A Catechism for Western Thought

Below is a catechism that I composed for my Western Thought classes last year.  I’ve worked on it some more and I hope to finish it someday, even if it is for other purposes.  One of the great memories from last years is my 9 AM Tuesday and Thursday class answering the questions with such great enthusiasm that they could be heard all down the hall.  Another moment of “what is

A Catechism for Western Thought

To be memorized and recited by students

The word “catechism” comes from a Greek word which is used in the New Testament to refer to teaching someone in an orderly and systematic way, by word of mouth, in the form of dialogue–question and answer. [1]  Catechisms have been used since early Christianity to teach the core beliefs of the faith.  Some catechisms were composed by individual pastors to teach their congregations the doctrines of the faith, or prepare adults or children to make public professions of faith.  Other catechisms have been adopted by entire branches of the Church as their official teaching, such as in my own denomination, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.      

      The catechism that we will learn this year will consist of the principles of conduct among each other, the virtues that we are inspired to attain by the literature that we study, and statements from that literature.  My reason for doing this is that our primary purpose in education is to become virtuous people.  I hope that through this tool, that I will hold myself accountable to the task of instruction in virtue, and for us in the attainment of virtue.

  1. What are the rules of our class?

The rules of our class are:  Do your work.  Don’t be a jerk. 

2.   What is the fruit of the Spirit?

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[2]

       3.  What are the seven virtues?

Kindness, temperance, love, self-control, humility, diligence, patience.

  1. What are the works of the flesh?

Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.

  1. What are the seven deadly sins?

Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, wrath.

  1. What is a Christian?

A Christian is a person who receives and rests upon Christ alone for salvation, as He is offered in the gospel, and follows Him as Lord and Master.

  1. What do Christians believe?

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord.  Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.  He descended into hell.  The third day He rose again from the dead;  He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence He will come to judge the quick and the dead.

 I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen. 

  1. What is honor?

Honor is the value of a person in his own eyes and in the eyes of his peers. It is his estimation of his own worth and his excellence recognized by society.

  1. What is shame?

Shame is the absence of value of a person in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his peers.  It is his estimate of his own unworthiness and his disgrace recognized by society. 

  1. How does God reveal Himself?

God reveals Himself in general revelation and in special revelation.

  1. What is general revelation?

General revelation is God’s revealing of Himself in creation, nature, and providence.

  1. What is special revelation?

Special revelation is God’s revealing of Himself through His Word and His Son.

  1. What is conscience?

Conscience is the writing of God’s law on peoples’ hearts.

  1. What are the primary motivations for human action?

Honor and shame; fear and power; guilt and righteousness.

  1. What is honor?

Honor is an evaluation of a person’s actions, which determine a person’s worth, his position, or his value in a community.

  1. What is shame?

Shame is a negative evaluation of one’s actions, which undermine a person’s worth, his position, or his value in a community.

17.  What is power?

Power is the ability to act to control or influence people or things in a particular way.

  1. What is fear?

Fear is the terror that arises from the inability to control or influence people or things in a particular way.

  1. How is the fear of God different from servile fear?

The fear of God is the proper state of mind before a being who is altogether righteous, holy, powerful, omnipresent, who made this world, and who governs all his creatures and all their actions.  God has had mercy upon his people in Christ Jesus.  Thus, his children do not fear him from a foreboding of condemnation, but a recognition of his perfect character and his status as Creator and Governor of the universe, and Savior of all his people.

  1. What is righteousness?

Righteousness is conformity to God’s law in all our thoughts, words, and works.

  1. What is guilt?

Guilt is the awakening of the conscience to breaking God’s law in our thoughts, words, and works.

  1. Can human beings become righteous before God by their deeds?

Because we are corrupted in our whole nature through original sin, the corruption of the whole nature, and all actual transgressions, we cannot become morally righteous before God through our own deeds. 

  1. What hope do human beings have, as the Scripture tells us, “without holiness, no one will see the Lord?”[3]

God has provided a righteousness outside of ourselves in the gospel, the righteousness of God, which is from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘the just shall live by faith.’[4]

  1. What means has God provided that we might have the righteousness of God by faith?

Faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means through which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.[5]

  1. What was Socrates’ motto?

Know thyself. 

  1. How does John Calvin expand on Socrates’ wisdom in the Institutes?

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.[6]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]http://www.reformedspokane.org/Doctrine_pages/Doctrine_Intro/Doctrine_Intro_pages/Catechism.html

[2] Gal. 5:19-21

[3] Heb. 12:14

[4] Romans 1:17

[5] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 85.

[6]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 1:1.1 accessed August 15, 2018. https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/calvin-institutes-christianity/book1/

 

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In Retrospect: First Day of Classes

9780226470498For the first time in over a decade, I will not be teaching Homer to tenth grade students.  In leaving my teaching job, I will miss my students the most.  Teaching them, talking with them, listening and giving guidance, and hanging out with them has been the bulk of my work.  In remembrance of my students, I’m posting an article that I wrote last year called “Can Virtue Be Taught.”

Can Virtue Be Taught?

As I write this, another academic year looms ahead.  Instead of sleeping late, taking naps, going to the gym, and travelling, I’m now spending my time on creating welcome letters, updating supply lists, adjusting assignment sheets, and answering emails from parents who want to ensure that their “little darlings” are adequately prepared for their first foray into PEP.  I’ve taught long enough so that if all I did was change the dates of the assignment sheets from previous years, I would have coherent lesson plans for each class, and nobody would ever know the difference.  A decade is a long time to teach the same class with the same books.  It’s almost as long as my students have been alive!  But this begs the question:  Why?  Why assign readings from texts that are three thousand years old?  Why assign weekly study questions on the reading material?  What’s the point of writing essays, taking tests, or even coming together for class?  Certainly, the writers at Spark Notes have done an adequate job of summarizing the texts we read, performing literary analyses, and bringing out the important themes of the texts that we read.  Perhaps they do a better job than any of us will.  So, what is it that brings us together each class day to discuss these texts?  Surely people have read these texts and mined the depths of them over the last millennia so that we have nothing to add that has not already been written by someone else.

Some peruse the multitude of readings assigned at Providence Extension Program (PEP) and conclude that we are trying to fill the heads of our students with facts.  Again, if this were the case, would not the memorization of Spark Notes be a more efficient strategy to accomplish this end?  Why waste the time that it takes to read Homer, Plato, Virgil, or Augustine?  Why come to class to discuss these works, if this is our goal?

A number of parents enroll their children in PEP desiring that their offspring be well read and well rounded, chiefly to compete well for college admissions and scholarships.  Others desire for their children to earn “high school credits,” whatever that means.  To be sure, there are as many reasons for enrolling at PEP as there are families who enroll.

One reason that I never hear for requiring students to complete the lists of readings and assignments is for the student to acquire virtue.  There may be several reasons why this goal rarely comes up in conversations.  First, we read mostly non-Christian authors who arrive at different conclusions about the “permanent things” such as God, man, the problem of evil, the purpose of life, government, and ethics than the Scripture teaches.  That is, that the ancient writers may disagree with the Biblical writers on what constitutes virtue and vice. This objection is fair enough.  But when one compares what Homer, Virgil, Euripedes, and Sophocles illuminate as virtuous actions through their characters and actions, one easily recognizes virtue and vice.  One sees what the Apostle called, “the law written on their hearts,” even though these writers did not have access to the Holy Scriptures (Rom. 2:15).

It may be that the most consistent objection to the idea that the purpose of education is to acquire virtue is a spiritual objection.  The argument is expressed something like this:  The Bible teaches that apart from Christ, no good thing dwells in us.  Therefore, to attempt to teach virtue apart from the gospel is at best, ineffective, and at worst, to substitute moralism for salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  In other words, people will become self-satisfied with their own performance, or that they will despair of acquiring any goodness whatsoever. What we may infer from this argument is that to teach virtue apart from the gospel is to put our ladder up against the wrong wall.  Once we arrive at the top, we find that we have arrived on the roof of the wrong building.  According to this line of reasoning, apart from regeneration, virtue will not take hold.  So, this makes instruction in virtue a waste of time until the new birth takes place.

However, we are happily inconsistent on this point.  Parents pray with and for their children, and teach them to pray before a child makes a verbal profession of faith in Christ.  Such parents want their children to see prayer as the natural activity of the Christian, and to build habits and encourage in their children the delight of communion with God.  Prayer works, not only as a discipline for those who are self-professed believers, but it inculcates the mentality of dependence on God. The habit of prayer brings about the desire to know God and enjoy communion with Him.  In praying, we recognize and acknowledge that we are dependent on God for our every need.  As we pray, we build the habit of prayer, and we trust that through the due use of the ordinary means of grace, that God will save and sanctify our children, not because these actions accrue merit with Him, but from His promise that He will bring all into His sheep fold all who are appointed to eternal life.

