With Bent Stalk and Bruised Reed

As night’s majestic silence swallows day
angelic moonlit faces peaceful lay
My conscience robbed thereof by daytime’s flight
to brink and break and points beyond what’s right.

When scroll of time in time’s unfurled
and meas’ring eye t’wards past is curled
I fear to know that estimation –
fear the nearing accusation
For childhood like a veil obscures
what then will be in need of cures.

My son and daughters love without
a thought to merit or a doubt
their father is the very best
Esteemed adored above the rest
I know this myth cannot persist
life’s rising sun will melt the mist.

Gently’s best if you don’t mind
lest I, myself at once do find
Esteemed in opposite proportion
To the ‘riginal distortion
Despised by they who once adored
Severing family’s sacred cord.

I’ve seen it happen, felt the pull
to open gates of feeling full
Unleash heart’s currents without rein
of truth adorned by bitter pain.
To reap regret as failure’s harvest
is all I see in future’s farthest.

This dark concern has brimmed my mind with care
Eclipsing thought of He through all is there
And lone can weave with bent stalk and bruised reed
a blessed masterpiece: for this I kneel and plead.

C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and Stray Ricochets

As I am reading through ‘Fool’s Talk’ by Os Guinness, there are quite a few ideas of his that are ricocheting in my brain and bouncing off ideas I’ve picked up elsewhere.

In chapter 6, he draws a distinction between apologetics and evangelism. He goes on to  argue however that they must be “joined seamlessly” in the sense that apologetics must always be pre-evangelism if it is to remain faithful.

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Needless to say, many of us are better at one task than the other, and few are equally good at both. […] Even C.S. Lewis admitted ‘that my own work has suffered very much from the incurable intellectualism of my approach. The simple emotional appeal (‘Come to Jesus’) is still often successful. But those who, like myself, lack the gift for making it, had better not attempt it.'”

This comment by Lewis just stopped me in my tracks. What a thing to say! It reminds me of something else of his I read recently in the book of essays called ‘Christian Reflections.’ In the chapter called ‘Christianity and Culture,’  he spends many pages reflecting on the role of culture and the arts in the Christian life, as well as in bringing people towards Christ or away from Him. The heart of it is a serious consideration of certain principle values in European literature (of which Lewis was an expert scholar):

“(a) honour, (b) sexual love, (c) material prosperity, (d) pantheistic contemplation of nature, (e) Sehnsucht awakened by the past, the remote, or the (imagined) supernatural, (f) liberation of impulses. These were called “sub-Christian. This is a term of disapproval if we are comparing them with Christian values: but if we take” sub-Christian” to mean “immediately subChristian” (i.e., the highest level of merely natural value lying immediately below the lowest level of spiritual value) it may be a term of relative approval. Some of the six values I have enumerated may be sub-Christian in this (relatively) good sense. For (c) and (f) I can make no defence; whenever they are accepted by the reader with anything more than a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ they must make him worse. But the other four are all two-edged. I may symbolize what I think of them all by the aphorism ‘Any road out of Jerusalem must also be a road into Jerusalem.'”

He goes on to explain in more detail how the remaining values function to bring certain people closer to Christ. (It is to my mind a phenomenal passage worth reflecting on.) But certainly someone could accuse him at this point of something like ‘incurable intellectualism,’ especially when he cites untranslated German, Latin, and Greek in a single essay. Nevertheless, my point is to draw your attention to this little paragraph at the end of that section:

“On these grounds I conclude that culture has a distinct part to play in bringing certain souls to Christ. Not all souls – there is a shorter, and safer, way which has always been followed by thousands of simple affectional natures who begin, where we hope to end, with devotion to the person of Christ.”

Again such an interesting assertion for him to make, and so similar to his first comment I came across in Fool’s Talk. Maybe it strikes me because to some extent I can relate: it reminds me of how encouraging it was after being in a demanding intellectual environment for six years to move to a new city and attend a simple little church where many of the people had simple love and faith in Jesus. It was very refreshing. They indeed were where I hoped to end: ‘with devotion to the person of Christ.’

Finally, it is interesting to contrast Lewis, who is arguably the greatest apologist of the 20th century, with Billy Graham, who is inarguably the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, and, arguably, of any century. If anyone was gifted at making ‘the simple emotional appeal,’ it was Graham. I really enjoyed this interview with Graham biographer Grant Wacker where this aspect of Graham’s gifting came out. It will leave you wanting to pick up Wacker’s new book: ‘One Soul At A Time.’

I think it is only right to appreciate the contributions of both of these remarkable 20th century Christians. Guinness is right that we need both apologists and evangelists. And wherever you are on that spectrum, I encourage you towards greater self-awareness like Lewis evidenced in his comments, and genuine appreciation for those whose strengths lie where you are weak.

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” – 1 Cor. 3:7

“…the heart of apologetics is the apologetics of the heart.”

“…the heart of apologetics is the apologetics of the heart.”
– Os Guinness in Fool’s Talk

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My appreciation for Os Guinness grows as I (slowly) read this book. This chapter on the Anatomy of Unbelief is particularly insightful, reminding me of the impact Richard Lovelace (Dynamics of Spiritual Life) had on me years ago when I first encountered his descriptions of the nature of human sin (drawing on Edwards and others). I should also mention David Powlison (as well as his colleagues at CCEF).

These authors have helped me tremendously to develop a (hopefully) more Biblical understanding of the shape of fallen humanity: informed by literature, philosophy, and sociology (Guinness); church history and spirituality (Lovelace); and psychology and all things therapeutic (Powlison).

What is the human person? What does it mean to be fallen? What does it not mean?

Your answers to these questions, consciously or not, fundamentally shapes your entire worldview, not to mention how you process your own life.

I have found that a nuanced Biblical exploration of these questions yields an anthropology – an understanding of the human being – that is compelling and deeply rooted despite being at odds with broader culture and even many common assumptions in the church.

Since every worldview has to explain in some way what is wrong with us, even if it argues that there is nothing wrong with us, then it follows that there are a whole host of competing answers to that question. For example, the popular modern notion is that people are basically good but are taught to be selfish, racist, and hateful by various outside influences. This is why so much hope is placed in externals like education and poverty-alleviation and why we are told to look internally for the source of meaning, purpose, and goodness. It all hangs together.

These deep assumptions are caught more than taught. And the evangelical church, marinating in the culture as it has been, has taken on more than a little of that flavor.

Reflections on William Lobdell’s ‘Losing My Religion’

This interesting and well-written book gives believers and unbelievers alike an opportunity to reflect. It is the story of the spiritual journey of William Lobdell, who went from unbeliever to evangelical to Catholic, worked as religion reporter for a major US newspaper covering the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal among other things, and subsequently lost his belief in God. As a Christian of the reformed and evangelical stripe, I found Lobdell’s journey fascinating, sad, and instructive. Let me take those in turn.

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Fascinating. Lobdell is an experienced writer and that comes through on every page. As one who has struggled through many a book full of good ideas and poor writing, this was a nice surprise.

I did not expect Lobdell’s move from the shallow evangelicalism of his conversion and early Christian experience to the Catholic Church, but it does make sense in hindsight. Nothing seems to drive Protestants to Rome like the rootlessness of contemporary evangelicalism, which so often puts emotion and experience in the driver’s seat, despite the fact that emotion is a terrible driver and experience an even worse navigator. With them in control, there’s no telling where you might end up: Rome or somewhere worse. I will return to the roles of emotion and experience in the last section.

The quality of Lobdell’s storytelling comes through in the middle section of the book when he really starts to dig into the underbelly of the corruption of institutional religion. This made for riveting and stomach-turning reading. The two main targets of his investigative reporting are the Catholic Church and the Prosperity Gospel industrial complex. Now while I have a measure of appreciation for the Catholic Church, despite fundamental and important differences, I have no appreciation at all for the prosperity gospel and its preachers, those misery-sowing peddlers of a false and damning gospel. Ahem. Where was I? Oh right.

This brings us to the book’s sadness. Lobdell has his heart and soul crushed by the steady willful evil of a cold church bureaucracy and the unfathomable suffering of many innocent, vulnerable people. I felt the anger welling up as I read the stories of these atrocities; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to sit with these victims and hear their stories. I don’t know how anyone can handle that emotionally. So I have a lot of compassion for how hard this would have been.

What is also sad is how unprepared he was theologically to grapple with these realities. It seems, from a distance, that the kind of Christianity Lobdell was discipled into was very acclimated to the comfortable affluent Southern California world. This is probably the norm, but it does leave one totally unprepared to relate to the majority of Christians in the world today, not to mention the majority of Christians throughout the ages, who have and who are suffering in all kinds of ways. Oh, and the Bible, which in many ways is a pretty brutal book.

Well it was an instructive book in a number of ways.

From very early in his journey, Lobdell expressed doubts about the character of God as revealed in Scripture. However, he never seems to doubt the certitude of the moral assumptions that give rise to his doubts and questions. There is a lot of sentimentality there. The justice and judgment of God, which the author found so hard to accept, are the very things that would have anchored him in the face of such unimaginable evil as he encountered. Theologian Miroslav Volf, who hails from the Balkans and has seen his share of human evil, is right that without a God of judgment, the cycle of violence goes on and on, because only earthly justice is left. Likewise the sentimentalist is utterly unequipped to face the depth of evil humans are capable of. The imprecatory Psalms are an embarrassment to the sentimentalist, but they are a lifeline to the victim or troubled bystander of injustice and evil.

To return to my previous point, the assumption that emotion and experience are fundamental arbiters of truth is never questioned: ‘If I experience something, then my interpretation of that experience is true.’ Near the end of the book, he even says something about “his truth.” Oprah couldn’t have said it better – and it has all the objective solidity of an overcooked spaghetti noodle.

These are deeply modern (even post-modern) assumptions, shaped by the prevailing philosophy of our time and culture. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor famously calls ours a Secular Age, in contrast to previous ages. Where once it was well-nigh impossible not to believe in God, given the available explanatory frameworks, now we are 200 years downstream from the enlightenment and it is, culturally speaking, pretty well impossible TO believe in God. Unless one is able to zoom out a bit and see these things as the passing fancies that they are, it can be extremely disorienting and even destructive to one’s faith, as in Lobdell’s case.

In the last portion of the book, the author makes some attempts to voice his doubts and see if anyone can give him satisfactory answers. The questions and problems he raises however contain deeply embedded assumptions that again are never questioned. He decides to weigh the truthfulness of Christianity in part by measuring the moral quality of those who identify as Christians. In America. I almost laughed out loud.

This approach might work in Afghanistan or in China, where there are no massive cultural incentives to identify as Christian. But in America, even twenty years ago, Christianity was such a cultural expectation that these studies are basically useless. The shortcomings of these famous Barna studies were known even at the time, although perhaps not widely enough.

Consider what has happened since: the fastest growing religious identification is the “nones”, as in, no identification. The ‘mushy middle’ of cultural Christianity, which was made up of mainline denominations and weak evangelicalism, basically hollow and doctrinally and morally indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, is quickly evaporating. What we are left with increasingly is a hard secularism on one side and a committed convictional Christianity on the other. It is even more like this in countries where secularism is more advanced, such as Canada where I live. Not too many people left here still claiming to be Christians if they aren’t personally committed to Christ. More recent and better-designed studies measuring the moral behaviour of believers has yielded different results, but I would still argue that this is a pretty terrible way to go about deciding if something is true.

Regarding the nature of prayer and of God’s providence, Lobdell again makes an assumption which renders the question essentially impossible. He assumes that the pattern of answered prayer and the observable fortunes and sufferings of people’s lives should immediately reveal to any observer the validity of God’s existence by vindicating his claim love his people. In fact he seems to demand that this be the case. It’s difficult to know where to begin with an assumption like this, other than to say it is utterly foreign to the whole thrust of the New Testament, but utterly consistent with a very reflexively unreflective North American way of thinking.

His friend John, a Presbyterian pastor, hits the nail on the head with this comment on page 239: “The fact is that [God] has not chosen to reveal everything to us. I can whine and complain that He hasn’t, demanding that God make it possible for me to understand everything. But when I do that, I’m getting pretty close to self-worship, lifting myself to the position of God, or perhaps even to a position superior to God, demanding that God function on my ground rules instead of me, humbly in worship, functioning on His.”

And that more or less describes what is going on in this book. In the end, Lobdell opts for a kind of unbelief that happily keeps all the moral and ethical capital of a Christian worldview while rejecting the Source of that morality and ethic. And since it can take a couple of generations for those fumes to dissipate, it’s quite possible he will live on borrowing happily and thinking all is well. His is a very Christian kind of atheism.

I am sure that many unbelievers and questioning believers will take encouragement from this book. It is a very human thing to find comfort in companionship. As a believer, I think it is a clarifying and revealing tale for anyone concerned with the state of Christian discipleship.

The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal

Rating: 5 Stars

The first section of this little treatise is so excellent it would alone merit a 5 star rating for the whole work. Scougal died very young and this is the only piece of writing we have from him. But what he may lack in volume he more than makes up in quality and distilled potency. I have seldom found an author who so clearly and precisely drew distinctions between dead religiosity and Spirit-wrought new life. If you have any question about the inward and outward dynamics of real Christianity in contrast to its many counterfeits, allow Henry Scougal to lay it out for you.

I was put onto this little gem by John Piper’s introduction to his book The Pleasures of God. Another fun fact is that this work was given to George Whitefield by Charles Wesley, and Whitefield said that he “never knew what true religion was” until he read this book.

I found it in PDF form for free here:
http://grace-ebooks.com/library/Henry%20Scougal/HS_The%20Life%20of%20God%20in%20the%20Soul%20of%20Man.pdf

If reading the whole thing seems like a bit much, check out this summary put together by Justin Taylor:
https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/05/30/a-summary-of-henry-scougals-the-life-of-god-in-the-soul-of-man/

Indoctrinating the Young

The illusion of neutrality can be shown in the education of the young. Any teacher of young people will inevitably present information in a certain light.

My kids attend a local AWANA club, which is a Christian organization. They play games, hear stories, and memorize parts of the Bible. It’s a lot of fun for the kids and they end up hearing and memorizing a lot of Scripture. All well and good. But I am always struck by the unquestioning acceptance with which all the kids receive what is taught to them. It makes me slightly nervous. I get the sense that if an atheist saw us doing this, they would cry out: “Indoctrination! Brain-washing!” And of course, they would be correct. Not unlike how many Christians, looking at the public school system, or a liberal college philosophy class, might cry out: “Indoctrination! Brain-washing!” 

One man’s proper education in the truth is another man’s indoctrination. So what is the difference? I’m not sure, aside from the content taught and the truth therein. Structurally and functionally they are similar. I know that when I teach young people, I try to make them think. You know, using their brains. Indoctrination usually does not encourage that, because thinking is what cures indoctrination, and therefore is a threat to it. Happily for the indoctrinators, thinking is not all that popular.

The AWANA theme song that they sing every week is this rousing battle-march hymn that, I’m sorry to say, always makes me think of the Hitler Youth. Not because anything nefarious is going on, but because it is awfully easy to hype up a bunch of young people and get them to believe in things. But this is just they way children are – like sponges. The problem is not that children are undiscerning sponges, or that adults proceed to teach them various things, but specifically what is taught and what such teaching will lead to.

But of course not everyone will agree on these matters, which is why it is so important that we enjoy the freedom to teach our children according to our convictions. Is it a dangerous freedom? Sure. Any nutjob or cult can wreck a few childhoods with lies and deception. But the alternative is some sort of government statist control where the state is trusted to teach all the children some “neutral” set of truths – truths which (surprise!) turn out to serve the interests of the state and whatever collection of ideologues currently sit in the government offices.

I still love teaching young people. Knowing how receptive they naturally are, all of us in that position carry a great responsibility for the shaping of these young minds.

Post-Modernism Rightly Jeered

From the always pointy quill of Doug Wilson:

The postmodernists have climbed into the car of
modernity’s premises, and have driven it into a
tree. What the postmodernists do not appear to
grasp, however, is that mumbling incoherently to one-
self in the wreckage of that old car does not constitute
having a new car. Not even if you say vrooom to yourself
and imagine that you are toodling down the road, bottle
of Jack Daniels still intact and still in hand.
But then along come some evangelical Christians
who (for some inscrutable reason, best known to them-
selves) want to identify themselves with the postmod-
ernists. What they are doing is slowing down their
vintage Mercedes of Trinitarian Bright Red Orthodoxy,
with not a scratch on it, to do a little rubber-necking at
the accident. “With a little epistemic humility, there is
quite a bit we could probably learn from that learned
fellow! And if we crawled in there with him, we could
crawl back out again. And then we would be an Emer-
gent Church, emerging (but not too far!) from the Shat-
tered Windshield of Modernity!”

Christians should not overstate our opportunities
in this. Postmodernism is only a good development in
the same way that the prodigal son envying the pig food
was a good development. The point is for him to return
to the Father, and not to acquire a taste for the food in
the trough.
One of the most frustrating aspects of reading
modern evangelical writers, especially those who are at-
tempting some sort of relevant edgy thing, is the inabili-
ty of such writers to see themselves in a broad historical
context. They have no x on a map of church history that
says, “You are here.”

 

 

The Very Scraping Bottom

Some time ago, I spent an afternoon with an old high-school friend and a few other buddies watching some football. My friend is not married and has no children. Now I love this guy – we go waaay back – but the more time passes, the more it feels like trying to have one foot on the escalator and one foot off. Eventually the pants are gonna rip. It’s a strange feeling growing up, getting older. We grow apart even though we are only being ourselves; our pool of common experiences is getting smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror.

The couches, the pizza, the big screen TV. The intimate knowledge of every player on every team in every sport, the multiple fantasy pools, the sports betting. I’ve no right to look down on all this, because I not only used to dwell there, I am the exact same way in miniature (okay – except for the betting). Their life’s orientation is my occasional indulgence; what they does with varsity-level expertise I dabble in as an amateur.

I don’t look down on it, at least I try not to, but at the same time I am ruined for it. A conflict arises within: in my times of lazy abdication I yearn and seek after this very thing, but which when held in my hands turns out to be so empty and slight. A parable for any lust. This is the land of which my escapism speaks to me in hushed whispers and crooked smiles – that grass more green – and yet it is all a mirage. The reality is a lonely belch echoing through empty bedrooms. Not to be too dramatic about it.

What I found myself wanting to do upon leaving was go home and kiss my sleeping children on the head, take in a deep breath of their hair, and pray a silent prayer over them.

Leaning against the doorpost in that darkened room and holding my wife’s hand, I am simply amazed by the loveliness of a child’s face.

To borrow from Marylinne Robinson in Gilead, those faces makes a claim on me, a claim that goes to the very scraping bottom of my soul.

And I, if the leap can be made, must make a similar claim on my heavenly Father, just by my existing. Now that is something.

Some Gushing Words about ‘Gilead’

Note: This was originally written in 2012 and slightly edited since then.

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…and how good is a timely word! (Proverbs 15:23)

It was my Mom who first suggested Gilead to me. What a wise and blessed soul she was. At the time I’m pretty sure my response was something like: “Does it have helicopters? Spies? Global conspiracies? No?! Then it’s not for me.” I don’t actually remember what I said, but that sounds about right. At some point after that initial introduction to the existence of the book, I picked it up read a few pages. For some reason it didn’t draw me in at the time – probably the glaring absence of helicopters. It just didn’t resonate with my life and heart. I hadn’t suffered enough, hadn’t matured enough, and wasn’t yet asking the kinds of questions the book seeks to ask and answer.

What a difference a couple of years can make! This time when I picked it up and read the first few paragraphs, it was like a crisp breeze from an unseen window brushed my face, like a single ray of light from where the roof didn’t quite line up warming your skin. Now I’m not a very good writer, but that sort of description, slow, methodical description, and many, many commas, linked together in a way that would make most English teachers frown, at least the ones I had, to make epic sentences that somehow your mind follows perfectly, is kind of what you find in Gilead.

The quality of the writing is simply superb. There’s a reason this book won a Pulitzer prize. To a limping and parched heart, the beauty of this book was a river of grace. And not just indirectly, because the main character, John Ames, is an old man who’s been a preacher all his life, and his thoughts are filled with explicit and implicit usages of Scripture. The caliber of relational insight in this book is amazing. It’s one of those books where the relationships are so gripping because of the details, the looks, the unspoken words, the tones and inflections of voice, all coalesce together to paint an incredible portrait of human interaction in all of its beautiful complexity. The combination of that insightfulness with the gentle warmth of this old preacher’s soul reverberating through his writing (for the book is really a long letter that John Ames is writing to his young son) is what made the book so powerful for me.

As this old saint struggles to love within one particularly difficult relationship, he comes face to face with the humbling limits of his own character and sanctification. It’s an experience I can relate to, one that I think any believer can relate to. To see the internal struggle, the slow, prayerful processing that took place, was helpful for me. And that he divulged his innermost thoughts for his son’s future reading, making himself very vulnerable in doing so, was also special. Overall it’s just a touching book on multiple levels. Shoot – that really doesn’t do it justice. Why are you still reading this drivel anyways? Go read Gilead.

Another aspect that I really enjoyed was the simplicity of small town life that the author captured beautifully. The slower pace, the community inter-connectedness, the peaceful enjoyment of nature’s daily miracles like the sunrise, the light, the rain, the trees and the plants, the sunset, dawn and dusk, and fireflies. The writing was so good, so exquisite, that you really have to slow down and just enjoy each sentence like a delicious bite of your favorite food. And because I read too quickly through some pages, I am going to have to read it again some day and enjoy it all over.

An Awfully Knotty Mess

From earlier this week at the ‘Great Gathering’of Republicans.

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Many people have already pointed out the blasphemous and idiotic nature of this ‘benediction’ by Mark Burns at the RNC this week, so I won’t go there. But I do want to share a thought about the use of language.
I was listening to a discussion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the context in which he found himself in the 1930’s and 40’s in Berlin. The Christian church in Germany was by and large supportive of the Nazi regime, long after the true nature of its aims was made murderously clear. One of Bonhoeffer’s concerns was how to prophetically communicate Biblical Christianity to a culture where the language of Christianity had been corrupted and co-opted in the service of an evil political empire.
This is no small task.
We need a word to help us understand some of this. I propose syncretism, here defined by missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen:
Syncretism occurs when Christian leaders accommodate, either consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing plausibility structures or worldviews of their culture. Syncretism, then, is the conscious or unconscious reshaping of Christian plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture. Or, stated in other terms, syncretism is the blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture so that Christianity loses it distinctiveness and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture.
Syncretism happens all the time and everywhere to varying degrees, but in this case it is particularly alarming because it is paraded on center stage at one of the most televised and closely watched events in America – an event which is supposed to represent the political beliefs of about half of Americans.
The end result of all this is that it becomes harder and harder to communicate gospel truth in a way that is clearly distinguished from the culture, in a way prophetically speaks to the culture.
Once you marry Jesus to the Republican Party or political conservatism, it’s an awfully knotty mess to separate them again.