Saturday, July 24, 2010

Manly men

Lars Walker discovers one of my favorite writers of mystery/suspense. He just read Triple Crown, an omnibus volume containing three Dick Francis novels: Dead Cert, Nerve, and For Kicks. In the early '80s I read one of his books and then every other available in the high school library where I was teaching. I spent summer vacation reading all the others I could get my hands on. The early ones are the best. Walker identifies what I think is their primary appeal:
I have a hard time pinning down what's so compelling in a Dick Francis mystery. Most of the stories revolve around the sport of racing (with the corruption that racetrack betting invites), and that's a field of endeavor in which I've never had much interest (though I'll admit that if I have to watch a horse race, I'd prefer a steeplechase, which is the kind of racing Francis concentrates on, at least in the novels I've read). I can't say that he's a brilliant stylist—in fact I'd characterize him as the kind of author who disappears totally, which isn't a bad way to get your reader invested in your characters. I can't say he's especially skilled at crafting vivid characters. And yet I found myself horizontal on the couch for hours, turning page after page, absolutely under the spell of the stories.

Dead Cert, I understand, was Francis' first published novel. It's good, but I think he was still feeling his way. Nerve was his second book, and by then he'd already found his pace. This was possibly the most satisfying tale of revenge I've ever read. And For Kicks amazed me. It was the compelling adventure of a man who takes a dangerous job for money, endures great suffering and violence, and in the end learns something about himself that changes his life.

I think what I particularly like is that Francis writes about manly men. Men blessed, and burdened, with strength, integrity, and courage, Churchillian in their resolve never to give up. [the review]
Triple Crown, by Dick Francis

Friday, July 23, 2010

"The faith once delivered..."

An Orthodox priest speaking to the General Assembly of PCUSA brings a message some welcomed (judging by the applause), but some may not have.




Mere Comments at the Touchstone Magazine blog provides these quotations from his comments:
"Christian morality is as old as Christianity itself. It doesn't need to be invented now. Those attempts to invent new morality look for me like attempts to invent a new religion — a sort of modern paganism."

"When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible, if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Holy Orthodox Church not to change anything in Christian doctrine and moral standards. But if it is the same Spirit, I wonder ... if there are different spirits acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop in different directions and to create different theologies and different morals?"
Touchstone Magazine - Mere Comments: Dispatches from the Mainlines

"We all mean the same thing"

Anticipating the new film of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I was discussing the book with a friend of mine a little over a week ago and discovered that I had misremembered quite a few details so I decided to re-read the book. When I finished, I proceeded to read the rest in the series [I belong to the "in the order written" school]. I had just begun reading the third chapter of The Last Battle when I came upon this passage:
"Please, please," said the high voice of a woolly lamb, who was so young that everyone was surprised he dared to speak at all.

"What is it now?" said the Ape. "Be quick."

"Please," said the Lamb, "I can't understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture. They kill Men on his altar. I don't believe there's any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?"

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed toward the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet.

The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

"Baby!" he hissed. "Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But the others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That's why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Asian: Asian is Tash."
The Chronicles of Narnia are pretty good at reminding us of ancient errors always present.

Addendum: A reader seemed to think I posted this because I agree with the Ape! Quite the reverse.

"When the son of man shall come in his glory..."

On another of those doctrinal disputes that tend to divide Protestant Christians, Lars Walker tells us he is largely agnostic [but wondering a bit about the signs of the times]:
While living in Florida some years back, due to limited choices I was attending a church of a different denomination than my own. It was a large, growing, dynamic congregation. The pastor announced a series of sermons on Revelation. But when he started preaching, it quickly became clear he was not teaching the Dispensational Premillenial (i.e., Left Behind) interpretation that's so popular in our day. He was an amillennialist.

Many congregation members were not happy about this, and made their opinion known.

After a few weeks of controversy, the pastor got into the pulpit one Sunday morning and announced that, for the sake of peace, he was discontinuing the sermon series on the End Times. Instead, he would take up a topic that would trouble people less.

“I'm going to preach on Hell,” he said.

Growing up in a Lutheran pietist church (yes, there are such creatures; I had no idea how rare we were at the time), I was introduced early to Dispensational Premillennialism, and had no idea there was any other way to approach eschatology.

In the years since, I've been sufficiently exposed to other systems (Joe Carter served up an excellent overview over at First Things yesterday) to leave me largely agnostic on the subject. When I hear speakers on the radio suggesting that anyone who holds a different view from theirs probably has a low view of scripture, I can only marvel at their assurance. As a Lutheran, I lean toward amillennialism, but my strongest conviction in this realm is that God probably didn't intend to give us a detailed timetable, so that we could pay off our mortgages ahead of time (or pile up a lot of debt, depending on our attitudes toward commerce and banking). .... [more]
Touchstone Magazine - Mere Comments: I Am Not a Prophet, Nor the Son of a Prophet

"The banal, the sentimental and the saccharine"

Rod Dreyer, appalled by the design of a poster advertising Benedict's visit to Britain, wonders why so much of the modern ecclesiastical aesthetic is so very bad. From "The Devil Is In the Design", some of his reaction to contemporary church architecture:
Nothing ages faster or worse than ecclesial attempts at stylistic relevance. You drive by churches, Catholic and Protestant, that were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and you just feel so bad for those buildings, as if they were poly-blend leisure suits left hanging on the rack, unloved. Why is it that so many churches built prior to the Second World War, no matter what their style, have a sort of timeless dignity? And so many built afterward do not? ....

I wonder if congregations that pour lots of money into building megachurches and suchlike today ever think about how the design will look in 30 to 50 years. We are all prisoners of our own eras, of course, and we can only guess about how the aesthetic choices we make today will wear in time. The problem with building churches is the same as with any building: when it looks old and tired and embarrassingly outdated, you can't donate it to a thrift store like you can a no-longer-fashionable suit. The problem is even worse with a church, because church architecture should convey a sense of the Eternal. There are a number of ways to do this. I have been equally moved by a bare Congregationalist parish in Vermont and a Baroque German Catholic parish in New Orleans. But somehow, after the Second World War, we forgot how to build beautiful churches, and ... we've lost a sense of the beautiful in church aesthetics, preferring instead the banal, the sentimental and the saccharine. ....

