A Man Can’t Throw His Heart Away

We can’t throw our hearts away. We can’t get a new heart, or at least we cannot get a new heart on our own. If I were to make a decision to throw my old heart away, that decision would have to be made by my old heart. And if my old heart could do something as wonderful as throwing my old heart away, what is the need for a new heart?

Douglas Wilson, Ploductivity

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God…

A Man Knows How to Covet

Late summer, 2018. My friend Dave and I are cataloguing Jim Jordan’s books in the Theopolis library. I come across a few books by a guy named Pink. I snicker and show Dave, who says, “That guy’s great.” I file away the comment and the book.

A few months later, I’m browsing the shelf at TPC where our pastor puts books he’s done with and I find a couple of books by this guy Pink, one called Practical Christianity and one called The Letters of A. W. Pink. I want to know what he has to say about Christianity before I start reading his letters, so I open that one first.

It’s been slow going. Pink writes densely, and I have to work to follow his arguments. But this one comment jumped out to me. Pink is explaining what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “I was alive once without the law.” Pink’s take is that Paul is referring to his life as a Pharisee. He knew the letter of the law, but it hadn’t taken hold of his heart. When it did, sin revived in him, and he died. The law, which was to bring life, had to kill him first.

Pink comments: “verse seven informs us that it was the tenth commandment which the Holy Spirit used as the arrow of conviction.” I imagine Paul reading or reciting the law, getting to “thou shalt not covet,” and going white in the face. I’d always assumed Paul was using covetousness as a synecdoche of the whole law. It’s number ten, after all, so it captures everything that came before. This is how John Piper takes it in this sermon. Pink, on the other hand, suggests that Paul mentions coveting because he was particularly convicted of this sin.

What on earth would Paul have to covet? He doesn’t seem to be particularly attracted to worldly objects, spending most of his ministry freeloading. (In Acts 20, he straight up says he hasn’t coveted silver or gold from anyone.) He writes a lot about money, but he’s always collecting it for the church in Jerusalem, not waxing eloquent on its evils. He’s a realist about money. Similarly, his writing on lust is very short and to the point.

The only thing I can think of that Paul would be tempted to covet is status. The praise of men. When we first meet Paul, he’s participating in the execution of Stephen, perhaps even as a prosecutor. The very next chapter opens with a description of his zeal for persecuting Christians. As a student of one of the most highly respected Pharisees, Paul was probably eager for a chance to prove himself and went the extra mile to show it.

How often does God call us to circumstances that test us at the very points where we’re most weak. The rest of Paul’s ministry is a constant reminder of his own weakness. He depends on help from others. He is beaten, mocked, and thrown out of town. When he and Barnabas go to Lystra and the citizens mistake them for gods, Barnabas, not Paul, is the one they call Jupiter.

I haven’t had a chance to dig up any hard evidence, apart from the conjectures above, but it does put a little bit of a different spin on God’s words to Paul at end of 2 Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

A Man Stays in Constant Contact

The principle of growth means we have to move on, but it also means that we cannot move on until we understand our heritage. To try to generate good church music out of the meager vocabulary of American popular music is like trying to generate good theology out of the ideas heard on Christian radio and television. Christian theologians need to acquire familiarity with the whole of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to move forward into new man-made theologies. Christian musicians must know all the music of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to produce good contemporary Christian music.

James Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 37

If you took a gander at my media diary, you’d notice that I spend a lot of time reading theology. Why be theologically literate, you might ask, if you write fiction? What’s the point? The point is exactly what JBJ explains above: in order to produce good Christian stories, the writer must be in constant contact with the primary special symbols, which means reading, examining, and knowing the Bible.

A Man Who is Saved Serves

Augustine of Hippo gives his two drachma on the etymology of the word servus, which means “slave” in Latin.

The origin of the Latin word for slave is supposed to be found in the circumstances that those who by the law of war were liable to be killed were sometimes preserved by their victors, and were hence called servants. (Servus, “a slave,” from servare, “to preserve.”)

One who is saved from execution becomes a servant. This fits in very well with Paul’s words about Christians being slaves to Christ. I wonder if Augustine had that connection in mind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with the corresponding Greek word, doulos, which comes from a verb meaning “to bind.” The Latin servant is the saved one, the Greek servant is the bound one.

 

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 Worth Emulating

My friend Ned posted a link to this blog post, where someone has written a short meditation on a piece of artwork from a book Ned edited and published. The book and the link are worth a perusal. (I can’t speak for the rest of the blog. It’s new to me.)

The blogger writes: “It was about 17 years ago that I sat down and tried to find a father/husband in the Bible who was worth emulating. After looking at all of the men I could find, I ultimately landed on Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, and the father in [the story of the prodigal son].” It is, as the Italians say, strano ma vero, strange but true that there are a heck of a lot of Bible dads who drop the ball, parentally speaking. Adam, first man, raised Cain, first murderer. Abraham, the father of nations and spiritual father for us all, begat Isaac, the only one of the patriarchs who ages into an old fool. And don’t get me started on the book of Samuel. The only man in that story who raises a good son is Saul. Samuel’s take bribes. David’s rebel.

