Eugene Peterson’s books have made an indelible imprint on me. Here are two minutes of his godly and all too rare wisdom:
I believe this makes twelve books I’ve read by Os Guinness. I first read his Dust of Death,
followed by In Two Minds, then The Gravedigger File, and so on. None have been duds. Os has a wonderful style: accessible, but not simplistic, prophetic, yet loving. His latest is no exception. It may be my favorite so we can only hope Os has many more years of fruitful labors with his pen.
My copy of Fool’s Talk is full of marginal notes. The style is lucid, but there are places where you should pause to consider what the author is saying. I reread a number of sections because all the implications were impossible to pick up the first time.
Many are calling Fool’s Talk the greatest work by the author. I certainly resonate with that assessment as this particular work seems to gather many elements which have been percolating for a long time in the author’s mind.
One quick comment needs to be made about the beautiful book design. Kudos to InterVarsity Press for their great care and professionalism in both content and presentation. In every way, Fool’s Talk is truly a work of art!
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!
“Popular agnostic Bart Ehrman, religious studies professor at UNC Chapel Hill, starts one of his courses with a class exercise.1 He begins, “How many of you believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God?” According to professor Ehrman, the majority of students at UNC raise their hands. Then he asks, “How many of you have read [and he will select a popular novel]… The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins?” Usually, every hand goes up across the room, with only a few exceptions. Ehrman follows with a third question, “How many of you have read the entire Bible?” And virtually no one raises his or her hand. Then comes Ehrman’s punch. He inquires, “Now I can understand why you would read Collins’ book. It’s entertaining. But, if you really believed God wrote a book, then wouldn’t you want to read it?” Ehrman thus exposes the inconsistency with what these students say and with what they do.”
(Tony Merida, “Preach the Word, Build the Church,” May 16, 2016)
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.
I have read several of your books and benefited greatly from each one. I am also grateful for your willingness to do the Patheos/Jesus Creed interview with me. Hyperbole and lack of nuance (not two things many associate with you) can be taken literally when the person communicating is well regarded. I’m afraid that may be the case with the following. In several places I have seen various iterations of your remarks when it comes to young preachers. Here is one such example:
I don’t believe you should spend a lot of time preparing your sermon, when you’re a younger minister. I think because we are so desperately want our sermon to be good, that when you’re younger you spend way too much time preparing. And, you know, its scary to say this to the younger ministers… you’re not going to be much better by putting in twenty hours on that sermon–the only way you’re going to be a better preacher is if you preach often. For the first 200 sermons, no matter what you do, your first 200 sermons are going to be terrible. (laughter from the crowd). And, if you put in…fifteen or twenty hours in the sermon you probably won’t preach that many sermons because you won’t last in ministry, because your people will feel neglected.
Similar to Gladwell’s now contested “10,000 hours of practice,” many seem to take the 200 sermons in the most wooden of ways. I get the point that it may take some five years of preaching to “find one’s voice,” but surely there is a wide variation of gifts and maturity that make the number 200 arbitrary, aren’t there?
Personally, I have heard young preachers whose maturity coupled with a genuine unction of the Spirit made it evident that “they found their voice.” Conversely, I sadly report hearing some minsters who long ago crossed 200 sermons and still seem in search of their voice.
Sincerely in Christ,
Certainly we can’t take 200 in a wooden way. Of course there are variations. By the way, I doubt I’ve used the number “200″ more than once or twice in off hand remarks.
You are right in drawing out the broader principle. If you preach regularly, say 40-50 times a year, including Sunday preaching and other speaking at weddings, funerals, and conferences, then, yes, I’d say it takes at least three years of full-time preaching before you get even close to being as mature and skillful a preacher as you are capable of becoming.
There are basically three things that go into the “maturing” process: a) the actual preparation of the message, b) life experience—of your own heart, of pastoral work, of prayer, c) practice.
I’d say that younger preachers a) don’t have enough life experience, and b) don’t preach often enough to be growing in preaching as they should. They tend to put all the emphasis on long hours of academic prep. It would be better if instead of 20 hrs of prep they did 5-6 hrs of prep and spent the rest of the time out involved in people’s lives, and then simply preached and spoke more often. That is the balance that is needed. And then give it 3-5 years to come up to whatever level God has gifted you.
And, yes, I have heard some young preachers with pretty good spiritual maturity for their age and God’s anointing–be quite good. Yet compare the sermons of the young Spurgeon (who was a teenage preaching phenom) with the old Spurgeon. The older Spurgeon sermons are far richer, wiser, better.
Low church, yet liturgical appreciating Protestant with a hopefully irenic spirit while gladly holding to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
Nicholas Kristof is a self-described “progressive” who goes where the evidence takes him. With a son who is headed into a lifetime of scholarship, this got my attention:
About ten years ago I noticed that two things spontaneously dominated my prayers. And they continue to do so to this day.
The first is a “Lord Jesus come” prayer for God to set everything right.
The second is a sort of lament/complaint to God “reminding” Him how difficult it is to live the Christian life.