Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Walker Percy Interviews Himself

I'm already on a big and annoying Walker Percy kick, so why not keep it up a bit more?  This is from a longer post at Mockingbird.  Walker Percy interviewed himself.  Here is part of the exchange.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: It’s not good enough.

Q: Why not?

A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

Q: Grabbed aholt?

A: A Louisiana expression.

Peter Kreeft on Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos

Back in the 90s Peter Kreeft gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Institute where he discussed C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man and compared it to Walker Percy's magnificent mock self-help book Lost in the Cosmos. Since I recently finished Percy's book, I was greatly interested in what Kreeft might have had to say.

At on point, Kreeft half-jokes with his audience that, in his opinion, Western Civilization could be saved if everyone read six books:
  1. Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
  2. The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
  3. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  4. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton
  5. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  6. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In the talk, Kreeft makes a strong case that the first two books form the preconditions for the other six, and Huxley's book shows us what a future full of "men without chests" would really look like. This talk may actually make Percy readers out of many of you, and it is a really tremendous discussion, and it comes with my highest recommendations. Since reading The Moviegoer and Lost in the Cosmos I have begun reading Percy's book Love in the Ruins, which envisions a dystopian future full of "men without chests" where humanity is trying to find its way out of the rubble. I'm only still in the first chapter, but it is a great book with perhaps the greatest opening sentence I've ever read in any novel.
NOW IN THESE DREAD LATTER DAYS of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?
You can download Kreeft's talk in mp3 format here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Free Geerhardus Vos eBook for Kindle

The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology by Geerhardus Vos has been made available for free at Monergism for download in Kindle format. Even the first paragraph is a gem:
At present there is general agreement that the doctrine of the covenants is a peculiarly Reformed doctrine. It emerged in Reformed theology where it was assured of a permanent place and in a way that has also remained confined within these bounds. It is true that towards the end of the seventeenth century this doctrine was taken over by several Lutheran theologians,2 but this apparently took place by way of imitation, the doctrine being unknown within the genuine Lutheran framework. With the Reformed theologians, on the other hand, its emergence occurs in the period of richest development. With full force it lays hold of theological thinking, which in many cases it bends in a distinctive direction.
Get it here.

A Tribute to my Uncle Jerry

My family growing up was Christian. It was my father who kept our family's religious commitments together. When my father had a downtime spiritually, we would go weeks (months?) without attending church. When my father was feeling reinvigorated, we would find a new church and stick with it for a long time. I am quite convinced that my father was the spiritual center of my family, and even though he was a profoundly imperfect man, he still loved God and prayed for his children. He brought us up the best he could, and he sought to share his love for God with me as well.

When I was about 14 or 15, I had an experience at church camp where I was essentially forced to speak in tongues and I subsequently faked it because of the pressure that was put on me. After that experience, I drifted from God and became a self-styled atheist and skeptic. Around 17 or so, I started to study cosmology and history, eventually I devoted my life to Jesus and came back to the Church.

It was during these early and formative stages of my life that my Uncle Jerry came in and played a very important role in my spiritual development. Early on, during my atheist years, Uncle Jerry and I bonded over our love of Michael Crichton's technothrillers such as Sphere, Jurassic Park, and The Terminal Man. I felt him a kindred spirit who loved science and truth as much as I did. He was not an atheist like me, however. After I became a believer, the first thing that I remember my Uncle doing was that he gave me a book by J.I. Packer, Knowing God. I read the book, and it became basic and formative for me in my understanding of who God is and why He should matter to me. Every book that I read was built upon the foundation of Knowing God, and I have my Uncle Jerry to thank for laying that foundation by encouraging me to follow God, and not simply experiences of God. My father was much more experiential and charismatic in his spirituality. He loved to sing worship songs and to travel around to churches providing the special music in the middle of the service. In this respect, I am a near opposite of my father. Whereas my father was highly emotional and open to "movements of the Spirit," I am a skeptic by nature and distrust experience for the most part.

It is because of these differences between my father and I that this book from my Uncle was of such value. I was used to seeing authors like John Bevere and Bob Larson around which emphasized defeating the devil and overcoming demonic forces. What I found in Packer's writings was an emphasis on God Himself - the person of God. The next book, which I still read to this day, is John Stott's book Authentic Christianity, which is a collection of extended quotes from Stott. As before, this book took me to the next level in my commitment to God - yet in a way that did not primarily emphasize experience. I was grateful for the God-centeredness of Packer and Stott. I didn't know it yet, but it was the God of Packer and Stott which I was missing in my Free Methodist theological education I was getting. It was only years later when I found the writings of R.C. Sproul did I once again recognize the great and sovereign God which I had first encountered in the writings of these two books.

Throughout my life, my Uncle has been a spiritual inspiration to me, and I will never forget the special interest which he seemed to take in me during those formative and important years of my life. I only hope that when my nieces and nephews are at the right age, their uncle Adam will be remembered as a blessing and not as a nuisance (history is against me on that one, though!).

Monday, August 29, 2011

More Tree of Life FUN!

[The Tree of Life comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on October 11th]

Rushdoonsbury Gets Some Attention

The last week has been either completely embarrassing or very exciting for Theonomists of their various stripes. When has the mainstream media ever even uttered the name R.J. Rushdoony in the past, after all? On the other hand, do Theonomists even want the MSM to talk about their views? You have, however, some very measured and careful thoughts from Ross Douthat, who doesn't appear to see a terrifying threat on the horizon. On the other hand, you have people like Michelle Goldberg who think that Theonomy is some sort of secret cult-like conspiracy that is endemic to the right.

My interest is not in contributing to the political discussion since we here at Bring the Books do not identify ourselves with Theonomy in any sense. The fact is that our Two Kingdoms approach is no political threat to whatever nation we as Christians live in because the assumption is that we are to be in this world, wherever we find ourselves, to plant vineyards, to build houses, and to pray for the King, wherever we find outselves. Theonomists (R1Kers, you might call them) do not teach the terrifying things that Goldberg thinks they do, but their views are indeed a real threat to democracy-loving social libertarians - I don't think that can be denied. The defense that I keep seeing from Theonomists is that this transformation will happen via legitimate democratic political mechanisms and will come about because of mass conversions and not by a seizure of force. However, even if that is exactly what happens, not everyone who lives under this newly envisioned theocracy is going to be happy about it. They would live under it, but not willingly.

