Tag Archives: Evil

Good and Evil: The Wages of Sin

“I did it for me, I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really- I was alive.” -Walter White

“For the wages of sin is death.” -St. Paul

good-evil-verse-slide-copy.jpgIf you haven’t seen the Breaking Bad finale yet, you might want to stop reading now. Sunday night, millions of people tuned in to watch the train wreck that they knew was coming. Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, father of two, and normal American society member made a decision to start cooking meth.

And that one decision led him to exploit, murder, lie, and destroy all the people that he loved.

One of the most disturbing things that the Old Testament prophets say about idol worship is that you will eventually become like what you worship.

Which is true of Walter White, but Breaking Bad matters because it’s so true for all of us.

Playing God

Growing up in Arkansas, I actually had several friends get hooked on Meth, and one of the reasons that it is so popular is because it makes you feel so powerful, you feel radically free and confident. You feel almost god-like.

Walter White started using people the same way that the people used his product.

So this past Sunday at Highland, we had hundreds of people (including me) come forward and write down on cards what idols were tempting us right now. And then yesterday I spent sometime praying over the different cards and what people had written down. And it’s powerful. Not because of how bad it is, but by how diverse it is. People wrote down everything from alcohol to money to toys.

And none of it is intrinsically bad, it’s just not big enough to bear the weight of worship.

In his new book Playing God” Andy Crouch points out that every idol makes at least one of 2 promises:

1. You will be like God

2. You will never die

And then Crouch says this:

“In the success phase of idolatry, you will never convince an idolater that his addiction is not working. It is working. It is rescuing him from his human vulnerability and giving him and intoxicating taste of invulnerable ecstasy.”

For those of us who watched Breaking Bad, we know how true this is. The first few seasons showed a mediocre-seeming man rise to a position of power that a normal high-school teacher could never dream of. He was a Kingpin, feared by all, loved by none. But in the words of one secular psychiatrist, “Idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”

Parables of Hell

I know that this show is incredibly dark, but it is also incredibly profound and even Biblical. After all that’s what the show’s creator was trying to do all along was tell a kind of Parable for our need for what he called “Biblical atonement.” He wanted to tell a story that exposed sin for what it was.

Which is actually not a new idea.Gollum

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings as a way of telling a post-Christian Europe the story of the Gospel in a way that they wouldn’t recognize at first. And one of the best examples of idolatry that I’ve ever read or seen, Tolkien tells us about a character named Gollum.

Gollum started off life as a normal Hobbit, but then he found the ring and the power (for a little while) to be like God. And over time the ring made him into a monster. He had once been somebody, and now he was a twisted version of nobody. And he did it all for what he called “His precious”

It was his idol. And if you know this story, you know it was also became his Hell.

I like the way that N.T. Wright talks about this:

Hell is actually something that happens on earth when people don’t follow God’s way of peace..the way I talk about final loss is this: People worship idols–money, whatever. Their humanness gets reshaped around the idol—you become like what you worship. [And] If someone chooses to go that route, what they are choosing is to collude with the deconstruction of their own humanness.That’s a lot of big clunky words for saying that they are in love with death. They don’t know it, but that’s what it is.God has made us in His image. And if we choose to say, “I’m going to deconstruct myself,” then, God, with great sorrow, will say, “Okay, go ahead.”

You know it’s interesting, in the last scene of Breaking Bad, as Walt is dying, he goes back to the meth lab. He puts his bloody hands on the equipment that had made his life and then ruined it.

The creator, Vince Gilligan, said this was the scene where Walt needed to die, but what Gilligan actually said, was that this was where Walt could die surrounded, “by his precious.”

The worst thing that can happen to someone in the Bible is that God gives you exactly what you want. Left to our own devices we create gods for ourself. We need to worship something. And we most certainly will.

This is why Paul writes Romans 1 and 2, the way he does. Contrary to popular belief, Paul is actually not elevating certain kinds of sin, he’s actually leveling the playing field. He lists off every kind of ways that both religious and secular ways have for worshipping gods that are not God. He talks about sexual immorality and greed and lying and then he turns to the religious to talk about their sins of exclusivity and hypocrisy.

And then Paul goes on to say that the word for all of our misplaced worship is sin.

Sin, something we all do, is falling short of the glory of God.

And sin pays, or in the more poetic words of Paul:

The wages of Sin is death.

Just ask Walter White.

