Helpful Reminder from Uncle Screwtape…

My wife and I have been listening to the newly released audio drama of CS Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”–it’s very well done and enjoyable.  Below is an important thought I heard last night.  For those who haven’t read this great book, Lewis creatively uses a fictional demon named Screwtape to mentor his young nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation, and therefore provides round-about advice for Christians.

(from Chapter 25…)

Screwtape says…

“But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that non-sense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will.  It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful.  The Enemy loves platitudes.  Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant (emphasis mine) questions.  And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends laragely on just those choices whcih they now invoke the future to help them to make.  As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.”


An Elder Brother’s Elder Brother…

Yesterday our pastor preached on the second half of the “Prodigal Son” story in connection with Thanksgiving this week.  Elder brothers are no fun.  Elder brothers are so disconnected from the heart of the Father they end up killing him out of jealousy.  Elder brothers don’t bother trying to rescue their younger brother, a true sign of love for the Father.  They complain when younger brothers get juice on the carpet or turn up the music too loud.  They complain when their preferences are infringed upon by kingdom work.  They just don’t get it.

I really can’t stand elder brother-types.  I wish they understood the heart of Jesus as well as I do or were as willing to sacrifice as I.  I’m really glad to see Jesus taking this parable and turning it into their heart…serves them right.  They deserve to be left out of the party.  The rest of us can have a great time because we loved Jesus rightly and they didn’t.  There’s a sweet satisfaction in seeing the self-righteous get their due comeuppance.

I’m just glad that their pride and self-approving judgments hasn’t brushed off on me…

Tim Challies’ “Ultimate Christian Novel”

I came across this hilarious post about a guaranteed Christian best-seller by a Canadian named Tim Challies…who by the way is obviously crazy based on his 10 Million Words project for 2010…

Amish Vampire Tribulation Romance…

“On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness”

A few months ago, I discovered that one of my favorite musicians, Andrew Peterson, is also a published author.  Anyone who has listened to music (his Christmas album, “Behold The Lamb of God” is probably my favorite ever) knows that Peterson is quite gifted in telling a yarn.  And so far, “The Wingfeather Saga” hasn’t caused me to change that opinion.

The first book of the series, “On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness,”  tells the story of the Igiby children in the small town of Glipwood, which is located (no surprise here) on the edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.  I won’t give much more plot information than that, but I enjoyed reading the book very much.

CS Lewis said that a children’s story that cannot be enjoyed by adults is not really a good children’s story.  The prose is well-written, and the imaginative world Peterson creates is rich and full.  There is both light and darkness in his portrait of Aerwiar, which can’t always be said about books aimed at children. There’s also a few footnotes and an appendix, which are pretty humorous.

The book can probably be read by kids 8 and up.  (Though not having kids of my own, I have no internal clock for childhood reading development.)  It’s the kind of story I think that deserves to be read aloud (perhaps it would be enjoyed even more in that fashion!), so families with younger children might take that option.   I haven’t read the second book “North! Or Be Eaten!” yet, but am looking forward to its arrival in the mail soon.

About a chapter in, I had already decided the books would make great Christmas presents for my 7 and 9 year-old cousins.  Perhaps some of you might consider the same…

Both books available here (and signed by author).

Sunny Day Theology and Lewis’ “A Grief Observed”

“Sunny day theology” is important.  Thinking deeply about the important issues of life, even things like death and suffering, is important in general, but more so in the times when, quite honestly, you’re not facing many of those problems head-on.  I don’t think reading the book of Job really is that helpful when you’re riding in the funeral limousine or sitting in one of those uncomfortable waiting room chairs in the hospital.  What you believe about the goodness and wisdom of God, the reality of evil and suffering, and the response of human beings to events largely outside their immediate control can’t be figured out in the rainy times.  One’s choices and beliefs during those dark seasons will largely be a reflection of choices/beliefs shaped during the happy times.  What I call “sunny day theology.” CS Lewis’ book A Grief Observed stands as a great example of this.  This is perhaps one of the most heart-breaking and emotional pieces of anything I have ever read of Lewis.  In the wake of his wife’s death, Lewis simply chronicles the reactions and thoughts of his own heart.  Those who find themselves in or near such a rainy season will probably discover a strong emotional reaction to portions of the book.  Those in the sunny times may honestly not fare much better.

But for those who have read much of Lewis, we see that even in what at times is a tumultuous relationship between himself and God, Lewis’ “sunny day theology” sneaks through.  Major themes of his core beliefs– joy in God himself (not just the gifts), praise as both culmination and act of enjoyment, etc.–show up at key points to help Lewis along in his journey of grief.  It’s not as if his grief and pain caused him to abandon his sunny day theology, but rather they caused him to ask new questions which found many of the same answers he had known before.

