Sometimes Scripture is like your Facebook feed

Sorry for the delay. I had to go take a long, hot shower after that title. Let’s cut to the chase–I have a confessional booth to find.

On Sunday morning our adult Bible study is working through Joshua. We’ve reached the point in the narrative where Israel has taken possession of the land and all that remains (supposedly) is to parcel out the land to the various tribes.

Now the conquest portion of the book takes up eleven out of twenty-four chapters. But on closer inspection, the military campaign doesn’t actually begin until Joshua 6 which means that the conquest is contained in the span of six chapters and two of those chapters (7 & 9) are spent detailing failures that threaten the long-term success of the military campaign. So all told, Israel’s conquest of Canaan is relayed in the space of four action-packed chapters. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the conquest is a seamless sequence of victories–swift, thorough, and thrilling.

But is this an accurate picture?

The question is important for at least two reasons. First, we don’t just want to read Scripture; we want to read Scripture well. To that end we should remember that first impressions often fade in the light of sustained study. Second, the impressions we draw from the Bible’s story line shape our expectations for the Christian life. For example, the conquest motif in Joshua is certainly analogous to the spiritual battles God’s new covenant people must encounter before we enjoy our promised rest (2Cor 10:3-5; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10ff). But what, exactly, should we expect in our conflict? Will ours be the inexorable blitzkrieg we see in Joshua?

Not exactly. But don’t be discouraged–that wasn’t Joshua’s experience either.

Several passages tip us off to the fact that Joshua’s life didn’t consist of one thrilling victory after another, but two will suffice for our purposes:

Joshua 11:18 “Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings.”

14:7, 10  “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land . . . Now behold, the LORD has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. {NAS}

Say what you will about a long time but a long time isn’t quick. [Call your local seismologist. I feel an epistemological earthquake coming on! –Shive] More specifically, Caleb’s statements in 14:7 & 10 turn the supposed Israelite blitzkrieg into a mundane five year campaign.

So the short story consisting of action-packed moments in a tightly ordered sequence actually stretches out over a span of at least five years. Additionally, when we compare the list of kings conquered in Joshua 12 with the kings previously cited in Joshua 6-11, we’re surprised to find that multiple battles occurred for which we have no record at all.

The point is that the biblical authors almost always give us the highlights rather than an exhaustive account. And highlights are, by definition, not normal. We’re not told about the hours spent returning to camp, gathering firewood, preparing food, and sharpening blades. We have no mention of sore feet and irritating co-workers. The story gives no thought to what transpired for the women and children as they waited for the men to finish the job. How did the families cope with boredom or burnt food? What happened when the kids in the next tent got too noisy? Terrible two’s anyone?

There’s nothing wrong with skipping over those details. Just like there’s nothing wrong with withholding from Facebook the details of a lunch order, traffic update, or every inconsequential thought that transverses our little synapses (seriously, people). Just the highlights will do. Just remember that no one’s life is uninterrupted highlights.

All of biblical history is written with an agenda, with a message to convey. As such, whatever doesn’t “fit the narrative” doesn’t see the page. By keeping this principle in mind we go a long way to guarding ourselves against unrealistic expectations in the Christian life. More often than not the Christian life is about meeting the seemingly uneventful with simple faithfulness with the occasional crisis and/or climax thrown in.

Not so long ago what I just described was considered “normal.” Then social media came along. Now we call it disappointing.

A convicting word on contentment

There is nothing in heaven or earth that can satisfy me, but yourself.

…the peace of God is not enough to a gracious heart except it may have the God of that peace. A carnal heart could be satisfied if he might but have outward peace, though it is not the peace of God; peace in the state, and his trading, would satisfy him. But mark how a godly heart goes beyond a carnal. All outward peace is not enough; I must have the peace of God. But suppose you have the peace of God. Will that not quiet you? No, I must have the God of peace; as the peace of God so the God of peace. That is, I must enjoy that God who gives me the peace; I must have the Cause as well as the effect. I must see from whence my peace comes, and enjoy the Fountain of my peace, as well as the stream of my peace. And so in other mercies:  have I health from God?  I must have the God of my health to be my portion, or else I am not satisfied. It is not life, but the God of my life; it is not riches, but the God of those riches that I must have, the God of my preservation, as well as my preservation.

