jonathan edwards

Admitting Defeat to C.S. Lewis

It’s natural to not want to admit that a book is too hard for me. But it’s happened more than a few times. About a year ago I picked up Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and was lost. Completely lost. And humbled. In opening this book I came toe-to-toe with America’s greatest theologian and was ready to throw the white flag after about 10 pages.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis just did the same thing to me, with his book, The Abolition of Man. But for a very different reason. An amazing reason.

Usually “difficult” books are difficult to understand because their arguments aren’t clear. The author is smart, but they reduce the accessibility their argument with layered prose. This kind of difficult book might be brilliant, but it’s difficult to get that brilliance into your hands. It takes sifting and thinking and annotating to bring the idea up to the surface. It’s lurking there, between the lines. That’s what makes them frustrating reads: it’s hard to know that their ideas are.

Lewis isn’t like that at all. He’s easy to understand. But his ideas are hard. His presentation is crystal clear. But his content is thick. He does the heavy lifting for you by bring the idea up out of the water. In The Abolition of Man he does this frequently. If you read it, you’ll see him using metaphors all the time to make (extra) sure that the reader knows what he means.

Which makes me all the more frustrated/humbled. After reading The Abolition of Man almost twice, I still can’t put his own argument into words. Lewis essentially handed me the idea, I took a look at it, and realized, “hmmm… here it is. I don’t understand it.” While I’m reading the book, I just barely know what he’s saying. But as soon as I put it down and try to process it all on my own, I’m lost.

If you’re curious, the book is Lewis’ defense of objective morality. He argues that moral values really do exist outside the people that experience them, and that these moral values don’t simply depend on the cultures they show up in. What he calls the tao is this grand set of standards that all people somehow know.

And that’s about all I can tell you.

I wonder if anyone else has ever had this experience with a book. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read one of Lewis’ more philosophical works. Take a hack at The Abolition of Man. Or his book Miracles.

I’d be interested if you have any similar experiences. Leave me a note in the comments if you have.

Things I’ve learned from Jonathan Edwards

CC Image courtesy of R Babson & J Andrews on Wikipedia

CC Image courtesy of R Babson & J Andrews on Wikipedia

About a week ago I finished listening to a free audiobook: A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden. You can still get it for free. All you have to do is sign up for Christian Audio’s monthly newsletter which tells you about their free book for that month. It’s a pretty awesome deal.

Before the audiobook, I was only familiar with Jonathan Edwards through the preaching of John Piper. If you listen to more than 5 sermons of his, you’re probably going to hear about the huge impact Edwards has had on Piper’s life. (While we’re on the subject here’s a link to some of Piper’s best sermons. Check them out!)

Enough introduction. Here’s a few things I learned about life and ministry from Marsden’s biography of Edwards:

1. A good biography helps you understand the world the person lived in – not just the person.

I was surprised – and a little annoyed – when the first chapter finished and I’d been told as much about Benjamin Franklin’s life as Jonathan Edwards’. But as I kept listening, I realized that you can’t really understand what this person was about (what were their ideals? their convictions? why did they do the things they did?) unless you have a clear picture of their social, familial, political, and ecclesiastical situation. Most of Edwards’ works were written because people around him were crying out for explanations.

One of his more well known works, Religious Affections, was written to explain the difference between people stirring up their own emotions in revivals, and people genuinely stirred by the Holy Spirit. His work addresses the question, “what are the true marks of conversion? And can these marks be as dramatic as they appeared in revivals?” You only get a sense of the significance of this work when you’re aware of what was happening all around him.

2. A good minister (pastor, elder, whatever) is aware of the culture he’s been placed in, and is able to respond to it.

I always thought of Edwards as a towering theologian of the 17th century. He certainly is that. But I never realized how dirty his hands were. This man spent hundreds, probably thousands, of hours trying to make sense of the muddy, earthy issues of his day. He got down on his hands and knees, metaphorically, so that he could truly come to terms with things like empiricism (he interacted with John Locke a lot) and retreating social standards of sexuality and propriety (he had to publicly address adultery and fornication many times).

This was a pastor who had his eyes set on heaven and earth. He may have believed that the entire created order was designed for the glory of God, but this belief never lifted him from the created order. He knew he was in it, and resolved to deal with the issues in as godly a way as possible.

3. Self-discipline is worth the work.

People close to Edwards give us an idea of what his study habits were like. Most days he would work in his study for 12 hours. 12 hours. Half the day.

When I heard that I wasn’t sure if I should feel impressed or concerned (for his family). Although he had a wonderful marriage, and good relationships with his children, it’s evident that they were strained because of his devotion to study. His family paid the price for his productivity.

So here’s what I think we can take away from his incredible work ethic: know that each day is a gift from God and ought to be used accordingly. I hate the way I waste hours on facebook and buzzfeed. It’s bad stewardship of my time. And it’s completely, totally profitless. Oh, that we would daily resolve to use each hour in worthwhile pursuits! What a change that would be for me. Edwards example has challenged my divided attention to work towards that end.

Conclusion

Get the book! Give up your radio stations for a little while, and devote your morning/evening commute to learning from this man. Even if you disagree with some of his beliefs, I’m convinced that you’ll find a great deal of common ground and grow as a Christian.

Free Jonathan Edwards Audiobook

This month only, christianaudio.com is giving away free audiobook copies of George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards biography. Simply follow the link at the bottom of the post, sign up for their monthly newsletter, and you get a free audiobook. Pretty simple.

Marsden is considered by many contemporary historians as our century’s premier Edwards biographer. In Justin Taylor‘s recent series of biography recommendations, Marsden’s larger work on Jonathan Edwards has been listed 6 times. For such a small field of study, that says a lot.

While the larger work is over 600 pages, this audiobook is based on the shorter 176 page version. That’s good news for reading featherweights like me (maybe you too).

Get it free here: http://christianaudio.com/free/?utm_source=ProdPage&utm_medium=420Banner&utm_campaign=CAfreeaudio