My Love Affair With Books

A couple (or more) posts back I asked for a response to the question, “Who is (are) your favorite books/authors?” While the response to that question did not fully show up here, on another site it created quite a conversation – and I loved every response. A comment was made that preachers must be readers of books. I cannot tell you how much I agree with that statement.

Our current infatuation with “social media” is destroying the American brain. I know some may think that is a harsh condemnation, but I firmly believe it to be so. Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and even blogs (yes, even this one) have finished warping the American attention span that started being whittled away with the 30 minute sitcom on TV. I remember reading the thoughts of a research guru who suggested that if an author cannot make his or her argument in the first “x” number of pages of a book (I forget the exact number but in was in the teens), that millennials and even some in the other age groups would not bother to finish reading the book. Even in this space, once I get up to about 1,000 words in a post I get nervous, because I know that people will not bother to get to the end of the post.

That is just so sad. When I was young I remember people making fun of the Readers Digest condensations of such books like War and Peace, Gone With the Wind and even Moby Dick. Imagine now – even a condensation would be too long!

I love books, and I fear for the time that we will not be able to follow extensive arguments – arguments that stretch over chapters, not just pages. Some thoughts just cannot be summarized in 15 pages. And if you have to limit the size of the book to 125 pages because the audience just cannot follow an argument any longer than that — well, what is going to happen to our educational future?

Imagine Beethoven being told he had to produce an entire Symphony in only ten pages of score. Imagine Shakespeare being told that if his plays lasted more than 30 minutes he could not keep his audience’s attention. Psalm 119 runs 176 verses long – ponderous, repetitious, magisterial.

I have had a life long love affair with books. It continues to this day. C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that there is not a book long enough nor a cup of tea big enough to suit him. Where would we be without C.S. Lewis?

Thanks to all who chimed in on my “Who Rocks Your World” question. It was deeply gratifying to know that so many folks are reading so many books – in extremely diverse subject matters and with a wide variety of authors.

Do yourself a favor and dig out an old book and brew yourself a big cup of tea (or coffee) and stretch your brain for a while. You will be glad you did!

(and this post took far less than 1,000 words!)

Top Authors – Who Rocks Your World?

Just a random thought today – seeing as how it is Friday and no one is paying attention anyway —

I got to thinking about the authors that have really influenced me – maybe not convinced me of the truth of every one of their thoughts, but the authors that invariably make me think deeply about their subject. I came up with 7 (a good biblical number) based on the number of books in my library, and by the significance of the author’s ability to cause me to reflect on my own beliefs and to think holistically.

Here are my seven: (well, I will actually throw in an eighth, but with a caveat)

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (if you know me, this was a no-brainer)
  2. C.S. Lewis (I am continually blown away by Lewis’ logic and penetrating insights)
  3. Thomas Merton (a contemplative’s contemplative; profound insights into human nature and Christian theology)
  4. Henri Nouwen (a poetic theologian, or a theological poet)
  5. N.T. Wright (a scholar who can write so I can understand him – a rare trait; has just exploded my understanding of many points theological)
  6. Os Guinness (just learning more about Guinness – but right up there with Bonhoeffer for penetrating intellect and Merton and Nouwen for powerful prose)
  7. John Stott (had to put a preacher/commentator on the list)

(And for my wild card – Glen Stassen, although with Dr. Stassen his influence has been primarily in the field of ethics, specifically in relation to the Sermon on the Mount and Christian ethics)

By the way, I have to explain why no authors from my own heritage are on this list – primarily it is because I already approach the subjects with which they interact in a posture of basic agreement. But, for sheer brilliance and depth of intellect, no one can even hold a candle to Everett Ferguson. I would be hopelessly lost in my journey in the Restoration Movement without such guides as Richard Hughes and C. Leonard Allen. In terms of historical knowledge and critical analysis, the peak of Mt. Olympus belongs to David Edwin Harrell, Jr. There, I think I have covered all of my bases.

So, who makes your list? Why? Any thoughts about new voices on the horizon? (Six out of my top eight are deceased, hmmm. Why is there such a dearth of theologians who can write anything more than vapid pablum today?)

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.

N. T. Wright – An Author Every Minister Needs to Read

Nicholas Tom (N.T.) Wright is one of those authors that everyone has been influenced by, whether they have read him or not. This is because those who have read him either agree with him completely and spread his teachings far and wide; or they disagree with him, imagine him to be the anti-christ with horns on his head and a pointy tail behind him, and therefore caricature what he has written, and spread that caricature far and wide. What makes him so controversial is that he is a retired Anglican bishop who holds many conclusions that are strikingly opposite to that of the majority of members of the Anglican, and especially the American Episcopal, church. [I might add as a snarky aside, that because that number is dwindling so quickly, it really should not matter.] I obviously believe both positions to be false, but I also believe N.T. Wright is an author that every minister, and every concerned church member, should read. Let me explain why.

I read theological books for two reasons. One, I like to read books written by authors who hold positions similar to mine, but who are more advanced in some areas that I am not familiar with, for the purpose of comfort and reassurance. It is just nice to curl up with a nice cup of tea and read a book and not have to parse out every phrase and paragraph to decide whether I agree with the author or not.

Second, I read authors who hold views differing from mine (in varying degrees) because I want to learn. It is an axiom of mine that you simply cannot learn anything from a teacher with whom you agree 100%. For one example – in regard to the book of Revelation I hold an a-millennial position – neither pre-millennial nor post-millennial. I simply cannot learn anything by reading the arguments of other a-millennials. I can be encouraged by them, or reassured by them – but I cannot say that they teach me anything. Same with the subject of baptism. I have eight books on the subject of baptism in my library – and while some present the subject of believer’s baptism in ways I have not fully considered, they really teach me nothing of which I have not already been convinced. If I want to learn something about infant baptism, for example, I have to go to someone who holds that position. Same with virtually every subject in my library.

Which brings me back to N.T. Wright. I was basically ignorant of Wright’s writings up until a couple of years ago, and then it seemed like everywhere I turned there was someone referencing Wright’s work, either in fawning praise or scathing rebuke. I decided to see what all the fuss was about so I bought one of his books, Surprised by Hope. I quickly understood what all the fuss was about. I recently added one other book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. I have not been disappointed with either purchase.

The most important thing I learned about Wright is that he is a scholar – a preeminent scholar. Reading his book on the resurrection of Jesus I was blown away with the depth of scholarship involving pagan and second temple Judaism views on the afterlife. That book has profoundly questioned my previous understanding of how we view our life after death – and while I may not agree with every point Wright makes, I cannot simply dismiss him because he actually presents solid evidence, and not just pious suppositions, for his conclusions.

Reading Wright first-hand has allowed me to draw some conclusions about his opponents. I have come to realize that people dislike or reject Wright for the following reasons:

  1. They have not read his books first-hand, and are simply parroting other criticisms. This I find to be the most ridiculous and childish of responses. In what is both a marvelous example of irony and a pathetic display of theological illiteracy, I saw someone attack Wright by approvingly quote John Piper – one of the most hard-core Calvinists to ever write a book. I know this particular opponent of Wright would reject every aspect of Calvin’s (and therefore, Piper’s) teaching, and yet, there he was, gleefully parroting Piper’s rejection of Wright, just because it was someone who disagreed with Wright. I guess the enemy of my enemy is my friend – at least if my enemy is N.T. Wright.
  2. They are intensely jealous of his scholarship and his popularity. This is especially true of a petulant group of theological Lilliputians who simply cannot stand the thought that some people can actually think on their own, and who admire Wright, even while disagreeing with him on some significant issues.
  3. They simply do not understand him. I find Wright to be very easy to read, but I have about 14 years of theological education behind me. Some might be put off by Wright’s scholarship and the depth of his learning. I’m sure some of his books are written for a more “popular” audience, but there is nothing in the two books I have that cannot be understood if you read carefully.
  4. They have read Wright carefully, and genuinely disagree with him for what they believe to be solid biblical/theological reasons. This number is sizable, but even his academic peers disagree with him in far more respectful tones than most of the churlish invective I read from those who occupy reasons 1 and 2.

