Donald Andrew Henson II

And We Hid Our Faces From Him

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Nostalgia for God on September 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

In my last post, I discussed the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, a fairly pedestrian movie promoting an idea which is much more prevalent than I knew – the idea that Jesus never existed. I suppose, coming from a fundamentalist background, that I always thought that almost everyone believed that Jesus was a historical character, but that unbelievers thought he was just a good guy, an unorthodox teacher, and Christians worshiped him as the Son of God. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that some intellectuals considered the life of Jesus to be entirely mythical.

That documentary showed a few scenes from another, much more powerful movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming, the narrator and director of the documentary, said that Gibson’s movie is far and away the most popular Christian movie of all time, and he criticizes Christians for their love of blood – if you’ve never seen The Passion, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing these scenes again stirred up a lot of old feelings in me, and I just wanted to think aloud about some of them. I once read a quote, something to the extent that agnostics are atheists with a nostalgia for God – if you know who said it, please drop me a line.

I saw The Passion of the Christ at a movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was living at the time, and I’m sure it was a very different experience from what viewers in the US might have enjoyed.  99% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and many have no understanding whatsoever of our Christian beliefs. I once had a Thai student ask me, at Christmas time, if Christmas was a distinctly American holiday. I replied that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and that most countries with a Christian heritage enjoyed celebrating Christmas. The Thai student smiled and nodded her head, which is the Thai way of saying that I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, but I don’t want to look like an idiot by asking another question. So, I asked whether the student had ever heard of Jesus before. She replied that she had not, but she had read of other famous Americans, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Needless to say, when I arrived at the movie theater to see The Passion, I was surprised to see a full auditorium. I didn’t think all those Buddhists would give one whit about the life of Christ. But Thais love all things American, especially Hollywood movies, so they had come out in droves. They had no idea what the movie was about. I’m sure you think I’m kidding, but the same Thai student who can tell you every single aspect of the story of the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) couldn’t place WWII in the proper century, and couldn’t tell you if Washington, Lincoln, Plato, and Hitler all lived at the same time or in different centuries. Western Civilization is not taught in high school nor is it a mandatory course in college – why would it be? I could never be too critical as a teacher there – most American students couldn’t tell you how many years there are between Plato, Washington, and Hitler either – and wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you said ‘Ramakien”.

Many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they can’t stomach the idea of taking the life of any sentient being, not even a fish or a bird. Imagine watching such a brutal movie with this group of people. They were totally unprepared for what transpired on the screen. I knew that Jesus would be beaten and spit upon, that by the time he reached Golgotha that he’d be nearly unrecognizable as a human being. But the gentle Thais had never heard of such a gory hero as Jesus. They flinched when the Roman soldiers slapped him, moaned when the cat-o-nine-tails dug into his back, shrieked when the crown of thorns was thrust upon his head, and wept as Mary kissed his feet as he hung on the cross.

This was powerful stuff, this passion story. I remember my sister, one year older than me, watching horror films, covering her eyes at the scary parts. The Thais did the same thing – they were so appalled at the gristly nature of the film, that they covered their eyes with their hands, hiding behind one another and the high-rise seats. I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah 53 –

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Isaiah describes the natural response to such human misery; yet, we are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that we can tell it to our children, perhaps with a smile on our faces. Yet, agnostic that I am, I still can’t watch such a graphic portrayal without choking up.

Isaiah 53 was always a favorite scripture of mine.  I thought of it as tragic poetry – real history, but expressed in beautifully painful language. That the Son of God could appear on Earth, and receive such vile treatment – it was finer tragedy than Oedipus Rex. Today, scholars attribute the writing to someone other than the Isaiah who wrote the first 50 chapters of the book named after him, some anonymous prophet who had been carried off by the Assyrian captivity. And Orthodox Jews contend that this scripture in no way, shape or form refers to an individual person, let alone the Christian Messiah. Nevertheless, for Christians, it resonates deep within the heart.

Amy Grant once recorded a rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded  that I would listen to over and over again for hours. It seemed at the time to epitomize Christ’s sacrifice for us. Perhaps looming even larger in my childhood was a collection of songs recorded by Jimmy Swaggart; two albums named Worship and Healing. Each track of the albums featured a traditional composition of an old hymn, and Swaggart read a portion of scripture as the music played. With his Bill Clinton-esque ability to convey emotion in his voice, the combination of music and scripture was quite powerful.

My favorite was a song called ‘The Healer’. It was an old hymn that I had grown up hearing in church, one that I can remember my Dad trying to sing, and his mother as well – neither of them had any talent at singing, but they loved the old songs.

