When I was in Grand Rapids MI last week I caught the tail end of Art Prize, which is a pretty big deal. A number of civic minded philanthropists and business owners sponsor some significant cash prizes for winning this art competition so starving and not-so-starting artists come from all over the country to compete. This year’s big prize winner was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln done completely out of Lincoln pennies.
Part of the fun of art, it seems especially in our contemporary age is the experimentation of it. Sometimes people put up a white sheet of paper, or a toilet in the middle of gallery and call it art. Others see that with disgust.
Here’s a box signed by anyone and everyone they’ll send to Africa as some sort of shelter. If I were in Africa I’d probably prefer something without signature and a bit more practicality for a shelter.
Richard Mouw tells a story about his question “what is art?” He was at an exhibition where a young artist took a piece of plywood, covered it with Elmer’s glue and then smashed old cellos on it. Whatever stuck to the plywood was then let harden and this was his art which he would sell for $1500.
Mouw recalls a conversation he had with Nick Wolterstorff about that and Nick told him “When one of these artists is doing something like that he is implicitly asking ‘ok, would you call this a work of art?’. In other words they are challenging the traditional definitions.” In other words the artist is “deconstructing” traditional definitions.
We’re in a cultural moment of a lot of deconstruction on the right and the left. . “OK, would you call this a family? OK, would you call this a marriage? OK, would you call this a hymn? OK, would you call this a church? OK, would you call this Christianity?”
Progress, Corruption and Deconstruction
We currently have a cultural bias towards progress. Part of this is fueled by the impressive technological progress we’ve made over the last few hundred years. Food is far more abundant and secure, disease is far less threatening than it has been, our lives are far more comfortable than they were even a hundred years ago.
At the same time we realize that in other ways we are always in danger of losing impressive accomplishments from the past. We worry about the loss of tried and true healthy practices and institutions that have served us well in the past. We are anxious that our technological ways have contaminated us with pollution.
There is always both a progressive movement and a conservative movement working through most of us at the same time. The most progressive people you meet will be talking about a paleo diet or seeking out ancient wisdom in order to give their lives security and meaning. They will be worried about how social media and information technology is undermining institutions and practices threatening society’s stability and well being.
Progress and Corruption in the Story of the Bible
You might notice that these processes are also in the grand story of the world in the Bible and found in smaller cycles within that story. One way we sometimes summarize the story of the Bible is
- Creation (a good creation)
- Fall (slide into corruption, paradise lost)
- Redemption (costly sacrifice to address the fall/rebellion)
- Restoration (a good creation renewed, resurrection)
The Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. Humanity begins in innocence and purity and ends in wisdom and a more knowing purity.
These patterns and cycle are writ large in the Bible and repeated again and again in the smaller stories nested within the Bible. We can see that as we finish up the stories of bad king Ahab of Israel.
Progress, Corruption, De-construction and the Hero’s Journey
It’s not always easy to know in any given moment of de-construction what is progress and what is corruption. This is nicely illustrated in what is often called the hero’s journey. I bumped into this recently in back to school night English class where the teacher had it on the board. You’ll find this in nearly every popular story.
- We meet the protagonist in whatever “normal” state he begins with
- The protagonist descends into chaos often to achieve some goal, noble or otherwise
- The hero emerges from the struggle having overcome the adversary with the prize
- A new, usually better reality emerges.
The question of progress or corruption is similar. The artist smashes the old cello into the gluey plywood and we see what emerges. “would you call this art?” The pastor tries something new in a sermon “would you call this a sermon?” You try out something new in your life “would you call this good?”
The difficulty we have is that it is not always obvious in the moment if our actions or our achievements are corruption or progress. Consider the stereotypical colonialists trying to convince the natives that DDT is a good thing and completely safe.
The North American audience of 1947 was assumed to respond thinking “oh those backward Africans and their stubborn ignorance. Why don’t they open their eyes to all that we have to offer them through our science? How foolish and backwards!”
