May 31, 2013

Biblical Mercy vs. the Lottery

Category: Bible - NT - 1 Peter,Theology - Soteriology :: Permalink

Benne Holwerda, commenting on the phrase in 1 Peter 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy, rebegot us…”:

When we think of mercy, we think of “compassion.”  Mercy we show to the sick and destitute and needy.  And the biblical word undeniably does have that element.  But it is also much more.

If a beggar comes to your door, then you can give that man something, but you can also leave him alone.  In other words, he never knows beforehand whether he will receive anything.  You do not have the obligation to sacrifice, and therefore such a person’s existence is absolutely uncertain: he never knows what he can count on.

And there lies the difference between the biblical word and its present-day meaning.  In the Bible, too, mercy has to do with compassion to which God is not bound and which we ourselves have forfeited.  But with regard to this mercy, we need never to be in doubt, because God has obligated Himself to it.

Actually one can best render the content of this word by “covenant faithfulness.”   And — isn’t it true? — in a covenant one always knows where one stands: If the element of faithfulness remains firm, one can count on the mercy!  Scholars have demonstrated this sense of “mercy” in Scripture.  To give one quotation: “God’s mercy is based on the covenant, whereby He freely takes upon Himself obligations toward His people, so that the pious can call upon God’s mercy; in this connection one must keep in view that it is always the mercy that God has promised, on which one thus cannot make a claim but which one can still expect.  The idea of mercy and of covenant belong together!”

Naturally I do not mean to deal with the term “covenant” here. But I do believe that there is so much doubt about God’s grace because many no longer (want to) know about the covenant.  We would hope in the mercy of God if only we believed in His holy covenant!  But many speak and think about the mercy of God as a lottery: you only have a chance!  The only way we can expect improvement here is if we no longer isolate the one from the other, but allow everything — and thus also the mercy of God — to stand in the framework of the covenant in which Scripture places it. — Benne Holwerda, “’According to His Mercy Reborn’ (1 Peter 1:3b),” De wijsheid die behoudt (my translation and slight paraphrase).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:02 pm | Discuss (10)
May 29, 2013

Prayer, Work, and Play

Category: Theology :: Permalink

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.  Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, white-washing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in His grace you do it as your duty.  To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives Him glory too.  To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too.  God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should — Gerard Manley Hopkins, cited in Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries, 70-71.

In fact, without taking much away from what Hopkins is saying here, one should go even further: “if being in His grace you do it as your pleasure.”  It is not only duty that glorifies God; it is also delight.  Prayer glorifies God, vacuuming the carpet glorifies God, and so does my son laughing as I tickle him.  So does my daughter as she jumps up and down for joy when she finds that I’ve brought her a new book from the library and so does she, if being in God’s grace and not neglecting something she ought to be doing at that time, she sits down to become completely absorbed in that book.  God is so great that He is glorified even by our play, because, after all, he even created Leviathan to play before him  (Psalm 104).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:52 pm | Discuss (0)
May 17, 2013

Tragic Worship?

Category: Literature,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In a recent essay (“Tragic Worship“), Carl Trueman claims that the modern push for “entertaining” worship isn’t actually entertaining enough because it neglects tragedy, which is one of the highest forms of entertainment. He writes:

Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.

From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.

What strikes me is that, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, everyone listed here as a great tragedian is a pagan or an unbeliever: Homer, Aeschylus, Williams, Hardy, and Conrad.  In fact, the close link between paganism/unbelief and tragedy is so obvious that one of the proposed paper topics in one of my English classes in university years ago was on the possibility of Christian tragedy.  One answer might be that when Christians, including Shakespeare, write tragedies, theirs are different: Shakespeare wasn’t writing Aristotelian tragedy, nor did he share the bleak despair of a Hardy, and even in the deaths of his characters, beauty shines out, the beauty in particular of virtue, the beauty of what’s good.  While paganism is characterized by tragedy and despair, Christians embrace what Peter Leithart calls “deep comedy.”

But what puzzles me in this essay is what this tragic strand in Western literature has to do with the character of the church’s liturgy.  Trueman writes: “Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship.  The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken.”

But what Trueman seems to overlook is that the Lord’s death is precisely not tragic.  The gospel of the cross doesn’t share in the “can’t fight the gods” fatalism of Aeschylus or its modern Hardyian form, nor is Jesus’ death like the deaths of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth.  We don’t feel good about Jesus’ death because in it we see man’s hubris being punished (Aristotle); we rejoice in it because in it man’s sin was dealt with and because, having death with sin, Jesus rose again.  Remembering the Lord’s death in the Supper and remembering the death of Tess Derbyfield are two very different things.

Furthermore, while Trueman is correct in saying that “Death remains a stubborn … and inevitable reality” (I question his use of the word “omnipresent”), I don’t grant that “human life is still truly tragic.”  Even in great western literature, not every death is tragic.  When Aragorn kills an orc, there’s nothing tragic about the death of that orc.  When Boromir rescues Merry and Pippin and then dies of his wounds, his death is sad but not tragic.  When your grandmother falls asleep in Jesus, her death is sad, but not tragic — and beyond her death, there is the certainty of her bodily resurrection in glory, because in Christ death is swallowed up in victory.  (And unlike Trueman, it seems to me that while the emphasis of the funeral ought to be on Christ’s triumph over death, there’s nothing wrong — let alone “most ghastly and incoherent” — with “the celebration of a life now ended.”)

Certainly, there is sorrow in this life.  I agree with Trueman that Christians can and should lament.  Paul tells us to sing psalms, and many of the psalms are full of lamentation.  I’m all in favor of restoring the psalms to the Christian life and to the church’s liturgy, though I would add the caveat “as appropriate.”  Why?  Because it’s not appropriate for lamentations to predominate in the liturgy.

Trueman praises “the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice” of his Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but those adjectives — sombre, haunting, unaccompanied — hardly seem to fit with, say, Psalm 150 or with the descriptions of the Levitical choirs that David established or the heavenly choirs in Revelation.  God apparently delights in accompanied singing (indeed, the word “psalm” itself implies accompaniment!), and apparently he likes it loud and vigorous, at least much of the time.

Trueman claims that “traditional Protestantism” connected “baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection.”  That’s as may be — washing is certainly as valid a connection as death and resurrection — but again, the death associated with baptism, linked so closely with resurrection, was far from tragic.  He points to the reading of the law every Sunday: “Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ.”  Leave aside the question of whether the reading of the Ten Commandments before the confession of sin tends to emphasize the so-called “first use” of the law instead of its primary use as a rule of life and even grant the questionable assertion that the reading of the law “pronounces the death sentence” and apparently carries it out (so that believers are in “their graves” after it!), we still have a progress from death “to resurrection life in Christ” — so why should the rest of the service be sombre as if we were still dying or dead?

Is there room for sorrow in the Sunday service?  Perhaps, in measured doses.  It’s not inappropriate to sing Psalm 51 in connection with the confession of sins.  On occasion, it may be right and fitting to sing a lamentation.  But what ought to be the dominant note of our worship, even when we’ve been deeply convicted of our sins?  It certainly isn’t tragedy.  Nehemiah 8 points the way:

Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:47 pm | Discuss (0)
May 9, 2013

Ascension vs. Chain of Being

Category: Theology,Theology - Anthropology,Theology - Christology :: Permalink

That Psalm 8, followed by Hebrews 2, speaks of a transition from being “lower than the angels” to being exalted over them sounds the death knell for the “chain of being” view held by so many throughout history.  In this view, God is at the top of the chain, with angels — as spiritual beings or pure intelligences — below him, human beings — who are a blend, both spiritual and material — lower still, the beasts beneath them, and so on.  Though there might be the possibility that man might rise in glory, the angels too would be continually rising above them, so that the order of the chain never changes. But if man, created “lower than the angels,” is then exalted over them, the chain is no longer static, with each creature in the place “rationally” assigned to it.  Furthermore, if man can be exalted over the angels, the idea that matter is inherently lower than spirit must also give way, since Jesus is fully human, with a human body, and yet is exalted over the angels” — “The Glory of the Son of Man: An Exposition of Psalm 8,” The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan, 17n49.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:54 pm | Discuss (0)

Books I Enjoyed Most in 2012

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Last year, I must have been exceptionally industrious.  I see that I managed to post my list of favorite reads from 2011 already in January 2012.  This year, I’m a little behind.  But here it is, at last, listed alphabetically by the author’s last name.

* Louis Berkhof & Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education.  Great essays; often outstanding insights.

* Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Fascinating and very helpful stuff on, e.g., the effect of praise on children, children’s intelligence tests lacking validity, how kids learn to speak, the importance of sleep for children.

* Walter R. Brooks, The Clockwork Twin.  Read to kids.  The fifth Freddy the Pig novel; some passages had me howling with laughter.

* John Buchan, The Three Hostages.  One of my favorite authors.

* G. K. Chesterton, The Collected Works, vol. 27, The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907 and The Defendant.  Wonderful essays.

* Elizabeth Coatsworth, Away Goes Sally, Five Bushel Farm, and The Fair American.  The first three in a series of books about a young girl in Maine in the late 1790s.  Read to Theia and Vance, with much enjoyment.

* Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain: The Ten Commandments in Terms of Today.  Insight after insight.

* Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.  A masterpiece.

* Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador, and David Cloutier, eds., Growing Old in Christ. Very helpful essays, many of them rich with insights.

* C. J. Hribal, Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis.  Stories that can break your heart.

* Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches.  Not just for mothers; I need to read this one every year.

* Walt Kelly, Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips, Vol. 1.  I grew up reading these in books my parents had collected.  It’s great to see them coming out in a nice hardback edition.  There has never been another comic strip like Pogo.

* C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.  Great stuff … though I’m glad the eschatology Lewis presents for Narnia isn’t the eschatology of Earth.

* C. S. Lewis, Miracles.  I remember trying to read this when I was much younger (a teenager?) and not getting very far.  Loved it this time through.

* Richard Lischer, Open Secrets.  An enjoyable memoir of the first year of a Lutheran pastorate in southern Illinois; some very good passages on pastoral work, including an interesting and helpful chapter on the often positive function of gossip — “speech among the baptized” — in a church community, as it sorts out people and relations and evaluates them.

* Eloise Jarvis McGraw, The Golden Goblet.  Read to Theia and Vance at the same time I was teaching Theia about ancient Egypt.

* A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Read them to the kids … again.  There were times I could hardly stop laughing.  I ought to read these every year.

* E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers.  Hilarious.  Why didn’t I read Nesbit when I was a kid?  Especially puzzling, given that I loved C. S. Lewis and Edward Eager.

* Patrick O’Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute, The Nutmeg of Consolation.  The thirteenth and fourteenth in a series that never gets stale.

* Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping.  Slow but deep.

* P. Andrew Sandlin & John Barach, eds., Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd.  I first met Norman Shepherd when I was in seminary and he was a member of the board, and it was an honor to be able to edit this volume for him.  There are some very good essays in here.

* Lynn Stegner, Because a Fire Was in My Head.  Very realistic and very sad.

* Victoria Sweet, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Very interesting account of a doctor at the last almshouse in America and the change from “inefficient” to “efficient” medicine, with some interesting stuff on premodern medicine, medical politics, etc.

* Hilda van Stockum, A Day on Skates.  Very enjoyable.

* J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.  Second time through with the kids.  Maybe I’ll tackle The Lord of the Rings this year.

* Lars Walker, Erling’s Word.  Blogged about it here.

* Laura  Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years.  Read to the kids with as much enjoyment myself as they received.

* N. D. Wilson, Leepike Ridge.  Had the kids on the edge of their seats a lot of the time.  Or their beds.  Wherever they were sitting, it was the edge.  Someday, they’ll read The Odyssey and remember this story.

* N. T. Wright,  The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary.  I find Wright’s approach to the so-called “Colossian heresy” quite persuasive.

If there’s one thing to learn from this list, I guess, it’s that most of the best books I read last year were the ones I read with the kids.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:33 pm | Discuss (3)