Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Scandal of the Gospel

[I'm supposed to be on a self-imposed break, but the muse has grabbed me, at least this one time.]

Today, while walking around the lovely university campus at which I'm temporarily employed, the Gideons were out handing out their trademark little green New Testaments. The Gideons are non-confrontational, merely standing there while making it clear that they have free New Testaments to hand out to whomever is interested. On a personal note, a fellow parishoner of my former church when I lived out in CA, a full professor of chemistry was an avid Gideon, and it was an indirect inspiration at that time some 8 or 9 years ago to see a man of the physical sciences not only believe the Christian faith, but to believe it and appropriate it to the point where he desires to share it with others, even in the hostile setting of a public university campus.

While walking to and fro the campus coffeehouse, I saw a Gideon, a black man in a blue suit, standing in the middle of the walkway --- unobtrusive but yet hard to miss. As I walked near him, he offered me a NT, at which point I stated that I have one, have read it, and --- this is most important --- I believe it. "Where shall we go? You have the very words of life."

But I noticed something. Students and other campus pedestrians were avoiding this man as if he was Typhoid Mary.

What is rather striking about this is that in the campus quadrangle, you have various student group kiosks, tables, and pamphleteers peddling their free literature. You have lesbian groups, Catholic groups, racially-defined groups, liberal groups, conservative groups, etc, each entering the marketplace of ideologies and ideas. People may ignore, say, a Scientology person or a LaRouchie, but they don't self-consciously alter their paths to bypass them.

Yet with the humble Gideon and his free copies of the NT, the students I saw [and I saw plenty] self-consciously avoided him, and, in a manner reminiscent of what happens when two identically-charged rods are placed together, seemed to be repelled by this non-threatening man. If he were handing out literature on other things, he may not have been successful, but people wouldn't be swerving out of his path.

This only reinforces the idea that Christianity is, despite our intellectual efforts and learnedness [necessary things, to be sure], a scandal. This is not a subjective opinion; that Christianity in its purest essence is a scandal and offense and stumbling stone is what Christianity claims for itself. The people were swerving away from the Gideon because his very presence was a scandal to young college students: here is a man testifying to eternal and objective verities, verities that cannot be relativized, merely dismissed and mocked. The students were ashamed to be seen with this man: "What would I do if my friends saw me next to a guy handing out Bibles?"

What do we believe? In contradistinction to the reigning ideologies of today --- materialism, metaphysical naturalism, Marxism, Epicureanism, libertinism, etc --- we hold that man is not an infinitely malleable creature who can, through the correct application of human agency, make himself intrinsically and objectively better. We hold to the truth that man is, in his very essence and not just in the manifestations of his essence, lost to a degree of utter finality and helplessness. We hold to the truth that man stands before God utterly condemned, unable to meet God's requirements. We hold to the truth that God, being God and perfectly good, cannot in any meaningful away abide evil nor let it go unpunished.

But the scandal does not end there. We hold to the truth that God has punished evil through the person and work of His Son --- God in the person of His Son became incarnate [somehow] and took our sins on His physical person on the cross [somehow]. We hold to the truth that [somehow] the Son of God rose from the physical dead.

All of these are scandalous not only to the modern mind, but, I daresay, to any Christian who really tries to think about the basics of the faith. These truths --- uncomfortable as they may be --- are all contained clearly in the little green New Testaments that the Gideon was passing out.

Those few students who didn't swerve out of his sphere, when he said that he had free NT's, acted as if he had just propositioned them or asked for a handout.

Yes, the gospel is a scandal. I have trouble believing it myself at times, not in the sense of doubting the veracity or trustworthiness of the accounts, but in believing that our redemption was accomplished in this way, in this fashion. The notion of God-men and the actual physical shedding of blood having [somehow] something to do with our standing before God seems positively barbaric, messy, and out of keeping with a cleaner and purely metaphysical spiritualizing of the faith. My Christianity would be cleaner, purer, akin to a proof of a mathematical theorem. But then my Christianity would not be Christianity, but a man-made deception that could only hope at most to have a few accidental commonalities with objective reality.

But at the same time, the scandal makes sense. How can God be God if He does not fully punish sin? How can God be merciful [as He claims for Himself] if He in fact does punish sin? How can God "be just and the justifier of the ungodly" at the same time without violating either man's dignity as a free and accountable creature nor His absolute sovreignty, not to mention His very nature? This riddle is solved by the cross: for at the cross God punishes sin fully, affirming His nature as One who is perfectly holy and cannot abide what is antithetical to His nature. At the cross, God affirms His claim of being merciful, for in the person of His Son, God bears His own wrath. I do not understand the mechanism by which my sins are somehow forgiven by a Jew being tortured on a tree, but the cross is the solution of the system of equations that constrain what God must be and what God as revealed about Himself.

But in the end it is a scandal. This is a useful reminder when I look at my bookshelves full of scholarly commentaries and philosophical works and think of Christianity as "just another" metaphysical system or worldview, albeit a system or worldview that happens to be true. Christianity is not just another worldview. Go to a trendy cocktail party or dinner and observe the repulsion when you say that you are a Bible-believing Christian; compare this to saying that you're a Jew or atheist or [insert name here]-ist or "a seeker of truth" or somebody who views the quest for truth more importantly than the truth itself. My experience is that the worlds "Bible" and "Christ," etc, have a chilling effect that other words don't have, though I can't claim any universality for this phenomenon.

The thing is, if this were 1993, I would've avoided that Gideon like the plague as well. Not because of any deep metaphysical objections, but because the very presence of the Gideon is a testament to the mere possibility that there are eternal verities and absolutes out there that cannot be abrogated by the latest trendy self-help guru on Oprah or a good three-hankie cry whereby I express my sensitive 90's-guy side.

But, somehow, despite reasonable resistance, God would not let His call to me go unheeded. While scripture is quite clear that man cannot come to God, nor does man desire to come to God, at the same time, our coming to Him feels to us as if we were the ones who initiated it all along. While it was the agency of God in the person of the Holy Spirit who awakened me, the phenomenon felt as if I was consciously choosing to do so on the basis of the exercise of my own free will.

Oh well, I wonder how the Gideon did, and I wonder just what happened to those NT's that were handed out...


Blogger Ronnie said...

I'm glad you interrupted your break to post this. It was simply beautiful!

Thursday, October 13, 2005 5:24:00 AM  
Blogger centuri0n said...

I just wanted to mention that you are my favorite Lutheran, PP. All kidding aside (and you can imagine how hard that is), when you connect, you hit the upper deck.

Thursday, October 13, 2005 6:17:00 AM  
Blogger The Clinging Vine said...

Powerful post! The image of that Gideon patiently standing there whilst people averted their eyes and altered their course to avoid him will be with me for a long time.

And I'd have been one of 'em not so many years ago.

Praise God for His mercy!

Thursday, October 13, 2005 7:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done. I am the Gideon. 25% of students in the USA take one. 100% take one in the other 179 countries where the Gideons hand out Testaments on campuses. The fields [over there] are ripe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 2:00:00 PM  

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