Recommended: New Edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals

When I was a seminary student, John Piper published a book titled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (B&H, 2002). I remember reading through it shortly after it came out. Piper argued that the spirit of professionalization was choking out authentic gospel ministry among pastors. Even then, as a seminarian with a burgeoning interest in Baptist history, I understood that Southern Baptist pastors had drunk deeply from the well of professionalization. Piper suggested that pastors should focus more on those matters that are spiritual and eternal, recovering a radical view of ministry that speaks prophetically to the anemic, professionalized ministry that pervades American evangelicalism.

I was delighted to learn that Piper has published an updated and expanded edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (B&H, 2013). It has been a joy to revisit this excellent book in the past few weeks. I’ve been encouraged by some of my favorite chapters from the first edition. Pastors can’t be reminded too often that God’s uppermost concern is his own glory, that he is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, and that we must avoid the “debtor’s ethic” of attempting to pay God back in gratitude for all he has done for us in Christ. I also enjoyed being reminded of Piper’s emphasis on reading Christian biography, keeping up with the original languages (Bitzer the Banker makes Finn the Professor look like a rube in this regard), and praying for the seminaries. These continue to be some of my favorite chapters.

But I also enjoyed reading the six new chapters that Piper has written for this new edition. In chapter four, Piper shows that God’s delighting chiefly in his own glory most emphatically does not mean that he does not delight in us. Piper has been frequently been misunderstood on this very point, so I appreciate this addition. In chapter six, Piper summarizes the argument of his excellent book God is the Gospel. The greatest gift bestowed upon us in the gospel isn’t forgiveness of sins or eternity in the new heavens and earth, but God himself. In chapter thirteen, Piper takes on (mostly younger) preachers who seem more concerned with entertainment than being rigorously biblical. We pastors need to let the Word do the work, especially in an entertainment-saturated culture.

In a closely related theme, chapter eighteen urges us to let the text set the tone for the sermon. Some pastors are almost always chippy when they preach, while others are uniformly somber and serious. I think it’s safe to say the greater temptation for most is the former. But the Bible speaks to us in many ways, and the sermon needs to be shaped by the text that is doing the speaking. In chapter twenty-two, Piper opens up about some of his own sin struggles and urges pastors to mortify their besetting sins by the power of the gospel for the sake of their own souls and those of the people to whom they minister. In chapter twenty-seven, Piper urges pastors to take care of their bodies through diet and exercise—a needed and helpful word for many of us, myself included. Healthy bodies not only normally contribute to longer life, but they also help produce sharper minds.

I’m very grateful for John Piper’s ministry and for his willingness to revise and expand Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. One of the very best books on pastoral ministry is now even better. I would highly recommend that every pastor and seminary student read this book. In it, you will find some of the best of Piper’s theology and emphases in summary form, directly applied to faithful pastoral ministry.

If you want to learn more about the book, consider the following two videos. The first is a promotional video Piper filmed. The second is a conversation about the book between Piper and David Mathis of Desiring God Ministries.

(Note: I appreciate the publisher providing me with an advanced copy of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals for me to review for Between the Times.)

Briefly Noted: Piper, Daniels, and the Future of the Book

When it comes to reading serious books, Americans set low standards and consistently fail to achieve them. I’m not saying that Americans don’t read. Some of them do. (Who could deny that US Weekly has not enabled Americans to bring depth and import to the subject of celebrity clothes, hair, and makeup, and to the intricacies of the Pitt-Jolie marriage?). But we tend not to read the great books or the serious books. And now the question arises as to whether “the book” will survive at all, at least in the form of a hard copy text with covers and pages in between.

Of the scores of essay and articles recently written on the topic, two have piqued my attention. I’ll offer a summary of the two (one from The Chronicle Review, the other from The New Criterion), and then a brief response:

 “The Past, Present, and Future of the Book” by Andrew Piper[1]

 “What would the world be like without books?” This is the question Piper asks to introduce his essay, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Book.” From Origen’s Hexapla in the 3rd-century to an idea of a “book in a can,” a student project from McGill University, people have dreamed or speculated on the possible mediums through which we might deliver the contents of a “book.” As Piper says, “ever since its inception, it seems, we have been dreaming beyond the book.” With the dawn of e-books, tablets, and cell phones the size of small phone books, e-reading is the newest medium, the latest dream “beyond the book.” Piper argues for a balanced approach in reading: welcome the reality of e-reading but not at the cost of the book.

Books are part of us and, for that reason, Piper claims we ought to think well about how we read.  “Books have been important to us not just as vehicles of mental transport, but because our interactions with them span so many domains of sensory and physical experience.” Thus books make us consider the kinds of experience we have through reading them. One of these experiences is the redundancy of ideas and information that inherently belongs to human communication. Piper states redundancy “[is] not something that only belongs to ‘primitive cultures; it is a basic condition of communicative reality, of producing mental understanding.”

This notion of redundancy is integral to Piper’s argument, for both mediums of reading–hard copy books and e-readers–build upon and stem from redundancy. He states, “The significance of redundancy for human communication is to my mind one of the most persuasive reasons why the printed book should still matter to us today. But it is also a compelling argument for the importance of new forms of electronic reading.” That is, both forms of reading communicate ideas, true or false, from one human to others, and both do so by utilizing information and ideas from previous writings.

Piper then claims that these different types, or mediums, of written communication have a qualitative not just quantitative effect. “The aggregation, and not the singularization, of communication is the condition of more complex thought.” This inevitably means that there is not one medium of written communication that trumps all others. Piper concludes: “We may need to put down the book from time to time, but we should make sure not to let the computer become the new book. The universal medium, like the universal library, is a dream that does more harm than good.”

 “Loss & Gain, or the Fate of the Book” by Anthony Daniels[2]

 In every revolution the new sweeps away (in varying degrees) the old. With the dawn of the digital revolution the question is whether the printed book will be the old thing swept away by the new. This question is the topic of the article “Loss & Gain, or the Fate of the Book” by Anthony Daniels. As self-professed book lover, something in between a bibliophile and bibliomaniac (p. 5), Daniels explores his own feelings about and desires for the digital revolution. In sum, he sees the future–printed books and bookstores decreasing and e-books and online bookstores increasing–becoming the present but argues that the printed book ought to survive through this change. The old ought not be totally swept away in and by the new. For, as his title indicates, “every gain is also a loss” (p. 9).

The article explores the nature of the gain(s) and loss(es). One of the losses is the reality of “deacquisitioning” in libraries across the world. Daniels tells us that he has learned from booksellers that public institutions often get rid of or destroy books, even rare (valuable) books, that are willed to those institutions, to the shock and sadness of book-lovers such as himself. A cause for “deacquisitioning” is a matter of supply and demand: “If they [library patrons] want Dan Brown rather than the Summa Theologica, then that is what libraries should carry. The customer is king” (p. 7). (One is not slow to think that this might have something to do with the “customer is always right” mentality that is reshaping the way such institutions educate students, i.e., customers.) Another cause of “deacquisitioning” is the need libraries have for space on their shelves. Though the digital revolution is underway, publishers have not yet totally ceded their ground and the human interest in knowledge is still strong.

Nevertheless, Daniels observes that the times are ‘a changing.’ He writes, “it is indisputable that the half-millennial hegemony of the printed page in intellectual life is now coming to an end” (p. 7). He cites the decline in newspaper and printed magazine subscriptions. (For example, Newsweek recently announced the end of its print magazine. All its content is now online: read about it, online, here.) Moreover, recent studies show that children spend less time reading now than a generation ago. Information and entertainment are now delivered via screens like the one you’re reading now. The studies found that those who spent more time on such screens than reading did worse academically, but this does not prove that digital reading/viewing is the cause of worse performance (see p. 7). The way we think seems to be changing with the way we read.

The question, then, is what to do. What should book-lovers and screen-lovers alike do? Down the line of supply, what should publishers do? Daniels argues that whether or not the printed book survives, he is “firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise” (p. 9). Daniels believes this, perhaps against the trend, because books are more aesthetically pleasing than screens (p. 8) and, more significantly, it remains to be seen how digital everything will positively shape human character. “A deterioration in human character consequent upon the demise of the book will be, for the inveterate reader, an apologia pro vita sua” (p. 7). (To wit, how many men go from reading a theological blog in one hour to looking at porn in another hour? While not the cause, has digitized everything not made this easier?) Finally, the human imagination has been stirred for many years by way of reading and writing books–connections not known become manifest when one reads a book about a new person, place, or thing (especially if that person, place, or thing deals with God’s kingdom). To summarize, Daniels does not argue for the cancelation of the Internet or all things digital. Rather, he argues for a chastened view of the digital revolution, and a hearty respect for and enjoyment of the book.

A Brief Response

 Nothing makes my heart beat faster than fellow bibliophiles offering some hope that hard copy books will maintain a place in America’s social and cultural life.  However, I’ll take a stab at being even-handed, and try to note some positive features of each format.

I’ll start with e-books. One of the foremost benefits of digitization is the fact that e-books can be distributed instantaneously (and relatively inexpensively) to anybody on the globe who has a computer or some sort of e-reader. This fact has positive implications for people, reading centers, and churches in the developing world, which are now able to build a library quickly and without an inordinate amount of physical space. Second, travelers might enjoy the fact that they can pack “loads” of books into their e-reader without their luggage or carry-on being weighted down by hardcopy. Third, publishers like the fact that they can make trial runs of books without heavy printing press costs. Fourth, one’s library is less subject to destruction by fire or flood. Fifth, it appears that e-readers will be more friendly toward earth’s resources. There you have it—my begrudging acknowledgement that e-readers might be beneficial.

As for hard copy books, I’ll start by saying that I like the look, the feel, the weight, and even the smell of a well-bound book. I prefer that experience to that of holding a cheaply made but expensively priced plastic e-reader. Second, I like to interact extensively with the academic books I read and I do so by taking notes in the margins, underlining a pencil and ruler (nerdy, I know). This is more easily and pleasingly done with a physical, material pencil. Or so I assert. Third, I never need to “charge” my hardback Modern Library edition of Augustine’s Confessions, Hackett’s Dialogues of Plato, or Akin’s God on Sex.  Fourth, I can build a physical library in my office or home which allows me to have discussions with my wife and children, or with guests and neighbors, about the books displayed. A library display is a way of saying what one thinks is important to read, reflect upon, and discuss. Fifth, the existence of hard copy books allows me the pleasure of browsing at Barnes & Noble or, even better, a used bookstore.

One final note: Because God the Trinity consists of God the Father (speaker), God the Son (Word), and God the Spirit (receptor), and because God has created us as lingual beings and has revealed himself to us through human language, we are a people who care about the written word. We care about the written word in general, but more to the point we care about the written word of God. Because God has spoken to us in the written word, (1) we want to make that word available to persons from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Hopefully the digital revolution, together with traditional hard copy books, can help forward the process of making the word accessible universally. Further, (2) we want to work to reverse the current Western trend because, as John Piper writes, “when one moves away from reading, one moves away from a precious, God-given, edifying, stabilizing connection with God’s written word.”[3]To the extent that e-readers help to reverse this trend toward non-literacy, I’ll be profoundly grateful.

[1] Andrew Piper, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Book,” in The Chronicle Review (November 9, 2012): B14-15.

[2] Anthony Daniels, “Loss & Gain, or the Fate of the Book,” in The New Criterion 31, no. 3 (November 2012): 4–9

[3] John Piper, “Missions, Orality, and the Bible: Thoughts on Pre-, Less-, and Post-literate Cultures” (accessed Nov 16, 2005 at the Desiring God website).

Praying For Our Seminaries

Today marks our fall commencement exercises at Southeastern Seminary. In a couple of hours, I’ll sit with my faculty colleagues as we proudly watch our students walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. I’m so thankful for these students, dozens of whom I’ve taught in my classes. It will be an exciting day.

Graduation always reminds me of the strategic importance of theological seminaries. Southeastern Seminary is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, an ecclesiastical tradition that doesn’t require a seminary education for ordination or ministry placement. The educational requirements for pastors and other ministry leaders are left up to the autonomous local churches that call them. Nevertheless, most Southern Baptists agree that seminaries are beneficial; that’s why we fund six of them through our denominational budget, the Cooperative Program.

In his excellent book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper includes a chapter titled “Brothers, Pray for the Seminaries.” In that chapter, Piper lists twenty-one ways that he prays for seminaries such as Southeastern.

  1. That the supreme, heartfelt and explicit goal of every faculty member might be to teach and live in such a way that his students come to admire the glory of God with white-hot intensity (1 Corinthians 10:31Matthew 5:16).
  2. That, among the many ways this goal can be sought, the whole faculty will seek it by the means suggested in 1 Peter 4:11: Serve “in the strength which God supplies: in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
  3. That the challenge of the ministry might be presented in such a way that the question rises authentically in students’ hearts: “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
  4. That in every course the indispensable and precious enabling of the Holy Spirit will receive significant emphasis in comparison to other means of ministerial success (Galatians 3:5).
  5. That teachers will cultivate the pastoral attitude expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:10 and Romans 15:18: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. . . . I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles.”
  6. That the poverty of spirit commended in Matthew 5:3 and the lowliness and meekness commended in Colossians 3:12 and Ephesians 4:2 and 1 Peter 5:5-6will be manifested through the administration, faculty, and student body.
  7. That the faculty might impress upon students by precept and example the immense pastoral need to pray without ceasing and to despair of all success without persevering prayer in reliance on God’s free mercy (Matthew 7:7-11;Ephesians 6:18).
  8. That the faculty will help the students feel what an unutterably precious thing it is to be treated mercifully by the holy God, even though we deserve to be punished in hell forever (Matthew 25:4618:23-35Luke 7:4247).
  9. That, because of our seminary faculties, hundreds of pastors, 50 years from now, will repeat the words of John Newton on their death beds: “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great Savior.”
  10. That the faculty will inspire students to unqualified and exultant joy in the venerable verities of Scripture. “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:8
  11. That every teacher will develop a pedagogical style based on James Denney’s maxim: “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
  12. That in the treatment of Scripture there will be no truncated estimation of what is valuable for preaching and for life.
  13. That students will develop a respect for and use of the awful warnings of Scripture as well as its precious promises; and that the command to “pursue holiness” (Hebrews 12:14) will not be blunted, but empowered, by the assurance of divine enablement. “Now the God of peace . . . equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).
  14. That there might be a strong and evident conviction that the deep and constant study of Scripture is the best way to become wise in dealing with people’s problems. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  15. That the faculty may not represent the contemporary mood in critical studies which sees “minimal unity, wide-ranging diversity” in the Bible; but that they will pursue the unified “whole counsel of God” and help students see the way it all fits together. “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27).
  16. That explicit biblical insights will permeate all class sessions, even when issues are treated with language and paradigms borrowed from contemporary sciences.
  17. That God and his Word will not be taken for granted as the tacit “foundation” that doesn’t get talked about or admired.
  18. That the faculty will mingle the “severe discipline” of textual analysis with an intense reverence for the truth and beauty of God’s Word.
  19. That fresh discoveries will be made in the study of Scripture and shared with the church through articles and books.
  20. That faculty, deans, and presidents will have wisdom and courage from God to make appointments which promote the fulfillment of these petitions.
  21. And that boards and all those charged with leadership will be vigilant over the moral and doctrinal faithfulness of the faculty and exercise whatever discipline is necessary to preserve the biblical faithfulness of all that is taught and done.

You can read the entire chapter online for free at the Reformation 21 blog. Also, be on the lookout next year as B&H Academic releases an updated and expanded edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.

I hope you’ll pray for me, my faculty colleagues, and our students at Southeastern and other similar schools. And if you think about it today in particular, pray especially that the Lord will use our graduates to boldly proclaim Christ, advance his church, and make disciples of the lost here, there, and everywhere.