Month: February 2017

The Banality of Miracles

Of what use is a miracle-worker in a world where miracles can be readily manufactured?

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space-X, recently commented on the future of human capability by arguing for the merging of humans with machines in order to avoid becoming obsolete. He speaks of this as an inevitability, not as a distant project more likely framed in terms of science fiction. This is very much … well, fact.

In the short term, Musk argues that the emergence of driverless cars—once dismissed as a Disney-like dream—will dramatically increase the convenience for the average person’s travel schedule. I was once the direct beneficiary of one of these technological miracles of science.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Lasik vision correction procedure, the entire surgery takes about 5-10 minutes per eye. The ophthalmologist uses some numbing drops on your eye (didn’t know my eye could feel stuff, actually) and employs a strange foam piece to force your eyeball open, Clockwork Orange-style (not quite). Everything proceeds swimmingly. There are light flashes and weird sounds but no discernible discomfort, no cause for fear. That is, until you hear the following words from your doctor’s mouth, ‘Okay, Joel. For this next step, your eye will be open but you won’t be able to see anything.’

And that’s precisely what happens next … you are consciously aware that your eyeball is indeed open, but no light is coming in. It’s black. For a panicky minute or two, Lasik patients are completely blind.

Eight minutes later, I was walking out the door of the surgery room when my doctor said, ‘You can put your eyeglasses in that box over there. You’re not going to need those for the next forty years. See you tomorrow for your check-up appointment!’ In less time than it takes to get your food at a Macaroni Grill, I left the world of annoying contact lenses and blurry morning interpretive exercises (‘What does the alarm clock say? Is that a 5 or a 6?’).

It was a revelation. A modern miracle.

My Lasik experience has cast a new light on the sight miracles in Scripture. Perhaps the most famous is found in John 9, when Jesus encounters a man who was blind from birth. Mud, spit … voila! … his sight is restored.

I know, at least in a trifling way, what it means to go from blindness to vision. I can imperfectly empathize with the helplessness, the utter reliance upon the others in my life, the lack of self-determination. Jesus’ healing touch removes the blindness, the fear, and the isolation—and yet provides a new identity, a palpable joy that overwhelms the former beggar.

Perhaps we should hail Lasik (and other modern miracles of science) as similarly liberating, but I’m afraid that the flip-side to that particular coin isn’t pretty. This is not to say that these awesome procedures aren’t useful or truly remarkable ways to promote human flourishing. Rather, there are some unintended consequences that, I believe, are just now revealing themselves and being aware of them could be of great benefit.

Today, the miraculous is no longer particularly noteworthy. The fields of science and technology have afforded the average person an astonishing array of capabilities once thought to be the realm of science fiction—with an emphasis on the word, fiction. We carry with us the ability to contact most anyone in the world, research just about any topic in the world, and do it from a device we can comfortably keep in the back pocket of our Levis. Miracles come cheap. About $600.

Is the by-product of our human miracle-making an inevitable de-mystifying of our Savior? In other words, has the present age made our Lord and Savior’s command of the natural forces of this world somewhat commonplace? Banal?

Christianity today suffers deeply from a self-inflicted, domesticated view of Jesus, a view where he’s comfortable, friendly, and chiefly responsible for giving us a foundation for moral living. This kind of Jesus is entirely non-threatening which allows some deeply mistaken church bodies to claim that Jesus is one of them—he came to Earth so that you could be wealthy and influential. He came in order to justify your every whim because he’s always sided with the outsider, whoever that outsider might be. It’s enticing. And entirely non-biblical.

Jesus resists domestication. Just when we think we know him, he offers a stern rebuking to the proud. Or, conversely, he offers mercy to those who, for all intents and purposes, should be rightly considered guilty. The comfortable Jesus is not an allowable option for us to hold. No God-man who commands the forces of nature could allow such comfort, for when people saw his divine power, they often asked him to depart. After all, Peter beheld Jesus’ divine abilities after a miraculous catch of fish, then says, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ (Lk 5:8).

Just when we think we know him, he offers a stern rebuking to the proud. Or, conversely, he offers mercy to those who, for all intents and purposes, should be rightly considered guilty.

We don’t quite know what to do with miracles…even as believers. American Christianity often turns to one of two extremes: Skepticism or Challenge.

In the first option, we allow ourselves to accept the Jesus that we assume we know, but reject the Jesus that does not fit within our preconceived notions of what a Savior is and isn’t. Call this the Nazareth Option. In Luke 4, Jesus basically shakes the dust of his feet and leaves his hometown, saying, ‘No prophet is accepted in his hometown.’

