Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Medicine for the soul

I've been re-reading When the Darkness Will Not Lift by John Piper. Of all Piper's books this is the one I've recommended most often. I've even given copies to fellow Christians I knew were going through dark times. It's full of wise, pastoral wisdom, above all in its focus on directing readers to fix their gaze on Christ and off of themselves. Here are several paragraphs I found exceptionally good.

On "gutsy guilt." Parenthetically, I think this is a good definition of what Luther was getting at with his famous phrase simul iustus et peccator "at the same time righteous and a sinner."

Gutsy guilt means learning to live on the rock-solid truth of what happened for us when Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead. It means realizing that in this life we will always be sinful and imperfect. Therefore in ourselves we will always be guilty. This will prove emotionally devastating if we do not discover the reality of justification by faith, that is, the secret of gutsy guilt. This is not the only weapon with which we fight for joy in the darkness of discouragement, but it is one of the most foundational and the most important.

The biblical truth of justification says that my rescue from sin and God's wrath is first a legal rescue, and only then a moral one... (p. 14)

On faith and assurance.

Our faith rises and falls. It has degrees. But our security does not rise and fall. It has no degrees. We must persevere in faith. That's true. But there are times when our faith is the size of a mustard seed and barely visible. In fact, the darkest experience for the child of God is when his faith sinks out of his own sight. Not out of God's sight, but his. Yes, it is possible to be so overwhelmed with darkness that you do not know if you are a Christian -- and yet still be one.

All the great doctors of the soul have distinguished between faith and its full assurance. The reason for this is that we are saved by the work of God causing us to be born again and bringing us to faith. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). We are not saved by producing faith on our own and then making that the basis of our new birth. It is the other way around, which means that God is at the bottom of my faith; and when it disappears for a season from my own view, God may yet be there sustaining its root in the new birth and protecting the seed from destruction. (p. 38)

On what we might say to a Christian in the darkness of doubt or depression.
The first and best thing to say may be, "I love you. And I am not letting you go." In those words a person may feel God's keeping presence, which they may not feel in any other way. Or, second, we might say, "Stop looking at your faith, and rivet your attention on Christ. Faith is sustained by looking at Christ, crucified and risen, not by turning from Christ to analyze your faith. Let me help you look to Christ. Let's read Luke 22 through 24 together." Paradoxically, if we would experience the joy of faith, we must not focus much on it. We must focus on the greatness of our Savior. (pp. 40-41)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It's good to be king

$125,000 - amount of UF Head Coach Urban Meyer's bonus for getting the Gators to the national championship game. He'll receive another $100,000 if they win.

$47,400 - amount of profit the University Athletic Association expects to make on the game.

$150 - amount of Best Buy gift card each player receives from the university.


Freddie Hubbard (7 April 1938 - 29 December 2008)

One by one the great jazzmen of the 1950s and 1960s are passing from the scene. The albums remain.

New York Times obit

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Music They Made (a tribute)


Misplaced passion and the QIRE

It's long been an article of faith among Reformed folk that the First Great Awakening was the good one, but the Second Great Awakening was bad. That's because the earlier one is seen as Calvinistic due to the major roles of Whitefield and Edwards, while the later one is largely associated with Finney and his New Measures. The first was genuine revival while the second was a particularly egregious example of revivalism, or so the story goes. This can be seen by the fact that John Piper will be giving a biographical portrait of George Whitefield at this year's Desiring God Pastors Conference, but don't expect to ever hear a commendation of Charles Finney at any DG or Ligonier or T4G conference!

In Recovering the Reformed Confession R. Scott Clark challenges that bit of conventional wisdom. Clark doesn't deny the very real differences between the two, but he argues that there's a good bit of continuity as well, both being animated by what he calls the QIRE (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience). The QIRE is "one of the most ancient impulses in Christian theology...the quest for the vision of God (visio Dei), which Luther and Calvin derided as the desire to see God "naked" (Deus nudus)." (p. 71) It's a quest to "experience God apart from the mediation of Word and sacrament." (p. 72) Instead of a piety organized around the ordinary means of grace administered by the visible church, the Great Awakening events stressed the extraordinary, and in the process actually undermined the church to lasting effect.

Clark makes the case that along with the QIRC, or Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty, the QIRE has contributed to a state of affairs where the Reformed churches have lost their grip on any distinctive theology, piety and practice as defined by the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions and churches. Where "distinct colors fade to grey," as Michael Horton writes in a blurb on the jacket, and where being Reformed is defined subjectively and often idiosyncratically i.e. "I am Reformed, I think p, and therefore p must be Reformed." (p. 18) Clark gives three prominent examples of this in the chapter on QIRC: a belief in 6/24 creation as a boundary marker of Reformed orthodoxy, theonomy/reconstructionism and covenantal moralism. In response to the relativism that characterizes our age some have sought to compensate by seeking certainty in areas "where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable." (p. 39) Elevating tangential issues is often indicative of "the spirit of fundamentalism" and Clark shows how the Reformed churches haven't been immune to this spirit. Clark believes, as did Machen, that the best response to modernism and theological liberalism is Calvinism, not Fundamentalism.

But back to the QIRE. Clark argues not against genuine piety, nor against a passionate experience of God. Indeed, he advances a compelling and appealing case for a Reformed piety -- "Word and Spirit piety" as against "event and excitement pietism" (p. 99) -- based on the ordinary means of grace and the objective marks of "a true and lively faith" [WCF 16.2] which the Belgic Confession defines as "faith, fruit, and fighting against sin." More on that later. Here Clark sums up his case that both Great Awakenings -- while used by "God, in his wonderful accomplish great things" (p. 83) -- were driven by impulses that undermined and supplanted "the theology, piety, and practice of confessional Reformed Christianity." (p. 99)

There were genuine differences between the First and Second Great Awakenings. For example, the leading Reformed ministers of the First Great Awakening were strongly committed to the doctrines of absolute divine sovereignty and predestination. On the other hand, the leading voices of the Second Great Awakening (see below) ardently rejected not only predestination, but also the Reformation doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, there were genuine continuities between the two movements. Both were marked by innovative methods, neither was particularly churchly in orientation, and both were ultimately measured by their advocates by the degree of religious experience they fostered. None of these things could be said fairly of the classic Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

My criticism of Reformed subjectivism in the colonial revivals should not be confused with Charles Chauncy's criticisms of Edwards. In 1743, Chauncy, a Congregationalist minister in Boston and a leader of the Congregationalist "Old Lights," published the most important criticism of the Great Awakening, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England. He was an enigmatic figure, applauded by the Arminians of his day, taken by many in the eighteenth century as a rationalist and a universalist. He opposed the awakening, because it offended cool reason by its passionate experience of God's presence. My criticism of revivalism is not that it is too passionate (Calvinism has always been one of the hotter religions); rather my criticism is that it is passionate about the wrong things. (pp. 96-97)

Perhaps some readers think the scenario Clark outlines was/is a good thing, or at least accept the common criticism of Reformed theology and practice as heartless and sterile, dead religion even. If so, then Clark would say you're falling into the trap of judging confessional Reformed Christianity by an "alien standard" and "have already accepted the revivalist or subjectivist paradigm." (p. 98) He audaciously argues that "even in its best and most admirable form, the revivalist program is still misguided." (p. 99) What then of the legitimate place for religious experience? Is there a QLRE? Yes there is, and Clark writes at length on the confessional Reformed approach to personal piety, including a wonderful outline of this approach as seen in the content and structure of the Heidelberg Catechism.

