Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes fame was sometimes targeted for abuse by a bully, Moe. Unfortunately, Calvin’s clever retorts usually came to him hours after Moe’s initial taunts.
I’ve got a parallel situation: a minor instance of woke bullying was directed at me a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t answer as I wished because the bullying happened in a forum I’m not really free to speak in as I might wish—and the best answers didn’t occur to me immediately.
I was posting my announcement of a new Christian podcast, something I and a team of multiple people spent many months producing, and Moe commented in a public forum,
I assume 80% of the episodes will have only white guys around the table, like every other Christian theology podcast?
I’ve seen this sort of thing ten thousand times. But this time, it was personal. I needed to process my thoughts and make an at least internal reply.
Here’s the reply I wish I could have made.
Let me state this forthrightly: you are playing a lazy, cynical, hectoring game in which everybody loses, most of all the people the game was ostensibly designed to help. And I won’t play. Even a number of prominent white liberals have publicly tired of this game (Mark Lilla, Camille Paglia; see also Ross Douthat’s brilliant line about black lesbian sufis). This is a game C.S. Lewis named decades ago as “Bulverism”; that is, finding in someone’s social location or other interests a hidden motivation that supposedly invalidates all their reasoning. In this case: clearly, you had only white guys on your podcast because you are trying to promote the interests of white guys against others’ interests.
Bulverism is as easy as taking gluten-free candy from a Millennial. And it’s hard to answer. A person of good will who has an encounter with a Bulverite feels like he’s just been asked in public, “Have you beaten your wife today?” The question itself is offensive, because it hides inside it an ad hominem charge.
You include a figure in your comment: “80%.” Something objective like that number almost makes it sound like we might be able to find a recognized standard by which to judge appropriate representation of people-who-aren’t-white-males on a theology podcast. But, in fact, I can’t seem to find Bulverites who will produce such a standard. Bulverism, in all my experience, is never satisfied. Those who resort to it have never given me any evidence that they think their opponents can be won over, only derided, defeated, and destroyed. In fact, resorting to Bulverism is itself a declaration that efforts at persuasion have been judged useless or unnecessary. Rhetorical bludgeoning is the only tool left.
So again, Moe, I refuse to play the game. Your comment is wrong; it is sin. This kind of response is an acid that maliciously eats away at the good others try to do without building anything good in its place. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29 ESV) This simple apostolic instruction you have disobeyed.
Let me also make a consequentialist argument—by giving an example of how white liberal fascination with identity politics has hurt the people it was intended (and, I’m willing to say, often sincerely intended) to help. I make this argument precisely because I want to help my neighbor, too! A friend of mine who teaches PhD students in sub-Saharan Africa was complaining to me the other day that when they send their best African students off to the US for training, they’re immediately hired on to teach in US schools because of those schools’ diversity initiatives. Now Africa goes without some of its best and brightest, further cementing advantages already enjoyed by Western Europeans; and certain faculty members enter their teaching careers carrying an extra burden on top of the impostor syndrome that is common across all academia (the feeling many of us have that if our colleagues only knew how ignorant we really were they would laugh us out of the room): they have to labor to rid themselves and others of the idea that they were hired not for their abilities and knowledge but only to pad a melanin-count tally.
What could you do instead of armchair acid-spraying, Moe?
You could give money to support one PhD student in biblical studies or theology from Africa in Africa (or from Asia in Asia or from Latin America in Latin America, etc.). I have a friend who teaches in the former Soviet bloc. He can hook you up, I’m pretty sure.
Better than giving money, you could give yourself. Join an inner-city evangelistic mercy ministry and get firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to overcome the community-wide problems there. Invest in enough individuals, as I have, to have your heart broken at least once over their choices.
Write a kind comment saying, “Thank you for your work on this podcast! Have you ever seen the work of X Person Whose Work I Admire [And Who I Think Could Do To Get More Airtime]? I’d love to hear him/her.” A person of good will, such as I take myself to be, will certainly hear this appeal.
Perhaps you’ve done some of these things, Moe. Perhaps I am misjudging you. Perhaps your comment was made in a moment of wokeness, and you’re not usually like this. Perhaps you had a bad experience today with persons of ill will who jaded you and made you want to lash out (been there, experienced that; my solution? Get off Twitter). Next time we meet in the internet hallway, by the lockers, I urge you to give me a sincere question rather than a shove.
