Never assume that smart people know what they’re talking about.

Especially when it comes to the Bible.

I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismIt’s excellent if you’re into that sort of thing. I am.

Today, though, an aside caught my eye. President Roosevelt, having asked Taft twice to return from his post as governor of the Philippines twice to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote him a third time to insist that he return to replace the retiring Secretary of War.

“You will think I am a variety of the horse leech’s daughter,” Roosevelt began, alluding to the biblical parable in which a blacksmith’s perpetually dissatisfied daughter demands ever more of him.

My first thought was “I know the Bible decently well, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.” So I took advantage of my vast theological library Googled it.

Roosevelt is referring to Proverbs 30:15, which starts out “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” It can also be translated “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” Admittedly it’s a strange verse, having to do with forces in nature that are never satisfied.

At any rate, the KJV uses the word “horseleach,” which is a certain type of leech, but also apparently a term for a veterinarian or blacksmith for horses. The Bible verse, though, is referring to the leech.

This is fun, isn’t it. But here’s the relevance: You can see how Goodwin got where she got. However, in regards to Roosevelt’s allusion,

  1. There is no parable, just [a half of] a proverb.
  2. There is no blacksmith, and therefore no blacksmith’s daughter.

Goodwin is a smart person and a good writer. In all likelihood, she read this obscure reference from Roosevelt, looked up a couple of things, and patched together a backstory. It’s just that the backstory was wrong. It’s a little more interesting is that no one in the pipeline– Goodwin, research assistants, editors– was familiar enough with the Bible to raise an eyebrow. But even there, hard to criticize non-Christians for not knowing obscure Bible passages super well.

Here’s the point: Smart people get things wrong, just like the rest of us. People with Pulitzers and PhD’s are human. They have gaps in their knowledge and understanding, to say nothing of the little biases and mental tricks we’re all prone to. This problem is magnified when the Bible is involved. People who know very little about it feel very confident in making bold assertions about its contents and their value. (I’m not accusing Goodwin of this.)

Never assume that something’s true just because a smart person said it.

Remember that the next time you read something about the Bible that makes you say “wait, what?”

***

Note: It’s possible that I’ve missed something here, that Goodwin is right and I’m wrong. If that’s true, I invite you, kind reader, to bring evidence to my attention, and perhaps you will prove my larger point by refuting my example.

“Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists”: Characteristic brilliance from C. S. Lewis

Lewis in his essay “Why I Am Not A Pacifist”:

[Some suggest] The removal of war must therefore be attempted. We must increase by propaganda the number of Pacifists in each nation until it becomes great enough to deter that nation from going to war. This seems to me wild work. Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists. In the liberal society, the number of Pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not. If not, you have done nothing. If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no Pacifists.

(Note that he’s using “liberal” in the classical sense: as opposed to totalitarian, not as opposed to conservative.)

Thoughts on the Rob Bell fracas

Rob Bell is a popular pastor, speaker and author. His latest book, out in mid-March, is Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The publisher’s description strongly implies that Bell denies the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal punishment:

Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

And in a video publicizing the book, Bell—if words mean anything—rejects the idea that God will punish people forever, or that Jesus rescues us from God’s wrath.

When Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung wrote articles responding to this, saying it is very bad news indeed, the Internet blew up. (If you’re going to read one thing on this, DeYoung’s article should be it. Skip mine if necessary.)

A few of my thoughts:

Yawn. I read Velvet Elvis around 2007, about a year after it came out. And if you had asked me, “Does this author believe in hell?” I would have said “I highly doubt it.” This is not surprising if you’re familiar with Bell’s work. If you’re not willing to go to bat for the Trinity or the Virgin Birth, you’ll throw hell under the bus in a second. (I’ll try and find some more metaphors to throw in that last sentence.)

No need to wait. People have complained that we should wait until the book comes out before responding. Nonsense. He’s said things already. The video is him speaking. There’s already plenty to respond to. If his publisher doesn’t understand what the book means, or if he’s saying the opposite thing in the book from what he’s saying in the video, that will be very strange, and we can deal with it when the book comes out.

This isn’t hard. There are plenty of things in the Bible that are important, but aren’t all that clear. Hell is not one of those things. A cursory reading of the four Gospels will tell you Jesus believed in it and thought it would last forever. Revelation makes it even clearer (and for Revelation, that’s really saying something). Hell is horrific, and difficult to get our minds around. The questions it raises are hard. But it’s not hard to see that the Bible teaches it’s real.

Hang it up. If you are a pastor, and you’re not willing to tell people what the Bible says, you should walk away. We don’t get to make up our own God; we have to deal with the one who’s there. We pastors are in the business of telling people what is true. If you don’t have the stones to do that, you should quit. Feeding people cotton candy only makes the job harder for the rest of us.

Say things that get people’s attention.

A lesson I learned from John Piper, whose books got my attention and changed my life.

A great example from an interview with him today (re: the 25th anniversary of Desiring God):

Yes, we are to rejoice in God’s good gifts, all of them, from justification to sexual intercourse.

A good book I forgot

Forgot to mention last week that I also recently read Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. I highly recommend it.

Hill is a homosexual Christian: someone who is attracted to those of the same sex but accepts the Bible’s and the church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is wrong. So he believes that unless God changes his orientation, he’s called to a life of celibacy. Hill doesn’t spend much time arguing for this traditional view; his focus is on what it means for him to live in this tension.

One of Hill’s goals is to encourage other Christians with same-sex desires to talk openly about their struggles. I hope this happens. For me, as a straight Christian and especially as a pastor, it was important to hear what life is like for some of our brothers and sisters. It hurt to begin to get a sense of the loneliness Hill feels– the desire for intimacy that we all share, without even the potential for legitimate experience of it.

The Gospel makes hard demands on all of us. But we need to acknowledge that some of us have especially tough challenges as we seek to live in obedience to God’s word. That’s the case for those with same-sex attraction. We need to stand with those who feel these strong desires, listen to their stories, be patient with their struggles, encourage them with the Word, and welcome them as part of our churches and communities.

Reading: current and planned

In the fall we got a surprising and thoughtful gift from an anonymous friend: an Amazon Kindle. Now that I can’t be accused of dropping hints, let me just say that if there’s a bookish missionary you want to bless, that’s the way to do it. Incredible device.

Anyway, that’s opened the door for some fun pleasure reading:

  • Decision Points, George W. Bush. This was a fascinating read. Not an autobiography, but an account of some of the most significant decisions he made as President. No one else on the planet has had to make the kinds of calls W has; the other 6 billion of us are in the cheap seats.
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson. Basically lots and lots of historical trivia about how things in the home came to be the way they are. Interesting but forgettable. (Bryson is a great writer, though. Check out A Walk in the Woods.)
  • Portrait of Calvin, T.H.L. Parker. Available for free from Desiring God! Not really a biography, but what the title implies: a sort of thumbnail sketch of Calvin’s life and thought.
  • Currently I’m in the middle of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern, Victor Davis Hanson. This collection of essays about war is challenging because Hanson, a classics scholar and military historian, assumes a lot more knowledge than I have. (Thank heavens for Wikipedia.) But fascinating nonetheless. Lots of sane talk about the tragic-but-unavoidable nature of war.

I also finally read through most of Rick Steves’ Prague & The Czech Republic. Living here it’s funny how much you miss. This helped me get a better overall glimpse of our city, and find several places I haven’t seen yet and want to.

One of my hopes for this year is to make better use of my time, part of which means less internet putzing (Facebook, FailBlog, etc.) and more reading. In addition to a Bible reading plan, I think I’m going to take another shot at reading through Calvin’s Institutes, which stalled out pretty early in the last attempt.

I also want to read all of C. S. Lewis that I haven’t read. That amounts to about a dozen books, but some are pretty short. So we’ll see.

And finally, John Frame’s long-awaited Doctrine of the Word of God came out a couple of months ago. (That’s one for the shelf, not the Kindle.) So I might try to start plowing through that. A longer-term goal is to read all of his Theology of Lordship series. No way will that happen this year.

Understanding how prayer works

Trying to dissect how prayer works is like using a magnifying glass to try to figure out why a woman is beautiful. If you turn God into an object, he has a way of disappearing…

The only way to know how prayer works is to have complete knowledge and control of the past, present, and future. In other words, you can figure out how prayer works if you are God. (Miller, A Praying Life, 128)

Good commentaries on sale at WTSBooks.com

Westminster Books has a good sale on the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) series, especially on the new volume on Hosea in that series.

NICOT is a great commentary series (that I wish I had), and WTS Books is a great source for dependable books. Bookmark ‘em, I say.

Favorite Christian books I’ve read this year

I quit my bookstore job almost a year ago, which explains why I don’t do as many book reviews as I used to (no free books and less time/excuse to read books). Also, I took a Christian book hiatus for a while. But anyway, here are some of my favorite Christian books I’ve read since entering the private sector.

As you can see, I went on a bit of a missionary biography kick. You should too.

Kindle 2

Amazon’s Kindle 2, the newest version of their wireless reading device, was unveiled yesterday. One of these days…

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