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.

Advertisements

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.

****

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!


All about the heart?

13 July 2018

As we approach God in worship, there’s a natural tendency to get sidetracked on production values, thinking that musical quality and such are more important than anything else. Of course, that’s not true, and evangelical Christianity also contains a strong impulse to repent of that and focus on the heart as the central thing — as it should.

1. The heart is the central thing. If the heart is not there, then the rest is worthless.

2. A right heart is not a license to do whatever you want. Because a wrong heart invalidates even the best and most tasteful production, there’s a tendency to think that a right heart validates all production decisions, and nothing else matters.

In other words, knowing that the heart is the primary thing, and without it, everything else is worthless, it is easy to slip into thinking that if the heart is there, everything else is still worthless. That it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as our hearts are right. Not true. Does God value our imperfect production? Of course. Like a proud father sticking a 4-year-old’s drawing on the refrigerator, He sees the heart in what we do, and loves it. But it would be weird for a 25-year-old to produce the same drawing and expect the same response. A good father expects the kids to embrace their responsibility to grow up.

3. Getting your heart right is always the first priority. A right heart will discover that there are vehicles that are more fitting, and others less fitting, to express itself. As that right heart grows into adult capacities, it will find adult means of expression, not just stick to the tried and true strategies of childhood.

4. A right heart worships God, not excellence. When your heart wants to bury the talent in the backyard, you can be sure that your heart is not right. A right heart has a sense of proportion, and would rather do a good thing imperfectly than do nothing because perfection is not available. It never will be, this side of glory.


Stripped to Nothing

5 July 2018

My friend and advisor Rich Bedsoe offers a powerful reflection on how Jesus impacts history in Principalities and Powers, part 1 and part 2. They’re long pieces, but worth your time.

The question that occurs to me is, what now? The Incarnation founded a new civilization when it destroyed Caesar’s power to rule by right of divinity. Justification by faith founded a new church when it destroyed the Roman Church’s power to rule by condemnation. So what now? Something like theosis–the re-animation of the naked/dead ego by the Holy Spirit founds a new…what? when it destroys…what?

Of course the sensible answer is, “Ask again in another 150 years or so.” But in the meantime, let’s speculate.

A friend suggests that the re-animation of the naked ego by the Spirit founds a new kind of human by destroying autonomous man. This new human is no longer animated by justification alone, but by glory.

I want to chase that idea a little further, and cash out something I think is implicit in Bledsoe’s articles. Ideas have the ability to shift culture, sometimes very powerfully, but Christianity makes a substantially greater claim for itself than just some transformative ideas. I want to suggest (and I think Bledsoe would agree) that in each case, it is not simply the idea operating upon the culture. The transformative effect on the culture comes from people animated by the experience which the idea describes.

The ancient kings’ right to rule as divine was not overturned simply by the idea that men cannot be gods. It was overturned by a critical mass of people whose authentic experience of actual divinity rendered Caesar’s pretensions an obvious sham. Providence makes the contrast even starker by providing real-life satire in the person of emperors like Caligula, and in due course, Julian the Apostate.

Likewise, the Roman church’s power to rule by condemnation and contempt was not simply overturned by the idea of justification by faith. It was defeated by people who were no longer vulnerable to human manipulation through false guilt, because they had experienced for themselves the freedom of being justified by faith. In the harsh light of their new experience, the guilt-manipulations of the Roman church stood revealed for what they truly were, and again, providential real-life satire in the person of Tetzel and his ilk only served to further highlight the problem.

Today, our suspicion of all authority strips the self bare. We have succeeded in divesting ourselves of anything that would interfere with our autonomy, and as a result, we have rendered the most mundane relationships impossible. Every relational overture is interpreted as a power play, and therefore treated with suspicion. The real-life satire is all around us, if we have eyes to see. We are headed toward a world where it won’t even be possible to share a cup of coffee except by the power of the Spirit, because everything is overwhelmed with suspicion, and we’re scared we’ll be taken in.

The autonomous self, “liberated” from constricting relationships, discovers it has also rendered its much-vaunted power of choice completely meaningless. Those same substantial relationships that once constricted our choices also provided context within which our choices had meaning. Apart from that context, our choices are wholly arbitrary, and therefore meaningless.

Autonomous and alone, the self craves absolution, but recognizes no authority that might offer it; craves glory, but hates any standard by which glory might be recognizable. Everywhere people gather in elective tribes, collectives, and fandoms in hopes of re-creating a context for themselves–only to abandon them when relational problems crop up, as they always do. As substantial communities, our churches are rarely better than any other affinity group–Jeep Owners, Juggalos, or Jubilee Baptist, take your pick.

