Friday, October 30

Where the Gospel Begins

"Out of love for the Truth and the desire to bring it to light, these ninety-five propositions are posted for the purpose of discussion by Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology. In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Firstly, when our Lord Jesus said, "Repent," He assuredly intended that the entirety of the life of believers should be marked by humble repentance. He is Lord over all. --Herein, the opening lines of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses.

Luther's Ninety-Five Theses

On this day in 1517, German theologian Martin Luther carefully recopied the scroll of his soon to be revealed Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences—a document that would be popularly called the Ninety-Five Theses. The next day he would post the scroll, consisting of a series of propositions that established a theological basis for opposing the sale of indulgences.

Though written in Latin and designed to provoke only a limited academic discussion, Luther’s manifesto would almost immediately be translated into the vernacular and then widely distributed, causing a great public controversy leading to the Reformation. Who would have ever dreamed that in the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, all of Europe would be shaken by the simple act of provoking a series of questions? Certainly not Luther. But in fact, his little academic exercise would lead to a dramatic realignment of men and nations--indeed, he would eventually be excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church and become the founder of Protestantism.

But as he prepared the scroll, he certainly had none of that in mind. Indeed, the tone of the document was clearly a moderate call for little more than a bit of dialog and some serious theological investigation. He wrote, “A disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences: out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.”

The theses themselves were not any more incendiary. Instead, they discussed the character and nature of true repentance, the core values of the Gospel, and the essence of the justice and mercy of God. Hardly the sort of material one might expect to cause a furor.

Nevertheless, the faithful Augustinian monk’s attempt to open a dialog was, in the good providence of God, the catalyst for a movement which would ultimately reshape the whole of Western Civilizaton.

Wednesday, October 21

The Blood of the Martyrs

On this day in 1555, less than a week after Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake, Bloody Mary, the eldest daughter of England's King Henry VIII, launched a series of fierce persecutions against Protestant Christians in which more than two hundred men, women, and children were put to death for their faith.

Ridley had been a chaplain to Henry and was the Bishop of London under his son Edward. Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester. Both men were renowned for their piety and compassion.

When Mary became Queen, one of her first acts was to arrest Bishop Ridley, Bishop Latimer, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. After serving time in the Tower of London, the three were taken to Oxford in September of 1555 to be examined by the Lord's Commissioner in Oxford's Divinity School. Sensing the groundswell of support the men had throughout England, it was determined to make a public spectacle of their executions.

Mary and her minions were startled to discover however that the martyrdoms only intensified the Christian zeal of the Protestants. Thus, the horrors of the bloody persecution were unleashed in order to quash the confessing Church--in the end though, it had quite the opposite effect. As in the days of the Apostles and the Patristics, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.

Saturday, October 17

Better to Be Underestimated

Known for his witty style, the amazingly prolific author G. K. Chesterton wrote in many genres, including fiction, biography, poetry, theology, belle lettres, art criticism, history, as well as a myriad of journalistic essays. He was one of the most beloved writers in England during the first part of the 20th century.

On this day in 1912, biographer Hugh Lunn interviewed Chesterton for the Hearth and Home magazine. He began with a description of the great man, “Everyone knows Mr Chesterton's appearance, a good portly man, of faith and corpulence, like Falstaff. His writings, too, have become familiar, winning many disciples, especially among the young. At Oxford the Chestertonian and the Shavian are well-known types: the Shavian enthroned above human emotion is clever, but a prig; the Chestertonian, less brilliant, is more likeable. He doesn't care for advanced ideas, but he would like to combine wit and probity. So he welcomes a writer who defends old modes of thought with humor, and attacks modern thinkers on the ground that they are antiquated bores in disguise.”

Lunn was soon to discover that, with Chesterton, there was much more than met the eye--despite the fact that his rotund figure was sufficient to fill the eye. With a glint of good humor, Chesterton began with characteristic words, “I am always ready to be interviewed, for I hold the theory, nowadays completely forgotten--as forgotten as this matchbox was still this moment (fishing a box out of a bowl on the mantelpiece)--the theory that the Press is a public agora. I should not refuse an interview even to a paper owned by one of those capitalist millionaires, whom I hate. Nowadays the Press merely echoes the powerful; its real aim should be to give the public a chance to state its views.”

Lunn could hardly get a word in edgewise, so the interview turned into something of a monologue--a forum for the great man to hold forth on all manner of ideas, much like his writing, “And now what do you want me to talk about? I am ready to give my opinion on any question, whether I know something about it or not. No, I'm not an Imperialist in the modern sense; the only theory of Imperialism that seems to me sound is Dante's. He defended the Roman Empire as the best human government, on the definite ground that the best human government would probably crucify God. Caesar had to be lawful; because Christ had to be killed by law.”

With that, he paused with a smile to ask Lunn what questions he really wanted to put upon the table. He should not have bothered, before he could reply, Chesterton was off again, “I do not believe in Cosmopolitanism, you know: nowadays it's either run by financiers for their own profit, or it's the product of Atheistic Socialism, as in Germany. Christ didn't come to bring peace among the nations. When He said that a man should turn the other cheek, I fancy He meant that a man, when attacked, should humiliate his enemy by treating him with sudden and unexpected contempt.”

And so it went for nigh on an hour. Lunn had to admit afterward, “I had altogether underestimated the tornado of thought and creativity and imagination that the jolly figure of Chesterton contained.” To which Chesterton later retorted, “It is always better to be underestimated than overestimated--that way, all good things are taken as if by surprise and are therefore all the more appreciated.” Indeed.

Saturday, October 10

Kuyperian Renaissance

Abraham Kuyper was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. A true poly math, the Dutch statesman made his mark as a pastor, theologian, journalist, educator, orator, publisher, politician, and reformer.

He was born in 1837, just seven years after Belgium and the Netherlands separated. Though his pious family background, quiet rural community, and meager local schooling combined to afford him only very humble resources, he was a bright student and was early on marked out for great things. He attended the university at Leiden and quickly demonstrated an aptitude for serious scholastic work.

Following his postgraduate work, he pastored a succession of churches—first in Beesd, then in Utrect, and finally in Amsterdam. He became the leader of the theological conservatives who were working hard to hold at bay the encroachments of modernists and liberals.

By 1872, he had begun publishing a daily newspaper, De Standaard. He was already the editor of the inspirational monthly magazine, De Heraut. In addition, he had founded a new legal organization to protect the concerns of private Christian schools and had spearheaded the reorganization of the political conservatives into the Anti-Revolutionary Party. He was elected to the lower assembly and quickly became the leading exponent and spokesman for spiritual orthodoxy, fiscal restraint, and judicial tradition.

As if all these activities were not enough, he continued the serious academic research he had begun at the university, he wrote a flurry of books, pamphlets, and broadsides, and he managed a heavy speaking schedule at home and abroad. In later years he would also establish the Free University of Amsterdam, give vision and direction to the new Dutch Reformed Church, and lead a coalition government as the Prime Minister. He was a genuine renaissance man in every respect.

He first entered politics as a member of the lower chamber of the Dutch legislature, at the head of a new Conservative and Christian coalition party. After breaking with the national church and forming the Free Reformed Church in 1886, he united the Calvinist and Catholic parties and in 1901 formed a reformed Christian Conservative ministry, serving as minister of the interior until 1905 and Prime Minister until 1907. He served in the upper house of the legislature from 1913 to 1920.

Beginning on this day in 1898, he gave an influential series of lectures at Princeton University in New Jersey in which he developed the idea of a comprehensive and universal Christian woldview—rooted in the Reformation doctrines pf Calvinism. Before his death in 1920, he was able to successfully mobilize the ordinary citizens of the great Dutch nation to do the difficult work of societal transformation—through the consistent application of the Christian worldview he so articulately espoused.

Tuesday, October 6

Whistler's Art

James Whistler was one of the most remarkable and innovative artists in American history—renowned as a fine portrait painter and an unparalleled etcher, who incongruously assimilated the distinctive features of East and West, made innumerable technical innovations, and championed the wedding of modern artistic innovations with the craftsmanship and techniques of the classical Christian tradition.

He was born on July 10, 1834, in Lowell, Massachusetts and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851. He did not do well in his studies however, and was forced to leave the Academy in 1854 to take a job as a draftsman with the government’s Coastal Survey Corps. One year later, on this day, he went to Paris, where he became a pupil of the Swiss classicist painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre. Formal instruction influenced him less, however, than his acquaintance with the French realist painter Gustave Courbet and his own study of the great masters. It was also in Paris that he became fascinated with traditional Chinese and Japanese styles.

Whistler won recognition as an etcher when his first series of etchings, Twelve Etchings from Nature—commonly called The French Set—appeared in 1858. Soon after he moved to London, where his paintings, which had been repeatedly rejected by the galleries of Paris, found ready acceptance and acclaim. At the Piano was shown by the Royal Academy of London in 1860. Thereafter exhibitions of his work aroused increasing international interest, as did his flamboyantly eccentric personality.

Three of Whistler's best-known portraits, Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother—the official title of that famous painting best known simply as Whistler’s Mother— as well as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander were all painted during a very productive period of his life around 1872.

In 1877 he exhibited a number of landscapes done in the Japanese manner; these paintings, which he called Nocturnes, outraged conservative art opinion, which did not understand his deliberate avoidance of what he called “narrative detail.” The famous traditionalist art critic John Ruskin wrote a caustic article, and Whistler, charging slander, sued Ruskin for damages. He won the case, one of the most celebrated of its kind, but the expense of the trial forced him into bankruptcy. Selling the contents of his studio, Whistler left England, worked intensively from 1879 to 1880 in Venice, then returned to England and resumed his attack on the academic art tradition.

In his later years Whistler devoted himself increasingly to etching, drypoint, lithography, and interior decoration—he was one of the first serious artists to turn to what he called “decorative architecture” to express his Christian worldview in “tangible, livable forms.” The Peacock Room, which he painted for a private London residence was the most noteworthy example of his interior decoration, but he actually worked extensively in the field arguing that “to live in art is a far more Biblical notion than to merely pander to the critics and collecting classes.” And so, until his death in 1903, that was his preferred medium.

Friday, October 2

Rhodia v. Moleskine

The legendary French stationer, Rhodia, has launched a diary/planner line for 2010. This means that those of us who have used (and loved) Moleskines for years are going to have to make a difficult choice: go with the tried and true or switch for the sake of finer paper stock, better bindings, and the more convenient A5 and A6 sizes.

Two brothers, Henri and Robert Verilhac, founded Rhodia, originally known as “Papeteries Verilhac Freres,” in Lyon, France in 1932. They came from a family of paper merchants, with two brothers from the previous generation having set up a family business selling paper in southern France and in French North Africa.

In 1934, the company moved from Lyon to Sechilienne near Grenoble in the French Alps. The name “Rhodia” reputedly comes from the Rhone, the river flowing by Lyon dividing the Alps from the Massif Central. Production of their famous line of notepads began that year.

Their wide-ranging array of stationery products quickly became known as the finest commercially-produced writing pads and notebooks available anywhere—indeed, Rhodia paper is a very smooth acid-free stock that accepts ink without bleeding or smearing. Not surprising, the pads and notebooks soon became essential tools for artists and designers, writers and journalists, researchers and educators all over the world and gained what can only be described as a near-cult following.

The family-owned company was merged with Clairefontaine in 1997 and production transferred to Mulhouse, in Alsace, France. Nevertheless, members of the Verilhac family have continued to maintain control of both design and quality.

Thus, the conundrum posed by the new diary/planner line.

The new planners come in two sizes and two colors—each in a weekly notebook format using the traditional Rhodia graph paper for notes, instead of ruled lines and with the added benefits of address pages and tear-off corner page markers. Oh yes, and with no shortage of audacity, each also comes with an elastic closure. Still, it is the 90g Clairefontaine paper that is the real selling point.

Better have an answer Moleskine!

Thursday, October 1

Resounding Nehemiads

“Jeremiad.” Definition: An elaborate and prolonged condemnation; a cry of lamentation; an expression of righteous indignation and judgment.

“Nehemiad.” Definition: An elaborate and prolonged humiliation; a cry of grief; an expression of righteous repentance and surrender.

Well might we plead the case for an outpouring of Jeremiads from evangelical pulpits in our day. What with inhuman-humanism and patronizing-pietism launching a tandem assault upon all that is near and dear, such a prophetic stance seems all too appropriate. Expose the evils. Demonstrate the inconsistencies. Broadcast the hypocrisies. Denounce the barbarities. Set forth with zeal the clear consequences of God’s wrath, God’s sore displeasure, and God’s judgment. Hurl upon the land Jeremiad after Jeremiad like unto none that man nor beast has ‘ere seen.

As fitting as all that may seem to be, the modern church is in no position to carry it out. Trivialized and crippled by praisalluia-poppycock, hermeneutical hot-dogging, church-growth skullduggery, and intellectual hodge-podgery, our churches are probably incapable of much more than the braggadocio balderdash and eschatological bosh that long has been our stock and trade. Jeremiads are thus, beyond the realm of possibility for us. Our obsession with brainless bric-a-brac and business meeting bilge has made our ineffectiveness and unproductiveness all but a foregone conclusion. Jeremiads? No way.

So, how should we then live? What can we then do?

Instead of attempting that which we are ill-equipped to do, instead of unleashing upon an unsuspecting wayward culture our righteous indignation, instead of venting our grievous Jeremiads upon deafened ears, perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of taking the alternate course of the Nehemiad. In contradistinction to the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad does not rip into those who flaunt ungodliness. Its concern is our own repentance. Unlike the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad does not have a negative, indictive tone. Its concern is restorative. Again, as opposed to the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad is not inescapably tied to a critical spirit. Its concern is constructive.

The Jeremiad is modeled by the prophet Jeremiah when he cried out, “This is what the Lord says about this people: they greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the Lord does not accept them; He will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.”

The Nehemiad, on the other hand, is modeled by the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, Nehemiah, when he cried out, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands, let your ear be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night… I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against You. We have acted very wickedly toward You. For we have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and statutes You gave Your servant Moses… O Lord, hear, O hear this prayer and give Your servant, who delights in revering Your Name, success.”

Undoubtedly, our corrupt culture is in dire need of the work of zealous Jeremiad-pronouncing churches, but comprehending that our piffle spewing pulpits may well be unfit at present for the task, the place of the Nehemiad is surely all the more prominent. The walls are down. The rubble is nigh unto impassable. All is in a shambles. So let the Nehemiads begin.

Let the Nehemiads take a priority place in our worship. Let the Nehemiads mark our heretofore paucitous preaching. Let the Nehemiads replace the Sunday School swill and training tatter-nasters. Let the Nehemiads proceed from our life and work.

It is only when a haughty church comes to grips with its theological, cultural, and intellectual impoverishment, does humiliation open the door for humility. And that is a position of vulnerability that we churchmen are sadly, none too anxious to embrace--which explains why humility is a Gospel virtue in desperately short supply, and why the Nehemiad is, to us, an alien concept.

But, considering the crisis that girds us round about, no risk is too great, no commitment too bold. Let the Nehemiads begin. For such is the need of the hour. O God, grant us repentance.