Stuck in the Present

AM I WOKE?

Danny Akin is the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Danny and I are bound together (literally) because his commentary on Song of Solomon and mine on Ecclesiastes were matched together in B & H’s series of commentaries on the whole Bible.

Danny believes the shocking truth that the gospel of Jesus speaks to all of life.

Some within the Southern Baptist “denomination” (see my post on June 15, 2021) dubbed Danny a “woke liberal.”

If shrewdly “plundering the Egyptians” and seeking to have an irenic spirit makes one a liberal, then I guess many of us must wear that moniker. 🙂

And by the way, before you are tempted to sling out the word “woke” ask yourself whether you have done the hard work of lots of biblical and theological study along with ample historical work. If not, it would be better to ask questions than make confident pronouncements of who is and who is not “woke.”

If you want to better know history, here is a pretty good book to get you oriented:

 

HOW I READ (WITH PICTURES)

My friend Warren was asking me some questions about reading, so I shared a few of my regular practices. He said they were helpful, so I thought it might be instructive to others if I wrote them down.

Here then are three things that have guided my reading for many years.

Be engaged!

I do whatever I can to put myself in the best mood possible for reading. It means strong coffee, favorite pens and pencils (picture below), good lighting, being as rested as possible, and seizing all kinds of moments for opportunities to read. I read in line at the post office, waiting for my haircut, and when appointments are running late, but most of my serious reading happens in my favorite chair in our upstairs library.

Books are always highlighted with a red pencil and marginal notes are made with either a black pen or regular pencil (see picture below). If the ink does not bleed through the page, my preference is always to make notes in the margin with a black pen. I always use a very fine point pen for crisp and vivid writing. Fine point pens (and the Tul pens I purchase are not expensive) are also great because they do not easily smudge.

Along with keeping me engaged, taking notes helps me come back later to a book and quickly access what I might use in my teaching and writing. This has paid big dividends over the many years I’ve been doing it.

You are having a conversation

My posture in reading is that I am having a conversation. This means I am not passively receiving what is written. As with all conversations, I try to be a good listener. I also ask lots of questions. This is true whether I am reading the Bible or some other book like the one in the picture. More on that in a moment.

Remembering that I am having a conversation instead of just absorbing information is also a great boon to staying engaged.

Reread the best books

C.S. Lewis said serious readers are rereaders. I’ve found enormous benefit from rereading the best books. Not all books are best so rereading is simply following Francis Bacon’s famous advice:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed on and digested.”

The older I get (currently 63) the more I am enjoying revisiting the books that have either shaped me for many years or those much rarer, new books that cross my radar and wow me. The Pilgrim’s Progress is in the former category while Fleming Rutledge’s amazing book, The Crucifixion, is in the latter category. The picture below is my copy of The Crucifixion. The first time I read the 600+ page masterpiece I made nearly 600 notes in the margins. The second time I read The Crucifixion I made connections and gained insights that were missed during my first read. The second time I made many more notes in the margins such that it now totals north of 900 marginal notes.

When I was teaching at Wheaton College I took some time to check out The Marion E. Wade Center. It houses an amazing amount of scholarship dedicated to seven writers: J.R.R.Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis. I knew Lewis put marginalia in his books so I wanted to see a few examples. The Wade Center contains many of the books that Lewis had in his personal library. To my delight, the librarian brought up one of my favorite books: Paradise Lost by Milton.

The marginalia of Lewis did not disappoint. In tiny, meticulous script (using a pencil) Lewis flooded the pages with notes. What was true of the way John Adams read also applies to Lewis. Adams, it was said, seemed at times to write more of his own words on a book’s page than the author he was reading! If someone as brilliant as Lewis (three degrees from Oxford all with first class honours) thought writing in books was important, who am I to disagree?

I trust these strategies motivate you to be a more engaged reader.

ARE THE SOUTHERN BAPTISTS A DENOMINATION?

Thousands of Southern Baptists are gathered this week in Nashville for their annual convention.

A number of controversies and conflicts look to make for a challenging week.

“Southern Baptist” is big tent that has strongly divided constituencies over issues like Critical Race Theory and the handling/mishandling of abuse victims.

Since Southern Baptist churches function with lots of autonomy, and since there are deep divides on many issues, I am thinking we should call the Southern Baptists what they really are: a very loose affiliation of Protestants who have some semblance of agreement about the gospel…though that may now be in jeopardy as well.