But the Spirit broods over humanity, incubating a new people. As Caesar fell before the Incarnation and the church of Rome before the Cross, autonomous man must fall before the power of Pentecost.

United with the indwelling Holy Spirit, the self automatically enters into relationship with the Father and the Son. All who thus enter are in relationship with each other as well, invited into the perichoretic triune dance. We receive this relationship not as something we might possibly earn, but rather as a gift already accomplished for us. We could not, and by God’s grace need not, manufacture such relationships; we need only steward them and harvest their bounty.

We can quench the Spirit; we can grieve the Spirit; we can prefer the flesh’s works over the Spirit’s fruit–and we often do. When we refuse the Spirit’s bounty, our benefit from one another is as insubstantial as if we were just fans of the same band, car, or TV show. But there’s a crucial difference. You can stop liking that band, and just leave the group.

You can’t escape the new birth so easily. Unlike a fandom, the new birth is a historical event, and nothing you do now can make it didn’t happen. You are a child of God forever, and your only choice now is to be a good one or a bad one. Our culture, and even most of our churches, will tell you that being a good child of God means being a great person, possessed of the kind of cleanliness everyone at the country club pretends to have, but doesn’t really. (Pro tip: they’re all wrong about that. Abraham ran off to Egypt; Samuel was a bad father; David was an adulterer and murderer, Elijah sulked in a cave, and so on. Don’t worry; you’re in good company.)

Being the child God calls you to be isn’t about moral perfection. It’s about refusing to hide your faults and flaws (what 1 John aptly calls “walking in the light”), owning what God shows you. It means being seen by the people around you and refusing to project a nice, clean image. You live in the light, and God will grow you into a great person over time.

If you hide, then you miss all the relational benefits God is offering you, and you’ll get worse every day. You’re one of those friends invited to the wedding feast who never shows up. But if you live in the light…ah, my friend, what relationships you will have!

In the context of these relationships, already provided for us, our choices become meaningful again. When we invite the Spirit to move in power and allow Him to follow through, we are not only united to God in fact, but we reap the benefits in practice. The fellowship of the triune life (into which we enter vertically) is mirrored horizontally in our fellowship with one another. In the triune dance, we find our freedom in the ability to grow into who and what we were built to be, in relation to others who do the same.


The Fall of Ecclesiastical Communism

28 June 2018

Many American churches are closing, or merging, to survive. In many denominations, there are now the equivalent of hospice nurses for churches–interim pastors who specialize in closing churches down. The widespread feeling is that the church in America is shrinking. In fact, however, research suggests that “only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”

Serious engagement is another matter entirely.  

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

This also means, of course, that those who take their faith seriously are becoming a markedly larger proportion of all religious people.

What is this?

I submit that we are seeing the fall of central planning in church ministry. Central planning was one of the great idols of the twentieth century, the idea that if you could systematize an endeavor on a large scale and execute it “scientifically,” there would be greater efficiency, less waste, and so on: the worship of technique with a capital T.

In 1917, a visionary went to Tsarist Russia to put this theory into action. His name was Vladimir Lenin, and his experiment failed horribly. Not only did the communists have to murder a bunch of people who didn’t really fit into the grand “scientific” design of the new society–which would have been bad enough–they were also notably less prosperous than the free world, and the entire enterprise eventually collapsed under its own weight. Everywhere central planning has been implemented on a national level, it begins by destroying those who don’t fit, and ends in dire poverty and starvation. Think East Germany versus West Germany, North Korea versus South. Cuba was once the jewel of the Caribbean. And so on, though endless 20th-century examples, right up to present-day Venezuela.

In the West, the publishing world offers another strong example of central planning in action. The Big Six publishers moved away from a broad set of offerings and responding to orders by booksellers to a “push model,” which allowed them to manufacture bestsellers by deciding on them in advance, and “pushing” them out into the market, whether the market wanted them or not. The market didn’t, as it turned out. And again, they began by destroying the careers of the authors that didn’t fit their vision — authors deemed unsuitable for whatever reason would never be “pushed,” and would not be allowed to become bestsellers. (They literally let books that were surprise successes go out of print rather than incur the cost of extra print runs to meet the demand. It’s nuts.) The Big Six became the Big Five, and the whole enterprise is looking increasingly green around the gills.

They blamed declining reading habits. Then Harry Potter taught a whole generation to read for fun, and they had to find another excuse. They blamed ebooks. Yeah, sure. There’s a bunch independent authors making a good living from ebooks, but never mind. They blame anyone and anything, except themselves and their failed theory.

The central planners are always looking for scapegoats, people to blame when the plan doesn’t work. They need a lot of scapegoats, because central planning never works.

