Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth…

2 08 2011

Trevin Wax has posted a brilliant comment on Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell, in which he’s picked up on a concern I’ve had for sometime with the battle between the Emergent and Reformed camps. I’ve been meaning to post something to this effect, but he beat me to it, and did a brilliant job.

Read the whole thing, please, but here are some of the key sections I would like to comment on:

‘Chan and Sprinkle approach this topic from an analytical, exegetical point of view. And […] at the exegetical level, the book succeeds. But that’s not where the battle is being waged. No one is discarding hell because of the convincing nature of Bell’s eisegesis. No… people are following Bell because of the compelling way he has made his case.

Chan and Sprinkle are analysts. Bell fashions himself as an artist. (It’s no coincidence Bell’s first book is Velvet Elvis.)

Chan and Sprinkle are theologian-pastors. Bell fashions himself as a risky explorer.

The power of Love Wins is not in Bell’s exegesis or in his thoughtfulness. The power of Bell’s book is in its aesthetic qualities. Bell is appealing to the sentiments and emotions in a way that proves effective for many disaffected evangelicals today.

Bell’s book is troublesome, not because it is a thoughtful representation of the optimistic inclusivist position. (See Clark Pinnock’s work if you’re looking for that!) It’s troublesome because it is seeking to make inclusivism beautiful. Bell succeeds at “dressing up” falsehood. Meanwhile, his evangelical critics aren’t even bothering with the wardrobe. We are Nixon, and he is Kennedy. From a purely rhetorical, debating standpoint, we win. But Bell understands the medium.

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T.

I’m not calling out Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle alone on this. God bless them – they care about precious truths and they are working to preserve them. No, I’m indicting myself in this too. We struggle in the area of aesthetics, and I’m not sure why. After all, the Reformed wing of the church is influenced by Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more about beauty than virtually any theologian in Christian history. The study of true beauty is the study of God. So why doesn’t the result of our study reflect that?


The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

Beyond that, we often appear pedantic in the grasping of these important issues. In the study of the communication arts, there is a part of the brain known as Brocha’s Area which acts like the gateway to whether people actually listen. Surprising or intriguing Brocha is one way to get that door to open – something that art in its many variations is capable of doing.

Erasing Hell is functional, but not beautiful. From a functional point of view, I recommend it. But I think we need to be pushed on the beautiful side of this equation as well. The gospel shouldn’t shut down our imagination, but rather fuel it and direct it toward the beauty that is inherent to the truth. We need more than analysis; we need artistry.’

He is absolutely right.

The thing I found most frustrating in the whole Love Wins fiasco was the lack of creativity, compelling writing and aesthetically-evocative engagement I saw coming from those who defended an orthodox position. As Wax said, we can write the 50 page responses with proof-texts galore, but they’re the ones writing the good stories.

I could list half a dozen responses to Love Wins which I think are genuinely, biblically excellent. DeYoung’s tome is outstanding. Carson’s Gospel Coalition session is very helpful. But neither of them has that ‘I must turn the page’ factor. None of them has me holding my breath, or causes a tear to form in my eye like Bell does when he pleads with me “but don’t you wish this were true?”

So we saw papers, articles, blogs and debates with people who dotted every I, crossed every T and painted a picture of a God with no heart, soul, or emotions. (Perhaps ‘painted a picture’ is too artistic a term: I fear ‘chalked up an equation’ may be more apt). In fact, sometimes I wonder if the god they defended wasn’t some wizened old coward with his hands tied, mumbling feebly “I really wish I could help… genuinely I do… but logic prohibits me!”

The thing we have to remember is that it is not, on the whole, those with neo-reformed predilections who are being swayed by Bell. It’s the emergent, arty people; those who’ve often been hurt by churches, or who tend to (rightly or wrongly) be wary of black and white statements and hardline positions. It’s the disaffected and suspicious; those who need to be wooed rather than lambasted. Therefore we can’t simply expect to speak to them in Reformedese, and imagine that they will respond positively. We need to engage with them on their terms, in their language, in a style they’ll understand and warm to.

