Listen Up! How to Listen to Bad Sermons (1)

listen-up-ashWe have now finished going through the seven main points of Christopher Ash’s booklet, Listen Up! A Practical Guide to  Listening to Sermons (Good Book Co., 2009), on how to listen to good (that is, biblically faithful) sermons (cf. my Saturday and Sunday posts in January and February of this year).

But, as we pointed out at the beginning of this series of posts, Ash also has an “appendix” section in which he deals with “how to listen to bad sermons” (pp.24ff.). Ash recognizes that sometimes God’s people are subjected to bad sermons, and he wants us to understand  that in these cases too we have a responsibility to listen well. So, it is worth our time to face this as well, since we have all heard at one time or another bad sermons.

At the outset of this section, the author divides “bad” sermons into three types: sermons that are “dull,” sermons that are “biblically inadequate,”and sermons that are “heretical.” I believe this is a fair and important way to distinguish “bad sermons.” And these distinctions will also properly help us know what our responsibility is in each case.

We begin where Ash does – with “dull” sermons. This is a sermon “that leaves a lot to be desired in its style or presentation,” to which he adds some more detail. But then he also goes on to say,

Let us suppose, however, that this dull sermon is biblically faithful and accurate, and delivered by a preacher who believes the truth, has prepared as best he knows how, and that the sermon is surrounded both by his prayers and yours. If this is so, we ought to do all we can to listen with the aim of profiting by it (p.25).

The author does grant that there is a place here for encouraging the preacher to “get help with his presentational skills” and to pray for improvement – and express appreciation when there is some.

But what I like is the fact that he puts the onus on us listeners to listen better in these circumstances. Listen up to this counsel from Ash:

But above all, we must search our own hearts and come to the sermon praying for God’s help to listen as attentively as our bodies will let us…. My advice is not to worry that quite a bit of the sermon may go over our heads or bypass our consciousness, but to ask God that some part of it may stick and be turned in us to repentance and faith.

Isn’t that a proper, spiritual response to “dull” sermons? That’s a sign of maturity on our part, a mark of being willing to submit to the authority of the Word of God even when it comes through weak means (which it always does).

In addition, Ash has some practical advice:

Try taking some notes, or at least having paper and pen with you, with the aim of jotting down a verse or truth that you can take home and respond to. Try going with a friend and agreeing together not to spend lunch lamenting the preacher’s inadequacies, but rather, sharing positive Bible truths that you have learned or been reminded of, and praying together for God’s help in putting them into practice (p.25).

Since we are accustomed to worshiping and hearing the Word with our spouses and families, this should not be difficult to carry out. Instead of “roast preacher” for Sunday dinner, let’s have “discerning, delightful, and delicious milk and meat” – the milk and meat of our Savior’s gospel (look up Hebrews 5:12-14 and 1 Peter 2:2).

Identifying the Classics: (2) Bible Reading as a Model – L. Ryken

GuidetoClassics-LRykenIn chapters 7 and 8 of Leland Ryken’s recent book, A Christian Guide to the Classics (Crossway, 2015), the author begins to identify the great classics of literature by breaking them down into categories (literary “taxonomy”).

And he starts with what he calls “the leading categories of literature that make up the domain of the classics” (p.61), by which he means the category of Christian literature (which is why chapters 7 and eight are titled “Christian Classics, Part 1 and Part 2”).

Last time we began to look at that seventh chapter and took in some of Ryken’s thoughts on what makes a classic work of literature a Christian one (including that its content is distinctively Christian and that its viewpoint is decidedly Christian).

In the second half of “Christian Classics, Part 1” (Chap.7) Ryken looks at the “Bible reading as a model.” Here are his opening thoughts on this – well worth our reminder as we daily read God’s Word:

..There is a big difference between reading the Bible and reading the classics: the Bible is without error and is not on trial. It is our authority and not a book whose truth claims we need to assess. Its role for us as we read other classics is that of a standard by which we weigh their themes and moral vision. But in other ways our reading of the Bible provides good answers to the question of how we should read a Christian classic.

After which he goes on to say:

The first thing we can say about Bible reading is that, as Christians, we begin with the liberating knowledge that we will be nurtured by what we are about to read. These are the words of life, and we can find that exhilarating. Related to that, we know that reading the Bible is more than a purely literary experience. It is not less than that, but it is more. We know with our minds that reading literature of any kind is valuable to us as a potential source of insight into human experience, but often we need to work hard  to make sure that we are gaining and appropriating that insight. When we read the Bible, we are completely aware that this is the source of light for daily living. When we read a Christian classic, we experience something similar [pp.66-67].

Listen Up! How to Listen to Sermons (3)

listen-up-ashIn this first month of the year we have begun to examine a short booklet that instructs God’s people in how to listen to sermons. The booklet is titled Listen Up! A Practical Guide to  Listening to Sermons (Good Book Co., 2009), written by Christopher Ash.

Once more let’s get before us the seven main points Ash makes in the book – the “seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening,” as he calls them:

  1. Expect God to speak
  2. Admit God knows better than you
  3. Check the preacher says what the passage says
  4. Hear the sermon in church
  5. Be there week by week
  6. Do what the Bible says
  7. Do what the Bible says today – and rejoice!

Tonight, to help us prepare for hearing the Word of God tomorrow, let’s “listen up” as Ash instructs us in that third ingredient“Check the preacher says what the passage says.” What does he mean by this?

Unless we want to be brainwashed, we ought never to hear or watch anything without engaging our critical faculties. If that’s true for TV or a movie, how much more for sermons where the preacher claims the authority of God. We need to check that the preacher is actually using the only available authority, which is a borrowed authority  that only comes from teaching what the Bible passage teaches. So, we need to listen carefully to the passage and ask whether what the preacher says is what the passage says.

And then, after pointing out that some sermon listeners like to take notes to be better focused, while others prefer not to because they find it distracting, Ash states this:

Whatever strategy you use, always have in mind the question: where did the preacher get that from? We are not asking how well or badly the preacher preached, in terms of communication skills. We are asking whether the message of the sermon was unpacking and pressing home to us the message of the passage.

And, in conclusion on this point, he reminds us that for this too we need the Holy Spirit:

It is the work of God, by His Spirit, to open our minds so that we listen clearly, think clearly, and discern clearly whether a sermon is true to the Bible. By nature we cannot think straight. So again we need to pray for His Work in us.

How to Read a Classic: #5 – Aware of the Fall and Its Effects

GuidetoClassics-LRykenIt has been well over a month (Sept.27) since we last examined chap.6 of Leland Ryken’s recent book (A Christian Guide to the Classics; Crossway, 2015), “How to Read a Classic.” We listed the six ways he tells us to do this and gave his summary of the chapter.

Lest we forget the “big picture” of this chapter, let’s put those six positive ways of how to read a classic in front of us again:

  1. Good Practice #1: Read a classic with respect for the momentousness of what you are doing.
  2. Good Practice #2: Understand the nature of the reading situation.
  3. Good Practice #3: Apply what you know about literature generally.
  4. Good Practice #4: Maintain a keen eye for the obvious.
  5. Good Practice #5: Be aware that the classics did not escape the effects of the fall.
  6. Good Practice #6: Be yourself as a Christian reader.

For today, we consider what Ryken has to say about good practice #5 Be aware that the classics did not escape the effects of the fall.

Here’s part of what he says about this important subject:

We can almost depend on it that the classics will give us a superior form and technique, and that the authors share the skill of their guild to be good observers of the human scene, combined with the ability to record that observation in words. These are simply the gifts that God has bestowed on writers. However, we should make no prejudgments about an author’s worldview and moral vision simply because of these superior skills. Our task as Christian readers is not to show that the classics state intellectual and moral truth but to ascertain whether they do.

…Evey story or poem is a calculated strategy to get a reader to share the author’s viewpoint. There is a latent persuasive element to every work of literature, and this is known by the technical name of the rhetoric of the work. We need to analyze this persuasive aspect and codify the results of it as themes or ideas about life.

The moral vision of a work is related to its value structure and worldview. Morality concerns people’s relations to their fellow humans. It is easy to identify the moral vision of literature. All we need to do is list the virtues (behavior that is offered for our approval) and vices (what is offered as negative behavior to avoid). Having codified the moral vision of a work, along with its ideas and worldview, we need to assess these things…[which takes us to the final rule – #6 – for next time].

TV: The Cyclops That Eats Books – L.Woiwode

Last Saturday I stopped at a local thrift store and found a few more treasures in the book department. One is a collection of speeches give at Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI), which are often reprinted in their monthly publication Imprimis.

The book is titled Educating for Liberty: The Best of Imprimis 1972-2002 (Hillsdale College Press, 2002), and among the great printed speeches in it is the one given by Larry Woiwode in February of 1992, the title of which is in my heading above. Woiwode is a former college professor turned novelist, and of interest to our readers, an OPC elder (For more details on him, visit his website.).

