Doxology: How Worship Works (New Book!)

Books, Music, Prayer, Preaching, The Church, The Gospel, Theology, Worship

(by: Nicolas Alford)

I’m so excited to share that Free Grace Press is publishing Doxology: How Worship Works, a book I’ve written to assist the church in offering faithful praise to God. I love the cover art that the publisher put together, and I’m humbled by the kind endorsements from men I respect:

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The Kindle Edition is available now; the paperback should be ready in a few days. A deep thanks to all who have already purchased a copy and sent some encouraging words– it’s satisfying to know the Lord is already using it among his people.

If you’re interested in receiving a copy for review on your blog or other media platform, please reach out via social media or the contact form on The Decablog. If you’ve read a copy (and liked it 😉 ), don’t hesitate to leave a short review on Amazon.

May the Lord use this little effort to promote the praise of his glorious name.

A Review of Blind Spots by Collin Hansen

Book Reviews, Books, Christian Living

When it comes to blind spots in the Christian life, we have two options: Admit we have them, or lie. I’ve never held a theological or philosophical position assuming it was wrong. Who does that? But it’s either the height of arrogance or ignorance to think it’s not possible that I have some wrong ideas, hold certain ideas in imbalance, or haven’t adequately considered viable alternatives. Challenging me to think clearly and critically about my own positions, I was helped tremendously by Collin Hansen‘s latest book entitled Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church (Hansen is the Editorial Director for The Gospel Coalition).

In my own understanding and interacting with other Christians outside my tradition and theological framework, I will be the first to admit that I haven’t always done a great job. I could have easily been the one writing Hansen’s words: “With my highly attuned gift for discerning others’ motives, it didn’t take long for me to see what’s wrong with everyone else. Then I blamed them for not seeing the wisdom in my arguments… Because I’d understood my experience as normative for everyone, I couldn’t see how God blessed other Christians with different stories and strengths.”

Certainly, there are specific, unalterable truths that should not be tampered with, downplayed, or discarded. God has revealed in His Word, “Those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation” and those things “are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them” (1.7 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689). I have long been an advocate of Dr. Albert Mohler’s three-tiered Theological Triage and find it to be a helpful matrix in which to frame each Christian relationship. But I’m thankful that Hansen presses the conversation even further. He writes, “This book is about seeing our differences as opportunity. God created us in splendid diversity of thought, experience, and personality. And when these differences cohere around the gospel of Jesus Christ, they work together to challenge, comfort, and compel a needy world with the only love that will never fail or fade.”

Focusing on the gospel as the unifying, unalterable center of relationships and conversations, Hansen points out that all Christians have further, specific emphases that we assume to be more important than others, and he places them into three distinct categories. We will identify closely with either compassionate Christians, courageous Christians, or commissioned Christians. In each category, Hansen outlines the distinctives that are commendable and worthy of emulating, and suggests temptations that should be guarded against lest our blind spots remain undiscovered and crippling to our Kingdom efforts. It’s most likely that every Christian will resonate on some level with each category, because they all contain biblical elements, however the honest reader will find himself in a specific category more than the others.

Compassionate Christians

The compassionate Christians are those who see the hurting, broken world around them and have a longing to relieve suffering and poverty. Hansen describes the compassionate Christians: “You clothe the homeless, feed the hungry, nurse the sick. You write the letters, shame the offenders, protest the powers.” Compassionate Christians are quick to see the abundance of biblical exhortations about the disenfranchised “little people” of society and to call the church to action.

Hansen commends the compassionate Christians for their focus on an area of biblical truth and action that should always be on the church’s radar, but also warns, “With compassion comes blame. In a broken world that lacks simple solutions and people who care, it can become all too easy to blame those who aren’t mending our society. Compassion abounds for humanity, just not for humans.” Hansen wisely warns compassionate Christians to not emphasize giving at the expense of the gospel itself. It’s important to remember that our “compassion won’t always be appreciated or even received by a world that rejects the source of our compassion.”

