Where Life Is Found: Engaging with John Van Sloten’s The Day Metallica Came to Church

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2012: ESSAY

by Scott Hoezee

For the longest time I’ve been gathering some thoughts to write something about my colleague John Van Sloten’s book The Day Metallica Came to Church (Square Inch, 2010). And then the February 2012 issue of Perspectives arrived, and it looked like another colleague, Jason Lief, had beaten me to the punch. But since my thoughts meander in a different theological direction than Lief’s article (“Leave Metallica Alone! Why Metallica Coming to Church Is a Bad Idea”) took us, I submit the following as part of what could become a wider conversation on the topics at hand.

Unlike Lief, I have read Reverend Van Sloten’s book and, for some years now, have dialogued with him, emailed him, and Facebooked him on his work. Nothing I write here will be particularly new to Van Sloten, therefore–although I do feel that some of my thinking has crystallized of late in ways I will articulate here.

For those who may not be familiar with Van Sloten’s line of thought, his core contention is that because we have two authorized sources of divine revelation–general revelation in creation and special revelation in the Bible–preaching in the church need not be limited to biblical texts. God speaks just as authoritatively in general revelation, in things like science and culture, as God speaks in special revelation, such that a preacher may–as Van Sloten routinely does–say on a given week that the sermon is based on the lyrics of Metallica or on the “text” of truth as it emerges from professional sports. It is this basic idea that I wish to engage.

But first, like Jason Lief, I will confess that I am an odd person to raise any objections to Van Sloten’s work. When I page through The Day Metallica Came to Church, it is almost like taking a tour of some of my own preaching over the years in that I also have tapped many of the books, songs, TV shows, artwork, and movies mentioned in the book. As some readers know, for years now I have co-led Neal Plantinga’s wonderful seminar “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching” and have co-taught the seminary course version of it. In this seminar/class we urge preachers to read as widely as possible, mining the riches of John Steinbeck’s novels, Jane Kenyon’s poetry, Gary Schmidt’s young adult fiction, New York Timesarticles, and Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson for insights that contribute to the preaching craft. Widely read pastors, we say, find far more than illustrative material–they find also “middle wisdom,” insights into life that properly focus and shape the preacher in ways that will make his or her sermons more vibrant, more true to life.

What’s more, I recently wrapped up directing a three-year grant program funded by the Templeton Foundation. The goal of the program was to produce an array of resources that would encourage pastors and other church leaders to make positive use of the fruits of science in church settings, using science as a partner in exploring God’s world and in giving God praise for its wonders. (You can view the website we created at http://ministrytheorem.calvinseminary.edu.)

In short, I am all for being culturally savvy, literary, and alive to the gifts of insight that come from paying attention to all of life. So where is my hesitancy on The Day Metallica Came to Church?

Article Two Meets Article Seven

My critique begins at the point where Van Sloten claims one may preach “on” these cultural artifacts in a way that comes close to being on a par with preaching “on” the Gospel of Mark. In his book, Van Sloten asserts that one is authorized to “preach on Metallica” or “preach on The Dark Knight” because even our Reformed tradition (in article 2 of the Belgic Confession) acknowledges that we have two books of revelation: the general revelation that comes through creation and the special revelation that comes through scripture. Van Sloten claims that seeing both as authoritative revelations, all but on a par with each other, allows a principle he calls “co-illumination.” Both “books” of revelation need each other to bring things into balance. “If you sincerely believe God speaks through two distinct ‘books,’ the Bible and human culture, then this belief keeps you from making more out of either book than you ought to” (58).

Van Sloten also props up the authoritative nature of human cultural activity by rooting it in humanity as created in the image of God. Being made in the divine image means, he claims, that everything we do bears the stamp of God’s being. What’s more, only when taken together in all the rich diversity of our human culture can we even begin to reflect the fullness of God’s endlessly rich being. “If God’s image shines through our very humanity, doesn’t it make sense that it also shines through the things we do and make?” (149).

