Friday, July 31, 2009

The Parable of the Lost Sheep and Psalm 23

In Jacob & the Prodigal Kenneth Bailey shows how the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7) has dramatic and thematic parallels to three Old Testament texts that speak of God as David and Israel's shepherd -- Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1-6, and Ezekiel 34:1-31. Bailey: "Jesus is retelling a classical story already well known to his listeners." Here Bailey draws out a connection to Psalm 23 as it relates to the central theme and climax of the parable -- restoration.

The traditional translation of Psalm 23:3 is "He restoreth my soul" (KJV). In the English translation tradition, this verse has come to mean "He lifted my depression" or "He helped me recover a sense of joy" or some sense of a restoration of faith and worth. But buried under these time-honored meanings is the original Hebrew text, which reads nafshi yeshobeb. Nafshi means "myself/soul/person/life." The verb shub is the great Hebrew word for "repent/return." (Yeshobeb is an intensive form of the verb shub.) Thus Psalm 23:3 can be translated "He brings me back" or "He causes me to repent." For centuries, Arabic versions in the Middle East have read yarudd nafsi (he brings me back). The other option, "he causes me to repent," is an important component of what David is saying in the psalm. He is reflecting on his personal journey of faith that includes repentance (shub), described as God coming after him and bringing him back. The Hebrew original of the psalm is built on the concrete picture of a good shepherd who goes after a lost sheep, picks it up and carries it home. The sheep cannot find its way home by itself. Once lost, it crawls under a rock or bush and begins to bleat. It must be rescued quickly before a wild animal hears it, finds it, kills it and eats it. When found by the shepherd, it is so terrified that its legs will have turned to rubber and it is unable to stand. The only way the shepherd can restore it to the flock and finally to the village is to carry it home over his shoulders.

The phrase that immediately follows in Psalm 23 expands this picture of restoration. It reads, "He leads me in the paths of righteousness." The assumption of the text is that the psalmist was wandering in the paths of unrighteousness. The good shepherd (God) went after him, picked him up and carried him back to the paths of righteousness. The shepherd caused him to repent/return (shub). (pp. 66-67)

I highly recommend this book! You can download excerpts here.

False worship?

HT: Between Two Worlds

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remembering Neda

In Shia Islam the 40th day after someone dies is a significant day of mourning. Today was the 40th day since 26 year old Neda Soltan was shot down during the early days of pro-democracy protests in Iran. In commemoration thousands took to the streets today in Tehran and other cities. The movement for greater freedom in Iran is alive and kicking. There's also the dismaying and familiar reports of peaceful protestors being set upon by goons wielding clubs, knives and worse.

Here's some footage of a silent vigil in Isfahan, the third largest city in Iran.

Seeing Isfahan in the news reminded me of the lovely Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition of the same name. Here's the Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring the incomparable alto sax of Johnny Hodges. Doesn't have anything to do with the current events, but still seems appropriate.

Calvin the "terrible"

I've started to read DG's attractive reprint of Portrait of Calvin by T.H.L. Parker, originally published in 1954. Englishman Parker is still alive at age 92 and contributed a preface to this edition. I'm finding this a delightful book. I know delightful isn't a word that first comes to mind when thinking about the subject of John Calvin, but in Parker's hands the life and times of the man (not the legend) come alive. Nor is this the whitewashed treatment of an admirer, though Parker is one. Parker presents the "essential harmony of the man" along with "dissonances that spoil the harmony."

Parker would go on to write a full-scale biography of Calvin, but as the title indicates this is more of an introductory sketch. Any modern work on Calvin is almost obliged to address the popular caricatures and misconceptions about his life and thought. This Parker does in his typically witty way in the introduction.

This presentation may come, I hope, as a pleasant surprise to some who have always in their imaginations seen Calvin with horns and wreathed about with the incense of brimstone—those who, had they the organizing of Madame Tussaud's, would move his not very lifelike effigy from its present position in the Main Hall into the Chamber of Horrors. Perhaps I may be allowed two anecdotes to illustrate the irrational aversion against him among my brethren in the Church and also the popular ignorance of his position in church history.

A new clerical acquaintance and I were talking of John Knox. He was reminded of John Calvin.

"Calvin, now," he said, "he was terrible."

"Terrible," I asked, "how?"

"I mean Calvin," he said, "you know about Calvin, don't you?"

He plainly thought I had not caught the name. Calvin was terrible. No one, surely, who called himself a loyal Anglican could dissent from the verdict that Calvin was terrible.

"But why terrible?" I asked.

