October 18, 2016

A Plea for the Place of Words

Expounding insights gleaned, largely, from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

With both feet, we as a society have crossed the cultural border from an epoch of words and into an era of pictures (both still and moving). I get it. For I, too, am a child of my culture in many ways. There are many evenings when, for instance, rather than read to my children, I’d much rather just sit down in front of a screen and watch something together. It’s just easier that way. Listening requires more mental effort than watching; reading necessitates even more effort; and reading aloud still more. Plus, I understand that watching something on a screen (which almost always involves listening, too) engages an additional sense in ways that are often truly engaging, and sometimes helpful.

Further, I realize that even still imagery captures the eye much more rapidly than words – which is why books have artwork on their covers, and why we are now attaching such to our online sermons, and why pictures on Facebook seem to always generate a great many more ‘likes’ than plain text. Sight seems to be the dominant sense of modern mankind. And there are surely ways in which we should (within reason) make use of that tendency.

I understand all these things, and do not decry pictures and film, as such. And yet I do believe that, in our cultural evolution from words to images, we are in the process of losing some things quite precious. Most modern Americans, I dare say, read very little. And what they do read is often quite brief (and sometimes inane). And, if they do not attend church, it may have been years since many of our neighbors ever sat and concentrated on someone speaking for 30-60 minutes solid (if they’ve ever done so). And these are great losses, it seems to me.

For one thing, the hard work of reading or listening (as opposed to watching) is good for the mind. Forcing yourself to concentrate on a 45 minute speech, or on several consecutive chapters of a book, is good for us. Watching a movie or TV show, on the other hand, is often inactive. Ideas are merely thrown at us, rather than us having to mine them out of carefully crafted words. And thus, watching often doesn’t have the capacity for sharpening our minds the way focusing on words does. And it’s a dangerous thing, it seems to me, that we are raising a generation of children who do not know how to concentrate. Much of this problem, I am convinced, is because they are being raised with constantly moving pictures rather than with words that make them think.

Further, the rapid replacement of words with pictures means that we, of necessity, cannot handle many topics with an appropriate level of depth and/or sophistication. Pictures (moving and still) work well with the telling of stories, and sometimes the conveying of feelings. But they don’t work so well with outlining theological doctrines, and worldview beliefs, and political positions, and so on. For these we need words … often in large quantities. And, in a culture that is no longer apt to consume words in large quantities, is it any surprise that most Americans get their theology, their worldview, and their politics from brief soundbites, rather than with significant depth of research, thought, and understanding?

Finally, the waning epoch of words in our land will be a disaster spiritually, I am afraid. Because God has given us His truth (even the part of it that is story) not in pictures, but in words. And in a culture that incessantly prefers pictures to words, where will that leave us in a generation or two? Not in a good place, I am afraid. The Bible will lie more and more neglected. And so will preaching and good Christian books. Because we want images more than words; media players more than monologues; infographics more than essays; performers more than prophets.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was kept locked in Latin, the tongue of the scholars (with translation into the common peoples’ languages forbidden). Meanwhile the church gave the people pictures (statues, relics, paintings, etc.) in place of words. And, while these visual media lacked ability to communicate the whole truth about God (as stated above), they were (and still are) quite proficient at serving as stand-ins for Him; at becoming idols, in other words. And, although not precisely in the same way, pictures often stand between men and God today, too … wooing us away from the written word, more rapidly exciting our affections, but unable to provide us the same level of food for thought or meat for the soul.

And so I am making a plea for the place of words in your life. I’m not suggesting you never watch a movie (we have some in our church library!), or that you never turn on the television, or that you close your Instagram account. But what I am saying is that you will be much the poorer – spiritually, mentally, and in terms of your understanding of the world – if you adopt film, and television, and YouTube, and social media imagery as your primary source of mental intake.

So ask yourself: When is the last time I read a book all the way through? Or, even more so, when is the last time I read a Christian book all the way through? And how many movies have I watched in that same span of time? And further, do I have the attention span to focus on more than just a few verses of the Bible at a time? God has chosen to communicate to us in words … but is my mental lifestyle conducive to receiving His truth in the way He has chosen to disseminate it?


For more on the cultural shift from words to pictures, see Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, to which I owe most of the thinking above.

October 11, 2016

Fall at the Ridge

Fall is finally upon us, with its beautiful blue skies, its crisp autumn eves, and (soon, I hope) its crisp autumn leaves! And, with the return of fall, and the happy march toward the holidays, the busiest time of our church year is upon us as well … spread like a Thanksgiving table with opportunities for growth, fellowship, and service. So let me use this week’s article to lay out for you a bit of a fall menu; a preparation for and invitation to the good things that will be, Lord willing, available to you this fall (and Christmas) at PRBC.

