Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Redeeming love has been my theme...

HT: Pure Church

John Calvin the preacher

Calvin preached with only an open Greek or Hebrew Bible in front of him. No notes. No manuscript. He did this at the rate of 20 sermons a month. Astounding! Learn more about Calvin as servant of the Word of God on this week's Christ the Center podcast. I discovered this program a couple of months ago and have really enjoyed it. It's kind of like NPR for Reformed Presbyterian types (note the jazzy piano intro).

In all seriousness, speaking of preaching, if you think of it pray for me this Sunday as I'll be preaching at our 8:30 service. I most definitely will be using a manuscript.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Kingdom Airlines

David Wenham provides an effective illustration of the "already/not yet" nature of the kingdom of God, and what it means for disciples living in this age between the kingdom's inauguration and its consummation.

Joining the revolution is a bit like being in a foreign country and boarding a plane of one's own national airline to return home: already in the plane the language and customs of the home country are used. So the revolution of God as brought by Jesus means beginning to experience the life of the future kingdom and being called to live by its standards, though still en route. The standards of the kingdom of God are perfection, naturally. Jesus knows that his disciples will fail; so he teaches them to ask for forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer. But he still calls them to be light and salt in the world. He also...promises them the Father's help and the Holy Spirit's presence, which is what makes the apparently impossible excitingly possible (see Mt. 19:26).

David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (p. 177)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Know hope

Photo taken 26 June 2009 by Mitra S.

Lessons from the fall of Mark Sanford

The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 10), "Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did." He's referring to the idolatry of the Israelites, but I think God intends for his people to learn from stories like the one surrounding the governor of South Carolina. In this case the lessons are even more pointed, seeing as Sanford was apparently an evangelical Christian who was involved in a high profile Bible study group during his time on Capitol Hill. Paul goes on to warn, "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."

Kevin DeYoung has an excellent post today on what we can learn from the latest political sex scandal.

Quotable Scorsese

"When we talk about personal expression, I’m often reminded of Kazan’s film America, America, the story of his uncle’s journey from Anatolia to America—the story of so many immigrants who came to this country from a very, very foreign land. I kind of identified with it and was very moved by it. Actually, I later saw myself making this same journey, but not from Anatolia. Rather, from my own neighborhood in New York, which was, in a sense, a very foreign land. I made that journey from that land to moviemaking, which was something unimaginable.

Actually, when I was a little younger there was another journey I wanted to make. It was a religious one—I wanted to be a priest. However I soon realized that my real vocation, my real calling, was the movies. I don’t really see a conflict between the Church and movies—the sacred and the profane. Obviously there are major differences, but I could also see great similarities between a church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience, and I believe there’s a spirituality in films, even if it’s not one which can supplant faith. I find that over the years many films address themselves to the spiritual side of man’s nature—from Griffith’s film Intolerance to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to Kubrick’s 2001 and so many more. It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have…to share a common memory."

Martin Scorsese, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies

I for one am glad that Scorsese found his calling as a filmmaker and not as Father Martin. Though our backgrounds are quite different, I sense a kindred spirit. The documentary from which the above quote is taken is fabulous. The best of its kind. It's not what you might expect—a haphazard stringing together of film clips with a Scorsese voiceover. No, this is a lovingly assembled guided tour featuring long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, a wistful theme from Elmer Bernstein, and titles by Saul Bass. Watching it for the first time over a decade ago was one of the things that kindled my love for cinema. Thanks, Marty!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sharing the Gospel in the Gay Village

@ Challies.com

This is one of the most challenging things I've read in a while. It occurred to me that what's described here is exactly the sort of thing that Jesus or the Apostle Paul would be doing in this context. As in Luke 15: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” etc.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A new iconography

One of the things that makes the images coming out of Iran so compelling is that we're seeing a brand new iconography being created. The narrative and iconography of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that has shaped Iran—and to some extent the entire Islamic world—is being replaced with another one. Whatever the short-term outcome of these events, the world has been forever changed. This genie can't be put back in the bottle.

Here are two images that sum it up for me. One could label them technology and women. In the first we see the new tools of grass roots resistance to oppression that the Iranian regime is finding impossible to suppress. As M. Leary points out if you look close enough at this photo of a smashed up dorm room at Tehran University you can see a stack of CD-Rs and a battery charger for a digital camera—some of the new tools of revolution. Though the Basij were able to take this computer down, I'm guessing the owner lived to blog/tweet/upload another day.

