“Tangled” and Conversion

My daily reading was from John 3 this morning and a phrase in this well-known discourse lingered within my soul as I began my day.

Nicodemus is obviously bewildered/perplexed by Jesus’s insistence that he must be “born again.” Nicodemus engages in quite a rich, theological discussion with Jesus. But, right in the middle of his perplexity, Jesus tells Nicodemus:

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.'”

This is an interesting situation, right? Nicodemus appears to be in a place of unknowing, but Jesus insinuates that Nicodemus actually knows what to do next.

Perplexed? So am I.

It reminds me of the movie Tangled that our daughter Avery loves to watch. (Note: there are spoilers hereafter; you’ve been warned)

The main female lead was kidnapped from her royal family because of her hair that has magical powers. Her whole life was haunted by this sense of “missing something,” the main idea that holds all other parts of who she is together.

She finds out her identity through a symbol of a sun that her parents placed in her nursery. As she sees the symbol and looks at the paintings and sketches that she has done as a young artist, she realizes that the blank spaces in those paintings and sketches is the sun symbol, the missing piece. She realizes her true identity and where she belongs, the evidence of which, has been in front of her the whole time.

Conversion, it seems, operates in the same way according to John’s discourse. Nicodemus has a gnawing sense that something is missing and he is having a difficult time grasping it. Jesus tells him that he shouldn’t be surprised by the answer, it has been hiding in plain sight all along.

Unfortunately, conversion works the opposite in many cases. Some are converted and give Jesus “a try” and, in 1000 different ways, these try-it-out-ers apparently need to be reconverted to Jesus routinely through a proper execution of worship style, sermon topics, service opportunities, and other religious-shaped preferences. If these needs are not met, some find that it might be best to go find a solution to their reconverting needs elsewhere, or to decide to not renew their trial subscription altogether.

Conversion, then, has not really grounded them in reality or in self-identity, but in a religious system that will eventually let them down completely. Perhaps their conversion experience did not originate in the material of real life, but a group of well-meaning folks gave the newly-converted person the questions to ask (and the anxieties that he/she was not aware of) in order to allow the group to have the opportunity to give him/her the answer that they have.

If this would-be convert agrees with the answers to the questions that the group provides, a “conversion” takes place.

So, the well-meaning group has given this new convert a job – “Keep our thing going, please.”

So, the new convert’s “self” is actually split into two halves: a “everyday-life self” and a “religion-as-hobby” self. They are set up to have rivaling identities, so in order to keep them both happy, this person will live each identity “in the moment” and be prepared to slip into a nearby phone booth when the situation calls to be the other self.

Can such faith save us?

Another question, “How resurrected is your Jesus?”

John 1 states that Jesus is the logos, the one behind all of creation and all things. The one who moved in among us.

Another question, “Who is the ‘us’ John is referring to and ‘where’ is the where that Jesus has appeared?”

Let’s allow John to explain himself.

Jesus is the better wedding organizer in Cana. (John 2)

Jesus is the better teacher for Nicodemus. (John 3)

Jesus is the Living Water for the Samaritans. (John 4)

Jesus is the great healer at the Pool of Bethesda. (John 5)

Jesus is the one with words of eternal life. (John 6)

Jesus is the bread of life. (John 6)

Jesus is the one whom the great feast points towards. (John 7)

Jesus is the great I AM, the one who was before and with Abraham. (John 8)

And on, and on, and on…

It is suggested that John’s gospel has “high Christology” because Christ seems to be popping up everywhere. Already in the soil of human experience and in an array of local contexts.

Conversion, it seems, has two moves. It circles back to retrieve what has always been there and then it fills all things in our lives with new life. It an ancient literary term, conversion creates a chiasm (a journey out and back), allowing us to see everything that we’ve seen before, but with new lenses.

Perhaps this is why Jesus’s first conversation after his resurrection is with Mary, who mistakes him as a “gardener.” (our biblical alarm system should be firing away at this point… a garden is where this story started and ‘we’re back’… the resurrection is a re-boot, a launching of God’s re-creation project in the midst of this current world)

In that same passage, Jesus calls Mary, “Miriam” (the name that her parents would have called her from birth as they announced her to the world) and not “Maria” which outsiders would have called her.

That’s what I would think we’d call being “born again.”

God is to be praised because he raises the dead and living.


Published by joeskillen

I'm a husband, dad of 2, Pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, KS.

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