So nobody with a predisposition to engage with the emergent style is going to take kindly to being handed a missive by Carson, or an angry rant by Driscoll (for different reasons: one has a lot of academic clout, but sometimes feels a little dry, and the other has a loud voice that gets people’s backs up immediately, irrespective of the content). That would be somewhat like complaining to your local street cleaner that he missed a spot, but doing so in finely honed, point-perfect, totally abstruse and impenetrable Latin. You’re simply speaking a different language!

(Ok, maybe it’s not quite like that. No offence to emergent guys or street cleaners… But there is an issue of language at stake here: tone, style, timbre and vernacular. And we can’t assume that because we technically speak the same language: ‘English’ we speak the same form of English.)

You can’t just approach someone who loves grey areas and say:

‘Look, it’s just black and white! There’s no middle ground and you have to choose!’

But you can say gently and with a winsome tone:

‘Sure, that looks a bit grey. But there are even different shades of grey. And surely you can see that this shade of grey is darker than that one… and hey, this shade of grey is only one step away from being black.’

And thus we woo…

Ultimately, whilst I may favour the Reformed perspective, I am drawn to beauty. And I wish beyond wish that there were more people from the orthodox perspective writing with the same level of creative engagement as some of the emergent guys. Because frankly, some of the Reformed guys make me want to switch sides… Call it petulance, but I have artistic tendencies that are often unfulfilled by many of the guys I read or listen to. I have the odd postmodern gene bobbing along in my bloodstream, and if my head-shape were a little more regular, I daresay I might be tempted shave my hair and wear emergent, thick-rimmed glasses… If you catch my drift.

I want truth and I want beauty. Surely that’s not asking for too much?

We need to find ways of turning phrases, and painting vistas that are compelling and evocative, not simply perfectly lined up, puritanical and soulless. I don’t want to write (or read!) books that make people go “Well, I guess I have to believe that, even if I don’t like it, because at the end of the day he showed me more proof texts than the other guy.” I want to write and read books that make me see the beauty of unpopular doctrines.

As I write, I am on the train on the way home from speaking at a seminar at the Newday youth festival. At the end of the seminar a girl came and asked me if in the new creation she would remember her non-Christian friends. And if so, how could she remember them without feeling a sense of sorrow at their absence. We spoke for a while and settled on the fact that there will be a good number of things that we will come to with a fresh perspective “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” Perhaps one of the reasons we won’t feel sorrow is that we will be captivated by a new understanding of judgment; one that emphasises justice over emotive-offence; one that sees things from God’s perspective at last. And the things that once seemed abhorrent may then shine like precious jewels.

If only people could begin to write in such a way as to help us see like that now… Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth!

Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…

Matthew 27:42

1 11 2010

What a quote from D.A. Carson. I’ll let it speak for itself:

The words “Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42) have several levels of meaning. They constitute a malicious barb directed at Jesus’ helplessness, while having the effrontery to suggest that the leaders’ failure to believe was his fault. The taunt piously promises faith if Jesus will but step down from the cross; but the reader knows that, in the mystery of providence, if Jesus did step down, there would be no “blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of sins” (26:26-29), no ransom (20:28), no salvation from sin (1:21), no theological basis for healing (8:16-17), no gospel of the kingdom to be proclaimed to nations everywhere (28:28-10), no fulfilment of Scripture.’ (Carson, Matthew p577)

We have met the enemy, and he is us

26 08 2010

I recently came across the following quote from actor Lee Marvin, about a moment of realisation he experienced, as he rewatched one of his films:

‘I found it very unpleasant recently when I saw a film of mine called Point Blank, which was a violent film. I remember; we made it for the violence. I was shocked at how violent it was. Of course, that was ten, fifteen, eighteen years ago. When i saw the film I literally almost could not stand up, I was so weak. I did that? I am capable of that kind of violence? See, there is the fright; and this is why I think guys back off eventually. They say, “No, I’m not going to put myself to those demons again.” The demon being the self.’ (Lee Marvin, quoted in Carson, How Long, O Lord?, p41)

It is a powerful statement of that moment of stomach wrenching revelation, when one realises, perhaps for the first time, the depth of their depravity. I am worse than I ever imagined. Or as the oft-quoted aphorism puts it: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In Acts 2, Peter explains to the crowds how their actions led to the rejection and execution of Jesus (v22-23). There is suddenly a moment of revelation in the listeners – ‘I did that?’ You can well imagine them, like Marvin, weak and barely able to stand as the truth of their wickedness hit home.

