Friday, October 31

Reformation Day

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483. He was descended from the peasantry, a fact in which he took great pride. His father was a copper miner in the mining area of Mansfeld—but humble as he was, he determined to procure a sound education for his children. Thus, Luther received a Brethren of the Common Life education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1502 and his master's degree in 1505. He then intended to study law, as his father wished.

But in the summer of 1505, he suddenly abandoned his studies, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. Later in life, Luther explained it by recalling several brushes with death making him astutely aware of the fleeting character of life. Luther made his profession as a monk following year and was ordained as a priest the year after that.

After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities. The following year he was assigned by Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, to the University of Wittenberg which had been founded just six years earlier. He was to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. Two years later, he had the opportunity to visit Rome and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy.

Increasingly concerned about corruption within the church—both material and spiritual—Luther suddenly became a public and controversial figure when he published his Ninety-Five Theses, on this day in 1517. They were supremely academic in character—Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences were being sold to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter's in Rome.

The Theses caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely distributed. Luther's spirited defense and further development of his position through public university debates in Wittenberg and other cities resulted in an investigation by the Roman Curia that led to his condemnation three years later and his excommunication a year after that in 1521. Summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons.

By that time, it was clear that the protesting churches—or Protestants—would not succeed in reforming the whole church as Luther had wished, and so they established a new ecclesiastical structure rooted in the idea of Sola Scriptura, (Scripture Alone). Thus was born the Reformation.

All Hallow’s Eve

Many of the ancient peoples of Europe marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating a holiday in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to influence later customs was Samhain, a holiday observed by the ancient Celts. Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

According to their tradition, the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. The Celts sought to ward off these spirits with offerings of food and drink. They also built bonfires at sacred hilltop sites and performed rituals, often involving human and animal sacrifices, to honor Druid deities.

When the Celts were absorbed into the Roman empire, many of their traditions were adapted by the conquerors as a part of their own celebrations. In Britain, Romans blended local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees—from which the game of bobbing for apples was derived. In many places such as Scotland and Ireland, Samhain was abandoned only when the local people converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages. But even then, pagan folk observances were linked to a number of Christian holidays.

Thus, many of the old Samhain traditions thought to be incompatible with Christianity often became linked with Christian folk beliefs about evil spirits in the celebration of Halloween. Although such superstitions varied a great deal from place to place, many of the supernatural beings now associated with the holiday became fixed in the popular imagination during the Renaissance.

In British folklore, small magical beings known as fairies became associated with Halloween mischief. The jack-o’-lantern, originally carved from a large turnip rather than a pumpkin, originated in medieval Scotland. As belief in many of the old superstitions waned during the late 19th century, Halloween was increasingly regarded as a children’s holiday. Beginning in the 20th century, Halloween mischief gradually transformed into the modern ritual of trick-or-treating. Eventually, Halloween treats were plentiful while tricks became rare.

Wednesday, October 29

Kuyper Day

On this day in 1907, the entire nation of the Netherlands celebrated the seventieth birthday of Abraham Kuyper. A national proclamation recognized that "the history of the Netherlands, in Church, in State, in Society, in Press, in School, and in the Sciences the last forty years, cannot be written without the mention of his name on almost every page, for during this period the biography of Dr. Kuyper is to a considerable extent the history of the Netherlands."

The boy who was born in 1837 was at first thought to be dull, but by the time he was twelve he had entered the Gymnasium. Years later he would graduate with highest possible honors from Leyden University. In short order he earned his masters and doctoral degrees in theology before serving as minister at Breesd and Utrecht.

The brilliant and articulate champion of Biblical faithfulness was called to serve in the city of Amsterdam in 1870. At the time, the religious life of the nation had dramatically declined. The church was cold and formal. There was no Bible curriculum in the schools and the Bible had no real influence in the life of the nation. Kuyper set out to change all of this in a flurry of activity.

In 1872, Kuyper founded the daily newspaper, De Standard. Shortly afterward he also founded De Heraut, a weekly devotional magazine. He continued as editor of both newspapers for over forty-five years--and both became very influential in spreading the winsome message of a consistent Christian worldview.

Two years later, in 1874, Kuyper was elected to the lower house of Parliament as the leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party--and he served there until 1877. Three years later he founded the Free University of Amsterdam, which asserted that the Bible was the foundation of every area of knowledge.

