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Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Sermon on Mount Shangri-La

I recently read (re-read, actually) James Hitlon’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon.  The novel describes an ancient utopian community known as “Shangri-La.” It’s a reclusive community, hidden deep in the mountains of Tibet, devoted to the task of safeguarding human wisdom and beauty from the approaching storm of holocaust and apocalyptic war. Hilton proved to be a bit prescient, envisioning the horrors of World War II.

I like the book, even if it’s not aged especially well. The writing feels a little dated, and somewhat stilted. The characters are a little flat.  But it’s the idea-the idea that’s important here. Shangri-La is the antithesis of the modern world - all frenetic motion with no peace. If you’ve ever wanted to get away from the tyranny of the hurry-faster-more capitalistic, militaristic frenzy, you might feel at home at Shangri-La.

“We have reason. It is the entire meaning and purpose of Shangri-La. It came to me in a vision long, long ago. I foresaw a time when man exalting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and culture that I could and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other. The time must come, my friend, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here"(Hilton).

As in other books about fictional utopian communities, the climax of the story involves the protagonist’s choice: will he give up the world he knows in order to risk living in Shangri-La?

I think that I would rather enjoy living in that hidden mountain city-a sort of melancholy utopia, like an oriental work of art, all the more appreciated because of its imperfections. The retreat from passion, machinery, ambition, destruction, and war, a place where it’s safe to be meek and unassuming. I could definitely see myself living there.

I believe in utopias. Or rather, I want to believe in them. The word “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia. The word comes from the Greekοὐ ("not") and τόπος ("place") and means "no-place.” But alternately, Utopia can be derived from the Greek εὖ ("good" or "well") and τόπος ("place"), meaning: "good place.” It’s a homophonic pun: no-place /good-place. I want to believe in utopian communities that are good places, able to devoid themselves of all the rot and filth of this world, able to devote themselves to learning, wisdom, justice, and health for all.

But I have been told – and repeatedly – that it’s naïve to hold any such utopian fantasies because they are, by their very name, “no-place” nowhere. I should, I am told, understand that such communities cannot and will not exist. Not in this world.

But why is it naïve to believe, or to want to believe that something better is possible in this world?  Why must we “be realistic” or “practical”? Why should we believe that the “good place” utopia can only exist in fictional literature and in a far removed heaven of the future? 

I find these questions especially perplexing in light of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Possibly the best known portion of Jesus’ teaching, it may be, at the same time the least applied portion of his instruction. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount has inspired the lives and work of many influential people throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in the 1960s was grounded in the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ words. Count Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian author, was motivated by this sermon to a radically new lifestyle; he gave away his land holdings and copyrights, freed his serfs, and began to practice a life based on the Sermon on the Mount as he understood it. Even non-Christians have been challenged by the Sermon on the Mount. Mahatma Gandhi, though a devout Hindu, said that the words of the Sermon on the Mount went straight to his heart, and he read from them as part of his daily meditation. (Dear)

But here’s where you can take out your scissors and cut up the bible. There are some Christians that don’t believe that these passages apply to us today, that we are not obliged to live by these standards. The Sermon on the Mount, they say, belongs not to Christians living in the here and now, but to a yet future remnant of Jews who will someday believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

The “study” notes of the 1917 Scofield Bible said, “The Sermon on the Mount, in its primary application, gives neither the privilege no the duty of the church” (Scofield). [i] This was the bible that popularized the pre-millennial dispensationalism understanding of eschatology, with all of that Left Behind and Late Great Planet Earth crap. Another influential dispensationalist author, Clarence Larkin, wrote: “The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was spoken by Christ before His rejection, and was the Constitution of the then offered Kingdom; now that the Kingdom has been withdrawn it is not in force, but will be in the Millennial Kingdom. So we see that we must discriminate between the Dispensations and not dislocate scripture” (Larkin).

More recently, Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy in their Fast Fact on Bible Prophecy wrote, “The sermon was not given directly to the church-age believers since, in context, Christ is addressing entrance to the kingdom…The kingdom will be brought to earth at the second coming of Christ. Many of the specific statements in this sermon will be fulfilled during the millennium" (Ice, Demy 188).

Setting aside the crazy nutbaggery that is Pre-millennial Dispensational eschatology, even some respected Christian leaders argue that we’re not really expected to live up to the standards set in the Sermon on the Mount. Reinhold Niebuhr taught that Jesus’ cross set up an unrealizable goal – “a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve.” The most, he said, we could achieve would be “proximate justice.” (Cone 71) Niebuhr is another of those voices telling us to "be realistic."

According to these teachers, we could be justified in taking scissors to the pages of our bibles. We could safely remove the Sermon of the Mount because it’s either not for us or unrealistic and unachievable. But I don’t believe this.

The beatitudes and the gospel of the Kingdom of God have often been described as a “great reversal," The kingdoms of this world live by fierce struggle, survival of the ruthless, he-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins kind of mentality. But Jesus didn’t teach “blessed are the fortunate and well provisioned;” he said, “blessed are the desperate.” Jesus didn’t teach “happy are the religious” but “Happy are those who are hunger and thirsty for righteousness.” Jesus didn’t preach, “blessed are the warriors” but “blessed are the peacemakers.”

This is the great reversal. It turned the world on its ear when he said it to his disciples and followers in that Sermon on the Mount, and it shattered the forces of darkness when he lived it out on the mountain top where he was crucified. And it continues to upset and overturn the world wherever and whenever it is put into practice in the lives of his followers.

Utopias don’t have to be “no-place,” idealistic retreats from the so-called “real-world.” Jesus gave instructions that, if followed, could create that radical utopian “good-place” in the here and now. Is it really impossible or unrealistic to live in a Sermon on the Mount kind of community, or are we just unwilling to try?

I’ve often quoted the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, who said, “Making heaven on earth is our business." It’s not Shangri-La, tucked away on a remote mountain, retreating from the horrors of the world, but rather the glorious eternal Kingdom of God being made in the here and now world around us.

Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2011. Print.

Dear, John. ”Gandhi’s Daily Scripture Readings for Peace.” National Catholic Reporter. Aug. 20, 2013.

Hilton, James. Lost Horizon.

Ice, Thomas, Timothy Demy. Fast Facts on Bible Prophecy. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers. 1997. Print.

Larkin, Clarence. Dispensational Truth.
Scofield, Cyrus. Scofield Reference Bible.  1917.

[i] That note, along with many others, was eliminated and or softened in the 1967 revision. 

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