Six, or Maybe Eight, Devotional Books I’m Taking to Scotland

The absolute worst part about moving overseas—worse than saying farewell to friends, or uprooting from favorite restaurants, or even dealing with the stressful immensity of the transition—is choosing which books to take with you. For readers like me, the forcible separation from the one’s library is the most violent and unpleasant of changes. I have loathed it.

libraryOf the many hundreds of books we own, I will have to choose a mere handful to take with us. The selection process itself is painful. Is this a book I will need, or one I merely want? Will I really read this again within the next three years? Will a library substitute suffice? Are there books that I will want to read in the UK simply because I’m in the UK (like Barchester Towers)? What books give me comfort when I wish to be consoled? It is a staggering set of considerations.

One is forced to divide the library into categories, and choose from each of those categories volumes which warrant the expense of traveling with you—Literature, Nonfiction, Fantasy, Theology, Pastoral Theology, Counseling, Commentaries, C.S. Lewis books (yes, he gets his own category), Poetry, and so forth. Some whole categories get axed (I can use the library for things like Theology and Commentaries), while from others I will select a few books at a time (Do I bring Gerard Manley Hopkins? Which Lewis books do I bring?).

For some months I’ve been thinking about the category of Devotional Literature—those books which I dip into daily alongside my reading of Scripture. The process has forced me to pick my absolute favorites. For me, to qualify as a Devotional the book must reveal deep reflection, resonate in striking ways, and regularly improve with time. Also, such a book is typically consumable in small portions (making it suitable for daily devotion). The books that rise to the top for me are books that form me in an ongoing way, books that I have read, and re-read, and plan to re-read again and again. Each of these books has been part of my personal formation in Christ, so I thought I would take a few minutes today to recommend them to you as well.

imitation-of-christ_cover1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
One of the most famous devotional books of all time, à Kempis’s fifteenth century meditations on the heart and its work to imitate Christ are timeless. Often austere, he calls the believer to remember that following Jesus is a full-time job. It is a book that I find calls me, in particular, to greater holiness.

“No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could. No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey. No man has true joy save he whose heart shows him to have a clean conscience. No man speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might.” Book I.20.

Diary of an Old Soul_Cover.jpg2. Diary of an Old Soul, George MacDonald
Eighteenth century Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul is a series of daily devotional poems. I find, when reading them, that their subjects haunt me throughout the day. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald his spiritual father—it isn’t hard, reading MacDonald, to imagine why, because to read MacDonald is to swim in the depths of his meditative thought.

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking hear;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some, to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
~ June Sixteenth

letters-to-malcolm_cover3. Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis
Lewis, one of the great lights of 20th century Christianity, penned this series of fictional correspondence between himself and his friend “Malcolm.” Written at the end of Lewis’s life, these letters reflect his studied and honest ruminations on the meaning and significance of prayer. In some ways, the marriage of style is also highly appropriate—because prayer, also, is like writing letters to a friend. When I read Malcolm, I find that my thoughts about God are expanded.

“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to. Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down into the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” Letter 15

revelations-of-divine-love_cover4. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich’s series of visions, and the meditations that accompany them, are often striking in both their simplicity and resonance. It enriches faith to encounter, in this fourteenth century passages, a woman who so clearly knows and loves Jesus. More, perhaps, than anything else, Julian’s meditations call me to listen more carefully to the Lord.

“Our Lord is greatly cheered by our prayer. He looks for it, and he wants it. By his grace he aims to make us as like himself in heart as we are already in our human nature. This is his blessed will. So he says, ‘Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing. Yes, even thought you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick, or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to me though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.’” #41

centuries_cover5. Centuries, Thomas Traherne
Written in the 17th century but lost and unpublished until the 19th, Traherne’s series of meditations (in collections of 100 at a time—hence, a century) see in all the dappled glory of the earth opportunities to glorify God. His conception of nature as an avenue for worship have changed how I look at the world.

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord pardon my ingratitude, and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered… O what Joy, what Delight and Jubilee should there always be, would men prize the Gifts of God according to their value!” Century 1, #66.

look-to-the-glory_cover

Note: This book is very rare.

6. Look to the Glory, Richard Meux Benson
Benson was founder of a group of Anglican monastics called the Society of St. John the Evangelist (one of the members of which was C.S. Lewis’s spiritual director). Benson combines depths of understanding about God with compassion for the everyday human creature. The combination, for me, has called me to greater personal devotion.

“Patience is most perfect when the visible result is least encouraging. Its efficacy entirely within. By patience, the soul acts upon itself, exerting self-control and forming itself so as to find a tranquil joy in the adverse appointments of God’s providence.” “Seeking Holiness.”

Bonus: These six books are all devotional in nature—they are deep, powerful, and good for short readings. However, there are a couple more books that I’ll be bringing to Scotland that fall more into the category of “spiritual reading.” So, here are two books that don’t quite qualify but I’ll be bringing anyway.

derkse-cover7. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners, Will Derkse
I’ve already written a review of Derkse’s book, but the reason I’m taking it with me is because his steady prose and consistent call to obedience reminds me to be attentive to the tasks at hand—whether they be devotional, familial, or related to my work.

“Listening has its complement in grumbling. Just as obedience is a positive attitude, wanting to listen before anyone has spoken, grumbling is a kind of negative speech before attentive listening, or also because listening has not been done attentively.” 34

 

 

telling-secrets_cover8. Telling Secrets, Frederick Buecher
In this personal memoir, Frederick Buechner speaks of the secrets of the heart and of the soul’s journey toward healing in God. Buechner, perhaps more than any other modern author, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the heart that longs for God.

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.” 32

Choosing which books to bring is a hard decision. And yet choosing these books is not hard at all. May you, in reading some of them, discover something fresh, deep, and enriching for your own spiritual life as well.

Why You Should Read Wil Derkse’s “The Rule of Benedict for Beginners.”

derkse-coverThe Rule of Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life is easily the best book of Christian spirituality I have read in recent memory. I read it once last year, recommended it to my church elders, and read it again with my summer interns over the past few months. Without reservation I think you should read it too.

Roughly two years ago I was in a bit of a bad way. I was stressed and struggling to find balance and order in my ministry life. Recognizing that a fresh approach to my personal calendar was going to be part of bringing order to the frustration, I resolved myself to set apart the first Wednesday of each month as a personal retreat day. From some friends in ministry I had heard that there was a Benedictine monastery nearby which facilitated day retreats. I contacted the guestmaster there and set up a day to come by. Little did I know how life-altering that simple choice would be.

I arrived on a chilly February day. I met the guestmaster at the door. He gave me a brief tour and showed me to a room where I could rest and pray. He told me about the lunch hour and that I would need to join the monks for prayer in the Abbey Church beforehand. After he left I closed the door and was struck almost immediately by the near absolute quiet of the place. No conversations. No computer noise. No electronic hums. No music. No blowing air. It was exactly what I needed. I joined the monks for prayer in their stunningly beautiful chapel, then for lunch (which we ate in silence while a monk read aloud from a book). After lunch I re-entered the front door and looked around. There, by the entrance, was a small selection of books for sale (you drop money in a box if you want the book). My eye was immediately drawn to a goldenrod volume with iconographic images. It was Wil Derkse’s book, and I bought a copy.

westminster-abbey-interior

Image from trekearth.com

Malcolm Muggeridge writes that “There are always ideal circumstances for reading any book, which should, perhaps, be indicated on the dust-jacket, along with particulars of the authors and subject.” These were ideal circumstances for me to read Derkse’s book, because upstairs, in solitude, while journaling and reading, his simple prose spoke to my needs.

If I were to summarize Benedictine spirituality in a single phrase, I think I would say that it is grounded in a kind of attentiveness, a listening. Its chief aim is to attempt to query every situation, person, task, or event, with a divine perspective: “What is God asking of me at this moment?” How am I serving God in washing these dishes? In conversing with this friend? In writing this blog post? In answering this email? From such simple attentiveness, Benedictine spirituality invites us to follow those prompts with obedience; obedience to the call of God in my daily circumstances. Eating, then, is the time for eating; praying the time for praying; working the time for working; and so forth. These are enormously simple admonitions, but in Derkse’s straightforward and readable prose they resonate with import. There is, in these plain understandings of life and work and meaning, something that provides a way for us—who are so often busy, harried, and divided—to bring our Christian convictions to bear upon our life’s vocation. There is something extraordinarily wholesome about Derkse’s book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Over the next months I continued to drive out to the monastery on a monthly basis. I came to value the ordinary ordering of the lives of the monks, of whom I was but a distant and casual observer. While I am not called to a monastic vocation (and while I am also not Catholic!), my association with that place did me no small amount of good. I fed off of their stability, and was enriched by their order. It has given me a vision of this daily spirituality—the spirituality of dishes, and service, and solitude, and work, and prayer—which I believe we all require in some measure.

westminster-abbey-exterior

Image from trekearth.com

After finishing Derkse’s book I read a copy of St. Benedict’s Rule (also purchased from the monastery), as well as Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Both books further enriched my appreciation of Benedictine spirituality. Over time, I developed my own routine for visiting the monastery—a morning set aside for silence, prayer, and journaling, lunch with the monks (always silent, of course), an after lunch walk to shake off the sleep, time sitting still at the monastery lookout, then more time to read and journal and pray. With each successive visit I came to appreciate more and more the simplicity of the place. It has shaped me.

This shaping is not without some irony. I am, at the moment, an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and across the street from the monastery entrance is an Alliance Church. So, I travel a distance to find a place to restore my soul from the burdens of ministry, and when I arrive I turn symbolically away from my denomination and into the arms of the Catholics! But this may not be so strange after all. Protestants are gifted activists, but we make poor contemplatives; we value our spiritual highs, but are not particularly competent when it comes to everyday spirituality. When you think of a great Protestant Christian, he is either someone “filled with the Spirit,” or someone possessed of extensive doctrinal knowledge. But the great Catholic is as often a man or woman of contemplation. I can’t help but imagine that a solution to Protestant burnout might be found in the patient spirituality of our Catholic brothers and sisters.

In view of this, it is unfortunate that many Protestants remain skeptical of Catholic expressions of spirituality. Such skepticism robs us of the fullness of what it means to be a communion of saints, and facilitates what is often in Protestants a highly regrettable ignorance of the breadths and riches of the Church in all her historic glory. Benedict, clearly, was a follower of Jesus who sought to outline how other such followers could effectively dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and communal living. His words strike us at our Christian and human need, which suggests why they have stayed with such power for such lengths of time.

Regardless of your situation or your vocation, whether you are an ordinary layman or a minister, I recommend that you spend a little time exploring the contours of the Benedictine vision for life. In Derkse’s book you will find a readable, rich, memorable, and wholesome guide. I pray it might shape you as it has me.

Some Thoughts about C.S. Lewis and “Spiritual Direction”

Yours, JackFor the last several months I have been enjoyably working my daily way through Yours, Jack, a selection of C.S. Lewis’s letters edited by Paul F. Ford. From the vast quantity of Lewis’s personal correspondence, Ford has made a selection of letters which he believes focus on “Spiritual Direction”—whether in the context of friendship, of Lewis seeking direction, or of Lewis offering direction. I enjoy almost all things Lewis, so these letters have been a pleasure to read, and while the experience warrants a few brief reflections on Lewis, at the same time it reminded me of some growing concerns I have about our present approaches to things labeled “spiritual direction.”