He found the question difficult. It was axiomatic that Calvin was terrible. But in what way, it was not easy to say, especially if one knew of him only by hearsay. But he was a strong-minded man and refused to be beaten.

"He was terrible," he replied firmly. And then, with inspiration, "I mean, look how bad-tempered he was."

Then there was the man in an evening class. Romans 3:21 and following was being expounded. The teaching of the Council of Trent was mentioned and also that of Luther and Calvin. He interrupted me at the name: "Calvin," he said, "he was all on about predestination, wasn't he?"

Bad temper and predestination! A gruesome picture, certainly, but rather too bad to be true. (pp. 21-22)

That makes me chuckle every time I read it because it's so like the picture of John Calvin that I grew up with, and that still persists today. Kudos to DG for making this book widely available once again!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Trueman on Chrysostom

Carl Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. He's been doing a series of short videos on important figures in church history. Here's the most recent on John Chrysostom (347-407).

You can watch more of these here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Jacob & the Prodigal

One of missiologist Lesslie Newbigin's central insights was that our reading of the Bible is conditioned by the cultural lenses we view it through. Our particular langugage and history bring with them assumptions that can both help and hinder our understanding of scripture. It's when we read the Bible alongside Christians of other languages and cultures that those lenses become apparent to us, and vice versa. Absent that corrective, to get outside my cultural assumptions is like trying to push the bus that I'm riding in. Reading anything from Kenneth Bailey is to get off our particular bus and be taught by someone intimately familiar with the language and customs of the Middle East. Bailey has lived and taught in the Middle East for most of his life, and studying Luke 15 through Middle Eastern eyes has been a big part of his life's work. Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story—published in 2003—is one of the results.

This is a fantastic book. Read it and I guarantee you'll never look at this trilogy of parables (lost sheep, lost coin & lost son) quite the same way again. Through his knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and long-neglected Syriac and Arabic texts Bailey demonstrates how Jesus casts himself in the role of three personal metaphors for God found in the Psalter (i.e. shepherd, mother/woman and father) climaxing with his skillful retelling of the saga of Jacob found in Genesis chapters 27-35 which his scholarly listeners (scribes and Pharisees) would have been intimately familiar with. The story of Jacob was their story after all! But Jesus reshapes their story into another with himself at the center. Here Jesus transforms an account of an inept Oriental patriarch and his two scheming and fractious sons into an astonishing picture of sin, compassion, and costly grace, and in the process redefines what it means to be lost and what it means to be found. In this parable one sees the clearest picture of the motivation for Jesus' ministry: "to seek and to save the lost."

A text as familiar as this one acquires what Bailey terms "interpretive barnacles."

One of the realities of the history of interpretation of Scripture is that the more familiar a passage becomes, and the more central it is to the life and faith of the church, the more interpretive "barnacles" it acquires. . . . This process has perhaps proceeded further with the great parable of the prodigal son than with any other New Testament story. (p. 99)

Bailey sees at least "fifteen points in the story that need to be clarified in the light of the cultural world of Jesus." Here's one of them. I had the joy of teaching on this parable in our Sunday school class yesterday, and I introduced this point by saying we need to think of the setting as a crowded traditional Middle Eastern village not "Gone With the Wind". Bailey writes:

Too often this parable is seen as a story about three people and no more. The family home is imagined as a great house on the top of a hill standing in grand isolation. Such is not the case. Agricultural land is scarce in the Holy Land. In both Old and New Testament times the average village was about six acres. Farmers rarely lived on their farmland, residing instead in tightly compacted villages. This was and is because of the need to reserve every bit of land for farming, but people also gathered in small villages for reasons of security. The parables of Jesus are stories about people living in communities that are nearly always mentioned or assumed.

In each of the first two parables in this trilogy the community is called to gather for a celebration. In this particular story an inheritance is sold to the community. At the end of the tale, a father runs down the village street in full view of the community. After embracing his wayward younger son at the edge of the village, the father turns to address his servants (who have run after him). Like the shepherd and the woman, the father invites the community to a festive banquet. Anticipating a crowd, he orders the butchering of a calf rather than a sheep or a duck. Community-based professional musicians are hired for the occasion. The older son has a circle of friends who live nearby and could attend a party for him. In short, this is a parable about three people living in a community, a community that is just offstage throughout the parable. Each twist and turn of the story expects the reader/listener to be aware of that offstage presence. (p. 100)

As I said that's just one of fifteen clarifications that Bailey offers. These don't change the fundamental meaning of the story as its been understood by the church down through the centuries, but they scrape off the "barnacles" and allow us to see it like a newly restored painting. This book has done that for me.