A friend of mine is something of a seeker, entertaining and exploring Christian faith and often apparently inhabiting it—but still struggling in a move from darkness to light. That’s the best way I know how to describe him.
He wrote me an eloquent letter in which he used his training in philosophy to wonder out loud if Christianity is merely a set of Jungian archetypes, a set of myth-making stories that echo something deep in the human psyche that somehow over evolutionary millennia we have found useful. This is the way Jordan Peterson treats the biblical narrative, too.
He couldn’t bring himself to conclude that Jung and Peterson are right, but he had to work through their ideas nonetheless.
Here was my response.
You can play this game of spotting the True Truth underneath the mere stories until you are blue in the face—and blue in the spirit. Who’s to say that the materialist/scientistic viewpoints aren’t equally beholden to archetypes encoded by evolution into the human psyche over millennia? They aren’t “true,” just exceptionally and demonstrably useful for the survival and propagation of the species.
In this “seeing behind the veil of archetypes” view, I think you end up having to say that materialism explains all, that none of our thoughts is reliable, only useful. Whether our internal states (thoughts, ideas, imaginations, beliefs) match the outer world or not we can never know, and it doesn’t matter. We are part of the system; we can’t stand outside it. In fact, nothing “matters.” “Mattering” involves value judgments, and to posit any value is to bridge the unbridgeable gap between “is” and “ought.” There is no oughtness in a world that just is. Make peace with pointlessness, buddy. And whether you do or not is actually solely and completely determined by the immutable laws of cause and effect that generate all your behavior.
I gather that you’ve tried this materialistic approach to life and found it wanting. You affirm clearly and passionately and with a palpable sense of personal relief that there must be a bridge between is and ought. There must be meaning. And I say, along with the Bible, that meaning is something only persons do. If there is meaning and purpose overarching human activity (and gravity and supernovae and animal death, etc., etc.), there must be a God of eternal power and divine nature who is doing all the meaning and purposing we know exists.
In the biblical view, men are adept at—and eager to—suppress these truths about God that they can’t not know. So I’m not at all surprised to see someone as smart as Jordan Peterson (and I do enjoy hearing him; he’s so close to the Truth because he seems to have extra willingness to face culturally uncomfortable truths—perhaps because his work on totalitarianisms made him face undeniable moral truths that provide him an epistemological tonic) damning the Bible with faint praise, as it were. I’ve got a clear, biblical answer to all attempts to make Jesus’ story archetypical rather than actual. It comes from Paul.
He said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19 ESV)
It doesn’t really matter if the story of Buddha “really happened” in space and in time for Buddhism to retain its power as an archetype. But it decidedly matters whether Jesus really incarnated, really died, and really rose again. If the Christ event did not occur, we might as well worship Harry Potter instead. He died and rose again just as much as Christ did—and his books are more entertaining. (By the way, I like Harry Potter!) Or maybe we should worship the trinity of Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Gandalf is the Father archetype, Frodo the Son archetype, and Sam the “Paraclete” Spirit archetype. We could go on and on. All cultures have had their world-making myths.
But Christianity claims to be “True Myth,” to use a phrase from my beloved C.S. Lewis. It is myth, because it is archetypical: the Bible provides a story that orders our reality. But it is true myth, because it all really happened the way the Bible says it did.
So… your final sentence is where I land, too. Things fall apart with Christ, the center cannot hold. In him we live and move and have our being. In him all things cohere. I shouldn’t take the existence of archetypes as a way to relativize Christ: they are precisely what I would expect given the ordered world God gave us. I should instead see alternative archetypes, from Buddha to Bill Nye, as “principalities and powers” that are trying to overturn the True story of our world.
The first season of twelve episodes (four available today; one released per week after this) is focused on how to achieve and promote biblical literacy.
In the first episode, I talk to Kevin Vanhoozer about biblical illiteracy—and I manage to sneak in a reference to Stanley Fish.
Other episodes talk about the story of the Bible, canon, textual criticism, and other topics relevant to biblical literacy. My guests include Vern Poythress, Leland Ryken, Trevin Wax, Wendy Widder, Peter Gurry, and others.
(Just so you know: they didn’t tell me they were doing a photo shoot, and I don’t normally wear hats to work. I’m not that cool.)
I’m almost done with a year-long project writing a BJU Press Bible textbook on biblical worldview for sixth graders. I needed to quote a verse that helps them understand that Christians are called to live lives of practical good works for their neighbors. I turned to Titus 3:14. Here it is in the English Standard Version:
And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.
