By In Culture, Film

Beauty and the Mark of the Beast

beast

“Winter turns to spring / Famine turns to feast / Nature points the way / Nothing left to say / Beauty and the Beast.” -Mrs. Potts

 

“Sleep is an image of death that is repeated every night. So the morning is the image of the resurrection. So the spring of the year is an image of the resurrection.” –Jonathan Edwards

How will the dark curse be broken? Sacrificial love. In the stunning new remake of Beauty and the Beast, Disney stayed true to this central theme. And why shouldn’t they? After all, it’s a “tale as old as time.” It’s the epical story of resurrection and the path thereunto. Indeed, the curse being broken by love is the story of all time, true as it can be.

The curse leveled by the beggar-woman in the opening scene is death, but not an immediately obvious sort of death. Those under the curse, while turned to dishware and furniture, can still move, speak, etc. Yet, they are somehow not themselves. The longer they live under the curse, the less themselves they become. It’s hard to hear Mr. Clocksworth lament, “I feel myself becoming less human” without being aware of one’s own inhumanity. Who hasn’t felt like a shadow of who they’re created to be? On a heart level, even if one doesn’t believe in the deep magic found in Scripture, who hasn’t nevertheless longed for the spell under which we live to be broken?

The only path back to life is love, and Belle—the stranger held captive in the castle—is lovely. Naturally, the creatures of the house seek to charm Belle into love. Likewise, the Beast bangs on the door, demanding a romantic dinner. Yet, their salvation can’t be secured by such measures.

Ironically, love comes when Belle is released from captivity, as she runs away from the property back to her father. In a beautiful scene on the castle’s balcony, Belle asks the Beast, “Can anyone truly love who isn’t free?” At that, the Beast turns Belle away. By the end of the movie, the Beast and the entire castle-staff die. And Belle weeps.

While Belle is good, she’s not the Beast’s good, not yet. Taking her life giving kiss—which she only offers at the end of the movie—without first sending her away would have been temporary security, but a final sort of death ultimately. On the balcony, the Beast understands a deep mystery; love will come through loneliness, Spring through Winter, feast through famine. So he sends Belle away and walks into the darkness.

In Scripture, life always comes through first choosing death. The way up is down. Commenting on Revelation, Peter Leithart makes the easily missed point that seal and mark are juxtaposed from one another. Those 144,000 people sealed by God in chapter 7 are set-aside for death. Those with the mark of the beast in chapter 13, however, are free to buy and sell goods—they feast, they live. Says Leithart:

“Those who do not receive the mark of the beast do die, but their death is a passage to renewed life. The unmarked, those sealed for death, rise again and reign with Christ. The mark of the beast rescued from immediate death, but the important things don’t happen at the beginning. We only know what the marks and the seals mean when we get to the end of things.”

It’s obvious why the mark of the beast is so attractive; it offers immediate salvation. That is, it gives one the sustenance and safety needed to see another day. To be clear, the things the mark of the beast allows one to obtain aren’t bad in and of themselves. On the contrary: food, drink, life—these are good, but they are by nature gifts, and gifts aren’t gifts if ripped from the giver’s hand. They must be received, not taken. Love requires as much. In the end, there is a feast for those who refuse the mark of the beast, but only through famine. There is resurrection, but only through death. Seeking the Kingdom apart from the cross is not only counterproductive; it’s satanic (Mat 4:8). So, we seek the seal of God, not the mark of the beast, come what may.

Upon her return, Belle brings more than tears to the ransacked castle; she brings new life. From her lips comes resurrection, breaking the curse once and for all. In a grand celebratory feast, she dances with her lover who is now, at long last, transformed into who he was always supposed to be. When the Beast sent Belle away, he planted the painful seed of death. At the dance, we see the fruit: life.

Beauty and the Beast and Revelation have the same counterintuitive message: if you want to save your life, lose your life. Don’t choose a forced, immediate redemption. Instead, wait for the day the Savior will return from the Father’s house to defeat the persecutors at the door. Because on that day, we will all be raised back to ourselves again—humanity fully restored. At that grand banquette, there will be no doubt: the dark curse is broken under the foot of sacrificial love.

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By In Culture

Why Good Christian Art is Not Enough

A common charge against Christian art (especially Protestant art) is that it fails to be good art. The infamous movies of recent years – God’s Not Dead, etc. – support this claim. We even make these claims about ourselves (see Leithart here and here). Christians are apparently just plain bad at art. And this is a problem because it means that nobody will read or watch our stuff, and that means we will fail to impact the larger culture. We respond to this problem by making loud laments and asking for good Christian artists. If only we had Christians creating good art then we would have a real impact on the culture. People would actually watch our movies and read our books.

