Hellfire and Fuzzy Blankets

My pen does acrobatics in my hand. My feet tapping in neurotic fashion under the table like I’m a drummer in a punk band. The fluorescent light always oppressive in these classrooms; beats down with unyielding religious fervor and resolve. I’m kicking myself for not having had a 2nd cup of coffee. I can’t stop thinking about how there’s always that guy in front of you in line who takes three minutes to decide whether or not he wants a bagel or a muffin. How he is only and exclusively there when you are almost late for a class.

It is now that my old Jewish salt and pepper bearded professor approaches the podium. He wisely decides to open with a crack about dildos. He then apologizes and alleges that it’s was only to get our attention, but I suspect it’s so he can drop the fact that he did at a party. I can already hear the pool of purvy instructors trying to one-up each other at the bar. Each one failing miserably not to laugh at his own joke. These are the beats and rhythms of college life from the vantage point of an undergraduate.

The class is New Testament Survey, and this particular class concentrates on paradigms. My professor, an atheist, and Jewish combined these not-so-unique qualities in a novel way that afforded him the upper hand in being entertaining while reading biblical literature. It was impressive. We spent much of the time talking about Q source theory, Hessians, the Nag Hammadi, Gnostic and apocryphal literature.

It was aimed at getting at the “historical Jesus.“ My professor spent the other half the year in Israel doing archaeological digs with only attractive graduate-level female students. Along with a handful of useful idiot male ones. This particular teacher loves to work into the conversation how he is on CNN from time to time. As regularly and with as much grace as much as a middle-aged man works in the relevance of his vintage sports car into any and every conversation. Nonetheless, he grew on me like a fungus. He gave me hope for myself and all other deeply flawed men.

He was committed. If you were going to say anything else about the man, it could only be that he is his own man. Frank Sinatra’s ‘ I Did It My Way’ would most likely eulogize his funeral reception. Everyone’s parting gift would most likely be rather inappropriate. A true iconoclast. And yet, although the class was designed to deconstruct my faith, I have found years later that what I have learned from this thoroughly committed man about the Bible has only deeply enriched my faith.

On this particular day, he is juxtaposing the word Shalom, a multi-faceted Hebrew paradigm, to our rather one-dimensional concept of peace.

“ Imagine all of creation and the cosmos a giant quilt. With each life, rock, tree, and star a thread in the blanket. Each with its color and length. Shalom is the interweaving of these threads into an intricate, stronger, and more beautiful design. With all the patterns and complexity, its cohesion is useful and beautiful. Full of purpose. The way things were supposed to be, but never was. This wholistic universe; the world redeemed.”

He then went on to describe the word ‘holy’ – which I always just took to mean as “better than you.” In English, the word denotes being set apart, unique, absolute. My professor described holy as being the ‘source’ of Shalom. The source of everything; Life, love, truth, meaning, beauty, etc. In other words; God is the unifying principle in everything; He’s the Author that ties everything together in His being. He is the only Source.

I deconstructed my faith not long after college because I had a hard time coming to terms with the historicity of the Bible. Much because of what I learned in college. I also had a really hard time believing that a God of love torments people in hell forever. Hellfire and brimstone rhetoric had traditionally seemed to me to be emotionally manipulative. And at certain ages even could be used as a form of child abuse.

I realize now however how myopic this understanding of hell is. And I now realize there’s a great deal of credence to the biblical narrative around the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Richard Bauckman has been a huge influence on me in this area. I also realize theologically how a God of love would have to be a God of justice. In light of certain events in the last two years, I can certainly see how I am not the only one either. It’s not loving to continue to allow people to go being abused as we have seen from #MeToo. Their abuse means something. You would never tell a rape victim that she just needs to get over it. Or tell the family of George Floyd to just let it go. At least I hope none of us would.

It’s not loving to force people to love you back either. A consequence of God‘s love is the ability to have free will. If God is love, then he also must be a gentleman. When we freely choose to reject the source of life, love, joy, peace, truth, and justice- disintegration is inevitable. Rejecting God here is to reject these things themselves because God is their Source. Sin from the Bible’s vantage point isn’t just missing the mark- it’s much more than that.

In the context of shalom, sin is the fraying apart of the quilt. It is disunity and disintegration of the very fabric of the universe. It is mankind cut off from God, mankind and womankind cut off from one another, people from nature, and finally God from nature. It’s the design losing its integrity, beauty, strength, meaning, and purpose. God’s words in context are not merely a checklist but a design pattern that we ignore at our peril.

Fire itself is a symbol of disintegration. We can see it at work in our hearts. CS Lewis once famously said that it starts with a grumble, and if you don’t snuff it out, it will grow and grow until there is nothing of you left except the grumble. I think we all know this intuitively. If you struggle with unforgiveness for several years, you can twist you. If you hold a grudge for 40 years it will alter the course of your entire life. Now imagine 400 million years. There would no longer be you left- there would only be this insane tormented mechanical grumble against God and against existence.

I love how God is still weaving the different experiences of my life together again to knit a unified whole. The good, the bad, and the ugly. He’s still pouring out Grace and snuffing out the fires of all of my unforgiveness, pride, and selfishness. He’s teaching me to not be a single thread. He’s teaching me that I am still very much a part of the design.

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