J. H. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life (Eerdmans, 1958), 80–81:
The man who finds insufficient pleasure simply in service, simply in self-giving, simply in doing the will of Father in heaven, needs three idols.
He needs money in order to bring his life to a higher level. He needs the powerful spice of honor in order to season the food of life. He needs pleasure in order to quench his thirst after happiness. The three, when brought together in this manner and as it were placed in contrast to the great ideal itself, are idols. They are the trinity of sin. They leer at and lure human life, they pump it dry and then drive it off, and each of the three is an illusion. They are themselves far too poor to be able to satisfy for any length of time the hunger of the human heart.
They are powerful gulfs which tug at the little ship of one’s life, which draw it to the bottom, and there is no human being who can struggle himself free from their attraction. Nobody is above this, with only a single exception.
A consideration of all of the questions of life brings one to the ever more profound acknowledgment that there has been only one man who has known what life was, who has really lived, who has placed Himself beyond these three illusions, who has not bowed down before the trinity of sin — the man Jesus Christ. That is why all the questions of life converge on Him. “Lord, teach us to live!”
He offers the solution: Struggling one, you can live only if you begin with a quiet trust that you are living in a meaningful universe which was conceived and made by the eternal Father. It is possible only if you repose yourself on the confidence that He has given you your existence, your talents and your abilities, and that you have nothing more to do in the place where He has put you than quietly to shine and to serve. If you thus believe that the Father is behind everything and in everything, then you no longer need these three — money, honor, pleasure. Then you can go on your way like a child. Then you have the only true and high ideal of life that is worth the trouble to live for, namely the purpose which the Father has granted you the capabilities to complete.
If you can do this, if you can believe so firmly in Him, believe that everything in the world has its place and purpose to which it has been conceived and assigned by Him . . . but human soul, you are living then, aren’t you? To live is to serve in the confidence that one is placed in a meaningful world, by the hand of the wise Father.
Last night I was honored to speak for two hours on a theology of literature to students and faculty at San Diego Christian College, Rivendell Sanctuary Program. Some of my content was taken directly from Lit!, but much of it included fresh thoughts on how the glory of Christ transforms Christian literacy. The Rivendell folks were probably the most engaged Christian audience I’ve ever spoken to, making for a tremendously fun evening of lecture, laughs, food, and dialogue (my first salon). Here’s a copy of my manuscript, for the interested (PDF): “Christ, the Center of Christian Literacy.”
Tim Keller shares this illustration in his new book, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton; 2013), 28–30:
Everybody has got to live for something, but Jesus is arguing that, if he is not that thing, it will fail you.
First, it will enslave you. Whatever that thing is, you will tell yourself that you have to have it or there is no tomorrow. That means that if anything threatens it, you will become inordinately scared; if anyone blocks it, you will become inordinately angry; and if you fail to achieve it, you will never be able to forgive yourself.
But second, if you do achieve it, it will fail to deliver the fulfillment you expected.
Let me give you an eloquent contemporary expression of what Jesus is saying. Nobody put this better than the American writer and intellectual David Foster Wallace. He got to the top of his profession. He was an award-winning, best-selling postmodern novelist known around the world for his fierce and boundary-pushing storytelling. He once wrote a sentence that was more than a thousand words long. And, tragically, he committed suicide. But a few years before that, he gave a now-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. He said to the graduating class,
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god . . . to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before [your loved ones] finally plant you. . . . Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Wallace was by no means a religious person, but he understood that everyone worships, everyone trusts in something for their salvation, everyone bases their lives on something that requires faith. A couple of years after giving that speech, Wallace killed himself. And this non-religious man’s parting words to us are pretty terrifying: “Something will eat you alive.”
Because even though you might never call it worship, you can be absolutely sure you are worshiping and you are seeking. And Jesus says, unless you’re worshiping me, unless I’m the center of your life, unless you’re trying to get your spiritual thirst quenched through me and not through these other things, unless you see that the solution must come inside rather than just pass by outside, then whatever you worship will abandon you in the end.
On the cusp of the customary All Saints Day
The Christ-i-an kinsfolk made mocking display.
These children of light both to tease and deride;
Don darkness, doll down as the sinister side.
In pre-post-er-ous pageants and dress diabolic,
They hand to the damned just one final frolick.
You see with the light of the dawn on the morrow,
The sunrise will swallow such darkness and sorrow.
John Frame, in his forthcoming 1,280-page Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R; Nov. 15), writes (805–6):
We should consider the possibility that Adam and Eve, though historical figures, were not literally the first parents of all present-day human beings. C. John Collins considers the suggestion that Adam and Eve may not have been the first human beings, but rather “king and queen” of a tribe. In this case, the passages referring to their special creation (Gen. 2:7; 21–22) would likely (though not necessarily) be intended figuratively, representing God’s investiture of this couple with special qualities (the image of God) and a special vassal kingship, including the covenant headship of Adam over the existing human race.
Covenant headship in Scripture does not necessarily presuppose biological parenthood: the relation of Christ to his people is adoptive. And such a hypothesis would more adequately explain some perplexing data of the Genesis history:
(1) Cain’s fear in Genesis 4:14 that someone might kill him to avenge his murder of Abel;
(2) Cain’s obtaining a wife in 4:17;
(3) Cain’s founding a city in 4:17 and the rapid development of culture, agriculture, and technology thereafter.
These data are not impossible to explain if we assume (as theologians traditionally have done) that Adam and Eve had many, many sons and daughters in addition to Cain, Abel, and Seth. But the supposition of a tribe or community contemporary with Adam and Eve makes the history somewhat easier to understand.
On such an interpretation we would also have to take figuratively the statement in Genesis 3:20 that Eve “was the mother of all living.” Of course in Scripture “father” and “mother” do not always refer to biological parentage. Scripture sometimes refers to kings and other authority figures as fathers and mothers, and certainly adoptive parents have the right to these titles. So it is not inconceivable that Genesis 3:20 refers to Eve as the mother of the human nation, given that status and title by God’s covenant investiture.
But the development of such interpretive hypotheses is in its infancy, and certainly no such interpretation should be made normative in the church.
On the other hand, we must also consider the possibility that the scientific consensus in favor of an original human race of thousands is wrong. Science constantly changes, and there is no place for the cocksureness with which some have insisted on this consensus view. The genetic arguments, like all scientific judgments about the past, are based on models, and the assumptions governing these models can be, and are being questioned.
It is interesting to note that the consensus among evolutionary scientists about the numbers of original humans have actually decreased — from millions to thousands. And if it is true that 150,000 years ago there were, say, 10,000 modern humans on the earth, that is a remarkable fact. Evolutionary scientists have generally thought that common characteristics imply common ancestry. Why should they not seek a genealogy of human characteristics earlier than the 10,000, that would account for the 10,000?
If the 10,000 sprang out of nowhere, their genesis begins to sound much like special creation. But if their genesis had a backstory, a backstory presumably different from the usual process of genetic transmission, couldn’t that backstory lead to a single couple?
I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves — but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: “Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.” Neither optimism (this is the last war and after it all will be lovely forever) nor pessimism (this is the last war and all civilization will end), you notice. No. The darkness comes again and again and is never wholly triumphant nor wholly defeated.
(Also see Tim Keller on LOTR here.)
Kevin Vanhoozer, in his 2013 Desiring God National Conference plenary message Saturday:
Let me state, in my own terms, what I think I’ve learned from Lewis.
Theology ministers understanding, so that we can live out our knowledge of God. Theology is practical, it is all about waking up to the real, to what is, specifically to what is ‘in Christ.’ For Christ is the meaning of the whole, the one in whom all things are held together.
And disciples demonstrate understanding by conforming to that what is ‘in Christ.’ It’s all about living out our knowledge of Christ. There are no armchair disciples. You cannot be a disciple in theory. So doctrines tell us what is ‘in Christ’ and that’s what we live by.
What is ‘in Christ?’
Incarnation, Trinity, atonement are not abstractions to be thought but meaningful patterns to be lived and entered into. The imagination, then, helps disciples act out what is ‘in Christ.’ Theology exchanges the false pictures that hold us captive with truth, disciplining our imaginations with sound doctrine.
Discipleship is a matter of the indoctrinated imagination.
Now, of course, we have to beware of having our imaginations taken captive by other things. Many of Screwtape’s things have to do with capturing the imagination for Satan’s purposes. If you control the metaphors and stories people live by, you’ve got them.
Imagination is where God gives creative form to his thoughts, and literary forms to his word. Jesus used what we could call the ‘parabolic imagination’ to give story form to his thought about the kingdom of God. And similarly, disciples need this ‘parabolic imagination’ so we can live in that kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus doesn’t describe what the kingdom looks like, he tells us what kinds of things happen there. The metaphors the disciples live by are those that awaken them to the kingdom things God is doing ‘in Christ.’
What would compromise look like in Lecrae’s career?
I asked him.
Last November, while he was in Minneapolis for a concert, Lecrae kindly agreed to answer some questions, and I thought it was the right time to ask the hardest question — the type of question everything inside of me hesitated to ask in the first place (fear of man, not wanting to be misunderstood, etc etc), but the type of hard question that ultimately works toward clarity on important issues.
My appreciation for Lecrae and his music was already high at the time, and it increased by his willingness to answer this:
You partner and record with gifted artists who are not Christians. Some fear this trajectory will lead to a compromising of the gospel, and so there’s a level of uncertainty among some Christians about your future. This is an opportunity for you to address the future. (1) What would a compromised message look like in Lecrae’s future? (2) What will a faithful message look like in Lecrae’s future?
Here’s his answer (3-minute audio):
On a related note, Phil Ryken wrote a helpful blog post in May worth reading: “How to Discourage Artists in the Church.”
Taken from the diary of a friend of John Newton’s, recounting a personal conversation they enjoyed:
January 26, 1804 —
He [Newton] told me that after he was settled at Olney [his first pastorate], and had preached six sermons, he thought he had told them his whole stock, and was considerably depressed.
“But,” he said, “I was walking one afternoon by the side of the river Ouse; I asked myself, How long has this river run? Many hundred years before I was born, and will run many years after I am gone. Who supplies the fountains from whence this river comes? God. Is not the fund for my sermons equally inexhaustible? — the word of God. Yes, surely. I have never been afraid of running out since that time.”
I asked if he had consumed all the variety in the Bible now he was an old man and an old minister. He smiled, and said, “O no, Sir; O, no, Sir.”
Today Newtcation ends. It’s been a wonderful several days spent mostly off-line and with a lot of time with the family at the local pool and lakes, and bowling, and attending little league softball and baseball games.
Two weeks steeped in Newton’s letters have been a tremendous blessing to my own soul. On most mornings I awoke to make new discoveries in the pages of the rarest published letters of Newton, many of them made available by the generosity and ingenuity of friends who volunteered university library credentials and iPad cameras to the cause. A lot of my Newtcation mornings looked something like this:
I’m now emerging out of the 18th century and find myself playing catch-up on DOMA, Tsarnaev, Randy Travis, Metta World Peace, Trayvon, Chris Weidman, Sharknadoes, plane crashes in Alaska and SFO, unrest in Egypt, and wildfires in Arizona. So much has happened in the last two weeks.
Going off-line has been worth it. Yesterday I finished the first draft of the Newton book, which I began writing 9 months, 25 days ago. Over these past two weeks I’ve had time to write the final 20% of the book. At 87,606 words, the draft is far too long and will need to be trimmed in the next phase of re-writing (and re-re-writing) that begins now. In the coming months I will be trimming content, tightening sentences, and sharpening the language of the book. From my experience, this is the most enjoyable stage in the writing process.
The manuscript, in its present form, has been passed along to Pastor John, who has kindly offered to read it (gulp) and pen the foreword. Piper’s enthusiasm over the years for Newton, and his popular biographical sketch, have all become significant factors in the enduring legacy of Newton and his works in the Church today. Irrespective of whether my book is any good, to have a foreword from him is not only an honor, but will also provide a push behind Newton’s legacy to extend its life for at least one more generation.
And of course Newtcation has reminded me of the amazing blessing I have been given in my wife. She was up before the kids to edit chapters, kept the kids busy after they awoke so I could write, and then served us all afternoon as we enjoyed family time together. The back of our minivan is a drink and snack taxi, stocked for whatever adventure we filled our afternoons with. I would post a picture of my precious wife here, but, in her words, “Your pictures of me are always so horrible.”
Alas, a lot of great memories will stay with me from Newtcation, but I look forward to getting back to work tomorrow. Thank you to everyone who prayed for me over these past two weeks as I completed research and writing the first draft of Newton on the Christian Life. I was sustained by God’s amazing grace all along.