I picked up this book on the effusive recommendation of Alan Jacobs. At first I thought I might tire of it: though I felt sympathy for a fatherless boy, I confess to my shame that that sympathy did not extend to listening to him moon to his dad about the absence of his dad.
But something happened in the emotional tenor of the book: by making his efforts to recover a father an effort to also recover a sense of nation and people (both of which I take for granted), Dougherty succeeded in sounding not whiny but hopeful. And when he turned his penetrating gaze and his grand prose back on America, he saw something I needed to see again:
Mass media was my primary teacher growing up. And it taught me and my friends how to conform with one another. It slipped under the table to me a lesson that sincerity is a kind of weakness. That it will be used against me. And that any sentiment at all, anything that could expose you to the danger of ridicule or the genuine possession of an emotion, should be double- and triple-Saran-wrapped in irony. I suppose we do this for safety somehow, as if unwrapped passion itself is so flammable, it would consume our little worlds at the instant we exposed it to open air. (180)
I immediately saw myself. A few of my own convictions are things that embarrass me in polite Christian company, and the mocking I took to be healthy self-deprecation I now see as ironic self-distancing and self-protection. I will change, by God’s grace.
Dougherty shows that the Irish nationalists of yesteryear, who gave their lives in a revolt they had to know would fail, have been mocked by today’s ironic self-distancers. But they had something real we lack, something that ought to quicken the heart. In a day when even snuggling with your children is justified by the terms of technocratic capitalism—”Reading to Kids Increases their Net Worth by $127,350 by age 40″—we need to recover the idea that life gives us better values than money. That sounds almost like pablum as I summarize it, but it wasn’t in Dougherty’s hands: he successfully conveyed a sense of longing for the Irish nation without in any way trying to exclude others. In the day of the alt-right, it’s considered dangerous to praise and defend the values of one’s nation. Nations are ersatz realities, political creations, power grabs—we Saran-wrap ourselves from feeling any pride in star-spangled banners or Irish tri-colours. But it shouldn’t be. Distinctive cultures have distinctive gifts of God (and distinctive sins), and those gifts are worth preserving. And the neat thing about American nationhood is that it was designed to incorporate huddled masses yearning to breathe free. This vision doesn’t have to focus on exclusion.
Dougherty focused a good deal on the revisionist approaches to the Irish nationalist story. And I found his comments on that revisionism helpful:
Let’s grant for a moment that we are all revisionists now. That we all retell stories in light of our motives. The next question would be: What are your motives?… If we want noble things in life, we will pull those noble things out of our history and experience. If we are cynics, we will see plenty of justification for our cynicism. (48)
I’m a conservative Protestant Christian, and I’m not going to distance myself from critiquing one theme in the book that I didn’t quite understand. Dougherty seems to be critical of an American culture which, in his youth, placed a stigma on the single-parent status of his mother. Widows get support that single moms don’t get, he said. They made their bed with a man they weren’t married to; now they must lie in it even after he is gone. My heart does go out to Dougherty’s deceased mother, who died lonely and afflicted. It’s true that I place more blame on his father, who never should have fathered a child with a woman to whom he was not married (his later efforts to maintain connection with his son are nonetheless noted and appreciated—he was far better than many men). But the woman made a choice, too, and it affected her and her son for decades afterwards. Illicit sex does this. Our culture for the last fifty years has tried to wink at premarital sex and nudge it on everyone, but this is what happens when people have sex without being married: pain. It isn’t strait-laced primness that causes me to oppose premarital sex, but love for God (who gave us the gift of sex) and for people.
This book is blurbed by J.D. Vance, of whose work it made me think. Oh how I wish that more of the fatherless boys I knew in long ministry on the wrong side of the tracks would turn out to be as thoughtful and successful as Vance and Dougherty. Most fatherlessness never gets an eloquent plea for attention. Those of us who take fathers for granted should read these books to increase our gratitude—and our determination to be faithful in love to our own children.
Back in April of 2008, I was a PhD student in the beginning stages of my dissertation work, I was engaged to be married in a month to a beautiful woman from Ohio, and there were a bunch of black-suit-clad KJV-Only protesters out in front of my school, Bob Jones University.
One of them held a sign saying,
BJU HAS LEFT THE GOD AND BIBLE OF BOB JONES SR
Another garish sign had a URL at the bottom: axetotheroot.com. The site is now defunct, but you can see it on the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive. It used classic KJV-Only graphic design principles (red and yellow text on black, all-caps, animated gifs of flames, etc.); but it did have a working contact form. I sent a message in.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think the gist was that the charge of apostasy they had made against my alma mater was a serious one, and that I wanted to talk about it with someone from their organization who was my age.
I got a reply, and it was courteous. One protestor was willing to talk with me, and he was indeed my age. We agreed to meet the very next day. He was attending a small KJV-Only Bible college in a nearby state. But it turns out he had a sister who was attending BJU, and he was going to come to visit her.
I had a theory: these were regenerated but misguided people I was dealing with, and the bold and frankly nasty claims they were making on their signs about our alleged apostasy were things they would not be able to say if they sat across a table from me.
So we did just that, for several hours. I and my contact—we’ll call him Nick—actually found we agreed on some important matters. We didn’t like manipulative revivalistic practices in preaching; we didn’t like easy-believism; we felt it was important to see Christ in the Old Testament. But he had a cynical view of BJU. It really bothered him, for example, that one of our counseling professors had apparently said, “You’re only as godly as you are rested.” He felt that undercut the importance of all-night prayer meetings. BJU, in his view, had gone soft.
As I recall, I purposefully avoided talking about the KJV at the beginning of our conversation, because I knew things would fall apart if we did. Nick was KJV-CAPITAL-ONLY. The topic, of course, did come up—but only after we’d established some common ground. There was no common ground on the KJV. My memory serves up one image from that conversation: me and Nick walking across the bridge on front campus, him gesticulating passionately as he repeated to me all the talking points from the KJV-Only canon. I now realize that he’d done some reading in one of the most careful exponents of the TR/KJV view, E.F. Hills, whose work at that time I had not read (I’m going through it now, in fact). But back then I just knew that I was having trouble getting words in edgewise. It was clear to me that it was time for the conversation to be over.
We had two email conversations after that, Gmail tells me. Later in 2008 I proposed a book swap. I sent him Piper’s The Pleasures of God, and he was supposed to send me something he felt I needed to read. That all came to nothing. (He did send my book back, however.) But, again, he was courteous. I congratulated him on his upcoming marriage, and he spoke to me like a human being and not a heretic. I’d made the only progress I’d hoped for.
In 2010 we had a longer email correspondence about the KJV. He was insistent that any textual critical viewpoint which failed to yield 100% certainty was stepping onto a slippery slope toward unbelief. He said,
I ran across a quote a few days ago from Spurgeon that said, “The latest carnival of unbelief does not so much completely deny the Word of God as much as raise questions as to the legitimacy of certain portions of it.”
I did something I rarely do: I ultimately just let his last email hang. Again I saw there was no appealing to him on the KJV.
I did pray for him from time to time, and I emailed him in 2017 to invite him to read Authorized in manuscript. I didn’t hear back. I figured the story was over.
* * *
Fast forward. Today, eleven years after I met Nick and nine years after I last heard from him, I received this email, which I share with his permission.
As I write this we are in the waiting room of a children’s hospital waiting for more information on our baby’s heart condition. We are expecting number four in May.
I’m not sure if you remember me, but we met a number of years ago at BJU when my brothers attended there. We had a lengthy conversation about many things, especially the KJV-only issue and street preaching. All I remember about the conversation then and in others to follow is your graciousness and desire to engage brothers on the other side by actually understanding someone else’s position (with a few mild rebukes). It had an impact.
One of the differences between us then was you had read the other side thoroughly and I had not. To make a long story a little shorter, a lot has changed since then. I praise God for the zeal and emphasis on prayer of many IFBs that influenced me, but I also thank God for the measured wisdom and discretion of many others who helped me to see the dangerous cult-like fallacies of so many of my early mentors.
