Friday, December 5, 2008
For many years I have often wondered what is the ideal length for a vacation. When we took our first “real” vacation to Honolulu years ago we were young, new parents, and could only stay a week. It was a lot of fun but by the time we really got into the groove of relaxing, it was time to come home. Having ruled out the “one-weeker” long ago we have tried our level best to make our vacations 10 days or more. These were certainly more satisfying but Christean and I still had that nagging feeling we had not yet grasped the brass ring on the vacation carousel of life. This year we were able to take the trip of a lifetime to Italy and Malta which lasted nearly 3.5 weeks. By the end of the trip we had been gone so long that we both couldn’t remember what we did the first day of our vacation. After the long trans-atlantic flight home we were greeted at the house by our youngest daughter and her little rat terrier named Jersey. Jersey was so excited to see us back again that she ran around the living room in circles about four times and then jumped up on my favorite easy chair and proceeded to urinate all over it. I think the lesson we can all take away from this is as follows: You know your vacation was the ideal length when your daughter’s dog is so excited to see you that she pisses herself.
I think the question most Americans are reflecting on this time of year is “to what extent does the slimming effect of black clothing cease and you just start looking like a swollen black tick”? One can’t help but think about ugly weight gain around the holidays especially with all the parties, goodies, and cheese balls that seem to always be around this time of year. But what I find even more insidious, diabolical even, are the news stories on the network morning chat shows about how to eat sensibly during the holidays and how to cut-the-calories on Christmas dinner. I can see why network reporters and television personalities are concerned about this. After all, their appearance is their bread and butter (whole wheat and reduced fat of course!) and being only two-dimensional on the tube does make every pound appear bigger. But I think the real issue is that deep down they resent those of us who are going to enjoy ourselves during the holidays even if our pants(uits) are a little tight come January. To be sure, most of our holiday dinners are high-calorie, fat-loaded, sodium-saturated, sugar-infested, alcohol-laden nutritional disasters. But then again salads with raspberry vinaigrette topped with slices of lean chicken breast hardly sounds like a celebration feast (unless you live in the 3rd world!). I think the wisest course of action to take in a dangerous and fallen world is to enjoy yourself during the holidays, eat and drink with a grateful heart, and switch TV channels immediately when someone wishes you a “healthy and happy holiday”.
Well, it’s that time of year again. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without an annual protest by someone or some group who objects to any religious display related to the holiday on public property. Actually, I should be a bit more precise here. In my adult life I can’t remember any protests about the Hannakuh menorah or Kwaanza displays which have also been allowed. It’s really the Nativity scene which is objectionable because it is about Jesus Christ. And God forbid we bring Jesus into the public square; especially the baby Jesus because that might beg the question why his birth is so important and why his life and teachings are literally the foundation of Western Civilization. Recently an Atheist group posted a sign on public property in Olympia Washington near a Nativity scene wishing everyone a merry winter solstice and denigrated religion as enslaving human minds. What I found laughable was not the fact that the sign was stolen and thrown into a ditch within 12 hours of its posting, but that the atheist group was immediately blaming the unknown thief(ves) as being Christians or Jews. A spokesman for the group queried to the press “why don’t they follow their own commandments?”. First of all the demographics of belief in God and adherence to religions of every kind are so vast, it could have been almost any American. But more than that if religion is nothing but nonsense, why take offense at all? Who are the atheists to declare that stealing is intrinsically wrong. Perhaps they and society are wrong and theft really is a sign of highly adaptive behavior in a continually evolving culture. Who took the sign, Christian, Scientologist, Wiccan, or good old-fashion’ Washington redneck with a belly full of beer out for a laugh, is not important. What is important is that America is a country that respects people’s faith or complete lack thereof. I actually respect the atheist’s right to put forth their message of unbelief 365 and ¼ days a year. That’s the price of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. What I can’t respect is when people feel they need to take offense at the symbols of another’s religion especially in relation to a religious holiday that they are not forced to celebrate. What’s worse I can’t stand atheists who act like they’re so poor, persecuted, and marginalized. After all, they dominate the calendar all year long since most days we celebrate nothing and nothing is what atheism celebrates most.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
In the beginning God created the world and universe with His words. But can the Word of God as embodied in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (The Holy Bible) continue to create worlds? In Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, author David Gelernter (himself a Jewish-American) gives an emphatic yes to that question because America as a place and idea was itself built by the Bible. Gerlernter says you don’t have to believe in God or be a Christian to be a good American or to believe in Americanism, but you must respect the fact that historically, the core of America was completely founded on Christianity and to deny this is to deny reality. In the book, Gerlernter carefully traces most American values back to the Christianity practiced by the Puritans of New England. Besides the well-known Puritan work ethic, there is the American value of being able to pursue happiness under God. The Puritans were austere to some degree but they were happy and especially happy to be in America with all its possibilities. The view of American Exceptionalism or the idea that America is a nation with a unique mission in the world can