Two Reformedish Writers to Keep An Eye On

Like most other bloggers, I read some bloggers on a regular basis, and, of course, being Reformedish, have a predilection for reading other Reformedish bloggers. Many of them are the well-known guys like Kevin DeYoung or Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition, or Matthew Lee Anderson and the crew at Mere Orthodoxy. Their names are familiar and merits well-attested. I wanted to take a moment to point out a couple of other writers that, while they’re better known than I am (for good reason), you may not have heard of: Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts.

I ran across their work both in the last couple of months and they’ve quickly become must-read writers for me. I’ll be straight to the point and say I think they should be for you as well.

andrew wilsonAndrew Wilson: Wilson is a preacher, author, and Ph.D. student out in the UK. He’s written a fabulous little apologetic book entitled “If God, Then What?” that someone has described as Tim Keller content with Donald Miller style. I’d happily hand this out to any of my skeptical or questioning friends and students. While I’d love for you to go pick up the book, you can read his stuff for free over at thinktheology.co.uk. It’s a writing collective with other, very good, authors, but I make sure to read his posts every time they come up. Wilson’s got a marvelous way of making very complicated issues seem quite simple, all the while engaging in very difficult discussions. Coming from a ‘Reformedish’ perspective, he’s comfortable discussing biblical studies, theology, or cultural observation.  He’s also got a knack for irenic polemics, winsomely engaging those whom he criticizes with integrity and grace. I’d encourage you to check out these sample pieces:

Why I Don’t Hate the Word ‘Inerrancy

‘Hunger Games and Dystopia

Also, bonus treat, you can watch Andrew Wilson disussing the issue of homosexuality with Rob Bell HERE.

robertsAlastair Roberts: Also out of the UK, Roberts is a Ph.D. student at Durham and is easily one of the most prolific writers I know of. In fact, prolific isn’t quite the word for him. It’s too short. In any case, Roberts is absolutely brilliant. He writes some of the most complete and penetrating pieces of cultural and theological analysis on the web today. While his posts can be quite lengthy, you also know they’ll be exhaustive, considering issues from every angle, asking questions that often go over-looked, and getting to the theological heart of the issue. Like Wilson, he’s comfortable with biblical studies, theology, and cultural criticism. Again, whenever he posts, I make it a point of setting aside time to work through his arguments. While you might find his work at The Calvinist International and elsewhere, you can find him at his own site Alastair’s Adversaria.

I’d encourage you to check out these sample posts:

Rob Bell and Don Draper

Online Discourse, Leadership, Progressive Evangelicalism, and the Value of Critics

Questions and Answers on Homosexuality

Well, that’s about it.

Soli Deo Gloria

One Year of Writing: A Few Reflections

yearAbout a year ago, I returned home from summer retreat with my students to find out that my wife had started a blog. “Hmm” thought I. Coming after a few months of mulling over whether to start one myself, I took it as the sign I was looking for. And so my little Reformedish blog started. Roughly 220 posts later, I’ve realized I don’t quite think I knew what I was getting myself into. I could not have predicted the joy, the stress, surprises, and blessings that have come with setting my hand back to the plough. When my little WordPress anniversary notification popped up, I figured it’s as good a time as any to review and reflect on some things I’m grateful for and lessons I’ve begun to learn through the writing experience.

Writing Can Be Addictive – Early on I had difficulty thinking of things to write. I would sit, ponder, mull over the various ideas I’d had bouncing around in my head during all of the silent years leading up to the blog, but it was still a struggle to crank out a post. Over time, though, the more I wrote, the more I realized I wanted to write about everything. Nowadays I find myself writing maybe a third of the ideas that come into my head, or commenting on a fraction of the passages I find worth interacting with. I’ll tell myself I’ll take it easy one week, only to find myself writing a couple of extra surprise articles I didn’t think I had in me. I don’t know that this is always a positive thing, but still, it’s something I’m learning.

Editors Are Great –  One of the great blessings of the last year has been coming on staff over at Christ and Pop Culture. They introduced me to the world of writing with an editor. A good editor will save you from yourself at your worst moments as a writer and encourage your best. I’ve been sharpened by their input, corrections, and averted a couple of train-wrecks. Actually, it’s not just editors, but a writing community in general helps if you can get it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve loved writing with the crew over at CaPC–it’s really a collaborative effort. Also, the two or three guest pieces I’ve had over at Mere Orthodoxy have been some of the most helpful I’ve had as a writer. Matthew Lee Anderson is a brutal, savage man who will rip apart your work in the best way possible.

Projects Are Good – I started my Calvin Comments project a couple of months ago and it’s been a beneficial discipline for me. Setting a long-term writing project helps you develop your attention-span as a writer, strengthening your ability to focus in a a subject or thinker in order to penetrate deeper than the easy, initial observations.

Popularity Is Unpredictable – There are occasionally times when I’ve had a sense that a piece would do well and I’ve been right. For the most part, I’ve been totally surprised by the reactions/non-reactions I’ve seen to various pieces. The ones I work hardest on, love dearest, and pour the most of myself into, might get a yawn, while the quickie-post is my biggest day of the week. Go figure.

Write Clearly and Expect to Be Misread – I’ve had a few experiences online that have taught me you need to write clearly on the internet. You should write clearly in general, but people’s reading habits online can be kind of sloppy. We skim, read bold sections, italics, and the title and cobble together a general idea of the argument. Because of that, it’s best to set out your arguments, if you’re making an argument, as cleanly and unmistakably as possible. You also should expect some people to still not understand what you’re saying. It’s just a thing. I’m realizing that if you can’t take that, you’ll never survive.

This Too Shall Pass – In a few days, everything will be forgotten. This applies both to the praise and the controversy. By the grace of God, I’ve had a few pieces do surprisingly well. That’s cool for a day or two. Don’t get too elated, though. It’ll be forgotten quickly, as the internet rolls on. On the other hand, I’ve managed to get plunged into a couple of full-blown, this-is-a-real-thing, interwebs brouhahas. These were fairly unpleasant. One in particular landed me at the center of some uncomfortable attention, misunderstandings, and a whole lot of stress. But, as I found out, this too passed and was forgotten in short order. It’s very important to mind every word you write, for you will give an account one day to the Lord, but still, if you don’t make it a habit of being dip, it’ll be okay. Hopefully.

Idolatry Is Still Stupid – Getting your sense of identity and self from writing is, like every other form of idolatry, very stupid. It’s also very easy to fall into. Time and time again I’ve had to remind myself that good page-views or bad page-views do not determine my worth or standing as a child of God. If I live for the affirmation of good comments and shares, it inevitably won’t be enough, or the negative criticisms I receive will be devastating. No, before I’m a writer, I must reckon myself a child of God. Any other approach is spiritual folly.

God is Unpredictably Kind (Again) – I’ve always known God is unreasonably kind, but in the last year, he has surprised me with a number blessings I don’t deserve through the writing process. In the last few months he gave me the opportunity to: go to a couple of conferences I never would have gone to; meet some very kind people I never would have met otherwise; have the privilege of writing for websites I never would have imagined ever being noticed by; and rediscover a passion I’d let lie dormant for a number of years. I don’t know what the next year of writing holds, but I am so grateful for the year he’s given me so far. Here’s hoping the next one’s just as fun.

Finally, not that I’ve accomplished some big thing, but to all those who’ve played a part in this, whether reading, praying, commenting, or just generally supporting me: Thank you. For what it’s worth, It’s been big for me, so thanks for being a part of it.

Of course, as always, any and all glory ultimately is God’s alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Tips on How To Read Stuff on the Internet

computerThe internet is a funny place–particularly the blogosphere. Recently, I’ve been forced to reflect on the way that people read things the internet–about the way I read things on the internet–and I thought it worthwhile to share a few of the tips I’ve been learning to work on.

  1. The words “A” and “The” are different words. – Seriously, read carefully. Pay attention to whether an author is making broad or specific claims. Is it an absolute or conditional statement? It’s good to be careful about those sorts of things.
  2. Don’t always assume the author knows you personally and is obviously writing about your experience. There have been a number of instances where I have misread an author’s intent by immediately connecting whatever they’re writing about with my personal history. In other words, don’t be narcissistic in your reading. Obviously, you will always come to the text with your own personal history. It’s important to stop and realize that your life does not and can not encompass the sum total of human wisdom and experience. The author might have a whole different set of experiences that they’re drawing on and addressing that have nothing to do with you.*
  3. Read the whole article, not just particular paragraphs. This point should be obvious as well. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to come back to an article and realize that the author wasn’t saying what I thought they were saying because I, with my myopic tendencies, had fixated on some particular phrase instead of catching the whole shape of the argument. Instead, it’s good to make sure and read the whole thing before coming to a firm judgement. You don’t know the way that the author might balance or correct for your concerns later on.
  4. Calm down and read it again. This one is implied in the last one, but sometimes it pays to read an article more than once. I know for myself, I’ve approached certain authors or articles with controversial titles with a grid in place that skewed even a thorough first reading. It pays to read it again and again to make sure you’re hearing properly.
  5. Read as you’d like to be read. This is simply the golden rule in practice. If you’d like others to pay attention to what you say, give grace for your linguistic infelicities, and ask for clarifications before making final judgments about your pieces, then go ahead and do the same for others.

*If you’re offended right now because you think I’m writing this post about you, please refer back to #2.

Somebody Stop Me If I Start Doing This (A Thought on Blogging)

In a fascinating recent blog post on Rob Bell and the nature of advertising rhetoric, Alastair Roberts managed to describe one of my least favorite styles of blogging:

If you read many blogs, especially from a certain brand of progressive evangelical, you will notice similar styles of writing and thinking in operation. Sentences are brief, there are numerous single sentence paragraphs, sentences in bold, or fragmented statements. Anecdotes and engaging narratives are consistently employed. Rhetorical questions, potent images, and controlling metaphors are used extensively. Such writing typically persuades by getting the reader to feel something. The responses to such pieces are almost always emotive and affirming, very seldom critical (and critical responses are hardly ever interacted with carefully).

Now, to my mind there’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives with emotional hooks, bolding and italicizing things occasionally, metaphors, potent images, rhetorical questions, and so forth. All of them have their place at that right time and the right moment. Indeed, some writers could stand to use a little more of that. (Although, let’s be honest, the UNDERLINE, BOLD, AND ITALICIZE EVERYTHING INCESSANTLY THING IS KIND OF ANNOYING AND CHEAP.)  Scripture itself is soaked in varying modes of discourse, especially narrative and potent image. That said, the over-saturation of these modes of communication in blogs of this sort is kind of like the difference between a packet of Sweet & Low saccharine or a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee; one seems like a counterfeit designed to mask the quality of the substance, while the other enhances it.

Roberts goes on:

In an age dominated by advertising and the manipulation of feelings for the purpose of persuasion, the proliferation of conversational and self-revelatory styles of discourse, designed to capture people’s feelings, where logical argumentation once prevailed, shouldn’t surprise us. Where persuasion occurs through feeling, truth becomes bound up in the authentic communication of the ‘self’ and its passion, rather than in the more objective criteria of traditional discourses, where truth was tested by realities and practices outside of ourselves. This is truth in the mode of sharing one’s personal ‘sacred story’.

It is for this reason that narrative, anecdote, metaphor, and potent images are so important for such approaches. All of these are non-argumentative ways of drawing and inviting you, the reader, into the feelings of the text. They also serve as ways of avoiding direct ideological confrontation and engagement. By couching what would otherwise have to be presented as a theological argument in an impressionistic narrative they make it very difficult to frame disagreements. The most effective communicators of this type tend to be those who elicit and direct feelings most consistently. It can almost be as hard to have reasonable argument with such people than it would be to argue with an advert.

While Roberts might be guilty of over-privileging rational, logical modes of reasoning and argumentation in his criticism, there is a real danger when the church over-corrects and plays into the postmodern fragmentation and evasion of thought. Testimony is an inherently biblical mode of discourse, but testimony is susceptible to cross-examination. Biblical testimony is not intended to subvert the intellect, but engage it, as well as the more affective dimensions of our souls. Paul gave his own testimony to be sure, creatively used potent imagery, and so forth, but then gave a sustained biblical argument that can be followed, disputed, and wrestled with. (cf. Galatians)

Alright, this whole thing was quick and off-the-cuff. The point is, if ya’ll spot me drifting into land of advert blogging, you have my permission to call me out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #4 – Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell…(Or, Some Learnings on Blogging)

Well, I’ve been blogging for nearly 3 months now and it’s been an interesting experience so far. Writing out some of my thoughts, re-learning how to craft a sentence for print, rather than preaching, and trying out arguments I’ve previously only sketched out in my head has given me some real joy. It’s also been a learning experience, so I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve been finding out about myself and the craft of blogging general, in no particular order:

Finding your own style is hard. I had read this before, and I’ve thought about this issue quite a bit, but still, it’s been amazing to see how hard it really is. I still don’t know what my “voice” is. Half the time I’m just trying not to botch the English language too much, let alone find my own, unique way of expressing myself. I think a lot about C.S. Lewis’ comments in Mere Christianity about the people who struggle to be original–that the most original people were those who were simply trying to speak the truth as best they could without bothering too much about how original they are.

I’m going to start tagging all of my articles with either Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll. Seriously, names drive searches and views. I wrote one post just quoting N.T. Wright on penal substitutionary atonement and it was my most popular post to date. Seriously, just quotes and a couple of comments. It still gets hits off of random searches. On the other hand, my piece on the doctrine of Impassibility, one that I seriously put some time into…meh, not so much.  Still, I can see how easy it’d be to get sucked into the attack and critique game simply by picking big names and going after them. I’m sure I’ll end up criticizing a popular figure at some point on this blog, but I pray I never do it just to drive up views.

Be careful who you write about. I recently included my wife in a discussion of a controversial theological conversation and after the post hit, I realized that somebody could potentially read it the wrong way, comment rudely and then things would get, well–not pretty. From now on, controversy + family = no.

Writing is vulnerable. As a rule, I care way too much about what people think of me. By blogging, I’m taking my thoughts, my words, my creation and placing out there for all to see and judge. It’s hilariously easy for me to get wrapped up in whether or not people “like” my posts, write encouraging or attacking comments. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’ll be to be more sensitive to others whose blogs I’m commenting on. It’s fine to disagree, but I gotta remember that there’s someone on the other end of the article.

I have so much time to pray. Let’s be honest, if you can blog, you can pray. It’s as simple as that.

I need grace, so much grace. God has an ability to reveal my sin to me in just about any situation. Blogging is no different, apparently. My insecurities, pride, weakness, sin-driven anxieties have come out to play in some of the most surprising ways through this blog. Thankfully where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God has come to meet me, to comfort, correct, and work with me in this in a number of very fun and humbling ways.

There’s probably more, but this is supposed to be a quick-blog. I look forward to more blogging and more learning in the coming months.

Soli Deo Gloria

Playful, Passionate, Principled, but never Putrid Polemics (Or, Don’t Forget Jesus in an Argument)

If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in person, a facebook comment, a blog, etc. the odds are that you’ve engaged in polemics. The Webster definition of polemics is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another” or “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” Basically it’s a form of reasoned argumentation against a position with which you disagree.

Having spent a couple of years in a philosophy program, then seminary, as well as far too much time on the blogosphere, I’ve observed and participated in quite of bit of polemics myself. I have what you might call a “polemical bent”,  which is probably why I like thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Plantinga. Brothers can argue.

In that time, I’ve had some time to think about  some of the basic attitudes and approaches to polemics, some of which are consistent with Christian life and some of which are not. I’d like to offer up some reflections three qualities or attitudes that should define your approach to whatever discussion you engage in, and one that shouldn’t. These aren’t comprehensive, exhaustive, or entirely correct, but, for what it’s worth, here they are.

Playful– The first quality that I think should be cultivated within our discussions with others  is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton seems to embody in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to say that they aren’t “serious”, or aren’t dealing with serious issues, but that they are clearly not driven by fear or pride but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them. This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful, or condescending. When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son. One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless, and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for. The Gospel should lead to a confident, good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time allows you to take yourself less seriously.

Passionate– The second quality that ought to characterize our polemics is passion.  Like the first, it is deeply rooted in the truth of the Gospel and a deep love for people. You can see this is all over Paul’s letters. Paul is nothing but passionate in his polemics for the sake of the Gospel. Galatians, anybody? Paul goes aggro in that letter because of his great gospel-fear that they might be abandoning Christ, and so he forcefully makes his points at times, giving voice to his real concern in order to communicate just how important the issue was. Sometimes people might know you disagree, but really have no idea how important an issue is until they hear the concern or passion in your voice. Paul’s letter not only communicated truth, but the way he communicated it gave it an emotional tenor, an urgency, that was just as vital as the content. A lot of us may be scared of passionate engagement with our neighbors and friends over the truth. We’re scared of offending, or coming off as pushy or unloving. In a world like ours where our radios, TVs, and blogs are full of people just yelling and trying to brow-beat people into submission, that’s a real danger. I don’t want to minimize that. We should never argue just to argue. So often that’s what we find ourselves caught up in: meaningless arguments about things that really, nobody should get that agitated over. Still, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging passionately with our friends about things that really matter. Love engages over truth. Apathy or an unwillingness to trouble yourself with have a difficult conversation out of fear is not the loving thing to do. The truth is something to be passionate about because truth is about life.

Principled- The third quality that it ought to possess is that of being principled. (Honestly, I could have used other words like “integrity”, “honesty”, etc, but I’m a sucker for cheap alliteration.) We must always strive in our engagements with others to be principled in our dealings, speaking honestly, actively avoiding unfair caricatures, and cheap shots. Whenever arguing against a position we must strive to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that.  That’s just dishonest. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a place for irony, sarcasm, and the reductio ad absurdum in arguments. There is a place for humorously following someone’s premises out to their surprising conclusions, or creating humorous, sarcastic analogies to bring out a point. Still, there is absolutely no place for a lack of integrity in our communication with others, even those with whom we deeply disagree. This is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us to. Being people who confess the lordship of Jesus, the one who is the Truth, we should never play fast and loose with the truth in order to score a cheap, rhetorical point.

Never Putrid– If we strive for and keep these three qualities in mind as we engage others, they will keep us from descending into the putrid polemics that seems to define our culture’s approach to “rational”discourse. So much of what we hear and read today pours out of corrupted hearts darkened by arrogance, rage, pride, fear, and the rot of our decomposing sin nature. So much of what is popular out there is just straight-up lies, fear-mongering, cynical mockery, caricature, manipulation, gracelessness, straw-manning, cheap shots, and rhetorical bullying. It is simply putrid. For those of us who have been raised in Christ and indwelled by the resurrection Spirit of God, there should be nothing rotten or foul about what we say. Even those words we utter that cut should only cut in the way a doctor’s scalpel does–in order to heal. They should be words of life, not death, because we are made, and are being remade, in the image of the God who, by his Word, speaks life into existence.

Once again, I write all of these things, not as someone who has achieved or arrived. Lord knows I have not even come close in this area. Instead, I write them as one still struggling alongside; still fumbling about trying to become the kind of person who speaks rightly and righteously.