This fall I will be interviewing the eminent, American historian, Jill Lepore of Harvard. I will interview Lepore on her book about Jane Franklin, sister of Ben.
Here is a recent interview with Professor Lepore (HT: John Fea):
This fall I will be interviewing the eminent, American historian, Jill Lepore of Harvard. I will interview Lepore on her book about Jane Franklin, sister of Ben.
Here is a recent interview with Professor Lepore (HT: John Fea):
My strong bias, really conviction, with the following interview I conducted. Here is part of my first question:
If push came to shove (as it sometimes does here in the U.S.), I would choose the book of Jeremiah as one of the most important for Americans to digest deeply.
The rest of the interview is here:
Here’s a snippet from my interview with Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh:
Moore: It’s become somewhat of a self-evident truth that early Christianity only appealed to the down and out. Is that accurate to the historical record?
Hurtado: For several decades now that old notion has been discredited among scholars of early Christianity. Studies of the people named and described in earliest Christian texts show that, right from the earliest years, they included craftsmen, merchants, and owners of businesses. Of course, there were also slaves and poor among believers. By at least the second century, there were also believers from upper levels of Roman society. That upward progress socially is likely part of what prompted pagan sophisticates such as Celsus to attack Christianity so vehemently.
The full interview is here:
On my active Amazon page you will find hundreds of my reviews and dozens of interviews on all types of subjects. Check it out!
Here is the link to my latest interview. Plenty to digest with all the political chaos.
Chris Armstrong is a historian who serves as the founding director of Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College.
The following interview centers around Armstrong’s terrific new book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C.S. Lewis.
Moore: Many will be surprised to see medieval and modern juxtaposed in such a favorable way. Shouldn’t we Protestants move past the superstitions of the Middle Ages?
Armstrong: Well, I just disagree with the premise. So let me answer this way: The superstitions we need to move past are our own modern ones. I take “superstition” to refer to any kind of magical thinking that makes connections between causes and effects where there is in fact no demonstrable connection. Just one example will have to do here: many still believe, against overwhelming evidence, that rational ideologies will work better than traditional arrangements in the realm of statecraft.
What else can we call this but superstition or magical thinking, when this principle of rational ideology has resulted in 20 million killed in WWI, 65-80 million killed in WWII—including upwards of a quarter of a million annihilated by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—plus possibly as many as 85M – 100M killed under the Communists’ attempt to rationalize national life? This is just an extreme example of the case made by James Davison Hunter, that the belief that all our public problems will be solved when the right ideas are accepted and acted upon through political process is not Christian and it is not even truly rational—however much we (modern American Christians) want it to be. This, too, is an instance of magical thinking or “superstition.” It is a belief that does not comport with reality.
Now, were there abominable crusades, inquisitions, and thumbscrews in the Middle Ages—an era which believed that our ultimate answers are to be found not in rationalist political ideologies but in the revelations of an invisible God who came to earth as a human and lived and then died and then lived again? Certainly. Did those sinful errors of a society attempting to “live unto God” cause devastation on anything like the scale of modern superstitions such as those named above? No – not even close. And at the same time, the Middle Ages birthed the hospital and all its associated modes of medical charity; the university and its institutionalized pursuit not only of knowledge but of wisdom for living; the framework of what would become the scientific revolution (by individual believers studying to “think God’s thoughts after him”), and so much more that has blessed us even up to this minute.
Nobody’s hands are clean here, but when “superstition” caused more devastation in the hundred years between 1900 and 2000 AD than in the thousand years between 500 and 1500 AD, then perhaps it’s time to go back and study the light of wisdom enjoyed in that supposed “Dark Age.” I would even put it this way: the only reason we haven’t complete destroyed ourselves as a species is that we’re still living on the fumes of medieval wisdom.
Moore: Your book is permeated with the works and insights of C.S. Lewis. When did Lewis become such a formative figure for you? Would you mention a few of the ways his writings have been most influential?
