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Your Money or Grace: You can’t have Both

In Christ and Culture, Rants on December 22, 2012 at 2:45 am

Untitled pictureOver two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!” I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If our taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m on vacation when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to work’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.

It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to this post.

Still, it’s been bugging me for months and then I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here she not only describes the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook post, but she identifies its cause—one that would be completely eliminated with a basic understanding of the gospel, more specifically, the part about Grace.

Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends, “Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.” She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries, they are gifts. And so is the help—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.” Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted to report things honestly. For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality. Mr. Greenleaf actually ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf. But she doesn’t see any of it. She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives.

Mrs. May’s rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols. Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.” The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property. In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.” Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” on to the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

Mrs. May resented the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she both takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.”

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

O’Connor’ whole point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

And you have all this either as an act of divine will or, if you’re not religious, as an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.

The appropriate response for grace in any form is gratitude and not resentment. When we understand everything we have as a gift, we are far more willing to give it away—and support our government giving it away on our behalf.

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

If Mrs. May had Facebook, she certainly would have “liked” the photo. But she had no understanding of grace.

Pious Cliché

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 14, 2012 at 3:44 am

In the book Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says that the separation of grace and nature does a disservice to both.  Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene (see previous post).  And emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.

It didn’t take long to think of a great example for this one.  What “spiritual” thing has been emptied of almost everything physical?

If O’Connor is correct, this thing will only suggest devotion, but will be so over used that it is almost meaningless.

The Cross? The central symbol of the Christian faith?

I saw a young man in full “gangsta” attire sporting a bejeweled rosary.  I suppose it’s possible he was a Catholic, but it’s just as likely that he wore similarly adorned dog tags the next day.  If so, I also would have doubted he was a veteran.

When purchasing a cross to wear as a pedant, charm or earring, do people actually care about the particular origin of the design, or do they just buy the one that strikes their fancy?  There are many varieties of crosses: Cathedral, Orthodox, Celtic, Greek, Russian, Byzantine, Latin, Maltese, Jerusalem, Huguenot and many more.  I have an ancestor that was a Huguenot so I could wear that one with some legitimacy.  Or is it good enough to be a Christian to legitimately wear any cross?  My concern is that, for many, the first association of the cross around their neck is not that it is actually a Roman torture and execution device.

. . . crossing the line between physical and spiritual

How do we rectify this?  If O’Connor is right, we need fill the spiritual, once again, with the physical.  We need to be introduced to the physical dimensions of the crucifixion.  A lot of people have written on this and many Good Friday sermons have been preached on it.  If you have not ever heard of the tortures of crucifixion read one of these articles.

The Cross, emptied of its physicality becomes pious cliché.  I suppose it’s fine to put a cross around your neck, but it ought to be scandalous. Isn’t it scandalous for the son of the most high to be shamed, tortured and executed on this device?  The heart of the Gospel is in the answer to the question, Why would those who love him wear a symbol of this obscenity?

Read “Pious Cliche – Revisited”

Precious Moments and Pornography

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm

A friend of mine sent me this link of some great images: http://rachelheldevans.com/realistic-moments.

These cartoons are a lot like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor—a little disturbing, but also funny.  Like O’Connor’s stories, the cartoons expose a tendency for Christians to be too sentimental about aspects of their faith.  Some stories are more easily sentimentalized, than others—the nativity for instance–but it is no more appropriate to over emphasize the sweetness of the nativity than it is to clean up the raw violence of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon.

In the book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor suggests the reason for this sort of sentimentality is that Christians often conceptually separation nature and grace—or to use different terms, the physical and the spiritual realities.

Historically, this has been a division with which many Christians were comfortable.  Many used to believe that the things of the body (eating, sex, etc.) were inferior to the things of the spirit (prayer, or Bible reading for instance).  Perhaps, many still do.  The extreme expressions of this view would regard sex as evil–as original sin.  On the surface, things seem to be improving a little; people can see that the food they eat has a spiritual dimension and that prayer is, in part, a physical act.  But the separation of nature and grace is more insidious than one might think.

I offer the Precious Moments paraphernalia that occupies the shelves and mantels in many Christian homes as evidence that the nature/grace dichotomy is still with us.  And even if we don’t display it in our homes, it still is part of our mental adornment.

. . . crossing the line between nature and grace

The separation of the two does a disservice to both grace and nature.  Emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.   Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.  Although preferring the former, many Christians fail to understand the similarity between the sentimental and the obscene—Precious Moments and pornography.  The similarity is a result of the same foundational problem—both are nature emptied of the spiritual and as such are both are excesses of sentimentality, one in the direction of innocence and the other in the direction of the erotic.

Precious Moments figurines are nothing if not a sentimental celebration of innocence.  I don’t own the Precious Moments Nativity Scene but I saw an ad for it in a magazine.  It comes with all the requisite humans and animals—including a shepherd and two sheep.

I have raised sheep and the cute little ceramic balls of white, ceramic fluff bear as little resemblance to my lambs as I do to the figurine shepherd.  Don’t get me wrong, a natural lamb is quite adorable, but you don’t just get the adorable.  If you touch it, you will smell like lanolin, a smelly oil that permeates the wool.  The stink sticks to you and it won’t come off with soap and water.  Although I am sure lanolin is very handy for the sheep it’s not a scent that works very well in civilization.  Further, life on the farm is not conducive to a white animal, nor is the natural consequences of all the grass and feed they consume.  Now don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed being a shepherd, even with the selenium shots, hoof-trimming, shearing, prolapses and bottle feeding.  The point is, the there was more to a lamb than cuteness and cuddliness.

The Precious Moment sheep are a sentimental distortion of actual sheep where everything is stripped away except innocence. O’Connor correctly points out, we lost our innocence in the Fall, and “our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it.”  The Precious Moment figurines offer simple innocence, or simply offers innocence–but this denies it’s cost, and innocence comes at great cost.

According to O’Connor, pornography, too, is essentially sentimental.  It is the erotic for the sake of the erotic.  Just like the Precious Moments lambs isolates innocence, pornography separates the erotic from sex “and its hard purpose,” by which I think she means, conception and birth and childrearing, likely followed by a life full of the joys and hardships of parenting.

How do we avoid the loss of meaning that results from this sentimentalizing?  O’Connor was insistent that our sense of the supernatural ought to be grounded in concrete observable reality.  Those of us who believe that there is a spiritual reality need to take the next step and see the physical world as infused with the transcendent.  Without the separation, the erotic is not obscene but a gift from our creator.  Without this separation, the lamb is both one of the cutest things that have walked on the planet, and one of the most annoying.  Sorta like every human being I have ever met.

There’s a reason why the Bible refers to God’s people as sheep–somehow we are both adorable and disgusting.