Sidon had a funny look on his face as he ushered in the two men to see Eli. Here were two who fit neatly into a familiar stereotype, one that had hijacked many an otherwise pleasant afternoon. As it happened, it was afternoon, and the two men looked eager to settle something before dinner. Sidon placed them together on the couch. As always, Eli sat in his rocking chair with Cherub seated beside him, front legs upright and supporting her chocolate, pumpkin head.
“I’m Tomas,” said the one on the left. He was in his mid- to-late-twenties, with combed hair and wire glasses. His plain white shirt was neatly tucked into his creased pants. Eli saw one little spot of mud on his loafers. “This is John,” Tomas said, indicating his polar opposite seated beside him.
“I can speak for myself, thanks,” said John, with one leg comfortably tossed over the arm of the couch. His pants were clearly vintage, ill-fitting corduroys patched with the careful hand of someone who wants to look common. He wore a faded blue t-shirt that advertised a jamboree Eli had possibly never heard of, though the old man couldn’t be sure because John had a beard nearly as long as his own. John’s long, straight hair hung down past his shoulders and looked like curtains to his wily beard, as if the beard were performing and the hair was just there to cover up whatever was happening back-stage.
John pushed his thick, square glasses to the top of his nose and got down to business. “We’re here to see if you can settle a debate.”
“Oh?” said Eli.
Tomas spoke next. “Yes. We’ve been back and forth several times about the issue. Our professors can’t seem to glean any new insight and we can’t find common ground. We want to know which of us is right.”
“I’m not sure it’s that simple, Tomas,” said John. “I’m not sure why one of us has to be completely right and the other has to be completely wrong. The world isn’t binary.”
Tomas shook his head. “Don’t you see, John? It is. It’s split between those who understand many paths of truth and those who see only one.”
The discussion was heating up, while Eli noticed his coffee had already gone cold.
“I’m not a universalist, Tomas. We’ve been over this!”
Eli thought he might interrupt and cleared his throat. The two theologians took no real notice of his desire to speak, but they did turn their attention to him. “You see, Eli,” Tomas began, “I am student of the reformers. I have been working toward a PhD studying one particular aspect of Paul’s theology of justification. It seems very clear to me that what’s really at stake here—between John and I—is nothing less than the gospel in its entirety.”
“You’re wrong, Tom,” interjected John. “The gospel is bigger than Paul and bigger than ‘justification.’”
“You see!” burst Tomas. “…When you read the gospels, to say nothing of the Old Testament and Revelation, you get a way more comprehensive picture of what God wants to do in the world. The gospel isn’t about Paul. It’s about restoration. The more Tomas and his neo-reformers whittle the good news down to some kind of transaction, the more God’s multi-faceted soteriology is reduced to a one-dimensional get-out-of-hell- free card.”
At this point Eli stopped listening. Sidon was right to smirk. Eli thought about smirking too, but he was afraid that it might accidentally open his ears a little to the debate he had been listening to his entire life, and then he would never be able to tune them out again. It was always the same thing: gospels versus epistles, reformers versus patristics, liberals versus conservatives, universalists versus the elect, nomists versus consecrants…it just never went away. Cherub did, however. Having had enough, the brown dog gathered herself and limped into the next room. Eli thought the limp was more pronounced this afternoon. He wondered what he should do for her that he had not already done.
“Well?” Tomas asked, forcing Eli to realize the two men had stopped talking and were looking at him expectantly. John looked aggressive and Tomas looked irritated. Both were convinced the other was wrong, and both were already anticipating that Eli would be of little help and that—even if he did offer an opinion—they would disagree anyway.
This is why I tell stories.
“Once,” Eli began, “in a far off place, a royal decree went out to the whole country…”
“Hold on,” Tomas interrupted. “A story?” He threw his hands up and slumped deep into the couch.
“Let him tell it, man,” said John, though he didn’t look any more thrilled than his companion. Sometimes it was just good to disagree with the person you disagreed with the most.
“What’s he going to do?” Tomas asked. “Tell us a fable? Make us see the error of our ways through a fairy tale?”
“Isn’t that what Jonathan Edwards did? The spider, in ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’?”
Eli knew the sermon well, a famous piece of American religious literature, in which the sinner is dangled above the fires of hell by God. The sinner’s position is so precarious that he is like a spider being dangled on a web. It is only God’s incredible grace that prevents the sinner from being dropped into the fire, with no more thought than a man would drop a spider into the furnace. Edwards’ point was that we ought to fear God and love him.
“This old man is not Jonathan Edwards!” Tomas yelled. “No offense,” he added as an afterthought.
Eli just waited for the two of them to stop squabbling. They were like big children or clucking hens. They would always fight, the jealous dogs of Western Christianity. Gradually they stopped barking and Eli continued.
“The decree had all that anyone would need to know to live a full, satisfying, pleasurable life in the kingdom. It wouldn’t come at the expense of others, but would create a kind of virtuous circle where the pleasures of one would multiply the pleasures of all.”
