Friday, August 31, 2007

"We Have Shared the Incommunicable Experience of War"

So said Oliver Wendell Holmes after his time in the Civil War. Holmes fought with the Massachusetts militia before he became a justice of the Supreme Court. His words ring true in my ears today--not because I am fighting, but because I am reading Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers, and thus feel as if I am fighting.

I am a military history devotee. I have not yet read a book that more vividly communicates the experience of war. Ambrose ran into some justified trouble regarding plagiarism in his career, but that did not stop him from telling magnificent, true-to-life history. If you have not yet read his Citizen Soldiers, and you are a military history aficionado, you are cheating yourself. Ambrose chronicles the efforts of the American battle commanders--the everyday soldier and his officers--to defeat the Germans from the time of D-Day's end until the war's conclusion. The book is mesmerizing for its attention to detail, its outlay of the big picture, and its relentless citation of the primary sources--namely, American and German soldiers. In reading this book, I must keep reminding myself that the war is not still going on at this moment, and that I am not in it.

One of the primary realizations I've had in reading Ambrose's text is just how much goes wrong in wartime. Even the most skilled and conscientious general or commanding officer makes mistakes, and the consequences are always--not often--brutal. If I make a mistake at my job, some time is lost, and some frustration is incurred. If a general--say, Eisenhower--makes a mistake, 2,000 men lose their lives, millions of dollars are lost, and whole communities dry up. Though they got so many things right, the US Army made countless mistakes, and life after life was lost as a result. It is wrenching to read about, and must have been awful to take. Another engrossing matter is the idea of the Geneva Conventions, the codes that govern the conduct of war and that bind all nations who sign them. What an interesting concept, that even in war, even when men set out to do nothing but slaughter one another, they shake hands first, and agree on how they will do so. There is something in such conduct that fascinates me. You and I can be gentleman in this moment, agreeing that we will not torture POWs or kills medics. Then, in the next instant, we will shoot at one another, and try to extinguish one another. I suppose that this illuminates the paradoxical nature of our fallen world--though terribly corrupted, grace still exists here, even if it exists in a shape both odd and mystifying.

War is awful stuff. It is fascinating to read about, it sometimes inspires the best in men, and it is instructive for all of us, but it is, at the end of the day, horrific. You and I may not experience it firsthand, but even in reading books such as Citizen Soldiers, we come away changed, aware of a whole side of the world we had lightly imagined but never understood. Though we have not fought or killed, we know something of war--and we realize that though we use words and photographs, the true nature of battle will remain incommunicable until the day when all wars cease.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

How Hunting Gives Men an Excuse to Be Friends

Just check out University of Illinois-Urbana journalism professor Walt Harrington's 2002 book The Everlasting Stream. I recently read it and enjoyed Harrington's meditation on hunting and masculinity. Having grown up in a rural area, I found that Harrington understood well the dynamics of groups of hunting men. As one who gravitates more to reading than killing, fiction than fishing, I came away from the book with a better understanding of why men get together and kill animals. Sure, it's about the sport itself, the desire to take physical dominion over animals. But hunting is also about getting together with one's friends and enjoying life together. The Everlasting Stream communicates this reality even as it allows the reader to peek into Harrington's life. Harrington was once a prominent Washington Post writer, a post he gave up to step into a quieter, simpler life, the professorial life in Illinois.

Growing up, I couldn't imagine why anyone would live in a small town. Boredom dominates, and nothing significant seems to happen. But as Harrington reveals, there is great meaning in the living of everyday life in a friendly, familiar environment, surrounded by one's family and friends. My generation seems naturally to detest any connection to its old haunts, its childhood stomping grounds, so restless are we to shuttle off to big cities filled with excitement and discovery. When you've had a taste of such traveling, though, when you've inhaled the fumes of a transient existence long enough, you start to understand why people move to small communities, why they reject the hustle and bustle of cities for the calm and peace of small towns. The Everlasting Stream doesn't seek to make any major points, but it does allow one to reflect on the tension between urban and rural life that exists in so many of us, and to wonder whether bigger, better, faster, and more truly delivers what it promises.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why Can't Evangelicals Write Good Literature?

Donald Williams has the answer. In a deft, balanced piece in Touchstone magazine, he lays out his answer. I encourage you to read this piece and mentally digest it. It's worth thinking through.

Williams notes the lack of attention paid to art by evangelical theologians and then comments:

So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture seems even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.

As a professor in the school of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, Williams is well equipped to identify this problem among Christians. The above paragraph brings out one of the fundamental tensions involved in the making of art by Christians: guilt. This is not Williams's word--it is mine. Many of us feel guilty if the work we do in explicitly and overtly related to a verse of Scripture or the gospel. All our work should be done for God's glory, but it need not always evangelize. Doing things well and truly reflects nicely on the Christian faith. We should seek to witness to the world of Christ's mysterious atonement, but we should do so when appropriate, and should thus feel liberated to live and do without guilt. I do not want a Christian architect constantly peppering his consultations with clients with Bible verses. I want him to represent Christ in his work and to share the gospel and biblical truth when possible. How awkward and unhelpful for such a man to constantly attempt to witness. So it is with Christian artists. We should hope that their work reflects biblical principles, and that they represent Christ well in their personal lives. However, we do not expect them to constantly reference scripture or to make every painting an aesthetic exposition of John 3:16. We would all be helped by understanding that we do not honor Christ only when we explicitly evangelize but when we live and work and speak and paint and construct for God's glory.

Williams's essay sounds a note I've talked about on this blog before: the need for excellent Christian writing, and the contemporary paucity of such literature. It is encouraging to see such a piece in such a major (relatively speaking) magazine. One hopes that there is a minor movement underfoot, and that in years to come we will not only write sermons with excellence, but provocative, challenging, insightful, God-glorifying literature that speaks well and truly about the world.

Many thanks to Matt Crawford for his excellent contributions this past week--and thanks to the readers who read his posts and also to those who commented. It's good to be back, but I'm very thankful for Matt's work on this blog.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Day When Nobody Died

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Pop songs are often a window into the hopes and desires of a culture. It is always interesting to listen to songs that come along that present a utopian vision of the future. This phenomenon is nothing new. Just think back a few decades to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song with a haunting tune but a frightening description of the perfect society. As Christians, being aware of such songs, especially songs that get a lot of airtime on the radio, is useful in ministry, because they can serve as an avenue to bringing up the gospel.

As an example of what I’m talking about, consider “If Everyone Cared” by popular rock band Nickleback. The song is about the love shared between a couple and the hope that the entire world might experience such love. The chorus states,

If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
We'd see the day when nobody died

The music video for the song only further highlights this utopian vision, as it replays clips from various peace marches and protests around the world including such prominent figures as Nelson Mandela. The song thus presents the hope that one day through the united efforts of humanity, injustice and war will cease, ushering in a day “when nobody died.”