On the cross, crucified, in great sorrow he died; the giver of life, was he.

While this beautiful hymn was sung, Swaggart read from Isaiah, with emphasis:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sad, but there’s no way to know if it’s true or not. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad story too, and O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi will make you well up every time you read it. But the difference is that these stories don’t promise something that they can’t deliver, they don’t give dying people false hope, nor do they try to persuade people that a man died for them a couple thousand years ago. My mother spent her whole life believing in the gospels, but she fought death off until the end – there was no “looking forward to being with Jesus” for her – something inside her knew.

I don’t really have any conclusion. I love the old gospel songs, and they can still move me. I appreciate the poetry and tragedy of some of the scriptures. I wish I could believe in some kind of afterlife where I might be able to meet up with loved ones again. But just because I choke up watching Toy Story 3 doesn’t mean I think it’s a true story; just because a scripture like Isaiah 53 is beautifully tragic doesn’t make it any more real than the movie Somewhere in Time.

I once cried to think that humankind would hide its face from God’s son; if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.

  1. Reblogged this on Ferlans and commented:
    “if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.”
    “I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.”

    This is something of a sad post. I’m currently reading Anthony Weber’s book, “Learning to Jump Again”. He says this while speaking of the death of his father.

    “When the jaundice morphed into a cancer diagnosis, many people thought God had to heal him. For various reasons, God couldn’t let him die; God needed him on earth; God had given them a magical wand, a verse that they could wave over his yellow skin. Dozens of people called my parents to assure them that “God has given me a Word.” The verse, “You shall have one of these diseases,” magically left its Hebraic, post-Egyptian context and landed just a bit off Broad street. It was a typical verse-bite, full of nothing but happy thoughts. Two thumbs up for the power of positive thinking. Nobody called with, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be His name.” Job had apparently been banished from the canon of promises. In fact, a friend (one of Job’s 21st century friends, perhaps?) has since explained to me how God’s rebuttal at the end of the book rebuked Job for that pithy statement. “Just pray and trust God.” That sentence I heard more times than I care to recount. But the universe does not operate by the secret; even if it did, I am not the secret keeper. I am not God’s master. He is not a tame lion, said C.S. Lewis, and none of us are lion tamers anyway.”

    I understood the statements. For some of us who have been in pain long enough, the idea that God heals is always close to our minds, but never close enough. God does as he wills and his name will always be praised. He will heal if and when he desires. But lately I’ve been finding that a lot of people don’t think that way. Yet the pain I experience does not turn me away from God, nor do I think he has abandoned us as this writer does. I keep remembering Jesus and with that, God’s love for us. I also can’t find it in me to think evil of him. For me it is always “God gives and God takes away. May his name always be praised”. That is what he has asked of us, afterall – to accept whatever he gives us, to always give thanks and to trust him regardless of the circumstances.

    • Tracy, thanks for re-blogging my post. I never felt that God had abandoned me or my Mom due to her cancer and death just a few months later. In fact, realizing that God doesn’t in any way operate the way we think he should, and that what we call scriptures reveal nothing of his true character – this actually makes one less sad, not more. If you think there’s a God who could heal you, who’s healed others before, but he’s chosen not to heal you – that’s really painful. But to realize that God has no role whatsoever – that whatever happens just happens, and God is not involved – this actually makes things better.

      I know from past discussions that you and I are not going to agree on much, but I can appreciate the discussions, nonetheless. I think it is a step in the right direction to say ‘I don’t understand God’. The next step would be to say that ‘Others who claim to understand God really don’t understand him either’. But once you say that, you start to slide down that slope, and the logic starts to go something like this: I guess the only people who really understood God were the writers of the Bible – but their writings tend to be interpreted in so many different ways. It doesn’t really matter if they knew what was going on – they didn’t pass it on to us in such a form that a consensus can be reached on its meaning. How ‘inspired’ can writings be when no one can agree on what they say?

      What you eventually have to end up with is a God who could make himself clear, but for some reason has chosen not to do so – ‘blinded the eyes’ of some I think the Bible says. He could heal, but he won’t. I don’t know how to explain this but to say he’s turned his face from us. Or perhaps, unlike humans who find it impossible to watch human suffering without intervening – he is unmoved by our sorrows.

  2. I too am happier with the knowledge that a theistic god does not exist. If he did, i would be bitter at the idea that he would have to cause or allow all the pain in the world. I would have much more to be angry about. That is not, however, WHY i don’t believe. There are too many people believing too many completely different things; and all dead sure they’ve got it right is one reason. I’ve read the bible is the second reason(not just the quotes). And the third reason is summed up best by Christophen Hitchens

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