How does it look to us today now 70 years later? Who looks foolish and backwards? Was it progress? Was it corruption?
Ahab and the Corruption of Justice
We’ve been working through the Bible serially for a number of years now and part of the advantage of doing it this way is that you begin to see patterns develop. The Bible is a hyperlinked book and its authors invite us to compare and contrast characters and stories.
Part of our difficulty in reading about Ahab is that most of us have lost the historical context of the story. After Jereboam and the tribal elders split up David and Solomon’s old empire the Northern Kingdom descended into a time of loss and failure. Omri was given the kingdom after the military commander Zimri overthrew the king and made himself king. This caused a civil war and Omri came out on top. Omri followed in the religious ways of Jereboam, so he gets poor treatment from the author of the book of Kings, but archeologists have noted that Omri was a successful king in a geo-political scale. Under Omri, and his son Ahab, Israel consolidated it’s strength, grew in prosperity, began once again to dominate its neighbors, made peace with the southern kingdom of Judah, made a productive and profitable alliance with Tyre and Sidon, where Jezebel came from, and overall, we might say, made Israel great again. He built a new royal city of Samaria which had impressive walls and was strategically located on a very defensible hill, again, very much like what David had done in the south. As we saw earlier he built a temple to Baal and Asherah, again as a sort of mirroring of David and Solomon building the temple to the Lord in Jerusalem.
The narrator tells the story in such a way as to invite us to compare and contrast Ahab with David.
One of the most famous stories of Ahab mirrors one of the most famous stories of David. Their similarities highlight the contrasts and invite us to ponder the corruption of the achievements of David and the failures of Ahab
- Ahab looks out and covets Naboth’s vineyard
- David looks out a covet’s Uriah’s wife
- Jezebel scoffs at the idea that the king can’t have what he wants and creates a plot by he should insure justice to subvert it through lying and then state sanctioned murder.
- David takes Bathsheba but she gets pregnant and in his cover-up kills Uriah through the tools of state.
- Elijah the prophet shows up to declare that God has seen and will himself fulfill the law against Ahab. Ahab repents and the sentence is lessened.
- Nathan shows up to declare that god has seen and will himself fulfill the law against David. David repents and the sentence is lessened.
- Ahab’s unwillingness to obey his master’s decrees means that God will end his house.
- David’s willingness to obey his master means that God will establish his house forever.
As we noted when we began this series on Kings the overall message of the book is one of corruption and loss. The story answers the question “How did God’s project fall apart? How does corruption happen?”
Ahab and the Corruption of Religion
From here Ahab decides he needs to retake a strategic city he has lost to Ben-Hadad, the king he foolishly spared. He enlists the help of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah. Here again we’ll be invited to do some comparing and contrasting.
It would be normal for a king to consult his “wise men” or prophets to try to get insider information on whether or not they should undertake a risky project. You see these positions in all the royal courts in the Bible. Pharaoh had them and Moses had to deal with them. Daniel was part of the Babylonian and Persian court. Ahab has his court prophets. He likes them because they always give him the answers he wants to hear. Ahab asks his court prophets whether he should attack and they predictably tell him exactly what he wants to hear.
This sets up a fun exchange between Jehoshaphat and Ahab.
5 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “First seek the counsel of the LORD (Yhwh).”
6 So the king of Israel brought together the prophets—about four hundred men—and asked them, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?”
“Go,” they answered, “for the Lord (adonai) will give it into the king’s hand.”
7 But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the LORD here whom we can inquire of?”
8 The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the LORD (Yhwh) , but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.”
“The king should not say such a thing,” Jehoshaphat replied.
The New International Version. (2011). (1 Ki 22:5–8). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
They story will play out, the prophet will give them the truth, Ahab will do what he wants anyway, along the way doing his best to cheat the prophecy but he will die an inglorious death in battle.
