Just started learning Chichewa/Chinyanja, more on that again. I’m fascinated by language(s), but have always found it quite a struggle to get to any level of proficiency. This time I thought I’d check out language learning methods. I’ve just finished reading Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It (New York: Crown Publishing, 2014). It’s inspiring, though I don’t think I want to get all that many languages under my belt. But it is practical, and I’ve been applying some of the concepts and techniques to Chichewa with what I think are very satisfying results. I had tried to use Anki last year to learn Swahili and Russian, but hadn’t made much of a go of it, and have lost most of what I learned then. This time, I seem to be making great strides by taking on board Wyner’s tips and techniques for using Anki efficiently. I can definitely recommend Wyner’s book, even though at first I was very sceptical–I mean, he couldn’t be right, could he? But I think he is. Of course, you need to set aside time and put in the effort, but it seems to be working. After just 3 weeks with just about half-an-hour a day I feel I’ve progressed much further than my first year of French at school. I’m going to return to Russian and Swahili again using the techniques I’ve learned from Wyner and am expecting better results.
In P. D. James’s A Taste for Death1 there is a brief conversation about religion between Miskin and Massingham. Drawing on her school experience in an inner city comprehensive with significant racial diversity, Miskin has decided that the school’s religion was ‘anti-racism’. It struck me how negative many people’s expression of religion can be. It can express itself in attitudes like anti-racism, or intolerant tolerance. Agnosticism is essentially negative, and atheism is the ultimate negative religious expression.
Such expressions of religion are centred around a negative concept, unlike Christianity. While Christianity has a negative component in an intolerance and hatred of sin, that is more than eclipsed by the many ‘positives’ in the character of God. The ‘negativity’ is a necessary consequence of the positive perfections of God (e.g. jealousy and love), but is not central to Christianity.
To dwell on the negative is to distort biblical teaching. And to ignore or diminish the negative is also to distort it. What holds the negative and positive together in Christianity is the self-revelation of the character of God which is perfect in all its multi-faceted aspects. This unity of God is reflected in his universe, so to live in his universe without recognizing the unifying effect of his character must surely be what fuels the distortion and emphasizes the negative.
1. End of Book Five, ch. 6 (London: Faber & Faber, 1986).
I was struck by what Nicholas Carr reported1 about how reading narrative affects readers, based on the research of Keith Oatley and other psychologists. ‘Every reader of a book creates, in Oatley’s terms, his own dream of the work — and he inhabits that dream as if it were an actual place.’1
But what if the dream was real? If that world was real? I’m thinking in terms of the Bible. Why is so much of the Bible narrative? And why did the living God choose to reveal himself through the word and the Word? Could it be that we were created to respond to stories this way so that we might enter into the greatest story of all: the reality above and beyond the merely physical and temporal? Reading the Bible then would not be merely reading for doctrinal instruction, but could be almost like a virtual reality preparation for eternal reality. It could be a flight simulator to train us for the real flight where we would learn the responses required for eternity.
If it is true that ‘readers routinely speak of how books have changed them’1, and the research reported would seem to confirm that, then reading Bible narrative will actually assist the transformation that Christians call sanctification. That would underscore the divine wisdom in not providing us with a book of theology, or one entirely filled with doctrinal teaching like the New Testament letters. Narrative and doctrine are included in the Bible for good reason. God is not trying to brainwash us without our knowledge by giving us stories. He is not content for the changes that readers of biblical narrative experience to be unconscious. The overt teaching of the letters and other biblical books spell out the changes required, and explain the consequences of the undesirable lifestyle of rebellion against him. The Christian is required to engage his or her brain (Rom 12:1-2). And even in biblical narrative there are explicit evaluatory statements made about characters and actions that will guide our thinking. Generally evaluation is guided by the artful construction of the narrative, which requires the brain to be engaged.
And what of the social dimension of reading? Carr reports on the misunderstanding of the social experience of reading in the digital age as e-book publishers add interactivity features to their creations. He quotes David Comer Kidd: ‘Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience’ and comments ‘The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.’ If this is true of fiction, then what kind of social experience can reading the true narrative of the Bible produce? The impact must be much greater when we consider that Bible reading is not simply a solitary activity for the Christian, but frequently done in the context of God’s new society, the church. That is not to reduce a church Bible study group to the level of a literary reading group. But could it be that corporate Bible reading and study, attending to the preaching of the Word, and private Bible reading and study can make a much greater impact on us than we realise? Unlike fiction, believing readers of the Bible get the opportunity to live out their changed attitudes and lifestyle in a like-minded society in advance of the eternal reality.
All this relates to reading, but I wonder if a similar impact is made by storytelling. If so, that would have huge implications for how Bible narrative is preached. How great the impact of deviating from the biblical story. And it might suggest that not reading the whole story when one is preaching from a narrative passage will greatly lessen the impact of the sermon.
Well, back to living the dream . . .
