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'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'."


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 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.


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

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...