Author Interview: J. Mark Bertrand

Posted by Tim Challies
In Author Interviews
February 12, 2008 @ 8:14 AM

J. Mark Bertrand is author of Rethinking Worldview, a recent release by Crossway. He was kind enough to answer some questions from Discerning Reader's Mark Tubbs.

Discerning Reader: Although yours is a book on worldview, ostensibly a discipline which requires an answer to any question, twice in the book you quote theologian Herman Bavinck: "Mystery is the vital element of Dogmatics.: Towards the end of the book you follow up that quote with your own statement that without mystery "you end up with a closed system that explains nothing but itself and endangers the truth it originally sought to illuminate.: Seeing that even some of the best theologians of our day, such as J.I. Packer, have been accused of settling for too much mystery, would you mind illuminating your statement further?

J. Mark Bertrand: If, in spite of all that was revealed to him, the Apostle Paul could compare the state of his own knowledge to seeing dimly in a mirror—if he could confess to only "knowing in part:—without the church at Corinth complaining that he'd settled for too much mystery, then we ought to be able to adopt a similar humility today. We are finite and fallen, which means there is an inherent limit to what we can know, and the effects of sin further diminish that faculty. Any explanatory system that lacks mystery, that answers all the unanswerables, only reveals its own bankruptcy.

Of course, people disagree on what constitutes mystery. For example, when I read the third chapter of the Westminster Confession, on God's decree, I find an elegant statement of what is revealed to us about how God works in the world, which also manages to preserve a sense of mystery. We're told God ordains everything that comes to pass—but not in such a way that he is sin's author, or that we lose our moral agency. We're given the what, in other words, but no speculation about the how. The Westminster divines were content to say, in essence, "we don't know exactly how God accomplishes his will, but we know from Scripture that he doesn't do it in the following ways.: Some people think that's going too far.

They're wrong, of course.

Bavinck's dictum is something I take quite literally. Mystery is the vital element. Its absence signals a lifelessness in the system of thought, signaling that at a certain point the systematician stopped thinking in terms of God's vast and complex creation and fell back on the logical necessities of the system to illuminate the shadows.

On the other hand, mystery as a system is a pretty lifeless thing as well. What could be more frustrating than ignoring the answers God does reveal?

DR: In your book you root wisdom squarely in the soil of faith. To what extent would "Those without faith cannot be wise: be a true statement? In view of God's economy of common grace, can a nonbeliever possess anything that could biblically be called wisdom?

JMB: The problem is that, like worldview, wisdom is a word than carries a variety of nuances in Scripture. In one passage, wisdom is praised and folly mocked, and in another God boasts about using foolishness to confound the wisdom of the wise. Obviously, a Christian account of wisdom has to take this diversity of usage into account.

For my book, I adopt the expedient of equating biblical wisdom not with knowledge but with obedience to God. This is a tricky, tentative approach, if for no other reason than that the Bible often uses wisdom, understanding and knowledge interchangeably. But thinking in terms of obedience helps us appreciate that there can be kinds of wisdom that are not ultimately wise. An unbeliever can certainly possess wisdom—God is extraordinarily liberal and longsuffering in the dispensation of gifts—but there is something ultimately foolish in such wisdom. It is wise because it corresponds to the will of God or the way of the world he's created, but unwise in denying the creator.

The irony is that God's generosity is so often used as evidence against him. If it rains on the just and unjust alike, what point is there in being good? If the same fate befalls the wise man and the fool, why bother to pursue wisdom? The only answer, as unsatisfying as it sometimes seems, is that we are called to obedience.

DR: Many Christians are mistakenly comforted by their friends' and relatives' assurances that they believe in a God. Although we cannot classify this as true belief, to what extent is "generic theism: a reason for hope and for witness?

JMB: Generic theism is a reason for hope in the same way that Athenian polytheism seemed hopeful to Paul at Mars Hill. It provided a proximate starting point. Paul could present the Gospel as the answer to a question the Athenians were already asking. He proclaimed the identity of the "unknown god:—but then took pains to immediately dismantle the false devotion to idols and replace it with true worship. In the sense that there was a spiritual discourse already in motion, their brand of theism provided an opening. But I don't think there was anything comforting in the pantheon itself. The same is true now.

DR: One irony you point out in the book is that while the Gospel does not draw a line in the sand, dividing the wise men from the fools, conventional worldview teaching does operate in this fashion by identifying the anti-Christian belligerents ("fools:) and arming its students with the ammunition with which to dispatch the belligerents and their worldviews. What effect do you hope your book brings to bear on the discipline of worldview studies generally, and what effect on the way worldview is taught, specifically?

JMB: Popular worldview discourse is prone to oversimplification. Instead of giving students an appreciation for the complexity and nuance of thought, too often we reduce things down to a simple formula so they're easier both to understand and combat. In other words, we create straw men. This breeds in students the kind of overconfidence that goes before a fall. If you want a young Christian to abandon his faith, equip him with platitudes and send him headlong into the fray over and over again. As he loses confidence in the method, he'll grow disenchanted with the message as well.

What I hope Rethinking Worldview can help to foster is a more nuanced approach to the topic. I want worldview discussions to dovetail nicely into wisdom and witness—for all this thinking to change the way we live and speak.

DR: In your book you quote extensively from both non-fictional and fictional works. Was one of your secondary goals to encourage more reading among your readers? To what extent do Christians need to be readers in order to maintain and develop healthy biblical worldviews?

JMB: I once proclaimed to a church audience that reading novels would make them better readers of Scripture. That earned me more than a few alarmed looks. My point was, the Bible is a book, and sophisticated readers are better able to interpret literary devices than inexperienced ones. Reading books, watching movies, attending plays, looking at art—these are all ways of observing the final product of a worldview process, and if you read well, you become more adept at all forms of interpretation. Of course, the same thing is true of meeting people, engaging in lively discussions, and listening to what they're really saying. In the book, I use reading as a metaphor for all of these things.

God created the mind, so it's no accident that cultivating the mind is a fulfillment of his intentions for us. If the literary allusions in Rethinking Worldview inspire people to read more, I'm pleased. Their main purpose, though, is to illustrate the interconnectedness of thought and expression.

The thought life of Albert Camus, the French existential novelist, is a good example. At each new stage of his intellectual development, he published a book of essays, a play, and a novel. He was working out his ideas in both analytic and creative ways, something we're all doing in one way or another. Once you appreciate this fact, it becomes clear that studying literature is an important aspect of worldview thinking. So yes, I would like to see Christians reading more novels. But I'd like to see them reading more theology, too.

DR: As an addendum to the previous question, how and why did you decide to interact explicitly with thinkers of the past and present (Schaeffer, Bahnsen, Aquinas, Anselm, etc.) instead of merely simplifying and paraphrasing their viewpoints?

JMB: There is nothing systematic about my cast of interlocutors. I just pulled in whomever I needed to illustrate a point. In some cases, I do simplify and paraphrase—ultimately, the entire book is a simplification and paraphrase of much more adept thinkers than me. But a book needs characters, after all. I would have flunked college science if my professor hadn't been an inveterate storyteller, always interrupting the theorems to share an anecdote. When you're dealing in abstract concepts, characters help to particularize the conversation a little.

DR: In the second section of your book you use the book of Job as an object lesson in worldview. Can you name any helpful resources that would serve those who would like to understand Job in greater detail?

JMB: Instead of a resource, I would recommend a technique. Read the book of Job out loud. If you can rope in a few friends to read the various parts, so much the better. Listen to the arguments and meditate on the underlying emotions. We tend to know the narrative of Job—the beginning and end of the book—and neglect the speeches in the middle. This is like sitting through an opera's recitative then skipping the arias.

I once sat through a three-hour discussion of Job that revolved around the incomprehensibility of suffering and the need to endure in spite of the senselessness. No one ever mentioned the most difficult aspect of the story—that Job's suffering is authorized by God as a kind of object lesson. It's not exactly an encouragement to righteous living to know that, if you are good enough, God might allow the death of your loved ones and the loss of both wealth and health. Discovering that in the end you'll get replacement children and livestock doesn't quite make up for the ordeal. And yet all this suffering is justifiable as a testament to God's glory, and Job in the end has no right to question his plight. Come to terms with that, and you'll understand something profound.

DR: Since your book acts as an invitation to ;rethink worldview', what book(s) would you recommend as starting points for worldview?

JMB: The book I always recommend as a starting point is Al Wolters' Creation Regained, which is now available in its second edition. It's a great introduction to the basics of neo-Calvinist thought, emphasizing creation, fall, and redemption, and the idea of structure and direction in creation. Reading this will put worldview in its proper Reformational context. Of course, the gold standard in academic writing on the subject is David Naugle's Worldview: History of a Concept, which is required reading for anyone doing a serious study of the worldview concept. Both of these books have been a profound influence on my own thinking—or should I say, rethinking?

DR: In your book you address the tendencies of book and movie reviewers to act as either ;discerners' (doing proxy work of discernment at the expense of individual Christian discernment) or ;engagers' (seeing Christian resonances in culture where they do not exist). Do you have any specific tips for the book reviewers of Discerning Reader — and all reviewers — as to how we can be a transforming element in culture, avoiding the extremes of isolation and assimilation?

JMB: You can't teach discernment by being discerning on someone else's behalf. But what is the critic's job if not that? I'd say the critic's cultural task is to put individual works in their proper context, evaluating merits and demerits from a position of knowledge. I don't warn my students off bad books, for example. If they bring up The DaVinci Code, I don't respond in alarm, urging them not to read such a dangerous story. Instead, I offer my critical opinion—that it's an insipid, slapdash book that bored me to tears—and suggest meatier reading (in this case, Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which uses the same material to teach almost the exact opposite lesson about the reliability of conspiracy thinking).

Somehow Christian critics got it into their heads that the most they could offer readers was a warning about objectionable content. As a result, a lot of evangelical film reviewing amounted to a plot summary and an explanation of why the movie got its PG or R rating. In essence, what was offered was a consumer report. (That is changing now, but not everyone is happy. It seems like every issue of World magazine these days runs a letter from an ex-subscriber expressing outrage that a movie with bad words in it was discussed as an object of art.)

Instead of hemming them in, we should empower critics to come to terms with both the artistry and philosophy of whatever they review. A good reader has to temporarily submit to the text in order to understand it. A good critic must do more—he should be familiar with other examples of the form, having firm ideas of what works and what doesn't, and he ought to take time to meditate on and fully appreciate whatever he interacts with.

In the book, I cite Leland Ryken on the danger of reducing a complex work of art down to a simple worldview summary—for example, dismissing Steinbeck out of hand because he was a Marxist, or Graham Greene because he was a bad Catholic. If we believe in common grace, then it shouldn't be surprising to find much truth and beauty in authors with whom we disagree. In fact, it becomes an article of faith.

DR: In chapter 9, "Engagement and Beyond,: you lament that the Church has all but stopped acting as a conduit for "creative expression: deriving from "a healthy critical outlook.: What exactly constitutes a healthy critical outlook, and what specific creative expressions do you have in mind?

JMB: What the Church can offer artists is a vantage point, a profound (and profoundly true) way of seeing the world. An artist works with influences and ideas, channeling them into his art in the form of theme. When I was in graduate school studying writing, one of the mandatory classes was Modern Thought, essentially an introduction to Nietzsche and his intellectual heirs. Why was this on the curriculum? Because thought is the novelist's medium. If we were going to write meaningfully, we needed a rough-and-ready grounding in philosophy. Later, I adopted a similar program when reading theology. As a writer, I wanted to find ways to bring good theology to bear on my art.

Unlike the graduate program, though, I found the Church ill equipped to support the endeavor. For one thing, churches weren't talking theology any longer. They were either focusing on cultural markers—what "good: Christians do and don't do—or adapting their discourse to "felt needs.: So I could choose between the Church as a kind of spiritual finishing school, or the Church as a therapeutic program. Neither one spoke to me as a believer, or as an artist. I had to dig into old books and visit seminary before I found what I was looking for.

The Church can provide two things to artists. First, it can provide a venue. I'm ambivalent about this. Channeling all our artistic energy into worship has both good and ill effects. The second thing the Church can do, though, is find ways to make good theology accessible as a resource to those who deal in ideas. If we can spend time helping believers discover what it means to be a Christian at work, or in a relationship, surely some effort can be expended to help Christians find ways to bring their theology to bear on the blank page or the canvas or the video screen.

DR: Your book ends with a call to employ the Christian imagination, which you contend will contribute to the culture for its betterment. Some will question whether Christian creativity is an appropriate outcome of increased worldview awareness — isn't the intrinsic end of worldview study to establish its superiority by intellectual means?

JMB: To paraphrase James, show me your intellectual superiority apart from your creativity, and I will show you my intellectual superiority by my creativity. The book's arc is intentional. A lot of people think worldview ends where I'm arguing it merely begins. As I said, you're not really talking about worldview if the discussion doesn't lead into wisdom and witness. And you're not really talking about witness—or "cultural engagement,: to use the buzzword—unless creative contribution comes into the mix.

The simplest way to establish this is to ask a group of Christians whether they are more influenced by the apologetic efforts of unbelievers, or by their art. Now I think doing art, like any honest work, is a good end in itself, but if you need some kind of pragmatic justification, consider the disproportionate influence of art in our culture, as compared to polemic. I mentioned The DaVinci Code earlier. When the book Dan Brown's conspiracy theories are borrowed from, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, was first published, the evangelical world didn't suddenly revise its Sunday School lesson plans in an attempt to respond. But shoehorn the conspiracy into the middle of a chase thriller and suddenly everyone feels the need to preach sermons on the formation of the New Testament canon. Dan Brown introduced church history to some congregations who'd never been exposed to him before. (The Lord works in mysterious ways.)

I prefer to think in terms of "both/and,: not "either/or.: Worldview thinking ought to cultivate a true intellectual rigor. But that rigor expresses itself in a variety of ways, analytically and creatively. The great thinkers have always been those who bring astonishing creativity to the analytical task. The first thing God reveals to us about himself is that he is creative. And isn't the priority he places on that fact is instructive?

DR: Could you briefly outline how you would design your ideal twenty-first century worldview course, had we but world enough and time?

JMB: It already exists, at least in theory, in the classical liberal arts education. I would have students read widely and require them to discuss and write about what they read. The writing would consist of poetry and prose, fiction and essay, with the goal of developing literacy, which is a discipline of thought. No fill-in-the-blank questions or multiple choice. No standardized tests. Along the way, I would frame the discussion and its resulting contributions in the context of creation, fall, and redemption. The goal would be to create students who can think in worldview terms, but in an expansive rather than reductive way—a tribe of artist-theologians with a knack for living in the real world.

Of course, if such a school existed, I wouldn't be qualified to teach there. If anything, I'd want to enroll.

Please read Discerning Reader's review of Rethinking Worldview.