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The Life We Long for Is the Life We Have: Some Thoughts On Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

I mentioned that I was hoping to post a reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the piece I was referring to has appeared on The Gospel Coalition site.

I argue that McCarthy is trying to help us enjoy our lives as we have them in his novel The Road. This understanding of the book is substantiated (especially around the 7 minute mark) by what McCarthy said about the book in what may be the only TV interview he has ever done.

I’m embedding this Oprah interview with Cormac McCarthy below (I disagree with the title that whoever uploaded the video gave it, but I have no control over that. I don’t think he bombed!). There’s a better quality version of the video of  on Oprah’s site.


Cormac McCarthy on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’

You won’t want to miss The Road.

And at TGC: The Life We Long For

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Some Great Statements in Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD

At some point I hope to post a longer reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s pulitzer prize winning novel The Road. The book’s beautiful prose takes us to an ugly world, ugly but not without hope.

One of the joys of great literature is the opportunity to savor the well spoken word. The great writers model for us how to communicate in fresh, piercing ways. This post is a selection of some stellar statements.

describing the man and son on the road, McCarthy refers to them as “each the other’s world entire” (6).

the bombed landscape is “like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste” (8).

the man and boy discuss the way that “the things you put into your head are there forever” (12).

the weather is “Cold to crack the stones. To take your life” (14).

the landscape is an “ashen scabland” (16).

people are “creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last” (29).

beholding beauty, McCarthy writes of the man and his impulse to worship: “The color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember” (31).

a question is posed: “How does the never to be differ from what never was?” (32).

the sad state of the darkened world: “By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp” (32).

the man has taught his son: “if you break little promises you’ll break big ones” (34).

a waterfall is encountered, and “They walked out along the rocks to where the river seemed to end in space . . . . The river went sucking over the rim and fell straight down into the pool below. The entire river” (39).

Read the whole thing.

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Prince Charles, the Book of Common Prayer, and Dynamic Equivalence Translation Philosophy

I think what Prince Charles says about the Book of Common Prayer is relevant to translation philosophy:

Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne, is widely disliked by conservatives because of some of his politically incorrect statements. But his introduction to a new book celebrating the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is one that cultural conservatives should cheer heartily. He writes:

“Over recent years, we have witnessed a concerted effort to devalue the currency of [the 1662 BCP’s] resonant words. But who was it who decided that for people who aren’t very good at reading, the best things to read are those written by people who aren’t very good at writing? Poetry is surely for everybody, even if it’s only a few phrases. But banality is for nobody. It might be accessible for all, but so is a desert.”

HT: Michael Potemra

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The Authorial Agony of Charles Dickens

My friend Scott Corbin sent me this poignant excert from Clair Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, 113-114:

“These were all distractions from the central business of the year, which was the story that had started as a few episodes and was being made into a novel, week by week, The Old Curiosity Shop. Against all the odds, it became the second-highest seller of all his books, surpassed only by the The Pickwick Papers, another improvised tale. What sort of a story was it? A very odd one, a picaresque tale of a child who tries and fails to escape from her fate, with a supposed protector, her grandfather, addicted to gambling, and a grotesquely wicked pursuer, the dwarf Quilp, both putting her at risk and driving her towards her death. Nell herself has no character beyond sweetness, goodness and innocence, which endeared her to male readers; and Lord Jeffrey, the great Scottish judge, critic and sometime editor of the Edinburgh Review, even likened her to Cordelia, although the only resemblance is in their untimely deaths. At the age of thirteen, Nell effectively has to look after her grandfather, who has been corrupted by his fascination with money, rather as Dickens’s maternal grandfather had been corrupted by money, and his father also, overspending, borrowing and failing to settle his debts; so this aspect of the story was quite close to home. And while there is very much more in the book than Nell, it is her death that made its fame. It was Forster who suggested that Dickens should kill her off: he seized the idea, and the slowly approaching death of Little Nell held readers in a state of excited anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic for many weeks. Letters came to Dickens imploring him to save her, and grave and normally equable men sobbed uncontrollably when they read that she was dead.

Dickens himself suffered as he wrote of Nell’s decline, and shared his sufferings with his friends through November and December 1840. He told Forster, ‘You can’t imagine how exhausted I am today with yesterday’s labours… All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable. I don’t know what to do with myself… I think the close of the story will be great.’ Then, a few days later, ‘The difficulty has been tremendous — the anguish unspeakable.’ To his illustrator, Cattermole, he wrote, ‘I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it.’ In January, Macready was told, ‘I am slowly murdering that poor child, and grow wretched over it. It wrings my heart. Yet it must be.’ A few days later it was Maclise who heard, ‘If you knew what I have been suffering in the death of that child!’

Another letter to Forster shows how Dickens used his suffering, deliberately summoning up painful feelings, in the cause of telling a better story: ‘I shan’t recover it for a long time. Nobody will miss her like I shall. It is such a very painful thing to me, that I really cannot express my sorrow… I have refused several invitations for this week and next, determining to go nowhere til I had done. I am afraid of disturbing the state I have been trying to get into, and having to fetch it all back again.’

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Jeremiah 6: Refined in Vain and Rejected

Adolph Schlatter said of Friedrich Nietzsche:

The chief impression that I internalized from his lectures arose from his offensive haughtiness. He treated his listeners like despicable peons. He convinced me of the principle that to throw out love is to despoil the business of teaching—only genuine love can really educate.[1]

Nietzsche believed in the superman, made by energy, intellect, and pride (Durant, The Story of Philosophy, 425–27). No energy can propel perfect righteousness, and no amount of energy will enable one to escape God. No intellect can recreate the universe, and no intellect will devise a way to avoid judgment. No pride fails to offend, and no pride will go un-humbled.

We will not be delivered by energy, intellect, and pride. We will be delivered if we repent of our sin and trust in Jesus.

God rejects those who will not repent.

Jeremiah 1 presents the calling of Jeremiah as a prophet like Moses. He indicted Israel’s spiritual adultery in chapter 2, called them to repent and be restored in 3:1–4:4, summoned them to wash their hearts from evil in 4:5–31, only to see Israel refuse to repent in chapter 5, which results in the verdict that Israel has been refined in vain and rejected in chapter 6.

The “Thus says the LORD” statements and the changes in theme structure this passage.

6:1–5, Looming Disaster
6:6–15, The Lord Announces Israel’s Punishment

6:6–8, Hearts That Keep Evil Fresh
6:9–15, Uncircumcised Ears

6:16–21, Israel Rejected Ancient Paths and Watchmen
6:22–26, The Lord Describes the Coming Enemy
6:27–30, Jeremiah the Tester of Metals

There are a number of similarities of language and thought between Jeremiah 1:18–19 and 6:27–30. In both places the LORD says to Jeremiah, “I have made you . . .” and the term rendered “tester of metals” in 6:27 in the ESV has the same consonants as the term rendered “fortified” in 1:18, and then in both places there are references to iron, bronze, and conflict between Jeremiah and the people.

All this leads me to think that after the introductory chapter that presents Jeremiah’s call (Jer 1), 1:18–6:30 is the first major section of Jeremiah’s book, a section bracketed by 1:18–19 and 6:27–30.

Sometimes people talk and write as though the book of Jeremiah is a sort of loose collection of sermon notes or transcriptions. I’m inclined to think, rather, that Jeremiah is a carefully arranged, carefully structured, finished literary product.

On October 30, 2011, it was my privilege to preach Jeremiah 6: Refined in Vain and Rejected at Kenwood Baptist Church.



[1] Werner Neuer, Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1996), 44.

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Tolkein’s Own Drawings for the Hobbit

The Guardian has 6 drawings with a bit of commentary. Here’s one:

HT: Malcolm Yarnell

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N. D. Wilson on Magic

On the Desiring God blog today N. D. Wilson was kind enough to address some of the comments on a recent post here (obviously I’m kidding – his post is unrelated to the comments here – but his post does address the issues being discussed).

Wilson has this to say about magic:

Bible-believing Christians frequently have a deep mistrust of fiction. In particular, they have a deep mistrust of, ahem, magic. This is impossible for me to understand, partly because I was weaned on C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, but more profoundly because I was marinated in Scripture at a very young age (by my parents). And Scripture is full of . . . stories. More than that, Scripture is full of the miraculous and the amazing. “Throw water on the altar,” Elijah says. “Fire will still fall from Heaven.” A famous shepherd boy takes down an infamous six-fingered giant. Don’t let the long-haired man near a jawbone. Collect the animals and build a boat. Whatever you do, don’t listen to that serpent.

Bible pop-quiz: Did Pharaoh’s magicians really turn staffs into snakes? (Hint: yes.)

Christians serve the Man who walked on water. We serve the Man who could not be kept in the belly of the great fish, the Man who shattered the grave, and all alone, ripped the city gates off a place called Death.

Read the whole thing.

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Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone: Why Do These Books Bother (Some) Christians?

Do you remember the concern some Christians voiced (loudly) over the Harry Potter books a few years back?

I do. I remember some discussing the difference between the moral universe in the Harry Potter books and that depicted in The Lord of the Rings. If I recall correctly, one of the complaints was that while both sets of books depict magical realms, with the Lord of the Rings you have a clear line between good and evil, whereas with the Harry Potter books, the suggestion seemed to be that J. K. Rowling was not presenting a world where good is good and evil is bad.

I didn’t read the books at that time. Too busy. I asked a friend who had read one, and he told me that he thought the books were subversive because they present the adults bumbling along getting things wrong, while the kids come along and save the world, even if they have to break the rules to do it.

See: subversion of good and evil. No right and wrong.

I’m grateful for the partial spoilers in the reviews I saw of the seventh movie (see this one in particular), which prompted me to give these books a chance. Having now listened to the audio books of the first three, and having read the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, aloud to my sons, I am mystified as to why these books would bother Christians.

Caveat: I’ve only heard the first three, and only read the first one. So this is admittedly a partial judgment. But I felt no qualms about reading the first one aloud to my 7 and 5 year olds, so if you need it, you’ve got a green light from me on the first three.

Here are my thoughts, hopefully spoiler free, on the profound Christianity of book one, with a few nods to its points of contact with “Literature,” pronounced, slowly, preferably with a British accent, and with great dignity and solemnity (i.e., the great tradition of western word art).

