"An idol is anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone."

- Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "Idolatry"
Let's Not Get Cynical Here

"Satire can be dangerous and harmful. It can breed a dehumanizing cynicism which becomes an end in itself," writes Carl Truman, but it is also "vital to healthy democracy. Where it exists, it is a sign that power is being resisted. Where it is permitted, it is a sign of freedom and a gauge of the ability of those in charge to allow criticism."

And from our political desk, we're hearing reports that the administration who said the world doesn't respect the United States enough to stand with us did not respect the world enough to stand with them during yesterday's solidarity march in Paris. The secretary of state said, essentially, "Just because I couldn't attend your ball games or birthday parties doesn't mean I don't love you, son. Why does this always have to be about you?"

A Glimpse Into the Mind of a Sceptic

Bart Ehrman, author of How Jesus Became God and Misquoting Jesus, talks with World's Warren Cole Smith about his new book arguing Jesus did not claim to be God. He says, "It has long been recognized by scholars that if Jesus actually had called himself God, and it was known that he called Himself God, that it’s virtually beyond belief that the early Gospel writers didn’t mention this."

The publisher of Ehrman's book thought it would sell books to publish a companion book arguing that Jesus is God, so they approached five authors to write it. Ehrman says in the interview that he doesn't believe those authors believe Jesus taught the doctrine of the Trinity during his lifetime. "Scholars," he says, believe John's Gospel put words in Jesus' mouth, so he did not actually say, "I and the Father are one," or other claims to divinity. I suppose any evidence to support this belief is in his book.

Apparently the demonstrations of divine authority in Matthew 8-9 do not argue for Jesus' deity, but merely his agency of divine power. He was a prophet, nothing more:

  • "When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, 'Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.'"
  • "And the men marveled, saying, 'What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?'"
  • "'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins'—he then said to the paralytic—'Rise, pick up your bed and go home.'"
  • "And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, 'Never was anything like this seen in Israel.'"
Apparenly Jesus claiming the title "Son of Man" for himself is no clue that he is the one in Daniel 7 who "all peoples, nations, and languages" would serve forever:
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

Ehrman gets hung up on the doctrine of the Trinity in the interview, pressing Smith on whether the five evangelical authors actually believe Jesus taught the Trinity.Read the rest of this entry . . .

Doubt: Your Unwelcomed Companion

Nicci Cloke writes about beginning the year as a new novelist.

This time of year is one of the worst for The Doubts, with social media churning out list upon list of books to look out for in 2015. Author Claire King rightly explains here how unnecessarily stressful it can be — especially for a debut novelist — to scan those and not find your book listed. And, let’s be honest — there’s always some handy stick-shaped internet fodder you can find to beat your poor old ego with.
In the post to which Ms. Cloke links, Ms. King observes, "MOST of us are not the most anticipated. But if your pool of debut authors is limited to you and the ones everyone is shouting about on twitter and in the newspapers it’s very easy to feel like the poor relation."

'Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen,' by Kirsten Wolf

[Personal note: I apologize for my continued absence from this blog. I thought I'd be doing more blogging while I had a few weeks of winter break, but I scheduled myself a number of projects, and they've taken more time than I expected. And now I'm just a week away from classes again. lw]

I approached Kirsten Wolf's book, Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen, with anticipation. For years a book with a similar job description, Jacqueline Simpson's Everyday Life in the Viking Age, has been a standard for Viking buffs and reenactors. It's well-researched, readable, and useful. But it's old now, and we've learned a lot since Simpson wrote. We need a new book in that vein.

This book is not it.

That's not to say it's worthless. I'll admit I learned some things reading it. But I'm not as sure of those things as I'd like to be, because the book contains too many "facts" that are just plain wrong.

The author states twice that the Battle of Svold took place in Norway (it took place in the Baltic). She states that Olaf Tryggvason was the great-grandson of Harald Fairhair (historians aren't sure nowadays). She says that Olaf Tryggvason made the Greenlanders accept Christianity (no historian believes that anymore).

Most of the gross mistakes seem to be associated with King Olaf Tryggvason's career. Perhaps the author's reading has been deficient in that area. Prof. Wolf teaches Old Norse literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I hesitate to criticize a professor in a university system in which I am a student, but she seems weak on material outside her specialty. I suspect the book was a rush job, probably done under deadline.

A special weakness of this volume is the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated, but most of those illustrations are worse than useless, except to fill up pages. The publishers opted for copyright-free pictures whenever possible, which means we are treated to a feast of 19th Century engravings, with horned and winged helmets and classical poses. In a book which fails to even mention the Cardinal Truth -- "No horned helmets!" -- this is inexcusable. Newcomers to the field will come away with a bundle of misconceptions.

