25 Feb 2016

When [Jesus] approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” -Luke 19:41-44

Hollywood has never taken on the 70AD destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, one of the most amazing events in all of history. It seems tailor-made for a massive, historically inaccurate epic.

Christ’s prophetic discourse on Mount Olivet (Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13) sets the stage and predicts what is to come (by His hand!). The extra-Biblical histories of event itself are mind-boggling. The hostile Roman historian Tacitus, in book 5.13 of his history, said this:

Prodigies [extrodinary and prophetic events] had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing.

Josephus, 1st-century Jewish military leader and historian, perceived in the event a judgment on his people. Here is what his history says occurred in the years leading up to the destruction of the great city by the Romans:

  • A star resembling a sword hanging over the city
  • A comet visible for a year
  • During the feast of unleavened bread at night, a great light shining around the altar and holy house for a half hour, making it appear daylight
  • A sacrificial cow bringing forth a lamb in the midst of the temple
  • A massive brass gate secured with bolts in the floor that opened on its own
  • During Pentecost, a quaking in the inner court of the temple, with the sound of a great multitude saying “Let us remove hence.” (Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, was the Jewish celebration of the harvest and the giving of the law to Moses, occurring 50 days after passover).
  • Before sunset, not long after Pentecost, chariots and soldiers running about in the clouds, surrounding cities.
  • A prophet named Jesus who cried woe on the city, to the annoyance of the populace, for 7 years prior to the event

Read it for yourself in The Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 5.3. And keep reading, because the chronicle of the temple’s destruction, the enraged bloodbath amid horrified shrieking, the Jews expecting their Messiah… it is something else. (Unfortunately, the full translation of the book is hundreds of years old and it can be hard to decipher at points. One wishes there were a modern, footnoted translation of the full book, as it is a fascinating read.)

Today, the garish Dome of the Rock sits atop the Temple Mount in the traditional location of the Herodian temple, a golden reminder that the time of the Gentiles has not ended, and also, as has been noted, an unwitting guardian of the new reality that the High Priest has assumed His office and the copy and shadow is no longer needed.

23 Jan 2016

Count me in favor of study Bibles and commentaries. Often when reading a chapter I get stuck on a passage, and can’t get past it. What does it mean? When I check a comment on the passage, 90% of the time my reaction is “of course, didn’t think of that.” With my Olive Tree app, I’ve purchased a bunch of notes: Reformation Study Bible, ESV Study Bible, Reformation Heritage Study Bible, Matthew Henry Complete, New Testament Commentary (Hendriksen, Kistemaker). All of these are solid, conservative commentaries. I’ve also purchased the Ancient Christian Commentary series. More on that at the end.

For devotional value, Matthew Henry is unsurpassed. It’s beautifully written and wisdom drips from every page. Henry has a way of getting at the heart of a passage in the most helpful of ways. My only complaint is the formatting of the content. It would be good if someone would take the complete commentaries and make it easier to find the verses, maybe by bolding chapter headings/verses and making them sync properly with the Bible verse. It was never easy to find a verse comment in any of the print versions either. Still, the content is so wonderful that it’s worth the time.

One tip with Matthew Henry: do not bother with “concise” versions. There’s no chaff to remove and the effect is to chop up and destroy the beauty and flow. They are borderline criminal. Go Complete!

To learn the meaning of a passage, the Hendriksen / Kistemaker “New Testament Commentary” is the best. This commentary really gets into extended discussions of passages with solid, sensible, and mature Reformed insight. On controversial passages it explains different views and it’s often passionate in its own Dutch Reformed way. For some reason its voice reminds me of those G.I. Williamson books (quite good) on the Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Confessions. The NTC’s only problem is that it’s “Matthew Henry, Jr.” in the area of formatting. Well, it’s not quite as bad. There is bolded text in there and better formatting, but sometimes when you’re in chapter 2, verse 8 you end up at the top of chapter 2 and have to wade around a lot to find the verse. Excellent content, though. At $75 on sale for the entire collection, it’s great stuff. If I had to choose just one commentary on the NT, I’d take this one.

The Reformation Study Bible (2015 revision) and ESV Study Bible notes cover the OT and NT, and are similar in style and amount of content. The Reformation Study Bible has far more notes than the previous RSB version released in the 2000s. It’s a worthy upgrade although I’d like even more notes in it. I haven’t spent time jumping to controversial passages to compare the RSB and the ESV SB, but I’ve heard that the RSB is a bit more “reformed.” They give you a few sentences or a paragraph on a passage, where Kistemaker/Hendriksen sometimes gives you a few pararaphs or a page. As a tag team I’ve found that these two study Bibles do a good job of providing concise but helpful commentary. If I had to choose one I’d take the RSB, but I like them both.

The Reformation Heritage Study Bible (not to be confused with the RSB above) has solid notes, but they are abbreviated and skimpy compared the the RSB and ESV SB. I prefer those two. I haven’t formed an opinion on MacArthur’s Study Bible yet, but the notes have been sound and are roughly at the level of the RSB and ESV SB.

When you read a number of these conservative commentaries you really do notice a similarity in analysis that says something about the perspicuity of Scripture. If I took you to a verse and read from each version, you probably wouldn’t know which was which.

Finally, I tried the “Ancient Christian Commentary” on Scripture. I love the idea of this big set– what did the early church think about Scriptural passages? This set has many volumes and there are lots of notes. Sometimes a passage gets comments from multiple fathers. Unfortunately it includes heretical and heterodox ones, too — Pelagius, anyone? I’d rather see “ancient” commentary focused more on the patristics and ending in the 5th century, but the set is more back-loaded because the church was on the run in the first few centuries when letters and apologetics were common. There is much representation from fathers like Bede and Gregory the Great, who I consider medieval rather than ancient. There’s something about this series that feels disjointed. As someone who has read a lot of history, albeit not heavily in this space, something just doesn’t ‘feel’ quite right about this set. You wonder why certain passages were chosen. Some of the passages are a little odd, making me wonder if there is context missing. It’s a curiosity for sure, but it seems a bit like a church fathers K-Tel collection. It’s questionable if it’s worth the $150 (at 50% off) cost.

