I tend to superficially over-think religious subjects. I say “superficially” because my attorney friend, Tom Eastmond, reminded me about David Hume’s “is-ought” problem, and when you get under the hood with the metaphysical uber-thinkers, it humbles you. You get that “nothing new under the sun” feeling. Someone has already seen this here thing. Someone has already “splained it” better.
But I think I’m onto something, even if I’m sure it’s not new: If the devil had a plan for destroying faith, there would be no better way to do it than forcing a believer through a carnival of charlatans and pious frauds. Orthodox Christians, after all, believe in the miraculous: the virgin birth, God appearing as man in the flesh, life after death. That faith can be tested when a false faith-circus comes to town. In the dark night of the soul, on those occasions when your life feels like a wasted, decrepit vanity, there is a peculiar evil radiating from people who peddle false miracles. If you are crying out to the the Great High Lord of the Universe, and your vision is clouded with a picture of a faith healer in a Lear Jet, set to the evil music of Bill Maher’s laughter, then you begin to get a sense how grotesque false religion really is: you can’t hear the distant, heavenly music because someone has hoisted a boom box up to your ear, demanding you take in his version of the tune.
I’m not questioning modern day miracles. I’m sure those exist. I’m talking about the sort of religious mind capable of either faking miracles or adding a secret ritual ingredient to the ancient faith. It’s certainly been a temptation as old as scripture. Religious entrepreneurs get out in front of the simplicity of God’s story and add their own franchise flavor, or they resurrect old rituals, Galatians style. When the children of Israel watched miraculous plague after miraculous plague; when they had seen the Red Sea part, they had to have—contrary to Divine instruction— a kind of false “permanent miracle,” the golden calf.
We have a weakness, as a species, for demanding the visual and the tactile. We adore our rituals, kiss our icons, lust after our temple prostitutes, and we must “see” our gods, but the single Great God of the Universe remains invisible, and the reason might be simple: His presence is too powerful for us. His righteousness and truth, if Sinai is any indication, would blow us to dust.
It’s strange then, that in the story of the bronze serpent, God tells Moses to put a bronze snake on a stick, so as to cure the complaining chosen people. God had sent live snakes to gall them and a bronze snake to cure them. All they had to do was look at it. There was no ritual washing, no blood of a bull on the right toe, no 30 point plan for righteous living. Just look at the snake, dummy.
“You’re dying of snake bites?” Moses asks. “Then look at the bronze serpent.”
“Say a prayer to it?”
“Look at it.”
“Get down on my knees before it?”
“Offer a sacrifice to it?”
“Did I stutter? Look at it.”
“Hey, thanks, that works.”
Just before that most quoted verse in the Bible, (“for God so loved the World”), we sometimes forget that Jesus purposefully compares himself to the bronze serpent. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
God sends snakes to try His people and a single bronze serpent to cure them of their venom. Later and more broadly, God allowed His son to be the cure for the serpent-inspired sin He allowed to come into the world. A snake introduces sin to the world and a man removes its power. In both cases, a simple belief in God’s promise provides the cure. If I had to make a guess, I believe Jesus’ most common rebuke was this: “oh, ye, of little faith.”
Faith in God is at the center of everything—not faith in rituals, ordinances, icons, secret handshakes, vestments, dress codes, temples, popes, prophets, apostles, and certainly not faith in men. Vegetarian diets, wine-free vows, sacrificial tithing, red heifers being bred for another sacrifice, hand towels touched by Oral Roberts, holy laughter and slayings in the spirit are all side-shows. Whatever small merit may be in any of those things, they are filthy rags compared to the central, startling reality of faith in Christ.
Because it’s so simple. Look at the snake, stupid, and then look to the cross.
It really is all about Jesus.