Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

I know blogging has been light these past few months...we'll see what the new year holds, until then, Merry Christmas from the Eagle and Child. And may you have a blessed new year.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Courage of the Ordinary

A few years ago, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a report on grade inflation in American Universities. One of the startling examples from that report: 80% of all Harvard students graduate with honors; nor was Harvard alone in grade inflation. When this is the case, “with honors” becomes meaningless. (Princeton has instituted policies to reverse the trend – and I commend them for their courage in their stand).

Beyond the college silliness...a real feeling of entitlement. Some lay the blame at helicopter parenting (hovering over and intervening way too much in children's lives -- see this story on the mom who called her daughter's boss). Some commentators believe the whole generation born after 1980 is one that is self-absorbed and lazy. These critiques are over the top and unfair, but they do reflect a truth (for it does take a lot of truth to keep error afloat) that building self-esteem has been a running theme through the lives of these children, and many times that self-esteem came at the cost of recognizing true excellence.

Conservative pundits decry these trends with such frequency that it has become cliche (read the comments that follow upon this news story on Millenials). However, a semi-libertarian hearkening back to some imagined social darwinism isn't exactly an attractive alternative. If a deflation of excellence to trivia has lead us to a decadent arrogance, then a tough nosed determination to value nothing but excellence will lead us to a dystopian nightmare in which the clever, the strong, and the ruthless would have their way with us lesser mortals. Honoring excellence without honoring human dignity leads to tyranny; honoring human dignity without honoring excellence leads to decadence. Somehow, we need both.

For this reason, I believe in celebrating the courage of the ordinary. The courage of the ordinary is what George Bailey exhibits in It's a Wonderful Life - he passed up many opportunities for adventure and greatness because he was committed the people in his life. He lived what on the surface appeared to be a quite ordinary life ... he courageously stayed committed to family, friends, and his small place in the world. And then, in the moment of crisis, he was blessed to see what a great impact he indeed had. The film Peter Pan makes much the same point. As the children are talking with their mother about their father's outburst of temper, Mrs. Darling tries to explain their father's courage of the ordinary:

Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There's the bravery of thinking of others before one's self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor... nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.

Michael: Where did he put them?

Mrs. Darling: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer... and he does. And that is why he is brave.

The courage lies in sacrificing the luxury of charting our own course so that we might take care of others. This is different from a mindless conformity; the courage lies in the choice. The courage lies in being faced with the dizzying opportunity to run away with the circus, to abandon committments, to chuck it all and follow the Grateful Dead, to run off in search of ourselves ... whatever the siren call to extraordinary life might be...and voluntarily and willfully declining.

Those who have chosen adventure and those who have chosen the ordinary usually have a mutual disdain for each other. Emblematic of this disdain might be the turf wars between coyboys and farmers in the mythic old west. The third Pirates of the Caribbean carried something of this theme as well - the freewheeling and self defining pirates against the ordered and boring merchant class. I suggest that such mutual antipathy is unhelpful. We have a need both for adventurers and for the ordinary. For the adventurers open up new realms of human possibility - they test the limits of human capacity - whether physical or intellectual. But the ordinary provide the stability and the groundedness that make the adventurers' exploits possible. Astronauts don't blast off into space without a lot of ordinary workers who manufacture rockes. Pirates and exporers don't sail the seas without a lot of ordinary workers who build ships, twine rope, forge steel, and create nautical instruments.

I believe that God created each human life as having value. That does not mean that the value is expressed in the same way. Part of the glory that God has placed upon mankind lies in the very expanse of capacities that are given us. The way to honor the varying expressions of God's glory in mankind is not through a one-size-fits-all policy where all children get A's. It is not through diminishing the accomplishments of the great so that the rest of us don't feel bad. The right way is through honoring glory each in it's kind. The glory of Olympic athletes is different from that of Little League - the former we expect astounding feats of physical prowess and we glory in the exceptional feats on the field. In the latter, we expect lessons about teamwork, fair play, hard work, good sportsmanship and respectful competition - and we glory as the children learn these lessons. Therein is the difference in the courage of the Extraordinary versus the courage of the ordinary.

What think you? Is there something to this, or are they but windy words from a decidedly too ordinary commentator?

Soli Deo Gloria


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Help Stop Child Slavery -- a simple way to help

Phil Russell, one of my colleagues from Rotary, filled me in on a great project that he's working on. It's a website called

If you saw the film Amazing Grace, then you learned something of the story of William Wilberforce, the British politician who crusaded to end the slave trade (see my film review for more info). A part of the promotion of the film has been the call to end modern day slavery. Yes, slavery continues in shadowy corners of our society, and in the unseen fringes of the developing world. is a great resource site, with information about the problem of child slavery, trafficking, lists of antislavery organizations and newsletters, and resources to educate yourself about this scourge.

However, it also is a fundraising site. Here's how it works. They ask you to donate your browser's home page. This is the page that comes up every time you open your web browser. Normally, this home page goes straight to Yahoo or Google. If you donate it to, then it goes to their Google based search page. On that page will be an advertisement and a Google search bar. The advertisement sales generate revenue. This revenue will then be donated directly to organizations allready combatting childhood slavery (see the list of organizations here). Many of these organizations are Christian ministries, like World Vision, Salvation Army, etc. My friend Phil serves on the board of directors, and I know him to be a man of integrity...the proceeds are going where he says they're going.

The great thing is, this doesn't cost you a thing. You still get great searches. You get exposed to a few banner ads on the search page (but you're exposed to ads any which way), but as with all advertising, you pay attention only to that which interests you. A simple way to funnel some funds toward a great end.

Perhaps you're wanting to do more...check out the Salvation Army's suggestion page of things you can do to combat slavery and sexual trafficking.

Related Posts:
Fighting the Evil of Modern Day Slavery
From the Presbyterian Global Fellowship - Conviction about Justice

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A friend in need

My friend Lew Ross made the paper today.

Lew and I are quite different. Lew's a skate punk, shaved-head, hardcore Anabaptist. I'm a theater-geek, LL Bean, good 0l boy Calvinist. Lew runs a house church. I'm in an institutional Presbyterian church. But here's the rub. Lew knows the same Jesus that I know...a real person Jesus who died and rose and ascended. A real person Jesus who pours out the Holy Spirit and does unexpected things and takes us unexpected places and puts unexpected people in our paths. Lew's relationship with the living Jesus is on a white hot edge of faith - and he trusts Jesus to provide.

So Lew made the papers because he's got a bunch of hurting people that he loves on in the name of Jesus - he brings these folks into his home and they worship and it's sweet. The problem is, his home has no heat. And things are starting to get chilly around here. When Lew's church gathers in his living room, everyone keeps on their coats, gloves and hats because it's pretty darn cold. Enter the Cincinnati Enquirer. They're collecting cash for families all across the region to meet specific "christmas wishes" - and the Rosses are one of those families.

You can check out Lew's weblog. Any encouragement you can offer would be a blessing.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Why is the Golden Compass a big deal?

Have you heard the flap about the new film The Golden Compass? Catholics and Evangelicals are upset because the book is a not-very-subtle slap at Christianity. But now atheists are apparently upset that the film waters down the book's atheist critiques.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of it all. All the protests simply generate free publicity for the "shocking" and "irreverent" flavor of the year. Honestly, the controversey is really old news...the books have been out for years now, and their contents are not really all that secret. It's a well worn story that author Phillip Pullman's intent was to offer an anti-Narnia...a well crafted tale that undermines theistic belief.

Should parents be aware of these things before they take their children to see the film....of course. As a parent, I put every film through a vetting process (reading lots of reviews about content). It's like the wild west out there in media, and my job is to protect my children...from all angles. I wouldn't let my 7 year old see the Lord of the Rings either, though for vastly different reasons.

I have a humble suggestion for Christians who want to protest The Golden Compass. Rather than putting so much energy into protesting, just tell better stories. The compelling seduction in Pullman's books is that he's an engaging storyteller. However, he chose to tell a compelling story because CS Lewis had told some ripping good ones too. Where are the Tolkeins, Chestertons, Sayers and Miltons of our age? They're out there.

