Coming to a classroom near you.
The question, “Is the end of the world near?” would conjure up a host of reflections and emotions in people. It would, no doubt, remind people of the recent natural disasters. It was barely two weeks ago when, on April 25, 2015, an earthquake which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Nepal. As of today, the death toll stands at over 8,100, thousands are still nursing their wounds, and hundreds of Nepal nationals and foreigners are still reportedly missing and presumed dead. Even as I was writing this note, it was being reported that another earthquake of magnitude 7.4 on the Richter scale had just hit Nepal, with the death toll on this one being lower but still undetermined! There is not a day when there is no war in some place on earth. Earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires, mudslides, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc., seem to be more frequent now than ever before. NBC News reported this morning that in the last six days alone there have been 131 tornadoes from South Dakota to Texas. Unthinkable things are happening too! On March 24, 2015, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately flew the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 innocent people. The Malaysia Airlines plane MH 370 disappeared from the skies over a year ago, and there is still no trace of it, no debris of any kind. These and other events should remind us of the words of our Lord:
And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains (Matthew 24:6-8).
How people lead their lives in connection with the notion of the end of the world can be classified under four headings.
The plan is that I will be retiring from Houston Baptist University in a few weeks. This is not retirement to a rocking chair, but more like retirement to church ministry: I plan to be very involved in church ministry, including formation programs for clergy, I will do some limited teaching for theological institutions, and, of course, I have writing and editing project, but with respect to HBU and with respect to funding it will be retirement. I am already quite excited about this new phase of life, this new adventure.
One of my favourite books is Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.
The chapter on Comedy is especially good, I think. And especially needed. Both church-life and the world of theological study are far too po-faced.
As my contribution to injecting a little humour into this situation, I thought I would do a quick survey of C.S. Lewis’s shining wit.
Lewis once wrote: ‘The English take their “sense of humour” so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame.’ It must be remembered, of course, that C.S. Lewis was Irish. If he’d had the great good fortune to be born English (as I, I humbly admit, did) he would have realised how grievous a thing it is to be humour-impaired.
To lack a sense of humour is to lack a divine attribute. Lewis himself observed, in a letter he wrote in 1956, that ‘there may be some humour [in the New Testament]’. He gives three possible examples:
Matthew 9:12 – “People who are well . . . don’t need doctors.”
Matthew 17:25 – ‘Jesus said, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons . . . or from others’?”’
Mark 10:30 – ‘Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands – ahem, with tribulations, – and in the world to come eternal life.’
If there are other examples of dominical humour, Lewis wonders whether he, as a Westerner, would be able to spot them. He wrote, ‘I’ve been much struck in conversation with a Jewess’ – he means his wife, Joy Davidman – ‘by the extent to which Jews see humour in the [scriptures] where we don’t. Humour varies so much from culture to culture.’
So don’t worry if you don’t find this blog-post funny. Humour varies so much from culture to culture . . .
This week, an interview I did with Christianity Today on parenting and apologetics went live on their website. Is apologetics a necessary part of child-rearing? What are the signs that children are ready to begin discussing the harder questions? What does it look like to be a woman and a mom working in this field? Click here to read “The Apologist Mom.“
The Department of Theology here at Houston Baptist University is hosting a conference next week on “The Church and Early Christianity” on April 16-18, 2015, and we want to invite you to attend. You can find out more details at hbu.edu/theologyconference.
In addition to a number of short papers, which you can see at the Conference Schedule, our plenary speakers are
- Thursday (7:30p): John Barclay (Durham University) – “‘The Poor You Will Always Have with You': Why It Mattered to the Church to Give to the Poor”
- Friday (7:30p): Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) – “The Social Identity of the Earliest Christians”
- Saturday (9:00a): Everett Ferguson(Abilene Christian University) – “Images of the Church in Early Christian Literature”
Admission to the plenary lectures is free of charge, and each will be offered in Belin Chapel (in the Morris Cultural Arts Center).
The cost to attend the whole conference is $40. We would love to see you there, so please come out to hear these great scholars and invite others to come with you.
I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks suspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand. According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart. I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.
One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine. He was a well known Christian recording artist. Because I was a musician too, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith. As I looked in his guitar case, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God. Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully. Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering. One minute he was praying. The next he was thinking about something else entirely. I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too. What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.
On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon. The prayer went something like this: “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings. Be with the missionaries in foreign fields. Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening. Bless the gift and the giver. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before. As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
let Your name remain holy.
Bring about Your Kingdom,
Manifest Your will here on earth,
as it is manifest in heaven.
Give us each day that day’s bread—
no more, no less—
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive those who owe us something.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)
Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this. One is scripted. The other is more spontaneous.
One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does. Perhaps you will agree. I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.
Here is a good prayer exercise. Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer. It may help to write it down on a piece of paper. In any case make it your own. There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.