...Perhaps rather than simply complain about bad taste in church design, I should consider what contemporary church aesthetics (architecturally, liturgically, etc.) tell us about the kind of religion they embody. Maybe it's not so much the forms that I reject as it is the substantive qualities of the religion the forms embody. If that's so, what do contemporary church aesthetics and design tell us about contemporary religion? What kind of cult, and what kind of deity — I ask in the anthropological sense — has its priests conduct its rituals vested in beachwear? What is the message about God and the faith that aesthetic is supposed to convey to the faithful? What will it teach them about who God is, and who they are? Because it will teach them something; it can't not do that. .... [more]
I'm convinced that just as some people, although they can hear, are tone deaf, others, although sighted, can't see; just as some can't hear the beauty of Bach, others can't appreciate the symmetry and doctrinal symbolism of a sanctuary. So they tart it up to make it relevant - or build something that looks more like a school auditorium, appropriate for teaching or lecturing, but helping not at all with worship.

The Devil Is In the Design | Big Questions Online

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The unreasonable virtues

Via Insight Scoop, the first part of their quotation from G.K. Chesterton's Heretics on the difference between the pagan virtues [Courage, Justice, Prudence and Temperance] and the Christian virtues [Faith, Hope and Charity]:
The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural, virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity. Now much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact (in marked contrast to the delusion of the dancing pagan)—the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.

As the word "unreasonable" is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature, and that this is not true of any of the typically pagan or rationalist virtues. Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

It is somewhat amusing, indeed, to notice the difference between the fate of these three paradoxes in the fashion of the modern mind. Charity is a fashionable virtue in our time; it is lit up by the gigantic firelight of Dickens. Hope is a fashionable virtue to-day; our attention has been arrested for it by the sudden and silver trumpet of Stevenson. But faith is unfashionable, and it is customary on every side to cast against it the fact that it is a paradox. Everybody mockingly repeats the famous childish definition that faith is "the power of believing that which we know to be untrue." Yet it is not one atom more paradoxical than hope or charity. Charity is the power of defending that which we know to be indefensible. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and eclipse. It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment.

Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful. .... [more]
The first volume of the Ignatius Press The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton contains both Orthodoxy and Heretics at a quite reasonable price.

Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: Chesterton on the real difference between Paganism and Christianity

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Snoopy gets it right.

Conversation

Jason Helopoulos offers the suggestions below to pastors [he is one] who, he says, "are some of the worst listeners I have ever been around." Most of it is just as relevant to those of us who are laymen.
  • Sermons are for the pulpit—Leave sermons in the pulpit and enter into dialogue with your people. Dialogue requires talking and listening. Taking breaths in conversation is a good thing. It allows the other person to talk!
  • Remember that the person before you is the person you are to be ministering to—seize this moment instead of thinking about talking to the person “over there.”
  • Be teachable—we may be called to teach, but that does not mean that we can’t be taught ourselves.
  • Show honor to all—the five year old or the mentally disabled person begging for your attention and conversation after the worship service is just as important as the District Attorney and his wife who are walking by.
  • Silence is golden—Silence in conversation is fine. The tension is not a bad thing. It often helps bring the true issue to the surface. Don’t fill the space.
  • Maintain eye contact—most pastors are multitaskers and are busy looking around. Stop!
  • Ask questions—avoid jumping to conclusions and giving your stock answer. Ask clarifying question after clarifying question.
  • Don’t always feel the need to lead—Many pastors are busy leading all the time and so every conversation they enter into is dominated by them. Allow others to lead the conversation. You will surprised at what others want to talk about.
  • Don’t be “super-spiritual”—Every conversation does not have to end with a discourse on the atonement. Nor does every conversation need to be a demonstration forum of your Bible knowledge.
  • Think through questions—On your way to a meeting with someone, make a mental list of questions to ask them. And then ask the questions and listen.
  • Care tenderly—Always remember that these are Christ’s sheep. They are his and we are to lead them with a loving-tender care. And surely that must mean listening to them.
Jason Helopoulos on Listening Pastors – Kevin DeYoung

Luther: "All such...disputes...are surely of the devil"

I have no position on the Arminian/Calvinist dispute—largely because I don't have the competence to make a judgement, but also because I doubt that anyone else does either. It seems to me that Scripture provides ample ammunition for both sides and that, consequently, the truth may be somewhere else [perhaps where Luther put it]. Some of the best books, commentaries, web sites, etc., I read are by Calvinists, but I am not quite one myself.

Adam Omelianchuk explains his problem with Calvinism in "My Distaste for Calvinism Made Public" at Evangel, and, I think, accurately describes the unease many of us feel about aspects of Calvinism.
....I think the main reason why so many protestant Christians have a problem with Calvinism more than issues related to Catholicism is that they see Calvinism as a plausible system. That means it is a reasonable one that could possibly be true (sorry, but some of those beliefs about Mary are just plain silly). I remember being introduced to the theology 11 years ago through the “limited atonement” piece of the puzzle, and I still remember the violent reaction I had to it. It made the strange view of Open Theism look attractive, but Calvinism’s plausibility created a long-time of wrestling that ultimately resulted in a (short lived) conversion to Calvinism.

What eventually lead me away from Calvinism is what drives much of my distaste for Calvinism today and yesterday: God is made untrustworthy. This may be hard to understand, but the impetus behind Arminianism and other free will theology is not human pride’s assertion of autonomy but the concern for God’s good character. If Calvinism is true then God determines all of the evil in the world and in us, yet is somehow not responsible for it. While this presents an obvious philosophical difficulty that I am not sure can be resolved, I still found that God was very difficult to take at his word even when I was able to resolve it in my mind. For example, the texts that say God wants to see everyone repent and be saved simply could not be taken seriously. Yes, they spoke some sort of truth about some sort of divine desire for everyone to be saved, but it certainly wasn’t anything to bank your salvation on considering you knew better that God “damns people for his glory.” ....

