A New Chapter

January 18, 2016

I write as I learn, and learn as I write. This has been my experience in the seven or so years since this blog began. The last three years have, through life’s annoying way of interrupting one’s writing schedule, been quiet on this front.

I hope the next years will be different, and as far as it lies within me, I plan to write again with the same frequency as before. However, new beginnings (including the beginning of a terminal degree) call for spring-cleaning all round. I’ll be closing this shop (though keeping it open for lurkers and learners). My hopefully more-frequent posts will now be found at Churches Without Chests, and often cross-posted to Religious Affections Ministries.

If you’ve been a subscriber here, and enjoyed the posts, feel free to join up over there. If enjoyment is the last adjective you’d use to describe encountering my writing, feel free to remain free of me. Freedom is a wonderful thing.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

Where the Differences Lie

April 25, 2015

Useful debate takes place when sparring parties understand their opponent’s position, and can represent it in terms the opponent would agree with. Apart from this proper knowledge, disagreements cannot be profitably discussed, for the disagreements are not even properly understood. What follows this ignorance is usually a headache of talking past one another, flaming straw men, arguing against caricatures and stereotypes, dismissing positions out of hand – all in all, much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In the ten years since I came to embrace conservatism, I have watched and participated in a number of sound-and-fury debates with other Christians, usually online. The debates have typically been around worship forms, music, ministry philosophies or techniques. In short, the debates have been around how Christianity is to be incarnated in modern culture.

I cannot claim that I represent ‘The Conservative Christian Position’ (how would one determine that, anyway?). I can claim that I am in sympathy with conservatives such as Richard Weaver, T.S. Eliot, Roger Scruton, and others. I can claim that I am a Christian, and I think conservatism and Christianity require one another to be consistent and healthy. I, and others like me, have tried to articulate what a conservative Christianity looks like in modern culture.

I have come to see the intensity of the debate is often because our interlocutors do not understand how deep the differences lie. They see the differences to be relatively superficial applications of ministry, and see the conservative’s vehement disagreement as incomprehensibly stubborn. If you see the differences as cosmetic, unwillingness to budge can be nothing other than pigheadedness. On the other hand, if some of my debate-opponents had known how far apart we really are, they may have questioned whether we share the same faith, or at least if we see with the same eyes. I suggest there are three areas of difference between a conservative Christian and his progressive/ pragmatic/ liberal counterpart. Each level leads to the next, where the disagreement is deeper.

On the first level, we disagree on what should be used or done in corporate worship, ministry, or Christian living because we differ over what these things mean, or signify. We differ on what certain forms of music mean, what certain cultural phenomena such as dress, or poetry, or technology mean. Because we disagree on what they mean, we disagree on their appropriateness for worship, ministry and Christian living in general. You can read men such as Ken Myers, Leonard Bernstein, or Roger Scruton to read how I’d understand the meaning of these cultural phenomena. This leads to a second level of disagreement.

On the second deeper level, we disagree as to whether what these cultural artifacts mean corresponds with something in reality. Romans 14 could end the debate for us all, unless we had a difference in whether ‘appropriateness’ is a matter of morality or preference. Here our disagreement is deeper: it is epistemological. We differ on whether there is such a thing as moral knowledge, or knowledge of beauty, and whether such things can be true. Underneath the surface of what worship forms mean, is a deeper debate about whether beauty exists in reality, and whether our cultural forms are supposed to correspond to that or not. C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man or Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences consider the ideas of moral, aesthetic or personal knowledge.

This difference as to whether there exists true aesthetic knowledge or true moral knowledge reveals the third and most severe difference. On the deepest level, we disagree about the nature of reality itself. Ours is a metaphysical difference. In my experience, I find those debating me to be people who profess the Christian faith, but are modernists in their understanding of reality. That is, they see the world very similarly to a naturalist scientist: the world exists independently of human beings, following natural laws. A chasm exists between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ realities. Objective realities, to them, refer to the concrete material world. To these, my Christian [modernist] counterpart will add to his list of objective realities God’s existence, the supernatural or unseen world, and the objective propositions of God’s Word. Subjective realities, to him, refers to perceptions of beauty, judgements of value, and personal relationships. Matters of imagination, intuition, and aesthetic judgements belong to a private world of individual preference. They are nothing more than self-contained experiences inside a human’s consciousness, which do not affect the objective world of the natural, created order.

