Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolved...pray!

Last week I was listening to John Piper preach on prayer. He exhorted his listeners to "treat prayer like your job, treat prayer like food, treat prayer like sleep. It's more important than all of those." After all, even the most undisciplined among us manage to get to work, eat regularly and go to bed when we're tired. Listening, I resolved to make that my goal for 2008. That is to cultivate a disciplined, intentional practice of prayer.

Along those same lines, fellow Hobe Sound alum Randy Huff asks: Will the New Year find you praying?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

"We'll see, the Zen master said."

I find it hard to come up with fresh adjectives when writing about movies I like. In the case of Mike Nichol's latest, I'll settle for brilliant! A trio of brilliant performances by Tom Hanks, Julie Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman and a brilliant script by Aaron Sorkin brilliantly staged by 76-year old American director Mike Nichols. Enough with brilliant. This film explodes off the screen with one great sequence after another. Hilarious, tragic and lacerating...sometimes all at once, and remarkably balanced, despite the Democratic pedigree of the filmmakers.

Back in the 80's when most kids my age were playing Atari, I was reading Time, Newsweek and National Review, so I can recall the events portrayed and I even have a vague recollection of Congressman Charles Wilson from Texas. He was a "Blue Dog Democrat" (a breed that no longer exists), the name given to the group of conservative Democratic congressmen that had enormous power when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill faced off in epic battles. They were often the swing vote which accounted for their disproportionate clout in the House.

This movie isn't a hatchet job on Wilson and his associates -- who covertly and intrepidly armed and trained the Mujahideen so they could drive the Russians out of Afghanistan and hasten the demise of the Soviet Empire -- but it is a case study in the unintended consequences that accompanied that decision. A straight line can be drawn from that to 9/11 and our current involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Terrific ironies abound and places and names that fill today's headlines crop up in Charlie Wilson's story. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Giuliani and Bhutto (Benazir's father). And at the center the Afghan "freedom fighters" who gave birth to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Even knowing what we know now, a case can be made that it was the right thing to do, but the best of intentions often go awry and it's usually the "endgame" that gets screwed up (Charlie Wilson would use a different word). In one sad scene after the war has been won, we see Wilson trying to convince his colleagues to approve $1 million dollars to rebuild schools in Afghanistan (this after having spent hundreds of millions on the war). The response? "Nobody gives a s--- about Afghanistan anymore." 13 years later American troops were invading after 9/11.

In another great scene, Wilson and his wonderfully colorful and loyal staff are celebrating his re-election and success in helping to defeat the Russians. CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (played by Hoffman) tries to bring some perspective to Charlie by telling him a parable about a Zen master and a boy. I paraphrase:

In a village, a boy got a beautiful pony, and all the villagers said, 'That’s wonderful.' The Zen master said, 'We’ll see.' A couple of years later, the boy fell off the pony and broke his leg and all the villagers said, 'That’s terrible.' The Zen master said, 'We’ll see.' Then a war came and all the other boys went to war, but the boy couldn’t go because of his leg. All the villagers said, 'That’s wonderful.' The Zen master said, 'We’ll see.'

And so it goes. Or as is said elsewhere in the film, "the ball keeps bouncing" even when we've looked away. A master of a different kind, in fact the Master, said to Peter "all who take the sword will perish by the sword." Is this a call to pacifism? I think not. But it is a call to careful, prayerful reflection, for rarely (never?) is the taking up of the sword without unintended consequences. And as this movie dramatizes, in another entire subtext that I could write a lot about, claiming a religious warrant for fighting our enemies is a slippery slope that leads to a moral twilight zone.

Joanne Herring, the Texas right-wing socialite played by Roberts, "who has the body of Julia Roberts" and "the brain of William F. Buckley" (Paul Asay writing at pluggedinonline.com), tries to frame the conflict in Afghanistan as a Christian crusade. In one scene Wilson tries to get her to tone down the rhetoric. For one thing, the enterprise is dependent on the support of Wilson's more liberal Democratic colleagues, but also on the Israelis, Saudis and Pakistanis...none of whom want to be seen as participants in some kind of Christian holy war. But Herring demurs and tells Charlie, "I talk about God for one simple reason, we need Him on our side." Charlie's reply is priceless. "Sooner or later, God's going to be on both sides."

Charlie Wilson's War is a success on every front and may turn out to be my favorite film of 2007.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Atonement

Often a promising film is undone by it's ending, but in the case of Atonement a mediocre film is almost redeemed by it's ending. I had doubts about this project from the first time I saw the trailer. It seemed like a too obvious attempt to recreate a successful formula -- hip director Joe Wright teaming up again with Keira Knightley in another British costume drama full of handsome actors and equally handsome locations. On the other hand I liked Wright's version of Pride and Prejudice and Roger Ebert (who I usually agree with) just included Atonement in his top ten movies of 2007. My initial instincts were correct. This film has some nice moments, but overall I was underwhelmed.

While watching Atonement I was reminded of other films that take place in this period or explore similar themes...all more successfully. The imposing shadows of Merchant & Ivory loom and I couldn't stop thinking about another favorite film of mine: The English Patient. Wright seemed to be striving to achieve the same tragic pathos and self-consciously literary style. Even certain shots made me wonder if they were a conscious homage to Anthony Minghella's masterpiece, and then lo and behold Minghella himself shows up in a cameo role at the end. Hmmm.

Like the film as a whole, the cast isn't awful, but it isn't terribly memorable either. There's no doubt that Keira Knightley has an elegant beauty that the camera loves. She looks every bit the part of the aristocratic daughter, but her performance never registers emotionally. Neither does that of leading man James McAvoy. They never made me care about their characters. Only Vanessa Redgrave hits a home run in the 5 minute coda I mentioned before. I won't be surprised if she nets a supporting actress Oscar for her brief appearance. What an actress! Like I said, she almost rescues this film from falling victim to it's weak characterizations and forced symbolism.

The conceit of the movie (and I assume of the novel it's based on) is that it's not Knightley's "Cecilia" or McAvoy's "Robbie" that's the catalyst to the story. It's younger sister Briony. And it's she who seeks atonement. I don't know how much meaning the word "atonement" still has in a post-Christian society like ours, probably not much, but it's a precious word for the Christian. We know that our atonement is only found at the cross of Christ and can't be attained by our effort. Without giving too much away, this truth seems to be poignantly borne out in this story.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The "Gods of the Copybook Headings" strike again

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.


I thought of those lines from Kipling's poem this morning after hearing the shocking news of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Coming as it does during this semi-holiday week when most of us are enjoying the blessings of peace and prosperity, it's an abrupt reminder of the darker realities that reign in other parts of the world. It's hard to say whether these events will have major ramifications for us -- but considering that Pakistan has been somewhat of a U.S. ally, possesses nuclear weapons and is the true frontline in the West's struggle against Islamic terrorism -- I'd say it's a good bet.

UPDATE: Ahmed Rashid on the Benazir Bhutto Assassination

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

As a jazz lover I'd be remiss not to mention the passing of Oscar Peterson on Sunday. Peterson was among a handful of the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest jazz musician to ever come out of Canada. One of the first jazz albums I ever bought was Night Train. Peterson's playing was characterized by a virtuosic technique that could sizzle or do a slow burn, accompanied by impeccable taste. The New York Times pays tribute.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

In case you missed this...

Another reason why John Piper is my hero. He looked a little bit like Buddy Holly didn't he?

Looking back at Little Women

I'm not ashamed to say that Little Women is one of my all-time favorite movies -- specifically the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder and a host of talented actors. Louisa May Alcott's novel has had a long history of adaptation for the screen (Shannon even remembers watching a cartoon version as a girl). Playing Jo March, Ryder was following in the formidable footsteps of Katherine Hepburn (the 1933 version) and June Allyson (1949).



Having never seen those earlier films I can't compare her to them, but I love Ryder's work here. She has a wholesome, wide-eyed quality that subtly changes into something more complex as her character matures and faces the triumphs and tragedies of family, friendship and love. I think Ryder's performance in Little Women must have benefited from her work in Martin Scorsese's splendid adaptation of The Age of Innocence the previous year. She has a similar quality in both films. I find all the perfomances appealing and believable except for Samantha Mathis, playing the grown-up Amy, who seems stiff and out of place. More on her below

Every scene of Little Women is beautifully lit and the sets and costumes are picture postcard perfect. The film has an idealized glow, even the "hovel house" where the poor immigrant family lives looks picturesque. But hey, it's not meant to be a work of gritty realism! Another asset is the score by Thomas Newman. Yes, it's a bit cliched and sounds remarkably similar to his score for The Shawshank Redemption from the same year (he received Oscar nominations for both films losing to Hans Zimmer for The Lion King), but again, I think it works in this context.

It's hard to think of another American film that featured more A-list actors (or actors that went on to become A-list) than Little Women. In addition to Ryder there's Susan Sarandon (who's aged more gracefully than any American actress I can think of), Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale...even Eric Stoltz, who became an Indy-film darling, and whose performance as the staid tutor John Brooke was a follow-up to his turn as loopy drug dealer Lance in Pulp Fiction. 1994 was a big year for Stoltz! The only exception to the model of stardom was Trini Alvarado, who played oldest March sister Meg, but went on to only moderate success before dropping out of sight. According to Wikipedia, she now resides in New York with her actor husband. Samantha Mathis went on to act in some successful films and has had a long career in TV, including starring in an episode of Lost earlier this year. But she may be best known as the girlfriend of actor River Phoenix. She was with Phoenix the night he died of a drug overdose outside The Viper Room, the Hollywood club once owned by Johnny Depp.

I've watched Little Women too many times to count and never get tired of it. I pulled it down off the shelf a few nights ago and introduced it to Shannon. It's not usually thought of as a "Christmas movie", but several scenes take place at Christmas and I believe it makes a fine Christmas movie! Here's the first 10 minutes. It's worth watching for the opening credits montage which feels like a video Christmas card. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Who was Quirinius?

I've been memorizing Luke 2:1-21, and every time I recite verse 2 I find myself stumbling over the name Quirinius. It just doesn't trip off the tongue as nicely as Caesar Augustus. How did this guy get in the Bible?, I wondered. So I did what any normal person with a computer does in such cases: I googled him. Well, it turns out alliteration is not the only difficulty here. Google turned up literally thousands of results for Quirinius, henceforth Q (but don't confuse him with this guy). A lot of the stuff I turned up was from people who want to cast doubt on the reliability of the New Testament authors, because, as I learned, there's an apparent discrepancy in Luke's dating of Jesus's birth in relation to the first Roman census and the years when Q was governor of Syria. These people say "aha, here's the smoking gun that proves that the Christmas story is a fairy tale"! This kind of mistake would be out of character for Luke, since he's proved over and over to be a careful and reliable historian. For instance, in Acts, details that he gives regarding places and people of the ancient Roman world, which were once thought to be wrong, have turned out to be accurate based on more recent historical and archaeological research.

Time and further research may prove Luke right in this case too. But, in the meantime, does the fact that we can't resolve this definitively cast doubt on Luke's account of the first Christmas? Indeed of the whole Bible? It doesn't for me. One possible historical inaccuracy doesn't cancel out the hundreds of instances where the Bible has proved to be remarkably accurate. And as New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace points out in a balanced (and very technical) discussion of The Problem of Luke 2:2:

At bottom, our belief in the infallibility and authority of scripture is a faith-stance, just as our belief in the Deity of Christ is a faith-stance. This does not mean that we have no basis! Nor does it mean that we are obligated to solve all problems to our satisfaction before we can believe. As B. B. Warfield argued long ago, we believe in the accuracy of the Bible, first of all, because the biblical writers themselves both held and taught this view. And if we consider the biblical writers to be trustworthy as doctrinal guides, then their doctrine of the Bible must also be trustworthy.

"My Gift to Jeanne"

On Tuesday, Shannon and I received a letter from our friend Stephen Hamilton that touched our hearts. Stephen is a missionary with Urban Youth Impact in West Palm Beach. He gave me permission to share it here.


December 18, 2007

Dear Stephen & Shannon,

Hello and happy holidays! I trust that you are looking forward to Christmas as much as I am. I will be heading to North Carolina to spend some much needed time with my family. I will hopefully have a lot of time to read and relax, especially since life has been keeping me busy.

I wanted to share a heartfelt story that happened this month in my ministry. My housemates and I take prayer walks through our neighborhood every morning of the week. It was rather cold one morning last week when we left our house, so I put on the UYI sweatshirt I had just received. It’s a great sweatshirt with a verse from Romans on the back of it. Towards the end of our walk, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was cold.

We came across a young woman curled up in a ball on the sidewalk, shivering. She had stretched her thin T-shirt over her knees and down to her feet in an attempt to stay warm. I recognized her because we had met before. Her name is Jeanne and she looks about 25-years-old. Jeanne and I have had a few conversations, and I beep at her or ring my bike bell at her when we cross paths. She is always on the street and her life on these streets has taken its toll on her. If you saw her, you would understand what I mean.

I approached Jeanne and offered my sweatshirt to her, which she accepted. I told her to wear it with pride because it was my favorite. Since that morning, I have seen Jeanne wearing the sweatshirt, and some of my co-workers have seen her, too. The other day while on our prayer walk, my housemates and I passed her again. She was lying on the sidewalk asleep, cuddled up in the UYI sweatshirt.

I’m happy that she is staying warm, and it makes me smile to know that Jeanne is walking around in a sweatshirt that says, “I have become all things to all men so that I might save some.” I hope that this verse will reflect the way I live my life as I seek to minister to my neighbors in need.

Merry Christmas!

Stephen Hamilton



Click here if you would like to support Stephen's ministry.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

PTA on NPR

Paul Thomas Anderson (one of my favorite filmmakers) sits down with Terry Gross (my favorite interviewer) to discuss his much anticipated new film There Will Be Blood.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

To Santa or not to Santa? (with apologies to Will)

For your consideration, two articulate Christians who take different positions on whether the fella with the red suit and white beard should be a part of a Christian home's celebration of Christmas. Lots of food for thought here!

In the "I have no problem with Santa" corner:

C. Michael Patton

In the "down with Santa" corner:

Thabiti Anyabwile

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Boice on Acts 19

I've been working my way through Acts with the help of James Boice's Expositional Commentary. We've also been studying Acts in our Sunday School class. Luke devotes a sizeable chunk of Acts to the planting of the church at Ephesus, probably because it was such an important city of the Roman Empire. Ephesus was a port city of around 300,000 known for it's football field sized temple of the goddess Artemis/Diana (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and a 25,000 seat amphitheater. We read about these locations in Acts 19. After two years of preaching and teaching by Paul, God was moving mightily and the church was growing, but Boice notes that the motivation that finally stirred up significant opposition to the gospel was not religious or political, but economic. A riot ensued. How did the early church make such an impact that idol worship, and the economy that depended on it, fizzled out across the Roman Empire within a generation of these first Christians? Boice explains and makes a pointed application for us today:

The riot in Ephesus, described in Acts 19:23-41, was a proof of Paul's success. If Paul had come to the city and had simply made a tiny, little beginning, with only a few people meeting perhaps somewhere in a home, the riot would not have happened. Such a movement would have had no impact on Ephesian society. But the fact that there was a riot and so many people got stirred up in defense of Artemis is proof of how successful the preaching of the gospel had been.

There had been a strengthening of the Christian community, first of all. That is, not only had the gospel spread so that many had become Christians, but the Christians had become serious about being Christians. Maybe that is where we ought to start when we think in terms of social reform today: with the transformation of Christians. These Christians had come under the power of the Spirit of God through the preaching of the Word so thoroughly that they were convicted of sin, confessed it, and then actually brought out and destroyed the things that were opposed to Christianity. These things were magic scrolls in which incantations were written, and they were very valuable (see Acts 19:19).

What followed after the Christians got serious was an impact on the society so strong that the riot described in this chapter was the inevitable reaction by those who resented it. Christianity had impacted their business. That is where people are hurt most, in their pocketbooks. Christians certainly and perhaps other people too simply lost interest in the pagan temples.

Let me suggest that if our Christianity is not affecting the economy of our world, we do not have much Christianity. I know we do not like to hear that, because we tend to think that our economy is the product of our Christianity. We think of the Western world as being Christian and therefore capitalistic, and there is some truth to that. At the same time, when Christians live as Christians, it will affect how they use their money, there will be an impact on the economy (negatively for some), and inevitably there will be hostility toward Christians, as there was here.

