Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wright on praying for our daily bread

It is impossible truly to pray for our daily bread, or for tomorrow's bread today, without being horribly aware of the millions who didn't have bread yesterday, don't have any today, and in human terms are unlikely to have any tomorrow either. But what can we do about this, as we pray this prayer in church and go home to our Sunday lunch?

Well, obviously, we can give, as best we can. Obviously, we can become more politically sensitive and active, to support programmes not just for foreign aid but for a juster and fairer global economy. This is part of what it means to pray this prayer. But, in addition, we should be praying this prayer not just for the hungry, but with the hungry, and all who are desperate from whatever deep need. We should see ourselves, as we pray the Lord's Prayer, as part of the wider Christian family, and human family, standing alongside the hungry, and praying, in that sense, on their behalf.

We offer ourselves, in this prayer, as representatives of this world (this is what it means to be a 'royal priesthood') . . . . And when we have prayed in that fashion, the test of whether we were sincere will of course be whether we are prepared to stand physically alongside those for whom we have claimed to speak. This is, after all, a dangerous and subversive prayer to pray; but it's the one Jesus taught us.

N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 45-46

Friday, January 29, 2010

A long day in Port au Prince

@ The Livesay Family Blog

Overstreet: feasting on film

Babette's Feast (1987, dir. Gabriel Axel)

At the feast of movies, I'd like to leave gluttony, judgment and fear behind me. I know that I am free to eat almost anything, but I want to be strong and fit, disciplining myself to a diet of excellent, nourishing work.

Dessert? Alcohol? In moderation, on occasion.

As a critic, I feel more like the nutritionist—doing my best to counsel others on a balanced diet that serves their individual needs and respects their sensitivities. But I also want to be the kind of connoisseur who can speak knowledgeably about the culinary arts. I want to speak with eloquence about Sofia Coppola's sauces, the exquisite wines of Eric Rohmer and the finer points of Martin Scorsese's pasta.

But the more I learn, the more I'm in danger of becoming another character at the table—the snob. It would be easy for me to leave behind enjoyment of the simpler sorts of films and demand only the most sophisticated work, sneering at those who don't understand or appreciate it. I have, at times, ranted against the ignorance of others, forgetting that I was once at their place in the journey.

Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly (Regal Books, 2007), pp. 93-94

That's very nicely said! There have been quite a few books in recent years on theology and film, but none better (that I've read) than this autobiographical journey of a Christian moviegoer and critic. Whether your tastes run to the mainstream or the obscure I think you'll find it a profitable read.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How do they do that?

David Murray is a professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. I recently stumbled across his blog Head Heart Hand where he writes about Biblical and secular models of leadership. He is serializing an e-book there called How Sermons Work, and what I've read so far is excellent. The first five chapters have been posted. Of course, this material will be of most interest to pastors or seminary students (I know there are a few of you that read this blog) but Murray would like laypeople in the pews to read the book.

He writes:

Lastly, I would like non-preachers to read the book. Given that the most important hours in a Christian’s week are the 1-2 hours they spend listening to their pastor’s sermons, I find it surprising how few Christians are interested in “how do they do that?”

Some people seem to think that pastors “receive” their messages direct from God. They imagine some mysterious process by which the pastor just “gets” a sermon. That is too high a view of preaching. It makes preaching more for angels than for ordinary mortals. I want to show that, just like any other work, there is a reasonable and logical method and system to follow.

Others think that a pastor just spends the week relaxing, gets up on a Sunday, and says the first thing that comes into his mind with little or no forethought or planning. That is too low a view of preaching. Anyone with a bit of verbal fluency could do it. I want to demonstrate that behind the 30-45 minutes you see and hear on a Sunday morning are many hours of mental, emotional, and spiritual labor.

If you want to increase respect for your pastor and his preaching, ask "How do they do that?" Then read this ebook and find out the answer.