Harry Potter and Jesus of Nazareth

The great evil power tried to kill the baby boy. His inability to destroy the child at birth was in itself a defeat, in response to which he turned on the mother.

Did I just describe Revelation 12, where the birth of Jesus is presented in symbol? Or was that a description of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Boy Who Lived”? Both. When I read this to my boys, I asked them: “which came first?” Obviously Jesus came first, and Revelation was written long before Harry Potter. “So where do you think J. K. Rowling got the idea?” They got it.

At several points Harry breaks rules. I asked my sons about this, inviting them to tell me about the rules Harry broke and reasons he broke them. They told me in greater detail than I remembered. I asked them what was constant, what was (almost) always the case when Harry broke a rule? They told me that every time Harry got into trouble he was trying to help someone else, and often he had been set up by a bad guy, so that if all the facts were known Harry wouldn’t have been in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong here. Harry’s not perfect. Sometimes he does the wrong thing. But on the whole, he’s on the side of the angels (in Potter-speak – he’s against the Dark Arts). At one point he resists the temptation to make himself great, insisting that he does not want to go that way, preferring to align himself with the brave, chivalrous, and honorable. Again and again he and his friends live out the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

“But what about the rules?” Some rules are moral. Some are just rules. What’s interesting is that in the cases that stick out to me, Harry is just breaking rules not doing immoral things. And when he breaks the rules, he does so because he’s recognizing that trying to keep the bad guy from taking over the world is more important than not breaking curfew.

“But he’s just a kid and the adults make the rules!” Ah, but in this story, Harry Potter is the boy who lived. He’s the hero. He’s the one who is laying down his life for his friends, showing them that some things are more precious than life. And there are adults who are helping him and adults whose petty concerns keep them from loving truth, goodness, and beauty. Isn’t that the way life is?

“But what about this charge that the books subvert morality, that they don’t portray a clear line between good and evil?” This charge convinces me that some of the critics of this series just haven’t read the books, while others have failed to read them well. Near the end of book one, the antagonist says to Harry,

“A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it”

The bad guy says these words. Harry clearly rejects this line of thinking, and so do his friends and the adults who help him. When I read this passage to my sons, we stopped and talked about it. We talked about how some people think that power is more important than good and evil. I asked them if they thought that was right. They didn’t side with the villain. J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t either.

“But Harry doesn’t always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth! That’s not just a rule; it’s immoral when he doesn’t give straight answers, or when he even lies.” First, Harry isn’t perfect; that’s clear. He’s not altogether sinless. Who but Jesus is? Second, though, have you noticed that in the gospels Jesus doesn’t always give straight answers? Go look at how he answers the question of where his authority comes from in Mark 11:27–33. At many points, Harry is put in positions where he knows that he won’t be believed if he tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so he has difficult ethical waters to navigate as he seeks to oppose the aims of the evil one. Doesn’t Jesus do the same thing? Didn’t Samuel do the same thing–at the LORD’s instruction–when he went to anoint David king instead of Saul (1 Sam 16)? Shouldn’t missionaries to closed countries do the same thing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending those who tell lies. I am saying that life is complicated, that Psalm 18:25–26 is true, and that the Harry Potter stories are true to life on this point. If we’re not going to read the Harry Potter stories because of things like this (or if we’re going to say they’re too morally complicated for children), are we going to stop reading the Bible because the LORD told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let Israel go three days into the wilderness to worship when all along the LORD’s intention was to bring Israel permanently out of Egypt?

More could be said, but I’ll close this section with these claims: the Harry Potter books are set in a moral universe where Harry is contending for the good, and the good (laying down your life for others, opposing evil, standing up for what’s right, living in a way that honors father and mother, etc.) is a Christian kind of good. What’s more, there are many ways that Harry is like Jesus.

One more related thought: the non-magical people in the stories are called “Muggles.” Muggles don’t do magic, don’t see magic, and in general scoff at magic. Their explanations of the world and what happens in it are entirely free of magic. They live for the world. Every time I encounter Muggles, I wonder if this is Rowling’s veiled way of describing worldly people who deny the existence of anything supernatural. I think Muggles are worldlings, secularists, atheists, etc.

Harry Potter and Great Literature

This first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for Americans, was titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Rowling’s British. I happened to be listening to an audio version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales right before I started listening to Harry Potter, so I was struck by the fact that one of Chaucer’s last tales has to do with a “philosopher’s (a.k.a. sorcerer’s) stone.” Wonder where Rowling got the idea? This book is rife with references to great literature. There’s a lot, no doubt, that could be pointed out here (for instance, old Cerberus makes an appearance as “Fluffy”), but for space considerations (this post is already too long) I note only this: one of the characters is named “Seamus Finnegan,” which seems to me to be a tip of the hat to Seamus Heaney and Finnegan’s Wake.

I think Rowling is brilliant. There were moments of Sorcerer’s Stone that brought tears to my eyes, moments when I marveled at her ability to bring a complicated logic test into a concise poem, and moments when, the second time through, I smiled at the way she set the plot up for its lurches and twists.

