Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kara's Reading Goals for 2014

It's that fun time of the year again. Book lists! Here are twelve books I plan to read in the coming year.

Books that are presents from my husband:

True Companion by Nancy Wilson Finished in June
This is a reworking of the Pastor's Wife e-mails that Nancy has been writing for the past few years. I find her advice biblical and practical.

The Book Lover's Cookbook
A present for our fourth anniversary.

Devotional books:

The Pastor's Wife by Sabina Wurmbrand
I'm reading this as a companion to John's Lenten reading.

Pulpit and Communion Table by John Duncan
This will be my Sunday book.

Books on Raising Children:

Instructing a Child's Heart by Ted Tripp

Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist Finished in March
I like to read one book on homeschooling every year. This one is from a Catholic perspective.

Christian Living:

Say Goodbye to Survival Mode by Crystal Paine Finished in March
This is written by a childhood friend.

Holy is the Day by Carolyn Weber Finished in January
This looks like another book about motherhood burnout, which seems a popular topic these days. But I'm interested because her book Surprised by Oxford was so good.

Children's books:

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff  Finished in February
Illustrated by Alan Lee.

Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson Finished in April
I like this author so much that I think I'll be reading anything he writes from now on.

Bible Study:

How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken
I attempted this last year. Maybe I'll finish this time!

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
This book is about things like the etymological fallacy.

Monday, December 30, 2013

20 books John plans to read in 2014

See my previous years' lists: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. Last year I listed 25 books; I have finished 17 of them, and am currently reading another five. Altogether, I read 83 books in 2013.

Anyway, here is my so-called "shelfie":

Five novels:
Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin by P. G. Wodehouse 13th Feb.

I include a Wodehouse book on my reading list every year. This will be the 22nd one I have read.
The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge 25th Oct.

I read City of Bells by the same author in 2012.
The Mackerel Plaza by Peter de Vries 25th Aug.

In his Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, James Bratt describes Peter de Vries as a "secular Jeremiah, a Christian Reformed Church missionary to the smart set."
The Immaculate Deception by Iain Pears 22nd Feb.

This is part of a series of detective novels set in the art world. The protagonists are an English art dealer and his girlfriend, who is a member of the police art squad in Rome.
Scimitar's Edge by Marvin Olasky 19th Mar.

Olasky is best known as the editor of WORLD magazine, but among many other books, he has also written this novel.

Five theological books:

An Old Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke

I have a particular interest in the Old Testament, and aim to read one book like this a year.
Through his Eyes: God's Perspective on Women in the Bible by Jerram Barrs 11th Feb.

This book discusses about twenty different women in the Bible. This book will, I think, help me in my doctoral thesis, which is on the portrayal of women in the Book of Samuel.
The Four: A Survey of the Gospels by Peter Leithart 28th Dec.

I really like Leithart, and this book seems to be in the same vein as his Deep Exegesis, which I read a few years ago.
The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson 31st Jul.

I generally enjoy Festschriften, and this one has a really interesting collection of essays.  

"Right Reason" and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal by Paul Kjoss Helseth 11th Feb.

I am reading the Princetonians in some depth this summer, presently engaged with Charles Hodge's The Way of Life as well as Archibald Alexander's Thoughts on Religious Experience. The "unorthodox proposal" in this book is that the Princetonians were consistently Reformed thinkers rather than Enlightenment rationalists.

Five more Christian books:
Death by Living by N. D. Wilson 10th Jan.

I love Wilson's fiction (see my reviews of Empire of Bones and Leepike Ridge) and this looks like it is just as good.
Holy is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present by Carolyn Weber 29th Jan.

Weber's Surprised by Oxford was excellent (see Kara's review) so I am keen to read this, even though the topic doesn't seem as interesting. 
Family Shepherds: Calling and Equipping Men to Lead Their Homes by Voddie Baucham 18th Apr.

I appreciated Baucham's Family Driven Faith (see my review) and this book is rather relevant for me.

Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart

Yes, Leithart is the lone writer to appear twice on this year's list. He argues in this book that Constantine was a genuine convert to Christianity.
Sermons in Solitary Confinement by Richard Wurmbrand 26th Mar.

Wurmbrand was a Romanian Christian pastor imprisoned from 1948 to 1956 (including three years in solitary confinement) and again from 1959 to 1964. After his release he left Romanian and founded the Voice of the Martyrs organization. This book will be my Lenten reading for 2014.

Five miscellaneous books:
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson 23rd Apr.

This book was published around 25 years ago, but I'm sure it will yield some fascinating insights. 
Q's Legacy by Helene Hanff 29th Jul.

Hanff is best known for her wonderful 84, Charing Cross Road. (I never realised until now that there was a comma in the title!) This book seems to be a prequel of sorts. The "Q" referred to in the title is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.
Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life by Douglas Wilson 18th Jan.

I don't particularly regard myself as an aspiring writer, but Wilson is usually fun to read.
The Dreams of the Witch House And Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft 30th Aug.

I have read a few Lovecraft stories, although now I think of him mostly in connection to Arkham Horror, which is one of my favourite board games.
Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings by  Charles Hapgood 9th Oct.

