Category Archives: In the Study…

Nothing New Under the Hood

I’ve been doing some reading recently pertaining to counseling and the “cure of souls”, and I keep running into the idea that the same problems we’re facing today are the same ones humanity has always faced.  This jumps off the page and smacks me in the face when I read books that are hundreds of years old.  This might become more apparent in our modern conversations if our chronological snobbery wasn’t so deeply rooted.  But we know who we are and scoff at who they were.  We think we are so much smarter, wiser, clever, etc. today than the smartest of the smart from, for instance, the 1600’s.  With our more developed understanding of how our biology affects our thinking and emotions, what could a pastor from the 1600’s teach us?

How about this?

And pride also, with a desire of liberty, makes men think it to be a diminishing of greatness and freedom either to be curbed, or to curb ourselves. We love to be absolute and independent; but this, as it brought ruin upon our nature in Adam, so it will upon our persons.  Men, as Luther was wont to say, are born with a pope in their belly, though are loath to give an account, although it be to themselves, their wills are, instead of a kingdom to them, mens mihi pro regno [my mind for the kingdom].  –Richard Sibbes, The Soul’s Conflict with Itself

Notice how the author skewers the impulses common to all of us.  There are those of us who hate controls from outside of us, “…to be curbed…”.  We say, “I will not lay down my rights for the sake of another.  For that would be to give away my freedom, to submit to tyranny, and diminish me as a human.”  But there are also those of us who hate to exercise control on the inside, “…to curb ourselves.”  On this end we say, “I will not lay aside this thing inside that feels so right.  For that would be to deny myself this freedom that I desire, to submit to tyranny, and diminish me as a human.”

Someone might object that this is just common sense.  “Of course pride is a problem for everyone.  Thank you so much for that, Captain Obvious.”  But what does it say about us if we’re so proud of our intellectual accomplishments as a culture and yet forget, for all practical purposes, the common sense that by-gone eras practiced so much better?  Maybe the author above didn’t know anything about chemical imbalances in the brain or PTSD.  But I think he might be able to take us to school on the basics of what it means to be human, to deal honestly with our own hearts, to be willing to lay aside one’s rights in service of others.  I know this author has been taking me to school.

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Filed under Ethics and Aesthetics, In the Study...

I keep forgetting. . .

…to post my Goodreads stuff on here. And since I finished a few things recently, here they’ll come in rapid fire manner.

Check out this book on Goodreads: Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being

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Reading through the Institutes

I got pointed to a “Read Calvin’s Institutes in a Year” schedule about 3 months ago and it is proving itself very refreshing. Here’s a great quote I ran across this morning:

For each man’s mind is like a labyrinth, so that it is no wonder that individual nations were drawn aside into various falsehoods; and not only this–but individual men, almost, had their own gods.  For as rashness and superficiality are joined to ignorance and darkness, scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God. 

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Filed under In the Study..., Vision and Devotion

Review of “Imagination of God” by Brian Godawa

(full disclosure: I was provided a free e-copy of this volume by the author for the purpose of writing an honest review.  All page numbers will be from the electronic edition, epub format.)

I had graduated seminary and been involved in ministry in the local church for a few years when the book Word Pictureimagination-of-gods: Knowing God Through Story & Imagination (2009) was first published.  I had been struggling to figure out how to communicate about the Christian faith and biblical content in better ways in our image-driven culture.  I had wrestled with the question, “How do I excite people about a word-and-text-based way of viewing their world (i.e. Christianity) when everywhere else in their lives they are goaded and stimulated by images, videos, and little glowing screens.  So Word Pictures‘ content was like a fresh breeze to me.  Much of what was written I had already learned in various places, but Godawa was able to bring all the pieces together in such a way that it just clicked.  So when this book was republished this year under the title The Imagination of God: Art, Creativity and Truth in the Bible (2016), I was very much pleased.  And what follows is my attempt to help show how works like Godawa’s Imagination of God can help Christendom in the West bridge the gap from being captive to modernity over to a faithful and satisfying engagement with an image-driven culture without falling into the chasm of postmodernity.

After centering the reader in the personal dilemma out of which Godawa’s Imagination of God sprung, he moves on in chapter 2 (pp.19ff) where he lays out a very non-technical discussion of the nature of the Bible as a literary feast.  And like any good diagnostician, Godawa pinpoints the problem that necessitates volumes like his, namely that the study of the Bible had been hamstrung by the 17th-18th century Enlightenment’s preoccupation with precision and empirically-verifiable data.  In his words, “the biblical narrative became eclipsed by the pursuit of factual empirical verification of the text: a modern scientific obsession (pp.21-22).”  This obsession of understanding the Bible in such a literal and mechanistic manner ironically led to a widespread inability to see the Bible’s text in all its rich fullness, robbing people of their ability to fully know the true and living God.

