Pastorally Speaking: Nathan Knight on “Depth vs. Distraction”

[Editor’s Note: This blogpost continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series. Nathan Knight is Pastor of Restoration Church in Washington, D.C. He writes on the topic of the temptation of distraction and the importance for prayer, rest, and devotion in the life of the pastor.]

In his classic Screwtape Letters, C.S Lewis’ demonic character Screwtape instructs his demonic friend Wormwood on the useful tool of distraction in defeating the enemy (Spirit of God):

“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind begin to go the wrong way…if I had lost my head & begun to attempt a defense by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch…once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up along with his books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ [distraction by the ordinary] was enough to show him that ‘sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true.”[1]

Screwtape instructed Wormwood to simply distract his “patient” by the ordinary in order to keep him from the extraordinary. He continues:

“[Many] find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things.”[2]

Could it be, pastor, that you are no different than the atheist in the British museum? Surely, you read good books and blogs, listen to podcasts, and even follow faithful men on twitter that feed you deep thoughts, but have all these scattered thoughts been so faintly rooted in the ordinary that they have yet to take root in the extraordinary.

In other words, have you failed to cultivate a single minded devotion to God that is so captivated by a single verse of the Bible that you are left to consider only that thought for an entire day? Have you found yourself so moved in prayer that it seemed you were in the very throne room of God, or, have you known a time in sermon preparation where the extended thought of a single truth left you with eyes so full of tears you could hardly see the screen you were typing on?

Depth in prayer and devotion is often quenched by the distraction of the ordinary. From the perceived boredom of sitting in a room alone with a book and a blank screen to the throngs of gadgets and technological applications that often excite us more than communion with God, we are men to be most pitied.

Men of depth likely are not cultivated upon the completion of another book, but more likely from a single passage meditated upon for hours, weeks even: pastors who know the value of “no” and the importance of solitude along with the wisdom of simplicity in living, indeed, pastors who know more about less instead of less about more; pastors who linger in prayer and speak of the glories of Christ as naturally as they do the wife they love; these are the men who can lead the church away from puddles and into oceans.

Oh, pastors, what might we offer to our people, to those who don’t yet believe, yes even to God Himself, if we were to set aside the waves of distractions and gaze into the face of Christ but for an undistracted hour? No phones, no podcasts, yes, even no blogs … just the unveiled face of the knowledge of the glory of God found in the face of Christ … what kind of pastors might we be?

May we be the kind of pastors that lead people to believe the unfamiliar because we ourselves have lingered there long enough … past the flood of ordinariness and into the still, deep waters of the extraordinary.



[1] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1942), 2-3.

[2] Ibid, 4.

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Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (4): Theology is Not Primarily for Professors or Preachers.

At one point in my life, I thought “theology” was for only for eccentric religious professionals who wore hounds-tooth jackets with elbow patches, smelled like papyrus, smoked hand carved pipes, sported Santa Claus beards, and talked a lot about topics such as Second Temple Judaism and revelational epistemology. In other words, I thought they were weird. I thought it would be fun to stick a theologian in a room of normal people and play the game “Which one of these is not like the others?” (It would have been an easy game. In a room full of normal people, as I saw it, a theologian sticks out like an Amish kid with a nose ring.) Or so I thought. After I had actually studied theology at Southeastern, and had met a good number of theologians, I realized that theology is something that all believers do, and it is something that is done for many different audiences. That’s the question this installment answers. For whom do we do theology? For the church? For unbelievers? For the academy? Former University of Chicago theologian David Tracy is known for arguing that theologians must find ways to interact compellingly with three distinct audiences: academy, church, and society.[1] This blog will “one-up” Tracy by arguing that theology must address at least five audiences: God, family, church, the academy, and society at large.

Theology for God:

First and foremost, theology is done for God. Just as God seeks to bring glory to his name and increase his own renown, so we must do all that we do to glorify him and make his name great.[2] The biblical testimony could not be more clear on this count. God created humanity for his glory (Is 43:7), sent his Son to vindicate his glory (Rom 3:23-26; 15:8-9), will one day fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14), so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10). In the present age, we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). “All things” includes the task of theology. For this reason, Barth writes, “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”[3] As theologians, we have the great privilege of studying God’s Word and, in so doing, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), delighting ourselves in the Lord (Ps 37:4), seeking him early in the morning (Ps 63:1), and savoring his words (Ps 119:103). There is nothing more wonderful than attending closely to what our Most Loved One is saying to us, and then speaking it back to him, and telling others what he has told us. Theology is done, first and foremost, for God.

Theology for the Family:

Second, theology is done in the presence of, and for the sake of, our families. Family is the most basically human of all our vocations, the one in which God’s gracious love and his providential care are most tangibly conveyed through human beings. Moreover, God instructs all believers to talk about him and his word consciously and continually within the home. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9). We are called to know and love God in the midst of our families, teaching God’s Word to our families diligently throughout the day, in such a way that it functions as blinders on a horse, keeping our feet on the path of righteousness.[4]

Theology for the Church:

Third, theology is done for the church, universal and local (Eph 4:11-13). Just as the apostle Paul wrote theological epistles that benefited particular local congregations as well as the church as a whole down through the centuries, so we should do theology consciously with God’s church in mind. “Theology for the church” can be done in many ways, but we will mention three. First, the pastors of local congregations are the lead theologians for their churches. They should preach theologically, orchestrate their services theologically, and counsel theologically. Well-crafted sermons, services, or counseling sessions are examples of theology for the church. Second, a group of university and seminary professors could collaborate to write an integrative theology (such as the present volume) which takes as its primary audience the pastors, missionaries, counselors, and other ministers whom they teach. Third, a pastor, university, or seminary professor might set forth to write or teach in a manner which is technical and academic in nature. Even though this volume is written for scholars rather than for typical members of a given local congregation, it can (and should) still be done with an eye toward knowing and loving God, and building up his (universal) church as a whole.

Theology for the Academy:

Fourth, theology can be done within the academy and for the sake of the academy. Unfortunately, in the past century, Western universities have increasingly shied away from recognizing theology as a legitimate academic discipline. George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and Stanley Hauerwas’ The State of the University speak to this situation in which Christian theology has been removed from the domain of “true scholarship” and in which Christian theologians struggle to be granted tenure.[5] We believe that this modern Western conception of theology is false. Christian theology is an eminently legitimate discipline. Theologians should do their scholarly work with excellence, constructively and critically engaging other scholars in theological studies, religious studies, comparative religions, and so forth. This task is not easy. “The dilemma for evangelical theology,” writes Clark, “is whether it can maintain intellectual integrity, as judged by the academic world, and still serve the needs of Christian believers…. This means that evangelical theologians want to do what many believe is impossible: both think critically and also recognize biblical authority.”[6] In fact, we would argue that the recognition of biblical authority should itself foster critical thinking. The rational, creative, and moral capacities necessary for intellectually rigorous theology are the very capacities through which the image of God shines. In other words, intellectual rigor is a part of spirituality (1 Pet 3:15).

Theology for Society:

Fifth, theology can be done for society at large. Theologians can do their work with an eye toward various publics, taking into account their questions and concerns, and communicating in a way we hope will be meaningful and compelling. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer are examples of public theologians. Lewis was known for mediating Christian truth by means of radio talks, fiction literature, apologetics, and even debates. Schaeffer did theology in public by means of speeches, videography, and popular level books; he addressed existential and ethical issues which were immediately relevant to society as a whole, and used those issues to invite people to consider Christian truth. The point here is that the Christian faith is not something to sit back and stare at, but something to lean forward and look through. The Scriptures are like a pair of spectacles through which we view the world. The Christian theologian is uniquely positioned to speak truth about issues of interest to any person in any walk of life.

Theology with Faithfulness and Excellence:

For whichever audience a theologian intends to teach, preach, or write, it is incumbent upon him to do his work faithfully in the hopes that he might be able to do his work with excellence. Excellence cannot always be achieved, though faithfulness can. A theologian can always do his work faithfully, by lashing his theology to Scripture, and doing so in order to know and love God, and participating in his mission in this world. To the extent that he is able, he will also draw upon theology’s various sources, integrate its various sub-disciplines, and remain in conversation with philosophy and other fields of learning. Most importantly, he will work hard to evoke from his students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. For, to be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive: “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.”[7] Theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and equipping his people to join his mission; therefore theologians work hard to teach, write, and preach with excellence, so they can be maximally meaningful and compelling.


[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

[2] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998). James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[3] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12.

[4] For a fine example of a theological text written to help parents teach biblical truth to their children, see Bruce Ware, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

[5] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University, 1998); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 200.

[7] George Steiner, Lessons of the Masters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 18.

Theology & Culture (5): Case Studies (Augustine, Kuyper, Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, Neuhaus)

Upon arriving at Southeastern Seminary in 1996, I had little or no motivation to study church history and historical theology. I wanted to learn “the bottom line” on the major biblical and theological issues, and then get on with the business of sharing the gospel and defending the faith. My assumption was that I could learn the “bottom line” quickly, and ought do so through my personal Bible study and some books written by late 20th century evangelicals.

This assumption, however, was unhelpful. In relying exclusively on my personal Bible study and a handful of contemporary evangelical books, I was missing out on the instructive and inspiring stories of men and women of old, and the enduringly influential books that many of them wrote. I was naïve to think that I could not benefit from the theological and ministerial lessons to be learned from the universal church, lessons which can be learned by reading books written by Christians who lived in centuries past or by Christians who live “apart” from me geographically and culturally.

Since that time, I have grown to love and appreciate historical theology and global theology, and try to teach my courses in conversation with those theologians. In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we discussed historical figures such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Augustine of Hippo, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Augustine of Hippo

From Augustine’s City of God, we learned that the church needs to cultivate theologians who are able to speak with power and prescience to their socio-cultural contexts. On August 24, 410, the Alarics/Goths sacked Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it. Many of them concluded that the Roman gods were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Jesus Christ. Their argument was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding myth (Romulus and Remus, the Aeneid, etc.) in favor of the biblical narrative. It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ. Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had departed from Platonism in favor of the Incarnation. On this backdrop, Augustine received a letter from Marcellinus, a Christian who walked in power circles in Rome, asking for help in answering the Roman narrative.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a 1,000 page letter. In his letter, the City of God, Augustine argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong. He did so by arguing that Rome’s story was only one small story in the midst of a much larger narrative which is grounded in Christian Scripture. He argued that there are really two cities, the city of God and the city of man. Each city has a basic love-either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city-Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos-eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only provided a powerful biblical theology, he also demonstrated that he knew the Romans’ literature, philosophy, politics, and history. He referenced their great authors with ease, quoted them favorably when possible, and showed how they fell short of Christian truth. He unmasked their political pretensions, showing that although Rome claimed to love justice, they really loved domination. He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that their intellectuals didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing that Christianity outstrips Platonism.

His critique of Rome was theological, meaningful, dialogical, timely, fair, reasoned, evangelistic, and eminently learned. Our evangelical churches can learn from this; we ought to encourage our people, our pastors, and our professors to nurture in one another the desire to exegete culture as well as Scripture, to cultivate the head as well as the heart, to always be ready to give reason for the hope within and to do so in a cogent and persuasive manner as Augustine did.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper’s biography and his Lectures on Calvinism showed us a Christian who, like Augustine, not only critiqued culture but made culture. He was a pastor, a journalist, a newspaper founder, a professor, a university founder, a parliament member, and a Prime Minister. From these manifold and unique vantage points, Kuyper sought to work out the implications of the gospel.

Kuyper was known for several teachings that framed his views on theology and culture. The first is antithesis: he believed that there is a great battle between the kingdoms of God and the kingdom of men, and that the intellectual elite in modern society tend to encourage a swan-step conformity to a-theistic and secular ideals. The Christian community needs to resist this conformity. The second is sphere sovereignty: he believed that various spheres of human culture (arts, sciences, politics, religion, etc.) each function because of a God-given purpose, are independent of one another as spheres, but are never independent of God as Lord. Christians, therefore, ought to resist false sacred/secular dichotomies in favor of allowing the Christian worldview undergird our culture work in these spheres.

The third is the cultural mandate: Kuyper believed that God created humans as cultural beings who ought to do their culture work to God’s glory. The fourth is the significance of culture: as T. M. Moore describes Kuyper’s view, “Redeemed culture-culture used under the lordship of Christ-is most conducive to promoting the well-being of people and the glory of God, while sinful culture undermines human dignity and leads to social and moral degradation.”* It is incumbent upon the Christian community to put forth a sustained effort in cultural matters.

From Kuyper, we learn the church’s need for a comprehensive and sustained approach to its cultural context, which includes not only cultural exegesis but constructive cultural work. We learn that we should not rely exclusively or even primarily on political coercion, but rather work in a comprehensive manner to be salt and light in every sphere of culture.

Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus

Because the blog format is limited, I will be concise to the extreme in mentioning that: (1) from Hubmaier, we learn the necessity of preaching the full gospel with its prophetic edge “against” our cultural context (though truly this is to be “for” our cultural context), even if we suffer greatly for doing so; (2) from Lewis, we learn the power of speaking and writing the gospel in an aesthetically attractive manner, and of doing so through many years of hard intellectual work; (3) from Schaeffer, we learn to do deep cultural exegesis, to proclaim the gospel in the context of love and community, and to do so with confidence that the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of the world empirically and existentially; and (4) from Neuhaus we learn ways in which the church can retain her Christian convictions while standing in the public square seeking to glorify God and promote the common good.

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*T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 106.