Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reading Plans

I've lamented the state of reading management software a bit on Twitter.
There's a lot more I could say about each of these (and their alternatives) but what want to talk about today is the issue of tracking books that you are planning to read. I had been doing this just in my head up until recently, when I started using a text file. (Yes, there's the to-read shelf on Goodreads, but it is far too simplistic for my purposes.) Here's an excerpt.

(This is org-mode, an outlining plugin for emacs.)

Most of the work I have done so far has been to assemble a list of all the books I want to eventually read. I'm about half-way done putting it together: at the bottom there's a list of authors I want to read but I have not assembled a list of their books. I am organizing the list by author because that is how I generally think about reading. I would rather follow one author I really like across different genres of fiction or different non-fiction topics rather than picking a random author in a genre or topic I am interested in.

Of course I will continually adjust the list as I proceed. I will add new authors or books as I discover them and perhaps remove some if I decide I don't want to read them after all. Some books are already marked with a question mark to indicate that I am not sure how much interest I actually have.

The length of the list (there are 233 TODOs presently) is concerning. As I child I loved reading and was constantly looking for new reading material. I wanted my books to last longer, and I tended to re-read my favorites. Now that I have such a daunting backlog I have tended to think more in terms of how quickly I can plow through it. I don't have a good way to measure how frequently new books get added to my internal list (perhaps by writing the list down I will get a better idea) but I feel like recently the list has been growing faster than I have been working through it.

Part of the value of making such a list is to consider all of one's options and make conscious decisions to prioritize. Although I show two living authors in my screenshot above, overall they are far outnumbered by the dead. If given the choice to read living or dead authors for the rest of my life, I would pick the dead without having to think about it.

I feel like I might do a better job of reading deeply if I had a shorter list. I tend to start a new book the same day that I finish one. I suppose I could enforce a "cool down" period to reflect on a book, or force myself to write down my thoughts about it before I pick up the next one. I have much less time to read now that I am married with children, so my ideas about how many books I should be reading in a year probably needs to be recalibrated (it has been hanging around 30 the last 2 years).


One positive thing is that I have implemented reading queues. I was always the sort to read multiple books at once. At one point I had a very bad habit of reading the first 100 pages or so and then getting bored and starting something else. For a while I had over a dozen books I was ostensibly working on. As I forced myself to be more disciplined about finishing things, I settled into a habit of reading several books in different categories.

(While I have called them Queues I am not actually planning multiple books in advance. The list above under the Primary queue is a set of candidates for what I will start after I finish The System of the World.)

The first I am calling Primary for lack of a better word. It is usually fiction, although I would put history, poetry, and biography into this category as well. It's basically whatever I am reading that doesn't fall into one of the other categories.

I aspire to read a number of major theological works, so I have a separate queue for that. I have set a pace for myself of a certain number of pages per week. This has to be done in parallel with my other reading or I would never get to it.

I also tend to pick up short books from time to time and read them over a couple of days. Most of these could be read in a single sitting if I didn't have babies. I don't really need to plan this since it is a spontaneous thing and doesn't disrupt my other reading habits, but I put it in my list for completeness.

And then there's the Ebook category. I do read on my phone or iPad, although I don't like to do most of my reading there. But I do like to have always have something in progress on my phone so that if I have a chance to read and don't have access to my physical books, I can still read something worthwhile. (I would rather use my time reading books than articles, so this helps me implement that priority.) I have bought Kindle books in the past, but for now I am focusing more on classics, since there are quite a number of them on my list, and many are available for free. (We also have lots of classics on our shelves at home, so sometimes I will do part of my "Ebook" reading using a physical copy, which I find much more comfortable.)


One major disfunction of my current habits is that I have not done much rereading. I read the Bible on a yearly schedule, but other than that I have not revisited the my most important formative books in a number of years (Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, MacDonald, etc). I would like to figure out a way to work rereading into my system, but I'm not sure how to do it yet.

I have considered setting aside a year to just read books I have already read. At certain points I have kidded myself that once I get through the bulk of the new books I want to read I will get back to the old ones, but I think it is clear that at the current rate I will not get there for many years, if ever. I suppose the obvious thing would be to add a queue for rereading, but that doesn't really fit with my contextual scheme, and I don't want to set a page quota for rereading the way I have for theology. Another option would be to work rereading into my existing queues on some schedule, so perhaps for every two new books I complete, I would have to read an old book.

