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There and Then, Here and Now, Where and When? A Few Keys to Understanding Prophecy

Moses© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino

Articles, essays, chapters, books – even commentaries have been written about biblical prophecy. Amidst the plethora of “stuff” about prophecy, some basic characteristics of prophecy have become unknown to most Bible readers. Consequently, most of prophetic scripture is at best a puzzle, at worst an excuse for sensational speculation that discredits not only the speculator, but, sadly and unfairly, the Bible itself. When fictions like the Left Behind series sell 50 million and the few contemporary commentaries stay in print only a few short years, it is no wonder. Here are a few foundational keys to understanding biblical prophecy.

Two basic mis-assumptions plague most people’s unsuccessful attempts to understand prophecy. First, many people think prophecy is the same thing as fortune telling or divination. They think of the ancient Greek customs such as the Oracle of Delphi when they think of prophecy. The Oracle of Delphi was a young “chosen” woman who sat above a smoking fissure in the rock at the Delphi temple, chewed bay leaves, and experienced an ecstatic state that manifested in incomprehensible speech in response to an individual’s specific inquiry of the gods. Then a priest in the temple “interpreted” the message and gave it to the inquirer. The questions and answers were always specific to the individual and the time.[1] For example, an inquirer might ask whether the gods would bless a particular business deal, or whether a particular courtship would be successful. Many people who experience a false “gift of prophecy” misunderstand prophecy in this way. Instead, the bible gives us a picture of prophecy that is rationally received and delivered, is one hundred percent accurate, and involves God’s eternal righteousness, judgment, and mercy.

Oracle of Delphi

Second, many people think prophecy is only or at least primarily about future events regarding God’s interventions in human history. This misunderstanding fuels most of the sensationalistic fiction and non-fiction(?) literature glutting the shelves of most Christian bookstores. This misunderstanding lies behind many Christians’ fears that we are living in the “terminal generation,” the “last days,” that will see worldwide, cataclysmic events in which millions – even billions – of people will suffer and die immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming. Instead, the biblical examples give us a picture of prophecy that focuses on the eternal covenant between God and man, ratified and fulfilled in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. While at first glance biblical prophecy may seem to cover thousands of events and principles, at its core biblical prophecy is simply concerned with God’s eternal salvation plan in his Son.

End of the World

After we lay aside these two common misunderstandings, we can look at what the Bible says about prophecy and understand much more than we once did. There are many books that we recommend on this subject, including Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics, and William Biederwolf’s The Millennium Bible.

The biblical prophet is one who is called by God to give inspired teaching and preaching. He (or she) is primarily a forth-teller and only secondarily a fore-teller.[2] In fact, when one actually analyzes the prophetic passages and books of the Bible, it is evident that fore-telling is a minor part of the prophet’s burden from the Lord. When we understand this important distinction, much of the Bible becomes suddenly more easily understood. It makes sense, then, that Moses is called the greatest of prophets except for Jesus (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Acts 3:22; 7:37), even though we think of him primarily as the liberator and law giver of Israel. It makes sense that Jesus linked Moses with the prophets who spoke of him, God’s Son (Luke 16:29-31; 24:27, 44). We can understand the words of Philip, who told Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

TRANSFIGURATION

This emphasis on forth-telling is verified by analysis of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. There are five “Major Prophets,” books representing four authors (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations – also written by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). They are called the major prophets not because they are the most important, but because they are the largest in size. There are twelve “Minor Prophets,” so named not for any lack in importance, but for their relatively smaller sizes.

When we analyze these 17 books, we find that the vast majority of the texts do not refer to the future at all. Instead, we find the same exact theme often repeated in each book: the story of redemption. This simple story includes that God created us perfect and provided us with everything we needed for perfect life in him. We rebelled against him and earned his righteous judgment and condemnation. Because of his infinite love for us, his mercy and grace, he did not leave us in our sin but provided reconciliation for us in his Son, so that by responding in faith to the power of his gospel, we can repent, be reconciled to God, and enjoy the presence and power of God in this life and for the future (John 3:16-21).

king-jesus

What do we notice about this timeless story of redemption? Comparatively little of it has to do with the future: it is primarily concerned with the past (God’s creation, our fall), the present (God’s judgment delayed by his mercy through Christ), and the immediate future (will we respond in faith believing or continue in unrepentant rebellion?). The far or final future (enjoying God’s presence and power into eternity) is merely the culmination of the first three “time” elements in the story. In fact, every prophet in most of his (or her – Miriam, Deborah, for example) prophecies includes these four time referents: past, present, immediate or near future, and far or final future. This is what we would expect.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 gives us the first test of a true prophet of God: even if what he says comes to pass, if he encourages us to worship a false God, or to worship God falsely, he is not to be believed. He is a false prophet.

