Sorting by

Skip to main content

Bringing Mystery Back

You can’t tell me there is no mystery
It’s overflows my cup

This feast of beauty can intoxicate
Just like the finest wine

Come all you stumblers who believe love rules
Stand up and let it shine

These are excerpts from Bruce Cockburn’s 2004 song, “Mystery,” found on his album Life Short Call Now.

I like the song. I like mystery. It feels like almost everyone likes mystery these days. It is a good antidote to the cold objectivity that has owned the last few centuries. Mystery, intuition, folk-ways, Jesus—they’re all making comebacks; sprung free from the straightjacket of hyper-rationality. Mystery is a key part of Christianity’s breakup strategy with modernity.

It is also a healthy astringent for worship with too much chatter and theology with too many answers. Sometimes it feels like mystery has almost become a church-growth strategy. More and more I hear the actual word “mystery” slipped into worship. Candles, silence, icons, and chanting tossed in at no extra cost. Don’t misunderstand. I actually appreciate most of this, whether it really puts millennial butts in the pews or not.

But there are reasons to poke around a bit in our new enchantment with mystery. I’m not looking for reasons to go back to the bad old days. And I realize that trying to scrutinize mystery, having “reasons” to study it, seems somewhat to miss the point, contrary to the very nature of mystery.

Sometimes I wonder if what we Christians proclaim as “mystery” isn’t a newly dressed-up version of the old and largely refuted “god of the gaps” argument. As knowledge increased, there were fewer gaps and less mystery. In the past, we Christians looked more lost and ill-informed as mysteries were solved. Will today’s mysteries be explained in the future? As knowledge continues to expand, I would guess so (although it seems pretty unlikely to happen with the Holy Trinity.)

Christianity isn’t a “mystery religion.” We have no secret handshakes, no locked doors, no dark-of-night rituals. “Come and see!” “Proclaim it from the housetops” is more our approach.

There is a way in which Christianity is the undoer of mystery, the squealer who leaks the secret. Jeremy Begbie, at last January’s Calvin Symposium on Worship, did a masterful job of exploring how “mystery” is used in the New Testament. It isn’t primarily about reticence, absence, unknowing or via negativa.

In Jesus, the saving plan of God, a mystery from before all time, has been revealed. The secret is out. What we could never have discovered, never have figured out on our own, has been made to known to us in Jesus. Covenants with obscure figures, runaway slaves, zany prophets, military debacles, a child born out of wedlock, a Roman execution—these most indirect routes and ill-advised persons—are all now seen to cohere in God’s saving endeavor. And it isn’t just Semitic anomalies. In the fullness of time, the mystery includes God gathering up all things in Christ. The mystery of all mysteries—how God is redeeming all creation—has been shared with us.

We are stewards of this mystery. What do you do with a mystery that has been revealed to you? Blab about it. More than celebrating mystery, our role is to convey that the biggest of all mysteries is a mystery no more. But it feels like we’ve made that mystery-of-all-mysteries into something tired and tawdry. Why does our society react with either a yawn or an eye-roll of scorn and suspicion to this mystery we steward?

How can we repristinate our mystery? How can we rub off the accumulated soot of 2,000 years? How can we get back to the wonder, freshness, and startling quality of the mystery proclaimed in the New Testament? By talking of mystery, of course. Re-mystify the universe seems to be the current approach.

I realize it is never as simple as either/or. But should our task be to bring mystery back or to impart the mystery that has been revealed in Jesus?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

Leave a Reply