From Psalm 73 (2-8):
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.
In some psalms, the enemies in question are actual mortal wartime adversaries (like the people chasing David and trying to literally kill him), but in many situations (like that above), the opponents are not so clear. Who were “the wicked” the psalmist is speaking of in cases like this?
Foreigners? Kings and rich nobles is far off Egypt of Babylon? Doubtful. His knowledge of them would have been only a rumor. And even if he did know something of them, they are too distant, both physically and psychologically, to envy potently. He would have never met any of these actual folks. Their rich lives in far off lands might as well have been on another planet. He was in no danger of despairing over the lack of something he didn’t know first-hand or likely even second-hand. So no, not rich foreigners. The wicked he was fretting about must have been much closer to home. (Girard’s insights about proximity are helpful here.)
So were there wicked men in Israel? You bet. Who were they, rogue aliens who didn’t care about God’s law? No – the few aliens that were living in Israel at the time were either literal slaves or at least of the servant class. They couldn’t have been anything like the reckless high-rollers the psalmist is angered over.
So who were these “wicked” men whose eyes “bulged with abundance” and who were “not in trouble as other men”? They must have been the guy’s own proper Jewish neighbors – men with families close by to him – people he actually ran into on the street all the time. And what were these wicked men doing? Well, probably not anything particularly illegal. This psalm was written during the reign of King David. The government was strong and largely just. Local law enforcement would have been functional. The priests in the temple were in full operation. This wasn’t the lawless wild west or some place like modern Somalia or central Iraq where local thug warlords controlled each town. No, the “wicked” things these people were doing was stuff unlikely to get them thrown in jail. Maybe some of what they did was shielded by bribes and hush money, but for the most part these evil men were seemingly law-abiding citizens minding their own business.
So what were the doing that was so bad? All I can figure is that they were oppressing their subordinates: treating their servants like slaves, cheating their tenants, dealing dishonestly in their business, keeping mistresses under the table, paying off the cops when their kids got into trouble, indulging in luxury and drinking $1000 wine from Phonecia while they foreclosed on the poor people renting their land. They were raking in the bucks at the expense of their fellow humans. After long years of this, they had amassed wealth to flaunt in various ways as they meandered around the city tending to their daily affairs. People feared and respected them because of their wealth and would listen attentively whenever they would run their mouth about whatever topic was on their mind.
Everything seemed peachy for them – they had tons of food and a nice place to live. Had all their oppression caused them to have “bad karma” and experience personal disaster? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like they were living the high life, permanently. What’s somewhat ironic is that most of these folks would probably be considered important people or “pillars” of the community, rather than shady creepers. They weren’t like a criminal drug-dealer today, but more likely a “respected” businessman, university president, or elder. Why wouldn’t they be? But the people that interacted with them closely on a daily basis would realize they were deeply corrupted. Their position they maintained, causing the more honest among their subjects much consternation.
“And look at me”, the just man says. “I’ve obeyed all the rules and what do I have? Just a bunch of debt. Also, some goats I sold to a guy last week got sick and died on him and he wants his money back. I gave it back to him, but now I’m really hurting. I could have been like the rich and screwed that guy over and kept the cash. Heck, if I had done that, then I could have fixed that leaky roof and got my wife to stop complaining for a while. Why didn’t I do that? What do I get for being honest? Nothin’ but trouble.”
Today though, who do we often think of as “the wicked” in this psalm? Evil foreign dictators. Corrupt politicians, especially perhaps the current President or Prime Minister and his entourage. The CEO of some big oil company maybe. The thing they have in common is they are all highly-visible people in the public square. They are also people you’ve never met and who probably live thousands of miles away from you. The only reason you know anything about them is from consuming modern journalism.
The information age allows our envy and anger (just or otherwise) to cast a much wider net than it did in the time of the psalmist. Our personal accompanying images are different, giving the scripture a different flavor when we read it. The truth remains the same though. Dwelling on this seeming inequality is disheartening and poisonous. The antidote is the same – “the sanctuary of God” - communion with one’s creator, and via that some good eschatology – replacing present outrage with trust.
