Remember those fundamentalist Chick Publication comics back in the day? They were designed by and for Fundamentalist Rapturists to scare the hell out of (and the heaven into) anyone who read them. Haven’t read their new stuff, but back in the early 70’s growing up they worked, let me tell you! And they were brilliantly done:
A recurring theme of Chick Publications was just how bad things were getting – just like it was in Noah’s day. How bad? Real bad! One signal that the end was probably nigh was a surfeit of Don Draper look-a-likes, smoking, drinking expensive whiskey and dancing with hip-looking bosomy girls. Disgusting eh? Which all means that Jesus should have returned – or ushered in the Rapture at least – by 1964 (though with the popularity of HBO’s Mad Men, mid-century modernism is back with a vengeance, so who can tell?).
A previous blog post of mine was accused by several people as a “the sky is falling” rant. As if my observation that Christianity will be quickly and forcibly removed from the public square was the equivalent of Chick Publications for the new millennium. The only change being, what with same sex marriage and all that, Don Draper look-a-likes are marrying each other, with nary a hip-looking bosomy chick in sight.
The technical term for “the sky is falling” is a narrative of decline. Things are going to appear to get really really bad for Christians before Jesus comes back and the seismic cultural shifts we are experiencing is proof. Don’t believe it? Read Christian history – it’s been a hard narrative to shift down the centuries.
Leaving aside the fact that it’s been pretty bad for most Christians outside the West for some time, this narrative of decline does not fly, despite what conservatives think. And marriage is a case in point. Let me explain why:
Jesus said a lot of things about marriage; has been made to say a lot of things about marriage; and has had a lot of things said for him about marriage that, if he’d only known better, he himself would have said. Here’s one thing he actually DID say about marriage:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matthew 24:37-41).
Here’s my point: the sky is not going to fall, Jesus is going to peel it back!
Understood correctly, Jesus’ comment about the “days of Noah” do not indicate how dreadful the world of Noah’s day was and how much in need of judgement it was, but how unprepared the world of Noah’s day was when judgement actually came. It’s not a narrative of decline at all, but a narrative of surprise.
Jesus’ words are written in the context of Matthew 24, which is an apocalyptic passage, a genre of biblical writing and language that reveals – peels back – the curtain to reveal unseen spiritual reality going on behind the scenes.
Our preoccupation with current affairs has forgotten this unseen reality. What are we tempted to see in this passage? Marriage, because it’s a buzz-word. Yes, but what kind of marriage? And to who? When? How many were involved in the marriages – two, three, four? A non-human person such as a dog? Was it civil or religious? Were religious people even permitted to do marriage ceremonies anymore? I need to know. I need to use this in my blog/article/argument/best man’s speech/sermon tomorrow about how bad things are getting.
But Jesus isn’t on about marriage per se is he? Of course not. Any more than he is concerned with what people were eating and drinking at the time of the flood. And let’s not forget, food and drink were buzzwords in Jesus’ time. Was it kosher? Did they drink alcohol? How often? Was it fish on Friday? (Theological anachronism surely?! – Ed) Was it free-range/GM/gluten-free/had it been offered to idols? If anything the food question was more controversial, a far more slippery octopus (c.f Mark 7) with tentacles reaching far into the early church (Romans 14).
Now that we’ve gotten THAT out of the way, here’s the real concern of the passage: Not that people were marrying and giving in same-sex or heterosexual marriage, not that they were eating too little and drinking too much, but THAT THEY KNEW NOTHING UNTIL THE FLOOD CAME AND TOOK THEM AWAY!
There’s no narrative of decline in what Jesus says at all. Two men working, one taken away in judgement and the other left. Two women grinding grain, one taken away in judgement and the other left. Sounds like the economy was ticking along nicely, thank you very much – then Boom! Say what you like about judgement – it’s not gender specific.
That, says Jesus, is what it is going to be like when the Son of Man comes, meaning his own glorious return in judgement at the end of the age. Life will seem so normal. People will be getting on with whatever, and then Boom! A friend of mine wrote these perceptive words this morning:
For Christians, marriage is important but not ultimate. God – who is love and invites humans to experience his love – is ultimate. In a world without God, marriage love comes to be seen as ultimate and those who deny marriage to others are seen as denying to fellow humans something that is ultimate. We erred when we asserted, implied or acquiesced in the idea that marriage is ultimate.
When we read Genesis 6… “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”
…we think narrative of decline. The Bible however speaks narrative of Fall. A sharp severing of the life-giving relationship between God and humanity by Adam and Eve. A world without God! And in such a world the only things that can be ultimate things are created things. We see Noah’s day and think Chick Publications, but Jesus sees Noah’s day and sees complacency, a craven desire to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, a constant decision to make an important thing the ultimate thing.
And that, Christian, is our problem. We still can’t fully believe that what Genesis 6 says about humanity, is what Psalm 14 say about humanity (all have turned away, there is none righteous, none who understands, none who seeks God), is what Romans 1-3 repeats about humanity, is what Revelation 9 says about humanity:
“The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (Rev 9:20-21).
The crime of the 21st century is the same crime as every other century: A futile attempt to make important things, ultimate things. And insofar as Christians have, unwittingly or otherwise, given the impression that marriage is ultimate in acquiescing to what Miloslav Volf calls the withered goal of human flourishing in the West – the satisfied self as our biggest hope – we have been complicit.
The sky won’t fall with the passing of same sex marriage laws. Children may not suddenly feel like they are missing out on a parent (many do as it is anyway), despite our fears/hopes that they will. Thai women may or may not be used by rich same sex Westerners to harvest babies. Hey, we may even find that federal laws WON’T discriminate against Christians. Who knows? Besides, there’s enough other toxic stuff out there to create a narrative of decline with apart from what happens with marriage. There’ll be enough people just to the right of our screens who, when the Son of Man comes, won’t have been eating or drinking because they can’t afford to.
Our charge, according to Jesus, is not to look to the sky, in order to watch if it falls, but to watch they sky expectantly, waiting for him to peel it back, for it’s there that our ultimate hope lies.