be traced back to American Zionism, the puritan belief brought from England that the British Empire (and by connection the American Colonies) were ancient Israel reconstituted with a land and covenant with God. If we are true to the covenant, God will favor us and if not, we shall find judgment. Even the American preference of no-nonsense simplicity in all things finds its foundation in the mental furniture of the Puritan fathers. They were of the mind that the excision of traditions and embellishments of the Christian faith that had begun with the Reformation, should be continued in all of life. Thus the architecture, clothing, and furniture of America is not only simple, but democratic and virtuous. The reason “Americanism” is a fourth Western religion is that it is an offshoot of Judeo-Christian thought and its core values have spread around the world in the democratizing of other nations. Gerlernter does an effective job in his presentation and synthesis of history and in an age of secularism and growing anti-american sentiment, he reminds Americans of Christian and non-Christian persuasions that we come from noble roots and have nothing to be ashamed of.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Billy Sunday's story is the quintessential American story of rags-to-riches with a heavy dose of Christian redemption to boot. The basic contours of the William Sunday's life is that his father died in the Civil War and his mother was too poor to take care of him. He and his brother grew up in an Christian charity orphanage until they were old enough to be emancipated. Billy developed athletic prowess as a teenager and became well-known in Iowa for his local league baseball playing. He was discovered by the coach of the Chicago White Stockings (I'm thinking this was due for an abbreviation before too long!) and joined the pro's at a young age. During a period of great success athletically and professionally, Billy came into contact with the famed Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago and went through a conversion process. Soon he became a devoted student of the Bible and began to lead Bible classes with the YMCA. Eventually this led to an apprenticeship with an evangelist and soon Billy was leading tent revivals all over the Midwest. In the course of time he and his wife grew to national fame and he became a preacher with celebrity similar to that enjoyed by Billy Graham. Along with this came way too much adulation and way too much income which was to have a corrosive effect on his family and ministry. Eventually he is humbled by health problems, staff problems, kid problems, and the near nervous breakdown of his beloved wife. In the end his fame and popularity wane, but a humbler Billy emerges who faithfully preaches in smaller towns and venues until his dying day. Lyle Dorsett does a great job of telling the story neither seeking to deconstruct the life of this great man of God or make him a plaster saint. He does a good job explaining the context of Billy Sunday's life and how many of his foibles as a celebrity preacher were not tied to a lack of integrity but rather his formative years as an orphan. Readers will also learn how Sunday is in the spiritual lineage several other famous ministers including Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. A good brief, but nuanced treatment of someone who used to be a household name in America but has been forgotten with the passage of time.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Jonathan Edwards is forever associated with his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. To read this sermon today without understanding anything about Edwards and his historic context, is to imagine him a wild-eyed fanatic who rejoiced in preaching fire and brimstone judgment to the post puritan masses. In point of fact, Edwards was a studious theologian devoted to caring for his local congregation and his large family. His preaching was nothing spectacular and Sinners was hardly his best work. George Marsden does a wonderful job helping modern Americans understand Edwards and his influence on Christian practice and belief and American culture in general. Marsden helps us to understand the historic milieu of Edwards and the practices of New England society between the Puritan Era and the Revolutionary War. Edwards wasn't an American but a British Colonial who held that God largely governed the world and expanded His kingdom in tandem with established human authority. Edwards was part of that establishment and was well-placed by birth into a dynasty of preacher families who were also tied to governments as well as God. Despite being part of the Colonial establishment, Edwards was a reformer and revivalist who during his times sought to restore the morals, discipline, and Biblical authority of the Church which had grown lax over the years. He was a man often in conflict with authority and with his congregation because he held the Scriptures in greater regard than human ideals. Marsden also paints a warm portrait Edwards and his wife Sarah and how they sought to raise their 7 daughters and 2 sons to carry on the Christian faith and be at peace with God. I have read several other books on Jonathan Edwards and this by far is the best and most engaging. Marsden neither worships nor deconstructs his subject but respectfully and sympathetically tells the story of a truly great man in the Kingdom of God and the American landscape.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
This is a book for every American but it NEEDS to be read by more educators, members of the media, elected officials, and clergy. The central theme of the book is that it is absurd to think about America apart from its religious foundation and to deny it had a religious foundation is to lie about our true history as a nation. The central prescription of the book is that the excision of religious instruction from public schools does our nation a disservice because in reality religion factors huge in our society. Now Prothero is not advocating that we turn our public schools into a Sunday School but rather that in producing an informed and educated citizenry, there should at least be some teaching about the Holy Bible in particular and its central themes and stories which are so much a part of our cultural landscape. He also believes that because America is a melting pot in which people tend to not melt in the area of religion, it would be good for every American student to have a little bit of cultural literacy concerning the other religions