“So it’s the Bible,” Tomas began to interpret out loud.
“It’s the Spirit,” corrected John.
Eli was struggling to control his reactions to these two. He was tired of casting his pearls before swine.
“But the problems started,” continued the old man, “when no one did what the decree suggested. Everyone became a critic and an interpreter instead.”
“Are we supposed to just blindly accept what we read on the page?” asked John. “Does God really want us to be unthinking sheep?”
Eli stopped and looked at John. He set his will and looked hard and deep. He said nothing but gave John such a piercing gaze as to halt all the devils in hell. And then, satisfied that the two men would finally shut up for a moment, he continued.
“Instead of obedience, criticism. Instead of transformation, debate. Oh, a little debate and a little criticism would have been fine if anyone, at any time, had bothered to put into practice any of the things they learned. But none did. The decree became an abstraction. College classes were taught on the decree; scholars were hooded upon it as well. Men made a profession out of a proclamation.”
“It’s sad when that happens,” said Tomas.
“What do you suppose the king did?” asked Eli. “Hm? Get angry? Send his own interpreter?”
“He sent his son to die on the cross for our sins,” said Tomas proudly. Even John shook his head, exasperated by his friend’s one-dimensional thinking but still ultimately forced to concede his agreement on this most basic fact.
Eli couldn’t stand it any more. He sprang to his feet and began to wave his arms, saying, “The king waited for someone to finally get it right and then jumped up and down and pointed his finger and shouted, ‘LOOK! DO YOU SEE? LOOK, YOU FOOLS! YOU HAVE MISSED THE POINT OF ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!’”
Tomas was taken aback, and even John looked disappointed in the old man’s outburst. “Eli,” Tomas began carefully, not wanting to jump to conclusions. “You’re not suggesting that God didn’t send his son to die for our sins are you?”
“That’s the most basic tenet of Christian spirituality, Eli,” John agreed. “Even if we can’t agree on all the particulars, Tomas and I definitely agree on that.”
Eli gave up hope for these two. He wondered how long they had been camping to see him. He had forgotten to ask Sidon. Sidon should have told him anyway, should have told him who they were and what they wanted and sent them away.
Eli took a deep breath and gathered the two men with his branch-like arms. “Gentlemen,” he began, “when you come looking for just one answer you never go away satisfied unless you get it. Especially when it’s to the wrong question. But if you already knew the answer you wanted, what was the point of coming here in the first place? Not for you to listen to my answer, but so you could share yours with everybody else.”
“What are you saying, Eli?” asked John.
“You two are so caught up on being right, you’ve both gone wrong.”
“How is that possible?” Tomas asked.
“In the old times, the priests knew the land itself was sacred,” Tomas started to interrupt, but Eli slapped him, gently, on the cheek. “Shut your mouth and learn something.” Tomas rubbed his cheek and John bit his tongue as Eli continued, annoyed with himself too.
“When someone died, the land became contaminated. As a result, the issue of which land had been polluted by which deaths was a very contentious issue. So the people went to the two brightest priests of their time. The land in question bordered the Temple and the City. The Temple priest claimed that the House of God could never really be contaminated. The City priest claimed that God would rather take the contamination upon Himself than stand by idly while His people suffered.
“This debate raged for months, with tempers flared. Of course, it was all an intellectual exercise because no one had actually died on that spot for many decades. It was just an argument, see? Not something that really had to be solved or that people should’ve been angry about.
“But they were.
“Finally, to settle the debate, the City priest grabbed a young man from the market and plunged a knife into his chest while straddling the border between the City and the Temple. As the young man lay dying, the Temple priest stood before the people and posed the question, ‘What has now been defiled?’
“But the young man’s father was there. He ran to his son, screaming that he was not dead. The father held his son and forced the people to bear witness. He cursed the priests. He told them, ‘My son will not die, and his wound will never stop bleeding, until you recognize that loving religion is no substitute for loving another human being.’”
Tomas and John waited in silence for Eli to conclude the story. The old man looked troubled, as if he were on the cusp of being overwhelmed by a memory. Tomas looked down at the floor and John looked off into space. They were, miraculously, thinking about what this story meant for them.
Eventually Tomas broke the silence. “Eli,” he prodded. “What happened?”
The old man looked at his two guests and his heart broke, for they were not criminals. Their desire to please God had led them here. They had wanted so badly to make God proud they had forgotten that God was their father and that all men were brothers.
“Because the priests failed to perceive the father’s wisdom, just as they failed to perceive their own sin, both the City and the Temple were drowned in the blood of the son.”
Maybe now they will remember, thought Eli.
John nodded and stood, walking carefully around Eli. He did not want to touch the old man, for fear that the terrible emotion played out on his face would drive him to his knees. Tomas stood also, and the two theologians made their way to the door, leaving in agreeable silence.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com