Grinding Down Mountains

16 July 2019

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very focused on moral and ritual purity.  If only Israel would be pure enough, they believed, God would return to Jerusalem, and bless her as He had in the days of David and Solomon. They were so focused on purity that when God actually did return to Jerusalem, they missed it. Jesus wept over the city:

“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
(Lk. 19:43-44)

Where we focus is very important. It’s possible to make a serious mistake by focusing on the wrong true thing. The Law is holy and just and good, Paul says. But if you focus on the Law, you run headlong into the rocks of Romans 7. You can’t keep it, and the Law does not confer the power to keep it. Nothing does.

In my corner of the Evangelical world, we have mostly learned this lesson when it comes to moral purity. If we focus on moral and ritual purity, we will become Pharisees, and we know it. So we avoid that mistake…and focus on doctrinal purity instead.

Purity is a good thing. Doctrinal purity is a good thing. But if we focus on any form of purity as the bullseye, we will develop the same trouble the Pharisees always had. It’s just a different version of the same basic mistake. Like the Pharisees, we will make ever-finer divisions in a pursuit of ever-greater purity, and the price of our impatience will be disunity.

If we focus on love and unity–which is what Jesus told us to focus on, in the upper-room discourse–it’s been my experience that we will grow toward greater purity together. Slowly. The speeds can be glacial at times. But glacial speed has its advantages: even mountains cannot stand in our way.

 

 

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Smiling at Error?

11 June 2019

“The truly wise talk little about religion and are not given to taking sides on doctrinal issues. When they hear people advocating or opposing claims of this or that party in the church, they turn away with a smile such as men yield to the talk of children. They have no time, they would say, for that kind of thing. They have enough to do in trying to faithfully practice what is beyond dispute.”
-George MacDonald

I want to affirm that MacDonald is offering up some real wisdom here. I also want to say that this is wisdom, not law, and as with all wisdom the crucial skill is knowing when to apply it.

There’s no time like the present, but look before you leap. The more, the merrier, but three’s a crowd. The clothes make the man, but don’t judge a book by its cover. The pen is mightier than the sword, but actions speak louder than words. All these proverbs are true in the way that proverbs can be true, and MacDonald’s advice is right up there with them. When to do which? That’s the question.  

To MacDonald’s point, there certainly are niggling doctrinal disagreements that just don’t matter. It’s fine for first-year seminarians to talk them over for the sake of the mental exercise, but how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is not a question that should divide brothers.  

My concern with bandying about a quote like the one from MacDonald, above, is that people come away with a sense that it is always wisdom to remain airily above the fray. Couldn’t Luther just go back to his prayers and agree to disagree with the Pope? What was Athanasius thinking, making such a pill of himself? Would it have killed Paul to just let Peter sit where he wanted at the church potluck? Did Jesus really need to go out of His way to pronounce woe on the Pharisees?

These men were addressing false doctrines that do real injury to God’s people, and in such cases, a wise man answers Jude’s call to contend earnestly for the faith.

Anybody can hate error because it is wrong. It takes real wisdom to hate important errors because they’re injurious, and leave the unimportant ones for a casual chat over coffee someday. May God make us wise.


Rachel Held Evans, Entered into Rest

7 May 2019

It will surprise no one to learn that I have never been a big Rachel Held Evans fan. We differ fundamentally and widely on many things, principally the authority of Scripture.  And yet, as so often happens in God’s family, I would from time to time happen upon something where we unexpectedly converged. Because of course we do. Like Father, like daughter. To a greater or lesser extent, sure. But that’s the journey we’re all on, isn’t it?

I don’t believe that journey will ever really be over; I suspect C. S. Lewis had it right in The Last Battle: “Come further up! Come further in!” Tonight as I write this, she is in Narnia, and we are still here: no matter how we differed a few days ago, she’s out ahead of us all, now. And good for her.

So on the occasion of her passing, I wish to offer a tribute to my sister. Her treatment of modesty made me rethink some things. Her reflections on Sabbath (and also here) were beautiful, and helped me renew my own commitment to accepting God’s rest regularly. Writing pieces like that is real work, and I’m grateful she did it.

She has now fully entered His rest. I look forward to meeting her there. I owe her a thank you.


