Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

A few years ago my thinking was shaped about the process of spiritual formation by James K.A. Smith‘s book, “Desiring the Kingdom.” In it, he explains the role that “liturgies,” not only ecclesial, but personal and “secular” liturgies play in that formation.

For more on that book and its ideas, see: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

In “Desiring the Kingdom“, and Smith’s related book You Are What You Love, it is clear that he has been highly influenced by Augustine, particularly Augustine’s “Confessions”. The idea of sin as “disordered loves” is particularly Augustinian, as is much of what Smith says about formation, namely that idolatry is more “caught” than “taught”, i.e. idolatry is less of a conscious decision as much as a learned disposition. not so much conscious decisions to believe falsehood, and more like learned dispositions, which is why people’s idolatries often reflect their environments. Since we “practice our way into idolatry,” we need to “practice our way into freedom,” through liberating practices which direct our loves.

I was surprised and excited a few months ago when I saw that Smith was featured in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, in which he clearly articulated the Christian hope of the gospel while talking about his new book: “On the Road with Saint Augustine“.

In this book, Smith not only details his travels to retrace some of the footsteps of Augustine, who was originally from North Africa, but came to Italy seeking success and influence in the civic realm, only to have the course of his life changed by meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. As a result, Augustine later returned to North Africa where he became a bishop and influential Christian thinker, whose writings played a large part in the Reformation.

Augustine: the Father of Existentialism

Smith’s main point, however, is not to write a biography of Augustine, or a memoir of his travels, but to explain that Augustine is actually the father of modern existentialist thinking.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus to Jack Kerouac, modern and post-modern existentialists who often describe life as “a journey” or “the road”, whether knowingly or unwittingly, got this idea from Augustine who articulated existentialist ideas and used the terminology of life as “a journey” and “the road” way back in the 4th Century.

The great difference, of course, which Smith is eager to point out, is that whereas the modern and post-modern existentialists (like Kerouac in his novel “On the Road”) like to describe “the road” as “home”, and assert that there is no ultimate destination to which the road is leading (i.e. it is only the journey itself which matters, not the destination) – this is not at all what Augustine taught or believed. Augustine asserted that life is a journey with a destination, and it is only in light of this destination that there can be joy and purpose in the journey. Augustine taught that there is indeed a true “home” which awaits us, the “home” that all of us long for and the search for which underlies all of our pursuits and endeavors; thus, “the road” itself is not “home”, and if we expect it to be, our lives will miss the purpose, meaning and significance they are meant to have.

Why you hated the ending of Lost

If you were one of the many people frustrated by the ending of the show Lost a few years back, here’s why it was so frustrating: the ending of Lost was the epitome of post-modern existentialist thinking, which says that it is the only thing that matters in the end is not getting all of your questions answered or understanding the meaning of things, but only the enjoyment of the journey.

The ending scene in which all of the characters come together in the future and hug each other, without answering the many unanswered questions that were posed on and with the island, is meant to communicate the idea that, with these characters, the viewers of the show had enjoyed 6 years of excitement, mystery, and community. These things, the ending insinuated, were the reward and the ultimate purpose, not having all the questions answered.

The ending of Lost was famously frustrating for dedicated viewers. Why? Because built into us (existentially!) is the understanding that there must be a destination, there must by a purpose, there must be a “home” – and that all of our seeking is not actually in vain, but our lives do have a purpose and what we long for does indeed exist.

This is the promise of the entire Bible – from Genesis all the way through Revelation. It is through Jesus Christ that God has provided the way “home” – and it is through Him that we will truly experience the meaning of our existence. This is what Augustine articulated so clearly and compellingly, and yet the modern and post-modern existentialists, while taking elements and motifs of his teachings, missed the ultimate point of both what Augustine taught and life itself.

Summary

In this book, Smith helpfully disseminates some core elements of Augustine’s teachings and connects them to the modern person’s hopes, fears, and dreams in a way that is helpful and hopeful, as he points us to Jesus as the answer to the great riddles.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope you will too!

You Are What You Do: and Six Other Lies About Work, Life, & Love, by Daniel Im

I recently finished reading Daniel Im’s latest book You Are What You Do: and Six Other Lies About Work, Life, & Love.

