Literalists Lacking in Spiritual Understanding

My previous post (HERE) on the disciples’ insight into parables mentioned that there was a point (or points) when they demonstrated real perception into Christ’s teachings. Of course there were times when they didn’t as well. Related to that, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book, Spiritual Depression (a personal favorite of mine), he likens the disciples to the blind man (at first only partially-)healed by Jesus, recorded in Mark 8. When Jesus asks the man if he can see, the man responds, “I see men as trees, walking.”

From this, Lloyd-Jones argues that Jesus’ miracle was performed this way intentionally in order to demonstrate a spiritual principle to the disciples. Like the prophet Nathan with David, Jesus was pointing the disciples to this partially-healed man saying, “You are the man.”

MLJ puts it this way:

It is difficult to describe this man. You cannot say that he is blind any longer. You cannot say that he is still blind because he does see; and yet you hesitate to say that he can see because he sees men as trees, walking. What then – is he or is he not blind? You feel that you have to say at one and the same time that he is blind and that he is not blind. He is neither one thing nor the other (p. 39).

He goes on to say that many struggling Christians are like this. It can both appear that they are and are not a Christian. This, however, is not my point in this post. So let me get to it.

MLJ describes the disciples in this way: the event of the healing of the blind man (in Mark’s narrative) is fresh off the heals of a discussion with the disciples about leaven (in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you not understand? Do you not see? Do you not remember?'”). Because he told them to beware the leaven of the pharisees, they began talking about literal bread. So, MLJ says, “they were literalists, they were lacking in spiritual understanding.” Jesus proceeds to call them out on this.

A literalist, in this sense, is someone who cannot see beneath the surface of a story or illustration or principle (and perhaps someone who cannot see beneath the surface without detailed explanations; maybe they see eventually, but it takes a lot of work). You might call this being spiritually obtuse.

I try to teach myself, my children, and want to teach my church, to be able to get beneath the surface of a story (a book, a movie, an illustration, and even the Bible itself) to see the Truth that is being conveyed – “to bring out treasures old and new” (Matt. 13:52). Call this insight or discernment or being spiritually-minded or whatever.

Douglas Coupland regularly makes the claim that only 20% of people worldwide are hardwired to recognize irony when they see it. I fear it’s maybe the same or less for Christians being able to recognize Truth when they see it: being able to see the not blind, not seeing man and recognize that we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. The distortion/illustration is meant to allow us to see more clearly. But we find ourselves being stared down by Jesus as he asks, “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see?”

From Illustrations to Parables, and Finding Truth in Places Where Others Can’t See It

The first interesting point Tasker makes here is that, if you follow the narrative of Matthew, Jesus at one point makes a conscious decision to move from simple illustrations to the use of parables. And this transition was clear enough (i.e. enough of a change from his previous preaching) that the disciples noticed it and were curious enough to ask about it.

The text in question is:

Matthew 13:10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

Tasker comments:

Perhaps the most important and distinctive feature of this chapter is that the evangelist, by the words of Jesus that he records in verses 10-15, makes it clear, as the other evangelists do not, that Jesus deliberately adopted the parabolic method of teaching at a particular stage in His ministry for the purpose of withholding further truth about Himself and the kingdom of heaven from the crowds, who had proved themselves to be deaf to His claims and irresponsive to His demands. Hitherto, He had used parables as illustrations, whose meaning was self-evident from the context in which they were spoken (e.g. vi. 24-27). From now onwards, when addressing the believing multitude he speaks only in parables (34), which He interprets to His disciples in private. Matthew alone tells us that the disciples, apparently surprised at this new development in His policy, asked Him Why speakest thou unto them in parables? The answer they received was that there were mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which could not be understood by those who, He said, using language similar to that used by Isaiah about his contemporaries (see Is. vi. 9, 10), looked upon Him with their eyes but never understood the significance of His Person, and heard His teaching with their ears but remained deaf to its implications. When such people heard a parable about the kingdom it would therefore be for them an interesting but pointless story conveying no revelation of divine truth. The disciples, on the other hand, had already grasped something of the supernatural character of their Master and of the kingdom He came to inaugurate…in their case there was another illustration of the proverbial truth that whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance

– R.V.G. Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, pp. 134-135

Another interesting point is his comment on “whosoever hath, to him shall be given…,” which implies that the spiritually-minded have discernment to perceive truth in places that others will see as nothing but an interesting story.

 

Recent Reading: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God

Etgar Keret, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (& Other Stories)

I’m going to attempt to start writing some ‘recent reading’ posts. The goal of these posts, in the past, was to write down things from the books that I found helpful (think applications).

I was visiting Square Books in Oxford, MS and this book was on a ‘recommended reading’ shelf with a note from a staff member calling Keret ‘like Chuck Palahniuk, but better.’ I was sold. I absolutely loved this book and have already ordered another collection of Keret’s short stories to read.

Takeaways from several of the stories:

  • The Story About a Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is a good picture of grace over strict legality; how compassion can impact people
  • Hole in the Wall was probably my favorite story int he collection. It involves a lonely man who wishes for a friend (more specifically an angel). His wish is answered, but the angel doesn’t live up to his expectations. The narrator calls him ‘a liar with wings.’ I’ve already used this in a sermon as an illustration of hypocrisy.
  • A Souvenir of Hell is about a town that borders an entrance of hell. Once every hundred years or so, residents of hell are allowed to visit the town. The main character is infatuated with a resident of hell, but after the hole is closed up by the government, she can only go on telling stories about what she had seen.
  • Breaking the Pig tells the story of a boy who chooses to save his friend. The friend happens to be a piggy bank. He values his friendship with the toy more than the money he would gain by breaking the bank.
  • Cocked and Locked is probably my second-favorite in the collection. It involves an Israeli military narrator patrolling the border. He is taunted every day by a Palestinian who doesn’t know that the narrator’s gun is useless. The narrator feels impotent, knowing he can’t use his weapon. The twist in the end shows us that we’re all really impotent in the end in some sense.
  • Korbi’s Girl is another good one. A young man steals another young man’s girlfriend. The other young man seeks revenge. The brother of the first young man (who stole the girlfriend) is caught in the middle. This story involves a lesson/exploration of the nature of justice.
  • Missing Kissinger is another favorite. It follows a husband as he attempts to fulfill his wife’s request to ‘prove his love’ to her.
  • Plague of the Firstborn involves the story of Exodus. It explores the idea that some mercies are actually judgement.
  • Pipes was another story in enjoyed. It involved a lonely man who found a way to heaven by building an intricate pipe. He discovered that heaven wasn’t for good people; it was “for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth.”

Spurgeon the Minimalist

I came across this quote HERE.

“Long visits, long stories, long essays, long exhortations, and long prayers, seldom profit those who have to do with them. Life is short. Time is short.…Moments are precious. Learn to condense, abridge, and intensify…In making a statement, lop off branches; stick to the main facts in your case. If you pray, ask for what you believe you will receive, and get through; if you speak, tell your message and hold your peace; if you write, boil down two sentences into one, and three words into two. Always when practicable avoid lengthiness — learn to be short” (Sword & Trowel, September 1871).

The End of the Pleasure Bar

To be all meat and raw nerve is to exist outside of time and – momentarily – outside of narrative. The crackhead who’s been pushing the Pleasure button for sixty hours straight, the salesman who’s eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner while glued to a video-poker terminal, the recreational eater who is halfway through a half gallon of chocolate ice cream, the grad student who’s been hunched over his internet portal, pants down, since 8 o’clock last night, and the gay clubber who’s spending a long weekend doing cocktails of Viagra and crystal meth will all report to you ( if you can manage to get their attention) that nothing besides the brain and its stimulants has any reality. To the person who’s compulsively self-stimulating, both the big narratives of Salvation and Transcendence and the tiny life-storylets of “I hate my neighbor” or “It might be nice to visit Spain sometime” are equally illusory and irrelevant. This deep nihilism of the body is obviously a worry to the crackhead’s three young children, to the salesman’s employer, to the ice-cream eater’s husband, to the grad student’s girlfriend, and to the clubber’s virologist. But the person whose very identity is threatened by such abject materialism is the fiction writer, whose life and business is to believe in narrative…

For Dostoyevsky – as for such latter-day literary heirs of his as Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Irvine Welsh, and Michel Houellebecq – the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever, the inevitable breaking of some bleak and remorse-filled dawn, is the flaw in nihilism through which humane narrative can slip and reassert itself. The end of the binge is the beginning of the story.