Of course the other amazing aspect of all this has been the leading role of women. In some cases they have been the ones leading the charge, literally and figuratively. In this case a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, as a group of chador-clad women rush to the defense of a man being beaten by pro-government thugs. Whatever liberation means for these women, and it may well mean something different than it does in the West, it certainly includes being treated as equals under the law. It's impossible to imagine the status quo being maintained after scenes like this.

Photos from AP

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Like Braveheart on the streets of Tehran

An amazing video from the BBC of a pitched battle between protestors and riot police. Sorta reminds me of a scene from Braveheart.

And from Peggy Noonan:

It's pretty wonderful to see what we're seeing. It is moving, stirring—they are risking their lives over there in a spontaneous, self-generated movement for greater liberty and justice. Good for them. In a selfish and solipsistic way—more on that in a moment—the uprising, as it moves us, reminds us of who we are: lovers of political freedom who are always and irresistibly on the side of the student standing in front of the tank or the demonstrator chanting "Where is my vote?" in the face of the billy club. Good for us. (If you don't understand who the American people are for, put down this newspaper or get up from your computer, walk into the street and grab the first non-insane-looking person you meet. Say, "Did you see the demonstrations in Iran? It's the ayatollahs versus the reformers. Who do you want to win?" You won't just get "the reformers," you'll get the perplexed-puppy look, a tilt of the head and a wondering stare: You have to ask?)

And on those who are trying to turn this into a domestic political issue:

To refuse to see all this as progress, or potential progress, is perverse to the point of wicked. To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn't know whose side America is on.

To know the Father

In this ruin of mankind no one now experiences God either as Father or as Author of salvation or favorable in any way, until Christ the Mediator comes forward to reconcile him to us.

John Calvin, Institutes 1.2.1

Early this morning as I looked at Samuel sleeping in his crib I was impressed all over again what a blessing it is to be a father. An even greater blessing than knowing the joy of being an earthly father is the joy of knowing God as my Father through the mediating work of his Son. Jesus makes very clear, and all the gospel writers reflect it, that to know him is to know the Father. Is, in fact, the only way to know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a saving way, i.e. Matthew 11:27, Luke 10:22, John 1:18, John 8:19, John 14:6, etc. This was a radical (and dangerous) claim to make in orthodox God-fearing first century Palestine, and it's a radical claim to make in our pluralistic societies of today.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:4-6

Friday, June 19, 2009

The law of cinema and death

"There's no reprieve in film noir. You just keep paying for your sins."
-Martin Scorsese-

I love that line. For all it's moral murkiness film noir ("black film") is the most uncompromisingly moralistic of genres. Reap what you sow? Be sure your sins will find you out? They will in the typical film noir—in two hours or less! Looking for grace? You won't find it here. Noir is all law minus the gospel. There's no third act redemption, just the dawning realization that one has played the fool. Often these parables center around a male protagonist led astray by a wily seductive female as in Double Indemnity (1944), written and directed by the incomparable Billy Wilder with a writing assist from Raymond Chandler. The dialogue alone makes this film a treasure.

Barbara Stanwyck is the femme fatale and Fred MacMurray is the one reaping a bitter crop after his wondering eye gets him sucked into an insurance scheme that ends in murder. In the opening scene here we watch as he arrives at the offices of Pacific All Risk Insurance Company after hours to dictate a confession to his boss and father figure played by Edward G. Robinson. Actually what we're seeing is the end at the beginning. There's a final coda that we'll see later on, but for all we know Walter Neff—insurance salesman, 35-years-old, unmarried, no visible scars—is still sitting in that dark office pondering his transgressions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taking to the streets Tehran style

Here is some amazing footage shot by a videographer in Tehran this weekend. Our hopes and prayers should be with the freedom loving people of Iran.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Looking for a local church?

On Sundays you will want to worship as a united family, but during the week you may wish to attend meetings designed for different age groups, so the journey to church is a consideration. If at all possible find a church of biblical conviction close to your home. If you are buying a house or have some choice of district, select a home within easy reach of a helpful place of worship. There is an old saying 'Pitch your tent near your tabernacle'. In these days of easy travel, it is often said 'I have a car and a few miles are neither here nor there', but it is not so easy when children want to go to church on their own, if there is a mechanical breakdown, the cost of petrol rises, or the weather is treacherous!

