Monday, December 28, 2009

Gleaning Jellyfish from John Piper

This review of John Piper's A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God was made possible through receipt of a complimentary audiobook copy through christianaudio's Reviewers Program.

In having the opportunity to review, I thought it would be good to finally hear some of Piper's word directly since I have heard almost unilaterally negative things about him. It's much better to be informed about good or bad things about an author, speaker, etc. than just hearsay.

That said, this book met my expectations. And I have to say, Piper is not quite as bad as I had heard. It's an okay book, but one I would generally recommend not reading (or listening to).

First of all, christianaudio lists the audiobook as running 3.8 hours. All the files downloaded fine, but it only ran about 2.8. That was about 2.7 hours too long. I actually almost stopped listening a couple of times because I got so frustrated with Piper's writing and assumptions. He does not back up what he says, and he often repeats himself (not even phrasing his arguments in new ways). And then there's the metaphors. Random, non-applicable metaphors. Like Piper saying we should look to the snow instead of our statues in our Swedish home and that we should be dolphins in the ocean of culture instead of jellyfish. I still don't understand that one... However, I wanted to finish the book so I could give it an honest review.

I think the best way to break down the review is by breaking down the title.

First of the all, the title is misleading. It sounds like a bit of a devotional book: Seeing God's providence in one's own life. Piper states this is the purpose of the book. However, my wife, who listened to most of it with me, stated, "How does anyone actually get anything out of this? It sounds more like a linguistic, historical book." That's pretty accurate.

It really is an exegesis of the Book of Ruth that wants to be a devotional, but doesn't achieve either well. Each chapter starts with a chapter of the book of Ruth (Chapter 1 of Piper to Chapter 1 of Ruth, and so on), and then Piper analyzes it verse-by-verse. The problem is he does not explain his analysis well. He constantly cites Bible verses without explaining their relevance and his interpretation of them. This really distracts from the narration, particularly in an audiobook format. It would have been better to have the citations listed as footnotes. And even though he does not explain his analysis well, his citation of verses and absolute statements make it appear that he cannot deal with ambiguity well, but rather has to state that everything he believes is absolutely true with no possibility of error despite human frailties.

Piper also seems to base linguistic interpretations based on a modern English translation. I have not studied Ruth in depth, so I cannot speak to the original author's intent for sure, but I'm guessing Piper read into some phrases that were more figurative colloquialisms than literal declarations.

For a devotional text, whichever translation he used (not sure which) was not very friendly to associating with the text. For instance, my wife started counting the number of times the word glean (and its derivatives) was used in just a couple of minutes. While most of us know what it means, it's really an outdated term.

Piper focuses his analysis on three primary themes: sex, race, and God's sovereignty/providence. Let's look at each of these themes separately:

God's Sovereignty/Providence. I'm starting with this theme because it really is the predominant theme. Most of the book looks at this. I don't disagree with Piper that God is sovereign and makes all things work for good. However, Piper made me realize that I am not a strict or strong Calvinist. He seems to go out of his way to defend God's sovereignty and providence, again reading into the text things that really aren't there, or at least not meant to be as strong as he makes them out to be.

Also, he is clearly a strong Calvinist, advocating strict predestination to the point that everything is not only in God's control, but caused by God. He references a missionary whose wife and kid were killed by a single bullet. The missionary and Piper argued that God ordained the bullet to kill them. Piper argues if that's not the case, then God is not sovereign and everything would fall apart. God is sovereign (in complete control) and his providence is good (he works through all things to make them good) but that does not mean he causes everything bad. Sometimes he lets bad things happen because of our own sinfulness (or others' sinfulness) and because we are in a broken world. That does not mean he is not able to intervene; he just does not always. But that also does not mean he cannot or will not use the bad to create something good, which I think is what happens. John Eldredge would argue that a lot of the bad is not caused by God, but in fact by Satan. Piper has a de-facto belief in the absence of Satan by attributing all activities to God. It's a slippery slope (and that's not arguing for the existence of Satan as an actual entity).

Sex. This is the next largest theme for Piper. And it's a stretch. I agree with his value of saving sex for marriage, but he also promises that all will be blessed for doing so. A friend and I were talking recently that just because we may save our sexuality for marriage does not mean it all works out beautifully. And Piper goes into random tangential mini-sermons on sex, detracting from the overall narrative. Again, he just reads too much into things.

Race. This is the biggest stretch of all and the most minor part of the book. It should not be included in the title. Piper argues that the inclusion of a Moabite (Ruth) in the lineage of Jesus shows that we should not be racist. Okay, racism sucks. Agreed. But find a better way to argue against it. Seriously.

Finally, to the narration. Grover Gardner is the narrator and is an excellent narrator. He is easy to listen to, and he enunciates well. I've listened to plenty of audiobooks where it can actually be hard to understand the reader. However, the problem is that this books comes off in a very intellectual, lecture-like way. Piper says a main point of the book is to advocate for "radical, risk-taking love," but I did not hear any heart in the book. I don't know if that's because there was no heart in it or because Gardner read it more as an intellectual lecture than something from the heart. My preference is for authors to read their books themselves. John Eldredge is a good example of that. The author's intent and heart really comes through much better that way.

So if you're really into theology or are a strong Calvinist, you may like this book. Otherwise, don't bother.


  1. There are some important perspectives in your book review.

    It seems to me that strict Calvinistic determinism and naturalistic determinism are much more similar than different. They are both based on the premise that the horrific aspects of life and the tooth-and-claw nature of reality are just the way things are. And the way they are meant to be.

    In one model there is a personal designer and in the other there isn't. But neither of them has anything "outside" to stand over and against the way things are. It's good to be reminded that the evil we see around us doesn't have the last word. It's quite another thing to start insisting that it's the way God wants it and has caused it to be. These are two totally different messages. One offers, in my opinion, a truly Christian voice in the darkness. The other either denies the darkness or identifies it with God. One allows us to recognize evil for what it is and fight against it. The other tells us we are delusional—that our recoil as people fling themselves from the upper floors of a burning tower is just as twisted as our feelings of rageful vindictiveness or demeaning lust.

    In many ways the reductionistic model is actually more comforting—the random horror of impersonal nature seems less horrific than the master planned and heaven-sent bullet in the head. We can cry out in face of the tragedies of random nature but our cries are muffled when we are continually told that everything that shrieks of evil and evokes horror is the way the Font of all wisdom wants it to be.

    OK, I know that some people think it is comforting to assert that it’s all part of God’s plan. They are the same people who stand in the funeral line and tell the grieving parents, “There, there, it’s all for the best. It’s a good thing that your child died.”

    Jesus himself could look into the face of such evil and say, “an enemy did this” (Matthew 13:28). I’m uncomfortable with those who would rush to his side, pat him on the arm, and whisper in his ear, “No Jesus, you got it wrong. Actually YOU did it.”

    Cal (who I guess should actually be a Calvinist!)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Cal! Excellent points!

  3. I noticed that your wife followed the reading of the book and her noting the repetetive use of certain words like "gleening".

    It was important that I could get her indirect perspective as well and a sense of place similar to if I or I and my wife were listening together. It is good that way rather than visualizing a critic just doing a job assigned to them.

    I then did a bit of research on John Piper and his philosophy and it is not a book nor an approach to scripture I would want to follow.

    That's my take on your worthwhile review and thanks for the insight!


  4. Thanks J-M! Your comments about having my wife's perspective are interesting. I hadn't thought of that. We listened to most of the book on our way up to visit her family for Christmas.

    It's good to remember as I review stuff that I don't want to be just a critic, but rather a real person enjoying (or not enjoying) something. And that's really why I joined these two reviewing services, especially the christianaudio one: I love audiobooks, so it gives me a good excuse to listen to more!

    I also found writing a review made this more of a hobby. It allowed me to engage the materials more. Hopefully it gives others insights, but if nothing else, it's a nice relief for me! :)

  5. I read your review on ChristianAudio and followed you back here. I'm just going to address one point that you mistook.

    Piper is a Calvinist as you point out, but he believes strongly in the Devil and that he is working in the world. But Piper is a compatibilist: that is, he believes an act can be caused both by God's predetermination and someone acting within the confines of their nature.

    A good verse supporting this in the life of a Christian is "...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Phil. 2:12-13)."

    I'm not trying to convince you of this, just to let you know that Piper isn't a fatalist and that he does believe Satan is quite responsible for the wickedness he does. Perhaps you should check out what Piper has preached on Job for a better understanding of what he believes.



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