Later in the week I'll share one or two more of Bailey's exegetical vignettes.

Race, class and testosterone

Maureen Dowd on the Professor Gates/Officer Crowley affair:

President Obama was right the first time, that the encounter had a stupid ending, and the second time, that both Gates and Crowley overreacted. His soothing assessment that two good people got snared in a bad moment seems on target.

It escalated into a clash of egos — the hard-working white cop vs. the globe-trotting black scholar, the town vs. the gown, the Lowell Police Academy vs. the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

. . .

From Shakespeare to Hitchcock, mistaken identity makes for a powerful narrative.

A police officer who’s proud of his reputation for getting along with black officers, and for teaching cadets to avoid racial profiling, feels maligned to be cast as a racist white Boston cop.

A famous professor who studies identity and summers in Martha’s Vineyard feels maligned to be cast as a black burglar with backpack and crowbar.

Race, class and testosterone will always be a combustible brew. Our first African-American president will try to make the peace with Gates (who supported Hillary) and Crowley (whose father voted for Obama).

Read the whole thing

Frankly, I have more sympathy with the cop than the academic but that's because of my class, not my race. That doesn't change the fact that many ordinary non-celebrity African-Americans are arrested or pulled over under circumstances that a comparable Anglo wouldn't. A friend of mine (who's a Christian rap artist) has had it happen to him more than once. Obama was hasty in his initial comments, but what a brilliant idea to invite the cop and the professor to the White House for a beer. I'd like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Watson on Christian contentment

Discontent is to the soul as a disease is to the body: it puts it out of temper and greatly hinders its regular and sublime motions heavenward. For my part, I know not any ornament in religion that doth more bespangle a Christian, or glitter in the eye of God and man, than this of contentment. Nor certainly is there anything wherein all the Christian virtues do work more harmoniously, or shine more transparently, than in this orb. If there is a blessed life before we come to heaven, it is the contented life.

Thomas Watson

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quote of the day

This is from 2007, but it speaks to our current debate about health care reform.

No one has the nerve to brand this country’s purest systems of “socialized medicine” — the military and veterans hospitals — for what they are. In both systems, care is not only paid for by the government but delivered in government facilities by doctors who are government employees. . . . Politicians who deplore government-run health care for average Americans are only too happy to use it themselves. . . . Look behind the labels to judge health care proposals on their merits.

Philip M. Boffey

My two cents? I'd like to have the same health care coverage that members of Congress have. In other words, a single payer model. It's not going to happen since Obama, the GOP, the insurance industry, and the pharma industry all agree that it wouldn't work in the US. So for the time being we'll continue to be the only Western democracy without a single payer system.

Quiet Mann

In my review of Public Enemies I mentioned the moments of leisurely serenity that make Heat (1995) an atypical cops and robbers movie. Michael Mann uses these moments to let the film breath and let us spend time with his characters—in this case two lost souls called Neil and Eady floating above a city of lights.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pastor John, what do you think of using the internet to find a spouse?

As one who found my spouse on the internet I was curious to hear John Piper's answer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Keller and Nouwen on elder brotherishness in the church

Tim Keller:

There is a big difference between an elder brother and a real, gospel-believing Christian. But there are also many genuine Christians who are elder brotherish. If you came to Christ out of being a younger brother, there is always the danger of partially relapsing into addictions or other younger-brother sins. But if you've become a Christian out of being an elder brother, you can even more easily slide back into elder-brother attitudes and spiritual deadness. If you have not grasped the gospel fully and deeply, you will return to being condescending, condemning, anxious, insecure, joyless, and angry all the time.

Elder brothers have an undercurrent of anger toward life circumstances, hold grudges long and bitterly, look down at people of other races, religions, and lifestyles, experience life as a joyless, crushing drudgery, have little intimacy and joy in their prayer life, and have a deep insecurity that makes them overly sensitive to criticism and rejection yet fierce and merciless in condemning others.

The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008) pp. 70-71

Henri Nouwen:

Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father's joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.

Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment? There is so much resentment among the "just" and the "righteous." There is so much judgment, condemnation, and prejudice among the "saints." There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding "sin."

The lostness of the resentful "saint" is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Doubleday, 1992) p. 71

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Public Enemies

The year is 1933 and America is still flat on her back from the Great Depression. FDR is in the White House and Billie Holiday is on the radio, but it's brazen (and murderous) bank robbers with evocative names like Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd that capture the public imagination. The smartest and most PR savvy of the lot is John Dillinger, labelled Public Enemy #1 by J. Edgar Hoover, the equally publicity hungry director of the new Bureau of Investigation. Local law enforcement is repeatedly outgunned, outmanned, and outsmarted so Hoover sees an opportunity to put his agency on the map by taking down Dillinger and Co., which in fact he does, mainly by the efforts of a South Carolina lawyer-turned-lawman named Walter Purvis.

