As I look back over the fiction I’ve read recently, it occurs to me that a lot of it has to do with the church and specifically with ministers in the church. “Clerical fiction” (you could call it “pastoral fiction” if the historical use of the word “pastoral” didn’t call up images of shepherds in Arcadia) isn’t a genre you find in most bookstores. Still, I suppose you could say that’s what I’ve been reading.
Early this year, I read Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, the fourth of his Barsetshire novels. More recently, I devoured Gene Wolfe’s wonderful Litany of the Long Sun and Epiphany of the Long Sun, which one of my colleagues referred to as the best pastoral theology he’s read, good enough to prompt him to ask himself in various situations, “What would Patera Silk do?”
Since this summer, I’ve also read Susan Howatch’s Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, and Ultimate Prizes, the first three of her Starbridge novels, all of which I found not only particularly enjoyable but also particularly helpful pastorally.
And perhaps I should add that in the past I’ve also read, enjoyed, and benefitted from Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, about which see Lauren Winner’s recent article. I really would like to read them again.
As I said above, many of these books â€”Â Howatch and Wolfe, especially, but also Karon â€”Â have not only been enjoyable reads but have also been beneficial to my pastoral work. They have shown me aspects of my calling and taught me to be more faithful in carrying it out.
So do any of you have recommendations for more clerical fiction I ought to read? (Someone’s bound to point me to George Bernanos, and I do intend to read him sometime. Still, you’re welcome to tell me about him again to whet my appetite. Oh, and there’s Father Brown, of course….)
Before my vacation, I read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. I had heard about it several times on other peoples’ blogs or in conversations, so I borrowed it from the library. It turned out to be a fairly engaging read, not only because the book is written as a novel and the narrative itself is interesting, but also because I appreciated many of the questions McLaren is wrestling with.
At times, when you study the history of theology, you get the impression that for some theologians theology is a sort of science, working with the data which you mine from Scripture. Charles Hodge, for instance, defines the work of the theologian as taking the facts of Scripture and arranging them in their proper order. I don’t think he meant that the order things are found in Scripture is the improper order. But I do think he viewed theology as mining the Bible for propositions to be arranged in relation to other propositions. Against that, McLaren’s character Neo rightly says:
According to the Bible, humans shall not live by systems and abstractions and principles alone, but also by stories and poetry and proverbs and mystery” (p. 159).Â
Or take this, for instance, from McLaren himself:
I preach sermons that earn the approving nods of the lifelong churchgoers, because they repeat the expected vocabulary and formulations, words that generally convey little actual meaning after hearing them fifty-two times a year, year after year, but work like fingers, massaging the weary souls of earnest people. Meanwhile, as the initiated relax under this massage of familiar words, as they emit an almost audible “ahhh” to hear their cherished vocabulary again, these very massaging messages leave the uninitiated furrowing their brows, shaking their heads, and shifting in their seats. They do this sometimes because they don’t understand but even more so when they do understand â€”Â because the very formulations that sound so good and familiar to the “saved” sound downright weird or even wicked to the “seekers” and the skeptics. These people come to me and ask questions, and I give my best answers, my best defenses, and by the time they leave my office, I have convinced myself that their questions are better than my answers. [Sorry: I don't have the page number. It's in the Introduction somewhere. â€”Â JB]Â
Now while (unlike McLaren) I don’t believe that preaching in the Lord’s Day covenant renewal service is or should be aimed at “seekers,” let alone skeptics, I do think what he describes is fairly accurate, even if you substitute “new Christians” or “Christians from other traditions” for “seekers” here. In fact, this is a danger that we face in Reformed churches, and all the more so in churches which follow the continental Reformed practice of “catechism preaching,” where the emphasis is placed, not so much on explaining passages of Scripture as on explaining the church’s catechism.
The danger is that we say the familiar words and phrases and much of the congregation leans back and says, “Ah, yes. These are the kinds of things we’ve heard all our lives. This is good Reformed preaching. We have a good Reformed pastor. Our children are probably getting good Reformed catechism instruction. Everything is going well.” That kind of preaching lulls people into complacency.
Now the cure for that danger isn’t so easy to find, and I’m not persuaded that McLaren has found it. In fact, I’m not completely sure what his answer really is, except that he keeps talking about adapting to our postmodern climate (whatever that really means). Why we shouldn’t challenge and confront this climate as much as any other isn’t clear to me.
At times, McLaren (or his character Neo, at least) reminds me of the vicar in Susan Howatch’s Ultimate Prizes who was bored with his sleepy little congregation and so stirred things up by preaching heresy to see if anyone was paying attention. McLaren, too, wants to be provocative and stir things up in the evangelical world by having his characters make provocative statements with which he may or may not agree.
At other times, I can’t tell the difference between his “new kind of Christian” and the same old thing we’ve seen in modern evangelicalism for years. Witness, for instance, the concern that the Sunday service be focused on reaching “seekers.” I can see that his approach would entail some changes for modern evangelical churches, but the changes generally appear to me to be a matter of travelling further down the same road. In other words, I don’t think McLaren is challenging modern evangelicalism enough.
More than that, several things that are presented as if they represent brand new thinking turn out to be pretty standard for anyone who has read much theology (e.g., his discussion of the church and the kingdom). And some of these things, too, including the church and kingdom stuff, could stand more critical examination than McLaren gives them.
But I do agree with him that what is absolutely crucial is for preachers to be able to speak the language of Scripture, to say what the Bible says, even if it doesn’t sound like the familiar words we’re used to hearing, even if it challenges our thinking, even if it doesn’t appear to fit into our theological boxes â€”Â and indeed, to say what the Bible says even if it does sound familiar and even if it is what the church’s confessional documents say.
In a couple of places in the book, McLaren hints at that approach, but I don’t think he follows through. Even the one sermon he presents (in chapter 10) has little to do with Scripture. In the end McLaren leaves us with little more than an engaging and provocative encouragement to think about how to adapt to a somewhat fuzzy “postmodernism.”
After two weeks of travelling, Moriah and I are home again!
Our trip began with the Christ Church Ministerial Conference in Moscow, Idaho, where Doug Wilson, Peter Leithart, and Rich Lusk addressed various subjects related to justification. Dale Courtney’s notes of the lectures are available online here and Rich Lusk has posted the full text of his lectures here. Though there wasn’t that much that was new to me, on the whole the conference was quite good, and it was great to be able to visit with family and friends.
After the conference, our vacation began. We travelled to Abbotsford, BC, to visit my grandmother and also saw several friends, including one couple, Peter and Dana Klootwyk, whom I hadn’t seen for about ten years. On Sunday, I preached at Christ Covenant Church (CREC) in Langley, BC, and then returned to my grandmother’s house for a meal with my uncle’s family.
We drove down to Bellingham, Washington, on Monday evening to have supper with Chip and Janet Lind. After supper, Janet took care of Aletheia while Chip took Moriah and me on a tour of Bellingham. We walked along the harbour, drove around downtown, and even wandered the halls of Logos Bible Software, where Chip works. Moriah and I both fell in love with Bellingham that night, I think.
We left Abbotsford on Wednesday and spent that night at the Kicking Horse Farm Bed and Breakfast in Clearwater, BC, where we enjoyed having our own beautiful cabin. We returned home Thursday night.
Happy birthday, Dad! You’re not quite as old as the guy in the picture above would be today, but we’re grateful for the years God has given you. May He give you many more! We love you!
And here’s a scene you’ll probably recognize more quickly than many other readers of this blog. Look familiar?
A couple of entries ago, I mentioned D. Holwerda’s understanding of the phrase “the foundation of the world” in the New Testament, but it appears that I didn’t present his view correctly. I have Holwerda’s articles, but I admit that I haven’t read them.
I said that Holwerda takes “the foundation of the world” to refer to the beginning of the new covenant at Jesus’ death and resurrection. That still seems like a valid exegetical option, though it’s not one I buy. But that isn’t actually Holwerda’s view.
Rather, Holwerda understands that phrase as referring to the exodus and, more specifically, to Israel’s creation at Mount Horeb. Again, that has interesting implications for Ephesians 1. Someday I’ll have to read his essays to learn what he does with this and other passages.
Thanks, Jan, for pointing out my mistake.
What do Peter Leithart and water have in common? Find out here.
Some months back, in the comments on one of Tim’s posts, I made some comments about the exegesis of Revelation 13:8. I haven’t been blogging much lately (too busy, what with being a dad and all!), but I thought I’d post these comments, slightly revised, here.
I’ve often heard people refer to Jesus as “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” That phrase often leads to certain theological notions, such as “justification from eternity.” Even before the creation of the world, people say, we were already justified through Jesus’ death because Jesus is “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” In a sense, they say, Jesus has always been slain.
But does the Bible refer to Jesus this way? The phrase in question comes from one particular rendition of Revelation 13:8, but even if we accept that this passage calls Jesus “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” it isn’t immediately clear that it is saying that Jesus was, in some sense, slain before the creation spoken of in Genesis 1.
D. Holwerda, a classics prof at Utrecht and the brother of the noted Old Testament scholar, Benne Holwerda, argued strongly in a series of essays that “the foundation of the world,” throughout the New Testament, refers to the new creation, not to the original creation in Genesis 1. Thus Jesus’ death is said to take place before “the foundation of the (new) world.”
Of course, if understanding of “the foundation of the world” is correct, it would have interesting implications for the exegesis of Ephesians 1 (“chosen in Him before the foundation of the world”) and a number of other passages. It is certainly an exegetical option worth considering.
But I’m not persuaded. More than that, I’m not persuaded that Revelation 13:8 speaks of Jesus as “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” It seems to me, rather, that “from the foundation of the world” does not modify “slain” but rather “written.”
It is not that the lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.” Rather, it’s that the names were “written (in the book of the lamb who was slain) from the foundation of the world.” “The foundation of the world” would be the original creation in Genesis 1, and from before that time these names would have been written in the slain lamb’s book.
It is grammatically possible to take “from the foundation of the world” with “slain,” but it isn’t likely. First, it’s hard to make sense of the idea that Jesus was actually slain before the world was created. Second, the parallel with Revelation 17:8 is the clincher. In that verse, John speaks about those whose names were written in the book of life from the foundation of the world â€”Â exactly as he does in 13:8, except that in 13:8 he identifies the book of life as belonging to the slain lamb.
When I checked my commentaries on Revelation, I found that tis latter position, which I do find compelling, is held by Aune, Chilton, Greijdanus, Hendriksen, Hughes, Poythress, Van de Kamp, and Wilcock. It’s also the way Revelation 13:8 is rendered in the ASV and the NASB, though surprisingly the NIV, which has this better reading in the margin, sticks to the questionable reading in the main text!