Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2012

The title is misleading because these books were not released in 2012. They're books that I've enjoyed this past year. I hope you decide to read a few, learn from them, and become better equipped to give an answer for the hope that is in you - if your hope is in Christ. If it is not, then I challenge you to first read the Bible. Scripture stands on its own authority, but these books (at least some of them) may be helpful for Christians who wish to engage the culture in which they find themselves. So without further ado here is the list:

10. Beowulf

An epic poem that brilliantly paved the way for the coming of the Messiah to Nordic culture.

9. Christianity and Culture by T. S. Eliot

Eliot methodically examines what culture is, and how Christianity and modernity have shaped it.

8. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger

An accessible yet scholarly examination of Biblical Canon formation.

7. Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli

An all encompassing apologetic of the Christian faith. It styles itself in the classical mode of apologetics, similar to Thomas Aquinas. I incline towards a Cornelius Van Tilian presuppositional approach, or what some have called covenantal apologetics, but, as in any argument, it's worth knowing the thought process of each side.

6. The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis

An excellent and easy to read theodic apologetic.

5. Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill

A fiery call to holiness.

4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

When hatred of God is captain of the ship, we end up shipwrecked.

3. The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis

Lewis is able to express with words homesickness for heaven that I have previously only known in my heart. These longings are still inexpressible, but Lewis does a pretty darn good job working within the confines of speech. There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin declares, "Happiness isn't good enough for me. I demand euphoria!" This would have been a good cover for the book.

2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

We need more men like the Bishop of Digne and Jean Valjean.

1. Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision For Middle Earth by Douglas Wilson and Douglas Jones

Wilson and Jones collaborate to give us a vision of rich Christian culture which recognizes the Lordship of Christ over all things.

Monday, August 27, 2012

...And I'm A Mormon

I began eying the person to my left as I seated myself on the plane. I noticed him reading what appeared to be the Bible. I asked what it was. Closing the book with his finger as a bookmark, the cover revealed Book of Mormon. Admittedly, I wasn't thrilled. I never talked to a Mormon or engaged in trying to understand Mormonism. So I figured I would take the opportunity to learn as much as possible. This kid was fresh off a year-long mission trip, which meant he had all the answers, the entire narrative, the whole shebang, down to an air-tight science. He spoke in a soft, slow, "I-am-speaking-the-words-of-God" kind of voice. It came across condescending more than anything, but I continued to ask questions, learning about the Lamanites, Nephites, The Great Apostasy, the Golden Tablets, and Joseph Smith. By the end of the flight, I think he was convinced he had me in the bag. He gave me his cherished scripture and said, "read this and ask God to tell you if it is true or not." So I did. 
What I discovered were partial truths wrapped in suspect historical narrative. I found the orthodox Christian theology most surprising. Typically, Mormonism is considered unorthodox. I still believe this to be the case, but the unorthodox theology comes from what Mormons refer to as "deep doctrine" not the Book of Mormon (at least not directly). Even though the book does not deviate radically from orthodox Christian theology, it fails to read in the same way as the Bible. It's like Joseph Smith threw the Bible in a paper shredder and then tried to glue it back together. Overall, the book comes across as an uninspired plagiarism of the Bible. If we could dust it for fingerprints, we would find Joseph Smith's or even the partial of an angel's, but not God's.

The book begins with the appearance of the angel Moroni in Smith's bedroom on three successive occasions. Moroni tells Smith where to retrieve the tablets from which the Book of Mormon is eventually translated.  Smith emphatically describes the light emanating from the celestial being during each appearance. After disappearing for the third time, a rooster crows. "After this third visit, he again ascended into heaven as before, and I was again left to ponder on the strangeness of what I had just experienced; when almost immediately after the heavenly messenger had ascended from me the third time, the cock crowed." I thought it incredibly odd that Smith's testimony would so loudly echo of Peter's denial of Christ. If Smith desired to establish another testament of Jesus Christ, then beginning that testament with a story alluding to His denial is not the most cunning strategy. 

I think Smith really did see an angel from heaven, but I believe the angel was Satan. And Satan works by using partial truths to achieve devastating ends. The Serpent was not absolutely lying to the orchard thieves when he said, "you surely will not die!" There is no record of Adam warning Eve not to believe the half truth, but there are records of Paul warning the Galatians and Corinthians of such things. We would do well to heed them.

