Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Providential History

February 22, 2015

I am in the midst of writing a book-length journalistic history of Biblica, a 206-year-old organization. I won’t go into detail here—you’ll have to read the book—but suffice it to say that Biblica has gone through its highs and lows, its ins and outs, its days of triumph and unmitigated disaster. That’s probably true of any 200-year-old organization (there aren’t all that many) or for that matter any life.

My explicit purpose in writing this book is to tell the story truthfully but in such a way that a thread of purpose is revealed. That is to say, I am trying to marshal the facts in such a way that somebody who lived through them will recognize as accurate, while at least suggesting a note of redemption even in the catastrophes.

Some would look askance at the effort, as shamelessly manipulative. I grant you, it is not the same thing as an academic history, which ideally tells a story without fear or favor, as it were, and does not present God’s purpose except as an idea residing in someone’s brain. (Though even academic historians may look for themes to emerge from their telling of the story, and suggest what can be seen beyond the facts.)

But even granted that my purpose is a good one, it is not all that easy. Life is messy. Sometimes it appears to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The only thing I can prove is that Biblica survived its crises. Whether they had meaning, whether God was overseeing and protecting, and more importantly, how God was overseeing and protecting, I can only theorize cautiously and hopefully. It’s never absolutely clear. Sometimes you have to use considerable ingenuity to see some purpose in what happened.

I tell you this because it makes me think of an old and important question: whether there is such a thing as “providential history,” and whether Christian historians are obligated to write it. We have some very noteworthy historians who are Christians—George Marsden, to mention just one. But he, and many of his Christian colleagues, are sometimes assaulted by their fellow Christians for their failure to write “providentially” about subjects like Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. That is to say, they don’t attribute what happened to God. They focus on the mechanics of events, the human activities, rather than the divine purpose that lies behind them.

I’ve always sided with the historians on this one, mainly because I like to make up my own mind about what God was doing. Just the facts, ma’am. But now I find myself writing a sort-of providential history, and it feels very reasonable to me. I’ve concluded, tentatively, that there are two layers to history, and that it’s possible to write one or the other with perfect grace and integrity.

I get this from something important I learned while writing Miracles: everything is natural and supernatural at the same time. People desperately attempt to separate them, demanding to know, for example, “Did God heal that boy? Or did the doctors do it?” I learned that is not an either/or question. God is involved in everything that happens, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. When it’s obvious, and surprising, we call it a miracle. But God is no less involved at other times. (Yes, this does lead us to the problem of evil. What doesn’t?)

At the same time, even what we call miracle happens at a natural level. It happens to stuff, which is composed of particles, and the behavior of those particles is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific description and analysis.

So with history: it is at the same time both natural and supernatural.

Just as it is appropriate for scientists to describe the behavior of some organism without ascribing purpose to the organism, so it is appropriate for historians to write “just the facts,” without bringing God into it. On the other hand, there is a place for writing history through the eyes of faith. This kind of history will always be tentative, for the only fully trustworthy providential history is in the Bible. (That is, it is for those like me who believe the Bible is inspired by God.) But those who bring faith to the facts may venture hypotheses about what makes sense of the facts. (That is how Hebrews 11:1 describes faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”) The ultimate point of history is surely to make some sense of what happened. We can as well try that using the idea of God’s care as any other.

This applies to making sense not just of history but of our own lives. The unexamined life is not worth living, someone said, and whether or not that is true, there is beauty and nobility (and inevitability?) in trying to see some sense in your personal history. Is there a pattern? Is there meaning? Those questions will always lead to the question of God, in the end: is there one? Does he care? Is he involved? And can we have any idea at all of what he would care about, and how he might be involved?

Malcolm Gladwell’s Faith

January 13, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the very best journalists writing today. I’ve followed him in The New Yorker for years. You may know his name from his books Blink, Tipping Point, Outliers, and David and Goliath. 

If he made reference to faith, I never noticed. Thus I was surprised and delighted to see this piece from Relevant.

Paul and Justice

February 19, 2013

In trying to understand the whole Bible as a story of justice, probably the hardest task for me is to integrate Paul. I have read him through Lutheran eyes for so long, with its two kingdoms mindset, that I tend to see only personal salvation.

Thinking about Paul’s own biography suggests that he did care deeply about justice. He treated the offering for the Jerusalem poor almost obsessively, putting his own life and ministry at stake to do it. Reconciliation, not just with God, but between different groups in society, was something he harped on as a fundamental of the gospel. He wrote extensively about the treatment of widows, a fundamental justice issue. Paul never considered salvation a private matter, any more than the resurrection was a private matter. He looked to see the whole cosmos redeemed.

