Book Review: Small Things, Big Things, by Michael A. Milton
Good theology that begins and ends in the classroom is not good theology at all. Right doctrine by its very nature is broad enough to give sense and meaning to every facet of life, whether of the intellect or the affections of the heart, whether in the seminary or the cornfields of Kansas. Unfortunately, this truth is not always recognized; and when it is recognized, it is not always intentionally applied in practice. Michael A. Milton is one who cannot seem to forget the truth of God's sovereign grace and active providence no matter what he's doing. The realm of the unimportant, the tyranny of â€œsmall things,â€ doesn't seem to exist for him â€“ because in the smallest things, there are pointers to and reminders of the very big things of God's eternal love for his children in Christ Jesus. Small Things, Big Things is a book that will probably help you start to see things the same way; and if it does it will be well worth your while to read.
To be up front with everyone, I am pretty leery of the whole genre of spiritual/religious meditations on everyday events. More often than not, this kind of book is plagued with at least two problems: first, man-centered theology seems to thrive on that sort of fare; and even if not man-centered theology per se, there is usually a fuzziness and general lack of substance at best. And second, there is often the tendency to try to fix problems and heal wounds that are very deep and very real with trite, â€œfeel-goodâ€ kinds of stories that simply do not pose true solutions to the vast extent of fallen man's need. Try telling someone, â€œYour wife is leaving you, your kid is on drugs and in and out of prison, every day is a struggle to believe or even to survive â€“ I know what you need! Read this â€œchicken soupâ€ story about how a poor little boy got the toy he wanted for Christmas; that will fix all your problems!â€ But too often, this kind of book tries to accomplish that impossible task. They heal the wounds of God's people lightly.
Milton's book has largely succeeded in avoiding these errors, however. Has he done it perfectly? Perhaps not; but what he has done is to tackle a difficult and much-needed topic for the Reformed world today, that of the immanence of God in the everyday affairs of his people, in a manner that has not trivialized the extent of their need, nor cast them upon some sort of positive-thinking, â€œlook on the bright side of lifeâ€ mentality. He has a shepherd's heart for the people of God, he is willing to give of himself as a person who has hurt deeply but has overcome by God's grace, and who is confident that God's grace will prevail in the lives of every last little lamb for whom Christ died. â€œI dare not trivialize deep waters with little droplets of axioms,â€ he says. â€œThe gospel is deep enough, Christ is savior enough, and God's patience and love are long enough and wide enough to hold you while you pray and hope and waitâ€. Hurting sheep do not need to hear feel-good stories, they need to hear that. And while Milton does see surprising testimonies of God's grace in the most mundane of affairs, it is never the stories themselves that he emphasizes, but the gracious God who gives glimpses of himself in all those things.
Not only has Milton succeeded in avoiding a blithe, â€œfeel-goodâ€ approach in his book, he has also largely succeeded in adhering to solid, Reformed theology. The doctrines of grace are alive in just about every chapter, they show up as they always show up in real life â€“ in the midst of all the confusing, complicated, nitty-gritty details of life in this fallen world, and often obscured or doubted because of the narrowness of our perspectives and the spiritual myopia ingrained in us all. But even when obscured, they are there, suffused throughout all of life, giving ample evidence of God's sovereign love and persevering faithfulness to all who are willing to look for them.
â€œLargely succeeded,â€ I say, because there are a few points at which he made me a little uncomfortable, the most notable of which I encountered in his chapter on â€œIrene Dunne, Neil Postman, and the Right Use of Entertainmentâ€. â€œActing is not everything. Living is,â€ he favorably quotes the talented actress, Irene Dunne, who dropped out of Hollywood to devote herself to motherhood. But just how did she live, what was it that she saw as â€œeverythingâ€ to give her life to? â€œShe lived,â€ Milton observes, â€œaccording to her own demonstrated life, for God and for others. Her own trust helped many in the Roman Catholic communities.â€ Then, ironically, he gives his own opinion of her (which fits right into her Roman Catholic theology), â€œShe controlled her own destinyâ€. What kind of â€œGodâ€ did she really live for? How was it really a help to others to affirm them in the damning theology of Rome? To help someone stay in the religion of the Vatican is no help at all. And Milton should know better than to suggest that Dunne â€œcontrolled her own destinyâ€ when she decided to quit acting. I was a little surprised at his unqualified approbation of her, when in so many other places he holds explicitly to Reformed Theology, and I must say for the record that I disagree with him here.
However that may be, I must also stress that there is much in this book well worth the reading. In a remarkable variety of ways, comprising everything from childhood remembrances to pastoral experiences; from the books of meaty authors who provoked in him some serious meditations to the meatiest book of all, the holy Scriptures; from public events that captured the gaze of the whole world to private turmoils of the heart, that persisted without the knowledge of another soul â€“ in anything and everything, Milton has made it a habit of finding the God who orders all things according to his eternal wisdom and will. Reformed theology meets day-to-day life in diverse and surprising ways.
I conclude with a representative quote, that demonstrates why my reaction to Milton has been very largely positive: to him, the every-week experience of going to Church is not mundane or boring â€“ it is the thrill and joy of Easter, which he will not relegate to one day of the year, but rejoices to celebrate every Lord's Day. Everyday life, when lived in light of eternal realities, is new every morning and always full of the promises of God â€“ and at the center of everyday life is Easter, as Milton explains: â€œI will not let go of Easter. Not yet. Not until the detestable graves are emptied of their sacred contents, not until the last tear has been shed, not until the vestige of sickness and disease and sorrow and affliction has been done away with. Not until Jesus comes. Then I will go into eternity with the words He is risen on my lips.â€
All I can say to that is, â€œAmenâ€.
Small Things, Big Things: available at Monergism Books.