The public has a taste for biographies of great people who on closer inspection turn out to be not so great after all. The curtain has been pulled back on Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa and even Jesus.
The very idea of preaching a single doctrine seems misguided, even though it’s far superior to preaching on neat themes that intrigue the consumers out there. So I didn’t expect to like reading Preaching the Atonement.
“Go back, Sam. I’m going to Mordor alone!” “Of course you are,” responds Sam, “and I’m coming with you!” He plunges into the river, gets in over his head and almost drowns before Frodo pulls him into the boat. Once Sam catches his breath, he explains: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo.
Could Peter Leithart be on to something when he calls 2 Kings 5 “the richest Old Testament story of baptism,” one that “anticipates Christian baptism”? The very thought of baptism makes me shudder. I remember mine, since my parents didn’t take me to be sprinkled as an infant.
Recently I browsed the front end of the religion section in my neighborhood bookstore, and I found dozens of Bibles: teen Bibles, “practical” Bibles, a travel Bible, a “businessman’s” Bible, Bibles narrated by great actors and captured on CD.
When I carried this book into a gas-station diner I saw the waitress look at the title and roll her eyes. I turned the book over. But was I ashamed of the gospel? Well, of course not—so I turned its face up again, wondering what else might happen.
The reason I am still in the ministry is because of the night I decided to leave the ministry. It was my day off. The phone rang, and it was the chaplain at a nearby hospital. Usually we would exchange pleasantries, but all she said was, “Come to the hospital—now.” I trusted the urgency in her voice and arrived in about ten minutes.
A quarter century ago, I dreamed of being a teaching pastor. I burst out of seminary like a wild mustang in the rodeo, an impatiently raring dean of a parish about to become a mini–divinity school. Congregations under my care would learn sound theology and be shaped as faithful disciples.
The best gift I ever received was something I never wanted. A few days before I finished my 12th and final year as pastor of a church I loved deeply, the congregation’s lay leader shuffled into my office.
One night over burgers and some libation, a seminary classmate declared, “Theology and exegesis won’t matter once you’re in the parish. All that will matter is whether you work hard, and whether they like you or not.” The rest of us scoffed, but now that I’ve been doing parish work for 25 years, I sometimes suspect that he’s right.
As our train ambled through the outskirts of London, I thought I would kill some time by quizzing my children on a few items I’d tried to instill in their brains as a little bonus above and beyond their school curricula. I elicited mild groans and chuckles when I asked, “How did the Gettysburg address begin?” and “Can you count to ten in Spanish?” But when I asked, “Can you name the books of the Bible?” a train rider across the aisle turned, and his eyes flew wide open.