This is the basic outline of the story told in Michael Mann's new film Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Christian Bale as Purvis, and Billy Crudup as Hoover. The screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman is based on Bryan Burroughs' nonfiction book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934. Reportedly the movie is faithful to the book in most respects though events are condensed and the timeline is altered. All of this is a perfect canvas for Mann to work his magic, which he does. This is his best film since The Insider (1999) and may be to the period crime drama what Heat (1995) was to the contemporary crime drama. Arguably Heat is the quintessential contemporary crime drama (I also think it's the quintessential contemporary Los Angeles movie, but that's a harder argument to make).

In many ways Public Enemies is a remake of Heat. And there's nothing wrong with that, if like me you're in awe of Mann's skills as a filmmaker. Above all he's a craftsman, but unlike some craftsman, he also has the ability to tell a story and generate epic emotional landscapes like no other. He's one of the few directors that has the ability to take my breath away. The parallels between Mann's imaginings of these real life characters and the fictional characters played by Pacino, De Niro, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd and others in Heat will be obvious to fans of the former film. Additionally, both movies explore similar thematic and emotional terrain. What Public Enemies doesn't have as much of, are the moments of leisurely serenity that make Heat so unique for its genre, scenes where we get to spend time with the characters as they simply reflect, and there's no real parallel to the now legendary scene with Pacino and De Niro chatting across a coffee-shop table.

There are some reflective moments here, but Mann keeps the action briskly moving forward and ups the ante considerably in the amount of ammo consumed. Nobody can orchestrate a movie shoot-out like Mann. Or I should say, a Michael Mann shoot-out looks and sounds like no other. Public Enemies visually and sonically recreates several of the legendary tommy-gun battles between gangsters and G-Men, including the one at Little Bohemia Lodge at the actual location. Never one to shoot in the studio, Mann also returned to other famous Dillinger locales across the upper Midwest for principal photography. (Read more about that aspect of the filming here.)

Public Enemies is the third feature Mann has shot in HD and in his hands I can see digital becoming its own visual genre in the same way that black and white is. Here HD allows Mann to take familiar iconography and make it seem fresh. Scattered throughout are visual moments unlike anything I've ever seen before—the way the light looks streaming in a window or the emotional veracity of an extreme close-up. I'm assuming these were made possible by the format as well as the imagination and skill of Mann and his DP Dante Spinotti.

What about Johnny Depp? Depp is a movie star writ large. One never forgets who we're watching here, yet he turns in good work. Mann uses the persona to serve the film and character much as he did with De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Christian Bale is good too, though I half expected him to morph into the dark knight at any second. Every part is well cast in fact. If there's a surprise, it's French actress Marion Cotillard playing Dillinger girlfriend Billie Frechette. Of course you have to have a love interest for Johnny Depp! Nevertheless, she and Mann take what could have easily seemed a tacked-on part and turn it into something more.

Throughout Public Enemies Mann reminds the audience that we are in fact watching a gangster picture—one of the three home-grown genres (along with the western and the musical) that have so defined Hollywood and American pop culture. Tackling this genre must be daunting, like an actor taking on Hamlet or a jazz trumpeter blowing "St. Louis Blues". In other words, you have to reckon with what's come before. This certainly won't be the last word on the Hollywood gangster pic, but Mann has added another worthy addition to the corpus. Of course the title can't help but bring comparisons to William Wellman's The Public Enemy made two years before the events of this film took place. Indeed Cagney's memory is explicitly evoked when Nelson, played by Stephen Graham, does a boozey impression. "Wanna hear my Cagney?"

The bare facts of Dillinger's demise are well known. On his last night on earth he saw a gangster picture. Not a Cagney picture as it turns out. Instead he went to the Biograph Theater that night to see Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Purvis had been tipped off by prostitute Ana Cumpanas ("the lady in red") that Dillinger would be there that night. As Dillinger, Cumpanas and another lady friend watched the movie Purvis and his men surrounded the theater. The rest is history.

As Mann cuts between the movie we're watching and the movie Dillinger is watching, he turns this public enemy's final act into a grand demonstration of the heightened reality and emotional power of cinema. Bravo!

Don't leave out the preface...

to the ten commandments.

