Is it really worth writing? Thoughts on Great Christian Literature

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There aren’t many truly great writers in the world today, and fewer still are Christians.  In any given generation, very few genuine classics are written, and this kind of literature is more often determined by history and the generations that follow than by those in which it was produced.  Magnificent authors are rare indeed and worth their weight in gold.

In contrast, above average and good writers are much easier to come by and abundant in every generation. But given the fact that the vast majority of Christian writers in our age will never write an authentically enduring work, does that make them unimportant?

I would argue no.  Like all contemporary cultural products, such works represent a wide spectrum of both quality and influence.  Some have great initial influence but are quickly left behind for the latest and greatest production.  Others have little initial impact but grow in influence over time as their significance and importance become increasingly acknowledged.  Still others are immediately recognized for their exceptional nature and outstanding quality.  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, was quickly (and rightly) hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, not merely in Russia, but throughout the world.

There are, of course, cases where magnificent literature is only recognized for what it is much later in time.  It’s influence and quality are only appreciated posthumously.  Pascal’s Penseeswere not found and published until after his death.  The writings of Thomas Aquinas were initially condemned by the Catholic church until, over a period of several generations, their value and brilliance became undeniable.

The vast majority of Christian works, however, find themselves in the category of being neither very noticeable nor influential.  They may have some value and meaning for their authors and the few who read them, but they do not bear the marks of magnificence and significance that truly great writings possess.

And yet, this rushing flood of what we might call “normal” Christian writings has a crucial place in the creation, maintenance, sustenance, and transformation of culture in our time.  Very often it’s the “average” and “mundane” things that we read and think about each day which ultimately mold and shape us most powerfully over time.

Consequently, most Christian writers write, not necessarily to make money, influence the masses, or produce magnificent works of literature that will be read and appreciated for generations to come.  Rather, they write because it is, in many ways, a divine calling and vocation.  God has given them something to say and a way to say it, even if only a precious few will take any notice.

I like the way Anne Frank put it in her now-famous dairy: “[I]t seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.  Still, what does that matter?  I want to write. . . .”

Perhaps the “unbosomings” of most writers—Christian and otherwise—will not be preserved in the museums, publishing houses, or churches of future generations in any concrete way.  They will, however, be read, absorbed, and creatively appropriated by some in their own time.  Perhaps a few will be passed on to those who come after by private collection, recollection, word of mouth, and way of life.  In the end, if God is in the writing, such an outcome is more than enough.  It is for this rather unremarkable Christian writer, anyway.

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Would I suffer and die for Jesus Christ?

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Worldwide, many contemporary Christians are experiencing persecution and even death for their faith. I have listened with sadness and admiration to accounts of those who risked their livelihoods, lives, and families by refusing to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:29 makes it clear that as believers, it has been granted to us to suffer for Jesus’ sake. It is, in fact, a gift.  And while we don’t always want every gift we receive, in God’s wisdom, He knows exactly how to give us what we need.  Suffering is a dreadful but necessary grace.

While preparing to teach church history, I read some older accounts of Christian martyrdom and persecution from the first three centuries of the church.  As a result, several things struck me, but two stand out the most.

First, it’s easy to admire the courage of these Christians with an abstract appreciation for their faith in the face of torture and death.  It’s far harder to picture myself and fellow family members standing before the examiner and facing the choice between forsaking Jesus or suffering torture and death.

When I first started walking closely with the Lord, I was convinced I would die for Him.  Thirty-plus years later, I am much more acutely aware of and honest about my cowardice and strong attachments to the things and consolations of this life.  For all my prior blustering braggadocio about being willing to “sacrifice it all for Jesus,” I now have to admit, I want a tranquil and comfortable life.

Would I really suffer and die for Jesus if offered the choice?  With all of my heart I want to say yes, but I’m also honest enough to admit it would not be easy.

In the end, I suspect I could only do so if the Lord granted grace if and when the moment arrived.  Meanwhile, I am still trusting God to help divest myself of inappropriate and inordinate affections for anything and anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ.  Perhaps that is an admission of faithlessness, but I hope it is more a recognition of weakness and desperate need for His everlasting mercy and grace.

The second thing that struck me is closely related.  It occurred to me how grossly unprepared most professing Christians—myself included—are to suffer for their faith in any serious way.  Most (but certainly not all) Christians I know have been led extremely sheltered and comfortable lives compared to the hardships of many contemporary and historical Christians.  I certainly have.

