Blood Calls to Blood

Why I am a Christian

This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.

I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.

For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.

My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of  serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.

In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”

***

I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.

When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.

What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.

Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.

This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”

As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.

Red in tooth and claw.

***

The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.”  It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?

Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.

Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.

What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.

The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Arms nailed down

Are you telling me something?

Eyes turned out

Are you looking for someone?

This is the one thing

The one thing that I know.

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My Father’s Anger

Growing up, I did not see my father angry often. But it did happen. If my father was angry with me, it was almost certainly for one of two reasons. Either I had disrespected my mother, or else I had been cruel to my younger sister. On those occasions I did witness and endure my Dad’s anger.

But here’s an important distinction. Though I felt Dad’s anger, I always knew what kind of anger it was. It was the anger of, “You, my son, have done something wrong, and I am angry that wrong has been done.” But there’s another kind of fatherly anger that I never felt. It’s the anger that says, “You have done something wrong, and I am angry to have such a son who would do this kind of thing.” The first kind of anger came and left. Even minutes after discipline I knew I was welcomed into the love of my father.

But the second kind of anger sticks with you. It never really dissipates. The emotions will calm, and deed will be forgotten, but there’s just something about feeling the weight of that anger–anger directed, even for just a moment, at the father-son relationship itself–that darkens the heart. I’ve heard from many friends whose fathers were angry in this kind of way. Healing is possible, but the scarring is there.

One reason I believe some Christians struggle with the idea of substitutionary atonement is that they cannot convince their hearts that a God who would sacrifice his own son for their sins can really ever forgive them. They cannot imagine in their soul a Father who pours wrath, wrath over their sin, on his beloved Son, and then actually welcomes them–the one responsible!–with open arms. The idea of God’s wrath at sin is, for them, inextricable from the kind of deep-sealed anger that God must feel at having to put up with sons and daughters who caused the death of his begotten. For them, God’s anger at sin is not the anger at sin and its wages, but anger at them for being what they are. For these Christians, the gospel of Christ’s substitution does not comfort. It reinforces their fear that their heavenly Father resents them, even when he says otherwise.

It does not surprise me that people would think this about God. Fatherly anger is such a precarious thing. Children are good at hearing the heart behind the words. Vocabulary is not a disinfectant for resentment. This is why, I think, the authors of the New Testament go to such great lengths to talk about the love of God for his church. He really does love us. Not begrudgingly, not resentfully. He loves us day and night, and his love does not even sleep.

I thank God often for showing me some of Himself through my father’s anger. There were times I knew Dad was displeased. But there was never a time when I wondered if he was displeased to have me. The difference is the difference between life and death.

Good Friday and the Age of Nostalgia

We call it “Good Friday” now. But no Christian should want to relive that day.

On the day we call Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples were foolish. They volunteered to die with him, demonstrating that they neither understood his mission or their own hearts. Hours after pledging their lives, they fled at the sight of Roman soldiers. The best friends Jesus had, the men who had spent three years by his side, stood back, denying they even knew him, as he was given over to an illegal trial for his life.

Witness after witness told lie after lie, so many lies that the Scriptures tell us that the testimonies didn’t even agree. Jesus was beaten, mocked, and pronounced guilty on the authority of actors, and nobody intervened. Nothing happened to stop the farce and return Jesus his dignity. No one stood up to corruption and injustice. He was alone.

He was alone as Pilate cowered before the crowd and ordered him flogged until his flesh hung off his bones like wet parchment. He was alone as Pilate cowered again and ordered his crucifixion, declining to announce what crime was being punished. He was alone as the weight of a wooden cross smote him into the earth. He was alone as the nails were driven with ruthless efficiency. A man who had raised little girls up from the dead was stripped naked so that federal agents could play dice with his clothing. Nothing happened, no one stopped it.

Why do we call this day “good”? This is the kind of day that we learn about in history textbooks, with black and white photos of burned bodies stacked on top of each other. This is the kind of day where we watch Planned Parenthood surgeons sift through a petri dish of humanity, looking for the most valuable of the remains. This is the kind of day where armed guards open fire on peaceful protesters, or sic dogs on children. There’s nothing remotely sentimental about the cruel injustices of “Good Friday.” So why do we call it good?

We call it good because tradition and nostalgia aren’t synonyms. The past—the realities of the faith once for all delivered to the saints—is our life. Without Calvary there is no church, there is no heaven, and there is no hope. Christians don’t believe in the idea of the atonement—they believe in the history of it. Jesus really did die on a cross, in a real part of the Middle East, surrounded by real people who really did shout for a healer and a teacher to be murdered by a government they proclaimed to hate. This isn’t just theology. It’s history. It’s our history, our tradition, and our hope.

It’s not, however, our nostalgia. Tradition is about receiving from the past; nostalgia is about disfiguring it. Nostalgia is our cultural mood right now because it affords the comfort of the past while letting us Nostalgia is superficial in essence but can be tyrannically earnest; we can try to reinvent our entire lives in the image of that which reminds us that we were once young. But for the age of nostalgia, hope is to be found in the here and now. We must be nostalgic so that we can be comforted by the past without being taught by it.

We dare not be nostalgic about Easter. Only the foolish would sentimentalize the flogging, the walk to Golgotha, and the naked, shredded flesh. To make the Passion an object of our nostalgia—to see in it only the value of our grandfather’s generation, the benefit of a “Christian nation”—is to spit upon the cross itself. It is said that in the United States are millions of “Easter and Christmas” churchgoers, those who make time in their secular existence for two hours of hymnody a year. Oh, if only these Americans could see in their holidays the blood and the gore and the evil! If only they could see the gospel in its visceral reality, and not in its Thomas Kinkadian counterfeit.

If they could, if we could, we would not look at Good Friday with nostalgia. But we would look at it, and, if God is merciful, we might never look away.