Author Archive

I just finished reading Edith Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet to the children. I was not familiar with her work, but had read once or twice that her children’s books were an influence on Lewis. I’d like to make just a few notes about this children’s book, written in the very early 1900s.

1. Everyone treats the servants like trash. Even the young children boss them around and call them stupid. Nowhere does the author ever hint that this isn’t entirely acceptable behavior. The author provides regular commentary on the children’s morals, but never once touches on the treatment of the servants. They are garbage. Even the burglar they catch breaking into their house is shown more respect than the cook and the maid. It’s difficult for me to imagine even a particularly snooty or racist person today mistreating hired staff this overtly today, at least in the USA. What do I, a son of rural Western farmers know of this history? Nearly nothing, though I suspect it was more often like this than what one sees in Downton Abbey.

2. The plots of the chapters themselves are fairly weak. The adventures are only mildly adventurous. The difficulties are often resolved through some kind of deus ex machina device in the last two pages. On the other hand, it’s also interesting to think that what might constitute an adventure would be different to children in 1904 than today. We’re used to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Avengers. To them a visit to a tropical island or a trip to find a bag of coins in an old tower in France might approach maximum excitement. Also, to young children under 10, even an old treehouse can be a lot of fun. There are days when I wish that I could be enthralled by much less flashy things. Sometimes I even am. Books help.

3. The thing the author really gets right is the interaction between the four young siblings. The quirky balance of tender care mixed with petty bickering is something that cannot be accurately captured unless experienced first-hand. I was curious if this knowledge came from the author’s own childhood, but (according to Wikipedia) apparently not. It must have come from her own many children (several of who were adopted from her philandering husband’s multiple mistresses!).

4. The lack of foreshadowing in the book left me at several points thinking that it could have been written quite a bit more interestingly than it was. Some great opportunities for tie-ins between chapters would have made the world richer and the story more cohesive but they were not often taken. I’m no writer of fiction and will rarely dare to make a comment like this, but this time I couldn’t help but feel like I could have improved on the telling with minimal effort. Some of this came out in an additional inserted commentary when reading aloud.

5. The lack of parental oversight is astounding when compared to our safety obsessed culture today. The young children are left alone to play by themselves for sometimes a week at a time! Their father goes to work every day and the mother usually takes care of the baby, but she frequently leaves the house for several days at a time to visit relatives. The servants are sometimes around, but not really paying attention to the children – they have other jobs to do. The children make fires at home and prepare food and go shopping and even take the train to neighboring towns without thinking twice. My wife commented that the same thing happens in many of the Anne of Green Gables books – young children of age six or so are left at home all day without adults watching them. Frankly I think this is just fine and the fact that if you do this today you are likely to be thrown in jail (no hyperbole) is tragic on several levels. It all depends on the particular child and the environment of course – how can I possibly qualify this statement enough? Still, it could be completely fine. We (my wife and I) frequently try to encourage independence in our children, but I must say it doesn’t end up coming close to looking like what seems to have been commonplace a hundred years ago. I wonder what it would take for this to become normal again?

Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy Sayers (Newer collection of misc. reprinted essays)
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie (read aloud to the kids)
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett (read aloud to the kids)
The Open Secret, Lesslie Newbigin
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett (read aloud to the kids)
The Narnian, Alan Jacobs
A bunch of stories from a George MacDonald anthology (read aloud to the kids)
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
St. Patrick’s People, Tony Gray
The First Thousand Years, Robert Louis Wilken
The Rule of St. Benedict
Falling Upward, Richard Rohr
The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen
The Arabian Nights, ed. Andrew Lang (read aloud to the kids)
Through New Eyes, James Jordan
The Little Lame Prince, Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (read aloud to the kids)
Early Christian Writings, (Penguin anthology)
Aesop’s Fables, V.S. Vernon Jones translation (read aloud to the kids)
The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit (read aloud to the kids)
The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

When [Jesus] appeared to Peter and his companions, He said to them, “Take hold of me; touch me, and see that I am no bodiless phantom’. And they touched Him then and there, and believed, for they had had contact with the flesh-and-blood reality of Him. That was how they came by their contempt for death, and proved themselves superior to it.”
Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (~130 AD), Ch. 3

As much as we try to ignore it, we are all deeply terrified by death. All philosophers and poets have known this. Scientists try to reduce it to meaninglessness with the usual hand-waving but they all know this doesn’t really work. But something happened that gave a small group of men (and women) the actual ability (not just the “courage”), to truly give death the middle finger and carry on with life in a way previously unknown to mankind. What was it? Touching the flesh-and-blood resurrected Christ Jesus.

