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Though the chorus of voices decrying belief in God has been humming in the ideological background for centuries, it seems to have reached a crescendo with the emergence of a movement that has been dubbed the new atheism. The trademark of this new and continuing brand of atheism is its vitriolic attack on religion. To its advocates, religious beliefs are not only false; they are also dangerous and must be expunged from all corners of society. The pundits of the new atheism are not content to nail discussion theses on the door of religion; they are also busy delivering eviction notices to the allegedly atavistic elements of an otherwise seamlessly progressive atheistic evolution of Homo Sapiens.
Given the rhetoric, one might be forgiven for thinking that some new discoveries have rendered belief in God untenable. Curiously, this drama is unfolding in the same era in which perhaps the world’s leading defender of atheism, Antony Flew, has declared that recent scientific discoveries point to the fact that this world cannot be understood apart from the work of God as its Creator. This is no small matter, for Flew has been preaching atheism for as long as Billy Graham has been preaching the Gospel. Unlike Flew and others, the new atheists seem to forget that the success of their mission hinges solely on the strength and veracity of the reasons they give for repudiating religion. Venom and ridicule may carry the day in an age of sensationalistic sound bites, but false beliefs will eventually bounce off the hard, cold, unyielding wall of reality.
At the very first “show and tell” of my kindergarten career, I was faced with a moment of decision. Seated in a circle, one by one we offered our classmates our name and our favorite color. Within moments, it was clear there was an unwritten rule emerging around that circle. Without exception, all of the girls were declaring unanimously that “pink” and/or “purple” was their favorite. I was new to the idea of classmates and wanted these people beside me to be my friends. But I didn’t like either of these colors. Getting more and more anxious with each passing declaration, I decided to tell the truth. “Orange and green,” I avowed incompatibly only to be met with giggles from boys and girls alike. Somehow the embarrassing spectacle only sealed my affection for the obviously unloved, underdog colors.
So when I found the pitiable orange plastic day lilies in the tiny green velvet flowerpot that summer, I knew I had to buy them. My five-year-old eyes saw the beauty in the rejected knickknack, lost on a table full of junk, bearing a tag marked twenty-five cents at a garage sale. When I got them home, I dusted off the hard plastic petals, proudly wrapped a ribbon around the pot, and presented the find triumphantly as a gift to my dad.
Twenty years later, cleaning out the belongings of my father after he had passed away, I found the unsightly plastic flora still perched upon his desk. Looking at the tacky flowers, covered again with dust, still bearing the small ribbon, I recalled the joy of finding the orange treasure, the excitement in handing over twenty-five cents to claim it as my own, and the hard decision I made to give it away. Brushing my fingers over the green velvet pot, I recalled the pleased expression on my dad’s face as he placed it on his desk and told me he would keep it there always. And then I remembered a detail in adulthood that the eyes of the child overlooked: The quarter that purchased these flowers was his own.
The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is a familiar story for many. In fact, some of us are so familiar with it that we might even fail to see the rich contours of grace presented in its narrative. Familiarity with the story assumes its central figure to be a son who leads a wasteful and extravagant life. But a careful reading presents the multi-faceted contours of God’s extravagant display of grace towards all wayward sons and daughters.
Jesus presents this story as a crowd of tax-collectors, sinners, and religious leaders gathers around him. “A certain man had two sons,” Jesus begins. The younger of the man’s two sons insists on having his share of the inheritance, which the father grants though the request violated the Jewish custom that allotted upon the death of the father a third of the inheritance to the youngest son.(1) With wasteful extravagance, the son squanders this inheritance and finds himself desperately poor, living among pigs, ravenous for the pods on which they feed. “But when he came to his senses” the text tells us, he reasons that even his father’s hired men have plenty to eat. Hoping to be accepted as a mere slave, he makes his way home. “And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him” (Luke 15:20).
This statement reveals the first contour of God’s grace—it is a prodigal, or wastefully extravagant, grace. The prodigal nature of the father’s grace compels him to keep looking for his son—he saw him while he was still a long way off. And despite being disowned by his son, the father feels compassion for him. With wasteful abandon, the father picks up his long garments, exposing his legs and customarily shaming himself, and runs to his son to embrace him and welcome him home. The father orders a grand party for this son who has been found, “who was dead and has begun to live,” brought to life by the rich, prodigal grace, both unexpected and undeserved.
