Leviathan’s Summer Schedule

Hi folks,
Fishing for Leviathan will be posting on a light schedule for this coming summer and fall. I’m in a sabbatical year, and much of the work I’ll be doing will address similar issues found on this blog. Occasionally, I’ll post some excerpts from the text I’m developing in hopes that by next summer I’ll be able to announce a book release.

I’m not going anywhere, but the posts will be less frequent. Peace to you!

When Leviathan Fishes for You

I have to admit, starting a blog titled, ‘Fishing for Leviathan’ without ever once writing about Jonah feels like a massive oversight.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Jonah for some time now, ever since I heard a sermon on him that hit all the usual notes: Jonah runs away from God, God sends a fish to ‘re-purpose’ him, Jonah relents and preaches to the people of Nineveh, and finally, the strange ending with no real resolution. But lately I’ve been inclined to read Jonah in a different way, one that lifts up the prophet as a truly remarkable figure. Not a coward, but a tower of faith and confidence. Rebellious? Sure. Arrogant? Without question. Authentic faith in trying circumstances? Absolutely.

. . .

Every spring, football fans across the country engage in a funny little ritual that’s one of two things: Either it’s mind-numbingly boring, or edge-of-your-seat exciting, depending on your perspective. These diehards turn their TVs to ESPN or NFL Network and wait for their favorite NFL team’s logo to pop up on the bottom of the screen along with the magical words, ‘THE PICK IS IN.’ This signals that his/her favorite team is about to add another player into the fold. Jerseys will be bought, draft grades will be given, decisions will be scrutinized … but, in the end, the player is now on the team. He’s one of us.

Visit any one of a hundred football blogs on draft day and you’ll be vaulted to the great heights and plunged into the shadowy depths of that wonderful linguistic volcano, Mount St. Hyperbole. My favorite fansite, Blogging the Boys, comments on all things related to the Dallas Cowboys. My team. After this year’s first round draft pick (a guy named Taco, believe it or not), this normally cordial blogosphere exploded.

‘Why didn’t they draft T.J.??? He was there for the taking!’
‘Miserable waste of a pick. He’s horrible.’
‘I hate Jerry Jones.’
‘He doesn’t have enough bend around the edge!!! What are they thinking?’
‘I’m not eating tacos for a year in protest! …umm, make that a week!’

All coming from dudes who have Cheetos stains on their t-shirts; t-shirts which may or may not cover their hairy belly buttons. Ironically, the Cowboys’ second round pick goes by the phonetic nickname, “Cheetoh.”

We’re all experts, aren’t we? It’s easier to chuck rocks from the cheap seats than it is to admire the hard work and dedication that these young men pour into their craft. Or, even better, imagine how perspectives would change if, just for one day, they had to strap on pads and go head-to-head against these mammoths.

Kind of like our usual approach to the prophet Jonah.

Here’s why Jonah is quickly becoming my favorite of the Old Testament prophets.

Jonah knows himself. Yes, he runs from God’s calling in the most literal way possible, taking a boat in the exact opposite direction of God’s call. My kids do this when they know they are in trouble, dashing upstairs and hiding under the covers in a mess of tears and snot. But Jonah has a steely-eyed nerve to him. This is not the flight of the fearful, but rage of the righteous (and/or rebellious). He sleeps during a calamitous storm, in spite of the vomit-inducing rocking of the waves. Once awakened, he speaks straightforwardly and simply to the sailors: ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’ He wouldn’t jump. He had to be thrown. Such was his resolve against the great evil of Nineveh and his lack of compassion upon their fallen condition, not just his stubbornness against the great calling of Yahweh himself.

Jonah knows God. He knows him. After trudging around Nineveh with the world’s worst sermon, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,’ Jonah burns against the character of God—precisely because he knew him. ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’

Oh, to know God and to understand his will for my life as Jonah knows! I get vague, blurry pictures of God’s calling. Jonah knows the play-by-play, as if he’s playing chess with God and sees fifteen moves ahead. To criticize Jonah for running is like criticizing LeBron James for a turnover. Sure, it’s bad and we’ll all know it, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The presence and character of God runs so deep in Jonah’s bloodstream that he is compelled to move. Move in the wrong direction, sure, but move nevertheless.

