White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

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.

WHI-1133 | The Gospel According to Isaiah, Part 6

On this program the hosts will wrap up their six-part series by walking through the “servant songs” of Isaiah. Again we discover the theme that this servant will not merely restore the tribes of Jacob but will become “a light for the nations.” He will “sprinkle many nations” by being “stricken, smitten and afflicted.” “All we like sheep have gone astray… but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This was to be the heart of the messiah’s mission, “to give his life as a ransom for many.”


Preaching Christ
Edmond Clowney
Heaven Came Down
Michael Horton


George F. Handel, The Messiah, “O thou that tallest good tidings to Zion”


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Looking Back, Looking Forward

I need to let you know that we need your help. The White Horse Inn is a listener supported broadcast dedicated to recovering the clarity of the gospel of grace in our time, and we really need your help to continue with this mission now more than ever. We’re a relatively small organization without a lot of overhead, but we’re currently facing a significant budgetary shortfall and as a result we’re going to need to make some significant cuts in the very near future. If the message that we proclaim week after week really resonates with you and you’ve never supported us financially, now is the time to get behind us. As we’re nearing the end of the year, please consider making a one time gift or signing up as a monthly supporter. Or even if you are already a supporter, consider signing up a friend or relative as a Innkeeper, Architect or Reformer so that they begin receiving the monthly CDs and a subscription to Modern Reformation. For more information, give us a call at 1-800-890-7556 or visit the support tab at whitehorseinn.org.

We’re excited to begin working our way through the Gospel of John in 2013! It’s probably the most famous book in the Bible. John’s Gospel is portion of Scripture we often recommend first to new Christians, and it’s led more people to Jesus than just about any other document. But even though it so plainly sets forth Christ to the beginning reader of Scripture, its treasures can’t be exhausted throughout the course of any person’s life. For the next few months the hosts will be mining the riches from this amazing text, and through this study we hope to deepen your understanding of, and love for, the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Click on the audio file below for a preview of our next series on the White Horse Inn.

WHI-Bonus | Law, Gospel & Les Miserables

On this special BONUS edition of the White Horse Inn Michael Horton and David Zahl explore many of the rich themes found in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables. This discussion is especially relevant in light of the highly anticipated release of a film adaptation of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical of the same title which will appear in theaters on Christmas Day. In particular Horton and Zahl discuss the themes of grace and redemption as it unfolds throughout the story, and the way in which the two characters, Javert and Jean Valjean, end up personifying both the unbending nature of the law, and the incredible liberation of the gospel of grace.


The Return of Les Mis…,
David Zahl (offsite)
Law and Grace in ‘Les Mis’
Mike Cosper (offsite)
Les Miserables
Victor Hugo


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WHI-1132 | The Gospel According to Isaiah, Part 5

Isaiah’s mission was to pronounce both law and gospel. As God’ prosecuting attorney, he was called to pronounce the covenant curses on unfaithful and disobedient Israel. Yet in the midst of all these “woes,” we continue to discover more and more about God’s messianic promise. In the days of this coming redeemer, Jerusalem will become a “herald of good news” and God will “tend his flock like a shepherd.” On this program the hosts will walk through chapters 26 through 40 of Isaiah’s amazing prophecy.


Isaiah’s Scorn of Idolatry
J. Gresham Machen
(begins on p. 357 of this PDF, i.e. 5th page in)


George F. Handel, The Messiah, “But who may abide the day of his coming?”


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Him We Proclaim
Dennis Johnson


A Review of The Hobbit (The book, not the movie)

Reviewing literature can be a daunting task—the interplay of author, characters, plot, motifs, and my own thoughts is a complex thing. And when the book under review is The Hobbit, a work both popular and well-studied, the tension is ratcheted up.

Nevertheless, in what follows, I give a brief overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first published entry into Middle-Earth and Bilbo Baggins—in case you’ve only just begun to read in anticipation of the cinematic experience later this week or have never ventured into a land flowing with hobbits and dragons. What you’ll encounter is not only the bare plotline of strange whimsy, but the conjunction of this present age and an age long past: the old and the new collide in the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

While many have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, a slightly different fantasy appears in The Hobbit. Written with an eye to children, it presents a tale of Bilbo, hobbit ordinaire. Pressed into service with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo embarks on a quest for lost treasure whose twists and turns have enthralled for decades.

I could go on about Smaug the dragon, Beorn, trolls, and wood-elves, but I trust that you will read or see them soon enough. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of subtle elements that lurk beneath and behind the scenes of Tolkien’s Hobbit.

First is the element of history. The world of The Hobbit, this Middle-Earth, is not quite the filled-out world with lurid and detailed maps that it will become when Frodo Baggins appears on the scene. Bilbo’s home is called “The Hill”, not Hobbiton; there is a noticeable lack of any description of Gondor or Mordor; the great evil Sauron is merely the “Necromancer”. Tolkien, in other words, is writing here for children, not adults—the rush and flood of names would bog down most young readers.

Despite this comparative lack of detail, there is still the inescapable sense that the history and world of The Hobbit is not simply window-dressing, not merely an artificial stage concocted for a one-off story. Middle-Earth pulses with history—the aura of the ancient is palpable. Tolkien’s world is not like so much of the fantasy literature you and I see nowadays—filled with names compiled by pushing consonants through a random-number generator—it has coherence and substance outside of The Hobbit. The world Bilbo inhabits, so we gather as we read, can exist without him: indeed, Middle-Earth is different from him. He (as the English are wont to do) may enjoy tea-time, butchers, and an efficient post office. Elves, dwarves, and dragons know little of such things.

So just like us readers, Bilbo begins the tale as a modern hobbit living in an ancient world—the second element. He hears noises that sound like the rumble of steam engines—an anachronistic touch in fantasy, but perfectly normal in 20th century England. Whereas the Harry Potter series (for instance) solves the ancient-modern conundrum by positioning its wizarding world upon 21st century “Muggle” England, Tolkien takes a different tack. He places modern tastes, values, and phrases in the character of Bilbo, forcing an interaction and clash between the ‘old world’ of Middle-Earth and the new world of industry and individuality.

Yet as the story advances, the aura and enchantments of Middle-Earth begin to worm and work their ways into Bilbo’s modern soul. By the time he encounters the “small slimy creature Gollum”, Bilbo’s perception has changed:

“…his hand came upon the hilt of his little sword…somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin-wars of which so many songs had sung…”

The young hobbit, originally pictured as a middle-class English type—a love of clocks, precision, and technology uppermost in his mind—is thus slowly transformed into a man with one (hairy) foot in both worlds. Look at, for instance, the “bravest thing” Bilbo does: it is not the clash of weapons or the fire of dragons he must ultimately conquer, but himself. The real battle, according to Tolkien, is braving the warren of dark tunnels close to the snoring dragon Smaug. This internal conflict between bravery and fear is not prominent in ancient literature, but pervades modern, angst-driven literature. Bilbo does not lose his modernity, he rather adds to it the positive qualities of Middle-Earth. Chief among these old-world characteristics are dignity in the face of crisis and loyalty to one’s friends (as seen through the interactions of the dwarves with each other).

Whether this theme of ancient pasture transmuting modern piston is a thinly veiled attempt to critique mid-20th century modernity is not my concern: Bilbo bridges the gap between the age of today and the age of yesterday, yet the seeming contradictions of old and new are not fully resolved in Bilbo’s life.

For you and me, though, does The Hobbit offer a similar experience? Can we read it and be shaped by its world or values, or is this fantasy literature merely a decent bedtime story for children? In a word, yes—Tolkien’s fictional and fantastical elements, though marketed widely today, should not obscure the richness of his characters nor the interplay between the two ages of Middle-Earth and our Earth. The emotional depth present in the short-temper of Gandalf or the animalistic ferocity of Beorn are not for children only, but are reminiscent of the unique peccadillos of your friends, neighbors, and even your very self. Seeing these emotions and these dual ages writ fantastic on the pages of The Hobbit should whet your appetite—not just for the movie or for more Tolkien, but for a quest which, ultimately, resolves.

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

The Real War on Christmas

I’d like to add a couple of chapters to C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Not to say that I’m up to it, but some thoughts spring to mind. Here’s a go at one of the new letters from the senior demon to his nephew-apprentice Wormwood, counseling the junior tempter as to how he can more effectively seduce “the Patient”:

You can’t do it all at once and you can’t do it one by one. You’ll have to work very hard to change the whole framework of a generation’s assumed convictions. The way you should do this won’t make sense at first, but I assure you that it works. You have to shift their habits of thinking from the more serious to the more trivial (without blowing your cover and provoking the opposite reaction). Affirm the second-best thing against the first-best, then the third-best against the second-best, and so on. Here’s what I mean.