Preaching. On Sundays, Lord willing, we’ll first be finishing our series on Christian Homes. Then (sandwiched between sermons for Reformation Day and Christmas) I hope also to lead us on a brisk autumn walk through the words of the prophet Zephaniah – a book that begins with thunder, but ends with joyful singing (Zephaniah 3:17, ESV)! And on Wednesdays, with the Lord’s help, we’ll walk through the final five psalms, finishing a complete look at the psalter which has been many years in the making. I hope you’ll join us!

Missions. The fall and Christmas seasons also bring us a couple of special opportunities to be involved in getting the gospel out to the ends of the earth! Beginning on October 23, we’ll be collecting items for Operation Christmas Child, with our packing party scheduled for Friday evening, 11/18. And then, all through the month of December is our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for international missions, which kicks off with our Missions Week, December 4-11. Please do pray about how you can contribute to both of these opportunities for getting the gospel to the various tribes and nations of the earth.

Fellowship. We enjoy our church family fellowship meals every month, of course … but our Thanksgiving dinner (11/13) and Christmas lunch (12/18) are especially bright spots in the calendar. Make plans to join us for both. And remember that these are good opportunities to bring a friend or relative and to introduce them to our church family. 

Planning.  Fall also means that the elders and deacons will be working on plans for next year’s budget and servant ministry roles. Would you pray that we will have the mind of Christ in these matters? And would you pray about how the Lord would have you render service to and through PRBC in 2017 … and let us know by filling out the servant ministry surveys that have recently been made available?

There is indeed ‘a lot on our plates’ this fall! I hope it will be a feasting time for our souls, and for those whom we seek to reach with the good news of Jesus. Make sure you don’t miss the banquet!

October 4, 2016

'What the Bible means to me'

Sometimes you may hear a person voice something like this, say, in a Bible study or Sunday School class: ‘Let me tell you what this passage means to me.’ Often times such people are well intentioned. And some of them would agree with everything I am about to write. They just aren’t being careful with their wording – using the word means when perhaps they really mean to say applies (see below).

But there is a danger, when we use ill-advised words like the above, that we could communicate (or even believe), that a given biblical passage might actually mean one thing to you, and something slightly different to me. And that is a danger, I say! Because, under this style of interpretation, the biblical text, and the vision of God and His world that flows from it, become just a piece of clay in the reader’s hand … reshaped according to his or her own background, and beliefs, and sometimes fancy. And the reader may not even realize that’s what he or she is doing! Because we all have biases and preconceived notions that we bring to any given situation. But if we give credence to the idea that the Bible might just mean something different to one person than to another … we won’t feel nearly as much need to look past our biases, and to discover what the author actually meant by what he wrote. For, since we believe the Bible might have different meanings for different people, we’re already defaulting to looking for ‘what this passage means to me.’ And that’s no way to read anyone’s book, let alone God’s!

The meaning of a given piece of text belongs with the author, not the reader! That’s why Paul tells Timothy, not to discover what the text means to him, but to “be diligent” about “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The whole idea of handling the text of the Bible “accurately” lets us know that it has a definite meaning that we must strive to get right!

Now, are there passages over which godly people have come to two (or more) very different interpretations of the text? Absolutely. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that, if you think passage X means this, and I think it means that … well then, one (or both) of us will someday discover that we were incorrect! Because, while we may not agree on the meaning of passage X, we do agree that it has a definite meaning. And so we understand and accept the fact that our divergence is one of our interpretation, not of the Bible’s actual meaning.

We also recognize that a given biblical passage might have a different application for one person than another, given that person’s circumstances. So that, for instance, an American Christian and a North Korean Christian might read the same psalm about persecution, and yet put it into immediate practice in different ways – the American (rightly) turning it into prayer for his persecuted brothers in places like North Korea, and into preparation for the suffering that may be ahead in this land; and the North Korean (also rightly) praying the words of David directly about his own very present suffering. But the meaning of the words on the page are the same for both readers. They are, in either case, a description of how David prayed in a time of suffering, and an example of how Christians should pray in the same situations. And so the difference between the American and the North Korean has to do with their application of the text, not with the text’s actual meaning.

In short, the Bible means what the Author intended it to mean – always. The meaning of any given book, chapter, sentence, or individual biblical word does not change, has not changed, and will not change … no matter who reads it, or when, or under what circumstances. And so no passage of scripture can mean one thing to you, and another to me. One or both of us may interpret it incorrectly, so as to think it means something different than what it really means. But that doesn’t change the actual meaning. And, when we have the meaning correct, we may rightly apply the same truth in different ways, given our circumstances. But the words on the page still mean what they mean – always.