How did Christianity triumph? How did Christians win the day? It was not by appealing to numbers. It was not by a play on the emotions. The Christians did not circulate a petition to see if they could get 51 percent of the Ephesians to sign it, a petition saying, "Artemis is no goddess, and the God of the Old Testament if the true God." The Christians did not have a mass rally. They did not send Christians into the amphitheater to do their thing, the way Demetrius and his crew had gotten people together to do his thing. They didn't sing emotional songs. They did exactly what Jesus Christ had done and what he had send them into the world to do: They preached the gospel so that men and women got converted, and once they were converted they taught them how to live for Jesus Christ.

Do you want to make an impact on the world today? Do you want to turn this economy of ours upside down? That is the way. It is by teaching the Word and by following hard after Jesus Christ. It does not take large numbers; a small group can do it. Many small groups have.




*James Montgomery Boice, Acts: an Expositional Commentary, Baker Books (1997)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"There is much in this world that doubt cannot explain"

Garrison Keillor writes movingly on the Nativity, teenagers and New York at Christmas-time. The only thing better than reading this fine essay, would be hearing GK read it on the radio.



Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for the link.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Scorsese on Hitchcock

Any Hitchcock fans out there? I know there are a few of you. Martin Scorsese recently directed and starred in this brilliantly executed 9-minute commercial for Reserva wine, which is part mockumentary part homage to the master.

Frightfully Pleased is proud to present The Key to Reserva.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The purpose of Christmas

My wife and I were recently wronged, and frankly, I'm mad about it. So mad, that for the first time in my life I may be suing someone. Maybe you've been there. Speaking of that someone who wronged us, for some reason the words "pray for your enemies" crossed my mind this morning, and I did in fact pause and pray for the salvation of this particular person, adding a closing prayer (I couldn't help myself) that he would see the error of his ways and make restitution.

People talk a lot about the meaning of Christmas. Perhaps it would be better to talk about the purpose of Christmas. Jesus summed it up for his disciples in Mark 10:45, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Even more astonishing is that Jesus came to die for his enemies, those who had wronged him infinitely more than any of us will ever be wronged. "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life." (Romans 5:10) I can't imagine dying for the person that wronged me, yet Jesus came to die for those who had wronged him. The more that truth lands on me, the more I see and value the gift of Christmas.

John, who was on the receiving end of Jesus's rebuke in Mark 10, summed up the purpose of Christmas like this, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." (1 John 3:8) I love that! But I think my favorite is Philippians 2:5-11, a passage I've memorized and often preach to myself.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


That's the purpose of Christmas. Jesus came into the world to transform me from his enemy to his friend. In the words of the hymnwriter J. Wilbur Chapman:

Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Hallelujah! what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.*



*J. Wilbur Chapman, Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Brooks on Romney's community of faith

Mitt Romney gave a speech on Thursday designed to allay fears about his Mormonism and unite "people of faith" behind his campaign. I didn't see it, but it sounds like it was well received by many religious conservatives. One observer who wasn't as impressed was David Brooks. In an astute analysis, Brooks puts his finger on a common problem with much discussion of religion and "faith" nowadays -- the tendency to blur distinctions and sacrifice truth. Brooks sees more clearly than most the danger in confusing the God of "American civic religion" with the God of the Bible.

In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln’s God or Reinhold Niebuhr’s God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.

Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.


Romney might turn out to be the best option for Christian voters, but hopefully we won't sacrifice truth on the altar of keeping Hillary out of the White House.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Decompressing

Shannon and I just returned from five (mostly) wonderful days aboard the magnificent Norwegian Jewel. Once I finish transitioning back into the "real world" I may post some photos and such, or I may not (I try to keep the narcissism factor of this blog reasonably low). Actually, perhaps I'll write a book on the experience of cruising someday. I'll call it The Good the Bad and the Ugly: Human Nature at Sea (or an attempt to return to Eden).

A cruise ship is a fascinating microcosm of economics, sociology and multi-culturalism rolled into one, and the hundreds of crew-members -- mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia and the former Soviet bloc -- are the real hardest-working people in show business. They have my complete admiration and are the people I'll remember most fondly. Their stories should be told.

At sea, you lose track of time and news back home seems oddly distant. We did see brief snatches of news on the horrible, yet all too familiar shooting spree in Nebraska. We happened to be in Grand Cayman that day, where the cops don't carry guns and simply being caught with a firearm results in a stiff prison sentence. Not surprisingly, gun-crime is non-existent and crime of all sorts is very low. Too repressive? The Caymanians don't think so.

SO. It's again "front" and "back" instead of "forward" and "aft", and Armando won't be stopping by to make the bed tomorrow. Oh well. Cruising is grand, but it's good to be home!


BTW I just added two blogs to the "friends and favorites" list: The Official Blog of Proverb Newsome from our friend and neighbor Proverb and musings from the rose tree from our friend Jessica D. Check 'em out!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Rush says it's time to celebrate

Yesterday marked the end of the Atlantic Hurricane season, and according to Palm Beach resident and hurricane expert Rush Limbaugh, there's a conspiracy afoot at the National Hurricane Center. Rush cites a story in the Houston Chronicle in which several meteorologists question the decision to name 6 of this year's 14 named storms. Could it be that the "liberals" at the NHC have changed the criteria for naming storms in an effort to gain support for global warming initiatives? Rush opines:

We never named subtropical storms but will this year, and the reason they started doing that is because their predictions were running light. Their predictions were embarrassing, so they had to get some named storms. Do you know where Nova Scotia is? Nova Scotia, way up there above Maine, and there was a storm system that formed up there, and then it went out to sea and dissipated. They called it a tropical storm, a sea storm, I think, doesn't matter what it is. No way that was a tropical storm. For one thing, it didn't happen in the tropics. Nova Scotia is not the tropics. I suspected this all along, naming storms that are not tropical, central pressure has not fallen below, even though the winds might be 39 miles-an-hour higher, which is the low designation for a tropical storm. The barometric pressure never got low enough to be named, but they did it anyway just because their predictions were running so slow and the season was so uneventful, and they had to do something to keep people interested here. Then we had the story yesterday, we had two years of light hurricane activity in this country, "Experts are worried you will become apathetic," when, in fact, we ought to be celebrating that storms creamed other people this year and last year rather than us. We took our share of them a couple years ago.


Well, Rush, I am celebrating the fact that God mercifully spared South Florida of any hurricanes the last two years, but it's not because we are any more deserving than those people in Jamaica, Mexico and Central America that got "creamed" by Hurricane Dean and Hurricane Felix this year. In fact, when I contemplate natural disasters I'm reminded of something infinitely worse than a Category 5 hurricane, the wrath of God that we're all under apart from God's mercy in Jesus at the Cross. If not for restraining grace, each of us would be facing a Cat 5 every day of our lives. Perhaps a bit of humble gratitude would be in order.

Lamentations 3:22, Zephaniah 1:18, Hebrews 2:3

Friday, November 30, 2007

To wear the collar (or not)

Ever wondered what the difference was between the clerical collars worn by Roman Catholic priests and Protestant ministers? Or perhaps you think Protestant ministers shouldn't wear collars at all?

A Classical Presbyterian explains and begs to differ.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Country for Old Men (guest review)

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

William Butler Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium)




My good friend and fellow film enthusiast William Andreassen reviews No Country for Old Men, the latest offering from master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. We saw it together Saturday, and he graciously agreed to write something for this blog. I heartily concur with his thoughts.



Can I begin by stating that this film, even after four days, continues to saturate my thoughts? Since I saw it last Saturday, I’ve done a great many things, both social and work-related. Yet, even in the depths of my often cerebrally taxing daily occupation, where distraction doesn’t always come easily, I have been frequently haunted by images, by lines of dialogue from this remarkable work of art by Joel and Ethan, the Bros. Coen.

How rare the film that gets under your skin, and stays there! Sometimes I see films that affect me quite negatively, and I somehow feel unclean, ashamed that I exposed myself to something so dark, so vile, so utterly bereft of merit. The Coens explore darkness as well as any American filmmakers, yet their journeys are always laced with a strong sense of morality.

Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, in one of his finest portrayals) is an embodiment of such morality. Even after listening to his opening narration, and considering the film’s title, the viewer quickly realizes that Bell is the core of the story we are about to witness. After many wearying years of working his beat in a dusty west Texas hole, he has adopted an effortless bemusement. As he converses with his wide eyed deputy, we hear wise retorts that are evidence of cynicism that has resulted from much blood soaked experience. And now, there’s more to come. Oh, is there…..

The two lawmen discover several corpses in the desert, the aftermath of what appears to have been a Mexican standoff over a bedliner load of heroin. A local hunter named Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) got there first, unfortunately, and rather calmly decided that he will disappear with a suitcase (containing a few million) he finds near the scene. There doesn’t appear to be any urgency in Moss’ fateful decision; he simply wants to provide for his wife (Kelley Macdonald). Of course, these plans are subject to a few snags.

Fate steps in. Or rather, a malevolent figure with the difficult name of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hatchet man brought in to retrieve the cash. Chigurh is a terrifying individual. Even his eyes are scary. But he’s not your typical psychopath; he plays mind games with nearly everyone who has the misfortune to cross his path. One uncomfortable scene involves a nervous gas station clerk who is forced to participate in the verbal equivalent of Chinese water torture. Chigurh is more complex than even that, however, or perhaps not. His actions seem to be dictated by pure probability. In deciding whether of not to off a potential victim, he flips a coin. For all of his studied evil, he seems to be at the mercy of chance.



I could write an entire essay on Anton. His character is one of the most unsettling I’ve encountered in some time. Having not read Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel upon which this film is based, I feel like I have an inkling of what makes the guy tick, but I look forward to learning more. How I was not familiar with this author’s work before now astounds me.

A lot happens in this typically serpentine Coen bros. tale, but I’m no spoiler. The film is patently unpredictable for a while, then it seems as if several chess pieces are strategically placed for an inevitable finale. Then the film takes a very sharp left turn for its last third, and let me say, it was pure poetry. I’ve read some blogs from other viewers who were baffled and frustrated by the concluding passages. Bell returns to the scene, and tries to assess the events which have transpired thus far. His place in the landscape becomes clearer, and the film continues to its quietly shattering conclusion. I won’t pretend to completely understand, but after much contemplation (and reading the dense monologues found in the later scenes), I feel I have deep appreciation for this sad world created by McCarthy, and brilliantly visualized by the directors. This is the best film I have seen in years.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Richard Baxter on Christian unity

Each Sunday at church we corporately confess our belief in the holy catholic church by reciting The Apostles' Creed. Is that just an abstraction, or does my belief in a holy catholic (little c) church "have legs"? Food for thought as I read Richard Baxter on Christian unity in The Reformed Pastor. I continue to be inspired by this book! I'd add that "reformed" in the title refers to practice not doctrine. John Wesley, no Calvinist, recommended Baxter's book to his travelling preachers, and Methodist missionary Francis Asbury considered it 'a prize' when he came across it on his travels. The 'Prince of Preachers' Charles Spurgeon used to have his wife read it to him in the evenings.

Baxter warns his readers about the danger of doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversy descending into mere factionalism, something I've thought of recently while reading several blogs where folks from different theological camps go at each other in tones more appropriate for a college football rivalry. Keep in mind that Baxter was writing at a time of raging controversy too, and not many years removed from a time when Protestants and Catholics were routinely throwing each other into the Tower, or worse. Yet, he wrote:


We are sadly guilty of undervaluing the unity and peace of the whole Church. Though I scarcely meet with any one who will not speak of unity and peace, or, at least, that will expressly speak against it, yet is it not common to meet with those who are studious to promote it; but too commonly do we find men averse to it, and jealous of it, if not themselves the instruments of division. The Papists have so long abused the name of the catholic Church, that, in opposition to them, many either put it out of their creeds, or only retain the name while they understand not, or consider not the nature of the thing; or think it is enough to believe that there is such a body, though they behave not themselves as members of it. If the Papists will idolize the Church, shall we therefore deny it, disregard it, or divide it? It is a great and a common sin throughout the Christian world, to take up religion in a way of faction; and instead of a love and tender care of the universal Church, to confine that love and respect to a party.

Of the multitude that say they are of the catholic Church, it is rare to meet with men of a catholic spirit. Men have not a universal consideration of, and respect to, the whole Church, but look upon their party as if it were the whole. If there be some called Lutherans, some Calvinists, some subordinate divisions among these, and so of other parties among us, most of them will pray hard for the prosperity of their party, and rejoice and give thanks when it goes well with them; but if any other party suffer, they little regard it, as if it were no loss at all to the Church. If it be the smallest parcel that possesseth not many nations, no, nor cities on earth, they are ready to carry it, as if they were the whole Church, and as if it went well with the Church when it goes well with them. We cry down the Pope as Antichrist, for including the Church in the Romish pale, and no doubt but it is abominable schism: but, alas! how many do imitate them too far, while they reprove them! And as the Papists foist the word Roman into their creed, and turn the catholic Church into the Roman Catholic church, as if there were no other catholics, and the Church were of no larger extent, so is it with many others as to their several parties. Some will have it to be the Lutheran catholic church, and some the Reformed catholic church; some the Anabaptist catholic church, and so of some others. And if they differ not among themselves, they are little troubled at differing from others, though it be from almost all the Christian world. The peace of their party they take for the peace of the Church. No wonder, therefore, if they carry it no further.

How rare is it to meet with a man that smarteth or bleedeth with the Church's wounds, or sensibly taketh them to heart as his own, or that ever had solicitous thoughts of a cure! No; but almost every party thinks that the happiness of the rest consisteth in turning to them; and because they be not of their mind, they cry, Down with them! and are glad to hear of their fall, as thinking that is the way to the Church's rising, that is, their own. How few are there who understand the true state of controversies between the several parties; or that ever well discerned how many of them are but verbal, and how many are real!*


Baxter continues on for several pages, then closes with an admonition to simplicity and six practical suggestions to further unity and peace:

We may talk of peace, indeed, as long as we live, but we shall never obtain it but by returning to the apostolical simplicity. The Papists' faith is too big for all men to agree upon, or even all their own, if they enforced it not with arguments drawn from the fire, the halter, and the strappado. And many Anti-papists do too much imitate them in the tedious length of their subscribed confessions, and the novelty of their impositions, when they go furthest from them in the quality of the things imposed. When we once return to the ancient simplicity of faith, then, and not till then, shall we return to the ancient love and peace. I would therefore recommend to all my brethren, as the most necessary thing to the Church's peace, that they unite in necessary truths, and bear with one another in things that may be borne with; and do not make a larger creed, and more necessaries, than God hath done. To this end, let me entreat you to attend to the following things:

(1) Lay not too great a stress upon controverted opinions, which have godly men, and, especially, whole churches, on both sides.

(2) Lay not too great a stress on those controversies that are ultimately resolvable into philosophical uncertainties, as are some unprofitable controversies about freewill, the manner of the Spirit's operations and the Divine decrees.

(3) Lay not too great a stress on those controversies that are merely verbal, and which if they were anatomized, would appear to be no more. Of this sort are far more (I speak it confidently upon certain knowledge) that make a great noise in the world, and tear the Church, than almost any of the eager contenders that ever I spoke with do seem to discern, or are like to believe.

(4) Lay not too much stress on any point of faith which was disowned by or unknown to the whole Church of Christ, in any age, since the Scriptures were delivered to us.

(5) Much less should you lay great stress on those of which any of the more pure or judicious ages were wholly ignorant.

(6) And least of all should you lay much stress on any point which no one age since the apostles did ever receive, but all commonly held the contrary.*



*Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth Trust (1974)

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Popular Culture" and the "Rock Aesthetic"

Fellow blogger and Hobe Sound veteran Randy Huff sent me a thought-provoking essay by Mark Steyn writing in The New Criterion on the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's seminal book The Closing of the American Mind in response to my post a few days back on Tori Amos. Steyn specifically praises and expounds on Bloom's chapter on music. It's an enjoyable piece and I commend it. I'm familiar with Steyn, having once been a faithful reader of both National Review and The American Spectator magazines for which he also writes. Bloom and Steyn both agree that the advent of rock and roll music in the 1960s virtually erased the last vestiges of the older "high culture" (i.e. classical music and literature) from the American mainstream and has progressively degraded the popular culture in the process. Steyn writes:

I don’t really like the expression “popular culture.” It’s just “culture” now: there is no other. “High culture” is high mainly in the sense we keep it in the attic and dust it off and bring it downstairs every now and then. But don’t worry, not too often. “Classical music,” wrote Bloom, “is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology. Thirty years ago [i.e., now fifty years ago], most middle-class families made some of the old European music a part of the home, partly because they liked it, partly because they thought it was good for the kids.” Not anymore. If you’d switched on TV at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 you’d have seen President and Mrs. Clinton and the massed ranks of American dignitaries ushering in the so-called new millennium to the strains of Tom Jones singing “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour/ That’s when my love comes tumblin’ down.” Say what you like about JFK, but at least Mrs. Kennedy would have booked a cellist.

