In a recent essay (“Tragic Worship“), Carl Trueman claims that the modern push for “entertaining” worship isn’t actually entertaining enough because it neglects tragedy, which is one of the highest forms of entertainment. He writes:
Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.
From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.
What strikes me is that, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, everyone listed here as a great tragedian is a pagan or an unbeliever: Homer, Aeschylus, Williams, Hardy, and Conrad. In fact, the close link between paganism/unbelief and tragedy is so obvious that one of the proposed paper topics in one of my English classes in university years ago was on the possibility of Christian tragedy. One answer might be that when Christians, including Shakespeare, write tragedies, theirs are different: Shakespeare wasn’t writing Aristotelian tragedy, nor did he share the bleak despair of a Hardy, and even in the deaths of his characters, beauty shines out, the beauty in particular of virtue, the beauty of what’s good. While paganism is characterized by tragedy and despair, Christians embrace what Peter Leithart calls “deep comedy.”
But what puzzles me in this essay is what this tragic strand in Western literature has to do with the character of the church’s liturgy. Trueman writes: “Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken.”
But what Trueman seems to overlook is that the Lord’s death is precisely not tragic. The gospel of the cross doesn’t share in the “can’t fight the gods” fatalism of Aeschylus or its modern Hardyian form, nor is Jesus’ death like the deaths of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth. We don’t feel good about Jesus’ death because in it we see man’s hubris being punished (Aristotle); we rejoice in it because in it man’s sin was dealt with and because, having death with sin, Jesus rose again. Remembering the Lord’s death in the Supper and remembering the death of Tess Derbyfield are two very different things.
Furthermore, while Trueman is correct in saying that “Death remains a stubborn … and inevitable reality” (I question his use of the word “omnipresent”), I don’t grant that “human life is still truly tragic.” Even in great western literature, not every death is tragic. When Aragorn kills an orc, there’s nothing tragic about the death of that orc. When Boromir rescues Merry and Pippin and then dies of his wounds, his death is sad but not tragic. When your grandmother falls asleep in Jesus, her death is sad, but not tragic — and beyond her death, there is the certainty of her bodily resurrection in glory, because in Christ death is swallowed up in victory. (And unlike Trueman, it seems to me that while the emphasis of the funeral ought to be on Christ’s triumph over death, there’s nothing wrong — let alone “most ghastly and incoherent” — with “the celebration of a life now ended.”)
Certainly, there is sorrow in this life. I agree with Trueman that Christians can and should lament. Paul tells us to sing psalms, and many of the psalms are full of lamentation. I’m all in favor of restoring the psalms to the Christian life and to the church’s liturgy, though I would add the caveat “as appropriate.” Why? Because it’s not appropriate for lamentations to predominate in the liturgy.
Trueman praises “the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice” of his Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but those adjectives — sombre, haunting, unaccompanied — hardly seem to fit with, say, Psalm 150 or with the descriptions of the Levitical choirs that David established or the heavenly choirs in Revelation. God apparently delights in accompanied singing (indeed, the word “psalm” itself implies accompaniment!), and apparently he likes it loud and vigorous, at least much of the time.
Trueman claims that “traditional Protestantism” connected “baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection.” That’s as may be — washing is certainly as valid a connection as death and resurrection — but again, the death associated with baptism, linked so closely with resurrection, was far from tragic. He points to the reading of the law every Sunday: “Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ.” Leave aside the question of whether the reading of the Ten Commandments before the confession of sin tends to emphasize the so-called “first use” of the law instead of its primary use as a rule of life and even grant the questionable assertion that the reading of the law “pronounces the death sentence” and apparently carries it out (so that believers are in “their graves” after it!), we still have a progress from death “to resurrection life in Christ” — so why should the rest of the service be sombre as if we were still dying or dead?
Is there room for sorrow in the Sunday service? Perhaps, in measured doses. It’s not inappropriate to sing Psalm 51 in connection with the confession of sins. On occasion, it may be right and fitting to sing a lamentation. But what ought to be the dominant note of our worship, even when we’ve been deeply convicted of our sins? It certainly isn’t tragedy. Nehemiah 8 points the way:
Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.