I don’t believe that such is the world, and neither did people like Eliot, Weaver, or, in my opinion, David, Isaiah or John. Certainly, I believe in the reality of the created order, and that the world exists apart from my perception. I agree that concrete facts about the world can be objectively measured. However, I do not believe that the ‘subjective’ world is nothing more than a brain firing neurons at itself when it perceives ‘the objective world’.

Rather, subjective knowledge is the only kind we have access to. In fact, I don’t believe it is possible for humans to ever possess pure ‘objective’ knowledge as long as they remain living, perceiving, subjects. Your pupil cannot see itself from itself. Owen Barfield, Michael Polanyi, and Weaver will be helpful to get your mind around this one.

Subjective perception is in fact the God-given faculty of judgement of a meaning-saturated creation, which can either conform to the reality God wishes me to see, or skew it. That is, the world, (including us human subjects) is made by a meaning-making, moral, Person. Consequently, all that is made is invested with meaning – what God meant to signify with it. All that is made is also invested with morality – the goodness and beauty God meant it to have. My debate-partner and I don’t just disagree about whether there is such a thing as moral knowledge, we disagree about whether the universe is moral. My counterpart might agree that the Ten Commandments are moral. I think sub-atomic particles are moral.

A meaningful, moral universe does not exist independently from moral persons, the way scientific naturalism asserts. It exists by the word of a Person – God – and it exists in the form we perceive it for persons – us. (We see colour, but individual atomic particles don’t have colour.) And it is rightly perceived and understood, not when we merely examine it under a microscope or dissect it, but when we receive it reverently as meaningful, moral, and personal. We are supposed to understand that we are part of the web of the created order, and only a reverent, personal, moral relationship with the personal Creator can enable our subjective perceptions of creation to correspond to what God meant by it.

To put it simply, we can understand what is ‘out’ there, or we can misunderstand what is ‘out’ there. Here science is helpless, except to give us facts, nor can our senses independently figure it out. A right relationship with God enables us to understand the meaning of what is ‘out there’, which is the same as the truth of what’s out there – what my counterpart would like to call objective. But this truth is more than physical properties, it is beauty, goodness, and meaningful analogy. I cannot know objective truth independently; I must embrace the fact that I am a subject, and can only perceive and understand what God reveals to me. I must pursue His judgement as to what is true, good and beautiful, to rightly construe what my senses perceive. That’s not a preference; that’s submission.

This is why, for me, the questions of beauty are not questions of decoration, excellence, or good decorum. Beauty is part of the fabric of the universe. Aesthetic knowledge is fundamental to knowing God Himself. The subjective knowledge of goodness and beauty as God sees it, the subjective, personal knowledge of God is, in fact, the only way to know Truth.

That’s where the difference really lies.

“Redeeming” the F-Word

April 9, 2014

I imagine a day, in the not too distant future, in which Christians will be talking about how the F-word can be used for the glory of God. The arguments will proceed along these lines:

1) Everyone will be reminded that the F-word is just a word, a neutral utterance, beginning with the fricative f, followed by the short u, and ending with the voiceless velar k. We’ll be told that this same combination of sounds is used in other languages, such as vak in Afrikaans (meaning “subject”), proving that there is nothing inherently evil in the sound of the word.

2) We’ll then be told that times have changed. When Rhett Butler uttered his “Frankly, my dear” line in Gone With the Wind (1939), it barely slipped through the censor’s net. Today, the same word is free-floated around family sitcoms. Movies with the F-word barely get a 13 rating. The culture is no longer shocked by it, it has entered common usage. “WTF” is now a common abbreviation on the web. What’s the big deal?, we’ll be asked. Let’s move on folks, and stop getting all freaked out by what is so yesterday.

3) Along those lines, we’ll be informed that reaching a neighbour who swears will require using the F-word in conversation. Such people use the F-word as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and as an interjection. With such a common use of the word, we won’t be able to effectively reach a man embedded in the F-word lifestyle, unless we meet him where he is. Contextualisation and missional living requires that we lay aside our preferences of not using the F-word, and begin to use it for the sake of the Gospel. After all, didn’t Jesus eat and drink with sinners? And didn’t Paul become all things to all men?