The threat that is felt nationwide at the mention of something as creepy-sounding as Dominionism or Theonomy is certainly an over-reaction. However, I would suggest that there is a seed of truth, and it causes one to pause and reflect - do our political ideals as Christians line up with Jesus when he said that His kingdom was a spiritual kingdom that is emphatically NOT "of this world," or are we building a kingdom of this world that even the staunchest secularists can see we are jockeying for control of?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Open Message to Derek Webb: Flea Stole Your Bass Part

Now Derek, I know you're not the litigious type. But if you were, you could probably receive enough royalties from the sale of the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album that you could get as weird and experimental with your music as you could ever desire. Getting to the point: here is your song "Jena & Jimmy" from your great album Stockholm Syndrome:

You like that bass part? Well I do. And so does Flea, apparently:

All I'm saying is that there is a STRONG similarity between the bass part of "Jena & Jimmy" and the one on "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie." I'm not personally a fan of lawsuits over these sorts of things, and I know you aren't either, Derek. But at the very least you can feel gratified that you came up with this great bass part before Flea did.

[Edit: It should also be pointed out that if you expand the video for the Chili Peppers song to full screen you can see that they took (one might say "borrowed liberally") U2's music video idea from "Where the Streets Have No Name."]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Letter to Christians


I would like to take a moment and thank those who disagree with the Two Kingdoms view for at least calling it "R2K," which, as I recall from my Seminary days, means Reformed Two Kingdoms. I am thankful they grant that the Two Kingdom view is the Reformed view.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Perspectives on the Sabbath

Chris Donato was on Reformed Forum to talk about his book Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views. You can download the episode in podcast form here.

I reviewed Donato's book back in July, but I still have not shared it here at Bring the Books. And so here it is: my review of Perspectives on the Sabbath.

Review: Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views
ed. Christopher John Donato
Released: April 1, 2011
Publisher: B&H Academic
For Purchase at Westminster Books
420 Pages

I would venture to guess that most Christians have not thought about the issue of the Sabbath before. Many, like myself, have always assumed that they ought to attend worship on Sundays out of tradition, but maybe haven't considered what it really means, theologically speaking. A large contingent of the church thinks that Sabbath observance is fulfilled if one attends religious services.

Thankfully, if you're ignorant in this area, there is a solution. Chris Donato has edited a new volume devoted to letting the four major views on the Sabbath duke it out. The format is familiar, with the first chapter being devoted to the author defending his view. In the next chapter, each of the remaining three views have an opportunity to weigh in, and then of course, the original author is given a chance to respond to the other three in a few brief pages, wrapping things up. To the editor’s credit, enough space is given (400+ pages total) to deal substantially with each view. As a point of reference, other volumes from the same series are less than half the size of this one.

The four perspectives being shared in this book could be separated into two units: those who say that the Sabbath commandments are still binding, and those who say that the Sabbath commandments are no longer binding. The first half of the book covers the two views arguing for a continuing Sabbath. Skip MacCarty, as I mentioned before, begins by defending the Seventh Day Sabbath view. In Part II, Joseph Pipa defends what he calls (to the chagrin of the other contributors) the Christian Sabbath view. After this, we are introduced to the two views who say that Sabbath Commandments are no longer binding. In Part III Charles Arand spends his time laying out Luther’s view of the Sabbath. Finally in Part IV, Craig Blomberg lays out the Fulfilled Sabbath view.

Skip MacCarty: Seventh Day Sabbath View
MacCarty emphasizes the permanency of the Sabbath as being rooted in the opening chapters of Genesis and argues that it is a persistent observance instituted at the beginning of creation, rooted in the creative act and resting of God after that creation act. For MacCarty, it is significant that the Sabbath is never explicitly overturned, and that there is no explicit command in the NT for the Church to begin worshipping on Sundays.

A large amount of MacCarty's essay is devoted to establishing distinctions between the New and Old Covenant, since an obvious conclusion to draw from the smoother continuity found in MacCarty's view would be to suggest that MacCarty does not see a difference between the Old and New Covenants. MacCarty adeptly demonstrates that one can hold to the persistence of the Sabbath and still clearly distinguish Old and New.

The differences between MacCarty and Pipa's view are really very minimal, relative to the other contributors. However, the discussion over which day the worship ought to take place on was quite exegetically involved, as is appropriate for two views which differ in so few other respects. They are both arguing for the permanency and the persistence of the Sabbath as it is presented in the Ten Commandments. Their entire struggle is over the question of whether the command is to have a day or the (seventh) day for Sabbath rest. In the end, MacCarty ably defended the Seventh Day Adventist perspective on these matters and demonstrated that his is a view which is not to be dismissed out of hand.

Joseph Pipa: Christian Sabbath View
Joseph Pipa’s chapter set forth the view that the Sabbath is a permanent and persistent aspect of the creation. Hermeneutically speaking, the Christian Sabbath view determines what OT laws are still binding by using the threefold Civil/Ceremonial/Moral distinction and by accepting that the moral teachings of the OT are what still persist in the NT era, since the Apostles rescinded the civil/ceremonial aspects of the law in the book of Acts. According to Pipa, the Sabbath is a part of the persistent moral law, as are the other Ten Commandments. (Blomberg implies that this is legalistic/pharisaic on Pipa's part, but I see nothing legalistic about saying that one ought to obey God's revealed will.)

Although the Apostles did move the Sabbath day to Sunday, Pipa argues that since the beginning, the command was always for a day of worship. Thus, when the Apostles began to institute worship on Sundays, Pipa finds no incompatibility with the Sabbath command of the Ten Commandments. As I said, this is the point of contention between Pipa/MacCarty. Pipa holds the Puritan view as expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and quoted the Westminster to buttress the theological underpinnings of his view, but Blomberg, in his response, was put off by Pipa's repeated use of the Westminster Standards, though he mistakenly saw Pipa as depending on them when, in fact, he merely utilized them to articulate his view on Scripture's teaching.

For my own part, after reading the whole book, I came out favoring Pipa's view, though I'm a bit biased since we're both confessionally bound to Westminster. I did notice that near the end of the book, Pipa took a step a bit too far and basically accused Blomberg's view of leading towards Sabbath Day antinomianism (387). Blomberg responded violently to this, of course, calling his comments "inaccurate, unnecessary, offensive, and inappropriately polemical" (408). Blomberg is right, of course, since he does see Scriptural commands for weekly worship, though he doesn't equate Sabbath commands with commands to worship. This conflict was the only area of this volume where one detected even a hint of animus, however.

Charles Arand: Luther's Radical Reading of the Sabbath
Charles Arand’s chapter defending the Lutheran view was, in some ways, the odd one out. While the other contributors chose a more textually oriented and exegetical approach in dealing with their respective views, Arand chose a more historical theological approach. In his chapter, he helpfully discussed the historical situation regarding the Sabbath during Luther’s time. He curiously devotes at least half of his essay discussing Luther’s view of the entire Ten Commandments and then spends the remainder of the time dealing with the Sabbath Commandment in light of that. In a book devoted to Luther’s Sabbath views, such a thing would be welcome, perhaps even necessary; but I got the sense, in this volume, that Arand just ran out of space. In my opinion, there should have been less emphasis on the broader commandments as a whole in Arand’s chapter and more emphasis on NT teachings about the Sabbath, since I sensed that to be an area which needed more fleshing out.