I have enjoyed Daniel’s work with Ed Stetzer on the New Churches podcast and the book Planting Missional Churches.

I also read Daniel’s first book, No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that Will Transform Your Ministry, and gleaned some great principles from it, particularly the concept of moving from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.”

For more on that, see:

7 Lies

img_3819

In Daniel’s latest book, he explores 7 lies; commonly held beliefs regarding identity, value, and self-worth:

  • You are what you do
  • You are what you experience
  • You are who you know
  • You are what you know
  • You are what you own
  • You are who you raise
  • You are your past

Believing each of these lies will lead to disfunction, disappointment, emptiness, pain, and regret – Daniel says.

In the book, Daniel is very candid about his own struggles with these lies. His stories are so personal, that they draw you in and not only make for compelling reading material, but they help you understand that these are not just abstract ideas for Daniel, they are things about which he has deep, personal knowledge and experience.

Perhaps most compelling of all is the story of him taking a job at a mega-church in Seoul, South Korea, from which he was later fired. He shows the courage to honestly explore his true motivations for taking the job, and why he struggled so much with getting fired and then struggling to find a job upon returning home to Canada.

Using and Fear

These are issues that I can relate to myself. I recently shared at a pastors conference about a time when I was a new pastor, my wife and I had planted a church in Eger, Hungary – and I realized that I wasn’t just doing ministry and serving people, but I was using ministry and using people as a way to affirm myself and build my own sense of identity and self-worth: that I was a pastor, a church planter, and a missionary. However, at the same time I was motivated by fear, because if my ministry didn’t pan out, then I stood to lose not only my job but my entire identity and sense of self-worth!

For more on this, check out: Identity Issues: Function, Labels, Sin & Jesus – which includes a video in which Mike and I discuss times in our lives when we’ve struggled with matters of identity, function, and labels, and how we have discovered the only true, stable, and fulfilling source of identity and self-worth in Jesus.

You Can’t Just Rid Yourself of Lies, You Must Replace Lies with the Truth

There were points in this book where I wondered, “Okay, Daniel is making a great case for why these things don’t fulfill, but is he going to point us to what will fulfill and satisfy?”

And of course, he did. He perfectly wrapped up the issue in the final chapter of the book, and this quote is a good summary of his point:

There is a sense of freedom in knowing what and who you are not. But ridding yourself of these seven lies won’t fill you – it’ll just empty you. Unless you replace these lies with the truth of who you really are, you’ll just find another set of lies – even stronger and more destructive – to replace these with. (p. 172)

In Conclusion…

Daniel Im’s latest book is relevant and timely. It’s the kind of book I wish I would have read as a young man getting a start on life. I would highly recommend it for young adults.

However, this isn’t only a book for young adults, as no one in the world today is immune to these lies. This is a book for everyone.

Here is the one piece of advice I would give in regard to this book: make sure to read all the way to the end. The book is written as a unified whole, rather than a series of stand-alone chapters; there is one big thought and thesis to this book, and if you stop reading before the end, you will miss it.

I congratulate Daniel on writing this book. I hope it will get into the hands of many people and be used by God to not only set them free from lies, but to find the security and freedom of “being found in Christ.”

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:7-9)

Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

Recently I finished reading The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.

Content

When approaching the book, it is important to note that Smith is neither an evangelical nor has he been trained as an academic theologian. He is a sociologist and a professor at Notre Dame University; his writing is scholarly and well-informed, but his purpose is writing this book is to critique a certain tendency which he perceives to be a problem amongst evangelicals. This problem is something he calls “biblicism” – which is basically making the Bible the end-all, be-all source of not only theology, but practical living (including things such as diet, finance, etc.).

Smith’s biggest contention is that biblicism leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which basically means that the Bible can be used to justify several positions which may stand in conflict to one another.

