Why to do a covenant Bible Overview
This term I am teaching the first year Cornhill students a Bible Overview. There are many ways of doing Bible Overviews, and I have benefitted so much from Graeme Goldsworthy and Vaughan Roberts on the 'kingdom', and more recently Christopher Ash on 'scattering' and 'gathering'.
As I was reflecting on how I would do the Bible Overview this term, I felt that it would be helpful to do it through the covenants. I was going to blog why I went for a covenant Bible Overview, but it seems that Liam Goligher has already very helpfully hit the nail on the head. Have a look at what Liam says here:
Review of Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering passion and wonder, by Richard Winter. Published by IVP US (ISBN 978-0-8308-2308-6). Available from The Book Depository for £8.94.
I recently heard RIchard Winter (Professor of Practical Theology at Covenant Seminary in St Louis) at an Oak Hill teaching day. He is a Brit living abroad – a psychiatrist by training and a relatively prolific author and speaker. This 160 page book is a fairly meaty treatment of the subject of boredom. It's, at times, rather hard going for someone like me who is a simple analytical soul – I'm careful not to say "boring" for reasons that will soon become apparent! It did get me thinking about the whole subject of boredom – from what it means when our daughters echo the common refrain, "Dad, I'm so bored" to what it means pastorally dealing with a bored generation. Lots of helpful stuff – even though you have to wait for the end of the book for it to become a really Christian book.
Perhaps that is because of where Richard is experienced and coming from – and, for sure, a thorough and detailed analysis can be helpful – but I wanted the Christian stuff earlier. Nevertheless, it's not a huge book so you don't have to wade through treacle to get to the treasure.
It also, BTW, has perhaps the best opening line I've come across for some time.
No-one was bored on September 11th 2001.
Winter is convinced that Rowan Williams is right (!). Writing in the Sunday Times in 2001, he said:
We live in a deeply and dangerously bored society.
The first half of the book maps our what boredom is; what causes boredom (understimulation, repetition and disconnection), what the various types of boredom are, and how our modern world has exacerbated the problem. 100 years ago we worked 70 hour weeks and lived to 40. Now we live to 70 and work 40 hours a week – giving us 22 years more of leisure to fill. He describes a family who took part in a reality TV show where they had to live like Frontier families for a period of time.
One family was interviewed after their return from the Montana cabin to their Malibu mansion. One of the children was having a hard time adjusting to a life where basic needs are met so much more easily. She said, "Life in 2001 is boring. Where's the fun in going to the mall every day?" (p33)
Winter then analyses the reason why boredom is an increasing issue:
- retreat from community
- overstimulation which dulls reactions (especially from the entertainment industry)
This last point is most interesting. He argues that the volume of advertising and the creation of a sense of coveting which is never fulfilled has contributed significantly to the culture of boredom in which we find ourselves.
Could it be that some have become so chronically disappointed by false promised and unfulfilled wants that they have shut down their deepest longings and desires and become apathetic and bored? The enticements to more exciting things have to get louder to catch our dulled attention…people give up hope and expectation that anything could ever give them deep pleasure." (p48).
It's at this point that I wish Winter had started to introduce more Christian analysis of the situation. He does this briefly, but it's only really at the end of the book that his analysis becomes biblical rather than psychological. He does get there in the end, but the book feels as though it's lacking by not having more in depth Christian comment woven throughout.
The next section of the book deals with the connection between personality and boredom (how different temperaments might be more susceptible to boredom, for example) – and even (p69) a test to take to see how susceptible to boredom one is. He then analyses how people have seen boredom historically and this is where things begin to get really good.
Winter argues that, historically, boredom was seen as a sin (and he differentiates it from depression and grief here). The puritans, he says, understood this and preached this strongly. They saw that boredom was fundamentally an internal problem rather than (as people say today) an external one. Moreover, the reason that boredom is more of an issue today is that the decline of religion has led people away from the view that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. "Boredom is opposite to faith." Therefore,
to avoid boredom we need to have a sense of meaning and purpose in life. (p95)
The reality of a personal Being who has created the Universe and us for a purpose imbues meaning to every aspect of our busyness. This Christian perspective on life encourages our deep involvement in relationships and our creativity in developing the resources that God has given us to enjoy. (p99)
Failure to tackle boredom, Winter argues, has led to some of the deep problems we see in society today:
- sexual addiction, especially pornography
- risk taking (written before the banking crisis!)
So, how do we counteract boredom? Winter has six suggestions:
- remember the big picture
- delight in the ordinary
- cultivate wonder
- develop a passion
- practise active engagement with the world
- FLOW (read the book to see what this means, I'm not sure I can summarise!)