For several years now, I’ve regularly led worship (meaning, play guitar and sing) at the evangelical church I attend. My wife often joins in playing bass or flute and whistle. My oldest daughter has also contributed her violin for much of the past year. I’ve always played on the only guitar I own – a nylon-string classical leftover from the days in college when I would stay up listening to Antigoni Goni records all night. It’s never been the best tool for the medium, but I dared not try to acquire something else while adoption expenses and myriad medical bills perpetually loomed.
But alas, through various fortunes and blessings, I now have a new and nicer guitar with which to stir the congregation to their feet to sing an old hymn, or some Chris Tomlin anthem. In the off hours, it will enable me to project the correct timbre as I try to hack by way through Celtic pieces. By my calculations, I’ve achieved a level of proficiency equal with Pierre Bensusan – when he was about 14 years old. Bonus, the G string actually stays in tune. It’s pretty sweet.
Last night while perusing my book shelf, I decided to pick up and reread part of one of the classics of Pentecostal “deliverance” ministry – They Shall Expel Demons by Derek Prince. Now Prince is one of those “demon hunter” guys who sees evil spirits at work in virtually every personal or psychological hang-up. He’s a bit over the top. I’ve never been a big fan of this approach to the world, but it’s difficult to get around some of the questions Prince asks with regards to prevalence of exorcism in the New Testament. They are questions we should be able to grapple with.
The basic idea is as follows:
In the Gospel accounts and in Acts, Jesus and the apostles frequently encounter demons. It’s not just a couple of isolated cases, but a frequent occurrence. Luke uses the phrase “unclean spirit” nearly twenty times. When Jesus sends forth the 72 disciples, their success as exorcists is highlighted on their return. Years later, Paul is casting out demons from people right and left.
Beyond the scriptural accounts, who of the early church fathers believed that the work of demons disappeared after the first century? None as far as I know. Their presence and continued activity were assumed throughout the Medieval period. It’s only with the enlightenment age and the rise of rationalism that we see them fade into the dubious status they hold today.
In the modern church, I think a major pillar supporting this state of things is cessasionist theory. Cessasionists believe that the early Christian gifts or “magic” powers of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and divine healing are permanently gone and no longer in operation. Christians who believe they still DO work today are usually referred to as “charismatics”. Well, one particular tool that seems to have been flushed down the drain with the other miraculous sign gifts, was that of exorcism. It’s a little bit of a gray area since casting out demons is not right next to speaking in tongues on the usual lists in scripture. It’s status as a spiritual gift (though obviously something done via the Holy Spirit) is not as clear cut. Nevertheless, it appears to have been grouped in with all the other “magic” looking things the Holy Spirit USED to do a long time ago and stuffed in the first century closet. That makes sense, but it implies something that we should all find somewhat worrisome.
If the “tool” used to cast out demons no longer exists in the church, does that mean there are no more demons? That’s it, their all gone? They were crawling all over the place in the first century but… now they’re not? The few apostles in operation around the Mediterranean Sea got ‘em all? The rest just got tired and gave up? Does any of that sound just a little bit fishy to you?
“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that, but most people know it from Keyser Soze and the movie “The Usual Suspects”.
Still, do you see what cessasionist theory essentially demands? No casting out demons, ’cause no demons. Boom. That simple. No tools? Well the work must be done. You have to build a house in the wilderness but you were only given hammer and nails? Just ignore all those trees and keep looking for the nice stack of finished lumber. If you were supposed to chop down the trees, the hardware store wouldn’t have been sold out of chainsaws, clearly.
Well, check out the last few chapters of Revelation – supposedly set far in the future. The demons – they’re all still there. What, are they all just too busy watching TV right now? Imprisoned so we need not bother with them? So easily defeatable now that simply saying “Jesus” out loud (no spiritual gifts required, but thanks!) is enough to do the trick? The “kinds that only come out with prayer and fasting” (to quote the Son of God) completely and utterly out of the picture? The fact that the New Testament spends so much time talking about them must just be a historical curiosity. Oh well.
