Richard Mouw: Who knows him better?

Preaching at TEDS, Dr. Richard Mouw gives an illuminating illustration warning about the dangers of pietism. He recounts a oft repeated illustration about knowing Abraham Lincoln. I’ve reproduced it as he gave it below.

Imagine a professor at Harvard University who knows everything there is to know from the public record about the life and career of Abraham Lincoln. This guy can tell you about how Lincoln coming out a life of poverty taught himself, how he got into Illinois politics and eventually into national, as President of the United States. He can tell you the details of the debates that Lincoln had with Douglass. He could tell you about what Lincoln was thinking about in the third week of his presidency. He could tell you in detail the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking about the institution of slavery. He can even tell you what went into Lincoln’s decision to purchase Alaska. He could tell you everything there is to know from the public record about the life and career of Abraham Lincoln.

Now imagine a little girl who lived next door to Mr. Lincoln. Unlike that scholar who teaches today at Harvard University—that scholar did not know Lincoln personally—she did know him personally. Mr. Lincoln would come out in the morning and there would be a horse drawn carriage waiting to take him off to his important duties. But he would tell the driver to hold it. He would see the little girl playing in the yard next door. And he would go over and would talk to her, whisper in her ear, tell her a story, sing a song, play a game, give her a hug… She knew nothing about the purchase of Alaska. She couldn’t tell you anything about the institution of slavery. She could not offer anything like a definition of the difference between the legislative and executive branches of government, but she knew Mr. Lincoln, as a living, breathing, warm human being. 

Who knows Lincoln better? The scholar who knows all the facts about him, but has never met him personally? Or the little girl who may not know any of the facts about him but she knows him as a living, breathing, warm human being?

But Mouw goes on to emphasize that this is a form of pietism that stresses intensive knowing (closer and closer, warmer and warmer) versus extensive knowing. He illustrates the danger of this approach by giving the illustration again slightly altered.

Imagine a journalist, a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who knows everything that there is to know about a leading mob figure in the city of Chicago. This guy can tell you how this guy started off selling marijana in some local neighborhood, then went into the distribution of pinball machines. From there he went on to accepting protection money from local business in a certain precinct in Chicago. And finally, he got to the point where he was the mobster of the whole mob organization in the Chicago area. This reporter knows everything that there is to know from the public record about this mob leader, but he never met him.

And now imagine a little girl who lives next door to the mobster. And every morning he comes out and there is a stretch limo waiting to take him off on his nefarious, wicked business of the day, but he tells the driver to wait and he goes over to talk to the little girl, plays a game, tells her a story, whispers in her ear, tells her a joke, gives her a hug. She doesn’t know anything about organized crime. She’s never even seen an episode of the Sopranos. She knows nothing about the extent of the reach of organized crime in the state of Illinois. But she knows that mobster as a living, breathing, warm human being.

And I ask you, who knows that mob leader better? The journalist who knows all the facts about him, but has never met him personally? Or the little girl who doesn’t know any of the facts about him, but knows him as a living, breathing, warm human being?

Interpersonal knowing is obviously a complicated affair. It’s a good illustration and even a reminder that we may not really know the people whom we think we know.

Thoughts on Preaching and Relevance

Nearly every preacher makes it a priority to make his sermon “relevant” to his audience. The difficulty with this aim is that it often assumes that “relevant” and “interesting” are synonymous. In other words, a sermon must be relevant in the sense that it must capture the audience’s attention and imagination, leaving them with a concrete take away for practical living.

I have two serious criticisms of this approach. First, that something is “interesting” has as much to do with the character of the receiver as to do with the qualities of that thing. The job of a teacher, for example, is not only to pass on a body of “information” to his hearers, but also to persuade the hearer to see this bit of cultural tradition as vital both to self-understanding and to a broader understanding of the world. The teacher is working on the affections of the students, seeking to bring about interest in important areas that our tradition has always though ought to hold our interest because of their tremendous value in culture making. When my students say that the material is “boring” I hear the following: 

“I am unable to connect this material with any part of my regular patterns of thought in any way which I perceive to be interesting. In other words, it just might be the case that this material is so far above my understanding that I don’t even have a conceptual grasp about what it might be saying. Or I might be saying, that I am unable to connect this material with any real basis from which I make decisions, either due to inexperience or ineptitude in my decision making faculties.”

I understand the very fact that they find it “boring” is owing largely to a deficiency on their part. Now, granted, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to find ways to convince the students of this. But it is also incumbent upon students to deny their intellectual vice, which is the cause of their finding the world boring. They have a responsibility to be amateurs (French for “lovers”) in a radically interesting world.

Second, this approach assumes that “practical take-aways” are the most necessary part of change. Important to my critique of the discussion above is that an significant problem with American culture is that it finds really crucial things boring and really insignificant things exciting. How does one correct this with five steps? While personal and very practical changes are a part of what makes something “interesting,” this is only part of a larger pedagogical aim, to give the student (or congregant) ordered affections which flow from a proper understanding of the world and result in proper behavior. To skip to behavior is to truncate personal formation and to create mindless congregants. This is very far from Paul’s aim in Romans 12:1-2 where he sought to renew minds. The doctrine, for Paul, led to a proper assessment of self, others, and the world, which, in turn, led to proper activity in the world.

Quotable: Kant

Rhetoric, so far as this is taken to mean the art of persuasion, i.e. the art of deluding by means of such beautiful semblance (as ars oratoria), and not merely excellence of speech (eloquence and style), is a dialect, which borrows from poetry only so much as is necessary to win over people’s minds to the side of the speaker before they have weighed the matter, and to rob their verdict of its freedom. Hence, it can be recommended neither for the bar nor the pulpit.

Kant, Critique of Judgement, 155

Piper: Expository Exaltation

Our hearts will not be drawn out to worship if someone just dissects and analyzes the worth and glory of God but does not exult in it before us. Our hearts long for true preaching. Some of us don’t even know that is what we are missing.

Like children who grew up in homes where mom and dad never exulted in anything. They never rejoiced or praised or verbally admired and treasured anything. They were always flat and unenthused (except when they got angry). You couldn’t tell if anything really moved them deeply and positively. So the kids grow up not knowing what they are missing. That is what many people in the church are like who have never tasted true preaching.

God exists to be worshiped—to be admired and treasured and desired and praised. Therefore, the Word of God is written primarily to produce worship. This means that if that Word is handled like a hot-dish recipe or a repair manual, it is mishandled. And the people will suffer.

The Truth of God begs to be handled with exultation. And our hearts yearn for this and need it. Something in us starts to die when precious and infinitely valuable realities are handled without feelings and words of wonder and exultation. That is, a church starts to die, without preaching.

John Piper

Book tease: God Language and Scripture, Moises Silva

It is approximately the year 2790. The most powerful nation on earth occupies a large territory in Central Africa, and its citizens speak Swahili. The United States and other English-speaking countries have long ceased to exist, and much of the literature prior to 2012 (the year of the Great Conflagration) is not extant. Some archeologists digging in the western regions of North America discover a short but well-preserved text that can confidently be dated to the last quarter of the twentieth century. It reads thus:

Marilyn, tired of her glamorous image, embarked on a new project. She would not cultivate her mind, sharpen her verbal skills, pay attention to standards of etiquette. Most important of all, she would devote herself to charitable causes. Accordingly, she offered her services at the local hospital, which needed volunteers to cheer up terminal patients, many of whom had been in considerable pain for a long time. The weeks flew by. One day she was sitting at the cafeteria when her supervisor approached her and said: “I didn’t see you yesterday. What were you doing?” “I painted my apartment; it was my day off,” she responded

The archaeologists know just enough English to realize that this fragment is a major literary find that deserves closer inspection, so they rush the piece to one of the finest philologists in their home country. This scholar dedicates his next sabbatical to a thorough study of the text and decides to publish an exegetical commentary on it, as follows:

We are unable to determine whether this is an excerpt from a novel or from a historical biography. Almost surely, however, it was produced in a religious context, as is evident from the use of such words as devoted, offered, charitable. In any case, this passage illustrates the literary power of twentieth-century English, a language full of wonderful metaphors. The verb embarked calls to mind an ocean liner leaving for an adventuresome cruise, while cultivate possibly alerts the reader to Marilyn’s botanical interests. In those days North Americans compared time to a bird — probably the eagle — that flies.

The author of this piece, moreover, makes clever use of word associations. For example, the term glamorous is etymologically related to grammar, a concept no doubt reflected in the comment about Marilyn’s ‘verbal skills.’ Consider also the subtleties implied by the statement that ‘her supervisor approached her.’ The verb approach has a rich usage. It may indicate a similar appearance or condition (this painting approaches the quality of a Picasso); it may have a sexual innuendo (the rapist approached his victim; it may reflect subservience (he approached his boss for a raise). The cognate noun can be used in contexts of engineering (e.g., access to a bridge), sports (of a golf stroke following the drive from the tee), and even war (a trench that protects troops besieging a fortress).

Society in the twentieth century is greatly illumined by this text. The word patient (from patience, meaning “endurance”) indicates that sick people then underwent a great deal of suffering: they endured not only the affliction of their physical illness, but also the mediocre skills of their medical doctors, and even (to judge from other contemporary documents) the burden of increasing financial costs.

A few syntactical notes may be of interest to language students. The preposition of had different uses: causal (tired of), superlative (most important of all), and partitive (many of whom). The simple past tense had several aoristic functions: embarked clearly implies determination, while offered suggests Marilyn’s once-for-all, definitive intention. Quite noticeable is the tense variation at the end of the text. The supervisor in his question uses the imperfect tense, ‘were doing,’ perhaps suggesting monotony, slowness, or even laziness. Offended, Marilyn retorts with a punctiliar and emphatic aorist, ‘I painted.’

Readers of Bible commentaries, as well as listeners of sermons, will recognize that my caricature is only mildly outrageous. What is wrong with such a commentary? It is not precisely that the ‘facts’ are wrong (though even these are expressed in a way that misleads the reader). Nor is it sufficient to say that our imaginary scholar has taken things too far. There is a more fundamental error here: a misconception of how language normally works.

– Silva, 11-13

The Doctor on Altar Calls

Perhaps the best way in which I can stimulate thought, and give some little help in this matter, is to make the blunt statement that I have not followed this practice in my ministry (to give altar calls). And let me give some of the reasons which have influenced me in that respect. I shall not attempt to state them in any exact systematic order, but here is roughly the order. The first is that it is wrong, surely, to put direct pressure on the will. Let me explain that. Man consists of mind, affections and will; and my contention is that you should not put direct pressure on the will. The will should always be approached primarily through the mind, the intellect, and then through the affections. The action of the will should be determined by those influences. My scriptural warrant for saying that is Paul’s Epistle to the Romans chapter 6, verse 17, where the Apostle says: ‘God be thanked that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine that was delivered you.’

D. Martin Lloyd Jones, pg. 271, Preaching and Preachers