Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Brilliant" films

Nile Gardiner of the Telegraph nominates "The Top 10 Conservative Movies of the Last Decade." I've seen almost all of them and enjoyed them enough to seriously consider watching the two I haven't. Quite apart from politics, there is a lot of good entertainment here. Gardiner describes his choices as "all brilliant movies that conservatives can be inspired by, and which are guaranteed to offend left-wing sensibilities in one way or another" but not "a list of films made only by conservative filmmakers, who are, it has to be said, few in number." The first three:
1. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)
Peter Weir’s unashamedly old-fashioned and visually stunning adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel is one of the greatest odes to leadership ever committed to celluloid. Australian director Weir has made many terrific films, including Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Witness, but Master and Commander was the pinnacle of his career so far. Nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, it should be essential viewing for any commander-in-chief. Russell Crowe delivers a powerhouse performance as Jack Aubrey, Captain of HMS Surprise, a British warship that hunts and ultimately captures a far larger French adversary during the Napoleonic Wars. Set in 1805, it is an epic tale of heroism and love for country in the face of incredible odds, and a glowing tribute to the grit and determination that forged the British Empire.
2. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Sir Ridley Scott’s searing depiction of the ill-fated US raid on Mogadishu in 1993, which left 19 American servicemen dead, was released just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the launch of the War on Terror. Based on the book by Mark Bowden, it won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Sound, and Scott was nominated for Best Director. Many critics enthusiastically dubbed Black Hawk Down an anti-war film, and it is in some respects a cautionary tale about the perils of nation-building. But I regard it above all as an extraordinarily powerful and deeply patriotic tribute to the heroism and bravery of the US military, faced with overwhelming odds in a hostile city dominated by brutal Somali warlords. It is essentially a story of incredible sacrifice and camaraderie in the heat of battle, and ranks alongside Zulu, Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far as one of the greatest war films of all time.
3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003)
All three parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy were great pieces of cinema – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and finally The Return of the King, which won Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings, was a devout Catholic and conservative, and a close friend of C.S. Lewis at Oxford. His vision of a mighty battle between good and evil in the realms of Middle Earth was brilliantly transferred to the screen by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, perfectly fitting a post 9/11 world where the forces of freedom found themselves pitted against a barbaric enemy.
.... [the rest]
The Top 10 Conservative Movies of the Last Decade – Telegraph Blogs

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The symbolism of the pulpit

The Wittenberg Door regrets "The Loss of Symbolism," specifically what seems an aversion to the pulpit, which the pastor once ascended to preach the Word. He argues that the pulpit symbolized something very important in Christian — and particularly Reformed — doctrine.
The pulpit comprises a lectern standing upon a raised platform. Being the most important piece of “furniture” in the church, it is positioned in front of the congregation, with all pews facing it. Its symbolic importance can be summarized as follows:
  • It’s central—The pulpit’s central placement is important because it is from there that God addresses His people via the preached word. Therefore, it commands the most prominent place in the church.
  • It’s raised—The pulpit is elevated because it is upon the lectern that the minister’s bible rests, symbolizing the word of God being over the people.
  • It’s solid—The lectern is made of solid wood, symbolizing the sure foundation upon which God’s word stands. Moreover, it’s large enough to obscure most of the minister’s body, thus keeping the focus on the word. For this reason, Reformed ministers stay behind the lectern, so as to stay behind the word of God. ....
Things have changed, though. Pulpits are considered outdated, and even stifling. Like nature, the church abhors a vacuum. In the pulpit’s place sprung the Plexiglas stand, allowing the “minister” to be seen in all of his glory. But this too is seen by some as cumbersome. Why let anything stand in front of the minister, hindering his ability to work the crowd...?

Too harsh? Perhaps. But the transition from the pulpit to more modern elements is symptomatic of a greater problem: a shift from the glory of God to the glory of man; ... a shift from the preached word as a Means of Grace to the advent of a new sacrament—the minister himself. ....
The Wittenberg Door: The Loss of Symbolism

"Shallow and trendy and transient"

Nathan Martin at Evangel has transcribed an interview he did with Os Guinness and titles it "Where Have All the Evangelicals Gone?" Guinness, an old associate of Francis Schaeffer [and a member of the brewery family], has some interesting things to say about the state of American Evangelicalism. It's a lengthy interview that is being posted in parts. These are a few of the questions and answers from the segment today [I have reformatted somewhat]:
Many of these agnostics/atheists turn to Genesis when they are trying to undermine the foundations of Christianity, should we meet them in Genesis or should we be focusing on the character of Christ and moving out?

We have to do both.

There’s no question that the relationship between faith and science is one of the great weaknesses in the American church. You’ve got three positions, the young earth creationists, most of whom are frank embarrassments to actual scientists, and yet the majority position among most Christians. Then, you’ve got the intelligent design, and there are very many serious believers and scientists in that. My quarrel with them is that they are politicizing this issue and you’ve got lawsuits and things. That is a science issue and it should be fought humbly and graciously between scientists. Then there are theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins and most serious thinkers in Europe, and I think that the real argument is between Theistic Evolution and Intelligent Design. But that is not an argument that should be politicized, like in the Dover case and so on. So, overall, the American church, mainly Evangelicals have made a huge issue over this and we have to put it right. ....

