Friday, July 3, 2009

"Unless you become like us ... " (Acts 15)

I just finished reading Orhan Pamuk's collection of essays Other Colors. This Nobel Prize-winning novelist has quite a bit to say about a kindred spirit, Feodor Dostoevsky. Like the great 19th century Russian novelist, Pamuk lives with the frustration of being a not-quite European. This sense of rejection, Pamuk suggests, explains the angry bitterness that permeates Notes From Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Demons. Pamuk's own masterpiece, My Name Is Red, mourns the loss of one's traditional area of artistic mastery while in pursuit of those things an alien culture celebrates.

Acts 15 begins with a conflict. Self-appointed emissaries from the Jewish heartland show up in Antakya with the message -- "Unless you become just like us, you're worthless." Let's look at the text:
Act 15:1 Yahudiye'den gelen bazı kişiler Antakya'daki kardeşlere, "Siz Musa'nın töresi uyarınca sünnet olmadıkça kurtulamazsınız" diye öğretiyorlardı.
Act 15:2 Pavlus'la Barnaba bu adamlarla bir hayli çekişip tartıştılar. Sonunda Pavlus'la Barnaba'nın, başka birkaç kardeşle birlikte Yeruşalim'e gidip bu sorunu elçiler ve ihtiyarlarla görüşmesi kararlaştırıldı.
Paul and Barnabas strenuously objected to this message that demanded cultural conformity in addition to regeneration. God Himself can't please some people, you see. A miracle of regeneration transforms someone's whole life, whole attitude -- and then, "God's little helpers" feel called upon to show up with additional demands. A new believer opens up his heart and soul to older saints, sharing of God's wonderful grace. They see the opening and jump in with their meat axes, flailing away and telling the guy who's just experienced the greatest miracle in the universe that he'll be "more saved" if he'll comply with some extra-biblical cultural mandate. Quit smoking, for example.

I can understand Paul's volcanic rage towards those who belittled God's work, and God's people from a different culture.

In the end, the joke was on the Jews. They chose their culture over their Messiah. Pulled the roof in on themselves soon thereafter, and have obdurately resisted God's mercies ever since. The future locus of Christianity moved to the non-Jewish nations. Some Jewish people have, throughout history, "gotten with the program," and become Christians. Eventually, I expect, the rest of them will "see the light."

Meanwhile, let the dead bury the dead. The living have work to do. The Gospel of the Great King can be embraced by any nation, and will transform that nation, working from the inside out. Aping a foreign culture is a recipe for failure.

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