Of course, if this has been the case, it is not necessarily something for which we should be ashamed. It is a privilege to be able to turn our freedoms and resources into opportunities to serve and care for others for God’s greater glory.  And many have done just that.  Lord, let us be legion!

But those who have lived in relative safety and ease of comfort should pause to consider: If life ever became much more difficult precisely because we are Christ-followers, would we, like the believers of yesterday and today, be willing to suffer and even die for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Would you?  Would I?  God grant us the grace to live humbly and boldly for Your glory, whether in life or in death.

For Such a Time as This

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Growing up, I often dreamed of living in another time and place.  Some long to live in the future, fascinated by imagined and fantastic things that might someday become possible and common-place.  I, on the other hand, always felt like I was born too late, ill-fitted for life in the present age.  The quixotic past I envisioned living in was safer, slower, less technological and complex.

It’s easy, after all, to romanticize the imagined past and the dreams of the future when you don’t actually live in them.  It’s far harder is to live well within the messy and difficult realities of the present.

Many things make me want to live in the past, but the recent rapid rise of digital information technologies has been especially instrumental in increasing this nostalgic yearning.  The explosions of tech innovation and the accompanying breakneck pace of cultural and academic alterations in teaching have disoriented, dumbfounded, and discouraged me.  The methods and means of education are changing so rapidly, I wonder if I’ll be able to finish my career as a professor if I cannot quickly adapt to these relentless and radical technological transformations.

I frequently catch myself thinking, “Perhaps if I was born about fifteen years earlier, I would not have to worry about all these changes.  I would be approaching retirement and could let younger generations figure it all out.” But if my health and mind hold out, there could many years of teaching opportunities ahead.  God has been reminding me that like it or not, I will have to face these challenges in the here and now.  And when you really think about it, what other time do we have to live within but the actual present?

I suspect that many have wrestled with the longing to escape the difficulties of today by wanting to live in the future or the past.  And while we can certainly learn from the past and look to the future, God still calls us to live well in the present—the exact time and place in which He has chosen us to live and move and have our being.  As such, none of us were born too late or too early.

As Mordecai reminded Esther, we were born for such a time as this, created at just the right time for God’s sovereign plans to be revealed and fulfilled in and through us.  I doubt Esther wanted to risk her life to save her people from extermination, but it was the time and place in which God had positioned her.  That moment gave her the opportunity and responsibility to live well in the present. She accepted it with courage and used it wisely.

If we are willing to embrace with faith and joy the place and time in which God has positioned us, and if we are willing to live—really live—in that actual present, I suspect God will grant us many opportunities—big and small—that we alone are meant to accept and fulfill.  They may or may not be, like Esther, life-risking, nation-saving endeavors, but in the here and now of God’s purposes and plans they still matter immensely nonetheless.  May we therefore attend to and live well within the present prospects God grants us so long as it is still called today.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter Anymore

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Watching the news recently, I have become increasingly discouraged by the manner in which people disagree. It’s one thing to disagree.  It’s another to refuse to consider alternative viewpoints.  And it’s yet another to vilify the opposition by using derogatory names and making threats of intimidation and even violence as a means to silence and subdue them.

I’ve often wondered, how did we ever come to embody this kind of immature and unproductive public and private discourse?  Then a friend recently called my attention to a Bible Gateway blog post from May 17, 2018 that helped make some sense of all this quarrelsome showmanship.  Part of the reason we now disagree in such disagreeable and unreasonable ways is because we have now entered into the next “logical” phase of postmodern thought—the “post-truth” phase.

In the blog entitled, “What Does It Mean to Live in a Post-Truth World?”, Jonathan Petersen interviews Abdu Murray about his recent book, Saving Truth.  Murray notes, “post-truth relates or denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. In other words, feelings and preferences matter more than facts and truth.”

My personal desires and feelings have not merely become “my truth” (as they were in postmodernity), they have become more important than truth.  They trump truth.  Even if someone could be adequately shown that something was true, all that would really matter to them would be whether or not they want it to be true.

There are many ways this manifests itself in contemporary life.  I have already noted the stubborn refusal to disagree in a constructive way.  If all that matters is how I feel about it, facts are either desire-confirming plusses or irrelevant irritants to be dismissed or derided.  Murray articulates another post-truth era effect this way:“Confusion has now morphed into a virtue.  Those who are confused sexually are labeled heroes.  Those who see morality as a fuzzy category are considered progressive.  And those who are confused about religious claims—saying that all paths are equally valid roads to God—are considered ‘tolerant.’”

