The Difficulty of Good Christian Writing

Biblical Counseling

Matthew Hosier recently published a collection of keen observations about the phenomenon of contemporary Christian writing on his website Think Theology. In summary, his criticisms are:

  1. Too many Christian books are too long.
  2. Too many Christian books are too dull.
  3. Too many Christian books are written up sermons.
  4. Too many Christian books have too many quotes.
  5. Too many Christian books are more concerned with warning about something bad than encouraging the enjoyment of something good.

The task of the Christian book is difficult—it is not merely topical, and it is not straightforwardly theology or biblical studies per se: it is integration; double exegesis of Scripture and life. If I could add a point to Hosier’s list, it would be this:

  1. Too many Christian books make promises the gospel doesn’t make.

We operate with over-realized eschatologies. We insist on tying things up neatly with strings that shouldn’t be tied in such a fashion, or with such surety. Kevin Vanhoozer helps us to begin understanding this point:

“The truth of Christ is both gift and task. On the one hand, we have the Word written; on the other hand, we must interpret it. While its meaning has been fixed by the past, our grasp of that meaning is partial, and its significance is incomplete. There is an eschatological tension that must not be ignored, a tension that prohibits us from thinking that the truth—the single correct interpretation—is our present possession. It is a mistake, in other words, to confuse the content of tradition with any one moment of tradition. Truth, it has been said, is the daughter of time. It can neither be rushed nor coerced: ‘Nearly all the most discreditable actions of church institutions . . . flow from an improper anticipation of eschatology.’ Yes, it is difficult to wait, but it is worse to bring the quest for truth, for final interpretive solution, to a premature conclusion.”[1]

David Powlison brings into focus Vanhoozer’s point at the level of real life, insisting that interpreter of Scripture not only “exegetes” the text, but also the person. “Wise counseling ministry anchors in both horizons and in a double-exegesis.”[2]

Powlison warns us: “‘Trust that God is sovereign’ serves as omnirelevant counsel. . . . But Scripture itself is full of micronarratives of people’s lives and diverse microrevelations of God speaking and acting into particular situations.”[3] We should avoid this practical-theological “habit”: “Habits of treating ‘Truth’ in an over-verticalized and a-relational way sever crucial linkages even in how far-horizon redemptive ministry is perceived. ‘Speaking truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) is more comprehensive, more personally/situationally relevant, and more relational than the phrase is usually understood.”[4]

Let’s not have an over-realized eschatology of our personal situations. Let’s not assume there’s more to say than there is. Let’s take the responsibility not to speak more than we should as part and parcel of our call to be faithful witnesses of Scripture. Are our words tethered to the realities of life—are our gospel realities discernible when not spoken in terms of life-lived—or are they perfectly at home untethered, free-floating, irrelevant from the millions of concrete, dark, cold, isolated, hopeless life-realities crying out for redemption?

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 429.

[2] David Powlison, “Counseling through the Lens of Scripture: Updating the Conversation,” Delivered at the 2009 meeting of the Northeastern Regional Evangelical Theological Society, 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.

KJV_Gift

Winter Wasteland (Immanuel)

prayers, Theology

This is part of a series of prayers through Isaiah 7:14 for those who feel that they cannot celebrate the Advent season (Intro, Carols, Pretensions, Immanuel).

“Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.”


We reel
        and falter
        and wander
        and forget
        and take revenge
        and write them off
        and lose heart
        and “Get the hell out of my life.”

We hear many sneaking,
                                creeping voices
                                in the first person:

Our pain is too intricate
                                for your care.
Our mistakes say too much about us
                                for your love
                                —your real, approving love.
Our consequences are too permanent
                                for your power.
Our regret goes deeper
                                than your reach.
Our trauma is beyond us,
                                and you.

And you.

Never unsettled?
Never surprised?
Never too late?

No. We refuse that “Thou.”

Act.
Unsettle yourself
                        and us.
Surprise yourself
                        and us.
Swoop in
                        for us
                        against our calamitous impulses,
                        beside our bewitching habits,
                        in spite of all our “too lates,”
                        before and around, guiding our “if onlys.”

We struggle,
                        and at times hate
                        (and at times love)
                                to admit
                        our situation with you:
                        Your Name.

We “shall call his name Immanuel.”
Your_Name_WW

Winter Wasteland (Pretensions)

prayers

This is part of a series of prayers through Isaiah 7:14 for those who feel that they cannot celebrate the Advent season (Intro, Carols, Pretensions, Immanuel).

