Home Page

Abraham, Issac and The Walking Dead Season Premiere

In Books, Movies and Television on October 25, 2016 at 5:14 am

lucilleOf course I watched the season 7 premier of The Walking Dead to find out whose head got smashed with Lucille, in last season’s finale.  I expected Abraham because he’s too much of a soldier; Rick and company need to be vulnerable in the face of Negan.  I was also prepared for Glen because he gets it in the comic books.  However, I was not ready to lose both.  It was intense emotionally, and gory visually.  My twitter feed was full of indignant fans who said, “This time they went too far!”

Maybe they did, but that’s not what I was thinking about as the credits ran.

I was thinking about the event that actually broke Rick, the event that broke the viewing audience.  It’s the central event of the episode that will “change everything”–I was thinking about the near-amputation of Carl’s arm by his own father, called off by Negan at the last second.

This is an obvious allusion to Genesis 22 where God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and . . .  sacrifice him . . . as a burnt offering.”  Abraham obediently took Isaac to the place designated for the sacrifice. Isaac, ignorant of the plan,  asked his father where the lamb was for the sacrifice.  Abraham was evasive and answered that the Lord would provide the lamb. Once they arrived at the site, Abraham bound Isaac with ropes and put him on the stone altar.

Negan makes the same demand on Rick–“Sacrifice your son!” or at least, permanently maim him.  We are clearly expected to interpret this scene in, in the light of Genesis 22, so here’s some background.

In Hebrew  culture, the first born belongs to God; Yaweh (the Hebrew name for God) has a claim on the first born as representative of the family (Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8) — the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

A foundational premise in The Walking Dead, the ancient Hebrews also understood that people were generally guilty of evil, either overtly or in their heart–usually both.  The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family and belonged to God as payment for this moral debt.  God’s demand of the sacrifice of Isaac was simply a calling in of the debt.  That’s how Abraham took it anyway.

So Negan is in the position of God, Rick in that of Abraham and Carl, Isaac.  It might be said that Rick and his “family” of survivors, owes Negan.  In season 6, Rick and a number of Alexandrians carried out a pre-emptive attack on Negan’s people, the Saviors.  The reason for the attack is that the Saviors were extorting supplies from the peaceful Hilltop community and Rick expects them to eventually do the same to his Alexandria community, so he proposes the attack.  Morgan, assuming the role of moral conscience, opposes the idea.

As evil as the Saviors are, we ought to have been a little disturbed by the nocturnal attack.  Rick walks into a room and finds a guy sleeping, and he silently presses a knife into his head. The guy never wakes up. This silent execution is repeated by Glenn and Heath.  They admit to each other that they have never killed a living human being. Heath can’t do it, so Glenn murders both in their sleep.  The entire Savior outpost is whipped out in two episodes.  And we see our heroes do some very questionable things.  They aren’t comfortable with them.  Carol even leaves the community because she can no longer handle the guilt of these events.

Negan has been wronged and, like the Hebrew God, is simply calling in the debt.  In the ancient, eye-for-an-eye legal code, he has a right to an arm and a life–this is his declared purpose for killing one of Rick’s people–which turns out to be two.  Both Glen and Abraham were a part of this clandestine first strike on the Saviors.

Although the Abraham of the Bible would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due, but Abraham’s blow never falls on his son.  Before he can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”

The demand for Carl’s arm, and the sudden and unexpected revocation of that demand solidly correlates Negan to Yaweh.  So what is the point of this allusion?

Is it meant to draw a comparison between the harsh demands of the God of the Old Testament?  If this is the case, the writers missed some pretty important elements of the story.  Immediately after the biblical Abraham is commanded to stop the sacrifice,

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

In Genesis 22, God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a substitute for Abraham’s family.  Christians draw a parallel between the ram and Christ who dies on the Roman cross as a replacement for sinners.  It’s a story where Grace is at the centre. The God of the Bible transfers the punishment for humanity’s moral failings upon himself.  It seems to me, in order to understand this pivotal scene in TWD, we need to look for the substitute, after all, Carl doesn’t lose his arm.   What is sacrificed in it’s place?  Rick’s strength or defiance is destroyed.  Negan can see it in his eyes; Rick is broken.

Negan’s method to achieve Rick’s submission to his will is coercion. Negan threatens to destroy Rick’s whole “family” if he doesn’t comply.  God, as represented in both the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, does not use force.  Although many elements of The Walking Dead’s season premiere and the story in Genesis 22, and the Gospels is similar, this difference is absolutely key.

To illustrate:  Imagine Negan making that whole season 6 finale speech that somebody must die.  And he does the “eeny meeny miny moe” thing, and then stops and says,

You are guilty and all deserve death for what you did to my people and what you’ve done to others since the dead began to walk.  Rick, don’t you know that human beings were made to do wonderful things in the world.  Yeah I know, the zombies complicate things, but they are no excuse.  You got distracted from that purpose, Rick.  And then you killed people.  And I am pissed about that Rick, and someone is going to die because of all the bad stuff you’ve done.