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Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the second test of a true prophet. (This immediately follows Moses’ declaration of a coming “prophet” who would be greater than him – 15-18 – we know him as Jesus Christ cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37.) In this test we are told that if what the prophet says is going to come to pass does not, then he is a false prophet. While Miss Cleo and her band of dollars-by-the-minute psychics repeatedly fail this test, in the Old Testament, to have even one prophecy not come to pass disqualified one from being a true prophet of God. If it were the case that a substantial part of a prophet’s message was concerned with the far or final future (events hundreds, even thousands of years after the lifetime of the prophet), how could the trustworthiness of a prophet be established? For this test to have any reliability, it must have been the case that an overwhelming portion of the prophet’s messages had to have been about times his hearers could test – the past, present, and near future.

When we analyze the Old Testament prophets, that is exactly what we find. Isaiah, for example, spends most of his time talking about the past. He talks about how Israel had a covenant with God but repeatedly broke that covenant, both while united and by Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) after the monarchy divided. He talks about many other nations that practiced idolatry and ignored the Lord God Almighty. He talks about how God had already brought judgment against these other nations. All the nations failed to repent and thus deserved God’s judgment.

Isaiah
Isaiah spends the second greatest amount of material talking about the present. He points out all the areas of sinfulness, rebellion, unrighteousness, idolatry, and social injustice in Israel and Judah. He points out all of the examples of God’s patience and mercy, withholding judgment even though it would be just because of Israel and Judah’s rebellion.

Isaiah talks at length about the near future: if Israel and Judah do not repent, God will bring well deserved punishment, judgment, and condemnation on the nations for their continued rebellion. If, however, Israel and Judah repent, God will withhold his judgment and restore the kingdoms to the power and blessings of God. In fact, Isaiah says, both Israel and Judah will refuse to repent. First God will allow Israel to be destroyed as a nation and its leaders taken into captivity because of its greater sinfulness and as a final example to Judah. This all happened during the course of Isaiah’s ministry. Everything Isaiah said about these time periods (past, present, and near future) was tested by his contemporaries (using Deut. 13 and 18), and Isaiah was proved to be a reliable prophet of God.

Once Isaiah had been proven a reliable prophet of God, his listeners were willing to suspend judgment on the comparatively little he says that would occur after the end of their own generation. Isaiah spends comparably less time speaking about the far future. In that time, Judah will fall to foreign destruction just as Israel had already. This judgment of God will last seventy years. Judah will finally repent and beg God for forgiveness. God will extend his mercy and grace to Judah through the pagan king, Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to their land, rebuild the temple, and restore their kingdom. This happened within less than two hundred years of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Finally, Isaiah spent the least amount of time speaking about the final future – the time when the entire earth, all of humanity, will be affected eternally by God’s redemption plan in his Son, the Messiah: those who believe and repent will be resurrected to eternal life; those who continue to rebel will be resurrected to judgment and condemnation. This final future time began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and will conclude with Christ’s Second Coming for final judgment and the reconciliation of all things (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The redeemed inherit eternal life, the unrepentant inherit eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).

The next time you stumble across prophetic portions of Scripture, don’t despair or throw up your hands in confusion. It’s not as mysterious or cryptic as contemporary sensationalists make it. Remember that the prophet always talks mostly about the past, the present, and the near future. Certainly he talks the least (and sometimes not at all) about the far future (after his own generation) or final future (the completion of the redemptive story).

[1] See Colin Brown, gen.ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Volume 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, 75ff.
[2] Colin Brown, Dictionary Volume 3, 74-92.

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The Bare Bones of Noah’s Story

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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My virtual mailbox has been crowded with questions about the movie NOAH that opened March 28 2014. I haven’t seen it. I’ve read a lot of reviews, some from people I respect in the arts, the Bible, and/or theology. It was the first place box office winner for its opening weekend, pulling in more than $44 million in US ticket sales. It remains to be seen whether it can maintain that level of popularity, but that’s not my focus here. This is all I’m going to say about the commercial success or failure of the movie.

Many others have commented on the cinematic license taken with the literary text. This doesn’t bother me, since movies almost always take significant liberty with an underlying written text. What works in words may not work at all in visuals and the opposite is usually true, too. I understand the movie misses the great story of redemption foreshadowed in the story, the sinfulness of humanity, salvation by faith, and God’s redemptive faithfulness to the world He has created, including the humans He has created in His image. I also understand there is quite a bit of environmental gospel in the story and that at some points humans are characterized as the enemies of God’s natural world. This is all I’m going to say about the biblical or non-biblical story line of the movie.