In Psalm 73:25, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon the earth that I desire beside thee.’ There is nothing in heaven or earth that can satisfy me, but yourself. If God gave you not only earth but heaven, that you should rule over sun, moon and stars, and have the rule over the highest of the sons of men it would not be enough to satisfy you, unless you had God himself. There lies the first mystery of contentment. And truly a contented man, though he is the most contented man in the world, is the most dissatisfied man in the world; that is, those things that will satisfy the world will not satisfy him.

-Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

John Newton on Christian growth

The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever.

The work of grace is not like Jonah’s gourd, which sprang up and flourished in a night, and as quickly withered, but rather like the oak, which, from a little acorn and a tender plant, advances with an almost imperceptible growth from year to year, till it becomes a broad, spreading, and deep-rooted tree, and then it stands for ages. The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever. When I see any soon after they appear to be awakened, making a speedy profession of great joy before they have due acquaintance with their own hearts, I am in pain for them. I am not sorry to hear them afterwards complain that their joys are gone, and they are almost at their wits’ end; for without some such check, to make them feel their weakness and dependence, I seldom find them turn out well; either their fervour insensibly abates, till they become quite cold and sink into the world again (of which I have seen many instances), or, if they do not give up all, their walk is uneven, and their spirit has not that savour of brokenness and true humility which is the chief ornament of our holy profession. If they do not feel the plague of their hearts at first, they find it out afterwards, and too often manifest it to others. Therefore, though I know the Spirit of the Lord is free, and will not be confined to our rules, and there may be excepted cases; yet, in general, I believe the old proverb, “Soft and fair goes far,” will hold good in Christian experience. Let us be thankful for the beginnings of grace, and wait upon our Saviour patiently for the increase. And as we have chosen him for our physician, let us commit ourselves to his management, and not prescribe to him what He shall prescribe for us. He knows us, and He loves us better than we do ourselves, and will do all things well.

-John Newton, “Letter to Miss M. Barham,” September 3, 1776

Sometimes we are ‘hunted into the Bible’

…no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes. {Psalm 119:71, NAS}

In this entry from Table Talk Martin Luther speaks of the contribution sufferings make to the study of Scripture (and prayer). Christian, your suffering is not in vain:

I, said Luther, did not learn my divinity at one only time, but I was constrained to search deeper and deeper, to which my temptations brought me; for no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul had a devil that beat him with fists, and with temptations drove him diligently to study the Holy Scripture. I, said Luther, had cleaving and hanging on my neck the Pope, the Universities, all the deep-learned, and with them the devil himself; these hunted me into the Bible, where I diligently read, and thereby, God be praised, at length I attained to the true understanding of the same. Without such a devil, we are but only speculators of divinity, and according to our vain reasoning, we dream that so-and-so it must be, as the Monks and Friars in monasteries do.

The Holy Scripture of itself is certain and true enough; but God grant me the grace that I may catch hold on the right use thereof; for when Satan disputeth with me in this sort, namely, whether God be gracious unto me or no? then I must not meet him with this text: “Whoso loveth God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength, the same shall inherit the kingdom of God;” for then the devil presently objecteth, and hitteth me in the teeth, and saith, “Thou hast not loved God, with all thy heart,” etc., which, indeed, is true, and my own conscience therein, witnesseth against me; but at such a time I must arm myself and encounter him with this text, namely: “That Jesus Christ died for me, and through him I have a gracious God and Father; Christ hath made an atonement for me,” as St. Paul saith, “He is of God given unto us for wisdom, for righteousness, for holiness, and for redemption.”

Tyrants, sectaries, seducers, and heretics do nothing else but drive us into the Bible, to make us read more diligently therein, and with more fervency to sharpen our prayers.

Thanksgiving food for thought

There is no true Christianity apart from thankfulness.

I could go for some Thanksgiving right about now and it has nothing to do with the food. Check that. Maybe it has something to do with the food. I mean, have you ever had a Thanksgiving meal in the South? I pity those who haven’t but it’s probably for the best–much easier to never have than to have and then try to do without.

Anyway, since I’m anticipating this year’s Thanksgiving my thoughts keep returning to the essential nature of gratitude which, in turn, reminds me that there is no true Christianity apart from thankfulness.

