Christ and the Powers (Colossians 2:6–15)

About a month ago I preached a sermon on the concept of the principalities and powers, taking Colossians 2:6–15 as my text. When I’m given the opportunity to preach on whatever I want, I usually explore questions I have. The main question that led me to look at the principalities and powers is, “Why do groups and systems behave the way they do, and why is it so hard to change?”

I think of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which at the time was one of the most Christian countries in Africa. I think of Enron, whose CEO, Ken Lay, was a leader in his church, and yet he and others forged a culture of systematic deception. I also think of Congress, where only 9 percent of people approve of the job they are doing. And yet when we vote in new people, nothing seems to change. The culture persists, even despite efforts to move in a different direction.

The usual Christian answer to this question is sin. We humans have rebelled against our Creator and gone our own way, and we suffer the consequences of living out of step from the way we were meant to. But there’s more to it than that. I’m tempted to sin in certain ways as an individual, but groups and societies can be tempted to sin in persistent ways. Racism looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. Gun violence looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. The New Testament sheds light on this question with what the apostle Paul calls the “principalities and powers.”

In Colossians, for example, Paul is fighting against a system of thought that included elements of Judaism but also magic and interest in a variety of spiritual forces. It may not seem like this could apply to the secular West, but even here you still hear people talk about the universe telling them things or guiding them. Even for those who are spiritual but not religious, there seems to be a sense that there are larger forces at work in our lives.

What are the powers?

There is a continuum of thought among Christians as to what the powers are. On the one end, you have personal demons spitting sulphur. If you grew up in church in the ’90s like I did and read any Frank Peretti novels, that is the idea. On the other end, you have impersonal social and cultural forces, structures, and institutions. You tend to find this in more theologically liberal writers like Walter Wink.

There is some truth in both. The first gets right that the powers are supernatural and greater than human, but can only focus on how they work on individuals. The second gets right that the Bible seems to talk about them differently than angels and demons, and they affect more than individuals. But this end of the spectrum tends to minimize or forget that these really are supernatural forces, not merely a term for the way human institutions behave.

Here’s what we can learn from a few texts about the principalities and powers:

They were created good.  They did not always behave the way they do now. Just as there was a fall in the human realm, there was also a kind of fall in the spiritual realm. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers (archē) or authorities (exousia); all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).

They function in human political and religious spheres. Elsewhere, Paul writes that the powers were at work in Christ’s crucifixion. It wasn’t just Pilate, Herod, and the crowd. There were spiritual forces working behind them that wanted Christ put to death: “We declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers (archōn) of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

They have been disarmed but not destroyed. In his death and resurrection Christ has plundered the powers, disarming them and leading them in a victory parade: “Having disarmed the powers (archē) and authorities (exousia), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15).

They are subject to Christ. Because of the system of thought Paul is fighting against in Colossians, he repeatedly stresses Christ’s supremacy over all other spiritual powers. “In Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power (archē) and authority (exousia)” (Col 2:10).

Our struggle is against them. Colossians and Ephesians both mention the powers several times. The two cities were relatively close together, and it seems like many of the cultural forces that were at work in one were also at work in the other. Toward the end of Ephesians Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers (archē), against the authorities (exousia), against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). This is important. If we forget this, we are likely to continue to get really angry at our fellow image-bearing humans and even unintentionally contribute to evil ourselves.

The church’s job is to make manifest to them God’s wisdom. Ephesians again: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers (archē) and authorities (exousia) in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10–11). This is the wisdom of the cross and resurrection.

David Garland, in his commentary on Colossians, sums it up well: “The stoicheia, powers, and authorities come in all sorts of guises, and in different cultures they receive different names and definitions. But they share a common characteristic in that humans take them to be unrelenting forces that suppress us and squelch our happiness. More important, humans open themselves up to their power through sin and ignorance. But to those who are in Christ, these forces, powers, and authorities are completely impotent.”

Upon hearing about these powers, some people may become obsessed with classifying and resisting them, but that’s never the point when the New Testament talks about the powers. The point is if we rebel against God and take matters into our own hands, we don’t become free individuals. We submit ourselves to the powers. We don’t have to know exactly what they are. But we should be able to recognize them at work.

How do we recognize the powers at work?

In my reading on this subject in preparation for the sermon, I found many authors gave examples of things that can function as powers: Government is necessary, but it may become tyrannical. Universities can become places of indoctrination rather than education. Companies can begin to serve the greed of a few instead of serving their customers or helping their employees flourish. Money is useful for facilitating exchange, but it can exert control. Communication can function as propaganda and obscure the truth. Tradition may devolve into traditionalism.

It seems almost anything can function as a power. But as I read through these examples, a few traits emerged over and over.

