Joyless Christians and The Lord of the Rings
My favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings are the Ents -- an ancient race of giant living, talking, breathing trees in J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional land, Middle Earth. I have a little confession to make: Whenever I hear a reading from Isaiah 55 where it says, "The mountains and hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands," I always picture the Giant Ents from The Lord of the Rings. And then I picture these clapping trees from Isaiah holding little Hobbits in their branch arms in what ends up a willful conflation of Middle Earth and Major Prophet.
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I suppose to some people that might feel wrong. Maybe a little like the visitor we had at Pentecost who was greatly dismayed at some people snickering during the reading from Acts. You know, the one where Peter stands up and tells the crowd that clearly these men couldn't be drunk since it's only 9 a.m. Every year people laugh at that. My guess is because every year, it's funny. But laughing in church can dismay some folks because sometimes it feels like religion has become more about decorum than delight. It's so often more about judgment than joy.
So this week I kept thinking about joy and what role joy has in our faith. Sure, we talk about prayer and sin and creeds and liturgy and discipleship and advocacy as being part of our Christian faith. But what of joy? It sadly never seems to be on the top of the list of what it means to be God's people. And it's definitely not what Christians are known for. Any guess on what is the top adjective used to describe Christians? Judgmental. I think maybe that's because human religion so easily becomes more about knowing right from wrong than knowing God.
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this. He suggests that the original sin was choosing the knowledge of good and evil over the knowledge of God. See, there were two trees in the Garden of Eden, and the snake said, If you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will be like God. But there was another tree. The tree of life. Yet we chose the knowledge of good and evil over knowledge of God. Bonhoeffer calls this the "fall upward."
We chose to move God out of the center and put ourselves there, and ever since then, human religion tends to be about the knowledge of good and evil, and not the knowledge of life -- or the knowledge of God. This is demonstrated in how we read the parable of the sower. I think we naturally tend to read this parable not as the parable of the sower, but as the parable of the judgment of the soil. To focus on the worthiness of the soil is to read the parable in judgment. When we approach this text, or our lives with only the knowing and judging of good and evil, we miss out on the knowing of God. But to focus on the lush and ludicrous image of how God extravagantly, wastefully, wantonly sows the Word of the kingdom is to read the parable in joy.
And isn't life just too short, too sacred, and too important to skimp on joy? Yet joy can often be the thing we give up when being right seems more important. It's like that cliché: Would you rather be right or be happy? I've focused on being right a lot in my life. First, in the conservative Christianity of my youth, and then in the leftist politics of my young adulthood. They aren't always mutually exclusive, but if given the choice, I want to choose to be happy instead. And leave being right to God and God alone.
I want the day to come when Christians are described not as judgmental but as those who rejoice in the world and delight in humanity. And what is a call to joy but a call home? A call home to the garden of this God whose desire to be known is so much more powerful than our desire to replace God with only the knowledge of good and evil. Undeterred, our God still uses any means necessary to be known by us: God speaks through prophets, slips into skin and walks among us in Jesus, woos us in bread and wine, surprises us in the strange and the stranger, enters our ears in the words of life, and transforms us into a people of joy, a people of singing hills and clapping tress and every single kind of soil.
Blessed be the God of blessing!
[This post is adapted from a post at Sarcastic Lutheran.]
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.