Category Archives: Religion

Hearing from Grandma

Grandma's hands
Photo credit: Cristian Newman

I had a moment of grace yesterday. No great miracle as miracles go, but it kind of moved me.

I’ve been using my grandmother’s old devotional book for my daily devotions this year. It’s an old book, in pretty bad shape, but I’ve found the meditations insightful. And anything connected with my grandma, who was perhaps the best person I ever knew, carries a measure of comfort. The book is Thy Kingdom Come, by Ludvig Hope. Hope was a leader of the lay evangelical movement in Norway, and along with several other church leaders (both conservative and liberal) he spent time in a concentration camp during World War II.

The book includes space for writing in important anniversaries at the bottom of each page. Grandma noted birthdays and weddings, and sometimes baptisms. Yesterday I noticed an unfamiliar name on an upcoming page. Most of the names in the book are familiar to me – family members and people from our church. But this name was unfamiliar. It was a woman’s name, and she would be a few years younger than me. I grew curious.

I went to Facebook and searched to see if she was listed under (assuming she was married) her maiden name. She was. I discovered that she is part of my own church body (which is not the one I grew up in), and her daughter is married to the son of one of the administrators at the Bible School where I work.

I contacted her, and found out she’s the granddaughter of Grandma’s sister. So I found a new cousin.

It was gratifying to find a lost relative. It was deeply satisfying to find one who believes as I do.

Grandma, I think, would be pleased.

Ascension Day

Ascension Bamberg Apocalypse
The Ascension of Christ” from the Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th Century

Today is Ascension Day in the Christian calendar. I won’t tell you what it’s called in Norwegian, because you’ll laugh.

All right, I’ll tell you if you insist. But don’t laugh.

Kristi Himmelfartsdagen.

Ascension Day is one of those sadly neglected church festivals that’s actually pretty meaningful. Ascension Day ties up the bow of the Resurrection, you might say. It finishes the operation, resolves the chord.

It has a number of implications. I saw a list today, and there were more than I’d ever thought about.

But I’ll mention the one that I remember, one Francis Schaeffer mentioned in one of his books.

Ascension Day verifies the physicality of Christian faith.

If you believe (and if you don’t, you’re not really a Christian) that Jesus rose from the dead with a body – a functioning body that could be touched and that ate food – then where is that body now?

The Ascension tells us that it’s with God in Heaven. Not some “metaphysical other.” Not the land of spirits and ghosts and legends. Some physical place. You can’t hide a body in a myth.

A place, as He promised, where we will be also someday.

Happy Ascension Day!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image

This is a moving article on how Christians, particular Reformed believers and Presbyterians, have sat beside the biblical lawyer in justifying themselves by asking who is actually our neighbors, by which we meant who did we not have to love in accord with the second commandment.

tl;dr – Mainstream conservative Calvinism neither caused American chattel slavery, nor cured it, but it capitulated to it, was complicit in it, and cooperated with it. Nineteenth century confessional Calvinism, especially in the South, codified, confirmed, corroborated and was coopted by American pro-slavery ideology, and then perpetuated that ideology in segregation after slavery was gone. While all along, the theological cure for slavery (and its underlying racism) sat quietly ignored in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: the imago Dei, neighbor love (along with, esp., the WLC expositions of the 6th and 10th commandments), the communion of the saints, and especially justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see Galatians 2, as deployed by John Newton and William Wilberforce in their arguments against the slave trade and slavery)!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image – 19th Century American Confessional Calvinism in Faithfulness and Failure

 

Translators throw down

Through a discussion in comments over at Threedonia, a blog I frequent, an article from Christianity Today on a dispute between N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart over how the New Testament ought to be translated:

Wright’s primary concern seems to be Hart’s understanding and use of language—both Greek and English. Hart claims his translation will in many parts be “an almost pitilessly literal translation,” intending to “make the original text visible through as thin a layer of translation as I can contrive to superimpose upon it.”

While Wright seems to respect what Hart is trying to accomplish, he nevertheless argues that instead of making the original text visible, Hart may actually be obscuring it by trying to render Greek syntax and idioms in English. “Greek and English, as Hart knows well, do not work the same way,” Wright argues. “… The strange English here has nothing to do with a cultural clash between the first Christians and ourselves.”

For the record, as a minor translator myself in a different language field, I’m pretty much on Wright’s side. As I told some seminarians recently, “The translator has two targets to shoot at — accuracy and faithfulness. They are not the same targets. In general, I opt for faithfulness.”

David, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cake

Today, April 20, is the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, a missionary to Native Americans who left a mark on the people of my town and stirred many souls who have read his diary, which was edited by Jonathan Edwards. In honor of the day, Thomas Kidd shares his review of The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon.

In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair.

Just say what you mean!

I’ve taken to meeting with a small group of Bible school students for lunch once a week. We talk about writing, and stories, and the Inklings, etc.

Two weeks ago I talked about the difficulty we all have in writing plainly.

I’m inclined to think that it’s evidence of original sin that writing plainly is so hard.

Objectively, what should be easier than writing down exactly what you mean? It’s your own meaning. Just put it in words.

But it turns out to be one of the hardest things in the world.

We write a sentence, or a story, or a book, and then we look at it. We say, “No, that wasn’t what I really meant. It’s not quite right.” So we change some words.

But that wasn’t quite what we really meant either.

And so we go through revision after revision, deleting and adding words, replacing words, altering sentence length, breaking up and combining paragraphs. Until we finally hammer out something that seems to say (kind of) what we want.

But even when it’s done – even after it’s published (if we’re so lucky) there’s a lingering doubt. “Was that really what I meant to say? Could I have said it better? How would Phil Wade have put it?”

I think the reason is original sin. We’re so perverted in our nature, so blind to our own hearts, that saying what we mean is nearly the hardest thing we can do. (C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has this idea as a central theme.)

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Lo, this only I have found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”

I’m going to post this now, though I probably could have put it better.

Evil Is Bound by the Shore

There’s a marvelous biblical metaphor I’ve only known about for a few years, that the sea is a picture of evil and chaos. When Jesus preformed any miracle, he did so with Messianic implications, never as a mere demonstration of his power. So when he walked on the water, he did so as a metaphor of his authority over all the earth, including this ancient picture of evil. (If you need more to support this idea, note that the beasts of Daniel and John’s prophecies rise from the sea and that in the new heaven and earth “the sea [is] no more” (Rev. 21:1).)

I wrote earlier this week about the uneasy idea presented in the book of Job about evil having a place in the created order, and when God answers Job at the end of the book, that’s largely what he talks about.

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? (Job 38:8–11)

The Lord’s first speech can read like a list of creation areas. Look at the sea. Look at the sky. How about the depths of the earth? Do you have any control over these things? But this is a grand and majestic poem from thousands of years ago. It has many beautiful lines and pictures to provoke our attention. Here the Lord says he has “shut in the sea” and bound it, even like an infant, and he’s talking about evil. The Lord is describing all of the wickedness and natural horror in the world in terms of that dark, mysterious, alien world off the coast. It may eat away at our shores and flood our river valleys, but the Lord has said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther.”

That’s not to say evil is actually good; it’s only to say God sees a place for it that we will not understand.

Why won’t the Lord drain the sea complete? Why must we live in a world where monsters swim the deeps and storms born over the ocean crash into our cities? That question isn’t answered, but if we worry over God’s ability or intent to control the seas in our lives, he asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16). In short, do you have a handle on creation’s extremities? Could you unlock the gates of death? Of course not; only the Almighty has. His knowledge extends to every corner of existence. That’s not academic knowledge; that’s intimate control. By the wise Lord’s all-powerful hand, evil keeps to its place. Though it may overflow it’s banks from time to time, that’s not because it has gotten away from God’s control. The Lord can stop the springs of the deep whenever he wants. Wickedness will not flood us because the Lord holds it back. Anything that afflicts us has been given limited permission to do so.

So what do we do when, like Job, our suffering overwhelms us?

Read and pray the Psalms. Cry out to the Almighty God in faith, remembering his character, wisdom, and faithfulness. In all things, seek to love him with all of our heart and love our neighbors in response to that love. And recognize we do not need to defend God from every charge, because God’s own defense does not explain the place of evil.

“God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5).

The Agency of the Adversary

In Job 1–2, we see a couple scenes of a heavenly council. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). I think a common view of these scenes is to see Satan, the Adversary, barging into heaven to bring his accusations uninvited. I’m told, however, the language does not support this idea. The sentence above could just as easily describe a day when the angels came before the Lord and Michael was among them. The point of the scene is what Satan has to say. In short, the Adversary was one of the heavenly council at this time. (And if he was not, how could he have barged in anyway? No one gains an audience with God on his own terms.)

Why was he there? What purpose could this being serve in the council of God? That’s the most disturbing message in the book of Job. It’s much easier to view God as the conqueror of evil, someone who hates evil will a pure hatred, and he is that, but evil persists like weeds in my yard. (In that sense, my yard is the epitome of evil.) God does hate wickedness and all the rebellion that has brought evil into our world, and he is the Almighty, able to snuff it all out. A new dawn is coming that will overtake the night forever and “take hold of the skirts of the earth” in order to shake the wicked out of it (Job 38:13), but that dawn has yet to come. Today, evil still has a place in creation.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. Continue reading The Agency of the Adversary

The Innocent Suffering of Job

Since last August, I’ve been leading our Sunday School class in a discussion of Job. I didn’t think we’d take it chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse, but we have. My expectations were set by my casual reading of a difficult book. Reading this ancient poem on my own is almost fruitless and fairly boring. It’s much more rewarding to go through it with a reliable guide. Everything I’ve learned has been through Christopher Ash’s commentary, which is just as readable as I had heard (recommending with two links).

Perhaps the difficulty of reading through this long, dialogic poem is the reason so many of us don’t get its central message. We bog down in the long-winded complaints and accusations, coming away only with the idea that God can run over anyone he wants and make it all right again in the end. But the tension point of Job’s argument is one we still miss when trying to apply God’s Word to our own or other people’s lives—that Job is completely innocent.

The first couple chapters present to us a man who is “blameless and upright, who fear[s] God and turn[s] away from evil.” That’s how his character is summarized for us upfront, and God repeats that description (2:3). Job is brought to the point of death “without reason.”

No matter what other questions we have about that, we have one truth to apply to our lives—innocent suffering exists.

Many people naturally believe that just about all suffering has a reason that can be avoided. The pain in our lives can be avoided by the proper regimen of diet, respectable living, and sound thinking. If you find yourself in pain or hardship, you’ve either caused it yourself or God is judging you for something. Seek the Lord, these people will say, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to get out of this trial. Because the trial is unnatural. The trial is not how God intends your normal life. Suffering doesn’t just happen.

But Job tells us it does.  Continue reading The Innocent Suffering of Job

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

The choir of the Bible school where I work is just wrapping up a tour of Germany. They got to visit a number of notable Reformation sights. I was impressed by a video they posted on Facebook, where they got the opportunity to sing a Bach piece at Bach’s tomb. I was hoping to post that tonight, but at this point it’s only on Facebook.

So here’s one (filmed in our chapel) that is on YouTube — a number which (I believe) is part of their repertoire in Germany. “Grace Alone.”

The Offensive Cross

World News Group has a good read for the Saturday between, an excerpt from Brett McCracken’s book, Uncomfortable.

One of the most offensive things about the cross of Christ has always been its leveling aspect, giving “insider” access to prostitutes, tax collectors, and the pariahs of society just as much as to religious and cultural elites; to Gentiles just as much as to Jews. The wretched thief on the cross didn’t and couldn’t do anything “good” to save himself, but Jesus still welcomed him into his kingdom.

