Breakfast Blend 01.29.15

At Last You Can Read Harry Potter in the Gryffindor Common Room – Yes, at last…wait, were we waiting for this?

My Baby’s Heart Stopped Beating – “How come she gets to keep her baby but I don’t? She seems to hate kids. I love them. This isn’t fair.”

Bill Hicks’ 12 Principles of Comedy – A little crass, as expected…but I think these apply to all kinds of communication forms.

Disciple-Making on Their Turf – David Matthis argues from Philippians 4:8 that cultural analysis is a gospel imperative.

Music, Fiction, and the Value of Attention - Is novel reading no more than aimless distraction?

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Two Things to Tell Yourself in Temptation

Temptation is tricky.

Just when you think you’ve got hold of it, it rears it’s ugly head….again, and again, and again.

Many of us have struggled with besetting sins and habits for years, decades – and we’ve tried every trick in the book. We’ve tried keeping ourselves guarded from temptation. We’ve tried memorizing scripture. We’ve tried accountability partners, prayers, internet blockers, cold showers, food diaries, self-mutilation, frozen credit cards…everything.

But just when we think we’ve got ahold of it, it comes in like a tidal wave and takes over.

And there’s a reason for that: because every single method we use, no matter how effective it is in the short term, will never succeed if we don’t address the heart of the issue: our hearts.

The Root of the Problem

Paul Tripp once wrote that many Christians go through life like obsessive but uninformed gardeners: they see a rotting apple tree in the backyard. So, they go outside, grab a pruning hook, and take down the rotten apples. Day after day after day.

But the problem isn’t the apples, is it? It’s the root.

And at the root of us is what the Puritans called, our “affections” – or, “what we love most.”

See, I can ALWAYS find a way to circumvent my safeguards – because love, after all, makes us do crazy things. Love will always find a way. And it doesn’t matter if I’ve put an Everlast chain over my refrigerator – if I love food, I’ll always find a way to get to it. Or, like a greedy beggar, I’ll spend all my time pining after it.

So what’s the solution?

The solution is the gospel.

It’s trading our affections for creation for the source of that creation: God Himself.

Weeding it Out

When we’re in the midst of temptation, there are two things we need to tell ourselves:

1. Jesus Christ is better than whatever it is I want right now. The Spirit of God is “bread”, and “water”, and “joy” to our souls – there is nothing in this world better than Jesus. And if we really believe that, we’ll act accordingly – we’ll trade our affections for this world for the joy of experiencing the one who created it. When we give into temptation, we lose intimacy with God; we lose our assurance of salvation; we lose the joy of seeing the beauty of Christ.

2. Jesus Christ’s plan for me is better than mine. It’s not enough to cling to the first promise alone; we also need to know that Jesus Christ will provide for us in His wisdom. If I can’t get to clean water, for example, I might be tempted to steal it from my neighbor. But it’s not enough for me to chant, “Jesus is better than clean water, Jesus is better than clean water!” I also need to say: “Jesus, in His wisdom, has a better way of getting clean water to me than my way.” We need to not only be assured that Jesus is better than our sexual appetite, our alcohol addiction, our outbursts of anger, or our anxiety. We also need to know that Jesus has a better plan for our sexual health, our eating habits, our anger, etc.

Neither Extreme

If we cling only to the first promise, we’ll over-spiritualize the gospel: “All I need is a great spiritual life – nothing and no one else!”. If we cling only to the second, we over-materialize  the gospel, and begin to use Jesus to chase our idols. But when we cling to both, we slowly weed away at the root of the problem: lack of faith in the gospel. The gospel shows us that Christ is beautiful. It also shows us that his provision for us is radical, and assured.

And when we rest on the shoulders of Jesus on Golgotha, we can say confidently say in temptation: Jesus is better than my anxiety, and Jesus has a better way of handling my concerns than my fretting. Jesus is better than my sexuality, and He has a better plan for it than pornography. Jesus is better than my un-forgiveness, and He has a better plan for it than bitterness.

When we do that, we can say confidently: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

Now that is a temptation-shattering truth.

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My Post at The Gospel Coalition: Why the Prosperity Gospel is a Pyramid Scheme.

Last week, TGC asked if I would expand on my short post, “The Worst Pyramid Scheme Ever”.

The article was posted yesterday – if you have a few minutes, would you read and, if you enjoy, share with others? Thanks so much for all your support. Here’s an excerpt:

“I have a confession.

When I was in college, I read a book by a prominent megachurch pastor. The author told me to live like a child of God. He told me God wanted to bless me. He also mentioned that if I only believed, God would give me the nicest house in the neighborhood. That seemed to make sense.

The author explained that he once wanted the nicest house in the neighborhood, and God gave it to him. Here was a man with evidence. Not only did he have the story about the house, and other anecdotes, he also had a very nice set of white teeth (Ah, supernaturally white, I thought).

This was my first introduction to what is popularly called the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth” gospel. At the time, the logic seemed airtight: “If it worked for him, why shouldn’t it work for me?”

If I had dug a bit deeper, though, I would have seen the actual reason it worked for him and not for me. It’s because the prosperity gospel is a pyramid scheme.”

You can read the whole thing here.

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Breakfast Blend 01.28.15

10 Ways to Express Yourself Better in Writing – “Good writers are able to fully express themselves with words. But with so much flowing through the chambers of your mind, it is not easy to concisely find just the right words to express yourself, your idea, and your emotions. What phrases convey exactly what you’re thinking? How do you express yourself while keeping your reader following a logical description, dialogue or argument?”

 The Reason You Keep Forgetting Stuff – I’m hoping that by posting this article, I can stop forgetting why I keep forgetting things. I wish I was kidding.

Jesus and Scripture: A Response to Brian McLaren – Did Jesus think the Bible needed to be corrected?

A Summary of Ed Clowney’s Contribution to Christ-Centered Preaching – I say “summary”, because this isn’t really an evaluation. But it’s helpful.

Lewis Carroll’s 4 Rules of Letter Writing – Translation: “How to make e-mails a little more civil.”

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7 Ways to Make Your Writing Sound Pretentious.

There are plenty of ways to make your writing sound pretentious, but here are five I keep running into:

1. Beginning a sentence with “for.” What? Have you ever done this in person? For if you have, you surely have no friends. “For” at the beginning of a sentence (okay, except in this case, because it’s weirdly the subject of the sentence) is the equivalent of an exclamation point at the end of a joke. Speaking of…

2. Using an exclamation point at the end of a joke. It’s like laughing at yourself. Or, not quite-quite-as-bad-but-still-ruining-it: it’s like saying, “Get it? I just made a joke!” See how funny that was? Not very!

3. Using the word “shall.” Shakespeare’s Mom just called. She wants to know: ‘Shall she shoot your writing career now, or wait?’ Thou shall not use this in modern speech. Period.

4. Overusing “quite”. “Quite” isn’t really a no-no, especially when used negatively, as in: “It’s not quite right.” But “The weather is quite nice”, and “You have quite the talent,” or “I am quite a smart fellow, see how I use the word ‘quite’ quite a bit?” doesn’t work. Especially if you’re an American – then you just sound like an idiot.

5.  Making things a “must”. I realize this makes me sound like a half-baked postmodern hippie-type, but really, “must” – it just sounds so grandiose. Compare: “Good writers don’t use adverbs,” and “Good writers must not use adverbs.” Oh, I almost puked writing it. I think there’s only one person who can use this word, and that’s the president of the United States.

6. Using foreign languages. Leave the Latin phraseology in your research paper, please. And even then, please. We are no longer a trilingual culture – we aren’t trained in grade-school to read and write Latin and Greek. As they say: obscurum per obscurius.

7. Using any complicated word in place of a simple one. I know – you want us all to know that you can say “nugatory” instead of “trivial”, but really: no one cares. This doesn’t mean you can’t use rare words, if they have precisely the right meaning – it just means you need to balance specificity with simplicity.

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Breakfast Blend 01.27.15

12 Classic Books that Received Horrible Reviews – Because you will always have critics. Even if they’re just jealous.

Why You Should Trust Jesus’ Words on the Bible – An Interview with Andrew Wilson.

Batman And Friends Pose for 17th Century Flemish Portraits - This is the most important article you will read all year.

On Not Giving Up, and the Stages of Art – “Stage One: This is the Best Idea Ever. Stage 5: Dark Night of the Soul. Stage 7: It’s done and it sucks, but it’s not as bad as I thought.” Yup.

How to Self-Promote Without Being Gross – A good word from Barnabas Piper

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Flannery O’Connor’s Open Letter to Bible Critics.

About once a year, someone comes out with a best-selling book claiming to debunk the “Jesus Myth” and reveal to us, in historical form, the “true Jesus,” or the “radical Jesus”, or the “real Jesus.”

