On John Piper and tornadoes sent by God…

I pause for this commercial break in the New Exodus book blog, in part because I’m so terribly irritated by John Piper’s recent blog and in part because this is one of those “teaching moments” which coincides with the narrative location of our recent New Exodus journey.

If you’d peek at my library, I have about a dozen John Piper books.  When I was a seminary student in the mid-90′s, Piper came and spoke, flooring us with both his powerful message and evident humility.  Over time, I’ve noticed that he has spent considerable ink on people he disagrees with – the Emergent folk, Greg Boyd, Tom Wright, and more.  Listen, that’s cool.  I’ve learned a lot from some of those academic debates, finding myself more sympathetic (on the whole) with Piper when he debates Boyd, and a bit less sympathetic in his disagreements with Wright.  I’ve especially loved his historic windows into suffering saints, and (like many) was ‘saved’ through his invitation to Gospel hedonism.

But Piper said something this past week that we’ve heard from the likes of Falwell and Robertson, and it’s disturbing.  He placed himself in the control tower, monitoring tornado flights in and out of Sin City.  And he played God in the process.  That’s not cool.  In his blog, he builds a series of premises in his tornadic syllogism toward a logical conclusion:  “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.”

Let’s talk.  First, this business of who suffers and when they suffer is quite mysterious.  Indeed, suffering seems to be a clear mark, in the New Testament, of obedience, not disobedience.  St. Paul is literally chased down by literal storms and pharisaic stormtroopers.  Piper knows (and this is what makes this whole thing so baffling) that it’s the televangelists who prey on a quid pro quo theology: have faith, be spared from suffering, and acquire great wealth!  It’s clearly a mystery when we see a good (and godly!) family suffer the loss of children (think Samuel Rutherford, Dr. Piper), and an abusive Dad thrive in his life and business.  In this mystery, the biblical invitation is not to play “air traffic controller” for divine tornadic activity, but to pray and lament.  Only a few prophets along the way get to ‘divine’ God’s ways…

…Which leads me to the second point.  Piper has been around longer than I have.  It probably requires a lot of gray hair to pronounce a “Woe to you” complete with tornadic proof.  I’ve wanted lightning bolts to hit the foreheads of sexually abusive fathers who recited prayers over their victims (yes, I’ve counseled people who have experienced this).  I’ve wanted God to strike down white-collared politicians who have turned a blind eye to the poor.  But it takes a lot of guts, and perhaps a divine mandate, to follow through with a “Woe to you.”  Perhaps Piper has earned the chips in heaven to make prophetic weather announcements.  But it seems to me that these divine initiatives only take place when hurricanes place a bullseye on New Orleans, Tsunami’s race toward pagan coasts, or tornadoes bear down on a denominational meeting where homosexuality is being debated.  Hmmm.  It seems that Jesus, the Tornado Incarnate, directed his deadliest winds at the religious establishment, choosing to blow gentler breezes in the direction of the sinners Piper is so concerned about.  Just saying…

Third, in this instance, I suspect it would do much of us good to look hard at how we’ve further shamed, insulted, belittled, and alienated those who struggle mightily with gender identity (bracketing off for a moment what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’).  I counsel people in these places of confusion.  They hear Piper’s quotation of 1 Cor. 6:9-10 and either a) believe they’re damned and descend into self-sabotage or b) recoil with anger at the church.  Few bother to explain that St. Paul was a follower of Jesus, who turned the law on its head and pointed the finger squarely at those who were self-righteous.  The adulterers, the immoral, the greedy, the drunkards – that’s us.  Jesus so radicalized it that the thought of lust made us adulterers.  That said, we need to be careful to point the finger, making sure that those to whom we point it know that we’re aware of our own junk.  Maybe Piper has a relationship with the ELCA leaders I don’t know about.  Maybe he’s done much more than I know to repent on behalf of all of us who in the name of Christ shame and mock homosexuals, using a few key verses to pronounce their very near damnation.  I apologize, Dr. Piper, if all of this has been done.  But from your blog, it appears that you are throwing stones, or more accurately, predicting divinely judgmental weather patterns.  This has the smell of a prophetic mandate.  And Jesus, being the Final Prophet, turned his tornadic activity in different directions…