The Lutheran view sees the Ten Commandments as ultimately reducing to one ("You shall have no other Gods"), and sees them as being specifically for the Jews in the form they were presented, although for Luther, a day of rest ought to be observed for devotion to the Word. Curiously (and MacCarty points this out in his response), Luther appears to have, in the name of Christian liberty, repealed the Sabbath, but then, in very strong terms, condemned those who did not participate in it. Whatever one might say about the Lutheran view, I didn't really feel like I got it. Arand's approach got in the way of his view, in my opinion.

Craig Blomberg: The Sabbath as Fulfilled In Christ
Craig Blomberg, finally, presents the “fulfilled Sabbath” view, which argues that Christ has "fulfilled" (read: transformed) the Sabbath and therefore reads the commandments through a filter of sorts, using Christ's New Testament teaching as a guide for what aspects of the OT are still valid in the NT. His hermeneutic says that an Old Testament law is still applicable if it is taught again in the New Testament. He is clear that the Sabbath is valid for Christians today, but that it is a spiritualized Sabbath that does not look at all like Sabbatarianism. The following statement fairly summarizes Blomberg’s take on things, after running the Sabbath through his NT framework:
We obey the Sabbath commandment of the Decalogue as we spiritually rest in Christ, letting Him bear our burdens, trusting for salvation and committing our lives to Him in service, and then remaining faithful in lifelong loyalty to Him rather than committing apostasy (351).
So we see that for Blomberg, the NT application is much more of a spiritualized version of the Sabbath. While Blomberg writes very well and very persuasively, I perceive a great weakness in Blomberg's overall view, and that is a lack of systematic coherence. By eschewing, as he sees it, both Covenant theology and Dispensationalism (though he says he leans more Covenant), he is left with a less systematic approach than the Adventist, Lutheran, and Reformed perspectives. He seems to admit as much in his concluding response to the other three:
My goal, at least, is always to let scriptural exegesis more than presuppositions, 'functional nonnegotiables,' or theological traditions determine my conclusions. And if that leaves me with a disparate conglomeration of beliefs on a variety of topics that don’t easily fit one well-known and existing label or branch of historical theology, then so be it (409).
If you are like me and value historical pedigree and overall systematic approaches to theology, then you may follow me in leaning away from Blomberg's clear and well-stated fulfillment view. One text which Blomberg's view hinges on is Colossians 2:16, which is a very difficult text for Sabbatarians of all stripes. It's texts like these that the reader will have to meditate on and study long after they are done reading this volume.

After reading the whole book, I went back to the editor's introduction, and I want to share one section, because Chris Donato sums up my overall impression quite well:
[T]he Sabbath...serves as a microcosm of much larger questions fundamental to the nature of the worshipping community of Christ itself. Hermeneutical presuppositions and the covenantal (dis)continuity of God’s redemptive plan, among a great many other elements, are at once exposed when discussing this question (3).
It's really the strength of a book like Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views that in one succinct volume most of the issues related to the topic have been laid out neatly so that the undecided reader knows what it is he needs to study on his own time in order to grasp the issues that are at stake. At the end of the day, this is a rewarding, scholarly book about hermeneutics in action that will stick with you long after you've physically read it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New Christian Cliche: "Monopoly on Truth"

I was reading a blog this morning where the author was broadly lamenting how clumsy the Reformed response was to Rob Bell's book from earlier this year. In the comments section, someone named Rob Auld commented: "Maybe we should be less certain we have the monopoly on truth, then the books wouldn't be a big deal." This is just such an ignorant thing to say that I had to respond. (Aside from the incomprehensibility of being "less certain" about truth.) And let me also quickly insert that this "monopoly on truth" phrase which keeps getting pulled out is becoming such a meme in the Christian world that it may actually surpass "my smokin' hot wife" as most annoying thing out there. So what follows was my response to him. I wrote enough that I thought it was worth sharing here:

Rob, this phrase "monopoly on truth" is a worn out cliche. It's becoming meaningless because it ultimately represents skepticism even about ourselves. Everyone believes they have a monopoly on truth, or else they don't really believe what they're saying. Yes, Rob, even you in your above quote. Just for effect, let me throw in a little Chesterton:
At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual helplessness which is our second problem.
And let me suggest that this same intellectual helplessness is endemic in modern Protestant Christianity today, as well. We've made a virtue out of being able to sentimentally say, "I don't really know, and that make me humble." But we're too skeptical to know whether humility is really virtuous. Either own your beliefs, Rob, or don't. But if you don't think it's true, then don't waste someone's time by saying it out loud.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

VanDrunen on the Continuing Applicability of the Mosaic Civil Code

In his magnificent volume Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, David VanDrunen spends the fifth chapter of his book examining the view of men during the time of high orthodoxy like Turretin and Rutherford regarding the natural law and its relationship to the Mosaic civil law. One argument that VanDrunen spends a great deal of time substantiating is that the orthodox Reformed theologians saw the civil law as remaining in effect insofar as it conformed to the Natural Law. At one point, Turretin even says that (in VanDrunen's words) "equity is the mind of the law as well as the aim, rule, and end of all law." Then, in Turretin's words, "the law of nature (the fountain of all other laws, because it is the most equitable) is also the most majestic" (Institutes 2.137-138). I quote these words with an eye on our contemporary environment where, especially those who have been influenced by Van Til (and I count myself among them, to a degree) by and large tend to reject Natural Law.

In VanDrunen's conclusion in this section, he discusses how we ought to understand the reference to equity in WCF 19.4, which reads as follows:
To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
Here is the conclusion VanDrunen reaches:
In light of this evidence, I suggest that the most plausible reading of WCF 19.4 [with regard to its reference to equity] concurs with the general sentiments of the Reformed orthodox writers being studied in this chapter. The civil or judicial law of Moses has been abrogated in the coming of Christ, yet has continuing applicability insofar as it reflects the natural law. For Reformed orthodoxy, as for the Reformation and medieval traditions of the past, civil magistrates ought not to impose the Mosaic civil law as such upon contemporary societies. Yet at times they will implement Mosaic civil laws, not because they are Mosaic laws, but because they are particular applications of the natural law still appropriate under present circumstances. (p. 170-171)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Living as an Ex-Suicide

Walker Percy, writing in 1980, penned the following words:
The fact is that, by virtue of its peculiar relationship to the world, to others, and to its own organism, the autonomous self in a modern technological society is possessed. It is possessed by the spirit of the erotic and the secret love of violence. The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages. As John Cheever said, the main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.
Some very prescient thoughts from Walker Percy in his book Lost in the Cosmos. A Roman Catholic writer, Percy not only wrote novels, but he also wrote this book - billed as a sort of farcical self-help book where he attempts to force his readers to consider themselves and their own lostness for just one moment. I love this book. I share one more paragraph which is not related, but which I have found very insightful, nevertheless.

