Putting Our Remarkable Minds to Use

It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.

– A. O. Wilson, Better Living Through Criticism, 12

This brings to recollection a recent conversation with a friend who said that listening to a sermon is one particular time during his week in which he brings the full measure of his mental focus to bear upon an occasion, an event, noticing every word, the tone, nuances, and inflection. He listens, deeply and carefully. The stakes are high. That is why, for him, it is so important that the sermon contain a thread he can follow, one he can learn from. In doing so, not only is he seeking to take the sermon and the person delivering the sermon seriously, he is also putting his mind to use and paying his own experience the honor of taking it seriously.

He’s engaged in criticism. Criticism notes what is lacking, but it also elevates what is worthy of attention, lest we miss it. It is possible to engage in the practice of criticism while being charitable, civil, and even kind. In other words, everyone can be a critic, and in some sense should be. But criticism must be accompanied by other virtues if it is to be Christian.

The sermon is art. So is the essay, the blog post, the photograph, maybe, also, the caption. The job of the sermon, as well as these other art forms, is not only to fill the mind or inform the soul, but to offer and invite us toward freedom–to think, to change, to grow. To be serious.

Once that freedom is received, what we do with that freedom is up to us. The possibilities begin when we put our remarkable minds to use, when we get serious.

I can think of no other subject about which we should be so serious, as well as so joyful, as that of contemplating God and the things of God.

Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.

Prayer is Reciprocal Exchange

Praying together and praying for one another is in Paul’s mind one of the most important ways Christians utilize the spiritual connections they have with one another in Christ. The language he uses to describe the activity of praying with and for suggests that in his mind it is a strenuous and vigorous effort. The synagonizo compound combines syn with agon, a Greek word that comprises a larger “agon motif” in Paul’s epistles. It is a motif or cluster of synonyms all built around the athletic imagery of ancient Greece and Rome. All of the terms that comprise the motif in Paul’s letters “suggest the thought of exertion and maximum endeavor.” Prayer for Paul was not a passive folding of the hands in a serene posture of worship but an active exertion of maximum effort in collaboration with other Christians. He viewed it as a legitimate engagement with him in ministry and often requested that his coworkers in ministry pray specifically for him as he prayed for them (2 Cor 13:9; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:4; Col 1:3, 9; 1 Thess 1:2; 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2). Paul’s prayer relationship with his churches and coworkers was a reciprocal exchange of ministry effort that produced mutual spiritual benefit for all involved. Paul prayed for his churches and coworkers and he asked them to pray for him.

– Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth Through Online Education, 158. Emphasis mine.

One of the ways I have encouraged fellow Christians to support their ministers as well as their fellow congregants is to pray for them, and I have often asked friends in ministry to pray for me. The most meaningful gift I have received from those I have served with and alongside has been their prayers, for in the knowledge I am being prayed for I have found encouragement, a sense of shared commitment to God’s calling, and a deepening love. When someone tells me they are praying for me and then follows through, I experience incredible joy.

Lowe and Lowe write that prayer is an effort of “reciprocal exchange” that builds up all parties involved. It not only results in God strengthening and guiding the minister, but the strengthening and guiding of the whole body of Christ. Prayer unites the thoughts and actions of the body of Christ, heightens sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and deepens commitment to Jesus, his calling, and his way.

Pray for those in your fellowship. Pray for your pastors and leaders. Invite others to pray for you. Through prayer, God builds you up and strengthens those around you. This is so not only for your benefit, but for the world’s sake, and, ultimately, for the glory of God.

In Plain English

A free confession is a condition of full remission and when the sin is public the confession must be public. If the minsters of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift here to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they sin in English, they must hear of it in English.

– Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 15

Richard Baxter was an Englishman, churchman, and minister who lived from 1615 to 1691. The Reformed Pastor, an instructive treatise on the ministerial vocation, was written in 1655.

In it, Baxter advocated for clerical reform. He believed ministers should be faithful and diligent in service. He believed many were not and should be called to account. He felt it was his responsibility to rebuke his fellow clergymen and to call for change.

In Baxter’s preface, we discover that other ministers objected to his instructions, particularly when he named their failings in the common tongue–English. His opponents preferred Latin so that only the clergy could read it. But Baxter thought publishing in English was necessary and of the greatest possible help. By writing in English, congregants would remember their clergy were like them and find assurance that their pastors would lead the way in repentance.

