Humble Roots [A review]

There have been (at least) two trends in my life over the past few years: first, I have grown rather weary of the endless parade of devotional books marching forth from evangelical printing presses, and second I have felt more and more of a desire to be out in my garden planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and planning. I tire of devotional literature not for any lack of good intention on the part of the publishing houses, but because so much of it seems to simply trot out the same clichés and formulas as the last 100 books. This has, in turn, led to my reading of far fewer books per year than in the past and thus spending more time out in the garden. To be fair, not all of the blame rests on the publishers; I tend to read books more quickly than they deserve, and my perception of their value might have been higher if I had read them more slowly.

513mja5ds-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still keep tabs on new books, however, and when I saw the publisher’s description of Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots, my interest was piqued to a degree that my cynicism could not repress. The premise is simple: growing fruits and vegetables and tending the land are activities that teach us much about what it means to be humble. In eleven chapters, Anderson walks through her experiences living in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cultivating the ground with her husband.

Chapter 7, “Vine Ripened,” is in my opinion the most excellent chapter of the book. The luscious-looking plump, red tomatoes in the store are not actually ripe but merely gassed to appear as if they are. Those tomato varieties are not cultivated for flavor but merely for their looks and for their ability to withstand long treks across the country in semis. In the same way, many of us approach life and maturity this way; the virtues we admire in others tend to be whether they are attractive or whether they say things we agree with. If someone knows the “right” people or espouses the right ideas, then we think of them as mature or worthy of our admiration. Anderson challenges this notion and suggests that perhaps the reason we see so many failures of character in the church (and even in the wider world) is because we prize superficial maturity rather than something deeper.

Horticulture is the thread tying the whole book together; this is largely a strength, but sometimes teeters on the edge of becoming cheesy. What saves the book from going there is the fact that Anderson is actually conversant in the language of the garden, and is not simply rummaging for illustrations out of a book or off the internet. She knows what she’s talking about, whether the subject is character or apple trees.

I must say that all in all, this is one of the better books I have read this year. The vine ripened tomato analogy I shared above is something I have been ruminating on for weeks and will likely stick in my consciousness for years to come. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $7.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Reading, Reflecting, Failing, Succeeding

One hundred books. That was my new year’s resolution last January: to read one hundred books during 2015. I tend to read a lot of books in general, so that number (though it was definitely a stretch goal) seemed attainable. It is the beginning of December and I’ve just finished my sixtieth book, so it’s safe to say that I wildly overestimated how much I could read. At any rate, here are a few miscellaneous thoughts about my reading experience this year.

On Setting a Quantitative Reading Goal

I came to find that one of the benefits of setting a specific number of books that you will read in a year is that it is an easily measurable goal, and it also keeps you honest. It can be an easy default when I’m commuting to work to just listen to music, read news/blogs, or play games on my phone. But then, after the course of a year, I find that I’ve largely wasted another year of my life frittering away the time on stupid stuff. Having a quantitative goal continually confronting me often helps to choose reading something substantive over slowly slouching toward intellectual death.

The downside of setting a quantitative goal, however, is that I start making decisions, whether conscious or not, to choose books that are quickly digestible, because my goal is to consume as many of them as I can. Similarly, when I start into a book and I can tell that it is not worth my time within the first few chapters, I am more likely to finish such a book because, well, I’ve already started it so I want these pages I read to count towards my goal. On the flip side, when I find myself in the midst of a really good book, I don’t have time to slow down and ponder, consider, or treasure it.

On “Moving Evenly Together”

I tried to read a fairly diverse diet of books this year, and one that was far afield of my normal fare was The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters. Written in the early forties, it’s an 51t14urxezl-_sy344_bo1204203200_exploration of the tension between Native Americans, Hispanics, and White settlers in the American southwest during the expansion. It’s a classic portrayal of how different cultures can so easily speak past one another and fail to communicate because of their differing presuppositions and expectations as well as power differentials.

There is an oft-repeated trope throughout the book’s tribal meetings that stuck itself thoroughly into my head: the idea of “moving evenly together.” For this tribe, the priority in decision-making is not the decision itself, but to move evenly together, which is to say that they want everyone to “be on the same page,” in modern parlance. It is more than just agreement, however; moving evenly together is about waiting and waiting and waiting until each is convinced in his own heart about going the same direction.

The implicit argument is that how decisions are made is more important than the decisions themselves. It’s a way of thinking that has influenced how I consider my marriage and the decisions that my wife and I make; it is not enough to simply understand one another—we must wait and wait and wait for one another until we can move forward together. We cannot live life in the fast lane this way, and we cannot get as much done. The benefit, though, is that we move through life feeling more valued by each other.

On Obedience as a Good, Beautiful, and Right Thing

I read John Frame’s 1,200 page magnum opus, Systematic Theology, this summer while I was unemployed for a few weeks. It is a wonderful work for a variety of reasons, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart, and as a reference 51gnmr5684l-_sy344_bo1204203200_work it is certainly not intended to be read straight through such as I did. Yet John Frame has an unusually razor-sharp mind, and it is fascinating to grasp snapshot of his entire mental belief system in such a short amount of time, because he truly is able to articulate himself so unusually well.

Frame’s governing principle in his theology is the idea of God’s lordship over the world and all that is in it (which is to say his control, authority, and presence), and the requisite response of obedience on our behalf. Though this concept is certainly draconian and repulsive to our modern ears, Frame elegantly and compellingly draws out the beauty, goodness, wisdom, and logic of laying down our autonomous, personal sovereignty in order to lovingly oblige God as our King. Perhaps you might ask why this is logical. Quite simply, submitting to a good God who only ever works for our best interests and his glory makes a great deal of sense. The sacrifice of libertarian freedom for the privilege of following such a God is a trivial price to pay. Frame helped me reframe (pun very much intended) my thinking about the concept of obeying God from duty to thankfulness.

On Violence and the Goodness of Sovereignty

My wife and I have been reading Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy, which is equal parts perplexing and fascinating (spoilers ahead). Lewis Gillies, a graduate student at Oxford, follows his roommate Simon through a cairn in northern Scotland to another world called Albion. It is an archetype of the British Isles where Lewis and Simon are trained as Celtic warriors to defend and fight for the kingdom of the good King Meldron.

9780310217923Within the first novel all hell quite literally breaks loose, and the innocent are slaughtered all across the land. The upheaval of order and justice results in the destruction of the most vulnerable, and those who wish to defend them. As Lewis eventually finds out, the source of all this horror and tragedy is none other than King Meldron’s son, who sought to rebel against the goodness of sovereignty and would do whatever he needed to usurp the throne. Meldron was a good king and exercised his control, authority, and presence over his realm in ways that worked toward the good of his people. His foolish son saw his father’s sovereignty as a right rather than as a responsibility, and was willing to kill—even the entire realm—to gain it.

Lawhead describes life in Albion with complex strokes: it is at once breathtaking in its vivid hyper reality and gritty with the all too realistic horror of violence and death of average people. It is neither the airbrushed Kinkade painting that you’d expect from American evangelicalism nor the unreal comic book violence of the modern sci-fi/fantasy flick. Lawhead’s brush is so photorealistic that it is disturbing. Evil is actually possible for normal people to inflict and to be victimized by. There’s a particular scene where Lewis is walking through the burnt husk of a town, ashes frozen into place by recent snowfall, and he comes across the frozen corpse of a toddler sprawled in the street. As I read those words, my heart churned within me and yearned for justice to be dealt swiftly, surely, wisely, and well, especially since I know what it’s like now to have a toddler of my own.

This is what good fiction does: it helps me to feel again and feel rightly about our world when I am all but callous and numb to the headlines I read. The violence and devastation in Albion is really no different from Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, and a thousand other places. Reporters and non-fiction writers may tell me what happened, but only the storytellers, the bards, and the artists can teach me how to feel rightly about it.

