Challenges to Faith

One of the most seductive arguments against faith in God is the idea that faith is optional. This argument is usually offered by people who refuse to accept any ethical obligations. This argument is insidious because it is normally preceded by excuses for why God does not exist or the church is unattractive or just plain obstinance. What matters is not the excuse given but rather the motivation—laziness, self-centeredness, and the like. The Apostle Paul had little time for such people and simply advised the Thessalonian church: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) However, since few people accept Paul’s admonition today without qualms, let us examine the arguments.

The first inference, that faith is optional, ignores the problem of idolatry and is simply counter-factual, from a scientific perspective. Let me turn issue to each issue in turn. Then, let me address the usual excuses.

If we treat faith as optional, we frequently fall into idolatry. The problem of idolatry today has less to do with worshiping statues of pagan gods than with misplaced priorities. We commit idolatry whenever we place anything other than God as the number one priority in our lives and it is a sin because it breaks the First Commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3). The sin of idolatry is often taken lightly, but this a mistake because idolatry is life threatening.

To see the threat posed by idolatry, consider what happens when alternatives to God become our number one priority. Common today, for example, is to place work as the number one priority in our life. What happens then when we lose our job or our ability to work? Americans, particularly men, are prone to depression and suicide when a job is lost and cannot be replaced for whatever reason.[1] People who cannot work, like the mentally disabled, the young, the old, the uneducated, are treated badly. When we neglect our faith in God, we end up committing idolatry, which threatens our self-esteem and our relationship with people we should care for.

If we treat faith as optional, we also fail to understand how faith undergirds modern science. Knowledge based on the scientific method follows a distinct method for testing knowledge’s veracity. These steps are usually employed: a problem is defined, observations are taken, analysis is done, a decision rule is imposed, an action is taken, and responsibility is born (Johnson 1986, 15). The very first step in the scientific methods (problem definition) requires beginning with assumptions and a hypothesis. These assumptions are faith statements—no testing can be done without them. Faith is simply not optional.

The two most famous excuses for why many people believe that God does not exist were given by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (1927). Marx (1843) commented that: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” By contrast, Freud (1961, 30) characterized religion as an illusion, a kind of wish fulfillment. While both Marx and Freud can be considered authority figures, the thrust of their argument is not due to a lengthy scientific analysis, but is presented more as simple slander, acceptable primarily as an excuse for decisions reached for other reasons. If we take faith as necessary part of a rational decision process, then simple slander does not warrant further investigation because burden of proof lies with those advancing a particular argument to make their case, which in this case was not done.

As Christians in a postmodern context, we have inherited a worldview which is quite capable of interpreting the world as we know it. In fact, Western civilization is built on premises advanced from the Christian worldview. The question for those who advance criticism of that worldview, normally by picking on some of its assumptions (or disputing its ethical requirements), is not how can we accept those assumptions. Rather, because those assumptions form a coherence and ethically defensible system, the question is whether alternative assumption can be used to construct a better system.

For the most part, proposed postmodern alternatives to the Christian worldview, such as deconstructionism, refuse to accept the responsibility for benefiting everyone, preferring to focus on criticism without advancing alternative, morally-defensible systems. Others talk about rights, but not responsibilities, for their client groups. Either position is morally reprehensible leaving many people hopeless and abandoned. Yet, powerful groups have advanced such changes primarily to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

These challenges to faith are repeated daily in the media, in our schools, and in society, yet they lack merit as an alternative to faith and cause significant harm to many people through their promotion of idolatry and other sins that isolate people from God, from themselves, and even from the science that has brought humanity numerous benefits.

