The key to understanding the Bible is reading it

“You need to become a first century Jew.”

Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.

My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”

See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.

I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.

My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.

Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.

So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.

(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)

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Drowning depravity in God’s love with furry bats

I have just finished Ted Dekker’s Circle series for the second time in my life (the first was many years ago). If you’re not familiar with it, it is a pretty worthy entry in the realm of Christian fantasy. Like a surprising percentage of Christian fantasy, it involves two parallel realities with the main character, Thomas Hunter, visits back and forth (although one is not so much another reality as a radically changed version of earth 2000 years in the future). Most interestingly, Thomas switches realities by dreaming. Every time he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes up in the other.

The basic idea of this second world (which receives no unique name) is that what was spiritual in our reality take physical form there. Angels and demons are large, bat-like creatures called Roush and Shataiki, respectively. Satan is a massive Shataiki named Teeleh capable of both beautiful and awful appearance. Sin manifests itself as a disease which affects the skin, joints, heart, and mind. God, who goes by Elyon in this realm, puts His own power and presence in lakes which can usually be breathed. There are several other thought-provoking connections of this kind, but unfortunately I’d probably give too much away to mention them.

It is in this context that the Circle books, Black, Red, White, and Green, trace a story in each reality. In our world, Thomas Hunter fights to stop the impending apocalypse (of which he learns from the other, future reality) caused by a biological weapon. In the other world, he finds himself mixed up with the whole sweep of redemptive history as it is played out in this new mix of the physical and spiritual.

At this point, I’d simply say “Read it” before explaining anything more about what happens. But there are a few things I’ve been thinking about in its wake that I’d like to mention. Some of these are hinted in the title, but some are not.

First, Dekker’s main emphasis would have to be God’s love. Much of the series is devoted to the experience of Elyon’s love for the people of the other reality, often through their swimming in Elyon’s waters or, also importantly, through human romance. Elyon also appears on several occasions, always expressing his love for his creation and inspiring in Thomas or whoever a powerful sense of reciprocal love. Granted, some of this comes through in ways which I don’t find theologically agreeable (there is, for example, no sense of even a qualified divine impassibility), but as a sign and pointer to the love of the true God it is worth the read. No matter how you feel about the details, it will push you to consider just how much God loves us all. Much of this comes through the other reality’s explanation of their religion as the Great Romance, which patterns all of life after Elyon’s love for his creation and focuses especially on how this can be expressed through marriage. Elyon’s pattern, which the people are encouraged to follow, is to choose, to pursue, to rescue, to woo, to protect, and to lavish. I think this is nutritious food for the Christian imagination.

Second, one of the most powerful images you will find in the series is baptism as a literal drowning into blood-water. I won’t give too much away about the plot connected to this, but I do want to highlight some good stuff here. To follow Elyon, his followers drown in red water and then return alive. This alone is powerful, showcasing the radical commitment baptism is meant to express, its efficacy, and how it binds us to Christ’s death and resurrection in our own lives.

The baptismal imagery is even better, though, because of water happens as they drown. They experience great pain as they see in shock and horror the blackness of their own hearts, and they are forced hear Elyon scream in anguish at their evil. This all happens before they can return, before they come out of the water alive. This combines with a wider theme of the series in exposing evil with all its awfulness. The descriptions of the Shataiki and their doings can be incredibly disturbing at times, along with the violence they inflict on Elyon’s people. If these books were made into movies, they would probably need to be rated R (maybe PG-13 if they had a squeamish director) for terror and frightening images, even if these in fact don’t make up a ton of the story. The lengths to which certain characters are simply consumed and seduced (sometimes more literally) by evil and darkness can also be disturbing in another way. All of this makes for a rather accurate depiction of what sin actually is and how God actually sees it, unlike the more tame and less offensive mental images we tend to harbor to excuse our depravity.

Third, Dekker’s theology is, like a lot of Christian fiction writers, strong in some areas but weird in others. He focuses more than I can understand on free will, and I say that as someone who’s not a Calvinist (in the classical sense). His commitment to a free will theology/theodicy/philosophy leads to a few oddities here and there (such as Elyon telling Thomas, “I have a lot riding on you”), but most weirdly to the suggestion that we need full free will so much that there will remain through all eternity the possibility of yet another Fall, yet another need for redemption. This has various problems, I think, but I’ll grant that it has more logical consistency than what many free will-focused theologians suggest about life after death. That said, he still makes it clear that Elyon is all-knowing and has a comprehensive plan for and through all of the free decisions of his creatures. And of course, like most evangelicals these days, he’s definitely into the bloody, Left Behind-ish, premillenial, apocalyptic literalism that taints so much eschatology, even if this comes out much differently in his other reality’s apocalypse.

That said, for a fantasy writer skeptical of formalizing or institutionalizing Christianity, he’s still remarkably conservative. Readers of the Circle series will not find hope for the salvation of unbelievers, certainly not universalism, nor any shyness about the Old Testament portrayal of God the Warrior, nor any indications of sympathy to the LGBT cause (indeed, his setup for the Great Romance seems to militate against this). This is refreshing in a day of more and more progressivism infiltrating evangelical circles and imaginations.

So, all that said, I don’t see much need for more of a conclusion. Just read the books. You’re up for a pretty fun story (though I liked it better before he added Green), and you will have loads to think about. If you’re anything like me, you will definitely find yourself provoked to thoughts of reverence, awe, and love toward God. That’s worth the 1600 pages, in my opinion.

Find the Circle Series on Amazon here

If The Shack isn’t heresy, it might be worse

I argued earlier today that the charges of heresy leveled at The Shack really don’t hold up. This was, of course, a rather controversial claim. But what I’d like to add to the previous post is that The Shack being non-heretical doesn’t make it okay at all. In fact, it might make it much worse.  How do I mean?

The most insidious lies often look a lot like truth. The most dangerous scams are the ones that have some genuine credentials. And in this case, a Christian book can cause more damage if its overall project is deeply flawed while nonetheless at a technical level skating past the charge of heresy.

Make no mistake: even if I’m right that Young’s sketchy-looking theology can mostly all be classified as muddy represenations of some orthodoxy traditions, that doesn’t mean his overall project is okay. It is skewed toward a progressive perception of God as essentially toothless love, as egalitarian relationality with no concept of standard or holiness. These are framed in a way so as to not technically violate any orthodox doctrines, but create a bizarre and deficient view of God. Tim Keller put it well in his reflections on The Shack:

But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible. In the prophets the reader will find a God who is constantly condemning and vowing judgment on his enemies, while the Persons of the Triune-God of The Shack repeatedly deny that sin is any offense to them. The reader of Psalm 119 is filled with delight at God’s statutes, decrees, and laws, yet the God of The Shack insists that he doesn’t give us any rules or even have any expectations of human beings. All he wants is relationship. The reader of the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah will learn that the holiness of God makes his immediate presence dangerous or fatal to us. Someone may counter (as Young seems to do, on p.192) that because of Jesus, God is now only a God of love, making all talk of holiness, wrath, and law obsolete. But when John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, long after the crucifixion sees the risen Christ in person on the isle of Patmos, John ‘fell at his feet as dead.’ (Rev.1:17.)

All of this is far more dangerous and insidious when heresy is technically lacking. Where heresy is clear and obviously present, people can far more easily avoid danger. But when the danger hides behind orthdoxy, attempting to introduce a heterodox worldview behind technically orthodox doctrines, much more damage can be done.

This is the problem with The Shack. It takes the cover of acceptable doctrines in order to promote an imagination and worldview for Christian thought that funds modern progressive theology, the kind that leads to the dissolution of Christian beliefs on all sorts of important issues. So bear that in mind as a qualifer on my last post.

When the world is absolutely broken

[Trigger Warning: I am not the world’ biggest fan of trigger warnings, but I’m also not their worst enemy or opposed to them all in principle. In this particular instance, I feel the need one for, because this post will include discussion of child sex trafficking and related abuses.]

I just finished another one of Steven James’ Patrick Bowers books (see here for my last post on them).

It was hard.

This most recent offering, Every Crooked Path, tackles the topic of child sex trafficking. It is dark and frightening, and as a father myself I often needed to intentionally keep my imagination at bay lest I fall into despair at the idea of my children going through the events it describes. A lot of people should probably not even attempt to read it.

This isn’t to say that James is gory, graphic, or gratuitous. He’s pretty reserved in how and what he describes, but even so the things which are going on, and the gaps he leaves to the imagination, are harsh. The plot is about a group of child porn producers called the Final Territory. They kidnapped children, often brazenly, and kept them for molestation/torture/porn production for 6 months to a couple of years. Sometimes they would even go live and take requests.

To get away with all of this, they made use of the Dark Web, a massive underground part of the Internet which connects through Tor, a highly encrypted and anonymous network which must be accessed by a special Tor Browser.*

What is awful in this book is not so much the story itself, which if nothing else we can always remind ourselves is fiction, but the real-life data and information it contains. The story never happened, but the background which makes it plausible is basically factual. Children as young as the ones in this book are being taken. They are being abused. They are being molested, exploited, and put on the Internet (particularly the Dark Web) for the entertainment and profit of more people than you would be willing to imagine. And it’s not just a few children. There are thousands and thousands throughout the world.

This just brings me, then, to thinking about how absolutely broken this world is. It—including all of us who make it up—is depraved, wicked, broken, and self-destructive. We are evil, our communities are evil, this world is evil, and evil is ubiquitous. We live so much of our lives in largely willful obliviousness, pretending that our personal bubbles are the norm, with our highs as the normal highs and our lows as the normal lows.

As if this were not bad enough, we are often personally complicit in the worst ways of the world. The topic of Every Crooked Path is a prime example. It is our second glances that lead to lust, our lust that leads to watching porn, our watching porn that makes us want more in quanity and intensity, and our increasing demand that leads to a thriving and corrupt market which reaches out to include abduction, murder, torture, and molestation.

We are all guilty. We are all damnable. The world we create and live in, the world which creates us and lives in us, is rotten to the bone and devoid of all hope in itself. Nothing from among us is sufficient to solve this. None of us have the power to end these atrocities. We can fight, and we must in order to stem the tide of evil, but the corruption in the world is too extensive to be truly and fully healed by human efforts, even divinely blessed and Spirit-empowered ones. The problems run too deep for anything but total gut job, for humanity to be broken down all the way to the roots and built a new. We are stuck on a plane far too finite and compromised to solve the absolute brokenness of the world.

There are only two options once we realize and accept this. We can cling to eschatology or fall into nihilistic despair. Or, to put it in simpler words, we can hope for Jesus to return or give up all hope for all things. The world is either worthless and meaningless, with this present evil age being a fluke of cruel apathy, or it has a destiny in resurrection. If the former, we have nothing. There is only extensive and pointless suffering and brief, superficial joy, both of which are ended when we collide with death. If the latter, there’s a reason to breath and fight. We can’t prove which of these is true. But only one choice of these allows us to survive in the absolute brokenness. We need faith for absolute restoration. We need to cry out for an absolute Savior.

*It’s not actually difficult to access the Dark Web. It’s as simple as downloading and installing the Tor Browser, which is just a modified version of Firefox. But the Dark Web is a labyrinth, hard to search, and many websites can only be accessed if someone on the inside gives you the URL. Also, as a side note, the Dark Web is not all bad. It’s also used by political refugees/dissenters, whistleblowers, persecuted religious groups, ordinary people in heavily censored countries, and even law enforcement or intelligence agents.

2016 Reading…With a Chainsaw

I’m sure if you’re a reader, or have friends who are, you’ve seen this meme on Facebook by now: 

Well, for a little fun, I’ve decided to post my results for every book I read in 2016. Enjoy: 

  • On the Christian Life with a Chainsaw — John Calvin 
  • Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc with a Chainsaw — Mark Twain 
  • Alice in Wonderland with a Chainsaw — Lewis Carol 
  • The Trinity with a Chainsaw — Loraine Boettner
  • The Epistles of John through New Eyes with a Chainsaw — Peter Leithart
  • Onward with a Chainsaw — Russell Moore
  • On Christian Liberty with a Chainsaw — Martin Luther 
  • The Innocence of Father Brown with a Chainsaw — G. K. Chesterton 
  • Water Walker with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker
  • Red with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker
  • The Bride Collector with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker 
  • Showdown with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker
  • Saint with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker 
  • Sinner with a Chainsaw — Ted Dekker 
  • A Personalist Doctrine of Providence with a Chainsaw — Darren Kennedy
  • Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church with a Chainsaw — Myk Habets and Bobby Grow
  • Family Worship with a Chainsaw — Donald Whitney
  • The Pawn with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Rook with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Knight with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Bishop with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Queen with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The King with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • Checkmate with a Chainsaw — Steven James 
  • The Unlikely Disciple with a Chainsaw — Kevin Roose 
  • Transformation with a Chainsaw: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel — David deSilva
  • Orthodoxy with a Chainsaw — G. K. Chesterton
  • Revelation for Everyone with a Chainsaw — N. T. Wright
  • Justification with a Chainsaw: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision — N. T. Wright
  • Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation with a Chainsaw — Donald Bloesch
  • Christian Dogmatics with a Chainsaw — Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  • The High House with a Chainsaw — James Stoddard
  • One Sacred Effort with a Chainsaw: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists — Chad Brand

    I’m sure I forgot a book or two, but in any case this should provide enough amusement. Oh, and here’s what I’m working on right now: The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons with a Chainsaw by T. F. Torrance.