What stands out first when one reads Lewis’s correspondence is simply its sheer vastness. This was a man busy with work as a professor, busy with work caring for invalids at home, busy with his personal writing, and yet taking time out of each day to maintain his letter writing—writing that followed him almost to the day of his death. Linked to this, and something possibly overlooked when we think about Lewis, is his extreme patience. Lewis makes the time to write everyone back, and some of those people most certainly didn’t really deserve it. Of special patience in this volume are the forty or so letters to Mary Willis Shelburne (also published as Letters to an American Lady), which tax even my patience when reading Lewis’s responses. Another factor that stands out about these letters is Lewis’s preparedness in matters of the soul. I work as clergy, and it is simply impossible to answer the needs of the soul which people bring to you if you do not know your own soul. Lewis’s self-knowledge, and capacity to illustrate from his own experiences in walking alongside others, is both admirable and worthy of imitation. I am also reminded that Lewis’s unique brilliance is not that he knew so much (although he did), but that he thought so clearly about everything. From that clarity he labored to bring clarity to the darkness of other people’s thoughts. It is that ongoing clarity, I suggest, that contributes most significantly to Lewis’s longevity as an author. The book is worth reading if only to be exposed to his clear thinking.

Walter Adams St Stephen's House

Fr. Walter Adams, remembered on the wall of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

While I enjoyed the book, I also had some reservations while reading it—not reservations about Lewis, but reservations about how we view “spiritual direction.” Above all else, I find that there is something decidedly fuzzy in how we talk and think about “spiritual direction” (and the scare quotes are there to highlight my reservation). I’m not sure we really know what it is, and it has become such a plastic term that it covers quite a variety of divergent concepts. Lewis himself, of course, visited a spiritual director (Father Walter Adams), and participated in regular confession. He speaks about these things helpfully in several of the letters. But when we are looking to Lewis for spiritual direction then something feels a little off. It is off, to my mind, in three critical ways. First, it is off because a relationship of spiritual direction (such as the one in which Lewis was involved) is a relationship of exchange. One believer sits under the supervision of another, trusting that older, wiser Christian in the direction and shaping of your soul. Lewis certainly fits the older, wiser category, but true direction requires a personal relationship and personal listening. The Director will listen to your life and make suggestions according to his/her perception of your needs. A key quality in the directee is obedience, and when we are reading a book for spiritual direction there is a danger that our own sense of power and control will override the process. Put simply, it’s a lot harder to say no to a person than it is to a book. A second reason it is off is because it neglects, to my mind, the role that friendship and collegial association played in Lewis’s spiritual formation. The letters selected in this volume are largely those which are overtly spiritual, and yet some of Lewis’s chief formation and enrichment as a Christian came about through his association with friends. By looking at only one kind of “spirituality,” I fear the reader can miss the broader spirituality of Lewis’s life and experience. This taps into the third reason the book felt off, which is with what material is cited in footnotes. Ford has faithfully footnoted every Bible reference he could detect in the book, but almost no literary references at all. Where Lewis references a book, or a poem, or a famous thinker, or some other literature, these items are not notated for the reader. This is a somewhat gross oversight, since one of the primary areas which opened Lewis to the Christian faith was literature itself. I find this to be a curiously evangelical approach to spirituality (made more ironic since Ford is himself a Roman Catholic)—that we only value Scripture to the neglect of other sources of information.

None of these concerns negate the overall value of the book—and in fact the book is well worth reading!—and yet they might raise some concerns about why we, as readers, are approaching the book. When we engage, we ought to be aware that the editing of this particular volume shapes our perceptions of what “spiritual direction” might be, and I am suggesting that it does this somewhat narrowly and inadequately. Because of this, we as readers can easily miss the breadths of Christian spirituality, the call to practical obedience, attentiveness to influences outside of the expressly sacred, and especially to the role that friendship plays in spiritual development

Above and beyond all of this—and perhaps above and beyond this particular volume itself—is with a kind of danger in how we, today, approach Lewis. Lewis, indeed, is a great Christian thinker, a giant of 20th century faith and well deserving the attention he has received. But when we are looking at Lewis, rather than along with him, then we are not only doing something Lewis would personally despise, but we are missing the greatest gifts he might offer us as readers—the exposure to the worlds and vistas which had opened his eyes personally to the greatness and majesty of God. This, indeed, might be the ultimate goal of all spiritual direction—to direct the heart toward a greater apprehension of, and obedience to, God.

Lewis with Pipe

Scofield’s Abominable Study Bible

I love the Bible, but I’ve hated reading it this past year, and the reason for my hatred has been C.I. Scofield.

By my count, I’ve now read through the entire Bible five or six times. I’ve read through the New International Version two or three times—once in High School when my faith came alive, once (I believe, but I’m not certain) in College, and once again in Seminary. When I was ordained I read it again, but this time for variety I read the New Living Translation. Afterwards, I read through the New American Standard, which is the version I personally use for preaching today. Last year, wanting to read still another translation, and always planning to spend time in the most famous of translations, I set myself to read the King James. The experience has been most miserable.

Scofield_Handsome VolumeThe edition I’ve read was a gift from my grandparents back in 1998 (likely a graduation present) and is quite handsome to look at—a hefty, burgundy leather volume with gold edges. It feels nice to open, and sits nicely in the lap, and looks impressive on my shelf, although its bulk rendered it inconvenient for travel so that I quickly found myself reading it only at home during my morning devotions. Devotions are meant to be a time of stillness before the Lord, a daily period of attentiveness to the word where we seek to hear His voice and attune ourselves to His presence throughout the day. They are not, as a rule, a good time for experimental reading, and yet into my efforts to engage the King James text an unsolicited voice kept inserting itself, noisily, bombastically, irritatingly. It was the voice of C.I. Scofield.

