Friday, August 22, 2014

God Reigns: Divine Sovereignty

From the Reformation Study Bible:
The assertion of God's absolute sovereignty in creation, providence, and salvation is basic to biblical belief and biblical praise. The vision of God reigning from His throne is recurrent (1 Kin. 22:19; Is. 6:1; Ezek. 1:26; Dan. 7:9; Rev. 4:2; cf. Ps. 11:4; 45:6; 47:8, 9; Heb. 12:2; Rev. 3:21). We are constantly told in explicit terms that the Lord (Yahweh) reigns as king, exercising dominion over great and small alike (Ex. 15:18; Ps. 47; 93; 96:10; 97; 99:1-5; 146:10; Prov. 16:33; 21:1; Is. 24:23; 52:7; Dan. 4:34, 35; 5:21-28; 6:26; Matt. 10:29-31). God's dominion is total: He wills as He chooses, and carries out all that He wills, and none can stay His hand, or thwart His plans. He exercises His rule in the normal course of life, as well as in more remarkable interventions or miracles.
God's rational creatures, angelic and human, have free agency, that is, the power of personal decision as to what they will do. We would not be moral beings, answerable to God the Judge, if it were not so. Nor would it be possible to distinguish, as Scripture does, between the bad purposes of human agents and the good purposes of God, who sovereignly overrules human action as a planned means to His own goals (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23; 13:26-39). Yet the fact of free agency confronts us with mystery. God's control over our free actions, actions chosen by ourselves, is as complete as it is over anything else; but how this can be we do not know. Despite this control, God is not, and cannot be, the author of sin. God has conferred responsibility on moral agents for their thoughts, words, and deeds, according to His justice.
Ps. 93 teaches that God's sovereign rule (a) guarantees the stability of the world against all the forces of chaos (vv. 1-4), (b) confirms the trustworthiness of all God's utterances and directives (v. 5), and (c) calls for the worship of His people (v. 5). The whole psalm expresses joy, hope, and confidence in the Almighty.
See more on the will of God here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Wisdom and Will of God

From the Reformation Study Bible:
Wisdom in Scripture means choosing the best and noblest end at which to aim, along with the most appropriate and effective means of achieving that end. Old Testament wisdom literature, including Job, . . . Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and certain of the Psalms (Ps. 19; 37; 104; 107; 147; 148), dealt not only with the life of worship or religious exercise in the restricted sense, but also with everyday moral behavior in family, social, and business concerns. In the New Testament the letter of James might also be considered "wisdom literature" in its plain-spoken description of practical Christian living. In light of the wisdom literature of Scripture, Christian wisdom means making the "fear of God"—reverent worship and service of Him—the goal of life (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Eccl. 12:13).
God's wisdom is seen in His works of creation, preservation, and redemption: it is His choice of His own glory as His goal (Ps. 46:10; Is. 42:8; 48:11), and His decision to achieve it first by creating a marvelous variety of things and people (Ps. 104:24; Prov. 3:19, 20), second by kindly providence of all sorts (Ps. 145:13-16; Acts 14:17), and third by the redemptive "wisdom" of Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) and the resulting Christian church in the world (Eph. 3:10).
The outworking of God's wisdom involves the expression of His will in two different senses. In the first sense, God's will is "His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 7). This "eternal purpose" is God's decreed will, referred to in Eph. 1:11. In the second sense, the will of God is His command, that is, His instruction given in Scripture, concerning how people should believe and behave. This is sometimes called His "preceptive will," and is spoken of in Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:17; Col. 1:9; 1 Thess. 4:3-6. Some of its requirements are rooted in His holy character, which we are to imitate: such are the two great commandments (Ex. 20:1-17; Matt. 22:37-40; cf. Eph. 4:32-5:2). Some of its requirements spring simply from the divine institution. Such were circumcision and the sacrificial and purity laws of the Old Testament, and such are baptism and the Lord's Supper today. But all, in their respective times, bind the conscience, and God's plan of events (His "eternal purpose") already includes the "good works" of obedience that those who believe will perform (Eph. 2:10).
It is sometimes difficult, even impossible, for mortal humans to understand how obedience, putting us at a disadvantage in the world, is part of a predestined plan of furthering both God's glory and our good (Rom. 8:28). But we glorify God by believing that it is so, because He who cannot lie has said it. One day we will see it to be so, because His wisdom is perfect and never fails.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

WORLD update (August 9, 2014)—children's books

Save the children (from bad books): Marvin Olasky lists his top-10 picture books for kids, and he reminds readers of an earlier issue that listed 50 great twentieth-centure children's books.

