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By In Politics

Reading Stories within a Story: The Value of Worldview Thinking

“The way we understand human life depends on what conception we have of the human story. What is the real story of which my life story is a part?” –Leslie Newbigin

Do students really need a worldview education? That’s the question being debated by Rod Dreher/Joshua GibbsGregory Shane MorrisDoug Wilson, and myself. In his newest piece on the subject, Gibbs says his beef isn’t so much with “worldview education” per se as with “worldview analysis;” claiming the latter is too concerned with (1) “ideals” and (2) “processing,” among other things. The piece is commendable and worth your time, but even if you haven’t read it (or followed the debate), hopefully my response below will still be intelligible and helpful.

Are Ideals So Bad?

Gibbs problem with worldview begins with the fact that it’s too ethereal, unlike dogma:

“…the genuine problem I have with taking worldviews so seriously is that they are built on presuppositions, not dogma. Presuppositions exist in the world of ideals, the world of forms, however, dogma is composed and enforced by human beings.”

He illustrates the point thusly, “Men do not love ideas, but they will die for their wives. When I say I am conservative, I really mean that I believe everything Remi Brague and Edmund Burke say about history.”

So, worldview is concerned with “ideals,” while dogma is in the human realm, “composed and enforced by human beings.” Practically, this means, “A man may not claim to be Lutheran if he has not submitted himself to Lutheran authorities who have received his vow of loyalty to Lutheran dogma.” To the Lutheran, Gibbs says, “be more Lutheran!”

While many Lutherans would laud Gibbs’ advice to order the ecclesial over the ethereal, Martin Luther most certainly would not. For Luther, justification by faith alone in Christ alone is an ideal for which he’d die. Dogma merely composed and enforced by human beings be damned, Luther is hungry for more than ecclesial identification—he craves truth. To be sure, Luther is happy to submit to human authority so long as it aligns with God’s authority (found in Scripture), but not a minute longer. To go against conscience is neither safe nor right, after all. Even if, for the sake of argument, worldviews were as abstract as Gibbs claims, if the classroom isn’t the place to discuss such ideas, where is?

More than Processing

Gibbs chief problem with worldview analysis is that it smacks of an “enlightened” (i.e. modern) sensibility. It applies an inappropriate rubric to the medium, “That which is created in a state of wonder cannot be properly received in a spirit of efficiency and reason.” I certainly agree that one needs the right spirit with which to receive a given piece of art. However, I don’t see how the Christian worldview is inherently antithetical to such a spirit of reception. If Gibbs does not want his students interpreting art Christianly, how does he want them interpreting?

Perhaps he’ll say, “one need not analyze at all. Wonder at the art, don’t interpret.” To ask of the students this is to ask of them the impossible. Indeed, only a few paragraphs later, Gibbs says that Rhiana’s music is “about the unconditional pursuit of personal pleasure.” If Gibbs, who is consciously trying to avoid “enlightened” sensibility, can’t listen to a Rhiana song without doing a worldview analysis, how can he expect his students to read a whole book without being sullied by interpretation?

I say sullied ironically, of course. When sensitive to the worldviews at play, our reading and appreciation of art is only enhanced. Culture is religion externalized; to crack open, say, the ever-enchanting Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor without considering Islamic thought is to “kiss your bride through a veil,” as it were. This is as true of non-fiction as of fiction, biography as autobiography, painting as sculpture, dance as theater.

A Move to Story

Many of the issues I have with Gibbs complaints come down to category differences. I don’t think it’s all that helpful to categorize “worldview” as presupposition and “dogma” as supposition. One could implicitly presuppose a dogma, as the church did with the Trinity pre-Nicaea; and a worldview entails explicitly defined doctrines, like creation ex nihilo. Better, in my mind, is thinking of worldview as a narrative through which one makes sense of the world.

Once one thinks of a worldview as a story one comes to see “worldview analysis” as synonymous with “interpretation”—a necessity of our narratival nature. Indeed, there is no event, sentence, or fact too large or too small to escape the need for interpretation. NT Wright gives a wonderful example of how this works:

“What is the meaning of the following comment? ‘It is going to rain.’ On the surface, the statement seems to be quite clear. Yet the meaning and significance of this remark can only be understood when we see the part it plays in a broader narrative. If we are about to go for a picnic that has been planned for some time, then these words would be bad news, with the further implication that perhaps we had better change our plans. If we live in East Africa plagued by drought, where another lengthy dry spell and consequent crop failure appears imminent, the statement would be good news indeed. If I had predicted three days ago that it would rain and you had not believed me, the statement would vindicate my predictive ability as a meteorologist. If we are part of the community of Israel on Mount Carmel listening to the words of Elijah, the statement substantiates the message of Elijah that Yahweh is the true God and that Elijah is his prophet. In each case, the single statement demands to be ‘heard’ within the context of a full implicit plot, a complete implicit narrative.”

