The Gospel According to Snow White

RevelryA little over a year ago, I wrote a post referencing the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty and how its depiction of dragon-slaying and the victory of goodness over evil is quintessentially biblical, reverberating with the sweet harmonies of Jesus’ grand story. We now must turn to Snow White

I brought home the movie a few weeks ago for my daughters to watch. Toward the end of the film, I was struck by the sheer power and depth of the story in displaying both the dilemma of death and the transcendent beauty of redemption, culminating in the glorious resurrection of all things. Indeed, the Bible teaches that Eden most certainly will be restored, and, to quote T.S. Eliot, “all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well” (The Four Quartets). In his Revelation, John declares with valiant sureness, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (Rev. 21:5).

It should be no surprise that the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of transformative power. After all, all truth is God’s truth. Tolkien showed us this in his epic tale of a halfling saving all of Middle-Earth. Who can forget the disbelief, the skepticism many shared that the responsibility for the One Ring should fall to a lowly hobbit? Or that the salvation of all the Jews could rest in the hands of Esther, one who attained her royal position “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?

Even more directly, Chesterton writes in his essay “The Ethics of Elfland” of the glorious beauty and wonder that fairy tales hold in presenting the most dynamic truth in truly astonishing ways:

“…We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales because they find them romantic…This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…We have all forgotten what we really are”

Chesterton is right; fairy tales jolt us awake to the absolute vibrancy and wonder of God’s True Story. Indeed, these stories we tell are numinous, bathed in sunlight; we merely need eyes to see them. The world and its millions of stories, trickling through every pore of reality, are diaphanous, “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins). Just as Plato described the awakening of man’s reason to see the light beyond the cave, for these are mere shadows before us, Lewis believed the resurrecting of man’s imagination drew us “further up and further in” toward the dawn of True Reality to see the glory of God’s story in living color. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ – this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus” (“In Bright Shadow”).

So, we must turn to the truth and beauty of Snow White not to be merely entertained but to equip the eyes of our imagination to see more clearly the truth and beauty of God’s Story.

The Bliss of Eden

DopeyWhen Snow White arrives at the dwarves’ cottage, we see a warm and inviting portrayal of Eden: there are chores and tasks to be done (to the blissful tunes of whistling while you work, of course), there is community and fellowship, and the cottage is alive with song and dance. Merriment abounds. The story presents this way of life as a perfect balance of duty and desire; each person has a role to fill, and he or she fills it gladly. Sneezy is the one who sneezes, Happy is the one who is happy, Grumpy is the one who is grumpy, and so on.

Dwarves

At the center of this pure and enchanting home is the image of Beauty herself, the ideal virtue incarnate in the character of Snow White, the proverbial “fairest of all.” She is undistorted by the seductions of the mirror, and she is elevated to the right position of a bride and mother, for the prince seeks her hand in marriage, and the dwarves seek her loving and affectionate arms in biblical domestic motherhood. She is the mother of all the living, and the eventual bride of the prince. The stage is set for the great Drama.

The Dilemma of Death

AppleEdenic paradise, God’s story tells us, is subject to the rebellion of man. It was only a matter of time before Snow White would face the choice to fall from the warmth and glory of her perfect home. And fall she does as she fills her mouth with the false deliciousness of the Queen’s poisoned apple and succumbs to the deep sleep of death. Yet, this sleeping death is no individual affair; the effects of her sin are not limited to her lifeless body. Indeed, all of nature is bent by her fall, and when the dwarves encase the body of Snow White in the glass coffin, all of creation attends to mourn the death of Beauty. It is a truly eerie scene in the film; Snow White lies beneath the numb sheet of sin and death, quiet and still, as her dwarves weep softly around her and all of the woodland creatures draw near to see and to mourn. In their sorrow, they know that ultimate Beauty has died and their perfect world has been damaged by darkness and evil. All of creation feels the sting.

Funeral

The Kiss of Life

In this bleak moment of despair and sadness, the sleeping bride is powerless to rise from her bed of death. She needs the sweet kiss of a savior, the arrival of her great prince to bring her back to life. She needs resurrection, not only for her but for all the grieving world. Mourning must turn to morning.

