Apologetics Award: “3 Things to Remember Before You Criticize Someone’s Theology” – Or their worldview, or their anything.
Platform Building Award: “God Doesn’t Need You to Go Viral” – I try to balance this section with welcome warnings of its dangers…I think this article has new nuances, now that the husband has been named on the Ashley Madison list.
Reading and Literature Award: “5 Ways Wendell Berry is Making Me a Better Pastor” – Just one example of the ways literature can expand our minds and our hearts.
Non-Fiction Award: “16 Little Words for Describing Small Amounts” – Some of my favorites include dripple, smitch and toosh.
Preaching Award: “Cotton Mather’s Advice to Young Seminarians” – Some call him the first evangelical. He was without a doubt a powerful preacher, and had quite a lot to say about it.
A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Justification” – I like this little New Yorker vignette. It speaks to the Pharisee in all of us.
Fun Award: “Take on Me North Korean Style” – Because you’ve always wanted to see seven North Koreans play A-Ha with accordions.
Theology Award: “That One Time Moses Preached the Gospel” – My BOB (Best Online Buddy) Tim Fall rocking the biblical theology, here.
Spiritual Life Award: “My Pastor is On the Ashley Madison List” – This goes for anyone we respect in church leadership, and it goes for any equivalent sin.
Motivational Award: “Abandon the Idea of Finishing” – “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” – John Steinbeck
Fiction Award: “No One Knows What the Public Wants” – Though our publishers will tell you that they are ever seeking “original” writers, nothing could be farther from the truth. What they want is more of the same, only thinly disguised. They most certainly do not want another Faulkner, another Melville, another Thoreau, another Whitman. What the public wants, no one knows. Not even the publishers. – HENRY MILLER
Christianity and Culture Award: “The Shrug that Scares Me to Death” – Trevin Wax on the cold reality of apathy in the wake of new Planned Parenthood videos.
NEW! Church Leadership Award: “When You’re Sick of Saying it, Your Leaders Have Just Heard it” – JD Grear draws on the insights of a few effective leaders, all of whom make the same point: vision leaks. Here’s what you can do.
First of all, your book is too long.
I know, I’ve never read it. I know we’ve never met. But I just want to tell you that your book is too long. All books begin that way, because none of us never know quite what we’re trying to say until we’ve finished. Here’s how William Safire puts it:
“Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think. If you want to ‘get in touch with your feelings,’ fine—talk to yourself; we all do. But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts. Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce. The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts.”
The reason your book is too long is this: you left it how it is. You have the core now that you’ve finished…but you have yet to cut the rest.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say 95% – yes 95% – of nonfiction books I read should be 50% shorter. Why, you ask? Because, as Augustine once said: “I think as I write, and I write as I think.” Your first piece of writing is a mental exercise. It is thinking out loud, on paper. It’s not communication, until you trim it down to the bones. In other words: until it’s trimmed, your book is confusing to everyone but yourself.
A few years back I read a book by Harvard professors Chip and Dan Heath called “Made to Stick”. It was a book about the basics of communicating in a digital age, and one of their phrases stuck with me: The Curse of Knowledge.
The Curse of Knowledge is the idea that the more we know about our particular topic – be it medicine, theology or nuclear physics – the less able we are to communicate it. Why? Because our vocabularies become increasingly self-referential.
The problem with writing a book is this: it is 100% self-referential. I see how everything was connected…at one point. But I’m not always the best person to assess whether they connect as a unit in its final form. That’s why I’m super thankful to work with editors, like my friends at The Good Book Company. They can look at what I’ve written and say, “I know this makes sense to you. But it doesn’t make sense to me. Try again.” Or, they might say, “I’m not sure this page is making the point you’re trying to make,” or, “I think someone might object to this…”
In other words: editors help me climb out of my self-referential hole into the reality of communicating a single piece of composition.
In other words, there is a cure to the curse of knowledge: it’s called community.
Did you know that the first time Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo or Alexander Dumas wrote their works, you couldn’t buy them?
It’s because they weren’t books. They were blogs. They were published, one chapter a week, in the local newspaper. Which meant: every chapter had real readers in mind. Every chapter received feedback. Every chapter was written in community.
As genius as these men were, they were able to avoid the Curse of Knowledge by applying a basic biblical principle: we know ourselves (and our work) best when we look through the mirrors of others.