Steyn's point is well-taken and one I'm in sympathy with. There's a vast gulf between, say, the popularity of a Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra vs. Britney Spears or Fifty Cent. However, I think it's all rather beside the point. I'll come back to that. The strongest part of the piece in my opinion is Steyn's protest against the ubiquity of the "rock aesthetic" which assaults our ears everywhere we go.

But Bloom is writing about rock music the way someone from the pre-rock generation experiences it. You’ve no interest in the stuff, you don’t buy the albums, you don’t tune to the radio stations, you would never knowingly seek out a rock and roll experience—and yet it’s all around you. You go to buy some socks, and it’s playing in the store. You get on the red eye to Heathrow, and they pump it into the cabin before you take off. I was filling up at a gas station the other day and I noticed that outside, at the pump, they now pipe pop music at you. This is one of the most constant forms of cultural dislocation anybody of the pre-Bloom generation faces: Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar. Yet, in the course of a day, any number of non-rock-related transactions are accompanied by rock music. I was at the airport last week, sitting at the gate, and over the transom some woman was singing about having two lovers and being very happy about it. And we all sat there as if it’s perfectly routine.

Although I don't share Bloom's (and presumably Steyn's) disdain for everything post-Beatles, it is a noxious phenomenom, and what does it say for the spiritual health of a society that can't stand silence? One has to be mighty disciplined to combat this pervasive effect. It's an instructive exercise for me to forego the radio or iPod during my 15-minute commute to work each day! But back to the main point. Yes, I'd be very pleased if we lived in a culture where Bach was more revered than The Beatles and where blue-blooded politicians didn't feel they had to feign an interest in hip-hop ala John Kerry, but as one seeking to live out my calling as a Christian in contemporary society it's not worth getting too upset about. Perhaps I can explain with a little autobiography.

At the time I was reading NR I listened exclusively to classical music and looked with disapproval at my brother who was listening to The Cure and playing electric guitar in a garage band. At that time I agreed 100% with Bloom's views on music, and admittedly I would be spiritually impoverished if not for my exposure to classical music and love of some aspects of "high culture" (for lack of a better term). But if I had not later begun to appreciate and love some aspects of "pop culture"/"rock and roll culture" (whatever), I believe I'd be less able to engage as a Christian with the contemporary world. I feel blessed to be able to sing the praises of Brahms' four symphonies or Wilco's last four studio albums with equal fervor.

Any critique of culture that leaves out the triune God and the gospel will be incomplete. The history of Europe in the 20th century amply illustrates that without a Christian worldview it doesn't matter how impeccable one's taste in music and art is. I think of the chilling scene in Schindler's List where the German soldier participating in the ethnic cleansing of the Krakow ghetto, sits down at a piano and plays a few bars of Mozart as the machine guns fire and the dogs bark. And though the Enlightenment that Bloom celebrates brought us many great things in art, culture and society, it's legacy is problematic in other ways. Bloom quotes Enlightenment thinker Lessing to make a point about art's effect on society:

Allan Bloom quotes Gotthold Lessing on Greek sculpture: “Beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” “This formula,” writes Bloom, “encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it.”

I appreciate what he's saying, but would note that Lessing (most famous for his view of an "ugly great ditch" between history and faith that can never be bridged) is the godfather of liberal theologians who deny the reliability of the Bible and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. That's what I mean about this kind of conservative critique (which I once wholeheartedly endorsed) being incomplete and beside the point looked at from a Christian perspective. Steyn spends a lot of time on hip-hop and the awfulness of 'gangsta rap'. I agree! I've seen in my own community the sickening consequences when young black males act out what they hear in gangster rap music or see in videos, but it wouldn't do any good if the urban missionaries at Urban Youth Impact (in trying to reach kids immersed in the "hip-hop culture") snatched away their Tupac CD's and replaced them with Mahler symphonies, but it might do some good if they tried to get them to listen to CD's by my friend Proverb, who seeks to use hip-hop to lift up Christ, or Voice, who raps about God delivering him from a life of crime and drugs. Unfortunately, I suspect that conservative critics like Steyn would throw the Christian rapper out with the bathwater.

Nevertheless, Steyn is right -- Bloom's jeremiad against rock and roll's steamrolling of culture is still valid 20 years later. Just this morning, I heard a news story on the upcoming Russian elections in which a slick, pop group in mini-skirts sang "we want someone like Putin" before a soccer stadium full of fans. Yes indeed, "we are ALL rockers now"!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Bishop and the Atheist

John Piper has some words for John Shelby Spong and Christopher Hitchens this Thanksgiving weekend:

These are days of strange alliances in evil. That is what evil has always done. Remember how Pilate and Herod were adversaries until their common abuse of Jesus knit them together? “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Luke 23:12).

That’s the way it is with the bishop and the atheist. They are united in blasting the power of God and the cross of Christ as putting poor Christians in the pitiful position of permanent gratitude.


Continue reading

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tori in West Palm Beach

We kicked off our Thanksgiving holiday by going to see Tori Amos (simply Tori to her adoring fans) in concert last night. Shannon is more of a Tori afficionado than I am and has been a fan a lot longer (the tickets were a birthday present from me to her), but I've become a fan in recent years and we were both excited to see the 44-year old pop diva in person. I made a last-second decision not to bring our camera and I'm kicking myself today, because we had a great vantage point. But if you're interested you can see some pics from the Palm Beach Post here.

An interesting sidenote...Tori's dad (a Methodist minister) and mom were seated just below us. It was fun seeing the line of fans coming up to them before the show to shake hands and get pictures taken, and they seemed to be loving the attention. They were probably the oldest people in attendance other than the ushers! I had to wonder what goes through their heads as they watch their famous daughter doing her thing. Tori herself has a home in Stuart (a few miles north of here) where she and her husband and daughter spend time in the summer, and she's always made it a point to play this area.

Despite having a minister for a father (or perhaps because of that), Tori has gotten a lot of mileage and notoriety out of her enthusiasm for poking a stick in the eye of organized religion, esp. Christianity. She can be clever, but like many who wear their anti-Christian feelings on their sleeve, she never engages with the Jesus of the gospels. For instance, last night she mentioned an encounter with the Phelps family in Lawrence, Kansas who go around picketing with signs saying things like "God hates fags", as if they are even remotely representative of what authentic Christianity looks like. Shannon remarked that she's as narrow-minded in her own way as the "Christians" she ridicules. Perhaps she needs to have a sit-down with Anne Rice, who after seriously investigating the claims of Christianity, recently returned to the faith.

All that aside, she played a fantastic set at the Kravis Center and I'm a bigger fan now having seen her live. I'm not surprised she was voted the fifth-best live act in a Rolling Stone poll a few years ago. I think of her as sort of the anti-Madonna. She can vamp it up with the best of them, but beneath all that is a tremendously talented and hard-working songwriter, musician and performer. Perhaps that was most apparent last night when Tori's band left the stage and it was just her at her famous Bosendorfer piano delivering lovely renditions of Amazing Grace and Gold Dust. Her songs speak to something within the souls of her (mostly female) fans, many of whom intensely relate to Tori's honest exploration of traumatic experiences in her past. Tori Amos's brand of introspection and persona-shifting will ultimately prove fruitless if left by itself, but it makes her still one of the most original voices on the American music scene.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The view from the summit

Are you concerned with your own happiness? Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees that happiness 'is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.' Suppose that the key to your ultimate happiness, the meaning of it all, were contained in the following mind-blowing paragraphs from Jonathan Edwards? I offer them the way a mountain climber might offer a snapshot of the view from the summit of Everest. Reading Edwards is a bit like mountain climbing...it's arduous work, but the view from the top takes your breath away! And looking at a snapshot is poor substitute for taking the journey yourself. These come from the final pages of The End for Which God Created the World (1765).

If God has respect to something in the creature, which he views as of everlasting duration, and as rising higher and higher through that infinite duration, and that not with constantly diminishing (but perhaps an increasing) celerity; then he has respect to it, as, in the whole, of infinite height; though there never will be any particular time when it can be said already to have come to such a height.

Let the most perfect union with God be represented by something at an infinite height above us; and the eternally increasing union of the saints with God, by something that is ascending constantly towards that infinite height, moving upwards with a given velocity; and that is to continue thus to move to all eternity. God, who views the whole of this eternally increasing height, views it as an infinite height. And if he has respect to it, and makes it his end, as in the whole of it, he has respect to it as an infinite height, though the time will never come when it can be said it has already arrived at this inifinite height.

God aims at that which the motion or progression which he causes, aims at, or tends to. If there be many things supposed to be so made and appointed, that, by a constant eternal motion, they all tend to a certain center; then it appears that he who made them, and is the cause of their motion, aimed at that center; and that term of their motion, to which they eternally tend, and are eternally, as it were, striving after. And if God be this center, then God aimed at himself. And herein it appears, that as he is the first author of their being and motion, so he is the last end, the final term, to which is their ultimate tendency and aim.*


The final paragraph of Edwards's discourse makes me think of 1 Corinthians 2:9. And lest we think Edwards's talk of 'satisfying justice' with 'eternal damnation' sounds unduly harsh, keep in mind Paul's succinct diagnosis of the human condition in Romans 3:23. If the glory of God is of infinite worth and the highest good in the universe, then not honoring it as such, deserves the highest punishment.

It is no solid objection against God aiming at an infinitely perfect union of the creature with himself, that the particular time will never come when it can be said, the union is now infinitely perfect. God aims at satisfying justice in the eternal damnation of sinners; which will be satisfied by their damnation, considered no otherwise than with regard to its eternal duration. But yet there never will come that particular moment, when it can be said, that now justice is satisfied. But if this does not satisfy our modern freethinkers who do not like the talk about satisfying justice with an infinite punishment; I suppose it will not be denied by any, that God, in glorifying the saints in heaven with eternal felicity, aims to satisfy his infinite grace or benevolence, by the bestowment of a good infinitely valuable, because eternal: and yet there never will come the moment, when it can be said, that now this infinitely valuable good has been actually bestowed.*


Perhaps this sounds far-fetched? I offer two quotes for your reflection.

'If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.' (C.S. Lewis)

'Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.' (Qoheleth "the Preacher")



*Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World as it appears in John Piper, God's Passion for His Glory, Crossway (1998)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Richard Baxter on "Family Religion"

The Reformed Pastor is English Puritan Richard Baxter's stirring treatise on Acts 20:28 written to the ministers of the county of Worcestershire in 1656. Rarely have I enountered a book that combines readability, practical helpfulness and devotional inspiration in such measure. Baxter, in addition to being eminently beneficial, is also a pleasure to read! Whereas John Owen, who though a superior theologian to Baxter, had a writing style the reading of which can be akin to Chinese water torture. One such example of Baxter's inimitable style and bold directness may suffice to prove my point.

If any minister who hath two hundred pounds a year can prove that a hundred pounds of it may do God more service, if it be laid out on himself, or wife and children, than if it maintain one or two suitable assistants to help forward the salvation of the flock, I shall not presume to reprove his expenses; but where this cannot be proved, let not the practice be justified.
And I must further say, that this poverty is not so intolerable and dangerous a thing as it is pretended to be. If you have but food and raiment, must you not therewith be content? and what would you have more than that which may fit you for the work of God? It is not 'being clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day,' that is necessary for this end. 'A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth.' If your clothing be warm and your food be wholesome, you may be as well supported by it to do God's service as if you had the fullest satisfaction to your flesh. A patched coat may be warm, and bread and water are wholesome food. He that wanteth not these, hath but a poor excuse to make for hazarding men's souls, that he may live on dainties.*


Baxter instructs his readers to direct their energies as ministers to four classes of people within the flock, and in this order of priority: the unconverted, the inquirer (what today we might call the seeker), the converted (and he breaks this down into classes i.e. the weak Christian, the declining Christian, the strong Christian, etc.), families, and the sick. From the section on families I offer this lengthy excerpt, which I believe gets to the heart of the reformation in pastoral ministry that Baxter was seeking to accomplish with the writing of this book.

We must have a special eye upon families, to see that they are well ordered, and the duties of each relation performed. The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much on family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all. What are we like to do ourselves to the reforming of a congregation, if all work be cast on us alone; and masters of families neglect that necessary duty of their own, by which they are bound to help us? If any good be begun by the ministry in any soul, a careless, prayerless, worldly family is like to stifle it, or very much hinder it; whereas, if you could but get the rulers of families to do their duty, to take up the work where you left it, and help it on, what abundance of good might be done! I beseech you, therefore, if you desire the reformation and welfare of your people, do all you can to promote family religion. To this end, let me entreat you to attend to the following things:
(1) Get information how each family is ordered, that you may know how to proceed in your endeavours for their further good.
(2) Go occasionally among them, when they are likely to be most at leisure, and ask the master of the family whether he prays with them, and reads the Scripture, or what he doth? Labour to convince such as neglect this, of their sin; and if you have opportunity, pray with them before you go, and give them an example of what you would have them do. Perhaps, too, it might be well to get a promise from them, that they will make more conscience of their duty for the future.
(3) If you find any, through ignorance and want of practice, unable to pray, persuade them to study their own wants, and to get their hearts affected with them, and, in the meanwhile, advise them to use a form of prayer, rather than not pray at all. Tell them, however, that it is their sin and shame that they have lived so negligently, as to be unacquainted with their own necessities as not to know how to speak to God in prayer, when every beggar can find words to ask an alms; and, therefore, that a form of prayer is but for necessity, as a crutch to a cripple, while they cannot do well without it; but that they must resolve not to be content with it, but to learn to do better as speedily as possible, seeing that prayer should come from the feelings of the heart, and be varied according to our necessities and circumstances.
(4) See that in every family there are some useful moving books [I love that phrase!], beside the Bible. If they have none, persuade them to buy some: if they be not able to buy them, give them some if you can. If you are not able yourself, get some gentleman, or other rich persons, that are ready to good works, to do it. And engage them to read them at night, when they have leisure, and especially on the Lord's day.
(5) Direct them how to spend the Lord's day; how to despatch their wordly business, so as to prevent encumbrances and distractions; and when they have been at church, how to spend the time in their families. The life of religion dependeth much on this, because poor people have no other free considerable time; and, therefore, if they lose this, they lose all, and will remain ignorant and brutish. Persuade the master of every family to cause his children and servants to repeat the Catechism to him, every Sabbath evening, and to give him some account of what they have heard at church during the day.
Neglect not, I beseech you, this important part of your work. Get masters of families to do their duty, and they will not only spare you a great deal of labour, but will much further the success of your labours. If a captain can get the officers under him to do their duty, he may rule the soldiers with much less trouble, than if all lay upon his own shoulders. You are not like to see any general reformation, till you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons, and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.*


Much has changed since Baxter's era, both in family life and society, but may we 21st-century Christians not learn something from Baxter's "family religion"? I'm picturing a family in my own church, something like Baxter's ideal. It would be saying too much to describe them as the backbone of our church, but from oldest to youngest, the contributions to the life, vigor and godliness of our church would be exceedingly difficult to replace. Would that we had more such! Whether pastor or layperson, married or single, parent or child; let us endeavor to be less careless, less prayerless and less worldly; to the praise of Christ and his church.



*Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth Trust (1974)

Happy birthday Jean Seberg

Born November 13, 1938
Marshalltown, Iowa

Died September 8, 1979
Paris, France

Devenir immortel et mourir





Monday, November 12, 2007

Amazing Grace on DVD

Amazing Grace comes out on DVD tomorrow. A Christmas gift idea perhaps? It's not often that cinematic excellence, and a biopic on a hero of the Christian faith come together, as in this film. Jonathan Aitken -- who has his own story of amazing grace -- served as a consultant for the movie and also wrote the foreward to John Piper's excellent little Wilberforce biography. Actually, the DVD and the book would make a nice stocking stuffer. Here's a review I wrote back in March.

