Category Archives: Religion

If Your Eye Causes You to Sin, here’s a Knife.

I read an article the other day criticizing a renewed push by some U.S. House conservatives as well as some writers to ban pornography in America. The writer took no moral stance for or against it, but defended it as a point of individual rights. But what is freedom if it is not moral freedom? What is law if not moral law?

I almost linked to this First Things article arguing for ways we could regulate and restrict it, but I feared it was misguided. And maybe I feared other things.

It’s hard to ignore the implicit cries for help seen on Twitter by survivors of sexual abuse who say a parent groomed them with dirty images or that criminals are fueled by it. But being only one person, what can you do?

One of our favorite authors, Jared Wilson, points out the shock factor in Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:8-9, “And if your eye causes you to fall away, gouge it out.”

He says, “It’s not the temptation that leads you away—it’s your ‘foot.’ It’s not the sinful vision that leads you away—it’s your ‘eye.'” And the stakes for continuing in sin are far higher than you want to admit.

Common Temptations, Demonic Influence at College

This is a timely word from Dr. Hans Madueme, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, delivered in chapel last November. He says some leaders are worried their college (perhaps all Christian colleges) are helping students speak Christianly while continuing to think and act in a worldly manner. The devil has been working his craft for a very long time; he knows how to leverage his influence over us.

Keep Him Distracted or Sentimental

I came to this lost letter between two tempters late this season. Justin Wainscott found it somewhere and offers it to us for the useful instruction it has. The senior tempter advises his pupil not to try to turn his charge against Christmas all together, but to weakness his reflection on any of the details.

Keep him distracted as much as possible. “Keep him overly committed to all sorts of things (yes, even good things). Make sure he goes to every party and feels obligated to go out and purchase a gift for each one. Make sure he attends concerts and dinners and charity events. If his calendar isn’t full, you’ve failed.”

Failing that, keep him sentimental. “By all means, let him sing and be merry. Hell knows we have made good use of those kinds of things just as much as we have misery and gloom.”

Failing that, he has one more suggestion, all of which make for good advice for the coming year.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels

‘A Thousand Candles In the Gloom’

It being Christmas Eve, you probably expected a Christmas song from Sissel. And you shall not be disappointed.

But wait! There’s myrrh! (As the meme says.)

Below is my quick translation of the lyrics. The original hymn is Swedish, music and words written in 1898 by Emmy Kohler.

A thousand candles in the gloom

Shine all around the earth,

And heaven’s stars are smiling down

To hail the Savior’s birth.

In palace and in cottage low

The news goes round tonight

Of He who in a stable born

Is God and Lord of Light.

Thou shining star of Bethlehem

So bright and fair above

Remind us of the angels’ song

Of light and peace and love.

To each poor lonely heart on earth

A beam of blessing send

So they may find the way that leads

To Bethlehem again.

Christmas of Comfort and Fog

Scrooge did not recognize the fog surrounding him. J. G. Duesing writes,

When Scrooge is first greeted by the caroling of “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” he responds such that “the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog.” Dickens’s fog is not dismal or dark, Chesterton says, but rather something that draws in and, in the case of Scrooge, corners. Fog “makes the world small …”

He describes how this plays to the particular comfort of Christmas and the light that has pierced the fog of the world.

Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

‘In the Bleak Midwinter’

The nice thing about December is that if I can’t think of anything to blog, I can post a Christmas music video. In my case, that usually means something from Sissel.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is in keeping with the weather, in my neighborhood. Poem by Christina Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst. Orchestration by a bunch of heretics in Salt Lake City.

Longing to Know and Be Known

Elizabeth Harwell says Wendell Berry wounded her be reminding her how often she has moved around. She feels temporary, and that’s not how she grew up.

Because when memory calls me back to my childhood, I know that land. I can feel that grass under my feet. I know its broad green blades: fat-bottomed and rising to a rounded point. In my mind, I can split the blades into two pieces and I can remember the way the hanging fibers felt on my lips. I know the yellow dandelion blooms—and not only as a whole, but also, more clearly even, in its parts. I know the feel of the dandelion’s soft petals on the tip of my nose and the mustard-yellow streaks it would leave when I rubbed it across my palm. I can see its hosts of aphids working their way up the stems in crowded lines.

In truth, we do not have homes here; Christ has gone to make a home for us somewhere else, but he has left a well-stocked table for us here to remember him and all of the church.

“Our place is coming,” she says, “our people are here.”

Photo by Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

For your Spectation

I have a new column (as of Sunday) at The American Spectator Online. It’s the article on Hans Nielsen Hauge I’ve been warning you about.