For the record, I do not agree with every position Wright holds. After all, he was a bishop in the Anglican Church, and therefore he approaches Scripture and certain ecclesiastical questions from an entirely different perspective than I do. I especially disagree with him on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. But even there I learned something from him.

I oppose both a sycophantic adoration of Wright and a petulant rejection of him. He is one of the most prolific and preeminent scholars writing today, and so his conclusions must be carefully considered. Whether you know you are dealing with Wright or not, chances are some of the arguments you hear being discussed come from his pen. So – that is why I suggest that every minister, as well as every concerned member, needs to read at least some of his works.

A Serious Question – Who Influences You?

I just read an advertisement about a book that sounded interesting to me – until I read down to the obligatory “praise” section where the reviews of well-known authors or preachers are prominently displayed. I looked at the names of the first two fawning minions and decided, nope, that book was not for me, regardless of how interesting the content of the book first appeared.

Am I alone in my estimation that if a book is praised by someone with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, then I will probably not like the book? I mean, on one hand that sounds so churlish, so immature. I do not even like the way it sounds, and I’m the one who feels that way.

On the other hand, Jesus taught that the way we know what is in a person’s heart is by examining the fruit of their life. The fruit of an author’s life includes (although is not limited to) his or her books. The fruit of a preacher’s life includes (although is not limited to) what he proclaims as the word of God, and what he publicly approves of.

If an author or preacher rejects the biblical teaching regarding sexuality and marriage, if he or she rejects the biblical teaching regarding salvation or sanctification, if he or she approaches the Scriptures from a point of view 180 degrees opposite of my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture – how can I then take his or her word regarding the value of a book and use that affirmation to go out and buy that book?

I totally get that in the book marketing business, reviewers are chosen in proportion to their share of the book selling market. I genuinely do not want to avoid or reject a quality piece of writing just because the publisher invited some doofus to review the book and give some patronizing applause in order to sell a few hundred more copies.

I do not want to drop any names here (because I could list quite a few), but I do read reviews and promotions carefully, and if the preponderance of the acclaim comes from on particular stream of moral or theological understanding, then I can rest assured that the content of the book will not be something that I want to waste my time on. Likewise, if I read a review or a positive advertisement from someone I trust to be a serious student of the word, even if I disagree with that person on certain points, I am more willing to buy that book.

Anyway, this might just be me, and you may buy your books based on an entirely different set of criteria.

How do you select your books? And, how do you decide if you will purchase a book especially if you are not familiar with the author, and are equally unfamiliar with the quality of the reviewers?

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#11)

This post shall be rather brief (I’m trying to make promises I can keep) –

11.  The choice of imagery used in Scripture has as much value as the message communicated by those images. Example: the many metaphors used to describe the “people of God.” (Which is in itself a metaphor).

My point here was (and is) that we should not view Scripture as a “flat” piece of literature. The Bible contains some excruciatingly boring lists of genealogies, some breathtaking poetry, some captivating narrative, and some mystifying views of the future. To treat the genealogical material in the opening chapters of Chronicles with the same significance as the parables of our Lord is just wrong. As Jesus himself said, there are “weightier” matters, and by definition that means there are less weighty matters.

Over the years I have come to love the Scriptures as literature. I have come to recognize the artistry of each gospel writer, I have been shown both the tenderness and the pugnacity of the apostle Paul, and, in particular, I have been enthralled with the deep layers of the book of Revelation. I cannot explain all of this in a tidy little blog post, so I will end with as simple an encouragement as I know how: as we sit down to read the Bible, let us open our minds – and our hearts – to absorb the words of Scripture with all the variety and beauty that they have to offer.

Once we recognize, and value, the beauty of the presentation, we can far more deeply recognize, and value, the content of the message.