References

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The Future of an Illusion (Orig Pub 1927. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Marx, Karl. 1843. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. (Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people)

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] This observation is not hyperbole. The New York Times recently reported that suicide is now at a 30-year high point and the increase in suicide is greatest for men ages 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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Peterson Writes About His Life as a Pastor

the_pastor_review_03032017Eugene H. Peterson. 2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most dramatic appearances of God in the Bible comes in chapter 3 of Exodus when God appears to Moses in form of a burning bush. It is interesting to ask why God would appear in the form of a naturally occurring inkblot test. If the inkblots are properly prepared, they have no inherent structure so when a patient looks at them, the only structure seen is the structure imposed by the patient.[1] Is it any wonder that my kids, when they were small, used to confuse our pastor with Jesus? My kids are not the only ones; the inkblot image is a wonderful metaphor for how people today relate to their pastor and to God. The more enigmatic the pastor, the more fitting the inkblot image.[2]

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson captures this enigmatic character[3] when he writes:

“I can’t imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor; I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived, all kinds of things, seemingly random experiences and memories, gradually began to take a form that was congruent with who I was becoming, like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly—a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life, a vocation: Pastor.” (2)

Peterson see the pastor as a particularly talented observer, much like God took animals to Adam to see what he would call them (Gen 2:19), as he writes:

“A witness is never the center, but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the center—in this case, the action and revelation of God in all the operations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (6)

But, of course, naming is the creative act of a sovereign, not of a passive observer. For this reason, some theologians describe God as a Suzerain (King of Kings) and Adam as his Vassal (king), but Peterson would chide at the whole idea of being an authority figure, preferring the title of pastor, not “Reverend or Doctor or Minister” (2) even though he was all of these things.

Even if Peterson prefers business causal, he is not just causally present. He writes:

“Staying alert to these place and time conditions—this topos, this kairos—of my life as a pastor, turned out to be more demanding than I thought it would.” (8)

Peterson’s sensitive to matters of time and space comes as a surprise. As Christians, we think of God in terms of the omnis—omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent—all present, all knowing, and all powerful; but Christianity has no Mecca where we must worship or make a pilgrimage—God is not partial to a particular place and even Sabbath is not so much a day as a commitment to devote time to God. But for Peterson pastors must model themselves on God in his omnis in a sacramental sense:  For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6 ESV) And Christ did not die in some random place; he died conspicuously—in front of the whole world—in Jerusalem. Therefore, Peterson cautions that “the life of faith cannot be lived in general or by abstractions.” (12)

Do you get the idea that Peterson chooses his words carefully?

Peterson’s idea of the pastor call is wrapped up in a peculiar package. He describes a dog wandering around marking his territory in a manner that appears haphazardly to a human observer, but no doubt makes perfect sense to the dog. He then writes:

“Something like that is the way pastor feels to me. Pastor: not something added on to or imposed on who I am; it was there all along. But it was not linear—no straight-line development.” (26)

This sort of explanation, which is potentially quite demeaning, describes an image of the pastor as a Myers-Briggs personality type of ESFP:

“Outgoing, friendly, and accepting. Exuberant lovers of life, people, and material comforts. Enjoy working with others to make things happen. Bring common sense and a realistic approach to their work, and make work fun. Flexible and spontaneous, adapt readily to new people and environments. Learn best by trying a new skill with other people.” [4]

This postmodern concept of a pastor leaves me wondering what would happen if Martin Luther or John Calvin were to come before an ordination committee today? While I know that Peterson’s pastor has great appeal today, I am not sure that Peterson intended his vision of the pastor to be normative, as it has become.

One of the attractive things about Peterson to me as I read this book in seminary was that he had been a church planter. At a time when organized churches seem to be wandering off the rails, God’s presence appears most conspicuously in new churches that have yet to be coopted by our culture. Peterson writes about an old rabbinic story:

“Shekinah is Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light-disseminating presence bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be—a place…God’s personal presence—and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory.” (100-101).

I can relate to this Shekinah image, having worshipped in so many different places, in so many different styles of music (or none at all), and in so many different languages.

Peterson’s final chapters begin with a story of a visit to a monastery where the cemetery was always prepared for the next funeral, having an open grave as a reminder (289). This is fitting end because Christianity is the only religion that began in a cemetery (Matt 28:1-7).  Citing Karl Barth, Peterson reminds us: “Only where graves are is there resurrection.” (290).