That Psalm 8, followed by Hebrews 2, speaks of a transition from being “lower than the angels” to being exalted over them sounds the death knell for the “chain of being” view held by so many throughout history. In this view, God is at the top of the chain, with angels — as spiritual beings or pure intelligences — below him, human beings — who are a blend, both spiritual and material — lower still, the beasts beneath them, and so on. Though there might be the possibility that man might rise in glory, the angels too would be continually rising above them, so that the order of the chain never changes. But if man, created “lower than the angels,” is then exalted over them, the chain is no longer static, with each creature in the place “rationally” assigned to it. Furthermore, if man can be exalted over the angels, the idea that matter is inherently lower than spirit must also give way, since Jesus is fully human, with a human body, and yet is exalted over the angels” — “The Glory of the Son of Man: An Exposition of Psalm 8,” The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan, 17n49.
Last year, I must have been exceptionally industrious. I see that I managed to post my list of favorite reads from 2011 already in January 2012. This year, I’m a little behind. But here it is, at last, listed alphabetically by the author’s last name.
* Louis Berkhof & Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education. Great essays; often outstanding insights.
* Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Fascinating and very helpful stuff on, e.g., the effect of praise on children, children’s intelligence tests lacking validity, how kids learn to speak, the importance of sleep for children.
* Walter R. Brooks, The Clockwork Twin. Read to kids. The fifth Freddy the Pig novel; some passages had me howling with laughter.
* John Buchan, The Three Hostages. One of my favorite authors.
* G. K. Chesterton, The Collected Works, vol. 27, The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907 and The Defendant. Wonderful essays.
* Elizabeth Coatsworth, Away Goes Sally, Five Bushel Farm, and The Fair American. The first three in a series of books about a young girl in Maine in the late 1790s. Read to Theia and Vance, with much enjoyment.
* Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain: The Ten Commandments in Terms of Today. Insight after insight.
* Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. A masterpiece.
* Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador, and David Cloutier, eds., Growing Old in Christ. Very helpful essays, many of them rich with insights.
* C. J. Hribal, Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis. Stories that can break your heart.
* Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches. Not just for mothers; I need to read this one every year.
* Walt Kelly, Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips, Vol. 1. I grew up reading these in books my parents had collected. It’s great to see them coming out in a nice hardback edition. There has never been another comic strip like Pogo.
* C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. Great stuff … though I’m glad the eschatology Lewis presents for Narnia isn’t the eschatology of Earth.
* C. S. Lewis, Miracles. I remember trying to read this when I was much younger (a teenager?) and not getting very far. Loved it this time through.
* Richard Lischer, Open Secrets. An enjoyable memoir of the first year of a Lutheran pastorate in southern Illinois; some very good passages on pastoral work, including an interesting and helpful chapter on the often positive function of gossip — “speech among the baptized” — in a church community, as it sorts out people and relations and evaluates them.
* Eloise Jarvis McGraw, The Golden Goblet. Read to Theia and Vance at the same time I was teaching Theia about ancient Egypt.
* A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Read them to the kids … again. There were times I could hardly stop laughing. I ought to read these every year.
* E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Hilarious. Why didn’t I read Nesbit when I was a kid? Especially puzzling, given that I loved C. S. Lewis and Edward Eager.
* Patrick O’Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute, The Nutmeg of Consolation. The thirteenth and fourteenth in a series that never gets stale.
* Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping. Slow but deep.
* P. Andrew Sandlin & John Barach, eds., Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd. I first met Norman Shepherd when I was in seminary and he was a member of the board, and it was an honor to be able to edit this volume for him. There are some very good essays in here.
* Lynn Stegner, Because a Fire Was in My Head. Very realistic and very sad.
* Victoria Sweet, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Very interesting account of a doctor at the last almshouse in America and the change from “inefficient” to “efficient” medicine, with some interesting stuff on premodern medicine, medical politics, etc.
