How Narratives Work Part 5

There is an interesting knot in Acts 4: the story concerns authority. The rulers are exercising authority over Peter and John. They want to know what authority gave Peter and John the power to heal someone. Peter takes authority by speaking. They demand obedience and Peter asks whether he should obey God or man. Peter addresses the men as “Rules of the people and elders”.

This then works out in a very ironic manner.  Peter says the authority was “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified.” The ultimate exercise of authority by the State is death. But the State has no authority over Jesus (which Peter notes when asks whether they should obey God or man).

This is an almost comic taunt: Just a bit ago, you killed someone. That man you killed is not only not dead, he is actually making lame men well.

In Acts 3, in the public sermon, Peter tells the people that they had rejected Jesus, but “you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers”. But when Peter makes the charge in Acts 4, he removes the reference to ignorance.

When Peter and John return to the other believers, they pray, first praising God his sovereignty over the death of Jesus. (They quote Psalm 2 and say, “whatever you hand and plan had predestined to take place”).

When they petition God, they do no ask God to exercise his authority to make the persecution stop, but rather to give them the courage to continue witnessing to Jesus.

The exercise of authority in the story is thus working on two levels: The government seeks to exercise authority over the body by killing and beating. The disciples realize there is a greater degree of authority: Jesus has complete authority over the body. He cannot die. He can restore the body from injury.

Obeying God rather than man, is because God not only has a greater claim, God has greater authority.

Robot Therapy

My therapist wanted to explain a few things during our first online session:

“I’m going to check in with you at random times. If  you can’t respond straight away, don’t sweat it. Just come back to me when  you’re ready. I’ll check in daily.”

“Daily?” I asked.

“Yup! It shouldn’t take longer than a couple minutes. Can you handle that?

“Yes, I can,” I answered.

There was a little more back-and-forth, all via Messenger, then this statement from my therapist:

“This might surprise you, but . . . I am a robot.”

It wasn’t a surprise, of course. I’d downloaded “Woebot,” a chatbot recently created by researchers, and it was trying to establish our therapeutic relationship.

Here is therapy by AI: which means it is a pre-programmed series of responses to a circumstance. According to the research, Conclusions: Conversational agents appear to be a feasible, engaging, and effective way to deliver CBT.

What does this tell us?  People feel better even pretending to talk to someone. The therapy was described as follows:

Aside from CBT content, the bot was created to include the following therapeutic process-oriented features:

Empathic responses: The bot replied in an empathic way appropriate to the participants’ inputted mood. For example, in response to endorsed loneliness, it replied “I’m so sorry you’re feeling lonely. I guess we all feel a little lonely sometimes” or it showed excitement, “Yay, always good to hear that!”

Tailoring: Specific content is sent to individuals depending on mood state. For example, a participant indicating that they feel anxious is offered in-vivo assistance with the anxious event.

Goal setting: The conversational agent asked participants if they had a personal goal that they hoped to achieve over the 2-week period.

Accountability: To facilitate a sense of accountability, the bot set expectations of regular check-ins and followed up on earlier activities, for example, on the status of the stated goal.

Motivation and engagement: To engage the individual in daily monitoring, the bot sent one personalized message every day or every other day to initiate a conversation (ie, prompting). In addition, “emojis” and animated gifs with messages that provide positive reinforcement were used to encourage effort and completion of tasks.

Reflection: The bot also provided weekly charts depicting each participant’s mood over time. Each graph was sent with a brief description of the data to facilitate reflection, for example, “Overall, your mood has been fairly steady, though you tend to become tired after periods of anxiety. It looks like Tuesday was your best day.”

This is a pretend friend. There is nothing here which is “expert” or brilliant. We live in a overly automated, isolating world in which we now have automated pretend friends. While the write-ups spoke of good a thing this is (the Washington Post article speaks of those who lack access to mental health professionals), the real story here might a culture that doesn’t have friendship.

How Narratives Work, Part 4


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Now that one has understood the plot line (and with biblical narratives, the sensitivity to the various levels of plots: the individual stories are part of larger narratives), and has undertaken to understand the look and feel of the story from the inside; there is a need to learn why the story is being told: what is the story about?

There are a few ways to begin to understand the story. Consider what the characters do and say? Does the narrator give explicit comment (and is the narrator “reliable”)? There is a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in the story. If the “good guy” wins or loses, why is that? Look for irony: are the character’s expectations upset? Why did the narrator tell me this story? To entertain me? To change me?

When we read the Biblical narratives, there is always a “strangeness” to the story: we must be changed.

In the narrative of Acts 4 here are some observations:

In verses 13, Peter and John are arrested for preaching: but the arrest was not successful in stopping the power of the proclamation:

But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.Acts 4:4 (ESV)

The power lay in the Word, not in Peter and John. Later in Acts 5:38-39, Gamaliel puts his finger on the issue:

38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice,Acts 5:38–39 (ESV)

(Continued in the next post).

The Need for the Creator’s Perspective


In spite of the multiplication of academic disciplines in the twentieth century that focus on the biological, social, psychological, and evolutionary understanding of the human creature, these modern approaches provide a very limited perspective from which the human person can understand the human condition. The sixteenth-century Reformers recognized that it was not enough for human beings to study themselves. That provided too limited a horizon. They could not stand outside themselves to gain the necessary perspective from which they could comprehend the totality of their being and existence. Because we are creatures, what it means to be fully human simply lies beyond the grasp of the human mind. Creatures cannot, by the very definition of what it means to be a creature, comprehend and understand everything about their Creator, and because their relationship with their Creator stands at the heart of their existence, they cannot grasp everything about themselves. Lacking the ability to step outside of themselves, human beings take on a sense of self-exalted importance or find themselves struggling with a sense of insignificance and helplessness within the universe.

Kolb, Robert; Arand, Charles P. (2008-02-01). Genius of Luther’s Theology, The: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (p. 24). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Believers themselves have not chosen the Christian position because they were wiser than others. What they have they have by grace alone. But this fact does not mean that they must accept the problematics of fallen man as right or even as probably or possibly right. For the essence of the idea of Scripture is that it alone is the criterion of truth. The standards by which the fallen man judges himself are false standards. That is the most important point in his case. Fallen man cannot by his own adopted criteria make a true analysis of his own condition. The remedies that he employs for his own salvation are the wrong remedies just because the diagnosis that he has made of his own disease is made by the wrong criterion. A medical doctor is able to prescribe the right medicine for a patient just because he, rather than the patient himself, has given the correct diagnosis of the patient’s disease. In an infinitely deeper sense only Christ, the great physician, can diagnose the disease of men.

Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).


Cornell University has launched an investigation into the work of Brian Wansink, the food behavior and marketing expert who has come under fire for scientific misconduct allegations over the last year, BuzzFeed News has learned.

“An internal investigation by the University is underway, in compliance with our internal policies and any external regulations that may apply,” Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina said by email on Tuesday.

The school declined to share any more details, including exactly when the investigation began, how many papers are being reviewed, or whether the investigation involves the federal Office of Research Integrity.

It’s not the first time Cornell has looked into Wansink: In April, after critics publicly questioned four of Wansink’s papers related to pizza consumption, the university said it had found no scientific misconduct related to those papers.

Wansink did not immediately return a request for comment about the investigation.

Overall, critics have raised red flags about at least 50 of Wansink’s studies. The high-profile professor has retracted four articles — most recently one last week — and has at least eight corrections published or forthcoming. (That total doesn’t include yet another problematic paper about vegetable-naming that stands to be corrected or withdrawn.)

How Narratives Work, Part III


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Having fully worked through the plot points, it is necessary next to consider the details. The biblical narratives are extremely spare. Consider for example, Acts 4:7a, “And when they had set them in their midst”. The scene is told with exceeding brevity. Peter and John had been “put in custody” the night before.

Someone gave an order to fetch the men from some sort of jail. There were some number of guards who came to Peter and John, released them from their custody and transported them to some other room where there were some number of men.

How gave the order? How was it conveyed? What did the room look like where Peter and John were imprisoned? Was it cold or hot? Were then in chains, behind bars? How many steps was it from the prison to the room for meeting? What did the room look like? How many men were in the room?

What did it feel like when Peter and John stood in the middle of the room? There may have been a change in Peter, because the text says, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8).

When preaching or teaching, it is essential to unpack, or fill in the details. One primary purpose of narratives is not merely convey some proposition, but to convey understanding in a manner which is affecting. We watch movies and read stories because of how the story makes us feel (and think).

Take the hearers into the prison room; listen for the turn of the lock. Speak with the guard. Walk along the hallways into the room before the leaders of your people. This will require some research. Fortunately, there many good resources for biblical events.  You do not need to use slides during your sermon, but you can describe the scene.

This is where reading will help. The way to learn to use words is to read masters using words. Here is the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

He makes you look at the scene. Learn to write and speak in such a way that you help others look at the scene. If you are a preacher, learning to use words well is your job. Yo have no excuse for not working to learn this skill.  By the way, if you preach in such a way as to make a scene like Peter and John before the rulers boring you are not conveying truth — you are actually distorting the “meaning” of the text.

Now in doing this, be careful not to make up details.  Consider this detail from a medieval Bible showing David slaying Goliath:

Old Testament miniatures, MS M.638, fol. 28v, Samuel

Without question, no one was dressed like that in the original event. But, when we do not have the details, it is easy for us to fill a picture which fits our expectations. Caution is necessary here.

However, we can use analogies to circumstances we and the hearers do know. For instance, none of know what it would be like to be brought before the rulers, elders and scribes and High Priest. But what if the FBI had gathered you and then dropped you before a meeting of the President and the Director of the CIA?

In order for the hearer to understand this story, the hearer/reader must experience a palpable fear. Peter’s courage makes no sense without Peter’s history of fear and without the real danger faced by Peter and John. Remember, these same men had just sent Jesus off to be murdered! If they could dispose of Jesus, what will they do to Peter and John?




The Encouragement Which Underlies the Call of God to be Saints

“And that brings us back to the point from which we started. It is because we have this to lean upon that we dare aspire so high. It is only as we lean upon it that our calling to be God’s becomes credible, practicable, real. They are the two most wonderful things in the world, the most incredible to start with, the most humbling, the most uplifting, the most Divine—“beloved of God,” “called to be saints”. In the celebration of the Supper to-day we have been reassuring ourselves of the first. We have been taking the redeeming love of God to ourselves again in all its fulness, the love manifested in the passion of our Lord; shall we not take it also in its infinite obligation, in its infinite hope? For to be the people of God in the world is for those who are so called to it not only a duty but a hope. It is a thing to lift up our hearts to with humility, assurance, and joy. And when we are discouraged by the remembrance of what we have been or what we are, let us remember that it is not on this our calling rests; it rests on the solemn and wonderful truth that we are beloved of God. Underneath all our sinfulness and weakness, underneath our past, our present, and our future, lies a finished work of Christ, a great deep of love on which our wrecked and stranded lives can be floated into the assurance of hope, and filled with all the fulness of God. We cannot speak of these things as they should be spoken of. We cannot fix our hearts on all that is involved in them as they should be fixed. But as we think of how God loves us and of how He has shown His love—as we clasp these gracious words to our hearts and claim our inheritance in them: beloved of God, called to be saints—we can say, “Unto Him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by His blood, and made us a kingdom, even priests to His God and Father: to Him be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen”

A Chosen Generation

James Denney, The Way Everlasting

The Deadliness of Slander


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Using the instance of Jesus’ good works being attributed to Satan, Denney gets at the basis of why some slander those who do good. While one may take exception to his statement that this is essence of “blaspheme of the Holy Spirit”, he does get at the spiritual and psychology root of much (if not all) slander:

You may think, perhaps, that in this case it is a sin which has very little interest for us—less even than that of speaking a word against the Son of Man. But consider the sin in its nature, as distinct from the particular form in which it was committed by the scribes. They were confronted by the appeal of God’s goodness in Jesus, and rather than yield to it they contrived a hideous explanation of it which should render it impotent both for themselves and others. Is this a sin which is so very uncommon? Or is it not common enough to hear men who are annoyed and reproved by the good deeds of others ascribe these good deeds to base and unworthy motives, so as to relieve the pressure with which they would otherwise bear on their own consciences? This is the essence of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is the sin of those who find out bad motives for other people’s good actions, so that goodness may be discredited, and its appeal perish, and they themselves and others live on undisturbed by its power. Take one of the most ordinary instances. When a selfish or mean man is confronted by the generosity of another, there is a spontaneous reaction in his moral nature. It is a reaction of admiration. Conscience tells us instinctively that such generosity is good; it is inspired by God; it is worthy of admiration and imitation. But something else in us may speak besides conscience. Perhaps we do not like the man who has done the generous thing; we grudge him the honour and the good will it brings; we would not be sorry to see him discredited a little. Perhaps we are naturally grasping and mean, and our selfish nature resents the reproof of another’s generosity. We should be pleased to think he is no better than he need be. We hint at ostentation and the love of praise; we think of ambition, and of the desire to have a party, which is to be conciliated by such gifts; and the generosity of the man is perverted or ignored. It ceases to be a thing which speaks with power for God to us. This, I repeat, is essentially the sin against the Holy Spirit. It is the sin of finding bad motives for good actions, because the good actions condemn us, and we do not want to yield to their appeal. It is the sin of refusing to acknowledge God when he is manifestly there, and of introducing something Satanic to explain and discredit what has unquestionably God behind it. When this temper is indulged, and has its perfect work, the soul has sunk and hardened into a state in which God appeals to it in vain. The presence of Jesus Himself does not subdue it; it only evokes its virulent, rooted, implacable dislike. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit as it is presented to us in the Gospels.

James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons, “The Deadliness of Slander”  (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 250–252. Thus, slander is an instance of Romans 1:18.

If I only saw a miracle

Why do the miracles provoke such extraordinary responses

Jesus gets death plots for healing a man. Mark 3:6. Peter and John are arrested after the healing of a lame man. Acts 4. What provoked such a response

“It was not the act itself of healing the lame man, but the word, the doctrine which the act led the apostles to proclaim, especially the word concerning Jesus the Risen One, that awakened opposition, and engendered a persecuting spirit. The world is willing to endure moral lectures, and even abstract evangelical truth. But when Jesus Christ, personally, the Crucified and Risen One, is proclaimed, the opposition of the natural heart is aroused. And yet all that is precious to the believing heart, is found in Christ personally.”

Lange, Acts