On the other hand, “If someone is certain or clear on sexual boundaries, that person is a bigot.  If a person is clear on the existence of objective moral values and boundaries, that person is regressive.  And if someone clearly understands that different religious paths can’t possibly all lead to God, that person is considered intolerant. In other words, confusion has become a virtue and clarity has become a sin.”

Finally, Murray concludes that a post-truth thinker might concede that there is objective truth but would still insist, “I don’t care because my personal feelings and preferences matter more.”  Consequently, “Anyone who brings facts that challenge those feelings or preferences is labeled as a ‘hater’ or something similarly derogatory.”

This kind of labelling and name-calling doesn’t boost the potential for having productive interactions between those who disagree.  It also makes our job as Christians harder, not only because we still affirm that truth and moral standards are inherent to the fabric of God’s universe, but because we must continue to love and show kindness to those with whom we (even strongly) disagree in a way that still grants them honor and respect.  Why?  Because they, like us, are still made in and reflect, no matter how dimly, the image of God.

As Christians, we should also exhibit a deep conviction and confidence in the goodness and wisdom of God, a wisdom that sometimes goes against our natural dreams and desires.  And this means that some of the things that we and others want to be true and pursue are, by God’s design, false and detrimental to our personal flourishing.  In a world still under the curse of sin, we are not designed to ignore reality for the fulfillment of our often-distorted cravings and yearnings.

No doubt, desires and preferences matter, but when they matter more than truth and are allowed to determine reality, we set ourselves up for wide-ranging psychological insecurity, disappointment, and dysfunction.  But far more tragically, in subservience to our fickle feelings, we ignore and separate ourselves from the One who created us, loves us, and is goodness, truth, and life itself.

Jonah and His Whale of a Tale

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I was recently talking to a Chinese student who had questions about the reliability of the Bible. He mentioned he’d read an article debunking the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

As he explained it, the article claimed Jonah’s undersea journey must have been a fable or myth (like Pinocchio’s in Carlo Collodi’s classic tall tale), since science has proven the majority of whales do not have throats big enough to swallow a human being whole. Even if there are whales (like the sperm whale) who can swallow a person whole, the environment inside the whale’s stomach is completely inhospitable to life.  Jonah cold not have survived three days in the belly of a whale, even if one did manage to choke him down.

His comments reminded me of my childhood when I read an account of James Bartley who purportedly fell overboard during a whale hunt and was swallowed by a sperm whale.  Not long after, the whale was captured and killed. When dressing it, the hunters cut open the whale’s stomach and discovered Bartley, unconscious, but alive inside.  As the story goes, he eventually made a full recovery.

It sounds like a whale of a tale, and many have questioned its veracity.  It’s embarrassing to admit now, but in the naïveté of my youth, Bartley’s account gave me some comfort and helped convince me that what happened to Jonah was somehow plausible since it might have happened to others.

What, then, could I say to this struggling student?  I might have mentioned that some Christians believe the book of Jonah is indeed mythical and was never intended to be taken literally.  There are exegetical and theological problems with this view and I strongly disagree, but genuine believers have embraced it from time to time in church history, mostly in the modern era.

I might have pointed out that the KJV translators mistakenly translated the Hebrew word, dag, as “whale,” when it should have been translated more generally as “fish.”  There are, after all, fish (like large sharks) who can swallow a human whole.

I explained, however, that ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that the story, on its face, is wholly implausible.  Science is right to question the possibility that someone could be swallowed by a large fish (or whale), spend three days in its stomach, and live to tell the tale.

But after admitting as much to this student, I then explained that the book of Jonah wasn’t created from some prior real-life event that was borrowed and embellished by an ancient Hebrew author to make into a good bedtime story for children.  In fact, Jonah’s harrowing journey is recounted in full recognition that it was a once-in-the-course-of-all-time occurrence. Consequently, science could not explain how Jonah could be swallowed and then three days later regurgitated alive on land by a gigantic fish—precisely because it wasn’t a natural event.  It was a supernatural act of God!

This is one of the points of the story: God did something only He could do.  In short, Jonah’s story is one filled with divine interventions and usurpations of science.  These were not natural events or myths, they were miracles!