  1. The powers tend to cheapen human life. Technology is not bad, but when it divides us and takes priority over people it functions as a power. Family, kinship, tribe are not bad, but they may turn into racism and xenophobia in which we see other people as subhuman. I even saw numbering called a power. One example of this comes from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s excellent Vietnam War documentary, in which you hear several veterans talk about “the body count.” Counting dead bodies was the only measure they had for determining how successful they were. Over time this tempted them to exaggerate, and it blinded them to the larger reality of war. Numbering can become a power when the only thing that matters is what can be measured and quantified.
  2. The powers ignore sin and give us false ways of fixing things. In politics we tend to think a regime change will fix things, that seizing the levers of power will fix things, but throughout history the oppressed tend to turn into oppressors. In Colossae Paul’s opponents gave a list of things you had to do to get right with God, but they misunderstood who Christ was and what he had done. Without understanding sin, we adopt false goalposts, false hopes, while all the time we are still enslaved by the powers.
  3. The powers cause frustration, fear, and despair. When we want to do the right thing but don’t think we can, the powers are at work. When we’re afraid that what we do doesn’t matter, the powers are at work. The powers want us to feel despair and helplessness, like going along with evil is our only choice. Pay attention to those feelings, because they may be an indication that the powers are active.

How do we struggle against the powers?

In Ephesians 6, Paul’s famous passage about putting on the armor of God is all about resisting the powers. But my sermon was based in Colossians, so I came up with a few other things.

Remember the supremacy of Christ. Powers tell us we can move on past the cross, or need to have Christ plus something else to be accepted by God. So Paul told the Colossians by being united to Christ, they’re no longer subject to the powers. By submitting to the powers, Christ exposed them and disarmed them. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, “God still upholds the structures; without them the world would collapse and human life would be unthinkable. But the structures lose their pretended absoluteness. Nothing now is absolute except God as he is known in Jesus Christ; everything else is relativized.” We don’t need to fear powers. The worst has already happened, and Christ won.

Remember that Christ works through weakness: the cross’s and our own. Marva Dawn writes in Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, her book on the powers, “Our churches act as fallen powers when they forget the cross at their center.” The powers tell us the cross’s weakness is shameful, that it’s better to be strong. When we believe that, we’re more liable to be deceived by charismatic personalities, money, and the need to keep secrets to protect our institution. But it is by weakness that Christ disarmed the powers and put them on display for what they really are, and his church disarms the powers in the same way. Newbigin writes that the Christians conquered the powers behind the Roman Empire not by seizing power but by kneeling in the Colosseum and praying for the emperor in Jesus’ name.

Remember to pray. Speaking of prayer, it’s crucial when discerning and fighting the powers. In Colossians 4:2 Paul says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” It’s easy, even for Christians, to vacillate between two poles: we think we can handle life through our own ingenuity, or we think we’re at the mercy of impersonal forces. Sometimes we feel both these things in the same day. Both times we need prayer.

Life is complex—too complex for us to understand everything on our own. There are unseen forces that are hostile to us. We can’t discern and defeat these fallen powers on our own, but in prayer we have access to one who has.

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Strange Days (Review)

In my previous post, I reviewed Australian pastor and cultural critic Mark Sayers’s book Disappearing Church. Just after finishing Disappearing Church, I read his next book, which came out in 2017: Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval

As I read the book, I kept thinking of conspiracy theories. Not that Sayers is a conspiracy theorist at all, but like conspiracy theorists he is interested in answering the question: “What in the world is going on?” If you’re drawn to conspiracy theories, you want to believe that there is a pattern behind everything that is going on in the world, and that pattern is sinister. What is really controlling things is the government/the conservatives/the progressives/the deep state/the evangelicals/the Illuminati, or whatever. In fact, Wikipedia has a handy list of conspiracy theories.

9780802415738Sayers essentially argues in Strange Days that there is a conspiracy going on: the kingdom of God is breaking into this world, fighting its elemental forces, and those who live life “in the Spirit” can join in this battle on the good side. “The social structures and movements bouncing this way and that in our world have spiritual forces behind them and, thus, require spiritual solutions” (98).

The book comes in three parts. In part 1 (chapters 1–2), he posits that there are forces of chaos in the world and looks at where this chaos comes from. In part 2 (chapters 3–8), he looks at the historical pattern of chaos, asking how we can find the spiritual dimensions behind war, terrorism, “non-places,” the breakdown of the family, and other issues. In part 3 (chapters 9–13), he explores how life in the Spirit offers an alternative to chaos, promising the ability to live in light of Christ’s victory over the flesh and the elemental forces of the world. His goal, as he says in the introduction, is “to grasp our cultural moment, to help you understand its landscape. There is a pattern to the chaos, and what is more, there is a door out, into the holy expanse that is life in the Spirit” (18).

Sayers writes a lot about how humans want to create spaces of order that keep the chaos at bay, and are compelled to police the borders between order and chaos: “Because humans are spiritually homeless, we dream of holy spaces, utopias, motherlands, golden ages, and soulmates. We yearn for reconnection to the divine, re-admittance to the sacred and pure space” (25). Again, “behind all social architecture, be it ancient or modern, Western or non-Western, are ‘practices concerning holiness, purity, and sacrifice.’ These are the rules, rituals, relationships, and social structures that organize life” (42). We create these rules in accordance with the elemental forces of the world, which the New Testament calls “the powers”: “The powers are the unseen superstructures behind human life, and, just like places, nations, institutions, they protect us from the chaos in the world that threatens to break through” (106).

However, the problem with policing the borders with chaos is that chaos and “the flesh” live inside us: “The structures, communities, and institutions we create in order to protect ourselves from the chaotic ravages of the flesh do not free us from the effects of the flesh. For the flesh is within us” (31). In all this he acknowledges his debt to Peter Leithart’s book Delivered from the Elements of the World.

Modern Westerners, even many Christians, might dismiss this kind of talk as very woo-woo. We’ve moved past all that, haven’t we? On the contrary, we might sometimes convince ourselves we have, but this only seems plausible inside the safety of the “non-places” we have created—the places, like an airport or a shopping mall, that allow individuals to pretend they are rational, autonomous, cut off from their community and even their own history: “Non-places are the temples of the West’s religion, which masquerades as a non-religion. Preaching an oversimplification of life. Appearing to be content free while discipling us in a secular fundamentalism. The gospel that the world is your playground. Evangelizing us into a faith that fails” (69–70). Interestingly, terrorists usually attack non-places.

So faced with a situation where we can’t manage the chaos outside and inside in our own strength, where we try to hunker down inside non-places but the chaos and meaninglessness break in anyway, where the powers make us feel helpless, what do we do? “This is the good news of the gospel. Humans no longer have to be bound to these myths and powers. Those trying to scratch out Eden in the dust don’t have to anymore. There is a way out of the fray. And for those who already have come to believe the gospel, and who feel displaced and dizzy in all the chaos, this truth remains a comfort. All the powers swarming around us, most of them beyond our understanding, have been disarmed. Yes, they are still active, but only in the same way a chicken is after its head is cut off” (108).

The good news is that Christ has “disarmed the powers” (Col 2:15). Those who follow him are called to live in light of this disarmament: “As the gospel was preached, as history unfolded, Christ’s victory over the powers would spread. The elemental forces had been fundamentally altered, and a new kingdom had broken in, and thus the powers gradually lost their hold over people. However, as Christianity spread, so did heresy” (116). The powers have been defeated, but there is now the threat that the church should become ineffectual by embracing ideas that are not in accord with the gospel.

These heresies, Sayers says, currently tend to take three main shapes, which could be classified as the heresies of the non-place, the right, and the left:

Some churches will reshape themselves as kinds of Christian non-places, detached from history, relationships, and given identity. … Other churches, attuned to the dislocation and meaninglessness created by the non-place of globalization, will fiercely create nationalist, social, and racial boundaries, presenting meanings that emerge not from Christ and the kingdom, but place, nation, myth, and the flesh. … A third group of churches, recoiling both from the implicit prosperity gospel of the churches that create Christian non-places, and disturbed by the falling back into cultural Christianity and the blurring of nationalism and the way of Jesus, will link arms with the New Left. (117–19)

To resist these temptations to heresy, the church must remember that she is in exile—but not the same kind of cultural exile that the Jews endured when they were taken away to Babylon in 586 BC. “This is a post-elemental forces faith. Thus exile cannot be the same. … As heavenly citizens we exist in a kind of exile, but in a different epoch, thus deserving of a different missional posture. Yes, we are called to flourish, but we are called also into a spiritual war against the powers and principalities, now humiliated on the cross by Christ. There is a key nuance here: flourishing needs a fight against the flesh” (157–58)

So the solution to finding meaning and purpose and finding order in the chaos all around us and within us is to live life in step with the Holy Spirit. “Christians live life in the Spirit before a watching world. We are not called to retreat from the world, nor to embrace it, but to live on earth as it is in heaven. … Our exile is life in the Spirit, but that spiritual life is exceedingly practical” (165). We still struggle against the flesh, so we need to test our own motivations and desires through prayer and discernment in community.

Since most of this review has just been me recapping the argument of the book, you probably know by now that I enjoyed it and recommend it. It is short, as all Sayers’s books tend to be, but it packs a big conceptual punch. He is doing nothing less than seeking to expand modern Western Christians’ view of the world for the sake of mission. To engage in mission in the West, you have to be aware of the powers whose existence our culture has resolutely denied, and to be aware of how Christ has disarmed them. Because the truth is that

our age is not as modern, unique, and progressive as it believes. Like all ages, it is shaped by the elemental forces. Even in its secularism it is thus ultimately religious. Thus with our heavenly viewpoint we can become interpreters of the age, godly guides, merchants of holy hope. Our age is an age of clashing stories. Do not underestimate the power of the story you carry within your heart, the gospel that drips with goodness. For when a community of people, called by Christ, living as the church, come together, something truly wonderful happens. (170)

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

All Religion Isn’t Bad, but There Is Such a Thing as Bad Religion (Review)

You don’t often hear people called heretics anymore. In 1905, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued the teachings of several of his contemporaries, including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Even then, though, writing a book calling out heresies was kind of cheeky. In the age of the modern nation-state, when dissenters from orthodoxy no longer get punished (and by the way, I think that’s a good thing), it hardly seems worth one’s while to call someone out as a heretic.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat does just that in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012). Douthat himself is a Catholic who has sympathies with conservative Protestantism. In this book,  he takes as a starting point that the famous secularization thesis popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth  century is wrong; societies do not inevitably become less religious as they become more modern. Rather, Douthat writes that “every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them” (3). All societies have some beliefs about what the world is like and what people ought to do. Whether that belief involves the supernatural or not, or has weekly services or not, it functions as a religion.

If religion is inescapable because beliefs about ultimate reality are inescapable, then religion itself is not the problem and trying to get rid of all religion is not the solution. If you try your best to get rid of some forms of religion, other forms will pop up in their place. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, then secularization is not the main problem. “The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly postreligious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul” (4).

The problem, according to Douthat, is bad religion: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (4).

The book comes in two parts. In the first, “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the devolution of Christianity over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. While heresies have always been present, he argues, what makes our current climate different is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response to them.

He begins the second, “The Age of Heresy,” by pointing out heresy’s inclination toward resolving ambiguity. Whereas Christian orthodoxy has always embraced paradox and sought to hold seemingly contradictory things in tension (Is Jesus God or human? Yes.), heresies have always sought a ruthless narrowing (Does Jesus seem in some ways unlike the God of the Old Testament? Get rid of the Old Testament). “The goal of the great heresies … has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus” (153). This, Douthat argues, has led to the “lost gospel” trend in scholarship about Christian origins. In it, scholars like to present a one-dimensional vision of Jesus—as only human, or as only a wise teacher, or as only a Gnostic sage. Usually, these one-dimensional portraits of Jesus look an awful lot like the scholar (or popularizer, in the case of the novelist Dan Brown) who is arguing that this is what Jesus was really like. Upon closer examination, these claims about the early history of Christianity prove to be inconclusive or outright false, but their popularity tells a lot about what many Americans want to believe.

The next three chapters Douthat spends looking at other heresies that have emerged from the tendency to make Jesus in our own image and to forcibly resolve paradoxes that have existed in Christianity from the beginning: the prosperity gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, the therapeutic “god within” theology of Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and others, and God-and-country-but-mostly-country Christian nationalism.

He then closes the book with a vision of what a renewed Christianity might look like. First, it will be political without being partisan, avoiding the temptation to fit Christianity into the mold of ideologies on the right or the left but at the same time not becoming quietist or indifferent. Second, it will be ecumenical but also confessional, reaching out to like-minded others without watering down one’s own theological commitments. To do this we need strong institutions. Christians who are part of churches with clearly defined theological commitments will be less susceptible to watering down their faith by uniting it with (for example) a political platform. Third, it will be moralistic but also holistic—not downplaying the ethical demands of Christianity while at the same time not becoming unduly focused on hot-button moral issues (sexual immorality) to the neglect of other, just as important, moral issues (gluttony, greed, pride). Fourth, it will be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It will cultivate both saints and artists. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI: “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” (291).

This is a great book, and I recommend it to any Christian believer who wonders how we got to a place where so many Americans want to believe that there were suppressed gospels, that God wants to make them wealthy, that the only God that matters is inside each of us, or that God may be subservient to a political ideology, whether on the right or the left. I found the first part of the book to be a tough slog, focused as it was on recounting a history that I was mostly familiar with. And while I was not sure about parts of Douthat’s interpretation of that history, I agree with his central insights—that secularism is more of a bogeyman than a real threat to Christianity, that heresy tends to resolve the paradoxes of orthodoxy in a self-serving way, and that heresy is rampant today in part because of the weakness of orthodox Christianity’s response.

The Hum of Angels (Review)

When you hear the word “angels,” what do you think of? Some spiritual being that accompanies people as their guardian? The chubby cherubs from that painting by Raphael? Or do you dismiss them as credulous superstition, the product of overactive imaginations, and leave it at that?

9781601426314New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has set out to clear up what exactly angels are in a book published last month called The Hum of Angels. The “hum” of the title comes from a story that he tells at the outset about a visit to a pet store. He was telling the attendant that there were no hummingbirds where he lived, but the attendant told him there most definitely were. You just had to have the eyes to see them. McKnight went home determined to attune his eyes to see hummingbirds, and now he sees them everywhere.

In that way, angels are like hummingbirds. They are all around us, McKnight says, but we need to train our eyes to see them. He doesn’t set out in this book to prove to the skeptical that a spiritual realm exists. Rather, his audience is people who already believe in something beyond the physical but aren’t so sure whether angels exist or what they are. “If you believe in God,” he says, “you also believe in angels.”

But how do you know what to believe about angels? You could listen to stories about angel encounters, but without some kind of other foundation for identifying what angels are it won’t be clear whether some of these experiences really involve angels or not. As a Christian (and a biblical scholar at that), it isn’t surprising that McKnight turns to the Bible to find out what it teaches about angels. And the Bible has a lot to say about angels. McKnight puts the core of what the Bible has to say about angels this way:

God is love.

All that God does is loving.

God sends angels to us because God loves us.

Love is a rugged commitment to be With,

to be For us so that we can

progress Unto Christlikeness.

Angels are sent to express God’s love

by being God’s presence with us,

by being God’s presence for us, and

to lead us into the redemption of Christlikeness.

He spends most of the book unpacking what the parts of this statement (which he repeats, with some variations, in almost every chapter) say about what angels are. I won’t get into the specifics, but here are a few takeaways from the book:

The Bible nowhere teaches that people become angels when they die. According to McKnight, “the model for what we will be like after death is not angels but the resurrection body of Jesus—who, again, did not become an angel” (20). Just in case it needs to be said, the moment when a friend says on Facebook about a departed loved one that “heaven gained an angel” is NOT THE TIME to instruct them on this point. But in light of how widespread this misunderstanding is, I do think churches ought to make a point of teaching on it.

