Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some Views of Dante's Paradise

Unsurprisingly, charts and artistic renditions of Dante's Paradiso are much more difficult to find than Purgatory or Hell.  But here are a few attempts at it.

Interestingly, one I found is unavailable in the public domain, but is available by special permission here.


The Celestial Rose (at the very top of Paradise):

Doré, Celestial Rose

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Philip Schaff's Reflections on Martin Luther's Trial

Luther’s testimony before the Diet [of Worms, 1521] is an event of world-historical importance and far-reaching effect. It opened an intellectual conflict which is still going on in the civilized world. He stood there as the fearless champion of the supremacy of the word of God over the traditions of men, and of the liberty of conscience over the tyranny of authority.

For this liberty, all Protestant Christians, who enjoy the fruit of his courage, owe him a debt of gratitude. His recantation could not, any more than his martyrdom, have stopped the Reformation; but it would have retarded its progress, and indefinitely prolonged the oppressive rule of popery.

When tradition becomes a wall against freedom, when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death.

At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history. This consideration furnishes the key for the proper appreciation of Luther’s determined stand at this historical crisis.

Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced. The liberty of conscience was theoretically and practically asserted by the Christians of the ante-Nicene age, against Jewish and heathen persecution; but it was suppressed by the union of Church and State after Constantine the Great, and severe laws were enacted under his successors against every departure from the established creed of the orthodox imperial Church. These laws passed from the Roman to the German Empire, and were in full force all over Europe at the time when Luther raised his protest. Dissenters had no rights which Catholics were bound to respect; even a sacred promise given to a heretic might be broken without sin, and was broken by the Emperor Sigismund in the case of Hus.

This tyranny was brought to an end by the indomitable courage of Luther.

Liberty of conscience may, of course, be abused, like any other liberty, and may degenerate into heresy and licentiousness. The individual conscience and private judgment often do err, and they are more likely to err than a synod or council, which represents the combined wisdom of many. Luther himself was far from denying this fact, and stood open to correction and conviction by testimonies of Scripture and clear arguments. He heartily accepted all the doctrinal decisions of the first four oecumenical Councils, and had the deepest respect for the Apostles’ Creed on which his own Catechism is based. But he protested against the Council of Constance for condemning the opinions of Hus, which he thought were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Roman Church itself must admit the fallibility of Councils if the Vatican decree of papal infallibility is to stand; for more than one oecumenical council has denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic, and even Popes have confirmed the condemnation of their predecessor. Two conflicting infallibilities neutralize each other.

Luther did not appeal to his conscience alone, but first and last to the Scripture as he understood it after the most earnest study. His conscience, as he said, was bound in the word of God, who cannot err. There, and there alone, he recognized infallibility. By recanting, he would have committed a grievous sin.

One man with the truth on his side is stronger than a majority in error, and will conquer in the end. Christ was right against the whole Jewish hierarchy, against Herod and Pilate, who conspired in condemning him to the cross. St. Paul was right against Judaism and heathenism combined, "unus versus mundum;" St. Athanasius, "the father of orthodoxy," was right against dominant Arianism; Galileo Galilei was right against the Inquisition and the common opinion of his age on the motion of the earth; Döllinger was right against the Vatican Council when, "as a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen," he protested against the new dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.

That Luther was right in refusing to recant, and that he uttered the will of Providence in hearing testimony to the supremacy of the word of God and the freedom of conscience, has been made manifest by the verdict of history.

-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7: The German Reformation 1517-1530; Chapter III, Section 56.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Child Is This: Who is this Kid anyway?

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
I had originally intended to use this series of posts as devotional reflections through a Christmas carol, but as I've been watching comments, posts, and stories make the rounds on Facebook, I've decided to turn at least part of this post in a more polemic direction.
I tend to have two different sets of friends on Facebook. One set is largely composed of people met in undergrad and have recently reconnected with, who tend to be atheist and highly educated (graduate level or higher). This set tends to view Christmas as at best a leftover pagan ritual that Christians adopted and still superstitiously upheld. I will not be dealing with this set of friends here (maybe in a later post, I don't know).

