Naked and Unashamed–“Idiot Lights”

Naked and Unashamed CoverIf you didn’t know, a few months back I published (along with Jerry and Claudia Root) a book on marriage, called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). I’m immensely glad the book is in print, and immensely honored to have worked on it with Jerry and Claudia, who married Liesel and I almost fifteen years ago now. I honestly can’t wait for people to read it and (I trust!) be blessed by what’s in it.

Jerry and Claudia have performed premarital counseling for over 1500 couples over the past 40 years, and the outline of their material was chock-full of wisdom that we felt more couples needed in hand. In the years that I was a pastor, I had used the same material when counseling couples for marriage, as well as in encouraging the marriages in my churches. Wonderfully, our experience comes together in the book and forms something fresh. While originally the material in hand was targeted specifically for couples in preparation for marriage, in Naked and Unashamed we’ve expanded it so that it can be an encouragement for marriages of all stripes—a refresher course, if you will.

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing a few extracts from the book on this blog. Read! Be encouraged! Be a little challenged! And if you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Idiot Lights”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 1)

In the Proverbs it states that “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (27:17). This is not a description of one smooth object gently sliding across another, but a process of one rough edge grating against another. The pressure of persons in close contact is the sharpening process by which we are made keen for use—by which our innermost persons are refined and made beautiful.

Conflict, then, does not mean you are a failure. When you own and operate a car, changing the oil every 3000 miles will make your car last for a long time. On many models, if the oil is not changed after a certain period of time, a light will go off on the dashboard—we call this an idiot light. When the light goes off, it doesn’t mean that the car’s owner is an idiot, merely that he or she is on the threshold of becoming one. Ignore the light, and in time you will become an idiot. Similarly, conflict in marriage simply identifies areas that require maintenance. Conflict doesn’t mean you are an idiot—but ignore the conflict, or refuse to attend to the work it asks of you, and in time you will become one.

Good marriages, you see, are never problem-free marriages; instead, a good marriage is one where the partners watch for the warning signals and grow by attending to them. A good marriage is not one where each partner has it all together, perfectly sorted, but one where they are secure enough in God’s love for them, and their growing love for one another, that they are not afraid to admit the limits of their capacities. Good marriages create space to be novices, to be awkward, to admit that none of us has very much life skill, that no one is ever ready for marriage, or children, or grows up without regrets. When a couple can operate through their conflicts from the perspective of that kind of security, then the result is always a high and steady growth curve.

We see this again in the words of Robert Browning’s poem, Rabbi ben Ezra, the opening line of which romantically invites the listener to “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.” Lines 31-32 have the following phrase, “Then welcome each rebuff/that turns earth’s smoothness rough.” It is easy to make judgments of simplicity—things often appear smooth. But further insight, greater perception, often challenge our initial perceptions. A cue ball to the eye and hand is perfectly smooth. Under a microscope, however, it appears pitted and mountainous. The couple that would take advantage of the opportunity offered by conflict in marriage will permit the new information brought by their spouse to alter their initial perception. Things which on one view appeared smooth on a further view become textured. Additionally, a field before being tilled is hard and smooth, but the rebuff of the spade turns its smoothness rough, preparing the soil for fresh fruitfulness. In the same way, the idiot lights of conflict, viewed properly, become opportunities for a harvest of good.

The good news, of course, is that you are never expected to resolve all of these difficulties on your own. When the idiot light signals in your marriage, seek help as soon as the need arises. Wiser people than you have covered this ground before you; call them to your aid. Consult books. Visit counselors, church groups, pastors, seminars, and conferences. Each of these is a resource—like tools and equipment in your gardening shed—that are available to help you grow, as well as heal, your marriage. Do this quickly because unchecked difficulties will compound over time. To humbly seek help is itself the process of developing life skill, and the best thing the unskilled can do is to surround themselves with wise counselors until they themselves have grown and matured in wisdom. The practice of regularly investing time and energy into this work is precisely the necessary work of your marriage.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

State of Fear: A Bad Book with a Good Point

State of Fear_CoverI’ve been a Michael Crichton fan since I was in the eighth grade and read Jurassic Park for the first time. The experience was, to my thirteen-year-old self, life-changing. I never knew there could be books like this in the world, and Crichton’s inventiveness, plausibility, and capacity to generate thrills were addictive. I went on to read many of his other novels, enjoying them to similar effect—Sphere and Airframe, Eaters of the Dead and Prey. With that in mind, you’ll appreciate some context, and disappointment, behind my claim that State of Fear is the worst Michael Crichton novel I have ever read.

But not for the reasons you might think.

State of Fear is a novel about global warming—put succinctly, it is about a conspiracy of left-wing environmentalists who attempt to orchestrate a series of environmental disasters in order to bolster their position as global warming advocates. Catastrophic weather events are timed to coincide with global warming announcements so that people will ‘wake up’ to the looming danger of climate change. The novel contains many of the hallmarks of Crichton’s style—mysterious, business-like characters with unclear motives, stooges who die out of ignorance, a scientific ‘feel’ including diagrams, research, and charts, and so forth. However, it is seriously hindered by a farfetched plot, ham-fisted dialogue, and the strange interplay of Crichton-esque science-fiction and what appears to be his underlying message of suspicion about global warming. The main character is a man who begins as a full global warming supporter, is brought to question these convictions, and concludes as a sceptic. A main mechanism for this transition is a series of conversations that Crichton arranges between advocates and sceptics. Advocates, having drunk the global warming Kool-Aid, are universally foolish. They spout speeches about the need for saving the planet, all the while quoting dreamily from half-baked sources and displaying, overall, great ignorance of the real data about the natural world. Counterpoint to such figures, Crichton’s sceptics have wised up to the global warming façade. They preach (with footnotes) data-driven contradictions to the ill-reflected global warming rhetoric. Every single one of these conversations feels forced, and one gets the feeling that they exist as an excuse for Crichton to tell us what he thinks. They are artlessly executed. For these reasons it can be an infuriating book to read.

If you were to read some reviews of the novel you would quickly discover two camps of critics. On one side stands a group who love the book, and they love it chiefly for its suspicion of global warming. These readers are excited that someone as esteemed as Crichton would stand up publicly and publish such an unmasked critique of the global warming movement. On the other side stand the group who hate it for precisely the same reason. How dare Crichton, such an esteemed novelist, publish something so backward, regressive, and ignorant? (Very ironically, some of these critical reviews sound a great deal like the ignorant characters in Crichton’s novel. Do they prove his point?) Unfortunately, both groups are wrong, but not for that reason.

State of Fear is a bad novel because it is ham-fisted, awkward, far-fetched, and obvious. State of Fear is bad because it lacks the finesse, the tension, and the characterization that makes other Crichton novels great reads. State of Fear is bad because Crichton’s agenda—to raise questions about the role of climate change science in public policy—is so poorly executed that it interferes terminally in the telling of his story.

bill-clinton-nba-all-star-game

Photo Courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton.

However, within this bad novel Crichton has a good point to make, and he makes this good point most effectively in the two afterwords that follow the book. The first, consisting of a series of bullet points, articulates clearly Crichton’s concerns about both the ways that we as a culture are using science, and about the limits of our capacity to make judgments about said science. His broad point, put tersely, is that we just don’t know enough. The second afterword, titled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous,” highlights the well-accepted role of eugenics some 100 years ago. Crichton notes how it was ‘accepted science,’ how it formed national policy, and indeed how it lead to extraordinary horrors. He also notes, with interest, how we conveniently neglect to mention this part of our history. In other words, about 100 years ago something that was considered ‘accepted science’ (which now nobody believes) was utilized to generate public policy. However, upon reflection, the science was wrong, and consequently the policies were detrimental—if not damning (eugenics formed a basis for Nazi extermination of ‘undesirables’).

Short History of Nearly Everything_BrysonThese are points worth sitting with. (It is also, we should note, a point which runs through much of Crichton’s oeuvre.) Recently I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a absolutely marvellous little book of scientific history. One of the keystone points of the entire book, however, centred on the limits of our human knowledge. Bryson points out again and again—to brilliant humorous effect—just how little we know. For example, we didn’t know about plate tectonics until about sixty years ago. Think about that—a generation of people alive today were taught in school that earthquakes are caused by volcanoes. A hundred years ago, we thought we knew pretty much everything there was to know about human origins. Again and again, we think we’ve got a great deal figured out, but in the grand scheme of things we’re still pretty much pea-brains. We could do, in our scientific pronouncements, with a good deal more humility.

However you may feel about global warming, Crichton’s State of Fear contains a really good point couched in an unfortunately bad novel: we don’t know enough, we deceive ourselves if we think we’ve got it all figured out, and we should be really suspicious of those things we don’t know when they are turned into issues of public policy. With that message, I find I am in full and complete agreement.

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.