“Above All Your Name”

28 September 2018

Over time I have noticed a trend in my understanding of Scripture. I can’t figure out what a passage means. It seems odd, or an odd way of saying something. Then one day, I see God do the thing that the passage is talking about, and suddenly it couldn’t be any clearer — it’s exactly the right way of describing what happened.

So Psalm 138 has baffled me for years. What could it possibly mean to say to God, “You have magnified Your word above all Your name”?

Let’s look at the whole first movement of the psalm:

I will praise You with my whole heart;

Before the gods I will sing praises to You.

I will worship toward Your holy temple,

And praise Your name

For Your lovingkindness and Your truth

For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.

In the day when I cried out, You answered me,

And made me bold with strength in my soul.

The speaker is in a foreign land. He sings the praises of Yahweh in front of the demonic powers of that place. Think Daniel, praying toward Jerusalem in Babylon.

So what does it mean in this foreign sojourn that God has magnified His word above His name? I didn’t know until I saw it happen: pagans following the word of God, not out of obedience to Him but because it’s good advice and their lives are better off when they do it. They may have encountered the principle — Sabbath rest, tithing, generosity, what have you — as a word of advice from a friend, or as a principle from inner witness, or whatever. They don’t attribute it to God because they don’t know it came from Him.

Because He has magnified His word above His name. He is willing for people to know what to do without Him getting immediate credit for it. More people know how to live than know that He is the source of direction — that is what it means to have the law written on your heart.

The second half of Psalm 138 says

All the kings of the earth shall praise You, O Yahweh,

When they hear the words of Your mouth.

Yes, they shall sing of the ways of Yahweh,

For Yahweh’s glory is great.

Though Yahweh is on high,

He still regards the lowly;

But He knows the proud from afar.

God will not allow His word to forever remain anonymous. Because He is humble and He loves us, He is willing for people to say, “Wow! That’s a great idea!” and not know, at first, where it came from.

But as it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, so it is the glory of kings to search it out. Kings want to know where the good ideas come from, because where there’s one, often there’s more. As they investigate, they will find Yahweh, because whoever seeks Yahweh (knowingly or not) will find Him. And when they do, they will praise Him.


Levels of Language

3 August 2018

A couple years ago, I read Paul Graham’s ruminations on higher- and lower-level languages in Hackers and Painters. Although he’s talking about computer languages, his insights have bearing on biblical language and hermeneutics. So bear with me while I lay out some of the basic points, and then we’ll look at the applications. 

  • The very lowest level of language has a very small number of things it can do. Every level up combines those basic instructions in increasingly complex ways to get tasks done.
  • Anything a computer can do, you can do in binary. But you can’t do some things in Basic that you can do in C++, and you can’t do some things in C++ that you can do in Lisp (Graham’s examples; I wouldn’t know). Lower-level languages lack the abstractions and features that higher-level languages have.
  • Perhaps equally important, many of the things you can do in all 3 languages take more steps in Basic than C++, and more steps in C++ than Lisp. The code is longer, the further down the hierarchy you go. Longer code tends to breed more mistakes, because humans don’t deal well with obsessive levels of detail.
  • Conversely, the higher the level of language, the faster you can work. If it takes 3x longer to write in (say) C++ than in Lisp, and your competitor is writing in C++, he can’t keep up with you. A feature that takes you a month to program takes him 3 to duplicate. A feature that takes him 3 months to program, you can duplicate in 1. When you’re ahead, you’re way ahead. When you’re behind, you catch up quickly.
  • A programmer thinks primarily in a certain language. Down the hierarchy, he can see that all the languages are lower level than his preferred one, because “they don’t even have [feature].” Up the hierarchy from his primary language, the languages just look weird, because he doesn’t think in them. So they have these higher-order abstractions that he can’t quite grasp, or he can’t see what anybody would ever want them for.

One other observation that is going to be important for this: good programmers often don’t solve a really difficult problem. They formulate another (easier) problem that is the practical equivalent of the hard one, and then solve that.

