Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Of the Tales of the Otori

I've been reading the Tales of the Otori, a series of five historical fantasy novels by Lian Hearn set in an imaginary Japan. The novels are noteworthy for several reasons—their beautifully evocative descriptions of Japan's culture and landscapes; the web of attractions, loyalties, and rivalries that binds the characters' stories and lives together; the sparse, engrossing storytelling—and the first three novels in the series, at least, are a very enjoyable read.

In her preface to the first book, Lian Hearn writes that “neither the setting nor the period is intended to correspond to any true historical era, though echoes of many Japanese customs and traditions will be found.” Accordingly, many aspects of the story have analogues in the real world, and I was surprised to recognize that the novels' Hidden, the small religious sect in which the main character was brought up, corresponds to real-life Christianity. The books never use the words “Christian” or “Christ,” but there are plenty of details about the Hidden that make the relationship obvious. The Hidden believe in one God and ignore the gods and goddesses worshipped around them. They are forbidden to kill or (in contrast to the honor-bound warrior class) to commit suicide. They're taught to forgive, as the main character reminds himself even after his village is destroyed and his family killed in the first chapter of the first book. The Hidden practice a “ritual meal” (the Lord's Supper) (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 20) and “speak of being reborn through water” (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 29). Later books make the link between the books' Hidden and real-life Christianity even more explicit, referring to the cross and to “the son of God when he walked on earth.”

The Hidden are ruthlessly persecuted in the Three Countries (the setting of the Tales of the Otori). Their persecution is explained in the first book, in a conversation between two women, Kaede and Shizuka, who are discussing Iida, the villain of the book:

One evening Shizuka, uncharacteristically subdued, whispered to her [Kaede] that men and women had been found… they were to be hung from the castle walls until they died of hunger and thirst. The crows pecked at them while they were still alive.

“Why? What crime did they commit?” she questioned.

“They say there is a secret god, who sees everything and who they cannot offend or deny. They would rather die.”

Kaede shivered. “Why does Lord Iida hate them so?”

Shizuka glanced over her shoulder, even though they were alone in the room. “They say the secret god will punish Iida in the afterlife.

“But Iida is the most powerful lord in the Three Countries. He can do what he wants. They have no right to judge him.” The idea that a lord's actions should be judged by ordinary village people was ludicrous to Kaede.

“The Hidden believe that their god sees everyone as equal. There are no lords in their god's eyes. Only those who believe in him and those who do not.” (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 87)

The third book is even more blunt in explaining the persecution of the Hidden:

“They believe everyone is equal in the eyes of their God, and that he will judge everyone after death. Great lords like Iida hate this teaching. Most of the warrior class do. If everyone is equal and God watches everything, it must be wrong to treat the people so badly. Our world would be overthrown from the ground up if everyone thought like the Hidden.” (Brilliance of the Moon, p. 23, emphasis added)

The world values power over service, status over humility, acquisition over giving, comfort over sacrifice, strength over character, convenience over doing the right thing. The world says that the people of our own tribe are more important than people different than us. The world values people for what they can do (how they can benefit us) rather than for who they are. Even when the world tries to do otherwise (for example, saying “business people need to have character”), it can't help but turn it into a means to an end (“…because that will make them more successful!”).

Christianity turns this thinking on its ear. Christians cared for plague victims and started orphanages. They start schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters. They fought inequalities from slavery to racial segregation in the U.S. to the caste system in India. They fight for the unborn and oppose euthanasia. All of this is to help the powerless, the poor, those of other races—all people who the world's value system would ignore or oppress.

We're used to Christianity. Our culture, for all of its faults, has been deeply influenced by Christian values. We at times have made compromises with our culture, which further blurs the distinction between Christianity and the world. For these three reasons, I'm afraid that we sometimes forget how truly radical Christianity is. The perspective of an outsider (such as the characters of the Tales in the Otori) can help remind us of just how much Christianity runs counter to the world's standards, how it's purposed by God to “overthrow the world from the ground up.”

Let's not lose sight of this.

Jesus himself shows most clearly how God overthrows the world from the ground up. He said that the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the looked-down-upon are those who are truly happy (Luke 6:20-22). He said that the rich, the well fed, and the religious people of his day were not nearly so well off as they thought (Luke 6:24-26). Although he had literally all the power and possessions in the world, he did not use them. When fans sought after him, he discouraged them (Luke 9:57-62, John 2:23-25, John 6:60-66). When foes betrayed and beat him, he forgave them. He could have commanded obedience; instead, he became a servant. Instead of conquering the world by an exertion of raw power, he submitted to every evil that the world could throw at him, dying to it, and by dying, became the Savior of all.

Further reading: “The Difference between a Theologian of the Cross and a Theologian of Glory,” by Justin Taylor; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Philippians 2:5-11

Monday, September 3, 2012

For Example

There was a popular (and, for my taste, overplayed) song on Christian radio a few years back, by Stacie Orrico, titled, “Don't Look At Me”:

Don't look at me if you're looking for perfection
Don't look at me I will only let you down
I'll do my best to point you in the right direction
But don't look at me
No, no, no
Don't look at me, look at Him

A lot of Christians, I think, would recommend Oricco's approach. And there are plenty of reasons for thinking that looking at other humans will let us down. Nationally known preachers and church leaders get embroiled in scandals. Politicians who champion family values are revealed as lacking them themselves. Christian singers' personal lives are revealed to be a mess. Defenders of the faith turn to atheism. Many of us, in our personal lives, have seen friends who we've looked up to fall away, or we've heard of or attended churches that have had to deal with a minister who's had an affair, or we've have had the awkward experience of explaining to our own kids why our actions don't match our words. Perhaps Orrico's advice isn't bad for Christians today.

Paul, however, had no problem telling people to look at him:

Therefore, I urge you to imitate me. (1 Cor 4:16)
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Cor 11:1)
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. (Phil 3:17)
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. (Phil 4:9a)

It would be easy to say that Paul's telling others to look at him was an exercise of his apostolic authority, and not something that others could do, but Paul also tells his readers to be examples, so that others can look at them:

You became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. (1 Thess 1:7)
Set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Tim 4:12b)
In everything set them an example by doing what is good. (Titus 2:7)

Paul had guts. By holding himself up as an example of what it means to be a follower of Christ, he effectively pinned both God's reputation and other Christians' growth on how well he, personally, could live out what he taught. What made Paul willing to tell others to look at him as an example, when so many people today don't (and shouldn't)?

It wasn't because he was so self-confident that he thought he could never fail (1 Cor 9:27); it was because he had confidence in Christ working in him (Phil 1:16).

It wasn't because he thought he was perfect (Rom 7:21-25, 1 Tim 1:16); instead, Paul knew that he was mature enough to be an example to others (Phil 3:15).

Most importantly, it was because Paul knew that he would never give up on his commitment to Christ (Phil 3:12-14). He had the kind of commitment that holds true to Christ even over holding true to oneself; as Rich Mullins said about Jesus, “I will never doubt his promise, though I doubt my heart, I doubt my eyes.”

We need to be more willing to be like Paul. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that people should expect to never see us stumble (if that's what they think that a Christian example means, then they're sorely mistaken), but there's a false humility and a lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit's sanctifying power in saying that people shouldn't look at us at all. And I'm not saying that we should go around talking all the time about what wonderful examples we are; that's prideful and is a great way to be seen as self-righteous. But the fact is that we are examples—to our children, to new church members, to our co-workers, to the cashier at the grocery store—whether we acknowledge it and like it or not. We need to be good examples: to follow Paul's example in letting Christ work in us, in pursuing maturity, and in commitment to Christ.

Although I'm not a big fan of Stacie Orrico's song, I've always appreciated Steve Green's “Find Us Faithful”

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful