The Invention of Manners

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 15:1 (ESV)

Sixties radical Abbie Hoffman played a major role in fomenting street turmoil during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. For his efforts, Hoffman, along with the other members of the Chicago Seven, were charged with conspiring to incite a riot and with contempt of court.1 Over a decade later, Hoffman was still urging his admirers to be rude in their dealings with authority: “Remember that manners were invented by kings to maintain power. The determination to interrupt business as usual is often misunderstood as ill-mannered. Don’t let the ‘king’ define your behavior.”2

He was right in suggesting that there is a time to “interrupt business as usual.” The biblical prophets showed this. But Hoffman was wrong about the invention of manners. God invented them, as His Word demonstrates.

mannersProverbs 15:1 instructs the reader in wise decorum, with both benefit and risk. If one’s speech is conciliatory and self-effacing, then the conversation will more likely continue to a fruitful conclusion. If, instead, one leads with insult or menace, communication will probably break down, and the backlash can be fierce. Of course, in handling proverbs such as this one, it is important to use words such as “likely” and “probably,” for this book offers rules of thumb rather than hard-and-fast predictions or promises. Occasionally, a soft answer will do nothing to cool the other’s temper, and caustic speech may simply demoralize the hearer. But, as a general rule, this proverb is true.

Proverbs 15:1 is not cast in the language of absolute morality. It does not say that tender speech is by definition godly or that hard words are an abomination to the Lord. If so, then the strident John the Baptist was reprobate, not deserving the high praise Jesus gave him in Matthew 11:11. But if one understands this proverb as a matter of prudence for those engaged in the workaday affairs of life, then it fits perfectly.3

Examples spring readily to mind – at the store, in the post office, at the driver’s license center, in a ticket queue, on a crowded walkway, in a parking lot, at a sporting event, or in the neighborhood. And the principle applies equally to all parties involved, whether clerk or customer, coach or player, bicyclist or pedestrian. And in each setting, Christians should take the lead in gracious speech, disarming conflict and advancing cooperation by precept and example.

Of course, one need not enter the marketplace to use this maxim. It serves quite well in the home and church, where a lot of senseless strife could be avoided with its employment. Again, this is not to say that all speech in these sectors must be quiet and even bland to please God. There are certainly occasions for sharp rebuke and stern pronouncements. But these cannot be the norm, for they would lose their effectiveness in a general atmosphere of bitterness. And if Christians are to be salt and light in the world, they must cultivate the ways of grace along with their zeal for truth.

 

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Endnotes

1 Some of the convictions and charges were later overruled on account of procedural irregularities in the original trial.

2 Abbie Hoffman, “How to Fight City Hall,” The Best of Abbie Hoffman (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1989), 373. This article was originally written for Parade magazine in 1984.

3 It is doubtful that Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, was the king Hoffman had in mind. But even if he was, Proverbs comes by the inspiration of God, not the imperious heart of an earthly monarch.



 

The Bible and Sixteenth-Century Culture

Andrew Pettegree is a history professor at the University of St. Andrews and founder of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. In a recent work entitled Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, he reflects on the profound cultural impact of the Christian Scriptures in sixteenth-century Europe. In particular, the work addresses the means of persuasion: how it was that people became committed to distinctively Christian living. The primary means of this persuasion was the distribution of the Bible.

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[I]t is hard in any survey to do real justice to [the Bible’s] primacy and influence. But this was a remarkable and many-faceted book, a success in so many of the categories of print that sixteenth-century readers found so fascinating. It was a travelogue and a work of history; a work of literature and poetry; it provided the model for much of the most successful drama of the age; it was a work of prophecy in an age obsessed by prophecy; it was a treasure trove for botanists, grammarians and etymologists, and a foundation text for students of the ancient languages; it was a work of jurisprudence, perhaps the sixteenth century’s most influential legal text; it was certainly the century’s most influential work of political thought. It provided role models for rulers and priests, for fathers and mothers, for soldiers and martyrs.

In this book the print culture of the sixteenth century was displayed in all its technical sophistication. It could be a handy pocket-sized book in tiny print, or a gloriously illustrated folio. The narrative illustrations in the Old Testament brought to life some of the greatest stories of the Christian tradition; even in the austere purged editions of the later Protestant tradition the text often came accompanied by maps, technical drawings, and ingenious diagrams of belief and unbelief. It is not too much to say that in this one volume is epitomized much of what sixteenth-century book culture had to offer.

The sixteenth century placed this compendious and many-sided work directly in the hands of unprecedented numbers of people. Throughout the century and in all European vernaculars there were published at least 5,000 whole or partial editions of the Bible, a total of at least 5 million copies.1

 

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Endnote:

1 Andrew Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 191.

Biblical Insight: She Conceived and . . . Killed?

BabyInside“He slept with Hagar, and she conceived . . . So Hagar bore Abram a son.”
“She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son . . .”
“Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son . . .”
“She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son . . .”
“Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son . . .”
“Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son . . .”
“So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son . . .”
“She conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters . . .”
“The woman conceived and sent word to David . . . she became his wife and bore him a son . . .”
“I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son . . .”
“So he married Gomer . . . and she conceived and bore him a son.”
“Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter.”

Genesis 16:4, etc. (NIV)

Human life is created at conception. When a baby is conceived, God intends the child to be born. For a baby to die between conception and birth is unnatural, aberrant, and a wrenching departure from God’s created order.

The word “conceived” is used some 18 times in the NIV Bible to refer to the conception of a child. In every instance, the conceived child is finally born. According to the biblical narrative, this is the proper pattern—conception results in birth.

God intended the womb to be a sanctuary where human life might be wonderfully and secretly fashioned by His hand (cf., Psalm 139:13-16). He never meant it to be a place of death. In fact, the Bible pictures conception without birth as a sign of divine judgment. Consider Hosea 9:14—“Give them, O LORD—what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry . . .” Even Hosea’s prophetic voice fails as he tries to think of a judgment terrible enough to repay the sin of the Ephraimites. Flushed with anger, he finally prays that God would cause their children to die in their mother’s wombs.

It would, of course, be wrong to tell a couple suffering miscarriage that the cause was God’s judgment upon them. Terrible things happen to innocents in this broken world. The point of this Scripture is that such loss is mournful, something they know full well. More than anyone, they understand how abominable it is to kill an unborn child; it is high-handed rebellion against the glory and creative authority of God.

Modern society has carved a moral chasm between conception and live birth. Legal maneuvering in America has led to the declaration of unborn children as categorically different from those actually born. In essence, all legal rights to life are rendered void in the period between conception and birth. The freedom to kill the unborn at will is defined as a parental right. Scripture allows no such right, and the Church must fiercely oppose it wherever it exists in the world.



 

Revelation Paintings

I’ve always been intrigued by works of art keyed to biblical texts. In the realm of music, I think of the father and son contributions of Johann Sebastian Bach (e.g., St. Matthew Passion, based on this Gospel’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Magnificat, based on Mary’s song of exultation at learning she would bear the Messiah). As for painting, my favorite site is the Arena Chapel on Padova (Padua), Italy, where, in the 14th century, Giotto covered the walls and ceilings with dozens of scenes, from the flight into Egypt to the raising of Lazarus. And, last year, I enjoyed putting together some parable paintings for a seminary magazine, including a Van Gogh Good Samaritan, a Rembrandt Prodigal Son, and a Brueghel rendition of the blind leading the blind.

These were works requiring months and even years to produce, but there is a special type of Christian artistry, works constructed between Sundays for the use in the next Lord’s Day service. In this vein, the elder Bach was known for his prodigious output of worship pieces, where a new cantata was required of him every week (for a total of over 200) when he served as organist of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. For instance, on June 24, 1724, he first performed Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan), marking the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin who baptized Him in the Jordan River).

With Bach’s example in mind a few years ago, I turned to an artist in the church that I pastored1 for help with my series on Revelation. I asked if he might bring us one painting or drawing a week, and offered him essentially Wal Mart greeter wages. Happy to say, he was game.

Sure enough, each Sunday he showed up with a fresh work, executed on eight-inch-square pieces of drawing paper—some in pencil, some in pen or paint, some with Rev.1bigencaustic techniques, using heated tar and wax. In one instance, he held the paper over a candle flame to capture the look of black smoke. They featured fantastical, symbolic animals, landscapes and cityscapes, saints and stars.2 We pinned them on the wall to the congregation’s right, saw the collection grow week by week (ten in all), and kept them posted long past the series’ end. (They’re now framed on our dining room wall, where we use them for gospel conversation with guests.)

Addressing the Second Commandment in their Larger Catechism, the Westminster Divines condemned drawing any member of the Trinity. Of course, the Commandment goes beyond that to prohibit likenesses of anything whatsoever in “in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). But context is important, for following God’s instructions, the Ark of the Covenant cover bore cherubim sculptures (Exodus 37:7), and Solomon’s Temple featured carved palm trees and flowers (1 Kings 6). The issue was idolatry. Much could be said about this concern, but suffice it to say here that we did not worship the drawings. Rev.5Rather, we extended Revelation’s word pictures into hand-crafted pictures, in order to advance the strong biblical teaching of the destruction of the devil’s works and the exaltation of the saints in glory.

Of course, artists can get it wrong (and often do in their free-wheeling push for drama, novelty, or provocation), but so can preachers. Yes, the Word has primacy, but not exclusivity, and blessed is the church which regularly enlists the fresh work of musicians and artists to serve with the Holy Spirit in magnifying the holy text.

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Endnotes:

1 Dan Addington (danaddington.com)

2 E.g., the winged eyes of Rev. 4:8, the crowned locust/horse/scorpions of Rev. 9:7-10; the frogs of Rev. 16:13; the resurrected, ascending witnesses of Rev. 11:12; the river and fruit-laden trees of Rev. 22:1-2; the burning Babylon of Rev. 19:3; the descending New Jerusalem of Rev. 21:9-21; the rise of prayers from a golden bowl of Rev. 8:3-4; seven stars in the Lord’s hand of Rev. 1:16.

Rev.4

Rev.3

Rev.1


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Drunks, Derelicts and the Unquietable Conscience of John Wesley

On a bright April day in 1743, John Wesley stood preaching to an open-air crowd the great truths of salvation. The rag-tag congregation, who had come out into the countryside to hear this famous preacher, listened enraptured to his message of regeneration and new life. Just then, an old drunk rode his horse into the middle of the crowd, rearing the beast up and shouting all manner of curses and bitter words at the preacher. Wesley, who by XJF384017this time was used to such displays, tried to ignore the man and continue his sermon. That course, however, quickly proved impossible when the fool drew his horse up and, still spewing venom at Wesley and his gospel, tried to run down some of the crowd. People scattered, no one was trampled, and in a few minutes the situation was brought under control. Speaking later to some local residents, Wesley was shocked to learn who the old wobbly drunk was: a clergyman from a neighboring parish church!

After months of open air preaching, Wesley had learned to expect such opposition. Anglican rectors early on refused to allow him to preach from their pulpits, so Wesley finally forsook the beautiful established churches altogether and took his message first to the church cemeteries and then to the countryside. Thousands of hearers followed him, but even there in the remote regions, he could not avoid trouble. Hecklers and other troublemakers hounded him wherever he went, running through the crowds screaming, banging pots and pans together, or even throwing rotten eggs and over-ripe fruit at him to silence his preaching.

Wesley’s message evoked such a vehement response because he called on Christians to do more than merely recite their creeds once a week. He expected the gospel of Christ to change their hearts and, from there, to reform their lives and ultimately their entire society. “Christianity is essentially a social religion,” he said, and “to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

With that conviction, Wesley publicly addressed at one time or another nearly every social and cultural issue of his day. He took aim, for example, at Britain’s thriving slave trade, calling it the “execrable sum of all the villainies” and insisting on the “equal and priceless value” before God of “every immortal soul,” including blacks. He also abhorred war and worked tirelessly to urge a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Colonies in the 1770s. He rejected the common notion that religion could be kept separate from business, for unless it was permeated with Christian values and dedicated to Christian goals, Wesley thought, business could not help but be turned to diabolical ends. Wesley railed against the social and cultural degradation of his day, championing the poor, castigating Britain’s aristocracy for wasting and hoarding their goods, condemning the liquor traffic which had reduced the nation’s labor force to a drunken stupor, and rebuking lawyers and politicians for using the law to gratify their own greedy desires. Secular or religious, sacred or profane, no department of human affairs was exempt from the word and command of God.

Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons during his life and traveled more than 200,000 miles, mostly on horseback. When he died at the age of 88, his tireless efforts had made Wesley an internationally revered figure. His Methodist movement had won official recognition by the government, and its influence had spread far beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Wesley suffered scorn for his down-to-earth, practical Christianity, but the Lord used his faithful, persevering labors to build a worldwide Christian movement.  Even if faithful Christians disagree about how exactly to apply the conscience of Christianity to society, all can benefit from a careful perusal of the life and legacy of John Wesley.

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Endnotes:

J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers).

Besides the 294 preachers and 71,668 members on the Isle, there were 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America, as well as some 5,300 new Christians brought to Christ by 19 missionaries spread throughout the world. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Wesley, John.”

The Holy Land, Where the Bible Comes Alive in a Bittersweet Way

I’m just back from my seventh trip to the Holy Land, where it’s said “the Bible comes alive.” Indeed, it does, but in a mixed way, for there were, as always, both edifying and dispiriting aspects of the tour—for the Bible is not just a “happy talk” book, but also one of stern declaration.

Jerusalem1. The Land Itself. From the Sea of Galilee to the Kidron Valley to the Judean Wilderness, the topography and scale bring color to Scripture. Modern development doesn’t change the bracing effect of a first look at Jaffa and Maritime Caesarea, the expanse of Jezreel, the rushing streams of Dan, the waterfalls of En Gedi, alongside the Dead Sea desolation, viewed from Masada.

2. Judeo-Christian Culture. You’d have to be literally or willfully blind to miss the differences between a culture oriented on the Bible and one oriented on the Koran. In Israel, much of the desert Arava blooms; not so in Jordan. From my earlier visit to the region in 1966, I’ve felt like I was traveling from ancient Decapolis to Southern California when crossing from Jordan to Israel.

3. Pharisees and Sadducees. Hasidic Jews (modern Pharisees if you will) are photogenic, with their earlocks, shtreimels, tzitzit, and fedoras, but they’re an unsmiling bunch, quick to raise a ruckus if you transgress their sensitivities. (Just ask our ladies who got too close to the Wailing Wall). The Sadducees were the secularists, and they abound in Israel today.

4. “Christian” Turfism. It is a disgrace to the cross that two of the most visited sites in Judea (the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) are showcases of “Christian” pettiness, where various sects guard their floor space with a vengeance.

5. Fellowship of Travelers. Holy Land tours are as much a matter of conversation as sightseeing, over meals, waiting in line, on the bus, etc.  And when one’s fellow visitors are Christian, the fellowship can be sweet, full of testimony, exhortation, encouragement, and insight—from, in our case, cancer survivors, late converts, veteran ministers, seasoned parents, and internationals.

6. Hocus Pocus and Simony. There’s a lot of magical thinking over there, with pilgrims kissing stones, scooping up dirt, and such. It makes you hunger for deeper transactions of the soul before God. And there no site too remote or implausible that someone is not willing to gin up a yarn and charge you entry, not only to the attraction, but also to the restroom.

7. Artistry and Craftsmanship (and Kitsch). From the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives to the Elijah statue on the heights of Carmel, the Holy Land is a grand art gallery, the sort of place Bezalel could appreciate.1 Alas, some gift shops and churches are laden with tackiness, clutter, pointless flash, and ostentatious overkill—barriers rather than aids to devotion.

8. Textual Overlays. One of my favorite things is to be with a group reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking Gennesaret, or recalling the critical role of seats at the city gate2 as we come upon the one still in place at Tel Dan.

9. The Testimony of Ruins. Ruins evoke both humility and encouragement, for they testify both to the vanity of trust in human institutions and to the hope that enemies of the cross will fail.

10. The Remnant. The evangelical community is small, but alive and growing.

So yes, in the Levant, the Bible comes alive in all its teaching. Of course, “holy land” is found wherever the people of God stand and serve, on any continent. And the Christian’s physical body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” But it is exhilarating to walk where Jesus walked, and see what He saw, both the good and the bad, for it is all spiritually instructive.

 

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Endnotes:

1 In Exodus 31:1-5, we read, “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

2 For instance, we read of David in 2 Samuel 19:8: “Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, ‘Behold, the king is sitting in the gate.’ And all the people came before the king.”