For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:12 – New International Version
Many people are preoccupied with the wrong war, I suspect. At least, if I speak just for myself, over the last few weeks I have been utterly preoccupied with war updates and the progress of the latest war. Even now as I write this, I find it hard to resist the temptation to go online and check the news. And from what I hear, I am not the only one. In fact, I know I am not the only one who is preoccupied with the latest war news. Many of us have been figuratively glued to our devices and televisions. We are understandably mesmerized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But it is not the only ongoing war. There are many, many others. Furthermore, it might not even be the most important war.
Now, I know that might sound naïve of me. I can imagine someone reacting with: “Of course it’s the most important war! It’s the most important war since World War 2! Don’t you realize that we might be on the brink of World War 3?! We might be on the brink of a nuclear war!”
Yes, I do realize that. I know that the invasion of Ukraine could even potentially escalate into a nuclear war. And yes, I agree that the stakes here are incredibly high.
But I remind myself (and now you) there are imperceptible battles being fought every hour and all around us for the loyalties of human hearts, the content of maturing minds, and the purity of contested souls. Are these more immediate, less noticeable battles not even more important than the glaring, blaring war in Eastern Europe?
To use a line from an old song, we could win the war over there, but lose the one at home.
And this is my prayer [for y’all]: that your love (ἀγάπη) may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that y’all may approve what is superior, and so y’all may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
The Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:9-11
No, you haven’t seen or heard this particular and peculiar translation of Philippians 1:9-11 anywhere before, because I just crafted it. In this blog post, I want to emphasize several points that often go overlooked or unmentioned, so I tinkered with the translation here and there.
Native English speakers (and Yankees in particular) often miss the nuance of number present in a pronoun.
I mean, in English the pronoun you can be either singular or plural. And that inherent sloppiness frequently messes up us English speakers. We often read you as singular when it is actually plural. And it actually matters here in Philippians 1:9-11. Paul is not praying for an individual Christian; he is praying for an entire congregation of Christians.
One way for us to get around this inherent sloppiness is to adopt a regional idiom — a southern-ism — and simply say y’all. Although it might come across as irreverent or cheeky, the invocation of y’all makes the necessary point. Paul prays for all the Philippian Christians, not a single person.
Paul prays that the Philippians as a congregation will abound more and more in love. That would be considered an entirely uncontroversial prayer, right? Who would have a problem with love, love, abounding love? No one.
But realize that Paul qualifies his prayer a bit. Paul prays for abounding love that is also accompanied with knowledge and discernment. Charitable human love can (and often does) lack knowledge and discernment. It can be naïve and gullible. It can be woefully incapable of making necessary distinctions. Presupposed here is that some things (that is, some beliefs, intentions, efforts, policies, or actions) are worthwhile, whereas other things (again – beliefs, intentions, efforts, policies, and actions) are worthless or even insidious. Charitable human love, in itself, might not be able to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Charitable human love always needs to have the assistance of knowledge and discernment to make the necessary distinctions, or in Paul’s words, “to approve of what is superior.” Thus Paul prays that the Philippians would have ever-abounding love plus knowledge and discernment.
But I need to go back to my previous point about this being addressed to a community, not an individual person. This dynamic of love and discernment necessarily occurs in intentional, fully engaged community. This dynamic of love and discernment does not and cannot occur in neglected, disengaged isolation. Therefore, the fulfillment of Paul’s prayer required the active and regular participation of the Philippian congregation. And the fulfillment of a similar prayer today will require the active and regular participation of our Christian communities.
In my estimation, we desperately need this prayer to be presented and answered today.
Weeks before the current war between Russia and Ukraine began, I started reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Now, with the most recent Russian belligerance (courtesy of Vladimir Putin), the book has proven to be very, very timely. Although it harkens back about fifty plus years, suddenly almost everything Solzhenitsyn talks about fits own day: Back to the USSR… lucky us.