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:6-9)

"And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder,  for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness." (II Corinthians 11:12-15)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

C. S. Lewis on War and Death

From Learning in War-Time, a sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939

War threatens us with death and pain. No man -- and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane -- need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things: but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that -- of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city, satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, an not a moment too soon.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: A Jacobin's Knightmare

Christopher Nolan has given us a not-so-friendly film to the Occupy crowd. If the Occupiers are the newest version of proletarian Jacobins, then Nolan is our Edmund Burke or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Not that Nolan compares in greatness to Burke or Solzhenitsyn, or that The Dark Knight Rises is on par with Burke's Reflections or Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, but just as these works condemned the iniquities of The French Revolution and The Bolshevik Revolution, so The Dark Knight Rises puts the ugliness of Occupy ideology in the spotlight by showing what happens after storming the Bastille.

The blockbuster hit commits to French Revolution and Marxist revolution motifs throughout. As Selina Kyle, or Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), dances with the bourgeois Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), she justifies her theft by stating "I take what I need from those who have more than enough." Then she states, "There's a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits you're all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Two statements which summarize the bitter feelings of those who would have us institutionalize envy. She might as well have pulled out some bongo drums, camped in front of Scott Walker's house and made them into a chant. Later in the film, "the storm" comes and Wayne Manor is overrun by "the rest of us." One of Selina's friends notices she isn't drunk on the chaos or celebrating their victory over their perceived oppressors and asks, "What's wrong? Isn't this what you wanted?" She doesn't respond. The leveling effect is carnal and ugly, but she realizes too late.

The brains and muscle behind the revolution are (spoiler alert!) Bane (Tom Hardy), Miranda Tate (Marion Catillard) and Miranda's father Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), which translated from Arabic is Demon's Head. Ra's al Ghul's plan in its simplest form is to rid Gotham City of its evil by destroying it. The plan is thwarted by Batman and Ra's al Ghul dies in Batman Begins, but his daughter Miranda is set on fulfilling her father's dream. If Miss Tate were to write a memoir it may be titled something like Dreams From My Father. Bane is in cahoots with Miranda and the first step in their plan, as in any brilliant revolutionary plan like these, is to destroy the foundations of the city. Yep, sounds about right. Bane then releases the prisoners of the city, which I'm sure made Occupiers giddy since most of them were probably non-violent offenders whose only crime was smoking a little weed, man...Once the city is in disarray and the thugs are in charge, they set up a revolutionary tribunal, which Nolan portrays as almost comical in its excesses. The judge is the demented Scarecrow and he sits upon a heap of debris. The defendants are brought arbitrarily before the judge and have no legal representation. The sole penalty is death. Due process is guillotined and a reign of terror takes her place. The similarities between the The French Revolution and Marxist revolution are all over the place, and Nolan makes them all look really bad.   

Nolan stated about the film, "What we're constructing here is a very, very elemental conflict between good and evil." As Ra's al Ghul would seek to rid Gotham of its evils by destroying it, Batman seeks to rid Gotham of its evils by redeeming it. He saves the entire city through a demonstration of sacrifice. Nolan does not view evil the same as Susan Sarandan or Michael Moore. Sarandan and Moore would have us hollow out the foundations of the city in a fit of proletarian fervor or else destroy it. Nolan says this is evil. Batman seeks to redeem things that are evil, not destroy them, even though these things deserve to be destroyed. At one point, Batman refers to the people of Gotham as thousands of innocent people. Miranda Tate (or Selina Kyle, I can't remember) responds with, "innocent is such a strong word." So there's this idea of people who are messed up and yet Batman is still willing to fight for them. Nolan and the Occupiers agree that a city can be evil, but Nolan's method of correcting the problem is redemption not destruction.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sheldon Cooper, Dr. Pierce, Dexter and The Monotonous Processional of Aberrant Protagonists

Ever notice the main characters of a lot of television shows are close to insanity? I have. Not that I watch a lot of TV, but I live in a culture which insists that television be virtually inescapable. It's hard to swim in a sea of brain-rotting, decadent media without getting some of the salt water in my mouth. I do my best to spit it out, but it still leaves me with an understanding of the taste.

 My Marines love the program Dexter featuring a likeable serial killer. Today, I saw previews for the show Perception starring an eccentric neuroscientist, Dr. Pierce, who assists the FBI in their casework. My roommates watch The Big Bang Theory, featuring (along with others) Sheldon Cooper, a socially inept Spock-like scientist. What's with the aberrant protagonist fad? I think Chesterton was on to something...

