Empire of Liberty – USA from 1789-1815 (Review)

The stories of the Revolutionary War and that of the Civil War are both fascinating to any fan of history.  Last year I enjoyed reading the entries from the Oxford History of the United States on each of those two time periods.  I figured it was about time to read about what happened in the interim, so I read through Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

It was fantastic.

Here are a few of the things I took away from this great book:

*When people say “the Founding Fathers believed” they either ignore or forget the fact that the founding fathers were diverse and had different views.

*I was surprised that so many in early America expected there to eventually be a king, and that most were okay with that.

*I really liked Alexander Hamilton, he came out of this as my favorite founding father.  On the other hand, Wood made Washington appear kind of as a weak president, being pulled between Hamilton on one side and Jackson on the other.  In other words, I do not feel like I knew Washington better after this book, but you really get to know Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison.

*I already knew I would like the religious history chapter, but I was surprised how interesting I found the chapters on economics and judiciary.  The chapter telling of the growth of the Supreme Court and the story of John Marshall was interesting.

*I also enjoyed learning more about the war of 1812.

*Finally, the existence of slavery in early America continues to blow my mind.  It is depressing how so many who spoke so highly of freedom and liberty did not pass this to the slaves.  Further, it was incredibly sad to learn that right after the revolution most in the south thought slavery would just end but a variety of reasons led to the growth and defense of slavery to new levels.


Defending Calvinism: Being Grateful For the Good Rather Then Fleeing From the Name

I am very grateful for the work of Ben Corey.  His blog is one that I frequently read and often find myself “liking” his posts on Facebook.  I found his book Undiluted to be challenging, well-written and all around fantastic.  And his podcast, That God Show, with Matthew Paul Turner is fun and interesting.

So I was surprised to find myself disappointed with his recent post calling on people to flee from Calvinism.  To be clear – I am not a Calvinist.  If anything I am probably quite close to Corey in my theology.  I have many issues with much theology that goes by the name Calvinism, which I will not get into here.  But I also realize that “Calvinism” is a blanket term that covers a lot of people and movements.

For Corey to say you ought to flee from “Calvinism” because some segments, specifically those in the “young, restless and reformed” world, are damaging seems overly simplistic.  Ought we do the same to any other group?  Would Corey be okay with a warning to flee Anabaptism due to a few examples on the worst side of it?  Do we jettison Christianity as a whole because of a few segments that are awful?

To be fair, the sort of Calvinism that Corey seems to be targeting, which has been labelled is the most vocal in the evangelical world right now.  It is easy to equate all Calvinism with these so-called New Calvinists.  That said, a writer of Corey’s stature, someone pursuing a doctoral decree, owes more to the Christian community.

While I am not a Calvinist, I have been greatly blessed by the work of many Calvinists.  Whatever you think of Calvinism, there is much good in there.

1. Marilynne Robinson – She’s one of the best novelists living today and her books of essays, such as When I Was a Child I Read Books, are fantastic.  If you haven’t read Gilead and its sequels you must.

2. James K.A. Smith – He has become one of my favorite authors and his books have a ton to offer, from summarizing the work of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor to a slightly different (or at least not well-known enough) spin on Calvinism.

3. John BunyanPilgrim’s Progress is a classic that all Christians should read.

4. John Newton – Once a slave trader, ended up being one of the first to speak out against that evil.  Greatly influenced Wilberforce and is most known for the hymn Amazing Grace.

5. Tim Keller – His books and sermons illustrate how a pastor can also be a thoughtful theologian and apologist; the success of his church in NY city is impressive.  His book The Reason for God is still my favorite apologetic work.

6. Alvin Plantinga – He is probably the top living Christian philosopher.  His works are demanding, the few I have read have made my brain hurt.  Any Christian would benefit from wrestling with his work.  I hope to finally read his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, this summer.

7. John Calvin – The man who started it all!  I read his classic work The Institutes of Christian Religion a few years back.  There were times I got so mad I wanted to throw it across the room!  But I also found it encouraging and challenging.  Of all the Christian “classics” I have read, I was most impressed by the style of writing.  This book was clearly written for normal people to read and learn from.

8. Pine Springs Camp – Moving from writers, I worked at this camp in Western PA for two summers in college.  It was one of the most influential and life-shaping experiences of my life.  Had I “fled” from the Calvinism of this place, I would have been the one at loss.  It was also here that I first learned what Calvinism was, being introduced to TULIP, which I thought was nuts.  But in the midst of disagreement, lots of good was done.  The number of individual persons here whose life and work impacted me would be too long to list.