Hapgood argues that the Piri Reis map provides evidence of global exploration by an as yet undiscovered pre-classical civilization.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nobody seemed to like him much but we think he's great

Gordon H. Clark: Personal Recollections

Gordon Clark was a 20th-century American Christian philosopher and theologian. This is a book published a few years after his death by The Trinity Foundation, an organisation dedicated to promoting his work. This volume is a collection of reminiscences by people who knew Clark.

This is a rather strange book. Again and again reference is made to people who disagreed with Clark, disliked him, and even doubted his Christian faith. One slowly gets an idea of why that might have been the case, but this volume lacks an explanation of the issues involved. It would also have been improved by a balanced assessment of Clark's life and thought.

Here are some representative quotes:
  • "Many people found Gordon Clark to be a hard man: cold, ruthless, blunt, unsympathetic, disdainful." (p. 19)
  • "His many books testify to his faith. Yet, sadly, even almost to the end of his life, there were those who were skeptical of his salvation." (p. 23)
  • "My Apologetics professor had Dr. Clark explain his philosophy to our class one session. After Dr. Clark completed his lecture, responded to questions, and left, the professor said his method of apologetics was heresy and no one would likely come to salvation after hearing the Gospel preached by Dr. Clark." (p. 69)
  • "None of the authors I read mentioned Clark very favorably. Some had written before Clark's time; others ignored him; a few made disparaging remarks." (p. 96)
One further claim arrested my attention. Ronald Nash says (p. 87),
From the year when J. Gresham Machen died (1937) to the first publications of Henry and Carnell after World War II, Clark stood almost alone for the set of essential beliefs that came to serve as the foundation of evangelical scholarship in the 1950s. Others who may have shared Clark's convictions neglected the vital matter of getting those views into print.
This is simply not true. It didn't take me long to find some counter-examples:
The last book mentioned is significant, since it was the first book published by Baker.  

Gordon H. Clark: Personal Recollections includes numerous frank acknowledgements of Clark's weaknesses, but it does seem to be a little starry-eyed in its assessment of him.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Keller 5, Critics 3

Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical

This is a book of essays critiquing certain aspects of Tim Keller's theology. It is written by Presbyterian ministers, acknowledging that Keller is committed to Reformed orthodoxy (p. 20) but taking issue with the way he has chosen to express certain things (p. 21). Now, I like Keller (and have for the last fifteen years) but I found this book surprisingly convincing.

Of course, there are three levels at which one must be convinced:
  1. Does Keller really say these things?
  2. Is he wrong?
  3. Does it matter?
There is no question that the book is accurately portraying Keller's ideas, and the critics seem to be on the right side on some of the points discussed. As to how important Keller's unfortunate phraseology is, I'm not sure. Nor am I sure that it was worth writing a book about it.

Anyway, here are the chapters of the volume, with a running score:

Introduction – the editors do a fine job defending the publication of the book, but I am still uneasy. Is it really worth the effort? The editors asked Keller to write responses (p. 22), but he was too busy. That's a real shame, I think, and at this stage the points are shared.

Keller ½, Critics ½

Sin – when Keller talks to "moderns" he talks about sin as disobedience, but in preaching to postmoderns he emphasises sin as being idolatry. Are we allowed to emphasise different aspects of biblical truth like that? I see no reason not to.

Keller 1½, Critics ½

Hell – following C. S. Lewis, Keller argues that people in hell are there because they chose to be. Now, this may be a simple case of emphasis (as with the previous point) but Keller seems to be downplaying the idea of God condemning people to hell in such a way as to make me think this is a fair criticism.

Keller 1½, Critics 1½

Trinity – Keller describes the persons of the Trinity has being in a  "divine dance". Kevin Bidwell ably demonstrates that this is not the same as perichoresis, and that it isn't a great illustration.

Keller 1½, Critics 2½

Mission – Keller's vision is of the Church being involved in social justice and community relief work. But this is not so much church work as kingdom work, as Keller himself acknowledges (p. 156). Points are shared here as well.

Keller 2, Critics 3

Hermeneutics – Keller has a tendency to base his ideas on his readings of parables, which is a perilous exercise. But they shouldn't be regarded as off limits for Christian doctrine, and it's not enough to say they are intended to be ambiguous (p. 178). I'm giving this one to Keller.

Keller 3, Critics 3

Evolution – Keller is relatively happy for Christians to accept evolution in some sense, as long as they hold to a literal, historical Adam. That strikes me a precisely where we need to draw the line in the sand. Keller again.

Keller 4, Critics 3

EcclesiologyD. G. Hart, perhaps the most notable of the critics, rounds out the volume with a shocker. In contrast to the generally irenic tone of the volume, Hart accuses Keller of breaking his ordination vows by co-operating with non-Presbyterians (p. 235).

Keller 5, Critics 3

In conclusion, I hope Keller takes on board some of the criticisms expressed in this volume. But there isn't anything here that would make me counsel people against reading Keller's books.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Once again, brilliant Christian story-telling

Empire of Bones by N. D. Wilson

This is the third volume in the Ashtown Burials series. Reviews of this book are a little superfluous. If you have read the first two, you will want to read Empire of Bones, and you will love it. If you haven't read any book in the series yet, you will need to start with The Dragon's Tooth.

