God Is Cool
Mike Furey, Georgetown, IN USA
What do I mean when I say "cool?" Recently I was eating my morning Cheerios and was reading the interesting box in which it came packaged. Bugs Bunny was on the cereal box. I was informed that when Bugs first came out in 1940, he was a naughty and plump little rabbit. In the subsequent years his image was changed to a wise rabbit, a cool rabbit. Even if Elmer Fudd's got a shotgun to his fuzzy head, Bugs would have no trouble chewing his orange carrot and declaring his famous, "Eeh, what's up, doc?" I don't think this type of cool calmness is what I mean when I say, "God is cool."
I remember the first time I ever heard the word "cool." It was 1968. I was in the sixth grade in Brooklyn, New York. One of my best friends, Thomas "Junie" Elton, a black neighbor, taught me about it. He lived on the fourth floor above our apartment. We were in band together. He would lay out his palm and say "Gimme five." I would slap him five and he would say "Cooool" real cool. I asked him to define "cool." He looked at me weird and said, "You don't know what 'cool' means? (What's wrong with this dude?) 'Cool' means we like jazz ... leather ... wine ... women." So every time we slapped five, we'd go through the routine for my sake. Jazz ... leather ... wine ... women. This was pretty "corny" and uncool to do. Anyway, I don't mean this kind of stylish sensitivity to fads, teenage symbolism or worldliness. God is not that kind of cool. God is beyond all that. God is an awesome kind of cool.
Read the text.
In my experience with ultraconservative churches [from 1978 to 1988], there was only one interpretation for this passage. If you didn't warn your friends about hell and tell folks about Jesus, then when they died and went to hell, you would have their blood on your hands. Such an interpretation has validity, but I am interested in what these verses meant to Ezekiel's audience, which did not have a full-blown doctrine of hell. What does this passage mean in the context of Ezekiel and to us today?
In this passage, I see that God's love is cool. These Israelites have broken God's law and covenant for hundreds of years. In this passage God's wrath is at its hottest point. Ezekiel has preached doomsday messages to Israel in chapters 1 - 24. Chapters 25 - 32 are to other nations. Here in chapter 33, one finds a transition chapter.1 God is done with the trial against Israel. Judgment is set. The sentence is given. The penalty is in progress. The barbarians of Babylonia are on their way to kill or enslave the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem. God's love seems gone forever. In fact, the entire book of Ezekiel never mentions God's love. The two Hebrew words that could be used are missing.2 Instead, the God of Ezekiel seems impersonal. Ezekiel's God is not presented as a loving merciful God, but as a powerful deity. A deity. Not as a person, a God, but as a force, a deity. God is more concerned with restoring his holy name. "I will destroy the land of Israel that people might know my name." God is concerned with his namesake, jealous about his reputation. But even as a deity, even as an angry God, God's love is cool. In this passage, God is the enemy, God is the one coming with the sword.3 God is the one about whom the watchperson will alarm and warn everyone. But even in God's hottest wrath, he provides mercy. God's love is cool. In a New Testament sense, we are "condemned already," yet God has provided a way out for us. How is God's love cool? Even though our sin is so great and we deserve to be destroyed, God is so cool he can still love us. Have we responded to his awesome love?
The next point is that God is cool in the way he deals with society. Society is always old-fashioned. God is avant-garde. He's ahead of the times. In the first days of Israel, when prophecy was new, God spoke and told the prophets word for word what to declare. For example, God said through Moses that "If you obey my words I will bless you, Israelites." The nation responded, "All the Lord has spoken we will do." They made a covenant. As the history of Israel goes on, they broke the deal over and over. But some folks kept the deal, like possibly Job. But Job was not all that blessed. Individuals started to question this deal. Individuals began talking back, dialoging with God about apparent discrepancies in this deal.4 Bad things are still happening to good people. The covenant does not seem to be such a great bargain. Also, as time progresses, prophecy no longer drops out of the sky. It comes from the internal communion between God and the prophet. The prophet represents the individual persons who had a word to argue with the Lord. God would speak through the intense emotional and mental sensibilities of the latter prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In the newest prophecies God spoke to persons individually or at least with an emphasis on the individual. However in the old covenantal period God dealt with the community as a group. As Jeremiah and Ezekiel preached, a new covenant was being forged by the providential finger on new tablets. In this new covenant proclaimed in Jeremiah and especially Ezekiel, God says he will write his laws on their hearts individually, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of flesh. This new covenant begins 500 years before Jesus or the New Testament. This new covenant begins 500 years before the Christ would preach it and even seal it with his death on the cross! God is awesome:
- The new covenant emerges out of the dead old covenant.5
- The essence of the covenant and the law still continues in the new society. For example, "Love your neighbor."
