Listen to that Existential Dread

In the Christian worldview, there is always a god.

In every person, there are desires and drives and values. Every person has purpose. Whatever most controls and compels you, that is your god. Whatever has the strongest hold on your emotions and behavior, that is your god.

In those with powerful addictions, this is easily seen. In others, however, and perhaps in yourself, it is not so easy to discern. But it is there, rest assured, as surely as there is a brain in your head if you are reading this. (Apologies to any brainless readers). This needs some nuance, as I recognize in myself the working of many different gods at different times, although I profess and strive to worship one God alone.

Speaking of the human heart, Thomas Chalmers put it this way: “Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.” This is from his excellent work, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” which lays this out about as well as I have ever seen.

How can I know what these gods are? Where can I find them? How will I uncover their hiding places? Often this is a good thing that we’ve turned into a god thing. This is a large part of what counseling tries to do – let’s find out why you do what you do and feel what you feel. Discovering the roots of your behavior and emotions can be profound, enlightening, and transformative. For Christians, this rooting out of false gods and replacing them with the worship of the true God is one way (among many) of conceiving of progressive sanctification – the lifelong stuttering journey towards maturity and Christ-likeness.

One sure way to identify such an idol is to find where in your life you experience what I call existential dread (apologies to any existential philosophers who feel they own this phrase). This is the feeling of the ground opening up to swallow you into darkness. We experience this when someone or something threatens one of our gods.

Falling into Pit

For example, as a young single man I took in a lot of solid teaching on marriage and developed a deep desire to be a good and godly husband. At some point this went from being a good thing to a god thing. It subtly became a part of my identity and hope. This was revealed over time as I experienced recurring existential dread when my wife would point out some obvious, glaring, usually minor shortcoming in me as a husband. These conversations would send me into the depths of despair and elicit unbidden a blizzard of dark emotions. Whoa. Touched a nerve, as they say.

This overly strong reaction was a flashing neon sign for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It took me a few years to develop those eyes and ears. As a child of God I know I am to root my identity and hope in God Himself, but I only do this partially. I couldn’t accept the truth that I was not the kind of husband I wanted to be because I HAD to be that kind of husband. My worth was tied to it. And when that worth was threatened, a dark pit swallowed my heart.

Armed with this new insight, I can now repent of absolutely needing to be a good husband. In fact, shifting my hope from this god to Christ frees me to listen openly to my wife’s constructive criticism – the very doorway that edges me in the direction of being a good husband. Which, by the way, I still want to be.

Perhaps for you it is being a certain kind of employee, or boss, or leader, or spouse, or parent, or musician, or writer, or pumpkin-spice latte-maker, or anything else under the sun. This is what Calvin meant when he said that our hearts are idol-factories. To quote Chalmers again:

[The heart’s] desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.

 

A Grateful Remembrance

It was one year ago my hands were on the smooth poles that ran along the side of the coffin. Along with five of my cousins, I had the privilege and solemn responsibility to bear the lifeless body of my grandfather Marcel from the church to the vehicle waiting to take him to a hole cut into the ground. A hole made to receive a resurrection seed. The room was silent and my mind was distantly aware of the hundreds of eyes following my movement through the sanctuary.

It was good to be with my cousins. Men I love, admire, and respect. That may sound strange, and it is: in fact it took me a long time to realize just how strange our family is. Strangely blessed would better describe it. I began by assuming such a thing was normal, for every child’s family is a normal family to them at first; and then I took it for granted – for years – while I should have known better. In recent years I have become more grateful and committed to stewarding and continuing this legacy of grace that I have been given.

It’s strange to say, but I have learned more about my grandfather Marcel’s ministry and kingdom impact since he passed away last year on April 22nd than I did while he was alive. The fact is, he was not my pastor or leader, but simply my beloved Grandpa. And yet how wonderful it has been to discover the ways the Lord used him, human and flawed as he was, to build up the body of Christ in Quebec and Canada. 

Marcel was born in Coaticook, which is in southern Quebec, in 1930, in a French-Canadian home. Quebec at that time was almost uniformly Roman Catholic, and the Cotnoirs were no different. The Scriptures and the gospel were hardly known among the laity, and in fact reading the Bible was often discouraged by the Church. It held much of the society in an iron grip and was loath to let go. This is part of why the first Baptist missionaries from Ontario were met with such resistance, leading to arrests and jail time in rural Quebec in the 1940’s and 50’s. You can read more about that story in a little book edited by Marcel’s daughter-in-law, my mom Ginette. Another excellent little book on that era is D.A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, written about his father.

For the Cotnoirs, the gospel first broke into this spiritually suffocating atmosphere in 1949, starting with Marcel’s father Ovila, who owned a leather-working shop. Marcel told me the story this way: he remembered, as a 19-year old, coming into the living room to find his father with his back to him, standing unusually still, listening to the crackling radio. It seemed he had walked in on some important moment. A simple gospel message was being shared over the airwaves, and Marcel’s father was listening with every fibre of his being. When he finally turned around to face Marcel, tears were streaming down his face. Despite having lived his whole life in the Church, he had never heard this message of free forgiveness through the cross. 

Within a matter of weeks, this reviving grace reached 19-year old Marcel as well and he gave his life to Jesus. Not very long after, he met a lovely young woman named Verna and they were married in 1952. Their marriage would last 66 years, lead to five children, fourteen grandchildren, a gaggle of great-grandchildren, and be marked by a sweet tenderness that lasted until the very end. Verna proved to be a pillar of strength and support throughout Marcel’s life. And she has been a pretty incredible Grandma to me these 34 years.

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Marcel and Verna

From early on, Marcel was involved in the local church. He worked for the provincial electrical company (Hydro-Quebec) and every two years he was transferred to different towns in Quebec.  In each case, he helped to plant a church or was a key helper in a fledgling church.  It was in these local churches that Marcel discovered and developed his gifts and passion for ministry.

Eventually Marcel was hired as a project manager in industry in the city of Laval.  His family now counted 5 kids, and he joined a young church plant in Laval.  Five years later he felt God calling him to full-time ministry, and so at 43, he became Assistant Pastor at a church in the north of Montreal, L’Église Baptiste Évangélique d’Ahuntsic, and eventually he became its senior pastor.

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Grandma Verna and me in early 2020

 

Marcel’s ministry was characterized by a strong emphasis on Biblical teaching and preaching, a warm pastoral heart for his people, and a legendary emphasis on personal visits. Under his leadership, the church grew and planted 3 more local churches in the Montreal region.

One person shared with me how astounded he was in the early 1990’s when Marcel gladly spent twelve hours with him repairing his broken Hyundai. This was the happy marriage of two great passions: Marcel’s servant heart and his love for fixing things. I can relate with that man as I took full advantage of Grandpa’s love for fixing things as a broke teenager with an oft-broken car, including a particularly memorable six hours of quality time spent together under my 1988 Toyota Tercel (affectionately called Betsy) to replace rusted brake lines. Marcel loved people through his love of machines.

His shepherd’s heart left an impact on many. Echoes of that impact sometimes reached me in unexpected ways. For example, my Missiology professor at Heritage Bible College, Charlie McCordic, lived in Montreal as a young man during the time of Marcel’s ministry there. When tragedy struck and he lost his mother to illness, Marcel’s ministry of presence and comfort was so meaningful to him that, many decades later, he recounted it to me, on numerous occasions, with deep emotion.

Marcel also had a heart for fellow pastors. He was a regular fixture at annual FEB Conventions and could often be seen talking earnestly with pastors and leaders from across Canada. I recently learned how he played a prominent role in the life of one particular pastor, Gerry Sauvé, who shared this story with a group of us after Marcel’s funeral. Earlier in his pastoral career, Gerry had found himself in a difficult and draining church situation that ended with him out of that church and deeply discouraged. He confessed to us that his state of mind was so downcast that he did not think he would ever attend church again, let alone contemplate ministry ever again. Marcel and Verna showed up unexpectedly at his door and he was sure he was about to get reprimanded and rebuked. Instead, Marcel had with him a cassette tape of Christian music by Michael Card for them to listen to together. Afterwards, they talked about everything except the church. 

Just as he was leaving, Marcel told Gerry to come to his church that Sunday. Over the next months and years, a quiet restoration and healing took place. Eventually they served together on staff and Gerry continues to serve as a pastor to this day. In fact, he was the one who led Marcel’s funeral service, ministering wonderfully the grace and comfort of the gospel to the hundreds who attended. 

After nearly 20 years in Ahuntsic, Marcel worked for the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada, travelling from coast to coast and sharing about the spiritual and financial needs of the churches in Quebec. I discovered this first-hand as I met people in Fellowship churches in both Cambridge (Hespeler Baptist Church) and Hamilton (West Highland Baptist Church) who remembered fondly Marcel’s visits and exhortations in this role.

Marcel’s love for the Word and his burden for the church in Quebec led him to an unexpected partnership and friendship with John MacArthur. When he first came across the signature expository verse-by-verse teaching of MacArthur in 1980, he felt compelled to share this with as many Quebecois as possible. Solid Biblical teaching was sorely needed to strengthen the many Quebec French churches, filled with first-generation believers. What started at first with ordering and distributing cassette tapes of John’s sermons eventually led to the start of Grace to You ministry in Canada and the translation of a number of MacArthur’s works into French. Phil Johnson of Grace to You told the story this way in his tribute to Marcel:

I loved Marcel’s enthusiasm—but candidly, I thought he was overreaching. I was well aware that translation work is arduous, time consuming, and expensive if done right. I worried that Marcel might lose heart when he learned how difficult it is to get published material translated and printed in French. Anyone who knows Marcel understands what a ridiculous concern that was. Nothing ever seemed to discourage him. In retrospect I think it would have been utterly impossible to dissuade him from pursuing the fulfillment of what God had laid on his heart to do.

Marcel’s initial vision bore remarkable fruit. Grace to You Canada grew into a thriving ministry and all of MacArthur’s New Testament Commentaries as well as many of his popular books were translated into French for use in Quebec and across the French-speaking world. In addition, a relationship was forged between the Quebec church and MacArthur’s ministry which led to numerous visits and mutual encouragement.

 

Marcel Syrup
The cauldron

Growing up, I was unaware of much of this. Marcel was simply Grandpa. He loved to go camping, listen to classical music, work on cars, read books, eat sweets, and gather as many family members and friends to his house as possible. At Christmas, when the house was full, he would set a cauldron atop the stove and pour can after can of maple syrup into it until it bubbled and frothed. We children would catch a whiff of that delicious aroma and make our way to the kitchen from every corner of the house and yard. We would stand around the tub of snow on the kitchen island, blinking and sniffing and clutching our forks, waiting while Grandpa tested and re-tested that maple taffy until it was just the right consistency. Then we ate until we felt sick.

 

As wonderful as those times were, it wasn’t until the Lord worked the miracle of new birth in my own heart, also at the age of 19, that I saw my grandparents with new eyes. I remember thinking: Here is a home filled with the warmth and welcome of the gospel. Here is a family, all of us, that has been given abundant grace. I listened with reverence to the mealtime prayers that he spoke, prayers rich with genuine gratitude to the Lord and an always-fresh appreciation for some gospel truth he had recently been turning over in his mind.

Marcel Speaking
His words were filled with wisdom, insight, and humor.

