Thursday, December 31, 2009

U2's eschatological anthem

Farewell to the Aughts!

It's hard to believe that tonight we say hello to a new decade. What should we call it, the twenty-teens? The 21st century is reaching its adolescence. 2010 sounds so science fiction, but then so did 2001 and we quickly got over that. The future is upon us. From a personal vantage point the past decade (the twenty-aughts?) has been spectacular, the best of my life. Let's see. I married the girl of my dreams, saw the birth and baptism of my son, discovered the gospel through Reformed theology, returned to the church, and fell in love with the church despite her many flaws. Not only fell in love, but found various ministry callings in which to serve, including the joy of serving as an elder at our church for the last year and a half. It was the decade I became a Presbyterian! None of the foregoing was on my radar screen when 1999 rolled over into Y2K. Sure there was heartbreak and sorrow, but I've been the beneficiary of lavish grace. Quoting the old Caedmon's Call song, "looking back I see the lead of love."

More reasons to look back with fondness include the fact that the Gators won four National Championships in the decade (two in basketball and two in football) and came within an Alabama blow-out of playing for a fifth. Roll Tide (not really). I was fortunate to buy my house before the real estate bubble, and I've managed to hang on to the same job I had when the decade began. In ways large and small it has been the best of times. Yes, my little family continues to be backed into a corner by some of the same economic forces that many of you are -- huge increases in the cost of health insurance, stagnant wages, etc -- but at decade's end we're doing ok thank you.

How about the big picture. Does anyone doubt that the decade was defined on a September morning in 2001? As I watched those events unfold on a small television in my company's kitchen I remember remarking to a co-worker, "this changes everything." And it did. 9/11 unleashed a sequence of events that continue to bedevil our nation and our world. In many ways the last ten years were quite grim. There was a lot not to like from where I sit. In the West at least, Christianity became less and less relevant. Distortions of the faith like the "prosperity gospel" continued to damage the church's witness. In vast areas of society we continued to define deviancy down. Just when you think our celebrity-driven scandal-obsessed media culture can't go any lower, it does. Turning to economics it's hard to disagree with Paul Krugman's assessment that the aughts were The Big Zero. He writes:

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is — tax cuts and deregulation.

So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

Ouch! Happy New Year and pass the kool-aid. While short-term pessimism based on recent history may be warranted, long-term pessimism is not. As a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20) I know that history is moving in a positive direction. Appropriately I've been finishing off the year reading through Revelation. In chapters 21 and 22 John's prophetic vision weaves together the great themes of the Bible to describe the glorious consummation of God's re-creation of all things, coupled with a dire warning to those who ignore his great salvation. John's revelation, written to persecuted first-century Christians, continues to remind 21st-century Christians where this is all heading. As recent events have shown, our fallen world is not a safe place. It may get less safe in 2010, or by God's mercy, the coming year may see fresh outbreaks of reconciliation and peace. I hope so, I pray so, and God calls his church to work toward that end. But whatever happens the gospel will go forward and God's purposes will not be stopped.

So friends, let's go have a party. Here's to a joyful 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The cosmic D-day

The story of the Incarnation, indeed the story of Christmas, is the story of the beginning of the end. I think it was Chuck Colson who compared it to D-day. He may not have been the first to use the metaphor, but it's a great one. Once the Allies established a beachhead on the continent it was only a matter of time before Nazi Germany was finished. Likewise, now that the Son of God has "landed" it's only a matter of time until the ultimate demise of the dark prince of this world. We live in enemy-occupied territory, but the decisive battle has already been won in the progression from the manger to the cross to the empty tomb.

Here's how C.S. Lewis put it:

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.

Vive la résistance!

Quote from Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), p. 40

Monday, December 28, 2009

The uprising continues

An Iranian opposition protester holds stones as he stands opposite security forces during clashes in Tehran on Dec. 27. (AFP/Getty Images)

Details @

Marilynne Robinson interview

Michael Horton talks with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson about many of the themes she explores in her writings, such as the dehumanizing affects of Darwinism, the significance of John Calvin, and the complexity of grace. Robinson is the author of Home, Gilead, and The Death of Adam. This is a fascinating and wideranging conversation! She likes Dietrich Bonhoeffer too. Robinson is an author I'll be reading in 2010.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Twelve days of Christmas

Millions of Americans are waking up this morning with a hangover. I don't mean the kind that comes from having too many libations, I mean that empty feeling that often comes after the presents have been opened and the turkeys and pies eaten. The "day after" can also be a time of sadness as families brought together by the holiday say their goodbyes and head for home. All of this leads to what's come to be known as the "post-holiday blues." Google it and you'll come up with all kinds of suggestions on how to cope. Gabe Huck writes, "We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And we take it in a day." After the sugar rush comes the inevitable crash.

It doesn't have to be that way though, especially for Christians. For centuries believers of various traditions have celebrated Christmas, not as a one-and-done blow-out, but a 12-day festival leading up to Epiphany on January 6. For those of us accustomed to cramming everything into one day there's great value in getting back to this venerable notion of keeping Christmas as a longer period of celebration, feasting and reflection.

This year I've been enjoying Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, director of graduate and faculty ministries for InterVarsity. Gross was raised in an evangelical church that placed all the emphasis on Christmas Day and Easter, but for whatever reason ignored the rest of the church calendar. He's written a helpful book that explains the origin of the liturgical calendar to those of us who didn't grow up with it and offers practical suggestions for making it part of our daily lives, including suggested scripture readings and devotionals.

During this time of the year we hear a lot about "keeping Christ in Christmas" but how many of us actually challenge the dominant cultural assumptions about how Christmas should be celebrated? An example of how not to challenge those assumptions is the campaign mounted this year by a prominent Christian organization to rate major retailers on how "Christmas-friendly" they are. Gross argues that orienting our lives around the church calendar, instead of the secular calendar, is a way for Christians to enter more fully into God's drama of creation and redemption. And it's a way to be truly counter-cultural.

Our commercialized culture will quickly move on now that December 25 has come and gone, but the church doesn't have to follow. Gross writes, "We can treat these twelve days differently. We can live as if we have arrived on a spiritual island after a long and arduous trip. Take a deep breath now and settle in for the time being. Let yourself relish where you are in the year—and in the Story." (pp. 71-72) In other words, be counter-cultural. Stay in the Christmas mode.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Glory to the newborn King

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:10-14

The following comes from a sermon John Calvin preached at Cathedral St-Pierre sometime in 1559 or 1560. Calvin preached straight through the Bible so it's hard to say if this was actually delivered at Christmas-time. In any case I've been edified by reading through it as part of my Advent devotions the past few days. As always Calvin faithfully exposits the text and then draws out an encouraging, pastoral application for his hearers.

We also have to note that, in the history which St. Luke here recites, on the one hand we learn how the Son of God emptied Himself of everything for our salvation, nevertheless, on the other hand He did not fail to leave certain and infallible testimony that He was the Redeemer of the world promised from all time. Even though He took our condition, He was able to maintain his heavenly majesty. Both sides are here shown to us. For our Lord Jesus Christ is here in a manger and He is, as it were, rejected by the world. He is in extreme poverty without any honor, without any reputation, as it were, subject to servitude. Yet He is magnified by Angels from Paradise, who do Him homage.

