Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Which God Do You Serve?

Posted: June 11, 2013 in books, c. s. lewis, god

An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us!

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles (1947; repr. New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 150.


When Christians Become a ‘Hated Minority‘” (CNN):

Edward Johnson, a communication professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, says we are now living in a “postmodern” era where everything is relative and there is no universally accepted truth. It’s an environment in which anyone who says “this is right” and “that is wrong” is labeled intolerant, he says.

There was a time when a person could publicly say homosexuality was wrong and people could consider the statement without anger, he says. Today, people have reverted to an intellectual tribalism where they are only willing to consider the perspective of their own tribe.

“They are incapable of comprehending that someone may have a view different than theirs,” Johnson says. “For them anyone who dares to question the dogma of the tribe can only be doing so out of hatred.”

The One, the Three and the ManyColin Gunton offers some penetrating analysis of this “intellectual tribalism” in his book The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity:

The characteristic peril of the modern is to be found in the tendency to homogeneity, to the intellectual and social pressures by which the distinctive individuality of people and things is endangered. … [T]he death of rhetoric is the reason why much modern political dispute takes the form of aggressive confrontation rather than rational engagement: the demonstration rather than the disputatio. Given the loss of confidence in argument, the noisy and potentially violent demonstration is all that remains. … [Alasdair] MacIntyre has argued that there is in the modern world a complete breakdown of a common language in which to argue and decide moral disputes. Listen, he says, to any argument about abortion or nuclear arms, and you will find that opponents speak past each other’s shoulders because they lack a common language in which to communicate. The reason is to be found in emotivism. …

A diagnosis of American conditions similar to that of [Wayne C.] Booth’s underlies Allan Bloom’s much discussed The Closing of the American Mind. … The problem is the cult of openness:

Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness, without recognizing the inherent political, social or cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless … Openness to closedness is what we teach. (101-103)

UPDATE: Justin Taylor has posted a related article entitled “The Gay Marriage Campaign and the Despotism of Conformity.”  Check it out—it’s worth the read.

This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

From larger-than-life dictators to too-big-to-fail banks, the 21st-century world is dominated by figures and institutions that exert an enormous influence on politics, the economy, and just about every other facet of modern society. Such systems of power, often driven by anxiety and greed, must continually consolidate control and suppress dissension in an effort to protect the status quo, inevitably resulting in the subjugation and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, outlines what he perceives as Scripture’s sustained witness againstany power structure that perpetrates injustice in its frantic pursuit of temporal security. Rejecting an Enlightenment mindset that would confine the Christian faith to “the private sphere,” Brueggemann calls the church “to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity” (11-12).

The Problem: Fraudulent Power

Brueggemann provocatively summarizes the problem as he sees it:

Public power is everywhere wielded and administered by those with concentrations of wealth, who thereby control the supply of money, who control the legislation that governs credit and debt, and who fund (or refuse to fund) military adventurism and technological advances that are often in the service of the military. Thus power refers to a network of influence and leverage that may be channeled through the state apparatus or, as is the case in our society, through the private sector with its huge corporate combines. (2)

Supporting and legitimating such concentrations of power are what Brueggemann (following Karl Marx) calls “symbolizers” (e.g., the state, the church, the academy, the media). These institutions are crucial for preserving the status quo, and often benefit from their privileged and protected status.

The Solution: Subversive Truth

In answer to such large-scale injustices, Brueggemann advocates a return to the pages of Scripture—particularly the OT—where we encounter narratives that consistently challenge all such illegitimate and self-seeking claims to power. Over the course of four chapters, Brueggemann examines the stories of Moses, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah, arguing that each narrative illustrates a distinct way in which the God of truth, working through human agents, confronted and subverted unjust power structures of the day.

Furthermore, after exploring each OT passage, Brueggemann highlights how various NT figures drew on and extended the same subversive critiques in their own day.

Unjust Structures

Adapted from a series of lectures delivered to a lay audience, Brueggemann’s writing is clear and forceful. Readers of all stripes will find the chapters accessible and engaging. While the first two chapters seemed forced at certain points (more on this below), the latter two were more convincing, offering readers some truly instructive comments about the Elisha and Josiah narratives. Brueggemann is a creative and insightful biblical interpreter, and where he succeeds, he succeeds masterfully.

