White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

(Late) Summer Reading–Esther Lightcap Meek

(Esther L. Meek is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, and Instructor of Apologetics at Redeemer Theological Seminary. Her 2003 Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos) is a book for people considering Christianity who have questions about how we know anything at all. Her 2011 book, Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade), proposes the interpersonal covenantal relationship as the paradigm for all human knowing. A third book is forthcoming.)

Esther Lightcap MeekMy daughter, Starr, names seasons. She names seasons, and her friends and I live into the theme she has designated. This summer is the “Summer of Beauty.” So I took it as all the reason I needed to start through David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. The book makes me feel as if my whole life has been preparation for this event. And it catches up all of my life in its exuberant toccata on the theme of the Holy Trinity.

I’ve had a glorious late-afternoon-on-the-deck reading regimen this summer: along with Hart, I have dipped daily into Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (for an upcoming class); John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (a Christmas present); Roger Lundin’s biography of Emily Dickinson, The Art of Belief(for a faculty seminar); Gascoigne and Thornton, Tacit Knowledge (for a book review); Dostoyevsky’s Brothers K (for “pleasure”…(sigh)). But Hart’s Beauty has crowned and caught them up, too.

I half-understand what Hart says! All my years in philosophy have been vindicated in reading this book, even as they prove inadequate. All my years as a Christian believer have just opened out onto splendor, even as Hart has revealed the poverty of my experience hitherto. I have been, shall we say, surfing in high seas, tumbling off regularly, bowled over by mammoth waves, nevertheless happily splashing about. I feel that death would be, not so much “but my entrance into glory,” as Bach writes, so much as a slight adjustment of the frequency on my reality monitor (my radio-repairing dad’s hypothesis): glory is already near—very near.

Exuberance aside, in a short effort at coherence: Hart’s is a work in theological aesthetics, following up the work of Hans Urs von Balthazar. He argues that Christianity, with its unique doctrine of the Holy Trinity, alone espouses a view of ultimate reality that is both infinite and beautiful, where shalom really is the ultimate real. Other philosophies generallyThe Beauty of the Infinite posit chaos or violence as ultimately real, with all human efforts toward logos and order developed in opposition to it. These warring opposites are always about power and totalizing, absolute, control. But the Christian Trinity, with its eternal dance of love and gift, mutuality and particularity, ever creative of new possibilities—all of this externalized in the rhetorical analogy of creation—ensconces and ensures harmony of one and many from all eternity. Shalom need never be wrested, ultimately, from violence or chaos, for it is original. Infinite distance and infinite variety need never be feared (contra Jorge Borges), for it is beauty—God himself. What we must do is resist persistently the totalizing forces of modern (and postmodern) Western thought and culture, and their adverse effects in our lives and theology, with the exuberance of the good news of Jesus Christ, who retells and reinscribes the story of reality. “If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this Heavenly Boy!”—the words of poet Robert Southwell.

If you found that last paragraph half-understandable but tantalizing, I have succeeded in giving you a taste of the book. I have also, hopefully, indicated why Hart’s text itself must be ever-new sentence after ever-new sentence, seemingly to joyous infinity. With the fall semester just around the corner, I don’t have much prospect of finishing the book. But I anticipate with joy another summers of surfing until—well, maybe I’ll just keep rereading it. It probably won’t matter what the season gets named; that theme will prove to have been original with God, too.

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(Late) Summer Reading–John Bombaro

(Rev. John J. Bombaro (Ph.D., King’s College, University of London) is the parish minister at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California and a lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.  He’s a frequent contributor to Modern Reformation.) 

John BombaroWhat book are you reading right now?

I have made a good choice with my present read: Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). Evans has distinguished himself as an internationally recognized expert on New Testament studies and always has something new, something insightful to say about the biblical text. This time he does so through a book that collates salient information from the realm of archeology that has immediate bearing on the historicity of Jesus and the accuracy of the New Testament witness.

Why’d you chose it?

In looking for a reliable author and text that would be accessible and informative to my University of San Diego students taking an introductory level class called “Christianity and Its Practice”, Evans immediately came to mind due to his orthodoxy and devotion to Christ. Jesus and His World will be highly accessible and convincing for neophytes to Christianity and those indoctrinated by pop pessimism about the Bible.

Jesus and His World

What’s the best part about the book so far?

The best parts of the book are (1) when Craig gentlemanly disabuses agendist pseudo-scholarship that casts aspersions on the historical Jesus and (2) his inclusion of thirty-nine photos of major archeological finds that visually substantiate the author’s explanations of their significance.


What’s the worst part about the book so far?

Negatively, the back cover says almost nothing about the content of this winning book. It would be easily glossed over in a bookstore. Thankfully, Evans’ name is easily recognizable so that a gem like this isn’t missed.

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(Late) Summer Reading–Anthony Parisi

(Anthony Parisi is an independent filmmaker and online editor-in-chief for Houston Baptist University’s Cinema & New Media Arts.)

Anthony ParisiWhat are you reading right now?

I have been reading several books this summer but the most noteworthy by far has been Matthew Lee Anderson’s new book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. It is a deeply thoughtful and stimulating work about (you guessed it), questioning and the confidence of faith. In the author’s words, the book is “chiefly concerned to explore whether we can question well and what such questioning might look like.” (pg. 12)  What moves us to ask a question? What sort of answer would it take to move us to give up our questions? What happens when we question? Are questioning and doubt the same thing? The End of Our Exploring asks good questions, questions us as readers, and urges everyone to learn the art of questioning well.




“… if the young question most, the wise question best. The art of questioning takes a lifetime to perfect, for the most interesting questions flow from a deep well of insights. The more we understand, the more fine-grained our awareness of the negative spaces will be. The more we learn about the world, the more we will realize how much more there is to know, if we will only remember our ignorance and continue noticing the negative spaces. Those who have learned best and longest will explore hidden nooks and corners that those of us starting out cannot begin to imagine. The wise have seen negative spaces that only well-trained eyes are strong enough to detect. “ (pg. 21)

End of Our Exploring

Why did you pick this particular book?

Matt is a fellow alumnus of Biola University and while I don’t know him personally, his blog Mere Orthodoxyhas been favorite reading of mine for quite some time now. Reading him and other bright graduates of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute should be enough to convince anyone that rumors of evangelicalism’s death may be greatly exaggerated. If you want to find the best and brightest from an evangelical institution you need look no further.  More personally, the subject resonates with me very deeply. As a child of postmodernity and surrounded by our default, cultural cynicism that’s obviously no surprise. But I do feel all of these questions at a gut level. My analytical mind can needlessly torture itself by questioning (badly!) and I’ve come to see how sin in my own life can distort serious thinking. As a young adult, there are also faces and relationships now attached to all these of issues. I have watched childhood friends make shipwreck of the faith and abandon Christ. The subject is a weighty one. A proper reverence and seriousness toward questioning is one of the strongest qualities of this book.

“The man who asks whether God’s mercy allows for justice may be asking a sincere question and faithfully opening himself to the creative destruction of his own false ideas or to a deepened understanding of his true ones. His questioning may be rooted in love and aimed at his growth. Or he may be clinging to the final vestiges of his rebellion, making a final desperate stand against the holiness of God. Or he may be merely playing a game, reducing God to an abstraction for his own intellectual satisfaction. These possibilities and countless others stand beneath every inquiry that we make.  How can we tell if our questions are subverting the healthy confidence that we or others have in God? How do we know if we have deceived ourselves into believing we are “just questioning” rather than expressing our hostility against God, a hostility that may even be hidden from ourselves? That such self-deceived rationalizations of our questions are a possibility should be enough to give us pause. It is a serious thing we undertake, this exploring.  There can be no “merely” or “just” of our questioning. Such qualifiers indicate that we think our inquiries are somehow exempt from sin and temptation. It would be convenient to think that our questions are immune from the fundamental conflict of right and wrong, that they are quarantined from the possibility of confession and repentance. But the first moment of questioning well is the recognition that as a human endeavor, our questioning is fallen and broken, entangled with sin and in need of reformation. We should be wary of affording to ourselves a cheap grace that cordons off a crucial area of our lives from our responsibility before God.” (pg. 35)


What’s the best thing about it so far?

As I read through the book I’m impressed at how well Matt explores our cultural climate and responds to it. This book could resonate with anyone. The universality of the subject and his careful nuance should prove thought-provoking for both ardent conservative and progressive skeptic. I’ve had to resist highlighting every line of the perceptive chapter “On Doubt and What Doubt Isn’t.”

Faith is not fundamentalism—nor is doubt the same as questioning. While the tendency is to react to fundamentalism by embracing doubt, I think it is important to not replace one problem with another. What we should pursue is a confident faith that questions and questions well, not the vague instability of doubt that replaces the overweening certainty of fundamentalism. (pg. 50-51)

He argues that “conflating doubt and questioning is one of the chief confusions of our age” and that faith “does not close off questioning—it reforms and orients it. It is not the bunker mentality of fundamentalism, which shuts down inquiry because it is afraid. Faith seeks understanding, and the form of its seeking is the questions that it asks within the life of the practices of the church.” (pg. 51)  Undergirding all of the book is a high view of church authority and Scripture that is crucial to the way Matt articulates the place of questioning in the Christian life. This may be the most counter-cultural feature of the book (even for many professing Christians). It enables him to illustrate a healthy way of questioning and reasoning in the church without resorting to individualism or undermining church structure. Christians in Reformation traditions will especially appreciate a shout-out to the recovery of catechesis as “one of the most hopeful signs for Christians interested in cultivating their ability to question and live into the answers.” (pg. 79)  The book also has a warmth and generous tone that we can all learn from in our questioning and engagement with others. There is a generous spirit of catholicity coupled with winsome conviction. The End of Our Exploring doesn’t just tell us how to question well but truly embodies it. I can’t recommend it enough.


What’s the worst thing about it so far?

Nothing is coming to mind, so I suspect this may be a bad question. Here’s a better one: have you bought the book yet?

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(Late) Summer Reading–Nancy Guthrie

(Nancy Guthrie is the author of O Love That Will Not Let Me Go and the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament Bible study series (www.seeingjesusintheoldtestament.com)  In addition to teaching opportunities at her church, Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Nancy speaks regularly at conferences and events around the country.)

Nancy GuthrieWhat are you reading right now?

My stack of books has three categories—the books for my current seminary class, books I’m reading for my current writing project on the prophets, and the manuscripts I’m reading for endorsement requests. I’ve gotten to read several terrific books in the biblical theology category over recent weeks from this endorsement request stack including David Murray’s forthcoming Jesus on Every Page (Thomas Nelson, August release), and Jim Hamilton’s What is Biblical Theology? (Crossway, November release), as well as Name Above All Names by Sinclair Ferguson and Alistair Begg (Crossway).   I have to admit that I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the publishing process when I received the request from the publisher to consider offering an endorsement for Begg and Ferguson’s book. These are two of my most respected mentors-from-afar in regard to handling and communicating the scriptures with a sense of the big story of the Bible. They are also two of my favorite people. So when I received the request my thought was that while they have little to gain from my endorsement, I am quite sure I have plenty to gain from reading this book.  Since this was a book I knew I would want to read as soon as I got my hands on it, I was glad to get to read it in advance. However, I read it quickly in its manuscript stage in the press of other projects. So I’ve been glad to have some time to work through it more slowly and thoughtfully now that the printed book is in my hands.


Why’d you pick that book?

I grew up in Sunday School and have studied the Bible most of my life. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to listen to preachers like Ferguson and Begg who present the scriptures with a sense of the Bible as one grand story of God’s redemption of all things through Christ. My own publishing projects over the past five years have been my way of re-orienting the way I read and understand the Old Testament, moving away from using the characters and situations of the Old Testament as moral or faith lessons and instead seeing the beauty of the person and work of Christ throughout. I’ve learned a lot, but I still have plenty to learn—not only about how to understand these things in the scriptures, but also how to communicate them clearly and simply to others, which is just what this book does like few others.


What’s the best part of the book so far?Name Above All Names

While the presentation of the person and work of Christ in these short seven chapters is profound and fresh, it is also personal and easy-to-follow. Its chapters trace Jesus as presented in the scriptures as Seed of the Woman, True Prophet, Great High Priest, Conquering King, Son of Man, Suffering Servant, and the Lamb on the Throne. And while the scholarship is sound, it is never technical. This is a book I could give to someone who has never heard of biblical theology and when they finished they would have a sound sense of biblical theology without ever hearing the intimidating term. And while reading the book would cause them to think about the story of the Bible in new ways, mostly it would call them to worship the God of the Bible.  One of many “Aha!” experiences for me came early in the book in the chapter about Jesus Christ as the Seed of the Woman, which says that Adam was created to be the gardener, but that he failed. It then goes to the resurrection of Christ when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and didn’t recognize the resurrected Christ, “supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:15). The book reads: “The gardener? Yes, indeed. He is the Gardener. He is the second Man, the last Adam, who is now beginning to restore the garden.” While certainly I had seen the garden at the beginning and ending of the story of the Bible, I had never before seen Christ as the Gardener, there in the center of the story, beginning his work to restore and renew. But I won’t forget it.


What’s the worst part of the book so far?

I have only one beef with the way Begg and Ferguson put the book together. I don’t know for sure which one to credit with this brilliant Gardener insight and so many others throughout the book. They don’t identify themselves as to who is speaking and so refer to people they both knew, and experiences they both had, using phrases such as, ‘in one of our churches” and “one of our children.” Because these two pastors each have so much wit and personality, their own charming humor, and of course their own unique experiences and acquaintances, every time I came across one of these personal references I would have preferred to know who was speaking. But I suppose it helps that even though I don’t know who is speaking, I can hear the same accent in my head. More than that I recognized the same love for Christ and ability to call to me, as the reader, to see Christ in all of his sufficiency and to love him with all of my heart.

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(Late) Summer Reading–James K. A. Smith

(James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview.  He is the author of a number of books including Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition and, most recently, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.  He also serves as the editor of Comment magazine.)

James-K_A_-SmithWhat book are you reading right now?

I’ve finally moved James Bratt’s biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013) to the top of the stack.  I’m not sure that Jim ever envisioned this as a “beach read,” but in fact I enjoyed reading it while decamped on the gorgeous sands of Grand Haven, Michigan, our very own “west coast.”  That I eventually dozed off is no commentary on Bratt’s prose, which is far from soporific.

Why’d you choose that particular book?

As a member of the Christian Reformed Church and a Christian scholar at Calvin College, an institution nourished by Kuyper’s legacy, reading this book is pretty much an occupational requirement.  But like the law of love, it is a happy obligation!  Abraham Kuyper was a remarkable individual whose life makes for a compelling story: a convert from bland liberalism, he went on to become an influential pastor, newspaper editor, theologian, and statesman (serving as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905).  My own thought is deeply indebted to Kuyper and his heirs, but I knew the ideas and not the man.  But my interest is not just antiquarian or a biographical fascination: I’m also intrigued to see how a Christian like Kuyper operated in the public sphere—a public sphere that was increasingly secularized and pluralized, and thus beginning to look more and more like the world we currently inhabit.  I’m intrigued to see if there are lessons to be learned here, including lessons to be learned from Kuyper’s failures.


What’s the best part about it so far?

Well, first and foremost, I have to say that Bratt’s prose is lively and engaging, characterized by a verve and wit that he exhibits in person as well.  One of Jim’s best friends, the film scholar Bill Romanowski, recommended that Bratt organize the biography like a screenplay, and I think that’s reflected in the book’s dramatic pace.  Second, Bratt’s mastery of the archival materials is remarkable.  For example, Bratt goes back to early sermons and captures their key themes in ways that bring Kuyper to life beyond his published legacy.  But I also love it that at the same time he draws on Kuyper’s love letters to his fiancée, then wife, Jo.  As Bratt puts it, “Father Abraham” was a romantic in more ways than one.  Finally, so far I have learned the most from Bratt’s ability to locate Kuyper in the social, political, and intellectual context of 19th century Europe.  It is far too easy to read someone like Kuyper anachronistically, reading him as if we were just a contemporary American.  Bratt’s biography is an important antidote to that.


What’s the worst part about it so far?

I don’t think I’ve encountered a “worst part” so far.  I would just say this: I can already feel a certain theoretical frame that Bratt brings to the story of which I am a tad suspicious.  I’m just a little worried that the “true” heirs of Kuyper are going to be progressives, whereas “right wingers” (as Bratt puts it, gratingly) are going to turn out to be unenlightened repristinators.  I’m suspending judgment until I’m finished the book, but I’m on the lookout for an interpretive frame that might load the dice just a bit.

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(Late) Summer Reading

The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionLiving in a housing community that boasts a pool and a spa, and in a city where the beach is a twenty-minute drive away, I have almost no excuse for not finishing my summer reading.  It happens every year—the list gets longer and longer, the titles are more ambitious, and the books go unread.  The reasons why are easily guessed—I have Netflix and an iPhone, and (more to the point) at the end of the day, I’d rather catch up on Mad Men than read War and Peace.  

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of our producer (himself a voracious reader), I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It was a great book, but one point he made stood out to me particularly—the American reading public is under the distinct impression that reading is something that is ‘good for you’; that it refines the intellect and stimulates the aesthetic sense, and that it is primarily for this reason that people ought to read.  While Jacobs agrees with this, and acknowledges that reading for self-improvement is and can be beneficial, he’s concerned about the troubling effects this attitude tends to have on the reading public in general.  He acknowledges the helpful pointers and principles in Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler’s venerable How To Read A Book, but he questions the tone in which they discuss the purpose of reading.  The grave, almost severe manner in which they stress its educational and spiritual value leaves the impression that reading is first and foremost the duty of every intelligent person.  According to Jacobs, this idea permeates the pragmatic American conscious, which has little use for reading per se.  The mindset that reading is something we ought to do for material benefit rather than personal pleasure has, in Jacobs’ estimation, allowed a particular group (the so-called ‘Vigilant school’) to convince readers that they (Harold Bloom and Thomas C. Foster, specifically) ‘are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts’.  Jacobs believes that their strictures are more of a hindrance than a help:

“There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them—‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’”

The best reason to read, according to Jacobs, is because you want to.  Read at Whim, he says.

“Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout.”

There’s a great deal to be said for eating organic greens, and I for one have a deep attachment to my elliptical trainer, but the point is well-made.  While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of intellectual exertion for the sake of personal improvement (as is Jacobs), his exhortation to read books for the pleasure they provide is helpful and timely—there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read, and in our competitive, image-driven culture, the lines get blurred very easily and very often.

With that in mind, we asked a few friends of ours to discuss which books they picked up this summer, and tell us a bit about why they chose those books in particular, what they liked and what they didn’t like.  (Whether or not they read them for pleasure, personal edification, or morbid curiosity, we don’t know, but you can judge).  We’ll be posting them successively during this upcoming week, so stop by on Monday for to see what James K. A. Smith, Nancy Guthrie and few other friends have been ruminating on this summer.

Happy Reading!

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Art, Atheists, and Altars to Unknown Gods

I remember it like it was yesterday. Seventeen years ago this month, I was appointed Chief Curator of my hometown university art museum after having finished a doctorate in the history of modern art. In the Sunday arts section of our local paper an article had announced my appointment. At church later that morning an elder, sitting in front of me, turned around and congratulated me. And then he said, “now you can take down all the nudes on display in the museum.”

This was just a foretaste of the tensions I would experience in the church as an evangelical working in the art world and writing about modern art. Most of these tensions have come from the church’s desire to use ‘good’ art to shape public policy and teach morality or to show how ‘bad’ art reflects a defective worldview and causes vice. When the church thinks about the role of art, it usually thinks of it as a tool for something else, something more important, something more ‘practical’, more ‘relevant’.

And, let’s face it, the church usually considers art to be the enemy anyway—it just cannot be trusted.  Art possesses the uncanny tendency to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, undoing the tidy emotional boxes we create to help us filter the pure, lovely and commendable from the slanderous and obscene. However, to spend time with art—to devote the effort to understanding it—usually results in refocusing our attention on our own sinfulness and recovering the dignity of our neighbor’s search for the Unknown God of which St. Paul speaks in Acts 17.

This might be why the church distrusts artists and the work they produce.  And this is why the most insightful and life-giving writing about art comes from outside the church—often a long way from the church. Such is the case with Camille Paglia—she loves art and she wants you to love it, too.

Glttering ImagesThat’s right, the same Camille Paglia who is a founding writer for Salon.com; the self-described “pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pop” public intellectual and cultural provocateur who infuriates the Right and frustrates the Left.  That Paglia, who holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Yale University and teaches art history and the humanities at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since the mid-1980s.

Paglia’s book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (Pantheon, 2012) is written for those who like the idea of liking art but have been turned off by the vulgarity, obscenity, and elitism of the art world, Glittering Images is for you.  In an interview with Salon.com about the book, Paglia observed, “As a longtime fan of talk radio, I’m very worried about the low opinion that conservative hosts and callers have of the American artist. Art is portrayed as a scam, a rip-off and snow job pushed by snobbish elites.”

And so she has written a modest book that she conceived as a “devotional” to revive popular interest in art history, which celebrates the creative imagination of human beings through time and place, but has vanished from public education and college curricula. She continues:

I’m providing a handbook to anyone—to people who never took an art history course or who haven’t thought about art since college. I want to do something very inviting, readable and non-threatening, with each chapter as short as possible.

Paglia has selected twenty-nine works of art to make her case, from a tomb painting of Egyptian Queen Nefertari and an icon of St. John Chrysostom to Warhol’s icon of Marilyn Monroe to, surprisingly, a scene from George Lucas’s movie, Revenge of the Sith.

Although it is written for a general audience confused by art, Glittering Images is not pedantic, condescending, or preachy. It is a personal, even vulnerable book. From the idiosyncratic choices of works of art to her distinctive way of interpreting them, Paglia reveals her life-long love of these works, desiring nothing more than to share her passion.

MondrianAnd that passion leaves plenty of room for the reader to form his or her own experiences and opinions. Unlike most writing about art, Paglia’s is expansive, creating space for her reader to join her.  She doesn’t presuppose agreement, only curiosity and openness. Each of her twenty-nine meditations end in an evocative manner that expands rather than restricts the potential for further reflection, such as this conclusion from her meditation on the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930):

His work was a process of discovery where color and form were explored for their own sake…But Mondrian’s floating, weightless images vibrate with an internal drama. Do his black lines define and limit his colors? Or is color, like a divine spark, an autonomous force pushing its way toward life? (131)

For an atheist, Paglia’s writing is surprisingly comfortable with the religious, the transcendent, and the spiritual while actively seeking out the metaphysical, mysterious, and inexplicable. And indeed, Paglia has considerable respect for organized religions, calling them “vast symbol systems containing deep truths about human experience” (xii-xiii). In fact, in an important essay, “Religion and the Arts in America” (Arion 15/1 (2007), Paglia argues that the arts need religion in order to thrive.

de Maria

In another provocative conclusion, Paglia takes one of the strangest, least art-like works made by an American artist, Walter de Maria’s installation in New Mexico, The Lightening Field (1977) and—as if responding to the incredulous reader—“what makes this art?”—she concludes:

When De Maria’s metal poles are nested in green ground cover and spring wildflowers, The Lightning Field seems like one of Emily Dickinson’s haunted landscapes where the dead are frozen witnesses to eternity. The grid is the game, a playful mapping of life’s mysteries, which art accepts but science can never fully explain (170).


Paglia’s interpretations embody her claim (or is it a confession?) that art “unites the spiritual and material realms” (xiii). Unlike many art critics and art historians, whose atheism or agnosticism spreads to marginalizing the role of religion and spirituality in the work of the artists’ they study, Paglia refuses to dismiss them as unimportant (including their atheism). For example, in her meditation on Claude Monet’s Irises (1900), painted late in the artist’s life from his backyard garden, she writes:

Like Wordsworth, Monet was an atheist wary of ideological systems. There is a luminous pantheism in his landscape paintings. His concentration on the act of seeing reaffirmed the power of the senses. Art was his faith, repairing the broken connection between man and nature (100).

Paglia recognizes that art itself is a confession and an act of faith, which seems to demand the language of religion and spirituality to describe.

It is often said that every work of art is a self-portrait, revealing something hidden about the artist. But when the writer opens herself to an experience with a work of art and digs deep to articulate that experience, what results is also a form of self-portraiture, an autobiography activated in through an experience with the work of art. Art criticism is as much about the critic as it is the work of art that is being interpreted.

In his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908) by Rilke, the narrator is confronted by a work of art that exclaims, “you must change your life.” When we are confronted by a work of art, it makes a claim on us, it provokes our realization that by standing in front of a work of art, we are being addressed, not just by a painting or sculpture, but by God and by our neighbor.

It is thus not much of a stretch to claim that Paglia’s sensitive art writing is also a confession of faith.  That faith is in art certainly, but perhaps in something else as well, something she can only feel in the art she experiences. One might be tempted to add art museums and artist’s studios to foxholes as places not conducive to atheism. To her credit, Paglia knows these risks but she’s willing to take them for the sake of describing her experience with these artifacts to her reader faithfully and truthfully. And with every entry, Paglia’s response to these works of art affirms the goodness of the world that lay just beyond its brokenness and alienation.

Paglia’s meditations on these twenty-nine works thus offer plenty of room for thinking about art from a distinctively Christian perspective, that is, provided we abandon our penchant for instrumental worldview-ish thinking that reduces art merely to the expression of an artist’s religious beliefs or as a tool for something we deem “more important.”

For Luther, our justification by grace through faith frees us to love our neighbor through our work, restoring the dignity of those trades and jobs deemed irrelevant, unimportant, or unworthy of serious Christian involvement. Because God is busy at work in the world, everywhere, all of our work, from cleaning houses and middle management to running for congress or painting pictures are simultaneously irrelevant and of the utmost importance.

For North American evangelicals, culture is useful only insofar as it bears on politics. Because God has chosen to work through the “foolish” and “weak” things of the world (1 Cor. 1: 27), the gospel releases the arts from the burden of relevance and practicality; of what we believe is relevant and practical, how we believe God should be at work in the world (i.e., through the heroic and powerful).  This allows both those that make art and those that devote time to looking at and studying art the dignity of recognizing that God is at work, even in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways—in the artist’s studio and even in the writing of Camille Paglia.

(Dr. Daniel A. Siedell is on staff at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he works with LIBERATE, Tullian Tchividjian’s resource ministry.  He is the author of several books, including God in the Gallery (Baker 2008) and is currently at work on a monograph with artist Makoto Fujimura and a book project with theologian William Dyrness on modern art with IVP Academic Press.)

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Review of Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung

Crazy Busy

Crazy Busy
Kevin DeYoung
(Crossway, 2013)

Are you crazy busy? Kevin DeYoung certainly thinks so, and he shares your pain. He wrote the book, he says, because he needed to face up to his own crazy busy life and the choices he made (and continues to make) that led him there. I can relate; I’m sure you can, too. We all take a perverse pride in being crazy busy.

Two friends of mine came to mind over and over as I read this book. They have both come face to face with their own crazy busy lives. One left the southern California lifestyle behind and moved to a rural part of the country where he could live with his family without succumbing to the crazy busy culture. The other is still right in the middle of it, recently lamenting to me that his son is desperate for his attention. I tried to put myself in their shoes as I read Crazy Busy. How would they benefit from it?

DeYoung begins by summarizing a number of helpful books and studies to give us a “state of the union” address (i.e., we’re all crazy busy!). Then, he turns to a series of diagnostic statements to prove that we are too busy. These chapters, which make up the bulk of the book, are uneven. Some of them contain real gems of insight, especially #4 (“Stop Freaking Out About Your Kids”) and #5 (“You are Letting the Screen Strangle Your Soul”), but as a whole I think these chapters miss the real problem that a book like Crazy Busy should address.

No one I know is blind to our busyness. We don’t need to be convinced that we are too busy. We know that our choices are robbing us of our health and spiritual vitality. For most of us, our problem is that we can’t see the way forward to a better future. Again, I go back to my two friends: both of them have seen the light. For the first friend, the light was the dawn of a new day and a new way to live, a series of choices (radical though they seemed at the time to his short-sighted friends) that he and his wife made to live less busy lives. For the other friend, the light is an oncoming train. He knows he is in a world of hurt, but can’t seem to make the changes necessary to save his own health and to live in a way that is a true benefit to his family.

DeYoung recognizes that a book, even as small as this one, can quickly become overwhelming to people who are already busy: one more book to read, one more task to mark off, one more thing to do. He concludes his book by identifying the one thing we must do. DeYoung admits that it won’t necessarily solve the problem of busyness, but he promises that the one thing we must do will bring us closer to Jesus. I want to believe him because I agree with DeYoung that the real problem with busyness is our tendency to hide from Jesus in our busyness or substitute our busyness for Jesus. So, what’s the one thing we must do? Personal daily devotions.

DeYoung anticipates a negative reaction to his advice. He admits that it is “a dangerous and potentially debilitating move” to suggest a quiet time as the one thing that we must do to fight against crazy busy lives. My concern, however, isn’t the legalism that DeYoung fears. It is instead, the easy retreat to individualism, which is at the heart of our crazy busy problem and also shows up in a surprising way in Crazy Busy. For instance, in chapter 8, DeYoung explains the benefit of a Sabbath rest without once talking about the means of grace. His primary emphasis is personal relaxation, sleep, and a day off from the grind. But that individualistic viewpoint actually serves to fuel our hyper-active lives, when the Sabbath was meant to remind us that we don’t exist for ourselves, at all!

As wonderful and important as daily reading and prayer are, the author’s advice sounds dangerously close to the stereotypical “take two verses and call me in the morning” pietism that, in our circles, is a carrier of the kind of hyper-individualism that leads to the very real problems that Crazy Busy identifies.

Our church culture’s emphasis on the personal over the corporate is a reflection of the broader cultural sickness that has made us all crazy busy. We have forgotten that the biblical priorities are communal, not personal. When we cease to think in communal terms, we become trapped by personal ambition and guilt.

DeYoung’s book is helpful in many ways, but his proscription falls short. He returns to old tropes that I fear are part and parcel of the mess we’re in. Watching my own life get crazier and busier and watching the lives of family, friends, and congregants follow the same trajectory, I am afraid that what is needed is a much crazier book than DeYoung has given us—a book that calls on God’s people to make counter-cultural decisions to live their lives in ways that are distinctively different than their neighbors. If our children see us bow in personal prayer each morning but otherwise ascribe to the world’s standards of what life should look like, we will never stop being crazy busy. We will only sanctify it in our children’s eyes and they will follow our steps into their own crazy busy future.

—Eric Landry is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church

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Review of Jesus Calling

As far back as you can recall, you’ve started or ended the day with a time of personal meditation on God’s Word and prayer. Only this time, you try something different. You want to hear Jesus speak to you personally. So you take out pen and paper and record the results. As she tells us in her introduction, this is what happened when Sarah Young sought a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus. The result is the daily devotional, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence (Thomas Nelson, 2004). The book has taken off since it was first published. It now includes a variety of supplements and has even been turned into a NKJV study Bible.

The author states up front that, unlike Scripture, the words she reports from Jesus are not inerrant. Nevertheless, she presents them as first-person speech from Jesus himself. “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible,” she says, “but I yearned for more.” “Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day.” That “more” was “the Presence of Jesus,” something beyond the ordinary means of grace. “So I was ready to begin a new spiritual quest,” beginning with Andrew Murray’s The Secret of the Abiding Presence. After reading God Calling, she relates, “I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God.”

Preparing for an interview today on the topic, I read through Jesus Calling. A few reflections: first touching on the method and then on the message.

The Method

In Romans 10, Paul ties the method of salvation to the message: Just as God has saved us in Christ, apart from our works, he has chosen a method of delivering this gift that puts us on the receiving end. We don’t have to ascend into heaven or descend to the depths to find Christ, according to Scripture. “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming” (v 8). “So faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (v 17).

Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, is the Word Incarnate; his speech is the very word of God. Proving his claims by his resurrection from the dead, he also commissioned his apostles as his ambassadors. Their speech in his name is his speech. Furthermore, when that word is proclaimed and read today, it is the very Word of God. Preaching involves teaching and exhortation, but it is more than that; it is Christ himself commanding, absolving, justifying, renewing, sanctifying, and assuring us. Christ could not be closer to you than he is by his Word and Spirit.

Neither Christ nor the Spirit speaks today apart from his Word. It is through the public ministry of preaching and the sacraments that the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ with all of his benefits. When we meditate on Scripture privately or in our family devotions, it is an extension of that public ministry. The preached Word calls us “out of ourselves,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, binding us to Christ and therefore to his body. It is not simply a private affair in the garden, alone, whose joy “none other has ever known,” as the Keswick-inspired hymn has it (“In the Garden”). It was this point that separated the churches of the Reformation not only from Rome but from the Anabaptists.

Yet evangelicalism is a river into which various streams converge. The Reformers discovered in Scripture an inseparable connection between the public and the private, the external and the internal, the formal and the informal. However, radical Protestantism has frequently set the latter over the former. Sure, the external Word matters, but it’s the word that Jesus or the Spirit speaks directly to each of us every day that matters more. “Something more” is the essence of what the Reformers called “enthusiasm.”

In terms of method, then, Jesus Calling is a “something more” book. At the very least, I believe that it encourages believers to see God’s Word as hum-drum and to ascend into the heavens or descend to the depths to discover a word that will make Jesus more present in our daily lives. According to the Reformation stream of evangelicalism, God speaks to us in his Word (the arrow pointing down from God to us) and we speak to him in prayer (the arrow directed up to God). However, Jesus Calling confuses the direction of these arrows, blurring the distinction between God’s speech and our response.

The Message

In terms of content, the message is reducible to one point: Trust me more in daily dependence and you’ll enjoy my presence.

There are some good points. Jesus, according to the author, doesn’t promise a problem-free life; trials are opportunities for growth spurts. He’s in charge and works everything together for our good. Don’t seek Jesus merely to confirm your own plans for the day, but be transformed by his purposes. And above all, fix your eyes on Jesus.

Yet I kept asking, “What purposes”? “Who is Jesus and why should I fix my eyes on him?” In short, the gospel is taken for granted. When exhortations to trust are separated from a clear proclamation of who Christ is, what he has done, and why he is therefore trustworthy, trust simply becomes a work—something that I need to gin up within myself.

The substance of the book is drawn from the wells of the Keswick or “higher life/victorious life” movement that B. B. Warfield critiqued so thoroughly at the turn of the twentieth century in his massive study, Perfectionism. Based on the Wesleyan notion of two acts of faith—one for justification and another for sanctification, the Keswick teaching calls believers to enter into the “higher life.” While they are saved, many believers fail to experience the presence of Jesus in their daily lives. By “surrendering all,” letting go of their attachment to the things of this world, and striving to enter into this realm of ultimate peace, believers can attain a perpetual state of victory. As Warfield pointed out, the movement exhibited a deep inner contradiction in its message. On the one hand, you aren’t supposed to do anything, but simply rest in Jesus. Leave off striving! On the other hand, there are many things that you have to strive to do in order to enter into the higher life. Warfield traced the lineage back to Germany mysticism.

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) was a classic spiritual writer in this stream and his book, The Secret of the Abiding Presence, has been a staple of Keswick piety. Murray’s emphases are replete throughout Jesus Calling. The only difference is that they are placed on the lips of Jesus himself.

Compared with the Psalms, for example, Jesus Calling is remarkably shallow. I do not say that with a snarky tone, but with all seriousness. The Psalms first place before us the mighty acts of God and then call us to respond in confession, trust, and thankfulness. But in Jesus Calling I’m repeatedly exhorted to look to Christ, rest in Christ, trust in Christ, to be thankful and long for a deeper sense of his presence, with little that might provoke any of this. Which means that I’m directed not actually to Christ but to my own inner struggle to be more trustful, restful, and thankful.

Consequently, trust becomes a work. Nothing depends on us, but everything depends on us. Strive to stop striving. Then, “Save your best striving for seeking my face” (71). “Thankfulness opens the door to My Presence…I have empowered you to open or close that door” (215). You can achieve the victorious life through living in deep dependence on Me” (6). “Every time you affirm your trust in me, you put a coin into my treasury. Thus you build up equity in preparation for days of trouble. I keep safely in My heart all trust invested in Me, with interest compounded continuously. The more you trust Me, the more I empower you to do so…Store up for yourself treasure in heaven, through placing your trust in Me. This practice will keep you in My Peace.”

The first mention of Christ even dying for our sins appears on February 28 (page 61). The next reference (to wearing Christ’s robe) is August 9 (p. 232). Even the December readings focus on a general presence of Jesus in our hearts and daily lives, without anchoring it in Jesus’s person and work in history.

As in Keswick spirituality more generally, trust becomes an inner virtue that grows by its exercise. “The more you choose to trust Me, the easier it becomes,” Jesus allegedly says. “Thought patterns of trust become etched into your brain.” This has more in common with Aristotle than with the Apostles. The latter taught that faith comes—and is strengthened—by hearing God’s Word proclaimed.

Reading Jesus Calling, I was reminded of the confusing message of my Christian youth. Longing for “something more,” I pored over my mother’s bookshelf: Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, D. L. Moody, Bill Bright, and Andrew Murray. Only with the discovery of the Reformers and various Puritan writers was I offered a liberating alternative that drew me out of myself to cling to Christ. While looking to this Reformation stream for a cluster of doctrines, many in the history of pietism have looked for “something more” elsewhere. Luther and Calvin may be great guides on understanding salvation, but we find our spirituality in medieval and modern alternatives. Yet Reformation piety directs us to the Word, always to the Word, where Christ speaks to us every time it is preached and his sacraments are administered in his name. When we come to this Word, in public and in private, we never need something more.

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How Much Is Paris Worth?

Reviews of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic Les Miserables shouldn’t be too miserable, right? Sadly, I may disappoint you in what follows—I do not provide much insight into the relationship between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, between the ex-con full of grace and the bulldog Law-man. For such discussions, please refer to the recent podcast with Dr. Horton and David Zahl.

Instead, I propose that we look at a somewhat underappreciated but enticing question raised by Hugo’s magnum opus: how do the micro-level interactions of individual characters (Valjean, Javert, the romantic revolutionary Marius, the street urchin Gavroche, etc.)  and the macro-level concerns of government, rebellion, and peace coalesce in Les Mis?

So, here’s the de rigueur plot summary (with little to no spoilers): Les Miserables is a sprawling epic of early 19th-century France and the post-Napoleon French monarchy, focusing on the life of Valjean, who is released from a 19-year prison sentence and resolves to reform his life, enriching the life and prosperity of a small French town. Unfortunately, the strong arm of the law pursues him in the form of Javert, a police inspector. Valjean rescues Cosette, a dying widow’s daughter, from servitude and the pair seek shelter in the metropolis of Paris. A decade passes and anti-royalist sentiment grows. Hugo then depicts the rise and fall of the 1832 Revolt—for the rest, you’ll have to read or watch the movie!

How then do these disparate characters come together as a whole? The answer lies in the omnipresence of Hugo as narrator. Hugo’s presence as narrator in Les Mis is more akin to the blatant power of a jackbooted thug than the subtle gossip of a Parisian salon: every other page reveals yet another authorial foray into historical, philosophical, social, or cultural analysis. On one level this is what you and I expect from a 19th century novelist—obvious and passionate social critique, coupled with rigorous descriptions of daily life. Hugo tries with all his detailed research and writing panache to force a revolution in the very hearts and minds of his readers—you and I are brought into the vivid story of Valjean, Marius, Gavroche, Mabeuf, and Cosette. Scene after scene evokes our compassion, breaks our hearts. We are compelled to see Hugo’s vision: the outcasts, sinners, widows and orphans of Paris and of France—along with a dollop of Progress and revolution, will fuse kindness and martyrdom to create a future heaven on earth. In a phrase, Hugo desperately seeks to instill the virtues, values, and mindset of “pure religion” (James 1:27) in his readers.

At another level, however, the Sisyphean efforts of Hugo to cause an internal insurrection evoke not the impassioned cry of disciples, but the sad image of an apocalypse gone bad. A picture of this desperation is found in Hugo’s revolutionaries (Marius et al): they allude constantly to ancient Rome and Greece, to Napoleon and Washington, to the past—yet they also speak of the oh-so-close future era when the July Monarchy will be destroyed and (republican) peace will reign forevermore. In other words, through these characters, Hugo narrows past, present, and future into one apocalyptic moment—the hopes and dreams of all the years. To speak theologically, Hugo is attempting to immanantize the eschaton, to bring about the consummate Utopia in the streets of Paris.

But the bloodstained cobblestones echo ghastly failure. The disappointment of the 1832 revolt ultimately speaks of deferred eschatology—Hugo himself knew that even the great revolutions of 1848 did not bring peace on earth. Yet he details the history of this Parisian riot, I believe, for one crucial reason—to spark not only passion, but also pity and virtue. And here is where the micro and macro levels combine, showing how Les Mis rends hearts asunder. For while Valjean’s grace-soaked success gives internal hope to all who read, the institutional failure of Marius and co. gives external pause. Hugo begs his readers to finish what he has started in their hearts, to complete the insurrection.
How best to respond to Hugo’s evocative plea? As we celebrate this Christmas Day, the answer should be clear. You and I are not les miserables in the story of a pillaging author, a tyrant whose rampaging words plunder our hearts and leave nothing but smoke and fire.

Rather, we are this day in the presence of the author-turned-outcast. The Incarnation resounds like a sonic boom around the world—the Creator has become the creature. Hugo may have eaten zoo animals during the Paris Commune, but he remained a celebrity, never coming near to Cosette’s orphaned state. The Lord Jesus Christ took on flesh in a way that Hugo could only dream, utterly fulfilling the command to love God and love his neighbor, yet cast out from Jerusalem, left to die as a convicted criminal. Neither saintly bishop nor Romantic rebel was there to save him. Is the death of Christ merely another footnote to add to Hugo’s list of failures? If so, where is the vaunted Utopia?

Reflecting upon the nature of rebellions, Hugo places an insightful line in the middle of Les Mis: “An insurrection may become a resurrection”.  How right he is in his goal of new creation, yet Hugo’s resurrection would come about through internal swelling of virtue in our happy hearts, when the innate goodness of humanity rebelled against oppressive powers.

In sharp contrast, the insurrection of Christ does not speak of overthrowing political foes by barricades or sheer kindness, but of and by the vicarious death of the author. The revolution of Jesus does not advance through human grasping at heaven, but through the inbreaking of the Word into our sordid and miserable state. As brilliant as the story of Valjean is, we are plunged back into the miserable narratives of our own lives the moment we finish Les Mis. The true story of Christ is far more radical, imaginative, and effective—those who revolt against the Law are gunned down yet reborn by the Gospel. In short, Hugo’s vision is realized not in the Third, Fourth, or Fifth French Republics but ultimately in the church, in the king and citizenry of the New Jerusalem. At the end of the day, we are all royalists.

Paris is worth neither a Mass nor the masses. Paris, like New York or Los Angeles, like all that throbs with power, success, and privilege in our world, pales in comparison to the city whose builder and architect is God, whose king is neither impotent nor tyrannical, but who is gathering and will gather all his people, whether outcast or rebel, no matter their misery.

John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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