All of this flows from the logic of new covenant passages such as Jeremiah 31:33-34 where the subjective blessings of the Christian life "are bound up with God's decisive covenantal saving work in history. This language does not suggest so much a heightened state of religious experience or awareness of the divine presence as it does the objective establishment of a new state of divine-human relations. In other words, this language is more sacramental, Protestant, and official than it is personal, private, or revivalist." (p. 101) Clark cites William Perkins, the father of English Puritanism, to make the case that recovering the Reformed confession means being more concerned with the "ordinary" than the "extraordinary."

In his catechism Perkins made it clear that conversion is not ordinarily a momentary or epochal experience and certainly not chiefly a private religious experience, but rather and ordinarily the result of the prevenient grace of justifying faith which comes through the hearing of the preached gospel and the consequent grace of sanctification received in the means of grace administered in the church. It is not as if the Reformed confession is unconcerned with religious experience, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we were more concerned about the objective manifestations of regeneration and conversion, which the apostle Paul called "the fruit of the Spirit." (p. 99)

I realize some of this must sound very strange to modern ears, even to those who didn't grow up in an environment strongly influenced by fundamentalism (QIRC) and revivalism (QIRE) as I did. It's meant to. That's because the QIRC and QIRE have profoundly shaped the American religious landscape. Contemporary evangelicalism is heir to both, though often in a watered-down form. It might also sound as if Recovering the Reformed Confession is simply a backward-looking exercise in nostalgia for the good ol' days. Well, recovery and reformation necessarily involves looking back, but this book is much more than that, and in a future post I'll focus on the positive forward-looking case that Clark makes in my favorite chapter so far -- Chapter 6 "The Joy of Being Confessional" -- and explain why I think this book should be read by those outside its target audience.

As for the QIRC and the QIRE, I'm with Clark 100% on the first, but though I agree with most of his diagnosis regarding the second I'm not ready to toss out Edwards and Whitefield with the Second Awakening bathwater. Nor am I as ready as Clark to rule someone else's religious experience out of bounds, even if judged on the basis of the Reformed consensus on what Scripture teaches as summed up in those great confessions that I've come to believe and love.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On catechizing our children

Today, we are often content with "God" words and with warm feelings about Him. In a society rife with faulty ideas of God, we fail to give a definition to the word when we use it. Eager to include and to think the best of everyone, we rejoice when we hear those "God" words, assuming the person using them is one of us. When we combine this failure to discriminate with our natural sympathies toward children, we are even quicker to assume children are Christians when, in reality, they have no idea at all what it is to be one.

Those of us who care about passing on the baton of historic Christian truth must awaken to the importance of faithfully imparting its doctrines to our children. We cannot depend on haphazard, hit-or-miss Bible stories and memory verses, hoping that somehow our children will distill from them Christianity's important teachings. Rather, we must provide careful, systematic instruction in doctrine. Children need a grid through which to sift all that they see and hear. We must provide this for our children while they are still young. Doctrine cannot wait until children are teens, because adolescents are making major life decisions. The theological framework on which to base those decisions, the biblical worldview, must already be in place.

Starr Meade, Training Hearts Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism (Introduction, pp. 5-6)

Friday, December 26, 2008

New operating system

Maybe this will make you chuckle as you try to figure out that new gadget you got for Christmas...

HT: Film - Think

Quotable Melville

I think art only exists if the artist is alone, if the creator is completely cut off from the world. That's why cinema isn't an art. Art is when you're alone in your room at 3:00 a.m., writing a scene. Yes, that might be called art.

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Paul Copan takes on some Christmas myths (and a popular carol)

@ Parchment and Pen


It's been a rich feast to finish up my year-long journey through the Bible with the minor prophets. If I stay on schedule I'll finish Malachi and Revelation tomorrow. With a baby on the way I don't know if I'll be able to keep up the same reading pace next year, but I wouldn't want to go an entire year without studying these sometimes neglected parts of scripture. If you never have done so, I'd urge you to get a good study Bible and dig in to Hosea, Joel, Amos, etc. The prophet Zechariah provides a marvelous picture of shalom (perfect peace, total well-being) in chapter 8. In Zechariah 8:8 are the familiar, comforting words "they shall be my people, and I will be their God..." This is the culmination of the covenant and of history, where it's all heading, both for them and for us as new covenant believers (Revelation 21:3-4).

In addition to this, I was struck by the multi-generational picture of this shalom. Zechariah 8:4-5 pictures the streets of Jerusalem full of children playing as parents and grandparents look on. This is a picture of true community, a neighborhood if you will. Shouldn't our churches reflect that? I think we go wrong by copying Madison Avenue and segmenting everything according to age. Shannon and I attend (and I occasionally teach) a Sunday school class at our church that's known as the "young adult" class. I put it in quotes because we have everyone from college students to grandparents in there. I love it. I'd get tired of going to Sunday school or church with people just like us and hearing only about subjects that our age group is supposedly interested in. Don't get me wrong. There's a place for that kind of ministry. We also have a weeknight group for young married couples. But the main focus, Lord's Day worship and Sunday school, is kept intentionally as multi-generational as possible.

There's another aspect to shalom that we aren't doing as well as I'd like us to. That's the multi-ethnic aspect. We should better reflect the fact that we're in a community that's becoming more diverse by the day. In Zechariah 8:20-23 the prophet gives what would have been a surprising message to his hearers. "The inhabitants of many cities" and "many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem." What? We've just been delivered from the shackles of Gentile oppression and now you're telling us that those people are going to be coming here to seek our God. Segue to Christmas as we celebrate the coming of the light of the world, the hope of the nations.

Tonight in my role as an elder I'll have the privilege of helping to serve the bread and the wine as we celebrate communion during our Christmas Eve service. It will be a reminder that the warm glow of "Silent Night" gave way to "that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, the emblem of suffering and shame." "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9) This is the gospel in a nutshell. Note that Paul puts it in the middle of a letter about giving gifts. Wishing you all the peace and joy of Christmas, and looking forward to that day when our Messiah returns to bring lasting shalom to this troubled world.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is Kwanzaa consistent with the gospel?

Eric Redmond shares some Christ-centered thoughts on Kwanzaa.

A couple of cool cats

Today's the birthday of Chet Baker, whose trumpet playing defined the West Coast sound. Here he is pictured on one of the first jazz albums I ever owned.

More importantly, today's the birthday of my brother. A cool cat in his own right, and the most generous person I know. Happy birthday, Phil!

The theology of the cross in Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah

@ Confessing Evangelical

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Clark and Trueman on the Rick Warren/inauguration/gay marriage controversy

No it's not a law firm, it's R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman with articles that I suspect will rile folks on both sides.

Clark: Five Issues with the Inaugural Invocation

Trueman: Goodbye Larry King, Hello Jerry Springer!

I hope you'll take the time to read both in their entirety, but here are the closing thoughts from Trueman's piece:

It is vital we remember that nobody can be reduced simply to their sexuality. No heterosexual person is simply heterosexual; no gay person is simply gay. We are all complex human beings, defined by the basic category of image bearers of God, not sexual preference. As soon as we start thinking of people as a sexual preference, not as image bearers, we lose sight of them as individuals. They become mere labels or slogans, not persons. It is hard to love a slogan; indeed, it is very easy rather to hate such. Even as we are being labeled and turned into mere sound bites, we must not respond in kind. Let us stand firm on biblical ethics, but let us also reach out to gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals with the love of Christ. As Luther would remind us, our task is not done when we simply preach the law to the lost; we must then also preach the gospel to them and point them to Christ. For such, as Paul once said, were some of you; and, thankfully, somebody treated you as a lost person not an abstract moral category or a sexual preference.