Reading an online newspaper the other day, I ended up, as I often do, on the religion pages. My attention was first caught by a long list of various world religions, followed by the descriptions of the beliefs and key practices of each one. Interestingly, I thought, atheism was among the many religions listed. And yet in describing the main beliefs of atheists, the first sentence declared: “Atheism is not a belief.” Can a belief-system accurately be defined as the absence of belief? Its very inclusion as a belief-system among alternative belief-systems seemed to negate its first belief.
Though atheism contends disbelief in God, it is rightfully placed among the many belief-systems that inform life itself. As the atheistic worldview offers certain perspectives about the world, like Christianity or Hinduism, it requires certain faith assumptions: that the world exists in ordered, knowable nature, that our senses and intellect are reliable in discovering truth, that there is a uniformity to nature extending from past to future. At the foundation of every worldview, a number of interconnected beliefs are held in faith. The question then becomes, which faith provides the most coherent foundation for understanding the world?
Some insist the atheist’s insistence of reason as the foundation for non-belief creates a tension of incoherence within the belief itself. “Reasons require that this universe be a reasonable one that presupposes there is order, logic, design, and truth. But order, logic, design, and truth can only exist and be known if there is an unchangeable objective source and standard of such things….Like all non-theistic worldviews, Darwinism borrows from the theistic worldview in order to make its own view intelligible.”(1) In other words, the very foundation of atheistic faith allows for an unstable structure of interpretation.
In correspondence with an old friend, a retired Princeton University professor, he detailed his objections to the Christian faith. His final remark seemed to overshadow all other considerations and was authoritatively written as if to definitively close the argument: ‘Nor can I believe in a virgin birth.’ Such a belief was apparently implausible, absurd, immature.
Why is the virgin birth often the most problematic miracle to accept? Why is it more troubling than the thought of Jesus walking on water? Or multiplying the loaves?
Perhaps because we are content to let God do as he pleases with his own body, and we are delighted to be the recipient of gifts. However, we are offended by the thought of a miracle that inconveniences us, that has potential to disrupt our plans and our preferences.
I considered responding to my friend with positive reasons for believing in a virgin birth, but then I realized that he was, in fact, already committed to a virgin birth.
We find one virgin birth in the story of the Incarnation:
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:38).
Admittedly, this is out of the ordinary. But criticism without alternative is empty; a hypothesis is only plausible or implausible relative to what alternative hypotheses present themselves. So what exactly is the alternative?
“You can’t stop stories being told,” Dr. Parnassus tells his relentless foe with religious assurance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The world of belief-systems and worldviews is indeed a complicated playground of stories, storytellers, passions, and allegiances—and this is one film which certainly attests to that complicated dance. What makes the interplay of story most complicated is our inability often to name or even perceive these interacting powers in the first place. That which permeates our surroundings, subconsciously molds our understanding, and continuously informs our vision of reality is not always easy to articulate. The dominant culture shapes our world in ways we seldom realize—and often in ways we cannot even perceive—until something outside of our culture comes along and the scales fall from our eyes.
Further complicating this is the fact that we often do not recognize certain systems for the metanarratives that they are or else we grossly underestimate the story’s power on our own. Whatever versions of the story we utilize to understand human history—atheism, capitalism, pluralism, consumerism—their roots run very deep in the human soul. This is why Bishop Kenneth Carder can refer to the global market economy as a “dominant god,” or consumerism, economism, and nationalism as religions. These deeply rooted ideologies are challenged only when a different ideology or imagination comes knocking, when a different faith-system comes along and upsets the imagination that powerfully orders our world.
“I’m inclined to suspect that there are very few atheists in prison,” notes Richard Dawkins.(1) In his book The God Delusion, the Oxford biologist sets forth the staggering estimation that post-Christian secular societies are far more moral than societies that operate from a religious foundation. He recounts the horrors carried out in the name of God, moving past the monstrosities of the 20th century at the hands of atheist regimes by claiming their atheism had nothing to do with their behavior. When it comes to behaving ethically, he is insistent that believers are worse than atheists.
British statesman Roy Hattersley, himself a fellow atheist, disagrees. In an article published some time after Hurricane Katrina hit U.S. shores, Hattersley makes some observations about the kind of people doing disaster work long after the disaster has been forgotten. “Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations—the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.”(2) His words are bold, even if strewn with typical condescension. He continues:
“Civilised people do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags and—probably most difficult of all—argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment.”
Those who confess the truthfulness of Christianity—and so choose to embody its message—have confounded the world for ages. Throughout the second century there emerged a great number of rumors regarding the curious beliefs and practices of Christians. After all, the leader these people claimed to follow was a criminal executed by Roman authorities. There was thus a great deal of suspicion surrounding the motives and behavior of Christians. Why would anyone follow a man who had been crucified? Why would they choose to die rather than renounce their faith? Why would they treat those who hate them with kindness?
The streets were cluttered with trash instead of decorated with flowers. The houses had tarps for roofs, and often no roofs at all. The river water served for bathing, elimination, and drinking water. Bloated stomachs were not full; they were ravaged by parasites. Giant sloths hung lazily from the lush trees seemingly unaware, unaffected, and unbothered by the poverty and disease around them, and pet monkeys and parrots had ample food thrown their way. Yet countless numbers of children searched for food or other treasures among the dirt and filth of garbage piles. Still, laughter, singing, and smiles abounded, and the diverse landscape exuded an exotic vibrancy.
These composite impressions come from a visit to Brazil, a vast country that is both geographically and culturally rich, and which has some of the most impoverished areas in the world. This visit to Brazil several years ago was a vivid example of the experience of personal disruption. Growing up in suburban Illinois, with uniformly similar looking roofed houses, and with more than enough resources to take care of my needs and wants did not prepare me for this encounter with a land of unspeakable beauty and desolation. My disruptive encounter prompted many questions: Why did I have so much when others had so little? What could I do to make any real difference in their situation, and if I could make a difference, what would that look like? More importantly, was this encounter for me to make a difference, or for a difference to be made in me?
Disruption, as Webster’s New Riverside Dictionary defines it, can either be seen as an event that creates confusion and/or disorder, or can be seen as something that interrupts.(1) Of course, disruption creates both. When our beliefs are contradicted by our experience or challenged by competing and compelling alternatives, we feel disruption. When we encounter something radically different than anything we’ve known or experienced, such as I did in Brazil, we experience disruption. Disruption upends assumed expectations, interrupts our perceived self-efficacy and control, and complicates all that we’ve come to rely on and trust.
There is no mistaking the presence of unique challenges to belief in our modern day world. Our secular, privatized, consumerist affections have wielded a religion (indeed many religions) that has little or nothing to do with life itself. Coupled with secularism’s privatizing of religion from the public realm, consumerism’s pull creates a context whereby the choice of belief is not only a personal matter, but a matter entirely divorced from the history and communities that inform these beliefs. As professor David Wells notes, “God has been evacuated from the center of our collective life, pushed to the edges of our public square to become an irrelevance to how our world does its business. Marxism rested on a theoretical atheism; our secularized world rests on a practical atheism in the public domain, though one that coexists with private religiosity.”(1) This chasm between public and private, sacred and secular, forces a theology whereby God is largely absent, unknown in the public arena, and silent unless spoken to.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with our evacuation of God and subsequent practical atheism, we live within an understanding of unbounded freedom to pursue and consume whatsoever we will. While we may recognize secularism for what it is, Wells warns: “[W]e do not recognize the corrupting power of our affluence for what it is…. We consider our abundance as essentially harmless and, what is just as important, we have come to need it. The extraordinary and dazzling benefits of our modernized world, benefits that are now indispensable to our way of life, hide the values which accompany them, values which have the power to wrench around our lives in very damaging ways.”(2) Far more than a matter of wealth, our sheer appetites, which we readily appease as if angry gods, bring us to the conclusion that we ourselves are the center of collective life, echoing the call of secularism that God is exactly where God belongs—in quiet, private corners. Even within the church, this outlook is often practically lived if not publicly admitted.
The value of wisdom and a wisdom-guided life is a keynote of ancient and Jewish thought, and yet, it is a much neglected theme in life today. When we think of wisdom, we tend to mean someone who is intellectually smart or who is somewhat of a sage, but as it often seems, this “wisdom thing” is a bit impractical to us. We are more focused on data, goals, and outcomes. We attend to very daily real-world concerns. We are the “Flash Boys” or the “Fast and Furious”: we seek to live life to the max and suck the marrow out of existence. We love speed, variety, choice, options, fun, and abundance.
