Lessons from a Sheepdog

17654_w185Phillip Keller’s Lessons from a Sheepdog was a read-aloud over the summer. All of us — my daughters, husband, and I — loved it. For me, it was a second reading of this classic by the author who’s perhaps more well-known for A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. More recently, I’ve been working my way through the latter on my own, but Lessons from a Sheepdog remains my hands-down favorite. It recounts the tale of Keller’s border collie Lass, which he rescued as a young man just starting a sheep farm in Vancouver.

When he first came upon Lass, she belonged to a city-dweller, and she was reduced to a life of being hobbled on a short chain because of her chasing habits and general unfitness to be a house pet. The very qualities that made her a poor house dog had the potential to make her a fabulous sheep dog — the vocation for which border collies are bred. But there was no guarantee at the beginning that she would work out. She was three years old, untrained, snarling, and fearful when Keller brought her home. The tale of the relationship that developed between her and her master, and the transformation brought about by a life of purpose, brought tears more than once as we read it.

Maybe it’s because we have always had border collies. Currently we have Lucy, who’s just a few weeks shy of a year old now. We recognized her in Lass.

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But more likely it’s a combination of this enthusiasm for the breed, our memories of our own dogs, and the deep spiritual insight Keller brings to his story. He learned a lot about God through his relationship with Lass, and each chapter explores a different facet of his discovery. The illustrations are vivid and memorable, seasoned with Keller’s knowledge of farming and appreciation for the natural world. The book is a truthful and wise recounting of his spiritual journey.

I’ve reread the first chapter, which tells of the first meeting between Lass and Keller, many times. It’s just… powerful. But this is the first time in many years I’ve reread the whole book, and it was all the more meaningful sharing it aloud with my family. Highly recommended.

Mere Churchianity

mere_churchianity-198x300You won’t find many whole-hearted endorsements of this book by evangelical heavy-hitters. But it’s the best book I’ve read since we left our church about a year ago, one that I resonated with in almost every respect and that gives a needed and truthful critique of institutionalized evangelicalism. Written by Michael Spencer (a.k.a. the Internet Monk), who died just a few months before it was published in 2010, Mere Churchianity focuses on the contrast between what he calls Jesus-shaped spirituality, and church-shaped spirituality. The former puts Jesus at the center without a whole lot of intermediaries; the latter puts the church with its programs and building funds and pastor-centrism and Christian subculture practices at the center.

His critics would argue that when he acknowledges that those who leave the church are doing so because it’s the only path they see toward authentic spiritual growth, he’s being too soft on wimps who have unrealistically high expectations and who just want to be able to sin more easily. (I’ve read a couple of their reviews. And I’ve been around evangelicals long enough to have heard this a time or two… and more.) The faithful, they say, stay — because the institutional church as evangelicalism defines it over the last 50 or 60 years is really the only legitimate forum for authentic spiritual growth.

I would respond that doubtless such “wimps” exist, but this book is not addressed to them. And if they read it, they will find themselves seriously challenged. It’s not a book for game-players. The author’s honesty and devotion to Jesus is much too real. No one looking for a feel-good justification of lip-service Christianity will be interested.

I’m in my late 40’s, and I’ve been an active member of evangelical churches all my life. I’m a committed disciple of Jesus. But over the last decade, my confidence in the institution has evaporated. We left our church with fear and trembling, and though we’ve visited several over the last year they all look like the same cereal in different colored boxes. Most of our spiritual growth is occurring as we follow Jesus here, outside the walls. It’s not always easy, and our journey is not over. But our family is coming to life spiritually in new ways.

Mere Churchianity is the first book I’ve read that represents neither a diatribe against the institutional church (Michael Spencer is a trained pastor who served in ministry at a Christian school for 17 years) nor a vilification of “deserters” such as myself. It maintains an admirable balance, rightly condemning the artificiality of much that goes on in church but acknowledging that staying (as he himself has stayed) is a viable option. It’s just not the only option. He affirms that God is not confined there, and that spiritual authenticity and ministry and fellowship and sacramental living are just as possible outside the walls.

Some have faulted the book for not giving a detailed description of what “unchurched church” (for lack of a better name) should look like. Spencer chooses to conclude that those who are on the brink of leaving, or have left, to follow Jesus, have a number of options. It’s as wide open as one might expect with an infinitely creative God at the helm. To hand people a new program after so thoroughly facing all the limitations of program-based faith would have been untrue to the rest of the book. Finding Jesus-shaped spirituality involves listening to the Holy Spirit and trusting him to show you the next step. Substituting “the Michael Spencer plan” would turn this into just another religious self-help book — of which there are already far too many.

The writing is highly readable, unpretentious, funny at times, and always truthful. Spencer had the gift of speaking the truth in love, and he is able to talk about the failings of the church, somehow, without bitterness or condemnation or superiority. His insights are deep (I loved his reading of the story of the prodigal son) and he consistently directs our eyes to Jesus. I felt that the book was a blessing — a last blessing, as it turns out, from Michael Spencer — on all seekers of Jesus, whether inside the church or outside.

Why bother?

“When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic — not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought — what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” emphasis added)

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My eighth grader was asking me last week if I ever thought about whether it was a compound, mixed, or compound-complex sentence that I was writing, and whether I then wrote it down with attention to every phrase and sentence part — adjective, noun, direct object, etc. Brilliant teacher that I am, I extracted the pith of her question: “What’s the point of sentence diagramming?”

She is doomed to diagram sentences, because we use Rod and Staff English. And what she does at the eighth grade level is pretty challenging. I myself only had to practice sentence diagramming twice in all my years of education: in eighth grade, and in a graduate linguistics course. She has been doing it steadily for years now.

Her question is common enough. I have a feeling the only place sentence diagramming is still done (occasionally) is among homeschoolers, and not by all of them. No one seems to like it. (Except geeks like myself, for whom it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.) And no one seems to know why we should bother with it.

I’m not altogether sure myself. What I told my eighth grader is that it’s like working with legos. Once you learn the different kinds of building blocks, you can put them together to create anything you want without having to think about it. You just reach for what you need, and you know what looks right, and you know how to structure something that will do what it’s supposed to do.

But today I stumbled upon this wonderful definition of a sentence in Wendell Berry’s 1979 essay “Standing by Words.” As is usually the case, he lays his hand with precision and elegance on the heart of the matter. Probably no one thinks in terms of grammatical labels when they build sentences, but they’re helpful in understanding how sentences work — and sentences provide the opportunities and limits through which we can connect with the world outside ourselves. A little tedium is a small price to pay in learning to use them well.

Think she’ll buy it? Her first response was, “I can think without sentences.” But try coming up with an actual thought without a sentence…

 

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More than once in The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns affirms the tradition of debate in Judaism. I wanted to offer an extended quotation toward the end of the book that captures that tradition. I love the picture it gives us of God:

A famous story from the Talmud, Judaism’s early medieval core text on Jewish faith and life, records a debate between rabbis. The debate is over whether an oven that has been made impure could be purified and used again.

The majority opinion was no but one rabbi, Eliezar, argued the opposite, but, alas, to no avail. Exasperated by his colleagues’ dim-wittedness, he challenged them with some miracles. If I am right, he said, may that tree over there move — whereupon the tree picked itself up and moved about the length of a football field. But the others weren’t convinced. They were certain their argument from the Bible was sure, and no moving tree was going to convince them otherwise.

Eliezar wouldn’t give up. He called a stream to reverse course and then the walls of the house to bend inward, but the others responded the same way. Finally, Eliezar asked whether hearing the heavenly voice of God himself would convince them, at which point the voice of God declared that Eliezar was absolutely right.

This didn’t work either. The others responded that God had already given his Torah on Mount Sinai. In that Torah we read that God’s commands are “not in heaven” but right here, available to all. God himself is bound by his own recorded words in Torah, and so even his heavenly voice can’t change that.

At hearing this, God laughed with delight. “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”

This story illustrates something Judaism seems to have a good handle on but that many Christians do not: debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants. (Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So)

Reflections on the Bible

6a00d834890c3553ef01b8d06778a3970cPeter Enns’ Evolution of Adam was one of my favorite reads of 2013. So I didn’t think twice about tackling his newer book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. This one has a similar purpose — recalibrating our expectations of the Bible. But it leaves me with a very different mixture of reactions.

