Welcome to Oxford—Get Lost

That’s a recommendation, not a threat.

My first full day in Oxford, I aimed myself towards the city center and walked. This turned out to be the right choice, as I happened upon the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs, the boathouse, and a dozen other “must see” sites.

So, I am left no choice but to conclude that this city has some underlying magic that guides wanderers to see what deserves to be seen. Much like my feet, this blog wanders a bit, but it gets somewhere eventually after retracing its steps and trying different streets. “Journey before destination.”

When I eventually meandered into the Ashmolean Museum, the same magic was at work.

For some strange reason, the other folks in the Ancient Near East exhibit didn’t mirror my hanging jaw.

“That’s the Enuma Eliš!”image1

“Those are reliefs of the apkallu!”

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“That’s the Epic of Gilgamesh!”

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“That’s the Sumerian King List!”

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I didn’t even know what three of those four things were two years ago, when I was last in this city. This is my third time in Oxford, which must make it one of the foreign cities I’ve visited most frequently, though I didn’t plan it. I suppose it’s the magic at work again.

I first came here when I was much smaller (contrary to popular belief, I was not always this tall, though the long hair was already a fixture). All I really remember from that visit is eating at the Eagle and Child and taking a photograph with a quotation from the iconic Merry and Pippin exchange from LOTR at the Prancing Pony.

The second time, I had just graduated from high school and was nervous but eager to enter higher education. Shortly after senior year ended, there was a school trip to England. And so, primed with thoughts about school, I walked around Oxford for a day, seeing a dozen of the colleges, making way for champagne-soaked students fresh out of their finals, punting down the river.

The city was much sharper in resolution that time than when I was little. Part of that is due to age of course, but the other part is personal development. I’d been thinking more about educationwhat it is for, what shapes it should take. And here was a city built of education. To this day, education is the largest employer in Oxford. Not much of a surprise when the university is older than the Aztecs by a couple of centuries (yes, really).

People have been teaching at Oxford since the late 11th century, nearly a millennium ago. Now that’s Old.

It’s hard to get a sense of the Old when you’re in America. When I see “Tattoo Parlor, est. 1997” on State Street, I think that’s old.

But Oxford is Old, and I liked that. I decided then, I would try to come back to this Old City of Learning. I didn’t realize I would be back quite so soon.

Now I’m here for the third time, and it is a charm.

I pass a half-dozen colleges on my way to get a sandwich. Professors and students roll by on bicycles. The architecture earns the place its nickname: the City of Dreaming Spires. I am partial to Gothic architecture, thankfully. The spectre of my Art History class in high school keeps haunting me here… If you’re interested, the columns on the Radcliffe Camera have Corinthian capitals, while the Ashmolean’s columns have Ionic capitals and those bracketing the entrance are fluted. Somehow that all makes sense, though I couldn’t explain how. All I know is that Corinthian suits the Radcliffe Camera, while Ionic suits the Ashmolean.

Also known as: the photo from Oxford you actually wanted me to post.

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Returning to what I saw inside the Ashmoleanit was Older still. And as I’ve said, I like Old things.

When I had last been in Oxford, before starting college, I only knew the Epic of Gilgamesh. Yesterday, I was transfixed by an apkallu‘s gaze (they are striking works of art, let alone the theological relevance). I’ve learned a lot these past two years, both at Westmont and independently due to the intrigue sparked by my classes. There’s untold more to learn, of course, but at least I know enough to get disproportionately excited by Old things in the ANE exhibit.

Again I wandered, this time across the hallway into Ancient China. It was a disorienting shift, to be honest. I don’t have much commentary on the art there, except to say it was beautiful. Funnily enough, one of the placards noted that a painting’s subject had been portrayed by the actress Shu Qi, who starred in a movie* we watched in Theology in Film. Liberal arts educations–you never know when they’ll come in handy.

Education does tend to surprise though. You never know when you’ll learn something that turns your world upside down. And you learn these things with other people. When you read a book, you start a conversation with someone from across space and time. 1600 years still isn’t enough distance to keep Augustine from blowing the minds of young theology students.

It also isn’t enough distance to keep me from ranting at Augustine in all-caps while annotating City of God Book XV, but he didn’t know about the apkallu, so we’ll let it slide.

But that’s how knowledge comes about. Premises and conclusions. Exchange of ideas. Agreement and disagreement. And–ahem–talking off another SCIO student’s ear about Babylonian myths. (Sorry not sorry.)

And that’s why I love it here in Oxford. It’s a place to get lost, talk about ideas, and occasionally play Russian roulette with hot wings or stumble upon an Anglican Vacation Bible School service. Those are different stories though, for a different time.

*Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons directed by Stephen Chow. It’s fantasy adventure meets romantic comedy meets Buddhism, if that’s your style.

The Divine Warrior’s Incarnation

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Christ Pantocrator mosaic from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48659808

The gospel according to Luke records how, upon Jesus’ birth, there appeared to shepherds “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!'” (Lk. 2:13b-14 ESV). It’s a popular scene from the Nativity story; many a young Christian has seen the Children’s Bible illustration of the harp-toting, white-robed angels that appeared to notify the shepherds of the baby Jesus’ birth.

While such an image of “the heavenly host” is charming, there’s something bigger–something more dramatic–to the scene. And it becomes obvious when you listen through the filter of the Old Testament. I think the CEB captures the nuance well: “Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God.”

An assembly of the heavenly forces?

Well that sounds almost militaristic…isn’t the Incarnation about God’s love for humanity?

The angelic assembly was more than just a luminary Christmas card from above (“Joy to the World!”), it was a divine proclamation of war–a war fought and violently won.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll sooner or later come across the epithet LORD of Hosts, or some of its variations. (Some dynamic equivalence translations will use LORD Almighty.)

Here’s an excerpt from the Lexham Bible Dictionary article “Lord of Hosts” by Dempsey Rosales Acosta:

The phrase “Lord of Hosts” communicates God’s role as a warrior who fights both in the cosmic conflict against divine forces and through human historical events for His people, Israel. The phrase appears 285 times in the Old Testament, with a high concentration in the Prophets (especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The Septuagint most often translates the Hebrew term “hosts” (צְבָאוֹת, tseva’oth) with the Greek term “Almighty” (παντοκράτωρ, pantokratōr; Zobel, “Tseva’oth,” 216–17).

Who is YHWH Tseva’oth? He is the Divine Warrior, the leader of heaven’s armies. He is the uncreated creator of all other gods, and he judges their evil (Ps. 82; Jer. 48:7). He is an active God, a powerful God, and a conquering God.

And roughly two-thousand-and-twenty years ago, he became incarnate as the man Jesus, the long-awaited Christ whom the prophets had foretold–the same prophets who saw the great salvific and judgmental deeds of the LORD of Hosts–and the armies of heaven sang to inaugurate his new campaign.

And the Almighty became a weak child. The Divine Warrior became a carpenter. The Lord of Heavenly Forces became a first-century Jew under Roman rule.

Because though the war was violently won, it was the Incarnate God who suffered the violence.

Jesus conquered by being crucified. He was powerful by hanging powerless. He took action by passively suffering.

Paul writes to the Colossians: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15 NIV). This is the paradoxical power of God the Son’s kenosis. By setting aside all his might, he claimed victory. It defies expectations; it breaks our system of logic. Truly, the weakness of God is stronger than any human conceptions of power (1 Cor. 1:25).

But the spiritual powers of darkness were not God’s only enemies. Who is it, after all, who follows the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2)? None other than us–God’s own image-bearers. And when God came to us, enfleshed as one of us…what did we do? Karl Barth observed that it was God’s greatest act of love that prompted humanity’s greatest act of evil–we killed God.

It bears repeating because of how oxymoronically offensive it is: We killed God.

Yet impossibly, human evil served divine love. God the Son became God-forsaken, because “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NIV).

This is how God freed us from our satanic enthrallment. Not by overturning Rome like the Jews had hoped (though the City of God outlasted Caesar’s). Nor by sending legions of angels to break open the Grave.

God freed us by sending the Son into the world as one of us. He came under political systems, economic regulations, and judicial codes. And God sent his Son into the Grave. His body was a gory mess; his tomb was sealed.

Of course, the Son’s entry into the Grave is not the end. As the Eastern Orthodox Church’s paschal troparion goes:

“Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!”

Jesus the Anointed One, God the Son, came to die, and death was too weak to hold him. On the third day he rose again, and because he rose we have the hope of rising again. We have the hope that all of creation will be reborn as new creation–the New Jerusalem.

And after Jesus rose again, he ascended into heaven. At his trial, Jesus quoted Daniel 7, saying that he would be seated “at the right hand of Power” (Mk. 14:62 ESV). He is there now, having been exalted and vindicated as Lord by the Father, who is glorified by his Son’s deeds (Phil. 2:8-11).

Now, recall that the Septuagint used the Greek word pantokratōr to translate tseva’oth.

I think it’s no coincidence that a particular way of depicting Christ became popular as the Church grew. A depiction of our Lord Christ, the golden light of heaven all around him, as he looks down upon the world. It’s called the Christ Pantocrator icon.

For nearly two millennia, we have worshipped Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Pantocrator. At Christmas, we celebrate his birth: his first coming from heaven to earth. He gave us hope through his life, death, and resurrection. And every day, we anticipate his coming again.

