How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
The book of Revelation is weird, and I’m pretty sure that anyone who has given the book even a cursory reading will probably agree with me. It’s full of outlandish imagery (e.g., locusts with human faces, dragon-riding harlots, oceans of blood, leopards with seven heads) and cosmic conflicts that (literally) shake the foundations of the earth. As a child, I read Revelation with equal parts fascination and dread, especially as I read books and heard preachers that explained how the book’s events lined up with current events and world leaders (just so you know, Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark obviously pegged him as the Antichrist). This was during the height of the Cold War, and I became pretty sure that what I read in the pages of Revelation was about to manifest itself in some epic confrontation with the Soviet Union (and to a lesser degree, China). Obviously, none of that came to pass, and I’ve since left that particular strain of Biblical interpretation and eschatology far behind. But where does that leave Revelation? Frankly, it’s often still as confounding as ever.
Andy Crouch offers up an interpretation of Revelation that is a far cry from what I heard in my church’s youth group. I must admit that I was a little wary while reading his thoughts, as I find Revelation to resist easy interpretation. At times, Crouch’s views felt too “this is obviously what this means” for my hermeneutical comfort levels, and I found myself wishing he explained his hermeneutical approach a bit more rather than appearing to take various passages at face value. That being said, he offers much that is compelling, thought-provoking, and even inspiring.
Crouch begins, as is his wont, by providing a bit of historical perspective for Revelation. For example, he explains that the text’s original readers would’ve read it in-line with earlier prophecies, such as those in the book of Daniel, and that they would’ve understood it as “coded commentary on the very real historical circumstances that surrounded them.” In other words, Revelation was, for the original readers, not so much about the End of the World as it was about the end of the world as they knew it. But Crouch is primarily concerned with the latter portions of Revelation, with those portions that — in his view — aren’t so easily tied to the early Church and their specific historical setting but rather to the reality that awaits at the end of time. And so he spends much of the chapter discussing the city of God that is mentioned in Revelation 21, and what it may represent.
As a youngster, I was as dazzled by the description of the new Jerusalem, with its pearly gates, bejeweled walls, and streets of gold, as I was frightened by the book’s descriptions of global destruction and catastrophe. For Crouch, the city’s vivid, extravagant imagery points to very real truths about human culture and its place in the hereafter. For example, the fact that the city’s twelve gates are inscribed with the names of Israel’s tribes, and that the city’s twelve foundations each bear the name of an apostle, is a powerful reminder:
The story of God’s saving intervention into human history is not forgotten here nor swept aside to make way for some better “spiritual” reality. Indeed, the only purely “spiritual” creatures in sight, the twelve angels that guard the gates, play a purely supporting role. Human beings’ names mark the city’s gates and foundation stones — twelve Hebrew brothers and twelve Galileans, none of them remember in Scripture as anything other than the sometimes quarreling, sometimes courageous people they were. Human history, represented by human names, is here resurrected in its lasting significance.
It is this idea of human history “resurrected in its lasting significance” in heaven that I find most compelling in the chapter. One question that is often asked with regard to heaven, by both believers and non-believers alike, is, “What will people do there?” Attempts to answer this question are certainly not helped by the popular, if cheesy, notion of heaven involving little more than clouds, harps, and angel wings. In Crouch’s view, heaven will be a much more active, productive, and vital place than that, a place where human culture achieves its true glory and recognition.
To help develop this view, Crouch references Isaiah 60, which describes a future where Israel is no longer threatened and endangered but instead, has become a place of vibrant commerce and enterprise, a place through which flows the wealth and glory of the world’s nations. In Isaiah’s prophecy, Crouch sees echoes of the reality of heaven as a place where all of humanity’s cultural goods are redeemed and brought in.
The city is already a cultural artifact, the work of a master Architect and Artist. The citizens themselves are the redeemed people of the Lamb, drawn from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). But God’s handiwork, artifacts and people alike, are not all that is found in the city. Also in the city are “the glory and the honor of the nations” — brought into the city by none other than “the kings of the earth.”
