More on Jacobs

Alan Jacobs has not responded to my post (the nerve!), but in an attempt to treat him as fairly as possible, I draw your attention to this post about his love for Jesus — or perhaps more accurately, Jesus’s love for him.

Every day I want to evade him, to look the other way, and when I do my faith wanes and weakens; but when I look, when I draw near, I remember what I’m all about, what the world is all about. When I look towards Jesus I am caught and held, even if sometimes shattered by what I see.

Alan Jacobs and the Bible

If you’re no stranger to me, you’re no stranger to Alan Jacobs. I’ve only met him in person once or twice, but I read everything he posts on his blog and his essays when I have time. His book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was jammed so full of reading recommendations, I almost started it again as soon as I finished. Reading a book or essay by Dr. Jacobs sometimes feels like watching a juggler perform. He has an amazing ability to weave multiple literary ideas into a coherent pattern, and just when you think you’ve been impressed, he brings in another book and sets it whirling. I would love to take a class from him.

Christian people, books, and ideas appear frequently, almost inevitably, in Dr. Jacobs’s writing, but he rarely talks about what it means to live as a Christian or what standard a Christian ought to operate by. When he does, I often find myself cocking my head and going, “Huh.” In one post, which I can’t find right now, he said that his Christianity informs his life hardly at all, a statement to which the only right response is, “That doesn’t sound like Christianity.” After reading many similar posts over the years, I have come to the conclusion that my main issue with Dr. Jacobs is not so much a quibble over theology as it is a disagreement over the Bible. In a recent post, he says this:

It’s also fascinating to note how little the apostles understand the message they been entrusted with. They know that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, and they know that the Christ’s own people rejected him and demanded his death – but beyond that they’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean. The idea that what Jesus offers them (and all of us) is God’s limitless grace is rarely mentioned. It’s there, but only in tentative and vaguely articulated form.

I didn’t pick this post because it’s particularly egregious, only because it’s recent. He makes an interesting point about the psychology of the apostles, but then he says, “They’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean.” I assume Dr. Jacobs is saying that Peter and the rest had only a vague understanding of God’s grace until Paul fleshed it out for them.

I’m not opposed to the idea that God’s people gain understanding over time. Just think of the wealth of commentary and tradition built up over the past two thousand years. In many ways, the church fathers were, in fact, church babies. My disagreement, I think, is actually a different stance toward the historical figures in the Bible. I assume that the words, decisions, and actions of the people of God are right, unless Scripture explicitly says otherwise. The zeal of the apostles post-Pentecost was not wrong or even misguided. Even the zeal of Apollos was not wrong, though his did have to be redirected (Acts 18:26). When we read the book of Acts, we shouldn’t assume we know something Peter doesn’t. Instead of smiling indulgently at his cute naivete, we should ask ourselves why the apostles spent so much time preaching Jesus as Messiah, rejected by His own people. Surely there’s an explanation beyond “They didn’t know any better.” We should be humble and charitable in our interpretation, a position Dr. Jacobs would certainly support in other contexts.

As I said, this particular example doesn’t bother me that much. But it does reveal something about the way Dr. Jacobs views the Bible, which is the view of most American evangelicals (I believe Jacobs is Anglican, which makes him evangelical, I think?). According to this common view, the Bible is a historical record of how human beings fail. Everything from Genesis to Jude describes God’s attempts to communicate lovingly and graciously and being given constant cold shoulders. Jesus came to save us despite our best attempts to ignore Him. As Dr. Jacobs’s friend Francis Spufford puts it, we all have the Human Propensity to F*** Things Up, and without Christ, not one of us could stand. So far, so orthodox. But this view gives rise to a rather awkward question: If the Bible is nothing more than a record of human failure, why is it so long? Couldn’t we have a few chapters here and there (the Fall, David and Bathsheba, the book of Amos) and then cut straight to Jesus? Evangelical Christians seem remarkably uncurious about the Bible and what it has to do with their everyday life.

