Reading Re-Treat

Once a year I set aside time for a personal reading retreat, a few days blocked off for me to dive into a stack of books I’ve collected (and some I’ve already started). In the last two years, neck deep in the John Newton writing project, these reading retreats have been focused on the topic at hand. And for the first time since we moved back to Minneapolis, this weekend affords me my first retreat to work through a stack of books on random topics of interest.

Whether I focus on one particular topic (like in my 2011 retreat) or whether I read more generally, these reading retreats give me a chance to largely disconnect from the Internet and cut away from the digital entanglements of daily web communication for the purpose of reading printed books for 12 hours each day (the goal). Such a discipline may seem daunting, but I find the practice life giving, and it has increasingly become an essential strategy I need to protect and develop my sustained, linear reading concentration, a skill that seems to otherwise erode every day (a concern I addressed at length in my book Lit!).

The goal of this retreat, like every reading retreat, is not to finish a lot of books, the goal is simply to read a lot. And for the interested, here are the titles I’ll be taking along —

Spurgeon on Blood, Vampires, and Social Media

Vampires only occasionally appear in the ministry of Charles Spurgeon, and when they appear they appear in epic fashion. Here’s just one example from a favorite sermon quote where he plays off the life-giving blood of the atonement and the blood-sucking, death-work of the vampire [The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 57:533]:

Leave out the doctrine of the cross, and you have left out everything. Those men who take away the atonement from the gospel murder the gospel; they are like vampires, that suck the blood out of the living mans veins, and lay him dead.

That word “blood” is one of the most solemn and most important in the whole of Scripture. “The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin,” is one of the most weighty of all the truths of revelation, and he that speaks that doctrine stammeringly, or who holds it without confidence, had better go to his bed, but never to his pulpit, for he cannot win souls. Let him repent of his iniquity, but never pretend to be a minister of Christ.

Oh! then, if you have been quickened by the Word, tell out the Word. If the gospel has brought you to salvation, tell that gospel out. Whisper into every sinner’s ear the fact that Christ died for sinners. Make it known wherever your influence can reach, that whosoever believeth in the Lord Jesus Christ hath everlasting life.

The vampire quote couldn’t end on a more social-media-relevant note.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About John Frame

We all know John Frame is a brilliant theologian and a prolific author, but here are ten things you likely didn’t know about him, as revealed in a personal bit published at the end of the new book, John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings, Volume 1 (P&R, April 2014), 290–2:

  1. [As a family] we listened faithfully to Pittsburgh Pirate games from 1950–56, when the team had the worst record in baseball.
  2. As treasurer in our youth group, I used to harangue the kids every week to bring a quarter for the offering.
  3. The height of my piano study was Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto. On the organ I played over half the organ works of J. S. Bach.
  4. During my high-school years, I was on the verge of accepting an organ position at a Christian Science church, but chose instead a similar job at a Presbyterian church (PCUSA).
  5. I became a fundamentalist at Princeton, and more or less remain so. When I am called that, I’m not embarrassed at all.
  6. My first paper for Cornelius Van Til was 125 pages. People had told me that Van Til graded by weight. So I added seventy-five pages to some material from my Princeton thesis. He gave me an A, and that is what brought me to the attention of the Westminster Seminary faculty.
  7. My priorities for ministry were (a) missions, (b) pastorate, (c) academic theology. A visit to mission fields in 1960 ruled out (a). A year and two summers of pastoral experience ruled out (b). So I embraced (c) by default, as God’s calling.
  8. At Yale, I was bored to death by modern theologians. Still am.
  9. In my early career, I felt a strong tension between my interests and my abilities. The former were focused in practical ministry; the latter were almost completely academic. God has helped me to resolve the tension by writing up academic theological theories that glorify practical ministry.
  10. I did not marry until I was forty-five. God was preparing someone special.

