On Being A Well-Informed Generalist


Ken Myers is interviewed in ByFaith Magazine. When a guy is paraphrased as saying “…what the church needs today is not more specialists, whether in theology or philosophy or church growth, but more ‘well-informed generalists’ who are interested in understanding all of culture in order to live more faithfully in God’s world,” or when he says that “wisdom is also a part of our vocation,” you know he’s onto something. Well, I do anyway. And if that doesn’t do it for you, the man was happily employed by NPR for a spell.

The interview is pocked with the usual insight Myers is good for. But the last question is where my interest was particularly piqued. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I am much less interested in making my own children memorize verses than getting them used to just listening to biblical text read at home and in church (their catechism is another matter). As they get older and sit in worship I encourage them to exercise the muscle of faith—their ears. “Listen to the words sung and prayed and said.” Much as I esteem quality preaching, it has never seemed to me that a sermon is so much designed to make students as it is to make believers and compel disciples. Ours seems a more organic project than a mechanical or academic one. I have a natural resistance to whatever it is that makes the modern creature, young or old, think he has to do something as ghastly as take notes during sermons.

So I think it is a stunning point Myers makes that the spoken and heard word is much more fundamental to our humanity. I think he’s right, but probably only because I agree with him.  As well, his points about the power of conversation, learning and living with it instead of learning to take control and have power over things and being intuitive scratches where this un-calculating INTJ  itches.

It seems ironic that you often commend older perspectives and practices, but you use a very new technological format.

The real irony is that the spoken word is more primitive than the printed word. So this is a technology that enables the recovery of a more primitive experience. I just did an interview about this with Craig Gay, who argues that hearing is the sense that the Scriptures focus on most. It’s the word heard. So there’s a sense in which the spoken word is more fundamental to our humanity.

In addition, the conversational format is a subtle way of challenging people to think about issues they probably wouldn’t read an article about. If they were browsing through a magazine, they might flip right by, whereas conversation can be more friendly, less off-putting.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my subscribers, who had a kind of high-energy, inside-the-Beltway job. And she said, “I really was interested in that interview with so-and-so, but I needed the bullet points; I needed to know what were the action items.” And I said the best action item would be to emulate Mary and ponder these things in your heart. I said I have no idea what you ought to do about it, but I think if you meditate on it long enough, if you try to acquire an understanding of it over time, it will be useful.

We tend to think we learn things so that we can take control, so we can step out and do something, rather than learning it and just living with it. But the people I know who behave really wisely are not that calculating. I think they’re kind of intuitive; they make decisions more from a kind of grounding in thoughtfulness.

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19 Responses to On Being A Well-Informed Generalist

  1. RubeRad says:

    Fascinating. Looks like it’s time to get caught up on Mars Hill. Reminds me of one of Myers’ touchstones, Jaqcues Ellul. A preview of his book Humiliation of the Word is online. The prolegomena, which discusses the essential difference between seeing and hearing — or more specifically relating to the world through sight vs. sound — is an amazing piece of writing. An extended quote from near the end extols the spoken word over the written:

    We all know that writing strips language of its certainty and even of its meaning, which can then be restored only after a certain thought process…The same process applies to religious writing. It is filled with life only when it serves as a support and starting point for a word that is spoken, announced, or proclaimed. In this way the word becomes current and living, having left the book’s pages and flown toward the listener. …

    The written word is just a mummy whose wrappings must be removed someday — not to discover a few bones, but to breathe life into it again. Only the word conveys the truth of a religious message. What the written word needs is not to be considered the source of a mere code, law, or formula, or of an indefinitely repeated prayer. It must be taken at its source and given rebirth, not by repetition, but by an inspiration that reopens it. Written language has closed the mind. Like a fist grasping a diamond, it has closed its grammatical and structural trap over a vanishing whisper that it tries to translate through enclosing and containment. But instead, writing snuffs it out, and we must open the straitjacket of writing so that it becomes a freshly spoken word. That way the whisper can be perceived and received again. Then the word can start the listener off anew in his quest for truth.

    The linked preview contains the full prolegomena, which is just mind-blowing reading. Chapter II on idolatry I found so excellent that I presented it in miniature at Blogorrhea. The rest of the book, eh, I can do without.

  2. John Yeazel says:

    It seems to me that the spoken and preached Word, when accurately used to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes, is the means that both Calvin and Luther used to accomplish all they did in their respective ministries. Carl Trueman wrote an excellent article on Luther’s thinking in regards to the active and creative power of the spoken word of God. I cannot remember where I placed it but will try to find it again and post it if I can. Perhaps someone else has read it and can post it here. This, of course, just reminds me of my favorite Luther quote which I am sure all of you have heard: “I simply wrote about, talked about and preached God’s word, otherwise I did nothing. And while I drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Phillip and Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no emporer ever inflicted such loses upon it. I did nothing, the Word did everything.”

  3. John Yeazel says:

    Robert Godfrey, in his new book on Calvin, has written that Calvin often spoke about ascending into the heavenly realm through attentiveness to the spoken word of God. He talked about it as a discipline to be learned in Church at that some do it better than others. I have never heard anyone talk about ascending into God in worship before. The worship reforms Calvin sought to implement were to center the worshipper with utmost concentration and the least distractions as possible on the spoken word of God. I think D.G. Hart’s book, With Reverence and Awe, also makes this main point.

  4. John Yeazel says:

    Do not misread my last post to mean that we have any hope of ascending to God other than through the mediation of Christ. The Word is Christ, who is the author, doer and fulfiller of the Word and is the only means by which we can ascend unto the Holy Hill; otherwise we would be consumed by our own sinfulness.

  5. RubeRad says:

    SC89: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

  6. RubeRad says:

    ascending into God in worship

    That is also a key concept in the reformed understanding of communion; our understanding of Real Spiritual Presence of Christ is that the Holy Spirit “lifts us up” to commune with Christ, vs. the Lutheran Real Physical Presence, in which the presence of Christ’s glorified physical body is somehow communicated to us right where we physically are. Silly Lutherans!

  7. John Yeazel says:

    Come on RubeRad get off your high horse. Try reading John Kleinig’s new book Grace Upon Grace on Lutheran spirituality- it will knock your socks off. We can continue this discussion next week at the symposium. Looking forward to meeting all you meatheads. Hopefully, we will all come out of the symposium in one peice. Just kidding of course and cannot wait to get into some meaningful dialog with you all in a relaxed and comfortable setting.

  8. Joe Brancaleone says:

    There’s something rubbing me the wrong way in that interview and I’m not sure if I can explain it. I guess it’s all well and good to discuss cultural trends, their causes and trajectories, etc. But I think Meyers is in danger of inadvertently smuggling in an incipient legalism by framing this discussion in terms of Christian spirituality, or what he calls “thoughtful Christian faithfulness”.

    Based on the explicit exhortations and imperatives of scripture, what role and to what degree does thoughtful cultural analysis really *need* to play in sanctification? Granted, I personally don’t understand how to get from the indicative passages on divine sovereignty to sancitification imperatives on thoughtful cultural analyses. I’m usually slow and/or suspicious on connecting these sorts of dots that come so easily to others.

    Again, I’m not downplaying the personal benefits of reflectively engaging culture. I just wouldn’t want, say, *Ken Meyer’s* conclusions on our place in culture to replace the individual’s common sense, nor erase all notions of adiaphora.


  9. Joe Brancaleone says:

    ‘course I should probably finish the entire interview and see if my concern is addressed.

  10. Zrim says:


    It may be that when you hear Myers speak you hear a variation of New Schoolerism, but only because there are shared words and phrases. I can see plenty of evangelicals nodding and smiling at Myers, thinking he’s affirming their presumptions when in fact he’s not: creation is good as-is, it doesn’t need anybody’s help.