Now looking back at the Jesus movement, you were optimistic about it…?

Actually I didn’t, I criticized the Jesus movement. I was a strong critic of the counter-culture and all those movements in the 60s, but I was the strongest critic of the Jesus Movement because it was very shallow and trendy and transient, and that’s what it proved to be. I’m critical of a lot of these trendy and transient things, including the extremes of the emergent church which are equally trendy and transient.

What are some of the biggest problems of the emergent church?

I have two main criticisms of those extremes. One, they were much stronger on the negative than the positive. Now, the Reformers, for example, were very strong on the negative, the selling of grace by indulgences, they attacked it up hill and down dale, it was vile. At the same time, they were even stronger on the positive, Sola Gratia, by grace alone.

Whereas a mark of the emergent church, its extremes and the work of some people, whom I won’t mention, they are still getting over the hang-ups of the churches that they grew up in, and they aren’t as strong on the positives of the gospel, and that’s tragic. My other problem is that they are very critical of modernism, quite rightly, but they are uncritical of post-modernism, wrongly. ....

R.C. Sproul was asked what the greatest theological problem facing the Christian church would be, he answered with regards to Christology and the personhood of Christ, what would you see as the greatest problem facing the church?

The biggest problem is not specific theological issues, like grace or Jesus or whatever, it is theology itself. In other words, modernity shifts theology from authority to preference. Karl Barth used to put it like this, “Theology once had binding address,” it addressed you and then bound you, so there was a link between belief and behavior. Now, that link between belief and behavior has eroded. So now, what people believe and how they behave, who cares?

Take Evangelicals, Evangelicals have never had a higher, sharper, clearer view of Scripture, things like statements of inerrancy. But Evangelical behavior on the ground is permissive chaos. The fact is, it’s just a matter of preference. And everyone describes their freedom, including the emergent church. As soon as you can say the views you don’t like, the uptight, stuffy traditional views, legalistic or whatever and you throw out what you don’t like, it’s just a matter of preference. And you get what social scientists call a cafeteria spirituality, or a salad bar spirituality. In other words, you can go down the bar, and decide you like cabbage not lettuce? Fine. You like radishes not carrots? Fine. You like love, not hell? Fine. Check out hell, take out love, that’s fine. .... [more]
Where Have All the Evangelicals Gone? » Evangel | A First Things Blog

Bible reading with discipline and grace

Justin Taylor has several links up today about Bible study. One of them takes us to ten ESV Bible Reading Plans including a variety of ways to access them. But the recommendation that interested me the most was the "Bible Reading Plan for Shirkers and Slackers," which sounds like it was designed for me. Taylor links to this pastor's description of the approach:
.... Therefore, let me suggest a new kind of reading plan for 2010, one that writer Margie Haack calls 'The Bible Reading Plan for Slackers and Shirkers' (I love that title!). Advantages to this plan include:
  1. Removing the pressure to 'keep up' with getting through the entire Bible in a year.
  2. Providing variety throughout the week by alternating genres.
  3. Providing continuity by reading the same genre each day of the week.
In a nutshell, here's how it works:
Sundays: Poetry
Mondays: Penteteuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy)
Tuesdays: Old Testament history
Wednesdays: Old Testament history
Thursdays: Old Testament prophets
Fridays: New Testament history
Saturdays: New Testament epistles (letters)
The advantage of this plan is that it provides guidance as we read each day but does not put us on an internal guilt trip if we miss a day - we just pick up with the next reading on the day it happens to be. Also, this plan allows us to see the many interconnections between sections of Scripture. So, as Margie puts it, on the same day you may be reading about God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis and a few days later read Paul's commentary on the Abrahamic covenant in Romans.

Many Bible reading plans are good, but I find this one unusually helpful, for it combines two biblical values which seem to diverge in most plans: discipline and grace. ....
Taylor provides this link to a pdf download of the plan.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reason and free choice or amorality and determinism

I have enjoyed and profited from reading Robert P. George in First Things and elsewhere. He was one of the moving forces behind the Manhattan Declaration uniting many Evangelicals, Orthodox and Catholics in support of a limited number of moral non-negotiables. This past Sunday The New York Times Magazine" published a lengthy profile: "Robert P. George, the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker." Anyone interested in the intersection of religious belief and American politics should acquaint themselves with what he argues. Excerpted from the article:
.... In the American culture wars, George wants to redraw the lines. It is the liberals, he argues, who are slaves to a faith-based “secularist orthodoxy” of “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberalism.” Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason. George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law “new” is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture — or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of “practical reason”: “invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,” as he put it in one essay.

George’s admirers say he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas. His scholarship has earned him accolades from religious and secular institutions alike. In one notable week two years ago, he received invitations to deliver prestigious lectures at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Harvard Law School. ....

.... Moral philosophy, as George describes it, is a contest between the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Scottish enlightenment thinker David Hume.