(In putting together my list of books to read eventually, I discovered that there are quite a number of books by Lewis and Chesterton that I have still never read, many of which have accumulated on my shelves, so I will at least get back into reading those authors, if not immediately my favorite books.)

I think there will actually be two tiers of rereading. One would be books that I want to read at least a second time because I have a feeling that they are important and that I did not fully understand them the first time through. The other set would be books that I consider so fundamental to my identity that I want to read them over and over again in rotation. I am planning to put these lists together in my text file eventually.

Other Questions

I still have a lot of work to do on the eventual reading list. Some authors I enjoy so much that I want to read everything they have written, or at least their major works. Others I only am interested in a particular series that appeals to me. Then there are some that I am interested in, but I may only read one book by them, just to get an idea of their thought and style. For the authors I have never read, I don't know yet what category they will fall into, so what I have now is necessarily provisional.

There are also whole areas of literature that I am not familiar enough with to know what I should read. For instance, I want to become familiar with the the church fathers, but I don't know enough yet to know which authors I want to read or which works. I have bookmarked a couple of reading lists, but I haven't figured out exactly what I want to do yet.

While it is a lot of work to make these decisions and build a definitive list, I think it is worthwhile because it is helping me to make progress toward my long-term reading goals rather than just reading whatever strikes my fancy in a given moment. I still allow myself a lot of freedom to pick what to read next, but by taking time to weigh which books I really want to read, I think I will make better choices overall.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Meta: Blog 9

So I set up a Blogger account. I believe this is my 9th attempt at starting a blog. When you put it that way, it seems a bit foolhardy to even do this.
  1. My original, and only fulfilling, blog was on Xanga. I was in high school. To this day I wonder how much the quality of that experience was a result of youth and singleness, and thus unrepeatable.
  2. Second blog was a custom Rails project. I believe I created this to be a programming blog. You had to create an account to comment, and the passwords were stored in plain text. ಠ_ಠ
  3. Next was an off-the-shelf OSS blog. I think it was Rails but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Mephisto. It was that era, though.
  4. Another custom Rails project. This time with hashed passwords.
  5. Around this time I met Brandon Mathis and was a fairly early adopter of his Octopress project, which I now see absolutely everywhere.
  6. A perverse desire to post from iOS led me to migrate to Tumblr. I liked the idea of joining a blog network again, and wrote a post along similar lines to this one. I still mostly wrote about programming.
  7. Early last year I started something new. I made a blog almost completely from scratch using Middleman, and wrote four posts. For the first time since Xanga I didn't write anything technical. I believe the friction of having to do programming-like stuff in order to post anything interfered with my output.
  8. Despite all of my previous failures languishing in obscurity, late last year I tried doubling down on silence. I created a WordPress blog, called it "Fitter Soil", deployed it to Heroku, and told almost no one about it. In terms of writing output, this was by far the most successful. However, having it separate from my normal online identity was uncomfortable, and I attribute my eventual loss of motivation to this issue.
So what I've done now is unify the content of the last two attempts, along with some of my (embarrassingly short) book reviews from Goodreads. The posts from the two blogs tend to either be about technology (with a Christian slant) or theology (with a nerdy slant). My idea right now is that these two topics, with books as a third (hence the reviews), give the general shape of what I want to write about. In particular, I want to migrate my online social interactions away from being focused primarily on software development.

My goal is to have meaningful and delightful conversations. I have found this here and there on Twitter (and briefly but I have not found the enforced brevity or the firehose dynamics to be conducive to the sorts of interactions I desire. I hope that I will be able to attract some old friends to interact here, and that I will discover new people who have similar interests. Secondarily, I have always wanted to blog in order to have motivation to write, both because I enjoy it when I find reason to do it, and because I want to get better at it.

I chose Blogger ultimately because it is pretty old-school in a way that pleases me. (Hosted WordPress would be a similar option, but I didn't look into it.) I like that I have web interface to write posts in. I like that it is kind of a network, although I don't know whether that will benefit me or not (I still trust mainly in RSS). It seems to be more oriented toward writing than the reposting of memes, and toward social interaction rather than publishing and self-promotion. I had written off Blogger in the past because it was looking rather dated, but given my current interests and proclivities, that datedness may be exactly what I need (Google Plus integration notwithstanding).

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review: The Willows

Like everyone else, I read this because H.P. Lovecraft praised it so highly. The theme is very much in the vein of Lovecraft, and the supernatural elements are treated very lightly, as is the case in the above-average Lovecraft stories. The Willows is a well-crafted tale, and given this single data point, I have to say that Blackwood is by far the better stylist.

Overall, I think weird fiction is not quite my thing. It comes close at times, but I much prefer Dracula, or the novels of Charles Williams. Worldview seems to play a big part in what we find frightening, or compellingly numinous.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Review: Fools Rush In (Where Monkeys Fear to Tread)

A nice collection of essays, although I believe I had read a few of this online before. They are also all about 7 or 8 years old, and while they are not entirely temporally bound, a number of them do address contemporary issues that have progressed in the interim. For instance, I have followed Trueman's ongoing criticism of evangelical celebrity culture for several years. In this book, I find that he was saying substantially similar things a few years before that, just with fewer high-profile scandals to make reference to.

The best part of the book in my opinion were the 3 essays on Rome, offering reflections from a visit to the Vatican, as well as an even-handed Protestant account of the disagreements that continue to separate evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


A couple of weeks ago I read this rather stimulating article by J.D. Greear in which he defends the multi-site model of church growth. (It is actually the first article in a series of four evaluating the multi-site model.) I say it was stimulating because I went on thinking about it for several days. I could not decide whether I thought he was right or not. My natural prejudice would be to disagree with him, and that is where I will land in this post, but I was not able to dismiss his arguments without consideration.
I probably would have forgotten about it if the Mars Hill news had not come out a week later. The news itself didn’t make much of an impact on me, but I find there’s nothing like a podcast to set me thinking about something. So I want to make a couple of observations about this whole multi-site phenomenon, and particularly Greear’s post. I don’t have any answers: just questions.

What is missiology?

So there’s this much-linked video from TGC (which they recently took down?) where Mark Dever talks to Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald about the multi-site model. About halfway through it Driscoll tells Dever, “you’d probably throw this over in the rubric of ecclesiology—I’d throw it over in rubric of missiology.” I found that to be a fascinating statement, because while I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ecclesiology, I really don’t know much at all about missiology. While Greear doesn’t make the same precise distinction, I think he was thinking along similar lines when he decided to begin his 4-part blog series with a post about evangelistic effectiveness.
Missiology is a latecomer to the world of theology. While the word sounds like it would head a major section in a systematic theology book, it traditionally does not. It did not emerge as a discipline until the 19th century, and is considered an area of practical theology—that is, it is oriented toward what ought to be done rather than what ought to be believed.
One thing that is confusing to me about this is that I don’t know how we’re supposed to disagree about practical theology. I have a framework I am pretty comfortable with for navigating doctrinal disagreements. I know the history of the different controversies and schisms. I know which points of doctrine are essential to being an orthodox Christian at all, which ones were important enough to divide churches over without actually severing the bonds of ecumenical unity, and which are (at least formally) matters of indifference. And for the most part I know where I stand in all of that, and how I would relate to someone who disagreed with me at each level. On issues of practice, however, it gets a bit more confusing for me. Practice flows from theory, church practice from doctrine. One would think that if we agree on all matters of essential doctrine, our practice could not be terribly different. Or at least that whatever differences we have over practice must necessarily be less important than the doctrines that we hold in common. But given the rhetorical fervor around certain issues of practice (such as multi-site churches) that doesn’t seem to be the way everyone thinks.
I mean it would be easy enough to posture one’s self as being above all of that rhetoric. It is true that we have a natural tendency to emphasize our differences more stridently against those who are more similar to us. (The only evidence I will offer for this claim is the oft-repeated Emo Philips joke.) I think it is partly because we see our opponent as sharing our worldview, and so whatever disagreements we have must necessarily be inconsistencies on their part. We have more hope of winning them over to our point of view, but we are more distressed if they are not won.
But I was going to say something about missiology. Where was I?
Basically my initial reaction is that I am pretty of skeptical of missiology being pitted against ecclesiology. Ontologically speaking, missiology should be the same identical thing as ecclesiology. The church is both the instrument and the object of the mission. The mission in question is the church’s mission, and the mission is to build the church. To understand what the church is is to understand what the mission is, and vice versa.
But my second reaction is to admit that I really don’t know enough about missiology to go any further with this discussion. A quick search for recommended books on missiology was enough to show that not only am I unfamiliar with the literature, but I don’t even recognize most of the names being passed around. It is clear enough that practical missiology is a necessary thing to work out, as an extension of our more theoretical ecclesiology. (But it must not be inconsistent with our ecclesiological commitments.) The fact that it is a relatively new topic of theological reflection does not make it invalid. But I would expect that it is less definitively worked out, less clearly defined and defended, when compared to the core of Christian doctrine.
So this just comes back around to being a note to myself to learn more about missiology.

How much is 15%?

In Greear’s post, he does some back-of-the-envelope calculations about a “relatively conservative” church growth scenario. I’m sure he didn’t intend to represent this as a robust analysis by any means. But the more I thought about it, the more his argument seemed to hinge on this scenario, and the more the scenario fell apart.
Consider this relatively conservative growth scenario: If even 15% of the members of a congregation of 400 meeting in a room that holds 500 bring one person to Christ every year, in two years members will no longer be able to bring any more of their friends to church.
A couple of paragraphs later he underscores that he considers this to be a conservative scenario.
And if a church is not growing by 15% every few years, that means that not even [15%] of its baptized members are bringing someone to Christ. Could any pastor who takes Jesus’ promises about the fruitfulness of his church seriously be satisfied with that (Luke 5:1-10; John 15:8)–and not hoping, and yearning, and planning, for more?
I just can’t get over the fact that he considers 15% year-over-year growth to be small. Either my experience in the church (my whole life) has been almost exclusively in unfaithful churches, or this number is hugely optimistic. I can see how you could frame the number in a way that it would seem pretty reasonable, and in fact it came across that way when I first read the article. If a Christian is actively pursuing evangelism, hoping to see one conversion a year doesn’t sound unreasonable. And if you are preaching evangelism from the pulpit, expecting just 15% of your people to put it into practice seems pretty conservative.
But that doesn’t change the fact that it is an exponential growth model. I’m reminded of the old CEF song that goes, “If you tell two people and I tell two people, then four more people will know / If they tell two people and we tell two people, then more and more people will know.” Wheat on a chessboard and all that. If Greear’s church were a business with shareholders, it would be a pretty solid investment. Maybe not exciting enough to entice Silicon Valley VCs, but better than the cumulative average of the S&P 500. 15%-per-year works out to doubling in just under 5 years. So if a pastor is in one church for 20 years he should expect to see his congregation double 4 times over, meaning 16x what he started with, and with no end in sight.
My point is not that this never happens. Obviously it does. But it is what we sometimes call “a nice problem to have.”
When I was young and foolish I would talk about different business ideas and one easy mistake was to say something like, “But look how big this market is! If we can just get 1% of the market, we’ll be rich!” The trick works because 1 is the “smallest number.” It just sounds conservative. But if you actually multiply it out and see that 1% represents, say, 300k people you are hypothetically going to sell your widget to, it becomes obvious that you are just indulging a fantasy of unbridled success. Now looking at year-over-year growth is not nearly as insane as taking a percentage of some population, but it kind of feels like the same thing insofar as it is a completely made-up number. Is 15% large or small? It depends on how you look at it. Compared to your goal of 100% participation in evangelism it seems quite small, even pessimistic. But 16x over 20 years seems kind of massive.
I’m doing a lot of comparison of this 15% number to the business world because I think it invites that comparison. Another bit I know from my own line of work is that you can’t just ignore attrition. Greear’s model doesn’t account for people leaving a church for reasons other than going to join a church plant. But we all know that isn’t actually how the world works. People leave churches for lots of reasons: they die, they apostatize, they move across the country. More than any of those, they go check out the church across town that seems more like “what they are looking for.” The church I grew up in probably averaged what we would call “0% net churn” over the 20 years I was there. Outreach was done, new people came in, but old people left too. It grew some years and shrank other years, but continues to fit in the same building to this day.
Another thing I wondered about is whether he came up with this number based on baptism or profession statistics. He wants to make a strong connection between church attendance growth and effective evangelism, but in reality there are a lot of ways that could skew the numbers. For one thing, lots of baptisms are people who were already attending the church for several years, whether children of believers, or adults who were never saved. If those people were taking up a seat from the time you started counting, then they skew the number. (Not to mention those who get re-baptized.) There’s also the matter of evangelism outreaches that result in professions of faith but don’t result in anyone joining the church. Those were distressingly common in my experience growing up.
Of course there’s also the matter of people transferring to your church from another church, which does mean you’ll need more places to sit. Nobody who pastors a big church wants to emphasize this source of growth, since it is a zero-sum game. “Our mission is to tell those who have never heard. We aren’t interested in church transfers. … [beat] … Present company excepted! We’re so glad you decided to join us today!” I don’t know whether it is a real thing or just confirmation bias, but I have always had the impression that when people transfer, they on average tend to go to a larger church than the one they are leaving. Which would in turn suggest that once your church is of a certain size it will see a disproportionate percentage of its growth come from transfers. I wonder if there’s a way to test my theory.
I do have this nagging doubt that maybe I am too pessimistic about all of this. Maybe Greear is right and I have just never experienced a faithful church. Maybe all churches are supposed to grow like the Summit Church (at least if they are in a major population center) and if they don’t it is because they are unfaithful. What do I know?

Can we set a quota for the work of the Spirit?

One thing that stood out to me was that while Greear is willing to put a number on evangelistic faithfulness, he doesn’t think that we can expect people to mature to the point of being willing to participate in a church plant at a pre-determined rate. Here is what he says in response to the objection that we should keep our churches small by sending out our members to plant new churches.
Even if you do manage to send out 10% of your members every year for the first few years, you will see a law of diminishing returns begin to kick in. The amount of believers ready to uproot their families and plant a new church will not remain constant at 10%. I’m not saying mathematically it couldn’t happen; I am saying that I am very familiar with the most mission-minded, mature, church-planting churches in the nation, and I have never seen an example of a church that could sustain that level of sending. The first year you harvest that zealous group–who are in a place for a new challenge and ready to go with your new plant. The next year, you convince a few more, as people in your church are maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice… but it probably will not be quite as many. Soon, you will have run the metal detector over the sand so many times that there just is not enough metal shavings left to send out in a new plant. And, even if you could maintain the 10% sending rate, you would not be keeping up with the conservative growth rate of 15%–which I still think is a low growth percentage in light of Jesus’ extravagant promises about the fruitfulness of his church!
He believes Jesus has promised us that we will see fruit in bringing new people into the church (in excess of 15% exponential growth) but when it comes to people “maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice,” well, the numbers just aren’t there. At this point Greear becomes the pessimist. He wants to see people sent out, but they just can’t mature quickly enough to be sent quickly enough to offset how quickly new converts are rolling in. Best I can tell this means his people are maturing at a rate of less than 15% year-over-year.
I think I would rather hear Greear talk about real numbers in both cases. I would rather that he said, “God has blessed us over the last 10 years with so many conversions. The multi-site model is the best way we could find to faithfully steward what the Spirit has given us. He has blessed us with relatively fewer new leaders, but we are praying that he will send more.”
I don’t necessarily think that the sending-out model is the right answer for dealing with church growth. Like I said in the beginning, I don’t have an answer on this. But I think it is strange that he would put a number on his expectation of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, but would not have any idealistic expectation at all about the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification.

What do we mean when we say “it’s not about numbers?”

All my life I have heard it said that faithfulness as a church is not about numbers. I guess I should also ask whether everyone actually accepts that it is not about numbers. Maybe it is just something we told ourselves to make ourselves feel better about our relatively static numbers? But I realized that there are actually two things people could mean when they say this.
One thing they could mean is that faithfulness means obedience regardless of the outcome. If I am doing all the things Christ commanded, it doesn’t matter whether I actually see conversions or not. A possibly distinct, but related, idea would be that fruit in the area of discipleship is just as good as fruit in the area of evangelism. God may bless us at certain times with more new converts and at other times with more personal growth in existing believers. God gives the increase.
The other thing that someone could possibly mean by this is that it isn’t about the number that you personally can take credit for. It isn’t about counting. It isn’t about how many conversions you personally see, or how many baptisms you perform, or how many people listen to your sermons. But it is, ultimately, about how many people you impact. So you want to share the gospel with as many people as you possibly can but, hey, if they end up going to the church down the street that’s fine with me. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.”
Theologically I could see this distinction falling along Reformed vs. Arminian lines. But my experience of it has actually been more like fundamentalist vs. evangelical. I’m not sure what to make of that.

How should we prioritize preaching ability?

