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Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul on The Road To MoMA (Part 2)

If art isn’t meant to fit within the clearly-established boundaries of a well-regulated life, then how exactly do we interact with it?  How do we ‘experience’ it?  If art doesn’t have an explicitly pedagogical or pragmatic purpose, why does it exist?

A common approach has been to verify the artist’s worldview—if you understand the way that Donatello viewed the world, you’ll probably be better able to understand his work.  This method has its merits—if you know that Ernest Hemingway was passionate about truth and honesty in writing, it’s fairly certain that you’ll have a deeper understanding of A Farewell To Arms, and if you can appreciate Jane Austen’s critique of social mores in Regency England, you’ll be less likely to dismiss her novels as chick lit.

But there’s a problem with that approach—it focuses the viewer’s (or the reader’s) attention on the artist, and not the art itself.  Certainly, the artist himself is present (in some fashion) in the work, but that doesn’t mean that the work is absolutely and exclusively self-referential.  As Americans, we have a very strong sense of the pragmatic, and we get very uneasy if what we’re looking at isn’t easily classified.  So, if we can’t make sense of the object, we’ll look to its author for answers.  This can be helpful—the author, after all, knows more about it than the observer—but we must remember that when it comes to art (be it painting, sculpture, or film) the author wants us to interact with the object.  It’s the painting that’s speaking; not the artist, and since its language is that of color, form, light and shadow, we must be prepared to listen a little harder and focus a little longer if we want to hear what it’s saying.

In this interview, Dr. Siedell discusses the role of the Christian art critic, the way to love our neighbor, and how to learn about art.

P.S.  For those of our friends who haven’t ready access to a museum, we’ve picked out a pretty great book to get you started, which Dr. Siedell has kindly reviewed for us—we’ll be posting it soon, so stay tuned!

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Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul On The Road To MoMA (Part 1)

It’s a pretty big anachronism, but it’s an interesting question—if Paul went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, what would he think?  How would he interact with Kerstin Brätsch’s Matchpoint?  What would he have to say about Cheyney Thompson’s Chronochrome Set 10?  How would Christians today interpret Alfredo Jaar’s Lament of the Images or Rachel Harrison’s Alexander the Great?

Americans tend to be somewhat befuddled when it comes to art—we understand it as an outlet for creativity (Pinterest!) and readily assent to its therapeutic value, but certain art critics would question our ability to understand and dialogue with modern art on its own terms.  Countries like France and Italy as well as Egypt and Turkey guard their art as priceless national and social treasures; Americans look at the works of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and are either confused or appalled that soup cans and paint drops are considered monuments of human creativity.

There’s a reason for this difference (which, for brevity’s sake, I won’t go into here), and it’s a good reason—the question that we want to discuss is, ‘What are Christians to do with modern art?’  Is it OK if it’s not obscene?  What’s obscene?  Is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus pornographic—if so, is all nudity verboten?  What about violence?  Francisco Goya’s The Third of May is stark and violent, but so are Quentin Tarantino films—is OK to look at the former, but not the latter?

We sat down with Dan Siedell, visiting professor of Christ and Culture at Knox Theological Seminary and author of God In The Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008) to discuss Edvard Munch, Thomas Kinkade, and the importance of listening.  Enjoy!

P.S. If you want to read more of Dan’s work on popular Christian art, you should click this.

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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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Modern Reformation Conversations–Practically Pulled

Having spent most of my life in school, taking notes has become an almost pathological habit of mine–it doesn’t matter if I’m at a lecture, morning worship, in a classroom, or an informal talk; if someone is speaking in an official capacity, out comes the notebook and pen.  The result is a nicely organized outline and a mind utterly unburdened with any remembrance of what was just said.  I get so pre-occupied with my understanding of what the speaker is saying, that I completely ignore what it is he’s saying–I’m not receiving; I’m appropriating.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that–I want to understand what I hear–but if I become so focused on comprehending that I stop listening, that’s a problem.

According to certain authors, I’m not the only one who does this–Americans in general are especially prone to focusing on what we can get out of a thing, rather than understanding the thing in itself.  It turns out that there’s an explanation for this–we sat down with White Horse Inn producer Shane Rosenthal and asked him why it is that we’re so drawn toward the active life, and got some very interesting answers.


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Modern Reformation Conversations – The Real Presence

We sat down with the Rev. Dr. John Bombaro of Grace Lutheran Church and professor of religion and philosophy at the University of San Diego to discuss the high art of books, the personality of the tangible, and the effects of the digital on the reality of the Incarnation.

Happy Monday!

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Adler in the Modern Age

White Horse Inn producer Shane Rosenthal and I were chatting about the May/June issue of Modern Reformation and thought you might appreciate some helpful hints on how to approach a blog post.  Save your attention-span talents for reality television, or Richard Dawkins’ lastest book, or finding a really good doughnut shop.

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A Review of ‘To The Wonder’

The following is by filmmaker Anthony Parisi and is used with his permission. It was originally posted for the Cinema & New Media Arts at HBU. Visit him online at http://www.anthonyparisifilm.com


In The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick crafted a grandiose yet personal theodicy through a family story against the cosmic backdrop of creation and redemption. His new film To the Wonder is equally existential and autobiographical but focuses its attention on marriage. As in Scripture, the institution is explored as a mysterious analogue of Christ and the church.

Like much of his work, the experience may be challenging for casual audiences. It is impressionistic in style and visually driven. There is almost no dialogue aside from the glide of prayerful voice-overs. Malick rigorously avoids explaining character motivation and lets the silence serve as a blank canvas for our own introspection and reflection. Though it can be frustrating, the patient and adventurous will find some of the most beautiful cinema on screen this year.

The opening images are of a couple caught up in the sweep of love in Paris. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully explore France as Marina whispers the heightened poetry of a lover, “You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life.” They visit an ancient cathedral at Mont Saint-Michel nicknamed the Wonder of the West. “We climbed the steps … to the Wonder,” she proclaims, their feelings of passion momentarily aligned with the grandeur of the architecture.

Marina and her daughter Tatiana move to America and begin living with Neil in Oklahoma. The flatlands are beautiful and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hovers adoringly over every inch of creation. Marina visits a church, where the priest’s sermon is on the divine love our marriages are meant to follow. “The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give his life to her,” Father Quintana preaches, “He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely.”

Meanwhile, Quintana is a man haunted by the fragility of his religious feeling. As he walks the streets to visit the poor, he laments that his heart is cold and he doesn’t feel the presence of God as he once did. He mournfully prays, “Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found?” In the next scene at a local pool, this question begins to emerge as the central concern of the film. Marina looks up at Neil and finds him attentively watching another woman in a swimsuit nearby. A series of scenes quickly move us forward to show love fading and hearts hardening. Voices are raised. Fighting begins. The gloom setting in over the house matches Quintana’s somber face after performing a local wedding.

Neil is noncommittal and absently lets Marina returns to France when her visa expires. Over the next several months he begins a relationship with an old acquaintance (Rachel McAdams) but this too comes to a dead end. “What we had was nothing,” she laments. “You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”

In To the Wonder, everyone is haunted by the fleeting nature of their affection toward God and each other. The rapturous images of hands outstretched to the sky become hollow and repetitive. This may be a romantic filmmaker like Malick at his most self-critical, ashamed by his own failure to live up to the beauty his camera uncovers. The glory of the created order seems to testify against the ingratitude of his characters rather than lead them to transcendence.


In time Marina returns and marries Neil at the courthouse. They are happy again but still find that their passion comes and goes. Eventually they pace the house on different floors, avoiding each other. They kiss with a mournful quality. At their church ceremony, the exchange of rings becomes a tortured image of failure. “This sign I give you is a sign of our constant faith and abiding love…”

Like the psalmists in Scripture, Quintana’s spiritual struggles also persist, “My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted.” “Will you be like a stream that dries up?”

The story marches on toward catastrophe and adultery. Marina’s ominous walk up the stairs of a motel is painfully drawn out. The man she sleeps with has a tattoo of a skull on his chest. Sin as suicide. It is the final failure in a long series of failures. It is as if Malick is recapitulating the narrative flow of Old Testament history. The covenant community was frequently described as God’s unfaithful bride; repeatedly taking one step forward and two steps back over the course of millennia. As recognized in the film by Quintana, “The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern.” Like the Mosaic economy of old, this story has steadily driven us toward a confrontation with covenant unfaithfulness and final breakdown.

For the first time we hear the words, “Forgive me.”

What follows is startlingly unambiguous and Christological. Aching music from Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 begins to play as we watch Father Quintana visit the poor, the diseased, the dying. Even Neil, who prior to now has had no faith, walks alongside him. Marina asks God the question we’ve been asking the film up to this point, “Where are you leading me?”

A flood of images pour over us as Quintana walks with the disabled, holds shaking Alzheimer’s hands, and visits hospital beds. He touches the outcasts and the broken. He meets them in their weakness. We hear his voice recite the famous prayer, “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart.” Back at home, Neil moves toward Marina and kneels at her feet, kissing her hands in a flooding moment of grace.

This climax has crashed us upon the shores of the gospel. Sacrifice and forgiveness.

In the film’s closing moments, Malick resists simplistic resolution to the lives of the characters. Their marriage is not suddenly restored. The primary thrust here is eschatological. We end with prayer and with hope. “Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.” We’ve glimpsed a partial redemption already breaking in but not yet fully reached. The Sabbath rest is still beyond this wilderness.

But the final image points us to “the Wonder”, the cathedral of Mont Saint-Michel standing tall after centuries. The skies are stormy but it stands tall; a symbol of the covenant-keeping Christ whose care for his bride never changes. The only hope for fainthearted lovers like us.

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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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Modern Reformation Conversations – Rev. Zach Keele

How many of you skim the first chapter of Matthew?  (It’s all right, we did it too.)  This month, we talk to Rev. Zach Keele of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church about the genealogies listed in Scripture–their purpose, their scope, and the fidelity of God’s promise.

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Modern Reformation Conversations – The Inventions of Rome (Part Two)

In this second half of our conversation with Dr. Godfrey, we learn Rome’s understanding of tradition, the ambiguity of patriarchal-sacramental language, and just how Rome dances the Tiber Two-Step.


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