Still, what’s hidden in that phrase “worth emulating?” Are there no husbands and fathers in the Bible who are righteous, courageous, and self-sacrificing? Noah obeyed the voice of God and preserved his family in the flood. Abraham protected his wife from the wolf Pharaoh and the lion Abimelech. Jacob blessed his sons with great blessings. Caleb found a noble husband for his daughter Achsah. Boaz spread his redeeming wings over Ruth. Job sacrificed for his sons and daughters on a daily basis. Solomon wrote an entire book of wisdom for his son (who seems to have not paid attention to it). And what about Christ himself, the bridegroom who gave His life for His bride?

It’s not that the men in this list didn’t have faults (other than the last one, of course). But are perfect role models the only ones worth emulating? The author of Hebrews ought to have included discretionary asides about the sins of Isaac, Barak, Samson, and David in the “catalogue of the saints” so that we wouldn’t get the wrong idea and – oh, mercy! – imitate them. The men and women we read about in the Bible were sinners, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the examples of righteousness they set for us.

A Man Makes No Emotional Sense

Francis Spufford is a talented novelist. He has won prizes for his non-fiction. So I was interested to read his “non-defense” of Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there and one chapter (“Yeshua,” for those with the table of contents in front of them), it was, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “not great.”

The problem, as I see it, is that Spufford is trying to have it both ways. He both does and does not want to defend his Christianity to other smart Brits. He does, because he doesn’t like being mocked by them (understandably so). He doesn’t, because he doesn’t really like formal apologiae, defenses of Christian belief. They are, he would say, not true to the actual experience of being a Christian. The question he wants to answer is “what does it feel like to be a Christian?” He’s going for “emotional sense.” Does he manage it? Sort of.

The book is laid out in a definite order, if not quite an argument. Spufford starts with what he calls the “human propensity to f*** things up” (HPtFtU, for short), which he assumes we will all recognize. Given that HPtFtU, especially as it applies to one’s own personal life, it makes sense that the next emotional (not logical) step is to peer into every corner of the universe in search of help. Many people find no help at all. Some people, Spufford among them, find, somewhere at the back of things, a kind of intuitive sense of all-powerful goodness. He sits in a quiet church, closes his eyes, and lets his thoughts roam freely. His insignificance washes over him. His utter helplessness. His wish to make things right. And, Descartes-like, he realizes that his very wish for goodness is a sign that goodness must be out there, somewhere. Despite his crookedness, he remains alive, though small beyond comprehension. Something larger and better than him consciously keeps him going. Throwing himself on the mercy of that large, good thing seemed like the best course of action. As an acquaintance of mine likes to say, “Why is there something rather than nothing? Looks like it’s time to worship!”

From there, Spufford reaches the problem of pain. (If there’s some all-powerful goodness at the back of things, why do I hurt?) His answer to the problem of pain is to throw up his hands and say, “No idea. All the explanations are bollocks. Christians just move on.” Okay… Moving on is part of it, so let’s do that now. Next up, a man in ancient Israel, a man who is that all-powerful goodness and yet fragile and time-bound and utterly human. Spufford’s description of Jesus’s ministry and death is the strongest part of the book by far. Nearly all of the “emotional sense” of the book is contained in this one chapter. The resurrection passes in a blink, then there’s a sort of muddle while he goes through all of the bad things Christians have supposedly done. His treatment of tradition is pretty poor, as is his understanding of the Bible. He has very odd ideas about morality, especially sexual. But he stalwartly declares his union in the body of Christ with undesirables such as Sarah Palin, whom he personally finds horrifying, so I have to admit that, yes, Francis Spufford is a brother in Christ. Christ, check. Church, check. Grace and peace, brother.

I may have mis-remembered bits and pieces of the book in my summary since I don’t have it in front of me. That’s entirely appropriate, since Spufford did no research for his writing, either. I did admire his willingness to admit that he could be wrong about things, but he was far too willing to distance himself from uncool intellectual positions. “Not all Christians believe thus-and-such” was his favorite line.

More than anything, the book affirmed my belief that, when Christians waffle on Scripture, they waffle on everything. Spufford pegs the early chapters of Genesis as a quaint myth. The Old Testament testifies to the Hebrews’ slow understanding of monotheism. The gospels were assembled decades after Christ’s ministry. (Yeah, right. These were Jews, Francis. They wrote down everything.) I may be one of the “really stubborn Americans” he mentions several times in the book, but I’m convinced that we have to treat the Bible as God’s Word, no matter what uncomfortable situations that may put us in (including defending creatio ex nihilo). There is no defense, emotional or otherwise, of Christianity that is not grounded in Scripture.

So does the book defend Christianity’s emotional sense? It defends a shaky truce between Christianity and acceptable British intellectual culture. But who says British intellectuals have their emotions in order?