Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, RIP

The world of scholarship, and particularly of historical scholarship, lost one of its great figures recently, as did the American church; as the Salvation Army would put it, on January 2, 2007, Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was promoted to glory. I envy her eulogists, who knew her as a friend; I only knew her through her writings, which were wide-ranging and often brilliant, but by all accounts she was as remarkable a human being as she was a scholar. Her account of her conversion to Catholicism (she had been a convinced Marxist) is a marvelous piece; while she will probably be remembered best for her scholarly works (such as the magnum opus she co-wrote with her husband and fellow historian, Dr. Eugene Genovese, on the psychology and ideology of Southern American slaveholders, The Mind of the Master Class), I’m probably not the only one who will remember her conversion story with the most gratitude. A great scholar and a great Christian, she is and will be greatly missed.

Lenten Song of the Week

This isn’t the most lyrically deep or complex hymn, to be sure, but in its simplicity it’s an excellent one for reflection and prayer–rather like many of the Psalms in that respect. I have a deep fondness for Appalachian folk hymnody, both texts and music, and this is one of my favorites. If you’re not familiar with the tune, the link is below.

What Wondrous Love Is ThisWhat wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down;
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul!To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing,
To God and to the Lamb I will sing!
To God and to the Lamb, who is the great “I AM,”
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme, I will sing!And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on!
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on!Words: Appalachian folk hymn
Music:
Southern Harmony, 1835
WONDROUS LOVE, 12.9.12.12.9

Simply Wright

One of my frustrations as a pastor is that with everything else I need to do, I can’t do the reading I wish I could do. As Ecclesiastes says, “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and while many that come out each year are of great value, I have neither the time nor the energy to read as many as I’d like to read–or indeed, arguably, as many as I need to read.

It’s not a problem unique to me, of course; which is why, I think, God invented journals and review essays. There are a number of periodicals to which I subscribe, and a handful in particular which I find critically important in keeping up with things and highlighting the books I need to make time to read. The most important are First Things and Books & Culture, which you’ll find linked over on the left side of the page; not far below them is Touchstone, which describes itself as “a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox . . . [designed to] provide a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church.”

Personally, I find Touchstone a bit more erratic than First Things (and also shorter), but the editors find (or write) and publish some wonderful pieces. In the latest issue, perhaps the best is a review essay on C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, the incomparable N. T. Wright. Bishop Wright might just be the perfect person to do this, since like Lewis he’s an Englishman, an Anglican, a scholar (though his field is New Testament rather than Renaissance literature) and a writer who recently wrote a small work of popular apologetics, Simply Christian, which can be profitably compared with Lewis’ book. (I know this because it’s been done.) What’s more, Bishop Wright also happens to be extremely good at what he does, and a man of real grace and humility. (I know that from people I know who are friends of his.)

As one would expect, then, he offers an excellent and quite thorough appraisal of Lewis’ work, pointing out its great strengths and not sparing its weaknesses. There’s no need to recapitulate his points here–go read the article (and give Touchstone some page hits); but I do want to call attention to Bishop Wright’s closing paragraphs:

[Despite the book’s flaws,] the bee flies, and gets the honey. Credit where credit is due. Lewis himself would have been the first to say that of course his book was neither perfect nor complete, and that what mattered was that, if it brought people into the company, and under the influence (or “infection”) of Jesus Christ, Jesus himself would happily take over—indeed, that Jesus had been operating through the process all along, albeit through the imperfect medium of the apologist.And, as another imperfect apologist, I salute a great master, and can only hope that in sixty years’ time children yet unborn will say of me that, despite all my obvious and embarrassing failings, I too was used, in however small a way, to bring people under the influence and power, and to the love and kingdom, of the same Jesus Christ.

In a mirror, darkly

Since I don’t get HBO, I haven’t seen Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary Friends of God, though I’d be interested to watch it; at this point, though, I don’t know much more than what I read in Michael Linton’s post on the First Things blog, On the Square. Linton’s post, though, is plenty and enough to spark reflection—mostly grieved reflection, unfortunately. I’m in no position to pass judgment on Pelosi’s work one way or the other, but it seems that those of us who call ourselves evangelicals (and really, any serious Christian) ought to take a long, hard look at what she shows us of ourselves. The parking-lot scene Linton cites, in which Pelosi is talking with Ted Haggard and two of his church members about their sex lives, looks particularly painful, and not just because of the subsequent revelations of Haggard’s gay infidelity. As Linton puts it,

The possibility that it might be deeply indecent for a Christian minister ever to ask a man to reveal the most intimate nature of his relationship with his wife in front of anyone else—let alone in front of a camera—is apparently not within his ken. And the idea that these men should protect their wives’ privacy and refuse to answer isn’t in their ken either. They boast about their . . . well, you fill in the blank (we’ve all been in locker rooms). It feels so great. It’s all for the Lord. High fives, everybody.

Yeah. For all the fuss many evangelicals make about our country’s moral decline, we too often accept the same assumptions and impulses that have driven that decline; as someone put it, instead of being in the world but not of it, too often we manage instead to be of the world but not in it, creating our own little subculture with “Christianized” versions of everything the world has—including, all too often, its misdirected desires. As such, there’s all too much truth to Linton’s charge that

We, “us,” the Evangelicals with the capital E, have become thoughtless, sensualistic braggarts. . . . What doctrinal rigor we might have had has been progressively smothered by sensuality draped with arrogant irresponsibility. We don’t think; we feel. If it feels right, it’s the Lord’s working, and if it’s the Lord’s working, we can be proud of it.

I don’t want to beat up on evangelicals; I am one, and I make no bones about it. But we have enmeshed ourselves far too deeply in the culture and system of this world, this present age, and we have come to think far too highly of ourselves. To quote Linton again,

We’ve forgotten the Scriptures and allowed ignorance to characterize our preaching, and delirium our worship. In our confidence in God’s grace, we have become presumptuous in our salvation. And we’ve too often confused salvation in heaven with right voting on earth. We need to change. We need to repent.

We need, I would say, to remember that the true gospel is countercultural and costly; we need to set aside the idea that we can, or should, be comfortable with God. We need to go back to Isaiah 6 and remember the reaction of that great prophet when he really saw the glory and holiness of God: he cried out in terror, for he saw his sinfulness for what it really was. And maybe, just maybe, we need to stop singing “worship” songs about how wonderful we are and put the worms back in our hymnody. May God have mercy on us for our presumption.

Lenten Song of the Week

This being Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, it seemed appropriate to move this to a Lenten theme; and given that, the logical place to start seemed to be with the first hymn we sang at our Ash Wednesday service this evening. (If you aren’t familiar with this hymn, check out the Oremus Hymnal website; the link is below.)

Lord, Who Throughout These Forty DaysLord, who throughout these forty days
For us didst fast and pray,
Teach us with thee to mourn our sins,
And close by thee to stay.

As thou with Satan didst contend
And didst the victory win,
O give us strength in thee to fight,
In thee to conquer sin.

As thou didst hunger bear and thirst,
So teach us, gracious Lord,
To die to self, and chiefly live
By thy most holy word.

And through these days of penitence,
And through thy Passiontide,
Yea, evermore, in life and death,
Jesus! with us abide.

Abide with us, that so, this life
Of suffering over-past,
An Easter of unending joy
We may attain at last! Words: Claudia F. Hernaman, 1873
Music:
Day’s Psalter, 1563
ST. FLAVIAN, CM

An insurgency divided against itself cannot stand

From the “Things the US Media Won’t Tell You” Dept.:

Our Islamicist opponents in Iraq are turning on each other, and their “premier jihadist propaganda tool” has now launched an all-out attack on al-Qaeda. This shouldn’t surprise us–one of the best arguments for standing firm in Iraq is that the uneasy alliances among our enemies there can’t hold together if we keep the pressure on–but unfortunately, it also shouldn’t surprise us that no one in the West is interested in reporting this. Kudos to Nibras Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, for breaking this story on his blog Talisman Gate; this is the sort of thing we need to know if we’re going to have any chance at all to evaluate the situation in Iraq rationally and helpfully.

Wretchard at The Belmont Club picked up on this, via a thread on Small Wars Council in which it’s noted that al-Qaeda’s actions on the ground have outraged not only fellow jihadists but at least some of the tribes on whose cooperation they have depended. The key for us in Iraq, it seems to me, is to use a sort of large-scale judo on al-Qaeda and on other groups involved in the insurgency, to do everything possible to use their strength against them and assist them in defeating themselves; and if Wretchard’s right, that might be just what we’re doing. Now might not be a bad time at all to significantly reduce our troop presence, but it’s definitely not the time to pull out and abandon the field to our enemies. Stay the course, but sneakily.

Atheism and its discontents

Interesting meditation over on the First Things website by one of their junior fellows, Ryan Anderson, on the question, “Are Atheists Victims of Discrimination?” He concludes that in some ways, yes, they are, but that much of it is self-inflicted (and much of the rest is in reaction to the public bloviations of folks like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer); and he ends with this:

Atheist discontent still bears a seed of redemption, though, as it points to the fundamental human longing for community, shared values, and shared lives. That they feel this need goes unfulfilled isn’t surprising, since it’s a large element of what religion is all about. Far from unjustly discriminating, then, believers ought to water that seed by charity and prayers so that its seedling might one day be grafted onto the one true Vine.