“O Come, thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”


 
Undo our tangled emotions.
Sew a smooth cloth to dress our wounds.
                                            to sling our sprains.
                                            to clean up our messes.

Longsuffer our distrusting hearts.
               We are eager to point out your absence.
               We are ready to fall on our swords.
               We are ready to coerce your attention
                                  any way we can.

Prop up our unshakeable faith
               which is gone in the morning,
               which carries all of our unspoken expectations
               and all our purity and pretension.

It is not easy for us, Lord.

We live in an open world,
               and are threatened.
We pray to a closed heaven,
               and feel ignored.
It is not easy for us to sit still
               while you do … what, exactly?

Give us a miracle.
                 a sign from you.
                 a way to test you.
                 a sense of self.
                 a word.
                 a reason to walk away.
                 a reason to stay.
                 a little help.
                 something.
                 anything.

“A virgin shall conceive
               and bear a son.”

Closed_Sky_WW

Winter Wasteland (Carols)

prayers

This is part of a series of prayers through Isaiah 7:14 for those who feel that they cannot celebrate the Advent season (Intro, Carols, Pretensions, Immanuel).


You ask too much of us.

          “Let nothing you despair.”
          “Comfort and joy.”
          “God and sinners reconciled.”
          “Let every heart prepare him room.”
          “Let loving hearts enthrone him.”
          “Sing in exultation.”
          “Born this happy morning.”
          “The little Lord Jesus,
          No crying he makes.”

We would sing gladly
          if we could mean it.
We would pray
          if you would answer.
We might rejoice
          if you cried.
We would ask
          if you weren’t doing other things with other people.
We would knock
          if you didn’t have other company
          —more faithful company.
We would seek and bother and annoy
          if we thought you acted.
We would believe you care,
          but we both know why that’s not possible.

Bid us the mercy
                    and courage
                    to linger unfinished
                    in our carols:

          “Descend to us, we pray.”
          “That mourns in lonely exile here.”
          “In sin and error pining.”
          “Sins and sorrows grow.”
          “Far as the curse is found.”
          “Fails my heart, I know not how;
          I can go no longer.”

“Silent night.”
          Yes. Silent day.
          Silent week.
          Silent month.
          Silent year.
          You’re par for the course.

Only you can make these words take root:
     Do not let our dissatisfaction with you rule us.
     Make a fool of our stubborn despair.
          Don’t hate us.
          Don’t leave us. . .
          But don’t ask us for what
          you have already taken.

How could you possibly restore our hope?
What hand could you play that would beat our doubt?

“Therefore, the Lord himself
will give you a sign.”
Christmas_Mercy

Winter Wasteland (Intro)

prayers

This is the introduction to a series of prayers for those who have difficulty celebrating the Advent season. (Intro, Carols, Pretensions, Immanuel).


I spent this Easter in Philadelphia. It was my first Sunday back from Dallas after moving there for a girl. We broke up. It was the final straw on what felt like an unbearable series of events: death, exile, rejection. We sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” That Constantine-eseque christus victor melody alone made me feel like vomiting. The words made me want to leave the faith.

In college, my historical theology professor would say every class, “Saints, the history of Christianity is a story of those who have given up, and those who have not.” I didn’t understand that until this year. The other day, my pastor told me, “Those who give up on the faith … The world calls them ‘brave.’ I call them chickenshit.” I’m certain you all will disagree with him. This Christmas season—as far as I can choose for myself—I do not disagree with him. He’s right—at least, he’s right for me. For many reasons, theological and personal.

Over the next three days, I will post three prayers—I will pray three prayers through Isaiah 7:14 (“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”). Besides attending church, it is my only practice of advent. These prayers are my attempt to embody what I have learned—what my shepherd has told me.

These prayers are for those who cannot celebrate Christmas for one basic reason: the hope of advent is unavailable. The hope of Christmas is inaccessible for many. The door may be open theologically, but it is closed psychologically. It is open principally, but closed personally. This Christmas, there are many who despair—who grieve. There are many who do not (and cannot) experience what Keller calls “Joy which transcends circumstances.” It just doesn’t make sense. The weight of that mystery weighs in sharp measure on the grieving this Christmas.

These prayers are a preemptive measure against another agonizing and injurious holy day. These prayers are a rude and unwelcome insistence of hope against profaning and impious impulses—in the midst of plummeting and impossible circumstances.

