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.

His Speck but My Log


Some books should be read once; some books should be read and recommended; some books should be read and purchased for others who will read them. Lastly, some books should be read, purchased for others, and read again for our own benefit. This is my third time reading through I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. The title is appropriate and summative. The authors ask rimgreseaders to examine their own assumptions in their search for truth. I’ve read scores of books on Christian apologetics, but what I appreciate about this book is its forthrightness and accessibility for lay persons. I use it as a gift for others whom I believe will actually read it.

What demands more faith—to believe that an intelligent, uncaused, personal being (God) created everything, or to believe that nothing gave rise accidentally to everything? If God exists, then origins, identity, meaning, morality and destiny are explainable. If atheism is true (where God’s non-existence is assumed as an absolute) then origins, identity, meaning, morality and destiny are unexplainable rationally; they become subjective and preferential. Stick with me as I tell a personal story from just a couple of years ago.

During a military deployment a couple of years ago in Afghanistan, I developed a friendship with another officer within our battalion. We both had been English majors as undergraduates and we talked often of our favorite books, writers, and ideas. He’d grown up in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts as a nominal Roman Catholic but said he was now agnostic. He said he’d read the Bible through but could not bring himself to believe in the exclusivity of Jesus as God incarnate. He’d come to reject Christianity. Why? He said that he’d seen too many sins (his word) in the Roman Catholic circles in which he was reared. Even in his forties, he was still wounded by them. In short, he said he was disappointed. Therefore, he said, Christianity could not be true.

Are you following his reasoning? Because he’d seen sinful behavior of those claiming to be Christians, he rejected the Christian faith. May I say this kindly but clearly? That’s very poor reasoning. None of us is righteous. None of us is good. We’re all sinners. The first three chapters of Romans explain this with unmistakable clarity. Because hypocrites exist, Christianity is false? That’s hardly sound reasoning. Jesus excoriated hypocrites: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell, you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Mt 23:2-3 ESV).

Over and over again, Jesus pronounced judgment upon hypocrites. In Matthew 23 alone, Jesus pronounced “woes” and judgments repeatedly upon fakers. Why? Because they (scribes, Pharisees, etc.) were charlatans, they were fakes. They brought reproach upon God’s name for pretending to be lovers and followers of God, yet living ungodly: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mt 23:23a).

Were that insufficient, Jesus turns the screws tighter still: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Mt 23:25-26).

Any righteousness is internal before it’s external. Because our hearts are evil, self-absorbed, and factories of idols, we need new hearts. And that is what Christ provides. He did not come for the righteous but for sinners. Conviction over one’s own sin, not scoffing at others’ hypocrisy, is evidence of a teachable spirit. Trying to use others’ hypocrisy is a tactic of distracting oneself from addressing our own personal sin. We reveal ourselves to be just like the Pharisees Jesus excoriated. We want to appear righteous but we know that we’re guilty sinners.

My friend was right to loathe the hypocrisy of the hypocrites he witnessed. But he (and I) would do well to loathe the hypocrisy in ourselves more than we lament it in others. We’ll not answer for others’ sin; our own is more than enough to battle.

I bought my friend a copy of Geisler and Turek’s book two years ago. He promised me he would read it. I don’t know if he has. I’m now reading it through for the third time. I don’t say that to boast, but out of love for a friend, who sees the specks in others’ eyes with clarity. May God use this helpful book to help him see himself as well as he sees others. When we begin to see ourselves as the sinners we are, we see what amazing grace is extended to all who will humble themselves before the cross of Christ.




Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 2 of 2)

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  1. Lasting meaning only possible with eternal reference point
  2. Jesus’ claims to be the eternal reference point
  3. Yorick’s life matters because of the imago Dei; denial of Jesus ends in denial of dignity

Why would an atheist weep at a funeral? His weeping could be over missing his loved one. He might weep over his own loneliness now that his loved one has departed. But if he is a consistent atheist, he cannot explain why the life of the deceased mattered in any objective sense. All he can say is that the life mattered to him. It’s a purely subjective ascribing of value to another. But I do not see how the atheist can claim justifiably that a life matters–any life—objectively.

When Hamlet and Horatio interact with the Gravedigger in Act V of Hamlet, Shakespeare dramatizes the conflict between a theistic worldview vs. an atheistic worldview. Hamlet obviously loved Yorick. Yorick had played with Hamlet, had fostered his growth, and had perhaps mentored young Prince Hamlet. But now, having died, how should Hamlet view the meaning of Yorick’s life and death?

If Hamlet were an atheist, he’d have no objective reason why he should mourn. Who mourns over material? Sure, we mourn when we lose our property, or wreck an automobile, etc. But Hamlet is mourning the loss of a relationship, another person that had loved him, and that Hamlet had loved in return. But if Hamlet were a theist, and he had an eternal reference point for meaning, then it would make perfect sense to mourn for the loss of his friend, and to also have hope that Yorick’s life was not just dust to dust, but that his soul lives, and would even be reunited with his glorified body. But that would be the case only if Jesus Christ conquered the grave.