 

LOST IN THOUGHT…

Our American culture is full of people with a toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance.

Lost in Thought is an antidote to both of these.

Hitz’s subtitle is The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. She has done a terrific job of showing us where the gems are to be found.

I am glad Hitz felt free to use “intellectual” and to show that all of us, irrespective of brain power or giftedness, are called to pursue a life of learning.

This book is part memoir as the author shares a bit about her own journey. I found this not only interesting, but it lent credibility to the things she promotes in her book.

Hitz does a good job demonstrating that deep learning is a way to show love to others.

Education and high culture do not automatically lead to virtue. You can be both learned and lacking in virtue. The Germany of WWII is the example usually given, but sadly there are many more.

Hitz’s book contains many fascinating insights like how the solitary confinement of prison resulted in some people doing brilliant work. She did not mention John Bunyan, but I will try to forgive the author for that omission!

Highly recommended!

 

INTERVIEW WITH EUGENE PETERSON’S BIOGRAPHER

Winn Collier is director of The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary.

The following interview revolves around Collier’s highly anticipated book, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson.

Moore: Give us a bit of the backstory of how you came to be the person to write this biography of Eugene Peterson.

Collier: Well, I began reading Eugene over 20 years ago, when a generous church elder, who apparently knew I needed help, handed me a copy of Working the Angles. I was only paragraphs in when this pastoral vision Eugene described detonated in my soul. Eugene described what my soul ached for—but didn’t have any language to describe. I began to write Eugene letters, and remarkably, he wrote back. He became my pastor. In January 2017, after a trip to Montana that I assumed would be my last time to see him, I wrote Eugene and asked him about writing his biography. He hated the idea. But we kept talking, and eventually he warmed to it.   

Moore: I have read several books by Peterson. All were terrific. I also read his 2012 book simply called, The Pastor: A Memoir. How is your book different than The Pastor?

Collier: The Pastor is a beautiful memoir (though he also resisted this and only wrote it after years of cajoling), but Eugene really didn’t enjoy talking about himself. So, there were lots of interior places he shied away from and numerous rabbit trails that he never considered interesting enough to follow (“why would anybody be interested in my life,” he’d often say to me). But like a bloodhound, I couldn’t help but follow the scent, sniffing my way to fascinating revelations and numerous insightful dimensions to his life. Also, he wrote his memoir through the lens of being a pastor, but I was far more curious about the fulness of Eugene as a person. And of course, Eugene’s memoir ventured little into the years after he left his church in Bel Air, MD—and Eugene had so many remarkable years after this, some of his best stuff really.

Moore: The physicality or materiality of spirituality captivated Peterson, though I know he did not like the word “spirituality.” Would you describe why physical spaces and material realities so captivated Peterson?

Collier: If we separate the material and physical from our encounter with God, then we’ve amputated a massive part of the gospel. Eugene insisted you could never separate geography from theology. The entire story of Scripture reveals God acting in particular moments, with particular people, in particular places. Jesus was born a Jew, to one mother named Mary and spent his childhood tucked away in one dusty village, surrounded by the troubled history of the tribe of Judah. If we ignore any of this, we misunderstand Jesus. The same way, Eugene was born under the shadow of the Swan Mountain Range, for years inhaling the scent of blood and wax paper in his dad’s butcher shop, feeling his mind and heart swell as he spent Saturdays alone in the rugged vastness of that Big Sky country. To miss any of this would be to miss part of Eugene…and to miss the particular ways that God’s grace surrounded and shaped Eugene. The whole earth—every osprey and sunrise and Appalachian hollow, every painting and carpenter’s angle and every loving kiss—declares the glory of God.

Moore: What do you think are Peterson’s best three books, or at least the ones that have spoken most powerfully to you?

Collier: Let me just stick with the ones that have meant the most to me. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity names the poison in the pastoral stew better than anything I’ve read, and with precision that is both simple and daring, offers us the cure. Then either Leap Over a Wall or A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (sorry, two here) both offer artful guidance into life with God. As a third, I’d say Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, where Eugene sketches a panoramic, breathtaking vision of God’s presence in the world and with us—I don’t think this work has fully detonated in our imagination yet. There’s three (or 4). Ask me on another day, though, and I might give a different answer.

Moore: I think your book strikes a wise balance in not getting into prurient details about personal matters while still describing important details like the hurt Peterson experienced in his relationship with his dad. How did you decide what was appropriate to include and what was not?

