Reading Reflection for 2016

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I started this year with a goal of reading 52 books, the most I would have read in a single year since my years as a voracious pre-teen reader. While I didn’t reach my goal, I ended up reading roughly forty books, still the most I’ve read in a while, and I was immensely blessed, challenged and entertained by most of what I perused.

One of my favorite quotes about reading comes from John Piper, one of my favorite authors to read: “I have often said, ‘Books don’t change people, paragraphs do — sometimes sentences.'” I have found this to be true as well. Sometimes the whole point of reading a book – even if its 300+ pages – is to create the perfect context around which the author (or God) can fire off a sentence that is perfectly aimed at your heart and way of thinking. It is sentences, most often, that stick with you and shape your imagination and view of the world, and so I have included my favorite sentences from each of my favorite books. 

Many of these books are valuable to me because they sharpened me in my walk with Christ; others, because they challenged me to see the world through different eyes; and others still, because they were just deliciously fun to tear through. I have created a list of my Top 12 books below, and included a list of all the other books I read at the end. Maybe you will find a book you would enjoy reading in 2017 or be able to recommend me some good books for the coming year.

Top 12 Books I Read in 2016

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12. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life – Douglas Wilson

A book on writing that is worth reading for how well-written it is.

Favorite Sentences:”Look at the world, and try not to look at yourself looking at the world” (14).

“Your deep interests should always have a dog-eared place on your nightstand” (24).

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11. Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart – J.D. Greear

Probably the most helpful book I read this year, and it is under 100 pages. Greear explains how a Christian can have true assurance of salvation and how the sinner’s prayer approach adopted by most Evangelicals leads to a distorted view of how salvation and conversion actually work.

Favorite Sentence: “I’m simply saying that whenever you doubt your standing with God, the solution is the same: trust in the finished work of Jesus”.

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10. Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman

One of the best books I read this year. Postman’s argument that “the medium matters” and that our television-obsessed culture has resulted in every facet of our culture being reduced to “entertainment” sounds more true than ever before in an era of flashy megachurches, lecture-less teaching and President Donald Trump.

Favorite Sentence: “[The 2nd commandment on image-making] is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.” (9)

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9. Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates bluntly describes America – and reality – as he sees it, from the perspective of man with black skin. This was a necessary read, not because I buy all of his arguments, but because it constitutes the best possible way someone like men could ever see what so many other people in our nation claim to see. The book is also notable for its blatant hopelessness. I suppose if you believe human nature is all we have to work with, there’s not much reason to hope at all.

Favorite Sentence: “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”

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8. The Abolition of Man – C.S. Lewis

Lewis’ essay on how divesting education of Truth will lead to a heartless human – their “abolition” – is rich, powerful and essential.

Favorite Sentences: “They [moral relativists] are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from the them that content of these words is henceforward to be derived.” (3: The Abolition of Man).

“Man’s conquest of Nature, turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man” (3: The Abolition of Man).

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7. The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown

The story of a group of boys – mainly, of one of them, named Joe – is epic despite being relatively mundane until the end. Joe’s story of grit, however, is a testmaent to human nature’s capabilities. A great insight into the character and personality of much of the America that would go to war in WWII.

Favorite Sentence: “Standing there, watching them, it occurred to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.” [Man, I love this sentence].

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6. Jonathan Edwards: A Life – George M. Marsden

Jonathan Edwards thought and life, as well as the time he lived, was fascinating and complex. Marsden expertly surveys it all with nuance and equal portion of admiration and critique. His argument rings true: Edwards stood as the contrast to Benjamin Franklin as the man America could have modeled itself after; instead, they rejected the “self-renouncing man” for the “self-made man.” (333)

Favorite Sentences: “The starting point for unraveling the mysteries of the universe must be the shattering revelation of one’s total inadequacy and a recognition of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” (81)

“Nevertheless, anyone might do well to contemplate Edwards’ view of reality and its awesome implications. […] Edwards’ universe is essentially a universe of personal relationships. Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creatures’ responses” (503).

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5. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

My favorite novel of the year. A beautifully written, 1st-person account of a butler who is so committed to his job and to the principles of his personal mission that he becomes unable to notice the difference between men of great rank and great men.

Favorite Sentence: “I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

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4. Heretics – G.K. Chesterton

A book with an equal amount of passages that enthralling and confuse. Chesterton’s short observations either punched me in the gut and heart harder than anything else I read this year or else went completely over my head; all of which is fine, because he left enough bruises to last a lifetime.

Favorite Sentence (of the Year!)“We do not merely love ourselves more than we love duty; we actually love ourselves more than we love joy.” (83)

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3. The Things of the Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts- Joe Rigney

An invaluable companion to Piper’s seminal works. Rigney helpfully explores and answers the question of how we can love God with all our hearts, minds and souls while still heeding the call to view all good things as gifts from Him we are meant to enjoy while being careful to never fall in love with “the things of the Earth.” This is a book that will simultaneously increases your love and devotion to God while enhancing your delight in pizza, good movies and good friends.

Favorite Sentence: “[…]The first step in cultivating a generous and giving heart and life is to cultivate profound gratitude to God what he has provided. As one author puts it, grace begets giving, which begets gratitude, which begets more gratitude.” (196)

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2. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from It’s Cultural Captivity- Nancy Pearcey

A profound book that I devoured and will return to often. This is essential reading for Christians, and especially for Christian students. Pearcey outlines how the Christian view of reality is the only one that connects all the dots of human experience and how it stands unshaken against the combative and destructive worldview of secularism.

Favorite Sentences: “We must never forget that going along with unbiblical practices is not only wrong, it is unloving. Acquiescing in an unjust situation typically stems not from love but from fear of possible negative repercussions. If we aspire to a godly, holy love for others, we must be willing to take the risk and practice loving confrontation.” (375).

“The best way to drive out a bad worldview is by offering a good one, and Christians need to move beyond criticizing culture to creating culture.”

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1. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings – Philip and Carol Zaleski

My favorite book of the year. The Fellowship is an absolute delight to read, and one which highlights the different avenues men choose in life. By the end of this biography of a club, the grumpy, arrogant, perverted, heavy drinking and smoking former atheist ends up with the most joyous life and legacy. Even as their own stories captured the imaginations of millions with visions of a familiar world assaulted by glimmers of grace, the life of this group of curmudgeonly English men testified to similar themes. In keeping with the gracious irony, the books celebrates how the stories which most changed the world and culture were by a couple of Christians whose tales were about elves and lions and which were routinely dismissed by the elite of the time.

Favorite Sentence: “Yet although the Inklings were guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending, they were not optimists; they were war writers who understood that sacrifices must be made and that not all wounds will be healed in this life. Their belief in the Happy Ending was compatible with considerable anguish and uncertainty here below. One may be as gloomy as Puddleglum or as convinced as Frodo that “All my choice provided ill” without losing hope in a final redemption” (511).

Every Book I Read in 2016

Here’s the full list. An asterisk means I enjoyed it and would strongly recommend.

  1. 1984 – George Orwell*
  2. Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman*
  3. Artemis Fowl – Eoin Colfer
  4. Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates*
  5. Building Great Sentences – Brooks Landon
  6. Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus – Jonathan Leeman*
  7. Everything Bad is Good for You – Steven Johnson
  8. God is the Gospel – John Piper*
  9. Good to Great – Jim Collins
  10. Heretics – G.K. Chesterton*
  11. Jonathan Edwards: A Life – George Marsden*
  12. Narrative of the Life of an American Slave – Frederick Douglass*
  13. Night – Elie Wiesel*
  14. Nimona – Noelle Stevenson [graphic novel]
  15. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck*
  16. Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis
  17. Poems – C.S. Lewis*
  18. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
  19. Sabriel – Garth Nix
  20. Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart – J.D. Greear*
  21. The Abolition of Man – C.S. Lewis*
  22. The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown*
  23. The Circle – Dave Eggers
  24. The End of Education – Neil Postman*
  25. The Fellowship: The Literary lives of the Inklings – Philip and Carolo Zaleski
  26. The Joy of Calvinism – Greg Forster
  27. The Knowledge of the Holy – A.W. Tozer*
  28. The Neon Bible – John Kennedy Toole
  29. The Prince – Machiavelli
  30. The Remains of the Day – Kashuo Ishiguro*
  31. The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis*
  32. The Things of the Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts – Joe Rigney*
  33. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot
  34. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from It’s Cultural Captivity – Nancy Pearcey
  35. Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God – Tim Challies & Josh Byers
  36. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi*
  37. Why Pro-Life?: Caring for the Unborn and Their Mothers – Randy Alcorn*
  38. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life – Douglas Wilson*
  39. [Finishing] Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards*
  40. [Finishing] John Adams – David McCullough

Did you read any of these books and have strong reactions or opinions? Please share. Or did you read something that you think I absolutely have to get to next year? If so, let me know in the comments.

Here’s to another year of great books.

 

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Crimson Commitment

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The world has enough Khans and Mans
So child, I advise a different stand
Plant your flag more readily in the muck than on the moon

See your life, the glory of what could be
Shed no tears as you wave away its possibility
Then welcome the life that comes the moment you do

Cease waiting for loveliness to shine
Before swearing, “You are mine”
Covenant yourself to the harlot and the fool

Do away with the play of being nice
Rather, rend your veins; bleed out dry
Make crimson commitments like the King of Jews made to you

Inspired by “The Flag of the World” by G.K. Chesterton and “If” by Rudyard Kipling

Corlew Catechism #6: What is a Christian?

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Introduction

The Gospel creates Christians. In fact, you can be as confident that it will create Christians as surely as the sun will rise because God has promised that His Word will not return to Him void. His Gospel will triumph in the hearts of sinners and create Christ-loving, God-centered, glory-bound saints out of self-loving, self-centered, sin-constrained wretches.

