Mary and Martha: Summary and Conclusion

I finished the series on Mary and Martha as a sermon. It can be found on the sermon manuscript page.

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Adopt Your Pastor’s Kids! (They Need It…)

My friend Chap Bettis (formerly a pastor and now of The Apollos Project) has published a fantastic article on The Gospel Coalition website entitled How Churches Can Care for Their Pastor’s Children. As a pastor’s kid myself and as an assistant pastor, let me say this article is a must read for the church member. Below are the comments I posted to the website:

As a pastor’s kid and as an assistant pastor, I have to agree wholeheartedly with this article. Pastor’s kids see the church as an extension of their family. They survive best when the members of the church go out of their way to notice and “adopt” them. I know I had many surrogate parents and grandparents who loved me, took an interest in me, talked to me, prayed for me, and even helped to keep an eye on me on Sunday mornings. This not only freed up my parents to do the ministry they needed to do on Sundays, but it also helped me as an individual feel like I belonged to a larger family. I think that churches have a choice. They can let the pastor’s family feel isolated and under constant microscopic inspection, or they can step up and take in the pastor’s family as part of their own. The first option produces hypocrites or hoodlums. The second option makes the church feel so home-like that even a prodigal will have a hard time staying away.

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Is Reading the Classics Worth It?

I love to read. I have enjoyed reading many a book considered by the world to be a “classic.” I have profited much by my forays into classical literature. However, I found myself in almost complete disagreement with a recent blog post by Dr. Leland Ryken entitled “Why Read the Classics?” http://www.crossway.org/blog/2014/02/why-read-the-classics/

I have gone through his points below:

1)      Classics are superior entertainment: I think Dr. Ryken needs to come to the realization that this statement cannot be rationally or objectively verified. I would imagine that there are very few people today who would think of entertainment as “objective.” As such, there is no way to label something as more entertaining than something else. All Dr. Ryken has done is give us a subjective statement about his own feelings.

2)      Everyone can develop a taste for the classics: I would say this statement is an overgeneralization on two counts. First, I’m not sure that there is anything in this world for which everyone can develop a taste. There will always be some people who will dislike something. No matter how hard they try, no matter how good their English professor, there will be people who will never and can never like the classics. They will understand the classics, perhaps even see the value of the classics, but they will hate them. Second, not everyone will be able to understand the classics. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I will never run the 100 meter dash in under 10 seconds. I will not be the next Pavarotti. There are people in this world whose language talents are not up to the task of understanding the classics. Their strengths lie in other areas (to the great benefit of the world). Very few such people make it to college (there is no shame in that), and even less make it into Wheaton. It is understandable if Dr. Ryken has had little experience with such people.

3)      Liking the classics is not elitist: I am sorry, but calling classics “superior entertainment” is elitist. (“My entertainment is better than yours.”)

4)      Educational history shows that people throughout time were able to understand the classics better, were less lazy of mind, etc.: I am not sure what point in history was this golden age of education. I have an entirely different impression of education throughout history. My impression is that throughout history people have lived much as they do today. Some people work hard at academics. Some people think deeply about life and the world. Most people are more concerned about other things. I imagine that throughout most of history, many students have found the classics dull, uninteresting, unprofitable, and far from being “superior entertainment.”

5)      The subject matter of the classics is more entertaining: Again this is a purely subjective statement.

6)      The classics have “arresting strangeness”: The classics do have a certain strangeness. Whether or not this strangeness is arresting, is again a subjective evaluation. I think that Tolkien and others have hit upon the deep-seated need of human beings to experience something “other” or “strange.” I wonder if this is a need that should be fulfilled by fiction, or if this need is just a reflection of our need to experience the ultimate Strangeness. Part of God’s holiness is that he is Other. I thought it was interesting that Dr. Ryken should introduce this thought from Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” which is more of a defense and analysis of fantasy than classics. Tolkien arrives at his “arresting strangeness” by creating a detailed fantasy world. There are certainly other ways of experiencing “arresting strangeness” than to read the classics.

7)      The classics display “superior artistry and technique and beauty”: Again, some of this is purely subjective. But even by commonly accepted literary standards, a lot of the material in the classics is poor quality. For instance, there were certain eras of literature in which they wasted pages on flowery descriptions. Dr. Ryken would probably advise his students against such techniques in their own writing. Many classics are rife with stylistic no-no’s. We just cut the classics a little extra slack because the author was in a different culture, different time, or in a different stage of literary development.