Crouch’s exploration and discussion of the implications “the glory and the honor of the nations” turns the common notions related to Revelation on their ear. When we read Revelation, and see all of the violent and disturbing imagery, from the oceans of blood to the lake of fire, it’s easy to assume that the primary tenor of Revelation is one of destruction, even annihilation, as God purges Creation of sin and judges the wicked. But if the Bible’s purpose is not, as Crouch claims, to talk only about some abstract “spiritual” reality, where does that leave us once sin has been conquered once and for all? What does it mean that our hope is for not merely a spiritual resurrection but a physical one as well? It means that we are left with culture, or as Crouch somewhat humorously describes it, “the furniture of heaven”. The heavenly city, in short, will be filled with the best and brightest cultural accomplishments of the human race.
It is simply not true, according to Isaiah and John — and according to the whole sweep of the biblical story from beginning to end — that “souls” are the only eternal things or that human beings are all that will last into eternity. To be sure, cultural goods without creators and cultivators would be inert and useless. But human beings, in God’s original intention and in their redemptive destination, cannot be separated from the cultural goods they create and cultivate at their best.
So it’s a fascinating exercise to ask about any cultural artifact: can we imagine this making it into the new Jerusalem? What cultural goods represent the “glory and honor” of the many cultural traditions we know? We already have biblical assurance that the ships of Tarshish will be there; perhaps they will share a harbor with an Americas’ Cup yacht and a lovingly carved birch bark canoe. My own personal list of “the glory and honor of the nations” would sure include Bach’s B Minor Mass, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”; green-tea crème brûlée, fish tacos and bulgogi; Moby-Dick and the Odyssey; the iPod and the Mini Cooper. Of course I don’t expect any of them to appear without being suitably purified and redeemed, any more than I expect my own resurrected body to be just another unimproved version of my present one. But I will be very surprised if they are not carried in by one or another of the representatives of human culture, for they are part of the glorious best that human beings have made of the twelve-tone scale, the flavors of the natural world, language, the microchip and the internal combustion engine.
I’ll be honest: when I think of iPods in heaven, my initial reaction is to roll my eyes. Such a notion seems odd, if not ludicrous at first. And yet, Crouch has been building a convincing case throughout the book that culture — of which iPods are certainly a part — is something that God not only gave to humans as a gift and a blessing, but is also something in which He glories and celebrates because it fulfills His desired plan for humanity (see this series’ third article for more discussion on that topic). Perhaps it’s difficult to imagine iPods in heaven because it’s difficult for us to imagine our cultural goods and accomplishments without sin’s taint — though, it must be said, I have no problem with the thought of hearing the gorgeous strains of “Spiegel im Spiegel” playing over heaven’s PA system . Or, to put it another away, it could be that one of sin’s effects is to trick us into thinking that our cultural accomplishments — be they musical compositions, culinary delights, novels, or MP3 players — are ultimately trivial and of little to no lasting consequence.
For Crouch, the thought of human cultural goods appearing in the new Jerusalem has several ramifications. First, it raises the standards for our cultural creation and cultivation. Or, as he puts it: “Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to… be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural tradition? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best, dead ends at worst?” Second, and perhaps paradoxically, it can free Christians from having to worry about whether or not their work is “Christian enough”.
Knowing that the new Jerusalem will be furnished with the best of every culture frees us from having to give a “religious” or evangelistic explanation for everything we do. We are free to simply make the best we can of the world, in concert with our forebears and our neighbors. If the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in the new Jerusalem, our work, no matter how “secular,” can too.
Earlier, I mentioned that a common question regarding heaven is “What will people do there?” Crouch explores this question a bit more by the chapter’s end. He begins by noting that one potential answer is our eternal heavenly “job” will be to worship God, but Crouch dismisses such a notion: “it is a great misreading of both Genesis and Revelation to suppose that the only way we will ultimately love God wholeheartedly will be through something like what happens in church on Sunday morning.” He continues:
Our eternal life in God’s recreated world will be the fulfillment of what God originally asked us to do: cultivating and creating in full and lasting relationship with our Creator. This time, of course, we will not just be tending a garden; we will be sustaining the life of a city, a harmonious human society that has developed all of the potentialities hidden in the original creation to their fullest. Culture — redeemed, transformed and permeated by the presence of God — will be the activity of eternity.