Christianity Today’s April issue focuses on women in apologetics, featuring the female faculty at Houston Baptist University. “The Unexpected Defenders: Meet Women Apologists” is a significant story for our time. While many other articles have shown the groundbreaking work of women in areas such as business leadership, law, and medicine, there has been a persistent, albeit fading, idea that the Christian intellectual life is only full of men and for men. Yet, there are many Christian women interested in the life of the mind and in how to take responsibility for understanding the faith they profess. Continue reading
I want to float an idea but don’t have time to develop it into a full-fledged argument. Still I want to propose a reading for an unusual text we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Since Mark is likely the first Gospel written, I’ll work from there recognizing that what is true for Mark is also true for Matthew and Luke.
For years I’ve puzzled over the description of the John the baptizer as eating locust and honey (Mark 1:6). Translations differ. Some seem to underscore that John’s diet consisted of locust and honey as if that was all he could get in the wilderness (NLT, The Voice). Other versions don’t interpret it at all. Many commentaries notice the statement but have little to say about it. I’ve wondered why we are given this bit of information in a hard-hitting, fast-moving Gospel like Mark’s. After all we’re not told Jesus’ diet, and he’s the main character in the story. Is the statement about John eating (present participle; Mark 1:6) designed to present him as a desert-dwelling ascetic with odd habits? If so, that seems to fail since locusts are kosher and though most westerners cringe at the thought of biting into one, it would not strike a person of John’s day as strange. Then there is honey, a desirable natural sweetener on everybody’s wish-list.
So what is the point? Well let me suggest a reason. The description of John and his activities (living in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and his manner of dress) are part of John’s prophetic message. Where he was, what he was doing and how he did it were key aspects of his person and mission.
Prophets were known not only for speaking a message but also acting it out on occasion. This is uncontroversial. Isaiah (ch. 20) walks naked for two years to portray what would happen to the Assyrian captives of Egypt and Cush. Jeremiah (ch. 32) buys real estate as the barbarians are at the gate to depict a hopeful future after the exile. Ezekiel (ch. 4) famously constructs a small model of Jerusalem, portrays a siege against it, lies down on his left side for 390 days as a sign to Israel of things to come. Then God instructs him to lie on his right side for 40 more days and prophesy against it. Prophetic words were certainly memorable but prophetic actions garnered even more attention.
My proposal is this: John ate locust and honey as part of his message. So we shouldn’t imagine John sitting behind a rock snacking on locust and honey right before a big sermon. Rather, I suggest he makes eating locusts and wild honey part of his sermon.
So what would/could this mean? Well consider the prophetic record and what locusts represent. Joel may be the best place to look. An invasion of locusts offers a sign of things to come when an army invades from the north and strips the land bare. Locusts then are a sign of judgement. God’s people have behaved badly now disaster was going to come upon them. Yet even as judgment is announced there is a conditional promise of salvation. If God’s people will repent, return to God, and plead with God to deliver then, then God will restore to them everything the locusts have stripped away (Joel 2:12-27). Joel 2 ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s salvation when he pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). As many will recognize this passage is picked up in Acts 2 as Peter’s interpretation of the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoke of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16).
So what does it mean for the prophet to eat the locust as part of his sermon? Well it dramatizes that God is on the move. The Destroyer is being destroyed. The Consumer is being consumed. And finally, the shame of their long exile is coming to an end when YHWH himself returns to his people (Joel 2:27):
Then you will know that I am the midst of Israel,
And that I am the LORD (YHWH) your God
And there is no other;
And my people will never be put to shame.”
Anyone who heard John in those days would have gotten the idea that the current invaders and consumers (the Roman occupiers) were going to meet their match when enough of God’s people repented and submitted to John’s baptism. The long day of judgement was coming to an end.
So what of the honey? Well, when enough Jews repented and turned from their wicked ways, when God himself intervened by destroying the Destroyers and consuming the Consumers, then the land would once again return to its richness for God’s people. Most will recall that when the recently freed Hebrew slaves first peered in from the wilderness, they said of the promised land: “Here is a land flowing with milk and honey.”
I can imagine John lathering his hand in honey, putting it to his mouth and savoring its sweetness as he stood in front of a group of pilgrims from Jerusalem or Judea proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom and warning his detractors of the coming judgment if they persisted in their hypocrisy. John could have simply spoken the message but by dramatically acting it out, it had a much greater influence on those who came to see him in the desert.
Now this is just a proposal. It is not a full-fledged argument. Still it makes sense to me of a puzzling text. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
Being a Christian writer means, on the one hand, no more and no less than to be a Christian who writes; we are called to honor God in any and all work that we do. But there is something special about writing as a Christian vocation. Language, both spoken and written, is part of God’s creative action and His interaction with humanity. In the beginning, God said, ‘let there be light,’ and the first work God gave Adam to do, before the Fall, was to name the animals. God inspired the writers of the sacred Scriptures – which include a great deal of poetry. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he taught in parables. To be a creative writer is to imitate, in our own way, God’s divine creative action. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
Furthermore, writers are in a unique position to help present the Christian faith in a compelling way. We need to be able to defend the truth of the Christian faith with strong, clear rational arguments, but the words we use in our arguments are of little use if they aren’t invested with meaning, which only the imagination can provide; and we won’t get people engaging with us unless they feel interested by or (even better!) drawn toward Christianity. Imaginative literature can help the apologist in many ways.