I AM or "I am"

The Judean prophet Zephaniah -- a contemporary of Jeremiah -- prophesied during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC). This was a time of dramatic swings in God's chosen people's faithfulness to the covenant. Recall that Josiah instituted sweeping reforms late in his reign which ushered in a temporary period of covenant renewal for Judah and Jerusalem. This was also the time when the Assyrian empire was still in its ascendancy, though they would soon be crushed by the even more ruthless Babylonians in about 612 BC. The prophet foretells the destruction of Ninevah, the Assyrian capitol, in Zephaniah 2:13-15 and uses a striking phrase to describe the boastful city. "This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, 'I am, and there is no one else.'" Here is the ultimate expression of the sovereign self -- "I am, and there is no one else." Me, the measure of all things.

This is a deliberate inversion and perversion of God's self-disclosure throughout Scripture. "I AM WHO I AM" he spoke in response to Moses. (Exodus 3:13-14) "I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other..." (Isaiah 42:8) "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:58) The Psalmist is still right: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" Perhaps not by denying deity outright, but by fashioning a god that works for me. "I am, and there is no one else." The "no one else" begins with God but usually doesn't end there. It's no coincidence that when Israel's prophets denounced idolatry they were often denouncing widespread social injustice in the very next breath. The message seems to be that the sovereign self which has no room for God, soon has no room for his neighbor either.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A wonderful life

One of the blessings of volunteering at The Lord's Place is the wonderfully diverse group of people I've been thrown together with. Folks from a variety of socio-economic categories and walks of life united in a desire to serve some of the "least of these" in our community. One of my fellow Friday volunteers is author Laurence Leamer. Larry started blogging last month to promote his upcoming book on Palm Beach -- Madness Under the Royal Palms -- and I've enjoyed every one of his posts so far. He provides a fascinating insider's perspective on "the island" that those of us who live on this side of the Flagler bridge don't often get to see. But today he set that aside to tell the story of a wonderful life.

Read it here.

Give 'em the high hat

This piece by cinema enthusiast Benjamin Wright (thank you Bill for referring me to his blog!) inspired a train of thought related to the use of hats in the movies. Coincidentally I've been feeling nostalgic for the days when it wasn't acceptable for an adult male to go out in public wearing an untucked shirt and baseball cap turned backwards -- and I plead guilty to having done both. I think it has something to do with the growing infantilization of popular culture. Nobody wants to dress like a grown-up anymore. But I digress.

Hats have always been a staple of classic Hollywood and Hollywood-inspired cinema. One can hardly imagine Humphrey Bogart without his fedora or John Wayne without his Stetson. The directors of the French New Wave made a habit of riffing on the iconography of "men wearing hats." A prime example would be Jean-Paul Belmondo, mimicking the look and mannerisms of his hero Bogart, in Breathless -- even checking his reflection in the glass that covers a marquee displaying Bogey's visage. Belmondo's character is mostly style over substance, as is the use of headwear in most cases. I could come up with a long list of movies where hats are an indispensable accessory. That would be too easy. What's more interesting is the handful of films I can think of where hats become something more -- a visual metaphor, a dramatic prop, even a running joke. Here are five I came up with.

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Miller's Crossing (Joel Coen, 1990)

Can anyone name the wearer of this famous fedora?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Linus knows

I think I posted this last year, but hey, it never gets old.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A message of thanks from President Hamid Karzai

In Afghanistan, and across the Muslim world, we have just celebrated the great Festival of Sacrifice - the Eid al-Adha. We came together with our families to mark an event known also to Jews and Christians: the willingness of Abraham (or Ibrahim, as we call him) to sacrifice his son in obedience to God.

But God intervened, and provided a lamb instead for the sacrifice. Which is why hundreds of millions of Muslims will have feasted this week on lamb - or whatever they can afford - to mark Abraham's acceptance of the will of God...

Continue reading

A material boy

I'm a guy that prefers holding a CD (or album) to downloading an MP3, owning the DVD to watching a movie online, and eating the Lord's Supper to the questionable items that fill the worship programs of many Sunday services. Can I add...especially at the "holiday season". How ironic that Christ so often gets pushed aside at Christmas, by pre-empting His ministry of Word and sacrament with the traditions of men.

Along the same's Jason Stellman at De Regnis Duobus on vinyl and the visible church. Wouldn't it be something if both made a comeback?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A prison Advent

From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of man, that God will approach where men turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn -- these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for him they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives him a part in the communion of saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter and Papers From Prison (To his parents 17 December 1943)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Barista Julie would like a word with you

Dear Starbucks customer,

Because of our Starbucks “yes I can” policy, I have not been able to address this with you in person.

Please, put your cell phone down while ordering, acknowledge us lowly baristas as at least human enough to do more to than grunt an order at while on your phone, put the money on the counter then walk away. We welcome you with a smile, please at least try to do the same...

Read the whole thing (it's really good!)

Remembering Frank

On December 12, 1915 Francis Albert Sinatra was forcibly wrenched from the womb. The forceps permanently disfigured the left ear and cheek of the child that would grow up to possess one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century. The story goes that baby Sinatra wasn't breathing when he emerged and was given up for dead by the doctor, but his quick-thinking grandmother held him under cold water until he started breathing. Quite the beginning. I don't listen to Sinatra as much as I used to. His essential subject was loneliness, specifically male loneliness, thus his recordings don't resonate in the same way as they did when I was younger. I suppose great art speaks to us more, or less, throughout the varied seasons of our lives.

Shortly after Sinatra's death in 1998 newspaperman Pete Hamill wrote a wonderful little book called Why Sinatra Matters. I pulled it off the shelf a few nights ago. Hamill explains that the reason Sinatra matters is the same reason Mozart and Charlie Parker still matter. Different generations and cultures will listen differently, but "the music remains" and "every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals..." (pp. 8-9)

Though not a conventional biography, Why Sinatra Matters effectively traces the impact that Sinatra's hardscrabble Hoboken, New Jersey upbringing and Italian heritage played in his life and career. It was a source of pride and also something to transcend. "'Of course, it meant something to me to be the son of immigrants,' Sinatra said to me once. 'How could it not? I grew up for a few years thinking I was just another American kid. Then I discovered at - what? five? six? - I discovered that some people thought I was a dago. A wop. A guinea...That's why years later, when Harry [James] wanted me to change my name, I said no way, baby. The name is Sinatra.'" (pp. 37-38) Yet as the first and only child of immigrant parents Frank was a trailblazer, the first American of his family. Back in the neighborhood he spoke the "argot of the street. He could be profane, even vulgar. The word them could become dem, and those could become dose. It depended on the company." (p. 94) But as anyone who's listened to the songs knows, Sinatra's diction was impeccable. Young Frank would go to the movies and imitate how he heard Cary Grant and Clark Gable speak. "Alone in my room, I'd keep practicing the other kind of English." (p. 94) Frank Sinatra was a powerful symbol of the great American melting pot and a hero to scores of Italian Americans. In many ways his story is the American story. Ultimately though, his enduring legacy, the reason "Sinatra matters," rests on one thing. The main thing.

His finest accomplishment, of course, was the sound. The voice itself would evolve over the years from a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones. But it was a combination of voice, diction, attitude, and taste in music that produced the Sinatra sound. It remains unique. Sinatra created something that was not there before he arrived: an urban American voice. It was the voice of the sons of the immigrants in northern cities - not simply the Italian Americans, but the children of all those immigrants who had arrived on the great tide at the turn of the century. That's why Irish and Jewish Americans listened to him in New York. That's why the children of Poles in Chicago, along with all those other people in cities around the nation, listened to him. If they did not exactly sound like him, they wanted to sound like him. Frank Sinatra was the voice of the twentieth-century American city. (pp. 93-94)

One of Frank's signature songs was the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Sinatra recorded it several times, including a definitive interpretation on the 1958 album for Columbia aptly called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. This is the whiskey-voiced Sinatra, somewhere between a viola and cello. Accompanied by piano and only the sparest Nelson Riddle orchestration, it's an almost painfully intimate thing to listen to. To me, and I think to a lot of fans, "One for My Baby" is the quintessential Sinatra closer -- not the cheesy "My Way." I believe it when he sings "it's quarter to three, there's no one in the place 'cept you and me." Fifty-plus years on I'm reminded why he's still THE American popular singer, the Babe Ruth of American song. "So thanks for the cheer, I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear." We didn't mind. We didn't mind at all.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Speaking of health care

Well, health care is back in the news. For that I'm glad. I was starting to worry it was going to be put on the back burner as the new Administration and Congress focused on other issues. President-elect Obama is right that the health care crisis is a major component of the overall economic mess. What's frustrating to me though is that you have even Democrats refusing to discuss a single-payer model because "it doesn't poll well." The feds are taking over huge swaths of the financial industry and possibly the Big Three, but heaven forbid we mention "socialized medicine."

This might be a good time to review the four basic models of health care systems: the Beveridge model a/k/a single-payer, the Bismarck model, the national health insurance model, and the out-of-pocket model (see below). Here in the U.S. we have a weird mix of all four, including single-payer. I guess that's good or bad depending on which end of the stick you're holding. If you're a working family watching more and more of your income going towards high premiums and deductibles the status quo is looking like a loser. I realize that employers are getting hammered too. The question to ask yourself is, who profits by nothing changing?

Journalist T.R. Reid explains the four models and offers five examples.

Herman Bavinck on Arminianism

@ The Reformed Reader

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


It's true that in Michael's films I'd like there to be a little more hope and a little more light.

- Juliette Binoche

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke looks like a cross between Jerry Garcia and the grim reaper. At his best, he's a chronicler of a society (contemporary Western Europe) where God is dead but the idea of sin is still very much alive and well to those brave enough to look honestly into their own hearts. That means you too dear viewer. Haneke is nothing if not honest, or, at least he wants you to think so. (Some critics that I trust found his last offering, Funny Games, an English-language facsimile of one of his earlier films, to be not only dishonest, but morally repugnant. For that reason I avoided it.) Western Europe is an angst-ridden place these days, flooded by immigrants from the south who don't share the modernist assumptions of ultra-secular Germans and French and Dutch. This clash of worldviews is vividly illustrated by the trend of churches and cathedrals being turned into mosques or internet cafés.

In Caché (Hidden), the film that preceded Funny Games, Haneke smartly captures the unease of a society through a meditation on the results of one man's guilty conscience long suppressed. This is one I can recommend as vintage Haneke. Here he is on his home turf directing two of European cinema's most recognizable faces, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, as a pair of typical bourgeois Parisians whose tranquil lives are unsettled by a series of videotapes sent by an anonymous watcher. It wouldn't do to rehash the plot, but viewers with the requisite patience and willingness to be toyed with will be drawn in to Haneke's world from first to final shot. Which, by the way, make for two of the most elegant and enigmatic bookends to a film I've ever seen. To put it another way, if loose ends aren't your cup of tea, this one may leave you gnashing your teeth, or reaching for the rewind button. What did I just see?

Haneke creates an atmosphere that I can't quite articulate. I'm sure some of it has to do with the complete absence of a musical soundtrack, which contributes to the ominous sense of dread. Mundane sounds are heightened by the subtraction of other audio elements. Of course, this is far from a novel technique, but Haneke employs it uncommonly well. You half expect monsters or madmen to jump out from dark corners, but it's metaphysical fright that Haneke is interested in creating. Another stylistic point worth mentioning is the use of digital cameras to shoot the film. It's of a piece with the overall mood, and reminds the viewer of the ubiquity of video screens in Western society. Increasingly "reality" is viewed in hi-def. We're also reminded of this by the fact that Georges, the principal character, is a well-known television host.

In the Old Testament book of Job we read a series of dialogues between Job and three erstwhile counselors, or friends. The three friends are mostly spot-on in what they have to say. Where they go wrong is in what they leave out. It falls to young Elihu to introduce the possibility of grace in this scenario. In the interview from which the above quote from Ms. Binoche is taken, she goes on to admit that Haneke the filmmaker isn't made that way and his bleak vision serves him well. Arguably the absence of anything like grace in Caché is what makes it such a rigorously effective piece of cinema. Viewers in search of light and hope will have to find them elsewhere.

"Chicago isn't the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt." Studs Terkel

Is the church a mall or a filling station?

Do we go to church primarily to give or receive? Is a pastor to feed the sheep or teach the sheep how to become self-feeders? Mike, Rod, Ken and Kim interact with Willow Creek's Reveal study on this week's White Horse Inn.

Monday, December 8, 2008

If "free will" isn't free, is it really free will?

You make the power of free will to be "that certain small degree of power which, without the grace of God, is utterly ineffective."...Therefore, to say, that the will is free, and that it has indeed power, but that it is ineffective, is what the Sophists call "a direct contrariety." As if one should say, free will is that which is not free.

Who would not laugh at, or rather hold up to hatred, that most untimely innovator of terms, who, contrary to all established use, should attempt to introduce a mode of speaking, as by the term beggar, to have understood "wealthy"; not because such a one has any wealth himself, but because some king may, perchance, give him his wealth? And what if such a one should really do this, not by any figure of speech, as by periphrasis or irony, but in plain serious meaning? In the same way, speaking of one "sick unto death," he may wish to be understood as meaning one in "perfect health"; giving this as his reason, because the one may give the other his health. So also, he may, by "illiterate idiot," mean "most learned"; because some other may perchance give him his learning. Of precisely the same nature is this: man has a free will, for this reason, if perchance God should give him His. By this abuse of the manner of speaking, anyone may boast that he has anything: that He is the Lord of heaven and earth, if perchance God should give this unto him. But this is not the way in which theologians should proceed; this is the way of stage players and public informers. Our words ought to be proper words, pure and sober; and, as Paul says, "sound speech, that cannot be condemned" (Titus 2:8).

But, if we do not like to leave out this term altogether (which would be most safe, and also most religious), we may, nevertheless, with a good conscience teach, that it be used so far as to allow man a free will, not in respect of those which are above him, but in respect only of those things which are below him: that is, he may be allowed to know, that he has, as to his goods and possessions the right of using, acting, and omitting, according to his free will; although, at the same time, that same free will is overruled by the free will of God alone, just as He pleases; but that, God-ward, or in things which pertain unto salvation or damnation, he has no free will, but is a captive, slave, and servant, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.

Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Section 26)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Gregory on the Incarnation

The Word of God Himself, Who is before all worlds, the Invisible, the Incomprehensible, the Bodiless, the Beginning of beginning, the Light of Light, the Source of Life and Immortality, the Image of the Archetype, the Immovable Seal, the Unchangeable Image, the Father's Definition and Word, came to His own Image, and took on Him Flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul's sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin was made Man...And He who gives riches becomes poor; for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the riches of His Godhead. He that is full empties Himself; for He empties Himself of His Glory for a short while, that I may have a share in His Fulness.

Gregory of Nazianzus, The Second Oration on Easter

I came across this quote in an article by Daniel Hyde on the Incarnation in this months Reformation Voice newsletter. It makes for great reading on this second Sunday of Advent. You can access it in pdf form here. Hyde writes: "this dramatic and climactic event, whether we speak of it theologically as the incarnation and nativity or popularly as Christmas, seems to have lost its significance today. It is something that has become so mundane, so banal that the unbelieving culture lets "Christmas" roll off its tongue all too easily. The incarnation, however, is no mere phrase; it was a climactic, redemptive event. It was a moment in which there was hushed silence in heaven and earth as God did something He had never done before--and it was followed by exuberant praise: Come, behold the works of the Lord (Ps. 46:8)!" This hit home to me when we were at the mall and my ears picked up Christmas carols being played. "Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King" and "Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the new born King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!" Sadly, for most it's merely background noise programmed to entice shoppers, not the announcement of the greatest news in history.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Florida 31 Alabama 20

I've been fortunate to celebrate a lot of championships and a lot of great wins in my 25 years of rooting for the Gators, but none sweeter than tonight's SEC championship. I'm especially happy for these guys, a few of the unsung heroes that came up big.

Oh yeah, I'm pretty happy for #15 too.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"I'll have a grande half-caf skinny extra-hot latte two Splendas"

I'm often baffled at the drinks ordered by my fellow customers at Starbucks. I'm a simple creature of habit. I order a tall latte, give the cashier three bucks and he/she gives me a penny back. This morning I stopped at the store on Clematis. Local TV anchorman Tim Malloy was ahead of me in line and ordered something called a triple-dry cappucino. Huh? Weren't you thinking of triple-dry chardonnay, Tim? I did some research and it turns out that a "dry" cappucino is one with more foam and less milk. Conversely, a "wet" cappucino or latte or caramel macchiato has less foam and more milk. Don't tell me you've never learned anything at this blog.

Here's a nifty list of coffee jargon to help you order like a pro:

Starbucks Drinks Simplified (kinda)

Colson on Munich

I just finished reading The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters by Charles Colson and Harold Fickett. It's a solid book and I recommend it. It follows on the heels of several books that sound the alarm over the doctrinal illiteracy of many American believers. Several times the authors bring in a reference to a contemporary film to illustrate or buttress a point. Usually when prominent evangelicals discuss cinema I cringe, but Colson and Fickett come across as astute and knowledgeable moviegoers. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, since if you go to Colson's BreakPoint website you'll find a fantastic Recommended Film List.

One of the movies discussed in the book is "the brilliant but graphic Steven Spielberg film Munich." Reaction to Munich was mixed when it came out in 2005. Personally, I think its one of Spielberg's best and I predict it will grow in estimation as the years go by, even as some of his more popular films may fade. Colson and Fickett write about Munich in a chapter explaining how reconciliation and forgiveness are central to orthodox Christianity. We confess this each Sunday in the words of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." The authors commend Spielberg's film as an illustration of the "horrible dilemma" that perpetuates the tragic cycle of violence in the kingdom of man.

Munich is the story of the Palestinian terrorist attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The film opens with a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet. The Israelis knew that not responding would only embolden the hostile Arabs surrounding Israel, inviting yet more attacks.

The cabinet recruits a young Israeli intelligence officer, Avner Kaufman, to lead an assassination team against the eleven Palestinian terrorists responsible for the Israeli deaths. Prime Minister Golda Meir sets the policy: "We say to these butchers, you don't want to share this world with us--and we don't have to share this world with you."

Avner, whose wife is about to give birth to their child, criss-crosses Europe, successfully eliminating Palestinian terrorists one by one. As the Israelis exact their punishment, the Palestinians counter-attack, sometimes shedding the blood of innocent civilians. There are moments of poignant dialogue portraying the dilemma of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: Arabs killing Israelis, Israelis killing Arabs--but to what end?

When Avner's cover is blown, he realizes that the cycle of violence will not be ended until someone kills him; and even if no one does, the violence is destroying his humanity...The viewer comes to see Avner not as a coward, but as someone wracked by guilt and futility. At the same time, the viewer sees the horrible dilemma: any nation is bound, in a fallen world, as Americans discovered after 9/11, to wield the sword, signaling to its enemies that such an attack will not go unpunished. But the response only perpetuates the violence. (p. 136)

In this scene Robert, one of the members of Avner's team, decides he's had enough of the bloodshed. Screenwriters Tony Kushman and Eric Roth's dialogue hints at a concern that crops up throughout Spielberg's body of work. What does it mean to be righteous?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The reason for the coming

On this first Sunday of Advent I've been thinking about 1 John 3:8. Actually, just a fragment of the verse. "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." I love that! Succinct and to the point. The Reformation Study Bible connects this to the first glimpse of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, sometimes called the protoevangelion "first gospel."

The opposition between Christ and Satan was foretold as early as Gen. 3:15. Satan used the righteous law of God as a tool to hold sinners captive to the fear of death and condemnation. By accepting in His own Person the penalty due to sinners under the law, Christ took away the foundation of Satan's plan (Heb. 2:14-15).

Satan's "greatest" work is sin, and sin is death. The revolutionary message of Christmas is nothing less than the triumph of life over death. I'm struck anew by the mystery of the Incarnation. The child born to Mary in a smelly backwater of the Roman Empire was the promised Messiah. "Him who is and who was and who is to come...Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth." (Rev. 1:4-5) And he's coming again. There will be a second Advent.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A prayer song

Last Saturday I was blessed to join with the saints of Orthodox Zion Primitive Baptist Church and many other churches in our county for a service of racial reconciliation and unity. One of the blessings of this service was being led in musical worship by the terrific choir at Orthodox Zion. This was the third time I'd heard them and I can say that there isn't a church choir I'd rather listen to than the one from OZPBC. They have a spirit of reverent passion. It's not simply a performance. They sang Glenn Burleigh's "Order My Steps" and the words have been running through my mind all week. "Order my steps in Your Word, dear Lord, lead me, guide me everyday." For the Christian, there's not a better prayer than that. Here are the complete lyrics.

Order my steps in Your word dear Lord,
lead me, guide me everyday,
send Your anointing, Father I pray;
order my steps in Your word,
please, order my steps in Your word.

Humbly, I ask Thee to teach me Your will,
while You are working, help me be still,
Satan is busy, but my God is real;
order my steps in Your word,
please, order my steps in Your word.

Bridle my tongue let my words edify,
let the words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight,
take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
please order my steps in Your word,
please order my steps in Your word.

I want to walk worthy,
my calling to fulfill.
Please order my steps Lord,
and I'll do Your blessed will.
The world is ever changing,
but You are still the same;
if You order my steps, I'll praise Your name.

Order my steps in Your word.
Order my tongue in Your word.
Guide my feet in Your word.
Wash my heart in Your word.
Show me how to walk in Your word.
Show me how to talk in Your word.
When I need a brand new song to sing,
show me how to let Your praises ring,
in your word

- Glenn Burleigh

Thanksgiving in New Canaan, CT (circa 1973)

The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tools of the trade

Shannon snickered when I said I wanted another coffee machine for Christmas. She teases me about all the coffee-related paraphernalia I have (as you can see). I admit it. I love coffee and I'm a bit fetishistic about the process of making it. When I'm at Starbucks I have to resist the urge to look over the barista's shoulder to make sure he's making my tall double-shot latte just so. If I could, I'd grow the beans and roast them myself. The fabulous cups of coffee I've enjoyed stand out as milestones in my mind. There was that perfect café con leche at a lunch counter in Old San Juan that came out of a machine that looked like it could have been there since the Spanish-American War, and the cup of bold joe at Krispy Kreme in Clarks Summit the morning I got married (tasted better for some reason), or those well-crafted lattes from Paris Bakery & Cafe in downtown West Palm best enjoyed on brisk South Florida Saturday mornings accompanied by the bells of First Presbyterian from across the street. I could go on.

Of course, all the technology in the world won't do you any good without quality beans. Lately I've been getting my beans from Impact Coffee Company or Electric City Roasting. You can't beat their product and I have personal reasons for wanting to support them. The first is a micro-enterprise run by kids from Urban Youth Impact, a local ministry that Shannon and I support, and beans from the second are roasted a few blocks from where Shannon grew up in Scranton, PA! In a pinch I'll buy Seattle's Best at the grocery. When it comes to espresso I usually buy Café Pilon, but once in a while I treat myself to this.

Yes, coffee (and the stuff to make it with) is one of God's good gifts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Calvin on common grace (or all truth comes from God)

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in such slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration....Those men whom Scripture calls "natural men" were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

John Calvin, Institutes 2.2.15 (as cited by Michael Horton, "A Shattered Vase: The Tragedy of Sin in Calvin's Thought" in A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Why the "verse for the day" is not enough

As a whole the Scriptures are God's revealing Word. Only in the infiniteness of its inner relationships, in the connection of Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping, will the full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord be perceived.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Savages (2007)

In his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, Eric Jacobsen argues that "our sprawling car culture" is a contributing factor to the outsourcing of the elderly. "When people get too old to drive...they must be driven to doctor's appointments, on shopping trips or to visit their family. The practice of putting the elderly into retirement homes is a relatively recent phenomenon." In other words, for all the benefits of independence provided by the prevalence of automobiles and suburban sprawl, their rise has coincided with increasing generational segregation and lack of independence for our parents and grandparents. It's no coincidence that "retirement communities" were unheard of before the 1950s. In the old days an elderly person could stay in the neighborhood where essentials of life were within walking distance, and there was a family and/or community to look out for them. Jacobsen notes, "it's ironic that our love for independence has led us to create dependent classes among our citizenry."

I thought about Jacobsen's thesis while watching The Savages, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, and starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as adult siblings forced to deal with the onset of dementia in their father (Philip Bosco). The movie doesn't directly critique the above trends -- though the title must be a wry comment -- but it provocatively yet compassionately portrays the dilemmas faced by so many. At the least, I think it will cause most viewers to conclude that there must be a better way, that community and family mean something more than this.

Jon and Wendy Savage aren't exactly failures, but they're not shining examples of success either. 42-year-old Jon teaches theater in Buffalo and is writing a book about Bertolt Brecht (this leads to the prettiest musical cue in the film -- Lotte Lenya singing "Salomon-Song" from The Threepenny Opera). 39-year-old Wendy works for a temp agency in Manhattan while trying to get funding for her "subversive, semi-autobiographical play" about her childhood "Wake Me When It's Over". She's also having an affair with a married man, Larry (Peter Friedman), who brings his oversized dog along for trysts in Wendy's tiny apartment. Jon is romantically involved with a Polish emigre (played affectingly by the lovely Cara Seymour) but can't find it in his heart to make her his wife and thus spare her from having to return to Kraków when her visa expires. As will become clear, it's a familiar paradigm of relational dysfunction being passed down. Dad is just as complicit as the kids in this unfolding mini-tragedy. Which brings us to Lenny.

Leonard "Lenny" Savage has lost touch with Jon and Wendy (and vice-versa) since moving to Sun Valley, Arizona with his "companion" Doris. They live in a pastel-colored house overlooking the eighth tee, but neither of them is in any shape to be swinging a club anymore. This retirement dream has turned into a tragicomic nightmare. The film begins with Lenny resisting Eduardo, the home health aid, with pranks of a, shall we say, scatalogical nature. He ends up in the hospital, and it's then that this mutual voluntary estrangement of parent and children ends with a phone call (as it often does) from Doris's daughter. Turns out dad may have Parkinson's. Whatever it is, life is about to change for all of them. Shortly after, Doris drops dead while getting her nails done, and Lenny is left homeless since the house goes to Doris's kids. There follows an effectively poignant scene -- as Wendy stuffs her father's belongings into a suitcase, a realtor tempts another group of retirees with the beautiful views of the eighth tee. Ah, vanity! an ancient sage once said.

The Savages is really a road-trip movie. The journey from Sun Valley to Valley View nursing home in Buffalo is full of portent and symbolism. For Lenny, it's the end of the road. For Jon and Wendy its a chance for some hard-won reconciliation. New beginnings? You can decide. Some of what follows may remind viewers of the overrated Little Miss Sunshine, but this is a vastly better and more satisfying film than that one. I wasn't familiar with Tamara Jenkins before, but I'm a big fan now. Of course its hard to go wrong with two actors as talented as Linney and Hoffman. I don't think either is capable of a bad performance. They thoroughly inhabit their characters, so important in a character-driven piece like this one. Usually, a dramatic comedy (or is it a comedic drama) of this size and scope is visually rather pedestrian. There's nothing wrong with that. You don't want the "wow factor" of the camera work to get in the way. The biggest surprise and a bonus of The Savages is how beautifully and inventively it was shot. Kudos to DP Mott Hupfel and Ms. Jenkins. There are many visual moments that linger in my mind, including one sun-drenched shot at Niagara Falls.

Good art should inspire constructive introspection. The Savages does this. How does one "honor thy father and thy mother" in cases like this? Off the top of my head I can think of several friends and co-workers who are heroically trying to care for an elderly or sick parent or grandparent who can't care for themself. And as my wife and I look forward to the birth of our son, I wonder, how will he care for me if the time comes when I can't care for myself? Will he do it out of obligation, or love? Or not at all? I'm guessing that a lot of that depends on the job I do as a father. In the film, it's clear that Leonard Savage was far from a model father. As Jon angrily asserts to Wendy, "we're taking care of the old man a lot better than he ever took care of us!" Jon and Wendy don't come off looking like heroes, but whether motivated by guilt or obligation, they try to do right by the old man. Some might say they treated him better than he deserved. It's complicated. It's a family thing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy birthday Jodie Foster

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

"Postmodernism" we can believe in

R. Scott Clark:

This essay argues that, because of it’s core convictions reflected in its doctrines of revelation, God, man, creation, sin, Christ, imputation (federalism), predestination, and the church, confessional Reformed theology is not only, in some sense, postmodern, but more precisely, it is consistently anti-modernist.

The emerging and emergent movements seek to be “postmodern.” In fact, to the degree that they begin with human autonomy, with versions of rationalism (e.g., in their denial of the atonement), in subjectivism (e.g., in their hermeneutic and quest for the immediate encounter with God) they are not postmodern as much as they are, as Mike Horton likes to say, “most modern.” To be truly postmodern would be to embrace the historic Reformed faith. It would be to become anti-modern, to repudiate the assertion of the sovereignty of human choice or of human experience or of human rationality in favor of the the sovereignty of the mysterious Triune God, of the two-Adams, of unconditional grace, faith, and the church instituted by Christ himself.