So tell better stories; make better art; play more compelling music...for we understand that beauty has a source; we know that all good stories have their groundings in the Great Story. Be not afraid...Philip Pullman hasn't written the final chapter, just an interlude.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, December 01, 2007

What is the United States of America for? -- betterment

Yesterday's post bears some clarification - when I speak of "what we stand for" - the 'we' in the statement was about the United States, not about the Christian Church, nor about self-identified conservatives, nor about emergent neo-puritans.

Here's the rub. This nation is at war. This war not only pits our nation against agressors overseas, but it also pits our citizens against each other as we try to figure out how to move ahead. Much of the public discourse I hear is acrimonious, accusatory, inflammatory, and just plain angry. Every tint and shade on the political spectrum is beating its own ideological drum.

I hear few voices calling us back to our nation's ideals.

And so I propose to spend some time reflecting upon ''What is the United States of America for?" -- What is compellingly attractive about this nation? Of course when we speak of ideals, we must remember that every person and people lapses from their ideals and falls short of the mark. Even so, it is still worthwhile to reflect on our ideals, if nothing else but to provide us a way forward. Interestingly, the Teaching Company offers a course on this very topic, called American Identity. When it goes on sale, I'll likely get it. The synopsis talks about "habits of mind" that are general traits of Americans, and I like that. Rather than a litmus test, there is more of a general shape of being -- and it is in that spirit that I'd like to reflect on a few traits that I've observed.

The first of these is the idea of Betterment. I prefer the term "Betterment" to it's younger cousin "Self-Improvement". "Self-Improvement" is the bailiwick of pearly-toothed pitchmen peddling their books, seminars, and ten week courses. It has spawned a whole genre of books from which my only gleaning has been "Never buy a book that features the author's photo as the most prominent feature of the cover" (and that especially goes for Christian titles).

"Betterment" meanwhile feels older, more patient, more in tune with my sensibility that any kind of change takes a bloody long time and more effort than I really like putting forth. We see this strain of American Character in the aphorisms of Ben Franklin and the Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards. The persistence of the Chatauqua Institution is but a holdover of a 19th century trend of holding such institutes all across the United States.

Many of our heroes are self-educated people who have worked up from humble origins to achieve greatness: Abraham Lincoln learning to read the classics by firelight in his log cabin, Eisenhower the farm boy from Abeline who held his own amongst the brightest figures of his generation, Thomas Edison who was called "addle-headed" by his schoolmaster, Booker T Washington who rose up from slavery to become a foremost advocate for education and founder of institutions, and the list goes on.

The unique hue to betterment that we see in American society is that betterment is best enjoyed as a self-initiated thing. Of course, we have any number of coaches, cheerleaders, exhorters, and nannys who will pull people along. Yet underneath, we seem to understand that Betterment must begin must be an intrinsic thing. The desire to improve one's standing cannot be foisted upon another person. The best we can do for others is offer opportunity...we cannot then take their hand and make them seize said opportunity.

What then of good old Calvinistic doctrine that says humanity is "completely unable?" That docrine means to say we're unable to do things that please God without the prior work of the Holy Spirit healing our hearts and pointing them toward the Westminster Confession says, "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet, so, that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil." (ch 7.3-7.4).

Said doctrine points us as Christians toward the kind of Betterment we ought to seek. The United States of America, in guaranteeing "pursuit of happiness" does not guarantee that we will all follow the right path toward happiness. We're only guaranteed the liberty to pursue it. In the same vein, the United States has a strain of betterment, but difference in the house on what actually leads to betterment. Education and improvement of the mind is of great value, but is it the greatest? Physical fitness and stewardship and care of the body is a fine thing, but is it the best thing?

It would be somewhat dualistic to pit spiritual betterment against such things. I would suggest that Christians should be able to pursue betterment of body, mind, relationships, and other parts of life as expressions of their spiritual growth. Our faith in the Lordship of Christ should lead us toward betterment in all areas of our lives. One quick look at Baxter's A Christian Directory will show you that the Puritans viewed all of life as the fields in which our spiritual committments bear fruit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Eisenhower and What We Stand For

Been reading Michael Korda's biography of Eisenhower these past few weeks. It's an OK book about a most interesting figure. I was struck by Korda's account of Eisenhower's speech at Guildhall, London upon being honored for his leadership of the Allied armies. I was so taken by the excerpts, that I went online to see if I could find the text of the speech.

I found the site of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which contains all of Ike's speeches. This led to a couple of hours of perusing through trivia and treasure. But to the point... the Guildhall speech:

Ike's speech there touched upon something that has been skirting in my mind on and off this fall: what is it that we stand for (of course there are also times when we must clarify what we will stand against). After some surprisingly eloquent words (from a man who as president would mangle English syntax with obtuse and flaccid politico-speak) about English/American differences, he gives us this gem about the ties that bind England and America:

Yet kinship among nations is not determined in such measurements as proximity of size and age. Rather we should turn to those inner things--call them what you will--I mean those intangibles that are the real treasures free men possess.

To preserve his freedom of worship, his equality before law, his liberty to speak and act as he sees fit, subject only to provisions that he trespass not upon similar rights of others--a Londoner will fight. So will a citizen of Abilene.

When we consider these things, then the valley of the Thames draws closer to the farms of Kansas and the plains of Texas.

To my mind it is clear that when two peoples will face the tragedies of war to defend the same spiritual values, the same treasured rights, then in the deepest sense those two are truly related. So even as I proclaim my undying Americanism, I am bold enough and exceedingly proud to claim the basis of kinship to you of London.

From there he speaks at length of the courage of the British during the war, the hospitality of Londoners, the challenges of bringing the two peoples together, and their eventual triumph over Nazi aggression. As he brings his speech to a close, he gives us yet more treasure:

My most cherished hope is that after Japan joins the Nazis in utter defeat, neither my country nor yours need ever again summon its sons and daughters from their peaceful pursuits to face the tragedies of battle. But--a fact important for both of us to remember--neither London nor Abilene, sisters under the skin, will sell her birthright for physical safety, her liberty for mere existence.

No petty differences in the world of trade, traditions or national pride should ever blind us to our identities in priceless values.

If we keep our eyes on this guidepost, then no difficulties along our path of mutual co-operation can ever be insurmountable. Moreover, when this truth has permeated to the remotest hamlet and heart of all peoples, then indeed may we beat our swords into plowshares and all nations can enjoy the fruitfulness of the earth.

Now there are statements that call for reflection. Perhaps Eisenhower, in his dealings with Stalin, had already glimpsed the ideological struggle that was to come in the cold war. But in any case, he saw fit not to use victory in Europe as an occasion for back-slapping and chest thumping. Rather he called for the Allies to remember ideals: freedom of worship, speech, equality before law. Let these spiritual truths be our guidepost, he says.

Fine thoughts indeed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thanksgiving and Providence

I must remain true to my quixotic impossible dream of turning our hearts toward a Thanksgiving season.... Dig, if you will, the picture: an oasis of warm hearted gratitude nestled between the macabe bacchanalia that is Halloween and the calliope of commercialism that has become Christmas. Is it not somewhat astonishing that our nation is one that has had the audacity to enshrine gratitude by establishing an annual observation of Thanksgiving...not thanksgiving to the ever-protective paternal state (they get that 365 days a year in North Korea), but just a general Thanksgiving for blessings enjoyed.