Good and Evil: Speaking of the Devil

“[Hitler] is a man who is obviously possessed, and has infected a whole nation…a god has taken possession of the Germans.” -Carl Jung

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One of our mentors in college was a missionary family from Africa, and sometimes they would tell us stories about the different things that they had experienced while serving there.

Like this one time that they had gone to a village where the witch doctor was the most influential person there. My missionary friends basically told them that Jesus was more powerful than any “magic” the witch doctor could conjure up…because they were from the Western, modern world, and they knew that the witch doctor really had no magic at all.

But they were wrong.

At one point during this village, the witch doctor set down with our missionary friends and said, “See that chicken over there? Watch this.”

And then he pointed at the chicken several feet away.

And the chicken died.

The Mystery of Evil

One of the more interesting things about Western Christianity is that we don’t really talk about the world the way the Bible does. In the Bible, the world seems to be enchanted. Anything is possible, because it is God’s world and He’s still involved in it.

But the way we talk seems to reflect this idea that, sure God made the universe, but He’s not really present in it.

It is in a word, Deism.

And I get why we talk like this. We like the idea of control and certainty that comes from understanding the natural laws of the universe and how they will respond to us. It’s a good thing to know that gravity is what makes us fall and how to leverage the ways thing work to our advantage. But there is a danger to this certain approach to the world. We just might think that we know very, very much more than we actually do (because after all 96% of the universe is mystery).

And it also fails to fully explain the evil in the world. We can fool ourselves into thinking that if we just get enough medicine and education or the right laws in place (all of which are good, but insufficient, things) we can fix the problems of the human condition.

But the ancient world knew evil was a problem that ran deeper than that.

And deep down, so do we.

We find out that our own soldiers and citizens are capable of doing the same kinds of horrific things that we are at war at in other countries.

And sometimes we see evil that is so raw that we have to reach for words like Satanic or demonic. This is why Carl Jung, a secular psychologist, when he was trying to describe the evil he saw in Nazi Germany, reached for words like “Possessed” and “a god has taken over.”

Sure we live in a world of iPods and Xboxes, and in the words of Walter Wink, believing in “Principalities and Powers is as to believe in Dragons or a Flat World.”

But the stories that we have told ourselves to explain the world aren’t big enough to explain all the bad things that happen in it.

We think that we have everything figured out, and then a guy points at a chicken and kills it.

God at War

Is it possible that these Principalities and Powers are still around…we’ve just given them new names? Like Greed or addiction or self-desctrutive behavior?

For the longest time, Christians have talked about “Spiritual Warfare” and I get why we’re hesitant to talk too much about that anymore. You have one Crusade and suddenly a war metaphor is pretty delicate.

But just because we’ve misapplied the metaphor doesn’t change the story of Scriptures.

It seems like God is in a kind of cosmological battle between the forces that oppose His good creation project. God is at war.

AliceCooper

This is at the heart of the way Jesus seemed to work in the Gospel’s. He went face to face with evil personified. Who the Bible called Satan and who we’ve been battling ever since. This is the story that the Bible is trying to tell about evil.

And if the people of God are unable to talk about it, than the rocks will cry out, or maybe the rock stars.

This is how Alice Cooper talks about it:

I was pretty much convinced all my life that there was just one God, and…You couldn’t believe in God without believing in the devil.The devil… is a real character that’s trying his hardest to tear your life apart. If you believe that this is just mythology, you’re a prime target, because you know that’s exactly what Satan wants: to be a myth. But he’s not a myth, of this I’m totally convinced of that. So here we are. We have God pulling us one way and the devil pulling us another, and we’re in the middle. We have to make a choice. And everyone, at some point in their life, has to make that choice. When people say, “How do you believe this? Why do you believe this? I just say nothing else speaks to my heart. This doesn’t speak to my intellect, it doesn’t speak to my logic-it speaks right to my heart and right to my soul, deeper than anything I’ve ever thought of. And I totally believe it.

There is evil in the world and pulsing in each one of us. And until we name the real war we will continue to think that evil is a war that is out there…in some Axis of Evil..or Syria…or Russia. Because in the words of Pope Francis, “The only war that we must all fight is the one against evil.”

And he’s right.

Just ask Alice Cooper. Or that chicken.

Good and Evil: Crazy Right

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Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. -St. Paul in 1st Corinthians

One of the more interesting moments in the Gospels is when Jesus is teaching and his mother and brothers interrupt Him because they think he’s gone crazy.

