In Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey made an observation regarding God’s method for interacting with the world that stuck with me for a long time:
I think of God’s style as “ironic.” A more straightforward approach would respond to each new problem with an immediate solution. A woman gets sick; God heals her. A man is falsely imprisoned; God releases him. Rarely does God use that approach, however. An author of great subtlety, he lets the plot line play out in perilous ways, then ingeniously incorporates those apparent detours into the route home. Thus Paul gives thanks for his “thorn in the flesh” because it advances, rather than impedes God’s work through him; and Joseph can look back on his harrowing life and say to his cruel brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” Although Joseph never denied his horrible past, nor minimized the trauma, he ultimately saw it as part of a meaningful story that served purposes greater than he could imagine at the time…
It should not surprise us that a sovereign God uses bad things as the raw material for fashioning good. The symbol of our faith, after all, which we now stamp in gold and wear around our necks or chisel in stone and place atop our churches, is a replica of a Roman execution device. God did not save Jesus from the cross but “ironically” saved others through Jesus’ death on the cross. In the Incarnation, God’s power stream of redeeming good from evil was stealthily underway.
In chapter seven of Culture Making, Andy Crouch explores this sense of God’s irony by discussing the institution of the nation of Israel.
Crouch does something in this chapter that I always appreciate and find interesting and thought-provoking: he takes some of what we know about the nation of Israel from reading the Bible, and places them within historical and social contexts. All too often, as a 21st-century American Christian, it’s easy for me to gloss over, ignore, or simply not notice what’s really going on in significant portions of the Bible because I, well, happen to be a 21st-century American Christian. That is the default cultural context from which I approach the Bible. However, if I approach it as an ancient Jew or a 1st-century Christian, new layers of meaning can be discovered within familiar passages.
A prime example of this is the Biblical genealogies. As a “modern”, those passages may hold some fascination but the lists of names and generations, not to mention all of those “begats”, quickly become tedious and a chore to read through. But as Crouch points out (emphasis mine):
To a modern reader these detailed yet strangely incomplete lineages are like the dietary fiber of Biblical reading — dutifully swallowed at best, if we don’t simply skip over them for the juicy bits. What possible use are they? Yet, even today, members of less thoroughly modernized societies listen to the genealogies with rapt attention. Genealogies assert that the story being told is not simply a timeless myth — it is anchored in a particular group of people in a particular place.
Why is this important? Culture Making‘s previous chapter ended on a rather downbeat note with the Fall and the Tower of Babel, those two terrible examples of human pride, arrogance, and vanity. Indeed, Genesis 1-11 is the story of how it all goes horribly wrong, how God’s good gifts, cultural or otherwise, become misused and abused by an increasingly selfish and ungrateful human race.
But it’s also the story of a God who, in His inimitable (and ironic) style, takes all of that pride, arrogance, and vanity — all of that abuse and misuse of culture — and weaves it right back into His ultimate plan. Or to put it another way, He doesn’t scrap it all and start over, but actually uses humanity’s abuse, etc. as the stuff from which He creates something better. A simple yet very poignant and beautiful example occurs just before God exiles Adam and Eve from Eden (emphasis mine):
…God replaces the fig leaves that have been humanity’s pitiable first attempt at clothing. “The LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen 3:21). The fig leaves would not take them far in a wilderness of thorns and thistles. Mercifully, God improves their culture. He gives them leather for fig leaves — durable clothes that will protect them from the real perils they are about to face, not just from a harsh environment but from the distorted relationship that makes nakedness a source of vulnerability and shame.
Rather than leave Adam and Eve “as is” in their shame, or worse, strip them and send them from Eden naked as the day they were created as punishment, God mercifully transforms the symbol of their hubris and shame (the fig leaves) into a tangible blessing and protection (leather clothing).
How else do we see this ironic — or, as Crouch also describes it, “creative” — style work out in the formation of the nation of Israel? Crouch notes several.
First, in the very idea of forming a nation. Genesis 11 told the story of Babel, in which humanity comes together and creates a great city and tower, thereby challenging God’s authority. God brings an end to such hubris, but instead of scrapping the idea of a nation altogether, in the very next chapter He promises Abram that he would be the start of “a great nation” through which “all of the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In other words, God responds to the Babel’s idea of a nation with one of His own:
Just as Babel was the cultural embodiment of independence from God, so Israel will be the embodiment of dependence on God… In the midst of nations, Israel will be a sign that it is possible to be a nation whose key characteristic is trust in the world’s invisible Maker — to use the biblical word, a culture defined by faith.
Second, in the amount of time required for God’s nation-building project. As Yancey pointed out before, one would think that a holy and righteous God would want to respond to the sin and suffering unleashed by the Fall as quickly as possible. And yet, as we see with Israel, God is willing to carefully and thoughtfully take centuries to let His new cultural project develop.
