2015 Books: 2Q

Books read from April through June. Next reading list viewable by clicking here. Running yearly count: 14.

All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren (1946); Library // Though I’ve never been one for political novels, I could barely put this classic down. The politics were only a setting for the masterful character studies on the meteoric rise of a back-country lawyer turned state senator, his right-hand man (the protagonist and narrator), and others they leave in their wake.

The Bruised Reed – Richard Sibbes (1630); Ebook // Encouraging, uplifting, sobering, and Puritanically repetitive and organized. A series of sermons on Isaiah 42:3 that is well worth the effort to read. Spurgeon described Sibbes as one who “scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.”

The Christian Faith in the Modern World – J. Gresham Machen (1935); Ebook // Since I’m back in the OPC, I figured it was high time to read more Machen. This is a series of radio broadcasts Machen did in the 1930s, a la Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Similar in nature to Lewis’ broadcasts, though Machen focuses more on giving a defense of the basics of the faith than Lewis’ apologetics.

The Creedal Imperative – Carl Trueman (2012); Print // Read for men’s reading group. A somewhat softer Trueman than his other works, it’s directed at those who claim “No creed but the bible!” and other similar objectors to creeds and confessions. Stimulated good discussion on a topic of which I’ve grown somewhat tired.

The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline: Inaugural Address – Geerhardus Vos (1894); Ebook // When learning about a new topic, I prefer to heed C.S. Lewis’ advice and go to the source. This was an accessible and helpful introduction to biblical theology (as opposed to systematic theology, for one). One of my biggest takeaways is that biblical theology thankfully isn’t a new topic for me, as I have been taught for years from the pulpit and other books without my knowing it.

The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton (1908); Print // Excellent metaphysical thriller/mystery by a true wordsmith. Creepy, witty, philosophical, and tense throughout and filled with plot twists and surprises.

Christian Creeds and Omelettes

The inimitable Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker (1941; Harper One 1979 printing), pp. 15-16:

“Volumes of angry controversy have been poured out about the Christian creeds, under the impression that they represent, not statements of fact, but arbitrary edicts. The conditions of salvation, for instance, are discussed as though they were conditions for membership in some fantastic club like the Red-Headed League. They do not purport to be anything of the kind. Rightly or wrongly, they purport to be necessary conditions based on the facts of human nature. We are accustomed to find conditions attached to human undertakings, some of which are arbitrary and some not. A regulation that allowed a book to make omelettes only on condition of first putting on a top hat might conceivably be given the force of law, and penalties might be inflicted for disobedience, but the condition would remain arbitrary and irrational. The law that omelettes can be made only on condition that there shall be a preliminary breaking of eggs is one with which we are sadly familiar. The efforts of idealists to make omelettes without observing that condition are foredoomed to failure by the nature of things. The Christian creeds are too frequently assumed to be int he top-hat category; this is an error; they belong to the category of egg-breaking. Even that most notorious of damnatory clauses which provokes sensitive ecclesiastics to defy the rubric and banish the Athanasian Creed from public recitation does not say that God will refuse to save unbelievers; it is at once less arbitrary and more alarming: ‘which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.’ It purports to be a statement of fact. The proper question to be asked about any creed is not, ‘Is it pleasant?’ but, ‘Is it true?’ Christianity has compelled the mind of man not because it is the most cheering view of man’s existence but because it is the truest to the facts.”

Christianity is a Paradoxical Religion

Related to my previous post, here’s another excerpt from Bad Religion.

“Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword…

“The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them…

“The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.”

-Ross Douthat in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), pp. 152-153 [emphasis his]

Paths Worn Smooth in the Raw Terrain of Our Hearts

I’m learning that John Updike was and is a polarizing writer. Most people seem to either love him or hate him. As with most things, I find myself squarely in the middle of those two extremes. He truly had a mastery of the English language that surpassed many other authors of his era. He was a true language artist. Some common critiques of Updike’s fiction are that his plots are too formulaic, his characters too flat, and his descriptions too flowery. Others claim that he was elitist: a white upper class male writing from the comforts of his Harvard office for his audience of upper middle class white New Yorker subscribers. Many think he was too “popular” and wrote mainly just to collect a check. Fair enough. I have found Updike’s short stories to be mostly enjoyable; they coalesce around his down-to-earth characters searching for truth while struggling with the spiritual malaise of modern times. Themes of love, family, place, and memory dominate. Updike’s autobiographical Olinger Stories were even more enjoyable for me because of his descriptions of the Reading, PA area, where we lived for a year and where I’ve worked for three years.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his short stories, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car.” It is one of my favorites. This excerpt comes near the beginning, right as the character is completing a meditation on his love for the human propensity for wearing paths in dirt.

“This small modification, this modest work of human erosion, seemed precious to me not only because it recalled, in the slope and set of the dirt, a part of the path that long ago had led down from my parents’ back yard to the high-school softball field. It seemed precious because it had been achieved accidentally, and had about it that repose of grace which is beyond willing. We in America have from the beginning been cleaning and baring the earth, attacking, reforming the immensity of nature we were given. We have explored, on behalf of all mankind, this paradox: the more matter is outwardly mastered, the more it overwhelms us in our hearts. Evidence – gaping right-of-ways, acres mercilessly scraped, bleeding mountains of muddy fill – surrounds us of a war that is incapable of ceasing, and it is good to know that now there are enough of us to exert a counter-force. If craters were to appear in our landscape tomorrow, the next day there would be usable paths threading down the blasted sides. As our sense of God’s forested legacy to us dwindles, there grows, in these worn, rubbed, and patted patches, a sense of human legacy – like those feet of statues of saints which have lost their toes to centuries of kisses…

“There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts?”

-John Updike in “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” within Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Random House, 2004), p. 103;  Originally published in The New Yorker, December 16, 1961, p. 59

The Christian Fight Song

Hail to the Victors. Victory March. On Brave Old Army. The Aggie War Hymn.

You would probably recognize some of these iconic college fight songs even if you’re not a big sports fan. Fight songs instill pride, confidence, and emotion in fans, uniting fans and players against their foes. Even without Lloyd Carr there as coach, I still get chills when I hear the Michigan marching band play “Hail to the Victors” after a Wolverine touchdown.

But there is one fight song that transcends them all, at least in R.C. Sproul’s eyes:

“In its inception, the Gloria Patri functioned as a type of fight song, a rallying cry for orthodox Christianity. That original function has been lost through the passing of time so that it is now used as a liturgical response. We no longer sense the extraordinary significance of ascribing glory to Christ.”

R.C. explains that in the fourth century, when the Arians were denying the Trinity generally and the divinity of Christ specifically, Arians would sing degrading, insulting songs to Trinitarians across the river. Christians responded with their own fight songs, one of which has lasted to this day as the Gloria Patri. You can listen to a minute-long clip of R.C. explaining the Christian’s fight song here.

How will you sing the Gloria Patri? As a joyless, mindless, rote close to the service, relieved that you can finally go home and watch football? Or as a passionate exclamation of Christ’s eternal glory with the Father and the Spirit?

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
World without end. Amen.
Orthodox icon of the Council of Nicea

In a similar vein, the Nicene Creed was birthed out of the same controversies denying Christ’s divinity. Blood was shed over this incredibly important time in the church. The Nicene Creed is my favorite creed, and should be said with similar sentiment as the Gloria Patri: with conviction and gusto! A hint of defiance is acceptable as well.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
   Maker of heaven and earth,
   of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
   begotten of the Father before all worlds;
   God of God,
   Light of Light,
   very God of very God;
   begotten, not made,
   being of one substance with the Father,
   by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation,
   came down from heaven,
   and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary,
   and was made man;
   and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
   He suffered and was buried;
   and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
   and ascended into heaven,
   and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
   and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead;
   whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit,
   the Lord and Giver of life;
   who proceedeth from the Father and the Son;
   who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;
   who spake by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
   I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
   and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
   and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

Distinguishing marks of Christians

I love the Belgic Confession. Much like the Heidelberg Catechism, it is passionate, joyful, earnest, and personal. In reading Article XXIX: The Marks of the True Church, I was all ready to breeze through the familiar three marks of the church. But then I got to what Guido de Bres writes as a natural but often overlooked follow up to the three marks of a true church. Namely, it is not enough to check the three marks of a church off a list, but a true church must go father: it must also be made up of true believers. True believers, like the true church, have distinguishable marks. However, it is true that a true church will by default have true believers. Where the gospel is preached and celebrated in the sacraments and applied in discipline, only there will true believers grow. Read on:

Article XXIX: The Marks of the True Church
“We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.” We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

“As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

“As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

“These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.”

For an excellent children’s book on Guido de Bres and the Belgic Confession, check out William Boekestein’s Faithfulness Under Fire.

Swilling out the nonsense

It’s that time of year again, the time when I lament the lack of good Christmas and Advent hymns. Last year I discussed the lack of Advent hymns as opposed to Christmas hymns, and this year I’ve been struck with the quantity of overly sentimental and theologically inaccurate Christmas hymns that have made it into our hymnals.

The brief blog post here spells out some good points to consider about Christmas hymns in worship. I especially appreciated point number four, which says to “choose songs that tell the whole gospel story.” Christ’s incarnation would be incomplete without a view of his death and resurrection, so to sing songs that leave Jesus in the manger are doing Christians a disservice. Some of the many examples of good Christmas songs that are rich in gospel truth include Joy to the World, Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Who Is This So Weak and Helpless. Some words from Of the Father’s Love will suffice as a representative of these:

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

I’m not saying that each Christmas song we sing should be all gospel. There are some great Christmas songs that are biblically rich, but don’t explicitly mention the full gospel. Take the beautiful Trinitarian hymn Angels, from the Realms of Glory, for example:

God with us is now residing…
Suddenly the Lord, descending
In His temple shall appear…
Though an Infant now we view Him
He shall fill His Father’s throne
Gather all the nations to Him
Every knee shall then bow down

Even the favorite “O Come, All Ye Faithful” lacks the gospel in explicit form, but the verse that incorporate the Nicean Creed is fantastic:

God of God, Light of Light;
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created

Christ didn’t come to be born and stay in a manger and give us warm fuzzies. As Jeremy Begbie states, “sentimentality is perhaps the single most dangerous feature of our Church and culture – and the sentimental air is never thicker than at Christmas. The Incarnation is messy, dirty, and resonates with the crucifixion. We need a new wave of carol writing that can gradually swill out the nonsense and catch the piercing, joy-through-pain refrains of the New Testament.”

I think he’s right on, though he missed that we already have many of these carols that swill out the nonsense! Dr. T. David Gordon also laments the fact that the church is in danger of losing some of the most potent Christmas songs merely because they aren’t peppy, sentimental, or Americanized. In fact, some of the best ones are more somber and reflective. Gordon has pointed out that Christmas songs for centuries were like this because people rightly understood the awesome profundity that the incarnation represented, and the songs reflect this wonder – God made man to save sinners! Songs like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and How Bright Appears the Morning Star are some examples of these types of Christmas songs. This isn’t to say that joy and mirth are to be avoided in Advent. On the contrary, they are to be characteristic of the entire Christian life. But with most things, a balance between the two extremes is needed while avoiding the overly sentimental, Americanized, or biblically inaccurate songs.

It’s a difficult line to try to straddle, as many have deep emotional ties to some of the overly sentimental Christmas songs. Everyone raised in the church sung Away in a Manger, even though it is cheesed up and claims that the baby Jesus didn’t cry. But some of these also include truths of Scripture. Take Silent Night, for example. Right after the line “beams from thy holy face” comes the great line “with the dawn of redeeming grace.” Also, does anyone else find it awkward to sing to Bethlehem personified in O Little Town of Bethlehem?

Besides the rich Christmas songs mentioned above that are already familiar, I think it would benefit the church greatly to rediscover some of the best Christmas songs out there. One I would suggest is Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light (words Johann Rist, 1641; music Johann Schop, 1641; harmony J.S. Bach, 1734). It’s only one verse, but it’s simple to learn, and it is amazingly succinct and rich:

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
And usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with afright,
But hear the angel’s warning.
This Child, now weak in infancy,
Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking,
Our peace eternal making.

Another one I would suggest is Who Is This So Weak and Helpless, which is a great example of a full-gospel Christmas hymn (and recently re-done by Indelible Grace). I’ll close with the lyrics to it:

Who is this so weak and helpless, Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered, coldly in a manger laid?
’Tis the Lord of all creation, who this wondrous path hath trod;
He is God from everlasting, and to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of sorrows, walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping, over sin and Satan’s sway?
’Tis our God, our glorious Savior, who above the starry sky
Now for us a place prepareth, where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold Him shedding drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected, mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
’Tis our God, who gifts and graces on His church now poureth down;
Who shall smite in righteous judgment all His foes beneath His throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying while the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors, torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
’Tis the God Who ever liveth, ’mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city, reigning everlastingly.