And then he nods and they bring a ram into the circle and smashes its head with Lucille, and they all sit down to a dinner of roast lamb.

A New Testament version would end with:

Remember Rick.  You and your people, all people actually, you were made to thrive, not just to survive.  I want you to get back on track Rick, start thriving.–because I love you Rick.

But that’s another episode.

The allusion breaks down because Negan isn’t comparable to God regarding righteousness.  Negan is far from righteous.  Rick has paid for his sins against Negan with the deaths of Abraham and Glen, but, to use biblical language, Negan is still piling condemnation upon himself.

I don’ think the writers of the show are trying to make some statement on the Old Testament God.  I think they are making a statement on guilt–Rick’s guilt, and that of his band of survivors.  In the world of The Walking Dead, our group of would be survivors might just be a new chosen people, who are called to return to humanity’s purpose.  To thrive in the world despite the zombies.  I am hoping that the allusion to the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac plays out with a form of redemption for Rick and the rest of the “family” as they seek their lost humanity.

Bad Theology in the “New” Doxology?

In Rants on October 9, 2016 at 8:37 pm

Praise 1New doesn’t necessarily mean improved.

This is certainly the case for “The New Doxology” by Gateway Worship.

The first verse of the new one is the same as that of the old one, but they’ve added a chorus.

This recent fad of taking some of the greatest hymns of the Christian faith and adding a little ditty of a chorus, presumably, to make it more palatable to a contemporary audience, is not bad in itself (unless, of course, as the cynic in me wonders, it’s just a cash grab–to produce a popular song without having to go through the trouble of writing one).  We like to sing choruses these days, so it’s fine to write one for the ol’ classics.

But at least make it a good one!  By “good” I mean that it ought well crafted poetically and it should be Biblical.

This is where “The New Doxology” misses the mark.  It has us singing bad, or at least weak, theology.

The original song, published in 1709 by Thomas Ken, emphasizes the extent of the praise that the Triune God deserves as the source of all blessings.  It is a call for all “creatures . . . below” to praise him.  Importantly, “creatures” doesn’t mean animals, but all things that were created.  “Creatures here below” is the entire physical creation–which he called “very good.”   The inclusion of the “heavenly hosts” in the injunction emphasizes that there is nothing that is not called to praise him who made it.  The scope of this particular line is cosmic.

With man’s sin, everything fell, so the Fall is cosmic too.  But God set into motion his plan to redeem everything–a Cosmic Redemption.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 19:28, where he speaks of the “the renewal of all things.”  In Colossians, Paul says that God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20).  We see the consummation of this Biblical theme in Revelation 21:1, with the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.  Genesis to Revelation point to a Cosmic Redemption–not just of human souls, but human bodies as well; not just of humans but of trees and mountains as well.

All this is packed into the old doxology.  But to make the new doxology we’ve added this:

Praise God, praise God, praise God, Who saved my soul
Praise God, praise God, praise God from Whom all blessings flow

In the light of the original hymn, which talks of creation in it’s broadest possible sense, the new chorus speaks of redemption in it’s most limited sense–God is the saviour of a single soul.  If it was a single believer, perhaps we could argue that, as we move from verse to chorus, we move from cosmic to individual.  That’d be kind of cool, but this chorus is not talking about a whole believer, but a piece of him.  The cosmic nature of God’s redemption has been reduced to a single human soul, simply so that we could use it as a rhyme for the word “flow.”

Christ Tomlin is up to much the same thing.  He added a ditty to one of the greatest (and most popular) hymns of the faith, Amazing Grace.  Besides the new bridge showing a complete lack of understanding of how metaphors are supposed to work (the line, “And like a flood His mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor; floods don’t reign, kings do), he brought back the sixth verse of the song, which had been dropped from hymnals, presumably because of its theology.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below
Will be forever mine

Here again salvation is limited to the individual; the rest of creation will “dissolve” and “forebear” to do what it was created to do.  It seems to me, if God is only able to redeem human souls from all that he made and called “very good,” the devil will have won and “all creatures here below” can give up their praising, for they are all doomed.

The idea that God saves only human souls to live with him in a spiritual heaven is contradicted by the Bible.  So where does this idea come from if not in the Bible?  Plato.  Plato believed that the physical world was distinct from and inferior to the rational world of Ideas.  When Christianity interacted with Greek culture, the ideas of Plato became Christianized.  The world of Ideals sounded a lot like heaven and we accepted the idea that physical and spiritual things are separate, and we took on the idea that the physical world is evil.  These are Greek ideas, not Biblical ones.

To sing of “The God who saved my soul” we are in danger of reducing God to a mere saver of souls.  Are we perpetuating the pagan idea that material things are not “good.” If so, we are reducing God’s concern, and consequently ours, from all things to just some things.

It was my impression, from listening to many sermons and podcasts of several different denominations, that the reductive “souls only” redemption was fading out.  After all, we no longer sing the old hymns that promulgated the idea.  But we’ve got  song writers stepping in to mess up the theology of a new generation of Christians.

