“Francis of Assisi” Class in The Great Courses

Saint_Francis_of_assisi_in_his_tombI recently completed the 12 lectures on Francis of Assisi made available through The Great Courses series.  I specifically listened to the lectures through Audible via Kindle, where I believe you will be able to purchase them more cheaply than if you get them through The Great Courses directly.  The lectures are engaging and are delivered in a tag-team and largely conversational manner by William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, both of the State University of New York in Geneseo.

Here are the twelve lecture topics:

1. Why Francis of Assisi Is Alive Today
2. The Larger World Francis Inherited
3. The Local World Francis Inherited
4. From Worldly Knight to Knight of Christ
5. Francis and the Church
6. Humility, Poverty, Simplicity
7. Preaching and Ministries of Compassion
8. Knowing and Experiencing Christ
9. Not Francis AloneThe Order(s) Francis Founded
10. Not Men AloneSt. Clare and St. Francis
11. The Franciscans After Francis
12. A Message for Our Time

Despite the fact that Ronald Herzman says “kind of” a LOT and William Cook says “sort of” a LOT, these lectures are very, very good.  They are basically introductory in nature, though even those familiar with the story of Francis will benefit from many of their points and interpretations regarding Francis and his life.  They provide very helpful information about the cultural realities of Francis’ day and about how the Franciscan movement must have appeared at that time.  Their discussion of Claire was extremely interesting and I learned a great deal from it.  Furthermore, I thought that the two presenters did a very good job discussing the movement in the years following Francis’ death.

I suppose more than anything I really appreciated the respectful tone of the presenters.  They clearly appreciate Francis though they do not indulge in hagiography.  Neither do they exhibit any hyper-skeptical materialism.  For some reason, I expected to hear some of this.  I did not.  I know not if the presenters are believers, but they handled the story of Francis and what he stood for very fairly and very, again, respectfully.

Acts 1:1-5

Acts 1:1-5

1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Once upon a time, many years ago, into the dark and pagan world of the first century, a world of violence, tyranny, slavery, and ignorance, a new people emerged.  Their presence was, at best, tolerated with bemused irritation or, at worst, despised and plotted against.  They were a strange people and they had strange ways.  The faithful members of this new group sounded like madmen.  They refused to offer incense to the Emporer as a god, claiming instead that they could only offer praise and offerings to the one true God of Heaven and earth.  They practiced a strange kind of classless society:  the poor and the wealthy were treated the same and were seen to be of equal value.  They valued those elements of society that society at large saw as irksome reminders of human weakness:  the sick, the infirm, the impoverished, the outcast, the undesirable.  When respectable Roman women had babies they did not want and followed the custom of putting the baby in the wild to be consumed by wild animals or the elements, these odd people would go, gather them up, and raise them.  They acted as if people had intrinsic value, not value conferred by status or earned by accomplishment.  They called for peace and the end of violence.  They suffered bravely when persecuted and did not complain.  The conferred the title of “brother” and “sister” to those who were not of their biological family, thereby redefining the very nature of family.

Their beliefs strained credulity.  They claimed that God had become a man and had been born in Palestine, of all places, to a virgin girl.  They claimed He worked miracles and healed the sick.  They claimed He announced the coming of a new Kingdom, a Kingdom of which He was King and a Kingdom populated by all who would come to Him in repentance and faith.  When this God-Man was nailed to a cross and killed, they claimed He allowed it to happen so that, in so doing, He could pay the price for the sins of the world.  When He was buried they claimed the grave could not hold Him and that He rose again.  They claimed He lived still, reigning at the right hand of the one true God, but reigning also in the hearts of His people through the Holy Spirit Who He sent to seal, keep, instruct, and guide His people.  They claimed He is coming again.

It is fascinating to see what this strange group of people did say two thousand years ago.  It is also fascinating to note what they did not say.  We never find them involved in sustained complaint against the fallenness of the world.  We never find them protesting the secular businesses of the Roman Empire.  We never find them protesting this or that movement in the world.  We never find them appealing to the secular powers to aid and assist them in the advancement of their cause.  We never find them angry at the world for being the world.  We never find them hating the world for being the world.  We never find them expecting Rome to be anything other than Rome.  We never find them expecting Rome to legislate in their favor.  There were no “culture warriors” among these people.  They were concerned only with proclaiming their peculiar message to the lost culture and calling fallen men and women to come to their King in obedience and faith.

As I say, it was a strange group indeed!

This group of people were first called “Christians” in the city of Antioch but were also known as “The Way.”  They were also called “the Church”:  that body of people comprised of Jesus-followers who recognized Him as Lord, King, and God.

