Well Met, Jude: Mann & Mantel

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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.

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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.

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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”

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)

Absent in the Spring

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This morning I read chapters 12 through 14 in the book of Job, the words of a man alternately addressing God and his deluded comforters in the midst of his suffering. Immediately after, I read the first chapter of Luke. The juxtaposition of the two readings left a strange sensation, a net of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, the sunrise of salvation and the nihilism of pain.

Oddly, there came to my mind, Agatha Christie’s psychological novel, Absent in the Spring, and Shakespeare’s sonnet from which it drew its title.

Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Caught in the pain of loss, the poet’s world is colored by it. What used to penetrate his senses with beauty now sharpens the knife’s edge of absence. Everything is a shadow of what it once was or ought to be and he is deeply aware of it.

Not so the narrator of the psychological Christie novel. She is absent to her own loss, that is, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. For a brief time an awareness of her loss, her failure to “be there” for those she claims to love, all of life that she’s failed to see and missed, cuts into her consciousness. Her grief is almost unendurable and she is overwhelmed by regret. She determines to change and make amends. But the moment passes like a mirage in the desert heat. She returns to her narcissistic life “absent” once again, oblivious to the misery of those who need her the most.

The pain of loss absorbs Job’s consciousness. But he engages with God through it all. While his “comforters” try to justify his suffering, Job goes straight to the One who can get him though it. He will not “curse God and die” as his wife advises. He will not absent himself to his suffering. He will neither deny it nor flee from it. Instead, in his suffering he looks for God. He remembers who God is. He knows that whatever the season, the summer of abundance or the winter of loss, God is unchanging, steadfast in love and faithfulness and sovereign in power. This knowledge emboldens Job and shores up his hope so that he doesn’t fall into the despair with which Satan  tempts us during hard times.

It is the first chapter of Luke that puts it all in perspective. This is where Christ’s birth is announced. Zechariah breaks into a joyful song of expectation and Mary bursts into a paean of praise as her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Jesus’s birth breaks into history, the history of the world and our own personal history. His birth is pivotal to our understanding of temporal loss because His birth is the moment in time when the eternal becomes more real, more true, more present than absence caused by loss, whether the loss of health or loss through death.

His presence overtakes the absence. His reality in history, in the flesh, through His death and resurrection, overshadows everything. Eternity trumps the temporal. And by the word of God through the Holy Spirit we glean it daily as God who suffered here on earth suffers yet with us, making more real to us the glory that awaits us when we see Him face to face.

Praise God for that day!


Job 19: 25 (NASB)
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.”

2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Hebrews 2: 14-15 (ESV) 
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Awakened to a New Creation

They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darknesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but an equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings; but one equall eternity. Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an Actuall and undeterminable possession of that Kingdome which thy Sonne our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible Blood. Amen.

John Donne, 1627

A Mighty General Passes Into Eternity

In speaking of the passing of a fellow man of God, R.C. Sproul, theologian, teacher, and founder of Ligonier Ministries, said at the time,“A mighty general has fallen on the field, in valiant service to his Lord.”¹ Yesterday, R.C., as he was known to many, passed away and the same tribute can be paid to him. He labored to preserve the purity & simplicity of the gospel, and he was a great communicator of gospel truths. I am personally indebted in my spiritual growth to his many lectures on video (at ligonier.org) and his books (Knowing Scripture, The Holiness of God, The Consequences of Ideas, etc.). In the final line from his final sermon (11/26) on Hebrews 2:1-4, he said: “I pray with all my heart that God will awaken each one of us today to the sweetness, the loveliness, the glory of the gospel declared by Christ.”

Continue reading “A Mighty General Passes Into Eternity”

Sanctification Hurts, or When Lent is Life

Once when he was very young, I remember my son looking at me through the very real pain of getting a shot at the doctor’s and saying in surprise and accusation, “It hurts!” I was his mother. I wasn’t supposed to allow such pain, much less engineer it. In his dependance on me, it must have seemed like a betrayal. “It hurts me more than it hurts you,” I’d have liked to have said, but I don’t think he would have believed me, that I would have spared him if not for the ultimate good the injections promised.

Continue reading “Sanctification Hurts, or When Lent is Life”

The Two Witnesses, Olive Trees, and Lampstands

And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”

These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.

Revelation 11: 3-4

I long for the Lord’s return as does every disciple of Christ in heaven and on earth. So in anticipation we labor to understand John’s visions in the book of Revelation, visions that are couched in poetic form, heavy with imagery, rife with symbolism, and characterized by repetition. Truly, the eyes of our mind have to be opened by the Spirit of Christ to understand the Scriptures as once He did for the disciples before His ascension to show, as He said, “that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 14: 44-45).

If we understand that Revelation was given to us so that we may see the end of all things as being Christ’s final victory over death, the devil, and the world, we will see it is as a joyful summons to “Lift up your hearts!” a sursum corda, to rejoice in what Jesus has achieved and will achieve in the coming of His kingdom, and the new heavens and the new earth.

The images from Revelation 11 appear random but are fraught with meaning and I have written about the entire passage in “The Two Witnesses.” What I left out was a closer look at how the imagery of the two olive trees and two lampstands complement the image of the two witnesses and how wonderfully rich they are.

Continue reading “The Two Witnesses, Olive Trees, and Lampstands”

Confessions in the Desert

You’re restless. You can’t sit still. You have a nagging task you can’t identify. You’re looking for something unknown. But the land is arid and the country is a wilderness. Then after a while, unexpectedly, the first sign of relief appears. You run towards it like you would a spring in the desert. You drink deeply. And …

Continue reading “Confessions in the Desert”