CyclopsThough his speech may be a bit dated, it is a powerful description of what television has done to our reading abilities and desires. Today, we may add the book-devouring influences of laptops, video games, tablets, and “smart” phones.

You may find the entire print version at the Imprimis archives, but I give you just a few samples of what he has to say here:

What is destroying America today is not the liberal breed of one-world politicians, or the IMF bankers, or the misguided educational elite, or the World Council of Churches; these are largely symptoms of a greater disorder. If there is any single institution to blame, it is, to use the cozy diminutive, “TV”.

TV is more than a medium; it has become a full-fledged institution, backed by billions of dollars each season.  Its producers want us to sit in front of its glazed-over electronic screen, press our clutch of discernment through the floorboards, and sit in a spangled, zoned-out state (“couch potatoes,” in current parlance) while we are instructed in the proper liberal tone and attitude by our present-day Plato and Aristotle-Dan Rather and Tom Brokow. These television celebrities have more temporal power than the teachings of Aristotle and Plato have built up over the centuries.  Television, in fact, has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system or government or church.  Children are particularly susceptible.  They are mesmerized, hypnotized and tranquilized by TV.  It is often the center of their world; even when the set is turned off, they continue to tell stories about what they’ve seen on it.  No wonder, then, that as adults they are not prepared for the frontline of life; they simply have no mental defenses to confront the reality of the world.

The Truth About TV

One of the most disturbing truths about TV is that it eats books.  Once out of school, nearly 60 percent of all adult Americans have never read a single book, and most of the rest read only one book a year.  Alvin Kernan, author of The Death of Literature, says that reading books “is ceasing to be the primary way of knowing something in our society.”   He also points out that bachelor’s degrees in English literature have declined by 33 percent in the last twenty years and that in many universities the courses are largely reduced to remedial reading. American libraries, he adds, are in crisis, with few patrons to support them.  Thousands of teachers at the elementary, secondary and college levels can testify that their students’ writing exhibits a tendency towards superficiality that wasn’t seen, say, ten or fifteen years ago. It shows up not only in the students’ lack of analytical skills but in their poor command of grammar and rhetoric.  I’ve been asked by a graduate student what a semicolon is. The mechanics of the English language have been tortured to pieces by TV.  Visual, moving images-which are the venue of television-can’t be held in the net of careful language. They want to break out. They really have nothing to do with language. So language, grammar and rhetoric have become fractured.

Recent surveys by dozens of organizations also suggest that up to forty percent of the American public is functionally illiterate; that is, our citizens’ reading and writing abilities, if they have any, are so seriously impaired as to render them, in that handy jargon of our times, “dysfunctional”. The problem isn’t just in our schools or in the way reading is taught: TV teaches people not to read. It renders them incapable of engaging in an art that is now perceived as strenuous, because it is an active art, not a passive hypnotized state.

Passive as it is, television has invaded our culture so completely that you see its effects in every quarter, even in the literary world. It shows up in supermarket paperbacks, from Stephen King (who has a certain clever skill) to pulp fiction.  These are really forms of verbal TV-literature that is so superficial that those who read it can revel in the same sensations they experience when they are watching TV.  Even more importantly, the growing influence of television has, Kernan says, changed people’s habits and values and affected their assumptions about the world. The sort of reflective, critical and value-laden thinking encouraged by books has been rendered obsolete. In this context, we would do well to recall the Cyclopes-the race of giants that, according to Greek myth, predated man.

Bestsellers ≠ Best Books

Bestsellers ≠ Best Books.

read-good-christian-booksThe “Aquila Report” in its latest summary of church news this past week (June 23, 2015) carried this depressing “Christian” book news. It has been this way for some time now in the Christian publishing business, but it is nevertheless discouraging that such drivel continues to be so popular, especially when there is so much good material being published.

You have heard me say before, “read more and read better.” I hope this applies to books such as these too. Yet, these lists are a clear window into the “Christian” culture of books and what people like/want to read in our day.

Let’s help point Christians – new and old – to sound, biblical, Reformed literature that will grow their minds and souls, their faith and life. What kind of list would you put together if someone asked you for some good reads?

Here’s the first part of the news item as carried by the “Aquila Report.” Find all of it at the link above.

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association has compiled a list of the best-selling Christian books of 2014. I was scandalized at the results, as was Adam Ford of the Christian webcomic, Adam4d.com. His response is hilarious and right to the point. The recent Pew Report on American religion claims a 7.8% drop in the Christian share of the population. The survey also claims that 19.2% of those raised Christian will abandon that affiliation. If these books are characteristic of the thought and theology most associated with Christianity in America, perhaps it is not surprising that many are leaving and fewer people are joining.

These are the top ten Christian best-sellers of 2014:

  1. Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence: “After many years of writing in her prayer journal, missionary Sarah Young decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever she believed He was saying to her. It was awkward at first, but gradually her journaling changed from monologue to dialogue….They are written from Jesus’ point of view, thus the title Jesus Calling.”
  2. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back: “A young boy emerges from life-saving surgery with remarkable stories of his visit to heaven.” Not to be confused with The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven whose subject later revealed his heavenly tour was just a hoax.
  3. Heaven is for Real Movie Edition 
  4. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts
  5. Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change: “In this riveting book, New York Times best-selling author, Pastor John Hagee, explores the supernatural connection of certain celestial events to biblical prophecy—and to the future of God’s chosen people and to the nations of the world. Just as in biblical times, God is controlling the sun, the moon, and the stars to send our generation a signal that something big is about to happen. The question is: Are we watching and listening to His message?”

The Elect Deceived? Yes! and How to Safeguard Against It – S.Ferguson

In Christ Alone - SFergusonFortunately,’ we may say to ourselves, ‘the elect are in no danger. For Jesus’ words [Matt.24:24] imply that we are incapable of falling prey to Satanic deception.’ But to read the text in this way is to miss the point, for two reasons:

It fails to take account of the evidence of history. Christians have been, and are, capable of being deceived. Have none of the elect been deceived in recent years into supporting ‘ministries’ that have proved so tragically different in reality from what they professed to be? Sadly, we are more easily addicted to the spectacular (‘signs and wonders’) than to the substantial, to novelty (‘false prophets’) than to wholesome orthodoxy. If we think Christians cannot be deceived, the deception has already begun.

It misunderstands the nature of the impossibility. Jesus did not say the elect were incapable of being deceived. We are all only too capable of it. Nevertheless, we are given this assurance: God will protect and preserve His people. Like Simon Peter, they will be shielded by the prayers of Christ and the power of God (Luke 22:31-32). This is accomplished through the activity of faith (1 Peter 1:5).

And so Ferguson continues by showing us how to avoid such deception:

But how can we guard ourselves against spiritual deception?

By developing sensitivity, we become aware of Satan’s strategies in our lives (2 Cor.2:11).

Have you learned what they are?

By developing self-knowledge, we recognize how weak we are. Since nothing good dwells in our flesh (Rom.7:18), we need constantly to depend on the Lord.

Do you?

By developing an appetite for God’s Word, we are ‘trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil’ (Heb.5:14 ESV), and we grow in discernment.

Is that true of you today?

Taken from Chapter 42 of Sinclair Ferguson’s In Christ Alone (Kindle ed.).

The Boy Who Went to Heaven and Other Hoaxes: Repentance Needed!

Tyndale Pulls Book, But Should Repent Along With the Church.

Boy to Heaven - MalarkeyBy now you probably have heard the reports about the popular Tyndale book telling the story of a boy dying and going to heaven before coming back to life to tell about it (yes, another one of those books!) – the story that was a complete fabrication! And it took the boy to finally get the truth out, not the publisher, not the promoters.

Numerous Christian blogs and websites have reported this now, including the Aquila Report, which I reference here. The “AR” has had several posts on this, but I refer you to this one, because it is such a great commentary. This is actually a blog post by Timothy Hammons, a teaching elder in the PCA.

I post the first part here, encouraging you to read all of it – an to avoid such books for the theological plague they carry!

I don’t know if you heard of the book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. It is the book about a boy who died and went to heaven. Only he didn’t really die, and he didn’t really go to heaven. He made the story up and then someone published it and it sold millions like every other worthless book of its type.

What makes this one interesting is that the boy, Alex Malarkey, came out recently after actually reading the Bible and recanted the entire story. He said it was a hoax. Really? You see, that is the real rub. Alex, a boy, actually had to come out and tell us the story was a hoax before we (the wider church audience) could actually discern that the story was a hoax. Every single story like this is a hoax. In fact, let me try to be clear as possible: if someone has a story of dying and going to heaven, and they have published a book about it, then they didn’t die and go to heaven. It is a hoax.

The reason I say this is that we have a standard that we can use to test such stories. It’s called… (and I wish the people at Tyndale Publishing would actually get one of these books and read it), it’s called the Bible. By reading it with eyes of faith, we can actually discern between what is real and what is a hoax, like the book written by Malarkey and the other popular book Heaven is For Real.

Reading is Spiritual Warfare | Redeemed Reader

Reviewing School Book Lists, Part Four: Reading is Spiritual Warfare | Redeemed Reader.

Every thought captiveThis is an interesting and helpful article on viewing reading as spiritual warfare, especially for young readers but certainly something applicable for all of us.

I have not followed the entire train of posts on “Redeemed Reader” involving the death of the high school student referred to here, but this post can stand by itself.

I give you a part of the online article; you will find the rest at the link above.

But if reading generally is spiritual warfare, it changes everything. What we allow our kids to read and when. How they read, and the kinds of support they should receive. In short, it changes the most fundamental ways Christians ought to relate to books.

Reading Is Spiritual Warfare
Christians often disagree about what kinds of books ought to be read and at what age. But our disagreement is more than that, really. Many Christians don’t see reading as spiritual warfare at all. Here are two big reasons I think this is the case:

1. We Think Too Little of Books: Those in book culture (librarians, teachers, publishers, writers) often present English class as primarily about technical analysis and writing technique. In a secular environment, teachers can’t be seen as promoting a particular religion so reading and writing (which engage the deepest questions of life historically answered by religion) are talked about purely in terms of mechanics. Of course, AP English exams which reflect college courses across the nation show this isn’t the case; there is a very strict worldview criteria being used to select books. Authors that reflect conservative and Christian points of view are largely excluded. But because we are told the study of literature is only about secular literary techniques, Christians often miss the worldview clash going on in teachers’ curriculum choices and in students’ hearts.

2. We Elevate Books Too High: On the other hand, conservative readers often put too much trust in good and “great” books. Now, I am a huge proponent of digging up better books for kids. Christians have much to gain by seeking out older, tried-and-true books for their children. But I see two possible ways to fall here: a) Christian and Conservative Fiction “Lite”: If your child only reads cute books written in the 50s or current Christian fiction, your kids will never come face to face with literature’s God-created power and beauty. Sometimes, to keep them from drowning, we keep kids in the kiddie pool all their lives.
b) The Great Books: On the other hand, some parents who realize the peril of pop-culture open the foundational classics to their kids.  These books may indeed be better aesthetically and even morally. But students are by no means safe. The Great Books represent an often heated debate among many different worldviews. Students may appreciate the power and beauty of literature in a fuller way, but they will still be practicing spiritual warfare—this time on a level many parents won’t understand. To protect and nurture their faith, readers of Great Books need more—not less—ability to wrestle with what they read in light of Scripture.

Honey for the Hearts of Readers (2)

honey-for-a-childs-heart-coverBack on April 8 I made an initial post about the Gladys Hunt’s book Honey for a Child’s Heart (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969). After telling you a bit about the author, I went on to quote from her first chapter, “Bequest of Wings”, which contains some great thoughts about the power of and need for reading, especially but not exclusively for children.

Today I would like to quote once again from this chapter, specifically where Hunt writes about the importance of good writing (and therefore good reading) for Christians. What she has to say may startle us a bit, but I think it is worth hearing.

Some may find hints of “common grace” here, but you will note that Hunt does not use that term. Nor is she undermining the truth of the antithesis, in my estimation. An appreciation for God’s “common gifts” distributed by His sovereign providence to people other than Christians? Yes. Creative gifts that we as believers may also use and profit from? Yes, with discernment and limitations, of course. “Common” grace? No such thing.

Listen, then, to what Hunt says, and reflect carefully in terms of what you read – and what you may read to your children:

Since words are the way we communicate experiences, truths and situations, who should know how to use them more creatively than Christians? The world is crying out for imaginative people who can spell out truth in words which communicate meaningfully to people in their human situation. Of all people on earth, committed Christians ought to be the most creative, for they are indwelt by the Creator. Charles Morgan speaks of creative art as ‘that power to be for the moment a flash of communication between God and man.’ That concept opens up our horizons to a glimpse of God-huge thoughts, of beauty, of substance beyond our cloddish earthiness, of the immensity of all there is to discover.

Yet, tragically, Christians often seem most inhibited and poverty-stricken in human expression and creativity. Part of this predicament comes from a false concept of what is true and good. The fear of contamination has led people to believe that only what someone else has clearly labelled Christian is safe. Truth is falsely made as narrow as any given sub-culture, not as large as God’s lavish gifts to men. Truth and excellence have a way of springing up all over the world, and our role as parents is to teach our children how to find and enjoy the riches of God and to reject what is mediocre and unworthy of Him (p.17).