This all has a certain logic to it, but it also all cries out for some careful distinctions lest we fall prey to making the very category error that I believe lies very near the heart of Van Sloten’s project. The nub of the issue theologically can be stated fairly simply: The Reformed tradition (as reflected accurately in the Belgic Confession) does affirm the idea of a general revelation. However, the scope of that revelation is quite carefully proscribed. We know God through the “creation, preservation, and government of the universe,” and the primary thing we learn through creation and its ongoing functioning is God’s “eternal power and divinity” (Belgic Confession, article 2). The Reformed tradition has long said that just how much you can learn about God from creation is somewhat limited. For instance, you don’t necessarily learn about what sin is, you’d never tumble to the idea of humanity having been created in God’s image just by looking around you (certainly not in a fallen world!), and you’ll never learn God’s plan of salvation as it culminates in Christ Jesus the Lord through the created order alone.

The universe reveals to us that there is a God and that this God is wise and all-powerful. But when it comes to sure and certain knowledge of this God and what his plans are for the universe, we must turn to scripture, where all such things come to us “more openly” and fully. In other words, the content of general revelation–of the first “book” of divine revelation–is important, but it is not very detailed. Because human beings were created in God’s image, we are able to create culture. The theological ad hoc doctrine of “common grace” affirms that a residue of God’s image remains in all people such that even sinful people who neither know God in Christ nor have any interest in following or serving this God are able to produce works of art worthy of Christian consideration for the insights they may reveal. But notice: those cultural artifacts–even the stellar ones–are at best second-tier derivations of the fact of God’s having revealed himself as the Creator and Preserver of the wider created order. Metallica’s lyrics and John Steinbeck’s prose may ultimately be able to trace themselves back to God’s having created a world and to God’s having made us as somehow chips off the divine block, but those artifacts are no more the same thing as thecontent of general revelation than the collected works of Martin Luther are the same thing as Holy Scripture. Luther’s work (or Karl Barth’s or Sallie McFague’s) stems from scripture and what is revealed there, but it would be a significant category error to equate such reflections and writings with the Word of God and to say that, as such, they are just as revelatory as that Word.

I could not as an ordained pastor, therefore, stride into the pulpit some Sunday and announce that the sermon text on which I was going to preach that morning was a theological treatise once written by Theodor Beza. No doubt there is much to learn from Beza about God’s Word, and there may well be resonances in his reflections that bring God’s Word to life for me, but it is still ever and only God’s Word that I preach and never second-tier theological artifacts on that Word.

Similarly with Rembrandt’s paintings, including most especially the ones that depict biblical scenes. There may be much to learn from them as they stem from the special revelation that is God’s Word. But to equate Rembrandt’s work with the Holy Spirit–inspired divine Word and thus claim that Rembrandt is just as authoritative a source for divine revelation as Paul’s letter to the Romans is to transgress a theological boundary that ought to be manifest for all to see. This is why even the authors of the Reformed confessions, particularly in article 7 of the Belgic Confession, relativize the importance of their own work in writing that very document: “We must not consider human writings—no matter how holy their authors may have been—equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God [in scripture].” If this is true of second- and thirdtier derivations from special revelation, how much more true this most assuredly is with second- and third-tier cultural artifacts that, broadly speaking, fall somehow under the heading of the created order.

Writing in the November 2011 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal, Dr. John Bolt makes this same point in regard to those who try to treat all the findings of science as the equivalent of the content of general revelation. Quantum physics and its various subcomponents may be largely accurate in terms of how the universe functions. But any given theory about quantum physics or any writings of a given scientist on this subject are not simply the same thing as general revelation. Bolt helpfully quotes Herman Bavinck, who strives to keep the lines and categories clear in this regard. Yes, Bavinck says, there is a sense in which business practices and the arts stem from how God set up the world and created also humanity. However, “since creation’s existence is distinct from God, and nature and history can also be studied by themselves and for their own sake, knowledge of God and knowledge of his creatures do not coincide, and in the latter case we usually do not speak of revelation as the source of knowledge” (“Getting the ‘Two Books’ Straight,” 318). In other words, when science develops a way to diagnose a strain of hepatitis, this is good knowledge, but it hardly has the force of revelation on a par with Paul’s telling us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself or even learning from the created order that there is an eternal and powerful Creator God.

