What Obscenity and Grace Have in Common

“So in the same way at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if it is by grace, it is no longer by works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was diligently seeking, but the elect obtained it. The rest were hardened….”

Romans 11:5-7

Grace. What is this stuff? The hymnist says that it will “pardon and cleanse, within.” Ann says that “all’s grace.” Mike says, “I can’t define it, but I have an evolving theology of my need for it.”

When I was twelve, my overstuffed Baptist church had a visiting preacher named Dr. Richard Land. He was a scholar, a real theologian with letters behind his last name. He was complex, a sesquipedalian skilled in the ways of circumlocution. One Sunday Ryan Carter actually made a functioning origami decoder ring out of the Lottie Moon envelopes in hope of cracking the “Land Code.” It didn’t work.

For all his verbosity, Dr. Land surprised us one Sunday when he offered this definition of Grace--God’s Riches as Christ Expense. It was simple. It stuck. But at thirty-three, I’m wondering if perhaps it was too simple.

I expound. If grace relates to the riches of God, then aren’t all creatures benefactors? After all, God’s riches encompass every facet of nature, every splendor of the morning. It is only by God’s rich blessing that we live, that the birds sing, that the fabric of earth holds together. Did it take Christ’s expense to bring about the richness that God gives to all creation? It seems to me that both those who trust in Christ’s expense and those who do not share equally in some of the riches of God. Thus, God’s riches cannot be the sole subject of grace unless we open ourselves up to the idea that grace is, in fact, unlimited and given to all.

These are human gyrations, I know. But the deconstruction of the Land Doctrine of Grace leaves me stranded (and perhaps teetering on a universalist brink). The deconstruction sounds nothing like the grace of the biblical text (See Romans 11). So, what is grace?

In 1964 the United States Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a particular film could be censored as “hard-core pornography” under the First Amendment. To make the determination, the Court was required to formulate the threshold definition of pornography. Penning perhaps the most quoted concurring opinion in Supreme Court history, Justice Potter Stewart wrote,

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

See Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

Maybe in formulating a working definition for grace, I’m left with little more than Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity. I know what it is, though only in practice. I know what it’s not. I know that grace is undeserved, that it is a product of God’s choosing (see Romans). I know, like Mike, that I have an ever-evolving theology of my need for it. I know, like Ann, that all’s grace. Ultimately I know that grace, much like obscenity, is known most explicitly when it is seen.

And with all the humility I can muster today I’ll ask to catch one obscene glimpse of it.