I had the chance to meet a scholar recently, a woman from Norway. I went to hear her talk about a historical figure I’ve written about on this site before — Hans Nielsen Hauge (pronounced “HOW-geh”), the early 19th-century Norwegian lay revivalist.

In conversation after the lecture, someone brought up an undocumented but well-attested story — that it was a tradition at a nearby liberal seminary for some of the students to celebrate the anniversary of Hauge’s death with a drinking party where they would make fun of him.

The speaker said this surprised her. “In Norway,” she said, “Hauge is a hero to both sides. The conservatives admire him for his religious activities. The liberals admire him for being one of the founders of their movement.”

The power of paper

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @ anniesprat

Okay, I’ve got another thing to write about Hans Nielsen Hauge (look a few inches down for my first post on him. It’s the one with the Sissel song), the Norwegian lay revivalist of the early 19th Century. (I’m doing my article for the Spectator too, but this is extra.) As was noted by the lecturer I talked to last week, Hauge is a hero both to the right and to the left in Norway – to the right for his religious influence, and to the left for being one of the founders of their movement.

Because in those days of yore, liberalism had little or nothing to do with socialism. It had nothing to do with sexual practices or the size of government.

Liberalism was about whether the common people should be allowed to participate fully in society. To move out of the social classes they were born into, and aspire to higher ambitions. Even to politics.

One thing our speaker mentioned that I hadn’t appreciated before was Hauge’s sideline in manufacturing paper.

I’d known that he established a paper mill, called the Eker Paper Mill. In it he employed unemployables – the blind, the crippled, amputees – allowing them to live productive lives and contribute to the community. I thought that a very nice thing.

What I didn’t realize was the significance of the paper mill itself.

Cheap paper was a new thing in those days. Paper use had formerly been limited to the elite, and the paper they had was often of poor quality. But new manufacturing techniques involving paper pulp permitted a larger public to get hold of the stuff.

Hauge immediately recognized the wider significance of cheap paper.

It was usual in those days for the common people to be able to read. They had to be able to read to finish “Confirmation,” the Lutheran process that gave young men and women access to the Bible and the Catechism, in order to be full church members.

But those people generally could not write. (I’d never thought about this, but writing is a very different skill. Only the upper classes [and not all of them] could write in those days.)

Hauge had a vision of “awakened” (his term) Christians corresponding with each other all over the country. They could share inspiration, news, and practical information, forming what we’d call today a Haugean “network.”

In order to make that happen, he did two things. One, he built a paper mill (perhaps more than one; I’m not sure), and he organized classes to teach people to write.

This, by the way, was alarming to the authorities. They saw no reason why people should have any regular contacts outside their home parishes. Revolution was abroad in Europe, after all; you never knew what those peasants might get up to. This accounts for some of the hostility Hauge encountered, leading to his ten year incarceration.

But his followers kept writing on Hauge’s paper. Eventually they started newspapers and publishing houses. And today he is a hero of literacy and liberal politics in Norway.

‘Jesus, I Long For Thy Blessed Communion’

I was surprised to find this hymn on YouTube. It’s a classic hymn for the Haugeans (the Lutheran “sect” I grew up in. Though we never actually sang this one much in my church), and it’s sung my none other than the divine Sissel Kyrkjebo. I didn’t even know she’d done it.

The two verses she sings are translated thus:

1 Jesus, I long for Thy blessed communion,
Yearning for Thee fills my heart and my mind;
Draw me from all that would hinder our union,
May I to Thee, my beginning, be joined;
Show me more clearly my hopeless condition;
Show me the depth of corruption in me,
So that my nature may die in contrition,
And that my spirit may live unto Thee!

7 Merciful Jesus, now hear how I bind Thee
To the sure pledge of Thy covenant word:
“Ask, and receive: when ye seek, ye shall find me;”
Thus have Thy lips, ever faithful, averred.
I with the woman of Canaan unresting,
Cry after Thee till my longing is stilled,
Till Thou shalt add, my petitions attesting,
“Amen, yea, amen: it be as thou wilt!”

Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Norwegian lay revivalist I’ve written about here before, was singing this song as he plowed his father’s field on a day in 1796. Suddenly, he said, he was overwhelmed with the glory of God, and felt himself filled with love for God and all his neighbors, and called to serve them with his whole life. After that he started preaching to small groups — which was illegal. Eventually he would spend ten years in prison for this activity. But by the time he died, he was a national hero, respected by nearly everyone, high and low.

I attended a meeting yesterday where we heard a lecture from a Norwegian scholar, a woman, who’s been studying Hauge’s life and work for years. Her subject was the effect of Hauge’s ministry on public literacy in Norway — because that was one of his many achievements — getting the common people reading (and even writing).

In the midst of this, I came to a new realization about the “liberal” origins of evangelicalism — a subject that fascinates me. As people are no doubt weary of me telling them, early liberalism (late 18th and early 19th Century liberalism) had nothing to do with socialism, or sexual identity, or the size of government. It was simply about whether the common people would be allowed to participate in governing themselves.

I’ll be writing more about this — but probably for the American Spectator Online. Because they pay me, after all.

The importance of being Urnes

The Urnes Stave Church, by I. C. Dahl

Dendrodating indicates that part of Urnes Stave Church, which was estimated built before 1100, was constructed using timber from 1069 and 1070. The slightly younger part of Urnes is dated to 1129-1130.

For the sake of clarity: dendrochronology can date the year a tree was felled for the stave churches. The likelihood is that the felling year was also when the construction began.

Recently I’ve given a couple lectures about the conversion of Norway to the Christian faith. In those lectures I argue for a “revisionist” view (based on the arguments of Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli) that questions the traditional narrative, which credits two violent 11th Century missionary kings with the conversion. The view I’ve adopted holds that the conversion was a gradual, centuries-long process, and mostly a peaceful one. Much of the credit for that process arguably belongs to the 10th Century king Haakon the Good, whom the sagas tend to dismiss as a missionary failure.

That view gained a little credibility recently, when results of new research on the famous Norwegian stave churches was released by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. New findings push the dates for some of the oldest stave churches back several decades. As stated above, wood in the Urnes stave church, previously dated to just before 1100, has now been re-dated to about 1069. That’s three years after King Harald Hardrada died – within spitting distance of the Viking era.

As you can see in the drawing above by artist I. C. Dahl, the Urnes church is far from the most beautiful of the stave churches – a fair amount of remodeling has gotten done on it over time, smoothing out some of the distinctive features. But the wall panel you can see has caused the “Urnes” name to be given to a whole era of Viking art – an elegant fusion of Norse and Celtic styles which I consider delightful.

Dendochronology has been an important and invaluable scientific tool for archaeologists for a while now. By identifying patterns in tree rings (a little like fingerprints) they’re able to date ancient wood to the exact year when the tree was cut. But to make dendochronological comparisons, you need to either be able to examine the end of the log, or to do a bore sample – and obviously nobody wants to drill a sample hole in a stave church pillar. The new technology of Photodendrometry allows scientists to examine the rings without destruction to the material – and to do it more accurately.

You can count on me to keep you updated on advances in Viking scholarship – whenever they confirm my own prejudices.

‘Behold a Host, Arrayed in White

Above is a traditional Scandinavian hymn by the Danish hymnwriter Hans Adolf Brorson. The music was arranged, I believe, by Edvard Grieg. If you’re patient, you’ll hear the English words.

It’s a hymn about the blessed saints in Heaven, based on a passage from Revelation. It’s particularly suited to All Saints Day, which is today. It was also a favorite of my father’s. Gene Edward Veith, at his Cranach blog, laments how this festival day, devoted to eternal life, has come to be overshadowed by celebrations of death and horror.

After a month which (for me) has been full of genuine death, it’s good to contemplate our eternal hope.

Why Endorse White-Cain’s Book?

When noted speaker Paula White-Cain, “the spiritual advisor to President Donald Trump,” released a book several days ago, there were a number of endorsements from Baptist ministers and ministry leaders who, many of us thought, should have held their tongues. This is not a teacher promoted in orthodox churches. She is a heretic on the level of Benny Hinn; in fact, she allegedly had a relationship with him at one point. She’s also a pastor of her church, and female pastors are a point of heated argument among Southern Baptists this year. Why then would someone like the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas endorse her book as a refreshing story of God’s redemptive power (taken from his words printed in the book)?

Professors Leah Payne and Aaron Griffith say evangelical leaders have sided with their theological opponents for years. Many times these partnerships make sense; we join together as diverse citizen groups in support of a moral or community good. No one would balk at Christians and heretics building a playground together, but when Christian pastors endorse the books and teaching of a heretic, that’s when we have problems.

Payne and Griffith describe the lure of celebrity among most evangelicals and their tendency to use self-help arguments similar to those they condemn from White-Cain. They are “not that different from the soft prosperity exhortations of other evangelicals, including many in the SBC, who claim that following biblical principles improves marriages, lowers anxiety, and creates extraordinary lives of success and significance” (drawing again on words from the pastor of First Baptist Dallas).

That’s a broad explanation that doesn’t quite work for some of the endorsers of this book, so to fill it out a bit more we could say that a book endorsement is not an evaluation of its content. It’s more of a business move or pandering.

Maybe they’ve learned this lesson from White-Cain’s book: “Find your passion in life and figure out a way to make money.”

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash