Some Matters Really Are Beneath (Christian) Contempt
The redoubtable Oliver O’Donovan offers us wise words for these times. They were posted and re-posted, you won’t be surprised to learn, particularly during the last US election…although I can’t find a live link for the original interview (please post below if you have one):
Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times…when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.
This magisterial counsel dovetails in my mind with the sage advice offered by Harry Blamires almost two generations ago. In his truly seminal book, The Christian Mind, Blamires challenged Christians to think, from the centre outward and from the bottom up, as Christians. A Christian worldview, a Christian imagination, and a Christian agenda ought to characterize Christian thinking.
Mark Noll’s subsequent book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, was not only a cri de coeur but, typical of Mark’s modus operandi, also a careful historical and epistemological challenge to American evangelicals (and, mutatis mutandis, many other Christians as well) to truly think, from the centre outward and from the bottom up, as Christians.
As Mark’s student and as a reader of Blamires inspired by Inter-Varsity staffers in the late 1970s, I took on the task of answering at least part of the call of these two books in writing Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology. With my knack (becoming ever more apparent) of titling my books accurately, but in a way off-putting to the market (!), this book hasn’t yet made the contribution I hoped it would, and still hope it can. It is, after all, the first outline in at least a generation of just how a Christian should think, as Blamires’s subtitle put it. Indeed, his book directly motivated me to search for a book like the one I ended up writing…when my search for that “second book” was in vain.
But this post isn’t an infomercial for my book. It is, instead, a musing on the perpetual challenge to observe what’s going on around us and yet to refuse to let merely what happens to be going on to dictate our agenda—including our intellectual agenda. We must be responsive to the world, yes, and as Luther said we must be sure to engage the battle where the fight is hottest. If we love the world, we must answer the world’s cries.
We must do so, however, ever recalling that Jesus is Lord. The Lord of All is Lord of the Church and it is he alone who properly sets the agenda…including my own little agenda of thinking, speaking, and writing. Nothing I think about should be thought about without reference to the Word of God, including, as O’Donovan writes, my very choice of what to think about.
That is a challenge indeed. But it also is a bracing reminder of the stupendous “value added” of being a Christian: I can count on divine help to know, in a raging whirlwind of messages, what I should pay attention to.
And that divine help has come, in part, from brilliant brothers such as Oliver O’Donovan, Harry Blamires, and Mark Noll, for which, and for whom, I am deeply grateful.