9. Jubilee – I never attended this conference for college students while in college, but I have taken students there.  I can’t say it is the best conference for college students, but it is fantastic and unique.  The focus is not, like so many conferences, on just getting kids fired up for Jesus.  Instead the focus is helping them think through their major and career in relationship with their faith.


Should Christians Watch Game of Thrones? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

Game of Thrones is a gritty television show filled with violence and sex, as well as some fantastic storytelling.  Whenever I talk with students about shows and movies we are watching, they are a bit surprised that I watch Game of Thrones.

My usual retort is that I read the books before they were cool!  I remember heading to the campus bookstore to pick up A Storm of Swords during my senior year.  That was not only the last good book in the series, but that was quite a long time ago!  Little did I know at the time that this fantasy series I was slightly embarrassed to be seen reading then would become tremendously popular in my thirties.

But the nudity!  Shouldn’t that be enough to preclude Christians from watching Game of Thrones?

(Interestingly, the violence is never really an issue as we American Christians love our violence. But anyway.)

The nudity and sex was the big reason John Piper recommended not watching the show last year.  Much of the nudity is unnecessary and, I assume, just there to further entice people to watch.  My evidence for this is the comment section of any review of the show, especially ones without any nudity, as person after person complains about the lack of skin.  Shouldn’t the story be enough to get viewers?

At the same time, this way of critiquing art seems a bit too simple.  When Christians approach a movie or show our response should be more thoughtful then counting bodies (nude or dead) and cuss words.  To judge a piece of art as good or bad based on such tallies misses so much.

An example of a better way to judge art is seen in this great article: “Think Religion is Dead? Just look at Game of Thrones.”  The author looks at what the story says about religion and how this reflects thinking about religion in our world:

What academics loftily call “the secularization thesis” is by now so dead it is almost disrespectful to speak ill of it. Here are its contours: Back in modernity, it was taken for granted that religion would gradually die away, replaced by the logical matters of reason and politics, something we should have managed by now. As we became more enlightened, we’d obviously become less religious, right?

But here we are in the 21st century, and religion shows few signs of slowing. People channeling and claiming the raw power of the gods is barely even surprising anymore. ISIS, for instance, is just our backdrop.

North Americans have an entertaining habit of working out our anxieties about religion on TV. And this season of “Game of Thrones” is as great a catharsis as secularization zealots can hope for.

The world of “Game of Thrones” definitely doesn’t seem secular: There are dragons, curses, undead frozen zombies, magical beasties of all sorts. But those things have only recently reemerged into Westeros and its world that was, until the beginning of the series, a rather reasonably secular age.

The political drama in “Game of Thrones” actually neatly parallels what goes on in the secular West. The capital lives in a kind of cloistered secular innocence, where games of power, intrigue, sex – oh, so much sex – have an almost innocent secular quality.

While the capital whores and gambles and drinks itself into comfortable complacency, the “White Walkers” (frozen zombies, for real) ride. Government, absorbed in an apocalyptic liquidity crisis (the parallels to our world getting eerie), dismisses reports from North of the Wall of this resurgence of presumed-dead religion.

When you watch a movie or show (or read a book or listen to music) do not turn your brain off.  Think about what the message is, what this story is saying and how it may relate to the real world.  This is part of what it means to “love God with all your mind.”

So, should a Christian watch Game of Thrones?   I do not recommend it to people for reasons far beyond the sex scenes – it is an incredibly dark and disturbing show on many levels.  Ultimately though, I cannot answer whether you should or should not watch this or that show.  Every person is different. Some Christians are so disturbed by violent images that they cannot watch many popular shows today that other Christians are okay with.  There are some things that are totally out of bounds for Christians, such as pornography.  On the other hand, much “Christian” art is totally absent of sex and violence but the stories are banal and just bad.

The choice is yours.   I think Matthew Paul Turner, in a response to Piper’s post, sums it up well:

Should Christians watch Game of Thrones? That depends on the Christian. It’s certainly not a show for everybody. At times, it’s violent. Sometimes it’s dreadfully slow. On occasion, it’s sensationalizes the sexual deviance of its characters. And there are dragons. But it’s also quite self aware. Many of its protagonists are very much aware of their demons. Sometimes they fight them. Sometimes they let them have their way. It’s very much a story about humanity (with dragons and zombie-like creatures called white walkers). And like most stories about humanity, there’s a lot of chaos, and occasionally, in the middle of chaos, clothes are optional.