You can do just that at his blog. Here's Chapter One.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sweeter also than honey

The last few days I've been camping out in Psalm 19. Musing on it and memorizing it. I don't know Hebrew, but even in English I can recognize that it's a sublime piece of poetry. I'm in good company. C.S. Lewis, who knew a thing or two about poetry, considered it "the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world." (Reflections on the Psalms)

It's a perfect three part structure. Part one is a hymn to the glory of God in creation, what theologians would come to call "general revelation" -- that beautiful book which reveals to everyone the eternal power and divine nature of God. Part two is a rhapsodic love song to "special revelation" -- the Torah, written down in the language of one particular tribe, rooted in culture and history. Whether the poet designed it that way we can't know. Lewis speculates that he passed effortlessly from meditating on God's creation to meditating on his law. The transitional phrase rendered in the ESV as "there is nothing hidden from its heat" (verse 6) can apply both to the sun and the commandments of Yahweh. The law, like the sun, brings light. Lewis: "It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardour."

I think we get the first part of Psalm 19 pretty easily. Just look up at the sky on a clear night in the country or watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. But what of the extravagant language used to describe the law/the precepts/the commandments? Who talks this way about rules? Contemporary Western society celebrates the absence of rules and restrictions. Like Lewis, we may first find it "utterly bewildering." Lewis illustrates the difficulty by using the example of a penniless, hungry man left alone in a bakery with the smell of fresh bread filling the air. In his case "thou shalt not steal" is not a cause of delight. The man may follow the command to not steal bread out of fear or obligation, but it will be anything but pleasant. The law may seem more like "the dentist's forceps or the front line than to anything enjoyable and sweet."

Lewis begins to understand the emotional state of Psalm 19 by seeing that this is the language of a man ravished by God's moral beauty. He looks around at the "filthy" and "cruel" paganisms surrounding Israel and notes the contrast between that and the "beauty" and "sweetness" of the Law. Moreover, the psalmist studies the law as more than mere ethics. Lewis writes that the ancient Jews came to the law "knowing better than they know."

They know that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is "righteous" and commends "righteousness" because He loves it. He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth "truth", intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature, and are therefore as solid as that Nature which He has created.

This isn't the priggish self-righteousness of Jesus' rabbinical accusers who knew the law backwards and forwards but whose hearts were far from God. The language of Psalm 19 is of a man with "holy affections" (to borrow a phrase from Edwards). The more the psalmist studies and delights in the law the more he's driven to articulate the prayer which is part three of the poem. The closer he gets to God the more he becomes aware of his propensity to "hidden faults" and "presumptuous sins." He asks God to put a guard on his mouth and heart. He feels the law "searching out all the hiding-places of his soul." As it does so it revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes. And it's sweet. Sweeter even than honey.

. . . or if that metaphor does not suit us who have not such a sweet tooth as all ancient peoples (partly because we have plenty of sugar), let us say like mountain water, like fresh air after a dungeon, like sanity after a nightmare.

If these ways of relating to God's law seem strange, probably one reason is because we aren't spending enough time in the Psalms. Ambrose was right. The Psalter is a "gymnasium for the soul."

Quotes from Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Chapter VI)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Luther on holding fast to Christ alone at the end

When the hour comes when our life and work must cease, when we have no longer to stay here, and the question arises, where do I now find a plank or bridge by which I can pass with certainty to the other life--when you reach that point, I say, do not look around for any human way, such as your own good, and holy life or works, but let all such things be covered by the Prayer of our Lord and say of them: "Forgive us our trespasses" etc., and hold fast to Him who says: "I am the Way."

See that in that hour you have this Word firmly and deeply engraved in your heart, as though you heard Christ really present and saying to you: "Why should you seek another way? Keep your eyes fixed on Me, and do not trouble with other thoughts about how you may get to heaven. Thrust all such thoughts entirely away from your heart and only think of what I say: 'I am the Way.'"

Martin Luther, Luther's Works (Vol. 45)

Friday, January 22, 2010

A time to laugh

It's been a week of serious topics here at Frightfully Pleased. But as a certain margarita-swilling troubodour has reminded us -- "if we couldn't laugh we'd all go insane." On that note let's end the work week with some classic comedy from Some Like It Hot starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.