Following a stunning victory at the polls, Kuyper was summoned by Queen Wilhelmena to form a cabinet and become Prime Minister of the nation in 1902--a position he held for three years. A number of politicians were dissatisfied with Kuyper’s leadership because he refused to separate his theological and political views separate. To him, they were identical interests since Christ was king in every arena of human life. He believed that Christ rules not merely by the tradition of what He once was, spoke, did, and endured, but by a living power which even now, seated as He is at the right hand of God, He exercises over lands, nations, generations, families, and individuals.

Kuyper was undoubtedly a man of tremendous versatility—he was a noted linguist, theologian, university professor, politician, statesman, philosopher, scientist, publisher, author, journalist, and philanthropist. But amazingly, in spite of his many accomplishments and his tremendous urgency to redeem the time, Kuyper was also a man of the people.

In 1897, at the 25th anniversary of his establishment of De Standaard, Kuyper described the ruling passion of his life: "That in spite of all worldly opposition, God's holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school, and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God."

Not One Square Inch

There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not say, "Mine!"
--Abraham Kuyper

Saturday, October 25

Saint Crispin's Day

Today is Saint Crispin's Day. Saint Crispin and his brother Crispinian were Christians who were martyred during the persecution by the Emperor Maximian in Rome. They preached to people during the day and made shoes at night in order to earn their living.

It was in 1415 that England’s King Henry V distinguished this old Christian feast day when against all odds his beleaguered army defeated the overwhelming force of French on the field of Agincourt.

The events of that day inspired Shakespeare’s famous monologue:

“If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer the men, the greater share of honor. God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more. This story shall the good man teach his son, and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us on St. Crispin’s Day.”

Friday, October 24

Surprise, Surprise

What a surprise! The New York Times today endorsed the Democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama. Last time around, the influential daily newspaper endorsed John Kerry. The time before that, it endorsed Al Gore. Before that, it was two consecutive endorsements for Bill Clinton. Before that, it was Michael Dukakis. Before that, it was Walter Mondale. Jimmy Carter got two nods. Before that, it was George McGovern. Before that, Hubert Humphrey. Before that, Lyndon Johnson. And before that, John Kennedy. Umm. See the trend? In the last 100 years, the Times has endorsed only three Republicans. It just makes you wonder why the paper even bothers to announce their picks anymore.

Book Selling

"When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night--there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean." --Christopher Morley

Our Shepherd

"Reason, as well as Scripture, may convince us, that he who gathers the outcasts of Israel, who heals the broken in heart, who upholds all that fall, raises up all that are bowed down, and upon whom the eyes of all wait for their support—can be no other than He who counts the number of the stars, and calls them all by their names, who is great in power, and whose understanding is infinite! To this purpose likewise, the prophet Isaiah describes this mighty Shepherd, Isaiah 40:9-17, both as to his person and office."

"But is not this indeed, the great mystery of godliness? How just is the Apostle's observation, that no man can say, Jesus Christ is the Lord—but by the Holy Spirit! How astonishing the thought—that the Maker of heaven and earth, the Holy One of Israel, before whose presence the earth shook, the heavens dropped, when he displayed a faint emblem of his majesty upon Sinai, should afterwards appear in the form of a servant, and hang upon a cross, the sport and scorn of wicked men!"

"I cannot wonder, that to the wise men of the world this appears absurd, unreasonable, and impossible; yet to right reason, to reason enlightened and sanctified, however amazing the proposition be—yet it appears true and necessary, upon a supposition that a holy God is pleased to pardon sinners in a way suited to display the solemn glories of his justice. The same arguments which prove that the blood of bulls and goats is insufficient to take away sin, will conclude against the utmost doings or sufferings of men or angels. The Redeemer of sinners must be mighty; he must have a personal dignity, to stamp such a value upon his undertakings, as that thereby God may appear just, as well as merciful, in justifying the ungodly for his sake; and he must be all-sufficient to bless, and almighty to protect—those who come unto him for safety and life."

"Such a one is our Shepherd. This is He of whom we, through grace, are enabled to say—we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture."
--John Newton

Tuesday, October 21

Economics in One Easy Lesson

Economics, commonly known as the "dismal science," can actually be easily understood. Here are each of the basic economic philosophies explained in simple "two-cow" terms (first articulated years ago during a delightful dinner in Washington DC with Murray Rothbard):

Communalism: You have two cows. You keep one and give one to your neighbor.

