Uncommon Knowledge

Once I made what is, I fancy, a common mistake in college and registered for an elective English class. At one point in the course, the professor told us to make allusions that our audience would understand, and furthermore to consider our classmates our audience. To illustrate what our audience would not understand, he asked for a show of hands from anyone who recognized the name Nebuchadnezzar. The percentage of those who did raise their hands was about one out of ten. The lesson? No biblical allusions. (We should all take a moment and consider what it means that it couldn’t be a historical allusion.)

This is a question Christian writers now face: With biblical illiteracy on the rise, should biblical allusions be on the wane? Knowing that many people simply will not understand the reference, should it still be made? To find the answer, I think it is useful to move the conversation back one step to the more general question. Should writers limit themselves to allusions they can be confident their audience will understand?

There are two immediate answers to this question. My professor gave the first – Yes. The danger of this lies in reducing writing to the lowest common denominator, carefully pruned of any historical or literary references that imply you read books not optioned by Hollywood studios. The second answer, of course, is No, and it is exemplified by the writer William F. Buckley, whose writing style was once summarized as, “Look it up, serf.” The danger of this lies in becoming abstruse, indecipherable, maybe pompous and obnoxious. One’s communication (and what else is writing?) should not encrypted with obscure allusions.

There ought to be somewhere authors and readers can meet in between the lowest common denominator and encryption. As with so many things, an excellent example of this is found in Jesus Christ. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

That final sentence – strain out a gnat but swallow a camel – would sound proverbial and esoteric taken alone. But it’s perfectly explicable in its context. It’s an extravagant image to illustrate how the Pharisees keep the law in small matters and violate it in large matters; the point explains the image, and the image sharpens the point. You need only the context to understand.

At the same time, the sentence makes several allusions. It is, first of all, an allusion to the Law of Moses, which prohibited both camels and gnats as unclean animals that would make God’s people unclean. You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel explicitly accuses the Pharisees of breaking the Law of Moses and implicitly accuses them of being unclean. The sentence also alludes to the real Pharisaical practice of straining gnats from wine or drinking water – and indicts that practice as useless in achieving true obedience to the law.

In fact, the more you know of the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the more you see how acerbic and brilliant Jesus’ statement really is. But you don’t need to know any of it to grasp the essential idea. The allusions add meaning; they don’t hide it. And that is the way all allusions should work. Allusions should create new depths of meaning, not lock the whole meaning away. Once you make the meaning clear, you can dare an allusion to uncommon knowledge. And you know something? Those biblical allusions really class up the joint.

Coming Back, Going Forward

Of all the good old literary games, one of the most well-respected is Find the Archetype. It consists of taking a character, proving that he is like other characters who filled similar roles in their own stories, and declaring him an Archetype. It’s a simple game – there are only about six stories ever told, and you learn to see through the masks pretty quick – but it can be entertaining and may even see you through college English.

There is a special version of Find the Archetype played by Christians. Its purpose is to find the Messiah Archetype or, more casually, the Jesus-figure. One of the first proofs of the Messiah Archetype is a return from the dead. Returning from the dead is a common trope, from fairy tales to fantasy and from folk tales to science fiction; it’s a far easier commonality to find than, say, the Virgin Birth. (Not that this is impossible. Star Wars did it. It was stupid, but they did do it.) And because the Resurrection makes the Gospel the Gospel, and “He is risen!” was more significant than “He is born,” rising from the dead is the most important commonality to find, too.

Yet I am struck more by the difference between Christ’s Resurrection and the return of Aslan (Gandalf, Harry Potter …) than I am by the similarity. The apostles spoke of the Resurrection as a singular event; to take one example – from Acts 26 – Paul calls Jesus the first to rise from the dead. And we need to remember – Paul certainly would not have forgotten – that in the Gospels alone we have the raising of Lazarus, the synagogue ruler’s daughter, the widow’s son, and the “holy people” on Good Friday. Long before the time of Jesus, Elijah and Elisha also raised the dead.

And yet Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). The difference to be drawn here is this: The raising of Lazarus and the others was the reversal of death, a return to the life (and body) that we all have known; the raising of Christ was the resurrection from death – the body raised in glory, an onward journey into a life of which we have not even dreamed. “For the trumpet will sound,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

We find some illustration of the change in the Gospels; Jesus famously declared that “the children of the resurrection” do not marry and cannot die (Luke 20). And there is a suggestion, however nebulous, of the nature of the resurrection in the Easter accounts. In an odd way, there is more continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body than might be imagined. Jesus invited Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hands and put his hand into His side; His wounds were healed but visible still. There may be others who will not lose their scars, or want to.

In a larger, and even stranger, way, there is less continuity than would be easily supposed. One of the mysteries of the Resurrection is the persistent trouble Christ’s followers had in recognizing Him. Mary Magdalene didn’t know Him at first, and neither did the men on the road to Emmaus, and there is something halting and almost fearful in the disciples’ recognition of Jesus by the Sea of Tiberius. As a final point, Christ ate after He was resurrected. And I know this sounds boring, but it means that all that talk about feasts in the kingdom of God wasn’t metaphorical, and I dare any of you to tell me that you don’t care.

The reversal of death is very different from resurrection. To come back from death is not the same as going forward from it. All the Messiah archetypes I know of are returns, not the forging of bright frontiers beyond death and merely natural life. Speculative fiction is bound only by imagination, but even artists have trouble imagining resurrection. And this resurrection, almost blinding in its glory – it is Christ’s triumph, and our hope.

An Unheralded Significance

Show me a person who thinks that the Old Testament is only tales for children, and I will show you a person who hasn’t read the Old Testament. I am not referring principally to the fact that a lot of material in the Old Testament isn’t exactly family-friendly, though that is true. The larger point is that the Bible has far beyond enough to challenge and satisfy a grown-up intellect. Even the stories, the straightforward part of the Old Testament, hold more complexity and depth than is quickly unlocked.

A lot of people miss it, and not only children. One reason for this, of course, is that many people don’t really read the Bible. Another reason is that the style of the narrative (as opposed to the poetry and the prophecy) is concise and businesslike and occasionally so understated you can only marvel. You have to work harder reading it because many things will not be spelled out. It’s plain, for example, that Esther and Xerxes did not have a monogamous marriage – if you catch the devil in the details. (Many people don’t. This contributes to the popular misbelief that the Book of Esther is a beautiful love story.)

One of my favorite examples of this unheralded significance comes at the very end of 1 Samuel. It concerns King Saul (as so much in 1 Samuel does) and how he was buried by the men of Jabesh Gilead. Saul and three of his sons died in a battle with the Philistines. The Philistines – this is pretty much the textbook definition of being a bad winner – then pinned their bodies to the wall of a city. And this is how the story ends:

When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31)

And you know at once that it was kind of them, but there is more beauty here than is readily apparent.

Jabesh Gilead played another, much earlier role in Saul’s story. His first true act as king was rescuing the people of Jabesh Gilead from an invader who had planned, after conquering the city, to gouge out the right eye of every man in it. Most debts are forgotten after forty years, but the men of Jabesh repaid the debt of the kindness Saul had shown them. Saul’s bread finally returned to him on the waters.

There is poetry in the fact that Saul’s reign, which began with him showing kindness to Jabesh Gilead, ended with Jabesh Gilead showing kindness to him. And it is all the more poignant because it is the last word in Saul’s story. There are few stories in the Bible darker or more tragic than Saul’s – the long descent, into murder and insanity and futile clawing to keep what God had given away. He had the peculiar torture of knowing the truth and not being helped by it. His last few chapters are filled with horror and despair, with the sense of being finally rejected by God and going helplessly into the end.

And then, to finish the story, the brave gratitude of the men of Jabesh – an act that looked wistfully back to a better past, a repayment of an old, old good deed that murmurs that Saul hadn’t wasted quite everything after all.

It is not redemption, not so little and so late. But it is a note of grace, at the very end.

Let My People Think

In the lately-renewed controversy surrounding The Shack, two defenses of the book, and now movie, stand out to me. Both are meant to silence theological critiques. “It’s just a story,” runs the first. The second is more varied and a bit harder to sum up, but it turns on how the book makes people feel, especially about God’s love.

These defenses don’t answer criticisms of The Shack; they dismiss them out of hand. They make me critical thinkingthink of what Ravi Zacharias called his radio program: “Let My People Think.”

To dismiss criticism of a novel’s theology by pointing out that it’s just a story implies one of two things. The first is that stories can’t present a theology. As a statement regarding stories generally, this is wrong; as a statement regarding The Shack in particular, it’s absurd. The whole purpose of The Shack is to expound on theology, and it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. No one who has read the book will doubt that it makes a theological statement with clarity and at great length.

I think, then, that It’s just a story carries the second implication, namely that the theology of a story is irrelevant. But once admitting that a story has a theology, how can that theology be irrelevant? A story’s elements differ in importance, but no element is simply irrelevant, and a story’s ideas about God are far from the least relevant. Further, stories have power in that they work through the imagination and the emotions, sometimes bypassing the head. A story’s ideas, especially about God, matter.

There might be a third, more sophisticated understanding of this argument; it may mean that stories shouldn’t be judged too strictly because their form creates limitation and an inherent ambiguity. Generally, this is true; specifically regarding The Shack, it isn’t.

C.S. Lewis, when he wrote a novel about a mortal demanding answers from God, set it in an ancient, mythical world that required something more imaginative and more allegorical than a straight-up discussion of Christianity. But The Shack takes place in our world, and it’s chock-a-block with straight-up discussions of Christianity. Unlike other novels, it doesn’t present its ideas through fallible characters, who might be wrong, or events, which are open to interpretation; it has the Almighty state its ideas in endless exposition. There are few novels more obvious in their theology, and any notion that that theology is beyond the bounds of critique is simply wrong.

Other Christians justify The Shack by how it makes them feel. I don’t dismiss the importance of feeling God’s love, or the value of a bridge between the head and the heart. And yet: Feelings are no justification in the end.

Human feelings, no matter how spiritual they may seem, are not incontrovertible proof of God’s work; God’s work is not necessarily a seal of approval on His instruments. Maybe God has used The Shack, as people say, but you know, He used Pharaoh, too.

That The Shack makes you feel (correctly) that God is love doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong in other respects; neither does it make significant errors all right. And it’s not enough to feel rightly about God; we need to think rightly about Him, too. Even the feeling that God is love, without any feeling that He is also majestic and terrifyingly holy, leaves us stranded a long way from home.

We live in an anti-intellectual age, where feelings are taken to be the basis of everything from moral truth to government policy. But Christians should swim against that current, too. We shouldn’t dismiss what a novel or movie says about God because it’s just a story; we shouldn’t be so carried away by how something makes us feel that we don’t want to think about what it means. Ideas matter, and they can be bad even when the feelings are good.

Let my people think.

Good Friday

A Good Friday Excerpt of
Orthodoxy
by G. K. Chesterton

The grinding power of the plain words of the Gospel story is like the power of mill-stones; and those who can read them simply enough will feel as if rocks had been rolled upon them. Criticism is only words about words; and of what use are words about such words as these? What is the use of word-painting about the dark garden filled suddenly with torchlight and furious faces? ‘Are you come out with swords and staves as against a robber? All day I sat in your temple teaching, and you took me not.’ Can anything be added to the massive and gathered restraint of that irony; like a great wave lifted to the sky and refusing to fall? ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me but weep for yourselves and for your children.’ As the High Priest asked what further need he had of witnesses, we might well ask what further need we have of words. Peter in a panic repudiated him: ‘and immediately the cock crew; and Jesus looked upon Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.’ Has anyone any further remarks to offer. Just before the murder he prayed for all the murderous race of men, saying, ‘They know not what they do’; is there anything to say to that, except that we know as little what we say? Is there any need to repeat and spin out the story of how the tragedy trailed up the Via Dolorosa and how they threw him in haphazard with two thieves in one of the ordinary batches of execution; and how in all that horror and howling wilderness of desertion one voice spoke in homage, a startling voice from the very last place where it was looked for, the gibbet of the criminal; and he said to that nameless ruffian, ‘This night shalt thou be with me in Paradise’? Is there anything to put after that but a full stop? Or is anyone prepared to answer adequately that farewell gesture to all flesh which created for his Mother a new Son? …

The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.

There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.


Tannenbaum

Tannenbaum

The lights are laced through the branches of the Christmas tree – the same lights that have adorned our tree for twenty Christmases past. The bulbs are old, thick; they do not sparkle so much as glow deep colors over the evergreen needles.

A plastic crown tilts on the reaching topmost branch, a token of the King. Wooden sleds dangle among wooden angels, which still keep most of their gold and white glitter. One branch bends, tugged down by a ceramic Noah’s Ark. Another lightly bears a candy cane of pipe cleaners twisted together.

High among the branches hangs a white, gold-edged cross. The only ornament that matches it is a gilded dove, halfway down and on the other side of the tree. Nothing matches Larry the Cucumber, sporting pajamas and a nightcap as he stands perkily in front of his own Christmas tree. It’s plastic, but so is he.

Yarn Christmas wreaths are scattered high and low – red and white, green and white. One Christmas wreath is thin metal, golden once and tarnished now; a long-ago year is imprinted on it. Other ornaments have that touch – etched with names or dates, marked by family and friends.

Candy canes are hooked on the branches – decoration today, candy again as soon as Christmas Day is past. Tinsel icicles are draped on the branches; even the bent strands shine with every bit of light they snatch. Two or three ornaments are paper, made in some barely recalled Sunday school.

A quilted rug wraps around the tree stand, its red and green patches saluting the season. White squares are sewn in, and rocking horses seesaw over them. They remind me of another rocking horse, a real one back in my childhood, that was made by the hands that made the quilt.

For the currency bartered for a Christmas tree like this is not money but time. Years and people go on their way, and leave things to be put on a Christmas tree.

Three Rules for Biblical Novels

It is natural – perhaps even inevitable – that the Bible inspire its own small genre of literature: biblical fiction, novels based on the people and events of the Bible. This idea has always appealed to me, but in reality, such novels have usually left me disappointed. I have read only two biblical novels that struck me as truly superior, and perhaps two others that came close. All the others I have read – and I read a fair number, before I conceded to the odds and gave up – ranged from poor to forgettably good.

As a genre, biblical fiction has its own peculiar challenges. And perhaps, as a reader, I make more demands of it than others would. Here, after reflection, are my three rules for biblical novels.

Fidelity to the Bible. The definition of fiction is that it is fictional; in accepting biblical novels, I accept their fictional element. I know the difference between a historical novel and a biography, between a movie based on a true story and a documentary about a true story. It doesn’t bother me that someone should write a historical novel of scriptural events, a story based on the true stories of the Bible.

But the fictional element should consist in elaborating on the true stories, not in changing them. Biblical novels should remain true to the Bible – not just in facts or events, but in its whole spiritual tenor.

Convincing and compelling elaborations. A biblical novel takes a story told in a few pages – sometimes only a few paragraphs – and tells it again in a few hundred pages. This requires significant elaboration. The elaboration must be true to the story, as I already said – keeping with the spirit as well as the letter. But it must also be compelling.

I have read biblical novels where characters stiffly act out their parts, without the sense of life and independent animation that, while always false, is the art and pleasure of the novel. Sometimes the elaboration falls flat, and of events as well as characters.

