Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck

9 August 2009

In 1999 Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho chose the theme “Poetic Ministry” for its annual minister’s conference.  The following is from the close of a talk entitled “Fruitful Labor,” delivered by Douglas Wilson at that conference (emphasis mine).*

…You will probably be accused at some point of advocating or compromising with postmodernism….You must guard yourself against any genuine relativism or postmodernism, but people will just oppose you and this is going to be a handy stick to beat you with….

And the reason for this – and this is why Christians get into legalisms, often times:  there’s the gnostic impulse in legalism, but there’s also the laziness impulse in legalism.  I cannot tell, by looking at a man, if he’s truly temperate.  I can look at him and say “is he temperate; is he balanced?”…I can’t tell by looking at him.  But I can tell if he’s got a can of Coors in his hand.  That’s easy.  So if I make a rule against drinking beer, then I can tell if he’s violating it, and I can tell if he’s violating it at a glance.  This is the lazy man’s way of identifying sin, of identifying a problem.   So if you’re looking for intemperance, you can’t tell that at a glance, so you make up an arbitrary and capricious rule.

Related to poetic ministry, there are many people—we might call them conservative, pro-Enlightenment Christians—who believe that the way to fight the left wing enlightenment — postmodernism — is by embracing the right wing enlightenment — various forms of conservatism, and so forth.  But we’re Christians; we should be operating in another category entirely.  Many people get sucked into the analytic tradition because it’s far easier to catch a bad logician than it is to catch a bad poet….  If you’re appealing to poetry, the biblical patterns and the biblical cadences of poetry, that is pretty slippery for a lot of people, and it would involve a lot of work distinguishing the right and the wrong and the wholesome and the unwholesome, and so forth and they just don’t want to do it, so they’ll just accuse you of postmodernism.

Third, if they finally see you, if they wake up in time, you will be understood by your enemies outside the church….and they will understand far more clearly than many of your friends—but your prayer should be that they will not understand, that they will not see you, until it’s far too late.

This is the dangerous territory we are going to have to enter, and there is no way to enter it by just learning a few propositions.  We are going to have to become different people, better people: people who can catch a bad poet.

this is another aspect of the personalism with which we are re-infusing our theology, and a very necessary one.  Not only is belief in the “saving message” belief in a Person, but it is also belief by a person, and this extends beyond the “saving message” to every act of interpretation.  Every interpretation is by a person, and it matters who that person is. If a reader is at all serious about allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, he quickly discovers that there are some aspects that don’t lend themselves well to propositional analysis: symbols, types, and other such resonances.  When these resonances occur in a passage, a reader with literary skill catches them, and realizes that their presence in the passage is not an accident.

If that reader is also a skilled communicator — say, a good pastor — he can retell the passage in such a way as to highlight the resonances, and a lot of people who wouldn’t have caught the connections on their own will be able to see them with his help.  So he gets up and tells the story to his flock, and all across the auditorium, people get chills and the hair on the back of their neck stands up as they see the connection for the first time.

But what is that pastor to do when someone just doesn’t see it?  Suppose one of his deacons comes up to him after the sermon and says, “Pastor, I don’t think I understand what you were talking about today.  Could you explain it again?”  He does, and the man still just doesn’t see it: “Pastor, I hear what you’re saying, but it just sounds pretty thin to me.  How could you prove that the author really meant for us to see those connections, and interpret them as tying back to that earlier story?”

The answer is, he can’t, because what the deacon means by “prove” is approximately what Euclid meant by it, and stories don’t work like that.  There’s a subtle alignment, a sympathy with the author, that is called for here, and if you don’t have it, they you can’t see the thing well enough to see what the author wants you to see.  N. T. Wright** describes the problem like this:

One of the first insights I came to in the early stages of my doctoral work…was that when you hear yourself saying, ‘What Paul was really trying to say was…’ and then coming up with a sentence which only tangentially corresponds to what Paul actually wrote, it is time to think again.  When, however, you work to and fro, this way and that, probing a key technical term here, exploring a larger controlling narrative there, enquiring why Paul used this particular connecting word  between these two sentences, or that particular scriptural quotation at this point in the argument, and eventually you arrive at the position of saying, ‘Stand here; look at things in this light; keep in mind this great biblical theme, and then you will see that Paul has said exactly what he meant, neither more nor less’ — then you know that you are in business.

