Well Met, Jude: Mann & Mantel

img_2666

I’ve been reading David R. Helm’s Commentary¹ on Jude while finishing up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. She’s a gifted writer is Mantel. Her incisive yet poetic imagination will send chills up your spine. And Helm unfolds his commentary with a literary feel that many theologians sadly lack.

I began the first book in Mantel’s trilogy just as the last book, The Mirror & the Light, was being released in March. It had taken Mantel more than fourteen years² of research and writing to complete what she now calls “the central project of my life”³: a project charting the rise and fall of the man best known for masterminding Henry VIII’s break with Rome and ushering in the Protestant Reformation in England.

Cromwell was a complex man whose history is a dark shroud relative to his contemporary’s, the gentleman-born Thomas More of whom much hagiographia exists. So to recover Cromwell, Mantel dug into the many records of his time preserved in libraries and royal court records. She also dug into her imagination to fill in the blanks of his early life working at the forge as a blacksmith’s boy in Putney to working as a clerk with the merchant bankers in Antwerp, before finally being mentored by Cardinal Wolsey who was himself the son of a butcher.

EavCEN_XkAYWRex
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein (1533)

The trajectory of Cromwell’s life as a self-made man who rose to become Henry VIII’s right-hand man and the architect of Tudor policy reverberates to this day. But the rise from commoner to courtier was hard-won. And one thing that Mantel makes clear to the reader is that the past is ever at Cromwell’s elbow: the bellowing voice of his alcoholic father and the feel of his hard fist, the ditches and marshes and hardships of a runaway, the gaze of a dark-eyed lady in Antwerp, the capable steps of his beloved wife, Lizzie, who died of the plague and the disconcerting contradictions that were his two daughters (Anne and little Grace) who died from it the very next year, Wolsey’s silk-clad presence replete in adroit political coups, counsels and strictures, all ghosts that walk the halls of Austin Friars, his London home.

Though the noblemen around him scorn it, he never forgets his history. Neither does Mantel let the reader forget: each line of Cromwell’s history is seen through his eyes and written solidly in the present tense. The reason is very purposeful. Our history would look very different for us now if not for Thomas Cromwell, our present altered past recognition.

During these current days of political and social unrest, one thing remains clear. We cannot have a clear understanding of the present if we don’t remember our history and what has shaped it. History can’t be ignored with impunity. It lies beneath us like unseen geological strata and walks among us peopled by ghosts from the past.

Many thousands of years have passed since Eve took the bite out of the apple but she’s close among us reminding us of that moment every day, the maelstrom of guilt, shame, and  judgment that was pronounced. Each time we bury a loved one, each time we sit by a bedside at a hospital, each time we read of disasters and wars, or see riots and fires and mobs in cities, the twin shades of Adam and Eve pass through our midst. They initiated the rebellion against the rule of God in our world.  We have been driven out of Eden with them. We have birthed our Cains, Abels, and Seths.

220px-Blake-Abel
The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve by William Blake, 1826

In his Commentary, Helm points out how conscious Jude is of history as he writes to churches under threat not only of persecution but false teachers. The admonitions and commands in the twenty-five verses that comprise the letter are laden with historical references to events and people, even angels, but not as if they remain in the past, but because they are witnesses to the present.

Much like the novelist Thomas Mann in his masterwork Joseph and His Brothers, Jude too, says Helm, is conscious that figures of history are never dead. They walk as “ancient archetypes” coming to life again, going by different names, working the same mischief, dooming themselves and others to destruction. They are warnings to us as well as examples. And they must be heeded because they are given to us for just that purpose in the scrolls and manuscripts and records on which they have been preserved.

After his greeting “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ,” Jude says he found it necessary to write “appealing to you to contend for the faith” because “certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God …” (Jude 1-4). “Long ago” is for Jude as “this” day, a past event and a present danger indicating the same downfall. And so he parades the ghosts of apostates before us, making no distinction between them and the current false teachers, declaiming, “Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain in Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11), as if living apostates are the walking dead and damned.

