Struck by Insight

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

One of the most fascinating books that has recently found its way into my library is My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Taylor tells a gripping story of how she survived, and recovered from, a massive stroke that had left her without the functions of her brain’s left hemisphere.

What makes the book unique is the fact that Taylor was an accomplished Harvard brain scientist at the time of her stroke, and that she had enough sense to conclude that the experience of losing half her mind was the research opportunity of a lifetime. And so she began taking mental notes in her dazed and confused state, ultimately leaving us with a striking memoir, through the eyes of a scientist, of what it’s like to experience the deterioration of the left brain and its functions. Also, she provides an extremely practical step-by-step account of her recovery.

Taylor’s bravery was rewarded: The book became a New York Times bestseller and gave her international renown. Recently Ron Howard has signed on to direct the film of the book.

Reading it, I could not help but think of Paul’s words above. What do we do when we experience severe affliction? Do we become bitter and despondent? Do we blame others? Do we shake our fists at God? Or do we, like Taylor, see our affliction as the research opportunity of a lifetime; as a unique lesson of God’s infinite grace in the face of human pain and suffering that no textbook or sermon can ever convey?

The Second Call

In his classic The Ragamuffin Gospel author Brennan Manning devotes a chapter to the “Second Call” in the Christian’s Life.

Sometimes things don’t work out according to plan, Manning says. Sometimes Christians are devastated by death, disease, divorce, debt or disaster and find that they cannot live the afternoon of their lives by the morning plan. They have to find a new plan. They have to construct new goals and start over.

There is simply no other way.

This is the time when Christians are often surprised by a second call, when God intervenes and calls them as clearly and definitively as the first time around, and sometimes even clearer.

The Bible is full of second calls: Moses at the Burning Bush, The Prodigal Son, the distraught Peter at the Sea of Tiberias, to name but a few. These were people who once had a sense of destiny but who lost it as a result of the mistakes they had made: Moses became an exile in Midian, the Prodigal ended up in a pigsty, Peter went back to his fishing boat.

Yet they were all given a second chance. In fact, it was their response to the second call that made them legends.

The saying “God forgives, people don’t” is true indeed. Like the Prodigal’s older brother, we often frown when our fallen ones want to get up. Our sense of self righteousness is threatened by the notion that God wants to restore them fully and unconditionally, and so we prefer them to remain in the pigsty from where they can make us look better than them.

C. S. Lewis once spoke of the four ages that people go through: Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, Re-enchantment.

If you have become disenchanted in your faith, don’t give up. Allow God to re-enchant you.

The Faith of the Fatherless

A number of years ago psychology professor Paul Vitz wrote a book with the title Faith of the Fatherless. In it he pointed out that many atheists maintain that religious belief arises from psychological factors.

Sigmund Freud, for instance, saw belief as a form of wish-fulfilment, an illusion deriving from powerful wishes or unconscious infantile needs.

The irony of this “projection theory”, Vitz says, is that it actually provides us with an explanation for unbelief rather than faith. According to him, it “provides a powerful new way to understand an illusion as the psychological basis for rejecting God — that is, a projection theory of atheism.”

A case in point: The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “God is dead”. What few people know is that his father was a Lutheran minister who passed away a few months before Nietzsche’s fifth birthday. His conclusion might very well have been a way of dealing with his childhood loss – code for “Dad is dead”.

Nietzsche’s case is by no means an exception. Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and Albert Camus were all atheistic philosophers who lost their fathers at a young age. Vitz mentions that many other famous unbelievers also had troublesome relationships with their fathers. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Freud, Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Butler and H.G. Wells all had abusive or weak fathers.

We can learn a number of things from Vitz’s book. More important than the insight into unbelief is the disturbing, yet glorious truth of how our children are affected by our actions. We fashion their understanding of God.

This may provide one reason why the Bible is so concerned with the plight of orphans. Where there is no parent to represent God to a little one, Christians should be ready to step in and fill the void.

From Eternity to Here

Every now and again a book comes along that captures the essence of Christianity in a remarkable way. These are the writings that subsequent generations refer to as “classics”, and they are usually only recognized for their profundity and timelessness once the author is no longer around. There are many examples (although not too many!): Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life, Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Gene Edwards’ The Divine Romance, and so on.

The latest addition to the “Classic” bookshelf in my library (reserved for the very best of Christian literature) was published only a few years ago. Yet it is regarded by many as one of the greatest Christian books of the last few decades, and a certain future classic.

I am, of course, referring to Frank Viola’s From Eternity to Here. Although not everyone agrees with Viola’s views on the church (he co-authored the controversial Pagan Christianity in which he and fellow author George Barna takes on “institutional Churchianity”), few of his critics find fault with this book. It has been endorsed by traditionalists and radicals alike, and is revolutionalising the way multitudes of believers worldwide see the “big picture” of Christianity.

Unlike so many Christian bestsellers of late, Viola has no new revelation to offer (thank goodness). On the contrary, From Eternity to Here combines in one volume the greatest and most precious insights from the best of the “Deeper Christian Life” authors of the past few centuries. People who are unfamiliar with authors like Nee and Murray, and with Christian movements such as the Brethren, will find this book astoundingly revelational and deeply edifying.

I heartily recommend From Eternity to Here. In fact, I recommend that you buy a few extra copies and give them away.

The Mark of a Good Book

My dad was a very wise man who taught me a number of unforgettable lessons. One that stands out is “If you want people to believe a lie, print it!”

I have seen the truth of these words confirmed again and again. Books have an air of authority around them, which explains why people are oftentimes disappointed when meeting an author.

In reality there is no difference between the authority of the printed and spoken word, no matter how popular the former may be. As Robert Boston has wisely pointed out: “How a book sells is not an indication of its merit. The … public has a seemingly bottomless appetite for nonsense, as evidenced by the countless tomes about astrology, aliens from outer space, quack diets, and UFOs that have regularly graced best-seller lists over the years. Some books that sold millions have later been exposed as hoaxes. A slot on the best-seller list tells you exactly one thing about a book: that a lot of people bought it.”

The same goes for Christian books. In fact, a Christian book’s fame may oftentimes be an indication of its shallowness (The road leading to perdition is broad, remember?). A Christian bestseller list is an indication of a book’s popularity, never of its theological soundness.

The single most important criteria for judging a Christian book is never its popularity, relevance, practical usefulness or readability. Rather, it is the degree to which the centrality of Jesus Christ dominates the book.

That may sound a bit abstract, so let me assist by listing a group of Christian authors whose books fall into this category (There are many more): Andrew Murray, Watchman Nee, A.W. Tozer, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Major Ian Thomas, T. Austin Sparks, Jessie Penn Lewis, Oswald Chambers.

Start reading these authors and you will know exactly what I mean.

Mistakes were Made

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Jeremiah 17:9

Everybody else but me; everybody else but me
He was talking to those people back in Galilee
Anybody else but me
– Don Francisco

The most frightening book that I have ever come across in my life is not one that comes from the pen of Stephen King, Dean Koontz or any one of the many horror writers who earn their living by scaring people out of their wits. No, it is a book with the seemingly boring title Mistakes were Made (but not by me).

Written by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the book is a fascinating study of the way in which human beings refuse to accept information that conflicts with their dearly held beliefs. Conflicting information causes ‘cognitive dissonance’, and the way in which the human brain reduces this mental discomfort is to create blind spots that blocks out the information that causes the dissonance. And so, Tavris and Aronson tell us, we end up deceiving ourselves in order to sustain our mental equilibrium.

This explains why we are attracted to information that confirms our own biases, why we love to play the blame game and why our memories are so highly selective. It also explains why a number of American presidents referred to their own massive blunders by saying ‘mistakes were made’, as though the mistakes made themselves.

The scary thing about the book is that it exposes the reader to the dark mechanisms at work in his (or her) own heart and mind, revealing how wrong we are when we think we are not quite as wrong as others.

I heartily recommend this book to all believers, especially to my fellow recovering Pharisees.

Lessons from a Lost Son

In his classic work The Return of the Prodigal Son Henri Nouwen offers some penetrating insights into the symbolism behind the younger son’s departure. He says: “Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one. It is a denial that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”

The prodigal son experienced what we would call today an “identity crisis”, a term coined by the sociologist Eric Erikson to describe that period in our teens when we struggle to dissociate ourselves from our parents with the hope of forming a secure identity. This explains the turbulence of those years. We are like strangers in a storm looking for the bridge that will take us to adulthood and safety.

The prodigal tried to solve his particular crisis by dreaming of a “distant country” where he believed he would discover himself. He had not come to terms with the fact that he was the beloved of the father, and that this constituted his identity. Instead, he chose to be defined by the world.

In his book Nouwen draws a striking parallel between the prodigal’s fantasies and the temptations of Christ. Satan offered Christ instant gratification, worldly treasures and the acclaim of the people – a shortcut to self actualisation. Yet Christ resisted these: He had just heard the voice of his Father, saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

These words tell us who we are and where our true home is. When we are in touch with our sonship, as Christ was, we become immune to the onslaughts of the tempter.