Christian blogging — a way forward, part 1

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Yesterday, I wrote about some of my frustrations with the evangelical blogosphere. In my next few posts, I want to point out the things that make some bad blogs, and then suggest some ways this could be fixed. These will be a series of personal impressions. I’m not trying to be “objective,” but simply to point out a handful of things that bother me most.

If you feel differently, or can think of ways I can nuance and refine what I’m suggesting, please let me know in the comments. Also, I’ll be giving some examples but won’t directly criticize particular blogs. That doesn’t seem smart.

Anyway, on with the show:

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

This is difficult for everyone, I think — especially me. It’s easy to start thinking you know a lot because you have an M.Div. (or are working toward one). But the sad reality is that too many evangelicals try to blog about things they don’t really understand. As an example, I can think of numerous people who opposed the “New Perspective on Paul” and wrote extensively about their opinions while obviously not understanding the issues in all their complexity. (And they are complex, so don’t ask me what I think.)*

The worst part about it is that when someone does this, they rob their blog of what could make it great. The beauty of the blogosphere is that anyone can make it if they find their niche. Anyone. You don’t even have to be a “good writer,” you just have to have something worthwhile to say in a way no one says it already. And everyone has something worthwhile to say.

This is what makes Tim Challies so successful, I think — his book reviews. There aren’t many evangelicals on the internet (if any) who read so much popular Christian literature and write so much about what they read than he does. That strikes me as a good model.

*Now, full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged about NPP before. In college! Shame on me.

Don’t let yourself become the “conservative/liberal/moderate” person.

I know this kind of goes against what I just said about finding your niche, but this has more to do with your ideological posturing than your content or style. Regardless of how good your niche is, if everything you write comes from this predetermined mindset that you’re going to be conservative, you’ll become “the conservative blogger about _____.” The same way, if you’re attitude toward everything is rile up your readers and push the envelope, or challenge the status quo, you’re becoming the “edgy blogger about ____.”

This works for some people. But to my mind it makes a bad blog, and a bad blog is one I won’t read. I don’t like reading blogs that either always affirm my opinion or always challenge it. Ideally, you want your conservatively-inclined reader to heartily support some things you say but then be challenged other times. Same thing for your liberally-inclined reader (and you should want that kind!). A good rule of thumb might be you don’t want any single reader to agree with everything you say. That won’t happen anyway of course, if you write enough, but your goal should be for your reader to always think, not always nod her head in agreement.

An excellent example of how to do it right is the biblical archaeology blog called BiblePlaces, run by Todd Bolen and Seth Rodriquez. The writers certainly seem to come from a conservative mold, but Bolen in particular doesn’t give people slack because they claim to support the biblical account. If the “evidence” comes from a poor reading of the biblical text or shoddy archaeological methodology, he doesn’t hesitate to point out the errors just because the person seems “conservative.”

The Gospel Coalition is pretty good at this in content but poor in broader approach. They write about art, literature, movies, secular music and all sorts of things the evangelical Reformed tend to overlook. That’s great. But, as an evangelical Reformed myself, I don’t think I’ve ever come away from a TGC piece thinking, “that was a little left of where I am.” Not as great.

More tomorrow. Meanwhile, again, this is my opinion. Tell me yours in the comments.

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I’m tired of the evangelical blogosphere

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I used to love reading Christian blogs, and not even that long ago. Back when Google Reader was still a thing, I had a pretty regular intake of this weird corner of the internet — both the “Young, Restless, Reformed”/Gospel Coalition sites and the more moderate ones like J.R.D. Kirk’s excellent “Storied Theology.”

When I had to move everything over to a new aggregator, I started to unsubscribe from blogs I almost never read anymore or don’t actually like. By the end, I’d dropped almost half of my evangelical blog section, but I kept all my sports blogs (e.g. mgoblog, Joe Posnanski, the incomparable Smart Football). Why?

A friend just emailed me a link to a Peter Enns’ post here: “On the Count of 3, ‘Let’s All Pre-Judge Rob Bell.” He links to a smattering of initial criticism from conservatives (Denny Burk, Carl Trueman among them) of a promo video for a new Rob Bell book, urging that we not write scathing reviews of books we haven’t read. Fair enough — Enns makes an important point and I have no problem with what he said.