@ Daily Confession

While we're on the subject check out this week's episode of Christ the Center with special guest John Fesko author of a new book on the ten commandments -- The Rule of Love. Fesko and company discuss the role of the law in redemptive history and the Christian life. I found it an interesting and helpful discussion of a complex and often confusing topic as witnessed by the wide array of opinions within the church.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Planning a trip to Cheesecake Factory?

James Joyner has some good advice when dining out:

. . . one of the things that has long occurred to me about restaurant dining is that, because every customer must be served the same portion size (within allowances for human error) they’re naturally going to provide huge amounts of food. If you serve a 275 pound man an amount of food that would be appropriate for a 125 pound woman, he’s going to still be hungry at the end of his meal and therefore a dissatisfied customer. Because the marginal cost of additional food (especially pasta, potatoes, and the like) is negligible, it’s just good business to pile it on. Naturally, everyone else will be given too much to eat and all but the most disciplined will overeat.

Two obvious ways health conscious diners can adjust are to resolve to take half the food home with them — better yet, get a “doggy bag” before starting eating and divide it right away — or to share food. My wife and I will often order an appetizer and a single entree if we’re out and not returning immediately home. Otherwise, I’m happy to have extra food for the next day’s lunch.

Regardless, if one combines the meal with half a bottle of wine and a cocktail or two — much less dessert — blowing through the recommended daily calorie allotment is just about guaranteed.

Of course, avoiding restaurants with the words “cheesecake” or “factory” in the name is probably the best advice for those seeking to stay slim.

This has long been our practice when dining at establishments like Cheesecake Factory that specialize in enormous portions. One of their appetizer portions is more than enough for me, especially when coupled with a beverage and the complimentary bread service. If I do order a full entrée it's always with an eye toward what will keep well. Hint: the factory meatloaf, mashed potatoes and veggies are great heated up in the microwave even after several days in the fridge. The cajun chicken littles keep well too, but need to be heated up in a toaster oven to avoid sogginess. Bon appétit!

Quotable Jarmusch

Rule #5 of Jim Jarmusch's "Golden Rules" of filmmaking:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don't bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: "It's not where you take things from—it's where you take them to."

HT: Peer Pressure Is Forever

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wright on the parables

Here's one more excerpt from Jesus and the Victory of God. After noting that "most of the Old Testament consists of stories about Israel and her god" Wright gives this explanation of how the parables function.

It should therefore be clear that the parables, by their very form, place Jesus firmly within his Jewish context. The genre itself puts into effect that double-edged message of welcome and warning which is the parables' regular actual theme. The parables are not simply information about the kingdom, but are part of the means of bringing it to birth. They are not a second-order activity, talking about what is happening at one remove. They are part of the primary activity itself. They do not merely give people something to think about. They invite people into the new world that is being created, and warn of dire consequences if the invitation is refused. . . . They do not merely talk about the divine offer of mercy; they both make the offer, and defend Jesus' right to make it. (p. 176)

As I've been studying and teaching the parables these definitions have helped me see them in a whole new light. If seen primarily as morality tales designed to give us something to think about, we'll miss the explosive import of Jesus' message—a message he chose to deliver primarily through the medium of stories.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The new normal

Peggy Noonan ends her July 11 column this way:

Here are a few examples of what we may face in the next 10 years: a profound and prolonged American crash, with the admission of bankruptcy and the spread of deep social unrest; one or more American cities getting hit with weapons of mass destruction from an unknown source; faint glimmers of actual secessionist movements as Americans for various reasons and in various areas decide the burdens and assumptions of the federal government are no longer attractive or legitimate. . . . It's not a time to be frivolous, or to feel the temptation of resentment, or the temptation of thinking next year will be more or less like last year, and the assumptions of our childhoods will more or less reign in our future. It won't be that way. [emphasis mine]

I think she's right. History is cyclical and I think we're living in a transitional time between the end of a cycle of widespread prosperity and the beginning of something else. I don't know exactly what that "something else" will look like, but it's probably going to feel to the average American consumer a lot like being splashed in the face with cold water over and over again. It's already started for a lot of folks. I've been thinking about this a lot as I contemplate the dwindling economic fortunes of my own little family.

My wife and I are trying hard to avoid the common scenario of two parents working/kid in daycare, and the other common scenario of families who subsidize a drop in income by incurring debt, especially bad debt (credit cards). So far, by God's grace, we've managed. In the process we've been forced to dramatically reassess our economic/lifestyle expectations in light of things like a dramatic rise in our health insurance costs (now our second highest monthly expense) on top of all the additional expenses that come with having a child. Time will tell whether we'll be able to avoid the above scenarios, and how much we're willing to change our expectations of what's "normal". Do we really need that second car with the additional hundreds of dollars in monthly expense? Do we really need those extra services that quickly add up at the rate of $20, $30, $40 a month?

