Jesus, the Shawarma of God

When you hear the phrase “Lamb of God,” is the mental picture you imagine more like this:

Awwww, how cute!

…or like this:

…or this:

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…or this?

mmmmmmm... worthy is the lamb!

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I was recently in an auditorium of thousands of people who were singing, “worthy is the Lamb!” and it occurred to me that among those thousands, there was likely not a single person who had actually ever butchered a sheep. I haven’t butchered a sheep, either. I think often when we hear Biblical metaphors, we think we understand what the authors are saying when we really have no earthly idea.

The whole idea of the sacrificial system is alien to most of us Christians. When we get our meat here in the U.S., it usually comes on a foam platter covered with plastic wrap. We do not see the act of slaughtering meat, the taking of one life to nourish another, as a sacred activity. Except for folks who are vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, most of us don’t think too much about how we get our meat.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist points Jesus out to the disciples and says, “Look, there’s the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Paul talks about Jesus as the paschal lamb, which was slaughtered for the festival of Passover in memory of God’s victory over the Egyptians over a thousand years earlier. These guys clearly had in mind the concept of lamb, both as a living creature and as meat on your plate. We shouldn’t be shocked by the cannibalistic overtones: Jesus called himself “the bread of life,” too.

The author of Revelation is the one who spends the most time talking about Jesus as the Lamb of God. In his vision, when he sees Jesus, he describes him (paradoxically) as a lamb standing as one who had been slain.

It’s just another example of rich metaphors in the Bible that get emptied of their power and become clichés in the ham-fisted (lamb-fisted?) word smithing of preachers and worship musicians. If you want to imbue the metaphor with some of its lost rhetorical power, take your Christian and atheist friends to a middle eastern restaurant, order some shawarma or lamb kebab, and after taking bite, say, “MMMMmmmmmm… worthy is the lamb!” Those that laugh will get it. Those that look at you with horror might get it, too.

One of the things I look forward to doing in worship at Saint Junia, our new Birmingham church, is reclaiming the power of metaphors that have become clichés and insider-language for church folk. And if we sing “worthy is the lamb who was slain,” you can bet that I’ll have an image of a rotisserie on the screen.

A Writer’s Problem with the Will of God

Today I’ll be leading a Sunday school class lesson on Adam Hamilton’s Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Lots of Christians talk about “the will of God” or even “God’s perfect plan” as though it is a script or blueprint, and that everything that happens, every event in our lives, is either a) predestined (and we cannot depart from it) or b) prescripted (and we can depart from it, though it is inadvisable).

In general, I agree with Adam’s perspective that we are collaborators with God in shaping our lives and our world. But there is one metaphor he uses with which I take issue:

Here is another objection: what is the point of life if we are merely acting in a play God has already written? If every event and every line were predetermined by God, daily life would seem to have no purpose apart from entertainment for God. Yet how could God find this entertaining–milennia after milennia watching human beings do what he predetermined what they would do, and say what God predetermined what they would say? (p. 59)

By derivative work: Tadpole9 (talk) Romeo_and_Juliet_Q2_Title_Page.jpg: Thomas Creede (Romeo_and_Juliet_Q2_Title_Page.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Every time I hear people use the analogy of a play or a novel for the will of God I wonder, “Have they ever written a play or a novel?” Both Stephen King and Anne Lamott have written books about the craft of writing that have changed my understanding of this metaphor. Writers often have the experience of writing  fictional characters for a story they have in mind, only to find that the characters themselves change the story. Good authors write believable characters who have their own personalities, and often say things like, “I thought this was going to be a story about X, only the characters didn’t react the way I expected.” A mark of bad writing, on the other hand, is that the plot seems to be on rails and the characters are stiff and unbelievable. The process of writing, or of any creative art, really, is partially about giving up control. If we think about the actual process of writing, I think the play metaphor supports what Adam is arguing after all–we are collaborators with God, characters who interact with our author, sometimes arguing, “No, that’s not what my character would do. I would do this.”

This is the way it is for human artists, anyway. If God is an artist, how much more would God’s own characters have a life of their own? Imbued with God’s own breath, maybe they would even get up off the page and walk around. I’m only stretching the metaphor, of course, trying to see how far I can bend it before it breaks. I don’t really know what the creative process would be like for the author of creation. I just think it’s worth asking any artist: Have you ever created something that surprised you?