January 23rd, 2014
Marilynne Robinson’s intellect commands as much respect as her self-effacing humility. She was reared in Idaho, settled in Iowa, and writes both fiction and non-fiction with equal prowess. Her interview with Jon Stewart of the Daily Show may be the oddest juxtaposition of conversationalists I know of. (Stewart makes a living from joke-telling; the last joke she cracked likely came during the Nixon Administration.)
Robinson may have also done more than anyone recently to rehabilitate the image of John Calvin among those who might otherwise revile him. She is no spin doctor for the Genevan theologian. But she does not bend to popular sentiment in her admiration of his towering intellect and expansive compassion.
For me though, Robinson has been the sweetest breath of literary fresh air of anyone I’ve read in recent years. And in finishing her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, recently, I’d have to say I learned a lot about, of all things, evangelism from her fictional character, the Reverend John Ames.
Gilead is told in the form of a journal written by an aged Rev. Ames to his young son. The journal is to be read much later when the child is older. For Rev Ames lost his first wife in childbirth, the child dying simultaneously; re-married much later as an older man; and then became the father of a child a la Abraham: a child unexpectedly born to an astonishingly older man. He places in a literary time-capsule his life’s lessons as a way to compensate for the time he’ll not be able to share with his son later, given their great disparity in age.
I can’t commend her novel to you more, but for our purposes, what does Robinson through Reverend Ames teach us about evangelism?
For one, bearing witness to the truth of God seeks to acknowledge His holiness, righteousness, and transcendence; but it must also champion how God is one who delights, and therefore delights in those He calls His own.
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. . . . I do like Calvin’s image. . .because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.
So we properly speak of His wrath in an effort to explain the Gospel, but it is a wrath commensurate with His love, a love expressed in delight.
That appeal to the fulness of God to understand any one part of Him is essential to witness. In a scene rife with tension between Rev Ames and his best friend’s wayward son, Jack, the latter provokes him into a theological debate over the meaning of predestination. Sensing a bit of disingenuousness in Jack’s question, Ames puts the conversation about this vexing doctrine in a necessary context:
. . .there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate
When the theological scrum comes to an unsatisfying and awkward conclusion, Ames derives some principles of making the case for our hope. In doing so, he makes a careful and necessary distinction between making a defense–as Peter enjoins in 1 Peter 3:13-17–and becoming defensive.
I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level it expresses a lack of faith. The worst eventualities can have great value as experience.. . . Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense. . . . In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.
Ames had spent his life drawing out wisdom from the Scriptures, seeking to bring a balm of hope from the flask of faith for the sorrowful and the sinful. But he knew that when placed in the dock as a defender of the faith, almost inevitably the defense would turn reductionistic. Evangelism contends for the faith but it can never sustain faith.
Lastly, while evangelism seeks to make Jesus plain to others, it also seeks to make plain His beauty. In fact, the gospel-centered life will naturally and necessarily draw out the wondrousness of what is. Ames sews the now and the eternal with a thread of enduring beauty:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
I’m told that Pascal summarized evangelism in his Pensées, saying in effect, make good people want the gospel to be true and then show them that it is. (HT: Tim Keller) Marilynne Robinson’s captivating novel may make even those most hardened to the Gospel’s promise desirous for its reality.
Psalm 67 glories in God’s goodness while desiring the whole world to share in that glory. We’ll turn there this Sunday. I’ll mention in the introduction this Sunday how the theologian Walter Brueggeman believes the Psalms are in the bible to offer a “counter-world” to the one we’re in, and sadly shaped too much by.
We’re going to try to unearth what Psalm 67’s counter-world is for us–the world it’s inviting us into and the sensibilities of this world it’s asking us to leave behind with God’s help. Our passage this week is unashamedly ordered toward making one last invitation to our evangelism seminar next Saturday, Feb 1, 8:30-noon. Childcare can be provided upon request at no charge. You can register this Sunday or by emailing us.
This Sunday we have the opportunity to thank Richard Davis for his service to Christ the King by providing a reception in his honor. Please bring a plate of finger foods for 10 people that can be consumed without utensils. For example: veggie tray, fruit, crackers & cheese, small sandwiches, cookies, nuts, chips/dip/salsa, etc. Coffee, tea, plates and napkins will be provided. If you choose to drop off your food items before the service there will be tables set up in the fellowship hall. Thank you for helping in this way. If you have any questions, please contact Sue Akovenko, 817-505-8004 or email her at [email protected]
Also Sunday, we’ll resume our Sunday Night Fellowships. Come to the Lafferty’s, 6968 Capella Park Ave, 6-8pm. Bring a dish. We’ll eat, chat, sing, and pray. If you’re new to us it’s a great time to get to know more of us. If you’ve been around a while, it’s a chance to get to know someone you hadn’t. It’s cold this weekend. Warm up with some of the Family.
And as you and I learn to pray the Psalms back to God, might we also pray
- for our newly constituted session which will take time out later this month for a concerted time of prayer and planning
- for Gary Doan’s as he recovers from back and neck surgery earlier Thursday morning
- that the seminar on February 1 would suffuse us with new clarity and confidence in being a messenger of the Hope that is in us
- for all the ways the Lord might help us to be faithfully present to Him, one another, and wherever we find ourselves
See you Sunday at 9:30,