Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Temptation, then and now

I was a precocious reader as a child, and when I was about 16 I begged my mom for the six-volume set of Winston Churchill's "Marlborough" which I had spotted in a second-hand bookstore. I read it several times before stupidly selling it to a book dealer in a moment of poverty some years ago. Now it would cost me too much to buy the set again, so I just have my memories to go by, but some of Churchill's prose is so well-written, I can still recall it. One incident (in volume 1) concerned the reaction of the English people at the Restoration of Charles II. Naturally, after so many years of Puritan oppression, royalists and Anglicans were jubilant, and some of them got a little carried away in their enthusiasm. Churchill quoted a writer of the time who reported on a London preacher who "delivered a sermon comparing the sufferings of the late King Charles I with those of Our Lord, and in several rather indecent expressions, gave the preference to the former."

That was what came to mind when I read this homily, comparing the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness with the Current Troubles in the Episcopal Church. While ostensibly about Jesus's temptations, He soon fades from view before the drama unfolding today. And his "temptations" become almost unrecognizable. As a poster on MCJ put it,
"...The fast to which Lent calls us is to foreswear acts of interpersonal and institutional bigotry and discrimination with which this communiqué is dripping." How come everything means something different to people like this? I mean really, everything has a different meaning from what I learned in Sunday School.
Maybe it's because we're too sophisticated now to have to think about something as concrete and earthy as real bread, but we're ashamed to admit that something that could be important to Jesus is meaningless to us, so to save face we unhitch the words from their meaning, and allow them to free-float like balloons. So where Jesus was faced with bread and hunger, we have now a meandering story about an anxious mother and "the bread of anxiety" turning into "the stone of incapacitation". Where He considered physical injury and safety, there's a long bleat about worshipping "the idol of Unity" - from the real to the abstract. Actually, that might have been a reference to Jesus's third temptation - it isn't too clear to me just what the parallel is between any of the complaints about Dar es Salaam and the story in the Bible. The third example, also rather obscurely linked to the Bible, is a description of a recent gay wedding.

I thought it interesting that amid the evaporation of the "real" into the "figurative" in this address, was the total disappearance of the other actor in the Bible scene - Satan. Whereas Jesus was tempted by Satan, we today are just "tempted" by nebulous concepts.

I think this is very typical of what's wrong with Christianity in a lot of the West (I don't want to pick especially on Episcopalians here - you can find sermons as vague as this in lots of Catholic churches, too). Where Jesus was concerned with the things of daily life - food, hunger, pain - post-modern Christianity relocated everything to the mind and emotions. Unless we're talking about sex; then it's a matter of overwhemingy powerful primal urges that can't under any circumstances be constrained.

It seems to me that there is here a fundamental misunderstanding of how Satan and sin actually work. It's a commonplace that sin is basically some good which has been twisted and perverted. But temptation is strong because it usually is something good that's beckoning to us. It would actually be difficult to go into a church, and attract a big crowd with the promise of lynching someone. Very few people really want to do that sort of thing, and the ones who do usually have had a long apprenticeship in yielding to worse and worse temptations. But agitating to pass a law to make life hard for someone else - stopping them from smoking or eating things that are bad for them or saying unpleasant things - that sort of thing can easily find support, because it's all "for their own good". Even suing and ruining people can find excuses - "We're doing this because we have an obligation to future generations to hang onto these churches. We have to honour the wishes of those who built these assets."

But this sermon doesn't seem to recognize at all that the cleverness as the base of Satan's temptation of Christ is that he's trying to lure Him with goodness. It's not a question of, "Hey, you're hungry - eat something, nobody will know," which would be the way a temptation would be offered to ME. No, Satan is trying to get Jesus to do a miracle, not just break the rule. And Jesus's miracles are never just about the situation at hand. By tempting Jesus to create bread, Satan is suggesting something really wonderful - "You could eliminate hunger! All you have to do is want it, and all that suffering will be over!" The same thing happens with the temptation about saving Himself from physical harm - "Just say the word, and there will be no more illness! No more pain! Imagine the happiness you could produce, if you'd just agree!" "You could be the perfect ruler! No more Emperors, no more Herods, no more tyrants - peace and happiness forever!"

Since there has been so much quoting of Tolkien lately, I'll point out that it was a stroke of genius on Tolkien's part that he made the Ring such a potential agent for good. Only Sauron really wanted it purely in order to do evil. Everyone else was tempted to use it for good purposes - Gandalf to protect the weak, Galadriel to preserve the world, Boromir to save Gondor. Sam's moment of temptation involved him as a Master Gardener, covering the world with beauty. Even Gollum fantasized about having fish to eat every day - not a very mighty ambition, but still a vision of something good, at least for himself.

And oddly enough, this is where I detect that familiar voice in Kaeton's sermon.
So, I'm standing there, watching all this happen and thinking, "And this is the deal breaker? This is what the present drama is all about in the Anglican Communion? THIS? Commitment? Love? Mutuality? Fidelity? Faithfulness? Monogamy? The Value of Families?"
"Look at all the happiness, look at the sincerity! Aren't these all good things? How can you say no?" But Jesus DOES say no. It's not that He doesn't value good things - he doesn't say that people should just learn to live with less food, and they should learn how to be stoical and suffer pain and not seek to alleviate it. But the ends don't justify the means. It can't be done THIS way, no matter how reasonable and desirable it looks.

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Blogger Nicholodeon said...

Urp! Batman...does this mean Lent no longer has to do with 'mortification of the flesh'? Like, I can gorge my gut as long as I limit my fasting to thinking obscenely intellectual thoughts?

My Lenten devotion therefore will be pondering this great mystery: 'If the past is but the future with all the potential removed, does this mean the future is but the past with all the potential still there?'

Holy Resurrection, Robin! You are missing the whole point of traditional Lenten teaching. As the good Doctor correctly points out, they ain't no pill what will make Lent go away. She didn't put it that way, but I agree that intellectualism breeds arrogance, and we see arrogance showing up wherever current divines presume to pronounce on faith.

So, Robin, concentrate on reading the Fathers, pray using the 'Jesus' prayer, attend Liturgy and don't try to understand Mystery...Happy Lent, if that ain't a oxymoron.

4:30 pm  
Blogger muerk said...

Really well put. Thank you.

12:33 am  

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