All education is necessarily moral.  No matter what a teacher or curriculum intends to teach, something is taught.  If a teacher in the classroom of a secular school does not mention the name of God for the duration of an entire school year, something is being taught about God, despite the efforts to maintain neutrality in matters of faith.  When a Christian school tacks on Bible verses to areas of study with no apparent connection, something about the Bible is being taught.

James K. A. Smith has written several books about what he calls “cultural liturgies.”  Some of his more important insights are, first, virtue is “more caught than taught,” and second, virtue is acquired as a habit.  Through continuous practice, one grows to prefer the good to the bad, the genuine to the counterfeit, and truth to falsehood.  While disciplines, including studies, consist of outward acts, performing these acts changes us from the inside out.  One of the most frequently heard examples of this is the person who takes up running who perceives herself as unathletic. At first, she loathes the activity. She may have fallen victim to a sedentary lifestyle for which even a fast walk is a ‘big ask.”  Perhaps her experience with running is that it was punishment for dropping fly balls at softball practice.  Or, she’s self-conscious about how she looks in Spandex, and feels defeated about having to walk every quarter mile.  But she perseveres, and soon begins to feel better, to have more energy and confidence.  She becomes liberated from being concerned about how she looks in Spandex.  Along the way, her loathing of exercise is transformed into enjoyment.  How did this happen?  She dragged herself out the door, day by day, and persevered until running became a habit that not only brought about physical benefits, but transformed her attitude about exercise, and ultimately, her self-image.

Virtue is cultivated by habit.  Through training and repetition, one learns to love what is good, and true, and beautiful.  While stories aren’t written as morality place, they take us into worlds where we experience truth, beauty, and goodness.  J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a fantasy adventure story.  But in his story, Tolkien shows us heroism, friendship, courage, manliness, self-sacrifice, and the power of love to destroy hatred and evil.  Tolkien shows us what is good, and this goodness resonates with our spirit in such a way that we would desire such goodness to be part of our lives.

So while literary analysis, philosophical argument, and Biblical apologetics will be the bulk of what we do in class, these activities are tools.  These disciplines are instruments to prod us to acquire virtue, to learn to love what is good.  The Apostle Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8 to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.”  We are to train ourselves in the truth, in goodness, in righteousness, to hate what is evil and love what is good.

If I achieve any success this year, you will be different from your peers.  The relativism and privatization of faith and morality gives the impression that virtue is unnecessary for human flourishing.  The monetization of every form of public space — from Google to Facebook to Twitter to YouTube and even the credit card swiping machines at the grocery store imparts the lesson that we are first and foremost consumers, and that our happiness does not consist in acquiring virtue, but in consuming goods and services.  The connection that we make from the monetization of public discourse to education is that education is consumption.  Texts are consumed to pass on information that can be regurgitated on tests or in essay.  In this way of thinking, we become what we buy.

However, this perception of the human being as primarily a being who consumes misses the mark.  The educational version of this is to see people only as “thinking things,” containers who hold information.  In this view, the job of the educator is to fill the container of the “thinking thing” with facts and information.

Writing in the fourth century AD, St. Augustine spoke of sin as “disordered loves.”  Because of the Fall of Man and indwelling sin, we love the wrong things, or we love the right things but not in Biblical proportions.  We are told to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” but our self-love predominates over every object of our love.  We love the gifts of God’s creation more than the Giver.

Augustine’s message is, “you are what you love.”  We love, not simply with our emotions, but as the Apostle John writes, “in deed and in truth.”  It is my hope that we will not only see how our loves are disordered, but how we can rightly order our loves for the glory of God and for the benefit of others.

 

 

 

Moving to Houston

church pic    After twelve years of living in Jacksonville and serving the Lord at Providence Extension Program and Ortega Presbyterian Church, Amy and I are starting on a new adventure.We are moving to Houston, where I have been called as an Associate Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church.  So far, they have already lined up many preaching and teaching opportunities for me.  We are excited about beginning this new chapter in our lives, but we have made many dear friends here, and have had the privilege of being involved in the lives of many students, parents,  teachers, and church members.  We’re looking forward to serving the congregation at Covenant.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to write and post on a more regular basis while serving in this next calling.