Tree Hugger

My focus here is on some of what is absent from the biblical story. I will address some of these significant absences from Genesis chapters 6-10 here.

God's Romance

First, the foundational assumption for biblical interpretation is to understand the main theological theme of the passage and use that to govern all interpretation. The main theme of Genesis 6-10 is not environmentalism, evolution, or human stubbornness. The main theme is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story: that sinful man, judged and condemned in Adam, is nevertheless loved and redeemed by God’s own work by His Spirit in His Representative (Son), and transformed into His fruitful Spouse. Noah is both Adam (the sinner) and Christ (the chosen One). The flood is God’s judgment. The Ark is God’s rescue (Christ on the Cross). Noah’s family and their progeny are the Church, the People of God. The dove and the olive branch are the signs of the renewed and redeemed creation. The sacrifice after the Flood is the Memorial of God’s sacrifice on our behalf. Absent are doctrinal side issues that distract us from this main redemptive theme.

I’m not “allegorizing” the “plain meaning” of the Bible. I believe in the complete accuracy of the Bible as God gave it and meant it to be understood. When the Bible is recording history, it is accurate history. When it is recording science, it is accurate science, etc. But underlying and overarching every kind of text (historical, scientific, poetic, epic, narrative, metaphorical, etc.) is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story in part or in whole, in type or anti-type, in anticipation or remembrance. Once we fix this theological bedrock in our interpretive framework, many of the questions we ask of a particular text are completely irrelevant and it is no wonder they are not addressed exhaustively (if at all) in the text.

Have you ever tried to relay an experience to someone and he or she keeps interrupting you to ask irrelevant questions? Maybe you want to talk about how somebody cut you off on the freeway and only God’s grace saved you from causing a fatal five car pileup. Does it really matter what color the offending car was? Or what was being advertised on the billboard next to the freeway? Or what was in your fast food meal that spilled all over the seat and dash when you slammed on your brakes?

Let’s look at the story of Noah from a similar perspective. If the main story is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story, does it matter if the entire geographical globe was flooded or could the “whole earth” mean the whole area occupied by humans? Our theological bedrock requires the second, but the first is irrelevant to the theology.

If the main story is redemptive, does it matter if Noah and his wife or his sons and their wives had other children who were or were not taken into the ark and saved from the Flood? Theology teaches us that all have sinned (even Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives, and any other of their descendants) and that all of us deserve judgment (flood). All of them deserved to be condemned in the Flood and none of them deserved to be saved from the Flood.

If the main story is redemptive, then any who were saved from the Flood were saved by God’s mercy and grace, by the redeeming sacrifice of His future coming, dying, and rising Son. Yes, it says Noah “found favor” with God, “walked faithfully,” and was “found righteous.” But remember our theology: we find favor in Christ, we walk faithfully in Christ, we are found righteous in Christ. Our salvation and rescue from judgment is not derived from our seeking God’s favor or creating our own faith or doing righteous acts: our salvation and rescue from judgment is derived from Christ’s perfect representative life, death, and resurrection. He is the one who is favored by God, who is faithful, who always acts righteously. Our favor, faith, and righteousness are products of our salvation, not generators of our salvation. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were saved in spite of the fact that they were just as disfavored, unfaithful, and unrighteous as everyone else (including any other family members who may have lived then). They were saved in spite of their sinfulness, not because of their sinlessness.

Absence

Second, a sound principle of biblical interpretation (indeed, all literary interpretation) is that one must not presume that absence of evidence presented is evidence of absence. Confusing? Here’s an example: If I were to say “I worked on an article today,” that simple statement wouldn’t be evidence of absence of any other activity I did today. In the same way, if one gospel says “one angel was at the tomb” on Christ’s resurrection day, that isn’t evidence against another gospel’s “two angels were at the tomb.” (In fact, if you have two angels, you always have at least one angel.)

Let’s apply this to the story of Noah. For example, I’ve been asked, if Noah were really 600+ years old, and his sons were also old, then how could it be that neither Noah and his wife nor his sons and their wives had any other children? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think Noah had other sons, and unreasonable to think he had no daughters, including not a single daughter who was “righteous” as his three sons were? If you read the five relevant chapters of Genesis carefully, you will not find any text excluding Noah or his sons from having other children, either before the Flood or while they were on the ark. The point of the story is that God chose eight individuals from among the sinful class of all humanity to rescue from his Flood judgment. Any other descendants or siblings are irrelevant to the theological point of God’s selection of certain individuals for saving from the Flood. Remember, this is an event that points us to the Main Event. Whether “true believers” drowned in the Flood is irrelevant: the drowning of a “death-doomed body” (Romans 8:11) is a tiny calamity compared to that same person’s eternal life and final resurrection life in a resurrection body.

God's Work in Us

Third, absent from the Genesis story of Noah are works that qualified Noah or his family members to receive God’s rescue from the Flood. Noah built the Ark, preached God’s coming judgment, gathered the animals, and put his family inside after God chose him, not in order to be chosen by God. Noah’s obedience was a consequence of his salvation, not a means to attain his salvation.

Yes, Noah “found favor” with God (Genesis 6:8) and was saved from the Flood even though he was a sinner. Just as Mary “found favor” with God and was chosen to bear the Son of God even though she was part of sinful humanity. And just as Job “found favor” with God, who restored him to “full well-being” (Job 33:26). Job did not earn God’s favor, God blessed him with His favor as an application of his grace and mercy long before the historical time of His Son’s sacrifice. Look at the sequence in Psalm 84:9-11. In verse 9, the psalmist asks God to look “with favor” on His anointed One (the Messiah). In verse 11, the psalmist rejoices that God looks “with favor” on “those whose walk is blameless.” Who is blameless? Only One is actually blameless: Jesus the Messiah who took our sins on Himself on the cross and rose from the dead, the “firstborn” of all those saved (Luke 2:52). The psalmist and all others of faith (whether before, like Noah, or after, like Peter, Paul, and Christians throughout all ages) find “favor with God” by being “in Christ.” (See especially the term “in Christ” or “in Him” in Ephesians 1.)

Yes, Noah “walked faithfully” (Genesis 6:9), but this was accomplished by God’s work in His Son, not by anything Noah accomplished on his own. Remember, Jesus is the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Paul argues (Romans chapter 4) that Abraham was saved, not by works, but by faith, noting that he was “declared righteous” in Genesis 15:6, before he had done any works, that is, before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24).

Summary

In summary, there are features significantly missing from the biblical account of Noah (Genesis 6-10) by the Holy Spirit’s design to keep our focus on the glorious story of redemption it depicts and prefigures. Absent are side issues like the precise geographical extent of the Flood or whether rainbows ever appeared before the Flood. Absent are designations of whether anyone else in Noah’s generation inherited eternal life either after drowning in the Flood or after being included but unmentioned in the Ark. The Ark event is an earthly example of a spiritual reality: the Flood stands for eternal judgment; drowning stands for eternal death; living in the Ark stands for salvation; landing on the mountains of Ararat , offering a sacrifice, and planting a vineyard stands for God’s renewed creation and fulfilled kingdom.

There are other significant absences in this event and in the rest of God’s Word. The absences are not meant to withhold God’s Gospel from us, but to focus us on His Gospel. The Word of God is given to us, not to satisfy our every idle curiosity, but to display God’s Great Redemption. Second Timothy chapter two declares that the Word of God is “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Discovering God Through Stories

Fireside Fairytales

© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino1

I love stories. I become lost in other people’s worlds. I devour good fiction voraciously, returning to the same wonderful story again and again, marveling each time at the tantalizing power of human creativity. Truly wonderful characters become almost as real to me as people in the “real” world. A gripping suspense story starts my heart pounding, my palms sweating, and my nerves ready to jump at any sound. If I must put down a half-finished intriguing mystery, I find my thoughts straying from my work to the puzzle, looking at it from one angle and then another, bringing my mental tools to bear to solve the mystery when I should be meeting deadlines. Some of the most profound personal and spiritual insights I’ve ever experienced have grabbed me from the pages of a story. In exquisite story telling I see the creatorial image of God reflected in authors who create worlds of ideas never pondered before. As a spiritual novice and a moral ingénue I encountered and came to understand faithfulness, integrity, courage, humility, and self-discipline through good characters; and betrayal, deceit, cowardice, pride, and self-indulgence through evil ones. I can’t count how often God has sneaked up on me in a powerful story, and taught me lessons I wouldn’t have willingly learned had he been so obvious as to challenge my stubbornness directly through a Bible study. My actual conversion to Christ came through a fairly ordinary encounter with the straightforward gospel, but the Holy Spirit softened me beforehand through literature, and nurtures me long after through the same manner.

I’ve used outstanding stories to share some of my most important beliefs with non-Christians who would never listen to an overt preaching of the gospel, but who can be enticed by a good story into thinking for the first time about life after death, justice, morality, and redemption. Mainstream, popular contemporary fiction — if it’s good — is a valuable tool of pre-evangelism, seed-planting, “soft” apologetics.

