Archive for February, 2008

“It is said that he had naturally a very dull wit, and that he was upon the point of leaving the cloister, because he despaired of attaining what his friar’s habit required of him, but that the Holy Virgin appeared to him, and asked him in which he would chuse to excel, in philosophy or divinity; that he made choice of philosophy, and that the Holy Virgin told him he should surpass all men of his time in that science, but that, as a punishment for not chusing divinity, he should before his death, relapse into his former stupidity. They add, that, after this apparition, he shewed a prodigious deal of sense, and so improved in all the sciences, that he quickly surpassed his preceptors; but that, three years before his death, he forgot in an instant all that he knew: and that, being at a stand in the middle of a lecture on divinity at Cologne, and endeavouring in vain to recal his ideas, he was sensible that it was the accomplishment of the prediction. Whence arose the saying, that he was miraculously converted from an ass into a philosopher, and, afterwards, from a philosopher into an ass.” (The Magus, Book II, Francis Barrett)

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The Dying Season

[Buckley Athwart History]The death of William F. Buckley yesterday made me think — it seems like a lot of prominent people have died so far in this year. After a little checking around, it appears that I was right. In only two months we’ve seen an unusually large number (or so it seems to me) of well known folk leave this world. I recall one of the statements I read in one of the Slave Narratives, where one former slave observed, “I notice that if I live through March, I usually live the rest of the year.” It is said that more deaths occur in the first three months of the year than in any of the other three quarters. Whether that’s so or not, there have been quite a few notable deaths. Here are a few of the famous (and infamous) who have died so far this year: (more…)

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Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Enduring Chill,” contains one of the most entertaining confrontations between the Church and the world in modern literature. In the story, Asbury, the spoiled son of a Southern farmer, has been forced to return home from New York City because of illness. Asbury fancied himself a highly sophisticated artist. In fact, he was an abject failure. But now, he’s convinced that he’s dying and has badgered his mother into calling a Roman Catholic priest to visit him. Asbury had met a Jesuit priest in New York who was hip, witty, intellectual—all the things he fancied himself to be. Starved for intellectual stimulation, Asbury assumed that another priest would be the perfect conversation partner. At least he would be far better qualified than any of the narrow minded, uneducated Protestant clergy in town. When the local priest finally arrives, however, he is not at all what Asbury was expecting. What entered his room was not a polished intellectual but “a massive old man” who introduced himself as “Father Finn—from Purgatory”:

“It’s so nice to have you come,” Asbury said. “This place is incredibly dreary. There’s no one here an intelligent person can talk to. I wonder what you think of Joyce, Father?”

The priest lifted his chair and pushed closer. “You’ll have to shout,” he said. “Blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.” (more…)

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It seems like all my wife and I are doing these days is putting a bottle in my infant son’s mouth and then minutes later cleaning up the other end. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The other day I asked my dear wife if it wouldn’t be much more efficient for us to simply put the formula directly into the diaper, you know, to cut out the middle man.

She stared at me in that special way that lets me know she’s laughing on the inside.

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What is Regeneration?

The word “regeneration” for most of us today refers to that one-time, unseen, inner moment when the Holy Spirit flips the switch and brings us from death to life. We’ve heard time and again, “Regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration precedes faith.” And therefore if anyone should start using the word “regeneration” and “baptism” in the same sentence, he would quickly find himself in hot water.

But where does this modern definition of “regeneration” come from? How has the Church and her scholars traditionally used this term?

John Calvin seems to have a pretty broad definition for the word –

In Institutes III.3.9, he says “I interpret repentance as regeneration whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God… [then he lists a number of verses we normally associate with sanctification – 2 Cor. 3:18, Eph 4:23, Col 3:10]… this restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances.”

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“No hope without it.”

Reformed people are familiar with J. Gresham Machen’s quote from his telegram to Dr. John Murray, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” We surely must be thankful for Jesus’ “active” obedience, but it is equally true (as Machen well understood) that this alone brings no hope. Unless our sinless Savior had voluntarily laid down His life on the cross, we would all be without hope. But if we stop at the cross, we still have no hope. What about the resurrection? Apart from it, our Savior’s life and death would be worthless to us. “Thank God for the resurrection of Christ. No hope without it.” Yes, but what about having the benefits of His work applied to us? Apart from faith, we cannot partake of the blessings of Jesus’ work. Ok, then, “Thank God for faith. No hope without it!” True indeed, but, one can’t believe without also repenting, so, “Thank God for repentance. No hope without it!” And we’re just beginning. Think of all the other things Jesus tells us are necessary for us to enter the kingdom or to see life. Here are a few more things without which, according to Jesus, we have no hope (and note: I’ve put them in slogan format, which apparently is the way to communicate effectively nowadays):

“Righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, no hope without it!” (Matt. 5:20)

“Plucking out the right eye and cutting off the right hand, no hope without it!” (Matt. 5:29-30)

“Forgiving other men their trespasses, no hope without it!” (Matt. 6:14-15)

“Doing the will of the Father, no hope without it!” (Matt. 7:21-23)

“Refusing to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, no hope without it!” (Matt. 12:31-32)

“Losing your life for Jesus’ sake, no hope without it!” (Matt. 16:24-25)

“Becoming like little children, no hope without it!” (Matt. 18:2-3)

“Serving your brothers, even the least of them, no hope without it!” (Matt. 25:44-46)

“Eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking His blood, no hope without it!” (John 6:53)

and there are many more . . . . . . .

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I’ve suggested that the various efforts of pastors and churches to ride the currents and model their worship in the image of pop culture are evidence that these Christians are essentially uneasy about the sufficiency of the Word of God and the sacraments. I’ve also pondered the question of whether unbelievers and the unchurched are even really demanding this sort of thing of the Church.

I have just a couple more thoughts on this.

In so many discussions about this type of thing, you will hear someone suggest that it is our evangelical duty to make the gospel relevant to the culture. And there is a seed of true concern there. We don’t want to conduct worship in Latin. We don’t want to be cold toward outsiders. We don’t want to put unneccessary barriers between them and worship. But at the same time, it isn’t the Church or her message that is to be made relevant to the world, the mission of the Church is to make the world relevant to Christ.

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I’m going to make Mondays my “Flannery Day” — Duane says it’s ok with him — so here goes. Flannery was not bashful about expressing her opinions (especially in letters to friends). If you haven’t read her letters (published as The Habit of Being) you are missing a great treat. Here are a some of observations on education and learning:

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Academic degrees meant little to her. In 1962, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame’s St. Mary’s College. She wrote to a friend, “My degree hasn’t done a thing for me so far, it hasn’t increased my self-confidence or improved my personality or anything I expected it to do. The local wags have already got tired of calling me ‘Doctor.’ Regina [her mother] wrapped the hood up in newspaper and put it away and unless I wear it Halloween, I guess it’ll stay there.”

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Eugene Peterson in his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, makes an interesting observation about the fact that Lamentations is written in the form of an acrostic poem. Peterson observes that the acrostic form (as it goes through the Hebrew alphabet) both organizes and puts limits upon grief and suffering:

“In such ways does the acrostic function: it organizes grief, patiently going over the ground, step by step, insisting on the significance of each detail of suffering. . . . Arranged in the acrostic structure the suffering no longer obsesses, no longer controls. . . it makes certain that nothing is left out, but it also, just as certainly, puts limits upon the repetitions. If there is a beginning to evil, there is also an end to it.” (p. 122)

The form of Jeremiah’s lament shows “a pastoral style.” There is full sympathy for the terrible suffering being endured and yet, the structure insists upon a termination to the time of grief. It reminds us that sorrow and suffering are not endless: (more…)

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Anyone who complains about the itty-bitty bit of wine you get in the standard plastic communion cup has never spilled it all over their pants.

Jonah’s predicament comes down to this – which end of the whale was he going to come out?

Some words sound so much better than they actually are. Like supervision. Or food pyramid.

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In The Christian Faith, Henri de Lubac makes this comment regarding the Patristic view of conversion:

“Becoming a Christian did not mean merely giving up erroneous beliefs in order to embrace the true teaching offered by the Church; it meant, essentially, renouncing Satan in order to adhere to Christ, or, as St. Justin put it, turning from idols in order to consecrate oneself through Christ to the unbegotten God. It meant, as Hermas said in his vivid language, apostatizing from the angel of evil in order to follow the angel of justice and to live for God.” (pp. 143-144).

de Lubac goes on to show that to the early Fathers, faith was a whole-person commitment to follow Jesus and live, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God. Faith of course involves believing that which has been revealed, but it is more than this. Faith means entrusting oneself to God; pledging the whole being to the Savior who has given Himself to us first. Thus, de Lubac notes, faith “calls to mind the reciprocal gift of spouses.” The bridegroom offers himself and all that he is to the bride promising never to leave or forsake her and the bride responds by giving herself to him without reservation “til death do us part.” (more…)

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Last time I asserted that the modern evangelical trend of trying to make the worship experience similar to what one would find in the movie theater or on the cable network is evidence that we have a fundamental lack of confidence in the preaching of the word of God.

But let’s just suppose for a moment that in fact, sincere Christians who are serious about the preaching of the Word are engaged in these sort of things only out of a concern to make the gospel relevant to a pop-culture-saturated generation. We would still ask – Are any of these innovations really necessary in the first place? Do they really accomplish what they intend to accomplish?

Why assume that what people in our communities want from a church is what they are getting everywhere else? They have lots of opportunities to be entertained or wowed or emotionally manipulated (if they are into that sort of thing)—but why should we assume that they are expecting the very same thing when they come to church?

People normally expect church to be very different from the rest of life. Just as they don’t want their doctor’s office to be run like WalMart, and they don’t expect their experience at the library to be the same as their experience at the deer camp, no one automatically expects their church experience to be the same as their movie or rock concert experience. (more…)

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That’s the Game…

“Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against… We’re after power and we mean it… There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I’m not a big fan of Ayn Rand or anything, but this is a pretty good piece of writing, and very insightful.

Human institutions exist in order to preserve and perpetuate their own existence. They need work to do, even if they have to make it for themselves out of practically nothing. Armies need enemies, traffic cops need speeders, courts need the accused, and many times they aren’t beyond doing anything they need to do to get them. And when the accused pleads “time-out” or “foul,” he’s just offering further proof for why he needs to be taken down.

They operate by that old saying: “You can’t make an omelet without ruining a few innocent lives.” (more…)

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(this is taken from a lecture given at the Bucer Institute on Flannery O’Connor; thanks to Doug Jones, Peter Leithart, and others who’ve helped me to appreciate her even more than I did already)

One of the things we see throughout Flannery O’Connor’s writings is the truth that God works in and through the physical and material. God works through fire and water; bulls and peacocks; cats and grandmothers; and, of course, ultimately through His Word read and proclaimed, and in the waters of baptism, and by the bread and wine of the table. The prominence of this reality in her writings was intentional not accidental. She was attacking  the gnosticism of the modern Church; the denial that the material and physical can be means by which we commune with the Lord.

For too many of us, bread is simply bread, wine is only wine, water is merely water and nothing more. Bread and wine can never be the means by which we commune with Christ and feast upon His body and blood. Water can never be the means by which the Spirit brings us into communion with the Trinity. The Church must only be an assembly of people who profess the same theology, it can’t be “the body of Christ.” Not really.  (more…)

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No matter how good a preacher or Bible teacher you may be, no matter how seriously you take the task of preparation and presentation—in the back of your mind, it is difficult not to have this haunting, nagging thought that you are competing for the minds of your hearers; competing against the polished news anchor person, the hip music video producer, and the New York ad agency. Compared to what Hollywood is producing, the simple preached gospel can start to seem very archaic, very out-of-touch, very boring.

What makes it even worse is the proliferation of Christian television programming, where Johnny (or Janie) Hair-Do does something similar to preaching on much nicer platform than yours and with lots of slick video production. It is tempting to think that we are up against that, and therefore must do something on par with what they are doing, or at least something that competes with them in order to grab people’s attention, and to keep people’s attention long enough to teach them something.

So in reaction, lots of Christian pastors and churches make efforts to sweeten the impact of their message with all sorts of technological whizbangery, movie clips, drama, interviews, light shows, professionally performed music and so on (you know what I’m talking about). I believe that many of these churches are sincerely hoping that they can package the gospel in such a way that it will be heard and accepted by a generation that is saturated with special-effects-laden movies and over-produced pop music and frenetic television advertising. When we respond negatively to those sorts of things we sound really funny, really out of touch and horribly anti-evangelical. (more…)

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