Last year, as part of my monthlong celebration, I read through Plymouth Plantation, the account of William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth colony. It's a rich story of faith, adventure, trial, error, and perseverance. However, for this month's Thanksgiving preparation, I'm reading theology: John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence.
Flavel, an English puritan of the 15th century, was a prolific writer, and is quite readable in the edition edited by Banner of Truth trust. In this little volume, Flavel undertakes to explain the doctrine of Providence and express the comfort that comes from it. "It is a great support and solace of the saints in all distresses that befall them here," writes Flavel, "that there is a wise Spirit sitting in all the wheels of motion, and governing the most eccentric creatures and their most pernicious designs to blessed and happy issues. And, indeed, it were not worth while to live in a world devoid of God and Providence."
I find that God's superintending of all events is not a doctrine of fatalism, but a doctrine that brings great hope and joy...and this is the attitude that Flavel takes as well. He gives us many reasons to rejoice in Providence, and I'll be reflecting on those reasons as I prepare for Thanksgiving.
One place where Flavel begins is God's providence in our "formation and protection in the womb." On this subject, he reflects not only on body but also our human endowment with a "reasonable soul". Here we have a fit topic for reflection as we enter into a season of thanksgiving: what bodily health and vitality do we enjoy. What are the scope of our physical activities. What physical attributes has God blessed us with: strength, endurance, dexterity, keen senses? How have we enjoyed the blessing of having a spirit in us that is unique to humanity? Even in our what ways do they increase our dependence upon God's grace? What has God worked through our physical and spiritual attributes? All of these things lead us to give thanks to God.
Now go forth and do something physical today -- run a few laps, work in the yard, stretch your muscles...and give thanks to God for this Providence.
Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bits and Pieces - October 15

Here's more flotsam of interest:

First, from the Librarian's Internet Index, a link to the US Chamber of Commerce's education report card for every state in the union. Surprises for me -- Ohio ranked 11th overall; and South Carolina (whose motto used to be "thank God for Mississippi" because SC was always 49th and Mississippi 50th) came in 33rd.

The NY Times Magazine has an article on the priest of St. Bartholemew's church in Manhattan who wanted more aesthetically pleasing vestments....soooo she....
asked the textile designer John Robshaw, an old friend, to create a block-print silk, and coaxed Peter Hidalgo, an up-and-coming clothing designer she discovered at Linda Dresner’s shop, to sew it into altar wear. Robshaw wasn’t prepared for some of the ecclesiastical complications. “Colors are seasonal and have very specific implications,” he says. “It’s like fashion.” Amen to that.
While we're at the NY Times. Check out this article on the migration of older folks to Facebook...oh horrors, could it be that people out of college might want to use social networking software to connect and get together too? (check out my facebook page to find out).

The LA times reports that Boomers can take heart that the new Beatles inspired musical Across the Universe is a hit with teenage girls. It might even be the next High School Musical. Now where is the musical featuring the music of Asia?


Sunday Sermon Up

Listen to this past sunday's sermon on Malachi 1:6-14. Up on the church website now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Recycling, Hazardous waste, and the environment

Responsible stewardship of personal resources, to my mind, includes simplicity, frugality, and creativity. Of course it is easier for me to pontificate (the post referenced in this link has links to lots of previous posts and other articles -- all about environmental issues) about such values than it is to live them. I purchase just as many books as I check out from the library.

However, I must commend our Hamilton County Environmental Services department for making responsible stewardship of waste so easy. I've taken advantage of their hazardous waste disposal program for the past couple of years (much better to take old paint, oil cans, etc to be properly disposed of than to have the chemicals leak into our ground water). However, somewhere I found a flyer that they also are running a technology recycling program. I have an old computer, printer, cords, monitor. All these things contain trace metals that can be harmful to the environment if they leach into the groundwater. They are also pieces of equipment that can be refurbished and re-used by nonprofits. I'll be dropping off a load this week.

Then I paid a visit to the website and found out that this Saturday the department is offering deeply discounted yard composters for sale. I've been composting for a while......strike that....... I've been collecting my yard waste and kitchen scraps for composting for a while, but I've been using a big trash can with holes punched in the bottom. Quite honestly, it doesn't do a great job of it. I've been looking at yard comosters online, but they're not cheap. But Hamilton County will be selling them to residents for $30....that's only thirty smackers.... a bargain indeed. So, guess what I'm doing this Saturday.

So, I know that government doesn't often get positive feedback, but in this instance, I offer kudos to Hamilton County and to the Department of Environmental Services. You're doing great work.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Literacy, Culture and Civilization

The Columbia Journalism Review features an article on the decline of book reviews in daily newspapers. Traditionalists cringe in horror and worry that this may be the end of the world, but the article also features the other point of view...that we're in a new renaissance, and it is taking time for us to adapt:

“There is intelligent book talk going on at so many levels. It includes much more than reviewers and bloggers. Once technology is discovered, you can’t stop it. We’re going to have e-books. We’re going to have print-on-demand business. We’re going to have a lot more discourse on the Web, and it will become more sophisticated as literary gatekeepers arrive to keep order. The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like it or not.”

The article goes on to discuss the longer trend of the declining quality of serious book reviews. After a turgid history of the past few decades in the newspaper industry, the article livens up again when discussing readers themselves:

Serious reading, of course, was always a minority taste. We’ve known that ever since Dr. Johnson. “People in general do not willingly read,” he said, “if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to. Of those who do, most read for the entirely understandable pleasures of escaping the drudgeries of daily life or for moral, spiritual, financial, or physical self-improvement, as the history of American best-sellers suggests. The fables of Horatio Alger, the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, the nostrums of Marianne Williamson, the inspirations of such secular saints as Lee Iaccoca—all are the golden jelly on which the queen bees of American publishing have traditionally battened.


The terrible irony is that at the dawn of an era of almost magical technology with a potential of deepening the implicit democratic promise of mass literacy, we also totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect. One is reminded of Philip Roth’s old aphorism about Communism and the West: “In the East, nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters.” In today’s McWorld, the forces seeking to enroll the populace in the junk cults of celebrity, sensationalism, and gossip are increasingly powerful and wield tremendous economic clout. The cultural conversation devolves and is held hostage to these trends. The corporate wars over who will control the technology of newsgathering and electronic communication and data and distribution are increasingly fierce. Taken together, these factors threaten to leave us ignorant of tradition, contemptuous of the habits of quality and excellence, unable to distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly.


It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.

Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.

OK -- pretty extensive quotes. But worth the price. Kryptonite to gangs! I wish I could come up with quips like that.....maybe if I read more. (Hat tip to Evangelical Outpost for this article).

Thus, again the importance of tales Like Farenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Literacy is one of the great forces for civilization. Let's take care to encourage it.



October 7 Sermon is online

Visit the church webpage to hear an audio recording of the October 7 sermon -- on Malachi 1 and the Sovereignty of God (dum ede dum dum duuuuuum)


Monday, October 08, 2007

The Museum of Appalachia: Exhibit on Harrison Mayes

One of my favorite trip destinations is the Museum of Appalachia, located conveniently off I75 Just north of Knoxville. It's an homage to mountain folk...and it's a pretty extensive facility, with a complete village, a large exhibit barn, and two whole houses full of memorabilia.

There are a dozen or so stories I could tell from this museum, but the one that continually catches my attention is that of Harrison Mayes. Mayes worked in a coal mine, and as a young man, he was nearly crushed by a runaway coal car. While he struggled for his life, Mayes made a deal with God that if God saved him, he'd serve God all the rest of his life.

Unlike other such deal makers, Mayes made good on it. He tried preaching and quickly found that he had no talent nor taste for it. He was a man who worked with his hands. So he took paint and painted "Sin Not" on the side of his family's free range pig. Soon he was painting holy graffiti on anything he could get his hands on. And not long afterward, he came upon the idea of making large concrete signs. He made his mold out of wood, and then he had entered the world of mass production.

He placed his signs all along the highways of post WWII America. Remember, this was pre-interstate days. An era of getting kicks on Route 66. An era celebrated with nostalgia by Pixar's movie Cars. It was a time when travel by road was an adventure with discoveries along the way, rather than a task to be checked off in as little time as possible. Mayes' signs became part of the adventure...right alongside "See Rock City" and other type roadside attention getters.

And Mayes was good at what he did. He put thousands of these things up all over the country. By the time he quit (incapacitated by old age), his work was erected in 44 states of the union! But his dreams were bigger. Some of his crosses were marked to be delivered to other nations...even the moon, and other planets as mankind spread out into space. This man dreamed big! He built his house in the shape of the cross and designed religous symbolism into every design element.

How did he pay for this passion of his? He worked double shifts at the coal mine. His painting in vivid reds attracted the attention of a Georgia based sugar water company, named Coca-Cola. They hired him to paint metal signs that went up in country stores. Some churches donated money to this unique mission. He was also a true ecumenical soul. Check out this heart shaped slab with his creed:

"My religion is Catholic, Protestant, Jew. My politic, Democrat, Republican. Languages, I recommend one for all nations. Races, I recommend all in one yellow, white, and black." His son says he'd worship in any church with any type of people.

Mayes life and work show me several things:

1) what one man can accomplish when he has a big enough vision

2) an urgency to tell people about Christ

3) an unassuming nature...he didn't have to make things slick and tricky. This is part of the warmth of Appalachian folkcraft. It's heartfelt and warm ... not cold and cynical.

I'm not quite ready to start casting cement, but I sure am inspired....

For further reading, see this article by Fred Brown.
Read David Ray Smith's article (with more photos)
See the artwork of Linda Arnold Miller -- inspired by Mayes

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Paul Johnson on militant atheism

Forbes Magazine has a teriffic commentary (registration required for access) by historian Paul Johnson in which he defends religious faith against the current crop of militant atheists. Here's a fine quote for us:
As for doing something about the militant atheism that threatens our happiness and well-being, it is in the interests of all people that those of us who enjoy religious faith should examine carefully what it has done, is doing and will do to sustain and comfort us in this harsh and difficult world. We should add up all its benefits--and then proclaim the results to the world. There will be plenty who will listen.

Johnson is well known for his earlier work Intellectuals, in which he gives brief biographies of various atheistic, freethinking intellectuals (Heinrik Ibsen, Rousseau, Karl Marx, etc) that demonstrate how these figures used their ideology for self-fulfillment at the expense of those closest to them.

Compare also to A Canticle for Liebowitz, the great dystopian classic that shows the church as the cradle of civilization, while secularists sweep in and live off the insights of what has been preserved.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ongoing Training: Leadership and Anxiety

Steve Brown used to tell me that I needed to develop a mean streak. For those of you who don't know Steve, he's a radio preacher. He thinks he's "got a voice like it came from on Sinai", but that's not really true. He's got the voice of a cranky old tarheel who smokes a lot, has sinned his share, and has experienced forgiveness beyond his wildest expectations. He's got the voice that communicates "sit down son, and listen up, and you just might learn something." So when Steve spoke, I generally listened.

But mean streaks don't come easy to me. I'm something of a people pleaser...I like being liked after all.

Now I take this one day training seminar on Leadership and Anxiety in the Church. It's all about how to apply Bowen Systems Theory in the church context. Too much to fully explain in one post, but the general thesis is this -- every organization constitutes an emotional system (family, church, workplace, etc). Each of us gets cast in a role in the system. Now here's the a system, all the parts influence each other. In other words, in a dysfunctional system (say a codependent relationship) the "problem person" is not the only one contributing to the does the "enabler" (envision the spouse who continually makes excuses for her husband's drinking.....the rich parent who is always bailing out the delinquent child.... you get the idea how the bad behavior and the enabling behavior reinforce each other).

Now the interesting thing about systems theory is this. The goal for pastors is not to learn the theory so they can diagnose where all the problems are in a congregation or in their familiy. I've known colleagues that were well versed in systems theory...they'd read all the books and they could tell you right where all the systemic problems were in their congregations. But there wasn't any improvement there.

That's because the goal in studying systems theory is to encourage pastors that by working on themselves, they can improve the functionality of the system as a whole. If a congregation is an emotional system in which all the parts exert influence...then any one part that is functioning in a better more balanced way will influence the whole towards balance. Part of the challenge is that when a leader starts functioning better (say for instance, setting boundaries so that he has a healthy balance of family time and church time.... or perhaps exerting a little more self discipline in time management, which decreases the kind of "available at the drop of the hat" time that was there before.... ), there's always pushback because the change affects other people. It may challenge them to take more responsibility for their role in the system. It may force them to deal with some of their own anxieties that they didn't want to deal with. But in the long run, somebody is going to have their feathers ruffled...and they're going to take it back to the leader.

Hence the mean streak (and that's a bit of an exaggeration). The leader then has the challenge of not owning the ruffled feathers. When someone comes to the leader with anxiety, the leader can listen with empathy ... but as soon as he owns the anxiety, he's lost. The leader has to have the inner self-control to live a little bit with other people's pain. Because sometimes that pain is God's way of dealing with them. Because sometimes that pain is just redirected from some other real issue that needs to be addressed (for husband is diagnosed with cancer, but I haven't dealt with the anxiety from that...but the anxiety comes out in other areas of life).

The idea here is to stay focused on goals, the big picture. The practicioners talk a lot about using playfulness and paradox to defuse anxiety and invite people into creative engagement with it. My mind is still reeling with everything we covered in the one day seminar. But the big idea I got from it is an old one and a good one: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" Work on with your own sin and avoidance and issues....and likely, God will use that process of sanctification of yourself to bring blessing to the family, the church, the workplace as a whole.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Exciting Developments -- Covenant First's new website

Greetings, techno heads.
Be sure to check out our newly redesigned website at Covenant-First Presbyterian.
Of particular interest .... we're going to offer sermon audio. Check out this past sunday's sermon (not great audio quality...but we're working on it)
Also, see information on our upcoming Homecoming Conference featuring Dr. Andrew Purves. An event not to be missed!

And for those of you into social networking, I took the plunge last night and set up a Facebook profile. I'm so 2005.


Monday, October 01, 2007

Bits and Pieces Oct 1 2007

First up - a great post from Forbes about how High School Musical's success is due to its complete lack of irony. A couple of teasers from the article:

"It's something a lot of producers have missed," says television historian Tim Brooks. Many of them "think it's still the '60s. They think that because adults want to see sex, kids do, too. But a lot of kids don't, especially girls. Most sitcoms on TV are really meant for adults."

"This is a reminder that as American TV hurtles toward ever more explicitness, there is a market of people who don't want any of that," says Brooks, also an executive at Lifetime.........

Sure, HSM is fairly well made and expertly marketed. But what really interests Thompson is its total lack of irony, of hipness, of the "wiseguy" humor so prevalent today. "We are so deep into the age of irony," Thompson says, "that when you encounter something as naive as 'High School Musical,' it's almost avant-garde. It's cutting edge!

"I would even go so far," says Thompson, "as to call HSM subversive. "The fact that they pulled this off in 2007 is amazing."

You heard it here first....earnest sweetness in this era is "subversive". I guess since I'm one of the 10 Gen X'ers who didn't get a tattoo, that I'm "subversive" as well. Who'da thunk?

Also, in case you missed it, we just relaunched our website at Covenant-First. Check it out, and give kudos to our webmaster Andy Adams for all his great work!

Tomorrow I'm in Kettering for an all day seminar on Family Systems theory as applied to church congregations. Should be interesting!

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Winning the War by being better

Gene Veith writes some interesting thoughts in this weeks World . His thesis is that the war on terror is won not so much by bombs and bullets but by ideas and ideals:

The Washington Post's Phillip H. Gordon recognizes that the conflict with radical Islam is an ideological war, like the struggle of the free, capitalist West against communism. He points out, however, that victory in the Cold War came not from armed warfare but from winning the ideological argument. He says that instead of using military might against Islamists, we should be demonstrating to the Muslim world the superiority of Western ideas
Veith goes on in the article to question whether America has the stomach to enter into an ideological war ... have we become such a pluralist society that we have nothing to offer but a meek shrug to those who call us the great Satan?

Interestingly, The Economist this week features an analysis of eroding civil liberties during the current war on terror. They too use the Cold War analogy to the War on Terror -- but apply it in a different, though not contradictory, way (as in this quote):

A hot, total war like the second world war could not last for decades, so the curtailment of domestic liberties was short-lived. But because nobody knew whether the cold war would ever end (it lasted some 40 years), the democracies chose by and large not to let it change the sort of societies they wanted to be. This was a wise choice not only because of the freedom it bestowed on people in the West during those decades, but also because the West's freedoms became one of the most potent weapons in its struggle against its totalitarian foes.

If the war against terrorism is a war at all, it is like the cold war—one that will last for decades. Although a real threat exists, to let security trump liberty in every case would corrode the civilised world's sense of what it is and wants to be.

When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots. To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that—with one hand tied behind their back—is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.

The point of both articles being this...there is much more at stake here than simply security from future terrorist attacks. What is at stake is what kind of society we ought to be. What is it that we stand for as a people.