I think it is unavoidable in this discussion that we talk about quality of preaching. It is obvious that one of the major factors that differentiates big growing churches from small struggling churches is the ability of the primary teaching pastor to draw a crowd.
While it is also obvious that different people are looking for different things when they go listen to a sermon, one can imagine all of it averaged out into a single number that captures a preacher’s perceived quality. (If we accept the assumption that we could use church growth as a proxy for a preacher’s skill, then this might actually be a practical project. Some adjustments would have to be made to account for starting size, length of ministry, area population, etc. Of course it would still be a gross oversimplification since there must be other factors that make a given church more or less attractive.)
Whatever this plot would look like, I’m pretty sure that men who can draw a crowd of more than 10k people every week would be a vanishing minority. They are outliers. When framed this way, the whole question morphs into something like, “How we should steward this kind of rockstar homiletical talent when it happens?”
A friend of mine was telling me about how his parents have struggled, not having a solid church near where they live. He said that if were him he would just move so that his family could go to a good church. I understand that. From the perspective of a Christian choosing a church, insofar as we are given a choice, it is incumbent upon us to go the the best church that we can. And it is part of our Reformation heritage to place a great deal of emphasis within the church on the ministry of the Word.
So I can completely sympathize with someone who goes out looking for the best preaching they can find. But it seems that if everyone did this, then the vast majority of them would end up concentrated in megachurches. I guess this depends on how much their taste in preaching falls within the mainstream. I suppose there are tiny churches with horribly distorted messages that appeal to a small number of people. But if we are generally limiting our discussion to basically sound, Biblical teaching, then the issue is primarily a matter of skill or giftedness, with some allowance for individual preference.
But there are reasons to think that churches should not be organized solely in accordance with preaching ability. There are the usual concerns about anonymity in a large church. There is also the idea, which I would tend to agree with, that the act of preaching itself becomes diminished above a certain size. The introduction of multiple sites reduces the confrontational immediacy of the event. The loss of eye contact. The reduced awareness on the part of the preacher of the individual lives and struggles of his congregation. This is not to say that there is no place for preaching before a stadium-sized audience, but rather that there is a particular value to preaching to a smaller congregation, in person, that is highly valued by some, particularly in the local context of a weekly worship meeting.
All of which is to say that I think we are right to value preaching very highly, but I also think we should be nuanced in how we value preaching, and that we should not elevate it to an absolute priority.
This discussion is highly relevant to my own church history. My wife and I just made the decision to join a church plant that was sent out by our home church (IDC). The preaching ability of the main preaching pastor, Tony, was the foremost reason we had decided to join IDC in the first place. To exchange listening to Tony (who is a professor of preaching) for a couple of new seminary graduates was not an especially easy decision to make. The basis of our decision was first, that while our new elders are not as experienced, they are sound and gifted. We will miss listening to Tony, but we will not have to give up listening to the Word itself, expounded week by week. Secondarily, there were a variety of personal reasons we expect the church plant to be a better place for us to serve and grow (especially proximity to where we live).
So I guess I have a kind of threshold of preaching ability beyond which I consider a church to be acceptable. Below that threshold the Word is too obscured by the inadequate handling of the would-be preacher. It is the Word that we want, not the anecdotes, reactions, and musings of the preacher. But not every self-styled preacher has dedicated himself to bringing us this Word, and not all those who do wish to bring us the Word have the gift and the learning necessary to do it.
As a further autobiographical aside, we spent a few years in the exact opposite of a megachurch—a cell-like house church where every man was expected to aspire to the role of a teacher. The responsibility of elders was greatly diminished and the men were strongly encouraged to “step up” and be spiritual leaders of their families. The calling to lead within the home was almost equated with the role of leadership in the church. Consequently the members of this church learned to have basically no expectation of the weekly sermons. With no one called specifically to pastoral ministry, and basically no training in good hermeneutics or homiletical techniques, the Word was basically absent from our collective church life for those years. Eventually I got into podcast sermons.
So I feel pretty safe in saying that setting a very low value on the quality of preaching is disastrous. I have not personally experienced the dark side of placing too high a value on it, but the Mars Hill debacle suggests there is such a dark side.
Our house church experience left me with a bit of a chip on my shoulder about larger churches. It was common for people to fetishize the intimacy of their languishing church, which I now read as a dark combination of rationalization and cliquishness. I’m pretty allergic to people saying that they wish their church was smaller. But thinking through the implications of unbounded growth makes me think maybe there is a real virtue for mature Christians within our particular Western, post-Christian context of trying to join the smallest healthy church they can find. It must meet a basic standard of soundness, which for me would be pretty stringent in certain ways. But giving up the “extras” you get in a big successful church for the sake of helping to establish more individual healthy churches, and supporting called ministers who are just starting out, seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.
(That’s kind of a grandiose rationalization for our decision to join the church plant, I guess.)

Should a church have a brand?

