Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Carl finishes the race

Did y'all see the wild finish at Talladega on Sunday? I didn't see it live, but hey, it's on YouTube. As spectacular as the crash was, it's what happened afterward that's one of the best improvised TV moments I've seen in a while. Here it is.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Good news from The Presbyterian Coalition

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has decided for the fourth time in twelve years to uphold the ordination standard in its constitution (G-6.0106b). On April 25--today--the Presbytery of Northern Plains cast the deciding vote.

Attempts to repeal the standard of Scripture and Confessions regarding the acceptability of sexual behavior outside the marriage of a man and a woman have failed again. In spite of cultural pressures to normalize non-marital relations, the PC(USA) stands with the Body of Christ around the world and across the ages in affirming God's plan for marriage as the proper place for human sexual intimacy...

A faithful witness and ministry in the areas of sexual morality is a distinct part of the Church's calling in our day. We urge the churches of the PC(USA), in looking to the future, to recall these words of Reformer Martin Luther:

"If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that one point."

Read the whole thing

Some might see this is a hollow victory -- a case of too little too late -- but I'm celebrating. Can you imagine what the headlines would be this morning if the vote had gone the other way?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunshine State Jesus

The historic Reformed position prohibiting visual representations of Christ strikes some as too extreme. But at least it would protect us from bad ideas like this.

IMAGES OF CHRIST. Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. He denied that he had come "to abolish the law and the prophets" (Matt. 5:17). But images are forbidden by the law and the prophets" (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9). He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (II Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16). But "what agreement has the temple of God with idols?" (II Cor. 6:16).

The Second Helvetic Confession (Chapter IV "Of Idols or Images of God, Christ and The Saints")

It's scary

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

- Leonard Cohen

Last week I overhead a typical conversation.

"Have you been following the story of the craigslist murderer?"

"Not really. Fill me in."

"Apparently this medical student in Boston committed this really gruesome murder of a woman he met on craigslist."


"Yeah, and what's really creepy is this guy was a really smart, clean-cut guy that you would never suspect of doing something like this. Why would someone who had everything going for him do something like that?"

"It's scary!"

"Yes it is!"

Truth of the matter is it really is scary. But it shouldn't be surprising. If Christianity teaches anything, it's that we all have an untapped potential for evil within us. Chesterton perceptively observed that the doctrine of original sin is the only Christian doctrine self-evidently true from human experience. Yet we're continually surprised when a clean-cut med student turns out to have a dark side. To say that we're all born with a dark side isn't to say that everyone acts on it to the fullest. Common grace acts as a restraint on evil. Thankfully, serial killers and genocidal dictators are still comparatively rare -- though we shouldn't presume that God's restraining of evil will last indefinitely. Perhaps we're frightened by stories like this because deep down I realize I'm not as different from the Philip Markoff's of the world as I'd like to think. On the flip side, even killers and dictators share something of the Imago Dei with the most virtuous among us. Does that bother you? It shouldn't.

Christianity isn't a Manichean religion of good versus evil forever fighting it out for supremacy, but it does look beyond externals to the real problem -- the evil that resides in the human heart. Christianity is the one religion that takes the problem of evil seriously. In Matthew 15 Jesus is catching flak from folks who thought they could judge one's righteousness, or lack thereof, by external factors. There's a little of them in all of us I'm afraid. In typical fashion Jesus demolishes their pretensions and zeroes in on the heart of the matter, the source of the radical evil he came to fix. "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." (Matt. 15:19) Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked that the line between good and evil runs right down the middle of every human heart. Yeah, it's scary. But all who turn to Christ in faith and repentance can say with the Apostle Paul, "by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain." And what's more, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." The cross has triumphed over evil. It's only a matter of time now.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Huff on Boyle

American Idol -- and its many imitations -- is a pop culture phenomenon that leaves me cold. I haven't watched a single episode and probably never will. But like millions of others I've become fascinated by the pop culture phenomenon that's Susan Boyle. Imagine my surprise, then, when the best thing I've come across on Miss Boyle's triumph comes from fellow Idol-basher Randy Huff. Here is his excellent piece.

Life, Talent and what Matters

Friday, April 24, 2009

Paulie's system

Mention Paul Sorvino and garlic to any Goodfellas afficionado and they'll immediately think of the scene where Sorvino, playing mob boss Paul Cicero, finely slices the garlic with a razor blade as he and his cohorts prepare dinner in prison. When Wine Spectator interviewed Sorvino it was inevitable that they would ask him about that scene.