Now please, don't think that I'm advocating an uncritical look at our society...we have our problems and our dysfunctions. Every society does. The social prophets out there who look upon pain and suffering need not think I'm telling them to pack their suitcases and head to Canada. We need self examination so we can be stronger.

But for Pete's sake, if we're to prevail against a growing tide of angry radicals, then we need to do more than beat our chests and say how great America is (or analyze our decline -- see this interesting and provocative discussion between Rod Dreher and Cullen Murphy).

We need to demonstrate the greatness of our society. This goes back to the principle of being builders (see also these posts) Where are the areas where individuals and private organizations can demonstrate truth, beauty, and goodness on such a scale that the rest of the world marvels. How can we build local institutions, customs, businesses, and neighborhoods that are so strong that the radicals will come and know that they haven't a chance? The parable for our age is World War Z (see my review of this great book).

So your thoughts... how do we as a society not succumb to the cynicism of despair, but rather build in hope?

Sola Gratia.... Sola Gratia

Monday, September 24, 2007

More on Union In Christ by Purves and Achtemeier

Other Posts in the series:
Union In Christ: We're on a Mission from God
Introduction to Union in Christ

Sobering words here for any preacher: “Not everyone who hears the gospel of Christ – however skillfully proclaimed – recognizes Christ as the Word of God and believes. It is not enough just to hear about Jesus or, even like those first witnesses, to see him face to face. Something extra is required for us to recognize and respond to him as the Son of God. That ‘extra’ is the work of the Holy Spirit.” (19-20). Scary because it reaffirms the truth that we’re not in control. We may be able to wheedle and manipulate, but without the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of the congregation, there is no real effective change.

Congregations ought to take note as well. Perhaps such a realization would keep people from placing ministers on too high of a pedestal. Ministers are vessels, yes. They may be powerfully used by God…but they are not God. Churches need to transcend the personality of individual ministers to live into the truth that it is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone who calls the body together, strengthens the body, and empowers the body for ministry.

Purves and Achtemeier then stress the “ordinary means of grace” – the Word preached and the Sacraments observed. This emphasis is not to take away from God’s extraordinary means of grace; God continues to work in a myriad of different ways to reach hearts. Rather, this emphasis is to help us keep from majoring in the minors. Extraordinary means of grace can raise our awareness and appreciation; the ordinary means of grace deepen our understanding and conviction. The extraordinary means that God works through should always lead us back to the ordinary means of grace of Word and Sacrament.

Thus Purves and Achtemeier talk of the ministry of the word. Here I would have liked a little more clarity on the difference between Jesus as the living Word and scripture as God’s authoritative word to his creatures. The authors rightly talk about the call to obedience; they rightly talk about God’s transformational and creative power. However, I would have liked to have seen something that clearly spoke to the authority of scripture as a guide and rule for life. Don’t get me wrong – the section on the Word is good. But it lacks a certain clarity that would have been more comfortable to me.

The section on Baptism follows. The authors give a good explanation of the reformed understanding of Baptism as more than simply a sign. They wrestle with the challenging issue of the baptized who later fall away. In this section they cling closely to Calvin and various confessions of the faith. They also bring out the nuance that not only does baptism unite us to Christ, but it unites us to one another as his body. Finally, they address the issue of Baptism into Christ as an exclusive claim of Christ’s lordship. Overall, they give a good discussion that conveys the sense of what the sacrament means in the Presbyterian church.

The Lord’s Supper gets much shorter shrift – having already laid the groundwork of understanding it as a sign and seal of the covenant. It is a comparatively light treatment that avoids the controversies of the various denominations over how exactly the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. This is likely a helpful discussion to avoid because their point is to stress how the Lord’s supper does signify our union with Christ and our enjoyment of that Union together with the whole body of Christ.

More to come (I hope).
Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Calling to be builders

John Daly put up this interesting video and asked for comment. The thesis of the video is that there are 7 spheres of influence that Christians are called to take part in so as to shape culture.

Now, being a good Calvinist, I believe that the Bible teaches that part of the calling on our lives is to build godly culture. And this includes good government, fair and honest business, excellent public institutions (like libraries, schools, and non-profits), biblically faithful churches, strong families, and an interest in excellence in the arts and media. Abraham Kuyper talks about the same kind of thing in his Lectures on Calvinism, in which he posits that Christ is the soveriegn over all these "spheres" of life. That doesn't mean the church is sovereign -- the church is one sphere with a distinct set of principles and a distinct mission. Meanwhile the arts, for example, have a different set of principles and a different mission in God's economy, yet according to Kuyper, the arts are still under the sovereign reign of the Living Lord Jesus Christ. The same would hold for business, science, government, the family, etc -- all having distinct principles and mission -- and all under the soveriegn rule of Christ.

Thus, Calvinism, taught rightly, ought to produce the best most engaged citizens out there. People who are involved in the community, working in the schools, investing in the public institutions. Simply put, we as Christians ought to be builders. (Yes, I'm well aware that there are diseased and unhealthy institutions and organizations in society that are beyond repair -- a part of healthy building is selective pruning out of what isn't working).

Contrast that with the ethos of destruction. This is the ethos of "I'm going to have mine, and the rest of you can play with a rusty chainsaw, for all I care." This is the ethos that spawns the latest crop of "torture chic" films (like Saw, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, etc). This is the ethos that turns a diverting video game like Second Life into a den of depravity, exploitation, and selfishness (see the article in this week's World Magazine).

And sadly, this is the ethos that drives the purges of atheistic regimes. When God is taken out of the picture, we have very little to build for. Consider the great purges done by Stalin, Mao, The Khymer Rouge, the French Revolution. All the rhetoric about the Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials pales in the face of the millions upon millions who have been systematically slaughtered by atheistic regimes.

And one telling feature -- part of these purges was an intentional targeting of the tastemakers. The intellectuals, writers, politicians, religious leaders, scientists ... anyone who might be a threat to the control of those in power. Basically, these regimes wanted to seize control of the major spheres of influence for themselves. And all of these regimes failed.

So we look at Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and shiver -- he is seizing control of all the spheres of influence. Schools. The Government. The Media. even time will be subject to his whims. All the while he and his cronies live it up on the backs of the poor. How long, I wonder, before the bloodletting begins. Even so -- he too will pass, for he is not sovereign. Christ and Christ alone is sovereign over the spheres of influence.

And, Lord willing, Christians will move to the rubble and build anew....

Soli Deo Gloria

Bits and Pieces september 18

Checking out Lifehacker this evening -- some very cool websites:

For you World is Flat types who are embracing globalization, check out the new language learning website Mango -- it's free to learn conversational Spanish, French, Russian, Chineese -- pick your lingo (and some extensive lessons too -- around 100 for Spanish).

And here is a great article suggesting that when things break, rather than send them to the landfill, we try sending them back to the company -- just to see what they might do (like replace it for free!)

And finally -- check out the RottenNeighbor website -- to make sure that your neighbors aren't going nuts about you!


The End of Intuition?? Oh really?

This week's Economist features a book review of Super Crunchers. The book purports to explore how massive data banks automate decision making in such a way that the human element will become less important.

EVERY time a world-class chess player loses to a computer, humans die a little. In this book Ian Ayres, a professor of law and management at Yale University, explains how in many less high-profile endeavours, human intuition and flair are more easily beaten. The sheer quantity of data and the computer power now available make it possible for automated processes to surpass human experts in fields as diverse as rating wines, writing film dialogue and choosing titles for books.

The author originally intended to call his book “The end of intuition”. He changed his mind after a Google AdWords campaign which randomly chose which of two advertisements for the book to display: “Super Crunchers” garnered 63% more clicks than his original choice. He tells of credit card companies that are using similar randomised trials to see which combination of offers and advertising make for the most successful mailshots.

And so begin the wild predictions that doctors will cease to be needed for their diagnoses, teachers for their teaching. The world will go the way of the automaton. We'll all be plugged in and data slaves.


Pardon my skepticism here. Technologists have been playing this game for quite some time. But data, no matter how crunched and sliced and diced, is only as good as the use it is put to. One of my Rotary colleagues says "Information without action is wasted" I might modify that in this scenario "Good information without right application is wasted."