Yet we know that not everyone who hears the Gospel becomes a Christian. In fact, repeated exposure to the Gospel tends to cut both ways. It can soften a heart, cracking away at the cement until a person truly believes or it can harden already brittle hearts, causing the unbeliever to put up ever increasing walls of defense against its assault on their own god, whatever or whomever it may be. This reality is both beautiful and horrific, and it is certainly cause to take the Gospel seriously today, for this is the appointed day of salvation. Tomorrow is too long to wait for the glory of God.

When a person hears the Gospel, and the Spirit opens their eyes and their hearts to its glories, a series of strange, God-orchestrated events begins within that person that results in “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What exactly is this new creation? The world knows this new creation as the group of people called Christians, literally meaning “little Christs”. But what is a little Christ? What do little Christs look like? What should they look like, according to Christ’s own definition? The Bible demonstrates that, among many other things, a Christian is primarily a sin-forsaking saint, a disciple, a member of a body, an alien, and an adopted child.

A Sin-Forsaking Saint

A photo by Cristian Newman. unsplash.com/photos/zFnk_bTLApo

A Christian is a saint who sins. They are not perfect, nor will they ever be so long as they’re breathing in the first body they were born to. But their orientation and attitude towards sin is markedly different after seeing Christ, adoring Christ, and following Him. They now find their sin odious, but for different reasons than many people dislike sin. A normal man need not be a Christian to dislike sin; all you need for that is simply a rational man. Gross pride is repugnant to most men, selfishness offensive, murder detested, and hatred abhorred. Despite living in a country that has nearly toppled into orgy-like obsession with sexual immorality, there still remains a sense that a person should be sexually faithful, and that this produces the best life. Lying is unethical and leads to bad consequences and no one enjoys feeling guilty. These are all perfectly normal reasons for anyone to dislike sin, whether they would call it “sin” or not. But for the Christian, sin is most offensive because it primarily does two things: 1) testifies that there are better gods than God, and 2) limits the Christian’s ability to enjoy God.

When a Christian grieves over their sin and rejects their sin because of these two reasons, the Bible calls this repentance.  Repentance is not, “I feel bad and now I want to feel better.” Nor is it, “I’m going to suffer consequences for this and I’d prefer not to,” or even, “On second thought, I probably shouldn’t have done that. Can you forgive me?” True repentance is God-centered, not self-centered. It is beholding God and saying, “It is unfathomable that I should disobey or prefer anything to you.” It’s the difference between feeling a sense of moral guilty over the fact that you tossed an empty can out your window and the sense of incredulity and grief that you might feel if you realized you just threw your can away into the Grand Canyon. You are grieved because you have disrespect and dishonored something so much greater and glorious than yourself, and something that in an of itself, should always be worth more to you than the convenience of getting rid of that can right now. Even if no one ever found out, even if nothing bad would ever happen to you, and even if the can turns out to just get picked up by a good person the next day – and there’s no ultimate harm – you still repent, because ultimately it’s about the object or person you have sinned against.

This is a great gift of salvation. The sweetness of forgiveness comes to those who embrace the momentary sorrows of repentance. And a Christian is one who embraces this task, who embraces the hard and gut-sickening confrontation with all the darkness within himself and lays it before God and says, “I am a fool to ever prefer anything to you.” A picture of the Christian as Christ describes it is not the put-together gentleman who excels in moral standards, generosity and a life that is clean of swear words, alcohol and bad sexual actions. The picture that Christ describes is of a man, beholding the superior glory of an awesome, powerful and loving God and who responds by falling to his knees, bowing his head and beating his chest, proclaiming, “God, forgive a sinner such as I.”

God calls such men saints. They do not repent once and for all. They get off their knees, and they go live and they return to their knees, and they get up, and they continue the cycle.  And the repentance is not a way of atoning for sins. God does not withhold grace until you confess to a Priest or do a formal weeping routine. Christ died once for sins, so for the Christian, it is already accounted for before it occurred. The sinful act is only surprising to the Christian, not to Christ, who saw in advance all the sin one would do before moving forward to the cross. No, repentance is a perpetual posture of one who stands before a God who appears more glorious day by day. Each day brings a new reason to repent, but even more so, each day brings a new reason to sing aloud for joy.

A Disciple

The goal of repentance is not to create someone who perpetually feels bad, but to create a disciple. A disciple is someone wholly committed to a way of life, to growing, to learning, to following and knowing the object of their ultimate disciple.

Jesus’ final words to his followers was to go out into the world and make disciples of the nations. He did not say to go make adherents, or to go put on a marketing campaign for Christianity, or to force someone by sword, or even to go make the world a better place by being nice. Rather, He said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Disciples obey. They look to the One who leads and they follow, humbly, adoringly and faithfully.

But Christ’s call to discipleship is founded upon and imbued with the promise of grace and strength that only He can provide, and which He will lovingly provide. We follow Him, because He is with us always. We don’t scour the Scriptures to follow the example of a great man who lived a long time ago, but in order to follow the active leadership of the living Christ right now. He isn’t behind us, as an example, but ahead of us, with us, holding us in His arms.

A Member of the Body

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Once a man is made a disciple, he is also made a member. No longer is he merely an individual entity with a relationship to God, but a part of the Bride of Christ, a globe-spanning institution consisting of men and women whose defining characteristic is the exuberant, joyful expectation of Christ coming in all His glory.

A Christian apart from a Church is as strange as a Crossfitter apart from social media. There is no concept in the Bible of an individual, once born again into the faith, living it out on their own, with none but their wits, their Bible and their own, personal relationship with God. The Bible is clear that God saves individuals, but He is returning for His Bride.  So what happens between these two events? The Christian learns to love, to lay down his life, and to serve the rest of the body that Christ has purchased with His blood.

There is much more to be said about the Church – and rest assured, it will be said (in the next post). But as far as the Christian is concerned, all that matters is that they are already part of the Church and must be part of one. All Christians are part of the universal Church, or, the catholic church proper (catholic = universal),that eternal family of Christians spread across the nations and the ages. But Christians are called not just to love this great, globe-spanning collection of saints, but the ones in their own community; the redeemed druggie, the repentant adulterer, the reforming gossip and the struggling skeptic. A Christian can’t love the Church in abstract, for God has set it up in such a way that love and “Church” are concrete realities for every believer through the provision and institution of the local Church. Here, the Christian finds fellowship, finds ample opportunities to love, serve and forgive, and more opportunities to repent, seek grace, and receive the instruction, grace and blessings of God.

An Alien

Once a man has become Christian, he is given a fundamentally different perspective of their place in this world. Salvation is act of taking a carnal person subject to the laws of sin and entropy and making them a citizen of an everlasting, righteous spiritual kingdom. So this place – this world, with it’s natural and man-man made structures and systems – suddenly shifts from our home to our hostel.

This powerful change in perspective has led many Christians to go off course one way or another, but mostly because they veered away from the Word that took them home in the first place. Upon realizing this world is but a momentary stop on the way to their true home with their true family, it is possible for a Christian to find investment in this world to be nothing but folly; and there would be some truth in that. This might begin with good effects, like experiencing less stress over finances and having a better outlook when small crises arise, but it can quickly lead to increasingly detrimental attitudes: apathy towards politics and pressing issues, a reluctance to engage with people who still call this place ‘their home’, and ultimately, with a pre-death separation from the world in the form of pursuing a monastic lifestyle. The God who sends His Son into the dirt of human reality to mingle with the diseased and break bread with prostitutes will have none of this sanitary spiritual separation.

But there is a separation of some sort, and God is clear that it should be noticeable and felt. A Christian simply cannot live a normal life as defined by their present culture. Christ’s call out of this world means that a Christian will abide by principles and dictates that will stand against the bent of this human world. If our culture despised a people group, that should be the group Christians love, regardless. If our culture comes around to not only loving said people group, but blindly praising every thing about them, even their sins, the Christian shall not budge. We are built on the rock of Christ, and that rock has yet to move throughout 2000+ years of violent cultural, global and political tsunamis.

As Paul commands, a Christian is to be “in, but not of.” The world is in some ways, a motel for the Christian. It is place they stay while on a business trip, a mission. They dare not confuse the room for the glorious inheritance they are promised from Christ, but neither do they despise it and leave it trashed. The Christian is grateful for the room – for the hot water, the bed, the cable TV – but they do not wish they could just stay in the room forever. In addition, they consider the maids who will have to clean their room, and the guests who will stay in it after their time is over, and they put in more work than is expected to make sure the room is better off than when they found it. When the maid comes in after a Christian leaves, they should find a room well-kept and put together, perhaps a small tip, and maybe even a vase of flowers.

The Christian is passing through this world; we hope to leave a wake of joy and love – and an invitation to come with us, to our country, to our home; to our Father.

A Child

A photo by Nick Wilkes. unsplash.com/photos/6HrRvNnaz-A

There is no more profound identity for the Christian than the one given them by way of adoption by God the Father. For, while the Christian deserves no hint of the glimmer of the goodness of God, and certainly none of the identities I have just written about, it is clear that they deserve, least of all, to be children of God. And the main reason for this is that we were the cause of the loss of God’s only begotten child.

With this new identity, a Christian is meant to live with an eternal explosion of wonder in their hearts. We have all been adopted, rescued not from an orphanage of lost children, but from the hellishly abusive machinations of our first father, Satan. We, like him, were liars. We, like him, despised God. We, like him, preferred our own homes in the dark to God’s brightly lit mansion on the hill. And when God’s own Son came down to demonstrate grace, love, and God’s desire for us to be with Him, we succeeded in killing him in the most humiliating way we could imagine.

But the Lord is a trickster, and His Son, though he was certainly as righteous as we thought Him to be, held a secret. He had come ready to die, for he knew that the only way we could ever get to God was to have our bloody guilt atoned for. Christ, the Son of God, set us up, and we, the bastard children of the Devil, fell for it. And when Jesus, the one whom we had gleefully stuffed away in a tomb, came walking back into our cities and into our hearts, He came with a clear, concise call: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” The reward? To become – someway, somehow, by some inscrutable working of the Lord – children of God.

A Christian has a Father. A Christian has a Brother. A Christian has an inheritance, which is the glorious riches of the love and grace found in the supreme perfections of Jesus Christ. A Christian has a home, filled with good things, packed to the brimming with other children of all colors and cultures. The house is filled with song, the sounds of feasting, and true, pure, shameless laughter. The child has access, at any time, to walk into his Father’s room and be with Him. At no point is this Father too busy. At no point is this Father too stressed, too focused on the game, too concerned with success, absent because of work, hobbies, or emotionally absent, because he is with another woman, another family, living another life.

A Christian, above and beyond all other changes, is given the identity of a son of God, a co-heir with Christ of all that God has. But, like Christ, and like any true child, the infinite pleasures of our Father, though wonderful, mean little in comparison to the best part of the inheritance. A relationship with a Father who calls you in to be with Him, talk with him, know Him, love Him, and ultimately, worship Him.

We are Christians, not because we belong to a new heavenly country, but because we belong to a new, heavenly family. God is our Father; Christ is our brother; the Spirit of God now dwells within us.

Giving Away Your Neighbor’s House

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The primary charge against socialism is that it is little more than a dolled-up, government-patented form of stealing. It is the equivalent of seeing a homeless man, having pity on him, and then inviting him to claim the temporarily vacant home of the well-to-do woman who lives next door to you. This sort of approach to money is why many Americans are – or at least used to be – vehemently opposed to socialism in all its forms. Until recently, we saw through its candy-colored promises to the underlying reality: it is a disingenuous generosity.

I only bring up socialism to remind us that where our treasure is, so there is our heart. And if our society’s treasure – and I do mean our dollar bills -is starting to rest more heavily on a socialist framework we shouldn’t be surprised that everything else is going along with it. If I am willing to part with my neighbor’s paycheck for the supposed greater good, then I am clearly willing to part with my God’s truth for the sake of unity.

A striking example of how willing modern Westerners are to sacrificially part with someone else’s goods shows up in a recent episode of the popular podcast, Revisionist HistoryIn other episodes, popular writer Malcom Gladwell revisits interesting moments in history and uses them as the jumping board for his brand of quirky, narrative-driven musings on society and psychology. Gladwell analyzes Wilt Chamberlain’s free-throw shot, questions how elite universities handle money, and in the episode of immediate relevance, digs deeper into the story of a Mennonite pastor who recently lost his credentials due to officiating his son’s gay wedding.

This story is the backdrop for a concept that Gladwell wants us to witness in action and come to admire; he calls this concept generous orthodoxy.

Consider Gladwell’s introduction of Wenger and his Mennonite community:

[…] Lancaster county is much more conservative [than Ontario, Canada]. The Mennonites there didn’t accept women as ordained ministers until a couple of years ago. And that was something that Wenger struggled with because he’s not just orthodox; he’s generous.

I hope you pick up on what Gladwell is doing here.  If I said, “My wife is not just smart; she’s brilliant”, that might strike you as a cutesy way for me to emphasize just how intelligent I think my wife is. But what if I said , “My wife reads books because she is not only a woman; she’s smart.” See the problem? She is a woman and she is smart, but if I borrow Gladwell phrasing to say so, it indicates that there’s something unique at work here, some rare beast in the field; “grab your binoculars because there’s someone who is both female and smart!” From the outset, Gladwell creates a false dichotomy between orthodoxy and generosity.

But it is this logically untenable hook that allows Gladwell to set up the show’s thematic conflict: orthodoxy versus generosity. The battleground? The story of Chester Wegner and his son, who comes out to his father as gay. Once his son fully embraces being gay, Wenger is ready to “accept” him, but not so much his Mennonite church. This allows Gladwell to position Wenger as having a great deal of generosity, and the church as having a great deal of orthodoxy. Or something like that.

He continues:

“Can you imagine the pain [Wenger must have felt when the Church rejected his son]? He gave his life to a Church that had said, ‘We’re all in this together’, and now that Church had split his family into two.”

Gladwell goes on to tell Wenger’s story: how his son soon found a long-term boyfriend, how they eventually got married, and how Wenger finally forfeited his career as a Mennonite pastor in order to officiate his son’s gay wedding. In his nineties, Wenger concluded his career by penning an open-letter to the Mennonite church, a letter that went viral, in which he encouraged them to accept and not turn away “the most vulnerable” of our population.

Chester Wenger is so nearly true with his aim in this letter that it compounds the pain of seeing him ultimately miss the mark. He clearly has a heart for those who find the Church an intimidating place to enter, and he seems to deeply care for the vulnerable and  the outcast. This is commendable because it is Christ-like; Christ is abundantly generous in his care, concern and love. But like many in the American church, Wenger, knowingly or otherwise, undermines his professions of genuine love by engaging in the most loveless action one can take: he lies to his son. In an effort to care for his hurting son, Wenger chooses to bypass the hard act of standing on truth, and opts to instead give it away in order to prove more “accepting”.  The problem is that Wenger was not authorized to give away what was never his in the first place.

This is where the term generous orthodoxy, and its legion of followers, in and outside the Church, break down. True orthodoxy is the most generous gift the Church has to offer, for the Church’s truest doctrine is that of Jesus Christ. Christians do not adhere to a set of transcendent, abstract truths, pinned to some teacherly pegboard in the heavens. That’s not where you find the laws of the universe, the purpose for humanity (and human sexuality), or the meaning of life, nor even the the way to lasting joy. No, the Truth is no longer a Stone Tablet; the Truth is Jesus.

We wildly deceive ourselves, however, if we think we can embrace Jesus as Truth and Love while ignoring everything He said. For example, Wenger recalls a heartbreaking moment, after his son felt most hurt by the Church and was on the precipice of giving up his faith, when he looked into his son’s eyes and begged him, “Don’t give up on Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t give up on Jesus.” This is so poignant. But what ultimately follows this desperate plea? According to the narrative, Wenger’s son “doesn’t give up on Jesus”, but later goes and marries another man, in direct contradiction to Jesus’s words and command; and Wenger, Gladwell and countless Christians somehow respond with joy! “At least he didn’t give up on Jesus,” they all seems to say.

How is this not giving up on Jesus? Jesus’ words to a sinner caught in the act of sin were full of grace, love, and truth: “Has no one condemned you? [Then] Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” Sin no more. What is Jesus’ goal in the life of the Christian? “To cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is not to watch us do what we want while we say, “I haven’t given up on you.” That is not generous orthodoxy; that’s licentious polyamory. It is the equivalent of struggling with whether to cheat on your wife, choosing to cheat, and then responding to your wife, “but I still love you.” And later, after you are married to your new wife, have grown old andstarted a family with her, you write a letter to your first bride to remind her: “But I still love you. I haven’t given up on you.”

There’s no such thing as generous orthodoxy in a healthy marriage. There is an orthodoxy – only you, til’ death do us part – and within it is boundless generosity. There is neither a bending of the rule, nor an ability to be too generous. Gladwell’s idea of generous orthodoxy is simply about trying to achieve a balance of truth and love, but Christianity will have nothing to do with “balance” and everything to do with a fully realized person who is all love and all truth all the time. So intricately entwined are these qualities within the person of Jesus that there is no separating them. Therefore, Christian faithfulness is  not about reconciling cold, stone tablets with generous, loving hearts but about displaying the embodiment of Truth, hung high on a cross, in the ultimate display of Love.

That Gladwell gets this wrong is sad, but not nearly as heartbreaking as the reality that the Church is increasingly getting this wrong, for no one and no institution should love the vulnerable more than the Church. Our hearts should be abounding with authentic, overflowing generosity and love for the hurting and estranged, those hopelessly separated from the God of the Bible; for such were we. But under no circumstances can we bring them half a Gospel, nor approve of an adulterous, assuming relationship with the Lord who jealously calls for nothing less than all their hearts, minds and souls. We must love too much to easily part with God’s Truth so we can look more like we’re on the “right side of history”.  Rather, we must die to ourselves in order that they receive the good news, not the hell-bound “nice” news.

To return to my initial analogy, just as we can’t give away someone else’s house and call it love, nor can we give away God’s Truth and call it generous. The glorious irony, however, is that God is actually quite willing that His children should give away the keys to his house. There is little Jesus desires more than that the outcast dwell in the house of God. So we really can, in full sincerity, offer a homeless soul the key to God’s house.  What we can’t do, however, is let them enter by busting through a back-window and sneaking them inside.

Why not?

Because Christ’s sole condition for entering his house is that you enter through the door.

Ten Favorite Film Scenes

aragorns coronation

Today I’m putting out a decidedly lighter blog post that was ridiculously fun to write. A few weeks ago, Zach, a good friend of mine, challenged me to come up with my ten favorite film scenes. So I did.

Having finished the list, one of my takeaways is that I should probably pursue a more varied palate of films, as many of these are blockbusters and childhood classics. But then again, maybe that’s part of why these scenes are so great: they are able to deeply connect with so many people.

With that said, let us begin:

10. “You Are Who You Choose to Be”, The Iron Giant

I saw this movie at a “Sneak Peak” showing when I was seven years old. And for a seven year old, this climatic scene ensured I was emotionally wrecked for days. You could say this is my Old Yeller.

Don’t watch this scene unless you have already seen the movie or don’t mind it being spoiled. Either way, it will still make you shed a tear.

9. Duel of Fates, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

For all the flak that Lucas’ long awaited return to a galaxy far, far away received Phantom sure has some dang great scenes. I still believe the opening scene is a fantastic way to thrust us back into the Star Wars world and reacquaint us with the mysterious majesty of the Jedi; especially when Qui-Gon Jinn is calmly ramming his saber through a melting metal door. And then of course there’s the pod-race, which doesn’t receive nearly as much credit as it deserves. But the scene that does rightly receive its due is the Duel of Fates, a lightsaber battle that has yet to be topped. Heck, if the movie had replaced the duel with a five-minute long black screen, it might have still made the list thanks to the power of the John William’s greatest musical composition.

8. “Have you ever seen another knife like it?”, 12 Angry Men

I might have seen this scene more than any other on this list by virtue of showing it to all my students, in six different classes, every single year. Rather than tire of it, I have foudnd that getting to experience the surprise of this scene with a new audience each time has only increased my love for it. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, 12 Angry Men is about a jury tasked with deciding whether a 16-year old boy accused of stabbing his father to death is actually guilty. All eleven of the jurors believe it’s an open-and-shut case at the outset, but Henry Fonda’s singular dissenting voice eventually leads them to see that the case is not as clear-cut as it seems. The film is notable for taking place almost entirely in one room and for the palpable tenseness the director was able to build simply through letting these various characters argue and discuss the case. It leads to the type of movie where a man suddenly jamming an exact replica of the killer’s switchblade knife into the table carries more shock and awe than a dozen Michael Bay explosions.  And I also love the dismissive line from the third juror after the initial shock: “What’s that, the discovery of the age or something?”

7. Too Strong, Remember the Titans

Pros of Remember the Titans: Makes you want to hug those closest to you. Makes you want to love everyone. Makes you want to go work out until your sweating blood. Makes you admire Denzel Washington. Makes you wish all high school jocks were this cool.

Cons: Perhaps oversimplifies racial tensions by suggesting that all division can be solved by just throwing two groups of different races together on a football team.

Pros: On the other hand, after seeing this movie, maybe football can solve everything.

6. Ahab and Moby Dick, Warrior

This is the most affecting of my favorite scenes. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and redemptive, displaying the fall of a good man back into misery with his personal demons right before the angry, brooding, verbally abusive son that pushed him there. But like Joseph’s words to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” The tenderness Hardy’s character is finally able to demonstrate is the emotional climax of the movie, foreshadowing the eventual reconciliation with his brother. I like that order. Before a horizontal relationship could be mended, the vertical one – of a father to a son – needed to first be made whole. And this scene demonstrates both the horror of what can happen when fathers and sons are against one another, and the beauty when grace finally wins.

5. Iron Man Arrives, Iron Man

I am convinced that the best magic any story can achieve is that special moment when you see and feel evil at its peak, and then good comes in at the very last second to irrevocably and unhesitatingly demolish it. This is a “magic” so often cheaply or generically attempted to capture that to witness an authentically great example of this moment is like finding gold. Iron Man’s arrival in this scene  can be seen as a metaphor for “good”, but also for “Marvel Studios” in general. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the visceral rush audiences felt when they finally saw Stark’s gloriously heavy-powered, indestructible, straight-up cool armored self in action was the catalyst for the ongoing Reign of Marvel. It is also helpful, in the final seconds of this scene, to understand Iron Man  as representing Marvel Studios, and the tank as a nice fill-in for our collective wallets.

4. Batman Interrogates the Joker, The Dark Knight

This scene is the heart of the entire Dark Knight trilogy. I’d go so far as to say this duel of words is the best fight scene in the trilogy. The uneasy contrast and similarities between Ledger’s Joker and Bale’s Batman are brought into focus through this argument, and the jarring shifts between the Joker’s restrained, incisive logic and his careless, callous laughter makes you feel the same way Batman does: completely at a loss for how to handle an evil of this nature. I want to say so much more about this scene, but I’m really failing for words to describe what makes it so compelling; this is simply a tour de’ force best experienced firsthand.

3. Finale, Inception

This is string of scenes void of any meaningful dialogue and held together by one of Hans Zimmer’s finest works. It hits hard the first time you see it, but it hit me far harder with each subsequent viewing. Once you know the end that is coming, each scene, and each raise in the musical intensity only serves to increase your anxiety for the conclusion. A favorite aspect of this scene for me is the moment the children reveal their faces. That is the payoff of the entire film, and the moment of sweet victory for the protagonist. And it’s something that you can take home with you, in a sense; in a movie focused on dreams and the ways our minds can deceive us, a person’s face is revelation of truth. Nolan and Zimmer did a great job at making the audience feel that victory. (And yes, Cobb is actually awake. However, I love the subtle toying with the audience that Nolan does with the top at the end).

2. The T-Rex, Jurassic Park

This scene is what movies were made for. The sights, the sounds, and the sheer, heart-pounding, awe-inducing spectacle of seeing a T-Rex right in front of you, as realistic as any living creature you’ve ever witnessed is why we go to the theater.

1. The Lord of the Rings

Yeah, here is where I shamelessly cheat.  There is no way I could narrow down my favorite Lord of the Rings film scenes to just one; heck, there’s enough of them to fill this entire list. I have managed the near impossible, however, and narrowed it down to four, with the caveat that these four could be swapped for any other four scenes at a moment’s notice.

A Demon of the Underworld, The Fellowship of the Ring

Look at everything I said about the T-Rex. Now, instead of a T-Rex, just put a “molten-lava, winged, horned, whip-wielding, five story tall demon” in its place. Yeah.

I saw the Fellowship when I was ten years old. Each scene was revelation, but none as awe-inspiring as the moment the Balrog’s forms rose out of the flames. At the time I had been partly familiar with Lord of the Rings due to having previously seen the animated movies. From that starting point, I vaguely remembered that the Fellowship ran across a great monster in the tunnels, but I thought the mountain troll the Fellowship encounters in Jackson’s film was that monster; and that scene itself was amazing enough. But after the troll was slain and the Fellowship made a break for it, that dark, guttural roar filled the Mines of Moria as well as the Eagle Ridge theater. Then the build-up: the look of terror on Legolas’ face; Gandalf’s ‘you’ve got be freaking kidding me’ expression, followed by his frustrated rebuke of Aragorn – who the audience believes is the most bad-ass hero in the movie thus far – and his belief that they might actually have a chance if they fought the beast; the progressive collapsing of the mines as the beast nears. That build up made you wonder what could possible be so great and terrible, and the reveal answers that question quite satisfactorily.  Add to these qualities the fact that this scene is also one of the saddest moments in the trilogy, then throw in one of the most quotable lines in all of film, and what yo’re left with is the same, breathless reaction my Dad and I shared the moment the scene ended: wow.

The Fall of Helm’s Deep, The Two Towers

If the The Battle of Helm’s Deep wasn’t punctuated by a kamikaze sacrifice used to set off a bomb that sends sends an entire stone wall sky high and then sends the remaining pieces crashing down upon the rest of the army, it would still be one of the greatest battle scenes ever put to film. But it does in fact have this scene.  Tolkien’s imagination and Jackson’s eye for epic shots meld seamlessly in this scene.

Ride of the Rohirrim, The Return of the King

Clearly. The thrill of the good guys arriving just in time to save the day might never be so palpably experienced in a movie scene better than it is felt here. Shore’s music does so much in this grandest of moments.

Aragorn’s Coronation

Simply the most beautiful scene. The eternal echoes found in this scene are nearly too many to count: the joy of the rightful King claiming the throne, the reunion between the King and his beloved that he sacrificed to save, the King singing over his people, and the King bestowing the highest honor on the humblest of men. In Aragorn, we see a man of power. In Frodo and the Hobbits, we see meek and unassuming innocence and strength. And in this scene, we see the beauty of both in full focus:  kingly glory delighting to give ordinary humility the highest honor.

Honorable Mention: Introduction, Dumb and Dumber

This scene – I’m talk about the first minute specifically – will never not make me laugh.

Who Are Christians Gonna’ Shoot?

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Wayne Grudem, a popular and well-respected theologian among Evangelical Christians, recently made a ruckus on the internet by publishing his argument for “Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice.”  For the many Christians who have benefited from Grudem’s work in systematic theology and Biblical gender studies, this was a jarring read. The whiplash many experienced wasn’t merely because of his argument to vote for Trump but at how uncharacteristically unsound the argument felt. While many leaders have already tore apart Grudem’s argument, and though there are some who have surely supported it, my final reaction is mostly summed up in Douglas Wilson’s estimation: “I can understand why some will vote for Trump, while knowing that there is no real hope there. But I cannot abide the pressure to lie for Trump.” And Grudem, in his weak defense of Trump as being “fit” for presidency, does seem to be lying to himself, even if he thinks Trump would simply be a better fit than his opponent.

So I disagree with Grudem, but I probably don’t need to do a line-by-line take down of his argument, especially since better ones already exist. I do, however, want to make one comment as to why I, as a Christian desiring to do the Lord’s will with the one vote I have, believe there is a better option than voting for either major party candidate without simply not voting.

In order to do that, I want to revisit one of the most enjoyable movie scenes I had the pleasure of viewing last year.

In the movie Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the everlastingly young Tom Cruise hero is faced with a scenario much like the one a Christian faces in this election. He is dispatched to a gaudy opera theater to locate and stop an assassin before it takes the life of nobleman sitting in the audience. When Cruise finally locates a position from which he can easily survey both the audience and the rafters from which the sniper is likely to be hiding, he realizes something unfortunate: there are two (three? memory fails me) assassins, each with a rifle aimed directly at the noblemen. Time has run out and Cruise has to make a split-second decision: Does he kill one of the assassins, perhaps he most dangerous looking one? Does he try to kill both and risk letting the noblemen die if he fails? Does he trust that one is another good guy and randomly pick the other? The scene does a great job of putting the audience in Cruise’s predicament and it is an excellent example of smart storytelling that doesn’t ruin the tension by settling for some stroke of unbelievable coincidence or conjuring some other lame cop-out. The stakes are real, and the solution Cruise devises is shrewd and costly: at the final second he shoots the noblemen in the leg, causing the noblemen to topple to the ground, which results in the other assassins both missing fatal shots when they fire a second later.

So yes, I am saying we need to shoot someone in the leg. And that someone, I think, should be the United States.

Here’s what I mean. Grudem, and many Christians who have reluctantly fallen behind Turmp, are in Cruise’s position, looking at the two assassins aiming at the shaky last leg of American Democracy and making a calculated risk: they believe one of the candidates is sure to do a great deal of bad, and that the other is slightly less likely to do the same. So they shoot the assassin they consider to be most dangerous (in this case, Hillary) and let Trump have his shot, but only with their fingers crossed. Others, of course would look at this situation and, in a vain desire to signal their “objectiveness”, “rationality”, and “common decency”, avoid shooting anyone or anything altogether lest they make a mistake and be blamed. This group wants the small comfort of being able to flaunt their “I didn’t vote for X” no matter who wins or loses, except that it is not driven by an authentic desire to better our nation, which at least the first group is doing, but rather a desire to appear like the wisest, sanest person in the room.

My tentative solution is similar to Cruise’s. In my honest assessment, Clinton will objectively do worse things to our country in four years then Trump will do, if only by nominating Supreme Court justices that hate anything reeking of transcendent morality. But I also look across the rafters at Trump, and think he will do nearly as much evil, even if he is not quite so intentional as she. I know Clinton will hit her target; Trump could misfire, try again, misfire again, and by the time all is said and done, there could be four bodies on the ground when there might have only been one. Worse yet: Trump will fire with the tacit approval – however reluctant – of the rotting carcass of the Evangelical Christian voting body. So I will write in someone else and suffer the likely election of Hillary Clinton.

If Clinton is nominated, she might be the worst president ever. I get that. Losing legs ain’t exactly a feel good solution. But if I honestly believes that the only possible solution to righting this country is through genuine repentance before God, widespread revival in the Church and in the various institutions of society, and by returning through a God-opened passage a la’ the Red Sea to truly conservative principles, than for me to nominate Trump represents as clear a betrayal of those goals as I could ever conceive.

Grudem and many others look at the options before them and choose the supposed “lesser of two evils” because they are viewing their action in the short-term. I concede to them that any vote not cast for Trump, though still not counting as a vote for Clinton like some falsely claim, will likely lead to her victory. But my refusal to do something evil does not make me morally responsible for other people choosing another evil. Contrary tot he common belief, you are not actually damned both ways.

You can vote for a write-in, or vote for everyone else on the ballot, and in so doing, make a vote for something different. If Clinton brings four years of terror on America, it would be worth it, if the utter collapse of the Republican party and this despicable imitation of “Christianity” is finally swept away and replaced with something genuine and principled. It would be worth it if a third party rises up that more accurately reflects the desires of citizens who refuse to settle for poison, whether it is served in blonde toupees or with a side of glass-ceiling smashing.

I am not God, nor can I predict what God will bring about up to and through this election and eventual presidency. I can only, as Grudem reminded us, trust God, seek His will and “seek the welfare of the city” in which we are currently exiled. Grudem says we do this best by voting for Trump. Some say it is by voting for Clinton. But the best way I know how to love this country right now is by voting on principle, even if it means letting the nation take a shot to the leg. And though only God knows, that painful bullet to shin may produce just the right amount of shock and clarity this nation needs to rouse itself before it loses its heart.

Fearless & Foolish

Screenshot 2016-07-26 10.06.21

We are in the midst of our country’s well-documented, helter-skelter race towards secularism (sexularism?) and the most ironic aspect of it all is that we are hell-bent on ensuring God comes along with us. Perhaps we enjoy the idea of a moralistic-therapeutic deity who only shows up to enact karma against our enemies or to give us what we want just a little too much to let it go. Or maybe we simply don’t want to leave God behind in the Dark Ages while we cruise into our godless Utopias, like the cool kids abandoning the misfit to kick rocks alone in the playground. “Hey God!” we call with a warm, friendly smile from the back of a red corvette headed to where the party’s at. “You can come too!” Ideally, God goes “gee whiz!”, jumps in, and learns how to live, you know?

Perhaps you don’t believe me.  If not, bear with me as I make a quick tour through the two polar opposite spectrum of our society, as represented by our recent political conventions. Tell me then if America is anything less than hellbent on pulling God wherever we may go, even if it’s as far away as possible from where He stands.

First stop: the Trump Convention, formerly known as the Republican National Convention, where we are treated to this powerful reminder of who exactly we could be voting for if we cast a vote for Donald J. Trump. In Trump, we are granted nothing less than “a man who believes in the name of Jesus Christ!” Pastor Mark Burns, a man who needs to be at the top of the list for the part of black Santa Claus, goes on to thank God that He has provided Trump with “the words to unite the party” and that God Himself is “guiding” Donald Trump to lead this country to unity. Really, watch the video. If you, like me, watched some of the RNC prime-time speakers and witnessed some of the silly fervor on display, well…you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Okay, before we consider Burn’s declarations of Trump as the spiritual Prophet meant to lead America out of Liberal Egypt, let us take one quick peek over at the DNC.  Surely, this party, liberal as it is, wouldn’t try, let alone care to bring God into this, right? No, I’m afraid not.

Dr. Cynthia Hale’s prayer, though longer and slightly less bombastic, is more developed, more sophisticated, and a great deal gentler. It would be your typical liberal-progressive Christian political prayer if not for one moment in the speech that is so ludicrous it instantly undermines everything Dr. Hale is saying and leads to one of the most absurd spectacles in recent political times: the sight of Hale continuing to thank God for unity, and praying for more of it as the party that is meant to bring such unity to the nation drowns out her words in competing chants of “Bernie!” and “Hillary!”

The suicidal moment in Hale’s speech comes right at the climax, after she has built up to a glorious crescendo. She declares to God and the nation: “We have an opportunity, O’ God, to give undeniable evidence of our commitment to justice and equality by nominating Hillary Rodham Clinton as our candidate!”

Stop. Think through that sentence. The most undeniable way America has to show evidence of our commitment to justice and equality is by making Hillary Rodham Clinton our most powerful leader? There is a wide array of appropriate reactions to choose from – wonder, incredulity, horror, confusion, grief – but for me personally, I’ll let the basketball GOAT do the emoting:

We in America, no matter which direction away from God we are barreling down, remain desperate for God to come with us. He could go the Conservative/Republican route and fulfill his mantle of being the great-but-not-too-great mascot for ‘Merica, sort of like an Almighty Uncle Sam. Or he could go Left, and embrace his obvious transgender/transpecies (Lion and Lamb?) tendencies, open up a feminist gathering place on a liberal campus and spend eternity softly and quietly repenting of His fondness for masculine pro-nouns and for creating a group of men literally known as the Patriarchs. It would seem, then, that God is in luck: he’s got two sets of cool kids, headed to different parties (word is, the parties are going to be “on fire”), and they both want him to tag along.

Of all that can be said about this ironic appropriation of God for seemingly any whim that strikes the American people, I find that it all boils down to one simple reality: there is no fear of the Lord before our eyes. Which is another way of saying that we’re bankrupt in the wisdom department.

The most popular words correlating wisdom with an appropriate fear of God comes from Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9-10). The fear of the Lord is not the fulfillment or the completion of wisdom, but the very beginning. Like, the first brick. You take away a fear of the Lord and you take away your last inalienable grounds for morality, for human rights, for any sound way to consider gender, sexuality, truth, good, evil, meaning, purpose and love.

Someone who is less versed in Christianity might read this as implying that the only basis for doing anything good is a scared-straight fear that God is going to damn you if you don’t, but that’s not really what this verse is about. The fear of God is the fear – the awe, the reverence, and yes, the fear – of one who is so far above you in power, in holiness, and in authority. To some degree, you fear your mom and dad. You fear your boss. You fear the President. If you play professional sports you have appropriate fear of the competing legend, be it Jordan, Messi, Brady or Serena. God says that nothing wise ever comes outside of fearing the Lord, which involves approaching Him humbly, seeking His will, and understanding that we do what He says no matter what. Our fear is not primarily dervied from the fact that God has hell in His back-pocket; but rather, because we are well aware that he made hell, he made you, he made air, he is Truth, and that He is, in the end, God.

The command and the benefits of the fear of God applies to both parties as well as to the spectrum of humanity ranging between them quite well. To the Republican/Conservative leaning, the fear of the Lord both requires and leads to the denunciation of boastful, braggadocio pride: “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate” (Prov 8:13). To the Democratic/Liberal leaning, the fear of the Lord requires an abandonment of the lie that we have the right to alter reality and human rights to our whim, and to subject ourselves to His gracious authority: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl 12:13).

To all humans – American, illegal immigrant, refugee or otherwise – God issues commands infused with glorious promises: “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” (Ps 33:8). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Pro 14:27).

There will always be groups trying to pull God along with them, because in the end they still want to hold on to this faint idea that God – if there even is a God , that is- would be friends with them. They want to believe that He would approve of them and all that they do. But the problem is that we tend to get it backwards. God has come to where we are, not to join in our sin but rather to bring us to Him. He’s the one who knows where to find the real party. Though He is so holy, superior and glorious in comparison to us, this idea of friendship with us is not laughable to Him. In fact, He desires it more than we do, but He is crystal clear that there is only way this can ever come about:

“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Ps 25:14).

In other words, fearless fools never know full friendship.

 

2016 Reading Plan: Midpoint Check-In

mainebooksI love to read but I never seem to read as much as I want or even as much as I could.

There are the litany of typical reasons: I get busy, I am often too tired to read anything substantial and I am a fairly slow reader to begin with. For someone who grew up devouring books whenever they dared peek out from the bookshelves, I now find reading to be slow and oftentimes arduous. Part of that is because I am reading books more intellectually challenging than Redwall and Star Wars spin-offs. Another reason is that I never enjoy cruising through something I deeply care about; I want to grasp everything, savor everything, and let scarce little slip through my mental fingers.

But if I am honest with myself, I know the biggest reason I fail to read as much as I would like is plain, good ol’ lack of discipline. The best way I have learned to deal with a deficiency of discipline is by making a plan; or in this case, borrowing someone else’s. I make a plan when it comes to increasing my discipline with exercise, work productivity, student engagement and working through the Bible. So why not with reading?

This year I went with a reading plan put together by Tim Challies, the blogging machine responsible for Challies.com. His plan is diverse and suitable for a variety of readers and goals, ranging from those who would simply like to bring some consistency to their reading to those who would prefer to do nothing else in their life but consume books (I’m not sure how else you’d complete the Obsessed level of the plan). I opted for somewhere in the middle, at fifty-two books in a year.  At the mid-July point, I am well behind the volume count but am steadily making ground and confident I will nearly -if not fully – complete the list by year’s end.

Below I include the list as well as the books I have read for each portion. If there is a category that remains unfilled, please feel free to make a suggestion. I have some ideas already for what I might read, but I am very open to being persuaded.

Key to the Reading List

Here’s how to understand the reading list as follows.  There are three sections (Light, Avid, and Committed; 13 books, 13 books, and 26 books respectively). All combined, that’s 52 books in a year.

Here’s an example category and how to understand it:

A BOOK BY C.S. LEWIS OR J.R.R TOLKIEN (Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis)

Bold text means I have read the book and completed it. If the above category was in regular font format (i.e., not bold) it would mean that I haven’t read it yet but that I am tentatively planning on reading “Out of the Silent Planet” for that category.  You could still, however, offer suggestions if you think I should read or would better enjoy a different book.  If the above category was in italics it would mean that I am currently in the process of reading it at the moment.  There are about five or six books on this list that I am currently reading. Some of these are books for which I only read one chapter a week (such as Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy), others are books that I have on my iPhone and which hI read whenever I have nothing else to do (Onward by Russel Moore), and others I will just pick up and read whenever the fancy strikes me (Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon).

A few other notes:

  • You will notice I have read three books that do not neatly fit into any of the 52 categories, so I have included those in a clump at the end.
  • I include a brief round of awards at the end for the books that have stood out so far.
  • This list is clearly crafted by and for Christians. There are many books that non-Christians will read and enjoy, but quite a few of the categories are geared towards the growth and maturing of the Christian.

My hope is that perusing this list will (1) encourage you to read more, (2) prompt you to provide me with helpful reading suggestions, and (3) give you some good ideas for future books to check out for yourself.

Light – 13 books a Year

  1. A BOOK ABOUT CHRISTIAN LIVING (The Things of the Earth – Joe Rigney) 
  2. A BIOGRAPHY (The Fellowship – Philip & Carol Zaleski) 
  3. A CLASSIC NOVEL (Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck) 
  4. A BOOK SOMEONE TELLS YOU “CHANGED MY LIFE”
  5. A COMMENTARY ON A BOOK OF THE BIBLE (The Letter to the Hebrews –  The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Peter T. O’Brien)
  6. A BOOK ABOUT THEOLOGY (Visual Theology – Tim Challies)
  7. A BOOK WITH THE WORD “GOSPEL” IN THE TITLE (God is the Gospel – John Piper) 
  8. A BOOK YOUR PASTOR RECOMMENDS
  9. A BOOK MORE THAN 100 YEARS OLD (The Prince – Machiavelli)
  10. A BOOK FOR CHILDREN (Sabriel – Garth Nix)
  11. A MYSTERY OR DETECTIVE NOVEL (Ready Player One – Ernest Cline)
  12. A BOOK PUBLISHED IN 2016 (A Peculiar Glory – John Piper)
  13. A BOOK ABOUT A CURRENT ISSUE (Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Avid – 26 books a year

  1. A BOOK WRITTEN BY A PURITAN (Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards)
  2. A BOOK RECOMMENDED BY A FAMILY MEMBER (The Knowledge of the Holy – A.W. Tozer)
  3. A BOOK BY OR ABOUT A MISSIONARY
  4. A NOVEL THAT WON THE PULITZER PRIZE
  5. A BOOK WRITTEN BY AN ANGLICAN (The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis)
  6. A BOOK WITH AT LEAST 400 PAGES (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment – James Hamilton )
  7. A BOOK BY C.S. LEWIS OR J.R.R TOLKIEN (Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis)
  8. A BOOK THAT HAS A FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT IN THE TITLE
  9. A BOOK WITH A GREAT COVER (Neon Bible – John Kennedy Toole)
  10. A BOOK ON THE CURRENT NEW YORK TIMES LIST OF BESTSELLERS (Unashamed – Lecrae)
  11. A BOOK ABOUT CHURCH HISTORY (The Question of Canon – Michael J. Kruger)
  12. A GRAPHIC NOVEL (Nimona – Noelle Stevenson)
  13.  A BOOK OF POETRY (The Waste Land & Other Poems – T.S. Eliot)

Committed – 52 books a year

  1. A BOOK BY AN AUTHOR WITH INITIALS (Heretics – G.K. Chesterton)
  2. A BOOK FROM A THEOLOGICAL VIEWPOINT YOU DISAGREE WITH
  3. A BOOK THAT WON A ECPA CHRISTIAN BOOK AWARD (Total Truth – Nancy Pearcey) 
  4. A BOOK ABOUT WORLDVIEW (Finding Truth – Nancy Pearcey)
  5. A PLAY BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (Macbeth – Shakespeare)
  6. A HUMOROUS BOOK
  7. A BOOK BASED ON A TRUE STORY (The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien)
  8. A BOOK WRITTEN BY JANE AUSTEN (Persuasion – Jane Austen)
  9. A BOOK BY OR ABOUT MARTIN LUTHER (Brand Luther – Andrew Pettegree)
  10. A BOOK WITH 100 PAGES OR LESS (The Abolition of Man – C.S. Lewis)
  11. A BOOK WITH A ONE-WORD TITLE (Onward – Russel Moore)
  12. A BOOK ABOUT MONEY OR FINANCE
  13. A NOVEL SET IN A COUNTRY THAT IS NOT YOUR OWN (1984 – George Orwell)
  14. A BOOK ABOUT MUSIC (Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Rap – Adam Bradley)
  15. A MEMOIR (The Rage Against God – Peter Hitchens)
  16. A BOOK ABOUT JOY OR HAPPINESS (The Pearl – John Steinbeck)
  17. A BOOK BY A FEMALE AUTHOR
  18. A BOOK WHOSE TITLE COMES FROM A BIBLE VERSE
  19. A BOOK YOU HAVE STARTED BUT NEVER FINISHED (Shadow Country – Patrick Mathiessen)
  20.  A SELF-IMPROVEMENT BOOK (Building Great Sentences – Brooks Landon) 
  21. A BOOK BY DAVID MCCULLOUGH (John Adams – David McCullough)
  22. A BOOK YOU OWN BUT HAVE NEVER READ (The Elements of Style – Strunk & White)
  23. A BOOK ABOUT ABORTION (Why Pro-Life? – Randy Alcorn) 
  24. A BOOK TARGETED AT THE OTHER GENDER
  25. A BOOK BY A SPEAKER AT A CONFERENCE YOU HAVE ATTENDED (Wordsmithy – Douglas Wilson)
  26. A BOOK WRITTEN BY SOMEONE OF A DIFFERENT ETHNICITY (Narrative of the Life of an American Slave – Frederick Douglass)

Outside of the Reading List

The End of Education – Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman
Everything Bad is Good for You – Steven Johnson

Reading Awards (so far…)

Most Enjoyable Read: The Fellowship. This book flawlessly transported me to Oxford, into the pubs where witty banter and beer flowed free and into the hyperactive, God-soaked imaginations of some of our culture’s greatest storytellers. It was pure enjoyment. Runner Up: Ready Player One. This book is light, inventive and flat-out fun. A great summer read.

Most Convicting Read: Tie between Why Pro-Life? and Between the World and Me. For similar reasons.

Book I Liked the Least: Everything Bad is Good for You. I didn’t dislike it, but I found it to be the least satisfying of the books I have read thus far, and especially when compared against Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book that roughly resulted in this counter-argument being published.

Book that I Would Must Want to Re-Read: Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey. This is essentially a textbook that is immensely readable. It explained so much about the intellectual dissonances within modern evangelical Christianity, how these are resolved by a Biblically sound theology/worldview, and how to properly identify and evaluate any other worldview.

Book I am Most Looking forward to Reading: The Abolition of Man – C.S. Lewis. A classic that I have never read before, by one of my favorite writers. This is up next.

Book I Would Most Highly RecommendTotal Truth. When you benefit as much as I did from a book like this, you don’t keep it to yourself.

Corlew Catechism #5: What is the Gospel?

gospel

I write this post in the midst of one of the most unrelentingly bleak moments in United States history. Within a month’s time, a young singer was gunned down a few miles from where I live, followed by the cold-blooded killing of fifty others a few miles further west. Across the nation, videos have captured the hate, fear and division that slice across the nation, as picture after picture of blood-soaked black men fill our feeds. And this morning, as I woke up, at least five policemen have been declared dead after a sniper attacked a peaceful protest. The slaughter is almost outracing the hectic pace of social media and this is just in our own nation. Two hundred people died in Baghdad this past week, and while there were those among us who wept, there’s a growing sense that we don’t have many tears left to shed.

This is precisely the world the Gospel is spoken into. In my last post I talked about Christianity’s conception of mankind, and what we were meant to be and I concluded with the reality of what we chose to become. Open your morning newspaper, behold what we chose, and weep. Our first Representative chose Death, and so death, destruction, hatred, and agony is what we got. It is what we drink in day by day, from the seemingly peaceful suburbs, where pride, vanity, narcissism, greed and covetousness run rampant, to the hoods, where strife, oppression, and violence flood the streets. This dark stain of sin runs deep through my own marriage, through my intentions, and through my heart.

And so, as prophesied for hundreds of years, God sent a second Representative. This is the Gospel.

Creation

The Gospel is not based on the fact that man is inherently damnable, that we are some scum that God made and then later choose to love. The Gospel is based on the truth that God made Man in His image. He loved Man, walked with Man, and gave Man dominion over all creation. Think of Man as a teenage boy that God entrusted with the keys to his Ferrari. But the boy didn’t accidentally crash the Ferrari and thereby incur the wrath of a hot-tempered father; he purposely ran it through a crowd of people before flinging it over the cliff, laughing as it crashed on the rocks. This doesn’t lead to “say you are sorry and all is well” but to a severing any manageable relationship with his father.

It is important to get this: The Gospel is not God’s way of forgiving a mistake. The Gospel is God’s way of reconciling a rebellious, willingly damned sinner who, at heart, wants nothing to do with God. This perversion of God’s creation inevitably leads to…

Devastation

When Adam and Eve chose themselves over God, they put the order of all created existence into complete disarray. Suddenly gators started putting themselves over man, and just within the next generation, brothers started putting themselves over brother. The earth, for the first time, felt the drop of unjustly spilled blood and God was quite clear He would not bear such injustices:

“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” – Genesis 4:10-11

The world grew so wild and sinful that God all but wiped man from the face of the Earth through the Flood. Yet, He predicted a coming hope, and kept Noah and his family alive in order to give mankind a different start, but this time, they would have more help.

Having demonstrated man’s inability to save himself, God instituted the Law. There was a divine mandate not to murder, steal, dishonor your parents, and above all, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as your self. But God knew that Man would be incapable of keeping the Law, so He made a prophetic provision:

“Two lambs you shall off on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and other lamb you shall offer at twilight.” – Exodus 29:38-39

The institution of the sacrifice conveyed the hard truth to the Jews that sin could only be atoned for by blood. God is just, and justice demands atonement for injustice. The Jews began to understand that you would pay for taking the lives of others by the taking of your own, and the one who sheds blood well have his own blood shed. Disobedience to God, even in the smallest degree, was of such eternal consequence that bloodshed was the nearest temporal symbol of its significance.

But even then, the sacrifices were not enough. Not only did Israel’s heart continually wander from God, but God Himself made clear “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The sacrifices, God wanted to impress upon His people, were not ultimately effectual, and that this was precisely the their point. The Jews – and myself – needed to see that when you commit adultery against your spouse or against your God, killing the bull doesn’t remove the offense.  It does, however, point to the coming Hope, the Messiah, the Christ.

So all the bloodshed of animals over the centuries never removed an iota of sin from the devastated race of man but it did help the Jews understand the underlying principle. Their sin was so grievous, so devastating and so repulsive, it required a literally unending stream of blood to flow from the temple in order to restrain the burning wrath of God. It proved to them that they were truly sinful – incapable of being fully righteous – and that they indeed needed God to have mercy, to love them, not merely to give them what they deserve.

Into the wreckage of mankind, and into the specific tumult of the Jews under the oppression of the Roman Empire, when a spiritual, physical and national darkness seemed its greatest, God sent the Second Adam. Like the first, He would be the firstborn of a new human race, and also like the first, He would walk with God.

But the difference was that this Adam would in fact be God Himself.

Salvation

The Gospel literally means “the good news.” We are told in the Gospel of John that the good news is a good person, and that this good person is God made man. Imagine, for a moment that you are a Jew: Your life and your culture is defined by this never-ending stream of blood pouring out of the temple at the center of your city. Your relationship to God is maintained  by this crimson river, but even then, it is a weak one.  There is little peace, there is a lot of Law, and your heart, ultimately, is still as dark and wayward as ever.

Now imagine you are listening to a wild man named John the Baptist, who preaches of repentance and forgiveness and of being baptized; this idea that you can be washed clean of your sinfulness.  As you’re listening to this loud, wild prophet, he suddenly freezes, trembles with awe, and points behind you to a man who has just walked up, and then he loudly proclaims the good news even as he points to it:“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

God became man and He was named Jesus. He was born of a virgin, to clearly signify He was the Son of God, and to reset the race of mankind, for like Adam, God would be His father. And like Adam, He would start sinless.  But unlike Adam, He would prove obedient to the end.

If you hear people talk about Jesus you would think his life was mainly about being a miraculous moral exemplar, but that was far from His explicit goal.  When people clamored for Him to continue to keep healing and teaching them, He replied, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:42-43). Elsewhere, He reminds people precisely why He came: “I came that they may life life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10-11). And then He repeats this, but with an added point of emphasis: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18, emphasis added). When Adam saw Eve take the apple, he passively ate it along with her and them blamed her for it. Unlike Adam, Jesus holds the sinful body of His beloved and then lays downs His life for her. And He does this by becoming the lamb of God.

Jesus also brought the kingdom of God to Earth.  Wherever He walked, He upturned the shadow of sin and demonstrated the way things worked when He was in charge. Blind people saw, famished people were fed, lies were overwhelmed by Truth, natural laws worked for and not against humans, and dead people breathed anew.  He feasted, forgave, and fought the hypocritical religious leader who kept the people in bondage. This was indeed the world God had intended from the beginning.

But in order to bring this world about once more it would take one final sacrifice to atone, finally and ultimately, for the sins of all who would believe and follow Him. So Jesus, like the thousands of lambs slaughtered before His death, laid down His life and was taken to the cross. There, the great plot twist of the universe unraveled, as the Sinless One took upon Himself all the sins of any man who would ever follow and believe Him.

Consider that on the cross Jesus received the full, uninhibited blow of God’s wrath for every sin of any believer ever. That means Jesus felt the fiery blow of justice for rape, for oppressing widows and orphans, for torturing others, for my selfishness, for every slap and obscenity of an abusive father, for the murder of children within wombs and without, for the excessive vanity and hypocrisy of the pharisee that might live next door to you, for every time someone cursed God and for every time you believe that damning lie that God isn’t good. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul would write in Romans (3:23). But, Paul would immediately add, they can all be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 10:4-24-25).

But the cross was not Jesus’ sole mission, for three days later, as He promised, He rose from the dead. He appeared to over five hundred witnesses, was touched, heard from and believed by those who swore they could never believe He was alive yet again. Jesus completed conquered sin and sin’s consequence, the death that God had warned Adam and Eve about in the beginning. Now even death could not hold down those who trusted in Jesus, for Jesus Himself had defeated it. He renounced all claims of sin and death on Adam’s descendants, for He had usurped Adam’s claim as representative of the race. Should Satan, he is who known as the Accuser, ever bring up the sins of a believer before the throne of God from here on out, God will simply look at Man’s representative. It used to be sniveling cowardly Adam, but now it is His own Son: perfectly obedient, perfectly sinless, and resurrected from death itself.

The good news is that when Satan accuses any child of God henceforth, God will laugh Satan out of His throne room because John the Baptist’s words were not fable. Jesus is the Lamb of God and He took away the sins of the world.

Restoration

Jesus’s death wasn’t simply about saving a dead race that was careening into hell. It was in also about fully restoring a relationship between Father and child, and about a one spouse restoring a relationship another, adulterous spouse.

The Bible describes Jesus as the bridge-groom and the Church as the bride, and when seen in this light, we see that the story of the Gospel is really quite simple. Douglas Wilson likes to summarize the story of the Bible as “kill the dragon, save the girl.” Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent and defeated, and thus the bride of Christ – His Church, His remnant of humanity meant to know, love and enjoy Him – was lost. So Jesus comes, like a knight in the romantic epics of old, and gives His life in the final slaying of the dragon and the eternal rescuing of His bride. And like those great epics, Christ promises a true happily ever after.

The Gospel is about reconciliation between Man and God and restoration of this fallen world into the Kingdom of Heaven it was meant to be. Because of Christ’s victory, God promises that He will (and already is!) fully bring His kingdom to bear on our world, and He equips Christians to take part in this restoration.

That is why Christians are missional. We don’t go around trying to make a kingdom of Christians, but we go around trying to gather as many people as possible into this Kingdom of Christ that is coming regardless. God’s act of restoration is far-reaching, and the length of time it takes is not a sign that He’s having second thoughts but that He is ever more aggressive in gathering as many men, women and children into His kingdom before the time is up and the gates are closed.

Yes, in this Kingdom of Heaven, there is a wall (John 10). After the Fall, the gates were shut by God, who could let no sinner suffer its glory. But now the hinges of the gate have been wet with the very blood of Christ so that they are swung open and all may enter. The gospel is not good news for the individual soul but for the universe itself. God’s Kingdom is here and it is coming, and Christ reigns supreme over all. I will not shed a tear in that Kingdom for there will be no suffering, no evil, or heart-sickness in that Kingdom to prompt grief.

What is required to enter this kingdom, full of restoration and reconciliation? Jesus. To cry out to Him, confessing your need for Him, to look to Him, requiring a complete turning away from looking at yourself and your sins, and to trust in Him, believing He alone can – and will – be your righteousness, your very advocate before the Father.

The Gospel is good news, but only to a specific type of person: a sinner. If you do not consider yourself a sinner there is nothing good about a Christ crucified for your sins. If you are okay, and you think your life is good enough, and that you are better than the average joe, and that you give enough, are nice enough and loving enough, than the Gospel is not good news but is in fact offensive to you. It should be. “God can’t love me unless He crushes His own Son on a crude torture device?” It is barbaric. It is gross. It casts a low opinion of you. Even Paul acknowledges this when he tell the Corinthian believers, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The Gospel is as likely to elicit a chuckle as a changed life. For the chuckler, it is ludicrous to think they need salvation, and of such extreme measures. For the perishing, for the sinner, for the man or woman who clearly sees their position before a holy God and rightly realizes that nothing else in existence is more important in comparison to this matter, this news, this person – this Jesus- is like the dawning sun at the end of decades of darkness.

Jesus came to preach the Gospel and to be the Gospel. If someone ever waters down the mission of Jesus, be wary. He did not come to teach moral lessons. He did not come to make life a little better for Jews under Roman rule (before they would be decimated seventy years later). He was not a hip progressive rebel, nor was he a theologian stuffed in an office all of his life. He was a Savior, and not for the good people of Earth, like Superman, but for the wretches.

You and I never like to be told we are sinful or that we’re like dumb sheep, lost in the wilderness. But the Gospel is only good news to one who comes to first believe this, for as Christ said to the crowd around Him, marveling at the grace He had just shown to a sleazy, rich oppressor, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Jesus seeks and saves; the Spirit stirs and sanctifies; the Father adopts and adores. This is good news.

Harry, Huck and Hulk

smaug

A recent essay by Colleen Gillard over at The Atlantic pits the legacy of American children fantasy against English children fantasy with an obvious winner and loser. America may have won its political independence from Britain, but according to Gillard, the English still have dominion over our imaginations. Her essay is a great write-up and well worth of your time.

In her essay, Gillard lists a few reasons why American children’s literature can never quite catch up to the English’s brand. These include the English’s tendency to veer far more towards the fantastic in their brand of fantasy, their embrace of universal, archetypal characters and themes, a flair for superfluous whimsy, and, of course, the lack of an underlying “Protestant work ethic” vibe to make everything about good rules and good behavior. [As a side note, the Protestant work ethic as the bogeyman responsible for everything boring, hyper-chaste and lame in society has been overdone for a while now].

Rather than engage Gillard on every point she makes, I want to focus on a select few insights and then add a few drafty thoughts of my own to the conversation.

1. The Three Stages of Fantasy: A Flicker, A Sliver, and a Shire

A key difference between American and British fantasy is the extent to which they embrace the scope of the fantasy in their stories. Gillard points out that our traditional American myths tend to be more exaggerations of the truth than straight out fantasy, as in the case of the “legends” of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed. Our fantasy, in other words, is hyperbolic; it has flickers of fantasy that tinge the otherwise very real, familiar, harsh world we live in. English fantasy, however, tends to revolve around children discovering a sliver in the fabric of ordinary life – at the back of a wardrobe or between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross Station – and stepping into a surreal realm:

Even well into the 19th and even 20th centuries, many believed they could be whisked away to a parallel universe. […] A tear in this fabric is all it takes for a story to begin. Think Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark Is Rising, Peter Pan, The Golden Compass—all of which feature parallel worlds.

These stories are not about exaggerating ordinary life but about taking children out of it entirely, and they nearly always end with the children returning back to ordinary life with profound spiritual, physical and emotional growth.

Gillard argues that the more intricately developed nature of these fantasy worlds are stories are more compelling to children, likely because it stimulates the imagination to a higher degree. I’m inclined to agree, which is why I think there’s a powerful similarity between the most potent fantasy offerings from both England and America. I am thinking of course of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. While perhaps one step above “children’s literature”, these two fantasies do not exist in some tear-in-the-fabric offshoot of reality but within their own self-contained worlds. I call this the “Shire”-level of fantasy, in which the surreal realm, while familiar, is altogether set apart from our own world. In these epics, a Western schoolboy doesn’t stumble into Rebel resistance or into the Rohan calvary, but rather is already familiar with and shaped by these elements. I believe these stories are naturally more believable because they require the reader or viewer to understand the world on its own terms. It is much more demanding, and therefore, enveloping.

To use what is likely a horrible example of a story that could have been vastly improved had had it exchanged the “sliver”-level of fantasy for the “Shire”-level, consider the recent box-office bomb Jupiter Ascending. If you didn’t see it, you’re not missing out on much, but it should be noted that I seem to have enjoyed it more than the critics. The plot revolves around a Russian immigrant girl who’s life as maid for New York aristocrats is interrupted by competing alien monarchs who believe her to be the rightful inheritor of the galactic dynastic throne. The movie takes us from low-rent New York apartments to opulent starships and into the belly of Jupiter itself. Much better, I believe, to have contained this fantastic (and I mean that both literally and figuratively) conflict within a self-contained realm rather than bringing it into our own, where it suddenly feels cheapened and silly.

I am not arguing that the best fantasy is full-escapism, but rather that the best fantasy is that which forces the audience to play by its own rules rather than trying to find a balance between the rules we already know and some new magical set of rules it wants to throw at us.

2. English Fantasy is Truer than American Realism

Another reason for the success of English children’s literature over American’s is that American stories tend to be overly anchored by realism. Americans, because of our heritage, pride ourselves on our practicality, on our blue collar values and on our embrace of the grueling, monotonous realities of a life needed to make it on one’s own, whether in the wild West or in the political climate of 2016. The problem is that from the get-go this realism has always been a little fanciful, while English Fantasy’s fantasy continues to be more truthful.

For example, by the time a child reaches their latter teens they might have finally had certain realities pound out of their heads but most children instinctively know there’s something grander at play in the universe than merely the hard work needed to live off the land and the rough moral laws of the wild, wild west. They know there is something that connects humans beyond the flimsy cords of the social contract and that there are actual joys in life that are indestructible, and are not diminished by how useful they may or may not be in a hard economy or dangerous world.

Compare Harry’s world to Huck’s. Huck Finn’s world is far more realistic – uncomfortably so, as a matter of fact – but there are many of the same strands as Harry’s: good friendship, mischievous deeds, racist villains, and a protagonist who befriends societal outcasts and then realizing they are good deal better than the society they from which they were cast. But the reason why Harry currently and likely will continue to draw far more children  than Huck is that Harry’s world speaks to grander realities: a cosmic clash between good and evil, absolute values of love, truth and courage, and a loving embrace of the joys of life. Harry’s dark and dangerous world is punctured by festive balls, Christmas feasts, trips to candy shops and thrilling sports games. Harry’s world is not all grit and grime, and though the shadows lengthen as each book progresses there remains a world worth being saved.

American realism, in contrast, says “this is all there is. Get used to it.” It drives close to pure naturalism and it tends to breed either fatalism or a strange sense of humanism, such as when the human prevails against nature or random fate by his or her hard work and ingenuity. The rewards in these stories, though, tend to be small and individualistic; they in other words, they resemble the American Dream. Bunyan and Henry are the prime examples of this story arc. They are hard-working men (one a former slave) who earn their way to the top, achieve fame, and then that’s the end. American realism limits the achievements and the lessons of the story to the span of a single individual or lifetime. When the protagonist’s life ends, the story, along with all its accumulated victories, are over as well.

This makes for storytelling that is inherently shallow and, even worse, patently untrue. And children know this. They rightly perceive that Aslan rending a stone table in half on his way to save the traitorous Edmund strikes truer to the core of reality than the story of Buck the wolf-dog learning life is all about survival of the fittest.

3. The American Fantasy Gillard Forgot

There is one area where I would really push back on Gillard’s thesis. While they do not fall under the category of “Children’s Literature”, there is a subset of stories originally geared towards young people that has become America’s most prominent cultural contribution. I am thinking of superhero comics.

Where do our myths of superheros fit into this argument? I would argue that they represent a successful blend of American realism with English fantasy. The best comic stories mesh the “Tall Tales” flavor of American myth with the cosmic, world-building nature of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. They combine the gritty real-world problems, moral lessons and individualistic-bent nature of American stories with the idea of an ultimate reality where good fights evil and the lasting rewards and consequences associated with the English style. There is also a fascinating aspect of most superhero stories, in that they often present us with a successful, peak-American Dream individual – or at least the individual who has the power to amass all that the American Dream offers – but who chooses to reject the riches, the comforts and the securities of the American Dream for sake of others. Clark Kent, by the American Dream mandate, should be living high on the hog, but instead he is an investigative report bent on finding the truth in his day-job and a sacrificial fighter for the oppressed. Bruce Wayne should be out-playboying Hugh Hefner, but instead he uses his resources and privileged to fight maniacs. In Peter Parker, perhaps the most relatable American hero,  we see a boy rocket from the dregs of high school hierarchy to become the King of the Hill, by virtue of obtaining the the power to bully the bullies, win the hottest girls, and get away with whatever he wants. But the story isn’t how he achieved the American Dream, but how he learns that true life is found in using his power for others instead of himself.

I agree with Gillard that English children’s literature, on the whole, is vastly superior to American literature and I mostly agree with her reasons as well. There is something to be said, however, of the ascendancy of the uniquely American “children’s stories” of superheroes, wherein god-like beings who live in a blend of a fantastic and realistic world, and are capable of amassing whatever they want, live to sacrifice themselves to save mankind.

These are stories which combine the imaginative engagement of English fantasy with the practical, realistic bent of American fantasy. And children and adults love them, likely because they, like Aslan, like Harry, and like Frodo, are clear echos of greater realities.