This comes in a list of short instructions. There isn’t really much immediate context to help us know what this means. It stands more or less on its own.
But I think I get it:
1. Christian people under Titus’ care should be told to dedicate themselves to doing good.
2. They’re supposed to look for cases of urgent need.
3. This way they can avoid being unfruitful.
Got all that?
Now what can you get out of the Elizabethan English of the King James Version? Same verse:
And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful.
1. Who is “ours”? I think this is a little difficult or obscure, but it’s not impossible. The KJV translators are being fastidious here in their literality, a wholly defensible choice. There is no word “people” in the Greek. But, then again, it is clearly implied. It is therefore equally defensible to “add” it. I have little sense (no one alive does) for whether “ours” was natural Koine Greek, or whether Paul could have said, “our people” explicitly. But I have a fairly good sense for what makes for understandable English. The addition of “people”—which all major modern versions make—is clearly helpful and accurate.
If I get past “ours,” I get the rest, though: maintain good works.
2. But what are “necessary uses”? Honestly, I have no idea. I can read Greek, so I can see that this is another literal translation. Sort of. BDAG, the standard Greek-English lexicon, does not list “uses” as one of the glosses for χρεία. The main glosses seem to be “need,” “lack,” or “difficulty.” So I head off to the Oxford English Dictionary to see if “uses” used to mean “needs.” Sure enough, though I had to wade through a seventeen other senses to get to it, sense 18 looks like a good candidate:
But then I just can’t make my mind understand the KJV to be saying what that last 2004 use of use says. I understand that sentence perfectly—“someone…might have great use for a second-hand PC.” But I can’t understand “good works for necessary uses.”
So maybe sense 16 is better?
Hmm. No. The example sentences don’t fit what I think I’m seeing in the KJV. But neither does sense 18. I’m at a loss. I’m not good enough at Elizabethan English to say with certainty what the KJV translators meant here (and, I say humbly, if I’m not good enough, I have to wonder how many other redheaded thirty-somethings in my town are doing any better).
So I don’t know what the KJV translators meant by saying that Christians should “maintain good works for necessary uses,” but I assume based on the Greek and on contemporary translations that they meant they should “devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need.”
3. “That they be not unfruitful” is not the way I would say it today; it’s a bit archaic. But I think I get that just fine. Minimal exposure to KJV English is all I need to understand this phrase.
Repeatedly—not every time, but repeatedly—I come to a verse in the KJV that my gut tells me I can’t quote to sixth graders. They won’t get it. Here, I don’t even get it, so I’m not going to quote it. Edification requires intelligibility (1 Cor 14). So I paraphrased. I missed out on the power that quotation marks provide, indicating as they do that I am citing Scripture quite directly. But I’d rather do that than use words my readers won’t understand.
If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9 ESV)
Other times I toss in explanations or contemporary glosses in brackets, like the following actual examples from the textbook:
…even his eternal power and Godhead [divinity]. (Rom 1:20)
After that, he was seen [by more than] five hundred brethren at once. (1 Cor 15:6)
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18)
That which may be known of God is manifest [clear] in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by [through] the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19–20)
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations [reasonings], and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom 1:21)
This is the first and great[est] commandment. (Matthew 22:38 KJV)
All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed [counted] as nothing: and he [God] doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay [stop] his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:35)
I don’t have very many quotations from the KJV in that book of any length that are without brackets. I refuse to give kids Bible quotations they can’t understand. I’m not against their use of the dictionary, of course. But I am against it when it shouldn’t be necessary, when perfectly good contemporary equivalents are available.
I work for a Christian publisher, and we have made Bibles of various kinds. If you could listen to our internal discussions, you would hear quickly that Crossway sets the standard for Bible publishing. More beautiful typography and more innovative editions have come from Crossway than from any other organization serving the Bible-reading public. The most popular post in the history of my blog is an implicit argument that the ESV’s market share among Bible readers has a lot to do with Crossway’s leadership in beauty and innovation.
Crossway has just come out with four more editions of the English Standard Version, all of them worthwhile and well-executed variations on existing ideas. I say: more makes me merrier. If the market is actually sustaining all these niche editions, that says something good about the market (as long as people are actually using these editions and not just sticking them on shelves—I pray they are).