First, encourage them to take their faith for granted, by relying on what others believe. Distract them from explicit concern to a foggy memory of slogans and phrases they learned in their nurseries. This shouldn’t be difficult. They’ve grown up in it, after all. The Enemy uses that to his benefit, so we should too. It doesn’t really matter if they assent to beliefs about the Trinity, the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and all, as long as they don’t know why they believe it or why it matters. Get them somehow to think that the Enemy is either too far away to really care about them or so near that he’s a harmless pet—even better, their own inner voice. But the important thing here is to dissuade them from reflecting on what happened—you know, the stuff you’ve heard about “Immanuel: God with us.”

Second, now that they have begun to take it all for granted and wear it lightly, affirm the importance of spirituality, feeling, and doing good to others. That’s already there in the Enemy’s speeches, of course, but separate all of this from the question of truth. If possible (and it is, I assure you), use these very “virtues” celebrated by the Enemy as weapons against the doctrine. As long as they keep him in their private experience, but don’t really think of the Enemy entering history and bringing “salvation” to “sinners,” we should have less trouble with them spreading their nonsense. Help them to shift the burden of their religion from public truth to personal experience and happiness. Then, once they run into some rough patches they’ll realize it doesn’t work. The key: just keep it all light and superficial. There should be plenty of good resources already available for that sort of thing. Soon, they’ll forget it altogether.

Third, now they’ll be ripe for an outright offensive strategy on your part. Now that the “weightiness” of the Enemy’s speeches have been drained from their daily routines, and they think, feel, and live more like us, attack the beliefs straight-on. They already wear them lightly, so, with a little sophistry, they shouldn’t be likely to hold onto them too dearly. At this point, though, while you’re doing this, be careful to assure them of the good that religion can do in the world. I know that it works against your grain, but it does work in the end. For example, make them deeply concerned to celebrate Christmas and Easter as cultural holidays. They really love Christmas. Puff the holiday, but add in all sort of other things that make it sentimental rather than serious. They can still have the trappings; the important thing at this stage is that they let go of what it meant. Maybe they’ll start thinking of the Enemy’s so-called “achievements” no longer as an announcement but as a philosophy for living, cultural values, and that sort of thing. Just get it out of the sphere of “Good News,” as some of them still call it. Again, there should be plenty of resources near at hand for you to use—especially look for ones that they produce themselves!

OK, I don’t know if that works as fiction. But, sadly, it has worked in reality. Check out this provocative article in the Daily Telegraph: “Britain Will Miss Christianity When It’s Gone.”

WHI-1131 | The Gospel According to Isaiah, Part 4

In chapter 11 of his prophecy, Isaiah writes that, “[t]he wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” Many interpret this literally as referring to some utopian period way off in the distant future. But is this really what Isaiah’s imagery is pointing to? What does he mean when he says that a shoot shall come forth “from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit”? On this program the hosts will discuss these questions and more as they interact with chapters 10 through 25 of the book of Isaiah.


Evaluating Sermons
Derke Bergsma


George F. Handel, The Messiah, “Every Valley Shall be Exalted”


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Immanuel in Our Place
Tremper Longman
According to Plan
Graeme Goldsworthy


“One of them Got Better”

Recently Dr. Horton responded to Bill O’Reilly’s statements about Christianity not being a religion but a philosophy (see A Dangerous Christmas). This past Monday it almost seemed as if Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had read Dr. Horton’s post because he correctly understands the truth claims of Christianity that need to be believed concerning Christ being true God as well as the fact that Christ rose from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Stewart even admits that though he knows these central doctrines of the Christian Faith and could “pass the philosophy test,” he does not trust in Christ and therefore, “doesn’t get to go to the afterparty.”

Give a Lutheran a Hand!

Many of the folks who come to White Horse Inn are on a journey of sorts. Some are happy in their present churches, but are digging more deeply into the rich resources of the Reformation as they serve their church, their family, and neighbors. Others of you have left the churches of your youth and feel like you are in the middle of a journey to…somewhere! And finally, some of you have found your way to a new home and church identity. If you are a “former evangelical” who has found their way into the Lutheran tradition, one of our friends would like to speak with you.

Pastor Matt Richard, a Lutheran minister, is working toward a doctor of ministry degree at Concordia Theological Seminary and is engaged in a research project that focuses on the journey of American evangelicals into Lutheranism. He’s looking for participants who would be willing to answer questions as part of his research. We can vouch for Matt. He and his wife spent some time with us earlier in the year during our Conference at Sea.

If you are interested in helping, please contact Matt today. If you’d like to read more about the project, you can check out his blog, PM Notes.

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