It’s interesting that it has become so important for local churches to have a logo. In the video at one point James MacDonald talks about the “influence” he has in the Chicago area. He doesn’t explain what he means by this, but the first thing that comes to my mind is brand recognition. I’ve never been to Greear’s Summit Church, but I know their logo on sight just from living in the Cary area. (My experience with Summit bumper stickers is skewed by general lifestyle similarity between myself and Summit attendees, and does not reflect the experience of an average resident of Cary. I’ve seen several in the IDC parking lot.)
The logo thing seems a bit like an anti-denominational move to me, and I am a pretty serious denominationalist (although that is a story for another time). I will just note that I also find it interesting that it seems to be terribly old fashioned now for denominational churches to indicate their denomination in their name.
And then there is the matter of the personal brand. MacDonald and Driscoll are very well known in the Evangelical publishing world. They cultivate a certain persona. I expect they have media people who help manage that persona. People say they are celebrity pastors for a reason. And as lead pastors their personal brands are pretty much inseparable from the identity of their respective churches.
I’m not sure what I think about all this. We can see fame and media being used by the Spirit throughout church history, from the strategic publishing moves of Martin Luther to the televised arena rallies of Billy Graham. I definitely think it is valid for talented teachers to seek to serve a wider audience by writing books and speaking at conferences. (Although I am enough of a curmudgeon to question the value of parachurch conferences marketed to lay people.)
But I will say that the use of marketing and business management techniques grates on me. And I tend to buy into Carl Trueman’s distinction between celebrities and public figures. We need carefully distinguish between faithful stewardship of one’s public reputation and the temptation to seek fame at the cost of integrity.
Should a church build a brand for themselves for the sake of the Kingdom? Should pastors cultivate fame and public image for the sake of the Gospel message? When they are successful, it seems to work, at least numerically. I don’t have any real arguments here. Just some general aesthetic grumpiness.
(I am in no short supply of aesthetic grumpiness.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hermeneutic of Hair-Splitting

The house lights were down. The preacher stalked back and forth across the stage. He wore dark glasses. His voice was severe (as always). No notes.
“At the Lord’s Supper you come prepared with something to give! But at the Lord’s Table you come empty—you come to get!
He carried on with a list of antitheses, but that’s the only one I remember. He was on the subject of about 1 Cor 10:21, which he would have quoted from memory in the old King James, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.” He was adamant that the Lord’s table referred to was something other than the ordinance of communion. It was the experience of being nourished by the Word, or something like that. It meant to fill your mind with God’s Word, not with “doctrines of devils,” which I suppose would have meant values of the world or theology he disagreed with or whatever.
I believed what the preacher said, and I remembered it. We always said “the Lord’s Supper.” There were others who came in with the habit of saying the Lord’s Table to mean the Lord’s Supper. I corrected one of them once, but later I decided it was probably a pretty minor point and started letting it slide. But we never called it Communion. Our understanding of the sacrament was unidirectional—an act of worship and remembrance, never a means of grace.
But we thrived on this kind of hairline distinction. Our whole system of interpretation depended on it.

One more story. This time we’re on the front porch of a camp cabin, in the sunlight. A lazy afternoon. Teenagers were sitting or lounging in different directions, eyes and ears turned toward the teacher in their midst. He finished what he had to say, and they began to scatter. I moved forward and got his attention.
“Hey, could I ask you a question?”
“Of course.”
“I’ve been wondering about this for awhile, but how do we know from the Bible how the gospel fits together? There isn’t really one passage that explains it. In one place we are told to repent. In another we are told to believe. In yet another we are told to be baptized. And then it says in one place that we will be saved. In another we will enter the Kingdom. In another our sins are forgiven. But there is no common phrase that tells us they are all speaking of one reality. How do we know these aren’t each distinct experiences?”
“I think the reason there are so many different descriptions of the gospel is that the gospel is this huge thing, far too big to encompass in one turn of phrase. Each of those truths you mention (and many more) are like facets of the enormous diamond that is the gospel, and the New Testament writers are turning it around and looking at it from every angle.”
He didn’t offer me an argument but understanding, which was far better. Again I believed and I remember. And yet because I believed this I could not continue to believe what the other had said. I don’t think he intended his answer to be subversive. But years later I find that it has leavened the whole lump. In time it unmade and re-formed my understanding of so many things.
Whatever his actual words were, which I feel I have done a rather poor job of reconstructing above, he communicated a different way of looking at the Bible. The term I have settled on to describe this perspective is synthetic. It seeks to synthesize what the Bible says into a cohesive whole rather than chopping it up with myriad distinctions. A more proper term is harmonization. This shift was for me a kind of copernican revolution.