ADDENDUM 2/2/16: I added the 22-volume Calvin commentaries on Scripture for $20 on sale at Olive Tree. What a steal. Calvin does not mince words, a trait most refreshing in a day where evil is considered sacred. Non-Calvinists can profit by his words also.

28 Jun 2008

I was quite interested in Adolf Hitler as a youth. I read and reread books about him. With the advent of the History (aka. Hitler) Channel, Hitler is even more fascinating to people. My theory is that much of this interest springs from the occultic and Wagnerian theatrics of his early dictatorship captured by Leni Riefenstahl. It’s the juxtaposition of the gas chambers with the candlelight vigils, the swastika, the salute, and massive demonstrations of spartan order, all done with a painter’s eye. I still remember a high school friend’s funny imitations of a fanatical Rudolf Hess.

Stalin and Hitler shared many attributes. Both had alcoholic fathers. Both were involved in underground subversion. Both were eccentric, fanatical, paranoid, cunning, ruthless criminals. And yet, for all their shared traits, I think Hitler was, at core, a nut. Stalin was not a nut. And that perhaps explains his enduring fascination for me, perhaps more than any other non-Biblical historical figure.

Robert Conquest’s standard The Great Terror is a good starting point to learn about Stalin. There are the biographies of Volgonokov, Radzinsky, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, Animal Farm, Darkness at Noon… the worthwhile books go on and on. Solzhenitsyn’s rapier-like Gulag Achipelago, especially volume 1, provides revealing insights into The Friend of the Working People’s character, as does a keen chapter from The First Circle describing an encounter between the old dictator, circa 1950, and his secret police chief Abakumov. Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom is a harrowing and sadly forgotten journey of a Soviet technocrat through collectivization and terror. Malcolm Muggeridge’s upward journey from leftism began with his own experiences in early 1930s Russia, recollected in his riotous autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. David King’s sadly out-of-print coffee table book, The Commissar Vanishes, is an Orwelllian look into the dangers of owning even pictures of Enemies of the People. It also shows ongoing falsification of photographs and history itself (for example, this infamous photo of Stalin, Molotov, and “the bloody dwarf” Yezhov). Imagine being part of the team who brushes out a body and replaces it with background! There are some great photographs in the book, including a particularly sinister NKVD group photo entitled “Murderers.”

On a lighter note, there is the singular East Side Story, a slow but truly odd 1997 documentary on the genre of Eastern European musicals. It includes vignettes from several American-inspired Soviet musicals of the 1930s, including Stalin’s favorite movie, the happy-go-lucky Volga Volga (I have the full version– alas, no subtitles!). Released at the height of the Great Terror, it is said that Uncle Joe saw it a hundred times and even gifted a copy to FDR.

If they appear on Turner Movie Classics, don’t miss the dreadful Mission to Moscow and North Star. These wartime films were created by major studios at FDR’s behest as tokens of friendship toward our Soviet allies. Both are among the worst things Hollywood ever released. The first is just a wonder to behold; the falsehoods are astounding. It even pleasantly spins Stalin’s loathsome prosecutor Vyshinsky, he of infamous lines like “I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot – every one of them!” Meanwhile, North Star, written by Lillian Hellmann (who is skewered in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals), features a happy, well-fed collectivized village. The depredations of Ukrainian villages fresh in his memory, the defector Kravchenko said that the film “drove me to helpless despair.” “Why, why,” he asked, “did these Americans insist on fabricating a paradise and locating it in my tortured country?”

None of these works, though, answered questions I’d long pondered about Stalin. How did a man sign off on thousands of executions of innocents and then attend the cinema that same evening? How does he send millions to dreadful camps, destroying lives and families? How could he lovingly prune his roses and sing along to musicals and yet casually deport entire civilizations? How could he imprison and shoot members of his own family? His charm was considerable (he charmed even enemies like Churchill). That he charmed the dilettante FDR is no surprise. Nor was his appeal to leftists, including Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Paul Robeson. The ongoing fascination of leftists with Utopian thugs from Stalin to Mao to Che is well-chronicled — hilariously by Muggeridge and in more scholarly fashion by writers like Paul Hollander. (It’s hard to imagine now, but pre-WWII Russia was admired by progressives and the avant-garde. Fellow travelers went to faraway Siberian towns to build socialism. The motherland supposedly offered equality to all races. And if a few million were crushed by the Bolshevik bulldozer, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.) Furthermore, Trotsky and his followers said that Stalin was a clever politician but an intellectual lightweight. But how did that explain the mordant wit of his epigrams? His diabolical cleverness is seen in this exchange with the Spanish war correspondent Mikhail Koltsov:

Stalin: “How do they address you in Spanish? ‘Miguel’ or something?”
Koltsov: “Miguel.”
Stalin: “Don Miguel, we honorable Spaniards thank you for your excellent report.”
Koltsov: “I serve the Soviet Union, Comrade Stalin.”
Stalin: “And do you own a revolver, Comrade Koltsov?”
Koltsov: “Yes, I do, Comrade Stalin.”
Stalin: “And you are not planning to shoot yourself with it?”
Koltsov: “No, Comrade Stalin. I never even thought of it!”
Stalin: “Well, that’s excellent, Don Miguel! All the best, then, Comrade Koltsov.”
(Koltsov was afterward arrested and shot.)

So these were all vexing questions. But then this decade saw the release of two magnificent books by Simon Sebag Montefiore that have finally begun to answer them. The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) is a fascinatingly detailed look at the intricacies of Stalin’s court after his ascension to power. Young Stalin (2008) covers his early period through the 1917 revolution.

