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?”


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.


To Both God Spoke in their Own Language

The birth of Christ was notified to the Jewish shepherds by an angel, to the Gentile philosophers by a star: to both God spoke in their own language, and in the way they were best acquainted with.

-Matthew Henry on Matt. 2

Christ can meet you in unexpected places, such as where you currently are. In the field, in the stars, in the womb, on the back of a horse, in the fishing boat, in the tax booth, in a movie…even on a blog.


The Anthropological Perspective and Crap Detecting

…We must have instruments that telling us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by ‘crap detecting.’ It is also what John Gardener means by the ‘ever-renewing society,’ and what Kenneth Boulding means by ‘social self-consciousness.’ We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 3-4

Out of the culture and in the culture at the same time. This sounds oddly familiar.

John 17:15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

The problem comes when you don’t have the grounding that follows in John’s Gospel:

John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

I think the phrase ‘anthropological perspective’ is helpful. It’s a reminder that Christians are to serve, at least in some sense, as sociologists of the culture they find themselves in. Sociologists and tourists.



Anxiety from Lack of Stimulation

We are wired to crave the temporary satisfaction from writing e-mails, crafting tweets, returning calls, downloading music, playing games, checking out websites, sending text messages, and taking photos of our food. They are the hooks that enrapture us. They are the casino slot machines that keep us moving from one machine to the next, ultimately resulting in our anxiety when we are left to face the world unstimulated.

– Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 13

I relate to this line of thought, especially lately. It is odd that having nothing to do can cause anxiety, but it happens. Boredom should be the least stressful thing in the world, but when you’re bombarded with constant light, constant bells and whistles, it’s hard to decompress. Can you face the world when you’re not stimulated?

Relational Junk Food

But our society has begun to treat our relational needs much the same way we’ve come to treat our physical needs. When we’re hungry, rather than take the time to cook a well-balanced, filling meal, we rush to grab something out of the freezer that we can quickly nuke and then eat while watching TV or finishing up some work. And when we’re relationally hungry, so often rather than sitting down with our children or spouse to hear about their day or setting up a dinner date with a good friend, we open Facebook or Twitter and peruse through the recent posts of the day, stopping to click ‘like’ or shoot off some quick replies. Or we look to see if a picture we posted on Instagram earlier that day has been commented on much – and if it was, that temporarily fills us…until we close our computer and crawl into bed with the same dissatisfied, empty feeling that we went to bed with the day before…

-Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 12

I like the analogy of social media as the relational equivalent of a frozen dinner thrown in the microwave.

Recent Reading: Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

I read Slaughterhouse Five a while back because it was highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, and because another of my favorites authors, Douglas Coupland, is a big fan of Vonnegut. So, when I saw this book on the for-sale rack (for a quarter) at my local library, I decided to pick it up. I’m in the lull between the end of classes and final exams at seminary, so it’s high time for some fiction for the sake of sanity.

Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

This book will be added to my list of recommended reading on culture and technology. Last year, I accidentally stumbled upon Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, and discovered that it was a story that dealt with scientism; it turns out the same thing has happened again with Player Piano.

In the story, another dystopia by the way, Vonnegut depicts a future for America in which the scientists and engineers rule the day. Machines have been invented to do essentially all menial labor that there is to do, which has left no work for the working class. Everything about your life is essentially predetermined by your IQ score. If you are smart enough, you go to college and become something of value and significance; if you are not, you join the army or some belittling government corps. If you really want to make it, you must become an engineer. And as an engineer, you care for the machines that essentially rule the culture. Just be careful not to invent a machine that will take your place. If you do your job well, you might climb your way up the managerial bureaucracy.

The story centers around one such engineer named Paul Proteous (a great name by the way) who happens to be the son of one of the most successful engineers in the history of the country – the engineer given primary credit for the current machine-driven system. Paul begins to consort with folks from ‘across the river’ and learns how miserable common people are in this system, a fact that he has been oblivious to all of his life heretofore. He, along with an engineer-friend that has given up on the system, meet a Protestant minister who tells them of his belief that the lower class are primed for the arrival of a messiah that will deliver them from their low estate of, basically, having nothing of any significance to do.

From this point on, Paul is caught on the threshold of two worlds and must decide what he truly thinks of the cultural system as it is. Should he continue to live his successful life without experiencing any sense of significance or purpose, or could he perhaps rebel against it.

As his name is Proteous, the name given to him by his father, the most famous name in the land, he is ultimately recruited to serve as a nominal messiah to lead to lower class in a rebellion against the bureaucracy. Still, he is torn between two worlds and must decide to which side he will pledge his ultimate allegiance, realizing that this coup may cost him everything. I won’t give away the ending, so I’ll stop there.

Vonnegut wrote this story in the 1950s, and his prescience is astounding to some degree. I am always amazed by the people that can see things coming. Personally, I find that I am good at diagnosing problems, but not so good at seeing where those problems will lead to down the road. This book belongs with Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 in relation to dystopian visions of the future. It hits upon the basic question of what man is meant to do, and what man will do when that meaning and purpose is taken away – in this case by gadgets.

Sanctification in the Technopolis

Since I’m not writing much these days, here’s a link to a talk I gave recently on the subjection of technology in relation to Christian sanctification. If you’ve been around the blog for a while you’ve seen me write on this a good bit. This is the first time I’ve condensed much of this information down into a talk.

You can listen HERE or watch below:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

Have You No Shame?

…Without a well-developed idea of shame, childhood cannot exist.

-Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, p. 9

I bought this book used. The person who owned it before me made a comment in the margin that the sentence I have quoted above is ‘disturbing.’ I don’t think they understood the point.

Throughout the book, Postman is making the argument that the concept of childhood is a relatively young one that began to develop in the 16th Century after the invention of the printing press. With mass amounts of printed material becoming available, Westerners decided that children needed boundaries to protect them from the flood. Before that time, he argues, children essentially lived in an adult world. They did not go to specialized schools; they didn’t live lives essentially distinct from their parents. By the age of seven, they were a part of the work-force – whatever that looked like at the time.

The sense of shame he writes of is the sense that some things are shameful, or inappropriate, for certain groups of people – children in this case. Over the centuries, it became agreed that some things simply weren’t suitable for children, and parents were entrusted with being gatekeepers of such things.

Now, especially with the internet, but even with television before it, this task is all the more difficult; and even beyond the difficulty, Postman is asserting, we are losing the sense that many things are inappropriate for children to begin with. We are losing that sense of shame – the sense that there are boundaries, the sense that parents are to discern the acceptability of content introduced to their children. That is what is disturbing.

Blogging through The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman

-Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982, 1994)

The publisher’s description:

From the vogue for nubile models to the explosion in the juvenile crime rate, this modern classic of social history and media traces the precipitous decline of childhood in America today ˆ’and the corresponding threat to the notion of adulthood.

Deftly marshaling a vast array of historical and demographic research, Neil Postman, author of Technopoly, suggests that childhood is a relatively recent invention, which came into being as the new medium of print imposed divisions between children and adults. But now these divisions are eroding under the barrage of television, which turns the adult secrets of sex and violence into popular entertainment and pitches both news and advertising at the intellectual level of ten-year-olds.

Informative, alarming, and aphorisitc, The Disappearance of Childhood is a triumph of history and prophecy.

I’ll be sharing quotes and thoughts for the next few weeks. Join me, won’t you?