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May 2007

May 23, 2007

This is the second article in a short series dealing with the tendency Christians have to put God in a box (click here for the first article). Several people, commenting on this first article, remarked that this is a topic usually reserved for people attacked Reformed theology rather than defending it. Bear with me and I think you’ll have to agree that we, even as Bible-loving Christians, can put God in a box. We can find ourselves feeling insecure about Him unless we have contained Him within a structure of our own making. We saw yesterday that God has revealed Himself to us in the Scripture in a way that is incomplete, yet in a way that we can understand—in a way that is sufficient and true but not exhaustive. This revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can begin to comprehend Him. To close the article I suggested that there are three predominant ways we box God and these correlate with the three emphasizes of Reformed theology - the doctrinalist, the pietist and the transformationalist. Today we will examine the first of these.

The tragedy of the Fall is often seen most vividly in times of war. It is overwhelmingly tragic when humans fight against humans, destroying lives, tearing apart families and plunging whole nations into terrible chaos. There is often a strange irony in war, where each side claims to be fighting for God. The American Civil War pitted a nation against itself, with each side being blessed by the presence of some inspiring, godly men who felt they were fighting for the Lord. In the Second World War, while millions of Christians were praying for God’s help in defeating the Nazis, the German army marched against nation after nation wearing belt buckles inscribed with the words, “God with us.” Each side in these conflicts felt God was on their side and that He was neatly boxed and bundled ready to be called on to wage war against the enemy.

Christians can box God in just this way, even through their knowledge of Him. Let me affirm that doctrine is of critical importance to the Christian walk. I love doctrine and love theology! Few things excite me as much as learning something new about God and about coming to a more accurate understanding of who God is and how He acts. The Bible continually exhorts us to be sure of our doctrine and to ensure that we are walking rightly before God. There are many passages of Scripture that speak to this. In Ephesians 3 Paul expresses his willingness to suffer for Christ, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Ephesians 3:10). Paul exhorts Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). There are repeated warnings in Scripture that we ensure we do not allow ourselves to be deceived by false doctrine. The Bible paints a clear picture of the importance of doctrine—of knowing God precisely as He has revealed Himself to us.

So while we dare not downplay doctrine, at the same time we must admit that it can lead us to place limitations on God. This should not convince us to conclude that the fault is with doctrine in general or with biblical doctrine in particular. The fault is with us. Today we’ll look at three ways Christians are prone to box God through their doctrine.

Boxing God With Our Ignorance

We have the responsibility to know and believe what God has revealed of Himself in the Scripture. Sometimes, though, we get it wrong. So the first way we can put God in a box is through our misunderstandings of Him and His nature. Furthermore, we may also try to define God in a way that is simplistic or that is inconsistent with who He is. A classic example would be the statement that “God is love.” Of course this is true for the Bible affirms that God is the very embodiment of love. Love is part of the very fabric of His being. But this is simplistic if we do not take into account God’s other attributes, such as His wrath. If we create a definition or understanding of God that overemphasizes one of His attributes at the expense of others, we have constructed a false view. We have put Him in a box of our own making. In the end we have created a view of God that is based on ignorance. Quite simply we do not know God as we should based on the information He has given in His Word.

I am sure you can see the danger here. Most of the false views of God we encounter are based on just this type of ignorance. People, sometimes deliberately but more often acting out of ignorance, ignore an aspect of God that they do not understand or that makes them uncomfortable.

We see then, that to avoid constructing this type of box, we need to know Him and to know Him as He truly is. We need to study all that His Word tells us about Him, His character, His attributes and the ways He acts. We need to always keep in mind the limitations of language that we discussed yesterday—that God’s attributes are infinite, yet we can only define them by comparing them to the finite examples we know and understand. When we say that “God is like” something, we mean that He bears a vague resemblance to it, not that He truly is the same as it.

In the example above, we cannot accurately say that God is love until we have reconciled His love with the other attributes He has seen fit to reveal to us and until we have seen how this attributes work themselves out. God’s love cannot be separated from or dealt with in isolation from wrath and justice. Just this morning I finished reading a book dealing with penal substitution and was grateful to see how often the authors emphasize how many of God’s attributes were seen clearly and without conflict at the cross. God’s love, justice, wrath, mercy, grace and so many others were all in full display at the cross. Those who consider penal substitution a vulgar or distasteful doctrine so often portray God in such a way that they ignore one or more of His attributes that are clearly revealed in Scripture.

Boxing God With Human Wisdom

A second way we can put God in a box is through creating or assuming knowledge of Him that He has not revealed to us. When we understand our limitations, we will have to conclude that there are some things that are simply too wondrous for us to comprehend. There are some areas where we need to understand and believe what Scripture tells us, but probe no deeper. Yesterday we read the verses of Psalm 131, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” David’s humility and confidence need to be ours. We are to let God be God, realizing that there are some things that He has withheld from us based on necessity (those things that we simply cannot understand) and based on His wisdom.

