Archive for January, 2010
What makes a good biography? If the biographer communicates a sustained vision of the subject’s culture, values, relationships, etc. the reader usually walks away from the book with a greater understanding of that person in their own time. What makes a good Christian biography? If the biographer communicates the subject’s commitment to Christ, how that led them to make decisions, and how that affected the world around them, the reader is encouraged to look to Christ in a similar way and walk accordingly. It’s Philippians 3:17 postmortem style.
There is a problem though: Christian biographers create a good Christian biography and forget to make a good biography. How does this happen? From the small children’s biographies of famous missionaries up to the bigger tomes on prominent theologians (Edwards included), the common mistake seems to be that in their rush to portray the subject as a Christian, the biographer forgets to substantially include the setting that gives context to the subject’s commitment to Christ.
George Marsden, thankfully, doesn’t fall into this trap. In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, he supplies both a biography and a Christian biography. Properly placing Edwards’ faith in its historical context yields much fruit for those who are familiar with his works, or for those interested in reading Edwards. Three things stood out to me:
1) I consider Marden’s biography essential reading before delving into Edwards’ theological works. I’ve read The Religious Affections and The Freedom of the Will, and my understanding of both has been greatly served by reading Marsden’s biography. When the reader understands Edwards’ postmillenial interpretation of Scripture, his works come alive. But even more so, Marden does well to show the theological and philosophical background of the day, and especially the beliefs of those whom Edwards is arguing against in his theological treatise. Religious Affections argues against the “Old Light” Puritan beliefs concerning conversion, and instead argues positively for a conversion that shows up in an individual’s emotions and experience. Freedom of the Will argues against both the Arminian understanding of soteriology, as well as a libertarian view of man’s will. I recommend both… after you read this biography.
2) I consider Marden’s biography important reading before reading other biographies on Edwards. The only other Edwards biography I’ve found especially helpful is Iain Murray’s, but even that one leans too far on the Christian side of biography. The others I’ve been acquainted with lean too far one way or the other, and are less helpful in of themselves. A helpful addition is Marsden’s examination at the end of the book on how Edwards has been viewed throughout the years by different biographers. An examination of Edwards in light of the 21st century surge in Calvinism would have been nice, but in 2003 that may have been off Marsden’s radar, and is likely too nuanced for him to include in a future edition.
3) Marden’s biography is good devotional reading. He quotes Edwards directly (as any good biographer should), showing Edwards transformation from a generally curious and inquisitive youth into a theological and philosophical powerhouse. Along the way, we see his internal struggles with his own sin, his external struggles with people, and his personal struggle with his ambition to do something great for the sake of the Gospel. It’s this ambition that I found particularly compelling. When reading other good biographies, the reader gets a sense of nuanced personal ambition. Thus, Jim Elliot wanted to take Christ where He was not named; Whitefield’s wanted to spread Christ’s fame among the churched but unconverted populace in England and America. Edwards ambition was writing for the glory of God. He saw history coming to a decisive turning point in the Church’s struggle against evil in the world, and he saw himself as a warrior in the struggle. Thus, he lended his great intellectual abilities and pen to the cause of Christ within a postmillenial framework. Today’s Church benefits from his writing, regardless of our millenial understandings.
So, Edwards becomes an example in the manner of Philippians 3:17 to show others how one pursued Christ, and by implication challenges others to follow him as he follows Christ. With head, heart, and hands, Edwards wanted more of Christ. Marden’s biography is the best introduction that I’ve read to the life of Edwards.
I first heard of Keven DeYoung when I picked up “Why We’re Not Emergent” a couple of years back. He gave a well-reasoned theological approach to discerning the newest shade of liberalism sneaking into the church, while providing a witty prose to make the book all the more interesting.
Fast forward to December, when I stumbled across an opportunity to review books for Christianaudio.com. The deal goes like this: I get a free audiobook to review, as long as I post two per quarter on my blog. Not a bad deal, and since I review books anyways, it seemed like a good match. As such, this review will comment on both the book itself and the narrator, Adam Verner. More on him in a moment.