God’s glory is not revealed in a distant egotistical God who must destroy a sizable part of humanity in a lake of fire in order to maximize his glory. He is revealed in a man from Galilee who takes away the sin of the world. He is not the kind of God who is content to rejoice over a small select group of “righteous” people, but, like a shepherd, leaves the flock to go after the one who is lost. God’ character is best understood through Jesus of Nazareth as one who does not snuff out cooling embers and bruise broken reeds, whose glory is in making all things new through self-sacrificial love. Those that reject this love are lost, but this mystery of iniquity is found in the soul of humanity, not God. .... [more]
A commenter suggests that his distaste for Calvinism has been colored by his experience of Calvinists:
...I have never encountered a Calvinist who really explained himself in a beautiful, winsome way. There always seems to be something… Napoleonic? puglistic? Grinch-like?… about the way that Calvinists explain and defend themselves. This is a reaction to a personality rather than to their theology, of course. Unless the two are related.
And then some rather pugilistic Calvinists show up to reinforce that point.

Someone I read recently [I don't remember who] described himself as a "Christmas Calvinist," that is "Noel" [no "L" — no "limited atonement"]. That eases things quite a lot.

My Distaste for Calvinism Made Public » Evangel | A First Things Blog

"Racism"

Elizabeth Scalia, whose initial skepticism about the Brietbart tape of Sherrod's speech has been amply justified, thinks it long past time for the use of the "racism" charge as a political weapon to be retired.
This whole sordid mess of a story–which is clearly not over–may tell us that it is past time for people of good will to stop tolerating politically-expedient charges of racism, regardless of whether they originate genuinely from overzealous, malicious bloggers or from Congressmen who are confident that any charge they make will be deemed insta-credible, or from journalists who ignore real racism while trying to ignite the charge elsewhere, for the advancement of their own partisan agendas, or from the rightly marginalized, fringe-living, stupid people who every sensible person condemns.

The NAACP’s maneuver last week was an attempt at cynical manipulation, a lazy card they thought they could play, because it’s always taken the pot before. They ticked off Breitbart, who upped the ante, but appears to have done so recklessly.

Everyone’s credibility is now strained, and perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps the left should finally leave behind the smug instinct to sniff, “racism, straight up” over sincere disagreements on policy. If they can manage that, then perhaps the right can stop feeling so defensive.

There is absolutely nothing simple about the matter of race in America; there is a ways to go before content of character will finally overcome color of skin. But I am not sure if further progress toward a truly color-blind society can be made until the manufactured cry of “raaaaacism”–by people who know that they are merely fanning flames or manipulating movements–has finally been rejected by both the right and the left. Race-baiters must be made to understand that their cheap tactic will no longer bear weight among fair-minded people, who are horrified by genuine racism but tired of its weaponized unreasonable facsimile. .... [more]
It has, I think, long since reached the point at which a great many of us automatically discount the charge of racism until actual evidence is produced. Like "fascism" and "anti-Semitism" a term has been de-valued by reckless, demagogic misuse.

Sherrod Blames NAACP for Resignation – UPDATED

Monday, July 19, 2010

"When we all get to Heaven"

Conjubilant With Song posts on hymns about Heaven ("Heaven" and "Hell" really should be capitalized - they are proper names for places, after all). He notes that death and what happens afterward are easy to ignore most of the time for most of us.
.... Here in the twenty-first century, in many places, death and the hoped-for nearness of heaven can seem almost metaphorical when it's encountered in church. Barring a sudden illness or accident, death mostly comes to older people who may even no longer be able to come to church regularly, so the community can sometimes avoid the reality for long periods of time. This was not the experience of churches in earlier times; death was more present for them, I think, as mortality rates were much higher. ....

But I have lived in a time and a place where death was always present, where friends and colleagues and neighbors died on a weekly basis. I can tell you that hymns about heaven are just as important and meaningful and immediate in that situation as they were in the Victorian age, or any earlier time. A visiting contingent of Mennonites once came to a service where there were many men who would not be there a year later. One of their leaders memorably said "they sing like they've already been to heaven."

All this probably has something to do with my own interest in and love for these texts. I didn't know this one back then, but yes, we would have sung it like we'd already been there.
Light's abode, celestial Salem,
Vision whence true peace doth spring,
Brighter than the heart can fancy,
Mansion of the highest King;
O how glorious are the praises
Which of thee the prophets sing!

There forever and forever
Alleluia is outpoured;
For unending, for unbroken
Is the feast-day of the Lord;
All is pure and all is holy
That within thy walls is stored.

There no cloud nor passing vapor
Dims the brightness of the air;
Endless noonday, glorious noonday,
From the Sun of suns is there;
There no night brings rest from labor,
For unknown are toil and care.