Courageous Christians

The courageous Christians are those who take stands on truth, and oftentimes on specific issues of importance (or even non-importance). The courageous Christians are those who will make precise arguments for specific positions, and make appeals to others to not waiver from what they understand to be true. These are Christians like Martin Luther and the reformers, willing to stand, fight, and die for the things that matter. “Courage is necessary for us to endure in the faith.”

Hansen self-identified in this category, and it’s most likely that the majority of reformed Christians will. But Hansen is wise to offer some cautions here as well. The courageous Christians can sometimes turn important issues into single issues, demanding that other people fall in line behind a specific agenda or else they will be cast as an enemy and considered suspect in the future. Courageous Christians can easily become heresy hunters, and are willing to compromise the fundamental exhortation to love because of a single issue. While courage is important and necessary in the face of sin, false teaching, and evil attempts to thwart the work of God, it’s vital to be reminded that “courage is not measured by how many people you can offend.”

Commissioned Christians

Commissioned Christians are those who emphasize mission with an eye toward bringing as many into the church and God’s Kingdom as possible. “You might be a commissioned Christian if you worry that younger generations will slip away or never bother to show up unless churches adapt to changing times. You’re not exactly conservative or liberal in theological terms. You probably trust in the authority of Scripture and hold to conservative views on issues such as the exclusivity of Christ; otherwise why bother with evangelism? But you don’t fit in with Christians who actually enjoy debating theology or arguing over whether ministry practices conform to Scripture. You want to get on with the serious, urgent work of changing lives with the power of the gospel.”

Commissioned Christians seek to push the church to the highways and hedges that the gospel would be proclaimed far and wide. Surely, a continued focus on the great commission is important and necessary. However, Hansen warns, “in their search for cultural relevance,” commissioned Christians “can slide into syncretism. And their eagerness to expand the tent can culminate in theological compromise. Sometimes these churches don’t merely resemble the mall with their expansive parking lots and food courts; they also communicate with ‘practical’ and ‘relevant’ messages that Christianity is an Ă  la carte faith that supplements our private pursuit of peace, wealth, and status.”

A Call to Unity and Growth

Hansen’s book challenges readers to identify personal tendencies to over-emphasize certain areas of focus at the expense of others. We never outgrow our need to find balance in the Christian life, and we can more readily do so when we are more determined to learn from other believers instead of instantly seeking to find ways to differ from them. Certainly, there will be significant differences from one Christian to another, however they need not always be divisive or viewed with negativity and skepticism. Our goal should be “the kind of biblical fulness that . . . expects opposition from the world and seeks unity among believers for the sake of the world.”

I highly recommend Hansen’s book to those who are willing to ask questions of their own heart and consider whether or not their blind spots have kept them from learning from other Christians who have a lot to offer.

If you want more before picking up the book, read 20 Truths From Blind Spots.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient World Literature (Tenth Post, Part II)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, The Church, Theology

(Continued)

Structure and Common Grace

While the Bible is unlike anything else that has ever been written because of its authorship, inerrancy, and infallibility, the fact that it was written in a specific context both culturally and historically cannot be ignored. The very structure of the Bible itself can be understood in the framework of classical literary genres, thus displaying God’s common grace. This is our second thought for thinking about world literature.

While not necessarily able to identify them, most people are probably familiar with Greek epics, lyrics, tragedies, and comedies. The Bible is structured as an epic, made up of both tragedy and comedy. In very general terms, a tragedy can be understood as a story that begins high and ends low (e.g. Shakespeare’s Macbeth), while a comedy begins low and ends high (e.g. Roman-Masks_1Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), most often with a wedding. Comedies also usually pick up in the middle of a story. An epic is typically broader in scope than both tragedy and comedy, and includes a journey (e.g. Homer’s Odyssey).