This is offensive.

He follows this with a recounting of a marvelous scene of forgiveness. “Our pride makes it hard for us to stomach the notion that ‘earning’ or ‘deserving’ are not words that exist in God’s vocabulary of grace.”

A Generation of Theological Orphans

I was scared into the kingdom by one of those late-’70s “Left Behind” films. Nothing could be more important than to stand for the truth, even in the face of the anti-Christ’s persecution.

We Saw You at the Pole, where evangelical students gathered ostensibly to pray for the country but also, honestly, to thumb their noses at all those worldly humanists who wanted to take away our right to pray in schools.

We ate apologetics books like communion wafers—and were about as nourished. What we learned was to argue, to corner our opponents in their intellectually unfurnished corners, defeating them with our theistic strength and consistency.

And then something happened. Our Merlins and Gandalfs became Barnums and Baileys.

A months ago, Jared C. Wilson wrote this piece on a shifting tide. Let’s keep praying the waters will flow in the most beneficial direction for everyone.

In memoriam: Billy Graham, 1918-2018

Billy Graham in Oslo
Billy Graham preaching in Oslo, 1955 (National Archives of Norway)

I actually worked for Billy Graham, for a few months, back in the 1970s. Not in any notable way — in those days the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters were in Minneapolis. I went to work in the “Decision Building” during a year I took off to pay for my last year of college. I did bulk mail work, mostly slinging mail bags around, though they did “promote” me to operating a Phillipsburg Inserter machine before I decamped for a higher paying job. But I distinguished myself by writing a letter to the Minneapolis Star & Tribune to dissent from a critical article they published about Billy.

I’m old enough the remember the man in his prime. My home church, a Lutheran pietist congregation, was pretty leery of Baptists in those days. But Billy was an exception. He could pretty much do no wrong in our eyes. And the funny thing was, in general he deserved it. Ethel Waters, a Graham convert and supporter, writes in her autobiography, To Me It’s Wonderful, how she immediately got suspicious the first time she saw his picture: “He’s too good-looking.” But no hint of sexual scandal ever came near him personally (he was an early adopter of what we now call the Mike Pence Rule).

I don’t think we’ll see his like again. I’ve long held a superstitious fear that God was delaying the judgment America deserves so long as Billy was alive. Without him, will there be anyone to stand in the gap?

Enter into the joy of your Master, William Franklin Graham.

That Maddening Book

That Hideous Strength

At that moment the door opened and a voice from behind it said, “Well, go in then, if you’re going.” Thus admonished, a very fine jackdaw hopped into the room, followed firstly by Mr. Bultitude and secondly by Arthur Denniston.

“I’ve told you before, Arthur,” said Ivy Maggs, “not to bring that bear in here when we’re cooking the dinner.” While she was speaking Mr. Bultitude, who was apparently himself uncertain of his welcome, walked across the room in what he believed (erroneously) to be an unobtrusive manner and sat down behind Mrs. Dimble’s chair.

Some people have been discussing C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength lately on Facebook, and I thought I’d make a few comments on the blog tonight – though I’m relatively sure I’ve said these things here before.

That Hideous Strength may be my favorite of all C. S. Lewis’s works – though the competition is fierce. And yet the book has maddening weaknesses – which nevertheless contribute in their way to the ultimate success of the work.

The commenter on Facebook had exactly my experience reading it. First of all, it’s a much longer book than the previous entries in the Ransom trilogy. It’s also a very different kind of book, not at all what the fan of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra is probably expecting. Instead of mystical space opera, we’re confronted with an earth-bound, genre-bending urban fantasy, consciously modeled after Charles Williams’s novels.

And here’s the killing thing – the first few chapters are undeniably dull. The first time I read them, it was plain work to slog my way through. Many, many readers, I’m sure, have just given it up. Continue reading That Maddening Book