As it is true that ecclesia reformata reformanda est so also is it true that theologia reformata reformanda est. When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already underway and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation. The powers of darkness are never idle and in combating error each generation must fight its own battle in exposing and correcting the same. It is light that dispels darkness and in this sphere light consists in the enrichment which each generation contributes to the stores of theological knowledge.
Much of the pleading for adaptation of the gospel to the needs of this generation is suspect. For it is too often a plea for something other than the gospel. Far more important is the reminder that each generation must be adapted to the gospel. It is true, however, that the presentation of the gospel must be pointed to the needs of each generation. So it is with theology. A theology that does not build upon the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies upon the past evades the demands of the present.
The progressive correction and enrichment which theology undergoes is not the exclusive task of great theologians. It often falls to the lot of students with mediocre talent to discover the oversights and correct the errors of the masters. In the orthodox tradition we may never forget that there is yet much land to be possessed, and this is both the encouragement and the challenge to students of the wonderful works of God and particularly of his inscripturated Word to understand that all should address themselves to a deeper understanding of these unsearchable treasures of revelation to the end that God’s glory may be made more fully manifest and his praises declared to all the earth. — John Murray, “Systematic Theology,” Collected Writings of John Murray, 4:8-9.
In the “I know you don’t care about this at all, but it interested me, for whatever it’s worth” department, apparently John Updike read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. In a book review of Still, a recent memoir by Lauren Winner (which I haven’t read, by the way), I came upon this paragraph:
She stumbles on a scribble in a copy of For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, by the Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann, that belonged to late novelist John Updike. In the margins, Updike had penciled “God gives us many gifts, but God is He Who gives God,” a quote from Augustine.
In an election year, there are a number of temptations we need to beware of. We may be tempted to think that the only way to avert catastrophe is by getting the right man elected as president. We may begin to think that what’s happening with the candidates is the “real action,” as if the race to the White House is the most significant thing that will happen this year in the battle between right and wrong, good and evil, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. We may even begin to wonder about other Christians who don’t seem to get as excited about politics as we do, who carry on with their ordinary lives as if they’ve never heard of any of the candidates: “Don’t they care? Don’t they see how important this stuff is?”
In Judges 9, Gideon’s son Jotham tells a parable. His half-brother Abimelech has murdered all of Gideon’s other sons and is in the process of being acclaimed king, but Jotham wants Israel to know that Abimelech is a bramble. The trees, says Jotham, wanted a king and so they asked the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine, but each time the tree they wanted turned them down. Why? Too busy with productive work and no desire to “go and wave over the trees.” Finally, they ask the bramble — Abimelech — and he’s only to glad to “wave over the trees.”
We learn a lot from this parable, and it’s surprising to me that there’s no reference to it in the works of political theology I’ve consulted. Jim Jordan summarizes the teaching of the parable this way, and I quote it because it explained a lot for me:
The point of the parable is that good men do not desire to lord it over others. Good men are happy being productive for God and for their fellowmen. They realize that the road to greatness is the way of the servant, as their Lord taught (Mark 10:42-45). The only kind of men who desire political authority for its own sake are bramble men — unproductive men who seek to attain fame and fortune by taking it from others who are productive.
The political inactivity of Christians and of their sometime fellow travellers, the conservatives, in our modern society is partly explained by this parable. Christians are oriented to serving God and man through work in the marketplace. Their satisfaction comes through productivity. They believe that the solution for modern social problems is faith in God and hard, productive work. Unfortunately, most modern men look to the state, to the bramble, for answers.
Those who greatly desire to be kings are usually the least qualified for the post. Far wiser government generally comes from those who only reluctantly shoulder the heavy burdens of office. The good wise trees were reluctant; the bramble was anxious to rule. — James B. Jordan, Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary, 166 (emphasis added).
While all three paragraphs here are important, the second one in particular jumped out at me. Why aren’t more Christians worked up about politics? Why don’t more Christians run for office? One answer may be that they’re involved in other important stuff. Christians are doing their jobs, but their time and strength is also taken up with worshiping God, teaching their kids, playing with their kids, working in the garden, reading a good story, taking care of the needy, cooking meals, cleaning up messes, having coffee with friends — doing all kinds of things that bring joy to God and man (like the vine in the parable, whose wine makes God happy when poured out in worship and makes man happy at a feast).
Here’s my annual list of the books I enjoyed most in 2011, listed alphabetically by the author’s last name. Enjoy!
* Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God (all three available in one volume now). Great novels by a Nigerian novelist. The first, especially, should not be missed for its presentation of the effects of the gospel and of the way in which it was presented on prechristian Nigerian culture.
* Jeffrey Barlough, Dark Sleeper. Okay, the ending was a bit weak, I thought, but I forgive it easily for the atmosphere, the great writing, the many laughs, and the Blaylockian love of good food and pints of porter in cozy inns with the cold and fog outside. Tim Powers recommended the book and I agree with him: “When you’ve finished you’ll want to go back again soon.”
* Owen Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet. I don’t know how much of Barfield’s unique philosophy is present in this fairy tale; someday I’ll read some of Barfield’s nonfiction and perhaps I’ll discover that I already understand what he’s saying because I read this one first. But I read it with my kids as a fun story. Tolkien’s kids loved it, and so did mine.
* Ruth Beechick, Adam and His Kin. Very interesting. She’s wrong on a lot of points (e.g., dispensationalism, demons marrying humans in Genesis 6, drawing on Hislop’s The Two Babylons). So why did I enjoy this book? Because she takes the biblical chronology seriously. We need something like this, drawing on the work that Jim Jordan has done on biblical chronology, etc., and without the weird stuff Beechick throws in. I’ll add that I also very much enjoyed her The Language Wars and Other Writings for Homeschoolers, which includes balanced and helpful essays on phonics (and the erroneous claim that it can solve all reading problems), the teaching of history (following biblical chronology), how homeschooling magazines choose their articles and review books (often based on who advertises in the magazine), and more.
* Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack. Very well done.
* James P. Blaylock, The Digging Leviathan. What a strange but enjoyable book. Laughed out loud at points. Can’t even begin to describe it.
* Walter R. Brooks, The Story of Freginald. The fourth Freddy the Pig book. Lots of fun.
* Bo Caldwell, The Distant Land of My Father. Reads like a memoir, to the extent that it was hard to imagine that the author wasn’t writing about her own life; very enjoyable.
* Bruce Campbell, The Secret of Skeleton Island. Okay, this isn’t what you expected me to read this year. I understand that. Yes, this is a boy’s adventure novel, written back in the ’40s, the first in a series of novels starring Ken Holt. I hadn’t read any of the Ken Holt novels when I was a boy, but they were the kind of stuff that I gobbled up. I came across a reference to these books online, identifying them as one of the greatest and best written of the old “series books,” so I decided to give this one a try. Loads of fun for your inner boy.
* Milton Caniff, The Complete Terry and the Pirates, 1934-1936. Lots of fun; early comic strips by one of the great cartoonists.
* Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Compelling: Carr argues that the internet — and especially Google, social media, and hyperlinks — are a “technology of distraction,” requiring constant decision making (click this link or not?) and thereby exercise our brains in such a way that the decision-making areas of our brains develop while our ability to read, concentrate, be attentive, think deeply, and exercise empathy and compassion deteriorate so that our thinking becomes shallow. Lots of interesting stuff here about neuroplasticity, computers, and more. Is it accurate? The more I surf the web, the more I‘m persuaded.
* G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday. What can I say? This is a great book, but it’s not one that I fully understand.
* Joan Chittester, The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully. Not my usual fare. The author’s theological stance is quite different from my own. But there’s some great stuff here, mixed with some junk. Chew carefully and spit out the bones.
* Clay Clarkson, Heartfelt Discipline: The Gentle Art of Training and Guiding Your Children. I do not necessarily agree with everything Clarkson says. In particular, his treatment of the “rod” in Scripture needs careful evaluation. But it’s one of the best treatments of wholistic discipline I’ve come across, and the only one I’ve seen yet that deals with, e.g., sympathy as part of discipline.
