Three Bad Bible-Study Questions

February 20th, 2018 by brandon | | No Comments
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In many ways, the prevailing (and dramatic) shifts in western culture during the past few centuries all center on a single issue: truth—and how we learn it (if we can). To Christians, who worship the One who claimed to be Truth (John 14:6), these cultural shifts prove exceedingly relevant. If we are not mindful of our culture’s changing views of truth, we will imbibe the spirit of the age unwittingly. This is especially evident in how we pursue truth, specifically in our engagement with the (true) Word of God.

 

In order to illustrate (briefly) the major cultural shifts on truth, and to enjoin a particular approach to it (including our pursuit of truth in studying holy scripture), I would like to share three bad (but ever so common) Bible-study questions, and then a much better one.

 

Three Bad Questions

  1. What does the text mean? Now, I’m quite confident I’ll get some objection to this one, because we should absolutely be seeking to understand what the text actually means. In fact, I would suggest that discerning the authors’ (both human and divine) original intent is the primary goal of Bible study. My quibble with the way this question is framed springs from its lack of humility. I believe it represents the “modern” or “Enlightenment” view that human reason can apprehend truth absolutely; that is, applying some form of scientific method (a historical, grammatical approach to the words of scripture) will lead to absolute understanding of truth. However, given humanity’s finiteness, fallibility, and fallen nature (which has corrupted our good minds), I am not sure we possess this ability any longer. Our relationship with truth, as others have said before me, is asymptotic at best: we may get closer and closer to an absolute understanding, but will never quite reach it. This question lacks the requisite humility in human reasoning abilities.
  2. What does the text mean to you? At this point we’ve moved from modernity to post-modernity (or late-modernity, depending on your bent). This question addresses all my concerns with the last approach, but reacts so extremely against modernity’s hubris that it makes the opposite mistake. I am reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’ lovely quips (of which he has many): “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.” If modernity (wrongly) assumed we could have perfect knowledge, post-modernity (wrongly) assumes we can’t have any real (or objective) knowledge at all. As a result, this question relocates the center of interpretation from the object (the text) to the subject (the reader). Unsurprisingly, then, we are left with little more than a subjective impression. Authority now rests with the interpreter, not the text, which leads inevitably to a human-centered gospel, and a human-made god fashioned in each person’s own image. This is an incredibly dangerous approach.
  3. What do you think the text means? Committed not to fall off the horse on either side, this question has gotten us much closer to a helpful framework for Bible study than the last two. While rejecting modernity’s confidence in absolute knowledge, it also rejects post-modernity’s insistence that we can have no objective knowledge at all. And if our (hypothetical) Bible-study leader had no inflection when reading the question, I might even be tempted to accept it as is. However, if the emphasis falls on the wrong syllable (as in the italicized “you”), we’ve probably still succumbed to the postmodern temptation. My objection here is that the question, as inflected, suggests all interpretations are equally valid. You may think the text means x, while I maintain the text means y (never mind Sally, who had the audacity to suggest it means z). Whence now? How shall we decide which interpretation is best? If our pursuit of truth (and a true understanding of God’s Word) should be asymptotic—spiraling ever closer to the actual truth, as generations of Christ’s disciples grapple with the original languages, historical and literary context, et cetera—my opinion (or yours, for that matter) matters very little. But if we change the inflection just slightly, we might make some real progress.

 

And One Much Better Question

  1. What do you think the text means? Inflected thus, here is a question that combines subjective humility with objective It rejects modernity’s hubris, by reminding us that our take on the text just might be wrong still, and thus invites correction and improvement. But it also rejects post-modernity’s subjectivism by maintain a text-centered approach. It is, to borrow Kevin Vanhoozer’s lovely phrase, a “hermeneutics of humility and conviction.” It assumes that, while we might not be able to have absolute knowledge, we can still have adequate knowledge. The asymptote is real, and in humility and conviction we can draw nearer the axis of divine revelation together.


A Transcendent New Year

January 4th, 2018 by brandon | | 1 Comment
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As regular and predictable as the rotation of heavenly bodies is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s New Year’s Day tweet. A few words may change, but for the past several years on January 1 he has expressed some sentiment like this year’s offering: “Not that anybody’s asked, but New Years [sic] Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.”

 

Equally inevitable is the frustration voiced by many of his Twitter followers, tired of what they view as his most common schtick: taking a moment meaningful for many and stripping it of its meaning because the stars haven’t aligned perfectly (quite literally). The argument seems to be that unless something has scientific significance, it cannot have real, objective significance at all.

 

Now, I don’t personally care one whit when we celebrate a new year, but I sympathize with Tyson’s critics at this point. For what Tyson is attempting is to rob life of transcendence. If all that exists is the physical, then life cannot have transcendence, and Tyson is surely right to call us on investing meaning where none can be; but if there is more to this world than the merely physical, “ordinary” moments can have extraordinary meaning. The world would be shot through with transcendence. That so many of us assume this to be true—that we feel meaning, experience transcendence (we think)—surely suggests something about the way the world is, however imperfectly. A.W. Tozer, in his masterpiece The Knowledge of the Holy, captures the spirit of the argument nicely:

 

It is spirit that gives significance to matter and apart from spirit nothing has any value at last. A little child strays from a party of sight-seers and becomes lost on a mountain, and immediately the whole mental perspective of the members of the party is changed. Rapt admiration for the grandeur of nature gives way to acute distress for the lost child. The group spreads out over the mountainside anxiously calling the child’s name and searching eagerly into every secluded spot where the little one might chance to be hidden.

 

What brought about this sudden change? The tree-clad mountain is still there towering into the clouds in breath-taking beauty, but no one notices it now. All attention is focused upon the search for a curly-haired little girl not yet two years old and weighing less than thirty pounds. Though so new and so small, she is more precious to parents and friends than all the huge bulk of the vast and ancient mountain they had been admiring a few minutes before. And in their judgment the whole civilized world concurs, for the little girl can love and laugh and speak and pray, and the mountain cannot. It is the child’s quality of being that gives it worth. (69-70)

 

The only part in this provocative illustration with which I’d quibble would be the notion that the whole civilized world concurs with the search party’s judgment. Increasingly, we have incredibly intelligent, sophisticated men and women arguing just the opposite. There is no spirit, and there is no meaning. The world is not transcendent. You may have flipped a calendar, but because the day didn’t have “Astronomical significance” [note the curious capitalization, by the way: transcendence always seeks to smuggle itself in!] it has no real meaning.

 

I realize it’s quite popular to imagine the world to be merely physical at this point in the West’s history (a sentiment not shared by the bulk of humanity still, one should note). But no matter the sophistry, we simply cannot shake the feeling of transcendence, and we’d do well not to ignore it. J. Budziszewski, a former atheist who taught ethics at the University of Texas, makes this point well as he describes his escape from nihilism into Christian faith:

 

Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to achieve. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught those things to students. Now that’s sin.

 

It was also agony. You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself—well, if you are like I was, maybe you can—what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense. St. Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is “written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness.” The way natural law thinkers put this is to say they constitute the deep structures of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?

 

Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God’s image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God’s image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how many he pulls out, there are still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focused. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. But I was the fool. (Quoted in D.A. Carson’s Scandalous, 46-47).

 

This is a sobering reminder to us of how perilous the descent from transcendence really is. Tyson’s quip about New Year’s Day feels so small, so unimportant, until we see the incipient nihilism within it. If a day only has meaning if science decrees so, does my love for my wife and children have meaning? How can it, if it is only chemical processes in my brain (not my mind, mind you, since mind would be illusory)? Does it matter what choices we make towards other humans? How can it, if good and evil are mere social constructs? These are, as Budziszewski points out, terrifying thoughts. And, if we’re being honest, utter foolishness.

 

And here, I think, is the real lesson to be taken away from a bit of banter on the raging dumpster fire that is most social media [not that I have any opinions here or anything like that]: We know—not feel, not believe, not think; but positively know—that the world is transcendent. Love is objectively real. Good and evil are true concepts. People have intrinsic value beyond their physical makeup. To deny any of those statements is to undermine all truth, goodness, and beauty. We could not object to sexual predators. We could not denounce racism. We could not have meaningful relationships.

 

So we must affirm these statements, and, in affirming them, we tacitly affirm a certain view of the world. We have here a striking evidence for the existence of the supernatural—God, perhaps, although we haven’t argued that far just yet; that would take further steps. But it is striking evidence just the same, and we would do well to follow the evidence where it leads—straight into the Transcendent.

 

I am a few days late, I know, but just the same—have yourselves a transcendent new year!



Questions in the Wake of Suffering

October 4th, 2017 by brandon | | 1 Comment
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When tragedy strikes, as it did in Las Vegas this week, people begin to ask questions. It is part of human nature: we reason, consider, speculate, and ultimately seek to find answers that will provide meaning or comfort.

 

Why did this happen?

 

Where was God?

 

Couldn’t we have prevented this?

 

These are important questions, but they are not necessarily the questions to which Scripture gives answers. That is, if we look to the Bible for guidance, we will find our questions reframed, and answers to the questions we first ask more elusive than we would prefer.

 

In the face of great suffering—great evil, even—here are five questions we might ask, and five reframed questions that might take us in a different, and ultimately more fruitful, direction.

 

  1. Why did this happen? This is always the first question. We instinctively seek meaning, and when suffering seems meaningless, we despair. We understand why we suffer under a surgeon’s scalpel, because that act has meaning: to cure us from the disease; however, we do not understand why a loved one received the cancer diagnosis in the first place: we can see no meaning, no purpose to their suffering. (As we have become increasingly individualistic in our pursuit of happiness, attaching meaning to suffering has become proportionately more difficult, I should add. But that will take us too far afield today.) Of course, this is precisely the question Job asks of God after he suffers almost unfathomable loss. If God would only explain the why, he would accept it. Interestingly—especially considering we the readers are privy to the explanation—God never answers Job’s question. Instead, in his great theophany at the story’s close, he subtly reframes the question: not Why did this happen? but Do you know who I am? God takes Job through a series of rhetorical questions meant to draw out the answers Job already has (which is what rhetorical questions do). God says, in effect, “Job, you know who I am—you know my wisdom, power, justice, and goodness. You do not need to know why so long as you know the One who does know why.” It is a lesson we all struggle to accept.
  2. How could a good God allow such evil? Surely this is the most prominent objection to faith in the God of the Bible. It almost flows out of the last question: “Yes, yes, we know who you are, God—and that’s precisely the problem! If you’re truly good and truly powerful, why didn’t you stop this?” We will return to that question in a moment, but for now, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in the question. The questioner assumes a good God should have prevented the tragedy because it is wrong. President Trump, for example, referred to the massacre in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil,” and few of us would disagree. But now a second question emerges, and one with which God’s detractors have to wrestle honestly. If we’re going to ask God How could you allow such evil? we need to ask ourselves Does our worldview allow for the category of evil? In rejecting God because of the evil in this world, many implicitly reject the very standard by which they reject him. They saw off the very branch they are perched on. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely, “If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him.” When we feel repulsion at evil, we implicitly acknowledge that humans are moral beings created in the image of a moral God. If we reject that notion, however, we can no longer meaningfully speak of evil. The great atheist philosopher Nietzsche embraced this logical consistency in a way that few today are intellectually honest enough to do. When hearing of a tsunami in the Java Sea that left hundreds of thousands dead, he responded, “200,000 wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” We rightly recoil at this sentiment—but do we have the intellectual grounds to do so? If we accept a merely naturalistic, “Darwinian” account of humanity, for example, oughtn’t we rejoice at the “thinning of the herd,” at the decreased competition for survival and reproduction? A disgusting thought that surely suggests we reconsider the God question.
  3. Where was God? These first three questions all have a common thread to them, in that they assume we know what God should have been doing. This questions charges, “Had God been paying attention—were he really involved in this world—did he even exist—he surely would have stopped this tragedy from happening.” As we’ve seen already, however, the Bible nowhere affirms that we will understand what God is doing in permitting any tragedy. What the Bible does affirm, though, is that God knows what he is doing. And occasionally he will pull back the curtains and show us, that we might learn to trust him. Joseph, who suffered more than his fair share—attempted fratricide, slavery, unjust incarceration—is able to say to his brothers in spite of his grievances, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Had Joseph not suffered as he did, he could not have been used by God to save an entire region from starvation. Do we think God is any less capable of using tragedy today? Or, to take an even more obvious example, we might look to Calvary. Only one truly innocent person has ever suffered in the history of the world–and see what God did through his suffering! The question we should ask then, is not Where was God? but Do we trust God? As Tim Keller tweeted yesterday, “In the end, God will use evil to do the opposite of what was intended.” Do we believe this is the case? Can we trust him to bring good from evil? Has he not proven himself more than capable of this? Joni Eareckson Tada states the principle eloquently: “God ordains what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” This is nowhere more evident than in the death of his Son. And if God is loving enough to embrace suffering himself for our sakes, can we not trust him no matter what we might suffer?
  4. Could we have prevented this? Now, hear me clearly: this is a fair question, one we should ask and seek to answer as honestly as possible. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life should be the first to join the conversation. We do not take a laissez-faire approach to God’s image-bearers. But having said that clearly, let me say this too: sometimes our pursuit of prevention is an idolatrous desire for control, for autonomy. We should like to think, in the words of that famous poem “Invictus,” that we can be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls—and we think so in defiance of the God who made us, and to whom we belong. Beyond the theological trouble attending this desire is the more practical one: we are manifestly not the masters of our fates, and we have no power to stave off death. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). Ann Patchett, in an article entitled “Beltway Sniper” published in The New York Times Magazine during that horrifying tragedy, captures the folly of this desire: “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot. . . reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” So while we continue to ask if we could have prevented any single tragedy, we must acknowledge that in the end we still cannot prevent death itself from coming. The question the Bible suggests to us here is simply Are you willing to face your mortality? Psalm 90:10 puts it bluntly: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” What is the answer to this bare reality? “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). In humble acceptance of our mortality, we embrace an eternal perspective to live rightly.
  5. What did they do to deserve this? I hope no one reading this actually asks this question, but inevitably someone raises the question, especially when tragedy strikes in a place like “Sin City.” This legalistic self-righteousness is not new—for there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus’ own disciples once queried him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Of course, this line of questioning circles back to the preceding questions; it seeks to provide comfort to the questioner, knowing they don’t fit the profile of “sinner”; it seeks to provide meaning to suffering—they deserved it—and so to offer pat answers to dishonest questions. But in another instance, Jesus himself reframed the question into a far more fitting one: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). There is the question we should be asking: Do you think those who suffer are worse than you? The Bible answers a resounding No. We are all dead in our transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). The plain fact of the matter is that no one of us suffers more than we deserve, and in fact we all suffer far less than we deserve because of God’s common grace. We deserve eternal condemnation, but God, in his mercy, offers us grace and eternal approbation. The key, as Jesus reminds us, is repentance. We turn from our sins and trust in his finished work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sins in our place that we might receive welcome as God’s beloved children.

 

And that is another question we must all ask and answer—ultimately the one question that matters most: Will you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?



Philosophical Kitsch

September 19th, 2017 by brandon | | No Comments
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As a wee lad in high school, I remember being struck by one particular quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” The she to which Vonnegut refers is Billy Pilgrim’s mother, and the thing that she purchased in the gift shop to give her life meaning was a crucifix, which hung above Billy’s bed as a child.

 

I suspect the quote struck me at the time because I took dual offense at it: as an American, I didn’t particularly like the suggestion that I was dependent on kitsch for my life’s meaning; and as a Christian, I really didn’t like the suggestion that a crucifix could be reduced to mere gift-shop knick-knacks. I’d like to think it suggests a deeper meaning, and the most stable foundation upon which to build a life, but more on that later.

 

In retrospect, however, I think Vonnegut might have been on to something, though not at all in the way in he thought. In fact, in a great bit of irony, his quote is nearer the truth now than ever before, but precisely because people first believed as Vonnegut wished they would—that is, because they stopped looking to the religious for ultimate meaning.

 

The idea first suggested itself when we stopped as a family at a particularly American restaurant right in the heart of America (Nebraska, if I recall) while returning from summer vacation. Among the more dated décor—Americana, primarily—hung the exquisitely fashionable: a feigned rustic, pallet-wood sign. On it, stamped in whites and golds, one could read, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

Enter Vonnegut. Here we have an item, purchased at something like a gift shop, attempting to imbue life with meaning. But as in décor, so in philosophy: kitsch abounds (and one might do well enough without it).

 

To explain, let’s tease out this particular instance of gift-shop philosophy a bit. If we reject the religious as ultimate (and assuming deepest meaning would have been found in religion, such as our satisfaction in Christ in Christianity), we now have a vacuum of meaning in our lives. Because no Ultimate exists—no universals, nothing beyond the confines of this life—meaning will have to reduce to self. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel raises this point in his book What Does It All Mean? Since we’re all destined for the grave (and the grave is the end of life, since no immortal soul exists), perhaps we should simply take life as it comes and try to enjoy it as much as we can. In short, perhaps you should just, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

The trouble, though, is this assumes a certain set of circumstances, i.e., that you have the power to do something each day that makes you happy. While many in the world have that option, not all do, and few have it each and every day of their lives. Imagine a refugee mother, displaced by genocidal atrocities, forced to choose which of her children she can keep from starvation. As she walks away from the younger of her two children, whom she is leaving to die, should she drink in the sunrise sparkling over the desert and find brief happiness in it? It would be a callused heart indeed who could suggest such a thing.

 

The trouble with our philosophical kitsch, then, is that it belongs to a certain segment of a certain society only—the segment that can afford kitsch, if I could put it bluntly. It is the special frivolity of post-religious affluence that can dream up such slogans and then dare to live by them (or at least attempt to).

 

For if we attempt to create meaning for our lives on the basis of circumstance-dependent slogans, we will always be at the mercy of our circumstances. When life’s vicissitudes gust mightily, the whole structure threatens to collapse. It is a house built on sand.

 

And that’s just the point. Philosophical kitsch, like decorative kitsch, is for adorning the walls of a well-founded structure—not for providing the foundation itself. When you use knick-knacks as load-bearing walls, safe to say those walls will come tumbling down faster than you can say, “Jericho.” First lay a solid foundation—choose a governing philosophy that provides meaning despite circumstances—and then (perhaps) throw some decorations up.

 

So, for example, if you’re particularly wedded to our illustrative slogan—you fully intend to do something each day that makes you happy—that’s well and good. Just make sure that’s not the base of your life’s meaning. Added in, as a conscious effort to drink deeply from the common grace offered us in the created world, it might spruce up the place a bit. Even then, I might choose a more robust version of the sentiment, as in George Mueller’s famous comment, “Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord.” The unchanging God, in whom all joy is found, is the only sure foundation, so why not seek your daily happiness in him first?

 

In sum, I suppose I could say this: if you (like most Americans?) are going to seek life’s meaning in a gift shop, let it be a religious shop at least. You could do far worse than a crucifix.