Perhaps you’re able to piece together where this is headed. The Old Testament is structured in the form of a tragedy. It begins high (creation) and ends low (rampant idolatry amongst the Israelites). The New Testament is structured in the form of a comedy. It begins low, in the middle of the story (450 years of silence from God), and ends high with a wedding (The great wedding of Christ and His people in the new heavens and new earth). Together, the Old and the New Testament are structured as an epic, as the Lord takes us through the journey that unfolds from creation, through his covenantal arrangements, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the establishment of the Church, and the fulfillment of all things in the new heavens and new earth. Any literature that follows these patterns serve in their very genres as copies of God’s Great Story.

There’s also much insight to be gained from a reading of individual classic works when compared to the Bible. Is it possible that God used the influence of men like Plato in his writing—as a pagan philosopher—to prepare the Hellenized world for the coming of the Christ and the announcement of the gospel? Consider the following dialogue and how it relates to Scripture:

 “Then is that city best governed which is most like a single human being? For example, when one of us wounds a finger, presumably the entire community—that community tying the body together with the soul in a single arrangement under the ruler within it—is aware of the fact, and all of it is in pain as a whole along with the afflicted part; and it is in this sense we say that this human being has a pain in his finger. And does the same argument hold for any other part of a human being, both when it is afflicted by pain and when eased by pleasure?

Yes, it does,” he said. “And, as to what you ask, the city with the best regime is most like such a human being.

I suppose, then, that when one of its citizens suffers anything at all, either good or bad, such a city will most of all say that the affected part is its own, and all will share in the joy or the pain.”

Sound familiar? This is from Plato’s Republic, written nearly 400 years prior to the New Testament. But, how about 1 Corinthians 12:14-26?

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 

Is it possible that the Apostle Paul used the language and ideas of Plato that were familiar to the people of his culture to describe the church? Could it be that Paul’s letter to the Romans was not only a theological treatise of positive Christian doctrine, but also a response to Plato’s Republic and the commonly accepted ideas about justice and redemption, based upon Greek philosophy?

A journey through the classics will expand a Christian’s horizons to help us have an even greater understanding of the context in which the Bible was written and the foundations of our faith were forged. By the common grace of God, He even used pagan philosophers to support His ends of introducing the greatest story ever told—the true myth of a great Savior who has come to rescue his people.

Stance (Attitude) and the Image of God

Another use can be reevaluating our stance and attitude towards unbelievers. Sometimes, I fear that too many Reformed Christians have as their root anthropological principle the fall and sin rather than the imago dei (image of God) in all humanity which is both logically and historically prior to sin. While helping us keep a good perspective on evil, doing this can also have certain detrimental, almost Fundamentalist ramifications which can cause us to retreat into our own castles rather than live in the world Jesus refused to take us out of. This is anything but a Reformed stance towards the world, at least historically speaking. Also, if sin and not the image is the most basic principle, then I have nothing to learn from an unbeliever except evil, and once I’m saved, the problem is only magnified. This in turn can cause me to take a personal stance towards them both in how I treat and in how I think about them as people and their contributions to society. By reading secular literature, I can more directly involve myself in the common humanity and echoes of truth that I share with them.

This gives me enough ability to read just about any ancient religious text–be it a Buddhist tract on ethics or law (demonstrating that we all have the law written on our hearts), or a Hindu text (that reflects the biblical worldview of the supernatural in a perverted way), or a piece of philosophical utopianism like the Communist Manifesto or Critique of Pure Reason—both to learn and to evaluate biblically the good and the bad. Our Faith is not diminished by challenges to it, but only increases in wonder in the face of them.

The wonder is really threefold. First, image bearers are still able to see truth—although they suppress it in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18ff). The image is not destroyed. They know the law and use reason and cannot help but talk about and use both in an almost infinite variety of ways. Second, the Gospel was revealed to a specific group of people in time giving those people the only news that can actually save it from itself. Only Scripture reveals the Good News that saves. Third, this Gospel is news that is to be proclaimed to all humanity, because Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. In reading their works, we can easily see points of contact and the many needs in which salvation is so important for us all. This in turn can help us in our attitudes towards others, knowing that we and they are alike in sin, in the image, and in our need for salvation.

Reading their writings and understanding their thought can then be used to soften our hearts against them as well as being used as points of contact in much the same way that Don Richardson used the story of the Peace Child as a point of contact to bring the gospel to an otherwise radically blinded group of pagans in Western New Guinea. We do not need to be afraid of other religions or philosophies or outlooks on life. Nor does reading and learning about them need to lead us into skepticism and unbelief. Frankly, those are stances that people bring to the literature, rather than conclude after starting with some kind of neutral stance. Using pagan literature to justify unbelief rather than seeing that the unbelief was there prior is just a way to mask the real problem.

Soul Cultivation

A final application of reading classical world literature is the cultivation of our own souls. Gene Veith, speaking about Classical Education writes, “The word ‘liberal’ [as in Liberal Arts] derives from the Latin libera, meaning freedom. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, a liberal education was necessary for a man to be free. Slaves would receive vocational training, but free citizens required an education that enlarged the mind and cultivated the soul. Classical education aimed at the apprehension of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The ancientsClassical-Ed_zpsa5f60996 believed that cultivation of virtue, knowledge of the world and of human nature, active citizenship, and practical action required an education with this purpose.”[1]

Sure, Classical Education was created by Greeks, but these people also believed in the cultivation of moral virtues. As with our own Founding Fathers, they cultivated these virtues not by indoctrinating –isms into people’s minds through public education, but by giving citizens the objective tools to think for themselves. The –isms that are dominating our education today are, in our opinion, creating more vices than virtues. We as a society and as the Church are increasingly held in captivity to philosophies that we don’t even know how to communicate, let alone combat. So we need to begin with our minds, learning to think critically (not being critical, but evaluating the good, the bad, and the ugly).

As one example, especially in light of the irony from the ancient world, education today has become almost wholly pragmatic (i.e. you go to school to get a job), meaning that they Greeks would have viewed us as people who willingly put themselves under slavery. If this is so, then we need to be willing to read the great Pragmatists such as Dewey and James as well as their critiques so that we can get out from under that slavery and into the freedom that the Liberal Arts can bring us (I speak in a human, not a spiritually way, as slavery to the devil only stops when a person believes the gospel).

After the mind, it is our very souls that need cultivation as well. Once our stance towards unbelievers is oriented properly (i.e. image bearers who possess truth, but who suppress it in unrighteousness), then we will find ourselves able to learn about truth (“all truth is God’s truth”) that we ourselves may not be thinking about. Thus, we can read the classics and come to see the beauty that is a Robert Frost poem, the brilliance that is Mark Twain’s critique of slavery in Huckleberry Finn, the truth that resides in Dante’s vision of the Roman Church, or the humor that is portrayed in Wuthering Heights (I can’t believe I just said that last one). In doing this, we find ourselves better people, freer citizens, more open and honest and willing to deal in the world, without having to be “of” it.

I hope you have enjoyed this series, and look in the coming week or so for a lengthy bibliography that we are working on that we hope will help you in your journey into the world of non-biblical literature as you now have the tools to think about it biblically.

(by: Doug Van Dorn, Nick Kennicott)

[1] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington D.C.: Capital Research Center, 2001), 11.

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient World Literature (Tenth Post, Part I)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Theology

This post will be a two-parter and the last in our series on non-biblical literature and the Bible (other than a bibliography we are developing to supplement the material). In it, we want to look at how a Christian can read and think about literature that is found all over the world, in both ancient and more recent times. We will tackle this from several different perspectives, though this doesn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities.

Similarities and Apologetics

Indulge me for a moment and check this out. I think you will find it fascinating:

THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night.

All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. Thus they are called Quetzal Serpent. In their essence, they are great sages, great possessors of knowledge. Thus surely there is the sky. There is also Heart of Sky, which is said to be the name of the god.

THEN came his word. Heart of Sky arrived here with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent in the darkness, in the night. He spoke with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent. They talked together then. They thought and they pondered. They reached an accord, bringing together their words and their thoughts. Then they gave birth, heartening one another. Beneath the light, they gave birth to humanity. Then they arranged for the germination and creation of the trees and the bushes, the germination of all life and creation, in the darkness and in the night, by Heart of Sky, who is called Huracan.