O how glorious and resplendent,
Fragile body, thou shalt be,
When endued with heavenly beauty,
Full of health, and strong, and free,
Full of vigor, full of pleasure

Now with gladness, now with courage,
Bear the burden on thee laid,
That hereafter these thy labors
May with endless gifts be paid,
And in everlasting glory
Thou with brightness be arrayed.
Thomas a Kempis, 15th cent., tr. John Mason Neale, 1854, Tune: RHUDDLAN (8.7.8.7.D.), Welsh traditional melody

Cyberhymnal provides an additional verse:
Laud and honor to the Father,
Laud and honor to the Son,
Laud and honor to the Spirit,
Ever Three, and ever One,
Consubstantial, Co-eternal,
While unending ages run.
Conjubilant With Song: Forever and Forever Alleluia Is Outpoured

Elites

Summarizing a critique of one of his arguments, Ross Douthat:
.... Part of the problem with meritocracy is that it homogenizes in the name of diversity: It skims the cream from every race and class and population, puts all of the best and brightest through the same educational conveyor belt, and comes out with a ruling class that’s cosmetically diverse but intellectually conformist, and that tends to huddle together rather than spreading out to enrich the country as a whole. This is Christopher Lasch’s lament in “The Revolt of the Elites” — that meritocracy co-opts people who might otherwise become its critics, sapping local communities of their intellectual vitality and preventing any kind of rival power centers from emerging. And it’s something that Angelo Codevilla gets right (while getting a number of other things wrong) in his recent blast against the American elite:
Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America’s upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another … Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed … Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits.
....[more]
The Trouble With Meritocracy - Ross Douthat Blog - NYTimes.com

Blaming the victim

Glenn C. Loury, in "Why We Didn’t Overcome" (available to subscribers), reviews Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama by James T. Patterson. Among other things, Loury describes how honest debate about the best means to achieve racial equality was stifled and the dire consequences that resulted — and continue.
The memo declares, “The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” “A national effort is required,” it explains, “directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.” One sees the problem immediately: A government official in 1965 baldly states that expectations for equality are bound to be disappointed, not merely because of racism but also because the fabric of social life in the black ghettos is in tatters.

For many at the time, this kind of talk was simply unacceptable. How dare a white man say these things? What will happen to reform if studies like this are allowed to issue from the government? The author—an assistant secretary at the Labor Department named Daniel Patrick Moynihan—had to be made an example of.

And so he was. ....

There was only one problem with all this. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was mostly right in 1965: right about the Negro family, both in his diagnosis of its condition and in his forecast of the likely implications. Looking across the social landscape today, nearly a half-century after his dire warning, we can see the plain fact that conventional family relationships in the black ghettos have collapsed. What is more, nothing approaching equality of results for the bulk of the black American population has been, or soon will be, achieved. More speculative, but still entirely plausible, is the conclusion that these two undeniable facts are closely connected, with the former a primary reason for the later. ....

Although Patterson avoids saying so directly, the fiercely negative reactions to Moynihan’s report were a brand of intellectual thuggery that became all too familiar afterward. Smug in their certitude, the thought police in the universities, the government, the editorial pages, and the foundation boardrooms managed, in effect, to censor public discourse on crime, affirmative action, school desegregation, voting rights, antidiscrimination enforcement, urban renewal, welfare policy, and much more.

It even became dangerous to celebrate the success of the civil-rights revolution by noticing the emergence of a new black middle class. The signature tactic was to accuse the politically incorrect of being racists. A willingness to entertain certain hypotheses—that forced busing could cause white flight, that proliferating criminal violence among blacks might retard urban development, that affirmative-action programs could stigmatize their beneficiaries—came to be seen as evidence of a lack of fidelity to progressive values.

Reliance on ad hominem argument grew more commonplace: What kind of person would say such a thing? ....

With a third of black children now living in poverty, with more than one million black men in jail, with an average deficit of three years in acquired reading skills for black youngsters relative to whites by the end of adolescence, with more than two out of every three black babies born to unwed mothers, with hard-core ghettos in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Louis, Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, and dozens of other American cities continuing to fester in their marginality and hopelessness—with all of this wreckage so readily at hand, it is clear that we Americans have not yet overcome.

Freedom is definitely not enough. Good sense, even temper, openness to criticism, intellectual honesty, and faith in the good intentions of those with whom one disagrees—these things are also necessary if the legacy of America’s shameful racial past is ever to be superseded. Now, thanks in part to a bygone generation of self-righteous and feckless liberals, we face the prospect that it never will be. [review at First Things - subscription required]
Why We Didn’t Overcome

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Secular elites

More from Peter Berger's Blog, "Religion and Other Curiosities," this from the introduction to his blog in which he explains his intentions:
.... The treatment of religion in academia and the media leaves something to be desired. .... The problem comes at least in part from the fact that these are two institutions which, in their elite echelons, are staffed by what is the most secularized group in American society. Unlike many of their colleagues in Europe, these people are not particularly hostile to religion. But they don’t know too much about it, and its more passionate expressions make them uncomfortable. As a result they are tempted to explain religious phenomena as being “really” about something else — ethnicity, class, politics. Sometimes, of course, this is indeed the case. Thus there are processes of “religionization”, in which a conflict about political power (as in Northern Ireland) or about territory (as between Israelis and Palestinians) morphs into a religiously defined conflict (though even then many people may sincerely believe in and be motivated by the religious definitions of the situation). In any case, it is important to realize that religion is a phenomenon sui generis, which must be understood in its own terms and not right away be interpreted as being “really” something else.

Secularist bias can produce blinders. Evangelical Protestantism is the most explosively growing religion worldwide. Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers. Much academic treatment is equally prejudiced. The media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church very often has an undertone of gleeful Schadenfreude, with little skepticism about events going back thirty years, alleged by individuals with hard vested interests in their version of the events. Academics and journalists have every right to be secularists, but they should bracket their personal beliefs when they try to understand reality — as should “Godders” like me. .... [more]
An Introduction - Peter Berger's Blog - The American Interest

The existence of evil

Terry Eagleton, not a professed Christian, on evil, via Christopher Benson at Evangel, A First Things Blog:
People differ on the question of evil. A recent poll reported that a belief in sin is highest in Northern Ireland (91 percent), and lowest in Denmark (29 percent). Nobody with a first hand acquaintance with that pathologically religious entity known as Northern Ireland (the greater part of Ulster) will be in the least amazed by that first finding. Ulster Protestants clearly take a dimmer view of human existence than the hedonistic Danes. One takes it that Danes, like most other people who have been reading the newspapers, do indeed believe in the reality of greed, child pornography, police violence, and the barefaced lies of the pharmaceutical companies. It is just that they prefer not to call these things sin. This may be because they think of sin as an offence against God rather than as an offence against other people. It is not a distinction that the New Testament has much time for.

