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May 10, 2020

Twaddle and Other Categories

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It seems to me that educators influenced by Charlotte Mason may sometimes try to pack too much into the term “twaddle,” as if the distinction between twaddle and living books is the only distinction that matters, or as if these are the only two options and a book must be one or the other.

In fact, there are several other ways of classifying books, none of which are the same as the twaddle vs. living book distinction:

(1) Poorly written vs. well-written. A book may be poorly written — the author doesn’t tell his story entirely coherently; it doesn’t flow as well as it could; there are grammatical errors — and yet not be twaddle.

For instance, the diary of an American pioneer might not be well written, a great work of literature, but that doesn’t mean that it is then twaddle. It might, in fact, be a living book, full of interest and ideas and observations and life.

On the other hand, I suppose a book may be relatively well written — at least as far as grammar an syntax are concerned — and still be twaddle because of its tone and the way it talks down to the child. The condescension may be grammatically correct, but it’s still condescension.

(2) Easy reading vs. more challenging reading (and, of course, everything in between). What is easy reading for a 9 year old may not be for a 6 year old, mind you. But being easy reading doesn’t make something twaddle. Arnold Lobel’s Frog & Toad story “Cookies” is easy reading, but it’s certainly not twaddle and as an adult, I still enjoy it.

(3) Light fiction vs. “heavier” fiction: Light fiction isn’t just easy reading; in fact, it may use just as many big words or complex sentences as “heavier” fiction. But it’s written more for fun, while what I’m calling “heavier” fiction is more serious, often dealing with weightier or “darker” topics.

P. G. Wodehouse’s books are light fiction and are certainly not twaddle, and Wodehouse is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers — the greatest English stylists — of the 20th century. National Review, when they heard that the Modern Library was trying to list the best 100 novels of the 20th century, wrote: “P. G. Wodehouse wrote 96 novels. What are the other four?”

I suspect that when some people say, “I’m okay with my kids reading some twaddle,” they really mean “I’m okay with them reading light fiction, not sticking only to the classics.” But light fiction isn’t necessarily twaddle or poorly written or not worth spending your time on.

(4) Big themes vs. little themes: A book may deal with some very small themes and yet be a living book. Similarly, a book may tackle big themes and yet not be a living book. Many children’s Bible story books deal with some of the biggest themes of all, but they’re still twaddle because, for instance, they’re written down to the children. Encyclopedias deal with big themes, too, but while they aren’t twaddle, they also aren’t living books.

(5) Serious vs. fun/light-hearted: Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Dostoevsky are very serious writers, and they’re worth reading. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and P. G. Wodehouse are often *not* serious, certainly not somber, often very funny — and they’re worth reading, too. None of these authors wrote twaddle.

Interestingly, Charlotte Mason wrote:

Books of “comicalities cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have “funny books,” but do not give the children too much nonsense reading” (Home Education, 151-152).

As far as I can tell “Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy” is actually Wilhelm Busch’s “Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Corinth,” which is a poem and cartoon strip. CM would probably have known it in the form it appears in Busch’s A Bushel of Merrythoughts.

We might glance at this and declare immediately that it’s twaddle. But not Charlotte Mason. She calls it “irresistible,” thinks it’s fine for children to read, but doesn’t think they’ll “live over” it. In short, CM doesn’t think it’s a living book, but she also doesn’t seem to think it’s twaddle either and certainly doesn’t want such a silly book rejected (“They must have ‘funny books'”).

This is very important to understand: CM apparently doesn’t think that a book is necessarily either twaddle or living, or that if a book isn’t living it is therefore twaddle. In this passage, at least, she identifies a book as a “must have” in a sense, though it isn’t a living book. Not living, not twaddle. Just a sort of book you don’t want to give too much of to your child.

(6) Genre fiction vs. whatever the opposite of that might be: Some people, I suspect, think that just because a book is a mystery or science fiction or fantasy or horror or a western or a thriller, it’s not literature and therefore is, by default, twaddle. And yet much of the world’s greatest literature really is genre fiction.

So just because a children’s book is fantasy and light fiction at that (e.g., Edward Eager’s Half Magic) doesn’t mean that it’s twaddle.

(7) Formulaic/predictable fiction vs. non-formulaic, outside the box, groundbreaking fiction.

C. S. Lewis points out that in the Middle Ages, creativity wasn’t seen as dreaming up something brand new, inventing a brand new literary style, telling a story that had never been told before. Rather, creativity involved reworking older sources and doing something new with them.

Arguably, Lewis’s own novels were creative in just this way, drawing on and responding to (including responding negatively to) other people’s works.
A great writer may write something more or less predictable or even formulaic, but still add literary quality and depth and freshness to it.

So, for instance, August Derleth’s The Moon-Tenders is a fairly formulaic children’s mystery novel. There are two boys who are close friends who discover something strange happening and who solve the mystery, after a certain amount of peril.

But what makes the novel outstanding is both the depth of characterization — these are real people, not cardboard cutouts, and in fact are based on Derleth himself and his closest friend — and the way the setting is described.

Derleth is known today, I suspect, primarily as the writer who edited and published and added to H. P. Lovecraft’s work, but he himself would have told you that he had devoted pretty much his entire writing career to describing life in and around Sauk City, Wisconsin, which he in all of his works called Sac Prairie, and that devotion underlies all the little details that make Sac Prairie — seen through the eyes of a boy around twelve years of age — so vivid in The Moon-Tenders.

Formulaic and predicable? Yes, in one sense. But also far richer than the Hardy Boys.

Similarly, Margery Fisher, in Intent Upon Reading, talks about various children’s mystery novels and points out how certain ones are outstanding, how some break free from the formula but how others, while working within the basic formula, shine because of the beauty of the writing, the depth of characterization, the balance and proportion of the novel, the authenticity of the historical or geographical setting, and so forth.

(8) Series fiction vs. stand-alone novels: Yes, many series decline in quality and become repetitive as they go on. That may be true, for instance, of The Boxcar Children. But it’s not universally true. Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series lasted for 20 volumes, each of which is extremely well-written, none of which is repetitive.

(9) Immoral books vs. moral: A book may be literature, not twaddle at all, and yet be immoral in that it encourages readers to enjoy or even embrace immoral behavior.

For instance, there might be a novel in which a character commits adultery and the reader is expected to see that as a liberating choice, the woman breaking free from her dull, boring husband and “discovering herself,” or something like that. No matter how well written the book is, it’s aimed at promoting something immoral.

On the other hand, you might have a very moral book, a book aimed at promoting good behavior in children, that talks down to children, that’s smarmy and goody-goody … and it seems to me that in at least some passages, these are in particular the sorts of books CM spoke of as twaddle.

I hasten to add, too, that a moral book is not a book about good people doing good things. A moral book may, in fact, be a book about wicked people doing wicked things. On this, see G. K. Chesterton’s essay “Tom Jones and Morality.”

(10) “Bad” books … or just okay books vs. great books: Here “bad” and “good” aren’t moral categories but refer rather to the overall quality of the book. C. S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, says that the test of a good book is whether you can read it again with enjoyment and profit.  The science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe has said, “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”

As a general rule, I don’t buy books I don’t intend to reread or have one child after another read (and reread). If it’s a “read only once” book, we can get it from the library.

(11) Minor vs. Major: There are major authors, authors whose names and books are instantly identified as “classics,” authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, Austen and Dickens.

But there are also minor authors, authors whose books are worth reading but who don’t quite reach the heights of greatness that some other authors do. I suspect few critics would regard Charlotte Yonge as highly as Jane Austen, but that doesn’t mean that Yonge isn’t worth reading, let alone that she doesn’t write “living books.”

Furthermore, even great authors do not consistently turn out great books. Barchester Towers is a great book, a classic, but not everything Anthony Trollope wrote is up to that standard. Some of his other works are major, but some of them are decidedly minor.

That’s true even of a writer as great as Shakespeare: Macbeth and King Lear and Hamlet are major plays; Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a minor work — and even Henry V, beloved by so many, is (as my Shakespeare prof said) really not a play but a series of great speeches tied together by some summaries of what’s happened in between.

You’re also not going to have your child read every play by Shakespeare. Some are just not suitable for children, and some of his plays are just not all that great (e.g., Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus), and some are suitable only for older children (I’d put Romeo and Juliet and Othello in that category, although they are great plays!).  Charlotte Mason and the PNEU had students read a lot of Shakespeare, but only certain plays were assigned.

But as with minor writers, so with minor books by an author. They are still worth reading. Just because something is a minor book — or even a minor book by a minor author — doesn’t mean it’s not a “living book.”

For that matter, it can even be a delightful thing to track down some minor writers, to discover good books by writers now long forgotten whose works are not numbered among the classics.

You might really enjoy a minor writer, even more than a major writer. You might find that you prefer Mrs. Oliphant or Charlotte Yonge to Thomas Hardy. You may prefer a work that people think of as “minor” to one that people think of as “major.”

Everyone thinks of Jane Eyre as Charlotte Bronte’s major work, but I enjoyed her novel Shirley — her minor novel — more. For that matter, my favorite Bronte isn’t Charlotte (Jane Eyre) or Emily (Wuthering Heights) but their lesser-known sister, Anne (Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall). She may be regarded as minor, but she’s the one I like best.

Not one of these classifications is the identical to what CM meant by “twaddle vs. living books.” But I think it’s good for us to keep these ways of categorizing books in mind — and there may be several other classifications, as well — so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, e.g., if our daughter is reading an Agatha Christie novel, which is light fiction and genre fiction and part of a series, she must be reading “twaddle.”

Posted by John Barach @ 7:16 am | Discuss (1)
July 12, 2018

Can’t Find Paul

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What many … readings of the Sermon [on the Mount] really want is Paul, and since they can’t find Paul in the Sermon, they reinterpret the Sermon and give us Paul instead — Scot McKnight, The Sermon on the Mount.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:12 am | Discuss (0)
February 10, 2014

Ancient Greek Religion

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I would not be surprised to find that Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks (1999) is now a standard text in that field.  He wears his learning lightly and provides a survey of ancient Greek religions (the plural is deliberate) that takes into account the many local variations instead of pretending that all Greeks thought the same way at all periods of Greek history.  In fact, one could argue that the one “misstep” in the book is apparent in the title already: the word “religions.”  As Price shows, the ancient Greeks would not have thought that they were practicing religion over here at this point in time and politics or war or family life over there at that other point in time.

Here’s Price’s summary, springboarding off a quotation from Xenophon:

Many aspects of Xenophon’s account are surprising to those reared on Jewish or Christian religious assumptions.  In place of one male god, in the Anabasis there is a multiplicity of gods, even unidentifiable gods.  Gods are both male (Zeus, Apollo), and female (Artemis).  There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics and warfare or private life; instead, religion is embedded in all aspects of life, public and private.  There are no sacred books, religious dogmas or orthodoxy, but rather common practices, competing interpretations of events and actions, and the perception of sacrifice as a strategic device open to manipulation.  Generals and common soldiers, not priests, decide on religious policy.  The diviners are the only usual religious professionals, and religion offered not personal salvation in the afterlife, but help here and now, escape from the Persians or personal success and prosperity.  Religious festivals combined solemnity and jollity.  Practice not belief is the key, and to start from questions about faith or personal piety is to impose alien values on ancient Greece (3).

But in at least one regard, I wonder about Price’s distinction between “Jewish or Christian assumptions” and what Price describes with regard to the ancient Greeks.  While modern Christians might be surprised that for ancient Greeks “There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics and warfare or private life; instead, religion in embedded in all aspects of life, public and private,” Paul wouldn’t have been.

When Paul came, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, that proclamation was surely not the announcement that, after all, religion is only a sphere in life, to be sharply distinguished from politics and warfare and family life and all those other things (which, themselves, are spheres distinct from each other), and that in the sphere of religion Paul’s hearers ought to drop their allegiance to Zeus and the rest of the pantheon and put their trust in the Triune God instead.

Paul did not come teaching his hearers to invent a religious sphere in which they would serve Jesus and freeing all other spheres from the influence of “religion.”  Instead, he came proclaiming a Jesus who was Lord of all, Lord of the whole of life, Lord on Sunday but also on the other six days, Lord in the church’s assemblies but also in “all aspects of life, public and private.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:01 pm | Discuss (0)
August 7, 2012

Paul’s Prayers

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Paul’s habit of reporting his regular prayers on behalf of his addressees … should not go unremarked. He will not offer teaching, advice and encouragement except in the context of prayer. His apostolic work is not his own idea. It is part of God’s plan. Conversely, prayer brings the assurance that his ministry is being used within God’s overall plan (Col. 1:24-29), and consequently that characteristic confidence which, outside this context, could sound like arrogance — N. T. Wright on Colossians 1:9ff.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:01 pm | Discuss (0)
January 7, 2011

Mr. Right

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It’s ludicrous to believe that successful marriages depend on discovering the one person out of the more than six billion people on earth who is just right for you. — Les & Leslie Parrott, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, 31.

The problem the Parrotts identify here is related to a popular view of the will of God.  According to this view, God has a plan for your life that will lead to the greatest possible happiness, fulfillment, fruitfulness, and blessing.  The plan is not spelled out in Scripture — Scripture doesn’t say what courses you should take in college or what jobs you ought to accept or whom you should marry — but you are responsible to discover the plan and follow it.  And if you miss “God’s perfect will for your life” — if you take the wrong classes, accept the wrong job, marry the wrong spouse — the result will be misery.

Well-meaning people sometimes try to comfort a single friend by saying, “Don’t worry.  God has someone out there who is just perfect for you.  Apparently Bob wasn’t the one, but the right one is out there somewhere.”

Well, maybe.  In fact, maybe there are a thousand men who would be, if not Mr. Right, at least a suitable and godly spouse with whom this single girl would be able to have a marriage that glorifies God and that enriches both partners.  It simply isn’t true that God has chosen one man (or, if you’re male, one woman) who would be the right spouse and whom you’ve somehow got to locate and wed or you’ll be doomed to marital misery.  And it isn’t true that if you marry someone and then have problems, it must mean that you missed out on Mr. or Miss Right, that you missed out on the person God made who would be perfect for you.

There is no Mr. Right, no perfect spouse, no “perfect will of God for your life.”  That’s a truth that ought to give singles hope, an increased hope of finding a spouse without being scared off by every flaw and a hope that goes hand in hand with responsibility.  Choose wisely, but know that whoever you choose you will not be Mr. and Mrs. Right.  And then work in faith to serve God together in your marriage as Mr. and Mrs. Suitable-and-Growing.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:49 pm | Discuss (2)
March 7, 2009

Fabchannel

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Sad news: Fabchannel, which for nine years has been presenting some great concerts, is coming to an end.  Too many music labels don’t want them broadcasting concerts of their artists.  They’ll have the concerts up for one more week, till March 13, and then … they’re gone.  What a pity.

Here are some of the concerts I’ve especially enjoyed:

Joe Henry
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/joe_henry_concert/2008-02-12″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/joe_henry_concert/2008-02-12″>Live Concert Video – Joe Henry</a>

Maria McKee
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/maria_mckee_concert/2005-06-15″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/maria_mckee_concert/2005-06-15″>Live Concert Video – Maria Mckee</a>

James Hunter
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/james_hunter_concert/2008-10-13″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/james_hunter_concert/2008-10-13″>Live Concert Video – James Hunter</a>

Andrew Bird
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/andrew_bird_2007_concert/2005-05-01″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/andrew_bird_2007_concert/2005-05-01″>Live Concert Video – Andrew Bird</a>

Andrew Bird (again)
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/andrew_bird_2007_concert/2007-05-24″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/andrew_bird_2007_concert/2007-05-24″>Live Concert Video – Andrew Bird</a>

Lizz Wright
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/lizz_wright_concert/2008-10-29″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/lizz_wright_concert/2008-10-29″>Live Concert Video – Lizz Wright</a>

Bettye LaVette
<a href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/bettye_lavette_concert/2008-04-09″ mce_href=”http://www.fabchannel.com/bettye_lavette_concert/2008-04-09″>Live Concert Video – Bettye LaVette</a>

There are many more concerts up, including Iron & Wine, The Arcade Fire, Ron Sexsmith, Simple Minds, Shawn Colvin, Luka Bloom, and Solomon Burke. Enjoy them while you can.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:03 pm | Discuss (0)
August 26, 2008

Video Pastor

Category: Theology - Liturgical,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

In his Slate magazine article, “The Chick-fil-A Church,” Andrew Park talks about the latest megachurch trend:

Most Sunday mornings at Buckhead Church in downtown Atlanta, one person is conspicuously absent: the senior pastor, Andy Stanley. A nationally known evangelist, Stanley is usually 20 minutes away at North Point Community Church, the suburban megachurch he has led for 13 years. To the 6,000 or so faithful at Buckhead, he appears only on video, his digital image projected in front of the congregation in life-sized 3-D. The preacher is a hologram.

I suspect that the trend started with churches that were standing-room only.  In many such congregations, the sermon is broadcast into another room in the church building.  But with video and hologram technology, the minister’s image can appear in the other room, too.  And if in another room, why not on another campus across town?  And if there, why not in your town, too?  In fact, why not in another part of the world entirely?  As Park says, “With video, you just need seats and a screen to replicate the original.”

And why not, someone might ask.  The article quotes a man who defends the practice and then sums up his response this way: “If it takes a name-brand preacher to put butts in seats, so be it.”  After all, who wants to hear Joe Pastor preach when he could hear someone famous instead, someone like Andy Stanley or Rick Warren?

And wouldn’t it make church planting easier in some ways?  You’d need some local staff, but you wouldn’t need to hire a full-time pastor.  You’d pay up front for the video machinery, but that would probably be a one-time cost.  It wouldn’t be equal to a full-time salary, year after year.  And besides, you’d have instant name recognition.  “Ever heard of Rick Warren?  He’s our pastor,” people could say.  Wouldn’t that draw people?

Park writes:

While some people find it strange at first to worship in front of a big screen, they frequently come to view it as no different than attending a service that is totally live, supporters say. And one day, they might be able to relocate to a new town without changing pastors.

So that’s the new trend, and, as the article says, some of these churches may in fact steamroll over other churches, drawing people to the big name and away from the unknown pastors of these other churches.  “Forget Rev. Ordinary.  My pastor is Rev. Superstar.”  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find this trend catching on.

But Rev. Superstar doesn’t know your name, and you have never met him face to face.  Even if he should show up in the flesh some day, you can bet that he won’t come to the hospital when you’re sick.  He won’t ever look you right in the eyes as he’s preaching.  He’s just a video and you’ll never really get to know him in person.  In fact, instead of being a real person to you, a person with a real body, a person who preaching is simply part of his whole-life ministry to you, he’s just flickering lights and recorded words.

Interestingly, Park makes a connection between the attraction to Video Pastor and a certain theology of worship:

To many Christians, though, the sermon is the main event. It’s when all eyes are on the pulpit. It’s when the leader of the church teaches. It’s when the messages in the Bible are distilled for the faithful. Filling that job with piped-in pixels only feeds the celebrity pastor’s star power while creating competition for less-gifted communicators.

“The sermon is the main event.”  And if that’s true, then there’s pressure on the pastor to be the superstar preacher.  Every sermon ought to be outstanding.  And if it’s not, then people will flock to churches pastored by Great Communicators, like Stanley and Warren, people whose preaching they do think is outstanding.

But is the sermon really “the main event”?  While Reformed people do sometimes speak of “the primacy of preaching,” the better principle is “the primacy of the Word.”  And the Word comes in many forms throughout the liturgy.  It comes in the call to worship, in the confession of sin, in the absolution, in the prayers, in the sermon, in the songs, in the benediction.  In short, the Word is primary because it shows up in everything and it shapes everything in the liturgy.

If we understand that the Word is what is primary, not the sermon alone, and that the Word comes through the whole liturgy, then it may take some of the pressure away from pastors so that they can preach ordinary sermons instead of feeling that every sermon must be fantastic (“or I’ll lose them to some other pastor, maybe some hologram pastor, who preaches better than I do”).

And that Word comes to us, not simply as words in the air, but as words from the lips of a man who is present with us, a man who has come to us and who lives among us, a man we know, a man who is not necessarily anything special in mself but whose “specialness” is simply due to the office that the Lord has given him.

This also, it seems to me, is important.  It is important that the Word be spoken to you by a man you know, by a man who sometimes has bad breath or whose hair gets mussed up, by a man whose hands reach out and shake yours after the service, by a man who puts his arms around you when you’re grieving, by a man who grips your hand as he prays for you when you’re about to go into the operating room, a man whose kids run around after the service and have to be reined in sometimes, a man who sometimes feels discouraged but who pours himself out during the service anyway, a man who doesn’t simply explain Scripture from a distance but also lives it out up close to you.

Sure, that man is weak.  He isn’t impressive.  He may be a great preacher, but he may also stumble over his words or speak in a bit of a monotone.  His preaching may be lively and vigorous and exciting, but it may be at times, even most of the time, somewhat dry.  In fact, his preaching and he himself may seem weak and foolish.  But that is God’s way of displaying His wisdom and His power: not through Rev. Superstar but through Rev. Ordinary.

[HT: Rick Saenz.  More on this trend here.]

Posted by John Barach @ 9:37 pm | Discuss (3)
May 8, 2008

Stock Names for Sin

Category: Sin,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

In a discussion of Eve’s fall into sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis reminds us of the way our minds begin to embrace sin:

No man, perhaps, ever at first described to himself the act he was about to do as Murder, or Adultery, or Fraud, or Treachery, or Perversion; and when he hears it so described by other men he is (in a way) sincerely shocked and surprised.  Those others “don’t understand.”  If they knew what it had really been like for him, they would not use those crude “stock” names.  With a wink or a titter, or in a cloud of muddy emotion, the thing has slipped into his will as something not very extraordinary, something of which, rightly understood and in all his highly peculiar circumstances, he may even feel proud.  If you or I, reader, ever commit a great crime, be sure we shall feel very much more like Eve than like Iago. — A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 126.

Part of the way in which we avoid confronting our own sins, then, is by giving other names to them.  It’s not “murder”; it’s “euthanasia” or “abortion.”  It’s not “adultery”; it’s a “love affair.”

On top of that, of course, we also often try to keep our minds from thinking about the sins we’re about to commit, including keeping from naming them, even to ourselves.  We don’t say, “Now I’m going to have a fit of rage.”  Instead, we simply rage, and then, perhaps because we refused to name the sin when we chose to commit it, we act as if it somehow just happened: “I just blew up!”  A man may not say to himself, “I’m going to go and look at some pornography.”  He says, “I feel like surfing the web,” and then he refuses to name just what he’s looking for.  But somehow he finds it.

And when we’re confronted on the sins, our minds start casting about for ways to explain them away, to justify ourselves, again using words other than the “stock” names: “I wasn’t raging; I was a bit irritable, that’s all.  It wasn’t really adultery.  I’m married, yes, but that’s really only on paper.  For all intents and purposes, my marriage is really over and so, if only you understood my unique circumstances, you’d see that what I was doing was really okay.  It wasn’t as serious and as terrible as you make it out to be.”

So part of our calling as Christians, and part of the church’s calling and the pastor’s calling, is to call sins by their real names, by the “stock” names, the names that we shy away from, the names that reveal our sins for what they really are.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:11 pm | Discuss (2)
January 21, 2008

Psalm 51

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms,Uncategorized :: Link :: Print

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
A psalm.
By David,
When Nathan the prophet came to him,
As he had come to Bathsheba.

Be gracious to me, O God, according to your loyalty;
According to the multitude of your mercies blot out my rebellions.
Thoroughly wash me from my liability
And from my sin cleanse me,
For my rebellion I myself acknowledge,
And my sin is before you continually.
With regard to you, to you only, have I sinned
And what is evil in your eyes I have done,
In order that you may be righteous when you speak,
And be pure when you judge.

