Sunday, May 29
Summer plans are really shaping up. Looks like I’m in for lots of travel, meeting neat and famous people, seeing things I’ve never seen before, experiencing adventures, growing closer to God, navigating great waters, climbing high mountains, and even facing the hardships of warfare. Not much danger involved, for all of this is confined to my summer reading plans.
That ancient call to the reading chair can be heard from intriguing new books, classics, books calling for a reread, and titles quietly nudging me. Reading is the one thing that makes southern summers bearable, surpassing even air conditioning and sweet tea.
The greatest times to read in the summer are morning, afternoon, and night. Other reading times can be squeezed in at will. Great summer mornings always begin with coffee, a Bible, and a stack of books. Leave out any ingredient and the day is potentially ruined. Morning is the time to work through theology. After a bit of theology to jump-start the soul, I like to read from a weighty historical work.
Currently, I am very interested in atheism. Atheism offers some “great” answers to life’s questions. For example, consider the Holocaust and question why God allowed it. Then eliminate belief in God as so many atheists have done. Now you have the Holocaust, but no final judgment, no ultimate justice, no possible sufficient reason for it, reducing the Holocaust to a random meaningless event, along with everything else. That would certain make me quite comfortable, if I were an atheist. Let the reader understand, atheism is quite unbelievable.
I have already started reading The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by the brilliant historian Alister McGrath. The book chronicles the great heyday of atheism that began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Revolutions were waged in the name of atheism; political ideologies were implemented on the foundation of atheism. From French Revolutionaries to Bolsheviks to Nihilists, atheists preached and practiced their faith.
A friend, Charles Johnson, highly recommended The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri De Lubac. This work analyzes the thought of many of the great apostles of unbelief: Nietzsche, Comte, Marx, and Feuerbach. But the dark powers of this book are overthrown by the arrival of a hero. De Lubac says, “Marx was not yet dead, and Nietzsche had not yet written his most searing books, when another man, another disturbing but more truly prophetic genius, announced the victory of God in the human soul, and his eternal resurrection.” De Lubac’s hero is also one of mine—the novelist Dostoevsky.
De Lubac’s book is an Ignatius Press publication as is another interesting summer possibility—Architects of the Culture of Death by Donald DeMarco and Benjamin Wiker. This book focuses on those great humanist thinkers who brought such noble concepts into the world as abortion, genocide, and euthanasia.
Atheists must forever mourn the apostasy of two of their finest minds: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. I still have much to read by Chesterton and several reads and rereads by Lewis. If I were stranded on an island with only a thousand books, Chesterton’s and Lewis’ works would have to be there for me to survive. Add to that some of the excellent books about Chesterton and Lewis. One useful book, recommended by George Grant, is Lepanto, edited by Dale Ahlquist, which includes Chesterton’s poem with historical and literary commentaries about the battle and the poem.
An exciting new book that includes much about Chesterton and his spiritual contemporaries is Joseph Pearce’s Literary Giants, Literary Catholics. Pearce is doing some outstanding literary biographical studies. He has written entire biographies on Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Tolkien, and Solzhenitsyn. His book Literary Converts is an outstanding study of British writers who came to religious faith during the 20th century. Pearce is fiercely Catholic and justly proud of the big literary guns in his church. This latest book parades the big names from Dante to Tolkien. It is an excellent testimony to the power of literary art as an apologetic of the Christian faith.
Alas, 20th century American produced some literary giants who were gifted by God, yet sadly far from Christian in their writings. My Humanities class recently explored some of the powerful writers who emerged in the decade following World War I. We read books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Reading these three brilliant men has rekindled an old interest in their works. Jay Parini’s biography of Faulkner titled One Matchless Time is a useful introduction and interpretation of the great Mississippi author. Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson looks to be an interesting study of those two. The loss of belief and the despair of these three American writers is a point of both curiosity and sadness on my part. Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms and Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby both demonstrated stylistic genius early in their careers.
Faulkner’s style and genius is another story. As Parini points out, one cannot simply read Faulkner; he must reread him. The reader often wonders just what Faulkner was drinking to produce his rambling, perplexing, yet seductive narratives. Our class read The Unvanquished, which is usually considered the best book to begin reading among Faulkner’s works, both for its chronological entryway into his mythical Yoknapatawpha County and for its easy style. Critics usually regard it as a lesser work of Faulkner’s, but I think it was among his best. Among these three writers listed here, I believe that Faulkner will be the most enduring and ultimately brilliant of them all. I have little hope for his nominal faith, but his Southern cultural heritage and his Christian hangover (unlike the other kind) give much of his work universal timeliness.
Far more encouraging than 20th century Americans were the 19th century Russian novelists. Summer time calls for a fat Russian novel. Literary journeys to Russia during past summers have included readings of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov and The Idiot and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. So it is high time to tackle the really big one—Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It usually takes some workouts just to be able to lift the heavy Russian volumes. The first one hundred pages or so are like traveling through the seemingly cold and endless steppes of Russia (the harsh winters are reason enough to wait until summer to read Russian works). At some point, the landscape engulfs me. When I get to such a point in War and Peace, I’ll try to send you a card (“Having a great time. Wish you were here.”)
I have anywhere from three to a hundred different pulls on my attention when it comes to upcoming readings in history. I am a gadfly, not a true scholar. A book on one era leads to a book on a totally different era. The biography of a church father is followed by a battle account of World War II. If I could have ever disciplined my mind and studied one single topic, like tariff policies in the Colonial Virginia, I could have been the premier scholar on the topic. In a way, I am like the Athenians of Acts 17. I can easily spend my time in nothing else but going to the history section of the bookstore looking for something new.
A book that is bigger than my summer plans and yet one that must be dipped into is The Annals of the World by Bishop James Usher. This massive literary classic is in print for the first time in 300 years and has been translated from Latin to English for the first time ever. The volume is beautiful and daunting. Bishop Usher is one of the great Christian historians of all time and this work promises to be fruitful.
A modern Christian historian, Dr. Carl Richard, has written Twelve Greeks and Romans Who Changed the World as a modern counterpart to Plutarch’s classic. Along with the key figures in ancient Greece and Rome, Dr. Richard includes studies of Christians, like Paul and Augustine. In another book by Dr. Richard, The Battle for the American Mind, he surveys the worldviews that have predominantly impacted American history—Theism, Humanism, and Skepticism. Some years ago, I stumbled across his book The Founders and the Classics. That book definitively proved the value of classical education of the sort our Founding Fathers received. Dr. Richard is an e-friend of mine (we have not met, but have corresponded via e-mails) and he is a friend of classical and Christian education.
Upon the recommendation of Andrew Sandlin, I bought a copy of Communism: A History by Richard Pipes, a survey of about 170 pages. I have several volumes by Dr. Pipes and have admired his work ever since I read Russia Under the Old Regime back in the early 80s. I also picked up a copy of Pipes’ autobiography—Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger. Pipes was a Harvard professor and an advisor to President Reagan. In part, I want to read his book because historians and teachers are such incredibly interesting people.
I have already started reading Armageddon by Max Hastings. No, it does not identify the anti-Christ or link missile systems to the WMDs of terrorist nations. The book is subtitled The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Here America’s greatest generation joined Britain in its finest hour to form a coalition with Stalin’s Evil Empire. The good news is that they rid the world of Nazism, but the bad news was that it put Eastern Europe under Communism for a time. Concentration camps became Gulags and swastikas were exchanged for the hammer and sickle. Yet none of this diminishes the epic warfare waged by the Allied soldiers.
I have a review copy of A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Having taught through Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, I am looking forward to seeing yet another conservative and freedom oriented American history. When I was in college in the 1970s, conservative books were about as common as llamas in Arkansas. Now we have a wide range of books written from free market, patriotic, conservative, and Christian perspectives. Reviewing this book is one of my more enjoyable assignments for the summer.
Just this week I picked up a copy of David McCullough’s latest book 1776. His last book, John Adams, was a best seller, in part because it portrayed a Founding Father with character. This new book begins with a quote from General George Washington: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”
Before I can read 1776, I must finish a book about 1976, titled Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All by Craig Shirley. Today, liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans, are quick to praise the memory of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan could never have used his rhetorical skills and leadership to change the world had he not first changed the Republican Party. Had it not been for Reagan’s failed bid for the nomination in 1976, the Blue State philosophy of the last election would stretch from shore to shore.
Let the readings begin.
Thursday, May 26
What I'm Reading
While I am really enjoying each of these new titles, I am particularly intrigued by The Sacred Way (Zondervan). Tony Jones is a very effective and infectious communicator. I greatly appreciated his two previous books published by NavPress—one on recovering ancient disciplines of prayer and another on the medieval lectio divina approach to daily Bible study. In this new book, he mines the rich history of the church through the ages for spiritual disciplines that have been largely—and lamentably—forgotten by contemporary Reformed and Evangelical Christians. After a couple of introductory chapters to consider the human longing for rich, deep, and authentic spirituality, Jones offers a series of fascinating historical and theological vignettes--exploring sixteen different disciplines that were once the common currency of believers: silence and solitude, meditation, pilgrimage, singing, the divine hours, among other. He then goes on to offer practical tips for implementing each of these means of grace into our daily lives, our families, and our churches.
Jones writes in a very breezy, accessible style (he served as a youth pastor until just this past year and it really shows). So, the often-stuffy realm of church history and practical spirituality really come to life in these chapters. Like the indispensable works by Gary Thomas (Sacred Pathways, Authentic Faith, Not the End but the Road, The Glorious Pursuit, and Seeking the Face of God) this new book should prove to be a great encouragement to enrich our sense of destiny by deepening our sense of legacy.
Intel: Mac v. PC
"Mr. Otellini ran down a series of hardware-based steps designed to improve security, articulating a vision of "virtualization" technology that keeps a virtual machine built into a PC isolated, and thus safer from attack, hardens that machine against hazards, and provides for remote repair after an attack," Jason Fry reported for the Journal. "But asked when such solutions would be available to mainstream users and usable by them, Mr. Otellini said 'I think we're still a few years away.' The problem can't be solved by hardware alone, he noted--hardware solutions take years to be adopted, and remote recovery of a PC, for example, will require service providers to offer that."
According to Fry, "Pressed about security by Mr. Mossberg, Mr. Otellini had a startling confession: He spends an hour a weekend removing spyware from his daughter's computer. And when further pressed about whether a mainstream computer user in search of immediate safety from security woes ought to buy Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh instead of a Wintel PC, he said, 'If you want to fix it tomorrow, maybe you should buy something else.'"
Wednesday, May 25
According to a story by Andrew Zipern published today in the New York Times, in the programming world, only the strong survive. But what about the smug? A new product, Das Keyboard, seems to have both in mind. It's a regular 104-key keyboard--except that nothing is printed on the keys.
"It's really for Geeks," said Daniel Guermeur, the creator. "They can already touch-type without looking. They feel a little bit superior. The keyboard is a statement." Guermeur, a 41-year-old programmer and the chief executive of the Metadot Corporation, an open-source software company in Austin, has been using a prototype model for two years. His company claims that some non-geeky users, now forced to memorize key positions, have ultimately learned to type twice as fast as they did before within just a few weeks.
Das Keyboard also has one additional feature not found in most keyboards. Each key is weighted by location to be more or less resistant to touch. For example, it takes less force to make the Z key register than it does the F--another inducement to speed and accuracy.
The keyboard is on sale at www.daskeyboard.com for $79.95, and the site makes no bones about the target market: "A keyboard with no inscriptions on the keys was obviously only for a certain type of Geek, not just normal ones, not even the super-nerd ones, only those who are totally above the pack: the Ubergeeks."
Tuesday, May 24
A Double Wow Day
First, I just installed Mac's new Tiger OS on my PowerBook. Oh my. It is a definite wow. Faster. Sleeker. Better integration. And all the "razzle-dazzle-spit-and-polish-design" one might expect from Apple. And the dashboard widgets are the least of it. I leave for a trip to Europe in a few days and was thinking of leaving my laptop behind. But, no longer.
Second, I opened a package that just arrived from Veritas Press. In it was the first of a multi-volume classical Omnibus. Again, wow. Editors Ty Fischer and Douglas Wilson have assembled a stirling cast of writers, thinkers, and educators to produce a marvelous introduction to the art, literature, and ideas of Antiquity. With worldview essays, recitations, activities, and classroom discussion plans for each of the most significant works of the age--from the Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians to the Hebrews, Persians, and Christians--this will be one of those "absolutely-positively-must-have-it-now" volumes for all homeschoolers and classical schoolers.
Wow. Double wow.
Saturday, May 21
All the Benedicts
First, there was St. Benedict--best known as the founder of western monasticism. He was born at Nursia, a small town near Rome around 480. According to the early church historian Bede, he had a twin sister, Scholastica, and the two were raised in a wealthy Christian home. At about the age of 14, he left Rome in an effort to find some place away from the life of the great city where he might more faithfully serve Christ. He took with him his old nurse and they settled down to live in Enfide, near a church dedicated to St. Peter. There he entered into a sort of association with a company of virtuous men who were likewise seeking a path of purity and faithfulness. His notoriety as a saintly young man followed him there and soon his hours were crowded with the demands and responsibilities of unwelcome celebrity.
Benedict determined that in order to live a quiet and holy life he would have to escape again. This time he committed himself to be a hermit in a cave above a narrow, gloomy valley, penetrating the mountains not far from the old ruins of Nero’s infamous villa. He remained hidden away there for three years. Even so, his renown only continued to spread. When the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the community came to him and begged him to become its abbot. Though reluctant at first, Benedict was persuaded and went to live in their little community.
The experiment was not a happy one however, and the young firebrand soon retreated back to his cave—but this time, in the company of several other young men equally committed to a life of prayer. Eventually, he had to build some twelve monasteries in the valley, in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth he lived with a handful of the most promising young men who he discipled directly. It was within this context, serving as the father or abbot, that he developed and implemented his famous Rule.
It was this Rule, or guide to the disciple of the community of faith, that laid the foundations of monastic life—and thereby brought about the first great reformation of the church, provided the spiritual impetus for the spread of the Gospel throughout Europe, and thus, helped to transform the raucous Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire into the glorious flowering of Western Christendom.
Then there was Benedict I: Very little of historical certainty is known of the first Pontiff who bore the name Benedict practically nothing is known. Even the date of his birth is unknown. We do know that because of persistent invasions from the barbarian Lombards, communication between the papal court in Rome and the imperial court in Constantinople had become virtually impossible. Because the Byzantine emperor had historically claimed the privilege of confirming the election of the popes, there had been a vacancy of nearly eleven months between the death of John III and the arrival of the imperial confirmation of Benedict’s election, 2 June, 575. Afterward, he reigned for just a little over four years.
Next, there was Benedict II: Like the first Pontiff who bore the name Benedict, memory of the second has been shrouded in the mists of time as well. He was apparently a Roman of high birth and thus was sent as young boy to the schola cantorum where he distinguished himself by his knowledge of the Scriptures and by his singing. As was the case with his namesake, he was confirmed as the choice of the conclave in 684 only after an interval of over eleven months because of the difficult communications between Rome and Constantinople. Afterward, Benedict secured the ecclesiastical independence of the Vatican conclave from the Byzantines so that such a delay could not be repeated--he obtained from the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus a decree which either abolished imperial confirmations altogether or made them obtainable from the exarch in Italy. Though he reigned for less than a year, with this single act he left an extraordinary legacy that allowed for the development of a distinctively western church and western culture. It was for this reason that he was later declared to be the “patron saint of Europe.”
Finally, there was Benedict XV: Despite the fact that he had only been elevated to the College of Cardinal two months earlier, Giacomo della Chiesa was chosen by the conclave to succeed Pius X in the summer of 1914. Pope Benedict XV was a man with renowned diplomatic talents, having served as the Vatican’s Secretary of State for most of the previous decade. Alas, the pope found his abilities--and unique position as a worldwide emissary of peace—altogether ignored by the belligerent powers. His proposal for a Christmas truce in 1914 to avert what he called “the suicide of Europe,” was initially accepted by the Germans but dismissed by the Western Allies. The next year, the Treaty of London included secret provisions whereby the Allies agreed with Italy to ignore papal peace moves towards the Central Powers. Afterward, all the combatants purposely ignored the pope—believing that his peace initiatives weakened the war resolve of the citizenry. They even went so far as to exclude the Vatican from any participation in the Paris Peace Conference--which eventually crafted the disastrous Versailles Treaty.
His passion for Europe never waned and may be seen in both his voluminous writings—which included biographies of European patrons like Boniface, Jerome, St. Ephraim, Dante, St. Francis, and St. Dominic—and in his canonization decrees—which included Gabriel Delacourte, Joan of Arc, and Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Thus, all the Benedicts were Europeans with a passion for European renewal and recovery; all the Benedicts were renowned for both their intellectual and their spiritual prowess; and all the Benedicts were marked by a fierce independent streak. So, what does all this bode in the life and career of the newest Benedict? We shall see.
Boniface, Bavaria, and Benedict
Boniface of Crediton spent the first forty years of his life in quiet service to the church near his home in Exeter. He discipled young converts, cared for the sick, and administered relief for the poor. He was a competent scholar as well, expounding Bible doctrine for a small theological center and compiling the first Latin grammar written in England. But in 718, Boniface left the comfort and security of this life to become a missionary to the savage Teutonic tribes of Germany. For thirty years he not only proclaimed to them the Gospel of Light, he portrayed to them the Gospel of Life. Stories of his courageous intervention on behalf of the innocent abound. He was constantly jeopardizing his own life for the sake of the young, the vulnerable, the weak, the helpless, the aged, the sick, and the poor—often imposing his body between the victims and their oppressors. Indeed, it was during one of his famed rescues that his name was forever linked to the celebration of Advent during Yuletide.
Wherever he went among the fierce Norsemen who had settled along the Danish and German coast, he was forced to face the awful specter of their brutal pagan practices—which included human mutilations and vestal sacrifices. When he arrived in the region of Hesse, Boniface decided to strike at the root of such superstitions. He publicly announced that he would destroy their gods. He then marched toward their great sacred grove. The awestruck crowd at Geismar followed along and then watched as he cut down the sacred Oak of Thor, an ancient object of pagan worship standing atop the summit of Mount Gudenberg near Fritzlar. The pagans, who had expected immediate judgment against such sacrilege, were forced to acknowledge that their gods were powerless to protect their own sanctuaries. Together, they professed faith in Christ.
A young boy from a neighboring village, hearing of such boldness, rushed into the missionary camp of Boniface three evenings later. It was just about twilight on the first Sunday in Advent. He breathlessly told of a sacrifice that was to be offered that very evening—his sister was to serve as the vestal virgin.
Hurrying through the snowy woods and across the rough terrain, Boniface and the boy arrived at the dense sacred grove just in time to see the Druid priest raise his knife into the darkened air. But as the blade plunged downward Boniface hurtled toward the horrid scene. He had nothing in his hands save a small wooden cross. Lunging forward, he reached the girl just in time to see the blade of the knife pierce the cross—thus, saving her life.
The priest toppled back. The huddle of worshipers were astonished. Their was a brief moment of complete silence. Boniface seized upon it. He proclaimed the Gospel to them then and there, declaring that the ultimate sacrifice had already been made by Christ on the cross at Golgotha—there was no need for others.
Captivated by the bizarre scene before them, the small crowd listened intently to his words. After explaining to them the once and for all provision of the Gospel, he turned toward the sacred grove. With the sacrificial knife in hand, he began hacking off low hanging branches. Passing them around the circle, he told each family to take to the small fir boughs home as a reminder of the completeness of Christ’s work on the tree of Calvary. They were to adorn their hearths with the tokens of His grace. They might even chop great logs from the grove as fuel for their home fires, he suggested—not so much to herald the destruction of their pagan ways but rather to memorialize the provision of Christ’s coming. Upon these things they were contemplate over the course of the next four weeks, until the great celebration of Christmas.
Such exploits inspired a number of Advent traditions. The Advent wreath—a fir garland set with five candles, one for each Sunday in Advent and one for Christmas Day—was quickly established as a means of reenacting the Gospel lesson of Boniface. In addition, the Christmas tree, decorated with candles and tinsel, strings of lights and garlands under the eaves and across the mantles, and the Yule log burning in the fireplace were favorite reminders of the season’s essential message.
In time, Boniface established a number of thriving parishes. He eventually became a mentor and support to the Carolingians, and he reformed the Frankish church, which Charles Martel had plundered. Ultimately, he discipled Pipin the Short, the father of Charlemagne the Great.
Then, when he was over 70, Boniface resigned his pastoral responsibilities, in order to spend his last years working among the fierce Frieslanders. With a small company, he successfully reached large numbers in the previously unevangelized area in the northeastern Germanies. On Whitsun Eve Boniface and Eoban were preparing for the baptism of some of the new converts at Dokkum, along the frontier of the Netherlands. Boniface had been quietly reading in his tent while awaiting the arrival of his new converts, when a hostile band of pagan warriors descended on the camp. He would not allow his companions to defend him. As he was exhorting them to trust in God and to welcome the prospect of dying for the faith, they were attacked—Boniface was one of the first to fall.
Though his voice was stilled that day, his testimony only grew louder, surer, and bolder. And thus, to this day, his message lives on—in both the traditions of Advent and in the life and work of Joseph Ratzinger, a man who would claim him as a spiritual father.
Tuesday, May 17
Mac vs. PC
This past week Microsoft execs sheepishly confirmed that the nifty clips of video games they've been showing at trade shows and developers conferences have actually been running on Apple computers. "We purchased a number of Apple G5's because very specific hardware components of the G5 allow developers to emulate some of the technology behind future X-Box products and services," a Microsoft publicist said in the statement. "This is an interim development tool that will be replaced with a more powerful and comprehensive solution later."
Hmmm. Very interesting. So, what they're saying is that Microsoft will start using Windows as soon as their operating system can begin to do what a Mac G5 running OS X already does? Yikes!
Published in Italy last year by Bompiani, the title of the brilliant semioticist's fifth novel translates as "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel." And as you might expect, it is a stunner. Translated into English by Geoffrey Brock, and not not due to be released in the United States by Harcourt until June 3, 2005, I was able to get my hands on a copy last week when my local bookseller made the stupendous error of putting the books out early.
I am now a couple hundred pages into the story which concerns Giambattista "Yambo" Bodoni, an antiquarian book dealer from Milan who loses his memory after a mild stroke. In an attempt to deal with his amnesia, he travels to his childhood home, where he begins to reconstruct his life through all the things he has read through the years--a collection of old newspapers, comic books, school papers, record albums, adventure novels, classics, and old family diaries. After a few days he has another cardiac-episode and slips into a coma from whence he begins to have increasingly strange hallucinations. As the subtitle indicates, the work is heavily illustrated, with accompanying images reflecting Yambo's collection of memorabilia.
As with all of Eco's works (this is his third major publication in English this year) "The Mysterious Flame" attempts to deal with life, the universe, and everything. It is by turns breathtaking in its scope of knowledge from every conceivable realm and discipline and disappointing in its blatant skepticism and base sensuality. There is hardly a writer alive more capable of wielding the pen as a such a sharp sword. But there is hardly a writer alive who has a more desultory worldview--a kind of longing for the truth whilst shrugging off any hope that such truth may actually be found. Like the earlier works of George Eliot or Oscar Wilde or James Joyce, Eco always seems to create a magnificently beautiful tragedy.
A Farewell to Arts
I’m jealous. I love literature and I love Reformed theology. Sad to say, but literary greats and Reformed theologians live in separate worlds. We have produced lots of theologians and preachers, but few poets and almost no novelists. The Anglicans lay claim to lots of writers ranging from C.S. Lewis to T.S. Eliot. The Russian Orthodox Church gave us Dostevsky. The pantheon of great Catholic writers is seemingly endless, and includes everyone from Chaucer and Dante to Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor. All too many great American writers were apostate, angry sons of Puritans and Calvinists.
But I discovered a tale of a Presbyterian who wrote a novel. This tale may explain why the literary arts and the precision and orthodoxy of Calvinists rarely meet, almost never marry, and even more rarely produce offspring.
Herman Wilville departed from his preaching and teaching duties for a season and wrote a novel. Titled, "The Reformed Comedy" and written in three parts ("Conversio," "Seminario," and "Pastorio," it covered the lives of three men who went from unbelief to faith. With its powerful opening line—“Call me Isaac”—people realized that this work was a literary masterpiece. The novel reached a length of some four hundred pages and was initially greeted with much praise and favorable comment.
For a time it reached the top of the Reformed Theological Society’s Best Seller list, offsetting Leopold Van Humsteders’ 672 page (plus two appendices of 38 and 61 pages) evangelistic tract Barthian Soteriology Reexamined in the Light of Amyraldian Ecclesiology. Wilville’s novel did so well that it began making an impact even on the more broadly evangelical community. (An evangelical publisher offered to break it up into three separate volumes and broaden its market appeal.)
A presbytery, quite orthodox and serious, became concerned at this point. The presbytery appointed a committee which appointed a subcommittee to examine the novel.
At the same time, a theologian and disciple of the famed logician Dr. Clerk began his own examination of the novel. Editors of two separate journals, very separate stemming from the all-wheat organic flour for unleavened bread vs. commercial flour for leavened bread controversy, each picked up copies of the novel to catch up on the hubbub. Even more amazing, at a conference, a young student overheard a quote from an elderly gentleman who heard it from a lecture given by a relative of Wilville made a decade before, and from that tidbit, constructed a whole systematic theology, supposedly based on the novel, which he did not have time to read due to his dissertation answering the critics of Humsteder’s tract (mentioned above).
Was it the committee or one of the journal editors? I don’t remember which, but someone realized that one of the conversion scenes in the book happened in this way. A character fell in love with a Christian girl. In order to please her and only to please her, he got baptized. “Shaking the water off his head,” Wilville wrote, “James realized that his life would never be the same again.” Certainly, after this passage was noticed, Wilville’s life was never the same again. A well-written critique linked the novel to the Socianians, the Saracens, the Jackson Five, and more deviations before settling on the fact that Wilville was teaching a false view of the sacraments.
That roar had barely subsided when it was noticed that another character, William, had been ‘converted’ in yet another unorthodox way. “William listened to the choir sing ‘Just as I Am.’ He found himself praying that they would stop! But they sang another verse, and then yet another. Unable to sit any longer, he burst from his seat and went to the front of the church.” The blatant Arminianism was too much to bear. After this passage was excerpted and reprinted throughout the Reformed communities (I’m not sure if this happened before or after the days of the internet), Wilville received numerous copies of Humsteder’s prequel, Heretical Synergism Examined in the Light of Pelagian and Arminian Scatalogical Hermeneutics (a mere 479 pages with only a 23 page appendix).
Admittedly, Wilville’s response was lame. He offered the notes and tapes from 47 different series that he had preached on the Five Points of Calvinism, but he refused to amend the passage in the novel. His slippage from orthodoxy to heterodoxy to the even more scandalous “H” word was now clear.
Errors in the novel continued to crop up like dandelions in a southern meadow. A quote from the Living Bible on page 241, a phrase from the "Book of Common Prayer" on page 402, a reference to a Catholic as a ‘dear Christian friend’ on page 53, and much to the chagrin of a few of the few, a scene where one of the converts longs for a can of beer after mowing the yard. Like the body of that poor dead concubine in the Book of Judges, Wilville’s novel was cut up into parts and sent throughout the kingdom and it aroused quite a bit of fury.
It seemed that at one point, the subcommittee examining the novel had hit upon a useful literary technique for properly critiquing the novel. Each page of the novel was placed side by side with the "Confession of Faith." Every phrase or word not found in the "Confession" was marked in red. For example, when Isaac, the main character, fell off the roof and uttered a mild oath, it was ruled that such a saying did not accord with Chapter XXII, “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows.” And the subcommittee was determined to be faithful to the "Confession" above all else.
One good thing about the novel is that it did spur the writing of several book length critiques and responses. These works were theology, not fiction, so they were of a higher standard than Wilville’s fabrication. Among the best known were "Reformed Comedy or Tragedy? A Reformed Examination of a Unreformed Heresy and Wilville—Prophet of Darkness and Error and Falsehood." Even the ever-resourceful Prof. Leopold Van Humsteder contributed a chapter titled “Wilville, Barth, and Servetus Compared” in a festschrift dedicated to a most orthodox gentleman. In seventy three pages, he got to the heart of the book—somewhere.
Wilville left his pulpit and presbytery under a cloud. He forsook his literary career and his preaching calling. For years, he seemed to have disappeared off the map. The last known reference to him was as follows: In a small community, a quiet man was having lunch with the pastor of the community church. The quiet man confessed to having changed his name years ago from Wilville to Illwill. “Wilville?” the pastor said, “Hmm. When I was in college, I read a novel written by a man with that name. It led to my conversion to Christ. That’s why I became a preacher.”
Wednesday, May 11
A Tale of Two Men
Both men are numbered among the most brilliant and influential writers and thinkers of all time. Both men rose from obscurity to launch movements that literally changed the course of whole civilizations. Both men transcended their quiet, contemplative, and pious lifestyles to become champions of stunning intellectual and social reform. Both men are considered among the greatest of the saints of the church.
Augustine lived during the waning days of the Roman Empire and was one of the most remarkable men Africa ever produced. He studied rhetoric at the great University of Carthage in order to become a lawyer, but later gave up his plan to for a career in teaching. His study of rhetorical philosophy—with an emphasis on Pagan Greek thought—resulted in a complete renunciation of Christianity. He lived a self-confessedly debauched life—including keeping a mistress for fifteen years by whom he had a son. In pursuit of opportunities to improve his academic standing he took teaching posts—first in Rome and later in Milan. It was in Milan that he fell under the sway of the eloquent bishop Ambrose. After a long and tortured battle of the soul—described in his classic autobiography Confessions—Augustine was converted under Ambrose's ministry and was baptized.
After some two years of intensive training, he returned to Africa and established a scholastic community in Hippo. There he founded a classical school—a kind of prototype for the modern university devoted to study, writing, and the work of cultural transformation. The school was famed for its emphasis on logic, rhetoric, art, music, politics, theology, and philosophy. But it was equally recognized for the brilliance of its founder.
Soon the steadfastness, holiness, and giftedness of Augustine was recognized and he was ordained—though very much against his own objections. And a few years later he was elevated to the bishopric of the city. He was a devoted pastor, but his writing was where he made his greatest impact. During his career he wrote more than a thousand works, including 242 books. Most of these quite brilliant writings have endured the test of time. But he is probably best known for his manifesto of faith, The City of God.
According to Martin Luther, this one book “set the very course of Western Civilization.” According to John Knox, it is the very essence of “incisive Christian thought applied to the circumstances of theis poor fallen world.” When Peter Lombard compiled his Sentences, providing the Medieval world with its basic handbook of theology, he acknowledged his “supreme debt” to the “masterful work” of Augustine in City. When Gratian compiled the principle handbook of canon law, he too recognized the “vital import” of the “seminal foundations” laid by Augustine’s City. Cassiodorus and Boethius both relied heavily on Augustine’s worldview paradigm as exposited in City as well as his tripartite arx axiom methodology in establishing the Western pattern of covenantal and classical education. Anselm, Petrarch, Pascal, and Kierkegaard all counted The City of God as their first and primary intellectual influence. Indeed, this one book has had an astonishing influence on the shaping of our culture for centuries.
Thomas Aquinas was born into a well-connected Italian family—related to the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II as well as the royal families of Aragon, Castile, and France—during the high Medieval Age. Landulph, his father, was Count of Aquino; Theodora, his mother, Countess of Teano. He showed early promise as a student and was marked by a deep and profound piety. At the university he quickly surpassed his professors and his parents hoped he might establish himself as a lawyer or diplomat. But he yielded to a call into the Dominican Order. The whole city of Naples was said to have wondered that such a noble young man should don the garb of poor friar and his family, appalled, his family had him confined two years in the fortress of San Giovanni at Rocca Secca in an effort to dissuade him from his holy intentions. He refused to relent however and finally he was released to the monastery.
In Paris and Cologne he studied under the most brilliant mind of the age, Albert Magnus. But it was not long before the wisdom of Aquinas outstripped that of even Albert. After obtaining his doctorate, Aquinas began to write—soon his remarkable mind made its mark on the world. He was nearly as prolific as Augustine, composing hundreds of works and dozens of books. But like Augustine, his reputation rests on his magnum opus, a systematic theology entitled the Summa.
Like the City of God, the Summa quickly altered the course of men and nations. Virtually every Roman Catholic theologian since Aquinas has found in the Summa all the language, categories, and philosophical frameworks for faith. G.K. Chesterton called it the “North Star of Western thought.” Hilaire Belloc called it the “loadstone of orthodoxy.” And Pope John Paul II asserted that it was an “indispensable guide to the Christian world and life view.”
Given all this, you might be tempted to think that Augustine and Aquinas were very similar men, thinking very similar thoughts. But nothing could be further from the truth.
While Augustine categorically rejected the principles of Greek philosophy—including the ideas of Plato and Aristotle—Aquinas embraced them and wove them into his Christian understanding of the world. Augustine thought in black and white; Aquinas thought in various shades of grey. Augustine drew a line through all of history—on one side was the “City of God” on the other was the “City of Man;” nearly every fact, every event, every idea, and every movement could be sorted out on one side of the divide or the other. Aquinas drew lines of distinction as well, but they were far more complex, subtle, and broad. Augustine thought in exclusive Biblical categories. Aquinas thought in inclusive philosophical categories. Augustine drew inferences from Scriptural ideas. Aquinas drew inferences from Aristotelian ideas. Philosophers and theologians have said that Augustine’s ideas were based largely on antithesis while the ideas of Aquinas were based largely on synthesis.
And never the twain shall meet.
Tuesday, May 10
The power of the courts is an ongoing topic of controversy and interest. All sides agree that great issues are at stake. Mark Levin’s recent book Men in Black is subtitled “How the Supreme Court is Destroying America.” Liberal Democrats, while not agreeing with Levin’s book, certainly see President Bush’s judicial nominees as threats to their vision of America. In fact, they are willing to shut down the government rather than bring these nominations to a vote. (Liberals willing to shut down the government?)
There is much historical and constitutional debate over the power of the courts. But beyond the issue of power is the issue of influence. Even more important is the unintended influence of the courts. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, the Supreme Court overturned centuries of legal prohibitions against the abortion of infants. It may be that Roe v. Wade will mark the ending of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517.
For Protestant and Reformed Christians, the Reformation is a glorious time of Christian history. The boldness and convictions of Martin Luther continue to inspire the faithful. I love both the 1953 movie titled “Luther” and the more recent 2004 film version. Here I Stand by Roland Bainton remains one of my all time favorite books. Luther’s words, courage, and convictions continue to inspire many believers. And Luther was not alone. The age with brimming with theological geniuses, like John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer. These men not only changed Europe in the 16th century, but they shaped the theology of both America’s early history and my own spiritual awakening.
Roman Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages was rich and complex in its transformation of European culture. But by the 1500s, indulgences, relics, the sale of church offices, and the corruption of the clergy were wrecking the Faith. In spite of the great works and writings of theologians, poets, and scholars, the drift of much church practice by Luther’s time was sharply downward. Internal reforms were inadequate: Erasmus is the prime example of a brilliant man who pointed out the abuses, but was powerless to effect internal reformation. Luther initially sought to cleanse the church through academic debate and parish preaching. He hoped his talking points—posted on the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—would lead to productive debates within the scholarly community. From there, perhaps, the process of enlightenment and theological purification would seep throughout the church. But God used Luther as a catalyst that divided Christendom and put the Scriptural doctrines of grace at the forefront of the times. God turned an academician into a warrior.
Calvin, even more than Luther, sought the quiet life of the scholar. From his studies of the ancient thinkers like Seneca, he turned to the study of theology. Instead of granting him a quiet nook in a library, God placed him right in the middle of a culture war in the thriving city of Geneva, Switzerland. The Catholic establishment had been overturned, but rival factions pitted a Biblical Christian commonwealth against a libertine ‘blue state’ mindset. Only the intellectual and spiritual force of Calvin was able to tilt the battle firmly toward the Christian side. In England, theologians and scholars grappled with having to weave reformational theology into the political pragmatism and marital roller coaster of Henry VIII. In Scotland, more political and theological issues converged in the efforts of John Knox and others to remove or control a despotic Catholic queen, Mary Stuart.
In time, these issues continued to roil all of Europe, but especially in the northern countries. The theological upheavals of Europe during the 1500s provided much of the motivation for the new world migrations of the 1600s. Reformed Christians formed the bulk of the population that settled the shores of the English colonies in North America. Theological studies led to ecclesiastical and political convictions that were largely theoretical in the European setting. The newly cleared settlements in North America proved an ample proving ground for the ideas of the Reformation that animated and inspired the early colonists. David Hall’s magisterial book, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding, amply documents this story.
The city on a hill that became America was strongly Protestant and Calvinistic. In time, the vision broadened to allow for greater freedom for Catholics and others to practice their beliefs. Still, Protestant and Catholic hostilities and suspicions remained in the history of American. Governor Al Smith of New York not only lost the presidency in 1928, but also lost portions of the traditionally Democrat solid South in that election due to his Catholicism. In 1960, John F. Kennedy eased the concerns of Protestants only after he promised a gathering of Baptists in Texas that his Catholic faith would not intrude upon his political activities. (Unfortunately, this campaign promise was fulfilled completely.)
Efforts have been made between Protestants and Catholics to mend or overlook differences. The ecumenical movement sought unity at the expense of doctrinal differences, but the movement cast aside all vital doctrines in favor of unity. Neither Protestants of conviction or devout Catholics could tolerate that. Every effort to say that there are no real differences between the Catholic and Protestant theology, worship, and worldviews betrays convictions on both sides. Attempts have been made to promise not to proselytize each other’s congregations, but again that expectation for people who believe that truth exists is unrealistic.
Two things have become clear over time. The religious wars of the 1600s that convulsed Europe were not exactly the greatest witness to Christian virtues of love and longsuffering, and any theological latitudarianism that blurs or denies the Reformation impulses is unacceptable. And then out of nowhere, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in start ending the rift.
Much of the conflict of the Reformation hinged on the importance of the body of Christ. The term, the body of Christ, can be used to mean the actual body of Christ or His church. The Reformation battled over both. Was the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper the literal body of Christ offered up again and again as signified in the Roman Mass? Or was it a memorial and means of grace pointing to the once-for-all-time complete work of Christ as emphasized by the Protestants? (This is an over-simplification, since Protestants began the process of infinite divisions over doctrine in their disputes over the sacraments.) Likewise, was the body of Christ, meaning the church, that organization represented by the pope as Christ’s representative on earth? Or was the body of Christ truly represented by assemblies of believers who faithfully ministered the Word, sacraments, and discipline?
Books and pamphlets poured forth on all sides of the issues. Kings raised banners and called together armies to enforce conformity and ward off heretics. Parliaments debated theology. Merchants packed religious tracts in shipments of fish and beer. Bible verses were quoted; church fathers were cited; and swords were brandished. It was of such grandeur and strife of the Reformation that one can apply W.B. Yeats’ phrase “and a terrible beauty was born.” Nearly five hundred years later, it is hard for a Bible totin’ Calvinist to minimize the price paid for our theological heritage. But between 1517 and 1973, a lot of things changed.
Catholics and Protestants believed the body of Christ was important—in whatever sense the term was used. Then in the 1800s, a secular humanist worldview emerged out of the darker forces of the Enlightenment and became manifest with the advent of Darwinian naturalism. Every ideology it spawned, whether nihilism, communism, or higher critical theology, shared a hatred and an antithesis toward historic Christianity. Modernity rejected the Protestant affirmation of the authority of Scripture, but it also rejected the Catholic affirmation of the authority of the church. Creedal Christianity, absolute truth, doctrinal standards, and the like were all rejected by the spirit of the modern age. God was, in the paradigms of the moderns, either dead or irrelevant or unknowable or as much a product of chance and change as we were. As has been frequently said, philosophers rejected belief in God in the 19th century and then rejected belief in man in the 20th. On both counts, the modern unbelieving mindset rejected the incarnate God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The formulations of Nicea and Chalcedon were the mythological equivalents of the rulings of Zeus and the pantheon of Greek gods on Mount Olympus.
The modern age moved from rejecting belief in God to rejecting the historic Jesus to rejecting the infant in the womb. The old philosophical question of the meaning of life was suddenly answered: Life begins when the Supreme Court says it begins and it exists at the whim and fancy of the court. So the safety and inviolability of the womb was violated. A mother-to-be became an arbiter of life or death. Personal convenience replaced motherly obligations. “I’m going to be a mother” was replaced with “My freedom is threatened.” Less often noticed was the destruction of the father’s role. The traditional leader and defender of the family had no say in the destruction of his offspring before birth. In time, even grandparents were removed when parental notification of a girl’s abortion was denied.
From fighting over the body of Christ to fighting for the bodies of infants, Catholics and Protestants have been reminded of common beliefs. The world changed when a baby was born in Bethlehem. If Jesus was both God and man, then issues of human life and of truth and morality must all be referenced around His revelation in Word and deed. If He were simply man, then our philosophy classes can resume the question of whether our lives have any meaning or not. But if He is God, then both Catholic and Protestant is obliged to hear and follow Him. Despite a host of differences on other issues, Catholics and Bible-believing Protestants stand together on the doctrine of the Incarnation. Hence, Jesus called upon His followers in 1973 to stand together for the truth.
Already the Left is redefining the late Pope John Paul II, just as the Left redefined the late President Reagan. Liberals study history not to learn what happened in the past, but as a tool for promoting a future agenda. Dogmatism with a congenial personality and a winning smile may not win your enemies over while you are alive, but those characteristics will enable them to redefine you after you are gone. If only, we are told, Joseph Ratzinger could be as open to the times as was John Paul II; if only, President Bush could be a statesman like Reagan; if only Paul could echo the true spirit of Jesus.
The humanists, the relativists, the merchants of death, the haters of tradition, and the enemies of Christ all have need to worry. Fragmentation has been the miserable hallmark of Protestantism. We Calvinists are often the worst promoters of ‘divide instead of conquer.’ Indifference and unbelief have captured vast segments of the Catholic Church. Revival in both camps is still needed and true reformation of both theologies is ever to prayed for. Real substantial doctrinal issues will divide us for the morning hours each Sunday. But the times seem to point to greater unity on common social issues. All this bodes ill for the city of man and revives hope for the City of God. We might have a bit of a cause for some cautious, long-term optimism.
Thursday, May 5
Sunday, May 1
The Shakespeare Mystery
No one knows quite what Shakspar did for a living before he arrived in London. We do know that he established himself in the London theater by 1592. He had become an actor with London's most prestigious theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, headquartered in the first professional theater building built since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was called, simply, the Theater.
There is no evidence that Shakspar was ever actually literate—there are no extant manuscripts of his writing and the only evidence we have of his hand are two barely legible signatures. He had no formal education and possessed no library--indeed, he apparently owned no books. He never traveled abroad as far as we know and never claimed authorship of the works attributed to him. His parents were illiterate, his wife was illiterate, and his children were illiterate—hardly what you might expect from the single greatest author of English prose who showed familiarity with courtly circles both in Britain and the continent of Europe, was conversant in all the classics, and had a remarkably refined theological, political, and aesthetic eduication himself.
Shakspar died in Stratford on April 23, 1616. During his lifetime, the only written documents that can be directly tied to him are a few real estate transactions, a will—which mentions no literary properties, and a citation from the city of Stratford for having a dung hill that exceeded the limits of health and propriety. He left no male heirs to continue his name. His only son, Hamnet, had died at age eleven. Susanna and Judith both married, but Susanna's only child, Elizabeth was Shakspar’s last direct descendant. She died childless in 1670, long before the first portraits, tributes, and critical acclaim began to appear in refined English circles.
In 1623, seven years after his death, two of Shakspar’s former colleagues in the theater published thirty-six plays and attributed them to him. This is what scholars refer to this as the "First Folio." Though the plays evidence vast education, intimate familiarity with life in the court, and wide experience in the great cities of Europe, the Stratfordian authorship seems to have been accepted early on. In a prefatory poem, Ben Jonson even praised his old carousing friend as "the wonder of our stage."
Through the centuries, doubts about the Stratfordian authorship of the Shakespearean canon have produced innumerable theories about who the actual author was—some have suggested the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth. While it is likely that Shakspar was incapable of producing such masterpieces as Hamlet, King Lear, Henry V, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II, and The Taming of the Shrew, it is just as likely that no one will ever be able to find convincing proof that any of the other possible authors wrote them either. It will likely remain one of history’s great enigmas.
So many people supported me in this effort--both to run the race and to raise support for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. I am grateful for my mobile cheering sections--Amy, Brianna, Jonathan, Isi, Susan, Eric, Holly, Danielle, Jered, John, Linda, and Kelsey. My fellow runners Andrea, Cammy, Craig, Dave, Grant, and Robin were a great inspiration to me. I was amazed and delighted by the Belmont Church brigade and band--what invigorating joy to see and hear at mile 8. Of course, I am very thankful for all those who prayed for my creaky knees and gimpy ankles. The freebie "coaching" I got from Mark Miller and the guys at Team Nashville was much appreciated--even if I did foolishly depart from my pacing plan! Finally, I am so grateful to all those who sponsored me through your gifts to St. Jude.
This one was for you Wes and Joshua.