Armstrong: I’ve known Lewis’s fictional works since I was small – my theologian father read them out loud at the table to me and my younger brothers, along with Tolkien, George MacDonald, and many others. His Perelandra deeply impacted my imagination as a young man, and when I became a Christian in my twenties, his Screwtape Letters balanced some of the wilder theories about demons in my charismatic church with the deeper and more insidious workings of our Enemy (his insight that the devil works as much by keeping things out of our minds as by putting things in by whispering in our ears is an important one).
But it was pulling the thread of his medieval understandings that led me into the depths of Lewis’s more explicitly theological and spiritual writings. I’ve found spiritual works such as Letters to Malcolm, Reflections on the Psalms, and A Grief Observed – along with his letters of spiritual advice – to be nourishing for my own spiritual life.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that the primary reason we find Lewis so illuminating for our faith and life today is not that he is a theological genius or a literary master (I actually don’t think either of these thing is true). It is that he made himself a channel of traditional Christian wisdom – a kind of living repository and transmitter of the tradition.
Moore: We Evangelicals seem to think spirituality mostly means non-material. What kinds of things can we learn from the medieval age about the tactile nature of Christian growth?
Armstrong: There are two ways modern Christians tend to approach living in our bodily, material reality. One might call these the super-spiritual and the materialist ways. They are in some senses opposite, but we fall for both of them. The super-spiritual way is to see spiritual things as higher and better and more important than material things, and therefore to find all our life’s value in what we see as the spiritual realm. In this mode, we understand Sunday worship to be a holy time, where we connect with God in all his truth, beauty, and goodness. But the ordinary, Monday-through-Saturday world in which we live as parents and workers and neighbors—we can find very little meaning or value there.
The materialist way is the way in which we live largely for material pleasures and material accumulation. We may not seriously believe that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But we are quite capable of working long hours to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, while falling into subtle idolatry of our suburban lifestyles, and our regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. Oddly enough, this materialism devalues the material world just as much as the gnostic approach. Because, as Augustine taught (and he was the premier theologian for the entire medieval period), when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.
The medieval way stands against both of these: Its sacramental approach to the material world understands both that material stuff is not evil and meaningless, and that it is not our ultimate end and fulfilment. Instead, the material has the glorious function of pointing us to the spiritual – to God. God meets us in nature, community, work, art, science. So to live authentically as Christians, we must live in our bodies and our worlds gratefully and with wonder and openness to God working in the midst of it all. This is sacramentalism. And on this point, as on so many others, we may find real help in medieval faith.
Moore: Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory lays much blame at the feet of the Protestant Reformers for things today like our rabid individualism. To what extent, if any, would you agree with him?
Armstrong: I don’t go all the way with this argument, but I will say this: I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that the Protestant suspicion of tradition inserted a theological and ecclesiastical crowbar between revelation and community. And that led straight to the radical Enlightenment’s insistence that if we want to know who we are, who God is, and how we can live well in God, our only reliable guides are our own individual reason and experience. If that is really true, then we must believe only what our individual reason and experience teach us, and never the wisdom of our own community, or the wisdom handed down through past communities (which is what the word “tradition” means).
What modern, Enlightenment-influenced Christians don’t fully grasp is that if they really believe that, they must now dismiss not only such “medieval” doctrines as the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the atonement of the God-man for our sins, but also the entire canon of Scripture. For that canon was both formed and passed down in and through human community—as led (the church has always believed) by the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would come after he left, to “guide us into all the truth.” The ball of individualism did indeed start rolling in the Reformation, and now it’s crushing all in its wake. We’ve even reached the point where evangelical seminaries figure they can do without a full-time faculty member in church history to help future ministers connect their people to the Christian past! (No, no personal bitterness or bias here!) And conservative evangelical radio personalities seriously argue that if you read church history or study the tradition, you are endangering your salvation (seriously, I’ve heard it).
Moore: You helpfully correct several misunderstandings Christians have today. One in particular for us Protestant Evangelicals is the important role of the Church’s tradition. Unpack that a bit for us.
