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?”

Using All Means and Helps Towards the Understanding of the Scriptures

If we thus ask the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit, it will follow, dear friends, that we shall be ready to use all means and helps towards the understanding of the Scriptures. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch whether he understood the prophecy of Isaiah he replied, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” Then Philip went up and opened to him the word of the Lord. Some, under the pretense of being taught of the Spirit of God refuse to be instructed by books or by living men. This is no honouring of the Spirit of God; it is a disrespect to him, for if he gives to some of his servants more light than to others—and it is clear he does—then they are bound to give that light to others, and to use it for the good of the church. But if the other part of the church refuse to receive that light, to what end did the Spirit of God give it? This would imply that there is a mistake somewhere in the economy of gifts and graces, which is managed by the Holy Spirit. It cannot be so. The Lord Jesus Christ pleases to give more knowledge of his word and more insight into it to some of his servants than to others, and it is ours joyfully to accept the knowledge which he gives in such ways as he chooses to give it. It would be most wicked of us to say, “We will not have the heavenly treasure which exists in earthen vessels. If God will give us the heavenly treasure out of his own hand, but not through the earthen vessel, we will have it; but we think we are too wise, too heavenly minded, too spiritual altogether to care for jewels when they are placed in earthen pots. We will not hear anybody, and we will not read anything except the book itself, neither will we accept any light, except that which comes in through a crack in our own roof. We will not see by another man’s candle, we would sooner remain in the dark.” Brethren, do not let us fall into such folly. Let the light come from God, and though a child shall bring it, we will joyfully accept it.

-Charles Spurgeon, from his sermon, How to Read the Bible

Double-Efficiency in Reading

In a letter (HERE) based upon Ecclesiastes 12:12, John Newton makes the case that wide reading does not necessarily relate to true intelligence:

An eager desire of reading many books, though it is often supposed to be the effect of a taste for knowledge, is perhaps a principal cause of detaining multitudes in ignorance and perplexity. When an inexperienced person thus ventures into the uncertain tide of opinions, he is liable to be hurried hither and thither with the changing stream; to fall in with every new proposal, and to be continually perplexed with the difficulty of distinguishing between probability and truth. Or if, at last, he happily finds a clue to lead him through the labyrinth wherein so many have been lost, he will acknowledge, upon a review, that from what he remembers to have read (for perhaps the greater part he has wholly forgotten), he has gained little more than a discovery of what mistakes, uncertainty, insignificance, acrimony, and presumption, are often obtruded on the world under the disguise of a plausible title-page.

He is making the point that absorbing vast amounts of information can lead to vast confusion and even, in a sense, vast ignorance. ‘Learning’ or the appearance of intelligence can give an illusion of wisdom as much as a nice title can give the illusion of good content.

He then urges the necessity of reading Scripture.

But should we only read Scripture? His answer is ‘no’:

Allowing, therefore, the advantage of a discreet and seasonable use of human writings, I would point out a still more excellent way for the acquisition of true knowledge: a method which, if wholly neglected, the utmost diligence in the use of every other means will prove ineffectual; but which, if faithfully pursued, in an humble dependence upon the Divine blessing, will not only of itself lead us by the straightest path to wisdom, but will also give a double efficacy to every subordinate assistance.

Notice the takeaway here. If you read all the books in the world, but do not understand God’s Word, you will gain essentially nothing. But if you have God’s word, everything else you read will gain ‘a double efficiency’ in helping to understand the truth.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes makes this point: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:12). Wearing yourself out with reading and study serves no ultimate purpose in itself. But if that studying is mingled with the words of the “Shepherd,” it will lead to wisdom, stimulation (“goads”), and longevity (“nails”) (12:11).

Ecclesiastes 12:11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.

At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul makes a request his younger student Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). He wants to read until the day that he dies. But above all he wants to read the Scriptures.

Do you want to be a doubly efficient reader? Do you want to enjoy books more? Do you want your experience with literature to be more deep and rich? Then read and digest the Scriptures and let them form your imagination as you come to other writings.

Pastoral Ministry and the Paradox of Books

We must not live in the world of books, but in the world of real people. Yet, all that is worth saying to them of lasting value comes from books. But it is all summed up in One who was a real person; and the end is never propositions, theories, precepts, doctrines, but a certain kind of flesh and blood.

-William Still, The Work of the Pastor, Kindle Loc. 1229

We are called to be in the world but not of the world. The reverse is true about reading: we are to be of books but not in books. Our reading informs everything we do, yet we must actually be doing.

Should Christians Read and Quote Non-Christians?

