Mirror Masks and True Religion and Worship in James 1:19-27
The non-objectivity of the world as disclosed by the photographic lens?While crit theorists were debating the reality of the knots that entangled them, social gospelisers were cracking the whip at coke-bottle-eyed evangelicals: true Christians must be more practical. Less of your talks and studies and more of our going out into the world and doing things, please.
...the object is never anything more than an imaginary line. The world is an object that is both imminent and ungraspable. How far is the world? How does one obtain a clearer focus point? Is photography a mirror which briefly captures this imaginary line of the world? Or is it man who, blinded by the enlarged reflection of his own consciousness, falsifies visual perspectives and blurs the accuracy of the world?" (Jean Baudrillard, Photography, Or The Writing Of Light)
But James assumes that our starting point is the open Bible on our lap. For God brought us forth through the word of truth (James 1:18) and it is the word, implanted, that is able to save our souls (James 1:21). Elsewhere, we are injuncted to give an intent ear to the word of God as first priority. Martha might be the patron saint of the century but it was Mary who received the commendation.
The great reluctance to crack the spine of a black leather-bound might be attributed to lack of belief in the Bible as the word of God or the greater doubt that God does speak at all. But regardless of reason, the fact is that we fail to edify in our speech and actions because we haven't listened and our minds and hearts remain uninformed about God's laws and intention for his children (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
It is from this foundation of God's word that James warns that we mustn't be hearers only of the word but doers as well (James 1:22). James isn't talking about hypocrites here, the white-washed tombs the plebs were only too happy to hear included in Jesus' exposé. The subject of the letter were real Christians - they had the implanted word, yet they were encouraged to receive it with meekness (James 1:21).
If we hear but do not do, we are only deceiving ourselves. Long-in-the-teeth Christians who have learnt to read the Bible properly and get the main point from a chapter in a book of the Bible, who work hard at the talks they are to give, don't need someone to ask them "Where did you get what you have just said from this passage?". But they must not mistake competent comprehension for suitable obedience. Similarly, those who thoroughly enjoy a faithful talk or get great truths from our daily QT but not to go and do anything about it must not think that we are in any way blessed if we do not act on what we have learnt (cf James 1:25). We would be like the supermarket shopper who pays for his groceries and then walks off without them because his silly mind thinks payment = acquisition of goods. (Or perhaps this is not a common experience.)
James, who never had to face a supermarket checkout, likens this to the absurdity of staring intently at the landscape and features of our face in the mirror, turning away, and at once forgetting what we have seen. It is a silly situation that FAILs more than many of the entries on FAIL blog: "Hey," a shopkeeper might say to the man entering his shop after having spent a good hour using the reflective solar film of his shop window as a mirror,"nice nose. We don't get alot of beaks around here." "I've got a beak? Oh, how unusual! I never knew!" Yet, it is the common Christian experience that we do forget, and in vast quantities. So we remember so-and-so as a good speaker, or that there was a good talk last month, a good study last week, a good camp last holiday, and hey, we have a neat file of notes to prove it. But does that mean we really remember what we learnt and completely internalised it that our minds and hearts have been changed by it?
And again in James 1:26-27, James does not warn the hypocrites, the proverbial Sunday Christians, the men (goes the old sermon chestnut) who go to church regularly every week and bible studies and think they are thus saved; James is warning those whom he acknowledges as his beloved brothers (James 1: 16, 19) - the people who have known the new birth.
To these he throws down a challenge: does your religion mean that you master your tongue (James 1:26); is it displayed in your self-control? Do you use your immense "people skills" and way with words to judge and gossip, plot and plan? What do you say in council meetings, deacon sessions? How do you use your opportunities on the pulpit and when teaching small groups? What do you talk about during fellowship meals and gatherings? If we have really heard the word of God, letting slander, gossip and unedifying talk emerge from our lips is absurd. It would be difficult for the objective observer to conclude that we'd listened to God in the first place!
The doing isn't really about social work - the outwardly tangible things people can put together for a biography that will sell at mission conventions and be serialised in Readers' Digest. On one hand, it is about self-control. In addition to internal control, it is about how our religion is demonstrated in our relationships with other people, particularly those who are in need of help (James 1:27a). The Greek word translated as "visit", says Dick Lucas, also appears in Matthew 25 and Luke 7:16. It is used of God visiting his people and making things happen for the benefit of these people. It would be incomprehensible to claim to be well-taught but uninterested in burdensome, energy-sapping, needy IMH-regulars (though of course we'd be amenable to pooling together to get little arms-length "encouragement gifts" for them).
And what of our relationship with God? The reference to "the world" is by default shorthand for our relationship with God, for loving the world means turning our backs to God (cf 1 John 2:15). The world is society organised without reference to God or his son. Previously we loved the world, then God worked on our hearts and so we turned our backs to the world and lived for him but the world is always enticing us to creep back. So Christians have tried to institute by-laws to prevent contamination by the world: no theatre, no dancing, no drinking or smoking. But such legalism and pharsaism was too naive. The current swing towards the other extreme of total liberty, however, tends to lack control. Perhaps the better test is to ask whether this or that draws our hearts from heaven and fastens them to earth; whether it hinders us from setting our hearts on things above and in investing in things above. Like protecting state secrets from covert intelligence gathering, usually of the attractive young female genre, we are to keep ourselves and our relationship with God unspotted from what may seem to be unbelievably fetching temptations. For what fellowship has darkness with light asks Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
The proof's in the pudding; the blessing's in the hearing and then the doing.
Dick Lucas, James
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, MirrorMask
Dorie Greenspan, French Pear Tart with some chocolate in the tart dough and great inertia vis-a-vis working with pears.
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- Mirror Masks and True Religion and Worship in James 1:19-27
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