I have tried several times to review Eugene Peterson’s book, The Pastor, and flinched at the task, not knowing where to begin. Having written my own memoir, however, during the past year, his book started to make sense to me in spite of its nonlinearity. I think that I have read most of Peterson’s books, but this is a favorite, but do not ask me why. Still, I am sure that most pastors and seminary students will share my love for this book.

[1] What does Moses see? Moses sees God commanding him to return to Egypt and ask Pharaoh to release the people of Israel, something that had been on his heart for about 40 years (Exod 2:11-12; 3:10).

[2] This is at the heart of the psychiatric image of God and counseling model of the pastor. People have a lot of trouble with the transcendence of God. They do not want to be “fathered” with conditional love, they wanted to be “mothered” with unconditional love. For this reason, the postmodern image of God is more of a grandparent than a parent and people chide at the ideal that God is a father that actually requires anything at all of us. The code language normally used is to say that a pastor should be a “patient, non-anxious presence.”

[3] If you think that I am the only one to see an inkblot here, meditate a few minutes on Peterson’s book cover.

[4] http://www.MyersBriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics.

 

 

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Prayer Dialogue

Oh dear Lord:

Hear me; answer my prayer; righteous God whom I follow; for you have rescued me from suffering; be even more gracious and listen to my prayer again.

I hear you, but how long must I endure your shaming me? How long oh righteous blowhard will you prefer lies to my word? For I have set my people apart from all this and hear them when they pray.

Do not sin when you get mad; reflect quietly on your actions; trust me and worship truthfully.

Do not listen to those that wait on miracles and wait for me to bless and lead you in every step.

Oh Lord, you fill my life with joy more than banquets and fine wine.

For in you, my mind is at rest; I am at ease and can sleep knowing that I am safe.

In Jesus name, Amen.

Taken from Psalm 4

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Importance of Meta-Narrative

simplefaith_web_01172017A meta-narrative is a grand story which contains and explains the other stories that we observe. The meta-narrative of scripture, for example, is often described as a three-act play: creation, fall, and redemption.[1] Continuing the analogy to the theatrical model, Vanhoozer (2016, 98) argues for five acts:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev).

Other authors describe the meta-narrative of scripture in terms of covenants, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, which provide insight into our relationship with God.[2] Each of these frameworks have a slightly different focus, but all serve to offer meaning within the narrative of scripture to the relationship between God and his creation.

The Book of Genesis begins with a picture of a creator God whose sovereignty rests on the act of creation and who creates us in his image as heirs to this created kingdom. Describing God as creator implies that he transcends creation where transcendence implies standing apart from (different than) and above (sovereign over) creation. This act of creation implies love because God allows creation to continue existing after the fall and even promises redemption (Gen 3:15).

This picture of a sovereign God is key to understanding both God’s role in our lives and who we are, especially in the postmodern age because God’s sovereignty depends on God transcending our own little personal worlds. When faith is viewed as a private, personal preference rather than as acknowledgment of our own place in the meta-narrative of scripture, then all meaning is lost. If God is not longer transcendent, God is also no longer sovereign. As the Apostle Paul writes: “And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead by a transcendent God], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14 ESV) Jesus’ resurrection validates God’s transcendence; if you do not believe in miracle of resurrection, then the rest of scripture is only of historical interest.

But you say—“that’s not true; we still worship God and still believe in his sovereignty.” Yes, but the words are hollow if Sunday morning worship serves only to jazz us up, but our Monday morning lives differ little from the atheist in the next cubical. If God is not transcendent, then he is also not immanent—not in our thinking, not in our daily lives. A Sunday morning god is no god at all.

This is not a new idea, as we saw above in the reference to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:14). More recently, Phillips (1997, 7) wrote:

“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.”

While in modern age weaknesses in our spirituality were exposed to public ridicule, as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (1939)[3] to find a white-haired, old man, during the postmodern age our modern institutions have begun to crumble as their Christian presuppositions have been removed and secular substitutions are found lacking. Modern institutions, such as the mega church, public schools, democracy, corporations, and professions, presume objective truth, personal discipline and integrity, and human rights—products of the Christian meta-narrative—and function poorly, if at all, in the absence of that narrative.[4]

In this sense, the postmodern age is in the middle of a transition when our culture no longer looks to our past to find meaning and a new age has yet to emerge on the horizon, giving our time an end-time feel. To use an Old Testament analogy, we find ourselves wandering in the desert having left Egypt, but not yet having entered the Promised Land.[5] The Good News is, however, that it is in the desert where the people of Israel truly came to know, experience, and rely on God.[6]

References

Bridges, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Phillips, John Bertram. 1997. Your God is Too Small (Orig Pub 1953). New York: Simon & Schuster; A Touchstone Book.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] For example, see: (Wolters 2005).

[2] For example, see (Hahn 2009).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939_film).

[4] Secular values are a poor substitute for a Christian character, in part, because they are lightly held, not deeply ingrained. It is like comparing a foundation of sand with one of stone when building a house on a floodplain (Matt 7:24-29). Jesus’ insight into housebuilding may sound cheeky, but secular society deifies the individual, which makes sense only in dealing with adversities that an individual can deal with. Once adversity grows to overwhelm the entire society, individual rights and problem-solving are ignored and irrelevant—only a society unified under God can withstand such a challenge. The image of an ant shaking a fist at a shoe comes to mind; united as an army of ants, however, the wise foot will forebear to crush the ant.

[5] Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

[6] As God tells Moses: “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod 7:16) In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this paradox of blessing through adversity must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16) After all, the entire sacramental system of the ancient world implicitly associated blessing with bigger sacrifices that only the wealthy could offer. And, of course, the wealthy were not inclined towards experiencing adversity!

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Vanhoozer Confronts Dualism Dramatically. Part 2

vanhoozer_review_02162017Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.  (Goto part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Vanhoozer’s uses the theatrical model to show that faith and action can be taught together in a way that teaches faithful balance of the two. In my own writing, I have argued that music is a spiritual disciple because in music thinking and feeling (proxies for mind and body) cannot be separated (Hiemstra 2014, 150-152). The theatrical model is, however, stronger because faith and action are inseparable on stage as in life.

Throughout church history Esau has been denigrated because he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew (Gen 26:33), but we are little different. Citing Alan Wolfe (2003), Vanhoozer writes:

“Evangelical churches lack doctrine because they want to attract new members. Mainline churches lack doctrine because they want to hold on to those declining numbers of members they have.” (54)

Our birthright as Protestants according to Vanhoozer is solo scriptura (55). If, as Vanhoozer describes it, “the church is a theater of the gospel in which disciples stage previews of the coming kingdom of God” (59), how are they to be faithful actors if they do not know their lines? Vanhoozer argues that the crisis of doctrine is, in fact, a crisis of authenticity—the actors no longer learn their lines.

What is so fascinating in this metaphor of the theoretical model is that this crisis of authenticity arises because we have lost a sense of who we are as Christians. Vanhoozer writes:

“What we have on the world stage, then, are various kinds of beings presenting themselves to one another by acting out their existence and essence (i.e. that they are and what they are).” (67)

In other words, a tomato communicates that it is not a banana by what it is and would just look silly trying on stage to act as if it were a banana. In much the same way, Christians who do not know God deeply through their reading of scripture and adherence to doctrine cannot convincingly display the gospel. Consequently, Christianity lite experiences a crisis of authenticity much like a tomato pretending to be a banana.[1]

Inasmuch as this is merely the motivation for Vanhoozer’s exploration of the theatrical model, it should be obvious that this book is not a light read. Basic doctrines of the church are examined in light of the theatrical model. One such examination takes the form of a question: if the gospel is drama, what kind of a drama is it?