"The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the center is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world." (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch 2 The Maniac)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Doctrine of Death: What My Father Taught Me

 Fyodor Dostoyevsky begins his capstone novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with this verse from The Gospel of John: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."

I had read this before, but never understood it entirely. I didn't start to think about it seriously until about two years ago when I first read The Brothers K. I'm sure I still do not understand in full, but I can at least say I now see in a mirror dimly. The reflection in a pool of water recently disturbed by a tossed stone becomes more clear as time passes. This seems to be the case for myself. There may be some who read this and think it to be elementary, so I readily admit my slowness to perceive and also my child like excitement when I discover something new.

From the earliest days of my awakening, I had known that one had to lose their life in order to find it. As is the case for anyone who awakes to find themselves amongst the dead, they leave behind their dwelling of death and start moving towards new life. Like Lazarus resurrected by Jesus, I too, had to leave the tomb behind and obey His call. As I continued to read the Scriptures I found this death-life symbiosis everywhere. What I discovered as of late is this idea is found in more places than I had originally thought. It's found in verses like John 14:24. Jesus speaks in terms that the mostly agrarian society of first century Palestine would understand. They were intimately familiar with the death-life process of the seed turned to wheat. Perhaps this has never been clear to me because I do not come from an agrarian background. For me, this is a new way of understanding how God reveals Himself through creation. (Romans 1:20)

 C. S. Lewis provides helpful insight:

"Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity. This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God "forsakes" it. The doctrine of which I describe is not peculiar to Christianity. Nature herself has written it large across the world in the repeated drama of the buried seed and the re-arising corn. From nature, perhaps, the oldest agricultural communities learned it and with animal, or human, sacrifices showed forth for centuries the truth that "without shedding of blood is no remission"; and though at first such conceptions may have concerned only the crops and offspring of the tribe they came later, in the Mysteries, to concern the spiritual death and resurrection of the individual. The Indian ascetic, mortifying his body on a bed of spikes, preaches the same lesson; the Greek philosopher tells us that the life of wisdom is "a practice of death". The sensitive and noble heathen of modern times makes his imagined gods "die into life". Mr. Huxley expounds "nonattachment." We cannot escape the doctrine by ceasing to be Christians." (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Ch. VI Human Pain)

This passage was key for me in connecting Romans 1 with John 14:24. I Corinthians 15:35-44 elucidates the matter even further. God uses things like the drama of the buried seed to minister to us. Our bodies die and will be lowered into the ground and then resurrected unto new life and we will be transformed into a new body. Think of the difference between a seed and an Oak Tree! This is God's ministry to us through nature.

But what of the time between spiritual rebirth and bodily resurrection? The place where we find ourselves currently. The day to day. I submit to you that this intermediate time is our passion. It is our time of daily death. It is our time to bury ourselves like the seed. As Lewis said, Christ on Calvary exemplified this for our imitation. Jesus spoke to the mostly agrarian society in terms they would clearly understand. Similarly, I believe He has spoken to me through terms that I can clearly understand - namely my earthly father. This Father's Day, I write to honor my father, who taught me how to die through his living example, and, as is the theme in the doctrine of death, taught me how to fully live.

I will always be haunted by Thoreau's poignantly stinging remark that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." This is true only of the man who allows fear to keep him paralyzed and thus his tongue static like a living repetition of Adam's sin in The Garden. But a man who is already dead to the world is not afraid of the things in it, because the things in it can only destroy his body, but never his soul. My father taught me to peel back the thin veneer of everything ephemeral and reach for eternity by dying to the temporary and living for the permanent. So, thank you, Father, for my father. And thank you, Dad, for your example.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Founders Knew We Were Not Exceptional

"When you read through the Constitution of The United States, there is one subtext that goes through the whole thing. That is, the men who wrote our Constitution had one guiding principle - Americans are not to be trusted. That's what they believed. Americans are not to be trusted. It wasn't that Americans are so noble and lovely and wonderful, let's just heap all the power into one big pile so Americans can go out and save the world; that's not what they believed. They thought Americans were skunks, and sneaks, and cowards, just like the rest of the human race. They knew that we weren't exceptional. That's exceptional."

- Douglas Wilson, Sermon on Samuel IX