Listening Closely Leads to Living Wisely

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In our small group at church we’ve been doing a Hebrews Bible study. Not a Hebrew Bible study mind you, but a study covering the book of Hebrews. This past week, we looked at 5:11-6:12, with a bit of 6:13-20 toward the end. As we were engaged in discussion and study, I noticed a connection between 5:11 and 3:12-14 that got me thinking.

In case you don’t have it memorized, here’s Hebrews 5:11-14:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

We tend to construe “dull of hearing” as pertaining to gaining knowledge. But from context, both here and earlier in the book, I think it has more to do with obedience. Part of that is because the two words are closely related, especially in the context of Hebrews. This connection also features prominently in a recent book on listening. Ultimately, to “obey” is to “hyper-listen” or to listen deeply.

On this understanding, someone is “dull of hearing” if they are “slow to obey.” While it could be construed as not listening well on Sunday mornings, I think it has more to do with listening to God in general, specifically through his Word, and evidencing that you’ve heard by how you live. This comes out more in 5:14 as the contrasting position is called “mature” and that is defined as having “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” This more or less describes the wise person in the book of Proverbs, and implies that you distinguish good from evil in order to practice the former instead of the latter. We could say then that listening closely leads to living wisely.

With this in mind, think back to 3:12-14, which again if you don’t have it memorized is:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

Notice how important the community is for helping each other avoid sin’s deceitfulness. The word for “exhort” is parakaleo, which is the same word underlying “Paraclete”, the title Jesus gives the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit indwells believers, then they are able to function as a mouthpiece for the Spirit, doing his job (in part) in the context of Christian community. By being part of an active church body, you are “partaking of the Holy Spirit” if others are exhorting you toward living a godly life (cf. 6:4 and what this might mean in that context).

I tend to think that the way this should work is similar to an aspect of the way I teach piano. Often, I find myself listening very closely as a student plays through a song that they practiced during the previous week. It is rare that a song is played completely mistake free. However, as I’m listening closely and paying attention, I can discern the intentionality behind many of the notes. What I’m looking for is evidence of correct thinking behind the playing.

One thing that is difficult in being a piano teacher is that I’m essentially listening to someone play a song so I can point out their mistakes. I’ve had to think through how to do this well so that it’s not a drudgery to sit through lessons (for me and the student). I’m sure many of you had that teacher growing up. You know, the one that pointed out every single mistake, quickly saying “Wrong!” as soon as your finger touched that F that should have been an F# because you forget you were playing in the key of G.

What I try to do is to either wait for the student to correct the error themselves, or even wait until the end of the piece and ask, “What did you forget?” at which point they remember themselves that all the F’s were supposed to be sharp. Other times, when I wrong note is played, I’ll say “close” letting them know it wasn’t quite right, but in a way encouraging them that they’re right there and then they have the opportunity to move to the correct note on their own.

Thinking back to Hebrews 3 passage, it involves a similar kind of listening. Rather than pointing out every mistake individuals in our community make, we should listen closely to the overall melody their life is making. We should encourage them when the notes they are playing are close to the mark, and perhaps not rush to calling out every error along the way. If we are truly living in community together, we have more than passing interaction with one another and can discern patterns in others’ behavior that might need to be addressed. 

Like a piano teacher that generally sees his students for a concentrate amount of timing weekly, we should seek to spend concentrated time with close community weekly. Doing so allows us to really listen to one another and even better exhort and encourage more melodic living in harmony with the Spirit within us.

 

Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life

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On Monday, I mentioned a new review series I planned to start. While this book is not part of that series, it covers a very similar terrain. Edited by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel, Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life is a collection of essays articulating the Christian life “in dogmatic key” (3). If we play with the musical metaphor, the idea is that one could compose the melody of the Christian life in a variety of key signatures, but this work does so using the resources of Christian dogmatics. I’m sitting here trying  to think of what other “keys” one might use, but am drawing a blank. I think we need to tweak the metaphor a bit so that it works better.

“Modes” is a better option, but transposition doesn’t work as well. A song in C major won’t sound drastically different if played in D major (unless you have perfect pitch). A song in C Ionian (major) will sound much different than a song in C Dorian, but that is a modality shift rather than a key signature change. Technically, it appears as a key signature change on the score, but the tonal center that emerges in the song would lead you to figure out the mode employed. The difference between C Ionian and C Dorian is not the tonal center, but the steps between the degrees of the scale used.

If we take the idea of tonal center and connect that with the Christian life, we would say the tonal center is “communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit” (3). Building out from the tonal center and utilizing all the richness of the tones in the key signature is what the authors seem to envision doing. In that sense, the better description is an account of the Christian life that explores the full scale of notes and harmonic richness from Christian dogmatics. Different doctrinal connection points represent different tones within a scale. Many accounts of the Christian life stick close to a single tonal center, perhaps only deviating to the octave or interval of a 5th above, giving minimal melodic or harmonic variation. Here, the full range of tones and harmonies are brought into play, weaving together a more interesting melodic result.

With that metaphor in mind, here’s how the authors describe (not metaphorically) what their aim is:

While the primary reference of “the Christian life” is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension (3).

Ultimately, they suggest that this volume provides “a theology of the Christian life oriented around the triune God of grace” (6). This is seen in the outline which breaks out into four parts. The first, “The Gracious One” has essays on the triune God (Fred Sanders), the electing God (Suzanne McDonald), the creating and providential God (Katherine Sonderegger), the saving God (Ian McFarland), and the perfecting God (Christopher R. J. Holmes). Part Two, “The Graces of The Christian Life,” covers reconciliation and justification (John Burgess), redemption (Christiaan Mostert), and mortification and vivification (John Webster). Part Three, “The Means of Grace” provides a pair of essays on Scripture (Donald Wood) and church and sacraments (Tom Greggs). The final part, “The Practices of Grace” focuses on discipleship (Philip Ziegler), prayer (Ashley Cocksworth), theology (Ellen T. Charry), preaching (William Willimon), and forgiveness (D. Stephen Long).

