Friday, October 31, 2008

After darkness, light

If you're in a church where the Bible is read, where the Bible is preached, where the congregation sings songs that are based on the truth of the Bible, where prayers are prayed in your own language and they are Biblical in content, you're in debt to all of these men. You would not have that today if it were not for these men. You wouldn't have the doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. You probably wouldn't have the form of republican government that you enjoy right now where you're in a representative democracy. You wouldn't have the educational system that you have today without these just goes on and on.

J. Ligon Duncan

This week I've been listening to a series of programs called Profiles of the Reformation from which the above quote is taken (click on this link to listen or download). South Carolinian Ligon Duncan and Welshman Derek Thomas give a fascinating and candid history lesson on some of the lesser-known Reformers -- throwing in some funny LOTR references along the way. If you go to the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland you'll see the words Post Tenebras Lux (after darkness light). Hyperbole? I don't think so. Not if you understand the depths of apostasy and corruption to which the medieval Roman church had sunk. Fundamentally, the church had lost the gospel, the very thing the Apostles taught defined and animated the Christian church. The magisterial Reformers didn't see themselves as innovators, but as prophets calling the church back to her Apostolic and Patristic roots.

I get the impression some Protestants think the Reformation was a dreadful mistake, or that it's over, that we should paper over our differences and move on. In some cases prominent evangelicals have acted on their convictions and returned to the mother church. I can see why those who've tasted the thin gruel that often passes for the Protestant faith (in both the liberal mainline and generic evangelical varieties) would cast longing looks toward Rome. Like some of them, I too want to be part of a church that's defined by something older and richer than the latest strategy from Barna. I believe the answer lies in celebrating and rediscovering our Reformation roots. So on this Reformation Day 2008 I'm thankful for Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Beza, Bullinger, Vermigli, Tyndale, Cranmer and all the rest who gave their lives to advance the cause of a Biblical church across Europe. Though one can find few vestiges of that Biblical church in today's Europe, their legacy lives on around the world wherever Christ and his gospel are proclaimed. Soli Deo gloria!

UPDATE: Thanks to blogger extraordinaire Tim Challies for including this post in his Reformation Day Symposium. It's ok that he spelled my name wrong. I'll take the extra traffic any way I can get it!

"Here I stand. I can do no other."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Geneva, 1560

Here's a clever little bit to get you in the mood for Reformation Day. More serious posts to come tomorrow...

Rock the vote

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ruminations on The Thin Red Line

From Michael Atkinson:

A filmmaker is rarely if ever as free as a poet or painter might be, and a feature film never represents only the labors, and intentions, of a single artist. Acres of cineastical cant and criticism and scholarship on filmmaking and directorial authorship have been accumulated over the decades, but this is the seldom-contemplated elephant in the auteurist screening room: how many great films owe their magical essence to financial pressures? How many films succeed because the ostensible artiste at their helm was compromised, or impeded, or forced to capitulate? Under most circumstances, we as viewers can forgo any such contextual consideration; the film is the film, period, however it may have arrived in its final figuration. But what if there were two versions of, say, Citizen Kane, one linear and simplified, one twisted into the neurotic hall-of-cracked-mirrors we know today? And what if Welles's ambition had first been aimed toward the first? We are unlikely to see "alternate" versions of Malick's masterpiece, whether formally more traditional or less, but even if we do, I doubt I’ll ever surrender my ardor for the woozy, meditative, heartbroken film with which Malick ended up, whatever its provenance.

Read the whole thing

HT: Looking Closer

"Her friends refused to believe she was capable of such savagery"

The Palm Beach Post reports on the final chapter of a sordid crime story that's been in the headlines the past few days. The quote that I pulled out of the story reminded me of Chesterton's contention that the doctrine of original sin "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." (Orthodoxy) Article 14 of the Belgic Confession describes original sin this way: "We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of all nature -- an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother's womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin." Just look around you, or read the newspaper. As mysterious and unfair as it seems, original sin is the only explanation that fits the empirical evidence.

Theologians from a variety of traditions have spoken of mankind as being totally depraved. It's not just a Calvinist thing. Total depravity doesn't mean that we're all as bad as we could be (thanks be to God!) or that we're not capable of doing good, but that our potential for evil is beyond what we could imagine. R.C. Sproul suggests that "radical corruption" might be a better term to describe our condition. Every part of our being is touched by sin. This includes our mind, our will and our body. The ancient words of the prophet Jeremiah are as true today as they were back then. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Where the human heart is concerned, don't be surprised to be surprised.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A vain hope

Our eyes failed, ever watching
vainly for help;
in our watching we watched
for a nation which could not save.