Generally it is right to support the nearest church to your home where the gospel is faithfully preached and your convictions on the church and the ordinances upheld. In some cities there are popular preaching centres and the 'keenest' people go to them. Sometimes there is even a suggestion that unless you do support these central churches you are not very sound. This is a fallacy, if you are giving support to a smaller cause that is equally faithful to the Scriptures. Some attend large fashionable churches with particularly gifted orators where the work is overstaffed and they have little scope for service. God's place for you may be a small work with a less well-known pastor who is equally faithful, and where there is a need for workers, givers and folk to pray. How unworthy it is to choose a church because of its architecture, its social standing, its popularity or its music, and to neglect a smaller cause loyal to the truth which needs help. Attendance at a large church can sometimes mean a lack of willingness to be involved in the hard work characteristic of most lesser known causes.

Douglas G. Millar, "Should I Join a Church?" (The Banner of Truth, November 1968)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Welcome to Indiana basketball

Movies about sports are generally not very good, especially ones based on actual athletes or teams. There's something about the subject that doesn't translate well to the big screen. Maybe it's because a cinematic retelling seems prosaic compared to the actual drama of the contest. A caveat...I don't include in the category of sports movies Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull or Jules Dassin's Night and the City. Though the first deals with boxing and the second with wrestling, neither of those great films is really about the sport they portray.

My favorite pure sports movie—and of many others apparently—is Hoosiers. It's not only a darn good film with terrific performances from Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper (a comeback role after a lengthy stint in rehab), but I have personal reasons for liking it too. I'm a "hoosier" after all, and the film's evocation of small-town rural Indiana still tugs at my heartstrings. Hoosiers was shot in and around New Richmond, IN and the climactic scenes were shot in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

I also know a little bit about the supercharged environment of Indiana high school hoops that Hackman's character encounters. My dad played high school ball and remembers watching the Milan High School team—and their star Bobby Plump—that shocked the sports world by winning the state championship in 1954. It's their story that the movie is based on. This is a classic David versus Goliath tale told with all the cinematic cliches of the genre, but it works wonderfully well.

Watch New York Times film critic A.O. Scott give a video essay on Hoosiers here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Here's the third and final in a series of posts from J. Gresham Machen's 1929 address The Gospel and the Modern World. It will be helpful to first read part one and part two.

In the third place, in the Christian religion we find redemption. Into this vast universe, into this human world of sin, there came from the outside, in God's good time, a divine Redeemer. No mere teacher is he to us, no mere example, no mere leader into a larger life, no mere symbol or embodiment of an all-pervading divinity. Oh no; we stand to him, if we are really his, in a relationship far dearer, far closer than all that. For us he gave his precious life upon the cross to make all well between us sinners and the righteous God, by whose love he came.

At that point I despair of finding words to tell modern men fully what I mean. Perhaps we may tell them what we think about the cross of Christ, but it is harder to tell them what we feel. They may dismiss it all as a "theory of the atonement" and fall back upon the customary commonplaces about a principle of self-sacrifice, or the culmination of a universal law, or a revelation of the love of God, or the similarity between Christ's death and the death of soldiers who gave themselves for others in the world war. And then, by God's grace, there may come a flash of light into their souls; they may be born again, and all will become as clear as day. Then they will say with Paul, as they contemplate the Savior upon the cross: "He loved me and gave himself for me." Then will the ancient burden fall from their back; then will they be true moderns at last. "Old things are passed away; behold they are become new." Then and then only will they have true freedom. It will be a freedom from mechanism, but the freedom from mechanism will be rooted in a freedom from sin. (J. Gresham Machen, The Gospel and the Modern World)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Trueman: Bad News from Britain

Carl Trueman at Ref21:

Christians must resist the temptation to be taken in by the easy charm of the Nick Griffins of this world, and we should have our agenda set, not by political fear but by biblical priorities. It is not militant Islam that is the greatest threat to Christianity in the West. I suspect more likely contenders are greed and materialism. Of course, militant Islam makes better copy and scarier (more entertaining?) programs for the television; but greed is the one thing the New Testament specifically identifies as idolatry. But we need our bogeymen, and we prefer them, if possible, to be external to ourselves. Easier to blame `them out there' than to look inward to our own hearts.

Monday, June 8, 2009


This will make more sense if you read part one first.