I’ve read and heard people say things like, “I don’t think these books are well written.” My reply may not stand a logical test, but it’s simple: let’s see you write something better.  When you’ve written something that prompts the Scottish Arts Council to give you an award that will enable you to finish the first book, when that book sells a gazillion copies, when the details from that first book become bulls eye hits for details in second and third books (and I assume this will keep happening through books four, five, and six), when kids everywhere can’t put your seven book series down, so that even adults start reading them (the teenage girl who lives next door to us has read the seventh book nine times!), when all seven of your books are made into movies, you can tell me you don’t think the Harry Potter books are well written.

Something has captured imaginations and kept the pages turning. And it’s fun to turn them as they delight, cause laughter, and present a picture of the power of love overcoming evil and all its fury.

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Lit! Let Tony Reinke Help You Read

I love books. I love literature. I’m really grateful for the way the Lord has used books in my own life, and I’m really confident that those who deal in words, people who preach and teach, have much to gain from the best put thoughts of the clearest thinkers the world has known. Add to these realities my deep appreciation for Tony Reinke, and it’s not hard to guess that I’m pre-disposed to be really excited about his new book, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books.

Predisposed to like it, and having read it, I’m thrilled to commend it. Walt Harrington says this about the reading habits of George W. Bush:

“I was struck by his many references to history. In the back of my mind was an article that Karl Rove had written for The Wall Street Journal in 2008, which revealed (much to the consternation of the president’s derisive critics) that Bush had read 186 books for pleasure in the preceding three years, consisting mostly of serious historical nonfiction.”

“He also invited me to his house, where I found books by John Fowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gore Vidal lying about, as well as biographies of Willa Cather and Queen Victoria. A few years later, I might even have thought they had been purposely left there for the eyes of a reporter, but not on that unstaged evening. Laura would eventually write that even then, George read every night in bed.”

“I also found an open Bible in the house. “I’ve read it cover to cover, and it wouldn’t hurt you, Walt, to do the same,” Bush said, laughing. Within the last year, W. had begun a new lifetime regimen of daily Bible readings, as I and all of America would later learn.”””He certainly enjoys reading and talking about books. And his friends know it. On his desk is a stack of books that have come as gifts: All Things Are Possible Through Prayer;Basho: The Complete Haiku;Children of Jihad; and Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. To the pile, I add my own gift, Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Stacy Schiff. Right now, Bush is reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, a biography of the first president. “Chernow’s a great historian,” Bush says excitedly. “I think one of the great history books I read was on Alexander Hamilton by Chernow. But I also read House of Morgan,Titan, and now I’m reading Washington.””

“He mentions David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, a book about the Korean War that he read before a visit last year to Korea, to give a speech to evangelicals. “I stand up in front of 65,000 Christians to give a speech in South Korea … ,” he says, “and I’m thinking about the bloody [battles] fought in the Korean War.” Halberstam’s book—coupled with earlier readings of David McCullough’s Truman and Robert Beisner’s Dean Acheson, a biography of Truman’s secretary of state presented to him by Bush’s own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice—gave the event deeper resonance. The decisions of the unpopular President Harry S Truman, he realized, made it possible for a former U. S. president to speak before freely worshipping Koreans 60 years later. “So history, in this case, gave me a better understanding of the moment, and … put it all into context—the wonder of the moment.””

“I tick off a partial list of people Bush has read books about in recent years in addition to Washington, Truman, and Acheson: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Mellon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams, Genghis Khan.”

““Genghis Khan?” I ask incredulously.”

““I didn’t know much about him. I was fascinated by him. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by larger-than-life figures. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading Cleopatra. I know nothing about her. … But you can sit there and be absorbed by TV, let the news of the moment consume you. You can just do nothing. I choose to read as a form of relaxation. … Laura used to say, ‘Reading is taking a journey,’ and she’s right.””

“He remembers Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (one of 14 Lincoln biographies Bush read while he was president), . . .”

And this is just a sampling. There’s more about the reading Bush has done. Fascinating. Inspiring.

Do you want to read more?

Tony can tell you how to get it done. You won’t regret learning from him, and you won’t regret getting this book.

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Perseus Classics Free for Logos

The Perseus Collections will be released from Logos on September 30, 2011. If you pre-order them, you get them free.

You read that right – free if you pre-order.

Tony Reinke writes:

The collection is a library in itself of over 1,100 ancient Greek and Latin titles and includes many corresponding English translations and helpful commentaries. Authors include Aristotle, Cicero, Homer, Plato, Plutarch, Sophocles, Demosthenes, and many others.

The release of this massive collection is significant step for New Testament studies since many of the Greek titles are referenced in technical Greek reference works and lexicons like TDNT, BDAG, and EDNT. The folks at Logos have announced on their website that over time they plan to add lemma tags to all the Greek books and add hyperlinks to the lexical reference to correspond to the original books in the Perseus Classics Collection. So when you see a reference in TDNT to, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the reference will be hyperlinked and a click will land you in Aristotle’s work to read the context for yourself.

Skilled Greek exegetes will benefit from the collection because of the tags and hyperlinks, but what about those who want to engage the classic Greek works on a less technical level? Most of the books are available as English translations. With these English translations the collection is quite accessible to all readers and offers many key books that can help sharpen your communication skills.

I downloaded Perseus classics and the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri. I’m still amazed this stuff was free!

Thanks to Logos for serving us in these ways. You can pick the ones you want to pre-order here.

Clarification: I’ve just heard from Logos that they’ve decided this material will always be free, so even if you don’t pre-order it, the price won’t change.

Lots of info here.

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The Word of God Is Living and Active (unless your translation philosophy emasculates it)

In Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Peter Leithart writes (3–6),

“It is easy for Christians to blame secularists for ‘letting the Bible go,’ but the church is at least as culpable. As [Clive] James points out, translation is a key symptom of our willingness to emasculate our own Scriptures.
[here Leithart presents two renderings of Psalm 23, first the KJV then the Message, then discusses a few differences between the translations]
The most crucial difference, though, is a difference in authority: which language, which idiom, determines the rendering of the Hebrew into English? For the KJV, the Hebrew text forces itself on the English. ‘Valley of the shadow of death,’ now an English cliche, was introduced by Bible translators, as was ‘my cup runneth over.’ Older translations refreshed the target language (English) by bringing in the Hebrew as much as possible. The KJV enlarged not only the language but also the conceptual apparatus of English speakers, as more or less common words and concepts like table and cup and staff took on the religious aura of the psalm. For The Message, by contrast, contemporary English dictates what the Bible may and may not say.
Leithart continues:
“This example from The Message is far from the most egregious example that could be found. But it does go some way toward justifying Dwight Macdonald’s complaint that modern Bible translators turn down Scripture’s ‘voltage, so it won’t blow any fuses.’
My point is not merely aesthetic, and it is not at all nostalgic. I am not pining to hear the echoing, arching rhythms of the KJV ring from pulpits everywhere. My point is theological, and one of the main themes of this book. For The Message, the crucial thing about the Bible is the substance of what it teaches us, and many readers and interpreters come to the Bible with the same interests. For translators, commentators, preachers, and theologians, the idioms and cadences, the rhetoric and the tropes, the syntax and the vocabulary of the original have been reduced to mere vehicles for communicating that message. If the vehicle fails to reach its destination, we change vehicles. We substitute, add, or subtract words to make the Bible sound normal. We change idioms to be more familiar. We turn God’s names into generic terms of divinity. We fiddle with the Bible’s rhetoric so that it fits our rhetoric, rather than letting the Bible’s rhetoric shape ours. Once we think we have found the spirit of the text, we feel free to mold the letter as we will.
As the comparison of the two translations indicates, students of the Bible have not always treated the Bible this way. Older translators recognized that no translation can completely capture all the features of the original text. But the goal of Reformation and post-Reformation Bible translators was always to carry over as much of the original text as possible into the target text. When Tyndale found no word for a Hebrew concept, he invented one–atonement–which is having a remarkably fruitful career in the English language, not to mention English theology, psychology, anthropology, and political theory. When the KJV translators found the Hebrew redundant, they made the English redundant: ‘dying, you shall die.’ When they found a vulgarity, they (sometimes) kept it in English: a vulgar man is one who ‘pisseth against the wall.’ For most earlier translators, and for commentators, preachers, and Bible scholars, the original Bible set the agenda, while the target language and the target culture were expected to make room for it. They did not believe that the Bible needed to adjust to our prior concepts and institutions.
Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency. It no longer shapes our imaginations, our poetry, or our politics, because it is not allowed to say anything we do not already know.
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Against Wind and Tide: Derek Kidner’s Preface to His Book on Jeremiah

In the preface to The Message of Jeremiah: Against Wind and Tide in the series of books edited by Stott and Motyer called The Bible Speaks Today, Derek Kidner writes,

“. . . a preface also gives me room to put the subtitle, ‘Against wind and tide’, into its context. It comes, of course, from The Pilgrim’s Progress, at the point where Christian overtakes Mr By-ends. That easygoing character admits his difference ‘in two small points’ from ‘those of the stricter sort’ — those who ‘are for hazarding all for God at a clap’. ‘First’, he says, ‘we never strive against wind and tide. Secondly, we are always most zealous when Religion goes in his silver slippers . . .’ To this, Christian replies, ‘If you will go with us, you must go against wind and tide; . . . You must also own Religion in his rags, as well as when in his silver slippers; and stand by him, too, when bound in irons . . .
Such — initially under bitter protest, but with no turning back — was the hard pilgrimmage that Jeremiah accepted, lending its own depth to his message. To study that life and message we can well be invited in John Bunyan’s words:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither.
One here will constant be,
Come wind, Come weather
.

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A Separate Peace and the Symbolism of the Bible

Did you read A Separate Peace by John Knowles? Two friends, Gene and Phineas (nicknamed Finny), in a tree. Gene shakes a branch, Finny falls, breaks his leg, and the halcyon innocence of the summer ends. Previously a great athlete, Finny will never play sports again. When he finally returns to school, the other students set up a mock trial to determine whether or not Gene caused Finny’s fall. As it becomes evident that he did, Finny leaves in a huff, falls down a set of marble stairs, and breaks his leg again. Finny dies during the operation to set his leg. Finny’s death gives Gene a certain peace.

I mention this book because it is so full of symbolism. A period of innocence that ends with a fall at a significant tree. This is just like the Garden of Eden. Then the death of the one sinned against gives peace to the one who caused the fall. I can remember my English teacher in High School talking about how Finny was a Christ figure.

Finny is called a “Christ figure” because of the way what happens to him corresponds to what happened to Jesus both in terms of the events that took place and in the significance of those events for others. The tree becomes a symbol as it plays into the enmity between Gene and Finny, the trips to the tree provoke Gene against Finny, then it’s the scene of the crime, where the fall from the tree eventually led to Finny’s death. And to this tree Gene returns, resulting in him telling us his story.

If we don’t understand the symbolism of the book, we won’t understand the author’s message. This is true for A Separate Peace, and it’s also true for the Bible.

The Bible’s symbolism summarizes and interprets the Bible’s big story.

On Sunday, August 28, 2011, it was my privilege to preach the second of three sermons on biblical theology at Kenwood. We focused on the images, types, and patterns that the biblical authors use to build the Bible’s symbolic universe: A Set of Symbols: Images, Types, and Patterns.

We looked at two images: the tree and the temple; three kinds of types: people, events, and institutions; and two patterns: Israel’s feasts and the righteous sufferer. Summarizing and interpreting the narrative, the symbolism the biblical authors employ adds texture and deepens our ability to enter into the story they tell.

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Award Winning Novel Rejected by 26 Publishers

Yesterday I finished reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle aloud to my eldest (great book!). Then I looked it up on Wikipedia because it seemed to be the first in a series (sure enough it is), and I was struck by this:

However, when she completed the book in early 1960, it was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was, in L’Engle’s words, “too different”, and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adults’ book, anyhow?”[2][11]

Reminds me of what my mother used to say: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When finally published in 1962, the book won the John Newberry Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

The next paragraph of the Wikipedia article gets at the providential truth in publishing (as in life) that the Lord raises up and puts down:

After trying “forty-odd” publishers (L’Engle later said “twenty-six rejections”), L’Engle’s agent returned the manuscript to her. Then at Christmas, L’Engle threw a tea party for her mother. One of the guests happened to know John C. Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and insisted that L’Engle should meet with him. Although the publisher did not at the time publish a line of children’s books, Farrar met L’Engle, liked the novel and ultimately published it.[16]

Related: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 publishing houses.

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Can You Identify with Judas?

Have you ever betrayed a friend?

Can you identify with the bargain that Judas made? Have you ever decided that something else was better than Jesus? I’m not referring to inadvertent mistakes but to moments when one knows what God requires, knows what God has commanded, and chooses something else instead.

What is it in your life that you prefer to Jesus?

That’s what came down to for Judas. He decided that the money he would gain by turning Jesus over was better than all it will cost him to stay with Jesus. The authorities would appreciate him. Public opinion would shift in his favor. He would be viewed as a hero. If he stayed with Jesus, all the people who mattered in Jerusalem would continue to feel disdain for him. If he turned Jesus over to them, they would lionize him. Judas Iscariot would be known and appreciated by the Jerusalem elite. He would be famous. He would be (anachronism coming) the darling of the media. He would be a man of interest. They would surely conclude that he was a man with the fortitude to see the error of his way, recognize how dangerous Jesus was to Israel, and do the right thing without regard for his emotional and personal connection to Jesus.

Can you understand and identify with the temptation that faced Judas?

Rather than stay with the wonder worker who started with great promise but then did all the wrong things and spent all his time with these bumbling Galileans, Judas changed sides.

Do you identify with Judas?

At least we can understand the rationale for what he did. We can sympathize with him and understand him.

One of the most insidious things that literature, tv shows, and movies do is enable us to sympathize with people who do evil things. They get us emotionally wrapped up with a character. They show us why a character chose a certain course of action. They can even make that course of action seem inevitable, given who the character is and how his life has gone.

Some writers and artists manipulate their audience into calling good evil and evil good.

The fact that we can understand Judas and identify with him should not make us feel any less revulsion at the evil he has done.

We need to understand Judas, to see how he could have done what he did and why he did what he did, not to diminish our sense of right and wrong, not to call good evil and evil good, but because we must recognize recognize how we, too, could do evil like what Judas did.

It is evil because Jesus is in the right and God is with Jesus. Judas betrayed Jesus and he betrayed God.

We could fall in the same way. How do we respond to the ways that we can identify with Judas?

We pray for God to make us love righteousness and hate wickedness. We pray that God will keep us faithful to him and his Messiah, to our wives and children. We pray that God will give us moral clarity. We pray that God would cause us to feel even more horrified than we already are by the abominable profanity of the insidious and subversive and treacherous nature of evil.

On Sunday, July 3, it was my privilege to preach the passage in Mark that depicts Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Mark 14:26–52, “Jesus Stands Alone,” at Kenwood Baptist Church. The audio is here.

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The Failure of the Disciples and the Brothers Karamazov

On the night in which he was betrayed, Judas sold Jesus for money. When they arrived to arrest Jesus, Peter tried to help in a way contrary to Jesus’ teaching (taking up the sword, when Jesus has been teaching he would go to Jerusalem to die). When he was arrested, all the disciples fled. These failures are similar to the failures of the three brothers Karamazov.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov (free on kindle) centers on the sons of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. His oldest son, Dmitri, is passionate and reckless. He lives a debauched life like his father, but unlike his father he genuinely regrets the hurt he causes others. The middle son, Ivan, is a cold, rational skeptic. He is ultimately so troubled by the suffering of children that he cannot believe in God. The youngest son, Alyosha, is almost completely pure. He has genuine doubts and faces real temptation, but he loves people and has a mature faith in God. We know Alyosha is good because he knows himself to be a sinner.

For all of Alyosha’s goodness, he can do nothing about his father’s wickedness. The father is so wicked that it is no surprise when he is murdered. The only question is who did it. Alyosha does not know who committed the murder. He seems powerless to help his brother Dmitri overcome his urges and indulgence, and he cannot win Ivan to faith.

Alyosha stands like a point of light on the dark backdrop of his wicked father and the impulsive Dmitri and the unbelieving Ivan. Alyosha, however, faces situations where he knows he has failed, situations where he cannot make things better.

Dmitri’s troubles arise from the fact that he loves the world.

The temptation that faced Judas was of the sort that offered him acceptance in place of rejection, wealth instead of poverty, influence in place of obscurity.

Ivan’s troubles relate to a panic that drives him insane.

The failure of the disciples when they flee Jesus seems to come down to panic, self-preservation, and disregard for what—who—matters more than their lives. They are like sheep fleeing when the shepherd has been struck, just as Jesus said they would be in Mark 14:27.

Alyosha’s troubles mainly arise from his not always knowing the best course of action in a particular situation.

Peter’s failure with the sword arose from a lack of understanding and an inability to see the right thing to do, so he acted instinctively and wrongly.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus alone stands against overwhelming evil. Jesus is our only hope against it. Mark 14:26–52 is in the Bible to teach us our absolute need for Jesus. Jesus alone knows God’s will. Jesus alone resists temptation to stand courageous. Jesus alone can save.

The Brothers Karamazov ends in slight moral ambiguity. I won’t tell you who is convicted of the murder of the father, Fyodor Pavlovich, but the wrong man is condemned. That man then flees Russia to America to escape the miscarriage of justice. So technically he is a fugitive, but he didn’t commit the crime (and he does repent of his many sins).

There will be no injustice and no moral ambiguity at the end of the story in which Jesus is the main character.

On Sunday, July 3, it was my privilege to preach Mark 14:26–52, “Jesus Stands Alone,” at Kenwood Baptist Church.

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Is Satan the Hero of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”?

Some have alleged that Satan is the real hero of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. For instance, William Blake held that Milton was “‘of the devil’s party,’ though ‘without knowing it’” and Percy Bysshe Shelley thought that Satan was “‘a moral being,’ one ‘far superior to [Milton’s] God as one who perseveres in some purpose . . . in spite of adversity’” (The Great Books, 256).

Satan is no more the hero of Paradise Lost than Judas is the hero of the Gospel according to Mark.

Why would people think Satan is Milton’s hero? A big reason seems to be the way that Milton so faithfully presents Satan’s point of view. In presenting Satan’s perspective, Milton doesn’t impose his authorial voice on the drama to pronounce condemnation on Satan. Instead, he allows the evil of Satan’s actions and purposes to be shown. Milton isn’t telling us Satan is evil; he is showing us. Milton expects his audience to recognize the evil of what Satan says and does.

Commenting on Satan’s speech in Book 9, lines 119–30, Anthony O’Hear (The Great Books, 266) writes:

This speech, as Milton surely intends, puts into perspective the admiration of Satan of some of Milton’s critics, who see only Satan’s splendid defiance in the earlier books, but pass over the extent of his sheer malice in the later ones.

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Second Place!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
I chortle in my joy

These boys are indeed uber-cute:

We loved The Monster in the Hollows and think you will too!

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Whittaker Chambers on C. S. Lewis

As I read Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, at several points the story drove me to look things up online, where I found a page that links to many of Chambers’ other writings. Somewhere I read Solzhenitsyn say that his writing resulted from his having been thrown headlong into hell and attempting to describe the experience. Chambers’ experience with communism gives his writing that quality. He writes as a man who knows that the souls of men and the destinies of nations turn on the ability to love truth, goodness, and beauty, while evil forces try to present cheap knockoffs that steal, kill, and destroy.

Here are some gems from a piece Whittaker Chambers wrote on C. S. Lewis:

Lewis leaving class

“The lecturer, a short, thickset man with a ruddy face and a big voice, was coming to the end of his talk. Gathering up his notes and books, he tucked his hornrimmed spectacles into the pocket of his tweed jacket and picked up his mortarboard. Still talking—to the accompaniment of occasional appreciative laughs and squeals from his audience—he leaned over to return the watch he had borrowed from a student in the front row. As he ended his final sentence, he stepped off the platform.

The maneuver gained him a head start on the rush of students down the center aisle. Once in the street, he strode rapidly —his black gown billowing behind his grey flannel trousers—to the nearest pub for a pint of ale.

Clive Staples Lewis was engaged in his full-time and favorite job—the job of being an Oxford don in the Honour School of English Language & Literature, a Fellow and tutor of Magdalen College and the most popular lecturer in the University. To watch him downing his pint at the Eastgate (his favorite pub), or striding, pipe in mouth, across the deer park, a stranger would not be likely to guess that C. S. Lewis is also a best-selling author and one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world.”

Lewis on sex in heaven

“Sex in Heaven? Bachelor Lewis is no man to be afraid of that one either: “The letter and spirit of Scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.””

Delivered from the steep descent

“When he was about 18, Lewis bought a book called Phantasies, by George Macdonald, a Scottish Presbyterian best known for his Princess & Curdie and other children’s fairy tales. In the introduction to his recent anthology of Macdonald’s work (TIME, June 2), Lewis confesses the importance of that day’s purchase: “I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantasies was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. . . . What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise . . . my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.””

Reaction of unbelieving colleagues

“Outside his own Christian circle, Lewis is not particularly popular with his Oxford colleagues. Some resent his large student following. Others criticize his “cheap” performances on the BBC and sneer at him as a “popularizer.” There are complaints about his rudeness (he is inclined to bellow “Nonsense !” in the heat of an argument when a conventionally polite 25-word circumlocution would be better form). But their most serious charge is that Lewis’ theological pamphleteering is a kind of academic heresy.

On this score, one of Lewis’ severest critics insists that his works of scholarship, The Allegory of Love (on Spenser), and A Preface to Paradise Lost, are “miles ahead” of any other literary criticism in England. But Lewis’ Christianity, says his critic, has brought him more money than it ever brought Joan of Arc, and a lot more publicity than she enjoyed in her lifetime. In contrast to his tight scholarly writing (says this critic), Lewis’ Christian propaganda is cheap sophism: having lured his reader onto the straight highway of logic, Lewis then inveigles him down the garden path of orthodox theology.”

The whole thing is definitely worth reading, not least for references to the possibility of revival and the comments on Dorothy Sayers and others.

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Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s “Moby Dick”

In Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, a massive white whale named Moby Dick has bitten off Captain Ahab’s leg. In response to this, Ahab commits himself to killing the whale Moby Dick.

Captain Ahab bears the name of an idolatrous king of Israel.

Captain Ahab refuses to accept what has been done to him by a higher power.

Rather than accept the loss of his leg and move on with his life, Captain Ahab vows revenge and seeks to take it.

Melville is showing us how people who refuse to submit to God Almighty engage in a hopeless attempt to kill God and have their own will be done in life.

Melville has one character identify the whale as God incarnate. Ahab rebels against his fate and seeks vengeance for what has happened to him. Along the way Melville shows that Ahab’s quest has ruined him, destroyed his ability to enjoy life, and left him a boiling cauldron of hatred.

The story is Melville’s dramatic depiction and exposition of what life is like for those who refuse to submit to God and seek to establish their own will in place of his.

In the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12, Jesus tells a story that summarizes Israel’s history and explains why he is being rejected by the religious establishment. The religious establishment is like Melville’s Captain Ahab – they don’t want the Messiah God has given to them, so they declare war on the Lord and his Christ like Ahab trying to harpoon Moby Dick.

Then the Pharisees and Sadducees both try to trap Jesus.

The Pharisees come with a question about whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. These guys are more outmatched than a first year law student trying to take on Antonin Scalia. It’s like they’re trying to outrun a motorcycle on a tri-cycle.

The Sadducees come to Jesus with an argumentum ad absurdum that will show how ridiculous belief in the resurrection is. Jesus shows the fallacy of their argumentation on two points. First, he shows that there are factors about the resurrection they have not considered. What they think is a problem is not a problem because things will be changed in such a way that the problem goes away. Second, Jesus shows that the Torah, which they accept, implies the resurrection.

Jesus then answers an honest question about the greatest commandment, and the discussion of loving God and neighbor is a stark contrast with the traps Jesus has evaded. The Pharisees and Sadducees are like King Ahab of Israel, rejecting God’s Lordship and rebelling against him, seeking to establish their own will rather than submit and obey. And they are like Melville’s Captain Ahab, refusing to accept the Messiah God has given to them and instead seeking to harpoon Jesus.

You try to harpoon the whale, to kill God and take the vineyard for yourself, and you will ruin your life and destroy the lives of all around you. Melville depicts this as Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale results in the whale attacking the ship and the death of the whole crew—with the exception of the one named Ishmael (a name of one who did not partake of God’s covenant with Israel).

Mark 12 then concludes with Jesus teaching on the Christ, hypocrites, and sacrificial giving.

On Sunday, June 5, 2011, it was my privilege to preach Mark 12, “Tenants, Traps, and Teaching,” at Kenwood Baptist Church.

Don’t play Ahab’s part. Don’t go to your grave with his bitter words to the whale on your lips:

“to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

I had a great time listening to Moby Dick, and if you’d like to beguile a little less than an hour with my sermon on Mark 12 it’s here.

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