God on Trial…

Before going to bed last night I was channel surfing for a few minutes and ran across the tail end of a film.  It was clearly a holocaust film, set in one of the infamous barrack houses of an internment camp.  I watched for maybe 30 minutes, and for that entire time the action unfolded only in that little room filled with shaven-headed Jewish men in filthy prison garb.  It slowly dawned on me that I was watching a trial, and that the defendant was God himself.  The two dozen or so men had accused God of breaching his covenant with the Jewish people.  Men from around the room spoke, arguing their side of the case.  Some defended God, calling Auschwitz a test.  Others contended that there was no God and that religion was simply a tool used by the powerful.  Some said that God was real but had abandoned the Jews.

Near the end came an incredibly powerful and moving moment of the film.  All that had come before was mesmerizing, beautiful, and terrible.  But this moment will remain branded in my mind.

Just as the judges sit to deliver their verdict one final man stands to speak.  He has been silent.  He is a rabbi.  He begins by asking questions about the history of the Jews, posing them mostly to the other rabbi, who is also a judge.  The questions begin with the Exodus and each one challenges the motives of God.  What is so powerful is that this rabbi, who knows his Torah in and out, asks questions that require the listener to question, not what God did, but why he did it.  This rabbi, named Akiba, accepts that God sent the plagues on Egypt and gave the Promised Land over to the Jews.  What he questions, however, is whether this demonstrates God’s goodness.  “What of the Egyptian children?” he asks.  “Was the Promised Land empty?”  Then comes the climax of his speech.  He inverts the usual Jewish (and Christian, and Muslim) proclamation that “God is Good!”

“God is not good!” he cries.  “God was never good!  He was only on our side.”

That last phrase should be branded onto the hearts and into the minds of every believing person in the entire world.  It reminds us of our great sin.  The belief that because we are on top, because we are winners, because we are prosperous and happy and rich and comfortable, that God must be on our side.  What an evil that sentiment is.  What it requires, as Akiba saw so clearly, is a God who is a son of a bitch.  It requries a vindictive, feckless, hateful, cruel, and wicked diety who’s morality is far surpassed by his creation.

God is convicted of breach of covenant.

Then the Germans come.  Half of the men are taken and half left.  As the selected men are taken one of them, a quivering, whimpering man, cries out to Akiba, “What now?  What do we do now that we’ve convicted God?”  Akiba answers, “Now we pray.”  And so the half that are taken and the half that remain are shown praying.  They each hold one hand over their heads because they have no headcoverings.  They pray a liturgical prayer together, witnessing the greatness and mercy of God, and the half that were taken are led naked into a chamber that looks like a shower-room but, of course, is not.

So often artistic attempts to deal with issues like suffering, election, and the nature of God are either reductionist or just stupid.  This, thankfully, is not.  The film takes seriously the problems associated with true evil and suffering, as well as the sometimes paradoxical and even hypocritical nature of faith in God.  For all of that I still felt a sense of hope in the end.  I didn’t feel distant from God but drawn to him.  The sense of horror at the sight of those men in that stark “shower” room was balanced with an equal sense of love for their nobility and their faith.

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Which Moses?

As I mentioned some time ago, I have recently written a paper on the way that Luke and Paul see and appropriate the character of Moses, particularly in Acts 7 and 2 Corinthians 3.  On Monday I submitted the final revision of that paper.  It is significantly improved from the initial submission but still needs a little bit of work.  I’ll see what my professor says when I get it back and if the changes required look reasonable I may reformat it for publication.  In any case, this is one of the reasons blogging has been light lately so I thought it was only fair to reward my handful of loyal readers to read and critique the paper.  If you do bother to read it and have any thoughts, please do let me know.  Even if you think my argument is total bunk, it would still be nice to hear your thoughts.  Follow the URL below to enjoy (or, you know, not).

Toffelmire, Colin.  “Which Moses? An Exploration of the Function of Moses in Acts 7 and 2 Corinthians 3,” McMaster Divinity College, 2008.

PS though it seems absurd that I need to make this explicit, I will anyways.  Please note that all content on randomcolin, including academic papers provided by external hyperlink, are the sole property of Colin M. Toffelmire and shall not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Colin M. Toffelmire.  Brief citations may be used without permission on the condition that such citations include complete and accurate attribution.

A Good Day…

Today was a good day, and until I’d had it I had no idea how badly I’ve needed it.  As I’ve shared here a little bit already, PhD studies have been very challenging and the life adjustment involved has been pretty significant.  It hasn’t been bad.  In fact Jinny and I love our new town and our new home, and life here has generally been great.

All of that is true, but the one thing that I’ve been missing is the feeling of triumph.  All of you career students out there know that you really do have to win sometimes.  Sometimes you have to do better than you expected.  Sometimes you need to be told something was excellent.  This is what keeps you going, keeps you thinking that maybe you really do have a contribution to make.

Doctoral programs, however, are not designed to make you feel good.  They are designed to push you, to challenge you, to make you think harder and more deeply than you ever might on your own.  I don’t know about other programs but in my first few weeks at McMaster Divinity College I can’t count the number of times I heard some variation of “our job is to push you.”  Well, the faculty are doing their job and then some.  The very best work I ever did in my M.A. is at best acceptable here.  All of this is important.  I need to be pushed, and as one of my friends reminds me repeatedly, I did pick this path.

But for all of that it still feels nice to win.  Today I got back an assignment from the toughest marker I’ve ever sat under and it was much better than I’d expected.  That felt great.  Then this afternoon I presented a paper that frankly wasn’t fantastic (though the fundamental idea is, I think, great).  I was challenged with some really great constructive criticism, but I also received some very kind words and some affirmation that I was going in a fruitful direction.  Those things may seem like small victories, but quite frankly victories of any kind feel pretty good, so I’ll take it.  Only two more significant papers left to write and I’m out of the woods until the Winter semester.  Time to stop celebrating and get my head down again.