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7 Days of Thankfulness – Extended.

So… I’ve been nominated for the ‘7 days of thankfulness’. Today I’m thankful to God, and to everyone he has put in my path to bring about the following:

1) Today I was thankful for godly company at the Christian radio station where I volunteer. Watching the love pass between three followers of Christ who are many years my senior in the faith, seeing them help and support each other in their work, and experiencing that love being passed on to me in encouragements, opportunities to exercise gifts, and assurances of prayer, was really lovely. I was inspired to watch them, and learned much about my shortcomings, and my aspirations for growing in holiness in the Lord as I mature.

2) Fretting over my parsley and basil seedlings today as I repotted them I was thankful, as a mid-twenties, single, childless woman, that I could appreciate what it is to be a cultivator of life. Time and time again, God speaks through the prophets about his children through the metaphor of a gardener delighting or lamenting over his prized plants. As I dropped everything to dive after my poor sun-scorched babies with a watering jug, there was a moment where I realised what a charade of the bigger picture I was playing out, and it was a moment of joy.

3) I was listening to a song by a French evangelical music artist today, and for reasons I’ll underline below, I was very thankful to know that this kind of song existed. French evangelical Christianity – of the native kind, not the imported kind – bears some marked differences from the Anglo-American sort. Their perceptions of what will be well-received evangelistically and what won’t, are different, and I think that this is because the fabric of French thought is different. France is the land of the Revolution, the land of the guillotine, the land of protests, the land of the enlightenment, the land of existentialism, the land of human rights. France served as a battlefield for two World Wars that rocked the world in two consecutive generations, and if they hadn’t seen enough violence, anger and death in preceding ages, they saw them then. Following the wars, many lost faith in God, humanity and the meaning of life itself, and a lot of the proponents of the Postmodern philosophy that grew out of this sentiment owe their geographical and intellectual roots to France. France has the highest rate of depression in the world. The French are not shy about death as the British are: you only need to read a translation of the lyrics of the Marseillaise, or still, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Misérables. Nor are the French squeamish about judgement – including, evidently, judgement that is retributive.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and I saw (or rather, heard) it as I was listening to my French evangelical song today. It was a song about hell. Yes, a funny thing to encounter, an evangelical song about hell, and an even funnier thing to be thankful for, but I was genuinely relieved to hear it. Of all the aspects of our beliefs that we English-speaking, British Christians like to preach and represent in our songs, hell is one we tend to push under the carpet because it is unpalatable in our culture, a culture of a nation that sapped its monarchs’ power and placed it into the people’s hands far less violently, a nation that was last successfully invaded many, many centuries ago, and subsists on a strained peace between political factions that are boiling with anger inside but dare not grumble too loudly in public lest they lose their social and/or political credibility. The British erasure of hell, with its custom of genteel silence over discontent and everything else that isn’t deemed worthy of expression in polite society – pains me. I’m tired of the justice aspect of the gospel being suppressed. I just want to hear the truth. Hell is a place where God’s righteous anger is expressed against people who perpetuate evil. As his anger is righteous, it is good, and wholly appropriate to be expressed. When we suppress hell, we shut away not only our feelings about evil and suffering – but also, I feel, we try to repress God’s anger too. What’s more, without allowing myself to feel anger and be satisfied that God will bring evildoers to justice, I find it hard to then take pity on them for the price that they would have to pay for their crimes, or to weigh my own sins up and realise the debt that I myself have been spared, and pray instead that they turn to follow Jesus and ask him to pay their debts as he paid mine. When we acknowledge God’s expressions of righteous anger and judgement, the teaching that we will be measured with the measures we use takes on new significance, and we realise the imperative of forgiving as we have been forgiven. In this way, in hiding hell, we hide a part of the gospel that is crucial as the counterpart to Christ’s atoning death: we hide the awful but merited wrath of God from which Christ’s atonement saves us. Nobody enjoys the thought of people perishing, but as long as evil is given its just desert, either on the Cross or in the other place, there is justice, and when that justice is upheld, we know that all is right with the world, and that good triumphs over evil. The song was a song that validates God’s righteous anger and champions God’s just treatment of sin, allowing it a space to be expressed, and a platform for God to be declared right in this part of his plan, that one day, those evildoers who do not turn back from their evil ways will receive the fruit of their deeds. To hear this is a consolation to those who have been wronged.

With all this, the song also carries a sobering and possibly life-saving warning: we must be mindful of where we will eventually stand when the books are cracked open, and we must act accordingly. It forces us to turn our eyes on ourselves. Listening to this truth expressed plainly and Biblically through a song was a breath of fresh air to me. I feel it would be very unwise to sing a song like this for a congregation from an Anglo-Saxon culture: there would be outcry. But hearing it, I was thankful to God that for all the brokenness from which the French nation suffers, the doctrinal blind spots of its church are different from ours, and that their cultural lens allows them to see what we often cannot. Through this song sinners can hear about what they need to be saved from, and respond to it, and I was given the space and catharsis that I needed to help me express my feelings about evil and injustice authentically and anticipate the wages of that evil, so that I could be moved to pray that God have mercy on the other evildoers as he had mercy on me. It provided relief from the straitjacket of wishful thinking – which is to me as insipid, weak and tepid as some English teas with milk and sugar can be – that tends to view with suspicion any emotion that doesn’t fall within a bland spectrum of ‘pleasant’. It is a window onto God’s rightly and justly appointed reality for those who do not belong to the covenant of forgiveness for sins in Christ’s blood. As truth, though it was hard and unpalatable, it was not dissimulated. Moreover, in its non-dissimulated form, it was a spur to action. I was very thankful that at last, the truth about God’s justice had prevailed in at least one worship culture.

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Questions Around an Article: ‘Let Darwin Teach You’ by Jon Bloom

Bloom, Jon (2014) ‘Let Darwin Teach You’, published on the Desiring God blog on 9th June 2014
http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/let-darwin-teach-you [last accessed 9th June 2014]

The Overview
I can’t decide what I think of Jon Bloom’s article. The central premise of it is that we become what we meditate on, which is one of the main points made in John Piper’s recent book, Seeking Beauty and Saying Beautifully. The article, coming from a site that is effectively John Piper’s ministry platform, probably has as its primary function to disseminate the teaching from John Piper’s new book. If we meditate on glorious things, Bloom writes, we keep our taste for glorious things, whilst if we meditate on lesser things, we may stop being able to appreciate glorious things. Scripturally, this is undergirded by 2 Corinthians 3:18 and not much else – no doubt the rest is in Piper’s book, which is available free of charge on the website in PDF format for those with the time and the will to read it. Bloom presents the testimony of an extract from Charles Darwin’s autobiography as an initial documentary case in point of an individual who lost their sense of wonder by being consumed by their meditations on lesser things – and as a warning to Christians lest they do the same.

The Issue
The mention of a scientific name popularly associated with the New Atheism movement on this conservative evangelical blog likely functions as a controversial ‘hook’ of popular interest, and to read the article with integrity, I feel that one ought not read too deeply into the conclusions made about Darwin. But for the subtler and perhaps controversial conclusions that may indirectly be drawn from Bloom’s assessment of what constitutes ‘lesser things’ – again, conclusions that Bloom might not have intended for people to draw – I’d love to be able to read the article through different eyes. I would love to read it through the eyes of a Christian who is a scientist, a Christian with a strongly analytical or systems-oriented mind, or a Christian who is a data-collecting enthusiast. And, it goes without saying, a Christian who is simultaneously in love with the God of Jesus Christ. And so I’m going to present here the extract of Darwin’s autobiography, with some of the Bloom extracts that allow controversial conclusions to be drawn – whether they are the unhappy consequence of some juxtaposed statements that Bloom didn’t really mean to insinuate, or whether there is something more deliberately meaningful in them. It is not within my power to judge whether Bloom meant these conclusions or not; far be it from me to do so, although I am aware that more politically invested individuals with Postmodernised consciences often do it by default. I am not one of those.

Jon Bloom on Darwin
Jon Bloom presents the following extract from Charles Darwin’s autobiography and then writes some evaluations that I don’t know how some people might take.

Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds … gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare…. Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Bloom’s evaluations of the passage:

All that time abstracting theories from facts so conditioned Darwin’s mind for analysis that he lost his enjoyment of beauty. He lost the forest to the trees. He lost the poetry of life to the dry prose of life data. … A similar atrophy can occur in Christians too. We can all learn from Darwin.

Darwin is a warning to us that if we spend too much time meditating on lesser things, someday we may wake up to find that we have lost our ability to find glorious things delightful or even interesting.

This made me think a lot. From a personal perspective, I certainly know where Bloom is coming from and what he might be warning Christians against. I had a season where I became so obsessed with the details and categories of Reformed theology that at my worst, when I read the Bible, the only thing I would marvel at was how well it fitted into my theological paradigms, when what I needed to do was marvel at our great God in Jesus Christ. That impoverished my spiritual life. The Bible stopped being about Christ for that period, and became about whether my theology was right or not. And what is theology really, but a lens through which we view God, as per R.C. Sproul’s analogy of a car windscreen enabling us to see the view from inside a car? Divorced from its purpose, it is useless in itself. And theologians don’t come much more Reformed than Sproul. When all you see in life and the Bible is more data or evidence to either fit into or contest your own systems and theories, you sort of become the master and determiner of all you perceive. All you then perceive when you look at a thing is either something that is ‘your system/theory’ or ‘not your system/theory’, rather than what it intrinsically is. You don’t see the thing itself any more; all you see is either something you want to see, or something you wish you hadn’t seen. All you have before your eyes is then a potential acquisition for your intellectual empire, rather than a unique thing in its own right with something in it that speaks of God’s glory in manifold, delight-inspiring and richly nuanced ways. I’ve been there, done that and worn the t-shirt, and I don’t want to go back there; it’s like a prison.

Concessions
All that said, maybe I’m just a wide-eyed Romantic at heart and am only seeing this in one of many ways. Maybe what’s spiritually unhealthy for me is healthy for other people, and helps them to bear good fruit and grow in a lively, intimate affection for the Lord and the things of the Lord. The Myers-Briggs personality test decided that I’m an INFP. I take it as a handy descriptive tool, not as a prescriber of my identity. Sit me in a garden and my first inclination would not be to weed it, make daisy chains, test whether my memory of botanical taxonomies is up to scratch and try to mentally classify all of the plants; go looking for berries, eye up the conservatory and make casual plans for my next house extension, or wonder if I ought to be somewhere else doing something more productive and anxiously wave my mobile phone around to try and get some signal. Instead I would probably stay quite still and just marvel delightedly, and wonder – like Jon Bloom – at how sad it is that some people’s greatest delight in observing such a garden lies in the fact that they’re able to reel off all the species names and care instructions, and don’t even look for the Christ-inspired beauty in the flowers themselves. And then perhaps I’d jot down a few lines of poetry or music if some inspiration comes… or an outline for my next blog entry. But some people’s first inclinations would be to do such things, and because such people can be and are children of God in Christ Jesus, then that makes all the difference. We’re a neurologically diverse church. We perceive things, and the importance in things, differently. Jon Bloom and John Piper could just be two of a kind – but then again, that might be a kind that has a greater bent towards spiritual things and wonder-inspiring things than other kinds, and that consequently has a lot to teach these other kinds.

Questions From the Floor
Is Jon Bloom then marginalizing people who don’t share his mindset? Who knows? Is awe-filled wonder at God’s glory in Scripture and things something that different people feel differently, or is the experience much more specific than that, so that it happens that some people are more predisposed to seek it out and thrive on it than others? As a humanities student this article made me wonder what scientists/medics/mathematicians who are Christians – or perhaps just people with fixations on systems and fact-collecting – might think of this article. We don’t all think/feel/perceive in the same way. Are data and theoretical systems really ‘lesser things’ to meditate on than “glimpses of glory in the Bible or in the world”? Are these things even incompatible with each other? Is this article actually saying that people who obsess over systems of knowledge and collections of facts tend to be at a spiritual disadvantage, or am I setting up a bit of a straw man there that needs further qualifying? Is Bloom even saying something more nuanced? Political correctness aside, is the statement that people like Darwin are spiritually disadvantaged by their mindset, actually true in itself?

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