The approach of Transfiguration Sunday reminds me how, all through my evangelical upbringing, all those Bible passages about God's glory, and especially the parts where God demands glory, made me a bit uneasy. For example, Sunday's reading from 2 Peter 1 doesn't exactly hide anything under a bushel: Jesus “received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, my Beloved...'"
Divine love? Great. Family relationship? Warm and fuzzy.
But the double helping of glory with honor on the side and majesty on top — doesn’t that come off as, well, a trifle narcissistic?
The root of my misperception was that our culture doesn't have a concept of glory at all. We just have celebrity, which is way, way, different. While giving someone celebrity can get degrading to all concerned (insert your own Jersey Shore joke here), God demanding glory is actually a deeply relational act.
I didn't realize my cultural blind spot from any church sermon or from 10 years of small group Bible studies or from getting my Ph.D. in literature, so thank God that I eventually found myself trying to teach the epic of Gilgamesh. That’s when I realized how central the idea of fame was in many ancient cultures.
I don’t want to blur the real difference between different cultures, but generally fame was supposed to inspire both those who sought it and those who gave it. Listening to epic tales of famous heroes, not to mention other literary genres that spread someone’s fame, gave common enjoyment, but still more than that a common frame of reference (which, as you may have noticed, is a dwindling commodity in today's world). It gave a story that brought people together in knowing what everybody recognized was true and important and appropriate. (In modern Hebrew, the same term used for glory — kvod — apparently forms part of the phrase translated “human dignity.")
And, of course, a well-known name and reputation was, along with descendants, the main legacy that would be on your mind if your thoughts about the afterlife were shadowy at best (actually, this was the case through much of the Hebrew Bible — “Do those who are dead rise up and praise [God]?” the Psalmist asks, clearly unaware that this very behavior will be all the rage in Revelation).
Once you start looking, ideas related to fame are everywhere in the Bible: glory, renown, praise, an “everlasting name” — the list goes on. Many in U.S. culture like to pride ourselves on being individualists who don’t care what anyone else thinks — but, let’s face it, we could use some more shared frame of reference.
And giving God glory is a particularly good idea because, as Dylan tells us, we're gonna serve somebody, and all the options other than God — whether money, prestige, or (a popular idol in the Bible as now) national military might — offer false promises of happiness or security.
Military strength is the subject of many ancient epics and modern Hollywood or Beltway blockbusters, and huge swaths of the Bible are about how tempting it was to worship it, whether one was part of the winning empire or just some agrarian peasant seeking protection against the empire’s pillaging hordes.
But, as God pointed out in the Exodus, Pharaoh’s army is all wet. And glorifying God is how we remind ourselves and each other where, over a crowded field of idolatrous contenders, our help really comes from.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor at Sojourners and tweets @Zabpalmberg.