Yet I do need to say something about how I love this series so much, and the recent publication of this volume is an excellent opportunity to do so. I want to mention five important themes in the series, that came out in the book in particular.

Firstly, the series is distinctly Christian, and this became slightly more explicit in this book (e.g. p. 333). There is an atonement of sorts, and it has a similar feel to that of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Secondly, as Suzannah Rowntree has astutely pointed out, the Order of Brendan in the book series is used as a metaphor of the Church. This is developed a bit more in Empire of Bones, and we start to see the fuzzy edges of the concept, such the existence of different denominations, and the presence of people who view the Order as a club rather than a calling (p. 313).

Thirdly, Wilson draws heavily on the Old Testament's Book of Daniel. The central character of the book is a boy named Cyrus, who (like his biblical namesake) is a Messiah-figure. His brother, Daniel, is a prophetic figure, and the book contains a significant prophecy about "seventy weeks".

Fourthly, Wilson explores the theme of death in this series, and especially this book. Again and again reference is made to the blessing of mortality. As one transmortal character is told (p. 103), "You fall and you rise and you fall again, but your inner war can never leave off, it can never stay won. Mortals weren't made for it. We were made to run and hit the finish." This is also something that Wilson has been exploring in his non-fiction writing – see this video, for example.

Fifthly, this book is strong on the theme of family, especially fatherhood. There are lots of interesting family dynamics and exploration of the differences between girls and boys (e.g. p. 142).

Finally, I detected a couple of interesting influences in N. D. Wilson's writing that I hadn't seen before. The other day I happened upon a review he had written of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization many years ago. Wilson had sounded convinced, and his appreciation of Celtic Christianity comes through in Empire of Bones. Also,there is a hint of the Eastern Orthodox concept of the "Holy Fool" (p. 430).

Empire of Bones is brilliant writing. Wilson draws on a wide range of sources, but so much of it is original. This is an imagination most fertile.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The perilous and exciting doctrine of Sola Scriptura

The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith A. Mathison

Sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone") was one of the slogans of the Reformation. According to Mathison, it is the idea that the Bible alone is the ultimate source of authority. This book explains what the doctrine is, and also what it isn't, and Mathison says some things that will come as a surprise to many readers. I, for one, learned a lot while reading it.

In the first place, Mathison convincingly argues that Sola Scriptura was not a Reformation innovation. On the contrary, it was the Roman Catholic view of tradition that was the new idea. The Council of Trent states thatsaving truth, and moral discipline... are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” Yet this idea of unwritten apostolic tradition really only comes from the 12th century  a mere 400 years before the Reformation. 

Mathison argues that the doctrine has four components:
    1. Scripture is the sole source of revelation
    2. Scripture is the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice
    3. Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the Church
    4. Scripture is to be interpreted according to the Rule of Faith
Mathison is not just critiquing the Roman Catholic view; he also criticises the view of the Radical Reformers, liberal Christianity, sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and many modern evangelicals, who all say that Scripture is not just the sole infallible authority, but the only authority altogether. This is summed up in Alexander Campbell's statement, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me” and the slogan, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible”.

Mathison repeatedly emphasises that this is not the Reformer's doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Rather he says that according to Sola Scriptura, the Bible is to be interpreted “in and by the Church” – it's not just me and the Bible – and “according to the Rule of Faith”, by which he means the ecumenical creeds. In other words, if I read the Bible and conclude that there is no Trinity, I'm reading it wrong. Mathison notes that heretics have often appealed to "the Bible only", and this is not what the Reformers had in mind.

So Scripture is the only infallible authority in the Church, but there are other, lesser authorities below the Bible. I think we express this well in my denomination – the Basis of Union of the Presbyterian Church of Australia declares that the Bible is the "Supreme Standard", and the Westminster Confession is the "Subordinate Standard".

And thus Mathison steers us between the Scylla of “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (as the Second Vatican Council put it) and the Charybdis of “No book but the Bible”. And although G. K. Chesterton might not have believed in Sola Scriptura, he was right when he said that there was nothing “so perilous or exciting as orthodoxy”.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Who, if anyone, is really Reformed?

The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis by Guy Prentiss Waters

The Federal Vision is a movement/theological system/conversation that sparked a controversy in the United States a decade ago, and is still creating ripples here in Australia. This book offers a critique of the Federal Vision.

First of all, Waters – correctly, in my opinion – locates the heart of the Federal Vision in the idea that children of believers are members of the Covenant of Grace (p. 17).

Immediately, it can be seen how this is tapping into an issue on which there has always been a difference of opinion in Reformed circles, and inconsistency among the Reformed confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 74) says infants "as well as adults, are included in the covenant and church of God," while Article 34 of the Belgic Confession says "Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults." The Westminster Larger Catechism, however, takes a different view, and says (Q & A 31) that the covenant was made "with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." The Westminster Confession is not explicit on this point.

Waters takes issue with this central thesis of the Federal Vision position, but he does so mainly on the basis of its contravention of the Westminster Standards, and of "Reformed tradition". Waters objects to the Federal Vision using different language, having a different emphasis, and going beyond, not just the Westminster Standards, but Reformed theology.

