All posts by Phil W

How Alice Changed the World

Anyone would have to grant that, if nothing else, Carroll’s books have come to exercise an influence on the English language rivaled only by Shakespeare’s. Not only does Alice echo on in a host of common expressions—Cheshire cat smile, down the rabbit-hole, through the looking-glass, “Curiouser and curiouser,” “Off with her head!” and so on—but even many of Carroll’s nonsense words have become redoubtable fixtures of the lexicon. “Jabberwocky” alone gave us such indispensable locutions as “galumph,” “frabjous,” “chortle,” “mimsy,” “slithy,” “vorpal blade,” “tulgey,” “uffish,” “Bandersnatch,” “Jubjub bird,” “Tumtum tree,” “Calooh! Callay!”—why, the OED even includes “outgrabe” and “brillig”—while Humpty Dumpty’s magisterial exegesis of that mighty poem gave us the concept of the “portmanteau” word. That scarcely touches the surface of the matter, however. In a very real sense, the Alice books, along with all of Carroll’s nonsense verse, constitute a kind of revolutionary manifesto of a uniquely English style of genius: that special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen—which the French admire but cannot imitate, the Germans dread but cannot resist, the Italians love but cannot understand. . . . If, for instance, The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost is the great English epic in the simple sense of being the most distinguished long narrative poem in the language, The Hunting of the Snark is the great English epic in the sense of being a work no other people could have produced. Other examples of the art abound, obviously: Lear’s nonsense verse, Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and so on. But none achieves quite the purity, tireless wit, and ingenious invention of Carroll’s works.

One point from David Bentley Hart’s 2016 essay on the value and importance of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Did you know there are Wonderland-themed chess sets?  I know themed chess sets abound, but I hadn’t heard of this before.

Hernando’s Once Great Library

Like the hierophants of search-engineering, Hernando wanted readers to have an infinitely searchable database ‘that would allow people to wander in places they did not know, perhaps had not even dreamed existed’. Like him, the webmasters have failed to give us that degree of liberation: cyber ghettoes prevail. ‘We are in danger of hemming ourselves into ever smaller enclaves, increasingly oblivious to the infinite … worlds that we simply no longer see.’

Hernando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, gave us the story of his father’s great adventures, making much of the man and little of the missteps. He built a library with the intention of housing everything long before Ripley tried his hand at a tawdry version of it. The Biblioteca Colombina (pictures) has been a marvel in the past but only about 4,000 of the original 15,000 items remain.  Felipe Fernández-Armesto paints a picture of it in his review of Edward Wilson-Lee’s Harnando biography. (via Prufrock News)

The Mississippi Writers Trail

Mississippi has a big presence in the birth of American culture,” said Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. “The biggest asset is our cultural story, and literature and writing is part of that.”

This history will be spotlighted a newly developing Mississippi Writers Trail with historical markers throughout the state, directing biblio-tourism to sites of interest to Mississippi authors, such as William Faulkner, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker Alexander, and Richard Ford. One could get started right away with this multi-state website already published. (via Prufrock News)

Can’t Make a Living Writing Songs

You can’t be a songwriter without having a spare job,” [Andre] Lindal, 41, tells [Pacific Standard magazine], sounding downhearted as he rummages around his Los Angeles home—a home that Lindal can only afford thanks to his other jobs on the marketing and management side of the music industry. “It’s awesome to be working with great people. But it stinks that you’re not going to be able to get paid for what you do. You can only be a fan for so long.”

Lindal had a #3 song performed by Justin Bieber in 2013 with 34 million plays on YouTube, four million more on Pandora. Those YouTube plays earned him $218 due to regulations established in 1941. Songwriters used be able to draw on sheet music, album, and download sales, but streaming services are outside of those schemes. (via Prufrock News)

Confederacy “founded upon exactly the opposite idea”

I have learned April is Confederate history or heritage month. I didn’t grow up with any conflict over this part of the history of the Southern states. The culture and even language of the South was formed in part by our close association to  that “peculiar institution African slavery,” as Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens put it, but both can still be separated from our current lives. Also I was encouraged, though I don’t remember exactly how and when, to see the war between the states as a conflict over states’ rights.

The war was over states’ rights, but the fundamental right the Confederate states fought for was the right to build their economy on slavery. So any Confederate history month should look at the whole picture, not some lost cause of glamorized Southern noblemen whose Christian ideals made our country great.

In 2016, Jemar Tisby made a month of posts for April to spotlight some points of history that may be overlooked by those celebrating the Confederacy. One of them linked to Alexander Stephens’s speech in Savannah on March 21, 1861. I will quote from it a bit more than he did.

Stephens said Jefferson was right when he said the institution of slavery was the “rock upon which the old Union would split,” but he was wrong on how he viewed that rock. “The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with,” but believed it would pass away over time. To confront it directly was too costly, so our founding fathers hoped it would be washed away though the natural course of civilization over the next few decades.

Continue reading Confederacy “founded upon exactly the opposite idea”

Recommended Reading, Listening on African American Evangelical History

Some months ago, I listened to two moving lectures from Thabiti Anyabwile which compared and contrasted some of the life and teaching of Jonathan Edwards (part 1) and the next generation preacher from the other side of the tracks Lemuel Haynes (part 2). I recommend these lectures to you as biblical messages on two godly American men and a difficult issue that continues to reverberate.

In this vein, Thomas Kidd recommends five books on African American Evangelical History. Anyabwile’s book on Haynes is one of the recommended titles. Here’s a quick glance at the list.

  1. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South
  2. Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars
  3. Thabiti Anyabwile, May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes 
  4. Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
  5. Paul Harvey, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity

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.

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

A Point of Unity in Essentials

Many books have been written on the topic of race and “racial reconciliation,” particularly in recent years. One Blood stands out for the unique perspective, integrity, and wisdom supplied by its author—one born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi, who, despite losing his brother to racial violence and nearly losing his own life after a severe beating by racist cops, renounced any “right” to be resentful and angry and instead devoted his life to the twin ministries of justice and reconciliation. John Perkins writes as one whose life, formerly filled with prejudice and hate, is now overflowing with the love of God, “the ultimate reconciler.”

Pastor Duke Kwon reviews Dr. John Perkins’s new book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race, undoubtedly an important book, but I don’t know if it’s any more important than Perkins’s other books. Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win came out just last year. This is a man we should be listening to.

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.”