Christ, conspiracy, and code

A big thanks to The Gospel Coalition for running my thoughts on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as part of their “Reading for Worldviews” series:

Conspiracy theorists may operate under the guise of seeking truth, but in reality they’re driven by cynicism. Any new revelation casts further doubt, and truth becomes separated from the seeker by a cloud of suspicion. Hence the Jesus of The Da Vinci Code is unknowable, shrouded in codes.

Read the rest here.

Chuck Colson, R.I.P.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I somehow ended up in my church’s lending library.  It was an improbable place for me to be not because I wasn’t active at the church (I was) or because I wasn’t a reader (I was), but because the holdings in that particular church library — like so many church libraries — weren’t what one might call “high caliber.”  This is to say that most of the volumes were fluff of one flavor or another: Christian pulp fiction, inspirational-motivational manuals, and light topical teachings.  There was even a series of 30-year-old filmstrip guides on how to be an effective church usher.  Not the sort of fare in which a thirsty Christian college student would be interested.

One book, however, did catch my eye.  There were actually two copies, which may have helped it find my attention.  They were yellow hardbacks (the dust jackets were long gone) with the title written on the spine in one of those typefaces that could only have come out of the 70s. The book was Born Again, by Charles Colson – the former Nixon hatchet man’s memoir of the Watergate scandal, his conversion to Christ, and his subsequent imprisonment. 

I had recently heard a speaker on campus reference Colson, so against what I thought at the time was my better judgment, I checked it out. It was the first spiritual biography I had ever read, and really the first Christian book outside of the Bible I had ever read. I was riveted.

Decades after Watergate, the term “born again” is most often used adjectivally to refer to certain kind of Christians — you know, the ones who teeter on the edge of fanaticism.  But in reality, being born again is the essence, not the adjective of Christian conversion. Colson’s faith and transformation seemed something that could only have been wrought of God.

Unless one is a slave to the bestseller list, a good reader of books follows the links from one good work to another.   While I can’t say Born Again was the most influential book in my formative years, reading Colson’s gripping, unapologetic biography started me down a path that has undoubtedly shaped my thinking and thus my actions today.

I saw him speak a few years ago, and the way he married his passion for Christ with intellectual acuity is a model for all in the service of the Kingdom.  May he rest in peace.

Books you should read in 2009

It’s a new year, and it’s as good a time as any to evaluate your personal reading curriculum for the year.  Two of the books listed below I had the privilige of reading in manuscript form, and one I’m only halfway through myself — so even I have some reading to do…

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Seldom is one able to determine, in the midst of reading a book, that the work is something great — something above the level of the ordinary.  While the term “greatness” shouldn’t be thrown about lightly, especially for a modern novel, it certainly applies to The Road.  The harshness of its post-apocalyptic setting perfectly frames the limitless love of a father for his son.  Make no mistake, it pains me greatly to praise so highly a work that Oprah Winfrey has likewise blessed, but I wholeheartedly recommended it for anyone who likes to read a book before the film becomes a national phenomenon.

Dolor for Misdeeds, by Colby Willen
A novel about “misdeeds” that were long ago swept under the rug, or so thinks the protagonist until the rug is taken away. Willen’s storyline examines the dolor (mental anguish) that comes from unrequited guilt. Can our mechanisms of justice make thing right, even if wrongly executed? If I didn’t know the author so well, I’d begin to suspect that he knows the mental effects of long-buried crime a little too well. This first novel from my friend of many years is recommended reading for anyone who has ever covered something up.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, by D.A. Carson
This short biographical work is the most powerful nonfiction book I’ve read in years.  Theologian and scholar D.A. Carson’s memoir of his father is an extraordinary book about an ordinary man.  What makes it extraordinary is its poignant display of how greatness cannot be measured by the sizeof one’s audience or the perceived success of one’s vocation.  True greatness is measured by faithfulness, of which  Tom Carson — with all his imperfections — is a vibrant example.  Recommend reading for all ordinary people.

How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator, by Joe Carter and John Coleman
In today’s world, arguments supposedly advance a position. People today have conversations, not arguments. Arguments are  George W. Bush — conversations are Barack Obama. Arguments are lawyers, fights, and referee reviews. Conversations are a frappuccino with friends. The fact is that argumentation is a device of communication we use everyday, whether we like it or not (don’t argue with me on this point!).  Of course, it is bad argumentation that gives the device its bad rap, and to whom better to look for communication advice than the Word of God himself.  Carter and Coleman ably analyze the communication methods of Jesus via classical categories and show how it might look if we used more Christlike methods of communication.  It’s a helpful book for anyone who uses communication in their daily lives.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson
I’m just over halfway through, but Robinson’s follow-up to her Pulitzer-Prize winning Gilead is shaping up to be worthy in weight to its predecessor.  It’s a book that examines family, failure, and faith through the eyes of people who don’t find themselves very good at any of them.  So far it’s heavy with sadnesss, but not burdensomely so due to Robinson profundity of language. Recommended reading for anyone who has ever had black sheep in their family.

Civility as putdown

Civility is important — even necessary — in a society that seeks to be known as civilized. But, there are times when civility can go the wrong way. Walker Percy provides an excellent example in his novel The Thanatos Syndrome, where the protagonist (psychiatrist Tom More) encounters an old janitor with whom he’d had familiar rapport for years (emphasis mine):

“How you doing, Frank?”

“Good morning, Doctor.”

“Still featherbedding—” I begin in our old chaffing style, but he cuts me off with, of all things, “Have a nice day, Doctor”— and back to his polishing without missing the swing of the machine. I could have been any doctor, anybody.

Here again, a small thing. Nothing startling. He might simply have decided to dispose of me with standard U.S. politeness, which is indeed the easiest way to get rid of people. Have a nice day—

Or he might have decided that the ultimate putdown is this same American civility. What better dismissal than to treat someone you’ve known for forty years like a drive-up customer at Big Mac’s? [p.17]

Mere civility where more is wanting can be as injurious as an insult.

All the same, have a nice day.

Family Driven Faith

Family Driven Faith

It’s ironic that within the evangelical church — a people who by and large claim their ultimate authority to be Scripture alone — it is tradition that is often the most difficult thing to change.

Voddie T. Baucham Jr.’s book, Family Driven Faith: Doing What It Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk with God (Crossway Books, 2007) challenges many of our extra-biblical traditions with a tough but winsome approach. Instead of cultivating the latest ecclesiastical trends, Baucham takes a refreshing look at the age-old biblical institution of the family, and places it at ground zero for the work of Christ in the church.

The book covers topics ranging from the irresponsibility of men who abandon spiritual leadership to the growing biblical illiteracy among Christians who can’t even articulate their worldviews to their families, much less anyone else. Relating anecdotes from his own life, Baucham teaches how it is biblically necessary and possible for a family to worship together not just in church, but in the in the home as well. Some feathers are likely to be ruffled when Baucham tackles topics like education, where he takes an unapologetic (but reasonable) stand against government-sponsored schools.

These points are instructive, convicting, and even controversial, but none is more interesting and potentially paradigm-shifting than one of Baucham’s final points: the family-integrated church. This model, which is essentially an organizational subset of church polity, does away with age-segregated ministries and shifts the locus of ministry to fathers as heads of families. Surveying the current landscape of evangelicalism, Baucham observes:

One day you visit a church, your teen goes off to the youth service, your little one goes off to children’s church, the baby goes to the nursery, and you and your spouse get a great seat in a plush auditorium with first-class music, professional drama, a relevant, encouraging, application oriented, non-threatening talk, and you get it all in just under an hour. Moreover, you look at the brochures, and it’s right there in black and white: “Our youth ministry exists to do the job that you’ve neglected all these years.” What a deal! We don’t have to keep the little one quiet, we get our needs met, and to top it off, the youth guy is going to disciple my teenager (whom I don’t even like right now). Who cares if the youth guy has only been married a few months and has never even attempted to disciple a child of his own. “Count me in!” [p. 178]

Baucham readily admits this is hyperbole, but anyone who has set foot inside an evangelical church in the last 30 years will recognize the massive age segregation that occurs. Children’s ministries — a subset in themselves — are further segregated by the grade levels assigned by schools. “Young marrieds” meet for Bible study in a different place than that wily “College and Career” crowd. The “seniors” groups go on bus tours to Gatlinburg and Branson, while the “Youth” take their mission trips to the inner city.

Age segregation is one of the most impenetrable non-biblical institutions within the church, yet there’s absolutely no Scriptural support for these divisions. This does not mean, of course, that Scripture prohibits such segregation, but it does call into question why it has become such a staple for church organization.

I suspect, along with Baucham, that such age segregation more reflects the American educational system than a biblical model of intergenerational interaction. Baucham suggests that a family-integrated model would better meet the needs of discipleship than what has in recent years become the traditional evangelical approach. Youth groups and other age-categorized ministries are discarded in exchange for teaching and ministry that is organized around families rather than age.

Amid a culture that has little respect for the elderly, such an approach could do wonders. Younger adults would have more opportunity to learn from believers who have walked the road ahead of them, and the harsh transition that teens often endure from adolescence to adulthood would be obviated by living their theology around adults instead of solely their peers.

This will be a tough pill for most churches to swallow, given the practical implications of moving to such a ministry paradigm. After all, there are few who have any experience with doing church this way. In the end, however, Christ’s church should be governed by biblical principles, no matter how unpragmatic they might be.

Baucham himself realizes the uphill battle, and sympathizes with his friends who do not share his views. This does not, however, stop him from raising the issue. And that is what I find so refreshing about the book. Baucham succeeds in his ability to shine light on some pretty significant flaws in the church while still retaining a place at the table. Family Driven Faith critiques without casting away.

Read it if you dare.

Battle of the dead Russian writers

Fred Sanders examines the opposing worldviews of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy:

In fact, I have long thought that there are basically two kinds of people in the world: Tolstoy people and Dostoevsky people.

Sanders quotes literary scholar George Steiner on the differences between the two authors:

“Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellerage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the edge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession; Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment…”

I would say that I tend to fall more in the Dostoevsky camp (I’ve also read much more Dostoevsky than Tolstoy), though I find Tolstoy immensely valuable. From my reading of the two authors, the world of Tolstoy is a world that can ultimately be grasped. Dostoevsky’s is a world where the individual is ultimately diminished in the face of a greater, often menacing transcendent order. Tolstoy’s ultimate concern is with all things immanent, where Dostoevsky leans more toward the transcendent.

Christian theology, of course, takes into account both the transcendent and the immanent. The incarnation of Jesus is the immanent embodiment of the transcendent God—the temporal manifestation of the eternal.

I agree with Sanders’ point that a person is either a Dostoevsky–inclined person or a Tolstoy–inclined person, but not both. It should be noted, however, that if a person follows either of these trajectories to the complete exclusion of the other, he or she will miss much.

For more reflections on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, check out my brief reviews of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina.

Novels of Night and Shadow

Even the most robust readers in the world take the time to do some reading that is more recreational in nature. While I do not count myself within the realm of the world’s most robust readers, I do frequently engage in recreational reading.

In the past year or so, I’ve found myself drawn to the novels of Alan Furst, whose novels fall not-so-neatly into the genre of the spy thriller. Set in the period preceding and during the Second World War, Furst’s novels follow the exploits of ordinary Europeans who find themselves in circumstances which put upon them the extraordinary.

Furst’s characters are everymen from nowhere. They are from oft-forgotten places and hold unlikely jobs. For Americans who know little of the eastern front of WWII, the novels can also serve as a good historical primer for the happenings of pre-war Europe.

I’ve always been a sucker for great beginnings, and Furst doesn’t disappoint in setting the stage. Take this opening line from the premiere novel in his series, Night Soldiers:

In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.

It draws you in, doesn’t it? Furst’s slavish attention to detail draws the reader into a setting where uncertainty is unavoidable, yet his plots seem to work themselves out. His protagonists walk tightropes that could land them in the vicious hands of the ruthless Nazi Gestapo — or possibly worse, the Soviet NKVD. His characters are never islands, and realize that in a deadly world, heroic individualism always ends up in failure. And failure, more often than not, means death.

The volumes I have read so far include:

For recreational reading with just enough heft so you won’t feel guilty, you might want to give them a look. You’ll also be in good company. I came across one noteworthy Amazon reviewer who loves all of Furst’s books: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has a great review of Night Soldiers.

Reading the greatest book ever written in a year’s time

Every other year, I read through the entire Bible. In 1996, I decided that if the Bible was indeed the word of God, it might be helpful to read all the words that God gave to us. It was one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. The first time I did it, I wondered how long I would make it (I had failed a few times before), and surprised myself by finishing on schedule. I’ve done it every other year since then, and it’s something I hope to continue doing every other year for the rest of my life.

Through the years, I’ve used a variety of reading plans. I’ve twice read the New International Version (NIV) of the One Year Bible. I’ve also used D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God (vols. 1 &2) — a helpful, thoughtful devotional which uses the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. I’ve used the M’Cheyne plan twice with the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and twice with the English Standard Version (ESV).

For 2008, I’ve decided to read the ESV’s Daily Reading Bible plan. It’s inexpensive, and since the text is not hacked up, it can serve as a “regular” Bible. I ordered a paperback copy of the Bible from Monergism Books for less than $10 — it’s inexpensive, has an excellent text layout, and is lightweight. When I don’t have the book with me, the ESV’s web service is unparalleled. You can get your daily readings via RSS, sent to your Google calendar, or even to your mobile device (from time to time I read it on my Blackberry).

It’s not as difficult as you might think. It only takes around 15 minutes a day (steal it from your television news watching time). Make it a part of your day like brushing your teeth. Don’t go to bed without reading the text.

If you’re already a believer in the Word made flesh, you’ve little excuse for not being familiar with the whole written word of God. If you’re not a believer, this is an easy way to become familiar with the book that has been most influential in the pages of history, and in the hearts and minds of countless lives.

Read with me in 2008. You can start here on the first of January.

Seeing Through Cynicism

Seeing Through Cynicism

I have a confession to make: I am a cynic (though I’m skeptical about the fact).

Well, if I’m not a bona fide cynic, I do at the very least have a common tendency to be cynical. My undergraduate major was Advertising, and I studied subjects like persuasion, and targeted communication. When you’ve been trained to both see and exploit hidden agendas, it’s difficult not to become cynical about the world. After all, cynicism often cuts to the quick of the charlatanism that is so rampant in our society. A healthy dose of cynicism is good for the soul, right?

Dick Keyes book, Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the power of Suspicion,offers an in-depth look at an oft-neglected subject. It is by far the most self-convicting book I’ve read in a long time, and it is also one of the most constructive.

The very nature of cynicism often camouflages it from being seen as a damaging perspective. Says the author (p. 11):

Cynicism, as we use the word today, has to do with seeing through and unmasking positive appearances to reveal the more basic underlying motivations of greed, power, lust and selfishness. It says that every respectable public agenda has a hidden private agenda behind it that is less noble, flattering, and moral.

Often, to see a real hidden agenda is to see the truth. But does cynicism always accomplish this noble goal? Keyes argues otherwise. Contrary to the cynic’s hunches, every politician is not corrupt, every teenage boy isn’t after just “one thing” from a girl he wants to date, and every person who says something nice to you doesn’t always have ulterior motives. There are exceptions to the cynic’s penetrating eye.

Keyes examines the platform from which the cynic stands to see through things, ideas, and people. The one person the cynic often neglects tends to shine the light upon is himself. When he stands upon faulty assumptions, the cynic’s sight is compromised, and many otherwise good ideas and people might be cast away by the cynic’s hasty judgment.

The author does an excellent job of analyzing the landscape of cynicism, but he doesn’t stop there. Keyes provides a way out of such myopic cynicism that’s biblical, sensible, and surprisingly simple: humilty. A person who is steeped in biblical humility sees first the log in his own eye before seeking to pluck the speck out of another’s eye.

As I said the book is as constructive as it is convicting, and I heartily recommend it to all.

Books you should read this summer

It’s summer — the season when kings and princes go off to war, and citizens depart for the beach. High schoolers are introduced with much shock to the reality that they have assigned reading over the summer. Those of us that didn’t get the memo that summer wasn’t for reading compile lists. Here’s mine:

Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle In America’s War With Militant Islam

Mark Bowden’s, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle In America’s War With Militant Islam is essential reading if you want to be in-the-know on what is happening in Iran. Sure, it covers events that occurred nearly thirty years ago, but it the Iran embassy hostage crisis in 1979 is not unrelated events today. Bowden’s compelling narrative of the event provides a page-turning account of the lives of the hostages, the hostage takers themselves, and the often Keystone Cop-like efforts of American politicians who wanted to end the crisis. Based on painstakingly detailed interviews, Bowden’s account will emerge as the definitive work on the crisis — if it hasn’t already.

The Second Coming

Walker Percy (sorry, not related to Walker, Texas Ranger) is like Dostoevsky with wit. His novels explore the depths of life’s ultimate questions in a way that leaves the reader wondering how such quirky characters carried them to the edge of such profound ponderances. The Second Coming is a novel about rich, middle-aged man who may or may not be going crazy, and an escaped mental patient who has already been down the crazy road for quite some time. All of this craziness leads up to, in typical Walker Percy fashion, unparalleled sanity.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

There’s nothing like setting out the chairs by the surf, putting up an umbrella, and curling up to a good book about sin. Doesn’t that whet your appetite for Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin? I thought so. A topic often avoided these days, this book tackles things like why we sin, the relationship between addiction and sin, and perhaps most important: what sin is. Plantinga describes it as a breaking of shalom — like the title, it means that the fruits of sin are that things are not the way they are supposed to be. A thought-provoking look at a topic we all deal with and wished we didn’t.

The Children of Men

A society where the accepted norms are based on fiction often needs fiction to show it the truth. In western nations, where life is often more of a question than a privilege, exaggeration of experience can shed light upon areas and ideas that would otherwise be obscured. P.D. James’ 1993 novel, The Children of Men is a work where such exaggeration takes place. More poignant (and profoundly Christian) than its 2006 cinematic counterpart, the novel reflects the outworking of a society of extremes where people will eschew all ethical boundaries in order to bring about life, all the while seeking any way possible to attack the lives of those most helpless. A haunting read. Don’t see the movie on this one. Read the book.