First is Thunderbolt Huracan, second is Youngest Thunderbolt, and third is Sudden Thunderbolt. These three together are Heart of Sky. Then they came together with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent. Together they conceived light and life: “How shall it be sown? When shall there be a dawn for anyone? Who shall be provider? Who shall be a sustainer?”

“Then be it so. You are conceived. May the water be taken away, emptied out, so that the plate of the earth may be created—may it be gathered and become level. Then may it be sown; then

Mayan Creation Story

Mayan Creation Story

may dawn the sky and the earth. There can be no worship, no reverence given by what we have framed and what we have shaped, until humanity has been created, until people have been made,” they said.

Then the earth was created by them. Merely their word brought about the creation of it. In order to create the earth, they said, “Earth,” and immediately it was created. Just like a cloud, like a midst, was the creation and formation of it.

Then they called forth the mountains from the water. Straightaway the great mountains came to be. It was merely their spirit essence, their miraculous power, that brought about the conception of the mountains and the valleys. Straightaway were created cypress groves and pine forests to cover the face of the earth.

Thus Quetzal Serpent rejoiced: “It is good that you have come, Heart of Sky—you, Huracan, and you as well, Youngest Thunderbolt and Sudden Thunderbolt. That which we have framed and shaped shall turn out well,” they said.[1]

From here, the story explains how animals were created after the land. The animals were given homes and were treated well by the gods. So the gods expected something in return. They expected worship, but the animals were only able to squawk and chatter and roar, because they were animals. And “this was not good.” After destroying these animals, the gods created men out of mud, “But this was not good” either. For, the mud-men came undone and crumbled. This “mistake” caused the gods to topple the mud-men. Next, they tried making men out of wood, but they forgot to make them with souls and minds, and thus they could not worship either, so the gods beat and disfigured them and destroyed them in a great flood. The final attempt (so far) was to make men out of sacred corn. As of today, the gods have not yet destroyed them.

The similarities (and differences) between this story and the one told in Genesis are stunning, especially considering that it comes from a place that is over 7,000 miles, two continents, and an ocean away from Jerusalem. This is from the Popol Vuh codex, one of only a few Mayan (yes, I said Mayan) writings to escape burning at the torches of the Roman Church.

220154-apocalyptic-and-post-apocalyptic-fiction-ragnark

Ragnarök

From the Popol Vuh to perhaps the opposite end of the historical spectrum in something like the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarök–the end of all things in the Norse sagas called the Eddas (poetic and prose)–people otherwise completely unassociated with the world of the Bible (except remotely through Noah) have remarkably parallel stories that tell of origins and endings of the world. This is something altogether different from what we saw in the post on ANE literature, which the biblical authors sometimes incorporated into their own polemics.

While some use these similarities to discount the Scripture, this is anything but a necessary conclusion. Curiously, it was these similarities combined with the fact that the Bible purports to tell the demonstrable history of a God-man rising from the dead that was the final nail in C. S. Lewis’ atheistic coffin.[2] He says we should expect the similarities, while also expecting to see the fullness or finality come to pass in reality, which is exactly what Scripture tells us. In this way, read and understood in the context of Scripture illuminating the truth, This type of literature can actually be used as a kind of apologetic to help people understand the truth, much like Paul does when quoting Greek poets to the Athenians.[3] You have heard of the unknown God. Now, let me tell you about him…

In Part 2 of this post, Nick will add some thoughts as together we give a few more ideas on reading world literature and wrap up the series.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2003), 58-62.  Available online: http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf

[2] See the important and fascinating essay by C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” republished by Samizdat University Press, 2014. http://www.samizdat.qc.ca/arts/lit/Theology=Poetry_CSL.pdf, last accessed 3-23-2015.

[3] Thanks to Kathy in my church for sending me this timely link. Daniel Foucachon, “Plundering the Egyptians,” Classical Conversations: Classical Christian Community, https://www.classicalconversations.com/article/plundering-eqyptians, last accessed 2-24-2015.