Armstrong: I think I’ve just started to answer that, but I’ll add this:
In the book I treat this whole question of evangelical anti-traditionalism with more nuance than I can do here – but I sum up my argument in the term “immediatism.” By “immediatism,” I mean that evangelicals have long believed that the only thing that really matters to us as Christians, in the end, is that each of us can go directly, individually, to the throne of God. Because the ultimate arbiter and authority in our religion is the reasoning of our own individual minds and the experiencing of our own individual hearts, we believe we don’t need time-honored liturgies, doctrinal statements, or church polities or disciplines. We believe we don’t need to read past theologians to interpret and understand the truths God communicates to us in Scripture.
If we had time, we could talk about how unlike the church of the first 1800 or so years – really, including the earliest Protestant churches too – this modern “immediatism” is. But let me cut to the chase: if we are to live well as humans in relationship with God and each other, then we simply do need communal wisdom, both modern and traditional. For we are irreducibly social creatures whom God meets in an irreducibly social way.
From infancy, we are helpless without the love and nurture of others. A human child cannot survive as recognizably human without community (viz: feral children and the Tarzan story). And when God (who is himself a Trinity – a community) wanted to show himself to us, he did not do so through a mere communication of rules and principles to be understood and practiced through individual reason applied by individual will, nor through a mere mysticism to be experienced in the cloister of our hearts and savored in private. He did so through a relationship with generation upon generation of people-in-community – first, as the invisible God in special covenant relationship with the community of the ancient Israelites, and then as the visible God who became Immanuel, the Incarnate, embodied One—living and healing and teaching among the community of first-century Judea, sharing every inch of their humanity.
Thus the kind of individualistic religion we practice in the evangelical movement is inconsistent with the very nature of revelation – the kind of communal God-experience and God-understanding that the Old and New Testaments describe, and the ways that that communal God-experience has been handed down and studied and lived ever since. We are communal beings, and therefore God does business with us through community – and when the community transmits that God-experience and God-understanding from generation to generation, we call that “tradition.”
Moore: What are three things you hope your readers take from your book?
Armstrong: Alright, I’ve been going on too long in answering your other questions, so I’ll be brief here:
There, how’s that?
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Some of the research for this new book was conducted while a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.
This interview revolves around Larsen’s latest book, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith http://www.amazon.com/Slain-God-Anthropologists-Christian-Faith/dp/0199657874
Moore: This is a rather unusual area of study. What led you to write an entire book on it?
Larsen: My whole scholarly life I have been interested in the collision between modern thought and historic, orthodox, Christian beliefs. A lot of these tensions have been explored over and over and over again by scholars: Christianity and Darwinism, Christianity and Marxism, Christianity and Freudian theories, Christianity and modern biblical criticism, and so on and on. When I read the letters and self-reflections of people in the second half of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, however, what I noticed repeatedly was them mentioning the writings of anthropologists as unsettling to faith. This was a major theme in the primary sources, in the historical record. What had anthropologists discovered or theorized that seemed incompatible with Christian thought? I wondered. When I tried to find a written explanation for this, I instead learned that no scholar had made a sustained attempt to try to map this terrain as of yet, so I decided I would have a go at it myself.
Moore: When does the discipline of anthropology as we think of it today begin?
Larsen: In the second half of the nineteenth century. E. B. Tylor, who is often considered the founder of the discipline, published an early seminal work, Primitive Culture, in 1871, and was appointed to the first university position in anthropology (at the University of Oxford) in 1884. Franz Boaz, who is considered the founder of the discipline in the United States, received his first university appointment in 1899 (at Columbia University). During the World War I era, Bronislaw Malinowski pioneered the expectation of intensive fieldwork.
Moore: You write that Edward Tylor “could not find a way to think anthropologically and as a Christian at the same time.” Why is that? What would you have told him if you had the chance?
Larsen: He was in the grip of a pretty smug, self-flattering, stadial way of thinking – with the three stages of human development being: savages, then barbarians, and then civilized people. He thought because “primitive” peoples were religious this somehow discredited faith as incompatible with being modern and civilized and scientific and so on.
I wish I could have explained to him that there is a lot more continuity in the human condition over time than he ever imagined – that so-called “savage” people were actually quite logical, scientific, and rational in ways he could not see, and that so-called modern people have other needs and thoughts and experiences and insights that do not fit into his procrustean assumptions about what is means to be a rationalistic, scientific, modern person.