Like The Evolution of Adam, The Bible Tells Me So showcases Enns’ considerable knowledge of the Bible and skill with historical criticism. It takes us on a very readable and interesting tour of what we might call the Bible’s human features — and limitations. And it challenges us to think. Enns’ main purpose with this book is to encourage readers to accept the Bible for what it is rather than projecting modern expectations and questions on it or treating it as an instruction manual for life.

What is it, then? An ancient text, one full of truth claims and purporting to be inspired by God (although we don’t hear much about that), even as it’s unavoidably marked and shaped by the historical, culture-bound human minds through whom God inspired it (and we hear a LOT about that).

That sums up my response to this book. It’s strong on supplying evidence of Enns’ thesis about the Bible’s human shaping. But it does little to balance these features against its transcendent qualities. The bulk of the book shows us the contradictions, historical accounts unsupported by archaeology, competing perspectives on God, and rhetorical stretches by its writers. If I didn’t have prior experience with the Bible within the context of my own relationship with God, I would wonder, by the time I got to the end of The Bible Tells Me So, why we should bother to read it at all.

The strange thing is, I agree with Enns in the main when it comes to what kind of book the Bible is. I agree that it bears plenty of human markings, and what’s more, I see this as a strength of the Bible. How God inspired it tells us almost as much about him as what’s on the pages. He is a God willing to humble himself, even to take on human flesh and enter into the limits of space and time — and, in the Bible, into human language and imagination and experience.

Yet despite this basic sympathy, I reached the end of The Bible Tells Me So with some disappointment. It’s probably because I was expecting a different kind of book — much like some people do with the Bible, a point Enns returns to many times. As the subtitle indicates, he feels that excessive defense of the Bible is the last thing it needs, so it’s no wonder that he doesn’t mount one here. Sometimes, I thought that Enns was trying too hard — too many jokes, too much eagerness to point out problems, too much overstatement. (There are, after all, other interpretations out there.) But he provides an honest assessment of a believer’s struggles with the Bible. This will come as a welcome alternative for those who feel they can’t investigate the Bible or get a hearing for their questions.

I’m a Christian, but the book did something for me too. It made me listen from beginning to end to some specific problems with the Bible — without the author kicking into rational defensive mode. It made me uneasy, but this was good in a medicinal kind of way. I guess I have more “defending the Bible” pulsing through my veins than I realized. (Edited to add: Still, his assertions require some defense, whether or not the Bible does. Essentially he proposes that much of the Bible is simply humans misunderstanding of what God is trying to say, but we should read it anyway.)

I didn’t accept or agree with everything, but I really liked a lot of what I read in The Bible Tells Me So. It was unfailingly engaging, and as I scribbled my questions in a notebook while reading, I was reminded that the Bible isn’t the end-all of the Christian faith. Restored relationship with God is. One thing God gains from a Bible inspired in this way is that it repels our tendency to bibliolatry. We aren’t meant to be Bible-worshipers, and this Bible invites too much struggle and debate to become a passive idol. It invites us to read and study, it stirs up confusion alongside the wisdom and reassurance and instruction, and in our best moments we take our questions to God.

All this talk, and I still haven’t offered a single quotation. I’ll give Peter Enns the last word:

The Bible is God’s Word. The Bible has been around a long time and it’s not going anywhere. Even with all its challenges and odd stories, its naysayers and skeptics, it’s got staying power. People just keep right along meeting God there.

Forget everything else. Forget all the reasons we might have for putting it away in a box somewhere with other ancient relics. Forget the fact that God often has a temper and commands strange things. Forget the fact that its writers thought the earth was flat, a flood covered the earth, or the first woman held a conversation with a snake.

The Bible, just as it is, still works.

Don’t try to explain it. Just accept it. That won’t make you a mindless zombie. It just means you are accepting your own human limitations and acknowledging by faith something bigger than ourselves is happening, someone bigger is behind it, and we have the privilege to be a part of it.

Hold on to the time-tested wisdom that in order to know God better, we should keep reading and wrestling with the Bible. It’s God’s Word and that’s what he wants.