    It’s a bit like Horton explaining moralistic-therpeutic deism to a sympathetic 700Club crowd. They hear lots of familiar words and phrases and think he’s talking about someone other than them when, in fact, he’s got them precisely in mind.

  11. John Yeazel says:

    Do not mean to change the tenor of the dialog here (some good concerns and questions raised by Joe) but RubeRad? What’s up with that? Ignore that if you like- you Reformed types probably will. Calvin seemed to possess a much greater degree of self-control than the rambuncious Luther.

  12. RubeRad says:

    I’m sorry, were you offended by “silly Lutherans”? I didn’t mean to insult, just to allude to a centuries-old debate with a passing joke — as in “we’re not going to solve this here”. And yes, Calvin was much more restrained than Luther. I guess I’m doing what I can to even the score.

    But my point was that since you mentioned you’d never heard “ascending to God in worship” before, maybe that has something to do with the age-old rift between Calvinists and Lutherans on communion, where Calvinists explicitly see the H.S. bringing us up to heaven for real, spiritual, “remote” communion with Christ, but Lutherans insist on Christ’s real, physical, local presence. So Calvinists are used to the concept of “ascending to God in worship”, but Lutherans maybe not.

  13. Zrim says:

    Speaking of Calvinist jibes to Lutherans, I’ve always been fond of our demonstrably breaking the bread at consecration in order to say, “See, nobody here, just bread.”

    Real presence so beats consubstantiation.

  14. Joe Brancaleone says:

    not to mention its an affirmation of the scriptures that explicitly point out that his body was *not* broken (not a single bone), which would not hold if there were a physical bodily presence in the bread.

  15. John Yeazel says:


    I was not offended, I was trying to bring some humor into the arguments which have been going on since Calvin and Melancthon tried to resolve the differences between the Reformed and the Lutherans during the Reformation. Robert Godfrey, in his new book on Calvin, brings these issues into clearer light and gives us some historical perspective which can be a springboard for much more worthwhile debate. I draw deeply from both good Reformed and good Lutheran theology. I still have not resolved all the differences in my own mind. It is, it seems to me, to be a well worthwhile effort to try to do so. The more I learn about the two tradtions the more intriguing it gets. Luther and Calvin were both fascinating figures who accomplished great things in their lives. I simply eat the crumbs that fall from the tables of both their labors and efforts and seek to learn from both. I have no desire to try to fracture and make the wounds of our differences go deeper but to be of help to mend and to heal the differences in order that our witness to the world would be much stronger and unified.

  16. John Yeazel says:


    “Real presence so beats consubstantiation”

    It sure does! At least we can agree on that.

    I never thought of the Reformed tradition of breaking the loaf in that light. Just shows how our depravity creeps in when presenting our doctrinal cases. Oh, how fallen we are!! The tone of our arguments become much more hearable when the person presenting the argument is truly broken and understands his own falleness. Sometimes we can be right doctrinally but woefully wrong in the way we present ourselves. Something which I have become much more aware of recently.

  17. John Yeazel says:


    That was not meant to be a subtle cut or low blow. The mystery of the Supper is all wrapped up in the mystery of the two natures of Christ. Both Lutherans and Reformed have stated their positions with clarity and it will probably never be resolved until Christ returns again. The reformed view is logical the Lutherans do not go beyond scripture. I’m still not sure if that stops the argument or not. Is that a basis for a serious break from each other? Beats me!!!!!

  18. John Yeazel says:

    Woops- I was thinking transub. not consub. I had a brain fart. I am surprised nobody said anything. I guess the silence speaks volumes.

  19. Chris Donato says:

    Ran into Ken at PCAGA running his own little booth. Was both humbled and amazed. I circled his feet a few times and nudged his hand and was pretty much filled up the rest of the day.

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