It is interesting to hear the Church spoken of in this way in our day.  In our day, the Church, in many quarters of America anyway, has become a somewhat domesticated puppet of the state:  held on a leash of false promises, manipulated and cajoled into thinking that the Church still matters, is still valued by society at large.  For our parts, we want desperately to believe this nonsense, though the increasing secularization of our society is making this mythology harder and harder to believe.  Born on this side of Constantine as we are, we have been raised in a context where government support or, at least, appreciation is a given.  It is debatable if this has ever really been the case, of course, or if the Church in America simply received the thankful nod of the state insofar as it was politically expedient for the state to do so.

Regardless, it is time for us to come to terms with the death of the Bible Belt and the coming death of nominal Christianity in America. Why?  Because as our society becomes increasingly secularized and thereby more belligerent to the Church, it will ostensibly cost more and more to follow Jesus in this society.  Thus, there will be a kind of pruning of the fringe.  We will experience what the believers of the first centuries experienced and what the persecuted Church experiences today:  the need for genuine commitment if we are going to identify as Christ-followers in the world.

Which is simply to say that the Church needs the book of Acts now more than ever.  This is because the dominant culture ethos in which we reside is coming increasingly to mirror the ethos of the society in which the first Christians first lived.  The world of Acts is now our world, and we would do well to listen.

I say none of this in an effort to complain.  Far from it.  The stripping away of the nominal Christian veneer from society will force the Church to be the Church.  This is a good thing.  It is so because it means we now reside in an arena in which the scandal and prophetic challenge of the gospel can be clearly seen and clearly felt by society insofar as it is clearly proclaimed by the Church.  And this means that the light may now shine in the darkness since we can no longer deceive ourselves that the darkness is really light after all.  It is not.  It is darkness.  Christ is light.  The sides are now clear and the lines are more easily discernible.

This means that we are now free to receive both the outrage and admiration of the watching world since the watching world, in our country anyway, no longer feels the need to pretend to be Christian.  Make no mistake, the watching world of the first century felt both:  outrage and admiration, the desire to kill or the desire to join.  There were very few responses in between.

The coming of Christ and, then, of His Church was a threat to the dominant world system.  Christ turned everything on its head.  In For the Time Being, W.H. Auden imagines Herod’s reaction to the news that “God has been born.”  Though a fictional imagining, of course, this is likely an accurate depiction of what despots then and now feel when they see Christ and His gospel taking root in the populace:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all. Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions…Idealism will be replaced by Materialism . . . Life after death will be an eternal dinner where all the guests are twenty years old. . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.[1]

Yes!  This is the threat of Christ and His Church to a society lost in darkness.  It inverts the assumed verities and shows them for the farces they are.  Christ changes everything!

More positively, Boris Pasternak got at the revolutionary implications of the coming of Christ in Doctor Zhivago, when he had Nikolai Nikolaievich record the following in his diary:

            Rome was a flea market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples, a bargain basement on two floors, earth and heaven, a mass of filth convoluted in a triple knot as in an intestinal obstruction.  Dacians, Herulians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Gyperboreans, heavy wheels without spokes, eyes sunk in fat, sodomy, double chins, illiterate emperors, fish fed on the flesh of learned slaves.  There were more people in the world than there have ever been since, all crammed into the passages of the Coliseum, and all wretched.

            And then, into this tasteless heap of gold and marble, He came, light and clothed in an aura, emphatically human, deliberately provincial, Galilean, and at that moment gods and nations ceased to be and man came into being – man the carpenter, man the plowman, man the shepherd with his flock of sheep at sunset, man who does not sound in the least proud, man thankfully celebrated in all the cradle songs of mothers and in all the picture galleries the world over.[2]

The revolutionary impact of Christ on civilization simply cannot be overstated.  The book of Acts tells the beginning of His impact on and in the world through the life of His people, the church.  Again, we desperately need to reacquaint ourselves with the story of Acts, if for no other reason than to see again what Jesus did through a group of people living in a predominately hostile environment and what He can do in and through us in a similar environment today.

Acts is presenting evidence that the work of Jesus continues in and through the Church.

Acts is the second volume written by Luke, the physician and historian, as he notes in the beginning of Acts.