Take for instance, the above scenario. The title "Super Crunchers" got 63% more clicks. And it is likely that google was even able to give some demographic data about those clickers: income, interests, etc (all of course anonomized to protect individual identity). That's nice. However, what if it still turns a bunch of people off (frankly, I would have preferred "The End of Intuition" as a more interesting title. Super Crunchers sounds like a new brand of potato chip). What if the people it turns off are really the types of people who the author wants to reach?

More to the point, can we really automate teaching or doctors visits? We may be able to design a general program that works very well for the broad populace, but what about children who are exceptions. Our oldest spent Kindergarden in a Montessori School and now she is in a Classical Christian School -- two opposite models, both of which claim to be tested and superior to all comers. In my experience and observation, I can say that each model works for some kids and not for others. Each model also produces very different end results, and part of the choice lies in what end results parents want from their children's education. I don't think parents want an algorithm deciding for them the ultimate purpose of education.

Neither does this take into account people's adaptability (most models never do). Banner ads were ubiquitous, until people simply started to disregard them. The big wave in advertising now is "product placement" -- every time you see a Pepsi or an Apple computer in a movie, you can bet that some cash was exchanged to make sure that it was a Pepsi, not an RC cola. However, once consumers become aware of it, they become partly innoculated, and it becomes something of a joke.

Maybe I just need to read the book to get it, but I'm so turned off by the title....

From a more positive angle, another quote from the article:

Even the occasional government is accepting that properly analysed data trump ideological conviction. Mr Ayres sings the praises of Mexico's Progresa/ Oportunidades programme, which gave assistance to poor people only if their children attended health clinics and schools. It was tried out on 506 randomly selected villages. The results were so convincing that the programme was expanded 100-fold despite a change of government.

Here we see a good use of data. Rather than breathlessly extolling how data will make human decisionmaking obsolote, here we have data that actually improves human decisionmaking. That's where we will be going. Access to crunched data will not diminish humanity, it will however become a powerful tool in the hands of decision makers.

What they do with that data will make all the difference. And let us remember that decision makers are sinners like the rest of us. Once again, we're back to the orientation of the human heart. Good data in the hands of Stalin is frightening. It all boils back to Sin and Redemption.

And now we're back on the theologians turf...

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tips for improving life

More catching up from a backlog of blogs I follow:

This time from PSFK Trendwatching blog -- a link to the Behance webpage's 100 tips to improve your life.

This is an interesting site. Designed by Creative Professionals for Creative Professionals, the site's goal is summarized in their "philosophy" statement:
Great ideas are conceived and subsequently lost in the hands of creative geniuses, everyday. Frustration, rationalization, and despondence loom as creative people jump from idea, to idea, to idea... and fall short of actually making ideas happen. It is a shame that most creative breakthroughs never materialize.

The Behance team studies exceptionally productive people and teams working in the creative fields. We document the methods and resources that productive creative professionals use to push their ideas forward.

Our inventory of knowledge, products, and services is carefully curated according to our philosophy, "Productive Creativity."

I'd be interested in the community's thoughts on this....


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Allan Trafford on Cultural Amnesia

In tonight's "get through the blogging backlog", I came across Alan Trafford's fine little post about Clive James talking about his book Cultural Amnesia. James used the interview on the Bill Moyers show to defend our need to preserve our cultural heritage, but then he takes pot-shots at the idea that faith in a living God has any part of the heritage that needs to be preserved. Alan writes:

What surprised me about Clive James was the arrogance of his laughter. To be fair, Bill Moyer did not invite him to debate. James was never challenged. It was not put to him that his position is as much an act of faith as is that of the theist. The difference is, of course, that James has faith in his own mental faculties, not in God. He does not see that "the fallenness of humanity," one of the key ingredients of Christian anthropology, has warped him, just as it made a demon out of Adolf Hitler.

James fails to grasp that Western Civilisation requires Augustine, not just Aristotle. Culture, we are told, depends upon a humanist intellectual inheritance, derived from Enlightenment thinkers from Rousseau to Voltaire. In one sense, this is true. The seeds of optimistic modernism have blossomed, but they have become the poisoned plant of postmodernity. Instead of Diderot we are left with Derrida. Yet the culture that gave birth to Erasmus also produced Martin Luther. We cannot lament the loss of cultural icons without recognising the part played by the Christian faith.

That's why James' laughter is dangerous. He, and many like him, already have selective cultural amnesia.

Wow! Alan packs a punch in his posts. Thanks for a real winner.

Soli Deo Gloria

New Blog Posts from Chaplain Tim Fary in Iraq

Finally catching up on many of the online blogs/journals that I follow. Saw that my friend Tim Fary has put up another post about his service in Iraq. (see my previous post on miltary chaplains for links to his other posts) An excerpt:

One of the soldiers in my unit (we’ll call him Joe) had approached me before we left the states to let me know that he was a Buddhist and would not be needing the services of a Christian Chaplain. I told him since he didn’t need a Chaplain, I suggested that he and I be friends. As I got to know him a little better it became pretty clear to me that his Buddhism had little to do with Buddha, but more with sticking it to his strict fundamentalist parents. He was looking to make his mother mad, and had met with a large amount of success. I had the privilege of meeting her before we left, and she expressed her concern about her son’s choice of religion.

Joe was out on a patrol when a sandstorm hit. It was a pretty rough one, and they only had vehicles for shelter. We had been allowed 3 duffel bags and were told to pack all our gear and anything we might need in those three bags. Joe had decided to use some of his packing space for a Coleman hammock. That night he had strung his hammock up in the back of one of our 5 Ton Trucks. The force of the winds was so strong that the soldiers were sitting between the slats trying to brace the cover of the back of the truck. They were unsuccessful. I was told later that the truck had moved in excess of 15 feet sideways in the sand. During this time, my battalion's only Buddhist got spun up like Frodo Baggins. I guess Buddhism doesn’t give you someone to rescue you when you’re in a bind, because Joe cut a deal with Jesus.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Strange Maps -- an adventure into seeing the world differently

I have some time this afternoon and I'm going through old magazines before taking them to the YMCA (I cut out the address labels and leave my World mazazines in the workout room...a subtle means of evangelism?)

Thus I came across an article I had flagged for blogging, but never did anything with it -- it talks about the weblog

What are some of the maps that are featured on the weblog? How about The Nine Nations of North America, a map that calls into question the whole Red State/Blue State divide. Akin to it is the Ex Unum Pluribus map suggesting the division of the US into about 10 different nations (which very nicely features Cincinnati as the capital of the nation of "West Kendiano")

As a former Florida resident, I certainly enjoyed the United States of Florida map.

There's also the GDP map of the USA, which renames each state with a nation that has a similar sized GDP (Gross Domestic Product -- a measure of economic output) to that of the state. Ohio residents will be glad to know that our economic output is akin to that of Australia, Floridians match that of the Korean Republic. North Carolina is paired with Sweeden. But dear old South Carolina is matched up with Singapore (could be worse -- Alabama is comparable to Iran)

There's also the map from Jesus trip to India -- I guess I missed that part of the Bible. Guess that explains why there's a Jesus Tomb in Kashmir (and one in Japan as well).

There are also military maps, maps of fantastical places, historical maps, editorial cartoon maps. This collection is interesting and pretty fun. Joel Belz in his World review writes "What's more fascinating about is its call to try a new perspective and a different frame of reference. Jesus did htat in His teaching. 'You have heard...,' he often said -- 'but I say to you...', to be sure, doesn't come with biblical warrant. It may prompt you to remember, though, that a 'God's eye view of things' is usually not the traditional one. In that sense, a fresh perspective can be a very good thing." (from World Magazine, Aug 4, 2007).

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer Book Report: From the Trenches of Fantasy Literature

Most of my friends know that I'm a fantasy literature fan. It started with C.S. Lewis and grew into a love of the Tolkien works. I'm particularly drawn to the genre of epic fantasy, and have spent countless hours in the works of Terry Brooks (Good, but not as good as I wanted), Christopher Stasheff (great), Robert Jordan (started well and then became abysmally dull), Dennis McKiernan (really entertaining, though preachy at times), and JK Rowling (is any commentary really needed here?)

