Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahne Pretty stoked.
9/11 was a weird day for me. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh God, I hope it wasn’t Arabs”, as soon as I heard that a plane had been crashed into the first tower. I’m 3/4 Palestinian and at times have a distinctly Arab cast to me. My last name is Rishmawy. Admittedly it was a selfish thought, but I just didn’t see that going well for me in high school. And I was right.
That afternoon in football practice, upon discovering that I was of Arab descent, a “Palestilian” according to one educated linguist on the team, a team-mate of mine took it upon himself to spear me in the back–twice. For those of you who’ve never played, that sort of thing hurts. Thankfully my coach caught on quickly and put an end to that. Still, for the next few years I was lovingly called “dune-coon”, “sand-nigger”, “Taliban”, “Osama”, etc. by a good chunk of my team-mates and friends. And yes, I do mean lovingly. It was wrong, and I don’t really get it, but for some reason racial slurs were a way of bonding in the locker-room. Still, it grated on me at times.
As frustrating and awkward as being an Arab high-schooler in post-9/11 America could be at times, given garden-variety prejudices, fears, and ignorance–none of those slurs frustrated me as much as what some of my well-meaning, Evangelical brothers and sisters ignorantly implied: that I and my entire ethnic heritage were an unfortunate mistake–Abraham’s mistake to be exact.
Among other things I’ve been reading Irenaeus’ classic Against Heresies and loving it. His goal in the work is to describe and debunk the heretical teaching of the Valentinian gnostics who were perverting Christian teaching into their bizarre, absurd system. The most frustrating part was the way these gnostic teachers, in their attempt to fool the faithful, were twisting scriptures in order to support their teaching:
Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. –Against Heresies, 1.7.1
Explaining the way the gnostic use of the Bible was unbiblical, he came up with a brilliant analogy for their method of scriptural interpretation:
Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma. -ibid, 1.7.1
Basically it’s like they’ve taken the Mona Lisa, cut it up, and re-pasted it together in the shape of a toilet and called it Leonardo’s masterpiece–or rather an improvement on it. Now, the fact that this can happen with the scriptures, that people can take them, quote them, and use them to justify all sorts of doctrines is troubling to some. Many, in seeing the way scripture is used in the mouths of false teachers and heretics, might despair of them, or doubt their beauty and efficacy. Not Irenaeus. He says that for the faithful, this shouldn’t invalidate the scriptures or make them any less true and precious:
In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics. -ibid, 1.9.1
The key is taking the precious stones and restoring them to their “proper position”; contextual reading of the scriptures according to basic principles of exegesis matters. Verses need to be taken within chapters, chapters within book, books within the canon, and, yes, for those of us at the end of the 20th century, canon within the broader churchly tradition of interpretation. (Not that the tradition stands over the scriptures, but at the very least it doesn’t hurt to listen to what wise biblical teachers of other generations past have found in them.) When we do these things, instead of the fox, the beautiful picture of King Jesus emerges once more, ready for the adoration and worship God intended to lead us into through his Spirit-inspired scriptures.
Alasdair MacIntyre is widely credited with restoring the category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to the forefront of the discussion in meta-ethics. In his influential work After Virtue (1981)he set out his argument for the bankruptcy of most modern ethical theories such as utilarianism and Rawlsian contractarianism and the necessity of recovering an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue-ethics set within a narrative framework. Among other things, MacIntyre argues that the virtues, those moral practices and habits that characterize the just person, only make sense within a narrative framework because all human action is essentially historical in character–it is historically-enacted and historically-motivated. That is an inescapable feature of human life–whether pagan, post-Enlightenment liberal, or orthodox Christian, we live out of the stories and narratives we tell ourselves. Even the most postmodern among us, suspicious of the various master narratives told to us by modernity, are still living in the sort of story that includes moderns trying to control us through master narratives. Indeed, it is commonly suggested that instead of the idea of the “worldview”, a narrative-identity is a more useful conception for understanding the comprehensive perspective through which we approach moral action in the world.
Now, none of this is all that new. Why bring it up? Simply to introduce a few loosely connected quotes and notes on the importance of narrative for Christian reflection on the moral life that ought to be kept in mind. One is cautionary, the other couple are complementary and, after thinking on them, can be classified under the rubric of Creation, Sin, and Redemption.
1. The Story is About Something (Creation) – First the caution. Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and the Moral Order alerts us against the sort of historicisms which take this emphasis on narrative and history to the point of forgetting that the story is about something. In essence, the denial of the category of ‘nature’ or creation as a relevant one for moral reflection:
We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about. The subject of a story must be something or someone of intrinsic value and worth; if it is not, the story loses all its interest and importance as a story. The story of what has happened in God’s good providence to the good world which God made is ‘history’ in the fullest sense. But when that world is itself dissolved into history…then history is left without a subject, so that we have no history any more, but only…’process’. And then again, the story of the world as Christians have told it has its turning-point in the saving act of God in Jesus Christ. Through that crisis it is uniquely determined towards its end. But when every determination to every end is understood equally as a determination to the end of history, the critical moment of the story is lost, the turning-point forgotten.
-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg. 60
O’Donovan is getting at the point that creation, as a whole and in human natures as created, is the necessary pre-requisite for history as the stage of moral action–it is the set-up. Unless the human being is a certain sort of thing before the action, and the world is a certain kind of place, the things that happen within it lose their meaning. Without creation as the “theater of God’s glory”, to use Calvin’s phrase, there can be no drama of redemption.
2. You Are Not the Only, or Main, Author/Character (Sin) – Although it wasn’t likely his intention, a quote from MacIntyre himself sheds some light on the nature of sin:
I spoke earlier of the agent as not only an actor, but an author. Now I must emphasize that what the agent is able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more (and sometimes less) that the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please. In life, as both Aristotle and Engels noted, we are always under certain constraints. We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves as part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others and each drama constrains the others. In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero. Each of our dramas exerts constraints on each others’s making the whole different from the parts, but still dramatic.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed., pg. 213
In drawing attention to the narrative shape of our lives, there comes the realization that, in some sense, we are not just agents but authors. In a theological context this comes with a serious qualification, though–given the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and God’s sustaining providence we are sub-authors at best. MacIntyre reinforces the point by calling our attention to the fact that at the merely human level my authorship is not total or complete. I am a sort of Mad-libber who inserts my responses at key points in the story that already has particular parameters beyond my control. This begins to expose the narcissistic madness we engage in when we claim credit for the blessings in our lives. Most of the good that comes our way is not in any way attributable to our own wonderful moral character, at least not by comparison to others. The fact that you’re reading this blog on a computer right now has more to do with the fact that you were born into a society in which computers are easily-accessed and not in the 5th Century China, than your own stellar work ethic. The resulting story of my life is, yes, something I’m responsible for, but at the same time, not something I can claim credit for. Paul asks, “What do you have which you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) And yet, that’s precisely what sin is: claiming credit for someone else’s work. It is our willfully blind, ungrateful denial of the Author of our existence, who determines the times and the places in which we will play our parts in his story. (Acts 17:26)
MacIntyre also begins to show us the way this false sense of authorship leads to conflict with our neighbors. At the end of the day, in our arrogance and pride we are convinced that we are both the author and the main character in the epic which everybody else plays a bit part or supporting role. Most conflict comes when you find out that the story doesn’t revolve around you, or when you clash with your neighbor because he’s trying to accomplish his own heroic ends at your expense, and not playing the bit role you’ve assigned him. What else should we expect when two sinners, who’ve rejected any acknowledgment of the true Author or story-line, begin to encounter the “constraints” imposed by the dramas of others?
3. The Power is in the Story (Redemption) – This one is for preachers and pastors. Nearly 60 years before MacIntyre wrote After Virtue, J. Gresham Machen was criticizing the Liberals of his day, among other things, for misunderstanding the nature of Christian moral exhortation. In denying or radically reducing the basic outlines of the gospel narrative into generalized moral principles, “a life”, they robbed it of its power to result in real moral change:
From the beginning Christianity was certainly a life. But how was the life produced? It might conceivably have been produced by exhortation. That method had often been tried in the ancient world; in the Hellenistic age there were many wandering preachers who told men how they ought to live. But such exhortation proved to be powerless. Although the ideals of the Cynic and Stoic preachers were high, these preachers never succeeded in transforming society. The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event. It is no wonder that such a method seemed strange. Could anything be more impractical than the attempt to influence conduct by rehearsing events concerning the death of a religious teacher? That is what Paul called “the foolishness of the message.” It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal preachers today. But the strange thing is that it works. The effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.
– J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg 42
The Christian call to repentance is not simply a challenge to live differently or adopt some new moral principles. It is fundamentally a call to embrace the drama of redemption that God has authored in Christ as a new story to live by–and that only happens as the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel. Preaching aimed at real transformation can never degenerate into mere moral exhortation because at the end of the day, the power is in the story.
This is not Caroline’s house. Do not try and come visit her here.
Today I had a great talk with my friend Caroline, the Director of Children’s Ministries at my church. A couple of her kids are students of mine and so we were talking about the funny things that happen when they bring their friends over to hang out. In the middle of it she shared what I thought was an important realization about God’s gifts and the nature of hospitality. I’ve asked her if I could share it with my blog readers and so she kindly wrote it up for me.
I had a revelation a few weeks back. You see my family and I live in a small (under 1400 square feet) home in Santa Ana. I have loved and been thankful for our house of 3 years since day one–but I have not been proud of it–apologetic may have been a better word for how I felt when friends (who literally live in the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog) would stop by. And if I were to be totally honest, I avoided anyone coming to my house and have even been known for waiting at the gate when expecting someone to stop by to pick me up.
Then a few weeks ago my daughter invited several of her friends over for dinner and an evening of games and movies. Each of these amazing young adults has quite a story of redemption–coming out of many unhealthy and ungodly situations and clearly and dramatically saved for God’s purpose and God’s glory. They grew up in houses that included drugs, gangs, and a lot of darkness. That evening each one blessed me by complementing our home–my favorite was when one young woman exclaimed, “it’s just like a page from a Target catalog!” Laughing I looked at her and then around at my miss-matched furniture (everything bought second-hand or given to us by friends), the tiny kitchen, dusty shelves, stacks of papers and said “thank you.” I truly appreciated that she was speaking from her heart–I wondered what her home growing up had been like, and I recognized all that God had blessed our family with. My sense of pride grew in what God had given us–in a house and the atmosphere inside it.
-Caroline Elias, Director of Children’s Ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian
Caroline’s basically said it all, but I just want to make a couple of points clear:
Hospitality can happen anywhere–even your home. You don’t need to have a massive, showroom style house to have people over and bless them. That can happen anywhere. In fact, two of the most hospitable people I know are a couple of newly-weds who live in a back-house the size of an apartment who have over 10-15 young adults for dinner every week.
As a rule we tend to compare ourselves to those with more, rather than to those with less. This doesn’t necessarily make us ungrateful or resentful. Sometimes it just robs of the joy of realizing how truly blessed and fortunate we really are. Having a Target house is a joy from the Lord, just as much as a Pottery Barn house.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. Bonus point because I’m a college pastor: there is a blessing that comes with college ministry. Sure there’s a blessing with every ministry, but honestly, sometimes it’s as easy as having a couple of students from your church over for dinner and listening to their stories.
A great joy of mine is finding out that I’m not dumb. By that I mean, I love running across sections in works by legitimately brilliant people articulating something that I’ve been thinking for a while, but haven’t taken the time to write out anywhere, or I haven’t seen laid out clearly before. Reading Oliver O’Donovan’s brilliant piece of Christian moral theory Resurrection and the Moral Order has afforded me a number of those experiences. (Note: that wasn’t an intentional humble-brag, just an accidental one.) For instance, in one exceptionally helpful passage, he highlights the importance in separating out the epistemological questions involved in knowledge of the moral order and the ontological question of its existence.
What am I talking about? Well, in a nutshell, some moral thinkers, particularly in the Natural Law tradition, have made the point that if a rational God has created the world, he must have done so with a certain order to it, particularly a moral one consistent with his own nature, that ought to be intelligible (readable) to human agents within it. Indeed, there seem to be some self-evident truths about morality and life that transcend culture which give testimony to this indelibly-written law on the heart of humanity.
Others have pointed out that moving from culture to culture, and even within the same culture, there are large areas of dispute as to the moral character of the universe. Much of the content of our moral judgments that are “self-evident” to us in the West are largely rejected throughout the world and therefore seem merely cultural values, or perhaps, adaptively-advantageous norms, such that a real skepticism about framing any sort of moral judgments based on the natural order is a chimera. Indeed, on this basis many of them doubt that there even exists some order of this sort.
Into the confusion steps O’Donovan. While he argues quite forcibly for the necessity of grounding any ethical system in the created order, he acknowledges and explains the theological root of the non-obviousness of that moral order:
There is, however, another side to the matter which has to be asserted equally strongly. In speaking of man’s fallenness we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it. This does not permit us to follow the Stoic recipe for ‘life in accord with nature’ without a measure of epistemological guardedness. The very societies which impress us by their reverence for some important moral principle will appal us by their neglect of some other. Together with man’s essential involvement in created order and his rebellious discontent with it, we must reckon also upon the opacity and obscurity of that order to the human mind which has rejected the knowledge of its Creator. We say that man’s rebellion has not succeeded in destroying the natural order to which he belongs; but that is something which we could not say with theological authority except on the basis of God’s revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We say that this, that or the other cultural demand or prohibition (the prohibition of incest, for example, or of racial discrimination) reflects the created order of God faithfully, but that too is something which we can know only by taking our place within the revelation of that order afforded us in Christ. It is not, as the sceptics and relativists correctly reminds us, self-evident what is nature and what is convection. How can we be sure that the prohibition of incest is not yet another primitive superstition? How can we assert confidently that Bantu and Caucasian races belong equally to one human kind that renders cultural and biological differentiation between them morally irrelevant? The epistemological programme for an ethic that is ‘natural’, in the sense that its contents are simply known to all, has to face dauntingly high barriers. But we are not to conclude from this that there is no ontological ground for an ‘ethic of nature’, no objective order to which the moral life can respond. We may only conclude that any certainty we may have about the order which God has made depends on God’s own disclosure of himself and of his works.
–Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics,pg 19
O’Donovan insists that keeping our epistemological judgments and our ontological judgments straight is imperative if we’re going to understand the nature of our moral situation. Admitting that the moral order isn’t obvious should not betray us into concluding it isn’t there. To do so would constitute a gross denial of the doctrine of creation and the moral character of God.
Instead, an acknowledgement of the Fall’s distorting effect upon our moral knowledge leads us to be humble in our judgments, and seek the truth of the universe as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Not because Jesus points us to a moral order that was never there prior to his advent, although his coming does bring about a new moral situation, but because he points us to and renews the one that has been there since the beginning. Also because repentance (metanoia) must form part of our quest for moral truth. In repentance we reconsider our relationship to God’s created order which, in sin, we have rejected and misunderstood. Jesus Christ is the one who grants repentance by the power of the Holy Spirit to confused sinners whose moral judgments stand condemned alongside of them. Once again, even our knowledge of the moral reality we have violated comes down to the grace of the one who instituted it and redeemed it.
For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!
Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:
There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:
This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
-D.A. Carson, For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15
Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.
Historical myopia is a perennial danger to Church, especially in the area of theology. Every generation has its own particular, culturally-conditioned ways of talking about the Gospel, even when it works from the same biblical texts and recites the same creeds. In our own sin and shortsightedness, we have themes we love to highlight and those topics we’d rather not bring up in polite company. This is why every once in a while it’s good to stop, expand our vision, and listen to Christians of other generations expound or summarize the faith, especially the giants, those respected teachers known for speaking well for the Church as a whole.
On that note, here’s St. Irenaeus, the first great church theologian of the post-Apostolic period, laying out the Church’s faith in contrast to the convoluted Valentinian Gnostic system:
The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 1.10.1
A couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a little book about Heaven, Hell, and all that God stuff. You might have heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it–he didn’t say anything new. (Or necessarily very good. I’ll be honest, even though I was a Bell fan in college, I was pretty disappointed with that last one.) In any case, it kicked off a little bit of a crap-storm in the Evangelical world. Well, actually, it was the online theological storm of the century. There were pre-emptive tweets by Evangelical megastars, negative reviews, glowing recommendations, counter-reviews, charges of heresy, charges of heresy-hunting, gangs roaming the internet with clubs watching for signs of dissent or support, refugee camps, and basically all that is unholy in the blogosphere.
At the same time, some good conversations and decent theology got out too.
Now, thankfully this all went down before I had a blog up and running. Given the amount of Facebook conversations I was involved in during that whole imbroglio, I praise God that in his providence that he spared me from my own immaturity. It seems though, that Rob Bell has written another book. It’s about God, or at least, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Well, here’s the trailer:
Before I read it, or anybody else reads it, or writes a review, or tweets some 140-character gem and the whole blogging world explodes with outrage and applause, I have a few thoughts to offer up to the online world, both within my own Reformedish tribe, as well as those outside it:
1. Calm Down – First things first–calm down. Whoever you are, turn it down a notch. If you’re a Bell fan, slow your roll. No, he’s not going to unveil the secrets of the universe. It’s not revolutionary or visionary. He’s probably just written down something somebody else has written in a printed blog format
oddly-spaced lines that
that you’ve never heard of because you’re not reading
If you’re a Bell critic, especially if you’re Reformed, calm down. Realize that if you really believe the confessions, none of what he writes means God isn’t actually sovereign, won’t take care of his church, or that the whole church will drift into heresy and death because of it. Yes, given the last book, you will probably not like a lot of this one. Yes, many people will read it and agree to propositions about and perceptions of God you find to be unworthy and un-scriptural. Yes, you might have plenty of correcting to do. But once again, this has been the situation of the Church for the last 2,000 years. It will survive one book.
In fact, just take a minute to recover by reading Romans 9 or some of the Institutes. There. Feel better?
Okay, let’s move on.
2. Read First, Shoot Later (Or, Don’t Shoot, Pray Before You Write) – This one’s mostly for critics–read the book before you say anything super-critical about it. Seriously. It doesn’t help to declaim something as full of heresy and beyond the pale if you’ve never read the dang thing. Also, when you do read it, do it with the spirit of generosity, trying your best to love your neighbor as yourself, reading as sympathetically as you’d like to be read. Don’t caricature or misquote, or uncharitably misrepresent. You might still find a whole bunch of stuff you don’t like–stuff that troubles and disturbs you so that you feel the need to correct in print. That’s fine. I believe firmly that any publicly-promulgated doctrine or false teaching needs to be corrected publicly for the health and life the church. Jesus and the apostles hated heresy, so if there is any, by all means, declaim away. That said, remember that it needs to be done in a spirit of love and with the integrity that flows from the Gospel. Our polemics may be passionate, but they should always be principled and never be putrid. Truth cannot be championed by dishonesty, and especially if you’re a pastor, remember that you’re setting an example for your hearer/readers. The way you react often sets the tone for your people, as well as the watching world. As the old hymn goes, they will know us by our love. Love doesn’t exclude disagreement and confrontation, but it should change the way it goes down. Pray before you hit ‘publish’ on that blog.
3. Try to Understand the Other Team – I hate to call them teams, but yes, in issues like this, realistically the theological spectrum ends up splitting into opposing teams who drive the conversation, with some people trying to occupy the center but usually leaning one way more than the other. I’ll just say that both sides need to strive to understand the other’s concerns. For instance, if you read Love Wins and you didn’t for an instant sympathize with the criticisms that Bell was launching against some traditional doctrines, I’m just going hazard a guess that you’re probably not an effective evangelist, because he was hitting at legitimate (or at least common) theological and cultural concerns. I’m not saying he gave the right answers, but if you can’t understand why those answers resonated with so many in our culture, then you’re not going to be able to thoughtfully and compassionately provide the answers you deem to be the biblical ones with any kind of charity or grace to those without as clear of a theological vision as you. At the other end of things, if you were a Bell fan and you absolutely loved the book, and were unable to see the criticisms as anything more than insecure heresy-hunting conducted by narrow-minded gate-keepers, then I’d hazard a guess that you might be suffering from a sort of reverse-theological boundary keeping, which immediately privileges anything deemed to be “unorthodox” by the Evangelical majority. If you can’t see why more thoughtful, sensitive believers of a more “conservative” bent might have felt attacked or caricatured in that book, you probably won’t be someone who can graciously and thoughtfully correct them on what you deem to be their theological deficiencies.
4. Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression – Expanding on that last point, realize that we wouldn’t have half of the New Testament if the apostles like Paul, John, or Peter weren’t passionate about correcting errors both in doctrine and practice. Colossians is an attack on syncretistic theology of a Jewish-Hellenistic sort that threatened to lead the Colossian believers back into a beggarly superstition, trusting in various intermediaries instead of the supremacy of Christ. Galatians combats the Judaizing failure to recognize the eschatological shift in redemptive-history brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection due to nationalistic self-righteousness, which threatened to split the community between Gentiles and Jews. John combats love-denying proto-Gnosticism that, again, tears at community. The list could easily go on. The NT authors pursued public false teaching with passion because they knew that there was a real link-up between sound doctrine and a life-giving love of God in their flocks. The point is, Bell fans need to realize that when he writes a book publicly expounding a theological position that sets itself in direct, or even tacit, opposition to a large portion of the theological populace, criticizing and writing it off, it is not unreasonable to expect some push-back–not because his theology is necessarily heretical. It might not be. But even if it is merely perceived as such, understand that it might be very real, pastoral concern that drives the criticism, not personal animosity or jealousy. Because he’s a teacher, even if he’s just “asking questions”, (there’s a way of “asking questions” that’s really answering them), every public word is held to account. (James 3) My point is, not every criticism is narrow-minded oppression of theological diversity, but might be real pastoral accountability being exercised, even if you think it’s mistaken.
5. Cling to What is Good, Hate What is Evil – Depending on which translation you use, Romans 12:9 might place the “hate what is evil” or the “cling to what is good” first. In this case, as a word to the initially apprehensive, I would say go in with an attitude that seeks to learn or discern whatever good you can from the book before you find the less-than-good. Of course, be like the Bereans and test everything against the scriptures. (Acts 17:11) If you find something in there that doesn’t line up, reject it. That’s a given. Still, it bears repeating that before you go hunting for everything that’s wrong with it, try to find the good you can affirm on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the scriptures. If for no other reason than to be able to have a fruitful conversation with someone who actually enjoyed the book, you need to be able to affirm the good before you move to critique the bad.
I don’t expect that this is the only thing I’ll say on the whole issue. I might even write one of those critical or, I wish, glowing reviews. (I’d love to love this book.) But for now, before I’ve read a single word, here’s what I’ve got to say. I pray it blesses God’s church, bringing more light than heat.
Seriously, I cannot recommend this book enough whether you’re single, dating, married, newly-married, divorced, or an infant. Read it.
I ended the last post asking “What does love have to be if it’s something I can promise?” How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In this post I’ll lay out three differences between poetic and covenantal love, largely drawn from Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.
1. More Action than Emotion – If poetic love is primarily an affair of the emotions that just sweeps you up in a passion, covenantal love is primarily an action. Paul assumes this when commands husbands to love their wives. (Eph 5:25) You can’t command feelings, but you can command activities. Saying “I love you” or “I do” with a covenantal love in view, is committing yourself to “BE” and “DO” certain things for a person. It is a decision to sacrificially commit yourself fully and wholly in loyalty to another person, putting their welfare, joy, and life above your own. When I promised to love my wife, I didn’t promise “I will always feel warm fuzzies towards you.” I promised, “I will be a husband to you–I will care, pray, show affection, be there when you need me, support you, cling to you, and will your good.”
Now, of course it does involve emotion, but often-times what I find is that these emotions can actually flow from the actions. For example, it might be a date night with my wife bit I’m tired and just want to stay home and watch TV to decompress after a long week. Making the decision to go through the trouble of getting ready, getting dressed, shaving (my neck–because neck beards are unnacceptable), and getting in the car when I don’t really feel like it, surprisingly can lead towards actually feeling like it. The loving action stirs up my loving emotion so by the time we’re on the road, I’m actually excited for the night out with my wife. That’s a microcosm of what can happen in marriage as a whole, when the decision to act in loving ways is made independent of a current emotional basis, the emotion often follows.
2. Other-centered not Self-centered – The next difference is what love is centered on. Aside from the fact that it’s unstable, our culture’s understanding of love is essentially self-centered. It’s consumeristic in that it basically says, “As long as you fulfill me, please me, tickle my fancy, then I’m here. As soon as the buzz fades, I leave.” If love is primarily about an emotion felt, then you only ‘love’ the person when they are producing feelings in you. Actually, that’s why you’re loving them. The point is, in this view, love is a potent emotion that the other person inspires in you because of what they do for you, who they are–it’s primarily a selfish experience about you, your wants, your desires.