1. Nicholas Carr, ‘The Dreams of Readers’, Rough Type blog, 9 Jan 2014 [online] available at http://www.roughtype.com/?p=4120
John Coleman’s recent blog posting ‘For Those Who Want to Lead, Read’,1 was a great encouragement. Not that I need, or ever have needed, any encouragement to read–it’s been a lifelong activity. What encouraged me was that he argues that reading is an essential part of leadership.
Sometimes I get really focussed on reading specific church leadership topics, or on commentaries and sermons for preaching preparation, and feel that reading in other areas is wasting time. But Coleman brings forward evidence that wide-ranging reading ‘can improve intelligence and lead to innovation and insight’. He even says, ‘reading novels can improve empathy and understanding of social cues, allowing a leader to better work with and understand others . . .’. I’m sure that’s right, as I’ve noticed that I get ideas and illustrations from outside specifically theological literature, but it’s encouraging to hear that from others.
The trick is to achieve balance and retain focus. Reading may be a lifelong activity, but it’s one we can all learn to do better. Now I have to follow up some of Coleman’s references, but I’m greatly encouraged as I do so.
1. John Coleman, ‘For Those Who Want to Lead, Read’, Harvard Business Review blog network, 15 Aug 2012, online at: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/08/for_those_who_want_to_lead_rea.html
I haven’t been blogging for quite a while now, but I’ve started a project today to add resources on preaching to this blog. I collected them while I was maintaining the Gilnahirk Baptist Church Web site, and over the next few months I’ll be adding to those resources, but during the transition most of the links will go back to the church site where the pages still exist, but are not being updated. Who knows, I might even find some time to make a few posts on the blog itself.
Tim Challies posted extract from a chapter on Alexander Whyte by Warren Wiersbe that contains wise advice on reading (and buying) books: “Book Buyers and Book Readers“.\1/ I’m all for the pencil in hand, and felt convicted this morning that I haven’t been writing more of late, though I’ve been thinking plenty about what I’ve been reading.
Thanks to my friend (Mark) Alexander for pointing out the article to (Peter) Whyte. I think we can both endorse the sentiments of the extract from our (almost) namesake!!
1. Tim Challies, “Book Buyers and Book Readers”, challies.com, 3 Apr 2011, online at http://www.challies.com/quotes/book-buyers-book-readers.
Mark Shead’s recent post “7 Ways To Upgrade Your Brain” makes some helpful points on reading, writing and thinking. I always enjoy the stimulus of reading how others view these vital activities. Now I’d better get down to a bit more thinking.
I’ve often wondered whether any recent hymn/worship song tunes are suitable for some older hymns. David Ward has come up with a really appropriate pairing of “I’ve found a friend, O such a friend” with the tune to “How deep the Father’s love”. I think that’s one we’ll want to try some Sunday soon.
Last night in our church Bible study we were discussing divine judgment. It’s hard to avoid when you’re studying Amos. There is certainly less preaching of judgment today than many of us remembered in the post war years up to the 1970s. And yet, it is a clear biblical doctrine. The problem we wrestled with at length was how we ought to talk about judgment in the contemporary world. I’m not sure we were convinced that the loud and vivid declarations of the post-war years were the way to do it today. Perhaps the decline in preaching judgment is because we no longer really believe in the wrath of God.
Today when I was reading a sermon by Phil Ryken, I came across a helpful comment he made on the necessity of preaching judgment.
In his book The Cruelty of Heresy, C. F. Allison argues that heresy is the ultimate cruelty.1 This is becuase it does not love people enough to warn them about the judgment to come or to insist that Jesus is the only way to salvation. In the end, every false theology is murderous to the soul. Teaching heterodoxy is perhaps the most unloving thing a person can do. Is any sin greater than the murder of a soul?2
That doesn’t answer the question of how to preach judgment, but it certainly puts the necessity of preaching it in sharp perspective.
1. C. FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy (London: SPCK, 1994).
2. Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy [Reformed Expository Commentary] (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2007), p.16.
I love this poem by John Nye which I came across many years ago in Symphony, a magazine of Christian poetry (No. 6, Autumn 1978).
Each closing year is as a vessel filled,
To seal and set within life’s growing store,
There to remain while living is fulfilled,
Until its contents are revealed once more.
With watchful eye and ever willing heart,
So must the Christian use each precious hour;
Then shall no day which God has given depart,
Lacking in fragrant service or in power.
The year that now has run its rapid course
May be but one of many or of few;
Our times are in His hands. Is there remorse
Or sadness, as its passing we review?
All that our Lord has given are gifts of love,
Though suffering and trial formed a part
Of that unfailing wisdom from above
Which fully understands the human heart.
God gives all needful blessings to His own;
His mercies, undeserved, mark every year;
But there is yet a task for us alone,
To work for Him in ways His Word makes clear.
Some days of this year’s vessel still remain,
Before, with God, we fill it to the brim:
May He so help us that it may contain
Only those things which will bring joy to Him!