There have been a lot of factors involved in my abandonment of KJV-onlyism (James White’s book was the biggest), Scofield dispensationalism, and a host of other things; but the biggest driver was a dissatisfaction with the very narrow scope of fellowship—and a point you made in one of our email conversations a while back. I can’t remember your exact wording, but the gist of it was that the very nature of the position makes godly, spiritually mature people on the other side into heretics and deniers of Scripture—not to mention the fact that it doesn’t allow for interacting with other viewpoints. I would add that the emphasis on externals and rigorous defense of a sixteenth-century Elizabethan translation masks the glaring absence of accountability and discipleship.
There is a lot more that could be said, but maybe we can touch base sometime and catch up more. I saw you were in what looks like Washington now—state or D.C.? Current family size? We are in [a U.S. state] on a small homestead and I am currently a property manager and a member of a great Reformed Baptist church.
I said all that to say this: your efforts and patience with me were not in vain. I highly appreciate all your efforts to reach out even though I may not have welcomed them at the time.
KJV-Only brothers can be appealed to. It’s worth the time to reach out to individuals —and here are some strategies. Christ’s sheep are precious. Wouldn’t you want someone to make a loving appeal to you if you were caught in doctrinal error?
I’m truly rejoicing over this. I have regained a brother. Nick read over my post above and kindly corrected a few of my own misconceptions.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)
But I’m hearing that a number of friends, even close ones, haven’t seen it yet.
Hey, it’s okay. I normally don’t watch documentaries with redheaded presenters either.
But apparently hair-color discrimination is not the reason otherwise interested parties are staying away. I’m hearing that they just don’t want to go to the trouble of signing up for the 14-day free trial. They bail when they see a credit card form.
Let me tell you why you should unbail. It really is pretty simple. Just two reasons:
If you read this blog on purpose, you will like the Authorized documentary. I’m not saying the film is any good; I’m saying that if you like By Faith We Understand, you can’t not like the same thing documentarized. If you like stuff like this; that’s on you. But remember: there are jokes in it. It’s equal parts info- and -tainment. I keep getting notes from people who have gone to the trouble of signing up who say (this is a direct quote): “I expected to see interviews and hear supporting arguments discussed in an intellectual, logical manner. What I didn’t expect was all the humor and creative pieces that were used that made the video very interesting, entertaining, and engaging.”
There really is a lot of great stuff on Faithlife TV. My family loves Torchlighters, the kids’ cartoon series from Voice of the Martyrs. It’s really special. We’ve also enjoyed a series of Christian nature shows, the excellent and informative Fragments of Truth documentary, Josh Harris’ recent “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye” documentary (which I 98% recommend—just one interviewee weirded me out), Bible Agent 7, and all those old releases from Unusual Films I forgot I hadn’t seen in so many years. My kids also beg me to show the Bible Project videos for family devotions, and those are on FaithlifeTV, too. It’s not Netflix, okay? But there really are some gems, particularly if you, like me, are always in search of something that will entertain and edify at the same time.
I have some reason to believe that my film is doing good for the body of Christ, and I’d love to hear what you thought about it—and not just praise. I want to do more of this kind of thing, and I’m more than open to critique, especially from friends and readers.
I spoke at my second BibleTech Conference in Seattle this past week, and it was an enjoyable time. I’m afraid I made the mistake of putting in three paper topics, assuming the organizers would pick one. They picked three. And I did a Q&A for Authorized. And I interviewed two Bible translator nerds for a new podcast, still under wraps. =) Busy time. Loved connecting with new people and having the chance to talk at leisure with coworkers. You should come—and put in a paper topic—next time.
Here are quick run-downs of the three talks I gave.
1. Visualizing Textual Critical Data for English-Speaking Laypersons: Lessons from KJVParallelBible.org
What are the most fruitful ways we as Bible software creators can tag Scripture for meaning and not just form, beyond the ones that have already been done?
