Take a Swing

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I spend a lot of my time around preachers and teachers, people entering the fray week after week offering sermons and talks to congregants and parishioners, members of the public, saints and sinners, together seeking to make sense of it all.

Claims are made, arguments are formed, stories told, illustrations tendered, questions raised, answers given, each in search of the truth about existence, meaning, life, and everything.

Some of these talks are good. Too many are weak. But the effort is made.

And it should be made, not only because the preacher or teacher may have something to say. People have a longing to hear, reason, wrestle, question, think, and apply what makes sense. We’re all seeking wisdom. Step in the box. Learn to discern between a ball and a strike. Learn how to pick out a pitch worth the chance. Learn which pitches to let whiz past. When a good pitch presents itself, take a swing.

You might hit a slow dribbler to first. You might fly out to the catcher. You could get fooled on the curve and hit a chopper to short. You could even take a mighty swing and, whoosh, miss.

Even a failed attempt can lead to gain, if you learn from the experience. That first missed swing has a name. We call it “strike one.” Step back in. Take another swing.

If you stand in there, keep your eye on the ball, time it right, and everything comes together at just the right moment, a liner might find a gap between the chalk populated only by green grass. If it’s rolling, you’re running. Or, if you connect on the sweet spot, crack, that ball might carry over the wall. Round the bases. Touch’em all.

Fear of criticism, social media backlash, the appearance of looking foolish, or the possibility an argument will fall flat keeps too many from taking the bat off their shoulder or stepping into the box at all. Don’t quiver and qualify and then go quiet. Instead, form convictions and make claims. Reason calmly. Argue boldly.

We’re here to take swings. We’re here to search for meaning, divine right from wrong, distinguish good from evil, develop a moral vision, answer ultimate questions, and build a life based on conviction. That’s what it means to be human. Once we arrive upon solid answers, we offer them up. They’ve helped us. They might help someone else. Pass wisdom along. Wisdom is the kind of thing that increases in value the more it is shared.

If we encounter others on an identical quest, we may help one another. Dialogue can sharpen arguments, solidifying the footing. Better to know you stand on a shoddy foundation before a crisis comes. Socrates exposed the weaknesses in arguments, and for that, he is remembered as one of the greatest and wisest philosophers who walked the earth. When what’s underfoot is discovered to be sandy or shaky, you can continue the search for bedrock elsewhere.

It’s tough to learn how to take a good swing if you have never taken the risk of committing a few bad ones. Get in the box. When a good pitch presents itself, turn it around with a good swing. Encourage others to do the same.

The Incentive to Be a Generalist

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I serve in higher education, where most of the people around me know a whole lot about a few things within a narrow field. They are specialists. It is very good to have specialists. It is even better when specialists talk to other specialists across specialities. Occasionally these conversations yield fresh insight that breaks new ground, all because of a profound connection.

Yet, generalists can be helpful, too.

Last week I heard someone bemoan the lack of generalists in the academy, people publishing in multiple fields across multiple disciplines, offering grand theories of everything in the study of politics, economics, and social science. This same pundit said scholars who were generalists did exist in a previous age (a few decades ago), but cannot exist in today’s academy.

I’m skeptical about that claim. I think someone who is intellectually curious and prolific enough can roam wherever they would like, though I do agree that the incentives run in the other direction. It is good to have generalists, so long as they talk to specialists and glean enough deep knowledge to then put pieces together in a way that hangs together, that makes sense.

(An aside: I don’t know how much better off we’d be, if at all, if generalists talked to other generalists about generalities, because if that’s all they did, their theories would never become comprehensive nor coherent or deep and detailed enough to ultimately do anyone any good.)

The remark about specialists and generalists did lead me to think about wisdom and where it comes from. Wisdom is not less than abiding by a designated set of moral rules, but certainly it is much more. Wisdom is taking the right course of action in the vast majority of life’s situations where the moral rules do not clearly apply. A wise person may have some specialized knowledge. But the sage goes beyond specialized knowledge, arriving at a general set of principles and practices encompassing a number of different fields of endeavor, even all of life.

I thought of examples of a wise person. This then led me to think of the office of pastor. Then, thinking beyond the pastor, I thought of the congregation, and congregants. A Christian minister, or a Christian congregant, has some specialized knowledge, each according to the areas of mastery. Pastors, hopefully, bring forth wisdom from the Scriptures, and plumbers, hopefully, can correctly install pipe.

But Christians in any field will also possess general knowledge about how the world works, not just specialized knowledge applicable to their profession. The Bible contains a great deal of information about politics, social dynamics, morality and ethics, and more. The Scriptures tell a story that touches on various aspects of what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be in relationship to the divine. If you read the Bible, or regularly hear it preached and taught, you’ll glean a great deal of generalized wisdom about how the world works. And if you are part of a community of wisdom, you’ll talk across specialities and gain a greater overall picture of how human beings can best move forward in view of a comprehensive approach to reality.