As Christians, let us not be too quick to condemn these songs. The longing they present is a universal human experience and is right, since we live in a world that is not as it should be. In book 19 of City of God, Augustine argued that peace is the true “highest good.” We were created for it and therefore should not be surprised when longing for this peace surfaces in art, even pop art. However, what Nickleback and others fail to see is that human peace movements are unable to bring about this desired state because of the universality of depravity. All utopian projects ultimately fail because they rely upon an exalted view of human nature.

Thus, these songs provide ready-made opportunities to tap into the longing for a better place and explain why this longing exists (because sin has marred the world) and what the solution is (the work of Christ). The next time that Nickleback comes on the radio when you’re at work, use it as an opportunity to tell others that there will indeed come a day when nobody will die, but that day will not be brought about by mere human political machinery. Moreover, on that day the only ones who will indeed ‘never die’ are those who have placed their faith in Christ. Truly everyone must now “swallow their pride” and submit to Christ, or find themselves bowing under his judgment on that day.

Monday, August 27, 2007

What does it take to make a community?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

What does it take to make a community? One of the best thinkers alive today trying to answer this and related questions is Oliver O’Donovan. He attempts to answer this question most directly in his book Common Objects of Love. Although not an easy read, O’Donovan’s book rewards careful and repeated reading. In keeping with O’Donovan’s field of expertise, political theology, the stated goal of Common Objects of Love, is to answer “the question of what unifies a multitude of human agents into a community of action and experience sustained over time” (1). The short answer to this question is given in the title of the book. Human agents are formed into communities as a result of their common objects of love.

O’Donovan covers much territory in his book, such that a single blog post could never do justice to the breadth and depth of his thought. What I would like to do is highlight a single quote in order to stimulate your own thoughts on the matter. O’Donovan stands in the Augustinian tradition, and his book can be understood as an exposition of a single passage in City of God. Augustine stated that a people is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love” (20). As a group of individuals comes to love that which it perceives to be the good, it becomes “part of a community that is not constructed to accomplish some task but is given in the very fact that we cannot but love them” (19). Not all loves are the same, but are differentiated as better or worse loves based on “the adequacy of their grasp of reality” (23). This love which builds a community resides in all human hearts, even in the hearts of those in hell, whose objects of love result from their inadequate grasp of reality.

Augustine’s quote has profound implications in both the micro and the macro levels of human experience. An example of O’Donovan’s thesis is the community experienced by those at a sporting event who agree to share with other attendees their love for their favorite team. This common love binds the group together into a community, albeit a shallow and temporary one. Another more significant example is the mistake of young lovers who assume that their reciprocal love for one another will be sufficient to create a lasting bond between them. Augustine’s point is that real community only exists if there is some common object of love among those in the relationship. In other words, in order for a marriage to last, each spouse must share a love for some other thing besides the other spouse, and this shared love is what gives shape and perseverance to their relationship. As Christians, we would assert that a shared love for God is that which should bind the married couple together.

Augustine’s definition of a community might also be applied to larger groups such as denominations and even whole nations. How can true community and unity of purpose be formed when a denomination appears to be divided into various factions each with their own agenda? One way to begin the process of community formation is by identifying what are appropriate common objects of love. This difficult analysis must precede calls for joining arms in a common purpose, for such attempts at unity in action will ultimately fail if there is not also a unity in the objects of love. All would state that we share a love for God, but specifics must be given to this assertion. What conception of God? What conception of the calling of this God upon our lives? What appreciation (or lack thereof) of the community’s existing tradition? The answers to these questions cut to the heart of the divisions in our communities.

What are the common objects of love in your friendships, your church, your denomination, your nation?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Nauseous Nihilism or Divine Rest?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Recently I’ve been reading some of Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy. It is not his most significant book, but it does contain elements that are central to his philosophy. Nietzsche’s central argument is that Greek tragedy arose from a combination of two impulses – the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Dionysian element is the untamed force of intoxication and war, the opposite of the restrained rationality of the Apollonian.

I thought that I would share with you one of the most memorable quotes from the book. Some would argue that reading philosophers like Nietzsche is not worth the time. I would respond that reading Nietzsche is useful for, among other reasons, he shows us what is the logical result of the Enlightenment reliance upon autonomous reason. When was the last time that you stopped and considered what the implications would be if God had not spoken and we were left with only our own reason and creativity to make sense of the universe? Have you ever really stared into the void of meaninglessness that must be true if there is no God? I’m not encouraging you to doubt your faith. Rather, I am saying that we should not forget what it is like to be apart from Christ. Nietzsche’s quote below illustrates what every thinking atheist must come to, if he is consistent in his beliefs. He states,

“Now no comfort avails any more; longing transcends a world after death, even the gods; existence is negated along with its glittering reflection in the gods or in an immoral beyond. Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence; . . . he is nauseated.” (Section 7)

To merely conclude with what Nietzsche says above and say no more would drive someone mad. In fact, it is likely that it did eventually have this effect on Nietzsche himself. Man cannot live long conscious of his complete lack of teleology, the purpose of things. What then is Nietzsche’s proposed solution to the problem of man? He says in the next paragraph,

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.” (Section 7)

Art is Nietzsche’s answer. He thought that art was sufficient to enable man to reckon with the absurdity of his existence. Art is powerful, but art separated from metaphysics is still unable to give any higher meaning and purpose to life. The outrage of death screams in our ears, demanding an answer. Art merely distracts us from its cries until that point when we can no longer ignore the reality of our own impending death and the death of those we love. Let us be those who loudly proclaim that across the void of nothingness God spoke into the apparent horror or absurdity of our existence. He himself experienced death, and, by so doing, brought about the death of death itself. In the end there are only two ways to live consistently – with the nauseous nihilism of Nietzsche or, as Augustine put it, rest in the divine. “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Are We Tacit Gnostics?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

As a consequence of recently joining a history book club, yesterday I received a free copy of The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a compendium of the group of texts that launched the modern scholarly interest in Gnosticism. Key to Gnosticism is the disavowal of the body. The body is merely a prison for the soul, something to be transcended. As many others have noted, this view is at odds with historic Christian orthodoxy which affirms the value of the physical as a evidenced in the resurrection of Jesus. However, I wonder if we at times are still Gnostics at heart in the manner in which we treat our bodies? When we consistently deprive ourselves of bodily necessities like sleep, exercise, food, and recreation, or when we persistently indulge in harmful pleasures, we are demonstrating whether or not we truly value the body. I’m not saying that if you have ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper, or if you have eaten an entire quart of ice cream in one sitting then you are a Gnostic. There probably are legitimate places for both of those activities. What I am saying is we need to examine our unspoken assumptions that drive out actions. Do we really see value in our physical bodies? Or do we consider them merely a tool to be used or mistreated in order to accomplish our goal, whether it is a hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure, or the ascetic pursuit of an impressive degree?