Nor do I think, generally speaking, it’s always wrong to respond to promo material; it might not be the full book but it’s usually still making a claim about something, otherwise it’s lousy promo material. I reference the Enns post not to comment on its content, but to bemoan the deleterious nature of evangelical blogs this little exchange represents.

Sports bloggers tend to be (again, generally speaking) supportive of other sports blogs which consistently produce diverse, high-quality content about a given subject (like college football, for instance). Each writer has his or her own niche, and collectively they cover a subject no one person could ever have time to write about. The good blogs have excellent prose, penetrating analysis, and the individual personality of fanhood that brings us all to the internet in the first place. Minor differences are minor. Subjective taste is fairly well-defined. I like Michigan, you like Ohio State. Now let’s talk about why punting is stupid.

Meanwhile the evangelical blogosphere is too often a bunch of theological skirmishes, with half the group saying we should lay down our guns and get along (while still taking potshots) and the other half denying that they’re even fighting really.

I think this is why I suddenly have no interest in blog debates. That stuff used to be my jam, but now it’s just incredibly depressing.*

People like Rob Bell will do things. Then conservatives like Trueman and Burk will criticize them for doing these things by writing sometimes-rash blogs, and moderates like Enns will defend them by writing sometimes-rash blogs of their own. The conservatives will write that they just stand for truth but they’ll appear uptight and reactionary doing it, while moderates will write that the conservatives are too self-serious and divisive but will be just as frustratingly polemical.

That’s where we are. We can do better.

—————-

* doubly so when you read the always-awful comment sections.

Repentance and the Kingdom

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Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.”

– Mark 1:14-15

I attended my first Ash Wednesday service this morning. It was a Protestant iteration, but still with songs of lament and thoughtful readings of confession and repentance. I’m new to Lent, but it seems to mean all sorts of things in American religion; often it’s seen as an opportunity for self-improvement, like abstaining from unhealthy food or Facebook (as announced on…Facebook). It’s wrapped up in Western selfishness and consumerism.*

But as far as I can tell, the cash value of Lent is repentance. It’s a chance to confess and consider the consequences of our sins. It’s a chance to ponder death, life without redemption, considering even the “loud cries and tears” of Jesus himself, who “learned obedience through what he suffered,” and in his perfect life “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:7-8). In other words, as others have pointed out, it’s not about what you give up but what you take on: meditation, prayer, Bible reading — however each of us can best consider Christ. How much chocolate you do or don’t eat is of little consequence.

In the text above, Mark has just finished describing in a torrid pace the baptism and desert testing of Jesus — both, we are told, being the work of the Spirit. After overcoming his foes in the desert (something I’ll say more about in a later post), Jesus enters Galilee and proclaims the advent of the kingdom — God’s restorative reign not just over Israel, but over the whole earth.

After centuries of anxious waiting, Israel will now see the coming of her king, and his kingdom comes with him. Look! Demons are cast out**, a leper is cleansed and restored to the community, a paralyzed man is healed and has his sins forgiven, huge crowds listen to Jesus preach the gospel —  and that’s just the first three chapters. The reign of God is here, right now — starting small and ostensibly as inconsequential as a mustard seed but growing into a tree, spreading so large that the birds (i.e., all people of the earth) can nest in its shade (Mk. 4:30-32, cf. Ezek. 31:6, Dan. 4:9-14).

And central to the coming kingdom are the two imperatives Jesus invokes: “repent and believe.” As we all heard in Sunday School, to repent is to make a radical turn, to suddenly change course, to about-face. This not only validates Jesus’ ministry by connecting it with John’s (1:4), but it also resonates with the regular prophetic call in the OT for Israel to turn back to Yahweh and obey him.

This, Jesus tells us, is the right response to the inaugurated kingdom. When God’s reign suddenly and dramatically breaks into our reality, no matter what else is going on, we repent and we believe. This is why I think Lent, thoughtfully celebrated, can be helpful — not because we labor to look good before God and others, but because we turn from our sin right where we are and look to God for forgiveness. We instead admit we’re not good, we’re actually really, really bad, but we trust in the anointed Messiah to heal us and forgive our sins (cf. 2:8-12).

The kingdom is here. You might not be ready, but it’s okay. Repent, and believe the gospel.

——–

* Sorry sorry, I promised on Twitter to not be didactic anymore, sorry.

