Whose Experience? Which Story?

experienceSince beginning this blog, I’ve had reason to note the character of online discussion, argument, and debate more carefully than I have in the past. One theme that I’ve wanted to give some attention to has been the increasingly normative place that is given to unique experiences as conferring authority to speak on certain moral matters. I was this close to writing a masterful piece discussing the issue, but then I found that, once again, Alastair Roberts already had.

In a wonderful article speaking into the issue of the recent “purity culture” debates, Roberts points to the root of this mode of argument as an “ethics of empathy”:

At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people bravely and authentically articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either…

Expanding on this, he writes:

For many of those who place great weight upon personal experience as the locus of truth, the application of frameworks of judgment to contexts beyond our experience can be a cardinal sin. Moral judgments are illegitimate unless we have walked a mile in the other person’s shoes, seen what they have seen, and experienced what they have experienced. For instance, we have never been in the position of the terminally ill person in acute pain, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of euthanasia. We may never have been pregnant in poverty without a partner to support us, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of abortion. We may never have experienced what it is like be trapped in a loveless marriage, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of divorce. We may never have experienced the sexual frustration of living with a spouse who cannot fulfill our sexual needs, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of monogamy. We may never have experienced the hopelessness of the aging unmarried person, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of chastity…

I’m going to have to restrain myself from simply quoting the whole post, because that would just be pointless. I do encourage you to go read it, though.

Paraphrasing Alasdair MacIntyre, the question I’m always tempted to ask of those wielding the experience trump card is “Whose Experience? Which Story?” Why is your experience the valid one? Why is your story the compelling narrative to which my judgments on X moral subject must submit? Why not my experiences and story? Or what about those of my neighbor who disagrees with you? What about the experiences those long-dead? Or those with a different gender? Or those in other countries? Or…you get the point.

My point isn’t to rule out the place of story and personal experience in moral reflection, but to question the weight we currently give it. As Roberts observes, in our current climate, our stories and experiences seem to take on unquestionable moral status, especially if it is one of hurt, oppression, or pain; they are sacred and inviolable. Have you been oppressed by a pastor who was harshly disciplinarian and are now vehemently opposed to any sort of church discipline at all? Well, why is that experience the one that’s normative over against the person whose church was morally-destroyed because of pastoral unwillingness to exercise any discipline at all? We can find both experiences, and many in-between, so why ought we listen to one over the other? If we’re not going to simply lean on the cliched “It’s true for me, but not for you” mantra, we have to deal with the issue of how we judge or accommodate the interpretive pluralism of experience.

This is far from a complete treatment of the subject, but a few quick thoughts:

First, Roberts points out that Jesus and Paul, two unmarried, single men seem to have plenty to say about situations like marriage, parenting, etc. in which they’ve never participated. That’s not to say they hadn’t been around them or given them deep thought, but the Bible doesn’t seem to share the whole, “If you haven’t been in exactly my shoes, you can’t speak to me” philosophy. In fact, he goes on to point out that often-times what we need most is an outside observer who isn’t immediately involved in the situation to help us think things through a bit. While there are times that experience is precisely what gives us insight into a situation we might not have otherwise, in others it is precisely our non-involvement that enables us to judge rightly.

Second, I’d like to restate a point I’ve made in another piece: “while it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.” It also means that we live in the same moral and theological world. We can talk to each other about right and wrong, sin and righteousness, grace and redemption even if our particulars are different.

Of course, this can only happen if we understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience. We need to see that in the Bible we have THE normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story get the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited or sinfully twisted like ours. Only his judgments are pure and wholly true, because only he knows the end from the beginning, and the ends for which he began all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

Meet the Family

victoria_family_tree_1901Family trees can be fascinating. At some point we all get this itch to find out where we come from, who we are, or whether our ancestry contains some famous personage. We have this sense that knowing our roots says something about who we are; our identity is caught up in our heritage. I know for myself, there’s been a rumor going around that there is some Crusader blood somewhere up the family tree on my mother’s side, the Bendecks. I did some digging online–the kind you can do without paying money for blood tests and all that–and there might be something to it.