I thank God that I can say these astounding words: I worship the God of my parents, grand-parents, and great-grandparents. I meditate on the same Scriptures, I serve the same Lord, and I cherish the same cross that transformed the hearts of my forbears in 1949 and onwards since. Marcel has finished his labor and has entered into the joy of his Master. Until I join him, I have the privilege of continuing the kingdom work that was his life’s passion, a big part of which is loving and leading my own family so that we can continue and pass on that legacy of grace for generations to come.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

My thanks to my dad (David) and Grandma (Verna) for help on this piece – getting the details and the words right!

When Divorce was Illegal

When you read a hundred year old book dealing with a then-contemporary issue, you expect it to be rather dated. What you might not expect is for it to be readable, relevant and even prophetic for your own day. But if you’re reading an author who has a knack for seeing through the fog of rhetoric to the fundamental questions, like Gilbert Keith Chesterton, you should not at all be surprised to be underlining quotes, even lengthy passages, and drawing all kinds of parallels between his arguments and current 21st century debates.

I am referring to a booklet that was written in 1920 called “The Superstition of Divorce.” Now the occasion of this booklet is the radical idea of allowing people to divorce their spouses. This sounds very strange to our modern ears, since we cannot remember, let alone imagine, a society without legal and common no-fault divorce. But that very assumption, that our modern way is the best way to structure things, is exactly what Chesterton will have you question.

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One of the simplest points he makes is that those arguing to legalize divorce do not understand what marriage is. And I think it’s fair to say many of us don’t really know either.

“And the chief thing to say about such reformers of marriage is that they cannot make head or tail of it. They do not know what it is, or what it is meant to be, or what its supporters suppose it to be; they never look at it, even when they are inside it. They do the work that’s nearest; which is poking holes in the bottom of a boat under the impression that they are digging in a garden. This question of what a thing is, and whether it is a garden or a boat, appears to them abstract and academic. They have no notion of how large is the idea they attack; or how relatively small appear the holes that they pick in it.”

What many of them did know was that marriage was a confinement and a limitation, and it chafed against that powerful liberalizing spirit which still moves today. That spirit which sees every fence and every wall as holding slaves in need of emancipation, without stopping to ask if perhaps such structures were useful for keeping harmful things out.

The parallels between the liberalizing of marriage laws and the subsequent avalanche of liberalizing that has swept through the West, especially since the sexual revolution and continuing unabated today, forces the reader to stop and consider when and where it will all stop. Is there an end goal? What does that look like? Chesterton had no illusions about the end result of this attack on what he understood to be the foundation of civilization:

“This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilisations which disregard it.”

And in what is perhaps the most prescient statement of this prescient book, he says this:

“The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage. If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason.”

There can be no doubt that the onset of no-fault divorce has led to a wave of shallow marriages which are themselves all the more ripe for divorce. Knowing that the decision to marry need not be a permanent one, the effect could not be other than to undermine the care and effort involved in making that decision and the determination to making it last.

To adapt a Chesterton quote from another of his books, we find ourselves as a society in a situation where the ideal of marriage has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. Marriage today is like a highway to a great and glorious city, but that city is many thousands and thousands of miles away. It will take a lifetime of traveling to get there. But in the last hundred years we have built off-ramps, restaurants, malls, and amusement parks every two miles, with flashing neon signs and free admission. And we are shocked that so few couples make it to that great and glorious city. I admit it is a weak metaphor – I am no Chesterton. But perhaps it begins to make a point.

Of course in making these arguments and observations, I can hear the objections coming hard and fast from the modern reader. It is unthinkable… to imagine locking people into unhappy marriages, forced to live with brutes, abusers, and cheaters. I admit I have many of the same objections. And yet there is something very healthy about listening carefully to the argument that seems so alien. It may shed light on just that point in our own moral thinking where we are blind. Unless, enlightened progressive moderns that we are, we don’t believe we have any blind spots?