And so arrives the great prince, ready to unseal the curse of death with the kiss of life. I challenge anyone to watch this scene and not whisper “amen” at the moment their lips touch, for this is truly our story. This is our greatest need. We are the sleeping Bride of Christ, desperately in need of Christ’s resurrecting power. Hear the old song:

“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,
Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”

Kiss

Indeed, our Prince has come to kiss us wide awake. Savor the beauty and the power of the Story.

Tolkien writes it this way:

“‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’

‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

Amen. May it be. A great Shadow has departed, and everything sad is coming untrue.

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

We all live happily ever after.

Bilbo Baggins and the Bravery of Willingness

Bilbo BagginsIt is true that we are all characters in the great Story of God, called to our own journeys as we navigate the treacherous waters of a perilous world. It is also true that the dividing line between our actions in these journeys can be as thick as lead, the difference between noble Reepicheep, sailing into the majesty of Aslan’s country, and the self-absorbed Eustace, inching steadily toward the dragon’s den. Some are brave, some are weak.

So a natural question to come would be how we ought to prepare for the journeys we must take. What must I do to prepare for my task? How should I plan my journey? To the well-intentioned Christian, such questions seem righteous. Who doesn’t want to plan and execute an excellent journey for the sake of the Lord? Who doesn’t want to steel himself for the road ahead?

Yet, the answer to these questions is humbling and startling.

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is set up quite comfortably in his cozy life at Bag End. He has a drink, a smoke, and a crackling fire. Out of his window lie the fair hills of the Shire. His breakfasts and second breakfasts are hot and delicious. Yet, it is at this precise stage of his life that Gandalf and a hoard of dwarves descend on his home and change his life forever.

Bilbo was overwhelmingly unprepared, and in one of the most illuminating passages of the book, the narrator claims:

 “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”

The start of Bilbo’s incredible journey “there and back again” does not look like a carefully-scheduled trip with dried ink on the itinerary; Bilbo simply “found himself outside”, moving headlong into the mysterious dark ahead. Who are these dwarves? Where are we going, Gandalf? Will the road be dangerous? Will I live to tell about it? Questions flood his mind with no real assurances. Dwalin simply responds, “Don’t worry! You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.”

Unpreparedness, then, is the key note of Bilbo’s beginning, but it is not his readiness that is praised in the novel; it is his willingness. The remarkable quality of Bilbo’s journey is not in how excellently he mapped out his future but how bravely he faced it with a faithful willingness. Bilbo was not ready for his quest, but he was available for it.

If we were completely prepared for the journey we must take, would we be able to learn and see everything the experience could offer? Would our eyes be transfixed by the awe and wonder around us or would we lazily peruse our agendas and timetables for the next bulleted item? I imagine much of the significance and weight of our journey lies in the surprises in store.

So we, like Bilbo, must open ourselves to the bravery of willingness. We must reject the hesitance and fear that accompany so many of the plans we prescribe for ourselves. Bilbo was by no means prepared for his trek, but he was ultimately willing to accept it. He allowed himself to truly experience the situations he went through, concerned more with the nature of his path than the condition of his feet.

In my lifelong struggle to learn to pray, I pray that God turns my eyes away from self-absorption and worry to a noble willingness to see what He would have me to see and to take each experience with both hands, unashamed and unreserved. Such are the people that see the great things of God: the Moses that doesn’t stutter but shouts boldly, the Peter that doesn’t tread water but stands upon it, the Prodigal that returns for a job and finds a home, the Abraham that is called to a land he’s never known, and the Hebrews who must eat the manna of daily provision.

Though we may not ever be prepared for the turns our journey will take, we must be willing to step out into the darkness nonetheless. Just bear in mind we may have to leave our second breakfast half-finished.

Stumbling into Symphonies

Symphony-piano-4639669-2560-1896In a conversation there are rules, and we all know them. Sometimes these rules are accidentally bent, supposing two people begin talking at the same time or no one knows just how to end it and walk away. Sometimes air lingers between the two people, causing an uncomfortable pause. Or maybe all the words blend into a unified sound of excitement as the two reunite in a frenzy of gushing phrases, tripping and spilling over each other’s hearts as they speak.