New questions for old answers.  I like that.  But you don’t that without having some old answers…aka “Sunny Day Theology.”

“Justification and Variegated Nomism”

Over the past three decades, something called “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP from here) has taken much of the world of New Testament studies by storm.  Or at least so it seems.  The work of men like E.P. Sanders, James G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright has caused many to re-examine commonly held perceptions of Paul and his theology, especially in the doctrinal area of “justification.”  Their work, though branching in some different ways, has caused whole new debates over terms like “covenantal nomism”, “getting in versus staying in vs. being in”, and “present/future justification.”  Most popular interaction with NPP has occurred in the last few years with the publishing of John Piper’s personal response to the views of N.T. Wright on the issue of justification and Wright’s recent monograph on that same topic.  While I haven’t read all of either Piper or Wright’s works on the topic (though through various interviews online, I’ve heard each man give the gist of his view and his perception of the other), I think that to focus on the debate where they are at would be a mistake.  To use a terrible metaphor, Piper and Wright are launching water balloons from the rooftop of two nearby skyscrapers.  Rather than deciding which man has the better balloons and better aim, it might be smart to start at ground level and see which skyscraper has a good foundation.

For that, I believe a helpful resource for those who can handle a book with footnotes, is the two-volume work Justification and Variegated Nomism, edited by DA Carson, Peter O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid. Volume 1 and Volume 2 were published in 2001 and 2004 respectively.  In essence, the works aim to evaluate the claims of the NPP from the foundation up.  So Volume 1 focuses on the complexities of Second Temple Judaism, while Volume 2 then helps shed light on Paul’s work and view of justification in light of the discoveries made in Volume 1.

To note, this review won’t be very in-depth or academic.  For one thing, I had to return the books to the library and so I’m pulling everything from memory.

Volume 1 essentially walks through various texts of Second Temple Judaism and evaluates them in light of the “covenantal nomism” that E.P. Sanders claimed was the real view of the Jews in Paul’s day.  For those with limited time, editor Carson writes an excellent summary chapter at the end of Volume 1, providing summaries of the salient points of each preceding essay.  (I would work backward from there as you find interesting material to investigate.)  Essentially, in summary of Volume 1, the covenantal nomism of Sanders is sometimes found in the Judaism of Paul’s day and the scholars are happy to acknowledge such.  However, the full counsel of texts written at that time show that it was not the only or even the majority view.  Other views of election and grace and covenant membership were also popular as well.  Sinlessness was thought achievable by some.  Others clearly believed in merit-earning righteous acts.  The most indicting evidence against the NPP’s use of Sanders’ covenantal nomism is the Old Testament word studies done by Mark Seifrid attempting to establish the relationship between the term/concept of “righteousness” and those of “covenant faithfulness.”  Essentially, the massive work done revealed very few connections and no equations of “righteousness” with “covenant faithfulness.”  Being faithful to the covenant is an element of righteousness, but the converse is not also true.  Righteousness language primarily goes beyond covenantal ideas to creation ideas–namely the way God rules and structures the universe.  This point seems especially important in the Wright/Piper debate as Wright’s view on justification rests on a foundation that “righteousness”=”covenant faithfulness.”  The other texts don’t seem to agree.  (I do think Piper is also mistaken here as he pulls “righteousness” too far from “covenant faithfulness” and beyond the creation themes.  From what I understand, he argues that righteousness is the inherent moral character of God, which seems to be more metaphysical than the usage in either Biblical testament.)  Hence, the varieties of law-keeping in Second Temple Judaism is the origin of the volumes’ title “Variegated Nomism.”  I would also add that like many religions, we may also add that the “man on the street” theology was even more variegated than the writings themselves show.  I think that has always been a flaw with the NPP is that they assume Paul was only interacting with the kinds of Jews who wrote the source material reflecting covenantal nomism, rather than his average “fellow-kinsman” on the street.”