This has been a yearlong summer for me. The cold is refreshing. Subzero temperatures are, perhaps surprisingly, softening and strengthening (subverting, even) my hard heart. I have needed this winter in the North. It is a solace from self-judgment and a reckoning of divine injustices. Only God can determine what each will look like. I hope that the prayers will help some. For the grieving, I hope it will assist our genuine attempt to practice a tempered, but merry Christmas.

Weight_Christmas

Posthumanism in Interdisciplinary Journal

Theology

(Summary: Read my new weird article)

I have received a ton of writing opportunities lately, and they have been an honor. Criswell. JETS. WTJ review. Finishing another crop for DG. It’s amazing. The topics, the content, the questions, the research, the people I’m partnering with – it’s all an amazing blessing.

But FYI, I have this super weird article that just came out in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies called “Human Self-Transcendence: Posthuman, Postmodern, or Postsecular?” It’s just the absolute weirdest. If you’re into real life sci-fi, postmodern God-concepts, or the most absolutely boring study on philosophy you’ve ever read in your life (and how they all relate), check out my article.

Also, I owe a hat tip to Winston Smith (truly one of the smartest guys I know) for this quote in the article, on how a via media is “not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth” (bottom of p. 179). Epic quote, right?

Happy reading, ya weirdos.

Impatience on Desiring God

Theology

(Summary: Read my blog “Do You Hate to Wait?” on Desiring God.)

Yes, I hate to wait. Hate. I’m fuming. Seething. Waiting? No. I will not wait. I’ve run out of steps forward. Depleted of moments of unction. My hopper of hopeful epiphanies is empty. God’s grace? I don’t even know.

This retrospective series through my Desiring God blogs has been an exercise in time travel. I wrote this particular DG blog while waiting for something I desperately wanted. It must have seemed pathetic. I wrote it, haunted by the anxiety of possible states of affairs – unwanted factors, unwelcome failures, unwaning feelings.

Surely God has a sick sense of humor. I wrote this blog, waited . . . and the answer was no. Delayed disappointment. I couldn’t have known. But I hold myself responsible for what I should have known. What an idiot. Wait. Can I take a step back and hear what I just said? “Should have known.” “I should have known it wouldn’t work out.” “I should have known I would fail.” “I should have known, and not only am I a fool for trying, but God probably made it happen just to teach me not to expect.”

A friend recently told me, “You need to start showing yourself grace, because you are destroying yourself for being imperfect.” Wow. Maybe (sometimes) our impatience with God is a product of our impatience with ourselves. Maybe, sometimes, we demand from God grace that we won’t even give ourselves. The dagger we hold up to his throat reflects our deep belief that if we drop the kinfe and just keep waiting patiently, maybe God even won’t fight back … maybe he’ll just forget about us entirely.

“The helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by [the wicked’s] might. He says in his heart, ‘God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.’ Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted” (Psalm 10:10-12).

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7)

“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25 ESV).

These are not Scriptures that entice a hopeful feeling. These are verses which teach us that hope does not need to take place the way Christians would often have it take place. Sometimes hope isn’t a feeling. Sometimes grit is the only form of hope we have. Grit that says to the wicked, to the world, to the new Pharaoh, “I’ll take the wrench” Good Will Hunting style. It does not have a “God is good” note tied to the back. The goodness of God is not always the most relevant category for every situation.

Sometimes, all we get from Scripture for our circumstance is that God exists, and he acts, and he is not apathetic about our circumstances. These are not for listening in the major key. These are verses for “sitting among the ashes” (Job 2:8). God is working and listening very actively. “The Lord’s hand is not shortened that it can’t save, or his ear dull that it can’t hear” (Is 59:1). That’s what we have to work with. That is what hope looks like. That is also what grace looks like.

Sometimes you don’t get a choice. What’s the line between patience and suffering? Between impatience and bitterness? Do you hate to wait? He loves. Therefore, he hears. And he acts. Hope happens, and it doesn’t always have to be a product of our will, of our unctions, of our feelings. God just does hope – unpredictably, without formula, without presumption, and without explanation.

Read my blog “Do You Hate to Wait?” on Desiring God. It is another blog that I needed, and still need.

Van Til in Criswell

Theology

I owe a huge thanks to the staff of the Criswell Theological Review (particularly Brandon Smith and Everett Berry) for publishing an article of mine on Van Til’s covenant theology. (Summary: Read my new article here).