One of the best pro-life books I’ve ever read is Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss.2 Remember the story from your childhood? Horton the elephant finds a speck of dust on which is a village of little persons, the Whos of Whoville. Horton realizes he must rescue the Whos “Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The rest of the animals scoff and refuse to believe persons could be so small. But Horton can’t give up. He recognizes the moral responsibility he has, “I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they.” When the black-bottomed bird flies off with Whoville, Horton chases after him, crying, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!” In desperation, Horton urges all the little Whos to shout as loud as they can so the other animals can finally hear them and realize they exist. No one hears anything until finally the last little Who joins in with a “Yopp!”

Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover

Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.

And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean? . . .

They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”

Now, I don’t mean to imply that Dr. Seuss was a pro-life Christian, or that he intended this children’s story as a pro-life statement. Nevertheless, Horton Hears a Who reflects how truth can be recognized even by unbelievers, as Paul stated in Romans 2:15, “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness. . . . ”

Christian author John Fischer describes the importance of using the story to communicate the absolute truth, in today’s society of relativism, where “absolute truth” is rejected in favor of what he calls “truth anarchy”:

What happens to the Christian apologetic in such a world? How do we explain what we know as absolute truth to a generation that cannot even think in terms of such a thing? . . . .

Story. Narrative, novel, film, music, art, but tell a story. As in the parables of Jesus, we intrigue the modern mind through story and entice them to start thinking differently. Through story, one can encounter a world where absolutes are true even if one does not believe such a world presently exists, and in the process, the soul can unconsciously hunger for what it knows to be the truth but is culturally and intellectually being denied.3

We don’t need to spell out the entire gospel message in block letters to provoke some serious soul-searching. A local Southern California mystery novelist and newspaper columnist, T. Jefferson Parker, recognizes the power of a good story, “I like a sense of danger and a sense that in the book that I’m writing, life and death are the issues as opposed to financial solvency or cocaine problems. I want large things to be at stake.”4 In one of his columns, he focused on the meaning of life in only a few words of contemplation. He recounted the true story of a local teenager who was convicted of killing his friend over a robbery dispute. The convicted murderer, Robert Chan, “wrote in letters to the court that he had read Albert Camus’ The Stranger some nine months before the murder and claimed that the book encouraged him to kill his victim because ‘everything [is] meaningless and nothing matters because we are all going to die.'” Parker notes that he read the same book some twenty years earlier when he was a teenager, but responded differently:

Rereading Chan’s words . . . I was struck by how close he was to the mark, and at the same time how far away. Because we are all going to die, he reasons, everything is meaningless and nothing matters.

But the truth is: Because we are all going to die, nothing is meaningless and everything matters.5

A carefully crafted, compelling protagonist in an outstanding story provides not only a creativity reflective of the one true Creator, but also a prototype of a person redeemed to the creatorial position for which God originally intended us. In an imaginary conversation between mystery writer Dorothy Sayer and the protagonist of her classic Peter Wimsey stories, these two themes are echoed,

“Perhaps you’re right in a way. Perhaps I did create in you the man I couldn’t find in this life. But it was not for some subliminal and sordid satisfaction. It was to show the world the type of man required for the satisfaction of a modern, unfettered, educated woman. The awful, unattainable goal to be achieved.”

“And yet, if I may be allowed one more immodest observation, you achieved it,” Wimsey said softly.

“In art, Peter.”

“It is no less of an achievement for that. It is no common soul that can shape the world to its own ideals, no matter that the world it masters is a fiction. And no common reward awaits the creators of this life. However modest their creations, each echoes the larger work.

‘The glory of Him who moves all things soe’er

Impenetrates the universe, and bright

The splendour burns, more here and lesser there.'”6

Mysteries and horror stories lend themselves particularly well to sowing the seeds that make us vulnerable to the gospel. In a way, the good mystery or horror parallels the story of redemption: Everything is right in the world until evil intrudes and spoils what it finds. After searching, recognizing clues, and chasing suspects, redemption comes as good triumphs over evil and the world of the story is restored by justice. Jewish mystery writer Majer Krich recognizes this parallel, “Judaism in general deals with good versus evil in the Biblical sense. . . . [M]ysteries deal with good versus evil. Period.”7 Horror author William Relling (Brujo) agrees, “The essence of horror stories’ ‘scary stuff’ lies in a struggle between good and evil. I believe that, in fiction, good has to win. Otherwise we’re in trouble.”8

The best contemporary fiction can promote godly morality with subtle persuasion rather than brash revivalist preaching. Jewish mystery writer Faye Kellerman’s stories feature an orthodox Jewish couple, Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, whose deep faith seems a natural part of the story. In Sanctuary, on the trail of diamond thief murderers, Rina visits the “Cave of the Pairs” in Hebron, the traditional site of the burial of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Adam and Eve:

It smelled like a compost pile of rich, decaying vegetation, as if the shrine echoed God’s very words — for dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return. . . . These people weren’t fairy-tale characters or mythological creatures, they were real people. And like all real people, they had lived, and they had died.9

The Jewish sholdier guarding the site later explains how he knows Rina is not an Arab terrorist in disguise:

“I see with my own eyes that you’re a good woman. Because I followed you in the Ma’arat. I saw the tears in your eyes when you prayed, the expression on your face when you davened shemona esreh. I saw you mouth the words with clarity, with assurance, with purpose and meaning. Your posture, your sincerity. It shows through as if you have a window to your heart. You pray to a God of mercy, not to a God of revenge. Many pray here — Arab and Jew. I don’t think you’re a crazy fanatic. And I don’t think you are an Arab spy, either. Many try to pretend to be us to infiltrate. They speak our language, eat kosher food, drink our wine, and love our women. But they cannot love our God.10

Novelist Elizabeth George, without intruding sermonizing, but within the natural rhythm of the story, explains the forgiveness of God in the words of a parish priest consoling young Maggie Spence:

“If the Lord’s last words were, ‘Forgive them, Father,’ and if His Father did indeed forgive — which we may be assured he did — then why wouldn’t He forgive you as well? Whatever your sin may be, my dear, it cannot equal the evil of putting to death the Son of God, can it?”11

Verteran mystery writer Dick Francis doesn’t preach celibacy in Driving Force, but his protagonist understands its sad consequences: a young daughter, the unintended product of a physically enjoyable but uncommitted relationship, growing up with no knowledge of him as her father; and a recognition that sex is a poor substitute for being loved:

The older I grew, the more I saw consequences in advance and the more I cared . . . about not doing damage for the sake of a passing pleasure. I looked back over the years with horror, sometimes. After I’d lost Susan Palmerstone I’d drifted in and out of several relationships without understanding that I might have awoken much deeper feelings than I felt myself; and I’d dodged a thrown plate or two and laughed about it. How dreadfully long it had taken me to stop grazing.12

One of Francis’ most poignant stories is of a security consultant, whose loneliness is drawing him seemingly inexorably toward suicide. Gene Hawkins has no significant reason to live, and it takes all of his fortitude to resist ending his life: “The day-to-day social level had lost all meaning and underneath, where there should have been rock, had opened a void of shriveling loneliness.”13 The despair plagues him throughout his search for stolen race horses in company with an insurance agent who seems to possess all the meaningfulness, love, and family security Gene so desperately lacks. The temptation to end it all pierces the prose with an authenticity that speaks to the heart of anyone who has been close to self-inflicted death:

I shut my eyes, and the desolation went so deep that for an unmeasurable age, I felt dizzy with it, as if I were in some fearful pitch-black limbo, with no help, no hope, and no escape. Spinning slowly down an endless shaft in solitary despair. Lost.

The spinning stopped after a while. The internal darkness stayed.14

In the end, the contented insurance agent, Walt Prensela, saves Gene’s life by throwing himself in front of the suspect’s speeding car, and Gene rails at the unfairness:

It should have been me lying there, not Walt. I shook with sudden impotent fury that it wasn’t me, that Walt had taken what I’d wanted, stolen my death . . . . It would have mattered so little if it had been me. It wouldn’t have mattered at all.15

But finally Gene understands Walt’s sacrifice and turns away from suicide forever:

The gray day turned to gray dusk. I got up and switched on the light, and fetched two objects to put on the low table beside my chair.

The Luger, and the photograph of Walt with his wife and kids.

The trouble with being given a gift you don’t really want is that you feel so mean if you throw it way. Especially if it cost more than the giver could afford.

I won’t throw away Walt’s gift. . . . . I’ll survive.16

Not the gospel, in so many words, but a striking parallel to Jesus’ “greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

One of the most gripping suspense stories I’ve ever read is also one of the most spiritually and emotionally wrenching. T. Jefferson Parker’s Summer of Fear twists together two story lines to illustrate his theme of the triumph of good over random evil: a crime journalist, Russ Monroe, follows the unfolding story of a sociopathic serial killer slashing his way through a Southern California summer as the journalist anguishes over the invading, destructive brain cancer that threatens his wife, Isabella. It is also a story of exquisite soul-searching, a story where what ultimately matters is at stake.