* Hilda van Stockum, A Day on Skates. Very enjoyable.
* J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit. Second time through with the kids. Maybe I’ll tackle The Lord of the Rings this year.
* Lars Walker, Erling’s Word. Blogged about it here.
* Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years. Read to the kids with as much enjoyment myself as they received.
* N. D. Wilson, Leepike Ridge. Had the kids on the edge of their seats a lot of the time. Or their beds. Wherever they were sitting, it was the edge. Someday, they’ll read The Odyssey and remember this story.
* N. T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. I find Wright’s approach to the so-called “Colossian heresy” quite persuasive.
If there’s one thing to learn from this list, I guess, it’s that most of the best books I read last year were the ones I read with the kids.
I know: You would never have dreamed that I would blog about pony books. But I am the father of a girl who loves horses, dreams about horses, thinks about horses instead of math or does math only via horse word problems, and whose attention can be grabbed immediately by seeing the words “horse” or “pony” on the cover of a book. And that explains why, one afternoon, in the midst of reading some literary criticism, I started laughing.
Geoffrey Trease’s Tales Out of School is an opinionated, fun, and often quite insightful survey and critique of young adult fiction up until the 1960s. Along the way, Trease points out certain elements that show up too often in children’s literature and urges authors to try something new instead of trotting out the old.
Have you ever noticed how many twins there are in children’s literature? Trease has. More than that, he has wondered why — and the answer he gives I find entirely convincing: Though the author has probably never even thought about it, he or she likely wanted to have two children — frequently two girls — who are exactly the same age (which means they can’t be non-twin siblings, of course) and who get to share a bedroom or take vacations together (unlike neighbors or friends).
In the midst of surveying what are often called “holiday books” — books that center on activities that take place outside of the school year — Trease again urges authors to greater creativity. Where should an author turn? Well, says Trease, not to the stables, at any rate.
Let me say quickly, before the riding-crops of indignant enthusiasts rain upon my shoulders, that I have nothing against the pony story as such. It is pleasant to see a generation transferring its enthusiasm from high-powered machines to some of the most attractive of the domestic animals…. That the fantasy of possessing a pony (or two, or three) had become something like an obsession in many children’s minds could in those days be seen from any book department. Typical titles were Wish for a Pony, I Wanted a Pony, I Had Two Ponies, Three Ponies and Shannon, A Pony for Jean, Another Pony for Jean, More Ponies for Jean, and (highest bid so far) Six Ponies. The main thing was to get the word into your title — even if, like the ingenious Mary Treadgold, you called your book No Ponies. (The young hippomaniacs knew perfectly well that the ponies would turn up somewhere in the book.) Almost any book, irrespective of quality, was sure of a considerable sale if the title included that magic word. Some children would have demanded Shakespeare’s Richard III if had been put in the right dust-jacket and renamed A Pony for Richard (142).
In an enjoyable survey and critique of young adult novels, the historical novelist Geoffrey Trease touches on what he calls “imaginative biographies,” those fictionalized accounts of a person’s life in which whole scenes and conversations are invented by the author:
We may feel that the imaginative biographer is a doubtful ally of history when he writes for adults. There has been a great vogue for his books in recent years, for there is a class of intellectual snobs (mainly feminine, it must be pointed out with more candour than chivalry) who declare that they do not waste time on novels but read only biographies and memoirs. Such readers have no interest in footnotes, appendices and authorities. They want dogmatic statement, garnished with salacious innuendo. They are duly catered for. As the late John Palmer said of them, in that masterly life of Moliere, which demonstrates that wit and a respect for truth are not incompatible: “It is a poor biographer who allows himself to be defeated by lack of evidence.” It would not be so bad if these writers would acknowledge, in a foreword to their fancies, that they lack complete omniscience; if they would emulate Froude’s candour, who completed his contribution to Newman’s Lives of the Saints with these words: “I have said all that is known, and indeed a good deal more than is known, about the blessed St Neot” (Tales out of School, 57).
