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The past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit on reading! James Sire’s little treatise entitled How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension1 is a tasty treat, as is Gene Veith’s Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature2. The book I’m reading now is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction3 which I’m finding both charming and challenging!
At one point in his larger case, speaking to the trouble of trying to “read noninstrumental texts in an instrumental way,”4 Jacobs points out how the best features of artful writing—i.e. language that’s “unusually vivid or lovely, or if its presentation of ideas or images is subtle and surprising”—can just be missed by our reading too quickly with the wrong goals in view. And as an example he points to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course.7
Wow! Besides recognizing that here is something “vital” and not “trivial” in the story of Rome’s decline and fall, I was soberly reminded that this is something Scripture itself warns us of in every age, and it’s a truth we’re more likely now, in Our Time, to miss than not because of the “hurry” we’re in all the time. We miss the lessons of Scripture and of history in our mad rush from one big thing to another, in our frantic pursuit of the next excitement, in our agitated aversion to slowness, in our restless inability to sit quietly and listen to learn, in our paralyzing addiction to endless distraction. And in the process, we all but consign ourselves, oh so insensibly, to decline and fall at last!
And while I think this is certainly at work in Western civilization at large, it’s also particularly a danger now affecting the church itself in the West.
- Insensibly, the church as a whole in our culture has largely lost the very concept of Truth (with a capital T).
- Insensibly, the church has forfeited much of its sense of God’s weightiness in its life.
- Insensibly, the church has failed to grasp much of the nature of the local church and what it means to be a member in it.
- Insensibly, the church has lost its ground in the authoritative revelation of Scripture.
- Insensibly, the church has surrendered its prophetic/moral voice in Our Time.
- Insensibly, the church has been largely assimilated by the spirit of the age.
- Insensibly, the church has too often too easily minimized its missional/evangelistic work in the world.
And the consequences for this are dire! Oh, God’s purposes of redemption in the history of the world will go on, yes! “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” says the Lord. “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11). But we are profoundly mistaken if we think that cannot happen without us, however insensibly we live!We must come to our senses!
The same thing—this insensible decline and fall— can also happen in our individual lives. Right? The Bible vividly captures the trickery and treachery of this numb condition in its sharp warning against drift. “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Heb 2:1). The way he puts it all there is so very strong, something like “It’s necessary to, we must (δεῖ), in a greater degree, all the more earnestly, more exceedingly (περισσοτέρως) attend to, give heed to (προσέχειν) holding the course on and securing our anchor in what we’ve heard, i.e. in everything God’s telling us in his word.”
Why? Because there really is this terrible danger at hand of drifting away! Drifting is one of the great sins of Our Time! And it happens insensibly! No resistance to speak of, no notice of departure and movement, no sense of any shift in direction, too busy with the deck chairs to take a reading, the moorings slip and the rudder pivots just so slightly, and—unsuspectingly caught in the strong undertow of this present evil age—off you go … away!
No one actively has to betray Jesus, or openly reject the faith. All that’s needed is inattention—put your Bible down; stop gathering with other believers, pray less and less, read all kinds of other stuff (novels, magazines, articles, Facebook, etc.) uncritically; just watch TV (sitcoms, movies, all these “reality” shows, these ruthless competitions, etc.) mindlessly; just drink in the unspoken assumptions of your workplace; become preoccupied with the sights and sounds, the offers and applause, the values and priorities of this present age—in other words, just live insensibly and you will drift, off and out, until you are swept away!
Oh, we must come to our senses!
But How? Look for the next post, The Good Fight!
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
- Shaw Books, 2nd ed., 2000, 192 pp. ↩
- Crossway, redesign ed., 2013, 256 pp. ↩
- Oxford University Press, 2011, 176 pp. ↩
- That is, for example, trying “to read fiction or poetry or history or theology or even what the bookstores call ‘current events’ as quickly as possible and with the goal of accurate transference of data.” Pp. 73-74. ↩
- The annotated edition is just shy of 5,000 pages long in six volumes. ↩
- This piqued my curiosity. So I downloaded the full text of Gibbon’s work and searched for the word. He uses “insensibly” 419 times along with the adjective “insensible” another 116 times. This is clearly thematic! ↩
- P. 75. ↩
Folks who know me—especially at the church or in my college/university classes—know that I talk often (and often, passionately) about the difference between big-“T” truth1 and little-“t” truth.
Little-“t” truth is subjective and/or contextual. You may, e.g., say about a movie you’ve watched, “It made me sad!” That is a little-“t” true statement concerning the emotion/feeling the movie stirred in you. No one can deny the reality of your response. Others, though, may offer a different little-“t” true statement—”That movie really encouraged me!”—based on their feelings, a view that disagrees with yours but still is undeniable. Being subjective/contextual means two little-“t” truths may conflict with one another and yet both still be discretely “true.”
But if you say, “It’s a sad movie!” then, technically, you’ve made a Big-“T” truth claim—one that is universal, comprehensive, and enduring about the objective nature of the film. In this case, when others disagree with you, perhaps intensely, they do so on the conviction that you are wrong and their differing belief is right. The proper response, then, on each side is to set forth the case. Possibly, both are wrong, but both cannot be right. It’s a Big-“T” truth issue.
The distinction here is absolutely crucial. Confusing these categories of truth statements (Big-“T” and little-“t”), or collapsing one into the other, leads down disastrous avenues of speculation, inference, assumption, conclusion, belief, and practice. Remember…
Ideas have consequences … always!
This is where “the postmodern turn” has taken us—to a strange land where little-“t” truth has now “eaten up” Big-“T” truth. The reigning consensus, at least in matters philosophical/spiritual/religious/ethical, is that everyone has his or her own truth. And all such truth is little-“t” truth. It’s private, personal preference, individual value, belief that’s “true for you”! Just don’t call it knowledge or fact, as something rational and verifiable, that speaks with public authority and is true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Don’t call it Big-“T” Truth! Dies ist verboten—the postmodern version of blasphemy!
It struck me just how pervasive this thinking has become, even among people raised in church, as I read remarks professing Christians had made about the Christian claim to know Big-“T” Truth. For example, they said things like this:
- “There are many different religions in the world and many ways to get to know them. Yes, it is not fair for Christians to be able to say that they have the best religion …”
- “No religion should put down other religions simply due to differences in opinion.”
- “Simply because we as Christians believe that Christianity is the most ‘valid option’ does not mean that it is true of those who believe in other religions or worship other gods. I personally do not think that it is right for Christians to put down other religions by saying that we have the best faith or the one and only true faith.”
- “Christians should not claim to have the best faith or the only true faith, as all major religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, are equally valid and basically teach the same thing about certain aspects.”
- “Each religion or faith is one of many equally valid paths to God and ways to live in the world.”
- “God tells us to love our neighbors and many religions are extremely similar to Christianity and those who are putting down others because of their beliefs are not showing the true love of God.”
- “As a Christian, I believe Christianity to be the one true faith for me personally; however, other people have different opinions …”
Can you hear the unspoken assumption running through all of this? It’s the notion that all philosophical/religious/spiritual/ethical claims are little-“t” truths, and there’s no such thing as Big-“T” Truth!
We live in a diverse time and place (that’s called factual pluralism), and we ascribe to others (or we should) the right to legal and social tolerance—the right to practice whatever faith they choose and be treated as persons with dignity and respect. But it’s another thing altogether to believe that all ideas are equal and equally valid. That’s called philosophical/religious pluralism, and at its heart is the loss of Truth! Tolerance, then, is no longer respect for the person, expressed in gentleness and patience, even while disagreeing with his or her ideas. Now, tolerance is ascribing validity to all ideas, and the most intolerant thing one can do is claim to know Big-“T” Truth—Truth that invalidates anything that contradicts it.
So, given where we are in Our Time, what is the way ahead for the Church? How should we now live?
Well, first, there are some things we cannot do:
- We cannot ignore the challenges of Our Time. True Christianity never sticks its head in the sand and pretends the world is not there in all of its fallenness. We won’t be salt and light if we ignore the reality of the decay and darkness.
- We cannot accommodate to the culture of Our Time. This is the mistake the old-line liberal theologians made in the face of modernism (surrendering the supernatural/miraculous elements of the Truth), the mistake neo-orthodox theologians made in the face of existentialism (surrendering the historical realities of the Truth), and the mistake Emergent churches are making now in the face of postmodernism (surrendering certainty in the knowledge of the Truth). We won’t ever gain a standing if we give away precious and powerful ground.
- We cannot compromise with the worldviews of Our Time. If we begin with the assumptions and operate within the conceptual framework of the spirit of the age, then we inevitably, however unintentionally, undermine the claims of biblical Truth and too easily slip our gospel moorings and drift aimlessly off into heterodoxy, and even heresy. Church history abounds with this sad lesson.
- And we cannot simply shout at Our Time. The answer to the clamoring and confusing voices that fill the culture is not simply to yell louder, as if volume and attention alone is all that’s needed to make a difference.
Instead, here are some clear and biblical things we must do:
- We must become informed about the challenges of Our Time. And this has at least two aspects to it:
- This, first, requires exposition of the Word. Being informed about the challenges of Our Time requires some means for discerning just what is and what is not a problem. As we read, study, and learn God’s Word, the Truth does the remarkable work of renewing our minds—tearing down all “speculations” and “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God,” and taking “every thought captive to obey Christ”—so that we are able to “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (Rom 12:1-2; 2 Cor 10:1-5; 1 Thess 5:21). “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psa 119:130). And so, one of the great needs in our churches is for “shepherds” after God’s own heart, “who will feed” God’s people “with knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3:15), as Ezra did in Nehemiah’s day: “They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read” (Neh 8:8).
- Second, it then requires exposition of the World in light of the Word. We must become like the leaders of the tribe of Issachar in David’s time, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel (and in our case, the Church) ought to do” (1 Chron 12:32). If we mean truly to be useful in our generation, then we have to understand the times in which we live and know what these times in particular require of us. An older pastor under whom I learned much as a young man used to say about certain issues, “The blood has dried on that sword!” meaning, “That issue is not the fight now; that question is a distraction from the real battle now!” Luther was getting at this very thing when he wrote:
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
- We must also be willing and content to be different. In many cases, this means foregoing popular acceptance for the sake of making a permanent impact. It means surrendering the desire to be fashionable, trendy, cool!2 It means the hard work of putting to death selfish ambition in all of its expressions (fame, fortune, popularity, power, etc.) and embracing the place of faithful presence—loving the Lord and our neighbor, for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good—wherever we are. That is stunningly counter-cultural!
- And we must confront the worldviews of Our Time. Confrontation is an uncomfortable idea for lots of Christians who have come to think that Christian love is little more than a soft sort of sentimentalism that never draws lines. This, of course, is quite untrue. God is the God of order, of design, of legislation, the Lord of “the way things really are,” who is true even if the whole world is proved false (Rom 3:4). Our gospel work in the world is, inevitably, a matter of worldviews in conflict. Paul’s Areopagus address in Acts 17:16-31 is a pointed study in evangelistically and missionally critiquing and confronting a pagan and pluralistic worldview (just such as dominates Our Time) from a full-orbed biblical worldview.
- But we must also do all we do humbly. We are, after all, what we are by the grace of God alone (1 Cor 15:10). And we are against the world only for the sake of the world! As far as it depends on us, we “live peaceably with all,” yes! And though we must also speak the truth, we do it “in love” and we give an answer for our hope “with gentleness and respect” (Eph 4:15; 1 Pet 3:15; Rom 12:18).
We confess and proclaim—with power and proportion and compassion, but without apology—that Christianity is not just relatively true, but is absolutely, universally, and exclusively true—the bright and shining gospel light of Big-“T” Truth for people dwelling and despairing in the little-“t” land of darkness!