Deus ex Machina

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10), Year A
[Track I]

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:1-11

In the world of storytelling, there are few greater sins than the Deus ex Machina: that is, a seemingly hopeless situation being resolved suddenly and swiftly through totally unexpected and miraculous means. All the tension and drama built up by the plot, the breathless audience wondering “how will they make it out of this?” is completely deflated in an instant by a resolution that is equally baffling as it is miraculous. It is considered a hallmark of bad storytelling as it robs the audience of emotional and intellectual payoff in the plot, and usually makes the stakes of the impossible situation suddenly seem trivial. It leaves the audience questioning the point of the story at all. When a Deus ex Machina is used, critics usually see it as a sign of the author’s procrastination, cowardice to answer difficult questions their story raises, or simple lack of creativity. The Deus ex Machina is particularly offensive to modern sensibilities, that innovative cult of pessimism our society has put together following the disappointment of Enlightenment Liberalism in the 20th century: miracles do not sweep in to save us, there is no God in this machine.

Perhaps the most egregious Deus ex Machina in the popular consciousness is the unexpected rescue of Sam and Frodo at the end of Lord of the Rings. We find our heroes having just barely completed their mission trapped on an erupting Mt. Doom. Surrounded by fire and lava, they come to the tragic realization that they will not be returning to the home they saved. With tearful goodbyes, they make peace with each other and their fate, taking somber solace that their mission was successful, they wait to be consumed by flames and pass into legend.

Until giant eagles randomly and miraculously rescue them at the last possible second, robbing the story of its bittersweet arc in favor of a naïve “happy ending” for the heroes.

This narrative choice by Tolkien has always been the subject of debate, especially among casual fans and Tolkien apologists. With the re-adaptation of the novels into major motion pictures in the early 2000s and the simultaneous emergence of social media, a platform that thrives on contrived debates about popular media, it was the perfect storm for the Great Eagle Debate take over forums and chatrooms worldwide. The debate continues to this day, generating easy clicks, views, outrage, and ultimately ad revenue. It has entered the pantheon of great internet philosophical debates, alongside such noble peers as “is a hotdog a sandwich?”

The debate usually centers on whether the eagles are a Deus ex Machina. The critic’s case being almost self-explanatory, “If the eagles could make it to Mt. Doom, why didn’t they take the heroes there in the first place?” and apologists scrambling for answers such as “it had to be a stealth mission!” The premise that both sides share is that Deus ex Machinas are undesirable, and in this case threaten to cheapen an otherwise magnificent piece of modern storytelling and the legacy of Tolkien. How could an author so well versed in literature and world-crafting make such a basic mistake?

The Deus ex Machina is no mistake, rather it is entirely the point. For Tolkien, a devote Roman Catholic, and all faithful Christians, a Deus ex Machina is at the heart of our faith, though we usually call it Grace.

This re-interpreting of the Deus ex Machina is the climax of Paul’s argument in Romans. Rather than Tolkien’s storytelling, Paul uses long-form argument. The impossible situation that Paul sets up in the first half of Romans is that humanity has been trapped in a world so corrupted by sin, that humanity’s very will had become corrupted by sin, rendering us unable to have a right relationship with God through our own powers and even the magnificent gift that is the Torah Law. The Deus ex Machina is the Incarnation and the work of salvation accomplished by Christ in defeating death and rising from the grave. God in the most literal sense miraculously entered the machine to save us from the hopeless situation we were trapped in. Or in Paul’s words in 8:3-4

“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Being the heart of such a substantial theological argument, these two sentences carry with them many premises that Paul spends the rest of Romans explaining. Because it is such a substantial claim, and the reality that Paul’s rhetoric can be interpreted in several ways, this passage has also collected certain historical baggage over the centuries. Though we do not have the time to unpack all the baggage in this format, there are a few points that need to be clarified for us to understand Paul’s words.

This chapter in Romans, and Romans as a whole, is popularly known as Paul settling the “works v. righteousness” debate in favor of “Grace alone through a personal relationship with Jesus”. Often “works” is cited as Paul’s use of the word “law”, in which later interpreters understand Paul to condemn Torah as a mechanism to prove to humanity that only through faith alone can we be saved. The reality is this popular interpretation rests on highly specific interpretations of Paul, born out of 16th century Protestant Europe rather than 1st century Palestine. Though it is easily understandable, it is too simplistic. In truth, Paul’s use of “law” can mean either Torah Law, or a broader idea of “natural law” that was prevalent in the ancient world. If we read carefully, we can see that Paul does not necessarily condemn the “law”. In our passage he describes the “law” as “weakened by the flesh”, implying that humanity was so mired in sin, that even a God-given law could not be adequately adopted by humanity. Paul noting that Jesus’ defeat of sin “in the flesh” redeems the “law” in the same way that humanity is redeemed: Through Jesus, humanity can now justly fulfill the law.

Another stumbling block to understanding Paul’s Deus ex Machina is his contrast of “flesh” and “Spirit”. Central to our passage, on a flat reading it is quite easy to assume that Paul argues that “flesh” is bad or lesser, while “Spirit” is what we strive for. This misinterpretation is what fueled various heretical groups in the 5th-7th centuries; who believed that all things earthly were inherently evil, and occasionally believed there to be two gods, a wicked “fleshy” god of the Old Testament, and an idyllic “pure spirit” god of Christ and the New Testament. Paul’s use of “Spirit” is well understood, referring to the breath of God in creation and the work of the Holy Spirit. “Flesh” however, is harder to pin down his exact meaning. What is clear from Paul’s writing is that “Flesh” itself is not inherently evil, merely racked with sin. When God became Incarnate in the flesh, He condemned not flesh itself, but the sin in the flesh. Much like the law, sin plagued the flesh like a disease, and through Christ, the flesh and the law have been healed.

Through God entering the world, the Christian Deus ex Machina,we have been rescued from our hopeless scenario. But what does this mean? We still see sin abound in this world, what does it mean to be rescued from it? If the Deus ex Machina is the point, what are we to do with it?

For Paul and Tolkien, it is the beginning of our journey home. The greatest evil has already been vanquished, but a world mired in sin and evil for so long still has much healing to do even in the aftermath of a great victory. Paraphrasing Moses’ final exhortation for the people of God to choose life in God [Deuteronomy 30:11-20], Paul reminds us that our task is the same as it has always been, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” [Romans 8:6]. Because flesh has been redeemed, because we have been redeemed, we are free to fulfill what God has always intended for humanity, Paul calls this “Spirit”. Being freed from fear, from death, from sin, we are freed to choose God, to choose a Spirit of Love, even when the world puts us in “hopeless” scenarios.

Knowing that Sin has been defeated, when we see sins that seem impossible to conquer, we are free to choose God and the belief that they will be conquered. When a mind set on the flesh sees cycles of injustice, tangled webs of systemic oppression, or even insurmountable personal struggles, that mind sees only death. A mind set on the Spirit knows that cycles can be broken, webs untangled, and all struggles redeemed.

We as a community of believers are travelers in a world full of “hopeless” situations. In times of hopelessness, of grief, of impossibility, we as the people of God, are called to be the Deus ex Machina: the unexpected miracle that rescues others in hopeless situations. Having ourselves been rescued by the amazing Grace of God, we have been freed to do the work of the Spirit. Doing the work of the Spirit, we are God’s work in the machine, the Body of Christ.

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