When he came the first time, the angels sang; at the second, the archangel will shout and blow the trumpet, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command” and we will rise again to everlasting life (1 Thess. 4:16-17 ESV). In this time between his Ascension and his Return–his Advent and his Second Advent–we worship and wait, always expecting the arrival of our Master and hoping for his favorable judgment over our faithful service (Matt. 25:23). “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10 ESV). We do this work not to earn his grace, but in response to the grace he has already given us. And we are “created in Christ Jesus,” both as part of creation by the preexistent Logos and as part of the new creation, having entered into it by putting on Jesus’ resurrection in baptism (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21).

And when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness, when the new creation is fully realized, the divine warfare will be over. For then we will perfectly and eternally do the good work of Jesus. This is why we are faithful, in preparation for when he rewards our faithfulness with greater responsibilities to reign in the new creation as divinized humans (Matt. 25:23; Rev. 2:26-28). Sin–which is itself nothing but perversion of the good that is–will be gone, because everything and everyone will be whole. And when we are whole, there will be no more corruption and rot; we will have a truly free will at last. Until that time, we have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, within us as a guarantee of what we are to acquire (Eph. 1:13-14).

So have a Merry Christmas as we celebrate the coming of the Christ, who has secured this hope for us and will consummate it at his coming again. Eternally divine from before time, he became eternally human and shall forever be so after time. He was born, he suffered, he rose again, and he is Lord, the LORD of Hosts. The birth of Roman emperors was often trumpeted as euangelion–good news. Well, the Christian’s euangelion is far better, far more provocative, and far more hopeful.

Our Great Divorce Celebration

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What would you think if someone, with great cheer, told you, “Today I’m celebrating the tenth anniversary of my divorce”?

You would likely assume (with good reason) that the marriage was terrible. Maybe their ex-spouse was insane or abusive; maybe there was an affair. It must have been atrocious. Why would someone celebrate the breakdown of a God-instituted union meant to survive any assault or breach of trust?

Let me reframe the question: what if some people told you they’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their parents’ divorce?

Last night, I went into town with some friends to get Mexican food. It had been a long week, stress-levels were high, and we desperately needed time away from campus. It was a reasonably sized group, seven or eight strong perhaps. The outdoor tables only sat two or three each, so we formed a loose configuration to fill our stomachs with salsa-slathered nachos and steak-stuffed burritos. I sat with two friends across from me: Mallory and Isabelle. I had only become their friend this semester, but we often ended up laughing (joyfully or pathetically) at meals about the ups and downs of college life.

There’s something invisible though. It’s not something we think about often, and if it ever comes up, we shrug and pass over it. The something didn’t come to my mind until later that night, and although I did not voice it when it appeared, it stuck in my head.

Soon enough, our group had moved to the beach. We braced ourselves against the biting wind with blankets and sat on a ledge overlooking the crashing waves. The occasional streak of light above us gave testament to our planet’s breakneck spin through debris-strewn space. The glittering stars above reminded us just how miniscule we are. We sang songs and didn’t care if we went off-key or forgot the lyrics. My friend Peter and I gave a chuckle-ridden (and cringe-inducing) rendition of the first half of “The General” by Dispatch. I actually did forget the last line of the chorus, so Peter was left to singly call out into the night: “Go now, you are forgiven.”

At some point between 11PM and midnight, I off-handedly mentioned to Mallory that I was looking to be baptized soon.

“What?”

“Yeah, unexpected right?”

“Hold up.” She cocked her head. “You—the Religious Studies major who gets excited over our Christian Doctrine homework—have never been baptized?” I shrugged and gave a brief explanation of my background, and I expected that to be the end.

“Well that’s great! You should tell us when so we can all come watch.”

My eyebrows went up. “Oh, I wasn’t even planning on telling many people. You want to come?”

“Of course, it’s a big day—your birth into the Lord.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said next because the something had slipped into my mind. Our parents are divorced, and I just realized the anniversary is coming up.

Mallory and Isabelle are Catholics. So is Bryan, in whose car I had come here. And so is Hannah, who I banter with over theology and philosophy in the Dining Commons (“The unexamined life is not worth living, so I might as well be vegan for a week”). As are a number of my other friends, as well.

This month is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Why would someone celebrate the breakdown of a God-instituted union meant to survive any assault or breach of trust?

Well, not everyone does. My pastor said, “The Reformation isn’t something we celebrate. It’s something we grieve over.”

However, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard a Protestant express that.

Now, I suppose I owe you an explanation. I’m not writing to explain how we can repair the age-old schisms—better minds have tried.

I’m not writing to guilt-trip anyone on either side of the divide either. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying all Protestants should drop their faith convictions and convert. I still confess Protestantism because I believe the Reformation did recover truths of the historic Christian faith. (Although, I think “started to recover” would be more accurate).

I am writing this primarily as a reminder. Yes, it’s for others, but it is especially for myself. It’s so easy to sigh and say the division of the Church is just a fact of life and we should just keep trundling along. It’s easier to demonize others (and for the record, one of my friends was told she worships the devil). Our churches become tribes, and our doctrinal statements become the gilded idols—forgive me if the word choice is too on-the-nose—over which we spill ink and blood.

What of the one faith? The one baptism?

I say, “I believe in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints,” and my heart twists a little. I really mean it, at least, that’s what I tell myself.

I’m not putting on rose-tinted glasses here. I’m not saying that we can solve the divisions, whether it be in this lifetime or a dozen after. It was my Christian Doctrine professor who I first heard say, “We’re the children of divorced parents.” The more I think of the analogy, the more I see its jagged truth.

Might as well ask the basic question… Was the Reformation a good thing or a bad thing?

If you know me, then you might be groaning because you’ve anticipated my answer: There’s more than one right answer, and it depends on the definitions.

If a good thing is something that has good effects, then yes it was.

If a bad thing is something that has bad effects, then yes it was.

If a good thing is something that God ordains and wisely wields to his ends, then yes it was.

If a bad thing is something that people do against God’s commands, then yes it was.

A divorce, indeed. You could really fit any other number of tragedies into this paradigm though, such as the rejection of Jesus by the Jews (note Paul’s answer to this issue in Romans 11).

Since this is about the Reformation though, I’ll explore this idea through the quintessential Reformer.

People tend to forget that Martin Luther did not want to cause a schism. Reforms, after all, are applied to the body one is already in. Luther never broke away from the Catholic Church; the Catholic Church excommunicated him. I’m not going to defend or criticize the process by which all this occurred since countless resources already exist for those interested in such discussions.

Luther, like all of us, was good and bad. Both a saint and a sinner. Both a writer of beautiful theology and a fount of vitriol (no wonder he wanted to remove James from the canon).

For good and evil, his influence has stretched through the centuries. He started a movement that brought Bibles into the hands of the common people and restored vitality to the faith of millions of Europeans. That said, he also despised Jews, and it goes without saying that he wasn’t the last German to think along those lines.

Now, despite his flaws, we still hold up Luther as an exemplar of Christian boldness and piety. We do this with all saints we look up to, whether they be living family members or long-dead martyrs. We have to take the good things in spite of the bad. I’m certain Luther had the same conviction on All Saints’ Day as his freshly nailed Theses hung from the church door.

So, I don’t place any stock in hopes that Christians will solve all their disputes this side of eternity. Besides, the issue has been further complicated by the Protestant obsession with splitting over disagreements. Rather than resolve three main bodies, we would have to resolve a few thousand and then think about the central problem.

Where I do have hope is in the everyday. There may no longer be a communion of saints as the authors of the Apostles’ Creed envisioned, but there is a more mundane communion of saints—one I have already shown you.

There is the tear-filled laughter over hilarious stories in a Chinese restaurant. There is the tangible reassurance of an embrace that wordlessly says everything will be all right when everything seems to be falling apart. There are knowing looks and rolling eyes, sardonic smiles and painful sighs. Like I said, it’s been a long week, but it’s been a week with the best of people: my brothers and sisters.

I can’t resolve centuries of ecumenical disputes, but I can get utterly and incontrovertibly hyped over taking a World Religions class with Hannah and my best friend Austin. And hey, that’s a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, and an Eastern Orthodox. There are wounds that run deep, but there are ways of healing that defy expectation. Bonds of friendship emerge from the casual and unassuming conflux of eternal lifestreams. Trust and love are born from shared suffering. All the while, we pursue the meaningful diversity-in-unity that has characterized the body of Christ since our Christ’s eyewitnesses still walked the earth.

We will disagree about the Eucharist, and we will feast together around more common tables. We have different views of Mary, but we call her the Mother of our God (unless you’re a Nestorian, in which case I have bad news from St. Nicholas). We might not pray to saints, yet we certainly pray with them.

Our disputes cannot be swept under the rug and simply ignored, but to make them into battering rams and trebuchets is merely the equal and opposite extreme. Jesus prayed that we would be one as he is one with the Father. I’m not aware of any genuine, loving unity that has resulted from acid tongues, ad hominems, and simply being ignorant of one another’s beliefs.

And so, as we move towards the Last Day, we always remember what we must do in response to those freeing words that echo into the long-suffered night: “Go now, you are forgiven.”

Dawn is about to break; a Marriage is coming soon.