In his biography of Robespierre, Hilaire Belloc identifies two kinds of fanaticism:
Those whom it is customary in soft times to call fanatics are of two kinds. There is he who maintains what he very well knows to be incapable of positive proof, and very far from being a self-evident proposition — as, that the Book of Mormon fell from heaven, that Pinkish Elephants are alone of animals divine, or that some chief or king is descended from a Bear. The fanatic that would convince others of these truths will sometimes threaten with the sword, or be at the pains of working wonders to prove them; but most commonly it is by an earnest advocacy and by the power of insistent repetition that he will convert his hearers to accept his vision. It is his glory that the thing he premises has in it something wholly unusual, and he praises it as a chief virtue in his proselytes that they accept reality by the channels of affection and appreciation rather than by those of comparison and experience. Robespierre was emphatically not of this kind.
But there is a second kind which has often, oddly enough, a more irritant effect upon humanity than the first. They attach themselves to some principle which is highly probable, or generally acceptable, or even self-evident, and armed with this truth, which few care (and sometimes none are able) to deny, they proceed to a thousand applications of their rule which they lay down as an iron standard, crushing the multiple irregularities of living things. Of these it has been well said that they go to the devil by logic. It is in their nature to see nothing of the mysteries, and to forget that the aspects of truth must be co-ordinated. They do not remember that the Divine Nature in which all truths are contained and from which all proceed, has not as yet been grasped by the human mind, and they fail to perceive at how prodigious a rate the probability of divergence increases as deduction proceeds step by step from its first base in principle.
Yet so strong is the current of deduction in us that when such fanatics most disturb and torture us by their practical enormities we are forever reproaching ourselves with the unreasonableness of our instinctive opposition, and thinking, as their system reposes on a truth and is consistent, that therefore its last conclusions may not be denied; and it is this weakness in us that gives fanatics of the latter sort their power. Of this kind were the lawyers of the later middle ages, of this kind are the defenders of many modern economic theories, and of this kind was Robespierre (Robespierre 33-34).
And of this kind may be some people in the church today. And of this kind may be (at some times and in some ways) some of us, piling deduction upon deduction and pressuring others to follow our reasoning all the way to conclusions that they feel to be wrong (but what are feelings against our deductions?!) and that we (in our own eyes) are bold enough to embrace. No one wants to be a Robespierre, but sometimes we meet them today and sometimes we are closer to that sort of fanaticism than we think.
Belloc goes on to add that such men have other notable characteristics. Robespierre appeared to be conceited or vain, but that is misleading: he didn’t think he was devoted to himself; he thought he was devoted to the principles he was applying, with which (he thought) others agreed. He was suspicious of others because he was convinced of these principles and because others said and did things that didn’t seem consistent with that sort of conviction.
Again, this unique conviction destroyed humour and proportion. Did he hear a gibe against his wearisome insistence? It seemed to him a gibe against the liberty and the God whom he preached. He missed relative values, so that he was in politics like a man who in battle has no sense of range; he blundered unexpectedly upon oppositions; he shot short or over the heads of his opponents (35).
He was “bewildered by the opportunist,” Belloc says (36), and he saw inconsistencies as the result of some moral flaw:
That practical temper and those inconsistencies of affection which are the general tone of all mankind, he, on the contrary, imagined to be peculiar to some few evil and exceptional men, and these he was for removing as abhorrent to the perfect State and corrupting to it. “You say that self-government is of right, and yet you will not immediately grant the suffrage to all? You are insincere, a liar, a deceiver of the people.” “You say you believe in God, and yet you oppose the execution of this atheist? You are corrupt and perhaps bribed. If God be really God, this infinite God and his Majesty must certainly be defended. But perhaps you do not believe in Him — then you also must go the way of the man you are defending.” “You say the people are sovereign, and yet you are seen in the house of men who approved of the middle class militia firing on the crowd? Then you are a traitor.” Wherever men of the usual sort perceive but one of the million inconsistencies of life — inconsistencies that vary infinitely in degree, and that must be of a rare sort to be counted as crimes or aberrations — Robespierre saw but glaring antitheses; something unjust, untrue, and very vile” (36-37).