He then asserts that “biblicists” are using the Bible in a way it was never intended to be used, and suggests instead that the Bible should be read through a Christological hermeneutic lens, i.e. that the Bible exists not to be a handbook for everything in life, but for the sole purpose of pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the Christological hermeneutic might seem quite obvious, Smith goes on to state that as a result of this Christo-centric view of Scripture, we therefore do not need to consider all parts of Scripture as equally inspired by God, nor applicable to the modern person. Thus, whatever is written in the New Testament, for example, such as household codes and practical rules for life, does not need to be heeded by the modern person in so much as it does not point to Christ and the saving work of God through Him.

Ultimately, Christian Smith’s biggest assertion is that Jesus himself, rather than the Bible, is what should be considered the “rule of faith,” i.e. the measuring rod by which all things are judged. What is important about his point is that he says that texts and words of the Bible itself should be judged by this rule (Jesus Christ himself), and those parts set aside, which do not align with this “rule.”

Finally, Smith closes the book with a lengthy epilogue in which he complains about those who have not agreed with his claims.

Critique

I agree with Christian Smith’s assertion that some people look to the Bible to be something which God never intended it to be (e.g. “The Daniel Diet” or as a guide for investment practices), and I believe he rightly disassembles the views underlying these practices. However, where the Bible does speak to practical issues of life, it would be foolish to write those off as uninspired, or pick-and-choose based on some arbitrary sense of what you perceive to be really about Jesus.

While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.

I would argue that the Bible was inspired by God with a degree of ambiguity on certain topics by design! On the most important topics (primary theological issues), the Bible speaks without ambiguity, but on secondary issues, there is often, what I believe to be an intended ability and possibility for pluralistic interpretations. The purpose of this? As Smith rightly says: the Bible is not intended to be handbook, or a manual for life, as much as something which trains us how to think and act in a dynamic relationship with God. It is designed in such a way that we must continually be reading it and studying it, as well as engaging with others, as to its interpretation and application for one’s contemporary setting and circumstances. This is by no means to say that there is an infinite horizon of possibilities of interpretation; there are certainly boundaries for interpretation which are defined within the Scriptures themselves (canonical reasoning), but within these boundaries, sometimes there can be multiple options for interpretation and application – and I believe this is by design, and is not the problem which Smith claims it is.

See also: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

The Key Issue

Where I disagree most with Christian Smith is in regard to what constitutes the “rule of faith.” His claim that Jesus is the rule of faith might sound nice at the outset, but it is wrought with difficulties.

First of all, who defines who Jesus is? How do we know who Jesus is, what He is about, or what He thinks or stands for? Those things are passed down for us through tradition, but guess how: through the canon of Scripture! It is through Scripture, which is the recorded, preserved, and affirmed record of apostolic tradition, that we know anything about Jesus.

Furthermore, and very importantly: the Scriptures of the Bible were the “rule of faith” that was used by the church fathers in determining doctrine at the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Conclusion

The Bible Made Impossible was a roller-coaster ride. Some of Smith’s points are excellent, and deserve attention by Christians today, whereas some of his other points seemed either half-baked or completely misguided.

I’m glad I read it, but I would only recommend it to those with a keen ability to “spit out the seeds” and think critically and question what might seem at face-value to be a convincing argument.

Book Review: A Framework for Understanding Poverty

A Framework for Understanding Poverty 5th edition 9781938248016 1938248015This book: A Framework for Understanding Poverty, was recommended to me by Aaron Campbell, who pastors a church in urban Philadelphia: https://antiochphilly.org

While the book is written primarily for educators to understand and help students in poverty, the research and principles outlined in the book have a much broader application.

Poverty is a Theological Issue

Poverty is not only a political and economic issue, for Christians it is also a theological issue. What the Bible has to say on the topic of poverty goes far beyond the statement that “the poor you will always have with you.” (Mark 14:17)

Taken on its own, this statement of Jesus is often used to say that poverty isn’t something that we as Christians need to care about, since we will never succeed in eradicating it prior to the return of Jesus. However, taking a broader look at the Bible reveals that God has a lot to say about poverty.

For example, the books of the minor prophets, particularly Amos, chastise the people of God for not caring for the poor, and even exploiting them. See Amos: Faith that Works.

Amos is not alone in this message, however. We can say that poverty is a result of the fall, i.e. sin in the world. Like sickness, it is a symptom of the present fallen human condition which Jesus will ultimately make right.