This is a radical departure from the vision of heaven that I spent most of my life imagining. Actually, I take that back: for much of my life, I never really have much thought to what heaven actually entailed. Yes, from the Bible I knew that it meant interacting with God face-to-face, free from the influence and corruption of sin, that it meant being reunited with those saints, friends, and family who had gone before in the faith, in relationships unmarred by sin and death. Those sound awfully nice on paper, and I believe them to be true. But what do they actually mean? How would they actually play out? How would I interact with God, aside from falling down on my face? What would I do during those reunions, aside from embracing one another?
Crouch’s “vision” of heaven helps fill in some of those gaps. Or at the very least, it raises some very intriguing possibilities.
Crouch wraps up this section of Culture Making by doing two things. He begins with a summary of the preceding chapters, and does so primarily by pointing out that the Gospel of Christ — the “good news” of Christianity — is “absolutely, completely saturated with culture.” But here, we must make a careful distinction and realize that the Gospel itself is not another cultural artifact. Rather, it sits on the edge of human culture, constantly tantalizing us with possibilities even as it reveals the shortcomings of our human institutions.
If every culture defines the horizons of the possible and impossible for its members, then the gospel always sits uncomfortably on that very horizon, hovering between possibility and impossibility. There has never been a culture where the gospel, in all its world-upending glory, simply and comfortably exists within the realm of the possible.
This is a sobering reminder that no human civilization, not even the biblical nation of Israel, has ever perfectly enacted the Gospel and its “world-upending glory”, its broader implications for culture. Our sinfulness simply makes that an impossibility, and those of us who want to dismiss that need only look to history to see ample evidence to the contrary. (Crouch offers the Rwandan genocide as a chilling example.) And yet, because the Gospel is not ultimately beholden to this culture or that culture, always beckons us “further up and further in”, reminding us that “God’s grace and mercy, his endless capacity to respond to human waywardness, ensure that every culture can be reclaimed.”
As I suggested earlier, it could be that one of sin’s effects is that it tricks us into thinking that our cultural accomplishments are ultimately trivial and of no real significance. I think the same could be said in relationship to our culture in general. Oftentimes, it feels like the prevailing attitude around Christendom is that the culture is too far gone, that we might as well cut our losses, circle the wagons, and patiently and expectantly bide our time until Jesus comes to take us home. I think this attitude is waning somewhat, thankfully, but it was certainly implied in many of the circles through which I traveled as I grew up. (Though perhaps you had a different experience.)
The idea that “every culture can be reclaimed” by God’s grace and mercy can be a powerful antidote to such thinking, which I’ve found often devolves into cynicism, bitterness, and even paranoia about the world’s corrupting influence. Of course, we ought to be “wise as serpents” and be honest about sin’s damaging effects, both culturally and personally. But is Crouch is even half right, then God is nowhere near as cynical and paranoid as we are. Indeed, He is perfectly happy to save and redeem fallen humans, and by extension, their cultures and their accomplishments. All of which is to say, I may be surprised if I do see those white earbuds whilst walking down the streets of gold, but I’ll get over it quickly.
(I mentioned that Crouch wraps up this section by doing two things. The second is a brief analysis of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Having not read Christ and Culture, I must apologize for not providing an analysis of Crouch’s analysis. But I will say that I found it oddly placed and disruptive to the book’s flow. I couldn’t help but wonder why it wasn’t included as an appendix. But perhaps those more familiar with Christ and Culture will find it more beneficial than I.)
 If you’ll indulge me while I pursue Crouch’s line of thinking, here are a few cultural accomplishments that I think certainly exhibit “the glory and honor of the nations”: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Slowdive’s catalog, and Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3; Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Studio Ghibli’s entire filmography, and a Jackie Chan movie or two; The Lord of the Rings, Leif Enger’s Peace Like A River, and Calvin and Hobbes; yakitori (especially if served with beer), devil’s food cake, and my dad’s cinnamon rolls; and the World Wide Web (sans YouTube comments).
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