Losing (and Recapturing) the Point

Relistening to Kevin Vanhoozer’a lectures on theodrama near the tail end of the realization I outlined last post has been like discovering a hundred dollar bill in the pocket of an old coat after a burst of inspiration and momentum persuades you to finally clean out your dusty, decrepit closet. In both instances a settled, joyful resolve to do a thing is a good enough reason for its accomplishment, but when an unforeseen secondary reward plops itself into your lap the initial motivation which was a joyful thing already is surpassed and the entire undertaking takes on a quality of the transcendent.

The same goes for Vanhoozer’s talks on the drama of doctrine, minus the cobwebs and old haggard clothes you shudder to think you once sported as if they were the grooviest threads on planet Earth. I had listened to them before but it was while I was still all too happy to lock myself in the inaccessible tower of pure ideas, loathe to venture out into the sunshine of concrete experience. Vanhoozer’s schema has galvanized my resolve to reorient my entire outlook towards embodying doctrinal truths. In these talks he offers a picture of the church as a divinely commissioned troupe of actors collectively improvising upon the world stage in accordance with its inspired script and the oversight of its three-in-one director. Here was the kick I needed to jolt me awake from my Inception -style dreamland! Application isn’t about one size fits all directions for navigating the tricky terrain of life in the world- it’s about how the individuals that together make up this entity called the church give shape and form to the truths of the Christian faith for all of the world to see. It’s about implementing the doctrines that define our new existence as adopted children of God so that we reflect God’s glory wherever we go. It’s about creative, disciplined improvisation upon the world stage in this, the penultimate act of redemptive history. It’s about persuading the world that is still outside of the new age that has dawned in Jesus of the reality and excellence of his lordship and all that it entails; forgiveness of sins, abundant life, reconciliation with God and with man, authentic belonging to a community, and so on.

This is utterly different from what the word “application” has connoted to me for much of the (admittedly short) time that I have been a Christian. Usually that word conjures up memories of wrongheaded legalistic commands (“‘Be not drunk with wine, in which is excess…’ How much clearer can you be? Under no circumstances ever are you to drink alcohol!”) or good ideas divorced from anything the text being opened has to say (“‘…if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’ Plainly, we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, and when we do we should give generously to the work of the church…”). How could I not get stoked at hearing of this brave new world waiting to be explored?

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple; the buck doesn’t stop at all the bungled Scripture handling I’ve had inflicted upon me. No, the absolutely fundamental thing that I’ve been granted to see is that the  issue of application is only symptomatic of a much deeper problem. This time around these talks indirectly provoked me to scrutinize what it was about doctrine that I found so breathlessly captivating, and the realization that absolutely hung me out to dry is that I have for too long prized doctrine more than I have prized communion with God. That’s an entire galaxy full of heartache to reckon with for a dude who loves theology, but the crystal clarity of the truth is unmistakably transparent.

George Herbert’s poem “The Elixir” contains a glimmering illustration of my dilemma. In the poem’s third stanza Herbert writes,

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy

The glass he speaks of is a window, and as everyone knows, the purpose for any window’s existence is to allow something else to be seen through it. Doctrine exists for essentially the same purpose: allowing us to see God as He really is. Doctrine exists so that communion with the triune God can exist. The problem, of course, is that there are some very pretty windows (and doctrines!) out there that catch our eye. So often guys like me find ourselves captivated by the blasted window and less by what we see through that window! Which doesn’t mean we should smash the windows or disparage their design- after all, the windows are pretty cool! The problem isn’t with the windows, it originates in hearts that love to manufacture stand-ins for God. That’s why guys like me must be vigilant to not so stress the intellectually satisfying aspects of studying doctrine that we lose sight of the magnificent God that the doctrines put on display. That’s been me, and I don’t want it to be anymore. I want to pass through the glass of doctrine to embrace the Lord who stands behind them and enjoy Him with all of my being.

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