Frequently on this blog, I mention things I’ve been reading. It’s been a while since I did that. I still want to say something about Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion and about Alexander Schmemann‘s Introduction to Liturgical Theology, and maybe I’ll get to that in a little while.
More recently, I read David James Duncan’s novel The Brothers K, which, for the most part, I enjoyed greatly. It’s largely the story of the four Chance brothers, Everett, Peter, Irwin, and Kincaid, and most of it is narrated by the youngest, Kincaid. The story spans several years, from 1956 to 1980, but the bulk of it takes place in the sixties.
I said that I enjoyed the book for the most part. The Chance boys’ mother is a strict Seventh Day Adventist, and the Adventist church doesn’t come off too well in the book. Now perhaps Duncan gives an accurate portrayal of this sect at that time (or even today), but at times I suspected he was straying across the border into caricature. As well, there are places in the book in which the narrator’s voice is too didactic (even places where the narrator declares that he isn’t going to draw moralistic conclusions and then goes on to do just that).
But the story as a whole is very good and there are passages which are deeply moving. It’s well worth reading, and I’ll probably track down some more of Duncan’s work.
After Duncan, I went on to read Ramsey Campbell’s The Darkest Part of the Woods, which was a bit of a letdown: the suspense toward the end of the novel didn’t make up for the overwriting all the way through. Campbell wants us to get the sense that there’s something wrong and even evil about the woods near his main characters’ home, but he tries to give us that sense of impending doom by describing the woods over and over again and by comparing everything to some aspect of the woods (e.g., the hands on a clock are like twigs). “Enough already!” the reader cries. “I get the picture. There’s something spooky about the woods.”
And now I’m reading Agatha Christie’s The Murder at Hazelwood, along with Doug Wilson’s My Life for Yours, Jakob van Bruggen’s Jesus the Son of God (which surprisingly has no interaction whatsoever with N. T. Wright‘s work on Jesus), and The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, edited by James Jordan. The latter is from the early ’80s and some of the essays are tiresomely Reconstructionistic, but a few of them do look helpful. Oh, yes: I’ve also been dipping into short story collections by Avram Davidson, P. G. Wodehouse, and most recently Bernard Malamud.
There. That’s what’s in my reading pile these days. What’s in yours?
The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point: that when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day. He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true: God looks at us, and says, “You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.” Try reading that sentence slowly, with your own name at the start, and reflect quietly on God saying that to you, both at your baptism and every day since.
It is true for one simple but very profound reason: Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah represents his people. What is true of him is true of them. The word “Messiah” means “the anointed one”; and this story tells how Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, marked out as God’s son. The Messiah is called “God’s son” in a few biblical passages, including the one that the heavenly voice seems to be echoing here (Psalm 2.7). Though the early Christians realized quite quickly that Jesus was God’s son in an even deeper sense, they clung on to his messiahship for dear life. It was because Jesus was and is Messiah that God said to them, as he does to us today, what he said to Jesus at his baptism. â€” N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, pp. 4-5.
Mark 1:4 says that “John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” The description in Matthew 3:4 is almost identical. Clearly both Matthew and Mark believe that John’s dress and diet are important.
Given that God doesn’t waste words and that ancient writers in general had limited space on their scrolls and tended to make every word count, we ought to ask ourselves why Matthew and Mark both choose to describe John in this way. Luke, after all, doesn’t.
The answer cannot be that Matthew and Mark want their readers to be able to picture John better. Unlike modern storytellers, the biblical writers aren’t interested in description in itself. When they describe someone they do so because that description tells us something about that person. And so it must be with John.
But what does this description tell us? What is the significance of John’s diet and dress?
The answers won’t be found in our own speculation about what John’s diet and dress might mean (e.g., “John is protesting against the luxuries of the rich”) but rather must be drawn from the rest of biblical revelation. In particular, Mark and Matthew expect that we already know what we call the Old Testament.
And when we go back to the Old Testament, we find one phrase that rings a bell. In 2 Kings 1, King Ahaziah recognizes a man as Elijah because he is “a hairy man” and has “a leather belt around his waist.” The wording of the last phrase is almost identical to that in Mark 1. Apparently Elijah alone would be dressed that way and that outfit was enough to make Ahaziah certain that the man was Elijah. But that suggests that John is dressing in such a way as to identify himself with Elijah. In Mark 9, Jesus confirms that John is indeed the Elijah promised in Malachi 4.
So much for the leather belt. But what about the camel’s hair? Here I draw an almost complete blank. Certainly it makes John hairy (like Elijah). But why camel’s hair in particular?
And what about John’s diet? Locusts are clean animals and a faithful Israelite was allowed to eat them. But why did John eat them in particular and not other food?
Perhaps part of the answer is that in the Old Covenant locusts are usually the ones doing the eating. Locusts are sent as God’s judgment on Israel. In Joel, locusts are parallel to Gentiles: both invade the land and leave nothing green behind.
But John is in the wilderness eating locusts. Perhaps that suggests that through his ministry God’s curse on Israel will be taken away.
In fact, given that eating in the Bible is communion and that locusts and Gentiles are parallel, perhaps John’s diet suggests that through his ministry Gentiles will be included with Israel in the blessings of Exodus and Re-entrance, the blessings John is acting out by calling people to the wilderness and washing them in the Jordan (on John’s baptism, see Joel Garver‘s very helpful essay, “Baptism in Matthew and Mark“).