Going all the way back to the Law of Moses and throughout the prophets, the message is that God’s people are to watch out for what is called “the quartet of the vulnerable,” i.e. the most vulnerable people in society, who in their case were: widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor. Provisions were made in the Law of Moses to prevent systemic poverty and to provide for the needs of those who wound up in poverty as a result of their own choices.

Poverty is a Lack of Access to Resources

Ruby Payne describes poverty as a lack of access to resources. She explains that poverty is relative to location, but that there are certain behavioral patterns which characterize those in poverty which are true across cultures and national boundaries. Interestingly, to prove this, the author did research not only in urban settings in the United States, but also rural settings and internationally, including in Hungary and Slovakia, places I am very familiar with from having lived in North-East Hungary, near the border with Slovakia. I recognized some of the characteristic behaviors she described both in people I worked with in Eastern Europe, as well as in my own family of origin.

She began the book by dispelling many myths about poverty, such as that poverty is the result of laziness, or that it is limited to minority populations or urban areas. She then went on to describe some of the hardships those in generational poverty (two or more generations) face which often prevent them from escaping. Generational poverty can have damaging effects on the brain, as the constant struggle for survival and the presence of different kinds of predators can prevent the development of skills which are needed for the kinds of success in life which allows someone to escape poverty.

Understanding poverty as a lack of resources is important, because it means – as Payne states – that poverty is not mostly about not having money. It is most significantly about relationships.

The Importance of Faith Communities in Relieving Poverty

Payne states that the most important factor that can help those in poverty is for them to be part of a faith community. This is both because of the spiritual resources which provide hope, or “a future story” as Payne calls it, as well as the social and supportive aspects. This is part of the reason why Paul the Apostle is able to say that though he had no money, in Christ he was rich. For more on this, see the recent message I gave on this topic: The Soul Felt Its Worth

May we as the people of God have the heart of God towards those who are weak and vulnerable in our society, and may we act of His hands and feet!

I found this book very insightful, and I recommend it for anyone looking for a balanced and research-backed approach to understanding this important issue.

 

 

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Hospitality & the Gospel

person handing keys

Home as a Hospital & Incubator

As a member of the lesbian community in Syracuse, New York, Rosaria Butterfield learned what it meant to use her home as a hospital and an incubator, which reflected her values to others. Members of the lesbian community in Syracuse made sure that everyone in their community had keys to each others houses; they looked out for one another and cared for each other. They viewed their homes as oases in a harsh world, and yet they sought to win over their neighbors by being the best neighbors on the block.

These lessons—learned far outside the walls of the church—are instructive for Christians, she says.

It was through the hospitality of a Christian couple in her neighborhood, that Rosaria changed her mind about Christianity. At the time, she was a celebrated professor at Syracuse University. Raised in an atheist home, Rosaria had always assumed Christians to be hateful, judgmental people, who considered people like her enemies. In fact, her interest in spending time with Christians came as a result of her intent to write a book about how Christianity fuels toxic masculinity. As a result, she sought out a Christian couple in her neighborhood, but her interactions with them surprised her and challenged her preconceived notions about Christians, so much so that she began to consider what they had to say about Jesus and the Bible. Ultimately, she embraced the gospel and forsook her lesbian lifestyle. She is now married to a pastor and they have adopted several children. They seek to use their home as a hospital and an incubator for the goal of making disciples of Jesus.

Ground Zero of the Christian Life

In her book, The Gospel Comes with a House KeyRosaria Butterfield describes what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality”, which she argues is “ground zero of the Christian life.”

Rosaria makes a convincing argument for this, pointing to passages like Matthew 25:35–36, in which Jesus talks about hospitality as the litmus test for real faith on judgment day. She also points out Mark 10:28–31, in which Jesus talks about how those who receive the gospel may very well lose a lot in the process of conversion, in order to gain the promises of God’s Kingdom, but that along with eternal life they can also expect to receive a new community. Inclusion in this new community, characterized by radical ordinary hospitality, is what Rosaria equates with receiving a “house key” when one receives the gospel.

Because Christian conversion always comes in exchange for the life you once loved, not in addition to it, people have much to lose in coming to Christ—and some people have more to lose than others.

A Resource for Evangelism

Hospitality, Rosaria explains, is an often under-utilized resource for evangelism as well. Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality, she says, see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom.

The purpose of radically ordinary hospitality is to take the hand of a stranger and put it in the hand of the Savior, to bridge hostile worlds, and to add to the family of God.

She goes on to tell stories of how she and her husband intentionally live below their means, so they will be available and able to use their means to help others on a whim, as needs arise.

God promises to put the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6), and he intends to use your house as living proof.

A Sign to the World

Rosaria describes “radically ordinary hospitality” as: “using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God. It brings glory to God, serves others, and lives out the gospel in word and deed.”

Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like.

Love and/or Approval?

She points out how important it is to reflect Jesus in our relationships. Jesus wasn’t embarrassed to relate to people who were different than him. He understood the difference between love and approval.

She mentions that Christians often ask her, “How can I love my neighbor without misleading them into thinking I approve of what they do?” She advises that we first remember that no one approves of everything that others do. Parents, for example, love their children even at times when they hate the things their children are doing.

Rosaria responds to a question people sometimes ask: “If my neighbors who identify as _________ are in sin, then why are they the nicest people on the block?” To this she responds: “If our Christian worldview cannot account for that, it can survive only in the echo chamber of imaginary theology.” To answer this question, we must understand a few very basic theological principles: 1) all people are recipients of “common grace” to varying degrees, and 2) our problem as human beings is not a lack of “niceness” but a debt of sin before a just and holy God. To put it in simple terms: “Nice people” need Jesus just as much as “not nice people”, because only through Jesus can anyone be redeemed.

Conclusion

Rosaria encourages Christians to be courageously loving rather than fearfully cautious. I was challenged, encouraged, and inspired by The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and I recommend you check it out.

Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ and the Need for Hope

Image result for being mortal atul

I recently finished Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It was given to me by a friend from church who recommended I read it, and I’m glad I did.

The Author and his beliefs

Atul Gawande is an American medical doctor, the son of two doctors who immigrated to the U.S. from India. He was raised nominally Hindu, but by his own admission he is functionally secular and non-religious, and the focus of his book is not at all on giving hope beyond this life, only on dealing with the death from a clinical perspective.

However, I would argue that whatever you believe about the future invariably affects the way you interpret the meaning and purpose of life, as well as how you cope with mortality, and this does come through in some of his conclusions.

Content and Highlights

The book begins with a description of physical changes that happen as people age, beginning at age 35.

Dying Well

Next, Atul Gawande gives a brief history of nursing homes. I found this part very interesting. About 50% of Americans die in nursing homes. Some might say this is very sad, which in some ways it is – however, understanding the way that most people died in the past makes you see that this is actually a great improvement over 100 years ago, when many people died in state-funded “poor houses” which even at their best had awful conditions.

He then goes on to describe the development of “assisted living” facilities, and how many have now deviated from their original purpose and design. He also tells stories of people who have sought to improve these facilities through innovation, such as bringing living things, e.g. plants, animals and children into these homes to improve residents’ quality of life.

While the author does say that the older model of a multi-generational home in which elderly people are cared for at home until they die has some benefits, he also shows its limits and downsides, using his own grandfather as an example.

Palliative Care

Atul also describes the benefits of palliative care for elderly people, which is focused on improving a person’s quality of life rather than on invasive treatments which may reduce a dying person’s quality of life even though they have little to no chance of curing them or significantly prolonging their life.

Even though palliative care has been shown to help improve and often prolong a person’s life, one of the sad things Gawande points out is that many insurance providers have stopped paying for palliative care, but they continue paying for invasive treatments, even if they are unnecessary or unhelpful to patients. This perpetuates a cycle of doing everything possible for patients, even if those treatments are not likely to lengthen their life and will probably make their quality of life worse.

The Big Point

Atul Gawande’s main point is summed up in this statement:

“Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”

He argues that as people live longer and more die of old age, we should be focused on helping people stay in control of their lives as long as possible, achieve their goals, and die with dignity.

A Reason for Living

It is impossible to talk about dying without some sort of existential discussion about what gives life meaning and purpose.

At one point, Atul Gawande references the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce, who said that “simply existing – merely being housed and fed and safe and alive – seems empty and meaningless to us.” He goes on to explain that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves, and it is in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth sacrificing for, that gives our lives meaning.

Royce said that this reason for living was the opposite of individualism. An individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his or her own pain, pleasure and existence as their greatest concern. For the individualist, self-sacrifice makes no sense, but since their own self is the highest cause for which they live, their life has no meaning other than to make themselves happy. Ironically, it is for this reason that happiness and satisfaction will always elude them. For the individualist death is meaningless and ultimately terrifying.

It is for this reason, Gawande explains, that we all need something beyond ourselves and outside of ourselves to live for, and this is why elderly people who have pets, for example, tend to live longer lives.

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning

The problem with Gawande’s search for meaning, is that he has identified a real need, and yet he basically says in the end that since he doesn’t believe there is anything beyond this life, therefore it is better to give someone the illusion that their life has meaning and purpose and value beyond themselves, even though no such thing really exists.

He does mention that people want their lives to make a difference after they are gone, but what he fails to answer is: to what end?  Why should anyone care about what happens after they are gone, if life is actually meaningless, and after this light burns out there is only darkness? From this same logic, a totally selfish existentialism could also be argued for – such as that of the Epicureans: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” – in other words #YOLO – since we only live once, who cares what destruction we leave in our wake for others to deal with?! It’ll be their problem, not ours!

The solution which only the gospel gives

In this search for meaning and purpose, I would argue that it is only the gospel message of Jesus Christ which gives a satisfactory answer to humankind’s search for meaning and hope beyond this life.

It is only the gospel which gives us real hope beyond this life, and a real mission in this life which has more than just illusionary results. In the gospel we have hope for life beyond this one, and the effects of our mission are eternal in nature.

As CS Lewis put it at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia:

“For us, this is the end of all the stories…but for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” – CS Lewis, The Last Battle

In order to truly “die well”, what we need is not just dignity, but HOPE. And this is found only and ultimately in the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Should you read it?

I would recommend Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It was full of important thoughts about the process of dying in Western society today. However, I recommend reading the book with an eye to its one glaring shortcoming: it fails to address the need for and the source of HOPE both for this life and the one to come.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Image result for jordan peterson

Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he has had a meteoric rise in popularity in the media as of late.

One reason for Jordan Peterson’s recent popularity is that he has been able to put words and justification to what many people consider “common sense”, not least of all when it comes to the idea that gender is not a social construct, but is rooted in biology. He then, as a psychologist, gets into the psychology behind this very relevant social issue.

I recently finished reading his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosin which he brings some of his training and experience and makes it very practical, from everything to posture, raising children, and conversation.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Jordan Peterson states emphatically that he is not an atheist (nor does he believe that anyone is actually truly an atheist). He is also not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. He mentions in the book that he received a Christian upbringing, but departed from Christianity once he got out on his own.

Nevertheless, Peterson champions many things which are considered biblical or Judeo-Christian values. He argues convincingly for the doctrine of human depravity, and often uses the word “sin” – a word which even many Christian churches today try to avoid, as they feel it is off-putting and rubs people the wrong way. Jordan Peterson does not shy away from talking about human depravity and the need to take personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.

Peterson quotes generously from the Bible in his book; in fact, I mentioned to someone the other day that Peterson talks about and quotes the Bible more than the authors of many explicitly Christian books I have read!

However, Jordan doesn’t only quote from the Bible, he also attempts to exegete and interpret the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and it is here where I, as a theologian, take issue with what he says.

Presuppositions Influence Interpretation

Anyone who attempts to interpret the Bible will inevitably be influenced in their interpretation by their presuppositions, their commitments to already-held beliefs. None of us are truly objective. We all look at things through various lenses, and those lenses invariably and inevitably affect the conclusions we reach.

As a humanist who buys into the idea that all religions developed as the result of the shared consciousness of particular cultures, Jordan Peterson views the Bible as being a didactic mythology which served to help certain groups of people at certain times. He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.

