Three: Theology, a Novel of the Miniscule, & a Tome by Joyce Carol Oates

This week, I read three very different writers: John MacArthur, Nicholas Baker, and Joyce Carol Oates. One is a Christian theologian and pastor; one is a postmodern fiction writer whose style departs from almost anyone else I have read; and Oates is an American writer who has been prolific since the 1960s.

Below are some thoughts on each book, its main concerns, examples from each that illustrate said concerns, and some questions for reflection.

In Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, published in 1994, MacArthur introduces his theme up front and unpacks it throughout the next 200 pages. He explains how existentialism, subjectivism, relativism, and mysticism have undercut the very foundations of logic and reason. The result has been widespread poverty of proper biblical interpretation:

. . . to say that people can’t reason their way to the truth of Scripture is not to imply that Scripture itself is irrational. The Bible is perfectly reasonable, consistent with itself, true in all its parts, reliable as a foundation for our logic, dependable as a basis for good judgment, and trustworthy as the definitive test of sound doctrine. Because it is pure truth, it is perfectly rational (xii)

And another gem:

We cannot simply flow with the current of our age. We cannot elevate love by downplaying truth. We cannot promote unity by repressing sound doctrine. We cannot learn to be discerning by making an idol out of tolerance. By adopting those attitudes, the church has opened her gates to all of Satan’s Trojan horses. (81)

But the various isms resulting from suppressing God and his revelation of himself in Scripture have led to abuses and misinterpretations that are embarrassing. In his trademark fashion, MacArthur does not pull punches. He quotes from primary sources in his many analyses of existentialism, mysticism, neo-orthodoxy/liberalism, fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and more. He traces the trajectory of how many people wound up with such reckless faith.

One example I found particularly helpful was his analysis of mysticism that has infiltrated much of the professing Christian church. Many people are chasing feelings, chasing experiences:

The faith of mysticism is an illusion. “Truth that is true for me” is irrelevant to anyone else, because it lacks any objective basis. Ultimately, therefore, existential faith is impotent to lift anyone above the level of despair. All it can do is seek more experiences and more feelings. Multitudes are trapped in the desperate cycle of feeding off one experience while zealously seeking the next. Such people have no real concept of truth; they just believe. Theirs is a reckless faith. (30)

He ends this book as he ends every book I have read from MacArthur—with a call to the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Scripture is the authority. Many profess that, but deny it in practice. Say what you will about John MacArthur, but I have never seen him equivocate on that: Scripture is the only objective standard—not traditions, not feelings, not “being led,” not visions, not “looking within,” and certainly not popes, bishops, or councils. If you seek clarity, and want an apologetic resource calling you back to living out, not just the sufficiency of Scripture, but also the authority of Scripture, this is a valuable resource. Isms come and go, but the Word abides forever.

A second book I read was a first for me. More precisely, the book and the author were new to me. Nicholas Baker is an American postmodern writer, and The Mezzanine, a short novel about a businessman’s trip up an escalator, and his mental activity during that trip, is, well, amazingly detailed in its attention to the banal, the quotidian, and the everyday. The author’s goal? To show us the superficial ways we so often glide through contemporary life without thinking through things.

Baker’s forays and footnotes (yes, lots and lots of footnotes, even footnotes about footnotes) serve to focus the reader on the things right under our noses and under our fingertips (like the handrail on an escalator, like the feel of a stapler on your office desk, like why shoelaces break at nearly the same time, etc.). Here is an example:

Presently the metal disk that drew near was half lit by sun. Falling from dusty heights of thermal glass over a hundred-vaned, thirty-foot-long, unlooked-at, invisibly suspended lightning fixture that resembles the metal grid in an old-style ice cube tray, falling through the vacant middle reaches of lobby space, the sunlight draped itself over my escalator and continued from there, diminished by three-quarters, down into a newsstand inset into the marble at the rear of the lobby. (103)

 Baker is new to me. I admire his precision in description. I admire his raising the issue of how the quotidian may teach us if we would but pay attention. But, I think Baker suggests herein, we suffer the illusion that we will be happier if we skate along life, carried escalator-like, unbothered by serious contemplation of our mortality. Baker is, in my view, important. He is not, I admit, easy to read; it can be work. But that, I believe, is part of what makes him important to read. If I had to summarize Baker’s aim, it is this question: What happens if we pay attention–stop entertaining ourselves to death–and just stop and pay attention?