The other set tends to be people that I either knew in high school or have met in grad school in the DC area. This set of friends runs the gamut of education, from high school dropouts to terminal degree holders of various sorts. What unites this set of friends seems to be the believe that a war is being waged on Christmas, if not by President Obama specifically, then at least by liberalism in general. It is to this group that I would like to point out two things:

1) It is very important not to confuse the general hostility of the world to Christianity (which we should fully expect to be the case anyway) with the question of whether or not Congressmen can put "Merry Christmas" in official mailings. The latter is merely a political argument over rituals of state, which we as Christians can in good conscience go either way on.
We absolutely must remember that the world does not hate Christians because we like our society to have December 25 off as a holiday, or because we say "Merry Christmas" instead of the perfectly acceptable "Happy Holidays", or even because we sing along with the month of Christmas carols that somehow ends up starting a week earlier every year. The world hates Christians because the message of Christianity to the world is "you are sinful and deserve to burn forever in hell, and the only way to get out of it is to believe that someone else has already done all the work necessary to save you from it." That is the source of tension, and it happens to be something that runs all year long in every country and even in every person. And that, in turn, leads to the fact that

2) This is not worth our effort or attention. At least, not much of it. Traditionally, Christmas is the time when we remember the Incarnation. We remember that God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. "What child is this" the song asks? "This, this is Christ, the King." The God who we have angered, the God who is our rightful King, whom we have rebelled against, became a man so that He could live the perfect life that you and I and every other person who has ever existed should have lived, and die the sinful death that every one of us deserved to die, so that if we repent of our sins and believe in this good news, that life and that death count as our own and we are made right with God. A great exchange takes place in which all our sin is counted as "paid in full" because of Christ's death on the cross, and all of our life is counted as "perfectly virtuous" because of Christ's life. This message is infinitely more offensive than putting "Merry Christmas" on your Facebook wall, or a nativity scene on a town hall lawn, or even a Ten Commandments display in a courtroom. And spreading this message is worth our effort and attention, every ounce and second of both that we can possibly muster.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I suspect that some of my friends are fighting the wrong battle (however good their intentions might otherwise be). Rather than working to keep the trappings of Christmas from slipping out of mainstream political culture, we should be working to be more offensive by telling people the truth about what Child this is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: Why Church Matters by Joshua Harris

Why Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of GodWhy Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of God by Joshua Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book by Joshua Harris (formerly titled Stop Dating the Church!: Fall in Love with the Family of God) is a little primer on, appropriately, why church matters.

To that end, a few observations:

1) this book is only written for Christians. Of course non-Christians are welcome to attend church on Sunday mornings, even encouraged to do so. But there is no obligation on someone who does not self-identify as a Christian to join a local church.

2) if you are a Christian and are not active in a local church, you're probably struggling with pride. Or, even more likely, not struggling with pride. (Of course, Harris is too much the gentleman to come out and say that explicilty, but I'm a nobody reviewer and can say what I like, bwahahahaha!) Among the many things the church is intended to do, God has set it in place to help take care of us, and for us to live out our faith by helping to take care of others. If we are not doing that, we are, in practice if not openly in our words, telling God that he has made a mistake and that we do not need the body of people he has prepared for our good.

And really, those are the big points. Beyond that Harris discusses things like how to spot a good local church, how to support the local church, and how to get the most out of local church (not from a consumer perspective, but rather from the perspective of a Christian who wants to reflect the Gospel in his own life).

Highly recommended as a starting place for thinking about our lives together as Christians.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bookroll! Ancient History Edition

I minored in Ancient history in undergrad, and, in my more honest moments, I admit I probably should have majored in it. Not that I'm dissatisfied with political science, it's just that in undergrad I spent far more time discussing/reading/sitting in class and learning about the Ancient world than I did any single political topic (and possibly more than all political topics put together, though I haven't gone back and looked at my schedule to try to figure it out). Even now I haven't given up my delight in the Classical world, and as soon as I'm done flogging the politics out of the good Reverend Edwards, I fully intend to get back to my first love.

So, with all that having been said, this is a list of books from or about the ancient world that 1) I've read myself; 2) I wish more people would read; 3) aren't so difficult that they couldn't just be picked up and read by anyone, whether they've got a history background or not. To simplify things, I will not be including philosophy, religion, or fiction on this list. History only!

1) Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. This book is simply a must-read. Suetonius was some form of minor functionary in the Roman government, but the kind of bureaucrat that got access to the Imperial archives. Which meant that he could read all about all the terrible things that Roman Emperors had done, and write about them (after he got caught and got fired, and had some leisure time on his hands). Suetonius tries his hardest to give each emperor a fair shake, listing first the good things they did, and then chronicling their much more numerous vices.

2) Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian. Arrian was one of the first military historians, and is the primary source (along with Plutarch, see below) for our knowledge of Alexander the Great. While Arrian isn't necessarily a spectacular writer himself, he's interesting enough to keep the narrative flowing. Besides, Alexander the Great is the single most interesting figure in the ancient world, and it's almost a given that a book about him is going to be fantastic.

3) Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch. Plutarch was a philosopher and pagan priest who wrote a great many books, all of which are worthy of attention (his essay on "Talkativeness" is fantastic, he argues that talkativeness is a sin because it can never be satisfied), but his biographies are really the place to start. In the Parallel Lives, Plutarch pairs up Greeks and Romans, comparing their accoplishments and commenting on their similarities and differences. Cicero, Demosthenes, Caesar, and Alexander the Great all make appearances. Even better, these biographies aren't written as a narrative whole. so you can go through and pick out the ones you want to read and pass over the rest, without missing anything.

4) Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius. Polybius was a Greek prisoner of war being held by the Romans, and had a front row seat to the destruction of Carthage. He wrote this history to explain to the Greeks why it was that Rome was the up-and-comer in the world, while their own cities languished or even collapsed. Mostly dealing with Hannibal and the Punic War, this is one of the most readable books from the ancient world and is well worth a look, especially book 5, which covers the battle of Cannae, and book 6, which describes the Roman constitution.

5) The Catilinian War by Sallust. A governor of North Africa, Sallust was a friend of Caesar and both spectator and participant in the Roman revolution. In The Catilinian War, he writes about the conspiracy of Catiline to overthrow the Roman government (just a few years before Caesar managed to throw it off). This short book is useful both as an interesting narrative, and as a great way to meet such famous characters as Cato, Cicero, and Caesar.

6) The Spartans by Paul Cartledge is the best introduction to the warrior city of ancient Greece. Both readable and informative, Cartledge lays out the structure and culture of Spartan society, as well as discussing its growth, apex, and destruction.

7) Civilization Before Greece and Rome by H.W.F. Saggs is a good catch-all for the "everything else" of the ancient world. Discussing Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Hittites, and so on, Saggs gives an engaging overview of the development of society prior to the rise of Greece. The economics chapters can bog down a bit, but in general this is an excellent read.

8) Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W. Ceram is a survey of the greatest hits of archaeology from the beginning up through the 1940s, and, well, I'm glad I didn't read this until after I'd graduated college, because I would have seriously considered converting away from political science and into archaeology. Unfortunately, archaeology these days is much more about digging through the dirt with a toothbrush and much less about fighting off bandits while you dig up gold. Fortunately, this book is about the earlier stage in archaeology...

9) Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox. There are many great biographies of Alexander (both ancient and modern), but this is one of the best since it not only tells Alexander's story, it explains the ancient world in a way that is understandable to the modern reader. There are others that could be read, but this is probably the one to start with (my favorite is Wilcken's, which was written in Germany in the 1930s...). Fun fact about Lane Fox: he was the historical advisor on the Oliver Stone Alexander movie (which is one of the reasons it was historically accurate, even if it's a terrible movie). As part of his payment for putting his name on the movie, he demanded that they let him take part in a cavalry charge (apparently that's a common wish amongst Alexander scholars), and at one point, so the rumor goes, he got so into it that they had to stop shooting because they were afraid he was going to spear someone...

10) The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells. This isn't an earth-shattering book or anything like that, it's just a solid example of how one historical event can be covered in an interesting way with a full-length book. I could have easily picked one of many others, but this one is fairly short and covers an important battle.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Coffee Please

Johann Sebastian Bach, great composer of sacred and secular music, author of St. John's Passion, St. Matthew's Passion, and the Magnificat, wrote a canto about... coffee.

                                       Also, he may have been a robot here to save or kill John Connor.

Bach wrote this short piece about a girl who's father won't let her marry until she gives up her addiction to coffee.
Fortunately, times have changed.