On the whole, postmodern cultures, despite their fascination with ghouls and vampires, have had little to say of evil. Perhaps this is because the postmodern man or woman—cool, provisional, laid-back and decentered—lacks the depth that true destructiveness requires. For postmodernism, there is nothing really to be redeemed. ....

.... It is true that some liberals and humanists, along with the laid-back Danes, deny the existence of evil. This is largely because they regard the word “evil” as a device for demonising those who are really nothing more than socially unfortunate. It is what one might call the community-worker theory of morality. It is true that this is one of the world’s most priggish uses... But to reject the idea of evil for this reason works better if you are thinking of unemployed council-estate heroin addicts rather than serial killers or the Nazi SS. It is hard to see the SS as merely unfortunate. One should be careful not to let the Khmer Rouge off the same hook on which delinquent teenagers are impaled.
And, from the comments, Tom Gilson:
You say the “failure to acknowledge the reality of evil” led to bafflement among your progressive friends after 9/11. Here’s another picture of the same, from just a few weeks after the event (emphasis added):
The campuses, once citadels of opposition to military action, generally are quiet, in part, said author and commentator David Rieff, because this generation of students is hamstrung by the “politically correct” education it has received since kindergarten. “The nice kids have been taught that all differences are to be celebrated,” said Rieff, currently a visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley, “and they’re in full cognitive meltdown. Their homeroom teachers and guidance counselors never told them that there are people in the world who mean them harm.”
This denial of evil is dysfunctional, for it is a denial of reality. But atheists/agnostics have little or no conceptual space in their worldview for evil, especially an objective view of it, so they have a philosophical stake in denying its existence—against all the empirical evidence.
Note: I initially said the Eagleton was "definitely not a Christian." A friend thought that went too far.

Failing to Acknowledge the Reality of Evil » Evangel | A First Things Blog

The worst form of government - except for all the others

There are many reasons the countries of the West need to be in the democracy-promotion, rule-of-law promotion business. The indisputable fact that democracies are more respectful of human rights is one. Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores in "Disaster Politics" explain another.
On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake — approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti — but only 500 people died. ....

.... In 2003, an earthquake in Bam, Iran, killed at least 30,000. China is plagued by such disasters, which can leave hundreds of thousands dead. Similar earthquakes in Chile, Japan, and the United States have killed far fewer. The difference is in the preparation: Chile, Japan, and the United States have implemented policies that keep acts of nature from becoming massive human tragedies; Iran and China have not.

It is tempting to suggest that a country’s ability to prepare is a matter of money. After all, the United States and Japan are extremely wealthy. However, although wealth certainly matters, politics are more important. Four decades ago, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck Peru, killing about 66,000 people. In 2001, an even stronger earthquake hit but killed less than 150 people. Admittedly, the population density in the area of the first earthquake was about twice that in the second. But that alone does not account for the huge disparity in casualties. Neither does income. Peru’s per capita income was virtually identical in real terms at both points. The big difference was political. In 2001, Peru was a democracy, whereas in 1970 it was not. ....

.... Despite high casualties, autocrats can expect to keep their thrones. On the other hand, democratic leaders who fail to prevent natural disasters from causing calamity are replaced. As such, democrats plan and react to natural disasters, while autocrats do not. ....

.... Unless politicians are beholden to the people, they have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature, especially when these resources could otherwise be earmarked for themselves and their small cadre of supporters. What is worse, the casualty count after a disaster is a major determinant of the amount of international assistance a country receives. Relief funds can even enhance a nondemocrat’s hold on power if they are used to buy off supporting elites. Given such incentives, autocrats’ indifference to disaster-related deaths will continue. The fix can only be political — leaders will not use the policies already available to mitigate the effects of natural disasters until they have the incentives to do so. [more]
Disaster Politics | Foreign Affairs

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Reading and contemplating

Is the kind of reading we do on the internet destroying our ability to really read and understand an author? Do we take the time to think about what we've read? This article at The Guardian summarizes the arguments of advocates of "slow reading."
.... According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other. And so, as Carr writes, "we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual locomotion". ....

...[A] literary revolution is at hand. First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

"If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author's ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly," says Ottowa-based John Miedema, author of Slow Reading (2009). ....

Nicholas Carr's book elaborates further. "The words of the writer," suggests Carr, "act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies." .... [read it all, from beginning to end]
The article notes the existence of software that can help the less disciplined among us exit the internet for defined periods of time.

The art of slow reading | Books | The Guardian

Not just about disposing of dead bodies

Justin Taylor provides some excerpts from what seems a judicious and thorough consideration of how Christains should think about cremation. The article from which he quotes is “To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation” [pdf] by David W. Jones, a professor of Christian ethics. Jones' conclusions:
After reviewing some of the key historical, Biblical, and theological considerations that have been a part of the moral discussion of cremation within the Judeo-Christian tradition, ultimately the practice must be viewed as an adiaphora issue [i.e., something biblically indifferent]. This being said, however, it seems legitimate to draw the following three conclusions. First, church history witnesses considerable opposition toward cremation with the normative practice of the church being burial. Second, while Scripture is silent on the specifics of how to treat the deceased, both the example of Biblical characters and the general trajectory of related passages seem to be in a pro-burial direction. Third, the body is theologically significant; thus, both the act of and the imagery conveyed by the treatment of the deceased ought to be weighed carefully.

Certainly not all deaths will afford loved ones an opportunity to choose the method of interment. Indeed, factors such as the location and manner of death, nation-specific legal parameters, as well as the resources of the surviving family will bear upon funerary practices and decisions. Yet, if given a choice, those left behind ought to consider carefully what is being communicated in their handling of the body of a decedent. After all, within the Christian tradition, funerals are not simply ways of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they solely about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Rather, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying to the message and hope of the gospel.
I particularly appreciated this reminder: "[F]unerals are not simply ways of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they solely about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Rather, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying to the message and hope of the gospel."