If “it is going to rain” can have such varied interpretations, how much more so birth, death, sex, art, love, and pain? I agree with Gibbs, an enlightened theory of man won’t do. But I see such a theory as offering exactly what he offers: a set of dogmas, religious facts, no more—as if the student is a piece of hardware simply waiting on the teacher to download in him the correct software.

Conversely, a worldview education offers more than edicts, it offers what Scripture offers, an epoch. If Scripture is a myth grand enough to make sense of our enchanted cosmos, surely it’s grand enough to make sense of Macbeth. As Gibbs showed, it can certainly make sense of Rhiana.

If I’m right in claiming that (1) everyone interprets narratively and (2) Scripture offers a grand story, then why insist that students not use the Scriptural story (i.e. Christian worldview) to interpret a given object? Further, how does better understanding the story in which an author lives (i.e. his worldview) hamper wonder in the reader? Insisting that a reading of a book without respect to the author’s worldview produces more wonder is like insisting that puns are most amusing when the innuendo isn’t caught. Worldview education isn’t an obstacle to wonder, it’s a vehicle to wonder.

 

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By In Culture, Family and Children, Wisdom

A Few Cheers for Worldview Education

 “To imagine oneself in the place of another [is] the only human future.” -David Dark

Upton Sinclair once quipped, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Rod Dreher—channeling a recent lecture by Joshua Gibbs—has outlined “the problem with worldview education.” As one who gets a paycheck from providing such an education, I’m aware that I’m not approaching the issue from a neutral position. But heck, I’m a worldview teacher; I know there isn’t such a creature as neutrality anyhow, so why not offer a brief defense?

To be clear, I wasn’t at the conference to hear Joshua’s lecture, so my critique is limited to Dreher’s summation, which begins:

“The problem with worldview education, [Gibbs] said, is that it closes off the possibility of wonder by providing a rigid ideological measuring stick for texts. Gibbs said it gives students unearned authority over a book. Hand them ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ they open it up, say, ‘Marxist!’, then case it aside. Hand them ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra,’ they open it up, see Nietzsche’s name, say, ‘Nihilist!’ — and cast it aside.”

Positively, I’m appreciative of the danger of “unearned authority” over a text. In my worldview class at least, we read Plato before discussing Platonism, we read Camus before discussing Existentialism. What I’m after is honesty—taking people at their word, not imposing an alien agenda onto them.

My decision to organize the curriculum as such has as much to do with pedagogy as it does integrity, however. It seems to me humans learn by approaching the world from the particular to the general. We don’t learn the “principle of sowing and reaping” and then act accordingly. Rather, we do or don’t study for a test and then do or don’t receive a good grade. From those experiences, over time, we come to understand sowing and reaping at a conceptual level. Likewise, before one identifies an “ism” associated with a person, one must do the difficult, honest work of first reading the person.

Dreher goes on:

“Gibbs was not arguing for Marxism on nihilism. He was saying that to truly encounter and wrestle with a great book (even a great bad book!), you have to enter into its world. For example — and this is me saying this, not him — in order to understand where Marxism comes from, you need to put yourself in the place of the man who hears something liberating in, ‘Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.’ Why did Marxism sound plausible and morally righteous to people once upon a time? What does it get right about justice? What does it get wrong? How do we know?”

Here, it seems Dreher is arguing contra Gibbs. Gibbs, If I’m understanding him correctly, is saying students should read the words “workers of the world, unite!” nakedly, taking no note of any plausibility structure (i.e. worldview) which may make such words intelligible and attractive. Indeed, such context would only prevent wonder, according to Gibbs. Now, I’m with Dreher here—it is worthwhile indeed to enter the man’s world, understand the given biases at play. When done well, such a worldview education doesn’t cause the student to toss the book aside; far from it! It rather opens the book up anew to the student. Making the word “worldview” synonymous with “lazy/dismissive thinking” is, ironically, lazy and dismissive.

You see, worldview education begins with the humble premise that we aren’t approaching the world “from above.” As the poet Anne Carson put it, “There is no objective place.” We are creatures, bound by space and time. We don’t offer some supposed “neutral” interpretation of a given book, painting, data point, or fact. Rather, conscious or not of our myriad prejudices, we encounter the world Christianly. Likewise, every other reader, connoisseur, or scientist comes to the world from their own particular angle.

Worldview education seeks, imperfectly no doubt, to give these angles a voice at the Harkness table. Could such an education make students arrogant as Gibbs fears? I suppose. However, does the alternative make the student any less arrogant: supposing that the texts they are reading are composed by context-less men, and that they are encountering them unencumbered by their own commitments, values, and motives? I think not.

In the end, having read countless articles by Gibbs over the years, I have no doubt that he and I share common educational philosophies and goals. Further, his fear of creating thoughtless readers is valid. I also see too many students quite willing to dismiss foreign ideas out of hand. However, training students in worldviews—teaching students the empathetic skills needed to see the world through another’s eyes—is not the problem. Indeed, worldview education is the solution.

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By In Podcast

Episode 4: Interview with Tim Gallant on his new book, “Metanarrative”

On this fourth episode, Mr. Dustin Messer interviews author Tim Gallant on his most recent book, “Metanarrative: The Bible’s One Story of Love, Truth and Beauty.”

Purchase the Book from Amazon or Pactum Books.

Original music by George Reed.

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By In Books, Culture, Family and Children, Interviews, Theology, Wisdom

Teaching Redemption Redemptively: Theological Educators in Dialog

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Aside from actually teaching, nothing has aided my growth as an educator more than talking with experienced, respected teachers; particularly those in my discipline: theology/worldview. It’s hard to think of two living teachers more esteemed in the field than Dan Kunkle and Dan Ribera.

Mr. Kunkle has been the longtime worldview teacher at Phil-Mont Christian Academy in Philadelphia, PA (to learn more about Kunkle, check this out). And on the other coast, Dr. Ribera teaches bible at Bellevue Christian School just outside of Seattle, WA (to learn more about Ribera, check this out). Together, they have close to 80 years of teaching experience.

I recently engaged in some shoptalk with the Dans (Dani?). While I had high expectations for the exchange, I couldn’t have anticipated just how rich their insights would be. With permission, that conversation is reproduced below: (more…)

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By In Culture, Film

Beauty and the Mark of the Beast

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“Winter turns to spring / Famine turns to feast / Nature points the way / Nothing left to say / Beauty and the Beast.” -Mrs. Potts

 

“Sleep is an image of death that is repeated every night. So the morning is the image of the resurrection. So the spring of the year is an image of the resurrection.” –Jonathan Edwards

How will the dark curse be broken? Sacrificial love. In the stunning new remake of Beauty and the Beast, Disney stayed true to this central theme. And why shouldn’t they? After all, it’s a “tale as old as time.” It’s the epical story of resurrection and the path thereunto. Indeed, the curse being broken by love is the story of all time, true as it can be.

The curse leveled by the beggar-woman in the opening scene is death, but not an immediately obvious sort of death. Those under the curse, while turned to dishware and furniture, can still move, speak, etc. Yet, they are somehow not themselves. The longer they live under the curse, the less themselves they become. It’s hard to hear Mr. Clocksworth lament, “I feel myself becoming less human” without being aware of one’s own inhumanity. Who hasn’t felt like a shadow of who they’re created to be? On a heart level, even if one doesn’t believe in the deep magic found in Scripture, who hasn’t nevertheless longed for the spell under which we live to be broken?

The only path back to life is love, and Belle—the stranger held captive in the castle—is lovely. Naturally, the creatures of the house seek to charm Belle into love. Likewise, the Beast bangs on the door, demanding a romantic dinner. Yet, their salvation can’t be secured by such measures.

Ironically, love comes when Belle is released from captivity, as she runs away from the property back to her father. In a beautiful scene on the castle’s balcony, Belle asks the Beast, “Can anyone truly love who isn’t free?” At that, the Beast turns Belle away. By the end of the movie, the Beast and the entire castle-staff die. And Belle weeps.

While Belle is good, she’s not the Beast’s good, not yet. Taking her life giving kiss—which she only offers at the end of the movie—without first sending her away would have been temporary security, but a final sort of death ultimately. On the balcony, the Beast understands a deep mystery; love will come through loneliness, Spring through Winter, feast through famine. So he sends Belle away and walks into the darkness.

In Scripture, life always comes through first choosing death. The way up is down. Commenting on Revelation, Peter Leithart makes the easily missed point that seal and mark are juxtaposed from one another. Those 144,000 people sealed by God in chapter 7 are set-aside for death. Those with the mark of the beast in chapter 13, however, are free to buy and sell goods—they feast, they live. Says Leithart:

“Those who do not receive the mark of the beast do die, but their death is a passage to renewed life. The unmarked, those sealed for death, rise again and reign with Christ. The mark of the beast rescued from immediate death, but the important things don’t happen at the beginning. We only know what the marks and the seals mean when we get to the end of things.”

It’s obvious why the mark of the beast is so attractive; it offers immediate salvation. That is, it gives one the sustenance and safety needed to see another day. To be clear, the things the mark of the beast allows one to obtain aren’t bad in and of themselves. On the contrary: food, drink, life—these are good, but they are by nature gifts, and gifts aren’t gifts if ripped from the giver’s hand. They must be received, not taken. Love requires as much. In the end, there is a feast for those who refuse the mark of the beast, but only through famine. There is resurrection, but only through death. Seeking the Kingdom apart from the cross is not only counterproductive; it’s satanic (Mat 4:8). So, we seek the seal of God, not the mark of the beast, come what may.

Upon her return, Belle brings more than tears to the ransacked castle; she brings new life. From her lips comes resurrection, breaking the curse once and for all. In a grand celebratory feast, she dances with her lover who is now, at long last, transformed into who he was always supposed to be. When the Beast sent Belle away, he planted the painful seed of death. At the dance, we see the fruit: life.

Beauty and the Beast and Revelation have the same counterintuitive message: if you want to save your life, lose your life. Don’t choose a forced, immediate redemption. Instead, wait for the day the Savior will return from the Father’s house to defeat the persecutors at the door. Because on that day, we will all be raised back to ourselves again—humanity fully restored. At that grand banquette, there will be no doubt: the dark curse is broken under the foot of sacrificial love.

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By In Politics

Smith, Dreher, and the Prophet Daniel

 

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Like many, I’ve followed with fascination the quibbles surrounding Rod Dreher’s much discussed Benedict Option. On the one hand, I’m quite sympathetic to the Benedict Option. Dreher has kindly quoted my writing while discussing the BenOp, and I found James K.A. Smith’s WaPo review uncharitable. On the other hand, I do have concerns that the BenOp may be used by believers as an excuse to evade the call to bring all spheres of life under the good rule of King Jesus. There’s always the temptation to become a shining city in a valley.

In the end, it seems to me that both perspectives—the missional mindedness of Smith and the ecclesial base-shoring of Dreher—are two emphases the church needs, and needs to hold together. Balancing such tensions is part and parcel of mature Christian thinking (take the tension between common grace and the antithesis, for example). Of course, striking such balances isn’t a new challenge. In his classic Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright shows how the Prophet Daniel similarly held two seemingly imossible realities together: serving the city while rebuking the city. Says Wright:

“Another good example of the normative stature of the covenant law even in a pagan situation would be Daniel again. Living at a time when his people were an oppressed minority, he had visions of the empire as essentially ‘beastly’ in character. In other words, like Jeremiah, he was fully aware of the state as ultimately an enemy of God, indeed a kind of God-surrogate, destined for God’s final destruction. Nevertheless, he not only chose to serve the state at the civil-political level, but also took the opportunity to challenge that state in the name of the ‘God of heaven’ to mend its ways in line with a paradigm of justice derived from Sinai (4:27).

The subtlety and mature balance of Daniel’s stance is remarkable. Knowing that it was God himself who had given Nebuchadnezzar all authority and dominion, he nevertheless did not feel bound to obey him in every particular but set limits on the extent of his submission to the state. His understanding of divine appointment of human authority did not make him a passive pawn of the state. But on the other hand, knowing that Babylon was one of the ‘beasts’ of his visions, an agent of evil and destruction with spiritual dimensions, he nevertheless continued his daily political duty at the office desk (8:27), maintaining his integrity and his witness at the top level of national life. His understanding of satanic influence on human powers did not make him an escapist from political involvement. Christians need a similarly balanced understanding of their political and social responsibilities within states that may not acknowledge God but are still part of God’s world.”