What we're going through will eventually work its way up the economic food chain. Haven't felt the pain yet? Give it time. You will. I think a lot of Americans assume we'll spend (Democrats) or grow (Republicans) our way out of this recession and everything will go back to the way it once was. As Noonan says, "like last year". Or last decade, or last fifty years. For that to happen would be like a juggler able to keep an ever increasing number of balls in the air indefinitely. Ain't gonna happen.

In closing, some perspective. First, what we consider a recession, or even a bona fide depression, would be economic party time for vast swathes of this planet. Did you have clean, plentiful water this morning? If so, rejoice. Second, Christians have nothing to fear for our Lord tells us: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" and "Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Funny thing about God though, his definition of the things we need is usually not the same as our's.

This could get painful...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Baptism and faith

Here's Luther at his polemical best from the anti-Anabaptist treatise Concerning Rebaptism:

We are baptized not because we are certain of our faith but because it is the command and will of God. For even if I were never certain any more of faith, I still am certain of the command of God, that God has bidden to baptize, for this he has made known throughout the world. In this I cannot err, for God’s command cannot deceive. But of my faith he has never said anything to anyone, nor issued an order or command concerning it.

True, one should add faith to baptism. But we are not to base baptism on faith. There is quite a difference between having faith, on the one hand, and depending on one’s faith and making baptism depend on faith, on the other. Whoever allows himself to be baptized on the strength of his faith, is not only uncertain, but also an idolater who denies Christ. For he trusts in and builds on something of his own, namely, a gift which he has from God, and not on God’s Word alone. So another may build on and trust in his strength, wealth, power, wisdom, holiness, which are also gifts given him by God. But a baptism on the Word and command of God even when faith is not present is still a correct and certain baptism if it takes place as God commanded. Granted, it is not of benefit to the baptized one who is without faith, because of his lack of faith, but baptism is not thereby incorrect, uncertain, or of no meaning.

I had heard this quoted before, and am glad to be able to post it here. The Reformed Reader has a longer excerpt and some additional commentary and context. Luther's remarkably God-centered view of baptism articulated here is contra the majority view among evangelicals today, but I think he's on the right track. Especially to the extent he's arguing against making baptism contingent on the subjective experience of faith. Which, of course, rules out infant baptism.

What's the opposite of urban sprawl?

NPR's Morning Edition ran an interesting story today on the incredible shrinking American city. The piece focused on Flint, Michigan where more than one-third of the houses are abandoned. Among the more creative responses to the problem? Community gardens where abandoned houses once stood.

Click here to listen

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Galilean prophets and Hapsburg composers

I've been cherry picking my way through N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God for material on the parables. I don't know of another living writer who's better at locating Jesus of Nazareth within his cultural/historical context, and in so doing, bringing out his marvelous singularity. This is a massive book in size and scope. Since I'm a classical music lover I was intrigued to see Mozart, W.A. listed in the index of topics in between Mount of Olives and National identity (of Judaism). This led to the following illustration of how Jesus "a prophet mighty in deed and word" (Luke 24:19) was both like and unlike Israel's prophets that came before. I love the illustration even though I think Mozart is overrated.

He [Jesus] was combining in a new way the prophetic styles of oracular prophets on the one hand and leaders of renewal movements on the other. John had combined them already, but not like this. Jesus went further in at least three directions: he was itinerant; he gave extensive teaching which, as we shall see, carried a note of even greater urgency than that of John; and he engaged in a regular programme of healing. . . . At each point the double criteria of similarity and dissimilarity can be invoked. This outline of Jesus' praxis is thoroughly credible within a first-century Jewish context, and makes good sense as part of the presupposition of the early church; at the same time, this praxis breaks the moulds of the Jewish context, and is, in detail, significantly unlike the characteristic activity of most of the early Christians. Mozart's music is incredible without Bach and Haydn as its predecessors, yet it is strikingly different from both; it is the necessary presupposition for Beethoven and Schubert, yet is still gloriously distinct. Jesus' prophetic work makes historical sense, yet remains in a class of its own. (pp. 169-170; emphasis mine)

Later on Wright uses Mozart's nemesis Salieri to illustrate the "scandal", as it would have been to many of Jesus' hearers, that this messenger was the one delivering the message that the kingdom of God was at hand. Wright writes:

Like Salieri in Shaffer's Amadeus, scandalized that his god should choose the disreputable Mozart as the vehicle for divine music, Jesus' hearers could not but be struck, if they realized what was going on, at his extraordinary and shocking implicit claim. (p. 228)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Meanwhile back in Iran...