Not all angelic visitations are from good angels. Angels always point to God, and “angels that don’t summon us to see God are not doing God’s work” (27). Angels are messengers of God’s love, and God’s love is more than the presence of positive feelings about someone. Love, McKnight says, “has a goal.” It “is not tolerance or deciding to put up with one another or doing our best to get along. Love, if it is Christian love, leads to mutual growth into Christlikeness” (42). Angels who do not point us toward God in Christ are what the Bible calls demons, or evil spirits. So modern-day “angel experiences that do not draw us to God’s Son must be held either loosely or not at all” (125).

The Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. Now, not all biblical scholars agree about this, so this shouldn’t be asserted dogmatically. But after looking at several passages, McKnight comes down on the side of believing that while “God becomes present to us in special ways in the Angel of the Lord” (85), that is not the same as saying it is the pre-incarnate Jesus.

The Bible isn’t clear about whether people have guardian angels assigned to them. It is clear that God does send angels to protect and guard and guide us, but it stops short of saying that each person has an assigned guardian angel. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom believed in guardian angels, though, if their opinion matters to you.

They probably don’t look like the chainsmoking angel on the cover of the classic Van Halen album 1984. Okay, McKnight actually doesn’t address this. But I think it’s a pretty safe assumption.Van_Halen_-_1984

Should you read this book? There are many books about angels out there, and I honestly haven’t read many of them so I don’t know how it compares to others. But if you are curious about angels, and what the Bible says about angels is an important consideration for you (and if you are a Christian, it should), then you may find this book helpful.

Note: Thanks to WaterBrook, the publisher, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

A Christian Missionary to Christians: A Review

The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian, but subsequent Christian readers have expressed divergent opinions about him. Francis Schaeffer, for example, associated Kierkegaard with the so-called “leap of faith” and condemned him for encouraging irrationality. Dave Breese, in Seven Men Who Rule the World from the Grave, expresses a similar view. On the other hand, Kierkegaard is viewed more positively by thinkers like C. Stephen Evans and Merold Westphal, and exerted an influence on such later Christian theologians as Karl Barth.

And if you decide to wade through opinions from secondary sources and judge for yourself (as it were) whether Kierkegaard is worth reading, where do you start? Many of his 9780830840977works, such as the famous Fear and Trembling and Either/Or, are written under assumed names, and it isn’t always clear to what extent what he says in those works is what he really thinks.
Thankfully, Mark Tietjen has written Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, an accessible introduction to Kierkegaard that summarizes some of his thought and points out some of the ways in which he is still relevant to our own time. But how can you be a Christian missionary to Christians? Tietjen explains:

One of Kierkegaard’s stated aims is to reintroduce Christianity into Christendom. In a sense Kierkegaard is a Christian missionary to Christians. This odd predicament necessitated, he believed, an indirect approach. If someone already believes he or she is a Christian, then the direct charge “you ought to become a Christian” will make little sense and likely offend or alienate one’s audience. So Kierkegaard decides he will take an indirect approach and provisionally grant his contemporaries their Christianity, and he will write some books from a non-Christian point of view with the hopes of generating introspection among the “Christians” of his day (42).

In other words, Kierkegaard was troubled by the fact that so many people in nineteenth-century Denmark, called themselves “Christians” because they mentally assented to a list of doctrines when they really were not Christians at all. His response was to make Christianity more difficult, and also to point out how the ways these alleged Christians were living actually diverged from real Christianity. In his book, Tietjen points out how Kierkegaard went about this with regard to the subjects of Jesus Christ, the human self, Christian witness, and the life of human love. Along the way, he sets the record straight with regard to the criticisms of Schaeffer, Breese, and others. Kierkegaard was not endorsing irrationality when it came to faith or saying that truth was unattainable. Rather, he saw that what was missing from the Christianity of his time was inwardness—the personal, whole life commitment to follow Jesus. According to Tietjen, “Despite this emphasis on passion or inwardness or the subjective side of Christian faith, Kierkegaard does not denigrate or minimize Christian doctrines or what his pseudonym calls objective truth. In fact, Kierkegaard assumes Christian truth to be true. He simply takes seriously the biblical view that the faith that transforms a human life reaches beyond the mind to one’s heart, soul and strength—to one’s passions” (41).

This is a wonderful book for those who have had some sense that Kierkegaard still has something to say, but aren’t sure where to start in his writings. Especially in places where it is assumed that what makes you a Christian is that you were raised in church or even mentally subscribe to a list of doctrines, Kierkegaard continues to call out that Christianity is both harder and better than this. And his style of indirect communication gives us an example of how to approach those who think they know what Christianity is but don’t.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Also, here are a few resources for learning more about this book:

Spurgeon’s “Let the lion out of the cage” quote

Every now and then, I hear it attributed to some great preacher of the past that the gospel (or sometimes, the Bible) is like a lion (or sometimes, a tiger). The idea is that it doesn’t need to be defended; it just needs to be let out of the cage.

It’s a great quote, but what is the source? It comes from Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century Baptist preacher. He actually said it in at least three different forms. The first version I was able to find is from a book called Speeches at Home and Abroad, from a speech at the Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Bible Society, May 5th, 1875:

There seems to me to have been twice as much done in some ages in defending the Bible as in expounding it, but if the whole of our strength shall henceforth go to the exposition and spreading of it, we may leave it pretty much to defend itself. I do not know whether you see that lion—it is very distinctly before my eyes; a number of persons advance to attack him, while a host of us would defend the grand old monarch, the British Lion, with all our strength. Many suggestions are made and much advice is offered. This weapon is recommended, and the other. Pardon me if I offer a quiet suggestion. Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself. Why, they are gone! He no sooner goes forth in his strength than his assailants flee. The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.

And like many preachers with a good illustration, he repeated it. This is from a sermon called “Christ and His Co-Workers,” preached on June 10, 1886:

A great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel itself is not being preached. Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, a full-grown king of beasts! There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out. Never mind about defending Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch; preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let the Lion out, and see who will dare to approach him. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.

Finally, this from a sermon titled “The Lover of God’s Law Filled with Peace,” preached on January 2, 1888:

The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.

UPDATE: Want to see another example of Spurgeon telling an illustration multiple times? Read this post!

The Nature of the Cure Tells the Nature of the Disease

Recently I’ve been listening to Victor Shepherd‘s lectures from a class called “Theology of the Human Person.” I’ve never taken a class from Shepherd, who teaches at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, but Regent College sells some of his lectures through Regent Audio. I’ve listened to a series of his lectures on historical theology, and another lecture on Calvin and predestination, and have enjoyed them a great deal.

Here is a quote from Theology of the Human Person, on how people gain knowledge of sin:

A knowledge of redemption alone generates a knowledge of sin. An apprehension of the cure acquaints you with the nature and scope of the disease. The cure defines the ailment. Reconciliation highlights the nature and the fact of alienation….

Can sinners, of themselves, know themselves to be sinners? No. Only the grace of redemption acquaints us with the fact that we are sinners. Sinners of themselves can know themselves to be guilty, self-alienated, fed up, frustrated, lethal—but sin by definition is a defective relationship with God. Who is the God with whom we are defectively related? And how do we know that we are defectively related to him? All of this has to be revealed to us. This is not naturally knowable….

If the cure discloses the nature of the disease, we ought never to preach on sin without preaching of sin forgiven. We ought never to preach on estrangement without preaching on estrangement overcome in Christ. Because only the overcoming of estrangement acquaints us with the nature of the estrangement. I think that in church, we have preached many times on sin, and very lamely, and too lately, gotten around to sin forgiven. We left people in a worse condition than ever, and we made them bigger and better moralists.

If you preach on sin without preaching on sin forgiven you’re going to fall into the moralistic trap.If you think that the moral person is any closer to the kingdom than the immoral person, then you think that the Pharisee is going to go into the kingdom ahead of the [tax collector]. Jesus says the harlots and the tax collectors go into the kingdom first because the one thing they have is no illusion about the fact that they’re moral. Moral people always manage to convince themselves that they’re not sinners.

August 2010: Books Read

1. Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Reviewed earlier here.

2. Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir is called Hannah’s Child, but it could easily have been called Things that Didn’t Occur to Me At the Time. Out of the long list of things in his life that he acknowledges he was clueless about, a few are that a person would go to divinity school in order to prepare for ministry, that Protestants would not be allowed to partake in Catholic Mass, or that he would have to get used to the differences between Durham and South Bend when he moved from Notre Dame to Duke.

Nevertheless, this was a fascinating book. Hauerwas tells his readers exactly what they expect in a theologian’s memoir: how he came to study theology at Yale in the first place, how he was influenced by his professors, how he came to be one of the few Protestants on the theological faculty at Notre Dame, how he was influenced by John Howard Yoder and Alasdair MacIntyre (among others), and how he came to teach at Duke. He also tells us more: specifically, he talks frankly about his marriage to a woman with bipolar disorder. In some ways, this memoir is a paean to friendship, and he tells us all about the many people he has encountered and become friends with along the way.

The only interactions with him that I have ever had were a letter that he was kind enough to respond to in 2001, and a brief meeting when he came to Vancouver to give the Grenz Lectures in 2009 (he autographed one of his books that I bought for my dad). But at the end of this book, after having him open up so much of his life, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit as if Stanley had become my friend.

3. William F. Buckley (Christian Encounters Series) by Jeremy Lott. Reviewed earlier here.

4. Getting It Right: A Novel by William F. Buckley. I read this book because Lott mentioned it in his biography of Buckley. Somehow I had missed that Buckley was a novelist in addition to being conservative pundit, and so I decided to read one of his efforts. I chose this one in particular because it contained Buckley’s critique of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist philosophy seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment.

Besides being a critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, it is a fictionalized history of conservatism between 1956 and 1965, beginning with the repressed Hungarian Revolution and ending just after Barry Goldwater’s failed bid for president. In addition to critiquing Ayn Rand, it also contains a critique of the paranoid anti-Communist John Birch Society. Buckley himself makes a cameo, and it is clear by the end of the book that it is his brand of conservatism (rather than that of Rand or the JBS) that ought to win, and in fact did win.

5. The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. While Buckley’s book was a fictionalized history of mid-20th-century conservatism, this book was fictionalized financial advice. Clason wrote this book in the 1920s, but in a stroke of genius he set it in Babylon and told it as a set of ancient parables. His advice is nothing new, but striking because it is so seldom followed: save 10% of all you earn. Be conservative rather than greedy in your investments. Seek investment advice, especially in areas you are not familiar with. Not particularly exciting stuff, but this book has had enduring popularity in part because of its brilliant presentation. It’s a story, which is always more interesting than straight advice, and it is presented as wisdom from the ancients. The edition I read was even in King James English, though I believe there is a modern-English version.

6. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller. In this short book, Keller focuses on the familiar parable of the “prodigal son,” but presents it in an unusual way. That difference can be seen in the title: “prodigal” doesn’t mean “lost,” as so many people assume, but rather “recklessly extravagant; having spent everything.” This is why Keller applies the word to God, who as the father in the parable is extravagant both in giving his son his inheritance prematurely and in welcoming him back when he returns.

Though this book is short, it gave me a lot to chew on. Take this quote: “Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness” (83). Also, his description of the elder brother – and his claim that the elder brother was just as lost as the younger brother, but didn’t know it – struck home. Jesus told this parable so that the Pharisees would understand why he spent time with people they regarded as sinners, and to invite them to lay down their religious moralism and superiority. I was left wondering, How have I been an elder brother?

The main thing that I will take away from this book is this: Keller makes a sharp distinction between religious moralism and Christianity. This is a distinction that needs to be made sharply in our world, where Christianity (at times deservedly) has the reputation of being the same as religious moralism.

March 2010: Books Read

1. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain. As a fan of Twain’s, I have already read his most well-known works, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I have also read Roughing It, Life on the MIssissippi and an awful lot of his essays. It was about time, then, that I got around to reading Puddn’head Wilson.

It was not bad, but clearly there is a reason why this is not among his most-read stuff. It is about two children who were switched as infants, with one being raised as the scion of a wealthy family and the other being raised as a slave. The plot was interesting enough, but for a “mystery,” the ending was not at all surprising. The characters were not as compelling as in some of his better work. And this book was written in the 1890s, when Twain was becoming more and more of a cynic – as can easily be seen in the epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter. Though he was still talented, his later work is, with some exceptions, just not as entertaining to read.

2. Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series) by Peter Leithart. Reviewed earlier here.

3. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. This is an excellent, short work on the interaction between Christianity and economics. It is made up of four essays, and is only 103 pages long. Cavanaugh is Catholic, and draws mainly on Catholic theologians, but his theology is not so distinctly Catholic that other Christians can’t benefit from his insights.

Cavanaugh critiques the definition of economic freedom as only “freedom from” and proposes instead that economic freedom ought to be “freedom for” participation in community and realizing our humanity more fully. He also critiques consumerism, globalization and the economics of scarcity. It is simultaneously a quick read and a dense read, and unfortunately I read it over a month ago and can’t describe its arguments with the nuance they deserve. It is a book well worth picking up, though.

4. The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God’s Transformation of the World by Darrell W. Johnson. I studied preaching under Johnson at Regent College, so it was no surprise that I found much to agree with in this book. He honed the material for this book in his preaching classes, so a lot of it was not new.

What is unusual about this book, as over against most other books about preaching, is Johnson’s confidence in the biblical text. That is not to say that other books on preaching are not confident in the Bible to change people’s lives. It is unusual, though, for a writer to say, as Johnson does, that when the living God speaks, something ALWAYS happens. Another unique thing about this book is that Johnson thinks preachers are not responsible for applying the text to people’s lives. I remember, when I was in preaching class, that some students pushed back on this. Johnson was adamant, though. Preachers can imply what the text means – they can state the truth that the text leads us to. But applying – that is, telling people what particular things they ought to do – is the job of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful book, and one that I will return to over the years.

5. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott. I decided that during Lent this year, in addition to fasting from something, I would read something that led me to focus on Jesus. I’ve had this book on my shelf since my time at Regent, and it is as good a book as any to accomplish that goal.

There isn’t a lot that I could say about this book, aside from saying that it is a classic work on what Jesus’ death meant and means. If you are interested in learning more about what Jesus’ death accomplished, this is the first place to turn.

August 2009: Books Read

1. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider. This book came out in 1977, and is regarded by many as a “classic.” The version I read was the fifth edition, updated in (I think) 2004.

The book comes in four parts: the first part depicts the state of the world today, in which there are billions of poor people and millions of affluent people who could help. The second part shares a biblical perspective on poverty and possessions. The third attempts to answer the question, “What causes poverty?” And the fourth shares practical steps that Christians in rich countries can follow to both simplify their own lives and make wise contributions to making the world a more just and fair place.

This was a challenging book for me. Although I don’t think of myself as affluent, I certainly live in an affluent part of the world and enjoy many more conveniences than those people who have to live on a few dollars a day. The main things that I got out of this book were 1) practical tips on living more simply, while simultaneously fostering community, and 2) a greater understanding of the economics of poverty. Lack of understanding the latter, I think, is a major obstacle that keeps Christians from helping the poor. We think that the foreign aid rich countries give to poor countries is a lot, but most actually give less than 1 percent of their GNP in foreign aid – and much of this aid is tied to their own foreign policy interests. We think that this aid is more than enough to make up for inequalities caused by things like tariffs and the abusive practices of some multi-national corporations, but it is not. This is definitely a book that all Christians in wealthy nations should read. Even if not everyone agrees with Sider’s practical proposals, the problem of poverty is something that all Christians – if they are reading their Bibles and are genuinely seeking to be more like Jesus – are called to address.

2. Praying With the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight. McKnight was raised in a Christian tradition that had no use for daily set prayers, but as an adult he has come to appreciate and even love them. Like McKnight, I was raised in a Christian tradition that did not have set prayers (though we did recite the Lord’s Prayer and the “Gloria Patri” every week in church). As an adult, I have been more and more interested in the practice of daily prayer times as I have come to understand how deep they go in the Christian tradition.

McKnight’s book is a quick read and it comes in two parts: the first deals with Jesus’ own use of set prayers (Jews of his time recited prayers daily, and what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” is Jesus teaching his disciples something to pray every day). The second part serves as an introduction to four prayer books: the Orthodox Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle’s modern ecumenical Divine Hours. I would recommend this book to anyone who, like me, wants to have a richer prayer life and who is less familiar with the tradition of set prayers and how to use a prayer book.

3. The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNichol and Ken McElrath. Throughout my time in graduate school, I felt that it was more important to spend my time reading deep theology books than leadership books. But as I grow closer to (hopefully) taking on more leadership in a church setting, and as I become more aware that it is rarely bad theology that gets pastors kicked out of churches, I’ve become more interested in leadership literature. Earlier this year I read Now, Discover Your Strengths, and I’ve just recently completed The Ascent of a Leader.

The “ascent” the authors talk about is climbing the “character ladder” rather than the “capacity ladder.” The capacity ladder is what leaders are able to do on their own, and it comes with four rungs: discover what I can do, develop my capacities, acquire a title or position and attain individual potential. Climbing up just this kind of ladder can lead to loneliness and failure. Rather, spurred on by environments and relationships of grace, leaders should climb the character ladder: trust God and others, choose vulnerability, align with truth, pay the price and discover destiny. Once you start to climb the character ladder, you can integrate it with the capacity ladder, “leveraging our capacities far beyond what we could have accomplished without character” (143). I found this book to be a good reminder of how important character is in everyday life.

4. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. I’d heard a lot about this little book in recent months, and when I was at the Covenant’s annual meeting in Portland this summer, I was able to pick it up. The title comes from a time when McKnight was sitting in his backyard and saw a strange blue bird that he had never seen before. Turns out it was a parakeet that had escaped from someone’s cage. The “blue parakeets” of the title are “oddities in the Bible that we prefer to cage and silence rather than to permit into our sacred mental gardens” (208). Issues like Sabbath, foot washing, tithing and women in ministry are blue parakeets that many of us don’t quite know what to do with: do we try to retrieve all practices from biblical times? Do we try to retrieve only what we can salvage for our day and our culture? Do we read through tradition? Or do we read in dialogue with tradition? McKnight counsels us to read the Bible as a Story. We should read this Story in order to get to know the God behind it. And we should discern through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community how to continue living that Story in our own day. McKnight provides an example of discernment in the issue of women in ministry.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope it finds its way into the hands of lots of people. All Christians interpret the Bible in some way, but there are so few books for a popular audience on how to best interpret it. As a result, many are left thinking that the way their pastor or their immediate community interprets the Bible is self-evidently the only way. This is unfortunate.

This isn’t a perfect book, by any means. Since it is short, and meant for a popular audience, McKnight ends up dealing with some complicated issues very briefly. As a result, I doubt whether he will convince many people who, for example, are thoroughly antagonistic to women’s ordination. But since the book is for a popular audience, and no popular book can deal with these issues in great detail, I still highly recommend it.

5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never seen the movie version of this book, and I was surprised on reading it to find that Scarlett O’Hara is one of the more malevolent and despicable literary protagonists I have ever read about – and I have read Anna Karenina. Like Anna Karenina, the real hero of this book is someone besides the main character: in Anna Karenina it is Levin (who, I’ve heard, Tolstoy modeled after himself), and in Gone With the Wind, it seems to me that the heroine is really Melanie Wilkes. But in both books, the intended hero is far overshadowed by protagonists who are such finely written, true-to-life characters that, despite their badness, they steal the show. It’s a great credit to Margaret Mitchell that she could create such a believable character as Scarlett – even if she is so believable that I genuinely didn’t like her.

6. The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham. We have been reading through the book of Revelation in our Bible study, and I have taken it on myself to do background reading and lead the discussion. Part of that background reading has been this fantastic little book (it’s only 169 pages). Bauckham, who retired a couple of years ago from being Professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, digs into the theological content of Revelation and finds that it has perhaps the most developed trinitarian theology in the New Testament. He doesn’t spend a lot of time criticizing various interpretations of the book, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think futurist or historicist interpretations do a very good job of making sense of the imagery in the book. This is a dense little book, and it doesn’t move chronologically through the text. For those who want to read it, I’d recommend reading Revelation first to get a sense of it, then read this book, and then go back and read Revelation again with new eyes.