Shannon & I saw AMAZING GRACE last night. It exceeded our expectations. First off, it's one of the most sincere portrayals of authentic Christianity I've ever seen on the big screen. So, of course I'm going to respond strongly to that. Secondly, it also exceeded my "film critic" expectations. There was not one trace of the "Hallmark movie of the week" treatment that often characterizes historical, costume dramas. I hope everyone goes to see it. It's a worthy tribute to a great man and a refreshingly uncynical movie that has a lot to say to us contemporary folk.

I give a lot of the credit for the first to Steven Knight, who last wrote the excellent DIRTY PRETTY THINGS from 2002. He has crafted a thematically rich and elegant screenplay that manages to give us the measure of William Wilberforce and the flavor of the times he lived in. This is not a two-hour apologetic for Christianity, but the faith that animated Wilberforce's crusade against the slave trade is evident in ways both obvious and subtle. John Newton, played to the hilt by Albert Finney, played a large role in Wilberforce's life and the scenes between Finney and Ioan Gruffudd (playing Wilberforce) are perhaps the film's most memorable and will emotionally resonate with anyone in the thrall of costly grace.

Michael Apted has always been a solid director, and AMAZING GRACE is a fine addition to his resume. I don't know the budget for this movie, but I'm guessing it was modest. In any case, Apted and his team (especially veteran costume designer Jenny Beaven) manage to recreate the era of Wilberforce with richness and verisimilitude. Enhanced by great locations and period detail, the film looked and felt authentic to this viewer. Little touches, such as the butler (played by Jeremy Swift) fond of quoting Francis Bacon, added humor and context.

Many scenes take place in Parliament where Wilberforce year after year brought his bill to abolish the slave trade, and they are deftly staged by Apted. I was reminded how important rhetoric was in those days when giants like Fox, Pitt and Wilberforce battled each other with words not swords -- sometimes the words proved more deadly. I read Sir Winston Churchill's "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples" when I was a teenager, and I thought of it as I watched this turbulent period come alive on screen.

The cast of AMAZING GRACE is excellent, including an actor with the lovely name of Benedict Cumberbatch (playing William Pitt). Gruffudd delivers a solid leading man performance and veterans like Michael Gambon and Albert Finney support superbly. Romola Garai looks lovely and is believable as Barbara Spooner, the supporter, intellectual equal, and finally, wife of the famous MP from Hull.

The reason the British slave trade hung on for so long was because many in the ruling class had a vested economic interest in it and the average citizen never saw the horrific reality of it. Once Wilberforce and his band began to speak truth to power and educate the public the tide slowly turned. Can you think of any issues of justice and mercy in today's America that you could say the same of? It took 20 years for Wilberforce to get his abolition bill passed. As we see in the film, the fight took a tremendous emotional and physical toll. What enabled him to persevere? Providentially, his marriage to Barbara turned out to be a source of joy and renewed energy, but behind it all lay his conviction that the fight for justice is rooted in the cross of Christ.

"If we would...rejoice in Christ as triumphantly as the first Christians did; we must learn, like them to repose our entire trust in him and to adopt the language of the apostle, 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ', 'who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption'."

WILLIAM WILBERFORCE

Friday, November 9, 2007

"I'm all for positive thinking--as long as we don't call it the gospel."

Walk into any Borders or Barnes & Noble these days and you'll see the pleasant face of Joel Osteen smiling back at you. Michael Horton reviews Become a Better You.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Pastors for Rudy?

Well, well, well. Pat Robertson has decided to join Rudy's team. Does the former mayor really think that's going to help him? And George Bennett writes in today's Palm Beach Post that the Giuliani campaign has been meeting with "social conservative leaders" here in South Florida to drum up support for a "Pastors for Rudy" group. Apparently, the accomplishments Rudy is banking on to prove his social conservative credentials are kicking pornographers out of Times Square and opposing public money for a controversial exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The plot thickens and "leaders" like Robertson look ever more irrelevant.

I'm still for Huckabee. He has the record to match the rhetoric AND the endorsement of Walker, Texas Ranger.

The Golden Compass and Philip Pullman

I see that New Line is ramping up the publicity for their big holiday release The Golden Compass, based on the first novel of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. What's alarming is that New Line is explicitly marketing this film (at least in the trailer I saw) as similar to The Lord of the Rings. In addition, the look of the film and elements of the story are bound to remind viewers (especially younger ones) of 2005'sThe Chronicles of Narnia. I suppose if the Narnia film had been a New Line production then the studio marketers would be linking The Golden Compass to that as well. Be warned, the worldview of Philip Pullman is diametrically opposed to that of Tolkien and Lewis...in fact Pullman loathes both the Narnia books and LOTR. In a 2005 article in The New Yorker about Pullman, Laura Miller writes:

Pullman loves Oxford, but he’s far from donnish. His books have been likened to those of J. R. R. Tolkien, another alumnus, but he scoffs at the notion of any resemblance. “ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is fundamentally an infantile work,” he said. “Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.” When it comes to “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C. S. Lewis, Pullman’s antipathy is even more pronounced. Although he likes Lewis’s criticism and quotes it surprisingly often, he considers the fantasy series “morally loathsome.” In a 1998 essay for the Guardian, entitled “The Dark Side of Narnia,” he condemned “the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle.” He reviled Lewis for depicting the character Susan Pevensie’s sexual coming of age—suggested by her interest in “nylons and lipstick and invitations”—as grounds for exclusion from paradise. In Pullman’s view, the “Chronicles,” which end with the rest of the family’s ascension to a neo-Platonic version of Narnia after they die in a railway accident, teach that “death is better than life; boys are better than girls . . . and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.”


And there's more.

At one point, Pullman and I stopped by the Eagle and Child, an Oxford pub where Lewis and Tolkien used to meet regularly with a group of literary friends. (They called themselves the Inklings.) A framed photograph of Lewis’s jowly face smiled down on us as we talked. In person, Pullman isn’t quite as choleric as he sometimes comes across in his newspaper essays. When challenged, he listens carefully and considerately, and occasionally tempers his ire. “The ‘Narnia’ books are a real wrestle with real things,” he conceded. As much as he dislikes the answers Lewis arrives at, he said that he respects “the struggle that he’s undergoing as he searches for the answers. There’s hope for Lewis. Lewis could be redeemed.” Not Tolkien, however: the “Rings” series, he declared, is “just fancy spun candy. There’s no substance to it.”


Well, it's perfectly fine for someone to have literary/artistic issues with particular books (I'm not a big fan of Lewis's fiction either, although I love Tolkien's), but I suspect most of Pullman's problem is with the Christian worldview behind those books. Pullman is an atheist. Well I'm not saying you shouldn't read books written by atheists or go see films based on them, but don't be deceived, there's an explicit anti-Christian agenda here and shame on New Line for deceptive marketing.

Lewis didn't write the Narnia books as explicit Christian allegory, but he did hope that they would prepare young readers to recognize and accept Christian doctrine later on in life. Pullman might say that he didn't write his books as explict anti-Christian or humanist allegory, but I'm willing to bet he hopes they subtly introduce ideas that come to fruition later. If I were a Christian parent I'd be far more worried about The Golden Compass than Harry Potter.

Read more of Pullman's anti-Lewis rantings here.

UPDATE

New Line selling 'The Golden Compass' as 'Lord of the Rings IV'

Monday, November 5, 2007

Is Mike Huckabee a closet liberal?

Bob Allen writes at EthicsDaily.com:

Vision America founder Rick Scarborough is defending presidential candidate Mike Huckabee against those who criticize him for sitting out the Southern Baptist Convention's theological wars.

In a WorldNetDaily column, Scarborough said some people question Huckabee's conservative credentials because they say he was a "no-show" in the fight against "liberalism," a charge Scarborough said is "not completely accurate."

Scarborough said he first met Huckabee more than 30 years ago, while both were students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. READ MORE



And the far left weighs in...Bob Moser blogs at The Nation:


HEARTING HUCKABEE...OK. I have to admit it. It's time for me, like many other reporters who ought to know better, to look myself straight in the face and ask: Are you crushing on Mike Huckabee?

Dear God, surely not. His social views are positively Pat Robertsonian--the Family Marriage Amendment and all that. But I have been spending some time on the "I Heart Huckabee" online circuit, looking at videos and web sites devoted to Hearting the latest version of a neo-populist from Hope, Arkansas. And there are times when Huckabee strikes me as awfully refreshing. He talks about his scratchy roots in more appropriately earthly ways than John Edwards: "On my mother's side of the family, I'm one generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets. On my father's side of the family, there's not a male upstream from me that even graduated high school."

He often governed in a most un-Republican way in Arkansas, too. "He was pro-life and pro-gun, but otherwise a liberal," says one of his longtime right-wing foes. READ THE REST


Al Mohler is still my favorite Southern Baptist minister, but Mike is closing fast...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

John Piper praises God for fundamentalists

This caught my eye...

What I want to say about Fundamentalism is that its great gift to the church is precisely the backbone to resist compromise and to make standing for truth and principle a means of love rather than an alternative to it. I am helped by the call for biblical separation, because almost no evangelicals even think about the doctrine.
READ THE REST


I'm reminded of J. Gresham Machen's answer when someone asked him if he minded being lumped in with the fundamentalists of his day.

Do you suppose that I do regret my being called by a term that I greatly dislike, a "Fundamentalist"? Most certainly I do. But in the presence of a great common foe, I have little time to be attacking my brethren who stand with me in defense of the Word of God.


Piper and Machen remind us to focus on what unites, instead of fixating on what we don't like about a particular "ism" within the church.

The Darjeeling Limited


American filmmaker Wes Anderson is one of my cinematic heroes. If you like his previous films, then you'll probably like his latest, if you don't, then you probably won't. I opined after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that Anderson had reached an artistic cul-de-sac and that opinion hasn't changed after seeing The Darjeeling Limited, but when you do something so well maybe it doesn't make sense to stop drawing from the same well of inspiration. Like his characters, Anderson's films inhabit a remarkably self-contained world, and that's part of their magic for his fans. Contributing to this is his repeated use of the same collaborators to create something of an Anderson stock company.

The Darjeeling Limited reminded me most of The Royal Tenenbaums. There you had three self-obsessed, angst-ridden siblings trying to come to terms with parental abandonment and broken relationships, here we have three self-obsessed, angst-ridden siblings trying to come to terms with parental abandonment and broken relationships. In Darjeeling, brothers Francis, Peter and Jack (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) set out on a "spiritual journey" across India after the death of their father. Much of the fun comes in seeing their hapless attempts to find meaning in a culture so alien from the self-obsessed West. A visit to a temple turns into farce and they eventually get kicked off the brightly-colored train that gives the movie it's title.

Emotions are finely pitched in Anderson's cinema, the line between tragedy and satire is never quite clear and isn't meant to be. Music is huge for Anderson and is always used in a masterful way. There are always several songs that you're never quite sure if you've heard before that create the perfect mood for the scene. If I could describe Anderson's cinema in two words they would be nostalgia and pastiche -- favorite post-modern concepts. Nothing much gets resolved and the significance is found in the journey not the destination. Again...favorite post-modern concepts. Sounds kind of like the emergent church. It's a cinema of painstaking detail too. Anderson is the sort who will obsess over finding the exact shade of wallpaper for a set that appears for 30 seconds, a characteristic that was brilliantly spoofed in an American Express ad.

Nostalgist that he is, Anderson created a 13-minute film to be shown before the feature. It used to be standard practice to show short films before the main attraction. Hotel Chevalier stars Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman and serves as a stylish prologue to The Darjeeling Limited. It introduces the character of Jack, but perhaps more importantly in a Wes Anderson film, acquaints us with one of those lovely, obscure pop songs that reappears later on.

STEPHEN'S GRADE A-



Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two interviews with John Frame

Twoth - Dr. John Frame Interview

An Interview with John Frame By Marco Gonzalez

Reformation Day 2007

Today at work we're having an early Halloween party. It's a chance for the kids to come in, show off their costumes and "trick or treat". Really...it's just an excuse for the big kids to knock off early and eat some cake! Every year lots of energy is spent debating whether Christian parents should let their children participate in Halloween. I'm agnostic on the question. I don't have kids so I'm not going to tell parents what they should or shouldn't do (my wife has fond childhood memories of carving pumpkins, etc. so I have an inkling which way we'll lean when we're faced with the decision). I think it's possible to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I don't think parents that don't let their kids participate in Halloween are narrow-minded wackos. There's a good case to be made against it. In my opinion there's a stronger Biblical case to be made in favor of a prohibitionist stance on Halloween than there is in favor of a prohibitionist stance on drinking alcohol. Just my opinion.

Bottom line? Use spiritual discernment. Albert Mohler reminds us in an article from 2003 that, "The coming of Halloween is a good time for Christians to remember that evil spirits are real and that the Devil will seize every opportunity to trumpet his own celebrity." Read the article


Tomorrow is also Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 an obscure monk nailed an invitation to debate the practice of selling indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, which became known to history as Martin Luther's 95 Theses. Luther wasn't engaging in an act of vandalism. In medieval times the church door was like the classified ads. If you wanted to make an announcement, that's where you posted it. Still, Luther couldn't have known what he was starting. He was a remarkably humble and simple man til the day he died. Legend has it that the last words he wrote on a scrap of paper were, "We are beggars: this is true." Even if only legend, his life and writings bear witness that he would say with Paul, "by the grace of God I am what I am."

Is the Protestant Reformation even relevant to the American church of the 21st century? Have the issues the Reformers were debating with Rome been forever settled? Michael Horton and Co. discuss those questions on this week's edition of The White Horse Inn. I'd say yes it's relevant, and no the issues haven't been settled. Why celebrate Reformation Day? One good reason is we wouldn't have a copy of the Bible in our own language if not for the Reformers. At that time Bibles were chained to the lecterns of the churches. Even if a layman could get his hands on a Bible, he wouldn't be able to understand it because it was in Latin. Being able to study the Scriptures on our own is just one of the many sweet fruits of the Reformation. Here are some suggestions for celebrating Reformation Day 2007.

- Sing a hymn

- Buy the ESV Reformation Study Bible for $15.17

- Learn about Luther's favorite beverage

Semper Reformanda!

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Wow! I don't know if The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, hereafter TAOJJBTCRF, is one of the best American films of recent years or just an ambitious exercise in style. It will take a second viewing to decide. Even if the latter it's pretty amazing. TAOJJBTCRF is based on a historical novel about the last legendary days of Jesse James and his equally legendary death at the hands of Robert Ford. Critics have noted the literary quality of the film, and after seeing it I see their point. It's hard to describe, but the way scenes played out and were strung together felt like pages turning. I know nothing about writer/director Andrew Dominik. Is this the astonishing debut of a late-blooming cinematic genius? Who knows. I do know that D.P. Roger Deakins is a genius, and this movie has one arresting image after another. I'm sure this project never would have gotten made without the star power and producing muscle of Brad Pitt. Pitt is quite astounding in his mastery of James' facial tics and mannerisms. But the revelation is Casey Affleck, proving to be the most talented actor in the family, by turns pitiable and contemptible. Much of the acting by the two male leads is done with the eyes and subtle nuances of speech. The violence is sparing, but uncomfortably jarring when it happens. One gunshot made me literally jump in my seat. There are some electric moments and the film opens with an adrenaline-pumping set piece, but the action definitely drags at times. This could be an example of a great 100-minute film lurking within the 160-minute running time. However TAOJJBTCRF never lost my interest, but several people walked out muttering well before the final credits rolled when I saw it earlier this evening. The cast is full of fine young actors, including some of my favorites like Zooey Deschanel and Sam Rockwell, and it was great fun to see a weathered Sam Shepard playing Jesse's big brother Frank James. Casting Shepard links TAOJJBTCRF to it's 70's pretensions. Yes, Malick and Days of Heaven (coincidentally) must have been a huge influence. I'm reminded again of how much of a self-referential art form cinema is. There's an example of stunt casting too. That's when someone shows up in a film that distracts more than enhances. You know the moment when you look at the person next to you and say, "hey, isn't that .....?!" Here it's James Carville playing Missouri Governor Crittenden. Yes, that James Carville.

So what does it mean? I've read several interesting takes on that from better writers than myself. Here's one by Barbara Nicolosi

STEPHEN'S GRADE A-