This summer, I took a break from some of the heady theology, and dipped back into the fantasy genre. Part of my thinking was that the Harry Potter series was ending, and I wanted to find something to take it's place. The nice thing about contemporary fantasy literature is that most of it is a really quick read (try jumping from Calvin or Augustine to this stuff .... you feel like the pages fly by!), so I've been able to enjoy a lot of it this summer. Here then are some mini-reviews for your consideration.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yes, I waited in line. Yes, I read it within 3 days. Suffice it to say I found the ending to this epic very satisfying. Rowling worked in some very nice Christian imagery and worked out the various conflicts in the plot well. Of course, in terms of imaginative energy, this series has been running on steam that was built up since book 4...very little of the verbal cleverness that characterized books 1-3. But the spirit was there, and that's what counted for me.

His Majesty's Dragon

This was recommended to me as "Master and Commander....with Dragons." Think Napoleonic wars...think British stiff upper lip and "God save the Queen" and all that rot. Then throw in dragons as though they were giant bombers with aviation crews. It's a clever idea. The writing was brisk and the adventure was crackling good. Even so there was something missing. This wasn't really an epic as much as it felt like a historical romance novel without any kissing. Heavy on plot, light on insight into human character. Author Naome Novis gives a fun first read, but I'm not sure this is going to make my "I've got to read the series" list (there are, by the way, two follow up novels thus far).

The Lies of Locke Lamora

I mostly enjoyed reading this caper novel...and that bothers me. Set in a fantasy city modelled on Venice near the cusp of the renaissance, this story focuses on the extraordinarily brilliant con man, Locke Lamora, and his band of thieves. There is magic in the book, but it's very subtle. The imaginative world is rich and detailed and the characters are vibrant in their individuality. But it's all dark. The characters are all theives, cutthroats, charlatans, powerhungry aristocracy, or something worse. Author Scott Lynch is not squeamish about depicting cruelly enacted bloodshed, nor does he flinch at killing off major characters. About the only virtue in the book is that of loyalty to friends. The ethos presented hearkens back to darker pagan days...the ethos of Odysseus the trickster. Quite simply, I felt oily after reading this book. Lynch plans a 7 book series....he's a talented writer, but I think I'll pass.

Slaves of the Shinar

This debut work from Justin Allen (indeed, all of these, except Harry Potter, are debut novels) hasn't received much attention...but it should. This isn't strictly fantasy per se. It's actually an imaginative story set in the distant legendary past (those familiar with the land of Shinar will recognize it as taking place in the antediluvian world...indeed one of the minor characters turns out to be the father of Noah). So we see here Allen's imaginative understanding of who the Nephilim of the Old Testament they prepare to sweep across Shinar (ancient Mesopotamia) and conquer it all. This book shares many things in common with Locke Lamora...unflinching violence, many of the main characters are thieves and cutthroats. However we see glimpses in this text that there is something worth fighting to preserve. There are ordinary citizens of the Mesopotamian towns who are interested in being peacable and not shafting others. Indeed, out of the epic conflict with the Nephilim, many of the theiving and hard bitten characters begin to grope toward something like civilization. It's a good read...not exactly uplifting, but neither is it cynical.

but the winner is....


Imagine the typical epic fantasy story... the young hero from a backwater village is summoned forth. He's told that the prophecies speak of him... and that he is the one to defeat the evil overlord.

And he fails

What does the world look like after a millenia of domination by the evil overlord? What happens when the peasantry begin to see hope again for freedom from domination? That is the scenario of this book. In some ways, it feels like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solshenitzen's tale of living in a Russian gulag), in other ways, it is not unlike the Lies of Locke Lamora -- an incredibly clever thief and his gang work on an outrageous plot to take down the evil emperor. We also have the coming of age element of the young naive hero (or in this case, heroine) who must learn about her amazing powers and discover her place in the rebellion against the emperor.

OK. It's Star Wars in fantasy land. And I mean that comparison in the best sense. I found this book to be rich in both realism about human frailty and optimism that there is indeed something worth fighting for. The story has a strong redemptive theme to it. Here's a series that I look forward to reading more of.



Union In Christ: "Were on a Mission from God"

Purves and Achtemeier begin their commentary with a brief discussion of the title: Union in Christ. Their thesis is that the concept of Union in Christ is the defning characteristic of Christian life, witness, and unity.

Union in Christ is also a key component of our personal identity: “Those baptized into Christ are united with him in a spiritual relationship that now defines them in their core identity.” (9) This statement isn’t supposed to be a statement about the sacrament of baptism – Purves and Achtemeier are assuming the background of Presbyterian understanding of baptism – that it is not the action that is efficacious, but the faith behind the action. However by speaking in terms of sacrament, they’re demonstrating the inseperable nature of faith and obedience. Faith in Christ leads us to obey the call to repent and be baptized – and in our baptism as a response to faith, we are spiritually strengthened with greater faith. That greater faith confirms for us our core identity as belonging to Christ.

The opening verse of scripture from Colossians 1:17 is very telling regarding their purposes – to take our eyes off ourselves and our agendas and machinations and fix them upon Christ: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Without Christ, the authors point out, human life slips back into “chaos and nonbeing.”

These are big claims – and they hinge on the question “Who is this Christ then” – is he the wandering dusty prophet of the skeptics? Is he the radical antiestablishmentarian revolutionary of protest warriors? Is he the uber-peace child of 1970’s musicals?

Achtemeier and Purves make it pretty clear which Christ they speak of: “With the witness of Scripture and the church through the ages we declare….” Their purpose is not to re-envision Christ. Quite simply, their assertion is that Christ has made himself known clearly through Scripture and through the testimony of the saints; it behooves us to listen to them.

There have always been radical voices that reject the historic affirmations about Christ; yet they have done so against the testimony of scripture and the saints of the past. At some point they have said “I don’t care what scripture says” or “I don’t care about the whole counsel of God, I only accept this book as scripture” or “The church has gotten it wholly wrong, and we alone are the repository of truth.” These voices are present in history; they may have even been ascendant for a season of history, yet they don’t accurately represent the Christ as revealed in scripture.

But wait, what of the Reformation? Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that has happened in reformation and renewal movements of the past. Not at all. Reformation and renewal is at its core a call to return to the scriptures and return to the witness of the saints of the past. The proliferation of denominations, sects, and movements is not necessarily a witness against Christian unity, but rather it can be a witness for it. For it demonstrates that there are essentials on which all Christians must be united, and there are other areas that may organizationally divide us (proper administration of baptism, for instance; or structuring of church government) but we may still be united in our witness of Christ as lord and savior.

It is for this reason that I as a Presbyterian can claim Augustineof Hippo, Patrick of Ireland, Bernard of Clarveaux, John Chrysostom, Teresa of Avila, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Dorothy Sayers, JC Ryle, Fanny Crosby, John Wesley, and a legion of other non-Presbyterians as the saints of the past upon whose foundation I build. I can claim them as my own heritage because we all share the same confession of the same Lord – we all understand the same Christ. It is the Christ of the Nicene Creed; the Christ of the whole scriptures – fully human and fully divine. The second person of the Trinity. The prophet, priest, and king of our confession.

This is the Christ that Purves and Achtemeier talk about in their declaration:

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God
To the world
And for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.
His coming transforms everything.
His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.
They begin with the unusual statement “Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world” – At the time of their writing, this was a relatively unfamiliar way of naming Jesus. We think of individuals carrying out a mission, or living a mission or having a mission – But Jesus is the mission. He doesn’t just show they way and proclaim the truth and teach about life. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is the word made flesh. He is the human embodiment of the triune God whose self revelation to Moses was “I am that I am” (exod 3:14). He is the fulfillment of all scriptures (Luke 24:27, Matt 5:17).

This wording fits, because Jesus mission is likely much bigger than simply the salvation of sinners. Certainly that is the part of his mission that concerns us and puts our heart at ease, but that’s not the sum total of God’s mission. The declaration talks about Jesus’ true humanity, Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ victory over sin and death, among other things. And there is more to Jesus’ mission than that. The very glory of God is an end goal of Jesus’ mission: “Truly truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.” (John 5:19-20) The whole discourse in John 5 speaks of the intimate relationship of God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit – ultimately pointing to the end goal of the greater glory of the Triune God.

