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Bill Carleton

Testimony of a Chiastic Christian

  •  Testimony of a Chiastic Christian


    Please forgive any appearance of trying to be erudite or sophisticated.  I wish there were a simpler adjective than “chiastic.”  If you know of one, please let me know?  In my youth, I was even more of a dilettante, eager to show off meager smatterings of Greek and Latin.  This time, however, the word “chiastic” was thrown at me in such a way that I have been unable to shake it off.  Perhaps the reader will allow me some attempt at justifying my use of this term?


    Consider the English letter X.  Its Greek equivalent, chi, mirrors its unique shape with two lines crossing each other at a perpendicular axis.  It is sometimes used to denote opposite meanings.  For example, as an algebraic unknown, it conveys something quite different from a mark on a ballot.  Its appearance on a map, conveys just the opposite from its appearance as a proof-readers mark.  People who take offense at the abbreviation Xmas, may relish multiple Xs in a lover's short-hand.  Its characteristic juxtaposition of two opposing lines gives a graphic illustration of its use in medical vocabularies and other technical disciplines as well. 


    Still, the word "chiasm" is a bit fancy.  If there were ANY suitable alternative, I would grab it in a second.  Please accept my apology for using such an esoteric adjective that so rarely crops up in ordinary language with ordinary people?  Some day, perhaps a simpler word may come along to describe conflicting beliefs.  In the meantime, our Western culture has been amused ( or outraged) by Eastern philosophy that embraces contradictions.


    Turkish folklore is rich with tales involving the irascible Haji, who once presided over a divorce case.  While listening to the husband’s lawyer describe the sins of the wife, he leaned forward in rapt attention.  The wife was lazy!  She didn’t cook, sew, clean house, or take good care of the kids.  She was an insufferable gossip and nag.  In his summation, the lawyer said, “No man, your honor, should have to suffer as my client has suffered.”


    Listening and nodding his head vigorously, Haji responded, “You’re right.  You’re right!  You are absolutely, 100% right!”


    Of course, then it was the other lawyer’s turn.  Representing the wife, he described the booze, the broads, and unending abuse by the husband.  He never brought home any money, or contributed time to repairing the home or raising the kids.  Again, Haji was nodding in vigorous agreement as the lawyer summed up his own argument that “No woman, your honor, should have to suffer as MY client has suffered.”


    Again, Haji affirmed, “You’re right.  You’re right!  You are absolutely, 100% right!”


    At that point, the bailiff leaned over and whispered in Haji’s ear:  “But Haji, they can’t BOTH be right.”


    Again, the judge was quick to agree, assuring his bailiff,  “You’re right.  You’re right!  You are absolutely, 100% right!”


    This story, in itself, is not chiastic.  It simply describes a process of stepping outside a box of rational thinking.  This process of stepping outside may be unnecessary to appreciate the concept of irony;  however, it helps in illustrating what might be necessary to open one's mind to chiastic spirituality.


    The word, "chiasm" projects a sense of irony.  Irony is the opposition between the sense of words.  A reader who misses such irony, will misunderstand an ironic text totally.  Not that "understanding" is all that important!  More important, perhaps, is a flexible sense of humor.  An appreciation of chiastic meaning requires a willingness to step outside the box of extreme rationalism.


    Linguistic chiasms employ literal, verbal juxtapositions that are not dependent upon spoken language.  For example, the statement that we can only keep what we have by giving it away, loses nothing in translation into other languages.  Similarly, the occasional reversal of a major precept, such as "Judge not, lest ye be judged," may be chiastically replicated in a converse admonition to do a seemingly contrary action, such as "Judge righteous judgment!"  Such precepts do not preclude one another.  They are complimentary rather than contradictory or exclusionary.



    Chiasm: (the adjective is "chiastic") is the arrangement of elements (e.g. of a text) in the form of mirror-like reflection.




    Even more dramatic are identical statements uttered from different attitudes.  For example, the statement "I no longer care if I live or die," can be spoken as a complaint in turbulent frustration, or as an affirmation of faith in serene surrender.  The objective meaning is unchanged.  The subjective attitudes are worlds apart.