Nonetheless, the Book of Proverbs commends the ways of wisdom to us. Proverbs 3 is a very insightful text, enjoining its hearers,
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her … and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.
This ancient book presents wisdom as the ultimate lifelong pursuit and the key to lasting joy and true wealth. And yet, we live in an age in which the abundance of things, the increase in opportunities, and the growing amount of options in almost all areas of life fill our minds and hearts rather than the hunger for wisdom. There is so much to do, to try, to taste, to experience. Will we ever have time?
Thomas Friedman, in his book Thank You for Being Late, speaks of the age of accelerations—of the dizzying tectonic shifts we are experiencing, whether through technology or globalization. We know and feel the time crunch. It is not just time but our space that is increasingly occupied, filled with demand or under siege, so it seems. Years earlier Kenneth Gergen described this condition as “The Saturated Self,” which was also the title of his seminal book. It is a new phenomenon whereby the sheer influx of data, images, and demand overwhelms us so that we begin to experience what he calls “multiphrenia”—a life in perpetual flux.
In 2010 the Freedom From Religion Foundation launched the largest freethinkers billboard campaign ever to take place in the heart of the U.S. ‘Bible Belt.’ Signs reading “Imagine No Religion” “Sleep in on Sundays” and “In Reason We Trust” were placed throughout the south in one of many attempts throughout the world to bring positive thoughts of atheism into public discourse. The London Bus Campaign a few years prior sent hundreds of buses throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Barcelona with similar slogans: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”(2) The £140,000 multi-media advertising campaign was designed to bring comfort in the probability that God does not exist, a positive contrast to religious advertisements meant to incite fear. The campaign used quotes from influential voices who have shown that embracing atheism, or at least expressing skepticism about the existence of God, is freeing. One quote read, “An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.” Another, written by nineteenth century American humanist Robert Ingersoll, said, “The time to be happy is now!”
Reactions to campaigns such as these are generally mixed. With every sign, plans for additional advertising seem to pop up throughout the world. One slogan provoked strong reactions in Barcelona, where critics branded the words as “an attack on all religions.”(3) Christians in London were on all sides of the debate, with some offended—one bus driver refused to drive his bus—and others optimistic at the opportunity for discussion. Posters and billboards of this nature, wrote director Paul Woolley of the theology think tank Theos, “encourage people to consider the most important question we will ever face in our lives.”(4)
Christianity has in fact long been indicted as an emotional crutch for those unable to accept life’s difficult realities, those in need of an escape vehicle to take them to another world. To be fair, it is not an entirely undue critique. The Christian is indeed someone marked by an inability to accept the cruelties of this world as status quo. Like the prophets, Christians are well aware that this life marred by cancer, injustice, poverty, corruption, tears, and death is not the way it is supposed to be. The church lives alert with the distinct notion that humanity was created for something more. Of course, the temptation, then, and one of the more severe misapplications of the faith, is to checkout of this world, living content in Christian circles, and ever-looking upward to better life. In such a scenario, one’s Christianity is indeed nothing more than wishful thinking, a philosophy wrenched from its founder and marched down an illogical road.
Each of us, in an instant, can drudge up a snapshot of humanity at its worst. Images of genocide in Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, or the Sudan come readily to mind. Other impressions are not far off: students planning deadly attacks at school, looters taking advantage of natural disasters, the greed that paved the Trail of Tears. They are visions that challenge the widespread hope that people are generally good, leaving in its wake the sinking feeling of human depravity. But ironically, such snapshots of humanity also seem to grant permission to distance ourselves from this depravity. Whether with theory or judgment, we place ourselves in different categories. Perhaps even unconsciously, we consider their inferior virtue, their primitive sense of morality, or their distinctively depraved character. And it is rare that we see the stones in our hands as a problem.
