Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Stakes

A good writer makes you care about his characters.

When you’re reading a novel, you are probably not consciously asking yourself at every moment, “Does this person I’m reading about really matter to me?” Being occupied with such questions takes you out of the story and defeats the purpose of the narrative. You simply find the characters likable or despicable, interesting or uninteresting, and on that basis you decide whether to continue reading.

Their motives matter, and what’s at stake for them matters, in ensuring that you remain engaged in the unfolding drama.

The Reader’s Responsibility

Not all that is down to the writer. The reader also has a significant responsibility for their own investment in what they are experiencing. If the reader is insufficiently attentive to what is taking place — if we scan-read or stop to make coffee or send replies to half a dozen text messages, or if we are simply dull — we’ll miss plot points, clues about character and critical information that affect our ability to understand what is going on, and therefore our intellectual and emotional investment in what we are reading. And of course it is often necessary to read all the way to the end of a story to find out why something took place or why a character reacted in a particular way. Without the information that comes later, we are left with an incomplete picture.

The Bible is no mere novel, but some conventions apply to almost all kinds of literature (unless we only read dictionaries and reference works). That’s a long and windy way of saying that even though I have read to the end of the story many times, I never really grasped why John is crying — and crying loudly — over the scene in heaven he lays out for us in Revelation 5. That’s my fault as an insufficiently attentive reader.

The Throne in Heaven

I mean, here John is observing the throne of God. He has seen elders and Spirits and mighty angels and living creatures of such a kind as no one (other than maybe Ezekiel) has ever seen. And now God, who is seated upon his heavenly throne, has sealed up a scroll with seven seals and holds it in his right hand. He then has an angel ask the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” to which the universe answers back with ... crickets. Thundering silence.

And John weeps and weeps loudly because no one in all of God’s creation was found worthy to do so.

The inattentive reader wonders why? What is John’s emotional investment here? Why does he care so much about a scroll? And for that we have to read on.

Back to the Garden

If we do so, we find that in the seven-sealed scroll is God’s answer to a problem that goes all the way back to the third chapter of Genesis, in which sin entered the world by way of one man’s disobedience. In the opening of the scroll, all of God’s righteous wrath against the wickedness of mankind that has been held in abeyance since the Flood is let loose in a series of righteous judgments. There is war and famine and conflict and pestilence, falling stars and vanishing skies. Every evil that man by his own free choice has inflicted upon his fellow man and upon the world God gave him comes back to him with a vengeance. The scroll judgments are the final, mouth-stopping answer to the question, “How could a loving God allow [fill in the blank]?” The answer is that he doesn’t and he can’t. One day there will be a final and perfectly just response from heaven to all the wrong that has been and ever will be.

But what could be worse than God unleashing his final judgment?

What could be worse is if he didn’t.

A World with No Final Account

What could be worse is if there was no final account to be given for sin. What could be worse is if God reclined on his heavenly throne and looked the other way forever as the powerful continued to prey on the weak, the rich continued to exploit the poor and the naturally advantaged endlessly terrorized the naturally disadvantaged. What could be worse is a world in which sin was perpetually winked at and never dealt with. What could be worse is an eternity of defiled consciences and hearts full of sin, selfishness and betrayal, a world in which the Tower of Babel crept ever higher while its venomous, prideful construction crew sank inexorably and unwittingly into a moral abyss of their own choosing.

Be assured that if that scroll with all its horrors were never opened, something infinitely more horrible would happen, and we’d do it to ourselves without any heavenly help at all.

On some level we know this. John surely did. He didn’t have all the information in front of him when he burst into tears, but somehow he managed to intuit that the absence of even one person in the universe qualified to stand in judgment on the rest of us is not a blessing but an unspeakable violation of all that is good, right and holy.

All the Tear Ducts in the Universe

As I have gotten older I have become increasingly cynical about every human institution. I read the daily propaganda spewed out by self-interested, deluded ideologues who masquerade as reporters. I take my cat or dog to vets and my children to doctors that are only interested in how much they can squeeze out of gullible pet lovers and parents. I watch the political machinations of governments that care only for the perpetuation of their own power and influence. I do business with cheats and liars and try with all my might to avoid entanglement in the bureaucratic nightmare we call the justice system. I watch scientists tell falsehoods about their discoveries and corporatists manipulate and misrepresent their findings to pursue their own greedy agendas.

And, if I am honest with you, I find the echo of their evil in my own heart and I find that the temptations to which they have given themselves over assail me every day of my life. And I realize, like John realized, that if there is truly nobody in all creation worthy to open that scroll and write the ending of this awful human story, then there are not enough living beings in this universe with working tear ducts to shed the tears that ought to be shed and that there are not enough creatures on earth with functional vocal cords to wail with John for the state of the world.

The Conquering Lion and the Slain Lamb

These are the stakes. This is why John began to weep.

Thank God there is a Lamb in heaven standing, as though it had been slain.
“And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ ”
Amen, amen, a thousand times amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

1 comment :

  1. I would call that skewed information overload. Every time I turn on the TV news I realize that I will hear about one to two dozen incidence of man's moderate to extreme unkindness towards their fellow men over the last 24 hours. I also realize that during the same time period hundreds of millions of people acted reasonably well and a lot of them even charitably. So I have learned to be skeptical leaning more towards the positive and knowing when to turn the channel knob and the ON/OFF button. As a matter of fact there are always perfectly innocuous and terribly boring shows and topics to watch or listen to that just don't deliver the needed adrenaline punch of the horror incidence. However, (and this is a big however) there is also the feeling that this mundane programming is hiding the real mission creep taking place quietly underneath a veneer of harmlessness negatively affecting the core of our society. And that is what is disconcerting that we are inexorably sliding towards a world where up is down, down is up, right is wrong and wrong is right and no one anymore knows the way out of this rabbit hole. And those who say they know will be slandered and crucified for saying so by those who prefer to live in this upside-down world.