In the Shadow of a Giant: Gulliver #8

If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read through Chapter V of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver - 14The more I think about our journeys with Gulliver thus far, the more I’ve realized how I struggle to sympathize with the giant. Maybe it says something about my view of humanity. Even though I know we are supposed to assume the vantage point of Gulliver throughout the voyages, I just couldn’t be Gulliver the Man-mountain. I couldn’t allow myself to make everyone else the butt of the joke while I stood above them. My foolish heart is all-too-prone to prideful outbursts to allow for such an exercise. I was more drawn to the eyepiece of the Lilliputians. Maybe it says something about my view of humanity. Maybe the historical popularity of the Lilliputian story (almost to the exclusion of the next three episodes) says something about humanity.

I point this out to say I recognize that I then put forward something of an inconsistency when I so easily assume Gulliver’s vantage point on Brobdingnag. I am inclined to sympathize with the small. I’m not sure where everyone else is at this point, but I’m actually enjoying Brobdingnag more, because the goal of the voyage is to hold up that big ‘ol mirror to show Gulliver (and, by extension, you and me) how silly we and self-centered we can be.

Consider for a moment Gulliver’s reaction to the giant king’s perspective on England in Chapter III.

“This prince took a Pleasure in conversing with me, enquiring into the manners, religion, laws, government, and learning of Europe… after an hearty fit of laughing, asked me whether I were a Whig or a Tory… and thus he continued on, while my colour came and went several times, with indignation to hear our noble country… so contemptuously treated.” 

Gulliver’s country, his way of living, were called into question in a mocking tone. Like any of us, he was offended… at first. He couldn’t bear the thought of his very existence being ridiculed in the hands of a giant. Gulliver takes pride in his sight, his ability to engage wisdom and reason. And now, in the shadow of a giant, it is all fair game for laughter.

BUT… Gulliver has a quick change of heart.

“I began to doubt whether I were injured or no. For, after having been accustomed several months to… these people… the horror I had first conceived from their bulk and aspect was so far worn off, that if I had then beheld a company of English Lords and Laides… acting their several parts in the most courtly manner… I should have been strongly tempted to laugh as much at them as the King and his Grandees did at me.” 

Why the swift (pun intended) change of heart? Why the near instant reconsideration? Gulliver explains with comments peppered throughout this situation.

“as I was not in a condition to resent injuries…” (because of his small stature, what good would come of being offended?)

“(as) I observed every object upon which I cast my eyes to be of proportional magnitude…” (not only the people, but this world was bigger than he)

“So that I really began to imagine my self dwindled many degrees below my usual size.” 

Gulliver - 15Lemuel Gulliver, through this voyage to the peninsula of the giants, had the chance to see himself as small. And the smaller he became in relation to everyone and everything, he found freedom. Freedom to laugh at himself, his culture, his history, his future. He found freedom to let go of injury when someone was picking near his heart. He found freedom to live beneath his neighbor (whereas in Lilliput, he was of the utmost significance and far above even the greatest of their nation). Even if just for awhile.

Again, there are no footnotes of epic significance in this story. Other than to clarify explicit references made in the chapters, the story stands alone, and Gulliver is made quite small.

I believe Lilliput, if read through the eyes of the Man-mountain, serves to lower our defenses and prepare us to be examined on Brobdingnag. Through those same eyes, we now get to feel small, exploited, mocked, and mistreated. But, through the efforts of a young nurse named Glumdalclitch, Gulliver also experiences the kind of love that guards the weak… even if imperfectly.

Oh, that we would all feel so small as to be humble…
… and so loved as to be lifted up.

 

 

 

I Miss Being a Man-Mountain: Gulliver #7

If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read Chapters I-II of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver - 10Another week, and with it another voyage alongside Lemuel Gulliver. Having glanced through the story of Brobdingnag at the footnotes, I’ve noticed one significant difference in this second tale: his time in Brobdingnag seems less about Swift picking on particular English contemporaries, perhaps to spend more time considering Gulliver himself? The footnotes contain definitions and clarifications, but far fewer name references. On the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu, Gulliver was a magnificent Man-Mountain, observing and analyzing from his elevated perspective. He spoke from a position of dignity, respect, and valor. As such, his opinions carried a certain weight.

Times change.

