The news this weekend, at least in my part of the Christian internet, was dominated by a coordinated PR blitz on behalf of ‘The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer’. While you may have noticed it, with it’s striking design, in your newspaper of choice, in the sake of clarity, you can read all about the project on their website. Ever since I heard about this project, a few years ago now, I felt a sense of unease about it, and not just at the cost.
There are two big reasons why I think this is a bad idea. I say this as someone who, be theological and sociological definition, is pretty ‘out there’: I believe God is real, answers prayer, does miracles today, cares about every aspect of our strange little lives, created everything, loves to see creativity being excercised by us, and will one day make everything new. In short, there is a lot of the spirit and vision of this project that I could quite easily sign up to. But I can’t, and I don’t think you should too. This post is aimed at Christians – but I hope anyone reading it who wouldn’t call themselves a follower of Jesus can follow the logic, and see that just because someone has paid for good media coverage, doesn’t mean that all Christians, even all Christians of a certain kind, think the thing being covered in the media is a good thing. Anyway, two reasons why this is a bad idea.
Let’s start with the simple one.
Firstly and most simply, though less importantly, this is a hubristic project that goes against several of the key commands of Scriptures, and the mission that God invites his people on.
Consider these verses from Amos 5:
This is what the Lord says to Israel:
“Seek me and live;
5 do not seek Bethel,
do not go to Gilgal,
do not journey to Beersheba.
For Gilgal will surely go into exile,
and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.[a]”
6 Seek the Lord and live,
or he will sweep through the tribes of Joseph like a fire;
it will devour them,
and Bethel will have no one to quench it.
7 There are those who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground.
8 He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns midnight into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the Lord is his name.
9 With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin.
10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
11 You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
14 Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
15 Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says:
“There will be wailing in all the streets
and cries of anguish in every public square.
The farmers will be summoned to weep
and the mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass through your midst,”
says the Lord.
18 Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king,
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god[b]—
which you made for yourselves.
27 Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,”
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.
Why bother with a niche Old Testament prophet when talking about something modern and exciting that is apparently based on a vision one man recieved from God?
Because here in Amos we have the record, Christians believe, of God’s speech to his people. And for the purposes of ‘The Eternal Wall’, it makes for difficult reading. To their credit, the project website makes an attempt to justify it biblically – including an allusion to Gilgal, a place where God’s people once built a memorial to God’s action. Yet, shockingly, God is saying to not go there. Instead, there is something else: Seek the Lord and live. God’s speech to Amos here seems far more concerned with justice and mercy and righteousness than with monuments and fundraising. As one commenter on Facebook pointed out, why should Christians care about £9.3 million being spent on this, when Amazon and other companies operating in the UK are guilty of vast billions of tax avoidance? Amos 5 would suggest that at least a portion of that £9.3 million *might* be better spent challenging that.
As Amos builds image upon image of what God wants and doesn’t want, there is a challenge to those of us who value worship, and the expression of creativity. Verses 21-23 tell us that the things we do to demonstrate our devotion are not always what they seem. Verse 24 reminds us that the land this project is using might better have been given to travellers or refugees as a home, the money perhaps given to struggling church plants in un-glamourous places, and the time and pr perhaps donated to charities that encourage fostering and adoption. God says “let justice roll on like a rever, righteousness like a never-failing stream!“. Different bible translations give a different emphasis to never-failing: the ESV translates it as ‘ever-flowing’, the CSB chooses ‘unfailing’, whilst the CEV, GNT and ISV (among others) speak of a stream that never dries up. The design chosen for this project is a mobius strip, a so-called ‘infinite shape’. There is perhaps an uncomfortable resonance here, for those with eyes to see.
But that reason, the challenge of the Old Testament tradition of prophecy, is nothing when we consider the bigger issue at stake.
Does the project really want to claim the thing is ‘eternal’?
I understand that the word eternal in the project’s name is perhaps pointing beyond itself, but I’m also deeply uncomfortable with the choice of the word ‘eternal’. I would argue that to assign an attribute of God to a created thing is, quite bluntly, blasphemous. The Bible is quite clear (1 Tim 6:16, 1 Tim 1:7) that only God is eternal – indeed, one of the classic biblical arguments against idolatry is the contrast between God, who is eternal, and the idols, which are made by man, which aren’t. Again, there is an uncomfortable parallel, and I hope that if someone from this project reads this blog post, they will consider at least dropping the word ‘eternal’ from it’s name.
There is an uncomfortable arrogance in the wording on the project’s website, linked to the usage of the word ‘eternal’:
“We have no way of knowing what culture and society will look like in a hundred years’ time, but we do know that Eternal Wall will still be standing, and that people will still be able to discover its stories of hope, and see that Jesus answers prayer.
We know that we will have faithfully sown into future generations and shared with them what Jesus has done in our time.”
This is sheer hubris. What if we had another World War? What if a terrorist, angered by the wall, blew a chunk of it off? What if an unlikely weather event ripped part of it away? What if a parent, grieving the loss of a child who was distracted by it, succeeded in a legal case to have it moved out of eyesight of the road?
Again, I’m reminded of the words of an Old Testament Prophet. Isaiah 40:3-9 is a radical reminder that the world as it is is not as the world will be. Features – man-made and naturally occuring – that seem so permanent to us are not permanent, when seen from the perspective of the King of Kings:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,[c]
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Only God is eternal. He alone can create and sustain things that last forever. And the best news, the news that rarely makes the front page, is that he offers the gift of eternal life to those who trust in him.
For further reading, might I recommend the following?
- Chris Wright’s superb ‘Here Are Your Gods!’, a book on political idolatry that informed some of what I wrote here.
- Freddie Pimm’s Selfish Gospel – a helpful little book about the Kingdom of God.
- Paula Gooder’s Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person – a brilliant little book that reminds us of the truth that we are already the image of God in the world.