In the Christian religion, in the second place, we find man; we regain that birthright of freedom which had been taken from us by the modern mind. It is a dreadful birthright indeed. For with freedom goes responsibility, and with responsibility, for us, there goes the awful guilt of sin. That conscience awakens which makes cowards of us all. Gone, for us Christians, is the complacency of the modern mind; gone is the lax, comforting notion that crime is only a disease; gone is the notion that strips the ermine from the judge and makes him but the agent of a utilitarian society; gone is the blindness that refuses to face the moral facts.

The Christian world, unlike the modern world, is a world of nameless terrors; the Christian views man as standing over a bottomless abyss. Such a view will find little sympathy from the experts of the present day; they will doubtless apply to it their usual method of dealing with a thing which they do not understand; they will attach a long name to it and let it go. But is their judgment really to be trusted? There are some of us who think not. There are some of us who think that the moral judgments of us sinners are not always to be trusted, and that the real pathway of advance for humanity lies through a rediscovery of the law of God. (J. Gresham Machen, The Gospel and the Modern World)

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Over the next several days I'm going to post a series of excerpts from J. Gresham Machen's baccalaureate address at Hampden-Sydney College on June 9, 1929 as published in The Gospel In The Modern World: And Other Short Writings edited by Stephen J. Nichols.

The following quote comes after a fairly lengthy introduction where Machen condemns what he saw as the modernist attempt to abolish liberty for the sake of utilitarianism—which has resulted in "a mechanistic world...in which all zest, all glory, and all that makes life worth living, has been destroyed." Here the staunch Presbyterian Machen sounds positively Chestertonian.

From such a slavery, which is already stalking through the earth today, in the particular form of the materialistic paternalism of the modern state, from such a world of unrelieved drabness, we seek escape in the high adventure of the Christian religion. There and there only, we think, is liberty to be found. There is to be found a liberty which is far deeper than the civil and political liberty of which we have spoken, a liberty that is indestructible in the depths of the soul.

In the Christian religion we find, in the first place, God. Back of the stupendous mechanism of the world, there stands, as the Master of it and not as its slave, no machine but a living Person. He is enveloped, indeed, in awful mystery; a dreadful curtain veils his being from the gaze of men. But unlike the world, he is free; and he has chosen in his freedom to lift the veil and grant us just a look beyond. In that look we have freedom from the mechanism of the world. God is free, and where he is there is liberty and life. (J. Gresham Machen, The Gospel and the Modern World)

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Gateway

At least once a day I repeat Psalm 1 to myself, and I say it out loud to Samuel. I do it both as reminder and prayer. I'm reminding myself of the characteristics of the blessed man, and praying that my son will grow up to be like the fruitful tree. Memorizing the Psalms builds spiritual muscle. Ambrose called them the gymnasium of the soul.

Psalm 1 acts as a kind of gateway to the Psalter. Put another way, it's a gateway to life. Some anonymous arranger put this particular psalm first for a reason. It's a perfect intro.

The First Psalm ends with a classic bit of antithetic parallelism, a device found often in Hebrew poetry.

Thesis: the LORD knows the way of the righteous,

Antithesis: but the way of the wicked will perish.

Recently, two things struck me about these lines.

First, the emphasis on the way rather than the individual. It's the way that governs here. It's not just the wicked man that perishes, so does the very way he walks on. The psalmist may have had literary reasons for expressing it in this way, but I think he also wanted to emphasize that every vestige of opposition to God's law will perish.

Second, note that the opposite of perishing is having your way known by YHWH. One would think the poet would have made the more obvious comparison of life versus death. But no. To be known by YHWH is not merely to live—it's to experience his covenant love. And to have one's way known is to be on the approved path. The path that winds its way through the Psalms.

Step through the gate and discover it.

Something that's human...

Filmmaker/storyteller David Lynch talks about his new project.

I'll be listening, David.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Children of grace

I approached Culture Making with some skepticism. Actually the only reason I read it was because it was recommended to me by someone who knows the author Andy Crouch. My thought was, "Do we really need another book on Christianity and culture? What more could be said that hasn't already." I half expected it was going to be another one of those flavor-of-the-week, must-read books that turn out to be more trendy than lasting. Boy was I wrong! Matter of fact it turned out to be one of those rare books that permanently alter the way I think about almost everything. Hopefully those new ways of thinking will translate into new ways of acting, since thinking about culture (a favorite evangelical preoccupation that I plead guilty to) is no substitute for creating it! Given enough time this book may have the lasting influence of H. Richard Niebuhr's classic work Christ and Culture, which Crouch respectfully critiques. Niebuhr's categories have become ingrained among evangelical Christians and are ripe for reassesment.

What I most appreciated was the gospel-centeredness of Crouch's approach to his vast subject. I don't mean that the gospel is presented in an explicit in-your-face manner, but it's implicitly weaved throughout what feels like a narrative even though this is a work of non-fiction. Incidentally, Crouch has a very enjoyable style--this book was a pleasure to read. Culture Making was certainly not written for a parochial audience. Crouch draws from the work of a wide spectrum of thinkers, and I can imagine readers from a wide variety of beliefs enjoying this book. However, as a believer who embraces the Reformed stream of Christianity I found this to be a deeply congenial way of looking at the world and making something of it a/k/a creating culture.

The book's presentation of sin, grace, and man's limited ability to "change the world" is refreshingly realistic in its criticism of grandiose transformationalist dreams, and refreshingly gracious in seeking to transcend the "culture wars" of recent history. Crouch gets the counterintuitive way grace slowly works to transform human hearts and human cultures. After all, we serve a God who uses what is small and despised in the world's eyes to accomplish his great ends.

During his years as a campus minister at Harvard Crouch witnessed three types of students. First there were the strivers. They were the kids with grim faces and bulging backpacks. Like Reese Witherspoon's character in the film Election they are "up late and up early." The second group were the "legacies". Children of privilege and power who "carried themselves with a serene sense of entitlement." Neither group saw much of a need for God. "The strivers tended to be too busy for faith; the legacies had a hard time seeing the need for it."

There was a third and smaller group though, one that Crouch came to think of as children of grace. These kids felt lucky just to be there, and they hadn't lost the enjoyment of being able to study at an elite institution of learning. They had a lightness of spirit absent from the others. Paradoxically they were the ones that flourished academically and spiritually. The strivers and legacies were children of grace too, but tragically they didn't have eyes to see it. Do we?

The way to genuine cultural creativity starts with the recognition that we woke up this morning in our right mind, with the use and activity of our limbs—and that every other creative capacity we have has likewise arrived as a gift we did not earn and to which we were not entitled. And once we are awake and thankful, our most important cultural contribution will very likely come from doing whatever keeps us precisely in the center of delight and surprise. (p. 252)

So do you want to make culture? Find a community, a small group who can lovingly fuel your dreams and puncture your illusions. Find friends and form a family who are willing to see grace at work in one another's lives, who can discern together which gifts and which crosses each has been called to bear. Find people who have a holy respect for power and a holy willingness to spend their power alongside the powerless. Find some partners in the wild and wonderful world beyond church doors.

And then, together, make something of the world. (p. 263)

Lewis surrenders

If I had to choose a favorite C.S. Lewis book it would be Surprised by Joy and if I had to choose a favorite paragraph it would be the one describing his conversion to Deism (his belief in the fact that Jesus was the Son of God would come a bit later). It's really the climax of the entire book. The last line of it reminds me of Romans 11:22 where the Apostle Paul speaks of the "kindness" and "severity" of God. It seems that Lewis experienced both on this fateful night.

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life)

In the "for what it's worth" department...while Surprised by Joy is my favorite CSL book--the one that gives me the most sheer pleasure--it's far from his best. That honor goes to The Four Loves. It's there that, in my opinion, Lewis's imaginative and analytical gifts come together most perfectly. It's required reading for anyone interested in the subject of love. That would be everyone, right?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Calvin goes to China

It's no secret that the church is growing fastest in the Global South and China. The growth of Christianity in Africa and South America has been dominated by Pentecostalism, as well as a welcome resurgence of conservative Anglicanism. In China though the spread of Christianity has taken on a distinctly Reformed cast. Andrew Brown, a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, reports that Calvinism is flourishing in China.

As always with articles like this one some of the more colorful (and funny) characterizations should be taken with a grain of salt ("Calvinists despise pentecostalists. They shudder at unbridled emotion. If they are slain in the spirit, it is with a single, decorous thump: there's to be no rolling afterwards.") Nevertheless some of Brown's speculations are perceptive as to why Calvinism appeals more to new Chinese Christians than Roman Catholicism or other variants of Protestantism. Wouldn't it be something if the impetus for a worldwide revival of Christianity grounded on the five solas of the 16th century Reformation came from 21st-century China!

HT: Between Two Worlds