A colleague recently told me a pithy statement that gets at the solution to this tacit Gnosticism. He said, “We were creatures before we were Christians.” That is, before we became followers of Christ we were physical beings, and once we experience the regenerating power of God, we remain physical beings, albeit with remarkably changed desires and outlooks. Part of the calling of being a “new man” in Christ is to care for this old body that is still very much a part of who we are. As Christians our highest calling is to glorify God. Doing so will at times necessitate what Paul called “beating our bodies” – sleepless nights, lack of food, rigorous discipline, and the like. However, let us remember as we do so that this calling to glorify God exists in the same book that emphatically affirms the goodness of our bodies. Persistent neglect of caring for the body might be a sign that our theology is not in keeping with that propounded in the pages of the New Testament, for the apostle who denied himself bodily pleasure in his labor for the church was also the one who showed concern for his young protégé’s health by telling him to take a little wine. I leave you with a couple of passages to ponder:

“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:2)

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Remembering the Value of the Ordinary

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Today is a very special day in the Crawford household. Our first child, Violet, is turning one year old. I thought that I would share with you one of my reflections upon this milestone event. First let me give a little background. I’m sure that my experiences thus far in seminary mirror that of many of my fellow students. I am taking enough class hours to maintain full-time status. I work a few part time jobs. I try to spend some time each day with my wife and child. I try daily to spend time in reading Scripture and prayer. And, if there’s time left, I try to get a little sleep each day. Needless to say, most days it seems that I don’t have enough time to do all that I have set for myself to do. In the midst of such a harried schedule, I become very goal-focused. I will mistreat my body and neglect other responsibilities so that I can attain the light at the end of the tunnel – graduating with a degree. Looking back over the last year, I wish that I had spent more time with my family. It is easy to squander time. So, in one sense, let me simply exhort you not to neglect those things that are most important.

However, I would also like to make a further point that is related to the first. When on a journey to an exciting place, one rarely pays attention to the road one travels to arrive at the destination. This same attitude often marks our entire lives. We just can’t wait for the next major event or milestone – the first birthday, the vacation at the beach, the graduation from college, etc. However, in the midst of pursuing a goal, let us not forget that there are pleasures to be had along the way. In fact, God seems to affirm the pleasures that are to be had in our day-to-day experience. At several points in the book of Ecclesiastes the preacher concludes that the best thing is for one to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. For example, he states, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man” (3:12-13). He goes on to give similar exhortations that man should find joy in the apparently common things given to him by God such as food and drink, work and a wife. Scripture clearly places a value upon such ordinary parts of life. Our calling as Christians is to see all of life as a gift from God, not simply the big, important events. Birthdays are a lot of fun. But there’s also much joy to be had in the other 364 days of the year.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Guest-Blogger is Back, and I am Gone

I'm going on vacation until next Tuesday. My guest-blogger Matt Crawford will be writing until then. I'm really looking forward to his posts, and I hope you benefit from them. By the way, this will be my last vacation for awhile. Please welcome the guest-blogger who puts the host blogger to shame, Southern Seminary student Matt Crawford.

A Surprisingly Sweet Picture of a Christian in "The Simpsons"

I recently watched the new "Simpsons" movie and came away with a few thoughts on manhood. Before we get to that, though, I should note that this movie, along with the Bourne movie, did have some objectionable content. I never enjoy such content, though if it is not excessive and I am careful, I find that I can watch at least some of what Hollywood produces.

"The Simpsons" offers social criticism and commentary on numerous levels, but as I noted yesterday, I am interested in how cultural media addresses theology, Christianity, and also manhood. As a television show, "The Simpsons" can be fairly scathing toward Christians. I do not have a great amount of personal experience with the show, but I have enough to know that it somewhat regularly mocks Christians and Christianity. The film, however, portrayed the primary Christian character, Ned Flanders, in a decidedly positive, if kitschy, light. Flanders essentially stands for the traditional version of American Christianity--he's a dedicated family man, a committed believer, and a bit of a cheeseball. He serves up one goofy saying after another, though he does so from a soul that is clearly kind and concerned for others. In contrast with Homer Simpson, he is a loving, gentle father who reads to his sons at night and tucks them into bed. He even befriends the irascible Bart and seeks to show him paternal tenderness denied Bart by Homer's narcissistic, oafish parenting model. In short, the writers of this movie portrayed a Christian as positively as they could be expected to, and ended up leaving the audience with a positive picture of traditional Christianity as practiced by a kind, others-centered man.

What is the significance of this? Does it signal a culture shift? Is it a sign that Hollywood is warming to Christians? Is it a ploy to draw believers to the theater? I doubt whether any of these factors are much in play here. However, I am guessing that somewhere down the line, a godly person deeply affected the Simpsons creator--Matt Groening--and perhaps someone else involved with this project. I don't have hard evidence to back this up, but it is my humble guess that somewhere along the way, a kind, concerned Christian reached out to Groening in a meaningful way. Perhaps not; perhaps Flanders's character is simply an attempt at even-handedness. If so, fine. Whatever the case, I think this character shows us something. People are indeed watching us to see how we live. People are not untouched by us. They are not as oblivious to Christian life and doctrine as they might seem. When you and I seek to show kindness and concern for others, people notice. Oftentimes, that kindness might be the only positive concern shown them. Such a thought--such a character--ought to motivate us in everyday situations. When it seems that no one is watching, someone likely is. You never know what may come from such situations--perhaps a screen appearance is in order.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The Dangerous and Complicated Masculinity of Jason Bourne

I recently watched the movie The Bourne Ultimatum and found myself, as I often, reflecting about what the movie says about manhood. There's quite alot of material to consider on this topic.

But before we consider the actual content of the movie, I want to note the movie's appeal. Ultimatum has been massively successful--$176 million of success, in fact. Part of why I think this film is so successful is that it portrays a man as just that--a man. Of course, Bourne's physicality is a major part of his problem, and that's what the movie largely explores: a man's discovery of himself as a killing machine. Bourne wrestles with the reality of his blurry past throughout the three Bourne films, and thus his greatest strength--his strength and physical ability--is also his greatest weakness. He has discovered that he is able to kill and injure at will, but unlike other action characters, this realization brings him no joy, but only pain. It is ironic, then, that a part of what makes the movie so entertaining is Bourne's amazing ability to fight and, when necessary, kill. Where he recoils at himself, we grow excited.

