Death By Living by N.D. Wilson (The Gospel Coalition Review)

death by livingN.D. Wilson. Death By Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 208 pp. $19.99.

The first thing I’ll note about Death By Living, N.D. Wilson’s follow-up to his celebrated Notes From the Tilt a Whirl, is that I couldn’t give you a book report if I tried. Much like Notes, Wilson’s direct, yet roundabout, tilt-a-whirling style puckishly mocks the straight-laced summary-reviewer for even thinking to attempt the mighty feat.

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond imagining Author of the ridiculously unexpected universe in which we find ourselves. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation, in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

“Death by Living, life is meant to be spent. ” That’s Wilson’s thesis and philosophy of family life (xi); scuffed knees are apparently as much an evidence of life as a pulse in the Wilson household. In many ways it’s a quirky entry into the venerable devotio moderna genre, along with A Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi; only in this one, we’re encouraged to follow our Covenant Head, take up our swords, fight the dragon, and live hard until it kills us like Jesus, the Image of humanity done right (62, 79). That might involve a little dirt. Don’t worry though, resurrection should take the stains right out.

As the book defies summary, being somewhat unruly and misbehaved, I’m simply going to highlight a couple of content points, and make one note on style for pastors.

You can read the rest of the review over at The Gospel Coalition.

C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

I’ll admit, I suffer from creative constipation from time to time. You know what I’m talking about: feeling like you want to write, you have to write, but you simply can’t. I had a severe bout of it for a few years between my last blog, back in the Myspace days, and starting this one. I had a lot of fun with my old blog until I started reading good writers and deep thinkers. At that point I realized most of what I had to say had already been said by someone smarter, funnier, wiser, and generally in every way better than I ever could. (90% of the time it was C.S. Lewis.) With that, I kind of lost my will to write. It’s not so much that I didn’t like writing, but that I had trouble seeing the point–I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who’s been troubled by that thought.

Two of my intellectual and literary heroes have some wisdom for those of us struggling with the problem of “being original”:

Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better. –Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Pascal was writing an apologetic for the Christian faith. He readily acknowledged that the content, the point, the truth of what he was speaking was nothing new. In fact, that was the point–he was trying to convince his skeptical, intellectual friends to re-engage, to accept the very old truth of Christianity. At the same time his apologetic method, his style, the questions he asked, were different, and “original” in that sense. He had produced a new “arrangement” of the material.

Lewis makes the same point with even less of an emphasis on being consciously original. He simply advises that we ought to “try and tell the truth” as best we know how and the odds are, given our unique wiring and design, it will end up being original. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things I’ve come to see about Lewis himself.

The first time I read Mere Christianity I thought it was amazing simply because it was so new–Lewis was pointing me to insights and truths I had never encountered, in ways I couldn’t have imagined for myself. As the years past, though, the more theology I read I came to recognize a great deal of other authors, thinkers, theologians, and presentations peeking through the edges of what Lewis was doing. Lewis’ originality lay not so much in the newness of his ideas–he would have denied any originality for himself at that point–but, like Pascal, in his peculiar talent at making the old seem new and the difficult, accessible to the men and women of his own day. He didn’t do it by changing anything for them, but rather by both listening and speaking to them.

If you’re having trouble “being original”, take a lesson from Pascal and Lewis: find something you believe in, a truth you’re passionate about and strive to communicate it as best you can to those around you. If you do that, originality will take care of itself.

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.