Born in Georgia of the southern Caucasus, Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili ended up in religious schools. The teenage boy was a promising poet who abandoned his Orthodox faith at Tiflis seminary (though he fondly sang Orthodox hymns with his cronies once in power). He went underground around 1900, and never truly resurfaced until 1917. It was during this time that he took his revolutionary name Stalin (man of steel). Young Stalin was always on the run, working his network of terrorists, criminals, sympathizers, party members, and lovers. Two illegitimate children resulted. It was one long period of robberies, agitation, and executions, always matching wits against Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) agents. As young Joseph put it: “To choose one’s victim, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to slake implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed.” It was said that Stalin had an uncanny knack for instantly knowing Okhrana spies. Periods of exile interrupted this existence (such relative Tsarist leniency would not characterize the Bolshevik regime). One such exile was a four-year interval in the netherworld of the sub-Arctic Siberian taiga, where he could catch fish in the bitter cold and break off frozen, raw bits of flesh to melt in his mouth. It was perhaps the happiest time of his life.

Montefiore argues persuasively that Stalin never left the paranoid world of the criminal underground after the Revolution. He shared Lenin’s pitilessness. Lenin would send his Georgian disciple to the areas most in need of vicious repressions in the Civil War, whereupon the shootings would soon begin. After Stalin rose to power, war was continued against “rich” peasants and supposed double agents, industrial “wreckers,” and “hostile party elements.”

Aided by the archives, Montefiore explodes the idea that Stalin was an intellectual non-entity. He was a crucial figure in Bolshevik circles long before the revolution, and indeed was Lenin’s right-hand man for a time after it. He was a man of action with a will to power, a man after Lenin’s heart. Stalin was a voracious reader and autodidact. His preparedness and intelligence intimidated even his smartest underlings. Ruthlessness and brilliance is a bad combination.

Soviet Russia of the 1930s was one of the most bizarre and horrific periods in all of history. Peasants were herded into collectivized farms, with millions killed in the displacement (food was still exported during the resulting famine). The political show trials in the Hall of Great Columns featured witnesses and defendants who were beaten to ensure that all went smoothly. The Western press at the time predictably bought the lie. These sham trials featured those the maestro most despised; many were left pathetically groveling for full communion again with their beloved party. (Solzhenitsyn noted that at Yagoda’s trial, when he begged his life, “a match flared in the shadows behind a window on the second floor of the hall… and while it lasted, the outline of a pipe could be seen.”)

The revolution devoured its children during the Great Terror of the late 1930s. Longtime allies were rounded up and shot, including Stalin’s own in-laws. Former paramours were imprisoned along with the wives of his magnates. He executed the wife of his devoted attache. Scores were settled with old Bolsheviks like Kamenev and Bukharin who patronized or offended the young Stalin. Even most of his secret policemen were tortured and killed after serving their usefulness.

The gulags swelled with untold millions throughout the thirties. These chains of inhuman labor camps, the “sewage disposal system” to use Solzhenitsyn’s term, were put in place by Lenin just as Solzhenitsyn said long ago, back when it was still commonly said that Stalin had corrupted “pure” communism. As the archives show, this is completely false. Lenin was worse than his detractors thought. (As a sidenote, the ruthless Molotov knew both Stalin and Lenin well, and thought Lenin the more severe of the two. For example, a letter from Lenin to Molotov shows how Lenin used the famine of the early 1920s… “Now and only now, when people are being eaten in famine-stricken areas, and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses lie on the roads, we can (and therefore must) pursue the removal of church property with the most frenzied and ruthless energy and not hesitate to put down the least opposition. … [P]ass a secret resolution of the congress that the removal of property of value, especially from the very richest lauras, monasteries, and churches, must be carried out with ruthless resolution, leaving nothing in doubt, and in the very shortest time. The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and the reactionary bourgeoisie that we succeed in shooting on this occasion, the better because this “audience” must precisely now be taught a lesson in such a way that they will not dare to think about any resistance whatsoever for several decades.”)

Montefiore has summed up the dictator up this way: “Stalin is one of those subjects that one never gets bored with. He was incredibly complex and subtle, both diabolical and terrifyingly seductive.”

Mr. Montefiore needs to finish off a trilogy with a biography of the (underserved) 1917-1929 years!

17 Jun 2008

“One morning just before the October [1917] Revolution,” recalls Anna Alliluyeva, “there was a ring at the door. I saw a smallish man dressed in a black overcoat and a Finnish cap on the threshold. ‘Is Stalin at home?’ he asked politely. … After a brief conversation, Stalin and he left together.”

Just days later, these scruffy, diminutive figures [Lenin and Stalin], who now walked the streets of Petrograd disguised and unrecognized, seized the Russian empire. They formed the world’s first Marxist government, remained at the peak of the state for the rest of their days, sacrificed millions of lives at the pitiless altar of their utopian ideology, and ruled the imperium, between them, for the next thirty-six years. -Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, p332

09 Feb 2008

Baylyblog is stirring the waters again with Carolyn Custis “two last names” James. Pastor Gleason has followed suit.

Why all this whining about pastorettes and deaconesses? Moody would’ve asked us to focus on winning souls. Today’s leaders might ask us to meet people where they are (or worse, to help defeat global warming). In any event, this whole “women thing,” we’re told, is something on which all Christians of good will can disagree. It’s adiaphora, a matter of indifference.