As a minor introductory note, I have noticed that for Percy, entertaining the thought of suicide is quite important. In The Moviegoer, it is only in realizing the possibility of suicide that Kate is set free from her bondage. His book The Second Coming opens with a man who realizes how farcical the world is and hence decides to kill himself only to find liberation in the notion that suicide is always there, hovering in the background. In the paragraph (also from Lost in the Cosmos), when Percy uses the term "ex-suicide," he means someone who, like Kate, stepped to the abyss, saw the possibility, and decided life was worth living after all. Enough introduction; here is what Percy says:
The consequences of entertainable suicide? Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time in your life to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife. The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning: The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest. The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.
As one more rejoinder, lets consider the close proximity of what Percy says here and what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6 about being dead to sin and now being alive to Christ.

One Less Quiver in the Preacher's Arrow

In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark from the NIGTC series, R.T. France (on pg 430), speaking about the composition of the crowd at the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in Mark 11, points out that the crowd which praised Jesus, singing "Hosanna" is not the same crowd who would later crucify him. He bases this on the fact that the processional following Jesus to Jerusalem began in Jericho. The Greek phrase, putting their identities beyond doubt, according to France, is proagontes kai oi akolouthountes - the ones going before and the ones following. This is the same pilgrim group that has been traveling with Jesus throughout Act Two of Mark's Gospel.
There is no warrant here for the preacher's favorite comment on the fickleness of a crowd which could shout 'Hosanna' one day and 'Crucify him' a few days later. They are not the same crowd. The Galilean pilgrims shouted 'Hosanna' as they approached the city; the Jerusalem crowd shouted, 'Crucify him'.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Prooftext for the Threefold Division?

I have read and loved Philip Ross' book From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. I am now reading it through for the second time more slowly because I am helping teach a class at our church on the Ten Commandments and am finding Ross' work to be extremely helpful. I am drastically over-preparing for the class and almost certainly my leftovers and notes will become posts here at BTB in the future.

What was of interest to me was that Ross includes in the book a prooftext which Aquinas was fond of using to show that the threefold division of the law into moral, civil, and ceremonial may be more than just a helpful convention. He points to Deuteronomy 6:1:
These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.
Ross examines the three words for "decrees," "commands" and "laws" and comes to this conclusion:
...[T]he individual Hebrew words for law do not divide the law into cast-iron categories. Even so, the [sic] Deuteronomy's use of the words sometimes makes a distinction between the Decalogue and the rest of the Mosaic code. That distinction does not force the practical-theological conclusion that the Decalogue 'doth for ever bind all'. It does, however, further challenge the view that the Old Testament law was written, and always viewed, as an indivisible whole.

Lightning Storm + Rich Mullins

About a week ago a huge lightningstorm passed southeast of our house. It was a late night, and I decided to step out side to videotape the lightning. Some of you may find something pleasing about this video. I've set it to the tune of Rich Mullins' song "Calling Out Your Name" which is fitting for two reasons: (a) he makes reference to feeling "the thunder in the sky/I see the sky about to rain" which fits the video, and (b) he's from Kansas, like me, and so I always feel like he's singing about my home. I'm self-centered like that.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Three Movies That Changed My Life (Part 3)

1. The Thin Red Line

There is no other movie out there that I have triple-dipped for before except this one. I used to own it on VHS, and I wore out my copy til it became nigh unwatchable. Then I bought it on DVD and watched it too many times to count, although it bore nary a scratch because it was beloved to me. Finally, for my birthday my wife got me the Criterion Edition Blu-Ray of it (probably the greatest looking film ever seen on Blu-Ray, it is reference quality and sets the standard for all film transfers, as far as I'm concerened), and I watch it constantly. In the last six months I've owned it, I've probably watched it five or six times. I do not tire of it. I have nearly memorized every scene and every line of this movie. I have owned both discs of the soundtrack for the film and listened to them obsessively. I have purchased and read the book by James Jones which the movie was based on. I cannot say the same of any other movie. Watching it becomes a ritual for me, where I turn out the lights, pull my chair up five feet from the TV, and just get lost in the greatest film of all time. It's been my favorite since I first saw it in 1998.

I was a junior in high school. I bought an old used copy on VHS from Blockbuster. I had never seen it, but for $3 I could ignore the fact that the case for the movie was long gone. I took it home, watched it, and was mystified. I thought this was supposed to be a war movie, but instead I found an abstract exploration of sin, death, violence, and God. Holy cow, so I watched it again. The second time, I tuned the world out and became lost in the glory. A third time. It was all coming together; I was tasting something beautiful in the universe. Progressively as I've watched this film I have always gleaned something new. It's a masterpiece. A masterpiece. I'm gushing.

As a high school junior, I was way too shut up in my little town with my little sophomoric worries. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted friends. I wanted a better truck. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to go to college and become somebody - anybody. I knew there was a world out there, but it felt so far away. All I felt when I looked around me was concrete, wheat fields, closed up storefronts - reminders of a bygone time that was good and once rang of prosperity and success. This was the town I came from, and I'll never forget it because it provided the context for my delight in The Thin Red Line.

Here was a film which did not pass by on the screen, but screamed at me that there was a larger reality and that I should not identify it with myself. I became inflamed with a desire to enjoy the world, to not pass up the delights of flowers, of clouds, of the touch of a girl's hand. After watching The Thin Red Line, I knew that these things were real in more than just a "my life is a TV show" sense. I saw the universe, I saw what I had been missing, and I resolved that whether I died today or tomorrow or 50 years from now, it could not be denied that I lived.

The film injected a poetry into everyday life which I still enjoy. I will often go on a walk and remind myself to savor this moment as though it were my last. Although I have since heard this sentiment echoed by Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, and John Piper, I learned it from all of these men in the context of a post-Thin-Red-Line world. A world after I had seen this film. It became my reference point for finding the beauty in the ordinary and in the extraordinary. The film addresses specific theological matters without ever really speaking of God. The strength of what the film does is, it denies the possibility of comprehending the world apart from God, much like director Terrence Malick would later do with his potential (I haven't decided yet and won't for a decade) magnum opus The Tree of Life.

