The Bible is a complex book.Â Consisting of sixty-six books written over several millennia, it describes a bewildering array of characters and events.Â The Bible seems especially complex and difficult to modern Christians, because, however hard we try to think biblically, we have been subtly but deeply influenced by modern philosophy and science.Â Often, even when we have rejected the explicit conclusions of science, we unconsciously adopt a scientistic mind-set.Â One example of this is our tendency to operate on the modern assumption that all ideas can be defined with infinite, scientific precision, and that concepts can and should be distinguished very sharply.
The more you study the Bible, the more you will find that it cannot be forced into this mold.Â Ideas and symbols in the Bible meld together, overlap, and stretch out in a thousand different directions.Â This is not to say that the Bible is irrational or unscientific, or that we cannot make any meaningful distinctions.Â But a modern reader cannot escape the sense that the Bible speaks a very different language than he learned in “Chem. Lab” or Philosophy 101.Â As theologian Vern S. Poythress has noted, the biblical world view acknowledges the reality of “fuzzy boundaries.”
Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck drew a distinction between pagan and biblical thought that may help to clarify this idea.Â Bavinck said that modern (and ancient Greek) thinkers attempted to find the “essence” of a thing, that which makes a thing uniquely what it is, by subtraction.Â To discover the “essence” of a pencil, we subtract its color, its size, its shape â€”Â all of which may vary without changing the nature of the thing and all of which may describe something other than a pencil.Â (There might be a red apple as well as a red pencil, a six-inch slug as well as a six-inch pencil, etc.)Â When we have subtracted all the variables, what we have left is the “essence” of the pencil, what might be called “pure pencilness.”Â (Of course, what we really have left is nothing at all.)
Scripture, by contrast, describes the essence of a thing by addition.Â Only when we know the fullness of a thing, all of its attributes, do we really know its uniqueness and “essence.”Â God’s “essence” is not some “bare minimum” of deity, or some “basic attribute” from which all the other attributes can be derived.Â Instead, the “essence” of God is the fullness of all his attributes â€”Â Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 93-94.
Lest that sound too abstract, Leithart relates it to his main theme, the kingdom of God: we can’t know what the kingdom of God is by subtracting everything it has in common with something else to determine what makes it unique, nor can we really know what the kingdom is by reducing it to some basic elements.Â Rather, we need to hear all the various ways in which the kingdom is described, all the images that the Bible uses to depict it, and so forth.Â The more we hear, the more we say, “Yes!Â The kingdom is like that, too.”Â These various images don’t contradict.Â Rather, they offer different perspectives on the kingdom.Â And just as you know a diamond better the more facets of it you see, so we know the kingdom better by looking at its facets, turning it, as it were, so that we can see it from all angles.
That’s an important point.Â But what Leithart says earlier, drawing on Poythress, should not be overlooked.Â Why do we assume that the Bible defines everything precisely?Â Probably because we’re used to a sort of scientific description of things.
But the Bible often presents “fuzzy boundaries.”Â It’s not always easy to fit the Bible’s various images of the kingdom together.Â Various perspectives may seem to us to conflict: How can it be both this way and that way?Â How can the Bible teach this and that?Â The conflict, of course, isn’t in Scripture but in us.Â We don’t understand how both things can be true.Â So our calling is to teach both, to live with the fuzziness.
Nor may that fuzziness necessarily be resolved by more study.Â It’s not necessarily the case that God has given us all the data we’d need to resolve these apparant conflicts, to figure out how this relates to that or how this and that can both be true.Â In other words, God may not have given us everything we need to produce a fully systematic theology.Â That shouldn’t scare us, though, because we can trust that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.
In fact, men in other fields have to live with a certain amount of mystery, too.Â Even in science, I’m told, people work with the concept of the “black box.”Â The scientist puts inÂ a certain input and the same thing happens every time, even though the scientist has no idea how it works.Â It’s a “black box” to him.
