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Annotations: Vol. I
What I'm reading
Welcome to a new special part of Insights called Annotations. This is a regular feature of the newsletter in which I round up some interesting things I’m reading—books and articles—and offer quick “annotations” on them. Today, the inaugural edition of Annotations is available to all, but going forward future editions will be subscriber-only.
Theology is Good, #Actually
The Wonderful Works of God is my first foray into Herman Bavinck. I’m reading it quite slowly, but savoring. It’s easy now to understand why so many friends and colleagues have commended Bavinck’s writings. Here’s systematic theology that is both rich and fluid, literary and heady. I especially love how Bavinck really does make the Bible the centerpiece of his theology, while at the same time flying far above myopic or reductionistic interpretations. He brings history, philosophy, and human experience to illumine Scripture in a compelling way.
I’ll share two highlights for me so far. Before you cringe at the expression “gospel-centeredness,” and before you think such a thing is merely a meme invented by some bearded, Southern Baptist millennials, let Herman Bavinck rock your world with some gospel-centered Old Testament hermeneutics:
The law, which was added to the promise, did not render the promise of no effect or obliterate it, but rather took the promise up into itself in order to be of service to the development and fulfillment of it. The promise is the main thing; the law is subordinate. The first is the goal; the second is the means. It is not in the law, but in the promise, that the core of the Revelation of God and the heart of Israel’s religion lies. (p. 66)
Fine, fine, you say. But surely this Dutch Calvinist is just another Christian Nationalist at heart, right? Right…?
…the astonishing division of mankind is a singular and inexplicable fact. People who come from the same two parents, have the same spirit and the same soul, and share the same flesh and blood, such people come to stand over against each other as strangers. They do not understand each other, and cannot communicate with each other. Moreover, mankind is divided into races who challenge each other’s existence, are determined to destroy each other, and live, century in and century out, in cold or open warfare. Race instinct, sense of nationality, enmity, and hatred, these are the divisive forces between peoples. This is an astonishing punishment and a terrible judgment, and cannot be undone by any cosmopolitanism or international culture.
If ever there is to be unity among mankind again, it will not be achieved by any external, mechanical rallying around some tower of Babel or other, but by a development from within, a gathering under one and the same head (Eph. 1:10), by the peacemaking creation of all peoples into a new man (Eph. 2:15) , by regeneration and renewal through the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:6), and by the walking of all people in one and the same light (Rev. 21:24). (p.35-36)
Truth You Can Surrender To
People on my social media timeline have stopped buzzing about Paul Kingsnorth’s dazzling testimony of conversion to Christianity, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Read the whole thing, then after you’re done, spend some extra time pondering Kingsnorth’s retelling of his journey into paganism and environmental activism. Sensing the destructive forces inflicted on the earth by industry, Kingsnorth, at this point a convinced atheist, was startled to discover that his convictions about environmentalism were actually religious convictions the whole time. At this point, he writes:
Following the rabbit hole down, I realized that a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit. Every living culture in history, from the smallest tribe to the largest civilization, has been built around a spiritual core: a central claim about the relationship between human culture, nonhuman nature, and divinity. Every culture that lasts, I suspect, understands that living within limits—limits set by natural law, by cultural tradition, by ecological boundaries—is a cultural necessity and a spiritual imperative. There seems to be only one culture in history that has held none of this to be true, and it happens to be the one we’re living in.
Here’s a challenge for me and you. The next time we encounter social justice activism in its extreme manifestations—hysterical cancel culture, an endless liturgy of “ism” sins, and the impulse to destroy society—let’s stop for a minute and re-read this paragraph. Let’s connect the dots here and realize that what we’re seeing are prayers from spiritually awake but marooned people, altars to unknown gods. How would reminding ourselves of this change our intuitive reactions to the “woke”?
Everywhere, All of the Time
Because it’s me, I have to include a couple items on digital culture. The first is Laurence Scott’s 2016 book The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World. Fair warning: Scott’s esoteric, meandering style is not for everyone. But as C.S. Lewis reminded us, “All sensible people skip freely” in a book, and if you’re able to fast forward discerningly, Scott has some real dynamite about the effects of Internet tech on our sense of place, body, and time.
If Scott’s insights were to be summed up in a satirical song—since I know you were wondering about this—it would certainly be comedian Bo Burnham’s ditty “Welcome to the Internet.” It’s as if Burnham asks us, “How could online life not leave utterly disfiguring imprints on our minds? Have you ever realized what experiencing the Internet is like?”
See a man beheaded
Get offended, see a shrink
Show us pictures of your children
Tell us every thought you think
Start a rumor, buy a broom
Or send a death threat to a boomer
Or DM a girl and groom her
Do a Zoom or find a tumor in your
Here's a healthy breakfast option
You should kill your mom
Here's why women never f— you
Here's how you can build a bomb
Which Power Ranger are you?
Take this quirky quiz
Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids
Could I interest you in everything?
All of the time?
A little bit of everything
All of the time.
Change From the Inside-Out
I’m rereading James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and am somewhat comforted by the fact that I am a genuine enough evangelical to feel some guilt over finding it very helpful. Why guilt? Well, this is a book about changing your life, and it’s not written by a Christian from a biblical worldview. There's something deep inside me that expects the only books about moral improvement I should read are theological. I’m not entirely sure where this idea got implanted, though I have some theories…but that’s for another time.
But honestly, what Clear does so well in Atomic Habits is express what is inarguably a fundamentally Christian view of human nature. He nails a key paradox that is essential for understanding why we do what we do. Identity shapes our habits, yes, but habits also shape our identity. The relationship is not hierarchical, it is cyclical. You cannot merely behave your way out of a dysfunctional identity, which is what Christians intuitively mean by standing against legalism. But you also cannot merely believe your way into moral excellence, which is what Christians intuitively mean by standing against antinomianism. Clear leaves his readers with the undeniable sense that what we really need as moral humans is something that bestows an identity and gives us practices that drive this identity deeper into us.
And oh my goodness…what does that sound like? It sure sounds to me like the church.
Thanks for reading. More Annotations to come.