Jacqueline Simpson's book was illustrated with simple and useful line drawings that depicted actual archaeological finds. But hiring artists to do that sort of thing costs money, which the publishers of Wolf's book were apparently unwilling to spend.

Not recommended.

Wilson's Favorites from 2014

John Wilson of Books and Culture offers his favorite books from last year. Here's one recommendation which may resonate with you.

The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. Donald E. Westlake. Edited by Levi Stahl. Because he mostly wrote crime fiction (some of it under the name “Richard Stark”), and—even worse, from the standpoint of the guardians of our literature—a lot of it very funny, Donald Westlake (1933-2008) is almost never mentioned in canonical accounts of contemporary fiction. But that hasn’t prevented countless readers from savoring his sentences. This nonfiction miscellany, lovingly edited by Levi Stahl, will give those readers a clearer sense of the man behind the books while providing a good deal of instruction and delight.

Thornbury's Period of Doubt and New Faith

Greg Thornbury writes about his upbringing and how his Christian liberal arts education almost took his faith away.

For me, this dose of higher criticism was nearly lethal. Any sense that the Bible was divinely inspired and trustworthy, or that the creeds had metaphysical gravitas, started to seem implausible. The best I could muster was that, somehow mystically, perhaps Jesus was the Christ, existentially speaking. I was approaching something close to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s own story of losing faith.
By God's profound grace, the writings of one man turned him around.

What If We Did Away With a Literary Canon?

"The academy has forsaken the stuffiness of the strictly educated and taken up the twee thoughtlets of the faux hip."

Retitled Christian Books as Mini Reviews

You know the concept. What if publishers told us the raw truth in their book titles? Here's a list of what could be written.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye: How To Not Talk To Girls Until You’re 25 Years Old

Heaven Is For Real: A Book About Heaven From The Perspective Of A Four Year Old Who Had A Near Death Experience And For Some Reason We Believe Him More Than The Bible

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood: One Woman’s Valiant Attempt To Create Straw-Man Arguments and Massively Misinterpret A Lot Of The Bible, All the While Saying, “You Go Girl!”

Radical: All You Rich, Fat, Lazy Christians Need To Stop Eating At McDonald’s And Become Missionaries To Africa

There's more. (via Barnabas Piper, whose book is in the list)

Coming This Year: Books in 2015

The Millions offers this list of anticipated books for 2015.

The Globe and Mail is looking forward to these titles from the first half of this year.

The Historical Novel Society has a long list of books being published this year. Don't talk to me about watching all the Oscar-nominated films for the year. This is the list you need to tackle (not that you actually have to read every page of every book--we have our limits).

Failure, Joss Whedon Style

"Joss Whedon’s career is a testament to failure," said his biographer.

"Pascale shares some of the life lessons gleaned from her research that help explain how Whedon built his fanbase and got all these projects done without killing himself."

Elsewhere, Whedon says stories of advanced technology and artificial intelligence are our new Frankenstein myth.

Looking for Inspiration on the Orient Express

Two mystery writers board an iconic train, looking for classic inspiration.

The Orient Express only goes as far as Istanbul and makes the trip only once a year. The next journey from Paris to Istanbul is slated for August 28, 2015. "Today, from London, travelers take a train and a bus before boarding the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Calais. Once one of the fastest ways to cross Europe, the Orient Express now requires two days to do the work of a two-hour flight from Heathrow. Leisure has replaced speed as the train’s ultimate luxury."

They collected details about the train and the people who rode it, but would they find the inspiration they sought?

"Over cocktails, the train manager told us that there were too many repeat customers for him to even guess at their number. One woman, he informed us, took the train every month from London to Venice. “And she loathes Venice!” he added."

Orient Express / Battersea Power

What Documentaries to Watch This Month

The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This January

Image: Karishma Mhapadi

Iceland's Christmas Book Flood

NPR's Jordan Teicher reports, "Historically, a majority of books in Iceland are sold from late September to early November. It's a national tradition, and it has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the 'Christmas Book Flood.'

"'The culture of giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday,' says Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association. 'Normally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it's the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.'"

Don't Know? Ask a Librarian, They Once Said.

What did people ask the New York Public Library before they could search the Internet for made-up answers? The librarians have opened their file to reveal all.

When a question couldn't be answered immediately, they would be filed away, because that's what librarians do--they file junk. "Some are amusing ('Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?'), while others are heartbreaking ('Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce?')."

Other questions include:

  1. Where can I rent a beagle for hunting (1963). We also had requests to rent a guillotine.
  2. Has the gun with which Oswald shot President Kennedy been returned to the family?
  3. Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
I remember calling my local library to ask if they knew whether Sean Connery had died the day before. Someone in my workplace thought they had seen that, and we couldn't get away with saying that it should be all over the news if it had happened, so since it isn't, it didn't. (via Prufrock)

Great Britain Is Eating Its Greatness

Where is British culture today? Here's a depressing report from Hal G.P. Colebatch.

In August 2004, it was revealed that the National Lottery had raised £16 billion, enough to fund not merely the British but the US space program nearly twice over. The journalist Bruce Anderson commented that many liberals two hundred years ago believed that if mankind could only liberate itself from its worship of gods and its deference to kings, barbarism would inevitably give way to the reign of reason and virtue: “In one respect the liberals have had their way: gods and kings are not what they were. Instead, we have lottery tickets, astrology and pop music.”
Apparently Britons are more sports and pop-culture obsessed than you might imagine, and parts of the church aren't helping.
After the 2008 Olympics, many British commentators wrote as if the fact that British athletes had won a relatively large number of medals was somehow a sign of national recovery and renewal. The preparation of these athletes had largely been paid for by National Lottery money, in other words by a decadent tax levied on the stupid and the desperate.

In 2008 the 1948 London Olympics were estimated to have cost about £20 million in 2008 terms; the 2012 London Olympics were estimated at the same time to be costing £10 billion, that is 500 times as much. This showed an official sense of priorities for which the only term was insanity.[8] Great intellectual or scientific achievers, or moral heroes, were by comparison so ignored that no comparison with the adulation heaped upon sports stars and entertainers was even possible.
In July, 1998, following England’s defeat by Argentina in the World Cup, the Bible Society, with the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called on the nation to forgive David Beckham for having been sent off during the match, as though some vast moral or spiritual issue was involved. Dr David Spriggs, the director of the Bible Society and a Baptist minister, said, in words from which, to quote Peter Simple, satire might slink away ashamed: “What is so important is that David has faced up to his mistake, and asked the forgiveness of his team-mates and the whole nation …” The BBC made a “Where-were-you-when-it-happened?” documentary about this match, as if it had been a great historical event.

New Year, whether we like it or not

Illustration by J. C. Leyendecker

The Walker Christmas was celebrated this past Saturday, at my palatial home of Blithering Heights. This was timely in meteorological terms, since the earth, though appropriately hard as iron (or at least hard as lead), was bare on Christmas day, but plentiful snow fell on Saturday morning, auguring well for our celebration. Even more than the fortune cookies at the Chinese restaurant where we adjourned for lunch, in traditional Norwegian fashion.

And now the New Year approaches, like the Avenger of Blood in the Pentateuch. I feel more at home with the New Year as I grow older, probably because I come more and more to resemble the New Year's baby. My festivities are taking the form of a few days off from work, working instead on a translation project while I have a little time off from grad school. My new year's resolution is to spend less time relaxing. Prospects appear good.

Ah, 2015. God willing, it will be the year I'll complete all my course credits, leaving only the Comprehensive Tests to be gotten through -- some time in early 2016, I suppose. But just finishing class work is enough to give me a future and a hope. All my friends are retiring, it's true, but everyone knows you retire and you drop dead the next day. At this rate I'll live forever.

Have a blessed calendar change.

Revisiting the Closing of the American Mind

R.R. Reno wrote about Allan Bloom's book, Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, on its twentieth anniversary in 2007.

The most important question in peoples lives—that is to say, the question of how they should live—remains largely unconnected to the sophisticated intellectual training that continues to take place in the classroom. I can often get students to “share” their moral “opinions,” and often with a certain warmth of conviction. I can also get students to analyze classical arguments for or against various accounts of the good life. But I find it difficult to induce students to take a passionate and rational interest in fundamental questions.
I am most interested in the students who are wounded and unmoored by the this kind of training or the atmosphere in which it takes place. Some students may be able to withhold their moral convictions in college and keep them intact, but some lose those convictions through a lack of exercise. If they do not actually lose them, they may find them shifted by the many sympathetic voices for immorality among their peers.

Quoting John Paul II, Reno states, "We should beware 'an undifferentiated pluralism,' he writes, for an easy celebration of 'difference' undermines our desire for truth and reduces everything to mere opinion."

Walter Wangerin, Jr. To Publish Memoir

This coming Spring, Rabbit Room Press will release a new memoir from the great author Walter Wangerin, Jr. It will be called Everlasting Is the Past.

"In this new memoir, he invites the reader into the past to experience his loss of faith as a young seminarian, his struggle to find a place for his chosen vocation amid a storm of doubts, and his eventual renewal in the arms of an inner-city church called Grace."

Pre-orders are being taken.

New Christmas Carols from Peterson and Getty

"Who’s writing the new Christmas carols? Andrew Peterson and Keith Getty talk about the new songs celebrating Christ’s birth."

Peterson says, "I grew up on Pink Floyd records and these rock albums that told stories. I loved that idea that if you sat and listened to a 45-minute record it would take you somewhere. I still try to make my albums that way so that they’re not a bunch of singles stacked up. But with this, the attempt was to try and convey the epic nature of the story of Christ coming into the world with new songs. I love Christmas music, but I also know that we’ve heard the songs enough to where they’ve lost their wonder for us."

The Carol of Seven Signs

"The Carol of Seven Signs," by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Don't miss this.

"Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"

A blessed Christmas to you all. Here's Sissel with what I think is my favorite Christmas hymn. We sang it in church tonight, complete with the old lyrics: "Pleased as man with man to dwell," "Born to raise the sons of earth," and all that. I felt like I'd gotten a Christmas present. I punch those lyrics when I sing them.

Somebody Talkin' 'Bout Jesus

Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Eve Reel

For your Christmas Eve, an Irish reel recorded in a pub. Ken Doyle is on flute and Mark Pitner plays bouzouki.

If anyone needs me, I'll be in my pod

I understand how you feel. Through all the hectic activity, the parking and the shopping, the glitter and the tinsel, one thought has nagged at you. "This would be a perfect Christmas season," you think, "if only I could hear Lars Walker's voice."

Well, your Christmas wish has come true. Derek Gilbert of View From the Bunker recorded an interview with me, and you can listen to it here.

God bless us, every one.

Sony Hackers: English You Write Much?

The Language Log is talking about whether the language used in threats issued by the hackers of Sony Pictures reflects a particular native language or is a hoax. "Kevin McCready surmises that the hacker threat was '…written by someone who has strong command of English but is pretending they don't. In particular it would be interesting to see if grammatical errors conform to those a Korean might make.'"

The text of the original threat isn't uniform. Here are the second and third sentences: "Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear."

A commenter claiming to be a native Korean speaker says it looks Korean to him. He writes, "Some people seem to be saying that 'Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made' seems to be too good to have been produced by the same writer of some of the other lines, but this sort of expression ('all the world will see') would not be out of place in Korean either."

Controversial Exhibit of Artwork on Mary Rebuffs Art Snobs

So a straw man walks into a bar. Except he doesn't.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is running what appears to be a fabulous exhibit, Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea on view December 5, 2014–April 12, 2015. Terry Mattingly has a video on it and writes about a review in The Baltimore Sun that reports on how some art critics are irritated that this exhibit doesn't shove back the faces of Christians who actually like Mary, the mother of Jesus. "In other words, this exhibit has – among a elite art critics – become controversial because it is not causing controversy among (wait for it) religious believers who are, by definition, opposed to modern art."

Apparently controversy is what exhibit planners want to avoid on a regular basis, but not all controversy is created equal. The only way to avoid the right kind of controversy is to show that your museum is too sophisticated to show respect for anything that isn't the latest in trendy, Ivy League expressions.

"The [Baltimore Sun] story makes it clear, for example, that this astonishingly deep exhibit could not have taken place if its planners had decided to include modern art about Mary that would have offended the very churches and museums that controlled some of these priceless masterpieces." But the straw men these critics hate so much are anywhere to be seen.

Scalzi and Redshirts

"John Scalzi is interesting as someone who has built a writing career in these strange days," Joseph Bottum explains. "He spent a few years writing movie reviews after college before landing, in 1996, a sweet gig at America Online as editor and in-house writer. Laid off in the meltdown of AOL, he took to writing guidebooks for the money and science fiction blog posts for the fame. Or, at least, the dribs of money and the drabs of fame. The blog, called “Whatever,” proved enjoyable for readers—a few years ago, he issued in book form selections entitled Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded—and it successfully established him as a voice to be reckoned with in the field."

Scalzi's most recent novel is called Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. It's a story about a red-shirted crew that discovers it's dangerous to accompany the senior officers on landing parties.

Advent Ghost Stories 2014

"There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long. long ago."

Loren Eaton hosts another round of ghost stories centered on Christmastime. There are many here, and Loren has a couple himself. Note this on called "Elizabeth." Enjoy and post your comments.

He Can't Make a Christian

In her regular Thursday column, Bethany Jenkins gives us Martin Luther on the nonexistence of a sacred/secular divide . Here's part of it.

The pope or bishop anoints, shaves heads, ordains, consecrates, and prescribes garb different from that of the laity, but he can never make a man into a Christian or into a spiritual man by so doing. He might well make a man into a hypocrite or a humbug and blockhead, but never a Christian or a spiritual man. As far as that goes, we are all consecrated priests through baptism, as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm.” The Apocalypse says, “Thou hast made us to be priests and kings by thy blood” (Rev. 5:9-10).

Today: Through the Eyes of Spurgeon

Watch a new documentary on C. H. Spurgeon today for free. It's called Through the Eyes of Spurgeon. Get the details here.

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