** Interestingly, they are the only ones who see Jesus as the Son of God he really is (see 1:24, 1:34, 3:11). There is a profound spiritual battle going on beneath the surface of the Gospel accounts, perhaps even extensions of the showdown with Satan in the wilderness.

Hearing then speaking

So hi. After a lengthy break I want to start blogging again, because I’m tired of not having a writing outlet. I don’t know what I’m going to write about, or how often, but I need to get back into the habit of putting words on the page (or on the interwebs, potato/potahto). Seminary has done a lot of good for me, but it’s also taken a lot of my attention obviously and my creative output has all but dried up. Going with that metaphor, it’s time to repair the well.

During my absence I sometimes considered with guilt why I wasn’t writing more often, and by that I mean, at all. I think outright laziness had something to do with that, but I did quite well in my classes so that’s not all of it. I think I can explain it as a kind of blogging existential crisis. I came to a similar point once with exercising — it seemed so futile, meaningless, and vain that I couldn’t get myself to the gym every day.

With blogging, I began to feel like I was just doing it to exercise my own ego, since when people like what we write we feel good about ourselves. At the heart of all my vanities, or most of them at least, is pride — in my case, an unquenchable desire to be respected, well-thought-of, smart. I doubt I’m alone here, but I can only speak for myself. For example, I don’t mind “losing” arguments with people or “being wrong”, so long as my interlocutors think that I’m intelligent. So what I’m saying is that I’m a self-important person who takes himself (and his writing) way too seriously.

But the thing is I like writing way too much to go without it. So I’m writing again, considering the weighty words of James:

“Know this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger — for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, and received with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

My blog presents an opportunity to listen, then to speak. Notice the prepositional phrase right at the end: “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Seminary teaches us how to proclaim with boldness the implanted word, but in truth that only happens after we humbly receive. Listen. Consider.

Come listen with me.

Christmas Myths

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Each year, there are several often-repeated Christmas images that circulate in Nativity plays, television specials, and pastoral sermons. A number of them are technically right but misunderstood (for example, there were wise men who brought Jesus gifts, but there probably weren’t exactly three of them and they didn’t see Jesus in the manger…more on that in a bit). Others probably aren’t as right. Here’s a brief Christmas Eve rundown:

Christmas, December 25, originated as a pagan holiday

This isn’t a Christmas story myth, per se, but it gets around this time of year on cable television. The popular view regarding the origin of Dec. 25 as Christmas is that the early Christians borrowed it from pagan solar festivals — particularly the mid-winter celebration of the birth of god Sol Invictus.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this if it were true, but it has some problems: (1) No early church writer (and no writer until the 12th Century, in fact) claims that Christians deliberately chose Dec. 25 to coincide with pagan celebrations. (2) Here’s the real kicker — there is lots of evidence that the church in the first to mid-fourth century was not very accommodating to pagan worship practices. Rather, it’s not difficult to see another reason that date would have been chosen: the early church thought that Jesus was conceived on the same day he was crucified — March 25. Add nine months and you have Dec. 25. Any correlation with pagan festivals was likely coincidental (and early church writers like St. Ambrose treat it as such).

Even if the Christian observance of Christmas on Dec. 25 emerged from pagan festivals, that’s really just an indication of the victory of the Christian faith over paganism.

For more discussion, though, check out this Fox News story from last year, featuring my Systematic Theology prof at Southern, Gregg Allison: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/12/21/back-story-december-25th-1209634885/

Angels sang to announce the birth of Jesus

Everyone likes this one, and I admit that I hear Handel’s Messiah in my head every time I read Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

But the angels didn’t sing. Look at Luke 2:13 more carefully: “Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying.” You don’t even need to appeal to Greek for this one. They even render it “saying” in Messiah. There was no singing. The angels just said it (or proclaimed it, if that sounds more Christmas-y).

Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cave, because the nearby Bethlehem inn was full

This one is problematic on a couple different levels. First, neither Matthew or Luke mentions anything about a cave (or a stable, for that matter), and as far as I can tell that idea originated in the apocryphal (and utterly strange) Protoevangelium of James.

The second problem surrounds the word “inn.” The traditional image here is of Joseph getting turned away from innkeeper after innkeeper as he searches for a place for Mary to give birth. As many have pointed out, it’s doubtful that a tiny Israelite town like Bethlehem would have even one commercial inn, let alone several. Additionally, Joseph would have had close relatives staying in Bethlehem for the same reason he was — the census. Near Eastern hospitality being what it is, Joseph would have very likely tried to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem, not in public lodging.