Of course, appealing this way to a miracle is not some clever attempt to justify or explain the inexplicable.  But it is the overt recognition that while miracles don’t happen very often (otherwise, they could hardly be classified as miracles!), the God of the universe does sometimes perform them for His purposes and glory.  The fact is, we know and serve a God who can do the impossible whenever and wherever necessary.

Neither does it negate or invalidate the possibility of determining the reliability of scripture. As numerous apologists and biblical scholars have shown, there are many portions of scripture that directly enable us to test and examine historical and intertextual claims to discover if the Bible is telling the truth.  Since these portions show the scriptures to be trustworthy, we have good reason to trust accounts where miracles are recorded.

But this is only true, of course, if we do not have a preconceived bias against the possibility of any supernatural intervention into the natural realm.  If we are convinced that only scientific and naturalistic explanations for historical events are possible, then just like the skeptics in Jesus’ day, we will automatically rule out miracles, even when they occur right before our very eyes—consider, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, especially verses 45 and 46.

No other book has been more thoroughly examined (or more widely ridiculed and vilified) than the Bible. Nevertheless, it has stood the test of time and continually demonstrates its reliability against any and all assaults. Because it truly is the word of God and comes from Him, it can be trusted because He can be trusted.

Jonah foolishly ignored this and paid a frightful (though ultimately miraculous) price for his willful disobedience.  Thankfully, we, on the other hand, have the amazing opportunity to learn from Jonah’s whale of a tale and trust God fully at the start of His call upon our lives versus merely at the tail-end.

The Changing Face of Education

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Growing up, I went to a school building and sat in a physical classroom next to my classmates and teacher.  I liked some and—I confess—thoroughly disliked others, but never thought that hard about what education was all about.  I just knew I was supposed to be in school all day, every day, along with everyone else.

In sixth grade our class was selected to pilot an exciting new program called the “Calculator Project.” We got to use electronic calculators in math class rather than having to figure everything out in our heads or on paper. It felt a little bit like cheating, but we all thought it was cool that these handheld devices could do hard math so quickly and accurately.

Needless to say, the world of education and its use of technology has fundamentally changed in the past four decades.

I recently read an article stating that after twenty-five years, Moody Bible Institute (my son’s alma mater) is closing its Spokane, WA extension campus and significantly cutting faculty at its main Chicago campus.  In addition, Fuller Seminary (my alma mater) is closing three of its eight extension sites within the next two years and downsizing by selling its main Pasadena campus.  In a recent survey, 1 in 8 university presidents expressed concern that their school would close in the next five years—all due to severely declining enrollment.

The reason for all this reduction is clear: online distance learning is quickly gaining market share and drastically reducing student numbers at traditional campus-based institutions.

Education is not dead, of course, but it is changing—rapidly and radically.

Contemporary studies also indicate that online education produces as good, or in some cases, better educational outcomes than traditional residential campus models of education.  To be honest, I’m still not sure I believe it.  I don’t want to believe it.

Because of my age, I am hopeful that it might still be possible to finish my teaching career spending a significant portion of it physically present and face-to-face with students who are actually there.  But realism tells me this kind of educational experience will become increasingly rare. It appears that much of future education will be progressively localized and virtual.

Every educational model has problems and limitations.  I am not lamenting the loss of the traditional model because I am a traditionalist.  Old models of education have many problems and weaknesses.  There are some things I will not miss about it, like, for instance, the tendency to lack collaborative learning.  In addition, we cannot assume that taking a large block of time away from the contexts of “real life” will somehow result in students being able to remember and apply the mass of material presented at the residential school when they return to the “real world.”

And yet, I wonder what important things will be left behind in these “new” and “emerging” virtual models. I suspect the main thing will be the overt embodiment of truth and goodness in those students and teachers with whom and from whom we are learning.  In short, we will not be physically “rubbing shoulders” with the ones we are learning with and from.

This is a tragic and significant loss, especially in Christian education.  Disembodying virtue and veracity is dangerous when making disciples.  God did not send disembodied messages and sets of commands when He wanted to make Himself known and help us grow in godliness and wisdom.  Rather, He sent real-life leaders and prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and Elijah to share and flesh them out.  Ultimately, He sent Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, who is the epitome of what it means to embody virtuous grace and truth.