To Bury or Burn: Christianity and Cremation – Justin Taylor

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Social responsibility

From an interview with Mark Dever and Jim Wallis in the Summer 2010 issue of Leadership, "Out of Ur" gives us this from Dever:
"We have a special responsibility to make sure our brothers and sisters in Christ are cared for. Beyond that it is appropriate to care for the poor outside the church, but that is something for all humans made in the image of God to do, and Christians can certainly help. But the church isn't called to solve social ills."
Out of Context: Mark Dever | Out of Ur | Conversations for Ministry Leaders

Something missing

In an experience perhaps not unrelated to Peter Berger's observations about secular elites, Robert George finds something missing in a collection of significant American documents:
The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution of the United States of America—those were the three texts in the blue pamphlet I found on the table in front of me as I took my seat at a conference at Princeton. ....

And inside the pamphlet was a page saying, “The printing of this copy of the U.S. Constitution and of the nation’s two other founding texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, was made possible through the generosity of Laurence and Carolyn Tribe.” ....

I recalled that in sixth grade I was required to memorize the address, and as I held the American Constitution Society’s pamphlet in my hands, I wondered whether I could still recite it from memory. So I began, silently reciting: “Four score and seven years ago . . . ,” until I reached “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.” Then I drew a blank. So I opened the pamphlet and read the final paragraph:
It is rather for us, the living, to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Deeply moving—but, I thought, something isn’t right. Did you notice what had been omitted? What’s missing is Lincoln’s description of the United States as a nation under God. What Lincoln actually said at Gettysburg was: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The American Constitution Society had omitted Lincoln’s reference to the United States as a nation under God from the address he gave at the dedication of the burial ground at Gettysburg.

At the time, staring at the text, I wondered whether it was an innocent, inadvertent error—a typo, perhaps. It seemed more likely, though, that here is the apex of the secularist ideology that has attained a status not unlike that of religious orthodoxy among liberal legal scholars and political activists. Nothing is sacred, as it were—not even the facts of American history, not even the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the most solemn ceremony of our nation’s history. .... [more]
God and Gettysburg

Secularists, democracy and unenlightened provincials

Peter Berger, who now blogs at The American Interest on "Religion and Other Curiosities," recently compared the US Supreme Court to the Turkish military. In "Who are 'We'?" he explains that comparison:
.... In each case, the two institutions are used to circumvent the actions of democratically elected legislators. Of course these institutions are very different from each other, but they are indeed similar in providing limits to the democratic process. The Turkish military, which antedates the advent of real democracy in the country, has long been officially defined as the guardian of the secular republic established by Kemal Ataturk. Along with the bureaucracy, the judiciary and much of the intelligentsia it constituted an explicitly secularist elite, a barrier against any incursions of Islam into the public arena. While for a long time this barrier functioned very effectively, the mass of the population, especially outside the big cities, remained strongly committed to Islam. Of course, in the view of the elite these people were unenlightened provincials. The trouble with democracy is that unenlightened provincials vote. As the state became more democratic, these votes had tangible political consequences. ....

.... This country does not have a secularist political elite—Washington is full of important people who attend prayer breakfasts and say grace when they eat in posh restaurants. But there is certainly a secularist cultural elite in America, which also looks down on those who would push religion into the public arena as unenlightened provincials. In a democracy, lamentably or not, these people vote—and there are a lot of them. If items of the secularist agenda are put to the vote, they will usually lose. It is only naturally that the groups that believe in this agenda will seek to circumvent the democratic process. It so happens that the Supreme Court, and indeed the entire federal judiciary, is the least democratic component of the American political system. I think that Supreme Court justices would have little in common with Turkish generals if they had to spend a long weekend together. What they do have in common, as brakes on democracy in the service of secularist goals, is interesting enough to point out. (To do so is an application of the theater technique called Verfremdung by Bertold Brecht. It may be translated as “bestrangement”—using the unfamiliar to shed light on the familiar.) .... [more]
The remainder of the column applies the "insider/outsider" explanation, using the Verfremdung approach to several other stories in the news. Berger is going to be fun to read.

Who are “We”? - Peter Berger's Blog - The American Interest

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"

From a review of a new edition of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. The reviewer wonders why the renewed interest. Has the philosopher found his time?
.... He "scientifically" attacked Aristotle's venerable claim that men are naturally sociable. He rejected all presumed natural hierarchies, which ranked humans according to nobility, sex, race or religion. Instead, he portrayed men as equal rivals in a state of nature, which he characterized as a "war of all against all."

Hobbes's contemporaries understood politics as something descended from the ages or the heavens, but Hobbes built politics from the ground up. Self-interested individuals, craving protection for their lives, contracted to create sovereign states. Sovereigns (preferably monarchs) provided this service, but the price was unfettered power and unqualified obedience. Once sheltered under sovereignty, subjects enjoyed only the right to life. They could neither demand the return of their surrendered rights nor expect to share in the exercise of power. Hobbes thus acknowledged equality, rights and individual interest but sacrificed all of these on the altar of political order. To Hobbes, men live either in an anarchic hell of equal misery or in a society unified by a single, absolute will. There was no third way.

Much of this is well-known. The question is why Hobbes's account has enjoyed such popularity in recent decades. The likes of John Locke and James Madison long ago demonstrated the limits of Hobbes's raw statism. But many thinkers and political actors, lately, seem to prefer Hobbes's vision of society to theirs. Why should this be so?

One might point to several reasons. Hobbes's snide irreligion, once the main complaint against him, may now commend him to those who perpetually fear the supposed return of theocracy. His tendency to portray humans as appetitive beasts flatters our present eagerness to explain every aspect of human conduct in biological terms. Hobbes was also acutely suspicious of democracy. He considered it a breeder of faction. When pundits such as Thomas Friedman decry "broken government" and fawn over China's "enlightened" response to global warming, one wonders if the Hobbesian within the liberal breast is stirring. ....
Book review: Leviathan - WSJ.com

Liturgy, doctrine and missions

Christianity Today reports that Missouri Synod Lutherans are reaffirming their denominational distinctives:
The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) elected as its new president the leader of the church’s World Relief and Human Care division. Matthew Harrison received 54 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent Gerald Kieschnick, who received 45 percent of the vote in his third re-election attempt. ....