Deep thinkers and philosophers out there who study the scriptures – does that answer not seem just a bit on the hokey side to you? I think so. I’m not suggesting we all follow the path of the Pentecostal “demon hunter” or anything like that, but I DO think we need a better demonology. The Roman Catholics have one actually, even if it has its own strange issues, but still – better than nothing. Let’s not have nothing. The devil would love it if we had nothing.
Reading Tolkien to the children the past few months, I can’t help but notice how much the characters in The Lord of the Rings speak of songs of heroic deeds. Many of them wonder at the writing of verse and whether anyone will be around to hear it sung. In fact, they do this more frequently than they actually sing themselves. The works exist in Tolkien’s vast appendices of course, but in the novel proper, it is mostly contemplation and analysis. I think perhaps this is Tolkien’s own voice speaking here rather than Sam’s or Merry’s.
Today we still honor soldiers in various ways, but songs and ballads have fallen into disuse. It’s too bad really – not because we so desperately need to preserve the memory of war in art, but because it gave us something to sing about besides love and death.
There are exceptions though. What might a modern song of man and deed look like? It could look like this wonderful song, ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’, written by Mark Knoffler and featuring James Taylor. It draws on the 1997 historical novel Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon about the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomers and surveyors in the mid-1700s. What a curious topic for a song today, but gosh is it fabulous on many levels. It may be about scientists on the American frontier, but it feels closer to a lay about Helm Hammerhand than anything else you might stumble upon on pop radio.
Sailing to Philadelphia
I am Jeremiah Dixon
I am a Geordie boy
A glass of wine with you, sir
And the ladies I’ll enjoy
All Durham and Northumberland
Is measured up by my own hand
It was my fate from birth
To make my mark upon the earth
He calls me Charlie Mason
A stargazer am I
It seems that I was born
To chart the evening sky
They’d cut me out for baking bread
But I had other dreams instead
This baker’s boy from the west country
Would join the Royal Society
We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line
Now you’re a good surveyor, Dixon
But I swear you’ll make me mad
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad
You talk of liberty
How can America be free
A Geordie and a baker’s boy
In the forests of the Iroquois
Now hold your head up, Mason
See America lies there
The morning tide has raised
The capes of Delaware
Come up and feel the sun
A new morning has begun
Another day will make it clear
Why your stars should guide us here
We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line
Here, Peter Leithart points out the curious language surrounding Sarai’s plan to have Hagar bear a son for Abraham.
Sarai’s goal is to obtain children, but the Hebrew of Genesis 16:2 says literally “perhaps I can build [myself] from her.” For Sarai, having a son is a construction project, which builds her.
The phrasing goes back to Genesis 2, where Yahweh constructs (banah, build) Even from Adam’s rib. Sarai wants to be the new Eve, the built woman, not by being formed from her husband’s rib but by having, through her maid, her husband’s son.
In Sarai (later Sarah’s) eyes, what’s important is that the son be of the flesh of Abraham. Whether she is the mother or not is incidental. She is determined and not without resources. What she does with her slave Hagar is done by her own concerted will. This brings to mind a phrase from the New Testament.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
“The will of the flesh”, and “the will of man” – I’ve often thought the presence of both phrases was redundant, but now it seems not. It was Sarai’s will to “build” a son in some fashion, even if not with her own flesh. The widespread use of in vetro fertilization and surrogate mothers today, along with the “light” eugenics that goes along with the practice (scrutinizing eggs for possible disease) seems also to be a sort of building. This would definitely fall under the category of “will of man” rather than “will of the flesh”, hence the differentiation. The having of children is a much richer topic than sex.
Our salvation on the other hand comes from neither power, but from God whose love for us is not so much engineered from what was lying around, but rather inherit in the architecture from before the earth itself was formed.
“The best code is no code.” is something wise computer programmers will say from time to time. I think this is actually an alternate way to say “convention over configuration”, another frequently heard bit of philosophy in software development circles. Though some pragmatic reason is usually given (performance, simplified maintenance, lower cost, etc.) I think the underlying natural force behind these ideas is a desire for the conservation of language. The richer the vocabulary, the fewer words it takes to say something specific and the fewer verbose instructions are required. When you are limited to only a handful simple words, it can take a great deal of rambling to communicate an idea. It may even be impossible.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
What are the kings (or we) doing exactly? Figuring out how things work, yes, but immediately after that, or concurrently with that, they are naming things. They give things new names, they enrich the vocabulary. It now takes fewer words to describe a platypus because you can say “platypus” instead of, “That funny animal that looks like a cross between a beaver and a duck, you know what I mean?”.
So what exactly is God doing when he conceals things (his glory to do so)? He’s enchanting the world. He’s making it richer such that the words we have right now are NOT ENOUGH to describe it adequately. And we’re not stupid. We give it a shot and we immediately recognize that our vocabulary sucks. Not only that, but we can’t come up with a new name JUST YET. During the process of thinking of one, it become clear that we don’t really understand what we’re talking about. We don’t want to give it just any old name. It’s only satisfying if we give it a GOOD name. And so we must investigate what it is – tear it apart to discover how it works, or handle it for a long enough time.
People imagine Adam sitting casually on a rock and naming the animals in the garden by assigning new gibberish words to them, thus endowing the combination of syllables with meaning. But if Adam is anything like us at all, he would have thought about and investigated each animal for quite some time before deciding on a name. He might have even changed it around a bit as he went and gone back and made corrections as his observation broadened. It would have taken a long time. It would have been hard work to do a good job. He would have worked hard but he would have enjoyed it. It could have taken years. I wonder if he was done by the time the incident with the serpent happened? Maybe he thought he was done, but on that point he would have been very wrong. We, his grandchildren – billions of cousins we are – have only scratched the surface.
We think we’re so clever since we can now talk about the electromagnetic spectrum and Adam couldn’t but that wouldn’t have made his job any easier or his creative names any less impressive. The disconnect between the words and tools we have and the reality we are trying to describe is still just as vast. We try to talk about the distance between the stars using words like “red shift” and “dark matter” and “the expanding universe”. He tried to talk about the difference between two pine trees with novel words like “edges”, “points”, and “leaves”. Oh with what joy he would have leapt if the word “needle” and its full meaning were available for his task! It’s such a better word. What key word are we missing when we talk about deep space? Not sure… yet. It is concealed.
Unit tests fix a real problem, but I’ve seen them make a project’s size triple. Now things are actually worse because your code is LESS maintainable, but you’ve deceived yourself into thinking it’s MORE so because of the tests. You pat yourself on the back for best practices and test coverage, even while your app breaks in the wild and the smallest feature changes now take 40 lines of work instead of 4. I think the best measure of whether some architectural element really is an improvement is brevity. At the end of the day, are you saying more with less? (Or at least the same with less?) Are you actually typing less crap in the long run? If the answer is “no”, then I suggest it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
One more example and I’ll be done – dependency injection, or “inversion of control” as it’s sometimes called. It’s a good idea and a useful way to run your software with simulated data for testing, or even an entire simulated environment. The problem is that with most implementations, it greatly increases the number of moving parts. A simple configuration approach might be 20 lines long, all in one file, and immediately readable and easy to adjust. I’ve seen dependency injections schemes span 20 files, invoke arcane syntax, introduce all kinds of mysterious reflection libraries, and even kill performance in some cases. “Oh but then your not doing it right!” the advocates yell. Well no kidding, but the people I know that DO do it right – many have them have eventually abandoned the practice, or at least scaled it back dramatically – only using it in certain cases. At the end of the day it was a lot more code, new jargon aside. But the best code is no code.
Take a deep breath and try again. You are Adam naming the animals.
Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. – Micah 3:12
The temple mount “like a wooded height” – a curse of de-civilization is pronounced here. Just as man’s body returns to dust, so his works return to nature.
