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Childhood’s End

September 19, 2006

“Did that really happen?” asked my five-year-old as he saw the image of the big plane hitting the big building as my family was watching Path to 9/11. I nearly choked on my own affirmative answer. Our 2001 baby was born before the attacks, but spent little time in the world as it was. Yet he managed to remain in the blissful unawareness of the magnitude of human evil, despite his all-boy fascination with things that blow up.

It is still an assault to the awareness to witness to this extent the presence of the diabolical in the human, and a moment for illusions to crumble like the tragic skyscrapers. It does not take demon faces in the smoke to discern Satan in this atrocity, who blinded the eyes of 19 men with quixotic madness to fly into hell for a “heavenly” cause.

When I was a child the image that wowed me was the elegant and engaging near future of space flight in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I didn’t like the ape part so much, and I took the nod to evolution as the bones I had to spit out to enjoy the meat. The film still remains a favorite of mine as a technical and artistic triumph, but I now understand that the film is all about evolution. This 2001 baby transcends the smallness of man to emerge as another heavenly body to join the celestial spheres in their majestic glory a la Also Sprach Zarathustra.

I myself was blissfully unaware (until just a few minutes ago actually) of the musical link from Richard Strauss to Friedrich Nietche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which (according to that renowned authority Wikipedia) presents Zoroaster as “a returning visionary who repudiates the designation of good and evil and thus marks the observation of the death of God.” I guess our grief over the death of God is assuaged in the birth of our new deity: Celestial Man. If I missed this message at the time, I did manage to catch Arthur C. Clarke’s subtle namedropping in 2010: Odyssey Two, in which old man Jupiter (the king of the gods) by expiring gives birth to a new sun for mankind, named Lucifer.

Lest the infernal implication of Clarke’s ending be mistaken for benign coincidence, compare his similarly-themed Childhood’s End, in which mankind’s advance to non-corporeal existence is dependant on humanity’s welcoming extraterrestrials who bear a striking resemblance to Satan, overcoming that age-old prejudice against horns and a pointy tail.

“You are of your father the devil,” Jesus said to the zealous middle-eastern clerics who wanted to murder him in the name of God (John 8:44). These were not “islamofascits” but the religious leaders of God’s chosen people, “his own people,” who “did not receive him” (John 1:11). The question is sometimes asked whether Allah is a different god from the God of the Bible. The question seriously misses the point. Arabic-speaking Christians also call on “Allah,” because Allah is simply the word for God in Arabic. Yet even the high priest of Israel, who reveres the name of YHWH, is unwittingly going about the business of his father, Satan, when he conspires to kill the Anointed One, supposing his service is to the Lord (see John 16:2). Unless the Spirit of God has brought new life, our most fervent spiritual devotion will be mere idolatry, and we can call the idol we have made by the name we choose, be it Allah or YHWH (see Nehemiah 9:18, 1 Kings 12:28). By whatever name, an idol is a front for the demonic (1 Corinthians 10:20, Revelation 9:20).

2001 was revolutionary for its realism; the spacecraft looked looked like something that did not yet exist but could. The filmmakers attempted to make plausible projections in depicting the future, and nine-year-old that I was, I took Kubrick’s vision of the future as something of a promise. I even calculated that I would be 42 when 2001 arrived, an old man it seemed then, perhaps too old to fly into space myself. (I didn’t realize the following year, that Neil Armstrong was just shy of 39 when he stepped onto the moon.) Most of the predictions were way off, though the Orion III space clipper is not too far removed from the Space Shuttle. Alas, poor Pan Am only made it to 1991. At least her demise spared her the horrors faced a decade later by sister carriers American and United.

More significant than the film’s unrealized expectations about technology at the dawn of the 21st century, is its misleading message about mankind. If the sparkling spacecraft were emblematic of faith in human potential, the aircraft ingrained in our minds from the real 2001 bring us face to face with human depravity. Disillusionment is painful, but the discarding of infantile illusions is a necessary step toward maturity. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Still, our most important lesson is not about the depravity of man, but about the depravity of the man in the mirror. The fault we must face is not in our neighbors but in ourselves.

Paul tells us that the solid food of doctrine (1 Corinthians 3:2) is wisdom reserved for the mature (1 Corinthians 2:6). His conclusion: “let no one boast in men.” The boast belongs to the young; wizened age being the first to drop the stone not to cast it (John 8:9). Peter’s boast to Jesus of his loyal love is full of the passion of a young man (John 13:38). His time of disillusionment was not long in coming. Yet Peter’s loving Lord made use of this defining moment, having long before determined that Peter would make it to maturity, and he told him so: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). The prophecy is a promise that the love that lays down its life would not fail in Peter when his hour came, but this love is a gift of God. Minutes after Peter’s boast, Jesus spoke the wisdom that Peter ought to have remembered, if not in his moment of trial, at least afterward in his sense of disqualification: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16).

When he was old, perhaps in the year of his prophesied death, Peter penned a restatement of the same wisdom: he addressed those “elect…according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Peter 1:1-2), “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (v. 5). There is no boasting here, just confidence in the One from whom is salvation from first to last (cf. Romans 3:27).

We are born sinners, we understand. Doubtless we are also born Pelagians. The boastfulness of youth has a hard time accepting the truth voiced by Jesus and by Peter, and also by Paul and others: it is the Lord who chose us; it is he that has made us the sheep of his pasture and not we ourselves (cf. Psalm 100:3). Did I yet retain an “island of righteousness” that resonated with the Spirit of God, so that I was able to respond to the call? Ah, then I do have something to boast about (Romans 4:2). This too is an illusion, retained by many in the church despite abundant teaching otherwise in the Scriptures.

The “doctrines of grace” are certainly meaty, and tough at times to chew. People often have little patience in the intricacies of theology, the details of decrees and covenants. Yet one point is made clear over and over: our salvation “is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The theological term is “monergism,” that the work of salvation is to be credited to God alone. Within that camp, there are a variety of specific views. I am not supposing that the church will ever become totally monolithic its soteriology (sorry, pun intended), but it would be a step toward maturity to realize how much of the prevalent doctrine today amounts to vain boasting and fails to give God his due glory.

The Lord has however given us teachers, though the tendency to take the “itching ear” path is present now as much as ever. Solid food of truly Biblical instruction will continue to be a vital need “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. ” (Ephesians 4:13-14)

Deceitful schemes manifest themselves in the horror of 2001 or the beauty and elegance of 2001, and in the willingness of our own hearts to hold tightly to our precious illusions. Glory be to God in this age and in the ages to come.

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