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Great Deal on a Great Book

I saw this morning that Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God, is available on Kindle for $1.99 for a limited time. This is such a powerful, beautiful book on so many levels, and I fear many people have missed this book because they didn’t realize what it is. The marketers promoted it as a response to Hitchens famous brother, and it seems many people thought it was a simple argument against atheism. These assessments miss the book by far. This is a soul searching spiritual autobiography beautifully written with profound reflection humanity, the impact of the gospel on culture, the fragility of civilization, particularly as faith is eroded, all illustrated from the author’s experience in cultures around the world and in his own struggles of faith.

I have written previously about Hitchens’ comment sin this book about poetry and beauty as apologetics (with implications for art and worship) and have posted a list of my favorite quotes from the book. This book moved me and helped me see better the various ways the gospel impacts a culture. I saw more clearly how very fragile is this thing we call civilization (which we take so lightly and take for granted) as he described cultures he’d seen fall apart in Africa and Europe. Added to all that, Hitchens writing is truly beautiful. He reminded me of C. S. Lewis because the writing itself is enjoyable even beyond what he is saying.

This is a wonderful book and a great opportunity to get it at a steal.

Rocky Balboa and the Psalms

I’ve toyed with running the last few years, but the last several months I’ve gotten serious about it. I’ve started running with my 17 year old son on facing treadmills. We worked out a shared play list to listen to while we run- some old school Petra for me and some Lecrae for him. Of course there is a shared part of the canon as well, and in that shared part are songs from the Rocky movies.

It is interesting how my middle-aged body, when feeling like there is no steam left, can automatically find new energy when the Rocky theme song or “Eye of the Tiger” comes on. In fact I hope for those songs to come on as I hit that first “wall” early in the run or as we enter the final stretch and I’m not sure I can make it.

I have reflected on why these songs affect me the way they do. Is it because I just like trumpets? No. Is it simply that this is great music, or upbeat music? Not really. I do like the sound, but there is, of course, better music and there are other sounds which appeal to me or are upbeat which do not affect me this way.

The words are a part of it. But even that does not account for the impact. I think the main reason the songs have such an effect on me is the story of which they are a part. The sounds and words take on special meaning because of the story of the movies and the role of that story in my story.  For any kid who grew up watching these films those sounds evoke images of an underdog working particularly hard and achieving great things. Those sounds today connect with the way it made me feel then and how it motivated me as I began working out as a kid. “Eye of the Tiger” not only makes me think of Rocky and Clubber Lang, but also of the time my Jr. High football coach played that scene for us before we went out on the field, using it to motivate us (successfully!). All of this personal connection is no doubt why, while the songs are appreciated by my son and me, they have more impact on me. They are more intertwined in my own experience.

So, some songs, not exactly in the realm of masterworks, have the power to help me persevere because they tell a certain motivating story and I have deep personal experience with them. Throughout the history of the church the Psalms have played a similar role in the lives of the saints. The Psalms tell the story of the people of God, recounting in some detail the history of Israel, their failure, suffering, deliverance and hope. They face squarely the depth of pain which life in a fallen world is bound to encounter and point us to hope in the living God whose steadfast love and faithfulness is our anchor. But, my reflections on Rocky reminded me- the degree to which these songs inspire and motivate us, the degree to which they empower us to persevere (as they have our forebears), depends in some measure on how much these songs enter our own experience, how enmeshed they become in our lives. Someone from another culture who knew nothing of the Rocky movies might wonder why some old songs whose trumpets seem unusual in comparison with popular music today or some song that seems to be about the vision of a large cat was meaningful to me. Sadly, it seems the contemporary church often looks that way at the Psalms. Why do these old songs matter so much when they talk about ancient places I don’t even know? Why would I want to sing songs that don’t mention Jesus? To such questions our forebears just shake their heads, saying, “You’ve never seen the story have you?” Because when you enter into these songs it becomes clear (and Jesus is there so clearly).

I want- for myself and my children- to immerse ourselves in these songs so that they resonate deeply with us because the story they tell has impacted our story at so many different places. Then, the singing of these songs will motivate us, drawing back to mind all these connections, connecting us to God, empowering us to persevere.

Frederick the Wise bio

Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector, Sam Wellman
(Concordia Publishing House, 2015), pb., 315 pp

 

As soon as I began seeing announcements about this book I was excited to read it. From my engagement with Luther, Frederick the Wise had become a very intriguing character to me. I was interested to learn more about this prince who ended up playing such a significant role in the Reformation, without intending to do so. I was also intrigued by the questions I have heard raised as to whether his support of Luther was merely political, opportunist, or genuinely theological and religious. My interest was piqued even more when I read that this would be the first full-length biography of Frederick ever produced in English. So I was eager to read the book and very grateful to Concordia for a review copy.

