Readers of the lost ark

Hard to imagine that it’s been forty years — forty! — since the release of the blockbuster film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Harrison Ford had already catapulted to fame as Han Solo in Star Wars, but Raiders proved his drawing power as a leading man in his own right. Raiders was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director; although it missed taking home those two major prizes, it still won five of the nine.

All that for the improbable story of an archaeologist named “Indiana” Jones (we find out in a later movie that his real first name is Henry; “Indiana” was actually the name of the family dog). Indy leaps into death-defying, globetrotting adventures armed with a pistol, a bullwhip, and a good right cross.

As movie plots go, the premise of this one is pretty straightforward. It’s 1936. Indy goes in search of the biblical Ark of the Covenant; I suspect it was the first time the majority of moviegoers had ever heard of the ark. To Indy, the ark is an archaeological prize. But the Nazis are also looking for it. They are familiar enough with the biblical stories to know that the ancient Israelites could be unstoppable when the ark was in their midst. To the Nazis, therefore, the ark is a source of immeasurable power to be weaponized. Who will get there first?

There will, of course, be an escalating series of obstacles thrown into the hero’s path. He must overcome all of them to win. In case you haven’t seen this adventure classic, I won’t spoil it for you. But let’s just say that at the end of the story, the wrath of God, as conceived by screenwriters and special effects people, is on full display.

Why bring up Raiders here? Because if I may be forgiven a bit of loose generalization, I think there’s a good and practical theological lesson to take away from the story.

. . .

Recently, we’ve seen how both Psalm 57 and Psalm 91 refer to finding refuge under God’s wings (e.g., 91:4); most likely, these are referencing the wings of the cherubim atop the ark; the space between and beneath the wings was associated with the presence of God. Psalm 91 presents readers with a stunning set of promises of the protection and blessing of God: “no evil will happen to you” and “no disease will come close to your tent” (vs. 10, CEB); God will rescue, protect, and save those who are devoted to him and know his name (vss. 14-16).

But how are such promises to be read? Again, there are psalms that portray more a sense of God’s absence rather than God’s presence; some laments are open-ended, leaving the reader hanging like a movie missing its final scene.

Here’s what I think we have to learn from Raiders of the Lost Ark: while the psalms remember the ark as a symbol of God’s merciful presence and God’s faithfulness to the covenant, the movie portrays what happens when people take the ark as a symbol of power to be used as a mere means to human ends. That logic doesn’t apply only to bad guys bent on world domination, but anyone who would subvert God’s purposes to their own.

Again: when we read the Bible, whose story is it? Ours, or God’s? To take Psalm 91 as saying that God is obligated to protect believers from any and all calamity is to make God’s story all about us instead. It is to isolate those promises from the larger context of God’s covenant with his people. Hebrews 11, for example, portrays faithfulness as continuing to believe in and live according to the Promise, even if one never sees it fulfilled in one’s own lifetime.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that God cannot or will not protect his people from suffering of various kinds. Each of us knows stories to the contrary, from our own lives and from Scripture. For these acts of God we respond in wonder and gratitude.

But that’s not the same as presuming that God must keep all danger at bay because Psalm 91 says so. Again, that’s neither true to our experience nor to Scripture. Not every faithful person gets what they pray for, and the solution to that seeming conundrum is not to conclude that the person praying is therefore not faithful. That is the path of spiritual abuse, whether we inflict it on ourselves or others.

God’s protection or positive answers to prayer are not rewards for an adequate amount of faith and devotion in the one praying. The bigger story of the Psalms is not about what God does for us individually, but how God can be counted upon to be utterly faithful to his covenant people, whatever trials and tribulations individuals may have to endure.

God’s promises, in other words, are not means to our ends, not the deus ex machina in our own personal dramas. And as we’ll see in the next post, we can learn this from the example of Jesus.