of the world. I appreciated Prothero's historic analysis of how we went from teaching our children to read from the Bible in public schools to near hysteria by educators if the Bible is even brought up in class. It was not surprising to read that the removal of religious instruction was something that started with the Supreme Court's rulings of the 1960's but rather began as controversies between Protestants and Catholics during the antebellum period. Since neither side could be satisfied, religious instruction began moving towards morals devoid of any doctrinal belief. I think this book would be especially helpful to those in the news media who are unfamiliar with Christianity especially since it plays such an integral part in the lives of our government leaders and definitely in politics. As a clergyman, I maintain it is the job of parents primarily to inculcate faith in their children through religious instruction at home. I believe the house of worship a family attends should supplement and support parents in this task. Like Prothero, I agree that it is the role of public schools and colleges to foster education and citizenship and to totally ignore religion as a subject in the curriculum is to be out of touch with reality and history.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
This book makes the assertion that not only did Western Christianity derive most of its leading theological ideas from Africa, but that European scholars have purposefully obscured this fact in the modern era. Why? Although Oden puts it in relatively generous terms, where I come from we call it good old-fashion racism. That said, this is not the central theme of the book. Oden takes the time to explain the geography of the early church on the African continent and the apostolic connections between Alexandria and the Nile Valley, Ethiopia, and the Maghreb (Tunisia, Libya, Algeria). These were hot-beds of Christianity and quite influential in the development of orthodoxy and theological inquiry prior to the Islamic conquests of the 8th Century. Oden builds an extremely good case that the Christianity that is exploding today on the continent of Africa needs to recognize that it didn't come from Europe as an import two centuries ago, but rather came from the Apostles to Africa which in turn went to Europe and then came back to them. The reader is also reminded that some of the great luminaries of the Church such as Augustine, Athanasius, and Origen, were not Hellenized Romans who just happened to live on the continent, but were actually of the indigenous peoples of Africa and retained viewpoints very much in keeping with their cultural identity. While the book may be provocative to some, it is a potent reminder that Christianity is not a European religion but a worldwide religion and always has been.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Leighton Ford, now in his sunset of life, offers us The Attentive Life. This book seems to be several things at once. First, it is a book outlining the significance of the canonical hours as they have been practiced in Benedictine monasteries for more than a millenia. Second, it is a book about life stages and the rites of passage most of us experience as we advance in age. And thirdly, it is spiritual memoir which in many ways confesses that the author has lived anything but an attentive life, but is now reflecting and learning to see God's providential workings in his life both past and present. Each chapter is finished with a short biographical sketch of someone Ford believes lived an attentive life in some way. I thoroughly enjoyed the author's candor and honesty about his relationship with God especially in some of the darker episodes of his life. I also see this book as a model for something more Christian leaders (and, dare I say luminaries) should do for future generations. Autobiographies tend to either 'set the record straight' or offer explanations or success models to follow. A spiritual memoir tends to celebrate God more and tell us how He was faithful through our lives. Its always great to hear how someone accomplished great things with their ministry, but in the end God is all that is really important and insights into how you did something like walk with him through a lifetime are a great service to those of us following in their wake. Just a sidebar--Ford treats Benedictine spirituality in a completely uncritical fashion. He speaks of going to retreats at a monastery as if this is something all Christians do or would do if they could. I have no problem with my Catholic brothers and sisters observing a religious life (monasticism) even though I am a committed evangelical. What I do see in this is that evangelicals have a lesser (or poorly developed) tradition of spirituality than do the Catholics. We are great activists, Biblicists, and ecclesiologists, but we need to develop a richer legacy with our spirituality. Perhaps The Attentive Life will help lead the way.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Just like any gemstone is enhanced by a beautiful setting, author Gerald Sittser has taken 2000 years of the history of Christian spirituality and made it shine by helping us to understand its particular context in time and application in the present. Sittser points us to the saints of old and tells us what makes them extraordinary is they believed there was “more, much more” they could expect to receive from God and that is our spiritual birthright. In some cases the ancients have some very relevant lessons for today’s Church. For instance the strong community life and corporate disciplines of the early church stand in contrast to the individualistic emphasis of today’s Christians who readily change congregations based on ‘felt needs’ and personal aspirations. Another lesson comes from the emphasis on the sacraments from the Middle Ages. While they may have held beliefs that were not totally rooted in the scripture, they were keenly aware they had no self-sufficiency before God and in humbly receiving the sacraments, they were receiving nourishment for their souls. Perhaps the best part of the book is his chapter on missionaries called “Risk”. Here we read about the great missionaries of the 19th century and are led to the realization that God doesn’t look for perfection but rather passion for Him in those He uses mightily. Sittser charges all of us to become saints today. Not the saints of ages past who lived in monasteries, the deserts of
Sunday, June 1, 2008