The next two chapters, “Word versus Image” and “Iconoclasm” take the readers into the battle of ideas and its corresponding history.  Godawa demonstrates quite cogently how “…the structure and method of theology affects the content of theology…” and that any theology that neglects “…story, image, symbol, and metaphor… is not being strictly biblical in its method (p.57).”

But in this reviewer’s personal opinion, the real heart –  the real meat and potatoes – of this book is found in the next three chapters titled, “Incarnation,” “Subversion” and “Cultural Captivity”.  It is here where Godawa’s strength really shines through.  Here is where he applies the previous chapters’ argumentation to our own cultural context and helps us see how it isn’t postmodernism that gives superior tools for communication but a fully biblical Christianity.  In the chapter “Incarnation” he makes the point that the power of story and imagery are so potent because they embody truths that would otherwise be abstract and elusive.  But when “[n}arrative imagery incarnates truth (p.70),” readers/viewers can see the truth dramatized, creating an openness and an ability to identity with the truth portrayed — an openness that would have otherwise remained distant if the truth had been communicated through propositions and/or logical argumentation.  And Godawa rightly points out that at the center of all good Christian doctrine is the Truth Incarnate, the Word made flesh.  Not a mere proposition, but a person.  And it is this Person, this God-in-the-flesh Person, who enters the story of humanity and, with the drama of his life and teaching, punctures the pretensions and the feigned ignorance of humanity, subverting the truth claims of any and all-comers.  And “Subversion” and “Cultural Captivity”, the titles of the next two chapters, is where Godawa shows how — following sound, biblical precedent — we can use the “narrative, images, and symbols (p.93)” of our cultural context and subtly appropriate and redefine them within the superior system of a Christian worldview.  This is not a capitulation to the non-Christian mores and alternative worldviews of our day. This is, in fact, the conquest of them.

The remainder of the book  and its appendix, though not of as crucial a nature as the preceding three chapters, are a valuable read for any Christian who feels hamstrung or without the cultural vocabulary to engage these issues that swirl around us.  And any church leader who doesn’t have a firm handle on the use of story and image in the communication of the gospel today could do a lot worse than beginning with this volume by Brian Godawa.

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Filed under biblical theology, In the Study...

Review of Dan Dewitt’s “Christ or Chaos”

christ or chaosThis would be a good summer read for any high school graduate getting ready to head off to college in the fall or for anyone else who wishes to read a very accessible defense of Christian truth.  It is a good presuppositional approach to apologetics aimed at the level of late-high school/early college-aged folks.  This little book (133 pages) is actually a good antidote to the weakest part of Tim Keller’s “Reason for God” because it gives a serious challenge to Darwinian evolution where Keller simply tries to show how evolution and Christianity aren’t incompatible.  Dewitt’s two main challenges to evolution go something like this:

1- It is posited by secular scientists et al that religion was an evolutionary necessity that helped humanity make sense of the world and therefore more equipped to survive.  However, religion is now like a vestigial organ, no longer of any use to humanity and on its way to elimination from the human scene.  But Dewitt responds by pointing out that, if this is the case, then evolution is the author of practical survival skills but also the author of deceit.  Though our genes drove us to religion and equipped us to survive, they deceived us and failed to lead us to what is true about reality.

2- It is also theorized by evolutionary psychology that we are an unrealistically optimistic species and that we are this way because evolution has hardwired our brains this way.  Dewitt quotes Tali Sharot from her TIME magazine article “The Optimism Bias”, “We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures… But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic.”  In simple terms, hope is irrational.  Again, Dewitt points out that if this is true, namely that evolution is the author of this practical survival mechanism in our brains, then it is also true that evolution has deceived and is deceiving us.

Dewitt rightly points out negatively that if evolution cannot be trusted to point us to an accurate view of reality about religion and even our own thoughts, then why should it be trusted to give us an accurate view in so many other areas?  Or as he puts it, “…how can we break free from the illusion?” (pg. 114)  But Dewitt also uses the data of the human impulse toward both religion and optimism to drive us to ask a positive, observational question: could we be hard-wired with this religious impulse and optimism because we are all yearning to return to Eden?  We have this ache because we know this world is broken, that we are all participants in its brokenness, and that we are incapable of putting the pieces back together by ourselves.  Yet somehow we feel that there is a place where all that is broken will be made whole and all that is sad will become untrue.  And if there is such a place, and if we can’t get there on our own, then maybe there is Someone to do what we can’t, Someone to get us where we can’t go.