So given that, the analogy for biblical studies:

  • Basic linguistic/textual analysis tools like sentence diagramming or outlining are like machine code. There’s a very limited number of options, and it’s very laborious to describe what’s happening in the text.
  • Didactic literature is the next level up. It’s using the linguistic options available in a pretty basic, transparent way. 
  • Narrative comes after that. While narrative is often grammatically simpler than didactic (paratactic rather than hypotactic, and so on), there are some very complex things going on that you really can’t get at with a sentence diagram. The tools you use to decode didactic literature aren’t sufficient to interpret narrative well. 
  • Proverbs, parables and typology are very high-level, an order of magnitude beyond narrative. 

So if you think in Didactic, and you do it well enough to really have it and know you have it, then you know you don’t quite have a handle on Narrative. Narrative operates with a whole set of signifiers that your interpretive grid doesn’t know what to do with. And you really have an awful time with Typology. (This was the case for the folks that trained me in exegesis. We had a great set of tools for didactic literature, and we knew we didn’t have a parallel set of tools for narrative. And for typology? Forget it! One of our hermeneutics texts seriously claimed that we could only identify something as a type if the New Testament (didactic) literature said it was!)

Conversely, if you can operate in Typology, you can certainly handle Narrative. And when you go to prove a point using Narrative, your argument makes no sense to a Didactic-speaker, because your reasoning just doesn’t translate into his language (and it’s worse if you use Typology!) You’re using higher-order abstractions that he simply doesn’t have. If we are going to be good interpreters of Scripture, it’s not enough to grasp the didactic literature. We need to learn to read the higher levels of language as well. 

And then, because we are called to speak like God speaks, we need to learn to speak at higher levels of language, too. It comes in handy. I was having breakfast with a group of friends a while back, and one of the guys was making his case for education outside the home (and against homeschooling). His argument centered around the impossibility of sheltering your kids from the prevailing culture forever, and homeschoolers’ inability to cope with the culture when they were suddenly thrown into it at age 19 or so. He took maybe 10 minutes, and early on I told him I was going to rebut him. As he reached the end of his case, someone pointed out what time it was, and he said “Oh, crap! I gotta go!” As he was getting up from his chair to put on his coat, he said to me “But you were going to argue against that. I’m sorry about this, but can you say it fast?”

I said, “‘As arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.’ You want to send your arrows out in the midst of your enemies — but you don’t let your enemies mess with the arrows while the glue on the fletchings is still wet.”

He got it. I was able to cleanly counterpoint his 10-minute speech in 2 sentences because I was able to find a way to operate at a proverb/parable/type level of discourse. Of course, that’s not the same thing as winning the argument, and I’d have really liked to have more time. But I laid out a relevant objection to his point of view and gave us room for further discussion. Not bad for 2 sentences. 

The Bible is genius-level communication, and the more time we spend with it, the better off we’ll be. Read first for what it’s telling you. After you start to have a good handle on that, start reading for the lessons in communication. I promise, you’ll learn whole new ways of speaking well.


If You Love Sheep…

24 July 2018

This post is part of the July Synchroblog on the topic of Just War and Pacifism. Scroll to the bottom for links to other participating blogs.

In the course of your Christian growth, if you never have a serious flirtation with pacifism, you’re just not paying attention. We serve a martyr king, a lamb who was slain and raised in glory. The original band of apostles were all martyred except John, and the only reason he didn’t die a martyr’s death was because he survived being boiled in oil; it’s not like they weren’t trying to kill him. Those martyrs were consciously following a tradition that stretched all the way back to Abel (see Matthew 23:35 and Hebrews 11, for example). In both Old and New Testaments, there’s a glorious history of powerful martyrdom in service to God, and the blood of the martyrs really is the seed of the Church.

At the same time, in the course of your Christian growth, you ought also to notice that God seems to approve of an awful lot of the violence in the Bible. Even if you’re inclined to a Marcionite tunnel-vision focused exclusively on Jesus, you have to address Luke 22:35-38, in which–whatever its other implications–Jesus definitely told His immediate followers to go out and buy swords in preparation for their future journeys. This same Jesus returns in Revelation 19, all tatted up and slaying the nations. He shall break them with a rod of iron….

Paul says the civil magistrate is God’s servant for good, and does not bear the sword in vain. The kings of Israel went to war regularly with God’s blessing–in fact, both David and Saul had trouble because they didn’t go to war in the way they should have. And so on — ain’t no shortage of divinely sanctioned war and police action in the Scriptures. (There’s even a reference in Numbers 21:14 to a Book of the Wars of the Lord.)

All of this has been written about, over and over again. Lots of divinely commissioned martyrs, and lots of divinely commissioned violence, all over the Bible. The basic data are not much in dispute. The question is, how do we make sense of this mess?

The answer, of course, is that we should exercise discernment. The simple answers — reflexive hawkism and pacifism equally among them — are not just bad ideas; they are temptations. Their appeal is in the way they authorize us to ignore complicating factors and reject maturity.

And maturity is required, because we really are sorting out a mess here. The basic impulse that drives pacifism is a sense that the world shouldn’t be like this, that violence is not okay. The pacifists are absolutely right about that. The world was never meant to descend into struggle and death. But God gave us real choice in the Garden. We broke the world and introduced death, and that had real consequences.

Downstream from the Fall, we live in a profoundly broken world. We need only look to places where rule of law (and the governmental violence it requires) have fallen apart to see that brokenness in all its horror. In such places, rape, murder, and every form of predation on other human beings are commonplace. The strong terrorize the weak at whim, and in the face of such horror, pacifism stands revealed for what it is: a blanket abdication of our duty to care for the poor and defend the weak and helpless. No one has a right to shirk that duty because the world isn’t supposed to be violent. (And there’s nothing more deeply hypocritical than a pacifist calling 911 to summon gun-toting professionals to do violence on his behalf. Yech.)

Our duty to care for the weak requires effective responses, and effective responses to a determined attacker generally involve maiming or killing the person. (Less-lethal solutions are getting better all the time, but they are plagued by range limitations and reliability problems. A stout knife or a firearm are far more versatile and reliable.) We are tempted to appeal to hard cases, and say that no one but God has the wisdom to wield such power well. But we cannot ignore the fact that from Noah to Caesar, from Genesis 9 to Romans 13, God consistently delegates that power to human beings.

From a woman fighting off a rapist in an alley to a nation-state fighting off an aggressor, the same principles apply all the way up and down the scale. A solid Christian response to the problem of evil encompasses an intellectual response to the intellectual difficulties, a compassionate response to the emotional difficulties, and a pastoral response to the physical difficulties, which includes being willing to draw a weapon and say, “Not today, pal.” The shepherd has a rod and a staff for a reason: if you love sheep, you fight wolves.

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This post was part of the July 2018 Synchroblog on the topic of Just War and Pacifism. Here are links to others who contributed this month. Go read them all!


Moana, Frozen, and Repentance

14 June 2018

Elsa is Moana’s polar opposite. (See what I did there?) Elsa has no real guidance or mentors to speak of, and she finds something in herself that she has no way of living with. First she denies what is obviously true about herself; then she denies her connection to her people. (It’s more than a little revealing that “Let It Go,” the iconic song from the film, comes from this point of near-murderous isolation in the story, and not from the later resolution. As a culture, we don’t identify with the resolution.)

When Elsa finally comes to terms with both the reality of who she is and her connections to her people, she finds rest — but she gets little help along the way. She has no grandmother, no sea looking out for her, no Yoda, no Jiminy Cricket, no Philektetes. The only person who believes in her is her sister Anna, and she’s separated from Anna for the critical portion of the story arc. Elsa has to figure it out all by herself.

As evangelicals, we tell ourselves that we are in Elsa’s position. It’s all new, and we have to figure it out for ourselves. But it isn’t true.

On the surface, Moana looks similar to Elsa: overcoming parental resistance to embrace her true identity and calling. But as it turns out, Moana’s calling is the same calling her people have shared for generations. Her father turned away; it is her job to turn back, and in that task she is assisted by her grandmother, her mother, mystical visions, and the very sea itself.

Her people have been long-distance seafarers from time out of mind. They turned from the path because the seas became too dangerous as a result of Maui’s theft. Her father continues the error by trying to turn her from the path too, but as the deadly consequences of Maui’s sin reach her home island, Moana’s people can no longer hide. It falls to Moana to heal the brokenness of her world and reclaim her lost heritage, and she does.

Herein lies a tricky business. “Move not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” “Honor thy father and mother.” In a perfect  world, those two commands would never be in conflict. But what if you are the child of the man who moved the ancient landmark? What if he’s your grandfather? Great-grandfather?

That is the evangelical dilemma. And Moana has a lesson to teach.