Let’s take a look at each of the four new ESV editions.
1. The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, with chapter and verse numbers
I have worked to do my small part to encourage the growth in Reader’s Bibles—and in this new set, the story has taken an unexpected turn I wasn’t sure I would welcome: the return of chapter and verse numbers to so-called “Readers” editions.
But then I saw the volumes.
They’re everything they ought to be. You can’t help but delight in the fine craftsmanship on every level, from the elegant type—Trinité, from the same designer (Bram de Does) who made Lexicon, the face that I fell in love with when Crossway used it the ESV Study Bible—to the beautiful cloth bindings and slipcase, the opening of which slopes backwards a bit so volumes can easily be pulled out. They thought of everything.
I recently pulled out my old Zondervan Comparative Study Bible from the late 1990s. I derived much profit from this edition, but looking at it with eyes formed by years of Crossway Bibles is a negative experience. It’s all function, no form—to the point that the forms harm the function. Every verse is its own paragraph; actual paragraphs of meaning are set off by unhelpful pilcrows (¶); the type is banal; and the Bible smells bad. (Okay, it doesn’t actually smell bad.)
Crossway has taught us again what we should already have known from Gutenberg and many others over the centuries: beautiful form is a necessary part of the function the Bible ought to play—in a life, and in a culture. How did we descend to the Comparative Study Bible from this?
Now if I had to choose between having no Bible and having an ugly one, I’d still treasure that ugly one. And we Protestants don’t (or shouldn’t!) reverence the physical object of the Bible the way Muslims revere the Qur’an.
But truth, goodness, and beauty are friends. No—triplets. No—conjoined triplets. They belong together in God’s world. Crossway knows this. (If you’re wondering where the goodness part comes in, and this is not flattery but truth, Crossway also clearly cares about the mission they have. Good News Publishers, which owns Crossway, is a non-profit that started as a man and his wife publishing gospel tracts.)
This Bible is essentially the same as the six-volume Reader’s Bible that I reviewed in 2016; it simply adds the numbers back. Each page is still spare and readable—and I love the artful use of red type for headings and drop caps.
If you want a lifelong reading tool but feel you can’t do without the numbers, this Bible is for you.
2. ESV Illuminated Scripture Journal; Old Testament Set
Once again, beauty is called in to serve its proper role—but this time, beauty is, uh, the conjoined triplet who is determining where the others walk. The hand-lettering in gold ink from Brooklyn artist Dana Tanamachi is nearly overwhelming.
Even more famous international artist Roy G. Biv was asked to provide the colors for the spines of each individual volume.
When you remove the ornate slipcase cover and pull out a volume, you are treated to more ornateness in gold leaf.
You are also treated to an empty page for notes paired with every page of the biblical text. All note-taking pages contain a subtle grid of dots to facilitate neat notes. Some also include a little beautiful design.
Others include an instance of Tanamachi’s hand-lettered verse art. It’s hipster and classic at the same time; I’m hoping that means it will feel fresh thirty years from now, too, but I can’t know that.
The back of the beautiful box offers some suggestions for how these journals might be used. Art journaling, writing prayers, Scripture memory, and—here’s what I would have used them for had they been given to me as a college student—taking sermon notes. I would also have used them for writing down my own notes during personal Bible study.
But here’s why I use “would” instead of “will”: I just can’t see myself using these stupendously attractive little volumes upon which such care has been lavished. I am not a paper note-taker. I was in ye olden dayes. I have reams of notes from the top Bible expositor in all of Bootleg Corner, SC.
But the only sermon notes I ever use today are the ones I took electronically—once I got a little Palm Pilot IIIxe. I do use those notes regularly, because they are easily accessible. They contain lots of great exegetical insights and illustrations. But I lack the energy to access my paper notes. They sit forlornly on a shelf. My one attempt to scan them ended in failure.
So this set of Scripture journals is probably a great gift for a young person entering his or her college or seminary years—someone who has already bucked his or her generation by preferring paper. Such people do exist. They need the ESV Illuminated Scripture Journal Old Testament Set.
3. ESV Scripture Journal Set: New Testament (Hardcover)
This set is more functional, though still quite aesthetically pleasing. There are no illuminations, but, honestly, that makes them feel more like something I would use in church. They’re not too flashy. They look appropriately serious.
The set includes nineteen little journals laid out the same way the OT set is laid out: Bible page on left, elegantly ruled note-taking page on right.
How precious would it be to have all my Ephesians notes from 1997–2002 in one of these little journals?
The paper is thick and nicely opaque; it has a light and creamy color. The binding on these hard-cover journals lies flat. This set is well done, well done.
Let’s be honest here: you probably aren’t going to take detailed notes on the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1–9. The minor prophets are probably not going to get the same attention as the Gospels and Paul’s epistles. This does not mean we have a canon within the canon, that Haggai ceases to carry divine authority. If a minor prophet volume from the ESV OT Scripture Journal falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to read it, it is still God’s Word. And Christian people do hear it.
But different portions of God’s revelation are given for different purposes, and it is appropriate that John 3:16 is more commonly known than Esther 3:2. There are “weightier matters of the law,” and John and Romans are it. New Testament books are also given in genres—especially Gospel and epistle—that compacts a lot of truth into short spaces. The narratives of Genesis can do the same: think Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Genesis 3. But they can also stretch truth out over more pages. Parsing the grammatical niceties of Numbers 3 (Korah’s rebellion) is simply less likely to yield as much truth-per-millimeter than parsing the grammatical niceties of Romans 3. In numbers we parse discourse niceties and are more often to measure truth by the meter.
Upshot: don’t necessarily feel guilty for filling your NT volumes more full of notes than (many of) your OT volumes. Genesis and Psalms and Proverbs may get more notes than other books, and that can be okay. It is possible to neglect the OT, surely, but I think I’ve offered some reasons why fewer notes need not mean that’s what you’re doing.
Don’t feel guilty for buying journals for just the NT, either. They’re really beautiful and useful.
4. ESV New Christian’s Bible
In order to maintain my objectivity, I have to review a new ESV Bible I’m not quite as keen on. The ESV New Christian’s Bible was actually something I was excited about. I’m doing a Bible study through Romans weekly with someone I hope is a new Christian, and I wanted to review this Bible so I could give it to him.
But I was a little underwhelmed. The notes for new Christians feel a little sparse and even desultory. They’re short; they don’t take up much space in an otherwise straightforwardly normal two-column layout. Typography in ESV Bibles is always good, so this hardcover edition is still certainly worth using. But it isn’t anything to write your homeschool about.
The little call-outs cover “core Christian beliefs” such as…
The image of God
The fall into sin
The Ten Commandments
The Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s Supper
Jesus’ death for us
The Holy Spirit
The local church
There are many great translations of the Bible out there into English. I’d be grateful to have even just one of the mainstream evangelical efforts. I do see literal translation in the tradition of the King James as having proven its usefulness. Over many years of weighing more literal translations against less literal ones (the major ones are still all pretty literal), I just can’t pick a “winner”—if “winner” means I have to give up the “loser.” I get value out of all major translations.
But I do tend to see literal translations as a study baseline. If I have to pick a place for people who can read pretty well to start, I’ll pick literal translations. And among those I like the ESV best—precisely because it comes in so many beautiful and useful editions. This is why I encouraged our church (the decision was not precisely up to me) to go for the ESV a few years back: because I wanted to buy into a Bible-publishing ecosystem that would make it as easy as possible for our church people to stumble on useful Bible study aids like the ones I cover in this post.
Disclosure of material connection: UPS made a material connection between Crossway and my residence. I did not buy these Bibles, and when I pulled them out of their boxes I could discern no strings attaching them to my reviews. The only one I would probably buy on my own is the New Christian’s Bible—but I would buy it in order to give it away. I did, in fact, give my review copy away to a new believer. I suppose I could imagine buying any of these four ESVs as gifts for the right person—the OT set for a kid going off to Christian college, the NT set for a young man beginning training for ministry who also liked paper more than pixels. I’m not the market for these beautiful things; I’m too tied to digital workflows. I gave away my previous six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible, too, the one without verse numbers. The paper Bibles I actually use include a nice leather-bound ESV for preaching, a one-volume ESV Reader’s Bible, and a smattering of other editions of other translations that I pick up at random on my way to church sometimes. But when I get there, child often in my lap, I usually end up pulling out Logos on my smartphone. You probably didn’t need to know all that. I hope you are the market for these beautiful Bibles, and that they will assist you in growing in your knowledge of God through his Word.
Disclosure of different material connection:I use Amazon affiliate links on my blog. I buy almost all my books from Amazon, because capitalism.