Lamentations 4:17

One of the indictments brought against Israel and Judah by the LORD was that they looked to political alliances for their salvation instead of looking to him. This is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament prophets. For a great example of this see Isaiah 30. In the passage above the prophet of Lamentations (probably Jeremiah) paints a picture of complete futility. Can you hear echoes of Jeremiah 2:13? "For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water." This is a warning to us as Christians "the Israel of God" not to repeat the sin of placing our hope in a nation -- even our own.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Passion on the Ave.

Judging from the popularity of a certain reality TV series America is crazy for dancing. However, for dancing minus the celebrities and judges get yourself down to Klein Dance on Lake Avenue in downtown Lake Worth. Here the dedicated dancers of the Demetrius Klein Dance Company demonstrate their passion and professionalism every time the lights go down. There's something exciting about being so close to a labour of love like this. And you are close! Performances take place in a wonderful rectangular space with long benches set up against one wall. The barrier between audience and performer is practically non-existent. If you're in the front row, you may find yourself pulling in your legs for fear of inadvertently tripping one of the dancers as they whiz by.

Last night Shannon and I caught weekend 3 of their current Fall Festival. The program was a nice cross-section of what they do so well. The evening opened with an imagined reconstruction of the great Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun which was inspired by the Mallarmé poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and the well-known Debussy composition of the same name. As dancer Justin Walker explained in an informal Q & A afterwards, all that's left of Nijinsky's choreography are some poses from still photos which were incorporated into his performance. Next up was "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's Messiah. Choreographing Handel's oratorio for modern dancers ("liturgical dance" he's called it) has been a life's passion for company founder Demetrius Klein -- called "Meech" by his legions of students and friends. "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" is a duet that gracefully blends elements of ballet and modern dance. There's also subtle allusion and allegory for those alive to the significance of Handel's text. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep.

After a brief intermission the full company minus one attacked a virtuoso piece of modern dance called Light in the House. A twenty-minute adrenaline rush -- or was it longer? time recedes to the background when swept up in an art form this visceral -- it combined complex synchronicity featuring the entire group and improvisational-seeming duets and solos. I say seeming because none of it is off the cuff, but is the result of hours of development and rehearsal. Last night's rendition was accompanied by a pounding industrial score from a band associated with modern dance icon Merce Cunningham (I can't remember the name of the band). It had elements that reminded me of John Cage, Sigur Rós and tango. It would be wrong to say that they dance to the music though, since the same piece is rehearsed to a wide variety of music...or perhaps even rehearsed in silence. The explosive impetus of the live performance is driven by the dancers' cues to each other and internal sense of timing. The result is visual poetry.

DKDC on the web

Friday, October 24, 2008

Another take on W.

Redeyespy -- audiologist by day, film critic by night -- checks in with a fine essay.

Read it here

Faulkner goes noir

The story goes that when Howard Hawks found out Ernest Hemingway was having money troubles he provocatively claimed that he could take Hemingway's worst novel and make a good movie out of it. Hemingway took the bait and asked what that would be. Hawks named To Have and Have Not, a 1937 novel about a blackmarket smuggler who runs human contraband between Key West and Cuba. Hemingway sold him the rights and in late 1943 veteran scenarist Jules Furthman wrote the first draft. According to Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner, Warner Brothers balked at Furthman's treatment for political reasons. "A film about an American who smuggled rum and revolutionaries between Havana and Key West, and in which the Cuban flag was raised, would deeply embarrass the government." Hawks brought in his friend William Faulkner to do a re-write. Faulkner changed the location to French Martinique and added an anti-Vichy element which would go over better with studio execs and wartime audiences. More importantly he condensed two female characters into one. "Slim" would be the star-making role for leggy 19-year-old Lauren Bacall. Her pairing with Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart would create one of the great movie duos onscreen and an enduring romance off. Has any actor looked at a woman the way Bogie looks at Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep? I think not.

To Have and Have Not was well received, though most of the credit went to Hawks. Still, it was a positive experience for Faulkner after a long season of what he considered hackwork. The Big Sleep was a labyrinthian 1939 crime novel by Raymond Chandler that introduced one of the archetypical characters of American fiction -- Philip Marlowe. Jack Warner was eager for another vehicle to showcase Bogie & Bacall, so Hawks successfully pitched the idea of adapting Chandler. Of course Bogart would play Marlowe and Bacall would play the femme fatale. Bogart's Marlowe would be one of many -- and arguably the greatest -- screen interpretations of this character. I also like Elliot Gould's early 70s take on Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Hawks again enlisted Faulkner to write the screenplay (with newcomer Leigh Brackett riding shotgun) and gave him his marching orders, "It's not supposed to be a great work of art...just keep it going."

As they began dramatizing this story about Philip Marlowe, Chandler's tough private eye, Leigh Brackett found herself completely in awe of her co-worker in the adjoining office. He laid out the work in alternate sections, and she would remember his turning out "masses of material, but his dialogue did not fit comfortably the actors' mouths and was often changed on the set. Amazingly (to me, after breaking my teeth on some of his novels) he was a master at story-construction." One morning when she entered his office he offered her a cup of the very black and strong coffee from the pot he kept hot. She noticed, to her surprise, that he was reading the Bible. Although he could well have picked it up to read the New Testament for the fable, what he mentioned was the Old Testament. He smiled. "I always enjoy reading about the rainbow-colored backside of God," he told her.*

The world inhabited by Philip Marlowe was miles apart from Yoknapatawpha County, but Faulkner took to the material. Hawks, Faulkner and Brackett struggled mightily to make Chandler's convoluted plot intelligible to audiences (I've watched it several times and still haven't figured it out), but any failings were more than made up for by the terrific dialogue and performances. How much of the finished product was Faulkner's is hard to say, but no doubt he made a huge contribution to one of the greatest "noir" detective films ever. In 1997 The Big Sleep was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

As interesting as Faulkner's time in Hollywood was, we all know his genius lay elsewhere. So did he. While he worked on The Big Sleep he told Meta Carpenter, "Sometimes I think if I do one more treatment or screenplay, I'll lose whatever power I have as a writer." In December of 1944 he finished the last changes on a train back to Mississippi. He enclosed a note. "The following rewritten and additional scenes for The Big Sleep were done by the author in respectful joy and happy admiration after he had gone off salary and while on his way back to Mississippi." He would have been happy if that was his last farewell to Hollywood, but there would be more "sojourns in Babylon" as he put it. Later on he would sell the screen rights to several of his novels for handsome sums, including The Sound and the Fury. One wonders if this was a perverse sort of revenge. The resulting 1959 adaptation starring Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward was a risible disaster. Faulkner couldn't care less. When a reporter asked him if he'd be at the world premiere in Jackson, Faulkner pointedly said no, and added "that his contract specifically stated that he did not have to read the screenplay or see the picture." William Faulkner was finally through with Hollywood for good.

*All of the quotes and most of the material in this series was borrowed from Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Blotner

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Creed or chaos

The title of this week's White Horse Inn broadcast is borrowed from Dorothy Sayers. It's well worth a listen. Like WHI host Michael Horton I grew up in churches that claimed "no creed but the Bible." That sounds good, but the problem with that approach is that everyone from Benny Hinn to the Unitarians to the Jehovah's Witness that knocks on your door will claim they believe the Bible. We don't believe creeds replace the Bible, but that they are a faithful summation of what the church from the Apostolic age up until now has believed God's Word teaches. The ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene & Athanasian) define orthodoxy and guard against going off the deep end. They keep us grounded and focused on the essentials of "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." Creedal Christianity says there's something more authoritative than my subjective Christian experience and personal interpretation of Scripture.

Many of my contemporaries are drawn to the "deeds not creeds" aproach in reaction to what they perceive as "dead orthodoxy." I can appreciate where they're coming from, though I don't believe there is such a thing as orthodoxy that's "dead" (if it's dead it's not orthodox). This is the "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" approach. The problem is illustrated on the broadcast by Emergent leader Doug Pagitt who's unwilling to bind himself to Nicene trinitarian formulations, and seems to advocate the removal of all visible boundaries between the church and the world. For the Emergent Village folks we're all members of one big public square involved in a never-ending conversation. Per Ms. Sayers, that's a recipe for chaos. What we believe matters, definitions matter, distinctions matter. No we can't put God in a box, but he graciously chose to put himself in a box by revealing himself to us through his written and incarnate Word.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Ephesians 4:11-14

If the Rastas can sing the Psalms why can't we?

Here's a brother with a great post on reasons why Psalm singing has gone the way of the dodo bird in most churches, including mine. He begins:

On the way to church I sometimes listen to a local alternative rock station that plays what they call: "Brunch with Bob and Friends," an hour or two of all reggae music. Since most of these artists are adherents of Rastafarianism I am often struck with how many quotes and allusions there are to the Psalms in their lyrics. Ironically, the Psalms are getting more "air play" on the local rock station on Sunday morning than in many of our own Reformed churches.