Perhaps the clearest example of something that is beyond our comprehension is the doctrine of the Trinity. We can know and understand from Scripture that God exists as three persons, yet one being. We can understand some of what this means and can begin to grapple with the nature of the Godhead. Yet we can never come to a complete understanding of a doctrine so wondrous. The same is true of the correlation between human responsibility and Divine sovereignty. We know they both exist, yet we cannot always understand how they relate. The best of men, the greatest of theologians, have had no choice but to admit their own inability when faced with such grandeur.

And so we must, in humility, refuse to create a full, complete or exhaustive understanding of God in those areas He has kept silent. While we can have confidence that He knows these things and that they are consistent with His nature, we should not jump to conclusions about the finer details. Where God has kept silent, so should we, in an attitude of awe towards Him. If we feel we have mastered the doctrine of the Trinity, we have placed God in a box of our own making, for the reality is that God does not give us sufficient information about this doctrine for us to ever master it.

Boxing God by Sola Theologica

A third way we can put God in a box is by making theology an end in itself. We are all prone to this error, but perhaps Reformed Christians more than others. In our flawed, limited understanding of God, we can make an idol of theology. Rather than studying God with a view to making theology a practical outpouring of the wonder of who He is, we succumb to theology-ology, or “the study of the study of God.” This lazy study leads only to puffed-up knowledge with little practical application. An unbeliever can study the study of God as easily as a Christian, for it does not depend on the Spirit to apply the words to our lives.

Jesus warned “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). In the last days there will be many who have accumulated vast knowledge of God, but who have never truly known Him. They will know about God without ever knowing Him. They will be cast into the lake of fire despite their great knowledge of the Bible and biblical theology.

The warning for us is that we must continually seek the Spirit’s help in applying Scripture to our lives, so that it does not become empty knowledge and an end in itself. Our knowledge of God is useless if it remains only in our minds. All we know about Him should spur us on to worship Him in spirit and truth and to motivate us to take what we know to the world, that others may rejoice with us.


It bears mentioning once more that the Bible does not contain God. Rather, the Bible contains God’s sufficient (but only partial) revelation of Himself. Yet because God is rational and truthful, we must understand that He will act in accordance with this revelation (lest He prove irrational). Thus any understanding of God that is dependent on doctrine that is outside of the clear teaching of Scripture must be rejected. We can have confidence in the framework of knowledge God provides in the Bible. We can have confidence that it is truly true, even if it is incomplete.

When we study the Bible we must understand that God’s Word is not given to us so that it might restrain or contain God. On the contrary, the Word is given to restrain and contain us! We need to be subject to God, not as He is found in a single verse of Scripture or as He is found in our imaginations, but as He has revealed Himself through the entirety of His revelation.

In our next article we will look at how we are prone to put God in a box through our piety.

May 22, 2007

A couple of years ago I got thinking about the idea of putting God in a box. This is a charge people often level at conservative Christians and Reformed folk in particular. It is not unusual for us to hear that we seem to feel that we have got God figured out, stuffed and mounted on the wall. And to some extent this may be true. I began to write about this and soon came up with a short series of posts. I’ve been thinking about this again recently and wanted to take the opportunity to revisit this series, tear it apart and try to do it again. So over the next few days I want to talk about our propensity to put God in a box, see how this is happened and what we can do to escape this temptation. I hope you’ll find the series both interesting and useful.

My family used to own a beautiful cottage in the woods near one of the most picturesque villages in Ontario. This village was once a center of commerce along the Rideau Lake system - a series of canals and both natural and artificial lakes that span the 200 kilometers between the cities of Kingston and Ottawa. The canal system was built in the early part of the nineteenth century to provide a quick avenue of travel should hostilities once again break out between the United States and Canada. Today it stands as a part of this nation’s history and as a peaceful and beautiful vacation destination.

This village, named Chaffey’s Locks after Samuel Chaffey, one of its first inhabitants, now has a population of only a hundred people. Yet it was once a bustling town centered around a series of rapids flowing between two lakes. Because of the thirteen foot difference in elevation between the lakes, a dam and a lock had to be built in this town. The dam held back the water and created a fast-flowing series of rapids that provided the energy to run Chaffey’s mills. Farmers from miles around came to the town to use these mills, and it grew, quickly becoming one of the most important towns along the Rideau. Though Chaffey died of malaria only seven years after founding these mills, by the time of his death his milling complex consisted of grist, carding and saw mills and a distillery. The town was prospering.

The importance of the town was inseparable from the dam. It was this dam that held back the water, confining it and then allowing it to be released with the power to drive the mills. Without the dam the town would have been no more important than any of the other villages dotting the length of the system of lakes and canals.

Most Christians, whether they will admit it or not, have dammed God in much this way. We have erected barriers around Him, seeking to constrain Him within a system of theology. We often seem to think that the tighter we box Him in, the greater the power we will be able to bring to bear when we release Him. In the same way that water, when placed under enough pressure can drive the wheel of a mill, or can even cut through steel, so we believe that God is at His most powerful when He is most constrained within a system of theology.

In this article series I would like to examine some of the ways we have put God in a box and suggest ways we can free ourselves from this box. It is worth noting that while I suggest we are the ones who put God in a box, we are also the ones who need to be freed. That is simply because we may put God in a box in our minds, but this in no way affects His character or His ability to act. God cannot be bound except in our minds.

Before we begin, we need to reconcile God’s revelation of Himself with our ability to understand Him. In other words, has God put Himself in a box? God has given us knowledge of Himself, both through Creation and through the Scriptures. But the Bible is clear that this is not complete knowledge — it is only and exactly what we need to know about Him. He told us no more than we need and no less than He considered beneficial. Whenever we study God, we need to acknowledge that He defines the limits of our study. James White writes, “If we wish to know God truly, we must be willing to allow Him to reveal to us what He wants us to know, and He must be free as to how He wants to reveal it. He has given us a treasure trove of truth about Him, but He has not deemed it proper to reveal everything there is to know (if such is even possible). We dare not go beyond the boundaries He has set in His Word” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity, page 34). As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, God has given us true knowledge but of Himself, but not exhaustive knowledge. God is the one who sets the limits as to what we can know and how much we can know.

Thus while God reveals Himself most fully through the Scriptures, this does not place Him in a box. He gives us His Word so that we can know and understand Him, but only so far as finite humans can understand an infinite God. “He defies our categories and our feeble attempts to comprehend Him. If He didn’t, He wouldn’t be God” (The Forgotten Trinity, page 42). God is not contained in Scripture — He is merely revealed in part and in a way we can understand.

There is a difficulty inherent in attempting to define what is indefinable. The barrier is language. How can a finite mode of communication such as words, do justice to what is infinite? In truth, it cannot. Words cannot adequately express who God is and how He works. Humans communicate by means of examples. We compare one thing to another and compile a database in our minds of like objects. Many years ago I used to work at a Starbucks and people would often ask me what the different types of coffee tasted like. To answer I would try to determine whether the person often drank high quality coffee or if he usually drank coffee from the local donut store. If he was accustomed to donut shop coffee, I might say “this coffee tastes like a very strong cup of Tim Horton’s coffee.” Of course there may be other varieties of coffee that taste more like this new one than Tim Horton’s, but those flavors have not yet been inputted into his database. As he continued to visit the store and as his knowledge of coffee increased I was able to provide more concise and more accurate descriptions based on closer comparisons. “It has a lighter, smoother taste than the flavor you drank last time you were here.” Or “this coffee has a strong, earthly flavor much like the Sumatra.” In either case I still use only use comparisons but I can draw more accurate comparisons because his frame of reference has increased.

This process works quite well. Or it does until we attempt to define something that is truly unique. Much of God’s revelation of Himself, even the portion of it that He has given to us, is truly unique. There is nothing we can use to adequately compare with God’s omnipresence or with the Trinity, to provide only two examples. And so our language limits us from true understanding. (For more on this, see chapter 2 of The Forgotten Trinity).

Thus we need a spirit of humility as we approach the Word of God, knowing that it tells us many things about God, but not everything. And while we can truly know God, we cannot know Him fully. We would do well to keep several passages in mind. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Again, we must remember that while what He has revealed of Himself is entirely truthful, it is by no means complete. In Psalm 131 David affirms that there are some things that He can never understand. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” David’s response is important. “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” David is at peace, resting in his understanding that God does have full knowledge and that He is fully in control, even of those things we do not understand. This leads him to exhort his people to “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” David’s understanding of his own limitations leads him to worship the One who knows all.

It may be helpful to view God’s revelation of Himself as the framework that defines the edges to a box. God has revealed Himself to us within this framework. While what He has told us is surely truthful, it may not be complete. When God tells us within Scripture that “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) we can have confidence that He means it. He will never leave nor forsake those who believe in Him. When Scripture assures us that God is not the author of sin, we know that the words are true and that God is in no way culpable for the sin in the world. And when we read “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) we can have confidence that God does mean “all things.” He does not send us purposeless calamity. These things that God tells us He will not or cannot do serve as a framework around which we can understand Him. The fact is, if God did not provide us with a framework within which we can understand Him, we would be unable to comprehend Him in any way. To repeat an important point — God is not contained in Scripture — He is merely revealed in a way we can understand.

I would now like to move on to show how we are prone to place God in a box. Within the Reformed tradition there are three major emphases that have flourished in the past. I believe they provide a helpful framework through which we can understand the ways we box God.

The first emphasis is the doctrinalist. This emphasizes adherence to doctrine and theology as taught in the Bible and in the creeds and confessions of the church.

The second emphasis is the pietist. This emphasizes God’s work in one’s daily life and a close, personal walk with God.

The third emphasis is the transformationalist. This emphasizes the importance of relating the message of the Bible to the world.

These three emphasizes may overlap to some extent, and there is a sense in which we are making false distinctions, yet they provide a helpful breakdown. We will examine each of these three in further articles.

May 21, 2007

George Whitefield by Arnold DallimoreFew recent books have so wide and so deep an impact as Arnold Dallimore’s magisterial biography of George Whitefield. The first volume, stretching from Whitefield’s birth in 1714 to his section visit to American in 1740 was published in 1970 and has since been reprinted six times. The second volume, which stretches from 1740 until Whitefield’s death in 1770, was published ten years later in 1980. It has been reprinted three times. Together the volumes comprise some 1200 pages of detailed biography. Rarely have I had a biography recommended to me by so many and by men of such distinction. Rarely have I benefited more from reading about another man’s life.