As Jesus stood with a girl at his feet in the middle of a group armed with rocks and morality, he crouched down in the sand and with his finger wrote something that caused a fuming crowd to drop their stones and a devastated girl to get up. No one knows what he wrote on the ground that day with the Pharisees and the woman caught in adultery, and yet we often emerge from the story not with curiosity but with satisfaction. This public conviction of the Pharisees strikes most of us with the force of victory. Their air of superiority is palpable, and it is satisfying to picture them owning up to their own shortfall. If we imagine ourselves in the scene at all, it is most likely in a crumpled heap of shame with the woman at Jesus’s feet; it is rarely, if ever, with the Pharisees.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.(1)
One of my most cherished memories is of the New England landscape in the fall. The vibrant colors from dogwood, sassafras, sumac, red oak, and maples can only be described as the finest artist’s palette of paints—crimsons and scarlets, purples, oranges and yellows splashed across the canvas. Making our pilgrimage each year to the local fair, the route transported my husband and me into that world of color, as the road would bend through picturesque towns and take us deeper and deeper into that fall canvas. Sadly, this beauty was transient. Fall rains and wind would come to fade and to muddle those colors. All that would remain were the dull browns melding and making their home in the dark soil that encompassed them.
Someone once told me that the most comforting premise of the Christian imagination was, for her, the assurance of a beginning. Her Hindu upbringing had been far less clear. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” These very first words of Scripture boldly proclaim that we are not lost and wandering in a cosmic circle of time and accident, isolated from any meaning beyond the name or reputation we manage to carve for ourselves. At the heart of the Christian imagination is one who stood at the foundation of the world, and with love, beauty, and wisdom, caused life and history to begin.
For the Christian, this comforting premise is deepened by the image of creation as the cooperative work of a relational, trinitarian God. The account of creation in the Gospel of John runs parallel to the creation accounts of the book of Genesis, except that John makes it clear that the Father was not acting alone. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”(1) Paul similarly describes the Son’s vital role in creation to the Colossians, referring to Jesus Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”(2)
In publishing his godless Bible for those without faith, A. C. Grayling may have expected a mixed reception. The “religious Bible” (as he calls the Christian original) often sparks controversy, so one might have assumed that his would prompt a powerful reaction.(1)
But although eyebrows were certainly raised, support given, and criticism leveled, I couldn’t help feeling that there is something a little flat about it all. Perhaps it was because we were in the midst of celebrating the 400-year anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible, with its majestic impact on the English language, that one struggled to muster any strong reaction to this book. One of the repeated observations made about Grayling’s moral guide for atheists is that it just doesn’t seem to be as good or interesting as the original.
Jeannette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, had this to say:
“I do not believe in a sky god but the religious impulse in us is more than primitive superstition. We are meaning-seeking creatures and materialism plus good works and good behaviour does not seem to be enough to provide meaning. We shall have to go on asking questions but I would rather that philosophers like Grayling asked them without the formula of answers. As for the Bible, it remains a remarkable book and I am going to go on reading it.”
Perhaps it has something to do with what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on Grayling’s part: the Bible is not merely a book containing moral guidance, as he seems to think it is. While Christians would say that it does contain the moral law of God and shows us how to live our lives, the actual text of the Bible is much more besides.
They gathered every Thursday around nine in the evening with pipes and pints in hand. At any given meeting there was likely to have been at least one historian, a philosopher, a physician, several poets, and a number of professors. The Inklings, as they called themselves, were literary enthusiasts who praised the value of good narrative and gathered to encourage, challenge, and better one another in their various attempts at creating it. Out of these spirited meetings, in which it is said that “praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work, or even not-so-good work, was often brutally frank,” there arose the final drafts of The Lord of the Rings, Out of the Silent Planet, All Hallows’ Eve, and The Great Divorce to name a few.(1)
Contrary to the many critics who insist these writers had little influence on one another (the Inklings’ themselves said of Tolkien that it was easier to influence a “bandersnatch” than the creator of Middle Earth), Diane Pavlac Glyer avers they would not have been the same writers had they not written within the community of the Inklings. “[E]ach author’s work is embedded in the work of others,” writes Gyler, “and each author’s life is intertwined with the lives of others.”(2) Influence, after all, is far from imitation. While it is true that these authors came to their meetings with determined ideas, their reflective and challenging interactions sharpened thoughts, minds, and lives. J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, as well as C.S. Lewis, would likely have imagined far different worlds had they not participated in the regular reading and criticism of their works in progress.
A Christian believer in the fourth century by the name of Gregory of Nazianzen observed that it is difficult to conceive of God, but that to define God in words is an impossibility. Gregory was not implying that the impossibility of the task means that we should not try. Rather, his words intended to be a reminder that the subject of theology is, in fact, a Subject. That is to say, theology is the precarious act of peering into the light and glory of a Person. The great councils that gathered in antiquity, the pilgrims of faith listed in the book of Hebrews, the men and women in history who have dared to do the work of theology—each of them, each of us who dare try, are squinting at the mystery of light.