If the good folks at Gateway actually believe that Christ redemption is for individual human souls then my critique still stands for the chorus still contradicts the verse.  For those congregations that believe in a cosmic redemption, please, let’s just use the “old” doxology, or write a chorus that represents the greatest of all blessings–Redemption–in its cosmic scope.

For more on this vision of holistic salvation:


Christians Can’t Simply Be Conservative

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants, Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on October 4, 2016 at 5:12 pm

Just the other day, I was listening to a pastor casually commenting on social issues, and underlying all his comments was the foundational belief that being Christian goes hand in hand with being conservative.

I have been uncomfortable with this attitude since I was in high school and have been arguing that on some issues, Christians ought to find themselves agreeing with the liberal positions.    I was recently introduced to the work of Dr. Barry Johnson.   I think he has provided me a way of communicating the dangers of believing that to be Christian is to be conservative or, if you want, Republican.

Johnson says that there are two basic kinds of arguments we find ourselves in.

There’s the kind where either you are right or you are wrong.  Let’s call these either/or disagreements.  In these instances, the purpose of the argument is to establish who is right and who is wrong. Theoretically, these arguments are resolved once the truth is established.

Sometimes we get into arguments where there isn’t a right or wrong answer–both/and disagreements.

For instance:

  • Is social media good or is social media bad?
  • Shall we save or shall we spend?
  • Is it better to development or  to preservation?
  • Action or Reflection
  • “You are either with me, or against me!”
  • Ford or Chevy
  • Liberal or Conservative

It is vitally important that people understand which sort of discussion they are in. When you think you are in an either/or argument, but it’s really a both/and disagreement, you are essentially arguing that inhaling is better than exhaling.

If there is no right answer and people are really passionate about their position, how can we possibly navigate through this minefield?

Barry Johnson has come up with a useful tool he calls it Polarity Management.

Let me use the question, Liberal or Conservative? to illustrate how it works.

I know many people will disagree with me here, but this question has no clear right or wrong answer.  It is a both/and discussion that many have made into an either/or argument.  I’ve placed the Christian view of this question, as I see it, into Johnson’s Polarity Management model.

polariz1The questions we want to address with the model is, “Liberal or Conservative? How can Christians best be the salt of the world?”  So in Johnson’s model we put the two neutral terms on the wings.  Christ told us to be salt in the world; he told us that we are to season, preserve and heal the world.  He also said that if we aren’t salt, we would be cast before swine.  Serious stuff.  On the model I have placed where we are headed, the “Higher Purpose” above and at the bottom, the “Deeper Fear,” or what lies in the opposite direction of the higher purpose.  All Christians, both liberal and conservative, have the same higher purpose and the same deeper fear.

The boxes just above the neutral terms describe the positive side of both options respectively.  On the liberal side we have collective responsibility and individual rights.  These are good things.  When Jesus calls us to be salt, he means that we must do what the law and the prophets have always told us to do: take care of the vulnerable.  In Biblical times, this was the stranger, the widow and the orphan.  If you translate this into contemporary terms it means we take care of the immigrant, the refugee, and the poor, for they are the vulnerable in our society.  This is a Biblical injunction, and if we don’t do it we are in danger of being cast before swine.  The reason we take care of the vulnerable is because of the Biblical view of humanity–everyone bears the Image of God.  The poor and the refugee are dear to God.  For the same reason, Christians ought to be very interested in the protection of individual rights.  These liberals principle is, then, biblical; it advocates loving one’s neighbour.  The liberal position also takes into account the Fallenness of humanity; they predict we will naturally be selfish and so use government action to ensure that our neighbours are loved.

Conservative ideals are also aimed toward saltiness.  Biblically, human freedom is almost as foundational as bearing God’s image, as is individual responsibility.  These conservative principles are also based on true understanding of the human condition, we are good, but fallen.

The lower boxes illustrate the “downside” of over-focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other.  If we neglect the good that we find in the conservative position we may end up in a bad place–as conservatives are very willing to point out.  But if we neglect the liberal ideals we, as Christians, will also lose our saltiness and end up in the eternal pig pen.

What we have, both in the culture at large and in the church, are people on both side of the political spectrum treating the argument as an either/or.  Both sides have an equally valid, alternate view of reality.  It is obvious to both that they are right which makes the other side wrong.  Consequently, problems are not being effectively addressed because to accept the natural solution is to suggest some legitimacy in their opponents position.  So they resist.  And their resistance is legitimate and they know it.

Both sides have an equally valid, alternate view of reality.


In an either/or argument, clarity is an asset if right is on your side.  In a both/and argument, the clearer you are the more resistant will be your opponent because it will be clearer to them that you are missing what’s right in front of you–their reality–and they are not wrong.

For Christians to be salt and light in the political sphere, they will have to abandon rigid adherence to just one side of the political spectrum.  They will have to see that there are two legitimate–Biblical–realities at play here.  The conservative Christians need to adhere to the positives of the conservatism, but they also need to respond with grace and generousity toward the negatives of the liberal reality, for by doing so, they may gain the benefits of that position.  In possession of the strengths of both sides, the Christian impact on the world is potentially far saltier than we currently are.