1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach

This Theophilus is either an individual who bears that name, or he is an individual to whom Luke has given a pseudonym, possibly for his protection, or this is a general reference to those who are “loved by God,” as the word suggests.  Regardless, Luke sends this letter as a follow-up to his “first book.”[3]

The first book was Luke, the gospel of Luke.  It tells the story of Jesus:  His birth, His life, His teachings, His miracles, His death, His burial, and His resurrection.  That is telling because of how it pours meaning and significance into one word in Acts 1:1.  That word is began.  “I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…”

Why is that significant?  Think it through.  It is as if Luke is saying this:

Theophilus, do you remember the first book I wrote and sent to you?  The book of Luke?  Do you remember how in that book I told you all about Jesus?  And do you remember how in that book I told you about what Jesus began doing?  Well, in this second book I want to tell you the rest of the story.  I want to tell you what Jesus is still doing.  You see, Theophilus, He is still at work.  He has not stopped.  You might wonder how He is still working, since He has ascended to Heaven.  I’ll tell you.  He is working through His church.  That’s right.  Think of it like this:   Volume 1 – What Jesus started doing.  Volume 2 – What He is still doing.  Volume 1 – Jesus’ incarnate life.  Volume 2 – Jesus’ life continuing through His church.

T.C. Smith notes that many commentators see the phrase “began to do” in “Jesus began to do” as being “poor form” grammatically, or grammatically “clumsy.”  Against these critics, Smith argues that Luke “has a purpose in using this so-called clumsy expression.”  The purpose in using this wording is to show that “the earthly ministry of Jesus is but the beginning of an action which is without termination.”[4]

This is why Acts needs to be studied and studied carefully:  it is a chronicle of how Jesus continued His life in and through the life of His people after He ascended.

Do you see?  If we do not grasp the reality of the current reign of Christ in and through His people we will be forever limited to discussing our Christian life in terms of our conversions and not in terms of what Christ is doing in and through us today, here and now.

Acts is presenting evidence that the Church continues the work of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit (v.2,4-5)

But how does the life of Christ continue in and through His church?  It cannot be through mere imitation of Christ.  Left to our own devices, our best-intended efforts to do what Jesus did inevitably end with futility and an increased awareness of the disconnect between who He is and who we are.

Left to our own devices, that is.

But what if we aren’t left to our own devices?  Based on Luke’s introduction to his second volume, the early church was certainly not left to its own devices.  This is abundantly clear in verse 2 as well as in verses 4-5.

2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

Luke says first that Jesus instructed his disciples during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension “through the Holy Spirit.”  His instructions, in other words, leading up to His bodily removal from them through the resurrection were bathed in the Holy Spirit.  True, the Spirit of God would fall upon the disciples in a unique and powerful way at Pentecost, but here, in this season of preparation, Christ speaks to them “through the Holy Spirit” about what is going to happen when He ascends.

In verses 4 and 5, Jesus foretells this powerful coming of the Spirit.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

“You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus tells them to wait and get ready because something amazing, something cataclysmic was about to happen to them.  That amazing cataclysmic “something” was, in fact, Someone:  the Holy Spirit.

What role did the Holy Spirit play in the life of the early church?  Simply this:  the Spirit enabled the church to live the life of Christ.  He is the animating Spirit.  He is the presence of Christ in us.  He is our seal and our deposit.  He is the indwelling, enabling, empowering Spirit of God.  St. Augustine said, “What the soul is in our body, the Holy Spirit is in the body of Christ, which is the church.”[5]

That is very true!  Without the Spirit’s indwelling power and presence the church has no power and is no presence.  This is why it is so tragic that so many churches corporately and so many Christians individually do not depend on the Spirit who has been given to them.  Francis Chan put it like this:

If I were Satan and my ultimate goal was to thwart God’s kingdom and purposes, one of my main strategies would be to get churchgoers to ignore the Holy Spirit. The degree to which this has happened (and I would argue that it is a prolific disease in the body of Christ) is directly connected to the dissatisfaction most of us feel with and in the church. We understand something very important is missing. The feeling is so strong that some have run away from the church and God’s Word completely.

I believe that this missing something is actually a missing Someone-namely, the Holy Spirit. Without Him, people operate in their own strength and only accomplish human-size results. The world is not moved by love or actions that are of human creation.  And the church is not empowered to live differently from any other gathering of people without the Holy Spirit. But when believers live in the power of the Spirit, the evidence in their lives is supernatural.  The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice.[6]

The early church was Spirit-led.  The early church was Spirit-empowered.  The early church was Spirit-filled.  The early church was Spirit-driven.

Jesus told them that what they were about to do they would only be able to do through the power of the Spirit.  The Spirit fell and the church moved and the church lived and the church worked and changed…the…world.

Want to know the difference between a club and the church?  The Holy Spirit.