John Calvin on Paul’s reference to a Cretan author in Titus 1:12:

12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own
I have no doubt that he who is here spoken of is Epimenides, who was a native of Crete; for, when the Apostle says that this author was “one of themselves,” and was “a prophet of their own,” he undoubtedly means that he belonged to the nation of the Cretans. Why he calls him a Prophet–is doubtful. Some think that the reason is, that the book from which Paul borrowed this passage bears the title Περὶ Χρησμῶν “concerning oracles.” Others are of opinion that Paul speaks ironically, by saying that they have such a Prophet — a Prophet worthy of a nation which refuses to listen to the servants of God. But as poets are sometimes called by the Greeks ( προφὢται) “prophets,” and as the Latin authors call them Vates , I consider it to denote simply a teacher. The reason why they were so called appears to have been, that they were always reckoned to be ( γένος θεῖον καὶ ἐνθουσιαστικόν)a divine race and moved by divine inspiration.” Thus also Adimantus, in the Second Book of Plato’s treatise Περὶ Πολιτείας after having called the poets υἵους Θεῶν “sons of the gods,” adds, that they also became their prophets. For this reason I think that Paul accommodates his style to the ordinary practice. Nor is it of any importance to inquire on what occasion Epimenides calls his countrymen liars, namely, because they boast of having the sepulcher of Jupiter; but seeing that the poet takes it from an ancient and well-known report, the Apostle quotes it as a proverbial saying. (228)

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil’s discourse (229) πρὸς τοὺς νέους, ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλλ κ.τ.λ

Read the whole thing HERE. I came across this quote in an article by the Calvinist International a while back.

Calvin’s answer (to ‘Should we read and quote non-Christians’) is obviously ‘Yes.’

This is interesting to me for a number of reasons:

1) I like reading non-Christians and quote them regularly. It’s nice when Calvin has your back. (I decided to post this today because I am going to meet one of my own favorite ‘heathen’ authors today at a book reading).

2) It acknowledges common grace in non-Christian authors, which implicitly endorses the reading of non-Christian authors as a source of learning (rather than simply reading with a view toward critique).

3) Calvin explicitly says superstition is the only thing that keeps us from reading such.

4) Paul calls the Cretan a “prophet.” Calvin has no great explanation for this. But if you take G.K. Chesterton’s idea that a prophet is essentially someone who sees the world (under the sun) as it actually is, then there should be no quibbles about some non-Christians having a quasi-prophetic perception of the world. Chesterton put it this way:

…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…

So then, a worldly prophet is someone who sees the world, particularly the age, with insight, and therefore can accurately describe the state of the fallen world. We are called to learn from such.

This doesn’t bode well for those who would tell us we should only read books from ‘trusted sources’ that will surely never lead us astray. Holding such a position, Calvin says above, is from nothing other than superstition.

Living with a Reference Point

Sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them. What did my mother mean? Part of me knew then, and still knows now, that she was afraid for me. If somehow she could convince me not to be afraid, we could rally around the truism she had grown up with: there was nothing to fear but fear itself. My mother didn’t know how to conquer what I was afraid of, nor could she even begin to tell me how to do it for myself… As I made my way downstairs to my room, I resolved never to cry again.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, pp. 78-79

This may be the most famous quote from the book. Lucy’s mother told her not to cry. It affected her for the rest of her life.You have to know something of her life story for that to really have its full impact. The book gives you a sense of it, but there’s more beyond that.

I have used this quote three or four times in sermons already since reading it. This past Lord’s Day, I was preaching on Ecclesiastes 7:21-22, which begins with the injunction, “Do not take to heart all the things that people say…” Lucy took her mother’s words to heart. They captured her and demanded that she lived the rest of her life in reference to them.

Be careful what you take to heart. Be careful what words and moments you choose to live your life in reference to.

Let me also say that true empathy isn’t telling others not to cry; it is crying with them. This is part of what makes the gospel of Christ so wonderful: He doesn’t tell us not to cry. He cries with us. He doesn’t tell us not to cry. He promises to wipe away our tears.

Empathy Produced Through the Suffering of Another

Knowing that my father had his own burdens, his own failings, allowed me to continue through what would otherwise have been unbearable…

Perhaps it was something in her voice that day, maybe it was the way everything shone and vibrated with the heat, but for the first time in a long time I lifted my eyes from the still empty basin and looked at her. Her own eyes were filling with water, tears that would never fall but hovered there, only inches from my own.

Suddenly my perception of the world shifted. I wasn’t the only person in the world who suffered…My sense of space and self lengthened and transformed, extended itself out the door and down the corridor, while at the same time staying present with me, with my mother, who, to my profound discovery, was suffering not just because of, but also for, me.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, pp. 85-86

She had suffered. She had seen others suffer. Yet somehow she still didn’t feel empathy. It took her seeing someone suffer for her before she could feel empathy for others.

Some Forgotten Name

Five percent. I felt obliged to say something, but no one was there, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say anyway. Placing my hand on my neck, feeling the pulse there, I stood for some minutes on the verge of moving or speaking or sitting or something. Then the impulse passed, and I was on the other side of it, feeling as if I’d forgotten something, some name or object or emotion I’d meant to take note of but had carelessly allowed to slip by.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, p. 68

Lucy Grealy describes her response to finding out that the survival rate for her form of cancer was only 5%. Who was it she needed to talk to, and what name had she forgotten?

Identity and Meaning

This singularity of meaning – I was my face, I was ugliness- though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape. It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point when asked what was wrong with my life. Everything led to it, everything receded from it – my face as personal vanishing point.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, p. 7

Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw (Ewing’s Sarcoma) when she was 9. The book recounts how her face became her identity.

She leaves me wondering what my own source of meaning, and personal vanishing point, is. Her case is perhaps more tragic in a sense that yours or mine. Of course I don’t know your situation. But I can’t help but wonder for us, What is it that we point to as the source of all our problems? What is it that gives us reason to vanish from the world?