While the conservative denomination does not face conflict over many hot-button cultural issues, the election of Harrison represents a shift from the Kieschnick administration’s support of evangelical programs and style to a more traditional Lutheran identity. ....

The Kieschnick administration, which served for the past nine years, encouraged congregations to adopt praise teams, coffee house worship and small group ministries. It had also overseen the cancellation of Issues, Etc., the synod’s only nationally syndicated broadcast ministry. Harrison’s first post-election interview was with the program, which re-launched outside the denominational structure.

Harrison, leader of the LCMS mercy arm and possessing multiple degrees from the denomination’s Concordia Theological Seminary, was also the preferred candidate of those in the church body that favor a return to traditional Lutheran identity of liturgical preaching, hymns that teach doctrine, and the placement of ordained missionaries overseas. .... [more]
Missouri Synod Election Signals Shift Toward Denominational Distinctives | Liveblog | Christianity Today

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A good story is a terrible thing to waste

Perhaps the most famous line from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was the reporter's "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This review of Getting It Wrong suggests that fictional reporter's journalistic ethic is pretty close to reality. A good story is a terrible thing to waste.
William Randolph Hearst never said, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast didn't panic America. Ed Murrow's "See It Now" TV show didn't destroy Sen. Joseph McCarthy. JFK didn't talk the New York Times into spiking its scoop on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Far from being the first hero of the Iraq War, captured Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was caught sobbing "Oh, God help us" and never fired a shot.

These fables and more are lovingly undressed in W. Joseph Campbell's persuasive and entertaining Getting It Wrong. With old-school academic detachment, Mr. Campbell, a communications professor at American University, shows how the fog of war, the warp of ideology and muffled skepticism can transmute base journalism into golden legend.

Mr. Campbell's examples run from the Spanish-American War to Hurricane Katrina, with oddities like the feminist bra-burning at the Democratic Convention in 1964 sandwiched in between. In each case, the author teases out the grain of sand around which the pearl of the myth was spun. ....

For all Mr. Campbell's earnest scholarship, these media myths are certain to survive his efforts to slay them. Journalism can't help itself—it loves and perpetuates its sacred legends of evil power-mongers, courageous underdogs, dread plagues and human folly. At the end of the book, Mr. Campbell offers some remedies for media mythologizing, urging journalists, among other things, "to deepen their appreciation of complexity and ambiguity." Good luck with that, professor. [more]
Book review: Getting It Wrong - WSJ.com

No longer Christian

"Following a Trend, YMCA to Become Simply ‘the Y’":
One of the nation’s most iconic nonprofit organizations, founded 166 years ago in England as the Young Men’s Christian Association, is undergoing a major rebranding, adopting as its name the nickname everyone has used for generations.

“It’s a way of being warmer, more genuine, more welcoming, when you call yourself what everyone else calls you,” said Kate Coleman, the organization’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer. ....
And, of course, the change had little to do with that awkward designation, "Christian." Actually, of course, there has been nothing distinctively Christian about either the YMCA or the YWCA for a very long time. The post-Christian society marches on.

Following a Trend, YMCA to Become Simply ‘the Y’ - NYTimes.com

"Like a child at home"

The final verse of Isaac Watts' paraphrase of Psalm 23, "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need":
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
That last phrase perfectly describes the security and safety I expect to feel in Heaven — and has the same resonance, I'm sure, for anyone who grew up in a good home. "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" reaches the number 1 spot on the First Things blog entry "Are These the Ten Best Hymns of All Time?"
.... All along, our plan was to follow the ten worst with the ten best. So now, after much consideration (and a bit of solitary suffering, here and there, among our staffers; it does hurt, after all, to have one’s personal favorite hymn crossed off the list), we present, with musical links, what may be the ten best hymns of all time. .... [the list]
I like their choices. If you missed the "Ten Worst" list, it is here.

Are These the Ten Best Hymns of All Time? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

Friday, July 9, 2010

A conundrum?

Two [possibly related] facts in quotations noted at Christianity Today's "Out of Ur" blog:
The growing disenchantment with church growth strategies.

“I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with the church growth principles we’ve developed . . . yet somehow they don’t seem to work.” — C. Peter Wagner, a leading spokesmen for the church-growth movement.

(Mr. Wagner, have you ever considered a career in politics? I also hear there are some vacancies at BP. –Url Scaramanga.)

The impact of using business strategies and consumer values in the church.

“In a recent survey of 1,000 church attenders, respondents were asked, ‘Why does the church exist?’ According to 89 percent, the church’s purpose was ‘to take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs.’ Only 11 percent said the purpose of the church is ‘to win the world for Jesus Christ.’” — Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California.

(Alrighty then. Good night, folks. Would the last person to leave the church in America please turn off the lights? –Url Scaramanga.)
What Did You Say? | Out of Ur | Conversations for Ministry Leaders

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In my end is my beginning

I've just finished reading Eric Metaxas' biography: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The end of Bonhoeffer's life is well known, hanged by the SS because of his association with efforts to assassinate  Hitler and overthrow the Nazis. It is reported that he approached death calmly.

From the book, I've taken two quotations from Bonhoeffer. The first is from a sermon delivered in London early in the 1930s:
No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.

Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up—that is for young and old alike to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death? ... Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God's Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle, it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.
Written in Tegel Prison in Berlin in July, 1944:
Stations on the Road to Freedom

Discipline
If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things
to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions
and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow.
Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection,
obediently steadfastly seeking the aim set before them;
only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

Action
Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,
valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting—
freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.
Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,
trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;
freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

Suffering
A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,
are bound; in helplessness now you see your action
is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing
to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.
Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom;
then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.