So let’s be careful about how we talk about the meaning of the Bible. Let’s learn to say: ‘This is how I believe this passage applies in my life’ rather than ‘this is what this passage means to me.’ Or, ‘This is what I believe this passage means (period)’ instead of ‘This is what this passage means to me.’

And let’s also be okay with admitting, when two of us have differing interpretations of a given text, that at least one of us is wrong. We don’t have to battle it to the death, of course! And, if the difference is not over a cardinal doctrine of the faith, we need not part ways over our different interpretations. But neither must we go to the opposite (21st century Western) extreme of saying: ‘Well, you have your truth, and I have mine. And we can both be right.’ It’s okay, in other words, to agree that the text has a definite meaning, and that we are not agreed on what that meaning is! But it’s not okay to talk as though any given Bible passage may mean different things to different people.

September 28, 2016

Sermons from Psalms 135-144

As we press on in our studies through the Psalter, here is the latest collection of audio:

Psalm 135 - Hallelujah! - mp3
Psalm 137 - “Above my chief joy” - mp3
Psalm 138 - “I will give You thanks with all my heart” - mp3
Psalm 140 - Prayer in Persecution - mp3
Psalm 142 - “To You, O LORD” - mp3
Psalm 143 - “Hear my prayer, O LORD” - mp3
Psalm 144 - A Final Setback Psalm - mp3

Psalms 136, 139, and 141 were preached at earlier dates.  136 and 141 are available in our sermon archive.

September 27, 2016

"Not merely hearers"

It occurs to me that I face a peculiar challenge as a committed Christian (and even more so as a pastor). The Bible is near me all the time. It’s a tool I use every day. It’s the bedrock of my worldview. It’s like a soundtrack, almost always playing in the background (and very often in the foreground) of my life – one to which I have grown quite accustomed, and with which I am becoming ever more comfortable. I read it regularly. I study it as a life’s calling. I enjoy preaching it. I enjoy hearing a good sermon, too. And lately I have been on the lookout for just the right actual Bible as well … one that will bring my preferred version, formatting, cover, and so on into one finished product. And all of these are good things! It is a blessing to have the word of God around us all the time, to genuinely enjoy it, and to have access to it in so many well-presented ways! And, whether we are pastors or not, many of us can relate to much of what I’ve just written.

But I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t dupe ourselves into thinking that the aforementioned (often quite enjoyable) interactions with the word of God necessarily equate with maturing Christianity. In other words, I wonder if the fact that some of us often read the word of God, and hear the word of God, and even enjoy the word of God – reading it in different formats or translations, hearing it preached well and rousingly, enjoying its comforting promises – I wonder if our nearness to (and even enjoyment of) the Scriptures in these ways sometimes dupes us into forgetting to ask whether we’re actually putting what they say into practice!

I’ll give you an example from my own life. There are certain preachers out there that really get my attention – men whose handling of the word of God comes with that “intellectual freshness” that John G. Paton wrote about in the Christian environment in which he grew up. But, much as I enjoy listening to these men open the word, do I then do anything about what I heard? Often, I am afraid, I stop simply at having enjoyed the word, rather than really making effort to apply the word. And the same may be true, someday, when I find that perfectly bound and printed NASB Bible! It may be a real pleasure to hold goatskin in my hands, and to read from a near perfect typeface. But will I merely enjoy the experience, or will I do anything about what I read?

And I suspect that I am not the only one who struggles with just this sort of disconnect! For instance, I have gotten a more-than-usual amount of feedback on our recent sermons on the family … for which I am grateful! I am sure the subject matter has a lot to do with that, and it is encouraging to hear that so many people are really interested in the biblical material on husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, and so on! It’s also encouraging that so many ladies came back from the recent women’s conference encouraged by what they heard there! But there is a danger, you know – namely that we could really enjoy hearing all these things laid out in a systematic way; that we could delight in the warm pictures of biblical family life or womanhood that we’ve had painted before us; that we could even like being challenged with some truths that maybe we hadn’t previously thought much about … and yet, while enjoying such things, the danger is that we could walk away from them the way we might do from a really good piece of music – moved, delighted, warmed, but not necessarily with a paradigm shift for how we are going to do life!

And that’s okay when we’re talking about music, or about a movie, or a book of fiction. For these things are generally meant, basically, for enjoyment. And speaking of things meant for our enjoyment, it’s not even wrong to admit that we really enjoy reading the Bible, or hearing it taught … because God intends that we should! His word is meant to bring joy (Jeremiah 15:16)! 

But the word is also meant to bring change! We are meant, not only to taste its sweetness, but to follow its instructions!

Now don’t mishear me! I am glad that the word of God is often enjoyable to me! And I am glad when it is so for you! Indeed, I hope that, for all of us, it only becomes all the more so! But let’s not stop there! Let’s not just hear and enjoy the Bible, but put it into practice as well! “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22).