The Wisdom of Deacons

The appointment of deacons in Acts and the subsequent story of Stephen is an interesting bit of Scripture.

In Acts chapter 6, Greek believers in the church found that their widows were not being looked after with the same care and frequency as Jewish widows. The twelve apostles thought that the task of looking after the needs of the church, while not being so important as to take them away from their task of preaching and prayer, was nevertheless so important it necessitated the creation of a new office in the church. You may think that the only thing needed in men who were supposed to hand out food would be a sense of honesty and the ability to count. But here is the job description the apostles give: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty (Acts 6:3). So let it be said, so let it be done. Seven deacons.

Then the story shifts to follow Stephen, who will be martyred in the next chapter. He’s described as being full of faith and the Spirit, full of grace and power. He speaks with wisdom and the Spirit, and he performs signs and wonders among the people. Naturally, therefore, the religious leaders snatch him.

When Stephen is falsely accused and stands before the religious leaders to make his defense, we see the wisdom that make him a candidate for deaconry in the first place. I see eight facets of Stephen’s wisdom in Acts 7:

  1. His respect. Stephen has just been falsely accused by some of the most notorious rats in history. I mean, the religious leaders were bad in the Gospels, but in Acts they’re downright skeevy. And when called upon to make a defense, Stephen addresses them as “brothers and fathers.” We know he has some choice things to say about them, and he gets there by the end of his speech, but he doesn’t insult where he doesn’t have to. That’s wise.
  2. His calm. Similarly, Stephen is calm and collected. I’m not sure what is meant by “his face was like the face of an angel,” at the end of chapter 6, but Stephen is certainly collected and in possession of himself in chapter 7. He doesn’t jump to his defense, or to counterattack. He respectfully begins to construct an argument, taking the time to develop a common understanding of the redemptive-historical narrative of which the present has become a part.
  3. His knowledge of the Bible’s facts. Wisdom isn’t limited to Bible facts, but it certainly is wise to have that knowledge to hand, just as it is wise to go camping with matches and a flashlight. Stephen has spent time learning the Bible, so that now, when he is called upon to speak, he can do so in an informed manner.
  4. His knowledge of the Bible’s meaning. More than facts, Stephen has an understanding of what the Bible means—what its major episodes are, and the salient features of those episodes for the point he’s trying to make.
  5. His knowledge of the Bible’s purpose. Going even further, Stephen that the Scriptures events and patterns point beyond themselves to Jesus Christ. He sees that Israel’s story points towards and is ultimately caught up in something far greater than Israel, and he is able to communicate that to his audience.
  6. His ability to interpret present events. Stephen is able to read the times and to see that what is happening now is downstream of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is what the entire Old Testament was pointing toward. He sees correlations between events in the Old Testament and his present and makes correct judgments about those correlations.
  7. His moral discernment. Having made his case from history, Stephen shows discernment in seeing through the veil of moral rectitude and superiority that the religious leaders have put up to the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy that characterizes them.
  8. His courageous and prophetic stand. Wisdom is right understanding wedded to right action, and Stephen’s wisdom goes beyond an ability to read people and the Bible. Having made his case, Stephen ends his speech by calling the religious leaders to account for their sin and their failure to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. He sticks it to them, not because he is angry or afraid or defensive, but because that’s what prophets do—they take God’s word and hold the world up to its standard.

Stephen was quite a man, and shows an incredible heart of wisdom, and he was a deacon. We still have deacons today in our churches, often, it seems, chosen because they’re good with a hammer or have a strong back. What would it look like if we sought deacons who not only had the ability to care for the congregation, but the wisdom to know when and how to best carry out that care?

Art as Discipleship Pt. 2

I tried to make the case last month that art, because it tells a story, has the ability to tell the Christian story. Christian art can, and should, tell the story of good creation, ruinous fall, gracious redemption, and anticipated consummation. By creating along this narrative arc, I argued, artists follow Christ, and lead others to follow Christ as well. I should offer some clarification on that point.

Art, unless it abandons all subtlety and, not to put too fine a point on it, artistry, doesn’t tell the gospel message. Art which attempts to do this (i.e. seemingly all Christian movies) usually ends up being laughably bad, for the simple reason that art isn’t supposed to be propositional. It doesn’t fill; it shapes.

