Category Archives: Religion

Musing on ‘The Princess Bride,’ by William Goldman

Look, (Grownups skip this paragraph.) I’m not about to tell you this book has a tragic ending. I already said in the very first line how it was my favorite in all the world. But there’s a lot of bad stuff coming up, torture you’ve already been prepared for, but there’s worse. There’s death coming up, and you better understand this: some of the wrong people die…. and the reason is this; life is not fair. Forget the garbage your parents put out. Remember Morgenstern. You’ll be a lot happier.

Last night I watched the film, “The Princess Bride” for the umpty-third time. Laughed and cried.

What’s not to love? It’s the perfect confection, almost parody but not quite. Self-aware, over the top, but entirely without condescension. Everybody involved seems to be having fun, and they welcome the viewer into the fun.

I first saw the movie in its first theatrical run. It got good reviews at the time, but wasn’t a major hit. Only when home video became available did it find its audience. Now it’s one of the most beloved – and quotable – movies in the world. With good reason.

But before I was a fan of the movie, I was a fan of the book. It was published in 1973, and I must have picked it up around 1978. Frankly, I bought it out of base motives – the original cover blurb called it “A Hot Fairy Tale!” I found something way better than I expected.

The big difference between the book and the movie is what I guess you’d call the “metanarrative.” In the movie you having a charming, funny adventure story, framed by a sweet series of vignettes involving a grandfather and his grandson.

The frame of the book is much broader and more complex. Goldman fictionalizes his own life, claiming his father was an immigrant from Florin, one of the imagined kingdoms in the book. He presents himself as a screenwriter who’s gone full Hollywood. He’s lost touch with his son (in real life Goldman had two daughters). Out of guilt, he tries to connect with the boy by giving him the book his dad used to read to him, The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern. Only he discovers that the book isn’t what he thought – most of it is a long, dull satire on the politics of Florin and Guilder at the time of the book’s writing. The real adventure stuff was just a minor narrative threaded here and there through the text. His dad had only read him the “good parts.” So Goldman has decided (he claims) to produce a “good parts” version of The Princess Bride.

But he can’t resist adding his own commentary, in pretty large doses, in footnotes and parenthetical interpolations. He talks about his childhood, his dreams, his disappointments. The movies he loves. The movies he wrote, and what he was trying to accomplish with them. How his life has consistently fallen short of the aspirations that romantic books and movies arouse in him. The book ends differently from the movie. The movie’s ending is sweet and heartwarming. The end of the book is ambivalent. They lived happily after…. But.

What The Princess Bride (novel) is about is the tragedy of impossible yearning. Most of us respond to the great stories. Our hearts are moved by the happy ending, the eucatastrophe, the fulfillment of True Love.

But we live (and who would know this better than a Jewish author?) in a world where True Love doesn’t guarantee that your beloved won’t be killed by a mugger or a pogrom or a stray meteorite. There’s something in our hearts that tells us True Love has to conquer all. Yet all around us we see that it doesn’t.

I have no idea what William Goldman’s spiritual beliefs were, if any. If he’d asked, someone could have told him about a True Love that does guarantee a miracle resurrection.

Book notice: ‘Fifty Thousand Evangelists’

This is not a book review, but – what shall I call it? – a book notice. You may be surprised to know that there’s a book out there about an aspect of Lutheran history in America, which mentions me.

The book is Fifty Thousand Evangelists, by Jonathan D. Anderson (whom I have met and assisted a little with a different project). I’m sure it will be a surprise to many, in view of the state of Lutheranism today, but there was a time – not so awfully long ago – when an estimated more than 65,000 young college-age Lutherans, mostly from mainline church bodies, went out to preach the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of having a personal encounter with Jesus. At least at the beginning, and for a long time.

It was part of the wider Jesus Movement, and I was there. And so my picture and name, along with that of the group I sang with, is in Fifty Thousand Evangelists, on page 83.

I was motivated to buy the book, but I won’t be reviewing it. I’m pretty sure reading it would be painful for me. Subsequent events have poisoned all my memories of what was, in the experience, the happiest time of my life.

