Reformation Day arrives again, and once again, the anniversary will be mostly ignored. Instead, the day will be dominated by goblins, jack-o’-lanterns, and the free distribution of edible earwax, also called candy corn.
But seriously, this was an especially tough year to be a dead white guy. This year, vandals desecrated the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland — not once but twice. In March, feminist activists spray-painted the wall with the question “Where are the women?” And then in mid-July, the statues of Calvin, Farel, Beza, and Knox were baptized in gallons of bright paints, a rainbow of colors, in what appears to have been a public protest against “bigots” out of step with pro-gay culture.
And in June, a prominent evangelical voice in the States came out to suggest that Reformed folks read dead white guys because they have daddy issues and because they’re evading personal critique — retreating into books by Spurgeon, Calvin, and Luther — calling readers of these guys “little boys with father wounds looking for spiritual fathers” who “pick dead guys who are not going to actually get to know them or correct them.” Wow. So dead white guys have fallen on hard times, Pastor John. Should we stop reading them?
Well, talking about celebrating these guys gives me a chance to say something just by way of preface. It is possible to celebrate people, whether dead or alive, out of proportion with their importance. You might over-celebrate somebody, or you might under-celebrate somebody.
So, when we use the word celebrate, it gives me the chance to simply say this: The sins of our fathers — not to mention their finiteness, their culture limitations, their personal idiosyncrasies — should cause our celebrations to have a kind of chastened enthusiasm. That’s my new phrase: chastened enthusiasm. Otherwise, we make the mistake like the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1, which in recent days was so helpful to me to think about.
“The sins of our fathers should cause our celebrations to have a kind of chastened enthusiasm.”
They were saying, “I’m with Paul,” “I’m with Apollos,” “I’m with Cephas,” in such a way that Paul had to say, “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Corinthians 1:12–13). Now that’s a very telling phrase. Their enthusiasm was so out of proportion with reality that they were giving the impression, in some way, that their teachers were starting to take the place of Christ, because Paul said, “Was Paul crucified for you?” That’s just by way of preface: we need a chastened enthusiasm for all human teachers and heroes.
Now here’s my response to those two criticisms you raised. First, yes, they are gloriously out of step with contemporary culture. That includes both secular American culture and the largely white evangelical culture, with its love affair with human self-determination and so-called free will, its entertainment mentality, its downplaying of the importance of doctrine, its normalization of comfort and ease and wealth in the neglect of holiness and sacrifice and justice, its marginalization of the majesty and sovereignty of God, and so on and so on. Yes! Yes, they are gloriously out of step with contemporary church and secular culture.
Second, no, I don’t think that ten thousand younger and older men who read Calvin and Owen and Edwards and Spurgeon are “boys with father wounds who are looking for spiritual fathers” and “pick dead guys who won’t actually get to know them or correct them.” I mean that is so off-the-charts not the experience of reading these guys.
In fact, I would say that to the degree that father hunger figures in to our motives — and I’m saying our. I’m 73. I’m not a young, restless, Reformed guy anymore. I’ve been reading these guys for 50 years, since I was 23 years old. And I think it generally works the other way around, namely, we or they — people who are reading all these old dead white guys — taste the greatness of what it means to be fathered by those who lovingly blow our cherished idols to smithereens.
Travel a Few Centuries
Now let me expand on each of those two observations. With regard to the first, the fact that old dead writers from another century are out of step with our times is why you read them, not why you don’t read them. Those of us who care about ethnic diversity and harmony and justice should see this especially: crossing the boundaries (say of three centuries) into the past is a greater cultural stretch than crossing the boundaries to other ethnicities in America in our time.
In other words, it’s not as though men from the eighteenth or seventeenth or sixteenth centuries — let alone an African from the fifth century, like Augustine — are culturally or temperamentally or presuppositionally close to us. They aren’t. They are more alien to us in all these ways than virtually all of our American contemporaries, whatever ethnicity. That’s one reason they are valuable. And remember I’m saying this with a chastened enthusiasm.
Here’s what C.S. Lewis said. He was very crucial on this issue about reading people outside your own century. He said, “We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century” — we would now say the twenty-first century — “concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt.” And we might say something about which there is untroubled agreement between the grandmaster of the KKK and Bernie Sanders. “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books” (“On the Reading of Old Books,” 202). So I think, yes, keep on reading those outside your century. Get back three hundred years and cross all those cultural barriers, and it will be good for us.
Precious, Painful Tutor
Here’s my response in a fuller way to that second issue. It’s grasping at straws to suggest that what’s motivating ten thousand young men to read Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon is that they are desiring to find a father figure who won’t convict them of their sins and errors. I was 22 years old when I met the real Jonathan Edwards, not just the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards. I read Edwards nonstop through seminary and grad school. I recall reading Edwards’s Freedom of the Will during seminary. And I remember my whole theological scaffolding — and I had a big personal investment in it, just like we all do — collapsing, and I remember weeping. I would go home to my desk, put one elbow on each side of the Bible, and weep — cry with confusion.
And I recall sitting in a rocking chair in Germany, a few years later, in the evenings reading, for the first time, Edwards’s Religious Affections as my proud heart was laid bare, layer after layer, by his chapter on evangelical humiliation. I think that chapter, from 250 years ago, did a deeper work of conviction in my heart than I can ever recall any other living or dead source doing on me.
So believe me, I have not stayed with Edwards because he has been easy on me. No one has been harder on John Piper and his ego and his ways than Jonathan Edwards. And for those that are hard on him today because of his failures, I just pray that they will have this same precious, painful experience.
How to Read the Right Books
Let’s recognize that our choice of books is conditioned by our cultural, our social, our ecclesiastical, and our temperamental position in life. Let’s recognize that and strive to minimize the blinding effects of provincialism.
“Read anybody if the book causes you to reverence and glorify the triune God more fully.”
And I would say to all of us: Set yourself biblical goals in what you read. Decide ahead of time what the biblical goals in reading a book are. Why am I reading this book? Which I think would mean something like this: Read anybody in any time period, of any ethnicity, of either sex, of any country, including reading the devil — and I say that because in 2 Corinthians 12, God makes the devil serve my sanctification.
Read anybody if — and here’s the big if that’s probably going to rule out the devil, but not necessarily — the book causes you to
- reverence and glorify the triune God more fully,
- love Jesus Christ more passionately,
- trust your heavenly Father more consistently,
- walk by the Spirit more dependently,
- live in greater holiness of heart and mind and hand,
- cherish brothers and sisters in Christ more affectionately,
- love your enemies with greater willingness to sacrifice,
- work more courageously for justice,
- stand more unashamedly for all the countercultural teachings of the infallible Bible to the right or to the left,
- hope more fully in the coming of Christ,
- and press on more urgently for the completion of the Great Commission.
If a book is doing those things, I don’t care who wrote it. Read that book. Read the books that help you along in that kind of pursuit.