Iran has been relatively quiet the last two weeks as the regime sought to stamp out dissent and punish those involved in last month's uprising. In typical police state fashion government websites like the one below have been posting photos of protestors inviting people to name names. Here number 19 is marked "identified". Chilling.

But yesterday in cities across Iran people took to the streets again demonstrating that they won't be intimidated into silence. Here's some footage of a peaceful march in Tehran, that is until the clouds of CS gas roll in.

Am I the only one who thinks this story is far more compelling and newsworthy than the bickering over Michael Jackson's estate?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Theology as doxology

For Calvin...doxological theocentrism shaped everything. His compassionate concern that everyone should know God's grace was rooted in a deeper desire, namely that everyone should glorify God by a life of adoring worship for the wonder of his work in creation, providence, and salvation, fully recognizing the realities that the Reformational slogans sola Scriptura, solo Christo, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria, were put in place to guard. Knowledge of God as Creator and Redeemer, holy, just, wise, and good, comes to us by Scripture alone, not by our own independent insight or guesswork. The blessings of redemption—reconciliation with God, the gift of righteousness and sonship, regeneration, glory—come to us by Christ alone, not by any fancied personal merit or any priestly mediation on the part of the church. Christ and his gifts are received by faith alone, not earned by effort. That very faith is given to us and sustained in us by grace alone, so that our own contribution to our salvation is precisely nil; all the glory for it must go to God alone, and none be diverted to us. We are simply the sinners whose need of salvation is met by the marvelous mercy of him who "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all."

J.I. Packer, A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Possibility junkies

Mark Edmundson:

"By their drugs shall ye know them," it says somewhere in the Scriptures, no doubt. The answer to the question, "What drugs are college students taking now?" is, as it has been for some time, "All of the above." But the drugs that have most recently entered the scene and had an impact are the ones designed to combat attention-deficit disorder: Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, and Daytrana, which delivers the meds through a patch. These are all pharmaceuticals, obtained by prescription, though often the people taking them have never gotten diagnosed. The ADD drugs seem to be omnipresent; they're on sale in every dorm at prices that rise exponentially as the week of final exams approaches. "Twenty dollars for a hit," one student told me, "on the night before an exam in the intro econ class." Their effect is, pretty subtly, but pretty surely, to speed the taker up. They kick him forward, give him fresh juice to keep exploring possibilities, buying and doing and buying and doing.

The idea is to keep moving, never to stop. It's now become so commonplace as to be beneath notice, but there was a time that every city block contiguous to a university did not contain a shop dispensing a speed-you-up drug and inviting people to sit down and enjoy it along with wireless computer access. Laptops seem to go with coffee and other stimulants, in much the way that blood-and-gold sunsets went with LSD and Oreo cookies with weed. (It's possible, I sometimes think, that fully half of the urban Starbucks in America are located in rental properties that, in an earlier incarnation, were head shops.) Nor were there always energy drinks: vile-tasting concoctions coming in cans costumed like superheroes, designed to make you run as fast and steady as your computer, your car, and — this is Darwinian capitalism after all — your colleagues. You've got to keep going. Almost all of my students have one book — an old book — that they've read and treasured, and read again. It's the American epic of free movement, On the Road, a half-century old last year, but to them one of the few things in the culture of my generation that's still youthful.

Read the whole thing

Monday, July 6, 2009

Christians and culture: from Bob Jones to Keanu Reeves

One last post on Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch (previous posts here and here)...

In the chapter "Gestures and Postures" Crouch describes and critiques the three dominant postures that Christians, in particular 20th and 21st century American conservative Christians (of which I am one!), have had toward culture(s). These are condemnation, critique and copying. The thing is, each of the three will be a part of a holistic approach to cultural engagement. There are aspects of culture, especially our popular media culture, that cry out for condemnation and from which we should separate ourselves from. The bad old "Bob Jones fundamentalists" weren't wrong about everything. In other cases culture needs to be engaged and critiqued through a Christian lens, sometimes it can even be fruitfully copied or repackaged (Crouch gives good examples of each). However, as a knee jerk reaction or default posture each is seriously lacking.

Then there's a fourth approach which is the worst of all possible worlds, and which Crouch argues (and I think he's right) has become "the dominant posture among self-described evangelicals today...simply consumption." Christians have embraced mere consumerism, becoming just like the world around them in the stuff they buy, the music they listen to, and the TV shows and movies they watch. Too many of us have adopted the Keanu Reeves approach to cultural engagement.

