What Seven Thunders Spoke: Why some revelations ought to go unpublished

What Seven Thunders Spoke: Why some revelations ought to go unpublished

The most anxious moment for a blogger is the second just before one hits the button labeled “Publish.”

It is a point of no return.

And it can raise nervous questions:

Will someone try to get me fired for saying this?

Will it be misunderstood?

Could I have phrased this better?

Come to think of it: Is the very exercise of “blogging” only slightly less narcissistic than a suggestive teenage selfie, emblazoned with an out-of-context Bible verse?

(Shut up inner voice! I rebuke you in the name of #Jeremiah_29.11!)

ON PRIVACY SETTINGS

Of course, such questions are not entirely unique to bloggers.

We all wrestle with our “privacy settings.”

And we all hit “Publish” in one way or another.

Hast thou a mouth that thou canst speak?

Hast thou a camera on thy smartphone?

Despite the mild anxiety, the wrestling match can be helpful. Because strange as it may sound in our age of TMI, some “revelations” ought to go unpublished.

Here’s what I mean:

THE SEVEN THUNDERS

In the trippy tell-all book of Revelation, John of Patmos says this about the so-called Seven Thunders:

And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Revelation 10.4).

The command seems somewhat odd, since John is elsewhere ordered to “Write” what he has seen, regardless of its strange or controversial content. Yet in this one instance, just as he is about to click the button labeled “Publish,” the voice of God chimes in–“Don’t do it!!!”

“Do not write this thing that is simultaneously TRUE and NOT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION.”

Did John bristle at the prohibition?

After all, he is not even told the reason for the divine censorship.  He simply gets a very pressing prompt: “Do not write it down.”

Whatever could this have to do with us?

WHY THUNDERS SPEAK TODAY

As most people acknowledge, we badly need a better ethic when it comes to use of social media these days—whether in The White House or the hands of certain mal-adjusted Junior-Highers (*tries hard to ignore the irony in that sentence).

None of us do this perfectly, including me.

Yet as I’ve thought about the button labeled “Publish” in my own life, there are some obvious reasons why certain “Thunders” might deserve to go unpublished.

Here are just a few:

  1. When the point is expressed in a way that is un-necessarily hurtful or sensational. 

In Romans 14, Paul delivers an interesting command with regard to a first-century squabble over food and drink. While agreeing with those (“the strong”) who saw nothing wrong with eating meat and drinking wine in moderation, he also gave this warning to those who were theologically correct:

20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but … 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

In essence, it’s possible to be “Right” in your view, and yet “Wrong” as you press them to the point of harm.

And while this is not a blanket condemnation of all sharp rhetoric (see Jesus, Paul, and pretty much any other biblical prophet), it is a caution against words that are intended merely to get a rise out of others.

  1. When the motive for the telling has been twisted.

Another danger of the Internet is our ability to track how much attention we receive for any given action.

It is the pathology of analytics, and it breeds “tricks for clicks.”

There is thus a constant pressure to say things that will maximize “exposure.” And in some cases, exposure is precisely the right word: as in a cause of death for mountain climbers, and a misdemeanor involving the “indecent.”

In truth, our motives are almost always mixed.

And our aims are often hidden from us.

Is there not a certain irony in this very blog post!? (Inner voice, I warned you!)

As a one of my old professors used to say: “We are a bundle of contradictions”—wanting simultaneously to be seen and to stay hidden. Thus we lock ourselves in the Panopticons of Instagram and Facebook, while grasping feverishly for fig leaves.

Come to think of it: How do I turn off notifications for the Seven Thunders…?

  1. When the “Publishing” may do more harm than good.

I joked in a prior post that the Hebrew word blogger translates roughly to “Not helping.”

And like all humor, it’s only funny if there is truth to it.

On that point, I often wonder if some Christian attempts (including my own…) to “speak prophetically” do not actually make the situation worse (See here for more along those lines).

In such moments, we end up as the theological equivalent of those trying to ban books. The result is always a bestseller, even when the book is lame.

On the other hand, this so-called “Hippocratic worry” can lead to dangers of its own. It may mean cowardly silence in the face of injustice or a dangerous equation of positions that are actually quite different (See here on how this happened with white pastors in the Civil Rights era).

The fear of offending may also lead to a weak-kneed, boring style of writing that lacks punch, humor, and engagement with issues that actually matter.

“I never discuss anything but politics and religion,” remarked Chesterton, “There is nothing else to discuss.”

While that’s not quite true, it is certainly true enough to discourage the politico-religious equivalent of spaying or neutering our public discourse.

Sometimes we should speak up (as the saying goes) even if our voice shakes.

CONCLUSION

Despite such qualifiers, the reminder of Revelation 10 is both simple and profound: Some points are not (yet) meant for public consumption, despite their honesty or truth-value.

And so we end as we began: in that moment just before the “Publish.”

Listening for revelation, and for the quiet voice that might say “Do not write it.”

Still learning how to say “Perhaps”

Still learning how to say “Perhaps”

Over the past few months, I’ve been working up a book proposal based on a blog post from 2016:

Christian, learn to say ‘Perhaps'”

It’s about reclaiming what I call the sacred middle ground between “Doubt” (pervasive skepticism) and “Dogmatism” (abrasive certainty).

The alternative is something that I’ve dubbed “Faith seeking imagination” (fides quaerens imaginationem).

I’m excited about the project, and I hope to hear back from a publisher this month.

In the meantime, I had the chance to preach on the topic last Sunday–using the story of Gen. 22 (Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac) as a guide.

My big idea was fairly simple: Sometimes, believing in God’s supernatural providence means learning how to say “Perhaps.”

Priscilla versus John Piper

Priscilla versus John Piper

An Open Email from “Apollos of Alexandria”

Is it too much to wish that our departed saints might occasionally return to Earth in to “weigh in” on our contemporary issues?

Probably.

The heavenly commute can be a doozy.

Still, I found myself wishing this past week that “Priscilla” of the early church might come do for John Piper what she once did for another gifted but ill-informed male preacher.

Namely:

“[explain] to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18.26).

I speak specifically of Piper’s recent claim that women should NOT be allowed to serve as seminary professors.

A CAVEAT

Before adding yet more fuel this fire (after all, the Hebrew phrase for “Not helping” is pronounced Blogger), a brief caveat is in order:

I do not think that all so-called “complementarians” are the sexist trolls that they are sometimes painted as — many are just trying to be true to Scripture.

And I am thankful for John Piper’s ministry in certain ways.

His book Desiring God was a game-changer for me.  I respect that he holds true to his convictions even when he knows they are unpopular.  And I’ve greatly appreciated some of his statements on racial reconciliation and the need for evangelicals to proclaim the gospel over (say) partisan politics.

I don’t dislike Piper.

But I do disagree with what he said last week.

“I SUFFER NOT A WOMAN”

And while I understand his argument, I couldn’t help but note that it might come as a surprise to the greatest (male) preacher of the early church: Apollos of Alexandria.

As the book of Acts implies, Apollos received his “seminary education” partly from Priscilla, who took his gift for persuasive rhetoric and combined it with what he lacked: a more nuanced theology (Hmm…).

Could she not do that for someone else?

Say, a Baptist from Minnesota?

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Piper would listen to Priscilla.

After all, she is a woman.

Perhaps though it might be possible to get a letter through—or at least, an email. Not from Priscilla, but from the famous man that she helped train for ministry: Apollos.

Would Piper listen to him?

Thankfully, it just so happens that I’ve “found” just such an email.

And lest some doubt its authenticity, consider this:

  1. It resides on the same (non-existent) email server as all those Bible verses that say women can’t be seminary Profs.
  2. It came from an “AOL” account, so I know it’s from the first century.

Subject: RE: “I suffer not a woman”

Date: Friday, January 26, 2018 at 3:04 PM CST (Celestial Standard Time)

From: Apollos of Alexandria (Apollos_Creed777@aol.net)

To: John Piper

Attachments: The Book of Acts

 

Dear John,

Can I call you John?

I realize it may sound informal, but when you’ve been on a first name basis with “Paul,” you mostly drop the honorifics.

I’ll get right to it; I think you know why I am writing.

While I respect your attempt to be faithful to those passages that might seem to prohibit women from the full usage of their Spirit-given gifts, you know full well that there are other (well-supported) readings of those texts (see here, here, here).

My goal though, John, is not to swap proof-texts (of which I have my own…).

Instead, it is merely to recount my story, because as you will see—WE HAVE MANY THINGS IN COMMON:

  1. Like you, I was highly educated: While you got your PhD in Germany (Meine Glückwünsche!), I was trained in Alexandria. No biggie, but our old “school library” was way more famous.
  2. Like you, I was steeped in a patriarchal culture: If people think you value “male headship,” they should have seen me in my day! (That is, before I met a certain female teacher.)
  3. Like you, I became a gifted preacher—with scores of loyal “fan boys.” I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been called the greatest preacher of the early church. And while YouTube wasn’t there in the first-century, I’m confident that my “followers” rivaled yours in zealotry. Almost. (See 1 Cor. 3: “I follow Apollos…”).
  4. Like you, I brought my baggage with me to the task of biblical interpretation: We all do. So while you moderns often think you’re obeying the “literal” and “plain sense” word of Scripture, the reality is (sometimes) more complicated.
  5. And like you, I had not fully grasped the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. As you know from the book of Acts (see attached), my great shortcoming was that I “knew only the baptism of John.”

Despite my gifting and my influence, I had not yet fully realized the change that happened as God’s Spirit was poured out “on all flesh” (Acts 2.17).

On all flesh, John.

In Acts 2, it specifically, it says that “sons and daughters,” “men and womenwill join the ranks of God’s prophets. (Have you not read of the daughters of Philip? Have you not heard of Phoebe’s role as a the first interpreter of Romans? Have you not heard of Junia, the apostle?)

To be blunt, my friend, I fear that in this sense (though not in others), you too “know only the baptism of John.”

Which brings me to Priscilla.

PROFESSOR” PRISCILLA

Let me remind you about her:

She was a Gentile, high-born, and well-educated.

She was a member of the Roman nobility, and better schooled than most all women of the period. (Picture: Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. You know you watched it, John).

Yet she married a Jew, who was a former slave.

It was not only an interracial marriage, but also a union across classes.

“Aquila” wasn’t even his real name.

As ancient records show, it was likely the name of her family—which he took on through marriage

Did you catch that John? He took her name. (I know!!!)

Their marriage showed the full extent to which the Spirit transformed boundaries between race and class and (yes) gender!

The couple was, of course, from Rome—but they moved East as refugees when Claudius expelled the Jews.

Since Priscilla wasn’t Jewish, she could have stayed amongst her family, wealth, and privilege. But she didn’t. Talk about mutual, voluntary submission!

It was around that time that I met them.

As you can relate, I had come into the local “pulpits” with a heady mix of knowledge, boldness, and a penchant for robust debate (Sound familiar?).

But there was one thing I lacked—a fuller understanding of the Spirit’s work.

Ironically, given my great learning and my patriarchal background, it took a female “seminary Prof” to teach that to me.

As a fellow Jew, “Aquila” also helped. (I don’t want to discount his role!) But as you might guess, it was Priscilla who had the academic pedigree to explain to me “the way of God more adequately.”

Their union was a parable for what the New Covenant looks like.

God brings together different races, classes, AND GENDERS for the work of training and equipping Christian ministers.

Actuality implies possibility, John.

And the fact that God used this gifted and well-educated woman to train me shows that he can do it for others—even you.

In fact, to deny this (fittingly, on account of your own name!) is to prefer only “The baptism of John.”

 

Sincerely,

Apollos of Alexandria

 


For a related post, see “The Other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter” (here).

Note: Evidence on the family background of Priscilla and Aquila was taken from Reta Halteman Finger, Roman House Churches Today for Today, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

Is beauty a guide to God?

Is beauty a guide to God?

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

Thus begins the poignant novel by Julian Barnes (Nothing to Be Frightened Of).

The story represents a wrestling match with mortality in a post-Christian age. Yet my interest in it pertains to a much narrower topic: what one might call the Aesthetic Argument for faith; that is, the argument from beauty.

The question runs as follows:

Can the experience of beauty be a guide to God?

The possibility is raised by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular. In his words:

[Barnes] seems, if not tempted, at least intrigued by an aesthetic argument […] : that religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it,” […] It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel.  

“A helluva novel.”

While there are several classical arguments for God’s existence (see Aquinas’ Five Ways), it should not surprise you that this isn’t one of them.

Yet consider also the words of a very different source, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). As he writes:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.

For the former Pope: sainthood speaks to “goodness,” while artwork points to “beauty.”

Yet as Rod Dreher notes (here), neither goodness nor beauty are, strictly speaking, arguments at all.  But they can be gateways to truth—like what Francis Schaefer called “pre-evangelism.”

They are, to use the phrase of N.T. Wright, “the echo of a voice.”

The idea, for both Barnes and Benedict, is that even atheists and agnostics have moments in which they are—for lack of a better word—ambushed by an aching beauty.

And more specifically, a beauty that bespeaks Transcendence.

Amidst doubt and skepticism, there comes a haunting sense that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins).  And at certain moments: “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.”

Behold the (non-)argument for God from beauty.

EVOLUTIONARY ART 

But surely there is a natural explanation for this feeling. Right?

Indeed, several thoughtful ones have been proposed.

The most popular evolutionary argument (see here) for how art emerged has to do with its benefits in attracting mates. We have art, so to speak, because the artist got the girl and produced offspring

(That’s true actually.  Just ask my wife.  Incredibly, my youthful musical skills managed to mask both my acne and my near total lack of long-term earning potential. We have four kids.)

Still, there is a problem with the purely evolutionary argument.

In short, it tells us why artists might a procreative advantage now, but it fails to show why anyone should have found such art beautiful or moving in the first place.

As should be obvious, the meaning must precede the mating, or there is no evolutionary advantage to such artistry.

And to all appearances, this beauty-conciousness is hard-wired into us.

To be human is to be unique as homo artifex.

And there are few analogues within the animal kingdom. My dog leaves the room when I pull out the guitar, and she was mostly “meh” on last year’s Oscar nominees.

We alone seemed awed by beauty. Perhaps, then, the former Pope and the agnostic author (Barnes) were on to something.

Life itself is, to quote Barnes, “a helluva novel.”

But do not all novels have an Author?

NOT PROOFS, PERSISTENT WHISPERS

In the end, my own view is that there are no ironclad “proofs” of God’s existence—much less of the more specific question of “Which god?”

Metaphysics doesn’t work that way.

And perhaps it’s for the best.

Because in the worst cases, such “proofs” come into conversations like Elijah’s earthquake on the mountaintop. They thunder through the internet and through theology textbooks.

But as with Elijah:

“the LORD was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19).

If you want proofs, take math.

The Christian God desires trust sans certitude.

Hence, as with Elijah: He comes (often) in the “whisper” (1 Kings 19.12).

Thankfully, however, in moments of transcendent beauty, such whispers can be annoyingly persistent.

“The lower classes smell”

“The lower classes smell”

Why our ideas matter less than we think.

Back in 1937, George Orwell claimed this about the divisions within British society:

The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: The lower classes smell (~Road to Wigan Pier).

The statement sounds offensive and reductionistic. Perhaps it is.

Yet Orwell’s goal was actually to challenge his fellow highbrow socialists on whether their ideas about dismantling the class structure were actually strong enough to work in the field—where people live, and sniff.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Wigan Pier):

Orwell’s point is that the root of class distinctions in England is not intellectual but olfactory.  The habits and rhythms of the system are not so much cerebral as visceral; they are rooted in a bodily orientation to the world that eludes theoretical articulation, which is why theoretical tirades also fail to displace it. … “For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.”

In other words, you cannot solve a gut-level problem with a philosophy.

The visceral trumps the voluntary; fundamental dispositions are more caught than taught; and the “nose” (now speaking metaphorically) is mightier than the brain.

Now the kicker:

Almost every other kind of discrimination could be countered theoretically, with the weapons of facts, ideas, and information, “But physical repulsion cannot.”

What does this have to do with us?

Just this:

In America, we seem to have entered a cultural-political climate in which both sides are “physically repulsed” by one another. Sickened, even.

And sometimes for good reason.

Yet if this is so, then one should strongly question our ability to bridge the gap with education, rational discourse, or (gasp) blog posts. Orwell’s point is this: revulsion trumps reason every time—try as we might to overcome it.

In short, our “ideas” are not nearly as important for the way we engage the world as we would like to think.

As Smith argues, we are not primarily “thinking things” as Descartes posited. Nor even “believing things” as much of Christian culture claims. Even demons believe (Jms. 2.19).

For Smith, both of these mistaken anthropologies place too much emphasis upon the cognitive realm (“ideas”), whereas the Bible focuses more upon reforming the heart, the gut, or even “the bowels.”  (Even the biblical references to renewal of the “mind” are not given in a Cartesian sense.)

We are primarily loving-desiring beings.

And as such, much of our behavior is the product of pre-cognitive, affective, gut-level, and visceral reactions.

“The lower classes smell.”

But how does one disciple the olfactory senses?

How do “the bowels” get redeemed?

Next time.

 


See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (here). For a less academic version of Smith’s argument, see You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (here).

Jesus + Wine

Jesus + Wine

I’ve been behind on blogging lately as I’ve been working on other writing projects (more on that soon!).

As a partial remedy, here is a sermon that I preached Sunday on one of my favorite passages: Jesus turning water into what would have amounted to 757 bottles (do the math) of the choicest wine (Jn. 2).

Contrary to popular portrayals of Christianity–both by detractors and adherents–one takeaway is this: The pursuit of Christ (and holiness) is simultaneously the pursuit of Joy. 

Jesus is not the celestial equivalent of Ned Flanders; he is not a cosmic killjoy.

He is Lord of the Feast, and the bringer of overflowing life.

The wedding feast at Cana proves this, along with many other fascinating things.

As I note in the message, the outline takes cues from Tim Keller’s fantastic sermon: “Lord of the Wine.” Also, for more of the Bacchus / C.S. Lewis connection, see my prior post (here: “Saving Bacchus”).

Hope everyone is having a feast-worthy week!

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

“How many children do you have?”

That was the seemingly innocuous question that I asked my new acquaintance as we sat around the chips and salsa at our local Chili’s.

Like most parents, he answered with a number. Then he said the part that I had not expected:

“We had two miscarriages. And we always count those.”

While I responded with empathy, I recall thinking that most of us (myself included) do not publically number our children to include the little lives that never made it to delivery.

And on many levels, that is understandable.

We all deal with grief differently.  And it would be wrong to force one way of processing a failed pregnancy on others.

OUR MISCARRIAGE

About a year and a half ago Brianna and I walked through our own experience of miscarriage. And while it was sad for me, at the time, I was primarily concerned for her well-being.

After hearing a noise in our house, I came into our bedroom to find Brianna unconsciousness from blood loss.  I panicked.  Then I phoned my mom to watch our kids; I carried Brianna’s (now) semi-conscious body to the car, did my best to place her inside, and then drove us to the hospital.

Thankfully, she was soon okay.

But the baby had been deceased for several days.

Later, as some readers can relate, there was the awkward reality of having already told some folks that we were pregnant, and now having to explain.  Partly because of this, Brianna chose to share publically that she had lost a pregnancy.  And soon after, she was overwhelmed by the many friends and family who then confided their own stories–some far more traumatic than our own.

It happens often.  But that doesn’t make it nothing.

CONSISTENTLY PRO-LIFE

In Christian circles, one hears much about the need to be “Pro-Life,” and rightly so.

While the issue of abortion is polarizing, my own view leans on both Scripture and science to conclude that an unborn child is indeed a sacred human life, however small.

Even so, the consistent application of my “Pro-Life” stance involves much more than just abortion. It is a virtue that spans from womb to tomb, and sweeps up everything from welfare to warfare within its complicated wake.

I aim to be consistently Pro-Life.

Yet this too raises questions as to how I “count” our miscarriage.

WORDSWORTH OVER CHIPS AND SALSA

In a slightly different vein, something like my Chili’s conversation also happens in a classic poem by William Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”; pub. 1798).

Its verses recount an exchange between a traveler and a simple peasant girl.

The traveler asks:

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, / How many may you be?”

“How many? Seven in all,” she said, / And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.” / She answered, “Seven are we; / And two of us at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie, / My sister and my brother; / And, in the church-yard cottage, I / Dwell near them with my mother.”

Yet this statement brings confusion to the traveler: “I thought that you said seven.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea, / Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, / Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

The misunderstanding, of course, involves the girl’s counting of her two dead siblings (“who in the church-yard lie”) as present members of her family.

Unfortunately, the mathematical modern adult doesn’t get it:

“You run about, my little Maid, / Your limbs they are alive; / If two are in the church-yard laid, / Then ye are only five.”

WE ARE SEVEN

As I read the poem recently (outside, on a nice morning, as is legally required of Wordsworth), it struck me that perhaps the number “seven” reflects our family too.

For if I were to begin consciously “counting” the child that we lost to miscarriage, then we would indeed be Seven. –(1) Brianna, (2) Josh, (3) Lucy, (4) Penny, (5) Ewan, (6) Baby unnamed, (7) Teddy.

And while I have no plans to begin saying this whenever someone asks about my children, perhaps it is a more consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves “Pro-Life.”

After all, the weight of Wordsworth’s poem lies in the child’s stubborn insistence that death does not erase a child from the family roll.

To live at all is to be woven forever into the fabric of “present personhood.” We are eternal.

For to use Donne’s metaphor, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” And while death is powerful and grievous, it cannot tear out words and pages from this book.  It can only translate them–if they be written in Christ’s blood–“into a better language.”

The trouble, however—as my two-year-old reminds me daily—is that children learn new “languages” far easier than grown-ups.

Thus even our ostensibly “Christian” thinking about miscarriage can often leave us thinking as only slightly more cordial versions of Wordsworth’s adult traveler, in need of child-like wisdom:

“How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” / Quick was the little Maid’s reply, / “O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” / ’Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will, / And said, “Nay, we are seven!