Terminal insomnia

“There is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race.”–I. Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers

For the last several years, I have suffered periodically from terminal insomnia. That’s a scary name, isn’t it? A better one is “early rise” insomnia. I simply wake up too early. Today it was 4 a.m.

As I’ve gotten older–older, not old, mind you–I have lost the ability to sleep in; making it past 6 a.m. is a rare and notable achievement. I also seem to rarely be able to sleep more than six hours. That might sound good enough, but living in a tropical climate with extreme temperatures I find I need closer to eight. I almost never get it. I’ve always been a morning person, so I can get a lot of work done in the morning and enjoy doing so, but many days by 1 p.m. I’m washed out. In recent months I’ve started to take naps in the afternoon; thankfully my schedule allows it, and while I’m not particularly good at sleeping during the day either, even 10 or 20 minutes helps me recover the rest of the day. (Today, unfortunately, is one of those days when I will not have the opportunity.)

The bad thing about this type of insomnia is that there is precious little that can be done about it. I have no difficulties falling asleep at night, so most of the advice for the more common type on insomnia doesn’t apply. Last night I just couldn’t stay up and was out before 10, which pretty much guaranteed the early rise. There’s no medication for this sort of thing, and I wouldn’t want to try sleeping pills anyway. I don’t have caffeine after 6 a.m. (not a typo). On days I’m not too exhausted I exercise, which helps some, but mostly it seems to increase my overall sleep requirement.

My insomnia seems to be connected with intense, vivid dreams. This is a constant thing practically every night, and all the members of my family have reported the same thing as long as we have lived in our present city. (When we travel to a different city, the dreams lose their intensity and frequency.) I remember last night’s quite well; it was so stupid. I was managing a radio station, overseeing a program expansion, juggling budgets and personalities. Okay, so I know why I was dreaming about budgets, but otherwise it was so pointless. I woke up at 3, fell back asleep uneasily and dreamt some more until I woke again, fully alert, at 4. This is a very typical pattern.

So, that’s why I’m able to write and get a post up before 5 a.m. I will now scurry around and try to get some work done before the rest of my family and the sun rise, then hope and pray that I can get through a rather busy Thursday.

Web freebies: November 2013 edition

One of my mottos is, “Cheap is good; free is better.” Thankfully there are tons of free theological resources on the internet; basically anything that’s old enough to be in the public domain someone has scanned or otherwise put into an electronic format and posted. Also, some journals make their content available after a certain amount of time has gone by. Things like that and more.

However, not everything that is free is free forever. Lately I’ve been finding good limited time deals on material that’s normally charged for. It’s too bad I wasn’t blogging last month. SAGE Publications had all of their journals open for the entire month. Normally they’re really pricey, like $20 for a single article. This was a tremendous gift; they have some really good academic journals.

There are two good freebies going on now through the end of the month (or almost). The first offer is access to 14 philosophical and theological journals put out by Maney Publishing. Quite frankly few of these journals interest me all that much, certainly not in comparison to SAGE, but I haven’t gone through all of them yet. Black Theology seems the best of the bunch so far. (This offer is good through November 29.)

Also, Crossway Books is giving away the online edition of the ESV Study Bible. You have to set up an account and give a shipping address, but it unlocks the content for free. The way the promotion is worded, it’s not clear if the content is available for free only through the 30th or if that is just the deadline for signing up for it. My impression is the latter.

Book notes: Wright and the intermediate state

As mentioned below, I’m presently rereading The Resurrection of the Son of God
by N. T. Wright. The main subject, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus, but while going through the first 200 pages, I’ve learned a few things about the intermediate state—the state of existence between death and the resurrection.

For quite a while now I’ve had problems with popular Christians notions of the intermediate state. Too many versions of the faith have an unhealthy focus on it—almost like, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to hurry up and die so that I can go to heaven!” Reading the New Testament, I don’t see that as the focus of salvation at all. It’s about being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in the present life and the transformation it brings, and the future hope of the Christian is the complete transformation of the entire person, body and soul, in the renewal of all things that is yet to come. The Bible itself tells us very little about the intermediate state between the two—the Old Testament says hardly anything at all, and the New reveals little more. Yes, it’s probably there in 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23, but Paul doesn’t explain at all what “at home with the Lord” means or is like. Our sermons, books, and tracts of heaven almost invariably grab and (mis)use resurrection passages to fill in the missing details.