Kickstarter classic: "WORLD's Children’s Book of the Year took an unusual path to the publishing house." Andrew Peterson's book, The Warden and the Wolf King, was a Kickstarter project that "became the most successful fiction campaign in Kickstarter's history."

Books to remember: "WORLD staffers pick their childhood favorites." Not surprisingly, the authors are C.S. Lewis, Dr. Seuss, Robert Heinlein, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

For future grown-ups: "Some well-known authors have written very good preschool books." Authors include people such as Joni Earekson Tada, Tony Dungy, R.C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, Eric Metaxas, Francis Chan, Max Lucado, Janette Oke, and Randy Alcorn.

Pink and blue and read all over: "Children's publishing has become a battlefield in the gender wars."

Hello, darkness: "Teenagers and the literature of hopelessness and suicide."

Notable picture books: "Four picture book biographies."

Friday, August 15, 2014

Leithart, Gratitude, and Soup Tureens

From Peter Leithart's Gratitude: An Intellectual History (pp. 15-16):
In teaching on gift and gratitude, I have found it useful to describe the magic of gifts with the following illustration: Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat? Most of my students (though, surprisingly, not all) have had the sensitivity to refrain from using the tureen for the cat. Nearly all have had the good sense to say they would not let Grandma know that her tureen was serving the cat. Change the scenario: What if you had bought the ugly soup tureen? Would you have any qualms about using the tureen to feed the cat? What if the Walmart checkout girl were coming to dinner—would you have qualms about letting her see the cat eating from the soup tureen she had rung up for you? Nearly all my students agree they have no obligations to treat the tureen in a way that respected the wishes of the checkout girl.
Variations on the hypothetical can be spun out further (what would you do if you had bought the tureen from Grandma?), but the point is clear enough. Gifts, especially gifts from a respected giver, carry something of the giver with them.
Book dedication: To Pastor Douglas Wilson, with thanks, for his example of giving thanks for all things.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Forward to The Story of Mankind

The following is the forward to Hendrik van Loon's book, The Story of Mankind (which I wrote about here):
When I was twelve or thirteen years old, an uncle of mind who gave me my love for books and pictures promised to take me upon a memorable expedition. I was to go with him to the top of the tower of Old Saint Lawrence in Rotterdam.
And so, one fine day, a sexton with a key as large as that of Saint Peter opened a mysterious door. "Ring the bell," he said, "when you come back and want to get out," and with a great grinding of rusty old hinges he separated us from the noise of the busy street and locked us into a world of new and strange experiences.
For the first time in my life I was confronted by the phenomenon of audible silence. When we had climbed the first flight of stairs, I added another discovery to my limited knowledge of natural phenomena—that of tangible darkness. A match showed us where the upward road continued. We went to the next floor and then to the next and the next until I had lost count and then there came still another floor, and suddenly we had plenty of light. This floor was on an even height with the roof of the church, and it was used as a storeroom. Covered with many inches of dust, there lay the abandoned symbols of a venerable faith which had been discarded by the good people of the city many years ago. That which had meant life and death to our ancestors was here reduced to junk and rubbish. The industrious rat had built his next among the carved images and the ever watchful spider had opened up shop between the outspread arms of a kindly saint.
The next floor showed us from where we had derived our light. Enormous open windows with heavy iron bars made the high and barren room the roosting place of hundreds of pigeons. The wind blew through the iron bars and the air was filled with a weird and pleasing music. It was the noise of the town below us, but a noise which had been purified and cleansed by the distance. The rumbling of heavy carts and the clinking of horses' hoofs, the winding of cranes and pulleys, the hissing sound of the patient steam which had been set to do the work of man in a thousand different ways—they had all been blended into a softly rustling whisper which provided a beautiful background for the trembling cooing of the pigeons.
Here the stairs came to an end and the ladders began. And after the first ladder (a slippery old thing which made one feel his way with a cautious foot) there was a new and even greater wonder, the town-clock. I saw the heart of time. I could hear the heavy pulsebeats of the rapid seconds—one—two—three—up to sixty. Then a sudden quivering noise when all the wheels seemed to stop and another minute had been chopped off eternity. Without pause it began again—one—two—three—until at last after a warning rumble and the scraping of many wheels a thunderous voice, high above us, told the world that it was the hour of noon.
On the next floor were the bells. The nice little bells and their terrible sisters. In the centre the big bell, which made me turn stiff with fright when I heard it in the middle of the night telling a story of fire or flood. In solitary grandeur it seemed to reflect upon those six hundred years during which it had shared the joys and the sorrows of the good people of Rotterdam. Around it, neatly arranged like the blue jars in an old-fashioned apothecary shop, hung the little fellows, who twice each week played a merry tune for the benefit of the country-folk who had come to market to buy and sell and hear what the big world had been doing. But in a corner—all alone and shunned by the others—a big black bell, silent and stern, the bell of death.
Then darkness once more and other ladders, steeper and even more dangerous than those we had climbed before, and suddenly the fresh air of the wide heavens. We had reached the highest gallery. Above us the sky. Below us the city—a little toy-town, where busy ants were hastily crawling hither and thither, each one intent upon his or her particular business, and beyond the jumble of stones, the wide greenness of the open country.
It was my first glimpse of the big world.
Since then, whenever I have had the opportunity, I have gone to the top of the tower and enjoyed myself. It was hard work, but it repaid in full the mere physical exertion of climbing a few stairs.
Besides, I knew what my reward would be. I would see the land and the sky, and I would listen to the stories of my kind friend the watchman, who lived in a small shack, built in a sheltered corner of the gallery. He looked after the clock and was a father to the bells, and he warned of fires, but he enjoyed many free hours and then he smoked a a pipe and thought his own peaceful thoughts. He had gone to school almost fifty years before and had rarely read a book, but he had lived on the top of his tower for so many years that he had absorbed the wisdom of that wide world which surrounded him on all sides.
History he knew well, for it was a living thing with him. "There," he would say, pointing to a ben of the river, "there, my boy, do you see those trees? That is where the Prince of Orange cut the dikes to drown the land and save Leyden." Or he would tell me the tale of the old Meuse, until the broad river ceased to be a convenient harbor and became a wonderful highroad, carrying the ships of De Ruyter and Tromp upon that famous last voyage, when they gave their lives that the sea might be free to all.
Then there were the little villages, clustering around the protecting church which once, many years ago, had been the home of their Patron Saints. In the distance we could see the leaning tower of Delft. Within sight of its high arches, William the Silent had been murdered and there Grotius had learned to construe his first Latin sentences. And still further away, the long low body of the church of Gouda, the early home of the man whose wit had proved mightier than the armies of many an emperor, the charity-boy whom the world came to know as Erasmus.
Finally the silver line of the endless sea and as a contrast, immediately below us, the patchwork of roofs and chimneys and houses and gardens and hospitals and schools and railways, which we called our home. But the tower showed us the old home in a new light. The confused commotion of the streets and the market-place, of the factories and the workshop, became the well-ordered expression of human energy and purpose. Best of all, the wide view of the glorious past, which surrounded us on all sides, gave us new courage to face the problems of the future when we had gone back to our daily tasks.
History is the mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages. It is no easy task to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done.
Here I give you the key that will open the door.
When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm.
Remember that Loon wrote this nearly 600-page history book for children.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

C.S. Lewis, Baylor, and higher education

Several Baylor scholars have weighed in on the significance of C.S. Lewis and his contributions to Christian thought. Some of those scholars are David Jeffrey, Ralph Wood, Alan Jacobs, and C. Stephen Evans. It was also nice to see Ian Gravagne's comments from a STEM perspective.

Here's just a snippet from Jacobs's comments:
I believe the deep, rich resources of the broad tradition of Christianity—East and West, for 2,000 years—do not foreclose intellectual possibilities, but enable intellectual possibilities. I came to Baylor because I think people here believe that, too. This is a place where the leaders are, I think, saying to me and to others, "If you want to take advantage of the richness of that tradition in order to pursue serious intellectual inquiry and take major intellectual risks, then let's go for it."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Seeming folly in The Fellowship of the Ring

Despair and folly have often been paired together, and sometimes folly is labeled presumption. Both despair and presumption frustrate hope: despair by lack, and presumption by surplus. Anemic hope leads to sloth and indolence, and gluttonous hope leads to reckless pride and intemperance.

