The flexing of national muscle–military, political and economic–we are seeing in the Middle East regarding the Islamic Republic’s aspirations makes as good a backdrop as any to consider how things will wind up. In this post we will show it’s possible to get a glimpse of two visions of the end, and both in an Iranian context, one however that is relevant to us as well.
Most people who follow these things seriously are aware that one thing that drives Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who are currently in a political tug of war for control of the country) is their idea of how things will end. Shi’a Islam in Iran is the Shi’a of the “Twelvers,” i.e. the twelve imams that succeeded Muhammad on the Shi’ite side. The last of these is purported to be in hiding and is scheduled to emerge from a well in the city of Qom sometime in the future. At this point or before all hell is supposed to break loose at which point the enemies of Islam are to be defeated and the world becomes Islamic.
There are two interesting things to note about this.
The first is the idea that, somehow, human effort of some kind can expedite this process. Iran’s current leadership, to varying degrees, believes that this can be done. The idea that the end of history can be accelerated by human effort is more of a novelty in Islam than in Christianity. Islam is the religion of “if Allah wills it”; fatalism has been more the order of the day. In these times, with the uncertainty that goes with them, the idea that things like wiping Israel off of the map would bring the end closer resonates with many, which is the main reason why the Islamic Republic makes such a big deal out of it.
But that in turn leads to the second thing: which Islam will triumph? Like communism in the last century, Islam is best seen in the plural. Will it be the “Twelvers” to triumph or the Ismailis, the “Seveners”? Or the far more numerous Sunnis? The very Sunni keepers of the holy places sit nervously across the Gulf hoping the hated Israelis will do what they feel they cannot and Barack Obama will not. They do this because they know that they are the chief targets of any Iranian military progress. Wiping Israel off of the map would, in reality, accomplish nothing but generate a large cloud of nuclear fallout. Getting control of both sides of the Gulf would have an entirely different result.
This is the vision of the end that one usually associates with Iran. There is another one, and it’s a lot happier in every respect.
Oblivious to accelerating decrepitude, I have started my journey towards a PhD. In the course of this I have gotten to know several Iranians. The first thing I have found is that they are some of the most charming and intelligent people I have ever run across. They are certainly capable of the technological achievements that are reported in the news. In studying with them, I have had many “aha” moments, where obscure things suddenly became clear.
But there are other things at work:
One afternoon two of our friends wanted to show their wedding video. Since they were only married last summer (and then off to the U.S.) it wasn’t “old news” by any definition. In watching this I had one more of those “aha” moments, but this time it concerned the Bible.
In one segment of the video, the handsome groom arrives in his white car at an imposing looking building. Alighting from the car, he walks up a long staircase and knocks on the door. Inside his lovely bride has been in preparation for his arrival: hair, (un-Islamic) dress, and so on. She comes through the door, they descend the staircase together, get in the car, and head to the second celebration of their marriage.
Because the Islamic Republic wants to underscore the religious aspect of marriage, it follows the lead of secular bastions like France and the old Soviet Union and basically obligates people to be married twice. With Part I behind them, they head off to a place festooned with images of Persian emperors familiar to Old Testament readers: Darius, Cyrus and the like, and have their big party and celebration of their new life together. (Islamic scholars refer to the era when these great kings ruled the Middle East as al-jahiliya.)
With this the moment of clarity came for me. There’s a great deal of discussion regarding wedding customs in both Old and New Testament times. Understanding these completely would clear up passages like the parable of the ten virgins. But one thing is clear: for lay people, many current Western customs obscure the Scriptures as much as variant Biblical scholarship. In this case, for years American grooms have entered the church and stood at the front looking stupid while waiting for the bride to enter. But in the Middle East of the Bible, as in Iran today, the groom comes to the bride and gets her. Although I suspect than in years past both bride and groom had entourages involved in the process, watching this unfold in high definition brought similar clarity to a very profound idea which Our Lord was trying to get across.
I like to remind people that, each time a man and a woman are married, it is a dress rehearsal for the marriage of the Groom (Jesus Christ) and the Bride (his church). Although many Christians do not understand the meaning of this, the Scriptures taken in their totality are a love story between God and man, that love being brought to its fullest expression when Jesus Christ came, became one of us, and ultimately offered himself up for our salvation so we would not have to. When Jesus described his return in terms of his return and a wedding, his hearers had a far more vivid–and accurate–concept of what he was talking about. It throws into question the sense of a great deal of what has passed for “prophecy preaching” that we have been regaled with all of these years, especially regarding the whole business of the “Rapture.” Anglicans will doubtless think of N.T. Wright’s fulminations on this subject, but be assured that this Iranian couple’s following of their wedding custom is a lot better description of what is really going on than anything N.T. Wright can come up with.
But this also brings up another thought: how should the Bride of Christ prepare herself for the Groom’s arrival? Usually people speak in terms of what the Church should be doing outside of its confines, i.e., evangelism, benevolence and the like. But before all that what I saw drove home another point: the first preparation of the church needs to be on herself, i.e., discipleship. The whole concept of being “born again” means that the truth and presence of God is profoundly internalised in his people, both an event and a process that Jesus exemplified in the way he led his disciples. Once we do that the rest comes a lot easier and has better results.
Christians and secularists alike focus too much attention on the tumultuous events that precede the end. But change is never easy. In the meanwhile we need to be more focused on the objective, and that isn’t destruction and doom but a wedding.