How Sabbath Builds Culture PDF Print E-mail
Written by Toby Sumpter   
Monday, 21 November 2011 08:38

The Sabbath is the center of a certain way of doing culture. The weekly cycle of work followed by rest or rest followed by six days of work is a way of standing in time, a way of being in the world that seeks to stand up straight in the gale of seconds.

The Sabbath stands between the extremes of primitivism (aka hidebound conservatism) and revolution. All anti-sabbatarian cultures must necessarily careen between these two extremes, as the seed of the opposite excess resides expectantly in the bosom of the other. The anti-sabbatarian never rests, never ceases, and each day comes upon the next in tyrannical precision, time and action marching forward. And the only options are to try to keep up and run ahead of the marathon hoping to direct it (i.e. revolution) or try to slow it down, hold tight to last week or three months ago or early last millennium (i.e. primitivism).

These tendencies naturally collide and conflict and create the pendulum effect in cultures, in families, and in individuals, swinging from one extreme to the other. Cultures lean hard into primitivism, veering toward extinction, building tombs and museums celebrating the dead. And then in reaction, especially after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the same culture bursts the old wine skins, throwing off all the starchy clothes and superficial perfectionism, rebelling against everything that has come before with meticulous care. And this happens frequently between generations, between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. If my dad did this, I will be sure to do the opposite. If my mom loved this, I will take care to hate it.

The midlife crisis is nothing more than this phenomenon on a small scale in an individual person. One extreme of officious legalism begets the convertible and a mistress. And perhaps just as frequently, the bohemian flower child wakes up in a panic one day and dons the austere hijab. Cultures, families, and individuals run into the ground and attempt to resurrect themselves, coming back as their own enemies which turn out ironically to be their symbiotic best friends.     

But the Sabbath stands against this temporal schizophrenia, this cultural suicide. Sabbath denies the backward glance of Lot’s wife and all of her prudish conservative daughters, but it equally rejects Madame Guillotine and all her fornicating furies.   

The weekly Sabbath stands against all primitivism by virtue of its eschatology. Six days of labor and one day of rest insists on a judgment, an evaluation. With a seventh day of rest, even the six previous days become successive. Where there is no end in sight, there is no succession. There is only flow, only span. But a conclusion creates a beginning, a middle, and an end. A week of time thereby bears a teleology, an end, and therefore (God-willing) a purpose. Whatever the calling, whatever the vocation, whatever the labor under heaven: a goal is in view, a finish line is coming. Many conservatives resist the Sabbath by denying the completion of certain good work. If Adam had picked up his rake on the eighth day and suggested that they create the sun, moon, and stars again, he would have not understood the “very good” of God’s Sabbath rest. To go back to last week, to attempt to repeat last month’s puzzle, last century’s war is a failure of Sabbath. It fails to put a thankful period in time. Primitivists want to go back to the old ways. They clutch at yesterday and the day before that, even as grey and white spread across their heads and cheeks, and their eyes crease with years. Let us go back to Egypt, back to the tabernacle, back to the temple, back to the Torah, back to circumcision, back to ceremonial precision, back to Rome, back to the catacombs, back to the Constitution, back to the 1950s, back, always back. If we could only go back to Tuesday, yes, last Tuesday was just sublime (HT: Billy Collins).

But revolutionaries urge an equally troubling and disastrous plan. Revolutionaries deny the Sabbath by treating every day as a war against the one before. As with primitivism, there is no eschatology, no coherent goal, no succession. The Sabbath is a thankful evaluation of the previous week’s work. Sabbath living looks back with gratitude, but it does not look back with longing. Sabbath living does not covet the old days; it merely smiles at them. Sabbath living is to face firmly forward. And the Lord’s Day of the New Covenant pronounces this Sabbath at the beginning of the week, the first day of the week. This rhythm of a weekly day of rest is the thankful fire of an honest evaluation of work accomplished, but also the starting line where a plan may form that begins the next phase of a new week. And that’s the key. The Sabbath is not a weekly demolition project. We do not build with blocks for six days and then push them all over every Sabbath. Sabbath living, Sabbath culture is a way of life which gratefully builds upon what has come before (the best of conservatism), but it also doesn’t believe in going backwards. Just as each new day in the original creation week consisted of new things, new acts of creation, so too God’s image bearers must cultivate that same sort of holy discontent, looking creatively toward tomorrow, gearing up to rearrange the waters below into seas (weren’t they perfectly good before?), drawing up plans to fling stars into the heavens (wasn’t it good enough without them?). God could have stopped on Day One, but instead He charged ahead building new things, remodeling the universe a day at a time. While the revolutionary spirit always seems charged with ingratitude, the best of liberal thinking is surely inspired by a God-like hunger for new things.

It’s the weekly Sabbath that is meant to bring these two impulses together. In every culture, in every family, in every generation there will be those who whether by personality or experience lean toward thankfulness for the past or hunger for the future. Sabbath is the day in which those two tendencies must meet. In the Old Covenant, God required the Sabbaths to always be marked by “holy convocations,” “holy assemblies” of the nation of Israel. These are the origin of the first synagogues. God knew the hearts of men – He knew that between the conservative and liberal tendencies they would fight and destroy each other. So he required them to cease from their labors every seven days. The conservatives must cease from dusting the top shelves of their museum cases, and the liberals must halt their wrecking balls. God required that there be a weekly meeting, a weekly discussion, a weekly conference between the forward-lookers and the backward-lookers. In the New Covenant, the center of this Sabbath is a meal of bread and wine shared between these tendencies. This is especially important for generations, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It has always been the temptation not to talk, not to seek to understand one another, not to listen, and God required His people to guard one day each week so that they might stop and listen, stop and discuss, stop and tie the two trains together. Only in cultures where Sabbath is a way of life, only where the old stop and meet with the young, only where the new must listen to the ancient, only then may cultures emerge that resist the pendulum effect. Only where the rhythm of the week is interrupted by rest and worship together can societies hope to build culture in a way that respects the past and yet hungers for the future. Revolution is the future breaking away from the past. Primitivism is the past fighting against the future. Sabbath is the creation of a present in the midst of the past and the future. Sabbath is dry ground between the waters. Sabbath is a holy place where the past may safely give birth to the future.

This is ultimately because Jesus Christ is the Sabbath of God. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and in Him all things cohere. In Him and in His cross all things are reconciled, past and future, old and young, bread and wine.

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