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Head and Heart (with a little note about history)

During this Lenten season I’ve decided to add a little extra reading to my daily routines. As a book lover, I remember with amusement that Baron Friedrich von Hugel’s regular fasting practice for Lent included giving up book-buying for the duration. (Alas, I purchased a book, the New and Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, yesterday.)

As I was deciding what this additional reading would be, I settled on something that seems important. I wanted both to feed my mind and challenge my spirit/heart. That is, I would tackle one strictly theological work and one that was more meditative or attending to what people sometimes call Christian spirituality. For the former I’m reading through the late 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck’s volume on Sin and Salvation in Christ. I hope that as I think deeply with Bavinck and the church about both our problem of sin and its solution in Jesus Christ, I might arrive at Good Friday and Easter with a renewed appreciation of the gifts given and commemorated on those two days. And as a challenge to my spirit/heart, I am reading The Sign of Jonas, a volume by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton from the early 1950s, selected from his spiritual journal over a five-year period. Merton was a contemplative person, and as such he has much to say about prayer and silence and living in the presence of God.


I’m only a couple of days into this Lenten reading, but I’m glad to be stretching myself in these two different but complementary directions. A heart set on a Jesus we don’t know anything about can fall victim to mere sentimentality, while a head full of facts and ideas and theories that aren’t assimilated into a life lived humbly and fully before God easily becomes arrogant and stubborn, cold and hard. But even though I’ve “assigned” these books to these distinct aims, I realize that they may give me things that I don’t expect. Many Christian theologians (though surely not enough of them) have testified to pausing in their theological study to get on their knees in gratitude to God for his generosity. And many works aimed primarily at our emotions have turned out to teach us in profound ways.


In his great essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis wrote about this tendency as he experienced it:

For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books [those focused on articulating Christian teaching] often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

Apart from the pipe in the teeth, I think I basically agree with Lewis. Wrestling with Scripture and the theological heritage of the church has deepened my love for God. However, given the speed and distraction with which we all live, I find it equally necessary to read works intended to slow me down and call me to prayer and reflection.


A brief post-script on another benefit of theological learning: I came across a video online today from the podcast of the famous “anti-religion” man Bill Maher. His guest was suggesting that perhaps Jesus was a real person who actually did some of the things the Bible says he did. This is a fairly modest claim, to be sure! Maher argued with his guest a bit, and in the course of their argument made they both made so many strange and basic mistakes in their accounting of the facts (Maher made a big blunder about the Dead Sea Scrolls that showed he isn’t really familiar at all with that well-publicized archaeological discovery; his guest seemed to think the Jewish historian Josephus was an early Christian whose account of Jesus was the source of the gospels) that I had to shake my head at the ignorance that fuels many debates. If they knew better, they might have saved a little vitriol. Perhaps teaching history as well as doctrine would be good for our souls.

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