In the end, it doesn't matter if I convince you. I probably won't. Either you're one of those people who hate this movie, or you agree with me that it's a filmmaking masterpiece. Maybe you're like Gene Siskel and think it's "the greatest contemporary war film I've ever seen." In that case, I'm with you, providing you'll remove the "contemporary war" qualifier. Or maybe you're like a group of my friends I invited over to watch it with the other evening who seemed almost completely mystified by it. In that case, you still need to see it a second or third time.

In the end, I really don't care. The film made it's mark on me, and it's still making its mark on me. Yes, it really is the greatest film ever made. I'll get in a fist-fight defending that claim.

Best dialogue from The Thin Red Line:

Witt: I remember my mother when she was dyin', looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find nothin' beautiful or uplifting about her goin' back to God. I heard of people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it. I wondered how it'd be like when I died, what it'd be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same... calm. 'Cause that's where it's hidden - the immortality I hadn't seen.

Welsh: In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.

Storm: I look at that boy dyin', I don't feel nothin'. I don't care about nothin' anymore.
Welsh: Sounds like bliss.

Witt: We were a family. How'd it break up and come apart, so that now we're turned against each other? Each standing in the other's light. How'd we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What's keepin' us from reaching out, touching the glory?

Train: Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.

Witt: Do you ever feel lonely?
Welsh: Only around people.

Welsh: There's only one thing a man can do - find something that's his, and make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack; a glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.

Bell: Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.

Train: What is this great evil? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of light and life. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.

Bell: Why should I be afraid to die? I belong to you. If I go first, I'll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters. Be with me now.

Witt: War don't ennoble men. It turns them into dogs... poisons the soul.

Pushing Yourself to the Next Level

I want to do a plug for one of my favorite blogs on the net. It's called The Art of Manliness, and if you don't read this blog, then you are missing out. They inspired me to do the following things over the last few months:
This may be as close to an inspirational post as I'll ever share because normally that sort of stuff is sappy, sentimental, and very me-focused. However, this post from AOM has some very helpful advice, even for would-be theologians or pastors. What is it that makes us plateau and keeps us from getting better?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Turretin: Natural Law is from God

"[T]here is a natural law, not arising from a voluntary contract of law of society, but from a divine obligation being impressed by God upon the conscience of man in his very creation, on which the difference between right and wrong is founded and which contains the practical principles of immovable truth (such as: 'God should be worshipped,' 'parents honored,' 'we should live virtuousy,' 'injure no one,' 'do to others what we would wish them to do to us' and the like). Also that so many remains and evidences of the law are still left in our nature (although it has been in different ways corrupted and obscured by sin) that there is no mortal who cannot feel its force either more or less."

-Turretin's Institutes 2.3

The Professional Book Review: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is a book that I have been aware of for years, ever since learning that Terrence Malick at one time wanted to adapt the book to film. Percy was a Catholic (why do Catholics get all the good modern fiction writers?), and I have to agree with my friend the Christian Curmudgeon: I really hope Percy is one of those Catholics I will meet in Heaven someday.

Having spent the last week reading it, I feel in many respects reproved by the book and simultaneously broken open by it. This is a book I wish I had written. In a lot of ways it represents a conglomeration of my own fears on the modern malaise which I see in myself and in others. Putting it all into words is difficult because in so doing, none of the book or its ideas are done proper justice; nevertheless, I shall try.

The book is, at its core, written in the first person as a letter to a friend recounting approximately a week in the life of one man. This narrative becomes an exploration of mankind's complete disconnectedness with his world, with other people, at least with regard to anything beyond surface-level existence. There is a numbness to mankind which is exemplified in the person of Percy's protagonist, Binx Bolling. Binx goes through life living externally (see my previous review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes - there is in my mind a correlation between the externalized, soulless behavior of the apes and the shallow interior life of Binx). He thinks alot but never draws the connection between the ontological reality of the things he sees and the objects that appear before his eyes. He's not a genius, but he likes to look around and observe. He enjoys making money, going to movies by himself, and spending lots of time with women. He is an atheist and doesn't understand the idea of God:
My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God. The proofs of God’s existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn’t make the slightest difference. If God himself had appeared to me, it would have changed nothing. In fact, I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head. My father’s family think that the world makes sense without God and that anyone but an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it. I don’t know what either of them are talking about.
Clearly, Binx is aware of his problem, and he sees it all around him - a humanity too numb and disconnected to really care about anything.
They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian’s life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human...
It is difficult to express just how clearly and tangibly I also see what Binx is talking about. This malaise almost seems to be a problem unique to our own time, where all of life is seen through screens and images. I have often driven down the highway with my sunglasses on and had it occur to me, "This is just like Steve McQueen or Tom Cruise." We interpret our lives through images and even the imagining of images. Even our thoughts come in snippets - which is why I quit Facebook. I was tired of constantly thinking up my next sentence to share on the social network.

At one point he discusses the fact that it is only pain and death which seem to shake us from our sleep. He is walking with Kate one night and has the following conversation:
Now in the shadow of the camphor tree she stops suddenly, takes my arm in both hands. “Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real? I remember at the time of the wreck—people were so kind and helpful and solid. Everyone pretended that our lives until that moment had been every bit as real as the moment itself and that the future must be real too, when the truth was that our reality had been purchased only by Lyell’s death. In another hour or so we had all faded out again and gone our dim ways.”
Binx is interested in things - even controversial subjects like politics, but he is unwilling to insert himself into the subject or to take a stand on anything.
Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other.
Bolling himself settles for the little pleasures in life that he can find, and seems content to merely reckon himself a spectator. In one of my favorite sections, we see this sentiment expressed and also get a flavor for Percy's beautiful prose style:
Yet loves revives as we spin homewards along the coast through the early evening. Joy and sadness come by turns, I know now. Beauty and bravery make you sad, Sharon’s beauty and my aunt’s bravery, and victory breaks your heart. But life goes on and on we go, spinning along the coast in a violet light, past Howard Johnson’s and the motels and the children’s carnival. We pull into a bay and have a drink under the stars. It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.
Binx lives to eat, drink, and be merry. However, he can talk about religions of all kinds with everyone. By all accounts he appears to be a deep thinker. He is not a shallow person, but he is stuck thinking in superficial categories and looking at people almost as if they are not there.