 

Education Versus Training

C. S. Lewis sounds this warning in a 1939 essay recently collected and published in Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews By C. S. Lewis (page 22):

Education is essentially for freemen and vocational training for slaves. That is how they were distributed in the old unequal societies; the poor man’s son was apprenticed to a trade, the rich man’s son went to Eton and Oxford and then made the grand tour. When societies become, in effort if not in achievement, egalitarian, we are presented with a difficulty.

To give every one education and to give no one vocational training is impossible, for electricians and surgeons we must have and they must be trained. Our ideal must be to find time for both education and training: our danger is that equality may mean training for all and education for none — that every one will learn commercial French instead of Latin, book-keeping instead of geometry, and ‘knowledge of the world we live in’ instead of great literature.

It is against this danger that schoolmasters have to fight, for if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.

That is a thing very likely to happen.

The Resurrection Changes Everything

I’m of the opinion that great quotes on the resurrection are never out of season. This one comes from G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, as taken from The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius; 1986), 2:344–5:

They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulture [burial] and guarded by the authority of the Caesars.

For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

Lewis on Tolkien

Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews By C. S. Lewis is a new compilation of short works on literature by Lewis, gathered up and published by Cambridge University Press in their Canto Classics series. The book includes several book reviews and prefaces Lewis wrote, and most of them will appeal only to readers with advanced training in literature and a particular interest in Milton, Chaucer, Boethius, or classic, medieval, and renaissance literature.

But some pieces in this book will appeal to a broader audience of readers. Of special interest to me was Lewis’s rather critical review of his friend Dorothy Sayers’ book, The Mind of the Maker (167–9). He closed the review by writing, “To novelists and poets, if they are already inclined in any degree to idolatry of their own vocation, I recommend it with much caution. They had better read it fasting.” Ha! Also very interesting is Lewis’s preface to a theology book, where he explains what makes for good pastoral theology in written form (181­­–4). I’ll probably have more to say on this particular preface in the future.

But by far (to me) the most valuable pieces in the collection are Lewis’s four published reviews of the works of his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, which include two reviews of The Hobbit (1937) and two reviews of The Lord of the Rings (1954, 1955).

On The Hobbit, Lewis closed one review like this:

It must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice [in Wonderland] is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic. (96)

Decades later, in one of the LOTR reviews, Lewis makes this comment:

Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called ‘sub-creation.’ The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe is here deliberately reduced to the minimum.

Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, paleography, languages, and orders of beings — a world ‘full of strange creatures beyond count.’ The names alone are a feast, whether redolent of quiet countryside (Michel Delving, South Farthing), tall and kingly (Boromir, Faramir, Elendil), loathsome like Smeagol, who is also Gollum, or frowning in the evil strength of Barad Dur or Gorgoroth, yet best of all (Lothlorien, Gilthoniel, Galadriel) when they embody this piercing, high elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much.

Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realised. To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. (99–100)

Such a book — such a world! — was destined for literary applause.

The book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables. (108–9)

Though I have a hunch Lewis knew LOTR would become a classic on his first read.

For the patient reader there’s a lot to learn and ponder in this collection Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews By C. S. Lewis.

Job and the Cross

The opening words of Christopher Ash in his forthcoming commentary on Job:

“The grandest book ever written with pen.” So wrote the Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle about the Old Testament book of Job.

It is a book I have been grappling with for a decade or so. The more I have walked through it and around it, the more deeply convinced I have become that it makes no sense apart from the cross of Christ. That statement would be strictly true of the entire Old Testament, but somehow in Job it seems more sharply and urgently true, for without Jesus the book of Job will be but “the record of an unanswered agony.” It could almost be a commentary on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25.

The book of Job hinges around the contrast, conflict, and tension between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the cross.

Perhaps this is why commentaries that restrict themselves to interpreting the Old Testament in terms of the Old Testament alone find themselves heading up blind alleys. Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture, and the book of Job can only be understood as a part of the whole Biblical canon as it is fulfilled in Christ.

Again and again as I have beaten my head against these puzzling and seemingly intractable texts, it has been the cross of Christ that has shone light on the page. This is not to say that the book is not about Job in his ancient context. Of course it is. But Job’s experiences, Job’s debates, Job’s struggles, Job’s sufferings, and Job’s final blessings all come to fruition in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ in his life and death and then in his resurrection, ascension, and exaltation at God’s right hand. I hope I can persuade you of this as the exposition walks through every verse of the book.

The 400-page exposition delivers on this promise (hence the flood of effusive endorsements on the cover). Ash has written a marvelous commentary for gospel-minded pastors who are looking for help in navigating the waters of Job while keeping Calvary in view. And it’s a wonderfully nourishing and readable book for any Christian who seeks to see the glory of Christ by studying the life of Job.

 

You Killed the Author of Life (Good Friday)

Sin in Eden knocked all creation into chaos. Sin at Babel marked the collective pride of mankind. And while every sin is an act of God-rejection, humanity’s wickedness reaches new heights in the horrifying events of Good Friday.

Holy Week makes us uncomfortable. There is glorious life and victory to come on Easter Sunday, but to get there we must pass directly through the darkness of Good Friday. We must remember the day when human malice broke barriers and reached levels of previously unmatched atrocity. The Messiah, the King, come to save mankind, was nailed to an accursed tree and left to die.

There is no immunity for such cosmic treason.

On Good Friday we feel the finger of guilt and culpability rightly shoved into the ribs of humanity:

  • “…this Jesus whom you crucified…” (Acts 2:36)
  • “…you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life…” (Acts 3:14–15)
  • “…whom you crucified…” (Acts 4:10)
  • “…whom you killed by hanging him on a tree…” (Acts 5:30)

Humanity has never heaped upon itself more self-condemning guilt than on Good Friday. This simple phrase — you killed — pierces through all vain excuses. It was a conspiracy to kill the God-man, and success in the evil plot has stained our hands with God’s own blood, blood on the hands of both scheming Jews and acquiescing Gentiles.

This is why Good Friday was the most horrible sin the world ever witnessed (Sibbes). More terrible than Babel’s arrogant tower. If ever there was cause for God to rain down wrath upon the world, and re-flood the globe with justice, there was no more opportune moment than the brutal slaughter of his beloved Son.

In his Good Friday sermon of 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drives this cosmic tragedy home like three cold steel stakes pounded through the nerves of humanity’s own wrists and feet.

Good Friday is not the darkness that must necessarily yield to light. It is not the winter sleep that contains and nourishes the seed of life within. It is the day on which human beings — human beings who wanted to be like gods — kill the God who became human, the love that became person; the day on which the Holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, truly dies — voluntarily and yet because of human guilt — without any seed of life remaining in him in such a way that God’s death might resemble sleep.

Good Friday is not, like winter, a transitional stage — no, it is genuinely the end, the end of guilty humanity and the final judgment that humanity has pronounced upon itself. . . .

If God’s history among human beings had ended on Good Friday, then the final pronouncement over humankind would be guilt, rebellion, the unfettering of all titanic human forces, a storming of heaven by human beings, godlessness, godforsakenness, but then ultimately meaninglessness and despair. Then your faith is futile. Then you are still in your guilt. Then we are of all people most to be pitied. That is, the final word would be the human being.1

This is the awful memory Good Friday presses on us.

Humanity, aspiring in arrogance to become godlike, has slayed the God-man by both murderous intent and by woeful passivity. And in this crime, Bonhoeffer goes on to explain, everything else has been made futile. All our culture, all our art, all our learning, all our hopes, have come to a meaningless end once we have heaped on our own heads the murder of God’s only Son.

Thank God, the story doesn’t end here, but Good Friday presses us to imagine if it did. What if the story ended at the cross? What if the God-rejecting sin of humanity wrought despair to life now and nothing short of a godforsaken despair for eternity?

Divine words of accusation stab into the ribs of humanity:

You have swelled up around him like a wall of unfounded hate and vicious lies (Psalm 69:4).

You have circled him like ravenous dogs (Psalm 22:16).

You have ambushed the beloved son (Mark 12:1–9).

You have killed the Author of Life (Acts 3:15).

Let these hard words sting as we consider for a moment together how stupid and how foolish and how ignorant and how wicked is the human heart to have brought this end upon human history — the darkest day of mankind, the apex of human ignorance, a situation so hopeless that human history seems to have been brought to its very end. What now can we look forward to but only eternal despair and desolation forever?

But sinful mankind does not get the last word. How appropriate the prayer of the dying Christ — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

As a human race we can scarce understand what we’ve done, what we’ve unleashed in evil ignorance.


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 10, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931 (Fortress, 2008), 487–88.

Chance, Coin Tosses, and Sovereignty

Vern Poythress, in his fascinating new book soon to be released — Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events (Crossway, 2014) — writes on pages 119–20:

An appeal to Chance does not explain how chance events fit coherently into the larger patterns of this world. Rain fits into patterns of seasonal weather, and coin flips fit into patterns where heads come up half of the time.

Rain is water, and conforms to the laws governing the behavior of water. Coins thrown into the air conform to the laws of gravitation and rigid-body motion. Even chance events have rationality to them.

Moreover, these events, even in their uniqueness or unpredictable character, can be described in language. Rationality and language belong to persons and the thinking of persons, not to the thinking of rocks and subpersonal creatures. We show by the way we act that we know that chance events conform to personal thinking and speech. We show that we know, deep down, that God specifies them and controls them.

We know that the unpredictability in chance events shows God’s creativity and the superiority of his greatness to our wisdom. We are suppressing what we know when we declare that these events are a result merely of Chance, the impersonal substitute.

And then he follows with this (pages 209–10):

People who do not want to acknowledge God have difficulty explaining randomness.

Consider the flip of a coin as an example. Why should it be the case that no possible pattern in previous flips allows any advantage in predictability for the next flip? The outcome of the next flip is unpredictable. That means that, as far as we know, either outcome is compatible with known physical laws. That is, an outcome of heads conforms to law, and an outcome of tails also conforms to law. It follows that an outcome of heads followed by a second outcome of heads conforms to law.

We can infer that it is lawful for the next 100 outcomes all to be heads, and then 100 tails, and then 100 heads. People who will not acknowledge God cannot explain why, in addition to the physical laws, we rightly expect no future series of outcomes to be any more probable than another. The record of the past gives us no guarantee, because the principle of randomness says that the future is not predictable from the past.

The fact that we cannot predict any particular outcome has no power to force the outcome to be what it is.The ultimate explanation goes back to God’s control. God, who is all-wise, produces what we experience as randomness, and this randomness is far above our ability to produce.

Why Gospel Cultures Are So Hard To Build

Wise pastor Ray Ortlund addresses this problem throughout his forthcoming book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Crossway; April 30, 2014). He writes this on pages 82–83:

A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine. It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone.

This mental adjustment is not easy, but living in this kind of community is wonderful. We find ourselves saying with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things” — all the trophies of our self-importance, all the wounds of our self-pity, every self-invented thing that we lug around as a way of getting attention — “and count them as dung in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).

Paul did not regard the loss of his inflated self as sacrificial. Who admires his own dung? It is a relief to be rid of our distasteful egos! And when a whole church together luxuriates in Christ alone, that church embodies a gospel culture. It becomes a surprising new kind of community where sinners and sufferers come alive because the Lord is there, giving himself freely to the desperate and undeserving.

But how easy it is for a church to exist in order to puff itself up! How hard it is to forsake our own glory for a higher glory!

The primary barrier to displaying the beauty of Jesus in our churches comes from the way we re-insert ourselves into that sacred center that belongs to him alone. Exalting ourselves always diminishes his visibility. That is why cultivating a gospel culture requires a profound, moment by moment “unselfing” by every one of us. It is personally costly, even painful.

What I am proposing throughout this book is not glib or shallow. So much is set against us, within and without. But the triumph of the gospel in our churches is still possible, as we look to Christ alone. He will help us.

 

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