The author of Hebrews writes: “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
In other words – sin is deceitful, but there’s a way to combat that deceit: daily community.
That goes for my personal life, but it also goes for my work. Writing should not be, in the Christian way of thinking, the life of a haunted visionary cooped up in his or her mountain attic pounding away at a typewriter.
Writing, for the Christian, should be about composition, as Safire defines it above: eliminating the confusing parts. The same goes for preaching: we need to prepare and preach sermons in community. We need to invite feedback. No, we’re not presidential candidates polling the crowds. We’re sinners who recognize our inherent taintedness – we know we have the Curse of Knowledge, because we live with the Curse of Sin.
It’s no surprise to the Christian writer/preacher/artist that our work is no good without others. Adam wasn’t designed to work alone, and neither are we. Souping together everything running through our brains is a nice journaling exercise (and a nice blogging exercise, too), but not a nice publishing exercise, or preaching exercise. Books and sermons ought to be trim. That doesn’t mean they ought necessarily to be thin – thin books are great, and so are thick books. The point isn’t brevity (although Strunk and White might take issue with me) – the point is relevance. Everything must be relevant.
And relevance means clarity. And clarity means impact. And impact means God’s kingdom growing bigger and stronger with every book…not simply more verbose.
Apologetics Award: “Why do Christians Apply Some Parts of the Bible and Not Others?” – Dr. Stackhouse’s response here reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s regarding heaven: “The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.”
Platform Building Award: “How I Got 532 Subscribers In 43 Days Using Cheap Facebook Ads” – This has been coming up quite a bit over the last few months as a growing trend. I probably won’t go there for now, but thought you should know.
Fiction Award: “15 Kurt Vonnegut Quotes About Writers and Writing” – What I love about these is that they’re not the predigested hairball type tips floating around the internet. They’re original, and they flow from experience and know how. They’re also a bit quirky.
Non-Fiction Award: “How to Become an Exceptional Writer” – A surprisingly deep article from an unexpected source – mine this one.
Preaching Award: “The Importance of Meditation in Sermon Preparation” – I’ve found this exact same thing to be true over the last year. Although, I find meditation happens best when I sit down with a pen and paper, and just start writing.
A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Faith and the New Golden Age of Late Night TV” – This is an interesting take on the positive swing late night television shows are taking, and how the church might take a cue…not a generally recommended practice, but in this case I think there’s something here.
Fun Award: “Just a Couple of Muppets Singing ‘Express Yourself” – I have no idea how they achieved this, but it’s pretty amazing.
Theology Award: “Free, Animated Biblical Theology” – Tough call this week, but I’m giving it to this really exciting new youtube series that everyone could benefit from watching.
Spiritual Life Award: “When it Appears God Isn’t at Work” – NT Wright with some brilliance, poetry and wisdom in this little article on feeling God’s absence.
Motivational Award: “I’m on a Mission” – What the Blues Brothers teach us about artistry, courtesy of Steven Pressfield.
Reading and Literature Award: “How Great Books Teach Us to Love” – Thoughts from professor Gary Saul Morson (Northwestern) on how great books teach us to love…and why most professors don’t actually love great books.
Christianity and Culture Award: “Amy Winehouse and How to Watch Movies as a Christian” – This is a great piece on Christians taking a holistic view of life when they go to the movies, rather than a black/white approach.
NEW! Church Leadership Award: “Four Idols that Kill Leadership Development” – I was confused at first, until I discovered the author was talking about leaders developing OTHER leaders. Taken in that way, the article is spot on (for me, anyway).
I’ve been thinking about mirth lately. You know, good old fashioned mirth.
“Oh, by mirth do you mean gaiety or jollity, especially when accompanied by laughter?” Yes, thank you stale Japanese anime character who just mechanically explained exactly what happened even though it would be obvious to a two year old and your dialogue adds absolutely nothing to your character or the situation at hand. Also, thank you Dr. Webster (even though you were crazy).
Yes, that mirth.
What do you think of when you think of “mirth”? We’ll say it at the same time: One, two three…..HOBBITS! Yes. Hobbits are mirthful. So are Narnians – especially Aslan, and Bacchus (but he’s kind of cheating what with the free alcohol). Middle Earth and Narnia were created by two mirthful men, don’t you think?