Finally, God is in the business of (mysteriously) using suffering in order to make us into something better than we are.  It can make us aware of how we’ve been hurt, and how we’ve hurt others.  Always, God is not surprised by it.  This is where I disagree with Boyd and agree with Piper.  Let’s face it:  if you have a big God, you have to deal with big Mystery.  You can’t explain away verses about God’s rule over the bad and good in the world with an Oprah-like, “My God would never do such a thing.”  That’s great for your God.  But, reckoning with the hard realities of Scripture is more difficult.  Some people choose to re-write the narrative.  I’m with Piper in the stream of those who place themselves within it.  But like a good (but hard) Story, we don’t always know the motives of the characters, let alone what the Author was divining.  We trust the Author.  We engage the plot.  We await its final outcome.  And along the way, crap happens, and we lament, cry, scream, beat God on the chest, and wonder along with the wisdom-writer why He blesses the evil doer and curses the obedient.  With the huge weight of our own junk and the world’s mess, I hardly believe that Piper has time to pontificate on tornadoes and ELCA evil-doers who will not enter the kingdom-of-heaven.  If our right-or-wrong view on homosexuality is the litmus test, then I’ve seriously misread the Gospels.  If Jesus is right and we’re all a mess, then by all means let us all look at the grand logs in our own eyes and get on with forgiving others for the speck in theirs.

With that in mind, I’ll end with an ever-present feeling of dread, knowing all-too-well that I’m so often very wrong.  Calvin himself said that our theological ramblings are but baby-talk.  If we’d take our theological forefather seriously, perhaps we’d be attempting to better play with each other as the children of God we are rather than criticizing the messes we’ve made in our diapers.  Piper, this one is worth a retraction.  You are too good of a man, preacher, author, mentor and more to be writing this stuff.  Retract, and then come out and play…even with those whose messes smell worse than yours…

Grace and peace.

~ by drchuckdegroat on August 21, 2009.

13 Responses to “On John Piper and tornadoes sent by God…”

  1. Chuck,
    thank you for your thoughts, I could not agree more.

  2. Thanks, Chuck. A thoughtful response to what seems like an unthoughtful pronouncement. By the way, you misspelled Oprah. I was thinking about Orpah in Ruth and wondering how she might have said something like that.

  3. Hey Chuck, I am hesitant to post this because I feel like it is going to seem that I am picking out the one thing I wasn’t so fond of and ignoring all the great things you said. Please don’t let it seem so. This is a fantastic article and I heartily appreciate all of it. That being said, I want to quote the part of Piper’s writing that immediately follows his seemingly damning quote of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. He follows it up with: “The church has always embraced those who forsake sexual sin but who still struggle with homosexual desires, rejoicing with them that all our fallen, sinful, disordered lives (all of us, no exceptions) are forgiven if we turn to Christ in faith. Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)” I admit that this is merely one small bright spot in an otherwise ill-conceived letter, but still I think it shows an understanding in Piper that is important to remember in the face of this controversy. Perhaps many will be so burned by his condemning speech that they can’t appreciate this little “cleaner upper,” but it’s good stuff nonetheless. Peace to you.

    Nick

  4. Thanks, Chuck, for this thoughtful response.

    I agree for the most part with your critique of Piper’s post. It made me cringe as well, and I thought it was ill-advised at best.

    In his slight defense, I do want to point out that he made some effort to make the piece about not “just” the need of the ELCA to repent (setting aside for the moment any arguments about whether they’ve done anything repentance-worthy) but for the need for all of us to repent of whatever our sins are. He tried to further clarify that in a follow-up post on the DG blog.

    HOWEVER, I still don’t think that gets him off the hook. Whatever he and his fans protest, the bare fact is that he pointedly took the specific occasion of the (co?-)incidence of the tornado and the ECLA conference to make this object lesson. To anyone objectively reading the piece, that would be the takeaway: the ECLA is doing something particularly naughty enough to warrant this special visitation of God’s warning finger. I don’t see how he can wiggle out of that.

    What’s more disturbing to me in a broader context is the hermeneutic that causes Piper to make such rash pronouncements. It is this hermeneutic that has led me to increasingly distance myself from him, even though, like you, he has had a profound influence on my life and faith in the past. I speak of his emphasis-to-an-extreme of the sovereignty of God. I think this emphasis–to the apparent exclusion of almost all other factors–leads him inevitably to have to see (and therefore try to “discern”) God’s hand in every little circumstance of life. He could never be comfortable with a philosophy of “sometimes sh*t just happens.”

    • I agree Mark. In fact, I’ve seen his “clarification” and don’t fundamentally disagree with the idea that God paves a way for us, as I say in the blog, through the wilderness. I think what we all recoiled about is that a certain tornado hit a certain group of people discussing a certain issue. That presumes a lot.

      To your last point and that sometimes “sh*t” happens, Piper’s tradition affirms secondary causation…ie. historical contingency…that God doesn’t micromanage history. Pratt has written a fabulous paper on this – http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/ric_pratt/TH.Pratt.Historical_Contingencies.html. You’ve probably seen it. Piper’s hermeneutic is not only off, but inconsistent with his tradition.

    • Of course, the idea that “sometimes sh#t just happens” also requires a certain ‘hermeneutic’…

      It requires something in the way of an assumption, or, if you will, an axiom:

      The axiom goes something like this:

      There are things going on in the universe which are not subordinate to (something in the way of) God’s will.

      The physicists love this axiom. It is the basis of probability (and it is my bread and butter.)

      But it is an assumption we make to deal with the overwhelming complexity of the diversity of specificities within the realm of sensory experiences. That device works to provide a general framework for ‘making sense’ of our world through an appeal, not to specific knowledge of ‘actualities’, but to generalizations afforded us by the regualarities and ‘apparent’ patterns exhibited by nature.

      This is necessary and reasonable in order to negotiate our daily activities.

      But a necessary and reasonable device (quite possibly deigned upon us by God through an act of incomprehensible grace and humility) useful for the interpretation of nature is in no way the logically necessary ‘truth’ of the ontological relationship between ‘nature’ and ‘God’…whatever we mean by that…

      We cannot conclude ‘must be’ from ‘could be’ … we certainly must not do that in court…

      It may be that God in fact does have his hand in ‘every little circumstance of life.’ There is a good deal of evidence in the scriptures that such a contingency actually is the basis of how reality unfolds for us.

      We in fact seem to prefer the alternative however. But we make those assumptions and derive their corresponding conclusions not as experts on the way reality is structured, but as naive and amateur philosophers.

      We ought to be cautious lest we assume the role of ‘professor’ on subject matters we are only — in a most liberal and extended sense — qualified as ‘pupil’.

  5. Thanks Chuck. I really appreciate the time you took to voice so eloquently a quite thoughtful objection to Piper’s position.

    What is so insidious is this: The position Piper adopts draws attention away from the very ideas he seems to be at variance with:

    What is truth?

    Does truth matter?

    Is God concerned with sin at an institutional level?

    Might God use the creation to meet out judgment on systematic evil?

    That God has done so in the past is certainly not an unreasonable conclusion from even the most naive readings of the scriptures.

    That God would do so is the basis of the numinous awe or the numinous dread. And that finds ubiquitous representation inseparable from all religious experience. It is the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ who do not tremble when near to that magnificent void which encompasses the frontier — the nexus of time and eternity.

    What is lamentable for me, is that these kinds of questions will not even find vocalization in the wake of the overwhelming controversy which is inevitably generated by the idea that a person — John Piper — should have the temerity requisite to arrogate the authority of a prophet.

    I really appreciated that you at least (perhaps ostensibly) acknowledge that, in fact, some ‘persons’ — in fact — have been (or may even now be) prophets.

  6. Good point, Chuck. Yes, I have seen that paper and I think you’re bang on.

  7. Chuck,

    It leads me to think that his heritage isn’t actually the heritage many in the Reformed tradition draw from, but rather, he picks from as Pratt would say “one lane of the 8 lane highway” that is the reformed tradition, and lays on the gas. In doing so, you get an imbalanced theological grid with little nuance or room for mystery… or better put by Mark no room for “sh*t happens”.

    Great stuff… thanks for writing on this.

    Fred

  8. Agreed wholeheartedly! Have mostly loved what John Piper writes especially his less known thoughts on getting angry with God. Until recently never saw that importance. Love my John Piper books…. some even seem like an old friend. Rarely have I found one who gains a bit of fame who also shows a bit of arogance and complete lack of forgiving the speck in a fellows eye. It’s a hard one. It is also hard to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this too, perps reciting prayers over their victims. Like praying can make it right!!!! The years it takes to heal from something like this and the false sense of guilt and the overwhelming shame for something you could not control as a kid!!! We talk about this on our survivor forums. It is so hard to get a victim to even entertain the idea of a kind and loving God. All I can do is be a loving ear and give a sense of hope maybe….. if one can read between the lines. ….. and how my children for some years almost lost their mother due to that trauma. Sometimes between all the hardened self righteous arogance of the tele-evangelist or someone as respected as Piper acting so disrespectfully. Agh, the world is full of people who play judge and jury in situations they have no experience in at all. People like that make me go ape angry.

    Every church I’ve gone to has been screened by a sibling, with the right-or-wrong view on homosexuality is the litmus test. My sister is gay still suffering the horrific consequences of childhood abuse but unlike me but hates Christianity. Yes, unimaginable atrocities happen to children, to people. It is not a matter so much of why do bad things happen to good people as much as, it happens. I began to get better when I stopped asking why. However there seems no good excuse for Piper here. What a shame!

  9. Chuck,
    Only ten months late posting a response but I didn’t know you had a blog!

    As I understand it, John Piper believes that everything that happens is part of God’s “plan” in the sense that there isn’t anything I would call “real evil” in the world. That is, for everything that happens in the world, the good always outweighs the evil and has to because God is responsible for everything that happens in the world and he is sovereign. I remember reading a paper by John Piper about the September 11 attacks in which he said that it wasn’t good enough to say that God “allowed” the attacks to happen: God “wanted” them to happen.

    If I’m correct that that’s what Piper believes, his thoughts about the ELCA tornado aren’t at all surprising. I think John Piper just takes doctrines like sovereignty, predestination and omniscience as far as they will go, and really believes in the logical consequences.

    I understand that John Piper is a very popular guy and plenty of people love his books. But I have to say that I stopped reading Desiring God half way though chapter 1 because I found it so repulsive. It seems to me that John Piper makes God responsible for all the evil in the world and I have a very hard time seeing the good (if any) that came out of Auschwitz outweighing the evil. To be perfectly honest, if John Piper’s version of Christianity were the only one available, I’d be an atheist and I’d encourage all my friends to be atheists too.

  10. Thanks Paul and Chuck, for expressing your take on ‘Desiring God’ by Piper. Even though I have enjoyed his articles and books, there have been times where his take on Charles Spurgeons’ sovereignty made me cringe. Spurgeon to me vigilantly fought the twin errors of Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism from both sides of the spectrum. I can understand where it would be easier to be an atheist rather than adhere to Pipers unseemly strange embrace of sovereignty that makes God look like the author of evil. Pratt’s analogy of “one lane of the 8 lane highway”, is spot on. Piper pegged by many for being a hyper-Calvinist or as he calls it “new Calvinism” (which feels like a variation of some other animal) and therefore all of Calvinism seems to get trashed in the eyes of many for Pipers’ bizarre view of God’s sovereignty which assumes that God “wants” or approves of evil. So, in this way it seems that John Piper does not fall in line with those who would call themselves Calvinists today (such as R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg and many others).
    How sad to assume that everything that happens is part of God’s plan. By emphasizing extreme sovereignty in rash assumption neglects a true reflection of God’s character and fails straight thinking all together. I embrace the idea of a worldview that says, “sh#t happens” and that all of us, all people are absolutely depraved. The meaning of predestination and sovereignty fall short in our capacity to comprehend meaning in the picture of who God is. I like the concept of chaos theory studying the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This sensitivity is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general. Chaotic behavior can be observed in many natural systems, such as the weather. (Stephen H. Kellert, Raymond Sneyers) Well I guess this is where I like to say really bad “sh#t happens”. We listen to the voices like Stephan Hawking when he points out that the universe has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of million stars but balk at the idea that earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved. Recently he mentioned, “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational.” I find it hard even to think along terms like these. I hate the idea of that kind of threat and it seems so far away in my limited thinking. As the astronomer, Lord Rees explains, “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive,” he said. “Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.”
    It’s kind of like this with life and with God. When considering the immensity of how evil humans can be and the consequences of human suffering, mental anguish and who God is… we need to know that words have their limits. In no uncertain terms, Piper bites off more than he can chew. As for me… getting my own puny will and power submitted to God’s , takes on the task of a lifetime.

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