Is John Piper popular because he makes Christianity look intelligent? It’s an interesting question — one I certainly didn’t see coming, but one that has now arrived in the inbox from a listener named Gene. “Dear Pastor John, I was recently watching a few atheists online go back and forth, trying to answer the question, ‘Why is John Piper so popular?’ As you can imagine, the interchange proves that none of them really knows you or the gospel you preach. Nevertheless, one point from their comments back and forth did strike me. One of these atheists said, and others quickly agreed, that your popularity is owing to the fact that you make Christianity look intelligent.
“That’s an interesting point. I’m wondering how much you think this is true. I think we can all name ample examples of professing Christians online and on television that do and say really dumb and immature things. But you actually do make Christianity look appealing to the intelligent. What concerns would you have for people who follow you because you make Christianity look smart?”
The first thing to say is that we need clarity on the meaning of popularity. Every listener must be aware after thirty seconds of thought that John Piper is not popular. Because in those thirty seconds, they would surely realize that he is totally unknown to 99.87% of the world’s 7.5 billion people.
And you might say, “Where in the world did you get that number — 99.87? Well, here’s what I did: I speculated wildly. It would be a huge stretch, I think, to say that 10 million people have heard of John Piper. And 10 million is 0.13% of the world’s population. And if you wanted to quibble and be crazy and run that number up to 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 million people who have heard of John Piper, which I think would be absurd, that means that 93% of the world’s population has never heard of John Piper. So let’s make sure we get the picture right here.
Piper is a nonentity for 7.3 billion human beings on this planet. So I’m not popular among those people, and I’d say 7.3 billion is a pretty representative group on the planet. And I’m going to my grave — get this now — I’m going to my grave a global nobody, just like you. And 99.999% of everybody else in the world is going to their grave as a global nobody. And we better get used to it and remind ourselves it is better — oh my, ten million times better — to be known by one person, God Almighty, than to be known by 7.5 billion people. So, that’s the first thing to say, and we better say it loud and clear.
The real question our atheist folks are asking, evidently, is “Why, in this teeny-weeny little evangelical pond, does this fish named Piper get the attention he does?” And they speculate, “Well, it’s because he makes Christianity look intelligent, meaning his audience is gullible. He’s a shyster. Because of course, every atheist knows Christianity is not intelligent.” So, their answer is that evangelicals are fools, and Piper’s a magician. Well, I don’t think evangelicals are fools, and I don’t think I’m a magician.
So, what’s my take on their observation, that I’m able to put the Bible in the black hat and pull out the rabbit of intelligence? And my take is this: The most intelligent person in the universe is not an atheist — he’s God. And he wrote a book called the Bible.
Reality in High Definition
The author of the Bible sees and knows all reality perfectly, understands its makeup and connections flawlessly and completely, evaluates the relative worth of everything with impeccable accuracy in accord with the way reality really is, and arranges it all with infinite wisdom and goodness and justice. And that’s who the author of the Bible is.
Now, suppose I ask, say, a relatively thoughtful ninth-grader, who’s never heard of the Bible, to take that description that I just gave of the author of the Bible: “Okay, go home now, and write me one paragraph that makes sense to you of the kind of book you would expect from an author like that.” I think he would come back with a paragraph something like this:
The book [he says in his ninth-grade twang], would be about reality. And wherever it describes reality, it would do so perfectly. Because the author knows all reality, and he’s good and just, so he’s not going to try to deceive you. He doesn’t have to put everything he knows in the book, I suppose. But what he puts in the book will be true, a true picture of reality. And when the book talks about other parts of reality that the author puts in and describes, the makeup and the connections among all the parts of reality, his description will be flawless. And when he evaluates things in the book, he shows us what they’re really worth. He doesn’t mislead us about what actions and things are valuable, and what are worthless or harmful. And the book would give the wisest description of how everything works, and how everything works together — at least everything that the author includes.
He’d say something like that, this ninth-grader, I think. I would say to the ninth-grader, “Right, me too. That’s what I think the book would be like if it had an author like that.”
Soaked in the Sacred Writings
What would happen if a person, say, who can’t read very fast, and so he’s not very widely read, and doesn’t have a very good memory, and doesn’t even have a television to give him some cultural creds, and has failed to win over some of the people most precious to him — what would happen if he spent fifty years marinating his mind and heart in that book? And while he was soaking his mind in the tub of that book, he was taking every soaked and juicy fragment floating around him, and he would get them in his hands, and he would twist them and squeeze them and pull on them and bite on them and suck on them and press them against each other?
What might happen if he comes up out of that tub, still dripping with truth, and still a bit drunk with the sweetness of it all, and still starstruck by the glories in those fragments he was squeezing, and he stumbles into a pulpit, and starts talking about what he just saw and felt? What might happen?
Well, I’ll tell you what happens: A few thousand people think he’s lost his bearings. And a few thousand people say, “Give me more. Tell me more.” And of those few thousand who want more, I would guess — it’s just a guess — that not one in a hundred say, “I want to hear more because he’s smart.” No, that’s not it. I think they say, “I want to hear more, because when he talks, I meet the author of the book. This poor fellow dripping in front of me is getting smaller, and God is becoming bigger.” That’s my guess.