Death hit this guy full tilt boogie and what happened to him? Nothin’. He’s back and looking better than ever and promising matter-of-factly that he’ll wake the rest of us up in the same way. On paper the apostles were part of a tiny fringe backwater Jewish sect. Not too many years later, the worship of their risen leader would dominate and shape all of Western civilization. How was such a thing possible? Their contempt for death.

It was 1994. Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album was on the radio. I was a young teen in my bedroom trying to hack out “You Wreck Me” on my first cheap electric guitar. It didn’t take long before I had the notes figured out – there are only three chords for most of the song after all, but this only led to a deep sinking realization that producing anything that sounded even distantly like what appeared on the album was a complete lost cause. Yes, I was playing the notes for the D – A – E in the correct rhythm, but I might as well have been on another planet. I doubt someone familiar with the song would even have been able to discern what I was attempting. The lead sheet music I was working from was entirely accurate and yet it had betrayed me. Bafflingly, it conveyed almost zero information needed to reproduce the canonical music.

Why was that? What was I missing? It was such a contrast to the Telemann sonata sheet music that I was preparing on my trumpet at the same time. It seemingly contained everything I needed to know. At the time, I was at least vaguely aware that despite it being a “guitar driven” rock song, the guitar just really didn’t play that much. There was a lot of space where the drums were really prominent. There was the singing of course, but I could hear that in my head even if I wasn’t confident enough to release the words into the atmosphere at the time. Still, was that all that was missing?

Every music teacher I had criticized pop music for it’s extreme simplicity. Three chords, three and a half minutes long, a melody with less than an octave range and juvenile poetry for text. What a joke! Now lets get back to work rehearsing this amazing fugue by J.S. Bach. It was only when I got to college and sat under the sagacious Mr. Bukvich, that it was announced we would spent the entire first year studying Bach exclusively… because the Beatles were far TOO complicated to discuss constructively. It turns out this is true, but only from the standpoint of harmonic function. It threw me off the scent of what was really going on, and of finding an understanding of my earlier frustrations.

What is really going on is that contemporary pop music is transmitted via the medium of recordings. Duh, right? But it makes all the difference. These recordings, except in unusual cases where some kind of raw unrehearsed performance is captured, are carefully crafted in studios over many months and combine hundreds of takes and sonic experimentation plus weeks of mixing after that. Pop music is extremely complex and interesting, but not in the same way old classical music is. The material being manipulated is timbre, not harmony. A brilliant 5-part counterpoint is not on the menu, but a meticulously crafted tone is. The notes on the page look brain-dead simple, but then there is the miking of the high-hat, the slight amount of distortion on the guitar just after the attack, the almost imperceptible synth mixed with the bass line, and the vocalist finding just the right amount of over-singing to give the chorus increased emotional intensity. Changing all these things to the delight of the musicians is where all the action is. And almost none of these things can be communicated well, if at all, via traditional sheet music.

They are both music, but interest is found in manipulating almost entirely different variables. Criticizing one or the other as being inferior is like a sculptor of marble mocking a painter for his ridiculous 2-dimensional creations, while the painter shakes his head at the fact that every piece the sculptor produces is plain grey.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when pulled out Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. I hadn’t listened to it in many years. This time through the album though, I was astounded – all I could hear was the piano. How could I have not noticed it there before? I know what a piano sounds like for cryin’ out loud! But no, this piano is EQed all funny so it’s only there in the low mids and it’s been compressed so there is almost no attack sound, just the following thickness. Not only that, but on “You Wreck Me”, it’s playing in unison with the guitar in exactly the same range. “Hmmm, that’s odd. Nobody does that. Wait. Nobody would do that by accident.” Indeed. The guitar and piano have been carefully played and recorded and mixed to sound as one single instrument. I don’t think I would have noticed it if I hadn’t listened to so many hours of Lunasa playing in unison combinations to change the timbre over the past decade. I am absolutely certain I never noticed it as a young man. It turns out that maybe what I really needed all those years ago wasn’t a cooler guitar, but a piano, albeit one wrapped in about eight layers of blankets.

Of course, this brings me back to church worship music. You may have seen this cartoon or something like it and heard mountains of criticism from both sides:

i-write-modern-worship-choruses

One church sings songs with harmonies composed by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, or Palestrina. The passing tones trading off between the voices are truly beautiful and enthralling. But the timbre is never altered – unamplified voices singing mezzo forte with a single piano doubling the voice parts every Sunday for decades and even centuries without end. Another congregation sings a praise chorus with 4 chords and only the melody is sung, but the timbre is messed with a lot. It starts quiet, the women come in on the second verse, the bass plays louder and the piano drops out the third time through. The leader calls for a time of prayer and reflection and there is no singing during pass five and six. The percussionist uses the crash cymbals (which he hasn’t otherwise touched all day) during the last time through the chorus. The musical interest in the first case is found in the complex harmony and the denseness of the text. In the other case, the interest is found in the quality of the sound and it’s changing over time.

Musicians delight in these things – in how these forces combine and interact. Participants and listeners delight in these things as well. Dorothy Sayer’s reminds us that when we are told that man was made in God’s image, at that point in scripture, the only thing we know about God is that he creates things. Apparently he really likes to create things. So do we. I don’t think either of the kinds of music mentioned above make him sad. It’s only we who are annoyed by one kind or the other (or by something in between) when done poorly.

Frankly, I love both of these kinds of music. I frequently miss the years of singing in choir and hope I can someday participate in that form again. But for now, it’s mostly guitars so it’s time to keep on figuring out how to make that sound beautiful too. The possibilities are rich for everyone.

In all the early Christian writings I’ve worked through recently, this passage from chapter 7 of the Epistle to Diognetus (~130-200 AD) is certainly the most magnificent. What an astounding description of Jesus Christ.

The Almighty Himself, the Creator of the universe, the God whom no eye can discern, has sent down His very own Truth from heaven, His own holy and incomprehensible Word, to plant it among men and ground it in their hearts. To this end He has not, as one might imagine, sent to mankind some servant of His, some angel or prince; it is none of the great ones of the earth, nor even one of the vice-regents of heaven. It is no other than the universal Artificer and Constructor Himself, by whose agency God made the heavens and set the seas their bounds; whose mystic word the elements of creation submissively obey; by whom the sun is assigned the limits of his course by day, and at whose command by night the obedient moon unveils her beams, and each compliant star follows circling in her train. Ordainer, Disposer, and Ruler of all things is he; of heaven and all that heaven holds, of earth and all that is in earth, of sea and every creature therein; of fires, air and the abyss; of things above, and things below, and things in the midst. Such was the Messenger God sent to men.

And was his coming, as a man might supposed, in power, in terror, and in dread? Not so; it was in gentleness and humility. As a king sending his royal son, so sent He him; as God He sent him; as Man to men He sent him; and that because He was fain to save us by persuasion, and not by compulsion – for there is no compulsion found with God.

From the greatest to the least, we are all hypocrites to some degree. We say one thing and do another, whether it’s obvious to everyone or only known to those very close to us. This also means that the person preaching the gospel to you is sometimes going to turn out to be a dirtbag. What if you had an experience like one of the following:

  • You were being abused and went to a church leader that you trusted, only to be dismissed and given (in hindsight) very bad advice.
  • A pastor who faithfully taught you the Word for years, later manipulated you or betrayed your trust over some petty political power squabble or financial conflict.
  • The friend who told you about Jesus in college later divorced his wife and abandoned his kids and wants you to act like everything is cool.
  • Your father, who was respected in the community and always took you to church and even read the bible to you at home, was nevertheless often aloof, distant, unkind, and unloving most of the time during your childhood, and still is today.
  • Your mother taught you all about the love of Jesus, but she also fawned on your younger sister, her favorite, and largely ignored you when you needed her most as a young adult.
  • When things began to fall apart for you in mid-life, you found out that some of your friends from church weren’t really your friends. It hurt. A lot. It made you question if all that stuff they said about the love of Jesus was really ever true.