May 20, 2007

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers…or sometimes just because I really like them. It is a way of introducing my readers to blogs that they may also find interesting and edifying. Every two weeks (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my right sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making the readers of this blog aware of other good sites.

This week’s King for a Week is called, quite simply, Tranquility and is owned and operated by Lucas VanDyke. If you’ve been to conferences sponsored by Grace Community Church (Shepherds’ Conference, Resolved, etc) you’ve probably seen Lucas. He is the guy with the expensive camera and all the really big and fancy lenses. And he is quite the photographer. His blog is a mixture of text and photography, words and images. The photos vary from studio shots all the way to landscapes and special events. He is in the midst of a special project in which he photographs beggars and recently went to Mexico City where he took some really amazing shots. He mixes these images with thoughts, reflections and other things that happen across his mind.

Incidentally, Lucas took the shot that is on my about page and which I’ve also chosen the “official” shot that will be used for my book, etc (since it is, after all, about the only photo taken of me that I’ve actually liked).

In the coming days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from this blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over to the site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so.

May 19, 2007

Here’s a topic appropriate to a warm Saturday afternoon during a sunny, spring long weekend (or it’s a long weekend up here in Canada, at any rate. Victoria Day, don’t you know…). You have probably found, as I have, that as people get older it becomes more and more difficult to buy them good birthday presents. After all, when you are a child you have no means of getting the things you so desperately want. But as an adult you can usually just buy the things you want and need. Every year when my wife’s birthday rolls around I try to find something to buy her that will surprise her and be at least somewhat exciting. This year I found the perfect gift. Or that’s how she described it. So I post this for the benefit of other men who may be scrambling to find a good gift.

Aileen has a soft spot for soft serve. When she was pregnant it was not at all uncommon for me to head out late at night on a run to McDonald’s to buy her a hot fudge sundae (with extra peanuts). Though no longer pregnant, the ice cream cravings continue to show up quite regularly. Without a baby in her belly she hasn’t had the leverage to get me to do quite as many late night jaunts to the store. But knowing of her love of ice cream I came up with a great gift idea. Since her birthday a couple of weeks ago she has often said that this is the best gift I’ve ever gotten her. I choose to believe that this means that this gift is exceptionally good rather than that the rest have been exceptionally bad.

ice-cream.jpgThe Cuisinart Ice-45 Mix It In Soft Serve Ice Cream Maker is a marvel. In about 20 minutes it takes 1.5 quarts of sugar, cream and milk and turns it into really good ice cream. It has the unique ability to mix things like M&M’s, peanuts and sprinkles right into the ice cream as it dispenses it. With the purchase of a bottle of chocolate fudge, we can now make the equivalent of a McDonald’s sundae in twenty minutes without having to go out of the house. The other night we tried frozen yogurt (raspberry) and found that really delicious as well. And it made enough for four adults, two children, and a baby.

You can see this little machine at Amazon by clicking here. If you do end up getting ahold of one, here’s an important tip: make sure the freezer bowl is really, really cold. That means you’ll probably need to put it in a chest freezer or turn your refrigerator’s freezer down a few degrees. Since we did that we’ve had no trouble and it makes perfect ice cream every time. And now the ball is in my wife’s court to blow me away when my birthday comes in December!

May 18, 2007

I am working on a new feature for Discerning Reader. Every week I’ll troll through a long list of publishers and bestsellers lists to try to find new or upcoming books that look like they will be of particular interest. Since Discerning Reader isn’t quite ready to handle the column yet, I thought I’d post it here. This is a sample of what the column will look like.

The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire by Susan Ronald
496 Pages
Available July 1, 2007

Claims to be a fresh look at a paradoxical historical figure who continues to fascinate. She played a strange but critical role in the furtherance of Protestantism shortly during the late Reformation.

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek
752 Pages
Available now

This one is written by a prominent historian and deals with a couple of fascinating figures. Sounds promising to me!

God’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley
336 Pages
Available June 1, 2007

“God’s Gold explores the fate of the greatest biblical treasure in history, the central icons of the Jewish faith looted from the Temple of Jerusalem.” Sounds like yet another attempt to convince us that someone has found biblical treasures (or is on the very verge of finding them).

The Political Teachings of Jesus by Tod Lindberg
Pages TBA
Available June 15, 2007

The book’s summary is not yet available. But I think we can probably guess.

The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ by Lee Strobel
288 Pages
Available September 30, 2007

Strobel, an unlikely apologist, will continue his “The Case For…” franchise and evaluate the arguments and evidence being advanced by prominent atheists, liberal theologians, Muslim scholars, and others.

Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger
400 Pages
Available now

The new pope’s first book written as pope. I wonder how many meetings it took to decide whether his name or title would appear more prominently on the cover. Ratzinger says “This book is…my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’”

Protestant Theology at the Crossroads: How to Face the Crucial Tasks for Theology in the Twenty-First Century by Gerhard Sauter
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
188 Pages
Available now

I haven’t heard of the author before but it sounds like it should, by rights, be interesting.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul: A Biography by John Stubbs
W.W. Norton
576 Pages
Available now

Looks like an interesting biography of a fascinating and important figure. This book has already been widely reviewed in major media outlets and has been reviewed positively.

The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Alister E. McGrath and Joanna Collicutt Mcgrath
IVP Books
144 Pages
Available July 30, 2007

Alister and Joanna McGrath take on the grumpy Richard Dawkins and his mega-selling The God Delusion. But will anyone still be reading Dawkins’ book when this one is released?

1-3 John: New Testament Commentary by John MacArthur
Moody Publishers
304 Pages
Available now

The latest entry in MacArthur’s commentary series which is, at long last, nearing completion.

May 18, 2007

This is the fourth and final entry in a series dealing with blogging and the wider societal trends that have contributed to the rise of blogs. This first article is here, the second here and the third here.

I am sure that some people reading this series are interested in beginning a blog of their own. I am not going to get into the nuts and bolts of how to sign up for a blog, but rather want to give you an idea of how you can choose a subject to write about.

I think it is important to realize that we live in a world that is quite a bit different from what it was even five or ten years ago. Allow me to change emphases for just a moment and look to the world of music. Seven years ago the band ‘N Sync released an album, No Strings Attached, that sold 2.5 million copies in its first week. Experts think this may mark a high-water point of the music industry and that this feat will never be equaled. Similarly, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, still the best-selling album of all time, has sold over 100,000,000 copies. No other album comes close and most people within the music industry think this will never be equaled. Stranger things have happened of course (and most of them have happened to Jackson) but it seems that the music industry is changing. In fact, the most recent of the top five best-selling albums of all time was released in 1980. You have to go to somewhere around the 50th best-selling album of all-time to find one that has been released since 2001 (and it’s an album by Eminem, if you have to know). Of course at the same time music has become increasingly popular. While tools like Napster have certainly cost the music industry billions of dollars, album sales continue to flourish. More albums are selling overall, but individual albums are selling in lower volumes. What we see happening is the rise of the niche.

Chris Anderson has written a fascinating book called The Long Tail (see my review) in which he describes this pattern. The Long Tail is a term that refers to a phenomenon you can see in many graphs. I find it very helpful in understanding the blogosphere. The long tail refers to that portion of the graph which skirts the 0 on the x-axis, but which never quite reaches the bottom. Anderson found that products with low demand or low sales volume can collectively make up as great or even greater market share than the few bestsellers. He found this with books, music and nearly everything else that is sold today. Where there are only a few products that make up the left side of the graph, there are a nearly unlimited number that make up the tail. Again, it never quite reaches the 0 mark. Because the Internet gives us unparalleled access to books and music, more and more people are becoming interested in niche products rather than in only the bestsellers. Hence a person browsing music catalogs will find vastly more categories today than in the past. While a few albums may sell millions of copies, millions of albums will sell at least a few copies, combining to eclipse the sales of the bestsellers. And again, the same is true of books and, of course, blogs. Blockbusters are now less important and niches more important.

So today more and more of us are gravitating to that long tail even when it comes to our taste in blogs. The blogosphere as a whole could be mapped to a graph like this, with the Y-axis representing traffic and with each blog occupying a point along the X-axis. There would be 81 million blogs on this graph. Of course we could also extract only Christian blogs and plot them into a graph that would have the same general form. We’d see a handful of blogs that receive a great deal of traffic and then a lot more that receive increasingly fewer visitors. We could then look deeper into the Christian blogs and extract blogs dealing with any number of niches: blogs dealing with homeschooling, stay-at-home moms, preaching, book reviews, and so on. Each of these groupings would, again, have a similar graph.

My counsel to people who are interested in blogging and who wish to have some kind of influence over others, is to join the long tail. In other words, choose a subject which interests you or for which you are particularly gifted, and write about that. Ask where God has gifted you and given you a passion. Those who want to jump immediately to the top-left of the graph are going to run into problems and will only end up disappointed. There is probably not room for most Christian blogs to gain a readership of tens of thousands and, frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever see Christian blogs even begin to parallel the numerical success of the gossip, gadget and political blogs. The long tail necessarily means that within each area a few people will see the bulk of the traffic. However, there is room for as many niche blogs as there are niches. You may not be able to have yourself recognized as an expert in all fields, but you are likely to be able to be an expert in a niche field.

Quite high up on the tail of the Christian blogosphere we see Justin Taylor writing a blog that covers news that is of interest to conservative or Reformed Christians—it is primarily an information blog. A little further down we see Carolyn Mahaney and her daughters writing a successful and influential blog for women interested in learning issues surrounding biblical womanhood. We see Bob Kauflin writing a blog that seeks to help worship leaders and any of us who love and value worship. Further along we see Colin Adams, a pastor in Edinburgh, Scotland, writing a blog targeted at expositors. And on and on it goes. Each of these people have, either deliberately or inadvertently, identified an audience and are now providing content that is interesting and important to these people. With more and more people reading blogs, there are endless opportunities to begin a blog that allows you to be influential in an area that is of particular importance to you.

On a personal note, I would encourage you, and especially if you are not a pastor, to prayerfully seek to understand if you are really suited to this task. The warning of James 3:1 (“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness…”) would seem to apply to the blogosphere as much as anywhere else. A short time ago I was challenged and convicted by this passage and others like it and on that basis approached my pastor and elders and asked them not only to keep me accountable but to challenge me if they felt I was unsuitable to be a teacher. This has become a more immediate concern as I have begun to accept invitations to speak at conferences and in churches. This may not be necessary in all situations, but I certainly felt that it would be a necessity for me. I do hope other bloggers will consider whether having some kind of accountability in place may help them as well and I leave this as a challenge to anyone here that has a blog.

This has been a long series and I’m going to wrap it up. First, though, I would like to say a word about the future of blogs. There are some who are already forecasting the end of the blogosphere. While the blogosphere has seen its share of triumphs, it has also seen more than its share of failures. Many people, and perhaps even the majority, still do not take it seriously. I prefer to call myself a writer than a blogger as there are many times that I’ve seen people’s faces flash just a moment of disbelief or disgust when they’ve heard the word “blog.” I’m looking forward to the publication of my book so I can legitimately call myself an author! I would not be surprised if there comes a time when the word “blog” is forgotten. It is entirely possible. But as long as the Internet exists in its current form we will not see the end of the amateur, of people like myself who enjoy posting online and who feel that, somehow, we can use this medium to impact our lives, the lives of other people, and maybe even the course of history. There are some who compare the rise of the blog as being similar to the invention of the printing press. Time will tell but I doubt that history will draw such a comparison. However, I don’t think the rise of the amateur, even if it only for a brief period, will go unnoticed. And the church needs to prepare herself.

Ultimately, as Christians we want to impact the world for Christ. I am convinced that we can do this through the blogosphere. People from all walks have turned to the blogosphere. Enthusiasts of every conceivable hobby have started blogs to share their enthusiasm and to find like-minded people. This is well and good. But we, as Christians, are called to a higher ideal of using blogs as the means to a greater end. The great challenge for us is that we are going to need to be people who blog not just about God but who blog for God. And those are two radically different tasks.

May 17, 2007

This is the third article in a series dealing with blogging. The first article is available here and the second here. In this series I am discussing not only blogging but also some of the wider societal trends that have led to the blog’s popularity. This is a bit of a long article and I do apologize for its length (which is a tad ironic since in this article I comment on the fact that most people won’t read long blog posts).

As I thought about leading a seminar dealing with this subject I was challenged to think about what the Christian blogosphere is actually accomplishing. How can it justify its existence? Are we, as Christian bloggers, really doing anything that may contribute to the church? When someone writes the history of the church of the 21st century, are there any accomplishments that will look back to the blogosphere? When people speak of the accomplishments of the blogosphere in general, they often point to the John Kerry Swift Boat scandal and how bloggers managed to bring the truth to light when it came to Kerry’s adventures in Cambodia. They may point to Dan Rather who saw the blogosphere mobilize and prove that his team at 60 Minutes 2 had used fraudulent documents as evidence of President Bush’s service record in the National Guard. These stories, and many like them, have proven the value of blogs at least in the political sphere. But what about Christian blogs? It is, of course, too early to tell definitively, but I do think bloggers are playing a valuable role. I’d like to give you five things the Christian blogosphere is doing well—five ways in which it is making a valuable contribution to the Christian church. If you are considering beginning a blog of your own, these are areas you may find your blog can make an immediate contribution.

Community - A short time ago Christianity Today ran an article called “Young, Restless, Reformed” in which they argued that we are seeing a resurgence of Reformed theology in the church today. They showed how men like John Piper, Joshua Harris and the four pastors who organized the Together for the Gospel conference are taking leading roles in recovering Reformed theology in the church. There are many factors that have led to this resurgence, but I am convinced that the Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular have played an important role. Blogs have been invaluable in coordinating the Young, Restless, Reformed movement we see in the church today. One of the oldest successes of the Internet is in bringing unity to people with similar interests. This can be good or bad. The Net has brought together groups of Christians but has also brought together groups of child pornographers as well as enthusiasts of every other seedy and evil interest. Blogs, like bulletin boards before them, are bringing community to people who share common interests. In the case of the Young, Restless, Reformed movement, blogs have united Reformed believers who may have always felt like a minority in their evangelical churches. They may feel isolated by their theology, but by turning to blogs they are able to find others who think like them, who share their passion for the doctrines of grace, and who can become part of their community of friends. There is much more that could be said about this and perhaps some day I will look at this in more detail.

It is perhaps ironic that just as the Reformed resurgence has been promoted through the blogosphere, so has the Emerging Church. While it remains to be seen whether the emerging church will ever be more than a brief footnote in the history of the church, its history will also surely be incomplete if it excludes the role of blogs.

Sanctification - I mentioned earlier that I see blogging as an aspect of my spiritual disciplines. Where five years ago I tended to write my thoughts in a journal, today I write my thoughts on my web site. I may have lost the ability to be as deeply personal as I might like, but I have gained the ability to challenge others with these thoughts and to have others weigh in on them. In return the readers provide the accountability to keep writing and to write content that is both valuable and theologically correct. You would not have to look far to find many other bloggers who will testify that they have benefited in the same way.

Teaching - The blogosphere has proven itself to be a good means of teaching others and when what is taught is consistent with Scripture this is a valuable contribution to the church. The challenge for those of us who write blogs is that blogs are not very credible in most people’s eyes. While people enjoy reading them, they do not trust them in the way they may trust books or sermons and this is usually for good reason. Blogs are also limited by the fact that, where people may read a book of 200 pages, the limit for what people will read on a blog is usually only one or two thousand words. This leaves bloggers having to limit themselves and thus limit the teaching they can successfully bring. For the time being, while the blogosphere can be a good and valuable teaching tool, it is limited in its scope.

Information - The blogosphere is nearly unparalleled in its ability to convey information quickly. This can, of course, be bad. But it can also be very good. In speaking to those who organize major Christian conferences, I’ve been able to confirm something I have suspected for a while now. In the last few years we’ve seen a significant increase in the attendance at Reformed conferences. I am quite sure this has happened because blogs are uniting Christians and stirring excitement about both past and upcoming conferences. When there is information to convey, whether about conferences, prayer requests, sales on books, and so on, the blogosphere is able to mobilize and to get the information out quickly. Publishers and marketers are learning this as evidenced by the number of books, albums, and DVDs they offer to people who will review them on their sites.

Unity - Blogs serve as a great platform to learn about each other, to learn what makes us different and to learn what unites us. I think the blogosphere has been instrumental in bringing together groups that, though united by the gospel, have in the past been divided by finer points of theology. I think Reformed cessationists and Reformed charismatics are a good example of this—groups that once distrusted each other but have lately grown much closer.

So there is lots of good news coming from the blogosphere. I think we are making a valuable contribution and that we can continue to do so as we hurtle towards the future. But there are also areas that require work. What do we need to work on? Here are five areas in which Christian bloggers need to improve. And again, if you already blog or are considering blogging, here is the challenge for us.

Evangelism - The nature of blogs is such that people gravitate to blogs that interest them and away from those that don’t. Thus the best Christian blogs are read primarily by Christians. I have yet to see a blog that has been really successful in any kind of evangelism. If people are only likely to read blogs that interest them, and the hearts of those who are unsaved are opposed to God, it makes sense that they would flee from Christian blogs. And even when unbelievers do show an interest in a Christian blog and leave a comment, they are often quickly bowled over by Christians who are, for some reason, upset when unbelievers act like unbelievers and express unbiblical sentiments. I think that, if Christians are to make a mark in evangelism in this medium, they will have to do what they have always done in society and that is, they will need to filter outwards to blogs dealing with other subjects and try to shine a light there. Rather than beginning a blog dealing with overtly Christian subject matter, they can allow a Christian worldview to inform their efforts to blog about other subjects that are of particular interest to them.

Filtering - One of the drawbacks to the rise of the amateur is that it has led to a dramatic rise in the amount of information available to us. While information is good and valuable, too much of it can become a liability. The signal to noise ratio in our society has gone all out of whack and it is increasingly difficult for us to filter what is garbage from what is valuable. With countless millions of blogs, we could spend our entire lives reading them and still not stay ahead. People need to use care and discernment in ensuring that they do not give undue time and attention to blogs, especially if they do so at the expense of good books or, even more importantly, prayer and Scripture. We can also filter poorly and become too narrow in our reading. Because people gravitate towards blogs that interest them, it is easy to become entranced with only a narrow slice of the Christian experience. For example, Reformed folk could read only Reformed blogs and miss out on other important sites, both by other Christians and by non-Christians.

Control - Because blogs seem to empower the amateur, it is easy to think that just because you can say something, you have to say something. Of course this isn’t true. And even more importantly, Christian bloggers need to learn that just because you can say something this does not mean that you should. What is posted on the Internet is available to the entire world and may be for a good long time. Both those who write blogs and those who read blogs need to exercise caution in how they read and in what they read. The Christian blogosphere has already seen occasions where malicious gossip has been spread like wildfire. We have seen plenty of occasions when false news has spread as well. It may not have been malicious gossip, but it was still false and this led to a lessening of the blogosphere’s credibility. We need to be careful not to abuse this medium.

Replacement - A temptation many bloggers face is to find their most treasured and important relationships in the virtual world of the Web. Too many bloggers ignore the privilege and responsibility of dedicating themselves to finding and forming friendships in the local church. They find their sense of community online rather than face-to-face. There are certain cases where this may be an unfortunate necessity but Christians should largely dedicate more time to real friendships than virtual ones. There are also people who substitute the teaching of the local church for teaching they find on blogs or find elsewhere online and this ignores the ordinary means of grace God has provided in the form of the local church.