In case anyone is confused as to what the Gulag Archipelago actually was, Solzhenitsyn refers not to a literal archipelago of islands in a lake, sea, or ocean, but instead to the vast complex of gulags that comprised the sprawling Soviet prison system. Solzhenitsyn himself was a zek, a prisoner in the Gulag Archipelago, for much of his adult life.
Here are two sequential pages (pp. 312-313 of my personal copy of the offical abridged edition), containing some of the most frequently quoted passages in the book. On these two pages Solzhenitsyn reflects on his own personal transformation during his time as prisoner:
During his time in the gulags Solzhenitsyn went from being an atheistic Marxist to a committed Christian.
The first four words of Isaiah 43:10 are etched in white capital letters into the black tile walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: YOU ARE MY WITNESSES. And, lest you have any doubt that the reference is indeed to that passage of scripture, ISAIAH 43:10 is also etched in centered white capital letters immediately below those four words.
Someone somewhere wants every Holocaust Memorial Museum visitor to leave the building with the clear conviction of having been a witness — a personal witness — of the horrors, atrocities, and crimes to which the Jewish people were subjected during the 1930s and 40s in Europe.
“The passage is taken completely out of context and errantly misapplied.” And that would be an echo, the voice of one of my late college professors. Yet it is only the displaced memory of his voice. Had he personally visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum with me I suspect my professor would have respected the solemnity of the place by refraining to make such a comment there. But the echo of his old lecture had its intended impact on me. I realized that for all their weight those four etched words from Isaiah were taken completely out of context and misapplied in that setting.
Or were they?
To be sure, since only four words (of the approximately forty words in the verse) are found etched there, the passage has certainly been taken out of its immediate literary context.
Moreover, the Holocaust Memorial Museum applies those four words to its various visitors, who are definitely not the originally referenced witnesses of Isaiah 43:10.
So, yes, definitely — the passage has been taken completely out of context and errantly applied. But in another ironic and unintended way, those etched words are exactly perfect there, in that precise setting, because the passage, when considered in its broader context, actually does go a long way in explaining some of the hardest questions of the Holocaust.
As for the verse itself, here it is, in its entirety:
“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”
Isaiah 43:10 New Internation Version
An immediate observation: If the designers of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had put Isaiah 43:10 in its entirety upon the wall, museum visitors would have been perplexed at it. It would have seemed a brazen theological declaration, completely out of place for a museum and more appropriate for a synagogue or a church. So they settled on just four words: YOU ARE MY WITNESSES. And yet they decided to include the reference to Isaiah 43:10, thereby invoking the authority of God, at least in the consciousness of peoples of the Book.
As a person of the Book, I appeal to it. Go look at and contemplate that verse from Isaiah. But look beyond it as well. Consider its broader context. Ask the most academic questions of the text, such as:
Who are the LORD’s witnesses? And who is the Servant whom the LORD has chosen? Are the witnesses and the Servant one and the same entity? What exactly does the LORD want His witnesses to observe? What does the LORD want his witnesses to give testimony about? Why is it significant that the LORD’s witnesses know and believe that “I am He”? Why that particular strange expression: “I am He”? Is that expression a reference to something else, something said earlier in Scripture? Why does the LORD stress that there are no comparable gods, even throughout the entire scope of time? Why does the LORD subtly berate and negate gods that are “formed”?
These are called “leading questions”; and I do hope they will lead my readers as they think through the meaning of Isaiah 43:10.
Here are a few suggested answers:
In the original context of Isaiah, the LORD’s witnesses were God’s chosen people, the Jewish people. By extension, today the LORD’s witnesses may be God’s chosen people. In my estimation, we can cross out the words “may be” and replace them with “are.” God’s chosen people (past and present) are the witnesses mentioned in Isaiah 43:10.