ScofieldCyrus Ingerson Scofield was a civil war veteran who came to Christian faith as an adult, later pastoring churches in Dallas and Massachusetts. Affiliated with D.L. Moody, Scofield later began work on his reference Bible, through which he popularized a new system of theological interpretation called “Dispensationalism,” developed by an Anglo-Irish man named John Nelson Darby. When Scofield’s Bible was published in 1909, at a time of great expectation about the end of the world, his interpretive matrix took fundamentalism by storm, quickly becoming one of the best selling Bibles in history. This is the Bible that created “The Thief in the Night,” Hal Lindsay, Christian Zionism, and Left Behind. In other words, it is the Bible which has dominated a very visible portion of the Christian imagination for the last 100 years.

In full knowledge of this, for over a year I pressed through with my reading—once through each book, four times through the Psalms, 1377 pages in total, countless marginal notes and footnotes. I read every word (and whether I’m a fool or a glutton for punishment has yet to be determined), and I read the whole thing partly because my dear deceased grandparents had given me the Bible. Ditching it felt a bit like ditching them.

The first of my problems with the Bible were its invasive edits into the text. Scofield (or possibly 1967 editors) had taken it upon himself to update a selection of language in the King James. But rather than offer marginal notes explaining difficult language, the text has forcibly replaced the “difficult” words with edits, and the reader must look to the margins to find the original. Many of these are completely unnecessary—for example, “nigh” has been replaced with “near,” “suffer” with “permit,” and “rent” with “torn.” These alterations are unnecessary, and have the effect of reducing some of the majesty of the text. After all, I’m not reading the King James because I want it to be a modern book. But every five to ten verses or so there was notation that indicated a word had been changed. This made reading a constant battle between the text and the margins.

Scofield_Text DetailBut Scofield’s Reference Notes are where the real grievances emerge, and I’ll narrow my vast,  overwhelming, and yearlong discontent to three categories of offense. A first offence is that the notes reveal an agenda other than opening the text. Scofield’s notes, by and large, don’t illuminate the text (which is the primary purpose of a Bible with study notes, as far as I’m concerned). There is a spirit of defensiveness in Scofield’s notes—he comes out swinging at a number of imaginary opponents, eager to defend the text against all foes. Notes then exist to engage in a fight to which the reader may or may not have any awareness. Just now, flipping through at random, I opened to Micah 4, where the footnote from verse 1 says the following:

Micah 4:1-3 and Isa. 2:2-4 are practically identical. The Spirit of God gave both prophets the same revelation because of its surpassing importance. It is impossible to prove that either prophet was quoting the other.

Here we can easily imagine Scofield’s perceived nemeses—those who would claim that the Bible is not, somehow, perfectly inspired (because Micah might have borrowed from Isaiah). So the note exists not to illuminate what Micah might be saying in chapter four, but to argue with an imaginary opponent who might claim that because there is a similarity between Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 the Bible is somehow falsified. Scofield’s way through this difficulty is to appeal to the Spirit’s revelation to both men—which certainly might be the case, but also does not have to be the case. And yet anchoring the Bible in Spiritual authority fits within Scofield’s underlying program of rendering the Bible impervious to various “modern” attacks. The agenda for the vast majority of notes is similarly cantankerous and argumentative, and regularly fails to open the text for interpretation. The dominant spirit is one of protection, not illumination.

 

Scofield_Nice on the Shelf

It looks so nice on the shelf. I guess you can’t judge a book by its formatting.

A second offence is that the notes reveal a fundamentally flawed methodology. When Scofield does interpret the text, he interprets it quite badly. As one example, consider his comments on Leviticus 2:1-11, where Moses describes the “recipe” for grain offerings in the tabernacle. Scofield writes:

The meal offering: (1) fine flour speaks of the evenness and balance of the character of Christ, of that perfection in which no quality was in excess, none lacking; (2) fire, of His testing by suffering, even unto death; (3) frankincense, of the fragrance of His life before God (see Ex.30:34, note); (4) absence of leaven, of His character as ‘the truth’ (Jn.14:6, cp. Ex.12:8, marg.); (5) absence of honey—His was not that mere natural sweetness which may exist quite apart from grace; (6) oil mingled, of Christ as born of the Holy Spirit (Mt.1:18-23); (7) oil upon, of Christ as baptized with the Spirit (Jn.1:32; 6:27); (8) the oven, of the unseen sufferings of Christ—His inner agonies (Mt.27:45-46; Heb.2:18); (9) the pan, of His more evident sufferings (e.g. Mt.27:27-31); and (10) salt, of the pungency of the truth of God—that which arrests the action of leaven.

This is an interpretive attitude that operates under the assumption that no text has value if it does not somehow point to Christ. The recipe in the text cannot be, simply, a recipe for a grain offering—it has to be something else. And while there might be a kind of devotional benefit in meditating on what the different elements of the grain offering represent, this interpretation stretches the bounds of reason by forcing the reader to interpret the text artificially. Meaning is in this way critically divorced from context.

An even clearer example is in Psalm 40, where David sings about waiting for the Lord and experiencing His salvation. To this Psalm Scofield offers the following interpretive comment:

The 40th Psalm speaks of Messiah, the Lord’s Servant obedience unto death. The Psalm begins with the joy of Christ in resurrection (vv. 1-2). He has been in the horrible pit of the grave but has been brought up. Verses 3-5 are His resurrection testimony, His “new song.”

Let’s be clear—Psalm 40 might be speaking about Jesus, but it most certainly is speaking about David first. This kind of “interpretation” places the whole meaning of the Psalm on its fulfillment in Christ, but it also by proxy eliminates our own engagement with the song. By being purely about Jesus, it can no longer be about us, and this is one of the effects of Scofield’s readings—when he interprets a text, his meaning eliminates personal application. Knowing what it’s “about” reduces our own responsibility to read the text devotionally. It is a kind of knowledge that replaces obedience.