Finally, despite the reservations mentioned below, Brueggemann rightly highlights Scripture’s repeated critiques of oppressive power. This reminder may be especially important for conservative evangelicals who have at times been reluctant to critique unjust social structures (notwithstanding those related to a few key issues), preferring instead to individualize and privatize Scriptural principles and commands.1 Readers would do well to recall (and perhaps reread) Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which stands alongside Truth Speaks to Power as a sobering warning to complacent Christians (160).

Suspicious Reading

Brueggemann intentionally eschews a taxonomic approach like that put forth by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, insisting instead the narratives he examines are “one-off enactments from which generalizations should not be drawn” (8). Additionally, Brueggemann claims he won’t make connections to any particular political agenda(s):

I do not believe the Bible points directly to any political policy or action. . . . Thus I do not believe that one can make direct moves toward or connections with contemporary issues, even though we—liberals and conservatives—keep trying to do just that. (1-2)

However, Brueggemann seems unable (or unwilling) to leave the narratives in their historical contexts, repeatedly alluding (at least implicitly) to recent examples that, in his estimation, parallel the biblical stories he explores (e.g., “banks and insurance houses” [18], Óscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. [32], “the rapacious capitalist-consumerist economy of our society” [58], Richard Nixon [115], liberation theology [121], etc.). Nevertheless, he assures us he has “no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system” (160). Individual readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Brueggemann stays true to this stated goal.

The book’s most serious flaw is the way Brueggemann’s focus on socioeconomic power-critiques occasionally overrides the natural thrust of the biblical narratives. For example, in discussing the story of Moses, Brueggemann cites Joseph, Egypt’s “food czar,” as the one who helped Pharaoh create “a peasant underclass of very cheap labor” (17-18). Later he writes that Joseph likely “turned his life toward the pharaoh and away from YHWH” (23). There is nothing, however, in the narrative necessitating this overly cynical reading. The text instead seems to highlight God’s gracious provision through Joseph’s wise stewardship.Likewise, this overemphasis on power-critiques is also illustrated in Brueggemann’s suggestion that Bathsheba may have framed Adonijah as a pretext for murder—a theory that, while exciting, finds no support in the narrative itself (53).

Moreover, drawing on his distinctive dialectical approach to the OT, Brueggemann relies extensively on a “suspicious” reading of the text (particularly with regard to the story of Solomon), highlighting the significance of subtle ironies littered throughout the narratives in question (47). At times, however, such “doublespeak” seems a bit too subtle, leading this reader to wonder whether or not it really occurs as frequently as Brueggemann suggests (48).

Finally, Brueggemann questions the historicity of the biblical text at certain points (e.g., 36, 116). However, this doesn’t prevent him from listening intently to what the narratives teach us about the God who consistently stands with the weak and downtrodden.

Greed, Denial, Despair

Brueggemann closes the book with a chapter reflecting on the implications of his reading of the OT, highlighting modern expressions of unchecked power in our world, and calling the church to live out the truth amid a society that “depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair” (162).

How the Scriptural narratives outlined in this book are applied to contemporary issues will doubtless differ from person to person and church to church. Nevertheless, Brueggemann helpfully challenges all Christians to pay close attention to God’s Word, where we come face to face with a God who consistently sides with the weak, the orphan, and the widow. Indeed, it is in Scripture that we encounter the ultimate example of righteous power wedded to perfect truth: Jesus Christ, the humble king.

1 For example, see Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, 2000).

2 Cf. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1B (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 850-852; John Sailhammer,Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 266. Sailhammer writes, “First with his brothers and then with the Egyptians, Joseph’s wisdom is seen as the source of life for everyone in the land.”

ImageExposure to chosen media streams can give us a false perception of being permanently in the present tense, depriving us of the sober sense of time passing and creating a feeling that our options are perpetually open, when in fact time is passing us by the minute.  There is a sense in which the very fact that physical activity requires us to consciously move our bodies through space and time creates a healthy awareness of the passing of time, while the physical inactivity of virtual life allows us to inhabit a place where the rules of time seem simply not to apply.  The effect of this is that we spend time without consciously reckoning with the cost and value of what is slipping through our fingers.  Thus, wasting time seems more effortless than ever.  Cultural engagement, civic participation, voter turnout, and other markers all show signs of decreasing interest.

– Read Mercer Schuchardt, “Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication,” in Liberal Arts for the Christian Life, edited by Jeffry C. David & Philip G. Ryken (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 243-244.

Russel Moore on the state of the America:

As Christians, we ought to recognize that the old majoritarian understanding of church/state relations is outmoded. Our situation today is not to hold on to some form of American civil religion. Our situation today is more akin to the minority religions of America’s past: colonial Baptists, nineteenth-century Baptists, early twentieth-century Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are appealing simply for the right to exist at all, in the face of an established religion armed with popular support and, in the fullness of time, state power.

It turns out we’re circling around to where we should have been all along: with the understanding that religious liberty isn’t “toleration” and separation of church and state isn’t secularism.

Indeed, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis note that we are already living in a “post-Christendom” context, and therefore should not be surprised when we are marginalized by society:

Christendom, however, is increasingly a spent force in the West.  Some of the symbolism remains.  The British monarch is still the head of an established church, and bishops still sit in the upper chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament.  But the reality of Christendom is fading fast, overtaken by secularism and pluralism.  The Bible no longer has authority in public discourse.  The church no longer has a privileged voice.  Church leaders still get invited to state occasions, but on matters of ethics they are ignored.  When the Pope visited the United Kingdom in 2010 he was greeted with all due pomp ad ceremony as a head of state.  But when it comes to his views on abortion and homosexuality, he is ignored by politicians and ridiculed by the media.  Lyndon Bowring, the Executive Chairman of CARE, said in an interview, “The greatest challenge … is the growing secularization of society, where Christianity is being increasingly squeezed out of our national life.  The ultimate result of this tendency will be a society that is hostile to Christian truth and practice.

Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 19-20

Sobering words, but a timely reminder nonetheless.  Praise God our hope does not rest in the continuation of Christendom.  Rather, we trust in our sovereign Lord, who reigns from heaven and in whose hands the hearts of kings are but streams of water (Prov. 21:1).

Be sure to read the rest of Moore’s excellent article, “Louie Giglio and the New State Church.”

Kevin Wilkening, my good friend and former pastor, offers some penetrating analysis of Kevin T. Bauder’s Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order in his book review for the most recent 9MarksJournal.  Despite highlighting many strengths, Wilkening points to a few notable weaknesses:

Bauder claims that this book will offer an answer to the question, “What is a Baptist?” for those unfamiliar with technical, theological language. Yet as a Baptist reading this book, at times I found myself thinking, “According to Bauder, am I really a Baptist?” …

In light of Baptist history, it would seem that Bauder is too narrow in regard to this specific Baptist distinctive [what baptism symbolizes]. …

Another place where I’d differ with Bauder’s take on church order is his contention in chapter 5 that a church can have a plurality of elders, but that this form of church government is not a binding norm. … I would argue that a plurality of elders is not merely permitted by the New Testament, but mandated, except for where providential circumstantial [sic] inhibit.

In this series of posts (Part 1), guest writer Dan Miller reflects on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Les Misrables

Aching for God

Saint Augustine famously argued that every human heart aches for God, whether the person knows it or not. In Confessions he writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1).  While not everyone satisfies this longing through a relationship with God, the longing itself exists universally. Separation from God—in all its senses, and with all the misery that attends it—is the result of God’s curse because of sin. Nevertheless, a longing for God persists in each of us, manifesting itself in different ways. This is true of many of the world’s greatest writers, whose literary works betray their need to write some version of the curse and the biblical gospel into their stories. When this is done well, discerning readers will apprehend echoes of the misery of sin and the universal longing for ultimate salvation. When a story has these elements, we call it great.

Illustrating the Curse

Note: In writing about Les Miserables, I will reveal parts of its plot. So take this as a SPOILER ALERT.

As one would expect given the title, every character in Les Miserables in some way serves to illustrate the misery of our lives under the curse. But many characters also depict the joy of grace in relief from the curse. In the story, Jean Valjean, one of the central characters, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and nephew. After 19 years, he is finally released, leaving prison an embittered man.  Eventually, Jean Valjean’s hatred for his fellow man leads him to rob a local bishop. Upon getting caught, Jean Valjean is amazed by the bishop’s willingness to forgive him and even cover for him with the police. Jean leaves the bishop’s house in a daze, totally baffled by the man’s kindness and grace. For 19 years, Jean had been treated like a thief with no hope of redemption.  But in the words of the bishop Jean heard something new: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”  The narrator continues:

[Jean Valjean] was indistinctly conscious that the pardon of this priest was the greatest assault and the most formidable attack which had moved him yet; that his obduracy was finally settled if he resisted this clemency; that if he yielded, he should be obliged to renounce that hatred with which the actions of other men had filled his soul through so many years, and which pleased him; that this time it was necessary to conquer or to be conquered; and that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man.

Here we see the hardness of Jean’s heart. Filled with hate and bitterness, Jean’s pride held him back from accepting the bishop’s kindness. His pride told him to reject the forgiveness graciously offered to him, a forgiveness that would require that he yield to God and “renounce that hatred … which pleased him.”  Anyone who has felt bitterness and the temptation to hold on to hatred will understand why Hugo calls this a “colossal and final struggle.” What incites bitterness and hatred within us will likely seem trivial compared with being condemned to 19 years of hard labors for the theft of bread to feed a starving family.  Yet, our struggle is essentially the same.

Forever Changed

In a stupor, Jean goes on to commit another crime: stealing 40 cents from a little boy.  The narrator recounts what immediately follows:

When intelligence re-awakened and beheld that action of the brute, Jean Valjean recoiled with anguish and uttered a cry of terror. It was because—strange phenomenon, and one which was possible only in the situation in which he found himself—in stealing the money from that child, he had done a thing of which he was no longer capable.

In that moment, Jean was transformed. He was now aware “that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”

One might struggle with the question of whether or not Hugo presents the real gospel to Jean and, secondarily, to his readers. Did Hugo believe in crucial elements of the biblical “good news,” like, for example, penal substitution? Perhaps not. What is important, however, is how Jean’s conversion illustrates the crisis of our depravity and our desperate need for a savior. The salvation Hugo depicts (and which affects us so strongly) is this type of salvation. Jean is forced to face the crucial question, “Who am I?”  The answer, which he has no choice but to accept, is that he is a wretch, a vile thief, and a beast who is even willing to steal from helpless children. He comes to see that the salvation he needs is not a salvation from others, but from the hatred, bitterness, and pride rooted deep within his own soul.

Jean Valjean wept for a long time.  He wept burning tears, he sobbed with more weakness than a woman, with more fright than a child. As he wept, daylight penetrated more and more clearly into his soul; an extraordinary light; a light at once ravishing and terrible. His past life, his first fault, his long [punishment], his external brutishness, his internal hardness, his dismissal to liberty, rejoicing in manifold plans of vengeance, what had happened to him at the Bishop’s, the last thing that he had done, that theft of forty sous from a child, a crime all the more cowardly, and all the more monstrous since it had come after the Bishop’s pardon,—all this recurred to his mind and appeared clearly to him, but with a clearness which he had never hitherto witnessed.  He examined his life, and it seemed horrible to him; his soul, and it seemed frightful to him. In the meantime a gentle light rested over this life and this soul. It seemed to him that he beheld Satan by the light of Paradise.

Did Jean Valjean make a choice in his awakening? Yes, and he struggled mightily with that choice. But in another, more important sense, he was converted by means of the kindness and gospel-charge of the bishop. Light was shown into his heart, freeing him from the hatred and bitterness within his own soul. Upon receiving this light, Jean began to think and act according to his new nature. This is the salvation that we crave.  As the Apostle Paul writes,

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

In salvation, God, who created all things, performs another creative act in our hearts. Contrary to what we may assume, we don’t simply need the option to choose between good and evil; that choice is before us each and every day. Rather, we need to have the light turned on in our souls, enabling us to finally love what is good and hate what is evil.

Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist and active member of Cedar Heights Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa.