Monday, December 22, 2008

Writing with a "Ring"

“In North America ninety years ago, our ancestors established a brand new governmental entity. They thought of it in terms of civil rights, and focused on the idea that everybody starts out on an equal basis.  .  . . From these battle casualties that we’re memorializing, we need to pick up their same level of commitment to the program they gave their lives to promote. We’ve got to really make sure these combatants didn’t die for nothing, and work together so that our country — under a Higher Power, of course — will guarantee everybody’s rights all over again. We’ve got to do that so that a government the people vote for, one that benefits them, won’t just go down the drain.”

Fine patriotic sentiments, perhaps, after a major incident in warfare. But consider how President Abraham Lincoln said it on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . . that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Compared to the Gettysburg Address the first example sounds flat and tasteless, doesn’t it? Unlike Lincoln’s words, it has no “ring” to it. It doesn’t sound very “literary.” Today’s fashion may be to make writing sound like ordinary casual or conversational speech. But if what we write sounds just like how we talk, why bother to write? Yes, there’s often a place for the colloquial and, perhaps, even the banal especially if we’re dealing with dialogue. But to compose a poem, essay or narrative that will elevate the reader’s appreciation for your topic — that requires us to write words and expressions that “ring.”

The English language, because of the way it developed, has a larger vocabulary than most other tongues. In English there are many different ways to say the same thing, a multitude of approaches to getting your idea across, a plethora of choices when it comes to how to express oneself. (You get the idea.) Writing would not be a craft if there were not such a variety of possible ways to fashion the writer’s concept. Perhaps we cannot always aspire to the level of the Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare or the King James Bible, but we can employ our craft to select our words and shape our phrases so that they “ring” with a reverberation that’s a cut or two above the mundane.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Back and Forth with Genesis 1

If we accept the Bible as the authority that defines our perspective on reality, how do we regard Scripture’s opening chapter, the account of the creation? Does the Bible teach a literal six-day creation, or can what it says be understood another way? Or, even if it does specify creation in six days — an idea that sounds ridiculous to secular cosmologists — are there some underlying insights in the biblical account that transcend the surface narrative? Perhaps these insights make sense even to someone who regards a literal six-day creation as a discredited doctrine.

To begin with, the Genesis account clearly says, “... one day ..., ... one day ...” So it does teach a six-day sequence of creation. On the other hand, “days” as we know them are earth days — a rotation of the earth on its axis demarcated by the appearance of the sun in the sky. And according to Genesis, the sun and moon aren’t created till the fourth “day.” So how could “days,” as we understand the term, be used to mark off the successive phases of creation?

Some interpreters nuance the account by claiming that the word “day” in Genesis means epochs of astronomical length in the gazillion-year history of the universe. But there’s no warrant for interpreting the Hebrew word yom (“day”) in that sense. Does that clinch the case for understanding the Bible as teaching a literal six-day creation?

Look again at the structure of Genesis 1, with its repeated refrain, “And God saw that XXX was good ... And there was evening and there was morning, X day.” Repeated refrains do not occur in historical accounts or textbooks of cosmology, they occur in hymns. Genesis 1 appears to be a prose paraphrase of a poetical, hymn-like structure, a hymn celebrating the Creator’s activity. Do you look into your church hymnal when you want to find an explanation of some problem in astronomy, physics or chemistry? Not likely. So maybe Genesis 1 isn’t the place to look for a description of how the world actually came into existence. Maybe the biblical account has a different purpose.

But, on the other hand, if you look at the Genesis account it starts with the creation of the most basic “element,” light. It then proceeds, by a process of division, to separate out the generalized components of the universe as the Israelites saw it: light and darkness, the heavens and terra firma, land and sea. That process of division is called analysis, the first principle of scientific inquiry.

By the way, the creation of light is a digital, or binary, separation, the basis for today’s computers. The presence of difference is the basis of information, because information is found in the difference between one thing and another — not in sameness.

The Genesis account then goes on to relate the creation of an ascending hierarchy of living things — plants, then water creatures and birds, then land animals and finally mankind. That is something like the sequence posited in the evolutionary view, though the theory of evolution itself is problematical.

Finally, one looks at other ancient “myths” of creation and notices that the creation of the earth, and of mankind, is only a byproduct of some cosmic struggle between competing deities, whereas in the Bible the universe is created deliberately in a planned and orderly sequence. The sun and moon are perhaps deliberately placed out of order to counter the tendency to worship these bodies, as was common in polytheistic religions.

Furthermore, God is not part of his creation but is separate from it. This implies that mankind, as his agent in the administration of the natural order — made in his “image,” as Genesis puts it — can approach that order in a “secular” way, i.e., without worrying about offending the god of this or that natural phenomenon.

So, in sum, one goes back and forth with the Bible account of creation. First, we accept that it doesn’t square with the scientific view, then we see how it adopts a view generally consistent with science, and finally we realize that it presents the only view that makes science possible.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Renewing the Mind Through Meditation

By Shirley Anne Leonard

My wife Shirley Anne wrote this piece a few days ago. I thought I would share it with others here.

Why don’t we have victory? We have never sat down and meditated long enough on the Word. What is meditation? Well, if you know how to worry you know how to meditate. Meditation is ruminating, working something over and over in you mind. Our minds just naturally do this all day long. Usually it is about how bad things are, about the ache in our bodies, or this or that problem confronting us.

Controlling the mind is like pushing one of those grocery carts that has a bad wheel and is always trying to swerve to the left. You have to purposely keep turning it back to the right. The good fight of faith is not always with an outside adversary, it’s more often with our own minds.

When the Word says to renew our minds, that’s not just a nice suggestion. God tell us that because He knows that if we let our minds go their natural way they take us down the wrong road — the road to sickness, worry, frustration and depression.

The Lord has another way to go. He tells us to think about ourselves and circumstances the way He does. Where does He say that? Well, He tells us to have the mind of Christ. If you have the mind of Christ then you are thinking the right thoughts. We’re victorious over the world as He was. Remember what Jesus said: “I have overcome the world.” And so can you!

So if someone asks you if you’ve ever meditated, don’t say “No.” You have meditated (worried) about all the wrong things. The solution is to sit down several times a day and purposely meditate on a verse of Scripture that tells who you are and what you can do — like the TV preacher who holds the Bible up at the beginning of a service and asks everyone to repeat the words, “This is my Bible. I am what it says I am and I can do what it says to do.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Physical “Laws” and “Miracles”

Commentators customarily speak of the “laws” of the physical universe, such as the law of gravity, the law of inertia, or the laws of thermodynamics. Such terminology tends to portray the universe as a closed system of cause and effect in which natural phenomena cannot behave contrary to the “laws” of physics, mathematics and the like. Nor can any external power interpose to contravene those “laws.”

What such usage fails to recognize is that the term “law” is poorly chosen when applied to the operation of physical phenomena. “Law” is a construct of human culture and interaction, and the operation of laws depends upon social structures for enforcement and personal motives of compliance. That is, to be effective a law must be obeyed, and obedience requires the decision of a sentient being. The substance of the physical world consists of electrons and other subatomic particles. To ascribe to such phenomena the property of obedience to a law is to anthropomorphize them — to credit them with qualities or behavior applicable only to sentient beings, particularly human beings.

Phenomena of the physical realm do, indeed, behave in predictable ways, at least under “normal” conditions (recognizing that “normality,” itself, may be as questionable concept here as “law”). But to describe such behavior in terms of “laws” is only an inaccurate way of saying that the behavior of these phenomena has followed typical patterns. A solid object dropped from a third-storey window will, absent any extraordinary condition such as hurricane-force winds or strong magnetic attraction from a higher storey, be observed to fall to the earth. But to call such behavior the operation of the law of gravity is to ascribe mechanisms of enforcement and obedience to phenomena that have (as far as we can tell) no capacity for choice or decision. (And as for gravity, no one understands what it is anyway; it is not the same as magnetism.)

As Bernard Lonergan pointed out a half-century ago (Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, 1957), observed phenomena form a statistical continuum of events within a system. But such a continuum can never cover all possible eventualities. Statistics constitute an admission of ignorance; if all facts and events were known there would be no need for a statistical abstraction from specific observed data to a generalized system. On the statistical continuum there is always the possibility of a non-systematic “empirical residue” (to use Lonergan’s term), i.e., events that do not fit into the hypothesized continuum.

All of the above is relevant to the consideration of so-called “miracles,” or events that appear to run counter to the “laws” by which the physical universe operates. As stated above, no such “laws” are operative in the behavior of non-sentient phenomena. The observation of repeated events, such as the falling of an object when dropped from a height, can only form a statistical continuum masking our ignorance. No matter how often the phenomenon is observed, the probability that it will occur the next time in the same way cannot be extended to infinity.

What we call “miracles,” far from being perturbations in the operation of physical “laws,” are simply events that do not fall along the line of the hypothetical statistical continuum. They are non-systematic “empirical residue.” As to how and why such events occur, no explanation may be possible in terms of the four-dimensional world in which the physical “laws” are said to operate.

Jesus calmed the storm with the command, “Peace! Be still” (Mark 4:39). The disciples asked, “Who then is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Such language may be the only way human beings can speak of the inbreaking of the non-systematic into a supposed closed system of physical laws. But in speaking this way we need to recall that Scripture testifies to the way Christ is ever “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3). The phenomena of the universe are not blindly obeying physical laws. In some way inaccessible to our comprehension they are responding to the “word” of their Creator.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Offering the “High Praises”

The expression “high praises” occurs only in Psalm 149:6. “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.” The word in Hebrew is romemot, the plural construct form of romam, high or extolling praise. The Hebrew verbal root for the word is rum (pronounced “room”), with the basic meaning of “rise, be exalted.” A similar expression, derived from the same root, is found in Psalm 66:17, “I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled (romem) with my tongue.”

Note that the word is plural, not “high praise” but “high praises.” This suggests that the focus is not on the concept of exaltation or praise, but on the actual activity of praise as performed repeatedly and simultaneously by a group of people gathered together for this purpose. The “high praises of God” are not offered by an individual worshiper, but by an entire worshiping community in festive assembly.

Psalm 149 is an interesting expression of the power of spiritual warfare. Through the “high praises” of God” and the “two-edged sword” of his judgment, the enemies of his rule are subdued. The “two-edged sword” could be taken literally as the enforcement of the precepts of God's law upon the order of society. But, as we know, the “two-edged sword” is also a biblical metaphor for the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12, cf. Revelation 1:16; see also “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” Ephesians 6:17).

Psalm 149 thus combines two central elements of biblical worship: the free and enthusiastic corporate offering of praise to God, and the proclamation and enactment of his Word. The language of the psalm reinforces our understanding that Christian worship is an action of spiritual warfare. Through our gathering together to exalt the name of the Lord in “high praises,” and to rehearse the judgments pronounced in Scripture against everything that opposes his kingdom, we are taking part in the battle against the forces of darkness and evil.

