Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The trouble is...

"This world, I think, has maybe something wrong with it, something underneath. Either that or there's something wrong with me". Delores - Westworld: Dissonance Theory.

One of my Christmas Gifts this year was an exposition of Luke chapter 15, particularly, Jesus' famous parable told to the pious and the lost concerning the mercy of a loving Father towards two very different children. It's been fascinating reading the tome alongside watching the first season of HBO's startling examination of ourselves in the show, Westworld, particularly because I quickly realized that the theological item in question had pretty much entirely 'missed a beat' in its analysis of both ourselves and the wonder of the story from Jesus.

The book commences by seeking to say that Jesus' words were clearly addressed as much to the 'elder brother' (those who didn't see themselves as "sinners") as to the ones who recognized their need for grace, which is true, but the telling point for me in what Jesus says is how the story ends - the Father is entreating the pious son to cease his judgementalism and partake of the goodness of the moment, but there is no response to his request. In like fashion, of course, the scribes and 'teachers' of the law in the gospels principally deny Christ's call and continue to hound and trouble Jesus as He brings the decree of liberty to the lost, pressing their rejection until they gain, apparently, their goal of silencing Him in a cursed extinction at the hands of the Romans. The "wrongness" of the world and the evil beneath it are thus made plain here, and love and mercy are hated and spurned, even when it hangs explicitly before them upon a tree, requesting forgiveness for their violence.

My reason for giving this outline is because the book I've been reading commences by viewing the church today as, principally, a company of those who identify in measure not with the lost son, but with the one who views himself as certainly 'right' in his worth and deeds, hence we cannot reach out to the lost because of being lost in our own piety.

A couple of considerations here.

Luke tells us that there were two particular groups who Jesus addressed with this story. He also gives us this narrative as story 'three of three' in a group that all have a common theme - that which is lost, so the aim and intent in what's told is, no doubt, to convey a single message - to  borrow Delores' analysis in Westworld, there's certainly something wrong with us, that has made us wayward, so we are all indeed lost. The "righteous" son in story three is the story of someone who couldn't see his poverty because he was far too busy measuring up his virtue against that of his wayward brother, so no change was possible here. The wayward son had learned because of his sin that nothing he could do could ever make him worthy to be loved by His Father, but what mattered is that he discovers His Father's 'prodigal' (extravagant to the point of spending all) love in spite of his folly.

Church-goers who think that they are endowed with personal virtue that will keep them in Gods good graces without assistance are indeed inches from the flames, but is that the real problem the church is facing right now?

Jesus also told another parable we need to consider, which is found in Matthew chapter 13, verses 24 to 30, and explained in verses 36 to 43. In a nutshell, where the good news is proclaimed, there will always be 'good seed and bad' - those who truly trust in God's Son for their aid from start to finish and those who are merely treacherous mimics of such, whose intent, as Jesus would have put it, is to make others "twice as fit for hell" as they are themselves. Jesus plainly says this state of affairs will continue "until the end", so we can clearly expect to see both in our churches, but I don't think that is the reason Christians currently have such a difficult time seeking to bring the message of God's love to our world.

Westworld is the creation of one Dr Robert Ford, brilliantly portrayed in the show by Anthony Hopkins. In the first episode, Ford spells out for us the world-view behind his work - we are the result of millions of mistakes, nothing more or less, hence it is these causes that have concluded in us, so the behavior of the 'guests' in his world - to generally be as base as they desire - is predictable and therefore anticipated. What makes the scenario startling is the actions of both the guests and androids that isn't expected, pointing to more going on.

The world-view which so often informs our secular culture is that expressed by this inventor. It's very common now in the West to find the view that we're all just the results of our genes via a process of natural selection, so any notion of God or meaning is looked upon as ridiculous, even when the real state of affairs tells a much bigger story. Most people have accepted an entirely secular view purely because they were 'taught it at school' or by the latest BBC natural history show. The reality is that this one-dimensional perception of the world is fine for fictional shows, but it doesn't deserve to be the touchstone of our understanding of who and what we are.

So, to come back to the church, yes, there clearly can be issues when a "righteousness by pulling your self up by your own boot-straps" becomes the trend (Paul's letter to the Galatians shows us how this can happen and how to rectify this), but the reasons why the message of God's love are widely rejected today are somewhat more involved in respects to how they need to be understood, unpacked and countered. Self-righteousness is, no doubt, ultimately behind all philosophical and religious notions that think we can do it all ourselves, but the first road-block that needs to be removed in modern thinking is people's denial of the very God in whom they live and have life - then we can begin to address the matter of how they are reconciled to that through God's astonishing love.

I'll be interested to see what the rest of my Christmas present has to say about this story - it might even generate another blog post! I'll also be fascinated to see where Westworld seeks to take the question of our identity in its second season.

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