Near the conclusion, he writes this:

“If a man had a hundred houses, there would still be more houses than he had days in which to dream of them; if a man had a hundred wives, there would still be more women than he could ever know. He would be an insane sultan jealous of the whole human race, and even of the dead and the unborn. I believe that behind the art and philosophy of our time there is a considerable element of this bottomless ambition and this unnatural hunger; and since in these last words I am touching only lightly on things that would need much larger treatment, I will admit that the rending of the ancient roof of man is probably only a part of such an endless and empty expansion.”

This striking image of a man with a hundred wives being like a jealous sultan speaks loudly to the pornographic age we live in – truly a sea of ‘bottomless ambition’ and ‘unnatural hunger’ that Chesterton could not have imagined. What was only possible for the sultan is now digitally possible for every 13 year old with an internet connection and a harem – I mean a hard drive.

As one poem says:

The secret that no one seems able to fathom
In our age of Botox and she-bots and atoms
That crystalline stream could more than the ocean
Fulfill that desire made apt in proportion.

In our age we question and undermine every law, rule, authority, and tradition except for the law, rule, and authority of our desires. We have deposed everything that has built our civilization and crowned our desires in its stead. Lead us! Teach us! we say. And what do we find? That our desires keep growing, shifting, morphing. There is a very old bit of wisdom, from a very old book, that argued that our desires could be changed, made new, and purified. They could be made apt, in proportion to our actual need, and then we would find what we had been after all along, the true and lasting satisfaction of our desires.

I fear that we have a generation of young men who are so lost in a far and distant country of sexual chaos and dysfunction that they will not even be able to stumble upon this truth and perhaps find happiness. Why? Because that far country never stops, just as one’s desires never stop – each growing beyond measure and recognition. But that is a topic for another day.

One last quote, on why the marriage vow is esteemed and respected:

“The soldier is not respected because he is doomed to death, but because he is ready for death; and even ready for defeat. The married man or woman is not doomed to evil, sickness or poverty; but is respected for taking a certain step for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness or in health.”

“In short, everybody recognises that there is some ship, large and small, which he ought not to leave, even when he thinks it is sinking.”

Reading this book opened my eyes to the fascinating nature of the marriage vow, and to the idea of a lifelong binding promise. It is an idea so large that we do not see it. True, there is still some hint in our collective memory of the high honor due to it that we still make a big ceremony for the speaking of this vow, but even there for the most part we pay attention to all the wrong things: What a nice dress. Such pretty flowers. Sermon was a bit long. The food was good.

Chesterton’s point in that last quote is that, of all the institutions known to man, marriage is the most foundational, and therefore most deserving of our honor, and effort, and refusal to give up on it.

This view of marriage is a long way in the cultural rear-view mirror, barely visible. To many, unthinkable.

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I am not saying we should make divorce illegal. I’m not convinced it would help much. But one thing I am quite sure of, having read this book, is that making divorce legal made it common; and making it common made marriage weaker; and making marriage weaker led to the implosion of the family; and the implosion of the family has not led to the happiness and freedom that was promised when divorce was made legal.

No doubt many individuals have been rescued from terrible marriages by legal divorce. I do not mourn that, just the opposite. But if we take a look around at the state of marriages and families today, we see a desolate wasteland abounding in human misery.

Perhaps, at some point, we have lost our way.

 

A Heresy Trial at Breakfast

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A clear pastel blue sky and bright sunlight held hands and bowed to announce the arrival, finally, of spring in Quebec. It was a perfect Saturday morning. I woke last of all to find the kitchen humming with activity and billowing the smell of pork sausages, fried thick-cut ham, scrambled eggs, orange juice, fruit salad, yogurt, and warm buttered toast. To this marvelous bouquet of aromas I was soon to add the union of freshly ground espresso beans and boiling water, pressed into frothy warm milk to make a strong but smooth cappuccino; the crowning capstone of any morning feast. 

The table groaned happily under the heft of this hearty home-cooked breakfast. Gathered around were our three children, ages 8, 6, and 3, just coming in from playing outside in their pyjamas and bringing with them the unmistakable smell of spring; the smell of growing, greening, and gathering warmth.

It is the most fitting thing in the world for such undeserved blessing to flower into words of gratefulness and thanks. We held hands and addressed the great Giver together.

Perhaps it was the height of the goodness and pleasure of this meal that made the subsequent conversation so striking in contrast. Not that the conversation was bad and painful, but simply unexpected in such a time and place. For we are, if nothing else, a simply orthodox Christian family, affirming and holding dear what almost all Christians throughout almost all ages have believed. It was thus a great shock and surprise to find ourselves, in a few short minutes from the start of our feast, engaged in what I can only call a good-humored heresy trial.

Now let me hasten to explain lest your mind be filled with visions of thumbscrews, racks, and gallows. While we denounce the use of force or violence or any external means to inculcate what we might be convinced are good and right beliefs, we are nonetheless unusual among our contemporaries for believing firmly that one’s beliefs are important.

The madness of the original heresy trials is the madness of the man who strikes and swears at the ground for growing poison ivy instead of tomatoes and cucumbers. It takes a seed, good earth, sunlight, and water – in other words: something like a miracle – to grow a vegetable, and a faith is a lot like a vegetable. 

Anyways, it began like this.

“Jackson called Emma a dummy this morning,” was the opening salvo from our middle child, Addie. Our children have a bit of a tendency to tell on each other.

Frowns gathered like storm clouds on the faces of the accused and the parents. 

“Jackson, is that true?” 

“Yes,” he answered after a pause.

My wife Kaitlyn, ever conscious of the power of hurtful words to wound the heart and mind of a child, calmly reproached our eldest child for speaking in this way towards his littlest sister.

An uneasy silence settled over the table after this.

“Emma said she was the best person in the whole world, even better than God. That’s why he said it.” It was Addie again. 

This new and unexpected charge seemed to turn the whole situation on its head. The accused and the defendant switched places like dancers in a jig. Kaitlyn and I both turned open-mouthed and amazed towards our youngest daughter, who is so cute that it really makes it harder to parent well. Perhaps not unlike how the rich sometimes seem to have an easier time in the justice system. Emma sat there mute but calculating, evaluating her situation with a speed and insightfulness that only parents of young children would believe possible in a three year old.

“Emma? Did you say that?” I asked slowly.

“No! I didn’t say that!” she answered defiantly, with stony indignation chiseled upon her face.

“Well you are a dummy if you said that,” said Kaitlyn, with a kind of acknowledgement that her earlier chastising of Jackson’s words were not quite applicable in light of this new information.

I sat in thoughtful silence for a moment, considering the claim. Could my adorable daughter, the very delight of my heart, be capable of – what else to call it? – this diabolical thought? For who else but the great serpent himself would say such a thing? Had we been too easy on her, as it is so easy to be with your youngest child? Especially one as cute as she is. 

“Well,” started Jackson, “she said she was the best person in the whole world, and I said ‘No way, you’re not better than God. He is the best person.” He paused. “So that’s why I said that.”  

“Well that’s kind of different, isn’t it?” I said, realizing now the string and sequence of events that had led us here. The usual trio of misunderstanding, misquoting, and assuming the worst.

“Jackson,” I said, “you shouldn’t assume you know what Emma meant when she said that. And Addie, you were wrong about what Emma actually said.”

“Oh, well, I don’t know. I wasn’t actually there,” admitted Addie with a shrug and a flash of her gap-toothed smile.

It was with some relief that we realized our Emma was innocent of that awful blasphemy, and guilty only of vanity and pride. Her with all of humanity for company. 

The sun rose higher into the sky and gave us what we unanimously agreed was the best day of the year so far. And I for one am glad that we don’t have heresy trials anymore. Or at least that they haven’t made a complete comeback just yet.

 

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:

Click to access 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.