As for who the chosen Servant is, be aware that this is a very controversial question. Typically, this is precisely what divides Jews and Christians. Jews assert that the LORD’s chosen Servant must be the Jewish people as a whole. Christians reply that the chosen Servant of this passage is the Messiah, the Christ. To answer the question for yourself, you need to read beyond the immediate verse. You need to look at the surrounding passages. Please do.
What does the LORD want his witnesses to observe? According to the verses immediately preceding Isaiah 43:10, the LORD wants them to observe how He has gathered the Jewish people from every direction and from all the places they have been scattered.
What does the LORD want his witnesses to testify to? He wants them to testify to his sole supremacy and power in regathering his chosen people.
Why is it significant that the LORD’s witnesses know and believe that “I am He”? That exact expression is a reference to the appearance of the LORD to Moses at the burning bush, when and where the LORD revealed his name to Moses, a name which is a variation on “I am.” The LORD wants his chosen people to recognize Him as the same God who delivered them from the start of their nation.
Why does the LORD stress that there are no comparable gods? He does so because time and again the sin of idolatry resulted in the exile of the Jewish people. The LORD goes on to berate and negate those idolatrous, empty gods because they are not worthy of his chosen people.
That, then, is one informed contextual reading of Isaiah 43:10.
When the designers of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum chose to etch Isaiah 43:10 on a wall, they actually (though unintentionally) chose to reference a very relevant history-unpacking verse, which speaks precisely to the historical predicament of the chosen people of God.
If you could assign and compel all your friends to read one hundred books, which books would make your list of required reading?
One book I would very seriously consider including on my list is the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitzyn. Hopefully, the book sounds vaguely familiar to you. If so, it may be because Time Magazine declared it the best nonfiction book of the 20th century. And Solzenitzyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. But still, few people I know have actually sat down and read it. I had not until this year.
Currently, I am both reading it and listening to an audio version of it, read (in perfect American English) by Solzhenitzyn’s son Ignat. Ignat must have lived here in the United States for at least a while, because he speaks both Russian and English fluently. His fluency with both languages and familiarity with both cultures proves to be a big help to those of us listeners who do not speak Russian or know much recent Russian history.
Should you decide to read or listen to it, I definitely recommend the abridged version, not the unabridged version. Why? Well, the unabridged version of The Gulag Archipelago is very, very long. It requires the diligence and perseverance of a reader who has the time to devote to three volumes of some very dark and heavy material. I knew right from the start that I would only have the time to devote to a single volume; and thus I opted for the abridged version.
Incidentally (and this may come as a surprise), the book does have relevance to eschatology and the Book of Revelation. How so? Well, the most significant point of connection is the tyranny of totalitarianism. The Book of Revelation speaks of a future tyrant, a totalitarian figure known as the Beast from the Abyss.
Connectedly (in my thinking, at least), the Gulag Archipelago tells the tale of what happens to a country under the strong arm of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism occurs when a government decides it deserves the ultimate allegiance of its populace. Said slightly differently, totalitarian regimes effectively declare themselves to hold the place that only God rightfully holds. A totalitarian regime demands the absolute devotion of its citizens. In so doing, it puts itself in the place of God. By requiring and compelling all its subject to submit (i.e., bow down) in servile submission (i.e., worship), it fashions itself into an idol, a subsitute for God.
The Gulag Archipelago shows how the Soviet leadership, and especially Stalin, methodically did just that. The Soviets demanded the absolute compliance and devotion of their citizens. And to achieve their idolatrous goal, they would (and did) use any and all horrifying means to coerce it.
Based on my study and understanding of the Book of Revelation, I want to suggest that whenever you see a government tending towards totalitarianism, you may well be seeing a foreshadowing of the ultimate Beast to come, the Beast from the Abyss. I believe that the Soviet Union was a very recent case study in how that future Beast will likely behave.
The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading, if only to make a relatively free people realize what can (and will) happen when they lose their freedom to a totalitarian regime.