Some of my favorite preachers are mirthful. Charles Spurgeon had his demons, yet he was undeniably a man of mirth. And so was Martyn Lloyd Jones, in his own kind of Welshman sourpuss frownie-face way. Martin Luther was wicked mirthful. He’s really the one that got me started on this mirth thing, with his counsel to a depressed friend: “Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts…” What do you think he’s going to say? Go and pray? Read that German Bible I just translated for you you ungrateful peasant? No: “…at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some other form of merriment.”
Depression? Prescription: Mirth.
Over the course of the past several weeks I’ve been eeking my way through George R.R. Martin’s second “Game of Thrones” tome via audiobook. I keep asking myself: “What do people like about this?” At one level, it’s obvious: the book is about copious food and sex, with some gut-wrenching deaths thrown in. The characters are at least thought through, if not incredibly complex. Typical heathen fodder, yes?
Well, yes. But then I had to stop myself. Because as much as I’m tempted to write Game of Thrones off as hedonistic blather, the cigar smoking, beer drinking, English sausage loving ghosts of Luther, Lewis, Spurgeon and Tolkien take me to task.
They wouldn’t write it off as misguided. They would say: “He’s onto something. But he’s missed it.” Because hidden in hedonism is a kind of divine instinct for self-satisfaction – to gobble up all the life we can. The problem with Martin isn’t that his appetite is too strong. It’s that he’s looking for apple pie, and gorging himself on the crust. He’s going after the amenities of life, like they can fill up that thirsty soul.
But the heart of mirth isn’t in the amenities. It’s in the middle.
A few weeks ago, I started waking up at ungodly o’clock to write, read and pray before the day began. It seemed like the good puritan thing to do. Well, as it turns out, Me + 6 Hours of Sleep + 2 Hours of Prayer/Meditation = A Significantly Less Sanctified Me.
I was barking at my kids, impatient with my wife, anxious, and not really like Jesus in any way shape or form except for that my beard was still going pretty well. At the same time, I felt better than everyone around me.
How does that work?
Here’s how: I wasn’t pursuing joy. I was pursuing success. The pursuit of success compels me to wake up before Peter even has the chance to betray Jesus and grind it away on my knees. This will set me apart. This will give me success. This will make me a Great One.
But at some point in the grueling process I thought: “Maybe my kids would see Jesus in me more if I just slept better.”
So I did. I split up my prayer times into morning, noon and evening, and got 8, even 9 solid hours of sleep every night.
Mirth. My wife and kids thanked me for it.
What does this all come to? It comes to this: my favorite writing, my favorite preaching, and the most inspiring lives I know of are, first and foremost, lives that are dripping with a kind of electric humanity. They are mirthful.
I think of a Stephen Colbert quote I recently read: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” Well I’m no liberal Catholic O’Doul’s mocking CBS Late Show star but…AMEN to THAT. You can’t tell me that’s not the best celebrity quote you’ve ever read.
He’s right, too. You think Mere Christianity convinced you by its logical rigor? False. Many people have made the same arguments, to little effect. Why? Because they can borrow the arguments, but they can’t capture the mirth. It wasn’t Lewis’s words that cast the spell on us – it was the twinkle in his eye. Say anything with that twinkle, and I’m your slave. Lewis’s mirth is the apologetic behind the apologetic – the arguments are fallible, but the joy is not.
The point is: beyond everything you and I accomplish in life – beyond the preaching, the writing, the working, the books – beyond it all, the greatest gift we give to the world is our joy. It’s our mirth.
Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” I think I understand that a bit more after this week: if what we do is our means of manufacturing joy, our work loses its mirth. It loses its holy exuberance. It loses its substance.
But if we are first of all mirthful men and women, and secondly writers and pastors and staple-gun salesman etc. – then what we do becomes sanctified. It’s the overflow of our joy. That is, in the end, what makes Middle Earth and Narnia and the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit so magnetic – not the characters, not the dialogue, not the metaphors, not the three points, not even the world-building: it’s the mirth.
So whatever else you do this week – whatEVER else – do this one thing: be mirthful. Your spouse, your children, your church, your neighborhood and your world will be the better for it. And so will you.
Apologetics Award: “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil” – This is, oddly enough, exactly what I spoke to my youth group about last night. Calvinism had a better ‘explanation’ for the problem of evil in the world than I did as a free-will advocate…this was what launched my pathway to the other side.
Platform Building Award: “9 Steps to Using Social Media Without Losing Your Ministry” – Thom Rainer with some good guidelines for those of us who find ourselves straddling the fence between the digital world and the church.