The psalm is therefore a paradigm for strong, vibrant worship that celebrates the majesty and integrity of the living God. It is an exuberant worship marked by a certain holy abandon in the presence of the Almighty, an exercise in “high praises” including great rejoicing and gladness, the “new song” (which may be free-form singing “in the Spirit”), the use of festive instruments, and even the movement arts such as dance or procession.

Psalm 149 leaves no place for an insipid, sentimental kind of “worship” that focuses on how we feel, or caters to our preferences and our hurts. What passes for worship in many churches is, I fear, a “celebration” of the faith of the worshiper, rather than a celebration of Him to whom that faith and worship are directed. There is, of course, a place for reflection and self-examination in the Christian life, and our gatherings can make a place for these things where appropriate. But the victorious worship-warriors of Psalm 149 are not concerned with themselves, but with the judgments of God against an ungodly world. They go forth armed not with their own resources but with the weapons of God, which they take in their mouths and in their hands. They do battle not as isolated individuals, but as a community bonded by their common concern for the exaltation of God, his enthronement upon the praises of his people (see Psalm 22:3), and the enactment of his justice in the face of the evil structures of world cultures. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Biblical Logic

People who live since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century, when a supposedly “scientific” view of reality came into vogue, have trouble with the Bible because they feel compelled to reconcile various parts of Scripture that seem to be contradictory, or at least not to mesh very will with each other. And they feel compelled to reconcile what we read in the Bible with the findings of today’s science and cosmology. The modern view of truth is that words, to be true, must correspond to an external, scientifically verifiable, reality. In this view the Bible is true because it can be proven to correspond to “truth,” scientifically and logically established. The Bible, then, is referential to truths that are external to the Bible.

Consider, though, what this does to the authority of Scripture. Instead of the Bible being the authority for our view of reality, science and logic become the criteria, and Scripture must be forced into their mold. But Jesus Christ said, “Thy Word is truth.” In other words, we begin with Scripture and try to understand it on its own terms, without forcing its words into the framework of a world view that came into vogue only three or four centuries ago. Instead of letting our culture build our world view, we start with the Bible’s world view and allow it to critique the pathological world views being foisted upon us by Western or other world cultures. (On biblical logic and world-building, consult such titles as G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 1980, or Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 1974.)

This means that when we read the Bible we must enter its own world and be governed by its logic, or we misread its message. Biblical logic is not linear, like modern logic that says “If this condition exists, then that follows.” Biblical argumentation is circumferential, rather than linear. That is, to make a point the speaker or writer surrounds his topic, approaching it from as many angles as possible — and any particular way of approaching the subject may not necessarily be consistent (by modern standards) with the others. The purpose of a biblical argument is not to prove a point, but to “talk it to death.” Obviously, in a biblical argument the “winner” is whichever speaker is left standing after the problem has been bombarded from all possible viewpoints. The loudest or most persistent voice, in other words, is the one whose argument prevails.

The Book of Job is a primary example of biblical logic. Though Job’s three friends offer perfectly good arguments that are consistent with other parts of Scripture, they are ultimately in the wrong because Job meets Another with a more powerful voice than they who is finally able to confront Job with his own presumption. The young man Elihu interrupts the debate with what he considers to be a conclusive argument in defense of God’s ways. Nevertheless, neither Job nor God take any notice of Elihu’s utterance. Only when God himself speaks does the issue come to any resolution, even though God’s argument was anticipated in many of the things Elihu had said.

Proverbs 26:4-5 provides another example of biblical reasoning:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

The question is, How should one respond to a foolish person’s utterance? By “modern” logical standards the advice of the second couplet contradicts that given in the first. But the approach of biblical logic is to surround the question and bombard it from two directions at once.

A New Testament example of biblical logic appears in Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20. Paul’s argument for the certainty of resurrection seems to be circular. He asks, in effect, “How can you deny the resurrection, since we testify that Christ has been raised?” On the other hand, if there’s no resurrection then Christ has not been raised, after all. There’s no “logical” way out of this circle, so the escape is provided not by reasoning but by an event that demonstrates the power of God: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20).

Although the above may challenge some traditional assumptions regarding the message of the Bible, it is well to follow the example of the Jews of Beroea, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

For an extended version of this entry, see the study Biblical Logic and Interpretation on the Laudemont Ministries web site.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No Laughing Matter

The latest issue of a prominent Christian magazine includes a cartoon in which a self-satisfied man stands next to a wall with a no-smoking sign. He’s saying to his companion, “Don’t forget: we Christians were intolerant of smokers years before it caught on with the rest of society!”

I’m not sure what the editors’ purpose was in including this cartoon. Were they lampooning smug Christians who highlight their long-standing tobacco prohibition as a badge of honor, now vindicated? If so, the lampoon falls flat. I don’t see the point of making fun of someone who’s been right all along about a major social issue, regardless of his or her attitude. Would that more people would be right about such issues, despite popular trends!

I grew up as the son of a minister and college professor in a major Protestant denomination. Our church circles weren’t evangelical, by any means. In fact we belonged to the “modernist” wing. But there was a residue of piety in our ecclesiastical environment that ruled out the use of tobacco and, for that matter, alcohol. During my preteen and earlier teen years we didn’t even know people who smoked or drank. My parents wouldn’t patronize a restaurant where alcohol was served.

Once my brother and I found a pack of cigarettes someone had dropped on the sidewalk. My mother let us go upstairs in our garage and smoke the stale things, just to see what they were like. That was the end of it. And, through the years, my use of alcohol has been pretty much limited to receiving Holy Communion in liturgical churches, or perhaps sharing half a glass of wine with my wife once a year at an Italian restaurant.