Really? Perhaps we can take the temperature of those fine denominations with ordained women. That great pragmatist, V.I. Lenin, said that peace treaties were scraps of paper. So are the confessions of faith of these churches. They have sodomy lobbies gathering steam, if not already in control. They have pastors who deny that anyone really needs the righteousness of Christ; why, any spiritual belief will do. The moderates who do so much damage in aiding this transition (“thus far, but no farther!”) find themselves, like the original Russian Marxists who welcomed revolution, cast into a whirlwind that carries them far from their intended destination. When you deny the obvious, when you deny what Scripture says directly and you deny its entire context (no female apostles, no female priests, etc.), then you’ve denied its authority. When doctrine divides and confessions and confessionalism just don’t matter, then church discipline doesn’t matter. Eventually the Gospel doesn’t matter. Eventually Jesus isn’t the heavenly high prophet, priest, and king, but just a fine man.

Fr. Bill Mouser has a post in the aforementioned Baylyblog post that is well worth reading. An excerpt:

Evangelical Protestantism in the second half of the 20th century fell [I’d say, more accurately, is falling] in exactly the same way that Protestantism fell in the second half of the 19th Century: its heart was captured by world dominating ideas that are fundamentally anti-Biblical and hostile to the gospel. In the 19th Century it was Darwinism and the zenith of post-Renaissance rationalistic hubris. In the second half of the 20th Century it was sexual egalitarianism and the zenith of modernist individualism. The beachhead in both defeats is found in the seminaries. Soon after these were well-infected, the contagion spread to the publishing houses and denominational and mission agencies. That is why Grudem’s recent book catalogs so completely the capitulation of American evangelicalism’s institutions to the egalitarian cause. That is why modern evangelicals virtually identify evangelism with modern marketing techniques aimed at consumers of religious products and services.

The interesting thing about the 19th century northern Presbyterian church is how quickly it fell. Towns across America are still filled with liberal mainline churches in beautiful old buildings. Many of the people in those churches are finally bleeding into megachurches with faulty underpinnings– vague theology, non-confessional, fad-driven. Would anyone be surprised to see Unitarians wandering the halls of Saddleback in a generation?

Meanwhile, the orthodox in the PCA have fight, but cleaning up the mess that has gotten to this point could be something like what the Baptists experienced some years ago. And the cries for “peace, peace” will be at every turn.

05 Jul 2007

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. -narrator in Fellowship of the Ring

Another July 4 has gone by, one where once again we drank in large gulps the blessing of family, wishing time would stand still. To paraphrase Lewis, it was a very pleasant inn.

As often happens, a small comment captured me: my oldest sister was shocked to learn that there was once a Kroger grocery in our hometown. She never knew that until tonight.

How much knowledge is lost with every passing soul; how quickly it fades away! My great grandfather fought in the Civil War; today we know little of him. My aunt, frail and in her 90s, remembers sitting upon his knee as a small child. That is most of what I know of him.

I can ask my mom what life was like growing up in the 1930s. She has presented many small slices. Some are even in writing or on tape. However, the intricacies of family life and the farm are lost except for perhaps a few anecdotes that will be repeated to the next generation. A generation or two after that, even that will likely be gone.

Look about you now. Think of your family, of your town, of your life. Most of what you see and know will be lost to the ages in 50 years. In 100 years, our children’s children will perhaps wonder what we all used to talk about, what life was like for us, what we were like. I’m doing little more than restating Ecclesiastes, but how few are our years.

I do not think history is lost. God knows it, after all. It seems not too speculative to say that heaven will be rich with history.

24 May 2007

I was reading a Baptist post somewhere talking about improper Presbyterian administration of the sacrament of baptism, and I (a confessional Presbyterian) began to wonder: What is the Baptist argument against the fact that the church universally practiced infant baptism until the 16th century? Isn’t “believer’s baptism” as much an innovation as pastorettes, dispensationalism, pentecostalism, and Mormonism? (Not that all these are equally bad, of course.)

One may say, “Well, yes, but Scripture teaches believers baptism.” But if that were the case, wouldn’t the Holy Spirit see to it that a remnant was practicing such baptism over the first 1500 years of the New Testament church?

Comments are open. This is not the place to argue the Scriptural case for believers baptism or infant baptism, but I would be grateful if someone could summarize Baptist opinion about “the gap.”

16 May 2007

It’s interesting how many films, from Spiderman to 28 Days Later, have destruction as their context. Watching previews recently at a theater, I noted that every film involved it: Great monuments exploding, cities depopulated, and sandy ruins the only beacons of a once-great civilization. There is an unease in so much of our entertainment, a feeling that calamity awaits despite peace and serenity (of course, the wishful thinking, the lie, in all these films is that civilization will recover via the efforts of heroes).

For the history student, this preoccupation with calamity may be related to what Nock stated so hauntingly:

A dozen empires have already finished the course that ours began three centuries ago. The lion and the lizard keep the vestiges that attest their passage upon earth, vestiges of cities which in their day were as proud and powerful as ours – Tadmor, Persepolis, Luxor, Baalbek – some of them indeed forgotten for thousands of years and brought to memory again only by the excavator, like those of the Mayas, and those buried in the sands of the Gobi. The sites which now bear Narbonne and Marseilles have borne the habitat of four successive civilizations, each of them, as St. James says, even as a vapour which appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away. The course of all these civilizations was the same. Conquest, confiscation, the erection of the State; then the sequences which we have traced in the course of our own civilization; then the shock of some irruption [internal collapse] which the social structure was too far weakened to resist, and from which it was left too disorganized to recover; and then the end. -Our Enemy, the State, ch. 6, p.144

However, I don’t think most people are that interested in history. So why the preoccupation? Ecclesiastes 3 says that we have eternity in our hearts. I think our consciences are also stamped with a sense of pending judgment, the day of the Lord, and this is the real cause of the unease. The viewer may pass it off as harmless entertainment as he exits the theater, but our fairy tales and stories often speak to eternal truths moreso than the news (as Lewis put it in The Weight of Glory: “[T]he ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy”).

Reading the prophecies of Isaiah, it’s hard not to ponder the great glory and sudden ruin of empires.