Read the whole thing

And here's Sinead O'Connor covering "Rivers of Babylon" (based on Psalm 137)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I wish W. hadn't been released in the supercharged political atmosphere leading up to Election Day. I don't know what calculations went into the timing, but I'm sure many will decide to see or not see Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biopic based on politics. That's unfortunate. Perhaps it will take a few years for this film to find an audience based on it's merits as a film. For it is a terrific piece of work -- Stone's best in a good long while -- like fifteen years or so. I consider the 80s to have been his best period -- especially the triptych of Platoon, Wall Street and Talk Radio. Actually, if one comes to W. expecting a Bush-bashing fest or a series of Saturday Night Live skits, they'll be disappointed. I'm not a Dubya-hater, but I agree with the thrust of Stanley Weiser's script that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was a blunder. What factors drove the decision and whether it was born out of a desire in Junior to finish the job that Senior failed to finish in Gulf War I is plausible speculation, but speculation nonetheless. What isn't speculation is that the astonishing rise of George, Jr. from roguish failure to Governor of Texas to being a 2-term President was in large part a quest to gain the approval of Poppy. Jeb was the one who got good grades and who might someday even run for President, not Junior.

W. begins with a 2002 Oval Office meeting featuring the principal players: Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz and Tenet (did I forget anyone?) as they bat around the now-famous phrase "axis of evil." The film then flashes back to young George at Yale undergoing a fraternity hazing ritual featuring prodigious amounts of booze. This begins a pattern of scenes where George is rarely without a bottle of beer or cocktail in his hand throughout the 1970s and early 80s. Weiser's script deftly cuts back and forth between past and present. Often a film that covers this much ground feels rushed and thin on characterization. Not here. Stone deftly captures time and place using well-designed sets and Louisiana locations. Two seminal events of Bush's early adulthood are portrayed effectively and even sympathetically -- meeting Laura Welch and his decision to give up alcohol. The latter led to joining an evangelical Bible study group, and the scene where Bush asks his minister to pray with him is executed without any note of satire that I could detect. I found it quite moving.

It's when the action moves to the Oval Office and War Room that Stone unleashes the satire. It's more Dr. Strangelove than SNL. There's something inherently funny about Richard Dreyfuss playing Dick Cheney, but it turns into vintage black comedy when Dreyfuss stands in front of a giant map of the world plotting domination of Eurasia. The movie is well cast. Even when the actor bears no resemblance to who they're playing (i.e. Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld or Jeffrey Wright as Powell) they manage to pull it off. It's Josh Brolin that carries the film, and he would have to. It's hard to play someone as well-known as a sitting President without it becoming a caricature or mere impression. He uncannily captures some of the tics and mannerisms of the 43rd POTUS, but he brings a presence and charisma of his own to the role. Llewelyn Moss in No Country For Old Men and now George W. Bush...he's got the Texas thing down pat. I thought he brought integrity to this role and never got the feeling he was playing it for laughs. Heck, even the most rabid Bush-hater may find themselves admitting that Dubya's is a remarkable story. Probably there will be other Hollywood treatments of this Bush Administration. Stone has taken his crack at it and set the bar quite high. Ultimately, it's history not Hollywood that will deliver the most important verdict on the eldest son of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

An undecided voter

Mad about McCain? Overjoyed for Obama? Here's your chance to persuade an undecided voter that they should endorse your candidate. Jeffrey Overstreet invites readers to email him. I did. But be warned...

And one way to ensure that your email goes in the trash: Start speaking about me, or anybody you disagree with, disrespectfully. Many of those who spend their days blogging for their candidate by bashing the other candidate and trashing the character of people who support them, well… they’re only damaging my ability to give their candidate a fair consideration.

If you believe your candidate will bring out the best in America, show me that he brings out the best in you.

Read the whole thing

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The gospel-driven church

The greatest need in the church today is the gospel. The gospel is not only news for a perishing world, it is the message that forms, sustains, and animates the church. Apart from the gospel, the church has nothing to say -- that is, nothing to say that cannot be said by some other human agency. The gospel distinguishes the church from the world, defines her message and mission in the world, and steels her people against the fiery darts of the evil one and the false allurements of sin. The gospel is absolutely vital to a vibrant, joyous, persevering, hopeful, and healthy Christian and Christian church. So essential is the gospel to the Christian life that we need to be saturated in it in order to be healthy church members.

Thabiti Anyabwile, What Is A Healthy Church Member?

Friday, October 17, 2008

William Faulkner meets Clark Gable

The most fateful thing that happened to Faulkner on his first Hollywood sojourn was meeting Howard Hawks. Hawks was already a successful director and he sought out Faulkner to develop a script for him. The two men were one year apart and shared similar tastes. They were both avid fans of Joseph Conrad and hunting. Unlike most Hollywood types, Hawks was able to talk intelligently about literature, and it was with Hawks that Faulkner would have his most rewarding experiences -- creatively and professionally -- while working in the movie business. Meeting Hawks was fateful in a darker way too. Hawks' secretary was a divorcée from Mississippi named Meta Carpenter. She and Faulkner would soon begin an affair that would end in heartbreak for her and fairly well wreck his marriage -- though he and Estelle Faulkner would never actually divorce. Hawks invited Faulkner into his circle of hunting buddies which included Clark Gable. This resulted in an amusing anecdote recounted in Joseph Blotner's biography.

One of the director's friends, Clark Gable, had a .410 over and under shotgun that Faulkner admired so much he wanted one like it. The first time they had driven into the Imperial Valley for some dove-hunting, Hawks began to talk about books. He would remember the conversation clearly. Faulkner entered into it, but Gable remained silent. Finally he ventured a question.
"Mr. Faulkner," he said, "what do you think somebody should read if he wants to read the best modern books? Who would you say are the best living writers?"
After a moment, Faulkner answered. "Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself."
Gable took a moment to absorb that information. "Oh," he said. "Do you write?"
"Yes, Mr. Gable," Faulkner replied. "What do you do?"

Later, Faulkner would strike up a friendship with the writer Nathanael West who, like Faulker, was in Tinseltown to make some quick cash in between novels. West was a modernist writer from New York City who was compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wonder if the Coen Brothers had him in mind when they created the character Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) in their dark comedy of the same name. Fans of the film will recall Barton's friendship with the character W.P. Mayhew who's quite obviously modeled on Faulkner...though Mayhew never took him pig-huntin'. Anyway, here's another hunting story that may be apocryphal, but was too entertaining for Blotner to pass up. He kept to the dictum, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

He [Faulkner] had settled in at the Beverly Hills, a quiet Spanish-style hotel which catered to elderly permanent guests. By the time spring came, he needed a change from its particular ambience. He found it with Nathanael West, whose minor masterpiece Miss Lonelyhearts had made no money two years before, and who was writing scripts for Republic Studios (called Repulsive Studios by veterans). "I'm goin' pig-huntin'," Faulkner told Dave Hempstead [a producer for Twentieth Century-Fox]. Later he would describe a rugged sport on Santa Cruz Island, where he and West would struggle through narrow tunnels of underbrush to hunt dangerous wild boars. When Hempstead met Faulkner and drove him back to the Beverly Hills, he was unshaven, clad in hunting shirt, and carrying a borrowed weapon under his arm. As he crossed the lobby to pick up his room key, the clerk dropped to the floor with a cry, a salesman bolted from the lobby, and two spinsters fainted. The hotel had been robbed in his absence, and his entrance was taken to be the gunman's return. By the time Hempstead's story filtered back to Oxford and Moon Mullen printed it in the Eagle, it had become a part of the steadily accreting lore of Faulkner in Hollywood.

Ironically, West would die a few years later in a car accident...on the way back from a hunting trip. Of course Faulkner wasn't in Hollywood solely to hunt and terrorize hotel clerks. He was there to lend his name and skills to whichever studio was signing his checks at the time. Mostly he found it unrewarding work, but in 1944 Howard Hawks presented him with an unusual opportunity -- the chance to help adapt the work of his great contemporary and rival Ernest Hemingway. The result would be screen magic. More on that next week.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yes I am a film geek

Today I learned that Chungking Express is coming out on Criterion. Number 453 in their catalogue if you're keeping track. Curtis Tsui writes about the production here. The news that one of my favorite films from one of my favorite directors is coming out on the gold standard for DVD collectors is always cause for rejoicing, but when it's a movie I already own I'm faced with a dilemma. Should I shell out the thirty bucks to upgrade (and find a good home for the old one) or be content with what I have? In this case I'm going to remain content with my Rolling Thunder Pictures edition and save the money for our diaper fund. I'm rather fond of the Rolling Thunder discs with their breathless "Quentin Tarantino presents" introductions. He's a film geek too.

Later I see that Criterion's Bottle Rocket is now available and I don't have that one. Hmmm, diapers or DVDs?

A follow-up to my last post...