In the first place, an angel bears the message of His birth. Then the same one is accompanied by a great multitude, even by an army, who are all present and appear as witnesses sent by God to show that our Lord Jesus Christ, being thus abased for the salvation of men, never ceases to be King of all the world and to have everything under His dominion.

Then the place, Bethlehem, gives proof that it was He who had been promised from all time. For the prophet Micah had spoken thus: “And thou Bethlehem, though thou be in great contempt, as a village which is not much to look at, and which is not densely populated, yet from thee shall come forth to Me He Who is to govern My people, and His goings forth will be from all eternity.” We see, then, here on the one hand how our Lord Jesus Christ did not spare Himself, so that we might have easy access to Him and that we might not doubt that we are received even as His body, since He willed to be not only a mortal man clothed in our nature, but, as it were, a poor earthworm stripped of all good. May we never doubt, then, however miserable we may be, that He will keep us as His members.

On the other hand, we see Him here marked, as it were, by the hand of God, so that He may be received without any difficulty, as Him from Whom we must expect salvation, and by Whom we are received into the Kingdom of God, from which we were previously banished. For we see that He has in Himself a Divine majesty, since the Angels recognize Him as their superior and their sovereign King. We ought not to doubt, when we shall be under His keeping, that He has all that is needed to maintain us. Let us know, however much He was abased, it in no wise takes away from His Divine power nor hinders us from being securely under His guidance.

Now we shall bow in humble reverence before the majesty of our God.

Calvin, Sermon on the Nativity of Jesus Christ

Bowing with you at the manger. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Black Hawk Down epilogue

Robert E. Lee remarked that it's good that war is so terrible otherwise men would grow fond of it. The kind of warfare Lee was commenting on -- massed ranks of soldiers attacking each other on a battlefield where combatant and non-combatant are clearly distinguished -- is far from the type chronicled in Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden. On 3 October 1993 it seemed the entire population of Mogadishu came out for "Kill an American Day" including old women carting baskets of RPG's and children firing AK-47's. I can't imagine anyone growing fond of this type of urban carnage. Through a series of fortunate accidents Bowden was able to get access to many participants of the Battle of Mogadishu as well as reams of documentary material from Pentagon vaults. The result is an unprecedented real-time depiction of combat as it was experienced by the men on the ground and those flying the "birds" overhead. It's not an easy read. There are some incidents described that I wouldn't post here. Exploding steel does awful things to flesh and bone. Respect for the incredible bravery displayed by the Army Rangers and Delta Force is the main thing I took away from the book. Because their mission was deemed a failure back home they never got their rightful due. Bowden wrote the book to rectify that, and he closes with this eloquent epilogue.

Many of the young Americans who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu are civilians again. They are beginning families and careers, no different outwardly than the millions of other twenty-something members of their generation. They are creatures of pop culture who grew up singing along with Sesame Street, shuttling to day care, and navigating today's hyper-adolescence through the pitfalls of drugs and unsafe sex. Their experience of battle, unlike that of any generation of American soldiers, was colored by a lifetime of watching the vivid gore of Hollywood action movies. In my interviews with those who were in the thick of the battle, they remarked again and again how much they felt like they were in a movie, and had to remind themselves that this horror, the blood, the deaths, was real. They describe feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal. This cannot be real. Many wear black metal bracelets inscribed with the names of their friends who died, as if to remind themselves daily that it was real. To look at them today, few show any outward sign that one day not too long ago they risked their lives in an ancient African city, killed for their country, took a bullet, or saw their best friend shot dead. They returned to a country that didn't care or remember. Their fight was neither triumph nor defeat; it just didn't matter. It's as though their firefight was a bizarre two-day adventure, like some extreme Outward Bound experience where things got out of hand and some guys got killed.

I wrote this book for them. (pp. 345-346)

Below is the only known photo from during the battle. If you look closely you can see Rangers taking cover.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bonhoeffer: Advent in prison

Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other — things that are really of no consequence — the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Eberhard Bethge - 21 November 1943, Letters and Papers from Prison

Friday, December 18, 2009

George Bailey: victim of circumstances

Originally posted in December 2007

Shannon and I returned home late last night after spending the evening with some friends. I wasn't ready to call it a night so I put It's a Wonderful Life in the DVD player thinking I'd watch the first 45 minutes or so. Guess what? We ended up watching the entire movie until the wee hours of this morning. No matter how many times you've seen it, the story draws you in and makes it impossible to turn off. I think this quality must be the main reason IAWL remains a perennial holiday favorite. However, let me offer a few fresh observations that may help you appreciate this picture even more.

First, and most importantly, Frank Capra was a great filmic storyteller. He co-wrote the script and directed his actors in such a way that the pacing and structure of the film, well, pulls you in. He never let style get in the way of the story, but at the same time he wasn't afraid to use innovative cinematic techniques to serve the story. The most obvious example is the non-linear structure of the film, which few directors of that era would have been comfortable with, or able to pull off. A few more examples...

1) Capra used freeze-frame (remember the early scene when college-bound George Bailey is buying a suitcase?). This is a technique we're accustomed to, but not so for audiences of the day.  2) Capra's editing made liberal use of "fade to black" and "wipes" to transition between scenes. "Fade to black" tends to heighten the emotional impact of a scene and "wipes" (when the next scene transitions in from left to right across the screen) creates a dreamlike or storybook quality (remember that most of IAWL is an extended flashback in the "mind" of Clarence). Again, routine stuff today but not for mainstream films of the 1940's. 3) Capra's use of sound, particularly source music (music that originates from a location within the movie), was very effective. For instance, during George's "vision" we see Pottersville (now filled with taverns and dance halls) from his point of view. As he walks down Main Street, and each marquee slides by, we hear the various music and voices wafting out onto the sidewalk just as he's hearing it.

These are all relatively minor contributions to the greatness of the film (I haven't even mentioned the cast!), but they show that Capra wasn't afraid to use the cinematic tools at his disposal to serve the story he wanted to tell. Many have been the overly self-indulgent directors that would have benefitted from studying in the Frank Capra school of movie-making.

The story of George Bailey is about how "life happens when you're making plans." He's a victim of circumstance over and over again -- his father's death, Harry getting married and getting the good job, the bank panic on his wedding night, the war. Things keep happening just when George is on the cusp of something big. But is he a victim? His best laid plans are constantly frustrated, and it all finally comes to a boil on that snowy Christmas Eve. But It's a Wonderful Life believes that there's a divine providence at work, and that George really isn't a victim. Indeed, there's a meaning to life greater than our own plans, aspirations and circumstances. That's a worthy message to hear in a time when individual choice and personal autonomy are held up as ultimate values.

In his moment of crisis out there on the snowy bridge George Bailey of Bedford Falls throws up a desperate cry for help.

God, if you're up there. Show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.

George knows he's not a "praying man", but his prayer and the prayers of others in the town (heard at the beginning of the movie) bring a divine intervention that show him that his faithfulness and sacrifice haven't been in vain, indeed, in the things that matter most, George is the richest man in town. Here's hoping that Frank Capra's tale finds an audience for many more holiday seasons. Much has changed since 1946, but everyone still loves a good story, and It's a Wonderful Life is one of the best.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A libertarian on socialized health care

Matt Welch:

To put it plainly, when free marketers warn that Democratic health care initiatives will make us more “like France,” a big part of me says, “I wish.” It’s not that I think it’s either feasible or advisable for the United States to adopt a single-payer, government-dominated system. But it’s instructive to confront the comparative advantages of one socialist system abroad to sharpen the arguments for more capitalism at home.

For a dozen years now I’ve led a dual life, spending more than 90 percent of my time and money in the U.S. while receiving 90 percent of my health care in my wife’s native France. On a personal level the comparison is no contest: I’ll take the French experience any day. ObamaCare opponents often warn that a new system will lead to long waiting times, mountains of paperwork, and less choice among doctors. Yet on all three of those counts the French system is significantly better, not worse, than what the U.S. has now.

Need a prescription for muscle relaxers, an anti-fungal cream, or a steroid inhaler for temporary lung trouble? In the U.S. you have to fight to get on the appointment schedule of a doctor within your health insurance network (I’ll conservatively put the average wait time at five days), then have him or her scrawl something unintelligible on a slip of paper, which you take to a drugstore to exchange for your medicine. You might pay the doc $40, but then his office sends you a separate bill for the visit, and for an examination, and those bills also go to your insurance company, which sends you an adjustment sheet weeks after the doctor’s office has sent its third payment notice. By the time it’s all sorted out, you’ve probably paid a few hundred dollars to three different entities, without having a clue about how or why any of the prices were set.

In France, by contrast, you walk to the corner pharmacist, get either a prescription or over-the-counter medication right away, shell out a dozen or so euros, and you’re done. If you need a doctor, it’s not hard to get an appointment within a day or three, you make payments for everything (including X-rays) on the spot, and the amounts are routinely less than the co-payments for U.S. doctor visits. I’ve had back X-rays, detailed ear examinations, even minor oral surgery, and never have I paid more than maybe €300 for any one procedure.

Read on for more reasons why this libertarian free-marketeer (Welch is the editor of Reason) prefers France's single-payer system to our public/private hybrid dominated by Medicare and private insurance cartels.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prophets, priests and kings

During Advent the people of God reenact a drama that took place over many centuries. It's a drama that makes a Charlie Kaufman script seem predictable. In many ways it's a story about prophets, priests and kings, especially the shepherd-king from Bethlehem to whom was promised an everlasting throne in a message relayed by the prophet Nathan. Later on the prophet would confront King David with a more ominous message contained in a riddle. Remember Bathsheba? The sins of this deeply flawed man after God's heart would result in a legacy of family dysfunction and civil war, but God was working still, preparing the way for the greater David and the greater Moses whose coming was prophesied all the way back at Sinai.

I've been reflecting on Advent this year through the prism of Shorter Catechism Question 23: "What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?" Answer: "Christ, as our Redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation." Even at his lowliest Jesus never relinquished his offices. The baby in the food trough was heralded by heavenly hosts fit for a king -- for that's what he was. Prophets, priests and kings aren't much of a big deal these days, but they were everything to the Old Testament people of God. Starr Meade explains in her excellent book of devotionals on the WSC.

God's people waited hundreds of years for Him to send the One He had promised to send. This One would destroy Satan and his work. As they waited, God gave His people three kinds of special people: prophets, priests, and kings. These three kinds of people helped God's people know and do His will while they waited. They were also pictures of the One whom God had promised. Jesus would be the perfect prophet, the perfect priest, and the perfect king all combined in one Person.

Training Hearts, Teaching Minds (P&R, 2000), p. 77

In 1 Peter chapter one the Apostle holds up the prophets of old as an example to us. They had only a piece of the puzzle, but looking back we have the full picture. Even the angels were blown away by the Incarnation! Yet we too now live as exiles waiting for a second Advent. "Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." (v. 13)

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

A serious man

Readers of this blog will know that I profoundly disagree with Barack Obama in a couple of areas. But one of the things I appreciate about him is that he's a serious person. What do I mean? It's evident that he's read widely and thought deeply about big issues. He has a sense of history. He's serious without taking himself too seriously. I'm sure being the father of two young children helps in that regard. This is a refreshing change. Contra the rhetoric from the right, Obama is no raving revolutionary, but a cautious realist whose first instinct is to build bridges not lob Molotov cocktails. The first year of his presidency has lacked (thankfully) the messianic overtones that characterized his campaign.

David Brooks had an interesting column yesterday on how Obama's engagement with the 20th-century Christian thinker Reinhold Niebuhr has informed his approach to foreign policy. Incidentally, another of Niebuhr's students was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though Bonhoeffer criticized Niebuhr for lacking the Christocentric focus which he found in his other mentor Karl Barth. I wonder if Obama has read Barth or Bonhoeffer? But back to Brooks. He traces the influence of Niebuhr on Cold War liberals like George Kennan. Unlike later generations of Democrats these men had a healthy appreciation for the limits of human virtue and the persistent effects of the evil within -- what a theologian would call original sin. What Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as the line running through every human heart.

Brooks writes:

As the cold war strategist George F. Kennan would put it: “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”

So as you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting. . . . But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

You can read the whole column here. It's interesting that Obama has a better grasp of the doctrine of original sin than some of the politically conservative Christians that despise him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Newbigin: revelation is personal and communal

In a preliminary consideration of the subject we may fairly say that the central importance ascribed to revelation in Christianity depends upon two beliefs about the nature of the world and of man. Firstly the belief that the meaning of the world is personal. For if the final meaning of the world is less than personal, then it [is] best understood by those methods of scepticism and experiment which are the requisites of scientific enquiry, but which would be the complete destruction of any personal understanding. For we know a person only as he chooses to reveal himself, and only as our own spirit is sensitive and trustful to respond to his revelation, and if the meaning of the world is personal then revelation is the only path by which it can be made known to us.

Secondly the belief that the meaning of man's life is in fellowship: if it were otherwise, we should not only expect that every man would be able to achieve for himself, apart from co-operation with his fellows, the necessities of physical existence and culture, and that pain and pleasure would always be distributed in mathematical accordance with sin and merit; but also that every man would be able to receive by direct revelation from God - apart from human telling - the knowledge necessary for blessedness. But if it be true that man was made for fellowship then we can understand not only the meaning of the co-operation which economic facts make necessary, and the strange incidence of pain and pleasure, so monstrously unjust by the standards of the law courts; but we can also understand the immensely significant fact that the revelation which is the key to our highest blessedness does not descend to us straight from heaven, but has to reach us passed from hand to hand of our fellow men along the chain of a historic community. (pp. 18-19)

Quotes from Newbigin, "Revelation" (1936) from Lesslie Newbigin, Missionary Theologian: A Reader ed. Paul Weston

Wow! If true (as I believe it is) Newbigin's insight has far reaching implications for just about everything.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From the interweb

I turn my head for a few months and Radiohead goes and releases a new track on the web.