The language Peter uses is strong. They were ‘cut to the heart’ (v37). Witherington notes that the verb κατενυγησαν appears only here in the NT, though in the LXX its meaning ranges from ‘remorseful’ (Gen 27:38) to ‘anger’ (Gen 34:7) to ‘stung’ (Sir 12:12) to ‘humbled’ (Ps 108:16) to ‘struck silent’ (Lev 10:3). (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, p153)

I wonder how many of us became acutely aware of the depth of our depravity in such close proximity to our conversion? I’m not sure I would use many of those terms to describe the moment I responded to the Gospel: humbled, angry, remorseful, stung and struck silent. Cut to the heart. To be honest, I think I would have used far more pedestrian, sanitised, cuddly terminology – I felt curious, up for trying something new, like my life could be marginally improved. I genuinely believed, but only in time did I come to realise the true nature of what I had been rescued from and to.

I do long to see more people have Acts 2, Lee Marvin experiences at the outset of their Christian life. But I’m also comfortable that many will come to Jesus initially not with fear and trembling, but because they are weary, heavy laden and want to swap their heavy yoke for a lighter model (Matthew 11:28-30). All are valid ‘entry points’ to the gospel. But note, even the weary and heavy laden need to have an accurate understanding of their frailty before they can come to Jesus to redeem their impoverished state.

Michael Green comments:

Not everybody comes to Christ through a bad conscience. There are many gateways into Christ. But I do mean that whenever anyone comes face to face with Jesus, he is driven to the conviction that he is unworthy, and that Jesus is supremely worthy. One of the surest signs of an authentic conversion is a conscience that has become sensitised.’ (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p76)

Unless at some point in our early Christian life, preferably sooner rather than later, we come to a stark realisation of our depravity outside of Christ, we will lack both an impetus to pursue holiness and a genuine foundation for a life of constant gratitude. It is only when you realise your complicity in the death of Jesus, on account of your sin that you will truly be able to appreciate that ‘you are weaker and more sinful than you ever before believed, but, through Jesus, you am more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.’ (Tim Keller)

In his talk at Mobilise last year, Andrew Wilson spoke of this brilliant moment in a sketch by Mitchell and Webb (Particularly up to 00:52). Watch it, chuckle, reflect, and allow yourself to be ‘cut to the heart’…

Related Post: D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées

D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées

23 08 2010

The new edition of Themelios is out. As always, some interesting, relevant, thought-provoking articles and reviews… (and some less so!)

Most of all, I enjoyed this: D.A. Carson’s Pastoral Pensées: Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion.

‘Most of us, I suspect, develop fairly standard ways, one might even say repetitive ways, to appeal to the motivations of our hearers when we preach the gospel. Recently, however, I have wondered if I have erred in this respect—not so much in what I say as in what I never or almost never say.’

There have been a large number of articles, books and popular preachers who have encouraged us in recent years to think about the many strands of the gospel, and how we can apply each of them to the hearer as is most apt. Equally, there have been a number of articles, books and popular preachers who have favoured one model over another, or indeed over all the others (such that one particularly high-profile book on the atonement argued until its authors were blue in their faces that ‘penal substitution is the primary atonement model, but of course we believe in all the others as well!’ and then proceded to articulate each of the other atonement theories, practically disregarding their subtleties and describing all of them as in such a way as to make them sound just like penal substitution under a different guise!)

I feel that for all our talking about the many strands of the gospel, when it comes down to making an appeal, we still don’t quite get it. I still don’t get it. I still rely on tried and tested appeals, phrases, metaphors and methods. I fail to ask what my audience member might be thinking and feeling at that moment and instead preach a formula.

