The World and The Dance

“And in the distance the Jesus-lovers sat with hard condemning faces and watched the sin.”
–The Grapes of Wrath

Thus John Steinbeck depicts the world-denying Pentecostals in The Grapes of Wrath as self-righteous , self-appointed morality police who take perverse pleasure in condemning the Saturday night square dance in the California migrant camp. Steinbeck’s terse portrayal of the “Jesus-Lovers” is unflattering, but not an unfair invention of fiction. Unfortunately, such people do exist, and in their existence they horribly distort the good news of Jesus Christ.

The worst way to define ourselves as Christian is in the negative: What we are against. Steinbeck’s migrant camp Jesus-lovers were against dancing (and most other expressions of humanness). Of course, it is a caricature, but only in that it is perhaps an exaggeration. There remains the misguided tendency to identify ourselves by what we condemn.

And we have made this quite clear to the wider society. Ask a non-evangelical to define what evangelicals believe and odds are they will not speak in terms of a personal salvation experience (the classical marker of evangelicalism), but will give you a summary of political positions and a list of items evangelicals are opposed to. And that these items may indeed be real evils and not the innocent dance of Steinbeck’s novel is beside the point. The question remains, do we really want to be primarily identified by what we are against? Don’t we have some good news to identify us?

Here’s the question: What do we think of the world? Are we part of the world or not? Do we love the world or not? Do we have hope for the world or not?

Behold the controversy: There are Christians who would answer these questions with a thundering, NO! We’re not part of the world, we don’t love the world and we have no hope for this doomed world! But there are also Christians who would answer these questions with an enthusiastic, YES! We belong to this world, we love this world, we have hope for God’s good world.

Who’s right? Well, let’s look to the Scriptures. And here’s where it gets interesting. The Bible’s answer to the question, Do we belong to the world, do we love the world, is there hope for the world, is…..yes and no.

I’ll show you. Consider these two well known passages from the same author…

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:16-17

OK, what’s going on here? Are we supposed to love the world or not? Is God condemning the world or not? Is the world passing away or being saved? (And in case you are wondering, it’s the same Greek word–kosmos).

Herein lies the problem. Some Christians are Epistle of John chapter 2 enthusiasts while others are Gospel of John chapter 3 adherents. The simple truth is we must hold to both concepts of kosmos — we must learn to live in the exquisite tension of John’s dual use of kosmos.

Let me put is as simply as I can. The world as a system of rebellion against God is corrupt and doomed. It is under the judgment of God and to love it is idolatry. This is the world of Babylon. But the world as God’s idea of human society is good and loved by God. This world is going to be saved. To love the world of God’s good intention for human society is to cooperate with God’s redemptive purposes in Christ.

This is what the “Jesus-lovers” in The Grapes of Wrath (and their contemporary ilk) have failed to understand. When Jesus says, “For God so loved the world…”, he does not simply mean the individual people of the world. Jesus means that God loves the very idea of human society. God is not simply interested in saving individual “souls” for a postmortem heaven. This kind of world-denying “gospel” is a gross distortion of the life-affirming gospel that is found in the New Testament. God wants to salvage and reform (save and redeem) people and in so doing save human society, or as it is positively called by Jesus in John 3, the world.

“And in the distance the Jesus-lovers sat with hard condemning faces and watched the sin.”
–The Grapes of Wrath

But do the “Jesus-lovers” who sit in judgment of the Saturday night square dance really love the Jesus whose first miracle was to turn water into wine at Cana of Galilee and in so doing keep the dance going? Jesus seems to be pro-dance. That is, Jesus endorses and participates in the celebration of humanness.

But does joining the dance of humanness have dangers? In some ways, yes. At times the line between the Babylon condemned by God and the Cana blessed by God is hard to distinguish. But to live as a world-denying, angry, judgmental, separatist is such a betrayal of the logos, pathos and ethos of Jesus as not to be an option. We must join the dance. As those who believe that God loves the world and is saving the world in Christ we must joyfully belong to human society. We must join the dance. The Church must creatively participate in the arts, music, poetry, literature, film, theater, athletics, education, entertainment, law, governance, business, finance, commerce, conservation, medicine, journalism, labor, science, research, philosophy, theology, and all that is necessary to produce a healthy, flourishing human society.

We can’t sit with the pinched face world-deniers secretly hoping the worst will befall those who dare to try to enjoy life and claim to be filled with the love of Christ.

If I’m reading my Bible right, and I believe I am, the only sin which regularly aroused Jesus’ anger was self-righteous religiosity. We must not be found guilty of trying to turn people into the Ophelia of Dylan’s Desolation Row.

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and Dylan in Desolation Row are both describing the same distortion of Christianity. Let’s not be that way. Let’s not be Grapes of Wrath legalists or Desolation Row religionists. Let’s live and love God’s good world! Let’s join the dance and be a part of saving the world.

La Chaim!


PS: Don’t try so hard to pick this apart. Try to understand what I’m attempting to say in my imperfect bloggish way. I really do love God’s good world and I passionately want to see it redeemed. I have hope for this world.

U2’s new album, No Line On The Horizon, is tremendous. Five stars!

The painting is Dance by Marc Chagall

I love March Madness…it’s a fun part of the dance of life.