John Jefferson Davis points out that this fascination with our ancestry ought to be one more thing driving us to read our Bibles:

How do we understand our fundamental identity and purpose in life as we approach the Scriptures in prayerful meditation? Our sense of personal identity, either conscious or unconsciously presupposed, does influence the way we approach texts. If I am looking at a set of papers and hearing my friend explain her family tree and the fruits of her genealogical research, I may listen with polite and sincer interest; if someone shows me surprising new information about my family tree–that I am descended from some great celebrity from the past–then my interest is even deeper!

The Bible is, in a very real sense, my “family tree.” I read the biblical text not as an outsider but as an insider. Jesus Christ, the central character in the entire biblical narrative is not a stranger to me but–by virtue of my union with him–is my ancestor, my brother, and my beloved friend. “My lover is mine and I am his…His banner over me is love.” (Song 2:16, 4)

Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction, pg. 80

This, I think, was one of the advantages of being raised in in Sunday School; I’ve always had a vivid sense that when I was learning the flannel-graph stories about the patriarchs, I was learning something about myself. In ways more subtle than a 2nd grader could grasp, I was being ecclesially and scripturally-formed.

In one sense, I’ve always known that the Bible is not about me. It certainly wasn’t addressed to me when it was written, but the original communities which formed the people of God addressed by the prophets and apostles; my name appears nowhere in the text. At a deeper level though, Scripture is not about somebody else, but intimately involves me because I am united to its main character. Because of that, when I read the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1, I’m not just reading about Jesus’ royal lineage, but my own. If I am in Christ, then King David is my flawed but glorious grandfather; Ruth is my redeemed pagan grandmother; Jacob is my ingenious but duplicitous forefather. As Paul argues, by faith I am included in the covenant people of God so that I am one of the heirs promised to Abraham (Rom. 4). Because of this, the failures of Israel are my family’s failures as are her glories.

And this is simply one more reason we should want to read our Bibles–it’s how we meet the family.

Soli Deo Gloria

Love Them Anyways

Even Scumbag Steve is made in the Image of God.

Even Scumbag Steve is made in the Image of God.

Every once in a while you have one of those encounters when you’re reminded of the fact that people are corrupt. I mean, it could be anything from turning on the news and watching widespread violence, to 5 minutes of watching the way people treat the baristas at Starbucks and you remember that there is something deeply perverse in the human heart. In those moments it’s tempting to look at people think, “You’re not worth it. You don’t deserve my respect, my kindness, my courtesy, and certainly not my love. God, I just can’t do it. Not that guy.”

John Calvin knew a little something about that. Not known for having the sunniest anthropology in the world, he offers those who stumble in the face of human corruption a scriptural exhortation to love:

Furthermore, not to grow weary in well-doing {Galatians 6:9], which otherwise must happen immediately, we ought to add that other idea which the apostle mentions: “Love is patient… and is not irritable” [1 Corinthians 13:4-5]. The Lord commands all men without exception “to do good” [Hebrews 13:16]. Yet the great part of them are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit. But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. However, it is among members of the household of faith that this same image is more carefully to be noted [Galatians 6:10], in so far as it has been renewed and restored through the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.

–Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.7.6

While Calvin was not an optimist but a biblical realist about the human person, he strongly championed the worth of the individual, not according to their own merit, but because of the distorted, but still-present, Image of God in every person. There is no one who is beyond our responsibility to aid because they are made in the image of our Maker; to despise the former is to reject the latter.