Now, on the island of Brobdingnag, Gulliver himself is in the position of being quite small. He has quickly become the lesser creature, already compared to a weasel! Of all the details in the opening chapters, I was drawn to Gulliver’s comparison to his own experiences on Lilliput:

“I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second voyage against the advice of all my friends and relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the world: where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my hand, and perform those other actions which will be recorded for ever in the chronicles of that empire, while posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by millions. I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for, as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me?” 

Gulliver recalls with fondness how great it was to be big, significant in the eyes of all who looked upon. It was good to be the Man-Mountain! And now, the tables have turned and Gulliver finds himself at the mercy of these larger creatures. But notice the irony of his own statement! He takes it for granted that human creatures are more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk! As I understand the narrative, Gulliver considers himself throughout his adventures to be the standard in humanity. In other words, he is normal. Lilliputians are small, Brobdingnagians are large. He remains normal. And I suppose it is possible to maintain that perspective, but it’s hard to avoid the obvious fact that, in the eyes of the Lilliputians, Gulliver would have been the more savage and cruel creature – proportionate with his bulk.

The comparisons continue as he observes the giants. He describes their complexion with a touch of horror, their eyes with a note of humor. He describes the accommodations they provide as being rough and coarse – their finest linens seeming as sackcloth. With every colorful description, Gulliver is further casting light upon his own nature through the eyes of a Lilliputian. At times, he does recognize what he is doing, referring back to his friends on the tiny island. As I read the story, with these details, and observe the lack of contemporary references in footnotes, I can’t help but believe Brobdingnag exists (at least in these early chapters), to provide a commentary on the story we’ve just completed, shedding light on the narrator himself!

 

On Pride and Surrender

Gulliver taps into something very human in these words from the Christian perspective – though I understand this was certainly not Swift’s intention! I couldn’t help but think of the very natural progression in the young Christian. Original sin reveals that pride lies at the core of the human heart. The desire to rule, to be a self-significant Man-Mountain, is rampant and among our most basic realities. For the Christian, the transition from being ruler of my own roost to being a subject in the Kingdom of Christ is humbling, and, if I’m to be honest, troubling. Coming to grips with the effects of depravity, lingering sin, and eternal shortcomings is nothing short of life-altering. Surrender is a painful endeavor, particularly because surrender highlights my inability where I once saw myself as wholly sufficient and the possessor of elevated opinions.

The apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church, though, provide help. Too many Christians believe in free will without giving any consideration to what Martin Luther called the bondage of the will. Yes, we are free creatures and we decide here and there as our little hearts desire. But under the light of Romans 6, it becomes clear that our freedom is in bondage to one master or Another. Apart from Christ, we are slaves to sin. Our free hearts desire sin, and so we pursue sin. In Christ, we are slaves to righteousness. Our free hearts desire righteousness, and so we pursue righteousness. Romans 7 then goes on to describe the internal struggle that results from the lingering nature of sin amidst our pursuit of that which God describes as right and good.

I find Romans 6 & 7 helpful because they remind me that even when I was a Man-Mountain, sovereign in my own eyes, utterly free in my sin, I was not so large. I was responsible, but not sovereign. I was prostrating myself, albeit in ignorance, to a damning master. This truth serves both to humble my heart which is oh-so-prone to pride, and to magnify the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ – Jesus who loved me though I stood as his enemy. Jesus who loved me in order that I might cease to be the Man-Mountain and instead strive to stand among the least in the eternal Kingdom of my Lord.

And so as I consider the matter of surrender to the Lord, I realize that it’s not a matter of choosing surrender over personal sovereignty – crying with the saints rather than laughing with the sinners (sorry, Billy Joel). Rather, it is a matter of humble surrender to a good Master over ignorant surrender to a deadly one.

At times, like our friend Gulliver, I miss being the Man-Mountain. But then I remember that being the Man-Mountain was eternally less than I had believed it to be.

 

 

 

A Vile Torrent: Gulliver #4

If you are following along in the Summer Read, this post assumes you’ve finished Chapter V of Gulliver’s Travels. If you happen to be reading the kiddos’ version, it would help if you’ve read through pg. 37.

On Pace

Despite the extensive vocabulary and the centuries-wide gap in manners of speech, I’m still enjoying Gulliver. I am excited to serve as family narrator for the summer, reading the nerd version aloud to my wife and the kiddos version to our four young ones. At different points, I’ve caught everyone in the family laughing, even our littlest. All along, everyone has listened intently and stayed on board to at least have an understanding of the story. I hope you’ve found a sense of enjoyment in the book as well.

I’ve also enjoyed reading quite slowly. I’m often one to swallow a book quickly, which can have its benefits. But there is a wonderful delight in chewing on the chapters for awhile in order to let them smack me around a bit. If, as Swift has said, truth convicts, then we must let truth speak no matter where we find it!

On Making Water

Gulliver - 4Mr. Gulliver is not shy about sharing stories involving bodily functions. In fact, they provide some of the lighter moments in his Travels thus far. As I considered the event of the flames in the royal palace (and the unorthodox effort to extinguish), I was again drawn to consider the incident from multiple perspectives.

With the palace on fire, Gulliver used the only viable resource available. He considered it lucky, in fact, to have such an opportunity. And so naturally he availed himself, though I’m pretty sure it would take a Gulliver-sized bladder on a Lilliputian for the effort to have lasted a full three minutes. In any case, the flames were out, the mission accomplished, and the day sufficiently saved.

Despite the preservation of the palace – with a lingering funk – the people are unsure of the method employed by the Man Mountain. Gulliver himself worries that the Emperor will resent his actions. In the end, though Gulliver receives a pardon for the crime (punishable by death!), the Empress chooses to move across the grounds rather than live near such a vile act. She distances herself from the offensive action rather than see (or smell) the effects. Gulliver’s time on the island has taken a turn for the less comfortable. It would seem as though, on a certain level, the royal family might have preferred their home to burn than to be saved in such a manner. Imagine the horror of the scene through the eyes of one 1/12th the size of the giant!

Perspective.

As the footnotes declare, the palace fire is possibly a reference to Queen Anne’s hesitation to elevate Swift in the Anglican church because of his occasionally crude and impious way of telling stories. (Go figure!) If this is the case, then the goal is to join Swift in his smarmy satire and view the situation through the cynical eyes of the author. Maybe we’re supposed to see the whole situation as ridiculous and cheer as the overconfident Lilliputians get theirs. But there is a strange draw in the story that leaves me sympathetic to the Lilliputians as well. I am curious, this time around in reading the book, if I’m drawn to the inhabitants of the other lands as much as I am this first bunch.

Taking the Lilliputian perspective, then, I can’t help but think of sovereignty and blood.

Really, Bob?

Really.

I cannot count the number of times in my life I’ve heard or been asked, why would a good God _________? The question is posed as a response to doubt and pain. If I may toy with the notion of our current chapter, though, I would propose that often times providence feels like the vile torrent of Swift’s Chapter V. Caught within the circumstance, with a perspective far too small and marred by sin, it might appear that we are being defiled in the hands of a irrational God. As a result, we respond in a manner not unlike the Empress… disgust and distance. We stay away from the pain, away from the damage, away from the redeeming quality, because to face the damage is to possibly face the uncomfortable means by which we received care.

Could it be that God might work through pain – not only by passively allowing it, but also by actively ordaining it as his agent in this cursed world – in order to bring the greatest redemption? To be quite honest, sometimes our palaces need a little “made water” in order to let go of them as a means of ultimate security. The irony of Swift’s beef with the Queen is that in what seems like taking out his frustration through a tale of filthy firefighting, he was illustrating the point he may have failed to believe… that sometimes the vile torrent is a means of grace. Setback and pain are warning signs that something is amiss, and a clear signal that our eyes may be fixed on the wrong mighty fortress.

I think of biblical redemption and what is often considered the vile torrent that brings peace – blood. And this all in the name of supreme love? For those who cannot bring themselves to find comfort in the bloody reality of salvation, typified in animal sacrifice and fulfilled in the cross of Christ, they too respond with disgust and distance. Yet it is the disgusting and vile blood that saves. At the risk of sounding irreverent in the face of a story such as the palace fire, there is something very real to consider… God’s ordained means of saving have rarely if ever resembled the expected. And to be quite honest, if we’re not willing to embrace mystery in humility, his means are often downright difficult.

