Song of the Day Meditation: Mystery, Defeat and Death

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My evening reading for the last couple weeks has consisted of a book of essays by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, alongside G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. In chapter six of Orthodoxy, The Paradoxes of Christianity, I found a passage where Chesterton helped me explain my interest in reading Russell’s book.

Describing how he came to faith as a teenager, Chesterton writes, “I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now.” He said it was the reading of the prominent atheists and agnostics of the day that brought him back to Orthodox theology. “They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt.” With that in mind, there was one paragraph that stuck out to me while reading the essay Russell’s book takes its title from, written in 1927, where he gives his thoughts on the roots of religion.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”

The reason Russell’s list struck me was because, if asked, those are three of the reasons I would give for why I believe. Or rather, the antithesis of that list. I believe because I embrace mystery, because I am persuaded that there is more than I can see, because I hear echoes of eternity around me that I can not explain. I believe because, in a final and eternal sense, I do not fear defeat. I have hope that things will be made right, that every sad thing will become untrue. And I don’t fear death, trusting in the words of the One who sits on the throne that all things will be made new, that the end is not the end.

My friends know that I love quotations. I probably bore everyone around me by repeating lines from sermons, books, and songs that I’ve heard or read whenever I can slip one in. The one I’ve been repeating the last couple of weeks, my favorite quote at the moment, is one I’ve heard N.T. Wright give in a couple different sermons I’ve listened to recently. Wright mentions a friend of his, Leslie Newbigin, who was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about some issue. Newbigin’s answer, for me, is the answer to Job’s question, the question of theodicy. It’s the answer to the genocide in Rwanda. It’s the answer–but not necessarily the explanation–to my questions about wealth and poverty, sickness and health, indescribable happiness and unbearable tragedy. It’s an acknowledgment that there is something that transcends my questions, that “His ways are higher than my ways.” Newbigin’s answer? “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”

Andy Gullahorn’s song Resurrection, recorded by his wife Jill Phillips on her new CD The Good Things, wrestles with this paradox of believing in Resurrection in spite of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s one I find myself listening to on repeat late at night when I need to know others find the strength to somehow believe.


10 Comments

  1. josh

    This makes me think of how important the community of the Bride of Christ is. This comes to mind because in reading this post it dawned on me that I too often look to find true community among the body of believers in moments when all is well and I can feel good in the company of my brothers and sisters. But I think I too often fail to realize that the strongest bonds of community I have known so far have been forged in the moments when my faith was weak and my ability to believe was hanging by a thread. So in the words of Switchfoot “doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs”, because one day faith will become sight and all the doubts in the world will vanish into thin air like the last whisp of smoke after you blow out a candle.

  2. Jim A

    Wow Stephen Lamb! What a fantastic post! I absolutely love how you wove Chesterton, Tom Wright, and Bertrand Russell into the text of a song by Andy Gullahorn sung by Jill Phillips. Genius. Were you to have thrown in a dash of Buechner and a pinch of Jack Lewis I could have just packed up my stuff and gone home because the day would have been complete.

    If this isn’t what the Rabbit Room is all about, I’ll eat my hat!

    Bravo!

    Jim

  3. becky

    Really good post, Stephen. I think you hit the nail on the head. “Religion” may be based on fear, but Faith is based on hope. When life gets hard, fear-based religion is just not enough. The end result is despair and bitterness. We need the hope that comes from knowing who God is, knowing what He has promised us, and trusting absolutely in His faithfulness and power to keep His promises.

    Yesterday, my aunt died after a long and difficult illness. The last few days were particularly harrowing. My parents and I were talking about how much difference it makes in this situation to know that God is good. That He loves us. That He has promised us resurrection, and He is absolutely trustworthy. That He has the power to do what He has promised. “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead” is the only answer that gives us hope in an otherwise hopeless circumstance. The only answer that lets us embrace the mystery of life after death. The only answer that allows this kind of difficult death to be “swallowed up in victory” instead of defeat. The only answer that proves that our hope for eternal life with Jesus is not in vain. The old song is true. “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone.”

  4. Mike

    Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. Russel may have had it right, but that’s not the end of the story. Perfect love casts out fear. I jusr finished reading Gregory McDonald’s sermon on fear. In so many words he said that if a person does not Love God they do well to fear Him. Russell couldn’t get past the fear. Seems he may have been the real “fraidy cat.”

    “If this isn’t what the Rabbit Room is all about, I’ll eat my hat!”

    I agree Jim.

    Mike

  5. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    For clarity, what’s the working definition of “religion” we’re dealing with here? Should we see religion as anthetical to faith, or under the umbrella of faith?

  6. Tony Heringer

    Jamee 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

    Or the umbrella that we hold up in faith during the storms of life?

  7. Jim A

    As I stewed on this all day, it occurred to me that a Sara Groves song would have worked here too. I think her songs “It might be Hope” and “The Long Defeat” are spot on with this discussion. And to build on that theme (and satisfy my earlier post’s desire to see a bit of Buechner sprinkled in) you can add in “The Magnificent Defeat” which as an essay/sermon goes straight to the heart of Russell’s argument.

    Jim

  8. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Thanks, Jim. I would have included a Buechner quote here, but I’m trying hard not to quote him in every post I write – a difficult task.

    And I agree, Sara’s song It Might Be Hope would fit here as well. It’s my favorite song from that record.

  9. Breann

    During tough moments I often ask myself questions like, “If God cares about me and is with me, how come sometimes it doesn’t feel like He’s there?” “How come sometimes when I cry out to God, the only answer I get is the echo of my own wails?” Then, I asked one question which was the breakthrough for me, “What is different about the way Christians undergo hard times with the way non-Christians deal with hurt? What do we have that those without a relationship with Christ are missing?” I knew the answer to this question had something to do with hope, but even though I had grown up in church, I realized I didn’t really know what hope meant. So, I grabbed a concordance and started looking it up. What I found is that hope in the Bible is not so much wishful thinking as it is a sure thing. And I found that our hope as Christians is not found in some abstract idea, but in something very specific. Our hope is in the resurrection of the dead. The only thing that keeps us from giving up and sinking into despair is a firm belief that one day death will be shattered and all will be made new.

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