But with all that said, with all the violence of Bourne accounted for, there is still something pure that draws us to Bourne. It is not fighting alone that enthralls us. It is Bourne's strength, his masculine ability to make things happen. Against any foe, against any odd, we the audience can know that Bourne somehow, in some way, will prevail. There is a part of manhood here that we should not miss. Bourne is the ultimate man, the guy who can do all things and defeat all enemies. We do not watch him simply to see what's going to happen with his life. We watch him to see a man in action, a man who is not bound by what anyone says or thinks of him as a man. In a society filled with weak, passive, frightened, unsure, timid men, Bourne is an example of a man whose strength and power emanates from his person. One look at his constantly tensed shoulders, his tight face, and you can see that this is a man in control of himself and his surroundings. For these qualities, Bourne draws us to himself, in order that we might see a man in action, a man unencumbered, a man fearless and untamed.

In a small way, our admiration of Bourne reflects our admiration of the ultimate fighter, Jesus Christ, the one who will slay all his foes with but a word. We naturally long to be led by a great man, a strong man, albeit one who marries his strength to virtue. Jason Bourne is not that man, and neither is any other man, real or imagined, save for Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate man, the great warrior, who exuded courage by coming to earth, who destroyed sin and Satan at the cross, who will return in majesty and splendor to the new heavens and new earth. When we watch Jason Bourne, then, we're not really yearning for a complicated, troubled action hero. We're yearning for Christ, for His infinite strength, His vindicating return, His incredible love. We enjoy watching Bourne deal out justice to his foes on the big screen, but we wait for a day of justice that will play out before our very eyes, and end the war between good and evil that rages in the current day.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Chasing Idols Away: A Masterpiece Sermon

The resource today is the New Attitude talk by pastor C. J. Mahaney. (Click the little play button next to the message entitled: "Discern Your Heart.") New Attitude is a conference held annually for Christian singles in Louisville, KY that attracts some of the best Christian speakers out there. Mohler, Dever, Piper--they all go. Anyway, the NA website contains the talks from this year's conference, and I want to encourage you to listen to C. J.'s talk. It is funny, enjoyable, and piercingly sharp. Don't skip this message because it sounds like it was given to a very young audience. It was given to a young audience, but this does not detract from its quality or its depth. Though topical due to its nature (a convention talk), it is a masterpiece of a sermon, because it is theological, understandable, and enjoyable. C. J. weaves stories, exposition, application, humor, and insight as well as anyone I have heard, and if you have found yourself struggling with idolatry recently, you will find his talk bracing. It's long, but it's terrific, and goes by very quickly.

Perhaps you find yourself guilty of a mistake I sometimes make. I assume that because I'm theologically educated, I don't need "basic" preaching. I don't need to hear the more elementary stuff. Well, I'm all for high-level preaching, for challenging theology and insightful exegesis, but I stand to benefit from an applicational sermon as much as anyone else. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that once we reach a certain level of Christian maturity, we don't need applicational preaching, and we can sustain ourselves solely through more theologically challenging preaching. That is bunk. I am to be chastised for my thinking. I need application. I need a good, searching meditation on idolatry. I haven't outgrown my sin--why should I think I have outgrown a meditation on sin? As long as we sin, we need good, solid, even basic preaching that condemns our sin and exalts God's holiness. I am not saying that I want simplistic preaching, of course; but simplistic and simple are two different things entirely. Most do not benefit from simplistic. All benefit from simple.

Whether you're a pastor or a layperson, a PhD or a freshman, you will richly benefit from this talk. Don't make the error I sometimes do. Don't ever think yourself above a simple exhortation. We never will be. We need such things very much. Click on the message, and chase your idols away this weekend.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Strachan Research Method, Pt. 2

4) Find evidence for your thesis. This will mean reading in both the secondaries and the primaries. But you'll be doing more focused reading than your before. Previously, you were reading in order to acquire a knowledge base--to understand your topic in a broad sense. You have already done that, and have narrowed your topic, and so you should read books that will relate closely to your topic. Don't waste time on more general research. You likely don't have alot of time, and you need to give yourself time to write. I like to try and get a ton of books at this stage, both secondary and primary, and skim them. I use glossaries and indexes frequently at this stage. I seek to find passages that relate to my topic. When at this stage, I get a whole stack of books beside me--often twenty to thirty--and a piece of paper. I skim the books and seek to find relevant material in them--either material that makes my point, disagrees with my point, or provides background on the subject. As I find material, I jot down only the page and a few descriptive words to help me locate the quotation later. No need to do all sorts of notecards and that sort of thing--that's great, but it takes too long. The Strachan Method is fast, baby.

5) Type all your quotations up. So after a number of hours of research in which I skim a number of books, read major sections of others, and reference research aids (indexes, etc), I have a body of material that relates specifically to my topic. This material will form the basis of my paper. I then type up all of the material into a single document. When that's all done, I organize the quotations. This is the single most helpful point of the method, I think, because having this outline-by-quotation really sets you up to write your paper. I organize my papers according to what I want to say, but I do so largely by grouping my quotations ahead of time. Then, when I sit down to write the paper, I have everything in order, and I simply plug my quotations into my paper.

6) Write the paper. As I just noted, this is much, much easier when you have all your quotations organized according to the sections of your paper. You might not think that quotations are as important as I am saying they are, but they are. Academic writing is writing amidst a conversation. You are to show that you can engage that conversation effectively when you write a paper. You thus need alot of quote material to write a good paper and to converse effectively with scholars. Thus it makes good sense to organize your paper according to quotations, especially when graders and professors expect a given number of sources (often 10-15) and quotations per page (often at least 2) to demonstrate substantial research and thought. As I've said, when you have the quotations arranged ahead of time, they're all set and ready to go. You'll be amazed at how fast you can write using this method. You don't go book by book, hunting for quotations as you write, starting and stopping to find this quote or that source. You've got it all typed up, and you simply plug it in to your paper. Using this method, you'll be shocked at how your paper goes. Write an intro paragraph, plug in a quotation, and write a summation paragraph, and you've got over a page already in a matter of minutes.

You have to write with excellence to do well, of course, and your paper cannot be a mere smattering of quotations. But I'm not writing about writing here as much as I am about researching. Good research, however, is at least half the battle, and sets you up to write well, particularly as you can write based off of your quotations. I hope that this has helped someone, particularly historical researchers, and please feel free to comment or query about this humble little method. It's by no means perfect, but it works okay for me. Happy researching.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Strachan Research Method

Without further ado, here is a suggested method for doing research. I use this not only with history papers but with papers of various disciplines. I'm no expert, and there are lots of ways to do research, but I thought I would share mine as I begin the last semester of my master's degree. I should also note that my former professor Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College influenced certain parts of this method.

1) Select a topic. Should be something that interests you. Don't pick a topic you're not interested in. You won't be able to sustain research for very long, you'll struggle with motivation and doubt, and you won't likely do a very good job. Pick something to study that you really enjoy. Consider whether it will benefit you in the future. Will it broaden you and challenge you? Or is this merely something easy to study? Pick something challenging and interesting and dive into it. You'll be ready to take up the process of research.