Now if you are new to Biblical criticism, it might surprise you to know that this is actually something that helps to prove the Bible is telling the truth about Jesus. Most scholars think that whenever the Bible includes the negative stuff that people thought about Jesus, it lends more credibility to the idea that they are telling the truth about Him in other places.

But I think this little story adds credibility in other ways as well.

The Sanity of Evil

When I was a junior in college, I toured the concentration camp Auschwitz with a few other friends. It was one of the most profound and heavy days of my life. It was looking at evil in its purest form.

Several decades ago, Thomas Merton (a Catholic Mystic from Kentucky) wrote about one of the most disturbing things I’ve read about the Holocaust. It was about Adolf Eichmann, the man who engineered the death camps and who was ultimately responsible for the efficiency of the murder of millions and millions of Jews.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part, according to Merton, is that when Eichmann was on trial for his crimes against humanity, they did extensive psychological testing on him. They wanted to see what was broken inside of his mind to make him doing such heinous things like this. But one of the most disturbing things about his trial is that when they examined him to see just how crazy he was, they discovered….

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Eichmann was perfectly sane.

Which is so much worse isn’t it?

Because Eichmann, wasn’t just a crazy man going around killing people. He was an organized businessman/leader who had a desk job. He didn’t have trouble sleeping at night, or problems eating. He was in fact a real family man, a community oriented civic leader. He was proud of his job and loved kids. He was someone we would have considered normal. Maybe we would have even been an elder in our churches.

He wasn’t crazy, and that is the problem.

Here’s what Merton says:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

Which brings me back to Jesus. I would think that if Jesus is who Christians think he is, then we would constantly think he sounded crazy. Since the beginning of history, we have developed ways to justify our sin and call it normal. If the world really is upside down, than if Jesus is revealing the way God created the world to be, he is always going to sound a bit…crazy.

So back to Thomas Merton. Here’s what he says about a world that calls genocide sane:

What is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? Evidently this is not necessary for “sanity” at all. It is a religious notion, a spiritual notion, a Christian notion What business have we to equate “sanity” with “Christianity”? None at all, obviously. The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be “sane” like everybody else,”

Every culture puts immense pressure on the individuals within that culture. We are taught to think of the world in certain kinds of ways. We are constantly being tempted to think succumb to group think. The problem is just how unaware we are of this.

Have you ever noticed just how easy it is for us to think that Jesus endorses the same wars, every politician, every tax cut, or tax increase that the news shows you watch endorse. Jesus tends to care about the same things that we do.

And that Jesus is perfectly sane.

I’ve noticed over the years, that we religious people have the imagination to call anything Christian that fits with the world we need to exist.

Unless we read the Gospels. In which case we begin to have uneasy realization that Jesus is crazy.

No mater how we try to spin the story, the Bible is filled with dozens of irrational people. From Moses to David to Abraham to Mary and Paul, people who see what God sees don’t act like everyone else. They are the ones who think differently about the world. And they tell stories about talking donkeys and pregnant virgins and people raising from the dead.

They are insane, but they have a faith about the way the world will one day be.

They believe that one day their crazy will be right. 

Good and Evil: Breaking Bad

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So for the next few weeks I’d like to begin a short blog series on the reality of good and evil in the world, and why it’s so important to name those two things well, and why that is so hard to do.

Like many Americans I’ve been waiting for over a year to see the final episodes of Breaking Bad. It’s a show about a 50 year old High School Chemistry Teacher who’s been a loving father and husband and a respectable person in the community. And then he (Walter White) gets cancer.

He has no savings, his wife is pregnant, and he’s got a teenage son with cerebral palsy…and now he’s realized that he has nothing to leave behind to provide for them. So Walter does what you’d expect him to do…

He starts making meth.

Now chances are,even if you’ve never watched it, you know about this show. It’s highly acclaimed, well-done, and horribly dark. What’s disturbing is how accurate it is about the human condition.

The Parables Around Us

In fact, that’s the reasoning behind the show.  The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan said that the he wanted to make this show because in all the stories he’s read and seen through the years, no matter what the subject, most of them have one thing in common. The Protaganist and the Antagonist are fairly static categories. That is, the good guy remains the good guy, and the bad guy remains the bad guy.

But Gilligan’s goal was to create a character who slowly, over time, moved from one category into an entirely different one. He wanted for the audience to have these moments where they would step back and ask themselves, “Wait, why are we rooting for this guy again?” And then realize they had no good reasons. That’s what I mean when I say that it accurately portrays the human condition…On any given day I have quite a bit of protagonist and antagonist in me. And so do you. As much as we might try to pretend, babies aren’t born with good and bad labels. And the line of good and evil runs through all of us.

But the real genius of the show is the philosophy behind it. Vince Gilligan was asked why he created this story. And what he said was so profound, I’ll just post it in it’s entirety:

If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin (portrayed in the Last King of Scotland)  living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.

 Did you catch that? “I feel this need for some sort of Biblical atonement, or justice or something…”

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When Jesus was in the heart of his ministry, he was constantly pointing to the world that was around him, showing the disciples and crowds overlaps between their day to day lives and the Kingdom of God. When Paul was here he was quoting Pagan poets and prophets to show the glimpses into the Kingdom of God. I’d like to point to Breaking Bad.

Because it’s more than just a show. It’s an idea, a hope, that the world will one day be set right.

Gilligan went on to say that he  made Breaking Bad because he wants to believe there’s a heaven. “But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

In the Old Testament, death was never just a one time event. It was always a process. You could choose the way of life that leads to death, or the way that leads to more life. You could be living, but really be dead. I think that’s what this show does more than anything else. Over and over again, Walter makes these choices that you know are toxic, you under his reasoning, but you know what the outcome is going to be. And then it begins to dawn on you…I do this exact same thing all the time.

The Grace of Sin

Rachel Held Evans had a fascinating post on this earlier this week where she said one of the main reasons that she is a Christian is because that Christianity names sin. I think this is what she is talking about. Certain things aren’t right in the world, and certain things aren’t right in me. And in a world of Madison Avenue spin and political posturing, it’s very easy to pretend that things that are very bad are good.

Christianity actually claims that naming the sin, not avoiding or excusing it, is the first step to accepting grace.

I doubt there is a single person who doesn’t know what it’s like to be the kind of person that you never set out to be, and wonder how we ever got there in the first place. St. Paul talks catches the heart of this. He says, the very thing we want to do we just can’t bring ourselves to do, and the thing we don’t want to do, we find that we do it over and over again. This is the human condition. In our better moments, we all know that at different points in our lives, we’ve been people that we would never want others to see.

And this is Vince Gilligan’s gift to the world, his parable is a dark show that I don’t recommend. But he’s holding up a mirror to the world about what it’s like to choose the way of death, and warn us about the consequences that we already know, but pretend will never find us. And every one of us needs that reminder.

When it comes to good and evil, we are all Breaking Bad.

The Anger of the Lamb

So last week we talked about how Revelation really starts picking up steam. John finds a scroll, and find that it contains the the plans for God’s redemption of the world. But no one is worthy to open it…until the Lamb appears. The Lamb is the only one worthy of carrying out God’s total redemption project, so it sounds like things are turning around. Evil has met it’s match. The Lamb opens the scroll to read the redemptive plans of God. But….

Things get worse before they get better.

Once the scroll is opened a series of horses begin to start riding by. Which is not what we expected. One scholar says that the difference between Revelation and other books in the New Testament, is like the difference between reading words and reading music. We have to realize that this is a different kind of communication, and that the audience would have been able to read the sheet music. These horses stand for something. They are the symbols of the world’s oppression, violence and injustice and tyranny. The horses are white and red and black.

Which explains all those weird Skittle commercials.

And these principalities and powers wreak havoc on the world. The world is falling apart, and the things that have caused suffering from Genesis 3 on seem to run loose unchecked.

So the Saints in Heaven ask the question that is on all of our lips, even if we don’t know it. They ask, “How Long O LORD?” How long are things going to be like this? How long will Hell wreak havoc on the world? How long will babies die of AIDS, or the young of cancer? How long will war and death and tyranny carry the day? How long will the resources that can feed the many, be hoarded by the few?

If you’ve got any kind of heart, these questions have probably crossed your mind as well. They should. They are the question of Heaven.

And the answer, of course, is not the one we want. Like 2 Peter before, Jesus’ answer in Revelation is that God is patient. He knows that the ultimate enemy isn’t one with flesh and blood, and so he patiently waits and hopes to redeem the tyrant as well as the tyrannized. But there’s one more thing that Revelation tells us.

In Verse 16, we find out that the evil of the world finally beings to realize what will happen, and  they are terrified of the Anger of the Lamb.

I love that phrase. The Anger of the Lamb. Continue reading The Anger of the Lamb