Thursday, March 29

Palm Sunday

The palm tree and palm leaves appear again and again throughout the Bible as symbols of integrity, honor, righteousness, holiness, godly authority, and royal glory. The palm was used in the carved decorations of the temple, usually associated with the Cherubim, but also with the regal lion and the flower in full bloom. Indeed, the association of the palm with these ideas recurs more than three dozen times in the Scriptures. The blessing of the Lord is portrayed as “Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters” (Numbers 24:6).

In addition though, throughout the entire ancient Near East the palm also had the common cultural connotation of refreshment and restoration. Waving palm tops along the horizon heralded the location of a desert oasis, a welcome stop for both camel and traveler. Palms provided weary travelers food and shade; the oasis, water. So palm branches become the symbol of welcome, public homage, and journey’s end. It was the sign of completion, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

For both the Romans and the Jews the palm was carried in joyful or triumphant processions. In 293 BC victorious Roman soldiers bore palm branches when parading in Rome; and the palm was given as a victory emblem at public games. Palm branches were the conventional symbol of public approval and welcome by all the eastern peoples to conquering heroes, and were strewn and carried in triumphal processions. The palm tree was embossed on ancient Hebrew coins. Later, the Romans celebrated the conquest of Judea by issuing new currency, retaining the palm tree, but with an added inscription celebrating their crushing victory.

All the Gospels report that people gave Jesus the kingly honor of strewing palm branches along the path during His triumphal entry. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we are told that they also laid down their garments with cut palm rushes on the street; John more specifically mentions the full palm fronds. The joyous Hosannas that the people were singing (Psalm 118) were actually from the benediction song for the Passover meal, and thus foreshadowed passion Jesus would suffer during the week ahead. In addition, the whole scene was a fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies of the coming King (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Not surprisingly, as early as the late first century the palm was connected with martyrdom (Revelation 7:9) and was used to decorate grave markers and tombs in the Roman catacombs as a sign of the triumphant death of the martyr. On mosaics and on sarcophagi it usually stands for paradise, and Christ is frequently portrayed amid palms in heaven. So also in the earliest Christian art, the Lamb of God and the Apostles are depicted amid palms. In addition, the use of the palm became an almost universal worship convention on Palm Sunday by the end of the second or the beginning of the third century.

This Sunday, let us observe this venerable and ancient practice during the service, as we too sing Hosannas to our King, amidst these old Biblical symbols of royal pomp and joyous celebration.

Monday, March 26

Coming to Bookstores Soon

Yes, indeed. It is a new Tolkien book! Begun shortly after he returned home from the trenches of World War One and tinkered with for decades afterward, The Children of Hurin, like The Silmarillion, was never completed in his lifetime. But Tolkien's son and literary heir, Christopher, has painstakingly culled, edited, and reconstructed all the scattered variants of the story, much as he did decades ago with The Silmarillion. The laborious task took thirty years. But now, the much-anticipated book will be in stores by the middle of this next month.

And the rumor is that the famously arcane Tolkien notebooks hold yet another gem (or maybe even two) and Christopher is working feverishly to prepare it for publication as well. One can only hope.

Holy Week

Saturday, March 24

What I'm Reading

Independent Vermont

Originally populated by various indigenous peoples of the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Abenaki nations, the land now known as Vermont was first seen by European eyes on this day in 1609, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed the still partly frozen lake that now bears his name. The French must have paid their visits during the warmer months, for when they gazed upon the mountains that form the spine of the state, they named them Les Verts Monts--or the Green Mountains. The quaint capital of the state, Montpelier also got its name from the French--it means the naked mount or the mountain without trees. As happens with language, Les Verts Monts was somehow transliterated into Vermont. And as generally happens with explorers, Champlain claimed all he saw in the name of France.

In 1763, England was granted the area via the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War--a global imperial conflict known in the Americas as the French and Indian War and celebrated in our folklore by the tales of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. The land was at various times claimed by the colonial governors of both New Hampshire and New York; however, the fiercely independent residents maintained their autonomy. By 1775, they had joined the spreading rebellion against British rule--but rather than join forces with the other thirteen Atlantic coast colonies, Vermonters, naturally, chose to go it alone.

Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys did not fight for American independence, rather, they fought for Vermont’s freedom. The great victory at Fort Ticonderoga was won not by American forces but by the militias of a sovereign Vermont under the authority of President Thomas Crittenden and the national legislature convened in Windsor. Even after the other thirteen colonies had confederated into a single American nation, the little state of Vermont remained an independent republic. It was not until 1791, some fifteen years after declaring autonomy, that it joined the United States as that fledgling nation's fourteenth member state.

Even after Vermont joined the Union, its rugged citizens maintained their distance and independence—-they reserved the right to secede at any time by a simple majority vote of its legislature. It is the only state to continue to have that statutory prerogative to this day. It is sometimes quipped in the other forty-nine that it might be better for all if it were to exercise that prerogative. Regardless, the fierce independence of Vermont is never in doubt.

Thursday, March 22

The Old Consensus

The original Poor Laws, enacted on this day in 1589, sought to “reinforce righteousness,” to strengthen “the family bond,” and to “set the poor to work” and turn the country into “a hive of industry.” Although far from ideal, the laws accomplished just that, and became the model for three centuries of unprecedented liberty and prosperity.

The Poor Laws determined that if welfare was to be a compromise, it was to be a carefully conditioned compromise. Workhouses and labor yards were established so that those willing to work could “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” while maintaining family integrity. Cottage apprenticeships were initiated so that the youth would “be accustomed and brought up in labor, work, thrift, and purposefulness.” Disincentives were deliberately incorporated so that unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, sloth, and graft could be kept to a minimum. From all but the disabled, industry was required.

This legacy of conditioning government welfare on faith, family, and work was carried across the sea by the early American settlers. Knowing that the Poor Laws were based on the fundamental Scriptural balance between discipline and responsibility, the colonists maintained the old consensus. As a result, the poor could expect justice and compassion even along the rough-hewn edges of the new frontier. But it was a justice and compassion that demanded responsibility, effort, and diligence of its beneficiaries. It was a justice and compassion rooted in the Biblical family and work-ethic. It was a justice and compassion that was administered, not by an army of benevolent bureaucrats, but by a gracious citizenry. It was a justice and compassion that offered opportunities, not entitlements.

American statesman Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Americans hold their greatest liberty in this, our poor arise from their plight of their own accord, in cooperation with, but not dependent upon, Christian generosities “ Likewise, philanthropist Thomas MacKay wrote, “American welfare consists in a recreation and development of the arts of independence and industry.” And Benjamin Franklin was fond of paraphrasing the old Talmudic proverb, asserting that American charity “is the noblest charity, preventing a man from accepting charity, and the best alms, enabling men to dispense with alms.” So America came to be known the world over as the home of the free and the brave, the land of opportunity.

The old consensus remained an unchallenged bastion in the determination of domestic social policy. But, that old consensus died in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson launched his famous “war on poverty.”

Monday, March 19

The Bootstrap Ethic

The Charity Organization Society was England's leading private charity agency in the late nineteenth century. It operated on the Biblical principle of aid to foster self-help. According to Charles Loch Mowat, the historian of the society, it embodied an idea of charity, which claimed to reconcile the divisions in society, to remove poverty, and to produce a happy, self-reliant community. It believed that the most serious aspect of poverty was the degradation of the character of the poor man or woman. Indiscriminate charity only made things worse; it demoralized. True charity demanded friendship, thought, the sort of help that would restore a man's self-respect and his ability to support himself and his family. True charity demanded gainful employ.”

The Society aimed to implement to the fullest extent possible the bootstrap ethic so predominant in Scripture. Again, according to Mowat, it sought: “First, to place in gainful employ those able to work; Second, to occupy, with industry within the Society, all those incapable of placement; And, third, to acquire the means with which to supply the other incapacitated needy with the necessities of life.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the premiere Victorian pulpit master, was a public advocate and avid supporter of the Society. He heralded it as “a charity to which the curse of idleness is subjected to the rule of the under-magistrate of earthly society: work.”

This was the appropriate aim of Biblical charity, he said, “ to rid the impoverished of the curse of idleness” and to “rebuild self-reliance and productivity.” More than anything else, he argued, “the poor need jobs.” So, the Society sought to explore the markets, equip the applicants, and expand the opportunities so that full employment could be secured for all but the totally infirm.

The results were remarkable--a revolution not unlike that of Thomas Chalmers in Scotland a generation earlier took place in the industrialized centers all throughout Britain. Poverty was transformed into productivity and the poor themselves became engines of prosperity.

Thursday, March 15

Quo Vadis?

Ever since the advent of the nineteenth century, fictional portrayals of the persecuted Church in Nero’s Rome have been a favored form of the Christian novel and a uniquely Lenten tradition. During the Victorian age in particular, Christians made it a habit during the weeks leading up to Easter to read these novels of the life and times of Christ as a “quiet time” family activity or "Sabbath Eve" exercise.

Most of the novels written for that purpose were anything but noteworthy. The predictable plots were constructed in order to contrast the corrupt brilliance of Pagan Rome with the austere and pious life of the early Church. Most readers can recount such business by heart: the orgies, the arena, the glimpse of the bloated and sensual figure of the emperor and his perversely corrupted court, the delicate and beautiful Christian maiden with her hair let down her back, the ill-fated love affair between her and some swashbuckling, worldly-wise, well-placed Roman soldier, the soldier’s reluctant conversion just in the nick of time, the dim passageways and fleeting sanctuaries of the catacombs, the horrific conflagration of Nero’s fire, and the sad but heroic martyrdom of each of the protagonists in turn.

But, there were a few good works mixed into the profusion of pulp. For instance, there were a few marvels such as Zygmunt Krasinski’s tragedy, Irdion. It portrays a Greek rebel who tried to turn the Christian dissenters into revolutionaries. John Henry Newman’s Callista, captures the universality of the Christian message in a time of heaving uncertainty, Paul Bereille’s Emilie, Hermann Geiger’s Lydia, George Whyte-Melville’s The Gladiators, Josef Kraszewski’s Caprea and Roma, and F.N. Farrar’s Darkness and Dawn all revolve around the lives, loves, and sacrifices of the early martyrs—each is considered a classic in its own right. Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert, though hardly counted among his best-known works, was undoubtedly among his best-written works—in large part because it was the passionate vehicles for his own struggles regarding the Gospel.

Lew Wallace, a bitter Union general during the War between the States, began writing Ben Hur to disprove the claims of Christianity. But, much to his surprise, he himself was converted as he researched the period and developed the characters. The result was an invigorating paean to the faith. Lloyd Douglas likewise turned his experienced fictional hand to the days of the early Church. As a result, he not only produced two classics of the genre, The Big Fisherman and The Robe, he also reinvigorated his own flagging faith.

But as fine as each of these books is, all of them pale in comparison with Quo Vadis. The triumph of Henryk Sienkiewicz sets his work altogether apart. As late as 1937, the French Larousse Encyclopedia asserted that the book was “one of the most extraordinary successes registered in the history of the book—both in terms of sales and in terms of literary merit.” The American literary critic Nathan Haskell Dole was hardly exaggerating when he commented, “It is said that if a person standing at the foot of Niagara merely touches the awful sheet of water with a finger, he is drawn irresistibly in; and so if a person begins this book, the torrential sweep of its immensity becomes instantly absorbing. It is one of the great books of our day.”

Sienkiewicz (pronounced sane-KAY-vitch) was trained in both law and medicine in his native Poland. He was a respected historian. He was a successful journalist. He was a widely sought-after critic and editor. He was an erudite lecturer. And in addition to all that, he was an amazingly prolific and wildly popular novelist—selling millions of copies of his almost fifty books in nearly three hundred editions in the United States alone.

He wowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth of character, and his evocative story-telling. His writing includes some of the most memorable works of historical fiction ever penned—ranking with the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Johnson. Indeed, in 1905, Sienkiewicz saw his brilliant career capped when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Quo Vadis? was published in 1898. It was nothing short of an instant phenomenon. It was the first book the New York Times dubbed a “blockbuster,” and became the standard against which all future mega-best-sellers was judged.

The book was intended to be an epic retelling of the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. Its broad, Biblical sweep of events includes the machinations of Nero’s court, the rising tide of persecutions against the fledgling Christian community, the movements of the Germanic tribes along the Roman frontier—not surprisingly featuring the Polish Ligians—and the ministries of the Apostles Paul and Peter. According to an old Christian legend, Peter was fleeing the Emperor’s persecutions when he had a vision of Christ along the Appian Way. Awestruck, the Apostle addressed the Lord, asking, “Quo vadis?” or “Wither do you go?” Jesus answered him, To Rome, to be crucified anew, inasmuch as you have abandoned my sheep.” Fully comprehending the rebuke, Peter returned to the city to face his inevitable martyrdom.

In the hands of Sienkiewicz, the legend comes alive with bristling dialog, fully-dimensional characters, abiding faith, and informed political rage. His portrait of the Roman world and its ethos is dynamic—rivaling even Walter Pater’s Greco-Roman classics. His ability to emotionally identify with protagonists across the centuries is stunning. His to faithfulness to the straightforward Gospel message of the early church is inspiring. But his ability to relate the struggle of the first generation of believers against the juggernaut of Messianic Caesarism to the struggle of modern believers against the juggernaut of Messianic Statism is nothing less than brilliant.

The story is never compromised by a propagandistic message, nevertheless, Sienkiewicz’s message of anti-revolutionary, anti-ideological, and anti-modernist traditionalism sounds out, loud and clear. Indeed, the way Sienkiewicz weaves the historical narrative, the plot line, the character development, and the message of the Gospel, it is evident that he was working out of the same worldview context as his Dutch contemporaries, Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, as well as the later English Distributists and Southern Agrarians. For many readers, the transformation of that kind of confessional faith into vibrant art is a kind of revelation in itself—akin to discovering G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Thomas Chalmers, Caroline Gordon, or Walter Scott for the first time.

Not surprisingly then, Quo Vadis? became a model for aspiring writers—both Hemingway and Faulkner argued that it was the finest historical novel ever written. It has been lauded by such widely varied authors as It has been lauded by such diverse writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Andrew Nelson Lytle, James Michener, Shusako Endo, Allen Tate, David Morrell, Peter Ackroyd, Colin Thubron, and A.N. Wilson. In addition, four film versions of the story have been made in Hollywood, two more in France, one in Argentina, one in Peru, one in Brazil, and another one in Italy. The 1951 MGM big-budget production starring Peter Ustinov, Robert Taylor, and Deborah Kerr, is a confirmed classic—and is now available in video.

Sadly, the only English version of the book available throughout most of the twentieth century was the convoluted and archaic British translation of C.J. Hogarth. Thankfully, that has now been bracingly remedied with the brilliant new translation by W.S. Kuniczak. Published by Hippocrene, this new edition has restored the soaring prose, the dynamic pace, and the immediate accessibility of Sienkiewicz’s original.

Quo Vadis? is the kind of rich literary work with which the ever growing Christian fiction market—consisting of both readers and writers—really ought to be nurtured. And what better way to recover the old Lenten tradition than to read this classic?

Sunday, March 11

King Abdullah

King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein, the monarch of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 1999, is the 43rd generation direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Recognized as the Prophet's household, Al al Bayt, Abdullah's family has long served the Arab world superintending the Quraish tribe, maintaining the holy sites of Mecca and Madina, and symbolizing the unity of Arab society and life. Indeed, even during the reign of the Ummayads, the Abbassids, the Fattimides, the Ayyoubids, and the Ottomans the Hashemites were recognized, if not as the actual caliphs then at least as the symbolic leaders of Dar al-Islam.

Abdullah did not inherit much land or wealth. But, he did inherit the Hashemite legacy and moral clout.

This past week, he made a state visit to Washington, DC in an effort to wield that influence. In a speech before a joint session of Congress he made an impassioned speech for the United States to once again take the lead in helping to forge peace in the Middle East. He made no new policy proposals. He offered no new insights into how to solve the dilemmas of of Muslim on Muslim violence. He offered no new concessions to remove the threat of extremists in Hammas, al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah.

But, he nevertheless commanded the respect and attention of every congressman and senator. I was privileged to have been invited to come to Washington to attend the joint session and was able to witness first-hand the power of his influence.

If only he commanded the respect and attention of the mullahs, imams, and ayatollahs of Islam! But, of course, he does not. And for all the impassioned king's rhetoric, real headway in the Middle East is going to have to spring from something other than good intentions, long geneologies, or heartfelt pleas.

A Public Servant

I was in Washington as the guest of my representative in Congress, Marsha Blackburn. It was a great pleasure to be able to speak with her and her staff about a number of educational issues--including the increasingly frequent harassment of homeschoolers, homeschool coops, and small Christian schools by fire marshals throughout Tennessee. I am grateful that we have a public servant like Marsha in Washington--and that she has assembled such a dedicated and competent staff.

Tuesday, March 6

Remember the Alamo

On this day in 1836, the Alamo, a former mission in San Antonio, Texas, fell after a nearly two week-long siege to Mexican dictator, General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The whole garrison was slaughtered. The Tennessee Volunteers, led by former congressman Davy Crockett, and their Texan comrades were outnumbered 15 to 1. Despite the loss, the 13-day holdout stalled the Mexican Army's progress and allowed another former Tennessee lawmaker, Sam Houston, to gather troops and supplies for his later successful battle at San Jacinto. The frontier patriots ultimately were to win the war and to establish the independent Republic of Texas.

Friday, March 2

No One Left

On this day in 1938, Martin Niemöller was tried in a Nazi court for the crime of preaching a "rebellious" sermon. He was convicted and sentenced to seven months in prison. Hitler had him arrested again almost as soon as he was released. This time his resistance placed him in concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Dachau until the end of World War II.

Niemöller was an ex-submarine captain, who after he entered the ministry had become one of the leaders of the Confessing Church which offered fierce resistance to Hitler’s repressive regime. Altogether he spent eight years in prison. Nonetheless, he apologized with deep regret in October 1945, after the war, for failing to speak out earlier and more strongly against Nazism.

Often he would say, "First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

Thursday, March 1

God's Work, God's Way, God's Supply

When J. Hudson Taylor arrived at the port of Shanghai on this day in 1854, he did not speak the language, he did not know where to go, he did not know a soul, and he did not have a place to stay. Evening was just descending when he disembarked from his ship and he began walking alone through the bewildering alien streets. Nevertheless, he wrote in his diary, that he was exultant, “My feelings on stepping ashore I cannot attempt to describe. My heart felt as though it had not room and must burst its bonds, while tears of gratitude and thankfulness fell from my eyes.”

Though he was ultimately able to find his way to a friendly mission compound in the teeming city that night, just about nothing else seemed to go his way. The days and weeks that followed were dreary and lonely. A civil war erupted just days after he arrived and people were slaughtered before his eyes. He struggled with the language and the seemingly impenetrable cultural barriers between himself and the Chinese people he had come to serve.

Eventually though, Taylor was able to overcome every one of these difficulties and many more. He learned the language and made up his mind to adopt native dress. He went to work planting an indigenous church and English board and founded the China Inland Mission, to expand his work throughout the entire land. He never told anyone about his financial needs, trusting that the Lord would provide whatever was needed. He famously reminded his beloved wife, Maria, "God's work done in God's way will never lack for God's supply."

He was right. At his death the China Inland Mission had 205 missionaries and the Gospel was already beginning to flourish across that great land.

Though Chinese Christianity grew slowly at first, and has always suffered severe persecution, the fruit of Taylor’s labors is evident. Today the Chinese church is thought by some analysts to be the fastest growing in the world. Who could have ever imagined such an outcome on that day so long ago when Taylor stepped out in faith and into Shanghai?

What I'm Reading

At Least It's Cheap

“At least it's cheap,” may well be the best thing that we can say about modernist architecture. That apparently is the argument of Edward Glaeser in his New York Sun column. Alas, that may not be saying much.