Rigney Brings Beer and Bacon to Christian Hedonism
In 2012, Desiring God welcomed Doug Wilson to their national pastor’s conference. At the end of the conference, Joe Rigney facilitated a conversation between Wilson and John Piper about some of the similarities and differences between their respective lives and ministries. At a certain point in the conversation, Wilson was expounding on some of the exhortations he had given to Piper regarding Christian Hedonism. In that discourse, Wilson commented, “I would like to see more beer and bacon in this hedonism,” meaning, the Christian Hedonism promoted by Piper and Desiring God needed to do more work on enjoying God by enjoying his gifts. In other words, he was “yes and amen-ing” the comparative approach that Piper had taken to show that God was supremely better than any created thing. However, Wilson was helpfully pointing out the fact that God has purposefully placed us in a very thick creation, and the good things of this thick creation have more of a purpose than to merely be eclipsed by the goodness of God. They are rather expressions of the goodness of God; and enjoying them for their own goodness is honoring to the good God who gave them. So the challenge was set: can Christian Hedonism sustain more beer and bacon?
In The Things of Earth, Joe Rigney has sufficiently answered with an emphatic, “YES!” Words cannot express my gratitude for this book. Not only has it been some of the most nourishing food for my own soul, I believe it has served Desiring God and Christian Hedonism in incalculable ways. Rigney has effectively filled in some of the most glaring gaps in Christian Hedonism, and as a Christian Hedonist, I am very grateful.
Rigney starts the book with the single best chapter on the Trinity I have ever read. He does serious exegetical and theological development to show how the God who is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, must necessarily be a Triune God. He then spends two chapters giving an exegetical and theological backbone to the idea that all of Creation–not just the bible–is a story, told by the Triune God, of “killing the dragon and getting the girl.” This was perhaps the most comforting aspect of the entire book for me. A couple of years ago, I happened to stumble upon N.D. Wilson’s book Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Reading that book, I could almost hear my soul shouting, “Yes! This is true, and this is beautiful!” But because of the way it was written (creative, spontaneous nonfiction), there remained a tension in my own mind; it had effective rhetoric, but no serious exegetical groundwork (which is fine, that wasn’t the purpose of the book). However, chapters 2 and 3 of Things of Earth give Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl a sturdy exegetical foundation; I could kiss Rigney for giving me this (you know, the holy kind of greeting-kiss)!
Then, in chapter 4, Rigney affirms the divinely established finitude of man. He demonstrates how our limitations are a reflection of God’s divine wisdom; they’re not defects, they’re design features. One of the unique things about this chapter is that Rigney shows how the finitude of us creatures, and the Trinitarian nature of God’s glory, together necessitate an ever expanding, “further up and further in” kind of glorification. Chapter 5 is pretty standard Christian Hedonism; edifying as always. Chapter 6 is a practical philosophy for balancing the ebb and flow of comparing gifts to the giver, and receiving gifts from the giver. Chapter 7 develops a very Kuyperian understanding of culture, in order to show how gifts of God extend from things of the natural universe to things that have been shaped and named by man. Rigney beautifully explains how man’s vocation is to imitate God by taking dominion of the earth. God has always wanted a domesticated world, and he wants it to be domesticated by man’s effort; the garden is to be sanctified by man’s work into a city. Of course sin has deeply affected this vocation, but as Rigney points out, sin has not negated the vocation.
Chapter 8 is a marvelous collection of snapshots, demonstrating this kind of understanding of God and his gifts in real life. This chapter was the most enjoyable portion of the book for me, in a purely esthetic sense; Rigney really flexes his wordsmithing muscles in a doxological way. Chapter 9 and 10 provide the “wartime lifestyle”–which is characteristic of Christian Hedonism–with an ethic of gratitude. This is another way in which he serves the entire philosophy of Desiring God; he’s not saying anything fundamentally different from Piper in this chapter, but he is developing this concept into a more robust, complete, consistent idea. Chapter 11 addresses the practical challenge of suffering and loss as it relates to the idea of receiving God’s good gifts with gratitude. What happens when those gifts are taken away? Rigney gives his potent response in this chapter. Chapter 12 is a tidy wrap up.
All in all, I have to say that this book has been the most enjoyable, helpful book I’ve read all year. In fact, I do believe The Things of Earth has snagged a comfortable spot in my top-five favorite books of all time. Buy it and devour it.
Some notable quotes:
God surveys the world of matter and time, of trees and their branches, of seas and their waves, of signs and seasons, days and years, and he has one reaction; exceedingly good. Over-the-top good. Exclamation-point good. Spike-the-football-and-end-zone-dance good. It’s finite. It’s temporal. It’s limited. And it’s very, very good. pg. 78
Our existence in time, space, and bodies is not a bug; it’s a feature, designed by infinite wisdom for the communication of the unfathomable riches of his glory. God is not frustrated by our finitude. He is not hamstrung by our bodies. Our limitations pose no barrier to him. ‘He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust’ (Ps. 103:14). He made us this way, and he things it was a grand idea. (pg. 80)
Adam is a poet, and his first recorded words are a poem, an encomium, a hymn of praise–the object of which is another creature…Adam is not turning away from his love for God; this is what love for God looks like when it meets one of his gifts. Adam has found a wife. He has found a good thing. This is favor from the Lord, and he must express it. The shaft of glory strikes his sensibility, and he (slowly and deliberately) chases the beam back to the source, savoring the gift for the sake of the giver. pg. 83
A mind that is set on the things above spends an awful lot of time thinking about things on the earth. Family, neighbors, church, job, earthly responsibilities–the person governed by heavenly things intentionally and deliberately considers and engages them. The heavenly mindset is profoundly earthy, but it is fundamentally oriented by the glory of Christ. (pg. 102)
Indirect godwardness and a robust enjoyment of God’s gifts serves and increases direct godwardness by creating new mental, emotional, and spiritual categories for our enjoyment of God. It keeps God from being vague and indistinct in our minds. (pg. 126)
The call to subdue the earth means that the earth, as originally given to man, was unsubdued, undomesticated. This implies that creation has unrealized potential, latent dimensions that lie beneath the surface…Culture, then, is a kind of cultivation, a drawing out what God has put in. Or, to change metaphors, culture is an adornment of creation, the further beautification of an already beautiful world…In a word, Creation + Man’s Creative Efforts = Culture. (pg. 138-139)