8)      The classics “do greater justice to the richness and multiplicity of human experience than lesser forms of literature”: I am not sure I see the basis for this conclusion. I would say that quite a lot of the human experience is missing from the classics. In fact, quite a lot of the human experience is missing from literature in general. For instance, not many characters in literature seem to have to go to the bathroom.

9)      The classics “probe life at deeper levels,” and contemporary works are “surface-level portrayals of life only”: This may be true, but I have a few objections to make. First, I think Dr. Ryken misses out on a lot of deep meaning that is in a lot of contemporary art forms. Second, I think this is an unfair comparison to make. Classics survive because they are the cream of the crop. We are comparing average contemporary works to the absolute best literature of every era of human literature. That is hardly fair. In 100 years, our descendants will be able to decide what from our era is worth preserving. (Who knows? Dr. Ryken may be surprised by what lasts.) Third, one of the great lessons of our time is the importance and value of the little things. What Dr. Ryken would consider to be “surface-level” is what makes up the majority of our lives. Perhaps this is (understandably) outside of the experience of a Wheaton English professor, but ask a mom of preschool children. She will tell you that she has little time to contemplate the deep things of life. She needs someone to help her overcome the little hurdles of balancing diaper changes and meal preparation. She needs literature that meets her where she is and values the hundreds of “little” and “surface-level” things she deals with on a daily basis. Fourth, I have a tendency to think that a sitcom (as distorted as sitcoms can be) probably does a better job capturing the everyday human experience than Homer’s Odyssey. Fifth, perhaps Dr. Ryken should investigate what the critics said about our “classics” when they were first published. He may find critics were hard on the classics too. Sixth, every classic was contemporary before it became timeless, and at the time people would have related to it more strongly on the surface levels.

10)   The classics are valuable because they are hard work: At least I agree that the classics can be hard work. Furthermore, I agree that the hard work can yield dividends. I just wonder if the dividends are worth the hard work. For someone like Dr. Ryken, clearly the benefits outweigh the cost. I am not sure this is true for everyone. Dr. Ryken may gain some benefit from a few minutes of reading a classic, but it may take other hours of work to reap the same benefit. Is it worth it for them? Are the classics the only place to reap the same benefits?

11)   The “classics are our gateway to the past”: I certainly hope this is not the case. Does Dr. Ryken forget that the classics are fictional works, usually by an individual author? Classics are not necessarily reliable sources of historical information. I find that people who love the classics generally have a distorted view of the past. For instance, readers of Jane Austen have a tendency to forget that most people in Victorian England lived in poverty. Dickens aficionados have no concept of what was happening in the English countryside.

Not only do I want to counteract some of Dr. Ryken’s reasoning, but I also want to remark upon some of the dangers of reading the classics.

1)      Classics are fiction, so they are prone to the same dangers as all works of fiction: Classics do not have a special immunity to the dangers of fiction. Being classics does not exempt them from the common ills of all fiction. Let me list off a few of the dangers of fiction to give you an idea. First, for some reason (perhaps it is a by-product of our own fallen natures), fiction has a tendency to glorify evil even when it condemns it. Look at Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is often remarked how the devil is the most interesting character. The same could be said of Shakespeare’s character Iago. Look at Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver is bland, but the Artful Dodger has become an iconic figure. Second, fiction inevitably distorts reality. The characters can be caricatures instead of people (many Dickens characters are caricatures). The plots can resolve too neatly (Jane Austen) or too tragically (Romeo and Juliet). The situations the characters find themselves in can be extreme. The characters can sometimes soliloquize eloquently in iambic pentameter (Shakespeare). Third, especially due to these distortions of reality, fiction can draw us away from reality. We find we wish we were living the story in the book rather than the life God has written for us.

2)      Most classics are written from a heavily flawed worldview: For this point I can jump right to Homer who writes from the perspective of an idolatrous mythology. I believe it is debated how much Homer believed the stories he recorded, but his writings were part of what shaped idolatry in the Hellenistic world. But even writers who would have claimed to be Christian are often heavily flawed. Dickens writes as though poverty is the ultimate evil, and its extinction is our ultimate goal. Even C. S. Lewis in his book The Last Battle seems to imply that people who earnestly believe in the Antichrist will be saved.

3)      He who reads the classics is doomed to repeat them: What do I mean by this? Obviously there is value in hearing voices from the past as they discuss the human experience. By familiarizing ourselves with the past we can avoid prior mistakes. By reading the classics, we can save ourselves from having to reinvent the intellectual wheel. However, as long as we keep reading the same classics, our culture will keep falling into certain thought patterns. It will be hard to break free from certain ways of thinking and looking at the world.

I am sure that Dr. Ryken would be quick to point out that classics need to be read with a strong dose of discernment, but again, I think he is being unrealistic if he thinks that everyone is capable of a sophisticated level of discernment. I believe myself to be an intelligent, academically-minded, objective, and discerning individual, but I still find that what I feed myself intellectually colors what I think. Bad company corrupts good morals, and bad reading corrupts good thinking. I have been trying to keep better intellectual company in what I read.

What Dr. Ryken describes is literature that is well-written, entertaining, arrestingly strange, and speaks deeply to the human experience. It sounds to me like he is describing the Bible. If Dr. Ryken wants to understand life, to think clearly about deep things, etc., there is no better book than the Bible. All others will fall short. To be honest, I would rather be pushing biblical literacy than familiarity with the classics. There is only one book that is essential to know, and the value of that one book far outweighs the total value of all the scribblings of the human race since the dawn of time.

I do not want to appear anti-intellectual. The Bible is not anti-intellectual, but neither is it pro-intellectual. The first few chapters of 1 Corinthians will temper anyone’s desire for intellectual pursuits. The real Truth is not academically acquired, but Spirit-given. The real Truth is a Person, not just a set of ideas. True knowledge does not begin with Shakespeare. In fact, true knowledge does not begin with reading at all. True knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord.

I am glad that there are people like Dr. Ryken in the world. He has done much for the church by drawing our attention to the literary aspects of Scripture, etc. However, Dr. Ryken is Dr. Ryken. Not every part of the body should be a hand. Not every member of the church need be an expert in the classics. Dr. Ryken can read the classics and bring some good stuff to the table. Others have their strengths to contribute. I am happy to let Dr. Ryken do his thing. I hope he’ll be happy to allow others to shamelessly live a classic-free life.

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Book Review: The Mortal Instruments: Book One, City of Bones

My brother got me hooked on fantasy fiction before it was as popular as it is today. Fantasy is a real mixed bag. Not only does it attract more than its share of low-quality authors, but it also has a tendency to stray far beyond the boundaries of biblical morality. As much as I still love fantasy, I have a deep-seated inclination to abandon the genre altogether. (My reasons for this are pretty thorough and complex, so I will save them for another full post at some point.)

 

However, I keep trying to justify my return to a particular type of fantasy that is becoming increasingly popular. I am afraid I am ignorant of the term for it. I am referring to the type of fantasy that is set in our contemporary world but imagines a fantasy underworld to which most people are oblivious. The specific version of this subgenre that I am interested in is the version that depicts a constant struggle between good and evil happening all around us.

 

This type of fantasy interests me because it is akin to what is taught in Scripture. Ephesians 6 teaches us that there is a war being waged in this world – a war which requires enlightened eyes to see. The war is between supernatural forces of good and evil. The eternal fates of human beings hang in the balance.

 

C. S. Lewis has been able to reach generations of children (and adults) for the gospel by embedding truth in another type of fantasy – the type where the children travel to and from a separate fantasy world. I think if someone wants to accomplish the same thing today, it will be by depicting the biblical battle of good and evil as happening as a kind of fantasy underground in our world.

 

I am saying all of this to explain why I would pick up the book City of Bones in the first place. I excuse myself by explaining to myself that it is research. I like to explore these kinds of fantasies to see if this fantasy subgenre can be put to use for the kingdom. As more and more kids and adults get sucked into the escape-from-reality offered by fantasy(in books, movies, video games, etc.), I am wondering if the church needs to consider the possibility of offering similar fantasies designed to draw people back to reality – the biblical reality.

 

So what do I think of City of Bones? I thought it was a quick, easy, pleasant read. The characters were easy to get to know and like. There was humor, action, and romance. The writer is far more talented than I.

 

I have three main issues with the book. The first is the [spoiler alert] plentiful use of clichés. For instance, there is the love triangle between the main character girl Clary (Clarissa), Clary’s best friend from childhood Simon (who has been in love with Clary for years, but Clary is oblivious), and the super-handsome and super-awesome warrior Jace who saves Clary’s life. All kinds of cliché material here. Simon tries the old look-like-I’m-interested-in-somebody-else-to-make-her-jealous routine. Jace, of course, turns out to actually be Clary’s brother, although we only find this out after they’ve already kissed.

 

The second issue is that the book is generally morally bankrupt from a biblical perspective. There is an awful lot of sensuality and innuendo between the teenage main characters. Clary turns sixteen two-thirds of the way through the book. I believe most or all of the teenagers are minors, yet there is frank discussion about the possibility of the various characters sleeping together. This always confuses me. If we photographed it, we would go to jail, but it is OK to write about it? Also, one of the male main characters is in love with one of the other male main characters. Again, this runs counter to a biblical perspective. This is all on top of the normal fantasy problems of the use of magic, witchcraft, etc.

 

My third main issue is related to my preceding discussion. I was not pleased with City of Bones as a model of the fantasy underground. It expressed doubt as to the existence of God. It treated all religions as equal. It considered angels and demons to be beings from another dimension. Basically, it de-spiritualized everything. Also, the book did a very poor job overlapping the fantasy world with the normal human world. Most of the fantasy people are limited to a single region of the globe that has been magically hidden from the “mundanes.”

 

The book was good entertainment fiction. Its plot, characters, and setting were not original. It was relatively amoral and irreligious (even blasphemous at times). And it did not provide a good model for a biblically-driven fantasy. Overall, I have no plans of watching the movie or reading any of the rest of the books by Cassandra Clare.

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Mary and Martha: A Conundrum of Contrasts, Part 2

Luke 10:38-42 (ESV)

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

The next most obvious contrast between Mary and Martha is the contrast in their mental states. Two statements are made as to Martha’s mental state. In verse 41 Jesus says that she is “anxious and troubled.” Martha is full of worry. She is trying to make dinner, but she is getting no help. The tasks are piling up. There is so much to be done that she cannot see how she can accomplish it all within a reasonable amount of time. She is becoming more and more stressed out.

Mary’s mental state is not directly described in the text. We can only make inferences from other details. We see that she is sitting at the feet listening to the teaching of Jesus. She is certainly not worried, anxious or troubled. In fact, Martha draws attention to Mary’s apparent lack of concern for practical matters. Mary gives the impression of being at peace.

Verse 40 also describes Martha as distracted with all of the serving she has to do. She is going five or six different directions trying to get everything done. Her mind is scattered, and her thoughts are divided. Mary, on the other hand, appears to be very focused. And this is one of the differences highlighted by Jesus. Martha is worried about many things, but Mary has chosen the one good thing.

The one necessary thing is what I shall look at next.

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Mary and Martha: A Conundrum of Contrasts, Part 1

Luke 10:38-42 (ESV)

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

There are two very obvious contrasts between Mary and Martha. First, there is the difference in activity. Martha was preparing and serving dinner. She was working hard. She was probably moving around and was spending a lot of time on her feet. Mary, on the other hand, was sitting down and listening. She was not very active at all. She was at rest. She was most certainly not helping her sister Martha.

The second major contrast is in Jesus’ evaluation of both Mary and Martha. Jesus is clear that what Mary is doing is better than what Martha is doing. It is almost as if he rebukes Martha for what she is doing.

These two contrasts raise a question in our minds: why did Jesus praise Mary over Martha? This runs counter to our expectations. On the surface, we would have the tendency to think that what Martha was doing was better. Somebody has to get dinner, or else they would go hungry. Somebody has to make the necessary preparations for their honored guest. Martha is the servant-hearted, diligent, responsible one. Mary is just being lazy.

Luke purposefully does not provide much in the way of explanation. His account of this event is very minimalistic. Did Martha ask more questions? Did Jesus say more than what is recorded? What is Luke’s take on this event?

Luke is not trying to provide us with easy answers. He has given us a conundrum. It is a problem that we must wrestle with, and as we wrestle with it, we learn much more than Luke would have had space to lay out for us in detail.

So I’d like you to join me in the mental arena as we wrestle with this problem together. I’ll be posting more on this story. Feel free to reply with your own thoughts.

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Why Is Wisdom a Woman?

In Proverbs 8-9 Wisdom is personified as a woman. This makes for a beautiful poetic device, but the metaphor is so extensive that it appears to also carry some kind of meaning. In the context Wisdom is compared to the virtuous woman, whereas Folly is compared to the adulteress. So perhaps part of the intent is to further describe the Proverbs 31-type woman, but I think there could some further meaning to draw from the personification of Wisdom. Here are my ideas. See what you think.

First, Wisdom is something to be loved, not just learned. She is to be an old friend, an adored and esteemed wife. She is not just the principle of practicality. She is not just boring common sense. She is a thing of beauty.

So, second, Wisdom can be inviting and attractive. She is approachable. She is appealing. We do not go after Wisdom simply because we have to or need to. We go after Wisdom because we want to. There is something about her that draws us.

Therefore, third, Wisdom is to be pursued. You don’t just read a book and instantly acquire Wisdom. We aren’t born with Wisdom built in. You have to chase her. It’s not a mechanical process, or a guaranteed one-size-fits-all 7-step plan. It takes personalized finesse. You have to court Wisdom, and you must court her daily.

Fourth, thinking of Wisdom as a woman keeps you from imagining you have exhausted her mystery. No matter how well you think you know her, she will still surprise you. She may appear different in different circumstances. She will change over time. She will meet you where you are in your life circumstances, but your relationship with her can ever deepen and grow.

Anyway, I feel like I had some more thoughts on the subject, but they escape me now.

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Is Doubt a Sign of Faith?

There is a strain in Christian thought that I have resisted for a long time: that doubt is a good thing. How can doubt possibly be a good thing? Verses like James 1:6 seem to imply that doubt is a bad thing.

Well, there is doubt, and then there is doubt.

There are pure skeptics who start from the position that nothing is true unless they can prove it. There are lesser skeptics who are willing to eject any idea as soon as there is the first indication that it might be untrue. For example, people so often believe in the existence of a good and loving God until they experience deep, personal pain, and then they quickly toss away their faith.

But on the other hand, there are people like the psalmists who ask God “Why?” and “How long?” whenever things go wrong. And there are people like Job, who struggled to reconcile his personal experience of terrible suffering with his understanding of God and the world.

How can the psalmists and Job be OK, but the skeptic be on thin ice? I can think of a few possible reasons.

First, the psalmists and Job did not question an idea. They questioned a Person, and they questioned this personal God within the context of their relationship with him. Suppose you have a good friend who has spent a lifetime earning your trust. All of a sudden, your friend does something that disappoints you. After all of those years if you are at all a good friend yourself, you will not rush to judgment. You will give your friend the chance to explain. This is a sign of love and respect.

Second, along with providing a Person an opportunity to explain, there is the assumption that the questioner could simply have misunderstood. This can be seen throughout the book of Job. Job and his friends are constantly exploring the belief that an individual’s circumstances are a reflection of their moral standing before God. Good people are blessed, but the wicked suffer. Job is confident in his own righteous life, and yet he has been cursed rather than blessed. He is beginning to see that maybe what is at fault is his understanding of how God works in the world. This is a sign of humility.

Third, questioning one’s own understanding is based on the assumption that one’s beliefs should line up with one’s experience in the world. In our example of the issue of suffering, I might find that some bad circumstance in my life leads me to question whether or not God is good. This demonstrates that I expect the goodness of God to be evident in my life. I expect the goodness and love of God to have some impact on reality.

This expectation is actually faith. I believe in the goodness and love of God so strongly that I actually am expecting to see evidence of it. When I do not see evidence of it, or when I see evidence that appears to contradict it, I am disappointed and shaken. This leads me to turn to God with questions – hopefully questions with love, respect and humility.

This means that doubt can be a sign of faith.

Certainly there are people who have such great faith that it can never be ruffled by anything. Certainly there are people who are humble enough that they automatically assume they have misunderstood. Certainly there are people who love God so much that their love for and trust in him are not bothered by their experiences.

But for the rest of us, there is the wisdom literature of the Bible. There are psalms. There are the books like Job and Ecclesiastes. It is not about having the quick answers. It is about grappling with the questions.

This process is part of what strengthens our relationship with God as we interact with him. It brings us to a deeper understanding by correcting the flaws in our thinking. And it is an expression of the kind of faith that expects what we believe to be actually, truly real.

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