Monday, 28 January 2008

Book Review: Humility, True Greatness

“Your friend bought you a book on humility? Someone thinks you’re proud!” Laughed my friend.
“Au contraire,” I boasted, “I’ve been asking for this book for Christmas for three years now!”

…It even took me a few seconds to realise quite how ridiculous I am! If I dare compliment myself at all, I can only say I have good taste in Christmas presents. I had a lot to learn, but C.J. Mahaney really has delivered us a gem with this one. I can honestly say this is probably the best short book I’ve read for a very long time indeed.

Humility, as Josh Harris says in the foreword, is a funny thing. Most Christians admire it in others, and are aware that they are supposed to at least appear to model it. Few put real time into thinking how best to cultivate this crucial virtue. This is curious given how many Christians know what an important trait it is. “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” says God in Isaiah 66:2. A multitude of passages could be collected to sum up this simple, but sobering truth “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” James 4:6

This book has a beautiful combination of the theoretical and the practical. C.J. provides a helpful, pithy definition of humility in “honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness”, though things he says later in the book could suggest expanding it to cover God’s greatness and our dependence on His provision. He provides a convicting explanation about why God hates pride so much and why anyone who loves God would want to work to eliminate it in their lives: pride consists in competing with God for His glory. At the same time he gives practical tips on how to work towards greater humility from “begin your day expressing gratefulness to God” through to “encourage and serve others each and every day” and “laugh often, and laugh often at yourself”.

One of the best things about C.J. Mahaney is that in everything I’ve ever read or heard from him, he never lets one eye off the gospel, off the hope of being restored through Christ Jesus and his death on the cross. Sure you’re proud, and yes, that offends God greatly, but there is hope, go to Jesus, He will put you right. The effect of this is that, to quote something John Piper once said, he is a pastor who “pierces the heart with the truth, but like a surgeon and not an assassin”. That’s why the sounding note of this book, as with everything else I’ve ever read by C.J. is “Always reflect on the wonder of the cross of Christ”.

Reading this book was quite an emotional journey for me. At times I felt ashamed, at times I laughed my head off at myself. I think that, despite being reminded of quite how proud I am, C.J. keeps the reader hopeful throughout with his relentless focus on the Gospel. I was brought to see in ever more ways how pride, like a greasy slime, coats most of my actions and pervades deeply into who I am. But in my journey, I was reminded of one of the ways humility links into one of my other big struggles, that of legalism.

At the end of the day, the gospel revolves around humility. At its very core is the recognition that you’re getting your life horribly wrong, that you yourself are rotten to the core. It’s about admitting that you need Jesus to die an agonising, humiliating, soul destroying death to get you out of the mess you’ve got yourself into. It’s about realising you can’t do it yourself and joyfully accepting that someone else has graciously, freely, lovingly done it for you. Gospel driven humility promises freedom from the endless treadmill of self reliance in a world you can’t control, freedom from anxiety about the future, and a deeper joy and love for God as you realise the wonder, the scandal of His grace in coming for people like you, for people like me. Humility, honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness would be Hell without the Gospel. With the Gospel, it is a key to untold joy in God. Humility is heavenly or hellish, depending on how well you hold to the Gospel.

You may not buy this book in the end, though I’d say it’s certainly worth considering. C.J. doesn’t have the last word on humility, and twenty centuries of Christians never had the opportunity to buy his book. I know this is one that I’ll want to reread and reread again. Whatever you do, though, don’t shy away from humility because it involves knocking yourself down a few notches. Don’t hold back, thinking that realising how bad you are might be depressing. Don’t recoil from the prospect of suffering from a constant malaise of low self-esteem. Trust God and push ahead with it. I pray that like me, though you’ll end the book with an awful long way to go, your heart will be filled with the same kind of joyful thoughts about the love and patience of God in the Gospel as mine was.

Amazing love!
How can it be
That thou my God
Should die for me?

Friday, 11 January 2008

The clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds: C. S. Lewis on the Virtues of Theological Time Travel

"Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old." - C. S. Lewis "Introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius"

Every Christian writer who encourages others to try to read some of the classics of the Christian faith quotes this somewhere, so I thought I'd be no exception. Old books are rather out of fashion, though there has recently been a bit of a revival of interest. Lots of people find them hard to get into with their thees and thous and words you've never heard of, lots have simply never heard of the older books and don't know where to start and others, I think, assume that whatever the earlier Christians have, we must have built on it to make something better. Afterall, if you wanted to learn about getting from A to B, you wouldn't look for a horse and cart, that was fine for its time, but now we have cars. Together with C. S. Lewis, I hope to illustrate a couple of the benefits of theological time travel.

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books."

Another way of saying this is that people from deep in the past come from different cultures to our one, even if they came from the same country and spoke broadly the same language as us. There were some things that seemed completely natural to people in 17th Century England, that would seem equally completely alien to people in 21st Century England. The Church Fathers, almost exclusively Greeks and Romans, started with different background ideas to the ones we do. That means that when they come to the Bible, they asked a different set of questions. These days people ask how God can be loving and still punish sin with Hell. In the old days people asked how God could be just and still save sinners.

People in the Middle East, with their background in Islam, imagine God to be something much bigger, much more powerful and much more remote than the superman grandfather-in-the-sky image that is current in modern Western Culture, where the idea of God as Father has been exaggerated to the extent that He is no longer King. Consequently, people coming to Christ in the Middle East ask how God could possibly abase himself so much as to become a man - and not a powerful man either, and then die an agonising death for sinners, all of which seems so natural to us that we have a tendency to risk losing our appreciation of it. We, on the other hand, struggle with the idea that God is completely sovereign over everything that happens, and has the right to tell us what to do.

That means that if we were to sit down and study Phillippians 2:5-8 "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Our brother, who lives for Christ in a background dominated by Islam, will remind us quite what a scandal it is that God should become man and suffer for sins, the the Holy and Righteous God who made the Heavens and the Earth should be shamefully treated as the worst of criminals by wicked men who proudly put themselves above him. This in turn deepens and augments our appreciation of the very thing we thought we understood better in the first place: the very great love God has for us. Verses like John 3:16 or Galatians 1:4, or the power of the argument Paul uses in Romans 8:32 "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" suddenly take on a new and deeper significance by taking on board the insights that Christians who faithfully interpret the Bible in the context of their own struggles can give us.

But of course, all cultures have unbiblical attitudes which they foster as well. I'm not trying to suggest that foreign cultures or older time periods are inherantly better than our own. Nor am I trying to claim that coming to the Bible with a different set of questions and assumptions makes for better theology. Sometimes, people just get it plain wrong. Augustine understood things about the power and grace of God which the modern Church desparately needs to hear. He also thought that the state should persecute heretics. If his thinking sparked the Reformation, it equally sparked the Spanish Inquisition. We cannot, we must not treat the teachings of men, any man, no matter how brilliant or respected that man may be, as though they were next to the Bible. We know that Augustine's thinking on Salvation by grace and grace only from start to finish is right because it is in the Bible, and we know the Spanish Inquisition is not right because it is not. But this is the beauty of Theological Time Travel: it shows us things we get wrong, while we are largely innoculated against many of the things the men of the past got wrong. As Lewis puts it:

"Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."

A final benefit I'd point out is contained in the Biblical maxim "There is nothing new under the sun". A lot of the things that we struggle with are things countless other people have struggled with before us, and we can learn a lot by looking at the good and bad ways they dealt with it. When Alaric, leader of a gothic army, sacked the city of Rome in 410AD, people thought the world was going to end. Literally. A city that had dominated the known world, and enjoyed impregnible security for 900 years was at the mercy of Barbarians. Jerome wrote "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?". He withdrew to a cave, and waited for the end of the world. Augustine was spurred on to write one of his finest works: The City of God. He reminded people living at a time of unimaginable turmoil that our home is Heaven, and while we live for the time being in the City of Man, and should work for its benefit, our treasure lies elsewhere. He also pointed out that the barbarian invasions brought in a mass of people that previously the Church had not reached. Missionaries had by and large not gone to them, so God had sent them to the missionaries. Before long, many barbarians had become Christians. Today, western culture is seeing a huge influx of muslim immigrants. Again, many in the church are acting as if the world is about to end. How many are remembering that it is difficult and dangerous to send missionaries to the countries from which they come, and that by and large most churches haven't paid much interest in doing so? We have a unique opportunity to reach muslim people who can greatly help us in the task of proclaiming Christ to people from other muslim cultures.

To finish where we started, if you must read either only the new, or only the old, read the old, old books of the Old and New Testaments. But God has been generous to us and given us not only the Word, but also teachers to expound that word to us. We would do well not to neglect the gifts that God has given his Church in the centuries gone by.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Puritan Perusals

One of the main motivations for starting this blog was to put up useful things from my reading this reading plan for some of the shorter (or more successfully abridged) works of the 17th Century English Reformed community. This is partly so I actually read them and take in what they're saying, but also to remind me of them later.

If you want to take part, the reading plan's up there. Over here in the UK most of the books are priced at about £5-£6 from The Banner of Truth Trust or on Amazon. None of the books are as long as 300 pages, so there's a requirement of less that 10 pages a day in a small paperback (some months it's less than five pages!). It's not too late to start this month's book (in fact I don't have it yet) because it's only 128 pages long. If you live in the States I gather there some kind of discount you can get from here.

Every Blessing!

Rev'd Dr Who

Puritan Perusals from Other People

If you want to join the discussion that other bloggers will be putting up on the Puritan reading challenge, the best place to go is probably Timmy Brister's blog, where he'll be putting up some kind of collection of links fairly shortly. The suspense is starting to get to me...

Rev'd Dr Who

The voyage begins...

I've started this blog just to post up favourite thoughts from books I'm reading or have read, as well as a few books reviews. From time to time perhaps I'll mention if I'm doing anything else.

As far as the name is concerned, you should know before we start that I'm not an ordained member of any denomination, nor do I hold a PhD, DD or anything of the like. I'm not a Timelord either. I'm an undergraduate studying for a BA in French, German and Spanish at St John's College, Durham, UK.

The name is taken from a sermon delivered by the Rev'd Dr Stephen Hampton (who is both a real Rev'd and a real Dr!... Also a real legend) who was at the time Senior Tutor of St John's College. It would take too long to explain the context, and even then you'd never be able to understand the wonder that is Stevie H.

I have chosen this name for my blog because I hope to read a lot of books from outside my "home century" as C.S. Lewis once put it, dotting forward and backwards in time like Dr Who, the protagonist of a cult TV sci-fi drama.

I hope you enjoy my random musings.

Rev'd Dr Who