So the way in which Christian art functions as a form of discipleship isn’t be reinforcing the truths of the Christian faith, but it’s patterns and textures. Christian art stands and looks. Where it stands and where it looks are incredibly important, as well as how it feels about where it is standing and looking. Art is commentary; Christian art should comment so as to make us feel the way we should about Christian realities. A Christian landscape should make us grateful to God for his gifts. A Christian break-up song (and why shouldn’t Christian’s write break-up songs? What else should Christians listen to when they’re going through a break-up?) should envision the new heaven and the new earth, where righteousness dwells. A Christian film should create an imaginative space for reconciliation and redemption. In doing so, Christian art creates the patterns which are filled by the propositional content of our faith.

Honestly, I think that when non-Christian art is honest, it can express a longing for redemption which is almost Christian (like this song and this song). As good as non-Christian art can be, however, it can only communicate the longing, never the finding. Only Christian art, having been through the door, can return to show us the shape of the world beyond.

Much Too Holy, And Not Holy Enough

The Bible is a holy book—the holy book, in point of fact. It’s the only one we’ve got, as far as holy books are concerned (I once had a pastor tell me that William Young’s The Shack should be considered a holy book, but that’s a different post). So what does that mean for our reading and reception of it?

To be holy is to be dedicated or reserved for God’s service. But it means one thing for a bowl in the temple to be dedicated for God’s service, and another for a priest in the temple to be dedicated for God’s service. They’re both dedicated, both holy—but that holiness is expressed, as it were, in different ways.

Both weddings and funerals can be holy, but that doesn’t mean they should share the same playlist.

For the Bible to be dedicated to God’s service means that it does what God intended it to do—that it is a witness to the work of reconciliation. And the Bible does this in its own unique and infallible way.

Here’s my point. I think that Bible-believing Evangelicals who have a high respect for God’s Word can sometimes treat it as though everything it says is serious, normal, and unsurprising. It’s the kind of seriousness with which we treat sacred things. But if you show up to a wedding and think that because this covenant is a sacred thing, you must not laugh or cheer or whoop when the newly-married couple kisses at the end, you misunderstand sacred things.

The Bible is holy. It has been dedicated for God’s service, and that service is telling you and me about God’s work of salvation in Christ. In order to do that, to diagnose and expose our sin and show us how we may be saved, the Bible says some surprising, counterintuitive, strange things. Therefore, certain qualities must be cultivated in order to revere the Bible as holy, that is, to understand it as ordained by God for the purpose of understanding its message. Humor, surprise, and the ability to recognize irony are some which come to mind.

Treating the Bible as holy means laughing when Jesus does the bit about the Pharisees and the camel, weeping when Isaac asks his father where the sacrifice has got to, gasping in surprise when Samuel actually shows up to talk to Saul, and so on and so on. the Bible is a weird, funny, surprising, unexpected book. If we can’t recognize some of these little non sequiturs, how can we feel and communicate full force of what the Bible is meant to communicate? The uncreated and undying Son of God was born, lived, and died to make his enemy his bride. To see that, to understand it, and to feel the impact of it—that’s what it means to revere the Bible as holy.

Storybook Reversals

I still think that, for building a story which is all at once profound and hilarious, cogent and incredibly goofy, nobody does it like Terry Pratchett. In his Discworld novel Moving Pictures, a parody of the early film industry, the climax (SPOILER COMING, if you care to read Pratchett) presents a fifty-foot tall woman carrying a gibbering ape up the side of a ‘skyscraper,’ in a development which is entirely organic to the story. Fantastic.

A similar non sequitur occurs in the first (and only worthwhile) Shrek film. It plays on all our expectations for that kind of story: a valiant prince journeys forth with his sidekick, slays the dragon, rescues the princess, breaks the curse, marries her and lives with her happily ever after. But in Shrek, the hero is an ogre, the sidekick marries the dragon, and ‘love’s true form’ ends up being the form of an ogre for the princess. It’s full of that kind of dramatic reversal.

There’s something about the reversal of our expectations in stories which strikes us as hilarious, surprising, shocking, or profound. And it’s not limited to satire or comedy; examples abound in literature—and in Scripture, as it turns out.

At the beginning of the book of Ruth, the author tells us that the following events take place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Then, after the initial context, we find that this is a story about two widowed women, one of whom is a foreigner, living in Israel. You don’t have to have a degree in literary criticism to know what will happen next. The last few episodes of the book of Judges paint a vivid picture of what happens to women in Israel during this period of time.