To wit:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. {Romans 1:21, NAS}

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank. — Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers.Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth? –G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

…we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety, out of which religion springs. By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires. For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that naught is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; no, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity. — John Calvin (Institutes 1.2.1; emphasis added)

What hinders us is not aesthetics

Distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

bible-app-by-olive-tree-63513202684_2All snark aside, those looking for a mature reflection on the market milieu of the ESV Reader’s Bible would do well to read this piece by J. Mark Bertrand.

Bertrand’s hope is that the ubiquity of hypertext has created a demand for a purified text. With so much reading tethered to the internet and all the linked distractions that come with it, we may now be ready for books that are “really good for nothing but reading”:

We long for a deeply immersive experience, something so thick and involved that we can’t be easily pulled away. The fear is that all the choices and features and options we’ve given ourselves, though they seemed good at the time, have now become barriers, fatally distracting us from the one thing that matters most. We fiddle with fonts and margins, we zip back and forth through cross-references, always hovering on a busy surface, clicking and tapping, in danger of forgetting there is anything underneath. Pearl divers of old held their breath underwater until they came up with a pearl; we are afraid we can’t stay under long enough anymore.

Breadth of features kills the depth of experience. By trying to do everything, we neglect what really matters. In the case of word processors, that’s writing. In the case of Bibles, it’s to take and read.

Meh.

I get what Bertrand is driving at and I agree to a point, but distracted reading is not the biggest obstacle to deep Bible reading. The biggest obstacle is us.

Somewhere in our house we have Hillary Clinton’s autobiography (don’t judge, it was a gag gift). I think the book has been in our house for almost a year now and at no time do I ever remember thinking I’d give the old girl a read if only the font was a Trinité No. 2 type set at 12 points, with 15 points of leading. In a ranking desired experiences, becoming immersed in Living History falls somewhere between shopping with the girls and having my ankles gnawed on by a herd of rabid ferrets. The fact of the matter is that no amount of artistry or beautification will draw me to that book.

Maybe today’s pearl divers lack the capacity to go deep. I suspect that many of us just lack the compulsion.

 

Engaging the anti-critics

Some of us are convinced that AS’s prescription for deconversion will end up doing more harm than good. Should we still keep quiet?

Last week I tweeted a link to Michael Kruger’s response to a recent message by Andy Stanley (AS) in which Stanley asserted that a mature Christian faith can’t be sustained by “the Bible says so” mindset.

Since my massive following on the interweb isn’t a monolithic group of like-minded cynics, critics, and ministerial Luddites, I wasn’t surprised to see contrary opinions toward Kruger’s piece. What was unexpected (but not surprising) was the dismissive stance toward the criticism in general (i.e. the act not the substance).

My purpose here isn’t to rehash any of the details from Stanley’s talk or Kruger’s critique but to offer a different perspective for the anti-critics who seem to fit somewhere within the following cross-section:

  1. The Groupies — Pastor X¹ can do no wrong. In the face of criticism, he is a priori impeccable.
  2. The Ends-Justifies-The-Message — Maybe he shouldn’t say xyz but he’s bringing people to Jesus. God is blessing his ministry so who are you to criticize?
  3. The Matthew 18 Peaceniks — Pointing out the error is just as wrong (if not more so) than the error itself because you haven’t personally spoken to Pastor X.²

Regardless of where the anti-critic finds his motivation I hope these thoughts might lend a new perspective on these friendly skirmishes:

(1) If it’s a conversation then we should converse. AS and North Point don’t “preach” they have “conversations.” All fine and good. But words mean things and a conversation is, by definition, an exchange of ideas. So let’s talk.

(2) Don’t assume the worst in the critic. Yes, there are AS-detractors for whom AS can neither say nor do anything good. Kruger’s critique, however, was a far cry from the irrational rant one would expect from a devoted detractor. His was measured and irenic. Some of us are convinced that AS’s prescription for deconversion will end up doing more harm than good. Should we still keep quiet?

(3) If AS can passionately assert we can certainly tolerate a dispassionate critique. As is true of most effective communicators, AS is passionate in his efforts to win the deconverted. Conviction expressed with passion is infectious. But when a contrary view can’t even be countenanced it’s worth asking what we find more attractive–light or heat.

As a man who is nothing if not hip and relevant, I’m all about continuing the dialogue. Feel free to talk back.