The first half of the article serves to differentiate three theologians: Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Cornelius Van Til himself, on issues of the theological nature of history, and the relationship between historical particulars and trinitarian theology (i.e. how they inform one another). The second half gets a bit controversial. Essentially, I try to explain the relationship, for Van Til, between the redemptive event of the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) among the three persons of the Trinity (the first event in God’s first-order decree and a second-order particular of contingent history itself) and the event of the Fall (unavoidable, at both the decretal level and the human level). That is, for Van Til, the prelapse was structurally and metaphysically conducive to the single end of redemptive history—and yet, the prelapse itself was not on occasion for grace.

Following Kline, Adam did not receive grace before the Fall. And yet, in Van Til, it is the pactum salutis that gives the pre-redemptive state of affairs their meaning. The principle that founds and orders the prelapsarian state of affairs is redemptive in content and purpose. Again, this does not entail that Adam received redemptive benefits, but only that success in probation—victory in battle against the serpent—while offered to him, was not within his grasp. If Adam had succeeded at probation, the pactum would have been undone, and Eden itself would not have existed. Adam not sinning is as possible as Christ sinning. Each would undo the the order and rationale of history itself. In principle, Christ could sin insofar as he had genuine human agency. Likewise for Adam. And yet, these possibilities belong to a unique class of contingent possibilities which, having gone another way (Adam succeeding; Christ failing) would only obtain in a world which would be unintelligible to us. The most basic principle of created metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics for Van Til was the redemptive principle established before the foundation of the world. “Before the foundation of the world” is not merely decretal, but historical also.

I’m mainly writing for my WTS people: To the extent that the pactum is a historical event (second-order, as well as first-order), the Fall is unavoidable. The Fall is not comparable to any other historical particular, except perhaps the sinless life of Christ, as we have mentioned. Perhaps, like other elements of his theology, Van Til left work to do in this area. And yet, it seems to me in my reading of him that he is wrestling with this tension, and at times insists that the overarching and inevitable redemptive principle is operating in Eden.

I don’t think most Van Tillians will be able to hear this. There will be a knee-jerk. But I think it’s unavoidably a part of his theology. And there is not a clear alternative answer. I have not heard a satisfying explanation of the relationship between the pactum, considered as a second-order, redemptive, historical event (which it is) and subsequent event of the innocent, non-gracious prelapsarian order. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in there being more complexity and hierarchy among contingent necessities (like logic, shapes, exemplars, and the redemptive principle) than we might think. Where do we draw the lines separating various kinds of contingent necessities? The pactum (the redemptive principle), in terms of Klinean theology, would seem to go at the end – as most dispensible, theoretically in the broad scope of covenant history. And yet, in terms of divine condescension and for Van Til, the redemptive principle is the most basic and foundational principle, in terms of his theology of the pactum.

The main problem this causes: it makes God the author of sin. I’ll let that dangle, I guess. Enjoy the article. 🙂

Apathy on Desiring God

Theology

Summary: Check out my piece “How God Cares for Those Who Don’t” on desiring God.

I’m playing catch up with desiringGod.org blogs. On a personal note, life is extremely busy with school. Working at TEDS, writing for classes, and preparing my own class (!) is exciting. However (and this ties into the theme of this post), over the past 24 hours especially, but even over the past several months, I have been struck with a deep sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness about these things. Writing, studying, teaching, grading – yes, yes, it’s all about ministry and Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning. Can I say that? Can I be honest? I’m in a spiritual slump.

This life – everything glorious and shining about my life (and there is a lot that has been graciously given to me, which I sure as hell do not deserve) – feels like a consolation prize at the end of every single day (point 4 in my blog, I suppose: entitled). I don’t know if that will ever change. Most of me thinks it never will. But there is one thing that could change it. There is one thing that makes me alert and kicks me out of the haze of apathy about my tasks, my job, my life. One thing. It kicked me out last night, for the first time in a long, long time. One person.

Anyway. This blog on apathy that I posted on desiring God a while ago highlights the suffering of apathy. It’s a twisting of the heart and mind into a knot that doesn’t feel, and can’t think its way out of not feeling. God can enter into that. He doesn’t always do it right away. That’s the worst part. Never knowing when we will wake up from a dullness that we hate.

I wrote this blog for myself, and I still need it. Perhaps now – perhaps today – more than ever.