Wednesday, March 08, 2006

a sign of Jonah

At the end of January, when the controversy over “End of the Spear” was rippling the evangelical community, I found myself on the way home from church stewing over some things I’d recently read. In a quiet moment, coming down Broad River Road, it struck me that these people at whom I was so angry were sincere. They too, were angry at what they sincerely believed to be wrong. So much of the information they’d gathered to form their opinions was false, but they sincerely believed that they were speaking out about what God wanted them to speak on. They mocked passions and prayers of Christian brothers who desired to reach out and show love, but they believed they were speaking the truth in righteousness.
This occurred to me because I’d been thinking about Jonah. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because the people there were so far gone. He would be mocked, possibly physically harmed, who knows? But it was assured that he’d go and suffer all this and be run out of town by an unchanged, mocking people. So much trouble, unfruitful, in his mind, they were beyond the grace of God. He could just go to Tarshish and no doubt do the “Lord’s work” there. He’d be doing what he was supposed to do, and perhaps these people would respond. He could even tell them about how evil the people of Nineveh were.
So there I was, with a slightly more understanding, tolerant and less angry feeling about the folks, a bit of insight into their passion. But at the same time, I was consciously bewildered that though I’d found a connection to their misguided convictions and those of Jonah, they had learned absolutely nothing from Jonah’s story, that taught them about God’s grace and ability to work the seemingly impossible.

Several weeks later, I’d pretty much weaned myself from the need to visit those blogs, and find who or what was receiving their scathing criticism. But one night, recently I was browsing and couldn’t stay away. Lo and behold, the object of the wrath was the movie “Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.” I HAD to read. Basically the post was simply a reference to an article by another writer who was warning of all the loose treatment of scripture, the liberties taken with the script, the irreverence, the humor juxtaposed with the dealing with sin, etc. These are all legitimate concerns, but evidently didn’t make for a long enough diatribe.
In order to pit the seriousness of taking a animated treatment of the story, Jesus was quoted to establish Jonah as a prophet of God, and a symbol of Jesus own atoning act. This seemed to be noted so that it would be obvious that Jonah, once spewed from the fish, behaved in heart and action according to God’s will. The movie however, depicted Jonah at the end, sitting on a hill, sulking at their repentance, waiting to watch God drop the bomb on Nineveh. The movie showed him as an immature, selfish, self-righteous grump, when Jesus had called him a “prophet of God”. Sheesh.
When I read this, I was reminded of all my rants about primary sources, especially our dependence on oral tradition. It seemed obvious to me that the writer of this critical theological review of an animated children’s movie had NOT read the book of Jonah, on which it was based. She obviously didn’t understand the significance of the movie character, Khalil, a worm.
Sure we don’t find him sitting up there sulking in our Sunday School versions from when we were children. That doesn’t make for an inspiring lesson in changed hearts, and obedience. The book of Jonah, in fact doesn’t exhibit a prophet restored with a changed, merciful,understanding heart. The changed and forgiven are the Ninevites. The suffering and prideful is Jonah – at the END of the story. How many 1st graders know about the plant sent to shade Jonah even in his sinful, selfish sulking? How many know about the worm sent to kill the plant that was giving him shade?
I don’t see this “liberal” movie tainting scripture as the problem. I see the story tweaked beyond its meaning in Sunday School, rendering adults unable to recognize the real story when it’s presented even in cartoon form.

In reality, Jonah had been severely let down. Everything he understood about righteousness, justice, God’s wrath and sovereignty, divine cause and effect, the deadly wages of sin, had all been dashed by the one thing he didn’t seem to understand – God’s mercy. Surely, also, Jonah had to now realize that the Ninevites were loved just as much as he was. Although he’d done right, followed God, kept himself clean (to the point of not wanting to even be around those Ninevites), Nineveh was being treated with favor just like he was. He obviously didn’t see the severity of his immediately prior disobedience though he’d spent 3 days in death’s belly and had been spared.

Of course I’m speaking of these things out of selfishness, I want to use this illustration as evidence of our reliance on oral tradition and secondary sources rather than reading and mining, and devour the text ourselves. But Jonah, is a fine topic to discuss because we seem to have missed the point from our big fish story. Yes it is about forgiveness and changed hearts. But it was the Ninevites that illustrate this. It is about failure to see God’s mercy and grace though confronted with over and over, and THEN actually to be offended by God’s mercy bestowed on someone else, while it is also being poured all over me.