It’s true that the actual people in the Bible did not know the full picture — Eve thought Abel was the promised seed (Gen. 4:25) — but that doesn’t mean that the full picture wasn’t present. The whole Bible is one prophetic book, not created by the will of man, but by the movement of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), which means God’s limitless grace is as present in the story of the Flood as it is in the letters of Paul. That means the Flood story is still important and we need to study it. We don’t forget the candles just because the sun has risen. Candlelight is light, and remembering how it held back the darkness helps us understand the nature of the sun.

The thing that makes me nervous is how often Christians who doubt the power and wisdom of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, quickly drop other points of Christian dogma. They become squiffy on Creation, on biblical chronology, on Christian economics, on politics, on marriage, on the ordination of women, on abortion, ad inferna. Jesus doesn’t talk about most of these things, after all, and Paul can be controversial, which leaves us wandering through the philosophers, picking out whatever strikes our fancy (and won’t get us in too much trouble). The only antidote to such theological cherry-picking is embracing the wisdom of the whole Bible, whether the embrace makes us uncomfortable or not.

Despite our disagreement, I value Dr. Jacobs’s writing highly and hope he continues to poke his finger in all the right eyes (including conservative ones). I should also mention that he doesn’t easily fit into any camp, and if somehow this blog post swims into his ken, he may very well take issue with the way I’ve presented him. He will do so kindly, I’m sure.

All that said, I urge him to find a solid book on biblical theology and spend some time reading it as charitably as possible. (Here’s a good one.)

Words to Live By

Last night T and I attended the funeral of a good friend’s mother. The young pastor gave a wonderful homily, and the words he said that hit me with the greatest impact were these, spoken to him many years ago by the woman who had died:

“You don’t have to compromise because you don’t have to survive.”

Every Christian business, every Christian college, every Christian school, every Christian non-profit, every Christian artist, every Christian church, and every Christian home needs to engrave these words on a plaque and hang it on the most prominent wall available.

Tim Keller and Poetry

A few weeks ago, I finished Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. His practical knowledge, gained over many years of talking to atheists, really shines, especially on things philosophical and historical (and matters categorical). On the other hand, his perception of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is dim. His sympathy with evolution and old-earth creationism appears in several places throughout the book, but one argument stuck out to me, since it was purportedly based on the Bible itself.

In a nutshell, Keller argues that Genesis 1-2 follows the pattern of Exodus 14-15 and Judges 4-5. In both the latter passages, the author relates a historical event, then follows it with a song recounting the same thing in poetic form. The exodus from Egypt is followed by the Song of Miriam, while the battle with the Midianites is accompanied by the Song of Deborah.

According to Keller, this is what’s happening in the first two chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1 is a poetic treatment of Creation. Genesis 2 is the real deal. The seven day thing is metaphorical. The real story begins in Chapter 2, verse 4, with what I suppose is an ancient Hebrew explanation of the Proterozoic period (a term I just learned from Wikipedia). There are several problems with this, which I’m sure many fine Christians have explained online. I’ll just point out two that occurred to me while I was reading.

  • First, if Keller is correct in thinking that Genesis 1-2 follows the same structure as Exodus 14-15 and Judges 4-5, wouldn’t Genesis 1 be the historical treatment and Genesis 2 the poetic one? History followed by poetry, right?
  • Second, the Bible does have poetic descriptions of Creation (Job 38, Psalm 33 et al., Proverbs 30), none of which resembles Genesis 1. If anything, Genesis 1 has the same spare style we see throughout most of the Old Testament books of history.

Any argument based on style supports the idea that Genesis 1 is, in fact, describing what actually happened.