Listen to "These Are My Twisted Words"

See a live performance

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The writers of the Bible were real authors

The incarnation is an incomparable mystery -- the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man. That mystery is reflected in how the Bible came to us, and is preserved in the doctrine of organic (as opposed to mechanical) verbal inspiration of Scripture. Here's Louis Berkhof:

We cannot explain the interpenetration of the divine and the human factors in Scripture, any more than we can explain that of the two natures in Christ. Scripture presents itself to us as an organic whole, consisting of several parts, that are interrelated in various ways, and that find their unity in the central, all-controlling, and progressively unfolding, thought of God reaching out to man, in order to redeem him from sin and to bestow upon him the blessings of eternal salvation. And therefore we should not ask where the divine ends and the human begins, nor where the human ends and the divine begins. We might just as well ask where in man the soul ends and the body begins. No such line of demarcation can be pointed out. Scripture is in its entirety both the Word of God and the word of man. (Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology, pp. 154-155)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The message of Advent

My wife was looking for Advent materials to use in teaching Sunday school this morning. She came across a good article called Preparing Children for Advent on the website of Creighton University. I encourage you to read the whole thing (especially if you have kids) but here's a wonderful explanation of the storyline of Advent using clear, simple language. This is so good I think I'm going to use it when I teach our adult class next Sunday.

We can tell our children about Isaiah, the prophet. We can tell them that God has wanted to be the one who would lead and take care of his people. But they rebelled against God, and demanded kings, just like all the peoples around them had. So, God let them have kings. As it turned out, there was one bad king after another. And God sent prophets to the people and the kings to remind them of the agreement - the "covenant" - God made with them: I'll be your God and you be my people.

Now the way the people made someone a king was to pour a bit of oil on their head. The one who was "anointed" this way with oil became the king. Well, the prophets began to tell the people that God would send them "an anointed one" (the word they use to say "anointed one" in Hebrew is "Messiah.") In fact, they said that this Messiah would be called "Emmanuel", which in Hebrew means, "God is with us."

So, the message of the prophets was about a promise - that God would save his people from all that they were suffering. The prophets use such wonderful images to tell the people that they could expect and hope for a day when "every tear would be wiped away." It would be a day of great peace - "the lion would lie down with the lamb" and the people will beat their spears into hooks to prune trees with. And, the most unbelievable promise of all: "death will be no more."

We all know now that what God was preparing his people for was the coming of Jesus, the Christ (Christos in Greek means "the anointed one.")

Unfortunately the author of this isn't identified so I can't attribute it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thoughts on Romans 7:4

Romans 7:4 says: "Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God." What struck me here is the implication that dying to the law is the same as no longer belonging to the law. I now belong to the risen Christ. This is a common thread throughout Paul's writings. It's explicit in Galatians 4 where Paul uses the contrast between Isaac and Ishmael to draw out the imagery of the law as guardian or master. Paul repeatedly returns to the language of Roman slavery to remind his readers who they belong to if they are in Christ. They no longer belong to the law/sin. Now they belong to Christ/righteousness.

I love this from John Piper:

. . . instead of belonging to the law, which demands and condemns, we now belong to Christ who demands and gives. Formerly, righteousness was demanded from outside in letters written in stone. But now righteousness rises within us as a longing in our relationship with Christ. He is present and real. By his Spirit he helps us in our weakness. A living person has replaced a lethal list. (Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die, p. 81)

The corollary truth is that all those outside of Christ, who haven't experienced the new birth, are in a precarious position. Paul sets up a clear antithesis between belonging to Christ or belonging to the law. The latter means being under the law with it's perfect requirement on penalty of death. "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3:6)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Coppola's best film doesn't have 'Godfather' in the title


The Conversation is one of the best films ever made. I'm not one to just throw such a statement out there. I've seen thousands of films. The accepted classics, generally agreed upon masterpieces that I likewise admire and laud. I've also seen many sleepers that sneaked up on me. Coppola's 1974 film is both, a quiet gem that, in my opinion, is as disturbing and fascinating as any of the great films of Bunuel, Ozu, Welles, Bresson, Antonioni. Such a simple scenario, explored not with grandiosity, but rather a beautifully modulated central performance by Gene Hackman (reputed to be his favorite role) and script by the director.

Intrigued? Read the rest of his spot-on assessment here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The D-boys

As chronicled in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down the Army Rangers of Task Force Ranger viewed the Delta Force operators in their midst with envy and awe. In ways both obvious and subtle the D-boys radiated their elite status. No guard duty or "fun" runs for these guys. They spent their down time in more creative ways.

When the force had first moved in, the pigeons had owned the hangar, crapping at will all over people, cots and equipment. When one of the D-boys got nailed while sitting on his cot cleaning his weapon, the elite force declared war. They ordered up pellet guns. The birds didn't have a prayer. The D-boys would triangulate fire and send a mess of blood and feathers plopping down on somebody's cot. Did these guys know how to kill time on a deployment or what? They all had custom-built weapons with hand-rifled barrels and such. Gun manufacturers outfitted them the way Nike supplies pro athletes. Some days Delta would commandeer a Black Hawk and roar off to hunt wild boar, baboons, antelope, and gazelles in the Somali bush. They brought back trophy tusks and game meat and held cookouts. They called it "realistic training." (pp. 59-60)

To the gung-ho Rangers, some of whom were teenagers seeing their first combat zone, hanging with Delta was just plain cool. It was a chance to learn the finer points of killing and mayhem from the best of the best. Not that the Rangers were any slouches in those departments, but the "Dreaded D" knew all the tricks. Including how to make the most of the 18-hour flight to Mog. . .

Aboard the giant C-141 Starlifter, when the air force blueshirts insisted that they all stay in their seats, the D-boys just blew them off. Right after takeoff they unrolled thermal pads (the shiny metal floor of the bird turns ice cold at altitude) and insulated ponchos, stuck earplugs in their ears, donned eye patches, swallowed "Blue Bombers" (Halcyon tablets), and racked out. They taught little tricks like wrapping tape around the pins of their grenades to make sure none accidentally snagged and pulled on a piece of equipment. They wore knee pads when they went into a fight, which made it easy to quickly drop and shoot, and stay there for hours if necessary. If it was hot, they didn't walk around in full battle gear. They wore T-shirts or no shirts at all, and shorts and flip-flops. They all had sunglasses. If they'd been up until all hours, they slept in a little in the morning. When they went out on a mission, they took the weapons they thought they'd need and left behind the stuff they didn't. With the D-boys, all of whom were ranked sergeant first class or higher, rank meant nothing. They all, officers and noncoms, called each other by their first names or nicknames. They were trained to think and act for themselves. Nothing was done by the book for its own sake; they were guided by their own experience. They knew their weapons and tactics and business better than anyone, and basically ran their own lives, which was an extraordinary thing in the U.S. Army. (pp. 151-152)

I don't know about you, but I'm glad to have a breed like the D-boys on America's side.

Excerpts from Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Penguin, 1999)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Someone's child

This photo caught my eye because it's a view I'm familiar with when feeding my son.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - A young girl eats some food as displaced Afghans queue to receive relief aid from the UNHCR, on December 1, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. As temperatures begin to drop around the country, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government are providing relief supplies, to help some 200,000 vulnerable people cope with the harsh winter, including blankets, sweaters, plastic sheets, jerry cans and bags of charcoal. (Photo from Getty Images)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Working with the locals

I've wanted to read Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden ever since seeing Ridley Scott's adaptation a few years ago. The book and movie tell the story of the October 3, 1993 mission by Delta Force operators and Army Rangers into downtown Mogadishu to capture associates of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Things went badly wrong, and as they say, the rest is history. The book is an amazing piece of combat journalism, full of amazing detail and vivid anecdotes. Like this darkly comic episode in the effort to capture Aidid.