Want to know the difference between an institution and a movement?  The Holy Spirit.

Want to know the difference between church as a product and church as a life?  The Holy Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit, we will read the story of Acts as a story alien to us, for the presence of the Spirit of the living God can be the only connection point between us.  We are separated from the church of the first century by two thousand years, by wildly different customs and cultures, by language, by ethnicity, by political context…in short, by a thousand different things.  But the one thing we have in common is the presence of the Spirit of the living God Who has been sent by the divine and resurrected second person of the Trinity to indwell and to empower us.

Acts is our story only insofar as we are truly the people of God.

Acts is demonstrating how the Church advances the breaking-in of the Kingdom of God in the world. (v.3)

The church continues the life of Christ, and it does so through the power of the Spirit.  But to what end?  Why?  Note what Jesus said in verse 3.

3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

What did Jesus speak about in the forty days leading up to His ascension to Heaven?  The Kingdom of God.  Why?  Because the Church is ultimately serving the Kingdom’s advancement.  How?  By calling men and women into it through repentance and faith, by modeling Kingdom lives before the watching world, and by salting this current decaying order by being salt and light through their Kingdom lives.

What this means is that the Church in the world is to be a subversive movement, but a movement that subverts with love, the love of Christ.  The Church represents the door through which the Spirit of God breaks into the world.

How revolutionary this is!  How it shatters our petty church consumerism and our church shopping.  When we return the church to its rightful status as a revolutionary movement, we are freed from the tyranny of having always to make the church about us.  We are thereby enabled to see the Church as about God:  His plan for humanity, His design, His priorities, His Son.

And when we do this, the story of Acts really does become our story.  We are now able to read it as a story that is continuing, here and now, in our own lives as Christians.  Acts, then, really is for us.  It is our model but it is also our prequel.

The great poet John Donne put it well when he wrote:

Now the Acts of the Apostles were to convey that name of Christ Jesus and to propagate his gospel throughout the whole world.  Beloved, you too are actors on this same stage.  The end of the earth is your scene.  Act out the Acts of the Apostles!  Be a light to the Gentiles who sit in darkness!  Be content to carry over these seas him who dried up one red sea for his first people and who has poured out another red sea – his own blood – for them and for us.[7]

Yes!  May we “act out the Acts of the Apostles.”  We have the same King, Jesus.  We are empowered by the same Spirit.  We are commissioned by the same Father.  We have the same goal:  the salvation of every man, woman, and child on this plant.

Be the Church.

Be the Church!

[2] Boris Pasternak.  Doctor Zhivago.  (New York, N.Y.:  Pantheon Books, Inc., 1958), p. 43.

[3] F.F. Bruce rejects the idea that this was a reference to Christians in general, pointing out that “Theophilus was a perfectly ordinary personal name, attested from the third century B.C. onward.”  He goes on to surmise, “It is quite probable that Theophilus was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public at Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity than that which was current among them.”  F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Revised). The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gordon D. Fee, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p.29.

[4] T.C. Smith, “Acts.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.10. Clifton J. Allen, gen. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1970), p.17.

[5] Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit.  Kindle Loc. 964.

[6] Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit.  Kindle Loc. 42-58.

[7] Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains, eds. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.VI. Timothy George, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.2.

Eric Gritsch’s Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

Eric Gritsch’s Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment will go down as the definitive treatment of Luther’s views on the Jews and the subsequent ages’ attempts to handle and explain those views.  It is a fascinating and well-done book when it is explaining Luther’s thoughts and the handling of those thoughts by Luther’s followers.  It is a hopelessly muddled book when Gritsch imposes his own views and assumptions about what Scripture itself says on the subject.  I note that Gritsch passed away last December.  This is sad to hear as he was apparently quite a prolific Luther scholar.

As for Luther’s views, the evidence seems straightforward enough:  the younger Luther was largely tolerant of Jews.  The older Luther developed what can only be described as a tragic and wicked obsession with railing against the Jews.  In the case of Luther’s later views, the term “anti-semite” would appear applicable.  However, the question of whether Luther’s views were technically “anti-semitic” or rather “anti-Judaistic” is up for debate.  That is, Luther’s railings, while deplorable, seemed to be driven more by theology than race.  While it is true that some of the later Nazis used Luther’s terminology, it is almost certainly true that Luther did not share the race-based loathing of the Jews that Hitler did.  It is perhaps an academic point, however, since Luther eventually came to call for the expulsion of the Jews, the confiscation of their property, the burning of their synagogues, the burning of the Talmud, and harsh civil punishments against the Jews.  In his Table Talk, in answering a student’s questions about whether or not it is permissible to strike a blaspheming Jew, Luther replied that it was of course permissible, and he would run such a Jew through with the sword if he could as well.

The point about “anti-semitism” vs. “anti-Judaism” is raised merely for the sake of accuracy concerning the motivations behind Luther’s anger.  I certainly do not offer it as an excuse.  I fully recognize and bemoan the fact that the upshot of Luther’s views was a call for civil oppression of Jews.  It is a sad and deplorable fact. Roland Bainton observed that it would have been best had the Lord taken Luther home before he had the chance to write such lamentable words.  From a human perspective, this would seem to be a valid sentiment, though, of course, God’s timing in life and death is always perfect.

Gritsch’s handling of the issue of how Luther’s followers, then and now, approach these aspects of Luther’s thought is very interesting.  In general, it seems there was a widespread (intentional?) ignoring of these views until the modern era when they were more openly evaluated, discussed, and bemoaned.  Few have attempted to defend Luther’s views, though some have pointed to his old age, his health, and other such factors to try to understand why he became as obsessed as he did.  Many have pointed to Luther’s earlier tolerance and even kindness to the Jews, and this is certainly a valid thing to do, for Luther’s later screeds against the Jews are not the sum total of his thoughts on the subject, lamentable though they are.

Gritsch’s insertion of his own assumptions, inherited from the the world of leftist biblical scholarship, are quite frustrating even as they are predictable.  Gritsch outright assumes that the Bible clearly teaches the universal salvation of the Jews on the basis of the first covenants.  Furthermore, he says that no responsible scholar would find Christ in the Old Testament the way Luther did.  He presents these thoughts not with a recognition of the complicated and debated issues behind such assertions, but rather as simple, brute facts with which any reasonable person must agree.  One wishes that Gritsch would have confined himself to the historical investigation of Luther’s views without assuming such a patronizing mastery of these complex issues.

As I listened to Gritsch’s discussion of Luther’s views my heart grew heavy.  There is no excuse.  Luther really became unhinged on the issue, and it is more than regrettable.  On the question of the Jews themselves, I would only say, contra Gritsch, but in accordance with, I believe, the teachings of the New Testament, that it is right to pray for the salvation of the Jews through the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that such a prayer rightly offered should not and, indeed, cannot legitimately lead to the obscene anti-semitism/Judaism exhibited in Luther’s later thought.

Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography

In Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Dominican friar Augustine Thompson has set out to offer a biography of St. Francis free of the mythological encrustations that inevitably latch onto figures of Francis’ spiritual stature.  When I first read that this was Thompson’s stated purpose, I grew very cautious.  This is not because I do not agree with a myth-free Francis.  On the contrary, I am very much in favor of such because (a) I believe we ultimately do a disservice to our heroes when we romaticize them and (b) because the undeniably historical aspects of Francis’ life are in and of themselves so astounding that they should render the desire for attractive glosses undesireable anyway (and, of course, such glosses are always inappropriate, if still understandable).  No, my concern was that Thompson’s modus operandiwould be a cover under which he would apply extreme skepticism and reductionism to the life of the beloved Francis.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Thompson is no unjust skeptic.  In fact, I believe he has produced one of the stronger Francis biographies out today.  His approach is sober but respectful.  While he does not allow sacred and beloved myths about Francis to go unchallenged, neither does he lapse into mere incredulity just because a particular instance in Francis’ life seems surprising or even unlikely.  Case in point would be Thompson’s handling of Francis’ alleged stigmata.  His approach is respectful, if cautious.  Ultimately, he finds no reason for doubting that something very odd and very physical happened to Francis, and he dismisses skeptics who dismiss the stigmata simply because they find the idea offputting.

Thompson tells Francis’ basic biography very well.  He handles the wider political and ecclesiastical realities surrounding Francis adeptly and in a helpful manner.  I felt that Thompson really shined in his examination of the innder dynamics of the growing Franciscan movement.  Furthermore, I feel like I learned a good bit about the awkwardness surrounding Francis’ desire to be a “lesser brother” to his fellow monks.  He wanted to be subservient, but, in practice, this proved very difficult given Francis’ stature as the founder of the movement.

Thompson has presented a very human portrait of Francis, and I enjoyed it very much.  I believe he achieved his goal of historical accuracy.  However, he clearly respects his subject and never lapsed into crass dismissiveness simply because many of the events surrounding Francis’ life were remarkable.

After all, Francis was a remarkable man…though Francis, no doubt, would respond, “No, but I have a remarkable God.”

And, of course, he would be right.

Jonathan Edwards’ The Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts

This little booklet has a measure of sentimental value for me.  I bought it a few years ago from the bookstore at “Spurgeon’s Church” in London when Roni and I were over there for a DMin. seminar.  I’ve read selections of these, but have only just now read them all.  I regret waiting so long.

Written in 1722 and 1723, Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions are as timely today as they were when first written.  This 2001 P&R publication is a handsome and well-organized little volume that respectfully preserves this gem of Christian devotional work.  When he wrote these, Edwards was just beginning his pastoral work.  The resolutions reflect a deep and genuine concern over honoring Christ  with and through his life.  Edwards makes resolutions concerning his use of time, how he eats and drinks, his approach to theology and ministry, and the use of his tongue.  He more than once uses the certainty of death as a motivating factor in his life.

I cherish these resolutions and intend to return to them again and again.  If you, like me, need a good dose of perspective from time to time, you could do much worse than turning to Edwards’ resolutions for help.

Paul Maier’s Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World

Some Lutheran friends who attend our church gave me this wonderful little children’s biography of Martin Luther a couple of weeks ago.  It’s little in terms of pages, but it’s actually an oversized coffee-table type book with tremendous illustrations by artist Greg Copeland.  After reading it through I gave it the ultimate test by having my 10-year-old daughter read it through and then answer a few questions I posed to her.  After hearing her say, “Saint Anne, help me!  I will become a monk!”, I was convinced that this book is, in fact, a very effective tool for introducing children to Luther.

There are qualms, of course, as there are bound to be with any brief work that treats such a large topic.  For instance, I regret Maier’s observation that the clergy of Luther’s day were corrupt.  To be sure, there was widespread corruption, but the implication that all the clergy were wicked is unfortunate and could have been remedied by adding the words “many of the” before the word “clergy.”

That being said, how exactly is one to avoid oversimplification with a book like this?

All in all, a tremendous work and a great way to introduce kids to Reformation history.

Shusaku Endo’s Silence

How shall I put this without appearing over-the-top?  Here it is:  quit reading whatever it is you’re reading and order Shusaku Endo’s powerful, disturbing, insightful, unsettling, thought-provoking novel, Silence.

I had heard Philip Yancey mention Endo before, but I only just recently got around to ordering his masterpiece, Silence.  My wife and I finished reading it last night and we woke up this morning talking about it.  In fact, I have not stopped thinking about it all day, and I do not know if I will ever come to peace over the central tragedies of this amazing book.

The book is about the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan.  Specifically, it is about a Portugese priest, Father Rodrigues, who travels to Japan to try to find out what has happened to another priest, Father Ferreira, who travelled there before him and who, rumor had it, had apostatized and was living with a wife in Nagasaki.

Rodrigues and his companion Garrpe eventually reach Japan and are immediately immersed in the horror story of the slaughter of Christians in that country at that time.

I fear to say too much, and, in truth, there’s not much more I can say; not so much because doing so would give away the story (which it would), but because it would detract from the experience of walking through this story.  It is, in fact, an experience, and one that I believe Christians in America should encounter.  Along the way, you will be challenged deeply in your thinking about missiology, Christology, and faith.

Shusaku Endo is considered one of the greatest writers ever produced by Japan.  He was a Christian who grappled with his faith in his writings.  His life is fascinating and tragic, and he is a figure that I hope to become more acquainted with as the days go by.

Get this book.

No, seriously, get this book.

Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert

My knowledge of the Desert Fathers has heretofore been restricted to some shocking examples of asceticism-run-amuck cited in Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines and a single issue of Christian History magazine.  I’ve had some hazy concepts of St. Anthony battling demons and of Simon Stylite sitting on top of a column for way too long in some heroic but misguided attempt at mortifying the flesh.  My understanding of these fascinating people was in desperate need of some balance and perspective.  And so, on a recent and rare day off, I found myself driving to the picturesque Callaway Gardens for a day of walking the woods in solitude and in the hope of enjoying some rest.  I soon found myself seated in the unbelievably beautiful “thin place” of the Callaway Gardens chapel (which is – I kid you not – about as close to Rivendell as we have on this earth) with a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert in my hand.  When I stood up to leave, I had finished this amazing little work and I knew I would be forever changed.

The Wisdom of the Desert is a collection of (mainly brief) sayings from the desert fathers.  The introductory essay by Merton is illuminating and strangely moving.  Merton argues that the desert fathers have been wrongly maligned as anti-social and fanatics.  He persuasively argues that instead of being anti-social, they were looking instead for authentic society (thus the presence of sayings that the abbots passed on to one another and to the brethren), and that instead of being fanatics, they were simply intensely focused on living the crucified life.

Merton has hit the mark, and I daresay that I will be more cautious the next time I am tempted to laugh off these men who retreated from the world.  What, after all, is true society and authentic relationship?  What if, after all, our uncritical immersion in the crumbling pagan polis not only isn’t true society but renders such essentially impossible?

Merton presents these sayings, then, not in an effort to call for a literal repetition of the particulars of the Desert Fathers’ circumstances, but rather so that we might be moved to know and, in so many ways, live the life they so admirably modelled.

The sayings themselves are pithy, concise, and brimming over with wisdom.  Merton attributes this brevity to the humility of the Fathers and the fact that the closer we come to God, the less gregarious we inevitably become.

Some of the consistent themes of this selection of sayings are anger, gluttony, humility, and control of the tongue.  The sayings are frequently winsome, occasionally humorous, and inevitably inspiring.

A few of my favorites:

“It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.” (XV)

“Abbot Ammonas said that he had spent fourteen years in Scete praying to God day and night to be delivered from anger.” (XXIV)

And my hands-down favorite:

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said:  Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts:  now what more should I do?  The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said:  Why not be totally changed into fire?” (LXXII)

I like that.  I like it a lot.  It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”  Or perhaps John Wesley’s, “If I had 300 men who feared nobody but God and hated nothing but sin and were determined to have nothing known among men but Christ and him crucified, I could set the world on fire.”  Or the anonymous, “When God sets a man on fire, people will show up to watch him burn.”

On and on it goes in all of its wonderful proverbial glory.  Some of the sayings are more purely didactic and others are anecdotal.  Regardless, it is a powerful collection, less because it reveals who these fascinating people were than because it gives the reader fresh arrows for the quiver.  Above all, it is Christ-honoring and God-glorifying.

Check out the Desert Fathers.  This would be a great place to start.

Richard Marius’ Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death

Richard Marius of Harvard University has given us a fascinating and infuriating biography of one of most complex figures of human history, Martin Luther. It is a fascinating biography – when Marius is telling the story of Luther. It is an infuriating biography – when Marius serves up some of the most grandiose and startlingly simplistic ideas ever to be written about the man.

I knew I was in for a treat when Marius stated on the second page of the Preface that Luther “represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization” and that “whatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him.” Over 485 pages later, Marius starts wrapping things up with this dandy: “Instead for more than a century after Luther’s death, Europe was strewn with the slaughtered corpses of people who would have lived normal lives if Luther had never lived at all…” (p.485).

Imagine that. Europe could have continued in a state of blissful normalcy if Luther had not (apparently) been the major impetus for pretty much every war that took place for the next century on European soil. Also, Marius tells us, Erasmus would possibly have been able to bring about a “benign kind of reform” if Luther had not come along and stirred things up. To this thought, Marius asks, “But who can tell?” (p.485)

Perhaps Martin Luther could tell. Perhaps Luther was correct that the risk of bloodshed was worth taking in order to free the masses from the delusions of a bankrupt church and the abusive swindling inflicted by a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy upon the “normal” masses.

Marius wishes that Luther could have been silenced shortly after the Leipzig debate. I wish that Marius could have been silenced shortly after the Preface.

This book does have good points (and when Marius is good, he’s brilliant), but one must wade through numerous bemoanings of Luther’s “viciousness”, more than a few backhanded shots at modern-day “fundamentalists”, and more than enough politically correct posturing and condescension to find it.

I am no Luther apologist. Marius’s concerns about Luther’s writings against the Jews, bitter and vitriolic spirit and unbending personality are certainly true. But methinks Marius protests too much. Luther cannot be held responsible for the wars that plagued Europe for more than half a century. On the other hand, along with all of his faults, it is just possible that Luther brought a reform and freedom to the otherwise “normal” people of the 16th century that many were willing to give their lives for, and that many then and now thank God for.

Calvin Miller’s The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy

One of the most inspiring and enjoyable devotional reading experiences I’ve had in a long time is Calvin Miller’s new book, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (a video introduction can be seen here). Celtic spirituality is so faddish and chic that I likely would not have purchased this book had it been written by anybody other than Calvin Miller or a few other authors. Miller is aware of this phenomenon, thus his first sentence: “I am not a groupie. I am not a celebrant of any new form of ‘hula-hoop’ theology” (p.7). And, sure enough, Miller shows that this is true.

The Path of Celtic Prayer is a well-researched and thorough introduction to six kinds of Celtic Prayer: Trinity Prayer, Scripture Prayer, Long, Wandering prayer, Nature Prayer, Lorica Prayer, and Confessional Prayer. In each of the six chapters (each dealing with one of these forms of prayer) Miller gives Celtic examples of these prayers and then shows how that particular form could greatly enrich modern Protestant practices.

One of the strongest chapters, in my opinion, was the first chapter on Trinity prayer. For one thing, I was unaware of the intense Trinitarianism of Celtic prayer. This was encouraging, especially in a day with the Trinity is seen by many to be a theological oddity, some bizarre scholastic holdover that smells a bit of Roman Catholic medievalism. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. We need the doctrine and reality of the Trinity today as we’ve never needed it before. Miller’s examples are compelling:

Consider this prayer taken from the Black Book of Carmarthen.

I praise the threefold

Trinity as God.

Who is one in three,

A single power in unity

His attributes a single mystery,

One God to praise

Great King I praise you,

Great your glory.

Your praise is true;

I am the one who praises you. (p.40)

This is theological prayer at its greatest. It opens up for us new vistas of prayer, new ways of thinking through and articulating our heart of worship to the living Triune God. And Miller uses this and other examples as a platform on which to chastise our Evangelical shallowness when it comes to thinking in a Trinitarian way:

We generally thank God the Father for the big stuff: sunrise, rainfall and the Rocky Mountains. We are also prone to ask him to protect us from the devastating “acts of God” that mess with our views of his lovingkindness and providential protection. Hurricanes, earthquakes and the like seem to be more the Father’s province, and so we generally talk to him to amend the weather, stop the Asian flu or feed the hordes of starving people.

To Jesus we delegate the personal work of our own affairs. Healing, improving our income, stopping our toothache or giving us our daily bread: these are things that Jesus takes care of. This, we unconsciously assume, is compassionate in our thinking, for it saves God the Father from piddling with our petty needs. We see Jesus as far less austere and far more approachable than the Father. We would never sing What a Friend We Have in God. Jesus is our friend. He takes care of our intimate needs and bears our heavy burdens “upstairs” where the Father can take care of them.

Finally, the Holy Spirit generally gets slighted in our prayers. He’s so invisible that we have no fixed mental image of him, unlike the Father and Son. God, to many, is Grandfather Zeus, powerful and to be feared. He thunders around the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and keeps a comfortable distance from trembling and weak humans. Jesus is on the wall of the Chapel and a lot closer to the floor, where we live. Even though he is generally friendly with children and widows, he still wears a toga and looks Romanesque.

But what does the Spirit look like? He’s invisible – amorphous and cellophane. He may indwell us, but it rarely occurs to us to pray to him. At best he is just a supporting actor in the divine drama. The Holy Spirit is nice, and sometimes he makes us feel good in church. Be we rarely have conversations with him. Jesus takes care of our personal stuff. God takes care of the Grand Canyon. And the Holy Spirit gets honorable mention at Communion and baptisms (33-34).

This is the kind of thing you’ll find time and again in Miller’s book. In addition to this chapter, I was most challenged by the final chapter on confessional prayer. For example:

We must confess our wretchedness. We are hiding out in Eden with the fruit – half-eaten – still in our hand, and we have been discovered. We look down in shame and suddenly realize that we are exposed, with no place to run and no place to hide. We are, to say the least, wretched. There is no justification for our state. What do we do? It’s too late for paltry excuses. We cannot pass the buck. But as hard as it is, we must confess our willful disobedience to the holy and righteous God.

We must be willing to stand with God and look at ourselves, agree with him that we are naked, and seek the wholeness that prefaces our first step toward union with Christ. In short, when we confess we say, “Lord, this is me, and here’s what I’ve done.” We confess as Patrick did: “Here I am…a sinner.” Sedulus Scotus cried as Patrick cried – in a day far separate from our own.

I read and write and teach, philosophy peruse.

I eat and freely drink, with rhymes invoke the muse,

I call on heaven’s throne both night an day,

Snoring I sleep, and stay awake I pray.

And sin and fault inform each act I plan.

Ah! Christ…pity this miserable man (146-147).

You will not regret buying and reading The Path of Celtic Prayer. If you are like me, you will want to write down some of these prayers to incorporate into your own prayer life (i.e., there are a few morning and evening prayers that are really quite good). What I like about Miller is that he seems to me to stand between sentimental devotionalism on the one hand and dry theology on the other. This is theology as it ought to be written: biblical, thorough, winsome, challenging, and inspirational.