The Oates novel I am (still) reading is her 2001 tome Blonde. It is nearly 800 pages, so it is not one I can finish in a day or two. Marilyn Monroe, as most of the world knew her, was really Norma Jeane Baker, and she is the subject of the novel. As readers, we meet her mother, Gladys, her grandmother, Della, the actors at The Studio in Los Angeles during Hollywood’s golden era, and on and on.

I said the subject was Marilyn Monroe. The more I read this novel, I would say the subject is not Marilyn so much as it is the question of what it means to act, to fulfill a role, to don a façade, and what costs are involved.

Norma Jeane Baker lived roles. And I think Oates is exploring that theme, not a small one. Stay tuned.

The Colonel

“You ever notice, chaplain, people don’t know their Bibles anymore?” the colonel asked.

The chaplain studied the colonel to see if he was asking with the desire to listen to the chaplain answer, or to hear himself. As the chaplain was about to answer, the colonel continued.

“You know, chaplain, I used to think it was just Millennials–the guys who can’t do fifty push-ups because their man-buns might come undone . . .”

The chaplain nodded his head slowly at the colonel to let him know he understood. The chaplain knew he would not have to say much because the colonel wanted to impress him.

“And what’s with women who now dress and act like men, but then get offended if we treat them like they are men? I mean, which is it?” Suddenly the colonel realized he’d left his original topic.

“What was I saying, chaplain?”

“You began with how few people know the Bible, sir.”

“Exactly, chaplain! But it’s even the older generation, too. You know that?”

“That’s been my experience, sir.”

“How old are you, chappy?”

“Forty-eight, sir.”

“Me, too, chaplain. But when I was coming up in the Midwest, at least my family taught us the Bible, and we even went to church. But people nowadays, chaplain—I just don’t know anymore.”

“Not much of a shared foundation anymore, sir. I’ve noticed.”

“You know, chaplain. I have an eleven-year-old son named Luke. Every night before I put him to bed, I read the Bible aloud with him for thirty minutes.”

“That’s great, sir,” the chaplain said. “He will remember that time with him and probably much of what you read with him.”

“You know what really gets me, though, chappy? It’s how he’ll hit me with a question a day or so later about something we read—something I didn’t think he was really tracking,” the colonel said.

“He may be beyond much of the West, sir,” the chaplain said, smiling a sad smile.

“Say again.”

“Firsthand knowledge of Scripture, sir, like you were saying,” the chaplain said.

“Exactly. He’ll up and ask me something about people loving darkness rather than light. Ain’t that something, chappy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But what do we do, chaplain? With the world going the way it is, and all? I mean, I know the Bible, and my wife and I, we teach it to Luke. But this generation, and even our parents’ generation . . . I just don’t know, chaplain.”

“Sounds like you’re doing well, sir. Open the Scripture, read it, and share it with those who’ll listen.”

He watched the colonel listen to his own thoughts, and pictured the colonel with Luke beside his dad, perhaps under his boyish covers on his bed, listening to his father read of David and mighty men of valor, who surely resembled his dad the colonel, and his staff officers or non-commissioned officers; and a flaming sword that blazed amidst a ruined garden; and of Jewish boys perhaps his own age, cast into a furnace deep in the desert sands near the Tigris and Euphrates where his dad had battled and returned; and of trees cursed by Jesus as symbols of people not using their time the way God wanted, and . . .

Thus ran the chaplain’s thoughts as he watched the colonel listen to himself.

“You’re a good listener, chappy. Appreciate you.”

“Thanks, sir. Likewise.”

“Hey, sir?”

“What you got, chappy?”

“Tell Luke to keep reading, and that the chaplain says hello.”

“Good copy, chaplain.”


The Longing for Encouragement

One of the blessings of being in Christian ministry is personal discipleship. Because I’m regularly teaching biblical doctrines in Protestant services in the military, as an adjunct instructor at a university, or in the local church setting, many ofEncourageWordle my hours are taken up in study and preparation. Contrary to some people’s experiences, sustained research and study are not burdens to me; I emerge from those disciplines reinvigorated. Recently I was requested to speak at a Bible study to military personnel and Department of Defense civilians. I’d been studying in Psalm 67, so I thought that would be a sound passage from which to teach. It was not just because that is where I’d been in some of my recent studies. It was more than that. I consistently see the longing for encouragement that we all have.

Because we are fallen creatures, and because we live in a fallen world, the pathos of this world is more properly identified as tragic rather than comic. Suffering is real. Unlike the cult of Christian Science, the Bible does not deny the reality of suffering. Unlike pantheistic worldviews like Buddhism, the Bible does not teach that suffering can be avoided through an eightfold noble path. Among other profound truths, the Bible teaches that, because this world is fallen, Christians are pilgrims moving through this valley of the shadow of death.

The Bible repeatedly uses the metaphor of the good shepherd (Jesus) who guards his sheep, abiding with them amidst evil, and preserves them from ultimate death. This is why Jesus, after his incarnation, repeatedly referred to himself as the good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11 ESV). He reminds his followers that most of the world consists of thieves and wolves in sheep’s clothing, and that he (God alone) is wholly trustworthy. Jesus is the shepherd who encourages his sheep amidst suffering. This life’s slings and arrows are endurable because of Jesus, the conquering shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15 ESV).

There is a relationship between Jesus as the good shepherd and his sheep that endures because of the shepherd’s triumph. Yes, the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep (the crucifixion), but three days later, he took it up again (Jesus’ resurrection). Therefore, his sheep are to have hope. We can be encouraged. This is the good news. The gospel does not mean that the sheep (Christ-followers) are exempt from suffering, but it does mean that we are equipped to endure, because we are buried with Christ and raised because of his triumphal resurrection.

Psalm 67 begins with a reference to the well-known Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:25. This is where God told Moses what to teach Aaron about blessing Israel. Like many of you, I love that blessing: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Nub 6:24-26 ESV). I think we gravitate towards it because we sense its intent: God promises to bless his people. It is sheer encouragement, and the whole creation groans for encouragement.

But when you read Psalm 67 closely, you see that God blesses his people in order that they might bless others by introducing them to this fount of blessing–God himself. He blesses them so that God’s way “may be known on earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (Ps 67:2 ESV). In other words, the greatest blessing is God himself. Upon receiving the blessing of God, the proper response should be outward—namely, to declare who God is and what God has done.

Growing up as I did in a local church, I remember old ladies saying this many times, “May God bless you, and make you a blessing.” Now, my personality tends to recoil at clichés and platitudes, but there is great truth in that phrase. We are blessed in order to be a blessing.

So what does this have to do with the longing for encouragement? Let me share one anecdote to illustrate it. Several months ago, a senior noncommissioned officer was retiring from the Army after 30 years. He’d been a chaplain assistant his entire career. He was (and is) one of the most gentle and humble men I’ve ever known. Never one to put his name out front for recognition, he eschewed the limelight. He was more like Mary (see Jn 3:3) who poured oil upon Jesus’ feet and dried them with the locks of her hair. Neither this soldier nor Mary was self-absorbed; their focus was outward—upon others because of Christ. Speaker after speaker lined up to share stories of how SFC Franklin had touched their lives by pouring his own life and ministry into them. Sometimes he had done it just by his gentle manner. At other times, he served them by providing a small service at just the right time. But the pattern that emerged over and over was of the encouragement he brought. When it came time for us to listen to his remarks, he kept them short. He said this, “I’ve always wanted God’s favor upon my life. In order to ask for that, I have aimed to please God first. Thank you all for allowing me to be part of God’s plan.” Then he stepped away from the podium, away from the microphone.

Scores of us lined up afterwards to shake his hand, to embrace him, to wish him blessings in his future endeavors. And we all had similar stories: he had encouraged us via his life and ministry. We all long for encouragement. I get that. What is much harder to inculcate and live out, however, is to encourage others. I guess those old ladies in the small Baptist churches were (once again) right all along: May God bless us, and make us a blessing.