Anticipating objections on the order of, “But you don’t know this guy…” Calvin lists various situations in which we, like the lawyer who asked “who is my neighbor”, might try to escape God’s command to love him and answers them in turn:

Say, “He is a stranger”; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh [Isaiah 58:7, Vg.].
Say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.
Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself.
Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.
-ibid. III.7.6

He finally turns to the last situation, that of an enemy–one who has done us active wrong and probably deserves some sort of vengeance:

Now if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust acts and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf [Matthew 6:14; 18:35; Luke 17:3]. You will say, “He has deserved something far different of me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches [Matthew 5:44]. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

-ibid. III.7.6

Calvin points us here, as he always does, to the Gospel. In it we see a God who tells us, “Forgive what is to his account, but charge it to me, for I have already paid it. Look to the deep ransom I have bled in order to regain that beautiful Image and reconsider.” Calvin wants us to take the time to look at people, not according to their merit, but according the lovely Image, as damaged and broken as it is, of the Beautiful One who deserves all of our love and devotion.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Dangers and One Hope for Pastors

parsonCalvin was nothing if not a theologian in service of the church. As much as he had to say about justification, faith, salvation in Christ, all of that was for the sake of the church and the right worship of God. To that end, he devoted a significant section to the proper calling and role of elders within the Christ’s Church, not only in the Institutes, but within the commentaries. As a careful student of the apostles though, he was not only concerned with right order but faithful pastoral care as we can see by his expansive comments on 1 Peter 5:1-4.

First he lays out the 3-fold structure of Peter’s instructions for pastors:

In exhorting pastors to their duty, he points out especially three vices which are found to prevail much, even sloth, desire of gain, and lust for power. In opposition to the first vice he sets alacrity or a willing attention; to the second, liberality; to the third, moderation and meekness, by which they are to keep themselves in their own rank or station.

Commentary on Catholic Epistles, 1 Peter 5:1-4

He then goes on to comment on the three at length, notably devoting special attention to the issue of pride or power:

  1. Sloth – He then says that pastors ought not to exercise care over the flock of the Lord, as far only as they are constrained; for they who seek to do no more than what constraint compels them, do their work formally and negligently. Hence he would have them to do willingly what they do, as those who are really devoted to their work.
  2. Avarice – To correct avarice, he bids them to perform their office with a ready mind; for whosoever has not this end in view, to spend himself and his labor disinterestedly and gladly in behalf of the Church, is not a minister of Christ, but a slave to his own stomach and his purse.
  3. Lust for Power – The third vice which he condemns is a lust for exercising power or dominion. But it may be asked, what kind of power does he mean? This, as it seems to me, may be gathered from the opposite clause, in which he bids them to be examples to the flock. It is the same as though he had said that they are to preside for this end, to be eminent in holiness, which cannot be, except they humbly subject themselves and their life to the same common rule. What stands opposed to this virtue is tyrannical pride, when the pastor exempts himself from all subjection, and tyrannizes over the Church. It was for this that Ezekiel condemned the false prophets, that is, that . (Ezekiel 34:4.) Christ also condemned the Pharisees, because they laid intolerable burdens on the shoulders of the people which they would not touch, no, not with a finger. (Matthew 23:4.) This imperious rigour, then, which ungodly pastors exercise over the Church, cannot be corrected, except their authority be restrained, so that they may rule in such a way as to afford an example of a godly life.

-ibid., v. 1-3

Far from encouraging an overweening authoritarianism, Calvin exhorts pastors not to keep themselves above the flock. Spiritual leadership does not equal license, or an invitation to “tyrannical pride.” “Imperious rigor” is not what is needed, but the “example of a godly life” in which pastors are chief in pursuit of holiness before anything else. Then, he moves to impress them with the importance of following the Peter’s commands by acknowledging the real obstacles pastors face:

Except pastors retain this end in view, it can by no means be that they will in good earnest proceed in the course of their calling, but will, on the contrary, become often faint; for there are innumerable hindrances which are sufficient to discourage the most prudent. They have often to do with ungrateful men, from whom they receive an unworthy reward; long and great labors are often in vain; Satan sometimes prevails in his wicked devices.

-ibid. v. 4

In fact, there is only “one remedy” for the discouragement they face amidst their many labors:

…to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ. Thus it will be, that he, who seems to derive no encouragement from men, will assiduously go on in his labors, knowing that a great reward is prepared for him by the Lord. And further, lest a protracted expectation should produce languor, he at the same time sets forth the greatness of the reward, which is sufficient to compensate for all delay: An unfading crown of glory, he says, awaits you.

-ibid. v 4

Finally, he calls attention to the fact that in the end Peter “calls Christ the chief Pastor”:

for we are to rule the Church under him and in his name, in no other way but that he should be still really the Pastor. So the word chief here does not only mean the principal, but him whose power all others ought to submit to, as they do not represent him except according to his command and authority.

-ibid, v. 4

This is a warning and a comfort. All pastoral authority is exercised only under the authority of Christ–remembering this will keep us from that tyrannical pride and vice. The comfort comes in knowing that as we pastor and fail, we have an unfailing Pastor who is keeping care over our souls as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Star Trek Into Misogynistic Darkness? (CaPC)

Dr.-MarcusMy wife and I like movies. We rent some, Netflix others, and spend a decent amount of time at the theaters over the summer. One constant we’ve come to take for granted across various genres and ratings is some level of “gratuitous” sexuality. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily limited to full-on nudity, or pointless sex scenes, but can be as tame as a ridiculously dressed character. For instance, I’d be surprised to learn if most female police detectives or lab techs always wear the plunging neck-lines on the job that they do in most films. Just sayin’. Still, half of the time it’s so ludicrous that we just end up laughing at the crass obviousness of what the writers and directors are doing. We’ve sort of resigned ourselves to the fact that this is just the way Hollywood sells it product.

It was rather unsurprising for us, then, during a scene from Star Trek: Into Darkness, when–for mostly no reason–Dr. Marcus (Alice Eve) is seen by Captain Kirk in her underwear as she changes into a protective spacesuit.

You can read where this goes over HERE at the Christ and Pop Culture site.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus Vindicated (Or, One of My Favorite Tim Keller Sermons)

This last April I had the privilege of finally hearing Tim Keller preach live at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. I was slightly worried that after all of these years of listening to hundreds of his sermons, it might not be all that great in comparison. I’ll just say it, Keller owned it. Preaching on the Christ’s vindication and resurrection in Luke 24, Keller does in one sermon what most of us do in 4, without it feeling forced. My point in sharing this with you though, isn’t to glorify Keller, but to point you to the Christ he glorifies through the preaching of the Word. So, without any further commentary, here it is:

Jesus Vindicated – Tim Keller (TGC13) from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If you’d like to see more, the rest of the Gospel Coalition Conference talks are feature HERE at TGC’s website.

Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction (Book Review)

meditation and communion with GodMeditation is viewed with suspicion within many wings of modern Protestantism today. Begin to mention the spiritual discipline of contemplation and immediately accusations or apprehensions that one has imported or smuggled in foreign notions from Eastern philosophies, Buddhism, or less-than-Evangelical mystical pieties start to be leveled. Indeed, at times this isn’t too far off the mark. In our pluralistic culture there is much that passes for Christian spirituality is little more than cleverly-disguised syncretism. And yet, it would be a mistake to miss the need to recover the contemplative dimension to Christian spirituality in our stressed-out, surface-level, consumeristic North American Christianity.

This is why I have been so blessed as I read John Jefferson Davis’ recent work Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of DistractionIn this short, but rich essay, Davis argues and provides a theological foundation for a robust practice of contemplating scripture within an orthodox Evangelical framework. Instead of the mind-emptying techniques rooted in Advaita Hinduism, or Zen Buddhism, Davis wants to present a vision of the soul-expanding practice of deeply contemplating the riches of biblical truth in such a way that actually mediates the life of God himself in union with the Son by the power of the Spirit of the Age to Come.

Six Reasons

Aside from the fact that the Reformed tradition, especially Puritanism, has long had a rich tradition of scriptural contemplation including such lights as John Owen, Thomas Watson, William G.T. Shedd, and others, Davis notes six current factors which make recovering a practice scriptural contemplation urgent and beneficial:

  1. Renewal of interest in spiritual disciplines within Evangelicalism. (pg. 10)
  2. Growing interest in Eastern practices of meditation within a pluralistic context. (pg. 13)
  3. Widespread biblical illiteracy in North American churches. (pg. 18)
  4. Our growing awareness of the effects of the digital age on attention spans and reading habits. (pg. 21)
  5. New research on the effects of meditation on the brain and personal health. (pg. 25)
  6. Trend in biblical and systematic theology which have yet to be integrated into a theology of contemplating Scripture. (pg. 28)

As I read Davis outline his case, I found myself vigorously nodding in agreement, particularly as I thought of my own ability to simply sit down and read the book without compulsively checking my social media. If there is one thing our “distracted” age needs, it is something that forces them to sit down, breath, and think. I don’t think anybody would dispute that. The question becomes then, what are these theological foundations?

Three Themes

Davis devotes most of the rest of the essay to developing a theology of contemplation in light of three key theological developments:

  1. Inaugurated Eschatology (pp. 34-41)- NT scholars for the past couple of generations have highlighted eschatology as the warp and woof of the theology of the NT. Jesus preached the inbreaking kingdom of God which was “now” here and “not yet” fully consummated. Paul taught that through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the powers of the New Age had broken into the Old Age of sin and darkness and were available to us in the Spirit. The Old Covenant having been fulfilled, judgment rendered, victory accomplished, the Spirit is now poured out on all flesh drawing us near into a new access to the Father by grace.
  2. Union with Christ (pp. 41-51)- Connected to this is a renewed emphasis on the reality of our union with Christ. The idea that salvation ought to be thought of in terms of our current union with Christ saves us from a purely-future notion of redemption. Even now we are united to the risen Christ and all of his saving benefits, even though we are not yet fully like him. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ in faith and makes us present to him, even though we are separated in space and time because of the inbreaking of the New Age.
  3. Trinitarian Theology (pp. 51-55) – Finally, the 20th Century renaissance of trinitiarian theology has reminded us of a few key realities: knowing God as he truly is–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–can only help remind us of the fact that we can have personal relations with this personal God (1); having been made in the image of the Triune God, we are inherently relational beings which has implications for our ideas of personal existence and knowing (2); salvation is inherently trinitarian in nature as we are being brought into the life of the Triune God (3).

The Results

Building on these Davis develops them into a re-hauled “inaugurated ontology” that generates insights into our theology of God, cosmos, humanity, salvation, epistemology, and scripture that sets up a new way of understanding what is going one when we read the Bible. We are actually being brought into the presence of and communion with the Triune God through the power of the Spirit who unites us to the Risen Christ. This brief theological outline forms the basis of his rehabilitation of the Medieval Church’s practice of the four-fold interpretation of Scripture, which he believes ought to play an important role in the life of the church, especially in spiritual contemplation of scripture, even while we hang on to the real insights gained by the Reformers’ renewed emphasis on the “literal” sense of the text. Finally, after all of this, he includes a section outlining an actual approach towards a scriptural meditation which includes exercises in “whole-brain” reading and prayer.

A Couple of Final Words

While I’ve enjoyed this book immensely, I’d just add a few words of caveat and warning: this isn’t the easiest book. It’s not the hardest, either. Just realize that it isn’t just a nice little handbook on contemplation. Some background in theology and biblical studies will be helpful in reading it. Also, he has some interesting little philosophical sections on the idea of the self and its location in space; they’re fine as far as they go, but don’t worry about skipping them.

I tell you this now because overall this is an excellent little book. Davis has done the church a real service in working through some of the real theological issues involved in contemplation. Davis’ work assures us that we can be confident that Christ is really present to us, by the power of the Spirit of the New Age, in the reading of Scripture. Slow, prayerful meditation on the Biblical text can be a real means of communion with the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria