Stop What You’re Doing and Read

Mark HaddonI recently picked up a short collection of essays titled Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! The title caught me – not to mention the bright cover – because I am passionate about literature and convinced that we should carve out time in our busy lives to read. Not only am I troubled by the lack of reading today but have elsewhere observed an obverse trend: the consumerist approach to books that fails to engage with their ideas and prefers volume to deep reading. After reading Stop my zeal to see the prioritising of literature was heightened. So I hope this post will both serve as an appetiser for the collection and create a hunger for reading good books.

The best place to start, in my opinion, is with Blake Morrison’s essay, which for the most part remarks on how books provide readers with hope beyond where they find themselves, however dire; he argues that literature allows us to breathe when our surroundings are suffocating. Any lover of reading knows this. But the point I want to pick out from his piece touches the canonical works of literature. In a culture obsessed with entertainment, resistant to sustained and thoughtful engagement, we find that older (and, most often, larger) books involve too much effort and are sorely lacking in event. But, referring to the canon, Morrison writes, “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.” With the postmodern insistence on subjectivity and self we are determinedly independent and suspicious of established narratives. However, Morrison’s necessary point for today is this: “If we see the canon not as social-conditioning…imposed from above, but as a collective of writers’ and readers’ enthusiasm, then there’s no reason to resist.” Recognised and recommended literature, especially those works belonging to the canon, should be added to our reading lists. As another contributor, Tim Parks, writes, “Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Earnest HemingwayThe next point I want to pick up on is the unique ability of literature, not possessed by any other art medium, to help us feel the human condition. We are so over gorged on series and films, the effortless and explosive entertainment flying off our screens, that we overlook what is undoubtedly a healthier medium: paper. One of the contributors, Carmen Calill, probably overstates this point, arguing that without the connection of words, thoughts and stories we will die. Though I do agree that without literature our internal lives will suffer, as we glut ourselves on stories made to sell through gripping viewers and grabbing awards. Mark Haddon believes that when you, “Lay the novel alongside film…its specialness becomes obvious…[Film] can’t do smell or taste or texture. It can’t tell us what it is like to inhabit a human body. Its eyes are always open. It fails to understand the importance of things we don’t notice.” Haddon is convinced that the novel will endure because it comes closest to revealing the “texture of life” and “the mystery of what it means to be human.” Anyone who has invested time into engaging with exceptional literary works, will admit to the screen’s relative poverty and readings’ probing power, which is sometimes unnerving yet always enriching.

Following on from the previous paragraph, Jane Davis makes an incisive point about our fear of deep reading. While her issue is with the preference for light reading I would extend it to our obsession with film, “The plea for lightness may be a natural and entirely understandable fear of getting serious: lots of us spend a great deal of time not thinking, for fear of being brought down.” A little later she adds, “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths.” We might think this is harmless, and because life is so demanding we are justified in sticking to the shallows and superficial engagement with the human condition. But Davis thinks the opposite, suggesting that, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics.” I admit that this conclusion seems far reaching, but listen to what Davis adds, “Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable. If we ignore it, or have no means of knowing it, that desire will come back and hurt us.” Our fondness of film, more often than not, indulged at the expense of deep interaction with literature is a cost that we fail to consider; it damages our inner lives and numbs us to the depths of human nature.

Lastly, hopefully tying some of the above points together, I want to develop another fascinating point made by Jane Davis. She suggests that religions’ fall from grace, over the last century, as an interlocutor in the discourse of common life has not only impoverished our language for contemplating the human condition but has also in many ways been the demise of community. She posits that members of faith groups are more likely to flourish as religions provide people with a “network of fellow supportive creatures, a sense of purpose”. Religion, according to Jane Davis, offers us “inner stuff, scaffolding to help us get around our inner space” and meaningful community; maps to explore the complexities of our humanity and safe groups where such ventures are encouraged. The reason I find this point so interesting is that while I agree with Davis that a “reading revolution” will help us to reinvestigate the human condition and even result in new communities formed around good literature, I also believe the Christian story that plumbs the depths of our humanity including the parts that we avoid, drawing people into a community governed by grace, connected by their faith in Christ. In my experience this community has greatly enriched my understanding of human life and afforded me a platform to discuss it further. But even here, I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the shallow, distracted interaction with our world, thought and significant literature.

