Monday, March 31, 2014

WORLD update (March 2014)

March 8
Divergent: "Two things about the author, Veronica Roth, always appeared in press packets: (1) her age, 22, and (2) her Christian faith. Divergent pictures a postapocalyptic society divided into five factions, somewhat similar to Plato's Republic in that each serves a social need."

History makers: "One famous Western leader suffered from severe depression [Winston Churchill], another was a devout evangelical Christian [George W. Bush], and a third is just plain mystifying [Barack Obama], says pastor turned biographer Stephen Mansfield."

"One of [Barack's] main spiritual advisers, with whom I'm good friends, told me later, 'When I heard [Barack come out in favor of same-sex marriage] on the radio, I pulled over and wept because I had no indication that this is where the president was going. I had prayed with him. We'd talked about this issue. We'd studied Scripture on this issue. I thought he was going the other way. I heard the announcement, I pulled over to the side of the road to weep because I couldn’t keep driving. And just then the phone rang, and the president called and said, "You must be disappointed in me, I'm sorry."'"

Houston: A semisweet land of liberty: Houston Baptist University's provost, John Mark Reynolds, gets a shout out.

Same-sex stalemate: "The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is facing increasing criticism from African Anglican leaders over the church's views on homosexuality."

Pink slip speech: "Count the cost before mentioning Christ in a work environment where policy forbids it."

March 22
Strong for a purpose: "Power is a gift, says writer Andy Crouch, but it needs to be redeemed." This reminds me of a story Alan Jacobs told in class recently. Cornel West had been at Wheaton, and a colleague told Jacobs that a Wheaton student asked West what to do with white privilege. West said, "Use it! But to do good."

Permanent marker: "Once the domain of gangs and outcasts, tattoos have gone mainstream—including among Christians."

Sunday, February 9, 2014


"God's works of providence are, His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 11). If creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of the same energy. By it the Creator, according to His own will, keeps all creatures in being, involves Himself in all events, and directs all things to their appointed end. God is completely in charge of His world. His hand may be hidden, but His perfect rule extends to all things.

It is sometimes supposed that God knows the future but does not control it; that He upholds the world, but does not intervene in it; or that He gives general direction, but is not concerned with details. The Bible emphatically rules out all such limitations of His providence.
The Bible clearly teaches God's providential control (1) over the universe at large, Ps. 103:19; Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:11; (2) over the physical world, Job 37; Ps. 104:14; 135:6; Mt. 5:45; (3) over the brute creation, Ps. 104:21, 28; Mt. 6:26; 10:29; (4) over the affairs of nations, Job 12:23; Ps. 22:28; 66:7; Acts 17:26; (5) over man's birth and lot in life, 1 Sam. 16:1; Ps. 139:16; Is. 45:5; Gal. 1:15, 16; (6) over the outward successes and failures of men's lives, Ps. 75:6, 7; Lk. 1:52; (7) over things seemingly accidental or insignificant, Pr. 16:33; Mt. 10:30; (8) in the protection of the righteous, Ps. 4:8; 5:12; 63:8; 121:3; Rom. 8:28; (9) in supplying the wants of God's people, Gn. 22:8, 14; Dt. 8:3; Phil. 4:19; (10) in giving answers to prayer, 1 Sam. 1:19; Is. 20:5, 6; 2 Chr. 33:13; Ps. 65:2; Mt. 7:7; Lk. 18:7, 8; and (11) in the exposure and punishment of the wicked, Ps. 7:12, 13; 11:6. (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology 2d rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941], p. 168.).
Describing God's involvement in the world and in the acts of rational creatures requires complementary statements. For example, a person wills an action, an event is triggered by natural causes, or Satan shows his hand—yet God overrules. Again, people may go against God's will of command—yet they fulfill His will of events. People's motives may be evil—yet God uses their actions for God (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23). Although human sin is under God's decree, God is not the author of sin (James 1:13-17).

God's "concurrent" or "confluent" involvement in all that occurs does not violate the natural order, ongoing causal processes, or the free, responsible agency of human beings. God's sovereign control does not take away the responsibility and power of second causes; on the contrary, they are created and have their roles by His appointment.

Of the evils that infect God's world (spiritual, moral, and physical) the Bible says: God permits evil (Acts 14:16); He uses evil as a punishment (Ps. 81:11-12; Rom. 1:26-32); He brings good out of evil (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 13:27; 1 Cor. 2:7-8); He uses evil to test and discipline those He loves (Matt. 4:1-11; Heb. 12:4-14); but one day He will redeem His people from the power and presence of evil altogether (Rev. 21:27; 22:14-15).

The doctrine of providence teaches Christians that they are never in the grip of blind fortune, chance, luck, or fate. All that happens to them is divinely planned, and each event comes as a new summons to trust, obey, and rejoice, knowing that all is for one's spiritual and eternal good (Rom. 8:28).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Creation wisdom

Proverbs 8:24-31:
When there were no depths I [wisdom] was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
And my delight was with the sons of men.
Note from the Reformation Study Bible: "Job reminds us that creation wisdom ultimately belongs to God alone (Job 38; 39). The 'cultural mandate,' assigning to humans the task of understanding creation and exercising dominion over it (Gen. 1:26-28), is the basis for wisdom's interest in knowing the world of nature [1 Kings 4:29, 33]. This is pursued within the framework established by special revelation (the Scripture) and in the fear of the Lord [Prov. 1:7 note; Prov. 8:1-36 note; Prov. 9:10]."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Orwell on Tolstoy and Shakespeare