Often in these moments, something spiritual happens, like music. One gives and the other takes. One begins where the other ends. The excitement of one melts into the disappointment of another. When we speak, we work together, borrowing pieces of each other and weaving them into ourselves like toddlers rolling Play-Doh into multi-colored globes. In music, artists begin with a riff, a hook that seems compelling, and they play it over and over. Perhaps another will bring in a complementing piano line, and the drummer joins the jazz. Over time a conversation begins, a game of give-and-take that grows into a single song, each piece adding his share. As they work together, they sustain one another, each one holding the other to form a unified voice of music. As they play, they roll their unique colors and hues into a single shape, pulling together to the very center.

In this shared moment lies a spiritual truth, a beautiful truth of Christ that works like music. Like a conversation, our relationship with Jesus hinges on this back-and-forth, this dance. Yet, by no means is this relationship equal. As Jesus reaches out to us, we are drawn to His righteousness and perfect holiness. And as we understand our sinfulness, we call out to Him who saves. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Silver Chair through the mouth of the lion Aslan, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.” Jesus calls, and we are drawn; his calling gives us the power to call back. We, the prodigal sons and daughters, limp home, burdened, lonely, and beyond hope, simply to be met by our Father racing to meet us and hold us close, tears upon tears of highest joy. Our homecoming becomes a conversation, a living conversation in which the broken is repaired, the sad are filled with joy, and the end of our selfishness is the beginning of His grace. The Father calls to us, and we are welcomed home. We enter into a most gloriously unequal dialogue with the LORD, a vibrant relationship in which “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). A relationship with the Father “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). A Father “who gives us all things richly to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17).

Like music, our salvation becomes our symphony. We offer our instruments, broken and tattered though they may be, and the LORD makes music. We give Him our fears and worries in prayer, and He provides peace and joy in return. In this conversation we learn to give ourselves wholly to Him, forever grateful that He gave Himself wholly to us.

Intentional Fixedness in the Prayer of Jehoshaphat

No, not the prayer of Jabez. The prayer of Jehoshaphat.

A phrase I have adopted recently that I have become quite fond of using and reflecting on is: “intentional fixedness.” Part of the allure of that phrase stems from a number of verses that touch on such iron-sharp excellence in the Christian saint and his or her steadfast pursuit of the glory and pleasure of God:

Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” -Col. 3:2

“[…] But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” -Phil. 3:13-14

Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.” -Dan. 6:3

Fix my eye, eye-eyes, on You, oh, ooh, oh ooh, oh ooh, on Yoooou.” -For King and Country

That last one was just to see if you were still reading.

So the wholehearted desire for excellence in the call of the Christian is a non-option. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that whatever we do, we ought to do with all of our heart unto the Lord (3:23). This is, of course, a derivative of Jesus’ statement that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). It would seem that keeping an intentionally fixed gaze upon the Lord is tethered to an abundant passion for His glory and our joy. More on intentional fixedness in future posts.

This sort of intentional fixedness, however, is evident in the prayer of Jehoshaphat recorded in II Chronicles 20. For a bit of context, Jehoshaphat was a godly king of Judah, the son of Asa, and he ruled the southern kingdom after Israel was split in two. In chapter 20, Jehoshaphat is being approached by a “great multitude” of enemies for battle (vv.1-2). His immediate reaction to this news is our first insight into the sort of righteousness we ought to glean from Jehoshaphat:

“Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD” (v. 3)

The order of this sentence is important. Jehoshaphat moves instantly from fear (“was afraid”) to an intentional fixedness in prayer (“set his face to seek the LORD”). This should be impressed in the muscle memory of the godly man. What boldness and confidence would we have in the Lord if we could knee-jerk into seeking the Lord in prayer as a response to any fearful experience!

Upon hearing the news, Jehoshaphat summons all of Judah into a communal spirit of fasting and prayer, and I argue that the prayer that follows from this godly king over his people serves as a model for the prayers we ought to pray with our hope intentionally fixed on the Lord. The king’s prayer follows four basic stages:

1. The Identity of God

Jehoshaphat begins his prayer simply affirming the very name and being of God:

“O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven?” (v.6)

This is a helpful reminder that beginning our prayer to God with petition (“Dear Lord, help me pass this test,” “Dear Lord, provide a hedge of protection and traveling mercies” [whatever those are], etc.) may not always be the most God-honoring way to communicate with Him. Jehoshaphat begins his prayer not by stockpiling groceries into the cart of God but by tuning his heart to sing God’s praise, to quote the hymn. He begins his prayer reaching for the pitch pipe, for calling on God by affirming who He is sets the key in which the rest of his prayer will be aligned. Notice he names God in three distinct ways: “O Lord (YHWH, the name of God), God of our fathers (the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), are you not God in heaven?” (the sovereign, celestial God above all men). Jehoshaphat acknowledges what the author of Hebrews would later declare: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that He is” (11:6). We must first identify the awesome, glorious, all-powerful God to move us to a right position of humility and praise.

2. The Power of God

After he begins his prayer asserting the sovereignty and very identity of God, Jehoshaphat shifts to a description of God’s power:

“You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.” (v.6)

This is a right progression. Notice Jehoshaphat has yet to plea or request anything of God; he is simply occupying his heart and his lips with an intentional fixedness on the character and majesty of almighty God. How can we proclaim the name and identity of God and not be rocked into a whirlwind of praise and admiration? When Jehoshaphat prays to the God of heaven, he realizes he prays to an infinite, wonderful, mighty, passionate, jaw-dropping God; thus, he moves quickly from identifying God to trembling before His power. God is sovereign over everything, and Jehoshaphat is quick to remind himself of this in his prayer. There is no right petition of God without a right view of His absolute rule. God can give us nothing He does not own (Eph. 3:14-21). So when Jehoshaphat surveys the storm of Moabites and Ammonites descending upon his people, he cries out not to any old savior but to the Ruler of all kingdoms, Moab and Ammon included. The king prays to God, affirming His power to deliver his enemies into his hand, for they are subject to Him. For they belong to Him.

3. The History of God

After pronouncing both the identity and power of God, Jehoshaphat moves into a remembrance of what God has done in history:

“Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?” (v.7)

Remembering in prayer the works and miracles of grace the Lord has already done for us provides an assurance and a confidence as we approach the God of might and power. Too many of us pray on tiptoes, weak in our footing and not quite sure if what we are peering at in our prayers is really there or really able to help. This is not the posture of those intentionally fixed on God! Jehoshaphat calls out to God and checks off a number of God’s mighty works in history as a way of both praising Him and bringing to his own memory the ways God has saved his people before. The psalmist elaborates on this point: “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done […] so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God” (Ps. 78:4,7).

4. The Present Help of God

At last, Jehoshaphat makes his request known to God:

“And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab […] they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment on them?” (vv.10-12)

By this point in his prayer and in our observance of it, we all can see his petition saturated in the truth and glory of his previous assertions. His identifying God has established His sovereignty over all things, including enemies. His describing the power of God has established God’s ability to provide a victory for Judah. And his remembrance of God’s might and grace in time past has established God’s willingness to provide a victory for Judah. Now, Jehoshaphat’s plea for the Lord to work is filled with these truths (i.e., “your possession”, “you have given”,” O our God”, etc.) The king has prayed in such a way that his request for present help in time of need is delivered to the Father soaked in the knowledge, trust, humility, mercy, and love that ought to exist between a saint and his God.

But, most importantly, notice how Jehoshaphat concludes his prayer:

“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (v.12)

May this be the very breath of the Christian, steeped in an intentional fixedness on Christ and His identity, power, history, and present help in time of need.

Longing for Eden. Living in Babel.

So, here we go.

As Eden.Babel has been revamped and reorganized from its previous blog-manifestation, I’d like the inaugural post to throw back to an article I wrote over a year ago in which I first discuss our cultural and corporate depravity as a new Babel, institutionalized and broadly congratulated by its citizens. For Christians living in this age, however, we must have our eyes fixed on the glimpses and shadows of a new-and-greater Eden, the promised land where the lion will lie with the lamb and the Lord will rule the nations. We must remember that every knee will bow. As Mark Lowry once quipped, “The question is not whether or not you will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, but when will you.”

We must engage wholeheartedly with this world; we must read its literature, hear its songs, observe its trends. We must be cultural reformers. We must live in Babel, but long for Eden…


God gave us Eden; we built Babel.

