle to disagree with Iscariot or the crowd today?
Jesus, this so-called ‘’preacher of love”; the so-called ‘Son of Man’; a man presumed to be one of absolute peace and tolerance, so easily managed to incite the anger of the authorities.
If he is about grace, why is he so divisive?
Look at how Jesus treated his friend Lazarus and see how he is absent when Lazarus’ sisters are in need?
Why did he place his own security over the healing of his friend?
How is that not selfish betrayal?
Did his intolerance know no bounds? Perhaps the whispers and accusations spoken against him are true?
These questions might not be so unjustified, that is of course if it were not for this key event:
In front of the people gathered to console the grieving sisters, Jesus returns, prays, speaks, and then raises Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus is first met by Martha.
Possibly indicating prior conversations of lament and confusion between Lazarus’ sisters, who speak separately with Jesus and say:
“Lord, if you had been here…” (11:21 / 11:32, ESV)
He tells Martha that ‘your brother will rise again…I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?’ (11:23). Martha’s response is retold in the form of confession: ‘she believes he is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’ (11:27)
Yet, it’s a curious thing that following this John observing Jesus’ body language, describes him as being moved to ‘anger[iv] and indignation’[v] – better described as a ‘snarl, snort or growl’ (Carson).
With such a response and what we know of Jesus Christ, it is not beyond reason to suggest that:
Here He is, with the power of the life-giver moving through his human veins standing before the tomb of his friend.
Here, Jesus recognizes the lingering effects of death which has passed through Lazarus and still torments those gathered.
The life of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, now silenced by the ‘total peril’[vi]; the ‘nothingness’, which is a ‘stubborn element and alien factor’[vii] that ‘opposes and resists God’s world-dominion’[viii], yet passes its devastating blow throughout all humanity.
It is here that Jesus’ ‘quiet outrage flares up again[ix]‘, yet he responds with an uncharacteristic public prayer, beginning with thanksgiving saying:
‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe you sent me’ (11:41-42, ESV)
Although ‘two interpretations are possible’[x], there is little doubt that at this point:
‘Christ does not approach the tomb of Lazarus as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; He groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer…and contemplates the transaction itself’ (Calvin, 361)
Here ‘Christ shows that he is the commencement of life and that the continuance of life is also a work of his grace’ (Calvin, 356), commanding bystanders to:
“Remove the stone.” (38-39, The Message)
And then he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”.
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:43-44, ESV)
Three things stand out to the modern-era hearers.
First, the text confronts us with three things Jesus does when he is angered and deeply disturbed by the events around him: he asserts himself, turns to prayer and gratitude, and then acts.
Second, is that we do well to understand ‘that grief and outrage are right responses held together, in tension, but grief and compassion without outrage reduces both to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance and rage’[xi]
Finally, from this we can understand that the consequence of Christ’s victory is the right for us to exist. It is no longer a hopeless existence, merely surviving in the shadow of a destructive vacuum of that which has no right to exist.
The events surrounding Lazarus show us that Jesus is opposed to death as much as he is opposed to sin.
In this, His “yes” to life resonates as the preamble for the grace-conclusion found in the scarred Christ standing outside his own tomb, where permission to live, not just for now, but forever in fellowship with God, is granted by grace to the responsive sinner.
[i] Carson: ‘They were puzzled and confused.’
[ii] John Calvin rightly noted that: ‘the rage of his enemies had not subsided’ ; Commentary of John Sourced from CCEL.org (p.355)
[iii] John 11:49-50
[iv] ἐμβριμάομαι: rebuke; warning; deeply moved; groan. Not ὀργή: wrath; hostility.
[v] ‘His inward reaction was anger or outrage or indignation’ (Carson, 1991)
[vi] Barth, K. 1960 God and Nothingness CD.III.3 Hendrickson Publishers (p.289-290)
[ix] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 416). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.
Image: “Stairs In A Cave” courtesy of papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Sometime back I pointed to a statement, found in Amanda Porterfield’s ‘Modern Christianity’.
‘African American spirituals are “chants of collective exorcism” that delivered souls of black folk from total despair during the pre-civil war era in the United States’(2010:317)
The phrase is situated right at the beginning of Cheryl Kirk-Duggan’s essay entitled ‘Spirituals and the quest for freedom’. It’s been a while since I read the essay, but the impact it had on me has lived on.
Along with the socio-political context of Kirk-Duggan’s statement, it might also suit as a framework for the positive theological impact on music, architecture, proto-science and general intellectual activity of the Church (read: Commonwealth of Christ) in the middle-ages.
For example: among other things aspects of life in the Middle Ages reflected pain, suffering and oppression. in light of a transcendent point, that drove a reverential hope in God’s covenantal promise of deliverance. They were collective actions towards the Lord who alone is God, as He chooses to do and be for us[i].
Communal “exorcism” then, looks for a penetrative breakthrough, a freedom already granted under the interactivity of the one who ‘is not far from us’[ii].
We need to move beyond a socially engineered version (misconception?) of it and back to an appreciation of its relevance to the Church universal.
Our ideas of “exorcism” need to change, because this act is an exercise of our true freedom. We are essentially reaching for the God, who in Jesus the Christ reaches for us. It is a detachment, a protest and petition against whatever appearances, identity politics, labels and tolerance induced qualifiers might tell us about the nature of freedom. To borrow the theological language of Karl Barth, collective exorcism is related to God’s (“No”) reorientation of us towards a commanded orientation that is for us (God’s “Yes”).
Prayer is a collective “exorcize”.
This “exorcize” is activated by a liberating ‘encounter between nature and grace – the encounter between both men and women, and the Word of God’[iii]
An act where we are told that when, in, and under Christ, ‘two should agree’ we are to expect God’s own decisive ‘amen’[iv].
“Chants of collective exorcism”, therefore, becomes an important phrase for understanding how God, in Jesus-the-Victor works through us. Radical is the invitation to pray. Not in order to conjure up God, Barth would say, but so that we may call upon Him, in freedom for our neighbours, and our neighbours in freedom for us.
Consequently, “exorcize” (active prayer) becomes understood as an exercise of genuine freedom.
Distinguishing God’s triumph from that of human triumphalism. Finding a thankful paradox in the midst of pain, where we can rejoice in his triumph. Responding to an invitation with prayer and gratitude, for his triumph to become ours.
“Heyr, himna smiður” was written by Kolbeinn Tumason[i] in 1208. The music was composed in the 1970s by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013), one of Iceland’s foremost contemporary composers.” (Arstidir music)
Hear, smith of the heavens, what the poet asks. May softly come unto me thy mercy.
So I call on thee, for thou hast created me. I am thy slave, thou art my Lord.
God, I call on thee to heal me. Remember me, mild one, Most we need thee.
Drive out, O king of suns, generous and great, human every sorrow from the city of the heart.
Watch over me, mild one, Most we need thee, truly every moment in the world of men.
send us, son of the virgin, good causes, all aid is from thee, in my heart.