Time, you see, condenses in the present. The dead are among the living.

from Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (1999) qtd. in Helm, pp. 303-304

History is that which has happened and that which goes on happening in time. But also it is the stratified record upon which we set our feet, the ground beneath us; and the deeper [we] go down into the layers that lie below and beyond … in our moments of less precision we may speak of them in the first person and as though they were part of our flesh-and-blood experience.

Deep-sunk in musing, yet mightily uplifted, was the soul of Jacob in these days when he with his brother Esau buried their father; for all past events stood up in him and became present again in his flesh according to the archetype; and to him it was as though the ground beneath his feet were transparent, consisting of crystal layers going down and down without any bottom and lighted up by lamps which burned between the layers. But he walked above them among the experiences of his proper flesh, Jacob, present in time, and gazed at Esau, who likewise walked again with him according to his archetype and was Edom, the Red.

from Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light (2020), pp. 38 & 64

Austin Friars was a small place once: twelve rooms when he first took the lease for himself and his clerks, for Lizzie and the girls, for Lizzie’s mother Mercy Prior. Mercy has now entered into her old age. She is the lady of the house, but she mostly keeps to her own part, a book open on her knees. She reminds him of an image of St. Barbara he saw once in Antwerp, a saint reading against the noise of a construction site, backed by scaffolding and raw brick. Everybody complains about builders, the the time they take, the mounting expense, the noise and the dust, but he likes their banging and thudding, their songs and their chat, their shortcuts and secret lore. As a boy he was always climbing about on somebody’s roof, often without their knowledge. Show him a ladder and he was up it, seeking a longer view. But when he got up there, what could he see? Only Putney.

Now Austin Friars begins to shape like the house of a great man, its front lit by oriel windows, its small town garden expanding into orchards. He has bought up the parcels of land that adjoin it, some from the friars, and some from the Italian merchants who are his friends and live in this quarter. He owns the neighbourhood, and in his chests…he keeps the deeds that have divided, valued and named it. Here are his freedom and titles, the ancient seals and signatures witnessed of the dead, witnessed by city wardens and sergeants, by aldermen and sheriffs whose chains of office are melted for coin, whose corpses rest under stone. … History inks the skin: it writes on the hide of sheep long slaughtered, or calves who never breathed; the dead cut away the ground beneath us, so that when he descends a stair at Austin Friars, the tread falls away under his foot, and below him there is another stair, no longer visible except in the mind’s eye; and down it goes, to the city where the legions of Rome left their ashes beneath the earth, their glass in the soil, their bones in the river. And down it plunges and down, into the subsoil of himself, through France and Italy and the pays bas, through the lowlands and the quicksands, by the marshes and the meadows estuarine, through the floodplains of his dreams to where he wakes, shocked into a new day: the clang of the anvil from the smithy shakes the sunlight in a room where, a helpless child, he lies swaddled, startled from sleep, feeling as if for the first time the beat of his own heart.


¹David R. Helm, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude, Crossway Books, 2008
²https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/05/22/final-book-hilary-mantels-wolf-hall-trilogy-will-finally-published/
³https://www.npr.org/2020/03/08/813384354/the-mirror-and-the-light-author-says-trilogy-is-the-central-project-of-my-life#

 

Love and Fear in the Believer

The_Denial_of_St._Peter_-_Gerard_Seghers_-_Google_Cultural_InstituteThe Denial of Saint Peter, an oil-on-canvas painting by Gerard Seghers, dating to around 1620–1625 and now held by the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Mark 14: 66-72

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Continue reading “Love and Fear in the Believer”

Two Churches, Two Sermons

I had the unexpected experience of receiving two sermons this past Lord’s Day, one at my home church and one in another. From the pulpit of my home church, the sermon on  Psalm 145 was deeply rooted in the gospel,  biblically & doctrinally sound, encouraging believers to persevere in faith secure in the love of God, looking always to “Christ Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”

At the second church, the real sermon was not from the pulpit. Somehow, the reading from Jeremiah had managed to become a springboard for a political screed. Then maudlin lyrics in support of the political issue were sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace”!

Continue reading “Two Churches, Two Sermons”

O Christian, In Whom Do You Trust?

In my lifetime of walking with the Lord, I have met many weak Christians and a few mature ones. The latter always catch me off guard, so humble are they that it’s sometimes easy to miss them. I would like to think of myself among the latter but I have to live with myself and know better. So I keep praying for wisdom.

In general weak Christians fall somewhere between two extremes: those who carry their doctrine into the world in order to preach it or those who leave their doctrine at home in order to conceal it. The first group tend to be legalists and the second group antinomians.

The legalists take their doctrine and shove it in people’s faces, much like the Pharisees. So the biology professor who is a legalist will continually enter into disputations about creationism versus evolution, and make sure that everyone knows how doctrinally pure he is. He professes his doctrine but notably fails to live it. He keeps to the letter of the law and doesn’t live up to its spirit.

The antinomians take their doctrine and keep it closeted in the private sphere, so that their dealings in the world are indistinguishable from those of non-Christians. They compartmentalize their lives to such an extent that they freely transgress and justify their worldly-mindedness by claiming freedom from the law.

What both categories of weak Christians share is a distrust of God and a high degree of trust in themselves. The legalists are performance-based, trusting in their own works not God’s work on the cross and through the Spirit in them. The antinomians rely on their own partaking of the grace of God through the cross to complacently forego their reverence of His law in every aspect of their lives.

Neither one places her full confidence in God. And by so doing they fail to trust in Him at all. The Gospel is a tool or a plaything, to be used at will, not a way of life. One eye is on Christ Jesus, the other on circumstances.

A mature Christian is not so double-minded. She has relaxed her claim to herself, and committed herself wholly as a “living sacrifice” to her God and Savior. There is no holding back of anything. And she brings nothing but herself to the Cross to which she clings. And in her life “now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).

Whom Do You Serve?

1024px-Temptations_of_Christ_(San_Marco)
The Temptations of Christ, 12th-century mosaic at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

The world tells us that our identity is always in flux and applauds those celebrities that “reinvent” themselves to achieve greater success. Someone who is “evolving” into whatever is touted to be accepted modes of thought and behavior can expect to be embraced by her peers in the workplace and rewarded by society.

But is this relativized approach to identity of ultimate benefit? Even humanists can see the pitfalls involved for the individual. As Jung put it, “The world asks you every day who you are, and if you don’t know, it will tell you who you are.” One of the most famous maxims the ancient Greeks gave us is “Know thyself.” Continue reading “Whom Do You Serve?”

“Happy Bubbles”

Take a moment to enjoy a little Blender-created movie for the young and young at heart on this merry Christmas Eve as I wish all my beloved readers a blessed season of hope and renewal and joy. 

If you happen to have a little one around who likes dragons, here’s a little Christmas present they might enjoy. “Happy Bubbles,” a fantasy (very) short movie. Hope you enjoy it. …

Source: “Happy Bubbles”

Dark Times, Unwise Words, and Hope

If you live in the world long enough, you will go through hard and painful times when, as the Psalmist writes, darkness seems your closest friend. The atheist and the Christian alike cry out, “Why?” Yet even when you know the answer is the fallen world in which we live, there is no satisfaction but what we most desire: help, release, escape from our anguish and circumstance, those things easily cried out for but often bitterly delayed.

As with Job, there seems no shortage of counsel to be got from trusted sources. “Offer your sufferings to God,” says one. But what does that mean? “Our hope lies in heaven, think on that,” says another. But does God then deny us help on this side of heaven? “The real miracle today is faith; the miracles of the New Testament have ceased and were for the early church.” But is that scriptural? Then the counsel most often given: “Pray and believe in the promises of the Bible.” But which ones, whose interpretation, and to what extent? 

It’s the last piece of wisdom that troubles the most. If you are one of those least prone to truncate scriptural promises by rationalization, prepared to be as a child looking to the father, this one should give unmitigated hope:

The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. — James 5:15-16 (CSB)

But prayer, when uttered in the darkness, feels hopeless after many a cry and many a month or year has gone by:

I am like a man without strength,
abandoned among the dead.
I am like the slain lying in the grave,
whom you no longer remember,
and who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit,
in the darkest places, in the depths.

… But I call to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer meets you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face from me?

— Psalms 88:4-6, 13-14 (CSB)

Faith, even as it’s being tested, seems too feeble to do the job. The very struggle seems designed to undermine what little there is so that, like the man who came to Jesus pleading for his son’s deliverance, we are even inclined to doubt out Lord’s willingness or even power. We judge His resources, His compassion, by ours which lag behind to an infinite degree.

But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.”

Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief! ”

— Mark 9:22-24 (CSB)

So where does that leave us? Not with the unwise words of comforters who say “yes & no” to the imperishable faith in God’s very present help. Not with words at all. After all, the last words of that most bleak psalm are, “Darkness is my only friend” (88:18). Yet the sense of hopelessness, even in the psalmist, is deceiving. There is hope. A glorious one.

The man who cried, “Help my unbelief!” was helped because he was looking straight into the face of Jesus. So too must we look not at ourselves or at the unwise words of our counselors who muddy up the waters of scripture according to their own doubts and fears, but to One who is the Light in our darkness.

As God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes and no.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you ​… did not become “Yes and no.” On the contrary, in him it is always “Yes.” For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in him. Therefore, through him we also say “Amen” to the glory of God.

— 2 Corinthians 1:18-20 (CSB)

Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

— James 1:12 (CSB)

A Tale of Job For Today

Here’s a retelling of the story of Job imagined in today’s context that will make your hair stand on end. For one thing, it’s not the way you would expect Job’s trials to go when instead of Job losing all he’s got, he gets all he wants. A tale retold, it may be, but make no mistake, it’s all strangely familiar. But not in the ways you may be expecting.

JOB: A FAIRY TALE OF GOD, SATAN, AND US
by K.D. Azariah-Kribbs

Once upon a time, there was a man called Job. And one day, Job bought a lottery ticket.

Now, Job did not do this thing because he was a lazy or a greedy man. Job simply felt, as many do, that he should be provided for without having to labor and earn his bread by the sweat of his brow when there are so many who have so much more than they need.

So Job slipped some money from his wife’s purse, and before she could ask him where he was bound, he let himself quietly out the door, went to the store at the corner, and bought the ticket.

And immediately and quite strangely, the simple act of buying the lottery ticket made Job feel that things were now somehow changed. Of course, he did not know whether he had won the lottery or not. But somehow, the sun seemed brighter and warmer when he came out of the store.

***

Now, at this same time, the Heavenly host had assembled to present themselves before the Throne of God, or at least all those were gathered there who cared to come.

For there are always those who, given the choice, prefer to remain in Hell.

And Satan, who at this time still occasionally appeared before the Throne of God, came to call. Satan always made sure he arrived late to these gatherings so that he could make something of a grand entrance. He ignored the angels standing to attention on either side of the great golden archway and pushed open the massive doors of living arcwood bound in black iron and strode before the Heavenly Hosts in a great dark cloud of sooty flame and sulph’rous black smoke, the brazen light of his entrance reflecting in wavering sheets of fire from the golden pillars beside him and backlit by the magnificent lapis lazuli sky far behind, for he knew the beauty of gold and fire set against deep blue and utter black, and in Hell he never got to display himself in such a way, for there is no sky in Hell.

Read the rest in Mysterion: Job: A Fairy Tale of God, Satan, and Us or via the author’s site.