So for that reason I found Carson’s article helpful and enlightening. In it he surveyed eight possible motives we can and should appeal to in our hearers:

  • Fear
  • The Burden of Guilt
  • Shame
  • The Need for Future Grace
  • The Attractiveness of Truth
  • A General Despairing Sense of Need
  • Responding to Grace and Love
  • A Rather Vague Desire to Be on the Side of What Is Right, of What Is from God, of What Is Biblical, of What Is Clean, of What Endures.

I don’t intend to repeat all he said. Read it for yourself. But let me offer a couple of comments and some further reading:

  • I’d never before thought of ‘The need for future grace as a category of its own apart from Guilt and Shame…
  • ‘A Rather Vague Desire…’ deserves more thought. I wonder how many of the people I encounter fall into this category rather than any of the other seven? I’m also not entirely sure how I would tailor my appeal to them any differently than to those in the ‘Attractiveness of Truth’ camp.
  • ‘Burden of Guilt’. Carson writes:

‘I specify “the burden of guilt” instead of “guilt” because I prefer to use the latter for one’s moral and legal status before the holy God. In other words, one may be very guilty and not feel guilty, that is, not labor under any burden of guilt. If one is in fact guilty but feels nothing of the burden of guilt, the objective guilt is not a motivation for conversion. Until one cries, in these words or something similar, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4), one is not strongly motivated by the burden of guilt. On the other hand, that guilt, rightly perceived, can be a crushing burden and thus a powerful and desperate motivation for relief.’

I found this a fascinating distinction. Guilt is objective, but oft-unperceived. The Burden of Guilt is a feeling we can appeal to.

It strikes me that this is the one most of us fall back on regularly. But I doubt whether it is always the most effective. I remember preparing a talk a year ago for a student guest service and I had agonised over it for ages. When I took a step back, I realised that I was spending 70% of the talk trying to engender a feeling of ‘Burden of Guilt’ in people who had not the slightest perception of their objective Guilt. As a result, it simply came across as doom-mongering.

Now, sometimes that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I remember in an old job that a colleague of mine would, every day, just take some of the chocolate that was lying out in the kitchen, not realising that you were meant to pay for it! (As if the Civil Service has a habit of being exceedingly generous to its low-level grunts?!) I wondered at first how they didn’t seem to feel guilty about it, until I realised that nobody had ever explained the system; how much it costs, where to put the money etc. So I told them of their objective Guilt, which engendered a Burden of Guilt and led to a solution.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one less trivial examples, not least relating to salvation. But in general I feel that we depend solely on the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach because we know no other. And more often than not, it falls flat, because that’s just not where our listeners are at. Often our gospel is so small that the only way we are able to preach it is to lead someone to the point where they think ‘I feel so guilty‘ and then say ‘Hey, I have an answer to that‘ rather than addressing the real questions and emotions they had in the first place!

Enough said on that before I labour the point. I’m not asking that we abandon the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach. Just don’t unthinkingly take it as your default.

His concluding statements (expanded from these below) were a helpful check to keep the conversation in balance and limit knee-jerk reactions.

  1. We do not have the right to choose only one of these motivations in people and to appeal to it restrictively.
  2. On the other hand, we may have the right to emphasize one motivation more than others.
  3. Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of our appeal to diverse motivations will reflect the comprehensiveness of our grasp of the gospel.
  4. To put this another way, all of the biblically sanctioned motivations for pursuing God, for pursuing Christ, say complementary things about God himself, such that failure to cover the sweep of motivations ultimately results in diminishing God.

I still feel we have a lot of work to do on this. We have the theory in place, but have to regularly fight the flesh and the temptation to rely on safe, easy, road-tested formulae. Ultimately we will serve people better if we genuinely engage with their emotions rather than fling a series of propositions at them and hope one hits home.

I’d encourage you to read Carson’s article and see what you think, especially if you’re a preacher. And to put flesh on the bones, check out this excellent paper by Andrew Wilson from Kings Church Eastbourne on ‘The Essential Gospel.’ It will really serve to model some of what Carson suggests.