Overall, I was very pleased to have read this book. Wellman makes accessible in English a lot of work that has been done in German, and it is obvious that he has done much work in primary as well as secondary sources. The research behind this volume is significant. It was very helpful to learn of the political divisions within Saxony prior to Frederick’s coming to power, and to see how prominent he became even early in his office.

Wellman demonstrates the prominence and influence of Frederick in the Empire and how much the Holy Roman Emperors looked to him. Wellman states, “Frederick’s influence was everywhere in the empire” (85). Many, including Luther, credited him with uniting the disparate German language into one language (85). Fredrick was regarded by all, it seems, as a man of integrity and principle. Fredrick was noted for inculcating an atmosphere of congeniality in a political setting so often filled with contention- “he had a remarkable ability to calm” (84). Unlike many of his influential peers, he was slow to pursue war, instead looking for peaceful avenues. But he did say, “I shall not start anything, but if I must fight, you shall see that it will be I who end it” (120). He was a patron of the arts and his court became a leading center for art and music. Throughout the book, Wellman sprinkles various proverbs which Frederick often used or had on display in his court.

Even the discussion of Frederick’s unofficial wife suggested character. He never married which was a real political loss. He had met and began a relationship with Anna, a woman about whom we know little. She was of noble birth, so political concerns made official marriage impractical. However, he refused to drop her in order to take a politically helpful marriage or to take such a marriage and keep Anna on the side.

Wellman describes Frederick’s efforts to compile what became an impressive collection of relics in his new church in Wittenberg. The fact that Frederick supported Luther even as he viciously attacked the business of relics, in which he had invested so much money, suggests the genuineness of his faith. (This is captured well I think in the 2003 film, “Luther”)

The book provides a helpful glimpse into the political machinations brought about by Luther’s bursting on the scene. It is a valuable reminder of how God providentially works by turning the hearts of kings or princes wherever He wills (Prov 21:1). In this section Wellman states gives his verdict on Frederick’s motivation- and provides a nicely worded contrast between Luther and Erasmus:

“Frederick and those whose judgment he most trusted were convinced that Luther was correct in his methods. Luther based his conclusions on the deepest insight into the Holy Scriptures, the only tangible source for God’s Word. It was Erasmian, except the interpreter was not a mouse muffling his voice in a cranny, but a lion who roared” (176).

“Frederick followed Luther’s teachings more and more to great cost to his own plans, even at the risk of losing his electorate. It wasn’t Luther, moreover, that Frederick was pleasing. Pleasing God, doing God’s will, was paramount” (213-14).

This book is full of very useful information. That is its strength. Its weakness, is that it feels like it hasn’t been packed very neatly or carefully but just jammed in. The flow of thought from chapter to chapter or section to section is not always clear, nor is the connectedness of one part to another in places. It tells a fascinating story but is ponderous in doing so at times. One cannot always have history that reads like a novel, but I fear that readers who are not already committed to learning about this topic might not persevere with the work. Further editorial work is likely needed.

In the end, though, I am grateful that the book has been written, and I have benefitted from it. It will be useful to anyone studying the Reformation.

I will close with this striking evaluation of Frederick from Heiko Oberman (concerning Frederick’s role in the 1519 election of Karl V):

Historians of every stripe have found only one statesman thoroughly praiseworthy: Frederick the Wise. A German and a man of integrity, he is considered to have been a staunch representative of the interests of the empire in a sea of corruptibility and national betrayal (236-37)

“Learn to lose with God”

My poem of the week this week is a great call to perseverance, holding to faithfulness despite the immediate outcome. This, especially the last two stanzas, is a good word.

OH IT IS HARD TO WORK FOR GOD

Oh, it is hard to work for God,
To rise and take His part
Upon this battlefield of earth,
And not sometimes lose heart!

He hides Himself so wondrously,
As though there were no God;
He is least seen when all the pow’rs
Of ill are most abroad.

Ah, God is other than we think,
His ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height, and reached
Only by childlike love.

Workman of God! O lose not heart,
But learn what God is like,
And in the darkest battlefield
Thou shalt know where to strike.

Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God;
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.

For right is right, as God is God,
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter were to sin.

-          Frederick W. FaberJesus and Mary, 1849. Several variants of these lyrics have been published; this version appeared in Hymns Ancient and Modern.

 

New Verse for “Holy, Holy, Holy”

I have long appreciated the wonderful hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It extols the majestic greatness of God in his utter holiness. Recently I was introduced to a new verse written for the hymn. I was singing this familiar hymn along with the congregation when all of a sudden, at the fourth verse, there were new words. They struck me as all together fitting and appropriate. Though I had not thought of it before I realized the hymn lacked any explicit reference to how sinful people like us are enabled to know and interact with One so holy. This new verse in that particular location in the hymn fit beautifully, and I found it quite moving there in the midst of this reflection of God’s holiness to sing as well of His redeeming work.

I wondered if this was a verse which had been lost, but then thought, “I bet this was written by Justin Wainscott.” The latter proved to be true. The hymn with the new verse (marked with an asterisk) is below in case you and your church would like to use it as well.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Who wert and art and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

*Holy, holy, holy! Raise our eyes to Calv’ry,
That we might behold Thy Son condemned upon the tree;
Oh, how sin has cost Thee! Oh, Thy grace and mercy!
Christ, fully punished; sinners, fully free.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

 

The Impact of the Reformation on Music

I am currently working on a conference and a book on the broad impact of the Reformation. The conference is set for 2017 and the book is due out that year as well as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation touched so many areas of life as we now know it.

Here is one example that people might not often think of. Michael Reeves, in his excellent book, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, makes this point about the impact of Luther’s doctrine of justification on music:

“This happy, heartfelt reaction to justification can be sensed in the music of the Reformation. Take, for instance, the traditional ‘Hosanna’, sung at the Mass. In 1555, Palestrina, then almost the official musician of Rome, wrote a new score for the ‘Hosanna’ in his Mass for Pope Marcellus. To hear it is to hear Rome’s Counter-Reformation spirituality: it is exquisite music, but there is something cerebral and dutiful about the choir’s intoning of the Hosannas. A hundred and ninety years later, Johann Sebastian Bach, an ardent Lutheran all the way down to his tapping toes, wrote his version of the ‘Hosanna’, and the difference is striking. The exact same piece was set to music, but in Bach’s Lutheran hands, it has an entirely different resonance: now the Hosannas are belted out with an unmistakable, unbounded enthusiasm and joy. Such was the natural effect of believing Luther’s doctrine of justification.” (178-79)

In Appreciation of Dr. Louise Bentley

I was richly blessed today attending the funeral of Dr.Louise Bentley, an amazing professor whom I was fortunate to have while I was a student at Union. Even her requests for how the funeral would be done reflected her deep desire to glorify God. Her children spoke of her love for God, them, words and the Psalms, reading her favorite Psalm (16) and her pastor preaching from her life verse (Psalm 34:3).

Below is a brief tribute to Dr. Bentley which I submitted to the local paper.

Dr. Louise Bentley, a Master Teacher

One of the great blessings of my life has been the privilege of having so many great teachers along the way. One of those great teachers was Dr. Louise Bentley who passed away this week at the age of 85. Dr. Bentley taught English and Humanities for 40 years, finishing her teaching career at Union University teaching there from 1981-1995. She is the only professor ever to be named Faculty of the Year twice, and in recognition of her service she was named Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Union.

I first met Dr. Bentley when I walked into an Arts in Western Civilization class in the second semester of my freshman year at Union. I didn’t know what to expect. I had just signed up for a required class. And there was Dr. Bentley to greet us. I gathered quickly that Dr. Bentley expected us to work hard and also that she intended to work hard to help us. Her excitement about the class captivated me. I remember her telling us that she would do everything in her power to capture and hold our attention in this early morning class even if it meant swinging from the light fixtures! Though I didn’t know the terminology yet, it was in that class that the lights first came on for me concerning the concept of a Christian worldview. With her guidance I saw how the prevailing view of life and values shaped the art produced in various eras. In a class where I didn’t know what to expect- one of those core classes which are often overlooked- I was significantly shaped and molded because I was learning from a Master Teacher.

When I returned to Union to begin teaching, it was a delight to have opportunities to see the Bentleys, particularly when preaching in their church, and to express to her how she had blessed me. When they moved from their house, her husband, Dr. Blair Bentley, donated many of his books to the Union’s Ryan Center of Biblical Studies, which I direct, in order for those books to continue to be a blessing to others. More recently, Dr. Louise Bentley helped to organize worship services at the Jackson Meadow Retirement Residence where she was living and asked me to preach from time to time. It was always a blessing to gather with those people and to see Dr. Bentley still helping, guiding and encouraging.

As I have pursued my own teaching at Union for about 15 years now, I often find myself looking back to the example of Dr. Bentley. She was tough but fair. She cared deeply about her students- my friend Brian Denker recalls watching her tear up in class as she expressed how much her heart went out to her students during the difficult struggles of finals week. She is my go to example for the fact that lecture done well is still a powerful way to teach. Her passion for the subject matter was palpable and contagious. I don’t know how you could keep from getting caught up in her excitement, and that was as true when I visited her at Jackson Meadows as it was in that class in my freshman year.

Dr. Louise Bentley gives me a model of teaching to which I aspire. Many of us were blessed, helped, and shaped by her teaching and example. For her life and labors we give thanks to the God whom she loved so deeply and served so well.

