Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Brief responses to Niebuhr's critics

Various critics have responded to H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. Here are a couple, with my brief responses.

From Hesselgrave (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2nd ed., 116):
Niebuhr's analysis is very instructive and helpful if his categories are not taken to be rigid and their representatives are not considered to be antagonistic to one another in every case. The main problem with Neibuhr is that he puts Bible authors and writings at odd with one another. From a biblical point of view there seems to be some value in emphases that fall under categories one [Christ against culture], four [Christ and culture in paradox], and five [Christ as transformer of culture] and, quite possibly, three [Christ above culture].
My response: Hesselgrave's response actually seems to validate Niebuhr's 5-point scheme. If the Bible seems to express various ways of responding to culture, then Niebuhr is simply pointing out that different groups of people gravitate to different passages. This does not mean that the Bible contradicts itself, and logically, not all of the positions can be correct. But as with the baptism debate, different groups use their own passages to justify their positions; they can't all be right, but they all have their own justifications. So the biblical data can be interpreted in different ways, and Niebuhr simply points out the different ways that people interpret various passages.

From Bolt ("Some Reflections on Church and World, Worship and Evangelism," Calvin Theological Journal 27 [1992]: 98-99):
There are two significant problems with Niebuhr's typology, in my judgment. (1) The sociological continuum of alienation/accommodation tends to overlook the most important variable—what kind of society /culture are we talking about? One cannot speak about world-affirmation or world-denial in the abstract. A Christian response to a pagan culture will be different from a response to a culture that is open or friendly to Christian commitments. Accommodation or alienation? It all depends. . . . (2) In the second place, Niebuhr's "Christ transforming culture" position is blatantly universalistic and inclusive. Its mindset is a kind of modern and liberal Constantinianism. To the degree that the church submerges its identity, downplays its particularity and distinctiveness, and commits itself to a universal project of transformation, it is true to the transformational vision. Niebuhr's vision is a version of the peculiarly modern (Enlightenment) universal ideal. Modernity downplays the particular and exalts the universal. The basic modern conviction about religion is that, at bottom, all particular religions are really the same. Once the husks of particularity (specific traditions, stories, practices) are stripped away, certain basic kernel ideas (e.g., love, brotherhood, justice, peace) are the real essence of all religions. Since this is the case, all religions can join in a common ecumenical project for a better humanity, a better world. Individual particularity must remain a private matter. The result is a religion that is private and individualistic.
My response: 1) It's both biblical and historical (from Augustine to Van Til) to affirm the antithesis. Given that the City of Man and the City of God are always competing, a spectrum from alienation to affirmation seems legitimate. Transformation may be easier in some cultures, but an open door to transformation does not mean that all Christians joyfully walk through that door—some Christians would simply rather talk about the church-in-exile, no matter what kind of conditions exist.

2) Bolt's second point provides generic reactions to transformation, regardless of the biblical foundation for such transformation. Charges of modernity, enlightenment influence, liberalism, social gospel fuzziness, etc. all appear, explicitly or implicitly. However, none of the charges are necessarily warranted. For example, a transformational position does not necessarily strip away particular practices or submerge the identity of the church.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

Tame Your Email

This excerpt is from Tim Challies's book Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity (pp. 109-11), which Kara and I started reading together today.
To better understand why so many of us do email so badly, let's draw a comparison to a real-world object: your mailbox. Imagine if you treated your actual, physical mailbox like you treat your email. Here's how it would go.
You walk outside to check your mail and reach into your mailbox. Sure enough, you've got some new mail. You take out one of your letters, open it up, and begin to read it. You get about halfway through, realize it is not that interesting, stuff it back inside the envelope, and put it back in the mailbox muttering, "I'll deal with this one later." You open the next letter and find that it is a little bit more interesting, but you do the same thing—stuff it back into the envelope and put it back inside the mailbox. Other mail you pull out and don't even bother reading—it just goes straight back inside the mailbox. And sure enough, your mailbox is soon crammed full of a combination of hundreds of unopened and unread letters plus hundreds of opened and read or partially read letters.
But it gets worse. You don't just use your mailbox to receive and hold letters, but also to track your calendar items. You reach in deep and pull out a handful of papers with important dates and events written on them, including a few that have come and gone without you even noticing or remembering. And, of course, you also use your mailbox as a task list, so you've got all kinds of post-it notes in there with your to-do items scrawled all over them.
But we aren't done yet. Even though you feel guilty and kind of sick every time you open your mailbox, you still find yourself checking your mail constantly. Fifty or sixty times a day you stop whatever else you are doing, you venture down the driveway, and reach your hand inside to see if there is anything new.
It is absurd, right? Your life would be total chaos. And yet that is exactly how most people treat their email. It is chaotic, with no rules or procedures to control it. What do you need? You need a system.
Maybe some of this resonates with you. See more inside Challies's book.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Top posts of 2015

Not very many this year. In my defense, this year I took preliminary exams and defended my prospectus.

Kevin DeYoung's Five Questions about Sanctification and Good Works (Oct. 27)

N.D. Wilson on fantasy and stuff (Nov. 23)

ENG 2301 Introduction (Aug. 24)

A sense of blunder (Feb. 17)

The Weight of Glory in Donne, Shakespeare, and Lewis (July 29)

Christmas, grief, and narrative arc (Dec. 7)

Here is the list from 2014, and here are my top books from 2015.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top books of 2015

According to Goodreads, I read eight books this year that I rated 5 stars ("It was amazing"). Only two were fiction, and two were actually textbooks.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis): Finished in December. Read to Kate for the first time, but I think she was a little too young (four).

God Rest Ye Merry: Why Christmas Is the Foundation for Everything (Doug Wilson): Finished on Christmas Day. Excellent study on the importance of Christmas to all of life. Post on grief and narrative arc here. Fun video interview here.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Tim Keller): Finished in December, but read mostly in the summer. Keller's writing is very good, and he distills information from other sources well. Post on overstated Catholic criticism here.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors: Finished in November. Used in my ENG 2301 class on British Literature. Introduction to the course here.

The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay (Scott F. Crider): Finished in October. Used in my ENG 1304 class on research and composition. Good study of classical rhetoric in connection with contemporary essay writing. Reference to Crider here.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Robert Farrar Capon): Finished in October. Led an Honors Colloquium on this book at Baylor University. Post on paying attention here.

The Great Divorce (C.S. Lewis): Finished in August. First time reading it. Definitely worth reading again.

The Reformation Study Bible (R.C. Sproul, ed.): Finished in August. Started reading it in 2012 and read about two pages a day. This was the first time that I read a study Bible cover to cover, although I had read through the Bible a number of times before. This version was the older edition of The Reformation Study Bible, not the updated version. See lots of related posts here.

Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Peter Leithart): Finished in January. Leithart is great, although one common criticism is that sometimes his books sound like a collection of book reviews. But I enjoy his review of literature. Posts on soup tureens and Shakespeare and religion.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Journey of a book review

Book reviews aren't supposed to require a long, drawn-out processes to get published. In my experience, if the review is adequate, it will get published, eventually. Of course, it helps to know the audience of the journal, but given that obvious facet of the process, book reviews are relatively easy to publish.

But sometimes a book review does take a while actually to come out. The following example is probably extreme, but here's a timeline of my most recently published book review: John Piper's Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully in Modern Reformation (MR).

  • May 22: I marked the book as “To Read” on Goodreads. I think that I had noticed the book in an earlier issue of MR as a new release.
  • September 14: I ordered a hard copy of the book from Amazon (even though the PDF is free).
  • September 15: The book shipped.
  • September 17: I got the book and started reading it and taking notes. I also inquired (via my Gmail account) with MR (addressed to the editor and the book review editor at the generic MR email address) about submitting a review. I never heard back.
  • October 15: I finished reading the book and began working on the review.
  • October 22: I emailed the review from my Gmail account to the generic MR email address.
  • I didn't hear anything in November or December.

  • January 6: I emailed the former librarian at Westminster Seminary California, John (who happens to be a fellow church member whom I had met in a Sunday School class), about whether or not MR would like my review. (This seminary is home base for MR.) He encouraged me to send it. Sometime that same week I sent a hard copy of the review to the seminary's address in California.
  • January 8: John recommended that I contact the book review editor (Ryan) personally, so I sent the review again, but from my Baylor account, to the book review editor's seminary email address.
  • January 27: I followed up (using my Gmail account) with Ryan after emailing John.
  • January 28: I emailed John to set up an appointment in his office at Baylor.
  • February 3: John and I talked about how long to wait to hear back about a book review. He said that he was willing to contact the journal himself, and then he called someone that he knew personally (Brooke, the assistant editor) and left her a voice message while I was sitting there.
  • February 24: I emailed John again to see if he had heard back. He sent a direct email to Brooke (and copied me).
  • March 3: John and I both got an email reply from Brooke. I replied the same day and sent the review to her from my Baylor account.
  • I didn't hear anything in April or May, but I was finishing my reading and studying for preliminary exams, so I was too busy to think about it much.
  • June 2: I got an email from Ryan. He said that few book reviews that they receive are as well-written as mine, and he asked to publish it and asked for me to send more reviews.
  • Oct. 7: I emailed Brooke, telling her that I was updating my CV and wondering when my review would be published.
  • Oct. 8: She replied and said that she would ask the book review editor.
  • Oct. 10: Brooke replied and said that my review would come out this year in the Nov./Dec. issue.
  • Oct. 13: Brooke emailed me a writer’s agreement to sign, scan, and return.
  • Oct. 14: I returned the form.
  • Nov. 2: I received my copy of MR in the mail, along with a $50 check and a form on which to put three people to receive three complimentary trial issues of MR.
  • Nov. 22: I finally saw copies of the journal at our church.
The whole process took about 14 months, but with persistence and knowing the right people, the small-project-that-most-employers-aren't-going-to-care-about finally came to fruition. This experience reminds me of good advice that came via a blogger who interviewed someone who is now pastoring alongside R.C. Sproul, but many years ago had the opportunity to be an original member of the Backstreet Boys. The advice was that, yes, doors may be open or closed, but sometimes you shouldn't walk through open doors, and sometimes closed doors need to be pounded down.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas, grief, and narrative arc

Simeon's blessing (Luke 2:34-35) had four elements, one of which includes the fact that Mary would experience soul-piercing grief.
...[G]rief is real. We have every reason to believe that Mary is among the witnesses of the resurrection (Acts 1:14). But she knew, long before this, that the supernatural had invaded our world. George Herbert has a poem where he plays on the letters in the words Mary and Army, and says that this was fitting, for it was there that God pitched his tent (Jn. 1:14). Mary knew she was a pregnant virgin, Mary knew what Simeon told them here in our text, she knew what the angel had said, and more. So she knew that the cross was not the end of the story—but it was true grief in the story nonetheless. Knowing we are in a story does not prevent real story grip from happening. A sword went straight through Mary's soul—and she knew that it was coming years in advance.
. . . [T]he weeping of Rachel for her children is part of the Christmas story. Nativity sets should have models of Herod's soldiers in them, and nativity sets ought not to have little drummer boys. This violence was part of the story. We should note also that Simeon included the violence that would be directed against Christ, and which Mary would feel in her soul, and he included this in the story from the very beginning. Earlier in the chapter, we read that Mary treasured up in her heart what the shepherds had said, and it says that she pondered them (v. 19). Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he gathered his account of these things from eyewitnesses (1:2). Clearly, one of his chief sources was Mary. From whom did he find out about Simeon? Again, when Luke was writing, Mary was the only eyewitness of that event. And she clearly remembered what Simeon had told her. She was preparing herself for the crucifixion, in some measure, from the infancy of Jesus on. But she also knew that this prophetic word came to her in the context of a blessing.
Blessings have a story arc. Simeon said that there would be falling and rising. Blessings are not static. When Simeon told Mary about the pain that was coming, he had already said that the baby in his arms was the Lord's "salvation" (v. 30). Mary knew, from Simeon's mouth, that Jesus was the Christ (v. 26). Mary knew that this was a story that would not end in disaster. It would have a disaster in it, but not in the final chapter. The gospels are not tragedies in any sense. They are not comedies either, if we take comedy as referring to something humorous. They are comedies in a much deeper and more profound sense than this. Christ was born to die, but He died so that He could be the first born from among the dead (Col. 1:18).
This excerpt is from God Rest Ye Merry: Why Christmas is the Foundation for Everything (pp. 29-30).

Monday, November 23, 2015

N.D. Wilson on fantasy and stuff

Remember, remember, at Park Church in Denver, the theorists and makers of plot
Did gather to talk (without colored chalk). What does chalk have to do with this. Poems are hard.

Something like that.

Night One:

Night Two:



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Labels, stereotypes, and the larger conversation

From They Say, I Say (pp. 83-84):
To be sure, some people dislike such labels and may even resent having labels applied to themselves. Some feel that labels put individuals in boxes, stereotyping them and glossing over what makes each of us unique. And it's true that labels can be used inappropriately, in ways that ignore individuality and promote stereotypes. But since the life of ideas, including many of our most private thoughts, is conducted through groups and types rather than solitary individuals, intellectual exchange requires labels to give definition and serve as a convenient shorthand. If you categorically reject all labels, you give up an important resource and even mislead readers by presenting yourself and others as having no connection to anyone else. You also miss an opportunity to generalize the importance and relevance of your work to some larger conversation. . . .
The way to minimize the problem of stereotyping, then, is not to categorically reject labels but to refine and qualify their use . . . .