¹Groupies aren’t limited to AS. Every high profile pastor of every theological stripe has his groupies.

²See D. A. Carson’s editorial for helpful clarification and correction on the application of Matthew 18.

Judas & Peter

Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of Judas & Peter.

Recently heard someone present Judas & Peter as two disciples with a shared experience but different outcomes. Both men walked with Jesus, both men turned on Jesus, & both men expressed remorse; but whereas Judas hung himself, Peter was restored and became a prominent leader.

What accounts for the different results? On this telling, it was that Judas never returned to his fellow disciples while Peter never left. The difference was community.

True, Christian community is a means by which God keeps us from falling away (Heb 3:13; 10:23-25). But “choosing community” doesn’t explain the divergent fates of these two men.

There’s no need for psychoanalysis when Scripture details the difference between the two.

Concerning Judas:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?”

John 13:18  “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.’

John 17:12  “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

Concerning Peter:

Luke 22:31-32  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat;  but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Look to the text.

Nonidentical twins: legalism & antinomianism

Legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.

Some counter-intuitive insight:

The root of [Eve’s] antinomianism (opposition to and breach of the law) was actually the legalism that was darkening her understanding, dulling her senses, and destroying her affection for her heavenly Father.

…what the Serpent accomplished in Eve’s mind, affections, and will was a divorce between God’s revealed will and his gracious, generous character. Trust in him was transformed into suspicion of him by looking at the “naked law” rather than hearing “law from the gracious lips of the heavenly Father.”

…legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.

…legalism and antinomianism seem to be simple opposites–all that is needed, it seems, is right doctrine. But the more basic issue is: How do I think about God, and what instincts and dispositions and affections toward him does this evoke in me?

It cannot be too strongly emphasized, therefore, that everyone is a legalist at heart. Indeed, if anything, that is the more evident in antinomians.

-Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ

Irreverent musings: pop apologies

I’m under no illusion that the Christian community has an impeccable record on any social issue, but isn’t it possible that our critics are just using us as convenient scapegoats?

And so, to get rid of this rumor [that he was the cause of the great fire of Rome], Nero set up as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. …an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of hatred of the human race.

-Tacitus, Annals (from Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed)

It’s one thing to have liberal secularists blame Republicans, conservatives, and Christians (but I repeat myself) for the mass murder in Orlando. It’s something else to have Christians blaming Christians for it.

To cite just two examples, Sammy Rhodes (RUF campus minister) and Jen Hatmaker (author/blogger) have both posted mea culpas* for our contribution to the barbarity that claimed the lives of 49 people in a gay night club.

I have no intention of divining the sincerity of these apologies or the impetus behind them, but I do want to draw attention to some troubling aspects.

First, it’s striking to note that these comments were offered in response to charges leveled by prominent gay & lesbian individuals. Hatmaker was “listening to my gay friends and leaders” while Rhodes came across a tweet from “author and lesbian Támara Lunardo.” I’m under no illusion that the Christian community has an impeccable record on any social issue, but isn’t it possible that our critics are just using us as convenient scapegoats?

For example, here is the tweet that drove Rhodes to his keyboard:

When Lunardo was told that Christians had, in fact, been speaking out she responded:

Maybe I’m just a hardened cynic but it sounds to me like Lunardo (et al) would be shaming Christians no matter how we responded.

Second, the language in some of these apologies can actually dull the Christian witness in an important way. We know what militant secularists mean when they accuse us of promoting inequality, supporting injustice, denying civil liberties, etc. These charges are leveled against us any time we affirm a biblical sexual ethic or seek to live out our faith in the public square. Parroting their lingo in an apology sounds like tacit agreement. We can love others without adopting their terms. Language matters.

Third, a personal apology should regularly employ the singular personal pronoun (I, me, mine). I may be in a very small minority here but when your personal apology goes on to talk about “we” and “us” it sounds like posturing.

Tacitus’ account of the events in 64 AD isn’t a perfect analogy but it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Had social media been available during the Roman empire, a large segment of the population would have been happy to blame Christians for the fire. Assuming that Christians were no more perfect then than now, would Peter have taken to the blogosphere to apologize for the anti-pagan bigotry that rendered Rome combustible?

 


*On the whole, Hatmaker’s post wasn’t exactly an apology.