So begins the story of human history. In Genesis 2 and 3 we read of God’s creation of Eden, and our hearts weep for the loss. Though many of us rarely (I would imagine) consciously mourn our lost home, nothing informs our existences more. Our daily struggles, our joys, our griefs, our pains, our pleasures are all viewed through the cracked lenses of our exiled state.

In Genesis 2 God created man, and man needed a place to call home:

“Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”

Notice that God breathed through dust to make man and, upon breath one, went to work to build a home for us. God designed Eden for man. We must not miss the intentionality and the purpose of this grand garden. All good art (and yes, there is “good” art and “bad” art) reveals a deliberateness, an intentionality. God so loved man, on purpose, as to create an ideal, beautiful paradise for him, and therein “to put the man whom he had formed.” No ruse, no gimmick, no tricks. God laid Adam in the center of Eden as if to say, “I love you and want you to have all of this.” Eden was God’s first surprise gift for mankind. God crafted a masterpiece for undeserving, unlearned man seconds after his making and gave it over unreservedly. Our debt of gratitude to a loving God has gone strong ever since.

God lavished Eden upon man:

And out of the ground, the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.”

Eden was a brilliant display, an art form itself, the epicenter of loveliness and virtue. In Eden God surrounded Adam with an abundance of both aesthetic value (“pleasant to the sight”) and practical value (“good for food”). And, if that were not enough, God caused all this value, all this beauty, to spring up from the ground, a geyser of brilliant trees and fruits in a dazzling, miraculous kaleidoscope of creation. Wherever Adam looked, he saw God’s grandeur shooting up from the same dirt which formed his own bones and skin, blood and lungs.

At the heart of this wonder stands God’s first words to Adam:

“You may surely eat […]”

Adam, showered in God’s unbelievable abundance and joining God in unbroken companionship for all eternity, knew the intention of Eden. But God wasn’t through. Atop all of God’s unknowable love in Eden, God fashioned Eve, the “helper suitable for man,” and Adam was finally home. The beauty of Eden’s acreage, the love of a kind woman, all needs afforded, all hungers satisfied, all desires met in full, and all of God all the time. All of life was meant to be all-lived in all of Eden.

But man was a prideful beast, longing for the minds of gods, and he fell. Selling Eden for pretty words from a silver tongue, man traded God’s gift for the stuff of earth. From dust to Eden, Eden back to dust.

Generations pass, and man is steeped in sin. Evil is the order of the day. In Genesis 11 the full gulf between God and man is imaged in the colossus of Babel:

And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves […]”
 
Notice the Creation language borrowed from Gen. 1:26 “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” The parallel is distressing; as God’s display of His own image is man, man’s display of his own image is a tower of brick and tar. God builds a tower of dirt and calls it man; man builds a tower of dirt and calls himself god.

Nowhere in Genesis 11 does the Bible mention any attempt of man’s to “reach God” through the building of Babel. They simply built for themselves a great city and a tower “with its top in the heavens.” Their intention is unmistakable: “let us make a name for ourselves.” Let us build our own Eden, exchanging the breath of God for the smell of tar, the coolness of the day for the hot clay of a thousand bricks. Let us exist not in humility to God but in the pride of our own hands.

If I could summarize all of human history in one statement, I would say, “God gave us Eden; we built Babel.” God gave us all things richly to enjoy, and we threw (and continue to throw) everything away. With one hand we stack our pile of bricks to the sky, with the other we shake a fist at the sky. We sell God and Eden for the trifles of Earth and are angry at God for the suffering in the world?

Every corner of this world echoes the hallowed ground of Eden. All of this world, whether it knows or not, is a reaching back. All of this world is a longing for homecoming. All of this world, though feeding at the prodigal trough, yearns to come home to Eden and the Father. Any height of pleasure, any happiness, any beauty the world hands us is a warped, corrupted photograph of Eden. The world knows the language of Eden but only the words and no meanings. When Hollywood undresses and beckons us to the bedroom, it speaks the words but with no substance. One may know every word in English, but without meaning, he knows nothing; it is merely gibberish. When we gaze at stars, rock peacefully in oceans, stare into the greatness of Grand Canyons, we hear the language of God, but the meaning is lost. It is no wonder Babel became the confusion of languages; when we exchanged God’s garden for our own towers, we gave back the definitions but kept the words.