By contrast, in the Bible love is not primarily about what I get out of the person or what I feel about the person, but about what I am willing to give to the person. Am I willing to give them time, faithfulness, exclusivity? I know how much I love someone by how much I am willing to put their needs ahead of my own, not necessarily how much I “feel” about them. In consumer love, the self is placed before the relationship: the point is you’re in it to get something out of it. In covenant love, the relationship is placed before the self. In fact, the point is, covenant love is a union where I so identify myself with you, that your needs become my needs, your wants are my wants even when they’re not what I personally want. I am so bound to you that I desire to serve you just like I serve me. Covenant love doesn’t tally. It doesn’t keep records because when I give to you, in love I have identified your needs as my own. Now, how beautiful is this? Two people who have so placed the needstrying to sacrifice, two people trying to out-serve each other, two people out for each other’s joy instead of two people out for their own joy.
3. Vertical v. Horizontal– This brings us to the final difference. If love is primarily an emotional thing, if the reason I go to the other, serve, the other, etc. give emotion to the other is because of the way we make each other feel, then this is essentially a consumer transaction. We are paying each other in warm fuzzies. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to think about marriage as basically something that’s just happening between you and your spouse and to be honest, I don’t know if that’s going to work out for very long. Unfortunately, in most marriages there comes a time when I just can’t say, “I love you” because I don’t feel it. In the hardness of my heart, I’m going to be tempted to say, “You’re not worth it” or “I just don’t have the strength.”
This is where Kierkegaard’s “love transformed by the eternal” comes into play–what if love was not just between two people, but between two people and God? See, when we promise, when we say “I do”, we’re promising God not our spouse. So, when I’m serving my wife, I’m serving my God. When I’m loving my wife, I’m loving God. I can’t separate the two. Of course, the inverse means that to break faith with spouse is to break faith with God at the same time. This is at the core of why God has something to say about divorce and marriage–as a covenant partner it is His business.
At first this sounds threatening, but in reality, it should be encouraging. If it’s not just me and the sinner I married, then I have a shot. When that day comes when you look at your spouse and you, in the hardness of your heart, might say, “You’re not worth this”–putting my relationship in the context of my relationship with God gives me the strength to love when it’s hard, stick it out when it’s painful, and be faithful anyways. When it’s not just me and another sinner trying to tell each other we’re worth it, it’s a lot easier: Why? Because God is always worth it. Even more than that, it’s not just me and another sinner trying to pull this off on our own strength. If you understand that love has a vertical dimension to it, it means that you can call on God to sustain your love. He has a vested interest in this because ultimately, at the core of who God is and what God has done is the reality covenantal love.
Good News, There is Love
This is something we cannot let our hearts forget: the Gospel is a story about covenantal love. Since we live our lives, and even our marriages, out of the stories we tell ourselves, we need to remind ourselves daily that there is story above all stories–a true story about one, Jesus Christ, who saw his bride and said, “It’s not about me.” He was not drawn to her because she was so awesome that she created all kinds of warm feelings in him out of her own worthiness. Instead, He decided to love her despite her unworthiness. He decided to bind himself and make a covenant with her; to put her needs ahead of His own; to serve her and not himself; to give rather than receive; to be trustworthy and faithful when she was untrustworthy and faithless; to unite himself with her so much that her needs became his needs, and her sins became his sins, and in order to keep the covenant, her death became his death, so that His life could be her life. It is this story that needs to set the framework within which we understand love and marriage. Once again, as in all things, the Gospel of a God who proves his own covenantal love for us in the death of Christ for sinners changes everything. (Rom 5:8)
Sadly, everybody remembers her as Kierkegaard’s fiance and not the wife of her husband…that guy.
February is here and love is in the air–or maybe that’s packaged chocolates and commercial opportunity. In either case, the subject of love and romance will be coming up again, which is why I must once more bring up my favorite philosopher: Soren Kierkegaard.
For those of you who know a little of his biography, he seems an odd choice to turn to on the subject of love–he was one of my philosophers who failed at it. Tragically he broke off his engagement with the lovely Regine Olsen because he felt his depressive melancholy made him unsuitable as a husband. What could we possibly learn from him about love?