As a Christian person, there are incentives to being a generalist. A generalist can connect with a broader range of people and address a broad range of human problems. You don’t let go of your specialities while doing so. You also don’t hoard all of your treasures and keep them to yourself. You share them, not to increase your status, but to serve the community. You build everyone else up in knowledge. You love your neighbor as yourself. You give witness to God, who is the source of all knowledge.

We live in a day and age in which people chafe against grand claims and sweeping narratives. But even the claim that there is no big story, no all-encompassing truth, is itself a story. We may be more comfortable with specialists, because first, few of us are equipped to argue with them. We can live and let live. And second, they have a narrowly defined lane which we may seldom enter.

Generalists are more dangerous. Their ideas challenge us all. It’s why Christian people who tell their story boldly yet humbly have often found themselves getting into trouble.

We need generalists. In some respects, generalists will be shown to be wrong, usually by specialists. But generalists also shift the ground, change the frame, help us to see things we may have missed, help us to arrive at new conceptions that can move us forward.

Let’s continue to equip and encourage specialists. But let’s have more generalists.

The TEXT Bible: A Review and a Chance to Receive a Giveaway Copy

The front cover of Thomas Nelson’s just released The TEXT Bible.

Thomas Nelson just put a new Bible on the shelves: The TEXT Bible [Amazon Affiliate Link]. I received a copy for review. I’ll share what The TEXT is, some key features, and a few images from my copy highlighting what you can find inside. Keep reading. If you like what you see, leave a comment to be entered in a giveaway. One winner will be selected to receive a copy of The TEXT Bible on Friday, January 20, 2023.

The TEXT Bible was created by Michael and Haley DiMarco (Own It, God Guy, God Girl) and provides every reader with a method for Bible study consisting of four steps:

  • Talk to God, praying and thanking him for his Word and that it’s true; ask the Holy Spirit to help us see the truth.
  • Encounter God and humanity as you read and reflect on two simple questions: 1) What do these verses say about God, and 2) What do they say about humanity?
  • eXamine your heart. As we reflect on the text, we ask what needs to be confessed, added, taken away, or maintained as a follower of Jesus.
  • Talk to others. We thank God for revealing these life changing truths and ask who needs to hear them too.

Simple, straightforward, and helpful for those who have never read the Bible with a method to aid in reading for understanding.

Questions for reflection are found in the margins.

The TEXT method is paired with the New English Translation (NET) version of the Bible. This is an accessible, readable translation. The “TEXT THE TEXT” box seen above shows you how a passage of Scripture is explored by using one step in the TEXT method, inviting further reflection.

The introduction to Ephesians.

Each book of the Bible is introduced with an overview, background information, and identification of key themes. Above, you see that Paul is identified as the author of Ephesians, a dating of the letter, a key verse, and a summation of this book’s purpose, or why it was written.

TEXT Threads are key ideas you can trace through a letter.

Each introduction also includes TEXT Threads, which are key ideas you can trace through a book. These threads are reminiscent of what you find in the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, a Bible designed to assist the reader in making broader connections as they move through the Scriptures.

The TEXT Bible has other features as well. There are about 100 short devotionals throughout which follow the TEXT method and answer, “Who is God?” These devotionals often teach a core Christian doctrinal idea (i. e., “There is Only One God” in the exploration of Deuteronomy 6:4). There is instruction on how to pray the Scriptures. There is short commentary on people and places in the Bible. There are descriptions of the different literary genres found in the Bible and definitions of key terms.

The TEXT Bible also features wide margins that are dot lined, which is great! It’s my favorite thing about the layout.

Lastly, this Bible includes a list of prophecies fulfilled at the cross, a catalog of spiritual gifts (with corresponding references), an index of passages for “Praying the TEXT,” Bible reading plans, a concordance, maps, and two ribbon bookmarks.

While this Bible could be used by anyone, it is designed for an emerging generation of readers. It plays on idioms and concepts commonly encountered while using digital media or digital devices, particularly social media and the cell phone. It is not an academic or scholarly Bible, filled with commentary or extensive background notes. Rather, it is suited to those who are new to the Bible and learning the Christian story of salvation. I can see this Bible on the lap of a teenager, reading, thinking, and jotting an occasional note.

I’ve handled countless Bibles. I’ve come to see that every Bible translation has shortcomings, some far more than others. And every “version” of the Bible has strengths and weaknesses. Scholarly, academic Bibles can be impenetrable for some lay readers; popular paraphrase translations can seem too flippant or too lacking in detail for serious readers. Bibles with commentary always represent one theological vantage point or stream over another, and word counts limit what goes in and what stay out in the introductory material, backgrounds, or notes.

This Bible has an intended audience. And I think it can connect with that intended audience. I think The TEXT is a timely presentation of God’s Word for an emerging generation. It could help a young reader get their feet under them as they explore and consider the Christian message.

If you’re interested in receiving a copy of The TEXT Bible, comment with your name and a valid email address and share the Bible translation/edition you most often read or study. One winner among the commenters will be chosen at random at the end of the week and I will contact you via email to receive your address. Your copy will be sent from the publisher.