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Filed under Apologetics, In the Study..., Science meets Life

Sabbatical Thoughts 2.0 – Help for my praying

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to clear while on sabbatical is finding motivation and discipline for my personal prayer life.  That might seem like a shock to some.  “What?!  You’re a pastor.  You guys are supposed to pray as easy as breathing.”  But I assure you that the same sinfully resistant heart resides in my chest as it does in everyone else’s.  Prayer is a battle and one that I have found is hard to jump start outside the context of my regular pastoral duties.  Well, this morning I picked up my copy of Valley of Vision to give me words to pray since I seemed to have none.  And what a blessing it proved to be.  If you are unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of Puritan prayers that have been edited and organized for easier reading.  I have produced one below (lightly edited) that was particularly helpful to me this morning, simply titled “Resurrection”:

O God of my Exodus,
Great was the joy of Israel’s sons,
when Egypt died upon the shore,
Far greater the joy
when the Redeemer’s foe lay crushed
in the dust.
Jesus strides forth as the victor,
conqueror of death, hell, and all opposing might;
He bursts the bands of death,
tramples the powers of darkness down,
and lives for ever.
He, my gracious surety,
apprehended for payment of my debt,
comes forth from the prison house of the grave free,
and triumphant over sin, Satan, and death.
Show me herein the proof that his vicarious offering is accepted,
that the claims of justice are satisfied,
that the devil’s sceptre is shivered,
that his wrongful throne is levelled.
Give me the assurance that in Christ I died,
in him I rose,
in his life I live, in his victory I triumph,
in his ascension I shall be glorified.
Adorable Redeemer,
you who were lifted up upon a cross
are ascended to highest heaven.
You, who as Man of sorrows
was crowned with thorns,
are now as Lord of life wreathed in glory.
Once, no shame more deep than yours,
no agony more bitter,
no death more cruel.
Now, no exaltation more high,
no life more glorious,
no advocate more effective.
You are in the triumph car leading captive
your enemies behind you.
What more could be done than you have done!
Your death is my life,
your resurrection my peace,
your ascension my hope,
your prayers my comfort.

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The Real Worship War

The following is a paraphrased excerpt from Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling (139-140):

We come into worship in the middle of a war that we probably don’t recognize.  It is a war for the allegiance, the worship, of our hearts.  In ways we probably don’t understand fully, we have again and again asked the creation to give us what only the Creator can provide.  We have looked horizontally again and again for what can only be found vertically.  We have asked people, situations, locations, and experiences to be the one thing they will never be: our savior.  We have looked to these things to give us life, security, identity, and hope.  We have asked these things to heal our broken hearts.  We have hoped that these things would make us better people. So a war rages and we sit in worship like so many wounded soldiers.  It is a glory war, a battle for what glory will rule our hearts and, in so doing, control our choices, words, and behaviors.

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Filed under In the Study..., The Church, Vision and Devotion

The Importance of Imagination

If you enjoy a good author and haven’t acquainted yourself with the writings of G.K. Chesterton, please find the time this year to squeeze one of his works in.  He is extremely rewarding to read.  If you are a fiction kind of person, read his Man Called Thursday  or logic-and-imaginationFather Brown mysteries.  If you are a non-fiction fan, read his Orthodoxy or What’s Wrong with the World.  His poem about Alfred the Great is really good, too.  But while you are deciding on what to read, please enjoy this blog article by Dale Ahlquist (a modern authority on all things Chestertonian) on what Chesterton thought about imagination.

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An Unscientific Look at Jack Collins’ book (part 2)

[Opening Caveat: This post is really for eggheads like me.  Let the reader be warned that my thoughts are often confusing and confused.  Or maybe I’m just trying to ask the reader to give me license to do a little poor writing.]