* Sally Clarkson, The Mission of Motherhood: Touching Your Child’s Heart for Eternity. I didn’t agree with everything and found some things in the book a bit sentimental, but there’s a lot of good stuff here about raising children and about the attitude parents — and not just mothers — need.
* Barbara Cooney, Miss Rumphuis. What list of great books would be complete without some picture books? This is a particularly beautiful one.
* Meindert DeJong, The Wheel on the School. One of the great things about being a dad is getting to read to your kids, and one of the great things about that is that you can read old favorites. But another great thing about it is that you can read books you missed when you were a kid. For some reason, I never read DeJong, classic those his books are. I’m making up for that now. My children and I loved this one.
* August Derleth, The Moon Tenders and The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives. Remember how I sounded almost defensive when I talked about reading the Bruce Campbell novel above? Well, these are the first two of another series of boy’s books, perhaps the best written such series ever, and so there’s no need for me to sound defensive here. These books are simply wonderful, not so much for the plots, which meander enjoyably but for the historic details, the atmosphere, the sense of place, the recollection of a boyhood in Wisconsin in the ’20s. The whole set is available here, and I think I’ll start saving my pennies to buy it.
* Eilis Dillon, A Family of Foxes and The Sea Wall. I had never heard of this author before last year and had never read anything by her when I was growing up, more’s the pity. I read these two to my children, who loved them. Excellent writing, great adventures.
* David Hackett Fischer, Growing Old in America. The author’s suggestions at the end are weak, but the book is very, very helpful in understanding the “deep change” that took place with regard to the American attitude toward the elderly and the shift to a “cult of youth.”
* Tim Gautreaux, The Next Step in the Dance. Gautreaux is a very good Cajun writer.
* Charles Boardman Hawes, The Great Quest. Reminded me a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson.
* Thomas Howard, The Novels of Charles Williams. Don’t venture into the deep waters of Williams without this guidebook. In fact, the guidebook would be great reading even if you weren’t reading Williams. There is so much here about Williams’s themes: self-sacrifice, our mutual dependence, the symbolical nature of everything in life, the glory of hierarchy, the demand of faith in every small decision — I could go on and on.
* James B. Jordan, Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary. At the risk of being accused of overstatement, I will say this: This is the only really good commentary on Judges. Sure, it could be improved. Jordan himself has written more about Judges since this commentary, and the commentary was written before Jordan really understood chiasms so he says nothing here about the chiasm that structures the book.
But even though there is some helpful stuff in many other commentaries, none of them come close to this one. Why not? For one thing, none of them deal much with the symbolism of Judges. Look, there are easier ways of setting a Philistine field on fire than catching three hundred foxes and tying them tail to tail with a torch between each pair. But that’s what Samson did. In fact, many of Samson’s actions are full of symbolism, but most commentaries do little to nothing with that symbolism.
Perhaps that’s because they think of Samson as wicked or stupid or both. And that’s another problem that’s widespread in commentaries on Judges. Most do not regard the judges as men of faith. Daniel Block, for instance, helpful though he is for Hebrew stuff, refuses to let Hebrews 11 influence his reading of the judges and ends up seeing almost all of them as compromised or faulty or even wicked in some way, so that the message of Judges becomes that God saves His people not just through the judge but actually more in spite of the judge.
I see, by the way, that George Schwab has a new commentary on Judges (Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges). The link will take you to the opening pages of the book, including the introduction, which has some good things in his introduction about Samson and the honey in the lion but … I can tell by the chapter titles where he’s going. The chapter on Ehud is entitled “Soiled Southpaw, Rotund Ruler.” Ehud soiled? In what way? Perhaps, like Block, Schwab thinks that Ehud shouldn’t have assassinated Eglon, but that’s simply wrong. In any case, it seems to me that it was Eglon who was soiled — who, in fact, soiled himself — and that Israel was meant to laugh about it as they read the story. But keep reading Schwab’s chapter titles: The one on Barak calls him a “sissy,” the one on Jephthah speaks of him as jaundiced (whatever that could mean). Sigh.
If you want commentary recommendations on Judges, here are mine: Start with Jordan, supplemented with his other essays and lectures on Judges (e.g., “Samson the Bridegroom”). Move on to Davis for a few more insights and perhaps use Block for some help with the Hebrew. But you’re not going to find too many other people who approach Judges the way Jordan does, and that’s too bad.
* Jan Karon, At Home in Mitford. Rereading this series. Sure, there are some overly sweet and sentimental parts, but on the whole I’m enjoying it.
* Frank O. King, Walt and Skeezix: 1923 & 1924. Old enough to remember the comic strip Gasoline Alley? I’m not. But I love these old strips, especially because little Skeezix reminds me of my son.
* Eleanor Frances Lattimore, More About Little Pear. The fourth and final volume in a series that my children and I enjoyed.
* C. S. Lewis & E. M. W. Tillyard, The Personal Heresy: A Controversy. High quality debate. Just when you think Lewis has won, you read Tillyard’s contribution. It’s great to see men of this caliber disagreeing with each other and working out their similarities and differences in the course of this debate. In the end, I think Lewis wins, but Tillyard’s essays, too, are worthwhile reading.
* George MacDonald, David Elginbrod. Odd theology throughout, though worth carefully thinking through because MacDonald often forces us to confront how we present our doctrine and how some wrong presentations become entrenched and do great damage (e.g., when people say that God doesn’t see as “as we really are” but sees us only in Christ, that can lead to the conclusion that God doesn’t really like us but simply tolerates us for Christ’s sake).
* Jack McDevitt, Seeker. The third in McDevitt’s novels about Alex Benedict. Very well crafted science fiction.
* Patrick O’Brian, The Surgeon’s Mate, The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour, The Far Side of the World, The Reverse of the Medal, and The Letter of Marque. Not a weak novel in the series yet. My neighbor in Oregon read straight through the entire series with barely a pause and when I asked him if it didn’t start to get repetitious, he assured me that it did not. He’s been right so far!
* Les & Leslie Parrott, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. Quite helpful. I drew on this for my premarital counseling this year.
* Rousas John Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis and Education. Some stuff wrongheaded — e.g., family as the central institution; parochial schools necessarily bad — but lots of good stuff. It was interesting to discover stuff in this early Rushdoony book that I associate with and learned from later writers. Rush was talking about it all the way back in 1961!
* C. S. Spurgeon, The Complete John Ploughman: John Ploughman’s Talk and John Ploughman’s Pictures. Great stuff, full of rich language.
* James Thurbur, The 13 Clocks. Wonderful fun.
* Cornelius Van Til, Psychology of Religion. There are books I want to read and books I want to have read, and Van Til usually falls into the latter category. This book isn’t particularly fun reading, but what made me appreciate it were the occasional flashes of great brilliance, such as Van Til’s obliteration of the exaltation of reason over emotion or any other faculty.
* H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa M. Schwartz, and Steven Wolshin, Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health. One of the most important books I read this year and one which I highly recommend. Welch, et al., argue (convincingly) that most “preventative” testing is unnecessary, along the way showing how pharmaceutical companies affect the “numbers” — e.g., acceptable vs. dangerous cholesterol levels — so that more people are diagnosed as being in a danger zone than before and warning about the dangers of proceeding with treatment based on an overdiagnosis. If you enjoyed Rob Maddox’s lectures at the recent Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference or wanted to know more about the kinds of things he was saying when he talked about the hubris of medicine, check out this book.
* Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie. Read these books as a subversion of Pa’s individualism. The West wasn’t settled by rugged individuals, try as Pa will to be one, but by people banding together, forming towns, helping each other in crises.
* Charles Williams, Descent into Hell. Weird and wonderful.
* Gene Wolfe, The Sorcerer’s House. Perhaps one of the easier Wolfe novels to understand, but it left me turning over this and that and the other thing in my mind afterwards, which is half the fun of reading Wolfe (“Wait a minute! If he said that, then …?!”).