To create a new “nation” — a new cultural tradition — will require time: time for many generations to absorb, reflect on and respond to God’s intervention in the life of a single nomadic Middle Eastern family. Only a nation with the cultural depth acquired through many generations of history will be able to offer a compelling response to the variety of human experience, the many different features of the world that human beings must make something of. How does a nation faithfully celebrate? mourn? plant seed? harvest grain? conquer? be conquered? [...] developing a cultural tradition rich enough to do justice to every season and every “matter under heaven” is a project for ages, not generations, let alone single lifetimes.
In addition, as Crouch points out, understanding the long-term nature of God’s plan can grant new significance to parts of the Bible, such as the aforementioned genealogies (which serve as a marker of God’s faithfulness throughout numerous generations and bloodlines) and the book of Numbers, with its census information and “seemingly picayune recitation of details about the Israelites.”
Third, in Israel’s geographical location. Israel was located at a nexus of important trade routes, which was part of the reason why it was plagued by invaders and conquerors throughout the Bible. And these invaders were often far more numerous and advanced than the Israelites, and the Israelites were greatly challenged as a result.
If the Israelites were truly God’s chosen people, then it seems rather obvious that He could’ve done a better job of protecting and safeguarding them. Certainly doing so would have helped to preserve His plan for a great nation and prevent said nation from veering off the tracks as often as it did. But stepping back, we catch yet another glimpse of God’s ironic, creative style at work:
All of these tests of faith could have been avoided by placing God’s chosen redemptive nation well out of the way: say, in the Swiss Alps, the mountains of Nepal or the rainforests of Brazil. An isolated location might have spared Israel the worst moments of its history — the ignominious compromises of even its successful kings, the forced march of its leaders into the city whose very name echoed Babel’s. But in such a location, neither would have Israel’s extraordinary claim to worship not just its own local god, but the world’s very Maker and Lord, made much of a difference in the wider course of history.
It was only in “public,” in the context of tremendous political and economic pressure, that Israel’s cultural activity would be made available to the neighboring nations big and small: its legal code with its keen sense of responsibility toward the weak; its poetry of praise, thanksgiving and lament; its Scriptures bearing witness to the character of the one true God. Indeed, without those cultural pressures Israel’s culture might have been substantially less creative in the first place.
Fourth, in the size of Israel. Israel was not the biggest, or the strongest, or the greatest of nations: Moses even points out in Deuteronomy 7:7 that they were “the fewest of all peoples”. This seems counterintuitive, but as we’ve seen already, God is not necessarily interested it what seems “logical” or “obvious”. Rather, God’s track record is to start with the “least of these” and raise them up to humble the proud. We see this very clearly with the nation of Israel, who were constantly threatened by bigger and more powerful cultures, which Crouch sees a sign of God’s gracious nature.
God’s intervention in human culture will be unmistakably marked by grace — it will not be the inevitable working out of the world’s way of cultural change, the logical unfolding of preexisting power and privilege… In culture as in every human life, God begins with the small and humble so that the full dimensions of his grace can be seen — or to put it another way, all divine creativity starts ex nihilo, from nothing, busting into goodness that could never have been anticipated or simply extrapolated from preexisting conditions. Nothing less than creation beginning with the smallest, the weakest and the seemingly least promising can do justice to the infinite creativity of God.
When we look at the size (or lack thereof) of God’s chosen redemptive nation, we perhaps catch the biggest glimpse of God’s irony and creativity.
The story of Israel can tell us many things, especially if we look at it from the slightly different perspective that Crouch proffers in this chapter of Culture Making. We can see that the story is richer than we might’ve expected, but also more humbling and even troubling at times.
The one thing that sticks out to me time and again is that culture — i.e., what we as humans make of the world around us — matters deeply to God. So much so that He not only redeems our horrible mistakes and abuses, our various Babels (if you will) and incorporates them in surprising ways into His plan, but He also improves on them and brings about something new and even better (as He did with Adam and Eve’s fig leaves). What’s more, God uses culture — in this case, the culture of Israel — as the channel through which His divine purpose spreads to the rest of the world. The various facets of Israel’s culture (e.g., its laws and moral codes, its rituals, its poetry and artwork, even its size and geographic location) all contain glimpses and foreshadowings of God’s plan, God’s nature, and even God’s only begotten Son. As Crouch concludes the chapter:
In one sense Isaiah’s prediction [in Isaiah 2:2-3] clearly has yet to be fulfilled. And yet two remarkable things have happened in the 2,600 years since that prophecy. First, against all odds, Abraham’s children have survived repeated attempts at eradicating their culture. Indeed, their culture has influenced nearly every culture on earth, including two successor religions, Christianity and Islam. And second, the followers of one of Abraham’s descendants, Jesus of Nazareth, have indeed gone, figuratively if not literally, “to the house of the God of Jacob,” so that the particular cultural story of Israel now leavens countless cultures with its stories, its rhythms of life, its songs and its laws. Indeed, Christians see Jesus as the turning point of history, the fulfillment of God’s original intentions in singling out Israel and the breaking out of God’s original intentions from a single “peculiar people” to a people drawn from every language, tribe and nation. Jesus of Nazareth, as we shall see, turns out to be the most significant culture maker of all.