The fundamentalists said, Don't go to the movies...But most evangelicals today no longer forbid going to the movies, nor do we engage in earnest Francis Schaeffer-style critiques of the films we see—we simply go to the movies and, in the immortal word of Keanu Reeves, say, "Whoa." We walk out of the movie theater amused, titillated, distracted or thrilled, just like our fellow consumers who do not share our faith. If anything, when I am among evangelical Christians I find that they seem to be more avidly consuming the latest offerings of commercial culture, whether Pirates of the Caribbean or The Simpsons or The Sopranos, than many of my non-Christian neighbors. They are content to be just like their fellow Americans, or perhaps, driven by a lingering sense of shame at their uncool forebears, just slightly more like their fellow Americans than everyone else. (p. 89)

This is the worst of all worlds because it's capitulation. It's the furthest thing from fulfilling a creative Christian calling in the world.

Of all the possible postures toward culture, consumption is the one that lives most unthinkingly within a culture's preexisting horizons of possibility and impossibility. The person who condemns culture does so in the name of some other set of values and possibilities. The whole point of critique is becoming aware of the horizons that a given culture creates, for better or worse. Even copying culture and bringing it into the life of the Christian community puts culture to work in the service of something believed to be more true and lasting. But consumption, as a posture, is capitulation: letting the culture set the terms, assuming that the culture knows best and that even our deepest longings (for beauty, truth, love) and fears (of loneliness, loss, death) have some solution that fits comfortably within our culture's horizons, if only we can afford to purchase it. (pp. 95-96)

As he does throughout the book, Crouch shows here his ability to offer a devastating critique that goes beyond the surface of things, and do it in a way that doesn't come off looking harsh or arrogant.

The next best thing to being there

The "Calvinpalooza" (HT: R. Scott Clark) hits Geneva this week with the much anticipated Calvin500 conference. You can follow all the goings on here.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Karl Malden (22 March 1912 - 1 July 2009)

Karl Malden (born Mladen Sekulovich) died Wednesday at the age of 97. Married to the same woman for 70 years (a rarity in Hollywood or anywhere these days) Malden was a gentleman and a fine actor. In the 50s he turned in two performances for Elia Kazan that permanently etched themselves in my movie memory—Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire and Father Barry in On the Waterfront. Keep in mind he was playing opposite names like Brando and Leigh—performances that defined American movie acting for decades—but he more than held his own. Here's Malden in the famous "Christ on the waterfront" scene from Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront—#8 on AFI's list of the top 100 American films. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Just in time for July 4th

USA Today has a story on the latest specialty Bible hitting bookstores -- the American Patriot's Bible.

Read it here.

With commentary from noted exegetes like Grover Cleveland, Douglas MacArthur and Dick Cheney it sounds like a great gift for anyone who thinks America is Old Testament Israel and George Washington was Moses. The editors tout this as a Bible for people who love America and love the scriptures. Well I love both, but I'm with Rod Dreher:

This corruption of Holy Scripture for nationalist ends is deeply offensive, and even dangerous. I never want to have to choose between my country and my Lord, but if that day comes, I hope I have the courage to choose Christ. To the extent that this Bible's publishers conflate serving Christ with patriotism, thereby implying that a Christian might never have to make that choice, they are corrupt, and corrupters.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why love the church?

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck write in today's Washington Post on why they love the church in spite of her imperfections:

We've been in the church our whole lives and are not blind to its failings. Churches can be boring, hypocritical, hurtful, and inept. The church is full of sinners. Which is kind of the point. Christians are worse than you think. Our Savior is better than you imagine...

We love the church because Christ loved the church. She is his bride--a harlot at times, but his bride nonetheless, being washed clean by the word of God (Eph. 5:25-26). If you are into Jesus, don't rail on his bride. Jesus died for the church, so don't be bothered by a little dying to self for the church's sake. If you keep in mind that everyone there is a sinner (including yourself) and that Jesus Christ is the point and not you, your dreams, or your kids, your church experience might not be as lame as you fear.

I hope you'll read the whole thing. Here's a video of DeYoung and Kluck talking about their new book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. I'll be writing more about it as soon as I have a chance to read it.

Flagging Palin

Backers of Barack Obama were rightly chided for displaying American flags with Obama's likeness. But what about this questionable use of Old Glory? Seems to me this is a violation of §8b and §8d of the U.S. Flag Code. Even if not technically a violation it strikes me as very poor taste.

Photo from Runner's World (August 2009)