Sunday, May 20, 2018

That moment when you realize you're an idiot.

Have you ever had one of those “aha!” moments in which an aspect of your own behavior you had thought wise is revealed to be utterly foolish?

Having preached on wisdom this morning from Proverbs 2, this is a particularly embarrassing “aha.” More like an “oops.” Or perhaps a “well, duh!” Maybe even a “you bonehead!”

‘Twill be a bit complicated to unwind this thing, so bear with me. It’s about my books [I write books you’ve never heard of, okay?]. It’s about trusting in the Lord, or rather, misplaced trust. No, I must be honest here: it’s about sheer, fire-engine red, fog-horn-blasting stupidity. On my part.

Maybe I’d better back up and start over. I write books. I like to write. I write great stories [just ask me—I’ll tell you]. But I hate marketing. So I figured to be religious about this marketing business: “If the Lord wants my books to sell, He’ll make it happen.” Sounds very spiritual, doesn’t it? Sounds like real confidence in the Lord, right? It’s super-spiritual, wise serenity, right?

Well, yeah. Of course it is  . . . At least, it sounds that way.

Until we apply that logic elsewhere. Allow me to demonstrate:
“If the Lord wants this field to grow my crops, He’ll plant the seed.”
“If the Lord wants me to pay my bills, He’ll bring in the money whether or not I work.”
“If the Lord wants me to be a marathon runner, He’ll give me the cardio, the leg muscles, and the absolute foolishness [wait, I didn’t actually say that, did I?] to run 26.2 miles. [Don’t forget the point two, otherwise you ain’t crossin’ that finish line, Bubba.]

We pause now for theological identification . . .

The theology in the prior paragraph is known as Keswick theology, and is usually identified by the mantra “let go and let God.” While there is a time and place in which that saying has good credibility (such as, I’m going to let go of my dream of a pain-free life, and let God work through me even in the midst of my suffering), in most cases it winds up meaning, “I’m going to stop sweating it and sit back in my rocker and let God sanctify me.” The problem is that many purveyors of this theology forget to ever get out of the rocker, i.e. they missed the memo that said, “DISCIPLINE thyself to godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).

We now resume our normal programming . . .

So, there I was, letting go and letting God, trusting Him to not only cause the growth but cultivate and plant the ground as well. I have been doing NOTHING at all about marketing these six excellent stories I have written. It finally struck me the other day that though I profess the biblical view of sanctification, when it came to my books I am a functional Keswicker [is that even a word?].

That’s gonna change. I still HATE MARKETING. But I see now that I need to work hard at it, and THEN trust the Lord for the results. So for the near future, there’s gonna be less writing and more marketing. [Sigh. I really, really don’t like marketing . . .]

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review of Thomas Howard's Chance or the Dance

A garden of delight is the little book (136 pages) titled “Chance or the Dance, A Critique of ModernSecularism,” by Thomas Howard. Although the topic is serious, the writing is Lewis-like, almost whimsical, and very enjoyable.

The thesis of the author is that a new myth (“if you can’t measure it, it does not exist”) has replaced the old myth (angels, demons, gods, heaven, hell); and with that changing of myth has come a necessary alteration of significance. Under the old myth, everything means everything: the patterns and rhythms and images of everyday humdrum existence all point to an Ultimate Reality—they all mean something. Conversely, under the new myth nothing means anything: everything is the product of random chance, the fortuitous collocation of molecules and atoms and therefore the very concept of meaning or significance is an impossibility.

The book is not a philosophical tome by any means – the writer eschews jargon and uses garden-variety experiences and objects (wherein is the whimsy) – lunch, acorns, soup cans, dishrags – to assert his argument (lurking behind it all I sense he is drawing allusions to Plato’s forms). But it’s not a book to exhaust the reader with mental gymnastics – his points are simple. He also draws richly from the world of art, literature, movies, poetry, etc, to make his case.

Do not be fooled: this is not a book for skimming. He builds the wall of his argument a brick at a time and if you skim you’ll wind up missing bricks here and there. Pay close attention to the first two chapters where he lays out his ideas of the old/new myths, the notion of form and content, and imaging/imagination. These are matters Howard uses constantly throughout the book, and you’ll want to note well what he means by them.

Like Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, Howard comes from the tradition of Anglo-Catholic philosopher/writers. If there’s a bone I have to pick with this excellent and clear-minded tradition it is the exaltation of reason to an excessive height, often putting God at the wrong end of the microscope and making Him the object upon which we exercise our rationality, rather than seeing God as the author of a rationality to which He himself is not subject. This tradition often overlooks the darkness which sin has imposed on our ability to think rationally. In any case, you’ll enjoy Howard’s exquisitely precise argument that comes wrapped in the clothes of everyday life.

Howard only intimates but does not state the ultimate point of his book. He suggests rather than proclaims. As a reader who knows the Ultimate Reality behind the images, I found this to be a little frustrating, something like listening to a truncated rendition of a glorious piece of music. The conductor, coming to the finale of a bravura performance of a gorgeous symphony, waves the orchestra to silence and neglects the the final page. The music hangs in the air, begging for its crescendo. But that is just the sort of subtlety that defines all the pages of this little volume—Howard leaves the reader to connect the final, obvious dots. Perhaps, in the end, that is part of its appeal.

That resolution does come (in the edition that I read) in the afterword by Tyler Blanski. One might accuse Blanski of stating the obvious, but in four pages he does it well. Many readers of this book might be muddling about in darkness. Connecting the lines to the final dots might be asking too much. Blanski marks the path clearly for those wearing the opaque glasses of secularism.

Five stars to Howard’s Chance or the Dance; it is a relentlessly more powerful apologetic than citing facts, figures, and statistics.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of Michael D. Aeschliman’s The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism

While neither Aeschliman, nor the philosophers he quotes, possess Lewis' happy ability to clothe complex philosophical notions in the lingo of common man, nonetheless his defense of Lewis' concern about scientism is well done. Aeschliman describes scientism as a misuse of science that asserts "what is not in principle observable is not in fact in existence."

This is an excellent book for exposing the inherent contradictions in philosophical materialism. Reducing man to an object of study is fatally contradictory, because, as Aeschliman points out, the realm of scientific theory is limited to objects lower than man. But when man the observer of man the object assumes that one is higher and the other lower, it is but a short distance from there to the idea that the proper end of science is the manipulation of some men by others for the sake of maximum utility. Man becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Brute facts having triumphed over values (the former being seen as objective and real, the latter as merely subjective), there is no longer any wisdom (what Aeschliman terms sapientia) to govern the use of technology--it may be as readily employed in eugenics or nuclear war as it is in delivering water to an African village.

“Modern scientistic doctrine," Aeschliman says, "holds all fact to be objective and all value to be subjective. To call it a ‘doctrine’ is to draw attention to the fact that its characteristic assumption that only factual statements have validity is itself nonfactual, speculative, and dogmatic; it is, in fact, a diabolically ironic article of faith” [74].

Note well: the book is not anti-science; rather it is a call for science to once again be the handmaiden of wisdom: the recognition that there are ultimate values that define right and wrong, anchored in God Himself. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review of Joseph Ellis, The Quartet

At the close of the Revolutionary War Americans tended to view themselves as citizens of sovereign states that were organized into a loose cooperative, not as citizens of a new nation composed of united states. That understanding was codified into the Articles of Confederation. Any hint of a united nation was anathema to the colonists-turned-revolutionaries: that sort of unity smelled like the monarchy they’d just spent precious blood and treasure to escape. Nationhood was the farthest thing from their mind, something viewed with suspicion, not favor.

It was the prescient knowledge of the “quartet,” the four uniquely talented patriots of whom Ellis writes that foresaw coming disaster if the thirteen states failed to unite firmly into a national government worthy of the name. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was called by the Confederation Congress to correct the deficiencies of the Articles that had by this time become glaringly obvious. These four men, with the help of several others, hijacked the Convention and wrote a wholly new constitution. Their action—which went far beyond the commission granted by Congress—was technically illegal and constituted a second American revolution.

This is the thesis of Joseph Ellis’s remarkable book, and using primary sources he builds an airtight case for it. Heavily documented but so engagingly written it reads like a novel, the book traces the upbringing and early careers of the quartet: George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Ellis manages to explain—very believably, I might add—how their backgrounds influenced these four to think and act as they did. The author points out the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, but also explains the political temperature of the populace so we can understand why the Articles came to have such short-comings. Ellis does a great job tracing the sometimes secretive and circuitous means by which three of the four principals managed to put together a convention that would take the radical step of replacing rather than revising the Articles. Along the way they also faced the difficult task of convincing the fourth, George Washington, to throw his considerable political clout behind the effort.

Ellis treats us to the best of the debates and behind-the-scenes maneuvering as the Convention squabbles its way through the creation of a blueprint for a strong federal government capable of administering the massive continent of North America, while leaving a great deal of sovereignty in the hands of the states.

Having recently read The Federalist Papers, this book greatly added to my understanding of the crucial moments and movements of that important post-war period. In closing I should also say that Ellis boldly resists the modern error infecting much contemporary historiography. He refuses to judge the Founding Fathers by the canon of contemporary post-modern “correct” behavior. Ellis evaluates them by their own times and morals and avoids the trap of turning the Founders into either semi-divine saints or slave-holding devils. He has a refreshing objectivity and offers the reader a much more accurate account of late eighteenth-century America than will the politically-correct pieties of many modern historians. I highly recommend this book.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Review of The City that Does Not Age

Americans cannot identify with a modern city built over top of ruins that reach back to the fifth century BC, and even earlier—in other words, a city continuously inhabited for over 2400 years. But that is the situation of modern-day Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, once known as the ancient Thracian city of Serdonpolis. Bistra Johnson has compiled an interesting and comprehensive record of the history of this remarkable place in her book, The City that Does Not Age.

After a prologue that introduces the reader to the topic, Johnson begins to trace the history of Sofia through Thracian and Roman times. The city figured significantly in the history of the Roman Empire as it sat astride the Via Militaris, the Roman road which stretched from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to Singidunum (modern Belgrade).

As the Roman empire declines through internal assassinations and external threats of the invading Germanic tribes throughout the Middle Ages, Johnson does an excellent job of tracing the volatile fortunes of Sofia, as the welfare of the city rises and falls under different leaders and foreign overlords.

After the crusades the city succumbs to the Ottoman empire, which maintains alternately loose and close control of the city, ultimately resulting in the somewhat peaceful if decidedly tenuous coexistence of local Christians, Muslims and Jews. The level of detail of Johnson’s research and her use of primary and secondary sources pays off as she is able to relate many fascinating accounts of both major and minor events during the period.

The liberation of Sofia from Ottoman domination, and the eventual attaining of Bulgaria’s independence is carefully chronicled. She includes a section on the resurgence of the arts and intelligentsia of the city, as well as its entrance into the modern age. The changing loyalties and fortunes of the city from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the Soviet era complete the story, bringing the reader to Sofia’s present status as the capital of Bulgaria. Johnson includes a bibliography and an excellent index.

One of the notable tasks Johnson has accomplished is giving the reader an understanding of the significance of Sofia to the larger history of Europe. The city’s location on the Balkan peninsula made it a strategic prize, the control of which gave armies and nations a means of projecting power and influence over a much larger area.

There are some negatives. Two difficulties which frequently bedevil independent authors are apparent in this book: the cover is not impressive, nor is the formatting and editing. Every writer needs a good, professional editor and Johnson is no exception. Even so, her writing is solid though a little uneven at the beginning of the book and the very end.

If I was evaluating on the editing alone I would give this book three stars at most. But the excellent historical account and the strength of the research combine to make this book a good read, well worth the effort. All things considered, I’m giving it four stars.
[Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy from the author for the purposes of review.]

Friday, January 5, 2018

Review of David Powlison's Making All Things New

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken” is an outstanding book, suitable for both counselors and counselees, and in all probability needed by both (and for the same reasons). Even if we’ve never crossed the line in sexual sin (possible, but highly unlikely in light of Matthew 5:27-28), we’ve all been tempted to find our comfort in resources other than God Himself. That’s ultimately the issue David Powlison addresses.

Though expressing himself in prose Powlison writes like a poet, with deep empathy and suffused with understanding and hope. The intended audience includes both the victimized and the victimizer, and both men and women. This book is no “bible band aid,” but is a theologically responsible, Christ-centered look at the knotty problem of sexual sin.

Powlison spends Chapter 1 orienting the reader to his approach; it is grounded in the realities of the biblical Christian faith: sexual fidelity is good, sexual sin is wrong, and Christ alone can transform the unfaithful into the faithful. The reader is questioned in Chapter 2 about where he or she stands in relation to the topic of sexual brokenness. Hope wrapped in warm understanding of life’s suffering and difficulty is offered. The road of healing is characterized as “walking toward the light,” a metaphor that disabuses us of the notion of quick fixes, all the while holding forth hope for the future.

In Chapter 3 he explores the wide varieties of behaviors that can turn God’s wondrous gift of sex into tragic darkness. At each turn he reveals how such behaviors fall short of and pervert God’s good intentions, and how God in Christ draws near to offer deliverance and healing to both the victim and the predator.