Or at least, that is the story we tell ourselves. But is bad art really the problem?

On the contrary, I would argue we have a bigger problem. We have slipped so far in our understanding of culture we think the solution is we need better Christian art. But that is just another symptom of the real disease that has taken hold of us. We have made an idol out of art and we think we just need to clean the idol a little more. The real problem for Christians is that we need to understand the proper place of art in relation to the gospel and not elevate art beyond its true position.

The first step in recovering this proper relationship is to see the gospel as the spring from which all other cultural work comes forth. It does no good to try to get fresh water two hundred yards downstream; you have to go to the source. The gospel is the source. The church in its work and ministry is proclaiming that good news and that is where true cultural change is happening. If we mess up the message and content there, then everything else downstream will be a wreck. This is why we have lame Christian art: we have lame churches preaching a lame gospel. A restoration of the preaching of the gospel is the first step in making good Christian artists. (more…)

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By In Politics

Smith, Dreher, and the Prophet Daniel

 

daniel

Like many, I’ve followed with fascination the quibbles surrounding Rod Dreher’s much discussed Benedict Option. On the one hand, I’m quite sympathetic to the Benedict Option. Dreher has kindly quoted my writing while discussing the BenOp, and I found James K.A. Smith’s WaPo review uncharitable. On the other hand, I do have concerns that the BenOp may be used by believers as an excuse to evade the call to bring all spheres of life under the good rule of King Jesus. There’s always the temptation to become a shining city in a valley.

In the end, it seems to me that both perspectives—the missional mindedness of Smith and the ecclesial base-shoring of Dreher—are two emphases the church needs, and needs to hold together. Balancing such tensions is part and parcel of mature Christian thinking (take the tension between common grace and the antithesis, for example). Of course, striking such balances isn’t a new challenge. In his classic Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright shows how the Prophet Daniel similarly held two seemingly imossible realities together: serving the city while rebuking the city. Says Wright:

“Another good example of the normative stature of the covenant law even in a pagan situation would be Daniel again. Living at a time when his people were an oppressed minority, he had visions of the empire as essentially ‘beastly’ in character. In other words, like Jeremiah, he was fully aware of the state as ultimately an enemy of God, indeed a kind of God-surrogate, destined for God’s final destruction. Nevertheless, he not only chose to serve the state at the civil-political level, but also took the opportunity to challenge that state in the name of the ‘God of heaven’ to mend its ways in line with a paradigm of justice derived from Sinai (4:27).

The subtlety and mature balance of Daniel’s stance is remarkable. Knowing that it was God himself who had given Nebuchadnezzar all authority and dominion, he nevertheless did not feel bound to obey him in every particular but set limits on the extent of his submission to the state. His understanding of divine appointment of human authority did not make him a passive pawn of the state. But on the other hand, knowing that Babylon was one of the ‘beasts’ of his visions, an agent of evil and destruction with spiritual dimensions, he nevertheless continued his daily political duty at the office desk (8:27), maintaining his integrity and his witness at the top level of national life. His understanding of satanic influence on human powers did not make him an escapist from political involvement. Christians need a similarly balanced understanding of their political and social responsibilities within states that may not acknowledge God but are still part of God’s world.”

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By In Theology, Worship

The Prayer of Humble Access

The historic prayer book of the Anglican Communion, “The Book of Common Prayer,” includes some controversial prayers. Despite often receiving praise as a work of the Reformation, its verbiage can also feel uncomfortably Catholic. Its emphases on saints and sacraments can seem wetted from the pen tip of Thomas Aquinas rather than Thomas Cranmer.  One such prayer is entitled the “Prayer of Humble Access.”
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” a

During the Holy Communion service, this prayer is offered following the Lord’s prayer while the kneeling congregation anticipates the words of institution (i.e. “This is my body…”). It is important to note that as a matter of liturgical significance the confession and absolution have already been offered and received in the service. In this way, the “Prayer of Humble Access” builds upon the Reformational apprehensions to any sort of merited righteousness, while also affirming the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on self-examination prior to communion. This belaboring of sin after confession has earned some criticism from liturgical scholars like James B. Jordan: “it focuses on sin and justification to the extent that the entire service feels more like a penitential vigil than a celebration of redemption.” b

Jordan is right if you read the prayer as solely penitential. But this prayer is posturing the Christian up from his knees to a seat at the table. It is bidding the Christian, “dine with God.” Mortal men are invited to Valhalla– what to the Norse meant “Hall of the Slain”– for a feast of flesh and mead. Only the brave souls that died in the triumph of Holy War would feast in Odin’s hall for slain warriors. So it is true of our prayers here. Christ’s absolution has progressed beyond mere forgiveness into conquest. (Romans 8:31-39) And now, those willing to die in and for their sins may enter. Now at the table, we may eat the flesh and drink the blood.