Well, for one thing, he’s experienced at failure, so that gives you some insight. Still, Kierkegaard, for all of his Danish weirdness, has this going for him: he’s easily one of the most biblical, prophetic thinkers of the modern period. Under both his own name, and through pseudonyms, he made it his aim to present Christianity anew, true Christianity, with force to a culture that thought it already understood it.
Works of Love and La Dispute In his Works of Love he turns his meditations to the biblical concept of love. The first half is an extended exploration of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The piece that captured my attention was the focus he gives to the “you shall” in Jesus’ command–the fact that Jesus commands love at all. Kierkegaard emphasizes, “You shall love–this, then, is the word of the royal law.” Again, “the mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is a duty.” (pg. 40) Later he writes, “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (pg. 44)
Against the popular, romantic “poetic” conception of love that dominated the intellectual scene of his day, Kierkegaard pressed the idea that the highest form of love was not the “spontaneous”, sudden, seizing form of love that sweeps over a couple of lovers, but rather love as duty–love as something secured by the eternal, the command of God. The love of the lovers is beautiful, yes, but it is fleeting–it can change. Even if it lasts, it’s not to be trusted entirely. It can leave. La Dispute gives us one of the best, contemporary expressions of this kind of love on their album, “Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair“, exploring the dynamics of a failed marriage, rent asunder by the wife’s affair.
Speaking in the aftermath, the wife sings, “I know I tore two worlds apart but I can’t change the way I felt./Love swept in like a storm and ripped the hinges from the doors./Love poured in like a flood, I couldn’t stop it anymore. I will not be drowned” (Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies), or, even more poignantly:
Oh husband, I could not control it Husband, I could not abstain One cannot stop the wind from blowing Nor refuse the falling rain Love stirred up a storm inside me Wrapped its arms around my waist I failed you dear, I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry There was nothing I could do No, there was nothing I could Sure as the rain will fall Some love just fails without reason
Poetic love is that inherently unstable, emotional chaos that sweeps over us with great passion, and apparently can leave us as quickly. Matt Chandler calls this the “naked angel in a diaper” theory where basically, at any point, cupid can show up and strike you. It has no rhyme or reason, like the blowing of the wind or the falling rain.
Kierkegaard points out that the poets instinctively know this; note how often their lovers swear, make promises, and bind themselves to each other in their love. Still, if they only swear by themselves, it is an insecure promise because humans are changeable, unstable. Only when you swear by something higher, something eternal, duty, God himself, can love be something secure. “The love which simply exists, however fortunate, however blissful, however satisfying, however poetic it is, still must survive the test of the years. But the love which has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty has won continuity.” (pg. 47)
Kierkegaard, Keller, and Covenant Love Kierkegaard was pointing his culture to a love “transformed by the eternal”: covenantal love. When we hear the word “covenant” today, we mostly don’t know what we’re dealing with. Contracts are closest thing we can imagine, but that’s far too impersonal for the biblical notion of covenant. The concept and language of covenant in the Bible is that of a legal bond, a union based on promises before God and humans of fidelity, friendship, love, exclusivity, and trust.
Now to us this “legalizing” of the relationship seems to drain all of the emotion, the passion–the love!–out of things. For moderns, it’s either love or law, not both. Tim Keller has recently pointed out that, in fact, the law, the promise, especially the marriage promise, doesn’t kill emotion and intimacy, but actually is a testimony to it and increases it. (The Meaning of Marriage, pp 84-85) Marriage–the public, binding promise–is the ultimate expression of romantic love because its the giving of the whole self. Someone who doesn’t want to eventually get married to the person they’re dating is basically saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.” How intimate. Ultimately, only when romantic love is set within the framework of a binding obligation do the lovers truly have space to reveal their true selves, without fear of abandonment or rejection. Until then, you’re still on the performance platform, constantly under pressure to put your best foot forward to make sure the other person doesn’t bolt. Ironically, only when you give up your “freedom”, your romantic autonomy, are you able to be truly free to be with the other.
Love, it turns out, hangs on a promise.
So what does love have to be if it’s something I can promise? How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In my next post, I’ll lay out more clearly the difference between this covenant love and the poetic love.