From the ideal to the real (part 1)

I still remember the experience of going to see the original Star Wars back in 1977. I had recently graduated from college, and went to see it with my best friend from high school, who had attended another university but was in town for a visit. When the movie ended, we were pumped, exhilarated. If there had been X-wing fighters nearby, we would have jumped in the cockpits and taken off, looking for something to blast.

Star Wars became a pop-culture phenomenon that has continued in the decades since. At the time, some explained its success by noting how people needed a return to the classic good-guy-versus-bad-guy formula, especially after a decade of anti-heroes such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. We needed moral certainty and predictability. We want stories in which the good guys are clearly good, even innocent. The bad guys are, well, bad. And good always triumphs over evil, right?

Against the backdrop of the moral ambiguities of 1970s cinema, the destruction of the Death Star was cleansing, and the closing scene of Luke and Han receiving their medals from the princess was the final confirmation of a more black-and-white worldview. Collectively, we left the theater feeling just a little more confident, a little more righteous, than when we went in.

But of course, as the series of films continued, things got a little more complicated.

We’ve seen the ideal portrait of the world given to us by Psalm 1. There are two paths in life: the path of righteousness and the path of wickedness. The former leads to blessing and prosperity, the latter to destruction. And the key to staying on the righteous path is delight in and continual meditation on Torah, best translated as God’s “instruction.”

In that sense, Psalm 119, a long and complex ode to Torah, can be considered an ideological sequel to Psalm 1. The echoes of the key language and ideas from Psalm 1 are all there. Like Psalm 1, for example, Psalm 119 begins with a declaration that the righteous, who follow the ways of Torah, are blessed:

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
    who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
    and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
    but follow his ways.
(Ps 119:1-3, NIV)

The author of Psalm 119 also declares a deep devotion to Torah, which keeps the psalmist on the right path:

Oh, how I love your law!
    I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
    and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
    for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
    for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
    so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
    for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
    sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
    therefore I hate every wrong path.
(vss. 97-104)

Texts like these reinforce the worldview of Psalm 1, even to the point that the psalmist can say that those who keep God’s statutes and seek him wholeheartedly “do no wrong” (vs. 3), keeping themselves away from “every evil path” (vs. 101).

So: everyone reading this who’s never done wrong, who’s never followed the wrong path, raise your hand.

Hmm. Nobody?

What then? Is it just because we’re not obedient enough? Is it that we don’t love God’s instruction enough? Are we not faithful enough to find the right path and stick to it?

Let me be quick to say that we can always love God’s word more than we do, just as there’s always room for our faith to mature and our obedience to grow. But while Psalm 1 and related verses in Psalm 119 give us an ideal portrait of the life of faith, the lived reality is more complicated than that.

Even in Psalm 119, as we will see.