A Year without Television, Part V: The Christian’s Spectacles

This is part 5 of 5 in the series A Year Without Television

When the Lord made man, he made him with eyes that gaze outward from himself, that desire to see something and take it in. In short, the Lord made man to behold spectacles. As with every inclination with which we were endowed, the desire to see became corrupted in the fall. What was the first thing that happened when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Their eyes changed. They saw things they weren’t made to see. The devil promised us open eyes. And acting on his temptation, our eyes (which had been perfectly fine) were opened to see things we wish we could un-see.

Yet man still rightly desires to behold!, to gaze on things and take them in, to delight in watching. It’s a wonderfully receptive activity, this watching. When we watch, we get something we didn’t have before. Spectating is very much like opening a present, and therefore putting on a spectacle is a form of gift-giving. You see that God must be the true Giver of Spectacles: his is the stage, the scenery, the wonder! His is the action, the movement, the story! His is the gift. And we watch, and admire, and receive.

But the devil has not ceased his competition with God. He claims to be the Ringmaster, and he knows how to twist spectacles to his advantage. “Putting on a spectacle gives something, does it?” he muses. “Simply by showing a man something I can give something into him? Well, I can think of any number of things I’d like man to have! Unbelief, lust, covetousness, discontent! Here you go, my dear spectator: sit, and gape, and take this!”

And yet the devil can’t compete. He can conjure up poor imitations of God’s spectacles, but he has nothing like the real thing.

And what is the real thing? What are the true spectacles? There are two Christian spectacles: the created world, and the Scriptures.

The Spectacle of the Created World

The Greek word for “world” is κόσμος (cosmos), related to the verb κοσμέω (cosmeo), which means “to adorn” (it’s the same word from which we get the English word “cosmetics”). The world is “the adorned place,” and our God has done the adorning.

In a world of fast-changing screens, it’s hard for us to enjoy the outdoors as a spectacle. Things don’t move quickly, or appear very interesting to our overstimulated minds. As Lutherans there’s also something of a gut-level reaction against being “religious” in nature. It makes us think of some millennial who’s given his life to Jesus seventeen times walking down a forest path and emerging on a hilltop, and then in the beautiful light of the sunset, with the birds chirping, giving his life to Jesus for the eighteenth time. If I want God, I’ll go to church and hear the Gospel and receive the Sacrament, thank you very much.

Now I’m not contending that we should have outdoor services in the park or mass baptisms at the lake, nor do I hold that we should seek to find the Gospel in nature instead of in the revealed Word of God. What I am saying is: behold the created world as the spectacle that it is! Enjoy being the creature of the God who created everything else. Get lost in the wonder of the world that the Lord has made. Lie on your back and watch the clouds, study the vein patterns on a leaf, turn over rocks and see what scurries out. Plant a garden of vegetables or flowers, watch things grow, catch raindrops on your tongue. If you have young children, bring one of them along and they’ll show you how to do all of this. If you don’t have a young child, borrow one.

Gazing at nature as a spectacle may seem unnatural at first. It’s a pity that nature itself seems unnatural to us. But if you want a good starting place: grab your Bible, mark Psalm 104, and go sit outside on a nice day. Read the psalm. Look around. Repeat.

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
(Psalm 104:14-15)

Alternatively, bring a hymnal and sing the stanza of “Sing Praise to God, the Highest Good”:

What God’s almighty pow’r has made,
In mercy He is keeping.
By morning glow or evening shade
His eye is never sleeping.
Within the kingdom of His might
All things are just and good and right:
To God all praise and glory!

Or again, bring a book of poetry with you. Read something like “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Read that. Then look around for a while.

To be clear, nature-gazing doesn’t make one a theologian. It is not a fair substitute for reading the Scriptures. But knowing who your God is and knowing the Scriptures, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that your Father wants to give you good gifts. Could it be that God made the world as beautiful as he did because he wanted to give us the delight of a grand spectacle, to fulfill our desire to see? Yes, he is the one who satisfies that good desire with which he created us.

The Spectacle of the Scriptures

And then, of course, we have the Scriptures themselves. The Scriptures are not a spectacle in the sense of showing events and actions to your eyes. The Scriptures give better spectacles than that. The Scriptures present spectacles to the heart and the imagination, spectacles that are not in the least bit dependent on the eyes. They prompt visualization without giving the visual, and this actually leads to images that last.