Surely I would have done the same if I was a member of the Nazareth community. After all, I may have learned the Torah with Jesus at a young age, played with him in the streets, shared meals with him. When he formally opens up his ministry of teaching and makes a case for his unique sense of authority authenticated through miraculous signs, I would have been incredulous, too. No, Jesus, I’ve seen you blow your nose. You are not the Son of God.

The Nazareth Option refuses to see the Jesus of divine authority because it threatens an individual’s ability to be self-worshiping. How can you, Jesus, call me into account?

The second option has a different beginning but the same ending. I call it the Pharaoh Option. Like Pharaoh in the Old Testament, this attitude doesn’t dismiss the possibility of the miraculous at all. Rather, like the Egyptian ruler before Moses, we submit Jesus’ miraculous acts to a challenge.

Since ‘miracles’ are so commonplace these days, we have the temerity to put Jesus on the defensive, saying, ‘Great miracles, Jesus. But my court magicians can do that, too.’ Jesus heals the blind man; we say, ‘That’s great. But we have Lasik.’ Jesus walks on water; we show him the floating city of the U.S.S. Enterprise. What’s left is the same exact position: apotheosis. We elevate ourselves to the level of the divine. We become the arbiter of whether or not Jesus’ miracles are worth our attention; whether they are worth more awe and praise then we give ourselves.

I’m guilty of both of these extremes. I’ve made the miraculous historical event of the Incarnation just another story—like a common table prayer that comes out as a collection of syllables rather than the genuine request for Jesus to ‘be our guest.’ Too much familiarity … not enough awe.

As Christians strive to be light and salt to their communities, perhaps we might be wise to remember:

  1. Miracles were not the reason Jesus came, but by a singular miracle Christians have hope. New Testament healings and exorcisms were authenticating marks on the Son of God, but his purpose transcended them. He came to save. He did it through the cross and empty tomb.
  2. The central problem of today is the central problem of ever. We still want to be god. All the technology in the world will not overcome our lust for sin; it will just complicate how our lusts get satisfied.
  3. When technology becomes the source of that which is good and the ultimate defense from that which is bad, we’ve made it into a god. A simple truth, catechism-style.

 Technology walks a fine line, and we walk right behind it. We all want the latest innovation, but deep down, we know that techs often nudge us toward the edge of some uncomfortable moral ledges. If we remember that humanity’s main problem is technology-proof, then we stand ready to place our hope in the God who stands outside of technology. If we don’t, well, we’d be like the Lasik patient: Eyes open but can’t see.

© 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.

Oh, the humanity!

I’ve shed tears exactly two times in the last six weeks. Ever since these two moments, I’ve been trying to figure out if and how they are connected.

Moment Number One:
New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik, Iceland. My wife and I had the extraordinary opportunity to knock a biggie off the bucket list—to see the northern lights. During the initial months of planning, I ran across a random travel blog that was singing the praises of Reykjavik’s New Year’s Eve celebration. The city party, so I was told, would put all other New Year’s celebrations to shame. Okay, Iceland. Bring it.

Normally, a festive New Year’s celebration consists of small pockets of fireworks for the hour or so before midnight, then a 15-minute firework show that builds to a 90-second crescendo, the highly anticipated finale. Iceland, by contrast, followed a more ‘aggressive’ schedule:

4pm-9pm: Shoot off a bunch of fireworks in random areas of the city.
9-10pm: Go to your local neighborhood bonfire and watch more fireworks off the water.
10-11pm: Go home and watch the annual New Year’s special TV show. (It’s what Icelanders do)
11-1145pm: Walk outside and see more fireworks than you’ve ever seen before in your life. Coming from everywhere.
1145-1155pm: Double that amount.
1156pm: Consider for a moment how all other fireworks shows are going to be disappointing henceforth.
1157-1215pm: The finale. Think missiles being launched in 14 different directions from 50 or more launch sites (all within a hundred yards of where you’re standing) for about 20 minutes straight. No regard for propriety or sleeping puppies. More light and sound than I can possibly imagine. It was awesome … I was full of awe.

Somewhere around 1145pm, before the finale, my eyes were watering—and not just because it was 25 degrees outside and smoke was everywhere. I was emotional.