A Man is Mostly Wright

My friend Grant invited me to a lecture at Samford last night by none other than Bishop Tom himself, the Reverend Doctor N. T. Wright. The main thrust of his talk – or what I took to be the main thrust – was excellent. He argued that natural theology is a good and worthwhile pursuit… as long as we agree that “Nature” includes the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was a part of the natural world, and so we must include him in the catalogue of “natural things.” Once we’ve done that, we ought to have no trouble reasoning our way back to God the Father. In fact, that’s kind of what the whole New Testament is about.

Whenever I listen to or read Wright, I come away with the same feeling: he is extremely concerned with how he comes across to his audience. Obviously, this can be a good thing. He (usually) takes care to explain himself in language the average person would understand, and he always defines his terms (sometimes multiple times).

But Wright’s concern for his audience can trip him up, as well. For example, last night, he kept putting down “theologians” for misunderstanding important aspects of the Old Testament, which causes them to misunderstand Jesus. Their vaunted theology gets in the way. (Nothing wrong there. I’d do the same thing myself, given the opportunity. No one is more fun to make fun of than theologians.) The trouble is, Wright simultaneously takes great pains to maintain his own status as a respectable theologian. He mocks the in-group, then assures us that he is a member in good standing.

You can also see this in Wright’s use of extra-biblical texts to support his understanding of the Bible. Do we really need Fourth Ezra to understand Jesus’s use of the phrase “Son of Man?” Should we read Cicero’s de Natura Deorum to get the gist of Paul’s argument in Romans? Neither of those texts is out of bounds, but neither is necessary to understanding the content of the Bible. The Bible is its own interpretive key. Radical, maybe, but true. Wright seems to be a humble man and a true Christian. Many of his theological positions, however, smack of the academy he dismisses so readily.

A Man Honors His Father and Mother

We are called to honor this very long gallery of ancestors in its fullness, not just our fathers and mothers. How can we “honor” this chain of begetting and being begotten that disappears into pre-history, and earlier still, the chain of creation’s fecundity in producing and being produced?

Environmentalism is partially a response to the claim that we have evolved from the Earth. If the Earth produced us, then we ought to worship Her.

The quote above is from a First Things piece by Remi Brague, which is thought-provoking – even if many of the thoughts are along the lines of “what nonsense!” I’m sure Brague would dispute my interpretation of his question, since he’s a Christian, but it does help me understand the reverence with which some evolutionists speak of Nature.

A Man Considers the Church as Medium

John Durham Peters writes on media and theology:

Any theology of revelation is necessarily also a theory of media. Theophany is a media problem. God needs to assume a sensory shape or work sensible effects to reach humans the classic theological issue of the Word made flesh. Any revelation is, in a way, a short-term incarnation. A burning bush, clouds of smoke and pillar of fire, thunder, voice, writing, and a highly selective glimpse of God as he departs are some of the various modes of theophany surrounding the revelation on Sinai. The mountain itself is a kind of medium, which is declared holy ground and off-limits to the footsteps of the children
of Israel.

I don’t have time to develop this at the moment, but I think we ought to consider the church as a kind of medium, communicating Christ to the world.

A Man Offers an Example of Evil

In Perelandra, the Unman is most of all a petty, spiteful child. Even when he acts eloquent or crafty, he’s spoiled, prone to throwing fits when things don’t go his way. Evil turns us all into nasty, immature beings. In that sense, Count Olaf is one of the best villains on TV in recent memory.

A Man Follows Up on a Previous Post

My take on Spufford’s book Unapologetic got me thinking. I don’t deny the value of an emotional defense of Christianity. (See Nate Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl for a great one.) But Spufford specifically says that he wants to explain what it feels like to be a Christian, and there’s something curiously lacking from his explanation. For most Christians, being a Christian is primarily about interacting with other Christians. Another Christian raises you, befriends you, challenges you, teaches you, extends you grace, or all of the above. No one—and I mean no one—becomes (or stays) a Christian by themselves.

The more I think about it, the odder this absence is. What about Spufford’s relationships? How did he find his way back to the faith after a long absence? His book may have been stronger if it had been more autobiographical, in the vein of Surprised by Joy.