Here's the final scene, which features possibly the best punchline in the history of film comedies.

Some Like It Hot (1959, dir. Billy Wilder)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Towards a trinitarian worldview

Picking up from this post here's some more from Lesslie Newbigin's 1978 book The Open Secret. By the time of its writing Newbigin had become convinced that his earlier focus on the church as the central agent of Christian mission was inadequate, and must be replaced by an approach to missionary efforts grounded in the triune nature of God. Instead of being merely an add-on to the gospel, the doctrine of the Trinity is "the necessary starting point of preaching" to a pagan or pantheistic society. This will be hard to do, however, if those that send the missionaries have themselves lost a grasp on its centrality. Newbigin saw this happening in the West/Christendom.

It has been said that the question of the Trinity is the one theological question that has been really settled. It would, I think, be nearer to the truth to say that the Nicene formula has been so devoutly hallowed that it is effectively put out of circulation. It has been treated like the talent which was buried for safekeeping rather than risked in the commerce of discussion. The church continues to repeat the trinitarian formula but—unless I am greatly mistaken—the ordinary Christian in the Western world who hears or reads the word 'God' does not immediately and inevitably think of the Triune Being—Father, Son, and Spirit. He thinks of a supreme monad.

I'll plead guilty here. It's easy to slip into ways of thinking and talking about God that don't do justice to his Triune nature. I've become more aware of this recently as it relates to prayer. It takes some intentionality to pray in a way that expresses something of the perfect unity in diversity of the Godhead, that takes account of the personal and relational nature of the Trinity. Is my worship explicitly trinitarian? If not, I risk worshiping something other than the Christian God revealed in scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery beyond full human comprehension, but according to Newbigin it offers a basis for practical, down-to-earth wisdom. In other words it's the key to knowing.

If as I have argued, we are forced to answer the question of authority by the words 'In the name of Jesus'; and if we then have to answer the question: 'Who is Jesus?', we shall only be able to answer that question in terms which embody the trinitarian faith. Like the earliest Christians we shall have to expand our first answer so that it runs, 'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.' And this means that, like them, we shall be offering a model for understanding human life—a model which cannot be verified by reference to axioms of our culture but which is offered on the authority of revelation and with the claim that it does provide the possibility of a practical wisdom to grasp and deal with human life as it really is.

Quotes from Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader, edited by Paul Weston (p. 91)

Goodbye John G.

Obit @

Some perspective on U.S. aid to Haiti

You've probably heard a variation on the following themes recently. Haiti has always been poor and they will continue to be poor. Pouring billions of dollars into that country is like pouring it down the drain. How can we afford to help Haiti when we're going bankrupt ourselves? Now there's a good case to be made that government to government foreign aid does more harm than good. There have been some good books written recently making that case in regards to aid to Africa. Once the dead are buried, the injured are cared for, and the orphans are housed we should have a robust debate on the best way to assist Haiti in the long term.

But first, a little perspective. Yes, the United States is the biggest donor to Haiti in the world -- $259 million in 2008. We're a generous nation and will continue to be so. But as the chart below shows -- this comes out to a mere 92 cents per year, per person. Not exactly a big sacrifice.

More at Haiti Aid Facts

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A timely word for fearful believers

From Phil Ryken:

A passage from this morning's devotions struck home as a verse for the American church, which today seems so prone to be fearful of various politicians and political movements, and of forces conspiring against the church. The prophet Isaiah reminds us to fear God alone, and to be careful of following the crowd in its social anxieties: "Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread" (Isa. 8:12-13).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Face of the day

A young boy who was dug out of rubble sleeps in a chair in the lounge area at the Project Medishare Triage Center, his medical records taped to his shirt. Both his parents were killed. (Photo: Lannis Watters/The Palm Beach Post)

Let it rain

Winter in South Florida is usually the dry season, but yesterday morning I drove to church in torrents of the wet stuff. It was the kind of rainstorm that creates mini-flash floods in the road. Typically for a Sunday morning the downtown streets were deserted, making it safe to weave my way around the standing water on S. Dixie. The rain was appropriate though. A preview of the day. The somberness of the skies were a good match to the somberness of my soul in response to the apocalyptic suffering being endured on an island the same distance from where I live as Charlotte, North Carolina.