I've been mulling over a statistic I read the other day in Family News from Dr. James Dobson that boggles my mind: the cost of divorce and it's aftermath to American taxpayers is nearly $112 billion dollars a year. Truth be told, I'm not totally shocked by this as I have a daughter who went through a particularly difficult divorce last year. She has received help from the state without which she couldn't begin to get back on her feet again even with child support from her ex-husband and help from her extended family. But this is not going to be a preachy piece on how we need to strengthen the institution of marriage in our country. We have tons of people (like Dr. Dobson) already doing that and doing it well on many levels. What I believe would be helpful would be a public policy that rewarded people for number of years married (to the same person of course!). Couples that succeed in their marriage over a lifetime often contribute far more to society than they ever receive and in some cases are the backbone of their communities. Why shouldn't their choice to stay together, work out their differences, and raise children from an unbroken home be recognized with an extra tax deduction or a one-year hiatus from property taxes. People always tend to do what is in their best interests especially when their behavior is recognized and rewarded. This is something every kindergarten teacher knows and something our congress ought to.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I am not a novel reader for many good reasons. A lot of it has to do with the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” and I might add to that a lot more interesting. That said, I had two events come together recently that led me to read The Last Jihad by best-selling author Joel C. Rosenberg. Recently I had been watching Glenn Beck on CNN and he had
Friday, May 9, 2008
I’ve just finished Arthur C. Brooks article “A Nation of Givers” in The American (April/May 2008). The article gives hard statistics to some things I’ve known both intuitively and anecdotally for years namely that as a whole, Americans are far more generous with charitable giving than all other Western countries but also that the backbone of charitable giving is the poor and middle-class who tend to donate money and volunteer time in greater proportion to their income than their wealthy counterparts (low income families give 4.5% of annual income to charity while those making more than $100,000 per annum give just 3%). The religiously active and politically conservative person also tends to give more money both formally and informally than their secular and politically liberal counterpart as well. In other words, Churchgoers who believe the government needs to cut back on social programs will predictably support their house of worship, but will also give far more to charitable causes that help the poor and disadvantaged in their community. They also tend to be the people who will stop by a bank and leave a check for someone they don’t even know who needs a liver transplant that they read about in the newspaper. One surprising note that Brooks made in the article is that religious people are 25% more likely to support non-religious but worthy causes (health, safety, and common good of people) and 21% more likely to volunteer their time to these same causes than their secular counterparts. What is truly fascinating is the statistics Brooks supplies on “forced” giving to the disadvantaged through higher tax rates, versus volunteer giving. A 10% increase in the GDP per person would lead to basically a 9% increase in charitable giving the next year. Conversely a 10% increase in taxation (forced giving) to fund social programs for the disadvantaged would lead to only 3% increase in the GDP. When people are making more because of a robust economy, it spurs them on to greater generosity which in turn is much better for the economy. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver but in light of this it would seem the American public ought to be grateful and our lawmakers should take notice that volunteered generosity is far greater force for the common good than coerced redistribution of wealth.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
" There are just over seven months until the election, an election that will decide the next President of the United States. The person elected will be the president of all Americans, not just the Democrats or the Republicans. To show our solidarity as Americans, let's all get together and show each other our support for the candidate of our choice. It's time that we all came together, Democrats and Republicans alike. If you support the policies and character of John McCain, please drive with your headlights on during the day. If you support Obama or Hillary, please drive with your headlights off at night. "
Now that's an idea I think many of us can embrace!
Friday, April 18, 2008
The only thing more baffling than people who write 1000 page autobiographies are the people who actually read them! I voted for Bush I in ’92 and Bob “ED” Dole in ’96 but was still curious about the wild popularity of Bill Clinton and hoping to hear his side of the story of what happened during his presidency. In my opinion, My Life is very illuminating when he describes his early years which included his father’s death before his birth, being raised by a young widow who left him with his grandparents while she attended nursing school, and then growing up with a step father whose alcoholism eventually broke up the family. Having known other men who have grown up in similar family systems, they learn to observe, negotiate, and survive. Unfortunately many who grow up in such homes have serious personal struggles we don’t always recognize, but in Bill Clinton’s life these skills were applied to the political life in such a way that the moniker “comeback kid” was quite apropo. There are times when
Sunday, April 13, 2008
As a long time student of Roman history I have burned up many hours of my life reading some very interesting and not-so-interesting books on this expansive topic. Ferrero was a Roman historian in the early twentieth century and a professor and author with much acclaim in his day. So much so, that he was invited by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 to come to the
Friday, April 4, 2008