Death
Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal,
death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish
the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded,
so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden.
Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering;
dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.
Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson, 2010, pp. 531, 485-486

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Terrible hymns

At First Things a selection of hymns about which they ask "Are These the Ten Worst Hymns of All Time?" I have mercifully escaped hearing most of them in worship although number 4 sounds annoyingly familiar.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Trust to the Word"

Bonhoeffer on preaching, from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p. 272:
Bonhoeffer took preaching seriously. For him a sermon was nothing less than the very word of God, a place where God would speak to his people. Bonhoeffer wanted to impress this idea on his ordinands, to help them see that preaching was not merely an intellectual exercise. Like prayer or meditation on a scriptural text, it was an opportunity to hear from heaven, and for the preacher, it was a holy privilege to be the vessel through whom God would speak. Like the incarnation, it was a place of revelation, where Christ came into this world from outside it.

But as with so much else, Bonhoeffer knew that the best way to communicate what he thought and felt about homiletics was by doing it. Delivering a real sermon during an actual service was infinitely better than giving a lecture on homiletics. The ordinands must see in him someone who lived what he meant to teach them, just as Jesus did. The teaching and the living must be two parts of the same thing.

Yet even when he was not preaching, but merely talking about sermons, he wanted to communicate practical things to his ordinands. Bethge remembered some of Bonhoeffer's advice: "Write your sermon in daylight, do not write it all at once; 'in Christ' there is no room for conditional clauses; the first minutes on the pulpit are the most favorable, so do not waste them with generalities but confront the congregation straight off with the core of the matter; extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible."

In 1932 Bonhoeffer told Hildebrandt: "A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then saying: Do you want it?" At Finkenwalde he effectively said the same thing: "We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them. ... Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic.... Do not defend God's Word, but testify to it.... Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!"

He wished to impress upon his ordinands that when one truly presented the Word of God, it would undo people because it had the innate power to help them see their own need and would give the answer to that need in a way that was not larded over with "religion" or false piety. The grace of God, without filters or explanation, would touch people.
Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson, 2010, p. 272.

The cord that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together

Power Line gives us "The eternal meaning of Independence Day." It is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln in Chicago in 1858, responding to an earlier speech by Stephan A. Douglas. In my excerpts from that excerpt, Lincoln explains what connects Americans regardless of origin, ethnicity or race.
.... We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. .... But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration [loud and long continued applause], and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. [Applause.]

.... Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument ... is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold as to do it! [Voices—"me" "no one," &c.] If it is not true let us tear it out! [cries of "no, no,"] let us stick to it then [cheers], let us stand firmly by it then. [Applause.] [more]
Power Line - The eternal meaning of Independence Day

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Suffer not our trust in Thee to fail"

From The Book of Common Prayer (1928), a good prayer for Independence Day:
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favour and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thanks to Jeff Culbreath at What's Wrong with the World for calling my attention to this prayer.

Summer reading

As it does every summer, National Review has solicited summer reading recommendations from several authors and contributors. Among those recommended that I have read I enthusiastically second these [the covers are from my copies]. They are all historical novels of the sort that actually permit you to learn some history. From Hans Von Spakovsky's recommendations:
Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser: This is the first book in the Flashman Papers, an absolutely wonderful ten-book series about Harry Flashman, history’s greatest adventurer, cad, and incorrigible scoundrel. The books follow Harry’s escapades as an English soldier, starting with his first foray to the Indian subcontinent in 1839, where, in Afghanistan, he survives one of the worst defeats of the English army in its history. In the other books, he goes to Europe, Africa, China, and even America, where he meets a congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Flashman has only three talents: an ear for languages, an eye for women, and the skill of an expert horseman. He constantly gets into death-defying scrapes and yet always manages to just get out of them. These novels are extremely funny as well as educational; the novels are all painstakingly footnoted.

Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts: The best historical novels ever written about the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 are by Kenneth Roberts, a very popular author 70 years ago that most people today have never heard of. The quality and historical accuracy of his books make the John Jakes series look like pulp fiction. Oliver Wiswell is written from the viewpoint of a loyalist family, which makes it unique among books of this kind, as far as I know. His novel about the war from the American side is Rabble in Arms (1947), also excellent. His 1931 book The Lively Lady and its sequel, Captain Caution, tell the story of privateers (who were America’s substitute for a real navy during the War of 1812), including the brutal conditions imposed on American prisoners of war in England.

Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini: Kids today like Pirates of the Caribbean, but it does not compare to Captain Blood (1922). Peter Blood is wrongly charged with treason during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, and he’s sentenced to slavery in the West Indies, a virtual death sentence, given the harsh conditions. He escapes and becomes a pirate bent on revenge. The novel is terrific, and the 1935 movie starring Errol Flynn — his first movie role — is without doubt the best pirate movie ever made. (In law school, my wife’s legal-history professor once asked the class if they knew the name of the only movie ever made about the Bloody Assizes. She knew it was Captain Blood, because I’d made her watch it.) Whether you are on the beach or on a plane traveling, this book will take you to the Spanish Main and the days when buccaneering was the scourge of the Caribbean and beautiful women discovered that pirates with bloody reputations can sometimes turn out to be romantic gentlemen.
And John Yoo recommends:
The Richard Sharpe adventures, by Bernard Cornwell: Sometimes described as Patrick O’Brian novels, except on land, Cornwell’s 24 books describe the rise of Richard Sharpe: He starts as a private in Britain’s colonial army in India and becomes a lieutenant colonel by Waterloo. The focus of the books is on Wellington’s famous Peninsular Campaign, in which an outnumbered band of British troops, aided by vicious guerrillas (the first use of the word), pushed Napoleon’s armies out of Spain in hard, mountainous fighting.
Summer Reading Recommendations, Volume Two - NRO Symposium - National Review Online