As soon as the service began I was fighting back the tears. Fighting them back as we sang "He's got the whole world in His hands", changing the fourth verse to "He's got everyone in Haiti in His hands." Fighting them back as we recited the Apostles' Creed, after the worship leader reminded us that these familiar words describe a set of truths upon which all of history turns. "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen." If I didn't believe those truths, I'd have to conclude that the world really is ruled by cruel fate and meaninglessness. More tears as we prayed for a member of our church who's been on the ground since Thursday leading a disaster response team. It was especially comforting to be in church yesterday.

Later, more tears (this time I let 'em flow) when I flipped on 60 Minutes to see images of bodies by the score being scooped up and loaded into dumptrucks enroute to a mass unmarked grave, and doctors using a rusty hacksaw to amputate limbs because nothing else was available. "Civil War medicine" the reporter called it. Meanwhile, at home, our cat Gioia -- a seven-year resident of our house whose name was inspired by CSL's Surprised by Joy -- was, we feared, slowly dying. A minor event in the big scheme of things yes, but one that touched my heart more than I thought it would. Truth be told, my wife Shannon is more the animal lover than I am. Gioia hadn't been herself for a week or so, but we thought she'd snap out of it once the unseasonably cold weather passed. Plus, she'd always been a finicky and uneven eater. By Saturday it was clear something was badly wrong. At the pet emergency center they gave her IV fluids, antibiotics and did a test to rule out diabetes. The vet was reasonably confident she might bounce back with continued antibiotics and force feeding, which Shannon faithfully administered throughout the day yesterday.

We went to bed hoping we could get her in first thing today to see our regular vet, but she didn't look good. In the middle of the night something woke me up and I went to check on her. She was half concealed beneath some book shelves and struggling to breathe. The most she could manage in response to her name was a slight twitch of the tail. I woke up Shannon and told her I didn't think she was going to make it til morning. I won't lie -- we cried, and cried some more, trying to decide what to do. Finally, around 3:00 this morning Shannon packed her up and took her back to the 24-hour animal hospital. The caring and compassionate vet on duty (bless him) confirmed our fear that whatever it was was too far gone to reverse. His best guess was the late stages of cancer. Looking back there may have been warning signs, but we'll never know. Since our son was born we hadn't been as attentive as we used to be. Early this morning Gioia went to sleep for the last time.

Even as I smile at the joyful morning antics of my 11-month-old, a part of me is still crying.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

MLK on the church: "thermometer" or "thermostat"?

There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. . .

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Friday, January 15, 2010

What baptism does

One of the bloggers I read regularly is Jason Stellman, a PCA church planter in the Seattle area (you can find his blog De Regnis Duobus in my Top Ten section to the right). Recently he posted a series on baptism which was one of the best things I've ever read on the subject. Often we Protestants are so concerned to say what baptism doesn't do, that we neglect to talk about what it does do. Or we spend all of our time arguing about infant baptism vs. believer's baptism or sprinkling vs. immersion. Stellman breaks out the wide-angle lens to try and unpack the New Testament's strikingly broad language about what baptism does. I particularly liked this bit:

In addition to giving us a new past, baptism gives us a new family in the present. As Peter’s words in v. 39 [Acts 2:39] indicate, our earthly, familial ties are transcended—and in some cases trumped—by our baptismal union with “all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Despite our modern and gnostic desire to maintain our personal relationship with Jesus apart from the awkward and inconvenient tie to the church (filled as it is with actual—and often annoying—people), the fact is that we can’t have the Head without the Body. Through baptism we are ushered into the middle of a tale quite long in the telling, a saga having been spun for thousands of years. This redemptive drama began with a married couple, then grew into a family of eight, then a tribe under the leadership of a chieftain, then twelve tribes that grew into a nation ruled by a king, until it eventually expanded into a truly worldwide and catholic Church with members from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation. Paul tells the Galatians that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ Jesus... are all one in Christ” (3:27, 28).

