Wide Angle Radio (Episode Six): Phil's Jagged Heart
The Perspicuity of a Good Poem

Why We Know It Was Winter

untitled While the authenticity of Scripture is attested to in many ways, one of the more ubiquitous and remarkable qualities it has for me is its particularity, its deep rootedness in space and time and in its mediation through human agency. By the later I mean that God did not simply dictate the words of Scripture to a scribe who faithfully wrote them down, but used human authors --- with their own particular personalities and in their own social and historical context --- to write what God intended (actually, superintended) to reveal of Himself. I don’t know if mediated is quite the right word. Patrick Henry Reardon uses the word fermented, meaning that each author of Scripture is like a fermenting agent bringing a distinctive flavor and consistency to Scripture, binding it to a real person. It is so easy to forget this self-evident fact about the nature of Scripture, reducing it to abstractions, and yet when particular time- and space-bound phrases leap off the page at you, you’re brought up short: these are real people in a real place at a real time. I laugh. Of course that’s what I believe, but that nefarious Purveyor of Abstractions (Satan) majors in high-sounding religious maxims, knowing that divorced from the really real, abstractions are more malleable and dispensable. They are not tied down.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday I was reading the Gospel of John, the most abstract of the Gospel accounts. In John 10: 1-18 Jesus introduced two rich metaphors, referring to himself as both the “shepherd” and “door” (or “gate”) and to believers as “sheep.” But beyond these visual images, things that are real and help tie down the analogies Jesus is drawing, the whole passage is sandwiched between the healing of a man born blind (a real man, in a real place, a man who grew testy under examination by the Pharisees, saying “I told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” And then, tongue in cheek, saying “Do you want to become his disciples?”) And then immediately after this discourse, verse 22 picks up with “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter.” Not summer, but winter. As far as I can tell there is no reason for the existence of the phrase “It was winter” other than to tie us to space and time. This Book is so good about that.

If you think this so self-evident that there is no reason to speak of it, I appeal to Francis Schaeffer, missionary to Europe, founder of L’Abri. Picture him in a hayloft next to his home in the Alps in 1955, Chalet Bijou, pacing back and forth, the wood boards creaking under his feet, the hay swishing, cow bells clanging from the fields nearby, re-examining the very basis for his faith and concluding, ultimately, that the truth of Scripture was the only thing that made sense of reality. When he later preaches on what he learned, and then writes it down in True Spirituality, over and over and over he makes the point that Scripture is rooted in space and time. He did it, of course, to counter liberal theology, an emasculated view of God which used all the same words like incarnation and resurrection but had long sense ripped the words out of the reality of space and time --- planting, as Schaeffer said, “one foot firmly in the air.” And yet it’s not just an argument against liberalism. It’s personal. You have the sense that the knickered, bearded man is simply in wonder at a story that is really real, that really happened --- in a particular place, at a particular time. It was winter (in Jerusalem). A sassy former blind man now cast out of the synagogue has taken up with Jesus, the man who put mud (real mud) on his eyes and spit on him and now he sees.

Forgive me for waxing on about such self-evident matters. I feel like pastor Tim Keller who, when lying ill unto death in the hospital, reading a book on the evidence for the resurrection, realized that it was real. There was a body. It bled and died. It went missing. It popped up again. The dead come alive. Of course he always believed that Jesus died and rose again, but at that moment, he really believed, he was astonished that this thing had really happened in space and time.

Now this never gets old. This is an incarnated revelation, truth that is bound up with particulars, truth with body and texture. That’s the reason we know it was winter.