Thus, rather than taking what the Bible says at face value, he tries to fit it into his own framework of thinking. The reason this is sometimes confusing, is that it is unclear where exactly Jordan Peterson’s worldview comes from. It seems to be influenced by the Bible in large degree, and yet Peterson clearly has other influences, particularly Enlightenment thinkers, who championed the above stated views on the Bible in particular and epistemology in general.

The Irony…

Here’s the irony: while Jordan Peterson (rightly) argues against relativistic approaches to things like understanding gender and hierarchy, he himself has a relativistic approach to epistemology, truth and worldview! He has basically created it for himself, based on what he subjectively decides to borrow from various religions and philosophies.

Back to Issues of Epistemology and Worldview

For example, Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars. It is irresponsible and misleading, in my opinion, for Peterson to state this as if it is accepted fact, without even giving the caveat that this is a theory from the 1800’s which a great number of Bible scholars today (who have studied this subject in much greater depth than he has) no longer accept.

Irresponsible and Uninformed Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Furthermore, I would say that Jordan Peterson practices irresponsible and uninformed biblical exegesis and hermeneutics repeatedly throughout his book, particularly in regard to the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, in Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient), he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working. The difference after the curse, was not that people would have to work (they worked before the curse), but that their work would be characterized by frustration because of the introduction of sin and imperfection into the world.

Another example can be found in his further attempts to exegete and interpret Genesis 3:22-24, where it says that God drove the man and woman out of the garden after they fell into sin, lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Peterson expresses that this action of God seems mean and inexplicable. There is a very good and widely held view on why God did this, based on a clear reading of the text: God – in His mercy! – did not want the man and woman to be cursed to an eternal existence in their fallen state. Rather, he would allow them to die, so that he could then resurrect them once he had accomplished his plan of setting right all that they had done wrong. We call that: the gospel!

Nothing New Under the Sun

In summary, Jordan Peterson speaks with such confidence and bravado that he comes across as an authority, when in actuality he is merely recycling old Enlightenment approaches to the Bible popularized in the 1800’s, which are not considered to be consensus today.

All Injunctions, No Justification

My final critique of Jordan Peterson’s book would be this: he concludes the book by telling people that they must be strong in the face of adversity. He says that life is pain and hardship, but we must be strong in the face of it and persevere. But here’s the problem: he never gives a reason WHY we must persevere! Why push on? Why try to be strong and suffer well?

In other words: If we have no destination, and the journey is painful, then why bother continuing the journey?

Having rejected the hope of the gospel, Jordan Peterson has sawed off the very branch he is standing on, and at the end of his book, his message to be strong and persevere falls flat because he has not shown us that life has an actual telos: a destination, meaning and purpose.

As Christians, we absolutely do have a hope which goes beyond this life, and it is this hope which makes our lives meaningful and worth living, even in the face of hardship. We have a destination, and that destination gives us a mission in this life. Our goal is not only our own happiness, but to use our lives for God’s purposes until we do come into the great eschatological hope of eternal life because of what God has done for us in Jesus.

Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why:

Hebrews 10:24-25 tells Christians to not neglect gathering together, but to seek all the more how we can stir each other up to love and good works.
I just taught that passage last Sunday (audio of that message here), and in my preparation I discovered that the phrase “stir up” essentially means to pester or annoy someone, to not leave them alone. I’m thankful for people who do that in my life.

A friend of mine had been politely pestering me to read James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” for about a year before I finally picked up a copy and started reading it earlier this month. I’m glad I did.

Smith’s basic premise is that all of us are constantly being shaped by “liturgies,” including (and primarily) “cultural liturgies.”

Liturgies, as he uses the term, are not confined or restricted to the order of service in a church worship service. Liturgies are, according to Smith’s use of the word, “rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity—they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us.” Liturgies, wherever they may be found, serve to shape us by forming affections within us.

Smith points out that such liturgies can be found throughout our culture, in places like malls, stadiums and universities, to name a few.

As Christians, it is important that we intentionally submit ourselves to the kinds of liturgies which will shape us into the kind of people we believe we ought to become, and which shape our affections in the right direction.

He points out that our nature as humans is such that we are not so much shaped by our worldviews as our worldviews are shaped by our practices, experiences and affections. Therefore, knowing this, it is important that we submit ourselves continually to the right kinds of “liturgies”.