These habits — or the lack thereof — go back to my childhood in that non-evangelical denomination where, at least, we got a few things right about healthy living. That was the 1950s, and that denomination has since moved even further away from Bible-believing faith. I’ve changed denominations since then, seeking an evangelical environment where our tithe money didn’t go to support Marxist revolutionaries in Africa. But the old no-smoking, no-drinking life style stays with me.

You can lampoon that no-smoking, no-drinking mentality if you want to, and call it hypocritical because it overlooks some other important issues. But that’s a shallow response. I remember debates in college where the question of hypocrisy came up in relation to these strictures. Somebody finally pointed out that few people are killed by drivers who are hypocrites, compared with those who die at the hand of drivers who drink. As for the harm that comes from the use of tobacco — you may not smoke yourself, but when you pay your taxes or your medical insurance premiums you’re paying for the societal costs generated by those who do.

Make fun of blowhards who pat themselves on the back because of their intolerance of smoking? Go ahead, but I wouldn’t call it a laughing matter. Christians, evangelical and otherwise, got some things right a half-century ago.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The New Hitler Youth

During the Nazi era in Germany all young people were required to join either the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) for boys or its sister organization, the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel). Members of both groups were indoctrinated in the National Socialist belief system, including its anti-Semitism and the motivation to fight for the official "party line" of the Hitler movement. Even young Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), growing up in Bavaria, was forced to join the Hitler Youth although his parents were bitterly opposed to Nazi policies.

A year or so ago my wife and I were guests for "Grandparents' Day" at the elementary school attended by two of our grandchildren. In the classroom session our granddaughter's teacher enthusiastically presented a unit on environmentalism, laying out all the life-style changes that were supposed to be good for the earth and counter the effects of global warming. The study materials gave no consideration to the possibility that man-made climate change was only a scientifically questionable theory; the teacher listed all the things children should do to play their part in the environmentalist movement.

Then, recently, I was speaking with an older granddaughter who attends high school. In her mind, global warming is a reality brought about by malevolent human activity. I suggested that a cycle of solar warming could be the cause of temperature increases on the earth, not the factors usually cited by environmentalists. I referred to the finding that temperature increases have also been detected on Mars. Our granddaughter insisted that people were responsible for global warming on Mars as well; no logic I applied to this view could convince her otherwise, so thoroughly has she been brainwashed.

Indoctrination of our young people, on a par with that of the Hitler Youth, is a reality today in our public school system. The purpose of this indoctrination is to soften children, and through them their parents, to the efforts of a ruling elite to force life-style changes upon the entire population of our nation. Once people accept the theory that human activity is creating global warming, it's a short step to the control of all facets of our life by a small cadre of ideologues. Not only environmental behavior but social and personal activity of all types, including issues of sexuality, will come under their purview.

In short, our public education system has become the New Hitler Youth. One can only hope that the indoctrination it offers will be about as effective as some of the other things it tries to teach.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Common English Errors

Listening to people talk, reading online email or forum messages, and even checking out some web sites I notice several recurrent errors in English usage.

One of the most common errors is to insert an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its, as in “She returned the item to it’s place.” The word it’s is a contraction for it is, but the proper form of the possessive pronoun is its, by analogy with his or hers (no apostrophe). Even some seasoned writers fail to make this connection.

A frequent mistake is to use lay in place of lie, as in “After supper I will lay down.” Lay is transitive; that is, it takes an object. You can lay something else down, but if you place yourself in a position of repose you lie down (intransitive). The confusion arises because lay is the past tense of lie, as in “Yesterday I lay down for a while.” The past tense of lay (transitive) is laid, as in “He laid the book on the table.”

Another error is to treat lead as a past-tense verb, as in “Then he lead me to the door.” The past tense of lead is led. “I will lead you now as I led you in the past.” The confusion no doubt arises from the pronunciation of lead as a name for a metal. (English is crazy, isn’t it?)

We often hear something like, “He was reticent to take that step.” The speaker meant, “He was reluctant,” that is, not eager to do something. The word reticent means to speak little, as in “She was reticent about her many accomplishments.”

Even news broadcasters and politicians commit a frequent speech error when they say something like, “The thing is, is she didn’t really say that.” There is no need for the repetition, is is. Do people not listen to themselves when they speak? If they did, they would recognize the redundancy. And they should recognize the error in “It was a good move for Michael and I.” Would one say, “a good move for I,” instead of “for me”?

How often have you heard something like, “So I brought him all his books and papers, eck-cetera,” taking the abbreviation etc. (Latin et cetera, “and the rest”) as though it were ect. or something similar. That brings up another error, the confusion of bring and take. We hear, “I’ll bring you over to Kristin’s house,” when the speaker is at Justin’s house. The speaker should have said, “I’ll take you over to Kristin’s house.” Only if the speaker were already at Kristin’s would she be correct to tell Justin, via telephone, “I’ll bring you over.” To bring means to transport someone, or something, from there to here. When transporting from here to there, the correct verb is take.

Another mistake is to assert that something is very unique. If a thing is unique it is, by definition, one of a kind, so there can’t be any degrees of uniqueness. It’s either unique, period, or it’s not unique at all.

My favorite overheard expression is, “It’s raining outside.” I’m tempted to say, “Thank goodness—it’s not raining inside.” Hopefully, all your rainstorms will deposit their precipitation on the exterior of your residence. If the situation is otherwise, call a roofer.

Monitor your speech and writing for these and other common errors. They can slip in when we’re not watching. As a friend of mine used to say, “Correct me if I’m not mistaken.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thinking Christianly About Gas Prices

A few decades ago an astute evangelical pastor recommended to me a book by the British author Harry Blamires entitled The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? A few weeks ago I finally acquired a used copy and began to read.

