This post is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will show up next week.
My wife runs the books at our house, and thank goodness, because I am a financial idiot. I consider it a veritable miracle that I survived the time between college and marriage on a small youth minister’s income, especially since I like to: 1) eat, and 2) go places. I’m only two more miracles away from sainthood, I suppose. Joel, the Patron Saint of Overdraft Protection.
Occasionally, I’ll run smack into a book (or maybe a discussion) that reminds me of the nothing that I know all too well. Enter the engaging and bewildering book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short. It’s a primer on the American mortgage crisis of 2007-2008. Some of you, no doubt, have seen the movie. And some of you, no doubt, saw the movie (like me) in hopes that the film would explain a difficult concept to you in two short hours. It did and it didn’t. I’ve seen the movie twice and read the book once … and I’m not convinced I understand subprime mortgage swaps or CDOs to save my life (re-read first paragraph to understand why).
The point of this post is not to wade into the sludgy swamp of information and pull out a shiny diamond for you to enjoy. The point is to stand in fear and awe of the swamp in the first place. A central thesis of The Big Short was an acknowledgement that the home mortgage industry was so convoluted that no one, not even those in charge, could comprehend the multitude of forces at work. No one could understand the whole, let alone its parts.
Systems that are so complex, so utterly baffling, are systems that readily allow one kind of thing to flourish: corruption. And such corruption has all sorts of ways it can conceal itself when layers of bureaucracy and legalese are the norm. It’s like playing hide-and-go-seek with two other people at the Smithsonian. Spoiler alert: you’re not going to find them. Corruption, if anything, knows how to hide.
Corruption flourishes in complex systems because the system begins to take on a personal nature by itself. Let me phrase that another way. The bigger the system, the more likely it is to act like a personal agent, complete with its own personality, needs, and wants. The beast feeds itself by creating new layers of fat, insulating its vulnerabilities from the outside world. With this principle in mind, I am sympathetic to those who press for politics to operate on the local level, as they argue that the federal government serves its own needs to grow and expand for expansion’s sake.
Many of us use personal computers. None of us really know how they work. Yeah, you might say, “this transistor does this and that little fan cools that,” but be honest, you press a button and, magically, either you see a half-bitten apple (sumptuously ironic) or a four-paned window (also ironic) appear on screen. There may be a window but you know nothing of what happens inside the box and screen. On a small scale, it is too much information to understand, so we just do our thing and hope the little magic box works like it did last time.
I suggest that esoteric, impenetrable systems put us in danger. Christian theology is not immune from this charge.
To a certain extent, Jewish law operated in many of the same ways as described above. The Mishnah (Oral Law) was recorded in the early 3rd century as a compilation of the oral tradition, widely accepted by Jews as a companion piece to the Torah. The Oral Law serves as a remarkable security system; it protects the absolute command of God by erecting a fence. Don’t cross this line here, or else you’ll be in danger of crossing the actual command of God there. In Mark 7 the Pharisees refer to these extraneous rules as the ‘tradition of the elders’ as a way to criticize the eating habits of the disciples . Jesus rightly takes them to the proverbial woodshed. It’s all about the heart’s orientation to God, not an outward showing of false righteousness.
Stacking human law onto human law onto human law onto God’s divine command has a way of becoming its own beast—a minefield of behavioral modifications that drives us further away from the heart of God and toward a weird kind of idolatry: Loving God’s law more than God himself. And, in this case, it’s not even God’s law—it’s human law erected to protect God’s law.
“I’m simply suggesting that I have a tendency, like the Pharisees, to love the hedge more than the treasure the hedge is commissioned with protecting.“
While I often proclaim a peculiar freedom that comes with Christ-following, I’m certainly not advocating a free-for-all where law and the consequence of breaking the law are rendered obsolete. Quite the opposite. I’m simply suggesting that I have a tendency, like the Pharisees, to love the hedge more than the treasure the hedge is commissioned with protecting. The coffer more than the gold.
Christian doctrine works on two levels:
It describes reality. We look to the Scriptures to understand the reality in which we are living.
It acts as a hedge. We use doctrine to protect us from saying some really stupid or inaccurate things about God.
The first is relatively uncontroversial. Christians are bound by confession to agree with the first statement. The second, however, is slightly more complex. Christians like to point their fingers at the Pharisees, saying, ‘You are adding law to Law! You are obscuring the singular message of the Gospel in Christ!’
But, really, couldn’t we be susceptible to the same charge as it relates to the Gospel? I’m a Lutheran by tribal affiliation … lovers of grace, justification, freedom, and hops. Yet too often we carefully construct our own security system around the doctrine of justification with such intent that we won’t even entertain the possibility of obedience’s place within the system. How many times have you heard a pastor/DCE/youth guy/teacher teach about good works only to offer the ever-present caveat: ‘Let me be clear. I’m not saying that your good works earn salvation...’ Apparently, in the absence of the caveat, we’d do something reprehensible like preach about the vital link between God’s act in Jesus and our response in obedience.
We are so paranoid about this (albeit, true) additive about justification through Christ alone that we don’t know how to talk about obedient discipleship with anything that resembles the all-encompassing, all-demanding claim that Jesus makes on us. After all, he still demands the taking up of crosses and the selling of all things and the seeking first of the kingdom and the doing the commands of God and the upping the ante in the Sermon on the Mount and other hard stuff like that. Grace comes at the foot of the cross, the last thing we see in our failure to live up to God’s standard–not as an immunity card that gets me out of the call to discipleship in the first place.
It makes me wonder how many times I’ve worshiped the doctrine of justification rather than the God who justifies.
 Paul speaks of the same ‘tradition’ in Galatians 1.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. 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.