Controversy - People who are new to the blogosphere learn very quickly that nothing generates traffic like controversy. This is, really, a rather cutting indictment of both bloggers and those who read blogs. A person who writes a blog that seeks only to dwell on what is true, just, pure and lovely will probably not see his traffic increase as quickly or radically as a person who dwells on what is false or half true, what is scandalous and hurtful. We love controversy and, for some reason, are drawn to it. The challenge to Christian bloggers is to avoid falling into this trap of dwelling on what is controversial and to avoid becoming specialists in discouragement and gossip.

The reason I told you my story to begin this series is simply that this story is not entirely a-typical for this strange new world we live in. Some of the most important figures in the sphere of the political blogs are people who have an interest in politics, but no background in politics. They are not politicians but merely enthusiasts. The same is true of people who write blogs about technology, sports or any other area. And this is the question I bring in this series is this: what does it mean to the church that the little guy, the amateur, can now have a voice and can have a voice that can span the globe? Christians are increasingly heading online to find teaching, daily reading, and fellowship. When they do this, they find teaching that is being provided by the ranks of the amateurs.

If you want to have a book published, you typically have to prove to a publisher and an editor that you have something worth saying-something that is unique and interesting and, in theory, theologically-correct. No book proposal is complete without an examination of similar books and a defense of a new book in a crowded field. When I signed a contract to write my book, I had to sign a statement that I would be consistent with the essential teachings of the Bible as affirmed by the historic stream of orthodox evangelical doctrine. But there were no such guarantees when I began a blog. If you want to be in a position of church leadership you should, again in theory, have to prove to a group of trusted men that you are qualified to take that position of leadership. To begin a blog you only need an email address and the ability to type.

I am convinced that it is not necessarily a bad thing that amateurs are increasingly able to have a voice within the church. However, if we are to help the cause of Christ rather than hinder it, those of us who write must be careful that we are teaching only that which aligns with Scripture. People who read must ensure that they are exceedingly careful with what they read and how they read it. If people are to ensure that they are not led astray by false doctrine, they must be able to exercise spiritual, biblical discernment. This is one of the reasons I felt the burden to write a book on spiritual discernment. With vastly more information available to us than ever before, and with much of this information coming from outside of the context of trusted teachers and the local church, Christians will need to be more discerning then ever as they attempt to filter the good from the bad. I truly feel that spiritual discernment is the real need of our day and that this need will only grow more plain, more critical, as time goes on.

There are some who would seek to downplay the distinction between laity and clergy, between amateurs and professionals within the church. While these people usually have pure motives, it seems clear from Scripture that it is good and right for the church to have both. Of course pastors or theologians are different from other vocations in that they are to share the work of ministry among their people, equipping others to teach, evangelize, lead and do the work of the church. But I think it is valuable to maintain the distinction between those who have been specially called and equipped by God to work in the ministry and those who have been called and equipped to serve elsewhere. I realize that there is not always a perfectly clear distinction between amateurs and professionals in ministry. But bear with me.

All of this begs the question: What can the amateur offer that the professional may not? What is the value in having amateurs begin to gain prominence within the church through blogs? Having considered this, I think we will find there are several benefits.

Perspective - The amateur can offer a ground-level perspective that may be lost by many professional theologians. He can offer a perspective that is different from the perspective of those who are seminary-trained and who are scholars. I have spoken to many pastors and theologians who have bemoaned the fact that their profession leads them to become disconnected from the society around them. The demands on their time forces them to dedicate more time to Christians and their profession and less time to the unbelieving man or woman on the street. The amateur, though, is the person who works in an office from 9 to 5 and then returns home to reflect on his day and the people he has interacted with. He will be specially equipped to understand what people think, how people think, and how we can best share the gospel with them. He will know where the church has opportunities to serve and bless others. He may be able to raise questions or concerns that can be addressed by those with more training and more expertise.

Credibility - While the blogosphere as a whole has struggled with credibility, there are individuals within the blogosphere who have gained a great deal of it. This has been difficult to win but it has proven valuable. Some Christians are intimidated by scholars where they may have greater confidence in the word of someone who is more like them-just an ordinary person and not a brilliant scholar or a prominent theologian. The legitimate understanding that there are both amateurs and clergy within the church leads some people to conclude that doctrine and theology are the realm only of the professional. But as they see the amateur seek hard after God, living out the life of a Christian in a normal setting, they will see that this is the calling of all who believe. So while amateurs do not have more credibility than professionals, they certainly have a different kind of credibility.

Availability - Many of the foremost theologians are unavailable to us. Because of their popularity and the demands on their time, they are unable to make time for most of those who would like to speak with them and get to know them. They minister to people but are unable to follow up with them. Because their audiences tend to be smaller, amateurs may have more time to spend with those who appreciate their ministry; more time to engage with them and interact with them.

I would suggest people in vocational ministry have the opportunity to embrace and support what is happening among amateurs. While they could easily regard amateurs as competition, it would be far better to embrace and support and seek to equip, realizing that this is the new reality, at least for the time being. It is not a development that needs to be feared or squelched. Rather, it can be celebrated and shepherded.

Meanwhile, amateurs should seek to serve humbly, being eager to remain under the duly-appointed authority of their churches and deferring, when necessary, to those with greater expertise.

I will attempt to conclude this series tomorrow.