Archive for May, 2013

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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Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – 1

May 24, 2013

Who knows how many volumes have been written by Christians through the centuries? Spurgeon’s works alone are 63 volumes, which are equivalent to the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unlike Spurgeon’s works, not every Christian’s writings have been preserved, or been worth preserving.

Wesley said we ought to be people of one book, but students of many. With Scripture being our Book of books, we’d do well to learn from those Christian writings that have seemed to rise to the top, and withstand the winnowing of time. These ‘devotional classics’ span time, denomination or tradition, and genre, for lack of a better term. They come from Ante-Nicene, Nicene, post-Nicene periods, from the Middle Ages, and from Reformation, Enlightenment, Awakening and modern periods. They were written in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. Their authors are early bishops, martyrs, monks, scholastics, reformers, separatists, mystics, puritans, pastors, and missionaries. They are from the Eastern and Western church, reformers who were in the Roman Catholic church, reformers who came out, and reformers who remained in. They are Anglican, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist. And they write sermons, poems, confessions, prayers, autobiographies, letters, and general treatments of the Christian life. I’d like to begin doing a brief description and review of some of these classics, with some choice excerpts from each.

What is the value of reading these dusty treasures? I can think of two reasons.

First, the value of reading some of the best devotional works is of inestimable spiritual value. A.W. Tozer wrote, “After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of Watts and Wesley alone and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed.”

Second, to be truly helpful to our generation, we should live with these past saints. Much of modern Christianity has made a host of the non-culture we call secularism, and to the degree that it has become identified with this non-culture, it has become a non-religion, simply an eclectic set of parochial pieties, idiosyncratic moralisms, prejudices and assumptions. Reading these classics is a way of hearing what generations other than our own have said. T.S. Eliot pointed out in Tradition and the Individual Talent that to enter into the stream of historical understanding is to begin to know more than the thoughts of your own generation. “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” You only understand your times, and can speak to them effectively, or dare I say it, with relevance, if you have viewed your own generation from the perspective of other generations. You will only know what is distinctive (for good or ill) about your generation if you have regularly inhabited a world that transcends your particular time and place. Failing this, you are just an echo-chamber for the thoughts of our day, and if they be in error, you are a repeater-station for widely accepted error.

Someone might be understandably skeptical about the notion of orthopathy, or right loves. But let him vigorously work his way through these classics, and he will find a similarity of sentiment across the ages that seems to fit very well with the idea of orthopathy, and in many cases, makes the pieties of our age seem foreign. Don’t take my word for it. Live with Christians from other ages, and then decide whose piety is the odd one out.

A few words about this mixed multitude. The list we’ll be working through includes people from doctrinal traditions quite different from our own. We sit at their feet not because we want to embrace all their errors, nor because we seek to re-make them in our image (or vice-versa). A bee can find nectar in the weed as well as in the flower, said the holiness preacher Joseph H. Smith.

Finally, reading these works will mean some spiritual effort, which I heartily encourage. Again, Tozer: “To enjoy a great religious work requires a degree of consecration to God and detachment from the world that few modern Christians have experienced. The early Christian Fathers, the mystics, the Puritans, are not hard to understand, but they inhabit the highlands where the air is crisp and rarefied and none but the God-enamored can come.”

Neglected Battle Fronts

May 17, 2013

And the most notable era of Scottish preaching was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they had great power. In fact, the strongest reformational preaching going on in Europe at that time was in Scotland, the great preaching of the Reformation in Scotland. For two centuries it lasted. And Blakey writing in 1888 points out that what made the difference in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the preaching in Scotland was that the preachers viewed themselves…I like this, I never heard the phrase before…as warrior preachers…warrior preachers. And he says by that they meant that they believed that they were guardians and that any place where an assault came against the truth, they went to battle. They went to battle. I always wondered where I got this. But I guess some of that warrior mentality got down through the MacArthurs to me because that’s just how I think. If I see some area where I believe the truth is under assault, I feel like I need to run to that area and go to battle. That’s just the way I’m wired. At the same time, Blakey writes about the fact that there were more moderate preachers who wanted more love and tenderness and compassion and kindness and tolerance to be preached. They finally took over in the eighteenth century and you know the history, down went the church. And today in Scotland you’d look a long time to find anybody who preached any gospel at all. They were warrior preachers and they were guardians of the truth. And wherever the truth was being breached, or wherever the truth was being assaulted, they went to that front and engaged in battle. And this is one of those fronts for me. I run from front to front, as you know.

 – John MacArthur, “Personal Commitment to the Church, Part 1”, sermon preached November 18, 2001

John MacArthur has been one of the important influences on my ministry, preaching and thinking. When I was still in college, I found out he was a hot potato amongst independent Baptists, and this made me even more curious about the man. For the most part, his ministry has edified and challenged me.

His approach of doing battle where the truth is under fire has also influenced me. I am thankful for the battles he has fought, particularly against easy-believism, seeker-friendly pragmatism, charismatic chaos, and attacks on the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, I am thankful for many men who have fought other battles: Mark Dever against aberrant ecclesiology, Wayne Grudem against egalitarianism, Kevin DeYoung against emergence, John Piper against New Perspective, and a host of others who have fought against some threat to the faith. Though I seldom mention them when blogging, this is not because I do not appreciate their efforts. I have benefited from them, and some of their books sit in our church library. Far be it from me to try to say better what these men have already said. I’m happy to let their books and sermons do the most eloquent talking on those areas.

Instead, I have spent my blogging time trying to do battle on that front which seems to get less attention from these heavyweights: the trivialisation of Christian worship, the warping of the Christian imagination, and the secularisation of pulpit and altar. I choose a supplemental approach: I attempt to say what is seldom said, or said so quietly as to escape notice. I know that for those who know only my blogging voice, it can seem as if I have only one string on my banjo, and care to speak of nothing except worship. That’s a risk I’m willing to take, because blogging is not pastoring (though I do not cease to be one when I blog). For the wider Christian world, I would rather go to war on the front I think is most neglected: the Christian affections, and the development of right judgement about these things.

I am not naïve enough to think that worship is a neglected battleground altogether. However, what I see developing is a growing indifferentism to the battle. Some of this may be battle-weariness; some of it may be because some of the recognised names of evangelicalism, with widely divergent views on worship, have chosen to publicly partner in other causes. The message that some take from this otherwise healthy cooperation is that the worship wars do not matter, even though some of these men would not necessarily agree with that conclusion.

This urges me, as MacArthur puts it, to run to that front. And part of the lot of those who do battle on this front is to convince others that this is a real threat, and a real battle. Tough to do, when men of far greater brilliance and influence than this writer are seemingly not exercised over this. When the movers and shakers of evangelicalism don’t discuss the elephant in the room, it’s easy to dismiss people battling on the worship-front as extremists, legalists, hyper-separatists or schismatics. If the growing hegemony of the day is that the worship wars are nothing more than arguments over morally neutral preferences, you start to sound merely alarmist. If people are abandoning the battlefield in droves, you begin to appear pugnacious and belligerent.

I am heartened that I am not alone. On this particular front, apart from the writers on Religious Affections Ministries, men like Ken Myers, D.G. Hart, Paul Jones, Calvin Johansson, T. David Gordon, Ligon Duncan, Calvin Stapert, Peter Masters, and Carl Trueman  are saying some of the same things. No, we are not identical in our criticisms or applications. But we’re on the same side of the trenches, at least.

There are plenty of other battles to fight, and I praise God for the soldiers leading the charge there. I may not be a brilliant marksman, but until convinced otherwise, I’m going to add my limited firepower to the fight for ordinate affections and appropriate worship of our God .