28 August 2008

At home in a land of milk and honey

Invader Christian -- Part 6

I seemed, in this previous posting, to be making a big deal of cell phones. Surely having and using technology isn’t something to make such a fuss over. No. And neither is food; we all need to eat. But Daniel once made a big deal over food and he turned out to be a big deal of a prophet. I wonder if, and how, the two facts may be related.

Whether they are related or not, Daniel didn’t give up food. He gave up only certain foods. And that is interesting because the man who wanted to feed Daniel this food very clearly thought of these foods as necessities, the deprivation of which would have dire consequences.

The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service…. But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way…. [B]ut the official told Daniel, "I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you." Daniel 1.5—10, emphasis mine.
Interesting, isn’t it? One man’s necessity is another man’s defilement; and the denial of that necessity is a capital offense!

Why did Daniel make such a fuss about food? It’s an important question when you consider what Daniel was willing to take in. He was willing to allow himself to be taught the language and literature of the Babylonians (see Daniel 1.4). Many of the Christians I have known have struck me as being the type who would be willing to eat the food (“It’s just food, for crying out loud. Lighten up. Don’t be so @#$%-ing legalistic!”) but not to learn the knowledge of the Babylonians.

Why would Daniel learn the knowledge but not eat the food? Apparently, he didn’t fear learning the Babylonian worldview would destroy his confidence in his own. He learned the knowledge of the Babylonians, but never worshipped their gods. But something about the food bothered him. Maybe he was concerned that the food wasn’t kosher. Perhaps the food had been offered to idols; so even if it was kosher the fact that it had been offered to idols made it objectionable.

But just maybe, it wasn’t only that the food was not kosher, but also that the food was from the king’s table. Maybe it wasn’t the eating and drinking of non-kosher food and wine that bothered Daniel. Maybe it also bothered Daniel that he would be eating and drinking like a Babylonian -- eating and drinking with the enemy even. Eating and drinking like a Babylonian may have transformed him into a Babylonian better than learning the Babylonian worldview. And perhaps the pursuit of a life filled with delicacies, or the pursuit thereof, characterized life as a Babylonian, or, at least, a “normal” Babylonian. I’m reminded of something John Chrysostom said: “A body immersed in delights is a body that breeds lust of every kind”(“Homily on the Epistle to the Hebrews”).

Whatever Daniel’s precise problem with the food, it is interesting to note that he rejected as defiling what everyone else in the Babylonian Empire would likely have given his eyeteeth for. He rejected food from the king’s table. Who does that? Would you?

I wonder if Daniel could have eaten like a Babylonian and not had his heart turned from his people, and his God. I think implied in the narrative is Daniel’s concern with the effects upon the soul of a life filled with the accoutrements of affluence. Such a life, he may have feared, could turn his heart from God.

Now, where could he have gotten such a crazy idea? Well, from Moses:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. – Deuteronomy 8.7-14, emphases mine.
There is something about a life of relative ease, something about a high standard of living which, according to Moses, is dangerous to one’s spiritual life. The danger is that a high standard of living can result in one’s forgetting his God. And Daniel knew Moses. He also knew the prophets. So he knew the captivity was a result of Israel’s forgetting her God. He also knew that it was Israel’s relative “good life” which had caused that forgetfulness. Yes, a high standard of living is not bad in and of itself, but it can be the cause of something which is bad in and of itself; it can be the cause of one’s forgetting God.

So, my preoccupation is not with the cell phone as such, but with one of the accoutrements of the relatively high standard of living we enjoy, even the poor among us. I could have used the television, or the personal computer, or even the internet. Any mark of our relatively high standard of living will do. Remember what Chrysostom said: “A body immersed in delights is a body that breeds lust of every kind.” Some of our delights run on electricity.

But what has all this to do with the failure of the Christian Right to have any lasting effect on U.S. culture? A “body immersed in delights” must surely be an undisciplined body. It cannot be otherwise. We ought to wonder if undisciplined bodies can transform a culture. The hallmark, I think, of the undisciplined is the failure to distinguish what one needs from what one wants, to treat needs and desires equally. Those who wish to transform a self-indulgent (undisciplined) culture, but are self-indulgent themselves, should abandon all hope. It takes energy – spiritual energy – to transform a culture; the undisciplined have no energy.

Think I exaggerate a bit? Ask yourself this: Why is Africa, poverty- and pestilence-stricken as it is, having “less” for which to thank God, becoming more Christian, while the U.S., with much less poverty and pestilence, and having “more” for which to thank God, becomes less Christian?

Affluence. It can do a spirit harm.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5


About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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