Rightly said then is the statement that Jesus is God’s mission. We could spend a lifetime contemplating the implications of that truth.

Soli Deo Gloria


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back From Hiatus: On to more reading -- Union in Christ by Purves and Achtemeier

Yes, I've taken a three week or so hiatus from blogging. We've had a number of activities that have left me with little energy for blogging.

Yet the summer reading goes on, and as we bring our Covenant-First summer book clubs to a close, we're starting into Union In Christ: A Declaration for the Church by Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier. Thus, it's time for me to get back to the keyboard and think through this concise and well written document. This text is a different kind of document from the other books we’ve looked at this summer. Andrew Murray’s Absolute Surrender was a devotional book distilled from a number of addresses given to general audiences. Meanwhile Torrance’s Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace was distilled from a focused lecture series given to a group of theological students.

Union in Christ is not a series of lectures. It is subtitled “A Declaration for the Church” – the more likely literary parallel is the United States Declaration of Independence. In both, we have a short, pithy statement that is carefully worded and each phrase bears the weight of great reflection. On the other hand, the statement is designed to be intelligible to non-specialists. The language used is deliberately chosen to stir the hearts of readers. Both declarations were authored by small committees to be presented to larger bodies for approval (the continental congress in the case of the US declaration; the Presbyterian coalition in the case of Union in Christ).

However, the Union in Christ text also contains the author’s commentary on the declaration itself – thus we get to see and understand some of the reasoning going into the careful wording, and we’re prompted to greater reflection. In short, with the commentary and questions, a theological document transforms into a devotional piece. Purves and Achtemeier did a great service in continually pointing us to the scriptures that undergird their work. Too often in contemporary theology, scripture reference is an afterthought, lending the impression that the cleverness of the theologian is more important than the foundation upon which he builds. Purves and Achtemeier have no such inclinations. They consistently lead us back to scriptures. They take great pains to show that their teaching is not a new one – it is the foundational teaching of the church rooted in scripture; their aim has been to state the basic truths in fresh ways.

Like all documents, this one is time-bound. However as a declaration, it is designed to address the issues of its day – which continue to be issues within the Presbyterian church and the church at large. The five sections of this declaration deal with: Christology (who is this Jesus), discipleship (what is life in Jesus), authority (who says what’s what), mission (what is the church supposed to be doing), and church unity (what is it that binds us together). Purves and Achtemeier take pains to point out that a declaration, by its nature, is limited in scope. This isn’t a systematic theology. They ask that they evaluate the statement based on what it says about the topics covered, rather than what is left out.

So over the next few days, join me as we explore this document together.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, July 30, 2007

Off the shelf: The Most Famous Man in America

This is a whopper of a book about a whale of a man. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, this book almost matches its subject in girth (at least in later life).

I was drawn to this book for one main reason: Henry Ward Beecher's father, Lyman Beecher, pastored the church which I serve (what was once Second Pres, Cincinnati and is now Covenant-First Presbyterian). I was looking for information on Lyman's tenure here.

However, when I skimmed the book in the bookstore, I put it back as not worth my time. I'm glad I changed my mind on it, but first I have to tell you what bothered me so. The author, Debby Applegate, seems to have a clear confusion about my religious tradition - Calvinism (though I prefer the moniker "Reformed Christianity"). Again and again, Applegate paints Calvinism as the most dour and rigid form of Christianity imaginable. She paints adherents as part of a mirthless parade of vinegar faced parsons and school marms who scowl at the notion that someone somewhere might be having a good time.

I know, it's a familiar charicature; I come across it all the time. I just get tired of it. If these folks would but read Calvin or Edwards they might get a different picture. All the same, I sucked up my objections, realizing that for better or worse, Applegate (and others) have formed these opinions based on the very 19th century reports of the people who rejected the Calvinistic doctrines of their fathers. We shouldn't lay too much blame at Applegate's feet, but rather look to the Beecher children, to Melville and Hawthorne and Emerson. All great writers indeed, but none of them had positive experiences of Calvinistic christianity.

Applegate relates Lyman's treatment of Henry's older sister Catherine. At the time, she was as yet "unconverted" and engaged to be married. Her fiancee tragically died in a shipwreck, but rather than extending words of comfort, Lyman pressed the opportunity to urge for Catherine's conversion. She and her father would get in shouting matches about theology, neither giving quarter to the concerns of the other. Catherine was no intellectual slouch either, so the combat took place in high planes of rhetoric and logic. Ultimately, Catherine did convert, but she over the years became a hard bitter woman. Is it any wonder in such an environment that Henry would consider rejecting the doctrines of his youth? As Applegate says on the book's website:
As Henry’s famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, put it, orthodox Christianity of the time was “calculated, like a skilful engine of torture, to produce all the mental anguish of the most perfect sense of helplessness with the most torturing sense of responsibility.” This was the doctrine preached by Henry’s father, that Puritan stalwart, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, and it nearly turned Henry and his eleven siblings away from religion forever.
I don't understand Reformed Christianity this way -- I find it quite liberating and refreshing to bask in the sovereignty of God and the riches of God's grace. I find it freeing to not have to rely on any goodness on my part to win my salvation, and I find it hopeful that Christ's work and grace forms the basis for all my moral improvement. However, it seems that 19th century presentation of Reformed Christianity was in some cases a bit...different.

Applegate has a keen sense of the story of Beecher's life -- she foreshadows early on the dysfunctional relationships that drive Henry Ward Beecher into the arms of adoring parishoners. As the book continues, the tension mounts, coming to a climax in the sordid details surrounding Beecher's adultery trial. Along the way, Applegate gives us broader glimpses into the cultural landscape of the time. We meet a young Mark Twain, a hoary headed Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Walt Whitman, ready to burst onto fame. We learn how oratory and the lecture circuit was the main form of entertainment in those days, and Henry Ward Beecher was a master. We're reminded that Harry Potter wasn't the first blockbuster book that caused a sensation in the streets -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was just as famous for its day, spawning an empire of merchandising and adaptations to the stage. (Heck, it even helped start a war, let's see the boy wizard do that!). We get glimpses of the early women's suffrage movement and we see the US flag being raised over Fort Sumter at the conclusion of the Civil War. Applegate gives us a taste of the breathtaking press of history in the 19th century, as though the century were too small to contain all that happened in it.

She also reminds us of a few trends in evangelicalism that perhaps we need to be reminded of, for instance, the early interest in promoting education: “In the twentieth century, evangelical Christians came to be characterized as reactionary and anti-intellectual, but in the 1830’s they were the nation’s most ardent advocates of education, believing that ignorance and sin went hand in hand.” (78)

Sadly, Applegate spends little time examining Beecher's theological slide. She seems to take it for granted that it was revolutionary and thus a good thing. Christianity Today reviewer John Wilson nails it, I think:

Applegate exaggerates the extent to which Beecher's emphasis on God's unconditional love was a novelty and mischaracterizes the religious landscape in other ways (for example, you'd never intuit from her account the perfectionist strain in early Methodism that led to the Holiness movement). Still, she's one of those rare writers who manage to combine in a single book the virtues of scholarly and popular biography, immersing themselves in the archives without losing the human touch.

Tim Challies looks at it a little differently:

This biography would have been more interesting to me had it dealt with Beecher's contribution to the theological downgrade in the late 19th century. Sadly, the biographer's ignorance of Christian theology meant she had little to say in this regard and instead she focused on moral scandal.

I'm afraid that I have to chime in here too -- We get none of the nuance of the complex nature of the religious landscape of the era. Applegate mentions the 1857/8 New York Prayer revival, but little else about revivalism. We hear little to nothing about old Princeton orthodoxy as maintained by Charles Hodge and AA Hodge. We hear nothing about that other rotund megachurch orator, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Of course, Applegate hardly had room to squeeze in another page, but clearly the religous landscape was not so black and white as it seems in this book (from stern orthodoxy to light and airy newness).

All told, the book is an entertaining read and useful in understanding history. Applegate is a fine stylist, and I look forward to reading more of her work (She really ought to try her hand at fiction -- for she has a natural instinct for drama). But I would suggest taking religious inspiration from other sources.

Soli Deo Gloria