Jonah gets a foretaste of Paul’s great mystery. This is one of the very few instances in the Old Testament when God’s grace moves in and about peoples who were not Jewish. On Jonah’s warning, the people of Nineveh are pierced to the heart with repentance, turning from ‘their evil ways’ (3:10). Consider how startling this would be to a Jew, born and bred into the foundational belief that God had chosen one people to be his own. Now, God has opened his gaze to the heathen. Unthinkable.

Paul speaks of this in the New Testament as something so remarkable and inconceivable that it’s essentially a part of the mystery of God. ‘[The mystery of Christ] is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, member together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus’ (Eph 3:6). Gentiles. Who knew?

I’m not saying that the residents of Nineveh all of a sudden became followers of Yahweh. Nor do I have any definite conclusion about their long-term fate. Rather, I want to point us to Jonah’s words yet again (with a little reading between the lines): ‘Lord, I knew you were so compassionate upon the people of this earth that you would give grace even to those who don’t even remotely know you as I know you. Lord, I know your forgiveness is present to those who repent—Jew or Gentile. That’s why I ran.’

Jonah’s certainly not a coward. He’s vigilant and zealous. And he knows God to a far greater depth than I know him.

We’re nervous meeting our neighbors. Jonah says plainly to people who hate him, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’ (1:9).

We pray only when we’re desperate, hoping that God will answer us. Jonah talks to God as if it’s his rabbi, mentor, and friend. ‘From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry’ (2:2b).

We speak about faith yet often know very little about God, assuming our pastors will do the hard work of reading and interpreting his Word for us. Yet Jonah knows precisely who God is by first-hand experience and yearns for a day when his face can look again upon the Temple (2:4, 7).

. . .

At some point in the future, I’ll be running from God. I’ll be looking for a one-way ticket to Tarshish (hopefully, not on United). Yet, in my rebellious flight, my present hope for that future version of Joel will be that God will be the same God he was to Jonah, slow to anger on Jonah’s sins and gentle with his rebuke … and that I’ll know God then as Jonah knew him. I’ll rest in the absolute reality and sure knowledge that God can pull me from my pit precisely because HE IS compassionate, slow to anger, quick to relent, and gentle in discipleship as he turns my face back toward the temple.

When the leviathan from the deep starts swimming after my boat, my great hope is that my confession will remain intact, ‘I am a Christian and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. Now, throw me overboard.’ Such a plunge may be the fire that prepares the metal for shaping. For discipling.

I would prefer to love wholeheartedly the task set before me by God. But, I’ll take it if his love is so great that he would swallow me up and bring me back to himself and my calling through other means.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

You Only Live Twice

The Easter chaos has ended.

After two days of Easter feasting with my extended family in Bakersfield, Tiffany and I braced for the long journey back to south Orange County. Googlemaps politely informed me that the trek was only 170 miles, but Googlemaps has never seen the Oesch kids in Sugar Mode. After all of the stops, breaks, and…yes…even changing flat tires (the epic 2015 nightmare), the trip usually tops out at an oh-so-wonderful four-and-a-half-hours.

This year was different. The kids were asleep, the parents were awake (enough), and the roads were clear. I feel like I can count on my hand the number of times my wife and I have been able to have a long, thoughtful conversation without interruption. When we hit Grapevine, Tiffany looked over and took advantage of the opportunity by asking, ‘What’s your favorite Bible story?’

Such a simple and wonderful question. I just started rattling off a few possibilities, quickly realizing that I love different passages for different reasons. Unexpectedly, the first one I mentioned was Paul’s time in Athens, recorded in Acts 17.

Paul spends the necessary time to acknowledge, even appreciate, the cultural influences of the people he wishes to engage. As a fellow who has been known to wander in and out of art galleries from time to time, I can envision the slow thoughtful stroll of the apostle moving to and fro between the marble sculptures of ancient Athens. A troubling walk, to be sure, when a shepherd sees sheep that have gone astray.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17.22-23).

In his words to the Areopagus, Paul never once surrenders the primacy of the gospel message. And yet, he’s willing to appropriate the insight and clarity of Greek cultural artifacts. This is amazing to me. Paul actually quotes pagan philosophers/poets in support of his Christian apologetic later in his discourse.

Sometimes false prophets proclaim deep, profound truths. Sometimes they can uniquely observe the filth in the fishbowl.

Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians precisely for that reason. Sure, he’s crass and taboo-breaking. One minute he has me laughing out loud on a crowded plane flight, surely interrupting seat 15C’s attempt at breaking her personal best Sudoku time. The next minute, he says something that is so utterly repulsive that I instinctively turn the volume down … in my headset.

In his most recent Netflix special, he opens with the following two topics for his stand-up comedy routine: Abortion and Suicide.

Everyone laughs when he introduces the topic of abortion because they’ve expected Louis CK to talk about all the things no one wants to talk about. He delivers on that front in spades. Yet I also think that Louis CK is running intellectual rings around the people he’s entertaining. They’re laughing at his quirky delivery, his penchant for employing just the right metaphor, his ability to say one thing then disagree with himself two sentences later. But I think he’s feeding them potent medicine with the candy. He sneaks kale into the brownies.

This particular false prophet is busy at work laying out a simple truth. He’s communicating a fundamental ethical dilemma on a profound level, shaming his crowd—and perhaps himself—by laying out the bare naked options when considering something like abortion. According to Louis CK, either abortion is simply the dispelling of unwanted junk (his language is a bit more colorful) or it’s murdering babies. You do not get to hide in the lukewarm equivocating middle zone; it simply does not exist. It’s either one or the other. [caution: coarse language]

If you watch Louis CK carefully during this show, he occasionally reveals his mastery over the audience with a knowing smirk. His art has multiple dimensions. At the top is basic comedic entertainment–he knows how to make you laugh. Just below the surface is devastating social commentary (that is directed toward the crowd itself!) He uses misdirection to lay out a terrifying reality to the delighted crowd, and the crowd’s laughter confirms his achievement. They don’t even know that they are the joke. He has essentially made them admit that abortion is murdering babies. Louis CK, in a stroke of genius, joins the crowd in solidarity … offering reasons why this barbarism is necessary.

For the orthodox Christian, abortion is horrifying. Abortion is the endgame of a death-laden culture. Western secular culture has operated with a single-minded determination to eliminate all forms of theological tyranny for the precise purpose of destroying any form of virtuous living. The culture may be cloaked in flowery language of ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’ but once you strip away all the aesthetics, the dominant cultural message is this: Yes, you have our permission to destroy yourself.

No restrictions on sexual behavior. You may destroy yourself and others in this way.

No restrictions on drug use. You may destroy your physical self, too.

No social mores on language, decency, or virtue. You may destroy yourself and bring society down as a whole.

Louis CK recognizes the endgame and, to his credit, takes the position that’s nothing if not consistent. He concludes, ‘Life isn’t that important.’ If life isn’t that important, then the moral law that protects life and society may be discarded as window dressing. If God does not exist, everything is permissible.

For your Easter reflection, consider this false prophet’s words. Of course, I am not defending his conclusion that abortion should be left to the sole discretion of the mother—but I am asking us to consider the stark choices we are left with in this day and age:

Either we are people of life, or we are people of death.

Either we sacrifice ourselves to preserve life in its dignity, or we choose our own path to destruction.

Either we worship God and submit, or we worship ourselves and act accordingly.

. . .

No one wants to hear that they are a willing party to death. But unrestricted freedom will always drive one to that end.