I get the feeling as I read Dr. Collins’ book, namely his discussions of the literary culture in which Genesis was written and the author’s communicative intent, that there is a little bit of confusing-trees-for-forest problem going on.  Dr. Collins works quite hard at showing his readers that the biblical creation account has a lot of the flavor of ancient near eastern myths and yet isn’t somehow a myth in and of itself.  I’m fine as far as that goes.  But I am not sure where the idea comes into play that there is a Divine Author at work here.  Dr. Collins is working mightily to demonstrate how human authors would have taken Moses’ words in Genesis, but where is the discussion of how God is revealing more of his original intent as we march through redemptive history?  [Dr. Vern Poythress lays this process down quite well here, but no where is any of Dr. Poythress’s works mentioned in a footnote nor included in the 11 page bibliography in the back.]  If I could draw an analogy to help illustrate my frustration, it would go something like this.  Imagine all the ancient near eastern myths create a large multi-colored fog.  As you walk through the misty surroundings of ancient near eastern history, the myths are floating all around you in various forms and colors.  But then you come to these two large stone tablets that have words written on them.  And because these tablets are in the middle of this fog, they are covered with the multi-colored dampness of the fog.  But there is a drastic difference between the multi-colored fog, and the tie-dye appearance left by the fog on the tablets.  The difference is this: the tablets are solid.  The fog isn’t.  I feel as if Dr. Collins is spending page upon page discussing the patterns of condensation left on the tablets without ever discussing the tablets themselves or the words written thereon.  Maybe the discussion of the divine author’s intent is outside the scope of the book, but since he is writing to an evangelical audience who cares about such a thing, it would seem like bad planning on Dr. Collins part if that is the case.

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Filed under In the Study..., Science meets Life

An Unscientific Look at Jack Collins’ book (part 1)

When coming at a subject like the one Dr. Collins is attempting to wrestle to the ground, it must feel a little like that scene from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring where that cadre of unlikely heroes are just outside the mines of Moria and trying to battle the multi-tentacled Watcher in the Water that rose up from the murky depths nearby.  Just when you think you have the reach of the beast in hand, you find three more tentacles threatening to drag you under.  And Dr. Collins adds a few more tentacles to do battle with because he insists that his book “say something about everyday life” (p.21).  But I commend Dr. Collins for this because the amount of glory gained for Christ when slaying any beast is directly proportional to the number of tentacles it has.

Well the first aspect of this topic toward which Dr. Collins applies his academic and pastoral tools is how we should read biblical history, including what relation the biblical accounts have to “myth”, and how our worldview lenses filter all this stuff.  For starters one of the things that I loved to read was Dr. Collins’ insistence on the overarching need, even in this age of technological expertise and scientific precision, for a “captivated imagination” (pg. 20).  He uses C.S. Lewis to help us see where the concept of “myth” can help us by joining forces with history and science to present our modern minds with something far more satisfying and liveable than any of the parts by themselves can provide.  Think of it this way: we are all modern/postmodern, so the idea of holding onto “myths” might be fun, but certainly not true.  After all, science and technology hold the keys to the secular kingdom of which we are all well-adjusted citizens.  But we also see day in and day out that the priests of science insist we pay homage to their god before the voice of “myth” can be heard.  But when we listen to the music that is being played in the secular cathedrals of science, what we hear is something akin to a cat trying to climb a bay window with its claws.  Dr. Collins is quite successful in pulling back the curtain to reveal the reality that every worldview, even the modern priesthood of scientism, is underwritten by some sort of myth.

However, it is exactly at this point that I think Collins fails to help us as his students, not simply to recognize that the myth is there, but to evaluate the myth that is there.  Certainly, he speaks of the modern scientific materialism of today as being founded on a “bleak” myth or a story that ends with a pointless life (see pages 29-30), but nowhere does he help us evaluate these overarching stories as either good/evil or beautiful/ugly or even if we are obligated somehow to choose which one should have the upper hand.

Though he uses C.S. Lewis when it comes to defining myth, he would have done well to go a little further in allowing Lewis to be his tutor in helping us see the value of marrying the concepts of myth and history.  Here, let me quote an excerpt from another Lewis essay entitled “Myth Became Fact” taken from God in the Dock.  Though he is speaking specifically of the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Lewis’ insights are pertinent to the discussions surrounding the biblical creation story:

      Myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to.  It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.  … The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact … By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth  (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths.  The one is hardly more necessary than the other… We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.  For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.

Here, in my opinion, is the best way to make use of the often-slippery term “myth” as it relates to the creation account.  Here is where Lewis helps us see that the Creator God isn’t the dispassionate and distant watch-maker of the scientists who must create and govern according to their rulebook.  Nor is He the capricious and fanciful divine child who we see playing in the dirt in so many Ancient Near Eastern mythologies.  What we get in the biblical account is a Creator who gives us our playbook but reserves the right to come and play in the dirt at His pleasure.

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