The word here in Luke 1:7 is katalumati, from kataluma, which is apparently flexible and could conceivably mean something like “inn.” BDAG lists a number of different usages in both the LXX and NT. But what’s really interesting is how Luke uses the word. It appears twice in Luke’s gospel — once here in the birth narrative, and again in 22:11 for the large, well-furnished “upper room” Jesus used for the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed.

It seems to me that if Luke had wanted to say “inn” he could have — and in fact he did in 10:34, for the place where the Good Samaritan took the injured Jewish man. Except the word here is different; the Good Samaritan took the man to the pandocheion, not a kataluma, the word Luke seems to prefer for something like a house.

With these details in mind, several scholars (e.g., Ben Witherington, Preston Sprinkle, my IBEX prof Abner Chou, etc.) have suggested a scandalous alternative to the traditional story. It’s possible that there was physically no room, but again, think of the hospitality of that culture and Joseph’s Davidic lineage. There’s really no room at all for a young son of David and his very, very pregnant wife?

Instead, some scholars suggest that when Joseph knocks on the door of his relatives’ house in Bethlehem, they see his extremely pregnant wife betrothed Mary and refuse to let him in. Perhaps word of Mary’s indiscretion and Joseph’s ostensible ambivalence had already reached them. Or perhaps they realize the two aren’t married, Mary is quite obviously pregnant, and Joseph still hasn’t divorced her, indicating his tacit approval of her actions (or even his complicity).

Either way, Luke’s wording here is full of the biting, almost sarcastic response of Joseph’s family — there’s “no room” for kin who sin and tolerate sin. So they send the disgraced couple down to the small add-on to the house, where the animals would sleep and eat, to let the consequences of their sin sink in a bit maybe.

This detail is admittedly speculative, but the arguments are convincing. Regardless, considering Luke’s use of that word and the very small size of Bethlehem, there probably was no inn, and no innkeeper either.

Joseph hurried Mary to Bethlehem, arriving just in the nick of time

This is a very popular view, appearing in the movie from a couple years ago, The Nativity Story. Mary goes into labor during the trip (conveniently right on the outskirts of Bethlehem, actually) and Joseph has to frantically search for lodging, getting turned away repeatedly by heartless innkeepers.

Of course, the Bible gets in the way here, too. In Luke’s account, after Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem for the registration, Luke tells us that “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” Mary and Joseph had apparently been there for a little while when Jesus was born, and there’s no late-night, frenetic drama surrounding Jesus’ birth.

Since Mary and Joseph were traveling to Bethlehem for the census, they wouldn’t have needed to be there long, but it seems Joseph was a thoughtful and sensitive enough husband to stay in town until Mary gave birth.

[This is unrelated, but interesting: this myth also seems to have originated in the Protoevangelium of James, as just as they arrive in Bethlehem, Mary has a strange vision and goes into labor. Joseph searches frantically for a handmaiden to help deliver the child, eventually finding a woman named Salome (yes, the same Salome from Mark’s resurrection narrative in Mark 16). Salome’s Thomas-like unbelief regarding Mary’s virginity is the strangest part of the story. I’ll let you read it for yourself.]

Jesus was laid in a manger

Okay, this one isn’t a “myth” as such, but we usually think of the wrong thing when we hear “manger.” With all the Christmas pageants, it’s become such a cuddly word that we get desensitized to what it really is. A manger is an old English word for an animal feeding trough, not a comfy makeshift baby crib. There may not have been any straw and it certainly wasn’t made out of wood, but rather rough stone.

One could also imagine the remnants of some animal dinner still lingering in the trough. It’s a little bit like putting your newborn baby in a dog’s food bowl — an ignominious beginning of life for any child, let alone the King of Kings.

Three wise men visited Jesus on the night of his birth

First, as noted above, there weren’t three wise men but three gifts (each of which, by the way, were gifts due a king and have nothing to do with Jesus’ roles of prophet, priest, and king, which is something I read on Twitter this week).

Second, the wise men didn’t get to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth, and weren’t there at the same time as the shepherds (despite the indication of every Nativity scene ever). The wise men visited Jesus some time after his birth.