Moment Number Two:
About two weeks ago, the season’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament was coming to a close, the Australian Open. The men’s final featured arguably the two greatest men’s tennis players ever to play, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. During the pre-match telecast, the producers cut to their 2009 final in which Nadal beat Federer in an absolute classic—not the first time they were the two lead characters in a magnificent drama [1]. During the post-match interviews before the crowd, Federer is stuck. He simply cannot say anything—a mix of intense fatigue, disappointment, confusion at losing when he played practically perfect. His wife, Mirka, watches intensely from the stands and has the look of a devastated soulmate. I watched this re-run with tears in my eyes:

I’ve seen this 3 more times in preparation for this post, and folks, I’m in tears every time.

I’m not so much interested in Federer here. I’m utterly fascinated with the crowd. What provokes their enthusiastic reception of this beaten and clearly emotional mega-athlete?

Consider that when a person speaks to other people and gets emotional—the usual reaction from a those gathered is almost always somber, silent, focused, and sympathetic. But in the above moment, the exact opposite happens. It’s raucous. Celebratory. It’s as if the crowd defies the reality of the moment. This is not a defeat, the crowd shouts. This is a victory in deep disguise and we are going to reveal it as such [2].

So what’s the connection?

. . .

These experiences draw me deeply into the human experience–victory and loss, defiance and understanding. For the former moment (Iceland), I was witnessing far more than a giddy pyrotechnic display of color and sound…though I was certainly witnessing that. The subterranean reality was that, even in the midst of cold and darkness, life was breaking through. It’s Cindy Lauper showing up in a BMW commercial unexpectedly.

I was caught up in the emotion of God’s creatures celebrating something profound: life itself. Usually, our celebrations are limited to life’s achievements. This, however, was a celebration of human identity … that simple living is the outright defiance of humanity’s greatest and final enemy, death. I’m sure I was the only one thinking theology in an island-nation not exactly known for its intense confessional piety—but the joyful affirmation of life was there, nonetheless.

In one sense, the Christian narrative was subtly reinforced.
From the stark landscape of bleak beauty, vitality will explode.
From the stump a shoot will emerge.
Where death appears to have taken root, life unexpectedly grabs a foothold.
The occupied cross transforms into the empty tomb.

Perhaps the imago Dei in men and women occasionally breaks forth into song and color because it can do nothing other. Like a latent seed, wedged deep in the cracks of a dry desert bed; it only needs water to sprout and bloom. After all, if men and woman remain silent, will not the very rocks themselves cry out?

Where death appears to have taken root, life unexpectedly grabs a foothold.”

With regards to Moment Number Two, there is something remarkable that the human condition is one of striving. Federer’s crushing loss wasn’t viewed as a defeat. It was quite the opposite. Somehow the crowd moved closer to Roger in its collective reaction, knowing a story without having to say it out loud. The story? That man strives. That the risk of pursuing something remarkable often ends in disappointment but the person is better for the journey.

These events, these moments make us emotional because they connect us to something far greater than ourselves. Sometimes we cry because it feels hopeless; other times, we cry precisely because we hope. C.S. Lewis once wrote, ‘It may even be said that it is by [properly-taught emotions] that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal’[3]. Part of the parental duty is to teach a young child how to properly channel their sentiments and emotions—to be able to recognize that some things are, in fact, beautiful and worthy of praise. In other words, a child can be taught to react well to real, objective beauty or excellence … and these reactions are not just simple feelings.

At this point, we may have reason to be nervous. Our theological selves might be coming into conflict with our experience of everyday living. When I suggest that it is deeply human—even, perhaps, beautiful—to witness an act of human striving, it’s easy to slide down a dangerous slope and say that God’s chief aim for humanity is to seek out the transcendent by effort. This is a complicated way of saying that a man, as a function of being a man, must perform something as a central feature of his identity. Yet the Christian message steers us away from such conclusions: God mends the relationship, God offers his full self, God imparts us with Christ’s identity. This is certainly true.

But I suggest that there has to be some sort of theological vocabulary for the great struggle and achievement of man that allows for the measured applause of said struggle without descending into a theology of glory. We can and should be able to embrace the totality of the life we have been given–which includes all sorts of arduous journeys–without wagging a finger at those who empathize, encourage … even admire. To be human is to err, for certain, but to be human is all we can be because we are creatures. As creatures, we necessarily reflect the dignity and purposes of the Creator. As creatures, we cling to the cross so that his victory might shine through our shortcomings.

I sincerely hope it’s possible to be a theologian of the cross and yet still recognize the presence of God’s masterwork in other human beings. Such hopes bring me to tears.

[1] The duo played a year earlier in the 2008 Wimbledon Final. The match has been widely considered the greatest tennis match ever played. Rafael Nadal beat Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
[2] Interestingly enough, the 2017 Final turned out to be another instant classic. This time, Federer beat Nadal, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper, 1974), 25.

© 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.