Here is Paul’s account in 1 Cor 15:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brother at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. The he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15:3-8 ESV)

Paul says Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead is the matter of “first importance.” That means we must deal with it if we’re to come to terms with the meaning of life and death. If Christ was resurrected, then we will be—either to hell or heaven. The “Yoricks” that we know will likewise be resurrected.

But do we have evidence to substantiate Paul’s claims? Yes; there is so much evidence that tomes are written about it. However, below are five reasons that, as a minimum, deserve our thoughtfulness.

First, there are precise predictions in the Old Testament, prior to Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant who would bear the sins of many, being crushed as as a substitute for sinners. Isaiah 53:3-12 is probably the most overt reference to Jesus’ role in this regard.

Second, in the NT we have Jesus’ post-resurrection discussion with Cleopas and another early Christ-follower on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. “And he [Jesus] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scripture the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:25-27).

Third, consider Jesus’ own words: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40). That claim is either true or false. If Jesus was not resurrected, as he clearly said he would be, why has no one produced his body?

Fourth, how do we explain the utterly transformed lives of the disciples? Other than Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus knew would betray him (see Jn 6:64; 13:11), the lives of the disciples were revolutionized by Jesus. They were martyred for their exclusive allegiance to Christ as Lord. Some were beheaded; others were crucified; others were exiled (John off the coast of Turkey, for example).

Fifth, why did the Romans place extra guards by the tomb of Jesus? Why could they not account for Jesus’ disappearance? This was the strongest army in the ancient Near East. They were experts in crucifixion, yet they could not guard a corpse or possible thieves? And how could a flayed and bloodied Jew, claiming to be God in the flesh, exit a tomb, and no one restrain him?

Because Jesus was and is the eternal reference point, dignity is real. “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58).

In sum, unless Jesus exited that tomb, there is no qualitative difference between us and the dirt. Yorick’s life didn’t matter, if Jesus is not God, and if Jesus did not conquer the grave.

As David Foster Wallace commented in his interviews about Infinite Jest, he (DFW) set out to write a sad book. In a world without Jesus’ unrepeatable work of conquering the curse of the grave, we’re all characters in a sad book. However, because Jesus did do what was prophesied, and because we have millennia of evidence to substantiate it, there is dignity to this life, and there is hope beyond the grave. Yorick mattered–not just to Hamlet but to God, because Yorick, too, bore the imago Dei. Yorick will live again.

Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 1 of 2)








  1. Lasting meaning
  2. Lasting meaning only makes sense if God exists.
  3. Jesus’ historicity and the historical record

No, this is not an article answering the question about whom I’d like to have as dinner guests. Rather, I want to examine a famous literary scene and ask the question, what worldview of these presented here most accurately corresponds to our intimations of death and the afterlife (if there is one)? That is, whose portrayal of the questions about death, and what comes after (if anything), seems most credible?

First, in full disclosure of some of my literary biases, I’m more than fond of each of these people’s works. I earned a B.A. and M.A. in English years ago. I’m a literary geek by, surely, anyone’s standard. Other literary bibliophiles out there understand. Imagine walking down an unfamiliar street and glimpsing a bookstore new to you. From the street, you can see quotes from Bunyan, Dickens, or Hemingway on placards through the store’s windows. Before you’ve blinked again, you’re inside for a cup of coffee and scouring the store’s shelves for your favorite reads.

I read Shakespeare out of sheer marvel at his linguistic genius and his accurate portrayals of human experience. As to Wallace, I’m a newcomer to his writings. I eschewed postmodern literature for many years because I thought it was self-defeating (more on this theme in subsequent articles), but I’ve come to respect what Wallace was grappling with, even though I may disagree with his intimations regarding God.

When it comes to Jesus, though he is not recorded in history as having written anything other than what he drew/wrote on the ground (as recorded in John 8:6b-8), few intelligent people would argue that anyone else’s life has engendered more change, been investigated more, or is more crucial to deal with than his. Jesus was not a writer, per se. He either was/is God in the flesh or he wasn’t/isn’t. He either was/is the savior of sinners or he isn’t. Say what you will, he never came to write a great novel (like Wallace’s Infinite Jest) or to pen some of the world’s noblest tragedies (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.). No, Jesus addressed death and the afterlife in distinctive ways.

Second, I concede that volumes could be written about the question being asked. I take that to mean this question is thereby a question worthy of thoughtful discussion. I am simply interested in gauging each man’s worldview concerning this question, as evidenced by one famous scene in literature.

For the sake of briefly addressing the question of which person most accurately portrays our intimations of death and the afterlife, consider the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is walking with Horatio, and they come across the Gravedigger and his burial of Hamlet’s former friend, Yorick:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (5.1.181-89)

Admittedly, it is dangerous and premature to judge a writer’s/thinker’s oeuvre by cherry picking one scene from an entire life’s work. For the sake of the question I’m addressing here, will we at least consider the question in light of this scene from Hamlet since it (the scene) contains both the phrase for which Wallace entitled his masterpiece and, second, the scene illustrates the issue of mortality and the question of the afterlife?