There isn’t a bible verse that can be quoted to wave away this kind of damage, but Christians have come up with a pretty good answer to this sort of hypocrisy and human failing, especially among leadership. So I present you with an idea, a doctrine, from the 39 Articles of Anglicanism. This is #25, the title being in the Elizabethan English of 1571, from nearly 450 years ago:

Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament

And a modern rendering of the relevant part:

Although in the visible church the evil are always mingled with the good and sometimes evil people possess the highest rank in the ministry of the Word and sacraments, nevertheless since they do not do these things in their own name but in Christ’s and minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing God’s Word and in receiving the sacraments. The effect of Christ’s institution is not taken away by the wickedness of these people, nor is the grace of God’s gifts diminished, so long as the sacraments are received by faith and rightly. The sacraments are effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, even though they may be administered by evil men.

I know the above passage deals specifically with serving the bread and wine, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to extend it to all preaching and pastoral work. The point is, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit overcome our hypocrisy. Jesus saved us, inaugurated his kingdom, and even if we do a lousy job delivering the message (he knew we would), he will still bless us and watch over us. Others may break their promises, but the Lord does not. His Holy Spirit is working in our hearts and minds, regardless of the stumbling blocks placed before us by the personal failings of others. This is good news for those burned by the church or by Christians whom they trusted.

“General” or “natural” revelation is usually thought of as what we can know about God and His ways by looking at nature and examining how the world seems to work. This is in contrast to “special” revelation, which is knowledge delivered via angels, prophets, or God himself. Holy scripture is then special revelation. One would think the the resurrection of the dead would be some found only in special revelation (though the Sadducees didn’t think it was there either), but in the first epistle of Clement of, written in ~96 AD, we find a surprising appeal to general revelation:

Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this very moment. The day and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away, and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.
I Clement 24

Jesus himself appeals to this sort of analogy in John 12:24:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.

The phenomenons Clement is describing here have frequently been interpreted otherwise though. Here is one popular example, from The Lion King:

circle-of-life

Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”

Consider night and day, fruit falling and seeds growing, the seasons, etc. Start with Jesus and work backwards and these things can be seen as prefiguring bodily life after death. Start with ancient Hindu and Buddhist thought though, and you get some kind of reincarnation scheme. Start with Native American tribal beliefs, and you get something like The Circle of Life. Start with modern materialistic science, and you find you are just describing the meaningless recombination of atoms.

Everyone largely agrees on what they see going on, but what does it mean? It’s nice for Clement to see God typifying the resurrection in nature, but everyone else who does not have faith in Christ looks at the same thing and comes to entirely different conclusions – ones that confirm the beliefs they already bring to the table.

This is a good example of how general revelation can only get you so far. All by itself, it has too many loose ends. It demands some guiding principals for us to make any sense of it all. I think however you view the natural world, you will end up seeing it as either some kind of circle, or a straight line. Either everything just keeps happening over and over to no end but to repeat, or happening over and over toward a specific end that has not happened yet. Either birth is the whole kahuna that will eventually express itself again, or birth is a small birth and later there will be a big birth. Either the sun rising is an illumination not any brighter or dimmer than yesterday or tomorrow, or it is a small sun rising and later there will be a much brighter dawn.

Christianity sees time as a straight line with embedded repeating patterns, moving ever toward an end like a train barreling down the tracks toward its destination. Many other schemes of understanding the world begin and end with the patterns – they are all there is. In this sense, modern scientific atheism is actually more akin to Christianity. It also sees history as a straight line, from the explosion of the big bang to the eventual total expansion of the universe until all the suns die and the galaxies grow cold. It is a nihilistic future of icy death. And yet for secularists, that kind of raw materialism is not very palatable for day-to-day life and so they fall back on the cyclical model, describing life and relationships as narrative tropes.

On the next page, in chapter 25 of his epistle, Clement invokes the legend of the phoenix (which he takes to be a description of an actual bird), as also being a natural prefiguring or emblem of the bodily resurrection found in Christ. In the opening lines to Daft Punk’s hit Get Lucky from a couple years ago, Pharrel Williams drags the poor phoenix into the mix too. But what does it mean here? The “force from the beginning that keeps the planet spinning” – namely sex which (occasionally) leads to procreation. That’s why he’s at the funky club all night hoping to “get lucky” with some gal who wants to “get some”.

get-lucky

So ask someone to describe something and you’ll likely find out a lot more about the person than about the thing being described.

Chesterton, in one of the better passages from The Everlasting Man, says that the cross of Christ stands distinct in history as a sharp event. It is a stumbling block that must be dealt with, rudely interrupting what we thought was a pointless circle:

We might say that when St. George thrust his spear into the monster’s jaws, he broke in upon the solitude of the self-devouring serpent and gave it something to bite besides its own tail.

the-difference1

I must admit that I’m suspicious of professional writers. That is, people whose writing is their primary source of income. This could be journalists or occasionally pastors and some academics. Often they are very skilled writers since they have so much focused practice. BUT, their motive, their drive for the work gets in the way of their subject. The HAVE to write just to pay the rent or enable themselves or their wife to go to the grocery store each week and so write they do, about… well you name it. They pontificate about everything, and this isn’t always good, regardless of how clever they are.

A few examples: Conservative blogger Matt Walsh received national attention about a year ago for some well-written commentary on some political issue. (I confess, I don’t even remember now what it was.) But that lasted for one, maybe two days. Then, to keep the revenue flowing (and the bills paid), he had to write something fresh and new over again to draw in just as much traffic. Rinse and repeat 2-3 times a week, 52 weeks a year. Despite some apparent talent, Walsh is relatively young, inexperienced, and not particularly well-read. The result? Tons of stupid and misguided incendiary op-ed pieces. There is evidence that the guy is capable of writing well , but becoming a professional writer has put him into the position where he will only write crap most of the time.

Rod Dreher is another (and far better) example. I have enjoyed a lot of his work in The American Conservative and other publications over the past few years. I certainly disagree with him about a variety of things, but I definitely respect him. Recently though, a commentor on one of his articles mentioned that his new book on “The Benedict Option” and the pieces surrounding it, feel almost identical to his book “Crunchy Cons” and the promo surrounding IT a decade ago. This draws attention to the fact that, at the end of the day, to keep bread on the table, Rod has got to keep on writing a steady stream of seemingly interesting stuff, or be out on the street applying to work at the local Amazon packing warehouse. Does this shape what he says and how he says it? I’m afraid so, and not always for the best. As much as someone like Dreher would eschew tabloid journalism, I suspect his daily deadlines might lead him to have more in common with them than he would wish.

On the other side of the political spectrum, I have similar feelings about Nicholas Kristof. He’ll write something excellent on Tuesday, followed by something ridiculously daft on Thursday. Is the guy stupid? No, but he HAD to bang out 5000 words for the Times on both days and if he failed to do so, he would have had to field nasty phone calls and threats from his boss. The result? Definitely not always good writing or thinking.

The same can be said of the academic who HAS to publish to be eligible for tenure. It’s motivating yes, but like a barbed whip. Inspiring? Not exactly. Sure, Beethoven was paid to write what became some of his best works, but if he had a “project manager” breathing down his neck and waving a contract or paycheck in front of him each month, do you think he could have penned the Missa Solemnis? Doubtful.

I’m not saying that writing by these folks is bad or always tainted. Certainly it can be very good. But on reflection, much of my favorite works are things that did not NEED to be written. Merton was a monk. All he HAD to do was show up for prayer at the designated time with the other brothers and get his allotted chores done. But in the meantime he wrote about 20 books, many of which are fantastic. Nobody forced N.T. Wright to put together the manuscript for Jesus and the Victory of God – it’s like it just exploded out of him, in addition to the journal articles he was writing to keep up his credentials. Leithart writes about all kinds of things, not because he’s making piles of cash for his works (often published by houses like Wipf and Stock that only print runs of 100 at a time), but because it’s a discipline and a joy – so much good thinking, and sourced from a desire to learn and explore the world, not from the threat of poverty or the petty competition of university colleagues.

I guess that’s why some of the very best things I have ever read have been blog posts by amateurs. They most certainly did not “need” to be written, but they were, and to great effect. Let’s all keep it up – even when it seems to get buried in noise on the net.

I’ve been reading an anthology of early Christian writings which includes, among other things, the epistles written by Ignatius of Antioch in ~105 AD, and the Didache, a brief manual for Christian living written about ~70 AD. The letters are to some of the same churches that Paul wrote to only one generation earlier (Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, etc.). It’s easy to see why they weren’t included in the canon of scripture though. There isn’t anything wrong with them, but they just aren’t nearly as interesting as the letters that made it into the NT. They deal with more immediate local topics, include more names and commendations and little meaty theology or commentary. Still, they offer an interesting window into the REAL early church. And what does one find? I think I would have to answer that by saying, “Not what I was told I would find.”.

One narrative I heard often in my childhood was that the early church, planted by the original apostles was pure and vibrant and deeply Christ-centered. The nationalization of the church under Constantine was the thing that screwed everything up and spawned dysfunctional Roman Catholicism. Only in the Protestant Reformation did we “get back basics” about what the gospel was really about.

OK, so surely these early writings (from and to people who actually sat under the original apostles personally, or whose parents did at least) would reveal some of what these unadulterated “basics” looked like, right? One might assume so. So what do all these letters talk about? Justification? Nope. Substitutionary atonement? Not really. Sola fide? Most definitely not – moral imperatives abound (avoid fornication, idol worship, don’t listen to heretics, etc.). Sola scriptura? Don’t be silly – though much of the NT cannon is known (the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters are frequently quoted), other parts are missing completely (almost nobody had heard of John’s gospel yet for example). What about hip authoritarian-free house churches? Nope, none of those either. The most frequent admonishment is for submission to the bishop(!).

Worshiping and studying in the pentecostal tradition during my years in college, a key part of the story was that the early church was full of miracles. Healings and prophecy abounded as a highly regular and normal part of church life. The exercise of spiritual gifts died out in later centuries as we replaced dependence on God with philosophy, overly sophisticated theology, and simple unbelief. OK, so surely these early letters might mention divine healing somewhere – how could they not? Nope. It’s nowhere too be found. Just more admonitions to listen to the clergy, refrain from fighting with other Christians, and to not be too greedy for money. The account of the martyrdom of Polycarp includes some miracles, but it’s certainly the exception, not the rule. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and they pointed out that despite all the miracles in Acts, a period of 30 years is covered, so maybe they weren’t that terribly common to begin with. The time compression one experiences when reading Acts can often go unnoticed I think.

So my initial reaction, judging from just these early 1st century writings, is that much of what I had been taught about the early church were largely projections of what contemporary thinkers assumed, wished, or hoped it had really been like. What was is really like though? Nobody knows of course, but there is scant evidence to support many of the popular narratives, regardless of which tradition you are from.

What IS frequently spoken of though that still matters incredibly much today? The veracity of the resurrection. Jesus Christ really DID come back from the dead. Not pretend, not spiritually, not mythically, but in a new blow-up-the-world way – anastasis. This much is certain and emphasized again and again. Everything else flows from that. Everything known from the law and prophets of Judiasm only INFORMS us of the person of Jesus and the main thing he did (which wasn’t teach!), but die and be raised by the Father. As long as we, the church today, continue to focus on THAT and not brush it aside, then we really WILL be like the early church in a big way.

through-new-eyes

I finally got around to reading one of James Jordan’s larger works. This is the one friends have been telling me was worth looking at for years. It’s too bad it’s out of print and so expensive on Amazon. Don’t let the title and the now tired mention of “worldview” in the subtitle dissuade you. This is a rich systematic overview of biblical (especially Old Testament) typology. Having listened to a lecture of his in person before as well as read some of his shorter essays and seen a few video interviews, my experience with Jordan previously was one of 90% keen insights mixed with 10% “WTH?”-inducing straight-faced crazy talk. I was delighted to discover that Really Weird Stuff only constituted maybe 5% of this book and that none of it was particularly distracting.

Growing up baptist, I was exposed to pretty much zero biblical typology in my youth. Everything in scripture was always to be taken as literally as possible – eschewing symbolism, the mere existence of literary devices, and often even broader context. In hindsight, it seems a bit odd that I encountered so little as I now know a lot of it isn’t terribly esoteric.  Fortunately, several of the leaders at the charismatic church I attended in college had a decent handle on a lot of this stuff already and I absorbed enough of that such that many parts of this book were not novel to me. Still, I found quite a few new good things to share. I think for anyone wanting to dig into the Old Testament some more, this and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative would be top on my recommended reading list.

Here are some assorted passages of interest that I copied down, along with a few notes of my own.

This is a great passage explaining the parallel of what the people were trying to accomplish with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 with God’s call of Abraham in the following chapter.

God’s judgment on the Tower of Babel, however, was accompanied as always with a new announcement of salvation. All the things that man had sinfully tried to seize at Babel – land, name, priestly influence – God announced that he would bestow upon Abraham.

They had wanted land, “lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). God, howeer, scattered them (11:8), and gave land to Abram: “Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the and which I shall show you” (Genesis 12:1).

They had wanted a name: “And let us make for ourselves a name” (genesis 11:4b). God, however, confused their languages, so that they could not understand one another’snames (11:7), and gave a great name to Abram: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Genesis 12:2).

Finally, they had wanted to be religious leaders. Their tower was to reach to heaven. They would be the points of contact between other men and “god” (Genesis 11:4). God, however, prevented their tower-building (11:8) and set up Abram and his seed as the priestly nation: “And so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the ground shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
p.178

So much replacement and renaming going on in scripture! It may not seem like such a strong pattern and first glance until you line them all up.

God gave new names to His restructured people. God changed Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel. Jacob means Supplanter, and pointed to his being the younger son who replaces the older. The older son is often a type of Adam, and the younger of the Second Adam. Thus, Seth replaced Cain, Shem replaces Japheth (Genesis 5:32; 9:24; 11:10), Isaac replaced Ishmael, Jacob replaces Esau, Joseph replaced the older brothers, Ephraim replaced Manasseh (Genesis 48:18), Eleazar and Ithamar replaced Nabad and Abihu (Exodus 6:23; 24:1; Leviticus 10:1-6), David replaced his older brothers, and Jesus replaced Adam.
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An interesting comment about how the hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt leveled existing class structures among the Hebrews and equalized social relations for some time.

Once the people were reduced to slavery, the distinction between the blood line of Jacob and the multitudes of servants in the nation broke down. All were servants now When Israel came out of Egypt, we do not find an aristocracty of true-blooded Israelits dominating a plebeian class made up of the descendants of the servants, as probably would have been the case had God not put the nation through the crucible of enslavement. The result of this change was that government by patriarchs shifted into government by elders (Exodus 3:16; 4:29). Men of discernment rather than men of Blood came to hold power in Israel.
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Some great commentary on the rise (and occasional fall) of Christianity throughout history.

In the way of cultural movement, we find that when Christians first penetrate a pagan culture, they have to meet in homes and even catacombs. When the culture has been permeated by Christian influence, and becomes a Christian homeland, then the great and beautiful Garden-Churches (cathedrals) can be built. So it was with Rome. So it was with Europe. So it must be in our day.
Our cathedrals have been defiled, and our homes are under assault as officials of the secular humanist government seek to close down Christian schools and invade Christian homes. Thus, ours is not a day of cathedral-building, but a day of cultural permeation. Faithfulness must come first, and only then will glory come.
p.155

Since we live in an age of setback, it is not always apparent to us that the Kingdom has, in fact, grown. But if we take a look at the Kingdom in the year 300, we find it suffering in pre-Constantinian tribulation. A few centuries later, the Church was wrestling the tribes of Northern Europe into the Kingdom; while in the East, Christianity experienced a real golde age, and what we call “Nestorian” Christians had influence throughout India and China. A few centuries later, after the high “Middle” ages and the Protestant Reformation, Christianity greatly discipled the European countries, spread to the Americas, and gave birth to the printing press, university education, technology, and many other benefits. During the last century, Christianity extended all over the globe as a result of the missionary movement and almost eradicated slavery (though slavery still exists in some Islamic countries, and behind the iron curtain).
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On things like the U.S. Constitution or the Westminster Confession gradually morphing into symbols.

In a way what has happened with the U.S. Constitution, and with the Westminster Confession, is that their value as symbols has changed. Originally it was the CONTENT of these documents that was their primary value. The power of their contents has diminished over time, however. At the same time, with age they have become symbols in another sense, functioning like flags or banners, or security blankets. To put it another way, they have moved from being primarily verbal symbols to being to a considerable extent non-verbal symbols. People are loyal to the Constitution, but most have little idea what it says.
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I would add that more than a few Reformed chuchmen are loyal to the IDEA of the Westminster Confession, even while formally tossing numerous paragraphs (e.g. the part about the Pope literally being The Anti-Christ) and informally ignoring others.

“arborescent theophanies” – what a wonderful phrase. The book is chock-full of this kind of thing.

Connecting the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s Ladder, and Jesus’s conversation with Nathaniel:

Just as the Tower of Babel was a counterfeit ladder to heaven, so Jacob’s visionary ladder was the true one (Genesis 28:12-17). Babylon means “gate of heaven,” and at the foot of Jacob’s ladder was the true gate of heaven (v.17). Just so, if Nebuchadnezzar’s ladder tree was a counterfeit, there must also be a true ladder true. That true Ladder is the Messiah. Jesus said to Nathaniel, “You shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” referring to Jacob’s vision (John 1:51). But also, in context, Jesus stresses that Nathaniel has been sitting under a fig tree (John 1:48, 50). the fig tree, a symbol of Israel as God’s priestly nation, is correlated with the ladder of heaven, with the True Israel, Jesus Christ.

An excellent explanation of how prophecies like “the moon will turn to blood!” are not about end of the physical world doomsday events:

Let us now briefly survey the passages where sun, moon, and stars are used in a prophetic-symbolic sense. A failure to understand the symbolic nature of these passages has led a few popular writers to assume that such expressions as “the sun turned to sackcloth and the moon to blood” can only be understood as referring to the collapse of the physical cosmos. Nobody takes these verses literally, after all. The question is, to what kind of event does this symbolic language refer? For modern man, it seems that it can only be speaking of the end of the natural world. For ancient man, it was indeed the end of the “world” that such language indicated, but not the “world” in our modern scientific sense. Rather, it was the end of the “world” in a socio-political sense.

For instance, Isaiah 13:9-10 says that “the day of the Lord is coming,” and when it comes, “the starts of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.” It goes on to say in verse 13, “I shall make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the Lord of hosts in the day of His burning anger.” Well, this certainly does sound like the end of the world! BUT, if we read these verses in context, we have to change our initial impression. Verse 1 says, “The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw,” and if we read on, we find nothing to indicate any change in subject. It is the end of Babylon, not the end of the world, that is spoken of. In fact, in verse 17, God says the he will “stir up the Medes against them,” so that the entire chapter is clearly concerned only with Babylon’s destruction.

If we read Biblically, this won’t seem so strange. What verse 10 is saying is that Babylon’s lights are going to go out. Their clocks are going to stop. Their day is over, and it is the Day of Doom for them. And, since these astral bodies symbolize governors and rulers, their rulers are going to have their lights put out as well.

The “heavens and earth” in verse 13 refer to the socio-political organization of Babylon. The “heavens” are the aristocracy, roughly speaking, and the “earth” are the commoners.

We find the same kind of thing in Ezekiel 32. In verses 7-8 of the chapter God declares, “And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens, and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you and will se darkness on your land.”
The end of the world? Yes, indeed, but not for everybody.
p.62

And finally, a great analogy about how the Levitical law was not nearly as complicated as we sometimes think.

Why do people think the Mosaic law was hard to keep? In general, it is because they do not know what the law really commanded, and because they have the Mosaic law confused with the rabbinical traditions of Judaism. The rabbinical traditions were a “heavy yoke” (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23; Acts 15:10; Matthew 23:4). Jesus called the people back to the Mosaic law, making it His own, and in doing so said that He was offering an “easy joke” (Matthew 5:20-48; 11:29-30).

What about all those sacrifices, you may ask? There were the Burnt, Meal, Peace, Than, Votive, Sin, Reparation, “Heave,” and “Wave” Offerings, for starters. Some sued salt, some did not. Some used oil, some did not. Some required a lamb; others, oxen; others, birds. Leavened bread was used with some, unleavened with others. Some parts of the animal were burned up, others given to the priests, and others were eaten by laymen. These things differed for each sacrifice. it was an awful lot of detail to master. The Israelite citizen, however, never offered any sacrifices himself. Only the priests were allowed to do the sacrifices, and they did them every day. They soon become familiar with all these details.

Compare the details of the complicated sacrificial system with the details of auto repair, and it suddenly becomes clear just how simple the priest’s job was. How many different kinds of cars are there? Add on the fact that they change from year to year. Now consider all the different parts and aspects that can go wrong. next time you take your car in, look at all the volumes of Chilton auto repair manuals that your mechanic keeps on hand, and compare their size and detail with the book of Leviticus. If you mechanic can learn to fix cars, and enjoy it, obviously the priests of Israel had no trouble managing the sacrificial system.

What about the sabbath? Wasn’t that a burden? No, it was a time of rest. But weren’t they forbidden to cook on the sabbath? No, they kept the sabbath as a feast. But weren’t they forbidden recreation on the sabbath? No, the Bible nowhere says this. Well the, what did they do? They wen to church to worship God at the synagogue (Leviticus 23:3), and relaxed the rest of the day. The sabbath was not an “impossible burden.”
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