Trees take a terribly long time to grow, but they do eventually. A friend of mine used to work as accountant for Weyerhauser, which produces lumber and paper. He told me an interesting fact. The company has been buying up forests all over America for over a hundred years and now controls about 14 million acres. And here’s the deal – after it logs an area, it plants new trees. And then they just sit and wait. Whole careers come and go and generations pass, and the forest grows up from nothing and then after about 50 years, all the trees are back and they cut them down again. It’s a completely sustainable and renewable resource because they make sure to cut them down at the same rate they are growing up. Environmental advocates might be horrified at the prospect of cutting down a million acres of forest, but what if you could prove you had another million acres growing up right next to it that you had planted earlier? That takes patience and planning to pull off.
Part of Micah’s curse in this passage is that a hill that was richly developed by man would turn back into a forest. That doesn’t happen overnight – it takes an entire generation for those trees to grow up. It has to sit there quite a while – until your children are old. We would have our works today rise up with ridiculous rapidity. Instead of a cathedral taking a hundred years, the new highest sky scraper rises in Dubai on the backs of slaves and cranes in only 2-3 years. We have overnight billionaires born of tech acquisitions. We want to get rich quick and cram as much into our lives as possible, extending it with surgery, Viagra, and dialysis. Our lives are fleeting and we desire things NOW lest we whither away before they arrive.
I think we project this impatience on God as well. We imagine his judgements to be in the form of lightning strikes or fire from heaven. That’s how we would have it done after all. But scripture shows us a God whose judgements are often slow, lasting through a great deal of time. He gives us over to sin for a while. He let’s things work themselves out for a while and then rescues us. He sends Israel to exile, not for a week, but for 70 years. The remnant is literally all pushing up daisies by then. It’s their grand children who see new things take shape. The temple mount is hosed long enough for tall trees to come back.
And then, in a sense, his saving of us is the same way. Suddenly on the third day was death defeated and Satan actually cast down “like lightning”. But then oh so slow was the rest of the redemptive work – as if a small seed was planted to grow into a garden to cover the earth. Such is His mercy for us – it can be terribly slow too. We see death as some tragic interruption or disappointment in this process. He does not. The seed is still growing.
Psalm 91:3-13 is a fascinating passage. Ancient Hebrews scholars we are told considered it to be a description of demonic attack. Several passages in the New Testament seem to confirm the metaphor, especially the long ending of Mark.
Surely He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence… You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by the day nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness…etc.
One person in particular seems to have this passage down very well. Indeed, it is Satan himself, who quotes verses 11-12 when tempting Jesus:
For He shall give his angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.
It seems to me that Satan is obsessed with himself. So what would be his favorite passages of scripture anyway? The ones about him of course! His thought is reflexive – ever festering on himself, closing back in on himself and hungry to suck in others into his despair and fascinated failure.
Rene Girard’s work shows us that the modern conception of the human being as an independent, autonomous free-thinking well of desire is completely false. We THINK our desires and tastes and visions come from within and we stew about them – scheming a way that we might bring them to fruition. But no, in reality our desires come from others. They come from our formation over time in our communities and we get them by imitating the desires of others in our proximity. Our deepest held desires – for companionship – and to make things – comes from our creator.
Satan is the same way, not just with his desires but with his very being. He believes his own lie – that the making of things is his own idea and not something he enviously copies from the Creator. His aim and aura is to always draw us into the same deception. In doing so, we become more concerned with ourselves. We are moved to the center of the universe, with our loved ones and even God on the periphery.
Dorothy Sayer’s captures some of this mystery of the Satan (articulated by Augustine and others as well) in her play ‘The Devil to Pay’.
FAUSTUS: Who made thee?
MEPHISTOPHELES:God, as the light makes the shadow.
FAUSTUS: Is God, then, evil?
MEPHISTOPHELES: God is only light,
And in the heart of the light no shadow standeth,
Nor can I dwell within the light of heaven
Where God is all.
FAUSTUS:What art thou, Mephistopheles?
MEPHISTOPHELES: I am the price that all things pay for being,
The shadow on the world, thrown by the world
Standing in its own light, which light God is.
So Satan is the father of lies who, though just a shadow, sees himself as the light. When we imitate our false father, our thoughts reflex back to ourselves – to our desires and their centrality.
Demons and their kin are the ones most trapped in the swirl of this obsession. Like their leader, their dearest topic is themselves.
Curiously enough, I think this notion is captured perfectly in a scene from that disappointing film sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded. Persephone helps our heroes Neo and Trinity to rescue a prisoner. Who is guarding him? Some werewolves. What are they doing while they sit around? Watching a vampire movie. It’s supposed to be ironic and slightly funny, but frankly, I think it’s exactly what real demons would watch on TV. It’s their favorite subject, just like Satan has all the parts of scripture memorized where he gets a few lines. He doesn’t even seem to care that he dies in the end. He just can’t get enough of… himself, for the time being.
Derek Rishmawy recently posted on the topic of plagiarism in sermons. He asks a good question – something along the lines of: “If just about everything I know I got from reading and studying a hundred other thinkers, is there ever really anything in my sermons that isn’t ‘stolen’ in some sense? Do I really need to be apologizing for that all the time?”
I think the answer is: “No, of course not”, but for a lot of reasons, I would be thrilled to see any step, even the smallest, toward attribution of sources in preaching, as well as the writing of popular books.
Somehow in 20th century evangelicism, we developed a school of preaching where all history between antiquity and the pulpit this very moment is essentially hidden. I was surprised to reflect on the fact that growing up in various baptist and pentecostal churches, I heard literally hundreds of sermons about the atonement, usually with some passage from Romans as the primary text. Yet I had never once hear a reformer or church father cited a single time. I was nearly twenty years before I first even heard Augustine’s name mentioned during a sermon, and of course I didn’t know who he was. I’m not kidding. It’s as if the entire lineage of our past had been scrubbed – there was no man, no thought, no development, in between the apostle Paul and you! In speaking with many of my peers, I discovered that my Reformed friends sometimes had it a little better off, but often not much so and many others had similar experiences to my own.
Two thousand plus sermons (long ones too!) and multiple times reading through the entirety of scripture I had, but I could articulate virtually nothing about the history of the church or the development of its beliefs. There was of course a vague sense that Luther (one of the tiny handful of names that was occasionally invoked) had helped rescue us from the “works righteousness” of Rome. I also recall hearing once or twice that some guy named Calvin wasn’t to be trusted because he was into “once saved always saved”. There was also a sense that we owed something (what exactly besides some hymns was unknown) to John and Charles Wesley. This is all somewhat embarrassing of course to look back on, but it’s entirely the truth.
Now, lest I turn and bite the hand that fed me too sharply, I must stop and say that I experienced much rich bible teaching in my youth. The gospel was expounded a hundred different creative ways, as well as the reasoning behind the bulk of New Testament moral and pastoral teaching. I had a firm grasp on the history of Israel, the typology of Christ in the prophets, the beauty of the Psalms and Revelation, the layers of meaning in nearly all the parables, and the value and importance of quite literally every single chapter in every book. Some support from classical apologetics made an appearance as well. I was given many treasures, and my teachers and pastors and parents cared deeply about the content and the communication of it.
Today, I realize that when I was taught to read Paul, it was through the lens of Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Spurgeon, and as well as popular teachers still living like John MacArthur or Jack Hayford or whoever the pastor was steeped in. The catch is that everything was always presented as being RIGHT THERE in naked scripture without the need for centuries of study. The thought life of one who loved God and studied his word was a room with bare walls and a bible on the table. There was no library. The only other tome that was standard equipment was a Strong’s exhaustive concordance. What was missing was the great cloud of witnesses, the saints that had all gone before. They were there of course, but being dead, only a nameless vapor. Discovering their names in the past decade has greatly enriched my faith, not crushed it. Why was I never introduced before?