His last chapter is the most Christian and, as a consequence, the best with helpful instruction for preachers, pastors and parents alike. Calling us to reflect on and to reflect the character of God, he says:
[God] is the one who helps us patiently endure the inevitable moments of frustration and boredom. As we live in a relationship with him and in the light of what he has told us about the world and what we are to desire, our perspective on the often difficult and boring is, day by day, little by little, transformed. As we see things more and more from God's point of view, we find there is rarely time to be bored!" (p142).
Yesterday, I started reading Richard Winter's Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment (review coming shortly). One of the things that struck me about what he says (and he is a psychiatrist, so I guess he should know), is the remarkable capacity for the human mind to think all manner of things. Quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Eve Zeisel, the ceramic designer who was imprisoned in Moscow's Lubyanka prison for over a year by Stalin's police, kept her sanity by figuring out how she would make a bra out of materials at hand, playing chess against herself in her head, holding imaginary conversations in French, doing gymnastics and memorising poems she wrote. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how one of his fellow prisoners in the Lefortovo jail mapped the world on the floor of his cell and then imagined himself travelling across Asia and Europe to America, covering a few kilometres each day. The same "game" was independently discovered by many prisoners, for example Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect, who sustained himself in the Spandau prison for months by pretending he was taking a walking trip from Berlin to Jerusalem in which his imagination provided all the events and sights along the way.
The capacity for the human mind to imagine can be dangerous territory for the believer (I know this is true, as I'm sure you do!). We can't empty our minds of thoughts; it's a question of focus, as my reading in Philippians reminded me this morning:
Whatever is TRUE, whatever is NOBLE, whatever is RIGHT, whatever is PURE, whatever is LOVELY, whatever is ADMIRABLE, if anything is EXCELLENT or PRAISEWORTHY – think about such things.
So, I've been meditating on this today. How I need this!
Book review: Proclamation and Theology by Will Willimon
William Willimon: Proclamation and Theology (Abingdon Press)
It’s my reading week this week so I’ve got four books lined up to read, learn from and then review for The Proclaimer. This is the first. I forget now who recommended that I should read it (though I have a notion it may have been Garry Williams at the John Owen Centre). Nor do I know anything about the author – William Willimon is apparently a Resident Bishop in the United Methodist Church in the US – but I have no idea what that means in terms of theological position – nor did I try to find out; I wanted to read this book on its own merits, not because I share the doctrinal convictions of the author!
The book is based on three lectures on preaching given by the author and at times it feels like there has not been enough work done on editing and making it a book rather than a printed lecture. So, for example, there are times when it seems that Willimon is contradicting himself, albeit gently:
“We must recover a sense of preaching as something that God does – a theological matter before it is an anthropological matter – preaching is the business of God before it is our business” (p19).
He goes on to explain that this means the primary issues are of understanding truth, not playing to the gallery of our hearers.
“The Christian preacher is so much more interested in the nature of the God who is to be brought to speech rather than the nature of the listeners who are to hear the speech or in the limits or attributes of the speaker who must give the speech” (p41).
But he then later berates preachers who are “prejudiced against concerning themselves greatly with matters of style and delivery….in preaching, style is substance, the way truth is presented is part of the truth.” (p43). At times, then, there is the lack of internal consistency.
At other times, the book seems rather bitty – like a collection of thoughts strung together when a lecturer has reached the end of his allotted time and realised he still has a lot to say. Whilst this often works in a spoken context, it rarely does in a written one and I found those parts of the book hard going.
However, I don’t want to paint a negative picture. Far from it – this is a good book, especially in its initial defence of preaching as God means of communicating himself and growing the church. The first third of the book (probably the first lecture?) is a robust defence of what I would call “biblical preaching.”
The author also uses a puritan type language to align the work of preaching (both public proclamation and private exhortation) with prophecy.
“From my reading of Acts 2 and Luke’s account of the birth of the church I derive a few principles of prophecy: (1) The Spirit has given the world a prophetic community not simply a few outspoken social critics; (2) The goal of the Spirit’s descent is the creation of a polis a people who look, speak and act differently from the world’s notions of community; and (3) No individual prophets are possible without the existence of a peculiar prophetic community whose life together is vibrant enough to produce a band of prophets who do not mind telling the truth to one another and the world, no matter what” (p26-7).
He also has a high view of the nature of Scripture which is helpful for every preacher.
“The Bible was spoken before it was written….All Scripture is, in its various forms, proclamation remembered, recollected, and reformed in literary form. We will read Scripture in a way that is faithful to its intentions if we read Scripture as a sort of sermon before we read it as history, mythology, literature, biology or doctrine. Scripture may proclaim through literary modes that resemble what the world calls history or literature or myth or cosmology but we do the Bible a disservice any time we read it without being cognisant of its essentially theological, homiletical intent” (p32-33).
This high view of the nature of Scripture as essentially God’s sermon means that Willimon has a corresponding and welcomed high view of preaching itself. So the preacher is not analaysing an ancient text like a scholar with Homer’s Iliad, “desperately hoping to make this ancient writing relevant to a contemporary audience” but, rather, that “here, the living, resurrected Christ, intends to be with his people…Scripture is God in action, not just then but also now.” (p39).
The strong exhortation to think about serving God as our main aim is an encouragement to every preacher.
“[This is] different [to the] approach of contemporary homiletics. We tend to think of that the test of a sermon is the impact upon the listeners. Have they heard what is said? Do they consent to the argument? Are they emotionally moved? Have their lives been enriched?” However, “we are to love the text more that we love our congregational context. We preachers are to worry more about what is being said and how well we can replicate that word than we are to worry about whether or not what is being said is being heard in the world” (p20).
The second two thirds of the book though seem weaker. This may be because I have fundamental difficulty with the way Willimon applies his principles (with which I largely agree). For example, on the style of preaching,
“Biblical preaching tends to be narrative rather than abstract or propositional or theoretical because narrative is the typical way of dealing with the truth of a Trinitarian incarnate God” (p48).
“so-called expository preaching is not truly biblical when the extracted idea is expounded and applied, turning biblical narrative into abstract, general concepts and principles.”
I think I know what he is saying, but it’s not a helpful way to say it. For sure, those of us committed to biblical preaching can lack variety in our preaching (and I think Jeffrey Arthurs is best on this in his book Preaching with variety). Nevertheless, the epistles, for example, which Willimon acknowledges as God’s sermon, do precisely what he denigrates here – they do present the truth of a Trinitarian incarnate God in propositional terms.
Later on Willimon explains a bit more what he thinks it means to preach a Trinitarian God, but this section only gets 3½ pages and has some strange conclusions, for example,
"The conventional three point sermon, the sermon that explains, defines and fixes, is usually too tame and stable a medium for the dynamic living Trinity. Most of us preachers require a three year cycle of Scripture in the Common Lectionary..” (p64).
In the penultimate section “cross and resurrection in preaching” the author gives almost 5 pages to “Cruicform preaching” (which consists of 5 slightly abstract and unconnected thoughts) but gives 15 pages to “Resurrection preaching.” I would be the first to admit that Evangelicals can neglect the Resurrection at the expense of the Good Friday story – but I can’t go with Willimon’s balance. He links with crucifixion with “failure” in our preaching and the resurrection with “potential” (p79) but I’m not sure that this is a parallel that really works.
It’s easy, of course, to find fault rather than praise excellence and there is much in this book that is excellent and worthy reading for any preacher. Nevertheless, I finished up feeling a little cold about preaching rather than warmed and stirred. My initial enthusiasm gave way to befuddlement as concrete propositions gave way to somewhat confused (to my mind) application. Perhaps the book needed to be longer to allow Willimon to make his points more clearly?
Greg Jones (Duke Divinity School) wrote the blurb. “Will Willimon explains the urgent importance of preaching for the church and for people’s lives and he commends it beautifully as a theological task.” Yes, he does do that – I agree. But it is what he then does with his principles that left me feeling ever so slightly cold and more than a little dazed.
Avoiding boring sermon illustrations
Experienced preachers often suggest younger ones should start a file of sermon illustrations. There isn’t really any other way to avoid recycling illustrations everyone has heard before.
The trouble – at least for me – is that this involves an awful lot of organisation. You have to remember to write it down when the inspiration hits, or you hear that perfect story. Then you have to remember to file it properly. And you have to file it in the right place. There are plenty of illustrations that cross categories – that might be useful to illustrate humility, but seem more sensibly filed under marriage. Neither paper nor, until recently, computers, offered solutions to that problem that are anything other than baroque – at least if you build up a file of any size.
Recently I discovered a solution that is both simple and free: Evernote. This program will file whatever you like, and you can search all your notes easily – and find them by any of the words contained in it, not just by title or where you happened to file it. And then you can organise them however you want. Unlike paper notes, it is easy to tag your note both ‘humility’ and ‘marriage’. And all this is backed up to the internet, accessible from anywhere, so you can’t lose the files. It can file pictures, sounds, and web-pages as well, and even has the ability to search text in photos you add.
If you have a smartphone of almost any kind, it works on these too. So if you are out, you can make a quick note on your phone or take a photo, and when you get home it will be sitting there on your computer.
And as a result you spend far less time desperately trying to remember where you saw that article last month which illustrates exactly what you need to say in your sermon this week.
Thabiti on conferences
Seeing as we're in the business of running conferences, here's a great help posted by Thabiti Anyabwile… 10 questions to ask when attending a conference.
Doing justice to an acrostic
I'm preaching on Psalm 145 at the weekend. It's one of the acrostic psalms – each couplet begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I have been thinking how a preacher in the 21st Century, preaching in English, does justice to this memorable structure. It's almost certain that David wrote the psalm in this way to make it memorable – and indeed many preachers incorporate that into their title – "The A-Z of praise" of "An ABC of the greatness of God." All well and good – but it doesn't really reflect the nature of the psalm does it? Is there any way to be faithful to the nature of the psalm?
Here's one idea – my four teaching points were originally:
- Praise the Lord for his greatness (4-7)
- Praise the Lord for his grace (8-13)
- Praise the Lord for his faithfulness (14-16)
- Praise the Lord for his salvation (17-20)
I've now rewritten these to be:
- Praise the Lord for he is AWESOME (4-7)
- Praise the Lord for his BLESSINGS (8-13)
- Praise the Lord for he is the CARER (14-16)
- Praise the Lord for he DELIVERS (17-20)
Perhaps, just perhaps, people will now think A-B-C-D and it will make the message (and the psalm) more memorable?
MLJ memorial lecture
This year's memorial lecture hosted by the John Owen centre (there's a lot of this boy at the moment) is given by Stuart Olyott on the topic of Preaching that gets through – God's Word and our words. Stuart's always good value – even if you don't agree with everything he says, his style and content always makes you think. You can read his article on prayer for our 2010/11 guide here. This lecture is on Monday 24th September 7.30pm at London Theological Seminary. Maybe I'll see you there?
John Owen and the barn
PT is off to Colchester tomorrow to run a Bible teaching day focusing on the prophets. We'll be working with around 60 local Bible preachers and teachers. This is our first regional venture for some time and we're very excited about it. Our actual venue is the John Owen Barn at Fordham Church. I asked the rector, Mike Neville, how the barn came to be so-named. The answer? Fordham was John Owen's first living – that's quite a history! Now, seeing as John Owen is something of a hero of mine, here are a few resources to find out or read more.
- John Owen has his own website here. Well, not his, obviously, but Justin Taylor who's a bit of an Owen fan himself has put this together. The site has a very useful timeline and some helps on how to read John Owen today.
- Talking of Taylor – I do like his slight modernisation of three of Owen's works into Overcoming sin and temptation. I still find it easier to read even this modernised version with someone else. Hard work, but immensely rewarding.
- For those who want something simpler, Grace Publications have produced simplified versions of five Owen classics: Life by his death (The death of death in the death of Christ), The glory of Christ (Meditations on the glory of Christ), Christians are forever (Perseverance of the saints), Living with the living God (Communion with the Holy Spirit), Thinking spiritually (The grace and duty of being spiritually minded) and What every Christian needs to know (Temptation and the mortification of sin).
- Banner still produce the whole works, of course, or you can read them online at CCEL, along with many of his sermons.
- There's also a brief biography at CCEL
You could always nip along to Fordham of course….
FWIW, Owen's stuff on the mortification of sin is dynamite. Not only is he an interesting historical figure, his writing is supremely pastoral and helpful in forging a closer walk with Christ. Try it.
More like this:
I had one ear open at breakfast today (15thSeptember) when the Radio 4 Today programme was discussing the Pope’s visit. Various reports and interviews focussed mainly on the numerical decline of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK (ignoring the large increases from Polish and other immigrants). What interested me was the reason given for this decline, which was the uncompromising stance of the church (and especially this Pope – so deeply loathed by the liberal media) on contentious moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and contraception. If only, they suggested, the RC Church relaxed this stance and came more into line with ‘the values of our culture’, then this numerical decline could be reversed.
I hold no brief for the Roman Catholic Church, (and consider the ban on artificial contraception to be a flawed deduction from the Bible), but the liberal ‘logic’ of this report struck me as deeply illogical. Is the answer to numerical decline to take our ethical stance from ‘the values of our culture’? This seems to me absurd. Why bother to join a church, if it believes just what the surrounding culture believes? I can think of better things to do with my Sundays. Besides, there are Anglican churches whose ethics appear pretty much indistinguishable from our culture, and they seem to be declining pretty fast too.