Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trinity Sunday with Sufjan Stevens and Andrei Rublev

Lots of times preachers will choose a topic, grab a few verses, and illustrate them to death. We call it a topical sermon. It can be really good, or it can be little more than Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Not sure what you'd call my sermons lately, but as I've been following the Christian calendar this year we've gone from Ascension to Pentecost to Trinity Sunday (today) and so I'm smack dab in the middle of a series on the Trinity. Last week we looked at the Spirit, next week we look at the Faithful Son, and this week we look at the Giving Father. I call them theological sermons. I don't use a lot of illustrations.

Except today. Today I employ the help of some of the best illustrations I've heard or seen for a sermon on the Trinity, focusing on the Giving Father.

We begin with Andrei Rublev's Trinity, seen at left, which depicts the three visitors to Abraham in Genesis 18. We end with it too, since Rublev invested the scene with so much Christian imagery. Today in conclusion we'll let the image beckon us to the Communion Table.

But in between we will listen to a song by Sufjan Stevens called "Abraham". I put a few words and pictures to it as a way of helping people out. I hope Sufjan doesn't mind. The song captures Genesis 22 more wonderfully than any amount of exposition could.

The story is often told to highlight Abraham's faith (or maybe Isaac's). Today we look back at it, through Christ, and see it as an early lesson in the Trinity.

If you are captivated by Sufjan Stevens at all, I highly recommend Seven Swans, or his recent epic release, Come Feel the Illinoise.

And of course, there is plenty you can read about Rublev's Trinity. For more on Andrei Rublev himself, all I really know is to see Tarkovsky's film.


Colin Toffelmire said...

wow, sometimes I wish I went you your church man.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jon. I'd love to see your sermon notes for the three Sundays on Father, Son and Spirit.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could have been there for that. Did you recieve any feed back?


Tony Tanti said...

Great stuff. Sufjan really captures the feeling of that odd lesson/story from the Bible.

Question for you, that story is often used to illustrate faith, obedience etc... but it occurred to me recently that Abraham seems rather convinced he won't be required to kill his son, do you think he was just saying that to convince his likely terrified son to get on the altar? If he wasn't just saying it how much faith did it really show for him to start doing something he knew he wasn't going to have to complete? Or is the faith he has a faith in a God who won't let him go through with it?

jon said...

Tanti: Good questions. I don't know. I tend to think he was trusting Gód's promise of a tribe through his offspring, and wondering how that would happen if he killed his son. That's the faith. I'm not sure it was faith that Isaac would be preserved. Maybe it was. I tend to think he was going to kill him. Crazy as that sounds. I also tend to think Isaac was freaked out of his mind. I don't know. I said in the sermon that Isaac is the first "living sacrifice", and Jesus the ultimate one who makes living sacrifices of us all. I speculated that Isaac might have either needed a lifetime of therapy or would have had a total new lease on life. Probably both. "Born again" yet in the "fear of God". Thoughts?

Terry: People have been highly receptive to my theological sermons but I didn't get any real feedback on this one in particular. Then again, perhaps to my shame, I sort of avoid people in the foyer after, spent and fragile as I am after preaching!

Ideally everyone would be in small groups wrestling with the preached Word and applying it to life in community. Since not everyone is, I think these theological sermons fall short of their homiletical intent for the church. That would be my self-critique.

David: I'll be pleased (and somewhat afraid!) to send you this sermon series! I'll email them to you after part 3 this Sunday.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

It is interesting how much one's perspective on Abraham/Isaac gives one away philosophically.

jon said...

yeah it could be like a litmus test almost.

also, it is hard to remain neutral to it.

i'm not sure what i'd make of it without the new testament.

Tony Tanti said...

I think without the new testament you have to look at it as faith that God won't let him go through with it, otherwise how could you believe in a God who wanted the other result?

I'd be curious to know what a Jewish person says about OT (as in original, not old) passages like this.

jon said...

yeah i definitely see what you are saying and potentially agree. the idea that one would (and should) obey some voice in one's head, or from the sky, and kill one's son, presents itself to us as a crazy, delusional, and dangerous idea. that abraham is held up as the hero of the faith, or the prototype for faith, when considered in this reagard, is disconcerting to say this least.

taking it this way is helped by the new testament, no doubt, because we say "Well, now we know for sure God wouldn't actually have us do that, so we could raise the knife in faith that God would stop us, because Christ has been the sacrifice for us already and because Christ taught us what GOd is REALLY like" etc....