Your assignment: Write a brief book report from a biblical and Christian perspective about the autobiographical book Night, by Elie Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Hello Professor, if you are still living, I hope this note finds you well. Although over thrity years have passed since you gave us the assignment to write a book report on Night, I thought I should perhaps submit a complete revision of it, since back then I had neither the breadth of historical knowledge nor the depth of biblical learning to do an adequate job of it. Moreover, like some other readers have commented (in Amazon’s review section), I agree that Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account is important enough to be revisited occasionally. One time through is simply not enough. And thirty years was too long of an interim.
To start this new, hopefully improved report, may I give you my visceral reaction to Night? It left me utterly horrified. At times, I had to force myself to keep reading, due to the sheer awfulness of what Wiesel had to endure. As an autobiographical account, this is much, much more than a mere book. Frankly, at times I could not bear, nor did I want to countenance Wiesel’s story. However, I knew I must. Something compelled me to keep reading, keep listening, perhaps because it really, actually happened. Paradoxically, Wiesel’s account is at once repulsive and absorbing. I managed to re-read the entire book in less than a day.
Professor, one of the perplexing things I want to mention is that exactly the same sort of awful mass atrocity happened a just few years after I was first assigned to read the book. If Wiesel wrote Night in an effort to prevent yet another genocide… well, I wish I could say that he succeeded, but not so. In 1994, another almost unthinkable ethnic genocide occurred in the African nation of Rwanda. Perhaps if enough Rwandan college students had been assigned to read Night in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the genocide there would never have happened. Who knows? Perhaps the idealistic efforts of educators like yourself will someday make a dent. Perhaps you and yours and me and mine can help prevent human beings from repeating these sort of horrors. Perhaps, Professor. But I wonder if educational efforts are adequate to the task of transforming the moral flaws in human nature.
Please allow me to continue waxing philosophical. Funerals are sad affairs, which we attend if we must. But emotionally, we can only handle so many funerals. For me, this book was like binging on a whole series of funerals. Do we not find it intolerable — to the point of impossible — to consider the kind of horror, inhumanity, and terror depicted in Night? After a while, I do. Most people, I suspect, really do find it nigh-to-impossible to contemplate something this dark and bleak. That is why stories like these are not popular reading material. That is why we often need to be constrained to listen to bleak and dark accounts like these.
Yet the possibility of finding meaning makes such accounts compelling. Most of us dearly want our lives to actually matter, somehow. Most of us don’t want to believe the nihilist line. We don’t want to believe that “[life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” to quote Shakespeare. Speaking for such meaning-seekers, I will say that we want to make sense of such experiences — especially when they are dark and bleak. To think that Wiesel actually went through all these manifold horrors! “Hell on earth” was a phrase that came to mind. And if not hell on earth, I propose it safe to say that he lived through something proximate to it.
Theologically, what if it was? What if his experience was hell on earth, or something proximate? What if that was the point of it all? I mean, how can we make sense theologically of what Wiesel experienced? In the face of such horror, consider our interpretive options, Professor. What are they, exactly? Doesn’t the reflexive reaction of “he went through hell on earth” force us to begin thinking theologically about the Holocaust?
This is where the “Where was God?” question necessarily must be addressed. To say that Wiesel was God-conscious through all the horrors simply demonstrates that I read the book (twice now, actually). “Where is God? Where is He?” This was the question one of Wiesel’s fellow prisoners asked when they were forced to watch the hangings of two men and a boy. And notably, Wiesel ends up losing his faith — not in God, per se, but in the goodness of God. “I was the accuser, God the accused,” says Wiesel.
So maybe that is another interpretive option: These kinds of horrors happen because God is simply not as good as He is cracked up to be. My guess is that a lot of people will conclude just that, if and when they reflect on those who “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote another famous line from Shakespeare.
But where would that leave us? If we conclude that maybe God exists, but is somehow less worthy than we have heard and hoped, what then? What do we do with that?
Our two interpretive options thus far leave us without much hope. On one hand, we can opt for a nihilistic explanation: Life has no overarching meaning. On the other hand, we can opt for a lesser-God option: If God exists, you cannot and should not count on Him.