The Harlem Renaissance: A Model For Cultural Engagement From Within The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher’s much acclaimed new book, The Benedict Option is being released this week. Having been a regular reader of his blog at The American Conservative, I’m somewhat familiar with his proposal. I’ve also just finished reading Nathan Irwin Huggins’ The Harlem Renaissance. While it would appear that the Benedict Option proposal and the Harlem Renaissance have nothing in common, there is much to learn from the Harlem Renaissance from Benedict Option devotees.

For the uninitiated, Dreher’s Benedict Option proposes that what some Christians term the “culture war” has been lost. The Christian faith is no longer the predominant worldview in the West. Christians have accommodated to this development largely by allowing themselves to become absorbed by consumerism and what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is a counterfeit of historic Christianity that reduces God to a divine butler. Dreher’s concern is that current Christian practice has accommodated the culture to the extent that professing believers have lost their distinctiveness. In Jesus’ terms, the salt of the earth has lost its savor, and is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men (Matthew 5:13 KJV). The tradition that the fathers are to hand down to their children has become so diluted, that much of the Church has nothing substantial to pass on to the next generation. Dreher’s proposal is for Christians to “strategically withdraw” for the purpose of returning to the roots of the faith so that Christian practice regains its distinctiveness and has the “weight” to be passed down intact to future generations. Dreher is looking to the past, to the efforts of the monks in the early Middle Ages, who by strategically withdrawing from the world, preserved early Christian literature until such as time as people saw its worth and desired to read and study it and return to the faith of the Fathers.  Thomas Cahill tells this story ably in How The Irish Saved Civilization.

The Harlem Renaissance is a literary and artistic movement that fanned the flames of a robust black cultural identity beginning in the 1920s. While this movement, called the “New Negro Movement” at the time featured Harlem as its epicenter, its influence spread throughout America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Historians typically see the waning of this movement beginning with the Great Depression, but its influence continues today. The artists of this period sought to create a distinctive black culture and to foster pride in black identity through the media of literature, drama, music, and the visual arts.

I raise this comparison because the Harlem Renaissance may be a possible sort of template for Christian culture-making within the Benedict option. The Harlem Renaissance was such a diverse movement that not all who were a part of it subscribed to all of the tenets that I mention below. Rather, these are general characteristics that summarize the philosophical distinctives of many of its voices.

First, in the Harlem Renaissance, blackness was promoted as a source of pride rather than a source of shame. Even while living within the constraints of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, many of the voices of this movement promoted pride in black identity. Faith-shaming has made many Christian wary of coming out or living openly as Christians. Even if Christians are destined to be treated as second-class citizens, we need to develop a sense of the right kind of pride in our faith and in our identity, to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but to publicly live out our God-given identity in Christ.

Second, the Harlem Renaissance highlights the importance of community.The Harlem of the 1920s created an incubator of culture through a network of artists, patrons, and causes. While there were certainly artists who flourished outside of this community, living in a community that fostered a shared identity and cultural aspiration created symbiotic relationships that enriched the quality and distinctiveness of artistic expression. Not all Benedict Option-minded Christians will be able to relocate to residential communities of like-minded people. But it is necessary to encourage and be encouraged by like-minded people who believe that mining the treasures of the past and appropriating them for today is the way forward to further distinctive Christian living.

Third, while not every creator who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance attained higher education, W. E. B. DuBois promoted the necessity of African-Americans being education classically, as free men, rather than only being apprenticed to a trade. In order to pass down the traditions of the faith, our children must be taught to think broadly, deeply, critically, as free people, hence the importance of a liberal arts education rather than an almost exclusive focus on scientific, technological, and vocational education.

Fourth, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced “high” culture and “folk” culture, rather than mass culture. Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Count Cullen were poets who strove to be great poets, rather than great Black poets. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston incorporated elements of black folk culture in their works. Jazz and blues, the only genre of music indigenous to America, originated from folk culture, then spread to popular culture and high culture. Popular culture, as we know it, was just beginning to develop during this period, so it’s difficult to know to what extent practitioners would have created art for mass or consumer culture. In today’s Evangelical tradition, most literature, music, and visual arts are geared toward mass or consumer culture rather than high or folk culture. Such works are here today and gone tomorrow. Those of us who are practitioners of the arts must aim long-term and seek to create works that will stand the test of time.

Last, the Harlem Renaissance had their own “house organs” to publish and proliferate their works. The Crisis, perhaps the best-known magazine of this period, was the official magazine of the NAACP, and Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, published and promoted the work of African-American writers. The Messenger and The Negro World were political publications that also published poetry and essays of interest to their audiences.

Print media runs on tight margins today. First Things, Touchstone, and World are fine publications. Alas, Books and Culture ceased operations last year. While web publishing is incredibly cheap (it cost me nothing except for my annual subscription fee to WordPress to publish this essay), putting an essay, a poem, a story, or a novel into print makes a statement. It announces to the world that this work is worth reading and taking up space on one’s shelf. Publishing on the web has enormous advantages in terms of reaching both a targeted and diverse audience. Print is not going away. Certainly, Benedict option writers should seek to publish with the publishers who will give their work its greatest reach. But if the marginalization of Christianity has come, Christians will need to publish and promote their own work, and will need to develop the institutions and organizations necessary to do so.

What I’ve Been Watching

     I’ve watched two movies in the last couple of weeks that have directed my reading and thinking.  I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House.  Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary narrates the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s accounts of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This was a compelling movie and one that caused me to examine my own beliefs and prejudices about racism and the development of African-American culture in the United States.

     The other movie was Paris After Midnight, a Woody Allen romantic comedy that is set in Paris. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer who is working on a novel.  His materialistic fiancee, Inez, ridicules this project and wants him to stick to screenwriting. This conflict becomes more pronounced during the film while Pender considers moving to Paris.   While on his way home from a night of drinking and dancing, Pender gets lost and a vehicle picks him up and takes him back to the Jazz Age.  Each night at midnight, he is able to revisit the Paris of the twenties, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and other luminaries  from this period.  Through traveling back in time, Pended gains the courage to finish his novel and to break off the relationship with his fiancee.

     At first glance, it appears that these films have little in common.  What stands out to me about both is the question of the “thickness” of one’s tradition.  One of the questions that I asked after watching I Am Not Your Negro was, “is the American tradition of social justice “thick” enough to bring about a better future for African Americans?  Can Americans overcome race-based slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to create a more just society for African Americans?  Are there people who will express the way forward for justice whom both African Americans and whites will listen to?

     Allen’s film also implies a question concerning the thickness of tradition.  Gil Pender was not able to find enough thickness in the tradition of his own day to produce serious art.  Where do we find the resources to produce serious art?  Such resources are not going to be found on Google, in popular music, or Direct TV.  There’s a sense in which we must recover resources from our past and give a fresh voice to them.

Summer Reading

One of the things that I’ve been able to do since the accident is read.  I have a stack of books that I’m making progress through.  Another stack is gathering dust.  Still, another stack is no longer a stack.  These books have made their way back to the shelves, but have not yet been properly shelved, giving faint hope that I will get to them.

1848-261926

 

Currently Reading:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.  This is the biography that inspired the Broadway musical.  It’s been on the list ever since I heard about the musical and showed clips to my US History class this past year.  Great Read!

Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.  A look at the development of revivals and evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain before the American Civil War.

Homeric Moments by Eva Brann.  Reflections of teaching Homer for over fifty years at St. John’s College.  This is a good read but a challenging book, and worthwhile to build a stronger foundation in my thinking about and teaching of Homer.

Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson.  A guide to the fundamental principles of public ministry and the calling of the pastor.  While much of this is material is content I’ve picked up and absorbed over the years, I sure do wish this book was around when I was a young minister!  It’s a judicious condensation of the work of the pastor that has spurred me on in prayer and preparing for the ministry of the Word.

Listening to on Audible:

Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters At The End by Atul Gawande.  Thought provoking book on aging and how the West cares for an aging population.  Gawande convincingly shows us how the medical model of caring for elderly people often ignores their desires and robs them of the agency that those of us who are able to live independently take for granted, and profiles residences where elderly people are able to exercise greater liberty and agency in their making, and how this adds years to their lives and life to their years.

On the shelf/nightstand:

The Didascalion of Hugo of St. Victor.  A medieval treatise reading, education, and the seven liberal arts.  It’s a little challenging to get through with the discomfort I’m feeling so I’ve put it aside for now.

Eisenhower by Stephen Ambrose.  I’ve always thought that Eisenhower is one of the most underrated and interesting Presidents.  I want to get into this one, but it will probably wait until after Hamilton.

How To Read A Sentence and How To Write One by Stanley Fish.  I try to keep a writing book going all the time.  Right now, the plot of this one fails to grip, but I really haven’t given it much of a chance.

The Power Broker:  Robert Caro and The Fall of New York by Robert Moses.  I’m about 8o percent through.  An interesting and must-read for anyone who is at all interested in the history of “the city that never sleeps.”  At 1200 pages, it’s too dang heavy to pick up now!

 

 

 

 

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Injury Update

Below, you can see the carnage of our recent auto accident.  We are blessed to have survived and to have the assurance that we should fully recover.  In the meantime, there are daily difficulties that arise from being limited because of injuries.  I don’t want to write this in an ungrateful spirit, because my wife and I are so thankful for the kindnesses, meals, rides, errands, and many other tangible expressions of love from the Providence Extension Program (PEP) community where we both serve.

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Perhaps I’m reading the wrong book for this time in our lives, but I’m listening to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.  Broadly speaking, Gawande writes about the intersection between medicine and aging, and often finds that treating aging and its complications according to a medical model results in a tradeoff between safety and quality of life.  Gawande’s narrative is mostly comprised of the stories of people as they age, and are confronted with physical, medical, and lifestyle challenges that accompany growing older.

The experience I’m sharing with those in Gawande’s narrative is that because of the injuries sustained by my wife and me, everything takes longer and is much more complicated.  Even daily tasks such as laundry, finding clothes to wear, driving when I’m sufficiently between doses of pain medicine, making sure that Amy’s medications are within reach and organized, and having to take frequent breaks from working guarantee that productivity is a dirty word to me.   A couple of experiences have really surprised me about all of this.

I’m surprised by the amount of joy that caring for my wife gives me.  Amy and I took care of my sister for over a year.  Much of that time, Cathy was more dependent on others than Amy is.  Being in a position to help my wife has been the greatest joy of the accident, and an experience that makes me hopeful for the years ahead.

I’m surprised at how easily little things can upset me.  People have cooked for us and brought us dinner almost every night.  Most of the meals have been delicious, and even people who live far away (45 minutes or more!) have gone out of their way to help us.  But last night, I almost broke down because I wanted to have the foods that we used to cook before the accident.  Since the accident was right in the aftermath of our trip to Peru, we haven’t eaten a meal that we have cooked in five weeks.  Again, the sheer generosity of people is overwhelming!  Most of us would love to be in this position!  But the combination of missing the foods that we have made in the past and my inability to prepare them almost caused me to have a meltdown!

Unfortunately, I’ve been difficult to live with.  The last thing Amy needs is a cantankerous husband!  I need to pause and take a deep breath more often.  Amy and I are well cared for.   Our children couldn’t be more sympathetic or helpful.  But pain and loss of function are difficult realities.  I’m hoping that this isn’t a foreshadowing of what old age will look like for me.  God is showing me how much I need to grow in grace for us to have a gracious, happy, and peaceful home, which is something that with His help, we can achieve no matter what our limitations are.

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Recent Reading

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  Yes, it’s taken me about a year and a half to get through this massive tome.  I still have a little bit to go but I should finish it this week.  Philosophically, I feel like it’s the story of my generation.  There’s so much in this book that I could write about, and at least as much that is over my head, and that’s not even mentioning the untranslated French paragraphs!  Taylor’s case is fairly complicated.  While the title implies growth in secularity over time in the West (which Taylor affirms), the two most useful concepts for me were the concepts of “disenchantment” and the reasonableness of the secular paradigm even for the religious.

The idea of disenchantment is that for persons living in the West in the Modern Age, it’s difficult to believe in the supernatural and ascribe explanations of phenomena to the supernatural, even for religious people.  For example, Medievals would likely ascribe pathological evil to supernatural activity such as demon possession, while Moderns would look to explanations rooted in nurture and environment.  The “secular age” is one that is denuded of the supernatural.

This is one of the reasons why I found it so hard to teach Medieval literature such as Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  For Malory, everything is supernatural.  The idea of not believing in the supernatural or ascribing cause and effect to the ineffable is as unthinkable is not breathing.  Characters that readers consider both good and evil possess this worldview.  In contrast, the modern reader, even if religious, sees the secular paradigm as a conceivable option, and may often see the rationalistic option as more viable than that which is rooted in the Divine.

In this respect, A Secular Age helped me to understand my own story and my own perception of the world.  It’s a valuable work in this respect, and one I’m glad that I plowed through.