Avoiding both extremes requires motion. Josef Pieper has written about the virtue of hope in terms of status viatoris and status comprehensoris. The latter refers to a state of having comprehended, having arrived. Etymologically, the English word comprehend derives from "grasping." (Prendre means "to take" in French.) Those in this state believe that they have arrived, either because of despair or presumption. If despairing, they believe that continuing the journey is futile. If presumptuous, they believe that continuing the journey is unnecessary. Pieper's point is that Christians must keep moving forward; status viatoris means being in the state a wayfarer, being on the move.

At the Council of Elrond, the chief counselor of Elrond's household, Erestor (Fellowship 289), turns the meandering conversation back to the issue of destroying the One Ring, but he is not hopeful: "What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me" (322).

Gandalf responds to Erestor by seeming to choose folly over despair:
"Despair or folly?" said Gandalf. "It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! . . . Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning." (322-23)
Note that Gandalf says, "it may appear [as folly] to those who cling to false hope." It is not folly, but it looks like it.

And so the Company, or Fellowship, goes on the road—they go on a quest. Quests are naturally exciting, but perhaps Tolkien is connecting the quest motif with his theme of hope: hope requires forward movement (status viatoris). (W.H. Auden called The Lord of the Rings the best fiction in the genre of Heroic Quest that he had read in years.)

It is possible, although it may be a stretch, that Gandalf's seemingly harsh command before he falls with the Balrog in Khazad-dûm—"Fly, you fools!" (393)—is a reminder both to continue moving (do not despair) and to continue their mission as seeming fools (walk straight towards the Enemy).

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A brief Tolkien biography

This biography is taken from one of the CDs cases that comprise the BBC dramatized version of The Lord of the Rings:
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontien, capital of the Orange Free State in South Africa. His English father, Arthur Tolkien, was employed as manager of the local branch of the Bank of Africa.
When he was three years old, Ronald (as he was known to his family) and his younger brother, Hilary, were brought back to England by their mother, Mabel Tolkien. Before they could return to South Africa, their father died of rheumatic fever. Mrs. Tolkien and the boys remained in England, living for a while in a cottage at Sarehole Mill, near Birmingham, then moving to suburban Moseley in 1896. The same year, Mabel Tolkien experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith; this event had a lasting effect on Ronald, and Catholicism became a motivating force in his life and writings. As a child, Ronald Tolkien spent considerable time inventing imaginary languages, a hobby which lead eventually to the creation of an imaginary world where such tongues might be spoken.
He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and from 1911-1915 at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read English Language and Literature and acquired an extensive knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. These subjects were to become important not only to his later academic writings and translations, but also to the shaping of his own fictional mythologies.
In 1916, he married Edith Bratt, and went to serve in the Great War as a Second Lieutenant with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. Towards the end of the year he was sent home from the Somme suffering from trench fever, and during his convalescence began writing his Book of Lost Tales, a collection of stories about his imaginary world that was eventually to be known as The Silmarillion.
After the war, he worked briefly on the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, having spent a year as Professor of English Language at Leeds University, he returned to Oxford in 1925 as Professor of Anglo-Saxon.
The Tolkiens had three sons and a daughter, and it was to his children that Ronald first told the story of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, an unadventurous hobbit who finds himself having the most surprising adventures. Because the story was a favorite, he began to write it down around 1930. The publishing house of George Allen and Unwin heard about the story and encouraged Tolkien to complete the book. He did so, and it was published in 1937 as The Hobbit or There and Back Again. It was a huge success and the publishers requested a sequel. Tolkien had already offered them The Silmarillion (though it was far from completed), but they were looking for another book "about the hobbit." Then, in December 1937, Tolkien wrote to them: "I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits—'A long expected party.' A merry Christmas."
Thus began the long, erratic process of creating The Lord of the Rings. For the next twelve years, the work moved slowly towards completion; frequently put aside, once or twice almost abandoned. But encouraged by his publishers, his family and his close friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien worked away, writing, re-writing, extending and embellishing the story. As the work developed, it took surprising turns, threw up new and unprecedented conflicts and introduced the simple, vulnerable hobbits into a world of great heroes and mighty powers. It was the very world whose early history Tolkien had been recording in The Silmarillion. Few writers have undertaken the task of creating a new world with such thoroughness: Middle-earth—the world of The Lord of the Rings—has a geography, language, literature, history, mythology, flora, and fauna that is unique and unparalleled. The Lord of the Rings was completed in 1949, but publication was further delayed while Tolkien tried to find a publisher who would agree to publish both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. When this proved impossible, Tolkien allowed Allen and Unwin to publish The Lord of the Rings on its own. The book was divided into three separately titled volumes (somewhat to Tolkien's annoyance, since the work was not intended to be a trilogy). The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were published in 1954, and The Return of the King in 1955. [C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia were also published in the 1950s.]
The book received a mixed critical reception: C.S. Lewis described them as being "like lightning from a clear sky," while the American critic Edmund Wilson called them "long-winded balderdash," but they soon found an admiring readership. With the publication in America, in 1965, of an unauthorized paperback edition, the Tolkien cult began in earnest, proclaiming its admiration by every means from theses to graffiti. In 1971 Tolkien's wife died, and the following year he received the CBE and an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Oxford University. [The CBE is a British honor just shy of knighthood.]
Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, at age 81.
Perhaps the best insight into his personal philosophy is to be found in his short story Leaf by Niggle in which an artist spends his life engaged on a painting of a tree which he constantly reworks and retouches. When summoned to take a final journey, he leaves the picture incomplete, and with the passing years the work of a lifetime is neglected and destroyed—save for a small scrap of canvas bearing a single leaf. At the end of his journey, however, the artist comes to a land where his tree, now complete, forms part of a creation more perfect than the artist had ever envisaged. The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, was finally and posthumously published in 1977.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Story of Mankind and William Jennings Bryan

The first book ever to win the Newbery Award was Hendrik van Loon's The Story of Mankind (published in 1921; won award in 1922; online version here). It is an almost-600-page history book for children.

Yeah. I know. I bet kids today still eat it up.

At first I picked it up out of curiosity, but it's also amusing to see it next to a recent winner, such as the 96-page 2008 winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (to which I gave five stars on Goodreads).

One particular detail makes American history spring to life. In a chapter titled "The Age of Science," Loon defends Darwin as a courageous and persecuted geologist. Loon writes, "Darwin, who dared to question the story of creation of man, as revealed in the Bible, was denounced from every pulpit as an enemy of the human race. Even to-day, the persecution of those who venture into the unknown realm of science has not entirely come to an end. And while I am writing this Mr. Bryan is addressing a vast multitude on the 'Menace of Darwinism,' warning his hearers against the errors of the great English naturalist" (429).

The Scopes Trial occurred four years later. Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died, and five years after that, Bryan College opened.

Loon tips his hand even further several pages later: "I was born and educated in an atmosphere of the old-fashioned liberalism which had followed the discoveries of Darwin and the other pioneers of the nineteenth century. As a child, I happened to spend most of my waking hours with an uncle who was a great collector of the books written by Montaigne, the great French essayist of the sixteenth century" (450).

His reference to Montaigne is fitting, because he continues to explain why he (Loon) is the way he is because of his upbringing. His being born in Rotterdam and his exposure to Erasmus contributed to his tolerance; if he had been born in a "pleasant middle western city," he might have appreciated Bach's music more; if he had been born in Italy, he might have appreciated art more. Montaigne is one of the first major writers to write about cultural relativity (see his essay "Of Cannibals").

Loon admits his bias: "I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history and may understand his point-of-view. The bibliography at the end of this book, which represents all sorts of opinions and views, will allow you to compare my ideas with those of other people. And in this way, you will be able to reach your own final conclusions with a greater degree of fairness than would otherwise be possible" (451).

Of course, bibliographies are biased too. But the gesture is nice.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Length of college statements of faith

Marvin Olasky wonders about the usefulness (or uselessness) of college statements of faith, but here I'm more interested in a seemingly minor detail: the length of these statements. Here are the 12 colleges that Olasky mentions, with links to their doctrinal statements:
What I found so interesting is that of all of these colleges, BJU is probably thought of as one of the most restrictive, and the assumption might be that its statement of faith would be pages upon pages. But it's not. It's simply the university creed, sleek and trim like other creeds such as the Apostles' or the Nicene. Weighing in at fewer than 100 words, it's ironic that in a way it could be considered the most latitudinarian of all of the 12 represented in Olasky's list. Granted, the BJU site has a bulleted list of other positions on specific issues, but the main statement of faith is the shortest of any other institution on the list by far.

Other recent posts about BJU: