Augustine on the Monsters among Us

Different is dangerous. If you don’t look like me or act like me, there must be something wrong with you. You’re odd, deviant, abnormal…broken.

Maybe you’re not even human.

People have always had categories for understanding those who weren’t like them. In the ancient world, you had three standard options: (1) you’re a human like me and are part of my community; (2) you’re a human like me even though you’re a part of that weird community over there; and (3) even though you have human characteristics, you’re not actually human at all.

It’s the third category that I find fascinating. This is where ancient thinkers would often place anyone with a significant deformity. The ancient world was rife with stories of babies born with two heads, people who were neither male nor female (i.e. hermaphrodites), and one-eyed giants, among other things. Such creatures are too human to be mere animals, but not human enough to be human. They’re something else.

They’re monsters.

We’re so much more enlightened now. As modern science developed, we came to realize that these “monsters” were really just humans with physical peculiarities. There was no reason to believe that they constituted some qualitatively distinct kind of being.

So we dropped “monster” and came up with other ways of excluding people. The literature and rhetoric of “race” of the years has been filled with language implying or simply stating that other races are “subhuman” in some way. Sure they’re human, but they’re not “fully” human. Today you’ll hear similar language used to describe the severely handicapped, the unborn, and even the elderly. And for many, “alien” serves much the same function. Sure they’d never come right out and say that the illegal alien on the corner is subhuman, but they’ll certainly think and act in such a way that suggests this is what they believe deep down.

Monsters. Aliens. Subhumans. Others.

That’s the kind of thinking Augustine addresses in City of God when he talks about whether those who don’t look like us should be regarded as monsters or as humans:

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies.”…But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.

The same account which is given of monstrous births in individual cases can be given of monstrous races.  For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs….But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents?  As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course which nature generally or almost universally preserves, if they are embraced in that definition of man as rational and mortal animals, unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all.  (City of God 4.16.8)

Augustine’s answer may not be the surprising to us today, but it was remarkable for his time. No matter how different in appearance, a being that descends from humans is human. And no matter how great the deformity, in their uniqueness and peculiarity, that person contributes to “the beauty of the whole.”

That’s an important word for us today. We tell ourselves that we don’t believe in monsters, yet we often treat those different from us as though they were precisely that, failing to see in our blindness the many ways that they contribute to the beauty of the whole.

Advertisements

Flotsam and jetsam (12/19)

Good Reads

  • Here are two must-read articles on the church and culture. First, Tim Keller’s Coming Together on Culture: Theological Issues thinks that there a growing consensus among evangelicals how how/whether to engage culture. And Michael Horton responds with Christ and Culture Once More, arguing that the “two kingdoms” view is more nuanced than commonly appreciated.
  • Your Podcast Is Not Your Pastor: “John Piper was right to remind us that we are not pastored by “professionals.” Perhaps it’s time we remembered that we are not pastored by podcasts either.”
  • Five Social Media Trends That Are Reshaping Religion: “Over the past couple years, religionistas of all sorts have attempted to navigate a new media landscape in which old constructions of religious authority, identity, and practice are changing almost by the minute. This surely marks the beginning something of a Second Coming of religion in digitally-integrated form.”
  • A Critique of Worship Music Criticism: “While I can’t speak for individual motives behind each rendering of criticism, I have found with my own self it stems from a prideful arrogance that somehow my standard should set the precedent for how we worship God.”

Other Info

  • Type “let it snow” into Google for a fun little surprise. (Sadly for those of us who live in the NW, it doesn’t work with “let it rain.”)

 Just for Fun     

  • Who wouldn’t want to see the opening from the 1966 Batman TV series redone with Legos?

Forced Choices (NT Authors)

Our last two Forced Choices focused on church history: Your Favorite Church Father and Your Favorite Church Mother. Unlike the former where Augustine ran away with things, the latter vote was very close. But in the end, Macrina the Younger (26%) barely edged out Perpetua and Felicity (23%) and Thecla (21%). If you don’t know much about the stories surrounding women in the early church, any one of these would make an interesting starting point.

Now it’s time to go in a different direction. A few weeks back we did a Forced Choices on OT genres. But I never followed up with a similar vote for the NT. Rather than sticking strictly with genres, though, we’ll go with the standard sections of the NT. And this isn’t a post about how to categorize the NT books. So no comments about whether Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians or whether Hebrews should be in with the General Epistles.

Here’s how we’ll break things down:

  • Gospels (Matthew – John)
  • Acts (Acts – Acts)
  • Pauline Epistles (Romans – Philemon)
  • General Epistles (Hebrews – Jude)
  • Revelation (Revelation – Revelation)

As usual, vote however you want. There are no criteria.

So who is your favorite NT author?

(See the poll in the sidebar.)

Saturday morning fun…Chewbacca sings “Silent Night”

What Christmas could possibly be complete without Chewbacca and his timeless rendition of Silent Night. I hope this brings much joy to your holiday season.