Collier: That was tricky. I didn’t want to play into sensationalism or voyeurism. However, nothing would be more dishonoring to Eugene’s way that to stick him on a pedestal. He was human, flawed. For me, this is what makes his story so compelling. To encounter a person so fleshy and human, yet someone being transformed by holy love—that’s beautiful, that’s important for us to encounter. I wanted to include everything necessary to make it true and a well-crafted story but nothing that would merely serve as bait—that would only cheapen the story.

Moore: One disappointment I (and others) have had with Peterson is how he steered clear of what is called “polemics.” I certainly appreciate Peterson’s penchant for being irenic and avoiding nasty fights where pedantic points dominate the debate. It seems that Peterson’s desire to avoid the fleshly fray may have caused him to overreact. What do you think?

Collier: Perhaps due to my own disposition (or maybe overreaction), I tend to get more where Eugene was coming from—and operate mostly the same way myself. For Eugene, it was more about ways and means. It wasn’t at all that Eugene didn’t want to say hard things (he could light some fires, if you were paying attention), but rather Eugene felt that the way we go about polemics typically undermines whatever truth we were trying to get at. Also, he often simply distrusted the framing of the debate, the binaries, the assumptions. It wasn’t so much that Eugene refused to answer the question that was being asked—it was simply that Eugene was asking different questions. A friend once got frustrated with Eugene and accused him of being “coy.” Eugene winced at that criticism, and thought it was to some degree unfair. However, he took it to heart, and in his following book tried to be more direct in a few areas where he had something direct to say (the Christian misuse of power and the church’s idolatrous political alignment). However, I think his friend still found him coy.  

Maybe we should handle this now. What nasty fight should we wade into?

Moore: Your well-crafted words honor your subject. You did a terrific job conveying a wide range of emotions from the humorous to the poignant. What are a few things that you hope your readers will take from your book?

Collier: I hope they will encounter Eugene, what it was like to sit with him (both in laughter and silence), to watch for the osprey to swoop into the bay, to hear his raspy voice, to sit at the table after dinner and share a bowl of butter pecan ice cream, to linger with a friend whose life has become a prayer. I hope a few readers will find hope again, just knowing that there are people like Eugene and Jan who’ve lived good lives, faithful lives, artful lives—people who are far from perfect, but people who are true and trustworthy. I hope a few readers will become more curious: what could my life, lived with such receptivity to God’s love and presence, be like? or maybe: what good story is God writing with my own ordinary days and years?

IS DYING AN ART?

Dugdale brings both her medical background as a doctor and her training in ethics to bear in this wonderful book.

The title may seem a bit odd. How is dying an art? That is a big question and one the book addresses in helpful and poignant detail. Suffice it to say, you will become convinced that there are practices that go way back in history to help us wisely navigate the ravages of death…for our loved ones and ourselves!

One of the biggest helps I found in this book was the counsel about the misuse and overuse of hospitals. Dugdale knows this terrain very well and I found myself realigning some of my thinking accordingly.

Dugdale writes as a Christian. Her comments about the resurrection are insightful and much appreciated. My only disappointment is that the author never addressed the truths found in Heb. 2:14,15: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, so that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

A beautiful and practical book…two words that I don’t juxtapose very often!

THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ITS WORLD

The New Testament in its World by N.T. Wright and Michael Bird

I typically read 4-6 books at the same time. Being a person of many interests, it fits my personality, and dare I say, my calling.

When one of the books I am reading is long (500 pages plus) and/or technical, I tend to read no more than 5-20 pages at a sitting. It gives me ample time to ponder and scribble my many marginal notes.

One large book (almost 900 pages) I am now finishing is The New Testament in its World by N.T. Wright and Michael Bird. I saw it highly recommended by many I respect so I decided to read it. I am glad that I did. It would fit in the long, but not technical category.

Instead of a traditional book review, let me mention (in no particular order) five things I appreciated about this book:

*Even though this a dual authored book, it is clear and smooth in its presentation.

*It is amply supplied with graphs, timelines, maps, and other visuals that wonderfully augment the text.

*The authors do a terrific job of modeling how history is crucial for the best understanding of the New Testament. My own book, Stuck in the Present, highlights this need.

*Various positions on the different books of the New Testament are offered. The authors are fair and balanced in telling the reader why they hold, or at least lean in one direction.

*There is a good use of both ancient and modern scholarship. This regularly reminds the reader that the Christian faith has a rich history.

Highly recommended!