- The difference between the covenants seems to be that a new community will arise out of the individual responses to God. Ezekiel says, "If you don't hear and obey, you will die."
How is God cool? God knew that the society established under the covenant of Moses would get old and die. He knew that individualism would increase as time progressed. He responded to these forces way ahead of time.
Society is always old-fashioned, but God is not. Youth always find fault with the previous generation's ways of thinking and living. This fault-finding occurs because society at large tends to preserve systems and form rather than the essence of the law or the spirit of the law. For instance, the church at large today still upholds outworn dogmas of the faith. Preachers are preaching the husk rather than the kernel. Radio preachers seem to rant and rave about "the women's place in the home," (the old cultural husk). While at secular schools, there are modern egalitarian, democratic, non-patriarchal ideas being taught, and rightly so. No wonder the youth stay out of churches. Radio preachers rant and rave about creationism, the husk. "We never had no tails. We never swung from no trees. Evolution is evilution!" God is still the creator no matter how he did it, (the kernel truth). Our youth are exposed to a secular culture which is going another direction. They are learning a compassionate humanism which is out-loving and out-caring our legalistic and doctrinally twisted systems of thought. The church at large symbolizes an old-fashioned and culture-bound gospel. But my God is so cool. He is still able to bring the saving word to today's youth. He is still able to circumvent the wickedness of religious folks and the backwardness of institutional church. Are you an obstacle against the gospel or an occasion for its advancement? We need to update our church.
Ezekiel faced other problems beside intergenerational differences or society's perpetual old-fashionedness. As I mentioned before, Ezekiel did not have the Mosaic luxury of "tickertape" prophecy. He did not have the luxury of the old Mosaic covenant with its pristine freshness and future potentiality. He had an audience of people with bad deals who wrestled with the old way and questioned its workability. He also faced a society that was full of many different preachers speaking in the name of God and proclaiming conflicting messages. How can anyone believe anything? The prophets, including Ezekiel, were mocked as crazy men. Ezekiel also faced a highly wicked society. Ezekiel preached to an intensely wicked society of individuals. These individuals would no longer listen to the wornout phrases of the community. But Ezekiel tried to communicate an updated gospel. Unfortunately his message was not appreciated by his hearers. Unfortunately he had to preach to an evil-loving society in which conservatism and wickedness ruled the land. Ezekiel might have known the religious fundamentalist fathers and mothers would try to preserve their understanding of the faith and force it on their sons and daughters. Thus, Ezekiel preaches to individuals about a new covenant, and not to the community about an old covenant. Yet he did not really change the message. The law and the old covenant never did save. What saved a person was a heart responsive to God's call within the law. Yes, a heart responsive to God's call within the law saved. The new covenant is offered to each individual. God's new community is established as individuals turn their hearts to him to form the new society. How is God cool? God has been way ahead of human need and the evolution of individualism. God has been way ahead in working his plan out through a changing society and way ahead in updating the gospel. God has been planning way ahead to update his revelation to individual persons through his son Jesus. Will we as individuals respond to God's new covenant? God is cool in his way of doing theology within an ever changing society. God is not some old man without a plan.
Lastly, God is cool in the way God keeps us cool. In these verses there is a tension, a contradiction between individualism and corporate responsibility, between self-expression and interdependence. Ezekiel writes, "His blood will I require on your hands."
- We are existentially bound to one another. I do not exist without you. I cannot be me without you.
- We are spiritually bound to one another. I am not saved without a concern for your salvation.
- We are ethically bound to one another. The seriousness of the guilt on our hands should compel us to connect with others.