But this just doesn't seem like the point to me. I don't know if the faith we're being called to was ever this "leap of faith" based on a voice in the sky, nor this sort of "calling God's bluff"--I don't think that's what it was for Abraham and I don't think it is for us either.

I still wonder if Abraham thought he was going to plunge the knife down. I don't say this to make such an act sound excusable or inoffensive, I think it IS supposed to be absolutely offensive and it IS supposed to seem inexcusable. IT is not a neat and tidy story. But it is not an abstracted story either, unrooted in a context. It isn't the OT equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge's dream that changes his life. It isn't Abraham hearing voices in his head and obeying them and thereby becoming a model for faith. If that was the case there would be little basis for a Jewish (let alone a Christian) differentiation between their own faith and that of others. But Jews are decidedly monotheistic that way.

We have to remember that in ancient culture it would not have been unheard of to make a sacrifice such as this to the gods. In fact, such sacrifices are condemned of other faiths elsewhere in the OT. But at this point, Abraham is on the "front lines", as it were, of this particular god's self-revelation. I think Abraham at this point has probably gotten wind of the oral tradition of creation (among other creation myths) and the fall and the flood and Babel, but it is pretty unanimous among scholars that he didn't write it down. It would have been this oral tradition floating around with others, and he may have had a general sense of a divine existence, and some sort of fear of God, when he first began having these "experiences" of what came across to him as One Particular God.

This One Particular God begins by making promises to Abraham and by making calls upon Abraham's life. Abraham is convinced enough of these experiences to obey in increments, isn't he? He gathers his tribe and moves and settles as directed. He ponders the promise of a son. He waits. His wife laughs. He has these three visitors (who aren't just voices in his head, he feeds them and shoots the breeze with them) come and see him and he actually "bargains" with them for the sparing of a neighbouring city. He sees the physical results of their conversation. And later his promised son is born to his thoroughly barren wife.

And eight years later, THIS.

jon said...

It is still an offensive scene, don't get me wrong. I think that's the point. ANd I think GOd's very interruption at the last minute does a couple things. It tests Abraham's faith to the last possible moment, but it also sets this One Particular God apart from the pantheon of supposed gods quite starkly and blatantly, without reducing the call to trust.

And that's what I think we are meant to see as prototypical here. Abraham is called deeper in a trust relationship with this One Particular God. It is a crazy scene, but it isn't just a random voice from the sky. It comes after years of back and forth. It is not an abstract faith, it is a faith in certain promises and it is a trust built by certain events. Israel's faith all along, when we read the Psalms, is not in some god, but THE GOD WHO DID SUCH AND SUCH AND PROMISED SUCH AND SUCH. I think that's what it is for Abraham. I think he trusts God, without knowing for sure if he is just calling GOd's bluff or what.

Its still a crazy story, meant to shock and reveal, I think. But I don't think we do it justice if we equate Abraham's moment of faith and the esoteric leap of faith idea that so often gets sold to us both in the Church and out of it.

Know what I'm sayin? Thoughts?

Colin Toffelmire said...

As far as Tanti's question goes, seems to me that the text interprets itself relatively well. v. 1 suggests that this was God testing Abraham (in the sense of attempting to determine something), and vv. 16-17 make quite clear that this was a test of Abraham's allegiance to God. The question that the test answers is, "Does Abraham place God and his plan at the forefront of his priorities, and does he trust that God will accomplish that plan."

As to what was happening in Abraham's mind, well who really knows right? Jon mentioned something about what scholars think Abraham may or may not have known, but the truth is that an awful lot of scholars don't believe that Abraham is an historical person at all. And if he was (I tend to think he was), the story found in Gen 22 was written hundreds of years after he lived, and probably tells us more historically about the time of composition than the time described in the story.

Matt's comment is important here I think. I'm not sure how he means it, but it illustrates that the way we read this story and respond to it is deeply and inexorably caught up in us and our theology. That is not, in my mind, a bad thing. We ask questions about God's nature because of this story. If there is a God, and if he allows things like this to happen, then what do we consequently know about God?

An athiest might ask a similar question and enquire what a given reading of this story tells us about the human condition, and about what the reader thinks about the nature of the world. Can such a god be justified or not? If yes, then why and how?

Interestingly, going back to Tanti's musings on non-Christian readings of the story, this tale is never mentioned again in the OT outside the Torah as far as I can tell. Abraham is mentioned 175 times in 159 verses (only 24 times outside the Pent) and mostly it's either stories about him in Genesis, or the invocation of his name as the ultimate typology of faith. My bet is that this story gets picked up in the NT because the typology between Isaac and Jesus works soooo well, and thus the story becomes a talking point for Christians through the centuries.

sorry for the long response, just some scattered thoughts while I should be translating Boehoeffer.

Tony Tanti said...

Great stuff. I feel more informed Jon, thanks for the contextual reminders. You're right though that this is a messy story no matter how you look at it.

Colin, though I'm surprised to hear that an "awful lot" of scholars don't think Abraham existed (I'm sure Jewish scholars would take exception to that) I don't know if that changes the question. I don't think this is a made up story, but even if it were, someone made it up to teach this lesson and chose this story for a reason, maybe as Jon said this was really more of a moment when God differentiated himself from other gods by not requiring this human sacrifice.

Most interesting to me though is that it's Abraham's faith that is the lesson, not blind obedience.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Actually I don't think Jewish scholars would take any more exception to my statement than would scholars of any other faith.

The bit above regarding the fact that this story isn't really mentioned by other writings is actually connected to the idea of whether later readers thought that the story was about God differentiating himself from other ANE deities. Even in non-canonical writings where Abraham is the central figure (Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse of Abraham) this story is not mentioned at all. Seems to me that up until the 1st century AD or so it wasn't that notable a story. Even when the NT authors cite the story, they are not making reference to God differentiating himself from other deities. Those kinds of concepts are just foreign to the culture(s) that produced the OT. Plus there is little evidence that other cultures of the period and area did require human sacrifice.

jon said...

i wondered if there was evidence of this in that period or not. doesn't mean it wasn't happening though.

some scholars would take these as myths and have no problem with that, but many?

good stuff, thanks guys. (i wonder if the sermon itself prompted any dialogue like this.)

Tony Tanti said...

Good points Colin but if that's all true then why tell the story at all? Whether it's as important as others or not doesn't change the fact that it's there.

And I highly doubt you could find any Jewish scholars who practice the religion who wouldn't be offended by the suggestion that Abraham was a mythical character.

Tony Tanti said...

And OT cultures not thinking about differentiating gods, I don't know about that. Are you trying to say that God never tried to teach the Jewish people the ways he was different from other Gods? What about Exodus, or the Ten Commandments story or Job...

jon said...

Good questions tanti, i was thinkgin about them a bit too....

Colin is the OT scholar so I feel a bit out of my depth, and am grateful for the contextual clarifications he's given, but I still have those same quesions brimming on my mind....

Colin Toffelmire said...

Tanti, I don't know whether the scholars I have in mind are practicing Jews, or where they would fall on the spectrum of practicing Jews (Reformed, Orthodox, etc). I'm also just talking about OT scholars here, not theologians. By OT scholar I mean someone with a PhD (I'm just a scholar in training) in OT literature and history. Incidentally, I also know of Jewish and Christian OT scholars who argue strongly for the historical accuracy of the Abraham narratives. These are hotly contested issues in the OT guild, and there are many scholars on both sides and in the middle. And yes, I am right to say "many."

The bit about God differentiating himself...I overspoke there. I'm just saying that I'm not convinced that you guys aren't importing some very North American assumptions onto the scene, as well as some very canonical assumptions. I don't really have a problem with canonical assumptions (see below), but talking about what the story means in concert with the canon is different from talking about the historical context in which and for which this story by itself was written.

What I'm trying to say is not that YHWH is never differentiated from other deities with respect to his character or nature, but that this isn't what Gen 22 is about. This is a story about Abraham's faithfulness to YHWH and the covenant that he had with YHWH. The assumption that Abraham knew that God would never require this kind of sacrifice from him because God just isn't like that, is an external imposition upon the text. It may be true, it may not be true, but we have no way at all of knowing from the text as it stands. What we can determine is that the author of the text believed that this was a test designed by God for Abraham (v. 1) and that Abraham passed the test because of his willingness to sacrifice even his son (vv. 16-17).

One of the problems here is that I'm doing something different from what you guys want to do with this text. You are doing theology, I'm doing a brand of literary criticism. This is an important distinction between what biblical scholars do, and what theologians do. I believe very strongly that the theological move is important and necessary, but I also believe that it shouldn't come at the expense of reading foreign concepts into a particular text.

