Tag Archives: Truth

A Whale-Sized Lesson for Preachers

JonahThere now came a lull in [Father Mapple’s] look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself.

But again he leaned over towards the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:

“Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet- ‘out of the belly of hell’- when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ‘vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;’ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean- Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!

He drooped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,- “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him- a far, far upward, and inward delight- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,- top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath- O Father!- chiefly known to me by Thy rod- mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

Herman Melville (1819-91), Moby Dick, Chapter IX, “The Sermon.”

Photo: Jim LePage 


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Confession: Liberation through Truth


Confess your sins to one another… – James 5:16

Those who remain alone with their evil are left utterly alone… For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner.  Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community.  We are not allowed to be sinners.  Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious.  So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.

However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth.  It says to us, you sinner, a great, unholy sinner.  Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you.  For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you – a sacrifice, a good deed – but rather desiring you alone.  God has come to you to make the sinner blessed.  Rejoice!  This message is liberation through truth.  You cannot hide from God.  The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God.  God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you.  You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin.  You are allowed to be a sinner.  Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.

Christ became our brother in the flesh in order that we might believe in him.  In Christ, the love of God came to the sinner.  In the presence of Christ human beings were allowed to be sinners, and only in this way could they be helped.  Every pretense came to an end in Christ’s presence.  This was the truth of the gospel in Jesus Christ: the misery of the sinner and the mercy of God.  The community of faith in Christ was to live in this truth.  That is why Jesus gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in Christ’s name. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

When he did that, Christ made us into the community of faith, and in that community Christ made the other Christian to be grace for us.  Now each stands in Christ’s place.  In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend.  In another Christian’s presence I am permitted to be the sinner that I am, for there alone in all the world the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ rule.  Christ became our brother in order in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us in the power and authority of Christ’s commandment.  Other Christians stand before us as a sign of God’s truth and grace.  They have been given to us to help us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), Life Together, 108-9.

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The West Has Lost Its Clothes

In the past, Western society was held together by three sinews: tradition, authority, and power. To change the image, these were the garments that covered Western society, and without them it has become indecent. Of these three, tradition might have been the first to go, although it went hand in hand with authority. Tradition is the process whereby one generation inducts its successor into its accumulated wisdom, lore, and values. The family once served as the chief conduit for this transmission, but the family is now collapsing, not merely because of divorce but as a result of affluence and the innovations of a technological age. In a video-saturated culture in which, to play on Auden’s lines, “anguish comes by cable, / And the deadly sins can be bought in tins / With instructions on the label,” film and television now provide the sorts of values that were once provided by the family. And public education, which used to be another conduit for such value, has also contracted out of this business, pleading that it has an obligation to be value-neutral. So it is that in the new civilization that is emerging, children are lifted away from the older values like anchorless boats on a rising tide.

At the same time, society finds that it can no longer recognize appeals to authority, for any transcendent realm in which these appeals might be lodged has vanished from sight. This is evident in many contexts – in art, literature, philosophy, politics – but a single pattern is common to them all. First, the Christian theism on which Western societies were built was replaced by idealism of one kind or another. This idealism still had a transcendent interest, but it was no longer theistic. Then the idealism collapsed during the nineteenth century. Initially it was replaced by a kind of humanism that was elevated in its ethical and aesthetic interests,” but as such it had no durable conceptual base, and so it fell apart. In the political arena it gave way to various totalitarianisms – on the left to Lenin and Marx, and on the right to Hitler and Mussolini. These have now passed, but the moral vacuum they filled for a time remains, not only in politics but in many other aspects of life as well.

The three tendons have thus been reduced. Tradition and authority have been severed; only power remains. It is power alone that must direct our corporate life, power severed from a moral order that might contain and correct it and from the values of the past that might inform it. In a strange testimony to this inner vacuum, the profession of law has risen to such prominence in America that 70 percent of all the lawyers in the world practice here. In the absence of moral obligation and a sense of what is right, disputes are extraordinarily difficult to resolve, and so the set of rules that has emerged under the law must take on duties that were once shouldered by a variety of other institutions – the family, the schools, the church. Now we are left with only the lawyers. It is a terrible thing, Solzhenitsyn said, to live in a society (such as that in the former Soviet Union) where there is no law; it is also a terrible thing to live in a society (such as that in America) where there are only lawyers….

In the nineteenth century in particular, there were numerous attempts to establish a system of morals that did not need to assume the existence of God and his revelation. These experiments were all conducted by a small avant-garde made up of philosophers, novelists, and artists. What has changed is that now the whole of society has become avant-garde. It is the whole of society that is now engaged in this massive experiment to do what no other major civilization has done – to rebuild itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations. And the bottom line of this endeavor is that truth in any absolute sense has gone. Truth, like life, is fractured. Like experience, it is disjointed. Like our perceptions of ourselves, it is uncertain. It takes on different appearances as we move between the small units of meaning that make up our social experience. Like our manners, it must be adapted to each context and it must remain flexible. It is simply a type of etiquette. It has no authority, no sense of rightness, because it can no longer find any anchorage in anything absolute. If it persuades, it does so because our experience has given it its persuasive power -but tomorrow our experience might be different….

Not surprisingly, these developments in the modern world have produced what Berger calls a “plausibility crisis” for Christian faith.’ It is his assumption that Christian belief, like any other kind of belief involving a worldview, needs a set of social relations, a structure of relationships, in which that worldview is seen to “make sense.” It is this external network that authenticates the internal belief. The problem facing Christians today is that this network, this structure of relationships, has been profoundly undermined. Outside is a world that ignores what is most important to Christians and that is in fact now organizing itself on the basis of that rejection. Within the larger society, secularism seems natural because its context gives it plausibility; within that same society, Christian faith seems odd, and the context strips it of truthfulness. The bias of our experience in the modern world tilts heavily against a perception that the Christian faith is true and equally heavily toward a perception that secularism is true.

David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, 84-7.


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Digging the Mines of God’s Providence

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine (354-430), On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina christiana), II.60.

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