[Major General William] Garrison knew from day one that intelligence was going to be a problem. The original plan had called for a daring, well-placed lead Somali spy, the head of the CIA's local operation, to present Aidid an elegant hand-carved cane soon after Task Force Ranger arrived. Embedded in the head of the cane was a homing beacon. It seemed like a sure thing until, on Garrison's first day in-country, Lieutenant Colonel Dave McKnight, his chief of staff, informed him that their lead informant had shot himself in the head playing Russian roulette. It was the kind of idiotic macho thing guys did when they'd lived too long on the edge. (p. 23)

More to come . . .

Did the "prosperity gospel" cause the crash?

Hanna Rosin speculates in The Atlantic that the prosperity gospel may have contributed to the subprime mortgage meltdown. She cites a former high-roller from Wells Fargo who claims that managers targeted church sponsored wealth-building seminars -- even offering financial incentives to pastors for every person who took out a mortgage. Maybe it isn't a coincidence that areas of the country hit hardest by the collapse of the real estate bubble are also areas where the health and wealth gospel is the strongest. Rosin also shows how new variants of the prosperity gospel are becoming popular in predominantly Latino congregations. She profiles Pastor Fernando Garay of Casa del Padre in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!” That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank,” Garay said. “You don’t have to say, ‘God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.’ The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”

Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!” he preached that Sunday. “More work! Better work! The best finances!” Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.

I can see how the "gospel" preached by Garay might appeal to someone who's just arrived in the U.S. with nothing but the shirt on his back. It's using Jesus as a ladder to the middle class, or if his faith is strong enough, a big house and the keys to a Benz. It's a twist on the gospel of the self-made man ("God helps those who help themselves") that appealed to earlier generations of European immigrants, and still appeals to those that have achieved their slice of the American dream through hard work. Both are perversions of the gospel revealed in the Bible.

In his book Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears describes two starkly different manifestations of the American dream, each intertwined with religious faith. The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his “success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan.” The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a “speculative confidence man,” Lears calls him, who prefers “risky ventures in real estate,” and a more “fluid, mobile democracy.” The self-made man imagines a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits. The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with “grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God.” The Gilded Age launched the myth of the self-made man, as the Rockefellers and other powerful men in the pews connected their wealth to their own virtue. In these boom-and-crash years, the more reckless alter ego dominates. In his book, Lears quotes a reverend named Jeffrey Black, who sounds remarkably like Garay: “The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I’ve done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me—that I’ll be the one.”

What's being described in Rosin's depressing article is what Luther called the theology of glory. Michael Horton has described it this way: "How can I climb the ladder and attain the glory here and now that God has actually promised for us after a life of suffering?" In opposition to that is the theology of the cross -- "the story of God’s merciful descent to us, at great personal cost, a message that the Apostle Paul acknowledged was offensive." It still is.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The fellowship of the blessed

The middle section of The Cost of Discipleship is a section by section exposition of Matthew 5-7 a/k/a The Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer refuses to sentimentalize or take the sharp edges off these hard sayings of Jesus. The chapter on The Beatitudes is a classic. He sets the scene and then provides several paragraphs of commentary on each beatitude. He doesn't play off a spiritualized reading of the language against a more literal reading. "Poor" can have a spiritual and a temporal meaning, "mourn" doesn't mean occasionally bummed out, etc. Jesus is describing a community, the community of those who "have publicly left the crowd to join him." The community of those who "have renounced everything at his call." This is the doorway to blessing as defined by Jesus, which definition is so different from the world's, or my own. I wonder where the signs of this kind of blessedness are to be found today.

Bonhoeffer concludes on a marvelous note. Here are two samples.

Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found—on the cross of Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call "blessed, blessed." (pp. 113-114)

. . . while Jesus calls them blessed, the world cries: "Away with them, away with them!" Yes, but whither? To the kingdom of heaven. "Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven." There shall the poor be seen in the halls of joy. With his own hand God wipes away the tears from the eyes of those who had mourned upon earth. He feeds the hungry at his Banquet. There stand the scarred bodies of the martyrs, now glorified and clothed in white robes of eternal righteousness instead of the rags of sin and repentance. The echoes of this joy reach the little flock below as it stands beneath the cross, and they hear Jesus saying: "Blessed are ye!" (p. 114)

Quotes from The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995)

Apologies to Spielberg and Williams . . .

but this is a well done spoof!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

As if I had never sinned...

Recently, our church has begun using the Heidelberg Catechism in Sunday worship. This morning our minister used HC Q&A 60 as the Assurance of Pardon following the corporate Prayer of Confession, which this morning was from Psalm 51.

Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.[1] Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, have never kept any of them,[2] and am still inclined to all evil,[3] yet God, without any merit of my own,[4] out of mere grace,[5] imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.[6] He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me,[7] if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.[8]

[1] Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:8-11. [2] Rom. 3:9, 10. [3] Rom. 7:23. [4] Deut. 9:6; Ezek. 36:22; Tit. 3:4, 5. [5] Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8. [6] Rom. 4:3-5; II Cor. 5:17-19; I John 2:1, 2. [7] Rom. 4:24, 25; II Cor. 5:21. [8] John 3:18; Acts 16:30, 31; Rom. 3:22

That is awesome.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quotable Haneke

I often compare filmmaking with building a ski jump; the actual jumping should be done by the audience. For the filmmaker, this is pretty hard—it’s much easier to do the jump yourself, to do it for the viewer. Because there’s always the fear of frustrating them. What do I have to indicate? What do I leave out? How much can I not spell out when constructing a film and still not frustrate the audience? Such strategies have become widely accepted in modern literature, but much less so in cinema. That’s a bit sad.

. . . .

As Brecht put it, “simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.” Everyone dreams of doing things simply and still impregnating them with the fullness of the world. Only the best ones achieve this. Kiarostami has, and so has Bresson. But I must say that I see too few new films; I used to see more, but now I mostly watch older things, at home. I feel more enriched when re-watching Dreyer or other classics. They tell me more about the world of today than today’s films!

Michael Haneke, from an interview in Film Comment (November/December 2009)

And I agree completely with those sentiments.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The trouble with moral difficulties

The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are like a splash of freezing cold water in the face. They confront and shake the complacency of the reader. To put it crudely -- Bonhoeffer cuts through the crap. Jesus did the same in his encounters with all kinds of people. They were constantly coming to him with questions and requests. Time after time we see in the gospels Jesus forcing people to confront their real issues, the issues of the heart. He changes the agenda. Jesus is much more concerned with the individual than he is with the problems of the individual.

In The Cost of Discipleship there's an interesting section on Jesus's dialogue with the Rich Young Ruler (see Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23). This young man was exemplary in many ways. His motives were sincere. He held Jesus in high esteem. Mark's account tells us that he fell on his knees before Jesus. But there's a problem. This man wants advice from a good master. He has a problem that he hopes can be solved. Jesus is a problem-solver, not the Son of God with an absolute claim on his life. His encounter with the great rabbi begins with a rude shock ("Why callest thou me good?") and ends in profound sadness. Bonhoeffer pinpoints the true nature of this young man's problem in his second question "Which commandment?" It's the follow-up questions that get you! Like the lawyer's question "Who is my neighbor?" in Luke 10, he unwittingly gives the game away. He's more interested in his own "moral difficulties" than the commandments of God. Bonhoeffer sees the devil himself lurking beneath the question. This man's questions are a form of evasion that comes naturally to all of us as a result of the Fall.

Moral difficulties were the first consequence of the Fall, and are themselves the outcome of "Man in Revolt" against God. The Serpent in Paradise put them into the mind of the first man by asking, "Hath God said?" Until then the divine command had been clear enough, and man was ready to observe it in childlike obedience. But that is now past, and moral doubts and difficulties have crept in. The command, suggests the Serpent, needs to be explained and interpreted. "Hath God said?" Man must decide for himself what is good by using his conscience and his knowledge of good and evil. The commandment may be variously interpreted, and it is God's will that it should be interpreted and explained: for God has given man a free will to decide what he will do.

But this means disobedience from the start. Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience. The grown-up man with his freedom of conscience vaunts his superiority over the child of obedience. But he has acquired the freedom to enjoy moral difficulties only at the cost of renouncing obedience. In short, it is a retreat from the reality of God to the speculations of men, from faith to doubt. . . . He is—man under sin. (pp. 72-73)

I wonder if some times we use our questions and intellectual struggles as excuses to avoid doing what we know we should do. One of Bonhoeffer's great contributions is to remind us that the call and command of Jesus is clear and unmistakeable. However, there is one willing to provide a comforting answer to our moral difficulties—the one who was a liar from the beginning. He says, "Keep on posing problems, and you will escape the necessity of obedience." Jesus simply says, "Follow me."

Quotes from The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995)

Rod Dreher goes rogue

Read and listen here

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009


From battlefield photographer David Guttenfelder. Many more here.

Ted Kluck on the Laura Linney Film

From Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion:

I just watched a film called The Savages (with Laura Linney and Phil Seymour Hoffman), which is a depressing emotional beating in the vein of Running with Scissors, The Squid and the Whale, and to a lesser extent, Little Miss Sunshine. It's the Laura Linney Film, which is now, I've discovered, its own genre. That's not to say it's bad; it's just its own depressing, unresolved thing that's more like watching a random neighbor's slightly more stylized life than watching a movie. It's a "thing" just like a Quentin Tarantino film is a thing. Hoffman and Linney, though, were amazing.

The reason I mention this film, now, in this book, is that the Laura Linney Film is often a very accurate and sad representation of what life looks like for American intellectuals without Christ and without the church. The films all follow a similar story arc, which is that hard things happen to intellectuals (a divorce in Squid, or a parent dying in Savages), those intellectuals have their lives turned upside down by that event, and in the end they get on with their lives, but we don't know for sure if they've learned anything or grown in any significant way. The films always make me sad, though it should be said that I love the performances, and they always make me thankful for pastors and my church body, imperfect though it is. In a way that might very well be cowardly, I know that my church will be there for me when I have to go through awful life events, and it's a comfort.

Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009) pp. 103-104

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stoning the rebellious son

I've written previously about J.V. Fesko's very helpful treatment of the ten commmandments The Rule of Love. In a recent chapel message Fesko unpacked Deuteronomy 21:18-23 -- the passage that sanctions the stoning to death of a stubborn and rebellious son. Fesko's teaching demonstrates that a Christ-centered approach to the Mosaic law is a better alternative than dismissing this as barbarism, or claiming as some do, that the judicial laws of OT Israel are normative for civil society today.

Listen here

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More on Stupak

William McGurn:

Not many folks in Washington have made Nancy Pelosi cry "uncle."

Bart Stupak is one of the few. For months, the Michigan Democrat has been threatening to bring down any health-care bill unless the House was given the opportunity to vote to extend the ban on taxpayer dollars for abortion to the new federal programs being created. On Saturday night, Mrs. Pelosi caved and Mr. Stupak prevailed.

The result is one of the few, real up-or-down votes we ever get on abortion—and the only part of the health-care mess that shows any bipartisan consensus. In the end, 63 Democrats and Mr. Stupak joined all but one Republican on an amendment that does two things: prohibits federal funds for an abortion or for abortion coverage; allows (notwithstanding pro-choice propaganda) private insurers to offer abortion coverage so long as tax dollars are not involved.

"Mr. Stupak and I have not always agreed on things," Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, told me. "But I commend him for his effort here. His willingness to dig in the way he did was admirable."

Monday, November 9, 2009

What would Chesterton say to Deepak Chopra?

Probably something like this

"They may get the stuff, but we’ll get the souls."

That's the great answer Bishop Robert Duncan gave in response to a question from The New York Times Magazine about a lawsuit filed by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Read the whole interview with the head of the Anglican Church in North America here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A profile in political courage

William McGurn writing in The Wall Street Journal:

A nine-term congressman from northern Michigan, Mr. Stupak is the kind of Catholic who once constituted the heart of the Democratic Party. Just like Gov. Casey before him, Mr. Stupak's stand for life—in this case, his fight against tax dollars for abortion—is making him a thorn in the side of a Democratic president.

It didn't have to be this way. In his Notre Dame speech, President Barack Obama called for "open hearts" that would help us find "common ground" to "reduce the number of women seeking abortions." During his more recent address to a joint session of Congress, the president was even more specific about health-care reform, promising that "no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions."

That is just what Mr. Stupak is trying to do with an amendment to the health-care legislation that would explicitly ban federal funding for abortion. Here's the problem: His own party won't let him bring it to the floor for a vote.

If you were following the health care debate over the weekend you know that Rep. Bart Stupak and a coalition of pro-life Democrats forced Pelosi and the party leadership to allow an eleventh hour vote on the Stupak/Pitts Amendment which passed easily. Whatever you think of the health care bill this was a heartening victory for supporters of the right to life of unborn children. Now the battle moves to the Senate. Stupak's courageous stand against his own party leadership was a bright spot in an otherwise grim news week. I'm glad there are still a few Democrats like Bart Stupak!

The freedom and familiarity of prayer

John Calvin commenting on Psalm 102:2

Having elsewhere spoken more fully of these forms of expression, it may suffice, at present, briefly to observe, that when God permits us to lay open before him our infirmities without reserve, and patiently bears with our foolishness, he deals in a way of great tenderness towards us. To pour out our complaints before him after the manner of little children would certainly be to treat his Majesty with very little reverence, were it not that he has been pleased to allow us such freedom. I purposely make use of this illustration, that the weak, who are afraid to draw near to God, may understand that they are invited to him with such gentleness as that nothing may hinder them from familiarly and confidently approaching him.

Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Still a center-right country?

It's always tricky to read too much into the results of off-year elections, but last night couldn't have been good news to Obama and the Dems. Republicans won big in New Jersey and Virginia where the president spent precious political capital trying to ensure Democrats held on. Exit polls indicate that the young and first-time voters that swept Obama to power aren't as willing to turn out for other candidates just because they're endorsed by the president or have a D by their name. On the other hand, the favored candidate of the tea party insurgents lost in New York.