This is one of the peculiar difficulties of biblical fiction (though a similar one is found in, of all things, franchise novels). When writing a novel about the great men and women of the Bible, your portrayal must ring true with what we already know, and yet go beyond it. You must give life to characters you did not invent, rhyme and reason to events you did not choose.

When I read a rare excellent novel about King David (and what rich material his life provides), I thought to myself, “I don’t know if that’s the way David was. But it’s the way he might have been.”

So may all biblical novels impress us.

Fidelity to history. Biblical fiction must be regarded as a kind of historical novel, and therefore must be written with an eye on history. Canaan at the time of Gideon is a sketchier region of history than, for example, first-century Jerusalem, but do the research anyway.

I once read an author describe how she quit reading a novel about Joseph because of the appearance of steel knives. I wouldn’t go that far, and anyway it’s not relatively minor anachronisms that principally concern me. It’s the failure to make characters – inhabitants of places and of cultures so alien – children of their times.

One example: It is hard to find a novel about King David where a character does not outright state the superiority of monogamy. Now, David’s life does demonstrate the griefs of polygamy, and I yield to no one in condemning the selfishness and injustice of that form of marriage. But I always wonder at the casual condemnations of characters supposedly living in David’s world – would it really be so easy for them to see?

“It requires a fine effort of the imagination,” G. K. Chesterton once said, “to see an evil that surrounds us on every side.” And the evil of polygamy surrounded such people on every side. I don’t say it is impossible for one of them to see it as an evil, but I want to know how a flower like that grew out of such thin soil. At least I want the impression that it did grow out of thin soil.

These, then, are my three rules for biblical novels: fidelity to the Bible, fidelity to history, and compelling and convincing elaboration of both. I know it’s a tall order, but there are novels that deliver.

Such as the two I referenced earlier. These are The Miracle Maker, by Murray Watts, and The Stones, by Eleanor Gustafson. Just in case you were curious.

CSFF Blog Tour: Keep the Salt, Shine the Light

The most outstanding element of Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands Trilogy is its world-building. From the opening pages of Captives, she created two worlds, orbiting no more than a rising mountain apart and yet utterly distinct. In the Safe Lands, all is pleasure and comfort and convenience, greased by the omnipresent wonders of technology.

In little Glenrock, life is harder and the rules are stricter. On everyone is laid clear expectations of who and what they are expected to be, and they feel it when they fail. But unlike the people of the Safe Lands, the people of Glenrock had the freedom to go, and even to stay much longer.

The entire trilogy is more or less about the collision of these two societies. These dual, conflicting worlds came to remind me of the Church and the larger culture of our present day. It’s not an exact resemblance, by any stretch; the world is not as dissolute or libertine as the Safe Lands, and the Christian community is not as strict or isolated as Glenrock. But the parallels can be drawn long.

In Rebels, the last book of the trilogy, readers became acquainted with the Kindred, a separatist group within the Safe Lands that made common cause with the Glenrock exiles. Not that all the Kindred were willing in this arrangement. In fact, one woman was so unfriendly and judgmental toward outsiders of any stripe that she reminded me of Glenrock’s own leader.

The founders of Glenrock and of the Kindred had excellent reasons for what they did. The separation from the Safe Lands was necessary to save themselves and their descendants from tyranny, deception, and all kinds of grief. Nor, in their fears and suspicions, were the people of these groups entirely unjustified. But it led some of the Glenrock folk to an unnerving callousness toward outsiders, and some of the Kindred to give up a much wider world for safety.

And Rebels, like Captives, left me thinking about the Church and the world. The New Testament rings with a sense of the separation between the Church and the world. It’s present in Christ’s image of His people as a city on a hill, in Peter’s addressing us as “aliens and strangers in the world”, in Hebrews’ portrait of the heroes of faith “looking for a country of their own”. Paul commands Christians not to “conform any longer to the pattern of this world”, John instructs us not to love the world, and James goes farthest of all, warning us that friendship toward the world is hatred toward God.

But as with Glenrock and the Kindred, the necessary separation can turn to isolation and a noble mission can lose its focus to a selfish, inward concentration. The Church has been called to more than self-preservation. When we make preserving ourselves – or even preserving our families or communities – our only goal, we lose sight of God’s larger purpose.

Of course, when we cease to make guarding ourselves and our communities any sort of goal, we may lose God’s purpose in another way. The Safe Lands Trilogy captures that truth, too, showing not only what happens to those who become rather too narrow in the straight way, but also to those who fail to recognize and reject the false ideas of the world.

The same tension between preserving and going forth is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ commands us both to keep our saltiness and to shine our light – and of such tension, perhaps, balance is made.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

CSFF Blog Tour: Sabres, Cherubs, and Guardian Angels

During the blog tour of Angel Eyes, I wrote a post considering different aspects of the angels’ portrayals and their foundation in Scripture. Now that Shannon Dittemore has continued her series, I will continue mine. The portrayal of angels may be classified one of three ways: biblical (taught in Scripture), anti-biblical (contradicted by Scripture), and speculative (neither confirmed nor denied by Scripture).

So here we go:

Angels called Sabres worship God near His throne – The Sabres bear a resemblance to the four living creatures of Revelation, whom John saw around the throne and who “never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ ” They are also similar to the six-winged seraphim Isaiah saw flying above God’s throne, “calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ “

But the Sabres can’t be the four living creatures. For one thing, there are twelve of them, and for another, they aren’t covered with eyes. Nor does their description match that of the seraphim. Although the Sabres have some biblical antecedent, they are speculative inventions.

Cherubs are small – Pearla, the Cherub, is a small angel; the demonic counterparts of her “cherubic order” – “impish” spies – are apparently small, too.

The Bible makes some mention of cherubs, or cherubim. They were a prominent aspect of the holy art of the tabernacle and the temple, and the Ark of the Covenant was overshadowed by golden cherubim. In the desert, when Bezalel crafted the Ark, he made the “cherubim of the Glory” of one piece with its cover. Centuries later, when Solomon built the temple, they made “the chariot” – two sculptured cherubim who spread their wings above the Ark in the Most Holy Place.

It is clear that those sculptured cherubim – whose design God had given to David – had two wings. We’ll get to the importance of that later.

Cherubim, together with the flaming sword, guarded the way to Eden and the tree of life. The four living creatures Ezekiel saw were cherubim – angels with four faces, four wings, and a multitude of eyes. “When the creatures moved,” the prophet wrote, “I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army.”

The walls of the temple Ezekiel saw – like the walls of the temple Solomon built – were decorated with cherubim. In the temple of Ezekiel’s vision, each cherub had two faces.

In chapter 28, God speaks: “You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you … You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. … Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.”

Pearla, the Cherub, was called “little one” by the archangel Michael. One cannot imagine Michael extending the same endearment to the cherubim guarding Eden, or the four living creatures, or the “guardian cherub” of Ezekiel’s prophecy. One word you would not associate with the cherubim of Scripture is “small”.

In making imps and cherubs small, Broken Wings is drawing from culture and art, not the Bible. Indeed, the small cherubs make a very different impression than the cherubim of Scripture. Yet given the diversity of cherubim even in Scripture – two wings, four wings, two faces, four faces, covered with eyes, covered with jewels – I am reluctant to call Pearla the Cherub anti-biblical.

God assigns to human beings Shields (guardian angels) – In Acts, after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, he came to the house of John Mark’s mother, where the believers initially thought he was “his angel”. Christians have believed in guardian angels since the beginning of the Church.

Two verses in Scripture support the idea. In Hebrews, the author writes, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” The Gospel of Matthew recounts Jesus saying, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels always see the face of my Father in heaven.” This is even more in the way of guardian angels, because it implies that God does attach specific angels to specific people.