Here are links to the series:

From Eternity to Here: Baptism, Eschatologically Considered

The Sign and the Thing Signified: Can You Tell Them Apart?

Baptism as a Seal of Saving Blessings

The difference between thoughtful and flippant conservatism

@ The Moderate Voice

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From avatar to Lord

I've been slowly working my way through the outstanding introduction to the writings of Lesslie Newbigin compiled by Paul Weston. This is rich and eye-opening stuff! Here's a snippet from the chapter on the Trinitarian foundation of Christian mission, which was a major topic of Newbigin's later writings.

As a missionary in India I often shared in evangelistic preaching in villages where the name of 'Jesus' has no more meaning than any other strange name. I have heard speakers use many different Tamil words to explain who he is. He is Swamy ('Lord'). Or he is Satguru ('the true teacher'). He is Avatar ('incarnation of God'). Or he is Kadavul ('the transcendent God') who has become man. What all these words have in common is that they necessarily place Jesus within a world of ideas which is formed by the Hindu tradition and which is embodied in the language of the people. Swamy is usually translated 'Lord', but it does not have the meaning that the word Kurios has for a Greek-speaking Jew. It denotes not Yahweh, the Lord of the Old Testament, but one of the myriad gods who fill the pages of the Hindu epics. Avatar is usually translated 'incarnation', but there have been many avatars and there will be many more. To announce a new avatar is not to announce any radical change in the nature of things. Even to use the word kadavul will only provoke the question: 'If Jesus is kadavul, who is the one to whom he prays?'

Newbigin gives that personal example to illustrate the difficulty in preaching an accurate representation of Jesus—the Son eternally begotten from the Father—to cultures unfamiliar with the Athanasian and Nicene formulations of the Trinity. He argues that Christian mission must be first of all Trinitarian in nature, otherwise men and women will not be able to give an accurate answer to the question "Who is Jesus?" Christianity is a Trinitarian faith, and it's significant that the mission of the early church to the pagan Roman world was accompanied by a centuries-long struggle to articulate the relation of God the Son to God the Father. Most of the heresies of the early church revolved around this question. There's no explicit doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament, so it had to be forged through controversy. I've only scratched the surface of Newbigin's thought here.

Difficult as it may be to translate concepts first articulated in a 4th-century Greco-Roman context to places where Christ has not yet been preached, Newbigin stresses the good news that the Spirit goes before the missionary, preparing hearts to receive the message, and then enabling men and women of every culture and language to make that supernatural confession of Peter and the apostles: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matt. 16:16-17, 1 Cor. 12:3). Newbigin again:

Jesus is now not just Lord, but unique Lord, not just avatar, but unique avatar. The word kadavul can no longer refer to a monad: it must refer to a reality, within which there is a relationship of hearing and answering. The event by which the old structure is broken is not a natural happening. . . . It is the work of the sovereign Spirit to enable men and women in new situations and in new cultural forms to find the ways in which the confession of Jesus as Lord may be made in the language of their own culture. The mission of the church is in fact the church's obedient participation in that action of the Spirit by which the confession of Jesus as Lord becomes the authentic confession of ever new peoples, each in its own tongue.

Quotes from "The Open Secret" (1978) as excerpted in Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader, edited by Paul Weston (pp. 85 & 86)

Another idiot heard from

Some gems from yesterday's Rush Limbaugh Show:

You know, I have been to Haiti way back a long time ago when it was a cruise ship stop, Port-au-Prince. And I've seen pictures of Haiti. It is a devastatingly poor place and nothing has ever changed. And right across a mountain ridge in the middle you've got the Dominican Republic, which is like night and day. It's like night and day. And what's the one common factor? That place, Haiti, has been run by dictators and communists, and how long is it going to be before we hear Obama and the left in this country say that what we really need to do is reinstate the communist Aristide to the leadership position down there to coordinate putting the country back together?