For Christ-followers, we’re more than people of life. We are people of the resurrection. We hate death so much that our central claim as Christians rests in hope that those things that were once wholly dead can be made alive again. People of the resurrection recognize that a man’s heart naturally bends toward death, and therefore, we submit ourselves to an authority who can reshape, remold, re-bend our heart toward the Life Giver.

Being under authority is the single doctrine that the contemporary world cannot tolerate. It’s also the only possible avenue toward meaning and value. Being under authority subdues the ego while dignifying the person. It murders you and heals you in the same instant.

People of the resurrection consider life as precious, so their lives are naturally imbibed with a sense of duty to others. Christianity necessarily cuts across the grain of the pagan culture, speaking that this life matters because we have been given responsibility for it as creatures of the Creator. The Christian life calls for service, even rejoices in it. That’s what living people DO because that’s who living people ARE. Our living bodies bear the witness of Christ’s death and resurrection (II Cor 4) as the central feature of our identity. Indeed the call of the Christian is to be conformed to the likeness of the Son; the Son who lived, died, and lived again. He IS risen.

Bearing this identity gives us supreme freedom, a different kind of freedom, to proclaim God’s truth and go boldly into a world that is filled with false prophets seeking when and where we can appropriate a culture’s insights as useful to the kingdom. Free to fear God, free to serve one another … that’s a full to-do list. But you’ve got time.

After all, you only live twice.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

When Worldviews Wobble…

Ideas are dangerous things. They disorient our way of looking at the world. Shoot, they topple worlds.

I’m building a table-top garden. Our backyard is just a slab of concrete enclosed by a wooden fence, so if Tiffany and I want to grow some herbs and vegetables we have to get creative. Enter Pinterest. I think I’ve found a design that’ll do—about 12 square feet of table space set on four legs with wheels. My current internal dialogue has to do with stability: What’s the absolute most I can get out of this table (weight, height, depth of soil) without comprising its structural integrity? This kind of question is usually code for: How many ways can I justify using my power drill without looking ridiculous to my wife?

I’ve come to an obvious conclusion: The stability of the legs will directly correspond with my little garden’s usefulness and longevity.

We construct our lives—our worldviews—as tables. The surface of the table, if you will, is our view of reality—how things work and why stuff matters. The tabletop is our way of organizing and explaining the massive amount of information that the human person encounters every single day. Probe below the surface, however, and you will find all sorts of beliefs and ideas that support our worldview; these, like legs on a table, are often hard to see.

As an example, a middle aged woman might identify deeply with her vocation as financial advisor; she’s worked hard to ascend to her position, providing for her family through her effort. Because she loves her job, she reads it into the relationships she has—it affects how she votes, who she trusts, and how she interacts with the law. Her table.

What are the ideas/beliefs that serve to buttress her perspective on the world? Perhaps she believes strongly in capitalism, the American Dream…  Maybe she was taught at an early age that debt was a bad thing… Or, perhaps her father instilled in her a sense of responsibility for her own destiny. The legs.

All good things, yes?

Ah, but there’s a catch. Worldviews are constantly subjected to outside pressures. They never exist as perfect models untouched by outside forces. Rather, our worldviews have their own plate tectonics; they must deal with city-wrecking earthquakes and the subtle aftershocks that precede or follow. These ‘shakers’ could be ideas. They could be experiences. Both can rock us to the ground.

Imagine a young man’s worldview built on the following statement about reality: God exists. Everything in his understanding of reality flows from this central feature. It’s a table top supported by a few important legs: 1) The Bible is reliable; 2) God is good, and I have witnessed such love and goodness in my life; 3) My parents are Christian, and they would not lie to me; and 4) all my friends are Christian.

Now imagine this same young man is a soldier sent off to war. In a faraway land, he is forced to confront the horrors of the battlefield, broken bodies and animalistic urges of aggression and self-preservation thrown into perpetual conflict. His scars, both physical and mental, are borne by truly painful experiences, experiences that nobody back home can really appreciate. Considering this hypothetical case, it is not difficult to see how the supporting legs of his above worldview are now under assault, particularly in leg 2. The honest and appropriate question, ‘How can a good God allow such evil to flourish?’ is asked for the first time and the table begins to wobble.