4) We’ll then be told that Christians who don’t use the F-word ought not to judge those who do. Romans 14 will be enlisted as the proof text: one man regards the F-word as unclean, another man regards it as clean, so let each man be fully persuaded in his own mind. Most importantly though, those objecting to the F-word should realise that such harsh, judgemental attitudes are more like the Pharisees than like Christ. At least the F-word Christians give liberty to the other side to not use the F-word. Why can’t the objectors exercise the same grace?

5) We’ll be informed that the F-word is a matter of vocabulary preference. Some prefer to use it, some don’t. There is no sin in it either way. The problem comes when people allow their preferences in vocabulary to get in the way of gospel-work. F-word usage is a peripheral issue, merely a style of language, and not a hill to die on.

6) F-word advocates will demand that their critics find a Scripture that forbids the F-word. When confronted with Ephesians 4:29, they’ll point out that what makes communication corrupt or filthy is its intention. If someone intends to use the F-word for sin, then it is filthy, but if it is used for the glory of God, then that neutral word is being redeemed. To the pure all things are pure, you see.

7) Then, the enormous good being done by Christians that are redeeming the F-word will be pointed to. We’ll hear testimonies of people who didn’t give the Christian message a second glance until they heard an F-word preacher or evangelist, who seemed to make it all so real and authentic. Conversion stories and accounts of great inroads into foul-mouthed communities (which will by then be a passé term) will show that God is using Christian cursers for His glory. To such evidence, those objecting will be seen as cultural outsiders, pharisees, closed-minded bigots with no heart for the lost, no ministry-zeal, and no love for people.

8) Public evangelical figures will be quick to endorse the F-word users, and while making it clear that they don’t necessarily use it themselves, they will state that they are so happy for those who do so for the glory of God. And they will make sure they distance themselves from those closed-minded bigots who judge negatively these tremendous ministries.

Behold, the time cometh, and now is.

Some Things To Consider Including In Your Worship – Preludes, Postludes and Offertories

February 7, 2014

Artworks are valued for what they do but not for any immediate function. Art is far from “useless,” even though its distinctive value is realized only when it serves no immediate function, when the viewer or listener gives up any immediate self-centered demands on the work and, instead, gives him- or herself up to the work.

– Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music?

Our culture typically uses music as a means to achieve something else. As Johnson says elsewhere in his book, most everyday uses of music function as background to some other activity. However, music has the potential to be closest in nature to worship itself: an activity we do not as a means to some other end, but to enjoy the beauty of the object of our affection.

Churches have mimicked this cultural tendency. Purely instrumental music in corporate worship becomes nothing more than a means to an end: to cue the noisy talkers that church is about to begin, to smooth over the awkwardness of passing the collection plates, to get people to be ‘worshipful’ (whatever that is) before the sermon, or to signal to all that the service is over and chatting may resume.

These are not entirely evil uses of instrumental music in church, but if these are all it is used for, it is a goldsmith’s tool being used to hammer in a nail. Music has the power and nuance to shape our affections and desires, and awake men to transcendent beauty. If it is used as a mere time-cue, a good wolf-whistle might as well substitute. If it is nothing more than ‘prepping for the sermon’, a minute’s silence before or after might be just as effective. If music is simply ‘setting the mood’, then some fragrances and pretty pictures could do the trick. For as long as pastors see music as nothing more than a neutral means to some other end, they will perpetuate the problem of musical relativism. For people only begin to consider the meaning of music when they are called to do nothing else except listen to the music for its own sake.

Instrumental music in worship services is to be more than decorative. It is to be formative: a shaping encounter with beauty in the setting in which beholding God’s beauty is our aim. To consider the shape and form of a beautiful melody, an ingenious arrangement, and a skillful performance are not unspiritual ends. They are not some effete aesthetic snobbery far removed from the meat-and-potatoes of preaching the Word – and I say that as a preacher. Instrumental music in corporate worship is taught by Colossians 3:16, and supported by Old Testament example. The Psalms seem to make it clear that beautiful music offered in worship, glorifies God. “Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.” (Ps 33:3)

Yes, there are risks. In a culture that uses music as entertainment, ‘wordless’ music tends to raise only two questions in the average listener: 1) How does this make me feel? 2) How well was it performed? And in keeping with this, all too many church offertories have become nauseating displays of flamboyant and inappropriate musical acrobatics. Too many instrumentals are just chord-changing games to help the swaying, closed-eyed worshippers with their quest for intense emotion. Hence, the pastor concerned with a vertical focus in worship all too often rushes to fill those times with projected words on a screen, or to dispense with them altogether. In so doing, we cut off a vital part of worship, and perpetuate a consumeristic approach to worship’s most exquisite tool.

Of course, overcoming a whole cultural tendency is not a task to be sniffed at. Moreover, clumsy attempts to encourage a thoughtful consideration of music may end up distracting worshippers and raising all kinds of objections about the place of art in the church. We had best approach this knowing that most worshippers are expecting nothing more than mood-music, and will resist calls to apply their thinking to music itself. And yet, as men concerned with doing more than making church seem familiar, we ought to be obedient to Scriptural example, and seize this opportunity to shape the affections of our people.

I suggest that preludes, postludes, offertories, or other forms of special instrumentals be announced, either by someone leading the service, or on a bulletin or projection. Stating the name of the piece and its composer at the very least draws attention to the music as an object: a work of art made by someone for someone. If possible, some remarks can be made about the form of the music: the shape of the melody, its harmonies, or a remark which draws attention to the music. This does not have to be done every time (I would say it should not, in fact), nor do the remarks have to be so technical as to invite criticism that they are pretentious. A simple gesture toward the music will suffice, helping people to not simply use the music for a personal mood-change, but to consider the music until its meaning and beauty come home to the worshipper, regardless of mood and feeling at the time. And then, we don’t need to be embarrassed about this exercise, and show slides of waterfalls and mountains with Psalms quoted at the bottom. Yes, we really can let people do nothing but listen to music for several minutes.

It may be that as a result of these instrumental offerings the worshippers will be better prepared to sing, or pray, or listen to the Word. If so, fine. However, this is not why we ought to include these. We want a Scripturally-prescribed encounter with beauty, skill, order, and glory in the presence of corporate worship.

Some Things To Consider Including In Your Worship – Good Hymn Selections

October 25, 2013

When we select the songs and hymns for corporate worship, there are plenty of weak, cowardly, and even evil reasons to motivate our choices: sheer familiarity, a pledge of allegiance to a certain tribe within Christianity, a desire to attract or placate certain constituencies in the church, or the desire to appear moderate, balanced, and relevant in the eyes of man. Since what we sing is an offering to the Lord, our selection should be guided by the question, is this hymn good? Good, not in the sense that it brings me pleasure, but good in that it does well what it was meant to do. It is well-crafted, excellent, beautiful, and useful for worship. Whether or not I like what is good does not change what is good, it is simply a commentary on me. If I do not like what is good, I have a biblical responsibility to learn what it is, and to come to love it (Phil 1:9-11). How do we determine if a hymn or song is good? I suggest a start might be these five questions.

1) Is it truthful? Truth is what corresponds to reality. Music and poetry are creations of God, and can depict reality as God has made it, or falsify it. The lyrics of the songs sung must be doctrinally correct and orthodox, while allowing for poetic license. Hymns are not doctrinal statements put to music, nor should they be. They are poems, using metaphor, rhyme and meter. These poems, given their form, must nevertheless communicate Scriptural truth.

While music does not communicate propositions, it communicates sentiments, emotions and affections. In this way, the music can falsify what is being sung in different ways. It can communicate a mood or a sentiment contrary or unlike what the text purports to speak of, e.g. galloping when speaking of ‘sinking deep in sin’ or waltzing at the thought of Jesus returning, or skipping or rocking at the thought of God’s holiness. In such cases, not only is the music inappropriate for the text, it misleads believers into associating those emotional states with the truths being sung.

Music can also trivialize a profound truth, exaggerate an emotion, distract from the subject matter, and encourage a narcissism when singing. All these responses are possible due the actual form of the music. The form chosen must communicate affective truth, inasmuch as the lyrics must communicate propositional truth.

2) Does it evoke ordinate affection? God is a unique Being, and there is a kind of love that corresponds to knowing His being, and a kind that does not. The music and the poetry should, through the meaning of their form, evoke appropriate joy, fear, contrition, thanksgiving and delight. Church leaders must discern between kinds of joy, or kinds of fear, and know when particular music evokes those affections.

When hymns and songs sung are merely an exercise in self-gratification or entertainment, the emphasis is no longer one of responding to the Being of God. Ordinate affection arises from the commitment to know God as He is, to submit to Him entirely, to grant Him appropriate responses, be they foreign or uncomfortable to us. This is the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.

3) Is it a worthy offering (Psalm 33:1-3)? Worship music is not primarily offered to man for his enjoyment, though he is invited to worship the Lord with gladness. The One who hears all and understands all music and poetry, deserves our most skillful and excellent musical and poetic offerings. This means selecting the best hymns that are beautiful and most expressive of God’s manifold glories. Though cost, skill-level, and spiritual maturity may limit or hinder the quality of what is offered, we should always aim to do the best with what we have, and to keep improving.

4) Can mature believers understand and use it (1 Cor 14:15)? Paul desires that believers sing with understanding. On one level, every human being is capable of perceiving beauty, being made in the image of God. People’s levels of appreciation may differ, but no one is deaf or blind to transcendence. When music is true, good, and beautiful, it will speak to all men everywhere. At the same time, our current cultural impoverishment means that many find serious and beautiful music and poetry impenetrable. When the good is no longer familiar, the church faces the hard task of making it familiar without causing people to choke on what they have no capacity to swallow. The solution is not to give people regular ‘hits’ of pop music and banal lyrics so as to placate their cravings (for this will only feed habits that ought to be left to die), but to expose the church to great works, explain them, and allow people to get used to them through repetition and regular use. Works that are simpler or more familiar (yet still beautiful or helpful), should be mixed with those that are more ornate in their beauty, to give beginners and the immature some ‘rungs on the ladder’ to climb up. As elevation of thought and beauty increases, accessibility must be maintained through regular explanations, regular exposure and regular use.

5) Does it respect both tradition and contemporaneity?Traditional and contemporary are regrettably misunderstood and misused terms in the music debate. Traditional hymnody ought to mean the music and hymns which belongs to the genuine Christian tradition, having equivalent sentiments, regardless of differences in era, doctrinal tradition, or culture. Contemporary hymnody ought to refer to music and poetry written by Christians in our era, that continues these affections, universal to Christian experience over two millennia, and reports them according to 21st-century experience, in equivalent forms that answer to the 21st-century imagination. Instead, traditional is commonly used to mean hymns older than fifty years (including trite, useless hymns from the 19th century), and contemporary is used to refer to pop/rock forms of music.

Used in these uncritical ways, a church should be neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘contemporary’ in its musical choices, for there is no virtue in simply using older hymns for the sake of their age, or using pop/rock as a deferring nod to relevance and contemporaneity.

When the terms are used correctly, Christian leaders should aim for both in corporate worship. The church should honor and enjoy its heritage, by knowing, learning and singing the hymns and songs that belong to the genuine Christian tradition. This should ideally represent a wide spread of eras and even doctrinal traditions, to celebrate the true catholicity of the faith. This both honors our elders, and keeps us exposed to the examples of our forbearers’ worship. It reveals our own blind-spots, and the excesses and weaknesses of our own era.

At the same time, the contemporary church must use its own voice, and its own words, to worship God, for this is commanded of us. Contemporary hymns and songs and music that represent art good enough to carry the weight of worship ought to be used. Songs written in our era should not be used simply because they are familiar; they should be used because they are genuinely good, whether or not they are familiar to us. If they are genuinely good and yet not familiar, they ought to be used until they become familiar.

Invitation to the Devotional Classics – On Loving God

October 23, 2013

Reading works from the Middle Ages is a strange experience. Some of their theological blind-spots seem to us to be so obvious that only willful blindness can appear explain it, we might say. Alongside these errors, we often find ardent devotion to God, written with a fervency and vehemence that would seem forced and phoney in our world of theological precision and devotional frigidity. For these reasons, we might do well to read Bernard of Clairvaux.

After all, his errors are so transparent, there is very little chance that a modern reader is in danger of being persuaded. Bernard’s rallying cry to the Crusades, his beliefs in Mary as Mediatrix, and his call for the faithful to pray to her are errors which we would quickly spot, and just as quickly oppose.

But right alongside this are works which stir us deeply with their piety. Most of us have sung English translations of Bernard’s poems in the hymns Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving HeartsJesus the Very Thought of Thee, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded. And at the top of the list of devotional works would be his treatise On Loving God.

Bernard states, “You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love…We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable. When one asks, Why should I love God? he may mean, What is lovely in God? or What shall I gain by loving God? In either case, the same sufficient cause of love exists, namely, God Himself.”

The rest of this short work explains the theme, giving both how reasonable it is to love God (His glorious merits), and how profitable it is (the rewards, the joy, and the future hope). He describes what he sees as four degrees of love, and how we might attain it. For those who doubt that the idea of ordinate affection is found outside of the writers of this blog, read C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Augustine, and then Bernard. You’ll notice they’re tackling the same question: what does it mean to love God? What kind of love is the love we give God? And they write not because they believe the question is unanswerable, but because they believe the question is difficult and worth tackling carefully.

We who live in the emotionally burnt-over land of sentimentalism and modern pop culture would find a tonic in writers like Bernard. Hearing a writer from the 12th century, with no knowledge of our worship wars, taking on the question of what it means to love God, is certainly worth our time. I commend to your reading On Loving God.

Editor’s note: this book is available through Religious Affections Ministries here.

The Letters of Samuel Rutherford

July 19, 2013

It is strange what comfort can be gained from reading other people’s letters! Certainly this is true of many books of the Bible, and it is also true of much correspondence from one Christian to another.

The Letters of Samuel Rutherford are justly celebrated as a rich devotional feast. Much of their value comes from the suffering circumstances which Rutherford endured, and in which many of the letters were penned.

Rutherford was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who lived through the tumultuous period of the abolition of the British Monarchy, the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the Westminster Assembly, and finally the restoration of the monarchy. He was banished to Aberdeen and forbidden to preach in 1636, and restored in 1638. When Charles II was restored, Rutherford was charged with treason, but died before his trial.

A typical collection of his letters includes a variety of persons addressed: parishioners, fellow ministers, nobles, countesses and a few unknowns. His letters sing of the sufficiency of Christ, and of the need to seek Him and adore him. Themes of assurance, suffering, pastoral concern, prayer, experiential knowledge of Christ, holiness and deep repentance are found throughout.

What makes these letters more than the average Puritan fare, is the ardent tone with which Rutherford speaks of Christ. He longs for Christ when he seems absent, and seems to sing of Christ’s sweetness in others. The letters are instructive, pastoral, and sometimes even painfully corrective. Yet they seldom fail to be acts of adoration for Christ. For this reason, Rutherford’s Letters have come to be considered gems of devotion.

The Knowledge of the Holy & The Pursuit of God

June 28, 2013

The Knowledge of the Holy and The Pursuit of God are A.W. Tozer’s most popular titles and understandably so. Those who read them find genuine spiritual insight, heartfelt piety, and an invitation to worship from one in the very act of doing so.

They are different works, that came about in different ways. The Pursuit of God was the culmination of decades of thought on the Christian life, which flowed out of Tozer in one sitting. During an all-night train ride, with some toast and some tea, he wrote the entire book. The Pursuit of God opposes spiritual complacency, and calls for the deliberate, vigorous pursuit of knowing God in conscious personal experience. This book follows no predictable pattern, nor can it be comfortably pigeon-holed. Instead, it covers notions of surrender, consecration, spiritual apprehension, the need for illumination and self-denial, in a unity that makes sense once read in its entirety. Years of spiritual experiences surround the exhortations of each chapter, and those with seeking hearts will resonate with Tozer.

The Knowledge of the Holy began as a series of sermons which Tozer preached in his last years, while ministering in Toronto. Those sermons, also published as The Attributes of God, were hammered into book-form by Tozer, and published in 1961, two years before his death. A study in God’s attributes, it could not be more different than a work on the same topic by A.W. Pink. Tozer’s work is musical: poetic descriptions break off into a quoted quatrain from Faber, Watts, or Tersteegen. Sprinkled through the work are quotes from church fathers, puritans, and mystics. Tozer’s wordcraft is probably at its best in this work, combining both theological precision with imaginative metaphor to fire the religious imagination. Twenty one chapters deal each with one attribute of God. And worth the price of the whole book is the first chapter: “Why We Must Think Rightly About God”. I’ve often referred Christians to this chapter as an introduction to understanding the importance of the religious imagination.

Not everyone will agree with Tozer’s understanding of sovereignty and free will, or his views on prevenient grace. These seem to me to be small matters to overlook, given the genuine gold in the rest of the works. I encourage every believer to include these two books in his or her reading list.

Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – De Contemptu Mundi

June 21, 2013

The first duty of man ordained and brought forth into this world for that end, — my most dear Valerian! — is to know his Creator, and being known, to confess Him, and to resign or give up his life — which is the wonderful and peculiar gift of God, — to the service and worship of the Giver.

Eucherius was bishop of Lyons from around 434 till his death in 449. His most famous work, De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt for the World) has enough nuggets for the devotional prospector.

Eucherius advocated the ascetic lifestyle of the Egyptian hermits, but remained connected to a life of learning and active service. On Contempt For the World has much more to say on loving God than it does on bodily mortification. The theme of this epistle to Valerian is essentially 1 John 2:15 – to love not this world.

For Eucherius, that meant a two-pronged approach: seeing the pain and inferiority of a life lived for this world alone, and meditating on the far greater reward that is God Himself and Heaven.

“And indeed I know not which should soonest or most effectually incite us to a pious care of life eternal, either the blessings which are promised us in that state of glory, or the miseries which we feel in this present life. Those from above most lovingly invite and call upon us; these below most rudely and importunately would expell hence.”

While exhorting Valerius to do so, Eucherius wrote words of admiration and praise for God that will make the heart of any worshipper rejoice:

“But if pleasure and love delight us, and provoke our senses, there is in Christian religion, a love of infinite comfort, and such delights as are not nauseous and offensive after fruition. There is in it, that which not only admits of a most vehement and overflowing love, but ought also to be so beloved; namely, God, blessed for evermore, the only beautiful, delightful, immortal and supreme good, Whom you may boldly and intimately love as well as piously; if in the room of your former earthly affections you entertain heavenly and holy desires. If you were ever taken with the magnificence and dignity of another person, there is nothing more magnificent than God. If with anything that might conduce to your honour and glory, there is nothing more glorious then Him. If with the splendour and excellency of pompous shows, there is nothing more bright, nothing more excellent. If with fairness and pleasing objects, there is nothing more beautiful. If with verity and righteousness, there is nothing more just, nothing more true. If with liberality, there is nothing more bountiful. If with incorruption and simplicity, there is nothing more sincere, nothing more pure than that supreme goodness.”

Of course, we wish that Eucherius had seen the manifold ways in which we can worship God and glorify Him in this world and in this life. But we don’t read Eucherius for earthy, everyday piety. We read Eucherius to remind us that this world, as good as it is, is not our home. We read this short, dense work (less than 11 000 words) to be reminded that the Christian faith is not merely a means to earthly ends. Instead, God Himself is the quest of the human soul.

“Take up your eyes from the Earth and look about you, my most dear Valerian; spread forth your sails, and hasten from this stormy sea of secular negotiations, into the calm and secure harbour of Christian religion. This is the only haven into which which we all drive from the raging surges of this malicious world. This is our shelter from the loud and persecuting whirlwinds of Time. Here is our sure station and certain rest; here a large and silent recesse, secluded from the world, opens and offers itself unto us. Here a pleasant, serene tranquility shines upon us. Hither, when you are come, your weather-beaten vessel — after all your fruitless toils — shall at last find rest, and securely ride at anchor of the Cross.”

Doing Our Own Thing

May 31, 2013

Winner of “Best Book Subtitle of the Last Decade” must surely go to John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Music and Language And Why We Should, Like, Care. McWhorter is witty, disarming, and generally enjoyable (if, unfortunately, lewd in places) while arguing a serious and convincing thesis. He is no grammar-maven, writing another jeremiad about a general decline in proper grammar, or bemoaning folks (like us) who mix up their whos with their whoms. McWhorter’s point is more interesting than that.Doing our own thing

Doing Our Own Thing points out what the grammar-police often miss: there has always been a difference between conversational language and that used in formal oratory or written prose. Just about every culture has a colloquial, spoken form, and a ‘dressed-up’, eloquent form, seen in its diction, precision, and overall style. Everyday conversation includes a lot of hedging (“like”, “sort of” “kind of like” “y’know”), repetition, and colloquialisms. McWhorter has no complaint about this, and documents historical examples of how the language on the street and the language on the page or behind the lectern are, and have always been, very different animals. Having made this point, McWhorter’s book gets interesting.

He shows, using examples of speeches and letters, that the tone of formal oratory and prose has been tending towards the conversational and colloquial since the 60s. Speeches by senators in the 40s, and in the early 2000s are markedly different. Articles from the 1920s read very differently from those 90 years later. McWhorter suggests that the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s enshrined informality, and turned the wider culture against any form of artifice. Language that is carefully written, artfully constructed, and poetic in quality, has come to be viewed as inauthentic, staged, and one more attempt by some intellectual-types to lord it over the common man. Sincerity, authenticity, keeping it real, is represented by an off-the-cuff, everyday style in  speaking and writing. Once again, McWhorter is not raging against the conversational language we all use.  He is asking why those domains where language used to put on its Sunday best now prefer that it  be in beach-clothes.

One cannot blame populism or the triumph of mass culture. These were present in the 50s, when the general public still expected speeches, letters and journalistic prose to contain English used with beauty, finery, and elegance. McWhorter homes in on the oratory of UC Berkeley activist Mario Savio in the 1960s, whose semi-refined, colloquial hybrid speeches set matters in motion for the counter-culture rejection of stylized form in oratory and writing. McWhorter’s thesis may be correct. Since then, the culture in general tends to be suspicious of form, suspecting some kind of chicanery, manipulation or power-play by The Establishment Elites when any artifice is detected. Only what seems to ooze out of us spontaneously is real, and anyone writing or speaking in a formal tone must be a snob, trying to strut his intellectual prowess before us all.

This has profound implications for preachers. Is preaching the same as teaching?  It seems to me that the teaching and admonishing of one another commanded in Colossians 3:16 can take place in all kinds of situations, which would surely use the everyday, conversational style of speaking. However, is the act of preaching the same or different from these contexts? Paul’s sermon in Athens (at least what Luke redacted into written form) appears to follow a rhetorical form that is elegant, artfully constructed and formalised. It certainly doesn’t seem like the language he would use while reasoning with people in the marketplace. Peter’s sermons seem likewise elevated in form and tone.

If preaching is meant to be a kind of authoritative declaration, with language employed to delight, convict, and disturb in ways not possible for conversational speaking, we are faced with a cultural dilemma. The average man is suspicious of artifice, and might be quick to believe that it represents more hypocrisy and religious snake-oil. He wants his preacher to be real, which to him means conversational, colloquial, and possibly, (here and there, at least) profane. The church needs to reach that man. How shall we go about it?

To answer that question, we will have to answer several others. Does Paul’s ‘plainness’ (or ‘boldness’) of speech (2 Cor 3:12) correspond to colloquialisms and conversational language? Does God’s providential use of koine Greek for the New Testament suggest that the high tones of oratory have little place in the church? Is formalized oratory the mere ‘wisdom of men’ (1 Cor 2:4-5)? Even if not, does its perceived pretentiousness call us to embrace a more conversational tone for the sake of ‘contextualisation’? Does the nature of the message, and the nature of the occasion of preaching call for a specific tone not found in other settings? Can the conversational tone fail to command responses that a more elegant tone can? Does our current cultural situation call for artful rhetoric all the more, or do the demands of reaching the lost call us to adapt our approach to what men are familiar with? How shall we limit our own freedoms, rights, and preferences to reach men (1 Cor 9:19-22), without peddling the Gospel (2 Cor 2:17)?


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