WS: Do you really slice garlic with a razor blade, or was that just for Goodfellas?
PS: Certainly not. I use a very sharp paring knife, but I do keep my knives razor sharp. I have very good knives, and I sharpen them weekly. That makes all the difference in the world. I don't use a food processor—I do everything by hand. I enjoy that.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Here's the scene in its entirety. Watch it and see if you can't almost smell the simmering tomato sauce. Let's eat!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This momentary mystery

Very soon the shadow will give way to Reality. The partial will pass into the Perfect. The foretaste will lead to the Banquet. The troubled path will end in Paradise. A hundred candle-lit evenings will come to their consummation in the marriage supper of the Lamb. And this momentary marriage will be swallowed up by Life. Christ will be all in all. And the purpose of marriage will be complete.

John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (p. 178)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bavinck on the covenant of grace

Grace is something other and higher than nature, but it nevertheless joins up with nature, does not destroy it but restores it rather. Grace is not a legacy which is transferred by natural birth, but it does flow on in the river-bed which has been dug out in the natural relationships of the human race. The covenant of grace does not ramble about at random, but perpetuates itself, historically and organically, in families, generations, nations.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith

I need to read this guy for myself one of these days! So many books, so little time...

HT: The Reformed Reader

The shepherd and the butcher

Thirdly, the good shepherd leads his sheep. Here is another difference between oriental and occidental shepherds. In the West shepherds seldom if ever lead their sheep; they drive them from behind with the use of trained sheepdogs. Because of the Palestinians close relationship with his sheep, however, he is able to walk in front of them, call them, perhaps whistle or play a pipe, and they will follow him. Chua Wee Hian, former General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, tells us in his book Learning to Lead of an Arab guide who was explaining this tradition to some tourists, who then 'spotted a man in the distance driving a small flock of sheep with a rather menacing stick'. Was the guide mistaken, then? 'He immediately stopped the bus and rushed off across the fields. A few minutes later he returned, his face beaming. He announced, "I have just spoken to the man. Ladies and gentlemen, he is not the shepherd. He is in fact the butcher!"'

John Stott, "The Church's Pastors" in The Contemporary Christian (p. 284)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Letter to Samuel on your baptism

Dear Samuel,

Tomorrow you will be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Ancient words will be spoken over you, words that signify entrance into an eternal Kingdom, a Kingdom based on love and mercy, qualities expressed in the sacrament of holy baptism. Just as you will carry the name mommy and I gave you for the rest of your life even though you had nothing to do with choosing it, so you will carry the mark of baptism even though you didn't have anything to do with the decision to be baptized. In fact, you won't even remember it! By presenting you for baptism, mommy and I are publicly affirming that it's God who has the first word as to your eternal destiny. Tomorrow marks a beginning, not an end.

There are some who sincerely believe, based on their understanding of the Bible, that you shouldn't be baptized because you're too young to make a profession of faith. Others misunderstand baptism as being a guarantee of salvation. Mommy and I believe, based on Scripture, that the infant children of Christian parents have a special status, are set apart, and should be welcomed into the visible covenant community called the church (what the Apostle Paul called "the Israel of God") by the sign and seal of baptism. We are blessed to be members of a church, and part of a faith tradition, that grants you this privilege. We also understand that baptism doesn't save anyone, child or adult, apart from faith in Christ.

Though what will happen tomorrow is not a guarantee of your salvation, it's more than symbolic, and it's more than merely a rite of dedication. Just as our Lord and Savior promises grace through the common elements of bread and wine at his table, so the grace of baptism is tied to the common element of water by the promises of God's Word. Our church's confession of faith tells us that the effectiveness of baptism is not tied to the moment in time it happens. And so our fervent prayer is that you will turn to Christ in faith and repentance as soon as you're old enough to understand your need for a Savior, and that you'll grow up never remembering a time when you didn't believe in him. That's why we sing you songs about Jesus even though you're too young to understand the words. Your baptism will remind us that the God whose steadfast love reaches from generation to generation often works through families to carry out his saving purposes. Baptism is about God's doing, not our's.

Tomorrow is a joyful day for mommy and I. We've been looking forward to this day since before you were born. As we stand in front of the church there will probably be tears in daddy's eyes, just as there were when I stood in front of the church and married your wonderful mommy. It's also a solemn day. We will stand before God and make vows to set a godly example before you, teach you the doctrines of our faith, and strive to bring you up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Not only that, but the members of the family of faith of which you will become the newest member, will promise to take responsibility for your Christian nurture. You already have a biological family, tomorrow you'll gain a spiritual family, with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. It will be up to mommy and I to explain the meaning of those privileges and responsibilities to you as you get older.