Aristotelians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, hold that there is an objective moral order. Human reason can see it. And we have the free will to follow or not. “In a well-ordered soul, reason’s got the whip hand over emotion,” George told the seminar, in a favorite formulation borrowed from Plato. Humeans — and in George’s view, modern liberals are usually Humeans — disagree. Against Aristotle, Hume argued that the universe includes facts but not values. You cannot derive moral conclusions from studying the world, an “ought” from an “is.” There is no built-in, objective reason for me to choose one goal over another — the goals of Mother Teresa over the goals of Adolf Hitler, in George’s hypothetical. Reason, then, is merely a tool of whatever desire strikes my fancy. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and may pretend to no office other than to serve and obey them,” George said, paraphrasing Hume, just as he does in seemingly every essay or lecture he writes.

In George's view, if I have no rational basis for picking one goal over another, then I have no free choice, only predetermined “passions” — the result of genetics, a blow to the head, whatever made me prefer either curing the sick or killing the Jews. We have reason and free choice, he teaches, or we have amorality and determinism. .... [more]
Robert P. George, the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker - NYTimes.com

Monday, December 28, 2009

Praying continually

Michael Mckinley at Church Matters writes about his difficulty praying and a solution he's found:
I've been really helped by Paul Miller's book, A Praying Life. In it, he writes:
I discovered myself praying simple two- and three-word prayers, such as Teach me or Help me, Jesus. The psalms are filled with this type of short bullet prayer. Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don't have to sort out exactly what we need... Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life — including ours — doesn't work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father.
This small insight has been really helpful to me. Instead of remaining in silence because I don't have the right words, I have found myself praying "Jesus, help me!" throughout the day.

The Religious Right

In the Fall, 2009 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Jean Bethke Elshtain reviews [behind a subscription wall] The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, a book whose findings ought to [but will not] allay the fears of those alarmed by the plotting of "Christianists" — those supposedly intent on destroying religious liberty — and an America on the verge of theocracy:
.... Far from being a threat to American civil society, "Christian Right leaders routinely anchor secular, deliberative norms in their faith" and, to the degree they do so, argues Shields, they are acting in ways entirely consistent with "participatory egalitarianism" and our "long tradition of democratic education in American social movements." Shields's closely reasoned study focuses on theologically conservative Christian citizens committed to civic freedom and democratic procedures. They are strongly opposed to any official establishment of religion—including their own—because that would undermine one of their most cherished principles, namely, the free exercise of religion. ....

To be sure, there are uncompromising extremists here and there, as there inevitably are around "the fringes of social movements"—any strong social movement—but these are marginal, not central. Overwhelmingly, what Christian leaders teach new activists is "how to engage the wider public" and how to mobilize and sustain their moral commitments in so doing. ....

Shields was surprised to find there was much more openness to debate and deliberation on the part of Christian citizens, including college students, than on the part of those who condemn them. With abortion politics as his case study, he cites chapter and verse from pro-choice organizing literature (and other sources) instructing activists not to debate nor even engage with their pro-life opponents.

What's more, it is pro-choice spokesmen who incessantly paint the pro-life position as narrowly sectarian and exclusively religious, and therefore illegitimate. By contrast, pro-life literature frames the matter as one of human rights and the common good—a concern of all citizens, not just believers.

It is difficult to argue with Shields's conclusion that Christian activists have enhanced "the participatory character of American democracy." Sadly, I doubt his careful study will make a dent in our cultural elites' standard narrative: that Christian activism, at least Christian activism by theological and social conservatives, is a very bad thing because it violates church-state separation and aims to destroy everyone's freedom. Yet, if Christian activism tracks with the self-described "progressive" agenda, the dark murmurings about theocracy simply melt away. ....

Sabbath Recorder, January 2010


The January, 2010, Sabbath Recorder is available online here as a pdf.

This issue, as the cover indicates, contains articles about missions. There is information about Seventh Day Baptist work among the Oglala Sioux, in Alaska and in Burundi, Ecuador and Malawi.

The Sabbath Recorder is the magazine of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference and has been regularly published in some form since 1844.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Theologically ambidextrous

I am no theologian. For instance, although I have a general understanding of the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism, I had never heard of Molinism — a Catholic theologian's grappling with the juncture of "the omniscience of God with human free will." An author named Ken Keathley, who has just had published a new book taking a "Molinist approach," explains "some areas of agreement between Molinists and Calvinists" at "Between the Times." It has seemed to me for a long time that something like his first point must be the case. Excerpts:
  1. Divine Sovereignty and human free will are both profoundly true. We hold to both because the Bible simultaneously teaches both. We reject two opposite but equally dangerous tendencies: the denial of free will (fatalism) and the deification of free will (open theism comes to mind). ....
  2. God, whenever He chooses, accomplishes His will with precision and success (Isa 14:24; Prov 16:33; Matt 10:29-30)). ....
  3. Despite the fact that God can and does accomplish His will through the wicked decisions and actions of sinful men (Gen 50:10; Acts 2:23), God is not responsible for evil nor is He the origin of sin. This is certainly not a distinctly Molinist doctrine. The Canons of Dort declare that the very notion of God as the author of sin is ”a blasphemous thought” (Art 15).
  4. Apart from a gracious work of the Holy Spirit, no one can repent and believe the Gospel. Fallen humanity has lost free will in the one place it really matters–in the ability to respond to God. Not only do Molinists and Calvinists agree on this point, but so do all orthodox Christians. To deny this fact is to embrace Pelagianism. The disagreement between Molinists and Calvinists lies in our respective understanding of the nature and extent of God’s enablement (i.e., whether it is always effectual). This dispute must not be papered over, but it shouldn’t be caricatured either.
  5. The Gospel is genuinely proffered to every hearer. If Calvinists generally find unsatisfactory the Molinist approach to point four, then Molinists usually look with skepticism at the typical Calvinist explanation on this point. But let’s remember that all good Calvinists and Molinists affirm “the well-meant offer” of the Gospel. As Wayne Grudem points out in his discussion of the Savior’s invitation of Matt 11:28-30, “Every non-Christian hearing these words should be encouraged to think of them as words that Jesus Christ is even now, at this very moment, speaking to him or to her individually…This is a genuine personal invitation that seeks a personal response from each one who hears it” (Grudem: 1994, 694. Emphasis original).
So we affirm that salvation is a sovereign, monergistic work of God, such that the redeemed are saved entirely by grace. At the same time, we genuinely repent and believe, we truly receive the Gospel, such that the Christ-rejecter is damned by his own choice. The Bible clearly teaches both concurrent truths. And we must simultaneously affirm both. To coin a phrase from Peter Thuesen, on this issue the biblical witness requires that we must be theologically ambidextrous. [more]
Molinists and Calvinists: Locked in a Wordy Embrace with the Same Gargoyle « Between The Times

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mary Elizabeth Bond Skaggs, 1911-2009

My mother died this morning, age 98, after a long and productive life. My brother, Sam, and I will miss her, but as Christians, with confidence born of the Hope she possessed.
Mary Elizabeth Bond Skaggs, age 98, died peacefully on December 19, 2009 of natural causes at Milton Senior Living in Milton, Wisconsin. She was born August 3, 1911 to Charles Austin and Maud Virginia (Hefner) Bond on Canoe Run near Roanoke, West Virginia. She was the fifth of eight children - Beatrice Mora, Walter Clarence, John Stanley, Luther Harold, Mary Elizabeth, Richard William, Charles Hefner, and Robert Levi, each of whom preceded her in death.

She lived on her grandfather’s farm near Roanoke until she was eight when the family moved to Salem, West Virginia, so the older children could attend high school. Mary was baptized by Pastor George B. Shaw and became a member of the Salem Seventh Day Baptist Church when she was twelve. After high school, she entered Salem College, majoring in physical education, graduating in 1934. In 1935 she became a physical education teacher at Bridgeport High School, Bridgeport, West Virginia, and taught there until the end of the spring semester in 1942. Mary’s younger brother, Charles, married Margaret Skaggs and, subsequently, Mary became acquainted with Margaret’s older brother, Leland Skaggs, then living in New York City where he taught mathematics at CCNY. Because of the uncertainties resulting from the beginning of World War II, Leland and Mary decided to marry during Easter weekend. They were married on April 6, 1942, the Monday after Easter, with Leland’s father, Rev. James L. Skaggs, performing the ceremony, Charles Bond as best man, and Margaret Skaggs Bond attending Mary.

After the war, most of which was spent in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Leland served in the Army teaching classes in radio for the Signal Corps, Leland was persuaded to return Milton, Wisconsin, and to Milton College, his alma mater, as a math teacher and, eventually, as Registrar. In 1956, Mary was employed by the college to teach women’s physical education. Later she also served as Dean of Women. The family’s life – there were now also two sons – centered around the activities at the college and the Milton Seventh Day Baptist Church. Mary organized and hosted social events for students and faculty, receptions, open houses, church Turkey Suppers, and was never happier than when she was doing so. With a sister-in-law, she took a class in cake decorating, and thereafter baked and decorated cakes for wedding receptions, anniversaries and other celebrations.

Mary retired from teaching in 1973. She and Leland continued to live in a house across from the Milton College campus until the end of 2002 when they moved to Milton Senior Living. Leland died there on Christmas morning, 2003. Mary is survived by her sons, James Austin Skaggs of Madison, Wisconsin, and Samuel Bond Skaggs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and numerous nephews and nieces.

The funeral will be on Wednesday, December 23 at the Milton, Wisconsin, Seventh Day Baptist Church, with burial in the Milton Cemetery.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Never having to say you're sorry

Bret Stephens, reviewing the late Jean-François Revel's Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, describes the Left's invulnerability to experience:
.... "The totalitarian phenomenon," Revel observed years ago, "is not to be understood without making an allowance for the thesis that some important part of every society consists of people who actively want tyranny: either to exercise it themselves or—much more mysteriously—to submit to it."

It was a temptation that proved to be remarkably resilient. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the once fellow-traveling European left had no choice but to admit that the god to which it had long rendered faithful service had been an illusion, and incurably dysfunctional to boot. Yet that grudging concession, as Revel observed, did little to chasten the former groupies of totalitarianism. On the contrary, it served as a springboard for a fresh assault on liberal-democratic principles. ....

...[T]he left's new refrain was that, whatever the excesses of communism, they were as nothing next to those of "liberal totalitarianism" and "savage capitalism." Communism, in this view, more than redeemed itself through its aspirations for social justice. And to the extent that actual Communist regimes—namely, all of them—fell short of that ideal, it merely proved that they hadn't been Communist to begin with!

Of this mental fortress, Revel acidly writes: "Utopia is not under the slightest obligation to produce results: its sole function is to allow its devotees to condemn what exists in the name of what does not." [emphasis added] Thus the political collapse of communism offered members of the hard left an avenue of ideological resurrection, since they could return to their favorite pastime of lambasting globalization and other American conspiracies to enslave the world without having to suffer any unpalatable reminders of some of the alternatives—the Berlin Wall, for instance. .... [more]
Book Review: Last Exit to Utopia - WSJ.com

Temptation

"Lead me not into temptation" but, when I am tempted.... Gene Edward Veith provides this quotation from Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today by John Kleinig:
Luther proposed an evangelical pattern of spirituality as reception rather than self-promotion. This involves three things: prayer, meditation, and temptation. All three revolve around ongoing, faithful attention to God’s Word.

.... These three terms describe the life of faith as a cycle that begins with prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit, concentrates on the reception of the Holy Spirit through meditation on God’s Word, and results in spiritual attack.

This, in turn, leads a person back to further prayer and intensified meditation. Luther, therefore, does not envisage the spiritual life as a process of self-development, but as a process of reception from a triune God. This process of reception turns proud, self-sufficient individuals into humble beggars before God. (Page 16)
Prayer, meditation, temptation | Cranach: The Blog of Veith

"Christ in us serving..."

This guest blogger at Internet Monk was becoming frustrated and burned out by "church work" until contact with Lutherans resulted in the discovery of the doctrine of vocation:
.... My Pastor puts it this way. When we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ loaves of bread don’t fall from the sky. (We don’t see manna or multiplying loaves much any more.) A Farmer plants and harvests wheat. A miller grinds it. A baker bakes it. A truckdriver hauls it to a store and the store sells it to us. These are God’s means of providing our daily bread. These vocations of farmer, miller, baker, truck driver and store owner could almost be seen as masks of God. He is behind each one of these providing bread to eat.

God has placed each one of us uniquely in our vocations, as sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, fathers or mothers, employees, employer, students, teachers, govenors or citizens. Each has specific duties and responsibilities to serve our neighbor, in ways unique to each station in life, outlined in God’s word, that as Christians we strive to accomplish. This is where the rubber meets the road in the Christian life. This is Christ in us serving our neighbor,and it is also us in Christ serving Him.

The second part of the doctrine of vocation is that all true and valid vocations are equally pleasing to God. During Luther’s time the church had developed a two tiered approach to the Christian life. Those who really wanted to serve God and obtain his blessings became priests and nuns, or attached themselves to one of the monastic orders. These people were considered to be more holy and better Christians than the average guy warming a pew. They also invented a whole list of made up works that elicited God’s favor. Pilgrimages and fasts, taking vows and joining a monastery. These were considered more pleasing to God than doing a good job at work or being a good parent. Luther considered the whole scheme to be hogwash and stated that a mother lovingly changing her infant’s diaper was doing a holier work than anyone taking a monastic vow or going on a pilgrimage. He said any true vocation done with faith in Christ was just as pleasing to God as the vocation of being a priest or monk. In the Lutheran church today, the vocation of Pastor is held in no higher esteem than any other vocation.

This knowledge has been incredibly freeing to me and a number of friends and relatives. By being a good worker and a good dad and husband I am serving Christ. By voting and paying my taxes I am serving Christ in my vocation as citizen. It is truly good news to those of us who thought that we had to be working in the church to serve the Lord. .... [more]
Six Floors of Sunday School….. to what end? | internetmonk.com

Monday, December 14, 2009

"In the days of Herod..."

Justin Taylor provides a link to an article about the date of the birth of Our Lord:
If you want a helpful introduction to the issue of when Jesus was born (and when other events in his life happened), check out Paul Maier’s article, “The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus’ Life,” originally published in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies presented to Jack Finegan, ed. J. Vardaman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989), 113-130.
Maier's article [available at the link as a pdf] begins:
In 1968 I published an article that offered fresh evidence in support of Friday, 3 April A.D. 33, as the date of the Crucifixion. Since then, much attention has focused on the other terminus of Jesus' life in response to recent recalculations of dates for the death of Herod the Great and the birth of Christ. Although a precise date, as in the case of the Crucifixion, still seems unattainable for the Nativity, some further refinement within the usual range of 7 to 4 B.C. is possible, which would suggest late 5 B.C. as the most probable time for the first Christmas.
When Was Jesus Born? – Justin Taylor

One ring to rule them all

I've been waiting for this! Now the only question is, will I be able to restrain myself and wait for the release of the extended versions [probably not, the real question is whether I'll be able to wait until tomorrow to order this one]. From an excellent site for DVD watchers and collectors:
.... Their 6-disc The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy Blu-ray box set will finally arrive in stores on 4/6/2010 (SRP $99.98 - available for pre-order on Amazon NOW for just $69.99), obviously on their New Line label. As we've reported previously, the box set will contain only the theatrical versions of the three films. Per Warner's press release "Extended versions of the films will be released at a later date on Blu-ray Disc." Our own sources tell us that the extended cuts are being held back at director Peter Jackson's request so that he can prepare more elaborate Blu-ray releases of those for debut closer to the theatrical and home video release of the two Hobbit films (now due in 2011 and 2012).

For this initial release, the transfers will present the films in 1080p HD video, in the correct widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. English audio will be present in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 format, along with Dolby Surround, along with subtitles in English, English SDH, French and Spanish. There will be 3 BD discs (containing the movies) and 3 standard DVD discs (containing legacy extras). The DVDs will also contain Digital Copy versions of each film.
The Digital Bits: Celebrating Film on Disc - DVD & Blu-ray

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Peace is never the highest good


Via the December 21 Weekly Standard, this quotation from Theodore Roosevelt, accepting his Nobel Peace Prize:
We must ever bear in mind that the great end in view is righteousness, justice as between man and man, nation and nation, the chance to lead our lives on a somewhat higher level, with a broader spirit of brotherly goodwill one for another. Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy. We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life, but we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong. No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"We are never at home"

Several friends have told me that I should read Marilynne Robinson, especially Gilead and Home. I possess an irrational reluctance to accept such suggestions even when I know that my friends have tastes and interests similar to my own. "Simple Gifts" by Cheryl Miller in the current Claremont Review of Books may succeed where they have failed. It is a review of those books that makes very clear why I ought to like them. For instance, Miller on Robinson and original sin and the wages of utopianism:
.... "Gross error survives every attempt at perfection, and flourishes." Robinson may call herself a liberal Protestant, but it's not for nothing that she says "my heart is with the Puritans"—no novelist working today has a deeper understanding of original sin. For Robinson, discontent is our natural condition. "There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all," Ames reflects in Gilead. Glory too wonders "how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home." But such a restoration cannot be achieved: "[W]e are the Ishmael of species...while we belong in the world, we have no place in the world." We are never at home.

Robinson allows that this might seem a "harsh doctrine," but it has proven far kindlier than the belief that we can "reason our way to a code of behavior that is consistent with our survival, not to mention our dignity or our self-love." Ever the student of history, Robinson asks, "what could have been more brutal than these schemes to create happy and virtuous societies?" It is our desire to remake the world "without strain and conflict," she reminds us, that has "made most of the barbarity of our century seem to a great many people a higher philanthropy." By contrast, "the belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness." ....
The Claremont Institute - Simple Gifts

In, but not of

Jonathan Tobin explains why Chanukah, which begins at sundown this evening, should remind each of us of the importance of remaining faithful:
.... Far from being a Jewish version of “goodwill toward men” or some trendy contemporary cause, the original story of Chanukah is about something very different: the refusal of a people to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of their day — their resolve to remain separate and faithful to their own traditions. Even more to the point, Chanukah is the story of a particularly bloody Jewish civil war whose outcome has stood ever since as a warning against the perils of discarding faith and freedom to fit it with more popular ideological movements. This is a lesson that applied to the Maccabees, who sought to resist the pull of Hellenism more than 2,000 years ago, as well as to those fighting back against the siren song of totalitarian ideas in the last century.

As such, and as much as the specific religious message of the holiday ought to resonate with Jews, this element of faithfulness and resistance against the pull of both fashion and conventional wisdom is one that can inspire everyone, no matter what their faith or origin. Happy Chanukah!
Commentary » Blog Archive » A Festival of Light and Freedom

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Choosing a birthday

Most Christians realize that we don't really know the date of Christ's birth. Biblical Archaeology Review provides an interesting account of "How December 25 Became Christmas":
.... By the fourth century...we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” .... [more]
The article throws more doubt on theories attributing the date to pagan influence and advances an alternative. Read it all, especially if such disputes affect you or your church.

How December 25 Became Christmas - Biblical Archaeology Review

"I dreamed a Dream"

I just received my copy of Crossway's new version of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come, and it goes on the top of my reading stack. It is a handsome volume with new illustrations by Mike Wimmer [see the example to the right], scripture references and extensive editor's notes and modernized language by C.J. Lovik. It seems very readable. Compare, for instance, the opening paragraph[s] — the new version is on the right.

AS I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept, I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man cloathed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came to a certain place where there was a cave; and I lay down in that place to sleep. As I slept, I dreamed a dream, and in this dream I saw a man clothed in rags, standing in a place with his face turned away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a heavy burden upon his back.

I looked and saw him open the book and begin to read; and as he read, he wept and trembled. Not being able to contain himself, he cried out in a loud voice, "What shall I do?"

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rooted in the moral law

The Manhattan Declaration now has more than a quarter million signatures and those who have signed have been urged to additional action. Some, however, although in agreement with the statement's positions on the issues it addresses, have refused to sign because they interpret phrases in the document as indicating doctrinal compromise on central issues involving the gospel, that is to say, they consider Catholics and Orthodox so much in error that they don't wish to risk the association. Two responses to those concerns can be found here and here. If you would like to add your name to those individual Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants who have signed, you can do so here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The ministry of visiting

Something has been lost when pastors are no longer involved in the everyday lives of their parishioners. A guest blogger at Internet Monk, a hospice chaplain, writes about what it is he does, which is what most pastors once did:
.... My work as a hospice chaplain involves visiting people in their homes every day. I also visit people in the hospital, in assisted living apartments, and in extended care facilities (nursing homes). Our entire team is a visiting team. We meet people on their turf. We enter their world. We do not ask them to make appointments and come to us, to an office somewhere. We get in our cars, check the directions and make our way around the city to find them. We park in front of their homes, walk up their sidewalks, knock on their doors, introduce ourselves, and wait to be invited in. We sit on their furniture, pet their dogs and cats, breathe their air, look around at their pictures, their messes and their treasures. We come as guests and servants, to hear their stories, to learn about their faith, to assess their needs, to assure them of our goodwill and desire to help them, to minister to their pain, to embrace them when they weep, and laugh with them as we consider life’s quirks and absurdities together.