Liturgies, he explains, “inculcate particular visions of ‘the good life’ through affective, precognitive means, and do so in a way that trumps other ritual formations. In short, they are the rituals that grab hold of our hearts and want nothing less than our love.”

Malls, stadiums and universities are filled with “rhythms, rituals, and spaces which are loaded with meaning; and more specifically, they are loaded with a particular vision, a unique ‘understanding’ of what it means to be a happy, fulfilled, and flourishing person; in short, implicit in these liturgies is an understanding of what it means to be really human.”

It is important therefore, that we recognize the “religious” nature of cultural practices and institutions, and understand that they are not neutral and that participation in them shapes us in very real ways. We should be aware of this fact, and also decide what “liturgies” we want to participate in, in order to shape our affections in the right directions.

He states that this makes it all the more important that Christians focus on creating and practicing our own uniquely Christian liturgies – formative practices which shape us and develop our affections in a particular direction. Christian liturgies include church attendance and participation, reading the Bible and listening to sermons in weekly church services, praying and singing with others, taking communion, being part of a community group, etc. His goal in this is to help us “see the importance and centrality of Christian worship in ways that we perhaps haven’t heretofore.”

I think this is a very important realization: that the reason to participate in church is not only to learn things, but to take part in practices which shape our minds and hearts towards God and His ways. This is why you need church even if you already know “everything” 🙂

There are other reasons as well:

Statistics show that church attendance has a radical impact on families and on the success and health of marriages.

How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend Preparing a Sermon?

I like to joke that as a pastor I only work one day a week, but the truth is that on average most pastors work 50-60 hours a week. This time is spent managing, planning, corresponding – and of course: studying and preparing a sermon.

Sermon preparation can take a lot of time, especially for a perfectionist. I know that I have often certainly spent an inordinate amount of time preparing my sermons before; partly because I consider it a high and holy calling to preach and teach the Word of God, and also because it is something I enjoy doing and I want to do it well, in a way that truly honors God and impacts peoples’ lives.

So how much time should a preacher spend on preparing a sermon?

I heard one well-known pastor say once at a conference that he only spent about four hours per week preparing his message. He then added that this is because he has a team of people who do all of his research for him, and he takes the material they bring him and organizes it into a message. Most pastors don’t have this luxury, nor would they want someone else doing their studying for them.

A friend of mine who pastors a small church told me that he spends 30 hours per week preparing for his Sunday message. He also has a midweek service, for which he prepares about 15 hours. The result of that is that he doesn’t have time for anything else except sermon preparation. In other words: he doesn’t have any time left over to be a pastor (Greek for “shepherd”) to his congregation. He is only a preacher. Particularly in smaller congregations, it is important that a pastor not only be a preacher, but a shepherd, and he and I both agreed that his time allocation in this area was more of a detriment than a blessing to his congregation.

As for myself, in addition to my regular duties as a pastor, I have a wife and young children who I like spending time with, and in the past few months I have taken on hosting a live radio show once a week and I’m studying for my Masters, which requires about 16 hours of my attention every week. All this means that I need to be good at managing my time well, not only for my own benefit, but for the benefit of my family and my church.

8 Hours or Less: Writing faithful sermons faster by [Huguley, Ryan]

So I was intrigued a few weeks ago when a friend recommended this book: 8 Hours or Less: Writing Faithful Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley.  It sounded a bit gimmicky to me at first, but after reading it, I think it’s a great resource that I would recommend. Basically, in the book, he outlines a plan for your week, which has you doing certain tasks each day for an hour or two, which help you focus and write better sermons faster. I think that’s really key; it’s not hard to write sermons faster – the question is if they will be good sermons. The system he lays out is intended not only to improve the speed, but also the quality of sermons.

One part which was foreign to me is that on Tuesdays he has you study the text and review your outline with a small group of people. This is probably the part I was most hesitant about, but the part which I have enjoyed the most.

If the end result is better sermons and more time for a pastor to spend pastoring people,  leading the church and preparing for the future, and having more time for their families, that’s a win-win-win. I recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.