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Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

Why “Noah” may actually do more good than we admit

Noah Movie Poster

First things first. This is not a practical joke. I am making a serious claim about the movie “Noah” as a cultural phenomenon (not necessarily about the movie itself). So, full disclosure: this is not a review. You can read a good review from an evangelical perspective (with links to many more) at Christianity Today. Also, this is not even really a comment on the content of the movie. I get it, some people find it very questionable. Noah was a righteous man in bible, and isn’t shown as one here (actually, he is said to have found favor first, and only then described as righteous. The author of Hebrews (ch. 11) very heavily implies Noah’s righteousness is a direct result of this “favor” from God, not the other way around, something very much in keeping with Pauline theology). But this isn’t about that.

There’s also some debate about whether this is even a Christian themed movie. To be sure, Aronofsky likes to ask very big and very deep questions in his films, but these tend to be more about the nature of being human and how we relate to each other. The Bible, in contrast, is not (fundamentally) about people, but is about God. It’s written to people, but it’s written about God. But this isn’t about that either. This is about the impact that media has in our very visual culture. So here are some reasons that “Noah” may have a more positive impact on the culture than other Christian-themed movies.

1) People who aren’t Christians will go to see it

Say what you will about God’s not Dead, or other such movies. The truth is, very few who are outside of Christianity will ever consider going on their own (and not as a favor to a friend). The same is not true of “Noah.” Why? Because it has already sparked so many conversations about it. Conversations drive people to explore. In contrast dogmatic answers drive people to shut down and stop engaging. One is much more effective than the other and fostering genuine searching.

2) People are talking about it

Like everywhere. You can’t seem to avoid talking about it, or reading about, or seeing it somewhere. Everyone has an opinion about this and everyone (at least in the US it seems) has heard about it. This is sort of a spin off of number 1, so I’ll leave it at that.

3) They are actually pointing people back to the text

Here’s something that bothers me about many (but not all) Christian movies: they don’t actively encourage people to read their bibles. Sometimes there is a note and the beginning or end (not always), but often there is not. Even where there is, who actually reads those and thinks, “ok, I’m going to do that”? And even if you did, did you remember when you got home? People want to be entertained and anything that takes them out of that mindset is very hard. This is why I was very encouraged to see this:

Ad from the New York Times

That’s an ad for the movie appearing in the New York Times. Let me say that again: that’s an ad for the movie. Yet they included in their ad, under no real obligation to do so, a link that (if you were reading on a phone or tablet) you could click and then immediately download the entire bible. What’s more the “bibleapp” is specifically designed to encourage more reading of the bible than just handing it to someone. This is fantastic. I don’t really care if you see the movie or not. They are pointing people directly to the source material outside of the movie-going experience. Not only that, they have removed virtually all barriers to reading the bible. Do we not believe that the bible is powerful, transformative and redemptive? Anytime someone is pointed back to the revelatory witness of God’s redemptive work in history, I am excited. That has a lot more potential to foster change than virtually anything else we do.

In the end, I don’t really care if you see the movie or not, but I do think we should, at the very least, be ready to engage in positive conversations about what people have seen. Again, I’m not saying you should say you liked it if you didn’t, but if someone who is not a Christian is excited after having watched it, redirect that passion back to God and God’s word (encourage more conversation). The last thing we should do is try to squash that enthusiasm right off the bat with diatribes against its accuracy. This is a rather unique opportunity here, let’s not waste it trying to show how right we are and how wrong everyone else is.

But what do I know? Let me know what you think?

UPDATE: It looks like the film has substantially increased the number of people reading the bible:

 

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