And so with theology.Â Think of the Lord’s Supper.Â How is is exactly that we can be nourished by Christ’s body and blood and receive His life as we eat bread and drink wine together?Â I don’t know.Â I do know that God says that’s what happens.Â I don’t know how it happens.Â I can’t explain it.Â It’s fuzzy to me.Â Calvin’s answer?Â By the power of the Holy Spirit.Â And that’s as good an answer as any.Â But notice how that answer is pretty much a black box answer, leaving all the mystery while glorifying God.
Living with the fuzzies may be hard sometimes, especially because we want all the answers and we want them to fit nicely in our minds.Â That’s part of how God made us: we want to see how things work and make them fit.Â But living with the fuzzies is another way of saying living by faith.Â It’s trusting God and echoing what He tells us, even if we don’t understand it all.
You don’t need to be in a canoe to have this experience:
Because of the offset in the shore at the creek mouth, there was a large eddy turning in the river where we put in, and we began our drift downstream by drifting upstream.Â We went up inside the row of shore trees, whose tops now waved in the current, until we found an opening among the branches, and then turned out along the channel.Â The current took us.Â We were still settling ourselves as if in preparation, but our starting place was already diminishing behind us.
There is something ominously like life in that.Â One would always like to settle oneself, get braced, say “Now I am going to begin” â€”Â and then begin.Â But as the necessary quiet seems about to descend, a hand is felt at one’s back, shoving.Â And that is the way with the river when a current is running: once the connection with the shore is broken, the journey has begun. â€”Â Wendell Berry, “The Rise,” The Long Legged House, p. 96.
Wendell Berry on enjoying good things even though you know others are suffering:
The solemnity and ostentatious grief of some implies that there is a mystical equation by which one man, by suffering enough guilt, by a denial of joy, can atone or compensate for the suffering of many men.Â The logical culmination of this feeling is self-incineration, which only removes one from the problem without solving it.Â Because so many are hungry, should we weep as we eat?Â No child will grow fat on our tears.Â But to eat, taking whatever satisfaction it gives us, and then to turn again to the problem of how to make it possible for another to eat, to undertake to cleanse ourselves of the great wastefulness of our society, to seek alternatives in our own lives to our people’s thoughtless squandering of the world’s goods â€”Â that promises a solution.Â That many are cold and the world is full of hate does not mean that one should stand in the snow for shame or refrain from making love.Â To refuse to admit decent and harmless pleasures freely into one’s own life is as wrong as to deny them to someone else.Â It impoverishes and darkens the world. â€”Â “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt,”Â The Long Legged House, pp. 82-83.
A couple quotations from Wendell Berry’sÂ essay “The Loss of the Future” (in The Long-Legged House):
I cannot avoid the speculation that one of the reasons for our loss of idealism is that we have been for a long time in such constant migration from country to city and from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood.Â It seems to me that much of idealism has its source in the relation between a man and the place he thinks of as his home.Â The patriotism, say, that grows out of the concern for a particular place in which one expects to live one’s life is a more exacting emotion than that which grows out of concern for a nation.Â The charity that grows out of regard for neighbors with whom one expects to live one’s life is both a discipline and a reward; the charity that, knowing no neighbors, contributes to funds and foundations is, from the personal standpoint, only an excuse.Â It is patriotism in the abstract â€”Â nationalism â€”Â that is most apt to be fanatic or brutal or arrogant.Â It is when charity is possible only through institutions that it becomes indifferent, neither ennobling to the giver nor meaningful to the receiver.Â Institutional neighborliness can function as the very opposite of neighborliness, without impairing the moral credit or the self-satisfaction of the supporters of the institution.Â There is good reason, for instance, to suspect that the foreign mission programs of certain Christian denominations have served as substitutes for decent behavior at home, or as excuses for indecent behavior at home; in return for saving the soul of Negroes in Africa, one may with a free conscience exploit and demean the lives of Negroes in one’s own community (p. 49).