. . . .

Yes, I think in the Haiti earthquake, ladies and gentlemen -- in the words of Rahm Emanuel -- we have another crisis simply too good to waste. This will play right into Obama's hands. He's humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, "credibility" with the black community -- in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made-to-order for them. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there.

. . . .

Besides, we've already donated to Haiti. It's called the US income tax.

You couldn't make this stuff up. Rush has become a parody of himself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pray. Give. Mobilize.

Dispatches from the epicenter @ The Livesay [Haiti] Weblog

Photos @

Twitter reports @ The Atlantic Wire

Missionary Flights International is flying disaster relief supplies into Haiti -- GIVE HERE

The Presidential Palace - before and after

UPDATED 1/14 - Here's a video news story on MFI flying supplies into Haiti:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Can the Church learn from the Party?

Writing in Mission Frontiers magazine, Dave Datema the director of Frontier Mission Fellowship cites a quote from British Communist-turned-Christian Douglas Hyde's classic book Dedication and Leadership:

Quite deliberately, and with good reason, the Party sends its new members, whenever possible, into some form of public activity before instruction begins. More specifically, it is designed to commit the recruit publicly to Communism. Quite often this will take the form of being sent out to stand at the side of the street or in some public place selling Communist papers, periodicals or pamphlets. This may appear to be a very simple, somewhat low-grade form of activity. It is in fact of profound psychological significance. Humble as the task may appear, to engage in it requires for many people a certain degree of moral courage. It requires another act of moral courage to remain in a fight for which, he by now realizes, he is not fully equipped. And moral courage is not a bad starting-point for future action.

It strikes me that what's being described here is discipleship. The Party knew that making committed Communists (making disciples) meant putting new members in situations where they were bound to suffer, even if it was only the benign suffering of publicly identifying with an unpopular cause. They were put in situations where they would feel acutely their minority status. What does this have to do with making Christian disciples? As Datema points out, enduring small sufferings well prepares an individual to endure the larger ones. Could it be that the Party's method of developing moral courage is a missing element in much Christian discipleship today? Maybe this is one reason why many Christians in the West are, to put it bluntly, soft. And why groups like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are growing like wildfire. Maybe they're doing a better job of making disciples than the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul says in Romans 5:3-5 that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame." May we be the kind of disciples that aren't put to shame when suffering comes!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Brooks on James Cameron's racial fantasy

While I'm still on the subject of movies here's a quote from the redoubtable David Brooks writing about Avatar. I haven't seen the film, but from what I know of it this sounds right on target.

Cameron’s handling of the White Messiah fable is not the reason “Avatar” is such a huge global hit. As John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard, “Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance.” The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

My advice would be to avoid Cameron's simplistic treatment of these themes, and check out more complex and realistic meditations such as Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), or just about anything by Werner Herzog.

"You'll shoot your eye out kid!"

One of my favorite memories from the holiday season just past is the night my wife and I and her parents who were visiting from Pennsylvania watched the movie A Christmas Story. We'd all seen it multiple times before, but we laughed as hard as ever at the holiday hijinks involving Ralphie, Flick, the old man, Scut Farkas, the leg lamp and Chinese turkey. I'm not saying director Bob Clark was one of our great American directors (among his many other credits are Porky's, Porky's 2 and Karate Dog) but ACS is a terrific piece of work. It seems to have been one of those happy accidents that took on a life of its own. Much of the credit has to go to writer Jean Shepherd, whose voice-over is the glue that holds the entire contraption together. While the story is set in the 40's the movie has a 70's quality to it that gives it an odd timeless quality. Whatever, it works. Perfectly.

A Christmas Story is set in Hammond, Indiana, and plays like an ode to the Midwest, but the house used for the Parker's home was in Cleveland. Recently, a guy named Brian Jones bought the house on eBay, restored it to the way it looked in the film, and turned it into a museum. As if one needed another reason to visit Cleveland! Here's a short documentary on the grand opening:

Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine. . .

