Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Scripted Moments

"In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear."
Photographischen Werkstatt
der Preu├čischen Staatsbibliothek, 1926-1933,

From various motives, including my academic interest in religious studies, I find stories of people's religious experiences fascinating. So I read with great interest an article, from a March 2007 issue of Christianity Today online, in which an anonymous professor recounted his experience of "hearing God's voice" -- or what he referred to in more dialogical terms as a "conversation with God," a description of the experience that is also used in the article title itself: "My Conversation with God."

The story begins with the professor's desire to help a young man obtain a college education. As the professor is taking his regular morning walk and meditating on his wish to help the young man, something happens:
Out of the blue, a book title came to me. It was so clever I knew two things instantly: It wasn't mine, and it would sell.

Then, in almost the same instant, the entire outline of the book was there in my mind. Every chapter and its title. No discursive thought preceded it. I immediately went home and began writing. As I wrote, I had the distinct feeling that this was not me. I had never written like this before. The words poured out. Two weeks later, a 200-page manuscript sat on my desk. I knew it was good.
Everything goes smoothly from that point, the book is accepted by a publisher, and even an advance royalty is provided. However, things quickly grow strange as the professor, wondering what to do with the windfall, reflects upon his own financial need and recalls that his house needs a new roof and that the roof's cost is precisely the amount provided by the advance royalty:
The answer seemed clear -- a new roof.

Then God spoke: "It's not your money."

Those were the first words of a conversation that lasted on and off for several days. Knowing instantly it wasn't a "brain hiccup" but something more real and serious, I asked, "What do you mean it's not my money?" My tone was resentful and defensive.

"It's not your money. It's his." The voice inside my head was as real as if it were audible. I knew with terrifying certainty it wasn't my imagination, because I didn't want to hear it.

"Whose?" I asked.

The voice named the young man for whom I had been praying only a few weeks earlier. "It's for him to go to the university and study for the ministry."

"All of it?"

"That and the rest."

I knew "the rest" meant any further royalties the book might earn after it was published.

Absolutely flabbergasted, I raised my fist in the air and asked aloud, "What about my roof?"

The voice said, "I'll take care of your roof, if you'll be obedient."

Then I said, "If you want to use me to help him go to the university, why not give me everything it will cost? Why this amount that will make a difference but not pay his whole way?"

"Others have to be obedient, too," I heard in reply.
Others apparently were, for all the money needed for the young man's university studies was soon supplied.

Concerning this experience, the professor observes:
For years I've taught that God still speaks, but I couldn't testify to it personally . . . . Now I know, more than intellectually, that God still speaks.
A reader might react to this story in any number of ways, from distanced skepticism (an anonymous testimonial?) to literary appreciation (great story) to passionate affirmation (yes, I too!), but one reaction that I didn't expect was offered by a pastor, John Piper, in his article, "The Morning I Heard God's Voice," for an April 2007 issue of Christianity Today, which opens as follows:
Let me tell you about a most wonderful experience I had early Monday morning, March 19, 2007, a little after 6 a.m. God actually spoke to me. There is no doubt that it was God. I heard the words in my head just as clearly as when a memory of a conversation passes across your consciousness. The words were in English, but they had about them an absolutely self-authenticating ring of truth. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God still speaks today.
This begins with what sounds like passionate affirmation but isn't, for Piper's story has the effect of a bait-and-switch tactic because what he really means, in saying "God actually spoke to me," is that he was reading the Bible, specifically, Psalm 66:5-7, an admission that makes Piper's opening words sound like a parody of what the professor wrote. Piper goes on to comment:
This is why I found the Christianity Today article "My Conversation with God" so sad. Written by an anonymous professor at a "well-known Christian university," it tells of his experience of hearing God. What God said was that he must give all his royalties from a new book toward the tuition of a needy student. What makes me sad about the article is not that it isn't true or didn't happen. What's sad is that it really does give the impression that extra-biblical communication with God is surpassingly wonderful and faith-deepening. All the while, the supremely glorious communication of the living God that personally and powerfully and transformingly explodes in the receptive heart through the Bible everyday is passed over in silence.
The response feels rhetorically wrong-footed to me. Or put another way, the response is a gambit that just doesn't seem to work. I encounter difficulty believing that Piper really feels sad. Perhaps he does, but his words don't successfully convey that emotion. They merely state that Piper feels sad.

Moreover, Piper's story doesn't work nearly as well as the anonymous professor's because -- by analogy to the art of telling jokes -- while the latter has a great punch line, the former is a shaggy dog story.

Big build-up, great let-down.



At 8:46 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I wonder if Piper isn't just a wee bit jealous that he has not heard God's voice in the way that the professor did.

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I had also wondered about that...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who's never heard God's voice, I feel like the village idiot who proclaimed that the emperor had no clothes.

At 12:55 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

Piper also does not explore the possibility that the voice the anonymous professor heard may have been precisely due to something he had recently read from God's Word. I mean - the prof is obviously devoted to the principles of God's Word, right?

BTW, hey, Jeffery! Hadn't been by in a while and wanted to check in on you.

At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I've also never had that experience, but I'm fascinated by folks who claim to ... if the story is a good read (unlike Piper's story, which is just clumsy).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for visiting again, Daddio. As you know from my comment to your and KM's comments on the Bush-Barak post, I've been quite busy.

On the professor and Piper, I suspect that they have similar views on scripture, which leaves me wondering about Piper's hermeneutic of suspicion in his reading of the prof's article.

Was Piper -- as CIV wondered -- just a bit jealous? Or was he simply using a clumsy gambit to make a point about scripture as God's word?

I don't know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:20 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Caedmon all over again. To the humble swineherd a poem, to the academic professor a book. I approve of his charity. A great post...liked the contrasting burning bush moments.

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But, Eshuneutics, which one was Caedmon? The professor? He had the 'divine inspiration' for the book, but was he your Caedmon?

Sorry, but my brain's not working today.

Jeffery Hodges

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