Moore: The Christians at the college in Didsbury had a wonderful confidence that made them more than willing to engage skeptics like James George Frazer. How common was that among the Christian population during the late nineteenth century?
Larsen: What a great question!
This is one of the major misconceptions of evangelical and orthodox Christians in the nineteenth century – that they were somehow fearful of modern ideas and rejecting scientific and theoretical advances, that they were hostile and obscurantist. Some of that stereotype is just erroneous secularist propaganda and urban legends that have been transmuted into the public consciousness as “fact”. For example, you can read in major, premier, authoritative venues (a recent book by Yale University Press, for example, and articles in papers of record such as the New York Times) that Christians in the nineteenth century opposed the introduction of anesthetics for women in childbirth because Genesis supposedly dictates that this experience must be painful. Yet this is a completely false urban legend.
I defy anyone to find a single sermon by any minster of any denomination anywhere saying any such thing, let alone an article in a Christian magazine or other publication, let alone an official pronouncement by a denomination. There are many examples of this kind of thing.
Some of this misunderstanding comes from back-dating things that happened in the Fundamentalist movement beginning in the 1920s (which did have anti-intellectual, fearful, and obscurantist elements to it).
Late Victorian Christianity was actually quite open to and welcoming of new knowledge and scientific theories—even ones that were surprising given traditional Christian assumptions—and very confident that faith and science would cohere together in one, integrated worldview.
Moore: Mary Douglas is an utterly fascinating person. She was shrewd in the best sense of that word. Unpack her observation that “Debates which originate in quite mundane issues tend to become religious if they go on long enough.”
Larsen: Yes, yes, I feel like I have been inspired to become a better, braver scholar by reading about her life and work. She was so comfortable in her own skin as a leading intellectual who was also a conservative Christian! That particular quote has been picked up on by several anthropologists since I wrote the book and it haunts me as well.
What she means is that people who imagine that theology can be set aside, marginalized, or ignored in modern academic discussions are actually the ones being intellectually naïve. What intellectuals really care about are issues which go to the heart of the question of the nature of reality, of meaning, of ethics, of values – and these are all debates that are inherently bound up with theological content and reflections. Whenever you discuss anything (“Is it important to recycle plastics?” let’s say, “Or should I buy this new suit of clothes that I want?”), the more you discuss it without coming to a quick conclusion, the two sides of the question inevitably lead you back to a more fundamental value or sense of meaning or conviction or principle or proposition and this is heading you into the territory of religion.
Moore: What has been the response to your book from those within the academic world of anthropology?
Larsen: I am unbelievably, joyfully, relieved to say that it has been received very well. I say this because for at least a couple years while I was researching it I felt like an incompetent interloper, if not a complete fraud. I have never even taken an Anthropology 101 course! I had to learn the whole discipline from scratch just by reading, and reading, and reading. I was quite ready to be rebuked by professional anthropologists for not understanding the key theories in the discipline correctly and just not “getting it”. Instead, the contemporary anthropologists that I most admired, not least the ones who do not self-identify as Christians – including Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University and Joel Robbins at Cambridge University, as well as the former Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Jonathan Benthall (in the Times Literary Supplement! – I would count it a triumph to have my work abused in the TLS) – have received it so wonderfully warmly and appreciatively. There was a whole panel on the book at the annual meeting the American Anthropological Association, and I have been invited to speak on it at the major anthropology seminar at Oxford, at the London School of Economics (the very storied seminar that Malinowski founded), at Cambridge, at Northwestern University, and so on. It feels like dumb luck that I wrote this book at a time when the Anthropology of Christianity has suddenly become a hot subfield in the discipline. I am very, very grateful for how anthropologists have welcomed and received my work.
Moore: What kind of non-academic would profit from reading your book?
Larsen: Another surprisingly wonderful question. These things are a matter of taste, so I am willing to accept humbly if others see it differently, but I see myself as a narrative historian who works very hard to have a literary quality in my work akin to an author of fiction. Just like a short story writer uses a lot of details in description to build up a vivid, compelling portrait of an imagined character, so I have tried to do that with these historical characters. In other words, I think the lives I present in the book do work for the ordinary, intellectually curious reader who cares about the human condition and experience as lived up-close and in-detail. Buy it for your grandmother for Christmas!
