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In praise of holiness

From The Briefing:

I’ve just read an article that I agree with, but can’t relate to. The article, by Carl Trueman, is about the problems with hagiographies (a hagiography is a ‘saint-biography’: an account of somebody’s life that treats them as a hero of holiness and leaves out the naughty bits).1 He argues that hagiographies are bad for multiple reasons: they’re not good history, they promote an unhelpful black-and-white view of the world, and they make readers feel depressed and inadequate when they don’t measure up. I think he’s right. But I just don’t feel his pain.

I’m not blaming Carl. It’s just that he and I come from opposite sides of the world. Carl is writing in an American context, where the common impulse is to praise heroes and aspire to greatness. So he needs to warn people about the dangers of hero worship (like Paul does in 1 Cor 3:4-9). But I’m an Aussie: my gut instinct is to sledge heroes and cut down tall poppies.2 So I need to learn more about how to affirm and praise examples of holy living and ministry (like Paul in Col 4:7-13). Hagiography is an American problem, not mine.

Okay, by now you might be protesting that I’m making wild stereotypical and racial generalizations. I’ll come clean, and admit that indeed I am. Americans and Australians aren’t that different, are we? We share a lot of culture. We even speak similar languages. Ultimately, both of us need to hear each of these messages. Whatever country we’re born in, we need to learn to affirm and praise great examples of holy lives, and we need to avoid the danger of hero worship. But how can we do both of these things at the same time?

I learned the answer from a wise and godly man—my former ministry trainer and the founder of this publication. He taught me this: when we see people persevering, growing, working, preaching, loving, praying and dealing with sin day by day, we should rejoice. But when we rejoice, we should remember that we’re not rejoicing in the holiness of people. We’re rejoicing in the holiness of the Holy Spirit, who makes all God’s children holy. That is, when we talk about the great deeds of ‘saints’, we’re not praising the saints. We’re praising the sanctifier: the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.

No matter what our cultural tendencies are, the task is the same for all of us. If you’re inclined to cut down tall poppies, praise the God who made them grow tall. If you’re inclined to worship heroes, then praise God and not the person. In both cases, we’re doing what we were created for: praising and worshipping God, who alone is perfectly holy.

1 You can read Carl’s article at http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/06/writing-on-athanasius-a-genera.php.

2 Translation: insulting heroes and criticizing successful people who distinguish themselves

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