Is campus and residential-based education dead?  Not yet, but in many ways, it faces the danger of extinction.  Purely online education is an information delivery system, but little more.  It can too easily uncouple knowledge from the concrete realities of embodied life. True wisdom requires knowledge, but knowledge that is observable and well-applied in the everyday lives of those who want and claim to possess it.

My greatest teachers were great not just because they were well-informed, but because they were wise and personally available to me in ways that were concretely formative and meaningful. I ate with them, laughed with them, mourned with them, and struggled with them.  I directly observed them living well as they loved and interacted with God, their wives, their children, their students, and even their pets.

The Apostle Paul knew we needed real-life models and examples if we were to succeed in following Jesus.  That is why he told the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and urged the Philippians to “join in imitating me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”  We need embodied examples of what truth and goodness actually look like in the frequently confusing contexts of our lives.

An education—residential or virtual—that fails to provide living models in close proximity with other learners is impoverished and incomplete.  The separation of instruction from instructor and those instructed is inherent to distance education.  This problem of separation is not insurmountable, but it must be adequately and creatively addressed so that future education does not become a contemporary form of ancient Gnosticism where the message is all that matters and becomes wholly detached and disconnected from the embodied character of those who share and live it out.

Thoughts on Safe Spaces

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I get my feelings hurt a lot.  It seems to come with the territory of living life in the context of genuinely meaningful relationships.  In a world fraught with sin, people do things to each other that cause pain and sorrow. More to the point, Ido things to others that cause them pain and sorrow.

There is a lot of talk on US college campuses these days about “trigger events” and “safe spaces.” Apparently, some have come to believe they have a right to never be disagreed with or have their feelings hurt. As absurd as this sounds on its face, it does tap into a deep human longing we all have to be secure and out of danger.

We would do well, however, to remember that ensuring safety in this life is a difficult and dangerous prospect.  Live long enough in this world and you will be both hurt by others and the hurter of others.  No one, it seems, can really be safe from the dangers of existing in a world full of people—at least if you choose to have significant relationships with some of them.

The only surefire way to maintain safety, then, is to never truly love anyone or anything.  As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves: “To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The kind of love he means is the concrete love of caring about and caring for an actual person with all of their assets and foibles.  This is not an ambiguous or abstract notion of “love in general.”  As Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazovrather amusingly writes: “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.  In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary.  Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.  I know from experience.  As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. . . .  I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me.”

At least the speaker was brutally honest.  Most of us want to pretend we love others until those others actually need us to really love them.  It simply isn’t safe to be in real relationships with actual human beings. Stay in relationship long enough and they will hurt you every time, sometimes horrifically.  No place, it would seem, can be truly safe if you take the risk to love.

Again, C. S. Lewis has a clear and clever way of pointing this out.  In his children’s classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the lion, Aslan, represents an allegory of Jesus.  Young Lucy Pevensie, reflecting upon the prospect of encountering Aslan asks Mr. Beaver, “Is he quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”. . . .  “Safe?”  Mr. Beaver responded.  “Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.”

Herein lies the secret to finding real safety, in the arms of a good and loving God.  But being in His arms is not actually intended to make us feelsafe.  Sometimes it does, but at other times it feels like the most dangerous place on earth.  That’s because His goal is to make us more like Jesus, and that’s often an uncomfortable and unpleasant process.  It doesn’t necessarily feel fun or safe.

Before passing away from cancer, former white house press secretary and radio talk show host Tony Snow reflected on his journey with God this way: “Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft.  Faith . . . draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution.  The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies.  There’s nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue, for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.  God relishes surprise.  We want lives of simple, predictable ease, smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see, but God likes to go off-road.  He provokes us with twists and turns.  He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance; and comprehension and yet don’t.  By His love and grace, we persevere.  The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.”

There’s a deep irony in the fact that the safest place to be is in the arms of the most dangerous being in the universe.  It is, after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  But this same God is a good and loving God, and that’s what makes Him ultimately safe, even if He is not proximally safe in the here and now as we might desire to define it.

It’s okay to want a safe space.  We all long for security and safety, but we tend to look for it in all the wrong persons and places.  And as hard as we might try, it definitely won’t be found on our college campuses.  There’s only one safe space and that lies in the center of God’s perfect (and often unpredictable) will.

If you’re willing to trust in God, buckle up and get ready for the ride of your life.  If it hasn’t already, it’s going to get really interesting.