HT John Farrier

George Whitefield on Presenting the Bride to the Bridegroom

George Whitefield was born December 16, 1714. My how the times have changed! Yet, the same Gospel he preached still remains true. He was a revivalist preacher with a voice that could be heard by anyone! He often preached an open air sermon to crowds gathering between 20,000 and 30,000 people. That is why I find it most fitting to quote one of his sermons on his birthday:

————————————————————–

All hail, (I must again repeat it) thou Lamb’s bride! For thou art all glorious within, and comely, through the comeliness thy heavenly bridegroom hath put upon thee. Thy garment is indeed of wrought gold; and, ere long, the King shall bring thee forth with a raiment of needle-work, and present thee blameless before his Father, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. In the mean while, well shall it be with you, and happy shall you be, who are married to Jesus Christ: for all that Christ has, is yours. “He is made of God to you, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal redemption.” “Whether Paul, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours.” All his attributes are engaged for your preservation, and all things shall work together for your good, who love God, and, by being thus married to the Lord Jesus, give an evident proof that you are called according to his purpose. What say you? When you meditate on these things, are you not frequently ready to cry out, What shall we render unto the Lord for all these mercies, which, of his free unmerited grace, he hath been pleased to bestow upon us? For, though you are dead to the law, as a covenant of works, yet you are alive to the law as a rule of life, and are in, or under the law (for either expression seems to denote the same thing) to your glorious husband, Jesus Christ….

Moreover, it is required of wives, that they not only love and reverence their

Whitefield stood on this while he preached.

husbands, but that they also love and respect their husband’s friends. And if we are married to Jesus Christ, we shall not only reverence the bridegroom, but we shall also love and honor the bridegroom’s friends. “By this, shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another.” “By this we know, (says the beloved disciple) that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.” Observe, the brethren, indefinitely; of whatever denomination. And this love must be “without dissimulation, and with a pure heart fervently.” This was the case of the primitive Christians. They were all of one heart, and of one mind. It was said of them (O that it could be said of us!) “See how these Christians love one another!” They were of the same spirit as a good woman of Scotland was, who, when she saw a great multitude, as is customary in the country, coming from various parts to receive the blessed sacrament, saluted them with a “Come in, ye blessed of the Lord, I have an house that will hold an hundred of you, and a heart that will hold ten thousand.” Let us go and do likewise….

“I have espoused you (saysSt. Paul) as a chaste virgin to Jesus Christ.” O that you may say, We will go with the man; then will I bow my head, as Abraham’s servant did, and go with joy and tell my Master, that he has not left his poor servant destitute this day: then shall I rejoice in your felicity. For I know, my Master will take you into the banqueting-house of his ordinances, and his banner over you shall be love. That this may be the happy case of you all, may the glorious God grant, for the sake of Jesus his dearly beloved Son, the glorious bridegroom of his church, to whom, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for evermore. Amen, and Amen.

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary. It was originally posted on Michael’s blog The 3 in One.]

Flotsam and jetsam (12/16)

Good Reads

  • Christianity 2.0: A Washington Post writer asks, “What will a fresh Christianity look like in America?” I disagree with many of his conclusions, but it’s still an interesting read.
  • Four Reasons Christmas Matters: “Today, here and now, what is the significance of Christmas? Why has the church over the centuries cultivated this celebration of the birth of Christ? What do the birth narratives, and the very fact of God’s incarnation in Christ, communicate to the world?”
  • Here are two great posts on preaching you should definitely read. Maybe I Do Want Topical Preaching pushes expositional preachers to connect the dots between the text and everyday life. And 10 Steps to Better Preaching has a number of great tips; my favorite, especially given the application focus of the first link, was “avoid trite application.” Amen.
  • Rediscovering the Ascended Life of Jesus: “If 25 percent of the New Testament has the ascension of Christ as its central event and theological emphasis, why is this the most overlooked doctrine in modern evangelicalism?”

Other Info

 Just for Fun     

  • Skateboarding looks so much more impressive (and difficult) when you watch it in slow motion (HT 22 Words):

A Danger that Transcends the Star Trek vs. Star Wars Debate

George Takei offers some wise counsel in this video when he warns that Star Wars and Star Trek fans need to put their enmity behind them, make “Star Peace,” and face and even greater enemy. Watch and learn. (I’ve been feeling a little random lately.)

 

The Top Religion Stories of 2011

I missed this last week, but Huffington Post released their list of the Top Religion Stories of 2011. And I’d have to say that “The End of the World” should certainly be included in any list of major events for the year. But yoga? Really? You’ll have to read the post to get their explanation of each, but here’s the list.
  1. The Muslim Spring
  2. The Dalai Lama Steps Down
  3. Mormons in Politics
  4. The Muslims Are Coming, the Muslims Are Coming
  5. The End of the World
  6. Presbyterians Acknowledge Gays and Lesbians Can Be Ministers
  7. The Struggle for the Soul of Yoga
  8. A Jewish American-Israeli Rift?
  9. Occupy Faith
  10. The New Mass
  11. Interfaith Secularists

Flotsam and jetsam (12/14)

.
Good Reads
.
Other Info
.
 Just for Fun     

How God Made Geeks (Like Me)

HT 22 Words