A Soul-Penetrating Picture

Tone is one of the most important and least understood aspects of writing. As discussed in Write Better, the tone of a piece can convey more power, be more effective in communicating content than the bare information of our words.

Usually tone is created over paragraphs and pages. But it can also be achieved in just a few words. Consider one example from Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth.

At the deepest level all hearers of the truth are the same hearer, and when I try to picture him or her, what I picture is the one who is famous for having asked to hear, who took a long drag on his cigarette and through narrowed eyes asked, “What is truth?”*

In this sentence, Buechner imagines Pontius Pilate in a modern-day setting. He has a tough job. Rome has given him a promotion, yes, but it is to oversee a troublesome backwater of the Empire. The locals are constantly causing trouble with their nationalist dreams and zealous, unorthodox spiritual beliefs.

Now he is irritated to have been awakened, early in the morning, by these vexing people to settle some arcane religious dispute. Pilate has seen it all—the deception, the grasping for control, the violence. He is under no illusions that people operate out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. They may talk a good game of morals but ultimately they are self-serving.

Pilate knows just what these leaders are up to when they bring this innocent man to him for judgment, and it isn’t truth. No one wants truth. They just want power.

And how does Buechner convey all this? Through his tone.

And how does he convey his tone? In a sketch drawn with just two telling details—a long drag on a cigarette and narrowed eyes—while asking “What is truth?” In just a dozen words Buechner evokes every scene of every hardened detective in the film noir genre that exposes the dark underside of humanity.

How much more effective this is than saying, “Pilate was a cruel, jaded, Roman administrator,” which merely invokes facts and explanation!

Through memory and emotion, tone can do what every writer wants. It captures readers with a fuller, deeper, more soul-penetrating picture of the truth—in this case a sense that at some level, we are all Pilate.

* * * * * * *

*Thanks to Brian Zahnd for focusing my attention on Buechner’s quote in Zahnd’s powerful chapter on Pontius Pilate in his book, The Wood Between the Worlds. Among Zahnd’s many insights, he writes that when Jesus refuses to answer the governor, Pilate’s “fear gives way to anger: ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ (Jn 19:10). And there it is! Pilate has answered his own question. What is truth? For Pilate the truth is nothing but power—especially the power to kill.” (The Wood Between the Worlds, pp. 73, 78)

A Book That Reorganized My Mind

Why was it almost impossible not to believe in God five hundred years ago, and now it’s almost impossible to believe in God? That is the driving question behind Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Having read a half dozen books which tout the significance of and make substantial use of Taylor’s magnum opus, I was convinced I finally needed to take the plunge myself. And indeed Taylor’s work reorganized much of the furniture in my mind—and even forced me to rethink the purpose of the rooms themselves!

One example: In the medieval age, not everyone was expected to live up to a spiritual or civic ideal. But society as a whole did so, encapsulated in the famous formula: “the clergy pray for all, the Lords defend all, the peasants labor for all.” Each group served the other two. As a result, the nobles and the peasants, for example, are not expected to live the same specialized spiritual life as the clergy, who in a sense made up in that department what the rest lacked.

All that changed with the Reformation after which all were expected to grow into the ideal, whether Catholic or Protestant. The aim is for all to flourish as God intended. Having read Taylor, I now see that expectation in every sermon, every book, every political speech, every commercial. We are all children of the Reformation. Whether from a democratic, totalitarian, conservative, liberal, religious, atheist, or consumerist persuasion—all aspire to have all people flourish (each with their own formula for what is “perfect”).

Which leads to an irony of our day: If this is the age of relativism and supposed tolerance, why are so many absolutely committed to their brand of Reform even to the point of anger and violence (witness the French Revolution, the tens of millions killed by idealist Communist and fascist regimes, and similar justifications for force and violence today)? And what can be done to disrupt the tendency to compel others to follow our agendas? How might we undo our bent to create our version of the “New Humanity” or “New Society” by paradoxically treating people as less than human?

And that’s what this masterful book does over and over—generates huge questions.

Another example: Taylor makes the case that we live in a world of so many possible belief options that everyone is haunted by doubt. (As Taylor puts it, we are all cross-pressured.)

The believer is haunted by, “What if God, heaven, the resurrection—what if it’s just not true? I’m pretty sure it’s true, but what if it’s not? Am I wasting my life?”

At the same time, unbelievers are haunted by, “What if God, heaven, the resurrection—what if it is all true? I’m pretty sure it isn’t true, but what if it is? What may I be missing?”

I could go on for pages about the provocative, game-changing ideas in the book. I haven’t even mentioned his concepts of our disenchanted world and the buffered self which many other books make first-rate use of (such as Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder).

Taylor’s book is not without weaknesses. It seems churlish to mention things that aren’t in a book that already has 775 pages of dense text. Nonetheless, though he describes step by step how the changes over the last five hundred years happened among elite thinkers, he doesn’t do much to unpack the causes or motivations behind those steps.

Besides generating a devotional focus on death, for example, how else did the deaths of one-third of Europe in the Bubonic Plague affect religious thinking? And how else might have the excesses of the papacy and Luther’s reactions led to the various developments Taylor identifies? Also, how might the discovery of the New World have affected the view of our cosmos and ourselves? And in what ways did the continuous religious wars of the sixteenth century spur the development of Natural Law (and the Enlightenment) in attempts to find ways to settle disputes that didn’t rely on religion? (Okay, maybe all that can be A Secular Age: The Prequel.)

Second, Taylor writes in an unnecessarily arcane academic style. For decades I have been an editor of academic books on philosophy, history, and religion. Even so I could only read about ten pages a day because I had to read most of his very dense pages twice to have any chance of decoding his prose. Luckily we have James Smith’s summary of Taylor, How (Not) to Be Secular, which provides some help with comprehension in a briefer package.

A Secular Age is not for everyone. But I was glad I labored through this stunning book, giving me so much to chew on and appreciate.

Grateful for the Government?

I Must Betray You offers a dramatic window into the repressive nightmare that was the Romanian dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Set in late 1989, the novel follows the story of Christian, a seventeen-year-old student in Bucharest.

The plot seamlessly introduces us to how the web of government informers and surveillance warped every aspect of life—school, family, friendships, romance, groceries, jobs, health, prisons, punishment, and protests.

A neighbor of mine who was in eighth grade in Romania when the revolution occurred, told me that this book was eerily like the life he led–food shortages, government-sponsored violence, fear of informers everywhere, restrictions on travel, jobs, and education. Like Christian in the novel, my neighbor even marched with the protestors while army soldiers with loaded weapons watched.

Some people in this country say our government is so bad it would be better to throw it away and start over. After all, things couldn’t get any worse. If we are tempted this Independence Day to think that we live in bad times, this story reminds us to be grateful for what we have—for things could be worse, much worse.

Image by Larry White from Pixabay

“Just This Once?”

One of the many ironies of our marriage was that Phyllis thought (at least theoretically!) that the husband should be the head of the house, and I didn’t. As you have seen in the last several posts here and here and here, I thought we should be a team.

One time, however, about ten years into our marriage, some friends of ours were in a crisis. Phyllis was very distressed. Their situation consumed her. So I said, “Go over to their house. Be with them. I’ll watch our kids.” But she thought that might be presumptuous because even though we cared a lot about these people, we weren’t super close at the time.

“No,” I said, “it’s fine. They’ll be delighted to see you.” Yet despite how upset she was about what was going on in their lives, she wouldn’t go.

Back and forth we went. I encouraged her to go, and she refused.

She piled up reasons—she’d be intruding; there were probably many people with them already; it was too late in the evening. Yet I knew exactly what would help her even if she didn’t. Not only would she encourage them if she went, but they would be a comfort to her in a way I wasn’t able to. Their centeredness, faith, and peaceful strength would lift her up.

Finally, in joking desperation, I pleaded, “Phyllis, won’t you please submit—just this once!”

She laughed, brightened up, and then said with stern cheerfulness, “Okay, mister, but you’ve had your once!”

And that was indeed the only time in our years of marriage that I asked. But it was so worthwhile because she came back a few hours later thoroughly refreshed. Her mind and heart were much more at ease. Our friends were also very glad for her visit. And the friendship of the four of us began to grow more deeply after that.

All of that, however, didn’t stop Phyllis from reminding me regularly over the decades, “You’ve had your once, Le Peau!”

Paul’s Shocking Ideas about Marriage

My brother-in-law was fond of saying with a wry grin, “Wives are supposed to submit with joy, and husbands are supposed to . . . er, are supposed to . . . um, I always forget that part!”

Many have tripped over what the apostle Paul says in his infamous passage about marriage. That’s the one in his letter to the Ephesians where he talks about submission. What he actually says, though, may surprise some–including my brother-in-law.

First, Paul introduces this section on husbands and wives with, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission for Paul is mutual, not just something a wife offers her husband.

This is consistent with his whole letter which tells us that unity, oneness in Christ, summarizes the whole purpose and aims of God (Eph 1:9-10). One particular example of this is the unity that different groups of people, Jews and Gentiles in this case, were to have in Christ (Eph 2:14; 3:6). In fact such oneness is the key evidence for the principalities and powers that they are no longer in charge but that God is instead (Eph 3:10-11).

The next three chapters are about how this unity is to be maintained (Eph 4:2-3). Humility, gentleness, patience, and love are to characterize how all Christians relate to all other Christians. Pride, harshness, and domination are not how Jews and Gentiles, or men and women, should relate to each other.

Second, when it comes to Paul’s specific instructions, note that he addresses wives and husbands separately (Eph 5:22-24 and 25-33). What’s the significance of this? For one, Paul never says, “Husbands, make sure your wives submit!” The instruction is to wives, not husbands. It’s an issue between a wife and her Lord. Husbands need to leave Ephesians 5:22-24 to their wives and not use it as a weapon in their relationship. The same is true for wives regarding 5:25-33.

Third, Paul devotes three verse to wives but nine verse to husbands—three times as much. Why? In the typically patriarchal culture of Paul’s day, what he says to wives may not sound that new except for the key point he emphasizes—the motivation and means for being a wife is centered on Christ.

Everything Paul says to husbands, however, is very different from what they would have heard from their society. So Paul needs extra time to impress these differences on them. And what does Paul say?

He says husbands are to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Husbands are to die—like Jesus. Christ sacrificed his life, set aside his status and authority, so the church could flourish in holiness and union with God (Eph 5:25-27). The main job of a husband is not to rule, not to command, not to decide, but to die. If his career goals get in the way of the good of his wife, his ambitions must die. If the part of the country he wants to live in gets in the way of his wife flourishing in Christ, that must die.

Years ago my wife Phyllis felt stunted in her spiritual life by the church we were in. I took that seriously, even though I liked the church. I liked the people. I liked the music. I liked the preaching. It was great for me. After many months of discussion and prayer, however, we were not able to resolve the issue. Then I remembered that Ephesians 5 meant that my wife’s spiritual well-being came before mine. I had to die. So I told her, “It’s up to you. If you want us to go to a different church, we will. I want what’s best for you.”

The primary job of a husband is not to make sure his wife stays in her lane. Rather, if she has gifts in hospitality, generosity, leadership, evangelism, compassion, teaching, getting people organized, or more, my role is to support, encourage, and pave the way for her. After all, as Genesis 1:28 says, God’s design for men and women is to rule the created order together as God’s representatives.

My parents had a tremendously positive influence on me by modeling a marriage of true partnership. But throughout the five decades of my own marriage, Ephesians 5 had more. My love for Phyllis focused me on making sure she had every opportunity to grow closer to God and use all the many gifts God gave her.

Now if you are very good and very quiet and if you listen very carefully, in my next time installment I will tell you a story full of twists and turns, pathos and poetry (not to mention uproarious surprises) in which Andy tries to do something good for Phyllis, and she just won’t cooperate.

Image: Wedding rings by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Image: Church from Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Warrenville, IL.

God Said to Them . . . Rule

My mom and dad offered me a wonderful model of married life (as I wrote here). They led our family as partners. Interestingly, my dad (though not a religious person) nonetheless related to my mom in a way that I later found was very consistent with a biblical perspective. And what did I find?

At the very beginning, Genesis 1 offers this picture:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:27)

Humanity, male and female, is created in God’s image. This is emphasized by repeating it in three slightly different ways. Together we bear God’s image. And what does it mean to do that? The answer is in the very next verse:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (1:28)

The image of God is not a character trait (like kindness) nor an innate capacity (like consciousness). Rather it is a role, a responsibility. God calls us to be his priests in the cosmic garden he has just made. We are to be his representatives, his vice regents for the world he has created. And note how this is to be done! Men and women are to rule together—“God blessed them and said to them, ‘…Rule over…’” They are to be a team.

This joint project, tragically, was bent by sin. The result was a disruption of God’s original design in two ways. First, instead of harmoniously ruling jointly, husbands would rule over women (3:16). Second, instead of enjoying their rule over “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth” (1:29), “through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (3:17).

God’s project over and over through the Bible has ever since been to undo the effects of sin by restoring our relationship with him, with each other, and with nature. The primary means for achieving this was through the person and work of Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10, 13-16).

Much could be said about this theme throughout the Old and New Testaments, but consider just one remarkable passage from Paul. He writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife” (1 Cor 7:4). In the new humanity that Christ creates, the effects of the fall are reversed so that husbands don’t only rule over wives. They rule together, over each other.

This would have blown the minds of the patriarchal world of Paul’s day. That’s just not how Romans, Greeks, or Jews commonly thought. Paul was instead calling on his readers to return to God’s original design of Genesis 1. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that such mutuality only concerned this one aspect of marriage. When introducing how husbands and wives should relate, he offers a very broad instruction to both, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

“Ephesians 5? The Ephesians 5 which notoriously says wives should submit to their husbands, you’re going to tell me that that Ephesians 5 is about mutuality and about ruling together?” I do in fact have a few more things to say about Ephesians 5. That will be my next installment in this series.

St. Louis Botanical Garden image by Andrew T. Le Peau.

Mom and Dad, Husband and Wife

“Your dad and I have divided family responsibilities 50-50,” Mom would tell us kids. “I make all the small decisions, and he makes all the big decisions. I decide what jobs to take, what cities to live in, what houses to buy. He decides who gets to be president and whether or not we go to war.”

No, Mom was not subtly suggesting that she had my dad under her thumb. Dad was no dishrag. My young backside gave proof of that! Instead, Mom and Dad made decisions together.

Even in the 1950s, I was growing up in a household that modeled partnership and mutual respect in a marriage. Yes, they were traditional in that my mom didn’t work outside the home, but she was a strong, mature, wise, loving person who my dad respected and listened to.

But there’s something else you should know about my dad. He was a confirmed bachelor for forty-six years. He had decided he would not get married because he had never seen a happily married couple. And as he told us, the reason for the unhappiness was always money.

So when my mom won him over and they got married, he decided to never let money be an issue between them. That meant two things for him. First, he would always try to make enough money so that it didn’t have to be a problem. But second, he was never going to argue about money with mom regardless of how much money they did or didn’t have.

How did this work out in practice? I will give you one example. Once my mom and dad were at a store and my mom showed him two purses she liked. Since she couldn’t decide between them, she asked dad which one she should buy. Of course one was more expensive than the other.

Without hesitation, my dad said, “Buy both.”

Extravagance wasn’t the lesson I got from this episode or from watching my parents for decades. After all, they had both lived through the Depression, and frugality was baked into my DNA.

No, what I learned was how a husband and wife can function together, how they can make decisions together, and how right and good it can be for a husband and wife to defer to each other.

Within some Christian circles today, this is not always the way things are viewed. But even though my father was not a religious person, as I looked more closely at Scripture in the years ahead, I found out how close both of them were to a truly biblical perspective.

What is that perspective? Stay tuned. I’ll take that up at my next installment in this new series of posts.

Image by Mohammed Ryad Hossain Salman from Pixabay

The Words of a 20th-Century Prophet

Today, May 15, 2024, is the fortieth anniversary of the death of Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984). To mark the occasion The Gospel Coalition released a retrospective piece on this influential twentieth-century Christian apologist by long-time Schaeffer associate Dick Keyes .

I also wrote on how Schaeffer spoke prophetically about one of the most pressing needs that the church has today—showing love to each other. If you’d like to see it, just click here.

+     +     +

Why is showing love so important? As I noted earlier, one reason among many is that if we don’t show love to other Christians, we can’t expect non-Christians to believe in Jesus (John 17:20-21). In  Schaeffer’s book addressing this, The Mark of the Christian, he assumes something that I fear many Christians have lost. He assumes that evangelism is a priority. Instead, many certainly act like politics or the culture wars are more important. Yet when we disagree with anger and vitriol, we handicap our ability to draw people to Jesus.

My wife and I can’t be the only one who had a neighbor say, “I don’t want to be a Christian because I don’t want to be like them.”

“What do you mean? Be like them how?”

“Christians are just so hateful,” came the reply. Jesus would consider this response justified.

Sadly, the internet can bring out the worst in all of us–both in what we post and in how we react to those we disagree with. These days we seem to assume the worst possible motivations for the actions and words of others.

Instead it is time to give each other the benefit of the doubt and find room for grace.

A Simple Key to Great Conversations

“Yes, I’d like to be better at talking to people. But I always blank out. What do I say?”

The beauty is we don’t have to say much at all. Why? Because most people want the opportunity to talk about themselves. All we have to do is ask them.

In my last post I mentioned Holleman’s four mindsets that prepare us for talking to others. In The Six Conversations, she also offers (not surprisingly) six types of questions we can ask that largely cover the scope of our lives. While she gives dozens of examples with excellent advice on how to use them, here a few of the sorts of questions she suggests.

◊ How are things going with your [roommate, parents, siblings]?
◊ If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would it be?
◊ What upcoming plans do you have with friends?

◊ What’s made you grateful recently?
◊ What are you looking forward to?
◊ Wow. That’s a big deal. How did you feel about that?

◊ What have you been doing to relax lately?
◊ What restaurants/new meals have you tried lately?
◊ Was that [recent experience] refreshing or draining for you?

◊ What have you been learning about or thinking about lately?
◊ Who else have you talked to about these ideas? [social]
◊ How do those ideas make you feel? [emotional]
◊ Have those ideas made you think about doing anything different? [volitional]

◊ In light of your [news, concern, complaint, problem, opportunity], what choices do you have?
◊ What’s your next step?
◊ Do you have any goals you are working on? Or as a friend recently asked me, “What big goals would you like to accomplish before your kids take away your car keys?” (!)

◊ What’s your spiritual journey been like?
◊ What spiritual traditions do you resonate with?
◊ What kind of spiritual environment did you grow up in?

To keep great conversations and relationships growing, it’s key to be nonjudgmental, to ask follow-up questions, and not be too quick to give our perspective.

My Three-Question Starter Kit
I keep reviewing this list so the questions become more second nature, but if you want just three to remember, here’s the ones I’ve used:

◊ What’s the story behind [your pet, the college you picked, your interest in ____, etc.]?
What surprised (excited, disappointed) you about [your weekend, the test, the trip, etc.]?
◊ Before we go, what else would you like me ask that you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?

Holleman has so much more to offer in her wise, practical book which can lead us out of the isolation and polarization we’ve felt. If we can stay curious and believe the best about others, we may not only help others be less lonely, we may also help ourselves.

Giraffe image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay
Friends image by Eva Michálková from Pixabay

Learning How to Talk to People Again

The 2018 Cigna health study reported that nearly half of all Americans said they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. Younger generations are even lonelier. And that was before Covid! Other countries report the same.

Loneliness is not only a mental health issue. As I mentioned here, it is often at the root of our political polarization.

Much of this is because we are isolated and have forgotten how to talk to each other. How do we get out of this cycle? As someone who is not a great conversationalist, I found The Six Conversations by Heather Holleman, associate professor at Penn State, to be wise and practical. The place to start, she says, is with four mindsets.

Be curious. Everyone has a backstory. Everyone has childhood memories. Everyone has learned hard or happy life lessons. Discovering this can be as easy as saying, “I’m so curious. Tell me about __________.”

By doing so we show that we value other people and open a door to connection. I’ve also seen that once a curiosity question is asked, it often gets turned back to the asker. “OK, I told you how I like to relax. What about you?”

Believe the best. Social media and news media have trained us to start with a mindset of judging, shaming, and changing others. Much better for us and them to begin with acceptance, sympathy, and respect. Remember the grandparent or friend whose face lights up when they see us? We can be that for others.

We all know that in marriage or parenting, relationships just go better if we don’t jump to conclusions about motives or intentions. You may have heard the saying, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” How much better it is to start with that assumption if the laundry didn’t get folded instead of accusing someone of laziness!

Express genuine concern. Holleman says that this means we are invested in another person. So yes, we start with sympathy or empathy, but we try to find appropriate ways to act too. “Investment doesn’t mean to take on everyone’s problems as your own, but it does mean you position yourself to support others as you can” (p. 33).

It means celebrating with those who celebrate and mourning with those who mourn. And if you’re not sure what the best way would be to do either of those, just ask about some specific options. “I want to hear more. What would be best—a walk, a call, going for coffee?” Or “How can I help—taking the car in for repair, watching the kids, bringing a meal?”

Share yourself. The first three mindsets can have an amazing effect. But if we never talk about our own victories or defeats, the other person can feel like they are our project.

While we shouldn’t say we know just how someone feels about trouble at work, a parent being sick, or conflict with a neighbor (because we don’t know exactly how someone else feels!), we can say how we feel. “It makes me sad knowing you are in such a tough situation.”

After listening well and asking follow-up questions, we could also say, “What you’re describing makes me wonder what thoughts you might have about a situation I’m in.”

Taking in all four mindsets could be a lot. So start small. If we can grow in even one of the first two (be curious; believe the best), we can see real changes in our relationships.

Holleman offers much more to guide us into healthier and deeper relationships. The four mindsets are just the first chapter! In my next installment, I’ll focus on just one other aspect of her excellent book—how to ask great questions.