As always, I heartily encourage you to read the whole thing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Ordo Salutis ("the order of salvation") and life beyond judgment

The fact that God has passed judgment upon us once and for all in Christ profoundly changes the character of the moral life. At creation, God gave his law to Adam and commanded him to obey it. If he obeyed, he would live and if he disobeyed, he would die. In short, Adam had to carry out his moral obligations and then God would judge him on the basis of how he did. This is precisely what happened, as Genesis 3 records. After the Fall, God's law still comes to all people. Some people hear the law as proclaimed in the Scriptures, but all people at least know the basics of God's moral requirements through the natural law and the testimony of the conscience (Rom. 2:12-15). That law continues to inform people that God requires (perfect!) obedience and that he will judge them on the basis of their works (e.g., see Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:12-15; Gal. 3:10; 5:3). Thus, people who are without Christ continue to have moral obligations and to know that God will either justify or condemn them depending upon their performance.

But this entire reality has been radically transformed for those with faith in Christ. Christians are not called to do good works and then to be judged, but have been judged (that is, justified) in Christ and then called to do good works. The work of Christ has reversed the order. Instead of judgment following the moral life, now the moral life follows judgment. Instead of working so that we may be justified, we are justified so that we may work. To put it somewhat crassly, instead of striving for holiness so that we may get on God's good side, God has graciously placed us on his good side so that we may strive for holiness. The fact that Christians enjoy a judgment-already-rendered rather than face a judgment-yet-to-be-rendered changes the whole character of the moral life. Roman Catholics have often claimed that the Protestant doctrine of justification leads to apathy about leading a holy life, because it kills incentive. Why strive after holiness if God has already justified you? But Protestants should reply by claiming, with Scripture, that we love much because we have been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), that we serve in the newness of the Spirit because we have been released from the law (Rom. 7:6), that we serve one another in love because we have been set free (Gal. 5:13). A person really cannot understand the sanctified Christian moral life, therefore, without the ordo salutis. God judges us and then, in response, we live the Christian life. Justification is prior to sanctification.

David VanDrunen, Life Beyond Judgment (Modern Reformation October/November 2008)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Righteousness -- Christ's or your own?

I've been listening to Tim Keller's RTS class on Preaching Christ (available on iTunes U). He points out that if Christ isn't our "righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (I Cor. 1:30) then something else will be. That's true for the religious person as well as the irreligious person -- and those of us who have a propensity for both at various times in our lives. The religious person may substitute going to church three times a week and having quiet time each morning, while the irreligious person may substitute going to the gym each morning. The environmentally aware person may consider shopping at Whole Foods their "righteousness" -- and I'm someone who enjoys shopping at Whole Foods! One can see how buying organic and "going green" has become a quasi-religion for many. I don't care how secular you think you are, all of us are born hard-wired for religion. Keller's underlying point is that the Christian gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is pitted against both religious works-righteousness and irreligious works-righteousness. At bottom they're both attempts at self-justification. Everyone, whether they've thought about it or not, is striving for some sort of righteousness. The question then becomes, is it the righteousness offered in Christ? or one of your own creation?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Björk and 100 cameras

Dancer in the Dark is a disorienting, even disturbing, experience for the first time viewer. It provoked as many catcalls as hurrahs when it premiered at Cannes. The disturbing aspect is largely on account of one brutally realistic scene of violence, and the starkly tragic dénouement. Those elements may be par for the course in other genres, but this is a musical! -- and a mighty fine one in my humble opinion. With the help of the whirling dervish from Iceland, director Lars von Trier managed to explode the genre while still drawing on the rich tradition of American movie musicals. Incidentally, the Danish filmmaker's evident appreciation for Americana combined with his strong anti-Americanism is a subject worth probing, especially since he's never visited these shores (von Trier has a fear of flying). Perhaps I'll take that up in a future post.

For the dance sequences von Trier and choreographer Vincent Paterson set up 100 to 150 stationary Sony HD cameras around, above and underneath the set. The concept was not unlike how the television networks cover live events like the Super Bowl. They try to get as many camera angles as possible for the guys in the truck to choose from. In this case, the guys in the truck being von Trier and his editors in post-production. It turned out to be a wonderful way to capture Björk's odd physicality and Paterson's seat-of-the-pants choreography. Von Trier originally had in mind conventional tap dancing numbers, but Paterson (according to his commentary on the DVD) talked him out of it. Some tap and classical elements remain (e.g., Joel Grey at 2:42 of this clip), but most of the dancing in Dancer in the Dark owes more to STOMP than Singin' In the Rain. No matter. The joyful exuberance is the same.

Why do I love it so much? What kind of magic is this? How come I can't help adore it? It's just another musical...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Baby box office

David Bordwell goes where few male film buffs have dared to go:

Ten AM on a Tuesday, and I’m at my local megaplex, Star Cinema. I’m here to not to see a movie, exactly, but to catch a phenomenon I’ve been curious about for some years.

Continue reading

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

King Solomon's mines?

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I defer to the Hebrew experts, but my understanding is that the Hebrew word often translated "bronze" in the Old Testament could also be translated "copper". As in 2 Chronicles 4:16-17 "The pots, the shovels, the forks, and all the equipment for these Huram-abi made of burnished bronze for King Solomon for the house of the Lord. In the plain of the Jordan the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zeredah." Recently a team of archaeologists excavated a giant complex of copper mines in present-day southern Jordan -- an area corresponding to the Biblical kingdom of Edom. It covers 24 acres and is clearly visible in this satellite photo because of the black slag left over from smelting copper.

Of interest to those who believe in the historical reliability of the Old Testament narratives, the mining operation can be dated to the 10th century BC when Solomon would have been building the temple in Jerusalem -- an undertaking that would have required a tremendous amount of copper. Team leader Thomas Levy is quoted in this ScienceDaily story: "Now with data from the first large-scale stratified and systematic excavation of a site in the southern Levant to focus specifically on the role of metallurgy in Edom, we have evidence that complex societies were indeed active in 10th and 9th centuries BCE and that brings us back to the debate about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible narratives related to this period." He goes on to say, "We can't believe everything ancient writings tell us, but this research represents a confluence between the archaeological and scientific data and the Bible."

Changing the city, one life at a time...

Monday, November 10, 2008

In response to the Governator, et al.

To promote the legality of gay marriage isn't a neutral issue. It has widespread ramifications (adoption, child-custody laws, public and private school curricula, antidiscrimination laws based on marriage), and the government itself can't remain neutral. It will either continue with the assumed definition of marriage as the one-flesh union between husband and wife -- or it will undo this, giving the message: "Marriage can be defined as we wish." In this case, marriage is based on nothing more than emotional and economic attachments.

Are human beings just individualistic decision makers who live to "actualize" themselves through their preferred sexual expression? Are they just biological organisms? Or is there such a thing as a fixed human nature and so a design or goal for humans to pursue? These questions must be thoughtfully considered about so monumental a subject as marriage. A one-flesh union of husband and wife is more than just a sexual act; it is an expression of a deep interpersonal union that brings with it profound commitments and loyalties. This is not simply a matter of choosing one's own marital arrangements, some of which are better than others. On such an issue as this, the state has historically recognized -- not invented the idea -- that a husband-wife, one-flesh union reflects moral reality and human nature and the sexuality bound up with it...Even to say that "the state ought to be neutral about marriage" involves a moral standard. Lots of people say that government shouldn't take a stand on the definition of marriage. Instead of being "biased" toward heterosexual couples, the state ought to be neutral and unbiased toward couples, including gay couples.

However, those who think the government is morally obligated to be morally neutral about the definition of marriage are misguided. It is in fact a moral position to say the state has a moral responsibility to view the marriage question as nonmoral. As Princeton's Robert George says, "Neutrality between neutrality and non-neutrality is logically impossible." The state will have to take a stand on the nature of marriage and family (e.g., are these just artificial social constructions?) and the basis of marriage (e.g., is it just two consenting adults?).

So if gay marriage is legalized, this won't simply be a neutral change. One can expect that principled disagreement of traditionalists who think gay marriage is a bad idea will lead to denunciations of their "hate speech" and intolerance. In fact, Christian groups (such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) on various university campuses (e.g., Tufts University) have been "de-funded" by the administration because they didn't allow gays in leadership positions (though the ruling didn't stand). This de-funding had been based on the claim that these Christian groups were bigoted and intolerant. No doubt, if present trends continue, similar pressures could well be applied to "intolerant" churches that do not accept homosexual activity as morally legitimate.

Paul Copan, "What's Wrong with Gay Marriage?," in When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics

Elgar on Remembrance Sunday

From the BBC -- yesterday:

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sensible signs

Shannon has been reading Nine Months to a Miracle by Mari Hanes, a devotional book for expectant mothers. She shared this excerpt with me. Hanes writes:

Many of us have received the Lord's Supper regularly since childhood. This month, allow your Father to open your eyes to a new understanding of communion, for this powerful symbol of Christ's death and resurrection is especially meaningful to the woman in waiting and her developing child.

For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are representing and signifying and proclaiming the fact of the Lord's death [and resurrection] until he comes [again] (1 Corinthians 11:26 AMP).

The true meaning of communion is the proclamation of the resurrection power! When received with understanding, it can be a dynamic instrument of physical and emotional health for the believer. First Corinthians 11:30 even goes so far as to tell us that some early Christians suffered weakness and illness because they didn't perceive the tremendous significance of communion.

Think of this truth as it applies to your baby. You are already well aware that everything that enters your system travels through the placenta and into the child's system. This is why a balanced diet is so crucial and why you must be cautious of even the mildest medication. When you receive the bread and juice of communion, some of the digested molecules literally become a part of the baby, proclaiming the fact of the Lord's resurrection power, the fact of His wholeness, to the body of the little one!

For the woman who bears a new life within her, the celebration of communion becomes much more than ceremony or tradition. In a very tangible way, you are sharing your faith in the reality of God's love with the little one growing inside you.

I think that's pretty neat, though I wouldn't push the theological implications of that last sentence too far. I'm reminded, though, that when our Savior instituted the Lord's Supper he did it using what the Westminster Catechism calls "sensible signs" -- meaning signs that we can apprehend with our senses. Scripture tells us that the Christian life is a life of faith. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb. 12:1) Usually that means walking "by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor. 5:7) But in the sacrament Jesus gives us bread and wine (or juice!) -- sensible signs that we can see, touch and taste to bolster our weak faith. It's the invisible reality made visible, the spiritual made physical. What could be more physical than eating, drinking, chewing, swallowing and digesting? Jesus words in John 6 sound as shocking today as they did to his original hearers: "Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Another birthday of note

Billy Graham isn't the only one with a birthday today. The most important person in my life is turning...well, maybe she wouldn't want me to say on this public forum, though to me she doesn't seem a day older than when we met. For some reason I'm reminded of an old Ronnie Milsap song. This one's for you honey...

Billy Graham is 90

John Piper pays tribute

What would Nick do?

Writer/Director Whit Stillman's 1990 indy gem Metropolitan features some of the sharpest film dialogue ever written. He wrote the screenplay off and on during the 1980s while he worked for a Manhattan ad agency, and supposedly sold his apartment to get the cash to make the thing into a movie. One of the ironies of Metropolitan is that it's a film featuring rich Ivy League kids lounging about in Park Avenue apartments, made on a shoestring budget and a prayer. It's a great example of guerrilla filmmaking. I first read about it in the pages of National Review years before I watched it as Stillman was something of a conservative darling back then. Writing in Slate in 2006 Austin Kelley subtitled it "the movie for the conservative in all of us." It might be more appropriate to call it the movie for the snob in all of us. How then is it such an endearing piece of cinema? Let me try to explain.

The "hero" of Metropolitan (and one of my favorite characters ever) is arch-elitist, arch-cynic Nick Smith, played perfectly by Chris Eigeman. Delivering Stillman's lines with absolute conviction he pulls off the impossible -- making us empathize with a lying snob. In contrast to Nick is the "less fortunate" Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), home for the holidays from Princeton, who first shows up in a rented tux at one of the debutante "deb" parties that are still a rite of passage for the daughters of the Manhattan elite. Rented tux says middle-class, but there's a shortage of escorts for the girls so Nick takes Tom under his wing despite the misgivings of Charlie Black (Taylor Jacobs), the elder statesman of the group. Tom and his socialist ideas are a curiosity to this group of monied prepsters who probably won't have to work a day in their lives. Much hilarity ensues and a burgeoning romance between Tom and sweet, insecure Audrey (Carolyn Farina) provides most of the dramatic impetus. Along the way Tom and self-proclaimed untitled aristocrat Nick (he dismisses the titled aristocracy as "the scum of the earth") prove to have more in common than they thought.

For one thing, as it turns out, they're both dealing with parental break-up. The parents of the Metropolitan kids are mostly an off-screen presence -- much talked about but rarely seen. Nick advises Tom, "The one thing you have to remember about parents is...there's nothing you can do about them." Wealth allows these almost-adults to live in a hermetically sealed world without adult supervision or interference, except for Tom who must share a cramped apartment with his mother. Their relationship is uneasy at best, which makes spending his evenings and early mornings with the upper classes seem more and more appealing. This brat pack moves from party to taxi to posh hotel ballroom and back again. The world is their oyster, but there's a palpable sense that that's about to end. Not only will the season end, and they'll have to go back to Yale or Vassar or wherever, but, they fear, the whole edifice of WASP old-money privilege is about to collapse. Nick worries out loud, "with everything that's going on this is probably the last deb season as we know it." Good thing he wasn't around for the meltdown of '08!

By movie's end facades have been stripped away, secrets revealed, insecurities brought to the surface. Tom comes to realize he isn't the anti-bourgeois revolutionary he fancied himself to be. Nick is just, well, lonely. Rarely has a film dealt so perceptively with the challenges of transitioning into the adult world. I might easily have despised these characters because of their privilege and sense of entitlement, but in Stillman's hands I find them likeable and not so different.

Movies are rightly described as a director's medium, but this is a writer's film. Whit Stillman's script is a bona fide classic. Metropolitan isn't a coherent defense of any political ideology, nor is it an apology for class privilege. What it is instead is an exquisite comedy of manners that conjures up nostalgia for a time and place that the opening title card announces is "not so long ago" -- a time and place that feels timeless irrespective of it's obvious 1980s pedigree -- more Jane Austen than William F. Buckley. At a time when change is in the air, it might be fun to ask "what would Nick do?" He would probably tell you to go to Brooks and buy some decent evening wear. After all, deb season is just around the corner. The nicest thing I can say about Metropolitan? It's a lovely film.