A further point that hardly seems necessary to make—and thus neither will I spend much time on it—is that although human beings do still bear the divine image, one cannot fail to take the effects of sin into account when surveying the exercise of that image in human culture. People can and frequently do produce works of art or scientific theories that are injurious to the truth of God and of how God would have this world operate. As noted above, there is a sufficient residue of the divine image in humanity that the idea of common grace can be fruitfully developed and defended. However, such a claim is far different from the claim that because people bear the divine image, all cultural artifacts can be traced with a solid black line straight back to the general revelation of God. The lines that lead from what humans produce to the fact of God as Creator and Preserver of the universe are often dotted lines and are frequently jagged and broken lines. Yes, echoes of God can be found in the skill of an athlete and in the soaring high notes hit by a soprano at the opera, and we are right to thrill to such things. But to call such spectacles authorized revelation is, again, to make a category error where these matters are concerned.

Word and Sacrament, Not Insight and Artifact

Given my own fondness, indicated at the outset of this article, for weaving science and movies and novels into my preaching, what finally is the difference between John Van Sloten and me (and is it a sufficient difference to fuss over)? The difference is that I believe language matters and theology matters, and how we talk about the act of preaching in the church, therefore, matters a great deal as well. Ministers in most denominations— and most certainly in the Christian Reformed Church—are ordained as ministers “of the Word and sacraments.” We are not ordained as ministers of the culture and the sacraments, or of the whole wide world and the sacraments, but of the divine Word. Pastors in their ordinations are set aside in the community for one supreme task and that is opening up God’s Word in preaching and teaching. We have no authorization to preach on anything else–not our own ideas, not our favorite TV shows, not the grandest painting an artist ever produced in the history of humankind. We are not even authorized per se to preach on general revelation (and I know of no tradition in the twomillennia-long history of the church that regarded even the creation, preservation, and governance of the universe as a sufficient “text” on which to preach). The Word of God provides the content on which we preach even as it–and it alone–provides the lens or, pace Calvin, the eyeglasses through which to view the wider world and even the content of general revelation as proscribed by the Reformed tradition.

Of course, the Reformed tradition contains many other marvelous nuances and no small measure of theological suppleness when it comes to engaging the wider world and its culture. We properly have a keen appreciation for the arts and for excellence wherever we see it. We do see the fingerprints of God in places where some other Christian traditions do not even bother to look due to their more ascetic, isolationist posture vis-á-vis the world. Because of this we learn from whomever we can, believers and unbelievers alike, and we may properly take the wisdom and insights we gain from cultural artifacts and bring them into interaction with the portion of God’s Word that is being preached any given Sunday.

But we do not treat those insights as on a par with what we receive from God’s Word. All preachers are called first and foremost—and in every sermon they preach—to be heralds of the gospel, of the good news of Christ Jesus the Lord. That is a proclamation one will not hear anywhere else in the whole wide world. Only the Word of God gives preachers the good news they are to herald, and if reading a thoughtful Joyce Carol Oates novel helps us preachers wing that good news into people’s broken hearts better and more insightfully than if we had not been exposed to that novel, then there is reason to praise God for the help this work of fiction provided. But the praise comes because such a cultural artifact helped proclaim the gospel and not because the preacher’s goal was to proclaim the ideas from the novel to begin with. Joyce Carol Oates is a skilled and thoughtful writer from whom I have learned much over the years, but she cannot give me the gospel and thus she will never give me the content of any sermon I should ever preach as a minister of the Word and sacraments in the Christian Reformed Church.

Near the end of his book, John Van Sloten makes it clear that among the goals of his larger project is helping people to celebrate the goodness of God wherever they see it or discover it. He wants people to “love the world the way God does” (235). I agree wholeheartedly. But when the New Testament tells us that God so loved the world, it does not say that therefore he sent artists and architects and musicians to generically reveal truths about himself here, there, and everywhere. It tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son to die. What’s more, God then sent his Spirit to inspire the Word that tells us about that wonderful gospel truth and is now, as Paul wrote often in his epistles, the Word we preach. That Word alone contains Life itself in a way no sunset, no play, no novel, and no song ever could.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a former editor of Perspectives.