Are you looking for a good tale of intrigue? How about Saul eyeing David, the new folk song stirring his wrath, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” Watch Jonathan caring for his friend, and not wanting to see the truth about his father. See the moment of dawning comprehension as Jonathan dodges Saul’s spear – the father aiming to spill his own son’s blood. Watch David fleeing Saul, the two anointed kings picking their way through the crags of the rocky mountain along with their men. What will happen? Here’s a cliff-hanger that’s good for the soul! Watch the book of 1 Samuel.

Or what about sport? Abner son of Ner and Joab son of Zeruiah – two great commanders – sit on opposite sides of the pool of Gibeon. “Let the young men arise and complete before us,” Abner says to Joab. Twelve on twelve the young men fight with drawn swords. Asahel, swift of foot as a wild gazelle, pursues Abner in a careering race. And what is the outcome of the games? Watch 2 Samuel 2:12-32, and keep watching into chapter 3 if you want to see the fallout.

Do you desire a good love story? Abraham lives amidst a foreign people who worship false gods. As his son Isaac approaches marriageable age, the father seeks a faithful bride for his son. Abraham sends a servant back to his country and kindred, for Isaac must not return to the country out of which the Lord called Abraham. The servant must find a woman from Abraham’s extended family, one who will be faithful to the Lord, and one who will return with him to marry a man whom she has never met. Will the servant find such a woman, and if he does, could true love possibly follow such an arranged marriage? Watch Genesis 24.

Or perhaps you like history. The record of the kings of Israel and Judah will suit you well. Which king began to reign when he was eight years old? Who was Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and why did his name go down in infamy? Which king coveted Naboth’s vineyard? Which king had the longest reign? The shortest reign? Which kings were faithful? Which were apostate? When did the kingdom split, and why? Watch Kings and Chronicles.

What about war? Zerah the Ethiopian marches with a million men and three hundred chariots against Asa king of Judah. Who will win? The Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites have banded together against Jehoshaphat. Why does Jehoshaphat put a choir of Levites at the front of the army when he marches out against them? How did Gideon defeat the Midianites? How did Joshua take Jericho? And what military strategy did he use when he took Ai? Watch Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

Do you like comedic irony? Watch Ahab and the False Prophets in 1 Kings 22 (or 2 Chronicles 18). Watch what happens to Haman in the book of Esther. Watch what becomes of Herod in Acts 12. Watch Samson in Judges 16. Or if you’d like something lengthier, watch Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-50.

Perhaps you enjoy the catharsis of a fine tragedy. Watch David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11-12. Watch the downfall of Saul in 1 Samuel. Watch the decline of Israel and Judah in Kings and Chronicles, and note what makes for a tragic flaw.

Do you have a taste for the supernatural and miraculous? Watch the Exodus, with water turning to blood, fiery hail raining from the heavens, dust becoming gnats and plaguing the Egyptians, a sea splitting in half. Watch the life of Elijah: the contest on Mt. Carmel, the jar of flour and jug of oil, the raising of the widow’s son. Or better yet, watch the life of Christ! Water changes into wine, the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised, loaves multiply, the waves act like solid ground, the sky darkens at midday.

And all personal preferences aside, everyone craves a tale of redemption. Again, watch the Exodus. Watch David battle Goliath. And watch Jesus. Watch him exhibit strength in weakness, give life by dying, triumph over the enemy by appearing to be defeated! Watch him rising from the dead, conquering death, loosing sin! Watch him ascending into the heavens, bearing human flesh in his own person, and as man sitting at the right hand of God, victorious over all that would harm us, our Savior and our eternal life!

And if you desire to see something with your physical eyes and not only the mind’s eye, then go to the church, approach the altar, and behold your Lord in the flesh. Jesus rends the heavens and comes down, giving you his very body to eat and blood to drink, placing himself before your eyes. Sing with Simeon, and know that the words are true: “My eyes have seen Thy salvation.”