When I hand you to the minister tomorrow, I'll be committing you to the care of our Heavenly Father, who created you "to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." May you grow up to seek him early like young Samuel in the Bible, who said, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening." May you grow up to be "like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither." And above all, may you finally be counted righteous in Christ. Mommy and I feel unworthy to be your parents, little Sam. Your potential is limitless. We love you more than words can say!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Stick to what you do best, Mr. President

President Obama Exegetes and Applies the Sermon on the Mount


Anniversary song

Time it was I had a dream
And you're the dream come true
And if I had the world to give
I'd give it all to you...

Mel's and Marty's Jesus: a reappraisal

From Joshua Land the best thing I've read on Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Despite their differences, the films share much in common. Not least, as Land notes, the two singular artistic visions that drove these problematic projects to completion. I agree with his conclusion:

For much of Christian history, many doctrinal traditions have frowned upon any attempt at artistic representations of the person of Jesus. Even—or perhaps especially—in an era defined by a seemingly infinite proliferation of images, it’s a position worth taking seriously, and not only by the devout. There’s a reason that very few cinematic portrayals of Jesus have been widely hailed as aesthetic successes. Some subjects are so daunting as to defy direct representation; like the sun, they’re best examined obliquely. Scorsese has indicated that he doesn’t consider Last Temptation among his most successful films, musing that he’s dealt with religious material more successfully at an allegorical level elsewhere. It’s hard to disagree. As a fictional parable about sin and redemption, The Last Temptation of Christ is no Raging Bull. And as a meditation on Christ’s suffering and death, The Passion of the Christ doesn’t hold a candle to Au Hasard Balthazar.

Talk About the Passions: Looking beyond the culture-war controversies of two Jesus movies

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Immigrants and missionaries

In Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling author Andy Crouch demolishes the notion of a monolithic something called The Culture. As in "taking back The Culture" or "protecting our families from The Culture." And he manages to do it by the first two chapters, which is as far as I've gotten in this fascinating and engaging book. For one thing, culture is impossibly huge to speak of in such grandiose or absolute terms, and for another, culture is always plural. It's more fruitful to think and speak of culture(s) as circles of varying size and scale that constantly overlap and influence each other. Crouch supplies perceptive examples to illustrate this, including many "Aha!" moments, as when he speculates how the culture of an office building might overlap and influence that of a church. "Workers in the high-rise office building may prefer their church culture to be like their office's—pleasantly anonymous, professionally cleaned and well supplied with parking." (p. 44) Or how the culture of our families sets the horizons of the possible and impossible. I had to read this to Shannon since it describes to a t one of the differences between our respective families. "In one family's culture it is 'impossible' for people who love each other to argue with one another; in another family's culture it is 'impossible' for people who love each other not to argue with one another." (p. 46)

Crouch borrows from Ken Myers the notion that culture is fundamentally our attempt to make sense of the world and to make something of the world. This endeavor begins for each one of us at birth, something I've been witnessing with awe in our 2-month old. What a staggering experience it must be to wake up every morning in a world where everything is fresh and new! Culture is also a product of the choices we make, or someone else made for us. My "cultural world" -- city, neighborhood, job, church, hobbies, etc. -- was profoundly shaped by the surprising choice my father made when I was six years old to move his family from rural Indiana to South Florida. More and more this is the experience of us all as America (and the world) becomes more mobile and diverse, and of course, one can't speak of culture without tackling its ethnic component, which Crouch does to close chapter 2.

The diversity of a country like America is sustained by countless choices about which cultural world we will inhabit, where we will settle down to our world-making project. My choice to drive to the Gryphon Café [the coffee shop in Wayne, PA where Crouch wrote much of the book], to make something of (and make something within) the horizons it generates, reinforces certain cultures—the culture of the independently owned coffee shop, the culture of bourgeois bohemia, the culture of the automobile—and leaves other cultural spheres and scales untouched and untended. When my African American neighbor passes by the Italian American-owned barbershop in our town on his way to a black-owned barbershop six miles away, he is not just prudently calculating that the culture of Italian American barbering has no idea what to make of what the prophet Daniel called "hair like pure wool"—he is also reinforcing his link to a culture that could otherwise become distant and irrelevant.

So finding our place in the world as culture makers requires us to pay attention to culture's many dimensions. We will make something of the world in a particular ethnic tradition, in particular spheres, at particular scales. There is no such thing as "the Culture," and any attempt to talk about "the Culture," especially in terms of "transforming the Culture," is misled and misleading. Real culture making, not to mention cultural transformation, begins with a decision about which cultural world—or, better, worlds—we will attempt to make something of.

Some people choose a set of cultural ripples that was not originally their own. When they do so in pursuit of economic or political opportunities, we've traditionally called them "immigrants"; when they do so in pursuit of evangelistic or religious opportunities, we've called them "missionaries." But as the wheels within wheels overlap more and more in a mobile world, most of us have some choice about which cultures we will call our own. We are almost all immigrants now, and more of us than we may realize are missionaries too. (pp. 48-49)

I'm sure I'll be sharing more from Culture Making, on this my little attempt to make sense of the world, called a blog.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart."

That line from the popular hymn makes for a nice personal testimony, but it's a terrible apologetic for the historical fact of the empty tomb. Why?

Mike, Ken, Kim and Rod discuss on the Easter edition of the White Horse Inn.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A snowstorm and a preacher who stuck to his text

Preaching on John 3:14-15 last Sunday, John Piper read this story from a famous man's memoirs. I share it here as encouragement for anyone who's ever offered what you felt were halting or stumbling words in the service of the gospel. You just never know.

I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people....The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach....He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth [Isaiah 45:22].”

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.

“But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me’....Many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. Ye will never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some of ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’”

Then the good man followed up his text in this way: “Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ and great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!”

When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say, with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”

Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did not take much notice of it—I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” What a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.

There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him....And now I can say—

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

That famous man was Charles Spurgeon. Think of it! God used a simple layman, a fill-in on account of a freak London snowstorm, in the conversion of the greatest preacher of the 19th century.

Jesus, Socrates and Easter

Easter? We're paying more attention to dying than to death. We're more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as 'the last enemy' (1 Cor. 15:26). There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection. It's not from ars moriendi, the art of dying, but from the resurrection of Christ, that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world. Here is the answer to "Give me somewhere to stand, and I will move the earth" (Archimedes). If a few people really believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed. To live in the light of the resurrection -- that is what Easter means.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Eberhard Bethge (27 March 1944), Letters & Papers From Prison

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jesus of the Scars

If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars; we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

- Edward Shillito (1872-1948)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Kingdom confusion

I've been listening to Sinclair Ferguson's sermon from last Sunday at First Presbyterian Columbia. He vividly illustrated an aspect of the Palm Sunday narrative that I hadn't seen before, which is that the "Hosanna's" and waving of palm branches were gestures of political defiance. The crowds saw Jesus as a symbol of Jewish opposition to Rome, and the fulfillment of their nationalistic aspirations. Ferguson illustrated this by saying it wouldn't be much different from his South Carolina congregation leaving the service waving Confederate flags. And I would add...giving the rebel yell. What a great way to illustrate the enormous confusion that gripped almost everyone that day about the nature of the kingdom this King was ushering in. John's account points out that even the disciples were confused: "His disciples did not understand these things at first..." [John 12:16] He was worthy of the Hosanna's, but for reasons so much greater than what they thought.

Carl Trueman on church discipline in the iPod age

This brings me to my final reflection. I applaud David's call for the reinstatement of church discipline as a central part of the church's testimony. As the Westminster Standards argue, discipline fulfils a manifold and vital purpose in the church: reclaiming sinners; deterring others; purging out the leaven; vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the gospel; and preventing the wrath of God (WCF 30.3). As such, it is clearly vital to healthy church life. The question for me, however, is this: what does this look like in an era of motor cars, multiple denominations, and a culture of radical individualism that is politically more alive and well in the middle class Republican ethos of conservative Protestant churches than in their equivalents in the inner city?

When Hester Prynne has the infamous scarlet letter in the novel of that title, discipline is an awesome and terrifying thing because she is trapped in a relatively tight-knit community with no anonymity and no way of escape. Discipline is enforceable because of the social conditions which apply. Today, any church that tries to discipline someone has to face the fact that, unless that person is immediately moved to repent, the likelihood is that, next Sunday, he will simply jump in his car and keep driving until he finds a church that will accept him. Then, during the week, nobody will care because we live in a world where there is significant privacy and anonymity. None of this is to say that I regard motor cars or privacy as wrong; it is simply that we need to realize these things have profound implications for the possibility of church discipline.

Further, once again confessional, traditional theology is, in and of itself, no answer. Indeed, my observation of conservative churches would lead me to believe that they can often be worse offenders. The "Here I stand!" principle of Luther at Worms is taken by many conservative Christians to mean that their conscience is sovereign and that there is no need to acknowledge the authority of the church in any practical way at all. Allied to the strong currents of individualism within American culture, this can make conservatives among some of the most egregious offenders when it comes to church discipline, accountability to the church, etc. The problem of discipline is not something monopolized by the anonymous, casual mega-churches or by the eclectic and loosey-goosey theologians of the emergent churches. It is a function of modern society, with its cheap gas, its anonymity, its multiple denominations, its radical individualism, and its consumerist aesthetic; and the confessional Protestant world is just as capable of being a part of the problem as anything else. Indeed, it might be worse. There is nobody less likely to meet with the elders, in my experience, than the hardline confessionalist whose monopolistic possession of the truth, combined with an oh-so-sensitive conscience and a Luther complex, places him above the reach of ordinary church courts.

Carl Trueman, Courageous Protestantism? Some Reflections on David Wells's Analysis of the Contemporary Church: A Review Article

Costly discipleship remembered

Today is the 64th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's final act of costly discipleship. In a week when the cover of Newsweek magazine announces the fall of "Christian America" Bonhoeffer provides an example of what it looks like to live Christianly in the kingdom of man, how to be in the world but not of the world. Bonhoeffer's costly discipleship led him to a hangman's noose at the age of 39. Our costly discipleship might not mean dying for the faith, but it will certainly mean dying in the faith. James tells us the crown of life is reserved for the man "who remains steadfast under trial." Coasting is not an option.

Last spring I did a series based on Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. Here are the links in chronological order:

Bonhoeffer's Letters

Bonhoeffer on responsibility

Bonhoeffer on making room for "God and the whole world"

On baptism and bombs

Dietrich and Maria

Final witness

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Calvin's pietas

Part of my purpose for these occasional posts on John Calvin, in this 500th anniversary year of his birth, is to help correct some common misconceptions about the theological tradition that bears his name. This excerpt from an essay by Joel Beeke gives the lie to the idea that Calvin propounded a "theology of the head" that gave no place to personal piety.

John Calvin's Institutes has earned him the title "the preeminent systematician of the Protestant Reformation." His reputation as an intellectual, however, is too often disassociated from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology. For Calvin, theological understanding and practical piety, truth, and usefulness, are inseperable. Theology primarily deals with knowledge -- knowledge of God and of ourselves -- but there is no true knowledge where there is no true piety.

Calvin's concept of piety (pietas) is rooted in the knowledge of God and includes attitudes and actions that are directed to the adoration and service of God. Right attitudes include heartfelt worship, saving faith, filial fear, prayerful submission, and reverential love. "I call 'piety' that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces," Calvin concludes (3.2.14).

This love and reverence for God is a necessary concomitant to any knowledge of him and embraces all of life and its actions. As Calvin says, "The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness." Thus, for Calvin pietas includes a host of related themes, such as filial piety in human relationships, and respect and love for the image of God in human beings.

The goal of piety, as well as the entire Christian life, is the glorifying of God -- perceiving and reflecting the glory that shines in God's attributes, in the structure of the world, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (3.2.1). Glorifying God supersedes personal salvation for every truly pious person...

Joel R. Beeke in A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (pp. 271-272)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thoughts on an early Palm Sunday morning

Today is a joyful day for the church. That's as it should be. It's a joyful day for our particular church for other reasons. Later this morning we'll see three of our youth baptized upon their professions of faith (Presbyterians practice believer's baptism too!), and we'll be receiving several new members. If that wasn't enough excitement, our new co-pastor will be preaching for the first time. As one who served on the committee that called him to our congregation, today is the joyful culmination of a year and a half long process of meetings, interviews and reading resumes. Yes, today is a day to joyfully celebrate the king that rode into Jerusalem, not to conquer, but to die. My thoughts this weekend have been on the kingly attributes of Christ described in Psalm 45.