2) Identify the best secondary sources on this topic. Find them and read them carefully. Don't browse through them. That will come later. At this point in your research, you need to get a very clear idea of the issues regarding your topic. Thus you need to read the secondary sources, not the primaries, as the secondaries explain what the primaries are saying. They answer important questions like: What is the scholarly consensus on this matter? What do the different sides say? Who are the main players, and what are their most significant works? Read these sources exhaustively, and you'll come away with a basic understanding of your topic that will allow you to sift other materials. Don't read twelve books here. Read one or two good books by respected authors and perhaps an article or two. Remember, you're not doing all your research at this point--you're getting a base for your future research, which you will narrow considerably in the coming stages.

3) Propose a thesis. This is huge. Your early reading will help you to develop an argument. This is what most higher-level academic writing is about: making an argument in the midst of a scholarly conversation, and making it well, with proofs and rhetorical force. If you're reading about seventeenth-century Baptists, you should be looking for topics within your topic that interest you and then form a thesis out of that. In other words, don't simply write a paper about seventeenth-century Baptists. Read the secondary literature of these people, and identify a person, an idea, a debate, or an even that interests you. As you read, formulate a position on the matter. "Seventeenth-century Baptists believed that missions were important but were subordinate to the life of the church," or something like that (a fake thesis, of course). When you do so, you will have a thesis, and you can then proceed to further study and research, albeit with a much sharper focus than before. This will hugely help you as it will allow you to quickly determine what books and materials you need to read from here. If you do not formulate a thesis early on, you relegate yourself to reading lots of books that may touch on your topic in a general sense but will not sharpen and strengthen your paper. The key here is argument: from a general topic, you're making a specific argument that you're going to support with a body of evidence, sound thinking, and sharp writing.

Tomorrow we will continue the method. I hope that this is helpful so far, though I'm sure others do their research differently and may have comments, questions, or suggestions. Feel free to offer them in the comments.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Research Method, For All You Students

I am still smarting from Joseph's comments from yesterday, but I will attempt to compose myself such that I can blog today. Joseph, the key word for yesterday's post was relative. Nash and Iverson are short relative to the rest of the NBA. Very short, in fact, and scrawny. And yet they, and the immortal John Stockton, managed to win MVPs and lead their teams to multiple successful seasons, despite the pronounced lack of a second star who could consistently come through in the clutch. You made some good points, though I cannot forgive you for seeking to dash my dreams. Let it be known that the dream lives!--and I am open to the offers of any NBA team at the current, though I would prefer to play in either my beloved Boston or a warm climate. Thank you.

With that important matter covered, I move to yet another important matter: that of historical research. For another post or two, I'm going to lay out how I do historical research. Why, you might ask, should I care? Who cares how you do historical research? Well, I have anticipated your question, and am prepared with an answer. I have done research for the last six years of my life. I have done research in Augusta, ME, Washington, DC, and Louisville, KY. I like doing it, no, I love doing it, and I might have a few ideas that can help you as you work on your term papers--or if you just want to read and write more productively than you have in the past. I'm no genius, but I'll present a quick, streamlined, easy-to-use method that should drastically reduce the amount of time you spend wading through material and should allow you to write your papers in half the time it normally takes you.

I understand that these are rather dramatic claims, and for that I apologize, and assure that I am not about to sell you anything. The only reason I want to talk about this at all is to share the sweat of my past work. I also have a heart for fellow students, be they seminarians, college students, or laypeople studying the Bible. If my research method can help you just a little bit, that would be great, and I would be happy. I do research in the way I'll outline not to take shortcuts or to do shoddy work, but to be wise with time, to use it effectively, and to cut down on needless work. It seems to me that there's little precious little guidance about how to write a good paper, and even less on how to begin to write a good paper. I want to offer a very humble little method by which to begin to write a paper (meaning the research process), and I would submit that when one does really good and helpful research, one sets oneself up to write a good paper. More plainly put, if you do good research, it'll be hard to write a bad paper.

In the next blog post or two, then, we'll look at the scintillating, term-paper-destroying, Strachan Research Method (no, it's not copyrighted, and yes, they would surely reject me if I tried). I hope it will be of some small help to you as you attempt to do good work for the Lord and yet preserve a normal, balanced home life and church involvement. Again, I'm not up for shortcuts or cheap tricks, but I am all for efficiency, and I may just be able to help you a bit toward that end.

Monday, August 13, 2007

In Sports (and Life), Height Doesn't Matter (Unless You're Short)

I read some time ago a fascinating book on size by a scientific writer named Stephen Hall. The book is titled Size Matters. Hall is an evolutionist and his theories were less than compelling, but his personal experience, his research, and his reflections combined to make for a fun and informative read. Hall essentially poses the title as a question and finds that in society, size does indeed matter, but oftentimes only because people assign value to height, albeit value that height does not deserve.

I reflected on this in light of the constant debates over the physical abilities of various athletes. Being a former basketball player and a current fan, I am well aware of the premium placed on physical prowess. Every year in June, around NBA draft time, one hears experts droning on about the endless physical gifts of this player or that. The player is often drafted early, signs a massive contract, and everybody glows for a while. Then the season comes and the player stinks up the joint. He has "endless physical gifts," yes, but he lacks only one thing: skill. This process is repeated constantly not only in basketball but in all sports as people repeatedly make the error of thinking that size necessarily signals ability.

I'm a short guy, and I can say from prior experience that there is huge bias against short athletes. Yet returning once more to basketball, one wonders why this bias must be so strong. Look at just the last seven seasons of NBA basketball. A guy 6'2 or shorter has won the award three times--Allen Iverson in 2000-01, Steve Nash in 2004-05 and 2005-06. Both of these players are relatively short, perhaps even tiny, in the NBA. And yet both of them were the best player in the entire league in a given year. Perhaps it's time to reexamine our stereotypes about height, and automatically assume that the tallest player--or business executive, or friend, or pastor--is the most gifted. Perhaps we ought to reconsider how we think about height. Height and girth look impressive, but impressive looks aren't everything. Just ask the 76ers or the Phoenix Suns.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Interesting Media

1) Here's a hilarious video about the Maryland pastor, master preacher and denominational architect C. J. Mahaney. Staff members of the church Mahaney attends--Covenant Life Church, a great church--interviewed children about Mahaney's ministry and came up with this video. It was played, I presume, at CLC when Mahaney stepped down from his pastorate and ushered Joshua Harris (yes, that Joshua Harris) into the role of senior pastor. Anyway, watch the video even if you don't know who Mahaney is--it's quite funny.

2) I got the above video from my friend Tony Kummer's website. If you're interested in God-centered, theologically driven children's education, visit his page. Tony is a thoughtful guy and is very practically gifted. His site has much to offer you, particularly if you're working with children, as he is a pastor of children's ministry (and a fellow Said at Southern editor).

3) My friend Reid Monaghan has a great blog I would encourage you to check out. Reid leads young adult ministry at Fellowship Bible Church in Nashville and is a dynamic, gifted leader. Reid's a little more punchy than I am, but he has some great writing on his blog. He is planning on planting a church in New Jersey in the next year in an area known as one of America's least Christian places (near Rutgers University). I have a heart for people trying to minister to the northeast and New England and I encourage you to visit the site of his prospective plant, Jacob's Well. The video alone will deeply move you and encourage you to pray for Reid as he seeks to win the lost souls of New Jersey.

That's all for now. Hope everyone has a good weekend and is encouraged by and encouraging to the ministry of their local church. We here in Louisville are gearing up for a new semester. Classes start again on Monday. One more semester and I will have earned a Master's of Divinity. As you can imagine, I'm excited for classes to begin and hopeful that I come away with a whole trunkload of knowledge from this semester. Whatever you're up to these days, I hope you benefit richly as well. 'Til next time.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Educational Life: Thoughts on Education, Pt. 2

One of the unique challenges a Christian institution has is balancing how it rewards right answers and good thinking. By this I mean that a Christian college or university must carefully weigh how much it rewards students simply for knowing the right answer and how much it rewards them for thinking hard and deeply about various subjects.

You realize, of course, that this is the area where the secular world sneers at we who are enrolled in Christian schools, be they seminaries, undergraduate institutions, high schools, or even home-schooling environments. The world thinks that we just walk around reciting the same old answers to the same old questions and that everyone gets an A simply for reciting the rote, uncogitated answer. This thinking on the world's part is inherently flawed, because unlike much of what one receives in secular circles, Christians believe that the very foundation of our lives is the body of truth contained in one book, the Bible, which discloses the will, purpose, and plan of God for His people. Right from the start, then, Christians realize that it is a central part of our lives to understand and assimilate the Bible's teachings. This is no rote exercise for us. It is a matter of life and death.

We see that we must learn the Bible's truth and that we need not give any apology for doing so, even as the world emphasizes that truth is relative and that life is meaningful only when asking good questions, not when memorizing some outdated dogma from a bunch of wildly religious dead guys. The world is going to say that (or think it), and we will need to pay them no mind on that matter. However, the reality of revelation--and the need to learn that revelation--does not remove us from the need to think hard and deeply about life. We Christians should be known as the most thoughtful people on this earth, for we are the people who recognize, by God's grace, that this earth is stored with mysteries just waiting to be discovered--scientific anomalies, the lessons of history, the stimulating exchanges of the philosophers, the daunting secrets of the mathematicians, the stirring prose of the poets. All these and many more mental pursuits await us, for God has fashioned the earth to stir not simply the heart and soul but also the mind. This is an intellectual playground we live on. God has made it so, not so that our reason would outrun our faith but so that our reason would excite our faith, move us to discover intellectual treasures and take intellectual dominion of our world, and lead us to praise of God for his multi-faceted creation. We must realize this truth, and avoid a fideistic, simplistic, unchallenging faith that fails to comprehend the glory of the life of the mind. After all, if God had not wanted us to see and appreciate beauty, He wouldn't have made it. Likewise, if God had not wanted us to take joy in intellectual discovery, He would not have made this incredibly complex world and designed it to stimulate minds of all types, whether literary or architectural, theological or scientific.

What does all this mean? It means that our Christian institutions must push pupils to take intellectual dominion of their world, to develop a hunger for learning, to mold students into tenacious devotees of biblical faith who use their powers of reason in pursuit of God's glory. We ought not to be known for being schools where tests are easy and A's come readily. We should turn out students of the highest caliber, students who love learning not the sake of success, or even for the sake of learning itself, but for the sake of God's glory. We are to take dominion of the earth, right? This mandate was not given only to gardeners. It was given to us all, and it applies to every corner, every intricacy, of life. Let us fulfill it, and learn the truth, and ask good questions, and pursue knowledge until the day our own understanding is perfected.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Educational Life: Thoughts on Education, pt. 1

It has struck me in recent days that it is of little benefit to a child to teach them to seek success over learning and character formation. This is not a new realization, of course. Countless others know and have said the same thing. But it is an important thing to say again and to think about, however briefly.

Recently I read Ross Douthat's book Privilege, a memoir of the twentysomething Atlantic writer's experiences as a Harvard undergrad. The book was compelling because of its first-person journey through a Harvard education, which many of us cannot help but be interested in. Douthat made many salient points in the text, but one that most drew my attention was his indictment of fellow students (and himself) for pursuing not education for its own sake but success. Douthat recounts at one point how a classmate wrote a paper in the early morning hours despite having never read the subject material he was discussing. The author then turned the paper in well past the deadline, though he was never caught because the overloaded TA for the class didn't pick up the papers until later in the day. Not surprisingly, the author attained an A for the class. This was quite common at Harvard, apparently.

It was quite common at my school, Bowdoin College, as well. I knew loads of smart and talented young people who routinely avoided hard work at any cost--but who pursued academic success with great intensity nonetheless. Sadly, I cannot claim to be exempt from such poor academic behavior. Students who read only a smattering of pages and who then long-winded essays on the text are committing a foolish and harmful academic mistake. They are responsible for such actions. Yet I also wonder if the current fascination with success over learning that prevails in America is not in good measure responsible for their behavior. Many who do such things have been rewarded only for their success, not their effort. They have been trained by a success-crazy culture that it is not learning and personal development that is important, but success. A's matter more than thinking. GPAs matter more than asking good questions. Getting the right job means more than character. This is a huge societal problem, and I saw its fruits at Bowdoin College in Maine just as Douthat did at Harvard. Students are to blame for such practices, but so is a success-based system frenzied for achievement.

We Christians should consider such matters carefully. What are we instilling in our children and in one another? What do we reward our children for--success or effort? Do we praise them because we love them in their essence or because their talent nicely acquits our rearing? Do we praise pastors because of their faithfulness to God or because of their success? Are we contributing to a culture that allows people to do shoddy, undisciplined, unlearned work and rewards them for such behavior? Or do we work against it? Whatever our answer, one thing is clear: we get what we deserve either way.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Why Military History is Necessary

New York's City Journal has an excellent piece in the print version of the magazine on this topic (no link) entitled "Why Study War." It's written by the accomplished military historian Victor Davis Hanson and it is well worth checking out. Hanson is a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, a conservative, and a contributing editor to the conservative and provocative City Journal.

I'm not going to do a walkthrough of the piece; that's not really my bag. I will say that the whole thing is worth reading and that Hanson's central point is refreshing and penetrating. The thesis of the article is that military history is inherently valuable because it teaches the inevitability of conflict in our world, involves study of strategy and generalship, and celebrates honor and virtue while denigrating cowardice and dishonorable deeds. This is a valuable statement, especially in a culture throttled by pacificists who denounce all war, no matter who is being fought or or on what grounds, as inherently wrong. Hanson's essay shows us that war can be used for ill gains and evil ends, yes, but that matters of war are often quite complex and thus require careful study. In the end, such study often shows that war must be fought and that battle draws out the best of character from the best of men, even as it reveals the sordid character of the worst.

Hanson alludes occasionally to the Iraq war, and his comments are worth considering. I don't fashion myself a political commentator, but I have often wondered to myself throughout the Iraq war whether the media has successfully poisoned the minds of most all the American people, including conservatives, on this matter. There seems to be precious little patience in the American spirit nowadays; one sees this in far less important "fields" like football or basketball, where rookie athletes are labeled busts after only one poor year and coaches are canned in midseason when their teams fail to perform. One sees this is the details of our everyday lives as well. When a website fails to load in less than six seconds, we pound the desk and hiss at the computer under our breath. When caught behind a slow-moving car, we yell at our windshield and angrily mutter about poor drivers. The grocery store isn't a place for shopping--it's full-scale warfare with metal carts, each bedraggled worker hustling to dump as many items in their cart as they can before other shoppers arrive. We are a fundamentally impatient, demanding, critical society, and it's ugly to watch. When one thinks of the Iraq war, surely one is under no delusions that the campaign has gone perfectly or even well; and yet one is also reminded that past wars included terrible catastrophes, prolonged defeats, and frustrated plans, even as the number of American casualties rose. I am not a general or a military mind, but I am convinced by my own read of the situation and by Hanson's writing that the Iraq war is not nearly so misguided or unsuccessful as the media makes it out to be and that history teaches us to be patient before passing judgment and throwing up our hands. We ought not to catch the cultural tide of impatience on this matter, but would be better served, in my opinion, by supporting our country, speaking well of our government, praying for peace in Iraq, and waiting on time to yield the verdict on this war, all the while paying little attention to doomsday naysayers and pacifists.

Hanson also has some great material on how the American academy largely ignores military history, and yet how many students devour it when offered a chance to do so. This is quite true, and was proven at my college where a class on the Civil War drew far more students than did more parochial studies of agrarian peasant feuds and farming practices. Military history is excellent stuff, even if it is full of sadness and tragedy. How ironic that the academy refuses to offer much of it even while it trips over itself to offer the latest race and gender-focused class designed to please the intellectual left. Hanson's salvo lands. His whole piece does, as a matter of fact, and I encourage you to seek out a copy of this article. Study war, for in so doing, you study society, you study human nature, and in some sense, you study yourself.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Are Personal Testimonies the Same as the Gospel?

No. They aren't. But many of us get confused on this question, and begin to equate the two. Our witnessing thus becomes a recitation of the Lord's work in our life.

The Lord's work in our lives is a marvelous thing, and should be shared whenever possible (and far more than most of us do, myself included!). However, the gospel is not the Lord's work in our lives. The gospel comes into our lives and changes them, but the gospel is the message of God's grace in Christ Jesus overcoming our sin and the power of hell. The gospel is a message, a truth to proclaim, while our testimonies are a story. Gospel=message, Personal Testimony=story. It is helpful, and necessary, to see the distinction between the two. In sharing the gospel, we proclaim a timeless message that applies to all people everywhere and that confronts and challenges sinners to repent and believe. In sharing our testimony, we share the story of how God has worked in our lives that (hopefully) presents the application of the gospel to our lives and that discloses our personal theological history. The two are similar but fundamentally different.

As many theologians have pointed out, postmodern culture is perfectly suited to stories, and is thus quite happy to hear our personal Christian testimonies with nary a hint of disfavor or malice. This creates a challenge for we who seek to reach postmoderns. We can share our testimony with them, and they can smile at us (relieved that we did not preach some hellfire-and-brimstone message), and we can smile at them (exhilarated that we shared our faith with an unbeliever), and thus we can fail to share the gospel. The gospel is not a personal story, a religious fable encapsulated in dogmatic formulae. The gospel is the power of God, and it necessarily involves direct, crunching, uncomfortable collision with the fallen wills of men. When you share the gospel, you have not failed if someone reacts to you in a hostile or unfriendly manner, if they shut off conversation, if they switch topics, if they curse you, if they blithely walk past you. Unless you shared it an unkind or tactless way (which is not the problem of most of us weak-kneed witnesses), you did things exactly right. You are getting exactly the response you should have gotten. The gospel is an offense to those who are perishing. It is the stench of death to them--and not the stench of our own flesh, but the stench of theirs. They know, however imperfectly, that they are in deep trouble because of their sin, and they can almost smell the judgment that awaits.

Not so with our personal testimonies. Those can glide off a postmodern back as easy as a duck in water. There is no judgment, no conviction, no stench of death in a personal story. There may be hints of these things, yes, but the gospel is far more offensive to unsaved ears than is a personal testimony. Do not make the terrible mistake of thinking that the gospel's offensiveness restricts us from sharing it. We should be sensitive in sharing the gospel, but when you read the New Testament, there is sensitivity, yes, but there is also a whole lot of boldness. There's alot of going around and preaching clearly and living boldly and forfeiting one's privilege, status, and life as a result. I'm not one to call for Christians to be killed purposefully (a tough question), but I am one to admit that I am not nearly as bold as New Testament Christians were, and I am naturally tempted to share my inoffensive, largely nonconfrontational personal testimony far more than I am to share the offensive, soul-shaking gospel. Oftentimes I do this because I am afraid of negative results that gospel-sharing will bring--awkwardness, a stunted friendship, a loss of popularity. In such cases, I am seeking to remove the inherent offensiveness of the gospel. In such actions, so far from aiding my evangelism, I am actually removing its power and force.

Perhaps you are like me. Perhaps you can see that what we need is not less boldness, but greater confidence in the gospel of grace. Share your testimony, yes. That's great to do. But then share the gospel. By the results that often accompany such actions, you'll be able to answer for yourself whether personal testimonies are the same as the gospel.

Friday, August 03, 2007

How Psychology Teaches Appreciation of People

Don't worry about me. I'm not becoming a psychological creature, one who chatters on about my steadily rising self-esteem and my considerably improved self-understanding. I plant my flag firmly in theological terrain, and unearth most of my answers from it. However, in the course of lots of reading of psychological material (for my job--psychologists are among the only people in society who talk/care about the well-being of boys), I've found something interesting. Psychologists appreciate people. They like people. They thus teach people to appreciate others.

That sounds bland and silly when I read it, but it's true. Psychologists are generally empathic and interested in people and their problems. At least in their writing, they appear nice and caring. I hadn't read much psychological material previous to my current job, but I have found its tone to be warm and understanding. One can see why people spend tons of money to talk to psychologists. In a hard, bitter world, they care.

Of course, psychology as a secular enterprise is fundamentally flawed. It asserts that man is naturally good. This directly contradicts the biblical view of man, which teaches that man is inherently evil. So psychology--right from the start--gets it wrong. Ironically, though, this flawed presupposition creates a spirit of warmth in many psychologists. Instead of viewing fellow humans in a hostile, unfriendly light, many psychologists view humanity from a compassionate perspective and focus on positive, not negative traits. You pick this up constantly in the writing of psychologists. I've gained much perspective and information on boys from psychological writings as I've attempted to sift the bad from the good, but I've also picked up an appreciation for the unique characteristics and traits of men. This development has surprised me even as it has enlightened me.

So what is the point of all this? Simply this: that we who love the Word should not allow psychologists to be the only group of people on this planet who appreciate the nuances and quirks of humanity. As those created in God's image, those who see all the earth as a theater of God's glory, we should appreciate the interesting, fun, and funny quirks of humanity far more than any humanistic psychologist. We should be marked for our interest in humanity, for our empathy, for our concern for our fellow man. We ought not approach life as the working out of mechanistic laws and assumptions but as the sphere in which personality, truth, beauty, and life meet in a display of God's goodness. We must reject man-centered thinking and any notion of inherent human goodness, but we should embrace a love of people that is rooted in compassion and interest in humanity. The Bible teaches us to do so, but many of us have missed such an approach to life. In that event, how strange--and good--that psychologists, however flawed their thinking maybe, lead us to appreciate, understand, and empathize with our fellow man. It is appropriate that we follow them in this, though we sharply break them in preaching the good news to all men. This, and no self-esteem program, is the only hope they--and we--have.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Back in the Saddle (or, the Desk Chair)

Hello to the consumed contingent, all 21 of you. I'm back from a great vacation in Oregon, my first encounter with that marvelous state. Oregon has to be one of the healthiest places in the world. The air is crisp and light, cyclists seemingly outnumber car drivers, and being "green" is one of the highest compliments you can pay a peer. I particularly enjoyed the ocean (we went to Cannon Beach), the Nike stores (they stuck their capitalist claws into me long, long ago), and the time spent with Bethany's family. It is a rich blessing to be a part of such a happy, healthy, God-centered family.

In my absence, Matt Crawford did a terrific job. I hope you enjoyed his posts. I was personally rather chagrined by them, as he put my own writing to shame. However, I have worked through such feelings and can now project only goodwill and thanks in his direction. Matt is a great guy and a very sharp thinker and writer, as you now can tell.

I'm just getting back into the swing of things, and my mind is still fuzzy from a full day of travel yesterday, but I want to point you to a commentary on the recent tragedy in Minneapolis. My employer, Dr. Albert Mohler, has written a moving and insightful piece on the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge. As we pray for the people involved in this tragedy, and ask God to work through this for the glory of His name, I encourage you to read this article and allow it to inform your thoughts and prayers.

Thanks for reading and sticking with consumed. Things should really pick up next week. Summer rolls on, a new school year approaches, and the blogging continues.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Wendell Berry on Ministers at Funerals

-- Matthew R. Crawford –

“The preacher, Brother Wingfare, was a seminary student only recently established with his new wife in Port William – a pale, slightly plump, impeccable young man, very new to his profession, very eager to please both God and man, a difficulty of which he had not yet encountered either extreme” (150).

One of the most daunting tasks for a new pastor is to preach a funeral, especially if the deceased was not a follower of Christ. I have found myself in this situation and been at a loss for words. Sometimes helpful advice for dealing with such circumstances can come from unlikely sources. This above is a quote from The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999). Berry is probably one of the most talented writers in the English language alive today. He had a top-notch education and a very promising career, but at a decisive point in his life decided to give it up to move back to his rural home in Kentucky where he has spent the last several decades farming and writing books, poetry, and essays. For those of you who are SBTS students living in Louisville, you might be interested to know that Berry lives just a few miles up the interstate in Port Royal, KY. So far I’ve only read two of Berry’s fiction works, but I hope to read more. His writing is delightful to read, and his critique of modern culture is incisive. In fact, prior to the change in administration at SBTS in the early 90s, Berry visited the seminary several times to give lectures.

In The Memory of Old Jack, Berry recounts the life of a simple farmer. He does so by following Jack’s memories of his life, as he walks through his last day on earth. At the end of the book, Jack dies, and plans are made for his funeral. Jack was not a “churchly man,” so a simple graveside service is requested rather than an elaborate ceremony. The man responsible for planning the service asks the preacher simply to read a few psalms, and then end the service. However, during the service, Brother Wingfare decides to pray after reading the psalms. Berry records the substance of the prayer in an extended paragraph (159-160), detailing how Wingfare assured the audience of the deceased’s right standing before God, implored the lost to accept Christ, and thanked God for his special blessing upon America. Berry’s tone implies that he disapproves of the minister’s actions, since he went beyond what was asked of him and conducted a service that had little in connection with Jack who did not regularly attend church. Berry also implies that the minister’s prayer was far too long and consisted primarily of telling God things that he already knew. What can we as Christians, especially as those who desire one day to be pastors, take from this account?

To begin with, Berry should be credited with recognizing and pointing out a valid problem that often afflicts young ministers. Having learned good theology in the classroom, we are all too quick to dispense theological propositions with little real concern for those on the receiving end. Especially in delicate situations such as the death of a family member, a pastor should begin by listening much and speaking little. He should not speak of the solution to the problem of death until he has a small taste of the real human problem of death as it is being experienced by those close to the deceased. In other words, the pastor should have empathy with those grieving. Lack of empathy is sometimes demonstrated by long-winded prayers at funerals that have little to do with the matters of utmost importance. Berry also points out the common practice of preaching the lost into heaven at a funeral. Giving assurance of salvation, when the person gave little evidence of conversion, is not only irresponsible, it could potentially have eternal consequences in the lives of those present.

On the other hand, we must be clear that pastors should strive, in so far as it is possible, to share the gospel in such situations. Sometimes, the best way to do so is in the context of a prayer. So, while we should not dismiss what Berry is saying, we must also disagree with him, if he is saying that such things as prayers have no place in funerals. Yet he is right in stating that there is a certain manner in which those prayers should be conducted – with real empathy, and with respectfulness to the wishes of the family. Brother Wingfare had not yet encountered the difficulty of pleasing both God and man. Suffice it to say that he did on that day. Funerals are a sort of tight-rope in which we must try to please men, while at the same time being faithful to our calling as ministers of the gospel. If we must err, let us err on the side of pleasing God and occasionally offending man.