For that matter, note that in the wilderness, between the Exodus and the Entrance into the land, the Israelites were all Gentiles of a sort. The whole new generation was not circumcised until after Israel entered the promised land (Josh. 5). John’ ministry involves calling Israel to the wilderness again, where he is eating locusts. Perhaps that suggests that God is taking these “Gentile” Israelites, who have been exodused out of Israel-turned-Egypt, back into fellowship and communion with him.
What about the wild honey? Wild honey shows up in a few places in the Old Testament. Jonathan eats wild honey and regains his strength (1 Sam. 14). Samson eats wild honey that he finds in the carcass of the lion he killed (Judges 14). In that case, the honey was a sign that God would restore the land flowing with milk and honey to Israel through the destruction of the Philistine lion that had taken it from Israel. Perhaps John’s eating of wild honey suggests that through his ministry God would restore the blessings of the land to His people again. (My thanks to Jim Jordan for suggesting this interpretation.)
A closer connection might be made with Deuteronomy 32:13, where Moses sings about how Yahweh rescued Israel from Egypt and led him (and even carried him) through the wilderness. There in the wilderness, He also fed Israel: “He made him draw honey from the rock….” Furthermore, the manna tasted like honey (Ex. 16:31). Perhaps John’s eating honey fits with his general Exodus ministry as a sign of God’s provision for his people in the wilderness.
I’ve said “perhaps” a lot for a reason: I’m not sure if any of these suggestions are correct. I welcome your own suggestions.
Perhaps (again) it sounds as if I’m stretching, looking for meaning where there is none. But I do believe that the details are important and that John wore what he wore and ate what he ate â€” and that we’re told about it â€” for a reason. The details in Scripture do matter, even if we can’t fully figure them out.
One more suggestion of which I am more certain: John’s dress and diet, together with his location, mark him as a man of the wilderness, not a man of the Promised Land. John is wearing clothing associated with the wilderness (camel’s hair), eating food associated with the wilderness (not steak and honey from some farmer’s beehives but locusts and wild honey) and he is standing out in the wilderness.
I pointed out that John’s outfit reminds us of Elijah. But Elijah himself reminds us of Moses. Elijah is a new Moses and John is a new Elijah, which suggests that in some ways John is also a new Moses. And like Moses and Elijah, John’s ministry ends in the wilderness (symbolically, though not literally).
Moses didn’t enter the Promised Land. He died in the wilderness, after preparing Israel to enter. Elijah left the Promised Land and ascended in the same area Moses did, in the wilderness across the Jordan opposite Jericho. And John is in the wilderness and everything about him proclaims that he’s in the wilderness, all the way up to his death.
John’s location, diet, and dress all proclaim that John hasn’t entered the new creation, the new Promised Land, that God was going to bring about. John doesn’t share in the baptism of the Holy Spirit that his stronger follower is going to bring (Mark 1:8).
In fact, it seems to me that Mark mentions John’s dress and diet at the precise spot he does (Mark 1:6) because the dress and diet go hand in hand with John’s message in proclaiming that John isn’t going to be the one to bring about the fulfilment of God’s promises but that a stronger one is coming who will.
As Moses dies and his follower Joshua leads Israel into the inheritance God promised and as Elijah dies and Elisha then enters Israel to bring healing, John stays in the wilderness and even dies, preparing people for his successor Jesus who will bring God’s people into their full inheritance, the inheritance which includes the Spirit of glory and the New Covenant.
The location of John’s ministry, the clothes John wears, the food John eats are no accident, nor are they incidental and unimportant details. All of them identify John â€” together with the whole Old Covenant â€” as the weaker, preliminary one who stays out in the wilderness while the stronger follower brings Israel into the Promised Land.
Moriah and I don’t usually spend all of our evening glued to the TV, but last week was an exception. Over the course of the week, we galloped through the whole first season of the TV show 24 at the rate of about four episodes an evening.
24 stars Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, who is in charge of a counter-terrorist unit. The season starts with Jack being called in to the office at midnight because there is a threat to the life of a presidential candidate, David Palmer, who happens to be black and who stands a very good chance of becoming the first black president. Jack’s mission is to keep Palmer safe. But the threat to Palmer is hardly the only danger Jack has to face during the twenty-four episodes of the show.
And the fact that there are twenty-four episodes is no coincidence. Each episode covers exactly one hour in a day. The first episode starts at midnight and ends at 1:00 AM, and everything in that episode happens in real time with no flashbacks and no condensing of time.
Moriah and I enjoyed the show. We were gripped from the beginning, and as soon as one episode ended we went on to the next.
But what may have impressed us the most was the way the show presented men. Jack Bauer and David Palmer were both solid examples of real men, men who take responsibility, men who stand up for what is right. There were other men who were immature but who grew toward mature manhood during the course of the show. Very impressive!
The constitution of a biblical home consists of faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love. Love is not to be understood as mere sentiment, but rather self-sacrificing obedience to the Word of God â€” with a whole heart. This can be quite an elevating and inspiring concept until there are dishes to be done….
What is the kitchen? If you look at it one way, it’s a place of endless preparations, punctuated with periods of dealing with the aftermath, by which I mean the cleaning up. But we have to keep in mind constantly that the Christian faith sees such service as a form of exaltation. Faith that works in love … is not faith that seeks out the limelight. When we serve one another in love, we come to learn that God has designed the world to work in such a way that the majority of the time, we don’t get the credit we think we deserve. Self can work hard, but it chafes under the biblical way of working hard. Love gives it away. And when everyone in the family loves â€” the kind of love you see in a Christian kitchen â€”Â the effect is glorious. â€” Doug Wilson, My Life for Yours: A Walk Through the Christian Home, pp. 35-36.