How long after? A small detail in Matthew’s account gives us a clue: we’re told that Herod ordered the murder of every male boy in Bethlehem “two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16). This is also evidence for the later arrival of the wise men, since there’s no other reason for Herod to slaughter children in a two-year age window. Based on this, the wise men could have visited Jesus as many as two years later.

Those are just a few I thought of. Do you have any others? Share them in the comments!

MMP 12.3

New Bruce Ware book on the humanity of Christ. And Dane Ortlund interviews him about it for 20 minutes. The discussion about Jesus’ permanent humanity starting at 18:13 is particularly mind-blowing. You can get the book here.

Theologian Trading Cards! They are real. I guess they’re primarily for getting familiar with figures in church history, but try convincing someone you’re not an enormous dork once they find them on your shelf. Honestly though, this isn’t really going to take off until they start selling ten-packs. BONUS: Win a free Kevin Vanhoozer!

HT: Koinonia

Language in Lincoln. There are lots of things to love about Steven Spielberg’s film about Abraham Lincoln’s political genius in the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, but what most impressed me was its sharp, compelling dialogue. Then I stumbled upon this excellent piece in the Boston Globe on screenwriter Tony Kushner. Here’s a great excerpt:

Kushner so immersed himself in the president’s earthy yet powerful language that he eventually felt comfortable coining his own Lincolnese. When the chief proponents of the 13th Amendment complain that they can’t convince enough House Democrats to break ranks, Lincoln snaps, “You grousle and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.” Good luck finding grousle in the OED: Kushner says he made it up. “I just liked the sound of it,” he admitted.

Read the whole thing. (HT: Scot McKnight)

Do you always begin conversations this way? ESPN’s NFL Kickoff crew decided to squeeze in as many Princess Bride allusions as they could in a 30 minute show. Some of you saw this on my Facebook feed but didn’t watch because you thought it was 30 minutes long. It’s actually less than two, and entirely worth it.

Also, according to one of the commenters, Trey Wingo said it wasn’t pre-planned, which makes it even better. Watch now.

HT: 22 Words

Monday Morning Press 11.19

As if we need another excuse. There are numerous reasons to drink coffee — some drink for quantity, using as fuel to push through the day; others drink for quality, brewing their own daily and refusing to settle for Folgers or Starbucks. A recent study suggests that our favorite hot drink doesn’t just give us energy or taste awesome, but it also may help us think faster:

Now, a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that 200 mg of caffeine—the equivalent of a couple of cups of coffee—can help the brain identify words more quickly and precisely. In a study conducted by psychologists Lars Kuchinke and Vanessa Lux from Ruhr University in Germany, healthy young adults given a 200 mg caffeine tablet exhibited improved speed and accuracy while completing a word recognition task.

HT: Scot McKnight

Perhaps Old Testament writers understood more that we give them credit for? Justin Taylor posts a helpful quote from G.K. Beale on the complexities of authorial intent in the OT.

Because one snobby, religious football school isn’t enoughBobby Ross Jr. of GetReligion blog addresses Liberty University’s absurd wish be ascend to the elites of college football, and become the “Protestant Notre Dame.” Maybe Liberty will be ride wins over Boston College and Wake Forest on its way to getting hammered in the National Championship Game someday too!

Bible software stuff. Mark Hoffman gives three reasons to upgrade to/buy Logos 5. It’s the better searches, basically.

DFW biographyIt exists, and Elaine Blair gives a nice review in the NYT. I’ve heard conflicting things about it, but I’m sure I’ll check it out at some point.

And everybody makes fun of how much I use it. Ben Yagoda in the NYT on the glory of the em-dash.

You’re back! Yeah, we’ll see how long it lasts. I’m pretty sure I’m just writing again for an excuse to say something glowing about Denard Robinson sometime this week.

* Three things: first, this will never happen. Second, they just hired former Nebraska star QB Turner Gill — who had substantial success at Buffalo (for Buffalo, anyway) before he left for Kansas, limped to a 5-19 record, and was fired after two seasons. It’s a good hire for Liberty, though, which tells you how close they are to even playing Notre Dame one time: they’re hiring major college football castoffs.Third, I wrote a story for the Cedarville student paper when I was there about why we didn’t have a football team, and the biggest reason was the sorry story of Liberty: ambition gets the best of all of us.