Earlier this month in a comment thread about a similar topic, Alistair Roberts brought up the popular ‘myth’ (so the speak) of the Bereans from Acts 17.
Finally, because it is so commonly brought up, let me tackle the Berean thing. People—generally independent evangelicals—have this romantic notion of the Bereans as a group of studious individuals who all individually studied their individual study Bibles to see whether Paul and Silas were correct. Presumably if they had blogs, they would have been debating it online in a spiritually egalitarian manner. Unfortunately, this is a fairly nonsensical reading. The Bereans were in fact a synagogue of the Jews (Acts 17:10). It is quite possible that they only had one copy of the (Old Testament) Scriptures between them. Many wouldn’t have been able to read them at all, even in translation. The word for ‘examined’ is one suggesting a more formal, legal-like process. What this probably involved was a daily assembly of members of the synagogue community, with a trained reader bringing forth evidence from the synagogue’s copies of the Scriptures in an extended communally witnessed cross-examination of Paul and Silas’ teaching by the synagogue’s leaders. This is a very, very far cry from the idea that our discourse should be about every Christian with their personal Bible and their personal blog.
I was frequently encouraged to “be a Berean” and study the scripture for myself, and I did! But the whole time I was heavily influenced by a hundred people that had gone before me whose existence or work I knew nothing of. Where did their influence stop and that of the latest movie or novel I’d eaten up start? I couldn’t tell you because these things didn’t have names.
I wonder if this approach is uniquely American? We like to see ourselves as “rugged individuals” in a “new world” detached from the rest history, even though our nation is still young. I think the narrative of our ecclesiastical history has been unduly shaped by this as well. I also wonder if anti-Catholicism is largely the motivation behind this scrubbing of sources. Maybe to some degree, but the Reformers and their children were given just as short of shrift as well. Something larger seems to have been at work.
One oddity that DID frequently make it into the footnotes was the work of modern archeology. The Dead Sea scrolls, studies from the artifacts of Jericho, and even references to the metallurgy of the Philistines I recall being cited. I suspect these were favored as they seemed to carry a certain “scientific” air of authority about them. Trapped partially in the thrall of Modernity, we admired men with sophisticated instruments rather than old philosophers.
I’m not sure if this was all some attempt (unconscious even) to prop up a certain kind of individualized biblical literalism, but I can’t help but think this way of dealing with sources is partly to blame for how we deal with current popular authors and writings today. If you never cite anyone younger than Paul, you aren’t going to mention Tim Keller either. If your pastor just lifted all his ideas from his Matthew Henry commentary without ever acknowledging its existence, then you are just following in your father’s footsteps by doing the same with N.T. Wright’s material. There is a certain posture of humility that has to be taught. One has to see respect given to elders before one knows what it even looks like. How can one have good manners at the dinner table if they’ve never observed their parents sit up straight and use a napkin? We’ve lost something important by covering up our roots so much the side effects have come home to roost.
Does this mean that I am advocating we all go out of our way to copiously cite sources and turn all our writing and preaching into a history lesson or bibliography? Absolutely not. That would largely ruin them and turn them into something else entirely. I don’t think the medium of a sermon is a place to get bogged down in footnotes. The same goes for most devotional literature. It doesn’t take very many interruptions to undermine the communication. But I think zero, all the time, is patently unethical. I would love to see just a little bit of disclaimer, a little bit of humility, be the norm. In the age where many have Google and Wikipedia in their pocket, acting as if all our understanding appeared out of thin air will not do. People in the modern age have been burned too often with slick words. We need to reestablish some fidelity in our communication and that is going to mean more nods to our ancestors and peers.
By all means, learn everything you can and steal the best stuff! But then make restitution by simply being up front about where it came from. I think we have a lot of trust to gain and nothing to lose in doing so.
I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to the kids every night for the past several months. Last night, I ran into this wonderful passage where Tolkien describes the land of Ithilien. There is so much wonderful vocabulary packed into one paragraph here! Take a whiff.
Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age mid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.