And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.
(The prophet Joel predicting day of Pentacost, at least if St. Peter is to be believed)

The shift from hair-splitting to synthesis was intuitive. It made sense in itself rather than being shored up by arguments. But as I have learned more about Hermeneutics proper I have come to understand different components of this shift.
One critical component is the realization that we cannot assume that the biblical writers are using words in a technical way. They might use multiple terms interchangeably to refer to the same reality. They might use a single word to mean different things in different contexts. They might even describe a concept in different ways without tagging it with a summary term at all. This is all just the normal functioning of language. It is possible to argue that a given writer uses a particular word in a technical way, but this has to be argued from evidence, and we cannot assume that the theological import that we attach to that word is exactly what the apostle meant. At best this will be an anachronism because every theological term has acquired post-apostolic baggage.
Implied in this first point is a second, bigger-picture one, which is attention to the intention of the human author. We believe that the Scriptures are God-breathed. And yet we believe that the divine intention in the words of Scripture accords with the human intention of the individual writers, even if they did not understand the full import of what they wrote. A basic level of attention paid to what the human author could have possibly meant precludes a number of spurious distinctions. If we take say the Pauline epistles, it is obvious that they were written with an intent to communicate clearly and practically. While I would not presume to say they are always easy to understand, a hermeneutic that turns them into intricate puzzles does not do justice to authorial intent.
There is also a sense in which this is just a restatement of Occam’s razor. A harmonious interpretation with fewer distinctions is to be preferred. I’m not sure how far you could press this as a principle, but it certainly appeals to me as a general guideline.
In one way or another the entire field of Hermeneutics has bearing on this question. It is hard to give just one explanation. Attention to textual context is yet another line of argumentation, because unjustified distinctions are frequently at odds with any sense of flow in a passage.
In coming to terms with all this I have been greatly helped by Vern Poythress’s book on dispensationalism. He works through all the subtlety of the hermeneutical issues. A sampling:

Critics should also appreciate the remarkable degree to which dispensationalism is a harmonious whole. Every part harmonizes with almost every other part. If critics attempt to reinterpret in their favor a single text, dispensationalist respondents can often cite two or more other texts which support their own interpretation. Critics soon find themselves called upon to reinterpret many, many texts simultaneously. 

One element of dispensationalism making this impressive harmony possible is a joint working of two complementary hermeneutical procedures. The first of these procedures is the multiplying of distinctions. Dispensationalists are willing to introduce some sharp, fine-grained distinctions where almost no one else has seen distinctions. For instance, the rapture is distinguished from the second coming of Christ, even though (as many dispensationalists acknowledge) there is no consistent terminological difference between the two in the NT. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are distinguished from one another. And so on. (However, many modified dispensationalists no longer hold to as many sharp distinctions. One must be prepared for differences on this point.) 

Complementary to this procedure, there is the procedure of doubling the application of a single expression in a single text of the Bible. Many prophetic texts are thought of as having an earthly fulfillment in Israel and a “spiritual” application to the church (recall diagram 2.2). Whereas the first procedure splits apart texts that are verbally similar, this procedure joins a single text to two different levels of fulfillment. 

Now, in principle, it is altogether possible for us to discover in the Bible some distinctions that have not been recognized before (procedure 1 above). And it is possible for some texts to have more than one fulfillment or “application” (procedure 2 above). But one must also recognize that dangers accompany the application of these procedures. If we permit ourselves to invoke both procedures a lot of the time, we greatly multiply the number of options available for harmonizing different texts of the Bible. We increase enormously the flexibility that we have in interpreting any one text. Hence, it becomes relatively easy to harmonize everything even under the umbrella of an over-all system that is not correct. Dispensationalists rightly feel that the dispensationalist system is in large measure harmonious, stable, consistent. But this consistency may all too easily be the product of a hermeneutical scheme that is capable of artificially generating consistency by (1) the multiplication of distinctions and (2) the doubling of relationships. Thus, in the case of dispensationalism, consistency is not a guarantee of truth 

(Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Text Editors of Christianity

Weird shower thoughts. None of this is fair to anyone.
  • The Roman Catholic Church: GNU Emacs
  • Eastern Orthodoxy: XEmacs
  • Anabaptists: ed
  • Lutheranism: vi
  • Calvinism: vim
  • Anglicanism: Emacs + evil-mode (the best and/or worst of both worlds!)
  • Evangelicalism: Sublime Text
  • Mainline Protestantism: TextMate 1.5
  • Emerging church: Textmate 2 alpha?
  • Calvinists in the SBC: Sublime Text with vim keybindings
  • Dispensationalism: Visual Studio 6.0