The last chapter of the book may be my favorite chapter of any book ever. It begins with Binx's aunt excoriating him because she has realized how untrustworthy, dishonorable, and disconnected from life he really is. I offer an extended quote from her because its such a beautiful cultural analysis:
Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will be remembered not for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever. No prostitute ever responded with a quicker spasm of sentiment when our hearts are touched. Nor is there anything new about thievery, lewdness, lying, adultery. What is new is that in our time liars and thieves and whores and adulterers wish also to be congratulated and are congratulated by the great public, if their confession is sufficiently psychological or strikes a sufficiently heartfelt and authentic note of sincerity. Oh, we are sincere. I do not deny it. I don’t know anybody nowadays who is not sincere. Didi Lovell is the most sincere person I know: every time she crawls in bed with somebody else, she does so with the utmost sincerity. We are the most sincere Laodiceans who ever got flushed down the sinkhole of history. No, my young friend, I am not ashamed to use the word class. They say out there we think we’re better. You’re damn right we’re better. And don’t think they don’t know it—
Percy repeatedly quashes modern sentimentality. More than once, this subject comes up. What is it that Binx notices about the Presbyterians? They're nice. They're always so nice; they're such nice people. That's what he remembers about them. One gets the sense that Percy does not really think this is what one should be remembered for. As I mentioned before, Binx is aware of these existential problems, but feels in a sense helplessness - despair - at his situation. In his dreamier moments, he thinks of a possibility of what might rescue humanity - maybe shake them loose so that they can really find themselves.
Is it possible that—For a long time I have secretly hoped for the end of the world and believed with Kate and my aunt and Sam Yerger and many other people that only after the end could the few who survive creep out of their holes and discover themselves to be themselves and live as merrily as children among the viny ruins. Is it possible that—it is not too late?
He doesn't really learn his lesson of course, or discover a path out of his predicament.
“What do you plan to do?” I shrug. There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.
It becomes increasingly clear that Binx is still a victim of a dark despair from which he only believes that violence will release humanity. [Warning: Some profanity in the next paragraph]
Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde When I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
In the last paragraph of the book, Binx sits in a church parking lot waiting for his fiancee Kate to emerge from religious services. As he's waiting he sees a man getting out of his car and heading into the church.
I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say.
I've never connected so much with a book before. Honestly, I am cut from the same cloth as Binx Bolling. I feel the shallowness all around me - I swim in it and breathe it in and out all day long. I am just as lost in the numb haze as Binx Bolling.

We come to that overarching metaphysical question which weighs upon Binx's readers - is there escape? Is it possible that the bomb has dropped? Is it possible that we can be shaken out of our malaise and into the real human existence we were always meant for? At first I was tempted to answer that no, the bomb hasn't fallen and this malaise is just an affliction of our sinfulness. The more I think about it, though, the more I believe that the bomb did drop two thousand years ago and all of us simply need to crawl out of our holes by the grace of God and start seeing ourselves as ourselves and "living merrily as children."

Favorite One-Liners from The Moviegoer:

"My aunt likes to say she is an Episcopalian by emotion, a Greek by nature and a Buddhist by choice."

"This Midwestern sky is the nakedest loneliest sky in America. To escape it, people live inside and underground."

"As for hobbies, people with stimulating hobbies suffer from the most noxious of despairs since they are tranquillized in their despair."

[You can get an old used copy of the book delivered to your door from Amazon for $4.00 total, or delivered to your Kindle for $4.99]

Three Movies That Changed My Life (Part 2)

2. Ben-Hur
It is an epic classic and perhaps a bit too obvious of a choice for anybody's list of great films, but this film does have a special place in my heart. When I was 17 years old, Christ found me out and I became a follower of Jesus. My life was totally changed, and I saw everything differently. I'll never forget the true excitement of celebrating my first Christmas after abandoning atheism and finding the true Creator. There's just nothing replacing that period of my life.

A few months into my new life, I decided to watch Ben-Hur. I knew nothing about it. Nothing. I only knew that it had a chariot race, and that many regarded it as one of the greatest films of all time. As I watched, I became slack-jawed as I realized that this beautiful film epic was actually a movie about Jesus. I really couldn't believe it.

As I watched this story of revenge unfold before me, I was thrilled by its epic quality, blown away by Charleton Heston's voice, and moved by the tale I was seeing. The scene where Ben-Hur falls to the ground because the Romans will not give him a drink, you feel true despair and empathetic thirst. But when Jesus comes and he drinks deeply from Christ's cup you not only feel the symbolism, you sense that Jesus is the only one in this crazy, cruel story who really brings any hope. I still shake tearfully when I watch that scene. But Christ seems so peripheral to the story that you almost wonder if the subtitle "A tale of the Christ" is really appropriate. But of course you'd be wrong.

You really feel that if only Judah Ben-Hur could have his revenge, everything really would be solved. And those around Ben-Hur feel it too. At one point, Ester says to Judah, "It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of him? You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is turning you to stone. It is as though you had become Messala!"

In this sense this film really is the anti-Gladiator. Whereas revenge satisfies Maximus (not for long, of course), Judah is a bit too thoughtful to settle for spilling his enemy's blood. He tries it at first, to be sure, but it is an empty and shallow victory. Once revenge is taken and you think that a resolution has been found, the movie keeps going. We soon see that Ben-Hur has no peace. In one of my favorite lines from any movie, Judah Ben-Hur takes a drink from a river and says, "When the Romans were marching me to the galleys, thirst had almost killed me. A man gave me water to drink, and I went on living. I should have done better if I'd poured it into the sand...I'm thirsty still."

The fact that Ben-Hur only finds peace by encountering the crucified Lord felt like the most truthful conclusion of any movie I've ever seen. Many times we get a taste of the truth, but it felt like Ben-Hur gave us the whole truth. In one sense, what more could you ask for from any movie?

The movie is filled with beautiful lines. During Christ's crucifixion Balthasar says, "I have lived too long." At one point, Ben-Hur's leprous mother and sister are leaving their cave and Miriam says, "I'm afraid," to which Esther replies, "No cause. The world is more than we know." In another line which still brings tears to my eyes, Christ is passing Ben-Hur carrying the cross to which Ben-Hur says, "I know this man!" I don't know why that line gets me, but it does every time.

Ultimately, this film made a tremendous impression on me at a very important time in my life, just like the other two movies on this list. I was encouraged in my discipleship by it, I was convinced that only Jesus brought real and lasting peace to the wounded heart, and most importantly, I glorified Jesus as I watched it and whenever I remember it. I always appreciated that they never showed Jesus face as well, although it's hard to deny that their Jesus looks an awful lot like a western european non-Jew.

In the end, finding the movies that will make the most impact on us are a crap-shoot. You don't really know until a century passes what has and hasn't affected the way you think and how you process the things you encounter in life. A friend asked me if The Tree of Life was my new favorite movie and all I could say was, "I'll tell you in ten years."

Coming tomorrow: My favorite movie of all time and the one film that has had the greatest impact on my life.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Life Used to be Nearly Perfect

As should be evident from my last post, I've been in a nostalgic mood lately. I just had to share this video from 1991 (I was 9 years old) which some of you may get a kick out of. Notice that whereas today we have rioting, looting, and murdering in the streets, life used to be so much better. Just look at this video where the biggest problem facing parents is children who needed therapy for having become "Ninten-pendent." I only wish my writing was good enough to get across the tongue-in-cheeky-ness of the last two sentences.

Three Movies That Changed My Life (Part 1)

Three Movies That Changed My Life

I know it sounds like a bold claim - the kind of claim somebody only makes about something they're trying to sell and they know you don't want. But in the case of the three movies that we will discuss over the next few days, it's all true. You see, I watched them as a teenager, and frankly they changed the way that I saw the world and well, I still love them. What I want to do is discuss them, talk about what made them so wonderful, and maybe address what it was about the films that made such an impression on me.

3. Blade Runner
I was 15 years old, shopping in the "city" away from my small town where I grew up. While going through the video store I saw Blade Runner on VHS and bought it on a whim. (Seriously, what were they doing selling an R-rated movie to a 15 year old!?) $25 was a sick price to pay, and I have no idea why I bought it, but I did. All my friends were annoyed that there was a black bar at the top and bottom of the screen - they'd never seen a movie with that before. I tried telling them that we were seeing more of the film, but they didn't care - they wanted the picture to fill the screen.

What struck me most deeply about Blade Runner was the fantastically dirty and "used" feeling that Ridley Scott's future of 2019 had. For me, the film was all about atmosphere. I still love the shot of the futuristic chinatown with the flying cars, and I could watch the opening scene with the landscape of LA, the fire rising from the refineries, and the flaming eye over and over again. I was captivated by the idea that a robot could possibly be a person and for a short while I obsessed over finding a way to "know" beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not a robot. I had inadvertently picked the director's cut of the movie and so had no idea that there was ever a "happy ending" to this movie. When I finally saw the happy ending (with the atrocious voice-over delivered maliciously by an unenthusiastic Harrison Ford) I was so glad that I hadn't seen the theatrical version first. If I had, I'd probably never have fallen in love with the dank, wet, neon landscape of noire Los Angeles, 2019.

After seeing the film, I purchased the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and read it through (twice, I think). I played the PC game through at least three times. It barely ran on my Hewlett Packard 133MHz Pentium. I bought the soundtrack at a Premium and became infatuated with the electronic music of Vangelis. His music transported me to neon cityscapes of unimaginable beauty. Never mind that they weren't real - as I sat in my basement bedroom in my boring small town, I traveled to amazing places because of Vangelis.

A few years later I got a DVD player and along with it my first DVD copy of Blade Runner. Finally, when I made the move to HD, Blade Runner: The Final Cut was the first movie I purchased on Blu-Ray. All in all, it's hard to imagine what kind of a person I would be if I hadn't seen Blade Runner. I know it's an outrageous claim, but it is a fact that my imagination has been greatly stimulated and inspired by this film. On top of all that, and most importantly, it brought me the earliest sparks of philosophical self-reflection which eventually drove me to Christ. Until I pondered my own existence because of the existential questions that I struggled over after seeing this movie, I was a fairly shallow (though I remained consistently self-absorbed) young man. It helped make me the man I am today.

A few years ago I found out that Harrison Ford hated making this movie - that he was miserable during the whole shoot and that he would never work with Ridley Scott again after his experience. I found it so unbelievable that I still refuse to accept it as truth. Frankly, how could anyone be miserable, having been in the coolest, awesomest, deepest, most imaginative movie ever made!?

So that's the third most influential movie in my life. Tomorrow, we'll talk about number two.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Generation of Barbarians?

Robert Bork once famously said that the next invading barbarian army would be populated by our own children. Such a notion really doesn't seem so outlandish in the light of the increased riots perpetuated by the young, bored, immature generation of monsters that occupy large swaths of society (and evidently, especially English society) all over the world.

I don't mean to be alarmist, but it sort of appears that the barbarian invasion of England has begun, and my guess is that this generation of bored, violent, impulsive youngsters is not going away any time soon. I want to highly recommend this article from the UK Daily Mail by Max Hastings. You may not agree with everything in the article, but there is no question that Hastings has his finger on something here. The truth is, if I hadn't read this article this evening, I probably would have typed out something similar at a furious pace.

While you're at it, it wouldn't hurt to read this pessimistic little article from the Christian Research Journal from a few years ago.

I just want to make one observation as well, from a Natural Law perspective. Reading this article from Max Hastings causes me to reflect that all men - secular or religious - know that what is happening the world over is wrong. They can see that children have been raised to think of themselves as impulsive animals and responsible to no one, and now the price is being paid by society.

[An additional article that I would recommend is by Mike Ovey. Another one by Scott Stinson is quite unsettling, as well.]

The Unprofessional Book Review: Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

Erik Larson's books are great. I've read his Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts and they're all wonderful historical narratives. Although Isaac's Storm is not the greatest thing he's ever written, it is a tremendously moving and at times horrifying tale about the most destructive hurricane to ever strike the United States. The tale takes place in Galveston, Texas in 1900 and follows Isaac Monroe - a meteorologist for the newly budded National Weather Service as he comes to grips with the barometer readings and all that scientific stuff. Once he realizes he is dealing with a full-on hurricane, it is too late for the residents of Galveston. In the end, nearly 8,000 people were killed by this hurricane, making New Orleans and 9/11 combined look like child's play. It was (and still is) the deadliest storm in the history of the United States.

Isaac himself lost his wife and baby to the storm and it is gut-wrenching to follow him as he seeks to find her body, confirming for sure that she is actually dead. Isaac was changed forever by this storm and devoted the rest of his life to the study of hurricanes. It was in this respect that I was most affected by what I read as I saw Isaac move from being a scientist to being a man, drawn into the painful reality that weather is not merely something to be studied - it is to be respected.

I think that we in the Church - and especially those in places of leadership - have something profound to learn from this aspect of Isaac's experience.