More interesting to me is that legalized same-sex marriage lost again in a region not known for social conservatism. As Rod Dreher writes today supporters of same-sex marriage will blame the result on bigotry and homophobia, but maybe a majority of Americans still see the value in preserving the traditional definition of marriage. Maybe they understand the arguments in favor of SSM, but simply don't buy the underlying assumptions that support them -- as in sexual orientation is the determinative equivalent of race, and the rights of two people in love trump every other consideration.

What does it all mean? The conventional wisdom after the 2008 Democratic tsunami was that the US was no longer a center-right country, and the GOP was destined to be a permanent minority. If nothing else, last night's results show that that assessment may have been premature. Politics is a lot like football, a team (or political party) is never as good as they look in their biggest win and never as bad as they look in their worst defeat. There's always next week or next year.

OK, back to more important subjects . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Calvin's definition of faith

Throughout the year I've been posting items from A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes -- a collection of essays on various subjects from John Calvin's magnum opus. Reading it has whetted my appetite to delve into the Institutes themselves (maybe I'll tackle that in 2010). Joel Beeke contributes one of my favorite chapters in which he discusses several large topics from Institutes Book 3 as indicated by the title "Appropriating Salvation: The Spirit, Faith and Assurance, and Repentance". Here's some good stuff on faith and assurance.

Calvin's doctrine of faith affirms the basic tenets of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli and also discloses emphases of his own. Like Luther and Zwingli, Calvin says faith is never merely assent (assensus), but involves both knowledge (cognitio) and trust (fiducia). He affirms that knowledge and trust are saving dimensions of the life of faith rather than notional matters. Faith is not historical knowledge plus saving assent, but a saving and certain knowledge joined with a saving and assured trust (3.2.14). Calvin held that knowledge is foundational to faith. Knowledge rests upon the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures in general as well as the gospel in particular. Faith originates in response to the Word of God. Faith rests firmly upon God's Word; it always says amen to the Scriptures. Hence assurance must be sought in the Word and flows out of the Word. Assurance is as inseparable from the Word as sunbeams are from the sun. (pp. 277-278)

Consequently, Calvin's formal definition of faith reads like this: "Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (3.2.7). Calvin stresses that faith is assurance of God's promise in Christ and involves the whole man in the use of the mind, the application to the heart, and the surrendering of the will (3.2.8). Assurance is of the essence of faith. (p. 279)

We can be thankful that Calvin's Word and Spirit-driven doctrine of faith recovered for the church the truth that saving faith is more than obedient submission to what the church teaches. Saving faith is personal, cognitive, experiential and as certain as the promises of God upon which it rests.

Quotes from Beeke, A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bonhoeffer on Luther and the justification of sinners

I'm rereading The Cost of Discipleship -- for my money one of the best books ever written on the Christian life, especially section one with its discussion of cheap grace vs. costly grace. Cheap grace is "the grace we bestow on ourselves." It's "grace without discipleship, grace without the cross." Costly grace is "costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life." Even if you've never read the book you've probably heard the famous line -- "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Nachfolge (Discipleship), as it was originally called, may be the high point in Bonhoeffer's struggle to work out what it means for the Christian to be fully in the world, but not of the world. What makes the book so powerful is that it was for the author more than a theoretical struggle. In his case Christ's call led to a martyr's death at age 39. Bonhoeffer's struggle was a central preoccupation for Luther also. In chapter one Bonhoeffer gives an insightful analysis of Luther's breakthroughs on justification and calling, and identifies a misapprehension of those breakthroughs that had led to an epidemic of cheap grace within the Lutheran churches of Germany. Here is some of that.

When the Reformation came, the providence of God raised Martin Luther to restore the gospel of pure, costly grace. Luther passed through the cloister; he was a monk, and all this was part of the divine plan. Luther had left all to follow Christ on the path of absolute obedience. He had renounced the world in order to live the Christian life. He had learnt obedience to Christ and to his Church, because only he who is obedient can believe. The call to the cloister demanded of Luther the complete surrender of his life. But God shattered all his hopes. He showed him through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction. Monasticism had transformed the humble work of discipleship into the meritorious activity of the saints, and the self-renunciation of discipleship into the flagrant spiritual self-assertion of the "religious." The world had crept into the very heart of the monastic life, and was once more making havoc. The monk's attempt to flee from the world turned out to be a subtle form of love for the world. The bottom having thus been knocked out of the religious life. Luther laid hold upon grace. Just as the whole world of monasticism was crashing about him in ruins, he saw God in Christ stretching forth his hand to save. He grasped that hand in faith, believing that "after all, nothing we can do is of any avail, however good a life we live." The grace which gave itself to him was a costly grace, and it shattered his whole existence. Once more he must leave his nets and follow. The first time was when he entered the monastery, when he had left everything behind except his pious self. This time even that was taken from him. He obeyed the call, not through any merit of his own, but simply through the grace of God. Luther did not hear the word: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." No, Luther had to leave the cloister and go back to the world, not because the world in itself was good and holy, but because even the cloister was only a part of the world. (pp. 47-48)

It is a fatal misunderstanding of Luther's action to suppose that his rediscovery of the gospel of pure grace offered a general dispensation from obedience to the command of Jesus, or that it was the great discovery of the Reformation that God's forgiving grace automatically conferred upon the world both righteousness and holiness. On the contrary, for Luther the Christian's worldly calling is sanctified only in so far as that calling registers the final, radical protest against the world. Only in so far as the Christian's secular calling is exercised in the following of Jesus does it receive from the gospel new sanction and justification. It was not the justification of sin, but the justification of the sinner that drove Luther from the cloister back into the world. . . . That was the secret of the gospel of the Reformation—the justification of the sinner. (pp. 48-49, emphasis mine)

Quotes from Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995)

Friday, October 30, 2009

From the printing press to Google

Carl Trueman on Luther and mass media:

@ Christ the Center

Remembering Howards End

I came across the following wonderful tribute by LA Times critic Kenneth Turan on my favorite costume drama ever, and one of the films that converted me from a casual moviegoer circa 1992 to passionate film buff.

Who speaks of Howards End these days? Who expounds on the virtues of this magnificent drama, whose traditional style seems almost as distant as its Edwardian setting? Seen today, years past its 1992 release, it strikes one as not only the ultimate accomplishment of the Merchant Ivory team but also the high-water mark of a certain kind of filmmaking, a landmark example of movies of passion, taste, and sensitivity that honestly touch every emotion. Below its exquisitely modulated surface, this film may set off lasting and heartfelt reverberations in the viewer; every time you see it, it moves you in different ways.

Continue reading

By the way I did see a new movie this week -- A Serious Man -- the latest from the brothers Coen. It's definitely worth a post or two when time permits.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The view from Middle World

One last excerpt from The God Delusion. Finishing this book turned out to be a chore, but the last chapter has some good stuff. One doesn't have to accept Richard Dawkins' agenda to be delighted by paragraphs like these.