Richard Bauckham is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and a fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is the author of many distinguished works. The following interview revolves around Professor Bauckham’s book, The Bible in the Contemporary World (http://www.amazon.com/The-Bible-Contemporary-World-Hermeneutical/dp/0802872239).
David George Moore conducted the interview. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: In the introduction you write that “biblical surprises should also be part of the Bible’s relevance to the contemporary world.” Would you unpack that a bit for us?
Bauckham: I meant that we should never feel too satisfied that we know what the Bible’s messages are and how they relate to the contemporary world. If we go on studying Scripture at the same time as we attend to what is happening in our world there will always be fresh insights.
Moore: Some continue to argue that Gnosticism is compatible with Christianity. It seems fairly obvious that this is not the case, so why do so many keep seeking to persuade us otherwise?
Bauckham: We live in a culture that values diversity and so I think the idea that early Christianity was more diverse than we thought is appealing. Moreover, the institutional church is not popular and so the idea of an early version of Christianity that was suppressed by the institutional church for political reasons also appeals. But Gnosticism is a slippery term. I think, for the sake of clarity, we should limit it to the view that the material world was created by an inferior and incompetent deity, identified with the God of the Old Testament, while the Father of Jesus Christ is an altogether different, supreme God. Jesus came from the Father with a message for the elect: that they do not belong in this world, in which they are trapped by their bodies and the hostile god of this world, and can escape to the kingdom of the Father. Gnosticism is anti-Jewish, anti-body, anti-matter.
Moore: It seems quite evident that British biblical scholars are generally more apt than their American counterparts to discuss the abuses of capitalism and the importance of stewarding the environment. If I am correct in my observation, what do you attribute this to?
Bauckham: There is a strong tradition in USA of association of conservative Christianity with right-wing politics and economics. This doesn’t exist in UK. You also need to remember that the political spectrum in USA is considerably to the right of the spectrum in the UK.
Moore: The modern idea of progress is a stubborn and persistent idea. It is resilient in the face of modern horrors like the great wars, genocide, and so much more. How can we better help others see the unbiblical assumptions behind the modern notion of progress?
Bauckham: I always have to explain that, when I criticize the idea of progress, I am not denying that many things have improved (e.g. medicine). But other things have got worse (e.g. climate change). We cannot empirically weigh up all the gains and losses and say that on balance and in total the world is constantly getting better. The idea of progress is an ideology that distorts by making us notice what seem to be improvements and to miss what are often serious downsides of those very improvements. “Progress” very often has victims, but the beneficiaries of this “progress” can the more easily ignore them because the ideology of progress consigns them to a past that is being left behind.
In its origins the idea of progress is a secular version of Christian eschatology. Perhaps that’s why so many Christians are still firm believers in it. But the Christian hope is for a future that comes from God and is not just for those lucky enough to live in the vanguard of progress but even for the dead.
Moore: It is common to hear people announce the death of the Enlightenment Project. Is the Enlightenment over, and if it isn’t, why do so many say it is?
Bauckham: Of course, the Enlightenment was a complex phenomenon, like all such historical movements. Some of its legacy is more or less permanent, other aspects less so. I think many of us were very impressed by the claim that postmodernism was about to succeed the Enlightenment, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. It looks like the West now has a culture that mixes elements of both.
Moore: Do Christians in the West generally have the correct understanding of freedom?
Bauckham: My impression is that Christians generally don’t think about what true freedom is. They unthinkingly go along with the views that are current in our culture. But, seeing that freedom is probably the most powerful concept in contemporary western culture, it is surely vital that Christians think critically about it.
Moore: Give us a few things that you would like your readers to take away from reading The Bible in the Contemporary World.
Bauckham: I hope many readers will come away with the sense that the Bible speaks more broadly to the big issues of our time than they have realized before. And I hope many readers will find that the Bible invites them to be more concerned with the big issues of our time than they have been before.
Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church in Lake Forest, IL. He has served in that capacity since 2003. Healthy and fitness focused, Mike had a freak accident which upended the trajectory of his life.
Moore: Give our readers a sense of what happened that fateful day in the pool during your regular swim.
Woodruff: The winter of 2014 was a nasty one in Chicago. It was too cold for me to run outside so I started swimming to stay in shape. Swimming is supposed to be a great low-impact cardiovascular workout. Unfortunately I am in the .02 percent who are susceptible to fraying a vertebral artery by repetitive head turning (to breathe). On Good Friday I ended up suffering a SCAD – a Spontaneous cerebral arterial dissection. This means the lining of my artery frayed. Blood got into the lining, ballooned it out and that led to a stroke. I wasn’t swimming at the time. I was in my office getting ready for a busy weekend. I stood up and felt a bit dizzy. I didn’t think anything of it. A few hours later it happened again. The third time the room started to spin. I went home early and went to bed, thinking I had the flu. I started to slide pretty fast. Early on Saturday AM my wife called an ambulance. I was quickly diagnosed at the local ER and transported to Northwestern University’s Neuro-ICU unit.
Moore: Didn’t you already plan on doing a series on suffering just prior to your accident?
Woodruff: Yes. Every fall I write a book for part of a fall series. I had started writing a book called Broken, which was based on four ideas: 1) If you live long enough you will suffer; 2) Americans are bad at it; 3) You can prepare; and 4) suffering can be a pathway to growth. It doesn’t have to be, but some can emerge stronger.
Moore: In the first book (we should probably call them booklets) of the five, you mention that you “started out writing a very different book…” What changed the original course you were on?
Woodruff: The book I was writing was a bit more academic. And in it I had noted that I didn’t feel particularly qualified to write about suffering. As soon as I was coherent enough to start reflecting what was going on I started blogging about my situation. The response to my blog led me to think I needed to adopt a very different voice for the book. (And yes, because I was so late in getting to the book, we turned it into five small booklets).
Moore: Mark Noll famously said Abraham Lincoln was the best theologian during the Civil War period because he appreciated the inscrutable nature of God’s providence. Perhaps we could say Mike Tyson is also a pretty good theologian with the memorable quote that leads into our interview.
Woodruff: I love the Tyson quote. It is quite profound.
Moore: I interviewed Tim Keller on his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/02/04/tim-keller-on-suffering/) Both of you describe how common it is to find Christians who are surprised by suffering. How do you pastor folks to be better prepared for difficult and trying times?
Woodruff: I told the congregation that I was going to talk about suffering because I was tired of people being surprised by suffering – and also by death. I said, “I am failing you. I need you to hear that if you live long enough you will suffer. It’s going to happen. Count on it.”
Even having said that some are still surprised.
Moore: You make your living by speaking. It must have been terrifying to feel like your livelihood was in jeopardy.
Woodruff: The doctor in the ER of the local hospital told me that I had had a Cerebellar stroke and would make a full recovery. That was a bit optimistic. Most of the damage I sustained was to the Cerebellar region, but I also suffered Vestibular damage. That is more serious. Few survive Vestibular (brain stem) strokes because that real state is so loaded with important things, like breathing. My balance, sight, touch, swallowing and voice were affected, but not breathing. Anyway, I didn’t understand how serious my situation was. There were some very dark moments, but I thought I would make a 100 percent recovery for the first few months. I only later realized how close to I had come to dying. And how much worse it could be. (For the record, I would say I have made a 90% recovery to date).
Moore: How has your relationship with Christ changed as a result of the stroke?
Woodruff: During the most desperate moments I felt great peace. As I began to heal I prayed that I could hold on to that closeness. I am sorry to say that I have not. I believe some may, but I didn’t. What I can say is, I found great comfort from my savior and my family. I would not want to go through it again, but I got to test my safety net and it was very strong. I am thankful.
Conversion and Discipleship, that is.
The following description of Bill Hull comes from his web site: “Bill Hull’s passion is to help the church return to its disciple making roots and he considers himself a discipleship evangelist. This God-given desire has manifested itself in twenty years of pastoring and the authorship of many books.” Bill’s latest book, Conversion and Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other (http://www.amazon.com/Conversion-Discipleship-Cant-without-Other/dp/0310520096) framed this conversation.
