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 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.