More than that, he lacked love or even friendship:
While theory thus led him to violent animosities, it forbade him sincere affections. This, which is the widest gap in the texture of his mind and the principal symptom of his unnatural abstraction, explains a great part of his adventures. There can be no better corrector of intellectual extravagance than the personal love of friends, for this gives experience of what men are, educates the mind to complexity, makes room for healthy doubt, puts stuff into the tenuous framework of the mind, and prevents the mere energy of thought from eating inward” (37).
Yesterday, I quoted John Updike’s marvelous put-down of Paul Tillich’s theology from his book review in Assorted Prose. Also valuable in that collection is Updike’s review of Karl Barth’s Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum and of Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World and Love Declared. His lengthy essay on parody is helpful, too. But here’s something else that stood out, though I’m not done turning it over in my mind yet, let alone express agreement. I present it here for your consideration. It’s from Updike’s “Foreword for Young Readers,” introducing three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde:
These are called fairy stories. Why? The word “fairy” comes from the Latin word fata, which means “one of the Fates.” The Fates were the supreme gods of the Roman world whose architecture survives in post offices and railroad stations, whose language lingers in mottos, and whose soldiers and officials may be glimpsed in the background of the New Testament. In fact, fairies and all such spirits and tiny forest presences are what is left of the gods who were worshipped before Christ.
Imagine a forest, and imagine the forest overswept by an ocean. The forest is drowned; but along the shore twigs and sticks, dwindled and worn and soaked with salty water, are washed up. These bits are fairy stories, and the ocean is the Christian faith that in a thousand years swept over Europe, and the forest is that world of pagan belief that existed before it. So, when you pick up a fairy story, the substance is pagan wood, but the taste and glisten is Christian salt (Assorted Prose, 300-301).
I got a kick out of novelist and poet John Updike’s review of Paul Tillich’s Morality and Beyond:
The last two chapters, which discuss ethical systems in the context of history, are especially brilliant. Yet the net effect is one of ambiguity, even futility–as if the theologian were trying to revivify the Christian corpse with transfusions of Greek humanism, German metaphysics, and psychoanalytical theory. Terms like “grace” and “Will of God” walk through these pages as bloodless ghosts, transparent against the milky background of “beyond” and “being” that Tillich, God forbid, would confuse with the Christian faith (Assorted Prose, 283).
There are things you don’t find in children’s books written in the last few years. First, a passage from the book I just finished reading to my kids, Arthur Catherall’s Ten Fathoms Deep, an exciting story about a salvage tug boat off the shores of Singapore in the 1940s or so:
“Hudson rolled a cigarette. One thing he had forgotten when he had returned to Singapore was to get in a further supply of cheroots, so he was reduced to smoking native tobacco, and making his own cigarettes” (p. 135).
Second, a page from the great Edward Ardizzone’s Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain:
In an essay cobbled together from the introduction and conclusion of his book The Mission of God, Christopher Wright shows how “mission” is one way of viewing what the whole of Scripture is about. When we see how important and how central God’s mission is, he writes, it turns a lot of things in our lives upside down (or maybe better: right-side-up):
An understanding of the mission of God as the very heartbeat of all reality, all creation, and all history generates a distinctive worldview that is radically and transformingly God-centred. It turns inside out and upside down some of the common ways in which we are accustomed to think about the Christian life. It is certainly a very healthy corrective to the egocentric obsession of much Western culture — including, sadly, even Western Christian culture. It constantly forces us to open our eyes to the big picture, rather than shelter in the cosy narcissism of our own small worlds.
* We ask, ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?’ when the real question is where does my little life fit into this great story of God’s mission.
* We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.
* We talk about ‘applying the Bible to our lives’. What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality — the real story — to which we are called to conform ourselves?