 

Song of the Month: I Have a Shelter

Come Weary SaintsI’ve decided to be more formal with song introduction at Christ Church Hilton. So, starting in the month of January, I’m going to introduce a song each month that I think should join our music teams’ repertoire. I’m going to try to pick songs that can be played pretty easily and, preferably, that are not dependent on either a piano maestro or a guitar aficionado (so anyone can play it).

January’s song was “I Have a Shelter” by Steve Cook, Vikki Cook and Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Music. You can find it on its official page.

Sovereign Grace Music has done an excellent job of establishing itself as a high quality source of music that is both lyrically engaging and musically interesting. The composers are all well known in church music circles and it’s well deserved.

This song plays with the image of “shelter in the storm”. The image used in the first verse as simple encouragement, “comfort in all my sorrows”. In the second verse, the image shifts to grace that, in spite of sin, “will not refuse me”. Finally, in the third verse, the image is of the Christian life and the burdens and weaknesses of Christians for whom shelter in the storm is “faithful hands that cannot fail”.

It has a beautiful melody. We play it in D but we can’t quite do the final harmonies that they’ve put together (they go pretty high). It may be easier to sing it a bit lower but without the harmonies D works well. Also, because it’s Sovereign Grace, you can get their lead sheets, guitar chords and piano score for free.

If you haven’t heard it, it’s really worth having a look at:

Christ’s Temptation and Our Own

Jesus IconI recently posted on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew’s Gospel and argued that the event showed Satan offering Jesus means other than the cross of becoming the Messiah; signified Jesus’ overthrow of Satan; and I suggested that each temptation is developed in the rest of Gospel. I concluded that post by reminding the reader that it was both Jesus’ loving submission to the Father and self-sacrificial love for us that braced him for his messianic role. In this short post I will unpack what the temptation teaches us about Christ and the challenge it issues to us.

When I preached Matthew 4:1-11 I said that Jesus’ temptation reveals Jesus’ struggle with his mission, which was a tremendous burden. However you read Hebrews 5:7-9 one thing is certain: Jesus’ obedience to God the Father was difficult. However when Jesus was tempted by Satan, experiencing in himself our human weakness, he was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was unswervingly committed to his task, thus he trusted his Father and gave himself up for us. To borrow an analogy from John Owen’s On Temptation: temptation pierces a vessel revealing what is within. When Jesus is tempted we are given a window into his character and what we see there is steadfast love, for his Father and those he came to save.

ScalpelWe are no different, for temptation peels back our pious masks and pretensions. Owen wrote, “Temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat of a man; it may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.” He understood that the nature of temptation is to expose our hearts and added, “[Temptation shows] man what is in him–that is, the man himself.” When Jesus was tempted he rose above it for he was devoted to God the Father. However, what temptation more often than not reveals in the Christian is a lack of commitment to God. We know from Scripture that God sometimes tempts in order to test our faith and that “temptation may proceed either singly from Satan, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of them”. But regardless of its source – and I would encourage investigating Owen’s different categories, also see James’ differentiation between internal and external temptation – when we are enticed by evil our hearts are exposed. Jesus’ temptation reveals his deliberate and devoted commitment to God. When we are tempted, what is revealed?

I will conclude with two practical points for when we are tempted. Firstly, we must rely on God’s grace to forgive and strengthen us. Owen writes, “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength,” but when we feel like giving in to temptation we are reminded of our need for Christ’s blood and the Spirit’s empowerment. As N. T. Wright says, in The Lord and His Prayer, alluding to Matthew 12, “Invoke the name of the Stronger than the Strong.” The cross has removed our guilt and the Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, when we are tempted, as for when we sin, we need look no further than our gracious God. Secondly, resist temptation, hate sin, submit yourself to God and resist the devil. John Owen has written extensively on the battle with sin, which we make meagre progress in only because we do not actively set about doing it. So when you are tempted, resist what you know will displease your heavenly Father. And let us strive after Jesus’ example, who resisted temptation until the point of death.

Was Jesus Really Tempted?

TemptationIn the last post Graham began a series on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew. In it, he claimed that “Jesus was truly tempted, because the task set before him was overwhelmingly daunting.” But the fact that Jesus was tempted is a point worth further investigation. We quickly affirm Jesus’ perfection and his holiness but if those things are true was the temptation Jesus was faced with anything like our own temptation? If not was he really tempted? Or more, was he really human?

Jesus Didn’t sin

Let’s begin by reasserting Jesus’ perfection. In 2009 the American research company Barna ran a poll that concluded that 22% of Americans strongly agree that “Jesus probably sinned” and another 17% “agree somewhat”. In other words, 40% of those who would describe themselves as Christians (2 out of every group of 5!) would be okay with the idea that Jesus sinned. Or even, they think it’s unlikely that he didn’t.

Jesus’ moral perfection is something that is often questioned and doubted. It is also, however, something that is absoultely critical. We see this 1 Peter 2:22. Peter quotes Isaiah 53 with reference to Jesus and the punchline is that “He committed no sin”. The thing is, Peter is encouraging Christians to endure through suffering. How are they supposed to do that? Look to Jesus as their example. That logic doesn’t really work if Jesus sinned. Peter also doesn’t stop there; in verse 24 we see that the point of Jesus’ sinless death is that we could die to sin. Peter wouldn’t care about dying to sin though unless Jesus were our sinless example.

Jesus Couldn’t Sin

Okay so we all believe Jesus didn’t sin but we may wonder, “Could Jesus have sinned? Was Jesus actually able to sin?” After all, if Jesus was not able to sin, was he really human – isn’t it human nature to sin?

Think back to the Garden of Eden though and we will quickly remember that God made everything good. Adam and Eve were perfectly human and perfectly sinless the way God made them. Sin, ironically, is precisely not human nature. So Jesus could be human without ever sinning (and for that matter, he didn’t even need to be tempted to sin in order to qualify as a real human).

I think we can go one step further though and say that Jesus could not have sinned because not only was he 100% flesh and blood human, he was also 100% real McCoy God. Now something we often forget is that morality is not this arbitrary set of rules out there that God is just really good at keeping. If that were true, there would be something in authority over God. Instead, morality is rooted in God himself, in his nature and character. Quite simply, Jesus couldn’t have sinned because by definition he is the source of morality. To suggest Jesus could have sinned is kind of like suggesting that tree could plant itself.

Morality comes from Jesus and so what he does defines it. That doesn’t mean morality twists and turns and changes all the time, by the way, because something else we need to remember about God is that he is consistent and doesn’t change like shadows as the day wears on. Instead, we see God outlining a moral code and then we see him acting consistently with it through all of Scripture.

Jesus Wouldn’t Sin

If Jesus couldn’t sin though, then it stands to reason that he also couldn’t be tempted – at least in any real or significant way. I mean what’s the worry of temptation if I am don’t even have to worry about resisting it, because of who I am I’ll never be able to be immoral.

It’s helpful to realise that there are two types of temptation. Internal, like the kind James 1:14 refers to when James says we are tempted “when [we are] lured and enticed by [our] own evil desires.” and External, like the kind that Adam and Eve faced from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus was not tempted internally because, unlike you are I, Jesus was not part of fallen humanity. However, it’s also clear that Jesus was tempted externally. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all report Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Satan tries three times to have Jesus follow the rest of humanity in sin and three times Jesus resists, consistently turning to Scripture (a poingant lesson to 21st century Christians who are known for our “snuggle” with sin).

The gospel accounts use Jesus’ victory against temptation to set him up as the true Israel and the second Adam through whom the Fall will be overturned. There is, however, one other particularly significant passage we should take note of; Hebrews 4:15

we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

Here we see the importance of Jesus’ temptation to us as frail sinners. Jesus is not someone who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses. He was tempted in all things! In fact, if I were Satan I would have maxed out my efforts on getting Jesus to sin. “Yet,” Hebrews tells us, Jesus was without sin. This is an encouragement to us when we fall into sin to turn once more to Jesus. More than that, the author of Hebrews knows that Jesus sinlessness means that even when we sin, there is forgiveness because Jesus was not only our great high priest but our perfect atoning sacrifice.

Matthew: The Temptation of Christ

The temptation of ChristAt his baptism, Jesus is called God’s “beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17), he is then partnered by the Holy Spirit and sent into the wilderness to be tempted (4:1). Having been identified with Adam (clearer in Luke’s account) and Israel by the designation ‘son of God’, Jesus’ sonship is tested before his kingdom preaching commences (4:12-17). That means the temptation narrative is pivotal in reading Matthew’s Gospel. Unfortunately this important passage is often sketchily treated and underappreciated. So in this short post I hope to impress on the reader the gravity of Jesus’ meeting with Satan in the wilderness.

An important place to start is by asking if there exists a thread through the temptations. New Testament scholar David Seccombe argues, in The King of God’s Kingdom, that Jesus is being lured by false methods to achieve his messianic role. Jesus is not merely having his commitment to God tested; his commitment to the messianic office is being tried. So in each temptation Satan offers Jesus an alternative means of becoming promised king. Firstly, Satan tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. ‘Provide the people with their physical needs. Fill their stomachs and they will follow you.’ But Jesus’ reply suggests the people have a greater need, to hear the preached word of God. Secondly, Satan suggests that Jesus throw himself from the temple, the centre of Jewish life, requiring that God send hosts of angels to deliver him. Such a miracle would compel belief, win allegiance and clearly demonstrate that this is God’s promised king. But Jesus’ answer indicates that it would at the same time express unbelief in God, testing his faithfulness and dictating how he should act in his world. Lastly, if Jesus will only worship Satan then he will receive the kingdoms of the earth. Being ‘the prince of this world’ I would argue there is some weight to Satan’s offer, but Jesus’ response is uncompromising devotion to the only Lord God. Jesus knew that his messianic task could not be carried out in any way other than worshipful obedience to God the Father. As Shane Claiborne writes in Jesus for President, ‘In each of the three temptations Jesus resisted the spectacular, legitimising himself as the Servant-King’. Jesus was truly tempted, because the task set before him was overwhelmingly daunting.

The next question to ask might be: What does Jesus’ resistance to Satan’s temptation signify? In Matthew’s Gospel the simple answer is victory. Looking ahead, at 12:29 where Jesus says the strong man must first be bound, C. H. Dodd comments in The Founder of Christianity that implicit to Jesus’ teaching is that, “he had cleared scores with the devil before his work began, and he could carry on his campaign into the enemy’s country unhampered”. N. T. Wright makes the same point in Simply Jesus about Jesus’ temptation: Satan tried to bring Jesus over to his side, grasping the right goal but through the wrong means. Jesus’ temptation spelt the beginning of Satan’s defeat. Yet Jesus’ kingdom parables reveal that Satan’s opposition to God will be on going, as the kingdom advances (13:19, 38). According to Jesus’ words in 25:41, the final victory over Satan will only come at the end of the age. The victory over Satan in Matthew, and larger scope of Jesus’ ministry, poses a real challenge to the ‘classic or ransom theory’ of atonement, which understands Christ’s death as a payment to Satan for the ownership of humanity. In his ministry, kingdom proclamation, and the cross, Jesus was bringing about the defeat of Satan, binding him and loosing his reign over the kingdoms of earth.

The temptation of ChristFinally, something which entire post could be written of, is the theme of temptation further developed in Matthew’s Gospel? I would argue that it definitely is, not only in general but specific to the three temptations Jesus endured in the wilderness. Jesus showed twice that he could miraculously provide bread in abundance (14:13-21; 15:32-39). When he was arrested in Gethsemane he asked, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (26:53). Lastly, prior to his arrest, Jesus lies prostrate before the Father in desperate prayer yet submits himself to the Father’s will (26:39). He refused to establish a ‘bread circus’, he renounced his right to the angelic hosts, and he resisted the temptation to worship anything and anyone but his Father in heaven. Jesus carried out his messianic role without erring; though agonisingly tempted to use other means, his loving submission to the Father and his self-sacrificial love for us drove him ever closer to the cross.

Some Dangers of Theological Study

Theological studyI applied myself more than usual, and had an article posted at IX Marks challenging pastors who have a low evaluation of theological study and highlighting the importance of systematic theology for Bible teaching and local church ministry. In this post I want to briefly touch on some dangers inherent to theological study, both at college and in local church. My reason for doing this is balance: I may not undervalue theology, but could find myself at the other pole, where theology is self-indulgent and fails to serve God’s people. Another reason for writing this post is because, as Helmut Thielicke notes in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, love and truth are seldom combined when it comes to academic learning. And this cannot be the case for those who are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

In an old post reviewing my recent reads, I joked that I could be accused of loving books more than people, and I fear the same could sometimes be said about my enjoyment of theological inquiry. Though I do not share his sentiments, Dr Manhattan, from The Watchmen, unwittingly expresses the dangerous lure of theology, “I am tired of Earth, these people. I’m tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives,” only instead of an ivory tower he retreats to Mars. Theology is an enriching pursuit, which should be undertaken by every Christian, but we must be aware of the ease with which it can become an escape. I cannot deny the pleasure of sitting down with a cup of freshly brewed tea and Herman Bavink’s Reformed Dogmatics, but I can work hard at directing my studies to equip me to better teach and train other Christians. As former Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, in The Christian Priest Today, the church’s hold on the faith is dependant on its ministers’ ability to develop their own theology. Christian theology should never be disconnected from life, for it is the means of understanding it.

Theology cannot become a pursuit in itself. In his essay Learning in War-time, C. S. Lewis quotes from the Theologica Germanica, where the anonymous author warns against becoming lovers of knowledge – or our knowing – above the thing (we might add person) known. There are two problems with this; both are incongruent with Christian theology. Firstly, developed and deep studies can puff up, causing pride. There is a tendency amongst the learned to become condescending. This is a travesty, since true theology cannot but create humility as we reflect on our creatureliness, God’s glorious holiness, and gospel of unmerited grace. Secondly, theology can become idolatry if we love our knowing more than what is known, our Lord and God. As Lewis says, the intellectual life is not the only pathway to God, it is a treacherous path beset with dangers to carefully consider. What does it profit a theologian if she authors numerous works, earns a tenured professorship, and is awarded more PhDs than he can fit on her office walls, if she loses her soul?

Dr ManhattanAbove, I mentioned Thielicke’s unassuming but profound book. One of my lecturers at college encouraged us to read and reflect on it annually, and I am grateful for his counsel. In fact, I am tempted to say the book is worth owning for Martin Marty’s introduction alone. In it, he makes a few painfully incisive points about studying theology. He challenges the alienating piety of those who claim to know more than any reasonable finitude allows, and calls out the abstraction and aloofness that characterises many theologians and their relationship with the local church. But, in my opinion, his best point is on the odium theologicum, “The pettiness of little men who care much about big issues.” As I conclude, let us remember that theological study is when little creatures claim to understand an infinite God, let alone big issues. We can barely afford pettiness, must learn humility, and are failing if our knowledge does not move us to worship God and serve his people.