Amen.

Song of the Week

Andrew Osenga is probably best known as the guy who replaced Derek Webb with Caedmon’s Call; others might recognize his name from his work with Andrew Peterson. To an unfortunately small number of us, though, he is first of all the frontman for The Normals, who released three albums between 1998 and 2002 before breaking up; with strong lyrics and a sound all their own, they naturally weren’t a big hit. After all, what do you expect a DJ to do with a song titled “We Are the Beggars at the Foot of God’s Door,” anyway?

We Are the Beggars at the Foot of God’s Door

We are gathered in cathedrals on a Sunday;
We are shrouded in our pride and lust’s despair.
We have heard that You said, go to where your hearts once were,
Trusting we’d arrive to find You there.

We have known the empty senses of a funeral;
We are haunted by the promises of death.
We have asked to see Your face and noticed nothing
But a well-timed honest smile from a friend.

O we of little faith, O You of stubborn grace . . .
We are the beggars, we are the beggars,
We are the beggars at the foot of God’s door.

We have grown cold to the kisses of our lovers;
We have rolled the windows up and driven through
The forests of the autumn, the innocence of snow,
The metaphor of Jesus in the dew.

We have known the heated passion of the cold night;
We have sold ourselves to everything we hate.
We’re hypocrites and politicians running from a fight;
We’ve cheated on a very jealous mate.

Chorus

We have known the pain of loving in a dying world,
And our lies have made us angry at the truth–
But Cinderella’s slipper fits us perfectly,
And somehow we’re made royalty with You.

Chorus

And You have welcomed us in.

Words and music: Andrew Osenga and The Normals
© 2000 Starstruck Music/BMG Songs/Northern Shore Music
From the album
 Coming to Life, by The Normals

 

Not a bad appetizer

One of our elders here at Trinity has asked me several times over the last number of months if I’d read David Gregory’s book Dinner with a Perfect Stranger. I hadn’t, nor did I want to (though I didn’t say that–no need to be rude, after all); it struck me as something of a Christian parallel to Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, just a piece of well-intentioned schlock.

Well, it seems Steve finally decided I’d had long enough, or something, and loaned me his copy. At least, he gave me his copy with the expectation that I would read and return it; can you really call it a loan when the other person doesn’t want to borrow it? Whatever you want to call it, though, the book was on my desk, and it’s short enough (100 small pages) that I didn’t have any real excuse not to read it; so I did. I was pleasantly surprised–quite surprised, in fact. It’s not great literature by any means, nor is it likely to be mistaken over the long haul for one of
C. S. Lewis’ works (though Gregory clearly admires Lewis–I caught a couple nods to Mere Christianity over the course of the book); for that matter, I wouldn’t even put it with Peter Kreeft‘s work. Still, it’s clearly and cleanly written, and far shorter than I feared on the preciousness one so often finds in Christian fiction. More importantly, the book goes far beyond the sophomoric popular theology I expected to find; Gregory manages consistently to be simple without being simplistic, which is an important and difficult line to walk, and his apologetic is wide-ranging and thoughtful–and deeper than most contemporary Christian nonfiction. On several points (such as the discussion of heaven), his book can even serve (and will, I hope) as a useful corrective to the poor theology served up in many places around the American church.

All in all, I was pleased and impressed: Dinner with a Perfect Stranger is indeed an “invitation worth considering,” for non-Christians and immature Christians alike. It’s not great fiction, but it’s probably good enough writing and storytelling to please most non-academics these days, and it’s not just milk (or chicken soup), either–there’s a lot of good, solid food for the soul here. Recommended.

Note: fans of Dinner with a Perfect Stranger might be interested to know that there’s a sequel, focused on Nick’s wife Mattie, called A Day with a Perfect Stranger.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working my way through David Crump’s book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. Dr. Crump’s a religion professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, and he’s written a truly superb book; there’s more meat in the introduction alone than you’ll find in many books on prayer. I picked it up after reading Lauren Winner’s review, thinking it could give me a useful frame for a sermon series, and that’s been one of the better decisions I’ve made lately. I will indeed be leaning on this book in my preaching this summer, but it’s done me a lot more good than just that; I can honestly say my prayer life is stronger and deeper as a result of the reading I’ve done so far, and I look forward to seeing what Dr. Crump draws out of the rest of the New Testament. Highly recommended.