From this collection of essays (also available here):
Last week I pointed out that art and propaganda are never quite separable, and that what are supposed to be purely aes-thetic judgements are always corrupted to some extent by moral or political or religious loyalties. And I added that in times of trouble, like the last ten years, in which no thinking person can ignore what is happening round him or avoid tak-ing sides, these underlying loyalties are pushed nearer to the surface of consciousness. Criticism becomes more and more openly partisan, and even the pretence of detachment becomes very difficult. But one cannot infer from that that there is no such thing as an aesthetic judgement, that every work of art is simply and solely a political pamphlet and can be judged only as such. If we reason like that we lead our minds into a blind alley in which certain large and obvious facts become inexplicable. And in illustration of this I want to examine one of the greatest pieces of moral, non-aesthetic criticism—anti-aesthetic criticism, one might say—that have ever been written: Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare.
Towards the end of his life Tolstoy wrote a terrific attack on Shakespeare, purporting to show not only that Shakespeare was not the great man he was claimed to be, but that he was a writer entirely without merit, one of the worst and most con-temptible writers the world has ever seen. This essay caused tremendous indignation at the time, but I doubt whether it was ever satisfactorily answered. What is more, I shall point out that in the main it was unanswerable. Part of what Tolstoy says is strictly true, and parts of it are too much a matter of personal opinion to be worth arguing about. I do not mean, of course, that there is no detail in the essay which could not be answered. Tolstoy contradicts himself several times; the fact that he is dealing with a foreign language makes him misunder-stand a great deal, and I think there is little doubt that his hatred and jealousy of Shakespeare make him resort to a cer-tain amount of falsification, or at least wilful blindness. But all that is beside the point. In the main what Tolstoy says is justified after its fashion, and at the time it probably acted as a useful corrective to the silly adulation of Shakespeare that was then fashionable. The answer to it is less in anything I can say than in certain things that Tolstoy is forced to say himself.
Tolstoy's main contention is that Shakespeare is a trivial, shallow writer, with no coherent philosophy, no thoughts or ideas worth bothering about, no interest in social or religious problems, no grasp of character or probability, and, in so far as he could be said to have a definable attitude at all, with a cynical, immoral, worldly outlook on life. He accuses him of patching his plays together without caring twopence for credibility, of dealing in fantastic fables and impossible situa-tions, of making all his characters talk in an artificial flowery language completely unlike that of real life. He also accuses him of thrusting anything and everything into his plays — solilo-quies, scraps of ballads, discussions, vulgar jokes and so forth — without stopping to think whether they had anything to do with the plot, and also of taking for granted the immoral power politics and unjust social distinctions of the times he lived in. Briefly, he accuses himself being a hasty, slovenly writer, a man of doubtful morals, and, above all, of not being a thinker.
Now, a good deal of this could be contradicted. It is not true, in the sense implied by Tolstoy, that Shakespeare is an unmoral writer. His moral code might be different from Tol-stoy's, but he very definitely has a moral code, which is appar-ent all through his work. He is much more of a moralist than, for instance, Chaucer or Boccaccio. He also is not such a fool as Tolstoy tries to make out. At moments, incidentally, one might say, he shows a vision which goes far beyond his time. In this connexion I would like to draw attention to the piece of criticism which Karl Marx—who, unlike Tolstoy, admired Shakespeare—wrote on Timon of Athens. But once again, what Tolstoy says is true on the whole. Shakespeare is not a thinker, and the critics who claimed that he was one of the great philosophers of the world were talking nonsense. His thoughts are simply a jumble, a rag-bag. He was like most Englishmen in having a code of conduct but no world-view, no philosophical faculty. Again, it is quite true that Shakespeare cares very little about probability and seldom bothers to make his characters coherent. As we know, he usually stole his plots from other people and hastily made them up into plays, often introducing absurdities and inconsistencies that were not present in the original. Now and again, when he happens to have got hold of a foolproof plot — Macbcth, for instance — his characters are reasonably consistent, but in many cases they are forced into actions which are completely incredible by any ordinary standard. Many of his plays have not even the sort of credibility that belongs to a fairy story. In any case we have no evidence that he himself took them seriously, except as a means of livelihood. In his sonnets he never even refers to his plays as part of his literary achievement, and only once men-tions in a rather shamefaced way that he has been an actor. So far Tolstoy is justified. The claim that Shakespeare was a profound thinker, setting forth a coherent philosophy in plays that were technically perfect and full of subtle psychological observation, is ridiculous.
Only, what has Tolstoy achieved? By this furious attack he ought to have demolished Shakespeare altogether, and he evidently believes that he has done so. From the time when Tolstoy's essay was written, or at any rate from the time when it began to be widely read, Shakespeare's reputation ought to have withered away. The lovers of Shakespeare ought to have seen that their idol had been debunked, that in fact he had no merits, and they ought to have ceased forthwith to take any pleasure in him. But that did not happen. Shakespeare is demo-lished, and yet somehow he remains standing. So far from his being forgotten as the result of Tolstoy's attack, it is the attack itself that has been almost forgotten. Although Tolstoy is a popular writer in England, both the translations of this essay are out of print, and I had to search all over London before running one to earth in a museum.
It appears, therefore, that though Tolstoy can explain away nearly everything about Shakespeare, there is one thing that he cannot explain away, and that is his popularity. He himself is aware of this, and greatly puzzled by it. I said earlier that the answer to Tolstoy really lies in something he himself is obliged to say. He asks himself how it is that this bad, stupid and im-moral writer Shakespeare is everywhere admired, and finally he can only explain it as a sort of world-wide conspiracy to pervert the truth. Or it is a sort of collective hallucination — a hypnosis, he calls it — by which everyone except Tolstoy him-self is taken in. As to how this conspiracy or delusion began, he is obliged to set it down to the machinations of certain Ger-man critics at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They started telling the wicked lie that Shakespeare is a good writer, and no one since has had the courage to contradict them. Now, one need not spend very long over a theory of this kind. It is nonsense. The enormous majority of the people who have en-joyed watching Shakespeare's plays have never been influenced by any German critics, directly or indirectly. For Shakespeare's popularity is real enough, and it is a popularity that extends to ordinary, by no means bookish people. From his lifetime onwards he has been a stage favourite in England, and he is popular not only in the English-speaking countries but in most of Europe and parts of Asia. Almost as I speak the Soviet Government are celebrating the three hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, and in Ceylon I once saw a play of his being performed in some language of which I did not know a single word. One must conclude that mere is something good—something durable—in Shakespeare which millions of ordinary people can appreciate, though Tolstoy happened to be unable to do so. He can survive exposure of the fact that he is a confused thinker whose plays are full of improbabilities. He can no more be debunked by such methods than you can destroy a flower by preaching a sermon at it.
And that, I think, tells one a little more about something I referred to last week: the frontiers of art and propaganda. It shows one the limitation of any criticism that is solely a criti-cism of subject and of meaning. Tolstoy criticizes Shakespeare not as a poet, but as a thinker and a teacher, and along those lines he has no difficulty in demolishing him. And yet all that he says is irrelevant; Shakespeare is completely unaffected. Not only his reputation but the pleasure we take in him remain just the same as before. Evidently a poet is more than a thinker and a teacher, though he has to be that as well. Every piece of writing has its propaganda aspect, and yet in any book or play or poem or what not that is to endure there has to be a residuum of something that simply is not affected by its moral or meaning—a residuum of something we can only call art. Within certain limits, bad thought and bad morals can be good literature. If so great a man as Tolstoy could not demonstrate the contrary, I doubt whether anyone else can either.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Birds, music, and theism

