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God and Grammar

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

This afternoon in class, we’ll spend an hour and fifteen minutes talking about Genesis 1 and 2. It is to my advantage that Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I could go for hours today.

It is to my distinct disadvantage, on the other hand, that this is one of those parts of the Bible that everyone is quite confident they know. Familiarity can be a liability when it comes to learning. If my students assume they know what I’m going to say before I say it, they are much more likely to tune me out. So my job, as I see it, is to make this familiar story strange enough that they can see it afresh.

One way I’ll do this is by trying to convince them that Genesis 1 and 2 are not ultimately about creation. Creation is the setting but not the subject. The subject is God himself, the Creator. I know this because grammar told me. “God” is the subject of nearly all the verbs in Genesis 1 especially:

“In the beginning God created”

“And God saw”

“Then God said”

“Then God rested”

A previous generation of Christians misinterpreted Genesis 1, especially, by insisting that it is a scientific explanation of the origin of the world. That the primary purpose of the chapter is to silence Darwin and his kin by undermining modern evolutionary theories about where we come from. This isn’t entirely wrong; the author of Genesis absolutely wants us to know that the earth exists and people inhabit it because God chose freely to create all things. We are no accident. Nevertheless, too often defenses of the creation account take the focus off God as its subject. People start talking about radiocarbon dating, the definition of yom (the Hebrew word translated “day” in Genesis 1), why 6,000-year-old rocks would look like they were billions of year old. And so on. More often than not, the subject of those conversations is the creation itself.

My generation makes a different but equally dangerous mistake. Many of us are less interested with trying to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts of the beginning than our parents and grandparents were. Instead we talk more about what the creation story means in practical terms. And for many of us that translates into a concern for creation care. We recycle, eat sustainable and local foods, use cloth diapers, bike to work, or whatever because we feel responsible to be good stewards of God’s good creation. Unfortunately, we are just as likely to make creation itself the subject of our conversations: “Creation is good.”

We are right to insist that the earth and everything in it exists by design and not by chance. And we are right to ask, in light of that fact, how we ought to treat the planet. But I hope I can help my students see today that if we set these issues aside for a moment, the grammar tells us God is the subject of the story. The author wants us to be preoccupied with his character and not his creation.

Can You Imagine?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

This article that I wrote for just came out this week. For those of you reading along in The Christian Imagination, some of the ideas might seem familiar. It’s sort of a mini-manifesto for me, on the importance of the imagination in theological education, etc.

* * *

Faith is an act of the imagination. And a healthy, vibrant imagination is crucial to the Christian life.

You will likely disagree with these statements if you associate the imagination with delusion, fancy, and/or make believe. Christian belief is quite concerned with facts. After all, we follow the One whose name is Truth, so we must be committed completely and unwaveringly to the truth, not led astray by fantasy and illusion. I couldn’t agree more. The trustworthiness of the Christian message is grounded in historical fact—the very real event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The whole of Christianity hangs on whether or not there truly was a first Easter morning. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul explained, “… we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Fortunately, we have solid historical reasons to trust the testimony of the Gospel writers that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. That means our faith is reasonable, grounded firmly in fact and reality.

The reasonableness of our faith has been a major preoccupation for many Christians, especially in America, for the last few generations. Apologists and theologians have worked hard to amass scientific and historical evidence that supports Christian claims to truth. We’ve developed complex and compelling arguments in defense of the faith. This research is geared to provide intellectual support for Christian belief. And it is important work. Unfortunately, this vigilant war for the truth can have—and has had—collateral damage. Christians dedicated to shoring up the intellect often do not think too highly of the imagination. If we let the imagination run wild, they fear, we risk sacrificing the truth.

But imagination is not the opposite of reality or the enemy of truth. In fact, we do ourselves an enormous disservice when we ignore the imagination (whether intentionally or accidentally) and only develop the intellect. For the intellect is only half the equation. Imagination is the partner of the intellect. One is not more important than the other; they do different things. But because we have neglected the imagination, it deserves our special attention.

You can read the rest here.

Moody Classics

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Earlier this year, I was asked to write short biographical sketches for six new editions to the Moody Classics library series. The series is a great idea. Moody is reprinting, and in some cases abridging, some classics writings from Christian thinkers, pastors, missionaries and visionaries–people like G. K. Chesterton, Hudson Taylor, Charles Spurgeon, and others. Developing the bios was a great experience. I knew next to nothing about a couple of the authors (like Nathan Stone). For the ones I did know a little something about, the project was a good excuse to dig a little deeper. Anyway, the books are now available for pre-order in a couple of places. If you’re interested in seeing the complete list, you can find it here.

Enough Faith for Fiction?

Friday, May 14th, 2010

One of my true passions in life is reading good fiction. Lord willing, some day I would like to contribute by writing my own good fiction. In the meantime, one of the questions I wrestle with is what it means to write fiction as a theologically-minded Christian. Maybe that’s better put another way: shouldn’t the fact that 1) I’m a Christian and 2) I think seriously about theology and the Christian life make a difference in my writing–even writing that isn’t about inherently Christian subject matter? I think that answer is yes, but that’s only half the problem.

The other question I wrestle with is whether my evangelical theology can support fiction. Have my theological commitments so thoroughly shaped my imagination–have I been sufficiently transformed by the renewing of my mind–that I could write about reality in a way that only a Christian could?

These are weighty questions, and I don’t (yet) have good answers. But Peter Leithart argues that I’m starting off at a disadvantage by virtue of being an evangelical. That’s disappointing news. But he makes a good case here in, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.”

The article is a bit long, but I’d love it if you read it and came back here to tell me your impressions.

Recommended Holy Week Reading

Monday, March 29th, 2010

In just a few days, we’ll celebrate the Resurrection of the Son of God. That’s no small thing. And I won’t speak for you, but for me it’s hard to prepare for Easter. It seems to me that celebrating something as world altering as the resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead–and all that event means for us mortals–requires that we get ourselves in the right frame of mind. Easter morning, of all mornings, should not just be another Sunday morning.

Not long ago I admitted that I’m not terribly good at observing Lent, the historical Christian method of preparing for Easter. Mortifying the flesh and all that is as hard as it sounds. And even in the years when I’ve faithfully upheld my Lenten commitments, I’ve found it hard to connect my superficial sacrifices–going without chocolate or coffee for six weeks–with the sufferings of Christ.

So what to do.

One thing that I’ve found helpful for putting me in the way of Easter is reading fiction. I can’t explain why exactly (although I’m working on an explanation), but I can connect several significant spiritual turning points in my life to experiences with reading fiction. As much as I like thinking about theology  in the abstract, it only really strikes home for me (or so it seems) when it’s embedded in and embodied by a story. Two years out of the last several I’ve read a novel during Holy Week that put me in the frame of mind to truly experience the significance of the Resurrection. Let me recommend them:

The first is The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Greene was a Catholic novelist, journalist, short story writer (etc.) who wrote through much of the twentieth century. He is noted for capturing the pathos of life in modern times; consequently, he can be a bit depressing, really. But The Power and the Glory is a fine book. The gist of it is this: there is one priest left in a particular province in Mexico. Communists have taken over and they have forced all the Catholic priests to apostatize, marry (which is a rejection of their ordination vows), or face the firing squad. All the priests but one. The remaining priest is no hero. He drinks too much. He’s a bit pathetic. We never even learn his name. But he’s convinced that when he ministers to people, God shows up. So he keeps on, performing baptisms, officiating communion, and basically waiting for the authorities to catch him and put him to death. Graham models this story on the Passion narrative of Christ–it is a series of events that appear to be leading inevitably to execution. And along the way, the book offers ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of faith, the calling of God, and the hope we have both in death and new life.

The second is like the first. I finished Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, on Good Friday a few years ago. Silence is set in Japan in the 1600s. Endo modeled this novel after The Power and the Glory, so it, too, is a passion narrative. The novel follows a Catholic missionary from Portugal who has been captured by the Japanese authorities. They are trying to exterminate Catholicism on the island, but it has persisted underground for some time. So they keep the priest in prison and make him an offer: as long as you cling to your faith, we will torture and kill any Japanese Catholics we can find. Recant your faith, and we’ll leave them along. Moreover, we’ll set you free and give you a good job in the administration. The priest is moved, of course, by the fact that his persistence is costing many peasants their lives. And he is haunted, too, by the fact that God remains silent through the ordeal. It is a test of faith. Like the first one, this book offers much fodder for contemplation, especially regarding what it means to be faithful unto death, just as Christ was.

Like Greene, Endo was a Catholic author in the twentieth century. I’m not necessarily advocating their theology. I’m thoroughly Protestant, and there are aspects of Greene and Endo’s novels that probably won’t make a lot of sense to a Protestant reader. Nevertheless, these extraordinary stories just might help you get your mind turned toward Easter before it’s too late. And don’t worry–they’re both relatively short. So if you pick them up today, you should have plenty of time to finish before Saturday.

Happy reading.