Friday, March 30, 2012

On Sickness

I've got a cold. Or the flu. Or, well, something. And it sucks.
Having said that, God has graciously provided for those who are not feeling well. Specifically, he has provided John Donne's Meditations.
MY God, my God, thou hast made this sick bed thine altar, and I have no other sacrifice to offer but myself; and wilt thou accept no spotted sacrifice? Doth thy Son dwell bodily in this flesh that thou shouldst look for an unspottedness here? or is the Holy Ghost the soul of this body, as he is of thy spouse, who is therefore all fair, and no spot in her? or hath thy Son himself no spots, who hath all our stains and deformities in him? or hath thy spouse, thy church, no spots, when every particular limb of that fair and spotless body, every particular soul in that church, is full of stains and spots? Thou bidst us hate the garment that is spotted with the flesh. The flesh itself is the garment, and it spotteth itself with itself. And if I wash myself with snow water, mine own clothes shall make me abominable, and yet no man yet ever hated his own flesh. Lord, if thou look for a spotlessness, whom wilt thou look upon? Thy mercy may go a great way in my soul and yet not leave me without spots; thy corrections may go far and burn deep, and yet not leave me spotless: thy children apprehended that, when they said, From our former iniquity we are not cleansed until this day, though there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord. Thou rainest upon us, and yet dost not always mollify all our hardness; thou kindlest thy fires in us, and yet dost not always burn up all our dross; thou healest our wounds, and yet leavest scars; thou purgest the blood, and yet leavest spots. But the spots that thou hatest are the spots that we hide. The carvers of images cover spots, says the wise man; when we hide our spots, we become idolators of our own stains, of our own foulnesses. But if my spots come forth, by what means soever, whether by the strength of nature, by voluntary confession (for grace is the nature of a regenerate man, and the power of grace is the strength of nature), or by the virtue of cordials (for even thy corrections are cordials), if they come forth either way, thou receivest that confession with a gracious interpretation. When thy servant Jacob practised an invention to procure spots in his sheep, thou didst prosper his rods; and thou dost prosper thine own rods, when corrections procure the discovery of our spots, the humble manifestation of our sins to thee; till then thou mayst justly say, The whole need not the physician; till we tell thee in our sickness we think ourselves whole, till we show our spots, thou appliest no medicine. But since I do that, shall I not, Lord, lift up my face without spot, and be steadfast, and not fear? Even my spots belong to thy Son’s body, and are part of that which he came down to this earth to fetch, and challenge, and assume to himself. When I open my spots I do but present him with that which is his; and till I do so, I detain and withhold his right. When therefore thou seest them upon me, as his, and seest them by this way of confession, they shall not appear to me as the pinches of death, to decline my fear to hell (for thou hast not left thy holy one in hell, thy Son is not there); but these spots upon my breast, and upon my soul, shall appear to me as the constellations of the firmament, to direct my contemplation to that place where thy Son is, thy right hand.

The prayer that goes along with this meditation:
O ETERNAL and most gracious God, who as thou givest all for nothing, if we consider any precedent merit in us, so givest nothing for nothing, if we consider the acknowledgment and thankfulness which thou lookest for after, accept my humble thanks, both for thy mercy, and for this particular mercy, that in thy judgment I can discern thy mercy, and find comfort in thy corrections. I know, O Lord, the ordinary discomfort that accompanies that phrase, that the house is visited, and that, that thy marks and thy tokens are upon the patient; but what a wretched and disconsolate hermitage is that house which is not visited by thee, and what a waif and stray is that man that hath not thy marks upon him? These heats, O Lord, which thou hast brought upon this body, are but thy chafing of the wax, that thou mightst seal me to thee: these spots are but the letters in which thou hast written thine own name and conveyed thyself to me; whether for a present possession, by taking me now, or for a future reversion, by glorifying thyself in my stay here, I limit not, I condition not, I choose not, I wish not, no more than the house or land that passeth by any civil conveyance. Only be thou ever present to me, O my God, and this bedchamber and thy bedchamber shall be all one room, and the closing of these bodily eyes here, and the opening of the eyes of my soul there, all one act.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: The American Patriot's Bible

Dear Thomas Nelson Publishers:

I regret to inform you that a printing disaster appears to have occurred. Some prankster on your factory floor has shuffled together two books: the Bible and someone’s reflection on how America is (or at least was once) a Christian nation. Somehow, the pages from these two books have been intertwined and bound together in one volume bearing the amalgam label The American Patriot’s Bible. I strongly encourage you to correct this problem immediately, as not doing so could lead to a great deal of confusion about the proper separation between the City of God and the city of man.

Thank you for your time,

Coyle Neal

The temptation to actually send that letter is quite overwhelming…

Okay, so, The American Patriot’s Bible. (Which I assume is some sort of companion piece to the forthcoming Canadian Patriot’s Bible, Chinese Patriot’s Bible, etc.) This book is, well, a King James Version of the Bible with notes and asides dedicated to showing the importance of the Bible and Christianity in American history. In fact, the editor’s introduction states that the Bible was the source of the answers to the political problems engaged by the Founding Fathers, and that “It has proven itself over and over again in the formation and continuance of the greatest nation in history, the United States of America.”
I will not be reviewing the Bible. Instead, I’ll restrict my comments to the “American Patriot” part of the book.

Structurally, this is not so much a “study Bible” as it is a “Bible with notes and asides inserted throughout.” That is, there are few commentaries made on individual texts. Instead, sprinkled through the book are short essays and quotes loosely related to occasionally Biblical topics. For example, “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms” (pg 17) discusses the importance of owning firearms as a means of the preservation of liberty, and suggests that the colonial rebellion against King George “may have had its roots in the Old Testament accounts of Israel’s wars for freedom.” This essay includes a citation on the side—Genesis 14:14 “And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan.” Which, to be fair, does involve weapons, so I guess there’s a link there…
Anyway, the point is, this is really not a study Bible, it’s more of a mash-up of Scripture and devotional reflections on some of the events of and ideas about American history.

(Reminder: I am not writing a review of the Bible. My comments here are directed at the commentary only.)
This book is troublesome and ultimately unhelpful on both a personal (as a Christian) and professional (as a political scientist and historian) level.
Not to bog this down with academic jargon, I’ll just briefly point out the historical fallacy that lies at the heart of the book. It is true that Christianity (specifically Protestant Christianity) was the most important philosophy/idea/theology/whatever on the Founding generation of Americans. It is not true that it was the only philosophy that affected and united them. English liberalism, Whig constitutionalism, Scots Enlightenment, and numerous others all impacted the founders and affected the ideas that worked their way into American government. For example, the rights of life and liberty are first articulated in the writings of the English liberal John Locke. It was through him that they worked their way into the Declaration of Independence, not through theological reflection on the Bible.

And, well, that’s enough on the academic side of things. I’ll save that for the classroom.

Much more important is that as a Christian, I believe this book is virtually without redeeming value. There are two reasons for this:

-First, the book assumes that America is a Christian nation. I think we can even go a bit farther and say that tenor of the book is that the editors believe that America is God’s nation. It almost as if the editors had not read Hebrews 11, where we are reminded that God’s people are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” who “seek a country… a better country, that is, an heavenly city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16) As Christians, our home is not in this world. We are rather pilgrims on our way to our true home, God’s true country where he has prepared a city in which we can live for all eternity.
Of course it’s true that as Christians we hold a dual citizenship. We are citizens of two kingdoms until we arrive at that heavenly city. While I wait for heaven, I am commanded to be a good citizen in whatever nation I dwell here on earth, even as I remember that that nation is a temporary and passing affair, with only a limited role to play in my life and in the history of the world. What I am strictly not to do is to confuse my current, temporary nation with my eternal home. Jesus makes this clear when he commands us to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) Which, ironically, this book turns on its head with a side-note suggesting that “The choice before us is plain: Christ or chaos… America’s future depends upon her accepting and demonstrating God’s government.” (pg 1142) Where Jesus drew a distinction between God and Caesar, the editors would blend the two back together.

-Second, and much more importantly, there is no Gospel present in this book. It’s almost as if, in their rush to demonstrate how Biblical America is, the editors forgot the point of the Bible itself.  The essays, notes, and asides are all somewhere on the spectrum between sappy moralizing and rigid legalism, mostly falling on the latter end of that spectrum. Numerous examples of this could be cited, but perhaps the best example is the first one. In the introductory “Seven Principles of the Judeo-Christian Ethic” (which comes in the first couple of pages, before even the title page), the author writes:

“This principle of the Abrahamic covenant states that if a person or a nation obeys God, observing the moral truths found in the Bible, that person or nation will be blessed. If they disobey, they will bring punishment upon themselves. For most of our nation’s history, Americans have accepted the belief that good deeds produce good results and that people who were “God-fearing” in language and lifestyle would be blessed by Him.”
And, having talked about sin, what a further wonderful opportunity (which the editors do not take) to talk about the forgiveness that comes from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: where all of that sin and guilt is taken off of us and put on the cross and finished, and in its place we are given new life. This, at least according to the Apostle Paul, is the true meaning of the covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 (see Galatians 3:14 for that). The meaning of the Abrahamic covenant is not that nations will be blessed if they obey God, but that in Christ we will be blessed despite our sin having earned us punishment.

And, hopefully that’s enough. I could continue to rant, but I’m not sure that would be constructive. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book.

I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers. Clearly, they did not pay me to write a good review of it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: Lit! by Tony Reinke

This is an excellent little book that is both a meditation on and guide to reading from a Christian perspective. It is deep without being heavy, if that makes any sense. What I mean is, it is theologically acute without being grammatically obtuse: it is easy to read without being shallow. The book is broken into two sections: the first giving a theology of books and reading, the second giving practical guidelines to becoming a better reader (or even a reader at all, if you’re starting from not reading or a dislike of reading). Here, I’ll give my thoughts on each section.
The first six chapters introduce a theology of reading, which in one sense is a sad commentary on the state of modern Christianity (particularly modern Evangelicalism, given that that demographic is his target audience). The fact that Reinke has to begin by arguing that it’s okay to read books other than the Bible suggests that we are far too much under the influence of isolationist strains of mid-20th century Fundamentalism. Not that this is a new problem: Calvin had similar issues with the Anabaptists, and the early church struggled to articulate exactly how profitable pagan works were. But it is a sharper problem today given the general decline in reading overall. It’s not just that Christians now are only reading Christian books (though that can be a problem), it’s that we’re not reading at all. Some of the practical causes of this are talked about in the second section of the book (namely, sin and electronic media, in that order of influence). Our laziness keeps us from digging into any but the fluffiest of books, and our being shaped by television and the internet cements in place the bad habits begun by our sin. (Not that television or the internet are inherently sinful!)
Reinke attempts to provide a corrective to this problem, by arguing (in broad strokes):
1)      Christians should read because God communicates with us through the written word.
2)      Salvation enables us not just to read, but to read properly. That is, we can enjoy books as they were intended to be enjoyed.
3)      Reading, language, and books best communicates the reality of the world (as opposed to images).
4)      Reading both shapes our own worldview and informs us of the worldview of others.
5)      Reading exposes us to the right questions (and even occasionally the right answers) about God, man, and the world in general.
The second section gives practical advice on how to read. There is far too much here to really do justice to in a summary, but some of the highlights included:
1)      Prioritize when choosing and pursuing books.
2)      Read a mix of fiction and nonfiction.
3)      Make time to read, even if only in bits and pieces here and there.
4)      Avoid distraction. Particularly distraction such as the Internet and television which, if taken in sufficient doses, can actually damage the mind’s ability to process large amounts of information.
5)      Don’t be afraid to interact with a book, including by writing in it (if you own it- don’t write in borrowed books).
6)      Read in community. While reading is an individual pursuit, comprehension is a community affair. Reading with others corrects us when we stray and makes the process more enjoyable.
7)      Regularly reevaluate yourself as a reader (he gives five points that apply to mature readers).
Reinke also gives a lengthy set of guidelines for parents and pastors, but as I’m neither I’ll skip over those.
Here ends the review, I highly recommend this book if you’re a reader, and even more highly recommend it if you’re not.

From here on are personal reflections of how the book applies to me.

So, with all of these guidelines, how do I stack up as a Christian reader?
Two areas in terms of reading where I think I’m doing well (please let me know if you know me and I’m wrong about these):
First, I think I’m decent at dodging garbage. Reinke reminds us that we have permission not to read all of a book, either because it is full of information we don’t need or because it’s just a bad book. I think (again, kindly correct me if I’m wrong) that my library is largely full of books that either 1) I need for my profession (politics, history, and philosophy); 2) are useful for spiritual growth (theology and devotions); or 3) are genuinely good either in how they’re written or in their content (fiction). I think I’m fairly decent at filtering books in such a way that garbage generally doesn’t make it onto the shelf.
Second, I think I have a reasonably well-balanced approach to literature in terms of the fiction/non-fiction mix. And, within those, a further solid balance of pleasure/value reading. Again, I may be wrong, but I think my Goodreads shelf bears this out to some extent…

On the other hand, two areas where I was especially convicted on reading this book:
First, I am definitely dancing on the edge of idolizing books. This passage resonated with me:
“I order books online and track the status of the shipment. I wait eagerly for a box of books to arrive on my doorstep. As soon as the box arrives, I tear into it, pull out the books, investigate their condition, and begin twirling the pages in my fingers. This is a wonderful experience. But those new books lose their luster at around page 30… Books arrive at my house far faster than I can read them. Everyday my heart desires new books. So what drives this desire? Is it a longing to humbly learn and grow? Or is it an idolatrous yearning to have more new things? Books are great tools, but they are disappointing gods. And once books become idols, those idols will leave us deeply unsatisfied.” (183)
While I seem not to acquire books as fast as Reinke, I definitely recognize that desire. Granted, I love reading the books and getting the information out of them as well, but there remains a lusting in the heart after more and more books that undoubtedly ceaseth only in death.

Second, and I’ve noticed this while engaged in the dissertation, well, darn it, I am distracted by electronic media. I have noticed my abilities as a writer and as a reader fluctuating. More time reading quality books (or, to be fair, thoughtful articles and blogs online) has tended to mean better product in my dissertation chapters and deeper reflection on books that I’m reading. More time on the various internet sites that provide meaningless (albeit entertaining) streams of information and humor have been reflected in greater struggle to string coherent sentences together or remember what I had read even twenty minutes ago. What’s worse is that I am as guilty of creating material like this as I am of consuming it.
To that end, I think I’m going to try an experiment. For the next couple of months, until the end of May, I resolve not to publically post anything that is less than 1000 words in length. Whether on the blog, on Goodreads, or on Facebook (excluding links to things that are over a thousand words long) I won’t post anything that resembles a sound bite, tidbit, or blurb. If it’s not worth taking time to reflect and give deeper thought to, then I don’t get to opine on the issue.
(Obviously, this won’t include things like email or private messages—I’m not that mean.)

I don’t think this will necessarily solve the problem, but I am interested to see what the affect on my own writing and reading is, to say nothing of my public electronic presence.

Having said all of that, Reinke has penned a wonderful little book which every Christian who wishes to be more thoughtful and careful should “take up and read.”

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Old School Country: The Golden Age of Songwriters

Image Detail

Through the end of the 1950s and all of the 1960s, rock and roll increasingly dominated the charts, nudging country music into the background. All through the 60s and the early 70s, country languished until it was (once again) saved by pop crossover artists in the late 70s.

The one thing country did have going for it through these years was the most talented generation of songwriters it has ever produced. While none of these individuals are particularly gifted singers, their ability to string together lyrics has remained unsurpassed.

Perhaps the greatest of these songwriters was Hoyt Axton (whose mother co-wrote Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel). His most famous song is likely Joy to the World:

Kris Kristofferson was an athlete, Rhodes Scholar, soldier, helicopter pilot, and almost a professor of English at West Point. He turned down the position and tried his hand at songwriting (inspired by English poet William Blake). His most well-known song is Why Me?

Conway Twitty held the record for the most #1 hits in country music (55) until 2006 (when it was broken by George Strait). His first hit was It's Only Make Believe, which placed first on the pop charts:
A mid-80s hit was I don't Know a thing about love:
And the perennial father's funeral song:

Marty Robbins was the last of the great ballad writers, before that style of country largely died off (though it made occasional comebacks through the 80s and 90s). Devil Woman was one of his early hits:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: Everything Romance compiled by Todd hafer and Rebecca Currington

[Sigh] Yes. I read a book called Everything Romance. You know what? Shut up. It was free. Which reminds me: I received this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah on the condition that I review it publicly. I was not paid to give a good review, obviously.

This book is, well, it's hard to classify. It's a reference book? I guess? The inside flap says that this book "abounds with all you need to show your adoration, revel in your relationship, and create a legacy of romance to last a lifetime." What it actually provides is a shotgun blast of random quotes (many of which are loosely about love, some of which are definitely not); short, sappy stories; recipes; suggestions for dates; terms of endearment (everything from "All Mine" to "Yummy Bear"); useless trivia; lists of various things; and, well, you get the point.
I think, though I cannot confirm, that the idea is that anyone could pick up this book, flip to a random page, and be encouraged in everything romantic in their life.

Okay, so much for the summary. Now for the review:
This is a sort-of reference book on love. And that, I think, is where we can see the problem with this book. Romance isn't really something that first can be reduced to blurbs, and then have all of the blurbs about it gathered into one place. So really this book was fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. And it's a battle which I do not think it has won. In a world full of books, blogs, and advice on romance, a book that follows "Ten Things a Couple Can Make, Besides Money" (everything from "time" to "believe", pg 21) with "Couples Look Good In Green" (how to live in an environmentally friendly way, pg 22) is probably not the place to start.
So, topic by topic, here are my thoughts on the book:
  • "Blessings and Prayers" This is actually probably the most interesting and useful part of the book. It also is a grand total of 15 pages out of 281. Most of these prayers are either 1) from the Bible or 2) public domain, so there's really nothing new here.
  • "Dating: It's Not Just for Singles" Frankly, the activities here are either so common that they hardly need to be mentioned ("take your sweetie to a play or musical production", 125) or so vague that they really aren't helpful at all ("plan a walk or bike ride", throughout, but especially on 211).
  • "Did You Know?" useless trivia, most of which is about love, some of which is just bewildering. My favorite of the latter category: "For more than twenty years 'Morganna the Kissing Bandit' snuck onto Major League Baseball fields to plant kisses on unsuspecting players." (148) Which frankly, I think is more "creepy" and "stalkerish" than "romantic", but hey, who am I to judge? Oh yeah, a book reviewer... Also, apparently a million monkeys with a million typewriters will create Hamlet, but 12 monkeys with a computer will use "their computer as a toilet or beat it with rocks." (123) This fact may be the one part of the book that has actively enhanced my romantic side...
  • "Features" Odds and ends that wouldn't fit anywhere else, including a list of traditions about Valentine's Day, Traditional Wedding Anniversary Gifts by year, and the aforementioned "Couples Look Good in Green". Some of these were interesting, but some were just pointless.
  • "Lists" Exactly what it sounds like, these are the places in the book where we are told about "How to Love for a Lifetime" or "Four Ways God Answers a Couple's Prayer" ("No, not yet; No, I love you both too much; Yes, I thought you'd never ask; Yes, and here's more!", 36). Same as the "Features" section, some were interesting, some were, well, much less so.
  • "Love Boosters" and "Love Busters" These sections include advice on how to "boost" your romance (dance together, for one) or "bust" it (hold on to grudges). Frankly, if you're the kind of person who actually needs to be told anything in either of these sections, you're pretty unlikely to be reading a book like this in the first place.
  • "Love Letters" includes a selection of highly edited love letters from great people in history, including Jack London, Mark Twain, and... uh... Napoleon Bonaparte. Seriously, Napoleon? What, they couldn't find Stalin's or Mao's? (Note how I avoided Godwin's Law there...)
  • "Perfect Pairs" are brief biographies of well-made matches of famous people, such as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This section was kind of interesting, but it was also only seven pages out of the book.
  • "Poetry" is, well, poetry. Mostly sappy "How Do I Love Thee" stuff, and not a limerick to be seen. If you're into the "Your eyes make flowers grow in the winter" kind of lines, this section is for you.
  • "Quotations" another that is what it sounds like it is. See "Poetry" for my thoughts on this section.
  • "Recipes" are recipes. I have no way to judge if these are good or not, as I'm not much at cooking anything that doesn't require an open flame...
  • "Scriptures" From the copyright page: "All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson." QED.
  • "Special Occasion Gift Ideas" Here we have a mix of obvious (antique jewelry, because people in love never think of jewelry as a gift option), impractical (plant a shrub, which works as long as you don't rent or live in an apartment...), and dangerous (putting your picture on inanimate objects like mugs or t-shirts will eventually just be a reminder of how young and in shape you once were, and only works if you don't grimace in photos anyway).
  • "Stories." We will not speak of these, EVER! We certainly will not speak of the story where "Sharon" felt all alone when her mother died. Fortunately "God saw to it that I was not alone" by providing James ONE FREAKING HOUR LATER, while Sharon was still at the hospital with her mothers corpse quietly decomposing in the next room. (Okay, so that last detail wasn't in the story, but we all know how it works.) Nor will we speak of the single mom whose daughter, if she had a hundred dollars, would use it to buy a "real daddy," and who just happened to meet her recently-home-from-Iraq-high-school-sweetheart (who still has the hots for her and likes kids). And, well, the vomit is rising. Let's move on.
  • "Trivia" This section was fine, and even occasionally fun, like the couple who may have the longest-lasting marriage at 86 years (248). Though again, these tidbits don't take up much of the book, and mostly are used as filler.
So, overall I'd say there are enough good books on romance out there that this one likely isn't worth your time.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Old School Country: Rockers and Cowboys

The joys of the crossover.

One of the reasons country grew popular as quickly and as broadly as it did in the 1950s and 60s was because of the number of crossover artists. Even as country began to shift away from its blues, Gospel, and rock foundations, the big name artists who released country records gave it new life.

Arguably the most important of these crossover artists was Ray Charles, whose album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was important both for its musical impact (mixing blues and country, and influencing the next generation of country artists) and for its social impact, exposing white people to soul and black people to country. It included songs like country singer Don Gibson's I Can't Stop Loving You:

And Hank Williams' Hey Good Lookin'

Ray Charles kept up his relationship with country music, eventually releasing singles and albums, including the hit with Willie Nelson Seven Spanish Angels

Yet another crossover artist was Elvis, who through his career covered numerous country songs, including (early on) the Bill Munroe favorite Blue Moon of Kentucky

Jerry Lee Lewis likewise crossed into country when he covered Ray Price's Crazy Arms

Chuck Berry's first hit Maybellene was a remix of an old Bob Wills Western ballad (which also provided the inspiration for Cotton Eyed Joe):

Crossovers into country have continued down to the present day, including artists like Bob Dylan, Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, Uncle Kracker, ZZ Top, and countless others.

Where our hope should be...

Since God is invisible to us in this life, and yet our happiness consists in seeing him, we ought to sigh for that other life: and we ought so to frame our life that we may at length attain to the beatific vision of the invisible God.
 -John Davenant on Colossians 1:15.