“That book of systematic theology is just a bunch of crap.”
I was sitting across from a bright, young college student, who was telling me why he was enamored with the Emergent movement. (Ironically, just before expressing his disdain for a popular theology book, he had told me that it was the humility of the Emergent advocates that had first attracted him.)
I asked my friend why he had such a problem with books about theology. “I tried to read some of it. I was so bored. There was nothing inspiring in it at all.” Coming to the theologian’s defense, I reminded my friend that looking for a warm fuzzy from a systematic theology textbook is like hoping to be inspired by the encyclopedia. Different books for different purposes.
But my conversation with this young college student caused me to reflect. My friend said he had been attracted to Emergent Village because of the inspiring nature of the theological conversation. The stories fired up his imagination. He came to believe that those of us in the more traditional camp unthinkingly cling to a bunch of uninspiring, dead doctrines.
When our lunch was over, I did not feel compelled to abandon my theological convictions and subscribe to the narrow-minded liberalism that is becoming increasingly characteristic of Emergent.
But I did come away with a lesson I hope to apply the rest of my life: Truth is beautiful. And if truth is beautiful in and of itself, then surely our presentation of truth should be beautiful as well.
In our postmodern age, it is not only important to make the case that a certain belief is true. We also need to make the presentation of that truth beautiful.
I realize now that I have never given much thought to the beauty of truth.
- How many times have I sought to win an argument by running down a list of Bible verses without pointing to the beautiful picture of the Bible’s complete storyline?
- How often have I pointed to the biblical evidence and historical precedent for believing in biblical inerrancy without painting the grander picture of a perfect God, condescending to humans in our language and yet who always tells the truth?
- How many times have I taught about the attributes of God without telling stories about God’s character that illuminate and reveal the beauty of our unchanging Father?
- How many times have I dealt with heavy issues of suffering and pain purely from an intellectual standpoint, not allowing the beauty of Christ’s willingness to suffer on the cross to inform my presentation?
On Trinity Sunday this year, I prepared a lesson for my Sunday morning class of 20-somethings about why we believe in the Trinity. At first, my goal was to arm them with Scripture so that they could debate a Jehovah’s Witness or a Oneness Pentecostal into the corner with Bible verses proving the Trinity.
But as I came to the end of my preparation, I felt something was missing. I could present the biblical proofs for the doctrine of the Trinity, but I felt I also needed to show why God’s Triune nature is beautiful.
The Trinity is more than a bare doctrine we can prove with a few Scripture verses. The Trinity is beautiful truth about God. The Trinity satisfies the yearning that we have for knowing God personally. We believe that the three Persons of the Trinity continuously pour out love to one another and receive love in return. The only way that “God is love” can be true is if God existed as a perfect community of self-giving love long before God had a creation to shower his love upon.
My lesson on the Trinity did indeed focus on the Bible passages that inform the doctrine of God. But I packaged those Bible truths within the awe-inspiring picture of the three Persons of the Trinity pouring out continuous love from eternity past.
The knowledge of God’s truth makes me want to know more about the Trinity; the beauty of God’s truth causes me to want to know the Trinity more personally and more deeply.
Do you ever wonder why stories often have a greater impact than debating the theological minutia of Bible interpretation?
C.S. Lewis could have written a fine theological treatise on what the world would have been like had Adam and Eve never sinned. But Perelandra worked much better. Lewis could have (and sometimes did) describe in colorful theological language the nature of the atonement, but Aslan sacrificing his life for rebellious Edmund fired up our imaginations. In his advice to aspiring writers, Lewis reminded them to describe truths vividly – not merely multiplying adjectives, but working hard to help people feel the beauty of the truths presented.
When I consider the phenomenal success of The Shack, the seminarian in me rises up and wants to make a detailed list of the book’s many theological aberrations. But perhaps the greater challenge for someone like me is to recognize the power of a good story and then to take a bestseller like The Shack as an incentive to write better stories.
Those of us who are decidedly in the Un-Emergent camp should not be smug in what we believe is theological accuracy. Getting our doctrines right is good. Systematic theologies are a terrific way to express those doctrines with precision. Debating the intricacies of Christian theology has its place (and I gladly take part in such discussions at times!).
But we need to make sure that our presentation of God’s truth is as beautiful as the truth itself. The Christian story is beautiful precisely because it is true.
True information without any inspiration leads to dead orthodoxy.
Inspiration without true information leads to heresy.
I hope to always be one who proclaims the truth beautifully.
Truth that is biblical.
Truth that is beautiful.
Truth that inspires.