Early in the story Russ recognizes the effect of the Fall on nature, “the way that nature can go so quickly from order to chaos. The popular notion is that nature’s world is ultimately ordered and systematic, that only man’s woeful intrusions can ruin that balance and harmony. This is not true. . . . the natural world isn’t neatly ordered, isn’t flawless, isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is just like our human one: angry and yearning for mayhem.17

Monroe’s ambivalent faith in the face of his wife’s suffering rings true to anyone who has anguished over the suffering of a loved one:

God, help me love her more. God, do something good for her or I’ll cut your heart out with a chain saw and feed it to Black Death. . . .

Have you ever known helplessness while someone you love is suffering? Have you ever cursed God for what He has done? Have you ever felt your heart throbbing with so much love and rage that they get mixed up and you can’t tell one from the other?18

He comes to a crisis where he truly experiences for the first time that he is not invincible, that he can’t make everything right, that he is, in fact, powerless:

If fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, what is the beginning of fear? I have an answer, for myself at least. The beginning of fear is to understand that you are without power. I took me half a lifetime — 40 years — to realize this. Oh, I can hear the protestant brayings of those who are “taking responsibility for their own lives,” or “are God,” but I’m not talking about the mundanities of happiness, success, self-fulfillment, weight loss, life without alcohol, or who is okay and who is not. I’m talking about powerlessness in the face of death, in the face of life, in the face of madness, love, disease, desire, in the face of all things beautiful and terrible that govern our every moment whether we know it or not. And I am talking about the fear of truly realizing that your best may not be good enough, that it may, in fact, be very little good at all. To understand this is to become fluent in the language of terror, to become intimate with the contours of the pit. It is the wisdom of the man before the firing squad. But fear — true fear — is not a reason for anyone to do something so simpleminded as to surrender. No. The acts of the powerless are among the lasting nobilities of the race. To advance with a stomach knotted in terror is more than courage. Fear is beauty.19

From this courage in the midst of powerlessness, Russ longs for a new beginning, “[Did] you ever wish something big, like God, would pick you up by the heels with a pair of tongs and just like dip you into something wet, and when you came out, you’d be clean and fresh again?”20

Finally, he comes to terms with the fear, the anguish, the terror, and God, praying before his wife’s brain surgery:

Dear Father in heaven, I am small, corrupt, hateful, meanspirited and too much a coward to sin importantly. I am a fool. Hear my prayer. I know how you value humility, so I confess to all this to assure you I know my place in your order of things. I deserve nothing. I expect nothing. I will ask for nothing. But you are absent here, you ceded this earth to us, and there are some things you should know. We suffer. We cry. We toil. Sickness comes to us. Death moves among us with arrogance. We die, trembling, bound for unspecified destinations. Christ died for our sins once; we die for them again. His agony is over, but ours continues. Our anguish is real. Do you remember how it feels? I know that your design is huge, so I have stopped trying to understand it. In your larger hands, we leave the larger motions. My concern is this life you have given us. I am too stupid to believe it is only a prelude. I am too weak to be happy that there may be a reward at the end of it. I am too literal to believe that the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. This is the heart of this matter. Do not think less of me for holding dear the life you’ve given. I lied when I said I would ask for nothing. This is what I want: I want you to treat Isabella with respect. I want you to give me the love that I want so badly to have for Isabella in these coming days. Give it to me so I can give it to her. I ask to be your representative. Do not leave us without love. Respectfully submitted to you in this hour of need, Amen.21

***

Start reading good fiction. You’ll discover spiritual lessons you never would have expected outside the pages of scripture.

Since I wrote the above, I have explored hundreds – probably thousands – of imaginary worlds with novelists, the best transforming me into a better me when I close the book, the worst propelling the never-finished story against my bedroom wall to lie forgotten and broken on the floor. I edited these words as I prepared to give a talk about a popular fiction book that claims to tell the truth about Jesus and the Bible, but which does not. Not only does the book denigrate our Lord, in its poor fiction it denigrates the beautiful power that flows inexorably through good fiction and into a tender heart that longs to be transformed – even a little bit at a time – into the heart of our Creator and Sustainer. Frankly, I didn’t want to spend another talk or interview focusing on the inadequate. I wanted to focus on what raises our hearts from our own inadequacies to Christ’s overflowing adequacy through the transformation of meaningful stories.

Let God work subtly in your heart through stories. Check the authors I’ve quoted above and below. Keep searching until you find God in the middle of a story. You will find a new way of – to paraphrase C. S. Lewis – “getting God inside you so He doesn’t merely improve you, but transforms you.”

Remember, I am not saying these authors are Christians, or that the books I’m recommending are Christian books with clear gospel messages. But they are authors who – however brokenly – are reflecting the Divine image; and whose books will leave you a better person – and better Christian – than you were before. One of my favorite characters, flaws and all, is Harry Bosch, created by author Michael Connelly. Bosch has devoted his life to homicide investigation. It’s not his career. It’s not his job. It’s not what he’s good at. It’s not what he likes. (Although it’s all those things, too.) He does it because it’s his mission – his calling, the only thing that fulfills him. And he lives by the creed that unless everyone matters, no one matters. Isn’t this an echo of Christ, who told of the shepherd who searched for the one lost lamb; and who said concerning his death, burial, and resurrection, “for this purpose I was born”? Look for books and authors whose mission is ensuring that everyone matters – that’s God’s message of redemptive love.

Other Recommended Authors:

Andrew Vachss – his mission is to protect children from evil. He says, “I don’t claim to do what I do because I love children. I do what I do because I hate people that prey on them.” In another place he says, “Sickness is a condition. Evil is a behavior. Evil is always a matter of choice. Evil is not thought; it is conduct. And that conduct is always volitional. And just as evil is always a choice, sickness is always the absence of choice. Sickness happens. Evil is inflicted.”

Michael Connelly – whether it’s his Harry Bosch series or his stand-alone stories, Connelly is always about redeeming the lost from evil into beauty and life. In Blood Work,22 the main character, an FBI profiler retired to receive and recover from a heart transplant, must solve the murder of Glory for her sister Graciella – it is Glory’s heart beating in McCaleb’s chest. Is there a better analogy of the atonement? In a short story Harry is interviewing an inmate on death row, pleading with him to give him the identity of his last victim, a young girl never identified and thus never buried by her family. The killer says nobody cares. Harry says he cares. The killer refuses to tell. Harry tells the killer, “You’re going to burn. You are going to burn in hell.” The killer responds, “Don’t you know, Detective? You have to believe in heaven to believe in hell.” The problem of evil and the problem of good, all laid out in a few short lines of dialog.

Elizabeth George – British mysteries crafted with complexity and richness of character but, in my book, most powerful because her characters change and grow through difficulty and pain. In Well-schooled in Murder one main character, Deborah, having miscarried several times as she and her husband try to build their family, struggles with guilt over the abortion she had years before: “As they gazed across the expanse of their bed, Deborah took the full measure of how completely her past was obliterating whatever future was possible with her husband.” If only a young woman with an “unplanned pregnancy” could see the future Deborah experiences here!

And then there’s Dick Francis’s Proof, of inestimable value for someone struggling through the loss of a beloved spouse; or his Decider, one of the best arguments for free will I’ve ever seen demonstrated in story form.

And for middle school children, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, a series by an archaeologist filled with great first century Roman history, artifacts, customs, and life – and, more importantly, experiences with forgiveness and God.

Other authors I credit for some of my spiritual transformation include James Lee Burke, Donald Harstad (a great, subtle wit, too), William Bernhardt, Robert Crais, Deborah Crombie, Ian Rankin, Val MacDermid, Minette Walters, Bryce Courtenay (The Power of One), Peter Robinson, Archer Mayor, Bartholomew Gill, Ridley Pierson, and Michael McGarrity.

There are many more – enrich yourself with some and grow pleasurably in your leisure reading!

1 An earlier version of this appeared in Cornerstone magazine in 1995.

2 New York: Random House, 1954.

3 Bethany House Publishers UPDATE, “Author Spotlight,” February/March 1995, p. 2.

4 Dennis McLellan, “Turning to the First Person” in The Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1993.

5 Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1994.

6 Terence Faherty, “As My Wimsey Takes Me” in First Culprit: A Crime Writers’ Association Annual, Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin, eds. (New York: Worldwide, 1992), p. 46.

7 Robert Epstein, “The Mystery Woman Who Can Do It All,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1994.

8 Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1992.

9 Faye Kellerman. Sanctuary. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994, p. 295.

10 Ibid., pp. 296-297.

11 Elizabeth George. Missing Joseph. New York: Bantam Books, 1993, p. 88.

12 Dick Francis. Driving Force. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992, pp. 210-211.

13 Dick Francis. Blood Sport. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967, p. 2.

14 Ibid., pp. 267-268.

15 Ibid., p. 283.

16 Ibid., p. 309.

17 T. Jefferson Parker. Summer of Fear. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 1-2.

18 Ibid., pp. 41, 44.

19 Ibid., pp. 181-182.

20 Ibid., p. 225.

21 Ibid., p. 240.

22 The movie version with Clint Eastwood is nothing like the book in regard to its transforming values. Do not substitute the movie for the book. It would be like giving a Coke to a malnourished youngster when he needs the protein shake on your shelf.