Twinterview: Guides and gateways
This twinterview turns to two bloggers who are technologically-engaged, known for their attempts to bring Christian principle to bear on this brave new world, and who act as gateways for all manner of material that sits at the intersection of these and many other issues. I particularly appreciate, in both of these gentlemen, their readiness to plough their own furrow, not bullishly and arrogantly, but faithfully and humbly, writing out of conviction and not jumping on bandwagons because those bandwagons happen to be flying past with lights flashing. They also help others guard their time and their priorities from the often enslaving attractions of technological tools.
So, we welcome Tim Challies of überblog Challies.com fame and David Murray of HeadHeartHand (preacher, lecturer, blogger, film-maker, author, etc.) to the world of the twinterview. There are fewer questions than usual – a trade-off required before my invitations were accepted – but I hope that you will the answers sufficiently penetrating and full to make it more than worthwhile. I am grateful to these brothers for sparing their time for this exercise.
As usual, neither interviewee saw the other’s answers until both sets of responses were in, and there was no collaboration or collusion. The answers are as given, and I have not commented on them, either in terms of interest, agreement or disagreement. The responses are edited only lightly for form, and the content is the responder’s own. Please feel free to engage politely in the comments section.
Previous twinterviews can be enjoyed at the links below:
- Brits abroad: Derek Thomas & Carl Trueman
- The London Welsh: Gary Brady & Paul Levy
- Louisville pastors: Brian Croft & Jim Savastio
- Reformed Baptist church planters: Lewis Allen & Rich Barcellos
1. How did you get to know one another? What do you most appreciate about one another as friends and fellow-bloggers?
Tim Challies: David will probably have a different story to tell, but I believe that he and I interacted a little bit via social media, but then first met when I made a business trip out to Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary to discuss a new web site. Obviously this was a few years ago when I was still in the web design business. I met David at that meeting and I guess we pretty much hit it off right away.
There is a lot I appreciate about David as a friend. He is one of the most caring people I have met, one who is genuinely thoughtful and compassionate. He is also humble, a guy who is far more widely-read and far more capable than he tends to let on. And he is serious but not too serious; he has a zany and understated kind of humor that surfaces now and again. And then there is that amazing accent.
David Murray: I was not long in the USA when I heard of some popular Christian blogger called Challies. I started reading and enjoying his writing, and found his daily A la Carte selection of links especially helpful in getting to know the North American church scene and culture.
When Puritan Seminary decided to re-vamp our website, Tim’s name came up and we invited him to do the work. When he came to Grand Rapids to get the website specs, we met face to face for the first time, and got on well. We also found out that Tim’s Dad and I had studied in the same Seminary in Edinburgh.
We next met up at The Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago in 2009 I think, had a meal together and I interviewed him for the Seminary blog. We kept in touch regularly after that, mainly over email and Skype, and a few times face-to-face including a meal we shared together with our wives in Canada.
Although Tim and I are quite different in many ways (Baptist v Presbyterian, 30-ish v 40-ish, Newish Calvinist v Oldish Calvinist, Canadian v Scottish, etc.), we do share a number of things in common – including our interest in how to use and not abuse technology, a passion for practical theology, and a deep concern to see the New Calvinist movement continue to grow and mature (as well as learn from it ourselves).
I have a deep respect for Tim as a believer, as a husband, as a father, as a Pastor, as a writer, and in other ways too. I’ve probably learned far more from him than he ever has from me. I admire his doctrinal clarity, his writing gifts, his focus on the church, his care for his wife and family, and his love for Christ. I’ve learned most from him in the area of being transparent and vulnerable. That kind of honest openness is risky, and doesn’t come easy for a Scot, but it’s a beautiful trait that requires a lot of faith to exercise in such a public way.
2. What would make you stop blogging? Do you see any technology or platform that is likely to render the blog obsolete any time soon?
TC: I have thought about this one a fair bit over the years, and at this point cannot imagine too many scenarios in which I would give it up altogether. However, if I found that blogging was having a negative effect on my family or on my ministry to my local church, I know I would feel compelled to quit or at least to scale back. I prioritize those things far higher than blogging and hope I would have the strength and integrity to follow through. I trust my wife and my fellow elders to keep me accountable and to ensure that my priorities remain in place.
As for blogging, it is not going away in the near future. I suppose we may give up the term blogging at some point, but the simple act of common folk writing down their ideas and posting them to the Internet is not going anywhere. The little people have a voice and they are not going to give that up. Not only that, but we have learned that we do not need and do not want professionals to shape all of our ideas; we want to have a voice of our own.
DM: I do pray about the place of blogging in my life. Although it’s been a huge blessing to me to have to write something edifying most days of the week, and I hope it’s impacted others for good too, I am often concerned about the amount of time it takes each day. I’m conscious of the need to keep it in the right place, and as with everything make sure that it is the Lord’s will for me to do. I do ask the Lord to show me if He wants me to stop it or to reduce its place in my life.
Obviously it’s very difficult to predict Technology. However, I think that blogging will continue to grow, though more slowly. Whatever happens to our culture, I can’t ever see human beings losing the impulse to put words into the public arena, even if only to be read by a few people.
If Facebook ever gets round to writing some decent software that will be more hospitable to blogging, that could have a significant impact on independent blogging sites. However, as they can’t even design good software for their core service, I think blogging is safe for the foreseeable future.
3. You are both fairly intimately involved in aspects of the Reformed and evangelical world of America, yet perhaps standing slightly outside of it by virtue of your origins. What do you think are the challenges of the American context and assumptions of so much theological and practical discussion? To what extent do you discern the existence of a gap between that and different (European/Canadian/other) contexts, and what might be the effect of that gap?
TC: I always get in trouble when I speak to America, so you’re putting me in an awkward spot. But here I go. America has justly deserved her reputation as a nation that believes it knows what is best, not just for itself but for others as well. America is known to walk with a bit of a swagger, whether politically, militarily or spiritually. And to be fair, America has a lot to commend it in all of those regards. Still, when a Canadian hears that a group of Americans is coming to Canada to do a service project or to plant a church there’s often a bit of hesitation, wondering what drama will come from it. What I mean is that America has brought to the world a lot of assumptions that reflect herself, but not necessarily the church in other places; America assumes that American Christianity is the purest, normative form, that it is the real deal and that the rest of the world ought to do things the same way.
I can testify that the church in Canada, a country that shares a border with the United States and which is culturally downstream from the United States, is very, very different. In general, American church planting movements have not seen a lot of success in Canada because they fail to understand just how different we are. We need indigenous church planters just as much as any other country.
Let me offering a peace-making word before I move on: I think we may be seeing a humbling in these areas, especially as we begin to see the failure or displacement of Western Christianity and the rise of Christians in the global south and east.
DM: I feel hugely privileged to live and work in America. I and my family love it here, and hope to spend the rest of our lives here, if God wills. The sermons and books of American pastors have played a huge role in my own Christian life and in my ministry. The major challenge in the American context is to avoid extremes. I think America is a very practical nation, Americans are a can-do people, and like solving problems. However, problems are rarely solved at the extremities. Simpler solutions are found there, but usually not the right ones. The challenge is often to live in the messy middle, feeling the tension of truth, and being prepared to live with the stress of that balancing act. I’m thinking especially here of the tensions in counselling (e.g. what place do we give to the sciences), in preaching (e.g. balance of consecutive-expository, evangelistic, redemptive-historical, application, law and Gospel), and in Christian living (balance of external v internal, activism v piety, law v Gospel, etc).
4. Taking into account any nuances from the previous question, what do you see as particular dangers or challenges to the church in the West at this time? Would you care to suggest potential remedies?
TC: I would suggest that one of the greatest dangers to the church today is thoughtlessness. The first book I wrote was about discernment and that remains a burning topic to me. It continues to surprise me how many Christians there are who have not been taught how to think biblically and who may never even have been told that there is such a thing as biblical thinking. That’s tragic. We can only live like Christians if we think like Christians.
After I wrote my book on discernment I wrote on technology and came to see that there’s a growing danger hidden in our technology that may lead us to even more thoughtlessness by way of busyness and distraction and obsession. It seems that just as many Christians have begun to identify the problem—we need to think like Christians—we’ve filled our lives with gadgets and gizmos that are going to likely to keep us from the kind of deep thinking we need.
DM: (1) Antinomianism. Can only be fixed by a Christ-centred covenantal understanding of the Old Testament. (2) Preaching becoming too academic and less evangelistic. Remedy is to remember that unless hearers are born again they are going to hell forever. We need much more of a “burden for the lost.” I think on the whole that Pastors are spending too much time with books (and the Internet) and not enough with sheep. Solution is simple – get out of the study and visit the sheep – and seek the lost ones too. (3) Militant homosexuality is not going away. The trajectory of media, educational, political, and judicial, intimidation is worrying. Acceptance of gay marriage is usually followed by hate-crime legislation that eventually is interpreted to prevent any criticism of homosexuality. The church will need to hold firmly hold to the immorality of homosexuality without unnecessarily provoking legal and other consequences, as well as learning how to reach out to homosexuals with the Gospel.
5. Without wishing to go “Miss World” on you esteemed gentlemen, what three things would you be particularly grateful to see happening in your particular sphere of operation and influence over the coming year?
TC: Let me address that by looking to three different spheres of operation:
As a father and husband I want to see my children profess faith, be baptized, and live as if their profession is legitimate. I want to continue to raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord and to build a real friendship with each one of them—a friendship that will last far longer than my role as dad. As a husband I want to more and more internalize the command to be toward my wife as Christ is toward his church, to understand what that means and how it ought to work itself out in the way I relate to her.
As a pastor I want to serve my church well and to lead them in holiness and godliness and prayerfulness and other godly character qualities. I won’t ever be the most dynamic preacher and won’t ever have the theological depth of so many men whose career path has taken them through seminary and post-graduate work, but I know I can lead them in those things that do not require a degree or formal training. I can, that is, if I set my heart and mind in that direction.
As a writer I want to be careful to avoid writing books for the sake of writing books. I want to be content to write only when I have the kind of idea that just won’t let me not write about it. And I want to continue to use my web site as a place to think publicly, to wrestle through the issues that are important to the church in this time and this place, to draw attention to good resources and to warn people away from the ones that are unbiblical. And as I do those things, I want to ensure that I am always speaking truth in love.
DM: (1) I’d love to see more racial diversity in our Reformed churches. I think that can only happen by majorities reaching out to minorities, rather than majorities expecting minorities to come to them. (2) I’d like to see more Christians re-discovering the joy of keeping the Lord’s Day holy. The main obstacle to that is sport-idolatry. (3) I’d like to see more evangelistic preaching; expository preaching that is regularly and specifically focussed on the conversion of unbelievers in our congregations.
6. You are both writers. What place does more developed writing with a view to formal publication have in your commitments of time and energy? Do you enjoy it or feel obliged to do it? Do you feel a sense of compulsion with regard to particular topics, or are you pushed into areas of expertise which, under God, you have developed?
TC: I feel no great compulsion to write books. As I have just said, I want to be content to be the guy who publishes a book every few years and not feel like I need to crank out a new title every six months or every year. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve got the time or energy or brain space to do much more than a book every few years.
I do not want to ever write a book under compulsion. Soon after I began writing formally a wise man who has seen many of his books be published warned me against two things: signing multi-book contracts and writing the book that someone else wants me to write. Both things, he warned, will produce low-quality works that you write even though they do not excite you. Looking back, that seems like sage advice.
DM: I’m trying to write something for publication every 18 months or so. When I started writing a few years ago, I hated it – I was more of a speaker. But now I love it and really look forward to writing time. Blogging has really helped me in that regard. It’s helped me find my “voice,” strive for clarity and brevity, and try to present truth in an engaging and enjoyable way.
I can’t imagine writing a book on something I wasn’t passionate about. I believe that’s part of God’s leading – He gives you a passion or a burden for a subject and you cannot but speak or write the things you have seen and heard!
7. Are there any particular books you wish you had read, but have never got round to?
TC: There are more than I could easily list, which is exactly why I began the Reading Classics Together effort at my web site. Reading Classics Together gives me the context and accountability to read some of those great works from days gone by.
I would also like to read more reference and academic works. The problem I face is that I may put weeks into reading a dense academic work, print a review, and see that only a very few people are interested in it. If I read and review The Shack, I will see hundreds of thousands of people be interested in it. In that way I find myself dedicating a lot of my reading efforts to lighter reading. However, even with that being true, I am trying to dedicate more of my time to reading good, dense, difficult, high-return books.
DM: I’d love to have read more of the huge biblical theologies that have been published in recent years. I’ve read one or two, but there are a number of others I’ve just not been able to find time for. I’d also like to read more of the Puritans. My favourite Puritan is John Flavel and it’s still my ambition to read through his works. I’ve also only dipped into Jonathan Edwards – I’d like to submerge myself in his thought over a period of time.
8. What are the best and the worst things about being a preacher, in your experience?
TC: My preaching experience is still rather limited compared to David’s or compared to most other preachers, so you may want to keep that in mind.
The best thing about being a preacher is being set aside and even paid to study and apply God’s Word. That may sound selfish, I suppose, but it is a great honor and privilege to be called to do what every Christian wants to do—study the Bible. While that study is often gruelling and more work than pleasure, it always bears fruit.
The worst thing is all that preaching takes out of you. Preaching is soul-baring and exposing and that brings about a kind of fatigue, a kind of post-performance weakening, that I haven’t ever experienced elsewhere. People who haven’t prepared and preached a sermon probably just do not understand how cutting even a small comment can be or how encouraging a small praise can be. Preaching must easily be one of the most difficult tasks in the world; but it’s also one of the most rewarding.
DM: Best: Getting to study God’s Word as my calling, the felt guidance of God in preparation, the joy of experiencing divine help in the pulpit, the potential of seeing souls saved, comforting God’s afflicted people.
Worst: Monday morning, sometimes having to prepare sermons with too little time to do it as I would like.