Are there any other options? Are there any additional hands?
Someone might suggest that the best we can do is make our own meaning in life. As far as I can tell, that is not substantially different than the nihilistic option. It’s just puts the most optimistic spin possible on the nihilistic option. Okay, we can try to make meaning of our lives. But how long will such meaning last? And to whom will it matter?
If a good, eternal God actually exists, He can ensure that all the misery and horrors of our lives will matter, and will be vindicated. Aside from such a God, meaning in life cannot be guaranteed. And justice certainly cannot be guaranteed.
Therefore, I am compelled by hope to hold on to God. I do not want to give up on the good God option, in spite of all the horrors and the injustices faced by Elie Wiesel and the other victims of genuine “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And whereas Wiesel wanted to accuse God of injustice, I want to exonerate God somehow. And I think Scripture shows us exactly how to exonerate God, because it gives God’s perspective on these issues.
But it will be tricky task, because this is a zero-sum proposition. Wiesel is right about one thing: We do have to take sides. In the face of horrors and atrocities like Auschwitz, we have to either accuse God or excuse God. As a Christian, I feel compelled to excuse, or rather defend, God. Moreover, in Scripture God defends Himself against just such accusations — quite often, actually. If you want to read a particularly pertinent selection from Scripture, start with the Book of Isaiah chapters 8, 9, and 10, which, in context, is a passage initially about the Assyrian invasion of ancient Israel, but seems to speak beyond its immediate context to another time, even the time that Elie Wiesel himself lived through.
Professor, for the sake of brevity, I am going to pause here. I hope to come back to this and speak more about the pertinent passage in Isaiah, as well as other biblical passages.
Two problematic, contrary strains exist within American Evangelicalism. The first is a smug, smarter-than-thou, prejudicial and elitist intellectualism. The second is a lazy can’t-and-won’t-be-bothered-to-think anti-intellectualism. Both are bad. Both are a persistent threat to the growth of a disciple’s faith.
Which is the more toxic strain, though? That’s a good question, and a tough question. At first glance, it is hard to say. However, if forced to choose, I would would say the former is worse than the latter. Yes, I see smug intellectualism as even worse than lazy anti-intellectualism, because smug-intellectualism ultimately deceives more gullible people than lazy anti-intellectualism. In the long run, smug intellectuals are far more influential than lazy pew-sitters.
That said, the irony is that two strains (or trends) actually have a symbiotic relationship. The lazy are content to let the smug do the hard thinking for them. And the smug need the lazy to continue being lazy, lest someone seriously challenge their assertions. It would be bad if the smug were exposed as flawed. It would be especially bad if the smug were exposed as charlatans.
But they often are. They often are charlatans.
That is harsh, I admit. And perhaps it is a bit less than fair. Sometimes the smug are not entirely smug; they’re actually a mixed bag. They are indeed right about a lot of things. They have real integrity, to a degree. They have done their homework diligently and have come to the right conclusions. And yet, at the very same time, there are certain subjects and touchy topics where they lack integrity. In those particular areas, they have not done their homework sufficiently, nor have they come to the right conclusions. But the lazy ordinary folks, the hoi polloi, need not know that, should not know that.
The accompanying problem is that they, the smug, often achieve and then hold official positions of prestige. Once you have an honorary title and receive regular compensation, you are obliged to the institution, the guild, or the denomination. And you quickly realize it is best for your professional future not to contradict what everyone seems to know as capital T truth. Your colleagues and superiors will surely notice any deviance. So you tow the party line. And you parrot the pre-approved talking points.
These are the dynamics that routinely play out in schools, churches, and institutions. Breakthrough change often necessarily comes from a brave soul on the periphery. Numerous historical examples come immediately to mind. They were often seen as misfits and pests in their own time. But history ultimately vindicates them. More importantly, God ultimately vindicates them.