    Here are just a few chiastic principles.  Some may lack true, chiastic literary form.  Still, they contain truths that might too easily be rejected by zealots who have memorized various proof texts:


    Chiastic Principle #1  -  It is not necessary to believe in God to allow Him to work in our lives.


    Of course, what we believe is of obvious importance.  God, however, is not diminished by human disbelief.  If we are confronted by a gunman brandishing a Smith & Wesson revolver, our belief in the reality of his weapon may affect our behavior.  The effect may even work to our advantage (OR disadvantage, dependent upon the intention of the gunman).  It is unlikely, however, that our disbelief will affect the effect if the gunman decides to pull the trigger.


    Chiastic Principle #2  -  For unbelievers, honesty and open-mindedness can be more important than love and goodness.


    Of course, New Testament teaching is fairly clear when it extols love as the greatest charisma.  Love will cover a multitude of sins.  It can also wink at an ungodly amount of erroneous doctrine  --  at least for a while.  Saul of Tarsus, was passionate in his pursuit of Christians on his way to Damascus.  Had he tried to feign an ability to see, however, he might have been less receptive to the messenger God sent to restore his sight.


    Chiastic Principle #3  -  God's strength is made perfect in weakness. 

    There is a Hasidic proverb that it is not within our power to place the divine teachings directly in someone else's heart.  All that we can do is place them on the surface of the heart so that when the heart breaks, they will drop in. 


    Chiastic Principle #4  -  Truth transcends logic. 

    Enlightened philosophers have embraced this principle for millennia.  Scientists have been slower to appreciate the practical applications of suspending their own dogmatic rejection of logical contradictions.  The types of truth espoused by Joseph Campbell in his Power of Myth are now being empirically verified in laboratory experiments as reported in current scientific journals relative to the reconciliation between relativity and quantum mechanics.


    Chiastic Principle #5  -  Anything Satan can do, God can do greater. 

    "God cannot lie!" exclaims a Bible-thumping preacher with an in-your-face declaration of his own, absolute certainty in the inerrancy of his KJV version of holy writ.   On the one hand, fundamental professions of faith can be a bulwark against the introduction of satanic heresy into Bible-believing fellowships.  The downside, however, is the way this discredits a sovereign deity who may appear to push us outside of our comfort zones. When God told Abraham to take his son of promise and offer him up as a burnt offering, there were no Monday-morning quarterbacks around to offer explanatory footnotes to the instructions.


    Chiastic Principle #6  -  God's grace is greater than any specific sin. 

    Theologians seem to disagree in trying to identify any specific sin as THE unforgivable transgression.  Perhaps there are many?  Perhaps the one thing that makes any sin unforgivable is just the sinner's unwillingness to confess it?  When the sinner himself regards God's power to be inadequate to provide forgiveness, it may, indeed, become unforgivable.


    Chiastic Principle #7  -  Chiastic truth is, in itself, chiastic.

    Too often, in this author's own attempts to be cute or clever, he has found himself feeling overly sophisticated.  In his penchant to embrace an open-ended diversity, he has stepped outside the chiastic box, into an arrogant permissiveness that might exceed the grace of God for forgiving confessed sin. 


    Take care, my son, the fire is hot

    And how it burns, thou knowest not

    The warmth that draws you to its core

    Consumes your soul and seeketh more

    Than mortal flesh you hold so dear.

    Now hear my voice, and learn to fear!


    I've heard Thy voice and been afraid

    Yet nonetheless mistakes I've made

    And cling to passionate desires

    For warmth from such unholy fires.

    Oh, God, how long can you endure

    My deeds so chronically impure?


    Be still and know that I am God

    To wield not just a chastening rod

    But also mercy's deepest flow.

    Aside from that, you cannot know

    The steps my sovereign will might choose

    To limit grace that you abuse

    But can you doubt my faithfulness

    To cleanse each sin which you confess?





    My constant prayer:

    O God, please help me to

              See Thee more clearly,

    Love Thee more dearly,

    Follow Thee more nearly,

                       Day by day!

    In Jesus name!