I’m not always a fan of Wright’s answers, but he’s describing the process very well indeed.  To bring it back to our struggling deacon, the problem isn’t that the deacon fails to understand the propositions of the argument; it’s that the hair on the back of his neck didn’t stand up when he heard the story told that way.  There’s no easy answer here; restating the argument isn’t going to help at all.

He’s already a good logician, but he needs to become a good poet.  This is less about training his mind than it is about training the hair on the back of his neck to stand up when it should — and that is going to take a lot of time, and a lot of work.

See Part 2 of this post.


*For those of you who are aware of the Federal Vision controversy, a few words: Wilson gave this address anticipating significant resistance within his circles to the shift toward “poetic” ministry.  Undoubtedly there was some resistance, but it does not seem to have been a huge thing.  However, it seems to me that the Federal Vision battle that erupted just three years later is the anticipated controversy.

To my eye, what’s happened is this: the shift toward a poetic mode of operating is the root, and within a Reformed milieu, the Federal Vision is the predictable fruit.  Most of the FV opponents don’t understand the root and never did — hence all the accusations of lack of clarity — but they can see fruit that doesn’t mesh with their ideas of what good fruit should look like.  So they object to the fruit, and they still don’t really understand where it’s coming from.

**Wright, N. T., Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009) 51.

Propositions Matter

26 July 2009

In a previous post, I challenged my readers to try explaining “By grace you are saved through faith” without falling back on telling a story.

It can’t be done.

This simple proposition from Ephesians 2:8 points to a wealth of biblical story.  “Grace” has no meaning apart from reference to the story: in specific ways and at specific times, God acts to our benefit when we don’t deserve it and can’t earn it.  Likewise “saved” refers to the story.  The specific way God acts to our benefit is this: we and our fathers sinned, and we are being delivered, bit by bit, from the corruption and consequences of sin.  One day that deliverance will be complete.  “Faith” speaks of how this salvation, graciously provided by God, comes to a particular person: that person believes God.  As the subsequent context shows, this belief is in contrast to earning salvation through good works.  Finally, let’s not forget the word “you,” by which Paul places his readers within the story that he is telling.  It’s not just a story; it’s their story, which turns out to be a vital point, because Paul wants them to live based on this story (see 4:1-6).

So if it all goes back to the story, why not just tell the story, one concrete detail after the next?  Why bother with the abstract statement at all?

Because the abstractions contain less information, and this is a Good Thing.  They allow us to look at one particular facet of the story, to highlight particular aspects, and therefore to interpret the story.  When God gives abstract propositions, it’s like a math textbook having all the answers in the back of the book.  It provides a way to check your work and see if you understood the problem correctly.

If you read the Abraham stories, you ought to conclude that righteousness before God comes through faith, and not through religious works — especially not through circumcision.  Paul explains this very clearly in Romans 4, and the clear implication of his treatment there is that he’s not saying anything new.  It’s all right there in Genesis.  But Romans 4 allows you to check your reading of Moses against Paul, an interpreter inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself.  If you’re tracking with Paul, then you haven’t gone very far wrong in the way you read Genesis.

To return to Ephesians 2:8, Paul addresses the very same truth in much shorter form.  Here, he doesn’t make explicit reference to Genesis at all, but the effect is the same.  If your reading of Torah, of Hebrew Scriptures, led you to the conclusion that salvation comes through currying favor with God through good deeds, Paul says you are very much mistaken.  If you perhaps thought that being born into the right race was all that God required, again, Paul says you are very mistaken.  Salvation is by God’s grace, through faith, and thus both good works and ancestry are excluded.

Could you have gotten that from the stories?  Yes.  In fact, you should have gotten that from the stories.  But we are at times very thick when it comes to interpreting narrative, and the abstract statement gives you a chance to catch up if you’re a little slow.  In it, God interprets the narrative for us.

So if the abstract statement is the interpretation of the narrative, then isn’t it the essential thing?  Isn’t it the distilled essence of the narrative, the sine qua non, scrubbed free of mundane details and tucked into a tidy little box?

Nope.  Two reasons: first, the abstraction only has meaning by reference to the story.  Abstractions are too general to mean anything unless they’re tied down to a particular story, or set of stories (see the treatment of “by grace you are saved through faith” that began this article).  Second, because God made the world ex nihilo, entered it Himself in a body, and will resurrect it all one day.  But that’s a subject for a future post.