So we’re on the edge of our seats, so to speak, when the story gets rolling. And then Ruth goes to glean, and catches the eye of Boaz. Yikes, we think. Is this a wife-stealing story, or a raped-to-death story? Either way, it’s not looking good. But then Boaz treats Ruth kindly, and makes sure his workers do the same. Whew! Scandal avoided. But then, in yet another twist, Ruth’s dirty-minded mother-in-law tells Ruth to go to Boaz alone, late at night, after he has been working hard and drinking. Not the best recipe for sexual purity, but we all know what a girl’s gotta do to get ahead in Israel these days. And then the plot hits yet another switchback, and Boaz doesn’t end up touching Ruth until they’re all legal and everything has been done up according to Levite marriage law, sandal and everything.

If you watch Shrek enough, you may cease to be surprised that Fiona turns into an ogre at the end (Sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been, like, 20 years). But you shouldn’t; the reversal is a key part of the story. So it is in Ruth, and Jonah, and Abraham, and so many other narratives in the Bible. When the disciples get to the tomb and see it lying empty, we should gasp in surprise.

Don’t forget that the gospel is a story—the best story. The “what?!” at the crucifixion and the bigger “WHAT?!” at the resurrection—these are a part of the story too.

Art as Discipleship Pt. 1

Every year, by some twist of fate, I find myself invited to give a lecture on the intersection between art and Christian faith/practice for our Media Summit. Generally, it’s the one time a year that I get to think about art and its creation and reception from a distinctly Christian point of view. One aspect of art I have been struck by every year that of narrative. Art tells a story, and whether the meaning of that story is to be found in the act of communication or the act of reception, some tale is being told.

For Christian art, the ‘tale’ being told needs to contain elements of the Christian story: good creation, ruin and fall, atoning sacrifice, and glorious restoration. In other words, for art to be considered ‘Christian,’ it must tell the truth about the world—not just as it is, but as it was and will be. We don’t live in a paradise; nor do we live in a hell-scape. We live in a world that was created good and has fallen into dark ruin, one which has received the promise and payment for restoration and is now waiting for the coming dawn.

It would be somewhat unrealistic to say that a Christian work of art must express all this in every lyric, line, or brushstroke. But good art will show an understanding of the context into which it is given, and in so doing speak volumes about the artist’s understanding of the metanarrative we creatures find ourselves inhabiting.

So art, as a story, must do what all good stories do—it must echo the words and the pattern of Scripture, and therefore of human history. Another way to say this is that the movements of the narrative found within Christian art mimic the movements of the life of Christ. He was born, he suffered under the futility of the Fall, he give himself as an atoning sacrifice, and he rose again to new life as the first fruits of the coming age. The story of Christ starts out as the story of history inverted and ends by sweeping up history in its wake, leading it to the end for which it was designed.

Good art tells this story in miniature. In this way, art follows Christ, and draws others along in its pursuit.

(Un)made

Last month I wrote about creaturely reception, and how the right embrace of our creatureliness can help us to act in accordance with our created nature, which is to say, in a godly manner.

Forget about the Fall for just a second. Adam wasn’t created as a tabula rasa. He had a nature, and concomitant with that nature was a set of ordered desires, an ordo amoris. His response to Eve, for example, was ordered, non-arbitrary, part of his design. Adam and Eve were, in the words of the Confession, “good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” This was a part of their essential makeup, their nature. In the Fall, that nature was injured, impaired, damaged, but not entirely changed. Adam’s desires changed, became disordered; what did not change was that he was made for holiness.

What I’m getting at is that this is still part of our makeup. Here’s what I said in that earlier post:

We have a nature, and we have ends. By embracing our creatureliness, we thrive, grow, flourish. By rejecting it, we betray our nature, and we will wither and die. To exist well is to exist as a creature.

If it is true that we have a nature, that human happiness and thriving depend on embracing that nature, and that holiness is attendant with that nature, then it must also be true that pursuing holiness is the way to human happiness and thriving. The flip side of this is that sin is necessarily contrary to our nature, and that sin can never make us happy or fulfilled. This probably sounds like I’m saying something simple and saying it in the most complex way possible, but I think there’s some benefit to this train of thought.