Thanks for reading, and for those entering the giveaway good luck!

Think Before You Read

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Alan Jacobs, in a recent edition of his newsletter, quotes Oscar Wilde on choosing what to read (and what to recommend):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

  1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St. Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
  2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
  3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Pall Mall Gazette (1886)

I am occasionally asked for reading recommendations, and I tend to share what I have read, or what I have seen, or what I am confident rests along the lines of interest of the inquirer. And I occasionally have people ask me if a book is worth reading. That is an entirely different question. When that is the question, more often than not I answer, “no.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12 reads, in part, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” That verse came up repeatedly during my days in seminary, and I think of it from time to time. There are more books in print than any one person would every have time to read. More and more books are published each day. Not every concern that rises to the level of public debate is worth addressing. Not every question is worth the time and effort it would take to research. While it is delightful to learn new things and to explore new frontiers, conceding that others have more knowledge in a given area and admitting that you do not know is perfectly okay. Some books are not ours to read; some topics are not ours to master.

My advice to aspiring readers is to ask those who are well read what they are reading, to build lists, and to diligently and patiently chase authors and interests. I’ll add an admonition to pray and bring to one’s reading a faith that God is with us in our studies. We do not always appoint or choose our influences, rather, they find and grip us. This can be interpreted as a sign of divine providence. I have often heard it said, or testified, that the right books seem to find us at the right time. (Do the wrong books ever find us at the right time, or at the wrong time? Lord only knows how often we’ve been spared!)

We should not put aside our responsibility to seek faithfulness, to be discerning and discriminating with regard to what is ours to read and what is ours to set aside. We should also seek wisdom, and choose reading material that is timely and profitable for the season of life in which we find ourselves, or the line of inquiry that has been appointed for us to pursue. We should also choose that which is true and edifying, rather than trash. More reasons to be prayerful, all. In all things, desire that the Lord directs your steps.

We take one ride on this rock we call Earth. If you’re going to spend time with books, think before you read.

Summer Reading List for Kids

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This summer I’m asking my kids to read. I’m also incentivizing the program. For every book on this list my kid reads, they earn a little money. Not only must they read the book, they have to write three sentences in response to this question: “What’s the book about?” That way, they’re not only reading, but they are reading toward the aim of writing. They’re thinking about how they’d introduce or explain the book to someone else. That’s higher level stuff.

In order for me to pull together a list of books they could choose from, Molly and I asked friends and acquaintances to share titles, series, and authors we should consider. If you are someone who recommended a book, thanks! We appreciate your help. I did not include every book that was suggested. If you see something missing, and you’d like others to know about it, leave a comment on this blog post.

For the sake of parents out there, I’ve linked to Common Sense Media reviews for these titles, where available. I haven’t read all of these books. I couldn’t offer a definitively judgment on many of these titles. Some of these books are more appropriate for my preteen daughter than for my elementary age son. At home, I screen accordingly, and if you are a parent I trust you to do the same. You’re responsible for your children; I’m responsible for mine.

Also, the links below are to Amazon. If you click and purchase, a small credit returns to me. It’s not necessary or even expected. You can search the title on your own! Or, if you live in Waco, you can shop locally at Fabled, and if you live elsewhere, you can buy books at your favorite bookstore. Most of these titles are likely available as well at your local library.

Happy reading!

Baptist Identity: An Interminable Dilemma

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In authority and power in the free church tradition, Paul Harrison observed, ‘It is clear that Baptist history is freighted with ambiguity, and those who strive to establish the singularity of the tradition are on a weak foundation.’ Any attempt to write a history of Baptists must begin with such an admonition. From their beginnings in seventeenth-century Europe, Baptists have demonstrated beliefs and practices so diverse as to make it difficult to compile a consistent list of distinctives applicable to all segments of the movement at all times. Brief examples illustrate an interminable dilemma.

Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History, p. 1

Is this a strength, or a weakness?

Leonard goes on to list various Baptist compilations of those characteristics that make Baptists, Baptists. In the 1640s, Anglican Daniel Featley said the “Dippers” “dipt,” and I don’t mean snuff. The immersed people all the way into the water. No pouring or sprinkling. The didn’t baptize children, they didn’t follow a Prayer Book or set liturgical form, but worshiped God “onely by the Spirit.” They refused to take oaths under any circumstance, and they thought no Christian could, in good conscience, “execute the office of civil magistrate.” Baptists were antiestablishment. Maybe they are still. Depends on the Baptist.

A list familiar to me, written by Robert Torbet, claims the Baptists distinctives include: “(1) the authority of Holy Scripture; (2) regenerate church membership; (3) baptism by immersion as the sign of new life in Christ and membership in the church; (4) the autonomy of the local congregation; (5) the priesthood of all believers; and (6) religious liberty.”

That leaves room for a lot of nuance, and a great deal of quibbling.

If you asked me for a seventh Baptist distinctive, it would be quibbling. I prefer it when the arguments are edifying. But I guess that, too, is something to argue about.