Reason to Smile

For the Week of July 27, 2015
by Rubel Shelly

Christianity was formed in the womb of Judaism. It was born into first-century Hebrew culture and interpreted to us by apostles and evangelists who knew Jesus in the context of his Jewishness. Yet most of us know the Christian faith principally as it has been passed through the vocabulary, culture, and mindset of Greco-Roman culture. So what?

One of the major "so-whats" is the difference the two mindsets fostered toward material things. The human body in particular – and joy.

Greek religion and philosophy separate material and spiritual, body and soul in a way foreign to Judaism. Hebrew thought sees persons as "living souls" in their totality. The invisible, spiritual part of a person is not trapped in a body (i.e., the Greek idea) but is made real and functional by means of it. Thus the goal is not to escape it or to chastise the body but to direct its energies to holy pursuits.

Pleasure is not wicked. Laughter is God's gift. But that is not always the image Christians have communicated to unbelievers. They tend to see us as a pretty joyless crowd. Rather prune-faced. More inclined to scowl than to smile.

We seem to have cultivated that unhealthy – and, I must add, uninviting – image. Our "saints" tend to be dour rather than smiling. Austere rather than lovable. Rigid and forbidding rather than humane and merciful. What a pity!

Jesus went to parties. He enjoyed life so much that his critics tried to make him out to be a drunkard and a glutton. He had friends. Enjoyed being with people. And made people feel comfortable around him. I have no difficulty seeing him raise a glass to give the traditional Jewish toast, "L'chaim." To life!

A long list of negatives is a poor way to define the gospel. The key idea in "redemption" is less about going to heaven when we die than making life here something positive and holy. Paul says Jesus "gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age" (Galatians 1:4). Peter reminds Christians "that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you" (1 Peter 1:18).

Steak, golf, sunsets, music, sex, money – not one is unholy. All are given by God to meet human needs. Directed toward him, each is both a celebration of his goodness and a participation in his fullness. Divorced from him, both pleasure and pain become vulgar. Not the act but its God-ward direction makes it holy.

In a time of wrinkled brows and wringing hands, isn’t it logical to think the rediscovery of godly joy would be a great advertisement for the faith we profess?