Clergy and congregation were together in the same boat.

Baxter writes:

If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water and stop the leaks should be sporting or asleep, yea, or but favour themselves in their labours, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awake them to their work, and call out on them to labour as for your life? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man were well in his wits that would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, self-conceitedness, or unmannerliness to talk so saucily to your fellow workmen? or should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say: ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men : is the ship ready to sink and do you talk of reputation? : or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfulness?’ This is our case, brethren. The work of God must needs be done : souls must not perish while you mind your worldly business, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren : nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church to greater danger and confusion.

– Baxter, 16

Baxter calls on his fellow pastors to get to work, for it was not only their lives that depended on it but the lives of all those in their care. He wanted other ministers to hear his message and also wanted congregants to be aware so that they too could see the need for the whole church to enter a season of repentance and a time of dedicated prayer for renewal.

He adds, “I speak all this to none but the guilty; and thus I have given you those reasons which forced me, even in plain English, to publish so much of the sins of the ministry, as in the following treatise I have done.”

It has been said the church is more of a hospital for sinners than a mausoleum for saints, though it is in fact a place of formation, care, exhortation, and responsibility for both. All, in this respect, will be accountable for their fervor, dedication, and obedience to the calling of Christ. Imperfect clergy are part of an imperfect church; both are counting on a perfect salvation offered by a perfect Messiah. And we need one another in order to be faithful.

Yet the pastoral vocation does bring with it the responsibility to direct the hearts and minds of the people toward God and to walk with the people in holiness. Ministers should bear that weight and own that facet of their calling.

Baxter understood that if the church is in trouble, the first people called to repent are her ministers. This demonstrates the clergy have understood several essential and related truths: that salvation is by grace, that the power of God transforms, that forgiveness is ours in abundance, and that service in the kingdom of God is a great privilege. These truths are for the whole church, not the minsters only. But by leading the way in repentance, there is greater possibility for new direction and new life for the body as a whole.

True is Better than Done

While viewing a documentary I saw a sign above the desk of a journalist which said, “True is better than done.” I searched the web for the phrase and the top results were a series of links offering and explaining a different saying: “Done is better than perfect.” The former fits well with journalism and other forms of knowledge work. The latter jives better with creative enterprises like the visual arts, creative writing, or graphic design.

In creative work, it is possible to become so obsessed with imperfections that one never ships and never shows. Fear and doubt prevent completion, even if the work itself is excellent and all that is lacking is the click of the word “publish” or “send.” The artist holds off on sharing, believing the work could be perfect with one more tweak, a little more time, and one additional, elusive dash of inspiration.

But the work may be done. It may never be perfect. Done, rather than perfect, might be the state of affairs. All that is left is to unveil the work, take criticism, and refine your craft before telling the next story, composing the next image, or shooting the next subject. Creative work involves the viewer, the reader, as a critic. The critic helps the artist take the next step.

In knowledge work, such as journalism, you desire to write in a way that coheres with and explains reality. You want it to be true, not perfect, and not just done. There is only one way to be confident you are done: the story you have told is true. A true story does not have to be perfectly told. Journalism is meant to inform the citizenry, to put the truth to the public. It involves the citizens. The citizens help the knowledge worker take the next step, offering new leads, a new chapter, a follow up, another project.

Both the theologian and the preacher can learn from the knowledge worker and the creative worker (speaking of the arts; all work involves creativity). Theologians are like journalists, in this instance an example of the knowledge worker. They labor hard for the truth, and they help preachers and the whole of the church to familiarize themselves with the best of the tradition, the times, and their text, which in the Christian tradition is the Bible.

Preachers are theologians. Yet, there is a sense in which their vocation involves elements of the creative worker. Every sermon, every new venture, if it is led by the Spirit, will have a mysterious element, an element that is hidden and yet to be revealed, an outcome and a reception that can only be discovered in the sharing. Work may be presented as done but not perfect, yet also true. Once the Word of God is proclaimed by the preacher, delivered prayerfully and humbly, it is hoped that there is an illumination, a revelation of what God is up to in the midst of the world.

The theologian and the preacher, both, are doing work that involves the congregation, the church. The church helps the preacher and the theologian take the next step, using their voice to discern truth from error, and their lives as a testing ground for that which is offered, a place to explore and to discover the mysterious and manifold ways of the Spirit.