Sometimes I read Scripture. When asked, I’ll bring my guitar and sing a few favorite songs. I almost always pray, with their permission. On certain occasions I speak a word designed to give them perspective on what they are facing. Mostly I listen. When I speak, it is usually to affirm that what they are going through is just plain hard, but we are there to support them in addition to their family, friends, and faith community. And…that God loves them and promises his comforting and strengthening presence.

The ministry of visiting…it’s what I have the privilege to do.

I think it is what pastors and Christian people used to do, what they were expected to do. But something changed in the church. .... [more]
A Favorite Gospel Word | internetmonk.com

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Savior of the nations, come!

David Koyzis at Evangel on one of the best Advent hymns:
Some of my favourite hymns are Advent hymns. No, not the Christmas songs that fill the malls and airwaves around this time of year, but the Advent hymns that fill us with a sense of expectation at both comings of the Messiah. One of the very best has to be Saviour of the Nations, Come. The Latin text, Veni, Redemptor gentium, is attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan, famed mentor to the even more famous St. Augustine of Hippo. It was translated into German as Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland by Martin Luther in 1523. The tune was adapted from a 12th-century gregorian chant by Johann Walther the following year. .... [more]
Koyzis links to several YouTube performances, including this one in Latin:


An English translation of Luther's German translation from the Latin:

Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin's Son, make here Thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
Thou, the Father's only Son,
Hast o'er sin the victory won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
When shall we its glories see?
Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh–
Woman's Offspring, pure and fresh.
Brightly doth Thy manger shine,
Glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o'ercloud this light;
Ever be our faith thus bright.
Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
Still to be in heaven enthroned.
Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.
From the Father forth He came
And returneth to the same,
Captive leading death and hell–
High the song of triumph swell!


Veni Redemptor gentium » Evangel | A First Things Blog

Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Call me a bigot, if you like...."

In the current National Review Ross Douthat explains why he really doesn't care for the Twilight movies:
I don’t care for it. Not because both the books and movies are badly written and melodramatic and all the rest of it. A good story covers a multitude of sins, especially on the big screen. No, I don’t care for it because I can’t reconcile myself to rooting for the lovely Bella to end up married to a vampire. Because—well, because he’s a vampire. ....

Late in New Moon, Bella and Edward encounter the overlords of the vampire world, the Volturi, and narrowly escape with their lives. As they slip away from the Tuscan basilica where the Volturi make their home, a party of tourists enters, and you hear their helpless screams as the vampires make a meal of them.

It’s one of the movie’s few moments of authentic horror—but, more important, it’s a reminder of what sort of creature we’re romanticizing here. And pro-abstinence messages or no, I’ve had enough. You can call me a bigot, if you like, but I don’t care how carefully Edward Cullen has trained himself to devour deer instead of human beings: I wouldn’t let my daughter anywhere near him. And when the last Twilight movie rolls around, and the fatal bite is taken, I’ll be the guy standing up in the back of the theater, shouting: Leave our women alone, vampire!
Amen!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

In an Associated Baptist Press article about worship changes in some Churches of Christ — churches that have traditionally shunned the use of instrumental music in worship, Seventh Day Baptists receive an incidental mention as "early promoters of hymn singing":
During the Reformation, clear divisions began to emerge. Some groups influenced by Martin Luther retained the instruments. Those influenced by John Calvin placed strict limits on music in worship. Still others, influenced by Ulrich Zwingli, disallowed music of any sort.

Calvin's influence was greatest among Baptists and the Churches of Christ. He placed three restrictions on music in worship: scriptural songs only (mostly the Psalms), human voices only, and unison singing only.

"Most Churches of Christ and Primitive Baptists long ago gave up the restrictions on text and part-singing but cling to the one against instruments," Richardson pointed out.

Different Baptist groups traveled differing routes. For example, Seventh Day Baptists, strict sabbatarians who know a thing or two about defending a minority position against steep odds, were early promoters of hymn singing, despite criticism from other Baptists. [emphasis added]

At various times in Baptist history, instrumental worship was rejected because it was practiced by the Church of England, which persecuted the free-church followers like the Baptists. Organs were often rejected – and later violins – because they were used to provide worldly entertainment. .... [more]
Associated Baptist Press - Some Churches of Christ re-examine tradition of instrument-free worship

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Blind Side



An unexpectedly successful film, The Blind Side, that apparently portrays Christians as normal:
"I felt the movie would play as well in New York as it would in Portland as in Tallahassee," Hancock said. "There may be some aspects to the real life of the Tuohys – they're a Christian family that's portrayed as normal, which Hollywood doesn't have a great track record with. Hollywood tends to be very lazy in its portrayal of a lot of would-be stereotypes. Whether it's Southern Christian families or New York cab drivers. ....

Terry Mattingly, a religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and the director of the Christian-oriented Washington Journalism Center, believes that "The Blind Side" is working with audiences because the film's Christian back story is neither gratuitous nor didactic.

"What makes a movie like this important to me is that it doesn't slap people in the face with religion," Mattingly said. "Most films from Hollywood that involve faith take out all the details – it's just vague and mushy or it's negative religious stereotypes.

"But 'The Blind Side' is a real movie. And then it has another factor: showing respect for religious motivations and emotions. So you have people lining up." .... [more]
Thanks to GetReligion for the reference.

'The Blind Side' writes a new playbook -- latimes.com

"There may be blind spots"

Nathan Finn, who teaches Baptist studies and church history at Southeastern Baptist, notes a controversy about whether it is possible for a local Baptist church to be a "true church."
Ever since the Reformation era, it has been common to define a “true church” as a congregation where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments/ordinances are rightly administered. (Some would also include the practice of church discipline as a third mark.) ....

I was alerted this past week to a cyber-kerfuffle between a non-SBC Reformed Baptist scholar and a paedobaptist United Reformed Church pastor and professor. The controversy began when the latter argued that there is no such thing as a “Reformed Baptist” because the Reformed tradition is incompatible with credobaptism, a claim that understandably miffed the Reformed Baptist. ....

At some point during the debate, which spilled over onto at least four blogs and a message board, several of the paedobaptists argued that Baptist churches, whether they are self-confessedly Baptist or simply theologically baptistic (like many nondenominational churches), are not true churches. They claim that the refusal of Baptist congregations to baptize “covenant children” and the requirement of believer’s-only immersion as prerequisite for church membership makes Baptist churches “sects” rather than churches because they do not rightly administer baptism. .... [more]
A day or two later, after soliciting reactions, Finn gave his answer to the question. Some excerpts:
.... What makes a local church a church, rather than a more generic group of like-minded folks, is most fundamentally belief in the good news of all that God has done on behalf of sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So in my classes, I define a true church as followers: a true church is a gathering of believers where the gospel is rightly preached, the ordinances are administered in such a way that they do not reject or redefine the gospel, and the gathered individuals understand themselves to be a local church. ....

...[T]he BF&M [note: the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message] refers to Baptist churches as “New Testament” churches. This is because Baptists believe their churches more closely conform to the New Testament pattern than other types of churches. (And lest you think this is arrogant sectarianism, rest assured that every other group, including non-denominational types, believes this about their churches as well.) I like the “New Testament” language for two reasons. First, it allows me to be appropriately exclusive—I believe Baptist churches are more biblical than paedobaptist churches in several important areas. Second, it allows me to be appropriately catholic—I believe paedobaptist churches that embrace the gospel are still churches, even if some of their practices are inconsistent with the New Testament pattern.

In my thinking, we have to allow for a category of true churches that are defective in some of their practices, like baptism. Some of our Baptist forbearers called such churches “irregular”—they are really churches, but they are also really wrong on the ordinances. Frankly, this seems like a charitable approach to take; after all, even though I think Baptist churches are “New Testament” on baptism, there may be blind spots where we fall short of the New Testament witness. And we need other types of churches to speak prophetically to us in such areas, just as we want to speak prophetically to them about certain ecclesiological convictions. .... [more]
On the Marks of a True Church: A Question « Between The Times, Further Thoughts on the Marks of a True Church « Between The Times

"No amount of mentoring...."

Most Seventh Day Baptist pastors inevitably serve small churches, many of them rural or small town. Tim Keller suggests that may be an advantage, especially for young pastors.
Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a 'country parson' – namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings. Let me quickly emphasize the word 'consider.' I would never insist that everyone must follow this path. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. It was great for me.

Many young leaders perceive that the ideal first ministry position would be a position on the staff of a large church with an older, mature pastor to mentor them. The limits of this model are several. You can't teach a younger pastor much about things they aren't actually doing. And in a large church they aren't a) bearing the burden of being the main leader, b) leading a board of elders, c) fund-raising and bearing the final responsibility of having enough money to do ministry, d) and doing the gamut of counseling, shepherding, teaching, preaching. In a smaller church as a solo pastor you and only you visit the elderly, do all the weddings and funerals, sit by the bedside of every dying parishioner, do all the marriage counseling, suspend and excommunicate, work with musicians, craft and lead worship, speak at every men's retreat, women's retreat, and youth retreat, write all the Bible studies and often Sunday School curriculum, train all the small group leaders, speak at the nursing home, work with your diaconate as they try to help families out of poverty, evangelize and welcome new visitors to the church, train volunteers to do some (but not all) of all of the above tasks, and deal with the once-a-month relational or financial crisis in the church. No amount of mentoring can teach you what you learn from doing all those things. .... [more]
Redeemer Church Planting Center: Tim Keller

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"A noble struggle for freedom"

The President's words tonight:
Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions – from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank – that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades – a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

As a country, we are not as young – and perhaps not as innocent – as we were when Roosevelt was President. Yet we are still heirs to a noble struggle for freedom. Now we must summon all of our might and moral suasion to meet the challenges of a new age.
Reagan could not have said it better.

The Speech - NRO Staff - The Corner on National Review Online