What are the best ways we can make this tagging useful and accessible to those who should be searching for meaning in a Bible software world in which everyone is used to searching instead for forms?
I gave real-life examples from Logos, such as the recent need I had to find out how the KJV translators translated λέγω (lego, “I say”) when it is a historical present. Tagging for meaning (historical present) and not just form (historical present) is what enabled me to do this work.
In this session I was mainly tossing out examples and hoping that we together could come up with good ideas for the future. I was not disappointed. Participants (mostly but not only fellow Faithlifers!) did a great job with this.
3. A Media Ecology of Bible Software
I really poured time into this one, and the night before I gave it I had a fun talk with a group that included our CEO, Bob Pritchett. He said a number of things that stimulated me to do some rewriting. He’s super thoughtful, and quicker on his feet than nearly anyone else I know. Here’s an audio recording for my blog reader.
My Favorite Sessions
The sessions I enjoyed the most were those by Jen Miles and Stephen Smith, though others were of course great!
Jen is a friend and coworker, and the one thing that most stood out to me in a uniformly excellent talk (based on her D.Min. research) was that careful surveys place half of Americans at “basic” literacy or lower. Only 13% are “proficient.”
Stephen Smith was hilarious, and he categorized very helpfully the kinds of topics that people search for in the Bible. Fascinating (and a little scary). He works for Bible Gateway. He also told us about a super-cool project he’s working on, the Expanded Bible. This would be a fantastic tool for teaching people about the number of minor (and the few major) decisions that go into Bible translation.
I got my own best laugh during the Q&A after the Authorized documentary showing. A new friend asked, “Do you think we’ll ever again have ‘one ring to rule them all’? One Bible translation that the great majority of English speakers use?”
I said, “Yes. The Lexham English Bible.”
And just think of the possibilities. Some day we’ll have LEB-Only people—LEBOs. I can’t wait.
At the Shepherds Conference two weeks ago, standing at the Lexham table all day, I got to hear multiple stories of what the Lord is doing with the book. I came away rejoicing each evening.
I also just heard that the companion documentary has been nominated for “Most Creative Documentary” at the International Christian Film Festival. It is by no means clear it will win: it’s a crowded field. But in the much smaller “Best Bible Nerd Documentary Featuring a Redheaded Presenter” category, Pacific Northwest division, I think I’ve got an okay chance.
UPDATE: I accurately represented what I was told, but apparently somewhere above my head the decision was changed. Authorized remains $5.99. I think this is awesome, because it helps me get my message out to more people!
I put in three talk proposals for the Bible Tech Conference, thinking that they’d accept one. They accepted all three. So I’ve been busy using precious free time (and, okay, a little work time around the edges!) in the last few months preparing those talks, and I hope you’ll come.
Visualizing Textual Critical Data for English-Speaking Laypersons: Lessons from KJVParallelBible.org. I will officially launch the complete version of this site at this conference, along with a projected accompanying article at a big blog—I’m excited!
A Media Ecology of Bible Software. This has been the focus of my prep time, because I’ve been wanting to dig into this for a while, and BibleTech is the place to do it. I’m going to talk not only about what Bible software gives us—we all know that, and marketing departments everywhere are highly focused on communicating those benefits over and over; I’m also going to talk about what Bible software takes away from us. How do I, an employee of Faithlife, plan to do that? Treading carefully, I can tell you. And I’ll give a spoiler: in the end my point will be not that we should take a step back from Bible software (I won’t, and can’t) but that we should both design and use it with an awareness of what possibilities it precludes.
Tagging Meaning, Not Just Form. Logos does this so well, and yet it’s a bit hard to explain until you use it. I’ll talk about present realities and (hopefully) future possibilities in this space.
Before I came to Faithlife as an employee, before I even knew that was a possibility, I was asked to give my Why Bible Typography Matters lecture there in 2015. It really was great. I made one lasting friendship and several other professional connections. Come to the beautiful Cedarbrook lodge, and get ready for extreme Bible nerdiness.
Use the code FAITH and you’ll get a little discount, I’m told.