Chapter 4, Renewal is Lifelong, is outstanding. Though aspects of sanctification are indeed crisis events, and God does sometimes deliver in a single stroke, more frequently the process is a long one involving progress, regress, and sometimes standing still. Both healing and growing in obedience are challenges requiring endurance and patience. For biblical counselors, this is a helpful corrective to some of Jay Adams’ earlier writings. One could get the impression from, say, “ChristianCounselor’s Manual,” that nouthetic counseling fixes problems in a relatively short time. Sometimes it does. But the more frequent experience (and I think Adams would agree) is that progress in overcoming habitual sin issues is often slow, beset with setbacks, and in many cases continues until the end of life. Powlison makes the important point that the crucial issue in sanctification is that we are oriented in the right direction—towards Christ.

In Chapter 5, Powlison pulls the dirty veneer off long-term sexual sin, demonstrating that there is more going on in the heart than simply the fall to lust. In fact, what’s going on in the heart might be even more abominable: a reduction of grace to an inverted retribution theology (“I serve You, but You haven’t given me what I want, therefore I will take revenge by indulging in sexual sin”).

In Chapter 6, Powlison discusses some of the motives that might be at work behind sexual transgression, and some of the motivations that might be behind a victim’s responses.

Chapter 7 is spent peeling back the layers of the onion to show that the battle is not simply against the outward, obvious, “big” sin. There are progressive levels of sin and temptation on which the battle for Christ-glorifying purity will be fought, some of which are so subtle and insidious we can barely detect them except in retrospect.

Powlison reminds the reader in Chapter 8 that the goal is much larger than merely not sinning: it is Christlikeness. God’s words to us, “I am with you,” become the focus of the final chapter, in which Powlison encourages us to “get down to today’s skirmish in the great war.”

David Powlison is a gifted counselor and writer: this book just might be Powlison at his best. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster

This is a really good book. Copan does a great job handling the assaults of the New Atheists and working through difficult texts of the Old Testament (including the so-called terror texts). Copan deals with slavery, the Bible's treatment of women, holy war, and several other topics that often give Christians (and atheists!) problems. While I gave the book 5 stars for its basic excellence, there are a number of minor points I would raise questions about had I the time or were I myself a better scholar. I'll just mention two.

Copan frequently resorts to the language of exaggeration in his dealing with OT texts. Scripture certainly does use hyperbole in places, but I'm not convinced that it does so as often as Copan suggests. Sometimes this appears to be an argument of convenience.

Copan also goes in several directions regarding the Conquest that I felt were sort of weak, such as giving credence to the Infiltration theory of the Conquest. The account in the Bible of the crossing of the Red Sea and of the Jordan, in my view, pretty much vitiates the Infiltration theory. Both speak of sudden mass movements, and Joshua speaks of a sudden overthrow of the Canaanite dominance of the Promised Land. The fact that Canaanites continued to live in Canaan after the Conquest does not change the basic facts. Copan's resort to studying some of the various Hebrew words surrounding Israelite warfare merely opened the possibility for his interpretations (words do, after all, possess a semantic range), but certainly did not demand (or even suggest) his interpretations. Copan seems to acknowledge this in places with several "even if" statements.

Anyway, the book is excellent. All the chapters are good; the final chapter is outstanding. Well documented, well argued, this is certainly a book that should find a place on your apologetics shelf.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is a tale as bleak as the west Texas landscape in which it is situated. A hunter
stalking antelope stumbles across a bloody murder scene, the denouement of a drug deal gone sour. He makes a bad decision, plunging into a roiling current of events from which he is unable to extricate himself—or his loved ones.

McCarthy’s characters are presented in a deep, psychological complexity, a rich counterpoint to the desolate setting. The reader is provided a window into the self-doubt of the local county Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who struggles to solve the crime even while haunted by events in his own past. Bell searches for the trigger man, a psychopathic killer who justifies his murders by a contorted fatalism. I suspect the reader is hearing McCarthy’s own voice through the reflective ponderings of Bell: in some ways the book functions as a lament of the state of modern American culture.

McCarthy’s writing style demonstrates the truth of a principle of good writing: “sometimes less is more.” The barren ambiance of the Texas terrain is underscored by his beautifully-constructed minimalist prose. When you pick this book up, you will have a hard time putting it down. Five stars.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Church has a Hearing Problem

Probably the most common expression in my lexicon of spoken words is “huh?” You see, I’m hard of hearing. Not deaf, but I have a hard time with the frequency range of the spoken voice. Sometimes, my wife says, it seems to be selective.

So let’s talk about Jeremiah [I know—that wasn’t a very smooth segue].