Fiction Award: “You Can’t Write What You Wouldn’t Read for Pleasure” – “The most important thing is you can’t write what you wouldn’t read for pleasure. It’s a mistake to analyze the market thinking you can write whatever is hot. You can’t say you’re going to write romance when you don’t even like it. You need to write what you would read if you expect anybody else to read it. And you have to be driven. You have to have the three D’s: drive, discipline and desire. If you’re missing any one of those three, you can have all the talent in the world, but it’s going to be really hard to get anything done.” – NORA ROBERTS
Non-Fiction Award: “21 Interesting Words from David Foster Wallace’s Vocabulary” – My favorite is the word “euphuism”(ornate, allusive, overpoetic prose style), a word that should make its way into our uncultured Christianity since many of our favorite authors, whose books may or may not rhyme with “turdsmithy”, are talented but obnoxiously euphuistic.
Preaching Award: “3 Reasons Your Teaching Style Matters” – This isn’t aimed at preachers, but I think more conversations need to happen about how preaching can incorporate learning styles. Jesus’ teaching is much more varied than ours, and in that way, as the article states, much more loving.
A Glimpse of Truth Award: “The key to a happy life is to accept you are never actually in control.” – Masrani, “Jurassic World”
Fun Award: “The World’s Youngest Master Penman” – I thought this video was pretty fascinating.
Theology Award: “5 Lies I Believed About Faith and Work” – Kevin Halloran gives a nice, concise theology of work.
Spiritual Life Award: “An Introverted Christian” – Tim Challies’ honesty here is penetrating and helpful in the Christian conversation about personality.
Motivational Award: “I’m on a Mission” – What the Blues Brothers teach us about artistry, courtesy of Steven Pressfield.
Reading and Literature Award: “JRR Tolkien’s First Fairy Story to Be Released Next Month” – Read this article and go ahead and freak out.
Christianity and Culture Award: “Sex is More and Less Important than You Think” – Trevin Wax demonstrating wisdom on how to approach our culture’s perspective on sexuality: “Ironically, one of the reasons our society is so sex-saturated is because we are so transcendence-starved. Unable to reach the heavens, we go under the bed sheets. It’s because our society senses that there must be something more to life, something more to sex than casual encounters, that people continue to amp up the experience – trying new methods, new partners, new medicines, staking their identity in their sexuality – whatever it takes to achieve sexual satisfaction.”
NEW! Church Leadership Award: “20 Lessons I’ve Learned from 20 Years in Pastoral Ministry” – Brian Croft with some wise and winsome guidelines for every pastor.
Two weeks ago, I published a book. I would like you to believe that makes me a demigod of some sort, or at least a kind of spiritual sensei who though senile, has a way of making the lotuses teach you things.
Because being published is supposed to do that to you. It’s like having a Driver’s License for being a soul:
COP: “Sir, I’m afraid the government says you don’t exist.”
ME: “Oh DON’T I? HaHA!” (Whips out brand new copy of Faker, available at amazon.com if you order in the next 10 minutes…or anytime after that, really)
COP: “Oh, I’m sorry sir. I didn’t realize you were a published author, I…I…”
ME: “That’s right you didn’t you swine. I have a SOUL, see? I’m on paper! Can’t you understand? I put WORDS together, REAL words, on pages, and they are COHERENT! Can your CANINE friends do that? Go ahead LET THEM TRY!”
COP: “No, no – none of us could, sir. We pay homage to your solution to the existential crisis of life. We’ll just be off doing little people things now, normal people things, things normal people do, wondering whether we exist, whether we have souls, whether the normal, everyday drudgery of life is worth its every eeking second, whether our normal, everyday, boring, pointless, meaningless, ho-hum…”
You get the picture.
But here’s the thing. I published a book, and then I nudged it gently out into cyberspace. I closed my eyes, waiting for Christian Nirvana to hit me like a stack of reformed theology books from heaven, and…
Well, what did you expect? Literally nothing happened. It was less exciting than brushing my teeth (of course, I have some molar caps that can make things PRE-TTY interesting).
It was disappointing to say the least. Yes people were very nice about it. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the lightning bolt from heaven, when suddenly, out of the blue…I’m perfect.
“Well done, Mr. McDonald, here’s your gold-plated copy of Fireproof. YOU DID IT.”
It didn’t happen. It didn’t come. I didn’t get perfect. I stayed the same. I’m still…me.
This week I’ve been reading about two guys who weirdly have a lot in common: Samson and Martin Luther. They both took vows they couldn’t keep. They both had a supernatural ability to crush anyone who opposed them. And they were both, well, pretty much jerks.
Samson actually isn’t that bad compared with Martin Luther. I’ll spare you some of the details, but suffice it to say, if you’re ever searching for that perfect hallmark phrase to capture the moment when you realize your daughter is dating the wrong guy, I’d look to Marty for some doozies. I’m still emotionally crippled from overhearing his description of the adulterous Duke Heinrich (don’t look it up, it’s gross. But okay if you do look it up, look here).
Luther knew it, too. He called himself “a lumberjack”, who had the perpetual reflex to slice down anyone who crossed his path including Catholics, baptists and anyone who didn’t agree with him on communion or the end times or politics or what kind of beer to order on draft or whatever.
And Samson – well, I don’t see the redeeming qualities, exactly. He’s not the kind of guy I’d gel with, to be honest. Samson is the kind of guy who goes to the gym to take selfies in the mirror after he gets his pump on. I’m the kind of guy that wears NPR shirts to the gym.
The point is, Jesus used both of them. Samson made the hall of faith. Luther basically rebuilt it for us.
And it wasn’t because they were perfect.
There’s this thing in scientific circles called The Butterfly Effect (it’s what the REAL Jurassic Park stories – you know, the books – are all about). The idea is that the wind a butterfly’s wing on one side of the world could, theoretically anyway, cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. How?
We don’t know. We have no idea. That’s the point of the Butterfly Effect: we have no idea what our actions mean. It’s impossible to calculate.
Why do I tell you this?
Because you’re waiting for me to tell you why it is God used Samson and Luther and name-your-Christian-celeb. You want the secret, don’t you? You want to know what it takes to go from being one of US to one of THEM, right?
Here it is: I have no clue. I have no clue why Jesus called me to write a book. I don’t know – I know people who are better Christians than I am. Seriously. I know people who actually GET Christianity. They’re humble, they’re open, they’re not messed up.
That’s not me. I’m cranky, and sarcastic, and conceited. I’m not just saying that – ask anybody.
So why me?
Butterfly Effect. Impossible to know. We’ll never know, and I’m okay with that.
But here’s what I do know: it’s not because I’ve achieved a new level of spirituality. It’s not because I’m on a different spiritual plane than you and you and you. It’s because God can do whatever He well pleases.
At the end of his life, just before his heart literally exploded, Luther sat by his bedside, away from his family and home, scribbling a note. He was surveying his life, his teaching, his opponents – everything. He knew it was his last hour.
His followers had accused him of being overbearing at times, even cruel. But they also recognized his genius, and their indebtedness to his faithful, humble work through the scriptures.
Luther knew his shortcomings as well as any. And he also knew that God has used him to move a mountain. In that last hour, as he reflected on it all, he wrote my favorite words from his pen: “Hoc es verum. Wir sind alle Pettler.”
And of course we all know that little phrase, don’t we? No? Okay, here it is:
“This is true. We are all Beggars.”
That’s it. We’re all beggars. There are no spiritual superstars. God brings men low, He builds them up, He does whatever He well pleases.
So let’s not be overly simplistic about things.
People who do great things for God aren’t God’s favorites. They’re just people. And honestly, when you look carefully, you’ll see most of the people God used lived extraordinarily painful lives. While we’re all asking, “Why him?” he or she’s probably asking the same thing: “Why me?”.
So that’s the thing about being published. It doesn’t change anything. It’s not meant to do. Because in the end – you, me, the woman vacuuming the carpet at the church right now, the superstar preacher at the conference – we’re all beggars.
This is true.
Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Or selling something. Or both.
Hey Folks – below you’ll find the OFFICIAL “Faker” book trailer. I’ve also included a few bonus questions not released yet – if you’re reading via e-mail, check them out by clicking through above.
In the bonus videos, I answer “How did you become a Christian?”, “What’s the greatest need of young people today?” and “Do you have an example of a time you were a faker?”
The Book is OFFICIALLY RELEASED as of last week, and you can read some awesome reviews and order your copy by clicking through here.
So excited by all of the awesome feedback in the last two weeks! Thank you all for your amazing support! Again, you can check out amazing reviews and order the book right here! Very excited to engage with you all over the next few months.