Look, in liability I was born,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Look, trustworthiness you desired in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part you will make me know wisdom.
You will purge me with hyssop and I will be clean;
You will wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
You will make me hear gladness and joy;
The bones you crushed will shout for joy.
Hide your face from my sins,
And all my liabilities blot out.
A clean heart create in me, O God,
And a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Do not cast me away from before you,
And your holy Spirit do not take from me.
Return to me the gladness of your salvation,
And with a willing spirit support me.
I will teach rebels your way,
And sinners to you will return.
Free me from bloodguiltiness, O God, God of my salvation,
And my tongue will celebrate your righteousness.
Lord, my lips you will open,
And my mouth will declare your praise,
For you do not desire sacrifice, or I would give it;
In Ascension offering you do not delight.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A heart broken and crushed, O God, you do not despise.

Do good, in your favor, to Zion;
You will build the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with righteous sacrifices, Ascension offering and Whole offering.
Then they will make bulls ascend on your altar.

A few comments about the translation of this psalm:

(1) In line 3, the word for washing is the normal word for washing clothing, not the human body.  Liability stains us.  Question: Would “launder me” get the idea across?

(2) In line 15, the word translated “purge” has to do with freedom from sin.  It’s related to the word for bringing a sin-offering.  Hyssop was used for sprinkling those who were unclean.

(3) I’ve followed J. A. Alexander in rendering the verbs in lines 14-17 as future (“You will….”) instead of as imperatives, as most translations have them.  More accurately, most translations render the verb in line 14 as a future and then translate all the rest of them as imperatives.  It’s certainly possible to translate all of these verbs as imperatives, and, given the context, they doubtless do express David’s desire and prayer.

But the imperatives that start in verse 18 all have a different form.  If the previous verbs were all imperatives, then I wonder why the psalmist switched to use a new form.  Why not just stay with the form he has been using for imperatives?

So for now, I’ve rendered these desires for the future as simple futures, hoping that the context makes it clear that they aren’t statements about what God is going to do regardless of what David asks, but rather are the future as it will be if God grants David’s pleas.

(4) In line 29, the word translated “bloodguiltiness” is actually “bloods,” but it’s the term that is used when murder and the guilt for committing murder is in view.

(5) In lines 34 and 39, the psalm mentions “Ascension offerings.”  Line 39 adds, for emphasis, “Whole offering.”  The “Whole offering” is likely another name for the Ascension, which was the offering in which the entire animal went up on the altar and was turned to smoke, which ascended to God’s presence.  That is also the explanation of the last line.  Making bulls ascend on the altar means presenting them as Ascension offerings.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:22 pm | Discuss (0)
December 3, 2007

Psalm 47

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A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
By the sons of Korah.
A psalm.

All peoples, clap hands!
Shout to God with a voice of exultation,
Because Yahweh Most High is to be feared,
A great king over all the earth.

He will subdue peoples under us
And tribes under our feet.
He will choose for us our inheritance,
The loftiness of Jacob whom he loves.  Selah.

God has ascended with a shout,
Yahweh with a sound of a trumpet.

Psalm to God!  Psalm!
Psalm to our king!  Psalm,
Because the king of all the earth is God.
Psalm a maschil!

God reigns over the nations.
God sits upon his holy throne.
The nobles of the peoples have gathered,
The people of the God of Abraham,
Because to God belong the shields of the earth.
He is exceedingly exalted.

Some comments about the translation of this Psalm:

(1) In line 8, the word “loftiness” is sometimes translated “pride.”  It can refer to pride or to any kind of exaltation.  The “loftiness of Jacob” may be the Promised Land or, more generally, all the privileges Israel has received.

(2) In line 10, the trumpet is specifically a ram’s horn, which is what the word means.

(3) In lines 11, 12, and 14 there is a summons to sing praise.  The word here is the verb form of the word we translate as “psalm,” and so to get that across I have translated this word as a command to “psalm” to God. A “psalm” is praise with voices and instruments, and to “psalm” means to praise God musically, with singing and the playing of instruments.

A maschil is a type of psalm (see, for instance, the titles of Pss. 44, 45).  It may refer to a teaching psalm and may have something to do with wisdom and understanding, which is why some versions of the Bible have “sing praises with understanding” here.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:15 pm | Discuss (0)
November 26, 2007

Work and Jobs

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Some wisdom from Doug Wilson:

Dominion is a frame of mind and heart. It is not marked by work only — because slaves also have to work. The difference is this: slaves work at a job; Christians are summoned to a calling. When jobs diminish, or are taken away, or simply are not present, those with a slave mentality do not know what to do. When the first pioneers arrived here in Idaho (a little over one hundred years ago), there were no jobs whatsoever. There was a lot of work to do, but no jobs.

Considered at this level, jobs are not there for people who know how to work (although that is fine). Jobs are rather the creation of those who know how to work. In other words, jobs do not create work. Rather, work creates jobs. But try explaining that to some people.

The same thing, by the way, applies to the pastoral ministry.  There may not be a lot of jobs, a lot of churches looking to call you to be their minister.  But there’s a lot of work to be done.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:18 pm | Discuss (0)
June 7, 2007

Jack

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In my previous entry, I mentioned that Moriah and I strongly disliked the character Michael Vaughn (played by Michael Vartan) in Alias.  One reason for our dislike was that he rarely seemed happy.  Weiss cracked jokes and didn’t take himself seriously.  Will went through great trauma and yet came through it with his sense of humor intact.  But Vaughn seemed glum from the start.

But it wasn’t just that he was overly serious or that he was often mopey or that there were too many scenes where he gazed at Sydney with sad eyes which we were probably to take as revealing his deep sensitivity.  It wasn’t even that he was headstrong or that he went rogue and did dumb things, annoying as that was.  What bothered us the most, I think, was that when things didn’t go his way he was angry and, as a result, loud, demanding, and pushy.

He should have been the one named Jack.  If you’ve watched 24 and Lost, you might catch what I mean by that.

Moriah and I have seen only the first season of 24.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that I praised the show for its portrayal of mature men.

I’m rethinking that appraisal in part because it seems to me from what I’ve watched and from what I’ve heard that Jack Bauer often comes across as an angry and demanding man, a man who will raise his voice to try to make someone do what he wants or who will perform an act of violence to get his way.

Granted, he’s in a desperate situation and desperate men do desperate things.  When you have only twenty-four hours to save the world, impatience is understandable.  And again, I’ve watched only the one season and that was some time ago, so my memory of it is fuzzy.  Perhaps we can cut Jack Bauer some slack on this score.

I’m less tolerant of Jack Shepherd in Lost, who frequently smoulders with rage and raises his voice to attempt to bully people into doing what he wants.  In this third season, he’s been locked away much of the time.  Instead of speaking calmly to those who have him captive, he shouts at them, as if that’s going to do any good.  That isn’t mature masculinity; it’s childish temper.

Again, he’s in difficult circumstances and, like all the characters on Lost, he has some dark stuff in his background.  Perhaps we’re intended to see Jack as an immature, proud, angry man who has to learn to humble himself and grow up and start acting like an adult so that he doesn’t turn out like Michael, the other angry man on Lost, whose immature behavior originally cost him his wife and son and who left the show (so far, at least) having committed a horrible sin without repentance.

Perhaps.  But I’ve heard that there are people who regard Jack as one of the heroes, which seems to mean that they approve of his behavior.  I don’t understand that, but it was hearing that that sparked my meditations on this subject.

In three different shows, two with the same creator, we have main characters who respond to obstacles and challenges not with humility and creativity, not with gentleness and meekness, not with wisdom and maturity, but with violent words and violent actions.  They’ll shout at you until you submit, and if that doesn’t work, they’ll hurt you.  But at all costs, they must have their way.  Do these shows intend us to see such men as heroes?

I’ve met people like that, people who thought they were mature men because they were decisive, knew what they wanted, and would trample over any obstacle on their path.  In my sin, I’ve acted like that sometimes.  And the good thing about Jack Shepherd on Lost, whether the writers intended this or not, is that he doesn’t look like a hero to me at all, which means that the behavior I sometimes exhibit looks petty, pouty, childish, and evil to me, exactly as it should.

I can give one or two cheers for a portrayal of men who are able to make decisions, to take responsibility, to act boldly and do what needs to be done, and I can learn something about maturity from those aspects of their character.  But when it comes to their response to anyone who stands in their way, I pray that I may not be like the Jacks.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:28 am | Discuss (2)

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