I don’t want to press to far in aligning Gulliver with God in the story. I don’t believe that to be the point. But I can’t help but see the parallels when the so-small-yet-so-puffed-up race encounter the giant beyond their comprehension. I don’t see God in Gulliver as much as I see myself in the Lilliputians.

 

“… For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2Corinthians 1:8b-9 ESV)

“So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

 

 

 

In Brief: Calvin on the Christian Life

2016 - Calvin on the Xn LifeTitle: Calvin on the Christian Life (Theologians on the Christian Life series)
Author: Michael Horton

Pages: 262

As I passed by the closeout section at a not-so-local Christian bookstore, I couldn’t pass this one up for $3.75. I now know this will be my first dip into the Theologians on the Christian Life series. I am happy to have stumbled upon a great bargain, and a great read to start the new year. Broadly speaking, the series aims to get beyond the common caricatures of popular pastors & theologians. Too often, folks grab hold of the wildest imaginative exaggeration of a person’s beliefs and build an unfortunately lasting case. Or, as is often the case with matters of religion, the summaries of critics – written in response to “followers” who themselves misinterpret original intentions – rule the day in terms of determining an individual’s legacy. I am thankful for a series whose outright aim is to dispel the fiction that has all-too-long cast harsh dividing lines among Christian brothers and sisters.

The book is well written and engaging, not a doctrinal defense but rather an engagement of Calvin’s life in light of his beliefs. His writings are widely quoted, not just from the Institutes, but also from letters and commentaries that provide greater insight into the heart behind the weighty texts. It is encouraging to read of Calvin’s engagement with his supporters as well as his critics, of his love for his wife Idelette, and his involvement in matters of the public arena.

I found the final chapter, regarding Calvin’s view of the future life while simultaneously looking at his own death, to be the most moving. In particular, the words of his last will and testament reveal not a cold Christian (again, the all-too-common caricature), but rather a man humbly dependent on the grace of God in the sacrifice of Christ.

 

“I have no other defense or refuge for salvation than his gratuitous adoption on which alone my salvation depends. With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which he has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance. 

I testify also and declare that I suppliantly beg of Him that he may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under his shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment seat. I likewise declare that, according to the measure of grace and goodness which the Lord hath employed toward me, I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach his Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures.

But, woe is me! My ardor and zeal (if indeed worthy of the name) have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. Nay, I even acknowledge that if the same goodness had not assisted me, those mental endowments which the Lord bestowed upon me would, at His judgment seat, prove me most guilty of sin and sloth. For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.” 

 

In his death, he longed to be buried in obscurity, to give all he had to those in need, and to move one step closer to the future life. Never desiring a movement or theological position to be based upon his name, witnesses testify that he spent his final weeks in prayer, attending worship and meeting with friends and city officials. He served the Lord faithfully to the end.

Many of the Reformed church, as well as those under the Calvinist moniker, are known for intellectual and theological rigor. Yet the example of Calvin was one of heart and humility, all too aware of human frailty, yet confident in the goodness of God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Redeemer, and Joy. His views of common grace opened the door to an appreciation of creation and human creativity. His veracity in pursuit of God through the Scriptures is encouraging to any who seek to know God through his inerrant Word.

Indeed, many disagree with his theological positions. But in an age where we reduce individuals to a label, I am grateful for a book (and a series) which serves to restore humanity and compassion to the individuals who so faithfully gave themselves to the bride of Christ.

 

 

 

For other brief reviews, keep an eye on my Reading page.

Domain: In the Beginning (part 2)

(excerpt from a recent sermon given on Genesis 1:1)

In part 1 of the series, I briefly touched on God’s relationship to time. This second portion continues the first verse in Genesis, turning to God’s role as Creator and his continuing interest in human creativity. Admittedly, this is the most scattered portion of the sermon, but then again, I’ll be processing this part for awhile… Take the ball and run.

In the beginning, God created…

Not only did God create using the stuff of the universe, he created the stuff of the universe! He did this without buying a blueprint or a plan. God imagined this stuff and spoke it into reality, then used his creativity to divvy it up and make cool things. His creativity is on so high a plane that creativity itself is God’s domain.

