Literary flourishes and Christian Hedonism: the pretty ribbon round John Piper’s pietistic asceticism (part 1)
Peter Masters’ article Christian Hedonism — Is it Right? — which is worth reading in full — includes this gem:
Dr Piper is particularly noted for passionate communication. Those who know him say that his entire heart is in what he teaches. He is clearly no mere ‘performer’. He writes and preaches with a distinctive and compelling style, achieving a popular ‘flow’ which everyone can follow, and yet without sacrificing depth of reasoning. He also produces many extremely powerful, expressive sentences (although these often mingle with others rather overloaded with superlatives). This reviewer must own that he finds Dr Piper too keen on producing startlingly original ways of looking at everything, and seldom are these to be found in the Bible. He is a master of the oblique approach, but at times his rather contrived reasoning leaves one grateful that Scripture, by contrast, is so straightforward and free from philosophical gymnastics.
Let’s examine a small but fairly typical example of Piper’s distinctive, powerful, expressive language. In his sermon The Conquest of Canaan Piper is imagining Moses at the top of Mt Pisgah looking out over the promised land which he was not going to enter because he was about to die:—
I see an old man with a straight back, a strong bronze face, clear eyes, and snow white hair climbing Mount Nebo. And as he climbs, the camp of his beloved Israelites gets smaller and smaller on the east and on the west beyond the Jordan, and the promised land stretches out larger and larger. I see him atop the peak of Pisgah facing west, all alone with God, at the end of one of the greatest ministries the world has ever known, the wind blowing his white hair, and tears of regret flowing down his face. And I ask myself, “My God, how many conquests of joy have I forfeited through disobedience?”
Conquests of joy??? Does joy need to be conquered? Or is conquering a joy? If Piper meant to infer that the conquest of Canaan would bring joy to the Israelites, then he could have simply said “joyous conquests”. But Piper prefers to create figures of speech for their shock value and apply them like the syrup swirls on fancy cakes in flash restaurants. They’re arresting, they take you aback when you first read them . . . and then, in accord with Piper’s design, you start trying to figure out what Piper might mean, what ‘forfeiting conquests of joy’ means and how it relates to disobedience and that narrative of Moses. And even when you think you’ve figured it out, you can’t be sure because of Piper’s ambiguous and strange turns of phrase. Your brain has just done a pretzel —
You have to really pay attention to that little feeling of being taken aback and hold onto it strongly for the red flag it is, or Piper sweeps you up in his romantic prosody. Piper did his first degree with a major in Literature; I think he would have been wise to stick with that profession. Making literary flourishes the vehicle for theology is dangerous.
Here are a couple of examples of Piper’s in-your-face use of language and how, like a conjurer, he passes the cloth across the unbiblically grating tone of what he says to make you think it is okay by quoting a Bible verse that kind of backs him up.
Jesus followers do not kill to extend his kingdom. They die. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34).
(What Jesus Demands From The World. p. 27 )
“The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14). The reason it is hard is not because Jesus is a hard taskmaster. It’s hard because the world is a hard place to enjoy Jesus above all. Our own suicidal tendency to enjoy other things more must be crushed (Matt. 5:29-30).
(ibid, p. 45)
I think the first example needs little comment; but in relation to the second example, let me make a few observations. Piper cites Matthew 5:29-30 to back up his proposition that ‘our suicidal tendencies to enjoy things other than Jesus must be crushed.’ Jesus certainly uses strong rhetoric in Matthew 5:29 30 —
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
But to paraphrase Jesus’ rhetoric in the way Piper does draws more attention to Piper’s cleverness than to the meaning of Christ’s words. Not to mention how attractive that phrase ‘must be crushed’ would be to an abuser who is looking for Piperisms to quote against his victim. [Stentorian voice of abuser to victim: “Your suicidal tendency to enjoy anything apart from me must be crushed!”]
Jesus was speaking about lust when he used that rhetoric of eye gouging; but Piper compounds the stern tone of warning and makes it into needle-gripping pliers that then he applies to all our tendencies to enjoy anything other than Jesus, even the simple non-sinful pleasures of life on this earth. This is harsh asceticism cleverly concealed in a pious package.
Here is another example. In this one, Piper seems to depict God as to a hard-Patriarch, demanding obedience and adulation from his followers. Here are the summing up sentences of chapter 2 (“Demand #2”) in What Jesus Demands From The World (p. 43).
So the demand of Jesus to repent goes to all nations. It comes to us, whoever we are and wherever we are, and lays claim on us This is the demand of Jesus to every soul: Repent. Be changed deep within. Replace all God-dishonouring, Christ-belittling perceptions and dispositions and purposes with God-treasuring, Christ-exalting ones.
In that stark statement of demand, there is nothing of the Spirit who moves over the face of the waters, nor of the Father who calls us and draws us to Christ. A call is not a demand; the words do not have the same tone or the same semantic range. The ineffable and effectual work of the Spirit — The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (Jn 3:8) — is almost entirely absent in Piper’s writing. Piper’s God demands his followers do the work of replacing their wrong perceptions with right perceptions.
Yes, Piper mentions in other places that God provides us with the ability, but usually when Piper talks about God’s enabling of us, his understanding seems mechanistic, deformed, misshapen, so it falls dead in the water. Here is an example, taken from only a few pages after the one above:
Jesus is not satisfied to lure us into obedience with images of life-giving water. He will also draw us with promises of life-sustaining bread. (p. 46)
Jesus ‘lures’ us? Words fail me. That’s shock value to the hilt and it’s virtually blasphemy. It makes God sound like a cunning seducer or con artist. In the fairy tale, the Pied Piper lured children to their perishing, but in the Bible God never lures believers to faith in him. He occasionally lures wicked rulers and false prophets to their own demise (1 Kings 22:19-23) but that’s another story.
Here’s another example one page later:
How then has anyone ever come since we are all enslaved to sin and spiritually dead (see Demand #1)? Jesus’ answer was that God, in his great mercy, overcomes our resistance and draws us: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). (p. 47)
Jesus overcomes our resistance? Is that a sound way of putting it? In regeneration, God quickens a dead spirit to life — not a resistant spirit, a dead spirit. He gives us the new birth — the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-5) which opens our eyes (Acts 26:18) and makes us alive together with Christ (Eph.2:4-5). God does not overcome the resistance of the dead spirit, he effects a much more radical renovation: he removes the heart of stone and gives us a new heart, a new spirit, one which willingly embraces, receives and rests upon Christ:
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh . . . And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26-27)
Let us hear what the Westminster Larger Catechism has to say about regeneration. WLC, Question 67, What is effectual calling?
Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.
In explaining the doctrine of effectual calling, Fisher’s Catechism (Qn. 31) says:
Q. 8. What is the main or leading work of the Spirit in effectual calling?
A. It is that by which he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel, Phil. 2:13.
Q. 44. In what consists the renovation of the will?
A. In working in it a new inclination or propensity to good, and a fixed aversion to whatever is evil, Ezek. 36:26.
Q. 45. Does the Spirit, in the renovation of the will, use any violence or compulsion?
A. No; he makes us willing in the day of his power, Psalm 110:3.
Too often, Piper’s concept of God appears to be a God who uses violence and compulsion on his lambs; a harsh, demanding, exacting God who holds his followers in obedience to him by fear and coercion. It leaks out in his prose repeatedly. At times it even seems that Piper’s god is a narcissist bent on securing narcissistic supply from his followers. Here is an example:
The desperate situation we are in, Jesus says, is that we are under the wrath of God. This is owing to our sin (see Demand #2). God is just, and his anger is rightly kindled against human attitudes and behaviors that belittle his worth and treat him as insignificant. (ibid, p. 49)
I submit that there has to be something deeply wrong with a person who chooses to describe God in language like that. It’s common knowledge that a narcissistic man gets angry when people belittle his worth and treat him as insignificant. And certainly God is angry at sin, but he is not like a narcissist who gets angry because his narcissistic supply has been cut off. Here is an astute observation by Halden Doerge in his article The false glory of John Piper’s god [April, 2021: The link to Halden Doerge’s article was removed as it had become unsafe. Editors.]:
Piper interprets God as a self-directed man, concerned ultimately which the maximization of his own power (which is of course “good” because this one particular male really is supreme and thus deserves and warrants this rigorous self-fixation). I think [Piper’s interpretation of God] is really is just the upshot of thinking God according to the logic of patriarchy.
Let’s close by listening to what one discernment ministry says about the passionate presentation styles used by many false teachers today (link):
1. Interpreting the Scriptures with a view to how both the interpreter-communicators’ and their listener-hearers’ feelings/ passions can be aroused. Employing this “new” hermeneutic, interpreter-communicators strive to stimulate, manipulate and massage one or more of the five human senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing) of their audience. They strive to soothe the ears of their hearers precisely where they scratch (It’s called ministering to felt needs.), employing whatever words—usually “voluptuous” and/or “great swelling” words—along with technology, to keep members of the audience coming back so that their “itch” can experience another “scratch” (See 2 Timothy 4:3; 2 Peter 2:18; Jude 16.).
. . . 4. To reach out and touch the feminine side that is thought to comprise one-half of every human brain. To this end, the interpreter-communicator utilizes a flowery, feminized and vanity-laden method of interpreting Scripture based upon an experiential, emotional, relational, and “speaks-to-my-heart” paradigm. This modus operandi is designed to delicately and sweetly arouse personal passion and pietism. This arousal can be facilitated by employing visual cues of fancy swash type fonts to help the audience “feel” the counterfeited word.
Piper does not use fancy swash type fonts in his published material, but his literary rosettes and the facial and hand gestures he uses in preaching have a similar effect.
In tomorrow’s post I will give more examples of Piper’s literary flourishes and how they assist his Christian Hedonism philosophy to pass under the radar. And we will look some more at Peter Master’s analysis of why Christian Hedonism is wrong.
Posts in this series
Part 1: Is this post.