For any person—Christian, atheist, or other—the wobbling of the table leads to only two possible outcomes: Repair or Collapse.

Repair mode. The worldview in question has to find a way to shore up the legs that are serving as buttresses. In the above example, leg 2 is under attack because the young soldier can no longer say that he has a broad-based experience of goodness and love in his life. So, in repair mode, he looks for a new way to interpret this foundational belief in order to preserve the worldview, and so he might reformulate leg 2 to say: God is still good, and the presence of evil demonstrates how much the world needs his love. Crisis averted.

The worldview stays intact as long as each modification to the leg seems reasonable in the mind of the person. However, if some jumps are just too great, then we run into…

Collapse. I can imagine few things as terrifying as discarding a worldview. When a leg gets knocked out of a table the whole thing is going to come down. It’s just a matter of time. Again, to reference the above example, imagine leg 3 is under assault. The parents of the soldier announce their divorce. Now the parents have ceased to be a moral authority in his life, calling into question their statements about the existence of God and the reliability of the Gospel. No simple repair can save this soldier’s world from collapsing and thus his initial belief that God exists, at least not at first glance.

. . .

The dynamic nature of this metaphor has convinced me that adult conversion is an outright miracle. When an adult willingly gives up his/her fundamental understanding of the world as a godless place … well, this can only be considered an act of sheer grace by God and insane bravery by the individual. People will hold on to failed worldviews at almost any cost, regardless of the reality. They often bury moral and philosophical contradictions down to the depths of their being, hoping that the bug won’t cause the whole system to crash.

Worldviews are dictators. They have to be overthrown with overwhelming force. Otherwise the cost of introducing widespread instability is just too great.

Jesus pokes at the legs of the Jewish worldview throughout his ministry, but perhaps most strikingly in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘You have heard that …  …but I tell you …’ The threat of these statements must not be overlooked, as Jesus is implying that hundreds of years of Jewish thought and tradition may need significant overhaul. Jesus is an expert at reinterpreting, re-imagining, shaking down and building up.

Worldviews are dictators. They have to be overthrown with overwhelming force.

An open disposition toward the ongoing chastening of Jesus is a good start. Perhaps you and I could use a little disorientation, a move where God’s Word shifts the ground underneath us in order to conform us more to the likeness of the Son, rather than the opposite when we forcibly conform Jesus to the likeness of ourselves.

If Christianity is going to offer itself as a worldview that is intellectually honest, then we have to be willing to feel the aftershocks of alternative explanatory systems, both big and small. Let me be as clear as possible on this. I am not suggesting that every challenge that the scientific community directs at the Christian faith must be absorbed and polished into our understanding of the world as holy writ; this only transfers divinity from God to the laboratory and thus becomes a simple form of idolatry. However, I am offering that such challenges be afforded the respect of an attentive ear. The Great Conversation regarding origins, nature, humanity, sin, evil and governance can enjoy the contributions of a wide variety of fields.

When these alternate voices shake your table, don’t run for the hills. Instead, look for the fault lines. Seek out the places where faulty assumptions exist, both in the arguments of your conversation partner as well as your own. Gentle conversation can draw these flaws out; such inconsistencies are a force to be reckoned with. Christian apologist Greg Koukl refers to this disequilibrium as, ‘putting a stone in another person’s shoe.’

The most stable structures are not the most rigid. They are designed to withstand a little flex here, a little tilt there. When the Bible speaks loudly and clearly about something, then we have the responsibility to treat these doctrines as inflexible beams that make up the strong tabletop of Christian doctrine. However, a thoughtful Christian also recognizes when interpretative ambiguity is present. We have the responsibility to tread carefully when the Bible chooses silence over statement.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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