Apologetics Award: “5 Reasons Christians Should Care About Science” – Some words from a woman who is the field herself, on how science expands our view of God rather than diminishes it.
Platform Building Award: “The Basics of SEO” – I’ve been looking for a simple guide on this for a while. Being an infographic filled article always helps.
Fiction Award: “10 Writing Tips from Stephen King” – Go ahead and rehearse these.
Non-Fiction Award: “7 Things I Learned Mid-Book” – Noelle Sterne on what the grueling process of writing and rewriting taught her in a pithy, helpful article.
Preaching Award: “3 Sermon Prep Tips for Bivocational Pastors” – Or how about just busy ones?
A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Redemptive Identity in Ant Man” – Christ and Pop Culture on what separates “Ant Man” from other heroes – the already and not yet.
Fun Award: “Tolkien Reads the Hobbit Aloud” – Hear Tolkien read 10 minutes of Gollum awesomeness: ‘He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes.”
Theology Award: “When is a Church Not a Church?“- Ligonier gives two qualities that disqualify a church from claiming churchood.
Spiritual Life Award: “John Piper on Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill Implosion” – This doesn’t actually talk much about Driscoll – it’s more about how we handle our cultural Christianity idols.
Motivational Award: “The Artist’s Most Important Skill” – Pressfield is always the best in this category. Always.
Reading and Literature Award: “New David Foster Wallace Movie is Exactly the Grotesque Parody He Feared” – This article is by a guy who really, really understands what Wallace was getting at. I found myself convicted reading, it’s just that penetrating.
Christianity and Culture Award: “Communicating Truth in Our Later Modern Moment” – This post is about preaching on the surface, but it’s really an introduction to how Christianity has shifted in its relationship to culture over the past 2000 years. Take a careful read.
NEW! Church Leadership Award: “The Church is a Leadership Factory” – J.D. Greear on why it is, and if it’s not, how it should be.
Apologetics Award: “Os Guinness: Welcome to the Grand Age of Apologetics” – A fascinating interview.
Platform Building Award: “Why Bloggers are Calling it Quits” – Tim reminds us why we can’t just leave blogging behind. Books need it.
Non-Fiction Award: “Lay Vs. Lie (vs. Laid)” – I ALWAYS get this one wrong. Finally, a clear answer.
Fiction Award: “Learning the Craft” – Pressfield is the man. There’s something that can’t ever be taught, by nature, in writing, and it’s this: your voice.
Preaching Award: “10 Marks of John Calvin’s Preaching” – Some of these are surprising, like the fact that Calvin, the systematic person though he was, always preached extemporaneously.
A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Inside Out and Christian Sadness” – Why is Hollywood better at being real than we are?
Reading and Literature Award: “100 Thoughts on Kafka’s Metamorphosis after 100 years” – This is quite long….but pick out a few, and read. Pretty fascinating.
Theology Award: “Is the Hope of Heaven Beautiful or Boring” – John Piper explains why he used to be afraid of heaven…and why we shouldn’t be.
Spiritual Life Award: “7 Subtle Symptoms of Pride” – These are taken from Jonathan Edwards, and the only correct response, from me anyway, is: Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
Motivational Award: “Morning and Evening Routines” – You want to achieve your writing goals? Start here.
Fun Award: “5 Times the Queen’s Guard Wasn’t so Serious” – I wonder what ever happened to that guy who made faces at everyone…
Christianity and Culture Award: “I Thought Planned Parenthood Was About Family Values” – Rosaria Butterfield is a wonderful, wonderful voice for Christians wanting to engage today’s culture. She helps us understand both sides of the issue, with a little dash of Frankincense, I mean Frankenstein, thrown in to blow your mind. Read this.
NEW! Church Leadership Award: “10 Reasons Every Believer Should Take Care of Their Bodies” – I’ve found something in this category nearly every week, but didn’t officially have the category…so here it is.
If you have grown up in the American church, you are familiar with the insipid nature of Western Christianity. We are, often times, a flavorless people, baptizing what we imagine are the ‘new ways’ of the church, only to find later we’ve been hoodwinked into carbon copying the culture around us.
So goes the case in Dr. David Wells’ magisterial work “No Place for Truth”.
In perhaps the most penetrating section of the book, he attempts to square into view the modern church by making a comparison of God’s people in the Old Testament to the pagan nations surrounding it. In this brilliant section, Wells begins by showing 6 distinct marks of pagan nations throughout scripture:
1. “Insofar as they were known, the gods were known through nature.” Unlike Israel, pagan cultures reasoned their way to their god, from the ground up. “If life is like A, then God must be like B.”