I have been planning all week to speak to our church's high schoolers about the subject of Christology. Specifically I've been preparing to talk about Jesus' being one person with two natures and about the heresies of the past who have denied or confused these truths. I am convinced these are important things to discuss, and I feel deeply that if all the Gospel hangs on the reality of who Jesus really is, then we will recognize and live in the reality that Christology is not a merely academic pursuit. In truth, I composed the lesson like a scientist preparing to talk about amino acids and DNA. In this context, listen to this moving passage which I think forms the heart of Larson's narrative:
There were dreams. Isaac fell asleep easily each night and dreamed of happy times, only to wake to gloom and grief. He dreamed that he had saved her. He dreamed of the lost baby...During the week he worked on his official report on the storm. Psychically, it was a difficult task. His wife was still missing. The air stank of rotting flesh and burned hair. Always in the past he had been able to separate himself from the meteorological events he described...He was the observer looking upon these phenomena through glass. But this storm had dragged him to its heart and changed his life forever.
Carl Trueman is right - boring preachers should get out of the ministry. But maybe this is why we have so many boring preachers - and why I ought to be terrified of being one of them. If Christ is a hurricane, then the reason why we write and preach so disconnectedly is that we've never been ravaged by him. We've never been taken to the eye and watched the light waves transform as He passes over us. We have never lost family or life or home to the hurricane because it has never been asked of us and we have never offered them up. Many of us have watched through a glass from afar, and I am guilty, myself of often coming to God as a spectator and not a participant. The irony is that I am always teaching the youth of our church that theology is not a scientific or mathematic enterprise where we approach God much as a coroner about to do an autopsy, dispassionately listing off observations into his tape recorder. I frequently warn that theology for its own sake is a devil's doctrine - we must do it, not because we're in need of facts, but because we need God!

I'm teaching the youth tonight, and I'm praying that I will remember the hurricane while I speak to them.

[You can get Isaac's Storm from Amazon for just over $4 used, delivered to your door. Not bad.]

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bishop Mark Driscoll

It was announced yesterday that Mars Hill Church in Seattle will no longer have campuses. They will now call them "churches." You know what this means now, of course - Say hello to Bishop Mark Driscoll!

In all seriousness, it makes no sense to me for churches who follow a congregational model to adopt what is, in essence, an episcopal form of church government - minus the pageantry. Hopefully the picture isn't taken as being too inflamatory. All in good fun, I say! Go ahead and put up a picture of Ligon Duncan in a J. Crew polo with the collars turned up; won't bother me in the least!

Isaac Asimov - Expert Hermeneutist

"Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived." -Isaac Asimov
What Asimov is really saying is that the Bible, read the way which he defines as proper, is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.

Ooh wait, I have an idea. We can apply these literary methods consistently, I believe: (*ahem*)
"Isaac Asimov's novels, properly read, are the most potent force for Ludditism ever conceived." -Adam Parker
If you read them "properly," of course. That's the key.

Planet of the Apes: Does Ape + Intelligence = Person?

This is not a movie review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I'll skip past all of that typical review stuff where I recount the plot of the story, because the trailer [above] really does a pretty good job of outlining the story. I will only say that a few months ago when I saw the trailer I seriously thought this would be the worst movie of the whole summer. In my arrogant way, I thought I knew a stink bomb when I saw it; but I was wrong. Far from it, Planet of the Apes is a great, great, great movie. Not Tree of Life great, but maybe The Dark Knight great. Go see it. It's probably my favorite thing that's happened all summer - and that includes the conclusion of Harry Potter.

What I want to point out is not what this movie says about humans or monkeys, but what people will think this movie says about personhood. As you watch this movie, you relate to the main Chimpanzee, Caesar. You watch him grow, you relate to him, you empathize with him; I even shed a tear when he spoke his first word. (A moment not to be lost, I heard exclamations from people all over the theatre in the moment after it happened.) You sense the personhood coming through in the movie, because the CG and motion capture and just the technology in general is so advanced. In the end, I believe that Caesar, for all intents and purposes would be judged by your average viewer to most certainly qualify as a person. Even I, sitting there, was thinking, "That ape is a person!"

And here's where the important part comes in. What does this say about our conception of what a person is? In the film, the only thing that happens to the apes is that they become more intelligent - super intelligent. That's it, and suddenly they become persons. And so that's where the conversation needs to take place, I think. Just as in secularism, the solution is simply education and knowledge. If only those two things could occur, the secularist thinks, then the problems of the world and the ills which beset humanity could be cured. (Read G.K. Chesterton if you want to see this vision of secular salvation lampooned.) Many will come away from this movie reflecting on the notion of personhood and personality and the mistaken impression they will come away with is the idea that all it takes is intelligence and any animal can rise to the level of personhood.

I remember a few years ago hearing the story of Lucy Temerlin. Lucy grew up in a human home and was raised like any human child with one exception - she wasn't human, she was an ape. She grew to cook for herself, speak sign language, befriend her owners - she even grew to only be sexually attracted to humans. Her story reminded me a great deal of Caesar's storyline in the film - in fact, I kept thinking of Lucy almost the entire time I was watching Apes. Anyway, Lucy's story was tragic and saddening. As she grew, it became apparent that she was too strong to live with the humans, but she hadn't the slightest idea how to relate with other apes - in fact, they terrified her. She thought they were some kind of monsters. She grew to live in this intermediate state where she had the semblance of human emotions and pathos, she appeared to be a person, and yet self-reflection always seemed to be just a step beyond her. Eventually, Lucy was sent to an animal reserve where she never really belonged. Her hair fell out, she became malnourished, she didn't know how to care for herself or hunt for food. Years later, Lucy was found dead in the ape reserve.

[If you want to know more, Act Two of episode 401 of This American Life deals with the tale more in depth]

After I first heard this story, it occurred to me immediately that this was a creature who was taught to go through the externals of personhood. Shake hands. Make tea. Don't poop in the living room. Hug your owner. Communicate what you're thinking. Wear people clothes.

All of these things are wholly remarkable, if for no other reason than the fact that these behaviors are all unheard of to most of us. We hear these things and we think, "Well of course they're persons! They do all the things that we do!" Such a response shows what a shallow notion of personhood we really have. What an externalistic way of defining personhood! What is it - what is the one ingredient that Lucy was missing? Why did she always seem to be one step from finding the glory and being at peace? It's the soul. It's the one component that modern man desires to discard from the equation because even if he does like to think that man has one, he also wants to think that animals have them too. Christians often buy into this line of thinking as well. Just do a Google search for "Do animals have" and see how Google completes your entry.

In the end, even Christians are all too quick to think that if an animal shows affection or emotion or shows itself to be extremely intelligent, then it must be some sort or person. Or maybe, just maybe, if my terrier cuddles with me while I watch Mike & Molly, then nobody can tell me that my dog doesn't have a soul. Christians seem reticent to offer a direct answer to this. And maybe this is very unpastoral of me, but it's time we cease tiptoeing around animal lovers' feelings on this subject, and say point blank: your animal doesn't have a soul. It may be special, and it may be cuddly, and it may even have emotions. But just like Lucy, and just like Caesar, they will never be a "living soul" like man is, created uniquely by God Himself and endowed with God's image, no matter how intelligent any animal becomes - terrier or ape - they will always be bound to external behaviors which do not proceed from a living soul.

If there is one thing which I think Planet of the Apes will do, it is provoke debates and questions about personhood. But as Christians, lets be careful to realize that the movie teaches us nothing about men or apes - it tells us everything about what we think of men and apes.