Bede Griffiths, quoted in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (p. 5):
One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song, which can only be heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. I remember now the shock of surprise with which the sound broke on my ears. It seemed to me that I had never heard the birds singing before and I wondered whether they sang like this all year round and I had never noticed it. As I walked I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again I thought that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before. If I had been brought suddenly among the trees of the Garden of Paradise and heard a choir of angels singing I could not have been more surprised. I came then to where the sun was setting over the playing fields. A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song above my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.
According to Taylor, "Bede . . . came to a fully theistic reading of that crucial moment only some years later" (p. 14).

Friday, November 29, 2013

Christians are slaves

From John MacArthur's Slave (p. 12):
In addition to the name Christian, the Bible uses a host of other terms to identify the followers of Jesus. Scripture describes us as aliens and strangers of God, citizens of heaven, and lights to the world. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, members of His body, sheep in His flock, ambassadors in His service, and friends around His table. We are called to compete like athletes, to fight like soldiers, to abide like branches in a vine, and even to desire His Word as newborn babies long for milk. All of these descriptions—each in its own unique way—help us understand what it means to be a Christian.
Yet, the Bible uses one metaphor more frequently than any of these. It is a word picture you might not expect, but it is absolutely critical for understanding what it means to follow Jesus.
It is the image of a slave.
Cf. Luther's "The Freedom of a Christian" (Lull 404).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Original Sin and Total Depravity

From the Reformation Study Bible (in Ps. 51):
Scripture diagnoses sin as a universal deformity of human nature, found at every point in every person [1 Kings 8:46; Romans 3:9-23; 7:18; 1 John 1:8-10]. Both Testaments describe sin as rebellion against Go'd rule, missing the mark God set for us to aim at, transgressing God's law, offending God's purity by defiling oneself, and incurring guilt before God the Judge. The moral deformity is dynamic: sin is an energy of irrational, negative, and rebellious reaction to God. It is a spirit of fighting God in order to play God. The root of sin is pride and enmity against God, the spirit seen in Adam's first transgression, and sinful acts always have behind them thoughts and desires that one way or another express the willful opposition of the fallen heart to God's claims on our lives.
Sin may be defined as breaking the law of God, or failing to conform to it, in any aspect of life, whether thought, word, or deed. Scriptures illustrating different aspects of sin include Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:30-37; Mark 7:20-23; Romans 1:18-3:20; 7:7-25; 8:5-8; 14:23 (Luther said that Paul wrote Romans to "magnify sin"); Galatians 5:16-21; Ephesians 2:1-3; 4:17-19; Hebrews 3:12; James 2:10-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17.
"Original sin," meaning sin derived from our origin, is not a biblical phrase (it comes from Augustine), but it does bring into focus the reality of sin in our spiritual system. Original sin does not mean that sin belongs to human nature as such; "God made man upright" [Ecclesiastes 7:29]. Nor does it mean that the processes of reproduction and birth are sinful; the uncleanness associated with sexuality in the Law (Lev. 12; 15) was typical and ceremonial, not moral. Rather, "original sin" means that sinfulness marks everyone from birth, in the form of a heat inclined toward sin, prior to any actual sins; this inner sinfulness is the root and source of all actual sins; it is transmitted to us from Adam, our first representative before God. The doctrine of original sin makes the point that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinner, born with a nature enslaved to sin.
The phrase "total depravity" is commonly used to make explicit the implications of original sin. It signifies a corruption of our moral and spiritual nature that is total in principle, although not in degree (for no one is as bad as he or she might be). No part of us is untouched by sin, and no action of our is as good as it should be. Consequently, nothing we do is ever meritorious in God's eyes. We cannot earn God's favor, no matter what we do; unless grace saves us, we are lost.
Total depravity includes total inability, that is, being without power to believe in God or His word [John 6:44; Rom. 8:7-8]. Paul calls this universal unresponsiveness a form of death; the fallen heart is "dead" [Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13]. As the Westminster Confession (IX. 3) explains, "Man by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any 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." To this darkness the word of God alone brings light [Luke 18:27; 2 Corinthians 4:6].
Here's R.C. Sproul talking about two objections, which attempt to protect human freedom and God's integrity:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

WORLD update (November 16, 2013)

Salt over sugar: "The digital revolution is helping to create a new age of Christian music."

Broken music: "Without the structure of nuclear families, communities lapse into noise."
About three years ago Adrian Peterson, star running back of the Minnesota Vikings, became, briefly, very well acquainted with an attractive young woman named Ashley from Sioux Falls, S.D. Some nine months later, Ashley had a baby boy she named Tyrese. She wasn't sure who the father was, but as time went on and the little boy looked more and more like a certain NFL player, she contacted Peterson and asked for a paternity test. He agreed, the test turned out positive, and he promised to pay the boy a visit at some future date.
Meanwhile Ashley moved in with a new boyfriend. The boyfriend had a record of domestic assault—two women had filed complaints against him, the second one twice. Perhaps Ashley didn't know this when she moved in. Perhaps she shouldn’t have left the apartment the afternoon of Oct. 10, because something happened: The boyfriend allegedly snapped, and little Ty received injuries that put him in the hospital with severe head trauma. When Peterson received word, he flew to the boy's side, but his son never regained consciousness and died near midnight on Oct. 11.
Force-feeding propaganda: "From drug crime to 'hate crime' to crude behavior and crude response."

Christians need not apply?: "Craig James lost his job for taking a Bible-based position on marriage during a political campaign. He's fighting back in a crucial court case."

Adoption under fire: "During November, National Adoption Month, watch for noisy attacks on international adoption. Not getting as much attention: hundreds of thousands of dead orphans."

No phony foes: "WORLD and you can operate with a balanced, two-sided worldview." Consider giving a monetary gift to show your support.

Texas shake: "There have been bacon milkshakes. There have been beer milkshakes. And on Nov. 3, there was the best of both worlds. Patrons of the Texas Motor Speedway outside of Dallas who came for the Texas 500 NASCAR race had the opportunity to pick up the bacon beer milkshake from one of the raceway's concession stands. Known as the Shake'n Bacon Brew, concessioners mixed 6 ounces of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, 2 ounces of candied bacon, and half a bottle of Rahr & Sons Ugly Pug Black Lager to create the porky desert. Of course, customers for whom the concoction was not enough were able to add whipped cream and bacon bits on top."

Ad: The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts, by Douglas Bond.

Another ad: Peace: Classic Readings for Christmas, by Stephen J. Nichols.

And a cartoon:

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

WORLD update (November 2, 2013)

Grand new party?: "The California Republican convention reveals a reduced and ideologically divided party but one also beginning to reach out to the state's diverse population."

Debtors' prison: "The most rapidly growing class of debt in America belongs to the country's newest wage earners and its youngest taxpayers."

Not bluffing: "Moody board chairman and top author Jerry B. Jenkins is among Christians who have taken up tournament poker. Is evangelical opposition to it about to fold?"

Growing pains: "After 25 years of ministry, one of America's largest churches faces criticism from former leaders."

Science supremacists: "An aggressive scientism seeks to take charge of spheres well beyond science's expertise."

Whole new ballgames: "New competitions and sports are gaining a foothold in America."

Religious test: "A key court case may determine whether we begin looking over our shoulders."

Ad for a book: John Frame's Systematic Theology is only $25 at the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bad, Mad, and . . . Great rulers

From Alf J. Mapp Jr.'s The Golden Dragon: Alfred the Great and His Times (p. 3):
The English are more polite than many nations in the informal titles which they bestow on their rulers. Russia has had its Ivan the Terrible, Germany its Charles the Fat. France has distinguished among four bearers of the name Louis by denominating them the Stammerer, the Spider, the Gross, and the Do-Nothing, and has kept four Charleses straight by calling them the Bad, the Mad, the Bald, and the Simple. Though England has at times been ruled by the mad, the bad, and the gross, her people usually have refrained from fixing insulting appellations on their sovereigns. But, if the English have been sparing in applying pejoratives to royalty, they have been equally restrained in bestowing the highest accolades. Only one of their kings has been called the Great. Alfred is the sole bearer of this title in eleven centuries of English royalty.