– Jonathan Franzen, The End of the Binge, from Father Away, pp. 279-282

Humanity doesn’t shine through until we realize we can’t hit the pleasure bar forever.

Speaking Against Takes More Skill Than Speaking for and With

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 47

To speak against the culture takes more skill than to speak for it.

 

About My Posts on Writing

My posting on the blog is lagging. The reason for this is that I’ve generally posted on the blog about theological and cultural-theological issues, while at the moment I am reading a lot of fiction and don’t have the time to summarize everything I read. I am working full-time now as a pastor but I am also in a writing workshop and reading a bunch of good short stories and things about writing. I am not particularly interested in getting in conversations on the blog about writing, so I have not been posting most of it.

With that said, I have said from the beginning that the purpose of this blog is mostly selfish. I write things here to store them so that I can use them in the future (mostly in sermons, but not always). So, I’ve decided to start making some posts on the books on writing I’ve been reading so that I’ll have the stuff for easy future-reference. You’d be surprised how much this kind of stuff shows up in my preaching as illustrations and the like.

My point in raising this is simple – I am not making statements about writing that I want to debate, nor do I consider myself a great writer. I am a preacher who also writes and is trying to learn about writing. Pretty much everything good I take away from books on writing has some sort of application to preaching. I save them and share them because I find them useful. I just want to share that to say where I’m coming from since these posts are going to start popping up regularly for the next few weeks.

He spoke to them so continually in the language of blood…How amiable!

From Andrew Bonar’s Commentary on Leviticus:

The blood must be ‘sprinkled round about upon the altar.’ Surely Israel must have felt that their souls were reckoned very guilty by their God, since he spoke to them so continually in the language of blood. None but a heavy-laden sinner could relish this never-varying exhibition of to the eye of the worshipper. The pilgrims to Zion, in after days, must often, as they journeyed through the vale of Baca, have wondered what was to be seen and heard in the courts of the Lord’s house, of which the worshippers sang, ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God … Blessed are they that dwell in thy house!’ (Ps. 85:1, 2, 4). And when they arrived, and saw in these courts blood on the altar, blood in the bowls of the altar, blood on its four horns, blood on its sides, blood meeting the eye at every turn, none but a deeply-convicted soul, none but a soul really alive to the guilt of a broken law, could enter into the song, and cry with the worshippers, ‘How amiable!’ Even so with a preached Saviour at this day, and a sin-convinced soul!

“I live in so many centuries…”

I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.

-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 41

Hannah is dealing with the ‘age of confusion’ that was/is post-Vietnam America as he saw it. I’ve never read it, but there is a book about the artwork of Douglas Coupland (an author I really enjoy) that’s title carries the same idea. It’s called Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything.

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The idea is also reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five).

The overarching sense of all of this is that everything for the modern American is jumbled up, misunderstood, confused, etc. There’s a lot more than that, but for the sake of this post, that’s all I’m talking about.

There is something instructive, however. In his great book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called Tradition the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Tradition means giving your predecessors a vote that is equally as valid as yours. C.S. Lewis made the point that books from the past are the only tool we have to check our own chronological-subjectivism (see HERE and HERE). Alister McGrath summarizes Lewis’ position by saying that reading old books “frees us from the tyranny of the contemporaneous” as it keeps “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

My point is that ‘living in so many centuries’ that everyone seems alive is not actually a bad thing. Confusion can be bad. Having a healthy relationship with history not so much. I feel like I know some dead people better than I know some of the living folks I talk to every day.