Which brings us back to the church and its relationship to millennials. If my generation (Gen X) was so independent as to be fundamentally unmanageable (and we are, mostly), millennials are not. They are generally collaborative and team-oriented. They should be flocking to church in droves.

They aren’t. In my experience, that’s not because they’re rebellious. There’s a good bit of confusion and spiritual tourism, but that’s nothing new. The Boomers and Xers had plenty of that, too. It’s not because they don’t hear from God; in my experience they’re more open than Boomers or Xers there, too.

The fundamental problem is deeper: what they hear from God doesn’t match what they hear from church. God says to heal the brokenhearted; the church wants to point out all the ways it is their own fault. God says to seek the peace of the city; the church is mostly concerned about the peace within its own four walls. God says feed the hungry; the church wants a vision statement, a mission statement, an overseeing staff member, a proposal for the budget committee, and then of course we’ll need to run it by the property committee, which only meets every other month….

Most churches in the US are very top-down enterprises. There are a few people at the top that are allowed to have ideas, and everybody else is recruited to be support staff. Touted as “vision-driven leadership,” this pyramidal endeavor is actually central planning at its finest. And it works just as well as the other examples.

It’s vision-stifling leadership. Millennials as a class aren’t confrontational enough to try to take over the church from within (that would be my generation.) They’ll just go elsewhere. And they have.

So there’s a parallel reformation happening. You can find it in service organizations, at parks, in community meetings in city halls across the country. You can even find it in church basements–where there’s an AA meeting in progress, or a food bank at work.

When the Spirit is in a ministry initiative, of course, He also calls the necessary people together to make it run, whether that means two or a small army. But He blows where He wills, and that can’t be controlled in our day any better than it was in Jesus’ time.

When the American church learns this, and develops eyes to see where the Spirit is at work, we will be surprised at what is already under way.


A Parallel Revival

21 June 2018

I knew when God called me to go to massage therapy school that the experience was going to rock my world. I had grandiose visions of pouring a ton of extra time into my developing theology of the body before I started school, but life providentially interfered, as it so often does. I had to settle for making God a promise: “I will seek to give account of the experiences You give me. I will not ignore anything that happens, no matter how strange or how far off the map it might seem.” 

My friends, when you write God a blank check like that, He cashes it. This post lays out one of the lines of thought that came from the many, many off-the-map experiences God gave me in school and afterwards. 

God is willing to move for the healing of the world through those who are willing–including those who don’t yet recognize Him for who He is, and aren’t “members of the club,” as it were. We want God to move through the church people. He does, when they are willing. But there’s a lot more willing people out there, many of whom have never seen anything in the institutional church that they’d want to join. People who are called to healing, and know it, and the church doesn’t seem to them to be interested in or helpful for people who are trying to heal. I’m talking about the addiction counselors, AA sponsors, somatic psychotherapists, lightworkers…it’s a vast and tangled landscape, with a lot of evil and downright demonic things loose in it, but a lot of good, too. Some do their work from selfish ambition, and others from a sense of higher calling…in other words, not so different from the church, after all.

When God providentially allows some of His people to be squeezed out of the church institutions where they formerly found a comfortable home, we have no choice but to go out into the world. (Perhaps we ought to have been there already.) Called for the healing of the world, we seek the company of those similarly called, and we engage them as Jesus taught His followers to do: when you come into the house, say “Peace to this house,” and go from there. If a child of peace lives there, the peace of the Trinity rests on them through our blessing, and they recognize it as something special. I find these folks often have the sense to desire the good things God gave us, things the institutional church was all too ready to throw away without a second look.

Speaking of throwing us away, if those in the house are not children of peace, our peace will return to us (which is also how we find peace outside the institutional church.) Shake the dust and go. God will tend to them; we are called elsewhere.

Among the people of peace, wherever found, we thrive. Many times, they know things we don’t, things we refused to know because we couldn’t integrate the knowledge. In turn, we know the Name of the Higher Power they call on. We have a lot to share with one another, if we’re willing.

Now, for the past 40 years or so, we’ve seen the biggest revival in the history of the Church (notwithstanding the folks pretending it isn’t happening because the cost of admission is leaving your cessationism behind). It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and you can read more about it here if you like. For now, though, I want to draw a comparison to it.

If the trend I’m discussing here takes off the way I think it will, I expect to see a “parallel revival” on par with the current Pentecostal one. It may be some time before the exiles are willing to admit any real kinship with the institutional church, since that’s what we had to leave behind in order to participate. But as God continues to work on hearts both within and outside the institutions, I pray that He will free the insiders of their legalism, and the outsiders of their lawlessness, so that we can be one in the grace of Christ.

It’s a big dream, but I read the last couple chapters of Revelation before. I think this dream is on the way to the fulfillment of that one.

 


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.