Jeremiah’s ministry took place during the sunset years of Judah: late seventh century BC, early sixth century. God was bringing judgment upon His people (very important point: on His people) through the agency of Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian juggernaut of an army. Just before the hammer fell, God extended to Judah the final offer of clemency: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.” (Jeremiah 7:3, NASB95)

But it was falling on deaf ears: “Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 7:8–11, NASB95)

The chapters that follow double-down on exposing Judah’s apostate behavior. “At that time,” declares the Lord, “they will bring out the bones of the kings of Judah and the bones of its princes, and the bones of the priests and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem from their graves. They will spread them out to the sun, the moon and to all the host of heaven, which they have loved and which they have served, and which they have gone after and which they have sought, and which they have worshiped. They will not be gathered or buried; they will be as dung on the face of the ground.” (Jeremiah 8:1–2, NASB95)

“Which they have loved … served … gone after … sought … and worshiped.” Whoa! It was a thorough-going departure from the true and living God. Note well: these are God’s people turning from God. In a very memorable turn of phrase, their apostasy is described in these words: “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, And shudder, be very desolate,” declares the Lord.For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns That can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12–13, NASB95). God says of the depth of the sin of His people, “Were they ashamed because of the abomination they had done? They certainly were not ashamed, And they did not know how to blush; . . . ” (Jeremiah 8:12, NASB95)

They did not know how to blush. Wow! God’s people, no less.

I’ve seen and heard a lot of believers making noises about “God’s judgment on America, because of America’s sins.” This is a refrain that is commonly heard after natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and unnatural disasters, such as the mass killing in Las Vegas.

And I want to say, “Not so fast, Christian.”

You see, God will (and does) judge the sins of mankind generally. Prime example: the flood. Another prime example, the Canaanites. But there is in Scripture the principle of a preservative, a preservative that delays judgment upon a wider people. Remember the conversation God had with Abraham shortly before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah? If only ten righteous men could be found there, God would restrain His judgment (Genesis 18:32). Was that a one-time deal, a spiritual blue-light special? No, because God says something very similar in Jeremiah: ““Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, And look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, If you can find a man, If there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, Then I will pardon her.” (Jeremiah 5:1, NASB95). This is a double-barreled statement, we’ll come back to it in a minute.

Clearly, if there was one (not even ten!) righteous man in Jerusalem, it would be spared.

Here’s the point: God’s judgment was falling because His own people were behaving like the unregenerate nations around them. I’d like to suggest that we, the Church, should consider whether or not WE are the cause of judgment in our day: “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46, NASB95). It might be wise to take a second look at the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3.

Maybe it’s the Church that has the hearing problem. How many are sitting in the auditorium on Sundays and engaging in secret sin on Mondays? How many Christians are ignorant of their Bibles, not because they are dumb but because they have no desire to read them? I’m amazed by the number of people I talk to who are living together, and/or having sex outside the bonds of marriage, and yet call themselves Christians. How about the Christian parents who are diligently teaching their children to worship sports, relegating corporate worship to a secondary priority that happens only if their team has no game on Sunday morning? How about those Christians who live for camping on the weekends, and tolerate corporate worship only if the weather is bad?

How about the coldness and hardness in my own heart?

By the way, I am well aware that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Romans 9:6). God’s people were, in Jeremiah’s time, a mixed multitude. But so is the visible Church. The visible Church today has many who say “we are delivered, we prayed a prayer,” who then go on thinking they may safely continue in their sins. What exactly did you think Jesus was saying in Matthew 13? “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.” (Matthew 13:47–48, NASB95)

At the very least, we believers have failed to be a preservative in our own nation. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the abortionist and the homosexual for God’s judgment. Those are sins, to be sure. But the real answer might be a lot closer to home. Do we, the Church, even know how to blush over our own sins?

Oh, and one more thing. That righteous man God was seeking in Jerusalem, whom if He found He would pardon His people? God did find Him—or, rather, God sent Him. His name was Jesus.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: Ancient Rome, The Rise and Fall of an Empire

Great book. I'd known bits and pieces of the history of the Roman Empire, but this book gave me a much fuller picture. If the Pax Romana quelled wars in the greater Mediterranean region, the Romans themselves enjoyed very little of it. There was such a struggle for power between the emperors, the wannabes, the generals, that the internal history of Rome seems to be a history of assassination, rebellion, and revolution.

Baker demonstrated that one of the chief causes of turbulence--something that the political powers and usurpers cynically used to their advantage--was the disparity of income between the senatorial class and the plebs. At first I wondered if he was simply importing modern frustrations into an ancient history. But he soon proved his point by his frequent quotation of first sources.

Well-worth reading. Baker's writing is crisp, at times dryly humorous, well-paced, always engaging and heavily documented. Highly, highly recommended.