The details of “our” angels, and how they minister to us, are unknown to us. Maybe the popular idea of an angel who is always near us is correct; maybe the angels watch from heaven; maybe they come, from time to time, as God directs. The “Shields” in the Angel Eyes Trilogy are a sound biblical idea, even though the specifics are by necessity speculative.

Review: A Matter of Basic Principles

I wondered whether posting a review of this book would be a good idea. As much as I appreciated it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to burden my blog with so heavy and disagreeable a topic as Bill Gothard.

A Matter of Basic Principles is worth it, however. When I began to research Gothard’s teachings, I wanted a calm, biblical critique. This book outdid my expectations. It is scrupulously documented, referencing books, articles, and interviewees (usually by name).

The authors test Gothard’s views with the Bible. They are clearly knowledgeable of the Scriptures and how to interpret them. They are also well-versed in Christian theology and its points of dispute. They compare, for example, Gothard’s view on grace to that of the Roman Catholic Church, citing the Council of Trent.

They also contrast Gothard’s teaching on the Mosiac Law with traditional Protestant views (Reformed, Lutherans and Dispensationalists, and Theonomists). Gothard goes beyond all these groups in applying the Mosiac Code to Christians. He regulates when husbands and wives can have relations based on OT ceremonial laws. Gothard preaches circumcision, too, in defiance of the Bible’s teaching that circumcision has no spiritual value (Gal. 5:5). His legalism also shows itself in numerous smaller ways – such as his strange animosity for Cabbage Patch dolls, store-bought white bread, beards …

The things I was most surprised to learn are these:

  1. The pervasive weirdness of Bill Gothard’s teachings. The man believes that the presence of Cabbage Patch and troll dolls can make women unable to give birth. He also asserts that uncircumcised men are more promiscuous than circumcised men, connects a person’s health to the meaning of his name, teaches that the Flood was caused by dating, holds up Samson as someone “most qualified” to choose a wife …
  2. Bill Gothard’s unprincipled behavior. The book recounts several stories – including the authors’ own experience – about Gothard’s dealings with others. I was startled at what they showed him doing – lying, slandering, making false promises, violating his own teaching, and treating others with a lack of kindness that was, at times, truly remarkable. At one point he attempted to extort property from one of his followers. This is the man with the “Institute for Basic Life Principles”.
  3. Bill Gothard’s distortion of grace. I can’t do justice here to the authors’ excellent exposition. I will, however, quote one of their conclusions: “For Gothard, the primary purpose of grace is to assist Christians in keeping the Law.”

I realize this last borders on a charge of heresy. You could get a copy of the book to see it proven, but it would be easier just to go to Bill Gothard’s website and read his page on grace. His essential definition of grace is easy to find – it’s the sentence in a font two or three times bigger than anything else on the page: “Grace is the desire and the power that God gives us to do His will.”

Roll that over in your mind, Christian. It doesn’t come within a thousand miles of being right. Grace is not about God enabling us to do His will, but about God saving us when we didn’t do His will. Grace is about God’s love – “Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done; Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.”

Equally disturbing is this comment from Gothard’s website:

Circumcision is not required of believers for salvation. … Neither is circumcision required for achieving the righteousness of the Law or the sanctification of the believer.

It’s amazing that Gothard would list “achieving the righteousness of the Law” along with salvation and sanctification. The righteousness of the Law has nothing to do with either. As Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans, “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ “

We can no more achieve the righteousness of the Law than we can walk to the sun and roast marshmallows in its atmosphere. That is why we need Jesus. Just as He took our sins at the Cross, so He gives us His righteousness. That is grace, and it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a thing that Bill Gothard apparently doesn’t understand.

In A Matter of Basic Principles, the authors give a severe verdict on Gothard’s teachings, and they get in a few sharp barbs along the way. But the tone of the book is calm and measured. The authors do not take cheap shots, and unlike Joseph’s brothers, they can say something good. Their even-handedness gives credibility to their final judgment. Anyone wishing to understand Bill Gothard’s teachings and their popularity would do well to start with A Matter of Basic Principles.