In a society of ghettoes many of the vital labors of our duty to each other cease to be personal.Â They are necessarily taken over by institutions; the distances between the giver and the receiver, the asker and the answerer, are so great that they are simply no longer negotiable by individuals.Â A man living in the country or a small town migiht aid one or two needy neighbors himself; the most obvious thing for him to do would not be to phone some bureau or agency of the government.Â But what could he do if he were to try to exercise the same charitable impulse in an urban slum, or in Appalachia?Â The moral dilemma is suggested by a walk on the Bowery, equipped with common decency and a pocketful of change.Â What is the Samaritan expected to do when he meets, instead of one in need, hundreds?Â Even if he had the money, he would not have the time.Â Now, in America, I think he is likely to feel that he is expected to do nothing.Â He is able to reflect that there are organizations to take care of that sort of thing.
My point is not that these agencies do their work badly, but that having contributed to one of them, or even having heard of one, the citizen is freed of a concern that is one of the necessary disciplines of citizenship.Â And the institutionalization of charity has its counterparts in all aspects of life, from the government down (pp. 52-53).
I suspect that Berry is right, that there has been a loss of community, due in part to increased mobility but also to television, which keeps people home at night and away from their neighbors, and to other factors, not so easy to trace.Â Elsewhere in this essay, Berry also talks aboutÂ specialization and the way that specialists tend to form their own ghettoes, all focused on the same area, even if they don’t actually live in the same vicinity.Â A lot of what Berry is getting at is that life in cities tends to be relatively impersonal, and that has effects on our charity and our care for our neighbors.
If Berry is correct, one might think the solution would be to have everyone move to small or medium-sized towns.Â But Berry himself recognizes that that isn’t possible or likely.Â So what is the solution?Â In particular, what is our responsibility as Christians?
Let’s face it: the church can become another ghetto.Â We can talk a lot about community and build community with each other, and that may be attractive to those who long for community.Â But it’s also possible that in building the church community we turn our backs on our own neighborhoods.Â Isn’t it often the case that Christians don’t have non-Christian friends, that all our close relationships are with others in the same church community?
Let me hear your thoughts: In the face of the impersonalization brought on by charitable institutions, in the face of the general lack of neighborliness in our larger “communities,” what should we as Christians be doing to reverse these trends and to create not only close-knit relationships with each other but a true community that is attractive and healing for our larger towns and cities?
The life of Adam and Eve was … to be completely circumscribed by worship.Â On the first day, they were to appear before the Lord in the Garden to worship and commune with Him, to enter into His sabbath rest.Â Empowered by God’s blessing, they were to go about their royal tasks for six days, only to return at the end of the week to offer themselves and their works to the Lord for His evaluation and judgment and to be refreshed for another week of royal labor.Â The life of Adam and Eve displays human history in miniature.Â Human history began in the Garden with Adam and Eve worsihping God, and will end with the church gathered in a glorious temple-city.Â Worship is the alpha and the omega of human life and history. â€”Â Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 27-28.
By the way, in case you’re wondering about “the first day” here, I think what Leithart means is that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, and so their first full day of life would have been the seventh day, when they, as the children of the Father, would have shared in the Father’s rest.
I’m not sure Adam and Eve did actually worship God on the seventh dayÂ or had a proper first week.Â I suspect the Fall happened right away instead.Â But Leithart is correct that the pattern set up here in Genesis is the pattern of world history, beginning and ending with worship and rest.
No one, I think, welcomes the intervention of federal power in the affairs of a state, except as a last resort.Â That seems the crudest of solutions.Â It is not a moral solution at all.Â In being forced to do what is right, men lose the dignity of being right.Â The right itself is debased as an aim and incentive â€”Â Wendell Berry, “The Landscaping of Hell: Strip-Mine Morality in East Kentucky,” The Long-Legged House, p. 22.
It strikes many modern Christians as surpassingly odd that, with the Roman Empire collapsing about their ears and the barbarians invading from the north and east, Christian leaders of the first centuries were preoccupied with debates about whether the Son’s eternal relation to the Father should be described as homoousion (“same substance”), homoiousion (“like substance”), or homoion (“like”).Â Unless we are Lutherans, we might think Luther a fanatic for his ferocious defense of his formulation of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament at the Marburg Colloquy.Â (In Luther’s Small Catechism, the body and blood are said to be “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.)