Communism: You have two cows. The government takes them both and--from time to time--provides you with sour milk.

Fascism: You have two cows. The government takes them and sells you the milk.

Liberalism: You have two cows. The government takes them both, shoots one, milks the other, pays you for the milk, and then pours it down the drain.

Socialism: You have two cows. The government taxes you to the point that you must sell them both in order to support a man in a foreign country who has only one cow which was a gift from your government.

Free-Market Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull.

Centralized, Multi-National-Corporation-Based, Government-Subsidized, Democratic Socialism: You have two cows. You sell one, force the other to produce the milk of four cows and when it dies you write off the depreciation, hire a lobbyist, and garner a government bail-out and tax-breaks in order to purchase two new cows. Repeat.

Economics: A Second Lesson

My friend, Steve Henderson from Munich, sent me an addendum to the above posting:

An American Corporation: You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. You are surprised when the cow drops dead.

A French Corporation: You have two cows. You go on strike because you want three cows.

A Japanese Corporation: You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. You then create clever cow cartoon images called Cowkimon and market them worldwide.

A German Corporation: You have two cows. You reengineer them so they live for 100 years, eat once a month, and milk themselves.

A Brittish Corporation: You have two cows. Both are mad.

An Italian Corporation: You have two cows, but you don’t know where they are. You break for lunch.

A Swiss Corporation: You have 5000 cows, none of which belong to you. You charge others for storing them.

A Hindu Corporation: You have two cows. You worship them.

A Chinese Corporation: You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim full employment, high bovine productivity, and arrest the journalist who reported these numbers.

Enron Venture Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. Sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the release. The public buys your bull.

Monday, October 20

An Author's Last Wish

When I am dead
I hope it will be said:
His sins were scarlet,
But his books were read.

--Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, October 14

House Wars, Punic and Otherwise

In his remarkable book entitled The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson makes the point that "the best things in life" invariably "cost us something." We must sacrifice to attain them, to achieve them, to keep them, even to enjoy them. That is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. It is the message that we know we ought to instill in our children: patience, commitment, diligence, constancy, and discipline will ultimately pay off if we are willing to defer gratification long enough for the seeds we have sown to sprout and bear. A flippant, shallow, and imprecise approach to anything--be it sports or academics or the trades or business or marriage--is ultimately self-defeating. It is not likely to satisfy any appetite--at least, not for long.

It was the modern abandonment of this kind of cultural substantiveness, this pattern of lifetime reading that provoked G.K. Chesterton to remark, "The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from the past was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack of Rome, the triumph of Attila, or all the barbarian invasions of the Dark Ages. It was lost after the introduction of printing, the discovery of America, the coming of the marvels of technology, the establishment of universal education, and all the enlightenment of the modern world. It was there, if anywhere, that there was lost or impatiently snapped the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking."

Happily, Ben House has, in his new book as in his whole life, undertaken the costly, difficult, and arduous process of reconnecting that long, thin, delicate thread for all of us. He has begun reconnecting it by preserving the practical lessons and profound legacies of Christendom without the petty prejudice of humanistic fashions or the parsimonious preference of Enlightenment innovations. He has begun reconnecting it, all the while avoiding the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable.

Reading the chapters of Punic Wars and Culture Wars, it is evident that Ben understands that the best sort of history is always a series of lively adventure stories—and thus should be told without the cumbersome intrusion of arcane academic rhetoric or truck-loads of extraneous footnotes. History from that perspective is a romantic moral drama in a world gone impersonally scientific—and thus should be told with a measure of passion, unction, and verve. In Ben’s hands, history, books about history, and books about books about history come to life. Thus, these “irrelevant things,” as he has dubbed them in his introduction, actually prove to be among the most relevant of all things.

But, to have undertaken such a work as this, it is readily evident that Ben has had to work hard. By dint of great intellectual ardor, he has disciplined himself to think, concentrate, make connections, and draw conclusions—affording him a richness of insight that otherwise would not have been possible.

Ben ably demonstrates the fact that a healthy appreciation for the gritty work of history not only enables us to recall many of the famous lives, deaths, movements, triumphs, disasters, opportunities, and controversies, but it provides us with tantalizing details of some of the most important lessons and profoundest inspirations that the long legacy of human civilization has to offer us as well. In other words, Ben has undertaken the practice of that old discipline of moral philosophy—and he has done so without apology.

Henry Cabot Lodge once asserted, “Nearly all the historical work worth doing at the present moment in the English language is the work of shoveling off heaps of rubbish inherited from the immediate past.” This is precisely the kind of work that Ben House has undertaken here. Lots and lots of shoveling. Together with the great historians of the Christian tradition, he has snapped the spell of smothering modernity with a sane backward glance at the worldview that gave flower to the remarkable liberty, justice, and hope enjoyed by the lands of the West.

There are only a certain few books that actually have the power to ruin a reader. All too uncommon is the volume that can actually reshape your way of thinking, seeing, and living. Ben talks about a few of those rarities within the pages of this book (just out from Covenant Media Foundation). What he fails to tell us is that this book, his book, must necessarily take its place among them. So work through it—knowing that it very well may in fact, ruin you.

On the Nightstand



Friday, October 10

Demythologizing Columbus

1. Several sources make much out of the “fact” that Columbus “captured” more than 500 Native Americans on his second voyage to bring back to Isabella and Ferdinand. The problem with this much-repeated “fact” is that the second voyage included only 17 ships, each carrying less than 100 men. The crew numbered 1,200 alone—so, there was hardly room for another 50 souls, much less 500. Do the math. To be sure some Tainos Islanders were brought aboard ship and taken back to Castile and Aragon, but not as slaves. Rather, they were brought back more as exotic, foreign emissaries and representatives--the objects of both curiosity and evangelism.

2. It is often mentioned that Columbus brought his “captives” back from the second voyage in 1494 to be sold in the slave markets of Seville. The problem is that those markets did not open or receive royal sanction until 1508. Columbus died in 1506.

3. On the third voyage, his close friend and personal secretary, the young Bartolom√© de las Casas, began reworking the transcripts of Columbus’ logs—which is the sole source of virtually all of the Admiral’s writings. Years later, de las Casas would become the fiercest critic of the emerging imperialistic slave trade amongst the Castilian and Aragonese conquistadors. Interestingly, in his scathing and encyclopedic books exposing the horrors of chattel slavery, he never once criticized Columbus—or even implicated him to any degree. To de las Casas, Columbus always remained a Christian hero--flawed, like any other sinner, but a hero nonetheless.

When Panic Strikes

"Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan." --Chuck Noll, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach and Four-Time Super Bowl Champion

Thursday, October 9

Jesus Shall Reign

English pastor, theologian, educator, reformer, and hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), published his first collection of groundbreaking Puritan and Reformed hymns on this day in 1707. Born in Southampton, he was educated at an academy for Dissenters at Stoke Newington—now part of London. After some years as a tutor, preacher, and assistant pastor, he became minister of a Dissenting church in London in 1702.

Watts's many books on theological subjects were very influential, including his Scripture History which was first published in 1732. Even better known, however, were his Horae Lyricae, a collection of Puritan poems, and his beloved hymn texts.

During his long and storied ministry, he published two hymn collections, Hymns and The Psalms of David. Among his hymns still sung are “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I think my favorite though, is “Jesus Shall Reign,” from Psalm 72:

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
does its successive journeys run;
his kingdom spread from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.

To Jesus endless prayer be made,
and endless praises crown his head;
his name like sweet perfume shall rise
with every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue
dwell on his love with sweetest song;
and infant voices shall proclaim
their early blessings on his name.

Blessings abound where'er he reigns;
all prisoners leap and loose their chains;
the weary find eternal rest,
and all who suffer want are blest.

Let every creature rise and bring
honors peculiar to our King;
angels descend with songs again,
and earth repeat the loud amen!

“If I offended anyone ... I apologize”

The latest issue of In Character, currently on newsstands, examines the vexing and omnipresent dilemma of the "false apology syndrome." With brilliant--and sometimes hilarious--articles by Charlotte Hays, Theodore Dalrymple, Wilfred McClay, and a host of other incisive writers, the entire journal explores the ways our concept of forgiveness has lost its original moorings, becoming little more than a matter of pop-therapy. It is by turns disturbing, provocative, funny, and insightful.

Coming October 14

Past, Present, Future

"The future is purchased at the cost of vision in the present." --Samuel Johnson

"Our future hope
Is bought with a price
Of a present vision
From a ancient wisdom."

--Tristan Gylberd

Wednesday, October 8

The Priority of Daily Life

"To know that which before us lies in daily life is the prime wisdom." --John Milton

The Bull Moose

At a campaign stop in Milwaukee on this day in 1912, a deranged, out-of-work bartender emerged from a crowd and shot Theodore Roosevelt in the chest at point-blank range.

Staggered by the impact of the bullet and the shock of the injury, the great man nevertheless righted himself. As the crowd converged on the man, the wounded former president cried, “Stand back! Don’t hurt the man! Bring him to me!” After examining his would-be assassin with a dismissive glare, he told his aides to get him to the rally. “This may be the last speech I deliver,” he admitted. Seeing that he was bleeding heavily, several doctors in Roosevelt’s party wanted to rush him to the hospital at once, but he waved them aside. “You just stay where you are,” he ordered. “I am going to make this speech and you might as well compose yourselves.” When they persisted, he said, “Get an ambulance or a carriage or anything you like at ten o’clock and I’ll go to the hospital, but I won’t go until I’ve finished my speech.” He then demanded that his driver proceed to the auditorium.

The crowd was told what had happened. But as Roosevelt appeared on the platform, the familiar figure smiled and waved weakly to the awestruck crowd. “It is true,” he whispered in a hoarse voice, “I have just been shot. But it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Now beginning to gain his composure, he said, “Friends, I should ask you to be as quiet as possible. And please excuse me from making a long speech. I’ll do the best I can.” He then took his manuscript from his jacket; it had been pierced through by the bullet and was soaked with blood. “It is nothing,” he said as the people gasped. “I am not hurt badly. I have a message to deliver and will deliver it as long as there is life in my body.” The audience became deathly still as he went on to say, “I have had an A-1 time in life and I am having it now.”

He always had the ability to cast an intoxicating spell over crowds. Even now, his physical presence was dominating. Though he was bleeding profusely, he went on to speak for an hour and a half. By the end he had almost completely regained his typical stump fervor—rousing the crowd to several extended ovations. When at last he allowed his concerned party to take him to the hospital, the audience reached a near frenzy chanting “Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!”

At the hospital he joked and talked politics with his attendants. But his condition was hardly a joking matter. The surgeons found that the bullet had fractured his fourth rib and lodged close to his right lung. “It is largely due to the fact that he is a physical marvel that he was not mortally wounded,” observed one of them later. “He is one of the most powerful men I have ever seen on an operating table.”

Nevertheless, he was no longer a young buck—at the age of fifty-four. He was required—against his quite considerable will—to sit out the remainder of the campaign. Later, his biographers would view the incident as quintessential Roosevelt: imposing the sheer force of his will upon a seemingly impossible circumstance, and yet prevailing.

Monday, October 6

Palin on Fey

So, will Sarah spoof Tina on SNL? The odds are looking good for a classic TV moment.

Culture Shapers

Stephen Mansfield's op-ed piece this morning in USA Today highlights the vital role Evangelicals will play, not only in the upcoming election, but in the cultural twists and turns that are sure to follow in its wake.

Friday, October 3

Noonan on Palin

Far and away the best analysis I've read of last night's VP debate is Peggy Noonan's column in the Wall Street Journal. She starts off with huzzahs, "She had him at 'Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?'" Absolutely.

But, then Noonan gets right down to the marrow, "Sarah Palin saved John McCain again Thursday night. She is the political equivalent of cardiac paddles: Clear! Zap! We've got a beat! She will re-electrify the base. More than that, an hour and a half of talking to America will take her to a new level of stardom. Watch her crowds this weekend. She's about to get jumpers, the old political name for people who are so excited to see you they start to jump."

After the bail-out debacle of the last two weeks when all the lead-actors from both sides of the aisle managed to disappoint us, there is finally a fresh breeze blowing.

Wednesday, October 1

The Trouble with Trouble

The world is full of difficulty. Because we live in a fallen world there will be conflicts. How we resolve those conflicts says a great deal about what we believe about truth, what truth actually is to us, whether or not it is objective or subjective, whether or not it is under our control (or whether we are under its control), and whether or not it’s our responsibility to do certain things in order to uphold it or enforce it. Ultimately, what we do with truth and error shapes the whole of history." --Tristan Gylberd