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Join the plodding visionaries. Join a church.

One of the books I thoroughly enjoyed in 2009 and didn't get around to finish writing about is Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. DeYoung is the pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, MI and Kluck is one of the people in the pews at URC, actually in this case yellow plastic chairs (see p. 189). This was a true 50/50 collaboration, with each guy writing alternating chapters. Kluck brings a more personal and funny side to his chapters (you can listen to an interview with him here), while DeYoung provides more of the theological and pastoral insight.

Like I said I enjoyed this book, but it didn't land on me with the force it would have five years ago. They were preaching to the choir with this reader. Another reason I enjoyed it was because the church that DeYoung and Kluck describe reminds me of my own church in some ways. I'm a member of a church which is struggling to stay Biblically faithful within a mainline Reformed denomination (the PCUSA). The church DeYoung pastors so well is in the same situation within the RCA. Their church is next to a college campus and my church is next to a college campus. In some of the anecdotes they tell I recognized the "real-ness" and eccentricity that's usually more apparent in older, smaller churches than the shiny new megasized ones. I love this bit from Kluck:

As I look around the room this morning, I see a great man with Lou Gehrig's disease, holding hands with his sweet wife. I see another couple, the husband just diagnosed with cancer that will probably take his life in six months or so. I see a weird military vet guy who fried his brain on drugs in Iraq, and who we follow out to the lobby when he goes to the bathroom because we're afraid for the safety of our kids. I see my father-in-law who has a degenerative brain disease that has destroyed his intellect and ability to communicate and will take his life before it's all said and done. (pp. 192-193)

This is not the community of happy endings that we think the church should look like, but "sometimes (often) the happy ending is in heaven, and the getting there is a really difficult but formative part of our sanctification." (p. 193)

Judging from the titles of recent books and literature, revolution is the need of the day within the church. The authors, especially DeYoung, interact with Barna and others who've written scores of books saying that church as we've known it is passé, irrelevant, and finished. Without glossing over real problems they propose a competing vision.

What we need are fewer revolutionaries and a few more plodding visionaries. That's my dream for the church—God's redeemed people holding tenaciously to a vision of godly obedience and God's glory, and pursuing that godliness and glory with relentless, often unnoticed, plodding consistency. (p. 222)

In other words we need fewer wannabe Bono's and more people like the "line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the praise team every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income." Instead of "Christians ready to check out and overthrow. . . we need more Christians ready to check in and follow through." (p. 223) Lines like these made me want to stand up and cheer.

However, the book makes clear that this vision of the church involves a lot of the mundane, a lot of sameness, and even boredom. "But in all the smallness and sameness, God works—like the smallest seed in the garden growing to unbelievable heights, like beloved Tychicus, that faithful minister, delivering the mail and apostolic greetings (Eph. 6:21)." (pp. 224-225) We can't all be Paul, most of us will be more like the sidekicks mentioned in the footnotes, or not mentioned at all. DeYoung goes on to wonder if maybe the reason some are finding church boring and irrelevant is because the wonder of the gospel has been lost in the fog of moralism and/or social activism. Instead of giving up on the church how about discovering God's grace anew as an accountable member of a local, gospel-centered church? This book challenged me to renew my commitment to the plodding visionaries who are in it for the long haul.

Go to church this Sunday and worship there in spirit and truth, be patient with your leaders, rejoice when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, bear with those who hurt you, and give people the benefit of the doubt. While you are there, sing like you mean it, say hi to the teenager no one notices, welcome the blue hairs and the nose-ringed, volunteer for the nursery once in a while. . . enjoy the Sundays that click for you, pray extra hard on the Sundays that don't and do not despise "the day of small things." (pp. 226-227, italics emphasis mine)

Quotes from DeYoung & Kluck, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Moody, 2009)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


For the folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church here's a compilation of my posts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I hope you've enjoyed our Wednesday night series on this extraordinary Christian, and that it has inspired you to further explore his life and writings.

The following link leads to a series of biographical sketches taken from Letters and Papers from Prison:

Costly Discipleship Remembered

Here are several of my favorite excerpts from Bonhoeffer's writings -- especially Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship -- along with some personal reflections:

The great school of prayer

Reading the Scriptures

Monday morning Bonhoeffer

Solitude and fellowship (part 1)

Solitude and fellowship (part 2)

Purposeful silence

A little leaven...

When God cancels our plans

Why the "verse for the day" is not enough

A prison Advent

Jesus, Socrates and Easter

Bonhoeffer on Luther and the justification of sinners (for Reformation Day 2009)

The trouble with moral difficulties

The fellowship of the blessed

The goal of Christian community

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Joe Carter takes on the Cheney conservatives

Writing in the journal First Things -- Carter contends that American conservatism "is increasingly becoming a pagan-influenced ideology, providing long-sought justification for evildoing and providing us the steadfastness and determination to do what we know is wrong and the boldness to call evil good. How else can we explain the willingness of conservatives to not only defend the intrinsically evil act of torture but to also claim that those who oppose such evil have no place in making decisions about war and peace?" Carter continues on to cast serious doubt on the claims made by advocates of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that torture has actually helped prevent terrorist attacks a la Jack Bauer on 24. I hope you'll click-through and read the whole thing, especially if you're swayed by arguments that torture can keep us safe, and that opposing it is the equivalent of coddling terrorists.

Here are two excerpts from Carter's piece:

Even weaker than the logic of the argument [that torture works] is the moral justification. Perhaps torture would make sense in a pagan society where the nation-state is of primary importance and all actions are ultimately justifiable if they serve nationalist ends. But in a nation whose ethical foundation is rooted in a Judeo-Christian concept of justice, torture by state agents should always be considered impermissible. The reason that there is a long history of just warfare theory but no corresponding “just torture theory” is because torture is inherently antithetical to justice and morality.

. . . .

Of course, pagans—and Christians who accept pagan ideals when convenient—have always been with us and they deserve their place in the public square. But the global war on terror has allowed them to dominate certain conversations, leading us away from conservative policy proposals that are rooted in Christian principles. Rather than push back, we Christians have remained silent and treated an issue once considered unthinkable—the acceptability of torture—as if it’s a practice that must be accepted under the banner of “realism.” Perhaps we should not be surprised then to find the tables turned on us and the idea that opposition to torture is barely worthy of respect.

But Christians should be unequivocal in our opposition: torture is immoral and should be clearly and forcefully denounced. We continue to shame ourselves and our Creator by refusing to speak out against such outrages to human dignity. If that means that we will be slandered as radical pacifists, then we should wear the label proudly.

Well said, Mr. Carter.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The miracle in Raleigh

Going into overtime yesterday in their game against North Carolina State the Florida Gators were a dismal 1 for 22 from the 3-point line. The futility continued until Kenny Boynton made an off-balance three with 14 seconds to go to cut the Wolfpack lead to 2. Then with 2.6 seconds left this amazing finish. . .

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bonhoeffer: the goal of Christian community

The day of the Lord's Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and, receiving that, it receives forgiveness, new life, and salvation. It is given new fellowship with God and men. The fellowship of the Lord's Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship. As the members of the congregation are united today in body and blood at the table of the Lord so will they be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and his community is complete. The life of Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (p. 122)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bible reading plans

One of the best things I ever did was read through the Bible in a year using the Discipleship Journal Plan. Reading each day from different parts of scripture is the only way to discover what the Westminster Confession of Faith describes as "the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole."

For those with less time another good plan is the 5x5x5 New Testament Plan. I followed this one in 2009.

This year for something different I'm going to use the Read Through the Bible Program for Shirkers and Slackers. It allows for more flexibility than the Discipleship Journal plan while keeping the same goal of reading from different parts of the Bible throughout the week.

If you need more options check out the impressive array of ESV Bible Readings Plans.

Whichever plan you follow, or even if you don't use a plan, I hope you'll be digging into the Word in 2010!