A third offence is that the notes expose a theology that reads the Scriptures. This is one of my greatest pet-peeves, especially because I have such a great love of the Word. It is the attitude of a reader or interpreter who has forfeited his capacity to read the text for itself in favor of reading it through the lens of his preferred theological construct. In this, theology reads the Scriptures, rather than Scripture governing theology. This has a double effect on the reading of the Bible—on the one hand, when such a reader approaches the Bible, he is often looking, not for a fresh hearing of God’s voice, but for a confirmation of his preexisting theology. On the other hand, when such a reader encounters passages that don’t fit his or her preconceptions, those passages are often ignored or explained away. The lens of the theological construct, in other words, blocks the reader from perceiving God’s word as it is.

In Leviticus 16:6, where the text makes mention of atonement, Scofield offers the following note and comment about the theological principle of atonement:

Atonement. The Biblical use and meaning of the word must be sharply distinguished from its use in theology. In the O.T., atonement is the English word used to translate the Hebrew words which mean cover, coverings, or to cover. Atonement is, therefore, not a translation of the Hebrew but a purely theological concept.

What does it mean to “sharply distinguish” the Biblical use of a word from its theological use? Is that even possible? Doesn’t the theological use derive all of its meaning from the word’s use in Scripture? But here theology reads the text, rather than the text informing theology, and this kind of reading encourages a student to establish his own theological framework and then apply that liberally to the text. We believe what we think, then we read the text accordingly.

And, of course, the single greatest, ongoing, overarching element of this in Scofield’s Reference Bible is the issue of Dispensationalism, which is a massively unhelpful, thoroughly human, unhistorical, and false theological construct into which Scofield’s Scriptures are made to fit no matter what. The chief problem with Dispensationalism, however, remains one of methodology—it is a theology that reads the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures reading the theology.

Dispensationalism Chart

The chart reads the text, rather than the text critiquing the chart.

I still love the Bible—in fact, it is precisely because I love the Bible that I hate what Scofield has done to it. And, as a matter of fact, I should say, in an attempt to separate the King James from Scofield’s foibles, that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the King James Version. And yet after a year in the text I can’t say that there’s anything particularly commendable about it either. For my part I am unconcerned about archaic language, and I find that alternative wordings very often illuminate texts in fresh ways. The single biggest problem I have with the King James itself is versification and the lack of paragraphs. Paragraphs, not verses, are the primary unit of thought, and when a Bible decontextualizes its own text for the sake of an artificial and arbitrary versification, this inhibits the proper reading of the text. In other words, when I approach a passage visually and expect that each verse is a unit of meaning, I from the start am not attending to the contextual meaning. Yet context is king, and therefore the versification of the King James militates against meaning. This is a fairly serious problem, and we see its continuing influence in modern theology today. In part, it makes a thing like Dispensationalism possible.

As far as readability goes, the Psalms are the litmus test of a translation for me. They have been my constant devotional companion for more than ten years now, and so even as I read straight through the rest of the Bible, I would work my way through the Psalms again and again. The first reading was wretched, the second was unmemorable, but I found that by the third reading through the Psalms I was enjoying them in the King James again. One key was my ability, after the first readings, to willfully ignore Scofield’s notes. Another was my increasing familiarity with their language. But four read-throughs is a steep price to pay for general comprehension, and I see no good reason to recommend the KJV to any new Christian.

Scofield_Top ViewThe past year has been difficult devotionally, and I can say with confidence that the Scofield Reference Bible is by far the worst Bible I have ever experienced. Will I read the King James again? Quite possibly–in fact, I’ve chosen to work my way through the Psalms again, and am reading the Sermon on the Mount as well. But I will purposefully avoid all those abominable notes at the bottom of the page, and thus save myself from further angst, frustration, and despair.

Book Review: C. Stephen Evans on Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense

Evans_Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense_CoverStephen Evans’s recent volume in apologetics, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges (Baker, 2015), is a worthy read for anyone interested in an approachable yet philosophically rich defense of the Christian faith. Evans, a professor of philosophy at Baylor University, is an expert in Kierkegaard and does a remarkable job of rendering many of the complexities of Kierkegaard (as well as other thinkers) into language that is accessible and understandable. This volume, I should be clear at the outset, does not resemble the flashy apologetics which seek to demolish the arguments of its opponents, but rather exhibits sustained, accessible, and careful thinking about the philosophical architecture that lends credibility to Christian belief.

Evans begins his study by highlighting what he thinks is a key claim of the atheist movement at present, namely, that Christianity is both irrational and outright harmful. Setting aside the accusation of harmfulness, Evans turns his attention primarily to the question of Christianity’s reasonability. Evans appeals first to natural theology—a revelation of God through natural means, but situates this quite specifically. “The key is to see natural theology not as providing us with an adequate, positive knowledge of God, but as supporting what I like to call ‘anti-naturalism’” (20). In other words, the suggestion is that if God is the author of all creation, then we ought to expect signs of His presence in the natural world. These signs in turn mitigate against the claims of naturalism, specifically that the natural world is all that exists. Such signs, Evans further suggests, fall under two “Pascalian Constraints”—that they should be widely available (everyone should have the potential to experience them), and that they should be resistible (preserving freedom). If this is the case, then we ought to be able to look to the natural world for “signs” of God’s existence. However, Evans observes, these “are not intended to give us an adequate knowledge of God. They are intended only to give us a sense that there is more to reality than the physical world” (36). Here Evans appeals to the sensus Divinitatis—the humanity-wide (and evolutionarily backed) propensity to seek to apprehend knowledge of God from creation. Next Evans outlines several characteristics that he believes are such signs, for example the experience of cosmic wonder, the sense that the world is a place of inherent order, the human moral capacity, human dignity, and the experience of Joy (a la C.S. Lewis). These signs, widely accessible, easily resistible, do not provide adequate knowledge of God but ought to lead us to hunger for more. At this point Evans pauses to consider the believability of such signs, pausing for a discussion on the nature of how we believe anything, as well as to answer a few classic objections to the Christian faith (God and Science and the problem of evil). How then can we believe the Christian Scriptures? Evans points in part to what he calls the “Revelation-authority principle.” This principle suggests that the Christian witness has a kind of authority simply because human reason is incapable of creating it. In other words, if I could create it, it wouldn’t be otherworldly. Drawing to a close, Evans then identifies three criteria for believing a revelation from God to be genuine. First, the attestation of miracles—otherworldly signs which exist to validate a testimony (and this is a unique claim of the Christian faith). Second, “paradoxicality,” which means that certain doctrines have an opaqueness to human reason that nevertheless resonate true (here he points specifically to the Incarnation as a true mystery). Finally, what Evans calls the “criterion of existential power,” that is, the interior effect of belief working on the individual. To close the book, Evans employs his philosophical logic in laying out an argument for the Christian faith.