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (Review)

Rachel Held Evans has been called the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism.  Whether that is true or not, she is certainly one of the most talented writers in evangelicalism today.  Her new book, Searching for Sunday, is a pleasure to read.  At times I was reminded of other great writers, like Frederick Buechner and Anne Lamott.  Evans manages to weave together personal stories with reflections on faith for a successful and engaging book.

What I most appreciated about Evans’ story, as she shared about growing up in conservative evangelicalism to questioning many of the deeply held beliefs leading to her moving away from the church of her youth, was her grace to her past.  In the book she managed to walk a razor’s edge of being critical of her evangelical upbringing while also being very grateful for it.  She is quite critical at times, but it comes across clearly that even as she moves away from the community of her youth she still appreciates the positive impact they had on her life.  Along with that, she is honest that she does not have it all figured out now, either.  Joining an Episcopal church, she shares, was a huge blessing for her but she does not imply that she has arrived or finished the journey.

Many people Evans’ age and younger have experienced similar things and many of them have walked away from church and not gone back.  Evans’ experience echoes that of her (our? I am only a few years older!) peers.  She clearly is desperate for the evangelical gatekeepers to listen to the stories of those who have walked away as she cares deeply for them and sees so many being hurt.

Working with college students, I could see this as a book that many could find very helpful.  I meet student after student who grew up in the church, still has some belief in God, but is not interested in being part of a church.  Perhaps some will drift back after college, but many will not.  I think Evans is a voice, and a good enough writer, to gain a hearing.

There are parts of this book that are controversial.  This is the sort of review I get nervous writing.   My salary does come from generous donations from churches and individuals, after all!  What if someone reads it and does not like what I say, or do not say, about it?

Of course I do not agree with everything she writes, while some things I am not sure about and others I nod in agreement.  All I can say is that I do not agree with everything in any book I read!  But I certainly do not want to just read books that serve as echo chambers so I am constantly affirmed in my current state of mind.  Books where I disagree a bit, or at least ones that make me think, are my favorites.  And learning to appreciate Christians we may disagree with on things is, well it seems like it is kind of the whole point.  That’s what church is – people who disagree on everything else coming together around Jesus.

At least that is what the church ought to be.

Should Christians be searching for further Experiences of the Holy Spirit? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.


Is the baptism of the Holy Spirit an altogether separate event from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit upon conversion?

Follow up: Are the gifts of the Spirit as listed in 1 Cor. 12/14, for every believer or those whom have been baptized in the Spirit?

This is clearly a question of interest for Christians and not secular people.  Christian belief in the Trinity teaches that there is one God who exists as three equal persons.  The first person, God the Father, sends the second person, God the Son into the world.  Jesus then is the human face of God, God in the flesh (incarnation).  When Christians today put faith in Jesus and are baptized, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us (indwells).

But is there a further experience of the Holy Spirit we should expect?

Honestly, this is not an issue I’ve really ever worried about or thought about.  The ways the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit differ.  Some Christians parse out, or seek to systematize, these differences, leading to conclusions that there is a second blessing of the Spirit, a baptism of the Holy Spirit, at a time after conversion.  I think such nuances are practically unnecessary, akin to splitting hairs.

So my answer to the first question above would simply be a combination of “I don’t know” and “I don’t think it matters.”  When I read that question, it sounds like an attempt to mechanize the work of God in the world.  It is an attempt to take the messiness of a life lived following Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, and make it a formula.  Along with that, I think such debates are rooted in an over-emphasis on spiritual experiences and feelings.

Here’s what happens: A person is baptized as a Christian but does not feel any different.  So, they are told, they need some further experience in which they will be baptized in the Spirit.  But once that experience too comes and goes, I fear people wander through life looking for the next experience, and the one after that, and so on.  The danger is that such a Christian may feel something is wrong with them, for they do not feel like they did when they were baptized in the Spirit, or at that retreat or revival.  The truth is, there is nothing wrong!  It is just that normal life following Jesus is filled with lots of mundane moments and spiritual highs are not the norm.

Living with God is to live in a relationship and human relationships cannot be reduced to easy formulas.  Take marriage.  I enjoy cooking dinner and my wife greatly appreciates this.  You may even say that me cooking dinner = happy wife.  For me though, cooking dinner includes a vigorous cleaning of the kitchen afterwards.  I struggle to relax the rest of the evening if dishes are not cleaned or in dishwasher, table is not wiped, leftovers not put away.  Most times my wife is fine with this.  But there are times when my cleaning obsession irritates her.  She wants me to just leave the mess for later so we can take a walk with the kids or go out for ice cream.  In cases such as these my formula (cooking dinner and cleaning up = happy wife), actually fails and may lead to an upset wife.

If you allow a formula or a mechanism to replace a real relationship of love and communication, you are missing the life God desires for you.

In Jesus we have everything we need.  I do not think you need some further experience or indwelling or baptism of the Spirit.  You put your trust in Jesus and are charged to follow Jesus, to go into the world.  So just go and do it.  

The Spirit is your strength as you go, but the Spirit does not come in magical ways.  The Spirit is akin to fuel for the journey and I think we experience the Spirit in a million little ways – reading some scripture in the wee morning hours, worshiping with the saints on Sunday morning, sharing a beer with the saints around a cookout on a Sunday night, serving at a soup kitchen, dropping off food for a new mother or a grieving widow, helping a neighbor repair a fence, praying on the way to work…

The Spirit is always there.  We have all we need in Jesus.  Let’s not over think it (though late night theological debates about the Spirit are not bad, and can also be places to meet the Spirit). Let’s just go do it.

PS. I never answered the second question.  I think we are all naturally gifted in certain areas and not others but I also think you can pursue new gifts (as 1 Corinthians 12:31 says, eagerly desire greater gifts). But even here I think we ought to beware of simple formulas.  Not every spiritual gift is listed here.  Further, it would be a shame, though just like us living in a scientific culture, to take this beautiful poetic writing and make it a to-do list.

Drunkeness, Weddings and Taking Part in Sin

When faced with the question of baking a cake for the wedding of two women, some Christian bakers have refused.  They cite their Christian faith, arguing that they cannot take part in something God has condemned.  Others argue you should not even attend a gay wedding.

A ton of questions flurry around this – should they be fined?  Is this infringing on their religious freedom?  Bring this topic up at a holiday picnic and watch the sparks fly.

I was at a wedding a few weeks back.  It was a wonderful time seeing two great people, one a former student, commit their lives to each other.  Like many weddings, this one had an open bar and the beer, wine and mixed drinks flowed freely.

I couldn’t help but think of some of the controversy with gay weddings and wonder if these bakers have denied their services to weddings that had open bars?  After all, here is just a sampling of what the Bible says about drunkeness:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, – Ephasians 5:18

Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:21

Nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:10

Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags. – Proverbs 23:20-21

Whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding. – Hosea 4:11

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. – 1 Corinthians 5:11

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. – Romans 13:13

This is just a sampling, there are many more that speak of drunkenness negatively (though there are many that speak positively of drinking alcohol too).  From this I gather that to be consistent, if you truly did not want to take part in sin, you would have to refuse to bake a cake or attend any wedding that served alcohol.  Or, on the other hand, if you’ve baked cakes for those weddings, just bake the cake for the lesbian one too.


The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (Review)

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the Cappadocian Fathers, three Christian thinkers whose work was tremendous in the solidification of orthodoxy int he late 300s.  But they did not just write heady theological tomes, they also wrote profound works on spiritual life.  One of the best is the Life of Moses by Gregory.

If you want a great example of allegorical interpretation then you have to read this book.  Nearly every event in Moses’ life is shown to point to something deeper and more profound.  For early Christians like Gregory there was a literal sense of scripture, what it said.  But this was just the beginning, the real meat of scripture came in the spiritual sense through allegorical interpretation.  When we learned about this in seminary many seemed to scoff, as if allegorical interpretation meant anything goes.  The fear, or stereotype, was that the only limit here was the author’s imagination.

Truly, some interpretations can be a bit wacky.  But what holds this together is the focus on Jesus Christ.  Down to this day many Christians speak of Jesus on every page of scripture.  Writers like Gregory take the step to show how Jesus is on every page of scripture.  So if you want a glimpse of how this interpretation works, check out Gregory.

The other value of this book is Gregory’s idea of eternal progress.  For Gregory, only God is perfect and infinite  What this means, for us, is that our growth towards perfection – towards being like God, the process of sanctification – lasts forever.  We never arrive.  We are constantly growing for all eternity,  As Gregory puts it:

“The Divine One is himself the Good…whose very nature is goodness….Since, then, it has not been demonstrated that there is any limit to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an opposite, we hold the divine nature to be unlimited and infinite. Certainly whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue. Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless. It is therefore undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection, since as I have said, perfection is not marked off by limits: The one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit”

One of my students stumbled on to this idea years ago, comparing our growth in Christ as to as asymptote in mathematics.  This idea is strongly put forth in one of my all-time favorite books, David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.  It is moving and challenging.  I find it to be a true account of things, and incredibly encouraging.  It is encouraging because every little baby step we take today puts us further along the path towards God, a path, an adventure, we will be on forever.