After Nicholas Carr’s book the Shallows I have been thinking quite a bit about reading slowly. So slowing down to read James Smith’s “The Good and Beautiful God” has been good for me. Letting his idea of the transformation triangle seep into my thinking has been helpful – and I have been “trying it on” as a filter for thinking about a whole range of things from evangelism, faith transmission to young people to twitter and klout use.
So it was with some anticipation that I allowed myself to read chapter 2 of the book.
The qualification of suffering
This chapter is mainly about the “adopting the narrative of Jesus” or the intellectual side of the transformation triangle. James gives another side of his own narrative explaining about the tragedy that his family has faced and this helps me grow in respect for him as an author. I have come to realise the value of insights from those Christians that have had to deal with tragedy have a faith that has been tested and proven true in the furnace of affliction. It’s relatively easy for a young idealistic author to write a book about the goodness of God – but someone who has lived with persecution, faced the loss of a child or a debilitating ilness can give another kind of insight into the character and faithfulness of God.
The Need for Control
The stand out idea for me in this chapter was the explanation of why the narrative of that says “suffering is always a direct punishment from God and blessing is always a direct reward from God” is so pervasive. Smith argues that it is all due to control. We can understand even control a God who rewards us for good and punishes us for evil. It is a way not of admitting the sovereignty of God but actually asserting control over him. Smith cites helpfully John 9 and the man born blind as a case in point of this kind of legalistic direct action God, when Jesus disciples come across a man born blind ask Christ who sinned? This man or his parents? Smith could have dissected the book of Job for the same kind of logic.Sadly recent years have seen this kind of sub biblical thinking when prominent Christian leaders have claimed. For example Teleevangelist Pat Robertson speaking about the Haitian earthquake disaster:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti. And the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third or whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the French. True story. And so, the Devil said, Ok, it’s a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another — desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti on the other is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God, that out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come, but right now we’re helping the suffering people — and the suffering is unimaginable.
Similarly John Piper argued that a Tornado that hit a Lutheran church in Mineapolis was a direct punishment for their views on Homosexuality.
The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.
But Jesus explains that God “sends the sun to shine on the righteous and wicked” Matthew 5:45 and so refutes the nonsense of Robertson and this time of Piper. The argument in John 9 was that this man’s blindness was not the direct result of his sin or his parents. Those of us familiar with the book of Job will be wary of attributing suffering too quickly to the direct judgement of God – because there are too many times that innocent people suffer and Job’s “comforters” are held to account for their faulty mechanistic theology.
Strangeness of Silence
There was something strange about this chapter though and it rang an alarm bell for me for the next one. I admit I find silence difficult – as an extrovert I am keener to fill a silence than enjoy it. Smith argues – on a half a Bible text that we ought to have more space in our lives for silence and asks us to spend 5 minutes in silence each day as an exercise. But it is not silence to pray or to reflect but silence “just to be.” I get all jumpy at this kind of vagueness and would love more of a theology of silence. I guess I would have had more time for an encouragement to silence to meditate on scripture.
This is where, and I want to be careful here, so forgive me if I am being harsh. I have no idea what it must feel like to lose a child – to have a two year old daughter die and to have to plan her funeral must be heart wrenching. But Smith hears a voice from his dead daughter encouraging him that she is in heaven now. This is the turning point in the chapter and the dominant reason why Smith believes he can believe that God is good even in suffering. If it had been me hearing a voice from the dead – i would have been more likely to have believed it was my imagination than a voice from beyond the grave. I am not sure encouraging readers to seek solace in hearing back from dead loved ones has a biblical precedent – ( Saul and the witch of Endor getting Samuel back from the dead is the only example I can think of – but that is told in a way that you are in no doubt this was a bad move). Our hope comes from the resurrected Christ surely, the unchanging character of God, the prayer of Habakkuk that he will keep trusting God even if his worst fears come into being. I just felt uncomfortable with this part of the chapter. What do you think – am I over reacting?
This is a blog as i read post – so am really open to being “put right” or given a fresh perspective. So feel free to comment.
Any way lots of food for thought. Must admit I enjoyed chapter one more than this one.