Books, books, books, books, books…….

Yesterday was my day at the Boston Book Festival in downtown Boston at Copley Square. The Exhibitor displays were set up on the commons in front of the Boston Public Library on one side and Trinity Church on the other side. Trinity is the church pastored by Philip Brooks (d.1893), some of whose books I read in seminary. A great preacher of his day and the pastor who led the congregation in the building of one of the finest church buildings in America. It is a treasure, architecturally speaking. It is no longer standing in the orthodox Christian Tradition. But if I went to church anywhere for the beauty of its building, it would be Trinity.

Going to the Book Festival is sort of a religious commitment to me. Multiple thousands of the Boston citizenry show up for the world of ideas. When I go to a particular presentation by an author, there are hundreds of people there who like the same book I liked!! It is often the case that a book I have thoroughly enjoyed is a singular experience for me. People in my circles have not read it, nor I the books that they have enjoyed. But when I go to a presentation such as at the BBF, there is an instant community of like minded people. There is already a lot in common with similar concerns and questions. That experience is worth something to me.

The schedule is such that there is no time for eating. It is wise to put some food in your backpack and munch along the way. The lines for the presentations are huge and you can’t afford to be eating lunch and missing the queue. There is hardly enough time to visit the vendors. You just sort of pass by them on your way to another venue. If you want to spend serious time roaming around the exhibitors, you have to miss a presentation. No dice!!!

I attended four presentations. All the information about the BBF is at

This is the 75th year of the publication of The Hobbit and soon the movie is to come out. Believe me when I say there is a Hobbit culture, almost like a science fiction convention. They can’t get enough. Corey Olsen was featured, aka the Tolkien Professor, who has just written Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Olsen is a professor at Washington College. Also presenting were Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull who showed the original artwork drawn by Tolkien himself. They coauthored The Art of the Hobbit.

2. Fiction: Heaven Knows
This presentation featured three novelists who explored how novelists approach religion, belief, and the mysteries of the unseen. Presenters were Tom Perrotta, Alan Lightman and Ben Marcus. None of these authors professed some kind of Christian the best I could tell. I was particularly interested in Lightman’s work, Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation. In this work he looks at creation from god’s perspective with an attempt at making him a “small g” god – human, a bit clumsy, in an attempt to make him a bit more interesting. Lightman insisted that this was not a statement on his part but he did observe that the kind of god he was interested in creating for the reader would have to be personal god, for religious institutions “couldn’t afford” to have a god like this. I did find intriguing his quip that the big and perfect God of religion seems to create a God no one is drawn to at a personal level. I find some truth in that. Looking at something that is perfect all the time, never wrong, never making a mistake, never doing something embarrassing, never being what we are all the time being can flat line the mind and the emotions. It might be true, but uninteresting. He is onto something. But I don’t think it is an either/or kind of thing. Certainly Trinitarianism does the “God transcendent” thing and the “God immanent” thing. God is too big to peer at for too long. But God has become “small” to be near us. Christianity recognizes that experience we humans have – God must remain God to satisfy us and our need to have something big “out there” that is the ultimate explanation for all things; but God must be “God among us” to know, to have a relationship with. You don’t have to have a “small g” God. But the concept is interesting. I think I will read it.

3. The Brain: Thinking About Knowing
This has always been a fascinating subject to me – how we know what we know. What is knowing anyway? How far can the mind take us in knowing? Do we have another way of knowing? If so, what is it? Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner in 2000, explores how the mind perceives art in The Spirit of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. A most moving presentation. His assertion was that science and art are not opposites, but that there is a science of art. He sought a scientific explanation for the aesthetic. He made ample use of Freud. His familial relationships connected with Freud and his family. He is 85 today, appearing vital, energeti and intellectually alive. Amazing presentation. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was also the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia. The next presenter was Ray Kurzwell, author of How to Create a Mind. His thesis was that our increasing ability to reverse engineer the brain will lead to ever more intelligent machines. He spoke of nano computers that will be put in the human body, enabling us to access information on The Cloud. He predicted in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions. This all was a fascinating discussion. The venue was Trinity Church, a very large church that was packed without a seat left. I guess a lot of people knew who these two men were.

4. Future of Reading
This was a panel of “experts” on both the science of reading and the world of reading. At issue was whether or not the digital world would diminish “deep reading.” The reality is that no matter what we should or should not do with paper books, the world is going digital. Now what to do? Of course, one of the things that happens in digital publishing is that people have more access to authors. It used to be that an author published a book and could walk away. But now readers are much more involved in the world of books because of the democratization of reading due to digital access. Authors are now immersed in the world of readers’ responses. Some authors are taking advantage of this by including the reading public in their process through any number of means – video, share sites, blogs, etc. Authors are now able to include a much wider swath of people through electronic media. I walked away thinking that the book as we have known it will no longer be. One statistic stood out: in the next 5 years there will be over one billion new readers. The reality is that paper books will not be able to reach them. It will be digital materials that grant access to education. The panelists were Baratunde Thurston, Nicholas Negroponte, Robert Darnton, Maryanne Wolf, Cheryl Cramer and Sep Kamvar.

Choosing between presentations is always such a difficult thing. So much good stuff going on. Just seeing what is offered is a wake up call to what people are interest in and writing about. Reading is a way of going into the world of culture formation without having to have a ticket – the right school, the right neighborhood, the right socio-economic status, the right whatever. You just start reading, and you are there.

So, What Is Your Version of the Exodus?

The Exodus is THE act of salvation in the Old Testament. It becomes the primary model of deliverance and God’s grace for the whole of the Bible.

The question continually arises of whether or not the Exodus as recorded in the Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible) is an account of the actual facts of the thing or if it a “theological” account of what would otherwise be a minor incident. Of course, this question does not arise in Evangelical circles, confident as we are that the worldview of the biblical authors was rooted in history. They knew the difference between history and myth, facts and fantasy.

Note this account of the Exodus in “Mercer Dictionary of the Bible.”

“The biblical account of the Exodus is both a reflection and a transformation of the actual historical event. The biblical story recollects certain event that took place, but these events have been eclipsed by merging accounts, i.e., the major traditions of the Pentateuch, and the combined effect of these theological perspectives. The transformation arises in the creation of a narrative manifesting the redemptive power of God in what surely would have been viewed as a minor event in the ancient world in which renegades or slaves regularly escaped with no notice. Over time, with the contribution of the distinctive perspectives of several group, the story developed into the testimony of the whole group bound by covenant to this awesome, powerful, and attentive god, Yahweh.”

A reflection and a transformation of the actual historical event? A story whose telling is the combined effect of theological perspectives? Creation of a narrative? The story developed? What surely would have been viewed as minor event?

The authors did everything but say the history recorded is not actual history, as we see history. The authors are not dealing with the question of whether or not there is a fair historical rendering of what actually happened. They seem to think this not important because it is about a theological rendering of the event.

It is true that the meaning of those events were very different for pagan observers and Jewish participants. But did the Jewish rendition of the events themselves “conflate” the story? Is not the reader Mercer DOB left with the impression that the theological was used to change the historical? Not just its meaning, but the actual way the story was reported?

One can actually walk away from the MDOB without recognizing the shift that has gone on here. The reader is left with what seems to be a large view of God but a false history.

What about the resurrection of Jesus from the grave? A theological retelling of the Jesus story? Or an actual fact?

Intelligent people should know better.

The deductive use of the sovereignty of God

Peter Enns is pointing out that John Piper’s post asserting  “It’s Right for God to Slaughter Women and Children Anytime He Pleases” has been taken down. It might be just a temporary linking problem. Might not. It could be just one of those things that when you’re feeling your theological oats you just say, only to get enough of a kick back that you finally realize how stunning and absurd the thing you are so convinced is true is truly abhorrent.

Peter Enns wants Piper to explain where this post went, and if it was taken down, why so?

In that post Piper also wrote:

“God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs….
If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.
God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.”

What else would a person who believes in the sovereignty of God the way Piper believes in the sovereignty of God say? In this form of things, the sovereignty of God becomes a first premise in a long chain of deductions that end up with increasingly absurd things being posited of God. For such people the sovereignty of God requires these things to be said. Courage and theological integrity even require you to say it.  Feels good at the moment. God’s glory has been proclaimed and defended and mankind has been made small and deserving of the worst of ruins. That’s enough work done for one day. Post it and get on with the day’s business.

But like bad food, at some point during the day the body vomits out the poison. This kind of thinking so damages the inner world of a person who tries to believe it, that nature itself rebels.

Did something like this happen in removing the post? I, too, would like for Piper to reflect on its removal. If it is true, keep it there. If it is true, but offends too many, keep it there. If it is true and hurts fund raising, still keep it there. If it is true, but not nice, keep it there. (I had rather know the saddest fact than be deluded by the sweetest lie). If it is true, but needs qualification, keep it there – then qualify it.

But just take it down? Poof! Gone! Why take it down?

Of course, Enns’ suspicion, I suppose, and mine, is that Piper showed too much of what is in his theological cards. He hasn’t changed his views of God’s sovereignty, but a little less light on them would be more comfortable.

What a fair reading of Piper’s post would lead to is the conclusion is that this is not Christianity – it is Stoicism, a philosophy so attractive to many writers in the early church that they had to work hard to make sure that the Christian faith did not turn into just a religious restatement of fatalism. We do not look on devastating human suffering and shrug our shoulders and say “Praise God! He is sovereign.”


There’s no crying in leadership!!

There’s no crying in baseball, a la “A League of Their Own.” And there’s no crying in leadership. At least not the kind that goes with “I’m losing and other people shouldn’t do that to me.”

Here is a reply that I posted at a blog where the author rather constantly bemoans what has happened to him for taking a stand. To me that can sound like a soldier getting all weepy because someone shot at him. Yet, it’s no fun. And bullets hurt. But don’t be surprised that when you shoot, someone shoots back.

The more influence one wants to have, the greater the dangers!! That is the way it has to be, not just the way it is. People who move toward maximum influence have responsibilities that people who do not who stay beneath the radar for either safety purposes or because they have no motivation to influence larger numbers of people. We expect people “at the top” to steward the troubled waters of public opinion in a way that takes into account, not their freedom, but their influence. This doesn’t mean that they do not stir the pot. It means that they can’t cry when the pot stirs back. This is not just true in Evangelicalism. This is just how it works – politics, the arts, culture, etc. I am always amazed at how fragile people “at the top” are. They seem to expect Matthew 18 to mean that all criticism is to be in private even if they are operating at the public level. In other words, I can write books, be interviewed, speak across the airwaves, etc., but all return criticism has to be personal, careful, and under the radar. I know it gets hard and brutal. I am a Pastor. Being criticized in blunt ways goes with the territory. How I handle that criticism is part of my ministry. I have some responsibility to manage it. I can make it worse, and sometimes I do need to do that. But I should not make it worse unless it is a good thing to do. Like Jesus did. Somethings he let go and somethings he didn’t. He made it worse. His opponents didn’t make it worse. He did. He meant to. And then he went through what he had to go through when he made it worse. Self-preservation can’t be part of that deal, not if you want to influence the public. So, no kidding about taking the career track that leads you to the public life. Once it happens to you, don’t be surprised at the stuff. You’ll be responsible for handling dynamics and forces you didn’t even know was there. When you corner and threaten people, at least as they see it, all bets are off. Trying to change people is not for cowards. It’s life threatening.

“Top Ten Arguments Against God” at Jesus Creed

Scot McKnight is offering a series at his blog on the top ten arguments against God, authored by Jeff Cook. Check it out. Scot doesn’t do junk on his blog so it should be helpful and intellectually and soulishly  gratifying. Don’t you like the word “soulishly”? It doesn’t come up as a word on my spell checker. It has to be a word somewhere!!

BTW I am finding Scot’s book The King Jesus Gospel so helpful in reshaping the word “gospel.” I have been convinced for some time that all the emphasis on the atonement theories that attach to the word gospel simply don’t connect with the Christian imagination. They lie on the outside of me and don’t get inside. I have been trying to figure out why. Scot and NT Wright figured it out for me simply by paying attention to the Scripture. Sometimes I think I am paying attention to Scripture. But I’m not. I am simply paying attention to my assumptions about what it says.

GK Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man helps me here, too. (Gosh, I hate the cover chosen for this book). Chesterton traces the spiritual journey of mankind, or at least of Western civilization. Thesis: the religions of the world had grown tired and could no longer invent enough gods to keep God big. Jesus was the solution to that problem. This fits in with the Gospel narrative that the Gospel is that in Jesus God is becoming King.