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By In Politics

Wisdom Lit: The Broad Framework of the Gospel

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I’m currently reading through the manuscript of O. Palmer Robertson’s forthcoming The Christ of Wisdom. The book will surely come to be known as essential reading for anyone interested in interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature in a Christ-Centered way (along with the stellar work already done by Jack Collins, Craig Bartholomew, Douglas O’Donnell, Sidney Greidanus, and Jonathan Akin).

A key emphasis of Robertson’s work generally, and this book particularly, is the holistic nature of the gospel. That is, God sets us right in Christ so that we might live a more full, human life. Thus, while we can never embody the wisdom literature in order to gain God’s favor, we surely will attempt to live out the wisdom literature once we have the favor of God. Why? Because it’s the human way to live, and that’s part and parcel of Christ’s mission: restoring the imago dei in his bride. Says Robertson:

“It may at first seem odd to speak of the ‘gospel’ of Ecclesiastes in any sense. Indeed, nothing in the precise terms of justification by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone is explicitly taught in Ecclesiastes. Yet as has been indicated, the book teaches lessons that are essential, as preparatory to our enjoyment of the Gospel.  The New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts, as Christianity’s gospel is first being formulated among all nations, speaks of the ‘good news’ of the ‘gospel’ in a broad framework. It speaks repeatedly of the ‘gospel’ in terms of the logos (Acts 4:29; 6:4; 8:4, 21; 14:25; 15:7; 16:6); the logos of God (4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 13:46; 17:13; 18:11); the logos of the Lord (8:25; 13:44, 48–49; 15:35–36; 16:32; 19:10, 20); and the logos of his grace (14:3; 20:32). In these contexts, the logos of the gospel includes more than simply explaining how a sinner is justified. Instead, it encompasses a comprehensive Christianity that embraces an entirely new concept regarding the meaning and experience of life. The good news, the logos of the kingdom of God (Matt. 13:19), has a vitalizing impact on all aspects of human life. So in this broader sense, Ecclesiastes is full of the gospel.”

Robertson goes on to to emphasize the inherent goodness of creation. In so doing, he shows that “earthy” wisdom must not be contrasted with “spiritual” wisdom. This is God’s good world, living by his words (wisdom) will naturally lead to greater understanding and enjoyment of his world:

“[God] provides pleasure, satisfaction, and sustenance in the daily routines of eating, drinking, and working. This ability to enjoy the routine matters of life comes directly from the hand of God (Eccl. 2:24). In fact, the enjoyment of the common things of life should be regarded as a distinctive gift from God: ‘that everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.’

Yet these ‘simple’ things of life are actually rather profound. God the Creator put man (adam, ‘humanity’) in a garden and gave him access to all the trees that were beautiful to the eyes and good to eat (Gen. 2:9). In their desert wanderings, the people of God lived with- out the fruit of the trees. But upon their entering the land of promise, this basic blessing of life was restored. God directed them to annually celebrate this restoration to the enjoyment of the trees at the Festival of Tabernacles, which reminded them of their years of deprivation in the desert even as they feasted in the garden of their restored paradise:

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord seven days. . . . And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (Lev. 23:39–40 esv)

So when Qohelet speaks repeatedly of enjoying God’s blessing of food and drink, of work and wife, he refers to no mundane matters. He echoes the enjoyment of the blessings of paradise. He takes his readers back to humanity’s original condition at creation and to the creational ordinances of labor and marriage: ‘Subdue the earth’ and ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28). Neither does he ignore the central element of worship (2:3; cf. Eccl. 5:1–7; 12:1).

Qohelet elaborates on this principle of God’s common grace to humanity in several passages:

Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. (Eccl. 5:18–20)

In fact, nothing can be better than for a man to eat, drink, and be glad in his work all the days of the life that God gives him (Eccl. 8:15; 9:7). So from the perspective of Qohelet, the experience of all these blessings comes as a gift from God. God in the manifestation of his grace gives food, drink, work, and the ability to enjoy all these things. He gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness. He places eternity in the heart of man as his gift. He gives the ability for someone to enjoy his inheritance from God. He gives wealth, possessions, honor, and everything the heart desires. He gives a wife and the ability to enjoy life with her. He gives the human being a spirit, which ultimately returns to God. He is indeed the Giver of every good and perfect gift (Eccl.2:26; 3:11, 13; 5:18; 6:2; 8:15; 9:9; 12:7; cf. James 1:17).”

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