Cyprian on True Christian Spectacles

When I point you toward the created world and the Scriptures for your spectacles, I’m not being original. Back in the third century Tertullian pointed Christians to the Scriptures, and Cyprian (as the writing is attributed) to the Scriptures and to nature. I’ll close this series with a fresh translation of the end of Cyprian’s treatise, Libri de Spectaculis, §9-10:

The Christian has better spectacles, if he wants them. He has true and profitable pleasures, if he will recognize them. And, to say nothing of the things which cannot yet be contemplated, he has the very beauty of the world, at which he may look and wonder:

He may behold the rising of the sun, its setting back again, recalling days and nights by mutual exchanges; the sphere of the moon, as it marks out the courses of the times by its waxings and wanings; the choruses of glittering stars, and those that continually flash because of their supreme mobility, their greatest members divided on high through the changes of the whole year; and the days themselves, along with the nights, divided across the lengths of the hours; the balanced mass of the earth with its mountains; and the flowing rivers with their fountains; the outspread seas with their waves and beaches; meanwhile, agreeing equally with the highest harmony and the bonds of concord, the air, spreading out in the midst of all, enlivening all things with its delicacy – now pouring forth rains from its densely gathered clouds, now calling back serenity with restored spaciousness; and in all these places their proper inhabitants: in the air birds, in the waters fish, on the earth man.

These, I say, and other divine works, should be the spectacles for faithful Christians. What theater, built up with human hands, can be compared with these works? Though it be built up with a great heap of stones, the crests of the mountains are loftier; and though the paneled ceilings be resplendent with gold, they will be surpassed by the flashing of the stars. Never will he wonder at human works who has recognized himself as a son of God. He throws himself down from the height of his nobility who can admire anything besides the Lord.

To the Sacred Scriptures, I say, let the faithful Christian incline, and here he will find spectacles worthy of the faith. He will see God establishing His world, and along with the rest of the animals making that admirable and better workmanship of man. He will behold the world with its delights; justified wrecks, the rewards of the godly, and the punishments of the wicked; seas dried up for a people, and again, from a rock, seas extended to a people. He will behold harvests coming down out of heaven, not planted with a plow; rivers rendering dry passages with restrained flows of water. He will see in certain events faith wrestling with fire, wild beasts overcome by religion and turned mild. He will look, moreover, at souls called back even from death itself. He will also reflect on wonderful souls called out of the tombs to the life of bodies – the very bodies that had already been consumed!

And amidst all these things he will now see a greater spectacle: that Devil, who had boasted triumph over the whole world, lying fallen under the feet of Christ! How noble is this spectacle, brothers! How delightful, how needful to look always at one’s hope, to open the eyes to one’s salvation! This is a spectacle that is seen even when the light of the eyes is lost. This is a spectacle that no praetor or consul exhibits, but He who is alone and before all things and above all things, yea, from whom are all things: the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and honor into the ages of the ages.

I pray for you, brothers, always to fare well. Amen.


Comments

A Year without Television, Part V: The Christian’s Spectacles — 2 Comments

  1. Believing that “the earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof,” we do well to fulfill our priestly function and praise Him for it.

    Hermann Sasse had criticisms of Wilhelm Stahlin’s The Mystery of God (Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol. II, pp. 140ff, or We Confess the Church, pp. 115ff; see also Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol. I, p. 50 with footnote). However, Pastor Senkbeil found The Mystery of God worth recommending in his Dying to Live. It would be interesting to have a fair-minded, patient, discerning analysis here of pp. 198ff of Stahlin’s book (Chapter 3 “The Formation of the Church,” section c, “The Cosmos”). The whole book has been called “the Lutheran ‘For the Life of the World,'” alluding to the well-known short book by the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. My sense is that Sasse may have been, partly, responding to a movement he associated with Stahlin, rather than exclusively to The Mystery of God.

    In any event, in our generation there may be a need for many in the Lutheran church to explore the matter of “nature.” Probably our view is often woefully deficient vis-a-vis Sacred Scripture, and I’m sure our people are often more concerned with digital images than the world God fashioned and for which He fashioned our senses, our imaginations, our capacity for language including poetry, etc.

    It is a matter of pastoral concern, for one thing, because there are those among our people who, if they don’t find these things in the context of our Mother, Holy Church, they will pick them up elsewhere. Times of heresy are always times wherein the faithful rediscover or renew their awareness of the truth.

    (A view from a layman.)

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