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Recent Reading

While I’ve been convalescing and taking care of my wife after our recent car accident, I’ve set off on a torrid pace in reading.  The following are some snippets from some of the texts that I’ve engaged with over the past week.  Below is my account of Sunday’s readings.

 The Epistle to the Hebrews (ESV Translation).  I wasn’t able to go to church so I decided to attempt to read large portions of Bible books during my time on the disabled list.  I do have regular Bible reading plan, but Hebrews is my favorite book. I derived much encouragement from this letter to a church of Jewish background that was tempted to return to Judaism while suffering severe persecution.  The writer is sympathetic to the plight of this church.  His love for this church and his pastoral encouragement comes through loud and clear, and doesn’t keep him from giving his readers a “talking-to” where needed.

Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.  This book has stared at me for several years from my seat in the family room for several years.  I expected a hagiographic treatment of the leaders of the First Great Awakening in America.  Luminaries such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies were men of God whose preaching was blessed by the Holy Spirit in the conversion of those outside of Christ and the strengthening of the Church from within.  After reading the first hundred pages, I’m encouraged to see that while Murray believes that the Great Awakening was a giant boon to American Christianity, there were unsalutary developments as well, and his view of the Revival is more nuanced than I expected.

Murray has challenged the view that I’ve about the Great Awakening for many years.  Protestant church historians are largely divided into two camps on whether the Great Awakening was a positive development for American Christianity.  On one end are historians such as D. G. Hart and Nathan Hatch, who believe that the Great Awakening was harmful to the development of the development of the American church because the revival preachers operated largely outside of the individual church.  Because the church and its catechetical role tended to be bypassed by the revival preachers, the effect was a Christianity in America that was fundamentally individualistic rather than churchly, and harmful to the growth and development of the Church.  The tother camp, championed by Iain Murray, believes that the First Great Awakening was beneficial to the American Church, while the confluence of events known as the Second Great Awakening fostered deviance from orthodox Christianity.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve largely held to the second view.  However, Murray presents a more nuanced view than I expected.  He makes a persuasive case that the reason that the preachers of the Great Awakening often bypassed the institutional Church was not because they held a low estimate of the Church, but that often the Church as an institution (organized gatherings under the rule of elders, pastors, buildings, etc.) was still in an organizational and developmental phase, and thus lacked the capacity for the churchly Christianity that is the norm of the Reformed churches.

I’ve only reached pate 100, but I’m glad that I took this book off the shelf and I’m really profiting from it.

Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson.  Much of this book is a rehash of other writings of Johnson that has been expanded and put into a more polished form.  However, Dr. Johnson has been one of the most influential men in the way that I view the ministry of the gospel.  I’ve really profited from his theological vision and his encouragement to combine such vision with the daily and weekly tasks of gospel ministry.

 

 

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Journals of Bygone Days

I’ve never been disciplined about revising and rewriting.  Ever. Not in any genre or for any audience.  Almost all the papers that I submitted in college, graduate school, and seminary were first drafts.  Even when I write my sermons today, two drafts seems like a luxury.

While I’ve been blessed with the ability to exceed the standards of others in the first draft, I don’t see this as a virtue anymore.  I’m almost 55 years old, and as an outgrowth of editing and helping my students revise their papers, I’m learning how important revision is and beginning to discipline myself to engage in this labor.  In my garage sits a container full of old journals.  Today, I began to reread them, wondering if there is material that could be rewritten or revised to share with others.  So far, I have not discovered the great American novel, or much that would interest even my family members.

Today, I skimmed through about half of my journals from 2010.  These journals consist chiefly of thinking through daily living.  Dilemmas at work, in the church, within our family, and my own heart, mind, and soul pervade these pages.  Efforts to think through blessings, questions, problems, and uncertainties fill these pages.  The most striking quality is the sameness of my mental deliberations today, almost seven years later.  Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much movement of my interior furniture.  Children have graduated, gone to college, and found employment.  Throughout the rest of our lives however, we’ve experienced great stability and continuity.  My wife and I will soon celebrate our 29th anniversary.  We’re going on eight years of serving together in the same place of employment, and nine years of living in the same home.

While continuity may not make for the most interesting reading,  it does give great reward and satisfaction.  I’m grateful to God that He has allowed us to experience this degree of stability.  May He grant us wisdom in how to profit from it.

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