UPDATED 10/17: Robert George and Yuval Levin on Obama's response

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No middle ground

As I've said before I find much to celebrate in the candidacy of Barack Obama, and I find a lot to admire in the man himself. I'd love the chance to welcome him into my home and show him around our neighborhood. Just hang out for a while and talk. We'd probably have a lot in common. After all, we're almost of the same generation (another reminder I'm approaching "middle age"). The main thing I see when I look at Obama and contemplate the prospect of an Obama presidency is potential. I see huge potential for transformative change that has little to do with policy papers and legislative initiatives. But when I contemplate the prospect of voting for Obama on Nov. 4 I run up against a huge obstacle. You probably know where I'm going with this.

The belief in the sanctity of human life is bigger than the abortion issue, but for better or worse abortion has been the primary flash point in the American public square for a long time now, and that doesn't look to change any time soon. Al Mohler writes today at his blog that the abortion debate throws into stark relief two competing worldviews that make seeking middle ground a fruitless exercise.

For the better part of four decades, some have attempted to find a middle ground between these two positions, but to no avail. The reason quickly becomes clear. If abortion is to be understood as a fundamental right, no woman can be denied the exercise of that right. If abortion is the taking of innocent human life, no justification can be offered for abortion as a means of ending an unwanted pregnancy -- none at all. Middle ground would be possible only if we can assume that the right to abortion is not fundamental, but merely provisional, and that the unborn child does not have an intrinsic right to life, but only a provisional right. Efforts to frame the issue in this way fail because neither of these assumptions can be qualified in this way and remain coherent.

Abortion is back front and center in the 2008 presidential race. Sen. John McCain and the Republican Party Platform call for a reversal of Roe v. Wade and against any notion of abortion as a fundamental right. Both the candidate and the platform call for specific measures to curtail access to abortion and to lead, eventually, to the end of abortion on demand.

Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party Platform call for a stalwart and enthusiastic defense of Roe v. Wade and for expanded access to abortion. In the case of Sen. Obama, his advocacy of abortion rights goes considerably beyond where any major candidate has ever gone before. (Read the whole thing)

I agree with that first paragraph more today than I did 5, 10, 15 years ago. Perhaps it's because my wife and I have been through the trauma of losing an unborn child, and now eagerly look forward to the birth of our son in February. The thought that he doesn't have fundamental, intrinsic rights in the womb is unthinkable. Not that there isn't room for folks with differing views to come together and approve incremental steps to reduce the number of abortions (all of which Sen. Obama has voted against in his legislative career), but if you follow the arguments to their logical conclusion there's no middle ground. Incidentally, I'll be interested to see whether abortion and other sanctity of life issues get a hearing in tonight's debate (I haven't been impressed with McCain's ability to make the pro-life case). While I'm tempted to vote for Obama because of his enormous potential, the historic nature of his candidacy and because I'm disgusted by the attitudes of some of his opponents -- in the quiet of the voting booth it's going to be this issue more than any other I'll be thinking about. I guess that makes me a single-issue voter.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

If you love Christ you'll love his Bride

I didn't used to love the church. In fact I had no place for it in my life. But the funny thing is, if you would have asked me back then whether I loved Jesus, I would have said yes. Russell Moore correctly describes that as "irrational" in this hard-hitting piece written mainly for college students, but applicable to all of us who claim the name Christian.

The Scriptures reveal to us what we would never discern on our own. The church--not an ideal congregation but the real one you go to every week, with the lady who smacks her gum and the man with the pitiful comb-over hair and the 1970s-era audio system and the kids banging Tonka trucks on the back of the pew in front of you--is flesh and bones of Jesus. It is His Body, he tells us--inseparable from Him as your heart and lungs and kidneys and fingers are from you (Eph 5:29-30; 1 Cor 12:12-31).

Saying "I love Jesus" but hating the church is as irrational as saying to your best friend, "I like you--I just can't stand being around you." Your attitude toward the church tells you--simply--your attitude toward Jesus.

Read the whole thing

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Is it lunch yet?

Breakfast is an unmerciful meal. Unless you live in a house full of larks, you know perfectly well that few people are fit company at that hour. Accordingly, a completely routine meal, unvarying from day to day, is a blessing to everyone. Except for men who have already worked hard for hours, an ordinary weekday breakfast is no time for a feast. Almost as clearly as breakfast, lunch is a meal in via, on the run. To sit down as if the world were our oyster at 12:30 is to face the second half of our daily obedience pretending that the agony of the world is over already. I have long been convinced that man needs sleep more than food in the middle of the day. It is only at night, in gremio familiae...that we can properly rejoice and eat like men.

Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

The Seeker

Whether King Solomon or some other Hebrew sage, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is a realist. Despite his lofty position, he doesn't insulate himself from the suffering and injustice of the society around him. He's an artist, philosopher, and investigative journalist. He constantly reminds the reader that he has intently looked into everything under the sun. With apologies to The Who -- he's been looking under chairs and tables, trying to find the key to fifty million fables. He's the seeker -- a really desperate man.

I see two themes running throughout Ecclesiastes. The fear of God and joy. First, the confident belief that the one who fears God will come out alright in the end despite what the evidence shows. Second, that it's good to find joy in the everyday mundane blessings of life...even in the face of suffering and injustice. Have you noticed how people living in terrible circumstances are able to find profound happiness in the smallest blessings? Meanwhile, those of us surrounded by affluence and safety often struggle with depression and boredom. Why is that? The Preacher of Israel would call it another example of the vanity (from a Hebrew word meaning "breath" or "vapor") of human existence.

The two themes I mentioned recur throughout Ecclesiastes, but can be seen clearly in these verses from chapter 8.

11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

Writing centuries before Christ, the Preacher commends a life of faith and joy that looks toward a hope beyond earthly existence. "I won't get to get what I'm after till the day I die!" In this life, the wicked may prosper and the rightous may suffer, but some day there will be a reckoning. The slowness of divine justice tempts men to greater evil, but the Preacher admonishes against both lawlessness and despair. He goes on:

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

I love the theme of joy throughout Ecclesiastes because it's hard-won. This kind of joy is the opposite of contemporary conceptions of happiness. C.S. Lewis wrote that "joy is the serious business of Heaven." Joy is serious business? you may ask. Yes it is, if it's Christian joy you're talking about. The Apostle Paul strikes the same note in 2 Corinthians 6: "as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything."

Fear God. Enjoy life. Be like the seeker.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Seeking atonement

Last night ended the ten days of repentance which culminates in Yom Kippur. Here in Palm Beach County yesterday was a school holiday. In this video David Helm, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, talks sensitively about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and why most Jews don't accept Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah.

Faulkner goes west

The next few Fridays I'm going to focus on two of my favorite subjects -- William Faulkner and Hollywood. Faulkner had an off-and-on relationship with Hollywood beginning in 1932 and lasting into the 1950s. He claimed to despise the place, but his chronic money troubles made it hard to turn down opportunities to make quick cash. "Where else could he earn $500 a week? It would be like selling a short story every week for six weeks" writes Joseph Blotner in Faulkner: A Biography. The solitary writer fit uneasily within the collaborative medium that is the movie business. Writes Blotner: "If he had had money enough, like Hemingway, he would never have touched a Hollywood film script." Faulkner told his brother Jack, "Nobody would live in Hollywood, except to get what money they could out of it."

According to Blotner, Faulkner referred to his stints in Southern California as "my sojourn downriver" and "he would often use metaphors of fieldhands or slaves for his dealings with the film studios. Sometimes they would be more dramatic. He would later tell another writer, a young friend, (Shelby Foote) 'Always take the people seriously, but never take the work seriously. Hollywood is the only place on earth where you can get stabbed in the back while you're climbing a ladder.'" Throughout Faulkner's writing Hollywood became a symbol of corruption, see especially his novel Pylon or his short story Golden Land, a tale of perversion too sensational for the literary magazines that usually jumped at the chance to publish his latest offerings.

Yet, Faulkner returned again and again. While being in Hollywood exacerbated his personal demons, he made some enduring friendships and did respectable work. It wasn't all as bad as he made it sound. Despite the drinking binges and erratic behavior Faulkner remained a professional writer, and for the most part was paid handsomely for his services (putting the lie to his plantation metaphors). For better or worse his time "downriver" passed on into something approaching legend. Faulkner's experiences in Hollywood furnished some of the inspiration for the Coen Brothers' quirky masterpiece Barton Fink (1991). Here's Blotner describing the 34-year-old Mississipian's first trip west in 1932 on a 6-week contract for MGM.

In 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the undisputed leader among motion-picture companies. On fifty-three acres in Culver City, "on the dusty outskirts of Los Angeles, opposite three gasoline stations and a drug store," the studio produced forty feature films a year that grossed more than $100 million annually and played before an estimated total world audience of a billion persons.

The shortened workday of Saturday, May 7, had nearly passed before William Faulkner arrived. When he did arrive, things seemed to go wrong from the very start. The first thing Sam Marx (MGM exec) noticed was that his head was cut and bleeding. He had been hit by a cab while he was changing trains, he said--in New Orleans. To Marx it was obvious that he had been drinking. Marx wanted to call a doctor, but Faulkner said he didn't need one and that he wanted to get right to work.

"We're going to put you on a Wallace Beery picture," Marx told him. "Who's he?" asked Faulkner. "I've got an idea for Mickey Mouse." Marx explained that Mickey Mouse films were made at the Walt Disney Studios, and arranged for a screening of The Champ. Beery had starred in it as a lovable prizefighter, and now he was to play a wrestler in Flesh.

Faulkner allowed himself to be led to the projection room by Marx's office boy, who reappeared very shortly. Faulkner did not want to watch the film, and he kept talking. "Do you own a dog?" he asked the boy, who said no. Faulkner said, "Every boy should have a dog." He should be ashamed not to own a dog, and so should everybody else who didn't own a dog. The film was hardly under way when Faulkner said to the projectionist, "How do you stop this thing?" There was no use looking at it, he said, because he knew how it would turn out. Then he asked for the exit and left. Marx started an immediate search for him, but it proved fruitless.

As it turned out Faulkner had wandered off and ended up in Death Valley, 150 miles east. He reappeared a week later, apologized, and went to work in Office 27 of the writer's building with Marx's reassurance that from now on he would work exclusively on "original stories" for the studio. No more wrestling pictures for the celebrated author of The Sound and the Fury! The first script he worked on was a reworking of a short story he'd been unable to sell a dozen years earlier. It never saw the light of day, but was good practice for someone learning the conventions of movie writing. Faulkner wrote home: "I am not settled good yet. I have not got used to this work. But I am as well as anyone can be in this bedlam."

To be continued...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happy birthday Bruce Catton

Historian Bruce Catton was born on this day in 1899. Even before I discovered Shelby Foote or watched Ken Burns' PBS series, it was reading Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy as a boy that created a lifelong interest in the American Civil War. I was hooked from the first chapter. One critic remarked, "if every historian wrote like him no one would read fiction!" Later on I had the chance to walk the hallowed grounds of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania where Mr. Lincoln's soldiers fought and died. Once again, it was Bruce Catton's narrative that brought those quiet fields to life. A great historian, and a great storyteller.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Our strange disorder

Human sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things: sign of a strange disorder.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (525)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ryan Ferguson extols the King (Psalm 145)

It is well when the Lord's royalty arouses our loyalty, and our spirit is moved to magnify his majesty.

Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 145

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Evangelism explosion

It has to be said that the most explosive means of God-inspired, theology-laden, liturgical missional activity comes by way of holy baptism. It has not been going door-to-door nor having the tent revival nor even the stadium crusade that has been the greatest vehicle of Christian evangelization. In every age of the church, baptism -- particularly infant baptism -- has been the overwhelmingly greatest means of expanding the church. Christ has built into the covenant of grace itself an evangelistic liturgical feature that ensures the propagation of the faith in such a fashion that the Lord does all the work and receives all the glory -- the baptizing of adults and children alike. If you desire to see the church grow, then break out your baptismal liturgy and start asking people in your church, neighborhood, and workplace if they or their children have been baptized, and you will find a great deal of gospel discussion taking place.

John Bombaro, Can Orthodoxy Be Missional? (Modern Reformation, September/October 2008)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Seeing things in black and white

Here's City Journal's Stefan Kanfer with a lesson in ophthalmology and film appreciation:

The civics teacher had an inspired idea: bring American jurisprudence to life by showing the class an award-winning 1957 film. Twelve Angry Men had all the requisites of instructive high drama: suspense, as one juror tries to change the minds of 11 others hell-bent on sending the accused to death row; crackling dialogue, written by Reginald Rose, a luminary of television’s Golden Age; a scintillating cast, led by Henry Fonda and directed by Sidney Lumet. The title flashed on-screen—immediately followed by a chorus of groans. One 15-year-old wailed for all his disappointed colleagues: “You didn’t tell us it was going to be in black-and-white!”

Read the whole thing

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When God cancels our plans

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps--reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised athwart our path to show us that, not our way, but God's way must be done. It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God's "crooked yet straight path" (Gottfried Arnold). They do not want a life that is crossed and balked. But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.

In the monastery his vow of obedience to the abbot deprives the monk of the right to dispose of his own time. In evangelical community life, free service to one's own brother takes the place of the vow. Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God's love and mercy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is hard truth for those of us who like to stay on schedule and hate to be late. Ask my wife about that one. Bonhoeffer reminds me that pious activity can be a way of avoiding God's (and my brother's) call on my time. I'm blessed to have a pastor who always has time to be "interrupted by God." Those readers who know him I'm sure will agree that he's a shining example of one who faithfully follows God's "crooked yet straight path."