We live near the centre of a cavernous museum of magnitudes, viewing the world with sense organs and nervous systems that are equipped to perceive and understand only a small middle range of sizes, moving at a middle range of speeds. We are at home with objects ranging in size from a few kilometres (the view from a mountaintop) to about a tenth of a millimetre (the point of a pin). Outside this range even our imagination is handicapped, and we need the help of instruments and of mathematics — which, fortunately, we can learn to deploy. The range of sizes, distances or speeds with which our imaginations are comfortable is a tiny band, set in the midst of a gigantic range of the possible, from the scale of quantum strangeness at the smaller end to the scale of Einsteinian cosmology at the larger.

Our imaginations are forlornly under-equipped to cope with distances outside the narrow middle range of the ancestrally familiar. We try to visualize an electron as a tiny ball, in orbit around a larger cluster of balls representing protons and neutrons. That isn't what it is like at all. Electrons are not like little balls. They are not like anything we recognize. It isn't clear that 'like' even means anything when we try to fly too close to reality's further horizons. Our imaginations are not yet tooled-up to penetrate the neighborhood of the quantum. (p. 363)

Dawkins means to demonstrate in passages like this that we don't need God to inspire a sense of wonder. He wants his readers to be content with the power of science to "open the mind and satisfy the psyche." (p. 362) He quotes the biologist J.B.S. Haldane: "Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose . . . I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy." (p. 364) I agree! Dawkins looks at this queerness and sees only impersonal processes with science as the ground and end of all things, I look at that same universe and see God. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." 1 Corinthians 2:9 (KJV)

All quotes from Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Exposing the Baby Einstein racket

@ Movie Mom

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Berkhof on dogma (part 2)

After defining dogma and defending its necessity for the Christian faith and the church ("a Church without dogmas would be a silent Church") Louis Berkhof goes on to describe in the prolegomenon to his Systematic Theology three elements that go into the making of dogma -- the social element, the traditional element, and the element of authority. Protestants and Catholics are united when it comes to the first two, but part ways on the third.

The social element reminds us that the truths we confess as Christians are not solely the product of private reflection (the Bible and me) but of the church as a whole (the Bible and we). Berkhof writes, "Though the appropriation of the truth revealed in the Bible is first of all personal, it gradually assumes a communal and corporate aspect. . . . Personal opinions, however true and valuable they may be, do not constitute Christian dogmas." (p. 31)

The social element leads into the traditional element. It's worth quoting at length from this section because the tendencies Berkhof takes aim at are still alive and well.

Christianity rests on historical facts which come to our knowledge through a revelation given and completed more than nineteen centuries ago. And the correct understanding and interpretation of these facts can only result from the continual prayers and meditation, from the study and struggles, of the Church of all ages. No one Christian can ever hope to succeed in assimilating and reproducing properly the whole content of the divine revelation. Neither is one generation ever able to accomplish the task. The formation of dogmas is the task of the Church of all ages, a task which requires great spiritual energy on the part of successive generations. And history teaches us that, in spite of differences of opinion and protracted struggles, and even in spite of temporary retrogressions, the Church's insight into the truth gradually gained in clarity and profundity. One truth after another became, the center of attention, and was brought to ever greater development. And the historical Creeds of the Churches now embody in concentrated form the best results of the reflection and study of past centuries. It is at once the duty and the privilege of the Church of our day to enter into that heritage of bygone years, and to continue to build on the foundation that was laid.

There is a manifest tendency, however, on the part of modern liberal theology to break with the past. Many of its representatives are often rather loud in their praises of the Creeds of the Church as historical documents, but refuse to acknowledge their doctrinal value for the present. And, sad to say, the so-called Fundamentalists of our day join hands with the liberals on this point with their well-known slogan, "No Creed but the Bible." They do not seem to realize that this really involves a break with the historical past of the Church, a refusal to profit by the lessons which the Churches of the Reformation passed on as a precious heritage to following generations in their great Creeds and Confessions, and a virtual denial of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the past history of the Church. (pp. 32-33, bold emphasis mine)

Historically Protestants have also accepted the element of ecclesiastical authority in defining right doctrine. "When the Churches of the Reformation officially define their doctrines and thereby turn them into dogmas, they also implicitly declare them to rest on divine authority and to be expressions of the truth." (p. 33) The difference with Rome, and where the Reformation cry sola Scriptura comes in, is in the Protestant denial of an infallible Church. "The Roman Catholic Church claims absolute infallibility for its dogmas, partly because they are revealed truths, but especially because they are proposed for the faith of the faithful by an infallible Church. . . . This absolutism is not shared by the Protestant Churches. While they expect acceptance of their dogmas, because they regard them as correct formulations of Scripture truth, they admit the possibility that the Church may have been in error in defining the truth. And if dogmas are found to be contrary to the Word of God, they cease to be authoritative." (p. 33)

Between the claim of Rome to infallibly interpret the Bible for me, and the opposite extreme that invites me to read the Bible as if it dropped out of the sky into my lap, I find the historic Protestantism articulated by Berkhof to be a good place to stand.

All quotes from Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932 & 1996)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Berkhof on dogma (part 1)

I've been reading the prolegomenon to Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology, which I obtained at this bargain price from Though it's almost 80 years old I'd say this hefty volume is still the English-language Reformed dogmatics to have on your bookshelf. It's worth having just for the section on dogma—a bracing tonic against the negative connotation we moderns associate with that word. Here are some snippets.

Systematic Theology or Dogmatics deals with the dogmata, the accepted doctrines of the Church. . . . The word 'dogma' is derived from the Greek verb dokein. In classical Greek the expression dokein moi meant not only, it seems to me, or, I am of the opinion, but also, I have come to the conclusion, I am certain, it is my conviction. And it is especially this idea of certainty that finds expression in the word 'dogma'. (p. 18)

It may be said that religious dogmas have three characteristics, namely: their subject-matter is derived from Scripture; they are the fruit of the reflection of the Church on the truth, as it is revealed in the Bible; and they are officially adopted by some competent ecclesiastical body. (p. 21)

The present age is an undogmatic age. There is a manifest aversion, not only to dogmas, but even to doctrines, and to a systematic presentation of doctrinal truth. During the last half a century very few dogmatical works made their appearance, while the market was flooded with works on the History of Religions, the Philosophy of Religion, and the Psychology of Religion. The assertion is often heard that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life, and that it makes very little difference what we believe, if we but share the life of Christ. There is an insistent cry, especially in our own country, for a Christianity without dogmas. Dogmatical preaching is not in favor and is therefore avoided in many circles. Many conservative Christians clamour for purely experiential preaching, while others of a more liberal type greatly prefer ethical or social preaching. (p. 26)

Sound familiar? Change a few descriptors and Berkhof could have been writing in 2009 instead of 1932. He goes on to lay much of the blame for the opposition to dogmas at the feet of Kantian philosophical tendencies and Ritschlian theology (one need not be familiar with Kant or Ritschl to be influenced by their ideas). Further, any effort to dispense with dogma is itself a kind of dogma.

Every Church has its dogmas. Even the Churches that are constantly decrying dogmas have them in effect. When they say that they want a Christianity without dogma, they are by that very statement declaring a dogma. They all have certain definite convictions in religious matters, and also ascribe to them a certain authority, though they do not always formulate them officially and acknowledge them candidly. . . . A Church without dogmas would be a silent Church, and this is a contradiction in terms. A silent witness would be no witness at all, and would never convince anyone. (p. 31)

All quotes from Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932 & 1996)

To be continued . . .