But we do so because the light first shined in the darkness and gave us eyes to see. Who is God? What are God’s attributes? Is Jesus equal to God or subordinate? How do we put into words the logistics of the Trinity? These are questions at very the foundation of theology and the heart of revelation. God has made claims regarding who God is, and because of this, theology is looking at what we are to do with it. In this sense, theology is one of the most practical disciplines that exist. Peering into the light, squinting toward the Person of God, coming to know the one who wants to be known, we ourselves are changed, reoriented by the one we encounter.
It is not very difficult for me to spend significant amounts of time dwelling on the past. Sometimes it is a rehearsal of prior conversations replaying in my mind; what should have been said and what could have been said. Or I ruminate on past regrets of what might have been had I chosen another path, or taken a different turn in the road of my life. Often I sift through memories of individuals who are long gone—either through death or some other forced absence from my life—wishing for more time with them or another opportunity to commune together. Regrets, nostalgic remembering, and wearying analytical thoughts collude to keep me bound in a place to which I can never return in real-time.
Dwelling in the past, as if one could take up residence there permanently, is a strategy I often employ when I find the present or the future daunting. Rather than face what it is I need to face, I retreat into my past searching for comfort or numbness. Part of the reason I do this lies in the simple fact that to move forward is to leave behind that which has become dear—whether that is a cherished memory or a cherished grudge. More important, however, to leave something of our past behind is to actually let go of part of our identity. It is the call into the wild and into becoming something—and someone—currently unknown to us. For most, it is a call too frightening and too challenging to heed. For some, however, it is a call that woos us to consider what more we are capable of doing and who we are capable of being, both now in the present and as we journey into an unknown future.
In the days of Mordecai and Queen Esther the people of Israel set themselves to remember an eventful time in their history. Mordecai sent letters throughout the provinces calling for the memorializing of the month that was turned “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.”(1) Near and far, the call was sent to annually remember the day the tables were turned and the Jews received relief from their enemies. And so it was determined: “These days of Purim should never cease to be celebrated by the Jews, nor should the memory of them die out among their descendants.” These days were weighted with enough hope to press upon them the need to remember forever. Moreover, and most significantly, they saw the certain possibility that they might forget.
There are moments in our lives when we realize that we are beholding the carving of a day into the great tree of history. On the night before my wedding I scribbled anxiously in my journal, “It will never be this day again, but the seventeenth of every August will never be the same either.” I knew from that day forward it would be difficult (and detrimental) to forget that day on the calendar—it would carry the force of forgetting so much more than one day.
Israel’s history is wrought with such commands to remember. God told the Israelites that they would remember the night of Passover before the night had even happened. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever.”(2) Moses and Aaron were told to instruct the whole community of Israel to choose a lamb without defect and slaughter it at twilight. They were then to take some of the blood and put it on the doorposts of their houses. “The blood will be a sign,” the LORD declared. “And when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike the firstborns of Egypt.”
When our son was only four years old and we moved to a different city, he raised a question that brought rounds of laughter from the whole family, and even prompted a wistful thought. Driving in the car one day, right out of the blue he turned to my wife (who is from Canada) and said, “Mummy, when do we turn black?” Caught completely off guard she said, “I don’t know what you mean.” “Well,” sounded the pensive, albeit innocent, childish voice, “You are white, we are beige, and Daddy is brown—when do we turn black?”
How nice it would be if life did provide such a sequence of colors! In his young mind, magnificently untainted by years of biases and indoctrinations, he saw life as a time-released kaleidoscope of colors and apparently envisioned the possibility of each of us experiencing the joys and hurts of all. How much more understanding of each other we would be if each of us could live for a time within another’s world and be subsumed in someone else’s life story?
The multiplicity of ethnicities offers many delights—how intriguing are the various cuisines, traditions, art, accents and literature of our world. In the West, globalization has brought the riches of pluralism to our neighborhoods and iPhones. As one speaker I heard once quipped, where else but in Los Angeles (or I might add, Toronto or London) would you find a fast food stand where a Korean is selling kosher tacos?