Behold, the Lord will empty the earth and make it desolate,and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller;as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered; for the Lord has spoken this word. The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left. The wine mourns, the vine languishes,all the merry-hearted sigh. The mirth of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased, the mirth of the lyre is stilled. No more do they drink wine with singing; strong drink is bitter to those who drink it. The wasted city is broken down; every house is shut up so that none can enter. There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine; all joy has grown dark; the gladness of the earth is banished. Desolation is left in the city; the gates are battered into ruins. -Isaiah 24:1-12

05 Apr 2007

I’m a sucker for movies about ancient history, but I didn’t like 300. When Gandalf the Gray stands on the bridge and thunders “You shall not… pass!” to the demonic Balrog, there is a profound hint of spiritual warfare (no doubt one lost on the filmmakers). In 300, when King Leonidas urges his warriors at Thermopylae to fight for freedom and reason and an end to mysticism and stuff, it just rings hollow. The king sounds and looks great, albeit like he spent a lot of time at the Gold’s Gym in downtown Sparta. The movie is beautifully and stylishly shot. The problem is that it’s all blood and guts and no heart. It’s not historically accurate, nor does it pretend to be, but there’s nothing very stirring or worthwhile about 300. (What’s the obsession with hideous makeup about anyway? I keep seeing a version of Robert the Bruce’s father from Braveheart in every film like this. You know, the old man with the deformed face and bad teeth, shown in closeup. It’s become, like the plaintive woman’s wail soundtrack, a cliche of the genre.)

I’ll give 300 one thing: it mostly avoided feminist anachronisms, which is an accomplishment of sorts in today’s Hollywood.

By the way, the Persian king Xerxes, portrayed absurdly in 300 as a bald, megalomaniacal goliath, is not known only from Herodotus and Plato, but also Scripture. He was the mercurial king Ahasuerus; his queen was Esther. The reigns of Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes form the backdrop of attempts by the Hebrew exiles to rebuild the temple (cf. the book of Ezra).

Why did the Lord choose this Persian king to be remembered for all time? Only He knows.

06 Mar 2007

I’ve read only some of Gary North’s huge tome on the fall of the old Presbyterian Church. Of all the books that have been written about denominational rot, “Crossed Fingers” surely must be the largest. Even after getting 1/4 of the way through, though, it’s clear what North’s main point is because it’s the last line of every chapter: “The crucial issue was sanctions.” That is, the church fell to unbelievers because it failed to effectively use church discipline against those who denied the authority of Scripture and disregarded the church’s confessions.

What became clear only in retrospect is that members of the Old School [the orthodox Princetonians led by the Hodges’, Warfield, etc.] did not understand the institutional limits under which they operated, especially the time constraints. They did not understand that they had approximately two years to make a formal complaint against an idea. If they limited their complaints to intellectual disputation, they would lose the war. Academic disputation apart from a formal protest in a Church court would doom the Old School’s defense. An intellectual attack apart from formal negative sanctions was, judicially speaking, the implicit acceptance of the denominational legitimacy of the substance of the modernists’ case: one opinion among many. But the Old School’s leadership was almost entirely academic. The ecclesiastical dominance of theologians is a fundamental tradition of Presbyterianism. The Old School leaders had no strategy. Their ad hoc tactic, case by case, was to challenge their modernist enemies within the denomination, but only in academic journals. This tactic not only failed, it legitimized the modernist position as a privately held opinion, judicially immune: one opinion among many. (p. 189)

As for the liberals:

Presbyterian modernists [aka. liberals] had to deal with sanctions. This required a theory of sanctions. This theory was applied ad hoc, and it seems to have been developed ad hoc. It was a three-stage position after the McCune trial (1878): (1) evade negative institutional sanctions (1878-1900); (2) seek positive institutional sanctions (1901-1933); (3) deploy negative institutional sanctions (1934-1936). The first stage required a public theology that invoked democratic pluralism: the illegitimacy of negative institutional sanctions against those holding the five points of modernism. The second stage involved the steady infiltration and capture of the highest offices of the denomination, especially academic positions in the seminaries. This required a public theology based on excellence in personal performance: above all, institutional teamwork. … Any theology that did not foster teamwork was said to be suspect. The final stage required a public theology that invoked bureaucratic authority: negative sanctions against those who would disrupt the team. “Disrupting the team” was defined operationally (though never publicly) as any attempt to impose negative sanctions against modernists. (p.190)

In stage one, liberals push the envelope, but call for “unity” and “moderation” when the conservatives get roiled (let’s not start talking about handing anyone over to Satan or invoking WCF Ch. 30). Open debates may start showing up in church periodicals. These provide airtime and legitimacy to the heterodox. All the while, the seminaries quietly hire more people based on worldly criteria and train more young, mushy minds. After attaining sufficient power, the final stage sees the iron fist removed from the velvet glove. Some conservatives leave and start a new denomination (liberalism is one reason why there are so many). Other believers remain for all sorts of reasons — pension, institutional loyalty, etc. — and slowly die out or leave as the denom puts the screws to them. All in the name of team play and tolerance, of course.

Sound familiar? More thoughts as my reading progresses.

14 Jan 2007

Know your Roman emperors. No quiz.

20 Sep 2006

One thing a reading of history shows is that the grand old past usually wasn’t all that grand. In all times and all ages, the church has been troubled and vexed by apathy and apostasy. One episode, recounted in Murray’s great book, “Evangelicalism Divided,” concerns Frederick the Great (1712-86):

Athough he has been brought up in a nominal Reformed faith, Frederick the Great (as he became known) was a thorough rationalist and patrol of ‘free thought.’ The sight of a cross, it was said, was enough to make him blaspheme. On one occasion when he was declaiming against Christ and the Christian religion during a dinner he observed an apparent lack of sympathy on the part of one of his guests, Prince Charles of Hesse. To an enquiring question from the king, the prince replied: ‘Sire, I am not more sure of having the honour of seeing you, than I am that Jesus Christ existed and died for us as our Saviour on the cross.’ After a moment of surprised silence, Frederick declared, ‘You are the first man who has ever declared such a belief in my hearing.’

17 Sep 2006

For the past year or two I have developed a keen interest in Byzantium. For 800 years it shielded Europe’s eastern flank from the Arabs and Turks, even though much of its time was also spent battling Bulgars, Slavs, Venetians, and Normans to its west. Warts and all, Byzantium is perhaps the closest parallel to Gondor, a buffer for Western Middle Earth against Mordor’s incursions. Byzantium survives today in Eastern Orthodoxy and modern Greece, where most of its descendants ended up after mass emigrations stemming from failed Greek excursions into Anatolia (nee Asia Minor, now the Asian portion of Turkey) after the first world war.

We recently visited Greece (more on that, perhaps, at a later time), and I had a long conversation with an Athenian cab driver who burned on the topic. Istanbul is Constantinople! The Turks are squatters! This nice man refuses to visit Hagia Sofia, burning with indignation that the Turks use it as a museum. “Better a museum than a mosque,” I said, to which he grudgingly assented. After he claimed Antioch for Greece — in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border — I said, “Well then don’t you want all of Anatolia?” No, he replied, just areas important to Eastern Orthodoxy. We didn’t get into what those lands were, but presumably the western lands of the seven churches of the Revelation, roughly those areas remaining after the 11th-century debacle at Manzikert. Ask any Greek, he said, and see if they do not agree. A few other Athenians I asked offered similar opinions.

All of which leads to something I have been thinking about lately: the ceaseless movement of Christianity. The church started in Palestine, but today not many Christians live there. Asia Minor was perhaps the great focus of early church history, yet now Turkey is 99% Muslim. The sites of the great early councils are ruins overseen by the Turks. All of the great ancient Eastern sees have long since fallen to unbelievers; few Christians remain in any of them. Rome solidified its denial of the Gospel at Trent. Europe was once the bastion of Christianity but now appears to be in a long spiritual decline. For a century America has been ascendant in its influence, but Christianity is spreading now into Africa, China, even India, and we see so many signs of evangelical degeneracy in the states (typified by the church growth movement). And so Christianity is not an American birthright. It seems as if the church has always been here and always will be, but so it probably seemed at Ephesus and Antioch and a thousand other cities. Short of repentance the American church may one day be under the boot of pagans and persecutors as the Holy Spirit moves on to other lands. Thanks be to God that we still have faithful churches here. It should never be taken for granted.

03 Sep 2006

At the time of the Reformation the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire reached its greatest heights. After smashing what little remained of the 1000-year Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century, the Turks made huge inroads into southeastern Europe until they were finally checked at the gates of Vienna in 1529 (as much by the weather as the defenders). These Islamic advances caused great concern in Europe. Luther thus wrote, more than once, about them, and his reflections point us in the right direction.

Since the Turk [Muslim] is the rod of the wrath of the Lord our God and the servant of the raging devil, the first thing to be done is to smite the devil, his lord, and take the rod out of God’s hand, so that the Turk may be found only, in his own strength, all by himself, without the devil’s help and without God’s hand. This should be done by the pious, holy, precious body of Christians. They are the people who have the arms for this war and they know how to use them. If the Turk’s god, the devil, is not beaten first, there is reason to fear that the Turk will not be so easy to beat.

Now the devil is a spirit who cannot be beaten with armor, muskets, horses, and men, and God’s wrath cannot be allayed by them, as it is written in Psalm 33, “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Christian weapons and power must do it. Here you ask, “Who are the Christians and where does one find them?” Answer: There are not many of them, but they are everywhere, though they are spread thin and live far apart, under good and bad princes. Christendom must continue to the end, so it must be possible to find them. Every pastor and preacher ought diligently to exhort his people to repentance and to prayer. They ought to drive men to repentance by showing our great and numberless sins and our ingratitude, by which we have earned God’s wrath and disfavor, so that he justly gives us into the hands of the devil and the Turk. And so that this preaching may work the more strongly, they ought to cite examples and sayings from the Scriptures, such as the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the children of Israel, and show how cruelly and how often God punished the world and its lands and peoples. And they ought to make it plain that it is no wonder, since we sin more grievously than they did, if we are punished worse than they.

This fight must be begun with repentance, and we must reform our lives, or we shall fight in vain… [F]or God is devising evil [punishment] against us because of our wickedness and is certainly preparing the Turk against us, as he says in Psalm 7, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons.” … After people have thus been taught and exhorted to confess their sin and amend their ways they should then be most diligently exhorted to prayer and shown that such prayer pleases God, that he has commanded it and promised to hear it, and that no one ought to think lightly of his own praying or have doubts about it, but with firm faith be sure that it will be heard. -from “On War Against the Turk”

22 Aug 2006

Years ago, Dana Carvey stated on a show that he grew up Lutheran. The interviewer asked what that was like, and he said “Well, sorta Catholic-lite.” That example of absolutizing form while disregarding content, laugh-out-loud funny as it is to this childhood Lutheran, reminds me of the popular understanding of infant baptism.

My sense, with no figures to back it up, is that at least a quarter of the people in paedobaptist churches are closet baptists. Not from any serious study of the issue, mind you, but because: (a) They have never heard the doctrine defended, (b) Most pop evangelical authors, preachers, and musicians are as credobaptist as they are dispensational premillenialist, (c) Paedobaptism is associated with apostate mainline churches, “dead orthodoxy,” and baptismal regeneration, (d) the doctrine isn’t easy for even theologians to state clearly, and (e) there’s a suspicion that the Reformation simply didn’t shed enough “Roman” baggage.

The Reformed case for infant baptism is based on appeals to Scripture: that both old and new covenants are dispensations of the same covenant of grace (cf. Genesis 17, Romans 4), that the church has the same nature and design in both old and new, that baptism is a sign (symbol) and a seal (guarantee) of regeneration to those “to whom the grace belongs” (the elect), and thus that that “baptism is to the new what circumcision is to the old.” Infant baptism was the practice of the early church and the unanimous practice of church until the 16th century, while, in A.A. Hodge’s words, “its impugners (a) date since the Reformation, (b) and are generally guilty of the gross schismatical sin of close communion.” Augustine, c. 350 AD: The doctrine “is held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.”

Now, this whole post is not meant to tweak my Baptist brothers, much less to start an amateur internet debate, but to simply say that — agree or not — the doctrine is based on appeal to Scripture. The popular understanding that it’s nothing but stubborn adherence to tradition is wrong. Then again, with so many who act as if there was no church between the end of the apostolic era and the Reformation (which appallingly cedes vast territories to Rome and Constantinople), maybe this is just part of a wider misunderstanding.

19 Aug 2006

I came across this Modern English Study Version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). I love it!

Chapter 1 of the WCF says that the Sriptures “are to be translated into the common language of every nation to which they come,” and most of us use modern, faithful Bible translations. So why are Reformational confessions and catechisms still stuck in a time warp? Why not translate all of them all into modern English, too? Maybe it will encourage people to start reading them again. Their interpretations are no less timeless today, and they are, after all, our official doctrinal standards.

16 Aug 2006

Unmentioned in all the news about fighting in the Middle East is that, according to Professor Walid Phares, a quarter of Lebanon’s population is Christian (at least in name). Dr. Phares is an author and Middle East expert who frequently shows up as an analyst on news talk shows. He adds this in an interesting article about “Arab” Christians:

The overwhelming majority of the Christians in the region are ethnically non-Arab, and their major common characteristic is their subjection to Arab colonialism and Islamic oppression for thirteen centuries. The Christians in the Middle East are not, as it was portrayed by the Arab regimes and many in the West, the followers of Christian faith among the Arab ethnic group. “Arab Christians” exist in few spots in the region, but they are a minuscule minority within the world of Middle Eastern Christianity.

Our Christian brothers, many of whom are descendants of the Assyrians and Phoenicians, some of whom can read Scripture in Aramaic, need our prayers.

10 Aug 2006

Despite the background music, here’s another good site for anyone still interested in the Da Vinci Code. It is sponsored by Westminster Theological Seminary.

27 Jul 2006

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

24 Jul 2006

Almost three thousand years ago, Solomon wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ec. 1:9). In the case of abortion, his conclusion is essentially supported. The methods and motives, and the questions involved in the morality and metaphysics of abortion, are not much different today than they were two millennia ago when the church first began to address them.

That’s the conclusion of this fine article. Abortion is another progressive “advance” that turns out to be as old as the hills (and nothing new in America either). The church has opposed it from the beginning.

The Didache 2:2 (c. 80 AD):

…you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born

Athenagorus of Athens, A Plea for the Christians (c. 180 AD):

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it.

Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus Book 2, Chapter 10 (191 AD):

Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, if order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the child completely dead, abort at the same time their own human feelings.

Tertullian, Apologeticus (197 AD):

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.

Hippolytus of Rome, Against All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 7 (c. 220 AD):

Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time!

Minucius Felix, Octavius XXX (c. 230 AD):

BUT THE GENTILES, BOTH CRUELLY EXPOSE THEIR CHILDREN NEWLY BORN, AND BE FORE THEY ARE BORN DESTROY THEM BY A CRUEL ABORTION. … There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth.

Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 48.2 (c. 250 AD):

The womb of his wife was smitten by a blow of his heel; and in the miscarriage that soon followed, the offspring was brought forth, the fruit of a father’s murder.

Basil of Caesarea, Letter 188, sections 2 and 8 (c. 370 AD):

The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. … Women also who administer drugs to cause abortion, as well as those who take poisons to destroy unborn children, are murderesses.

Ambrose of Milan, from Hexameron 5.18.58 (c. 380 AD):

The wealthy, in order that their inheritance may not be divided among several, deny in the very womb their own progeny. By use of parricidal mixtures they snuff out the fruit of their wombs in the genital organs themselves. In this way life is taken away before it is born …. Who except man himself has taught us ways of repudiating children?

Jerome, Letter 22.13 (384):

I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the church, their mother: stars over which the proud foe sets up his throne, and rocks hollowed by the serpent that he may dwell in their fissures. You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: “Unto the pure all things are pure; my conscience is sufficient guide for me. A pure heart is what God looks for. Why should I abstain from meats which God has created to be received with thanksgiving?”

John Chrysostom, Homily 24, on Romans 13:12 (c. 390 AD):

Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born. Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?

Augustine from On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book 1, Chapter 17 (c. 420):

Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or; if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born.

Martin Luther from “Lectures on Genesis” (1535):

How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation
is the work of God.

Calvin, from Commentaries On the Four Last Books of Moses, commenting on Ex 21:22 (1563):

The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.

11 Jul 2006

Gary North is perhaps best known for making bad Y2K predictions and Christian reconstructionist views. However, even critics speak highly of his 1000+ page, 1996 history of the liberal takeover of the northern Presbyterian Church, Crossed Fingers (the whole thing is online here). I have yet to read anything but excerpts — so many books, so little time — but take a look at this brief excerpt from an old review. See if it sounds familiar:

By the mid-1800s, three theological factions were visible within American Presbyterianism: (1.) the Old School, with its characteristic emphasis on doctrine and scholarship; (2.) the New School, with its emphasis on experience, heavily influenced by Arminian evangelism; (3.) religious modernists, who were undermining the authority of the Bible. By the end of the conflict, in the early 1900s, these groups were typified by the familiar labels of Calvinists, fundamentalists, and liberals. … By reuniting with the New School [in 1869 after the Civil War], the Old School made it impossible for Calvinistic doctrine to be enforced in the church. On the principle of the “lowest common denominator,” the New School would, in practical terms, set the standards of enforcement in the church [i.e. looser subscription to the church’s confessions].