The reader may well be wondering, however, where is the biblical rebuttal? Waters does refer to two passages (p. 19)  that, he says, speak of "the covenantally unfaithful as those who were never truly members of the covenant of grace in the first place": 1 John 2:19-20 ("They went out from us, but they were not of us") and Matthew 7:22-23 ("Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name... And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’...")

One example of a comparison with the Westminster Standards involves justification. Waters says, "Whereas our Standards speak of justification as an 'act', we have observed formulations that render justification a process" (p. 95). The Larger Catechism (but not the Confession) speaks in this way – "Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight..." (Q & A 70). The Canons of Dort, however, refer to justification as a state - "But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even in their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption, and forfeit the state of justification..." (V.6). So, justification is not merely an act, and Waters appears to be unaware of the broader Reformed tradition at this point.

I was somewhat annoyed by Waters' constant appeal to (what he considers to be) Reformed tradition. Here are some representative quotes:
  • "Lusk appears to invest much more in the connection between justification and resurrection than students of the Standards have hitherto done" (p. 80)
  • "Shepherd undermines the traditional distinction between the church visible and invisible" (p. 102)
  • "Wilson's argument fails to overturn conventional Reformed readings of this passage..." (p. 154)
  • "This is a far stronger principle of covenantal continuity than has been admitted within the historical mainstream of Reformed interpreters" (p. 290)
Waters appeals to the Reformed tradition, but he has a skewed view of what it consists of – on some of these points there have been a rich variety of opinions within Reformed communities. And while interpretive tradition has an important place in the life of the church, Waters seems to believe that anything new in theology must necessarily be wrong.

However, quite apart from the Federal Vision-specific issues, one wonders about Waters' own qualifications to be a defender of Reformed Orthodoxy. He repeatedly talks about how the Federal Visionists reject the idea that grace is a substance (e.g. pp. 62, 171, 182, 214, 261, 295). So the reader is left wondering whether Waters himself believes that it is.

Perhaps, as a sort of thought experiment, we might turn the tables and ask whether in fact Waters is truly Reformed himself. After all, he says (pp 85-86), I have my doubts that "definitive sanctification" is a biblical teaching at all.

Of course, that would be going too far. Firstly, Waters doesn't deny definitive sanctification, he is merely questioning it here. Secondly, it could be that his reticence to use the phrase is merely a matter of terminology. Thirdly, it's not obvious that definitive sanctification is a necessary part of Reformed theology. Fourthly, as Waters indicates, the important thing is whether it is biblical – and to be biblical is to be truly Reformed.

Are the Federal Visionists any less Reformed than Waters? I don't think so. And yet Waters argues that the Federal Vision is not merely a subset of Reformed theology, but constitutes a different system altogether. For my own part, the central idea of the Federal Vision – that the Covenant of Grace is made with believers and their children – is something I've always believed.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Bible, Part 3

Rembrandt's Jeremiah
The third instalment of The Bible series on TV was on last night. It was just a single episode (#5) and covered the fall of Jerusalem and a few stories from the life of Daniel. This time, I am happy to say, I agreed with the filmmakers' interpretation.

I liked the way that they had a relatively unknown Bible character (Zedekiah) and how they had Jeremiah in the story as well. Although he does not appear in the Book of Kings, we see from the Book of Jeremiah that he was an important figure in the last days of Jerusalem.

They included the story of Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Daniel 2), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), and Daniel in the lions' den (Daniel 6). I was disappointed with Nebuchadnezzar's response to Daniel's interpretation of his dream. He says something like "You're a brave man, I value that; you will serve me." In the Bible, however, it says that he "fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him" (Daniel 2:46).

Donald Wiseman (1918 – 2010)
When we come to the story of Daniel in the lions' den, the TV series has Cyrus as the king, instead of Darius. This website lists this as one of the inaccuracies of the series, but in fact they are – correctly in my opinion – identifying Darius and Cyrus. This is following a suggestion first offered by Donald Wiseman in 1957, and it comes from a particular interpretation of Daniel 6:28. The Hebrew word usually translated "and" can also mean "namely" or "that is" – "So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius – that is, the reign of Cyrus the Persian." The identification of Darius and Cyrus indicates that Daniel had an important part to play in the return of the Jews to Palestine. It's great to see that this interpretation has now become somewhat mainstream.

I also appreciated how the episode was working hard to connect to the New Testament. It correctly construed Cyrus as a Messiah-figure (see Isaiah 45:1) and when he entered Babylon on a donkey, people throw palm fronds in his path, in subtle anticipating of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The episode emphasises Daniel 2:44, which surely is one of the most significant prophecies in the Old Testament. And the fourth beast of Daniel 7 is (correctly) interpreted as the Roman empire, which enables the series to jump forward into the New Testament era.

Finally, I was interested to note that the episode also borrowed from the "Prayer of Azariah", appearing in the Septuagint version of Daniel, and included in the Apocrypha. I guess that's better than just making up one's own dialogue in telling these stories.

Read my reviews of Part 1 and Part 2

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Bible, Part 2

My Presbytery meeting finished early last night, and I was home in time to watch the next instalment of The Bible, which consisted of episodes 3 and 4. The story covered Joshua, Rahab and Jericho, then skipped to Samson, and then skipped again to Samuel as an old man, when Israel asked him for a king. Saul was portrayed particularly well, I thought.

There is another gratuitous battle scene in Jericho – as if the Bible didn't have enough – but I suppose it helped to explain why the spies were known to be in Jericho. I was glad they had the scene with the Commander of the Armies of Yahweh, but the TV series portrays him as merely angelic, whereas the text hints that it is God himself, since the one thing he says to Joshua is "Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy."

One annoying thing about the series is that it adopts a late date for the Exodus (c. 1250 BC) which means that it is 150 years from Joshua to Saul – whereas 1 Kings 6:1 says that it was 480 years from the Exodus to Solomon. One consequence of adopting the late date is that the period of the judges needs to be squashed, and it must be concluded that the judges were ruling at the same time. This has the effect of making the judges local heroes – something the series is explicit about. But it goes against the emphasis in the text on the judges "judging Israel" and not just particular tribes or localities.

Samson killing the Philistines, by Gustav Doré
The other thing that annoyed me was the interpretation of the word eleph. This is traditionally translated "thousand" as in "Samson found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men" (Judges 15:15). But some scholars, who find the large numbers in the Bible hard to accept, suggest that "eleph" means a military unit – something like a dozen men. The TV show follows this, and has Samson killing a dozen men with the jawbone of a donkey. Not only does this make the feat so much less spectacular, but Samson himself talks about the "heaps" of men he has killed. The strongest argument, however, against the "military unit" idea is that it means Gideon is only reducing his army from 400 to 300, instead of from 32,000 to 300. For a helpful discussion on this issue, see Barry Webb's new commentary on Judges, pages 71-74.

As for the popularity of the series, the phenomenal ratings have died down a bit – last night's episode had only 600,000 viewers. Or is that meant to be 600 × 12 = 7200?

Read my review of Part 1

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

So much is missing, but better than expected

Last night I watched the TV miniseries The Bible on channel Nine. This was a double episode, out of a series of ten.

Naturally, a series like this has to skip lots of stories. It starts with Noah, skips the Tower of Babel, focuses extensively on Abraham, skips Jacob and Joseph, and then focuses on Moses. Within the story of Abraham, it skips the wife-sister narratives, and focuses on the battle of Genesis 14, the destruction of Sodom, and the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22.

It raises the question, are we allowed to "fill in the gaps" – in imagination, teaching, or, in this case, on screen – when the Bible is silent? For example, I thought Lot's wife was really well portrayed. The Bible tells us almost nothing about her, and she does not speak at all, but from what we do know about her, (and how she is turned into a pillar of salt), we can build up an impression. Her portrayal in this series (with lines like "The future is in the city") was extremely plausible.

I thought the episode had a good introduction. It starts with Noah in the ark. What were the people doing all that time? The Bible doesn't say. The TV series has Noah telling the story of creation to his family. I see that this aspect has been criticised on the basis that the the creation account was not written until much later. However, I think it very likely that there was a strong oral tradition (particularly along the covenant line) of the creation story being passed down.

It is important to point out that this series is not particularly Christian. There is very little here with which a non-Christian Jew, for example, would disagree. There was, for example, no reference to the protoevangelium – the promise of the Messiah given in Genesis 3. However, when the three figures appear to Abraham, the scene is done very well – two show their faces, while one stays hidden. The hidden one would be the one who, according to the biblical text, is the LORD himself.

Tempesta's depiction of the battle is more faithful to the text.
I found the Battle of Siddim disappointing. According to the Bible, Abraham has an army of 318 men, and seems to fight a pitched battle. In this series, it's a stealth attack with a mere handful of men. (Was this due to a low budget?) The mysterious but important figure of Melchizedek is dropped altogether. And there is nothing here about about Abraham winning a battle on behalf of the kings of the land (even the king of Sodom!) In fact, the promise of Abraham being a blessing is missing, though offspring and land are emphasised. So "I will make you a father of many nations" becomes "I will make you a father of God's nation". If I can put it like this, the series is too Jewish. It doesn't have the universal scope of the promises that the biblical text exhibits.

The story of Sodom is toned down a bit, kind of the way you might tell it to children. But it means we have Sodom without the sodomy. There is no hint of homosexual rape, and Lot doesn't offer his daughters to the mob. (The daughters look very young anyway.)  The series has been criticised for its ninja angels, and although I like the idea of depicting angels as warriors, I would have though the Bible had enough action without needing to introduce more.

The depiction of Abraham's faith is rather disappointing. When God speaks to him, it is inaudible (unlike with Moses and the burning bush) and as a result Abraham seems somewhat mad. When Abraham is tested in the TV series, he says to Isaac, "The Lord will provide a sacrifice, my son." That is a significant departure from the biblical text of Genesis 22, which has "a lamb for the sacrifice". This change makes the viewer think that Abraham doesn't really believe God will rescue Isaac.

Of course, we need the New Testament to fully understand this story. Hebrews 11 says that Abraham "considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back." B. B. Warfield says that the Old Testament is like a richly furnished but dimly lit room – we need the light of the New Testament to illuminate it.

In this picture Pharaoh is drowned, but the Bible doesn't say that.
Even I learned something knew while watching it. I have to admit that it only occurred to me while watching the show that the (non-)sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis is a prefigurement of the Death of the Firstborn in Exodus. And I was surprised to see that, in the series, Pharaoh survived the crossing of the Red Sea, only to discover that the Bible is not totally clear on this point. It says that "Pharaoh drew near" (Exodus 14:10) that God "will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen" (v. 17), that "the Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen" (v. 23), and that "of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained" (v. 28). Similarly, Exodus 15:4 says "Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea." This does rather make it seem that Pharaoh sent his army into the sea rather than going in himself. Psalm 136:15 says God "overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea", but that could refer to the military defeat rather than actual drowning.

This post obviously doesn't exhaust the possibilities of what can be said about this series. There are a few more inaccuracies that I haven't mentioned here. For a couple of other interesting blog posts on the series, see here and here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Exploding the myths about the Crusades

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

Taking the subtitle into account, this is the most provocatively titled book I've read since Peter Leithart's Against Christianity.

Actually, Stark is just telling the story of the Crusades - and what a fascinating story it is. He is not justifying them, but explaining them, and exploding some of the myths behind them.

Stark's points include:
  • The Crusades did not occur in a vacuum, but were a response to centuries of Muslim conquest and violence.
  • The Crusades were not driven by greed, but were recognized from the very beginning to be an excessively expensive exercise.
  • The crusaders were not more violent or barbaric than the Muslims.
  • The Muslim world has not held a 900-year grudge concerning the Crusades - Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900.
One example of the way the Crusades have been dealt with by historians concerns the Fall of Antioch in 1268, when a Muslim army took back Antioch, and slaughtered tens of thousands of its residents. Stark notes that whereas Christopher Tyerman (in his 2006 book God's War: A New History of the Crusades) devotes several pages to the massacre of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, he dismisses the massacre of Antioch in four words. Most histories of the Crusades, it would seem, have a sharp anti-Western bias.

This is an eminently readable, gripping introduction to a fascinating period of history - and one which has enormous relevance for the present day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A published author

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah
I'm excited to announce that John has just had an article published by Tyndale Bulletin! It's called 'May the Lord Make the Woman like Rachel': Comparing Michal and Rachel. Tyndale Bulletin happens to be one of Galilee's favourite reads--at least, she's always taking our old copies from the shelf! Once the new issue arrives, I can tell her "your daddy wrote this".

Here's the abstract:
"The portrayal of Michal in the book of Samuel is similar to that of Rachel in the book of Genesis. Both have an older sister who is their rival for the affections of their husband. Both have an erratic father who pursues their husband. Both possess household idols called teraphim, which feature in the story of their deceiving their father. Both have at least a period of barrenness. Yet there are also differences between the two women, which can be explained in terms of the portrayal of Michal as an even more tragic figure than Rachel. Careful consideration of the points of similarity and difference yields the conclusion that the allusions to the Rachel story in the book of Samuel are intentional."

The whole article can be read here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A great introduction to some radical concepts

Family Driven Faith by Voddie Baucham, Jr.

This is a book about family discipleship. It argues that parents (and fathers in particular) can and should disciple their children. In explaining this concept, Baucham discusses family education (homeschooling), family worship, and family-integrated churches. These are closely connected, of course, and Baucham notes that "families who have decided to shoulder the responsibility for their children's education find it refreshing that a church would expect them to do the same in the area of discipleship" (p. 201).

Homeschooling would be the most familiar of these items to evangelical Christians today, and Baucham uses the usual arguments - "there is a big difference between sending fully trained disciples into enemy territory and sending recruits to our enemy's training camp" (p. 128).

Family worship is also familiar to many Presbyterians who hold the Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly in high esteem, along with its Directory for Family Worship. My own denomination holds a Catechism Exam each year, with generous prizes. Yet I suspect very few households practice regular family worship of any sort, and Baucham has put his finger on an important area of reformation.

The concept of a family-integrated church would be unfamiliar to most Australian Christians. The U.S.-based National Center for Family-Integrated Churches is, however, hosting seminars in Australia next month, so if you live in Melbourne, Sydney, or Hobart, you have a great opportunity to learn more about it. Family-integrated churches insist on children staying with their parents in worship services, and usually reject youth groups and other age-segregated activities. The former issue is often discussed by Presbyterians here in Australia, but the existence of youth groups (for churches lucky enough to have youth) is usually taken for granted.

Baucham asserts that, "Contrary to popular belief, the home, not the church, has been entrusted with the primary responsibility of teaching children the Bible" (p. 95). He notes that he has "never had a conversation with a person presenting the argument for segregated youth/children's ministry from an open Bible" (p. 185), which is rather sad. Of course, Baucham is writing from a Reformed Baptist perspective, and he and I would, I think, have different views of the status of children in the church. He notes that church leaders should equip parents to teach their kids, since "the job of the church is to equip the saints to do their jobs, not to do it for them" (p. 186). The thing is, I believe that children are also saints. Children are directly addressed in the New Testament - for example, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1). The fact that it says "obey", rather than simply "honour" indicates that it is not merely adult children who are being addressed. Since the NT epistles were written to be read out in churches, we can indeed conclude that children were assumed to be present in church. But the fact that they are addressed (and that it doesn't say, "Fathers, train your children to obey you") indicates that children are proper objects of the church's pastoral ministry. As a pastor, I can address children directly, and my teaching does not necessarily have to be mediated through their parents.The children of believers are, after all, full members of the church. There is no associate membership in the church of Jesus Christ.

Baucham includes an interesting list of criteria he used in choosing a church: a Southern Baptist, elder-led, family-integrated church which practiced church discipline and verse-by-verse systematic exposition, and which believed in church-planting (p. 175). It's not clear whether this is an exhaustive list, since it omits being Reformed (although Baucham is a card-carrying Calvinist) or being gospel-centred. But in seeking to promote the things he describes in this book, Baucham is advocating a return not just to the Bible, but also to Reformation teaching and practice.

Oh, and out of interest - Voddie Baucham is black. Not that he ever mentions it in the book.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Clunes 2013

As we did this time last year, we visited Clunes Booktown this past weekend, and here is what we found:
  • Eloise Wilkin's Mother Goose - This is by the same illustrator as Baby Dear, which is one of Galilee's favourite books at the moment.
  • The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy - Our first purchase of the day. Kara loved it as a child.
  • Selected Essays by G. K. Chesterton
  • The Round Table (Essays on Literature, Men and Manners) by William Hazlitt
  • Sailing the Wine-dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill - John really liked Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, and was pleased to discover that he decided to make that volume one of a series on "the hinges of history".
  • John Bunyan: The Tinker of Bedford by William Deal
  • Pages of English Prose - This is a book from 1930, with some pages still uncut.
  • Freddy Plays Football by Walter R. Brooks - Kara looks forward to reading another story about the Renaissance Pig. She was introduced to these books by her good friend, Tiffany.
  • The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America by Bill Bryson
  • The Wicked Day and The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart - Kara has enjoyed mysteries by Stewart, and decided to have a look at her fantasy.
  • The Little House and Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton - Some more of Kara's childhood favourites.
  • Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems
  • Locating Renaissance Art by Carol M. Richardson
  • Jamie's America by Jamie Oliver - We were very happy to find this one, since the copy from our local library has gone missing.
  • The West and the Map of the World by Matthew Richardson

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reading through the Divine Comedy in real time

This year I am attempting to read through Dante's Divine Comedy in real time. The Comedy tells the story of Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

The trilogy is set over the Easter period. In Canto XXI of the Inferno, Dante is told that "yesterday, five hours by the clock from now, 'twas just twelve hundred, sixty and six years since the road was rent by earthquake shock". This refers to the earthquake that occurred when Jesus was crucified.

I am reading the Comedy in Dorothy L. Sayers' translation, which helpfully includes the time at which each canto is set. Occasionally Dante includes a reference to the time at which something occurs, and so Sayers' scheme is as follows:

Canto I
Good Friday – morning
Then I looked up and saw the morning rays” (I.16)

Cant. I – VII
Good Friday – evening
To that place wherein the sun is mute” (I.60)

Canto VII
Good Friday – midnight
All stars that rose when I set out now sink” (VII.98)

Holy Saturday – morning
Horizon-high the twinkling Fishes swim” (XI.113) = 4am

Holy Saturday – afternoon
Night is rising on the world once more” (XXXIV.68)

Easter Sunday – morning
By this we climbed, and thence came forth, to look once more upon the stars” (XXXIV.138-139)
Cant. I – IV
Easter Sunday – morning
And the dawn rose triumphant, making flee the morning breeze before her” (I. 115-116)

Canto IV
Easter Sunday – noon
Look how the sun doth stand Meridian-high” (IV.137)

Cant. IV – VIII
Easter Sunday – afternoon
Te lucis ante, so devoutly he breathed forth” (VIII.13) – this is Ambrose's evening hymn

Cant. IX – XI
Easter Monday – morning
About the hour when the sad swallow... pipes out her mournful way to greet the dawn” (IX.13-15)

Canto XII
Easter Monday – noon
Look how the day's sixth handmaiden resigns her office now (XII.80-81)

Easter Monday – afternoon
When I first spied the sun again, which now was near to sinking” (XVII.9)

Easter Monday – evening
Retarded near to midnight now, the moon... was making the stars appear but dimly strewn” (XVIII.76-78)

Cant. XIX – XXIV
Easter Tuesday – morning
Broad day had masterdom now of the holy mountain's every ledge” (XIX.37-38)

Cant. XXV – XXVI
Easter Tuesday – afternoon
The Sun had to the Bull transferred” (XXV.2) = 2pm

Easter Tuesday – evening
As when his earliest shaft of light assails the city where his Maker shed His blood... so rode the sun; thus day was nightward winging” (XXVII.1-5). Dante places Purgatory in the southern hemisphere. When it is dawn in Jerusalem, it is sunset on Mount Purgatory

Easter Wednesday – morning
The shades of darkness fled away all round” (XXVII.112)

Paradiso doesn't follow a particular time scheme. But you can see from this table that most of the reading is to be done on the Saturday. It's quite a challenging reading schedule.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Better to read Borrow or Dalrymple

In the Footsteps of George Borrow: A Journey Through Spain and Portugal by Guy Arnold

This book relates the author's travels through Spain, retracing the steps of George Borrow, who made the journey in the 1830s.

This puts the book in the same genre as William Dalrymple's wonderful In Xanadu (in which Dalrymple retraces Marco Polo's route to China) and his even more brilliant From the Holy Mountain (in which he follows in the footsteps of the Byznatine monk John Moschos). Sadly, this book doesn't measure up to either of those works.

I love George Borrow. I have read three of his books - Lavengro and The Romany Rye describe his dealing with gypsies in England, while The Bible in Spain relates how he went around the Iberian peninsula distributing New Testaments on behalf of the British and Foreign Bible Society. This is the book that Arnold is interested in, as he retraces Borrow's steps.

Arnold admits that he is irreligious, and that colours his interpretation of Borrow. He tends to take a cynical view of Borrow's work, and suggests that The Bible in Spain is not the book of a missionary, but "the highly coloured, exciting work of an adventurer" (p. 175). Arnold argues that Borrow "employs the piety of language expected of religious people - after he had learned or assumed it for the benefit of his paymasters, the Bible Society" (p. 168).

Arnold's lack of knowledge in Christian matters comes out in his misunderstanding of scholastic philosophy (p. 160) and his notion that G. K. Chesterton's poem Lepanto is written from a "cruelly partisan" Protestant view (p. 135).

I can't really recommend this book. Rather, I urge the reader to instead read William Dalrymple or George Borrow, or preferably both.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A book about libraries

The Library Book

This book is a collection of short pieces concerning the benefits of public libraries, and the authors' various experiences of them.

Michael Brooks contributes a piece called "It takes a library..." and suggests that "there is little that can compare with the joy and value of discovering a book that you could only have come across by being in the same physical space." Indeed, I came across this book quite by chance while browsing the shelves at one of my local public libraries.

The quality of the contributions is uneven, and some chapters have the feel of being dashed off upon request.  The most disappointing thing about the book, however, is that it is intensely political. It has been published in reaction to recent library closures in the UK, and its release coincided with the inaugural British National Libraries Day. But to an Australian reader, the issue seems remote and tedious.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Turning Points by Mark Noll

I found this a very interesting overview of church history. Noll has taken what could be an overwhelming subject and made it manageable by using twelve important events  (e.g. the Council of Nicaea) as springboards to talk about the details of people and places. Each chapter begins with an appropriate hymn of the time period and ends with a prayer.

In a book of this kind, the interpretive role of the historian becomes evident, and Noll is generally careful throughout to acknowledge his bias as an evangelical protestant. During the last couple of chapters, however, I found that he was not as aware of his presuppositions. For instance, he unquestioningly accepts that Bible translation and evangelism must be adapted to cultural idiom.

Turning Points tends to focus on the positive effects of various people and events. This may be a failing. For instance, Noll writes extensively about Methodism and its stepchild, Pentecostalism. Surely there is scope here for discussing the effects of a theology of Christian perfection, and how it has changed the face of Christianity.
I don't know enough about church history to be sure, but I wonder whether Noll, in his effort to write a balanced, non-Western, non-Americo-centric history, has missed some important bits. The absence of a mention of the Great Awakening in his chapter on the Wesleys (aside from a token mention of Whitefield) struck me particularly.

All in all, I found this a helpful introduction to church history, which, as a good introduction should, left me wanting to learn more.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

An excellent story of fatherhood, resurrection and return

Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

This is N. D. Wilson's first novel, but I had already read all his other books. There have been three in the 100 Cupboards series, and two (so far) in the Ashtown Burials series. In fact, Kara and I both read all those books last year.

Leepike Ridge is different. While the other books are all fantasy novels, this is fairly straight adventure. One notices the similarities, of course. The protagonist, Tom, is an eleven-year old boy (Wilson uses twelve-year-old boys in his other novels), and the theme of fatherhood is prominent throughout. (I'm sure we don't need to psychologize here; Wilson appears to have an excellent relationship with his father, Douglas Wilson).

Like all N.D. Wilson's books, Leepike Ridge is a thoroughly Christian novel. Tom travels deep underground, and then surfaces again. Wilson makes the connection with Jesus' burial and resurrection obvious (perhaps a bit too obvious) - the relevant chapter is entitled "Easter". Of course, it's not just a parallel with the story of Jesus (and Tom is not portrayed as a "Christ figure") - rather, this is the story of the Christian life, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). In any case, the metaphor works well in this book. And although I haven't read it closely, and can't be sure of the chronology, I wouldn't be surprised if Tom rises again on the third day.

Another theme of the book is that of return. It felt like the book was an exposition of that wonderful T. S. Eliot quote: "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Finally, Leepike Ridge makes some interesting connections with fringe theories concerning the discovery of America. Tom discovers artefacts that might be Chinese or Phoenician. The Chinese theory is the one made famous by Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered America (which I still haven't got around to reading) and Admiral Cheng is mentioned by name in the book. The Phoenician theory is less well known, but the book inspired me to research it and start a Wikipedia article on the Theory of Phoenician discovery of the Americas. I should point out, however, that Wilson says in an Author's Note that Leepike Ridge "does not draw inspiration from any historical evidence that proto-Chinese explorers reached the New World. Rather, it draws inspiration from a much broader pattern..."