God CreatedIf you dig into the squiggles, dots, and dashes of the Hebrew language that read “he created,” they are used in two ways in the Bible – specifically the verb exists in two stems. One is a special use reserved for God’s creative activity, because his work is different. His work is other. God’s imagination is crazy good.

The other use – the second tense – of these particularly glorious squiggles speaks of man’s version of creating. Man’s creating comes by wiping clean something that has been done in order to start over. More clearly, we further divide what God has already created and divided. BUT, we never start from nothing. All of our creativity has a context, a foundation. We think using brains that God created and thought processes that he invented. We apply our thoughts with materials he designed and provided. This means our creativity, no matter how seemingly original, is subservient to his.

How limited is our ability? We can’t even imagine the nothing from which God created everything. We call that ex nihilo. (Hebrews 11:3) Go ahead. Try. If you are picturing darkness, it’s not nothing. Darkness was a product of creation upon which God has shone light. Maybe your mind’s eye moves to pure white… something like blinding light? Again, it’s a concept that has a foundation, a base. Nothing. No thing. It is entirely other.

God’s pre-existence to our own is a big deal.

Truly original ideas are hard to come by. Don’t get me wrong, I come up with original and creative ideas all the time. But my original ideas aren’t creative, and my creative ideas aren’t original. (I even stole that quote)

God has laid the groundwork that we engage & call imagination. Genesis 1:26-28 says that we are made in the image of God. We are reflections of his glory. One way we do this is by creating. By imagining. By finding answers to questions. By studying and figuring things out. By receiving the raw materials from the hand of God and building. We do these things because the God who created us owns and shares his vast imagination.

Every human who has ever lived bears the image of the Creator, whether we or they have loved God or not. This means that ALL creativity… let me say that again, ALL CREATIVITY is evidence of God’s glory. Creativity doesn’t all of a sudden “glorify God” when it’s done by a Christian or with an explicitly Christian theme. The very existence of imagination points to God, no matter who expresses it. Now, the expression of human creativity is driven by the deceitful human heart – and so there are expressions which do not necessarily honor God as LORD. But the ability to think, to imagine, to create IS the stamp of our Maker. Christians can and should seek and learn to appreciate creativity.

The Scriptures say God has written eternity on all of our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Because that is true, human creativity will often serve the gospel.

Think about the books, movies, TV series, paintings, music you enjoy. Not necessarily “Christian” stuff. Anything. What makes it good? Good creative stuff makes us imagine paradise. Good creative stuff helps us explore and understand brokenness. Good creative stuff desperately wants justice and redemption. Good creative stuff ponders judgment. Good creative stuff chases after the eternity found only through the gospel. We like this stuff because, in the end, we’re all after one thing. We’re all chasing eternity. If the Bible is true, then this eternity is only found by chasing after Jesus with every last breath.

On the flipside, where good creative stuff explores truth, deceptive creative stuff twists or exploits truth. Consider the extreme: pornography. Porn misrepresents paradise, glorifies brokenness, feeds injustice, abandons redemption, and ignores righteous judgment. Pornography denies eternity and replaces it with instant gratification. It is the product of sin and the work of the Enemy. When your conscience recoils around this stuff, it is your heart’s eternal longing shining through.

But even the presence of the lie suggests the existence of the truth and makes us cry out for something better. The desire to create is an image thing. The abuse of creativity is a sin thing. Human creativity is stained by sin and the fall, which means there will always be an absence of perfection. But rightly engaged, imagination will serve to draw us nearer to our God – who is creative – by drawing us into the narrative of redemption (creation, fall, redemption, consummation in Christ Jesus); a narrative that he first imagined and then brought to fullness in the life, death, and resurrection of his only begotten Son.

Big picture application for the Christian: Engaging healthy creative expressions helps us to see how humanity processes eternity. Ask questions that get to God’s arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation as you are blessed by the expression of the image of God in another. Drag someone else into it with you. You will be blessed.

Big picture application for the non-believer: If our creativity and creative activities are subservient to God’s; if our creativity is designed to draw us nearer to him through Christ as we explore truth, then we will never create an avenue apart from him that will lead us into the eternity we all so desperately desire. It may provide a temporary escape, but never an answer.

The truth is: in the end, creativity can’t save us.
But imagination CAN help us explore the eternity God has created.
Ultimately, creativity is good, because creativity is God’s domain.