The God who retcons

If you’re a Millennial, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard the term “retcon” before. If you’re not a Millennial, or if you are for any other reason unacquainted with the word, it is short for “retroactive continuity.” What’s that? I could give a definition, but examples are easier. Probably one of the craziest examples is from last year. Captain America (in the comics) was revealed to be secretly on the side of the evil organization HYDRA which he had ostensibly spent years fighting. Obviously, for the first several decades of Cap’s existence, no one thought of him like that. The character wasn’t invented to be that. But suddenly, his backstory was drastically rewritten with a single comic. The old, settled meaning of hundreds of comics was transformed by this new declaration. They changed the past. Thus “retroactive continuity,” or “retcon.”

The cool thing about God is that He invented retconning, at least if you believe the Bible. This probably sounds strange, so you may want proof. Very well; I can provide it. I think we all remember Hagar, but if not, try reading this passage from ye Old Testament:

Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan 10 years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt.

Genesis 16:1-4

Pretty good move on Abraham’s part, right? He’s waiting for God to give him a son, as promised, and so when his wife (for whatever reason) suggests he use her slave for that purpose, he jumps on it. As we find later, the son he has through Hagar, Ishmael, ridicules Sarai’s son, Isaac, who was the true promised child, and Hagar’s life is ruined, and in the end Ishmael’s descendants hate Israel. The story reaches into the present day as the source of modern Israeli/Arab conflict. So, this little debacle is pretty much responsible for 9/11 and modern Middle Eastern terrorism more generally. Thanks, Father Abraham!

From our perspective, this looks like a catastrophic failure. Abraham was given a promise and told to wait, but he ran out of patience and faith. So he created chaos for everyone. Not quite the most honorable legacy.

Except that’s not how God remembers it. Let us turn to Romans 4, where Paul recalls Abraham’s story as the background for his teaching about justification by faith. Here’s how he describes Abraham’s faith:

He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness.

Romans 4:16b-22 (emphasis mine)

See, when Abraham is remembered in the New Testament, nothing is said about him letting his faith or his patience slip up with Hagar. Instead, Paul says under inspiration that Abraham did not waver but was strengthened in faith. He was fully convinced of God’s promise. That seems strange to us, but it’s how the Bible sees it.

How do we understand this? Is there some kind of contradiction? Does Romans 4 pretend that Genesis 16 never happened? To steal a phrase from Paul, by no means! See, we don’t know Abraham’s psychology. We don’t know what made him think it was actually a good idea to impregnate his wife’s slave instead of waiting for Sarai to conceive. But we do know one thing: God remembered him as righteous, not unfaithful. Whatever this little episode was, it somehow fell into a story of Abraham as a hero of faith.

The same goes for other Bible characters with massive flaws and failures. David had Bathsheba, but he was gladly upheld as the ideal king who points to the Messiah. Moses was, for sin’s sake, barred from the Promised Land, but good luck finding a negative word about him in the New Testament. He’s called instead “faithful as a servant in all God’s household” (Heb. 3:5).

This isn’t just exaggerated hagiography, as though the later Bible writers felt embarrassed and wanted to brush over the flaws of their favorite forefathers. This is the divine retcon: when God takes the mixed and cracked lives of His saints and reworks them into something beautiful, something, well, righteous. God justifies us, declares us righteous, by faith, and in declaring us righteous, He makes our whole story a story of righteousness, even the gross parts. It is just another aspect of how God works all things for good.

So for us, even in our worst moments, we can know this: if we continue in faith, our story ends with “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We may not feel good or faithful now, but God is writing the story, and He has given us a glorious sneak peek into the ending. Whatever happens in the meantime, He will fit it all into that ending. For the God who justifies the ungodly is the God who retcons.

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When the world is absolutely broken

[Trigger Warning: I am not the world’ biggest fan of trigger warnings, but I’m also not their worst enemy or opposed to them all in principle. In this particular instance, I feel the need one for, because this post will include discussion of child sex trafficking and related abuses.]

I just finished another one of Steven James’ Patrick Bowers books (see here for my last post on them).

It was hard.

This most recent offering, Every Crooked Path, tackles the topic of child sex trafficking. It is dark and frightening, and as a father myself I often needed to intentionally keep my imagination at bay lest I fall into despair at the idea of my children going through the events it describes. A lot of people should probably not even attempt to read it.

This isn’t to say that James is gory, graphic, or gratuitous. He’s pretty reserved in how and what he describes, but even so the things which are going on, and the gaps he leaves to the imagination, are harsh. The plot is about a group of child porn producers called the Final Territory. They kidnapped children, often brazenly, and kept them for molestation/torture/porn production for 6 months to a couple of years. Sometimes they would even go live and take requests.

To get away with all of this, they made use of the Dark Web, a massive underground part of the Internet which connects through Tor, a highly encrypted and anonymous network which must be accessed by a special Tor Browser.*

What is awful in this book is not so much the story itself, which if nothing else we can always remind ourselves is fiction, but the real-life data and information it contains. The story never happened, but the background which makes it plausible is basically factual. Children as young as the ones in this book are being taken. They are being abused. They are being molested, exploited, and put on the Internet (particularly the Dark Web) for the entertainment and profit of more people than you would be willing to imagine. And it’s not just a few children. There are thousands and thousands throughout the world.

This just brings me, then, to thinking about how absolutely broken this world is. It—including all of us who make it up—is depraved, wicked, broken, and self-destructive. We are evil, our communities are evil, this world is evil, and evil is ubiquitous. We live so much of our lives in largely willful obliviousness, pretending that our personal bubbles are the norm, with our highs as the normal highs and our lows as the normal lows.

As if this were not bad enough, we are often personally complicit in the worst ways of the world. The topic of Every Crooked Path is a prime example. It is our second glances that lead to lust, our lust that leads to watching porn, our watching porn that makes us want more in quanity and intensity, and our increasing demand that leads to a thriving and corrupt market which reaches out to include abduction, murder, torture, and molestation.

We are all guilty. We are all damnable. The world we create and live in, the world which creates us and lives in us, is rotten to the bone and devoid of all hope in itself. Nothing from among us is sufficient to solve this. None of us have the power to end these atrocities. We can fight, and we must in order to stem the tide of evil, but the corruption in the world is too extensive to be truly and fully healed by human efforts, even divinely blessed and Spirit-empowered ones. The problems run too deep for anything but total gut job, for humanity to be broken down all the way to the roots and built a new. We are stuck on a plane far too finite and compromised to solve the absolute brokenness of the world.

There are only two options once we realize and accept this. We can cling to eschatology or fall into nihilistic despair. Or, to put it in simpler words, we can hope for Jesus to return or give up all hope for all things. The world is either worthless and meaningless, with this present evil age being a fluke of cruel apathy, or it has a destiny in resurrection. If the former, we have nothing. There is only extensive and pointless suffering and brief, superficial joy, both of which are ended when we collide with death. If the latter, there’s a reason to breath and fight. We can’t prove which of these is true. But only one choice of these allows us to survive in the absolute brokenness. We need faith for absolute restoration. We need to cry out for an absolute Savior.

*It’s not actually difficult to access the Dark Web. It’s as simple as downloading and installing the Tor Browser, which is just a modified version of Firefox. But the Dark Web is a labyrinth, hard to search, and many websites can only be accessed if someone on the inside gives you the URL. Also, as a side note, the Dark Web is not all bad. It’s also used by political refugees/dissenters, whistleblowers, persecuted religious groups, ordinary people in heavily censored countries, and even law enforcement or intelligence agents.