Concluding Thoughts

It was a fascinating experiment to press my nose to the grindstone of an impossible reading goal this year. I don’t plan on doing a quantitative goal again, at least not in 2016, but neither do I regret doing it. I failed at my new year’s resolution, and if this were a performance evaluation at a job I would certainly be fired. I cannot help but think, though, that in the end I succeeded; I read many good books, interacted with many interesting thinkers thinking about a multitude of topics, and I came by some truly pivotal concepts that have shaped the way I live my life.

Noah: Reflections

While Aronofsky might not have gotten some of the details right on the Noahic plotline, in my opinion he absolutely nailed the Bible’s emotional stance on evil. I’ve typically found among us evangelical types that we’re generally okay with movies as long as they don’t have sex scenes or four-letter words, but when it comes to glamorously portraying horrifically graphic violence or greed (for instance), we don’t bat an eye.

Noah came out on Redbox a little while ago, so my brother and I rented it the other night to see what all the hubbub is about. The basic overview of the movie that I heard from others was, “Sweet special effects, very unbiblical plotline.” I guess that’s basically an accurate assessment, but I thought the cinematography felt like it was straight out of a 1980’s PBS docudrama. At any rate, I did find the movie to be compelling and interesting in some ways, and I wanted to share a few thoughts here.

The Unpleasantness of Evil

While Aronofsky might not have gotten some of the details right on the Noahic plotline, in my opinion he absolutely nailed the Bible’s emotional stance on evil. I’ve typically found among us evangelical types that we’re generally okay with movies as long as they don’t have sex scenes or four-letter words, but when it comes to glamorously portraying horrifically graphic violence or greed (for instance), we don’t bat an eye.

I’ll quit using the royal We and own up to the fact that I’m talking about myself, first and foremost. I’m a sucker for an action flick, especially of the sci-fi/fantasy variety, and I think that a good fight scene is sweet. (Return of the King, anyone?)

Aronofsky’s Noah, however, forces me to face an unpleasant question: why am I so squeamish about a steamy sex scene and yet perfectly unperturbed by mass killings and malicious vengeance? Perhaps it’s because I know that nobody is actually being killed whereas those actors are actually doing it in the bedroom. That argument feels a bit thin to me, though. If I dig deeper, perhaps it’s because sexual sin is a little bit closer to home for me, and because it’s generally held as the worst of sins in the evangelical imagination. Perhaps it’s also partly due to the fact that I’m a quiet, introverted twenty-something living in a small town and working a day job and the evil of violence seems so far removed from me that I can watch it safely without becoming some sort of sociopath. Sex and cussing, on the other hand, are much more viable possibilities so I stray far from them.

Is that true? It’s disturbing to realize that the only factor that makes the viewing of sin wrong is whether it would cause me to emulate it. Are there other side-effects of visually engaging in graphic depictions of sin? Porn numbs us to the intimacy, delicacy, and utter humanity of sex and objectifies it into a product, a commodity, a drug that gets us high and satisfies us for a little while until we need our next hit. Movies like the Saw series have been labelled “Torture Porn” because they do the exact same things, except for with violence rather than sex. Most action flicks today could probably be labelled softcore torture porn with some degree of legitimacy, because we’re watching our fellow humans being slaughtered by the thousands and millions and saying, “Wow man! That was siiiick!

This is precisely where Aronofsky punches me in the stomach. When Ham returns from Tubal-Cain’s encampment with a wife, I thought to myself, “Okay, so this is how Aronofsky is going to tie up that plot point.” But then her foot gets caught in a bear trap in the woods and she gets trampled to death by the slavering hordes of humanity. It’s a jarring scene: “Wait, hold on a second. Did that just happen?” A human life is snuffed out with a boot to the head just like that, and Aronofsky is not trying to paint it as “cool” at all. It’s just plain horrific. Like violence probably should be.

Hordes of Humanity

As the waters rise and people pathetically cling to the highest rocks for dear life, they are dashed by massive waves that rip their fragile little bodies off of handholds and drop them down into sickening piles of dead humans. Their attempts at self-preservation are, in the end, utterly futile. Though they see themselves as the captains of their own fates, in reality they have no more power over their lives than an ant in the hands of a child with a magnifying glass.

Violence, in Aronofsky’s lens, is evil. Irredeemably so. It cannot be refashioned into entertainment. It cannot be recast in the mold of coolness. It’s just horrific. Jarring. It leaves us aghast.

“‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?

Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’

He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,

who despises the gain of oppressions,

who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed

and shuts his eyes from looking on evil.”

Isaiah 33:14-15

Who indeed? We incline our ears and open our eyes to evil, and look on deliciously.

An Uncomfortably Silent God

Picture Jesus in your mind’s eye for a moment. Chances are, you’re thinking of the same image I am: white, air-brushed cheeks, a lush beard, gently cascading locks of slightly curly brown hair, blue eyes. It’s the one hanging in the 1950s frame in your pastor’s study. The image is utterly ridiculous; Jesus was Palestinian, and I’m betting he didn’t use conditioner to keep his hair sumptuous. Yet this is our picture of Jesus, not because it’s who he actually was, but because it’s who we imagine he might be within our own culture.

Aronofsky’s antediluvian world is much the same–he has painted the picture not as it was, but as it would be today. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the God of the film (referred to as “The Creator”). This creator is silent, aloof, and dispassionate. When people pray to him, he doesn’t say anything in return. In other words, this is not the God of the Old Testament who was tangible in burning bush and parted sea. Instead, he’s God as twenty-first century Americans sense him.

I must confess that I relate: sometimes when I pray, I find myself thinking about how crazy I am. I’m sitting in a room by myself speaking aloud or silently, assuming that there is a God who exists and even hears me. Further, he drops everything he’s doing the moment I begin praying so that he can diligently take notes on all my selfish requests. Then when my friend’s aunt’s co-worker succumbs to cancer anyway, I say, “God, why? I prayed for healing and you didn’t do it!”

Tubal-Cain is the master of his own fate.
Tubal-Cain is the master of his own fate.

There’s a poignant scene in the movie when Tubal-Cain goes into his tent and, awkwardly semi-kneeling, begins to pray: “God! Where are you? Why will you never speak?” It’s the same lament of forsaken abandonment that we find in the Psalms. Whether Tubal-Cain actually prayed that or not is irrelevant for Aronofsky; his intent is to portray with artistic flourish what men and women feel about God today.

When Tubal-Cain leaves his tent, he resolutely sets his face against the harsh truth of the world. It doesn’t matter if God exists or not, because he’s proved that he won’t help. Humanity must be assertive and forceful to live.

The Creator is little better for Noah. The most explicit he gets is cryptic, abstract dream sequences from which Noah deduces that disaster is approaching, and he must build a boat to rescue all the animals of the world. This Creator is loathe to provide detailed blueprints, and Noah must figure the details out himself. He understands that the reason for destruction is the evil that so dominates the world, but he has no express word from God to explain why he and his family would be permitted to survive. Given the latent proclivity toward evil that he sees in his own soul and those of his family, Noah logically proceeds to the conclusion: they are allowed to survive the flood in order to take care of the animals, but they too are deserving of death. None of them are spotless. All of them have fallen short. Noah must ensure that his family line dies out. Without revelation, people perish.

A Deepened Compassion

Aronofsky did not stick unswervingly to the biblical narrative, but I don’t understand why we would assume he would. He is an atheist, and he has no evangelical commitment to biblical inerrancy. His goal was to say something true about the world as it is today through the power of visual storytelling. And he did. We evangelicals might be wise to let him disciple us about how to actually be disturbed by sin, and to see it as evil rather than as tsk-tsk-sigh taboo. Does evil feel evil? Is it horrifying and terrible? Or merely socially reprehensible?

I walk away from Noah with a deepened sense of compassion for those who live and move and have their being in an AD world with a BC defining narrative. For them, Noah is not fiction, but fact. To live in a world where you’re under the impression that you must make your own way is lonely, terrifying, and dehumanizing. Now that is a world that needs a savior.

Raising Our Own Affections

I’ve been reading Bob Kauflin’s excellent Worship Matters this morning, and this line particularly struck me:

When we fail to demonstrate delight and satisfaction in God, we’re not only dishonoring God, we’re disobeying him. More than anyone else on earth, Christians have a reason to celebrate.

Perhaps what was so striking to me today is that I find a tendency in myself to merely commentate on our delight and celebration rather than actually doing it.

“We can find all our joy in the gospel!”

“You should rejoice in who you are in Christ!”

“Come on church, let’s sing like we mean it!”

Don’t misunderstand me: there’s nothing wrong with commentary. But there is something wrong when I fail to actually do those things. Lord, forgive me for the times when I seek to instruct, correct, rebuke, or train others in the way of godliness without cultivating the same in myself first and foremost. Lord, if I see others failing to be affected by the gospel, let me lead by example rather than exhortation. Teach me to move from being a mere bystanding commentator toward actually finding delight in Christ myself.

When Half Spent was the Night

This Advent season I’ve been musing on the unexpectedness of the arrival of Christ. It’s really quite curious that God should find it fitting to come to earth as a screaming, wriggling, blood-covered baby who couldn’t even hold up his own head. It seems to defy any logical course of reasoning that he would pick the putrid scents of decaying cattle manure and the discomforts of poky hay to be born amid. Yet I couldn’t help but realize this morning that his coming was even more unexpected to the average Second Temple Jew than I had previously been able to imagine.

Image credit: Hellebardius
Image credit: Hellebardius

Though the Apocryphal books are not considered scripture within the protestant tradition (and rightly so!), they are nonetheless instructive regarding Jewish thought in the centuries between the Old Testament and the New. In The Wisdom of Solomon the classic story of the Exodus is recounted, though in an undoubtedly more mystical and spiritualized way. Listen to the way in which the tenth plague of Egypt is retold:

All things were lying in peace and silence, and night in her swift course was half spent, when your all-powerful word leapt from your royal throne in heaven into the midst of that doomed land like a relentless warrior, bearing the sharp sword of your inflexible decree; with his head touching the heavens and his feet on earth he stood and spread death everywhere. Then all at once nightmare phantoms appalled the godless, and fears unlooked-for beset them; flinging themselves half dead to the ground, one here, another there, they made clear why they were dying; for the dreams that tormented them had taught them before they died, so that they should not perish still ignorant of why they suffered.

The godly also had a taste of death when large numbers were struck down in the wilderness. But the divine wrath did not long continue, for a blameless man was quick to be their champion, bearing the weapons of his priestly ministry, prayer and the incense that propitiates; he withstood the divine anger and set a limit to the disaster, thus showing that he was indeed your servant. He overcame the anger neither by bodily strength nor by force of arms; but by words he subdued the avenger, appealing to the sworn covenants made with our forefathers. The dead were already fallen in heaps when he interposed himself and drove back the divine wrath, barring its line of attack on those still alive. On his long-skirted robe the whole world was represented; the glories of the fathers were engraved on his four rows of precious stones; and your majesty was on the diadem upon his head. To these the destroyer yielded, for they made him afraid. It was only a taste of the wrath, but it was enough (Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-25, REB).

You can imagine the heavenly choirs singing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is…” and then God’s “all-powerful word” jumps off his throne and reaps mass destruction and devastation. This sounds more like Kill Bill than your average nativity story. Though I’m not suggesting that this passage is talking prophetically about the appearance of the Messiah, it does illuminate for us what people generally thought God’s appearance among us was like. How odd that the Christ came, not as a whirlwind of fury and death, but as a suffering servant.

I included the second paragraph there as well, because its retelling of the peoples’ sin at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses’ ensuing salvation of them bears unmistakable theological overtones. The author here clearly portrays Moses in a much more familiar casting of a Messiah figure. Is it not intriguing that he was “blameless,” “bearing the weapons of his priestly ministry, prayer and the incense that propitiates,” a “servant,” overcoming God’s anger “by words, appealing to the sworn covenants,” representing the whole world “on his long-skirted robe,” “interpos[ing] himself” before the divine wrath, wearing God’s majesty as a crown, conquering the destroyer? As I said, Moses seems to be much more in line with what Christians think of as a Messiah than God’s “all-powerful word” who conquered the Egyptians.

There seems to be very little room in the author’s world for a Messiah who was also God himself, for a servant who would save God’s chosen people yet who would also be himself the conqueror of death. This Christmas let us rejoice in our God who became a man, who at once interposed himself on our behalf to save us from himself while remaining perfectly just in his mercy by not allowing evil to live. Let us give thanks that he overcame God’s righteous wrath not by “bodily strength nor by force of arms; but by words,” for we must admit that we would’ve deserved such wrath. Let us give thanks that the whole world was on Jesus’ robes, and that we who should have been destroyed instead find an interposing, propitiating priest who stands to save us.  How incredibly, wonderfully unexpected!

If You Were a REAL Christian…

…You’d take the Bible literally. Right?

I know that by adding “Right” there, I’m immediately alienating most theologically conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians right off the bat. I can just hear it now: “Ben’s become one of them crazy liberal types.” Sackcloth. Ashes. Gnashing of teeth. But here’s why I am willing to go public against one of the most deeply-rooted shibboleths in modern conservative Christianity: I love the heart expressed by the phrase, but I think there are far more accurate and responsible ways to verbalize it.

First, the Heart

When people say that Christians must “Take the Bible literally,” what I really hear is that we must read the Bible through the lens of belief in its authority, inspiration, accuracy, truthfulness, beauty, and relevance. I agree! As a student of God’s Word, each morning I strive to approach scripture seriously and submissively, even when it would be easier if I didn’t. If the Bible describes greed, arrogance, material excess, homsexuality, self-centeredness, alcoholism, abuse, lack of good stewardship, abortion, et. al. as sin (either explicitly or implicitly),  then I feel compelled to agree. Those are sins, and when they describe me, then I must conclude that I am a sinner along with all the requisite consequences sin entails. It is not my job to seek out a way in which I am exempted, or in which my friend is an exception to the rule, or in which a particular sin is simply a cultural-historical artifact. To do so would be to ignore my affirmation of Scripture’s authority over me.

Second, the Problem

Hopefully I’ve asserted myself clearly enough that what I say next won’t be simply written off as crazy liberal hogwash. Here is my issue with taking the Bible literally: we don’t actually do so. Before you close this tab, let me elaborate. As Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family helpfully explains,

As we read it seriously and truthfully, we don’t believe that God is literally a rock, much less my rock. If so, how big is He? Is He igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic? God says He’s my fortress. Is he stone or wooden? How tall are his walls? What’s his configuration? Am I being disrespectful to God with such questions?  It seems like it. And that’s the point. We dishonor God and much of His Word by trying to take it literally.

But is God literally my salvation? Oh my, YES! And I tremble at the literal truth of it.

Am I trying to say that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally at all? Absolutely not. The Bible asserts that Jesus is literally God and that he literally died and literally rose from the dead. Jesus will never be content as a mere metaphor for “a greater spiritual truth.” But does that mean that the Bible doesn’t include any metaphors for greater spiritual truth? To say so would be ridiculous. When Psalm 103 tells us that God removes our transgressions from us “As far as the east is from the west,” we immediately understand that God’s forgiveness of our sin is complete and absolute. The fact that David uses a simile shouldn’t perturb us because while it is a non-literal comparison, it is nevertheless plain what is meant.

We don’t speak literally in everyday life because to do so would be obtuse and dull. For example, if you tell me that I am really dense it would be rather silly of me to understand that I have more mass per square inch than an average human body. Such a misconception would be forgivable in a brand new English speaker, but for those who know the language well it would border on insanity. If we allow ourselves the freedom to speak rhetorically, poetically, symbolically, or in any other non-literal way, why do we not allow the Bible the same freedom?

Last, a Bit of a Suggestion

What if we just said that we believed the Bible to be authoritative, inspired, accurate, truthful, beautiful, and relevant? What if we came to a place where it was less about what watchwords we used to prove our conservativism and more about the presence of fruit in a life shaped by the Holy Spirit as our minds are renewed by God’s Word? In my experience, reciting the shibboleth to prove that we’re “in” leads less often to worship and more often to controversy and quibbling over words which, as Titus suggests, isn’t the point. I’ll let someone else have the final word.

You’re Never Ready

You'll never sleep in again

About two months before I got married last summer I remember running into an older lady I knew only at a very shallow level. We exchanged a few pleasantries and when I told her about my upcoming wedding she burst out, “Oh! That’s so exciting! Are you planning on starting a family right away?” I was a bit taken aback, to say the very least. I thought it somewhat presumptuous of her to ask me that, given the near non-existence of any sort of relationship with her. “Ha ha, no,” I chuckled, “no, I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet.”

“Oh, you’re never ready honey!” she admonished.

I thought it was maybe just her, but since then I’ve had about a half-dozen conversations along the same vein. I think I understand and agree with the basic premise of this snippet of common wisdom. Maturity is quite unlike the world of video games where you level up to unlock upgrades and abilities. In real life things are much messier and asymptotic, meaning that there may be a standard and a goal that you’re aiming for but under our human limitations you’ll always fail to reach. Sure, I buy that. I wasn’t ready for everything that being married to my wife brought and have had to learn some things mid-course.

But I wasn’t completely unprepared for marriage, either. Before I even got engaged, I spoke with wise spiritual mentors about the meaning of marriage. I asked married folks in circles of friends and family whether they thought it would be a good idea if I got married. I read a bunch of books regarding the meaning, purpose, and theology of marriage. When we got engaged we spent six weeks doing premarital counseling. After all that I walked into my marriage and to my surprise it was different than I had imagined. The challenges have been different than I anticipated. Sex is a lot different than I had anticipated. My role as a husband isn’t quite as easy to define as I had thought it would be. Things have been different, sure, but not completely so. I wasn’t ready for everything, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ready for anything.

The problem is that we don’t use this “Never Ready” advice anywhere else in life, and nor would we want to. Imagine if my wife walked into her engineering firm right out of high school and asked for a job. “I know that I’m completely unqualified for this job, but they say you’re never quite ready so I figured I’d just dive in and learn by doing!” Right. Imagine if you enlisted for the army and you heard this: “We were going to put you guys through boot camp, but they say that nothing can prepare you for the horrors that await you on the battlefield so we’re just going to skip basic training and send you straight off to Iraq.” Right.

The premise of GK Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting hill is that the presidency is chosen by random lottery and paints a picture of how ludicrous it would be if we put a completely unqualified individual in as president. Yet somehow when it comes to parenthood, when it comes to being responsible for a completely helpless human being for 18 years we have an astonishingly blasé attitude that since you can’t fully prepare, then you might as well not bother at all and just do it.

I know that I’ll never be ready, but I’d like to take a few years to at least prepare somewhat. I’d like to develop a strong and healthy marriage between my wife and I before we add a child into the mix. I can’t imagine having to try to get your sea legs for marriage and parenthood at the same time. How does the gospel inform my theology of parenthood? Do I want to raise my children in a rural, suburban, or urban context? What are my convictions regarding corporal punishment? How do you teach a child the meaning of both justice/judgment as well as mercy and grace? Folks often say that the last child gets the best parents, but what if I didn’t just assume that my first child will function as a guinea pig to teach me how to be a good parent? What if I could be a decently good parent to each one?

Only the Lord knows the future for my marriage, but as far as it depends upon me I want to be a good steward of my children when/if God entrusts them to me. I know that at the end of the day the only reason that I can possibly be a good parent is because of God’s grace, but in my eyes that is no excuse for being rash.

Am I being naïve? Is there some piece of the puzzle that I’m missing? Am I right to believe this?