In volume 2, the focus shifts from the foundation issue of what kind of Judaism is Paul and his cohorts reacting against, to what is Paul’s reaction.  Since this NPP debate largely centers around the topic of Justification, the primary areas of study in Volume 2 are Romans, Galatians, and Paul himself.  (Though historical theologian Timothy George adds a nice piece about the way Luther gets abused and misunderstood as well.)  Peter O’Brien has two articles worth reading along the lines of “Was Paul a Covental Nomist” and “Was Paul Converted?”  Moises Silva’s article on the issue of “Faith(fulness) of Jesus” in Galatians is superb on that issue.  Essentially, here, I think, is where the NPP faces the toughest challenge.  Most of the NPP readings of texts in Romans and Galatians (not to mention Philippians 3 and 2 Corinthians 5) place a more difficult grid of interpretation over these letters.  I’m a huge fan of Ockham’s razor.  The simplest explanation that accounts for all the data wins.  The essays dealing with Sanders, Dunn, and Wright in Romans do a good job of showing how muddled and difficult the NPP wants to make some rather simple texts at times.  (The writers have also done a good job of not always lumping various NPP authors together, but acknowledge the “variegation” of the NPP as they deal with various views.)  Paul wasn’t writing to people trained in higher criticism who had read all the stuff even the authors in this volume had.  Often, he uses simple language and style with lots of word pictures to teach theology to largely illiterate Christians.  Often his attempts to be simple is what leaves us scratching our heads because we wished he’d have explained a little more detail in certain spots. (Romans 9-11 for sure!)

I’m trying to remember if I’ve left out anything particularly striking, but I can’t.  Maybe some kind patron will endow me to read more in these areas.

So for those interested in the issues raised by the NPP and especially in the debates over justification, I do recommend these two volumes of Justification and Variegated Nomism for you on your quest.  Even fans of the NPP will find good thoughtful responses throughout to questions raised by the NPP, and hopefully they will expand their definition of what Second Temple Judaism entails on the basis of Volume 1’s findings.  If nothing else, the footnotes alone can direct one to countless primary and secondary sources on issues of Pauline theology and Biblical studies.

“Collision” Movie Review

What happens if you take an outspoken New Atheist from the UK and a pastor from Moscow, Idaho and toss them together for a few days with cameras constantly rolling?  Well, that’s obvious.  You get “Collision”, a new documentary released late last month on DVD and (I have to add the proper kudos) a birthday present from my beautiful wife. (She gets me.)

Atheist Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson are no strangers to each other via writing and the Interweb.  Several years ago, Christopher Hitchens was doing some writing on new atheism and his main slant in its support–namely that religion is irretrievably evil.  He received some rather intriguing responses from a man in Idaho named Douglas Wilson.  Apparently, the dialogue was so good that the two men were invited to co-author a book entitled Is Christianity Good for the World? However, despite co-authoring a book, the two men had never met in person before the several days of public debates of the same title as the book that this film revolves around.

The film, directed by Darren Doane (this is where I show my film buff skills with a brief synopsis of the previous films he has done…ok, I haven’t seen them), has a quick overall pace, but knows how to settle in for the important moments.  At the end, I was thinking, “I could watch another hour or two of this,” which is good.  Most documentaries start off great and then make you claw your eyes out during the second half of the film as the movie goes preachy on whatever topic.  (Or they add a self-congratulatory biography of how poor Al Gore, the senator’s son, overcame all his obstacles…)  Collision doesn’t do either.

It helps that Hitchens and Wilson are both big personalities.  There’s a scene in the middle where the two of them are quoting their favorite sentences from author P.G. Wodehouse and just laughing until they cried.  They debate each other in such a way that if you saw them at the booth across the restaurant you would want to pull up a chair and listen in.  As Hitchens acknowledges, Wilson’s adherence and claim to actually believe the Bible make the debates work.  Hitchens comments of his boredom with debating the water-downed beliefs in the UK which bend over backwards to not really believe much of anything.  Of course, Hitchens himself is sort of a rock-star personality, as the camera crew often catches fans recognizing him on the street and he makes no attempt to stay humble about such things.

Doanne in his direction does a great job of allowing the debate between the two to advance within the film itself.  Although I am certain that some of the main points were made by each man at their various debate stops, you never get a sense that something has been recycled from earlier in the film.  He also does a great job of giving pretty equal airtime to both men.

I was wondering whether the Reformed theology of Wilson would be a help or a hurt during the debates.  But as most (good) theologians realize, the major problems of either Calvinism, Arminianism, or something-in-between are really problems that theism in general must answer (questions regarding foreknowledge, freedom of will, divine sovereignty, the problem of evil, etc.), so in that regard it doesn’t really change much of the overall argument.

If I could sum up the basic arguments, Hitchens argues that Christianity promotes wickedness, and Wilson responds that atheism can’t have a category called “wickedness” to put Christianity in.  Obviously, these themes are teased out in greater detail by both men, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see them.

Collision is an excellent movie.  For those interested in religious issues, it will be even more fascinating.

(FYI- The movie does not have a rating.  There are two instances of profanity in it for those concerned.)