But there's another side to Palm Sunday that I find as sad as Good Friday. The crowds that cried "Hosanna!" would soon turn into the mobs crying "Crucify Him!" We're confronted with the fickleness and duplicity of our hearts as we meditate on the gospel narratives of that penultimate week beginning with Palm Sunday. And how can we not be moved by the anguished grief of Jesus as he wept over Jerusalem and foretold the terrible destruction seventy years hence, and his righteous anger over the commercialization of the temple? All this leads me to reflect on a more sobering subject as the cross begins to come into focus. In the Apostles' Creed we confess that Jesus "was crucified, dead, and buried/He descended into hell." That last phrase has been controversial through the centuries with some theologians wanting to remove it. For a good treatment of the controversy and defense of keeping it in the Creed I recommend In Defense of the Descendit by Daniel Hyde.

To me the phrase "He descended into hell" is valuable because it expresses an aspect of the atonement that isn't expressed by simply saying "He was crucified, dead, and buried", namely, the aspect of spiritual death that went beyond a mere physical one. This is the dark reality hinted at when Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (quoting from Psalm 22). In a real sense Jesus was experiencing hell in our place. I'm not here to debate whether hell is a spatial piece of real estate somewhere in the universe akin to the visions of Dante or Jack Chick. I think that debate misses the point that the words used in the Bible describe a reality far worse than we can imagine (in the same way that the words used to describe Heaven are simply inadequate to the glorious reality). Scripture is clear that there's a spiritual death ("the second death") that will be experienced by all who die apart from Christ. Looking at the cross one can get a glimpse of what that will be like. J.I. Packer writes in Knowing God:

On the cross, God judged our sins in the person of his Son, and Jesus endured the retributive comeback of our wrongdoing. Look at the cross, therefore, and you see what form God's judicial reaction to human sin will finally take. What form is that? In a word, withdrawal and deprivation of good. On the cross Jesus lost all the good that he had before: all sense of his Father's presence and love, all sense of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, all enjoyment of God and of created things, all ease and solace of friendship, were taken from him, and in their place was nothing but loneliness, pain, a killing sense of human malice and callousness, and a horror of great spiritual darkness.

So, too, those who reject God face the prospect of losing all good, and the best way to form an idea of eternal death is to dwell on this thought. In ordinary life, we never notice how much good we enjoy through God's common grace till it is taken from us...It is a terrible thought, but the reality, we may be sure, is more terrible yet. "It would be better for him if he had not been born." God help us to learn this lesson, which the spectacle of propitiation through penal substitution on the cross teaches so clearly; and may each of us be found in Christ, our sins covered by his blood, at the last. (p. 195)

Amen and amen.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The assassination of Brad Pitt

The New York Times for April 4, 1882 led with the breathless headline JESSE JAMES SHOT DOWN. KILLED BY ONE OF HIS CONFEDERATES WHO CLAIMS TO BE A DETECTIVE.

Dateline: St. Joseph, MO., April 3. A great sensation was created in this city this morning by the announcement that Jesse James, the notorious bandit and train-robber, had been shot and killed here. The news spread with great rapidity, but most persons received it with doubts until investigation established the fact beyond question...

The most famous outlaw in American history had been laid low by a two-bit Judas named Robert Ford, later immortalized in American song as "that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard." The events of that April morning quickly passed into legend and became fodder for all manner of dramatic reimaginings. Ford and his brother Charley appeared in a traveling stage show reenactment that ended abruptly when Charley Ford took his own life, it was said, out of remorse for his role in the killing. Robert Ford continued to trade on his notoriety until he himself was felled in 1892 by shotgun-wielding Edward O'Kelley. Apparently O'Kelley thought that being the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James was his ticket out of obscurity. The cycle of violence had come full circle.

These events are impressionistically presented by director Andrew Dominik in the awkwardly named The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, and starring Brad Pitt as the outlaw and Casey Affleck -- in an astonishing performance -- as the young admirer-turned-assassin. My review from October 2007 is here. My admiration for the movie has grown with subsequent viewings. Some found it overly pretentious (and slow), but I see it as a worthy addition to an enduring American legend and to a style of contemplative cinema associated with Terrence Malick. This film isn't afraid to wear its 1970s heart proudly on its sleeve! Here's the climactic scene, with James all but inviting Ford to do the deed. The third actor here is Sam Rockwell playing Charley.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The happy overflow of marriage

One of the emphases so far in this book has been that staying married is not mainly about staying in love, but about keeping covenants. We did eventually come around to saying that precisely by this unwavering covenant-keeping the possibility of being profoundly in love in forty years is much greater than if you think the task of marriage is first staying in love. Keeping first things first makes second things better. Staying in love isn't the first task of marriage. It is a happy overflow of covenant-keeping for Christ's sake.

John Piper, This Momentary Marriage