This prayer also offers a narrative to help understand Christ’s presence in the eucharist. Douglas Wilson rightly points out that: “We partake of the Lord in the participles, we partake of Him in the partaking. We cannot say, ‘Look, there is the Lord, stationary, on the table.’ Rather, we say, ‘Here is the Lord in the action of eating and drinking.’ And these actions are part of a series of actions, which together constitute the story. We partake of the Lord’s body and blood in a glorious series of verbs—declaring, praying, blessing, setting apart, taking, breaking, taking, and giving. And each moment in the story says something about the end of the story.” c

(more…)

  1. Press, O. U. (1993). The 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.  (back)
  2. 1993. Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 29, Biblical Horizons.  (back)
  3. Wilson, Douglas. (2013). Against The Church. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.  (back)

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By In Theology

The Art of Balanced Living

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon engage in a dialogue concerning music and gymnastic. Socrates proposes that music is pivotal for a well-ordered soul, and gymnastic is pivotal for a well-ordered body, but too much music, without gymnastic can make a person too soft. Whereas too much gymnastic, without music, can make a person too hard and forceful. He proposes that a wise leader needs both music and gymnastic in order to be “tuned to the proper degree of tension and relaxation”—in order for the person to be harmonious.

Considering harmony, do we balance our lives amidst the host of good choices that God has placed before us? Do we live a balanced life so that we can lead a balanced church or team or family? Do we see each member and each personality as balancing the other personalities and members in order be “tuned to the proper degree of tension and relaxation?” Can we relax in the reality that God has ordained things as they are, or is there always tension that someone is getting in the way of us being successful? Can we be thankful for a proper tension even though the pressure is sometimes extreme, knowing that iron-sharpening-iron creates heat and sparks?

The word “balance” used to rub me the wrong way. It felt like a mystical, Eastern spiritualism promoting both good and evil in some yin-yangy sort of way. But what about balance between some good and some other good? What if the colors of the particular yin-yang in front of you are not black and white, but red and blue, or green and purple? What if, internally, we are trying to balance our gold with our silver with our precious things? What if, externally, we have some good and someone else has some other good and someone else another? (more…)

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By In Theology, Wisdom

Selecting men for ordination

There are a couple of different situations in which a church (and in particular the Minister and Elders of a church) might find themselves needing to train and select men for ordained Eldership. Perhaps there’s an older man in the church who looks (and lives) like the kind of guy who could serve as an Elder. Or perhaps there’s a (younger?) guy in the church who aspires to serve as a Minister, or an evangelist, or a missionary, or some other role in the body of Christ for which ordination is normally required.

In both cases, the initial reaction from the existing Elders and the congregation should of course be great enthusiasm, great encouragement, and so on. For even if the guy is currently not ready for the role, it’s nonetheless a fantastic blessing to have people either growing towards the grey-haired maturity that makes ordained Eldership appropriate or aspiring to the life of Christian service that makes ordination necessary.

However, it needs to be emphasised at the outset that the role is a demanding one, and that (especially in the case of those aspiring to any kind of teaching ministry) a great deal of training is likely to be required.

In order to clarify the nature of the demands upon a man’s lifestyle, understanding, orthodoxy, and so on, it can be helpful to have some questions to think about, both for the man himself and also for discussion among the existing leadership team and the broader congregation.

(more…)

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By In Family and Children

A Proverb for Dads…

… whose wives are at home raising babies or chasing toddlers or teaching teenagers, and who sometimes (naively) long to arrive home after a long day at work to a spotless and peaceful home, but are instead greeted by a chaotic riot of squealing kids, paintings drying on the sofa, science experiments spread across the kitchen, cookery splattered all over the walls, and large holes in the lawn where someone thought they’d just check in case there’s gold in these hills too:

Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
(Proverbs 14:4)

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