2. “Pagans proceeded from the basis of their experience to the supernatural.” The gods were more or less a way to explain experiences in life, and since there was no other way to understand the supernatural anyhow, life was “sola experiential”.
3. “The supernatural realm was neither stable nor predictable.” The gods were ornery, whimsical, and temperamental. Because of this, sacrifices were made for no apparent reason other than appeasing the unknowable yet irascible deities.
4. “The pagan deities were sexual, and this meant that their religion had sexual overtones as well.” The closest we could come to experiencing god, then, was through the ultimate act of sexual pleasure. This was heralded as the culmination of human experience.
5. “The pagan mind had no moral categories superseding the relativities of daily life.” In other words: doing what was right was, ultimately, an exercise in pragmatics. Doing right meant doing what worked.
6. “History had no real value for the pagans; their lives were centered in the experience of the moment.” The pagans disregarded the old, dusty books of the past – they looked forward to the future, and focused on, to put it pejoratively, living in the now.
Over and against this type of religion, which to me sounds eerily reminiscent of what we call the “American Church”, Israel held tightly to views about God which swung defiantly in the opposite direction. In what I believe is Wells’ most powerful passage in the book, he describes the weightiness of Israel’s views about God, especially as they climax in the person of Christ:
“The resurrection of Christ…challenged every other ancient religious worldview…The early Christians did not preach their experience of Christ; that would have been to promote a form of religion like any other form of religion. Rather they preached the Christ of that experience…God had raised him from the dead, and this was a matter of history, not simply of internal perception.”
This, says Wells, called into judgment every form of experiential religion, because it was rooted in grounded in an objective, historical event. The resurrection of Jesus was not one item on the Lazy Susan – it was the objective centerpiece to it all.
He goes on to detail to consequences of this radical idea: “The fact that God’s truth was transmitted through events external to the individual meant that it was objective, and the fact that it was objective meant, further, that his truth was public. It was truth for the open market, truth for the nation, truth for other nations…Those who were trained by biblical revelation could not follow the path of the pagans, who established their faith on their experience of nature and their intuitions regarding human nature. Their faith was grounded solely in the objective and public nature of God’s Word.”
It is because God has revealed Himself to us – he has, as theologians put it, condescended to us – that our experiences lose all authority claims: “Inasmuch as the meaning of God’s redemptive acts was not discovered by human insight and sagacity but was rather given by God himself, that revelation was authoritative…It is not the narrative of God’s acts that makes it hard for us to believe in the authority of their meaning; it is the modern world.”
The central claim Wells is making is simply this: we, the American church, have slipped ever increasingly into seeing God through cultural (read: pagan) lenses. And now, returning to those six marks of paganism, let me add my own notes to each:
1. We allow nature to determine our theology – ala, whatever I feel in my nature dictates what scripture says. If I feel I am this, than scripture must cave.
2. We reason from our experience to the supernatural – for example, to place our faith in some spiritual experience (raising a hand, praying a prayer, getting goosebumps when the band struck it up), and to give testimony to it, rather than resting in the objective, finished work of Christ.
3. We moralize our experiences, tending to oversimplify them into systems which allow us to avoid God’s displeasure and incur His divine favor, which we see, typically, as a right expressed in health, wealth, and personal happiness.
4. Our churches demonize or idolize sexuality, so that by finding that perfect soul-mate on e-harmony or via ‘kissing dating goodbye’ we can court our way to our best life now. This is, in reality, what we perceive to be our ultimate connection to God Himself.
5. We have, unwittingly, succumb to a pragmatic ethic. Let’s face it, you’re not reading the book from the guy who pastors a small church in Nebraska. Doing what is right means doing what works, does it not?
6. We’ve lost concern for history, or, the real meaning of an old, dusty book – we are more concerned with satisfying our personal quest for spiritual experience. We do not want to hear what God says, we want to tell God who he is, and use him to get our spiritual giggles out for the week.
There is one solution to all this, and it is, as Wells says, perhaps not Revival but Reformation. It is to return to God’s self-revelation as our source of truth, to filter our lives from it, to allow His own words to color the lenses through which we view the world. Only when we do this will we become distinctive, unique, and, in that sense, a light to the pagan culture surrounding us.