Since this is to be (at least) a two-part article, may I suggest that Shakespeare is putting before us the question of lasting meaning? Did Yorick’s life matter? Sure, to Yorick, right? And obviously to Hamlet. After all, Hamlet is lamenting the loss of Yorick to the grave. Yet, Shakespeare is illustrating more. He’s asking, what is anyone’s life worth if the grave is all there is? If Yorick was just material, then he’s reduced to material again via death. This would be the consistent position of a naturalistic worldview. In a naturalistic worldview, Hamlet’s lamentations would be folly. Why lament death of material when you, too, are just material? But was Yorick just material? Is Hamlet just material? Are you and I just material? It does make sense to even speak of material that laments. Shakespeare illustrates the question, but is not overt in answering it.

For Wallace, I think, he sees death as the final scene, but only if there’s no transcendent Creator (God). Death is the end if we jest or if are in earnest. If there’s no God, then all we have is distraction, entertainment, and isolation. We’re exiled east of Eden, like Cain, but there’s no God to give us a mark to keep us from being avenged by other lost souls. We can jest, but not infinitely. In the end, we end like (perhaps) Yorick did, only dust to dust. Our jesting would be more rightly turned to lamentation, if God is absent and there’s no triumphing over the curse of death.

With Jesus, however, he promised that if we’re united to him via genuine faith, we’d conquer the grave. He said he’d prepare a place for us (Jn 14:3a), that he’d come again and take believers to himself (Jn 14:3b). Was he lying? If so, then he wasn’t trustworthy, and we are cast back upon the inevitability of death and how to address the afterlife (if there is one). In sum, if Jesus did rise from the dead, that would change the playing field. Several thousand years of church history have attested to Jesus’ resurrection. Pharisees who originally persecuted Christians became evangelists and apologists for Jesus and the Christian worldview. The true disciples were martyred or exiled for their convictions that Jesus was the resurrected Lord. No one has produced the body of Jesus. Surely, these claims are worthy of thoughtful investigation. If Jesus conquered death, that changes everything in the cosmos.

If you’ve not done so, I suggest reading through Hamlet again, and reading Wallace’s fiction, too. If you’re willing, read the gospel of John. Ask honestly if Jesus is trustworthy and see if he’ll reward your earnest search. Thomas, too, was a skeptic, so you’re neither the first nor the last. Genuine inquiry after the truth is worth our energies.

Who best addressed this issue? Shakespeare, it seems to me, merely highlighted the question for dramatic effect. How we answer the dilemma posed reveals our worldview. Based upon DFW’s writing that I’ve read (I’ve not read all of his material, yet) man lives in a closed universe (where God’s non-existence is presupposed). This seems a much more difficult world in which to make the case for moral law. In the absence of the eternal reference point (God) who conquered death, relativism seems the inevitable deduction.

However, if Christ conquered the grave, then the way we view the “Yoricks” in our lives is revolutionized. No small amount depends on whether Jesus was trustworthy and if there’s historical evidence to substantiate his claims. More to follow on that question in part two.


     It is tempting to cloak doubting God’s providence as world-weariness, by saying (maybe just to oneself), “That’s just where the world is today.” But one would fail to tell the whole truth, in saying that. World-weariness is, for the Christian, sin. Why? It is sin because it’s failing to trust God amidst cultural darkness and rot. Christian pilgrims are commanded to trust God with all of oneself (cf. Dt 6:5; Ps 73:24-28; Pr 3:5-6).

     Perhaps you’re like I—sinfully tempted to despair over the state of the world. In the world of the political Left, one is taught to view “progress” as abortion on demand, state-sanctioned sodomy, lesbianism, identity being what one feels like on a given day, the denial of others’ rights if they conflict with an all-powerful State, and forced distribution of one’s resources via taxing him/her into poverty–but calling it “fairness.”

      On the political Right, one is taught “progress” would be seen if the U.S. would reintroduce plaques of the Ten Commandments into its government schools. If they opened with prayer in government schools, then, surely, adolescents would not graduate from high school barely literate. At least they’d be well-behaved, right? And let us not forget blind patriotism for one’s nation; God, after all, must be American at heart, right?

     World-weariness comes from disbelieving the providence of God. However, God transcends our cultural rot. He both exalts and humbles nations—whether Egypt, Israel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Babylon, or America. Nebuchadnezzar was humiliated, and it was of God (cf. Dan 4:28-37).

     Let us not despair, Christian pilgrims. The postlapsarian world has always been rotten and sin-soaked. God drowned all but eight people in Noah’s generation, because man’s heart was rotten. Rottenness/sin is not new. What is amazing, what is cause for hope, what is historical, is that God raises corpses to life. Lazarus exited his tomb at the word of Christ; the perishing put on the imperishable; and weak self-pitying sinners are restored by virtue of the firstfruits of the resurrected Christ—the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).

     When Chesterton was asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” he wrote these profound words, “I am.” Exactly. Long before I lament the evil “out there,” I’d do well to remember the evil within. Therein lies the seedbed of the world’s evil.