Blamires' thesis is that whenever Christians think and talk about anything other than specifically "Christian" issues they simply adopt the perspective of secular culture and debate the issues using the same criteria as non-Christian thinkers. The "Christian mind" no longer exists. That is, there is no longer a field of Christian discourse into which a Christian thinker can enter on such issues as politics, social policy, war, economics and the like. If an individual tries to bring a specifically Christian, or biblical, perspective to such public issues he or she is dismissed as a religious fanatic, someone who lives "in a world of his own."

Blamires, a student of C. S. Lewis, wrote 45 years ago. While today there are some forums where Christians can engage the overriding issues of our time from one or another Christian viewpoint (such as the periodical First Things), in the main the situation Blamires describes has probably worsened, rather than improved, within the Western world.

One example Blamires gives is a striking one, given the current upheaval in gasoline prices at the pump. Blamires asks if there is a way to think Christianly about something as mundane as a "petrol pump." He lists several questions a gasoline pump might raise for a Christian thinker, such as the degree to which automobiles have made us slaves of a mechanized order, whether it's right for a privileged few worldwide to enjoy the benefits of a motorized society, or whether our dependence on machinery has pulled us away from dependence on both the natural and supernatural orders.

Blamires' examples, reflecting the world of four decades ago, impress me as dated and almost trite. But the price-per-gallon on today’s "petrol pump' might be another matter. How do we think Christianly, or biblically, about a national average now well over $4.00 per gallon and climbing? I just tried to ask myself some questions that issue raises. The possible answers to these questions may seem contradictory, but this is only an exercise in "Christian" thinking about a "secular" issue.

(1) In a world where the price of gasoline exceeds $18.00 per gallon in some countries, what is the Christian's attitude toward paying only $4.00-plus? Is there a place for thanksgiving in the Christian's life, replacing the idea that we're somehow entitled to pay less than most of the rest of the world?

(2) Further, does a Christian recognize that the earth itself does not make a charge for the resources God has placed in it? Money is always paid to people, in this case all the people involved in the production and distribution of gasoline and the financing thereof. While the Christian, on biblical grounds, may be scandalized by the greed shown by speculators or Arab potentates, does he or she begrudge the prosperity of pension funds that have invested in oil for the benefit of their retirees?

(3) "A prudent man sees danger and hides himself; but the simple go on, and suffer for it" (Proverbs 22:3). Should more prudence have been applied when the Interstate highway system was constructed, resulting in the expansion of motor carrier traffic and the abandonment of a large proportion of the railroad network? The unintended consequence is that the transportation of goods is becoming more expensive, resulting in higher prices for food and other items. Now some major cities with no rail passenger service are in danger of losing their airline service as well. Can American voters show prudence today by electing leaders who will have the wisdom to take the long-range view that was lacking in the massive conversion to highway transportation?

(4) Finally, what about drilling? Environmentalists object to extracting oil from the "pristine wilderness" of ANWR. But what is there in the Christian perspective that exalts a wilderness? In the Bible the wilderness and its conditions are part of the curse upon the disobedient; God’s plan for His people takes the form of a city (Revelation 21). Mankind wasn't placed in a jungle but in a garden, and was told to "subdue the earth" (Genesis 1:28). Can a Christian support the environmentalist mantra about keeping wilderness areas "unspoiled," with the resulting effects on the price at the pump?

These are only a few of the possible Christian approaches to today's "petrol pump." As I said, the questions may point in different, even contradictory, directions. But it's time to bring the price of gasoline, along with other public issues, within the parameters of the Christian mind.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Appropriate Critical Criteria

A few days ago I received an email from a writer mentioning that in his former critique group he was the only male. He expressed a certain frustration that “chick lit” or other unsuitable criteria were being applied to the kind of writing he was doing.

I had a similar experience in a group I belonged to. I learned a lot from those female authors, and am a much better writer for their input. But occasionally I felt that a “women’s fiction” template was being placed over what I was trying to do with my story.

Listening to the local classical station today, I thought of an analogy. I admire the symphonies of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), frequently heard on that station. Having studied music history, I am aware that critics have sometimes considered Schumann a poor orchestrator — that is, he was not very imaginative about which instruments played which melodic lines.

But the interest in Schumann’s symphonies is not in the orchestration. His work exhibits a tremendous strength in the harmonization, the interplay of various musical ideas, and the development of the music until a climactic moment is achieved. That’s where the interest lies in Schumann’s type of composing, and re-orchestration of his works would hardly bring an improvement in their effect.

True, Schumann wasn’t a colorful orchestrator like Berlioz (1803-1869) or the later Elgar, Ravel and Mahler, whose symphonic works sparkle with fascinating instrumental effects. But there is little in symphonic literature to rival the excitement as Schumann’s Third Symphony (for example) builds to its conclusion. It’s an excitement of structure and melodic and harmonic interplay that would benefit little from a revised orchestration.

One might take this example to heart in the realm of writing. In applying a critique to a novelist’s chapter, the commentator needs to ask: What’s the writer’s purpose? Would adding certain details (such as character description, emotional response, and the like) contribute much to the overall effect? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But the question needs to be asked from the right perspective, and not through some popular critical grid.

I am thankful that Schumann’s music has survived his critics, to be enjoyed by discerning listeners to this day. May that be true of our good writing, whatever form it takes.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Plots that Underlie All Stories

Recently members of a writers' group to which I belong were discussing a 37-point typology of story plots that was apparently developed in the early 1800s by Georges Polti. Without going into detail regarding Polti's scheme, it seemed to me to be repetitive. For example, I didn't see any great difference between "a story about hating someone you should like" and "stories about hurting someone who turned out to be important to you." It seemed to me that, in discussing the typology of plots, something less complicated and more basic might be more helpful. Interestingly, I am currently reading Leland Ryken's The Literature of the Bible (Zondervan, 1974), in which the author begins by discussing plots that have typified literature from ancient times.

Ryken refers to the composite narrative, or monomyth, that in one phase or another incorporates all plots. The monomyth corresponds to familiar cycles of human experience, such as dawn – zenith – sunset – darkness or birth – triumph – death – dissolution. The monomyth comprises a continuum or cycle of romance – tragedy – anti-romance – comedy. (In these examples Ryken is following an article by Northrop Frye.)

To quote Ryken (page 23): "Romance is literature that describes an idealized picture of human experience. It satisfies our desire for wish fulfillment. Its opposite, anti-romance, presents a world of complete bondage and the absence of anything ideal. A story in which the action descends from romance to catastrophe is a tragedy, and an upward movement from bondage to freedom is comedy. These are the four possible kinds of literary plots, and together they form the circular monomyth that unifies all of literature."

Ryken further lists, on the same page, a number of archetypal motifs that tie into this typology: the journey, the quest, death-rebirth, initiation, and the scapegoat. Obviously a story can easily combine aspects of these motifs, e.g. the hero has to make an arduous journey (literally or, perhaps, figuratively) during which he experiences "initiation," i.e. he passes to a new level of understanding or maturity. Or the hero is a "scapegoat" but experiences "rebirth," i.e. he is vindicated or (as with Jesus) also literally raised from the dead (tragedy to comedy, or anti-romance to romance). But the monomyth and the archetypal motifs it uses seem to be constants in human experience and in literature that reflects it.

As a further thought, in working on my doctoral dissertation (completed 1972) I was asking, "What makes the Bible the Bible?" That is, what about the literature of the Bible made it recognizable as canonical Scripture, even from its first appearance? (I dealt only with the Old Testament.) I found several "theories of the canon." One theory was that Israelite literature was held to be canon because it evidenced a motif of "struggle and victory," i.e. the victory of the Lord and his people over obstacles such as enemies or sin. But on reflection I realized that this theory offered no great insight, since the actual course of historical events often displays this same motif or pattern. If we just write about life we are bound to develop some aspect or theme of the monomyth.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Love and Spirit – Two Words to Avoid

This will sound like heresy to Christian writers, but two words I believe we should drop from our normal vocabulary are love and spirit.

I suggest this drastic step because love and spirit have specific meanings in the Bible, but these are not the meanings contemporary culture assigns to these words. Simply to use them without putting them into the context of the biblical perspective is to distort them. Even if we quote a Bible passage that uses these words, we need to contextualize them so they won’t convey the wrong impression. Usually, it’s just better to avoid them entirely.

Take spirit, first of all, along with its derivative spiritual. Usually the word is a cover for something we can’t understand or explain. We can get out of dealing with the “nuts and bolts” of an issue if we can just flip it off into the realm of the “spirit,” where logic can’t touch it. Granted, our logic isn’t always reliable because it’s tied in with our cultural presuppositions. But that doesn’t excuse a lapse into the illogical, even the unobservable, and I fear that’s the effect of consigning a matter to the “spiritual” realm.

We tend to think of the spiritual as the invisible, but in Scripture the spiritual always has a visible manifestation. There has to be some perceptible evidence that spiritual factors are operative – in changed human behavior, for example, or (in the primal actions of Spirit, Genesis 1–2) the creation of a universe and of human life. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit mean “breath, wind,” and it’s only the translator’s judgment which English meaning to use. Spirit isn’t a “religious” word in the Bible; it refers to the “breath” that motivates that which lives and moves in observable ways. So, to avoid misunderstanding, in our writing let’s deal with those concrete actions and their motivation instead of shoving them under the “spiritual” rug.

More could be said, but let’s tackle love. I don’t need to point out the contemporary misuses of that term, which should be reason enough for Christian writers to delete it from their working lexicon. Once again, the Bible gives love a concreteness that contemporary usage lacks. I’ll give a Scriptural reference here from Psalm 103:17-18, “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” The Hebrew word is hesed, which refers to God’s covenant loyalty — His commitment to those who are committed to Him, and who demonstrate their faithfulness by their obedience.

I suggest that the agape love of the New Testament is a direct development from this Hebraic concept. It has an inherent relationship to the covenant between the Lord and His people, and to be outside that covenant is to be outside the realm of God’s directed love, or faithfulness. Otherwise why would Paul speak, in Romans 1, of those whom God “gave up” because they “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” — i.e., acknowledge Him as their “senior Partner” in the covenant?

So, in sum, love in the Bible is a commitment, a decision we make to be faithful to another. It isn’t the “warm fuzzy feeling” we have for somebody. But, sadly, Christian writers often use it that way or fail to explain what they really mean. Better to keep our usage of the word love to a bare minimum.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Conventional Unconventionality

There was a time, not so long ago — perhaps two or three generations — when most Americans did their best to conform to social norms of appearance, outward (at least) morality, and such values as patriotism and respect for religious faith. If you watch movies or TV reruns from the 1940s or 1950s, for example, you’ll note the men wearing suits, ties and the fedora hat; the women wearing highly stylized hairdos; and the characters exuding a pro-American stance with which even Senator Joseph McCarthy might have been pleased. Nobody, or almost nobody, wanted to stand out from the crowd with sloppy dress, bizarre grooming (or lack thereof), or the flaunting of behavior that went against conventional morality. The general tenor of the era was reflected in the novels of such writers as Lloyd C. Douglas, Frank G. Slaughter and Frances Parkinson Keyes.

Then came the 1960s and the onset of the “beatnik” era with its stress on nonconformity. In literature, novelists like Grace Metalious (Peyton Place) and D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) had already broken the taboos about what was suitable to put before the public, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had outlined the shape of the beatnik lifestyle of social nonconformity. Blue jeans, beards, long hair, the peace sign, anti-war protests and unrestrained sex signaled a new culture of the unconventional. To be conventional or conformist in the 1950s manner became the great sin. The “me generation” was born, given voice by Frank Sinatra’s memorable rendition of Paul Anka’s song: “I did it my way.”

And the me generation is still with us, with slogans like “Whatever turns you on,” “Be all you and be,” and “Have it your way.” In such a culture the logical reaction to the Wal-Mart clerk’s parting words, “Have a nice day,” would be, “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have!” Politicians try to make capital out of a supposed trait of being a “maverick,” and we’re told to “think outside the box” if we want to solve a problem. Someone who doesn’t want to “walk on the wild side” is a hopeless dork. So pervasive has become the culture of nonconformity that Richard John Neuhaus, in his commentary on opinions expressed in the media, frequently refers to “the herd of independent minds” — who, oddly enough, somehow seem to arrive independently at the same opinion.

And that’s the open secret about the cultural legacy of the “beat generation”: unconventionality is the new convention that no one dares defy.

Consider the area of clothing. Would you dare attend your “seeker” church wearing a suit and tie, or a nice dress from Bergner’s? No, let’s not be so conformist — let’s wear casual clothes, and tell the world how unconventional we are! Why, even the preacher wears jeans and a sweat shirt. Let’s be different, let’s be like him.

And if you’re a writer you wouldn’t want to write conventionally, in the manner of novelists of past generations. No, be unconventional! Get rid of old-style rhetorical phrases such as, “‘Let’s go,’” said Charlie.” It should be “‘Let’s go,” Charlie said.” Or, better yet, use a “beat”: “Charlie tugged at the door knob. ‘Let’s go.’” Avoid the passive voice: “Becky’s words were overlaid by the voice of the professor” should be “The professor’s voice overlaid Becky’s words.”

And avoid recondite, arcane terms that might not be understood by someone with only a fifth grade reading ability. Trying to raise the reader’s level of comprehension, as older writers sometimes did, is insulting. In a culture where everyone has a right to “be himself” (or herself), the reader has the right to remain ignorant. Trying to elevate the reader’s understanding would be too unconventionally conventional.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Musical Idiom in Christian Worship

The question of musical style or idiom in Christian worship can be a complicated issue. Within the same culture a variety of musical expressions may coexist, some of which are less suited for use in worship than others. In any culture, including that of the West, music that fails to convey the distinctive difference between biblical faith and prevailing values can be counterproductive when used in worship.

For example, Christian faith sees God as Creator acting through history to bring about the redemption of His people whom He loves. Music that is only cyclical — repetitive, such as New Age — runs counter to the biblical principal that history and events have a purpose and goal in God's redemptive plan. Some music from other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, seems to be of the repetitive sort — not progressing from "beginning" to "ending" as we know them from "classical" music. I wonder what message this kind of music would convey about biblical faith. On the other hand, we don't know much about Israelite or early Christian music. It was probably closer to traditional African or Asiatic music than to the modern Western idiom. But the Psalms, in the Bible's book of hymn texts, do progress from start to finish. As I said, it's a complicated issue.

Music that is consistently harsh, dissonant and disjointed, as with some contemporary types both popular and symphonic, can be taken as a statement that the universe and human life are meaningless. Such music denies the biblical perspective, which sees a coherent and purposeful universe created by divine intelligence. In the opening pages of J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion the author imagines Illúvatar's beautiful creation permeated by music, with its harmony marred by the discordant strains of the self-assertive Melkor. Tolkien's fantasy is a parallel to the traditional picture of Satan's rebellion (which owes more to Milton than to the Scriptures), but significantly relates discordant music to a compromise of the created order. One thinks immediately of Psalm 19: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork" — not through spoken words but through "their voice," which the hymn writer calls "the music of the spheres" (Maltbie D. Babcock, "This Is My Father’s World").

There is something to be said for making Christian music, anywhere, different from what is heard in the streets or popular media. The holy God — Scripture is clear — is "set apart" from the profane; the true sense of His presence partakes of the numinous, or a mysterious otherness. The New Testament, in its portrayal of Jesus, brings the awareness of God's presence into the realm of human personhood and the intimate indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But it's still true that the New Testament retains a sense of the overwhelming, supramundane majesty of God as One not to be trifled with. We see this, for example, in the Revelation to John.

Music that is just like what people hear on the radio or download to their iPods can't convey this transcendent mystery. Worship music needs to bear a certain "exalted" quality, especially where it is directly addressed to the Lord — as far more of it should be. Some types of music just can't bring across this sense of exaltation. For that reason, in my opinion, popular Hispanic or American country music, to mention just a few examples, are inadequate media for Christian worship. I wonder if the overpowering electronic blast of contemporary popular-style music in some "seeker" churches also works against a sense of God’s transcendence. For that matter the trite musical idiom of the evangelical "gospel song," contemporary a century ago, now sounds dated, shallow and focused on me rather than on God.

There are those who seem to believe that when a Christian worship environment isn't "contemporary" people get the idea that the faith isn't relevant, and aren't drawn to the gospel. But was Jesus' preaching "contemporary" or did it challenge the presuppositions and expectations of His contemporaries? Sometimes the gospel needs to be presented in ways that pull people out of their cultural milieu — not immerse them in it. A "different" kind of music might be part of that proclamation.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Poet Rediscovered?

In 2003 I was asked to help compile a book of readings on heaven, to be titled The Contemporaries Meet the Classics on Heaven. My responsibility was to collect readings from the “classics” — which, essentially, covered everyone before C. S. Lewis! The book was eventually published, late in 2007, by Howard Books (Simon & Schuster) under the title A Glimpse of Heaven (see panel at right).

In my research on this book I encountered the devotional writings of Anna Shipton (1815-1901), who flourished in England the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century. She published more than a dozen works of devotional narrative or poetry. C. H. Spurgeon included texts by Anna Shipton in a hymnal produced for his church in London, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and D. L. Moody was fond of quoting her verse. Her best-known title seems to have been Whispers in the Palms, a book of hymns and meditations, which first appeared in 1855 and was reprinted at least four times. Other titles include Hidden Springs, Precious Gems for The Saviour's Diadem, The Sure Mercies of David, Watch-Tower in the Wilderness and Waiting Hours.

The popular devotional Streams in the Desert (first published 1925) includes a selection by Anna Shipton, and a translated text of hers even found its way into a German hymnal published in 1931. The twentieth century, however, seemed to have largely forgotten this author. At the time I was researching what became A Glimpse of Heaven little information about her was available on the Internet, or even in the Wheaton College library (although the library did have a copy of Whispers in the Palms). I could not even track down the year of her birth.

Now, five years later, Anna Shipton’s fortunes seem to be recovering. A search engine query on “anna shipton” yields seventeen pages of links, most of which refer to this writer. Her book “Tell Jesus”: Recollections of Emily Gosse is available from Greater Truth Publishers, and Whispers in the Palms is available online from Google. I was even able, finally, to discover the year of her birth though I have not encountered any biographical information.

One would not be inclined to number Anna Shipton among the great writers of the nineteenth century, but her work was well known in Christian circles in both Britain and the United States and was, evidently, a blessing to many. What I wrote of Fannie J. Crosby in A Glimpse of Heaven might well be said of Anna Shipton: “Although she is not judged an outstanding poet, the simplicity and earnestness of her verse have endeared her songs to Christian worshipers.”

So it is good to note some renewed interest in Anna Shipton’s work. The following is an example of her devotional poetry, from Whispers in the Palms:

          The Soul’s Alarum

     Arouse thee, laggard Soul — awake — awake!
          Rise and depart, for this is not thy rest;
     Bend meekly down, and then as bravely take
          The Cross, God lays on thee. Tho' sore distrest
     And weary be thy way, fear not ! Look up —
          He mighty is to save! He whispers, “Come.”

     Another wine shall fill thy brimming cup,
          In the bright mansions of thy Father’s home.
     To hosts of Heaven, unseen by mortal eye,
          He giveth charge, to fence, to guard thy ways:
     They do their Master's bidding joyfully,
          And mark each triumph with a song of praise;
     Not for their sins He died — He did not take
     His cross to bear for them. — Arise, oh Soul, awake!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Reader as Co-Creator

When I was a child—in the late 1940s and early 1950s—I used to enjoy listening to the radio on Sunday evenings. That was back in the days when radio had "programs," and my ear was glued to the entertainment parade headed by The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Because this was radio, I had no idea what the scenes or the characters looked like. So I had to imagine them for myself.

Later on, when I saw movies of Harold Peary (or his replacement, Willard Waterman) as Gildersleeve, I had to adjust my mental images of him and the other characters in the show. But, interestingly, the adjustment was not a major one. What I, as the listener, had created almost matched what I saw on the screen.

I think a good novel is like that. The author doesn’t need to describe everything. He or she is "telling a story," not writing a screenplay. It is the reader’s responsibility to fill in the gaps with his imagination. The reader cooperates with the author in creating the story.

In Walking on Water (Harold Shaw, 1980), Madeleine L’Engle wrote: "The reader, viewer, listener usually grossly underestimates his importance. If a reader cannot create a book along with the writer, the book will never come to life. Creative involvement: that’s the basic difference between reading a book and watching TV. In watching TV we are passive; sponges; we do nothing. In reading we must become creators."

I belong to a critique group, and frequent comments about my fiction writing could be, "Don’t tell me, show me," "Nothing is happening; I’m pulled out of the story," or "Let me see his reaction to what she said." I am very sorry, dear friends. The reader who is easily "pulled out" of the story, or who has to be "shown" everything, isn’t the reader I’m writing for. I’m writing for the reader who will be a co-creator with me, who will involve himself in setting the scene and thinking in behalf of the dramatis personae. Only in this way would my novel be a memorable one.

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media (McGraw-Hill, 1964), distinguished between "cool" and "hot" media. His intuition runs counter to what we might suppose. Television is a "cool medium" because it presents itself to both sound and sight, limiting the need for the viewer’s creative involvement. Radio, on the other hand, is a "hot medium" because it encourages the listener’s imagination. Perhaps that explains why TV today is such a wasteland of sensationalist "news," shallow comedy, predictable suspense and pharmaceutical ads—while "talk radio" has captured the attention of millions.

A screenplay is "cool;" telling a good story is "hot." When the reader participates in the creative process he takes away more from the story than he would if everything were laid out for him, because he has built part of the story in his own head. I can still remember the "scenes" I mentally created for The Great Gildersleeve; Fred Allen and Allen’s Alley; Mr. Keen; Tracer of Lost Persons; The Shadow; Fibber McGee and Molly; and others. They live on in my consciousness because I was involved in creating them.