C. Stephen Evans

Evans teaches at Baylor

This summary has, of necessity, omitted the vast majority of Evans’s carefully outlined philosophy. Although the book is eminently readable, some readers may struggle with reading patiently. I advise any reader to follow along with a pencil to make notes in the margin. Additionally, there were a few places where Evans might have better defined some terms and explained some concepts. Nevertheless, there are quite a number of lovely moments when Evans neatly addresses some apologetical bugbears (such as observing that, “To generate the problem of evil, we need to know that God is like the God of Christianity”—in other words, the problem is predicated on a Christian understanding of God). Personally, I found the discussions of “Pascalian constraints,” the “Revelation-authority principle,” and the argument about paradoxicality, to be both clarifying and useful. In fact, recently I was asked to give a brief explanation about the Trinity. I gave a first answer, and saw in the face of my friend that he still didn’t understand. Then I started at the beginning again and said, “Look, the Trinity is something that is revealed to us. We couldn’t have come up with it on our own. But once we understand the workings of the Trinity, it makes a great deal of sense. God, invisible, eternal Spirit, needed to solve Himself the puzzle of making things right with His creation, and He did that by becoming part of it in Jesus.” As I spoke, I was aware of Evans’s thoughts providing some fresh architecture to my own work. The Trinity is revealed, and paradoxically, when we accept it, it makes a great deal of sense.

In all, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense is a solid contribution to any Christian’s library on apologetics. While it is not a book designed to win “battles” or wow large crowds, it nevertheless has potential to illuminate key questions for the honest thinking skeptic. It is also, I can personally testify, pastorally applicable.

What Do We Do with Albert Schweitzer? An Inquiry into Faith.

Albert_Schweitzer_NobelSince my university days I have been familiar with the name of Albert Schweitzer, his work having come up repeatedly during my study of Biblical Higher Criticism. Over the ensuing years his name has come up on several other occasions, and most compellingly in the context of a particular story about his life—that Schweitzer, unable to enter the mission field directly, pursued a medical degree so he could become a medical missionary. This spoke to such a measure of resolve, and to such unusual spiritual devotion in a scholar, that I wanted to know more about the man. The result was a journey through Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of my Life and Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1949), a book that in the end left me wondering if in fact Schweitzer was a Christian at all.

Schweitzer very nearly defines what it means to be a polymath. Born in 1875 in what was then the Alsace region of Germany, he grew up bilingual, later publishing books in both French and German. Educated in Germany and in the midst of the heyday of German Higher Criticism, his seminal contribution was the book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Having earned a PhD in theology, he became a theological instructor as well as a licensed minister in the German Lutheran church. In addition to his academic pursuits, Schweitzer was also a performance organist, traveling and giving concerts, penning manuals on the proper execution of Bach’s organ pieces, and even writing tracts on organ repair and organ building. To the shock of his friends, family, and peers, at thirty years of age he resigned his post as a theology instructor and curate and entered into medical school so that he could become a missionary. His resolve to do this was formed some years before, and Schweitzer’s own words are worth recounting here,

The plan which I meant now to put into execution had been in my mind for a long time, having been conceived so long ago as my student days. It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, which I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering… Then one brilliant summer morning at Günsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays—it was in 1896—there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity. Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus! “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel shall save it.” (Out of My Life and Thought, 84-85)

Medical degree in hand, he then headed to what is today Gabon in Africa, where he and his wife built a medical clinic from the ground up and served faithfully for a number of years, through the first World War, returning to Europe to raise funds through concert tours, and returning again to Africa to continue his service.

gabon_political_map

Schweitzer’s autobiography ends in the late 1930s, but after the Second World War he was awarded the Nobel Prize for a speech he gave, “The Problem of Peace,” and he later worked with Einstein to advocate for the abolition of nuclear bombs. He died in 1965 at age 90.

Schweitzer was a truly remarkable man—clearly brilliant, gifted, motivated, and compelling. His sacrifice and dedication to his work shines a poor light on our own weak contributions to the benefit of humanity. But one looming question lurks in the background of Schweitzer’s life—was he actually a Christian?

This is a scandalous question. Who am I, after all, to attempt to judge the faith of another professed Christian, and above all one whose service seems so unobjectionably clear? And yet what Schweitzer’s life exhibits is the tension between confessional and ethical Christianity. Is a person made a Christian by his profession of faith, or by his works before the Lord? Romans 10:9 is a passage (among others) that makes it explicit that the confession of Jesus is of paramount importance, while the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 seems to make it clear that our conduct is the standard of judgment. Which is it, and where does Schweitzer fall, and are we even fit to make these kinds of judgments?