* We wrestle with ‘making the gospel relevant to the world’. But in this story, God is about the business of transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.
* We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.
* I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.
In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant has traveled to Mesopotamia to bring back a bride for Isaac. At the end of the chapter, Rebekah, traveling with the servant, sees Isaac walking in the field and asks the servant who he is. On hearing the answer, Rebekah then veils herself. Why?
It’s certainly not the case that women in that day wore veils at all times, or even at times when they were around men. After all, Rebekah has been traveling unveiled with Abraham’s servant up till now. It is only when she sees her future husband that she covers herself with the veil. She is veiled with regard to him, and that seems to symbolize that they are not yet one flesh. There is a barrier between them; they cannot yet be face to face.
But why does Rebekah veil herself at this particular point in time?
In the story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, though the text doesn’t mention it, it seems as if Leah must have been veiled on the wedding day or else Jacob would have recognized that she wasn’t Rachel. But surely we aren’t to think that for the entire seven years that Jacob served for Rachel leading up to this wedding day, she was veiled. Sure, she was his future wife. But there’s no reason to think he didn’t see her face to face. Rather, it makes sense that she wore the veil — or rather, Leah-pretending-to-be-Rachel, wore the veil — only on the wedding day, only during the hours leading up to the wedding.
If so, that would suggest that when Rebekah veils herself on seeing Isaac in the distance, she is doing so, not only in anticipation of the wedding, but in anticipation that the wedding is going to happen that very day. She is not planning to veil herself for the next few weeks until some future wedding day. She is not anticipating a period of courtship, of “getting to know one another.” Just as she was willing to leave her home for the promised land the morning after Abraham’s servant arrived, so she is ready to get married instantly, without delay to the promised seed. She has agreed to marry Isaac and she is ready for the wedding today. That’s faith.
Isaiah 56 describes the good news of coming salvation in terms of the inclusion of eunuchs in the house of God. Formerly, they were excluded from the assembly of Yahweh; they could not draw near to God (Deut 23:1). But why were they excluded?
As with many other exclusions from the assembly — for instance, the exclusion of those who have an emission or who have touched someone who is dead — the reason is symbolic, symbolic of something in the Old Creation so that when Christ comes and we enter the New Creation these exclusions no longer apply. Death results from sin, and if you touch someone dead it spreads so that you yourself are symbolically dead, and you may not bring that stench of death-as-a-result-of-man’s-sin into God’s presence. So too with the eunuch.
What is a eunuch? A eunuch is a man who is physically unable to beget, a man who by reason of damage to his organs of generation barren and fruitless. His fruitlessness symbolizes those who do not bear fruit to God’s glory, and, as Jesus teaches, those who do not bear fruit will be cut off and burned (John 15).
But now associate that with Mark 11:12ff. and the cursing of the fig tree. In my previous blog entry, I noted that Jesus, in his temple action, quotes from Isaiah 56 about his house becoming a house of prayer for all nations. This is not a statement about how it was always supposed to be, but about the salvation that was still future in Isaiah’s day. And Jesus makes it clear that that time of salvation is now here. But the context in Isaiah 56 also talks about the eunuch who is not to see himself as a withered tree. The fig tree that represents the fruitless temple and those who take refuge in it withers under Jesus’ curse, but when Jesus comes, eunuchs are no longer fruitless; they may enter God’s house and have a fruit better than sons and daughters and a name that will never die.
One step further: What’s the first reference to fig trees in the Bible? Genesis 3, where Adam and Woman sew fig leaves into garments with which they hide their genitals from each other. (Not from God: When he comes, they want something bigger to hide behind and so they hide behind the trees of the Garden.) Specifically, then, the first appearance of fig leaves is as garments that cover the source of man and woman’s fruitfulness.
The temple and those who use it as their hideout have fig leaves but no fruitfulness toward God. They are Adam and Woman, covering their fruitlessness. But Jesus exposes their fruitlessness. They are eunuchs who are banned from His house.