Moore: Late in life, St. Augustine wrote his Retractions (some like to translate it reconsiderations). He was working through the body of his works to see what might need to be changed or clarified. You’ve written several previous books on discipleship. To what degree is your present book akin to Augustine’s Retractions?
Hull: Augustine wrote over 100 pieces of significant literature, my corpus is twenty-two books and a few articles and I suppose hours of video, blogs, tweets, and other recordings. Overall I have less to regret than the Bishop of Hippo, but your question gives me an idea for the next book.
At the twentieth anniversary of each of my disciple making trilogy, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker, The Disciple Making Pastor, and the Disciple Making Church, I reread the books and contemplated some changes. I found it easier to write a reflection at the start of each chapter than reconstructing the book’s arguments. What I found to be true in that exercise was that the problem of nominal or weak Christianity still existed, but that I would choose some different modes or methods to solve the problems. Conversion and Discipleship is like throwing a “smart bomb” into the middle of the church and see what is left after the smoke clears. What is significantly different than my previous work is that it starts the conversation at the “What is the gospel?” level rather than the “Make Disciples” level. There are really three levels of conversation when it comes to the world revolution that is the Great Commission. Upstream it is, “What does the gospel we produce naturally produce, disciples or consumers? The midstream conversation is, “What is a disciple, why are they important, and what difference do they make?” Finally, there is the downstream conversation, “What is your plan? Because if you don’t have a plan, you don’t intend to do it.
Moore: I’ve been the beneficiary of discipleship for almost forty years now. I’ve had several men invest in me and I love doing my own part with other men. In both of the seminaries I attended (Dallas and Trinity), I was constantly surprised how many of my classmates (many coming from solid, Christian families) never were discipled. Why is that?
Hull: Everyone has been discipled, by a family, a church, a culture. Everyone has a spiritual formation; even a terrorist has been discipled. I know their meaning when they say such a thing; they have not been worked with by another person in a systematic way where there was some start and finish to the process. That reveals how powerfully the insularly educational discipleship process has been embedded into the evangelical mind. I think Winston Churchill put it nicely, “We teach what we know, we reproduce what we are.”
Most contemporary discipleship runs aground because it is educationally based, and self-focused. It is about finishing curriculum and evaluates itself by asking the question, “ How am I doing?” This is not the kind of question or life than Jesus invites us into. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus, “A man for others.” As his disciples, we are to live for others; the church exists at its best when it exists for others. If you try and make a Christlike disciple from a conventional gospel you will fail, every time you will fail. Another factor is that discipleship has not been central to the teaching available in seminaries, churches themselves and the pastors have very little theological or practical basis for beginning such a process or developing a workable plan.
Moore: We live on the far side of mass evangelistic outreaches with the likes of Sunday, Moody, and Graham. To what extent do you think that approach to evangelism has brought confusion about the integral nature of discipleship?
Hull: There is a lot to say here. I will restrict myself to how modern mass evangelism separated conversion from discipleship. The first step in the separation was to replace the gospel with the plan of salvation. The gospel is the complete story of God, humans and the redemptive drama. The early fathers saw the four gospels together as the “gospel.” The drive to evangelize and get decisions created the “Plan of Salvation,” a four or five point extract of the gospel. Through the popularity of mass evangelism the plan of salvation replaced the gospel in the perception of the American church. The split between conversion and discipleship was complete when the Navigators and others created a category called discipleship. Discipleship included a system, a planned curriculum or study, and had tiers of ascendance. You would start as a convert, the after a period of time you would earn the moniker, disciple, then worker and finally leader. This all meant that conversion or being a convert was an entry level Christian. Discipleship then was a post conversion option for those who were so inclined, but it had no bearing on heaven, forgiveness of sins or eternal life. This of course has led us to the present need to reunite conversion to discipleship, and realize truly, that we cannot have one without the other.
Moore: I’ve had many conversations with those who advocate a “free grace” perspective when it comes to the gospel. (I don’t even like the term. Kind of like the “Department of Redundancy Department.”) As you know well, it came to prominence during the 1980s. I was at at Dallas Seminary at the time and the teaching of Zane Hodges, the late professor of New Testament, was influential. Others continue to advocate the “free grace” position. What do you think about this recent interpretation of the gospel? Has it had any effects on how we understand the integral role of Christian discipleship?
Hull: Dallas Willard commented on the misunderstanding of grace, “We have not only been saved by grace, we have been paralyzed by it.” He meant that it created a passivity among Christians. Bonhoeffer was disturbed about what his own Lutheran church had done to Luther’s understanding of grace. Willard said the grace was not opposed to effort, but was opposed to earning. Bonhoeffer famously, called what his church practiced, “Cheap grace.” All that needs to happen to corrupt grace is to it assign it a single place only in our spiritual journey, the point of conversion. Therefore, when someone says, “I was saved by grace on July 1, 1986, we then leave that big dollop of grace behind as a memory and we live on that memory. Grace becomes only a memory, but not a means of power and energy to strengthen our effort to work for Christ and his Kingdom. Grace too often breeds passivity. We keep waiting for a special work, command or power before we act. God’s grace is an active force that is ever ready to empower us.
The only way out of this corruption of grace I know is to act, quit asking a lot of personal therapeutic questions about self, and start obeying, doing what God has already commanded us to do, then you will experience grace. Much better than sitting around and contemplating its meaning.
Moore: You regularly refer to Dallas Willard in your latest book. What role has he played in your own understanding of Christian discipleship?
Hull: My first attraction to Dallas was his writing. He reached my mind before he did my heart. I first met him in 2001 and he complemented me on something I had written. Of course, that warmed by heart. I heard him say two things that stand out in the development of my life and understanding. The first was, “ I never try to make anything happen.” I really did question his sanity when I heard him say it. I thought, “ a typical philosopher who doesn’t need to make anything work.” But he was talking about forcing the action, attempting to get people to accept or recognize his work, or to through human effort attempt to earn God’s favor. I found this a profound truth, coupled with this: “ Don’t seek to speak, seek to have something to say.” This was not a call to passivity. It was a call to humility and allowing God to provide the opportunities.
The second statement was, “There has not been in twentieth century anyone who has put together a theology of discipleship.” I questioned this statement as well, because I thought I had done it. But in conversation with Dallas over a period of months I came to agree with him. His comment and subsequent conversations was the impetus for the publication of Conversion and Discipleship. Upon Dallas’ death, I sensed it was time for me to give it a go. While it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, it is my good faith effort as a writer to put out a respectable street level theology that can help leaders make disciples.
Moore: Another friend of yours, Robert Coleman, wrote the influential The Master Plan of Evangelism. For those who may not be familiar with the book, there is much in that relates to the subject of discipleship, and discipleship is what Coleman continues to do even now at 88 years old. This book continues to sell at a rather brisk rate, yet I don’t hear it mentioned much in evangelical circles. Is my own experience unusual or do you think there is a rather pervasive neglect of Coleman’s message?
Hull: Dr. Coleman is a national treasure, not just for the church, I mean for the nation. There are so few people of such an age who are so full of Christ. The Master Plan is one of those books that everyone remembers they read, even if they never read it. It is short and simple. It is the reason it remains one of the best sellers of all time. I believe somewhere around five million have been sold. It was used by Billy Graham in follow up to his crusades and offered on television. It is no longer marketed or repackaged strongly and that explains partly why it is less known to the younger generations. There are a few discipleship classics, but none with the history, clarity and brevity as the Master Plan. It is the gold standard.
Moore: What are a few things you would like people to take away from your book?
Hull: I would hope that it would change the way you think. I have always believed that the most important part of a leader is what he or she thinks, for it drives everything else. The book’s thesis is, “All who are called to salvation, are called to discipleship, no exceptions, no excuses.” If that is believed and practiced, then the church will fill the world with Christlike disciples, they will preach the gospel to the end of the earth and then the end will come. Our choices do matter, our efforts do count, and in the end, God has given us this work to do. Discipleship is about world revolution.