I wrote a review for The Englewood Review of Books, and you can read it here.
James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God begins with a surprising soul training exercise (or spiritual discipline): sleep.
Back in 2009, I found myself in a seminar with Smith during a Renovare’ conference in San Antonio. Jim told us, “Tonight, when you go to your hotel, I want you to pray the 23rd psalm as you fall asleep. Don’t set an alarm. Sleep until you wake up, even if that results in your being late to our morning session.”
Sleep is a Need, Not a Luxury
When we’re sleep deprived, our lives don’t work right. Sleep deprivation has physical effects. And those physical effects have emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual consequences. The various dimensions of the human person are connected.
In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin writes:
At one time or another, you’ve probably thought that if only you could sleep less, you’d get so much more done. Or that you could just borrow time by sleeping one hour less tonight and one more hour tomorrow night. As enticing as these may seem, they’re not borne out by research. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example going to be late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.p. 189, emphasis mine
Levitin’s book is focused on brain science and how we deal with information overload. A big way we can help our brains keep things straight is by organizing our time, activity, and environment in ways that support cognitive well-being. This includes how we schedule sleep.
Regular Sleep is Good Stewardship
The implications for the spiritual life are plain. Jim Smith is right: sleep is cornerstone exercise for the training of the soul. As human beings we are finite and limited. But God is not. Each time we lay down to rest, we trust God to care for us and watch over us during the night. We also trust, and welcome, that moment when God raises us up for another day to serve, to grow, and to walk in relationship with God and others.
Carl Trueman has written an article at First Things in which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.
“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.
In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.
A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.
Look At All These Rumors
Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:
In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.
Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.
But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:
So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.
Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.
But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?
No Need for Anxiety
Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.
Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.
- When a public official lectures the media on matters with which I agree, they are performing a valuable public service for which they should be praised and given thanks.
- When a public official lectures the media on matters with which I disagree, they are performing a disgusting act which is plainly and obviously a waste of time and taxpayer money.
In Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind, he writes about ways we engage with our “social world,” noting a handful of ways the internet is changing those interactions.
While he concedes that matchmaking has been around for centuries, when turning his attention to dating and relationships Levitin observes:
The biggest change in dating between 2004 and 2014 was that one-third of all marriages in America began with online relationships, compared to a fraction of that in the decade before. Half of these marriages began on dating sites, the rest via social media, chat rooms, instant messages, and the like. In 1995, it was still so rare for a marriage to have begun online that newspapers would report it, breathlessly, as something weirdly futuristic and kind of freakish.p. 130
I wonder: what are those numbers today? This 2017 study by a Stanford sociologist found that online dating is now the foremost way most U. S. couples meet. What has led to this immense shift? Levitin states, “This behavioral change isn’t so because the Internet itself or the dating options have changed; it’s because the population of Internet users has changed.”
In other words, the internet is where people live. Molly and I didn’t meet on the internet, but we became better friends because we corresponded via email and chatted on AOL.
Pros and Cons
Levitin concedes that “the Internet has helped some of us to become more social and to establish and maintain an larger number of relationships.” But that’s not all. “For others, particularly heavy Internet users who are introverted to begin with, the Internet has led them to become less socially involved, lonelier, and more likely to become depressed.”
When we’re online, we miss a lot of cues, a lot of signals that we learn to interpret and respond to as we build relationships with others. Maybe we’re adapting. But maybe not. How has this effected young people? Levitin writes, “Studies have shown a dramatic decline in empathy among college students, who apparently are far less likely to say that it is valuable to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings. It is not just because they’re reading less literary fiction, it’s because they’re spending more time along under the illusion that they are being social.”
I’ve been debating and thinking about the effect of the web on human relationships for a while, making applications to the church. I don’t think the internet is going away, and I see a lot of positives. I wouldn’t be connecting with you right now if I hadn’t learned how to publish to the web.
But I also see the negatives. I think social media, on the whole, is toxic, a corrosive acid that eats away at the social fabric. Our dependence on the smart phone and our addiction to notifications keeps us in a constant state of shallow thinking and distraction. Face to face, in person relationships are richer. Conversations are better when phones are in another room, and not in the middle of the table or on top of the desk.
Discerning the Times
As I said, however, the internet isn’t going away, and our use of various web based tools is currently rewiring the human brain, redefining the boundaries of our relationships, and making connections possible that could not have happened in another age.
We need to understand what’s taking place right now, and offer wisdom that is applicable to our times. Awareness of ways the internet is changing us is step one.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.Jim Elliot
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?Jesus, Matthew 16:24-26
Christians believe there is only one person to whom we can surrender, to whom we can cede authority, giving that person everything, and who, in return, offers us gain that cannot be taken away. Jesus is that person. To acknowledge God as God means conceding we are not God.
James Bryan Smith, in his book The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom, explains this well:
Formation in Christlikeness depends on surrender; failure to surrender is a sickness unto death; I cannot find rest until I surrender; I am exchanging a lesser for a greater; and giving what I cannot keep in exchange for what I cannot lose is wise, not foolish. Deep reflection on these realities goes a long way toward helping me choose to take up my cross and die to myself.
Some surrender to cultural pressures, social pressures, familial pressures, or fashionable pursuits of money, sex, or power. Surrender to Christ instead. Only in him will you find an eternal, inexhaustible gain, a life that truly is life.
Larry Hurtado writes:
In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance. At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.” It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition. (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)
More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17. On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.” But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.
Over the shoulder, and through the heart.
The image is born of my years pondering pedagogy, of what we teach, the way we teach, and why it matters. Though a thousand things could be said about what good teaching is and isn’t—which in reality is a perennial challenge in every century and every culture—the contrast between “I teach history” and “I teach students” begins to get at the problem. The same is true of philosophy, of engineering, of business, of biology, of literature, and yes, of theology, maybe especially of theology. What is the task of teaching? And when does teaching move from information to transformation?
What changes a mind and a heart? A pedagogy that understands that the truest learning is always and everywhere “over the shoulder, and through the heart.” Simply said, it is why Jesus, the rabbi of the rabbis, begins his teaching by saying, “Come and see.” If you want to know, you will have to enter into what you want to learn; in Michael Polanyi’s great insight, you will have to “indwell” what you want to know. If we fail to show that words can become flesh, our best efforts stumble, which is why the vision of “incarnation” is the heart of the truest theology and also the heart of the truest teaching.
In these days of remembering J.I. Packer, now two weeks after his death, ordinary folk in ordinary places the world over have in an almost-cosmic chorus said, “Packer changed me—everything that matters most to me I see differently because of him.” To think about that for a moment is truly amazing. What was it in him? What was it about him? There was something profoundly transforming of his theological vision and the way he communicated it. Yes, he was brilliant, but it was something more, because he was more. A Puritan scholar of the highest order, yes, but it was his ability to draw ordinary people in—over his shoulder, through his heart—that transformed people throughout the English-speaking world and far beyond. A theology for life in the very best way.Dr. Steven Garber, Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College and Director of Regent’s Master of Arts in Leadership, Theology, and Society program, “Reflections on Knowing God & Knowing J.I. Packer“