8 Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth

  1. God just wants you to be happy.
  2. You only live once.
  3. You need to live your truth.
  4. Your feelings are reality.

Sound familiar? That’s four of the eight statements that sound true enough but are actually lies that author Jared C. Wilson lays out in his latest book, The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth. The gospel-saturated author of many books explains the intent of each lie and how they undermine God’s will in our lives.

Kudos on the cover design that pushes me to turn the book on its face whenever I have it out. You could call that a drawback, but wouldn’t this be a great book to leave on top of the Gideon Bible in hotel room drawers?

Some of the points touched in the book:

  • Does God just want you to be happy or is your unhappiness a symptom of misplaced priorities or even a difficult calling? Could your happiness be the main thing drawing you away from him?
  • What do you justify with #YOLO? Is it godly living or self-indulgence?
  • What you call your truth may be relative, but the truth is not. Unfashionable? Sometimes. Reliable? Definitely.
  • Your feelings may not mean what you think they mean. They need biblical interpretation

Jared writes with light-hearted quips from our culture, quotes from contemporary and classic authors, and vulnerable illustrations from his own life.

When I’m not priding myself on being more whatever than others, I hate myself for not being whatever enough. The weird thing about humility is that the more you think about it, the more it goes away. That’s me.

The other lies he tackles:

  1. Your life is what you make it.
  2. You need to let go and let God.
  3. The Cross is not about wrath.
  4. God helps those who help themselves.

I found his exploration of problems with the clichic “let go and let God” eye-opening, and the next chapter on substitutionary atonement should be understood by everyone. Heartily recommended.

“Nothing Is Lost”

Bethel University, with campuses in St. Paul and Arden Hills, MN, has cut thirty faculty and thirty staff for the fall semester. Professor Chris Gehrz fears the college may not survive if other factors reduce enrollment.

Even if we could somehow suspend our fears of an invisible contagion spreading a potentially fatal disease, many of us at Bethel are experiencing the death of dreams and ideals and relationships. Losing a faculty position at a place like Bethel means the loss of income and stability, but also threatens a loss of calling. Most of those who lose their positions will struggle to find anything like a true replacement; many will have to leave academia and seek work in a depressed economy.

None of the anger, anxiety, and loss that people are going to feel this week is magically eliminated by a resurrection that left scars on Jesus’ own body.

I still believe my late friend Glen Wiberg was right that nothing, not even the brokenness and grief of mortal existence, is wasted, that God is “gathering up the fragments in resurrection so that nothing goes down the drain, nothing at all is lost.” 

“Nothing for your journey,” The Pietist Schoolman

‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’

The Ao Naga are a tribal group in northeastern India. They were converted to Christianity in the late 1870s. This is the Ao Naga Choir with the Passion hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

“O Sacred Head” is a very old Latin hymn traditionally attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. However (I’m disappointed to learn) it’s now generally attributed to a 13th Century poet named Arnulf of Leuven (whose name suggests Norman ancestry).

Arrangement by J. S. Bach.

I love this hymn. For Lutherans (and, of course, for many others) Christocentricity is the chief test of theology. If Jesus isn’t the Center, then it’s wrong.

Through all history, people have sought the secret of the universe. Christians declare that the secret is not an equation, not a formula, not a hidden talisman or precious stone or treasure, but a Person. When you get to the end of all questions, when you draw back the final curtain of the universe, you find Personality.

And of course, we always knew this was right. All our great stories declared that the King must save his people; the Father must save his child; the Prince must save the princess. The answer is Someone.

A blessed Good Friday and Easter to you.

Not Safe But Good: Ancient Edition

Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Who hasn’t heard this quote from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in a sermon or chapel talk? It’s a good-to illustration for the scary side of God’s omnipotence. God can do things we don’t understand, but remember, like Aslan, he is good.

Did you know God gave us illustrations for this very thing in the book of Job? The picture gets a bit lost on us, because we don’t recognize how wild the world is or has been, but in Job 38-39 God not only says he can handle the wild things, but he owns them also.

Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
 when they crouch in their dens
    or lie in wait in their thicket?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God for help,
    and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:38-40)

Lions watch for the slow, young, or straggling members of a herd to attack. They lie in wait for the opportunity to kill; I’m told they usually watch their prey in the evening and strike after dark. They aren’t trying to face-off with a worthy opponent. They want to eat. Ravens come along after the kill to pick off what they can.

In this passage and also in Ps. 147:9 God describes ravens and young lions as asking for a kill from the herd from their master, their daily bread. This is the raw horror of nature, not a pastoral you want to hang in your nursery.

The Lord offers several illustrations like this, drawing our attention to wild, troublesome animals that are nonetheless under his care. Wild mountain goats are untamable, potentially dangerous, and can cause a good bit of trouble. Triple that for wild donkeys: “to whom I have given the arid plain for his home and the salt land for his dwelling place?” (39:6). You couldn’t stumble upon a wild donkey and have it carry your luggage to the next town. And if you were able to lead a wild ox to your stable, you would not have that stable the next day. He would take what he wanted from you and no one could stop him.

Read Job 39 for more, but you get the point. God doesn’t simply keep an eye on these wildly unsafe things; he shepherds and cares for them. That can make him look as wild as they are. But if we can know anything, we can know God is good. Not safe by our definition. Not anywhere near domesticated as we might wish. He can be rather scary.

But he’s good. He’s the King.

Photo by Keyur Nandaniya on Unsplash

If Sickness Is a Dream, Who Needs to Wake Up?

Pro Tip: If you need to adjust your stove eye, do it while the eye is off. Turning it on before adjusting it will only complicate the task.

I was able to watch Inception recently, because it came on Netflix. I enjoy that kind of thing, a deep dive into a single sci-fi concept. Not that it was a deep film or that it even touched on a deep idea. It was just fun–a heist film set in the dream world.

I gather some people took it to be a thoughtful reflection on the possibility that what we call reality is merely a dream or some massive deception. Descartes rejected that idea, preferring to believe he existed and could actually know something. Actually knowing something is kind of a big deal.

In Inception, characters constantly reviewed the rules of how the dreamscape worked: paradoxes, mental defenses, and how to invoke a dreamer to dream a new and deeper dream. Our dreams aren’t made like that. When I realize I’m dreaming, I also realize I can control things. If I see that I’m out in public and have left something, I can decide that I have it and there it is. In the movie, if they imagined they have bigger guns, they could use them. But tell the target he’s dreaming, and he can’t just slip down a rabbit hole and sit by the river until he wakes up.

In a dream, only what I perceive exists, and then, of course, there’s you. How are we all dreaming coherently together? But let’s stick with perception for a moment; many unperceived, even imperceivable, things have rearranged our lives for centuries. Shall we just roll over and wonder how this dream will end? That’s all we’re left with, if everything is a dream. We can’t study medicine, engineering, farming, or anything that produces something outside of our preferences if nothing is real.

The eye of my stove burned my fingers because the electric coil producing the heat is a reality outside of my perception. Had I turned the wrong switch I would have had heat in another eye and possibly wondered why my pan wasn’t warming up. That’s my perception at play in a real world.

Try to stay healthy, friends. And for the kids at home, remember the Lord who made you; that’s the start of good perception.

What Are You Doing Sunday Mornings?

Our church cancelled our worship services three weeks ago, and we held our first live streamed service this morning. Prior to this our pastors distributed written sermons with discussion questions and our usual liturgy with supplementals that we could use on our own. I led my family through an ad hoc devotional time two weeks ago and followed the church material last week, which took far longer than I expected. We sang all the verses of all the songs, and my reading of the sermon with two breaks for questions took over an hour alone.

The streamed service this morning was comforting. I don’t need a familiar service in a familiar setting to get through the current crisis, but being together in a local body in whatever manner we can is a natural, grace-filled habit God has given us.

What are you doing? How are you making it through on your own or with your church?

With Easter coming in two weeks, I assume all of our plans will be rather low-key. Will we hear the gospel anew, stripped of the color and pageantry we’ve attached to the season? Will the world hear a different song than the one some of them think they know already?

Lord, have mercy on us.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Pastoral Yoda Tweeting: Wise You Think You Are, Do You?

If you’ve read any social media for long, you’ve run across the proverbial, possibly deep, possibly pithy statement from someone who wants to drop the truth on the world. When a Christian leader does this on Twitter, that’s called a pastor yoda tweet.

This isn’t the same as tweeting a quotation from a quotable writer, but it may be a statement made by one such quotable writer on his own account. He may even be quoted himself. Tim Keller quotes from his own books in an effort to say something strong that has a context that can been explored. Here are good examples of pastors and leaders who aren’t quoting themselves.

Ronnie Martin: “It has never not been our moment. #thechurchthatjesusbuilds”

Also Ronnie Martin: “A quiet, without a calm. These are times when ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding’ is desperately needed for both personal comfort, and public compassion.”

Issac Adams: “A commitment to forbear with someone is a commitment, in no small part, to not pick nits.”

David Paul Tripp: “Today you face war, no, not with the people in your life, but a war of kingdoms, fought in your heart, that will not be fully settled until you’re on the other side.”

But of course there are those who would like to tweet proverbial wisdom and fail.

The Happy Rant guys have talked about good and bad tweeting a few times. Here’s one episode that talks about pastor yoda tweeting and also features a story about John Piper speaking to a crowd that completely misunderstood him. Here’s a recent one in which they worry about too much yoda tweeting.

Earlier this month, Taylor Burgess explained it well, “Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like you’ve got to be at least 40 before you drop one of those ‘young pastor, [insert wise proverb]’ tweets. Err’body out here trying to be Yoda when most of us are Attack-of-the-Clones Anakin.”

‘Now Thank We All Our God’

Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenberg, Germany during the 30 Years War. Eilenberg was a walled city, and so a place of refuge, but the number of refugees strained local resources. Rinkart took many into his own home, and had to scavenge for food and supplies. The city was overrun by enemy armies three times.

And then came the plague. Rinkart was left as the only pastor in the city, doing as many as 40 or 50 funerals a day, including that of his wife. He himself did not live to see peace.

Nevertheless, sometime before 1648, he sat down and wrote a poetic table prayer that began, “Nun danket alle Gott,” “Now thank we all our God.” Soon after a tune was composed by Johann Cruger. Our English translation came from Catherine Winkworth in the 19th Century.

More on the hymn here.

I’m not sure who’s singing in the clip above, but the venue is the Royal Albert Hall in London.

For your Spectation

They posted another of my articles at The American Spectator Online on Sunday. It’s called A Message to the Young: Beware the Groove.


It was around 1973, and I was attending a small Midwestern college. This being the ’70s, the school was already busy debriding itself of its past Christian tradition and regenerating as a sort of flyover Dartmouth.

I was in a Christian Ethics class, listening to presentations on the topic of sex. A young woman had already informed us that the Roman Catholic Church saw no value in women except as baby factories — I was kind of pleased with myself for asking her how she accounted for nuns.

Read it all here.

Book plug: ‘Post-Christian’

Probably my most eminent friend (though I only know him online) is Gene Edward Veith. Veith is possibly the most prominent Lutheran among today’s well-known evangelicals. He may be best known for his book, Postmodern Times.

Now he has a new book out, called Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Amazon says:

We live in a post-Christian world. Contemporary thought―claiming to be “progressive” and “liberating”―attempts to place human beings in God’s role as creator, lawgiver, and savior. But these post-Christian ways of thinking and living are running into dead ends and fatal contradictions.

This timely book demonstrates how the Christian worldview stands firm in a world dedicated to constructing its own knowledge, morality, and truth. Gene Edward Veith Jr. points out the problems with how today’s culture views humanity, God, and even reality itself. He offers hope-filled, practical ways believers can live out their faith in a secularist society as a way to recover reality, rebuild culture, and revive faith.

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.