Vanhoozer argues that the gospel is obviously not a tragedy because in tragedy the hero “is no match for hostile gods or impassive Fate, yet nevertheless displays courage in the face of impossible odds.” The gospel is no tragedy because Christ’s life is not taken but freely given, as we witness in the Garden of Gethsemane. He argues that the gospel is rather a comedy, which “is the tendency to bring the proud down a notch, though in a kinder, gentler fashion than tragedy”. Furthermore, “tragedy begins well but ends badly; comedy begins with a complication but ends well”. (94) It is always good for actors to know what kind of drama they are acting in!

Another attribute of a drama which is important to know is how many acts take place. (95) The expected answer is three: creation, fall, and redemption.[2] Vanhoozer argues for five:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)

Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)

Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)

Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)

Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev) (98).

The theatrical model aids in making this selection because the turning points in the drama signal something dramatic is happening. For example, the creation and fall normally make up two of the three acts, but both fall in the first three chapters of Genesis which lumps acts 2-5 into a single act (redemption), missing a lot of the drama of scripture. Vanhoozer sees the fall simply as part of the conflict within Act 1, much like conflict which exists in the other 4 Acts (98).

Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Faith Speaking Understanding is a deeply theological text which employs the theatrical model to illustrate and extend our understanding of the Bible and discipleship. Critiques of the theatrical model can be found in the appendix. Seminary students and pastors are the intended audience, but others wanting to delve deeply into their faith will find it fascinating.

For reviews of other books by Vanhoozer, see the list of references below.

References

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014. A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (3-part review: Vanhoozer:  How Do We Understand the Bible? http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yq, http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yw, http://wp.me/p3Xeut-YB)

Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. 2005. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. and Owen Strachan. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review: VanHoozer and Strachan Argue Case for Pastor-Theologian; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1us)

Wolfe, Alan. 2003. The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith. New York: Free Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] What are God’s “essential dispositions”? Vanhoozer (67) cites: “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,’” (Exod 34:6 ESV) This is the Bible’s explanation of what it means to be created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). See the sermon that I preached for my daughter’s wedding. (Living into the Image; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1zD).

[2] See, for example: (Wolters 2005).

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Prayer of Rememberance

Blessed Lord Jesus,

We praise you for remembering us—

in our celebrations and joy,

in our loneliness and fear,

in spite of who we are or were or will ever be.

We confess that we forget you—

when things go well,

when pain becomes overwhelming,

when we ought to know better and do not.

We give thanks for Easter—

a time of resurrection, new life, and abundant possibilities,

a time when we know that we are not alone and are loved,

a time that begins a period of waiting for your Holy Spirit.

We ask for eyes that see and ears that hear—

that we might participate in your new life,

that the waiting may come to an end,

that we might transcend life constrained to the here and now

and see the Father in you. Amen.

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The Christian Memoir

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Christian Memoir

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Memoir talk scheduled for Sunday, March 19, 2017, at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia (www.Lewinsville.org) in the Chapel following the 11 a.m. worship service. All are welcome.

Introduction

A memoir is an autobiography with a theme.[1] A Christian memoir is an autobiography with a focus on God’s role in our own character development, which requires both the passage of time and reflection. The Christian memoir communicates the Christian walk effectively because, like Jesus’ own use of parables, we remember stories better than other forms of communication.[2]

Some philosophers believe that Western Civilization, for example, began with a Christian memoir, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, which related the prayers of his mother to his confession of sexual sin, and conversion to Christ. Augustine’s biographer, Peter Brown writes:

“The Confessions…is not a book of reminiscences. They are an anxious turning to the past. The note of urgency is unmistakable. Allow me, I beseech You, grant me to wind round and round in my present memory the spirals of my errors…

It is also a poignant book. In it, one constantly senses the tension between the ‘then’ of the young man and the ‘now’ of the bishop.” (Brown 2000, 157)

Do you feel the theological strain here? The New Testament has been described as both the breaking out of the Kingdom of God (already) with the cross and resurrection and yet the unresolved spiritual warfare of the current age (not yet). This tension between the “already” in Christ and the “not yet” of our human sinfulness occurs, not only in the New Testament, but also in our own faith journeys. Christian memoir is therefore painful not only because we must relive our past but also deal with this spiritual tension.[3]

The Spiritual Discipline of Writing

Part of the need for distance arises because pain forms our character more radically than pleasure. With each pain in life, small or large, we are confronted with a decision—do we turn into our pain to throw a pity party or do we turn to God to give it over to Him? In a real sense, our characters are formed by these “Gethsemane moments” as we journey through life (e.g. Matt 26:39).

Questions that might be asked to help expose our Gethsemane moments include:

  • What were the important milestones in your faith journey? (e. g. Jos 4:1-7)
  • Who were your most important mentors in the faith? (e.g. Luke 24:25-31)
  • What faith stories were especially meaningful to you? (e.g. Exod 12:17)
  • When was God’s presence especially obvious? (e. g. John 8:28; Blackaby 2002)

Writing a memoir helps this process of reflection, which makes it an important spiritual discipline.

If writing is in general a spiritual discipline, writing memoir is especially challenging. In preparing my own memoir, mechanically, I mapped out the different stages of my life into an outline and then looked for key challenges during the stages. This process parallels the Greek distinction between chronos time (the stages) and kairos time (the challenges). Reflecting on these challenges turns up raw, unprocessed emotions, which can hijack the whole effort. Part of the incentive for writing was to lay claim to my past and to work through those emotions. Still, not everyone is so adventurous and willing to spend their spare time reliving their Gethsemane moments.

It is worth pointing out that while my own memoir, Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir, is a call story, a call story is a special type of Christian memoir which focuses on vocation (e.g. Acts 9:4-6). But memoir need not focus on vocation and the vocation need not be pastoral ministry. We are all called to faith (Mark 10:49) and we are all called to different vocations, which may be only for a season. Thus, not all Christian memoirs are call stories.

Recognizing Important Stories

The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1976) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis; yet, under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing, which allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance (Rosen 1982).

Savage (1998) writes about using stories to identify emotional content in the context of pastoral visits. Savage cites five classes of stories as particularly helpful to recognize:

  1. Reinvestment stories where our loyalties change dramatically, as in switching careers.
  2. Rehearsal stories where events from the past have current meaning, such as Bible narratives.
  3. “I know someone who” stories which oftentimes mask the true storyteller.
  4. Anniversary stories which occur regularly at a particular calendar time, such as Christmas.
  5. Transition stories which are three part stories, such as a trip to the hospital (why, what happened, and what comes next) (Savage 1998, 95).

Savage makes the point that we cannot help but tell our stories. It is particularly interesting when you catch yourself telling a story, perhaps one that you have told for years, and suddenly realize that that story captures a painful experience that you had either forgotten or suppressed.

Motivation to Write

Identifying the stories that people tell points to the motivational content of their communication and allows the pastor to relate to them on a deeper level. This is why storytelling is important in pastoral ministry and it helps explain why Christian memoir provides especially poignant witness.

Consequently, the current need to write Christian memoirs arises not only from our desire to claim our own history, but also to witness to our children and grandchildren. For many of us, it has been painful in this generation to watch our children fall away from the faith. While historically children would fall away from the church during their single years and return when they have children, this pattern has been broken in the millennial generation (Kinnaman 2011). Still, as Christians we know that the stresses of life invariably lead us back to God, we do not know when that will occur. Consequently, a Christian memoir could serve as a trail of crumbs for our kids to follow their own way home in Christ after our own passing.

Mechanics of Writing

Earlier I made reference to the mechanical process of writing, which for me has been rather lengthy. Even before I started my own memoir, I assisted my father in publishing his, which served to help me understand my own history better (Hiemstra 2016). I started out with a chronological outline of the stages of my life: childhood, youth, young adult, college, graduate school, places worked, and so on (Peace 1998). Then, I looked for important points in my character development and difficult transitions which I then ordered with my outline. I then blogged this outline writing a reflection each week on Friday from January 1, 2016 through February 2017.

The actual writing was finished in November 2016 and I finished my first edit in December. An important task in the first edit was to bring each of my reflections up the standard of writing that evolved over the course of the year. In particular, Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace had an important influence on my writing style mid-year and I needed to go back to earlier reflections and re-write them to incorporate the insights learned.

In the second edit in January 2017, I organized my draft into four parts,[4] still roughly chronical but focused on my faith transitions: coming to faith, consolidation of faith, realization of call, and beginning of seminary. These four parts highlighted the theme of my memoir—the call to ministry—and, in doing so, it became obvious that I left out several important stories, which then had to be written.

Note on Writing Styles

While autobiography tends to focus on reminiscences, Christian memoir focuses on divine encounters, which may be told in the first person or through narratives about the people and events that help stage them. For someone who has been a technical writer for most of his life, I found books on writing fiction most helpful in drawing out the most important events and influences on my life.

Fiction writers are experts in observing character and character change, and they often write with an indirect style, where character is revealed through description or dialogue rather than naming emotions and perspectives.[5]  For this reason, I have included a number of references that were helpful in my own writing and thinking.

Footnotes

 [1] (Silverman 2009). Also see: (Karr 2015).

[2] Sachs (2012) talks about this point a great length. King (2012) writes some of scariest horror stories and talks about his own life and craft.

[3] Spiritual tension was a theme in my last book, Life in Tension (Hiemstra 2016b).

[4] Warren (2016) sees fiction written best as a four-act play. I applied her framework to my own story and realized that I had left out stories from my past that were key to my development but which I simply did not understand the significance of.

[5] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

[4] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

References

(Many of these books are reviewed on T2Pneuma.net)

Angelou, Maya. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books. (Review)

Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 398). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguine Books. (Review)

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf.

Blackaby. Henry and Richard.  2002. Hearing God’s Voice. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016a. My Travel Through Life: Memoir of Family Life and Federal Service. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2016b. Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Karr, Mary. 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

King, Stephen.  2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.  Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Kress, Nancy. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Lee, John E. Jr. 2014. Born Rich: In a Time That is Gone Forever. Aliceville, Alabama.

Peace, Richard. 1998. Spiritual Autobiography: Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Rosen, Sidney. 1982. My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Silverman, Sue William. 2009. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Warren, Susan May. 2016. The Story Equation. Minneapolis: My Book Therapy.

Williams, Joseph M.  2003. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

 

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Vanhoozer Confronts Dualism Dramatically. Part 1

vanhoozer_review_02162017Kevin, J. Vanhoozer. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most pernicious heresies in the church of our time is old fashioned Greek dualism which separates faith and action. This dichotomous thinking, however, is inconsistent with the biblical understanding where faith and action are inseparable. Jesus and his half-brother, James, both rail against hypocrisy, defined as a separation of faith and action.[1]

In his book, Faith Speaking Understanding, Kevin Vanhoozer argues for a new look at the theatrical understanding of faith and action because Christians must both speak and do “Christian” in pursuing authentic discipleship (19). The theater provides an interesting way to live out the doctrine of the church because an actor must not only speak a part but also act it out which may at first seem unnatural but with practice may become instinctive, like learning to ride a bicycle or swim. Like a good actor will focus not on displaying an emotion, but really feeling it, the good Christian must put on the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).

Vanhoozer uniquely emphasizes the role of sound doctrine in discipleship. Like a good actor must learn his lines, doctrine guides discipleship and avoids the trap of adopting a “performance mentality”. Sound doctrine is part of teaching people how to keep the faith and applying doctrine (or theology) to their daily lives (xiii-xiv). They learn by applying this doctrine in life, hence the special need to act it out.

Vanhoozer sees scriptural interpretation playing a key role in theology. He writes:

“To be a follower of Christ is to be a follower of Scripture in all three senses of ‘follow’:

  1. To understand the meaning of what Christ says in Scripture,
  2. To respond to his instructions with obedience, and
  3. To go after Christ or along ‘the way’ of Christ”. (1)

He sees the history of the church as virtually the same thing as the history of biblical interpretation (2).

Vanhoozer describes his book with 9 “It is about” statements. It is about (1) being biblical, (2) theology, (3) church doctrine, (4) the Gospel of Jesus Christ, (5) life, (6) the reign of God, (7) the church, (8) public theology, and (9) reality (4-9). He writes in two parts where the first part lays out his theater model and the second part offers a detailed proposal for how it should work (9-10).

The remainder of part 1 of this review will examine Vanhoozer’s theater model while part 2 will focus on the details of how it works.

Vanhoozer offers four reasons for merging doctrine and drama, two intrinsically difficult topics:

  1. The subject matter of the Bible is inherently theodramatic, saying what God has said and done in history.
  2. The language of the theater offers images and concepts to bridge the theory/practice dichotomy.
  3. The purpose of theology is to cultivate disciples where knowledge is static, but wisdom—lived knowledge—is dynamic and dramatic.
  4. Every Christian has a role to play (20-21)

This last point is critical. The uniqueness of the church as a theater is that the audience is invited into the play and helps to determine how the performance is played out. Vanhoozer writes:

“disciples obey the truth and the gospel when they take hold of what they behold and let the drama of the Christ serve as the metanarrative or control story of their own lives.” (40)

In other words, in this drama spectators do not remain spectators. And doctrine allows “disciples to fill empty spaces and empty moments with redemptive speech and action.” (47)

Kevin Vanhoozer[2] is a Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Illinois. His degrees are from Westmont College (BA), Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv), Cambridge University, England (PhD). This book, Faith Speaking Understanding (2014), is designed as a more readable and pastoral version of an earlier book, The Drama of Doctrine (2005), which lays out a theological defense of the theater model.

For reviews of other books by Vanhoozer, see the list of references below.

References

Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (3-part review: Vanhoozer:  How Do We Understand the Bible? http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yq, http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Yw, http://wp.me/p3Xeut-YB)

Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. 2005. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. and Owen Strachan. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review: VanHoozer and Strachan Argue Case for Pastor-Theologian; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1us)

[1] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”  (Matt 23:25-26 ESV) and “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2:17 ESV)

[2] https://divinity.tiu.edu/academics/faculty/Kevin-Vanhoozer.

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The Christian Memoir and Self-Publishing

Stephen W. Hiemstra, 1983

The Christian Memoir and Self-Publishing

 
On Sunday, March 19th, 2017 author and publisher Stephen W. Hiemstra (PhD, MDiv) will talk about writing a Christian memoir and self-publishing after the 11 a.m. worship service at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church (www.Lewinsville.org) in the chapel. All are welcome. Refreshments will be served.
 
Mark your calendar and RSVP at T2Pneuma@gmail.com to receive a follow-up reminder before the talk with updated details. Information about Dr. Hiemstra’s publications can be found at: T2Pneuma.com.
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Spring Prayer

New Life
New Life

Blessed Lord Jesus,

We praise you for new life;

for not leaving us alone in sad graveyards of our sins and limitations;

for planting seeds in the soil of our hearts,

where daffodils can sprout and grow and flower unexpectedly

and we can participate in your resurrection.

We confess that we seldom look for you or welcome you into our busy lives;

seldom model your goodness to our neighbors;

seldom even try to avoid sin

and iniquity is our default setting.

Thank you for warm spring mornings,

when the sunshine reminds us that winter is not forever, strong winds remind us of your Holy Spirit, and

gentle rain reminds that you give life to all the earth.

Grant us strength for the day; grace for those we meet; and the peace that passes all understanding.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

 

 

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