How to Read These Stories?
One of the things we struggle with all the time is how to read the Bible. In some ways we fight and argue more about what the Bible is than what is in it. I think the Bible actually lends itself to this because the book actually reads so well on multiple levels.
The most common level at which people often approach it is that of a morality tale. You can read the story of Ahab and Naboth as a morality tale. You shouldn’t kill someone to get their stuff.
You can read it as a story about justice and kingship: kings shouldn’t use their power to take what isn’t theirs. They should respect the fact that they themselves are servants of one above them and when they themselves are unfaithful servants the one that they answer to will call them to account.
On another level you can see the Bible addressing the question “What does corruption look like? How does it progress? How can you tell?”
One way to consider the Bible is to assume that the reason these stories endure is because over large swaths of time and many diverse culture people have found them to be wise and true. This is a sort of global, crowd-sourcing approach. It is sort of an evolutionary way of thinking that only the strongest stories survive and those stories must have something going for them if they are to survive. Over time we learn what is good and true and right and we figure these things out in ways we’re not fully conscious of but they get passed down to us in our stories. This is the argument that Jordan Peterson is popularizing today and many people who consider themselves atheists are now taking a new look at the Bible and its stories and pondering its wisdom.
Where many draw back, however, is when people start making claims on these stories in what they consider to be naive ways. Claims that Ahab wasn’t just supposed to be serving an idea or an archetype but a living God who could intervene, communicate, pass judgment and execute it. People draw back from this today and for reasons that aren’t hard to imagine. If our selves are not in fact buffered, if there is a God who sees, who watches, who acts, who insures, then suddenly the entire game takes on a whole new drama.
If there is no God then essentially Ahab, and many like him simply get away with murder, and although the stories might suggest that injustice isn’t a great long term strategy everyone from Plato on down has recognized that it is exceedingly profitable in the short term, and since most of us live short-term lives it can in fact pay out handsomely.
The same is true of religion. If all religion is is a short term way to feel better about your life. If the kind of religion you are looking for always says good things to you, like God is there to give you what you want, and he’s going to make you rich, and give you your dreams, and that you are just the most wonderful person imaginable, a glowing god or goddess and the problem with the world is its failure to see, admire and affirm your amazingness, then why not indulge, unless of course it all isn’t true. Unless of course there is a God who sees clear, knows the truth, and is willing to contradict our wishes and impose upon us things we would rather not hear or endure.
Misery: The Demanding Father
The opposite is also true. When things are running amok, when people aren’t behaving, we want God to wade in as a demanding father who is a law giver who will lay down the law against those we believe are doing selfish harm, like Ahab.
The difficult we have is that if we remain in control we always pick the story that serves us. Ahab wants religious yes-men. The prophets want a God who rains down fire and sanctions the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. What we realize we need IS a God that invokes justice BUT we also need a God who will make a path of forgiveness and redemption when we discover that WE have violated the law. This is exactly the story of Christianity and Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Deliverance and Gratitude
We believe that God does hold us to account, and holds the world to account, but in the crucifixion of Jesus we find payment for a debt we could not hope to repay. This isn’t simply, however, just an Ahab temporarily sulking or putting on sackcloth again and again, it is the power of God to come into our hearts, and slowly, often in imperfect ways we begin to stumble back towards the righteousness we always knew we needed to, and sometimes wanted to embody.
The text fills out the understories, of the king’s needing to do justice rather than corruption, and the fact that true religion does not simply affirm or glorify us but calls us to account for our rebellion, while also demanding that this isn’t simply a psychological drama, but one that holds through history, and will hold beyond it in ways that guides us within it. A God who sees, who acts, who judges, and who also forgives and redeems.
So in the middle of our de-construction as we do our searching in chaos we finally reach out to this God. Is this what redemption looks like? Is this how God saves us within the mess? Is this what it means to have done reprehensible things only to have a God find me and rescue me from myself?