If the Epistle is ‘of straw’ then there is within that straw a very hearty firm, nourishing, but as yet uninterpreted and unthreshed grain.

—Johann Gottfried Herder

James is hard to follow. He segues from one idea to another, but provides few grammatical markers to show us how his thoughts are connected. Paul, on the other hand, trained in western, cause–effect logic, makes better sense. He joins ideas the way we do with conjunctions like "because," "for," and "therefore" to help us follow his train of thought.

James’ method is associative—a "stream of consciousness." He touches on a subject, illuminates it, expands it, applies it and then moves to another thought, triggered by an idea that associates itself in his mind. We may fail to see the connection because James doesn’t specify it. His logic is not syntactical, but (to coin a word) "synapsical." The connections are found in his mind.

Therein lies our challenge: to get into James’ mind, to understand his thinking, which is what we want to do as we make our way through his book.

Despite James’ tendency to shuttle readily from one topic to another, however, there is one theme the warps its way through the woof of his writing. It is holiness.

Holiness is a dull word these days, conjuring up images of fusty, finger–wagging prudes who make it their ambition to find fun and frustrate it if they can; people whose odd–ball behavior puts others off. True holiness, however, is anything but dull. It is startlingly and arresting. It is more than being decent, good, ethical and upright. It has that rare aspect the Bible calls "the beauty of holiness."

Peter writes, "Live such good lives among unbelievers that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:12). The word, here twice–translated "good," means "something beautiful to see."

This is the picture of holiness James draws for us, a portrayal that fascinates us, and awakens us to the hope that we too can live lives of uncommon beauty and grace. It can happen as we humbly receive it. "The Lord…will beautify the humble," Israel’s poet assures us (Psalms 149:4).

This is also the picture of holiness that fascinates our jaded unbelieving friends and awakens them to the hope that there may be, after all, something more. Most of them, it must be admitted, have not turned away from Christian faith because they were overthrown by philosophical argument, but because they have been disillusioned by the Christians they know. Joy Davidman puts a fine point on it when she writes, "One sanctimonious (Christian) makes a hundred unbelievers."

Most folks have never seen the real thing—that extraordinary quality of life that can only be described as beautiful. Would that you and I had it. "If only 10% of the world’s population (did)," C. S. Lewis once mused, "would not the world be converted and happy before a year’s end?"

David Roper

Boise 1998