Let’s consider the final concern first—are we fit to make these kinds of judgments? The answer must be yes—for each of us, and especially for me as a member of the clergy, it is doctrinally, pedagogically, and missionally imperative that we outline the proper boundaries of Christian faith. It is doctrinally imperative because when we confess the truth of Christianity we are confessing a specific truth—being a Christian means a specific, bounded thing. Pedagogically it is imperative because we must instruct believers on what it means to be followers of Jesus—uncertainty in the definition of Christian faith means uncertainty for the people of God. Finally, it is missionally imperative because the profession of faith is actually central to our witness—how will we tell others how to become Christians if we are uncertain of what it means to be a Christian at all? And therefore we make judgments—we must make judgments—outlining the boundaries of Christian faith, seeking to faithfully declare what is “in” and what is “out.” We must do this of course with both humility and grace. Humility, because we are not omniscient and therefore don’t know the work the Lord is doing in a person’s heart at a given moment; grace because God is clearly more liberal with His salvation than we would be were we Him.

hadrians-wall-

Clear boundaries create clear expectations.

When it comes to Scripture, then, what do we make of the difference between Romans 10:9 and Matthew 25? Is our salvation based on what we have done, or what we have confessed? The answer is abundantly both. The confession of faith is essential—that we believe Jesus came, died, and rose from the grave on the third day, and is today Lord of all. The essence of Christianity is the confession of the resurrection of the Son of God. But that confession alone is insufficient—it is not enough to say the words, there is also an expectation of conversion—as a consequence of our confession, our way of life must exhibit our belief. James 3:14-17 says it clearly,

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

And yet works themselves are not a substitute for faith, because we cannot purchase God’s favor. If we believe our works earn us good things from God, then we believe that we can effectively buy God, and thereby we make Him a debtor—putting God under our own, human power. This is a line of thinking that Paul in Romans is at pains to eradicate. There is no way to win salvation by our work, but work must be the natural fruit of our salvation.

This has been a point of contention throughout the history of Christianity. Good people are not saved because of their goodness, and sacrificial people are not saved because of their good deeds. People are saved because of their belief in the Christian witness, in their confession of the person of Jesus Christ. But saved people are expected to display that salvation in works.

schweitzer_Time MagazineAnd this brings us back to Schweitzer. Throughout reading his autobiography, I found I was never entirely certain of whether or not he was actually a Christian. There is no recounting of his own conversion, instead he appears to be a product of a kind of nationalistic Lutheranism—a cultural Christianity which is as inherited as his Alsatian heritage and which assumes that he is Christian because he is Lutheran. Furthermore, the thoughts he recounts about faith and Christianity focus on the purely ethical—he appears to envision Christianity as a solution to the ethical dilemmas of his day, but he appears to do this to the exclusion of the traditional Christian witness. Christ, in other words, is a supreme example, but not a resurrected Lord. “Reverence for life,” Schweitzer’s primary ethical formulation, in context appears to be less indicative of studied Christian faith and more of German higher education in the early 20th century. And while it seems abundantly clear that he lived out what he believed to be Christianity in his time and context, it is also clear that Schweitzer would identify as an ethical, rather than a confessional, Christian.

The conflict between these perspectives was most clearly exhibited when Schweitzer applied to enter the mission field as a medical missionary. What follows is his own record of that situation when his application went before the committee:

But the strictly orthodox objected. It was resolved to invite me before the committee and hold an examination into my beliefs. I could not agree to this, and based my refusal on the fact that Jesus, when He called His disciples, required from them nothing beyond the will to follow Him. I also sent a message to the committee that, if we are to follow the saying of Jesus: “He that is not against us is on our part,” a missionary society would be in the wrong if it rejected even a Mohammedan who offered his services for the treatment of their suffering natives. Not long before this the mission had refused to accept a minister who wanted to go out and work for it, because his scientific conviction did not allow him to answer with an unqualified Yes the question whether he regarded the Fourth Gospel as the work of the Apostle John. (Out of My Life and Work, 114-115)

Refusing, then, to meet with the committee, instead he made personal visits to each member. In time, they explained further their theological concerns (that he would confuse the missionaries), and their concern that he would wish to preach. Schweitzer continues,

Thus on the understanding that I would avoid everything that could cause offense to the missionaries and their converts in their belief, my offer was accepted, with the result indeed that one member of the committee sent in his resignation. (Out of My Life and Work, 115-116)

It was clear, even in his own time, that Schweitzer held unorthodox positions, and that he was admitted to the mission field on restricted terms (for the record, he later breaks his commitment and preaches anyway). But his unwillingness to be theologically examined is in itself troubling, and would exclude him today from service in almost any missions organization.

Schweitzer did indeed live out what he believed to be a kind of Christianity in his time and context, and compared to many of his higher theological peers, he shines as a paragon of faith. And yet, Schweitzer’s ethical faith was a thing mostly of his own construction, albeit shaped according to the particular needs of his time. From the perspective of orthodox Christian confession he falls far short, and does not appear to contain either a confession of the Lordship of Jesus or belief in his resurrection (the two components of Romans 10:9). Final judgments, of course, are restricted to us, because the salvation of a man’s soul is ultimately the business of God and God alone, and therefore what work He did and has done in Schweitzer’s heart is unknown to us. And yet, from the evidence we possess, it would appear that Schweitzer’s life and work eschew the confession of Christ as Lord, and uphold a noble, if insufficient ethical practice. Good deeds are great, but can never win salvation, and if good deeds are all that Schweitzer offers, then for all his learning, we must conclude that salvation is not his.

The Crisis of Masculinity and “The Way of Men”

The Way of Men_Cover

It’s a right manly cover, innit?