Just Do Something comes in a long-line of books responding to popular ideas in Christianity that really have no biblical basis. Your Jesus is Too Safe was another such book I’ve reviewed recently. Many of our Americanized conceptions of spiritual life have, quite frankly, damaged the cause of Christ and caused needless anxiety for His people. Keven addresses one such conception: the mystical idea of “God’s will” that many people, young and old, seek their entire life.
Whether it be a spouse, or a job, or a friend, or a possession, we think of God’s will as exceptionally specific in each and every situation. In fact, it’s our job to find God’s specific desire for us in each area, lest we be “outside God’s will.” Keven goes about dismantling these notions with biblical truth.
First, God’s will is sometimes displayed in the Bible with specific words towards specific people. But this is not normal, for us or them. In what was quite eye-opening for me, Keven shows how often biblical characters did what seemed wise at the time. Just check out Acts 15, and the several times that “seem” or “seemed” is used as the believers in Jerusalem try to discern God’s will. Keven shows a number of other times where this is the case in Scripture: where people did what was best according to the way of wisdom.
Second, this way of wisdom is found in the Scriptures. We are people of the Book, and we’re supposed to live the normal Christian life – a life of profound attachment to the Word of God. While not discounting what Keven calls “impressions” – subjective feelings – these should not be the primary way we discern God’s will. We discern God’s will by staying close to Him through the Word. A favorite saying of mine seems appropriate: find God’s will for today and you will find it for tomorrow.
Why is this true? Because God’s revealed will for the church is Christlikeness. So, Keven argues, if a girl catches a young man’s eye, he gets to know her, she is actually godly, and all counsel given to him affirms he should pursue that girl, trusting that as he does God will make His will known. The will of God for us is our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and it’s improper to speak of God’s will apart from this.
The message of the book is freeing. Be wise about your decisions, pursue God first in everything, and then do what you want. Let God show His will through your desires. This isn’t a blank check to pursue every lust of your heart, but rather an exhortation to pursue after God first, and trust in His sovereign hand to guide you through your desires and choices to His will: your sanctification in and through who you marry, what car you buy, what career you choose, and where you settle down.
Adam Verner does a good job staying in tune with Keven’s words. I can actually imagine Keven himself writing just as Adam reads, with the dry wit, the weighty pauses, and the humorous anecdotes. He compliments the book well.
I’m notoriously known for losing things. Ask my wife. On more than one occasion, I’ve lost keys to the car, which have taken days to recover. Not a good thing when your lifestyle involves burning both ends of the candle all the time. Maybe God wants me to slow down.
The reminder to slow down strikes hardest when I lose something that is truly irreplaceable. Like Bibles.
I spent most of my high school and college years marking up various Bibles. Specifically, I had a TruTone ESV that I marked up in my morning devotions (middle Bible in this picture). For roughly 4 years, I would underline what stood out, circle what I memorized, and make bold the main propositions in each text. And then, on a camping trip two summers ago, I lost it.
Or another Bible… this time a journaling ESV. During my freshman year of college, Mr. Brent Belford told us in our Gospel survey class that we should buy a Bible with wide margins, and begin to make notes on the things we were learning. So I did that, too. Specifically I wanted nuggets of exposition that would be useful for future preaching/teaching. So for 3-4 years I wrote down comments, quotes, nuggets. As I continued to learn, I would cross out some things and put in new comments, or write what I thought about the passage. Draw huge lines across multiple pages, tracing the biblical arguments and themes. And then, this last Spring, I left the Bible at church one day, and never saw it again.
So, when I looked down yesterday evening while at Jean Jacobson’s funeral, and saw that my replacement for the above TruTone was gone, I remembered all the seeming agony I went through the previous two times I had lost my personal Bible. If God is the source, surely the Scriptures are the fountain head. The means we see and receive grace. But I had to remember… it’s not about my comments, or my thoughts. They are His thoughts that penetrate my soul and discern who I really am… and show me who I really am. I don’t need all my commentary to rightly read the Word. I need Him to read the Word.
So as I fought the urge to be disappointed last night in the wake of another bereaved Bible (I think I can use that word that way), I remembered that the Word dwells within me. I’ve spent so much time treasuring it, that the Words of Christ perhaps have began to dwell in me richly. It’s not about having the Bible, or reading the Bible. Those are just means to living the Bible… which means living as one who displays God’s own character.
It’s a means to an end… our sanctification and unification with Jesus Christ.