While the church fathers and Reformers are hardly above criticism, the contention of this book is that we are the oddities, not they; we are the ones obsessed with trivialities.Â The church fathers and Reformers had a more biblical sense of priorities than we have.Â We have permitted the idolaters of power and mammon to set our priorities for us; we have let them convince us that the really big issues confronting the world are political, and that they can be solved through political means….
Our forefathers knew better.Â They would tell us that the debates over homoousion are of vastly greater significance â€”Â ultimately, of vastly greater political significance â€”Â than the debates over Saddam Hussein.Â They would warn us that Arius remains a greater threat to our social well-being than acid rain.Â Reforming the welfare state is important, but our forefathers would have insisted that reforming worship is a more pressing need.Â Liturgy is closer to the heart of the church’s concern than a hundred pieces of legislation.Â The next assembly for communion will have a more profound effect on the world than the next assembly of Congress.Â Baptism is a more crucial reality than the size of the federal budget. â€”Â Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 21-22.
As Jim Jordan has pointed out, you can’t read very far in Scripture without encountering something that makes you say, “Huh.Â I wonder what that‘s doing there.”Â You’re reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which is strange enough, but you can handle it.Â And then you reach the end of the story and find out that because the Angel touched Jacob on the hip and caused his muscle to shrink, the children of Israel don’t eat the corresponding muscle on any animal they killed.Â “What’s that all about?” you ask.Â And if you start to think about it, it’s not long before you’re off into the deep weird.
Well, that’s nothing new.Â I learned today that Origen, in his ninth homily on Genesis, pointed this out as he talked about the wonders of God’s Word:
The further we progress in reading, the greater grows the accumulation of mysteries for us.Â And just as if someone should embark on the sea borne by a small boat, as long as he is near land he has little to fear.Â But, when he has advanced little by little into the deep and has begun to be lifted on high by the swelling waves or brought down to the depths by the same gaping waves then truly great fear and terror permeate his mind because he has entrusted a small craft to such immense waves.Â So also we seem to have suffered, who, small in merits and slight in ability, dare to enter so vast a sea of mysteries (cited in Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, p. xiv).
And that’s exactly how I feel as I preach my way through Genesis 1.
… as I age I become ever more alert to the creativity of those who do not produce a commodity, a product, a tangible document of their urge â€”Â a play, an essay, a film, a song, a painting, a dance, a meal, a house, a carving, a tapestry.Â Mothers shape love and macaroni and sleeplessness and soap into young men and women over the course of many years; is there a greater art, or a more powerful patient creativity than that? â€”Â Brian Doyle, Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies, p. xxi.
Last week, I read Steve Turner’s Imagine:Â A Vision for Christians in the Arts.Â I’d spotted it in the Medford Public Library and thought it looked interesting.Â And it was.
Turner is a poet and music journalist and has written several books and articles about musicians, so he knows what he’s talking about.Â Â He does a very good job at pointing out the ways in which the arts contribute to a full life.Â Â Dance, for instance, makes us aware of the beauty and grace of the human body.
Whereas some books on the arts focus solely on artists who are themselves creating new pieces of art, Turner recognizes that not every artist does.Â Musicians in a symphony simply play the notes that are in front of them.Â Similarly, there are actors who simply have to say the lines that have been written for them.Â Â It strikes me that Turner is unique in addressing what it means for such artists to carry out their art in a Christian way.
Turner distinguishes helpfully between what he presents as “five concentric circles” of artistic work.Â In the outermost circle are the sorts of artists I mentioned above, and Turner affirms that there’s nothing wrong with simply playing the notes or acting a role.Â The creation of something beautiful is valuable, even if no one hearing the musician play those notes would be able to tell that he is a Christian.
The next circle is the kind of artistic work that does express “Christian faith because it dignifies human life and introduces a sense of awe” (p. 83).Â Â Think ofÂ a saxophone solo that makes you glad to be alive or a photograph that shows you a beautiful scene or a poem that sheds new light on some aspect of ordinary life.
The third circle is the kind of artistic work that expresses the Bible’s teaching but in a way that is not specificially Christian.Â Unbelievers, too, can often affirm the importance of forgiveness or appreciate humble care for the poor. The fourth circle is more explicitly Christian, drawing on biblical and theological themes such as original sin.Â The fifth and central circle is the most explicitly Christian, presenting the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Turner notes rightly that all of these circles are legitimate artistic endeavours for Christians.Â He traces the history of Christian appreciation and avoidance of the arts.Â It’s sad to see that, whereas theÂ Roman Catholic church often embraced and supported her artists, the Protestant world often didn’t.Â Â Turner interacts (often sympathetically)Â with some of the Protestant cautions with regard to the arts.
At various points in the book, he speaks about the superficiality of much of the art that Christians produce.Â Christians shouldn’t focus their artistic endeavors simply on the gospel as if they were simply interested in propaganda.Â It’s not wrong to produce music about ordinary life; Christians as much as unbelievers enjoy drinking good coffee or falling into bed at the end of a hard day or loving their wives or walking under the stars and they shouldn’t feel as if singing about these things is less godly or less “spiritual” than singing about Jesus.
Furthermore, they shouldn’t shy away from talking honestly about sin.
Adultery, violence, murder, deceit, fornication, betrayal and pride are clearly important to adult storytelling, whether in fiction, in film or on the stage.Â A simplistic reading of the situation would conclude that these sins are included to appeal to the base in human nature.Â Sometimes they are.Â But it is often more deep rooted than that.Â Drama depends on conflict.Â The protagonist must face tests and trials and through overcoming them, reveal his or her true character.Â Violence and sexual betrayal are among the most extreme tests we can face, which is why they are so frequently used in story lines (p. 39).
After pointing to the stories of David and Saul and David and Bathsheba, Turner continues:
If the obstacles the writer introduces either don’t seem challenging enough (for example, the protagonist is handed back too much change in a store and worries about whether to return it) or doesn’t seem real enough (for example, a fight ensues but no punches are seen to land and no blood is spilled), then evil doesn’t appear evil enough, and if good triumphs, it won’t appear good enough.Â This is why so much “Christian fiction” lacks the ring of truth.Â The action doesn’t appear to take place in the “real world” (pp. 39-40).
Turner follows up with some quotations:
Mindful of his Calvinistic heritage Daniel Defoe argued in the preface to Moll Flanders: “To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be made as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life.”Â Francois Mauriac said that his job as a novelist was to make evil “perceptible, tangible, odorous.Â The theologian gives us an abstract idea of the sinner.Â I give him flesh and blood.”Â Or, as John Henry Cardinal Newman once observed, “It is a contradition in terms to attempt a sinless literature of sinful man” (p. 40).
Instead, too many Christians shy away from realistic portrayals of sin, presenting a Pollyanna view of life, “paintings of birds and kittens, movies that extol family life and end happily, songs that are positive and uplifting â€”Â in short, works of art that show a world that is almost unfallen where no one experiences conflict and where sin is naughty rather than wicked” (pp. 40-41).
But presenting the truth about sin doesn’t mean that the artist has permission to be worldly.Â Turner warns that we are perhaps most in danger of succumbing to worldly ideas when we’re just watching something for fun, but he is careful to identify what worldliness is and isn’t.Â It’s the rebellious system of thinking and acting that characterizes unbelieving people; it isn’t a disdain for the world around us.
Confusing these two usages can lead to disaster.Â Some strict fundamentalist sects show disdain toward creation and culture, and yet in doing so become proud, arrogant and uncaring.Â They therefore become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands.Â We are told to be in the world but not of it.Â People like this are often of the world but not in it (p. 43).
This sort of “unworldiness” which emphasizes the “spiritual” and rejects “the secular” (that is, anything that isn’t directly about Jesus) â€”Â a view which Turner correctly identifies as having its roots in the heresy of gnosticism â€”Â can damage people and drive them away from Jesus:
When I was researching my book Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye I visited an African American church in Kentucky where one of the pastors asked me this question: “Gospel music is made for the glory of God, but for whose glory is pop music made?”
I assumed I was meant to think that if someone wasn’t singing about God, they couldn’t be singing to God’s glory and that if they weren’t singing for God’s glory then they must be singing to the glory of the devil.Â It’s a tortured logic but one I have seen affect some of the most innovative artists in rock music.Â It can lead people to think that they are damned for singing a song about the joy of being in love or driving a fast car (p. 46).
And so people like Sam Cooke and Jerry Lee Lewis, but doubtless many others, found themselves confronted with a choice: sing gospel music only or leave the church to sing “secular music.”Â And if you’re going to be treated as a rebel, then you may as well act like one.Â And so they have, working out the gnosticism their churches taught them.
And yet those aren’t the only choices.Â The church needs to embrace and appreciate its artists, even though artists often don’t fit in well.Â And artists need the church, too.
Toward the end of the book, Turner callsÂ Christian artists to be faithful church members instead of edgy outsiders.Â Turner cites the poet Jack Clemo who left the Calvinistic Methodist church he grew up in but returned to the church later in life:
At first I steered clear of the church, having a sort of “poetry religion,” but a Christian can’t develop much on poetry religion.Â We all need the religion of ordinary people and the love of other converts.Â That’s why, in the end, I went back to church; to worship around people who don’t like poetry.Â It’s a good discipline.Â I can’t put myself apart from them as someone very special.Â As a convert I am just an ordinary believer, worshipping the same Lord as they do (p. 122).
The church humbles us.Â It is one of the few places in our societies today where we sit with rich and poor, young and old, black and white, educated and uneducated, and are focused on the same object.Â It is one of the few places where we share the problems and hopes of our lives with people we may not know.Â It is one of the few places where we sing as a crowd.Â Although the church needs its outsiders to prevent it from drifting into dull conformity, the outsiders need the church to stop them from drifting into individualized religion (p. 122).
There’s a lot more packed into these 131 pages:Â including a good discussion of how poets and musicians write (they don’t first have an idea and then start writing; they often just come up with words or phrases that get stuck in their head or sound good with the music, even if they don’t make much sense by themselves), the politics of “Christian worldview” (why is it that some Christians would identify a song against abortion as demonstrating a “Christian worldview” while a song about third-world debt wouldn’t qualify?) andÂ a helpful chapter about U2.Â Buy a copy for an artist friend.Â And then read it yourself too.
It overlaps quite nicely with Jim Jordan‘s thesis that “the knowledge of good and evil”Â in Scripture is not, as some claim, experiential knowledge of sin or something like that, but rather is the wisdom kings need â€” the wisdomÂ Adam would have needed â€”Â in order to rule well.Â God’s promise to Adam that he would eat of all the trees included the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which means this tree was off limits to Adam only at first.
I’m glad to see that the Westminster Theological Journal published this article, and I’m glad to see it available online.
Some people, romantics at heart, like to think that early Christian worship was purely spontaneous and improvised.Â They like to imagine the first believers so overflowing with enthusiasm that praise and thanksgiving just overflowed into profound prayer as the Church gathered to break bread….
I beg the patience of my romantic friends as I say that order and routine are not necessarily bad things.Â In fact, they are indispensable to a good, godly, and peaceful life.Â Without schedules and routines, we could accomplish little in our workday.Â Without set phrases, what would our human relationships be?Â I’ve yet to meet parents who tire of hearing their children repeat that ancient phrase, “Thank you.”Â I’ve yet to meet the spouse who’s sick of hearing “I love you.”
Faithfulness to our routines is a way of showing love.Â We don’t just work, or thank, or offer affection when we really feel like it.Â Real loves are loves we live with constantly, and that constancy shows itself in routine.
Routines are not just good theory.Â They work in practice.Â Order makes life more peaceful, more efficient, and more effective.Â In fact the more routines we develop, the more effective we become.Â Routines free us from the need to ponder small details over and over again; routines let good habits take over, freeing the mind and heart to move onward and upward.
The rites of the Christian liturgy are the set phrases that have proven themselves over time: the thank-you of God’s children, the I-love-you of Christ’s spouse, the Church â€”Â Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper, pp. 40-41.