His theology of justice is somewhat obscured by translation issues. The word usually translated “righteousness,” so prominent in his thinking, is closer to “justice” than to “personal rectitude.”

In addition, Jesus’ title as “Christ” has been understood in all sorts of exotic ways, but the Hebrew word, “Messiah,” clearly means king, with all the public justice implied by that term. Just try reading Paul’s letters substituting “justice” for “righteousness” and “King” for “Christ” and you will see that something more than personal salvation is at stake.

Of course, a wide understanding of justice, “God setting things right,” has to include personal salvation. We have to be set right. Yet there is more. Romans launches its grand theology with the words, “the righteousness of God is revealed,” and that righteousness–justice, covenant faithfulness–lies in God completing his plan begun with Abraham, to bless all the world through his chosen people.

Through this people, Paul believes, God is setting things right. He never tires of telling how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to that– the irruption of the “day of the Lord” into the very middle of history. Faith places us in the community of God’s people living “in the Messiah.” And the Holy Spirit, so central to Paul, enables us to become more than chosen–a people of shalom and justice.

This is not justice as some of us would expect to see it. For one thing, Paul doesn’t seem to see the Roman government as the fount of evil. Implicitly he attacks the pretensions of Caesar to be Lord, but (famously in Romans 13) he mainly sees the government as benign, at least potentially. Nor does Paul see slavery as an evil to be frontally attacked. Nor male patriarchy. He is not conventionally revolutionary at all.

Rather, his beliefs subvert slavery and patriarchy and (pretentious) government by focusing on something much more powerful and much more important. There is only one Lord to be worshiped, and no male and female, slave and free in his family. Paul works to build cells of Christians who are independent of Rome–radically disinterested–and an unthinkable mix of classes, religions and statuses. (The very thought of slave and free joining together as complete equals staggers the Roman mind.)

It is through such communities that Paul sees ultimate justice done. Just as God chose Israel to bring in his kingdom, so the Messiah, Israel’s true King, has chosen these bands to embody his rule. The day is coming for justice to be done in a complete renewal.

A believable story? Perhaps as believable as the assertion that Israel was chosen to bring blessings to the whole world, or that Jesus, though executed as a criminal, is that world’s true king. Perhaps as believable as the promise made to Abraham in his old age, that he and Sarah would have a son. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” So we too live by faith.


July 8, 2010

This morning my wife said to me, “Something is smelling in Chase’s room. I don’t know what, but something.”

I had no response, because I cannot smell like she can. Long ago I gave up arguing and realized that some people have more nose than others. If she smells it, she smells it. And she smells it “in Chase’s room.”

Chase is my married son who has not inhabited that room in nine years. His baseball pennants and posters are long gone. So: the space belongs to someone who is not there and no longer has any tangible connection to it; and it smells of something indefinable that I cannot detect.

I understand what she said. I believe it to be true. But I understand and believe on the basis of memory and trust. As is frequently so with other intangibles, such as love. Such as faithfulness. Such as God.

Memo to Myself

June 24, 2009

I’m starting this blog for two reasons. First and foremost, I need a place to work out my thoughts. Through most of my 35 years as a writer I’ve worked for magazines that gave me license to publish on whatever subject I found interesting. Lately I’ve found that less true, as my current editors at Christianity Today ( if you want to look up my writings in the archives) don’t necessarily think along the same lines I do. No fault to them.
I think by writing, and I need a place to express my thoughts without too many restrictions. So in this blog I will think out loud, working out my ideas on a wide variety of topics. That’s good for me. I hope it’s good for somebody else, too. I intend to explore faith, global Christianity, politics and economics, movies and books, marriage and sexuality, Africa, evangelicalism, science and faith, biblical theology, and Life. Broad enough for you?
Secondly, though I am an old guy and somewhat averse to the blogosphere, I recognize that this is where ideas are tested and explored today. I dislike the self-promotion and the lack of editorial judgment that characterize the web, but so what? It’s where the action is. I hope to be a part of the vast, formless conversation hosted by the world wide web.
This is a test. We’ll see how it goes. A year from now I want to sit back and evaluate whether anything worthwhile has happened on this blog. In the meantime, I intend to work at it, posting at least once a week and often more. I’d like it if you would join me.