In an early part of this book, Wright examines ancient Greek beliefs about life after death. By and large they believed that the soul lives on apart from the body; resurrection was impossible to them. From Plato onwards, many longed for the release of death, which freed the soul from the prison of its body. Wright explains Plato’s belief:

[D]eath is not something to regret, but something to be welcomed. It is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body. (48)

For Plato, the soul is the non-material aspect of a human being, and is the aspect that really matters. Bodily life is full of delusion and danger; the soul is to be cultivated in the present both for its own sake and because its future happiness will depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and will continue to exist after the body is gone….Because the soul is this sort of thing, it not only survives the death of the body but is delighted to do so. If it had known earlier where its real interests lay it would have been longing for this very moment. It will now flourish in a new way, released from the prison that had hitherto enslaved it. Its new environment will be just what it should have wanted. Popular opinion would attempt to bring the dead back if that were possible, but this would be a mistake. Death is frequently defined precisely in terms of the separation of soul and body, seen as something to be desired.

Hades, in other words, is not a place of gloom, but (in principle at least) of delight. It is not terrifying, as so many ordinary people believe, but offers a range of pleasing activities—of which philosophical discourse may be among the chief, not surprisingly since attention to such matters is the best way, during the present time, of preparing the soul for its future. The reason people do not return from Hades is that life is so good there; they want to stay, rather than to return to the world of space, time and matter. (49)

To my ears, popular Christian focus on the intermediate state (“He’s in a better place now!”; “You are/have a soul; you live in a body”) sounds far more like this description of Plato (excepting, of course, his belief in the pre-existence of the soul) than anything I read in the Bible. Wright’s section here confirms what I had already surmised: so much of the folk piety that has been handed down to us, at least in this area, is far more Greek philosophical than biblical.

Further on, however (and this is the new thing for me), Wright shook away a fair portion of my skepticism about the intermediate state. As I noted above, there’s almost nothing in the Old Testament about it and only shadows in the New. I have difficult reading much of this tradition back into it; I think it has distorted a lot of our understanding of soteriology. Yet, the biblical silence is not the only factor that should be taken into account. As is well known, Jewish belief in the resurrection grew during the intertestamental period. What I was not so aware of was how belief in an intermediate state, of life after death before the resurrection, grew alongside it. After documenting it copiously, Wright summarizes:

Likewise, any Jew who believed in resurrection, from Daniel to the Pharisees and beyond, naturally believed also in an intermediate state in which some kind of personal identity was guaranteed between physical death and the physical re-embodiment of resurrection. This, too, is a form of ‘immortality’. Unless we were to suppose that ‘resurrection’ denoted some kind of newly embodied existence into which one went immediately upon death—and there is no evidence that any Jews of this period believed in such a thing—it is clear that some kind of ongoing existence is assumed. (164)

This widespread belief in the future resurrection naturally generated a belief in an intermediate state. There were different ways of expressing this: it could even sometimes look fleetingly like a hellenistic, perhaps Platonic, theory of a continuing soul, without (as has often been suggested) strain or contradiction. ‘Resurrection’ entails some kind of belief in continuing post-mortem existence; this need not mean a belief that all humans have an immortal soul in the Platonic sense, since the belief in YHWH as creator which is necessary for belief in resurrection is also a sufficient explanation for the dead being held in some kind of continuing existence, by divine power rather than in virtue of something inalienable in their own being. (203)

In this light, the New Testament’s relative silence about this doctrine becomes easier to handle. Some form of intermediate state—whatever exactly that might be; the details aren’t so important—for the righteous was widely believed by the Jews of Jesus and Paul’s time. It went hand in hand with belief in the resurrection, the unique eschatology of the Jewish people. It is therefore relatively safe to assume that it also stands in the background of Jesus and Paul’s preaching even though not explicitly mentioned or explained in any depth; they never denounce the idea, and the veiled hints of texts such as 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23 are perfectly congruous with the theological reasoning outlined here by Wright. Although Christian eschatological hope is focused on the future resurrection of the body, I’ve generally inferred that some form of conscious intermediate existence is necessary as part of the promise of eternal life (John 3.16). Wright’s study here demonstrates the appropriateness of that belief while proving that it’s not necessary to import the change of focus and all the additional beliefs of folk piety that feel more philosophical than biblical.

Dr. House’s bookshelf: November 2013 edition

I usually have at least two to three theology or biblical studies books going at the same time. The first is a core book in my discipline, systematic theology, which I read on my computer for easy note taking and quoting, as continuing education. The second is a “phone book” I read on my phone, more for fun and (relatively) casual interest and so that I’ll never be stuck somewhere waiting without something to do. The third (and so on) will be on dead tree, for when I’m not wired or my phone is charging, and usually related to something I’m working on. These days I usually read 1,000 to 2,000 pages in theology books each month, which does not count journal articles, class selections, or non-theological books. (Lately I’ve been a little obsessive about measuring these sort of things.)

(Nothing about lupus. It’s never lupus.)

My present core book in systematics is the second volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (4 Volume Set). Bavinck is an important Dutch theologian from the turn of the (20th) century, recently translated into English. His is a very thorough but relatively advanced work; for example, the chapter on the Trinity, which is where I’m presently at, is probably the most detailed and comprehensive I’ve come across in a systematics of the “survey of doctrines” type. It reminds me of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which I see as the most useful (which is not at all the same thing as “best”; it’s not) one-volume systematics. Bavinck is like Berkhof on steroids, though the direction of authorial inspiration is the other way around (Berkhof owes a lot to Bavinck.) Bavinck is better too.

Continuing my N. T. Wright kick, my “phone book” is his The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3). I’ve read this one before on dead tree. I’m reading it again for 1) enjoyment) and 2) to review its ideas now that I’ve completed the first two volumes in the series and am eagerly awaiting the new fourth volume. Wright’s presentation of the rock of Christian belief is exceedingly thorough; “unabridged” or “exhaustive” might be better descriptors. Wright’s case against the opposition’s viewpoint is utterly devastating. Whatever faults he may have (fewer than many), all is forgiven for the greatness of this work.

Both of these I’m reading on Logos via reading plans; I think I’m scheduled to complete them by the end of the year.

Over a short trip this weekend, I just read on dead tree the very brief Christ the Center by (kind of) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. About it I don’t know what to say; it was rather different than I expected. It mostly a survey of the traditional doctrine of the person of Christ from Bonhoeffer’s unique but thoroughly Lutheran perspective. This work was a reconstruction from the notes of students who attended his lecture; his original notes are not extant, and the final part of the series was never given. With Bonhoeffer, one always has to think: what if?

Next up on dead tree is Bread Not Stone by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. I’ve already read her vital work, In Memory of Her. She’s sharp as a tack and definitely makes you think.

On my personal Bible reading, as the year winds down I’m winding up a lengthy reading program. I’m going through my once-a-decade reading of the apocrypha, presently in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), in the NRSV. To keep it real, I’m also reading the Gospels in the ESV with an eye to evaluating Wright’s thesis against them (in other words: is Wright right?) For next year I want to do something different but am not totally sure what yet. I recently got an English translation of the Septuagint and might give that a go.

Strange phenomena and the ministry of the Holy Spirit

Related to the topic at hand—the charismatic movement and its criticism—I have a story that is interesting, at least to me. I don’t want to give all the details, partially to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent, partially because long blog posts don’t get read.

During a time of major transition in my life and ministry, I was invited to attend a conference held by a small apostolic “network” (we say “network” now because “denominations” are bad, mkay?) in a Southeast Asian country. The attendance was about evenly split between Asians, mostly Indian and Chinese, and Westerners, mostly Americans.

Seeing this was an apostolic network, the head apostle started it off by introducing himself:

Some people are apostles and prophets.

Some people are apostles and evangelists.

Some people are apostles and pastors.

Some people are apostles and teachers.

I am an apostle and a drunk.

That statement set the tone for the whole conference and put me off of it from the start. The main emphasis of the meetings was on spiritual phenomena—falling down, shaking, and what is called “spiritual drunkenness.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. That’s what these people were all about. (That, and networking.) These are the sort of thing John MacArthur means by “strange fire.”

And a lot of phenomena took place. People spontaneously twitched, trembled, and fell down. Ministry time consisted of the leaders of the network—all Americans—laying hands on people and praying for them until they fell over. A lot of people spent considerable time on the floor.

Here’s the thing: those who experienced the phenomena were all Westerners or American-returned Asians. The local Asians didn’t.

For example, people took turns introducing themselves at the microphone. The Asians would get up and quickly say whatever they needed to and be done. The Westerners would start trembling the moment they touched the microphone and soon be on the floor. During prayer time, again, the Westerners would quickly fall as soon as they were touched. The Asians—again, unless American-returned—had to be pushed—and pushed they were. (As for me: I allowed myself to be prayed for but was determined not to let anyone push me over. The night before the conference I picked up numerous bad mosquito bites right in the center of my forehead. Boy, did it ever hurt when they started pushing on it!)

What gives here? Why did only certain ethnic groups experience the phenomena? If you think they come from the Holy Spirit, then was God being racist? If you think they are from, um, someone else, why did that someone only attack the white people?

How about a third answer? I would suggest that most of these phenomena are from neither God nor the devil but are learned (human) behaviors. People fell down not because God or the devil knocked them over but because they wanted to (excepting those who were successfully pushed over). Also, culture plays a big role: Americans tend to be emotionally exuberant, sometimes to the point of mania, especially when overseas. Asians, by contrast, are generally more reserved.

I have seen and felt some unusual things in my time as a Christian. I have seen people fall in connection with true healings. Once, after the service was over and you’d think everything would be quiet, a warmth and energy flooded the front of a church, and multiple people were knocked to their knees. Although such experiences have never been a routine part of Christian practice, they are not without historical precedent (see: “enthusiasm”), and I think you can find some indicators of them in the Bible as well. Now is not the time to go into such things, however.

I think a lot of what occurs today in the renewal movement is an attempt to reproduce such experiences. Good things happened when these phenomena took place, therefore if we recreate the conditions in which these occured by replicating the phenomena, the good things will also happen again. (This, I firmly believe, explains a lot of the current “worship” movement.) One time when the Holy Spirit “showed up,” people fell down; therefore, they should fall down again if He is really there.

These practices can be both harmless and harmful. Harmless, because they represent a genuine, psychospiritual response (religious feeling/Gefühl?) to the word and work of God. A woman living in an oppressive situation, for example, may look forward to a Friday night revival service. In response to prayer, she has an ecstatic experience, falling to the floor. There she feels rest and peace, the most she’s had all week, and is renewed in her knowledge that whatever else is going on, God loves her. Much could be said about this, but if it gives her a better life and makes her a better Christian, who has the right to judge it? Moreover, who can confidently conclude that God can’t (always a dangerous phrase) work in, through, and over such a human experience? (I am not a monergist.)

Harmful, for several reasons. Openness to spiritual experiences may lead to putting God in another kind of box; that God did something once may lead to an expectation that it must always happen that. People confuse phenomena for spiritual gifts or, worse, the Holy Spirit himself. A manufactured spirituality is about as good as it sounds, and the routinization of manifestations can open the door to charlatans and all sorts of abuse. The whole idea of the “spiritual drunkenness,” mentioned above, as a good thing is utter nonsense. A failure by charismatic leadership to discern and discipline abuses can lead many people to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject the renewal movement altogether (see again: MacArthur). Openness and patience are necessary, but as is said, we need to keep the main thing the main thing, and falling down isn’t it.

A closing note on my Southeast Asian conference: had I known in advance what it was going to be like, I probably wouldn’t have attended. (On other hand, free ticket!) I remember almost nothing that was said there except for one teaching by the “drunk apostle.” Quite soberly, he explained a simple, reflective exercise for finding God’s will for your life and invited us to go through it. I spent some time in prayer by myself, thinking over the questions he raised. At that point I was going through a major time of transition and really didn’t know what to do with my life. In completing that exercise, I began to get answers, and I felt as though God were giving me a new plan and direction for my life.

I’ve been following that plan and direction ever since. That exercise was what led me to realize my calling to theological education and ministerial training. Although it has not always been easy, it has been good to know what I am to do to my life. All credit and thanks goes to the Holy Spirit, but he used that drunk apostle to communicate to me.

And that’s why I don’t rush to judge my brothers and sisters, even when they’re nutty.

John MacArthur’s Strange Fire

Okay, being conflict-averse I don’t normally involve myself publicly in controversy on the internet, but I’ll start this blog off by wading into one: my take on John MacArthur and his Strange Fire book and conference. I’ve not read the book or viewed the conference, but essentially he’s made a renewed attack on the charismatic and Pentecostal movement for false teachings (i.e., heresy). Most of the criticism leveled at MacArthur has concerned his lumping together of the entire renewal movement with the excesses at its fringes. This has been a major topic all over the conservative protestant internets; an overview of the matter can be seen here, for instance.

To be honest, I’ve not been interested in MacArthur since his earlier work on the same subject, Charismatic Chaos. I find the cessationist argument extremely weak biblically and theologically; ultimately, it’s really based just on (a lack of) experience. There are so many good books I want to read by people I disagree with that I don’t want to waste my time on bad books by people I disagree with.

Moreover, such heat over this particular issue seems so… 1990’s. I can understand a cessationist writing a book or preaching a sermon on this, but an entire conference to attack a doctrine or Christian movement seems overkill in this post-denominational age. (What’s next? A conference against infant baptism? Amillennialism? Congregational church government?) Where I’m at, living and working with people from many different theological and denominational backgrounds, even if they don’t claim particular spiritual gifts, everybody believes that God still answers prayer and the Spirit of God still moves today. Everybody prays for the sick to be healed, and sometimes it happens. In my book, that’s kind of being a charismatic. (At the very least, everyone steals our music. Absolutely everyone.)

While its core beliefs are quite solid, I would never say that the renewal movement does not need introspection and criticism. Far from it. A common response to MacArthur’s criticism has been to stress that the Word of Faith movement (i.e., television Christianity) has only a minor influence and should not be seen as that characteristic of the broader movement. No, actually it is very widespread and influential, and it needs to be addressed more directly and frequently by the more orthodox sections. (Pastors, do you know what your church members are watching?)

Critiquing the theology of television Christianity is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel with a hand grenade. I don’t watch it (for many of the same reasons I don’t read authors like MacArthur), but some of it that I have been exposed to is so alien to what I understand Christianity to be that it is almost unrecognizable. I cannot square the “prosperity gospel” with the Jesus who said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Faith is good and should be positive, but the extremes to which many preach the idea of the “positive confession” is far from Scriptural. (In fact, this teaching actually does not originate with the historical Pentecostal movement but some of the esoteric “mind science” groups like Christian Science.) While not Pelagian in their teaching of salvation—like all good Protestants they teach that people are saved only by believing in Jesus—many popular preachers are thoroughly Pelagian in their teaching of sanctification and the Christian life: whatever God is going to do for you is totally up to you doing the right things. Worse, some of the founders of the Word of Faith movement have made statements regarding core Christian beliefs about God and Jesus that are nothing but heretical.

That said, on the rare occasions I catch moments of some of the popular names associated with this movement, I encounter none of the above. Most of the time, most preach positive, practical messages of how to live the Christian life and be more faithful to God that are not at all harmful. Would I like to hear more and better theology come from them? Oh yes. More accountability and less showmanship? Definitely. Correction of aberrant practices and careless teachings? Absolutely. On the main, though, I think most should be judged (yeah, judging: it’s something we all do and technically part of my job description as a theologian) by the overall good that their work produces (the same probably should be said of MacArthur) rather than more obscure, cherry-picked statements that put in the worst possible light people who are, bluntly, not at all theologically minded (unfortunately the same cannot be said of MacArthur and his more reckless claims.)

Good. That’s that, then—hugs all around, right? Not quite; let me turn the pointing finger around. Others have rightly pointed out the problems and dangers of MacArthur’s particular brand of cessationism, which arises from a severe misunderstanding of the purpose of spiritual gifts in the Bible and why God performs the miraculous. I have further issues with those like him, the self-appointed, ahistorical neo-Calvinist judges (as opposed to historical Calvinist theologians, many of whom, if not in agreement I am on good terms with) of who is and is not a Christian today. (To see their activities, just search the internet a little bit.)

This neo-Calvinist (as in young, restless, and reformed) inquisition holds the following beliefs that contradict the Bible and the Christian faith as understood by the vast majority of churches and believers throughout its entire history:

  • That God does not love everyone (contra John 3.16)
  • That God does not desire all to be saved (1 Tim. 2.4)
  • That Jesus did not die for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2)

These errors are being presented as “the Gospel, and nothing else,” the true “doctrines of grace,” which the rest of the Christian church lacks. Discernment is needed here, too: how are the areas of charismatic belief that are commonly attacked any worse? We give these a pass because they are associated with a (small, minority) historical tradition and “good Bible teachers.” In reality, they represent a major internal threat to contemporary preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they need to be called out for it.

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A note on comments and documentation: Writing a blog is something I do in my leisure, and as time=work=money & other responsibilities, there are real limits as to how thorough a blog post can be. I will elaborate more on this later, but in general I don’t have the time to give voluminous citations to backup every claim that I make, and often they would be from offline sources anyway. All the topics mentioned here I have addressed, at least tangentially, in my Master’s and Doctoral thesis. If you have any questions about the veracity of my statements, please make an effort to investigate them first. Thanks!