[The Jackson Sun published this column Tuesday, June 16, 2015, Section A, page 7]

The Dave Roever Story

dave roeverGrowing up I was blessed with the opportunity to hear Dave Roever, more than once I believe. His story of being terribly wounded and disfigured in Viet Nam and God’s grace in the midst of it all had a real impact on me. So, I was quite interested to learn that his story was now told in a comic-style tract which can be purchased through Calvary Comics for just $1.50 including postage.

Since it is a tract, it is brief. It tells the story of his horrific injury and how one man came to faith right away as a result. It also relates his wife’s love despite his condition- one key element which had particularly stuck with me. It is nicely drawn and colored.

This tract could be useful in a variety of settings.

Praying the Psalms in Christ

I have made it one of my aims at this site to comment from time to time on good resources for preparing to preach on the Psalms. This past Sunday I preached on Psalm 2. I have preached this Psalms several times, so in going back over my notes I consulted Praying the Psalms in Christ by Laurence Kriegshauser (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009). Kriegshauser in a Benedictine monk, which means he is writing from long experience with praying the Psalms and that he and I will have some significant differences theologically.

On Psalm 2, this book is excellent. Kriegshauser properly notes that the “son” in view would originally have been the Davidic King who by virtue of his position held a unique status as “son” toward God. Then, he shows how Jesus fulfills this being the ultimate son of David and the unique Son of God. Here is an excerpt:

Ps 2, son of god

 

Kriegshauser also adeptly demonstrates that Mount Zion now refers to the Church. He writes, “The Son of God in our psalm is associated with a place: God’s mountain, Zion, the mountain on which Jerusalem and the Temple were built. God’s rule radiates from this place. His King rules from the very place where God dwells among men. For Christians this place is the Body of Christ, the earthly members of which form his Church” (16).

This proper theological interpretation is crucial for applying the Psalms well today, and I found the clarity and forthrightness of Kriegshauser refreshing.

The Man Who Was Greenmantle

The Man Who Was Greenmantle: A Biography of Aubrey Herbert, Margaret Fitzherbert (John Murray, 1983)

This was my first “just for fun” read of the summer, and it was worthwhile. I purchased this book because I have so enjoyed the novels of John Buchan, especially his Richard Hannay series which I discovered while we lived in Scotland. The series is set in Britain beginning in the days just before the outbreak of WWI and continuing through the war into the 1930’s. One of the key characters in these novels is Sandy Arbuthnot, a British Lord with extensive knowledge of the Middle East, fluent in many languages and a master of disguise. Sandy plays a key role in the novel, Green Mantle.

John Buchan wrote several novels, became Lord Tweedsmuir, and eventually served as Governor General of Canada (1935-1940). Buchan’s life story is fascinating, so when I learned that one of his most fascinating characters was based on the life of one of his friends, I wanted to read the story.

This biography of Aubrey Herbert is written by his granddaughter, and it is a fascinating view of an amazing life in what was practically a different world. Herbert was born into a noble family which counted among their residences Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed (it is still in the possession of the same family). Educated at Eton and Balliol, Herbert was friends with the leading men of his generation. One of his teachers was Hilaire Belloc. His brother was the Lord Carnarvon who financed the discovery of Tutenkhamen’s tomb. Despite his near blindness, Aubrey Herbert travelled extensively in the Mid-East and Eastern Europe (in the midst of uprisings and unrest), served as a soldier and diplomat, playing a key role because of his knowledge of so many languages (French, Italian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Albanian). He became a key advocate of the Albanian people and was twice offered the throne of Albania!

Events in Hebert’s life which were mentioned in passing would today be breathlessly extolled on newscasts. It was truly a different era. This view into the past was one of the key benefits of the book. Buchan described Herbert as, “The most delightful and brilliant survivor from the days of chivalry.” Another writer said:

Aubrey lived in high romance. … He simmered and bubbled over with enthusiasm, for whatever Aubrey had in his head he made at least a phrase, sometimes an epigram, often some verses. He delighted in words, as some women in jewels, but he did not keep them, as most jewels are kept, for great occasions.

This liveliness and fullness of living were evident in the biography. Despite being nearly blind Herbert immersed himself in the life of Middle Eastern cultures, living among the people, meeting with rebel leaders, seeking peace and justice and at times simply seeking adventure. After slipping past authorities of various governments in order to visit Baghdad, he made the overland trek from Baghdad to Damascus, “a well-established endurance test,” just for the accomplishment. He also served many years in the House of Commons. The example of perseverance, hard work, and passion for life is one of the things I liked about the book.

This book is also a striking, up close account of the dramatic cultural shift which occurred after World War I. I hear of this more often through Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al. It was interesting to read of it through the eyes of a member of the English upperclass. After the war, Herbert wrote in a letter of his “growing sense of isolation, of having outlived the world to which I belonged” (225). Sadly the faith seemed to have little significance in his life, at least as he is portrayed in this book.

For historical insight and example of perseverance this book is a great read.