There is a genuine and ongoing crisis in masculine identity. “What does it mean to be a man?” is a real and troubling question for a host of struggling men—old and young alike. Blogs, books, and men’s ministries alike attempt to present a semblance of answers into these critical questions, and yet it seems that the need for identity continues unabated. Men crave the fulfillment of their masculinity. Men are struggling to achieve it. I, ever curious to expand my understanding of these issues, recently on recommendation checked out from my local library a copy of Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men (Dissonant Hum, 2012). The experience of reading the book might be best described as unusual, because while I spent the majority of the book feeling mildly unsettled, there was one insight which neatly encapsulated one of the key problems in the current crisis in masculinity.

Donovan’s intention is to attempt to bypass all the expressly cultural influences into masculinity and arrive at an absolute, genuine core of what it means to be a man. He does this first by framing masculinity within two special conditions, those of biology and the survival scenario. Viewed in light of these conditions, he proposes that true manhood is defined by what he calls “tactical virtues”—strength, courage, mastery, and honor, each of which is given a special, nontraditional definition and treatment in light of the two conditions. The result is an interesting, if deeply flawed, exercise in examining the roots of masculinity, and while there was certainly something masculine about the book, it nevertheless read as a kind of caricature, a cartoonish and distorted picture of manhood. A certain measure of this distortion comes from the two conditions that limit the experiment, which in turn might account for the failure of the overall project. First of all, the survival scenario cannot be practically necessary to manhood. The vast majority of civilized man has lived outside of the survival scenario, and even those civilizations which lived at the edge longed in themselves for peace and security. To put it more succinctly, survivalism is not an end in itself, but a means toward a deeper security. In this, Donovan in focusing on the “tactical” side of the matter omits the deeper desires for peace and security. Men may wish to dominate others, but only as a means to secure some other end, and few but the most severe tyrants ever crave dominance for the sake of dominance. Plus, I might suggest that any book that has to appeal to a zombie apocalypse to give definition to manhood is bound to produce a manhood as unreliable as the zombie apocalypse. Second, by focusing on evolutionary biology, Donovan neglects the reality that humans—men—are more than our biology. Yes, I have an animal portion—a survival instinct, passions and desires—but I also believe that my humanity is something that transcends my biology. I think we might agree to this even independently of the Christian witness to which I ascribe, but Christianity reinforces this further. A real man is never expressed purely by his biology, but by his biology as it is made to serve some other end or purpose. I express the apex of my gendered humanity when I have learned how to make my body serve other ends—not when I serve the ends of my body. Donovan’s masculinity in many ways reduces me to my instincts, and I find this inadequate and troubling.

DaVinci's Man

It is more than simple biology that makes me a man.

When I had completed the book, in curiosity I looked up some reviews online. There I discovered, much to my astonishment, that Donovan is himself a homosexual but one who is highly contemptuous of any effeminacy. Another of his books, titled Androphilia, outlines his core philosophy of man-love (I haven’t read it). In some ways this explained some of the dissonance I felt while reading the book—Donovan’s perspectives are born from a radically different starting point than my own, and it is not unreasonable to deduce that Donovan’s love of a kind of “pure” manhood is indicative of a form of idolatry—worship of the image and likeness of maleness. In many ways The Way of Men is the thoughts of a man who worships biological masculinity.

However, sandwiched in the midst of some 150 pages of self-confident but troubling masculinistic rhetoric is about 20 pages that focus on a really compelling question. The section was in fact so compelling that it might have made the whole book worth reading. In it, Donovan attempts to outline a difference between “being a good man” and “being good at being a man.” As I read, and reflected on this, I came to think that the distinction is terribly important. “Being a good man” is something, in fact, that any human can do. The virtues asked of good men are virtues that can be asked of women and children alike (honoring commitments, telling the truth, etc.). There is nothing particularly “masculine” about being a good man. However, being good at being a man is a different idea altogether—one we should note is also more culturally defined. We understand this difference most clearly in contrast. There are good men who are not good at being men (we might note virtuous men who cannot light a fire or set up a tent), and there are men good at being men who are not necessarily good men (survivalists who murder). Naturally, being an outdoorsman is not the only way to be good at being a man, although at our present cultural juncture it is one of the characteristics of “masculinity” which we identify with being good at being a man.

Phil Robertson and Sons_2

It is possible that some of the appeal of the Duck Dynasty men is that they are both good men, and, in a very specific cultural sense, good at being men.

Donovan’s contrast is useful because it gets to the heart of the present crisis in masculinity. What does it really mean to be good at being a man? My Christian faith is very good at telling me how to be a good man—simply a good person, in fact—but it has struggled to define with the same clarity what it means to be good at being a man. Donovan’s overall thesis is alluring precisely because his answer to the question of masculine identity answers at the area of need. He is, in other words, attempting to answer the right question, and that sets him on a different kind of ground than other thinkers. Nevertheless, I disagree with his conclusions, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also because I ascribe to a theological outlook. Whatever it means to be good at being a man, it needs to mean this in the context of a Creator God who created manhood for His own good purposes. Being good at being a man means for me to be good at being a man after the pattern of manhood that He desires. Biology thus submits to purpose.

I plan to write further on this issue, but for now I want to observe that books which treat of masculinity and spirituality are often fraught with difficulties. One of these difficulties is in starting from the wrong place—the books answer the wrong questions about masculinity. A further difficulty is in discerning the boundary between culture and revelation. Because the exercise is so challenging, and because there is such a deeply needy gap felt by masculine identity, almost any thought which rises to fill the space can be given weight and appear meaningful simply because there is so little to offer meaning. Proverbs 27:7 says that “To the starving man even what is bitter tastes sweet,” and books like Donovan’s offer an answer to the crisis men feel about masculinity. Because of the intensity of the need, even a false or misleading answer to the question of masculinity is regarded by men as superior to no answer or the answers offered by culture. Men are hungry to know what it means to be a man, and there is a significant need for Christian men to examine and explore this question from the right starting point. Donovan is right that goodness in itself will be insufficient to answer our biological summons to masculinity. Beyond that, there is still much work to be done in discovering and expressing a truly Godly manhood.