Now, one characteristic of the experiential party was their aversion to conflict. Since their desire was to get on with the mission of church with a minimum of fuss over doctrinal precision, they did not want to be troubled by the discord inherent in heresy trials. Thus, the newly united church rarely took notice of the subversive activities among the denomination’s seminary professors. It took an infraction of grave proportions, stated in an inflammatory manner, to elicit judicial action in the church. The case of Charles Briggs was notable example of how far a man could go, in denying the doctrine of scripture, before the church would take decisive action. In the case of Briggs, even the Old School was guilty of foot-dragging. … That failure to act decisively was an indication that the war was already lost.

… [T]he war was lost on the basis of judicial authority. The outcome turned upon the inability of the orthodox party to impose negative sanctions upon heretics. North observes that the tactical error of the Old School was to allow issues to devolve into merely academic disputes conducted in theological journals.

The academic cast of the Old School played itself out in a predictable manner: “The conservatives were content to accept the language of orthodoxy rather than substance.”

08 Jul 2006

Here’s an interesting excerpt from A. Cleveland Coxe’s introduction to the great 2nd-century church father Irenaeus’s work, Against Heresies:

This history introduces us to the Church in her western outposts… Polycarp had sent Pothinus into Celtic Gaul at an early date as its evangelist. He had fixed his see at Lyons [Jack note: today the third largest city in France], when Irenaeus joined him as a presbyter, having been his fellow-pupil under Polycarp. There, under the “good Aurelius,” as he is miscalled (a.d. 177), arose the terrible persecution [Jack note: This Aurelius is the Stoic emperor depicted by Richard Harris in “Gladiator,” under whose reign Justin Martyr and Polycarp among others were martyred] … It was during this persecution that Irenaeus was sent to Rome with letters of remonstrance against the rising pestilence of heresy… But he had the mortification of finding the Montanist heresy patronized by Eleutherus the Bishop of Rome; and there he met an old friend from the school of Polycarp, who had embraced the Valentinian heresy. We cannot doubt that to this visit we owe the lifelong struggle of Irenaeus against the heresies that now came in, like locusts, to devour the harvests of the Gospel. But let it be noted here, that, so far from being “the mother and mistress” of even the Western Churches, Rome herself is a mission of the Greeks; Southern Gaul is evangelized from Asia Minor, and Lyons checks the heretical tendencies of the Bishop at Rome. Ante-Nicene Christianity, and indeed the Church herself, appears in Greek costume which lasts through the synodical period; and Latin Christianity, when it begins to appear, is African, and not Roman. It is strange that those who have recorded this great historical fact have so little perceived its bearings upon Roman pretensions in the Middle Ages and modern times.

05 Jul 2006

I recently talked to a woman who was mightily confused about Dan Brown’s baloney that Constantine cooked up the canon of Scripture. For those interested in a brief overview of the manifold errors in this book, this audio interview is a good start.

25 Jun 2006

One thing you hear, usually from supporters of contemporary worship, is that Luther adapted tavern songs for use in the church. Not so (and the same apparently goes for the Wesleys). According to Dr. Peter Masters of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle:

Promoters of new worship love to quote Luther as saying, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” What they do not tell their hearers is that Luther was talking about Catholic church music, not tavern songs. He was not interested in stealing from the world around him. If, rarely, a secular melody was used, it was very greatly changed, and what else would we expect from the Reformer who wrote:

“Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings. And be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on to defy their very nature. . . . They purloin the gift of God and use it to worship the foe of God.”

Luther clearly believed that music was to be identified with its source and users. It was the world of those days that stole from the church to obtain a melody line for a bawdy bar song, but not the other way round. …

Does evangelical worship reinvent itself every few decades by adopting new hymn and musical forms, controversial at first, but soon becoming the status quo? Yes, answer the glib advocates of new worship. But let any reader just visit the second-hand bookshop in town, and pick out old hymnbooks. There may be eighteenth-century books there. As you take them up and examine them, you may be surprised to see how many of the hymns are familiar to you. These form the backbone of conservative hymnbooks to this day. … This is because the church of Christ has long had its very own culture of hymns and hymn tunes, formed to suit reverent, intelligent, heartfelt praise, and kept well apart from the world of profanity.

05 Jun 2006

What are the common threads in these progressive contest finalists? Well, first that none of these high-flown sentiments may be realized without being backed up by the threat of government force and bureaucracy. But second, we see this common thread of future vs. past. It reminded me of words Joe Sobran wrote in 1990, words which apply not only to politics, but to many debates going on in our churches.

In The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield lamented the tendency of historians to see the controversies of the past in the anachronistic categories of “progressive” and “reactionary.” Whig history interpreted the clash of, say, Reformers and Church not in terms the raging opponents would have understood, but as a battle between the forces of the future (Luther) and the forces of the past (Pope Leo X).

This way of flattening complicated disputes into easily grasped melodrama has trickled down into journalism. Many “news” stories have as their subtext the battle between Progressive good guys and Reactionary villains. Despite the official journalistic ethic of neutrality, unmistakable moral commitment creeps into news reports of conflict between pope and theologian, government and protestor, business and labor, white and black, male and female. We sense we’re getting cues as to which side we should be rooting for … The ultimate Progressive categories are not heaven and hell, or good and evil, or order and chaos, but Future and Past. Even the cusswords of the Progressive are chronological: archaic, outdated, Neanderthal, medieval.

…History itself has begun to demolish the Progressive mythology. Socialism is in moral, political, and economic ruins. The noble savages of the Third World have shown us what comes after “liberation.” And it’s all so tiresome. We have seen the Future, and it has acquired its own discreditable past.

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