In this passage, a paradox is maintained between the polarities of individuality and solidarity, between personal freedom and communal responsibility.6 Individuality is expressed in that each person must decide to heed the warning. Communal responsibility is expressed in that the prophet must warn individuals or else be guilty of their blood. The community bond between persons is maintained. The tension deals a corrective to the exploding concept of extreme individualism. The concept of individualism must be checked by the concept of community. The prophet is bound to the community and he must preach to them. His life and their lives are mutually bound. His salvation and their salvation are mutually bound. His suffering and their suffering are linked consciously and spiritually. One application of this principle of solidarity is in fighting the privatization and excessive individuality in the U.S.A. We are moving to the place where the private life and private fulfillment take precedence over public life and the public good, so that decisions are made not in light of the good of the public, but "what's good for me."7 One bumper sticker I read said, "We're spending our children's inheritance." When people die they are not leaving wills that say, "I want to donate $10,000 to Purdue University to make sure a student has enough bucks to get through medical school." They're saying "I'm gonna spend it all on fun before I go to the Big Party." Also, the huge budget deficit of the U.S. government reflects this attitude. But we must recover the sense of neighborhood which has been lost to the extremities of selfhood. To achieve selfhood we must also achieve neighborhood. Gabriel Marcel says that a self is only a true self among other selves. We find ourselves only through other selves who give birth to us physically, who teach us to talk, think, and be human. We do not and cannot exist without others. Our being is inextricably woven with other beings, including Being, capital B.
So how does God keep us cool? What kind of community is God trying to create between us through the new covenant? Jesus did not say look at the church to examine her doctrinal position. Doctrine and ethics can get old in a generation. He said look at that community of loving individuals. You will know they are Christians by their love. We need a church where people love each other. I read a story about a United Methodist Church.8 Some ministers were gathered together talking about abortion. Some of the ministers were for abortion, some were against it. One of those who were for abortion asked another, "Now wait a minute. You're not going to tell me that you think some 16 year old is capable of bearing a child, are you?" "Well," the fellow replied, backing off a bit, "there are some circumstances when an abortion might be OK." One pastor from one of the largest churches in the area said, "What's wrong with a 16 year old giving birth? She can get pregnant, can't she?" Then the group said, "Joe, you can't believe a 16 year old could care for a child." He replied, "No, I don't believe that. I don't believe a 26 year old can care for a child. Or a 36 year old. Pick any age. One person can't raise a child." We asked, "What do you do when you have a 16 year old get pregnant in your church?" He explained, "Well, it happened last week. We baptized the baby last Sunday, and I said how glad we were to have this new member in this church. Then I called down an elderly couple in the church, and I said, 'Now we're going to baptize this baby and bring it into the family. What I want you all to do is to raise this baby, and while you're doing that raise the momma with it because the momma right now needs it.' This couple is in their 60s, and they've raised about 20 kids. They know what they're doing. And I said, 'If you need any of us, let us know. We're here. It's our child, too.' That's what we do at my church."
In that church we see an example of real community. God is cool in the way he keeps us cool.
In conclusion, God is cool. God is cool even in his hottest temperament and mood of destruction. He is merciful even in anger and judgment.
God is cool in his way of doing theology with an ever changing society. God is always way ahead of us in his theology. We need to keep criticizing our message and our mission together, so that we become a people who are formed and reformed by our dominant convictions.9 We need to update the package in which the gospel is communicated for contemporary culture.
God is cool in how he keeps us cool. We are individuals among other individuals. To achieve selfhood we must achieve neighborhood. To have real church we must be a community of love and bear one another's burdens. Amen.
.1William H. Brownlee, "Ezekiel's Parable Of The Watchman And The Editing Of Ezekiel," Vetus Testamentum, 28 (1978), 392-408.
.2Paul Joyce, Divine Initiative And Human Response In Ezekiel, Journal For The Study Of The OT, vol. 51, ed. David J. A. Clines and Philip R. Davies (Great Britain: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), pp. 100-102.
.3Werner E. Lemke, "Life In The Present And Hope For The Future," Interpretation, 38 (1984), 165-180.
.4Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology Of Israel's Prophetic Traditions, vol. 2, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (San Francisco, CA: Harper And Row, 1989), pp. v-xii+3-470.
.5Walter Eichrodt, Ezekiel: A Commentary, trans. Cosslett Quinn (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1970), pp. 448-449.
.6Eichrodt,Ezekiel, p. 443.
.7David A. Roozen, William McKinney, and Jackson W. Carroll, Varieties Of Religious Presence: Mission In Public Life (New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 1988), p. 7.
.8William Willimon, "A Crisis Of Identity: The Struggle Of Modern Mainline Protestantism", Sojourners, 15 (May 1986), 24-28.
.9William Willimon, Sojourners, p. 21.