While in some sense that gives you an idea of what the topics and writers include, in another sense, it doesn’t quite give you a feel for the book. To help with that, I entered into a technical discussion about music theory just a few paragraphs ago. If you already understand music theory fairly well, you could probably connect the dots. If not, it might have been harder to follow what I was explaining. In a similar way, the more familiar you are with Barth and other major figures of 20th century theology, the more comfortable you’ll be with the dogmatic expositions in this more or less academic theological work. If you have a finger on the pulse of recent theological movements, you’ll follow the discussions fairly well.

I had originally gotten this work for myself out of interest, and abandoned reading halfway through. I was later contacted to participate in a blog tour, and so I resumed and finished the remaining essays. I’m glad I pushed through to get to the ones by Webster and Willimon which I found particularly insightful. Closely behind were the ones on theology and prayer. While the essay on discipleship provides an interesting theological meditation on the topic, it is not particularly helpful if you’re interested in how to actual disciple someone. Granted, that’s not the focus of the essay (or the work as a whole), but it is perhaps a bit ironic.

This further illustrates the kind of book under consideration. This is not a book of practical theology, at least in the typical evangelical sense. It is a book of academic and dogmatic theological reflection on topics connected to the Christian life. The price probably prohibits it from consideration by the average reader and the content makes it something I couldn’t recommend to anyone in my church (which tells you both about my church and the book). However, it could be of particular use in a classroom setting, but most likely only for upper-level undergrad or introductory level seminary courses. With the opportunity to discuss further in that setting, this book could be more useful, but only if the class itself has the facility in modern theology that enables a clearer reading.

That being said, I do like what Eilers and Strobel were aiming at in their goals for the book. I don’t think that all of the essays necessarily hit the mark (although Sanders sure did). I would be particularly interested in a more user friendly version of a book like for people like me involved in the discipleship and equipping of a local body of believers. I’m not entirely sure what that would look like and don’t particularly fault Eilers and Strobel for not producing that volume. This book sets the tone at least for books like that could follow (and I mean that in the sense of the musical metaphor from above) and I will look forward to that eventual composition.


Kent Eilers & Kyle Strobel, eds., Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian LifeNew York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, August 2014. 288 pp. Paperback, $39.99.

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Metal Monday: August Burns Red | Home Alone Theme

Once again, August Burns Red has a new Christmas song. This came out a few weeks ago, but I just stumbled across it. That works out because over at Christ and Pop Culture, they are doing a series this week Stations of Home Alone. Rock out here and then head over to read Wade Bearden’s Can a Filthy Animal Have a Soul? and check back throughout the week for more!

Metal Monday: Pomegranate Tiger and Intervals

I thought about doing a Christmas edition, but a couple of bands I follow came out with new releases recently, so we’ll get to the Christmas stuff next week. Pomegranate Tiger is the musical project of Martin Andres who plays both the guitars and drums on the newest release, Boundless. You can actually watch him do so for one of the songs in the following two videos:

Likewise, Intervals is the musical project of Aaron Marshall. The last release was full band and vocals, but it’s now returned to instrumental form. Unlike Anders though, Marshall just does all the guitar work and has some friends playing drums and bass. This particular song features a sax solo:

If you’ve been tracking with stuff I’ve posted on music or metal Monday, you’ve probably figured out that it’s mostly instrumental. That is because it’s what I mostly listen to and what I am have traditional written and recorded myself. I sometimes wonder what I’ve had produced by now if I had stuck with music through college instead of pursuing ministry instead. In some ways, this is a form of lament since it is a kind of loss, but in another way, it’s not something I’d necessarily go back and change. I’m glad I took the path that I did, but I’d like to make music a bigger part of my life in the coming years.

Music Monday: @mewithoutYou in Orlando Last Night

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For the sixth time, I saw mewithoutYou live last night. It was actually full circle last time I saw them because it was in St. Pete were I saw them for the first time on the Tooth & Nail tour in 2004. Last time I saw them was at the last ever Underoath show, but that was a couple of years ago, so I was due for another. They played songs from their latest an album as well as songs from 4 of their older ones, including classics like Torches Together, A Glass Can Only Spill What It Contains, and Four Word Letter (Pt. 2). They also played the spider trio from Brother, Sister.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture I wrote an article last week on the band, and frontman Aaron Weiss specifically:

The band’s most recent album, Pale Horses, continues the evolution. In some ways, Pale Horses represents mewithoutYou come full circle, which is fitting for band that once sang “all circles begin with an end, they come back around, they come back around again.” Lyrically, this is their most biblical album, as far as imagery goes. Musically, it’s a nice blend of all previous mewithoutYou incarnations. Spiritually, it draws from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but without a commitment to any one of them. Instead, the commitment is to a worldview of a different sort.

In addition to seeing them live last night, I was able to interview frontman Weiss before their set. I think we could have kept talking for a few more hours, but he had a show to put on. We talked about a wide range of ideas and experiences (speech act theory, perichoresis, spirit animals, marriage, to name a few), and I hope we’ll be able to have another conversation in the future. As for the one last night, I’ll tell you more about it in an upcoming article for Christ and Pop Culture, hopefully by the end of the month.

Music Monday: CHON | Live in Austin 2015

I’ve posted about CHON before, but here they are being legit live. If you can stand some swearing, you should watch this video where they play Fall of Troy songs with Thomas Erak. It might seem a little messy, but they just met the Fall of Troy frontman that day and in the video, you’re watching them play the songs for the first time.