Billy Graham will always be America's greatest preacher, but I have long maintained that his equal in terms of sheer influence was Bill Bright. John G. Turner does an excellent job in Bill Bright and Campus Crusade: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America giving us the context and history of this intriguing man and his ministry. Bill Bright was a young man from Oklahoma who moved out west to Los Angeles to seek his fortune in business. After some moderate successes, Bright was converted to faith in Jesus Christ and for the rest of his life he devoted his considerable energies towards evangelizing the world. But unlike Billy Graham, Bill Bright's greatest influence was not in his preaching, but in his entrepreneurial approach to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1965 Bright wrote the famous Four Spiritual Laws which have been read and used 10's of millions of times in personal evangelism the world over. This was developed to make the gospel message easy to present, easy to understand, and start and end on its positives. Attesting to its effectiveness, it is available now in 150 languages. Another of Bright's accomplishments is the Jesus Film Project. He took a movie that was a painful flop in American theaters and turned it into a worldwide phenomena having resulted in 230 million commitments to follow Christ. Although these ideas clicked, Turner also points out that Bill Bright had many ideas fail and fail miserably. Bright had set the audacious goals of evangelizing the entire United States by 1976 and the rest of the world by 1980. He also had a vision to start a major university which nearly bankrupted the entire ministry before it failed. His Campus Ministry is still going strong and is regarded as one of the largest collegiate campus groups in America and yet has done little to change the tide of secularism in American students. But the larger point is Bill Bright was a man who was willing to dream big and take big risks for the sake of the Kingdom. Another aspect of his life that I found very admirable was that he dealt with millions of dollars and was in every respect a CEO, but lived a very moderate lifestyle and steered away from the scandals that have rocked so many other ministries. Along the way he also ruffled feathers and broken relationships. Once again to his credit, in the last years of his life he purposefully sought out many of these people and made amends. This book is far from a panegyric about Bill Bright. In fact in some places you want to cringe and say "what was he thinking!?" But on the other hand, I found Bill Bright's obvious tenderness and dedication to Jesus Christ quite inspirational and though he had his flaws, he attempted to offer the Lord more than most men ever attempt.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Everybody saw it coming. Real Estate values going up so fast that in some markets people were “day trading” meaning they were buying a property in the morning and selling it at a profit in the afternoon. The stock market was heating up to record high numbers along with speculation on barrels of oil for some future shortage that hasn’t seemed to materialize yet. Meanwhile our government wages war using subcontractors who patriotically post record profits all at the expense of the next few generations of Americans. Now awash in national debt, the dollar has tanked and with that the value of our savings evaporates in the inflationary spiral. Whenever people are 'getting rich quick' you can bet the farm that things will go the other way just as fast. Moneywise, the news is bad and quite frankly no one worth listening to on economics thinks things are going to improve for a few years. Like I’m sure you have been doing, the last few months have been a steady series of small adjustments. The $30 fill-up is pushing $50, sit-down restaurant dinners are now at home with “take and bake pizza”, and we won’t be getting a flat screen TV with our economic stimulus package but rather paying off a credit card balance which has been creeping in the wrong direction since last November. But I am particularly happy about two adjustments our economic problems have forced me to make. First, I am realizing how wasteful and consumptive my lifestyle has become. I’m turning off lights that don’t really need to be on. Trips to the store are planned with multiple errands and not just for a gallon of milk and I’m planting less flowers and more vegetables in my yard this year. Second, and more importantly, it has made me realize how much worldthink has penetrated my outlook. If our only index of present and future happiness is the economy doing well, then we are impoverished already. Slowly but surely, I am developing a ‘new index of happiness’ that is less material and more spiritual. Jesus Christ rightly tells us our lives really are much more than we possess and anxiety over this is both faithless and futile (Matthew chapter 6). Perhaps we would all be better served by basing our happiness on having a thriving relationship with the God who loves us, a host of friendships where we give and take, and a lifestyle that is noted for its simplicity rather than extravagance. This kind of wealth is far more certain to produce happiness in the long run and far less prone to disappear when times get hard.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
I was pretty excited to see this book come out. It's hardly a newsflash that Martin Marty, an institution at University of Chicago and longtime author of books about religion in American life and Church history, would write a global history of the Christian faith. But typically books on this topic are quite long and very dense and if anyone can pull this topic off with brevity it is Dr. Marty. And so in 200 pages he takes us from the Jewish origins of Christianity in Israel to its present day explosion in China and Africa. What I appreciate about Marty's book and others of its ken is that Church history has for too long only been covered only from the Western perspective. In other words, it is as if Christ sent his apostles out after His ascension and the only place Christianity took root was Europe and North America and the only real highlight was the Protestant Reformation with all previous Catholic expressions of faith portrayed as spiritual darkness. The fact is that Christianity is an Asian religion (Israel representing the far west of the East) that has had deep roots in Africa, India, Persia, and China long before Martin Luther, the Puritans, and modern-day revivalism. Marty doesn't deconstruct or denigrate the Western story of Christianity either. But rather he gives it a broader context and shows its interactions with Christians and peoples of other faiths around the world. This books is a great primer to a huge and largely neglected topic.
Friday, March 28, 2008
I have a theory that a large part of book-reading depends on the nexus of your mood and interest level. A book may be incredibly interesting in its content but your mental state of mind may be in a place where you just can't engage. Wilson's Charlemagne was like that for me. I started it last fall and was bored to tears before I was done with the introduction. Last week I thought I would give it another try and I simply couldn't put it down. Both mood and book seriously connected. So what was interesting about the book? Most people with a cursory knowledge of Western Civilization know that Charles the Great or Charlemagne is a pivotal figure ruling and bringing together the Germanic and Frankish tribes into a single kingdom and uniting that kingdom with the papacy which in turn would give Europe a Christian identity known as Christendom. Wilson does nothing to deconstruct this idea but demonstrates quite well that much of the Christianizing impetus of the Frankish kingdom originated in Aachen rather than Rome. Charlemagne took his role as the "Holy Roman Emperor" very seriously and was not only a ruler very much engaged in personal piety but also in the expansion and standardization of the Church. Wilson also shows in the book that the greater spiritual influences in Charlemagne's life came from Celtic monks dedicated to missionizing the continent rather than the papacy. These were men of scholarship, purity, and passion for God and these had Charlemagne's attention, respect, and patronage. The Carolingian renaissance is also reviewed (as it rightly should be) and it is interesting to see how different its results were from the Florentine version. The same texts of the ancient world were studied and copied but they were used to support a Christian civilization and apologetic rather than a return to a golden age of Romantic paganism. Perhaps this is part explained by the Fall of Rome being a more recent event and also that, unlike the Florentines, the Greco-Roman cultural patrimony was not their own. Of equal interest is how Charlemagne became greater in legend than he was in life. Virtually all of the subsequent French emperors, Napoleon, and even Hitler all tapped into the Charlemagne story in some way to connect with his greatness in the European memory. The book is a great read and makes you realize Charlemagne is a far greater star in the firmament of Western history.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
In recent years there has been a spate of books which would lead some to believe that the Catholic-Protestant divide is almost negligible. Indeed, books like Mark A. Noll's Is the Reformation Over? and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together series rightly portray that relations have very much improved and that on some essential doctrines of the Christian faith there are points of agreement that are worth celebrating. But that said, while Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate is certainly civil in tone and respectfully argued by both sides, it serves to highlight a huge difference that remains namely the place of Mary the mother of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith. Dwight Longenecker is a former fundamentalist evangelical who over a period of years eventually converted to the Roman Catholic Church. He does a good job of explaining Catholic dogmas concerning Mary in terms we would understand but basically confirms to the evangelical reader that Marian devotion is thinly scriptural and largely traditional. David Gustafson is also a former fundamentalist who finds himself today in a conservative liturgical Episcopal Church. He does a good job of rattling the doors on arguments about Mary's perpetual virginity, Marian apparitions, veneration, and her role as co-redemptrix. He asks some good questions and at times is ready to concede that on some points evangelicals have reacted against Mary largely because of the Protestant-Catholic divide but not because of any scriptural warrant. Ultimately, like so many other Christian polemics between the branches of the faith, it comes down to how much weight you give the authority of scripture and the historic traditions of the faith. Neither Evangelicals or Catholics are disconnected from the Holy Scripture or Tradition but it is clear in this book that when it comes to Marian theology, the weights are far from evenly distributed. While I certainly love the mother of my Lord and Christ, and I consider Catholics fellow Christians, I must confess my concern that some Marian doctrines seem more based on fancy than God's revelation.
Like their previous book The Jesus Papyrus, The Quest for the True Cross is a well reasoned investigation of the relics of the crucifixion ensconced in the chapel of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme Church of Rome. Having personally visited this Church and looked at the collection of relics there, the only one that seems very compelling is the Titulus Crucis which is the placard one sees depicted in scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus that typically reads “INRI”. The other relics such as the two thorns from the crown of thorns, the nail, the cross of the good thief, and two pieces from the cross of Christ could be the genuine articles, but they could also be pieces of someone else’s cross or simply pious frauds for the purpose of catechizing the faithful. In the book, Thiede recreates the story of Saint Helena and the plausibility of her actually finding the relics of the crucifixion in
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Saint Sebastian (martyred c. 288 ad) is the patron saint of archers and protector against plagues which seems a bit absurd to me as archery was the method of the first attempt on his life. Failing to die being shot full of arrows, Diocletian ordered him to be clubbed to death. By that same logic, Sebastian should also be the patron saint of people who join clubs, go “clubbing”, or hunt baby white seals in the arctic! Actually
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I just finished William Tucker's article The Case for Terrestrial (a.k.a. Nuclear) Energy in the Hillsdale College newsletter Imprimus. Tucker makes a great case that if we as a nation are really serious about our environment, greenhouse gases, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil (which at this time is presently decimating the American economy), then its time to rethink nuclear power. According to Tucker we have largely been sold a bill of goods about nuclear energy that is mostly emotional and barely factual. What happened at Three Mile Island was inconsequential but unfortunately it happened at the same time that the movie The China Syndrome was released and Hollywood obscured reality in the end. Nuclear power is safe, requires little land and resources, is insanely efficient, and almost obscenely profitable as a source of power generation. Currently much of America's electricity is generated by the burning of coal which is very cheap and plentiful but has tons of emissions which foul our air and warm our planet. The point Tucker makes that really resonates with me is that cheap, plentiful, and cleaner electricity can be the basis for a large and widespread switch to the electric car or electric hybrid. Because nuclear energy is something we don't need to import, over time and with national resolve, we could safely and peacefully end our need for foreign oil. I've lived long enough to know that nothing ever changes unless it absolutely needs to, but if gasoline prices at stratospheric levels and no end in sight and a billion dollar a day war to fight terrorists largely funded by oil wealth doesn't put us in the "need-to-change" position, nothing ever will. Perhaps its time for our politicians to stop talking about a national health care plan and start working on a national nuclear energy plan.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
“..and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” Romans 1: 32
On my commute this morning I listened to our local talk-radio station hosts discussing the State of
Thursday, January 31, 2008
"A few days ago, Camryn proudly carried a cup of soil into our home. She told me that Jesus would make these grass seeds grow, complete with a demonstration of the process, as she squatted down to the ground and slowly grew and grew, until her arms raised in the air and wavedback and forth (just like the grass would wave in the wind). I thought the seed cup had the best chance of growth if we left it outside in the sunshine but the next morning, it rained a Kansas downpour (note: this is a lot like a flash flood if you've never been there) and I knew those little seeds were doomed. Several days of rain came to an end and Camryn noticed her cup overflowing outside on the porch. In pure childlike form, she insisted we go see if her grass was growing yet. I opened the door and sadly stepped outside. I knew that somehow I would have to explain to my daughter why Jesus - who made the mountains, the seas, and everything else in this world...didn't make her grass grow. I gently poured out the standing water and lowered the cup to her eyes so she could see for herself. And that's when we BOTH saw the most amazing sight! A single blade of grass standing tall in the middle of the saturated soil. Joy burst through us in pure laughter as we stood staring at the green miracle we held in our hands. I will always remember today as the first time I've ever truly thanked Jesus for a single blade of grass!"
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Cecil M. Robeck Jr.'s book on the Azusa Street Revival is an important work especially in light of the shift in Christianity's heartland from North America to South America, Africa, and Asia and the growing reality that the criterial Christian of the 21st Century is a pentecostal in some shape or form. Other writers would take issue with the idea the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles is the "Jerusalem" from which all other pentecostal movements emanate opting for a more multi-stranded view of it's origins, but Robeck proceeds with this view and delivers it with a plausible historic explanation. What is heartening about the story of the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909) is that it was far deeper than people rediscovering the gift of tongues. The revival was able to cut across denominational, racial, and even gender boundaries of the time and Christians were able to love and serve one another in ways that DO seem reminiscent of the first Christians at Pentecost. There was also a strong emphasis on prayer, worship, holiness, and evangelism that is not widely seen in today's Church. And of course there was the emphasis on faith missions. A huge part of having the gift of tongues was that it was believed these were actually unlearned existing languages and if you had this gift, you were to take it to mission field for preaching. Many, many Pentecostal believers took this seriously and without monthly support or even a round-trip ticket went forth the preach to Gospel to all nations. What many found when they got overseas was their languages were unknown and they were terrifically unprepared for cross-cultural living. But their influence did spread in the form of bringing the principles of the revival to existing bodies of Christians and other missionaries who in turn influenced the culture. As wonderful as this revival was, it began to degenerate within 3 years by means of Church politics, division, prejudice, and of course the corrupting influence of lust and money. Robeck ends his account with the people of the Azusa Street Mission having a huge disagreeement and throwing their hymnals at each other in disgust and contempt. It is an inauspicious way to end the story but he uses it effectively to set the stage for a reminder that revivals are the special work of God to reawaken His Church but they are not intended for us as a long-term way of living. When we take something that is a temporary measure of God and try to establish it as a permanent mode of proceeding we are going to be disappointed. Revivals must give way to living awake in the structures of the Church that may be less exciting but sustainable over the long-haul.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The 21st Century is certainly an exciting period of innovation in the art of spreading the message of Jesus Christ around the globe. One group that I really appreciate is Global Recordings Network. For 70 years they have been learning and preserving the thousands and thousands of tribal languages of the world and then providing a recordings of Bible teachings to those groups who would like to learn more about Jesus. What makes them stand out is that they are able to reach smaller groups of people for whom Bible Translation is almost out of the question (translations of the entire Bible are time and cost prohibitive for groups smaller than a million) and also because languages continue to die out or fall into disuse as our world becomes more and more a global village, they have a hand in preserving the cultural and linguistic heritage of our planet. Another dimension of their ministry that continues to grow is their online library. While many people groups live so primitively that internet is not even an option, the reality is that many are migrating to larger cities in their own countries or are immigrating to the United States and other Western nations. Evangelists equipped with a simple laptop computer and blank CD's now have the ability to meet people from all over the world and within a couple of minutes burn a Gospel presentation for them in their own language through a simple internet connection. This group also works hard to provide devices that will play recordings for people in remote settings. 50 years ago they developed a record in a cardboard sleeve that could basically be played with a pencil. Today they are working on digital players which are hand-cranked for power. If you want to see more about what these pioneering folk are up to check out their website: www.globalrecordings.net