Remember the last time you sinned deliberately, because you really wanted what you thought sin would get you? Happiness, fulfillment, justice, significance? Can’t happen. Sin is an unmaking. It’s only ever destructive and ruinous. Sin is faerie gold, promising everything and giving nothing, and by the time you escape its lies (if ever), you’ve given the best of your years to the cruel.

If all this is true, then God is not arbitrarily demanding and callous in his forbidding certain actions and requiring others; just the opposite. Here’s how John Webster puts it:

The unholy is that which lies beyond the will of God. The unholy is the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God; it is, therefore, a way in which the creature– precisely by trying to cease to be a creature and to make itself– seeks to destroy itself. To this unholiness the holiness of God is implacably opposed.

John Webster, Holiness

When creatures sin, they attempt to enact their own unmaking. In redemption, we are not being torn away from our nature, and stripped of anything that gives us significance; we are being remade.

Lessons Learned from Josh Harris

Though its hard to imagine, someday I’ll tell my children the story I’m writing with my life today.

Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye

I found this line, near the end of Harris’ book, to ring sadly, ironically true in light of this week’s announcements.

Of course we don’t rejoice when a (supposed) brother falls, or falls away. But learning from a cautionary tale is an example of sagacity, not schadenfreude. Without claiming to know more than what has been clearly said, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from Joshua Harris’ apostasy.

First, theology matters. I think it’s fair to say that Harris’s theological and sexual progressivism has made it far easier for him to apostatize. I know, I know—conservatives go off the deep end, too. There have been clear and devastating examples of this in the last years, and we should all be careful when we think we stand, lest we fall. But when someone with orthodox theology apostatizes, it’s like jumping off a cliff. When someone with a watered-down faith apostatizes, it’s like walking off a pier. Both may drown, but the second was much closer, much less shocking, and much less likely to see the danger to begin with. None of us should be surprised when a person claims that God doesn’t care as much as we thought about pure religion and holiness, and then proceeds to chuck pure religion and holiness out the window themselves.

Second, repentance matters—specifically, a right view of repentance. I can’t help but to think that ingredient in Harris’ fall has been his response to the harm his books have perpetuated. Here’s what I think happened: Josh Harris publishes a book, and fundamentalists and conservatives go wild over the precepts concerning relationships it holds forth. Because those precepts are poorly considered and often poorly executed, many young people are badly hurt in the process of trying to have the perfect courtship, with the result that many of them jettison their marriages, and some, their faith. After years, the reality of all this comes crashing down on Harris, and he goes to his former readers to hear their stories. They demand that he repent of his hurtful views. Ultimately, he can’t repent of his views concerning courtship without repenting of his views concerning sexuality, and therefore holiness, and therefore God.
I’m sure that’s simplistic, and of course I could be wrong, but it isn’t as though this hasn’t been tried before. As soon as I admit I’ve hurt you in a culture like ours, then I need to give in to your demands. It’s only fair. What Harris needed to realize was that acknowledging a wrong committed does not give the ‘victim’ license to demand whatsoever reparations they may choose. Repentance is before God before it is before men, and it is God who determines the right limits of that repentance.

Third, mentorship matters. I have no idea what relationships Josh Harris has or has had in the way of mentorship, but from what’s been going on, it sounds like he could have used some. Sin is like fungus: it grows best in darkness. We all need godly men and women to tell us when we’ve stopped shoveling dirt out started shoveling crap in. Most of the time, lies that come from outside need to be packaged and delivered well to be received. Lies that come from my own mind, on the other hand, don’t even have to be coherent; the lie just has to expose a bit of ankle, and suddenly I wake up three days later in a cheap motel with a hangover and an STD (that’s an analogy made up for the purpose of creative expression, by the way, not a personal anecdote).
Godly mentorship helps to expose lies before they get a foothold, and to confirm the truth of God’s word more deeply. Cautionary tales like Harris’ should make us reevaluate the strength of our relationships both as mentor and mentee, and make changes where necessary.

I’m not glad that Joshua Harris has apostatized, and I hope that this disillusionment with the forms of Christianity he had embraced is a step on the way to true faith in Jesus Christ. However, the deceitfulness of sin is not an uncommon malady, and so cautionary tales have their place just as much as heroes of the faith do—’be not like Cain’ and all that. Josh was right, after all. We’re all telling our story to those who follow us: we’re either Marley’s Ghost, bemoaning too late the consequences of sin, or Ebenezer Scrooge, happily proclaiming the joys of repentance.