The online scriptorium of author and pastor Matthew Burden
Reflections on the Christian Life
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
Monday, June 28, 2021
Quote of the Week
"Exercise holy trust in times of great distress. Make it your business to trust God with your life and comforts, and then your heart will be at rest about them."
- John Flavel, a Puritan writer
Monday, June 07, 2021
A Brief Break from Blogging
As my family wraps up school and starts a bit of summer vacation, I'm taking three weeks off from the blog. While I'm hoping for a bit of rest, I'm also going to be plugging away on dissertation research and editing work for my theology book, which I'm trying to get ready for my publisher before the end of July. I'll keep you all updated on my projects as they get closer to their release dates. Regular blog posts will resume here on Monday, June 28.
Friday, June 04, 2021
Why Read the Ancients?
(Note: this piece was originally written as part of a reflection in a seminary assignment, 2007)
Why read the ancients? This is an important question, especially in a world that is printing more books each decade than were produced in all the eras of Western civilization before the twentieth century. With so many fresh resources pouring onto our shelves, why pick up a book that speaks from another time, another culture, and in obscure language? There are a number of compelling answers to this question; so compelling, in fact, that most of the books I now read are at least a hundred years old, and most far older. First and foremost is the fact that readings from other cultures can make us more aware of the “blind spots” and errors of our own time and culture. Second, old books that have remained in wide use must have certain merits to them, which current books may not have. The classical works have proved the test of time, whereas it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in today’s book-glutted market.
The two reasons above would apply to anyone who picks up an old book. For Christians, however, there are even more reasons why they should take up and read the thoughts of ancient and medieval Christians. First, readers will encounter such a breadth of thought and devotion, much of which will be new to them, that heretofore unseen horizons of contemplation and theology will open up for them. And second, the Body of Christ is a unity that extends through time, and the Christians who lived centuries ago are just as much our brothers and sisters as those living now. Since we will be spending eternity with this blessed company of friends, it is to our benefit to get to know them now.
We live in one of the most self-obsessed cultures that the world has ever seen. This occurs on the individual level, with billions upon billions of dollars spent each year to cater to our own particular whims, as well as on the cultural level, in a popular society that seldom attempts to understand other backgrounds or worldviews, either those of our contemporaries or those of the past. This is a generalization, of course, and there are many who stand as exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, the current popular culture is dangerously unable to see beyond the boundaries of its own shallow world. Even those of us who have some cultural awareness and a desire to break through this unfortunate blindness are trapped to some extent, limited by the unconscious perceptions of our culture. The great value of reading the ancients is that they will be speaking from a culture with different blind spots than our own. We will be able to see their weaknesses more clearly than they could, but they will also be able to speak to our weaknesses in ways that we are unable to.
It is worth noting that we, of all the generations of Western civilization, are the first to openly flaunt our disregard for the past and to act as if the great thoughts of history have no relevance for us. In fact, in a society that worships “newness” as something meritorious in and of itself, the mere act of reading an old book is to take a stand of cultural defiance. Reading history and the classics is as good a way (or perhaps even better) of understanding the current American cultural crisis as by reading most of the contemporary books published on the subject.
Christians especially can benefit from reading the ancients, because the same Holy Spirit who works in our churches now was also working in those earlier ages, and his messages to the church (and through the church) are always worth knowing. We in evangelicalism are as much strictured by tradition as anyone else, and our interpretations of Scripture—and of the way the Gospel ought to be lived—are determined by a rather narrow set of (often unconscious) boundaries. Exposure to other traditions can open up new possibilities, never before considered, as to how the Christian life can be lived more fully as a disciple of Christ. Reading the ancients gives us a window into the early church, a glimpse of the way that the people closest to Jesus and the apostles understood the message that had been handed down to them. And while evangelicals often appeal to the example of the early church, there are some intriguing and inspiring surprises in the world of the early fathers (such as Ignatius’ vigorous defense of ecclesiastic hierarchy). If we only read the works of our contemporary evangelical brethren, we will never be truly stretched out of our comfort zone, never stop to consider that the way God interacts with his people might be bigger than the tidy boxes we construct.
Thursday, June 03, 2021
Heroes of the Faith: Elisabeth Elliot
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” - Romans 10:13-15
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. - Colossians 3:13-14
1954 – While engaged in ministry among the Quechua, they begin hearing stories about a much-feared tribe, the Huaorani (called Auca, “savage,” by other groups), deeper in the jungle. The Huaorani were unreached by the Gospel and had no contact with the outside world. They lived with a Stone Age level of technology, and were known to kill any outside intruders to their territory on sight. Jim and Elisabeth, together with some other missionary partners, begin to plan a mission to the Huaorani.
1955 – Jim and Elisabeth have a baby, Valerie. Meanwhile, Jim and the other men on the Huaorani mission team (Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully) begin to lay the groundwork for their mission contact. They learn some Huaorani greetings and shout them out during flyovers of Huaorani villages; they also drop parcels of gifts down to the villages.
1956 – On January 2, the five missionaries make their first attempt at face-to-face contact, landing their plane on a strip of sand by a river near Huaorani territory. They have a promising first contact meeting with two Huaorani women and one man who come out of the jungle to investigate. But the next meeting does not go well: a band of armed Huaorani warriors emerge and spear all five men to death. Their bodies are discovered several days later.
1956-1957 – Instead of giving up and going home, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint (sister to the martyred missionary Nate Saint) stay on in Ecuador, and they study the Huaorani language with the help of a young refugee from the tribe, Dayuma.
1958 – With her three-year-old daughter in tow, Elisabeth goes to live with the tribe who killed her husband. She ends up living with the very same Huaorani family that had attacked Jim and the others on the beach, and eventually gets to see them converted to Christianity. She and Rachel spend the next few years translating the Bible into the Huaorani language.
Nate Saint: “I would rather die now than live a life of oblivious ease in so sick a world.”
Elisabeth Elliot: “You are loved with an everlasting love. That’s what the Bible says. And underneath are the everlasting arms.” (With these three sentences, she began every single daily broadcast of her radio program.)
“The will of God is never exactly what you expect it to be. It may seem to be much worse, but in the end it’s going to be a lot better and a lot bigger.”
“When you don’t know what to do next, just do the thing in front of you.”
“I have one desire now – to live a life of reckless abandon for the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it.”