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I must confess that generally I write off most statements made by Christian leaders concerning God's judgment of America. A couple examples may explain why. Consider the group of Christian leaders that labeled Hurricane Katrina as God's judgment on New Orleans for its promotion of homosexual tourism in their fine city. Problem: the French Quarter was mostly unscathed by the hurricane and the damage was mostly to the homes of poor people. Why would God whoop on the poor people just because homos like to visit the French Quarter? Another of my favorites is that all the social problems we have in our schools is a direct result of the Supreme Court outlawing prayer at the start of classes during the 1960's. If you have ever read the prayer that American boys and girls used to recite in public school, you know it was the most milquetoast, watered-down, generic prayer possibly ever uttered by human lips. If anything, I think God might have been directly behind its excision just because He couldn't stand to hear it anymore! The problems in the Public Schools have more to do with the teaching of Darwin over a sustained period of time not because kids don't mumble some empty prayer every morning. This brings me to Steven Keillor's excellent book God's Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith. The essence of the book is a simple question: Is there any reason to believe that God judges nations in this present epoch as He did in the Old Testament? The answer is a well-reasoned theological and historically nuanced yes. Even though we live in the Age of Grace, God judges the nations for their misdeeds in the present. The implication of this is that Christians living in a nation that is under judgment will suffer as well but of course will be spared from final wrath in the hereafter. The book moves a bit slow as Keillor makes his carefully reasoned biblical case, but you need this material to fully appreciate the historic examples he uses such as the Civil War, War of 1812 and 9/11 disaster. One is left at the end with the realization God has visited judgment on our nation and will do so again until we mend our ways. The problem is if we are nationally oblivious to God's judgment we are going to try to employ public solutions when we really need to repent and this is the hubris of modern man. I would recommend this book especially as a balance to the many books on American history from a Christian perspective which tend to celebrate our national story while largely ignoring our darker moments. This is a message on judgment that is worth paying attention to.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus is known to the world today simply as St. Jerome. The big deal about Jerome is that he was an early Bible translator taking the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and translating them into the common language of the West. His Bible, known as the Latin Vulgate, stood as the official Bible of Europe until the Reformation. But beyond his great contribution to the Church and Western Civilization, Jerome was a bit of a study in contrasts. For instance Jerome was a respected scholar and a very learned bookworm, yet at the same time was very loving and relational with the people around him. Few scholars have both qualities. Jerome is known to be quite vicious in his writings to and about heretics and false doctrine, yet passionately loved the Church and the people of Christ. Another contrast is that he lived sequestered away in a monk's cave in Bethlehem where he could find isolation and yet had visitors come to meet and learn from him from all over the world. Finally, at one time or another he lived nearly every major city in the Roman Empire; Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and yet Jerome considered the deserts of Israel to be his personal paradise. Jerome is a real paradox--a relational scholar, a socializing monk, equally passionate in his love and hatred, living in the middle of nowhere and yet known the world over. If there is a lesson for us about Jerome's life it probably would be that God transforming power in our lives is what makes us useful to Him. He takes what might look like a disadvantage or quirk of personality and is able to refashion it into something He can use for the Kingdom.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
I picked up Marcia Ford's book the last time I was a Powell's Bookstore in Portland and it is a real gem. There has been a lot of ink spilled in the last decade about the historic practices of the Christian Church as evangelicals have begun to discover their historic roots. Most books of this kind focus on the tried and true basics of the monastic tradition such as fasting, sacred reading, scripture memory, constant prayer, and even mindful labor. Ford's book includes these but is set apart by the inclusion of spiritual disciplines practiced by the Jews, the Greek Orthodox, and the Old Catholic Church. For example one spiritual discipline she considers is properly grieving the dead where she explains some of the practices of the Jews in this regard such as rending your garments and what this actually means. Another chapter covers prayer postures. Obviously a particular posture is not required to pray, but Christians pray in a variety a ways each of which make a beautiful devotional statement all their own. One practice I really liked was the "night watch". Ford explains that many of the Church fathers made it a practice to rise for prayer in the middle of the night. They did this to cover the Church while they were sleeping but also because it is so quiet that it is easier to seek the Lord without distraction. She provides some great ideas for how we might approach this when we find ourselves awake in the middle of the night. There are certainly meatier books on this subject in print such as Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines or Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, but Tradition of the Ancients is a great introduction to the topic and holds its own with material not usually given much consideration.