But how does one become a writer? I have found that many Christians are eager to write, but are unsure how to go about it, or have habits or ideas that are getting in the way of their growth as writers.
Without further ado, here are five pieces of advice for writing as a Christian… and an invitation at the end of this post to come join us if you’re intrigued by this as a vocation in apologetics!
- Pray, but don’t wait for inspiration.
My experience as a writer is that counting on, waiting for, or making too big a deal of “being inspired” leads to discouragement when a burst of creative energy subsides. God gives us talents, but we have to develop them and use them. There is no substitute for hard work: for putting in the time, day in and day out, week in and week out, to learning and polishing the skills of writing.
Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. If you wish to specially pray before your writing, I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.”
“Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” (To pray is to work, to work is to pray – attributed to St Benedict).
- Write. Learn. Revise. Write more.
Writing is something you learn by doing. Your early work won’t be any good; that’s okay. How else are you going to learn? Think of sports or playing a musical instrument, and how much time and effort you would have to put in before you can play well in a big game, or do a solo at a recital.
The key is to learn from what you’ve written. That means you need to develop the ability to assess your work objectively, and to see where and how to improve. Feedback from a writing group, fellow writer, mentor, or teacher is extremely helpful in this regard.
Writers write. They also read! Reading both widely and deeply will help you grow tremendously as a writer. You’ll see the different ways that great writers tackled the same sorts of challenges you’re facing, and you’ll get a deeper and more intuitive grasp of what you can do with language and form.
Don’t just read modern works in your favorite genre. Read the classics; it will break you out of imaginative ruts you didn’t even realize you were stuck in. Go upstream: read what your favorite authors read. And don’t just read Christian authors, either!
- Make time to write.
If you want to be a writer, then write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. If you never “find time” to write, then evaluate what you are spending your time on. If you discover that you are frittering your time away on social media, then it may be the wake-up call you need to change your habits and stop wasting time on things you don’t actually enjoy very much. Writing takes time and effort and, above all, practice. Find a routine that works for you. Many blog posts and books recommend getting up early to write in the morning, for instance – if that works, great, but if it doesn’t, find what does work. (For the record, I am not a morning person, and I do not write in the mornings. No way.)
- Learn the craft.
Too often Christians take the “good enough” approach. If it has the right values… if it presents the Gospel… if it has Christian ideas in it… then it’s good enough, even if the writing is so-so, the plot is weak, and the characters a bit cardboard. This is a terrible mistake and a terrible missed opportunity. Christian writers are called, as creators, to show forth the truth and beauty of our faith both in what we say and in how we say it.
Put in the time and effort and attention to learn how to communicate well – how to use the right word in the right place at the right time; how to set a scene, how to create a compelling character, how to explore a difficult theme. Learn how to write so that your work is both true and beautiful.
Let me quote here from Dr Michael Ward, writing on this very subject:
“When there is so much apologetic work to be done in a world desperate for the good news of God in Christ, it may be asked what could be more important than to strain every sinew in the service of the Gospel – and to forget luxuries like beauty and think only of utility. Isn’t beauty an extravagance? Shouldn’t we think only, or at least chiefly, of effectiveness, of usefulness?
“Questions worth asking, to be sure. But what is the Gospel? It is not just a message, something said for the achieving of a particular utilitarian purpose. It is also a life, indeed ‘life in all its fulness’, something made by God to be received and enjoyed by us for its beauty, as well as for its goodness and its truth. […] In other words, it is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to make room for the aesthetic category. Pointless, ‘useless’ beauty is essential to the good life lived under God.”
This advice comes from my own experience as a writer – which is quite varied! In addition to my academic writing and popular apologetics writing, I’ve written a memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). I’m also a published poet; my work has appeared in the journals Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal; Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature; Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith; and Californios Review, and most recently in the anthology Word in the Wilderness (Canterbury Press, 2014).
So, it’s with great pleasure that I can announce that starting in Fall 2015, I’ll be teaching a new elective course: “Creative Writing and Apologetics.” This course aligns perfectly with Dr Michael Ward’s “Literature and Apologetics” to provide a particular niche in the Cultural Apologetics MA for literary apologetics. (These courses are in Online format, so both our Houston and our Online students can take them.)
You see, we’re serious about imaginative apologetics. Some of our students will be teachers and pastors and ministry leaders – equipped with a deep understanding of culture and with an integrated approach to apologetics that uses both reason and imagination. Others will practice apologetics in the context of the workplace or the home. And some will work creatively – writing novels, screenplays, blogs, poems, graphic novels, children’s and young adult books…
I’m excited to think of the impact our students will have by being producers of culture. Want to join us? Check out the MA in Cultural Apologetics, and feel free to be in touch with me.