This is done by picking apart the Biblical witnesses, and, arbitrarily, deciding which texts best fit “what we NOW understand about life”, then ordaining those as “genuine”.

A lesser known conversation happens in Old Testament circles – go to any seminary, and you’re bound to find students scoffing at the claim that Isaiah was written by ONE author, or that the Pentateuch was penned by Moses (nevermind the fact that Jesus affirmed their authorship – it clearly wasn’t the “real” Jesus).

Millions of pages have been inked, devoting themselves to the sole preoccupation of dividing up texts based on the so-clearly-conflicting messages of their authors. There is no room for paradox – only for chopping.

It makes one wonder what Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or Isaiah would have said.

And for that, I turn to a letter by Flannery O’Connor. No – O’Connor didn’t actually pen an open-letter to Bible critics. It’s a letter she wrote to a literature professor, who claimed he and his 90 college-level English students had all agreed only upon the fact that the latter half of her story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, was obviously imaginary, from the perspective of the protagonist. The professor insists on dividing the story in this way, and it is the only real conclusion with which he and the class are satisfied.

Here is her response:

The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology.

There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality. This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia. It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious….

If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

Flannery O’Connor

Thank you, Ms. O’Connor, for that timely word.

Thank you.

To read the whole exchange, click here. 

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Breakfast Blend 01.26.15

The Percy Jackson Problem - “Gaiman’s view that any book that is avidly embraced can serve as a gateway to an enduring love of reading is surely true: my own earliest literary love affair was with Enid Blyton, that mid-century spinner of mysteries and boarding-school stories, who is among the authors Gaiman lists as having been deemed bad for children. But the metaphor of the gateway should prompt caution, too, since one can go through a gate in two directions.”

Miss Havisham’s Disability Application Denied – If you get the title, you’ll think this is hilarious.

On Art and Life – Dani Shapiro on why we shouldn’t think of one interrupting the other.

How to Write About Family in A Memoir - I found this ethically challenging to me, even from a (presumably) non-believer to a believer. It applies to anytime we write about others we know and love (or don’t).

Great Quotes in Pen – Readers handwrite their favorite quotes from literature on scrap paper. This is beautiful.

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9 Pitfalls of Too Much Systematic Theology

Now, before everyone hates me: I don’t hate systematic theology.

But I’m nervous when people get really, really, really excited about it. Like, SO excited about it. Like, “I’ve just figured out God for the first time, and you should too” type excitement. I do, really and truly, I DO appreciate systematic theology. I’ve read a few of them, and I’ve gained much from my reading.

My point in this post is: there is a place for systematic theology. And it’s not at the center. Here’s why:

1. Systematic Theology Re-scrambles Scripture.

God didn’t give us a neatly categorized book. He gave us stories. This is how HE chose to reveal Himself, and we are always in danger when we step away from that organization for something new. I think it’s naive at best to say that we can change the presentation of a message without changing the message itself. Systematic theology does indeed re-scramble the order of scripture – and in that way, it doesn’t say quite the same thing.

2. Systematic Theology Keeps Things Abstract.

I think the “trinity” was probably a useful term we coined. But the Bible doesn’t say “Trinity”: it says, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When we turn from these concrete images (did you even remember that this was a familial analogy?) to “trinity”, we lose something: we’ve just taken one step away from reality. In the same way, using a term like “omniscience” or “omnipresence” isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but these concepts were originally found in the midst of stories containing concrete realities. When we reduce them to abstract categories, they become intrinsically less meaningful.

3. Systematic Theology Doesn’t Address the Whole Person.

Stories engage my heart, my strength, my soul, my will…Categories do not. Let me ask you what’s more likely to make a difference in your life – the statement “God is sovereign”, or the retelling of the story of Joseph, with all of its horrors and glories, climaxing in the simple statement: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”?

Michael Horton, in his Systematic Theology (which I read, underlined, highlighted, and enjoyed) says several times: “The dogma is the drama”. With all due respect – no it’s not. Yes, the drama defines the drama. But the dogma is NOT the drama. The drama is the drama.

4. Systematic Theology is a Late Invention.

Don’t shoot me, but a lot of systematic theology flows from a Aristotelian and Platonic thinking – these men separated God into different categories, and analyzed Him as such. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but it’s not necessarily a biblical thing, either.

5. Systematic Theology can be a Deceptive Spirituality.

Stories are addressed to people. Categories, while helpful at times, are only really capable of giving us bones – not flesh. Stories are meant for the flesh part. And that’s because God is not a dissected pickled frog. We cannot lay him out on a table, and analyze all of His parts, and put him back together again. He is a Person. He interacts with us. He speaks back.

What I’m saying is: it’s possible to master systematic theology, and never have a regenerated heart – just dry bones.

6. Systematic Theology Separates Theology from Praxis.

Tell me how to apply Christology, as such, to my life. Go. You might be able to come up with something, but likely you’re going to have to dip into Biblical Theology (studying the unfolding storyline of scripture) to do so. This is another reason why Systematic Theology can be a deceptive theology – it gives us knowledge, without necessarily calling for a response.

7. Systematic Theology Encourages Proof-Texting.

With all due respect to my baptist friends – really, and sincerely – I’m often frustrated by the argument that goes something like: “Show me where a baby is baptized”. Now – there are many baptists who don’t do this. They look at the whole storyline of scripture, and they say, “You know, it makes sense to me that everyone who is baptized in the New Covenant is regenerated.” I get that, I really do. But the “Show me a baby being baptized” – I don’t. It’s the evidence of a proof-texting culture.

In order to think through baptism, or any other issue, it’s not enough to collect the relevant texts, compile them, and come to a conclusion. That’s a pretty stinky way to do theology. No – we look at the whole STORYLINE of scripture, and we see how it progresses, and we find where baptism fits into that story. Of course, we use particular scriptures – but they’re never isolated units, devoid of story.

8. Systematic Theology can Give us a False Perception of our Knowledge.

Many people, myself included, are tempted to think that once they’ve read sufficient numbers of systematic theological treaties, they’ve sufficiently comprehended all there is to comprehend about God. But this is a perversion of the truth of scripture – we know God as He acts in history, and as he describes those actions. But we know, really, almost nothing about Him, as He is. We can never even scratch the surface. He is, as R.C. Sproul once wrote: “completely other.” 

9. Systematic Theology isn’t Christ-Centered. 

I suppose there is some convoluted way in which I could make the doctrines of angelology center on Christ. But there’s no clear, biblical connection anymore when, rather then focusing on the story leading up to Christ, I take angels as their own category to be studied. I’ve lost the story, and so I’ve lost the climax, and so I’ve lost Jesus.

What I love about Systematic Theology.

Here’s what I love about systematic theology: it’s like having a really thorough dictionary. It’s necessary to read literary classics with a dictionary – it enhances my reading, and enables me to understand and see clearly what the original author is saying.

But if someone tells me they just bought the latest dictionary, and they’re really, really jacked about it, and everyone needs to read it…I start to get worried. Is this a lover of literature, or is this a lover of scientific definitions? This doesn’t sound like someone who wants to get lost in a great story – it sounds like someone who likes to wrap their mind around things.

I don’t think God calls us to wrap our minds around Him. He calls us to be wrapped up in His story. And so long as Systematic Theology aids us toward that end, it is a great and glorious thing indeed.

 An Addendum: For those who would whip out “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” as a systematic theology that doesn’t fall into these pitfalls…Yes, I agree. But I also think The Institutes doesn’t set out to be a systematic theology, as such. It’s an apologetic against the Roman Catholic Church, and the points made are done with brilliant biblical theological gusto. It grew out of pastoral/societal concerns, unlike the Systematics we see coming from high-up academic types today.

Furthermore, unlike other systematic theologies, Calvin’s actually causes me to worship.

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Long Chapters Vs. Short Chapters.

It’s in vogue these days to write quick, punchy chapters.

I’m on the fence as to whether I like this. Suzanne Collins used it brilliantly in The Hunger Games series, and I think the books lend themselves to it. Or did the short chapters recreate the story? I don’t know.

All I know is, as I sat down to write the other day, I decided to extend the length of my chapters. And, to be honest, I liked it. I liked it a LOT.

The reason I liked it is this: I was able to settle in, without being “woken up”. You know what I mean. It’s no fun to be constantly awoken in the middle of the night (let’s see, that would be FOUR times last night I was jolted awake by a 4-year old asking for toilet paper and a 2-year old asking for…well, we still don’t know). We need, as I mentioned last week, to go through a full “sleep cycle” before we’re ready to wake up.

Books with short chapters sometimes feel like a series of 20-minute naps, rather than a long night’s rest. Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t know. It certainly creates interest. But it also may ruin the spell of the story.

What do you think?

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