Life Among the Dutch…

It was in late 2008 or early 2009, I can’t remember which, that I first found myself staring with some confusion at a church directory containing a truly ridiculous number of entries under V and Z. Also, there were no Toews. Nor Thiessens. Nor Klassens, Peters, nor Enns (not even Ens!). For a guy who grew up surrounded by Mennonites in an evangelical church in Saskatoon, the utter lack of Enns was frankly disturbing. But what the directory lacked in Enns and Thiessens it more than made up for with Van Xs and De Ys. I was attending a new church, a Presbyterian church filled with the Dutch.*

When attending in person it was not simply the names that were astounding, it was the dizzying tallness that truly set one reeling. I’m not tall, I know that, but I’ve always felt about average until I came into contact with the Dutch. It’s an odd sensation to stand, as a grown man, at shoulder height to another person. It is truly humbling to stand at shoulder height to an entire room of other people.

But then we worshiped together, and talked, and ate together, and I loved them.

It was there that I encountered Christians who have been deeply shaped by a stream of Protestant theology that I did not know well; Kuyperian Calvinism. Now, I was no true Calvinist, nor am I now. But these infinitely tall Kuyper fans taught me gently about a kind of cultural engagement that I had, until then, denigrated. They taught me about a love for culture. They taught me about a grace-filled engagement with art, and politics, and food. They spoke a language that struck deeply resonant notes in the depths of my heart. The tension between life as a Christian and life in the culture to which I have been born and in which I was raised has always been difficult for me. I had reached, by the time we moved to Hamilton, a kind of uneasy truce with my culture, but nothing more. It was the Dutch who taught me better.

I saw people who truly believed that their work, whatever that happened to be, had a redemptive purpose grounded in the work of Christ. It brought a great dignity to all work, from teaching to framing to lawyering to sculpting. It all, somehow, became art. It wasn’t just the pastors or missionaries who talked about vocation, it was everybody.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think postmillenial theology is kind of a wild pipe-dream, and I don’t think anybody will ever talk me into being a real Calvinist (though they came surprisingly close on child baptism a couple of times). But life among the Dutch was a powerful and beautiful thing. It altered Jinny and I in subtle but powerful ways, and I’m deeply thankful for that short sojourn.

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*Okay, they weren’t all actually Dutch, but there were a lot of Dutch people man! Like, a lot!

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The Nonsense of Taylorization…

The year after I graduated from high school I worked as a laborer at a company called Nu-Fab.  Nu-Fab builds pre-fabricated housing products, including things like pre-made walls, laminated beams, gable ends and gable ladders, and (most of all) roof trusses.  I spent almost all of my time at Nu-Fab building roof trusses.  It was not a good job.  I still get a Pavlovian shiver down my spine whenever I’m home in Saskatoon and happen to drive by that building on 45th St.West.  I worked there for a little under a year, building roof trusses day in and day out.

A few years later I was working at a small church in rural Manitoba, and we were planning a trip down to an orphanage in Mexico.  We were going for about a week, and we would be spending a significant portion of that time building two new houses for the people there.  While I was talking to my senior pastor it came out that I used to work at a place that built pre-fabricated houses, and that I spent almost a year building roof trusses.  He asked me if I would be able to help out designing or building the roof system for the houses we were going to be building.  The answer, as anybody who has ever worked on a factory floor could guess, was “no.”  I could swing a hammer, I could run the pneumatic press, and I could read the set of directions provided by the drafters and engineers.  Given a bunch of wood and a saw I was lost.

I’ve recently started reading an awful lot of Roland Boer’s work, and tonight I began reading his Political Grace.  In the Introduction he discusses the question of what he refers to as “Taylorization,” which is basically the assembly-line process for manufacturing that Henry Ford perfected and popularized (Boer xviii).  Boer challenges the notion that stark lines can be drawn between things like theology and economics and philosophy and whatnot, as well as the idea that one or another of these can be used to explain all of the rest (economics as an explanation for religion, or religion as an explanation for politics, etc).  With regard to Calvin he writes, “[my] study of Calvin leads me to suggest that we need to drop this harmful approach and realize that such a Taylorization is a fiction” (xviii).

He is, of course, utterly correct.  We do not need more line laborers in the great factory of academia.  We don’t need more thinkers with skills and mindsets analagous to my truss-building expertise.  We need something else.  We need synthetic, integrative thinkers.  We need people who’s thinking is more analagous to my father’s truss-building skills.  You see, my dad is a carpenter of the first order.  When he wanted to build an extension onto the back of his garage so that he’d have a dedicated workshop, he didn’t go to Nu-Fab to buy pre-fabricated trusses.  Instead he taught himself to use AutoCAD, then taught himself to design some simple 5/12 pitch trusses, then he built from scratch the jigs and set-ups required, and then he made his own trusses.  And you know what?  They were better than the trusses I made.

My dad is a synthetic builder.  I want to be a synthetic thinker and writer.  So screw Taylorization…let’s start exploring how our thoughts about God and reality and government and social relationships and capital and everything else overlap and inform each other, and then move on from there.

10 Random Beliefs…

James McGrath tagged me on an intriguing meme.  The idea is to list 10 random beliefs that I hold.  It’s tougher than it sounds, but here’s my try.

1. I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

2. I believe in one holy and catholic Church.

3. I believe that reality is an awful lot bigger than we are able to imagine or access.

4. I believe that all human knowledge is conditioned and situated.

5. I believe in my family.

6. I believe that my wife is the best person I know.

7. I believe that language is beautiful.

8. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God…though I’m not always sure what that means.

9. I believe that music has universal power.

10. When it comes to food, I’m an idealist.

There you are.  No tagging though.  As I always say, this is where memes come to die.

The Critique of Idolatry, Representing God…

Roland Boer offers some interesting thoughts on the critique of idolatry found in Isaiah 44:9-20.  He suggests that, after a fashion, the monotheistic critique of empty idols is hoisted on its own petard.  The monotheist, like the atheist, attacks the idol-making polytheist by suggesting that this bit of wood or stone that is being worshipped is nothing more than a bit of wood or stone.  It doesn’t walk or talk or act or speak, and it is consequently silly to worship it.  The monotheist therefore determines that the symbolic connection that the idol represents must be severed.

But what kind of symbolic connection are we talking about?  Boer suggests that “[the] idol worshipper does not think of this stature [sic] or that icon as the god itself; no, it is a finger pointing to the deity.”  I’ll grant the possibility that the idolater does not believe that the statue or icon is, in and of itself, the deity but a representation of that deity.  But what of this notion of the idol as “a finger,” or a kind of sign designed to point the deity?  Is this really what an idol does?  Or, to put the point differently, is this what is being forbidden in the first and second commandments?  Let me quote Boer again:

These two commandments are not discrete items, for they flow into one another: one should have neither other gods nor idols, for they are intimately connected. In other words, there is a signifying link between god and idol, deity and representation, and the one who shows reverence for the idol does so in order to honour his or her god the [sic] whom the idol directs one’s attention.

Boer then goes on to suggest that in order to be consistent the monotheist must be an iconoclast, forbidding or destroying any symbolic representation whatsoever that might point to God.  If signifying links are idolatrous then all signifying links must be severed.  Boer rightly points out that such a commandment is exceedingly difficult, nigh on impossible, to follow.  Jews and Christians have always had signifying links to God, from the Ark of the Covenant to the various trappings of the Temple (to say nothing of the Temple itself), to the menorahs and crucifixes and scriptures that Boer notes specifically.  Boer doesn’t quite drive the point home, but the consequence is fairly obvious.  Humans need signifiers to enable worship.  We need sign-posts to direct us, to enable us to engage with what a theist would call the Divine and an atheist would call the social/psychological experience we call the Divine.  And so the anti-idol monotheist is in a bind.  The first and second commandments, which Boer rightly notes are tightly linked, demand that there be no symbols to point one to the Divine, but symbols are needed in order to point one to the Divine.

But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols?  This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me.  Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah.  The idol is a representation of the deity.  It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself.  But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god.  The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine.  There must be symbols to point to the Divine.  Even if there are no symbols made by human hands the Theist will still suggest that there are symbols that point to the Divine (“The heavens declare…” says the psalmist).  But those symbols cannot represent the Divine.  They are signs, not models.  They suggest something about God’s character, but do not claim to offer an accurate representation of who God is.  No such representation can be given because God is beyond such representation…thus the prohibition against representational images.

So the author of Isaiah 44 is not suggesting that there can be no symbolic pointer to direct our attention to God.  He is suggesting, instead, that no symbol can capture and represent God.  And if it could what kind of god would that be?  A god of wood and stone, deaf, dumb, and blind.

The monotheist does not say to the idolater “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no god to whom it refers,” but “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no (worthy) god whom it could represent.”

The Bible isn’t a bible…

A while ago Julia O’Brien had a post where she noted that in our culture we use the word “Bible” to refer to instruction manuals of all kinds.  She suggested that as long as we keep labeling the Bible as such people will think of it as an instruction manual and avoid it as literature.  She’s right of course, but there’s an even bigger problem for those of us who are Christians.  The bigger problem is that people will think of the Bible as an instruction manual and ignore it as Scripture.  No, the two things are not the same.

The Bible is a collection of a wide variety of literature which was written over a very long period of history (hundreds of years).  The primary unifying qualities of the Bible are that it all has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that over the course of time these books came to be thought of as revelatory literature by the broad community of faith.  That is to say, the Bible is about God and it was “chosen” (not in the sense of one time conscious decision, but in the sense of a long and organic progression) by the Church.  The consequence of this is that the Bible has many witnesses that often stand in deep tension with one another.  There is tension between the prophets and the Torah, between the prophets and the lament literature, between the Apocalyptic literature and the Gospels, and between the letters of Paul and the catholic letters.  There is tension all over.  The Bible does not have one, single, easily summarized, unitary message.  It is not an instruction book.  Your Bible is not a bible.

I have heard it said that all biblical passages fall into two categories.  They are all either 1) promises, or 2) instructions.  Wrong.  Are there promises in the Bible?  Sure.  Are there instructions in the Bible?  Sure.  But there is a whole lot more as well.  There is poetry that describes pain.  There are narratives that tell tales of conflict and confusion, and of triumph and joy.  There are longing love letters.  There are instances of purest hate.  In the Bible you will find a wide variety of literary genres, a wide variety of themes, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of really almost everything.  That shouldn’t be scary, but for some reason this scares evangelicals.  It scares us so much that we aren’t allowed to critique the Bible, we aren’t allowed to ask it difficult questions.  We accept it all dogmatically because we think it’s all dogmatic, but it isn’t.  There is room to question and challenge the Bible.  Do you know how I know this?  Because the Bible questions and challenges itself.  Ezekiel questions the Torah.  Lamentations questions Deuteronomy and the great deuteronomistic history.  Jesus questions the Law, even as he says that he does not set aside even one jot of it.

The great power and theological depth of the Scripture is found within these points of tension, and again within the tension between our lives today and the various parts of this ancient collection of books.  The Bible is like a stringed instrument in this respect.  It only works because of great tension.  Stop trying to take the tension out of the Bible.  If you take away the tension, smoothing over and dumbing down and making everyingthing instructions and promises, all you get is a poorly tuned instrument and really bad music.

Theology v. Religious Studies…

There was a recent round of discussion among some of the bibliobloggers regarding the old distinction between theology and religious studies.  Seems it was sparked to a large degree by Kurt Noll’s “The Ethics of Being a Theologian.”  I could go on about what I think, or give you all the links to all of the various conversations, but I’m lazy and don’t want to do either, so I’ll just skip to the end.  Tyler Williams’ response was the one I agreed with the most, and also has the single funniest response of the day by Dr. Jim Linville (who also wins a prize for his post regarding women and biblioblogging).

Buyer Beware…

A discussion has been making the rounds regarding whether or to what degree amateur biblical scholarship is a legitimate enterprise.  You can see the relevant history (and trace the backlinks for the longer backstory) on Matthew’s page here, Jim’s here, and Doug’s here.  Though I find Jim’s position (leave the Bible to the experts alone) to be extreme, I certainly sympathize with his point.  There is an awful lot of nonsense out there that pases for “biblical scholarship.”  And it’s not just silliness like ex-firefighters chasing down the “treasure” of the Copper Scroll.  AKMA pointed to a new Bible software system the other day, and I must say that the list of “biblical scholars” who contribute to the expert videos was very worrying.  I mean, I’ve got nothing against Max Lucado, but he isn’t a Bible expert of any kind.  He’s a very good preacher, and I’m sure a good pastor, but his reflections on Scripture in his books tend to be rather shallow to be frank.  But people assume he’s an expert because he’s written and sold a lot of books.  I’ll let Jim and the others fight it out over whether Lucado is a bad guy because he hasn’t got a PhD (I tend to think not), because I want to make a slightly different point here.

As much as non-specialists can be dangerous when they spout off, the fact is that they are only dangerous if people listen to them.  The responsibility lies, in the end, with the reader to make good judgments about what is being read.  Credentials don’t equal correctness, but credentials do tell you one thing.  They tell you that the person who’s work you are reading has done his or her homework (literally).  I don’t care what anyone says, a PhD or ThD is not an easy get.  So, dear reader, if you want to know about the Bible and you want to avoid the dangers of being misled by people who may or may not know what they are talking about, let me recommend the following:

  1. Ask why the person you’re reading has the authority to say what he/she is saying.  Why are his/her ideas more valuable than your own?  Google the author, know who it is that you’re trusting.
  2. Ask where and to what degree the author is educated…and in what field for that matter (a PhD in Chemistry doesn’t make you an expert in Biblical Studies).
  3. Remember that the person who wrote the book you’re reading probably borrowed some of those ideas from other books.  Find out which ones and maybe read them too.
  4. Get to know an expert personally and ask that person for advice.  Most of the churches I’ve been a part of over the years have had at least one or two professors of theology or biblical studies hiding somewhere.  If there’s nobody in your congregation, then email a prof at your local denominational seminary.  I’m betting you’d get a very cordial reply.
  5. Instead of reading popular Christian literature about Jesus or the Bible, try reading a commentary along with your regular Bible reading.  I’d recommend a very accessible series like NIV Application or Interpretation, or the New International Biblical Commentary.  I talked my wife into doing this once and she said it was one of the richest devotional experiences she’s ever had.

The long and the short of it is this: buyer beware.  Getting a book about the Bible published is no harder than getting a self-help book published, and we all know what nonsense those things can be.  If you are a Christian you should take the Bible very seriously indeed, so consider your supplimentary reading carefully as well.  And by the by, all of this goes doubly and triply so for internet sources and blogs (including this one…I don’t consider myself an expert on anything yet).