Instead of saying "Abraham knew God would never have done such a thing" why not take the story as it is...God imposed a difficult test that we find abhorrent...and explore the consequent questions? What's more, explore those questions within the context of the greater canon, where we learn more about God's character and where we find that didn't ever intend to have Abraham sacrifice Isaac, whether Abraham knew it or not.

My complaint is that it seems to me that while trying to make this an important text you are explaining away the actual reason that it's important.

Tony Tanti said...

Those are important distinctions Colin, thanks for the clarification.

I guess what I meant by my original comment was that a practicing Jewish person would likely take offense to the idea that Abraham wasn't real.

I appreciate your explanation of the difference between theologians and scholars, both are important for sure though I hold a higher regard for what I can learn from a scholar who also practices the religion they study. Other scholars should be read as well but if I want to learn about Islam I would mostly read Muslim writers. There are so many things about every religion that take faith that the non believing scholar can just dismiss, I just don't know if straight literary criticism of a religious text is enough.

That being said, I also believe all scholarship needs to be read as all perspectives are valid and can be learned from and that theology alone with no other input is actually dangerous.

Sorry for the sidetrack, back to the story. Colin you said that "within the context of the greater canon, where we learn more about God's character and where we find that he didn't ever intend to have Abraham sacrifice Isaac", I think that's exactly what we were discussing. Knowing that with the context we have I was asking what Abraham's great faith was since he didn't have this knowledge. Seems to me the faith was in this being a test, in that way how does he pass a test that he knew was a test?

Colin Toffelmire said...

Ah yes, but Abraham didn't have our knowledge as you say, and so he didn't know that this was a test. It seems to me that he really believed that he was being asked to choose between God and his son, and he chose God.

The interesting question for us becomes, What do we think about this test? Most people would stand in judgment of both God, for inflicting such a horrible test, and Abraham for choosing a God he could not see over his own flesh and blood. In what ways does a story like this challenge our cultural assumptions about who God is and what faith is?

As an aside, Tanti, the reason I was going on about what Jewish scholars might or might not think is that you seem (probably unintentionally) to be drawing in/out lines for another community of faith when you suggest that to be a Jew one must believe in the historical Abraham. Seeing as how nobody in this conversation is a Jew I think we should probably leave distinctions like that alone. Also these kinds of distinctions are much, much more complicated with regard to Judaism than other Western faiths, because the distinction between ethnic and religious Judaism is fuzzy at best.

jon said...

Thanks for the back and forth on this, it is enlightening. I also appreciate the many times I get push back on this or that point or detail (in this case some of my contextual generalizations). I think if I had a blog with none of that it would be pointless.

I agree with you Colin on the distinctions made, and I appreciate your desire to be true to the many varied opinions of "scholars" out there. Though I know it is possible to see Abraham as a mythological or typological character and to still be a person of Jewish or Christian faith (who sees the text as still central), but my impression is that the number of those who think Abraham forward is mythological would be far less than those who take creation to Babel as mythological. For me it becomes problematic if there is not some essential sense in which these are historical events, even if told in mythological literary language, but I think it going to far to write off the idea entirely and to shut down dialogue with scholars who don't.

As for my original comments, it is a distinction well made that my video and Sufjan's song offers a Christological reading of the original story. This is entirely appropriate but takes it beyond being a simple telling of the original. Also, I agree that it is not the point of the original telling, or the original event, to differentiate this God from the others.

However, I still think there is license, even within a literary critical analysis of the story itself, to see in there not just a lesson about God testing Abraham but a lesson about who God is. If God is taken as a main character in the story, we certainly learn about that GOd through what he does and says. God tests Abraham, and that's the central plot focus and the thing highlighted by the narrator, but I don't think it is reading too much in to ask what that tells us about this particular God. God also gives a ram. And even without NT hindsight this tells us something about this particular God. I don't think it is entirely foreign to the event or the telling to talk in such a way about the passage.

And in my original point to Tanti I was trying to show that this was one more "step" or "chapter" in God's self-revelation to Abraham. Abraham's faith at Moriah comes after a long period of back and forth and trust building. THat doesn't decreas the offense of the story or the difficulty of the test, but it puts it in important context, rather than letting it stand on its own.

All that to say I agree with and appreciate the distinctions made by Colin, but would still hold that there are some theological points to be drawn from the story itself (and then confirmed by canonical analysis for theology) which aren't necessarily entirely imposed from outside.

That said, it is way too easy to impose too much, and we lose so much if we jump ahead too fast and ignore the original meaning. This is way too common.